A ladder to the sky, p.8
A Ladder to the Sky,
I took a long sip from my glass, trying not to allow my thoughts to get the better of me. ‘And your novel,’ I asked finally. ‘You can’t have finished it already?’
‘No, but it’s almost there. I gave her a few sample chapters. She’s waiting to read the entire thing but she liked what she saw so much that she signed me up as a client.’
‘I see,’ I said, trying not to make my irritation too obvious. ‘You do realize that I have an agent too, don’t you?’
‘Yes, but you never offered an introduction.’
‘Because you hadn’t finished anything yet!’
‘Well, I suppose my friend in Madrid felt that, on the basis of what I’d already written, I had something special.’
‘How prescient of him,’ I said. ‘So when will this masterpiece be ready?’
‘Over the next couple of weeks, I hope. And there’s no need for sarcasm, Erich, it’s unbecoming in a man of your years. She hopes to start submitting it to editors in the spring.’
‘Well, I look forward to reading it,’ I said. ‘Did you bring the chapters for me?’
‘Oh no,’ he replied, shaking his head. ‘No, I’m sorry but I don’t want anyone to read it until it’s published.’
‘Don’t you mean unless it’s published?’
‘No, I mean until. I choose to look on the positive side of things.’
‘I just don’t want you to feel upset if—’
‘Why aren’t you supporting me in this?’ he asked, putting his glass down and giving me a quizzical look.
‘I am,’ I said, my face flushing a little. ‘I just happen to know how unkind this business can be, that’s all, and I’d hate to see you disappointed. Some young writers have to write two or three novels before they produce one that’s good enough to find a publisher.’
‘You sound as if you’re jealous.’
‘Why on earth would I be jealous?’
‘No reason that I can think of, which is what makes your attitude so peculiar. I can’t decide whether you don’t think I’m good enough to succeed or whether you’d just prefer me to fail. I can’t be your protégé for ever, you know. Nor will I always need a mentor.’
‘That’s unkind,’ I said. ‘Surely you must know by now that I’m on your side.’
‘I’ve always assumed that you were.’
‘I am, Maurice, I am,’ I insisted, reaching across and attempting to place my hand atop his, but he pulled away from me, as if my touch might burn him. ‘Perhaps I expressed myself wrongly, that’s all,’ I said quietly. ‘I’m sure you’re right and your novel will be a great success.’
‘Thanks,’ he said, without any great enthusiasm.
‘I suppose that means you won’t be available next year?’
‘Next year?’ he asked. ‘For what?’
‘For the paperback publication of Dread. I imagine that I’ll be invited to other countries, other cities and other literary festivals. You could always join me again if you wanted to? We could see—’
‘I don’t think so, Erich,’ he said. ‘It’s probably time for me to focus on my own career now and not yours.’
‘Of course,’ I said, feeling humiliated, and as I lifted my glass I could see that my hand was shaking a little.
‘Anyway, as this is our last night together,’ he said, smiling again, looking as if he wanted to restore our equanimity, ‘then I’d like to know how things turned out between Oskar and Alysse. Did they escape Germany in time?’
‘Oh, that’s all so long ago,’ I muttered, in no mood now to return to those dark days, wishing instead that we could simply go back to the hotel and retire for the night. I felt very low, close to tears. Was I jealous? I asked myself. And if so, of what?
‘But I have to know how it ended,’ he insisted. ‘Come on, you’re a storyteller. You can’t walk away without revealing the final chapter.’
‘There’s not that much more to tell,’ I said with a sigh.
‘There must be. When we were in Madrid, you said that Oskar and Alysse had decided to leave Berlin. That she was a … what was the word you used again?’
‘A Mischling,’ I said. ‘And it wasn’t Madrid, it was New York.’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I’m so well travelled now that I get confused.’
