Rest Day, by John Boyne

First published in The Irish Times last December, John Boyne’s war story has won the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year award

Hawke, a gray wolf in human form, emerged from the forest on his hands and knees, pulling pine needles from his palms. A sticky resin from the verdure clung to the top of his tunic, sending a honeyed scent towards his nostrils, a perfume that reminded him of the private gardens behind his home on Hyde Park Square where he had hidden from his father on so many occasions as a boy. He crawled through the closely packed foliage, his eyes adjusting to survey the open land before him. It was night now. He was tired and hungry. He hadn’t eaten since that morning when Cole handed him a can of bully beef stolen from Westman’s backpack, the meat oozing red and fatty from its metal container in a manner that reminded him of the separated skulls on the bodies he dragged across the boot-tilled mud when he was on stretcher duty. This is a conchie’s job, he complained, but no one listened. Westman himself had taken a bullet in the eye an hour before; his brains were still drying on his face, growing crusty in his long eyelashes, while Cole’s hands were looting his supplies.

There were two cans, of course. Cole kept one for himself, eating it greedily, a finger soaking up the blood that remained behind, mingling with his own as he sucked on it, eyes closed in pleasure. He gave the other to Hawke because he liked him. They had a football team in common and it seemed that this was enough to forge a friendship.

The bully beef tasted rotten, the juices a ghastly slime that stank to high heaven, but Hawke ate it all before throwing up in the latrines. Next to him, Oakley was standing with his cock in one hand, leaning against the wall and pissing on his boots, crying. But then Oakley was a crier; everyone knew that. He cried when the sun rose. He cried when the shelling started. He cried when the news came through that Lord Kitchener had gone down on the Hampshire and it wasn’t as if he’d even known the man.

‘You’ve heard about Westman then?’ asked Hawke but Oakley ignored him. He didn’t like to be disturbed while he was crying. He finished pissing and Hawke finished throwing up. Before leaving the latrine he told Oakley to put his cock away. ‘Tidy yourself up, man,’ he muttered.

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Back in England, it was Christmas Eve. Perhaps it was Christmas Eve here too, it was difficult to tell. It wouldn’t be like the Christmases of old, of course. Rationing is brutal, his mother told him in her last letter. It makes savages of us all. Fortunately I know a man in the War Department who is a tremendous help in this regard.

They were officially resting for a day. Staines started up a round of Silent Night on his harmonica but no one was the slightest bit interested. Shilton told him to be quiet or he’d ram that fucking thing down his fucking throat.

‘Here, Hawke,’ said Delaney, the Irish boy who everyone called Charlie Chaplin on account of the resemblance. ‘What’d you ask Santa to bring you this year?’

‘A night’s sleep,’ said Hawke.

‘I had one of them a few weeks back. Didn’t do me much good in the end. I still felt like death when I woke up.’

Why Westman had been in the forest was anyone’s guess. A rogue group of Germans must have been passing through and killed him rather than taking him prisoner. Easier really. There were Germans everywhere in this part of the world. It was hard to find them though. Westman had a dog that he talked about constantly. It irritated the men. Most of them had wives or sweethearts back home but all Westman had was a dog. You’d swear that he was married to the thing the way he carried on. He’d left the dog with his parents in Canterbury. Schubert was his name.

Hawke had clean socks in his backpack and he’d looked forward to putting them on all day. Mother had sent them as his Christmas box. She’d put a stick of cinnamon in with them and he wasn’t sure that was all about. The old ones, the ones he was taking off, were covered in dirt and blood and stank even worse than the bully beef but for some reason he held them to his nose for a moment, breathing in the stench. He never found his own smell objectionable. The smell of the other men, yes, of course. They were animals, for the most part. But his own, no. It reminded him that he was still alive, still producing all the slime and mucus that a human body leaked throughout the day. Queenie, his old nanny, used to play with his feet when he was a child. There was something disturbing about the way she would sit him on the couch and take a couple of his toes into her mouth, sucking on them while looking directly into the boy’s deep blue eyes, the ones that his mother’s friends said would break hearts one day. This behaviour carried on until he was eleven. Father caught her at it one day and gave her a slap; a few hours later she was gone. Took a job in the circus, or so Hawke was told. A few days later, Father was dead. Got run over in the street.

The clean socks were made from thick grey wool and were not standard issue. Mother had posted them to him and somehow they had got through without being confiscated. He could scarcely believe his luck when he opened the package. There was a letter in there too. Jane was engaged to a boy who was blind in one eye. His name was Harry Stanley and he came from a good family. Joseph had tried to sign up three times now but kept getting rejected on account of his age. It was only a matter of time, Mother said, before some fool believed he was eighteen, then he’d be shipped off to France or Italy or wherever they sent reckless boys who didn’t know when they were lucky. Granny had died and they’d buried her next to Granddad. The weather was good, surprisingly warm for this time of year.

He peeled off the old socks, emitting an unexpected whimper as the skin and bones and muscles slowly relaxed. He was uncertain whether this was tremendously painful or unbearably pleasurable. It reminded him of the sensation he felt if he didn’t masturbate for a couple of weeks. The intensity of the delayed orgasm. Almost too much to bear.

He looked down at his feet, which didn’t look like feet anymore. They were stumpy things, the nails on his toes torn and rotten, blisters all over the soles, black blood seeping from scattered sores. Queenie wouldn’t go near his feet now if she saw them. She’d faint or scream or do whatever it was that stupid women did when confronted by something unpleasant.

