When Ben turns five, Luke (13) and Helen (11) ask to be sent to boarding school. They’ve asked James and Molly, respectively, to pay their school fees. Luke informs them that it will be better for them because they don’t like Ben. Immediately before this proposal, the family had found Ben crouched on the table eating a raw chicken. Ben defends himself by saying, “Poor Ben hungry.” It breaks Harriet’s heart to think that Ben sees himself as Poor Ben. The time comes when Ben must go to school, despite it being clear he isn’t very good at proper learning. Harriet asks John try to reason with Ben and John tells Ben that all of the gang went to school, though they snicker because of the way they’d played truant as kids. Harriet takes Ben to school and John picks him up and looks after him until bedtime.
The biological family drifts apart further here. While Harriet had convinced herself that their family life had improved, Luke and Helen had secretly been planning their escape, seeking support from the grandparents with whom they identified most closely. While likely long in the works, this revelation is immediately preceded by Ben savagely devouring a chicken and then defending his actions. Harriet tries, again, to understand her son in the way he refers to himself, wondering if he is just repeating the sentiment of others or if he’s capable of pitying himself. When the time comes for Ben to go to school, spending less time with John, it is John, with whom Ben has the truest connection, that is able to convince Ben he must attend.
With Helen and Luke away at boarding school and Jane hanging out with friends after school, Harriet finally has some dedicated time to spend with Paul, who is now a shrill, difficult child. He seems never to be at ease and he’s demanding of attention, having been denied mothering when it was most crucial. When he hears Ben arriving home on the motorbike, he wails.
Paul, having been born with a sweet nature, has developed problematic behaviors because of the lack of nurturing he received. He also shows that he has been conditioned to respond poorly to indications of Ben’s return home. Both of these facts lend credence to the notion that nurture has a stronger effect on how a person develops than nature.
Harriet inquires about how Ben is doing in school and the headmistress says he tries very hard, but that he doesn’t fit in and that the teachers are at a bit of a loss. Harriet asks the headmistress if she’s ever seen a child like Ben before, and the teacher confirms that he might be hyperactive, but Harriet senses there is much that goes unsaid between them. At the end of the second term, Harriet receives word that Ben has attacked a bigger girl on the playground, knocking her down, biting her, and breaking her arm. The headmistress says Ben showed little remorse. Paul hears of the attack and fears for his own life.
The headmistress, like many people before her, declines to admit that there is something wrong with Ben, reducing his differences to hyperactivity. This lack of proactivity has a price, though, when Ben injures a little girl. Only after this occurs is the headmistress willing to admit that Ben shows a surprising lack of remorse for his wrongdoing. Even before Harriet arrives at the school, Paul is hysterically responding to the news of his brother’s behavior.
Harriet takes Ben home to talk to him. She asks Ben if he remembers the institution. It’s clear he does and Harriet tells Ben that he’ll need to go back there if he hurts anyone else, but she knows she could never do this. Ben seems terrified of this possibility and he walks away, leaving behind a trail of urine. Harriet summons John to talk to Ben, and Ben leaves with John after he talks Ben into behaving more gently.
Harriet continues to discipline Ben with fear, threatening to return him to the institution, removing him not just from the Lovatt house, but also from the company of his true family, John and his gang. Harriet again shows her conflicted feelings when she calls John to talk to Ben, hoping Ben might respond better to John’s firm kindness than he did to her threats.
Harriet asks Dr. Brett to set up an appointment with a specialist, asking that he not dismiss her to the other doctor as a hysteric. Dr. Gilly observes Ben first while Harriet waits, wondering what it is she wants of this doctor. She decides that what she wants for someone to acknowledge that Ben is different. Dr. Gilly tells Harriet that the problem is not with Ben, but with Harriet not liking Ben. Harriet insists that Dr. Brett must have told planted that idea in Dr. Gilly’s mind.
