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'The Boy in the Field' Chapters 11 & 12


spinner image illustration of two people fencing in front of big windows
Illustration by by Nick Matej

 

Eleven

Zoe

 

LAST MAY, a few weeks after the man appeared in the churchyard, she had started going out with Luke, who was, he told her on their first date, three hundred and eighty-three days older than her. They went to the cinema, bicycled to Blenheim Palace and Wychwood Forest, ran the games stall at the school fair, played Scrabble, experimented with his parents’ collection of gin. She liked that he knew things—how fruit flies pass on genetic traits, that an underground fungus is the world’s largest living organism—but he was oddly stupid about people. When she asked if he thought his parents still had sex, his mouth gaped as if she’d asked whether they flew around the chimney.

Anthony, also a year older, was at first an improvement. He could tell a joke so that people laughed, and he had a scooter. She liked the wind in her face, the way the familiar houses and hedges flashed by. He told her he’d slept with a girl he met on holiday in the Dordogne.

“What was it like?” she had asked.

“Let me show you.” He slid his hand under her thigh.

“I don’t want you to show me.” She pretended her leg belonged to someone else. “I want you to tell me.”

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He clicked his teeth. “Awkward. Embarrassing. The opposite of boring. Way too fast. I don’t think she liked it. I felt badly about that. The second time was better.”

At least he didn’t pretend it was utterly wonderful. “Where were you?”

“In a boat shed, behind a boat. Zoe, this is weird. I don’t ask you about Luke.”

“You can if you want. I’ll tell you everything he told me about fruit flies.”

He had fended off her questions, and she had fended off his hands. They had been seeing each other for nearly two months when a group of them went to the cinema. She and Ant sat in one row; Moira and some friends sat in the row in front. Even while Ant held her hand, she noticed how his eyes followed Moira. The next day, as she climbed onto his scooter after school, the words hopped out of her mouth: “Why do you always look at Moira?”

“I don’t,” he said. “You’re just jealous.”

Both the idea, and his smug satisfaction, were enraging. I don’t want to see you again, she thought. What a nice sentence. If she hadn’t needed a lift home, she would have jumped off the scooter and said it right then. As soon as they stopped outside her house, she did exactly that.

“Brhh.” He clapped his hands. Inside his helmet, he hadn’t heard.

“I don’t want to see you again,” she repeated. Ant stopped clapping his hands. “Why not? We have a good time. Is there someone else you like?”

“No. But I don’t like you enough.”

He sat back on his seat. Beneath his helmet, his eyes hardened in a way that made clear his anger. “You’re such a liar, Zoe. You pretend to know what you want, but you don’t have a clue. You’re just scared to sleep with me.”

“I may not have a clue about most things, but I’m absolutely sure that the last thing I want to do is sleep with you.” She removed her helmet and held it out to him, an empty shell.

As she stepped into the hall, she heard her parents’ voices raised in consternation. In the kitchen she found them, and Duncan, bending over a small black dog. Lily, Duncan kept saying. Zoe could see at once that he was not going to give her up. If their parents banished her, he would sleep in the garden, pitch a tent in a field. But already the tide was turning. Their father was patting the dog. Their mother was asking what she ate.

Then Lily was walking toward her, her dark eyes doing something that was the opposite of Anthony’s. As clearly as if she had spoken, Zoe heard the words: He wasn’t worthy of you.

Twelve

Matthew

“YOU AND BENJAMIN know each other too well,” the fencing coach declared. He paired Benjamin with Cally, who was shorter but faster. Matthew he put with Leon, who was tall and long-armed but had been fencing for only a few months. At first it was easy. Matthew scored three hits in a row. Then Leon scored a hit, and Matthew’s foil clattered to the floor. Stupid, he thought as he bent to retrieve it.

“Sorry,” said Leon even as the coach was calling, “Well done.”

Matthew adjusted his grip, and raised his foil. “Engage.”

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He lunged. Leon, foil wavering, parried. As they advanced and retreated across the room, Matthew began to understand that it was Leon’s very lack of grace, his awkward footwork, his faltering lunges that made it hard to anticipate his next move. He feinted for the chest and hit the shoulder. Or vice versa. Again and again Matthew was sure he was about to score, only to find his foil blocked

“It was weird,” he told Rachel that evening. “Our coach is always going on about posture and footwork, but Leon ignores all that. It was like we were really fighting.” They were sitting on the sofa in her living room, fully dressed, ready to spring apart at her mother’s return.

“I thought fencing was fighting,” she said.

In the V of her blue sweater was the locket he’d given her for her birthday. Sliding his hand toward it, he explained that fencing wasn’t just about hitting your opponent. “There are rules, like in tennis or cricket. You have to aim for the torso. You have to take turns.”

“But, Matty”—she pulled away—“you have to know when to ignore the rules. That’s why Greenpeace launched the Rainbow Warrior. The governments were ignoring international agreements, killing whales.”

