A ladder to the sky, p.30
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.30
 

           John Boyne
‘Maybe when the next novel is published.’

  ‘Whenever works. It’s entirely up to you.’

  I nodded and drank some more. A roomful of students intimidated me more now than it would have in the past. And, of course, they would probably want me to speak in the middle of the day, which would be a problem, as it was important that I was in one of my pubs every day by eight minutes past two.

  ‘I’ll let you know,’ I said.

  ‘Thanks,’ he replied, and he looked down at his pint, staring at it for a few moments before lifting it to his lips.

  ‘How’s the thesis coming along, anyway?’ I asked eventually. ‘I hope our meetings are proving helpful to you.’

  ‘They are,’ he said. ‘But it’s important to me that I create a work of scholarship and not just a lazy trawl through your catalogue.’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘Which means that I might have to be critical as well as complimentary. I hope you can understand that. I just don’t want you to read it one day and feel that I’ve been duplicitous.’

  ‘I wouldn’t expect anything less,’ I said. ‘I daresay not every word I’ve written over the years has been perfect, after all.’

  ‘I’ve been doing some work on Two Germans, you see,’ he continued. ‘Reading back over old reviews and some of the subsequent commentary. I suppose you’re aware of the criticisms of the book.’

  ‘Vaguely,’ I said. ‘Which, in particular?’

  ‘Well, there are those who feel that you took advantage of Erich Ackermann. Seduced his story from him as a way to build your own career.’

  I nodded. I’d heard that one before, of course, many times, and had a stock answer. ‘Erich’s actions were his own to account for,’ I said. ‘For whatever reason, he chose me as his confidant and never once suggested that our conversations were supposed to remain private. I was free to use them in any way I chose. You must remember that when Erich and I originally met I knew nothing about what had happened during the war. I had never even heard the name of Oskar Gött. I simply made the man’s acquaintance and one thing, as they say, led to another. It wasn’t a set-up. I can hardly be blamed if he revealed things to me that, later on, he came to regret saying.’

  His trusty notebook was out again and he was scribbling away.

  ‘So you felt no guilt about what happened to him?’ he asked.

  ‘Not particularly, no,’ I said, frowning. ‘Why, do you think I should have?’

  ‘There are those who say that you deliberately targeted Ackermann. And that if it hadn’t been that story, then it would have been another. That he was doomed from the moment he met you. Is that unfair?’

  ‘Totally unfair,’ I said, feeling a little unsettled by the accusatory tone he was taking. ‘He was a grown man, after all. He could have walked away from me at any time but he chose not to. The fact was, Erich Ackermann was in love with me.’

  He stopped writing for a moment and looked up.

  ‘He told you this?’ he asked.

  ‘Not in so many words, no,’ I admitted. ‘But it was obvious. He wasn’t very good at hiding it. The poor man had tied himself up in emotional knots over so many decades, cutting off any potential romantic attachments, that when the dam broke, so to speak, he was absolutely incapable of dealing with the subsequent psychological trauma. But I never led him on, if that’s what you’re suggesting.’

  ‘All right,’ he said.

  ‘You don’t sound convinced.’

  He smiled and shook his head. ‘Sorry, Maurice,’ he said. ‘I’m just trying to get to the heart of the story, that’s all.’

  He took off his jacket now, revealing a T-shirt featuring a band that my son Daniel had loved. I stared at the familiar faces that had once adorned a poster in my son’s room.

  ‘You like them?’ I asked, pointing down at the image.

  He glanced down and nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Why, do you?’

  ‘Not really,’ I said. ‘I’m a little too old for bands like that. But my son did.’

  He said nothing for a few moments. ‘How intimate can I be with my questions?’ he asked at last.

  ‘You can ask me anything you like. I don’t mind.’

  ‘All right. Do you have a girlfriend?’

  ‘No,’ I said, surprised that he should be interested in my personal instead of my professional life.

  ‘Are you gay?’

  ‘No. Why, have I done something to give you the impression that I am?’

