A ladder to the sky, p.18
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.18

           John Boyne

  ‘Well, that is the title of the novel, after all,’ you muttered irritably. ‘Fear.’

  ‘Yes, but the novel isn’t really about that, is it?’ continued Arjan. ‘In fact, I think the novel has very little to do with fear. In my view, it’s about bravery.’

  ‘You’re very perceptive,’ I said. ‘Not everyone recognizes that.’

  ‘I wouldn’t be too flattered,’ said Rebecca. ‘As an actor, Arjan is obviously very interested in literature, so he reads a lot.’

  ‘Something tells me that when you were in school, you were the boy who always came to class well prepared,’ you commented, and I threw you a look, annoyed by your peevishness.

  ‘I suppose I was,’ admitted Arjan, refusing to rise to your bait. ‘I wanted to pass my exams and to—’

  ‘Yes, yes,’ you said, dismissing him now with a wave of your hand.

  ‘Rebecca tells me that you used to be a writer too,’ said Arjan, and I winced at his choice of words.

  ‘I beg your pardon?’ you said.

  ‘She says that you wrote a novel once,’ he replied.

  ‘I’ve written two actually,’ you told him, and Six, I thought.

  ‘There must be some competition between you then?’ he asked, looking back and forth between us, and I shook my head.

  ‘Oh no,’ I said. ‘Nothing like that. My husband has been publishing much longer than I have and is highly respected. I’m pretty new to it all.’

  ‘And yet your book was such a success,’ he said.

  ‘Yes,’ I admitted, for once wanting to accept the compliment. ‘Yes, it was.’

  ‘It’s your use of the past tense that bothers me,’ you said.

  ‘I don’t understand this?’ said Arjan, narrowing his eyes.

  ‘You mentioned that I used to be a writer. I didn’t used to be anything. I am.’

  ‘Just like I’m an actor,’ said Arjan. ‘Perhaps you’re resting too. I hear a lot of writers do that. Anyway, I look forward to reading your next book. Eventually, I mean. If it finds a publisher.’

  Before you could respond to this, Mum came in and clapped her hands to tell us that dinner was ready. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to see anyone in my entire life.

  Later, I found you brooding in the hallway, staring at some old family photographs. I felt a rush of anxiety that you were angry with me but this eased when you smiled, leaned forward and kissed me.

  ‘How about next year we don’t go to your family or mine for Christmas?’ you suggested. ‘We could go away on holiday instead. Somewhere hot. Just the two of us.’

  ‘Sounds good to me,’ I said. ‘How are you doing, anyway?’

  ‘Fine,’ you said. ‘Why do you ask?’

  ‘You were very quiet during dinner.’

  ‘I was eating.’

  I hesitated for a moment, uncertain whether I should bring this up or not. ‘You know Arjan wasn’t trying to be rude to you,’ I said at last. ‘He was probably just—’

  ‘I don’t give a fuck about Arjan,’ you said. ‘There’s something sort of tragic about him, don’t you think?’

  ‘No, not really,’ I said.

  ‘You don’t think he’s a bit deluded?’

  ‘In what sense?’

  ‘His dreams of making it big in Hollywood.’

  I said nothing for a moment, wondering whether you actually believed this or had simply decided to spin his remarks to fit your own design. ‘Actually, I thought he seemed quite realistic about his future,’ I replied finally.

  ‘You fancy him, don’t you?’

  I rolled my eyes. ‘Please tell me you’re joking,’ I said, hating where this conversation seemed to be leading.

  You stared at me for the longest time and then broke into a wide smile. ‘Of course I’m joking,’ you said. ‘Lighten up, Edith! It’s Christmas!’

  I pulled away from you but, before I could say anything, the doorbell rang and I heard Mum call out to me from the living room, asking me to answer it.

  ‘Excuse me,’ I said, trying to move around you, but you were pressing me against the wall. ‘Maurice, you’re in my way,’ I said, raising my voice a little, and now you stepped a little to the side, just enough to let me pass, and I walked towards the front door and opened it. Standing outside, the light from the overhead bulb shining down on him as it snowed, was Robert. He was wearing a grey overcoat that looked brand new and the sort of scarf that could only have been a present from his mother. He’d had a haircut too. The style was a little too youthful; it would have looked good on someone ten years younger but, on him, it seemed a little desperate.

