The Thief of Timeby John Boyne
Spanning two-and-a-half centuries, The Thief of Time weaves Hollywood in the 1920s, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the French Revolution, the Wall Street Crash, the formation of the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 and much more into a dazzling narrative. By ingeniously juxtaposing history and personal experience, it presents us with a stunning portrait/i>… See more details below
Spanning two-and-a-half centuries, The Thief of Time weaves Hollywood in the 1920s, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the French Revolution, the Wall Street Crash, the formation of the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 and much more into a dazzling narrative. By ingeniously juxtaposing history and personal experience, it presents us with a stunning portrait of a life lived selflessly.
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The Thief of Time
By John Boyne
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 John Boyne
All rights reserved.
I don't die. I just get older and older and older.
To look at me today, you would most likely suggest that I am a man approaching fifty years of age. I stand at precisely six feet and one half inch in height – a perfectly reasonable stance for any man, you will agree. My weight fluctuates between 190 and 220 pounds – again, not unusual, although I am forced to admit that the number tends to swing from the lower to the higher range gradually as the year progresses, for I make it a standard exercise to go on a crash diet every January and do not allow myself to return to any form of gluttonous excess until after the month of August, when the chills set in and I find myself in need of a little gentle padding. I have been fortunate in that my hair – once thick and dark and blessed with a slight wave – has resisted the temptation to fall out altogether and instead has simply thinned slightly across the top and turned a rather attractive shade of grey. My skin is tanned and, while I will admit to a few small lines beneath my eyes, only the harshest of critics would suggest that I have wrinkles. Throughout the years, there have been those – both men and women -who have indicated that I am an attractive man, possessed of a crisp sexual allure.
The suggestion, however, regarding my age – that I am perhaps not quite fifty years old – would flatter me immensely. For it is many years now since I have been able to say in all honesty that I have only seen half a century. This is simply the age, or at least the visual representation of an age, at which I have been stuck for a large proportion of my 256 years of life. I am an old man. I may seem young – relatively speaking – and not physically dissimilar to a large proportion of men born while Truman was in the White House, but I am far from any flush of normal youth. It has long been my belief that looks are the most deceptive of all human traits and I am pleased to stand as proof positive of my own theory.
I was born in Paris in 1743, during the Bourbon dynasty, when Louis XV was on the throne and the city was still relatively peaceful. Obviously, I recall very little of the political times, but I do have some early memories of my parents, Jean and Marie Zéla. We were reasonably well off, despite the fact that France was then immersed in a series of financial crises; the country appeared to be living in the shadow of our frequent small wars which drained the cities of both their natural resources and the men who might help excavate them.
My father died when I was four, but not on a battlefield. He worked as a transcriber for a famous dramatist of the time whose name I could offer, but as he and his works have since been completely forgotten, it would mean nothing to you. I have decided, for the most part, to keep the unknown names out of this memoir in order to prevent myself from having to present a cast list at the start – you can meet an awful lot of people in 256 years, you know. He was murdered on his way home from the theatre late one night by – who knows? A sharp object to the back of the neck threw him to the ground and a blade across the throat saw him off. His killer was never caught; random acts of violence were as common then as they are today and justice as arbitrary. But the dramatist himself had been a kind man and he had allocated my mother a pension, and so for her remaining years we never went hungry.
My mother, Marie, lived until 1758, by which time she had married again to one of the actors in the theatre company where my father had worked, a Philippe DuMarque, who had delusions of grandeur and claimed to have once performed before Pope Benedict XIV in Rome, a claim which on one occasion was mocked by my mother, resulting in a severe beating from her charming husband. The marriage, while unhappy and stained with a recurring theme of violence, did however result in a son, a half-brother for me, named Tomas, which has since become a family name. Indeed, Tomas's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Tommy lives only a few miles away from me now, in central London, and we meet regularly for dinner, when I invariably 'loan' him money to pay off the debts he accrues from his extravagant and ambitious lifestyle, not to mention his – to speak plainly -pharmaceutical bills.
This same lad is only twenty-two years old and I very much doubt if he will live to see twenty-three. His nose is practically on fire from the amount of cocaine that he has inserted into it over the past eight years – it's constantly twitching, like the nose of a housewife witch – and his eyes wear a permanently glazed and giddy expression. When we dine together, always at my expense, he is prone to bouts of either nervous energy or severe depression. I've seen him hysterical and catatonic and am unsure which state I prefer. He laughs suddenly, for no apparent reason, and always disappears shortly after I have loaned him some more money when pressing business whisks him away. I would attempt to seek help for him but his lineage has always been troublesome and, as you shall see, every one of his ancestors has met with an unhappy ending so there is little point. I am long past the age when I will try to interfere in any of their lives. They don't appreciate my help anyway. I feel that I shouldn't grow too attached to any of these boys because the Tomases, the Thomases, the Thorns, the Toms and the Tommys invariably die young and there's always another one waiting around the corner to bother me. Indeed, only last week Tommy informed me that he has 'knocked up', as he so charmingly puts it, his current girlfriend, so I can only assume from experience that his own days are now numbered. It's midsummer now and the child is due around Christmas time; he has provided an heir to the DuMarque line and, like the mate of a black widow spider, has thus outlived his usefulness.
