The Joke


As soon as he learned that Kaufman was dead Christophe hurried to the bus station. During the hours it took to reach his home town he ate his way through a packet of biscuits that left crumbs on his coat and inside his undershirt so that, when finally he undressed that night, he found them caught in his chest hair, in his navel, in the dark hair of his crotch like a pale infestation.

The bus was old. When it rained, water leaked in from the ventilation hatches and dripped on an old woman across the aisle. She tied a scarf over her head and when she saw Christophe watching she gave him a sad smile. He looked away to the window where condensation had fogged the glass and rubbed a hole with his fingertip. He bent his eye towards it but now that they’d left the city the view was always the same: green hills, dingy houses like old teeth, fields where cattle stood sullen in the rain, and everywhere mud that darkened fields and paths or even the occasional fresh grave in a churchyard. The sight of those graves sent a thrill through Christophe’s gut. Kaufman—buried now, and serve him right.

Christophe was a clerk in a government office. His supervisor had been off for nearly a week with the flu and when Christophe had called in that morning, his voice purposefully weak and punctuated by coughs, the secretary had interrupted to tell him he should do everyone a favor and stay home. Scarcely able to believe his luck, Christophe grabbed his coat and umbrella and raced down to the foyer where he stood buttoning his coat. Just beyond the glass, rain was slanting across the street. When he stepped outside the wind pushed his umbrella inside out and the rain lashed at him as he struggled to right it. Twice that happened so at the corner he dumped the umbrella in a dustbin and strode on with his head bowed against the downpour, all the way to the huge old edifice that housed the bus station. What a day for a journey as though, even dead and buried, Kaufman was determined to plague him.

An early November morning but the bus station was far from empty. The wind gusted through an open archway and slapped rain onto the ground with a heartlessness that made Christophe shiver. He joined a queue to buy a ticket at a small barred window then sat on a bench, the ticket already turning soft with damp between his fingers and his fingers restless, turning it over and over. His coat gave off a wet wool smell that mixed sickeningly with the stink of piss and diesel rising off the concrete. He lit a cigarette and breathed in its smoke, closing his eyes and letting it drift from his nose, and it warmed him a little, or he thought it did.

When at last the cigarette had burnt down to its filter he crushed it beneath his shoe and glanced at the clock above the ticket office. Nearly half an hour until the bus was due to leave. It had pulled in already, one of several dirty green buses lined up along the bay, number 51 showing through its windscreen. A few people gathered around as if the driver might let them on early, though of course he didn’t, shutting the doors behind him with a hiss then striding away towards the staffroom. Once there had been a waiting room for passengers but the window had been painted over years ago and now a sign on the door said NO ADMITTANCE.

Christophe lit another cigarette and smoked it quickly then dug in his pocket for change. At a kiosk he bought a paper cup of tea, a meat pie, a packet of dry biscuits, a bottle of mineral water. He’d left his flat in such a hurry he hadn’t eaten breakfast—a cup for tea ready on the kitchen table, the remains of a loaf set out beside a pot of jam, everything as it had been when he’d turned to the obituaries: a small indistinct photograph of a mild-looking man in his fifties, but it was Kaufman alright. Long-time schoolteacher in Christophe’s home town, son of a renowned physicist—Christophe hadn’t known that, but he didn’t read on. Already his head was hissing, his mouth dry, and he dropped the paper onto the table and hurried away for his coat.

He didn’t buy another newspaper in the bus station. In fact he hurried past the kiosk selling papers and magazines and cheap novels and waited impatiently by the bus, eating his pie, sipping his tea, shifting from foot to foot in the cold until the driver returned and took everyone’s tickets. Usually for bus journeys he equipped himself with something to read but this time he lit a cigarette and settled into his seat with the bottle of water cradled against his soft belly, watching the city streets sweep past, then the factories by the river, then the relentless countryside, and even when he opened the biscuits and slowly ate his way through them (despite them being as dry as old dirt) he didn’t open the water because he’d long ago made up his mind what his revenge would be.

After the first few hours sitting felt like hard work. His knees had gone stiff, his buttocks were sore, and the air smelled of wet clothes, and unwashed bodies, and the sulfurous hard-boiled eggs that the old lady across the aisle ate one after the other, pulling them from her basket and making them vanish whole into her mouth like a magician. At last Christophe closed his eyes as though he might sleep.