Harriet again feels attacked for Ben’s behavior, which she believes she has little to do with. Because the story is told mostly from Harriet’s perspective, it is hard to tell if indeed her behavior is to blame for Ben’s actions, or if it’s possible Dr. Brett has biased Dr. Gilly’s opinion with the information in Ben’s file.
Harriet presses Dr. Gilly to say that there is nothing strange about Ben, and Dr. Gilly demurs. Harriet asks for Ben to be brought into the room so the doctor can look at him again. The doctor assesses his appearance and sends him out. Harriet asks, “He’s not human, is he?” Dr. Gilly pauses, distressed, and then jokes away her uncertainty suggesting that Ben is from another planet. Harriet suggests that, rather than an alien, Ben might be a throwback and asks that the doctor say something. Dr. Gilly says that even if such a thing could be true, it’s outside of her competence. Harriet thanks Dr. Gilly, asking if she might give Harriet prescription for a sedative for the times she can’t control Ben. The doctor complies, and Ben finishes out his first school year without additional incident.
Harriet, frustrated with Dr. Gilly’s response and sensing that there is more being left unsaid, tries to force Dr. Gilly into being more frank. While the doctor, like many before her, laughs off the possibility of Ben being some other type of creature altogether, she actually entertains the possibility somewhat seriously, and this admission alone provides solace to Harriet. A woman of significant intelligence has not reduced her concern to hysteria, even if she’s admitted there’s little to be done because the situation is so uncommon.
At Christmas, Luke stays with James and Helen goes to Molly’s house. Dorothy stays for three days, but takes Jane back to her house with her at the end of the visit. Ben spends all his time with John. David works longer hours. Paul remains home, but is even more difficult than Ben, though he is considered to be “disturbed” in a normal way. He spends most of his time watching the violent news on TV.
This marks the first Christmas without some of the children, a significant amplification of the way the Lovatt house’s existence as a hub of family life has broken down. That Paul’s “disturbance” is seen as being more familiar (and therefore less of a problem) than Ben’s strangeness is an important detail in identifying people’s rejection of Ben; they are more disturbed by his unfamiliarity than by any danger he poses to himself or others.
Luke stays mostly with James, though occasionally James brings Luke to visit, sensing that Harriet and David miss him. Helen stays with Molly, visiting very infrequently. Jane remains living with Dorothy and Sarah’s family, and when she visits the Lovatt house it’s clear she’s careful not to criticize them. Again David suggests that Paul needs a psychiatrist, taking on a part-time job at a polytechnic to cover the cost. Paul goes to therapy almost every afternoon, attaching to the doctor’s family more than his own. One afternoon, Harriet finds Ben trying to strangle Paul, but he can’t reach. She thinks Ben was only threatening his brother, but Paul believes it was a true attempt. Harriet calls Ben off and Paul runs away. Harriet wonders if Ben experiences the world as a human or as something else. Harriet withholds this incident from David.
At this point, all of the children have formed alternative families for themselves. Harriet and David, who had dreamed of a perfect nuclear family, have lost their hold on this reality entirely. David has slowly transitioned to the absent father role he once refused to inhabit, hoping to provide Paul the therapeutic help he needs to make up for all that has gone wrong in their family. When Ben threatens Paul directly, Harriet remains (perhaps overly optimistically) convinced that Ben was only teasing Paul, not intending to hurt him. Harriet even comes close to empathizing with Ben at this point, wondering if perhaps his entire reality is framed in an inhuman way.
John tells the Lovatts that he and his friends are leaving for a job-training school in Manchester. Ben takes this news poorly, asking why he can’t go along with John. Harriet thanks John for all he’s done. Ben misses John and the gang immensely, and Harriet finds him at the café alone one afternoon, as if waiting for them to arrive. One afternoon, Ben races into the house and a policewoman shows up to make sure he wasn’t lost. The policewoman recommends Harriet not let him run around on his own like that for fear of being kidnapped, and Harriet says, “No such luck.” The policewoman departs, laughing.