  ‘It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other, you understand,’ he said. ‘I’m just trying to understand you better as a person so I can more clearly contextualize your work.’

  ‘Well, I suppose if I’m anything, I’m straight,’ I said. ‘Although I don’t feel an enormous pull in any direction these days. I never really did, if I’m honest. I was never a terribly sexual person, not even when I was your age. Perhaps I’m missing a certain hormone, I don’t know, but it was just something that was never very important to me. Are you driven by sex, Theo?’

  He blushed a little and I felt pleased to be able to discombobulate him, for he had been too in control of today’s meeting for my liking.

  ‘Well, I mean I like it,’ he said. ‘When I can get it, that is.’

  ‘And do you have a girlfriend?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘A boyfriend?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘All right.’ I smiled at him, wondering whether he was going to give me anything else, but it seemed that he was determined to stick to his role as interlocutor.

  ‘Anyway,’ I said finally, ‘I’m pretty certain that that part of my life is behind me. Can I just say,’ I added after a moment, not wanting to scare him away, ‘just so there’s no confusion, I haven’t invited you here in order to seduce you, if that’s what you’re thinking.’

  ‘What?’ he said, looking at me now with an expression of such surprise on his face that I realized he hadn’t been thinking anything of the sort.

  ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Perhaps I’m misreading things. I was worried that you thought I was agreeing to these meetings for some unsavoury reason. That I’ve only taken an interest in you because I want to form a romantic attachment. I just want to reassure you that nothing could be further from the truth.’

  ‘I honestly hadn’t even considered it,’ he said. ‘Not for a moment.’

  ‘Right,’ I said. ‘How embarrassing. For me, I mean.’

  ‘I mean, if you are interested in me in that way—’

  ‘I’m genuinely not. It’s the furthest thing from my mind, I promise you. I was simply concerned that’s what you thought and wanted to set your mind at rest. I can see that all I’ve achieved is the opposite. Let’s talk about something else. I think I’ve made rather a fool of myself.’

  ‘It’s okay.’

  He looked as if he wanted the ground to open up beneath him and I cursed my own stupidity. Was I going to lose him now? I couldn’t risk anything like that. He needed to finish his thesis and it needed to become a book. For that to happen, I needed to focus. I decided it was time to give him something. A small morsel to stimulate his appetite.

  ‘Actually,’ I said at last, ‘if you don’t mind, I’d like to confide something in you.’

  ‘Really?’ he asked, looking up hopefully.

  ‘Yes. Something for your thesis. Something I’ve never really talked about before.’

  He turned another page in his notebook, his pen hovering over the paper. His eagerness was endearing.

  ‘I want to be honest with you, you see,’ I continued. ‘And I agree with you that it’s important that your thesis is a work of true integrity. Especially if it’s to become the basis of a full book. You’re still planning on that, I hope?’

  ‘Well, yes. But that’s a long way—’

  ‘Good. I want to tell you something about Dash Hardy.’

  ‘The American writer?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘I think I read somewhere that he was a ment
or to you, is that right? When you were starting out, I mean.’

  ‘I’m not quite sure that I’d describe him in those terms,’ I replied, ‘although he probably would have. But, to be fair, yes, he was very generous towards me. Have you read any of his books, Theo?’

  ‘No, I’ve never got around to them,’ he replied, shaking his head. ‘Are they worth reading?’

