A ladder to the sky, p.21
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.21
 

           John Boyne

  ‘I’m sure you’ll find another teaching job there,’ you said. ‘From what I understand, you might have found your true calling in the classroom.’

  ‘Thanks,’ I said, although for the life of me I didn’t know what I was thanking you for.

  7. March

  When I woke that Tuesday morning, how could I have known that everything I had worked for since I was a girl, every dream and ambition that had found its way into my heart, would be stolen from me by nightfall?

  It seems ironic in retrospect but I remember opening my eyes to the sun pouring through the curtains and feeling an overwhelming sense of well-being. A few days earlier, I’d finished my novel and was finally ready to show it to my editor. Unlike when I completed Fear, which you’d encouraged me to submit to agents despite my doubts about its merits, I felt a measured confidence in this one and had even decided on a title, The Tribesman. I knew it still needed some work but, I felt, not an enormous amount. It would certainly be ready by the end of the academic year, which had been my original plan when we’d arrived in Norwich.

  It had already been an exciting week. Two days earlier, Peter Wills-Bouche had sold your manuscript for an astonishing four hundred thousand pounds to one of the most prestigious publishers in London and it was currently on submission with five American publishers. To my surprise, you’d been quieter than usual over recent days, less ebullient than I might have been in your position, and I worried that your distance sprang from anxiety or a sense of anticlimax.

  I could hear you in the shower as I climbed out of bed, opening a window on to the bright, clear morning and reaching my head outside for a moment to breathe in the air. As I did so, however, I felt an unexpected convulsion in my stomach, and it was all that I could do to run to the kitchen sink before I threw up. I kept my head over the porcelain for a minute or two until the retching came to an end. Feeling shaky, I sat down at the kitchen table, placing a hand against my forehead. My skin was slick with perspiration and, a moment later, I touched my stomach and then felt the tenderness of my breasts. I knew the symptoms only too well; I’d been pregnant four times already, after all. And now I was pregnant for a fifth.

  A rush of conflicted thoughts shot through my head simultaneously. How would this affect the publication of both our books? No, I’m being disingenuous. I wondered how it would affect the publication of my book. Would I carry the baby to term or lose it like I had lost the others? Where would we live? I liked Norwich and wanted to stay at the university but even if I could convince you that we were better off there than in London there was no way we could stay in a small flat with a broken staircase. The idea of trying to get a pram up and down the stairs several times a day was ridiculous. I’d kill both myself and the child. We’d have to find somewhere else.

  I said nothing to you about any of this when you emerged, fully dressed, slipping past me wordlessly as I made my way towards the bathroom.

  ‘Edith?’ you said, perhaps surprised by my silence. ‘Are you all right?’

  ‘Fine,’ I replied, not turning around. I guessed my face was still pale and sweaty. ‘Just desperate for the loo, that’s all.’

  When I was showered and dressed, you were already gone, a note left on the pillow saying that you’d be out for the day and would see me that evening. No mention of where you were going, but I assumed it was the library in the centre of town. You’d been spending a lot of time there recently as you worked on your rewrites. I didn’t give it much thought as I made my way to the pharmacy at the end of the road, where I bought a pregnancy test then took it back home.

  The line turned blue. The line had always turned blue for me. I was incredibly fertile, we both were, but my inhospitable womb, as my gynaecologist described it, was still the enemy.

  ‘Please let her live,’ I said quietly, uncertain whether I was addressing God, my womb or the universe itself. ‘Let me keep this one.’

  And somehow, I felt absolutely certain at that moment that the child would survive and that we would be a family.

  Later, when the doorbell rang, I was both surprised and annoyed to see Rebecca standing outside. It was the first time that she’d visited me in Norwich and, naturally, she hadn’t bothered to call in advance to say that she was coming.

  ‘I’m not actually visiting you,’ she said as she sat down, pushing the students’ scripts off the seat and on to the floor as if they were worthless things.

  ‘It feels like you are,’ I said. ‘I mean, you’re here, after all.’