The winter Christophe had turned fifteen a terrible cold had fallen over the eastern part of the country. It had weighed down everything—the ducks struggling flat-footed over frozen ponds, the tails of smoke lingering above chimneys, the ragged breath of sheep and cows huddled in the snow. Frost furred power lines and telephone lines and washing lines; it gathered along doors and windows where moisture was wrung from warm air. Stepping outside was like being catapulted into a future in which this planet would be nothing but a rock hurtling around a dying sun.

Christophe would rather have stayed inside with his mother and sisters but being a boy he was obliged to help his father. The two of them chopped up a spruce that had come down in a windstorm and stacked the firewood by the backdoor, and when his father—a doctor—drove out to see his patients, Christophe went with him to sit in the driver’s seat while his father went inside, touching his foot to the accelerator whenever the engine stuttered. How miserable it was waiting there with the cold pressing in through the glass and only the radio for company. Even with the heater set to high and his pajamas bulky beneath his clothes, he shivered right down to his bones. As for the radio, the frigid air meant that most stations warped and wobbled or hissed with static, and he was left listening to government broadcasts of classical music. How surprised he was, though, at the way an opera singer’s voice could swell against the inside of the car. He’d bend his whole self towards the radio as though the voice might warm him and hummed along, his breath hanging in the air like ghosts. The whole time he watched the door through which his father had vanished, hoping that the fever had come down, or the laceration be a shallow one, or the dying man die quickly.

The intense cold lasted eight days. On the ninth Christophe woke in the darkness to the phone ringing and his father’s hushed voice. He was about to swing his legs out of bed when he noticed a soft clatter on the roof just above him: rain. With relief he huddled back under the covers. A few minutes later his father shook him. A patient on the far side of town. Christophe was all outrage—Why did he need him when it was raining? Besides, the girls got to stay home, and two of them were older than him, and the holidays were nearly over—but his father tore the blankets from his bed and told him to hurry.

In the darkness everything glinted wetly: the road, the smooth tops of cars, the spiked railings around houses. His father drove barely faster than walking pace and hunched close to the wheel, his breath whistling through his teeth when the car slid, as it did at even the gentlest touch of the brakes. The windscreen wipers squawked and left smears of ice that blurred the streetlights. On the main square they passed a car that had slid sideways into a lamppost, and a few minutes later a van that had missed the narrow bridge over the river and now sat nose down on the bank as though about to plunge through the ice.

Christophe and his father might have made it to whoever had called on that godforsaken night if it hadn’t been for a dog running into the road. Instinctively his father’s foot pressed the brake pedal and the car slewed around, dragged by its own weight, the headlights catching a confusion of hedges and gates and houses. A lurch, a roar of the engine, and Christophe was thrown so hard his breath jerked out of him in a grunt. He registered the sickening sound of living bone hitting something unyielding, then all was still.

He waited for the shock of pain. He couldn’t move, couldn’t do more than listen to the thud of blood through his ears and raindrops crackling against the roof. Through the windscreen there was nothing except the blue darkness of snow pushed up against the glass. His chest hurt and his breathing was coming roughly—but that was only his seatbelt pulled tight across his chest and holding him up against the tilt of the car. With his teeth he yanked off his gloves then fumbled for the release. He didn’t think to brace himself and fell against the dashboard.

Only now did he glance at his father. He was slumped over the steering wheel, his hat missing, the hairless skin of his crown pale in the darkness. Christophe touched his arm and it swung loose like a dead man’s. A fizz of shock rushed through him though he knew his father wasn’t dead, or most likely wasn’t at least.

He tried the door but the snow held it shut. Instead he wound down his window and heaved himself out into the snowbank where he floundered, sinking, snow in his clothes and cold everywhere, until at last he managed to crawl to the roadside and stood there huffing onto his bare hands. Across the road stood a row of old houses with walled gardens and tall metal gates. From the closest a rind of light showed around the shutters and smoke hung in the dark sky above its chimney. Christophe started towards it but the moment he stepped onto the road the world toppled over. A pop somewhere inside in his shoulder, a sudden uprush of pain. He lay still while rain dripped onto his face, his ear, through his hair, and the pain pulsed and pulsed then sank away. When he got back onto his feet he clutched his shoulder though he knew it was only bruised and shuffled towards the gate in tiny steps.

