A ladder to the sky, p.22
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.22
 

           John Boyne

  ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I roared. ‘You actually think I’m going to just give you my novel? After all the work I’ve put into it?’

  ‘Why not?’ you asked, looking confused. ‘Is it really that much to ask?’

  ‘Because it would be a complete lie!’

  ‘I think you’re being terribly selfish,’ you said, and I started to laugh, my laughter quickly becoming a little hysterical. I felt as if this couldn’t possibly be happening. I looked at you, you smiled, and I couldn’t help it, at that moment I remembered how attractive I’d always found you, and for a moment I wondered how it would feel to fuck you right there and then, knowing everything about you that I knew now. But of course I didn’t, I turned around instead and left the room, making my way towards the bedroom, where I was going to start packing for you. Before I could get in there, you’d caught up with me at the top of the stairs and had spun me around. The stink of vomit on the floor was overwhelming.

  ‘What are you going to do?’ you asked, and I could see how pale your face had gone now. The terror you felt that I was going to expose you as a liar.

  ‘First, I’m going to throw you out,’ I said. ‘Then I’m going to phone my agent and tell her what you’ve done. After that, I’m going to phone your agent and tell him what you’ve done. How you’ve lied to him, made a complete fool of him in the industry. I can’t imagine that he’ll be very happy, can you? It might delay the press release by a few days. Oh, and then I should probably call your publisher too—’

  ‘You can’t!’

  ‘Of course I can! Do you actually believe you can get away with saying that you wrote it? You might have created a few drafts on your computer, Maurice, but I have dozens of notebooks, all dated, all filled with notes. You never looked for them, did you? I have so much proof that the novel is mine that it will take about five minutes to show you up for the plagiarist you are. It’s no wonder that you’re fucking Maja Drazkowski, you probably gave her the idea of stealing someone else’s story from the New Yorker.’

  ‘That’s true, I did,’ you said with a mocking laugh. ‘I didn’t think she’d have the guts to go through with it, though. Although I didn’t say the New Yorker. I told her to pick a much more obscure magazine. Something from some mid-Western university press with about five readers. She slipped up badly there. I mean, the New Yorker. What an amateur.’

  ‘Christ,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘You’re psychotic.’

  ‘Not really. I just need to be a writer, that’s all. It’s all I’ve ever needed to be. That and a father. And it’s not as if you’ve been much use to me on that score, is it?’

  ‘Don’t bring that up,’ I said quickly, feeling a twinge inside myself at what I knew that you didn’t. ‘That’s got nothing to do with any of this.’

  ‘It’s got everything to do with it,’ you said. ‘You can’t give me a child so surely you can make up for that by giving me a book. I need it, don’t you see that? Without a writing career, what am I, after all? Please, Edith,’ you said, your tone changing slightly now, becoming less aggressive and more beseeching. ‘If you tell anyone, you’ll ruin me. There’ll be no coming back from it. My reputation will be completely destroyed.’

  ‘Just like Erich Ackermann’s was,’ I said.

  ‘Erich Ackermann was a Nazi!’ you shouted, losing your temper now. ‘You said so yourself. You can’t compare me to him.’

  ‘The truth is,’ I said, looking you directly in the eyes, ‘you’re not a writer at all, Maurice. You’re desperate to be but you don’t have the talent. You never did have. That’s why you’ve always attached yourself to people more successful than yourself, pretended to be their friend and then dropped them when they were no longer of any use to you. You must have thought that all your Christmases had come at once when my career started to take off.’

  ‘Shut up,’ you snapped, your face contorting in anger now.

  ‘But the thing is, I am a writer,’ I continued. ‘And that book you’ve been passing off to the world belongs to me. I’m everything that you’re not. You’re just a hack. You stole Ackermann’s life, you stole my words. On their worst day, any one of my students has more ability than you.’

  ‘You’d better stop talking,’ you said, your chin trembling in fury.

  ‘I want you out, Maurice,’ I said, feeling strong now, stronger than I’d felt since the night you raped me. ‘I want you out right now, do you understand? Unless you want to be here when I start making my phone calls.’

