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'The Boy in the Field' Chapters 17 & 18

spinner image illustration of girl and man in a museum looking at Meresamun mummy and coffin
Illustration by by Nick Matej





SHE HAD NOT planned to look for the American but, day after day, there he was in the middle of biology or Latin or running; his face appeared when she was brushing her hair, or peeling potatoes. She heard again the odd lilt of his voice: More trouble than you ever dreamed of. She asked Duncan about the painting he’d reminded her of—some saint in a rocky landscape—and Duncan pulled out one of his art books and opened it to a pale-faced Christ, wearing blue and purple robes, mountains writhing in the background. She carried the book back to her room, and that made things worse. There were the high cheekbones, the shapely mouth, the brown hair, though much longer. She remembered her mother saying, “You have the right to change your mind. Right up until the last moment. Beyond. Don’t let embarrassment, or fear, stop you if you want to say no.” But I want to say yes, she thought. That was the conundrum: how to say yes.

So on Sunday when her mother said she was meeting a friend in Oxford, she ran to change her sweater. As they headed out of town, past the church and the primary school, her mother talked about one of her clients. While burning his wife’s underwear in the garden, he had accidentally set fire to a hundred-year-old holly tree.

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“The more I listen to him rant,” her mother said, “and read his wife’s depositions, the more I realize I’ll never know what went on between them. She claims ten years of bliss before he started to work late every night. He claims it was a mistake from day two. I keep thinking they could still be happy if they could let go of their anger, but it’s as if they’re on two trains speeding in opposite directions. Neither of them can get off.”

Was her mother suggesting that feelings were optional? That one could pick and choose between, say, love and hate, boredom and pleasure? As they swerved to avoid the postman’s red van, parked half on the verge, no house in sight, Zoe set aside the idea to examine later. “Did you have boyfriends before Dad?” she said.

At once she worried she had come too close to what she longed and dreaded to ask, but her mother, sounding pleased, was already saying, “Several.” She described her sixth-form boyfriend, Kevin, who was brainy and funny, then a couple of boys at university. “I kept looking for someone with whom I could share everything: work, ideas, travel, books, music. When I first met Hal, he seemed too different—a blacksmith who’d been running his own business since he was sixteen.”

“You and Dad share lots of things.” She heard herself pleading.

“We do.”

Was that all she was going to say? Zoe did not dare to press her. But a mile later, as they circled a roundabout, her mother continued, “And our differences are mostly for the good. I’m always preparing for disaster. Hal reminds me there are silver linings. How was the Latin test?”

In the car park she leaned over to kiss Zoe. “If you want a lift home, be here at five.”

They headed in opposite directions. She doesn’t know, Zoe thought, with a gust of relief. But almost immediately, as she turned into the street, relief turned to dismay. What did it mean that her father was lying every minute, and that her mother had no idea? Perhaps even now he was meeting the woman. And what was she, Zoe, doing walking the crowded streets on a raw November day, stupidly hoping to find one person, a man whose name she didn’t even know, among so many? The pavement echoed under her new boots, the people she passed looked chilled, cramped, in their tiny lives, the blood inching through their veins. Litter rattled across the pavement; a beer can rolled in the gutter.

“Fifty pence for a cup of tea, love?”

A woman, seated on the steps of a bank, was holding out a paper cup. Her turquoise tracksuit, only a little ragged at the collar and cuffs, made her eyes look very blue. Zoe’s hand closed around a fifty-pence piece. Before she could change her mind, she dropped the coin in the cup.

“God bless,” said the woman.

Two minutes later there he was, coming out of a bookshop. It was incredible, and it was true. He was on the far side of High Street, walking with another man, deep in conversation. He wore the same leather jacket. His hands, accompanying his words, made neat, precise gestures. She darted across the street and fell in behind him and his companion.

“But the northern Catholics ... ,” the other man said.

They were, she guessed, heading for the station. At the idea of him boarding a train, she panicked. When there was a gap in the traffic, she repeated her trick of their first meeting: crossing the road, running ahead, and crossing back. As the distance dwindled, her pace slowed. Suppose, in the midst of conversation, he failed to notice her? Or, even worse, failed to recognize her? What had seemed impossible—he’d forgotten their meeting—was both possible and probable. Closer, closer, and still he was engrossed in conversation, his face turned toward his friend. Look at me, she cried silently.

