A ladder to the sky, p.29
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.29
 

           John Boyne

  ‘Although there must be a part of you that wonders whether he deserved what you did to him,’ he said. It took a few moments for the line to hit me as I had been barely listening while he yapped on and on. Instead I had just been staring at him, taking that familiar but not quite recognizable face in. True, he didn’t have the cheekbones that Daniel had, his face was a little too full for that kind of definition, but other than that the resemblance between my son and this boy was uncanny.

  ‘What was that?’ I asked, snapping back to the moment, unsure whether I’d heard him right. He couldn’t possibly have said something so impertinent, could he?

  ‘I asked whether you’d like another drink? It’s just such a pleasure to sit here and talk with you.’

  ‘It’s my round,’ I said, standing up and telling myself not to invent things. After all, I had never been able to before, so this was hardly the time to start. I made my way to the bar, where I ordered two more pints and focussed my gaze on the girl behind the counter as she poured them. ‘You missed a bit,’ I told her when she placed the drinks on the counter before me.

  ‘I’m sorry?’

  ‘In the corner there,’ I said, pointing to a space behind her where a thick and sharp chunk of glass lay on its side, broken side up. ‘From when you let the glass fall earlier.’

  ‘Oh, thanks,’ she said, turning to look at it as I paid for the beers and returned to the table. Theo had disappeared while I’d been away and I looked around, catching his shadow through the window to where he stood outside, smoking a cigarette. I watched him for a few moments, then reached forward and ran my finger around the rim of his empty pint several times before lifting that same finger to my lips and sucking on it slowly. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again I had a sense that I was being watched. I was right, for the girl behind the bar was staring at me with an expression of disgust on her face. She turned away when I caught her eye and busied herself with sweeping up the broken glass. I didn’t care. I knew what she thought, that I was either trying to seduce the boy or already had, but it didn’t matter to me. Not in the slightest. I had a job to do and I would do it.

  He came back a few moments later and we clinked glasses once again.

  ‘I’m enjoying our conversation,’ I told him.

  ‘I am too,’ he said.

  ‘I hope it won’t be our last.’

  He smiled. He seemed so happy, so innocent. So like my dead son that it was all I could do not to take him in my arms and hold him tight, to beg for his forgiveness.

  ‘I hope so too,’ he said.

  3. The Coach and Horses, Greek Street

  It was just over a week before I saw Theo again. After leaving the Queen’s Head that afternoon, we exchanged numbers and I planned on texting him by the weekend at the latest, but, due to an unfortunate accident that took place as I was leaving my Thursday pub, I had to wait a little longer to get in touch.

  Brooding over the events of earlier in the week, I felt as if Daniel’s ghost were standing behind me at every minute of the day, whispering in my ear in that accusatory way of his. He was on my mind more than he had been in recent times and I was uncertain whether this had something to do with Theo’s appearance in my life or my plans for rebuilding my career. And so, as I stepped out on to the street a few days later, perhaps I wasn’t paying as close attention to my surroundings as I should have been and I stumbled, losing my footing, and fell heavily to the ground, where my face crashed into the pavement with such force that I was momentarily stunned. When I managed to gather myself together, I sat upright and could feel something wet running down my face. When I put my hand to my forehead, it came away bloody and, when I spat, a tooth fell from my mouth. I looked up at the people who were walking quickly past me, rushing to the Tube at the end of a day’s work, and each one was doing their best to ignore me. It was only when a policewoman approached me that my real humiliation began.

  ‘Now, what’s happened here, sir?’ she asked, crouching down to my level as if I were a lost child. She looked almost like a child herself; she couldn’t have been more than twenty-three years old and wore a gentle expression on her face that probably belied her seriousness.

  ‘I fell,’ I told her, my words slurring a little from a mixture of inebriation and shock. It embarrassed me to sound so pathetic.

  ‘I can see that,’ she said. ‘Had a little too much to drink today, have we?’

