A ladder to the sky, p.32
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.32
 

           John Boyne

  ‘Do you really think so?’ he asked hopefully.

  ‘I’m sure of it. The reviews for Garrett’s book have been extraordinary,’ he added, turning to me. ‘Have you read them?’

  ‘I was neither aware of the reviews nor of the book,’ I lied. ‘But I’m delighted to hear it’s gone down so well. Edith would be proud of you.’

  ‘We’ll be adding your name to the list of all those great writers whose names have been associated with The Prize,’ he said, turning back to Garrett. ‘Including, of course, our friend Maurice here.’

  ‘Well, that was all a long time ago,’ I said.

  ‘Oh, that’s right, you were shortlisted once, weren’t you?’ said Garrett. ‘I’d completely forgotten that. When was it? Sometime back in the nineties?’

  ‘Who can recall? My memory isn’t what it was. I am, as you say, on the wrong side of fifty.’

  ‘Well, if you will spend your afternoons in a pub, you can expect a little diminishment of your powers.’

  ‘You’re in a pub too,’ I pointed out. ‘And look at you! Enjoying your fifteen minutes of fame.’

  ‘Yes, but I’m celebrating. I’ve been shortlisted.’

  I smiled and felt an unexpected rush of affection for the boy, who’d always been able to give as good as he got. I’d rather missed his cuntish behaviour.

  ‘Who’s that you’re with over there, anyway?’ he continued, looking back towards my table. ‘He looks like something you’d pick up at King’s Cross Station in the men’s toilets on a Thursday night.’

  ‘That’s my son, actually,’ I said, the words out of my mouth before I could even consider the wisdom of the lie. I glanced at Rufus, whose expression hadn’t changed, and I assumed that he knew nothing about what had happened to Daniel. Or perhaps he did and thought that I had two sons.

  ‘Oh right, sorry,’ said Garrett, who at least had the good grace to look embarrassed at his faux-pas. ‘My mistake.’

  ‘No, it’s fine,’ I said. ‘Anyway, I daresay you’re more familiar with that type of fellow than I am. Thursday night, you say? Why Thursday night? Is that a particularly good time to catch some rough trade?’

  ‘I said sorry. It was just a joke.’

  ‘A hilarious one,’ I muttered.

  ‘And are you working on anything at the moment, Maurice?’ asked Rufus, who was blushing scarlet for some inexplicable reason, and I turned back to him with a shrug.

  ‘Oh, I’m sure you’re not that interested,’ I said. ‘You were never a great fan of my work, after all.’

  ‘Well, I did publish Two Germans,’ he said, pushing his glasses up his nose and looking a little wounded by that remark. ‘So, to be fair, I was the first person to spot your talent.’

  ‘Erich Ackermann was the first person to spot my talent,’ I pointed out.

  ‘And look what happened to him,’ said Garrett.

  ‘But you’re right. You did publish me. Twice, in fact. Before you dropped me.’

  ‘In retrospect, that whole situation was handled rather badly,’ Rufus replied, looking down at the floor. ‘I was fairly new to the game myself and I listened to the bean counters upstairs when I should have followed my gut. I always knew that you were the real deal.’

  ‘It would have been nice to have heard that at the time,’ I said. ‘It was quite a blow when you showed me the door. It led to some pretty dark years.’

  No one said anything for a few moments. I’d only been at their table a few minutes but had already managed to insult them both and make them each feel like shit, so I was beginning to feel that my work there was done. Suddenly I longed for the days before I’d met Theo, when I was just a solo drinker and rarely spoke to anyone. Life was simpler then.

  ‘Anyway,’ I said at last, placing a hand on both their shoulders simultaneously and squeezing them just enough to leave a bruise, ‘I’ve probably taken up enough of your time. It was nice to see you both. And congratulations again, Garrett, on your longlisting.’

  ‘Shortlisting,’ he said, but the word was thrown at my back for I’d already walked away and was heading back to our table.

  ‘Sorry about that,’ I said as I sat down, and Theo shook his head as if to say, No problem, while he put his phone away. ‘A couple of old friends. You probably know one of them. Garrett Colby?’

