A ladder to the sky, p.20
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.20
 

           John Boyne

  ‘I knew that one day you’d find your way back,’ I said. ‘I’ve always believed in you, you know that, don’t you?’

  ‘I do, Edith,’ you said, and the warmth in your expression made me recall the happiest times of our years together. ‘And I appreciate it, I really do. You’ve been the one person who’s always believed in me. Even when I haven’t always believed in myself.’

  I smiled. When you shone your light on me, it was still impossible not to feel the wonderful glow. ‘So presumably he’s going to take you on, then?’

  ‘Well, I assume so, yes, but let’s not count our chickens just yet. That’s why I called in here. I’m taking the train up to London in about an hour to meet with him. He said he’d like to meet today, before I show it to anyone else. I’ll know more after that.’

  ‘Gosh, he is keen!’ I said.

  ‘Seems like it.’

  ‘Maybe we’ll even end up publishing our books around the same time,’ I said. ‘That would be fun, wouldn’t it?’

  ‘Oh God, let’s not,’ you said, rolling your eyes. ‘No, we should wait to see what’s happening with my book first and then you can have a word with your publisher to ensure that our dates don’t clash. Makes more sense that way, don’t you think?’

  ‘Well,’ I replied, feeling my heart sink a little. I’d been working on my novel for three years, after all, and didn’t want to delay its publication for any reason. Also, I didn’t see why your work should suddenly take priority over mine. ‘I’m not sure, but we can always—’

  ‘I’d better go,’ you said, glancing at your watch. ‘I don’t want to miss my train. I just wanted to see the expression on your face when I told you!’

  ‘Maybe we should be asking you to apply for a job here,’ said George, and I glared at him in disappointment. ‘It’s a real asset to the university when we have up-and-coming writers in our faculty.’

  You laughed and shook your head. ‘I don’t think I quite fit that description, do you?’ you said. ‘I’m a little more established than that.’

  When I returned home that evening, I found a letter waiting on the mat that infuriated me. I read it carefully several times then forced myself to wait until the first rush of temper had passed before picking up the phone to call Rebecca.

  ‘I got your letter,’ I said without any preamble when she answered, trying to control the anger in my voice. ‘Or rather, your solicitor’s letter.’

  ‘Oh good,’ she said. ‘The sooner we get the ball rolling on this, the better. I was very lucky to get an early hearing. Some couple reconciled so an appointment opened up. Don’t you think these people should stop being so fickle? Anyway, their loss is my gain. I assume you’ll be able to make it?’

  I held the phone away from my face for a moment and stared at it furiously, as if the handset were somehow responsible for my sister’s insufferable behaviour.

  ‘You don’t actually think I’m going to do this, do you?’ I asked.

  There was a long pause. I wondered whether she was truly surprised by my response or simply pretending to be. ‘Of course I do,’ she said. ‘Why wouldn’t you?’

  ‘Let me just read out what your solicitor wrote,’ I said to her. ‘It is our contention that Robert Gelwood lacks the essential skills needed to be a father to the miners, Damien and Edward Gelwood. As you have been a witness to his erratic behaviour since the birth of both children, we are requesting that you testify to his fragile state of mind, his unpredictable temperament and his lack of parental responsibility. We further hope that you will support our position that the children be placed in the sole custody of their mother, Rebecca Camberley-Gelwood.’

  ‘It’s such legalese, isn’t it?’ said Rebecca, giggling a little. ‘Even you could write better than that.’

  ‘It’s not the wording that I object to,’ I said. ‘Although, by the way, you might want to tell your solicitor that minors is spelled with an o. As far as I know, Damien and Edward aren’t being sent a few miles underground every day to dig for coal.’

  ‘Oh, don’t be so pedantic, you know what he meant. Is that all that’s bothering you?’

  ‘No, it’s the fact that I don’t believe for a moment that Robert is an unfit father.’

  ‘Of course he isn’t,’ she agreed. ‘Actually, he’s a very good father.’

  ‘Then why on earth …?’ I paused and pinched the top of my nose to control my annoyance. ‘Seriously, Rebecca, if you think that, then why are you going to court to say otherwise? And why do you want my help?’

