A ladder to the sky, p.24
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.24
 

           John Boyne

  ‘No,’ said Maurice, who didn’t particularly care. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

  ‘She was only ninety-eight.’

  ‘Well, that is quite a good age.’

  ‘And then my dog was run over in the street by some idiot on a motorbike. And then I got cancer—’

  ‘What?’ he asked, leaning forward. This was new.

  ‘Well, I thought I had cancer,’ she said, correcting herself. ‘There was a mole. On my shoulder. One that hadn’t been there before. Anyway, my doctor said that he was worried about it so he sent a sample to the lab and it came back clear. But, you know, for a few days there I was convinced that I had cancer.’

  ‘But you didn’t.’

  ‘No, but that’s hardly the point. I might have done.’

  Maurice tapped his pen against the desk. This was one of the reasons he preferred working from home for the most part, only visiting the office once or twice a week. Bloody writers. He’d spent so many years desperate to be among their number but there were times when he truly despised them.

  ‘So your rejection really hit me hard,’ she said.

  ‘Well, if you can beat cancer, then surely you can get over a rejection from Storī,’ he said, and she was just opening her mouth to reply when his phone rang. He rarely answered calls, preferring to let them pile up before deciding which ones to return later in the day, but he picked it up quickly now, glad of the distraction, glancing at the screen first.

  School, it said.

  ‘Sorry,’ he said, holding his index finger in the air to silence Henrietta before she could start barking at him again. ‘It’s my son’s school. I should take this.’

  She threw her hands up as if she couldn’t quite believe that he was prioritizing his son over her and he stepped outside, marching past the interns and into the stairwell beyond where there was an occasional chance of privacy.

  ‘Maurice Swift,’ he said.

  ‘Mr Swift,’ said the voice at the other end, who sounded simultaneously bored by her job and thrilled by the momentary drama of calls such as this. ‘This is Alisha Macklin from St Joseph’s.’

  ‘Oh yes?’ said Maurice, already feeling the first rush of irritation build inside him. He didn’t much care for Daniel’s school and felt a certain anxiety every morning when he dropped the boy off at a place that might be riddled with child molesters or gun-wielding psychopaths. It was like living in some dystopian society or a Young Adult novel. He still couldn’t believe there was an airport scanner on the door that each of the children had to pass through before being admitted to classes. ‘What’s he done this time?’

  ‘First, let me say there’s nothing to worry about,’ replied Alisha. ‘Your son is perfectly fine. But we think you should make your way to the school as soon as possible.’

  ‘Why, what’s happened?’

  ‘There’s been an incident.’

  He didn’t ask anything else, just hung up and pressed the button on the lift. The school was only a ten-minute walk away, but the sun was shining so he took it leisurely. One of the interns could deal with Henrietta. That’s what I pay them for, after all, he thought, ignoring the fact that he didn’t actually pay them anything. They worked for free but with the unassailable conviction that a couple of months spent on a desk at Storī would add a solid detail to their résumés. Ultimately, he knew, they were using him to get ahead. And who was he to argue with that?

  Daniel, as it turned out, had slapped one of the girls in his class.

  ‘We’ve been experiencing problems between Daniel and Jupiter for some time,’ said Mrs Lane, the forty-something school principal, who, with her bouffant dyed-blonde hair and sensible sweater, gave off an air of mild desperation. A photograph in a silver frame was turned towards her on her desk and Maurice longed to see the picture it held, a human or a pet. He bet the latter.

  ‘Jupiter?’ he said, trying not to laugh. ‘I’m sorry, did you say Jupiter?’

  ‘Yes, Jupiter Dell,’ said Mrs Lane.

  ‘And she’s a little girl? Or a boy, perhaps?’

  ‘She’s a little girl, Mr Swift.’ The principal’s face relaxed a little, and she shrugged. ‘Between you and me, her parents are rather hippy-dippy types, if you know what I mean.’ She looked around and, despite the fact that they were alone, leaned forward and lowered her voice. ‘She has a younger brother named Mercury.’

  ‘He’ll have an easy time of it in school. Maybe you should bring the parents in to chastise them for forcing their children to grow up with such ridiculous names.’

  ‘Actually, the Dells were in here just before you,’ replied Mrs Lane. ‘Naturally, we had to call them first. Jupiter is very upset.’