The metal bars were icy against his bare hands but at least the gate swung open. He was near enough now to catch the busy mumble of an orchestra and a baritone voice lifting above it, surging and distant and quite unearthly at this time of night. He climbed the front steps and heard another sound, strange raw gasps from much closer. He stood with his hand raised and listened: Was it a woman crying? Was it laughter? It so unnerved him that he knocked and it stopped instantly. He knocked again, he even pushed his face up to the wood and shouted, “Please help—my father’s hurt. He’s the doctor.” The house stood silent. Rain chattered onto the gravel and the wind shushed it, and when he stepped back and tilted his head he heard the singing again caught up in the wind, the melody so close to familiar that he took a breath to hum a little then stopped himself: his father was lying injured and unattended in the car. Christophe knew about head injuries, he knew about hypothermia—with a doctor for a father, how could he not?

The rain was coming down harder now. He took the path around the house meaning to rap on the shutters except here the music was more distinct and he followed it on into the shadows calling, “Hello? Hello?” Across a small courtyard stood the low shape of what must once have been a stable. A fan of light lit the wet gravel where someone had left the door ajar and from it surged the hectic rush of the orchestra and that soaring baritone. The door was so close he reached it in a few steps and knocked. He called out too, for all the good it would do, then heaved the door open.

In the rush and roar of the music Christophe couldn’t make sense of what he was looking at: under the shabby light of a single bulb a man in short-sleeves was standing on a crate, his back to the door, the loose loops of his braces hanging down by his thighs as though he’d started undressing and changed his mind. Christophe came closer and shouted and only now did the man turn, his face twisted in surprise. A thin face, the eyes deepset, the brown hair cut so short the bones of his head showed through. Christophe recognized him: Mr. Kaufman, the school chemistry teacher. He’d moved to town only the year before, a humorless stick of a man who went about his teaching mechanically and seemed barely to occupy his own person. There’d been talk of bad luck—a baby born sick and soon dying, his wife being shut away for months in a sanatorium—and even if it wasn’t true, certainly an air of misery clung to him. At the school it didn’t make him an object of sympathy or pity but rather a man to be avoided, as though in his pain he could lash out at any moment and the boys be made to suffer.

Now Kaufman’s shirt was unbuttoned at the neck and in his bony hands he held a length of rope, poised to throw it up to the rafters. Seeing Christophe his mouth shut fast, then he tossed the rope away across the floor and lowered himself to sit on the crate. He hid his face in his hands. When Christophe bellowed above the music, “Sir? It’s my father—the car went off the road,” Kaufman didn’t look up. Christophe added, “He’s hurt. He needs help. Please, sir.”

When at last Kaufman raised his head, how tired he looked—the skin around his eyes puckered, his eyes watery, his mouth a crooked line. He pushed himself off the crate like an old man and walked heavy-footed to a table where a large radio sat. The hugeness of the music vanished and in the silence his shoes scraped back across the floor. A few feet from Christophe he ran a hand down his face. “My boy—” he said. His voice sounded half-drowned, dragged from somewhere deep inside. “My boy,” and he shook his head sadly, then heaved in a breath. “Yes, I’ll come . . . But please . . . allow me . . . ” He stood with one hand on his cheek, the other against his chest, looking around him as though he’d been startled awake. Then he fetched his jacket from a sawhorse and pulled it on awkwardly, like a man helping another man into his clothes, and shooed Christophe to the doorway. There he stopped the boy with the weight of his hand on his shoulder. When Christophe looked up Kaufman’s mouth made a wet clacking as he tried to say something, his tongue loose, feeling its way around his mouth before he managed, “Boy—you’re not one to talk, are you?”

“No,” Christophe said quickly, though it wasn’t until that moment that he let himself quite understand: the crate, the rope, Kaufman alone with the opera raging around him, and now his fingers clenching the bruised flesh of Christophe’s shoulder. He wouldn’t let himself pull away. He wouldn’t even let himself turn his head because that “No,” wasn’t enough, it had already been swallowed by the air between them and still Kaufman held him, his eyes even in the near-dark soft and terrible and Christophe, who wanted nothing more than to free himself and run to where his father lay injured, blurted, “You can trust me absolutely sir, really you can, I won’t tell a soul, I promise.”

