Excerpt of The Absolutist by John Boyne
(Page 4 of 5)
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He smiles then, a bitter, angry smile, and the men in the
ranks grumble and mutter to themselves, turning to look at
Wolf with scorn in their eyes, each one trying harder than the
last to impress upon Sergeant Clayton that they subscribe to no
such beliefs themselves. Wolf, to his credit, holds his ground
and acknowledges none of the hisses and catcalls that are
coming his way, taunts that neither the sergeant nor his two
corporals do anything to quell.
"Disgrace," says one voice from somewhere behind me.
"Bloody coward," says another.
I watch to see how he will react to the abuse and it is then that
I lay eyes on Will Bancroft for the first time. He's standing four
men down from me and staring at Wolf with an expression of
interest upon his face. He doesn't look as if he entirely approves
of what the man is doing but he isn't joining in the chorus of
disapproval. It's as if he wants to get the mark of a fellow who
calls himself a conscientious objector, as if he has heard of such
mythical creatures and has always wondered what one might
look like in the flesh. I find myself staring directly at him - at
Bancroft, I mean, not Wolf - unable to shift my gaze, and he
must sense my interest for he turns and catches my eye, looking
at me for a moment, then cocking his head a little to the side
and smiling. It's strange: I feel as if I already know him, as if we
know each other. Confused, I bite my lip and look away, waiting
for as long as I can force myself to before turning to look at him
again, but he's standing straight in line now, focused ahead, and
it's almost as if the moment of connection never happened.
"That's enough, men," says Sergeant Clayton, and the cacophony quickly dies down as forty heads turn back towards the
front. "Come up here, Wolf," he adds, and my companion
hesitates only briefly before stepping forward. I can sense the
anxiety beneath the bravado. "And you, Mr. Rich," he adds,
pointing at his first interviewee. "Our resident pig in shit. The
two of you, come up here, if you please."
The two men advance until they're standing about six or
seven feet away from the sergeant and about the same distance
from the front line behind them. There is absolute silence from
the rest of us.
"Gentlemen," says Sergeant Clayton, looking towards the
assembled men. "In this army, you will all be trained, as I have
been trained, to honour your uniform. To fight, to handle a
rifle, to be strong and to go out there and to kill as many of the
fucking enemy as you can find." His voice rises quickly and
angrily on that last phrase and I think, There he is, that's who this
man is. "But sometimes," he continues, "you will find that you
have worked your way into a situation where you have no
weapons left and neither has your opponent. You might be
standing in the centre of no-man's-land, perhaps, with Fritz
standing in front of you, and your rifle might have vanished
and your bayonet might have disappeared and you will have
nothing left to defend yourself with but your fists. A terrifying
prospect, gentlemen, isn't it? And if such a thing were to happen,
Shields," he says, addressing one of the recruits, "what do
you think you would do?"
"Not much choice, sir," says Shields. "Fight it out."
"Exactly," says the sergeant. "Very good, Shields. Fight it out.
Now, you two," and here he nods in the direction of Wolf and
Rich. "Imagine that you are in that very situation."
"Sir?" asks Rich.
"Fight it out, boy," says the sergeant cheerfully. "We'll call
you the Englishman, since you showed a bit of spark, if nothing
else. Wolf, you're the enemy. Fight it out. Let's see what
Both Rich and Wolf turn to each other, the latter with an
expression of disbelief on his face, but Rich can tell where the
land lies and he doesn't hesitate, clenching his right hand into
a fist and punching Wolf directly in the nose, a sharp jab
forward and back, like a boxer, so quickly surprising Wolf that
he stumbles backwards, tripping over his feet, holding his face
in his hands. When he rights himself again he looks in shock
at the blood pouring from his nostrils over his fingers. But then
Rich is a big lad with strong arms and a neat right-hook.
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.