He was almost at arm’s length when his eyes, at last, met hers. “Hello,” she said, stopping midstride.

“Hi.” He stopped too. Pedestrians swerved around them on the narrow pavement. “This is my friend, Jerome.”

Turning to Jerome, she said brightly, “I’m Zoe.”

“Good to meet you.” Jerome too was American, indeed more American: his skin tanned, his teeth very white and regular. “Sorry, I’ve got a train to catch.”

She fell in beside them. Jerome was holding forth about Shakespeare, whom, he claimed, had become a secret Catholic during the years he’d spent in Lancashire. “It’s in the plays,” he said, “if you know where to look. One of these days, I bet they’ll find proof.”

“You could get Ladbrokes to offer you odds,” Zoe suggested.

Jerome smiled. “That’s one of your betting shops, isn’t it? Three to one I’m right. Excuse me, I’m going to jog the rest of the way.” He hugged the man, threw another nice-to-meet-you at Zoe, and darted into the traffic with surprising agility. They stood watching as he zigzagged across the road, one hand raised in supplication to oncoming cars.

“Well.” The American turned to her, shifting his backpack to the other shoulder. “What’s your name?”

“Rufus. As you can see, I didn’t take your advice and go home.”

What could she say? But he remembered; their meeting had left its mark. She sensed him wrestling with something, another commitment perhaps, and then deciding.

“Shall we get a nice British cup of tea, Zoe?”

“That would be lovely, Rufus.”

As they started walking again, she was torn between wanting to know ordinary things—where did he come from? how old was he?—and wanting to keep their conversation on some other level where everything that mattered was unsaid. They passed a man walking a border terrier. Beside her Rufus was silent. I must say something, Zoe thought. Anything.

“Jerome should come back in the summer,” she offered. “Last year one college did The Tempest beside a lake, and another did A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the quad, at sunset.”

“I’ve never dared tell him,” Rufus said, “but I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare. It always sounds like the actors are speaking a foreign language.”

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She was still grappling with someone admitting to not liking Shakespeare when he opened the door of a café. The waitress waved them to a corner table. He ordered tea for two. She watched the way his mouth moved, the way his eyes changed. His hands were pale, and his nails were broad and shapely, flatter than hers. Spatulate, she thought, was that the word? Suddenly she noticed that the waitresses were slowing, the customers silencing. She held on to the edge of the table. Stay, she begged. A low humming filled her ears. Then the wood was once more hard beneath her fingers; the bric-a-brac of conversation from nearby tables returned. He was watching her, eyebrows slightly raised. Had he noticed her tiny absence? The idea was both pleasing and terrifying.

He told her about Jerome. They had met at university. He was an amazing actor, had been onstage and in a TV series. Then he’d got involved in politics, writing speeches for a left-wing senator. When the senator lost his reelection, Jerome had returned to graduate school. He was working on Webster, the seventeenth-century dramatist.

Zoe had no opinion about Webster, but she liked that Rufus had a friend who was in acting and politics. “What about you?” she said.

He was doing his PhD in philosophy at the University of Chicago and had a scholarship to study at Oxford for a year. As an undergraduate, he had fallen in love with logic. Recently he’d gotten interested in causation. When the tea came, he said, “Do you even like tea?”

“Not much,” she admitted.

“Oh, well”—he poured neatly—“ all part of the adventure.” He added milk to her cup but not his. She didn’t know anyone who took tea without milk. “So which college are you in?”

With a little jolt, she realized he had mistaken her for an undergraduate. “I’m finishing school,” she said and, hoping to fend off more questions, asked what he thought of Oxford.

“Amazing,” he said, “but not quite real.” He had grown up in a town that was founded in 1850; now he slept in an eleventh-century manor house. “And then there are all the famous people who’ve lived here. Maybe you’re used to that?”

