A ladder to the sky, p.35
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       A Ladder to the Sky, p.35
 

           John Boyne

  ‘What do you know about sex?’ I asked, trying to laugh it off.

  ‘You’ve written that you killed her,’ he said, turning and sliding his finger along the top of the mouse, dragging the screen back to the part where I described our year in Norwich, when I had felt like Edith’s eunuch. ‘It says that you pushed her down the stairs.’

  ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said, trying to keep control of my temper. I could see that he was getting more upset now too. His breath was growing even shorter in his throat and I knew from experience that when he got so worked up he needed more and more of his Ventolin. ‘She lost her footing, that’s all. And she fell. It was an accident.’

  ‘You write that you pushed her. She found out that you’d copied her book and sold it as your own and—’

  ‘It’s a novel, Daniel,’ I insisted. ‘Nothing more. For Christ’s sake!’

  ‘It’s not!’ he cried, and the tears were rolling down his face now, his words difficult to understand. ‘I’ve read all of it. I’ve read everything you’ve written here. You didn’t even write any of your own books. You stole them all!’

  ‘That’s not true,’ I said, starting to feel panicked now, for I’d never seen him so upset, nor had I ever found myself so close to discovery. ‘I wrote every word.’

  ‘But they weren’t your ideas! You’re a liar!’

  ‘I’m not,’ I told him. ‘Look, you shouldn’t even be in here. You’ve broken into my private computer and—’

  ‘Was Edith my mother?’ he asked again, and the words were completely disconnected from each other as he tried to catch his breath. I looked to my right. His blue Ventolin inhaler sat between us. ‘Did you kill my mother?’ he shouted.

  ‘Of course not,’ I cried. ‘What do you take me for?’

  ‘You did!’ he roared. ‘You killed my mother! And you stole her book!’

  He could barely breathe now, and he reached out for his Ventolin and, without thinking, I reached for it too, grabbing it before he could and wrapping it in my closed fist as I stepped back towards the door.

  ‘Give it to me,’ he gasped, and I told myself to hand it over but, somehow, I couldn’t. I knew my son, I knew how honest he was, how persistent, and I knew that he would never let this go until he discovered the truth. ‘Give it to me, Dad!’ he cried, standing up, the words like broken syllables in his throat as he wheezed, his entire body doing all it could to clutch at small breaths of air to clear his increasingly clogged lungs.

  ‘I can’t,’ I said. My eyes flicked to the clock on the wall of my office. It was eight minutes past two when he fell to the floor, his hand on his chest, his body pulsing up and down as it went into shock. And at that moment I understood only too clearly that it was him or me. If I helped him, my career would be over, and I could not – I would not – allow that to happen. I had worked far too long and far too hard to let it go. I was a writer, for fuck’s sake. I was born to be a writer. No one would ever take that away from me.

  ‘So, you just let me die?’ asked Daniel, and I lifted the pint before me and took a long drink, allowing the alcohol to enter my bloodstream, making everything seem all right, before setting it down on the table once again.

  ‘I let you die,’ I admitted.

  ‘I begged you for my inhaler. You wouldn’t give it to me.’

  ‘You would have told. I couldn’t allow that. I’m sorry.’

  ‘But you’re not, though, are you? You’re not really sorry.’

  ‘I did what I had to do,’ I told him. ‘You don’t know what it’s like to have wanted something your entire life and never be good enough.’

  ‘Of course I don’t. I died when I was thirteen. I never got the chance.’

  ‘Jesus.’

  I looked up, glanced around. I was surrounded by a blur that gradually began to focus. I was in the Cross Keys. How had I got there? I remembered leaving home earlier but couldn’t recall arriving. How long had I been sitting there?

  ‘Daniel?’ I asked quietly, but it wasn’t Daniel sitting opposite me. It was Theo.

  ‘Your wife?’ he said. ‘Your own son? I knew you were bad, but this—’

  ‘What are you talking about?’ I asked. I felt that disoriented sensation one feels when waking from a mid-afternoon nap, confused about the time of day, uncertain of one’s location or whether you’ve been part of a dream or reality.