  ‘Not really,’ I said. ‘I mean, one or two maybe. But there are so many books out there in the world that I wouldn’t bother if I were you. You won’t find anything particularly interesting in them. Not today. They’re very much of their time. I met Dash many years ago, not long after I met Erich Ackermann, as it happens. Our paths crossed in the Prado in Madrid and, like Erich, he was entranced by me. They were both homosexuals, of course, but very different types. Where Erich was content just to stare at me across the dining tables of Europe, fantasizing about a relationship that would never come to fruition, Dash came straight out and told me what he wanted on the day that we met. He wasn’t looking for romance, he said, he didn’t want a lifelong companion or someone to show up on his arm at parties. He just wanted to fuck me. Really, I admired his forthrightness. And so I let him. The very night that we met, in fact, but never again after that. I drifted towards him after I parted from Erich because he had a higher profile in the States but, in retrospect, I think I may have treated him unkindly. You see, when we met, he just desired me, so the sex was probably not that interesting, but after that he fell in love, desperately in love, and the moment he did I made sure to deny him everything he wanted. I would barely let him put his arms around me and certainly never let him in my bed again. The poor man went around in a state of such abject misery that one day, having grown tired of him following me around like a bewildered puppy, I announced that I’d grown bored of him and didn’t want to see him ever again. It was just after we’d spent an evening at Gore Vidal’s house on the Amalfi Coast, in fact. I broke the bad news to him while we were driving back down the mountain. Actually, I waited until we got close to the bottom in case he drove us over a cliff. Gore wasn’t my biggest fan, I should say. He felt that I was just using Dash to get a good American publisher and that, once I had what I wanted, I would walk away.’

  ‘And was he right?’

  I shrugged. ‘He wasn’t entirely wrong. But that was Gore. You couldn’t make a fool of him. Only a fool, in fact, would have tried.’

  ‘And you did all this consciously?’

  ‘Yes. What can I say? I was ambitious. I still am.’

  He hesitated for a moment. ‘That’s quite an admission,’ he said.

  ‘It is,’ I said, feigning surprise. ‘Oh, I’m not sure it amounts to very much. Although, are you aware that Dash committed suicide?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Well, he did. Years later, mind you, but not long after he’d run into me again at the Hay Festival. The poor man looked as depressed as ever, and I suppose seeing me again after all that time re-lit the flames that he’d tried so hard to extinguish and he decided to end it all. He contacted me after our brief encounter, you see, and begged me to come back to him. He said that he’d never stopped loving me and that he would do anything if I would simply return. I just laughed, told him I wasn’t even slightly interested. I was seeing Edith at the time, anyway, the woman who would become my wife. I told him I could scarcely imagine anything more tedious than returning to a life with him in New York and he shouldn’t bother me again. Later that evening, he hanged himself in the apartment we’d once shared in Manhattan. I suppose, in some ways, I have his death on my conscience.’

  ‘I see,’ said Theo, thinking about this. I could see his eyes moving back and forth as he wondered how best to use this in his thesis. He waited a long time before speaking again and I determined not to break the silence. ‘Well, you can’t blame yourself for what he chose to do,’ he said eventually, a certain hesitation in his tone. ‘I’m sure you didn’t intentionally hurt him.’

  ‘Are you?’ I asked, smiling.

  ‘Well, you didn’t, did you?’

  I was still smiling. It was decent of him to think that. Time to pull back a little. I didn’t want to make myself out to be too much of a monster. ‘Of course not,’ I said. ‘I was young, that’s all. And we all take a little help where we can get it when we’re that age. But still, if I could go back in time, perhaps I would have acted a little more kindly towards him.’

  ‘Towards all of us,’ said Daniel, who had returned to the table now and was once again sitting in Theo’s place. He stared at me before attempting to take a deep breath and failing badly, the sound of congested lungs pouring from his mouth like a cry from a banshee.

  ‘Are you all right?’ asked Theo. It took only a blink of my eyes for reality to return.

  ‘I’m fine,’ I said, stepping away from the table carefully. ‘I just need the bathroom, that’s all. I’ll be back in a moment.’

  When I returned, he was still scribbling in his notepad and I ordered some more drinks, placing them on the table, but didn’t speak until he’d finished writing.

  ‘You don’t have to if you don’t want to,’ he said at last, looking up at me, ‘but if you’d like to talk about your son, then I’d be happy to listen. I don’t know if you have anyone in particular who you can discuss him with.’

  ‘Thank you,’ I said, surprised that he was even interested in a dead child. I had expected that he’d want some information about Dash and whether I treated anyone else with such heartlessness. ‘And perhaps I will at some point. I so rarely do, you see. But not today, I think. I’d need to compose my thoughts. Tomorrow, maybe? I don’t know what you’re doing around two o’clock?’