  ‘The writer?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘I’ve heard of him. I’ve never read him.’

  ‘You’re better off. He’s an idiot. And his work is infantile. His first book had something to do with talking animals, if I recall correctly.’

  ‘Like Animal Farm.’

  ‘Yes, just without the wit, the politics, the style or the genius.’

  Theo laughed and took a long drink from his pint. He still seemed distracted by the revelation I had made but I was determined not to talk about that any more. I didn’t want to make a bigger issue of it than it needed to be.

  ‘Anyway,’ I said. ‘Where were we?’

  ‘You were telling me about The Tribesman and how you—’

  ‘No, we’ve covered that. Something else.’

  He raised an eyebrow. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Well, you were going to talk to me about Daniel, but instead we—’

  My good humour melted away instantly. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ I said. ‘Well, what else would you like to know?’

  ‘Anything you want to tell me. Was he a writer?’

  ‘No. A good reader but not a writer.’

  ‘Did he see much of the world?’

  ‘Some. A little of Europe, with me, when we travelled to festivals. But not enough.’

  ‘And when he died—’

  ‘I don’t want to talk about the day itself, if you don’t mind,’ I said.

  ‘Of course. That’s fine.’

  ‘Another time, maybe,’ I said, looking away. ‘It’s not an afternoon that I like to revisit.’

  ‘Time for a smoke then, if you don’t mind,’ he said, standing up, and I nodded as he made his way out of the door, glancing at Garrett and Rufus as he went. I put the beermats on top of our pints and made my way into the toilet, where I pressed one hand against the wall as I pissed. When I went back outside I ordered more drinks and sat waiting for him. Upon his return, he sat down, brushed the hair out of his eyes, and the smell of nicotine from his jacket made me sit back a little. I’ve never liked the smell of cigarettes. I had caught Daniel with them once and we’d had a rare argument when I’d pointed out how damaging it could be to him, given his asthma.

  ‘By the way,’ he said, finishing his pint and starting on the next one. ‘I have some good news.’

  ‘Oh yes?’ I asked. ‘What’s that?’

  ‘I got a commission to write a couple of book reviews for Time Out. I sent them a sample of my work and they offered me two novels for next month’s issues. If they’re happy with what I produce, then there’s a good chance I’ll get some more.’

  ‘That’s excellent news,’ I said, pleased for him. ‘Congratulations.’

  ‘Thanks, yeah. I’m really happy about it. It doesn’t pay much but it gets my name into print.’

  ‘And what have they asked you to review?’

  He named a couple of authors and their new books and I nodded. ‘They’re good writers,’ I said. ‘I like both their work.’

  ‘So do I,’ he said. ‘That’s what worries me.’

  ‘Why?’ I asked.

  ‘Well, it would be much better if I got some bad novels to review. Preferably bad novels by famous writers. Then I could, you know, write some killer reviews. Really take them down.’

  ‘Make a name for yourself, you mean.’

  ‘Exactly.’

  ‘I suppose there’s nothing to stop you doing that, anyway,’ I said. ‘You don’t owe them anything.’

  ‘Problem is, if they get good reviews everywhere else and I write a negative one, I might just be seen as someone who didn’t fully understand the work.’

  ‘Or as someone with an
independent mind.’

  ‘Perhaps. Anyway, I’m going to start reading the first one later tonight. Hopefully it will be terrible.’

  ‘Fingers crossed,’ I said.

  I looked up as a shadow fell across our table and was alarmed to see Rufus and Garrett standing there, dreading the idea that they might want to join us.

  ‘Just wanted to say goodbye,’ said Rufus, setting my mind at rest. ‘We’re meeting some people for drinks at the Charlotte Street Hotel. To celebrate Garrett’s shortlisting. You’re welcome to join us if you like.’

  ‘Oh Lord, no,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘I can scarcely think of anything I’d enjoy less.’

  He reared back in surprise, as if I’d just made an unkind remark about his mother. He pushed his glasses up his nose again – really, he ought to get them tightened – and turned to Theo, and, in a heartbeat, the smile vanished from my face when I remembered my earlier lie.