  ‘Perhaps you could tell me exactly what happened,’ said Maurice, feeling the same level of anxiety in this room as he had thirty years before when he’d been dragged to the principal’s office, along with his best friend at the time, Henry Rowe, two fifteen-year-old boys trembling in anticipation of what was to come. This memory, one that he had tried to block from his mind for decades, made him feel nauseous.

  ‘Miss Willow, Daniel’s teacher—’

  ‘I know who Miss Willow is,’ said Maurice.

  ‘Yes. Well, she’d already noticed an unusual dynamic between Daniel and Jupiter and had brought it to my attention.’

  ‘An unusual dynamic?’ he repeated, wondering whether these were terms drilled into teachers and school principals to avoid any potentially slanderous, and thereby litigious, remarks.

  ‘Jupiter has … I suppose we can just call it a crush on your son.’

  ‘But he’s only seven,’ said Maurice with a bewildered smile.

  ‘The children don’t recognize it as a crush, of course, but it happens all the time. One child forms a strong attachment to another and the object of their affections doesn’t reciprocate the emotion. In this particular case, Jupiter had started bringing little treats into school for your son. A ladybird that she was keeping alive in a matchbox, for example. A book that she particularly enjoyed. She even made him a sandwich one day and brought in a strawberry cupcake to follow.’

  ‘I wish someone would do that for me,’ said Maurice. ‘And what does Daniel do? When she gives him these things?’

  ‘What all boys that age will do, I suppose,’ she replied with a shrug. ‘He takes the gifts and eats the food but once he gets what he wants from her he goes right back to playing with his friends and then she’s left upset by his rejection. In that respect, perhaps there’s not a lot of difference between boys and men.’

  Maurice raised an eyebrow, surprised by the comment, which seemed based on some unfortunate personal experience instead of a professional evaluation of the situation. He thought about challenging her on it but became distracted by an abacus placed on the windowsill behind her desk. It was fairly basic, ten rows of multicoloured beads supported by a wooden frame and stand. He hadn’t seen one in a long time but, like Proust’s madeleine, it brought back a wave of memories that he knew had the power to overwhelm him if he did not remain steady. Dr Webster’s abacus, of course, had been much more elaborate, monochrome but constructed from maple wood, the beads polished ivory. It had been passed down in the Webster family since before the Great War, he had been told, and the inscription on the base – A. F. P. Webster, 1897 – had always made him wonder whether the original recipient had gone on to make a success of his life or had forfeited it in the trenches.

  Looking at this cheaper version now, Maurice felt an urge to pick it up and hear the click of the beads as he slid them along the wires, but he resisted, uncertain whether he would find himself throwing it to the ground and smashing it underfoot, actions that would surely provoke an even stronger reaction than that to one child slapping another in the playground. Mrs Lane noticed him staring and turned to see what he was looking at, misinterpreting his interest in the abacus as an observance of the children playing outside.

  ‘They are being supervised, you know,’ she said.


  ‘I’m sorry?’

  ‘The children. They’re being supervised. There’s always at least two teachers in attendance during playtime.’

  ‘No, I wasn’t …’ he began, but shook his head, not bothering to continue the sentence.

  ‘Anyway,’ she said, her voice loud, sharp and hectoring now. ‘This morning, between classes, Jupiter went over to Daniel while he was talking with some of the other boys, threw her arms around him and kissed him. On the lips. I suppose she’d seen someone do that on television or in a movie and—’

  ‘She kissed him?’

  ‘Yes. Only for a moment. The poor boy was mortified, particularly as the other boys immediately started to laugh at him, and that’s when he did it. When he slapped her, I mean.’

  ‘Jesus.’

  ‘Indeed.’

  ‘And was she badly hurt?’

  ‘Well, no. I don’t think the attack was particularly brutal. There was a red mark on her cheek afterwards, of course, but I think she was more shocked than anything else. Not to mention humiliated.’

  ‘I suppose you’re going to tell me now that her parents are planning on suing me. Or you. Or the school.’

  ‘Oh no,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Quite the opposite, in fact. They made a point of saying that they believe America has become far too litigious a society and that they have no intention of going down that road.’

  ‘Thank God for that.’

