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'The Boy in the Field' Chapters 23 & 24

illustration of a man and teenage boy sitting at a table in interview room with two chairs in front of windows

Illustration by by Nick Matej





BEFORE HE COULD protest—he was doing his homework—Zoe had crossed the room and was standing beside his desk. “I have to tell you something,” she said. “You can’t tell anyone, not Duncan, not Rachel. Not even Benjamin.”

First Duncan, now her. “Benjamin won’t tell if I tell him not to,” he said, just to be annoying.


Sometimes, with her cynical remarks about Ant, her sharp insights into their teachers, Zoe seemed older, but the way she said “Promise,” as if a single word could keep them safe, made her seem much younger. He put his hand on his French dictionary. “I promise I won’t tell anyone. Not even Rachel, not even Benjamin.”

“Dad’s having an affair.”

More than any evidence she might offer, his own immediate acceptance signaled the truth. What else made sense of their father so often being late, forgetting and muddling arrangements, of the way he had started seeing old friends and cooking new recipes with ginger and coriander?

Zoe was still watching, waiting for the effect of her words. “Aren’t you surprised?”

“Yes, but not really. How did you find out?”

“I saw him leaving a café with a woman, and then there was a photograph of her on the beach in Wales. Remember the weekend he went to the cottage without us?”

He was nodding, rearranging the past. “And that day he was late to pick us up, the day we found the boy—maybe he was seeing her?”

They shared the satisfaction of solving a small mystery. Then Zoe, eyebrows arching, said, “Do you think we ought to do something?”

“Like what? Talk to him? Tell Mum?” He was throwing out suggestions, waiting to hear how they sounded.

“No!” she exclaimed. “He’d be furious if we said anything. We don’t want him to feel he has to choose. As for Mum, I can’t imagine what she’d do—drive the car into a ditch? Have a breakdown? I like living here, having two parents. You’ll be off at university soon, but Duncan and I are stuck.”

“You can always come and see me in London.” Briefly, thinking of being at university, he felt better. Then the import of what she’d told him hit him. His father had put their family at the mercy of this woman; she could send an anonymous letter, or phone, or knock at their door, and everything would be over. “What do you think she wants?” he said.

Zoe fidgeted with her shirt cuffs. “She must know Dad’s married, that we exist. Perhaps it’s enough, their occasional dates. She looked like a nice person. She wasn’t much younger than Mum, or tarty.”

He had a sudden flash of himself and Rachel beneath her billowy duvet.

“When we found Karel,” Zoe went on, “I kept thinking if I did, or said, the right thing, he’d wake up. Now I feel as if I’m waiting for someone, or something, to wake me up, but I don’t want it to be Mum and Dad having a catastrophic row.”

Alone again, studying the sentence he had begun—Mon ami Benjamin n’aime pas—Matthew thought, My family is in disarray.


FOR THE FIRST TIME HUGH Price had the five o’clock shadow of a TV detective, and his jacket was rumpled. They were in a small interview room, the ocher walls glossy and cracked, the only furniture a scarred wooden table with two chairs. He sat down in one chair, gestured to the other.

“Thanks for seeing me,” Matthew said. “I was hoping you could give me advice.” But he couldn’t stop himself from asking first about Karel. Had they made an arrest? Did they have any leads?

“The case is still open. Maybe someone will spot the car.” The detective tilted his head, as if hoping to see it in the distance. “Or the man will be caught for something else: shoplifting? speeding? Of all the crimes reported every year, I’m sorry to say, we’re lucky to solve half of them.”

Matthew had heard this statistic before. Now he thought what would it be like if his father bungled half his jobs, or his mother lost half her cases, or he gave half the customers at the Co-op the wrong change? Unzipping his jacket, he offered his sole morsel of information: the morning Karel was attacked, Tomas had been playing with trains.

“So he’s a train junkie!” Hugh Price smiled his triangular smile. “How did you find out?”

He mumbled something about running into Tomas at the Co-op, how they had ended up collecting for Oxfam, keeping an eye out for the car. Across the table the detective registered every ounce of his confusion.