In the following weeks he’d wonder if he’d said it so quickly, so earnestly, that he’d stirred Kaufman’s distrust, though as soon as the words left his mouth he realized he meant them. Held there in Kaufman’s grip he was more than a mere schoolboy: the two of them were fellow souls in a cruel world, they understood each other in a way they might never again. The very idea of it rushed hot and clean through his chest.

At last Kaufman had let his hand drop and Christophe had said, “My father, sir,” and hurried away down the driveway with Kaufman behind him. At the gate the two of them had pulled off their shoes to cross the slick road in their socks, and they’d found Christophe’s father struggling to haul himself clear of the snow beside the tipped-up car. Together they’d helped him into the house where he was laid on a sofa and blankets brought, and brandy, Mrs. Kaufman watching from the doorway in her dressing gown, her face gaunt, her eyes raw and surprised as though she’d just been slapped, not uttering a word while Kaufman was all gentle solicitude.

The cold settled in again for the last few days of the holidays, not as severely as before but grim nonetheless. Christophe and his sisters crept about like burglars with no friends over to play, no radio to cheer the house because upstairs their father was lying in bed with the curtains drawn until his bruised brain healed. It was up to Christophe to chop firewood and bring it inside but once that was done his mother didn’t complain if he folded himself into an armchair by the fire. He’d lay a book on his knees and have every intention of reading, yet within minutes his attention would slip away. He’d see Kaufman on that crate about to fling the rope above his head and horror would strike him once more that a man should feel such pain, that a man could suffer so—losing his child, being bound to a wife who’d lost herself in grief—and he’d turn on the radio very low and search the stations for the wild flinging of the soul onto the air that he’d heard that night in Kaufman’s outbuilding, and when he did find an opera he’d crouch with his ear up against the speaker and let a quivering warmth bloom inside him, a feeling of tenderness for that man he’d never much liked but who was a human being like himself suffering unbearable pain, and whom he’d saved—yes, saved—though quite by accident.

Such a feeling was hard to hold on to. He’d hear his mother or sisters coming up the corridor and snap off the radio, and when he hurried back to his armchair and stared down at his book the sympathy he’d conjured up would vanish beneath what else he remembered of that night: Kaufman’s hand gripping his sore shoulder, the awful undertone of pleading when he said, “Boy—you’re not one to talk, are you?” Soon he’d be imagining what he’d have found if he’d walked into that outbuilding a few minutes later: the violence of the music, the rope creaking from the slight motion of the body, the air reeking of emptied bowels, and Kaufman not a man any more but a monstrous thing hanging there.

He spent so much time thinking about what Kaufman had nearly done that the idea of seeing him again made him nervous. Luckily on the first morning of the new term there were so many boys crowding through the doors that Christophe’s unease fell away and, seeing Kaufman standing in his usual place on the main stairs, he lifted his head and gave him a small smile. When Kaufman stared back blankly—maybe he hadn’t noticed Christophe in the crowd—he hurried off and only looked back when he was nearly through the cloakroom doorway. There was Kaufman, head awkwardly turned to keep Christophe in sight, his shoulders high and his thin face hard with fury. Christophe’s throat tightened: all those times he’d crouched by the radio searching for that surge of joy at how he’d saved a man; all those times he’d disgusted himself picturing Kaufman’s body dangling above the crate—all of it felt laid bare now. He ducked away and clumsily pushed through a knot of boys into the cloakroom.

That lunchtime he squeezed in with some friends at one of the long dining tables, and naturally their talk turned to the chaos caused by the freezing rain. One boy described his dog skittering over the road, another how his grandfather had stepped onto their doorstep in his dressing gown and fallen with such force his legs were thrown into the air and revealed that underneath he was utterly naked. Not only that but the poor man had hurt his back and couldn’t get up, so he had to lie there exposed until the boy’s mother heard his cries for help. Christophe made himself laugh though all he could think about was his father’s head thudding against the steering wheel, and how he’d gone for help only to find Kaufman preparing to hang himself. Soon the story was over but Christophe was laughing so hard his eyes were watering and his face was red, and he bawled, “Christ, having to save a man like that. Oh my God, that’s so awful.” The boy beside him elbowed him and Christophe shoved him back, and it wasn’t until the boy hissed, “Shhh,” that he looked up and he saw why the others had fallen silent: Kaufman. His head was tilted at an odd angle and his face had turned the white of a boiled potato.