  ‘Hello, Edith,’ he said. ‘Happy Christmas.’

  ‘Robert,’ I said, standing back a little, surprised to see him there. ‘Nobody mentioned that you … Is Rebecca expecting you?’

  ‘I may have forgotten to tell her that I would be stopping by.’

  ‘Right.’ I stood there, staring at him, uncertain what I should do next, which was when you appeared behind me.

  ‘Hello, Robert,’ you said.


  ‘You look cold, mate.’

  ‘Well, I’m freezing my bollocks off, actually. Can I come in?’

  ‘I’m not sure,’ I replied. ‘Do you think it’s a good idea?’

  ‘Of course you can,’ you said, opening the door wider. ‘You’re still family. Come in.’

  I stepped aside as he walked into the hallway, taking off his coat and scarf before reaching forward to give me an awkward kiss on my cheek. His cold lips made me shiver a little. ‘You haven’t been drinking, have you?’ I asked. ‘You’re not here to cause any trouble?’

  ‘I’m perfectly sober,’ he said. ‘I had lunch with my mother and didn’t touch a drop of alcohol as I wanted to drive over to see the boys.’

  ‘They’re just in there,’ you told him, pointing towards the living room.

  ‘They’re quite tired,’ I said. ‘They’ve been playing all day and practically ate their body weights over dinner.’

  ‘Robert,’ said a voice from behind me, and I turned around to see my sister standing there, her face a mask of annoyance. ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’

  ‘Happy Christmas,’ he repeated, stepping forward to kiss her too, but she backed away and held her hands in the air as if to keep a careful distance from him.

  ‘Don’t happy Christmas me,’ she said. ‘I asked you a question. What the fuck are you doing here?’

  ‘Full of the season of goodwill, I see.’

  ‘Robert, I—’

  ‘I wanted to spend a little time with my sons,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Is that a criminal offence?’

  ‘No, but we already spoke about this. They’re yours all day on the twenty-seventh.’

  ‘But it’s not the same thing, is it?’ he said. ‘I missed out on seeing them opening their presents this morning. That’s the first time I haven’t been there for that.’

  ‘Well, I was there. And so was Arjan. So everything was fine. They didn’t need you. They didn’t even mention you, actually.’

  ‘Rebecca, that’s just cruel,’ I said, and she turned on me now, pointing her finger in the air and telling me to keep my nose out. She was a little drunk and her tone brought me back to our shared childhood, when she would turn on me without any warning and the scene could rapidly descend into violence. The memory frightened me.

  ‘I just want to see my children,’ said Robert quietly. ‘Can I go in? Please?’

  ‘No, you cannot,’ she said. ‘If you go in there now, you’ll only get them all excited again when I was planning on putting them to bed soon. It would be best if you just left.’

  ‘But Rebecca, he’s come all this way,’ I protested. ‘Surely a few minutes wouldn’t—’

  ‘Oh, here we go,’ she said, rolling her eyes. ‘You always take his side, don’t you?’

  ‘I’m not taking anyone’s side,’ I said. ‘But it’s Christmas Day, after all.’

she said, turning to Arjan, who had joined us in the hallway but was standing back a little, looking uncertain what his role, if any, in this conversation should be. ‘This is what I have to put up with. No one ever supports me.’

  ‘I’m honestly not looking for an argument,’ said Robert calmly. ‘Hello, Arjan, how are you?’

  ‘I’m well, thank you,’ replied Arjan. ‘And you?’

  ‘Never better,’ he said. ‘I had a slight head cold earlier in the week but it seems to have—’

  ‘Can we please stop with the small talk?’ asked Rebecca, raising her voice now.

  ‘You want to take a little cold and flu medicine,’ you said. ‘This time of year, if you catch something it can lay you out for days.’

  ‘I have some Nurofen, if that would help,’ said Arjan.

