A ladder to the sky, p.27
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.27
 

           John Boyne

  ‘I beg your pardon?’ she said.

  ‘Don’t hit people!’ he insisted, and Henrietta looked from father to son in bewilderment.

  ‘She didn’t mean anything by it,’ said Maurice, looking at the boy. ‘But he’s right, Henrietta, you shouldn’t hit people. It’s not nice. How would you like it if I hit you?’

  The smile faded from her face now. There was nothing in his tone to suggest that he was joking. She waited for him to smile and to say that he was only teasing her and, when he didn’t, when his face remained as still as a block of stone, she shuddered a little and placed both hands on the table, pushing herself into an upright position as if she were morbidly obese and needed assistance.

  ‘I’d better go,’ she said.

  ‘Actually,’ said Maurice, reaching into his bag and removing a small camera that he always kept there, ‘before you do, could you do me a favour? I don’t have many pictures of Daniel and me together. Would you take one for me?’

  Henrietta seemed slightly bored by the request but took the camera as Maurice put an arm around his son, who was still focussed entirely on eating his ice-cream. Just as she asked them to smile, Maurice tapped the boy on the head lightly so his nose dipped into the tip of the cone, covering it with vanilla, and both father and son burst out laughing.

  ‘Thanks,’ he said when Henrietta handed the camera back, and she kissed him briefly on the cheek before continuing on her way.

  ‘I didn’t like her,’ said Daniel when she had gone, and Maurice shrugged.

  ‘I don’t like her very much either,’ he said. ‘What do you want to do now, anyway? We could go to see a movie, if you like?’

  ‘Let’s just go home,’ said Daniel, shaking his head. ‘I want to read my new book.’

  ‘I was hoping you’d say that,’ said Maurice, standing up and taking his son by the hand as they left the park behind. ‘I have twenty short stories waiting for me and I’d better make a start on them if I’m going to figure out what my next novel will be about.’

  PART III

  OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES

  ‘Drunkenness is temporary suicide.’

  – Bertrand Russell

  1. The Crown, Brewer Street

  Although I never exchanged so much as a hello with any of them, I recognized most of the drinkers in the Crown by sight and, over the years, assigned each one a name. Sitting at the end of the bar, endlessly playing games on his iPad, was Spencer Tracy, so called because of an uncanny resemblance he held to the actor. At a table by the window sat Professor Plum, a tall, elderly man in a purple turtleneck who drank pints of cider and worked his way through a succession of newspapers, shaking his head and muttering obscenities under his breath. Mrs Thatcher sat at the table closest to the toilets and appeared to have a bladder condition because she was in and out of the Ladies every twenty minutes. True, she didn’t look anything like the former prime minister, but her name was Maggie – I’d heard the barman call her that – and somehow that transformed itself into Mrs T in my head. She nursed her drinks and generally kept herself to herself although occasionally she showed up with a bespectacled, balding man – Denis, to me – and smooched with him shamelessly. It was a repulsive thing to witness.

  There were others, of course, a few regulars and plenty of passing trade. Occasional stagehands from the nearby theatres and a small crew of four or five from a local bookshop. Once in a while I saw a young boy, probably a student, nursing a pint for about two hours while reading one of the Great Works of Literature. I’d seen him make his way through Anna Karenina, Moby-Dick, Crime and Punishment. Cheap paperback editions, usually. A few months earlier, I’d watched as he turned the opening pages of A Sentimental Education, reading from a Penguin Classic for which I’d written the introduction, and he flipped past those six or seven pages without reading a word. I felt offended at first – that introduction had been one of the last things I’d published – but then remembered that I never read introductions either, so I could hardly blame him for ignoring it.

  I wondered if any of the patrons of the Crown noticed me too and, if they did, whether they wondered who I was or what had brought me there. I’d had a fantasy for a long time that one of them might ask and I had my answer ready for such a moment, eleven simple words that summed up my past, present and what I believed would be my future:

  I used to be a writer but now I’m a drunk.