  I turned away from you and you pulled me back, spinning me round. As you did so, I felt my ankle twist beneath me at the top of the stairs. I reached out for the railing, that broken railing I’d asked you to fix on so many occasions, but my hand didn’t connect with it. The whole thing felt as if I were moving in slow motion. As if I were watching myself from above while I stared at you, aware that I was about to fall. All I needed was for you to reach out and grab me and I would be safe. I said your name.

  ‘Maurice.’

  I stood there for what felt like an eternity, unable to fall, unable to recover, and that was when I saw the clear resolution on your face. You knew exactly what you had to do to save yourself.

  You reached out and, with a gentle, almost loving, tap, pushed me.

  8. Now

  I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been here. The concept of time loses whatever credibility it had when you’re locked in a coma. It’s been more than a few weeks, though, of that I’m sure. Perhaps a month or two? I’m in no pain, which is good, but nor am I alert to a particular lack of pain. The best I can do is describe it as having a consciousness but no body, no movement or expression. I’m an anthology of thoughts and memories trapped within a static shell. I can see everything around me and yet my eyes refuse to open. I can hear every sound but can’t make myself heard. I’m alone and yet I’m frequently surrounded by people.

  There are nurses, of course. They wash me every morning using soft sponges and tepid water. They move my arms and legs, bending them carefully at the elbows and knees, to ensure that my muscles don’t atrophy. They rotate my wrists and ankles, trim my fingernails, apply moisturizers to my skin. They empty bags filled with my excreta and replace them, so I can void again. And yet they seem to forget that I was once alive, that I’m still alive, holding conversations over my inert form that go something like this:

  Nurse 1: You know who she is, don’t you?

  Nurse 2: No, who?

  Nurse 1: She’s a writer. She wrote that television programme, Fury, that won all them awards a couple of years back.

  Nurse 2: Oh, I never saw that. I read the book and thought it was a bit pretentious.

  Nurse 1: I didn’t read it. I always say that if a book’s any good, sooner or later it’ll find its way on to the box. I don’t have any time to read these days, anyway.

  Nurse 2: Well, you haven’t missed much.

  Nurse 1: I used to read a lot when I was younger.

  Or this:

  Nurse 1: You’ve seen her husband, I suppose?

  Nurse 2: Lord, yes. If I was ten years younger and twenty pounds lighter!

  Nurse 1: The poor man is inconsolable. He must have really loved her.

  Nurse 2: I don’t see it. I mean, she’s not bad-looking but he’s in a different stratosphere. And, you know, there’s the colour thing too.

  Nurse 1: (laughing) You can’t say that!

  Nurse 2: Oh, I don’t mean anything by it. I’m not racist or anything. I’m just saying. My cousin Jimmy married a black girl and she ran off on him in the end. Took the children too. The poor bloke never got over it. You have to be careful, that’s all.

  Or sometimes:

  Nurse 1: How long more will they keep her on this, do you think?

  Nurse 2: Your guess is as good as mine. It’s down to the family in the end, isn’t it?

  There are doctors too. They stand over me and check their charts, telling each other where they went for dinner the night before. I’m
privy to their most intimate conversations and all I can do is lie here while the machines by my bed breathe for me. Sometimes I sing songs in my head, whole albums even, challenging myself to remember every word of the lyrics.

  You visited a lot in the early days and were very good at playing the grieving husband. Sometimes, when we were alone, you would sit next to me, take my hand and speak in a quiet voice that, strangely, I found very relaxing.

  ‘The university keeps calling me,’ you said. ‘They’ve been very solicitous. They’re desperate to help in some way but, of course, there’s nothing they can do. At one point, I considered asking whether they might like me to take over your classes for you, but I thought they might think that a bit odd.’

  Another time, you worked through the page proofs of The Tribesman while sitting at my bedside and told me whenever you were changing one of my sentences for one of your own. I must admit that your corrections were, for the most part, good ones.

  I overheard a conversation between you and Nurse 2 one evening when she said that she really admired how well you were holding it together. Not everyone does, she told you. Some people go to pieces, others cause trouble for the hospital, as if the doctors aren’t trying hard enough. You told her that you had no choice, that you were sure that I could hear every word you said and that if I knew how much you loved me, I’d wake up. You said that you hadn’t told me that enough before the accident – your word, not mine – and that that was one of your biggest regrets. Then you started sobbing, she hugged you and I heard myself screaming, literally screaming like a banshee, inside my head. Only the room, of course, was in silence.

  Once, you placed a hand on my stomach, quite gently, and told me I’d been pregnant but that the child hadn’t survived the fall. I knew that, you didn’t have to say it. She would have lived too, had you pulled me back rather than pushing me. I can sense her spirit sometimes, but we haven’t made any connection. Not yet, anyway. Soon, perhaps.

  A few nights ago, you arrived with someone else. The room was a dark blur then and I couldn’t identify who it was. Eventually, I realized it was a young woman. She leaned over me and whispered in a familiar European accent.

  ‘Don’t wake up, Edith,’ she said. ‘Don’t ever wake up. Things are just perfect here without you.’

  It didn’t take me long to figure out that it was Maja Drazkowski. Are you a couple now? I imagine you must keep it very quiet, as you’d lose all sympathy if anyone discovered that you were fucking one of my students while I was stuck in hospital, showing no sign whatsoever of recovering. She’s a strange choice for you but I imagine you’ll get rid of her once the novel takes off and you’re back in literary circulation. There are much more significant catches out there lying in wait for you. I almost feel sorry for Maja. Almost.

  But, of course, you’re not the only one who visits. Mum comes up from London every few days and tries to be strong but ends up in tears. She tells me over and over how much she loves me and recounts happy stories from when I was a child. I want to tell her that I love her too. She brings a friend occasionally, who puts an arm around her and says things like:

  She looks well, all things considered, doesn’t she?

  and

  Shall we stop off for a bite to eat on the way home? I could murder a cod and chips.

  Life goes on, I suppose.

  Rebecca came only once. She started by smoothing down the bedsheets and clearing up whatever detritus had been left behind on the bedside table. I don’t know why she bothered.

  ‘Hello, Edith,’ she said, in a normal tone of voice, as if we’d just run into each other on the street unexpectedly. ‘I brought some grapes. Shall I just leave them over here?’

  Why on earth she brought grapes is a mystery to me. I wanted to scream, I’m in a coma, you stupid fucking bitch, and I did scream it, in my head, anyway. She sat down and looked around the room, keeping her hands firmly in her lap. I don’t think she wanted to touch any of the surfaces in case she came down with MRSA.

  ‘Shall I catch you up on the gossip?’ she asked.

  No, I thought.

  ‘Arjan’s arrived in LA and started shooting. He’s loving it. It’s obvious that the show is going to be an enormous hit. I’ve advised him that he should only commit to two seasons because, after that, film companies are going to want to cast him in movies. And if he’s stuck in a long-term contract with a TV show, then that’ll mess things up for us. That happened to the actor who played Magnum. What’s his name? I can’t remember.’

  Tom Selleck, I thought.

  ‘Oh, it’ll come to me. Anyway, it happened to him—’

  Tom Selleck, I re-thought.

  ‘He was offered the part of Indiana Jones but he couldn’t do it because he was locked into his contract and so Kevin Costner got it instead.’

  Harrison Ford, I shouted.

  ‘And I don’t want that to happen to Arjan. Anyway, the boys and I are going over next Thursday – can you believe it? Me! In Hollywood! I suppose you thought that you’d be the one to end up there because of your novels, but no, it’s me! I’ll write, of course, but I can’t see myself coming back here any time soon. I think England will seem so drab once I’m over there.’

  And Robert? What about Robert? I wondered.

