A Ladder to the Sky

John Boyne

December 5, 2018 
The following is from John Boyne's novel, A Ladder to the Sky. The novel follows Maurice Swift, a young, handsome man who is hungry for literary fame and will not be stopped by his lack of talent. Working as a waiter in a West Berlin Hotel in 1988, Swift ingratiates himself with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann and begins grifting his way to literary fame. John Boyne's honors include three Irish Book Awards and several international literary awards. He lives in Dublin.

I had noticed the boy earlier, a young man of about twenty-two carrying drinks to the tables, for he was very beautiful and it seemed that he had been glancing in my direction as I drank my wine. A startling idea formed in my mind that he was drawn to me physically, even though I knew that such a notion was absurd. I was old, after all, and had never been particularly attractive, not even at his age, when most people have the magnetism of youth to compensate for any physical inadequacies. Since the success of Dread and my subsequent elevation to the ranks of literary celebrity, newspaper portraits had invariably described my face as “lived in” or as “one that has seen its share of troubles,” although thankfully they did not know just how deep those troubles ran. I felt no sting from such remarks, however, for I had no personal vanity and had long ago given up on the idea of romance. The yearnings that had threatened to annihilate me throughout my youth had diminished over the years, my virginity never conquered, and the relief that accompanied lust’s exile was akin to how one might feel having been unshackled from a wild horse let loose on prairie ground. This proved a great benefit to me, for, confronted by an endless stream of handsome youths year after year in the lecture halls of King’s College, some of whom flirted shamelessly with me in the hope of receiving better grades, I found myself indifferent to their charms, eschewing vulgar fantasies or embarrassing attachments for a sort of distant avuncularism. I played no favorites, adopted no protégés, and gave no one cause to suspect impure motives within my pedagogical activities. And so it came as something of a surprise to find myself staring at the young waiter and feeling such intense desire for him.

Pouring another glass of wine, I reached for the bag that I’d left next to my chair, a leather satchel that contained my diary and two books, an English-language edition of Dread and an advance copy of a novel by an old friend that was due to be published a few months later. I picked up where I had left off, perhaps a third of the way through the book, but found myself unable to concentrate. This was not a problem that I normally faced and I looked up from the pages to ask myself why. The bar was not particularly noisy. There was really no reason that I could think of to explain my lack of focus. And then, as the young waiter passed me, the sweet and intoxicating scent of boyish perspiration infusing the air, I realized that he was the cause of my distraction. He had stolen into my consciousness, nefarious fellow, and was refusing to surrender his place. I set the novel to one side and watched as he cleared a nearby table before wiping it down with a damp towel, replacing the coasters and relighting the votive candle.

Since the success of Dread and my subsequent elevation to the ranks of literary celebrity, newspaper portraits had invariably described my face as “lived in” or as “one that has seen its share of troubles,” although thankfully they did not know just how deep those troubles ran.

He wore the standard Savoy uniform of dark trousers, white shirt and an elegant maroon waistcoat emblazoned with the hotel’s insignia. He was of average height and regular build, and his skin was smooth, as if it rarely knew the pull of a razor. He had full red lips, strong eyebrows and a mop of unruly dark hair that looked as if it would fight with all the resolve of three hundred Spartans at the Pass of Thermopylae against any comb that attempted to tame it. He recalled to me Caravaggio’s portrait of the young Minniti, a painting I had always admired. Above all else, however, there was that unmistakable spark of youth about him, a powerful blend of vitality and impulsive sexuality, and I wondered how he spent his time when he was not on duty at the Savoy. I believed him to be good and decent and kind. And all this despite the fact that we had not, as yet, exchanged a single word.

I tried to return to my book but it was lost to me now and so I reached for my diary to remind myself of what the following months held in store. There was a publicity trip to Copenhagen and another to Rome. A festival in Madrid and a series of interviews in Paris. An invitation to New York and a request for me to take part in a series of curated readings in Amsterdam. Between each visit, of course, I would return to Cambridge, where I had been granted a year’s leave of absence to pursue my unexpected promotional opportunities.

A bored voice interrupted my fantasies, an insolent noise enquiring whether there was anything else that I needed, and I looked up irritably as the young man’s older colleague, overweight and with dark bags beneath his eyes, stood before me. I glanced at the Riesling, which was almost empty—had I really drunk an entire bottle of wine alone?—and shook my head, certain that it was time for bed. “But tell me,” I said, hoping that my eagerness would not be a cause for humiliation. “The boy who was serving earlier. Is he still here? I wanted to thank him.”

“His shift ended ten minutes ago,” he replied. “I expect he’s gone home by now.”

I tried not to let my disappointment show. It had been so long since I’d felt such a powerful and unexpected attraction to anyone that I didn’t know how to act when thwarted. I was uncertain what I wanted from him but then what does one want from the Mona Lisa or the statue of David other than to sit silently in their presence and appreciate their enigmatic beauty? I was due to return home the following afternoon so could not even plan a surreptitious visit to the bar the following night. It was over; I would not see him again.

Something like a sigh escaped me and I might have laughed at my own foolishness but there was no laughter inside me now, just longing and regret. The solitude I’d endured throughout my life had stopped being painful many years before but now, without warning, it had reared its head again and old, forgotten heartaches sought my attention. My thoughts turned to Oskar Gött and the single year of our acquaintance. If I closed my eyes I could see his face before me still, his complicit smile, his deep blue eyes, and the arch of his back as he lay asleep in the guesthouse in Potsdam on the weekend of our bicycling holiday. If I concentrated I could recall the anxiety I’d felt that he should wake and discover my indecency.

