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Authors: Eva Hornung

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BOOK: Dog Boy
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Natalya looked up, her eyes dark, and he felt a little rush of pleasure. He knew from the shadows that flickered across her open face that the dogboy had made a huge impression. Then the sombre eyes were sparkling.
‘Be careful—he’ll end up overthrowing the government!’
‘We must just hope, Natalya, that he will in time stand up or speak.’ He blushed. He so often managed to sound pompous, his words huddling together, when he talked to Natalya. Whereas she shone, it seemed to him; she rang clear as a bell and in her company he became inept with dumb joy.
‘Well, perhaps a strong name like that could help his chances of survival,’ she said brightly, impatient as always with any hint of gloom.
In Natalya’s assessment, however, the boy was frail. There was something doddery in his movements, she said, that could relate to some trace-element deficiency. Tests would be in on Friday.
Dmitry was hopeful. His research on the rapidity of language and cognitive recovery among stimulation-deprived children was now known all over Europe, and just this year had been translated into German, French and English. His university lectures were very well attended.
Children found with minimal language but otherwise normal capacities consistently show hyperdevelopment; in several cases they have rejoined age-appropriate levels within a few years.
He could hear his own voice saying that, and being believed.
Dmitry was at a peak in his career when the dogboy appeared, almost like a reward: a spectacular icing on a very satisfactory cake. His position as Director of the Anton Makarenko Children’s Centre was the fruit of many successes and a studious avoidance of overt ambition. He was conscious of the accolade and cautious of provoking those who had conferred it. The Centre was a showpiece, funded in response to a damning international report into the endemic abuse of children in internats and orphanages. It was a show-and-tell for foreign journalists, but he loved being here, where he had the facilities to make his research really count.
And the staff: he had an excellent team. Natalya was indispensable, welding everyone else together. Around her enthusiasm they all felt elevated. His behavioural and developmental psychologists were the best in Moscow. The neurologist was a high-profile public figure and an excellent practitioner, who divided his time between the centre and the university. Anna Aleksandrovna, the administrator, kept the whole organisation running as if effortlessly, and had been Dmitry’s secretary in a range of posts before he was appointed to the centre. And his closest friend, Konstantin Petrovich, the security manager and driver, also happened to be a pedagogic psychologist (with Cuban qualifications). He was a gem. The specialist teachers, nurses and general staff were handpicked and headhunted, pilfered from all the ministries and university departments Dmitry and Anna Aleksandrovna had ever worked for. The whole team, from the janitors and cooks to the medical unit, were proud of what they did here.
Only the building left something to be desired. Dmitry was abraded every morning that the transformation of this old children’s home had been such a rushed job. They had the best equipment and had had some rooms modified, but the paint job was patchy and the children’s rooms still had the old metal beds from before. Just fewer to a room and with nicer linen.
The centre at this moment housed and educated thirty-five children, all rescued from the internat system. It wasn’t as though the children they left behind were ineducable, necessarily. There were intelligent, if deprived, children in overwhelming numbers. They visited one regional internat where 80 per cent of its 112 children passed the special test for aptitude Natalya and Dmitry had devised, showing normal cognitive function once the results were mediated for stimulus-poor environment. Some were screened out because they had been too long in the internat system—by age four they were thought to be irredeemable—some were screened out for extreme behavioural problems; some for physical rather than mental defects (in these cases recommendations were made). The government wanted only success stories or forefront-of-science cases to come out of the centre.
Dmitry tried to approach the unpleasant task with clinical detachment, but Natalya was from the start ruthless and manipulative—in a way he admired when he was with her and cringed at when he thought it over afterwards. She would see a kid who was, from Dmitry’s point of view, unresponsive and beyond their scope, and she would set her jaw: ‘We are getting that one out of here.’
She usually spotted her child within seconds of entering the room, apparently choosing sometimes out of pity. Ugly, stunted or crushed children attracted her, although she treated Dmitry with frosty silence the one time he said this out loud. She manipulated him, she falsified reports, she fiddled with the stats and the results, she bribed without hesitation (using not just her own money but also the centre’s) to get damning mental health reports to disappear; and, with his discomfited collusion, she got every subject she selected out of the internat and into the centre. Worse still, she had never yet been wrong: apart from a couple who had died, her subjects thrived.
This was what kept Dmitry awake: perhaps none of the children they saw and assessed as normal should have been left behind. After Natalya started to erode his detachment, he found he didn’t want to do field visits anymore. Even his favourite children’s home, run by a compassionate and efficient ex-military woman, dismayed him, despite the conscientious care the children received. He found himself wishing that the major too would bend rules and falsify her reports; even cultivate favourites. At his most despairing, he thought that discarded children were too big a problem for him alone: in unimaginable numbers they either died or were abused on the streets; or were deformed through physical, emotional and mental deprivation in the homes.
He was often furious with Natalya. Right now he knew she was in the basement teaching the kids gymnastics, moulding young lives to resemble her own. She was optimistic about the children they rescued and refused to think about the ones they left behind. Amazingly, she could switch off. There were no Madonna mothers between the metro and the university now: Natalya had reported every one of them. She called the militzia on principle whenever she saw one, making herself late to conferences and restaurants. She looked at their outstretched hands and filthy rags, even the weak blue babies they held, as though they were remote from her; an affront to everybody. And she acted. But Dmitry was sure she never thought about them at all. He commented once that the babies at times died of hunger or gangrene from unchanged nappies, and speculated about the link between various kinds of depravity and the degradation of maternal feelings.