I might add at this point that it was not until around the end of the eighteenth century, at which time I was reaching fifty years old anyway, that I stopped the physical act of ageing. Until then I was a man like any other, although I always took a particular pride in my appearance — atypical of the times – and made sure to keep both my body and mind healthy, something which in itself wasn't to become fashionable for another hundred and fifty years or so. In fact, I seem to recall noticing, some time around 1793 or 1794, that my physical appearance was remaining intact, something which pleased me at the time, not least because to live to that age was practically unheard of in the late eighteenth century. By about 1810, it was frightening to me as by rights I should have looked like a man approaching seventy and by 1843, the hundredth anniversary of my birth, I knew that something unusual was occurring. By then I was learning to live with it. I have never sought medical advice on my condition as my motto has long been 'why tempt fate?' And I am not one of these long-living fictional characters who prays for death as a release from the captivity of eternal life; not for me the endless whining and wailing of the undead. After all, I am perfectly happy. I lead a constructive existence. I contribute to the world in which I live. And perhaps my life will not be eternal anyway. Just because I am 256 does not necessarily mean that I will survive to 257. Although I suspect I will.
But I am moving ahead of myself now by the best part of two and a half centuries so allow me to return for a moment, if I may, to my stepfather Philippe who outlived my mother only owing to the fact that he beat her one too many times and she collapsed in a heap on the floor one evening with blood emerging from her mouth and her left ear and never rose again. I was fifteen years old at the time and having seen to it that she got a decent burial and Philippe had been tried and executed for his crime, I left Paris with the infant Tomas to seek my fortune.
And it was as a fifteen-year-old boy, travelling from Calais to Dover with my half-brother in tow, that I met Dominique Sauvet, my first true love and quite possibly the girl against whom none of my subsequent nineteen wives or nine hundred lovers could ever quite compare.CHAPTER 2
I have often heard it stated that one never forgets one's first love; the novelty of the emotions alone should be enough to ensure a long-lasting memory in all but the hardest of hearts. But, while this should not be too unusual for the average man who takes maybe a dozen lovers in a lifetime, along with a wife or two, it is a little more difficult for someone who has lived as long as I have. I dare say that I have forgotten the names and identities of hundreds of women with whom I have enjoyed liaisons – on a good day, I can actually recall only about fourteen or fifteen of my wives – but Dominique Sauvet is fixed in my memory like a landmark of when I left my childhood behind to begin a new life.
The boat from Calais to Dover was crowded and dirty and it was difficult to escape the stale, miserable stench of urine, perspiration and dead fish. Nevertheless, I was exuberant from having seen my stepfather executed a few days earlier. From the safety of a small crowd, I had willed him to look in my direction as he placed his head upon the block and he did, for a brief moment, and while our eyes met I feared that in his terror he did not recognise me. Although it chilled me, I was glad he was going to die. Throughout the centuries, though, I have not forgotten the image of the axe falling upon his neck, the sudden slice and the groan of the people, intermingled with a cheer and the sound of a young man vomiting. I remember once, when I was aged around 115, hearing Charles Dickens read from a novel of his which contained a guillotine scene and being forced to stand up and walk out, so disconcerting was the memory of that day a century earlier, so chilling the recollection of my stepfather smiling at me before his life ended, although the guillotine itself would not be introduced until the Revolution began, some thirty-odd years later. I recall the novelist pinning me with a chilly glance as I left, thinking perhaps that I objected to his work or found it dull, something which was impossible.
I chose England as our new home because it was an island, unconnected to France in any way, and I liked the idea of being in a place which was independent and entire unto itself. It was not a long journey and I spent much of it tending to the five-year-old Tomas, who was ill and kept attempting to throw up what was no longer in his stomach over the side of ship. I brought my brother to the railings and sat him down with the wind blowing in his face, hoping that the fresh air might help him somewhat and it was then that I noticed Dominique Sauvet, who was standing only a few feet away from us, her thick dark hair blowing backwards and picking up the light as she stared back towards France, towards the memories of her own troubles.
She caught me staring and stared back briefly before turning away. A moment later, she looked at me again and I blushed and fell in love and picked up Tomas, who instantly started to scream again in pain.
'Be quiet!' I urged him. 'Hush!' I did not want it to appear that I was incapable of looking after the child, yet I was also loath to allow him to wander around aimlessly, crying and screaming and urinating at will, like some of the other children on the boat.
'I have some fresh water,' said Dominique, approaching us and touching me on the shoulder lightly, her thin pale fingers glancing off that part of my skin which was revealed by the long tear in my cheap shirt, making my whole body burst into a flame of excitement. 'Perhaps that would calm him down a little?'
'Thank you, but he'll be fine,' I answered nervously, afraid to talk with this vision of beauty, simultaneously cursing my own ineptitude. I was just a boy and unable to pretend otherwise.
