A ladder to the sky, p.14
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.14

           John Boyne

  1. September

  It was the early autumn of 2000 and we were marking our fifth wedding anniversary by going out to dinner. We’d only recently arrived in Norwich and were still unfamiliar with the city but you’d done a little research and reserved a table at a restaurant in Tombland that, you told me, had received a positive review in a local newspaper. You looked very handsome that night, I remember, wearing a dark blue jacket with a crisp white shirt underneath, the two top buttons open to reveal a glimpse of your chest. You’d spent the afternoon at the gym and your face had a glow that reminded me of why I’d always found you so irresistible.

  I had only been to East Anglia once, when I interviewed for the job, but you had been three times, first to give a talk to the creative-writing students at the university where I would now be working and, later, to take part in a couple of literary festivals.

  ‘Milk-fed calf’s intestines with the mother’s milk inside,’ you said, taking great delight in reading out a rather distasteful item from the menu.

  ‘They don’t go out of their way to make it sound appetizing, do they?’ I said.

  ‘Oh, I don’t know. Could be worth a try.’

  ‘I think I’ll have the sea bream,’ I said.


  A candle flickered on the table between us and, after we ordered our meals and the wine arrived, you unexpectedly mentioned that you loved me. I could see the flame reflecting in your iris and your eyes appeared so moist that, for a moment, I thought you were going to shed a tear. I’d only ever seen you cry once, after our fourth miscarriage, when we started to realize that things were never going to work out for us on that front.

  Of course, you wanted children very badly. You were clear about that from the start and it was something that made you extremely attractive to me. I did too, although perhaps not with the same intensity of feeling. I suppose I’d always assumed that I’d have them one day and so it had been simply a question of when, not if. Only when I began to understand that it was unlikely to happen did I begin to feel cheated. The miscarriages became increasingly traumatic to me then, four lives mercilessly evicted without warning from what my gynaecologist referred to as my inhospitable womb.

  ‘Are you excited about the job?’ you asked me after our main courses had been brought, devoured and taken away again and we’d decided to order another bottle of wine.

  ‘I’m a little nervous,’ I admitted.

  ‘Of what?’

  ‘Of the students. That they might consider me a fraud.’

  ‘Why on earth would you think that?’

  ‘Because I’ve only published one novel.’

  ‘Which is one more than all of them combined.’

  ‘I know, but still. It’s important to me that they don’t feel they’ve wasted their time and money, that if they’d only come a year or two earlier they would have been taught by someone with more experience.’

  ‘I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to have you. You’re famous, Edith, after all.’

  ‘I’m hardly famous,’ I said dismissively, although it was true, I was a little bit famous because my debut had been such an unexpected success, both critically and commercially. It had even been adapted for television. But I had never taught on a creative-writing course before, nor had I been a student on one, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to go about it. I’d only applied for the job because it had been three years since the publication of Fear and, even though I was making good progress on my second book, it wasn’t coming together quite as quickly as I’d hoped. I thought a stint in academia, where I would be involved in writing every day but not glued to my computer from morning till night, might help me. And you had been very positive about the idea, putting up no objections to our relocating from London for a year. We could sublet the flat, you said. With the rents in Norwich being cheaper, we might even make some money out of the deal.

  ‘They might be arrogant,’ I continued, returning to my concerns about the students. ‘Particularly the boys.’

  ‘Now you’re just being sexist.’

  ‘No, I’m being realistic. I’m only thirty-one. Chances are that some will be close in age to me. They might feel resentful.’

  ‘I think you’re worrying over nothing,’ you said, dismissing my anxieties with a wave of your hand. ‘You have to go in on day one with confidence, that’s all. Accept that you’ve achieved more than they have and that they’re there to learn from you. Ignore any condescension.’

