I DON'T SPEAK TO Will Bancroft until our second day
at Aldershot Military Barracks but I notice him on our first.
We arrive in the late afternoon of the last day of April, some
forty of us, a group of untidy boys, loud-mouthed and vulgar,
stinking of sweat and bogus heroism. Those who already know
each other sit together on the train, talking incessantly, afraid
of silence, each voice competing to drown out the next. Those
who are strangers hide in window seats, their heads pressed
against the glass, feigning sleep or staring out as the scenery
rushes past. Some make nervous conversation about the things
they have left behind, their families, the sweethearts they will
miss, but no one discusses the war. We might be on a day trip
for all the nerves we dare show.
We stand around in groups as the train empties and I find myself next to a boy of about nineteen who glances around irritably, taking me in and dismissing me again with a single look. He wears a carefully coordinated expression of resignation mixed with resentment; his cheeks are fleshy and raw, as if he has shaved with cold water and a blunt razor, but he stands erect, staring around as if he cannot quite believe the high spirits of the other boys.
"Just look at them," he says in a cold voice. "Bloody fools, every last one of them."
I turn to look at him more closely. He's taller than I am, with a neat haircut and a studious appearance. His eyes are a little narrow-set and he wears a simple pair of owl-rimmed spectacles, which he removes from time to time to massage the bridge of his nose, where a small red indentation is clear to the eye. He reminds me of one of my former schoolteachers, only he is younger, and probably less prone to outbursts of gratuitous violence.
"It's a lot of nonsense, isn't it?" he continues, sucking deeply on a cigarette as if he wants to draw all the nicotine into his body in one drag.
"What is?" I ask.
"This," he says, nodding in the direction of the other recruits, who are talking and laughing as if this is all a terrific lark. "All of it. These idiots. This place. We shouldn't be here, none of us should."
"I've wanted to be here since it started."
He glances at me, thinks he has the measure of me already, and snorts contemptuously as he shakes his head and looks away. Crushing the spent tab beneath his heel, he opens a silver cigarette case and sighs when it reveals itself to be empty.
"Tristan Sadler," I say, extending a hand now, not wanting to get my military career off on a sour note. He stares at it for five seconds or more and I wonder whether I will have to draw it back in humiliation, but finally he shakes it and nods abruptly.
"Arthur Wolf," he says.
"Are you from London?" I ask him.
"Essex," he replies. "Well, Chelmsford. You?"
"Nice there," he says. "I have an aunt who lives in Chiswick. Elsie Tyler. You don't know her, I suppose?"
"No," I reply, shaking my head.
"She runs a florist on Turnham Green."
"I'm from Sadler & Son, the butcher on the high street."
"Presumably you're the son."
"I used to be," I say.
"I bet you volunteered, didn't you?" he asks, more contempt seeping into his voice now. "Just turned eighteen?"
"Yes," I lie. In fact my eighteenth birthday is still five months away but I have no intention of admitting this here in case I find myself back with a hod in my hand before the week is out.
"I bet you couldn't wait, am I right? I bet it was your present to yourself, marching down to the sergeant major, yes, sir, no, sir, anything you say, sir, and offering yourself up on a crucifix."
"I would have joined earlier," I tell him. "Only they wouldn't let me in on account of my age."
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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