  ‘I thought you were just a liar. A manipulator. An operator and a plagiarist. But this? I never even suspected—’

  ‘Who do you think you’re talking to?’ I said, leaning forward, my entire body shaking now in confusion. ‘You can’t speak to me like that, you little prick.’

  He nodded down towards his phone and tapped the screen. A large red button was visible in the centre.

  ‘You can’t act as if you didn’t say it. I have it all here.’

  ‘You recorded me?’ I asked, frightened now. I couldn’t recall ever being frightened in my entire life.

  ‘Of course I did,’ he said. ‘I’ve recorded all our conversations. Right from the start. You said I could, remember? When we met that first day in the Queen’s Head on Denman Street? I wanted to quote you accurately for my so-called thesis.’

  I swallowed, trying to recall. That had been almost a month ago now but, yes, he had asked and I had said yes. He’d put the phone in his pocket so that it wouldn’t distract us and I had complimented him on his professionalism. But still, the things he was saying didn’t quite make sense to me. ‘What are you talking about?’ I asked. ‘You are writing a thesis, aren’t you? That’s what you told me.’

  ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I’m writing a book.’

  ‘A thesis that will become a book.’

  ‘No, just a book.’

  I shook my head, desperately trying to understand. ‘A book about me, though, yes? For your father? At Random House?’

  ‘Oh yes,’ he said, nodding. ‘That’s true. It was his idea, actually. And I do want to be a literary biographer. I know I’m young, but what’s wrong with that? You were young when you published your first book. If this works out, and I think it will now, I’d say I have a great career ahead of me.’

  ‘So there’s no thesis then,’ I said, considering this. ‘Just a book.’ Well, that wasn’t so bad. It cut out the middle man, so to speak. ‘You’ve been writing a book about me all this time.’

  He smiled and looked around the bar, the expression on his face suggesting that he couldn’t quite believe how slow I was.

  ‘You don’t get it, do you?’ he asked. ‘You’re not the subject of the book.’

  ‘I’m not?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Then who is?’

  ‘You can’t guess?’

  I thought about it but, no, I couldn’t. ‘Who?’ I asked again.

  ‘Don’t you remember when we first met? I told you that books had been my passion since I was a kid? And that my father worked in publishing but that his uncle used to write a little?’

  I looked away. Did I remember this? Yes, I did, but I had focussed only on the fact that his father was an editor.

  ‘My great-uncle, that would be,’ he said. ‘He’s the subject. I’m writing about him.’

  ‘And not me?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘But I don’t understand,’ I said, placing both hands on the edge of the table before me, for I was beginning to feel faint. ‘I feel like I’m in a daze.’

  ‘How’s your German, Maurice?’ he asked.

  ‘Average, I suppose,’ I said. ‘Enough to get by on. Why?’

  ‘Theo Field,’ he said, very slowly, enunciating each syllable as he smiled at me.

  ‘I don’t …’ And then, like a door opening beneath my feet and sending me falling to the rocks below, I felt a sensation that I was no longer part of this world. ‘Field,’ I said. ‘Acker.’

  ‘Acker,’ he agreed with a nod.

  ‘Ackermann. You’re …’

  ‘My father is Georg Ackermann’s son. He w
as killed in a tram crash, remember? You told me so yourself. Erich’s younger brother.’

  ‘Erich was your uncle.’

  ‘Well, my great-uncle.’

  I leaned forward and peered into his face. Did he look like Erich Ackermann? No, he looked like Daniel. He looked like my son.

  ‘I thought you would be more willing to confide in me if I shared some things in common with him,’ he said, sensing what I was thinking. ‘It wasn’t very difficult. There’s lots of pictures of him online, so I changed my hair colour to look like his. And he posted pictures on his Instagram account of his bedroom and I saw that band poster on the wall. So I bought a T-shirt to match.’

  ‘No,’ I said quietly.

  ‘And he wore a ring on the fourth finger of his right hand. So I got one of those too.’

  ‘Your glasses?’

  ‘There’s no prescription,’ he said, taking them off and handing them across to me. ‘Just frames with glass. The same ones that he wore.’

