A ladder to the sky, p.3
A Ladder to the Sky, p.3John Boyne
‘And you,’ he asked, looking up again. ‘How do you do it? Your stories are always so original.’
‘I’m not sure,’ I admitted. ‘The truth is that I just make them up as I go along.’
‘Really?’ he asked, laughing. ‘Can it be that simple?’
‘It can be,’ I said. ‘Look, here we are in Copenhagen. There are stories everywhere. Think of that castle. Think of the people visiting it. Think of us, two relative strangers sitting here talking to each other. Your writing is exceptional and will only get stronger over time. So it’s your stories that you need to focus on. When you find one, when you hear one, make it your own and then the world will come to you. That’s the best advice I can give you. Even in that hotel of yours in Berlin. All those people coming to and fro. Who are they? Where have they been? Where are they going? What secrets are they hiding?’
‘Most of them are just rich people on holiday,’ he said.
‘No,’ I insisted. ‘Everyone has secrets. There’s something in all our pasts that we wouldn’t want to be revealed. Look around the foyer the next time you’re there and ask yourself, What would each of these people prefer that I didn’t know about them? And that’s where you’ll find your story. A hotel can be a fascinating place. Hundreds of people gathered together in one building, yet each one desperate to maintain their privacy.’
‘There are worse jobs for an aspiring writer, that’s true,’ he said. ‘But I get so tired, and I’m not writing as much as I should. I’m desperate to move away from short stories and begin a novel. I just need to find the subject.’
‘Love,’ I said. ‘Love is always the subject.’
‘Not for you,’ he replied.
‘But what is loneliness,’ I pointed out, ‘other than the lack of love? I wonder …’ I added after a brief pause, uncertain whether it was too early to raise a subject that I’d been considering ever since our first night together in Copenhagen. There were moments when I thought it a wonderful idea and others when I thought I could only humiliate myself by asking. ‘I’ve mentioned that I have quite a number of trips to make over the coming months,’ I said.
‘And the thing is, Maurice, I find all this travelling quite exhausting and hate the idea of dining with strangers every night. Also, hotels and trains can be difficult for me to negotiate at times. And then there’s the issue of laundry and keeping track of refundable expenses, and so on. It occurred to me that over the time ahead I could very well benefit from having a companion of some description. An assistant, if you will. Someone to do the work that you’ve been doing for me over these last few days.’
‘I see,’ he replied, and I could see that he was excited by the turn the conversation was taking.
‘Is that something you might consider?’ I asked.
‘I’d like nothing more!’
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘between each trip you could return to Berlin, but if we were to say a six-month period of employment, then I could give you a stipend that would offer you some financial security for the entire time. You could leave the Savoy or, if you preferred, stay there and find better accommodation. That would be for you to decide.’
I named a figure; it was beyond generous and more than I could reasonably afford, but I was desperate for him to say yes. And when we shook hands on the deal I felt as happy as I had felt in years. It was as if I’d won The Prize for a second time.
‘Thank you,’ he said, utterly delighted. ‘You’re very kind.’
‘It’s my pleasure,’ I told him, which was as truthful a remark as I had made since disembarking the plane.
In Rome, of course, we spoke about God when Maurice remarked that he had been brought up Anglican and maintained a sentimental attachment to his faith.
‘And you?’ he asked. ‘Are you religious at all?’
‘Well, you must remember, I lived in Europe during the thirties and forties,’ I told him. ‘So I have little choice but to be an atheist.’
‘And before then?’
‘That’s too long ago for me to recall. But if you have a spiritual bent, then I suppose Rome is the place to be.’ I took a deep breath and debated whether to introduce a new character into our dialogue, a person whose importance in my life could not have been overestimated. ‘I had a friend once,’ I told him. ‘Oskar Gött. His great ambition in life was to come here. He read a book about the catacombs and wanted to visit them.’
‘And did he make it?’
‘No,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘He died shortly before the war began.’
‘How did he die?’
‘He was shot.’
Maurice nodded, and I stopped at a bench, sitting down and closing my eyes as I tilted my head back, allowing the late-morning sunshine to warm my skin. I felt him sit down next to me and the slight connection between his leg and my own. A passer-by might have taken us for father and son, a misunderstanding which had in fact taken place a few nights earlier when we’d checked into our rooms at the hotel, adjacent once again at my insistence, and it had upset me more than I’d expected, although Maurice had simply laughed.
‘You remind me of him,’ I said finally. ‘Of Oskar, I mean. You have similar features. Round, cheerful faces, bright blue eyes and that untameable dark hair that falls over your forehead.’
‘Tell me about him,’ he said. ‘Was he a good friend of yours?’
I hesitated. This was a part of my life that I’d locked away for many decades, never confiding the story in a single person. And yet sitting there that day on a bench in Caffarella Park, this twenty-two-year-old boy made me long to reveal my secrets in the most self-destructive way imaginable. I wanted to confide in him, to tell him my story.
