A ladder to the sky, p.26
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.26

           John Boyne

  He came, and Henry looked up at him, smiling in delight, and Maurice smiled back, only mildly embarrassed. He could only imagine how ridiculous they looked.

  ‘My turn,’ said Henry, unbuckling his belt and pulling his trousers down.

  Maurice looked at him and then stared at the boy’s cock, feeling no particular repulsion at the idea of sucking him but no great desire to do so either. He reached down and touched his penis tentatively, running his index finger along the shaft as Henry closed his eyes and groaned in pleasure.

  ‘Another story first,’ he said. ‘Then I’ll do it.’

  And so it went on, week after week for almost two months, the two boys finding opportunities to be alone together when Henry could indulge his desires and Maurice could hear tales of the boy’s life before coming to England. His father, he revealed, had not been shot by the IRA as the boys in school believed. In fact, he’d died of nothing more imaginative than a heart attack, although he had, the boy claimed, been a member of the organization for many years and men in balaclavas had shown up at the funeral, acting as pallbearers as they carried the tricolour-adorned coffin to the grave. He talked about what it was like to hear shootings in the night, how a teenage boy from down the street had been kneecapped for an unexplained crime of which he had sworn his innocence, how a mother had gone missing after a visit to a local church, how a family had gone into hiding after becoming informers. It wasn’t to Maurice’s taste, most of it, but he wrote it all down and found a way to turn the boy’s disconnected memories into a coherent narrative. It seemed that all he had to do was continue to give Henry orgasms and his story would eventually be completed. It seemed like a worthwhile trade to him.

  They made their mistake when Henry’s lust overcame him in school one lunchtime and, as Maurice was coming to the end of his story anyway, he decided to indulge him by taking him to a cluster of trees in the corner of the school, a shaded area that the other pupils usually avoided, and stood against a tree, his trousers around his ankles as the Irish boy fucked him from behind. Their minds were on separate things – sex and stories – which explained why they didn’t hear one of their teachers approach.

  The headmaster, Dr Webster, was informed, but he waited until the end of the day before summoning the boys to his office, where he told them that they could be expelled for what they had done, that their deeds were so shameful they should be sent to a young offenders’ institution, but that he was willing to take pity on their youth, promising not to tell their parents if they agreed to end their friendship immediately and stay away from each other in future. Readily, they agreed, but it was then that the headmaster explained that there could be no forgiveness without punishment and that if they wanted to leave his office with their souls washed clean then they would have to do as he said. He walked towards the cabinet by his desk where he kept a two-foot-long cane and removed it, running his finger along the side of the oak with obvious pleasure.

  ‘Trousers down,’ he told them. ‘Bend over the desk.’

  The boys obeyed and, as he beat them, Maurice counted the number of the strokes by working his eyes along the lines of the abacus propped up on the headmaster’s windowsill. There were ten rows and he counted them all off, and then half again, before it was over.

  ‘Now,’ said Dr Webster, his eyes alert as the boys turned around. ‘Let me see what you filthy little bastards do to each other anyway. First you,’ he said, nodding towards Maurice. ‘And then you,’ he said to Henry.

  There were no more stories after that. Henry kept his distance, humiliated and frightened by the events of that day, and whenever Maurice approached him he turned on his heels and fled. Only when Maurice knocked on his door one night and demanded to be heard did the boy let him in.

  ‘I don’t want to any more,’ said Henry, unable to look him in the eye.

  ‘But my story isn’t finished,’ complained Maurice.

  ‘What story?’

  ‘Just … let’s go upstairs. To your room. You can do whatever you want to me. Just tell me more about Belfast. Tell me what you saw, what you heard, what you—’

  But Henry shook his head and pushed him back on to the street, looking around as if he feared that Dr Webster would be out there somewhere, watching them. Maurice tried several more times, but to no avail, and the piece remained unfinished.

  What a waste of time, he thought, unable to find a way to complete it to his satisfaction and leaving it unfinished in a drawer. I won’t make that mistake again.