  I narrowed my eyes at her. If there is one thing I’ve always despised, it’s when people – figures of authority, generally – speak in the first-person plural, as if whatever mishap has occurred has somehow been a shared concern.

  ‘We haven’t been doing anything together,’ I said. ‘We have only just met. And no, I haven’t been drinking, if that’s what you’re asking.’

  ‘I think we have, sir,’ she replied, smiling at me. ‘We smell like a brewery, don’t we? We smell as if we’ve been dunked into a keg of beer, head first!’

  ‘Oh, fuck off,’ I muttered, but I suppose she was accustomed to such abuse for she didn’t so much as flutter an eyelid. Instead she stood up, then took my arm in hers as she attempted to pull me to my feet.

  ‘That’s a nasty cut we’ve got there, isn’t it?’ she said, reaching for the walkie-talkie by her hip and muttering some strange, indecipherable commands into it, a series of numbers followed by our location. ‘We’ll need to get that looked at, won’t we?’

  I could see the pedestrians watching us now, each one silently judging me. They thought I was nothing more than a tragic old alcoholic, drunk in the middle of the day. A hopeless middle-aged man who needed the assistance of a policewoman young enough to be his daughter to get himself home.

  ‘I was shortlisted for The Prize once, you know!’ I shouted at the top of my voice. ‘Which is more than any of you fuckers have ever done.’

  ‘Of course you were, sir,’ said the policewoman, obviously having no clue what I was talking about. ‘I won a prize too when I was a girl. Came first in the hundred-metres dash at school. But we don’t need to broadcast it to all and sundry, now, do we? Let’s keep our manners about us and not cause any fuss.’

  Before I could speak again, I heard the siren of an approaching ambulance and looked down the street to where the traffic was parting to let it through, at which point I glanced back at my benefactress in annoyance.

  ‘That better not be for me,’ I said.

  ‘It is, sir,’ she said. ‘We can’t let ourselves walk around London with blood pouring down our faces, can we? It might scare the horses! We gave ourselves a nasty bang.’

  ‘Oh, you stupid bitch,’ I replied quietly, with a sigh.

  ‘Now now, sir,’ she said, squeezing my arm a little now. ‘There’s no need for any unpleasantness, is there? We’re just doing our jobs.’

  ‘Can you stop talking like that, please?’ I said. ‘You’re making my brain hurt.’

  ‘We’ll tell the ambulance men that, shall we?’ she replied. ‘Best to be honest with them about everything. We’ve cut our forehead and our brain is hurting. What’s our name, sir? Can we remember?’

  ‘Of course I can fucking remember,’ I said. ‘I’m not a complete imbecile. It’s Maurice Swift.’

  ‘And do we have a home to go to tonight?’

  I stared at her in bewilderment. She surely didn’t think that I was homeless? I looked down at my clothes and, true, I might have looked a little ragged that day, and the blood pouring down my face probably didn’t help, but still. This was a degradation that was almost intolerable.

  ‘Of course I have a home,’ I said. ‘I live near Hyde Park. I’m not some sort of vagrant, you know.’

  ‘Oh, very nice, I’m sure. Can I call someone for you there? Is your wife at home?’

  ‘My wife is dead.’

  ‘A son or daughter perhaps?’

  ‘Only a son. But he’s dead too.’

  ‘Oh dear,’ she said, looking a little uncomfortable at last. Still, I thought about it. I
f I did need someone, if I needed help at some point in the future, who would I call? My parents were long dead and I hadn’t spoken to my siblings in decades. My son was gone. I had no friends. My publisher and I were no longer on speaking terms. For a moment, I thought of handing her my phone, where one of the only numbers listed was Theo’s, but I had enough sense not to do that.

  ‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘I don’t need anyone. I just want to go home.’

  ‘Well then, we shouldn’t be drinking in the middle of the day, sir, should we?’ she said as the ambulance pulled up alongside us. ‘It’s not a good idea at all.’

  ‘It’s an excellent idea, actually,’ I told her. ‘You should try it sometime. Believe me, it will cure almost every ailment you have.’

