Authors: William Boyd
By the Same Author
A Good Man in Africa
An Ice-Cream War
Stars and Bars
The New Confessions
The Blue Afternoon
Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928–1960
Any Human Heart
The Destiny of Natalie ‘X’
On the Yankee Station
an imprint of
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 2004
Copyright © William Boyd, 2004
The moral right of the author has been asserted
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reserved above, no part of this publication may be
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The following stories first appeared in the
: ‘Adult Video’, ‘Varengeville’, ‘Fascination’, ‘Beulah Berlin, an A–Z’, ‘Loose Continuity’ and ‘Visions Fugitives’. ‘A Haunting’ was published in
; ‘The Woman on the Beach with a Dog’ in
; ‘The Mind/Body Problem’ in
; and ‘Fantasia on a Favourite Waltz’ in
Springtime in Oxford is vulgar, anyway, but something about this particular spring in Oxford is having me on. Really, these cherry trees are absurd. One wonders if just quite so many flowers are necessary. It is almost as if the cherry trees on the Woodstock Road are trying to prove something – some sort of floral brag, swanking to the other less advanced vegetation. Very Oxford in a way. Could I work this observation into the novel? ‘Only in Oxford do the cherry trees try too hard.’ Good opening for the Oxford sequence?
My meeting with my new supervisor was not a success. Dr Alexander Cardman. ‘Call me Alex,’ he invited almost immediately. He referred to me as Edward without permission.
‘How old are you?’ he asked.
‘Thirty-one. How old are you?’
‘Thirty-three. And you’ve been writing this thesis for…?’
‘– For, oh, six years. Seven. Seven and a bit. I left Oxford for three to teach. Then came back.’
‘Teach? Where was that?’
‘Abbey Meade. It’s a prep school in Wiltshire.’
‘Ah.’ I could hear the sneer forming in his brain. ‘And you came back –’
‘– To finish my thesis.’
‘I see…’ I was disliking him quite intensely by now. He looked like he had gel on his hair. The small trimmed goatee was rebarbative and the faint West Country burr in his voice struck me as an affectation.
Summertown. The Banbury Road. I push through the front gate of ‘See Breezes’ (sic) to meet my new student, Gianluca di something-or-other. He is blind, so the language school has told me, and he needs to be walked to my flat. Not every day, I hope.
A cheery plump woman opens the door and leads me through to a living room where Gianluca sits. He is a tall boy – eighteen or nineteen, I would say – with thick, blond hair and a weak-chinned, sad face. His eyes are open and as I introduce myself and shake his hand they seem to stare directly at me, disconcertingly, with only a faint glaucous, bloodshot hue to them.
We walk back to my flat on the Woodstock Road. His right hand rests gently in the crook of my left elbow, his left carries a briefcase and a folded, white cane. We don’t speak as he had said, in good English, that he needed to concentrate and count.
We stroll through Summertown’s shops and halt the traffic at the beeping pedestrian crossing. Along Moreton Road to Woodstock Road and then a hundred yards or so to the house.
‘Ring this doorbell,’ I say, guiding his hand to the gleaming brass knob, ‘and I’ll come down to get you.’
In the hall Gianluca stops and sniffs the air.
‘What is this place?’ he says.
‘A dentist’s,’ I say, as breezily as I can muster. ‘I live on the top floor.’
Felicia has gone to Malaysia for a week to try to sell Internet stocks in the Pacific Rim market, or something. Perhaps it’s bonds, or fluctuations in other stock markets, that she’s selling; or she might even be selling other people’s hunches about fluctuations in stock markets in the next decade. I don’t even try to understand. She has given me the key to her house so I can feed her tropical fish while she’s away. When she left at dawn she kissed me goodbye, told me she loved me and said, ominously, apropos of nothing, that she
thought I would make a wonderful father. I suppose it’s as close as she’ll ever get to issuing an ultimatum.
‘There is,’ I read, ‘as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very close chemical relation between coal and diamonds –’
‘– Please,’ says Gianluca, ‘there is a preface by Conrad, no?’
‘Could you please begin with that.’ He taps something into his little portable Braille typewriter and I go back to the beginning. You would think that to be paid fifteen pounds an hour to read Joseph Conrad’s
to a blind Italian boy is, well, money for old rope, but I find my heart is curiously heavy with prospective fatigue.
In our first two-hour session we manage five pages. Gianluca listens with almost painful concentration and asks many, many questions, the answers to which he painstakingly types into his braille notebook. I walk him down to the front door where he unfolds his white cane and sets off back to ‘See Breezes’ with an amazingly unfaltering step. As I turn back into the hall, Krissi, the actually-not-unattractive New Zealand dental nurse, leans out of the door of the surgery and says, ‘Mr Prentice would like a word at end of business today.’
As I plod back upstairs to my little flat beneath the eaves I think that ‘end-of-business’ is a classic Prentissian trope and that I must add it to my collection.
I think, perhaps, that I was at my happiest in Nice. Nineteen years old. At the
Centre Universitaire Méditerranéan
. No family. No friends. No money. Just freedom. My frowsty room in Madame D’Amico’s apartment. The young whores in the rue de France. The French girls. The Tunisian boys. Ulrike and Anneliese. All those years ago. Jesus Christ.
Dr ‘Alex’ Cardman handed me back my chapter: ‘Social consequences of the 1842 Mines Act in South Yorkshire, 1843–50’