A ladder to the sky, p.10
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.10
 

           John Boyne

  Soon, life returned to normal and the media found someone else to persecute. I had saved my money well over the years and, coupled with the royalties I had made from the sales of Dread, not to mention the financial compensation that had come with The Prize, I knew that I could survive comfortably for the rest of my life, which, I guessed, would only be a year or two longer at most. I could feel it slipping away from me already. My spirit was gone. I would write no more. And without writing, without teaching, there was really nothing left for me.

  And then, one evening, the wall came down.

  It was November 1989 and I was at home when the reports began to filter through over the radio that the German Democratic Republic had finally reopened its borders after more than forty years of closure. Within the hour the streets below my apartment window were filled with people and I had a perfect view of the crowds as they marched along, calling up to the guards standing on the watch-towers. I watched with a mixture of dread and excitement and then, just as I was about to turn away and retire to bed, I noticed a young boy of about sixteen, beautiful and dark-haired, filled with the exhilaration of youth, rising up unsteadily on the shoulders of his friends, his hands reaching out to grip the top of the wall as he pulled himself up to stand on it, his arms raised in the air in triumph now as the people cheered him on. A moment later he turned around for his first view of the East and someone there must have caught his eye for he reached down in turn, holding out his hand to help a boy from the other side, the same age as him, who had also scaled the wall in an attempt to reach the summit.

  I watched closely, my face pressed against the window, waiting for their fingers to touch.

  Interlude

  The Swallow’s Nest

  Howard had gone into the village to buy peaches and Gore sat alone on the crescent terrace overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea wearing linen trousers, a white, open-necked shirt and a pair of scarlet slippers crafted for him by Gianni Versace and handed over with great ceremony when the designer had come to stay a few months earlier. There was something faintly papal about the footwear that appealed to Gore’s dual passions: history and power. He had only ever met two popes – Montini and Wojtyła – and they’d both appeared overwhelmed by a sense of their own destinies, although his grandfather had once told an amusing story about an evening he’d spent in the company of Pacelli, which had turned sour only when the burdensome subjects of Judaism and the Reich had been raised.

  On the table before him was a cappuccino, a pair of binoculars, a Fabriano notebook, a Caran d’Ache pen, the galleys of his new novel and two books. The first was the latest work by Dash Hardy, which he’d read a few weeks earlier and despised for its insipid prose and the author’s reluctance to describe basic anatomy. The second had been sent to him a month earlier but he hadn’t got around to it yet. He supposed that he should at least have given it a cursory glance since its author, a young man whose features were not offensive to the eye, was due to arrive later that morning with Dash to spend the night at La Rondinaia.

  But it was impossible to keep up with the multitude of books that arrived, unsolicited, day after day, week after week, month after month, an endless haul that had caused Ampelio, their mail carrier of many years, to write an outraged letter of complaint, citing back injuries from scaling the steps with so many packages. Fortunately, Ampelio had recently relocated north along the Amalfi Coast towards Salerno and been replaced by a lithe, brown-legged nineteen-year-old aptly named Egidio – young goat – whose hare-lip offered him an erotic appeal that otherwise would have left his face beautiful but unremarkable. Egidio, who revelled in the athleticism of his youth, fairly bounded up and down those brutal steps with what could only be described as gay abandon and no further complaints had been issued, but as much as Gore welcomed the boy’s daily appearances and cheerful greetings, he wished that the parcels would become a little less numerous. Over the last couple of years, he’d transported most of his own books, the ones he actually wanted to surround himself with, from Rome but they took up so much space in the villa that he sometimes felt a little claustrophobic, although Howard, peaceful Howard, never complained. Would there be no end to publishing? he wondered. Perhaps it would be a good idea if everyone just stopped writing for a couple of years and allowed readers to catch up.