Ben’s surrogate family breaks up and he finds himself equally as forlorn as Harriet was when Ben’s arrival disrupted their otherwise pleasant family life. Back in Harriet’s company, Harriet finds herself wishing Ben might be kidnapped, similarly to the way she used to wish he’d fallen out a window or been hit by a car. The appearance of the policewoman also foreshadows future concerns of Harriet’s having to do with Ben getting in trouble with the law.
Harriet recognizes that David has become what he vowed he would never be, focusing mostly on work and paying all their bills, except for the support James gave to Luke. Harriet, David and Paul leave to visit Helen and Luke, and Dorothy is left alone with Ben, whom she hasn’t seen in a year. David asks Harriet if she realizes Ben will be an adolescent soon—the idea of him being sexual scares David. After this weekend away, Dorothy asks Harriet if she thinks Ben asks himself why he is different and if there are more people like him in the world. They agree they don’t want to know what other kinds of people have lived in the history of the earth after having met Ben. Dorothy also notes that Ben is no longer a child despite the fact that they treat him like one.
Harriet and David strive to maintain some connection with the children who have left them behind, but even this gesture is disrupted by the fact that Harriet visits one child, while David and Paul visit another. The family is not able to be whole. David, Harriet and Dorothy’s concern that Ben is soon to be an adult shows the way they predict his violent behavior might map to sexuality. Dorothy and Harriet can’t help but wonder if the survival of a human of Ben’s kind is the product of a long line of such violence.
The two years before Ben goes to secondary school are not pleasant for him. He watches TV indiscriminately, but can’t seem to understand what he watches as a story. He tries to play games, but fails. He loves musicals, but can’t sing. When Paul taunts Ben, Harriet warns him not to do that. One afternoon, Harriet looks for Ben in the house and finds him staring out the skylight in the attic. He hears her and leaps to the shadows, and she feels her body go rigid with an animal fear.
Ben’s way of dealing with the loss of his surrogate family is to detach by watching television, but not in the same way other people detach. Ben doesn’t hold the details of the narratives in his mind or follow the logic of story. The visceral response evoked by musicals appeals to him, but he has no ear for tunes. Harriet’s discovery of an especially animal-like Ben in the attic confirms how much further he has withdrawn without anyone he identifies with.
Sensing that David deserves their charity, the family returns for a week in the summer holiday. Harriet resents that the family sees her as a scapegoat for all that’s gone wrong. She tells David that they’re being punished and David asks why they would be punished. “For presuming. For thinking we could be happy. Happy because we decided we would be,” she replies. David disagrees, saying, “It was chance. Anyone could have got Ben.” Harriet says they wanted to be better than everyone and David says they wanted only to be themselves. Molly and Frederick bring Helen, now an attractive, self-sufficient, if distant, sixteen-year-old. James brings Luke, now a reliable eighteen-year-old observer. Dorothy brings Jane, a non-academic fourteen-year-old. Paul, eleven, asks why he can’t go to boarding school like the others, and David says he’ll pay for just that.
Harriet believes that the family is visiting only for David’s benefit, not her own, which is further evidence of the way she sees the family blaming her for all that has gone wrong, though it’s not clear whether this is truly the way they feel. The conversation between Harriet and David is essential in showing the height of Harriet’s fatalism, believing they are being punished for pursuing further happiness when they were already content. David’s belief that their circumstances are due to pure luck and that they have no responsibility in the outcome of Ben’s upbringing is extreme in the other direction. Indeed, some balance of these two points of view must be the truth, but the difference in their points of view show how far Harriet and David have drifted apart. The personalities of the children on their visit home further show the importance of this balance of nature and nurture.
Molly tells David and Harriet they must sell the house. David publicly agrees with Harriet that it’s not time yet, but privately he says something different. Harriet explains that living in a small house with Ben seems impossible to imagine, but David can tell that Harriet is still holding out hope that the family will come back together.
