A ladder to the sky, p.13
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.13
 

           John Boyne

  Gore reached over and took Dash’s hand in a gesture of friendship, squeezing it tightly.

  ‘And what happens next?’ he asked. ‘When you leave today, I mean?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ said Dash. ‘He’s going back to London, he’s already working on his next novel. I offered to accompany him but he said he’d prefer if I didn’t. He told me he’d catch up with me the next time he was in New York. Catch up with me! I suppose I’ll just go home and wait for him. There’s nothing else I can do.’

  ‘Will you start work on a new book?’

  ‘I’ll try. It’s hard to imagine being able to focus on a novel when I feel so overwhelmed by desire.’

  ‘You know he won’t come, though, don’t you?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘You know that when he says goodbye today, it will most likely be for ever?’

  ‘I know.’

  He sighed and watched as a bird landed on one of the flowers, investigating its stamen for a few moments before looking up, its beak quivering slightly.

  Movement on the terrace caught Gore’s eye. Two men, walking towards the breakfast table.

  ‘They’re up,’ said Gore. ‘Should we go back?’

  ‘I suppose so.’

  They rose and started to walk towards the villa.

  ‘Did you ever wish you had a wife?’ asked Dash. ‘Did you ever wish that you could just have lived a normal life instead of suffering the endless pain that men like us undergo, falling for beautiful boys who will never stay with us, no matter what we do for them?’

  ‘No,’ said Gore, shaking his head. ‘No, I’ve never wished that for a moment. The very idea seems hellish to me.’

  Ahead, Maurice was leaning over the railing, watching them approach, and, Gore thought, enjoying how Howard was staring at him from behind. He was shirtless, his muscles glistening in the sunlight, the definition of his abdomen startling and his hair, still wet from the shower, brushed away from his forehead.

  ‘That line from Villette,’ said Dash quietly. ‘How does it go? Where is the use of caring for him so very much? He is full of faults.’

  ‘Funny,’ said Gore, laughing a little. ‘I was thinking about Wuthering Heights earlier, just before we met. You know you’ve gone off the deep end when you start obsessing about the Brontës.’

  The bedroom door was ajar and he pushed it open wordlessly, watching as the boy lifted the shirt he’d worn the night before from a chair and folded it carefully before placing it in his suitcase.

  ‘Gore,’ said Maurice, looking up and smiling. ‘How long have you been standing there?’

  ‘Not long,’ replied Gore, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. ‘You don’t mind if I come in, do you?’ he added, his tone making it clear that he didn’t much care whether the boy minded or not.

  ‘Not at all. I was just finishing packing.’

  ‘You slept well?’ he asked, sitting down heavily in a wicker armchair by the window and crossing his legs.

  ‘Very well, thank you.’

  ‘Greta Garbo slept in that bed once, back when we lived in Rome,’ said Gore, glancing around the room as if he were checking the inventory. The paintings were still hanging on the walls. The objets d’art seemed to be still in place. ‘So did Bettino Craxi. Nelson Rockefeller. Princess Margaret. Here in Ravello, it’s played host to Paul Simon, Edmund White. Paul and Joanne. The list goes on. It makes one wonder, doesn’t it?’

  ‘Makes one wonder what?’ asked Maurice.

  ‘How you,’ said Gore, pointing a finger at the boy, ‘ended up sleeping in it. A Yorkshire lad, barely in his twenties, with not much to show for his life so far.’

  ‘Well, except a fairly successful novel.’

  ‘Yes, but I’m not sure that means very much any more.’

  Maurice rolled his eyes and Gore felt a stab of irritation. He was a giant and would not be dismissed by a boy who had barely started to shave. ‘You’re not going to tell me that literature is over, are you?’ Maurice said. ‘We’ve argued that point already.’

  ‘I wasn’t going to say anything of the sort,’ replied Gore, trying to control his annoyance. ‘You must remember that I published Williwaw when I was nineteen. And I was only your age when The City and the Pillar appeared, provoking a scandal. E. P. Dutton told me that I’d never be forgiven for it and for years the New York Times blacklisted me and wouldn’t review any of my books. I had to go to work in Hollywood to earn my living on account of their puritanism. And believe me, you don’t know what it’s like to roll around in the shit until you find yourself driving in and out of a studio gate every day.’

  ‘I have no interest in film,’ said Maurice carelessly. ‘I only want to write novels.’

  ‘So, no, literature is far from over,’ continued Gore, ignoring the interruption. ‘What you’re doing to Dash, you know. It’s deeply unkind.’

  ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

  ‘Of course you do. Don’t play the fool.’

  ‘And have you always been kind, Gore? Because from what I’ve read about you, I suspect that you’ve hurt many people along the way.’

  ‘That’s probably true. But I don’t believe I’ve ever deliberately set out to ruin a man. No, I don’t believe I’ve ever done that.’

  Maurice said nothing, but returned to his packing.

  ‘But you haven’t answered my question,’ said Gore.

  ‘What question was that?’

  ‘How a young man like you ended up sleeping in a bed like that.’

  ‘Howard told me to use it. He said it was more comfortable than the one he was giving Dash.’

  Gore smiled. ‘Some might say that your mentor should have been assigned the better room.’

  Maurice frowned. ‘I’m not sure I’d describe Dash as my mentor.’

  ‘No? How would you describe him then?’

  ‘I told you last night. A friend. Someone I admire. He’s a good writer, is Dash.’

  ‘He’s a good writer, is Dash,’ repeated Gore, mimicking the sudden appearance of the boy’s accent. ‘Be careful, Maurice. Your roots are showing.’

  ‘Yes, and that’s all he’ll ever be. Let’s not pretend he’s Proust.’

  ‘No, he’s not Proust,’ admitted Gore. ‘But he’s shown a generosity of spirit towards you for which you should feel grateful.’

  ‘And I do,’ said Maurice. ‘Have I done something to make you think otherwise?’

  ‘The way you look at him. The contempt with which you treat him. How you keep him dangling on a string, desperate for some affectionate word from you. I assume you’re finished with him now and are ready to move on to pastures new?’

  Maurice shrugged. ‘I think so,’ he said. ‘My life has become rather busy of late. And Dash can be … How shall I put this? Very needy. It becomes exhausting after a while.’

  ‘I can only imagine. I have to hand it to you: you know what you want out of life and you’re determined to get it. Perhaps I wasn’t so very different to you when I was your age. Although I was better-looking, of course.’

  Maurice smiled. ‘I’ve seen the pictures,’ he said. ‘And yes, you were.’

  ‘So, is this it?’ asked Gore. ‘Being a writer. This is all you’ve ever wanted? There’s nothing else?’ Maurice hesitated, and Gore noticed him biting his lip. Was there a weakness in there somewhere, a chink in the boy’s armour? ‘There is something, isn’t there?’ he said. ‘There’s something more that you want? I took you for utterly single-minded, but no. Tell me, I’m intrigued.’

  ‘You’ll laugh,’ said Maurice.

  ‘I won’t.’

  ‘It will seem ridiculous.’

  ‘Probably. But everything seems ridiculous to me these days.’

  ‘I’d like a child,’ said Maurice.

  ‘A child?’

  ‘Yes, a child.’

  Gore sat back in his chair, his eyes opening wide. ‘A child?’ he repeated.

  ‘God, is it so unusual?


  Gore stared at the boy, uncertain what to make of this declaration. ‘I thought I could see right through you,’ he said finally. ‘But I must admit I hadn’t expected that. What on earth do you want a child for? What good is a squealing infant to anyone? They demand instant attention. A puppy, I could understand. But a child? Really?’

  Maurice shook his head and smiled. ‘You wouldn’t understand,’ he said. ‘You’ve obviously never wanted one.’

  ‘I don’t even like passing them in the street. Children are banned here at La Rondinaia.’

  ‘Well, there you are. You met me for the first time twenty-four hours ago, Gore. Don’t presume to understand me. You don’t.’

  ‘All right. But you know what they say in Italy, yes? Quando dio vuole castigarci, ci manda quello che desideriamo.’

  ‘Which means?’

  ‘When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.’

  A long silence ensued, one that neither man seemed keen to break. Gore could scarcely remember any of his writer colleagues over the years talking about children. Not even the women. Especially not the women.

  ‘Well,’ he said finally, unwilling to leave the room while he was still one game down. ‘You know, I stayed up late last night.’

  ‘Oh yes?’

  ‘Yes, I decided to read your novel.’

  Maurice sat down on the bed now and ran a hand across his chin, looking a little apprehensive. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘And what did you think of it?’

  Gore glanced up towards the ceiling for a few moments as he considered his answer. ‘You write well,’ he said. ‘You’re very good on place. The dialogue rings true, even though it must have been difficult for you to recreate it from such a distance of time and geography. I struggled with that too on Burr and Lincoln, but you work through it successfully. Perhaps you’re a little too fond of alliteration and you’ve clearly never met a noun that you didn’t think would look better all dressed up in an adjective. But there’s a strong erotic element to the book that works very well. The moment where Erich and his friend go to the lake and Oskar strips off, it’s rather arousing on a purely physical level.’

  ‘I wanted to write Oskar Gött as shameless about these things.’

  ‘I didn’t read him as shameless so much as proud. But also a little naïve. It wouldn’t have crossed his mind that Erich wanted to touch him. I liked when they both woke up on the bank afterwards, tumescent, and were uncertain how to explore the moment. Yes, it’s a good book, I really can’t offer any major criticisms. I’m not surprised it’s doing so well for you.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Maurice, looking relieved. ‘It means a lot to hear you say that.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘I’m sorry?’

  ‘Why does it mean a lot?’

  Maurice shrugged, as if the answer was so obvious it was hardly worth pointing out. ‘Well, because you’re you, of course. And I’m only me.’

  ‘And what does it mean for me to be me and for you to be you? What is it that you think separates us, other than forty years?’

  ‘You’re a significant figure in twentieth-century literature. You’ll be remembered.’

  ‘Will I?’

  ‘Yes, I think so. I’m certain of it.’

  Gore smiled. ‘Dash said something similar to me earlier,’ he said. ‘Although to be honest, I couldn’t give a fuck whether I am or not.’

  Maurice smiled too and shook his head. His teeth were gleaming white. ‘I don’t believe that for a moment,’ he said.

  ‘Sic transit gloria mundi,’ said Gore.

  ‘All glory is fleeting. Erich used the same line with me once. When we were in Rome.’

  Gore’s smile faded a little now. He hadn’t expected the boy to know what the words meant. Nor did he enjoy repeating the lines of others. He needed to be first, always first.

  ‘Last night,’ he said.

  ‘What of it?’

  ‘It must have been three or four o’clock. I’d finished reading and switched my light off. And then the strangest thing happened.’

  Maurice looked at him, his expression controlled. ‘And what was that?’ he asked.

  ‘Very quietly, the door to my bedroom opened and a figure stepped inside, dressed only in a red bathrobe. He closed the door behind him and walked across to the window before turning around and looking down on me. I opened my eyes and wondered whether I was lost in the midst of a dream. I’ve had such dreams in the past, you know. Of boys I’ve known, boys I’ve never known and boys I’ve wanted to know. Anyway, the moonlight was entering the room in such a way that the figure was only half illuminated but when he removed his robe, letting it fall to the floor, he was naked underneath, his body a work of art. Michelangelo might have sculpted it and failed to capture its beauty. The fierce definition of the pectoral muscles. The stomach so lean. The impressive member that lay between the boy’s legs, apparently ready to offer pleasure if given a signal of consent.’

  ‘And what did you do?’ asked Maurice.

  ‘I turned over,’ said Gore. ‘Not to invite the figure into my bed, you understand. But to make it clear that I had no interest in him.’

  ‘Perhaps you’ll live to regret saying no,’ said Maurice, standing up and gathering the remainder of his belongings, not bothering to fold them now, simply tossing them carelessly into his case. ‘One day it might feel like a lost opportunity.’

  ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ admitted Gore. ‘I’m not made of stone, so I considered it. But I resisted because I’m not a fool. I feel rather pleased with myself this morning that I said no. Something tells me that, had I lifted the covers and invited the figure in, my life would have taken an unhappy turn afterwards.’

  ‘Maybe you ate some rotten cheese before you went to bed,’ said Maurice.

  ‘We didn’t have any cheese.’

  ‘Then perhaps you’re just losing your mind.’

  ‘Oh, I’ve been doing that for years. But not long enough not to recognize when I’m being played.’

  ‘You think I’ve been playing you?’

  ‘I think you came here hoping to. And have been disappointed to find that I’m not such an easy mark. Erich Ackermann was one thing, a pussycat I imagine. And Dash, what is he? A tomcat. Slinking around the neighbourhood, hoping for a little night-luck. But I’m a different beast entirely, aren’t I? I’m a lion. I belong in the jungle. And so, I suspect, do you. This is why things could never work between us.’

  Maurice said nothing but walked to the window and stared out at the view. The sea was calm but, from somewhere beneath the cliffs, the playful sounds of young swimmers could be heard. When he turned around again, his face was cold.

  ‘You’re probably just having sex dreams because you’re not getting any,’ he said. ‘It’s not as if anyone in their right mind would want to fuck Howard, after all.’

  ‘My dear boy, that’s not how things are between us,’ said Gore, momentarily thrown off guard. ‘Don’t imagine you understand what goes on between Howard and me because you don’t. What exists between us runs far deeper than sex.’

  ‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Maurice. ‘I mean, the image of two fat old men writhing around on top of each other, tugging at each other’s limp old cocks, would rather make me want to throw up.’

  ‘Dash might be a fool,’ said Gore, rising from his chair now and making his way towards the door, shocked to realize that he was more susceptible to insults than he had imagined. Better men than Maurice had abused him over the decades and he’d never given a tuppenny damn before. ‘And Ackermann might have been a fool too, for all I know. But I’m not. So do me the courtesy of remembering that when you reconstruct the events of last night in whatever medium you choose, portraying yourself as the innocent victim of an old man’s lecherous advances.’

  Maurice said nothing, simply stared at him as if he’d grown tired of this entire conversation.

  ‘I’ve known a lot of whores in my life,’ added Gore, ru
nning his hand along the red bathrobe that hung on the bedroom door before stepping outside into the corridor. ‘Both men and women. And in general, I’ve always found them to be good company, with a highly evolved sense of honour. A whore will never cheat you, they have too much integrity for that. But you, Mr Swift, you give the profession a bad name.’ He shuddered as he glanced around the room, unwilling to look the boy in the eye for fear of what he might see there, disinterest being the worst horror. ‘I’ll be out on the terrace in a few minutes to wave you both off. I’m looking forward to saying goodbye.’

  ‘So?’ asked Howard when they were alone later, sipping cocktails on the terrace, enjoying the eternally rewarding view of the sea. The sailboat and the boys were back – none of them had drowned after all – and this time they had brought some girls with them. They were screaming in delight and desire as they dived from the deck into the water and scrambled up the ladder to do it all over again, pulling up their ill-fitting trunks as they went, a glimpse of white backside occasionally visible against their tanned skin. ‘What did you make of him? Handsome, yes?’

  ‘Oh yes,’ agreed Gore.

  ‘And Dash is crazy about him.’

  ‘Besotted.’

  ‘Do you think he’ll make it?’

  ‘As a writer?’ He thought about it and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to imagine a literary world of the future, one that he would no longer be a part of. ‘I don’t doubt it for a moment,’ he said. ‘The boy will be an extraordinary success.’

  ‘Good for him,’ said Howard.

  ‘One thing,’ said Gore. ‘The bed in the guest room. The one that Maurice slept in last night. We’ve had it for so many years. I think it might be time we got rid of it, don’t you? Invested in something new?’

  PART II

  THE TRIBESMAN

  ‘When a thing has been said and said well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it.’

  – Anatole France

 
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