  ‘No, I’m only passing through. I had a meeting in King’s Lynn this morning and, as I was driving through Norwich on my way home, I thought I’d stop by to tell you what a terrible sister you are.’

  ‘Marvellous,’ I said, feeling my heart sink and wishing that we had one of those video cameras at the front door so I could see who was outside before admitting them. ‘Would you like a coffee before you list all the reasons or are you happy just to get started?’

  ‘No, I would not like a coffee,’ said Rebecca. ‘And if I did, I would go to a coffee shop.’

  ‘Well, there’s one at the end of the road,’ I said.

  ‘I’d go there because you’d probably poison me.’ She sat back and looked me up and down as if she were trying to figure something out in her head. ‘I don’t know what I ever did to you,’ she said.

  ‘Really?’ I asked, already fed up with this conversation. ‘Not a single idea? When you look back to our childhood, there’s nothing there that rings any bells?’

  ‘I was such a kind and loving sister. Always attentive to your needs.’

  ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You were horrible to me from the day I was born.’

  ‘What rubbish. Your problem, Edith, if you don’t mind me saying so, is that you’ve always thought you were superior to other people. Morally superior, I mean.’

  ‘Not to all people, no,’ I said. ‘Just to you.’

  ‘You see? I come here to visit and all you can do is—’

  ‘You’ve already made it clear that you didn’t come to visit. Look, I’m assuming this has something to do with Robert.’

  ‘In a way. You should have backed me up, Edith, it’s that simple. So when the shit hits the fan, remember: all of this is your fault.’

  ‘What are you talking about?’

  ‘Just that it would have been a lot easier for everyone if you had done as I asked. And, you know, Robert could have come to the States to see the boys whenever he wanted. Now, that won’t be so easy. You see, you’ve actually hurt Damien and Edward more than me. It’s they who’ll suffer.’

  ‘So you’re still going ahead with the move to Los Angeles?’

  ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I?’

  ‘And Robert’s allowing that?’

  She smiled, as if it were clear that she knew something that I didn’t know and was desperate for me to ask, but I was determined not to.

  ‘Look,’ she continued, ‘despite the fact that you’ve been such a terrible sister to me, I want you to know that you’re welcome to visit us whenever you want. I won’t hold your actions against you.’

  ‘That’s very forgiving of you,’ I said.

  ‘I know. And if you want to say goodbye to the boys, then you should probably make plans to do so. We’ll be leaving in the next few weeks.’

  ‘But how is this even happening?’ I asked. ‘The last time we talked you said that Robert was refusing to let you leave the country. What’s changed?’

  ‘Nothing’s changed. He’s still putting up as many barriers as he can.’

  ‘So you’re just going to leave anyway? You’ll probably be breaking all sorts of laws if you do, and then he’ll hire a lawyer, you’ll be dragged back, thrown in jail and he’ll be given full custody. Surely you don’t want that?’

  She smiled and shook her head. ‘Oh, he’ll need a lawyer all right. But not for the reason you think. Robert,’ she added, leaning forward with a triumphant smile on her face, ‘is about to receive a ver
y nasty shock.’

  ‘What sort of a shock?’

  ‘A visit from the police.’

  ‘Why will the police be calling on Robert?’ I asked. ‘What’s he done?’

  ‘Kiddie porn,’ she said, clapping her hands quickly like a child. ‘On his computer.’

  I stared at her. ‘No,’ I said, feeling sick all over again. ‘No, I don’t believe it. Not in a million years. Not Robert.’

  ‘Not Robert, no. But on Robert’s home computer.’

  ‘How do you know?’

  ‘Because I put it there.’

  I couldn’t speak. I felt my head begin to grow a little dizzy.

  ‘I have a key to his flat,’ she continued, ecstatic now. She’d obviously been dying to tell someone. ‘I need it to let the children in when they’re staying with him. So I went over one afternoon while he was at work and downloaded hundreds of images. You’d be surprised how easy it is to find them. Then I put them in a file called HOUSEHOLD ACCOUNTS and planted that in a folder on his desktop called OLD WORK. I doubt he ever even looks in there.’

