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'The Boy in the Field' Chapters 33 & 34

spinner image a teenage girl and boy walking with a black dog on a park path amongst bare trees during twilight
Illustration by by Nick Matej





FIVE IN THE afternoon, already dark. He was at the middle till, handing a girl a one-pound coin and two twenty-pence pieces, her change for a carton of orange juice and a loaf of bread, when a loud bang brought him, and everyone else, to a standstill. The air was filled with the sharp sounds of broken glass, the long ghastly scrape of metal on tarmac, a cry, another bang. A car had hit something—a lamppost? Another car? Matthew dropped the girl’s change, closed the cash drawer, and ran out into the street. The remains of the scooter were lying against the curb a hundred yards from the shop. Running toward it, searching for the rider, he saw only the wrecked machine, the back tire, severed, a few yards from the rest. It was as if the rider had vanished, catapulted into some other street, some other town, by the force of the collision. Then he spotted him lying, facedown, close to the gutter. People were already bending over him. Matthew recognized a familiar silver helmet.

As he knelt, a woman standing at Ant’s feet kept saying “Don’t touch him. Don’t touch him.”

From the helmet came a faint sound.

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“Ant? It’s Matthew. Can you hear me? Are you okay?”

Behind him, he heard the manager of the Co-op saying that an ambulance was on the way; he had called the police. Matthew repeated this to Ant. “You’re going to be all right,” he said. What did he know? But he tried to make his voice strong and confident. Cautiously he rested his hand on Ant’s gloved hand. Around him people were asking, Had anyone seen the car? The woman who had been saying “Don’t touch him” asked Matthew if he knew the driver of the scooter.

“Anthony Martin. He lives on Mulberry Lane.”

She hurried away; he kept his hand on Ant’s. If Zoe hadn’t broken up with him, she might have been lying here too. He remembered, from books and films, that it was important to talk to an injured person, to keep them conscious. Once a person left consciousness, it was hard for them to find their way back. “I was on the till at the Co-op,” he said, “when I heard the car hit you. The manager’s been giving me extra hours since we finished exams. Zoe’s got a job at the butcher’s. Weird for a vegetarian, but she likes it.”

Ant said something. Bending lower, Matthew heard “Help,” and “Up.”

“I can’t, Ant. We have to wait for the ambulance. If you move, you might make things worse. Did you see the car?”

Above their heads, the woman said, “Your mother is on her way. She’ll be here soon.”

“Yes,” whispered Ant.

“Yes, you saw the car?”

No answer. Before he could ask again, he heard sirens far away and then much closer. Just as with Karel, there were men and a stretcher and a lighted ambulance, filled with hopeful machines. He let go of Ant’s hand, and at once Ant was surrounded. As the paramedics bent over him, he cried out. The hairs on Matthew’s arms rose. For a moment no one spoke. Then one of the men said, “Let’s get him on the stretcher while he’s out.”

As they carried him to the ambulance, Matthew saw the helmet, sitting alone on the pavement like some small, forgotten UFO. He was carrying it back to the shop when a spotlight lit up the street. “This is the police,” a loudspeaker announced. “Can everyone stay where they are for a few minutes? We want to get names of witnesses.”

Turning away from the beam, he spotted Tomas on the other side of the street. Before he could pretend not to have seen him, Tomas waved. He waved back, a small, breezy gesture. A couple of police officers, a man and a woman with clipboards, were making their way from person to person, noting names and phone numbers. People began to relax, setting down bags, asking each other what they’d seen, talking about the slippery roads and how people drove too fast. Matthew gave his name and number to the policewoman and explained that he’d been working at the Co-op when he heard the crash. He’d run out and seen the scooter lying in the street and knew it belonged to his friend. No, he hadn’t seen the car.

She took this down, thanked him, and suddenly broke off. “Aren’t you the boy who found the young man in the field?”