  ‘Rufus Shawcross,’ he said, extending a hand. ‘I published your father’s first two novels.’

  Theo stared at the hand for a moment, then shook it. ‘I’m sorry?’ he asked, frowning.

  ‘You’re … Danny, is that right?’

  Theo looked at me for a moment, but I was lost for words. There was simply nothing I could say that would not make me look ridiculous.

  ‘Daniel,’ said Theo, turning back to Rufus. ‘No one ever calls me Danny. At least not since I was a little boy.’

  ‘Daniel, then,’ he said. ‘You have a very talented father. We need him to write another book, it’s been far too long. Well, it was nice to meet you, anyway. Goodbye, Maurice.’

  ‘Goodbye,’ I said, watching the pair of them as they walked away and dreading the moment I would have to turn back to Theo.

  ‘I’m sorry about that,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what made him say such a thing. He mustn’t know … he must have just assumed …’

  ‘It’s fine,’ he replied. ‘When you didn’t say anything, I thought it was easier just to go with it. I wasn’t sure what you wanted me to do.’

  ‘I don’t think I knew myself,’ I said. ‘But thank you, anyway. It made an awkward moment almost bearable.’

  ‘He seemed like a bit of a twat, anyway,’ said Theo.

  ‘No,’ I replied quietly, shaking my head. ‘No, he’s a very decent man, really. I shouldn’t have spoken to him in the way that I did.’

  At home that night, I tried to put the events of the afternoon behind me, uncertain why I had passed Theo off as my son. The more I thought about it, however, the more I felt that I hadn’t lied, at least not intentionally. When Garrett had made his vulgar assertion, I had simply said what had felt real to me in the moment.

  My routine had become completely destroyed since I’d met this boy and, unusually for me, I’d picked up a bottle of whisky on my way home and sat alone in my living room, drinking glass after glass. I wanted that sensation of release, of complete surrender to the alcohol. I wanted to fall into bed and have the empty dreams that I used to enjoy. I wanted to escape my life. But drinking alone at home held little appeal and I only managed a third of the bottle before I put it away and stumbled to my bedroom.

  The days ahead would be peaceful, at least. Theo had essays to write, two novels to read and the Time Out reviews to draft and, having spent two consecutive afternoons together, I knew that I couldn’t ask him to join me on Friday too, even though I longed for his company now. I’d suggested the following Monday but he’d said no, that it was his father’s birthday, and before I could suggest Tuesday, he’d said the following Friday, which was just over a week away. I wasn’t sure that I could be without him until then, but I could hardly fall on my knees and beg him to reconsider so I had simply smiled, said that sounded good and that I would text him with a place at some point next week, even though I already knew where, because Fridays meant the Dog and Duck on Bateman Street.

  I struggled to sleep that night and, shortly after midnight, returned to my whisky, this time managing to finish the bottle. It sat in my stomach, burning me from the inside out, and I stumbled several times as I made my way back to bed. When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed of Edith. She was standing in the bar of the Charlotte Street Hotel, surrounded by dead writers, drinking champagne. William Golding was sitting in a corner with Anthony Trollope, smoking a pipe. John McGahern was trying to catch the barman’s attention while Kingsley Amis emerged from the Gents, buttoning up his trousers. They were all offering congratulations. Something wonderful had happened to her and she was proud and excited. I looked around in search of myself among the party, but I was nowhere to be seen.

  ‘Has anyone seen Maurice?’ asked Edith, looking directly at me but failing to recognize me. ‘He should be here with me. Has anyone seen my husband? I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.’

  5. The Dog and Duck, Bateman Street

  It was the first time that Theo was already waiting for me in the pub when I arrived.

  ‘Your bruise has healed,’ he said, nodding at my forehead.

  ‘It has, yes,’ I said. Although I’d been drinking steadily every afternoon and evening since our last encounter the previous Thursday, returning to my daily routine with a mixture of relief and dismay that he wasn’t there to join me, I had made sure to be extra careful when leaving each pub to make my way home. I couldn’t risk another accident. ‘And how was your week?’

