A ladder to the sky, p.19
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.19

           John Boyne
‘It probably wasn’t very much.’

  It was, actually. He’d been offered one hundred thousand pounds for the story collection and a novel to follow. But I chose not to tell you that.

  ‘Well, good luck to him, I suppose,’ you said, after a lengthy pause filled with a barely concealed frenzy of anger.

  I sighed. A pleasant evening together had disintegrated yet again. I wasn’t sorry that I’d brought it up but I wanted to let it go now. Looking back, I wonder if I wanted to hurt you by telling you Garrett’s news. You had hurt me, after all. You had hurt me physically. Perhaps I wanted revenge. For even if you’d played it cool and pretended that whatever happened with my students held little meaning to you, I knew that you would brood over it for weeks.

  ‘Something else happened today,’ I said after a prolonged silence, ready to tell you the second piece of news. ‘One of my students got thrown off the course.’

  ‘Really?’ you said, sitting up straight now. ‘Who?’

  ‘Do you remember Maja Drazkowski?’

  You frowned. ‘Which one is she?’

  ‘When you came to talk to the students, she was the one who looked like she’d rather fuck you than listen to you speak.’

  ‘You’ll have to narrow it down.’

  ‘Oh, shut up,’ I said, laughing.

  ‘Yes, I remember her,’ you admitted. ‘What happened? Why did she get cut?’

  ‘Plagiarism,’ I replied.

  ‘You’re kidding!’


  ‘Who did she plagiarize?’

  ‘No one I’d ever heard of, to be honest. A story that had been published in the New Yorker three or four years ago.’

  You stood up, gathering the bowls and plates, and began carrying them over to the sink to rinse them off before putting them in the dishwasher. When I rose to help, you placed a hand on my shoulder and told me to stay where I was, that I’d had a busy day and should relax.

  ‘How was she caught out?’ you asked.

  ‘The tutor who was marking my group recognized it. Apparently, he’s quite a fan of the New Yorker and keeps all his back issues. She was called in this morning, presented with the evidence, and the stupid girl said it was nothing more than a coincidence.’

  ‘A five-thousand-word coincidence?’ you asked, laughing.

  ‘Well, exactly. That was never going to fly. Anyway, she gave up that defence quickly enough. Within a couple of minutes the tears were flowing and she was telling us how she felt she didn’t belong on the course, that she couldn’t compete with the others. I could have written something, of course, she told us, but it wouldn’t have been good enough and I refuse to give in sub-standard work. I just refuse.’

  ‘But she’s happy to give in someone else’s work?’ you said.

  ‘That’s what I said! And then she just started crying again. Anyway, the whole thing went on for an hour and became rather tedious, and when we reached the point where she started telling us how her uncle used to make her sit on his lap when she was a little girl and she wondered whether this was what led to such behaviour on her part—’

  ‘Oh, for God’s sake.’

  ‘I know. We told her that our only concern was her academic work and that she had lost our trust.’

  ‘So you kicked her out?’

  ‘Well, we told her that we would be referring the matter to the dean of students, but that she couldn’t attend any more classes until the situation was resolved. Then she threw a fit and told us that she wanted to drop out, effective immediately, that I was the worst teacher in the world and that if she’d written Fear, she would have eaten it page by page rather than let anyone read it. Aren’t you embarrassed by it? she asked me. All that clichéd writing, the one-dimensional characters, the trite resolution. I’d be mortified if I’d written it. And I couldn’t help myself. I said that maybe she would one day, since she had such little scruple about stealing other people’s stories.’


  ‘Yes, that shut her up. She flounced out then and later this afternoon I got an email from my department head saying she’d formally resigned from the course and I was to inform the other students.’

  ‘Well, it sounds like she got what she deserved,’ you said. ‘Plagiarism is the greatest crime any writer can commit. But you shouldn’t blame yourself for any of this.’

  ‘Blame myself?’ I asked, turning to you as you loaded the dishwasher. ‘Why on earth would I blame myself?’

  ‘You shouldn’t,’ you replied. ‘That’s what I’m saying. It’s not your fault.’

  ‘No, I get that,’ I said. ‘But if I were to blame myself, in error, I mean, what would I be blaming myself for?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ you said. ‘Perhaps she felt you were putting her under too much pressure? Or felt that she couldn’t write in the environment that you’d created? She’d be an idiot to think any of that, of course. Which is why I’m saying don’t blame yourself.’

  ‘But I don’t,’ I said in frustration. ‘At least I didn’t until you suggested that I shouldn’t.’

  ‘Good,’ you said, coming over and kissing me on the forehead. ‘Then we’re in agreement. Now, I think I’m going to take a walk, if you don’t mind. That stew was a little heavy, don’t you think? And I need to think about tomorrow’s work. I’m reaching a crucial stage in my novel and need to arrange my thoughts clearly in my head.’

  And before I could say anything, or offer to accompany you, you’d taken your coat from the hook and were gone.

  Blame myself? I thought. Why the fuck would I blame myself?

  Three days later, I was shopping in Market Place when it started to rain and I took shelter in the Sir Garnet pub. I don’t usually sit in bars on my own in the middle of the afternoon but I had the new Anne Tyler in my bag and thought I might just settle down with a glass of wine and relax for a while. I’d finished my drink, the rain had stopped, and I was trying to decide whether I should order another or leave when a familiar face walked past the window, noticed me sitting inside and waved. I waved back and a moment later the door opened and in he came.

  It was my crush. Nicholas Bray.

  ‘Hello, Edith,’ he said, smiling at me, and I liked the dimples that appeared in his cheeks. ‘Is this how you spend your afternoons when you’re not teaching? Drinking alone?’

  ‘Not usually, no,’ I replied, not wanting him to think that I was some sort of lonely alcoholic in my spare time. ‘I was shopping, you see, and the rain—’

  ‘I was kidding,’ he said, sitting down opposite me before standing up again. ‘Oh, sorry. I suppose I should ask whether you want company before assuming that you do.’

  ‘Please,’ I said, indicating the seat. ‘I was thinking of having a second, actually. You’re welcome to join me if you like.’

  He went to the bar and ordered a pint for himself and another wine for me, and when he sat down we clinked glasses and he told me off for not looking him in the eye as I did so. ‘In some countries,’ he said, ‘you can be barred from pubs for such behaviour.’

  He was wearing a tattered denim shirt that was open halfway down his chest and a white T-shirt underneath. His sleeves were rolled up and, for the first time, I noticed that he had a tattoo on the underside of his right arm. Two letters: EB.

  ‘My aunt’s initials,’ he told me when I asked what they signified. ‘She brought me up after my parents died.’

  ‘What happened to them?’ I asked, for I didn’t know that he’d been orphaned.

  ‘A car crash,’ he said with a shrug. ‘It’s okay, I was only three at the time. I don’t really remember them. Anyway, my aunt – my dad’s sister – took me in. She’s a social worker. She doesn’t have any kids of her own. She took care of me.’

  We talked a little about his work then, about how it was coming along, and soon enough it was my turn to go to the bar and order a round. I brought back some peanuts as I was worried that I would get drunk too soon and switched to lager so I wouldn’t find myself
drinking an entire bottle of wine on my own.

  Soon, our defences were down and I asked him to fill me in on the class gossip.

  ‘What sort of gossip?’ he asked.

  ‘Well, who’s sleeping with who, and so on.’

  ‘I don’t think there’s been too much of that,’ he said, narrowing his eyes a little as he considered it. ‘You’ve probably noticed that there isn’t a lot of sexual tension in workshop.’

  ‘Yes, that’s been very disappointing,’ I said, flirting shamelessly with him now, enjoying the freedom just to look at his beautiful face. ‘When I was a student we spent half our time in each other’s beds. I hoped there’d be a few broken hearts at least, followed by classroom recriminations and walk-outs.’

  ‘There’s still six months to go,’ he replied. ‘We could surprise you yet. Anyway, the one girl that all the boys fancy is completely unattainable.’

  I thought about it, running through each of the female students in my mind, uncertain who he might be referring to.

  ‘Who’s that?’ I asked, and he simply smiled and took a long drink from his pint, keeping his eyes fixed on mine.

  ‘Oh, please,’ I said, blushing a little but utterly delighted. ‘I doubt anyone is thinking of me in those terms. I’m old enough to be … well, a big sister to most of the boys in the class. What about you? Have you been seeing anyone?’

  He shrugged, then shook his head. ‘No one special,’ he said. ‘No one from our workshop, anyway. I guess I’ve been focussing on my work.’

  ‘Fair enough,’ I said.

  ‘Can I ask how long you and your husband have been together?’ he said.

  ‘We got married five and a bit years ago,’ I told him. ‘And we were dating for a few years before that.’

  ‘He’s incredibly handsome,’ said Nicholas, and I nodded.

  ‘He is,’ I said. ‘Why did you say that? You don’t fancy him, do you?’

  ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I’m straight. But I mean he’s just obviously very good-looking.’

  ‘I couldn’t agree more,’ I said, waving towards the barman for another round.

  ‘I think Garrett fancies him,’ he said.

  ‘Really?’ I said, surprised. ‘He and Maurice have met a few times and there always seems to be some sort of mutual loathing going on there.’

  ‘He’s only acting that way because he wants to get into his pants. You know he’s driving us all crazy right now? Telling us that we aren’t to think of him any differently now that he’s going to be a published writer.’

  ‘And do you?’ I ask.

  ‘No. I thought he was a cock before and I think he’s a cock now. Just a soon-to-be-published cock, that’s all.’

  I laughed but didn’t disagree. A part of me knew that it was wrong to be spending so much time drinking alone with one of my students but, if I’m honest, I didn’t care. I was enjoying the sense of freedom he offered me, the feeling of being twenty-three again and dreaming of a writing career. The more we drank, the more attractive he grew and when he leaned back in his chair at one point to produce a dramatic yawn, his T-shirt rode up, displaying a lower belly that was covered in fine, dark hairs. Just looking at them made me imagine what he might look like if he stripped that T-shirt off.

  Perhaps he guessed. Perhaps, after our first couple of drinks, he’d wondered whether our afternoon might end with us going to bed together. After all, I’d alluded to such things already. Because when we finished our next drinks, he asked me whether I wanted another or whether I might like to go somewhere else.

  ‘Like where?’ I asked him.

  ‘Like my place,’ he said, without an ounce of self-consciousness. ‘I only live a few minutes away.’

  I shrugged. I didn’t want him to think that I was in any way shocked. ‘To fuck, you mean?’ I asked him.

  ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘If you want to.’

  ‘Tell me it hasn’t always been your fantasy to fuck your teacher.’

  ‘You wouldn’t think that if you’d seen the teachers I had in school.’

  ‘Why don’t we just … walk down the street and get a little air?’ I said, standing up, and soon enough we were outside, feeling the disorienting effect of sunshine on our eyes when we were both a little drunk. We strolled around St Peter’s Street and on to Goat Lane but didn’t speak the entire time. The anticipation was making me incredibly aroused and I had no clear idea what I was going to do next, whether I would in fact go to bed with him or whether I might turn around on his doorstep, place a hand against his chest and say something like You’re very sweet, Nicholas, but there’s no way this could end well for either of us. It felt as if I were watching myself from above, like I was a character in a film about to make a bad choice that would inevitably lead to catastrophe, but when he finally stopped outside a door and put a key in the lock, I felt an extraordinary longing to follow him inside and let him do anything he wanted to me.

  He turned around, saw the expression on my face, and offered a half-smile.

  ‘That’s a no, isn’t it?’ he said.

  ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Wrong time, and all that.’

  He shrugged. I could tell that he wasn’t going to beg. He did, however, lean forward and kiss me and I kissed him right back and, I don’t mind telling you, Maurice, that boy knew how to kiss.

  ‘I’d better go,’ I said, turning around, and as I walked back down the street I knew he was watching me and that felt good.

  When I got back to the flat, stumbling on that bloody handrail again, which you still hadn’t fixed, I had a long shower and later, when we were sitting on the sofa together watching a movie, I found that I was barely thinking about the events of the afternoon at all. Come Wednesday, there was no awkwardness between Nicholas and me and he seemed so untroubled by the whole thing that I began to wonder whether I had simply imagined the flirtation and the kiss.

  6. February

  In early February, the department head, George Canter, dropped into my office to discuss some student issues and while he was there I took the opportunity to ask him whether I might be able to stay at UEA for a few more years.

  ‘Of course we’d be delighted to have you, Edith,’ said George. ‘And if a job should come up, then we could certainly discuss it. Although for legal reasons, we might have to advertise it formally. But even if we did, I think it would take a strong candidate to defeat you. Particularly since you’re already in situ, so to speak. Just so I know,’ he added, ‘when are you hoping to publish your second novel?’

  ‘I plan on delivering it by April,’ I said. ‘And all going well, I hope that it’ll be out by next spring.’

  ‘Well, that will certainly help too,’ he said. ‘It looks good for the faculty to be actively publishing. The students need to see that we’re doing as well as teaching.’

  There was a knock on the door and you poked your head in. This was only the second time you’d visited my office since our arrival in Norwich and you looked ridiculously cheerful as you glanced from me to George and back again.

  ‘Not interrupting, am I?’ you asked, stepping inside. ‘Hello, George, how’s things?’

  ‘Maurice,’ he said, standing up and shaking your hand furiously. ‘No, we were just finishing up. I was telling Edith that, even if she does have to apply for the job, I think I could say, without prejudice, that her application will be favourably received.’

  I saw the expression on your face harden as you digested this piece of information. Of course, I hadn’t yet spoken to you about staying on at UEA and had no idea how you might feel about it. But you didn’t pursue the conversation and, when George finally let go of your hand, you leaned down to kiss me on the cheek with a ‘Hello, gorgeous’ that was completely out of character for you.

  ‘Hello yourself,’ I said. ‘What brings you here?’

  ‘Some good news,’ you replied.

  ‘Perhaps I should leave you both to it,’ said George, edging towards the door.

  ‘No, stay,
I said, for in that moment I felt as if I didn’t want to be left alone with you, when you might ask me what we had been discussing before you arrived. ‘There were a couple of other things I wanted to talk to you about.’

  ‘All right,’ he replied, sitting down again, and I could see that you looked as irritated by his continued presence as he was made uncomfortable by it.

  ‘So what’s the good news?’ I asked, looking in your direction and trying to ease whatever tension lay between us.

  ‘It’s about my novel,’ you said.

  ‘You haven’t finished it!’

  ‘No, not quite. But I wanted to be certain that I was on the right track so I sent the opening few chapters to someone in the industry.’

  ‘Who?’ I asked.

  ‘Peter Wills-Bouche,’ you replied.

  ‘The agent?’ said George, looking up, clearly impressed. Everyone knew who Peter Wills-Bouche was. To be represented by him was to be considered part of literature’s elite, whether you were a Nobel Prize-winner – he represented three – or a debut writer.

  ‘I’m glad you sent it, Maurice,’ I said. ‘He’s exactly the sort of agent you deserve. But I imagine it will be a while before you hear back from him so let’s not get too excited just yet.’

  ‘But that’s the thing,’ you replied. ‘He phoned this morning, just after I got back from the gym. He wants to meet me.’

  ‘You mean he’s read it already?’

  ‘He said that he took it home with him last night, only intending to read a few pages, but ended up showing up two hours late for his daughter-in-law’s birthday party because he couldn’t put it down.’

  ‘You’re kidding!’ I said, opening my eyes wide in a mixture of astonishment and delight.

  ‘He said that these were the best opening chapters of any novel that he’d read in the last ten years.’

  ‘But Maurice, that’s wonderful,’ I said, jumping up to embrace you, feeling genuinely thrilled on your behalf. ‘I’m so proud of you.’

  ‘Thank you,’ you replied, grinning from ear to ear.

  ‘Yes, well done, you,’ said George, standing up and shaking your hand again. ‘You must be thrilled.’

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