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'The Boy in the Field' Chapters 7 & 8

illustration of pale green crayon lying in the grass

Illustration by by Nick Matej





AS SHE LAID HER BIKE down on the grass, two rabbits darted for the safety of the hedge, white tails flicking. The bales were gone; the stubble, beneath windy skies, was a dull brown. Perhaps Karel, in his blue shirt and black shorts, had paused here, experiencing his first twinge of doubt. Most of the time, Zoe thought, we behave as if everyone is going to follow the rules. If a man appeared here now, say the man from the churchyard, what could she do but run? Or submit.

She spread out her poncho and sat down in the lee of the hedge, a few yards from where Karel had lain. She had never told anyone, not even Duncan, to whom she told most things, about these moments when she left her body. Even the word “moment” was wrong. She slipped between the teeth of time. She could still conjure what she recalled as the first occasion. She was sitting on the beach, looking at the waves, holding a piece of seaweed in one hand, a whelk in the other. Her parents thought she was sitting quietly for once, but she was hovering nearby. She could smell the salt air, see the waves glinting and the sand with its Morse code of seaweed and shells, feel the sunlight but she was no longer tethered to a single source of sensation. Then she was back again. The whelk had left an oval mark on her palm.

She couldn’t make it happen. Sometimes it didn’t for months, and she worried she had lost the knack. Then she would leave again. Now she waited, hoping to catch some reverberation, however faint: an aftershock. Nothing. A rabbit. Nothing. After fifteen minutes she was bored, and cold, and entirely sure that she was not leaving her body today. Walking back to the gate, she saw a pale-green crayon lying in the grass.


DUNCAN WAS IN THE KITCHEN, eating toast glistening with plum jam, reading a book.

“You left this in the field,” she said.

“Thanks.” He set the crayon beside his plate.

“What were you doing there?” She wanted to be angry—why had he gone without telling her?—but as usual he had disarmed her.

“I just wanted to see it again.” He held out half the toast, and she took a bite.

“Me too. It’s weird that the police haven’t found the man.”

“Not really. They never figured out who broke the window in the school cloakroom, and that’s in the middle of town.” “I thought being there I might”—she eyed the crayon—“ sense something.”

Duncan took a last bite and ran his finger round the rim of the plate. “Maybe too many things have happened in the field,” he said. “Like this house. Think of all the people who lived here before us, and some of them must have died here, like Granny. Sometimes I think I hear her talking, but I can’t make out the words. Do you ever hear her?”

“No.” But as she went to make more toast, she recalled how once or twice, as she drifted into sleep, she had caught stray words and phrases wafting by. “Now you’ve told me,” she said, “I’ll listen harder.”


THE NEXT TIME SHE WENT to Oxford, she looked not at shop windows but at men, those alone and those with women; in some ways it was easier when they were with women. Had one of them lured Karel into the field? Her eyes flicked over a man close to her father’s age, a boy around Matthew’s. Neither looked like a bad person, but what did a bad person look like? Her father’s last apprentice, Freddy, had a nicely freckled face and whistled while he worked. But one day the police had arrived at the forge; Freddy had been borrowing her father’s tools to steal scrap metal.

After an hour of circling the streets, she took refuge in the Covered Market. She bought a cup of hot chocolate and lingered near the stall to drink it. The man who’d been behind her in the queue stood a few yards away. He kept glancing over. She pretended not to notice while taking in his five o’clock shadow, his dark hair skimming the collar of his faded denim jacket. He was twenty. Maybe even twenty-five. When she left, he followed. She made it easy for him, stopping to look in the shop windows she had previously ignored, waiting for his reflection to join hers before she moved on. In front of a shoe shop, he finally spoke.

“You’re a hot little thing, aren’t you?” he said hoarsely.

Close up, in full daylight, she saw that his eyes were bloodshot, his nails arced with dirt, his clothes not faded but soiled. She ducked into the shop and tried on pairs of boots until it was time for the bus. Back in the street, she looked neither to right nor left but ran all the way to the station. Only as she was queuing to board the bus did she dare to glance around. Her gaze fell on another man: fair hair, slightly haggard, standing nearby. His gaze, quick, unsmiling, met hers.  

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“WILL YOU MAKE US A SIGN?” he said. “We’ll pay you the going rate.”