  ‘Maybe you could take the class instead of me?’ I asked with a smile, knowing as the words emerged from my mouth that it had been the wrong thing to say, for you frowned as you took a long drink of your wine. When you returned the glass to the table, your lips held a faint purple stain that, for some reason, put me in mind of a priest I had known as a child whose lips always had the same tint. He used to come to my school to talk about the importance of keeping ourselves pure for our future husbands and had a particular obsession with a red-haired friend of mine who, he claimed, had the devil lurking inside her.

  ‘They wouldn’t want me,’ you said. ‘They want rising stars, not has-beens.’

  ‘They’d be lucky to have you,’ I said.

  You threw me a look, one that said Please don’t patronize me, and I changed the subject immediately. Christmas was still three months away but we discussed where we might spend the day, with your family or mine, settling on yours. And then we talked about my sister, Rebecca, who had recently gone through a messy divorce. There were two children involved, my nephews Damien and Edward, and this only complicated matters as Rebecca was behaving appallingly towards their father, Robert, making it difficult for him to see the boys and then complaining that he didn’t spend enough time with them. I’d always liked my brother-in-law and wondered why it had taken him so long to leave my sister, who had spent a lifetime bullying people, including me, but I was obliged to take her side. I confided in you, however, that Robert had phoned me the previous evening and asked whether we might meet to talk.

  ‘To talk about what?’ you asked.

  ‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘He said that he’d prefer not to discuss it over the phone and asked whether he could call over to the flat next week. I told him that we weren’t there any more, that we’d be up here in Norwich for the next eight months, and he hummed and hawed a bit and said that he could always drive up if I had an afternoon free.’

  ‘I hope you told him no,’ you said.

  ‘Well, I didn’t know what to say,’ I replied. ‘It was all so unexpected and he just stayed silent on the phone, waiting for an answer.’

  ‘So you told him yes?’

  ‘I think I did.’

  ‘You think you did?’

  ‘All right, I did.’

  ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Edith! If Rebecca finds out you’ve been talking to him, she’ll show up here shouting bloody murder and before we know it she won’t let us see the boys either.’

  ‘Why should she find out?’ I asked.

  ‘Because people always do. It’s impossible to keep secrets within a family. Anyway, he’s hardly driving all the way to Norwich for a friendly catch-up, is he?’

  ‘I don’t know why he’s driving here,’ I protested. ‘Like I told you, he didn’t go into details over the phone.’

  ‘Well, it will only lead to trouble, I promise you that. He’ll want you to get involved with the custody hearing.’

  ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that.’

  ‘Of course you couldn’t! But he’ll ask you to. He’ll want you to talk about all the things your sister has done over the years, about the verbal abuse, about the time she hit him—’

  ‘Christ, do you think so?’ I asked, for it had been just over a year since I had run into Robert in a supermarket and seen the black eye discolouring his face and, although he denied it, I knew who had given it to him. She used to hit me too when we were children, even when we were teenagers. Vicious, uncontrollable violence that would burst out of her l
ike lava from a volcano whenever she thought our parents were favouring me over her. She only stopped when I started punching back.

  ‘Well, I’ll worry about it when it happens,’ I said with a shrug.

  We grew silent again and I tried to build my resolve to ask you the question that had been preying on my mind ever since I’d accepted the position at UEA.

  ‘And what about you?’ I asked finally. ‘Have you decided what you’d like to do while we’re here?’

  ‘To do?’ you said. ‘In what sense?’

  ‘Well, to fill your days,’ I replied. ‘Are you going to do some writing?’

  ‘What’s the point? Publishers aren’t exactly beating a path to my door, are they?’

  ‘You could start something new?’ I suggested.

  ‘Why would I do that?’

  ‘Because you’re a brilliant novelist,’ I said, and you looked at me with such a wounded expression that for a moment I thought you were going to stand up and walk out. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I never know what to say when this subject comes up. I hate to hear you sounding so defeated.’

