A ladder to the sky, p.25
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.25

           John Boyne

  The pile arrived four times a year and there was often very little in it worth stealing, but once in a while he came across a moment of brilliance that justified his decision to set up the magazine in the first place. His fourth novel, for example, The Breach, had been constructed around two different ideas that he’d discovered in stories by an American and a Chinese-American writer. Combining them into one, and using a central character that he created himself as the link between the pair, he’d managed to build a novel that had been highly praised upon publication and sold even more copies than The Tribesman, which of course was always going to do well after it was shortlisted for The Prize. His most recent book, The Broken Ones, published three years earlier, in 2008, had found its origin in a story written by a nineteen-year-old Viennese student that recounted a couple’s visit to Paris on the eve of their twentieth wedding anniversary, where an unexpected infidelity took place in a restaurant. (He had changed the setting to Israel, the wedding anniversary to a birthday, the restaurant to a museum, and when combined with a comic character he purloined from the work of a young British writer, the book had once again been a commercial and critical hit.) He’d been putting off starting a new book for a while now as he hadn’t found the right idea yet, and had been rather looking forward to receiving this group of submissions, hoping that there might be something in there that would be worth appropriating as his own.

  The sound of a door opening to his left made him turn around, and he watched as Daniel walked towards him. The boy was wearing his favourite Spider-Man pyjamas and carrying a furry animal of no obvious species. He smelled of the lavender bubble-bath that he’d been splashing around in only an hour before and he was carrying his blue Ventolin inhaler. His asthma had been particularly aggressive lately and he’d had to spend ten minutes sitting quietly when they got home, taking puff after puff, before the congestion in his lungs cleared.

  ‘Feeling better?’ asked Maurice as the boy jumped up on to the sofa next to him, leaning over to bury his body into his father’s side. Maurice held him close, kissing him on the top of his head, breathing in his scent.

  ‘If I say sorry to Jupiter tomorrow, will I still have to go to see the doctor?’ asked Daniel, sounding a little less anxious about that particular ordeal than he had when they’d arrived home. There had been tears then and a declaration that he shouldn’t have to be kissed if he didn’t want to be, a sentiment that Maurice thought was actually rather fair.

  ‘I think so,’ said Maurice. ‘Otherwise this could all end up in a big drama that neither of us needs. I’m sure the doctor will be very nice, anyway.’

  ‘Will she use a needle?’ he asked.

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘The doctor. Will she use a needle when she sees me? I don’t like needles.’

  Maurice shook his head. ‘She’s not that type of doctor,’ he said. ‘There’ll be nothing like that. All you’ll do is talk to her, that’s all. And then it will be over.’

  Daniel frowned, his expression suggesting that he couldn’t believe you could attend a doctor with no pain being involved, just conversation.

  ‘I didn’t like it when she kissed me,’ said the boy.

  ‘I never really cared for it much either,’ said Maurice. ‘But you can’t go around committing random acts of violence when people do things you don’t like. You should have just told her not to do it again.’

  ‘Everyone was laughing at me,’ whispered Daniel.

  Maurice hugged him again and looked down at the perfect feet and toes emerging from the ends of his son’s pyjamas. He had always expected to feel unadulterated love for a child, if he ever had one, but things hadn’t quite worked out that way. He was terribly fond of Daniel, certainly, but the boy irritated him as often as he pleased him. He was always there, was the problem. Hanging around. Needing food, toys or new clothes. Saying that it was time to go to school or to be picked up again. It was endless harassment. Maurice did his best to keep an even temper with the boy – he was just a child, after all, and he recognized that – but still, he looked forward to the day that he turned eighteen and was heading off to college. He might get his life back then.

  The idea of using a surrogate had come to him on the night that he’d been shortlisted for The Prize, which, to his immense disappointment, he’d lost out on to an old rival, Douglas Sherman. He’d been thinking about what to do with the sudden influx of royalties and made an appointment with a solicitor later that same week in order to get the ball rolling. Six months later, a young Italian girl working as a chambermaid in a Central London hotel was pregnant with his child and there had been no trouble whatsoever during the pregnancy or the birth. Although the legal agreement had been tight, he had naturally worried that the woman might have second thoughts once the baby was born, but no, she had kept to her part of the bargain and disappeared from his life the moment he took Daniel home from the hospital.

  It hadn’t been easy at first, of course. He had no experience of babies and had to rely on books for most of his knowledge. But Daniel had not been a difficult infant, sleeping through the night almost from the start and apparently happy to lie in his crib, reaching up for the toys that swung from a mobile above him, as long as Maurice was in his sight-lines, which he always was, since he worked from home in those early years, only spending more time at the Storī office after Daniel started kindergarten. They’d travelled to international literary festivals together, where other writers seemed charmed by the image of this handsome novelist, hugely successful at a young age, going everywhere with a small boy in tow. It helped that Daniel liked books too, as he was content to sit reading while his father offered himself up for endless interviews or took part in public events.

  ‘Why did you slap her, anyway?’ he asked now, and the boy shrugged.

  ‘I told you. Because she kissed me.’

