The Van Gogh Museum had been a good idea. Peter had enjoyed the rural scenes, all those bold strokes of bright colour conveying the quiet movements of the countryside, and the portraits. He was even able to look at the artist with a bandaged ear, the self-portrait of self-mutilation, without a flicker of nerves.
“A lot of people know him better for that than his paintings,” I replied.
“It must be hard. I mean continuing to slice it off when you feel the pain.”
I noticed a faint smile and felt surprised. My brother was prone to anxiety at the mention of violence, retreated and refused to speak when anything planted the idea in his head. I was thinking that the holiday had been a good idea.
We looked at more of the paintings, read the descriptions of Van Gogh’s time in Arles and his relationship with Gauguin, then came to Crows in a Wheatfield. I stood and stared, relishing the way he had conveyed gusts of wind in the wheat with thick yellow lines, the dark swirls of the clouds and the flock of short black wings that swooped over the field. It was the second time I had seen the painting close up, and I felt an excitement that didn’t come often in a gallery. For a minute or so I forgot about Peter, but then felt a hand on my arm. A woman looked concerned and pointed over her shoulder.
“Sorry,” she said, “but I noticed he was with you.”
Peter had stepped back from the group around the painting, put his hands over his head and dipped into a frightened stance. A young couple stood to either side, asking if he was okay and trying to touch his arms. He backed away and let out a pathetic little cry. I closed my eyes and sighed.
Then I moved towards him, took him by the arm and asked what was wrong. He didn’t answer but pulled further away from the picture. I caught glances from people close by, tried to deflect them with a smile and touched Peter again. This time he didn’t back away, but dipped his head lower.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The birds,” he said. “Big black birds.”
“They’re flying straight at us. They want to hurt us.”
I looked back to the picture. I could swear that the birds were flying away from the scene.
“They’re not,” I said. “They’re flying away. And it’s only a picture.”
“They’re coming at us. I can tell.”
“It’s a painting Peter. There’s nothing that can hurt you.”
I pulled down his hands and tried to turn him towards the picture, but he jerked back, shouted “No!” and turned away. I knew it would be hopeless to argue any further.
“Okay, we can go.”
I placed an arm around his shoulder and guided him towards him the exit, keeping myself between him and Vincent’s crows. People stood back, their faces showing that mixture of surprise, sympathy and curiosity that came whenever he felt the fear in public. As I left the room I turned my head for a last glance towards the painting. The crows were flying away.
My bladder woke me in the middle of night. Peter sat on his bed, knees pulled to his chest, hands on his head. He was silent, but it was clear that he was suffering. I placed a hand on his shoulder.
“The crows. They’re coming for us.”
“They’re not coming for us, they’re flying away. And it’s only a painting.”
“They’ve got sharp claws. They can hurt us.”
I went to the toilet, sat on his bed and tried again. Over half an hour we had variations of the same short conversation. Finally I managed to get Peter back beneath the covers, but I knew this was likely to continue the following day. I silently cursed Van Gogh, then myself.
I woke again at seven. Peter sat in the corner of the room, squeezed back with his feet on the edge of the chair and his hands around his legs. I could see that his head was still full of the crows.
After breakfast I led him back towards the museum. He resisted when he realised where we were going, and it took fifteen minutes of quietly arguing on a pavement before I convinced him that he wouldn’t have to go inside. I left him standing by the entrance and went inside to ask for help. The woman at the information desk listened, took me seriously but didn’t seem to understand my request. I had to explain again before she called for one of the managers to come down. Another woman appeared, showed patience as I told her about my brother’s problems, and seemed surprised when I described his reaction to the crows.
“I always thought they are flying away,” she said. “So do most people.”
“Could you do me a favour?” I asked. “Come outside and tell him that’s the case. It might make a difference if he hears it from someone who works here.”
She smiled at me and said “Of course.” I was touched by her kindness.
We stepped outside and found that Peter had wandered towards the road. He was standing with a middle aged couple, shuffling his feet and showing distress as the woman touched his arm. We approached him, and before we could speak heard the end of their conversation.
“I suppose they could be,” the woman said. “It’s not really clear.”
“It’s the painting overall,” the man added. “That dark sky, it’s all very threatening. It does make the crows look scary.”
“No!” I pushed between them. “He’s my brother.”
“Well you shouldn’t have left him here,” the man said. “He’s in a state.”
“They’ve seen the crows,” Peter said. “They said they’re flying at us.”
“It’s not true!”
“Well it’s an opinion,” the woman said.
I managed to pull Peter away from them and introduced him to the woman from the museum, who led him a few steps away to talk quietly. Then I returned to the couple, strained to be polite despite wanting to strangle them, and explained that I was trying to undo the damage from him seeing the picture. They weren’t impressed, told me I should take better care of my brother and walked away. I turned to see the museum official talking quietly to Peter, who was shaking his head.
“I know what happened,” he said. “He told you to tell me that.”
“Please believe me,” the woman said. “It’s widely understood. All the experts agree that the crows are flying away.”
“I don’t believe you. This is why he left me waiting out here.”
I joined in, quietly trying to assure Peter that the woman was telling the truth, and she made another effort to convince him. But it came to nothing, and after a couple of minutes he pulled away and walked towards the road. The woman gave me a look that said “I tried”, and I managed to thank her before following him. We went back to our hotel room and stayed there all day.