  The truth was that I hated how unhappy you became whenever we discussed your stalled career and, although you would have grown angry had you known, I pitied you for it too. But more than anything, it just annoyed me. I wished you would simply accept that things hadn’t turned out as you’d hoped and work to improve them. For God’s sake, you were only thirty-four years old! Most writers are just starting their careers at that age! But things had come so easy to you at the start, hadn’t they? You were only twenty-four when you published your first novel and probably hadn’t been mature enough to cope with the success that Two Germans brought your way. And I think even you would agree that you rushed your second, The Treehouse, which is why it had been such a disaster. Your third book was turned down because it really wasn’t good enough and the three that followed were rejected because by then you were simply throwing ideas at the wall and hoping that one would stick. Which was when you said that you were done with writing for ever. That you’d only ever had one good idea and even that hadn’t been yours, it had been someone else’s story that you’d simply transcribed, receiving praise not for the quality of the book itself but for how you’d exposed a man with a treacherous past.

  And yet when I read the books that followed, I could see why they had been met with failure or rejection, for they were utterly devoid of authenticity. And – the worst crime of all – they were boring. But then, you always said that you struggled when it came to thinking up good ideas, didn’t you? That if someone gave you a story, you could write it better than anyone else, but that you needed that basic idea to begin with.

  ‘You shouldn’t forget that you love writing,’ I said quietly, hoping that you wouldn’t overreact to my words.

  ‘I don’t,’ you replied, pouring another glass of wine for yourself but ignoring my glass, which was almost empty. ‘I hate it.’

  ‘That’s not true.’

  ‘I think I would know.’

  ‘You hate what writing has done to you, that’s all. How it’s let you down. But the craft itself, I know you still love it. I know you do. From the first day we met you were obsessed with the idea that the world should see you as a writer.’

  ‘What rubbish,’ you said.

  ‘I remember you even told me that you thought you might only publish four or five books in your lifetime so the world would take you more seriously.’

  ‘I never said anything of the sort,’ you said, shaking your head. ‘What kind of narcissistic knob would say something like that?’

  ‘I remember it distinctly,’ I said, refilling my own glass now. ‘I can even remember where we were when you said it.’

  ‘Honestly, Edith, if that’s how you see me, then I don’t know why you married me at all.’

  ‘Well, if you’re not going to write,’ I said, ignoring this remark, ‘then what are you going to do? You can’t just sit around the flat all day staring at the four walls.’

  ‘I’ll figure something out,’ you said. ‘Someone needs to do the shopping and the laundry and so on.’

  A shadow fell across the table and I looked up to see a boy standing there. He was young, in his early twenties, with floppy blond hair. His skin was pale but his cheeks had a slight redness to them. If Eton College had a brochure, which they probably did, he could easily be the cover star.

  ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you,’ he said, looking from me to you and back to me again. ‘It’s Edith Camberley, isn’t it?’

  ‘Yes,’ I said, surprised that he knew who I was. I had never once been publicly recognized.

  ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you,’ he repeated, toying with a silver ring on the middle finger of his right hand. ‘My name’s Garrett Colby. I’m one of your students. Or I will be, anyway, from next week.’

  ‘Oh,’ I said, feeling strangely excited. ‘How nice to meet you!’

  ‘I saw you but wasn’t sure whether to come over or not. I’m sorry to interrupt you.’

  ‘You’ve said that three times now,’ you remarked, and I threw you a look but you deflected it with a smile, reaching for one of the mint chocolates that had come with the coffees and popping it into your mouth, masticating noisily.

  ‘It should be an interesting year ahead,’ I said.

  ‘I must admit I’m quite nervous,’ he replied.

  ‘What are you working on?’ I asked him. ‘A novel?’

  ‘Short stories,’ he said. ‘I’ve been writing stories since I was a boy.’

  ‘But you’re still a boy,’ you told him. ‘You look about twelve.’

  ‘I’m twenty-two,’ he replied.

  ‘You don’t even look like you shave.’

  Poor Garrett blushed even deeper and I felt sorry for him. I tried to kick you under the table but succeeded only in banging my toe on the leg of your chair.