  ‘No, I know that,’ said Maurice. ‘I mean, why was that your reaction? Violence. Striking out. When have you ever seen people behave in that way? No one has ever hit you, have they?’

  The boy paused for a few moments, and Maurice wondered whether he was trying to decide whether or not to tell the truth.

  ‘Sometimes in school,’ he said eventually, letting out a deep sigh as he looked down at the floor.

  ‘A teacher?’

  ‘No,’ said Daniel, shaking his head.

  ‘Who then?’

  ‘No one.’

  ‘Come on,’ urged Maurice. ‘Tell me.’

  ‘Just some of the boys in my class.’

  ‘Which boys?’

  ‘I don’t want to say.’

  Maurice frowned. He didn’t want to push him, but if Daniel was being bullied, then he wanted to get to the bottom of it.

  ‘Please, Daniel. You can tell me. Maybe I can make it stop.’

  ‘James,’ said Daniel, after a lengthy pause during which he snuffled a few times and looked as if he might start to cry. ‘And William.’

  ‘But I thought you got along with them? You sit beside James in class, don’t you?’

  ‘Yes, but he doesn’t like me.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘He says I’m a freak.’

  Fuck him, the little fucking shit, thought Maurice. But, ‘You’re not a freak,’ he said.

  ‘He says I am.’

  ‘Then he’s an idiot.’

  ‘It’s because I don’t like playing with them,’ he continued.

  ‘Why not?’ asked Maurice.

  ‘Because every time they play someone always ends up going to the nurse’s office with blood pouring from their nose. And they say I never speak either. They say I’m scared.’

  ‘And is that why they hit you?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ he replied with a shrug. ‘They say it’s just a game.’

  ‘Well, it seems like a stupid game to me,’ said Maurice, and Daniel looked up at him now, wounded by the irritation in his father’s voice. ‘Just stay away from them from now on, all right?’ he continued. ‘Y
ou’re only seven years old, after all. I don’t want you acting like you’re in Fight Club.’

  ‘What’s Fight Club?’

  ‘It doesn’t matter. Just don’t let your friends hit you, and don’t you hit anyone either. Especially not the girls. We got lucky this time, there’s no lawsuit, but remember, this is America. People here will sue you just for looking at them the wrong way in the street and, if they find out that we have a little money, then they’ll try to find a way to take it off us.’

  ‘Are we rich?’ asked Daniel.

  ‘We’re comfortable. You don’t have to worry, put it that way. But we’re nowhere near as rich as most people who live in this city. So we have to hold on to what’s ours and not let anyone steal it from us. Okay?’

  The boy nodded. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Stealing is bad.’

  Maurice smiled. ‘Stealing is very bad,’ he agreed. ‘Only really bad people take things that don’t belong to them. Now, it’s time for bed, don’t you think?’

  Henry Rowe had been new to the school that year. His family were originally from Belfast, Catholics who lived on the junction where the Falls Road met Iveagh Drive, but his mother, sister and he had relocated to Harrogate in 1980 to escape the Troubles. Even though he’d heard reports on the news of the bombing campaign in England and was vaguely aware of the hunger strikes taking place in the H-Block of the Maze Prison, Maurice had almost no interest in what was taking place on the island next to his own and, at fourteen, the concept of death, such a distant and other-worldly idea, bored him. Politics, he believed, was for other people and while he longed to be set free from the daily tedium of his home life, he had scant interest in the causes that his peers wore, quite literally, like badges of honour on their school uniforms. Only when the rumour went around that Henry Rowe’s father had been murdered by the IRA for betraying them was Maurice’s interest piqued. That would make a good idea for a story, he thought: a teenage boy, forced to relocate to a strange country, gradually begins to understand his father’s criminal past. He might have been out of step with his classmates when it came to their political concerns but Maurice already knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life, which was more than most of them could claim.

  ‘A writer?’ his dad had said when he first told him his plans. ‘You’ve more chance of winning the World Cup for England. You have to come from London if you want to write books. Have a fancy education and all that.’

  ‘Not every writer comes from London,’ said Maurice, rolling his eyes at the parochial nature of his father’s worldview. He’d never read a book in his life, as far as he knew, and barely worked his way through the local newspaper once a week. ‘D. H. Lawrence’s dad worked at Brinsley Colliery. Isherwood came from Derbyshire. William Golding’s from Cornwall.’

  ‘That D. H. Lawrence only wrote filth,’ replied his father. ‘Naked men wrestling with each other and posh pieces having it off with the gamekeeper. Queer stuff, if you ask me. Written for poofters with fancy ideas. I’ll not have any of it in the house.’

  ‘You’ll be a plumber, like your dad,’ said his mother. ‘That’s good honest work, that is.’

  ‘I’ll not,’ said Maurice, and meant it.

  He was popular in school, of course, because despite being a bookworm, he was good-looking, which somehow made the other boys want to be his friend, even if they didn’t quite understand why. The teachers liked him too – he was one of the students with whom they tried to ingratiate themselves – and he’d only found himself in trouble once, when it was discovered that he’d plagiarized a history essay from a book he borrowed from the local library, an offence that resulted in a week’s suspension. There were boys who wanted to know him better, to get closer to him, but he was essentially a loner and kept others at a distance. Until Henry arrived, that is.