  ‘Yes, I echo your sentiments there. The last thing St Joseph’s needs is a costly lawsuit. The attendant publicity alone could be ruinous. No, what they want is for Daniel and Jupiter to attend a couple’s counselling session together.’

  ‘You’re kidding me, right?’

  ‘No, not at all.’

  ‘They’re seven. And they’re not a couple.’

  ‘It’s a figure of speech, Mr Swift. A forum where they can air their grievances aloud. Jupiter’s parents like to talk, you see. They talk a lot. They never stop talking, if you follow my meaning.’

  ‘And what if I say no?’ asked Maurice. ‘What if I say that I don’t like the idea of my son seeing a shrink at such a young age?’

  ‘Well, that would be entirely up to you, of course,’ said Mrs Lane, picking up a fountain pen from her desk and removing the cap before tapping the nib against a piece of blotting paper in what Maurice took to be a nervous gesture. ‘But my advice would be to go ahead with the session, if only to appease them. I can’t imagine it would do any harm and it might do a lot of good. After that, I expect the entire matter will be put to bed.’

  ‘Fine,’ said Maurice, who had no particular opinion on psychotherapy one way or the other but was happy to do what was necessary if it meant that he could leave her office soon. ‘One session?’

  ‘One session, yes. It might be useful for Daniel, anyway,’ she added, and Maurice could tell that she was choosing her words carefully now because her speech pattern had slowed down and she wasn’t looking him in the eye. ‘One wonders, after all, where he picked up such behaviour.’

  ‘Like you said,’ said Maurice. ‘From TV. Or a movie. Although I don’t allow him a lot of screen time and he never really wants any. We’re readers in our family.’

  ‘That’s good. Yes, Miss Willow says that Daniel loves books. And that he’s a very good writer too.’

  ‘He has a terrific imagination,’ said Maurice. ‘I don’t know where he gets it from.’

  ‘Well, you, most likely,’ she replied. ‘You’re a writer, aren’t you?’

  He didn’t reply.

  Discomfited, she hesitated, replacing the cap on her fountain pen and returning it to a stand with holes for a dozen more, almost all of which were empty. ‘There’s nothing going on at home that you’d like to discuss with me?’

  Maurice smiled. It was obvious what she was getting at. ‘I don’t hit him, if that’s what you’re getting at,’ he said. ‘I’ve never laid a finger on the boy.’

  ‘I wasn’t suggesting that you had. And Daniel hasn’t witnessed any violence against women, I suppose?’

  ‘I’m a widower, Mrs Lane,’ said Maurice. ‘I thought you knew that.’

  ‘I do. But am I correct in thinking that Daniel’s mother died many years ago?’

  ‘No, that’s not correct.’

  ‘It’s not?’ she said, frowning. ‘But in your file, it says that—’

  ‘My late wife wasn’t Daniel’s mother,’ he explained. ‘Daniel was conceived through a surrogate after Edith died. I wanted a child but didn’t want to share my life with a woman and, as my career began to take off around the same time, I did what I had to do in order to become a father.’

  ‘I see,’ said Mrs Lane, looking as if she wanted to extract every juicy detail that could be offered but was uncertain whether she could ask or not. ‘That was very selfless of you, Mr Swift.’

  ‘No it wasn’t,’ he replied, shaking his head. ‘Had I gone to an orphanage in China or India and rescued a baby from a life of poverty, then that would have been selfless. But I didn’t do that. I paid a woman a lot of money to carry a baby for me and hand him over the moment he was born, then disappear from our lives. It was an entirely selfish act in some ways but one that I was happy to commit.’

  Mrs Lane’s mouth opened and closed like a fish’s.

  ‘So, going back to your original question, I presume you were asking whether I have girlfriends over to stay and, if I do, whether I smack them around. Perhaps you’re wondering whether it’s a sexual fetish on my part and Daniel has had the misfortune of walking into my bedroom in the middle of the night to find some woman naked on my bed and me fucking her from behind while she’s tied up? No, would be the answer to all such queries. I don’t have girlfriends and I don’t expose my son to anything like that. That part of my life has been over since before we came to New York. My writing and my son are all that I need.’

  ‘That must be …’ Mrs Lane searched for the right word. ‘You must have loved your wife very much,’ she said. ‘To swear off all other women after her death. Particularly when you’re so … so …’

  ‘So what?’ he asked, smiling a little.

