Gore led the way through the large, airy rooms into the one he had designated for his books and Maurice entered, looking around with appreciable awe as he moved towards the stacks.
‘It’s like a church,’ he whispered.
‘A cathedral,’ said Gore, who took great pleasure in showing his collection to true aesthetes and, whatever else he might be, it seemed clear from the look on Maurice’s face that he was a believer, a young man who felt more comfortable around books than people.
‘I could live here,’ said Maurice.
‘I’d have to charge you rent.’
‘Oh, you never know,’ replied the boy, turning around and smiling at him. ‘Maybe you’d just take pity on me and make me your ward.’
‘We’re not living in a Victorian novel,’ said Gore. Was it any wonder that Dash was completely under his spell? He had an answer for everything and was willing to flirt to assert his dominance.
‘You know, the last person to set foot in here was Henry Kissinger,’ said Gore, recovering himself slightly as the boy turned away to scan the shelves, hands held behind his back as if he didn’t want to leave finger-marks on anything. His lips moved a little as he read the names of the authors and titles under his breath. ‘He visited just a few weeks ago and stayed the night. I found him in here at five o’clock in the morning, reading Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire. He’d still be there right now if his Secret Service detail hadn’t insisted that it was time to go.’
The boy turned around and smiled but remained silent, his expression asking, are you trying to impress me with such shameless name-dropping? Gore felt embarrassed. He could name-drop all night, after all, if he had to. He’d known everyone worth knowing and still did. Even now, at almost sixty-five, people came to La Rondinaia on pilgrimages. Politicians, actors, musicians, film-makers, novelists. The James’s and the Forsters, he called them. The former being his American visitors, the latter being his English. They all romanticised Italy and moved in circles wealthy enough that they could ignore the squalor. They loved the Amalfi Coast for its privacy and it went without saying that they all adored, and feared, Gore.
‘What were you reading on your journey here by the way?’ he asked.
‘Dash’s new novel. He gave it to me when we met at Heathrow. I already had something
in my bag that I’d been looking forward to but I had to set it aside.’
‘How incredibly crass. Do you mean to tell me that you sat on a flight next to each other – I’m assuming you sat next to each other – and were forced to read his book while he watched you turn the pages? And then on the train from Rome too?’
‘Yes,’ said Maurice.
‘Pathetic behaviour,’ said Gore dismissively. ‘It reminds me of an occasion when I agreed to meet another novelist for dinner in Cologne, a mediocre hack if I’m honest. He deliberately kept me waiting in the lobby of his hotel, possibly to assert some sort of dominance over me, and when he finally deigned to appear he was carrying a book with him, one of his own, and he claimed he’d been re-reading it on the flight. What an ass, I thought. Still, I suppose someone had to read the damned thing. It’s not as if the general public took to it.’
He waited for Maurice to ask who the novelist had been and when the question didn’t arrive, he felt a mixture of disappointment and frustration.
‘What did you think of it anyway?’ he asked. ‘Dash’s book, I mean.’
‘It’s not one of his better ones,’ replied Maurice quickly. ‘I still have three hundred pages to go too. I’d give up if it wasn’t for the fact that he’ll only want a full report later.’
Gore smiled and tapped his finger on the desk. Interesting, he thought. How easily the boy mocks his benefactor.
‘I should have asked,’ he said. ‘What was the book you were intending to read?’
‘Myra Breckinridge,’ said Maurice and Gore couldn’t help himself. He burst out laughing.
‘Oh, my dear boy,’ he said. ‘You are good at this, aren’t you? I can see you’re going to be a tremendous success.’
The above is an adapted excerpt from A Ladder to the Sky © 2018 by John Boyne. Published and available in the United States from Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, and from Doubleday in the United Kingdom.