  ‘Thanks, Arjan,’ said Robert. ‘But I think I’ll be all right for now.’

  ‘Well, I can give you a couple to take with you if—’

  ‘Arjan!’ roared Rebecca, and I jumped a little. ‘Can you …’ She stopped talking, closed her eyes and breathed in deeply through her nose. It was the kind of thing I imagined a therapist might have told her to do in moments of stress.

  ‘It’s only right that I see my children,’ said Robert. ‘Even Edith thinks so.’

  ‘I asked you to leave Edith out of this,’ you said, stepping forward and putting your arm around my shoulders.

  ‘I know,’ he said. ‘Sorry. But look, shall I just go in, Rebecca, and say hello? There’s no point in us all standing out here in the hallway.’

  Before she could reply, Damien, the eldest of my two nephews, came out into the hallway and gave a whoop of delight when he saw his father standing there, running towards him and throwing his arms around his legs. A moment later, Edward appeared, following suit, and the two boys immediately started telling him about the various presents they’d received, taking him by an arm each and dragging him into the living room to show him their toys.

  ‘Sorry,’ said Robert as he passed Rebecca, failing to keep the note of triumph out of his voice. ‘I promise I won’t stay long. An hour, tops.’

  ‘I am not having this,’ said Rebecca as soon as he had disappeared inside and closed the door behind him. ‘If he thinks he can just show up here whenever he likes and—’

  ‘Perhaps if you organized proper visiting times for him,’ I said. ‘From what I understand, you’re being terribly difficult.’

  ‘Oh, shut up, Edith. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’

  ‘But you’re addressing all of us, Rebecca,’ you said. ‘So it’s not unreasonable that your sister should offer an opinion.’

  ‘You’re on his side too, then, are you?’ she asked. ‘What a surprise! Look, it’s over between us and I don’t want him hanging around all the time, is that so difficult to understand? The boys belong to me and—’

  ‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ I said, throwing my hands in the air. ‘The boys don’t belong to anyone! And if they did, they would belong to both of you!’

  ‘They belong to me,’ she insisted, ‘and they need to be left alone to adjust to the new reality of their lives.’

  I couldn’t take any more of this nonsense and followed Robert into the living room and slowly, one by one, you, Rebecca and Arjan followed too. Robert was true to his word, staying only an hour, and had it not been for the boys’ tears when he finally left, it would have been a perfectly pleasant visit.

  It was only later that night as I was falling asleep that a line from the argument popped into my head. Something that you had said to Robert.

  I asked you to leave Edith out of this.

  When did you ask him this, Maurice? Because it wasn’t while we were standing there. Did you call him after he came to see me at UEA? Or did you take a train to London and not tell me anything about it? And what else were you doing during those months that I knew nothing about? All things considered, you’ll forgive me if I sound a little suspicious.

  5. January

  The new term got off to an exciting start with two pieces of news, one a cause for celebration, the other a source of scandal.

  The former was the announcement by Garrett Colby that he’d secured a publishing deal over Christmas for his debut collection of short stories, The Voices of Animals. He told us as we settled down for our first workshop, during which he himself was due to be critiqued, and the reactions of the other students ranged from delight to envy to disbelief to a sort of carefully controlled fury.

  I weighed up whether or not to tell you but decided that I should. You would find out eventually and wonder why I hadn’t mentioned it myself. But I waited until a couple of days later, when we were having dinner and you seemed to be in a good mood. That evening, I’d come home and been a little frustrated to find you working in my study again. You pointed out that it overlooked the garden rather than the street and that you needed peace in order to write and, besides, I was on campus throughout most of the day, so what did it matter?

  ‘You’re in very good spirits,’ I remarked as we ate. ‘Your work must be going well.’

  ‘Very well,’ you said cheerfully. ‘You know that moment when you realize you’ve got a firm grasp on your book and know exactly where it’s going?’

  ‘Sort of.’

  ‘That’s how I’m feeling right now. Writing a novel is a war and I think I’m winning at last.’

  ‘I’m really glad to hear that,’ I replied. ‘So are you going to give me some clue as to what it’s about?’

