Written especially for 'The Irish Times' by bestselling author of 'The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas', JOHN BOYNE
THE WAITER was not the first person Katherine noticed when she entered the restaurant, but he caught her eye and she found herself unable to look away despite the fact that he was a rather average looking young man with pleasant features and thick dark hair, neatly parted at the side. The seconds passed slowly; she felt confused, disoriented even. Over the speaker system, Bing Crosby was dreaming of a white Christmas in a voice that sounded like mulled wine and falling snow.
She’d always hated that song. An overwhelming feeling that something important had just happened settled in her head, but she could not remember what it was. She frowned and looked around anxiously.
“Katherine,” said her husband. “Katherine, are you listening to me?”
“Sorry, George,” she said, snapping back to the dreary actuality of the evening meal. “I drifted off for a moment. What were you saying?”
“I said,” he replied irritably, “that I should have asked Alastair to sort this business out before I agreed to come here. Tony behaved so terribly the last time we met that I’m not sure if this was a good idea at all.”
“It has been three years though,” she said, making an effort to become part of the conversation as she picked up the menu. “Was it Listowel?”
“Edinburgh,” said George.
“And Tony absolutely disgraced himself. I should have struck him.” Katherine laughed a little too loudly and covered her mouth to muffle the sound; the look on George’s face turned the atmosphere chilly again. “You don’t think I could have?”
“I think you could have, George,” replied Katherine with a shrug. “I have no doubt that you could do anything you wanted to, but the image of two elderly novelists playing fisticuffs in the Authors’ Yurt at Edinburgh . . . well it’s farcical, isn’t it?”
“I spent three years doing my National Service, don’t forget. And I was stationed in Aldershot before . . . before we lived there.”
Katherine closed her eyes, shocked that her husband could say that word with such little regard for the associations it held. She said nothing to him while they ordered their food and finally, when the silence became too much, she pretended that he had never said it. In the corner of the room, the lights on the hotel’s Christmas tree were blinking on and off in a random, spasmodic fashion that she found irritating. Oh, switch it off, someone, she wanted to shout.
“Have you spoken to him yet?” she asked instead. “To Tony, I mean.”
“Will it be awkward?”
“It will be as awkward as he chooses to make it,” George replied in his most imperial tone.
He was interrupted by the waiter, a second waiter, appearing at their table. The first had vanished to another place entirely without Katherine even noticing, the way these things tend to happen. Here, then gone. Before you, then taken away. One moment you are sitting in a café window, waiting for your son to return from the lavatory to enjoy a meal in celebration of his ninth birthday. The next you find yourself alone, hysterical, insisting that someone needs to look for him – now – before it’s too late.
“What was I saying?” asked George, narrowing his eyes and staring at his wife irritably, as if it was her fault that he had lost his train of thought.
“That it would be awkward.”
“Oh yes,” said George. “I can see you think that this whole thing is ridiculous, Katherine, but it’s not. It’s really not. You weren’t there and if you were, you’d understand.”
“I most certainly was there,” she protested, annoyed by the accusation. “I was sitting in the third row by the aisle, like I always do. Paying dutiful uxorial attention. I recall it distinctly because I remember thinking that you had a peculiar red glow about your cheeks when you arrived on stage as if you’d eaten something that hadn’t agreed with you.”
“I mean you weren’t backstage,” said George. “Before the reading began. You weren’t there to hear the farce of it all. Tony and I and that young girl, what was her name?”
“Abrianna Achugabaze,” said Katherine. “She wrote a lovely book.”
“Yes, her. And even that was ridiculous, if you ask me,” he said, warming to his theme of how the literary world conspired against him. “I mean I have very little regard for Tony’s novels, you know that, but at least he’s been around for a long time, at least we’ve both been producing. These festivals will insist on making inappropriate connections between writers in order to sell more tickets to diverse audiences. They throw some ancient white Texan in with a lesbian from China, say, and claim that they’re both interested in fascism and totalitarian rule, only they forget that the old cattle-prod’s all in favour of it and the Chinese dyke probably held her ground at Tiananmen Square.”
“I don’t remember ever attending a reading like that,” sighed Katherine.
“Don’t you? I do.”
“I suppose it has something to do with diversity,” suggested Katherine, whose heart wasn’t really in the conversation; she wished the wine would come soon. Bing Crosby had given way to Nat ‘King’ Cole, roasting chestnuts on an open fire. Almost as bad. She had a sudden urge to get wildly drunk in the hope that whatever was bothering her would either reveal itself or disappear. She glanced around in vexation; what was it that she had seen? She couldn’t shake it off.
“Oh, diversity, diversity,” cried George in exasperation. “Why do people always think that diversity is such a good thing? I mean what exactly is wrong with uniformity? It’s all about the minorities these days anyway, isn’t it? If you’re a fat old white man who has a taste for the ladies, then you’re a second-class citizen. We are the new oppressed, I tell you.”
“George, please,” said Katherine, stifling a laugh. “People will hear you.”
“But it’s this diversity business which is the ruination of the world, can’t you see it? And doesn’t it seem to be the unanimous opinion that diversity is good? Isn’t there an irony in there somewhere?”