  It might seem embarrassing to make such an admission but there was just no getting around the facts. I didn’t consider myself an alcoholic, although a doctor would probably have disputed this. If I was, however, then I was a functioning alcoholic, which is surely the best kind to be. When I first returned to London four years ago and checked in to the hotel I was staying at until I found a more permanent residence, I couldn’t think of any constructive way to spend the afternoon and so wandered down to the bar, where I got completely pissed, and somehow, I seemed to have stayed that way ever since.

  It helped, of course, that I had money. Over the years I’d earned a decent amount from book advances, royalties, speaking engagements and commissioned articles, and when I sold Storī, the magazine I’d set up in New York, it was at the height of its influence. The seven-figure sum that came my way from a liberal media corporation was a wonderful surprise in a world that seemed to value literature less and less. A few months later, exhausted by hotel living, I purchased a comfortable home within walking distance of Hyde Park and planned to live there until the world came to its senses and re-discovered me.

  I longed to write a new novel, of course, to get back in the game, but the old problem that had plagued my life since my teenage years reared its head once again. I changed city, social groups and daily routine in the vain hope that this might produce a good idea, but none came. My creative abilities remained in abeyance. I wrote a book that even I could tell was hopeless and it was rejected by my publisher during a highly unpleasant face-to-face encounter, where I may have behaved in a manner ill suited to a man of my accomplishments. Before marching out in a fit of pique, however, I declared that I’d been dropped before and had stormed back with The Tribesman, so all he was doing was replicating Rufus Shawcross’s mistake of twenty years earlier, an imitation that he would surely come to regret one day. I started another book soon after but was only a hundred pages in when I came to realize that it was more of a narcoleptic than a novel and quickly abandoned it. For a time, I feared that I was finished. The greatest writer of his generation, stalled for lack of an original thought. Really, I should have had more self-belief. If I’d learned nothing else since leaving Yorkshire at the end of the 1980s, it was that, like the proverbial cat, I had a habit of landing on my feet.

  I developed a routine and stuck to it religiously. Rising every day at around nine o’clock, I made my way towards Bayswater Road, where I entered Hyde Park and walked at a good pace in the direction of Kensington Palace, keeping a wary eye out for one of the lesser Royals, then strolled back towards the Serpentine, around to Speakers’ Corner and finally home again. It was good exercise, ninety minutes or so, and on a fine day it filled my lungs and almost made me feel glad to be alive. I shaved and showered and made sure to dress well as, although I’m perfectly happy to be a drunk, I prefer not to look like a tramp. One never knows, after all, who one might run in to. And then I packed my laptop and the book that I was reading and left for the afternoon.

  My week followed a simple but fixed pattern. Although I drank every day, I didn’t like the idea of being considered a ‘regular’ – indeed, during my first year I stopped frequenting two pubs, replacing them with others, on account of the growing over-familiarity of the staff – and so I had seven bars, one for each day of the week, which meant that my visits to each one were rare enough that I didn’t end up on first-name terms with anyone but frequent enough that I felt comfortable there. I chose the West End because I knew that part of London to be so busy with tourists and shoppers that I would never be anything more than anoth
er face in the crowd. Also, from where I lived, it was an easy Tube ride into Piccadilly Circus before a quick stroll to that day’s sanctuary.

  From the start, I visited the Crown on Brewer Street every Monday. It stands on land once held by the Hickford Rooms, a concert venue where Mozart played the piano at the age of nine. I always preferred the seat in the corner for, although I had no particular reason to believe it so, I liked to think that was where the young Wolfgang sat to perform the minuets and allegros that he composed as a child while his audience listened in astonishment to his precocity and his father, Leopold, watched from the corner, counting his money.

