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 you've got."
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.
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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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