  ‘But it leaves us with a bloody face and a missing tooth,’ she said, releasing my arm at last as a burly man of about sixty emerged from the ambulance, before giving him a quick rundown of my condition.

  ‘We’ve been drinking,’ was her first comment. She lowered her voice as if she didn’t want anyone to hear and, before I knew it, I had been thrown into the back of the ambulance and was being whisked off to St Peter’s, where my forehead was stitched and my mouth was cleaned. I think I fell asleep on a trolley and when I woke I felt utterly disoriented and my head ached. No one seemed to be taking any responsibility for my well-being so I dragged myself to my feet and made for the exit, hailed a taxi and went home.

  My point being that I didn’t want Theo to see me like that so put off contacting him, waiting instead until early the following week, when the wound was less discoloured, to get in touch again.

  Across the eight days until we met again, I felt an unexpected longing for Theo’s company, one that I hadn’t anticipated when I began this project. Finally, after hours of deliberating over the wording, I texted some nonsense about having meetings in town on Wednesday morning, that I would probably be in the Coach and Horses around three o’clock and, if he was interested in joining me, I’d be happy to buy him a drink and answer more of his questions then. To my delight, the message had barely left my phone when he replied with a quick ‘See you there!’ and a smiley face, followed by an image of two beer glasses clinking against each other. It was all that I could do not to sit down and weep in gratitude.

  I had said three o’clock because I wanted an hour to myself first to settle my nerves. I sat at the small table in the corner, watching as Londoners walked by the window and, as I had done so often in my professional life, tried to invent stories for them, wondering if they had some quality that could help to populate a novel for me, but failing every time. Finally, a sense of relief. The door opened. He was here. My boy.

  ‘You made it,’ I said, standing up and awkwardly embracing him. He extended his hand just as I opened my arms and when he put it down, the whole thing became too complicated and embarrassing to pursue. I ordered two pints and brought them over as he took his coat off. I could already tell that he was distracted. He looked tired and had that strange habit Daniel had suffered from when he was anxious of tapping the tip of his index finger against his thumb rapidly, like a woodpecker attacking an oak tree. It was an unusual gesture, one that my son had never seemed conscious of, and here was this boy doing the same thing.

  ‘Of course,’ he replied, smiling now, his expression lightening a little as we began to drink. ‘I wouldn’t have missed it.’ He leaned forward, peering at my forehead. ‘What happened to your head?’

  ‘A slight accident,’ I told him, waving his concerns away. ‘I woke in the night to use the bathroom and walked straight into my bedroom door.’

  ‘Ouch.’

  ‘Indeed. It needed seven stitches. But I was a brave little soldier. And how was your week?’

  ‘Good,’ he said. ‘And you? Did you get much work done? On your book, I mean.’

  ‘Which book?’

  ‘The book you’re writing.’

  ‘Oh,’ I said. Of course, he assumed that I was working on a new novel. Why wouldn’t I be, after all? I always had been, since I was not very much older than him, and it had been some years now since my last publication. It would seem strange if there weren’t something in progress.

  ‘How’s it coming along, anyway?’ he asked. ‘Are you close to the end?’

  I smiled and tried to think how best to answer this. Before Daniel died, I had been engaged on a new book, but I had all but abandoned it since then. My working title was Other People’s Stories, but I hadn’t been able to look at it since my son’s death. It was still there, of course, sitting on my computer desktop like an unexploded bomb, but I couldn’t bring myself to open it. The truth was, I was nervous of returning to a manuscript that had effectively cost my son his life.

  ‘I hope so,’ I told him finally. ‘It’s hard to know. These things can go either way.’

  ‘Can you tell me anything about it?’

  ‘I’d rather not,’ I said, shaking my head.

  ‘Fair enough. I suppose it’s difficult to talk about a work in progress. You never know who might steal your ideas.’