  Gore had known Dash for decades and although he liked him well enough he knew that he was essentially a hack with a modicum of talent who’d managed to sustain a career by taking care never to offend the middle-aged ladies and closeted homosexuals who made up the bulk of his readership. His books were efficiently written but so painfully innocuous that even President Reagan had taken one on holiday to California with him towards the end of his bewildering reign and declared it to be a masterful depiction of American steelworkers, unaware that the steelworkers in question were laying their pipes with each other in the gaps between the lines. Gore liked to think that Nancy – who had been such fun in the old days, before she sold her soul to the Republicans – knew what was really going on there but had declined to tell her beloved Ronnie for fear of destroying his innocence.

  The two writers had first met at a queer club in the West Village in the 1950s. Gore had already published a few novels, pirouetting across the scandal caused by The City and the Pillar with the grace of a young Margot Fonteyn, and his reputation was more firmly established than those of most men of his age. He trotted around parties hand in hand with Kennedys, Astors and Rockefellers, with Tennessee and Jimmy Dean, and invariably left some remark in his wake for the guests to gossip over the following morning. It wasn’t uncommon for a boy to approach him at one of these gatherings, offering his cock or his ass in exchange for an entrée into the world of the privileged, but Gore preferred not to indulge in such base transactions. We can fuck, if you want, he would tell them if they were cute enough, but don’t expect anything more from me than an orgasm. Not that he liked fucking, or being fucked. He’d tried it a few times but it wasn’t really for him. He was a man of much simpler tastes. A hand-job was pleasure enough. A little frottage, perhaps. And as much as he admired the Roman emperors he’d never been interested in emulating any of their more lurid escapades.

  On this particular evening, however, he’d noticed the young man staring at him from across the room but, as he resembled nothing more than the love-child of Charles Laughton and Margaret Rutherford, he’d done nothing to encourage his interest. Gore had been sitting with Elizabeth and Monty, but they’d left early when he said something that made poor Monty cry, and he’d been thinking of going home alone when the young man – Dash – came over and sat down at his table with a sailor, introducing himself as the author of a debut novel due to be published that fall.

  ‘How thrilling for you,’ he’d muttered, scarcely taking the writer in but enjoying his view of the sailor, who looked at him with the type of smile that made it clear he had only to say the word and they could run the Jolly Roger up the flagpole together. ‘But don’t tell me anything about it, dear boy. Otherwise it will spoil the joy of reading it.’

  Dash had looked crestfallen. He’d clearly wanted to recite the entire story from beginning to end and for Gore to tell him how wonderful it sounded. The sailor, perhaps having already spent too long as an uninterested audience, stood up and walked towards the bar to buy three banana daiquiris and, while he was gone, Dash told Gore how much he respected his work, offering him a blow job in gratitude in the men’s room, a proposal that Gore politely declined. It wasn’t just that he was saving himself for the sailor later, there was also the fact that the image of this boy on his knees, his fat lips wrapped around his cock, was repulsive to him.

  ‘But you’re very kind to offer,’ he added, not wishing to appear rude.

  ‘Oh, it’s my pleasure,’ said Dash. ‘I’d do the same for anyone.’

  ‘And how do you know … what’s his name, anyway? Anchors Aweigh over there.’

  ‘Gene,’ replied Dash, glancing towards the bar, where the boy was
busy fending off the advances of a much older man who seemed keen to squeeze his buttocks. The sailor’s Dixie Cup was cocked to the side of his head in a coquettish fashion, revealing neat blond curls that reminded Gore of the boy he’d loved in St Albans before the war.

  ‘Gene,’ he repeated quietly. ‘Like Gene Kelly. Appropriate, I suppose. Although my own father was also named Gene and he bowed to no man in his admiration for the cunt.’

  ‘Have you ever visited?’

  ‘Certainly not,’ said Gore with a shudder. ‘And you?’

  ‘Once,’ admitted Dash. ‘My mother wanted me to marry one Clara Day-Whitley, a debutante from Maryland, and in a moment of weakness, fearing for my inheritance, I agreed to do so. Only Clara insisted that we do the vile deed before she made her mind up as, in her words, she didn’t want to be stuck with Floppy Joe for the rest of her life. In retrospect, I think she was a nymphomaniac. She couldn’t keep her hands off me. Anyway, I agreed to her terms and we went to bed together one Saturday afternoon while her parents were at a meeting of the Rotary Club. I’m not a bad actor but it didn’t take long for her to realize that she was being sold a bill of goods.’

