A ladder to the sky, p.7
A Ladder to the Sky,
‘You might have got in touch,’ I said. ‘I didn’t know whether you were alive or dead.’
‘Don’t be so melodramatic, Erich,’ he said, waving my concern away, and his disdain hit me like a punch to the guts. It seemed as if our relationship had begun to change and that he no longer felt the need to be quite as respectful as he once had.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’m starving. Come upstairs while I order some food.’
I wanted to tell him no, that I had better things to do than to trail around after him all day, but he was already making his way towards the elevators and, knowing that I might not see him again for hours if I did not follow, I swallowed my pride and slipped between the doors as they closed and we rode silently up to our adjacent rooms on the eleventh floor.
I felt something of an erotic thrill entering his bedroom. His suitcase was lying open on a table and his bed was still unmade from a nap he’d taken the previous afternoon, the sheets in disarray. I could see underwear and socks scattered haphazardly around the floor and the intimacy of the scene was intensely arousing.
‘Have you had lunch?’ he asked, kicking his shoes off.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘It’s gone two o’clock.’
‘Well, I’m starving. Do me a favour, would you, and order me some room service? A cheeseburger and fries. Something like that. I need a shower.’
I reached for the leather-bound folder by the desk and flicked through it.
‘Would you like something to drink with that?’ I asked.
‘A Diet Coke. Lots of ice.’
As I dialled the appropriate number and placed the order, he sat down and peeled his socks off, examining his toes for a moment, before pulling his T-shirt over his head to reveal his body to me for the first time. He was well muscled and hairless and, as he leaned over, the deep grooves of his abdominal muscles became sharply defined. A scar ran across his lower right-hand side. It was impossible not to stare and even when I knew that he was looking directly at me I could not avert my eyes.
‘I had an appendix operation when I was twelve,’ he told me as he stood up again. ‘The surgeon botched it, which is why the scar is so noticeable. If you touch it, it turns bright red. Try, if you like.’
I walked over to him and reached out, allowing the tip of my index finger to track its way along the wound, and sure enough it became slightly inflamed at my touch. When I arrived at the place where the redness blended back into his natural colouring I placed my palm flat across his stomach, feeling the warmth of his tight, young skin against my aged hand.
‘See?’ he said, stepping back and unbuckling his jeans before pulling them off and throwing them on the bed without any ceremony. He stood before me now in his boxer shorts and I forced myself to look away, catching a hint of a smile on his face as I did so.
‘I should go,’ I said.
‘No, stay here, if you don’t mind. The room-service guy might come while I’m in the shower and I’ll need you to let him in.’
He went into the bathroom, leaving the door slightly ajar, and after a moment I heard the water pounding down on the floor of the stall and then the more muffled sound as he stepped beneath the spray. Had he been flirting with me, I asked myself, or did he just lack any sense of self-consciousness? There was something knowing in Maurice’s actions. I stepped over towards the bathroom door and peered inside at his naked form, hidden by the glass of the shower stall and the steam that surrounded him, and when he turned I walked back towards the bed, feeling an erotic desire that was almost overwhelming. It embarrasses me to recall how I buried my face in his pillow, hoping to catch something of his scent, but there was nothing there. Before I could embarrass myself any further, there was a knock at the door and his lunch arrived.
Emerging from the bathroom a few minutes later with a white towelling robe tied loosely around his waist, he invited me to share some of his food, but I declined, saying that I would return to my room.
‘No, stay,’ he insisted. ‘I hate eating alone. Tell me more about your friend Oskar.’
‘Some other time, Maurice,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘I’m not in the mood for storytelling today.’
‘But I want to know. Sit down. Continue your story. Erich, sit.’
And of course, it was outside my capabilities to disappoint him so I did as instructed and began to talk.
It was the summer of 1939, only a couple of months before the war began, and I had arranged to meet my friend in our usual place to celebrate his seventeenth birthday. He was seated alone in the window as I crossed the road and when I knocked on the glass, waving at him, he broke into a wide smile and beckoned me inside. I felt such happiness as I entered and, when the waitress brought over our beers, we raised our glasses in salute.
‘Happy birthday,’ I said, reaching into my bag and taking out a present that I had carefully gift-wrapped earlier in the day. He sat back in some surprise as I placed it on the table between us. He ripped off the packaging and lifted the lid on the box inside. My gift to him was a fountain pen, one that my grandfather had given me for my own birthday a few years before. The finest of them all and the one that I treasured the most. I wanted him to have it.
‘Ah,’ he said, frowning a little, and his expression confused me for he did not look as pleased as I had expected. ‘This is very kind of you.’
‘Do you like it?’
‘I do,’ he said. ‘Very much.’
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘Nothing, why do you ask?’
‘I don’t know. There’s something, though. I can tell from your face.’
Before he could reply, a girl slipped into the seat next to him and looked back and forth between the two of us.
‘Alysse,’ said Oskar, turning to her. ‘This is Erich, who I’ve told you about.’