David and Harriet’s differences of opinion are further intensified in the revelation that David is being honest with members of his family, while keeping his true opinions from Harriet, an echo of the way they arrived at the decision of where to institutionalize Ben. David’s actions show both pity and frustration for the way Harriet remains tied to the idea of possibly reuniting the family.
In 1986, when Ben turns eleven, he goes on to secondary school. Harriet checks Ben for bruises to see if he’s been fighting and waits for a letter or call saying he’s behaving badly, but instead, Ben comes home with a friend, a fifteen-year-old named Derek who reminds Harriet very much of John. She wonders why Derek puts up with Ben, who is so much younger, but she notices that Ben seems like the older of the two. Soon, other friends join the group: Billy, Elvis, and Vic. Harriet continues to wonder why these boys like Ben so much, observing that Ben seems to dominate them. She assumes the boys are a group of outcasts, unable to match up to their contemporaries, until she hears that “Ben Lovatt’s gang” is the most envied in the school.
Harriet’s assumptions that Ben will get in trouble and have trouble making friends are again proven wrong, casting further doubt on Harriet’s ability to judge Ben accurately. Still unable to properly connect with his biological family, Ben begins to form another surrogate family for himself that more closely mirrors the gang of John’s friends who embraced him earlier in his childhood. Not only is Ben able to make friends, his company is coveted by many in the school, a fact that Harriet continues to be confused by, so unable is she to appreciate Ben for his good qualities.
Harriet watches Ben and imagines him as a caveman or mole person, living underground, surrounded by others like him. The group of boys lounge about, eating everything in her fridge and watching anything that comes on TV. The more violent evening shows appeal to them most, eliciting excited reactions. Harriet connects the newspaper stories of “muggings, hold-ups, break-ins” and even rapes in the area to the fact that sometimes the boys are gone for days at a time and they’re reluctant to say where they’ve been. They always seem to have plenty of money. Harriet examines the boys, trying to match them to the reports she’s read, and she feels afraid of them, wondering which of them is smart enough to plan all these crimes.
Harriet’s continued insistence that Ben is some other species of human grows and shifts as she sees the way he interacts with others “of his kind,” though she still calls out ben as being essentially different from his friends in some way. Her assumption that Ben is causing trouble also grows, as she connects the progressing trouble in the area to the behavior she fears the boys capable of showing, including her earlier fears around Ben’s imminent sexuality. Though Harriet has noted that Ben is the dominant leader of the group, she still sees him as being unintelligent enough to plan crimes like the ones she sees reported on the television, further evidence that she continues to underestimate him.
Harriet realizes that the gang is sleeping in the house, too, and she tells them that’s not allowed. The boys don’t seem to take her seriously, joking that one day they’ll take the house over themselves. Harriet notes this as one of their “revolutionary” remarks. The boys take David more seriously when he commands them to clean up their messes and go home, but Ben leaves with the others. When they are alone, David tells Harriet it’s time to sell the house. Harriet says she wants to keep it for the children and David exclaims, “We have no children, Harriet. Or, rather, I have no children. You have one child.” Harriet tells David that she senses Ben will leave with the others soon, and never return. David asks Harriet if she will be able to stop herself from going out and bringing him back, but they let the conversation end there.
Harriet refuses to let Ben’s non-traditional overwhelm their biological family, forbidding them to fill the rooms in the way their guests used to. Again, she resents the fact that the boys fail to listen to her, but they respond to David’s requests, echoing the way she has not been taken seriously for much of the book. Harriet continues to hold out hope that her family might be reunited, but David disavows not only Ben, but also the other children at this point, acknowledging that they’ve lost their hold on family life entirely. When Harriet expresses regret that she will lose even Ben if they move away from this house, David doubts her ability to let him go, harkening back to the way she rescued Ben from the institution instead of letting him go all those years ago.