  ‘Rebecca—’

  ‘And this morning, I made an anonymous call to Crimestoppers. I pretended that I’d been on a date with him and that he’d brought me back to his place, which is where I saw the images as he shut down his computer. I didn’t give my name or number, just said that I was disgusted by the whole thing and someone should look into it. Well, of course they took his name and address, and I imagine they’ll be following up very soon.’

  ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ I asked, when I found my voice again.

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘That’s … I’ve never heard of anything so …’ I was so flabbergasted by the depths to which she had sunk that I could scarcely find the words.

  ‘Oh, get off your high horse,’ she said, waving a hand in the air to dismiss me. ‘It means that everything will be all right for me and Arjan.’

  ‘Why are you telling me this?’ I asked, shell-shocked.

  ‘Because you asked.’

  ‘You don’t think I’ll let you get away with it, do you?’

  ‘But of course you will,’ she said, smiling. ‘What are you going to do, tell the police what I’ve said? First, it’s your word against mine. And second, even if they did believe you, which they won’t, and even if they prosecuted me, which they wouldn’t, it would reflect poorly on you and Mum and the boys—’

  ‘And their father going to jail for possession of child pornography won’t affect them?’

  ‘They’ll be far away. In Hollywood!’

  ‘This is fucking insane,’ I said.

  ‘Yes, well, as I said, if you want to say your goodbyes—’

  ‘I’ll go to the police myself,’ I insisted. ‘I’ll swear in a court of law—’

  ‘No, you won’t,’ she said, standing up.

  ‘I will.’

  ‘We shall see. You have a new novel coming out soon, don’t you? Are you sure you want your name linked with a child-pornography scandal? Anyway, I should go, Edith. I still have to drive all the way home. You have my number so, if you want to say goodbye, you can get in touch. Otherwise, perhaps I’ll see you in LA one day? I know the boys would be thrilled if you could visit. You and Maurice, I mean. He was always better with them than you were.’

  And with that she simply laughed, took one more look around the room as if the entire set-up was even worse than she’d expected, and left.

  A few moments later, the phone rang. And my world really fell apart.

  You came home shortly after six o’clock. I’d been sitting on the sofa in the living room for a long time, simply staring into space, although I’d thrown up once again, this time in the hallway by the telephone stand, a mess that I hadn’t even bothered to clean up. All the love and respect that I’d ever felt for you had completely disappeared over the previous few hours and now all I could do was figure out how to leave you and where I would go.

  You knew me well enough to realize that something was wrong when you came through the door and, even if you hadn’t, the pile of vomit would have alerted you to the fact.

  ‘What the hell’s gone on here?’ you asked.

  ‘I’ve been sick,’ I said.

  ‘I can see that. You might have cleaned it up, Edith. It’s ghastly. And it stinks out there.’

  ‘You clean it up,’ I said, and the tone in my voice, so hostile and aggressive, probably surprised both of us in equal parts. You stared at me but said nothing and I could see that you were wondering which of your lies I’d discovered.

  ‘Obviously something’s wrong,’ you said, making your way towards the fridge, taking out a bottle of beer and flipping the lid off, finishing a good third of it in one draught.

  ‘You could say that,’ I said quietly.

  ‘Well, are you going to tell me what it is?’

  ‘First things first,’ I replied. ‘Our marriage is over, Maurice, and I’m leaving you. Today. This evening. Actually, no,’ I said, wondering why this hadn’t occurred to me earlier. ‘You’ll be the one leaving. I want you to pack your things and get out within the hour. And I’m going to start divorce proceedings against you tomorrow morning.’

  You said nothing for a moment, then simply nodded and sat down in the armchair by the window.

  ‘All right, then,’ you said, trying to sound nonchalant, but there was a tone in your voice that I hadn’t heard before. ‘If that’s what you want, I won’t stand in your way. Any particular reason why, though? I mean, we’ve been married for five years and when I left here this morning everything seemed fine between us. So it would be nice to know what I’m supposed to have done wrong in the meantime. Did I leave the toilet seat up again?’

  ‘I received a phone call this afternoon,’ I said, turning to look at you, watching as you tried so hard to keep your expression neutral.