The following weeks were hard going. Peter didn’t want to leave his flat, scared that the crows were waiting, ready to fly at him with sharp claws and brutal wings. He wouldn’t do his shopping or go to the laundry, and I had to make sure that he was clean and had food in the kitchen. He missed hospital appointments. I received phone calls from the doctor asking for more details about what had thrown his mind into the dark. There was talk about taking him back into a hospital where he could receive more intensive care. It affected me; that picture of the crows stuck seeped into my sleep and gave me restless nights.
That’s what made up my mind. Three months after we returned from Amsterdam I agreed with the doctor that Peter had gone so far backwards that he needed some time under constant care. Hopefully it would only be for a few weeks, short enough for the council to keep his flat empty as long as I covered the rent. I said that I would explain to Peter why we thought it necessary, hoping I could persuade him to go voluntarily. I arranged to take him for a Sunday lunch, assuring him that I would stay close and be careful about where we would go. It was a pub with a nice garden, wooden tables and benches on a paved terrace and trees around its walls. It felt safe, but I took the precaution of sitting Peter so that he faced the pub and couldn’t see anything in the trees. He chose his usual for whenever we ate out, cheeseburger and chips, along with a shandy, while I ordered a meat pie and mash and a pint of bitter.
I had decided not to speak about Peter’s problem until after we had eaten; if he was going to get distressed at least he could enjoy the meal first. I sipped at my pint, asked what he had watched on TV, and noticed a black shape in the branches of a tree. A crow. My stomach tightened a little. I didn’t stare, not wanting to risk Peter looking around, but as we spoke I glanced up at the tree a couple of times and willed it to fly away. The third time it had disappeared, but I couldn’t be sure if it had gone or flitted deeper into the branches. I relaxed, drank more of the beer and encouraged Peter to talk about what he had seen on Master Chef.
The food came. I glanced towards the trees again and saw nothing. I told myself to enjoy the meal, because what was to follow could be difficult. We ate silently, Peter holding the burger, letting ketchup run down his fingers then licking it off. Our mother had always told him off for that, but I reckoned it was one habit that never did him any harm. I struggled a little with the pie, finding the crust very thick and hard to cut around the corners. Near the end of the meal it proved particularly difficult; I pushed the knife a little harder, a chunk of crust snapped and flew across the table and stopped close the edge. Peter laughed. I left it, and it was only when I had cleared the plate that I reached over to pick it up. The crow landed on the edge of the table, its eyes set on the pie crust. My chest tightened; the bird had been watching the garden for scraps from the tables. I looked at Peter and saw that he had seen the crow but showed no expression. I swept my hand across the table and the crow flew off. I watched as its shape got lost in the tree branches. Again I looked at Peter. He was staring at the spot where the crow had sat. I had a horrible feeling that he was going to lose it, run screaming from the garden, but he sat quietly. We stayed silent for a few seconds, and I was struck by the thought that maybe he wasn’t freaked by a real crow. I reached over again, took the pie crust and dropped it onto my plate, which I pushed to one side.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
I felt a surge of relief then remembered why we were there. Now came the hard part.
“You haven’t been doing well recently.”
He dipped his head, looking a little ashamed. I didn’t want him to feel like that.
“Since that day in Amsterdam,” I said.
“And you know that sometimes I talk with your doctor.”
He nodded. He must have had a rough idea what was coming.
Then the black shape swooped down, the crow thumped onto the table, took a couple of hops and grabbed the pie crust in its beak. I threw the back of my hand over the plate but the bird was in the air before I could touch it, a big lump of baked crust in its mouth. I watched it disappear into the tree branches and felt my heart thump. The little bugger had scared me. Then I heard Peter laugh. He was pointing at me.
“You ought to see your face!”
“I thought it was going to …..”
I didn’t know what I thought it was going to do.
“Do what? Take that bit of carrot you didn’t eat?”
I actually felt shaken. Peter kept laughing.
“I tell you what, order the apple crumble for dessert. It might come back.”
People on a couple of nearby tables looked around. Peter took pleasure in telling them what had happened.
Somehow I didn’t get round to talking to him about him going back to hospital. His mood was so different that I didn’t want to spoil it. On the way home I decided to wait until the following day, find an excuse to go to his flat in the evening and break the news then. When I went around he was so bright that it seemed wrong. I called the doctor and explained. He said he would wait until the next time he met Peter, and at the end of the week told me that we could put the plan on hold. Having a laugh at me had lifted my brother out of his slump.
He’s improved a lot since then. He’s calmer, more confident with people, and goes out without company every day. He’s seeing the doctor less often, and hasn’t needed medication for months. He even found a job in the kitchen of a pub restaurant, and tells me that he laughs whenever someone orders the meat pie. My brother’s getting better.
I wish I could say the same for myself. I feel tense these days, waiting for something bad to happen. I lost the thread at work, too many mistakes and failures to explain myself. When the company was squeezed I was at the top of their list for redundancy. I didn’t argue, glad to take the money and give myself time at home, but I don’t know when I’ll be ready for another job. It won’t happen until I sleep better, and that feels a long way off. It’s when I fall into that space where vague dreams stand in the way of rest. I keep seeing those thick yellow lines of the cornfield, the dark swirls of the clouds, and those brutal black wings beating in the sky. The crows are coming. They want to hurt me.
(There’s so much dark energy in that picture.)