“Matthew, this man is violent, maybe a psychopath. You’re a good-looking boy, around the same age as Karel. I can’t stop you from collecting for Oxfam, but you and Tomas ought to stick together. No peering in garages, thinking you’re Inspector Morse.”

“Do you think he’ll do it again?” The idea that he resembled Karel, even slightly, gave him a curious feeling.

“Probably not—all the evidence suggests a crime of passion—but we can’t count on that.” The detective pressed his hands together. “People talk about locked-room mysteries, but the ultimate locked room is another person’s brain. What did you want my advice about?”

For a moment he was baffled. Then he remembered: Duncan. Did the detective have any suggestions about how to find his birth mother? He did. Telephone directories, the Turkish embassy, local papers, shops and newsagents, and if they could afford it, some private detectives were very effective. “Good luck,” he said firmly.  

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AFTER THE FOURTH person asked, “Can I help you?” he understood that a dark-skinned boy loitering on a cold, damp afternoon outside a place occupied by the elderly and infirm was an object of suspicion. If the weather had been nice, he could have pretended to be sketching the Cottage Hospital with its many windows, or the view down the curving driveway to the street. As it was, he was simply standing near the front door, shifting from foot to foot, hoping to catch Karel as he left work. Reluctantly he abandoned his post and started walking down the drive. He was almost back at the street when a bicycle passed him. He didn’t see the cyclist’s face, only his dark jacket and dark jeans, but at once he was sure it was Karel. There must be a rack at the back of the building.

The next afternoon was even colder, even damper. He was walking up the driveway when the front door opened and a woman in uniform waved to him. He had no choice but to approach her.

“I saw you here yesterday,” she said. “Are you looking for someone?”

She had gray hair and glasses and beautiful rosy cheeks and a chin that was negotiating between double and triple. All four made Duncan trust her, and wish he could draw her. “Sort of,” he said. And then, as she kept watching him, not judging but simply waiting, he tried to explain. “I want to talk to someone who works here. I met him once, but he won’t remember me.”

“Do you know his name?”

“Karel. Karel Lustig.”

Her features rearranged themselves. “How did you meet Karel?”

“I found him when he was hurt.” Her gentle question made it seem all right to break his promise to the detective.

“Come.” She reached out her hand as if he were much younger. He took it, and she led the way inside, down a corridor and into a small, plain room with a table and chairs, a sink and a kettle. A single picture, a misty street scene, hung on one wall. The woman pulled out a chair and offered him a towel and tea. He accepted the first, refused the second.

“I’m Hilda Epstein, the matron here. I want you to understand that Karel is an unusual person.”

“Unusual how?” He already had his own answer.

“People tend to confide in him. And he’s very truthful. Both make him vulnerable.”

Duncan pondered this. “So working here must be hard?”

Hilda sighed quietly. “Truth to tell, I wish I’d never hired him. Our elderly patients are all in love with him. They’re convinced he makes them feel better, and I’m sure he does but their feelings are a burden to him. Whatever you say to him, he’ll take to heart.”

“I’m adopted.” He had never said these words before.

Hilda’s mild blue eyes regarded him steadily. “Do you have a nice family?”

“The best.”

“Lucky you, and lucky them. I was in foster homes from the age of eight. People were very nice, but no one ever wanted to adopt me.”

Her voice was not sad, nor was her face, but he sensed sadness. Whatever happens with my first mother, he thought, I’m never going to lose my family.

“None of this has to do with Karel,” Hilda said, suddenly brisk. “He’s back on days again, but he had to leave early. He’ll be working his regular shift, seven to four, for the rest of the week.”

“Thank you.” He wanted to leave her with something, but what? He had come empty-handed, carrying only his schoolbooks. “Your patients are very lucky,” he said.

From the slight flush that tinged her already rosy cheeks, he saw he had chosen the right gift.


THE NEXT DAY HE WAS at the bicycle rack at ten to four. Since his conversation with Hilda, his mind had been teeming with things he wanted to ask Karel. Had he known the three of them were there, in the field? Why did he say “Cowslip?” What was his favorite color? Did he get tired of the patients telling him things? What if you needed to do something that might hurt people you loved? What if just the idea of your doing it hurt them? The rack was at one end of the car park, in the shadow of a high, mossy wall. Standing beside it, he put all his energy into waiting. On the top of the wall a pair of wagtails bobbed back and forth; a small flock of sparrows scuffled in the ragged grass. The longer he stood, the closer the birds came. This is what it must be like to be a tree, he thought.

The back door opened. A woman walked over to the rack, unchained a bicycle, and without a glance in his direction pedaled away. The door opened again, and two figures appeared: one was not Karel, one was. Seeing him upright, walking, talking with another person, Duncan felt the ground shift. As Karel and the woman approached, the wagtails ran off; the sparrows rose, twittering, into the nearest bush.

“She’s a hoot,” said the woman. She was carrying the kind of black handbag Duncan associated with much older women.

“She makes everyone laugh,” Karel agreed. “Except herself.”

He did not have his father’s accent, but his words had the same precision. He was tall, taller than Duncan had thought when he was lying down. The woman’s footsteps were audible, not his. He wore a neat black jacket out of which his neck emerged, pale and slender. His hair was darker, but perhaps that was the gray afternoon; it was definitely longer. When they were almost at the rack, Duncan took a step forward. Neither of them noticed him. Then the woman did.

“Are you looking for someone?” Her voice, warm when she spoke to Karel, was like a knife. As for Karel, his eyes darted in Duncan’s direction, then focused on his bicycle lock.

“My name is Duncan Lang. I wanted to ask Karel a question. The matron knows I’m here.”

“That’s up to Karel.” The woman was facing him, holding her handbag with both hands like a shield.

“Do I know you?” Karel was slowly turning the combination lock.

“Not really. I’ve met your dad. Could I walk with you?” Out of the corner of his eye he could see the woman still glaring at him. He tried to recover his tree-like stillness.

“For five minutes,” Karel said. “Then I need to go home.”

The woman took a step toward Duncan and threw a hard stare in his direction. If you hurt this person, she was saying, I will never forgive you. Turning back to Karel, she said, “You’re sure you’re okay?”

“I think so.”

She continued to eye him for a few seconds before she unlocked her bike, wiped the seat, slipped her handbag onto the handlebars, and pedaled out of the car park. When she had turned the corner of the building, Duncan said, “I found you in the field. With my brother and sister.”

Karel’s eyes were like his father’s: a dark rim circling tiny fractals of blue iris. Leaving his bike in the rack, he stepped over and, before Duncan understood what was happening, put his hands on Duncan’s shoulders and kissed him, warmly, on each cheek. Then he stepped back and, for the first time, smiled. “You’re younger than I imagined.”

Oh, thought Duncan, I was already inside your head. Beneath Karel’s jacket, he glimpsed the silver chain he’d seen that day in the field, and later drawn. “I’m thirteen. Does it hurt to remember what happened?”

“You’re not reminding me. I’m always thinking about it. A part of me is still lying there.”

“When we were kneeling beside you, you said ‘Cowslip.’ ”

“Cow slip?”

“No. One word, like the flower. They’re yellow. You see them in the spring. Shakespeare writes about them.”

Karel blinked, neither claiming nor repudiating the flower.

They started walking, Karel pushing his bike—it made a slight clicking sound—Duncan beside him. Above the dark jacket a crescent of pale cheek was visible; on the handlebars Karel’s hands reddened with cold. Step by step, in sideways glances, Duncan took him in. In his drawings, he thought, he had made his shoulders too narrow.

“That was what you wanted to ask me about,” Karel said. “Flowers?”

They were walking beside another, lower wall. A snail in its topaz-colored shell was inching along the top, horns delicately extended. Duncan was eyeing it, trying to shape a sentence about his first mother, when Karel spoke again.

“I remember every minute of lying there. I have very thin eyelids. When I close my eyes, I can still see lights, shapes. In the field I could see birds and clouds. People visited me. People knelt beside me.” Duncan thought of the swallows darting overhead. Karel had seen them too. The bike bumped over a tree root in the pavement.

“I thank you and your brother and sister for finding me. I am grateful, most grateful.” Click, click. “But sometimes”—click—“I wish you hadn’t.”

The last words were spoken so softly, more like breath than sound, that Duncan wasn’t sure he had heard them. Then, as Karel pedaled away, he knew he had.