“Probably,” said Katherine. “I daresay you could get three thousand words out of it.”
“I’m sure I could. Oh,” he said after a moment, frowning slightly. “Was that a joke?”
“More of a tease.” George nodded and sighed. He couldn’t help it; he liked it when she teased him.
“The world’s gone to hell anyway,” he said, throwing his hands up, resigned to the inevitability of it all. “I should just play along, I suppose. Well I am playing along, agreeing to tonight’s event. ‘An evening of festive readings’, it’s named on the programme, God help us all. I won’t be reading anything festive, I can assure you of that. Christmas is all about misery, if you ask me. Anyway, it’s not that I minded for my own sake, you understand, but that girl–”
“Abrianna Achugabaze,” repeated Katherine. “And she was 37, George. I think she had earned the title of woman.”
“Yes, yes, Abrianna Achu... her. I felt a little sorry for her, truth be told. The audience was there for Tony and me. She was misplaced. Inappropriate casting. You might say she was the–”
Katherine glared at him and looked around to make sure that no one could hear them, but the tables were, for once, placed at a distance from each other, and their conversation was unlikely to carry. “Do not say what you were about to say.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied, a childish smirk spreading across his face as he tried to stop himself from laughing.
“You were going to make one of those remarks that you think are wonderfully clever, or ironic, or post-ironic or whatever they’re meant to be,” she said curtly, pursing her lips and giving it her best Maggie Smith. “But it’s the kind of thing that can get you booted out of festivals today so I would warn you before making such comments in public.”
George sighed and shook his head, looking around in exhaustion as if he couldn’t believe the trials that were sent his way. “Everyone is so sensitive these days,” he said. “You make a comment based on an etymological turn of phrase, an idiom which has existed since the boats arrived from Bongo-Bongo Land, and you’re immediately labelled a racist. The next thing you know you can’t comment on the football, you can’t keep a column in the newspapers, and you spend your remaining days apologising to the readers of the very rags which have aggravated this type of behaviour since the dawn of the printing press.”
He smiled as the bottle of wine arrived, dismissing the sommelier with a flick of his hand as he attended to the two glasses himself. As he poured, Katherine looked around once again. That curious feeling was still overwhelming her, and growing stronger. She couldn’t explain the sensation even to herself, but it was as if she had taken her spectacles off and left them in another part of the room, but couldn’t quite remember where they were. Only she knew that they were somewhere, just out of sight.
“She won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, if I recall,” said George.
“What was that?”
“Abrianna Unpronounceable,” he said. “Didn’t she win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize? Wasn’t that why she was reading with Tony and me?”
Katherine sighed and took a large mouthful of her wine. “One last time, George,” she said. “Her name was Abrianna Achugabaze. Why is that so difficult to remember? Or is it simpler to patronise her by pretending that her name is hardly worth the space in your mind? She wrote a very beautiful novel, and I might add that her next book was equally profound and moving. I also remember that when she read that evening at Edinburgh, the audience was entirely enraptured by her.”
“Well, they weren’t listening, were they?” asked George with a shrug. “They were still coming to terms with my reading.”
“Of course, you read before her.”
“But that’s the whole point, Katherine. I read first, then Abrianna Achugabaze.” He stressed the word, allowing his mouth and tongue to linger lovingly over every syllable. “And then Tony. He read last.”
“And if it was all that important to you, why didn’t you read second? Or, indeed, read last?”
“I wanted to,” said George in exasperation. “That’s the whole point. We were standing backstage, the three of us, pretending that it was such a joy for all of us to be together, throwing out the compliments like confetti at a summer wedding. Tony was being incredibly obsequious towards Miss Achugabaze, telling her what a beautiful book she had written, that it was a work of extraordinary merit–”
“But it was, George,” insisted Katherine. “It was a work of extraordinary merit.”
“And I was busy thumbing through number 14,” continued George, referring to his last-but-one novel by its number, as he always did. “I remarked that we had better define a running order, presuming that Tony would go first, Miss Achugabaze would read in the centre as the intermission entertainment, if you will–”
“Don’t be an ass.”
“And I would read last, the grand event if you will. I believe I have earned the right.”
“But a lot of people would have been there for Tony,” suggested Katherine. “He is popular, you know.”
“Is he though?’ asked George, leaning forward. “Is he really? He’s prolific, I’ll give him that. My God, he’s been pumping those things out as if his life depended on it. Which it does in a way, I suppose. But where are the unifying themes? The clarity of purpose? He’s made himself appear a hack. One minute it’s a thriller, then it’s a love story, then it’s a bloody Henry James novel two years after everyone else in the entire universe has written their Henry James novel, then some sci-fi nonsense. He simply latches on to whatever is popular that year and then writes his own book, entirely missing the moment. You know he contacts student groups at universities, invites them to invite him to give a talk and then offers to read two thousand words of their juvenilia if they buy his novel on the night.”
“He does not,” said Katherine with a sigh, sure that this was something her husband had invented.
