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  • Published: 2 November 2021
  • ISBN: 9781529111842
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 448
  • RRP: $22.99

The Sandpit



Shula read his text message, and the air thinned around her. Why was he sending her this? It was exactly what they had agreed he must never do.

Her instinct was to call him. In that void between dialling his number and the distinctive British ringtone, she caught herself. Foolish. Foolish. Abruptly, she rang off. Her need to hear Rustum’s voice ran deeper than her common sense.

The baby was still asleep, no one else in the bedroom, yet she had the sensation that eyes were tracking her.

She turned off the phone and slapped it, face down, on the small chest of drawers. Her movements were self-conscious, disembodied even, the actions of a young woman who had just woken up and was watching herself being watched. She knew implicitly that even the most neutral gesture, like unpinning her hair, would become data.

It was early Saturday morning and he was supposed to have telephoned last night. She had dozed off, waiting. This reckless text of his, so out of character, added to her foreboding.

She picked up her brush and pulled it through her hair. She hadn’t had time to wash it, although the baby took pleasure in the smell and in grabbing hold and hiding in the black weight of it. Her son Samir, too, had loved to tangle himself like that. With his departure, she had had to cut herself off from the physicality that she had shared with her first-born, as well as rechannel the longing which prickled her skin whenever she thought of her husband. It was an acute missing, and she had struggled. But that was the deal.

And now this text.

She tried to conjure her more robust self, and view it as a bit of a game, as in the beginning she had treated their Friday-night telephone calls. But the surveillance had changed the way her mind worked. It had reached such a deep invasion of privacy. The men in the car parked permanently outside knew what books she read, what radio stations she tuned in to, the food she ate.

With a deliberate gesture, she put down her hairbrush, fighting off a sick feeling that they could even hear her thinking. The baby was her only relief, swaddled on the bed. When the baby was crying was the best time to have her most subversive thoughts. She couldn’t believe that they would want to listen to those sharp, obliterating shrieks.

The building was silent. It would be after midnight in Oxford. In the city outside, dawn was breaking.

She stepped to the window to feel the early morning’s breath on her neck, her shoulders.

Stars in the clear sky. Smell of hot seeds. The small maple tree below has a red kite trapped in its branches. Between the leaves, the black roof of the Paykan glints in the street light. A second vehicle is drawn up beside it, newer, larger, also without number plates.

Suddenly, footsteps on the roof, a rattling of shutters, someone beating on the door downstairs.

The baby stirs.

A separate hammering on the door at the back.



Chapter One

The playground was deserted. The only adults in sight on that chill afternoon were a couple studying the glass-fronted noticeboard outside the school building known as ‘the Rink’. A short, thickset man in a brown leather bomber jacket and a long blue-and-white striped scarf wrapped ostentatiously around his neck, and a woman in jeans, slender, taller, wearing a fur hat and ear muffs.

Dyer’s heart started to race. Gennady and Katya. They must have finished their meeting, and were waiting for their son to reappear.

To avoid Katya and her husband, but also out of habit, Dyer turned left at the gate and walked towards the sandpit.

This square enclosure, three metres by three, was one of the few remnants of the school as Dyer remembered it. Framed by a low brick wall next to the boundary fence, the box of sand was a continent away from the rush-hour traffic on Banbury Road. Its view over the grass playing fields took in the granite war memorial, the cricket pavilion, and the Cherwell, invisible but indicated by a line of leafless elms. In Dyer’s time, a blue barge nestled on the riverbank, its lower deck doubling during swimming competitions as a changing room. But the barge was gone. Ditto the tuck shop and the woodwork shed where Dyer had learned to cut out a plywood shape which he could almost pretend was a machine gun. Yet Dyer would only have to raise his eyes to the circular Gents clock on the wall outside ‘Slimy’ Prentice’s study, like a cold winter sun, with its hands at 4.03, for his eleven-year-old self to have recognised in an instant where he was. That and the sandpit.

To Dyer’s irritation, another father occupied the spot where, since early February, he had taken to waiting for Leandro. A big, overweight man in his late thirties, hunched over, pale brown face, spectacles, with a sparse beard and thick unbrushed dark hair, and enveloped in a long unbuttoned coat. Dyer didn’t know him, but he recognised the camel-coloured overcoat: exactly what he coveted for himself in this climate, where the cold still caught him unawares. Dyer had envied the coat from a distance during the match against Summer Fields, a fortnight before – he retained a vague image of the person wearing it suddenly producing a notebook, and tucking this away after making a quick entry. When Dyer next glanced across the pitch, the coat had gone.

The man hadn’t seen him. Knees apart, feet in the sandpit, where at Leandro’s age Dyer had sat on a sunny day with a magnifying glass and scored his initials onto a tennis ball, he leaned forward, and with his index finger sketched something in the sand. He looked at this, whatever it was, and muttered to himself in an animated way, finger hovering.

