The Absolutist, p.1John Boyne
ALSO BY JOHN BOYNE
The Thief of Time
The Congress of Rough Riders
Next of Kin
Mutiny: A Novel of the Bounty
The House of Special Purpose
NOVELS FOR YOUNGER READERS
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Noah Barleywater Runs Away
The Second Child
Copyright © John Boyne 2011
Originally published in Great Britain in 2011 by Doubleday,
an imprint of Transworld Publishers
Production Editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas
Design revisions for this edition by Cassandra J. Pappas
This book was set in 11.5 pt Giovanni Book
by Falcon Oast Graphic Art Ltd.
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Boyne, John, 1971–
The absolutist / John Boyne.
“Originally published in Great Britain in 2011 by Doubleday.”
1. Soldiers—Fiction. 2. Gay men—Fiction. 3. World War, 1914-1918—Campaigns—Western Front—Fiction. 4. World War, 1914-1918—Conscientious objectors—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Other Books by This Author
Tombland: Norwich, 15–16 September 1919
We’re Different, I Think: Aldershot, April–June 1916
Breathing and Being Alive: Norwich, 16 September 1919
Squinting in the Sunlight: France, July–September 1916
Unpopular Opinions: Norwich, 16 September 1919
The Sixth Man: France, September–October 1916
The Shame of My Actions: London, October 1979
About the Author
Norwich, 15–16 September 1919
SEATED OPPOSITE ME in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in the fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years.
“There was the vicar in Leeds,” she said, smiling a little as she tapped her lower lip with her index finger. “And the spinster from Hartlepool whose tragic secret was to prove her undoing. The actress from London, of course, who took up with her sister’s husband just after his return from the Crimea. She was a flighty piece so no one could blame me for that. But the maid-of-all-work in Connaught Square, I rather regretted killing her. She was a hard-working girl of good Northern stock, who perhaps didn’t deserve such a brutal ending.”
“That was one of my favourites,” I replied. “If you ask me, she got what was coming to her. She read letters that were not hers to read.”
“I know you, don’t I?” she asked, sitting forward now, narrowing her eyes as she examined my face for familiar signs. A sharp combination of lavender and face cream, her mouth viscous with blood-red lipstick. “I’ve seen you somewhere before.”
“I work for Mr. Pynton at the Whisby Press,” I told her. “My name’s Tristan Sadler. We met at a literary lunch a few months ago.” I extended my hand and she stared at it for a moment, as if unsure what was expected of her, before shaking it carefully, her fingers never quite closing on my own. “You gave a talk on untraceable poisons,” I added.
“Yes, I remember it now,” she said, nodding quickly. “You had five books that wanted signing. I was struck by your enthusiasm.”
I smiled, flattered that she recalled me at all. “I’m a great admirer,” I said, and she inclined her head graciously, a movement that must have been honed over thirty years of receiving praise from her readers. “As is Mr. Pynton. He’s talked several times about trying to lure you over to our house.”
“Yes, I know Pynton,” she replied with a shudder. “Vile little man. Terrible halitosis. I wonder that you can bear to be near him. I can see why he employed you, though.”
I raised an eyebrow, confused, and she offered me a half-smile.
“Pynton likes to be surrounded by beautiful things,” she explained. “You must have seen it in his taste for artwork and those ornate couches that look as though they belong in the Paris atelier of some fashion designer. You remind me of his last assistant, the scandalous one. But no, there’s no chance, I’m afraid. I’ve been with my publisher for over thirty years and I’m perfectly happy where I am.”
She sat back, her expression turning to ice, and I knew that I had disgraced myself, turning what had been a pleasant exchange into a potential business transaction. I looked out of the window, embarrassed. Glancing at my watch, I saw that we were running about an hour later than planned and now the train had stopped again without explanation.
“This is exactly why I never go up to town any more,” she declared abruptly as she struggled to open the window, for the carriage had begun to grow stuffy. “You simply cannot rely on the railways to bring you home again.”
“Here, let me help you with that, missus,” said the young man who had been sitting next to her, speaking in whispered, flirtatious tones to the girl next to me since we departed Liverpool Street. He stood and leaned forward, a breeze of perspiration, and gave the window a hefty pull. It opened with a jolt, allowing a rush of warm air and engine-steam to spill inside.
“My Bill’s a dab hand with machinery,” said the young woman, giggling with pride.
“Leave it out, Margie,” he said, smiling only a little as he sat down.
“He fixed engines during the war, didn’t you, Bill?”
“I said leave it out, Margie,” he repeated, colder now, and as he caught my eye we considered each other for a moment before looking away.
“It was just a window, dear,” sniffed the lady-novelist with impeccable timing.