  After they left the psychologist’s office, Maurice and Daniel decided to go for ice-cream. It had taken them almost fifteen minutes to break free of the Dells, who had been suggesting playdates and trips to the zoo together, despite the fact that Daniel clearly disliked their daughter and Jupiter, feigning victimhood, had already turned her attentions to another boy.

  Maurice was glad the ordeal was behind them. The doctor had been young, no more than twenty-eight or twenty-nine, with that good-looking Brooklyn hipster vibe that had recently begun to grate on him. There was an effortlessness to the way the boy dressed, to his unkempt hair and white teeth, that made Maurice feel of lesser importance, and when both of Jupiter’s parents had fallen over themselves to laugh at his jokes he felt, for the first time in his life, as if he was not the most attractive person in the room. He wasn’t entirely uncomfortable with this idea – he knew that he’d always be good-looking and people would always be drawn to him – but still, he wasn’t sure he was ready to give up his throne just yet. And certainly not to some clown in a J. Crew T-shirt, a sweater vest and vintage brogues.

  Strolling past Barnes & Noble on East 17th Street now, close to where the Storī offices were located, Maurice glanced in the window and saw a display of Beyond the River by Garrett Colby, and his heart gave him a kick of resentment in his chest. It was the film tie-in edition, for Garrett’s third book had not only been adapted by a famous Danish theatre director making his first foray into cinema, but the film had gone on to win several Academy Awards at the most recent ceremony, including an acting prize for a young man with whom Garrett was now in a heavily publicized romance.

  ‘I used to know that guy,’ Maurice said, looking down at his son, who was kicking his heels on the pavement, wishing they could move on to the ice-cream portion of the afternoon. ‘Years ago. Back in England. He wrote stories about talking animals.’

  Daniel looked up, interested now, for talking animals were a particular favourite of his, particularly if they had some prehistoric element to them. ‘Were they good?’ he asked.

  ‘They weren’t bad,’ admitted Maurice.

  ‘Can we go in and get them?’

  ‘They weren’t children’s books,’ said Maurice, shaking his head. ‘But maybe you’ll get to read them when you’re older.’

  ‘Can I get something else then?’ asked Daniel, and Maurice nodded. He never denied the boy a book and considered it rude to leave a bookshop without making a purchase. And so they stepped inside, the soft music and smell of new hardcovers giving Maurice that instant hit of belonging he’d felt all his life whenever he walked into such places. Daniel immediately made his way towards the children’s section – this was their local bookshop and he knew its every nook and cranny intimately – and Maurice watched him for a moment before picking up Garrett’s book from the table and reading the author biography.

  ‘Mr Colby is one of the most exciting young writers at work today,’ it concluded, and Maurice rolled his eyes, recognizing the third-person biography that had clearly been written by the author himself. Supercilious little shit, he thought.

  He returned it to the table, then picked up a novel by another writer, Jonas Ramsfjeld, before placing it on top of Garrett’s. He’d read his novel Spiegeltent some years before and admired it and the two writers had read together at a festival in Listowel once and got along quite well, which had surprised Maurice, as he tended not to like other writers very much. Ramsfjeld was gay and handsome and, after spen
ding an evening together, drinking in the hotel bar, Maurice had expected him to make a pass at him, but it had never happened. When he’d gone to bed that night, he’d almost regretted it. Now, it crossed his mind to wonder how many students from Edith’s class had gone on to secure publishing deals in the ten years since her death.

  He made his way towards the New Fiction section, where he recognized books by people he knew, people with whom he’d read at festivals, people he’d reviewed both well and badly for various publications. And then, just as he was about to take down a new edition of Maude Avery’s Like to the Lark, which had been re-published in a hardback series of her novels, each with a jacket designed by Tracey Emin, he noticed a familiar face staring out from the non-fiction titles, the younger version of a man he had once known very well.