  ‘It’s not that,’ I said, anxious for him to believe that I trusted him. ‘It’s just—’

  ‘I’m kidding,’ he said, looking a little abashed. ‘It’s not as if anyone could just take someone else’s story and write it themselves, is it? These things need to form in a writer’s mind over time. After all, a novel is about a lot more than just plot, right?’

  ‘Right,’ I said, wondering how many of my peers would argue with that notion. ‘So, what you’re saying is that if someone did do that, they’d have to be … what? Actually, what are you saying?’

  ‘Well, they’d have to be really talented,’ he said. ‘But also a complete psychopath.’

  I laughed. ‘Well, yes. But, of course, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.’

  ‘Can you at least tell me when you think it might be published?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ I said, wishing he would change the subject, for I didn’t want to talk about any of this. ‘Late next year, perhaps. Or early the following one.’

  ‘Well, I’ll look forward to reading it whenever it’s ready,’ he said, before making his way up to the bar and ordering some more drinks. When he came back, he reached into his bag and removed a Ventolin, put it to his mouth and took a quick breath. I stared at him in horror. My head began to grow slightly dizzy, as if the earth had shifted a heartbeat quicker on its usual rotation but I had been left a few paces behind.

  ‘You have asthma,’ I said quietly, more a statement than a question, but he looked across at me and nodded.

  ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘It’s not too bad, though. The inhaler gets me through.’

  ‘My son had asthma,’ I said. ‘He suffered from it quite badly.’

  He nodded and inhaled again, before returning the familiar blue device to his satchel. ‘Some people get it worse than others. Mine has always been manageable.’

  ‘It’s how he died.’

  Theo sat back in the chair and stared at me. ‘Christ,’ he said. ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize.’

  ‘There’s no reason why you should have.’

  ‘Do you mind if I ask what happened?’

  I looked away. There was no harm in telling him the truth. Up to a point, at least.

  ‘It was hay-fever season,’ I told him. ‘And, of course, his asthma was always much worse at that time of year. He was in our apartment, doing some homework on my computer.’ And now time to massage the details. ‘I wasn’t there. I’d gone out to pick up some take-away. It seems that he had a particularly bad bronchospasm attack and couldn’t reach his inhaler in time. He collapsed on the floor. By the time I got back, he was gone.’

  ‘That’s awful,’ said Theo. ‘How old was he?’

  ‘Thirteen.’

  I looked down at the table, scratching my nails into the woodwork. I could sense him again, a small hand gripping my shoulder, an arm wrapped around my throat. He pressed against m
y wind-pipe and I tried to push back but he was too strong for me and when I looked up, he was sitting opposite me in Theo’s place, watching me, an expression on his face that broke through my chest and clutched at my heart, squeezing it, cutting off the blood from pumping around my body.

  ‘It was your own fault,’ I whispered.

  ‘What?’

  I blinked a few times, felt an immediate release from my delusion and shook my head. Daniel was gone; Theo had returned.

  ‘Nothing,’ I replied. I noticed the cigarette packet on the table and frowned. ‘You know, if you have asthma, you really shouldn’t be smoking.’

  ‘I’m trying to give up.’

  ‘Well, try harder,’ I said forcefully.

  ‘And did Daniel—’

  ‘That’s enough about him,’ I snapped, more heatedly than I had intended. ‘Let’s talk about something else.’

  ‘All right, sorry,’ he said. A long pause ensued. The tension that descended on us was almost unbearable but, finally, he spoke again.

  ‘Actually, before I forget,’ he said. ‘I was talking to a friend of mine the other day – she runs the literary society at UCL – and I told her that you were giving me some help on my thesis. She wondered whether you might come in some day to talk to the writing students?’

  I sat back in my chair, lifted my pint and took a long draught from it. It had been a long time since I’d spoken to any students about writing or, for that matter, spoken to anyone about writing. I wasn’t sure if it was something I would feel comfortable doing any more.

  ‘No pressure, of course,’ he said quickly, when I didn’t answer immediately. ‘I’m sure you’re busy with your work and—’

  ‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘I prefer only to do such things when there’s a new book out.’

  ‘Of course, I understand.’

 
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