That night, David and Harriet lock the door, so Ben will have to ring the bell if he wants to come in. Harriet suggests buying a more sensible house elsewhere, but David has already drifted off. Ben and the others disappear for a few days and Harriet sees them on television at a riot in London. Harriet hears news that a small shop nearby has been broken into, four hundred pounds stolen, and the employees beaten and bound. The gang of young men return home that night, excited, pulling wads of money from their pockets. Harriet tells them she saw them on the TV and they confirm, and then she tells them the house will be sold soon. Ben barely reacts to this, and Harriet wonders if the house no longer feels like his true home.
Harriet and David attempt to remove Ben from family life, but he doesn’t return home as they assumed he might, so Harriet isn’t forced to exercise her will. A riot in London confirms her suspicions that they have been the ones committing the crimes in their area, though this logic isn’t airtight. When Harriet tells the groups of boys that the house will not be an option as their hideout for much longer, Ben shows no reaction, further evidencing that he anticipates moving on with his nontraditional family rather than remaining with his biological one.
Harriet gives Ben information on where she can be reached if he can’t find her. Ben takes the sheet of paper, marked with Molly and Frederick’s address, but Harriet finds the note discarded on the floor and she doesn’t try to tell him again. In spring and summer, the gang passes through the house infrequently. Harriet automatically assumes any crimes can be attributed to this group of boys, but she recognizes this is unreasonable. Harriet wishes them gone and finds herself ready to sell the house. She cleans up after them when they visit and registers them now as an “alienated, non-comprehending, hostile tribe.” Harriet regards their dining room table lovingly, remembering all that has happened around it. She regards her reflection in the polished surface of the table and sees that she’s become old and drained.
Harriet, despite her claims otherwise, tries to ensure that she and Ben might remain in contact by sharing her information with him. The fact that this hope is completely one-sided is established when she finds the note cast aside. The way in which Harriet wishes the boys gone but continues to clean up after them mirrors the way in which she often protected Ben while also wishing him dead in his childhood. The once-pristine dining room table now shows the signs of wear the years have caused, including her own weariness which she sees reflected in its surface.
Harriet shifts her gaze to Ben, who is apart from the others, observing them. She compares him to the other boys and sees Ben as “a mature being. Finished. Complete,” of a “race that reached its apex thousands and thousands of years before humanity.” She wonders if his people had raped women and left genes in the “human matrix” to show up again at a later time as Ben’s have. Harriet lets all the questions she has about him wander through her head, wondering what it is Ben knows. Does he realize that because she brought him home, all the other children left?
Again, Harriet registers Ben as being of a different kind than the other boys in his group, continuing her refusal to recognize him as a human who might be sympathized with rather than ostracized. Harriet maps her own sense of guilt about having forced the other children away so that she might bring Ben back into the fold onto Ben, wondering if he himself feels responsible, while still refusing to acknowledge her own complicity in these events.
Harriet wonders what will happen to Ben now, and imagines him in abandoned buildings analogous to caves. She imagines him as a police suspect, but then transitions to questioning why it is that people have so adamantly refused to recognize Ben for what he was. She envisions an anthropologist being the one who sees Ben and she decides he must examine him to figure out why he is the way he is, taking him apart piece by piece. She knows that this is unlikely, though, and that he will either be caught by the police or succeed in evading them. Harriet imagines the boys going off one final time and waiting for them to return. She sees herself living in a new house “(alone) with David,” watching TV and seeing Ben standing apart from the crowd, with “goblin eyes,” “searching the faces in the crowd for another of his own kind.”
To the last, Harriet remains convinced that someone might be able to identify what it is that makes Ben different, shifting her focus to the thought that all this time she’s been asking doctors when perhaps an anthropologist is the one who might to figure out the truth, though aware that such a close study of his being would also surely mean his demise. She can just as easily imagine Ben and his cohort being caught by or eluding the police, but she flashes back to seeing him at the London riots on the TV, and imagines the distanced look in his eyes as a search for people of his own kind, still convinced that Ben has not found anyone with whom he might identify, despite evidence to the contrary.