  It was a biography of Dash Hardy, the first, as far as he knew, that had been written about the American writer. The author’s name was unfamiliar to him. And the book itself was almost six hundred pages long, which suggested that it was an exhaustive account of the writer’s life. Did Dash merit such a work? he wondered. Gore did, certainly. And Erich, probably. But Dash? Hadn’t he turned into something of a second-tier writer by the end?

  He took the book down and moved directly to the index at the back, running his finger down the names. To be included ran the risk of something negative being said but to be ignored would be wounding. But no, there he was, Maurice Swift, 131, 284. Just two entries and not spread across multiple pages. He flicked to the first, where the author mentioned Maurice’s initial encounter with Dash in the Prado all those years ago and how a friendship had struck up between them.

  Hardy was a crucial factor in Swift finding a publisher for his debut novel [it said]. He took the young writer under his wing, as he had done for one or two boys of his type before, accommodating him in New York for two years and introducing him to publishers on the scene. That novel, Two Germans, was a huge success, although it precipitated the public disgrace of the novelist Erich Ackermann, with whom Dash had also been acquainted, in a manner that left a sour taste in the mouths of some readers.

  Well, that was true enough, he reasoned. Nothing libellous there, although in fact he had only lived with Dash for nine months, so there was an error there. And what did ‘one or two boys of his type’ mean?

  He flicked to the index for the other entry and then to here, where, despite quickly scanning the page, he could find no mention of his name. He turned back to here and then forward to here, but no, there was nothing there either, and he frowned, wondering whether another mistake had been made. But just to be certain, he began to read here in its entirety and came across this line, which appeared in an interview with Edmund White:

  Dash told me a story about a young writer he met in Europe to whom he had taken a particular shine. The boy was beautiful, of course, and Dash was always a sucker for a pretty face. He did everything for him, introduced him around town, helped him find a publisher and an agent, and the moment success came his way, the boy just dropped him like a hot potato. He’d done it before, from what I’d heard. The boy was an arch-manipulator and impossibly calculating. An operator of the first order. I remember meeting him myself at some reading and he told me that he would be staying with his editor on a trip to the UK soon. ‘Why don’t you just get a hotel?’ I asked him, and he shook his head and said no, that he thought if he became friendly with the editor and the editor’s family then there was no chance that he’d ever be dropped. I thought it such a cynical move but I suppose there was something in it. It was my belief that the boy knew he was essentially talentless, nothing more than a good-looking hack, and that only charm and sycophancy could keep him in the game. It did, too, for a time.

  Maurice slammed the book shut, causing some of the other shoppers to turn and look in his direction. He hadn’t been named, of course, so it was unlikely that he could sue, but the page reference in the index confused him. Of course, he realized, after a moment. His name must have been originally part of the Edmund White quote, and indexed, but then the lawyers must have taken it out before publication, forgetting to remove the reference at the back. He was almost amused by their stupidity. But was it worth pursuing? He couldn’t decide. He would have to acknowledge that the description was one that fitted him and he wasn’t sure he wanted to do that.

  A moment later, Daniel returned with a brightly coloured paperback and Maurice took it, along with the Dash biography and the Maude Avery novel, to the till before walking hand in hand with him towards Union Square Park, where they sat on a bench, eating ice-creams.

  ‘When you’re older,’ said Maurice, ‘and you think back on this morning, don’t blame me too much for it, all right? It was only an hour of your life, and it’s saved us both a lot of grief. I’m proud of you for going along with it.’

  ‘Blame you for what?’ asked Daniel, who had seemed to rather enjoy telling a stranger all the details of his day-to-day pedagogical life and the sexual harassment that he’d suffered from a girl whose attentions he had never encouraged.

  ‘Blame me for anything,’ replied Maurice. ‘There’s a good chance that, when you’re a teenager and complaining about how I’ve ruined your life, you’ll bring this up and say that it all started here.’

  Daniel shrugged; he wasn’t interested. His breath caught a little and he reached into his bag for his inhaler, taking a quick puff. Maurice sat quietly, his sunglasses resting on his nose, watching the people go by. One of his own interns marched past, oblivious to his presence on the bench, while reading something on his phone. He was carrying a luxurious brown saddle bag over his shoulder and Maurice wondered how the boy could afford it – it was an expensive brand – but then recalled that his mother was on the board of the New York Ballet and so, presumably, he came from money.