Before he could ask was it really the governments, they both heard a key in the lock.

***

HE WAS FILLING THE DAIRY section, a container of milk in each hand, when a voice said “Excuse me.” A man, a boy, Matthew couldn’t decide which, was standing a few feet away. He looked familiar, but after nearly two years of working at the Co-op, that was true of many people.

“Excuse me,” he said again—he had a faint accent—“ are you Matthew Lang?”

“Are you Tomas Lustig?”

Three days in a row he had set his alarm, hoping to catch the milkman, and on the third day encountered not the young man he’d glimpsed last month but a middle-aged stranger. Tomas was working a different route, the new milkman explained. He promised to let him know that Matthew Lang wanted to talk to him. “I work at the Co-op on Saturdays,” Matthew had said.

Now, as he unthinkingly placed the milk on the shelf, he studied his visitor. Tomas off-duty looked strangely different. Perhaps it was his faded brown trousers with pockets halfway down the thighs, or his watchman’s hat pulled so low that it squeezed his eyebrows closer to his blue eyes.

“Yes,” said Tomas. “Why did—”

His question was lost as Mr. Stoughton, a regular customer, tapped his way over. “Matthew, how are the university applications going? I’d like some mature cheddar.”

While Matthew offered the red, the white, the extra mature, and asked after Mr. Stoughton’s dog, Tomas radiated impatience. As soon as Mr. Stoughton moved on to the cold meats, he said, “Why did you want to talk to me?”

“We found your brother in the field. I was wondering how he’s doing? Have they caught the man?”

Tomas’s eyebrows came even closer to his eyes, but already another customer was approaching the dairy case. “The Green Man at six,” he said, and headed for the exit.

***

FOR THE REMAINDER OF HIS shift, as he restocked shelves and assisted customers and worked on the till and mopped the floor, Matthew thought about what he would ask Tomas. Perhaps, even without knowing it, Tomas held the clue to Karel’s assailant. If only he could think of the right questions. When he stepped into the Green Man, the pub was just getting busy, people meeting each other after work, stopping for a pint on their way home. Tomas was already seated at a window table. As he waited to order a half of lager, Matthew studied him, unobserved. Even without his cap, he bore little resemblance to the boy in the field—his nose was broader, his eyes more deep-set—but what really distinguished him was the black cloud that hovered around him. Like Claire’s father, Matthew thought.

He was still several yards from the table when Tomas caught sight of him and began to speak. “Was he in pain when you found him?”

Matthew set his lager on the table and sat down. He repeated what he’d told the detective: Karel had seemed peaceful.

“That’s good. Very good.” Tomas gave a soft whistle. “He looked peaceful at the hospital, until he saw me. Then he started screaming. Papa said it was the shock, that he was confused. Tomorrow he would remember I was his brother. But tomorrow made no difference.”

He described how he’d bought some cheese scones, Karel’s favorite, and waited until his parents left for work before letting himself into the house. “I called out, ‘It’s me, Tomas.’ When I went into the sitting room, he was standing behind the sofa, holding an ashtray. I said his name. I held out the scones. He didn’t speak, just raised the ashtray. I can’t say it was the worst day of my life. That was the day he was hurt. But it was the second worst. He treats me as if I’ve done something terrible. Other people do too. Last week my fiancée said she didn’t want to see me again.”

What was surprising, Matthew thought, was that he had a fiancée in the first place. “Did Karel—” he started to ask, but Tomas broke in. “We have to find the man who hurt him. Then he will remember I’m his brother.”

A cheer rose from the dartboard on the other side of the room. A girl had scored a bull’s-eye, and her friends were applauding. Watching the jolly crowd, Matthew wondered why he was marooned on this island of unhappiness. Tomas knew no more than him, had no access to Karel. He edged his chair back from the table. “The police—” he began, but again Tomas interrupted.

“No,” he said furiously. “They’ve moved on. But the man who hurt my brother is nearby. If he thinks he’s safe, he’ll let his guard down.” He was frowning not only with his forehead and his mouth but with his entire face.

“Are you looking for him?” Matthew said, edging back a few more inches. “Do you have any clues?”

“I search all the time while I deliver milk. Now I plan to go street by street. I know the man looks a little like me. I know he has a blue car.”

“Well.” Matthew was on his feet. “Good luck.”

“Wait.” Tomas too was standing. “Why did you want to see me? Do you know something? These have been the worst weeks of my life. Karel won’t speak to me. Sylvie won’t speak to me. I say good morning, and my customers don’t answer.” He held out his empty hands. “I don’t understand why I’m being punished.”

For your Tomas-ness, Matthew thought.

But Tomas was still talking. “I was hoping,” he said, “you might help me.”

NEXT: CHAPTERS 13 & 14

 

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