  ‘Afraid not,’ you said, shaking your head and grinning like a mischievous child. ‘You don’t mind, do you?’

  ‘I’m hardly in a position to,’ I said. ‘It’s not as if I’ve been willing to tell you about mine.’

  ‘Exactly,’ you said. ‘You must be getting close to a final draft, anyway?’

  ‘Another six weeks or so. And you?’

  ‘Around the same.’

  ‘What?’ I asked, staring at you in astonishment. ‘But you’ve only been working on it since November.’

  ‘I know, but it’s just coming together a lot more quickly than I imagined. These things can happen. Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in about three weeks, you know. Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six.’

  ‘Well, that’s wonderful,’ I said, unsure whether it was or not. I couldn’t even conceive of writing a novel in so short a time, but I was aware that you’d often worked in sustained periods of creative intensity.

  ‘Actually, I have some news too,’ I said carefully, praying that my announcement wouldn’t destroy your positive mood.

  ‘Oh yes?’ you asked. ‘What’s that?’

  ‘You remember Garrett Colby?’

  ‘The children’s writer with the talking animals?’

  ‘He’s not a children’s writer,’ I said with a sigh. ‘You’ve been told this before. Many times. They’re adult stories.’

  ‘With talking animals.’

  ‘Murakami has lots of talking animals in his books,’ I said. ‘As does Bulgakov. And Philip Pullman.’

  ‘Yes, but you can’t compare that little twat to any of them,’ you said.

  ‘Don’t call him that. It’s not nice.’

  ‘You don’t like him any more than I do.’

  ‘I know, but still.’

  ‘Fine,’ you said, laughing a little. ‘I’ll be nice. What about him, anyway? Has he had a breakthrough of some sort? Decided that his novel needs some trees that can dance the tango or a few lamp posts that can juggle while singing show tunes?’

  ‘No. Actually, he’s sold them.’

  ‘What do you mean, sold them? Sold what?’

  ‘Sold the stories. As a collection.’

  You put down your cutlery and looked at me with an incredulous expression on your face. ‘You don’t mean to an actual publisher?’

  ‘Yes,’ I said.

  ‘Jesus Christ.’ You stared across the room, refusing to meet my eye, and I could see that you were allowing
yourself a few moments to digest this information and decide how to react to it. ‘Who bought them?’ you asked when you finally looked back.

  ‘You won’t believe this,’ I said. ‘But it was Rufus.’

  You didn’t even blink. ‘Not my Rufus?’ you asked.

  ‘Yes, I suppose so,’ I replied. ‘If that’s how we think of him.’

  I had only met Rufus Shawcross twice, and briefly on both occasions. The first time was only a few weeks after I’d started dating you and I was waiting in the lobby of your publishing house while you met with him in his office upstairs. Afterwards, you came down together and I could tell by the expression on your face that things hadn’t gone well, but you couldn’t avoid introducing me. I liked him immediately. He was exactly my idea of what an editor should look like: button-down shirt, thick-rimmed glasses, floppy hair, boyishly handsome, looking like he needed to shave about once every second month. The second time was several years later, after you’d had all those novels rejected and effectively been dropped. We’d run into him in a health-food store on Glasshouse Street and the whole thing had been terribly awkward. You’d pretended to be friendly but everything you said was clearly intended as an insult and he seemed upset by your rudeness. For my part, I was simply embarrassed. I knew the poor man had taken no pleasure in turning down your novels, but he’d had no choice. After all, they weren’t any good.

  ‘He must have lost his mind,’ you said, trying to sound chipper, but I could tell that it was taking every fibre of your being to stop yourself flinging our bowls at the wall and watching the food slowly trace a furious, misunderstood path down the paintwork.

  ‘He’s actually quite good,’ I said.


  ‘No, Garrett.’

  ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous.’

  ‘Maurice, you haven’t even read him,’ I pointed out. ‘You don’t know.’

  ‘I didn’t go down on the Titanic either but I know that it wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience,’ you said, shaking your head. ‘Fucking Rufus. Did you hear what he got? The advance, I mean.’

  ‘No,’ I said. ‘He didn’t mention it.’

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