Oskar and I, I told him, had met in early 1939, shortly after my seventeenth birthday, in the Nachmittag Café near the Volkspark am Weinbergsweg in Berlin. Like Maurice, Oskar, who was a few months younger than me, was a waiter, working for his parents in this small restaurant they had run for many years in the north of the city. It was not my usual custom to wander into such places alone but on the day in question it had begun to rain while I was on my way home and I took shelter inside, choosing a seat by the window and ordering a cup of coffee with a slice of Stollen. I noticed a book sitting on the window ledge, an adventure story that I had read and enjoyed several times. This volume, however, was considerably thicker than the one I had at home, more than three times its length in fact, and so I picked it up and turned to the title page, only to discover that it was a deceit, for the book’s jacket had been removed and another, a less controversial one, pasted in its place.
Before I could consider why someone might have done such a bizarre thing, a boy came running out from the kitchen area with an exaggerated sense of urgency and I looked up when he stopped before my table, one hand pushing the hair back from his forehead as he stared at me in dismay. I was aware of the anxious expression on his face but, more than this, I experienced a stirring at the pit of my stomach unlike any I had felt before. Of course, I had known for some years that I was homosexual and, at seventeen, was no stranger to physical attraction. For a time, I had tried to force myself to be attracted to girls but it was no good and I had little interest in pursuing so fruitless a goal. My homosexuality, I knew, was something that I could never change but also something that I could never indulge. Himmler, after all, had given a speech only a year earlier in which he had denounced the personal for the public and I had listened to his words on our wireless, uncertain why such a curse had been placed upon my head. He declared that the homosexual had to be got rid of – ‘Just as we pull out weeds, throw them on a heap and burn them’ – and there were rumours that known homosexuals were being sent to concentration camps or shot. Naturally, such ideas terrified me. And so my plan had been to feign a disinterest in all sexual matters, to become a eunuch around my friends, betraying no hint of desire and never indulging in or even pretending to understand crude jokes. Should it
‘My book,’ said the boy, reaching a hand out towards me. ‘I was searching for it.’
‘You changed the jacket,’ I replied. ‘Might I ask why?’
He bit his lip nervously and glanced around the room. Despite the inclement weather, the tables near mine were quite empty.
‘Give it to me, please,’ he said, lowering his voice. I nodded and handed it across. ‘You won’t tell anyone what you saw, will you?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s none of my business and, anyway, I’ve read that book myself. At home, in my bedroom. With the curtains closed. Aren’t you frightened of reading it in public?’
‘Of course, that’s why I made it look like something else. When I realized I’d left it out here, I thought I was going to faint. If the wrong person had found it, I might have been in trouble.’
The book was Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann, and I was aware, as was Oskar, that its author had fled Germany for Switzerland some six years earlier and that his books had subsequently been banned when he had been declared an enemy of the Reich. From his home in Zürich he had written at length about his contempt for the Führer and the Nazi Party and although the majority of his articles had been suppressed, some had appeared in underground papers and his views had been disseminated among a largely apathetic populace.
‘Join me if you like,’ I said, indicating the seat opposite me. ‘I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.’
‘I can’t,’ he said, glancing back towards the counter, where an older man I took to be his father was watching us warily. ‘My shift doesn’t finish for a couple of hours yet. I haven’t seen you in here before, have I?’
‘I came in to escape the rain.’
He nodded and seemed lost for what to say next, finally raising the novel in the air in appreciation and smiling at me. ‘Thank you for this,’ he said, turning around, and a moment later he disappeared back into the kitchen.
It had been a short conversation but afterwards I found myself unable to get him out of my mind and so, three days after this, I returned to the café, this time arriving almost two hours later in the hope that he might be finishing work. When he emerged from the kitchen, he noticed me sitting there and offered a wave, apparently happy to see me again.
‘Have you finished your book yet?’ I asked, when he came over to say hello.
‘Last night,’ he said. ‘And now I’m reading Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities. No one can object to Dickens, surely.’
‘I wouldn’t be so sure,’ I replied, attempting a casual tone. ‘These days, anyone can object to anything. Will you join me now?’ I added, but once again, to my great disappointment, he shook his head.
‘My father doesn’t like me to sit here with friends,’ he said. ‘He resents the idea of waiting on us. But what if we were to go somewhere else? Do you know the Böttcher Tavern? It’s not far from here. A few streets over.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘What’s your name, anyway?’
‘Oskar Gött,’ he said. ‘And yours?’
‘I’ll meet you at the Böttcher at five o’clock. Do you drink beer, Erich?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Then I will buy you a beer. It will be my way of thanking you for keeping my secret.’
I left the Nachmittag, taking a stroll around the neighbourhood as I watched the hands of my watch move sluggishly towards the hour. When it was finally time to return, I walked in great excitement towards the bar, which stood opposite the Schutzstaffel headquarters, where a tall, thin, red-haired guard, distinctly different from the typical Aryan type, stood with a rifle slung over his shoulder. I could feel his eyes on me as I ran across the road and pushed open the doors, looking around and smiling when I saw Oskar sitting at a table in the corner, drawing in a notebook.
