by Cath Barton

The boy is sitting at the table, swinging his legs. Pencil held firmly in his left hand, ready. His mother opens a drawer and pulls out a large sheet of cartridge paper. She pushes it across the table to him. Looks at him but says nothing. (She’d tell her therapist, if she had one, that she’s learned, long since, that there’s nothing to be gained.) In the corner of the kitchen, the clock makes its dull, loud ticking.

The woman turns and attends to the things she has to do. Listens to the small sounds the boy makes as he draws, halfway to a song, in time with the clock. From the window she can see the pond. At this season it is not obscured by the foliage of the bushes nearer to the house. The water is bubbling, or so she thinks for a minute. She half-turns, ready to tell the boy that it is happening, but his head is down, intent on his drawing. His hand moves fast, up and down in long confident strokes, across and back and across again in short slashes. A circle above. Then the embellishment. She can see what it will be. Knows, in any case. He only draws one thing. Over and over. It’s quickly done and he’s up, pushing his feet into shoes and out of the door. It bangs behind him as he runs down the garden.

The woman walks over to the table. Looks at the picture her boy has drawn and feels a burst of pride in him. The time that he’s drawn is noon. Yesterday it was ten o’clock. She wonders what it means, whether it means anything. She walks back towards the sink, looks out of the window again. The boy is crouching by the pond, reaching out, tipping forward.

‘Be careful!’ she calls out, heart thumping with fear for him. It’s always close, this fear. But he doesn’t hear her through the glass, doesn’t turn. He is standing up and running back towards the house, back and crashing through the door now, cheeks red, eyes wide, holding out to her what he has in his hands.

‘Mum! Look, Mum!’ His eyes are shining.

Pond water is dripping onto the kitchen floor. The woman holds out her own hands to receive the slippery gift.

‘Thank you, Tig. We’ll put it in a pot,’ she says. Nearly adds, ‘for now’, but stops herself because she doesn’t want to upset him. He’s upset too often. He’s dancing around now, her boy Tig, her own spawn, excited by what he’s found. Too excited, his mother knows. Knows that there will be a fall, a descent, a price to pay for these moments of joy.


Meltdowns, that’s the word they use, though they write more in their records, the doctors, the teachers, the professionals: ‘Timothy finds everyday experience overwhelming, and his response is intense and difficult for his mother to deal with.’

What they write angers the woman. It angers her that all they can do is offer her boy medication and containment. ‘Maybe a week or two in a special centre,’ they suggest. ‘To give you a break, make your life easier,’ they say. She thinks that they mean it will make their lives easier. None of them thought of the paper and the pen. The solace of drawing. Something he can do, and the drawings are good. She thinks so anyway, though she hasn’t shown them to anyone else. She doesn’t want their judgements. She’ll manage. She and he will manage.


Tig has been out in the garden every morning, as soon as his mother lets him. So soon as he’s eaten his breakfast. He’d go out before, but she insists on routines. (I need them too, she’d tell her therapist, if she had one.) As soon as he’s allowed he dashes down to the pond, crouches down but doesn’t touch. She’s told him that it’s better not to. Never says don’t, has learned that. (There’s so much to learn, she’d tell the therapist. And I’m so tired. And if the therapist was to ask her what would help, she’d probably cry.)

She watches out of the window as, in the corner of the kitchen, the clock makes it’s heavy tick, tick, tick. Whirrs a bit before striking the hour. Tig likes that, puts his ear to the body of the clock when he hears the sound, then puts his arms round the clock and cuddles it. His mother smiles when he does that, loving the love in him.     

He’s back after a few minutes to tell her what’s happening in the pond, that it’s growing or it’s moving, or why isn’t it moving faster? Or when will it be?

She tells him that it’s good, whatever is happening is good and that something is happening even if he can’t see it, nature’s like that, Tig, and he nods. He is, whatever anyone says (and they say a lot but none of it really helps) a bright boy and he loves learning. And drawing.

Every morning, after he’s looked at the pond, his mother gives him a fresh sheet of paper and he fetches his pencils. Some days she thinks of sitting down at the table with him, but she dare not, afraid of getting between him and the muse, if that’s what it is that helps him to produce the pictures. So when she’s finished her chores she takes off her apron, slips on her gardening shoes and walks down to the pond herself. Notices the small changes in the garden. Every day there are small changes. Bushes budding, fresh leaves pushing up.

She checks every day that the spawn is still there. There are so many threats to it. As there are to her boy, her own spawn. Predators. She knows the risks. Knows that’s why frogs lay so many eggs, so that there are enough to feed the newts, the birds, whatever other creatures need feeding. And leave enough to perpetuate the species.  (It’s not quite like that with humans, is it? she’d say to the therapist. Might even manage a laugh about that, though there’s nothing funny about it really.)

She sits by the pond for a minute or two, usually no longer than that, because Tig will be calling for her.


She hears him through the closed door. Sighs. Breathes, the deep breaths that are supposed to help. By the third breath he’s by her side, panting, worry-eyed, pawing at her.

‘Mum, Mum!’

She pulls him to her but he wriggles, pulls away, tugs at her jumper. And then he’s running back, all but tripping on the uneven path, righting himself as only the young can do. (I wish I could right myself so easily, she’d say.) She stands up, steadies herself and walks back to the house. The sheet of cartridge paper on the table is full of clocks. Today the time is three o’clock. On each one.

‘They’re wonderful, Tig.’  She means it. But he isn’t looking at her, she doesn’t know whether it has landed with him (as the professionals might say, she’s learned their language, over the years). He pushes the paper away. It’s done. She turns on the radio because sometimes music helps. There’s something soft and dreamlike playing. Fauré, she thinks, Clair de Lune. She sang it, in the days when she did that. In another life.

Tig climbs onto a chair and starts singing along, wordlessly, beautifully. He looks, to his mother, like an angel, with the sun behind his head like a halo and his arms outstretched and the sound coming from him like nothing she’s ever heard before.


It’s winded her, hearing her boy singing like that, singing better than she was ever able (though it’s not about comparisons, she’d say, just about the beauty of it.)

Not that it’s changed anything for Tig, he’s no different from usual for the rest of that day, still worrying over what’s happening or not happening with the spawn, still wanting paper to draw more grandfather clocks. Perhaps it’s that he’s never satisfied (any more than I ever was, she’d say.)

She feels herself holding her breath, waiting for the inevitable crash. When it comes it isn’t in the way she expects. There’s a flurry outside, a beating of wings as loud as if they’re inside the kitchen. Then Tig looking as the big gull lifts off with its prey; his mouth’s open but he’s too shocked to make a sound or a move. It’s as if the damage had been done to him. And he doesn’t want to draw again that day, or the next. (It’s exhausting, she’d say.)


After a week of silence the boy asks for paper again. They’ve woken to the light of snow. All morning it falls on the garden and the pond becomes as smooth and white as the blank cartridge paper. The boy draws a clock that is tall and thin but has no hands. His mother doesn’t know what to say to him, so she says nothing. She toasts crumpets and spreads them with butter and raspberry jam, his favourite. They sit and eat and she doesn’t think to turn on the radio. (I couldn’t think at all, she’d say, I was frozen inside and out.)

Next day the snow is gone and it’s as if winter has turned to spring. That quickly. From the kitchen window the boy’s mother sees movement in the pond – quick, look, she calls to him. They go down the garden together, mother and son. It’s true, there are tadpoles, turning, squirming. The boy turns his face to his mother and he’s smiling. His angelic smile. (The thing that saved me, she’d say.)


They go to the city on the train. The boy is a contained bubble of excitement; everything about this is new. His mother carries the folder of his drawings. At the museum a man is waiting for them. He is wearing purple socks and his hair is very straight, as Tig will remind her later. (So funny the things children remember, she’d say, laughing about it afterwards.) He is also very tall and next to him the boy is very small. (That’s what she noticed, she’d say, as well as the fact that he had sparkling eyes and clearly loved children. That was a mercy, she’d say.)

They walk through long corridors and into a room that is completely full of grandfather clocks. Tig stops, open-mouthed. He listens as the man talks about them. Lovingly.

‘What else would you like to know, young man?’ the man says.

His mother doesn’t expect him to ask anything, but he does, lots and lots of how and when and why questions. (I was so proud of him, she’ll tell people afterwards.)

‘And do you have something to show me?’ the man asked. (He had of course been primed.)

Tig unzips the big folder and spreads his drawings on the floor. Now it’s the man who is open-mouthed. (I do think it was genuine, she’ll say.) He crouches down next To Tig and asks him about his work and they are chattering now, two boys together. (I had to turn away for a minute, because I was welling up.)


There are good days and less-good days, days when Tig climbs on a chair and sings like the loudest robin and days when he retreats into sullen silence and his mother wonders about the meaning of it all. (Sharing this with no-one.)

But now summer’s come. Tig still draws grandfather clocks and sends them to his friend at the museum, where some of them have been framed and displayed for all to admire. There’s more. Her boy draws the frogs that are hopping round the garden. Big confident swirls on the paper. And he says that, for his birthday, he’d like some paints. Because he’d like to do more, he says.


Cath Barton is an English writer living in Wales. Her published novellas are The Plankton Collector (2018, New Welsh Review), In the Sweep of the Bay (2020, Louise Walters Books) shortlisted for Best Novella in the Saboteur Awards 2021, and Between the Virgin and the Sea (2023, Novella Express, Leamington Books). She is working on a novel set in the circus, inspired by the life of a famous aunt.

Find her at @CathBarton1.