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'The Boy in the Field' Chapters 29 & 30

a dog sitting in a doorway, looking outside into a dark garden

Illustration by by Nick Matej





SHE ANSWERED THE DOOR, expecting someone collecting for charity or leafleting for a good cause, and discovered a boy, no collecting tin, no pamphlets, only a small backpack. He was smiling as if he already knew her; perhaps a friend of Matthew’s? But as he started to speak, she heard the click of nails on the hall floor. Lily dashed past, a flash of black, and then she was pressing her head against the boy’s leg and he had dropped his backpack and was kneeling, heedless of the damp ground, reaching for her, saying her name, burying his face in her neck. Gordon had come at last.

In the delight of their reunion Zoe forgot for several minutes about the cold night air. Then a car drove by, and she became aware that she was standing in the doorway, wasting the central heating, as her parents would say. “Come in,” she said. “Duncan will want to see you.” She headed for the stairs, trusting that one of them had heard her.

In his room Duncan was standing beside the bed, holding a sheet of wrapping paper. When she described the stranger and how Lily had run to greet him, his lips parted in dismay.

“He’s not meant to come until Christmas! What if he wants to take her away?” 

Zoe considered the awful possibility—their home, Lily-less—but something about the way Gordon had greeted Lily made her certain this was just a visit. She said as much, but Duncan only looked more upset.

“It’s so strange,” he said. “I was just wrapping Lily’s painting, to have it ready for him.”

“That is strange,” she agreed.

Downstairs Gordon and Lily were in the kitchen, sitting on the floor beside Lily’s basket. At the sight of Zoe, Gordon jumped to his feet. As he introduced himself and apologized for showing up without warning, she saw why Duncan had said he had an interesting face. 

“I’m Duncan’s sister, Zoe. Would you like some tea, or something?”

He asked if they had Nescafé, and she found the jar of hardened crystals and filled the kettle. “How’s London?” she said. “Duncan’s coming.”

“London is fantastic. I got a part.” Smiling widely, he described how he was an understudy in a play; the day before one of the actors had sprained his ankle. “Now I get to be in three scenes. That’s why I’m here. I don’t have enough time off at Christmas.”

In her relief she congratulated him exuberantly and asked about the play. It was set in a comprehensive school in Bradford. “I kept going to auditions, and directors said I looked too young, or too nice. Most of the parts—” 

“Have you come to take Lily away?” Duncan was standing in the doorway.

Gordon’s smile vanished as he grasped the depths of her brother’s fear. “No,” he said. “She lives with you. I can tell you take really good care of her. Look how shiny her coat is. I’m just a friend who sometimes visits. Do you have a piece of paper?”

Duncan fetched the notepad that lay by the phone. Gordon sat down at the table, turned to a clean page, and, watched by Zoe, Duncan, and Lily, wrote several lines. He studied what he’d written, signed and dated it, carefully tore out the page, and handed it to Duncan. “Didn’t you say your mum’s a solicitor? Get her to keep this somewhere safe, in case I have an attack of amnesia.”

Without reading it, Duncan folded the paper into his pocket. “I have a present for you.” He set the parcel on the table. “I was wrapping it when you rang the doorbell.” 

Gordon did not remark upon the coincidence. Perhaps he was used to these kinds of things happening around Lily. He reached for the parcel and slowly, prolonging the pleasure, began to peel back the tape. When the picture came into view, he gazed at it in silence. Then his face broke into a brilliant smile. “This is the best present I’ve ever had.” He jumped up, hugged Duncan, and bent down to show Lily the painting.

“Look, it’s you. Aren’t you gorgeous?”

Once or twice Zoe had seen Lily pause in front of the dark television screen, her head raised to study her reflection. Mirrors, mostly, she ignored. Now she wrinkled her nose, either at the smell of paint or at the image of herself, and took a step back. As for Gordon, Zoe could see how he would be onstage. She felt his delight as if it were her own. They were still debating Lily’s response—Gordon claimed she loved it; Duncan said no, she was his harshest critic—when their father arrived home, and invited Gordon to stay for supper. Gordon asked if he might call his parents. As she laid the table, Zoe overheard him talking in the hall, his voice utterly different: flat and cold. She remembered Duncan saying the parents were horrible.

At dinner Gordon told stories about auditions and asked questions about Duncan’s painting, the forge, her mother’s ancient Greek. Her father described this year’s Salon. 

“Who would you come as?” said Duncan.

“Maybe Daniel Day Lewis,” said Gordon. “Or Martin Sheen.” Throughout dinner, Lily sat at Gordon’s feet. When he bent to say goodbye, she licked his hand and walked over to the French doors. He thanked everyone, put on his jacket, and picked up the painting, which Duncan had wrapped again.

“I’m going to hang it beside my bed,” he said, “so I can see it first thing every morning.”

Then he was gone and Lily was standing there, staring out into the dark garden. Duncan knelt beside her and read what Gordon had written on the sheet of paper. I, Gordon Enright, do hereby give up all rights to Lily. I will never take her away from Duncan Lang and his family. 

No accident, Zoe thought, that Lily had chosen first Gordon, then her brother.  

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HIS OXFAM COLLECTING had taken him to parts of the town he had never seen before, but only after several wrong turns, and directions from two strangers, did he find the Lustigs’ house on a street behind the laundry. He knocked twice and was still holding the dolphin knocker when he heard footsteps. A man with beautiful golden eyebrows opened the door. As soon as Matthew said his name, he reached out his hand.

“Thank you for what you did for Karel. Come in. Come in.” In the living room Mr. Lustig offered tea. Or beer.

“Beer, please.”

He found himself sitting on a sofa, presumably the one behind which Karel had taken refuge, ready to throw an ashtray at his brother, and there on the coffee table was a marble ashtray. So Tomas did tell the truth sometimes. The room was surprisingly spare and modern compared to their sitting room at home, with its cozy inherited furniture. Here the armchairs and sofa were off-white, the tables and bookshelves made of light wood. Over the mantelpiece hung a painting of a castle on a hill beside a river.

Mr. Lustig returned carrying a tray with three glasses, three bottles of beer already bright with condensation, and a bowl of crisps. “Karel is coming. He works days now.”

“Where is the castle?”

“In Prague. My wife and I grew up in a town thirty kilometers west of the city. We go back every summer. Our mothers are still alive, and many aunts and uncles and cousins. My aunt Vera painted that. For two weeks we eat big meals and walk by the river. We have a good life here, but there are only the four of us.”

Would his father say that to a stranger? Matthew thought. There are only the five of us. We have a good life. Probably not these days. “Does Tomas go with you?”

“You know my older son.” Mr. Lustig, reaching for another crisp, paused.

“We ran into each other at the pub. He used to deliver our milk.”

“How is he? We do not often see him these days.” Matthew set his glass beside the ashtray. “He seemed”—angry? mad?—“ out of sorts.”

Mr. Lustig nodded. “I would have to agree. Did he give a reason for his out-of-sorts-ness?”

Matthew was still groping for an answer when, through the door, came the boy in the field. The shock of his appearance, both strange and familiar, propelled Matthew to his feet. He stepped forward uncertainly and was embraced warmly.

“Thank you for finding me.” Karel took the other armchair. “You don’t look like your brother.”

“You know Duncan?”

“He came to meet me one day at the hospital. He was very kind.”

Matthew could feel himself staring at Karel as if he were still lying, unconscious, in the field. His dark eyelashes made his eyes look very blue.

“So you know Matthew’s brother, and he knows yours,” said Mr. Lustig.

“I don’t really know Tomas,” Matthew said hastily. “We were both collecting for Oxfam.”

He was wondering how to get Karel alone when Mr. Lustig said he must get back to making supper. In the wake of his father’s departure, Karel seemed to forget about conversation; he gazed pensively at his untouched beer. Hugh Price was right, Matthew thought. The real locked room was another person’s brain. “May I ask you a question?” he said.

Karel raised his eyes. “Of course.”

“That day we found you, where were you going at seven in the morning? It must have been important, after working all night and getting a flat tire.”

Most people received a question not just with their ears but with their bodies. Some slight adjustment of head or shoulders or knees showed that the words had reached them. Karel sat motionless. Could he somehow not have heard? Matthew was about to say sorry, it was none of his business, when he at last began to speak.

“I will tell you,” he said, “but you must not tell Tomas. For three years my brother has been going out with a very nice girl, Sylvie. Last spring, they got engaged and we were all happy. Then in August Sylvie’s mother was admitted to the Cottage Hospital. She has diabetes, ulcers, many problems. Sylvie came to see her most days. When I had time, I brought her a cup of tea. I was being friendly to my brother’s girlfriend. One day, while the three of us were chatting, Yvonne, she is the hospital cook, came to check on Mrs. Fletcher’s diet. Afterward she said, ‘That girl likes you.’ I started to notice how Sylvie kept smiling at me, how she spoke mostly to me, not her mother. I asked Matron if I could go on nights for a month. My second week, Sylvie’s mother gave me a note. Sylvie needed to see me.”

His eyes met Matthew’s. “I didn’t know what to do. Yvonne said I must tell her I wasn’t interested. We arranged to meet one morning after I finished work. We chose the churchyard to avoid my brother on his milk round. She thanked me for taking good care of her mother and began to talk about wanting to see Prague. It started to rain, and we had to leave.”

He let out his breath in a sigh, quite different from the sigh he had given in the field.

“I hoped she’d understood, but her mother gave me another note. This time I practiced what to say with Yvonne. Three days before we were going to meet, something terrible happened. My brother was doing an errand near the hospital, and he visited Mrs. Fletcher. I woke up with his hands around my neck. When he let me speak, I said of course Sylvie and I were friends; she was his fiancée. But I could see he didn’t believe me. As soon as he left, I phoned Sylvie. Her father took a message. I was going to meet her when the man picked me up.”

“And then she broke up with Tomas?”

“She told him she never wanted to see him again. She swears she didn’t mention me, but he suspects more than ever.”

“So when he brought you scones, you were protecting yourself with the ashtray?”

Karel raised his eyebrows. “Tomas told you this?”

Matthew explained about their search. “If he finds the man, he thinks you’ll forgive him, and Sylvie will take him back.” From the kitchen came the clang of a saucepan. “Is there anything else you remember about the man? Any little thing that might help to find him?”

“I can tell you what his left earlobe was like, his left hand. Would that help?”

Footsteps, a radio. Quickly Matthew said, “In the field you said ‘Coward.’”

Karel sighed again. “I probably meant myself. At the hospital I sometimes keep people company as they transition. That’s Matron’s word, not mine. They are on a journey with delays and reversals and a final destination.”

He broke off, staring at the ashtray. Matthew gazed at him wonderingly. This boy had seen people die, had himself nearly died; he was the opposite of a coward. But even to say that seemed like another thing Karel would have to bear. A sizzling sound came from the kitchen.

“Now I try not to go out alone after dark,” Karel continued. “If a strange man speaks to me, I jump. I keep hoping they will catch him and I will feel safe again.”

Matthew had so many questions; one was pressing. “Why is Tomas so different?” he said.

“My parents and I ask that too. When we lived in our village near Prague, he was a nice person. He had friends, he did well at school. But he hated moving here. He didn’t make friends. He got bent out of shape. We were so glad Sylvie liked him.”

Matthew remembered that moment on Rachel’s doorstep: how the person who answered the door had looked like her, dressed like her, yet been completely different.