 He recognized the policewoman who had accompanied Hugh Price on his first visit. He admitted that he was. “Nice to see you again.” She raised her swooping eyebrows. “I hope your friend’s okay.”

As soon as she moved on, Tomas was beside him, standing much too close, breathing hard. Beneath his watchman’s cap, his eyes glittered. Surreptitiously Matthew took a step back. Did Tomas know he had spoken to Karel?

But Tomas was whispering, “I saw him. I saw the car.”

“What car?” Despite himself, he too was whispering.

“The car that hit the scooter. It was baby blue. There was a dent in the rear bumper.”

Around them people were scattering, heading for cars, shops, homes, as the police released them. “You mean it was the same car?” He felt a rush of vindication: their searching had not been pointless. “Did you tell the police?”

“I did, but they didn’t understand.”

“We should call the detective. I have his number.”

“He made me feel guilty,” Tomas said sullenly.

“That’s because you didn’t tell him you were playing with trains the morning Karel was attacked. Come on.”

Inside the Co-op the manager was working Matthew’s till, ringing up groceries with surprising efficiency. When Matthew asked if they could use the phone—it was an emergency—he held out the office key. “Be sure to lock up when you finish,” he said. In the office Matthew retrieved Hugh Price’s card and dialed the number. Beneath the bright lights, Tomas’s excitement was even more apparent, his cheeks flushed, his breathing audible. A man answered the phone, and Matthew asked for Hugh Price.

He handed Tomas the phone and stepped away to the large window overlooking the shop. From this vantage point all four aisles were visible; only the meat and cheese counters, directly beneath, were hidden. Tomas repeated his story. In the pauses, Matthew guessed the detective’s questions. The car had been going fast, yes, faster than thirty. No, the brake lights hadn’t come on when it hit the scooter. In aisle two Matthew saw their neighbor, Mrs. Lacey, pick up a box of cereal, study the list of ingredients, and set it back on the shelf. She moved on to the pasta.

“He’s coming to take my statement,” Tomas said when he hung up. “Maybe they’ll finally catch the bastard, and Sylvie will talk to me again.”

Mrs. Lacey, now in aisle three, lifted a small jar off the shelf and, without looking at it, slipped it into her jacket pocket. “I’ve got to get back to work,” Matthew said. Keys in hand, he headed for the door, but Tomas, instead of following, settled himself in the manager’s chair. Did he think he could sprawl there until the police came? No wonder Sylvie had left him.

“Come on,” Matthew said. “I have to lock the door.”

It was a relief to be back at the till, ringing up groceries, making small talk, even while the shock of what had happened kept happening, over and over. As he rang up a tin of baked beans, a six-pack of beer, he thought of Ant, one minute driving home, the next flying through the air. That the driver might be the man who had hurt Karel was confounding.


AT HOME HIS MOTHER AND Zoe were sitting on the sofa, watching television. Still holding the helmet, he stepped in front of the screen and told them about Ant’s accident.

“Christ!” Zoe was on her feet. “Is he all right? We have to phone the hospital.” “They won’t give information to non-family members,” said his mother. “We can call and leave a message for his parents.”

“But what if—”

It took him a few seconds to understand what Zoe was asking. His mother said no, even if things were very serious the hospital couldn’t tell them, but from what Matthew said, it sounded like the prognosis was good. Ant was conscious; he could talk. “I’ll ask his parents to phone as soon as they can,” she said, and left the room.

“Zoe, I really think he’ll be okay. He was wearing his helmet.” He held it out, proof. She was sobbing too hard to hear. He had seen Zoe with Ant a few times: once leaning toward each other at the cinema; another time standing by his scooter, arguing. Bewildered by this storm of emotion, he patted her shoulder, uselessly. When his mother returned, he told them, talking over Zoe’s trailing hiccups, the other part of the story: that Tomas had recognized the car.

“But he can’t have seen it for more than a few seconds,” said his mother, “and it was already dark.”