He knew immediately how Kaufman could have misunderstood his words and a nauseating cold sank through his belly. In a panic he started to get up then sat down again with his head hung low. “What in God’s name is this all about?” Kaufman barked, and Christophe bit his lip. One of the other boys spoke up: “The icestorm, sir. We were just having a laugh, sir, that’s all.” Kaufman spat, “At whose expense? With you lot, it’s always at someone’s expense.” None of the boys said a word. The boy whose grandfather had fallen scratched at something on the tabletop—how could he repeat that story to a teacher when his grandfather was on the town council?

Cottony spit had gathered at the corners of Kaufman’s mouth. He snapped, “Stand against the wall, the lot of you, and not another word or you’ll all get detention.” None of them moved: the dining hall was loud with voices and laughter, it always was, then Kaufman seized Christophe by his jacket and hauled him off the bench, and in an instant the other boys had lined up facing the wall, hands behind their backs like prisoners about to be shot, and there they stood for the half hour until the bell rang and when it did they skulked off without a word.

Christophe didn’t have chemistry until the end of the next afternoon. He took a seat in the back by the window but Kaufman pointed at the workbench in front of him: “You—here where I can keep an eye on you.” He had to sit next to a thuggish boy who broke pipettes and scorched his wooden test-tube holders and spilled acid in a soapy patch on the floor. To Christophe’s surprise, although he’d have sworn Kaufman had seen who’d upset the acid, he was made to mop it up. At the end of class when a knot of boys gathered at the sink and a retort was smashed against the tap, Kaufman didn’t bother to come over to investigate but blamed Christophe, as though he simply needed a culprit. As punishment Christophe was ordered to stay behind to scrub glassware. Thankfully Kaufman shut himself in his study and only occasionally glanced at him through the small window into the laboratory until, well after six o’clock, he came out and jerked his thumb towards the door. When Christophe got home his parents were beside themselves. His mother snatched him to her chest and breathed hard into his hair and his father, an uncommonly decent man, listened to his explanation of being unfairly blamed and kept saying, “Mr. Kaufman? Are you sure? He seems such an innocuous fellow.”

From then on Christophe was blamed for outbreaks of laughter during assembly, a washbasin tap broken off in the junior toilets and the floor being flooded, the scrawling of obscenities on the library wall. It wasn’t just Kaufman who picked on Christophe but the other teachers too, as if Kaufman had revealed another side to him that somehow they’d overlooked, and while it wasn’t uncommon for teachers to single out one pupil as a troublemaker and to punish him out of all proportion—it was even accepted as a way to discourage others from misbehaving—usually such scapegraces were boys already trailing a reputation for waywardness.

Of course it was unfair and Christophe’s father, for all that he’d protested that there must have been some misunderstanding, that Mr. Kaufman was surely a gentle soul, eventually went to talk to the principal. The principal assured him that since his teachers wouldn’t punish a boy without good reason Christophe must be guilty, and wouldn’t he prefer that his son’s misbehavior be stamped out now before it grew more serious?

Kaufman haunted Christophe’s dreams: a stumbling creature pursuing him through the school corridors, or lying in wait in the darkness behind an abandoned house. He’d wake with his pajamas sticking to his chest and his heart frantic. He’d snap on the light and try to turn his mind to more pleasant things, but he couldn’t prize his thoughts away from Kaufman: how he’d get his revenge on him one day, and how Kaufman would be revealed for the weak-willed and spiteful man he was. He’d piece together how it would play out: Kaufman blaming him for an offense so absurd that even the principal protested, and this time he would look into the matter and discover that it was another boy entirely—or perhaps even Kaufman himself!—who’d smashed the laboratory equipment, or carved smutty images onto the main doors of the school; or maybe Christophe would catch Kaufman in some wrongdoing, nude photographs of women hidden in his office, maybe, and Kaufman’s career would end in disgrace. Christophe could picture it: the principal bellowing at Kaufman and Kaufman’s face a ghastly white, how he’d hurry out the gates for the last time to the jeering of the boys. What was less clear was how Christophe would convince anyone to believe him.

