He laughs but doesn't pursue it any further, simply shaking his head as if I'm not worth wasting his time on. He is a man apart, this Wolf.
A moment later and I sense a commotion in the ranks. I turn to watch as three men in heavy, starched uniforms emerge from a nearby barrack and stride towards us. Everything about them stinks of authority and I feel a rush of something unexpected. Apprehension, certainly. Desire, perhaps.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," says the man in the centre, the eldest of the three, the shortest, the fattest, the one in charge. His tone is friendly, which surprises me. "Follow me, won't you? We're not quite where we ought to be."
We gather in a pack and shuffle along behind him and I take the opportunity to look around at the other men, most of whom are smoking cigarettes and continuing low conver - sations. I pull my own tin from my pocket and offer one to Wolf, who doesn't hesitate.
"Thanks," he says, before, to my annoyance, asking for a second for later on. I shrug, irritated, but say all right, and he slips another from under the holding cord and perches it above his ear. "Looks like he's the one in charge," he says, nodding in the direction of the sergeant. "I need a word with him. Not that he's likely to listen to me, of course. But I'll have my say, I promise you that."
"Your say about what?" I ask.
"Take a look around you, Sadler," he replies. "Only a handful of these people will still be alive six months from now.
What do you think of that?"
I don't think anything of it. What am I supposed to think? I know that men die - their numbers are reported in the news - papers every day. But they're just names, strings of letters printed together as news type. I don't know any of them. They don't mean much to me yet.
"Take my advice," he says. "Follow my lead and get the hell out of here if you can."
We stop now in the centre of the parade ground and the sergeant and his two corporals turn to face us. We stand in no particular order but he stares and remains silent until, without a word to each other, we find ourselves separating into a rectangle, ten men long and four men deep, each distanced from the next man by no more than an arm's width.
"Good," says the sergeant, nodding. "That's a good start, gentlemen. Let me begin by welcoming you to Aldershot. Some of you want to be here, I know, some of you don't. Those of us who have been in the service for many years share your emotions and sympathize with them. But they don't matter any more. What you think, what you feel, doesn't matter. You are here to be trained as soldiers and that is what will happen."
He speaks calmly, betraying the conventional image of the barracks sergeant, perhaps to put us at our ease. Perhaps to surprise us by how quickly he might turn on us later. .
"My name is Sergeant James Clayton," he announces. "And over the next couple of months, during your time here, it is my responsibility to train you into soldiers, a job that requires as much intellect on your part as it does strength and stamina."
He looks around and narrows his eyes, his tongue bulging out his cheek as he considers the men - boys - lined up before him.
"You, sir," he says, lifting his cane and pointing it at a young lad in the centre of the front row, who made himself popular on the train with his quick wit and effervescent sense of humour. "Your name, please?"
"Mickey Rich," says the boy confidently.
"Mickey Rich, sir!" shouts the soldier standing at the sergeant's left shoulder, but the older man turns to him and shakes his head.
"It's perfectly all right, Corporal Wells," he says cheerfully. "Rich here doesn't understand our ways yet. He is utterly ignorant, aren't you, Rich?"
"Yes, sir," Rich replies, his tone a little less certain now, the "sir" being uttered with deliberate force.
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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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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