  4. The Lamb and Flag, Rose Street

  ‘You know, Charles Dickens used to drink here,’ I said the following afternoon as we sat in the window of the Lamb and Flag pub on Rose Street, the rain pouring down outside on another wet London day. ‘And out there,’ I added, pointing to the alleyway beyond, ‘is where the Poet Laureate John Dryden was almost beaten to death by thugs in the service of the Earl of Rochester.’

  ‘What had he done to deserve that?’ asked Theo, looking out on to the street as if some of the blood might still be visible on the cobblestones. He had arrived wearing a shirt and tie rather than his usual T-shirt and hoodie and looked very smart; when I asked him why such formality, he told me that he’d had a meeting that morning with his thesis adviser and liked to dress more professionally whenever they met, which I thought a rather quaint tradition. I couldn’t remember my son ever wearing a tie in his life, though, so I asked Theo to take it off, which he did without complaint, unbuttoning the top of his shirt as he did so, which set me more at ease. Daniel had always preferred open-necked shirts.

  ‘It’s hard to know,’ I told him with a shrug. ‘They’d been friends once, of course. Dryden dedicated one of his plays to Rochester, who had something of a hand in the writing of it, and maybe the Earl felt he didn’t get enough credit for his work. Marriage à la Mode, if memory serves. But then you know writers. They can be merciless in how they use each other to get to the top. I’m surprised more of them don’t kill each other, to be honest.’

  ‘You say “them”,’ said Theo with a half-smile. ‘Not “us”?’

  ‘All right, us,’ I replied, correcting myself. ‘I’m surprised more of us don’t kill each other. For such an artistic field, there’s an awful lot of people who desperately want to beat someone else and be seen as the very best. Succeeding on one’s own terms just isn’t enough.’

  ‘Whenever a friend succeeds,’ said Theo, ‘a little something in me dies. That was Truman Capote, wasn’t it?’

  ‘No, that was Gore,’ I said, recalling the plaintive eyes that had looked up at me from beneath the sheets in the early hours of the morning at the Swallow’s Nest, La Rondinaia, when I had stood before him and removed my robe, preparing to make my greatest conquest yet. But he had simply shaken his head, perhaps in regret that he was longer
capable of playing the game, and rolled over on his side, falling back asleep. It had been disappointing, of course, and not a little humiliating, but I’d rather admired him for his resolve.

  ‘And you’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, haven’t you?’

  He shook his head.

  ‘That it’s like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy. Anyway, where did we leave things yesterday? I was planning on telling you something about Daniel, wasn’t I?’

  Something had shifted in my relationship with Theo since the previous afternoon. Although I had been using him all along and was prepared to continue with my plan until I had achieved my goal, I had begun to feel that it might be helpful to me to unburden myself of some of my regrets along the way. Perhaps it would dismiss Daniel’s ghost from shadowing me. Somehow, I felt a kindred spirit in this young naïf and I felt that he might actually understand why I had done some of the things I’d done. And that he might forgive me. But in order to do that, I needed to be honest with him. Obviously, there was only so far I could go without giving myself away entirely, but I wondered whether I could minimize some of my crimes and still command his respect.

  ‘Only if you want to,’ he said, notebook on the table, pen at the ready. ‘I don’t want to pry.’

  ‘I don’t mind,’ I replied. ‘I never have much opportunity to talk about him, despite the fact that he’s on my mind almost constantly. But before I do, I suppose I should go back a little further. To my wife.’

  He flicked through his notes. ‘Edith Camberley,’ he said, nodding. ‘Actually, I read her novel a few weeks ago. Fury. It was very good.’

  ‘It was,’ I agreed.

  ‘She died quite young, didn’t she?’

  ‘Sadly, yes. We were living in Norwich at the time. She fell down a staircase. I’d been intending to repair the handrail since we’d moved in but, somehow, I’d never quite got around to it. Too busy working on my novel. She ended up in a coma for several months and eventually the decision was made to turn off the life support.’

  ‘You made that decision?’

 
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