  ‘Well you’re a … you’re not an unattractive man, Mr Swift. Obviously, I don’t mean anything by that. I’m a happily married woman.’

  ‘You’ve gone quite red,’ he said.

  ‘It’s the heat.’

  Maurice smiled again.

  ‘But don’t you get lonely?’ she asked, leaning forward.

  ‘No. Why, do you?’

  Mrs Lane’s expression changed suddenly and her cheeks flushed even more. ‘I mean … no,’ she said. ‘I have … there’s so much to keep me occupied, what with … And Mr Lane has his business and—’

  ‘People seem to think that a life is worthless unless it’s shared with someone,’ said Maurice with a sigh. ‘But why must that be the case? I’ve been married, I know what the experience is like, and while there were certainly times when it was pleasurable there were just as many times when I wished that I was alone, not answerable to anyone, not needing to account for my every movement throughout the day. When Edith died, I promised myself that I would never get involved with anyone again. I don’t much like women, if I’m honest. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not some tragic misogynist. I don’t much like men either. I’m an equal-opportunities hater, so to speak. And as for sex, well, it never really interested me, not even when I was young. I could never quite see the point of it, if I’m honest. And, you’ll forgive me for sounding immodest, but I know that I’m good-looking. Throughout my life, both men and women have made their interest in me obvious. But I can’t control any of that. It was simply the way I was born. Ultimately, it means nothing. I could have a heart of stone for all they know. I could be a psychopath or a sociopath. Not all monsters look like the Elephant Man, and not everyone who looks like the Elephant Man is a monster. So I don’t really think about sex that often, although, strangely enough, it’s very present in my work. Have you read any of m
y novels, Mrs Lane?’

  The principal stared at him, barely registering that he had asked her a question, and swallowed hard, looking down at the notebook before her and smoothing its pages with trembling hands.

  ‘I read your most recent one,’ she said. ‘When I realized who Daniel’s father was I went to Barnes &—’

  ‘The Broken Ones.’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Well, that novel doesn’t have very much sex in it at all,’ admitted Maurice. ‘But then, if you’ve read it, you know that. Anyway,’ he smiled, slapping his hands down on his knees so loudly that he made her jump, ‘I shouldn’t keep talking about myself like this. It sounds as if it’s me who needs the services of a counsellor and not my son.’

  Mrs Lane said nothing, and he took pleasure from seeing how uncomfortable he had made her. It was reassuring to know that he still had this sort of power over people.

  ‘So is that everything?’ he asked, standing up. ‘Or was there something else you wanted to discuss with me?’

  ‘No,’ said Mrs Lane, remaining seated. ‘No, that was it. You may leave.’

  ‘Thank you,’ he said, laughing a little at the manner of his dismissal.

  ‘I’ll email you details of a psychologist that the school recommends,’ she said as he turned away. ‘And you and Mr and Mrs Dell can liaise on that. I think you’ll find them very accommodating. Believe me, if Daniel had to hit a girl, then Jupiter was probably the best one to hit.’

  When he opened the door he smiled when he saw a small, seven-year-old boy sitting on a chair outside, his legs swinging in the air, his hands pressed together as if in prayer.

  ‘Am I in trouble?’ asked Daniel, looking up. Not for the first time, it struck Maurice how beautiful he was.

  A fresh collection of manuscripts had arrived at home from the Storī office and Maurice piled them up on the coffee table. There looked to be about twenty in total, the usual amount selected for his evaluation, whittled down by the interns from the three hundred or so that arrived unsolicited every month. Having got past those merciless gatekeepers, each one should, in theory, have something to recommend it and, as he was judicious in his reading, it typically took him the best part of a week to get through them, pulling out the wittiest and most perceptive dialogue, the most ingenious plot lines and arresting images, and entering each one into a file on his computer. He’d pick four or five to publish too, of course, but send letters to the rejected authors, signed by a fictitious employee, apologizing that, due to time constraints and the pressures of writing a new novel, Mr Swift had not personally had an opportunity to read their submission – it was important that he should make this clear in case of any future problems – but that the editorial team at Storī had considered their work and decided it was not quite right for them at this time. Generally, he assumed, the writers would be so pleased to have received even an acknowledgement of their writing that their disappointment would be salved and they would set the piece aside for ever, believing that it just wasn’t good enough.

 
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