I was uncertain what I wanted from him but then what does one want from the Mona Lisa or the statue of David other than to sit silently in their presence and appreciate their enigmatic beauty?

And then, to my surprise, I was interrupted once again. I looked up and there was the young waiter, now changed into a pair of dark jeans, a casual shirt with two buttons undone at the neck and a leather jacket with a fur trim around the collar. He carried a woolen hat in his hands.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he said, and I knew immediately that he was not German as I’d assumed but English, his voice betraying echoes of Yorkshire or the Lake District. “It’s Mr. Erich Ackermann, isn’t it?”

“That’s right,” I said, surprised that he should know my name. “May I shake your hand?”

He reached out. The skin on his palm looked soft and I noticed how neatly trimmed were his nails. A fastidious creature, I thought. He wore a plain silver band on the middle finger of his right hand.

“Certainly,” I said, a little bewildered by this turn of events. “We don’t know each other, though, do we?”

“No, but I’m a great admirer,” he said. “I’ve read all your books. I read them before Dread came out too so I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon.”

“That’s very kind of you,” I said, trying to conceal my delight. “Very few people have.”

“Very few people are interested in art,” he replied.

“That’s true,” I agreed. “But the lack of an audience should never be a deterrent to the artist.”

“I’ve even read your book of poems,” he added, and I grimaced.

“They were ill advised,” I said.

“I disagree,” he said, quoting a line from one that made me hold my hands in the air, pleading with him to stop. He beamed then, and laughed, displaying wonderfully white teeth. As he did so, a slight crinkle appeared beneath his eyes. He was so very beautiful.

“And your name?” I asked, pleased to have an opportunity to stare at him.

“Maurice,” he replied. “Maurice Swift.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Maurice,” I replied. “It’s nice to know that there are still some young people who are interested in literature.”

“I wanted to study it at university,” he said. “But my parents couldn’t afford to send me. That’s why I came to Berlin. To get away from them and earn my own money.”

He spoke with a certain bitterness in his tone but stopped himself before he could say anything more. I was surprised by how dramatic he had become, and how quickly.

“I wonder whether you might let me buy you a drink,” he continued. “I’d love to ask you some questions about your work.”

“I’d be delighted,” I said, thrilled by the opportunity to spend some time with him. “Please, Maurice, take a seat. But I’ll have to insist that they’re charged to my room. I couldn’t possibly allow you to pay.”

He looked around and shook his head. “I’m not allowed to drink here,” he said. “Employees aren’t permitted to socialize on the premises. If they catch me, I’ll get fired. I shouldn’t even be talking to you, in fact.”

“Ah,” I said, putting my glass down and checking my watch. It was only ten o’clock; there was plenty of time until the bars closed. “Well, perhaps we could go somewhere else, then? I’d hate to get you into trouble.”

“I would love that,” he said. “I slipped into your interview earlier for about twenty minutes when I was on my break. I was hoping to hear you talk but an actor was reading from Dread and not doing a very good job of it, I thought.”

“He was annoyed that I’d chosen a section for him to read that he didn’t like.”

“But it’s your novel,” said Maurice, frowning. “What business was it of his?”

“That’s what I thought,” I replied. “But he had different ideas.”

“Well, by the time I had to come back here he was still reading so I didn’t get to hear you answer any questions and there were so many that I would have liked to ask. You did have something of a scowl on your face all the way through, Mr. Ackermann.”

I laughed. “Let’s just say it was not an entirely pleasant evening,” I said. “Although it has brightened up considerably now. And please, call me Erich.”

“I couldn’t.”

“But I insist.”

“Erich, then,” he said quietly, testing out the word on his tongue and looking, I thought, a little nervous. Perhaps it was my ego or my awoken desires or a combination of the two that made me happy to feel the stream of veneration making its delicate journey from his lips to my ears. “You’re sure that you want to go out?” he asked me. “I don’t want to intrude upon your time. You’re not too tired?”

“I’m not tired at all,” I said, even though I was quite exhausted from an early flight and the disappointing event. “Please, lead the way. I daresay you know the city better than I do.”

Standing up, I cursed myself for the slight groan that emerged from my mouth as my limbs adjusted to being erect once again and, without planning to do so, reached across and held on to him by the upper arm for a moment. The muscle was hard and tightened beneath my grip.

“Where shall we go?” I asked, and he named a bar on the other side of the Tiergarten, close to the Brandenburg Gate. I felt a momentary hesitation, as this would bring us close to the ruined Reichstag, a place I did not particularly care to revisit, but nodded. I could not risk him changing his mind.

“It’s not far,” he said, perhaps sensing my reluctance. “Ten minutes if we take a taxi. And it’s usually pretty quiet at this time of night. We can talk without having to shout over the noise.”

“Splendid,” I said. “Lead on.”

And as we made our way through the hotel doors he uttered the phrase that I usually dreaded but which now, inexplicably, sent waves of excitement through my body.

“I’m a writer too,” he said, sounding a little embarrassed at the revelation, as if he’d admitted to a desire to fly to the moon. “Or I’m trying to be, anyway.”


From A Ladder to the Sky. Used with permission of Hogarth. Copyright © 2018 by John Boyne.

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