He had been pleased when the idea came to him. Duncan would feel appreciated, and the result would be much better than anything he or Benjamin could do. They were setting up a table outside the Co-op on Friday afternoon: Are you prepared for 2000? Have you checked your lawnmower?

“Tell me what you want to say,” Duncan said. “Would you like pictures as well?” He was standing at his noticeboard, rearranging various postcards. His room, as always, was the neatest in the house.

“Pictures would be great. Maybe some of the appliances we’re demonstrating?”

“Are things really going to fall apart on New Year’s Eve?”

“No, it’s a joke. Computers may go haywire, but staplers won’t. Can I see your new drawings?”

Duncan straightened one last card and pulled out his large sketchbook. Setting it on the desk, he began to turn the pages. Here was his friend Will, his teacher Ms. Humphreys, the neighbor’s cat, their father’s workbench. He turned the page, and there was the boy, lying in the field. Matthew heard his own sharp intake of breath. Beside him, he felt Duncan waiting for his reaction. He leaned closer, examining the boy’s quiet face, his bare bloody legs. The next page showed him from a distance, a small, prone figure with a bale in the background. Yes, Matthew thought, he did look peaceful. He was torn between wanting to study each drawing and wanting to turn to the next.

“I remembered where I saw him before,” Duncan said. “Last spring I was waiting at the bus stop when he went by on his bike. He waved. I think he mistook me for someone else, but it made me feel better about things.”

By “things,” Matthew assumed Duncan meant how seldom he could answer the teachers’ questions. While Matthew was usually in the top three in his class, and Zoe did well in subjects that interested her, his brother came twelfth, or fifteenth, except in art, but not because he was stupid. He had an amazing memory, and once he understood something—Euclidean geometry, how to parse a sentence, the way hydrogen and oxygen bonded, why the repeal of the Corn Laws mattered—he remembered it precisely. “I’m following,” he had explained to Matthew, “but then the teacher says electrons orbit each other, and suddenly I’m picturing them instead of listening.”

Matthew bent to examine a drawing of Karel’s head, each eyelash distinct, each link in the silver chain vivid. “This is exactly how I remember him,” he said.

Duncan walked over to the window seat. When he turned around, he was holding a long, straight knife with a wooden handle. Matthew recognized the carving knife that every month or two his mother or father wielded over a roast, and every five or six months his father took to the forge to sharpen.

“Last night,” Duncan explained, “I stabbed my mattress, to see if I could.”

Matthew had the same lurching feeling he’d had when Zoe asked if the man would have picked her up. “You’re crazy,” he said. Then, “So could you?”

“Sort of. People are always telling you to be careful of knives, as if they had a will of their own, but it’s surprisingly hard to stab something. You’ve got to do it all at once, really wanting to.” He held out the knife. “Have a go.”

Matthew looked at his brother’s smooth bed, his desk with the sketchpads and boxes of crayons, his easel standing near the window: everything orderly and harmonious. “Stabbing a mattress isn’t the same as stabbing a person,” he said. “If I could pull a lever that hurt someone far away, I’m pretty sure I could do that. But if I could see the person, then I know I couldn’t.” Although if the person was Claire’s father, maybe he could.

“Do you remember when we went swimming with Grandpa, and he showed us his scar?”

Matthew nodded. “His bayonet wound. What is a bayonet anyway?”

“It’s a blade you fasten on the end of your rifle so you can stab people who are too close to shoot. Did Grandpa ever say what happened to the German?”

“No.” He had never thought about the German. “He probably killed him, but he wouldn’t tell us that.”

“Remember how the scar had a little lip, like a mouth?” Duncan ran his finger caressingly down the blue sheen of the blade.

And with that phrase, “a little lip,” Matthew could see his grandfather wading across the swimming pool, the puckered purple scar visible above the waistband of his swimming trunks. “You should put that back in the kitchen,” he said, pointing to the knife. “Mum might need it.”

“Mum won’t need it for ages,” Duncan said. “You just don’t want me to keep stabbing my mattress, like a mad person.” But he carried the knife away.

That night when the house was quiet, Matthew padded downstairs and searched the kitchen drawers until he found the knife. In his room, he peeled back the sheets and tried to stab a corner of his mattress. He had been taking fencing lessons for two years, but lunging with a foil, at a masked opponent seven or eight feet away, was very different from the intimacy of a knife. The first few times his arm faltered; the blade barely pierced the mattress cover. He closed his eyes, counted to three, and plunged the blade into the springy innards.