  ‘Your mother must have been devastated.’

  ‘She was.’

  ‘Did you tell her the truth subsequently?’

  ‘Oh no, I couldn’t do that. It would have brought on one of her hearts. She’s still keeping an eye out for a suitable wife for me but I’m hopeful there’ll be no further developments on that score.’

  ‘And your novel?’ asked Gore. ‘Is it a romance?’

  ‘Of sorts. A young man meets a girl who—’

  ‘Yes, yes. I daresay you’ll send me a copy. I promise I’ll read it.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Of course. I’m moist with anticipation,’ he added, writing his address on the back of a napkin and passing it across. He suspected that Dash would frame it and keep it for ever although on this point he was wrong for when Dash returned home that night – alone, for Gore had indeed left with the sailor and Dash had been happy to give the boy up to him – he copied it into his address book, before crumpling the napkin up and throwing it in the wastepaper basket like a normal human being.

  When the novel arrived a few weeks later, Gore had been true to his word and, to his surprise, had rather admired it, writing to Dash to tell him so. From an unpromising beginning, a friendship of sorts had developed and they saw each other whenever they were in the same city or travelling nearby. For many years, Gore had dutifully read each of his books as they were published and, although he felt that Dash had diminished as a writer, he found that he liked him more as a person. Perhaps that was the generosity of age, he reasoned. Dash could be a fool, at times, but he was never disagreeable. He didn’t have the tendency towards spite or envy that Gore had, although he’d been hurt many times over the years, always by young men who’d used him for his connections before disposing of him like yesterday’s newspapers. Dash had no Howard, he’d never had a Howard, and his life would have been improved immeasurably by one. But then, as Gore knew, Dash didn’t want a Howard and wouldn’t have accepted one. He wanted, for want of a better word, a Howie. A kid just out of college with a pretty face, tight abs and ass cheeks that could crack a walnut. Well, he’d liked that sort of thing himself once upon a time and still did, occasionally, when the boys from the nearby villages came up to the Swallow’s Nest for parties, but in truth he’d grown less and less interested in carnal pleasures with the passing of the years. Sure, if it was there for the taking and there were no complications attached, then why not? But not if he had to put any particular effort into the seduction.

  The sound of voices distracted him and he noticed a small sailboat in the distance and three – no, four; there was one in the ocean – boys diving from the deck into the dark blue water. They were young, no more than fifteen, with brown bodies and energy to burn. He reached for his binoculars and put them to his eyes, watching as each one dived, swam and returned to the boat to ascend the ladder and start all over again. He recognized one of them as Alessandro, defender of mankind, the son of the woman who came twice weekly to clean La Rondinaia, and thought the second was Dante, a boy who helped out at his father’s art gallery on weekends. Gore rather liked Dante. He’d once observed him fucking his girlfriend behind the church of Santa Trofimena, his buttocks moving back and forth with a machine-like efficiency as he pressed her against the wall; he’d yelped like a startled dog when he came. The other boys he didn’t know and they weren’t much to look at so he put the binoculars down again and finished his coffee.

  They would be here soon, he knew, glancing at his watch. A part of him was looking forward to seeing his old friend again and discovering whether his latest acquisition was as handsome in the flesh as he appeared in his author photograph. The other part wished that this had all taken place the week before and was now a fading memory. The truth was, he would have preferred to spend the day reading and writing, with the promise of a few cocktails on the terrace with Howard later to sustain him through the sunshine. Easy conversation. No need to be on. But Dash had written to say they’d be passing through the Amalfi and hoped that it wouldn’t be too much trouble if they spent the night, and Gore, who’d been in an uncommonly good mood that morning as he’d had an amusing conversation with a shirtless Egidio, had replied to say that of course they must stay, that he’d be offended if they didn’t, and Dash had subsequently sent a telegram, which was quaint, to say: THERE ON 11TH STOP CANT WAIT STOP LOVE TO HOWARD STOP

  Perhaps an hour later, having worked his way through a few dozen pages of his galleys, he watched as a car began to ascend the hill and let out a deep sigh. He had ten more minutes before they would reach the top, when they would inevitably ring the doorbell and Cassiopeia would call down to say that his guests had arrived.