  ‘Because he won’t let me take the children,’ she said.

  ‘Take them where?’

  ‘To America.’

  ‘Why are you going to America? Do you mean on holiday?’

  She gave an exasperated laugh, as if she couldn’t quite believe that she had to explain something so obvious to me. ‘No, we’re moving there.’

  ‘Who’s moving there? And why? And since when?’

  ‘Oh my God, Edith. So many questions! It’s like having a conversation with Miss Marple. Arjan, the boys and I are all moving there for his television show. To Los Angeles – can you believe it?’

  ‘Well, that’s good news for him, I suppose,’ I said. ‘But what about the boys? What about their schooling?’

  ‘They do have schools in America, as far as I understand.’

  ‘Yes, with metal detectors on every doorway to hold back the shooters.’

  ‘Oh, don’t exaggerate.’

  ‘And what about their friends?’

  ‘They’ll make new friends.’

  ‘Why didn’t you tell me about any of this before?’

  ‘Sorry, I thought I had. Well, I told Mum, so I assumed she’d pass it on.’

  ‘Actually, no. This is the first I’m hearing of any of it. What did Mum say?’

  ‘She was very upset. She started going on about how much she was going to miss the boys growing up and blah, blah, blah. I told her, Mum, there are such things as aeroplanes! You can come and visit whenever you want! Although don’t get me wrong, Edith. I don’t literally mean whenever she wants. We’ll probably be quite busy with a new social circle so please don’t think that either of you can just show up unannounced.’

  ‘I can’t believe you didn’t tell me personally. I’m going to miss the boys too. So will Maurice. You know how fond he is of the children.’

  ‘Well, you don’t have to worry too much. It’s not for a couple of months yet and there are so many things to be sorted out this end before we even think of booking flights. But, you see, Robert is being a complete pain about the whole thing. He’s refusing to let the boys go and, since we currently have joint custody, I’m not allowed to leave the country with them without his permission.’

  ‘That’s perfectly reasonable,’ I said. ‘What father would want to be separated from his sons?’

  ‘He’s so bloody selfish,’ said Rebecca. ‘He always has been. If you ever have children, I hope you’ll think twice before putting Maurice’s name on the birth certificate. It gives men all these rights that you could otherwise keep from them and, let’s face it, when have they ever put us first on anything? Not that that’s really something you’ll need to worry about. You’re career, career, career all the way, aren’t you? We’re so different in that respect. I’ve always had such a deep maternal streak.’

  I almost laughed. Not just at the insensitive nature of her remarks – she knew about the miscarriages, after all, or at least about some of them – but at her assumption that our marriage would end in failure, just as hers had.

  ‘Look,’ I said. ‘You can’t expect me to testify that he’s a bad father when he’s not. I won’t do it.’

  ‘Why not? I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a person to offer her first loyalty to her sister.’

  ‘I think, in this situation, my first loyalty should be to the boys. And whether I think they should be separated from a loving and selfless father. What’s their view on this, anyway? I presume th
ey don’t want to leave Robert behind?’

  ‘Oh no, they’re up in arms,’ she told me. ‘They don’t want to leave England. But that’s neither here nor there. I’m not going to be dictated to by a nine-year-old and a six-year-old.’

  ‘Edward is seven,’ I pointed out.

  ‘Oh, shut up, Edith,’ she said. ‘Look, all I need is for you to sit down opposite a judge and say that Robert has a terrible temper, that he’s called the boys a few beastly names and that he’s threatened to hit me on occasion, that sort of thing.’

  ‘I’m not going to do that!’ I cried.

  ‘It won’t take more than an hour or so. Then you can get back to your book or your students, or whatever it is you do to fill your days.’

  ‘Rebecca, I’m not going to lie in court. Especially about something so important. For one thing, it’s perjury. I could go to jail.’

  ‘Lots of people have written books in jail. Look at Jeffrey Archer.’

  ‘I’m not sure Jeffrey Archer is someone on whose career I want to model my own.’

  ‘Don’t be such a snob. He’s sold millions of books all over the world, which is more than you’ve ever done. Anyway, you’re not going to go to jail, you’re just being melodramatic. Just stick to your story and no one will be able to prove that you’re lying. If you don’t help me on this, then there’s a good chance that custody arrangements will remain exactly as they are and we won’t be able to leave. And this is Arjan’s big chance, after all.’

  ‘Can’t he just go on his own?’

  ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘No, I wouldn’t allow that. Our relationship would never survive such a distance. He’d probably meet someone else over there. Hollywood is full of bimbos, all with their eyes on the main prize.’

  ‘I’m sorry, Rebecca,’ I said, trying to adopt as firm a voice as I possibly could. ‘But I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to perjure myself, I’m not going to lie about Robert and I’m not going to put my nephews’ futures in jeopardy. Sorry, but no.’

  ‘I can’t believe how selfish you’re being,’ she said after a lengthy pause.

  ‘Try,’ I said.

  ‘Edith, you’re the only one I can ask. It’s too much to ask of a friend and, besides, I don’t really have any friends. They all seem to have slipped away over the years, for some reason. Jealousy, I expect. Women have always been jealous of me. Well, you should know that better than anyone. No, it has to be you. A family member.’

  ‘The answer’s no,’ I repeated. ‘And I’m sorry, but I have to go now.’

  ‘But—’

  ‘Sorry, Rebecca. Let’s talk soon.’

  And I hung up, waiting expectantly for the phone to ring again. But, to my relief, it stayed silent. I wondered whether I should call Robert and tell him what she’d asked me to do but decided against it, wishing that I could be left out of the whole thing entirely. Looking back now, that’s one of my biggest regrets. If I’d simply phoned him up and recounted this conversation, even agreed to sign a statement to this effect for his solicitor, everything in his life might have turned out differently.

  Although it wouldn’t have made any great difference to mine, I suppose.

  When you returned from London the following evening, you were almost hysterical with happiness. You phoned me from Thorpe Station to ask where I was and I told you that I was on campus, in the grad bar, where one of my students was celebrating her birthday. I expected you to ask me to leave and meet you in town for a drink but, to my surprise, you said that you’d jump in a taxi and meet me there.

  You arrived around twenty minutes later, striding towards our group as if you owned the place, and when I stood up you wrapped your arms around me, kissing me passionately, and I immediately felt embarrassed by such a public display of emotion.

  ‘So how did it go?’ I asked, dragging you away from the group so we could talk in private.

  ‘Brilliantly.’

  ‘He likes it, then? He wants to represent you?’

  ‘He had the contract all ready for my signature when I arrived.’

  ‘That’s wonderful, Maurice.’

  ‘He claimed that he’d always been an admirer of my fiction, particularly The Treehouse.’

  ‘Ha,’ I said. ‘I bet that pleased you.’

  ‘Well, yes,’ you replied, frowning a little, and I realized immediately that I’d said the wrong thing. ‘It did, as it happens. It’s always been a far subtler work than Two Germans. We had a long conversation about my career to date and he feels that this is the right novel to relaunch me. He wants me to say that I’ve been working on it for seven years, just to increase the sense of the book’s importance.’

  ‘But you’ve barely been working on it seven months,’ I said.

  ‘I know, but look, I’ll say whatever needs to be said. It’s the novel that matters. Getting it out there. Bringing readers to me. To it, I mean.’

  ‘The truth matters too, though, surely?’ I said.

  ‘Oh, come on, Edith,’ you replied, rolling your eyes. ‘It’s only a little white lie. It hardly matters. He’s putting it out to auction in a couple of weeks’ time. He thinks it’s going to be the most sought-after novel of the year.’

  ‘Jesus, Maurice,’ I said. ‘What the hell have you written?’

  You shrugged, as if the act of writing something that was provoking such interest was rather simple, really. ‘Just a novel. That’s all.’

  ‘It sounds like it’s more than just a novel,’ I said. ‘It sounds like it’s something very special.’

  ‘Well, I hope so, yes.’

  ‘And did he talk advances?’

  ‘He did. He thinks it’ll be high. He even said …’ You paused and shook your head. ‘Well, no, I don’t want to jinx it.’

  ‘Go on, tell me.’

  ‘It’s silly, it doesn’t matter.’

  I punched you playfully on the arm. ‘Tell me,’ I insisted.

  ‘He said he’d put his house on it that I’ll win The Prize next year.’ My eyes opened wide. ‘Are you kidding me?’

  ‘That’s what he said. But look, there’s no point thinking about things like that right now. Awards are neither here nor there. You know things like that don’t matter to me in the slightest.’

  Which was a total lie, of course, because you’d read every book ever shortlisted for The Prize throughout its history. You were practically its unofficial historian. Even making it on to the longlist had been your life’s ambition and, the previous year, when Douglas Sherman had come close to winning, you’d almost lost your mind in bitterness and envy.

  ‘In a way, it would be like the completion of a circle, wouldn’t it?’ I said, thinking about this. ‘If you were to win, I mean?’

  ‘How so?’

  ‘Well, Erich Ackermann won for Dread. And that’s where things started for you. With Erich’s story.’

  ‘Poor Erich would roll in his grave if my name got added to his on the honour roll,’ you said, but I could see that you were pleased by the idea. ‘Oh, Garrett,’ you said, leaning forward and raising your voice so the students were forced to pause in their conversations and look our way. ‘I haven’t seen you since you got your deal, have I? Edith told me all about it. Congratulations, you must be thrilled.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Garrett, smiling happily as he brushed the hair out of his eyes. ‘I didn’t expect to be published so young. I never really saw myself as a prodigy.’

  ‘I’m sure you didn’t,’ you said. ‘I don’t think anyone would have predicted that you’d ever find a publisher. But they do say there’s a boom in children’s writing at the moment, don’t they? And that’s where the money is too, from what I understand.’

  ‘It’s not a …’ began Garrett, and I could see that he was doing all he could to stop himself from roaring this at the top of his voice. I knew you were just taking the piss out of him and I had to bite my lip to stop myself laughing.

  ‘Yes, we know it’s not a children’s book,’ shouted Nich
olas, throwing his arms in the air in frustration. ‘Jesus, Garrett, why don’t you just get that printed on cards and hand them out to people every time the subject comes up?’

  ‘It’s vital that we get children reading,’ you continued. ‘Then when the little monsters grow up they’ll read books by Edith and me and some of your colleagues here. We actually owe people like you, Garrett, a debt of gratitude.’

  ‘And what about you, Maurice?’ asked Garrett, who was never one to back down from a fight. ‘Will you be joining me on the festival circuit, or is that all a thing of the past for you?’

  ‘I don’t really do children’s festivals,’ you said.

  ‘You don’t really do adult festivals either any more, do you?’ he asked. ‘It’s been so long since Two Germans. I know there was that other little book after that – what was it called again? The Cubbyhole? Something like that? – but as far as I understand, that’s best left unmentioned.’

  ‘Actually, my husband has just sold his latest novel,’ I said, stretching the truth a little, but it seemed clear that this was only a matter of weeks, if not days, away.

  ‘Really?’ said Garrett, his face falling a little. ‘An actual novel or just an idea?’

  ‘An actual novel,’ you replied, smiling. ‘Full of sentences and paragraphs and chapters.’

  ‘Well, good for you,’ he replied. ‘Are you going to tell us what it’s about or is it a state secret?’

  ‘I thought I’d go for something really original,’ you said. ‘Animals that can’t talk. Like in real life, you know? No, I’m just kidding, Garrett. Don’t look so annoyed. If you don’t mind, I won’t tell you the story right now. You can read it when it comes out, if you like. I’ll make sure to get my publisher to send you a copy. But let’s not talk about all this right now. It’s someone’s birthday, yes? Shouldn’t we be celebrating?’

  And we did celebrate. And when we got back to our apartment, we celebrated again, just the two of us. A celebration that was only slightly marred when you asked what George had been talking about the previous morning when he’d said about my applying for a job and I was forced to tell you that I’d been thinking of staying on at UEA. But you said no, that it was important that we get back to London when your book came out, as it was important that you be in the heart of things.

 
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