She said she lived in a town outside Oxford. “Don’t you have famous people in Chicago? What about Frank Lloyd Wright?” There’d been a question about him on University Challenge last week; her father had known the answer.

“We do, but it’s a big city. I don’t think I’m walking where Saul Bellow walked, or having a drink next to John Dewey. Here everything is so close. When I work at the Natural History Museum, I feel as if Darwin might be just around the corner.”

“Do you want to be famous?”

He smiled, and she saw again his crowded lower teeth. “That’s a very personal question. It’s hard to imagine stadiums of people cheering for a philosopher. Jerome was famous for a few months. It didn’t make him happy, but he said it was easier to get dates. What about you?”

Beneath his attentive gaze her mind feinted one way, then another. He was right; it was a very personal question, one she had no intention of answering. Instead she described a photo she’d seen of Keats’s grave, how he had died thinking his life was writ on water.

“Poor Keats.” He reached across the table and put his hand on hers. “It’s great talking to you, Zoe, but I need to tell you, I’m not looking for a relationship.”

Everything—the warmth of his hand, the intentness of his gaze, the way his mouth moved—contradicted his words. They had left the tea room, with its ferns and its bad watercolors, and climbed out onto a high ledge, overlooking a stormy sea. They were balancing on the ledge, side by side; they could jump; they could climb back inside; they could stay there. But whatever they did, they must do it together.

“So what are we going to do?” Perhaps if she sounded like him, calm, almost analytical, he wouldn’t take his hand away. “We’re going to finish our tea, and then, if you’ve time, I’ll introduce you to an old friend at the Ashmolean. After that I must head to the library, and you’ll go home to your idyllic Cotswold village.”

“It’s not idyllic. My father’s having an affair.”

“Who isn’t?” he said, sweeping aside her stunning revelation. He removed his hand, and she understood that their conversation had once again shifted gears. They began to talk about normal things. He’d been raised in Cedar Rapids, which was in the Midwest. His father worked in a tool and die making plant and thought his studies pointless. His two younger sisters both had sensible jobs. She described her father’s forge. “But he gets upset if we don’t study.”

When their tea was gone, he paid the bill, leaving a pound tip, and they walked over to the museum. What did he mean by “an old friend”? she wondered. A statue of a philosopher? But he led her past the Greek statues, clothed and unclothed, to the Egyptian section.

“Zoe, meet Meresamun,” he said. “Meresamun is a singer in the temple of Amun.”

While she gazed at the mummy, he told her what he remembered from his tour of the museum. “The Egyptians believed you could only survive for eternity if your name was preserved. One part of the soul remained in the tomb and needed food and drink, entertainment. Another part traveled to the Field of Reeds.”

Perhaps that was what had happened to the boy in the field, she thought; a part of him had already left and only later been persuaded to return. She leaned closer, studying Meresamun’s bright blue eyes, the jackals below her collar. “I know you’re not keen on Shakespeare,” she said, “but can I ask you something?” She described Antony’s final sea battle and how Cleopatra ordered her captains to desert him. “Why would she do that?”

On the other side of the case, Rufus too studied Meresamun. “Remember the day we met. Did you think if A then B, if B then C? Or did you just start running? Perhaps Cleopatra gave the order to her captains and only later understood what she’d done. Have you ever been in love?”

Several times, she wanted to say, but in the dimly lit room, bending over Meresamun, she confessed, “Not that I know of.”

“Then the answer is probably no. I have, twice. You’ll see it’s very persuasive.”

“And does it never last?” She wished she didn’t sound so plaintive. He laughed, but gently.

“Everyone does their own research into that question.”

Outside the museum, she thanked him for tea. “You’re welcome, Zoe.” He raised his hand. “Have a nice life, as they used to say.”

He turned and walked quickly away. Look back, she implored, but he didn’t. First one person then another hid him from view. He was gone. Oblivious to shops and people, she started walking to the bus station. She was rounding the last corner when someone called, “On your right.” She turned to see her father’s girlfriend pedaling past, a brown box balanced on her handlebars.  




ON HIS WAY to meet Tomas, he stopped at the library and asked if they had copies of the Bristol newspaper. The librarian brought him three months’ worth. He started turning the pages, expecting at any moment to come across Claire’s father, staring grimly at the camera, accused of hurting her or her sisters. But the few criminals pictured were younger men, guilty of bad behavior at football matches, or drunk driving. One stabbing. Three burglaries. After half an hour, the news blurring, he had to accept that his second encounter with violence, finding Karel in the field, signified nothing about his first. Setting aside the newspapers, he went back to the librarian’s desk to ask if there was a list of car owners.

“Not that I’m aware of,” she said, “although the police probably have one. If you know a person’s name and roughly where they live, you might be able to find them on the electoral roll, but you’d have to go to the main library in Oxford.”

He thanked her and headed out into the street. So much for his idea that he could sit at a desk and, Sherlock Holmes–like, track down Karel’s assailant.

At the Green Man Tomas was already seated at the same window table. From the doorway, Matthew could see his slumped shoulders, his downturned mouth. He had heard Karel say only one word, seen him only unconscious, and yet he was sure that the boy in the field was utterly different from this hulking, gloomy person.

Lager in hand, he approached the table. “Hi,” he said, pulling out a chair. Tomas, in the way Matthew already thought of as typical, ignored his greeting and thrust a map across the table. “You take half the streets. I’ll take the other.”

The map was large scale. Matthew could see a black rectangle marking the school, another for the Cottage Hospital. “But how do we know he lives there?” he said. “That he wasn’t coming from some other town? Wouldn’t he be terrified of running into your brother?”

Tomas shook his head impatiently. “My brother said the man’s breath smelled of coffee, and the car was still cold—he had not driven far when he gave Karel a lift. I think we should start with the area near the hospital.”

Why hadn’t Hugh Price mentioned the coffee? Surely that was a vital clue. “So what are you suggesting? We knock on doors, and when a man of roughly the right age and appearance answers, we say, ‘Excuse me, where were you on the morning of Monday, September twentieth?’”

Catching the whiff of mockery, Tomas’s dark eyebrows came even closer together. “We’re collecting donations for Oxfam. I asked at the shop. If people have bigger things—sofas or chairs—they’ll send a van. When there is a brown-haired man in his thirties, we check for the car. Your brother’s description of the car is much clearer than my brother’s of his attacker.”

Matthew felt a little better, and a little worse. Collecting for Oxfam was a clever idea. Why hadn’t he thought of it? “Have you told your brother you’re looking?”

He saw that mentioning Karel was his most effective weapon. “Who knows what my brother knows?” Tomas said. “He is still pretending that I am the one who hurt him.”

The door of the pub was opening and closing, opening and closing. His father’s apprentice had joined a group of friends near the bar. Eileen, who sometimes worked the same shift at the Co-op, sat alone, doing a crossword puzzle. “You talk as if you have something to hide,” Matthew said.

The corners of Tomas’s mouth moved, slightly, toward the horizontal. “You are a good observer. I will tell you my not-so- guilty secret.” One of his customers had a model train set in his garage. The morning Karel was attacked, Edwin had invited him to admire his new track. Nearly forty-five minutes had passed as the two of them sent the trains crisscrossing back and forth before Tomas remembered his duties.

Matthew thought of the sign he had seen at a railway crossing in France: Un train peut en cacher un autre. One train can hide another. “You should tell the detective,” he said. “And your family. People think there’s something you’re not saying.”

“The milk was only a little late.”

“No one cares about the milk. People think you were sleeping with someone’s wife. Or hurting someone.”

A set of points shifted in Tomas’s brain. “So if I tell Karel about the trains. Or”—he corrected himself—“Papa tells him, he would no longer think his mad thoughts?”

“Hopefully.” Glancing down at the map, he saw that Tomas had divided the town into eight areas. “Do you really think he could be living so nearby?”

“The town has eighteen thousand people, maybe more. How many do you know? I live in a house with six flats and know none of my neighbors. Yes, I think this man lives here. I think perhaps he saw my brother around town. Karel is someone almost everyone looks at twice.”

Matthew remembered his theory that the man had been stalking Karel. Which was more frightening: the random attacker, or the purposeful? Both, he thought, in different ways.




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