  ‘I’m going to let you in on a little secret,’ she said, leaning in and lowering her voice. ‘It’s very hard being without Arjan for even a few days. Sexually, I mean. Honestly, Edith, I’ve never known anything like it. And nor have you, I promise you that. He’s young, of course, and men that age can go all night. With Robert, it was always one quick fumble and lights off. I actually thought that was normal – well, it probably is normal, but it’s not the way things are with Arjan. I wish you were well enough to come and visit us when we move. You’d be green with envy!’

  And then, just before she left, she came over and kissed me on the forehead and something damp fell on my nose. A tear? It must have been.

  ‘Try to wake up, Edith,’ she said. ‘We all miss you.’ And for a moment, I genuinely thought that she meant it.

  Soon after this, Robert visited too. There was some commotion about this because he arrived while you, Maurice, were on the ward, and you didn’t want to let him in. The door to my room was open and I could hear the two of you arguing in the corridor.

  ‘Look, she’s my sister-in-law,’ Robert was saying. ‘And we’ve always got on well, you know that. I just want to sit with her for a little while, that’s all.’

  ‘I know,’ you said, and I could tell from your voice that, although you were uncertain whether to allow this or not, you were leaning towards no. ‘But the thing is, she can’t hear you anyway, so there’s really no point. And I don’t think you should be here while all these other things are going on in your life. Honestly, Robert, I think Edith would be very disappointed if she knew what you’ve been accused of.’

  ‘She’d have no reason to be,’ he said. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’

  ‘Kiddie porn is hardly nothing wrong.’

  ‘I swear to you I don’t know how it got there.’

  ‘But that’s what they all say, isn’t it? That a virus got downloaded or someone hacked into their computer. I’ve heard it all before.’

  ‘But in my case, it’s true! I’ve never … I’ve never been even remotely interested in things like that. Not for a moment.’

  ‘Actually, Robert,’ you said, ‘if I’m completely honest with you, I don’t give a fuck. Do whatever you want, it makes sod all difference to me.’

  ‘I’m just trying to explain—’

  ‘But you’re explaining to the wrong person. It’s not me you have to convince, it’s the judge. When’s the trial, anyway?’

  There was a long pause and then Robert spoke again, so quietly that I struggled to hear him. ‘Not for months,’ he said. ‘About seven months from now.’

  ‘That’s a lot to have hanging over your head in the meantime.’

  ‘I’ve lost my jo
b too. And as I’m not allowed access to the internet, it’s practically impossible for me to find another one. And even if I could, how could I convince any employer to take me on in my current situation?’

  ‘I understand,’ you said, and I could tell that you were shrugging your shoulders or looking at your watch, hoping he’d just go away. ‘It’s not really my problem, though, is it?’

  ‘Edith would believe me,’ said Robert.

  ‘I doubt it,’ you said. ‘She could be very mistrusting, actually.’

  ‘How so?’ he asked, and you pulled back. It was as if you were saying that for an invisible audience – me – but knew better than to pursue it.

  ‘I just want to spend some time with her,’ said Robert plaintively. ‘To talk to her about the boys.’

  ‘Have you seen them?’

  ‘No, I’m not allowed. At least not on my own. I have a supervised visit the day before they leave for the States, but that’s it. Thirty minutes. They were interviewed too, you know. By some sort of specialist. To find out whether I’d ever … you know …’

  ‘Jesus,’ you said, sounding disgusted. ‘For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t believe that of you for even a moment. I’ve seen you with them. I know how much you love them. If you need me to say so, I will.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Robert, and I could hear him crying now. ‘That’s very good of you, Maurice. Because I’d never … not in a million years …’

  I tried so hard to wake up then. I really tried. I wanted to drag myself out of bed and tell Robert the truth, to tell him how Rebecca had set him up. I couldn’t believe that he hadn’t figured it out for himself, but it was such a monstrous thing for anyone to do that he probably couldn’t even imagine it. Nor could you. But then you never did have any imagination.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ you told him, steering him away from my room. ‘But look, until this whole mess is cleared up, I’d prefer if you didn’t visit again.’

 
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