I knew that I had no choice. I had got this far, after all. In the fifty years since the start of the war, those events had stayed with me, a shadow across any possibility I might have had for happiness. In fact, as I had walked to the stage on that evening in London to collect The Prize, I had thought of them both, had even imagined that I saw them seated in the audience near the front, a small boy between them, the only three people not applauding or standing in an ovation but sitting side by side, looking exactly as they did in 1939, all the time staring at me and wondering how such extraordinary success could be visited upon a man who had committed such a heinous and unforgivable act.
The fact was, there was no way that I could have permitted Oskar and Alysse to leave Berlin together. My feelings for him were too strong and in my sexual confusion I had allowed myself to become so overwhelmed that I simply could no longer think straight. I had convinced myself that if I could somehow persuade him to stay, then our friendship would transform into something more intimate. Two days after his birthday he left a note for me at my home, asking me to meet him in the late afternoon by the entrance to the Tiergarten Zoo and, as we walked back towards Maxingstraße, I begged him to reconsider his decision.
‘I can’t,’ he told me with utter certainty. ‘For heaven’s sake, Erich, you live in this city. You’ve seen what’s happening. I won’t stand by and wait for them to take Alysse away.’
‘Oh, just listen to yourself,’ I said, raising my voice in frustration. ‘They’re Jews, Oskar. I know you think that you love her but—’
‘Erich, you’re a Jew,’ he pointed out.
‘I’m not,’ I insisted. ‘Not really.’
‘If either of us needs to be worried about how things are changing here, then it should be you, not me. Anyway, it’s all been decided so there’s no point in trying to change my mind. We’re going to America, her entire family and me. That’s why I wanted to meet you this afternoon. To say goodbye.’
I stared at him, feeling a sickness build at the pit of my stomach. ‘You’ll need tickets,’ I said, when I could find my voice again.
‘Her father has them already. We’re going to take a train to Paris and travel from there to Calais. Then we’ll take the ferry across the Channel to Southampton and, in time, journey on to New York.’
‘And what will you do when you get there?’
‘I’m not sure, but Alysse’s father is a resourceful man. He knows a lot of people in the city. Perhaps we’ll start a business, I don’t know. All that matters is that we’ll be safe.’
‘And the checkpoints?’ I asked. ‘You know that you’ll never get through them, don’t you? Your papers won’t be in order.’
‘You’d be surprised the work that forgers can do these days, Erich. In this climate, they’re making a fortune.’
‘And I suppose her father paid for that too?’
‘He has a little money.’
‘Of course he does,’ I said bitterly. ‘They all do. The fucking Jews have more money than the rest of us combined. Perhaps Hitler is right in what he says. Perhaps we’ll all be better off when they disappear from Germany.’
His smile faded now a little. ‘They don’t have anything,’ he said. ‘You know as well as I do that they’ve all been shipped off to God knows where over the last year. How many Jews have you even seen on the streets in recent months? They’re all gone. It’s the same all across Europe. First degree, second degree, none of these distinctions will matter if Hitler gets his way. The Nuremberg Laws will be ripped up. The time to leave is right now.’
‘When will you go?’ I asked finally.
‘Tonight. At nightfall.’
‘But that’s too soon!’
Without thinking, I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into a side lane empty of people, pushing him up against the wall.
‘Don’t say things like that,’ I said. ‘If you’re overheard you will be shot.’
‘All right, Erich. Let go of me.’
‘Not until you promise not to leave. The day will come when you’ll regret this decision. You’ll realize that you deserted the Fatherland at the moment of its greatest need and hate yourself for it. And for what? For some girl?’
‘But she’s not some girl,’ said Oskar. ‘Don’t you understand that I’m in love with her?’
‘You’re seventeen years old,’ I said. ‘You’d say you were in love with a wild boar if it let you have your way with it.’
His smile faded and I could see his face grow dark. ‘Be careful, Erich,’ he warned. ‘I care about you but there’s a line that I won’t allow you to cross.’
‘You’re confusing loyalty with love, that’s what’s wrong here.’
‘I’m not,’ he said. ‘And one day, when you fall for someone, you’ll understand that.’
‘You think I don’t know what it is to be in love?’ I asked.
‘I’m not being cruel but there’s no girl in your life, is there? And there never has been. At least none that you’ve told me about, anyway.’