  ‘Just ignore him,’ I said. ‘My husband is being ridiculous.’

  ‘What kind of stories do you write?’ you asked.

  ‘They’re mostly about animals,’ he said.


  ‘Yes. I’ve been working on first-person stories narrated by … well, animals.’

  ‘What sort of animals?’ I asked.

  ‘There’s one narrated by a giraffe,’ he replied. ‘And another by a gorilla. I published one in Granta last year that was narrated by a pelican.’

  ‘Of course, strictly speaking, a pelican is a bird, not an animal,’ you said.

  ‘That’s true,’ said Garrett. ‘But I let birds in. Is there a collective noun for animals and birds?’

  ‘Banimals,’ you said. ‘Birdimals. Animirds.’

  ‘They sound fascinating,’ I said, although, to be honest, I thought it all sounded a little strange.

  ‘So, you’re a children’s writer?’ you asked, looking at the boy. ‘Or hoping to be?’

  ‘No,’ said Garrett, taking a step back, and I could see, for some reason, that he felt insulted by the remark. ‘No, they’re very definitely for adults.’

  ‘Then why don’t you write about people?’ you asked. ‘Actual human beings. Aren’t you interested in them?’

  ‘I am, yes, but it’s the relationship between people and animals that interests me most,’ he replied. ‘It’s hard to explain. You’d probably have to read one, to be honest.’

  ‘Fortunately, that will be my wife’s job,’ you said. ‘Not mine.’

  Garrett looked a little upset now, as if he regretted having approached us in the first place, and glanced back towards his own table, where another young man was seated, staring over at us with an anxious expression on his face.

  ‘And who’s that?’ I asked, trying to lighten the mood. ‘Another student?’

  ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Well, no. I mean yes, he’s a student but not on the creative-writing course. He’s studying medicine.’

  ‘Veterinary medicine?’ you asked.

  ‘No, regular medicine. We met a
few weeks ago. We both arrived in Norwich early to settle in. We’re in the same halls.’

  ‘Is he your boyfriend?’ you asked, and I stared at you, wondering why you were trying to embarrass him, but there didn’t seem to be anything unkind in the tone that you’d used.

  ‘Sort of,’ said Garrett, growing a little more confident now. ‘We’re not sure yet. Anyway, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.’

  ‘You’ve said.’

  ‘I just wanted to say hello.’

  ‘I’m glad you did,’ I said. ‘I’ll look forward to seeing you on Wednesday.’

  He smiled and nodded. The expression on his face as he walked away was one of humiliation crossed with disappointment. I turned to remonstrate with you but before I could open my mouth he’d returned.

  ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you,’ he said.

  ‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ you said, looking away in irritation.

  ‘It’s just’ – and now he was looking at you, not me – ‘didn’t you used to be a writer too?’

  I felt a sudden spasm in the pit of my stomach, like someone had just pushed me from a great height and I was tumbling down, unable to grab hold of anything to prevent me from falling.

  ‘What do you mean used to be?’ you asked.

  ‘It’s just that when I knew Miss Camberley was going to be the course tutor—’

  ‘Please call me Edith,’ I said.

  ‘I read her novel. Or re-read it, I should say. And then I looked up some interviews with her and they mentioned your name. It’s Maurice Swift, isn’t it?’

  ‘That’s right,’ you said.

  ‘I think I read your novel too.’

  ‘Which one?’

  ‘Two Germans.’

  ‘You think you read it?’

  ‘When I was in school, I mean. I think I borrowed it from the library.’

  You smiled a little. ‘But you’re not sure?’ you asked. ‘It might have been something else? It might have been Murder on the Orient Express, for example? Or War and Peace?’

  ‘I’m fairly certain it was Two Germans. It’s just that I can’t really remember what it was about, that’s all.’

  ‘Well, it was about two Germans. The clue is in the title, you see.’

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