In the shock of the moment, he had believed Tomas unquestioningly. Now he felt stupid for not considering that Tomas, like one of his mother’s witnesses, had seen what he wanted to see, conjuring the blue car out of desperation. “He was very definite,” he said doubtfully.

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“You sound like you know him.” Between hiccups, Zoe was eyeing him curiously.

“He was collecting for Oxfam.” Trying to change the subject, he said he’d seen Mrs. Lacey shoplifting. Only a small jar of pesto, but still.

“Oh dear,” said his mother. “I didn’t realize she’d started again.”

“You mean she’s done this before?” The Laceys lived a few streets away and had always seemed like law-abiding people.

“For years, on and off. Mr. Lacey goes in and pays for the items. It’s usually a sign that she’s sliding toward depression. The shopkeepers here all understand, but there’ve been a couple of nasty scenes in Oxford.”

“I’ve never heard that shoplifting was a symptom of depression,” Zoe said.

Thinking about Ant and the scooter, he asked if Dad was back. Maybe he’d be able to weld the pieces back together. It turned out Hal had come home early, complaining of a sore throat, and was already in bed. None of them knew what to do next. Watching television, unless it was the news, seemed heartless. His mother retreated to her study. Zoe went to take a bath. He went to his room and tried to focus on homework. He was studying a map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when he smelled onions frying. Downstairs his mother was at the stove, wearing an apron.

“Mum, what are you doing? It’s nearly ten o’clock.”

“Making mushroom soup. It’s been a trying day.”

While he washed the mushrooms, she described her phone calls to people with the same surname as Duncan’s mother. “Each time I feel like I’m lifting this huge weight. The truth is, I don’t want to find her. If she’s an addict, or an awful person, I don’t want her having anything to do with Duncan. What if she says, ‘I’ll kill myself if you don’t come and live with me?’ ”

“Here.” He handed her the mushrooms. “She’s much more likely to say she wants nothing to do with him.” “Which would be upsetting too. I can’t imagine any scenario that is going to make Duncan happy. She was sixteen when she had him, younger than you.”

He passed on Hugh Price’s suggestion of a private detective, and she said that was on her list. “I want Duncan to feel we’ve done our best. Would you like some wine? There’s a bottle of red open.”

He poured two glasses; they sat down at the table. Then she got up again to fetch some biscuits and cheese, and they were both eating ravenously. “Are you okay about Rachel?” she said, slicing into the cheddar.

“I miss her, but”—he hadn’t dared say this aloud before—“I can tell I won’t soon. What upsets me is that she wasn’t the person I thought she was.” The others were nearby, but it was as if he and his mother were alone in the house, talking as equals.

She raised her glass. “You’re like me. You like clarity. That’s why I wanted to study law.” They each cut another slice of cheese. “I don’t mean to put you on the spot,” she went on, “but I’m worried about Zoe. Do you know what’s going on with her?”

He had been braced to say he knew nothing, less than nothing, about his father’s comings and goings. That Zoe was the subject of her concern brought him to an unrehearsed standstill. In the grip of his own double life—searching for Karel’s assailant—it hadn’t occurred to him that his sister might have one too. “I thought she was upset about Ant,” he said.

His mother inclined her head; Zoe was fond of Ant, but not in that way. “She’s been going to Oxford every chance she gets, and she agreed to babysit for the Dunns next Wednesday, even though Moira’s having a party.”

“Maybe she just wants to make some money.”

“No, she’s scheming, and the only reason I can think of why Zoe would scheme is a boyfriend. There must be something about this one that she knows will worry us.”

“Like what?”

She ticked off reasons. “He’s older, he’s disreputable in some way, he’s married, he’s—”

“Married? Why would someone who’s married want to go out with Zoe?”

His mother smiled. Suddenly they were no longer equals. “I don’t want you to spy on your sister, but can you keep an eye on her? Let her know you’re there if she’s in trouble, though, please god”—she knocked the table—“not that kind of trouble.”