At this time, in the early months of 1939, there was a general assumption that war was coming. No matter what the British said or did, it seemed clear that the Führer wanted armed conflict, knowing that only a full-scale international engagement could establish Germany as the world’s leading power. For young men of my age, this was a frightening thought. We had seen the effect the last war had had on our fathers – those of us who still had fathers, that is – and did not relish the idea of our lives following a similar pattern. And so perhaps it is not so strange that the first thought I had upon laying eyes on Oskar in the Böttcher was that war must be avoided at all costs lest someone as beautiful as him fall to the indiscriminate brutality of the battlefield.
‘Oskar,’ I said, sitting down, and as I did so he closed his notebook and placed the charcoal pencil on top of it.
‘My friend!’ he replied, smiling at me, and I swallowed nervously. I had never before known someone whose sheer physicality could hypnotize me to this extent. We ordered two beers and clinked our glasses together. He told me that he hated working in the café because his father was a brute but his plan was to save enough money so that he could travel and see the world. ‘I’d like to be an artist,’ he said. ‘And Paris is the place for that. Have you ever been?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’ve never left Berlin.’
‘I’d like to see London too,’ he added. ‘And Rome. I read a book about the catacombs once and they’ve fascinated me ever since.’
Neither of us mentioned the possibility of war. There were two types of youth in Germany then: those who could barely wait for it to begin and those who pretended that it was not coming at all, as if by ignoring the fact we could smother the bellicose infant in the crib.
‘You were drawing when I came in,’ I said, nodding towards his sketchbook. ‘Will you let me see your work?’
He shook his head and smiled, his cheeks flushing a little. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Anyway, that wasn’t drawing, it was just doodling. You know this word, yes? Something to pass the time. I have some canvases at home and that’s where my real work is. I paint with oils, mostly. At the moment, however, I can’t seem to find the proper inspiration. I paint landscapes, bowls of fruit and portraits of great buildings simply because I can and I’m able to sell them at the street markets. But what I really want is to paint something that no one else has ever painted before. Either that or paint something familiar in an unfamiliar way and allow the viewer to consider it from an unexpected angle. Does that make sense, Erich? I hear myself speak and worry that I might sound ridiculous to you.’
‘Not at all,’ I said, drawn to the idea of Oskar as a great painter. ‘I would like to be an artist too someday.’
‘You paint?’ he asked.
‘No, I can barely draw a straight line,’ I replied with a laugh. ‘But I write a little. Stories, that’s all. Perhaps one day a novel. Like you, I have not yet found my subject but I hope it will appear one day.’
‘Would you let me read one of your stories?’
‘Only if you show me one of your paintings.’
We talked of other things then. Of our schools and our classmates, of the subjects that interested us and the ones that didn’t. And – because all conversations then turned to this subject eventually – we spoke of the Führer and our weekly meetings of the Hitlerjugend. We were members of different corps and shared an enjoyment of field exercises while agreeing that doctrinal classes bored us to the point of paralysis. We had both attended the Nuremberg Youth Rallies since graduating from the Deutsches Jungvolk and found the atmosphere oppressive with the extraordinary numbers gathered there and the terrifying noise of unenlightened patriotism.
‘I saw him once,’ Oskar told me, leaning forward a little and lowering his voice. ‘A year ago, perhaps a little less. I was coming out of the Hauptbahnhof when a convoy of cars appeared along Lüneburgerstraße and everyone stopped and stared. His car, a black Grosser Mercedes, drove past me, and he turned his head just as I looked in his direction
I sat back in disbelief when he said these words. Had I heard him correctly? Had he told me that he despised himself for saluting the Führer?
‘I think perhaps I have shocked you,’ he said, and there was anxiety in his tone now. Fear. This was not an opinion that people voiced out loud, even if they felt it, and especially not to a new acquaintance whose trustworthiness had yet to be established.
‘A little,’ I said. ‘You don’t believe in him, then?’
‘He frightens me,’ said Oskar, and I understood this because he frightened me too. But then of course my younger brother and I were Jewish, or a quarter Jewish anyway, and the purges against the Jews had already begun. By now it had been more than three years since Jews had been stripped of their citizenship entirely and I knew of at least two couples whose engagements had been cancelled after the law had come into place banning Jews from marrying non-Jewish Germans. Only four months earlier, the city had descended into chaos after a boy my own age, a Jew, had shot a Nazi diplomat in the German embassy in Paris. Days later the SS had run riot through the city, destroying Jewish shops and synagogues, desecrating graveyards and arresting tens of thousands for deportation to the camps. Running home that night, desperate to escape the violence, I witnessed an elderly man being beaten to death by an officer some forty years his junior, another emerging from a jewellery store with blood pouring down his face after the glass in his shop window had been shattered and, near my home, I saw a girl being raped by an SS Sturmbannführer in a sidestreet while his colleague pinned her father to the wall and forced him to watch. I had not been a victim of any of this for I did not share any of the typical physical characteristics of the Jew, nor were we an observant family so we did not live with other Jews or attend synagogue. But the fact remained: I, and my brother, were Mischlings.
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