Hawke had always been brought to the funfair on Christmas Eve. A tall, thin steel structure, painted gold and yellow, rose from the ground, around which a spinning wheel turned and ascended, rotating quickly so the people on the swings at the end of its spokes could scream and laugh as they soared in the air. A sensation of weightlessness. A fear of falling. Hawke had been fourteen when his left shoe had fallen off while he was near the top, the sky a shattered rainbow alive with fireworks. The boy sitting next to him, a boy he had never met before, had laughed because Hawke’s toes were coming through his sock.

‘Are you poor?’ the boy had asked and Hawke had blushed scarlet with embarrassment. ‘Doesn’t your mother darn your socks for you?’

He hadn’t thought about this in years. It came back to him now.

He didn’t sniff the new socks. They were fresh; there was nothing to bother with there. He pulled them on and put his feet back in his boots, wrapping the puttees around his ankles. Somehow, they didn’t feel as comfortable as the old ones. He wondered whether he’d have more trouble with blisters over the days ahead.

Two boys, Arthurs and Crouch, started a fistfight nearby. A remark had been made. Something unkind. Arthurs punched Crouch in the nose and Crouch let out a cry as a pile of snot evacuated itself into his hands. ‘You bloody bastard,’ he said.

‘Sorry,’ said Arthurs. ‘But you need to learn when to keep your trap shut.’

Hawke wondered whether he should try for a nap but it was almost six o’clock. The carol service would be starting at home now. The whole family would be there. Or what was left of them anyway. The year before the war broke out, when he was sixteen, he’d attended and Cathy Bligh had asked him whether he would walk her home on account of the darkness. There was a man about, she told him, a sex maniac who attacked innocent girls.

‘You should be safe then,’ Hawke said, smiling at her and she giggled, told him not to let her father hear him saying things like that. He walked her home like she asked and tried to kiss her when they were near her house but she slapped his face and asked him what kind of girl did he think she was anyway. The whole thing left him puzzled. Afterwards she told everyone that he tried to get fresh with her and her brother knocked on Hawke’s front door on Christmas morning, spoiling for a fight.

‘I’ll give you a fight if you want one,’ Hawke said quietly, strolling out into the street and rolling up his sleeves, a cigarette hanging from his mouth.

‘Just you lay off my sister, do you hear?’ the boy responded, frightened now, out-matched. ‘Or you’ll get what’s coming to you.’

Hawke had shrugged and gone back indoors where Jane said the whole thing was too thrilling for words.

A dangerous hour now. If he napped, he would wake around two in the morning and probably not sleep again. No, he was better off as he was. He would sleep at nine. Perhaps half past eight if the sun went down quick enough.

The sarge walked past and asked whether Hawke had seen his book.

‘Haven’t seen it, sir.’

‘You haven’t?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Well let me know if you do.’

‘What’s it called?’

‘Haven’t a clue. Something about an orphan. And there’s a woman in it who’s awfully rude.’

Hawke didn’t read much. Books bored him although he never would have admitted that to anyone, as he wouldn’t like to appear ignorant. No, sculpture was his thing. Had been since he was a child when he liked to fashion naked bodies out of clay. He had an idea that he’d be rather good with stone or marble but had never had an opportunity to try yet. After the war, he told himself, he’d give it a go. He knew a chap back home, Bestley, whose father ran an art gallery on Cork Street. Or was Bestley dead? Had he heard something about that? Did he go down on the Arabis at Dogger Bank? Well his father was probably alive at any rate. Perhaps he’d stop by when he was next in London and ask for some advice. There might be a chap there who would give a chap lessons. Show a chap how to get started.

But reading? No, that didn’t interest him much.

He decided to make some tea. Bellamy was in the mess-tent, scratching away at a piece of paper with a pencil.

‘Writing home?’ asked Hawke.

‘My missus had a baby,’ replied Bellamy. ‘I just got the news.’

‘Well done, you.’

Bellamy stared at him. ‘I haven’t been home in a year.’

Hawke struggled not to laugh. ‘Sorry,’ he said, looking around and frowning. ‘I can’t find any tea.’

‘I had the last of it.’

A few sprigs of holly were laid out near a satchel. Where had they come from?

He felt impatient now. That was the thing about a rest day. They came so rarely and you longed for them but once one arrived, your body was so accustomed to constant movement that it was almost impossible to slow down. The woods were nearby. He decided to take a walk. He put his helmet on, carried his rifle in case the Germans who had killed Westman were still lurking around.

‘Where are you off to?’ asked Sumpton.

‘Delivering presents,’ said Hawke. ‘To all the good little boys and girls.’

It felt pleasant to walk away from the battalion, to enter the woods alone. That carol went through his head, O Holy Night. He’d always liked that one. On that last Christmas Eve, a boy from two doors down whose voice hadn’t broken had performed it in a solo and when he came to the part where the key changed he felt a shiver run down his spine. Music sometimes affected him like this. Mother said the carol service was the domain of boy sopranos and women now, a strange combination. And the buffet is simply appalling, she wrote. She was going again this year; she was probably there right now, with her man from the War Department, whoever he was. A few pairs of stockings or a bar of chocolate, that’s all it took, and Mother was a young woman still with her looks. In the past, Father and Mother had always made such a song and dance about Christmas. They were like children the way they carried on. Even as a child Hawke had always thought it was a lot of fuss over nothing.

The sound of the branches crunching beneath his boots pleased him and he brought them down heavier for a while, forgetting about the Germans. Then he remembered and thought, oh sod it. He kept stamping.

Something turned inside his mind and he realised he’d had enough of this bloody war and decided not to turn back. He would just keep walking. