A Child’s Heart is a short story included in the Picador collection Klingsor’s Last Summer – uh! what a cover! but hey, it was the ’70s. The collection also includes the title story and Klein and Wagner. A Child’s Heart is beautifully told but it starts ominously, talking of fate and the effects that decisions can have on one’s life. The adult narrator is discussing an event that involved the narrator’s father and which happened thirty years before, when he was a child. The narrator had had a guilty conscience since the morning, despite not being aware of any wrongdoing. As he enters ‘his father’s house’ at lunchtime he is pondering his natural wickedness and his longing to be good. Looking back, the narrator describes his feelings that day:
If I were to reduce all my feelings and their painful conflicts to a single name, I can think of no other word but: dread. It was dread, dread and uncertainty, that I felt in all those hours of shattered childhood felicity: dread of punishment, dread of my own conscience, dread of stirrings in my soul which I considered forbidden and criminal.
On this day the narrator decides to see his father. He goes to his father’s study, enters, but no-one is there. A compulsion to steal comes over him, as it has done before, and he steals a few pen nibs. After nosing about further he finds some dried figs hidden away in a drawer and without thinking, he eats a few and pockets some more. The fear then returns and he joins the others at the meal table.
Now the misery was upon me. I would have let my hand be chopped off if that could have restored my figs to the drawer. I decided to throw the figs away, to take them to school and give them away. If only I were rid of them, if only I never had to see them again!
But he doesn’t throw them away. After lunch he absentmindedly eats a few and hides the rest behind some books. Nothing good is going to happen on this day—he thinks of his own inadequacies, he bunks off school and gets in a fight with his friend…but still the sense of dread, of being discovered pervades his thoughts.
This story effectively describes the thoughts and feelings that a child has when contemplating the world. At times the narrator feels powerful, ready to stand-up to anyone: his father, bullies, God; and then the realisation hits that he’s still a child and is powerless in the adult’s world. The narrator wonders if maybe his ‘crime’ won’t be discovered by his father but other times he seems to want to be found out.
The ending is great. It has a subtle twist and a bit of a ‘fuck you’ vibe to it – brilliant stuff! I won’t spoil the ending as you’ll want to read this one.