It struck me how it had taken over an hour for our three parties even to acknowledge each other’s presence. It reminded me of the story of the two Englishmen, left alone on a deserted island together for five years after a shipwreck, who never exchanged a single word of conversation as they had never been properly introduced.
Twenty minutes later, our train shifted into motion and we were on our way, finally arriving in Norwich more than an hour and a half behind schedule. The young couple disembarked first, a flurry of hysterical impatience and rush-me-to-our-room giggles, and I helped the writer with her suitcase.
“You’re very kind,” she remarked in a distracted fashion as she scanned the platform. “My driver should be here somewhere to help me the rest of the way.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” I said, not trying for another handshake but offering an awkward nod of the head instead, as if she were the Queen and I a loyal subject. “I hope I didn’t embarrass you earlier. I only meant that Mr. Pynton wishes we had writers of your calibre on our
She smiled at this—I am relevant, said her expression, I matter—and then she was gone, uniformed driver in tow. But I remained where I was, surrounded by people rushing to and from their platforms, lost within their number, quite alone in the busy railway station.
I emerged from the great stone walls of Thorpe Station into an unexpectedly bright afternoon, and found that the street where my lodgings were located, Recorder Road, was only a short walk away. Upon arriving, however, I was disappointed to find that my room was not quite ready.
“Oh dear,” said the landlady, a thin woman with a pale, scratchy complexion. She was trembling, I noticed, although it was not cold, and wringing her hands nervously. She was tall, too. The type of woman who stands out in a crowd for her unexpected stature. “I’m afraid we owe you an apology, Mr. Sadler. We’ve been at sixes and sevens all day. I don’t quite know how to explain what’s happened.”
“I did write, Mrs. Cantwell,” I said, trying to soften the note of irritation that was creeping into my tone. “I said I would be here shortly after five. And it’s gone six now.” I nodded in the direction of the grandfather clock that stood in the corner behind her desk. “I don’t mean to be awkward, but—”
“You’re not being awkward at all, sir,” she replied quickly. “The room should have been ready for you hours ago, only …” She trailed off and her forehead wrinkled into a series of deep grooves as she bit her lip and turned away; she seemed unable to look me in the eye. “We had a bit of unpleasantness this morning, Mr. Sadler, that’s the truth of it. In your room. Or what was to be your room, that is. You probably won’t want it now. I know I shouldn’t. I don’t know what I’ll do with it, honestly I don’t. It’s not as if I can afford to leave it unlet.”
Her agitation was obvious, and despite my mind being more or less focused on my plans for the following day, I was concerned for her and was about to ask whether there was anything I could do to help when a door opened behind her and she spun around. A boy of about seventeen appeared, whom I took to be her son: he had a look of her around the eyes and mouth, although his complexion was worse, scarred as he was by the acne of his age. He stopped short, taking me in for a moment, before turning to his mother in frustration.
“I told you to call me when the gentleman arrived, didn’t I?” he said, glaring at her.
“But he’s only just arrived this minute, David,” she protested.
“It’s true,” I said, feeling a curious urge to jump to her defence. “I did.”
“But you didn’t call me,” he insisted to his mother. “What have you told him, anyway?”
“I haven’t told him anything yet,” she said, turning back to me with an expression that suggested she might cry if she was bullied any longer. “I didn’t know what to say.”
“I do apologize, Mr. Sadler,” he said, turning to me now with a complicit smile, as if to imply that he and I were of a type who understood that nothing would go right in the world if we did not take it out of the hands of women and look after it ourselves. “I had hoped to be here to greet you myself. I asked Ma to tell me the moment you arrived. We expected you earlier, I think.”
“Yes,” I said, explaining about the unreliable train. “But really, I am rather tired and hoped to go straight to my room.”
“Of course, sir,” he said, swallowing a little and staring down at the reception desk as if his entire future were mapped out in the wood; here in the grain was the girl he would marry, here the children they would have, here the lifetime of bickering misery they would inflict upon each other. His mother touched him lightly on the arm and whispered something in his ear, and he shook his head quickly and hissed at her to stay quiet. “It’s a mess, the whole thing,” he said, raising his voice suddenly as he returned his attention to me. “You were to stay in number four, you see. But I’m afraid number four is indisposed right now.”
“Well, couldn’t I stay in one of the other rooms, then?” I asked.
“Oh no, sir,” he replied, shaking his head. “No, they’re all taken, I’m afraid. You were down for number four. But it’s not ready, that’s the problem. If you could just give us a little extra time to prepare it.”