Late one afternoon when Christophe was sitting in the eerie quiet of the laboratory writing his laboratory report for the third time—Kaufman had thrown it in his face, and it was true that it was a mess of inaccuracies and unfinished thoughts—the secretary hurried in and summoned Kaufman away. During all of the detentions Christophe had served, Kaufman had watched him through the small window from his study. How odd it was to sit shivering (the heating had been turned down for the night) under the gaze of nothing worse than an empty square of light. He scratched his nose with the end of his pen and stared at what he’d written, all of those dead sentences laid out across the page. He couldn’t think what one might conclude from the presence of this particular metal during this particular reaction. He slouched and propped his head on his hand. He yawned and let himself fart; he even got up and walked about to relieve the stiffness in his back from sitting so long on a stool, and still Kaufman didn’t return. Fifteen minutes passed. Christophe strolled about with his fingers trailing the smooth tops of the workbenches then, as though he’d simply been waiting for the right moment, he let himself into Kaufman’s study.

In there it was warmer and the light had a gentle butteriness to it. Christophe touched Kaufman’s office chair, a leather thing that spun easily, then he sat in it and swung himself around, legs hooked beneath the seat so as not to knock anything over. The office whirled around him: the small window, the filing cabinet, the shelves with their bottles and jars and piles of papers, the doorway, the small window again. Through the glass the laboratory looked bleak and far away.

Afterwards he could not have said what made him open the desk drawers—a sense, perhaps, that spinning in the chair was the behavior of a child when he was fifteen and nearly a man, that he was throwing away his one chance to act. Even months later when he was living in the city with his grandparents he’d remember the angry excitement in his chest as his hands rooted through the drawers with their papers and pens, their rubber bands and paperclips, how he’d pushed his fingers to their gritty far corners; he’d remember the moment his fingertips touched the crisp corner of an envelope and how his breathing had quickened as he pulled it out: a letter, and what a secret it turned out to hold—enough, in the months that followed, to make him wish himself back to that chilly laboratory, to wish that he’d stayed at his workbench finishing his report; enough to make Kaufman, unable to reveal the theft without explaining what was missing, to vandalize his own office and blame Christophe, and for Christophe to be expelled for the broken window and bottles, and for the books with their pages torn out and covered with piss on the floor; it was enough, finally, for Christophe to be sent to the city to attend a rather inferior school that accepted troublesome boys, and for him to become a clerk in an unimportant government office when he’d always imagined he’d be so much more.


When he opened his eyes condensation had thickened on the bus window and he wiped at it with his knuckle. Rivulets of rain quivered over the glass like live things, jostled by the air as the bus rushed on towards the town. Except, Christophe realized, the bus had slowed, and when he leaned close to the glass he glimpsed a plain grey steeple high on the hillside, its shape as familiar as his own hand. He snatched up his bottle of water and twisted off the cap. The water was warm and tasted of plastic but he drank down half then took a breath and kept drinking, even when he noticed an uncomfortable pressure in his bladder. Funny, all of a sudden he felt grubby from the dampness, the dirty seat cushions, the rancid stink of tobacco and his own clothes that he’d sweated into and that, now that he looked down, were speckled with pale crumbs from the biscuits he’d eaten. He worked his tongue around his mouth: a pasty residue was caught between his teeth, gritty and slightly sweet.

The bus slowed for the narrow bridge over the river and edged along so close to the parapet that Christophe braced himself for the squeal of metal against stone. A glimpse of the river—grey and wrinkled from the rain—then they were pulling into the town square and nervousness gripped him. His hand went to his pocket for his cigarettes but it was empty. He needed to relieve himself but he couldn’t, not yet, and instead he squeezed in the sides of the empty water bottle, the plastic crackling in his hands as the bus swung around the square then, with almost a flourish, swerved to a halt outside the town hall.

