Ethan ran into the gallery. I had told him it was full of paintings of monsters, and if there was anything he loved it was a picture of a furry, sabre toothed creature with big eyes and drool on its lips ready do something nasty to a little boy. He stopped; the room was dimly lit and it took him a moment to make out the dark shapes on the canvasses. Bridget touched my arm and whispered anxiously.
“Don’t worry. You know how he loves something spooky.”
Then I noticed that his eyes had set on one of the pictures, The Witches Sabbath, a collection of grotesque human faces gathered around the dark outline of a large crouching goat. He approached it with a big smile on his face.
I looked at Bridget and smiled.
“I told you. Goya’s brilliant for kids who love monsters.”
Ethan pointed up at the painting.
“They’re all ugly!”
A middle aged man in a suit stood in front of the adjacent painting. He looked down at Ethan and raised an eyebrow.
“Your son?” He had a Spanish accent.
“How old is he?”
“He has good taste for a very young man.”
We smiled at each other and I nudged Bridget with my elbow. Ethan looked around the room and scurried to another painting, Saturn. I had guessed it was the one he would really like, a long haired ogre feeding on a naked, dismembered corpse. A couple of young women noticed him, their faces falling into mild shock. I stepped towards them.
“It’s okay,” I said. “He likes monsters.”
Bridget wasn’t going to complain, but I could see that she didn’t share my sense of fun at Ethan’s reaction. I stood behind Ethan and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Why do you think he’s eating the man?”
“Because he’s a big monster who eats people.”
“Do you think he should have some chips with that?”
He laughed out loud. I heard a whisper and noticed Bridget showing an apologetic face to the young women. I wished she wasn’t so sensitive, and let my attention wander around the room. It was the third time I had seen the paintings in fifteen years, plus countless leafings through the book on Goya that I had at home, and I still got a big kick out of the old master’s plunge into the dark reaches of the human heart. I believe we should acknowledge a dark side to ourselves, and if we can visualise or put it into words it’s easier to control; and enjoy. I was glad that my son was developing the same appreciation.
Bridget stood in the centre of the room, more detached than when I had brought her seven years before, as if she was unsure about whether Ethan should be enjoying the experience. I caught the eye of the Spanish man again, and he turned towards me as if intending to speak. I was ready to respond, but then I heard a wail from behind. I looked around to see that Ethan had moved on to another picture, The Dog, and that his face had contorted.
“Don’t like it!”
I looked at the picture. It wasn’t as obviously scary as most of the others, a dog’s head rising above a dark curve, looking up at something that wasn’t revealed.
“What’s happening to the dog?”
My first reaction was an honest answer.
“I don’t know.” I moved towards him and touched his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
“Well, I know, but …..”
I couldn’t think of a credible “but”. It was true that the picture was vague – it was unclear where the dog was, a mystery what it was looking at – but it conveyed the animal’s despair. There was fear and a terrible sense of isolation in its eyes. The dog was heartbroken.
“Why’s that there?” asked Ethan.
“Well, it’s one of the same group of paintings. They found them together in Goya’s house.”
A hand grabbed my arm and Bridget and hissed in my ear.
“We’re leaving !”
She slid next to Ethan, pressed his head to her waist and turned him away. I noticed there was a tear in his eye. Bridget led him quickly out of the room. I followed at half pace, caught the eyes of the Spanish man, who gave a sympathetic shrug, and the two young women, who scowled.
Days later, back in his own bed, the tear was still in Ethan’s eye. He couldn’t get over the dog, and came into our bedroom at 3.00 am to share his distress.
“Something bad’s happening to the dog.”
Bridget reacted more quickly. In a few seconds she was out of bed, hugging him and speaking softly.
“Don’t worry darling. The dog’s okay. Everything’s alright.”
“But the dog’s scared.”
She hugged him for a while then led him out of the room. It was becoming a routine; she would climb onto his bed and cuddle until he fell asleep. I would lie awake, feeling the rebuke. This time it was thirty minutes, maybe forty, before she came back to our bed. I asked the usual question: “Is he asleep?” She answered in the usual censorious tone: “That’s why I’ve come back to bed.” Ten minutes later we were still awake. Bridget snapped: “No more fucking monsters!”