He stepped out from behind the desk now and I got a better look at him. Although he was only a few years younger than me, his appearance suggested a child play-acting as an adult. He wore a pair of man’s trousers, a little too long for him, so rolled and pinned in the leg to compensate, and a shirt, tie and waistcoat combination that would not have seemed out of place on a much older man. The beginnings of a moustache were teased into a fearful line across his upper lip, and for a moment I couldn’t decide whether in fact it was a moustache at all or simply a dirty smudge overlooked by the morning’s facecloth. Despite his attempts to look older, his youth and inexperience were obvious. He could not have been out there with the rest of us, of that I felt certain.
“David Cantwell,” he said after a moment, extending his hand towards me.
“It’s not right, David,” said Mrs. Cantwell, blushing furiously. “The gentleman will have to stay somewhere else tonight.”
“And where is he to stay, then?” asked the boy, turning on her, his voice raised, a sense of injustice careering through his tone. “You know everywhere’s full up. So where should I send him, because I certainly don’t know. To Wilson’s? Full! To Dempsey’s? Full! To Rutherford’s? Full! We have an obligation, Ma. We have an obligation to Mr. Sadler and we must meet our obligations or else we disgrace ourselves, and hasn’t there been enough of that for one day?”
I was startled by the suddenness of his aggression and had an idea of what life might be like in the boarding house for this pair of mismatched souls. A boy and his mother, alone together since he was a child, for her husband, I decided, had been killed in an accident involving a threshing machine years before. The boy was too young to remember his father, of course, but worshipped him nevertheless and had never quite forgiven his mother for forcing the poor man out to work every hour that God sent. And then the war had come and he’d been too young to fight. He’d gone to enlist and they’d laughed at him. They’d called him a brave boy and told him to come back in a few years’ time when he had some hair on his chest, if the godforsaken thing wasn’t over already, and they’d see about him then. And he’d marched back to his mother and despised her for the relief on her face when he told her that he was going nowhere, not yet, anyway.
Even then, I would imagine scenarios like this all the time, searching in the undergrowth of my plots for tangled circumstances.
“Mr. Sadler, you’ll have to forgive my son,” said Mrs. Cantwell, leaning forward now, her hands pressed flat against the desk. “He is rather excitable, as you can see.”
“It’s got nothing to do with that, Ma,” insisted David. “We have an obligation,” he repeated.
“And we would like to fulfil our obligations, of course, but—”
I missed the end of her speech, for young David had taken me by the crook of the elbow, the intimacy of the gesture surprising me, and I pulled away from him as he bit his lip, looking around nervously before speaking in a hushed voice.
“Mr. Sadler,” he said, “might I speak to you in private? I assure you this is not how I like to run things here. You must think very badly of us. But perhaps if we went into the drawing room? It’s empty at the moment and—”
“Very well,” I said, placing my holdall on the floor in front of Mrs. Cantwell’s desk. “You don’t mind if I leave this here?” I asked, and she shook her head, swallowing, wringing those blessed hands of hers together once again and looking for all the world as if she would welcome a painful death at that very moment over any further discourse between us. I followed her son into the drawing room, partly curious as to the measure of concern that was on display, partly aggrieved by it. I was tired after my journey and filled with such conflicting emotions about my reasons for being in Norwich that I wanted nothing more than to go directly to my room,
The truth was that I did not know whether I could even go through with my plans for the following day. I knew there were trains to London at ten past the hour, every second hour, starting at ten past six, so there were four I could take before the appointed hour of my meeting.
“What a mess,” said David Cantwell, whistling a little between his teeth as he closed the door behind us. “And Ma doesn’t make it any easier, does she, Mr. Sadler?”
“Look, perhaps if you just explained the problem to me,” I said. “I did send a postal order with my letter in order to reserve the room.”
“Of course you did, sir, of course you did,” he replied. “I registered the booking myself. We were to put you in number four, you see. That was my decision. Number four is the quietest of our rooms and, while the mattress might be a little lumpy, the bed has a good spring to it and many of our clients remark that it’s very comfortable indeed. I read your letter, sir, and took you for an army man. Was I right, sir?”
I hesitated for a moment, then nodded curtly. “I was,” I told him. “Not any more, of course. Not since it ended.”
“Did you see much action?” he asked, his eyes lighting up, and I could feel my patience beginning to wane.
“My room. Am I to have it or not?”
“Well, sir,” he said, disappointed by my reply. “That’s rather up to you.”
“Our girl, Mary, is up there at the moment, disinfecting everything. She kicked up a stink about it, I don’t mind telling you, but I told her that it’s my name above the door, not hers, and she’ll do what she’s told if she wants to keep her position.”
“I thought it was your mother’s name,” I said, teasing him a little.
“Well, it’s mine, too,” he snapped indignantly, his eyes bulging in their sockets as he glared at me. “Anyway, it will be as good as new by the time she’s done with it, I can promise you that. Ma didn’t want to tell you anything, but since you’re an army man—”
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