Read on for an extract from A Ladder to the Sky:
In July, I found myself drinking a glass of rosé outside a bar in Montmartre, a chestnut tree shading me from the late summer sunlight, while I observed the closing moments of a marriage. A woman in her late forties, very beautiful, with short black hair and expensive sunglasses, had been sitting alone since my arrival with a large glass of white wine and an envelope on the table before her. She had already smoked three cigarettes and was lighting a fourth when a man appeared, perhaps a little older than her but dressed just as smartly, holding his hands in the air in apology for his tardiness, and she stood to allow him to kiss her on both cheeks. The waitress brought a second glass and she poured some wine for him as he reached into his bag and removed a similar envelope to hers. They spoke for some time and at one point he laughed and put an arm around her shoulders before they picked up the envelopes and took out two lengthy documents. Turning to the last page of each they allowed their pens to hover over the paper for only a moment before signing simultaneously then passed each one to the other, whereupon they signed again. Finally, the man returned both forms to his bag and the couple removed their wedding rings, dropping each one into their glasses before standing up, kissing on the lips and walking off in opposite directions, their hands drifting out behind them, their fingers touching momentarily before they disappeared from my sight and, presumably, from each other’s lives.
I was still staring at the empty glasses and their expensive additions when Maurice appeared from around the corner, raising a hand in greeting as he sat down to join me. It was a warm afternoon, and when his beer arrived, he drank a third of it without pausing for breath, sitting back with a satisfied sigh.
‘I want to be entombed when I’m gone,’ he said, sitting up straight now. ‘Or have a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.’ ‘I hope you’re joking,’ I said.
‘I visited the Père Lachaise Cemetery while you were doing your interviews,’ he told me. ‘Placed my hand on top of Oscar Wilde’s grave.’
‘And I daresay you’ll never wash it again,’ I said.
‘I want to be entombed when I’m gone,’ he said, sitting up straight now. ‘Or have a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.’
‘I hope you’re joking,’ I said.
‘Of course I am,’ he replied, bursting into laughter. ‘I’m not that arrogant. No, I don’t care what happens to me as long as my books survive.’
‘That’s important to you?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It’s the only thing. Well, that and, as I told you before, becoming a father.’
‘You’re still intent on that?’
‘But you’re so young.’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t see what that has to do with anything,’ he said. ‘Did you never want one? A child, I mean.’
‘Well, it would have been—’ I began, but he cut me off.
‘Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have enjoyed being a father.’
‘True,’ I said. ‘But I never gave it much consideration, to be honest. I knew it was never going to happen so it wasn’t something that preyed on my mind.’
You haven’t plotted it out?’ I asked. ‘Oh no,’ he said, looking at me as if I’d just accused him of spending his days watching television.
I glanced out towards the street, where a pair of schoolgirls were walking past in short skirts. I watched to see whether Maurice’s eyes would follow them and they did for a few moments, but without any particular interest, as he finished his beer and ordered another.
‘By the way,’ he said, reaching into his satchel and pulling out a magazine that he handed across. ‘I have a present for you.’ The publication was titled Coney Island and I felt an immediate aversion to the cover image, a close-up of a clown vomiting letters on the heads of George Bush and Michael Dukakis.
‘Thank you,’ I said, uncertain why he thought I would be interested in such a thing.
‘Turn to page sixteen,’ he said, and I did as instructed, whereupon I discovered a title, ‘Red’, with the words ‘by Maurice Swift’ printed in large letters underneath. ‘My first published story,’ he said, grinning from ear to ear.
‘Maurice!’ I said, truly delighted for him. ‘Congratulations!’
‘I didn’t know that you were even submitting to magazines.’
‘Well, I haven’t been, to be honest,’ he told me. ‘But I happen to know one of the editors there and he asked whether I might have something that would work for them. So I sent this along and he liked it.’
‘Well, I’m very happy for you,’ I said. ‘You must feel very encouraged.’
‘And your novel? How is that coming along?’
‘Ah,’ he said, pulling a face. ‘Slowly. I have the opening chapters and a good hold on my characters but I’m not sure where it’s going as yet.’
‘You haven’t plotted it out?’ I asked.
‘Oh no,’ he said, looking at me as if I’d just accused him of spending his days watching television. ‘I could never do something like that. Doesn’t it all become a little boring if you know everything that happens in advance?’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said, and I might have challenged him further on it were it not for an interruption by our waitress, who came over holding a tray that carried the two glasses from the divorcing couple’s table and looking inside them with an astonished expression on her face. She asked whether I had seen who had left them there and I related the events as I’d observed them earlier and she shook her head in disbelief before making her way back indoors. A moment later, Maurice’s trusty notebook was on the table again and he was scribbling away.
‘What are you writing?’ I asked him.
‘The story you just told her,’ he said. ‘It’s a good one. I thought I might use it for something.’
‘As it happens,’ I said, ‘after they left I thought the same thing. That it might make for an interesting opening for a novel. I was working through some possibilities in my mind.’
He lifted his notebook and waved it in the air triumphantly. ‘Sorry, Erich,’ he said. ‘It’s mine now. I wrote it down first!’
‘You don’t mind, do you?’