  ‘A phone call from whom?’ you asked.

  ‘From Peter.’

  ‘I love phone calls from Peter,’ you replied with a smile. ‘They always contain good news. Have I sold some more foreign rights? Or perhaps a film deal is in the offing.’

  ‘That wasn’t what he called about. He asked me to pass a message on to you. Apparently, he’d been trying to get hold of you on your mobile all afternoon but it was switched off.’

  ‘Ah, that’s because I was in Maja’s apartment,’ you said.

  ‘I’m sorry?’ I replied, uncertain that I’d heard you correctly. ‘Maja?’

  ‘Yes, Maja Drazkowski. Your former student. You remember her, right? Pretty little thing? Not a big fan of yours! Thinks you’re a bit of a bitch, to be honest, but I’ve told her that she’d like you more if she got to know you. We’ve been having a thing for a few months now, ever since she dropped out of the course, actually. I wouldn’t have told you, but I don’t suppose it matters any more, since you’ve decided to leave me anyway.’

  I shook my head and laughed. Surprisingly, I found that I didn’t care very much. In a day filled with surprises, the fact that you’d been cheating on me with a plagiarist was the least of my problems.

  ‘So are you going to tell me what Peter wanted or leave me to guess?’ you asked, and I turned to you, certain that you could guess.

  ‘He said that your publisher called and they’re wondering whether you might give the title of your novel another thought. Turns out they don’t like it very much. They want something a little more commercial.’

  ‘Really? I thought it was rather good.’

  ‘I thought so too when I came up with it,’ I said, raising my voice now. ‘The Tribesman.’

  ‘Sweetheart, it’s just a title,’ you said, smiling, and I knew you were rattled, for you’d never once, in all the years of our acquaintance, called me sweetheart or darling or honey or baby or any of those other bullshit words that I’ve always hated so much.

  ‘It’s more than just a title,’ I said. ‘It’s the whole fucking book! You’ve stolen it from me!’

&
nbsp; ‘Oh, please,’ you replied with a laugh. ‘I haven’t stolen anything. Don’t be so melodramatic.’

  ‘Jesus, Maurice, I looked on your computer! I found the file. And the emails to and from Peter. I found my novel there. My novel!’

  ‘But do novels really belong to any of us?’ you asked, looking up towards the ceiling as if we were engaged in a profound philosophical discussion. ‘Other than to readers, I mean? It’s an interesting question, don’t you think?’

  ‘That’s what you’ve been doing here all year,’ I said, standing up and starting to pace the floor as the depth of your betrayal hit me. ‘While I’ve been at work, you’ve been sitting in that office, transcribing my book, word for word. And the drafts! You even managed to get some of them on there! I have to compliment you, Maurice. You’ve been pretty good at covering your tracks.’

  You opened your mouth to protest but I knew that you couldn’t be bothered to deny it. You’d been caught out. It was easier to change tack.

  ‘I needed it,’ you said quietly, unable to look me in the eye. ‘I’m sorry, Edith, but I had no story. You know that. I’ve never had a story of my own. I’m just no good at them.’

  ‘That doesn’t mean you can steal mine!’ I shouted.

  ‘Look,’ you cried, standing up and coming towards me, frightening me a little as you took me by the arms and I pulled free. ‘No one has to know. Just give me this, Edith, that’s all I ask. If you love me, if you truly love me, then just give me this. The novel is wonderful, by the way. Everything that Peter has said about it is true. It really is a masterpiece and you’re a terrific writer. I’ve got a real shot at The Prize with it. I’ll certainly be shortlisted, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.’

  I stared at you, bewildered, wondering whether you’d lost your mind completely. ‘But then it’s my masterpiece,’ I cried. ‘And it will be my shortlisting!’

  ‘Does it matter whose name is on it? We’re married, aren’t we? We’re a team. In it for the long haul. What difference does it make to you if I put my name on this one and you start another? I’m better known than you are, after all, and this is my way back into the publishing world. I’ll write something else myself afterwards, I promise.’

 
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