‘At last,’ she said, extending a hand to me. I recognized her immediately from Oskar’s sketchbooks and paintings. She seemed anxious, glancing around the bar and trying to make herself small in the seat, as if by doing so she might avoid attention. ‘I thought Oskar was making you up. He mentions you so often but has never introduced us.’
‘It’s because I don’t trust him,’ said Oskar.
‘What?’ I asked, turning to him in dismay. ‘Why not?’
‘I thought you might steal her away from me,’ he continued, laughing. ‘I’m joking, Erich. Don’t look so horrified!’
‘No one could take me away from you,’ she said quietly, and they smiled at each other for a moment before leaning forward and allowing their lips to meet. When they separated again, they continued to grin like fools, giddy with love.
‘And what’s this?’ she asked, looking down at my grandfather’s fountain pen. ‘How beautiful.’
‘It’s Erich’s,’ said Oskar. ‘Or rather, it’s mine. He gave it to me for my birthday.’
She lifted it up and examined it from all sides. The light through the window sent a gleam sparkling off the gold inlay. ‘Erich,’ she said, her eyes wide as she looked at me, ‘what a thoughtful gift. It’s so beautiful.’
‘I don’t think Oskar likes it,’ I said.
‘He’s just embarrassed,’ she said with a shrug. ‘Show him,’ she added, turning to my friend.
‘No, it doesn’t matter,’ he said.
‘Show him,’ she insisted. ‘I don’t mind.’
He sighed and reached into his bag, removing another fountain pen, a far less expensive one, the type that could be purchased in any stationery shop, although it had been engraved with his initials, OG. ‘It was Alysse’s gift to me,’ he said. ‘A coincidence, that’s all.’
‘I’m defeated,’ she said, laughing. ‘Yours is so much better, Erich.’
‘Yes, it is,’ I agreed. ‘How long have you two known each other, anyway?’
‘About eighteen months,’ she said, ignoring my rudeness. ‘We were just friends at first and then, finally, things changed. He was too shy to kiss me for a long time.’
She laughed but, to my disappointment, didn’t seem particularly embarrassed. ‘You mustn’t think I’m the type of girl who takes her clothes off for just anyone, Erich,’ she said. ‘I’m his muse. Oskar is going to be a great painter one day, I’m certain of it. My image might hang in the Louvre, like the Mona Lisa.’
‘Are you comparing yourself to her or Oskar to Leonardo da Vinci?’ I asked, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my tone.
‘Neither,’ she said. ‘I only meant—’
‘If you had a girlfriend as beautiful as Alysse,’ said Oskar, ‘wouldn’t you want to paint her too?’
‘I wouldn’t know,’ I said. ‘I’ve never had a girlfriend.’
‘That can’t be!’
‘But it is.’
‘Then perhaps I should introduce you to some of my friends,’ said Alysse.
‘Why bother?’ I asked. ‘Oskar and I will be off to war soon. We’ll be lucky if we’re still alive to see 1940. I don’t want to waste whatever time I have left trying to impress some tart.’
A silence descended on the table. Alysse’s smile faded completely and Oskar stared at me as if he could hardly believe that I’d said such a thing.
‘I’m just being realistic,’ I said, unable to look either of them in the eye. ‘They’re setting up more and more recruiting stations around Berlin as it is. A year from now, we’ll be eighteen, and what hope do we have then?’
‘They can set them up wherever they like,’ he said. ‘I won’t be entering any of them.’
‘Oskar!’ said Alysse.
‘But it’s true.’
‘Oskar,’ she repeated, quieter now, a note of warning in her tone.
‘What are you talking about?’ I asked.
They looked at each other and finally Alysse shrugged her shoulders. ‘You must keep this to yourself, Erich,’ she said.
‘Keep what to myself? What’s going on?’
‘We’re going to get out of here soon,’ he said. ‘We plan on living somewhere else.’
‘But where? Another part of Germany?’
‘Of course not. Away from Europe altogether.’
Alysse glanced at her watch and shook her head. ‘I should go,’ she said. ‘I have to collect my brother from school. I’ll see you later, Oskar, yes? You’re coming for dinner?’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I’ll be there at six.’
‘Erich, it was nice to meet you,’ she added as she stood up and put her coat on. ‘But please talk about something else, all right? Something cheerful. It’s Oskar’s birthday, after all.’
I nodded and watched her leave.
A sound from outside made us both look out the window. Alysse had been stopped by the tall, red-haired SS guard and he was beckoning her towards him.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Oskar, frowning.
The guard said something to her and she reached into her pocket for her papers, handing them across, and he took them from her, staring at her for a long time before directing his attention to the pages themselves.
‘I’m going out there,’ said Oskar, standing up, but I grabbed his arm immediately.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Just wait. Let it play out as it will.’
He paused and we watched as the guard flicked through the papers, then removed his gloves and slowly reached up to run a finger across Alysse’s face. I could see him smiling and recognized the desire in his eyes.
‘That fucker,’ hissed Oskar, and it took all of my strength to hold him back.
‘If you march out there now, it will only cause trouble for you both,’ I told him, my lips close to his right ear. ‘Give it another minute and he’ll probably let her go.’