  The Crown, in its peaceful way, had become a good friend to me. The staff behind the bar came and went and were far more interested in engaging with strangers through their smartphones than in conversing with an actual human being, which suited me perfectly. I suspected that none of them remembered me from one Monday to the next and, even if they did, that my presence meant nothing to them. I didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother me. The proof of this, surely, was that they never recalled from one week to the next what I drank, which pleased me. The single phrase that would have driven me from any pub for ever would have been ‘The usual, sir?’

  While my daily routine never changed, nor did the subtleties that lay at the heart of each drinking schedule. I’ve never been much of a wine drinker, preferring the grain to the grape, and so, beginning at precisely eight minutes past two, I drank four pints of lager and two double whiskies. That usually took about three hours and then, shortly after five o’clock, I enjoyed three more pints, followed by a single malt. At seven, I had a Baileys with three ice cubes and, by seven thirty, I was done for the day, at which point I made my way back towards Piccadilly Circus and took the Tube home, where I ordered some food, ate a little of it, and went to bed. Occasionally, I would suffer from bad dreams but more often than not I slept the sleep of the innocent.

  What did I do while I was drinking? I started by opening my laptop and reading through the news sites, followed by the literary pages, keeping up with every book review and author interview that I could find, searching for clues that might answer that most tedious but prolific of questions, Where do you get your ideas? I had bookmarked the culture section of all the major newspapers and made it my business to study every trend, every bestseller and every word of wisdom that was sent my way, trying to understand the secrets of others. And then, when I’d soaked it all up, I read for a while, devoting myself exclusively to contemporary fiction. I visited a bookshop once every few weeks to stock up, and even though the ‘New Titles’ section infuriated me because I had nothing to offer it, there was no question in my mind that I would reclaim my place there soon.

  I’d devoted myself exclusively to young writers since my first arrival in New York, when I set up Storī and was attending parties three or four times a week, making sure to be familiar with the work of my peers in order to be part of the conversation. I had an opinion on them all and I was happy to share those opinions freely, delighted when I could cause an occasional controversy with a well-judged put-down, which I would innocently claim had been taken out of context when I next encountered the writer in question.

  ‘It’s the media, darling,’ I would say, leaning in towards my opponent’s ear. ‘You know what it’s like. You can’t say a word without it being misinterpreted.’

  And I was generally believed too, for I knew them and they knew me and, anyway, we were all at it. We drank together, had countless spats, made up, pretended to take pleasure in each other’s successes and to commiserate over each other’s failures. What mattered was that I mattered, that I was taken seriously.

  Now, however, sitting in the pub and tired of reading, there would be nothing left for me to do but open a Word document on my laptop and stare at its accusatory blankness while I got drunker and drunker. But to my frustration, not once did my fingers ever touch the keyboard other than to write the words ‘Chapter One’ at the top of the page. The simplest phrase of all, but the most intimidating.

  It was on a Monday afternoon in the Crown on the last day of April – coincidentally, my birthday – that I read Theo Field’s letter and saw an opportunity to forsake this rather humdrum existence and return to the one that suited me best. My afternoon was passing in its usual manner and I was enjoying my third pint while staring at an empty screen when I remembered an envelope that had arrived from my literary agent’s office that morning, an all too rare offering those days. I’d thrown it into my bag as I left the house but reached for it now, tearing it open, and I was immediately impressed by the quality of the stationery that the writer had used, not to mention the fact that he’d gone to the trouble of writing instead of sending an email. Old-fashioned, yes, but something I appreciated.

  Dear Mr Swift [it began],

  Forgive this unsolicited letter but I write to you as a great fan of your novels. I remember reading Two Germans when I was a boy and it sparked an interest in the war that remains with me to this day. I don’t believe that a novel set during those years has ever moved me quite as much as yours did. The Tribesman, The Breach and The Broken Ones are among my favourite works of contemporary literature but I’m a particular fan of The Treehouse, which, for me, is an underrated classic. I’m currently a student at the University of London, where I’m in my final year of study in the English department, and I hope to make your work the subject of my final thesis, although I have ambitions towards ultimately developing that thesis into a book. For me, you are the finest British writer of your generation. If you’ll forgive the flattery, the range of your work is so extraordinary that somehow it seems astonishing to me that it could all have come from the same mind. That’s your genius, I think. Surprising the reader with each new novel.