He grabbed his bag and stood, expecting a rush of people down the aisle, but the bus was almost empty. A couple of teenagers in denim jackets slouched on the back seat, an old man who’d fallen asleep sat tilted into the aisle. Only a young woman got to her feet, pulling at the hand of a toddler and cradling a large bag in her other arm. Even the old woman who’d been eating eggs had gone.

It wasn’t yet evening but the sky was low and an insistent rain was falling. The moment he stepped down from the bus it dripped through his hair and down his face, and he wished he hadn’t ditched his umbrella after all. He looked about, squinting slightly. The town hall much the same as ever with its flag hanging limp, but from where a bakery and a greengrocer’s had once stood came the fluorescent glare of lights—a supermarket, right on the main square and just beyond, vivid against the gloom, the neon green cross of a pharmacy. A little farther away the café that had been there for decades, where old men spent their days playing backgammon, looked dingy and deserted, never mind that the lights were on. A few hunched men sat smoking at their tables. Different old men from his time, Christophe thought, though they looked indistinguishable in their brown jackets and dark hats. By the window a bored young man in an apron stood looking out, his fingers tugging his mustache, and Christophe raised his hand to shield his face, ridiculously, because as he walked past he realized: this young man could have no idea who he was, it had been twenty years since he’d left and besides—what could it possibly mean to him, a boy having been expelled and sent away all those years ago?

The fullness in his bladder irritated him, despite him having planned things this way: no getting off the bus to take a piss for the last couple of hours, the bottle of water to drink shortly before arriving, though in truth he hadn’t needed it and maybe it had been too much because now his trousers were tight around his belly. A cigarette would have helped, it would have calmed him, but he couldn’t bear the thought of going into the supermarket or the café to buy more and instead he hurried away from the square.

In the rain the pavement seemed to ooze beneath his feet, just as it had on those days he’d walked home from school wet through, his bag heavy, so much homework that he knew he wouldn’t have time for anything else until he went to sleep. There was the school on his right and he stared through the railings. Pale light showed through the windows where boys must have been sitting over their mathematics and their history and, at the far end of the building, their chemistry experiments. Everything else was grey: the stone walls, the concrete yard, all of it just as he remembered, and it seemed impossible that he should be back here, as though he’d broken through to the past and everything could be put to rights. But of course it couldn’t. Once he’d been sent to the city his parents and sisters became little more than acquaintances, people who’d occasionally visit and urge him to come home for the holidays, and he’d refuse as though he couldn’t bear to leave his grandparents when the truth was that he couldn’t stand the idea of getting to know them all again as this lesser boy who’d never amount to much.

After a few years his grandparents had died and he’d inherited their flat, then his parents had died and his sisters moved away, and somehow twenty years had passed. When he thought about Kaufman—and in the beginning he’d thought about him constantly—it was with the wretched hope that he would kill himself after all, and when he thought about the night he’d come upon Kaufman standing on the crate, he pictured himself taking his time getting out of the car, or looking around for lights in the other houses. Sometimes he imagined how things would have been if his father hadn’t been called out, or the dog not run into the street, because then Kaufman would simply have hanged himself after all, causing a scandal but one soon forgotten, his position filled by a new chemistry teacher and Christophe excelling in his classes, and going on to university, and becoming a doctor like his father.

Up ahead an estate agent’s office had replaced the cobbler’s shop and there were new signs directing traffic into a one-way system. Not much change for twenty years, not really, and those changes gave the town a toyish look: the bright colors of lit-up signs, a tiny roundabout where two roads met, all of it shining in the rain.

He took the street leading up the hill to the older part of town. He’d walked this hill hundreds of times as a boy but now the strain of the incline dragged at him. His bladder weighed him down, his chest burned. Soon he stopped and rested a hand against a lamppost to catch his breath. He wasn’t an old man, he was barely middle-aged, but his belly had long ago turned soft and his thighs thickened. He ate what he liked and how much he liked, and since he lived on his own, what did it matter?

From here he could see the church again, stark against the sky. Not a beautiful building and certainly not elegant, so sturdily built it looked as though it were sinking into the ground beneath the weight of its massive walls, its tiny windows an afterthought. As he came in through the gate a yellow banner strung up over the door caught his eye, a call to salvation, and he sucked at his cheeks in annoyance. He patted his pocket for cigarettes before remembering he hadn’t bought more, and he looked away over the churchyard, peering about him and sweeping one hand over his hair. It was so wet it clung to his fingers and he shivered. His coat was soaked, the legs of his trousers too, and though he was here in the churchyard at last, he felt cold and weary.