Natalya had said brusquely: ‘Don’t get philosophical, Dmitry. It doesn’t suit you. You didn’t father the baby or corrupt the mother.’ His heart had filled, then, with a flood of things to say to her.
What if my mother was such a one?
Natalya, walking just ahead of him on Pyetnitskaya, turned at that moment with a face so fresh and unscathed that his thoughts scattered and he reached for her hand. Once close to that fire, he just wanted the warmth of it.
Natalya was startled when people didn’t agree with her but she changed nothing, no matter how cogent their criticisms. Dmitry told her once, working himself up for a couple of days to say it, that she was incapable of admitting a mistake. She laughed, said, ‘Rubbish!’ and went on unaffected. Really, Dmitry told himself, daffiness and arrogance were a terrible combination in a character.
Natalya stretched her neck and shoulders as the children chimed their rote thank-yous and filed out. She had insisted on the ritual from the start and their naïve, raw voices pleased her. She felt her age in the stiffening of her body after gymnastics but considered herself young, nonetheless. Gymnasts might be old at thirty-two, but paediatricians were babies. Her technique was still impressive so why shouldn’t the children get the benefit of it? Dmitry—well, if these children were fed, nurtured and educated to the most basic shared standards of parented children, that was more than enough for Dmitry.
Natalya raised her arms, bent at the waist and put her palms to the floor to shift her irritation. She tucked her head to her shins, and became a strange, four-footed entity, narrow, with a tail of hair reaching from the back of her head to the floor. She lifted one leg to the vertical, then the other, into a controlled handstand. For a moment she was an inverted statue, then she dropped, rolling along the half moon of her spine to stand in one fluid movement.
He was so passive about all this! She had had to scrounge for the equipment in this ugly basement while Dmitry the orphan quietly derided and disapproved of the vantage point, the insights her own childhood had given her. She had had the privileges of the talented and the loved, he once said, as though she was somehow tainted by this. Well, Dmitry’s prejudices would not preclude
children from gymnastics.
hadn’t become a self-absorbed gymnast, but had
to become a paediatrician. He, on the other hand, had had the benefits of the once-functional state system and had focused on success with the blindness of a mole.
It was odd: only Dmitry ever argued with her. She couldn’t remember anyone, not even her parents, arguing so much with her. And he was brilliant, in his twisted, complicated way: a walnut tree, clenched tight around every burl and knot. Her annoyance faded and she smiled. He still wrote his notes long-hand! He would be funny with a dog. He would end up loving it much more than she would:
was the one who needed a dog. And he would be such a wonderful father! She inspired the children, yes, as a great teacher should; but it was Dmitry’s hand they reached for. He needed her to know such things.
She untied her hair, gathered her clothes and headed for the staff showers, feeling the sweat cooling under her leotard. Ha! He might see gymnastics as ornamental, but he certainly enjoyed her flexibility. Her thoughts shifted to his bewildered-looking grey eyes, his charm, his sexual need and directness and the planes and fine lines of his body. He was very handsome, her Dmitry. For a forty-five-year-old.
Since age fifteen, Natalya had known she wanted a man who satisfied two criteria: he had to be physically attractive to her, and he had to need her help. She had dreamed then of an agoraphobic pianist; a gifted (and beautiful) cripple of some kind. Most of her lovers had seemed to fit this at first: one had been a drunken petrochemical engineer; another a psychotic writer. They resisted help, and she lost interest in them. But Dmitry—she was sure she could do him a lot of good.
She would cook tonight, and she would be sweet smelling; and he would flex, glisten and moan. Her belly tightened.
Dmitry sat watching Marko from the observation bay, the various test results clipped to his folder. What a surprising child. Internalised to a degree—licking his hands over and over, absent and sad looking a lot of the time. A degree of stereotypy—as now, rocking side to side or front to back, or pacing anxiously and without purpose around the room on hands and feet. Didn’t know how to chew food, but he did know when he was full, which was, from Dmitry’s experience with other neglected children, unusual. No single terms or combinatorial speech, but much babbling, drawn-out vowels. And signing—
signing, for want of a better word. The rapid wriggling movement of his bottom had seemed odd until Dmitry recalled seeing a large dog wag its tail, its whole body swaying. Language development, at least in the coming together of verbal and thought intelligence, had not happened; something altogether strange had taken place instead.
He was in some ways like a stimulation-deprived child from an internat, but in other ways very different. For one thing, he knew how to play—a most extraordinary thing.
Dogs are playful, Dmitry thought, leaning forward to watch through the one-way window as the boy scampered with a large yellow ball. But dogs don’t build with blocks, and this child did. Dogs don’t make a yellow block bark at a red block. This child was much more responsive than any long-term internat child. He showed fear, hope, delight, anger and hunger openly. His sleeping patterns were also unusual—he was nocturnal and slept immediately after eating. His physical condition was worrying—Natalya had diagnosed cystic fibrosis—but treatable. His scores on physical tests were as odd as everything else. Good in some ways, despite severe developmental retardation, malnutrition, hypertrichosis and the deformed movement his body had adopted.
BOOK: Dog Boy
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