  I wondered whether I might meet you at some point and learn a little more about your work and your life, in order to better inform my thesis. It’s important to me that I write something honest and singular, as my ultimate ambition is to be a literary biographer and this will be my first effort to forge a path towards that career. My father, an editor at Random House, has been very encouraging in this respect. (I’m not a fiction writer, you’ll be pleased to know, and have no ambitions whatsoever in that direction!) Anyway, I assume that you’re working on a new novel and have very little free time but I would appreciate if you could spare a little for me one day. It would mean an awful lot.

  Yours sincerely,

  Theo Field

  After reading the letter I reached for my pint and noticed that my hand was trembling a little, so I returned the glass to the table and closed my eyes for a moment while breathing slowly and carefully through my nose, using a technique that I’d been taught which often helped at moments like this. I could sense Daniel near me at that moment, could almost feel his hand in mine, his voice whispering in my ear in that accusatory way he developed towards the end. He was telling me to throw the letter away and leave the boy alone, that he was just an innocent student trying to get a start in the world, and I knew that I needed to step away if I were to block him out. And so I made my way into the Gents, where I stood before the sink, my eyes shut, my hands pressed against the cool white porcelain, and waited a minute or two before throwing water on my face and staring at my reflection in the mirror, uncertain whether I even recognized myself any more.

  I rarely bothered looking in mirrors at home but there, in that narrow bathroom with its dull neon light flickering, I could see how altered my appearance had become in recent years. All my life I had been handsome. I took no particular pride in the fact, but a fact it was nevertheless, and one that I’d been aware of since the age of thirteen or fourteen. Both women and men had been attracted to me since I was very young and I understood the power that I held over them, a power that had always been very easy to exploit. Several had fallen in love with me. One had married me.

  I had long since come to understand, however, that I was different from other men in that I had
no particular desire for the bodies of others and that whatever instinct guided people towards the bedroom was somehow lost on me. Whether or not this has been a blessing or a curse is hard to know but I suspect it’s the former. I’ve seen so many people’s lives destroyed by failed love affairs or unrequited passions that I’ve always felt rather fortunate to remain essentially disinterested. Why would anyone want to be part of such calamitous drama, after all? It had been years since I’d enjoyed a romantic encounter or even desired one. During my time in New York, there had been plenty of people who’d expressed an interest, but I’d taken none of them up on their offers.

  Staring at my reflection now, however, I wondered whether I would ever have the opportunity to turn someone’s advances down again. My hair was turning grey and my blue eyes, which had once shone so bright, had grown dull. Worst of all, however, was my skin, which appeared grey and was tinged with red capillaries, probably from the excess of alcohol. I glanced down at my hands, which had spent so much of their lives typing away at a keyboard before me. My recollection of them was as smooth collaborators with just the hint of a blue vein running from the wrist to the middle finger, but now, the skin was tight and my fingers appeared bony, the nails pockmarked, with large semicircles spreading outwards from the cuticles, like slowly exploding planets. I was growing old, it was clear, and not gracefully.

  There was only so long that I could stay and observe the ruins and eventually I turned my attention away, washed my hands and made my way back outside to my seat, re-reading Theo Field’s letter, several times in fact. Outside the flattery and the oleaginous remarks, there remained the central idea that he wanted to write about me. Only a thesis, yes, but he mentioned that he had ambitions towards literary biography and, indeed, towards publishing a book. And that delicious morsel he had thrown in, mentioning that his father worked at Random House! Of course, the naïf had wanted to impress me with his credentials, and it had worked, for I could surely use his family connections to my advantage in due course. A critical study would undoubtedly revive my drooping reputation and perhaps there would be something in the boy and his questions that would reignite my creative spark. And then a novel. The path back to glory was so wonderfully simple.

 
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