  Even now, thirty years later, he could still remember the moment when the boy walked through the classroom door for the first time, a few steps behind the headmaster, Dr Webster, to be introduced to his new classmates. He was tall and lean with brown hair that both fell into his eyes and stood up above his head. When he opened his mouth to tell the class his name and what had brought him to Harrogate, the room broke into uncontrollable laughter at his strong Northern Irish accent and Henry’s face had betrayed a mixture of anger, humiliation and confusion at how they mocked him. He looked around the room, disconcerted by this unruly and vaguely threatening group of strangers with whom he would be spending his days, until his eyes met Maurice’s, the only boy who wasn’t laughing. Maurice tilted his head a little, a sort of greeting, and Henry stared back, his tongue peeping out from between his lips, unable to look away.

  They formed an alliance of sorts, spending time in each other’s houses after school and at weekends, and it was while they were in Maurice’s room one Saturday afternoon, listening to a Kate Bush cassette and discussing how much they both despised the school football captain, that Henry tried to kiss him. Kate was singing about Kashka from Baghdad, who lived in sin with another man, when he turned to his friend and pressed his lips against his own, his hand reaching up to press itself flat against the other boy’s shirt. Maurice had been expecting something of this sort to happen but was surprised that there had been no lead-up to the moment. He’d never been kissed before, had never made a pass at any girl or boy, nor had he ever felt any particular desire to do so. It was something he’d wondered about from time to time, this curious lack of interest in sex. In moments of experimentation, he’d looked at pornographic magazines but had found himself entirely unaroused by the tragic expressions on the girls’ faces as they spread their legs or pressed their breasts out towards the camera. In the school showers, after games, he’d surreptitiously examined the naked bodies of his classmates and felt no particular desire for them either. When he masturbated, it was solely for the pleasure of touching himself, for the trembling ecstasy of the orgasm, but it seemed unnecessary to him to share the experience with anyone else and he did not see the faces of others in his fantasies, only his own.

  Now, however, with Henry pushing him back against the bed, he felt willing to investigate the moment a little in order to examine what effect an intimacy such as this might have on him. He could write about it afterwards, he thought, in a story. Most writers wrote about sex, didn’t they? Even those, like Forster, for whom carnality in their private lives seemed unimportant. One of his favourite writers, Aldous Huxley, had said that experience is not what happens to a man, it is what a man does with what happens to him, and this was surely an experience, the body of another fifteen-year-old-boy lying above his own, his tongue in his mouth, his unfamiliar erection pressing against his thigh through the fabric of his clothes.

  ‘What can I do?’ asked Henry, pulling away for a moment, his face red, his entire body pulsating with desire as he looked down at his friend with such longing in his eyes that Maurice began to realize just how much power he already had. ‘What will you let me do?’

  ‘Tell me about Belfast,’ he replied, and Henry pushed himself up on his elbows, frowning, uncertain that he’d heard him right.

  ‘What?’ he asked, running his hand down Maurice’s shirt and releasing it from his trousers, tentatively opening a couple of buttons, his palm against the boy’s navel and firmly muscled stomach.

  ‘Belfast,’ he repeated. ‘What was it like over there?’

  Henry shook his head and leaned down to kiss him again, but Maurice pushed him away, sitting up on the bed and re-buttoning his shirt. ‘Tell me,’ he said. ‘Tell me the stories. I’m interested. I want to know.’

  And Henry, confused and disappointed, his body crackling with hormones, sat up and stared at the carpet, trembling in bewilderment. ‘What do you want to know?’ he asked.

  ‘Anything,’ said Maurice. ‘Did you ever see anyone get shot?’

  Henry nodded. ‘Once,’ he said. ‘Outside a petrol station in Ardoyne.’

  ‘Tell me about it,’ whispered Maurice. ‘Tell me everything you saw
and everything you heard and then I’ll let you do some more.’

  And, of course, he did.

  They were in Maurice’s house when it happened next, watching television, his parents having gone to Cardiff to visit a dying relative. Maurice was enjoying the tension as they sat together on the sofa and only when Henry reached across and took his hand did he feel a little unsettled at being the focus of so much obvious desire. Why don’t I feel the same way? he asked himself. Why don’t I feel it for anyone? Could there be a story there?

  ‘You’re so fuckin’ gorgeous,’ said Henry, leaning forward, and Maurice not only permitted himself to be kissed again but he kissed back, his tongue exploring his friend’s mouth, a new sensation that was neither unpleasant nor arousing. Soon, they were upstairs, lying on his bed, and again Henry asked what he was allowed to do. Sensing that he needed to allow the burning boy more freedom than last time, he shrugged and said, Anything you like, and Henry, with an expression that suggested he couldn’t quite believe his luck, unzipped Maurice’s trousers and took his cock into his mouth. Maurice closed his eyes and enjoyed the feeling but his mind wasn’t fully engaged with it. Would Henry tell him another story when he was finished or was this all a waste of time?

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