Extract from The Dream Lover by William Boyd

William Boyd
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The Dream Lover by William Boyd

The Dream Lover

Extracted from the story Killing Lizards

Gavin squatted beside Israel, the cook's teenage son, on the narrow verandah of the servants' quarters. Israel was making Gavin a new catapult. He bound the thick rubber thongs to the wooden Y with string, tying the final knot tight and nipping off the loose ends with his teeth. Gavin took the proffered catapult and tried a practice shot. He fired at a small grove of banana trees by the kitchen garden. The pebble thunked into a fibrous bole ' with reassuring force.

'Great!' Gavin said admiringly, then 'hey!' as Israel snatched the catapult back. He dangled the weapon alluringly out of Gavin's reach and grinned  as the small

twelve-year-old boy leapt angrily for it.

'Cig'rette, Give me cig'rette,' Israel demanded, laughing in his high wheezy way.

'Oh all right,' Gavin grudgingly replied, handing over the packet he had stolen from his mother's handbag the day before. Israel promptly lit one up and confidently puffed smoke up into the washed-out blue of the Afican sky.

Gavin walked back up the garden to house. He was a thin dark boy with a slighly pinched face and unusually thick eyebrows that made his face seem older that it was. He went shining hair crackling under the brush. She seemed quite unaware of Gavin standing behind her, looking on. Then he coughed.

'Yes, darling, what is it?' she said without looking round. Gavin sensed rather than appreciated that his mother was a beautiful woman. He did not realize that she was prevented from achieving it fully by a sulky turn to her lips and a hardness in her pale eyes. She stood up and stretched languidly, walking barefooted over to the wardrobe where she selected a cotton dress. 'Where are you going?'  Gavin asked without thinking. 'Rehearsal, dear. For the play,' his mother replied.  'Oh. Well, I'm going out too.' He left it at that. Just to see if she'd say anything this time, but she seemed not to have heard. So he added, 'I'm going with Laurence and David. To kill lizards.'

'Yes, darling,' his mother said, intently examining the dress she had chosen.  'Do try not to touch the lizards, they're nasty things, there's a good boy.' She held the dress up in front of her and looked at her reflection critically in the mirror. She laid the dress on the bed, sat down again and began to apply some lipstick.  Gavin looked at her rich red hair and the curve of her spine in her creamy back, broken by the dark strap of her bra, and the three moles on the curve of her haunch where it was taughtened by the elastic of her pants. Gavin swallowed. His mother's presence in his life loomed like a huge wall at whose foot his needs cowered like beggars at a city gate. He wished she bothered about him more, did things with him as she did with Amanda. He felt strange and uneasy about her, proud and uncomfortatable. He had been pleased last Saturday when she took him to the pool in town, but then she had worn a small bikini and the Syrian men round the bar had stared at her. David's mother always wore swimsuit of a prickly material with stiff bones in it. When he went out of the room she was brushing her hair again and he didn't bother to say good-bye.

Gavin walked down the road. He was wearing a striped T-shirt, white shorts and Clarks sandals without socks. The early afternoon sun beat down on his head and the heat vibrated up from the tarmac. On either side of him were the low senior-staff bungalows, shadowy beneath their wide eaves, and which seemed to be pressed down into the earth as if the blazing sun bore down with intolerable weight. The coruscating scarlet dazzle of flamboyant trees that lined the road danced spottily in his eyes.

The university campus was a large one but Gavin had come to know it intimately in the two years since his parents had moved to Africa. In Canterbury his father had only been a lecturer but here he was a professor in the Chemistry Department. Gavin loved to go down to the labs with their curious ammoniacal smells, brilliant fluids and mad-scientist constructions of phials, test-tubes and rubber pipes. He thought he might pay his father a surprise visit that afternoon as their lizard hunt should take them m that direction.

Gavin and his two friends had been shooting lizards with their catapults for the three weeks of the Easter holidays and had so far accounted for one hundred and forty-three. They killed mainly the male and female of one species that seemed to populate every group of boulders or area of concrete in the country. The lizards were large, sometimes growing to eighteen inches in length. The females were slightly smallar than males and were a dirty speckled khaki colour. The males were more resplendent, with brilliant orange-red heads, pale grey bodies and black-barred feet and tails. They did no one any harm; just basked in the sun doing a curous bobbing press-up motion. At first they were ludicrously easy to kill. The boys could creep up to within three or four feet and with, one well-placed stone reduce the basking complacent lizard to a writhing knot, its feet clawing at a buckled spine or shattered head. A slight guilt had soon grown up among the boys and they accordingly convinced themselves that the lizards were pests and that, rather like rats, they spread diseases.

But the lizards, like any threatened species, grew wise to the hunters and now scurried off at the merest hint of approach, and the boys had to range wider and wider through the campus to find zones where the word had not spread and where the lizards still clung unconcernedly to walls, like dozing sunbathers unaware of the looming thunderclouds.

Gavin met his friends at the pre-arranged corner. Today they were heading for the university staffs preparatory school at a far edge of the campus. There was an expansive outcrop of boulders there with a sizeable lizard community that they had been evaluating for some time, and this afternoon they planned a blitz. They walked down the road firing stones at trees and clumps of bushes. Gavin teased Laurence about his bandy legs and then joined forces with him to mock David about his spots and his hugely fat sister until he threatened to go home. Gavin felt tense and malicious, and lied easily to them about how he had fashioned his own catapult, which was far superior to their clumsier home-made efforts. He was glad when they rounded a corner and came in sight of the long simple bildings of the chemistry labs.

'Let's go and see my Dad,' he suggested.

©William Boyd

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