  He looked out into the sea again, reaching for his binoculars, but while the sailboat was still in situ there was no sign of the young swimmers. Perhaps they’d all drowned, he thought, realizing that he didn’t care very much if they had. The bodies would wash up on to the rocks eventually, after all, and their mothers would have the time of their lives screaming through the streets, pulling their hair out and ripping their clothes as they grieved publicly for their lost heroes.

  As it turned out, the boy was even better-looking in person than he was in his author photograph, but there was something about his character that made Gore immediately suspicious. He’d been beautiful himself once, of course, and knew the power that handsome boys could wield over ageing homosexuals, men who longed not only for the feel of their young skin but for the delusional sensation that they too remained objets du désir, despite wrinkled faces, varicose veins and hair that sprouted from ears and nose. There were boys in the village who flattered both Gore and Howard with their attentions when they discovered them sitting alone at local cafés, scanning the pages of a two-day-old New York Times, and he indulged them occasionally, enjoying their smiles, their white teeth and the way they reached under their T-shirts to scratch their flat stomachs, revealing a treasure trail of dark hairs that ran from navel to groin. He never paid for a boy, he hadn’t done so in years, but when he was going he would always leave a tip for the waiter and another for the youth, who would sweep the money up quickly in his brown hands and say, Grazie, grande uomo, before scampering back to his friends to say that fifteen minutes of conversation with the famous writer from La Rondinaia could earn you enough lire to take a girl to the movies that night and buy her a gelato e espresso afterwards.

  From the moment he arrived on the terrace, it was obvious to Gore that the young man had put a lot of work into his appearance from the simple fact that he looked as if he’d just fallen out of bed. His dark hair was neatly cut, hanging low enough over his forehead that he was forced to brush it back time and again with his fingers. He wore an expensive white shirt, carefully crumpled, and a pair of navy shorts that reached just below the knee, revealing strong calves a
nd pleasingly hirsute legs. A pair of espadrilles and the type of sunglasses that Marcello Mastroianni had worn in La Dolce Vita completed the look while a light breeze carried an appealing scent in Gore’s direction, a mixture of cheap soap, shampoo, bedsheets and boyish sweat.

  Dash, poor defenceless Dash, was obviously besotted, placing metaphorical palm leaves before the boy’s feet as he wandered around the terrace, taking in the view. But where Jesus had approached Jerusalem weeping aloud for the suffering that awaited the city upon the destruction of the Second Temple, Gore lamented quietly, his heart grieving for the pain that this young man would inevitably cause his friend.

  ‘It’s stunning,’ said Maurice, lifting a hand to his forehead to keep the sun from his eyes as he looked across the water. ‘And these cliffs,’ he added, leaning over and peering forwards at the steep rock face. ‘To live surrounded by such beauty … I can scarcely imagine it.’

  ‘The Greeks,’ said Gore, walking over to join him and waving a hand in the direction of the stone, ‘believed that these cliffs housed the four winds maintained as familiars by Aeolus.’

  ‘Aeolus?’ asked Maurice, turning to his host, who was momentarily caught off guard by the boy’s blue eyes, which matched the colour of the water below. ‘Poseidon’s son?’

  ‘No, but that’s a common mistake,’ replied Gore, shaking his head. ‘Different Aeolus, perhaps not quite as well known. This Aeolus, my Aeolus, was the son of a mortal king, Hippotes. You’ve read The Odyssey?’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘Recall, then, the scene where Odysseus and his crew arrive on the island of Aeolia having fled the Grotto of Polyphemus. Aeolus delivers them a west wind to speed their journey back to Ithaca but, as they approach their homeland at last, the foolish sailors open the ox-hide bag that Aeolus has given them containing all the winds of the world save the west wind. They are blown back then to their benefactor, who determines that the gods are opposed to their return. I have some nice editions of Homer in my library upstairs. I’ll show you if you like.’

 
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