'Really, I don't need it,' she continued. 'It won't be long before we arrive anyway.' She sat down and I turned around slowly, watching as her hand slid down the front of her dress and then emerged with a small, thin bottle of clear water. 'I have kept it hidden,' she explained. 'I was afraid someone might try to steal it.'
I smiled and accepted the proffered bottle, watching her now as I unscrewed the cap and handed it to Tomas, who drank a little of it gratefully. Peace was restored to him and I sighed in relief.
'Thank you,' I said. 'You are very kind.'
'I made sure to carry some provisions with me when we left Calais,' she said, 'just in case. Where are your parents anyway? Shouldn't they be taking charge of the boy?'
'They lie six feet underground in a Parisian graveyard,' I told her. 'One murdered by her husband, one murdered by thieves.'
'I'm sorry,' she said. 'Then you are like me. Travelling alone.'
'I have my brother.'
'Of course. What's your name anyway?'
I extended a hand towards her and felt mature, like an adult, as I did so, as if the very act of shaking hands asserted my independence. 'Matthieu,' I replied. 'Matthieu Zéla. And this belching creature is my brother, Tomas.'
'Dominique Sauvet,' she said, ignoring my hand and giving us both a light peck on the cheek which stirred me even more. 'Pleased to meet you,' she added.
Our relationship began at that moment and developed later that night in a tiny room in a Dover hostel where we three took refuge. Dominique was four years older than me at nineteen and naturally had a little more experience in romantic matters than I had. We lay in the bed together, holding each other for warmth, and tense with our desires. Eventually, her hand slid down beneath the thin, moth-eaten sheet that barely covered us and roamed around my chest and below, until we kissed and allowed ourselves to become consumed with our passion.
When we woke the next morning, I was filled with fear for what had happened. I looked at her body beside me, the sheets covering her enough to hide her modesty but none the less causing me to feel a rush of desire once again, and was afraid that she would wake up and regret our behaviour of the night before. Indeed, when her eyes eventually opened, there was an awkwardness at first as she covered herself even further with the single sheet – thus revealing more of my own body to her which caused me no end of embarrassment – until finally she relented and pulled me to her once again with a sigh.
We spent that day walking around Dover with Tomas in tow, looking to the world no doubt as if we were husband and wife and Tomas our son. I was filled with joy, sure that this was as perfect a life as I could ever possibly have. I wanted the day to carry on for ever and yet I also wanted it to pass by quickly, that we might return to our bedroom as soon as possible.
But that night I had a shock. Dominique told me to sleep on the floor with Tomas and, when I protested, she said that if I did not then she would give me the bed and sleep on the floor herself, at which point I relented. I wanted to ask her what was wrong, why she was suddenly rejecting me like this, but could not find the words. I thought she would think me stupid, infantile, a baby, if I demanded more from her than she wanted to give, and was determined not to have her despise me. Already I was thinking that I wanted to take care of her, to be with her for ever, but I have no doubt now that she was thinking that I was only fifteen years of age and that, if she was to have any real future in the world, it was unlikely that it would be with me. She was holding out for something better.
A mistake, as it turned out.CHAPTER 3
I live in a pleasant, south-facing apartment in Piccadilly, London. It is the basement flat of a four-storey house. The upper part of the property is lived in by a former minister in Mrs Thatcher's cabinet whose attempts to secure a place in the Lords were given short shrift by her successor Mr Major – whom he despised for an incident at the Treasury some years before – and who has since wound up in the less prestigious but far more financially rewarding world of satellite broadcasting. As a major shareholder in the corporation which employs my upstairs neighbour, I take an interest in his career and was partly responsible for his being granted a thrice weekly political chat-show, which has recently been performing badly in the ratings, owing to the general perception of him as a has-been. Although I find the public's belief that anyone from the previous decade is a has-been completely absurd – surely my own longevity is testament to that – I suspect that the man's career is coming to an end and I regret it, for he is a pleasant enough man with a taste for fine things, in which respect we are quite similar. He has been kind enough to invite me into his home on a number of occasions and I once dined off a rather fine piece of mid-nineteenth-century Hungarian dishware which I could have sworn I saw being made in Tatabanya while I was honeymooning with, if I remember correctly, Jane Dealey (1830-1866, m. 1863). Lovely girl. Fine features. Awful end. I could afford to live in the same luxury as my broadcasting friend but really can't be bothered. Right now, simplicity suits me. I've lived rough and I've lived well. I've slept on streets and collapsed drunk in palaces, a felonious vagrant or vomiting fool. I'll most likely do both again. I took the apartment in 1992 and have been here ever since. I've made it quite the home. There is a small vestibule as you enter the front door, leading into a tiny hallway which opens out into the living room – sunken by a step – with a beautiful set of bay windows. Here, I keep my books, my recordings, my piano and my pipes. Scattered around the rest of the apartment is a bedroom, a bathroom and a small guest room which is only ever used by my many times removed nephew Tommy, who calls around to see me from time to time, whenever he needs cash.
Excerpted from The Thief of Time by John Boyne. Copyright © 2000 John Boyne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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