He relaxed a little and, as I had predicted, the guard eventually handed back her papers and she continued on her way, only turning around once to glance anxiously in our direction.
‘Well?’ I asked, when she was gone and we’d sat down again. I could tell how incensed my friend had grown; I had never seen such strong emotion on his face before. ‘What’s going on? You can’t possibly leave Germany.’
‘I have to,’ he said.
‘Because of Alysse.’
‘What about her?’
He looked around nervously and, although the tables nearby were empty, he lowered his voice as he spoke. ‘I’m only telling you this because you’re my friend,’ he said. ‘You must promise not to breathe a word to anyone.’
‘You have my word,’ I said.
‘Alysse isn’t like you and me,’ he said. ‘You’ve read the Nuremberg Laws, haven’t you?’
‘She’s a first-degree Mischling. She has two Jewish grandparents,’ he added for clarification. ‘And two German.’
‘But so what? The Führer himself has said that first-degree Mischlings will not be arrested.’
‘No, Erich, he’s said that they will not be arrested “at this time” but that he will decide their fate after we win the war. Which might be only months after it begins. And who knows if he will even stick to his word? He could change his mind in a moment and Alysse would be taken from me. As would her entire family. Jews are already being deported and sent to work camps. I’ve heard that some are even being shot.’
‘And because of that you’re going to abandon both your duty and the Fatherland?’
‘Don’t you ever feel,’ he asked, leaning forward now so our faces were practically touching, ‘that the Fatherland has abandoned us?’
‘No,’ I told him, retreating a little, feeling a mixture of anger, devastation and hatred. ‘No, I don’t feel that at all.’
‘You felt hatred?’ asked Maurice from a distance of some fifty years, sitting in that hotel room in New York as I told him this part of my story. His hair was lying flat on his head, dry now. His plate was empty, his knife and fork thrown to one side, and he was looking directly at me as I stared through the window at the skyline of the city. ‘But hatred towards whom?’
‘Towards Alysse, of course,’ I said, turning back to him. ‘I hated that girl with every fibre of my being. I don’t think I have ever felt such hatred for anyone, before or since. She was going to take Oskar away from me.’
‘But he loved her. And he could sense the danger that she was in.’ I shook my head. ‘I didn’t care,’ I said. ‘All I could see was the loss that I was going to suffer.’
We said nothing for a few moments and then Maurice rose, taking some clothes from his wardrobe and saying that he was going into the bathroom to change. I stood up and told him that I would see him later, perhaps for dinner. I heard the taps in the sink running as I left and noticed his satchel on the floor, lying where he had discarded it earlier. I reached down to pick it up and lay it on the bed and as I did so a book fell out and I glanced at the title.
It was the latest novel by Dash Hardy and I rolled my eyes in irritation. Why was he reading such rubbish? I asked myself. On a whim, I turned to the title page and somehow wasn’t surprised by the inscription I found there. For Maurice, it said, with my fondest love.
He had dated it too. He must have signed it earlier that morning before Maurice left his apartment.
There was only one city left on my promotional schedule but I was in two minds about inviting Maurice to accompany me. His increasing arrogance was becoming tiresome to me but more wounding still was the knowledge that he’d established some type of connection with Dash. And yet, despite my sense of grievance, he was on my mind as much as ever and I desperately wanted to see him again, particularly since this would mark the end of our time together. So I booked his ticket and, although I received neither a phone call nor a letter in reply, he showed up at the Amstel Hotel on the appointed evening in high spirits.
My publisher had booked me a suite with a view of the canals but once again the hotel had let me down and Maurice’s more basic room was on the other side of the c
Having undertaken all the usual interviews and given a reading in a city-centre bookshop, our final evening in Amsterdam was free of promotional duties and we found a cosy bar overlooking Blauwbrug Bridge, where we sat at a small table near the rear, surrounded by cushions and candlelight.
‘Our last night together,’ he said as we clinked glasses. ‘The last six months have been a great experience, Erich. I’m very grateful.’
‘Well, you’ve been a terrific help,’ I told him. ‘Not just because of your efficiency but also your companionship. I don’t know how I would have got through all these trips without you. I imagine successful novelists must have a terrible time of it.’
‘But you are a successful novelist,’ he said, laughing. ‘At least you have been since you won The Prize.’
‘I mean the very rich and famous ones,’ I said, correcting myself. ‘Those who have readers, not those who win awards.’
‘Do the two have to be mutually exclusive?’
‘In a perfect world, no. But in the real world, they generally are.’
‘I’m going to be different,’ he said, nodding confidently.
‘Oh really? In what way?’
‘I’m going to have readers and win prizes.’
‘You don’t want much, do you?’ I said, smiling a little.
‘My agent thinks I can combine commerce with art.’
I looked up, taken aback by this latest revelation. ‘Your agent?’ I said. ‘Since when have you had an agent?’
‘Didn’t I tell you? It hasn’t been long. I met her when we were in New York and she asked to read my novel.’
‘How did you even find her?’
‘Do you remember when we were in Madrid and a lunch was thrown for you in the Prado?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘The Spanish novelist seated next to me. He put me in touch with her. She’s his agent too, you see.’
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes