"And are you happy to be here, Rich?" asks Sergeant Clayton. "Oh yes, sir," says Rich. "Happy as a pig in shit."
The entire troop bursts into laughter at this and I join in nervously.
The sergeant waits until the laughter has died down, wearing an expression that suggests a mixture of amusement and contempt, but he says nothing before looking back through the rows and nodding in the direction of a second man. "And you?" he asks. "Who are you?"
"William Tell," comes the reply, and now there's another snigger, difficult to contain.
"William Tell?" asks the sergeant, raising an eyebrow. "Now there's a name. Brought your bow and arrow, have you? Where are you from, Tell?"
"Hounslow," says Tell, and the sergeant nods, satisfied.
"And what about you?" he asks, looking at the next man along.
"Shields, sir. Eddie Shields."
"All right, then, Shields. And you?"
"Robinson," acknowledges the sergeant with a brief nod.
And so on and so on. A litany of names, some of them register ing in my mind but none giving me any cause to look at anyone directly.
"And you?" asks the sergeant, nodding in my direction now. "Tristan Sadler, sir," I say.
"How old are you, Sadler?"
"Eighteen, sir," I reply, repeating my lie.
"Glad to be here, are you?"
I say nothing. I can't think of the correct answer. Fortunately he doesn't press me on it because he has already moved on.
"Arthur Wolf, sir," says my neighbour.
"Wolf?" asks the sergeant, looking at him more closely; it's obvious that he knows something about this man already.
"That's right, sir."
"Well." He looks him up and down. "I expected you to be shorter."
"Six foot one, sir."
"Indeed," says Sergeant Clayton, his mouth creasing slowly into a thin smile. "So you're the chap who doesn't want to be here, yes?"
"That's right, sir."
"Afraid to fight, are you?"
"No, sir, indeed not, sir, what an outrageous charge, sir! I wonder, can you imagine how many brave men over there don't want to fight either?" He pauses as his smile starts to fade. "But there they are. Fighting day in, day out. Putting their lives on the line."
I can sense a low murmuring in the ranks and some of the recruits turn their heads to look at Wolf.
"I'm not sending you home, if that's what you're expecting," says the sergeant in a casual tone.
"No, sir," says Wolf. "No, I didn't expect you would. Not yet, anyway."
"And you won't be put in confinement either. Not till I get orders to that effect. We'll train you, that's what we'll do."
Sergeant Clayton stares at Wolf, his jaw becoming a little more clenched. "All right, Wolf," he says quietly. "We'll just see how this all turns out, shall we?"
"I expect to hear quite soon, sir," announces Wolf, no tremor audible in his voice, although standing next to him I can sense a certain tension in his body, an anxiety that he's trying hard to keep well hidden. "From the tribunal, I mean. I expect they'll be in touch to let me know their decision, sir."
"Actually, it is I who shall hear, Wolf," snaps the sergeant, losing his cool a little at last. "They will direct any communication through me."
"Perhaps you'd be good enough to let me know as soon as you do, sir," replies Wolf, and Sergeant Clayton smiles again. "Perhaps," he says after a moment. "I'm sure you're all proud to be here, men," he continues then, looking around and raising his voice, addressing the pack now. "But you're probably aware that there are some men of your generation who feel no obligation to defend their country. Objectors, they call themselves. Chaps who examine their conscience and find nothing there to satisfy the call of duty. They look like other men, of course. They have two eyes and two ears, two arms and two legs. No balls, though, that's a given. But unless you whip their pants off and make the necessary enquiries it can be fairly difficult to distinguish them from real men. But they're out there. They surround us. And they would bring us down if they could. They give sustenance to the enemy."
Excerpted from The Absolutist by John Boyne. Copyright © 2012 by John Boyne. Excerpted by permission of Other 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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