Again, he was slow to catch her meaning, then

His mother poured the last of the wine into their glasses. “I hope a year from now we’ll be sitting here and you’ll have had a good first term at university and Duncan will be painting happily and Zoe will be working hard on her A-levels, and seeing a nice boy your age.”

“And Dad,” he improvised, “will have a second apprentice. And you—” He faltered. “What would you like, Mum?”

She faltered too. “Maybe your father and I could take a holiday? Go to Greece? I’ll be able to read the inscriptions on the temples.”

As she went to turn the heat off under the soup, he found himself talking about Karel. “We didn’t tell you,” he said, “but he said one word: ‘coward.’ ”

“ ‘Coward.’ My sister used to call me that all the time, for not jumping into the pool or climbing a tree. As an adult, it’s not a word you often hear.”

“You’re being a coward about phoning Duncan’s possible relatives.” At once he was dismayed, but she was smiling ruefully. “You’re right. I promised Duncan I’d do it, so I should get on with it. Well, time for bed.”

Alone in his room, Matthew registered the chill—the heating had gone off for the night—and the pleasing fragrance of soup. His ears buzzed from the wine. As he brushed his teeth, he thought again about Zoe. She had been acting differently since she broke up with Ant, but he had attributed any changes to her worries about first their father, then Duncan. For half his life, he had been constantly in her company: going to the same school, playing in the park, turning the sofa into a fort. Now he realized how many hours there were each day when he had no idea what she was saying, or doing, or feeling.  



PLEASE, SHE THOUGHT. She was sitting at the kitchen table, trying both to hear and not hear what her mother was saying on the phone to Ant’s parents. Please. Then she was no longer sitting there, no longer thinking. She was hovering above the table, yet somehow still part of the living grain of the wood, the cool metal of the abandoned knife on the crumb-scattered plate, the smudge of butter on a napkin, the jar of marmalade, the note reading milk, the ficus and the ferns.

Someone touched her shoulder; she was back.

“He’s going to be all right,” her mother said. Ant had cracked his pelvis and broken his right femur. They had operated for six hours. He had come round an hour ago and would love to have visitors in a few days.

“You’re not crying, are you, Zoe?”

She was, though she scarcely knew why.

“It was just so frightening: the idea he could be gone.”

“It was frightening,” her mother agreed. “Last night I kept thinking how glad I was you’d stopped seeing him. You could have been on the back of his scooter. If you hear Dad moving before you go, can you see if he needs anything? Be sure to remind him, I’ve rescheduled his customers. And could you pick up a pound of ham?”

On her way to work, she stopped at the newsagents to buy a get-well card for Anthony. The first customer of the day arrived as she was turning the sign on the door to Open. He asked for two pork chops and, if Mr. MacLeod could spare it, a bone for Shadow. Oh, thought Zoe. It hadn’t occurred to her that she worked in Lily’s favorite shop. That afternoon, along with her mother’s ham, she brought home a nice greasy bone. She put the former in the fridge and set the latter on the floor, next to Lily’s basket. Upstairs Duncan was sitting at his desk, Lily at his feet. She told him about the bone.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Would you’d rather I didn’t?”

 “No, she likes being treated like a dog sometimes.”

“But”—she wrinkled her forehead in imitation—“you’re scowling.”

“There’s something I need to talk about. Can we go to the park?”

She checked whether her father needed anything—he didn’t—and they put on jackets and scarves. As the three of them headed down the street, she described how many phone orders she’d taken; how she sounded like an expert when people asked what size of turkey they needed. Duncan listened and nodded. She knew he wouldn’t want to talk until they were safely in the park, surrounded by twilight and trees. At the entrance, Lily spotted the Jack Russell she liked. The two began running in dizzying circles, the black dog following the mostly white dog following the black dog. Duncan led the way down the main path. Walking beside him, she felt the first hint of water seeping into her shoes.