“He most certainly does,” replied George quickly, leaning forward, his cheeks growing a little more flushed as he talked. “I’ve heard it from several deans of studies. I mean he’s basically a literary prostitute. And the poor devils who agree to his terms? Not only do they waste their money on his rubbish but they have to endure his criticisms of their work into the bargain. It’s no wonder there isn’t a decent writer in this country under the age of 40.”
A small choir of children entered the dining room at that moment and began to perform an a capellaversion of Silent Night, which the diners pretended to enjoy. George stared at them with the same level of contempt he might have mustered if Tony Blair had made an unexpected appearance and took a long drink from his glass. "The man's a hack," he repeated under his breath.
Katherine sighed and was pleased that the food was finally before them. Now they could eat and stop talking. George looked down at his tuna, as if only it, a dead thing from the sea, could truly understand him. Only when they were finished and the waiter had cleared their plates away did George dare to speak again, refilling his wife’s glass as he did so.
“You’re right, of course,” he said. “I sound like an idiot, I know I do. I daresay there are people out there who find Tony’s work...” He searched for the right word.
“If you say in the bookshops,” said Katherine, “I swear I will stand up and leave.”
“I was going to say readable,” replied George quickly with a laugh. “Enjoyable even. He has his admirers, it’s true. There, I’ve said it! Now, am I forgiven?” Katherine rolled her eyes but nodded. What else could she do but forgive him, she reasoned. She loved him, after all, despite everything. He would be 39 now, she thought to herself. Fat, perhaps. Divorced, perhaps. But alive. The uneasy feeling was still present, growing, increasing in size like an undiagnosed tumour.
“I do know what I sound like,” admitted George. “I hear myself. But honestly, Katherine, the man’s been like a piece of shrapnel in my knee ever since we were young writers together.”
“A chip on your shoulder, more like,” she said.
“Perhaps,” said George with a shrug, considering it quietly. “Perhaps.” “And have you ever wondered why that is?”
“Because he doesn’t respect me,” he replied quietly. “And he never has.”
Katherine placed the napkin back on the table and pulled her seat back. “I’ll be back in a moment,” she said, leaning over and kissing him on the forehead tenderly, before using her index finger to wipe a light trace of lipstick away from it. As she did so, he reached out and took her other hand in his and squeezed it for a moment.
She smiled as she walked away, her eyes scanning the areas by the restaurant doors that led out towards the hotel lobby, trying to find the door to the ladies’ restroom. She saw a poster advertising that night’s reading and noticed her husband’s name in second billing and felt exhausted at the drama that might produce later. Looking around, she walked on and then, as if she had marched directly into a glass door and was absorbing the shock of it for a moment before collapsing, she stopped short, unable to move. The sensation of something being not quite right – familiar but out of reach – had grown stronger the closer she got to the doors. Standing there now, she immediately knew what it was. She knew what she had seen. In her mind she felt a curious sensation that she had either forgotten how to breathe or that this was it, this was the moment of her death.
Perhaps what she saw was an illusion, a fancy of her mind before it prepared to close down forever. She wanted to turn around, to look behind her and to her right to make sure that what she knew, what she had seen, was true and not a mirage. But of course it was true. She didn’t need it to be confirmed. There was no possibility of error, none whatsoever.
“Madam,” said the waiter, the young waiter from earlier. “Madam, are you alright?”
She stared at him but he might as well have been composed of air, for rather than answering him, she turned around instead and looked at a table which was no more than 10 feet away from her, separated from the rest of the restaurant on one side by an aquarium. A couple were seated there, a man on the right side of 40, a woman perhaps a few years younger than him. They were eating dessert. Perhaps her lateral vision had taken them in when she and George had arrived but had failed to pass the alert to her brain; perhaps that was why she had turned to stare and found her gaze misdirected towards the young waiter. Without knowing why — it should surely have been the last thing that she cared about – she took an interest in what they were eating: the man was working his way through some sort of fruit pavlova; the woman had Christmas pudding and was laughing at some comment that her companion had made a moment before. The children's choir struck up again. We Three Kings.
Of course it was a pavlova. He had always loved meringue. Ever since he was a baby. In fact, he’d ordered a bowl of it a few moments before he’d disappeared.
It was the woman who noticed Katherine first and she turned to look at her, wondering why she was just standing there, staring at them. Then, a moment later, a shadow passed her face, causing the man to stop in the middle of his sentence and to turn to see what, or who, was distracting her.
‘I’ve found you,” said Katherine, stepping closer to him. “I’ve found you at last.” The man stared at her, and then at his companion, in surprise. But something in his expression told Katherine that he knew who she was. That a distant memory was forcing its way back to his mind, scraping its way through, demanding his attention.
Their eyes locked for only a moment longer and then the room grew dark. Katherine’s head felt heavy even as her legs appeared to lose their weight beneath her and she collapsed to the floor, taking with her a table of white china cups that stood to her left, and she lay there, lost in a dream, knowing that there was no way to recover from the faint, but desperate, desperate to get the words out again before she slipped away entirely. Desperate to tell him not to go anywhere, to stay in his seat, not to leave the table, to wait for her. Just wait for her.