  I put them on. I could see through them without any difficulty.

  ‘He posted videos on Facebook too. That’s where I noticed this.’ He started to tap his index finger against his thumb rapidly. ‘A nervous affliction, was it?’

  ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He’d had it all his life. And your asthma?’ I asked.

  He burst out laughing, reached into his satchel and removed his blue inhaler, handing it across.

  ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Try it.’

  I put it in my mouth, pushed the button and breathed in quickly. Nothing. Just air. It was empty.

  ‘I don’t have asthma,’ he said. ‘I’ve never had asthma.’

  ‘The picture of Erich and me in Montmartre,’ I said. ‘You said that you were looking at old photos. I thought you had found it in a newspaper or a book.’

  ‘I never said that,’ he replied with a shrug. ‘I simply said that I was looking at it. You know that he was dead a week before they discovered the body?’

  ‘I heard that, yes,’ I said, looking down at the table. ‘Dash told me.’

  ‘He was holding the photograph in his hands when he was found. I suppose he still loved you, despite what you did to him. The coroner passed it on to my father.’

  I stared at him. I said nothing for a very long time.

  ‘But why?’ I asked finally, when I found my voice again. ‘Why would you do this?’

  ‘Why did you do what you did to my great-uncle?’

  ‘Because I wanted to succeed,’ I replied, beginning to feel the shame of my actions at last.

  ‘For what it’s worth, you’ve given me more than I ever dreamed of,’ he said. ‘I don’t even know whether the book will be about him now or about you. Or about both of you. But I have a feeling that it’s going to be the best start to a literary career since …’ He broke into a wide smile. ‘Well, since yours, I suppose!’

  ‘But what have I given you?’ I asked, trying to recall each of the conversations we’d had and all the confidences I’d entrusted him with. Happy to oblige me, he counted them off on his fingers.

  ‘First, Dash. Then Erich. Storī, of course. The Tribesman, which you didn’t even write.’

  ‘I tidied it up.’

  ‘But you didn’t write it! Although all of that pales into insignificance compared to what you did to Edith and Daniel. Two murders, Maurice. Two murders. Four, if you count your responsibility for both Erich’s death and Dash’s.’

  ‘Edith fell,’ I said.

  ‘You pushed her.’

  ‘Daniel had an asthma attack.’

  ‘And you withheld his inhaler.’ He looked down at his phone, tapped it for a moment, and put it in his pocket before standing up. ‘It’s all here, Maurice. Every word.’

  ‘No,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘No, wait. Let’s have another drink.’

  ‘I’ve drunk enough with you. I’ll be happy if I never have another pint in my life.’

  ‘Please,’ I said, standing up, but he shook his head, lifted his drink from the table and swallowed what was left in one go.

  ‘I’ll be in touch, Maurice,’ he said.

  ‘Sit down, let me order you another one. Please.’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Surely after everything I’ve done for you—’

  ‘You haven’t done anything for me,’ he said, laughing. ‘You’ve bought me a few drinks, that’s all. Tried to use me to get what you want. You hoped my father would use his connections to get you a new book deal, right? Well, that’s not going to happen. I don’t owe you anything, Maurice.’

  ‘No, but—’

  ‘I’m leaving,’ he said, walking away.

  ‘Wait!’ I shouted, but he was already halfway towards the door. ‘Daniel!’ I roared at the top of my voice, a desperate cry from the depths of my soul. He stopped as the pub fell silent, every head turning in my direction, eyes staring at me as if I were about to deliver the final monologue in a wonderful tragedy. But it wasn’t me who spoke, for I had nothing left to say.

  ‘It’s Theo,’ he said, looking at me with a mixture of contempt and boredom. ‘How many times, Maurice? My name is Theo, not Daniel.’

  And with that, he turned his back on me and was gone.

  7. HM Prison Belmarsh

  Many years ago, at the end of our acquaintance, I suggested to Erich Ackermann that perhaps he had seen me as he wanted me to be and not as who I actually was. I was right then, but the truth is that I made a similar mistake with Theo. Was it an absurd mixture of grief, guilt and alcoholism that allowed me to believe I was confessing everything to Daniel and that he would somehow forgive me and make my world clean again? Or had I always planned on telling Theo the truth? It’s difficult to know. I was always in control of everything and it’s a curious sensation when that’s no longer the case.

