Eventually the colonel crouches by one of the small wooden crosses, set a little way apart from the rest. "Here." He motions for the men to come forward. "Dig here." A date is written on the cross, scribbled in shaky black pencil, but no name. The private does as he's told, lifting his shovel and kicking it into the hard ground. The sergeant joins him, but after a couple of spades of earth he stops.
"What are we looking for, sir?"
"A body," says the colonel. "And bloody well get on with it. We haven't got all day."
The two men lock eyes for a moment before the sergeant looks away, spits on the ground, and continues to dig.
Beneath its frosted crust the mud is softer, clinging, and they do not have to dig for long. Soon metal scrapes on metal. The sergeant puts down his shovel and kneels, clearing the mud from a steel helmet.
"Think we might be there, sir."
The colonel holds his light over the hole. "Keep going," he says, his voice tight.
The men crouch low, and with their gloved hands, as best they can, they clear the mud from the body. But it is not a body, not really; it is only a heap of bones inside the remains of a uniform. Nothing is left of the flesh, only a few black- brown remnants clinging to the side of the skull.
"Clear as much as you can," says the colonel, "and then check for his badges."
The dead man is lying in the earth, his right arm beneath him. The men reach down, lifting and turning him over. The sergeant takes his pocketknife and scrapes away at where the shoulder should be. The man's regimental badges are there still, just, but they are unreadable, the colors long gone, leached into the soil; it is impossible to tell what they once were.
"Can't see them, sir. Sorry, sir." The sergeant's face is red in the flashlight beam, sweaty from effort.
"Check around the body. All around it. I want anything that might identify him at all."
The men do as they are ordered, but find nothing.
They stand slowly. The private rubs the small of his back, looking down at the meager remains of the unearthed man lying twisted on his side.
Then a thought rises in him, unbidden: His brother died here. In a field like this in France. They never found his body. What if this was him?
But there is no way of knowing.
He looks back up at the colonel. There is no way of knowing if this is the body the colonel's looking for, either. This has been a waste of time. He waits for the colonel's reaction, bracing himself for the expected anger on his face.
But the colonel only nods.
"Good," he says, chucking his cigarette on the earth. "Now lift him out and put him in the sack."
Hettie rubs her sleeve against the misted taxi window and peers out. She can't see much of anything; nothing that looks like a nightclub anyway, just empty, darkened streets. You wouldn't think they were just seconds from Leicester Square.
"Here, please." Di leans forward, speaking to the driver.
"That's a pound, then." He turns his light on, engine idling.
Hettie hands over her ten- shilling share. A third of her pay. Her stomach plummets as it's passed to the front. But the taxi's not a luxury, not at this time; the buses aren't running and the tubes are shut.
"It'll be worth it," whispers Di as they clamber down. "Promise. Swear on my life."
The taxi pulls away and they find each other's hands, down an unlit side street, dance shoes crunching on gravel and glass. Despite the cold, damp pools in the hollow of Hettie's back. It must be way past one, later than she has ever been out. She thinks of her mother and her brother, fast asleep in Hammersmith. In not too many hours they'll be getting up for church.
Excerpted from Wake by Anna Hope. Copyright © 2014 by Anna Hope. Excerpted by permission of Random House. 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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