"You've broken my nose," says Wolf, looking at all of us as if he can't quite believe what has just happened. "You've only gone and broken my fucking nose!"
"So break his in return," says Sergeant Clayton in a casual tone. Wolf stares down at his hands; the blood has slowed a little but there is a lot of it already, gathered in thick swirls on his palms. His nose is not broken, not really; Rich has just burst a few blood vessels, that's all.
"No, sir," Wolf says.
"Hit him again, Rich," says Clayton, and Rich jabs once more, this time to the right cheek, and Wolf stumbles back once again but manages to stay erect. He works his jaw, uttering a low cry of pain, and puts a hand to it, holding it there for a moment, massaging the bruise.
"Fight him, Wolf," says Clayton, very quietly, very slowly, enunciating each syllable clearly, and there's something in Wolf 's expression that suggests to me that he just might, but he waits for twenty, thirty seconds, breathing heavily, controlling his temper, before shaking his head.
"I won't fight, sir," he insists, and now he is punched again, in the stomach, then once more in the solar plexus, and he's on the ground, cowering a little, no doubt hoping that this beating will soon come to an end. The men watch, uncertain how they should feel about the whole thing. Even Rich takes a step back, aware that it's hardly a fair fight when the other fellow won't stand his ground.
"For pity's sake," says Sergeant Clayton, shaking his head contemptuously, realizing that he's not going to get the brawl that he's been hoping for, the one that could leave Wolf seriously damaged. "All right, Rich, get back in line. And you," he says, nodding towards the prostrate Wolf, "get up, for God's sake. Be a man. He barely touched you."
It takes a minute or two but Wolf eventually rises to his feet unassisted and shuffles his way back into line next to me. He catches my eye; perhaps he sees the expression of concern there, but he looks away. He wants no pity.
"It's a beautiful day for a new beginning," announces Sergeant Clayton, stretching his arms out in front of him and cracking his knuckles. "A beautiful day to learn about discipline and to understand that I will tolerate neither humour nor cowardice in this regiment. They are my twin bugbears, gentlemen. Understand that well. You are here to train. And you will be trained."
And with that he turns around and strolls off in the direction of the barracks, leaving us in the hands of his two apostles, whose names are Wells and Moody, and who step forward now to tick our names off on a list that they hold in their hands, working their way down the line, letting each man leave once he has been accounted for, and leaving Wolf, of course, until the end.
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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