  But, despite my downfall and disgrace, life has actually been a lot happier since my incarceration. For one thing, I’m able to read more than I have in years. Always new fiction, of course. Young writers on their first, second or third books. I’ve been making notes of my favourite ones and would love to publicly comment on their work but, sadly, prisoners are not allowed use of the Internet, which seems a little unfair to me. How else are we to get our online law degrees and convince ourselves that we can argue our way out of this place? I’m being facetious, of course. Prison humour.

  Recently, I even tortured myself by trawling through Garrett Colby’s new novel, which was about an unrequited love affair between a man and a raccoon. What is his issue with animals? Did his puppy get run over when he was a child and he’s never got over it since? The whole thing is beyond me. Anyway, the book was awful. True, I’ve made some questionable choices in my life, but I can honestly say that I’ve never written or stolen anything as bad as that book. To my astonishment, however, the reviews were ecstatic, and somehow it soared to victory on the night of The Prize this year. That’s twice now that his name appears on the honour roll while mine is still absent. It’s enough to make one want to throw in the towel, it really is.

  Theo finished his book, which he titled Two Writers: Erich & Maurice, and he won the Costa Biography Award. He preceded this with an exposé in the Guardian, which won him several journalism awards. He seems set up for life. I feel quite proud of him. Truly, I do.

  Of course, the response from the writing fraternity to the revelations of my crimes were mixed.

  Some claimed that they’d always known I was a charlatan, that no one with such little self-awareness could possibly write as well as I did.

  Some said that they admired how I’d blurred the lines between my life and my writing and that my career was the embodiment of a new type of fiction. They even wrote editorial pieces for the newspapers suggesting that I should be applauded, not shunned.

  Some said that they’d never read me anyway and didn’t care what I did or how I did it because they were the only people worth reading and anyone who spent even a moment on my prose was wasting their life.

  One said
that literature was more important than human life so what was the problem if a few people had died in the pursuit of excellence?

  One declared that he had originally considered The Tribesman to be a masterpiece, but now that he knew it had actually been written by a woman, he was revising that opinion and realized that it was just a tedious piece of domestic trivia, driven by sentimentality.

  There were interminable debates and discussions on radio, television and in the newspapers about the way my work had been received over the years. For a brief time, I became the most famous writer in the world, which was enormously pleasing and everything I’d ever hoped for. Erich’s novels were republished in uniform jackets – his poetry collection too, which he always said was ill advised – each one with an introduction by a famous writer. The general feeling was that he’d been unfairly treated, which was a bit rich, I thought, considering he sent five people to their deaths. But revisionism is revisionism and at least it gave me hope that, long after I’m gone, readers will rediscover me and my reputation will be restored.

  I wasn’t sure when the original newspaper piece was going to be published and was held in a state of suspense for some time until I received a call one day from someone at the Guardian, who had naturally been suspicious of a twenty-year-old arriving in the lobby with such outrageous claims about a famous writer, but then they listened to the conversations recorded on his phone and the evidence was indisputable. I knew there was no point trying to argue – I was exhausted by my life at this point – and admitted that his piece was wholly accurate.

  I returned home from the pub a few nights later to find a crew of television cameras and radio reporters waiting on my doorstep, each of whom had clearly been tipped off about what was going to be published the next day. As I paid my taxi fare and stepped out to a barrage of questions, I recalled that YouTube clip of Doris Lessing returning home from her local Tesco only to discover a dozen reporters standing outside her house, giving her the wonderful news that she had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. ‘Oh Christ,’ she said on that occasion, rolling her eyes in exasperation, a priceless reaction. ‘This has been going on for thirty years.’ I said nothing quite as amusing as Doris, simply brushing past them while muttering that they were in my way, and stumbling through my door. I was obviously drunk. I giggled when I got inside. So, this was what self-destruction felt like.

 
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