  And then, to his dismay, he noticed Henrietta James walking in his direction, still covered in multiple layers of clothing, as if she were about to embark for the Arctic, and before he could tell the boy that it was time to go she’d spotted him too and was waving manically at him, as if trying to generate her own electricity with her arms.

  ‘Hello, you,’ she said, grinning like the cat who’d got the cream.

  ‘Henrietta,’ he said, standing up to kiss her on both cheeks. ‘How nice to see you!’

  ‘And who’s this?’ she asked, looking down at Daniel, who barely glanced up from his ice-cream.

  ‘This is my son,’ said Maurice. ‘Daniel.’

  ‘How charming!’ she said. ‘I’ll join you for a few minutes, if you don’t mind,’ she added, not waiting for an answer as she sat down. ‘I need to rest. It’s been a horrendous day. My publisher emailed me the proposed jacket for I Am Dissatisfied with My Boyfriend, My Body and My Career and it was so awful that I came all the way downtown to tell her exactly what I thought of it. I might not have been as polite as I could have been and we left things on a rather sour note. Lashings of apologies to make later, I daresay.’

  ‘Well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out,’ said Maurice.

  ‘What an adorable little boy,’ she said, smiling a little as she reached a hand out to ruffle Daniel’s hair, but when he looked up and narrowed his eyes, emitting a low growling sound from the back of his throat like a threatened animal, she changed her mind and made a hasty retreat.

  ‘Is he staying with you for the summer?’ she asked, and now it was Maurice’s turn to frown, uncertain what she meant, before realizing that she probably assumed he was divorced.

  ‘No, he lives with me,’ said Maurice.

  ‘Oh. And your … partner? Your …?’

  ‘My wife died some years ago,’ he said, a non-sequitur, of course, since Edith had borne no relationship to Daniel, but he had no intention of getting into the intricacies of his life with an author he barely knew and didn’t much like.

  ‘Maurice, I’m so sorry,’ she replied, lowering her voice. ‘I had no idea.’

  ‘And now you do.’

’s a bit like Kramer vs Kramer, isn’t it?’ she said.

  ‘How so?’

  ‘You know, when Meryl Streep walks out on Dustin Hoffman and he doesn’t know how to cope at first with the little boy. He can barely even cook dinner. But then they form a connection that’s been missing since he was born and, when Meryl comes back, Dustin doesn’t want to give the child up and they have the most frightful rows.’

  Maurice stared at her, wondering how someone so stupid could have publishers begging for her work. ‘As I said, my wife died,’ he said quietly. ‘So I don’t think she’s going to show up demanding custodial rights any time soon.’

  ‘No, I suppose not,’ said Henrietta, who didn’t look entirely convinced that this would be the case. ‘Oh, by the way, I meant to tell you. I sold that story.’

  ‘Which story?’

  ‘The one you rejected.’

  ‘I didn’t reject it, Henrietta,’ he said with a sigh. ‘I simply passed on it for now as I didn’t think it was a good fit for our next issue.’

  ‘That sounds a lot like semantics to me, which is unworthy of you. You hated it. Just be honest and tell the truth.’

  The same thing, thought Maurice.

  ‘All right, fine,’ he said, throwing his hands in the air. ‘You’re right. I hated it.’

  Henrietta sat back in her chair in shock, as if he’d just pulled a gun on her or told her that he’d impregnated her mother. ‘That’s a little rude, isn’t it?’ she asked.

  ‘Well, you’re so insistent on the point that it seems easier to agree with you than anything else.’

  ‘So you didn’t hate it, then?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ he said, smiling a little. ‘What do you think?’

  She stared at him, looking as if she was torn between annoyance and laughter, but finally gave in to the latter, slapping his knee sharply.

  ‘You shouldn’t hit people,’ said Daniel, sitting up straight.

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