As they passed the grove of birch trees, he said, “Something strange happened yesterday.” A woman had phoned the house, asking for their father. She had known who Duncan was but hadn’t given her name. And then, when he walked over to the forge, she was there—he recognized her voice—talking to their father. He had stayed by the door, and they hadn’t seen him.

Zoe prickled with expectation. “Were they having a row?”

“Worse than that.”

“Worse how?”

He shook his head in frustration. “She wasn’t raising her voice, or saying horrible things, but she was really, really upset. When she went to the hospital after an accident, she had to name her brother as next of kin.”

A fragment of some story they would never understand. “What did Dad say?”

“That she’d been okay in the hospital. He didn’t get what she meant. But that wasn’t the big thing.” He walked around one puddle, splashed through another. Out of the gloom, Lily trotted toward them and began to walk a few yards ahead. “She said she was having a baby in July.”

“A baby?” In all her worried imaginings about her father and the woman, she had never considered this possibility. They both stopped walking in the middle of the path.

“You sound as if that’s terrible,” Duncan said. “I like babies, at least the ones I’ve met.”

The Jack Russell’s owner appeared, walking briskly, and sidestepped them with a nod. Christ, if she’d overheard, Zoe thought, and started walking again. Duncan fell in beside her. “So that’s why Dad’s taken to his bed,” she said.

 “He was very upset, but he said it didn’t change things. He couldn’t do anything differently. He kept calling the baby ‘it,’ trying to make her or him go away. Then they saw me.”

“He must have thought the world had ended.” From a nearby tree a rook cawed; another answered.

“You know how in books they talk about someone going white as a sheet? He went completely pale. She talked to me about art—she’s a graphic designer—and then she left.” He glanced over at her. “I’ve been thinking this baby is related to us. Do you think that’s true?”

“Yes,” she said slowly, “but we must never, ever let Mum know. She might not be able to forgive Dad, and then everything would be unbelievably awful.”

“Now there’ll be two people I’m related to and never see.”

He sounded so forlorn, she put her arm around him. “Oh, Duncan.”

“I liked her. She wasn’t angry when she saw me standing there. I could tell she was doing something hard, talking to Dad and not crying, or shouting. I think she’ll be a nice mother. She won’t give her baby away ...”

Silently she finished his sentence: like my mother. For the first time she grasped that his life had begun with rejection. “This has to be a total secret,” she said. “We shouldn’t talk about it, even just the two of us, until we’re grown-ups.”

“The last, last thing I want is to make Mum more upset.” He bent to pat Lily, and his voice was muffled. “I hate thinking I’ll have a sister, or brother, I never see.”

“Me too.” Staring at the lights of the town, some orange, some white, some twinkling, it came to her that even as she and Duncan walked and talked, somewhere, not far away, cells were steadily multiplying. Next summer there would be a new person in the world, a person with whom they shared nothing, and half of everything.

As they walked back to the entrance of the park, a more immediate worry loomed. Their mother would take one look at them and guess that something was wrong. “Let’s ask if we can have supper in front of the TV,” she said.

“Good idea. Mum will think you’re fretting about Ant and I’m fretting about my first mother. You’re the one who’s more likely to tell,” he added as he unlatched the gate.

“Why do you say that?” She followed him and Lily through the gate and turned to latch it.

“Because you have boyfriends. Matthew told me one of the things you do when you want to let a girl know you like her is tell her something you’ve never told anyone.”

What made her stop and stare back into the shadowy park was not the memory of herself and Rufus, lying in bed, exchanging secrets, but the realization that their conversation, which she had thought so utterly particular to them, was just what lovers did, what Rufus must have done with other girls, with Renée. How often had he told the story about the bear clock? Among the dark trees nothing moved. This feeling—quick as a mousetrap, sharp as a thorn—must be jealousy.




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