It shouldn’t, he thought, be difficult to find the grave. After all, the graveyard wasn’t so big, and fresh graves—well, how many could there be in a small town like this? He followed the path beneath trees whose roots had pushed old gravestones askew, then around to the back of the church where the newer graves would be. By the fence a small backhoe was sitting with the tip of its muddy bucket touching the ground in benediction and against it a man was leaning, wiping mud off a spade with a rag. In the turf close by, crowded in against the fence, lay a long heap of dirt with garlands and bouquets slung over it, all sodden from the rain. Christophe stopped, about to turn back, to go into the church to wait, never mind that his bladder was piercingly full. The smell of wet earth was everywhere, a mineral smell with a tinge of rot. He’d expected something different: the grave covered with turf, a gravestone that his piss would splash against, the utter relief that would run through him.

The workman lifted his head. “Funeral’s long over.” His voice came out muffled, as though there were something wrong with his tongue.

“D’you know who’s buried here?”

Bright beads of rain clung to the brim of the man’s hardhat, and when he shrugged they fell away. “God knows,” he said.  “I just dig the hole then fill it in. Once you’re dead you’re dead. You want to pray for their souls, it doesn’t matter which grave you’re standing at.”

“I’m looking for someone. Kaufman.”

The man shrugged again. “Could be here. Could be the protestant place on the edge of town. Then again, there’s people nowadays prefer cremation, or have relatives who want to save money and leave them in one of those highrise burial niches. That’s not being buried, if you ask me, it’s being shelved.”

Christophe stepped closer. “Are there cards?”

“There’s always cards. Go ahead and look if it means so much to you.”

He turned away with his spade and rag, as if out of discretion, and Christophe stepped up to the freshly dug earth, so close the toes of his shoes sank into it a little. He stooped to tug a card out from beneath a bruised-looking lily but the paper was soggy and the writing blurred. He tried another, attached to a rather austere garland of white roses, and this time made out, “My Darling Husband.” Had Kaufman married again? Or had that gaunt wife who’d watched Christophe’s father being laid on her sofa somehow outlived him? Surely that was impossible. That letter he’d found, a doctor urging Kaufman to bring his wife to him before the disease progressed, that under no circumstances was another pregnancy to be attempted, that whatever embarrassment he or his wife might experience was immaterial when her life, finally, was at stake. The sort of language he’d overheard his own father use: serious consequences, ultimately fatal, embarrassment is no defense against disease. Was it syphilis? He’d often thought so.

The workman had finished with the spade. He carried it off to a small doorway at the rear of the church, and when he came back he gave Christophe a nod. “Is it the one you’re looking for then?”

“I don’t know.”

The man picked up a folded tarpaulin from next to the fence, but it was wet and slipped in his hands. Something fell to the ground. He swore and grabbed it up, and Christophe thought for a moment it was a white stick before his brain let him understand: a bone. The man saw him staring and held it out but Christophe shook his head. “Ground’s full of them,” the man said. “Can’t dig a grave here without digging up someone else.” He gave a quick laugh. “People think the church is sinking into the ground—it’s not that, it’s the ground rising up from all these people we keep burying. Church has been here for over seven hundred years. Imagine, thousands of them piled on top of each other and turned to dirt.” He laughed again and shook his head as though it were the best joke in the world.

The rain was coming down harder now. Christophe stared at the mud dimpling where the drops landed. He wished away the gnawing pressure in his bladder but it was all he could think about, and it would come back to him when he went to sleep that night, that tight, prickling feeling and how he’d relieved himself against the fence while the rain pounded down on the grave beside him, and in his dreams it was his piss raining down, washing away the mud to reveal a humerus, a sternum, a cranium with a grinning row of teeth, all of it crawling with tiny white creatures that had eaten away the flesh and one day would eat away his too. He’d started out of that nightmare and queasily batted at his undershirt, then he’d stared through the darkness, scratching himself over and over.