An explanation came to me.
“I think what’s upset him is that it wasn’t a monster.”
“He can handle monsters because he’s already sussed that they’re not real. But that dog is real in his mind. Goya painted an ordinary dog, looking lost and very scared, and Ethan knows it’s more real than what was in all the other pictures. That’s why it’s stuck in his mind.”
“So you’ve worked out it now.”
“You know I would never have taken him into that room if I thought this could happen.”
She didn’t answer. I guessed that she knew it made sense, but she wasn’t in the mood to give me credit for getting something right.
The bad nights continued, and there were even times during the day when Ethan suddenly resumed his fretting over the dog. It wasn’t relentless, and for most of the time he was content with his toys or the TV, but every day there was a spell when his mood changed. At least during the day Bridget was more even tempered, ready to talk about what we could do. We tried explaining that it was only a painting, that the dog was only make believe. But he knew that some people did bad things to animals, and in his mind that made it all real. I made up a story about Goya having a dog that he always treated as his best friend, but it did no good. We even said that maybe we could get a dog, but it upset him even more. Bridget became more anxious than angry, and floated an idea that I didn’t want to consider.
“Maybe he should see someone? A professional.”
“You mean a shrink?”
“Don’t use that word! There are counsellors who specialise in children’s problems.”
“That’s for kids with serious problems. He’s just been shaken up by seeing a picture.”
“This has gone on for weeks. He’s had a personality change.”
“He’ll get over it!”
Now I was irritated. Bridget didn’t push it, but I had an unpleasant feeling that she was right.
Another bad night followed, this time with a twenty minute flood of tears. Neither of us got back to sleep. As we ate breakfast, stoking up for the day on black coffee, I gave in.
“You were right. We ought to have a look on the internet, find somewhere to take him.”
I was grateful that she was more concerned with putting things right than blaming me again.
Both of us were ready to accompany Ethan to the first session. It’s a trauma even to acknowledge that your kid needs that kind of help, and we had to share it as a family. The counsellor worked from an office a mile or so from our place, and we agreed to make a little outing of it with a walk through the park. I sensed that Bridget still blamed me for the mess but she had dropped the rebukes, and as we set out I knew that she was concerned only with helping our son.
The weather had turned too cold for the park to be busy, but there were a few people wrapped up in gloves and scarves, joggers, and a couple of dogs trotting around close to their owners. I tried pointing to the dogs, telling Ethan that they looked happy, but he didn’t respond. He hadn’t all the previous times I had tried the same move. We walked at a gentle pace, Bridget and I reassuring Ethan that he was going to see a nice lady for a little talk, and feeling grateful that he was too young to understand the pain it was causing us. He pointed out that the trees had lost most of their leaves and told us it was because of autumn. We encouraged him to point out other things, tell us if it had anything to do with what he had learned at school. He looked towards the pond, pointed at a group of ducks, and told us where the name came from.
“There was an old word like duck that meant ‘dive’. Ducks dive to get their food from the water.”
Bridget and I looked at each other, impressed.
“I didn’t know that.”
Then a dog shot across our path, a small cross-breed barking as it charged towards the pond. A voice shouted “Charlie!” and I saw a woman walking towards us with the type of frown that dog owners put on when the animal misbehaves. It prompted us to look where the dog had run and see that it charged through a pack of birds towards a tree. The birds flapped and made various noises, and a small grey shape scuttled up to a high branch. I realised that the dog had given chase to a squirrel, and looked to see the woman cross our path. She had an exasperated smile, but the moment she was in front of me it turned to shock.
“I looked towards the pond and saw that a couple of large geese had advanced on the dog and cornered by the tree. They raised their wings, hissed loudly and jabbed their beaks towards the dog’s face. It barked once but then shrank backwards. It was thirty yards away but we could see its fear.
“Oh God!” the woman said.
“They’ll back off,” I told her. “Just run over and wave your arms at them.”
“I can’t. I’m scared of geese. There’s something about them. I can’t go close.”
I looked to the tree again. The two geese were padding around the dog, hissing and pecking as if they meant it harm. Ethan had noticed as well.
I looked again at the dog’s owner. She had moved forward a few steps but slowly, clearly scared of the scene ahead. Bridget jogged my arm.