‘I don’t need a girl to understand love,’ I said, taking his face in my hands and pressing my lips against his. For a moment, perhaps in surprise at what I was doing, I could feel his lips part a little and a certain lack of resistance from him. But then, just as quickly as it had started, the only kiss of my life came to an end. He pulled away from me, wiping his hand across his mouth and shaking his head. I didn’t turn away. I felt no shame and looked directly at him, hoping to challenge him with my eyes just as Alysse had done when she turned in the painting and stared out at the viewer. I didn’t know what to expect next, whether he might run away from me or lash out in anger, but in fact he did neither of these things, simply looked at me with a sorrowful expression on his face and let out a disappointed sigh.
‘I suspected as much,’ he said quietly. ‘But whatever you’re hoping for, it’s not possible.’
‘Because that’s not who I am,’ he said.
‘If you tried—’
‘I don’t want to try, I’m sorry. It doesn’t interest me.’
‘But instead you’ll fuck that whore?’ I shouted, feeling humiliated now, tears streaming down my face.
‘Stop it, Erich.’
‘Well, how else would you describe her? Taking off her clothes so you can paint her like that. And that’s the girl you want to give up your life for?’
‘I’m leaving now, Erich,’ he said, turning away.
‘Don’t!’ I shouted, reaching out for him. ‘Please, I’m sorry.’
But it was too late. He was gone.
I chose not to follow him. Instead I turned and made my way back in the direction of home, a rage building inside me like none that I had ever known before, one that threatened to explode from inside my chest as I passed the Böttcher Tavern, where we would drink no more. Leaning against the wall, I caught my distorted reflection in the glass and that of the building behind me.
The offices of the Schutzstaffel.
I turned to look at them and there was the red-haired soldier standing on duty outside as always, looking bored as he watched the street, until his eyes landed on me. Without stopping to think, I marched across, pulled my papers from my inside pocket and demanded to speak to the Untersturmführer on duty.
‘What do you want?’ he asked me.
‘I have information.’
‘So tell me. I’m in charge.’
‘Not you,’ I said. ‘Someone more important. I know something. Something that your superiors will want to know.’
He raised an eyebrow and laughed, as if I were just a child. ‘Go home,’ he said. ‘Before you get yourself into trouble.’
‘I know where the Jews are,’ I hissed, leaning forward so he could surely see the rage in my eyes. ‘They hide in the sewers like rats.’
‘Go home,’ he repeated.
‘If you don’t let me speak to the Untersturmführer,’ I said, ‘I will write a letter to your superiors and by then it will be too late for them to act. And you will be blamed. I will say that you sent me away.’
He took a long time to decide but, perhaps feeling the same fear of the SS officers that everyone else felt, he led me with little graciousness inside the building, my anger only increasing as I waited. Finally, I was summoned into a small, cold room, where a tired man in a grey uniform sat before me.
‘You want to report something?’ he asked, sounding completely uninterested.
‘Jews,’ I told him. ‘An entire Jewish family. Four of them. Living not far from here. In the centre of Berlin itself.’
He smiled and shook his head. ‘There are no Jews left here,’ he told me. ‘They’ve all been removed, you must know that. And certainly a family of four would have been apprehended by now.’
‘Everyone knows that there are people in hiding,’ I said. ‘The ones you don’t even realize are Jews, with their forged papers and counterfeit documents.’
He narrowed his eyes as he stared at me.
‘And if the SS don’t know who they are, then how do you?’ he asked.
‘Because she told me herself.’
‘The girl. The daughter.’
He laughed a little. ‘Let me guess,’ he said. ‘A lover of yours? Did she jilt you for another boy and now you’re trying to avenge yourself on her by inventing some story? Or did she just turn down your advances, was that it?’
‘It’s nothing like that,’ I said, leaning forward and allowing my fury to escape me now. ‘You think I’d fuck a Jew? Maybe that’s what you enjoy, is it? Is that why you don’t seem keen on pursuing this matter? Perhaps I shouldn’t be talking to you at all, Untersturmführer. Perhaps I should be looking for your Obersturmführer instead?