  ‘Good,’ he said. ‘I read the first of those books that I agreed to review.’

  ‘And?’

  ‘Unfortunately, it was really good,’ he said.

  ‘Oh, well. Can’t be helped.’

  ‘I know. But I’ve started the second one and, so far, it’s a bit slow. So things are looking up.’

  ‘Excellent. You might find something to criticize there.’

  ‘Hopefully, yes.’

  I smiled at him, but he didn’t smile back. I wondered whether he’d spent our time apart thinking about what I’d told him the previous week concerning Edith’s novel and how poorly I’d treated Dash.

  ‘Are you all right?’ I asked. ‘You seem a little quiet.’

  ‘I’m fine,’ he said, shaking his head but still failing to smile. I didn’t care for the fact that he seemed to be growing less deferential to me and more like an irritated friend. ‘How’s your work going?’

  ‘What work?’ I asked.

  ‘Your novel.’

  ‘Oh, you know,’ I said with a shrug. ‘Good days and bad days.’

  ‘Which are there more of?’

  ‘The latter,’ I said. ‘Definitely the latter.’

  He nodded and seemed as if he wanted to ask me something else but was nervous of how it might come out.

  ‘What?’ I said, not wanting to sit there all afternoon with an awkward silence hanging over us. ‘Just spit it out, whatever it is.’

  ‘I don’t want to sound rude.’

  ‘I don’t much care if you do.’

  ‘It’s just … well, I’ve been thinking of how we meet. Of where we meet. Of what we do together.’

  ‘You make it sound like we’re having an affair behind our wives’ backs.’

  ‘I mean how we always meet in pubs,’ he said. ‘And how we drink all afternoon.’

  ‘But what else would one do in a pub?’

  ‘It’s just that you seem to spend a lot of time in places like this, that’s all.’

  ‘Oh, I see.’

  ‘And I wondered when you get your writing done? Surely you don’t go home and work in the evening after six or seven pints?’

  ‘If you didn’t want to meet in a pub,’ I said, ignoring his question, ‘then you didn’t have to. You could always have suggested somewhere else.’

  ‘It’s not that.’

  ‘Then what’s the problem?’

  ‘Can I be really honest with you?’

  I sighed. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, stop pissing about, Daniel,’ I said.

  ‘Theo.’

  ‘What?’

 
It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘It’s just … I was doing some more online research this week.’

  ‘Why do online research when I’m right here with you? You can ask me anything you want. I’ve been incredibly honest with you so far, wouldn’t you agree?’

  ‘I was looking at old photos,’ he continued. ‘From when you were younger. I even found one of you and Erich Ackermann together.’

  ‘Really?’ I said, surprised, for at first I couldn’t recall us ever having our picture taken.

  ‘Yes, you’re sitting outside a bar, having a drink, and your arm is around his shoulders. You’re looking into the camera. He’s looking at you.’

  I threw my mind back almost thirty years and had a vague recollection of us sitting in Montmartre while a young waitress took our photo. Had Erich held on to that for years afterwards, I wondered, and it had somehow found its way into a newspaper obituary or a critical work? How utterly tragic, I thought.

  ‘Yes? And? What of it?’

  ‘Well, you must know. You were very handsome.’

  ‘I suppose I was.’

  ‘I don’t mean to be rude.’

  ‘If anything, that was a compliment.’

  ‘It’s just that you don’t look like that any more,’ he said.

  ‘Well, of course I don’t,’ I said, growing irritated by his obfuscation. ‘It’s been over twenty-five years since Two Germans was published. I’m hardly going to look the same as I did when I was little more than a boy.’

  ‘And I was thinking about a neighbour of mine,’ he said.

  ‘A what?’ I asked. ‘A neighbour, did you say? Well, what about him?’

  ‘He drank himself to death.’

  I sighed. I could see where this was going now. ‘Did he indeed?’ I said quietly.

  ‘It wasn’t his fault. He was an alcoholic. But in those last years, his skin looked just like yours. Very grey, I mean. And he had the same dark bags under his eyes that you have and red lines across his cheeks and nose. I was just a kid, but he always frightened me when he came too close.’

 
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