‘Are you Samir’s father?’ said Dyer.

The man’s arm froze. He raised his head. His face tightened when he saw Dyer advancing.

With his palm, he very rapidly erased the marks that he had made. ‘That’s right.’

‘We haven’t met. John Dyer. Leandro’s dad,’ and held out his hand.

The man stood up at the second attempt. He stamped his shoes, once, twice, three times. Then he stared at his hand, covered in moist sand, and wiped it on his coat, before shaking Dyer’s.

‘Rustum Marvar.’ Dyer glanced down. ‘I’m interrupting you.’

‘No, no, I was working something out.’

Dyer craned. ‘Something interesting?’

Before Dyer could determine what this might have been, Marvar kicked out his foot and scuffed away the last traces.

‘Just a problem,’ he said and sat heavily down and stared out, arms folded, over the deserted playing fields.

Dyer, left standing, gazed at this big, grave, wood-sawed man with his matted brown hair.

‘A problem you’ve solved?’

Marvar took his time to answer, as if he was choosing a wine. ‘Nearly,’ he said. ‘Nearly.’

The quondam reporter in Dyer recognised the tension in Marvar’s response. A long time ago in Belém, he had heard the same suppressed note in Colonel Rejas’s voice. The tone of someone who wanted to share his excitement, but did not dare to – until Dyer triggered a way to earn his confidence. Not that Rejas’s subsequent confession had advanced Dyer’s career. There came back to Dyer the deranged eye of one Phoenix School mother who, swivelling to peck him with tiny questions about South America, had enquired what his greatest scoop was, and he started to explain that it was a story he had decided not to publish.

Dyer was used to sizing people up. He was quick to see that he and Marvar might like each other. ‘I haven’t noticed you much on the touchline,’ and sat down beside him.

The remark detonated something in Marvar. His eyes returned to the sandpit, his bulky frame trembling inside its loose-fitting coat. ‘And I have chastised myself,’ his hand finding a forehead to clap. He hadn’t been able to watch Samir play as often as he would have liked because of his work. On top of that, he had a new boss, a difficult man. Things were going on at work which had made it impossible to get away. Otherwise, he would have noticed how Samir had been victimised. He looked up at Dyer, mild brown expressive eyes magnified by round wire-framed lenses.

Marvar was agitated, but Dyer sensed that it wasn’t merely what had happened to Samir that was brewing inside him.

‘You mustn’t blame yourself,’ Dyer said in a reasonable tone. ‘I didn’t notice – and I was there.’

Whether Marvar took comfort from this was impossible to say. He spoke between large breaths as though he had been running. ‘When Samir told me . . . what this boy . . . Vasily Petroshenko . . . did to him . . . and to your son. I did come here. Immediately! I spoke to . . . Mr Tanner, is it? And now he’s talking to our two boys, with the other one, together. But is that enough? Will it stop these tantrums? This boy should go and see a clinical psychologist, not Mr Tanner! People who bully have issues. I know bullies – you must know bullies.’ He returned to where he’d started: he had not forgotten his rancour with himself. ‘No, no, I should have been there. That is to say, I should have been watching Samir. But I will take him away somewhere soon, somewhere nice, maybe the next long weekend, and I will make up for it. I will make up for my negligence,’ as though also voicing a promise to someone else.

Dyer thought of asking where Samir’s mother was, but it seemed wiser not to. Perhaps Marvar was in the same boat as Dyer. People in Rio had not batted an eye, but in Oxford Nissa’s absence was noticed. The older crowd were surprised to learn that she was still alive, and their eyebrows rose higher to discover that she had gone on to have twins with someone else. He felt their instant reassessment – there must be something wrong with Dyer that she had left him. Marvar might be another single father with a turbulent romantic past.

On the low wall beside him, Marvar gave a shiver and sat back, buttoning up his coat. The city lights glittered through the naked trees. He stared at them. The sky was not yet black. Dark clouds moved in the distance.

‘In my day,’ Dyer felt obliged to point out, ‘parents never came to watch their children play football.’

Marvar turned his head. ‘You were at this school?’

‘Yes, but a while ago.’

‘Then you must have liked it to bring your son here.’

‘Liked it?’ said Dyer. He paused, thinking back. ‘It’s more complicated than that.’

There was the plunk of rubber soles on concrete. Marvar glanced nervously around. On the other side of the fence, a jogger ran by, breathing heavily.

Marvar looked back at him. ‘Explain to me the complications. No, no, I’m interested.’ He held up his hands and fluttered his fingers. ‘You see, I worry about Samir . . . he has so many things he has to deal with.’

Until now, Dyer had kept to himself his motives for sending Leandro to the Phoenix. The expression in Marvar’s eyes – a compound of anger, excitement, fear, self-control – made him open up.

The Sandpit Nicholas Shakespeare

A sophisticated thriller about a missing nuclear scientist - perfect for fans of Robert Harris, William Boyd and Charles Cumming

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