‘Tell me more about this family,’ he said finally, opening his notebook and licking the top of his pencil before starting to write.
‘I told you, there are four of them. A man and his wife, their daughter and a young boy. He’s just a child of five or six, I think. They claim to be Mischlings, second degree, so they’ve been left alone until now. But it’s not true! They’re fully Jewish, all four grandparents were Jews, and they live here in contravention of the Race Laws. But they’re worried that they will be exposed. They have money and they have papers. They plan on travelling to France and crossing the English Channel. Then onward to America.’
‘We’ll visit them tomorrow,’ he said. ‘It won’t be difficult to find out the truth.’
‘Tomorrow will be too late,’ I told him. ‘They leave tonight.’
He looked up at me sharply. ‘You know this for a fact?’ he asked. ‘They’ve pulled the wool over your eyes,’ I said, hearing a certain hysteria creep into my tone now that I seemed to be convincing him. ‘They stayed here even as you deported the others. They’ve been laughing at you as they spread their filthy Jewry before the children of the Reich and within hours they will be on their way out of the Fatherland to use their money to build an army against us.’
‘Give me their names,’ he said. ‘And their address.’
I didn’t hesitate.
A moment later he left the room and I heard the sound of soldiers assembling in the courtyard outside and realized that he was not going to return to me. Running out of the building on to the street, I saw a group of six soldiers, led by the Untersturmführer himself, pile into a jeep and watched as they drove off in the direction of Alysse’s home, a short journey of only a few minutes. I felt a moment of terror then, a sickness inside at th
I ran through the streets in pursuit of the jeep and, when it approached Alysse’s front door, the driver pulled in as the Untersturmführer looked towards the upstairs windows, where the shades were drawn but a low light could be seen seeping through the thin fabric. Giving a signal to his Rottenführer, the young man used the butt of his rifle and his right foot to kick the door in and the SS soldiers poured inside, roaring at the top of their voices, an insult to the peaceful dignity of the night.
It took only a few moments before the family were dragged outside and lined up on the street. I could see their neighbours peeping anxiously through their curtains, no doubt fearing that the next door to be knocked down might be theirs. Two of the soldiers guarded Alysse’s parents with their rifles while the rest ransacked the house, looking for anything incriminating. The little boy remained brave and silent while Alysse appeared terrified, shaking visibly in the coldness of the night. From where I stood, half hidden in the shade of a sidestreet, it gave me great pleasure to see her undone.
The Untersturmführer came out after a few minutes, brandishing train tickets in his hand. He waved them in the face of Alysse’s father, who protested his innocence, but it was to no avail, as an SS lorry arrived and the back doors were pulled open, ready to transport the unfortunate group to a place from which there could be no return. I began to grow anxious now, desperate for the scene to end and for them to disappear into the night.
But before the last of the passengers – the little boy – could be loaded into the lorry, I heard the sound of someone running along the street behind me and turned to see Oskar, charging towards the German soldiers with a pistol in his hand as he threw his suitcase to the side of the street. He was quick with his gun, pulling the trigger as a first soldier fell, then pulling it again as another went down. Alysse’s mother screamed and the rest of the soldiers turned as one in his direction, opening fire, a hail of noise and bright lights in the darkness of the night, and it took only a moment for him to fall too. His body collapsed close to my feet, blood pouring from his mouth and spreading from a wound in his chest across his coat, and I stared down at him, paralysed with fear, before Alysse screamed his name and leaped from the lorry to run in his direction, her younger brother following her, calling her name, as their parents cried out for them both to come back. Oskar was still alive – just – but with little time left. His breathing was failing, and she reached him just before the soldiers shot again, falling across his body with a scream, and as I stepped closer to them, the child was lifted off his feet too and fell to the ground after his sister, the back of his head blown away, his brain spilling like mud across the cobbled street. Oskar and Alysse stared up at me without emotion, their bodies jolting in trauma, and within a minute their lives had drawn to a close.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes