18

From a distance the boy’s hair was still golden, although the new growth beneath was darker. By his approaching fourth birthday the yellow hair would have mostly gone. The sun was shining as Asmaan rode his tricycle with great attack down a sloping path on the flowering springtime Heath. “Look at me!” he shouted. “I’m going really fast!” He had grown, and his diction was much clearer, but he was still clothed in childhood’s radiance, that brightest of cloaks. His mother ran to keep up with him, her long hair twisted away beneath a large straw hat. It was a perfect April day at the height of the foot-and-mouth epidemic. The government was simultaneously ahead in the polls and unpopular, and the prime minister, Tony Ozymandias, seemed shocked by the paradox: what, you don’t like us? But it’s us, folks, we’re the good guys! People, people: it’s me! Malik Solanka, a traveler from an antique land, watching his son from the privacy of a grove of oaks, uncomplainingly allowed a black Labrador to sniff at him. The dog moved on, having established that Solanka was not suitable for his purposes. The dog was right. There were few purposes for which Solanka felt suitable right now. Nothing beside remains.

Morgen Franz did not run. He didn’t “do running.” Beaming myopically, the publisher lumbered down the slope toward the waiting woman and child. “Did you see that, Morgen? It was very good driving, wasn’t it? What would Daddy say?” Asmaan’s tendency always to speak at top volume carried his words up to Solanka’s hiding place. Franz’s reply was inaudible, but Malik could easily write his lines. “Far out, Asmaan, man. Really nice.” The old hippie shit. To his eternal credit, the boy frowned. “But what would Daddy say?” Solanka felt a little surge of fatherly pride. Good for you, kid. You remind that Buddhist hypocrite who’s who.

Asmaan’s Heath—or at least Kenwood—was studded with magical trees. A gigantic fallen oak, its roots twisting in air, was one such enchanted zone. Another tree, with a hole at the base of its trunk, housed a set of storybook creatures, with whom Asmaan carried out ritual dialogues each time he passed this way. A third tree was the home of Winnie-the-Pooh. Nearer Kenwood House were large spreading rhododendron bushes inside which witches lived and where fallen twigs became magic wands. The Hepworth sculpture was a sacred spot, and the words “Barbara Hepworth” had been a part of Asmaan’s lexicon almost from the start. Solanka knew the route Eleanor would take, and knew, too, how to follow the little group without being noticed. He wasn’t sure he was ready to be noticed, wasn’t certain he was ready for his life. Asmaan was asking to be carried along the next part of the path, not wanting to ride the trike uphill. This was an old laziness, entrenched by habit. Eleanor had a weak back and so Morgen hoisted the boy up on his shoulders. That had always been one of Solanka and Asmaan’s special things. “Can I ride on my shoulders, Daddy?” “Your shoulders, Asmaan. Say, ‘your shoulders.’” “My shoulders.” There goes everything I love on this earth, Solanka thought. I’ll just watch him awhile. I’ll just watch over him from here.

Once again he had withdrawn from the world. Even checking his voice mail was hard. Mila had married, Eleanor left tight, miserable messages about lawyers. The divorce was all but done. Solanka’s days began, passed, ended. He had given up the New York sublet and taken a suite at Claridge’s. Most days he only left it to allow the cleaners to get in. He contacted no friends, made no business calls, bought no newspaper. Retiring early, he lay wide-eyed and rigid in his comfortable bed, listening to the noises of distant fury, trying to hear Neela’s silenced voice. On Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve he ordered room service and watched brainless television. This expedition by taxi to North London was his first real outing in months. He had been far from sure he would even see the boy, but Asmaan and Eleanor were creatures of custom, and their movements were relatively easy to predict.

It was a holiday weekend, so there were funfairs on the Heath. On their way back to the house on Willow Road—it would be on the market any day now—Asmaan, Eleanor, and Morgen wandered through the usual rides and stalls. Asmaan was thawing toward Franz, Solanka observed: laughing with him, asking him questions, his hand disappearing inside Uncle Morg’s great hairy-knuckled fist. They went in a bumper car together while Eleanor took photographs. When Asmaan leaned his head against Morgen’s sports coat, something broke in Malik Solanka’s heart.

Eleanor saw him. He was lounging by a coconut shy and she looked right at him and stiffened. Then she shook her head vehemently, and her mouth silently but very emphatically made the word “no.” No, this was not the right time; after such a long gap it would be too much of a shock for the lad. Call me, she mouthed. Before any future meeting they ought to discuss how, when, where, and what Asmaan should be told. The little fellow needed to be prepared. This was how Solanka had known she would react. He turned away from her and saw the bouncy castle. It was bright blue, blue as an iris, with a bouncy staircase at one side. You climbed up the stairs to a bouncy ledge, slid and tumbled down a wide, bouncy slope, and then, to your heart’s content, you bounced and bounced. Malik Solanka paid his money and slipped off his shoes. “‘Ang about,” the enormous woman attendant cried. “Kids only, guv. No adults allowed.” But he was too quick for her, and with his long leather coat flying in the breeze, he leapt up on the wobbly-wobbly stairs, leaving astonished children floundering in his wake, and at the top of the stairs, standing high above the fairground on the wibblywobbly ledge, he began to jump and shout with all his might. The noise that emerged from him was awful and immense, a roar from the Inferno, the cry of the tormented and the lost. But grand and high was his bouncing; and he was damned if he was going to stop leaping or desist from yelling until that little boy looked around, until he made Asmaan Solanka hear him in spite of the enormous woman and the gathering crowd and the mouthing mother and the man holding the boy’s hand and above all the lack of a golden hat, until Asmaan turned and saw his father up there, his only true father flying against the sky, asmaan, the sky, conjuring up all his lost love and hurling it high up into the sky like a white bird plucked from his sleeve. His only true father taking flight like a bird, to live in the great blue vault of the only heaven in which he had ever been able to believe. “Look at me!” shrieked Professor Malik Solanka, his leather coattails flapping like wings. “Look at me, Asmaan! I’m bouncing very well! I’m bouncing higher and higher!”

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