“I think it’s up to you.”
I walked towards the pond. I could see that beyond the tree two boys in their early teens were watching, intrigued by the spectacle. Then I heard a yelp, and saw that one of the geese was pecking at the dog’s neck. I remembered what vicious buggers they could be, but reckoned that my size was going to settle it quickly. I quickened my stride, waved both arms and shouted.
“Get out of it! Get away!”
The geese ignored me. Now both were pecking at the dog. It yelped, tried to dart away, but was blocked by the first goose swiftly curling its neck. The dog backed into the tree and let out a pathetic yowl. I moved closer, to within a couple of steps of the geese, and shouted again. This time the one that had led the attack turned, drew back its head, eyed me up and lashed out. I felt its beak touch my thigh and jumped back. This one was dangerous. I went back a couple of steps, thinking the dog would take the opportunity to run, but now it was frozen at the base of the tree. I waved my arms and shouted again. The goose took another couple of steps forward and tried to peck at me again.
“Bastard!” I didn’t realise that one could be this brave in the face of a human. That dog had got them seriously riled. I wanted to back away, but the second goose was still close to the tree and the dog was still too scared to move. I was beginning to share a little of its fear.
“Get away! Get away!”
The goose stood its ground, still hissing and threatening a further peck. I looked at the thickness of its beak and knew that I didn’t want to feel that on any uncovered flesh, or anywhere near my groin. There were anxious voices in the background, and I’m sure that one was crying “Daddy!” I tried to step forward, an effort to push the goose back again. It moved side to its side but kept up the hissing and gave no ground. I looked behind it and could see that the dog still hadn’t moved. For a moment I thought of attacking the goose, grabbing its neck and risking whatever its wings or beak could do. Then a shape spun into sight and struck the goose’s legs. It jumped, flapped its wings and let out a loud, abrasive sound like the scraping of rusty metal. I saw that the shape had been a tree branch, and noticed the two teenagers coming towards us. One waved another branch and threw it hard towards the geese. My immediate thought was “Shit! Don’t make it worse!” But as the branch landed between the birds they flapped, raised their legs and took off across the pond.
I took a breath, watched the geese fly away, and looked to the two boys. They were clearly pleased with themselves.
“Can’t do it unarmed mate,” said one. “You need a weapon.”
“They’re evil buggers,” said the other.
“Is the dog alright?”
It was still by the tree but it stood upright, visibly relieved that the geese had fled. That was the moment when I saw the resemblance; it looked like Goya’s dog, but with eyes that were now grateful rather than scared. A female voice shouted “Charlie!” It looked up and ran towards its owner. The boys came towards me. One of them had another stick in his hand. I had a feeling that they did this for sport, but I wasn’t going to berate them.
“I hate geese,” said one. “Snakes with wings.”
“If it happens again, grab a stick, or a rock,” said the other.
“Thanks,” I said. “And I’m sure the dog appreciates it.”
We could see that it was now pressing itself against its owner, who was kneeling at its side and rubbing her hands around its neck. Bridget and Ethan were by her side, leaning over to pat the dog’s back. We walked over to join them. The woman saw us coming and stood up.
“Thanks so much,” she said to me. “That was very brave.”
“It was nothing.” I wasn’t going to admit that I had got a little scared. “And it was the boys who made them go away. Effective use of tactical weapons.”
She thanked them. They joined in making a fuss of the dog, and I noticed the woman pulling out her purse. They must have fancied their chances of a reward from the start. Bridget and Ethan moved away.
“That was brave,” Bridget said.
“It was only a couple of geese.”
“I’ve heard of them breaking people’s arms.”
“And you didn’t stop me. Thanks.”
Ethan tugged at my trouser leg.
“The dog’s alright!” he said.
“It’s better now!”
He wore a wide smile and his eyes had lit up. He hadn’t looked so happy since …. the moment before he had seen the painting of Goya’s dog. I squeezed his hand, looked at Bridget and realised that she had also noticed.
“Do you think ….?” I asked.
“I think we can cancel that appointment.”
“We’ll have to pay the fee.”
“Who cares? We can spend longer in the park.”
(Francisco Goya, a true genius, and anyone who sees that painting would want to help the dog.)