'Olivier? Please. It's raining. Where are you?'
Wary of the horse, who lashed out with her hind legs if frightened, Jacques freed the bolt of the door himself and made his way into the ripe darkness of the stable.
Sitting with his back to the wall, his legs spread wide apart on the dung-strewn ground, was his brother.
'I've brought your dinner. How are you?'
Jacques squatted down next to him.
Olivier stared straight ahead, as though unaware that anyone was there. Jacques took his brother's hand and wrapped the fingers round the edge of the soup bowl, noticing what could be smears of excrement on the nails. Olivier moved his head from side to side, thrusting it back hard against the stable wall. He muttered something Jacques could not make out and began to scrape at his inner forearm as if trying to rid himself of a bothersome insect.
Jacques took a spoonful of the soup and held it up to Olivier's face. Gently, he prised open his lips and pushed the metal inwards. It was too dark to see how much went into his mouth and how much trickled down his tangled beard.
'They want me to come, they keep telling me. But why should I go, when they know everything already?'
'Who, Olivier? Who does?'
Their eyes met. Jacques felt himself summed up and dismissed from Olivier's mental presence.
'Are you cold? Do you want more blankets?'
Olivier became earnest.'Yes, yes, that's it, you've got to keep warm, you've to wrap up now the winter's coming. Look. Look at this.' He held up the frayed horse blanket beneath which he slept and examined it closely, as though he had not seen it before or had suddenly been struck by its workmanship.
Then his vigour was quenched again and his gaze became still.
Jacques took his hand. 'Listen, Olivier. It's nearly a year now that you've been in here. Do you think you could try again? Why don't you come out for a few minutes? I could help.'
'They don't want me.'
'You always say that. But perhaps they'd be happy to have you back in the house.'
'They won't let me go.'
Jacques nodded. Olivier was clearly talking of a different 'they', and he was too frightened to contradict or to press him. He had been a child when Olivier, four years the older, started to drift away from his family; it began when, previously a lively and sociable youth, he took to passing the evenings alone in his room studying the Bible and drawing up a chart of 'astral influences'. Jacques was fascinated by the diagrams, which Olivier had done in his clever draughtsman's hand, using pens he had taken from the hôtel de ville, where he worked as a clerk.
Jacques's experiences had usually come to him first through the descriptions of Olivier, who naturally anticipated all of them. Mathematics at school were a jumble of pointless signs, he said, that made you want to cry out; being beaten by the master's ruler on the knuckles hurt more than being kicked on the shin by the broody mare. Olivier had never been to Paris, but Vannes, he told Jacques, was so huge that you got lost the moment you let your concentration go; and it was full of women who looked at you in a strange way. When changes came to your body, Olivier said, you noticed nothing, no hairs bursting the skin, no wrench in your voice; the only difference was that you felt urgent, tense, all the time, as though about to leap a stream or jump from a high rock.
Olivier's chart of astral influences therefore looked to Jacques like another early glimpse of a universal human experience granted to him by his elder brother. Olivier had been right about everything else: in Vannes, Jacques kept himself orientated at all times, like a dog sniffing the wind; he liked mathematics, though he saw what Oliver had meant. He avoided the master's beatings.
Excerpted from Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks Copyright © 2005 by Sebastian Faulks. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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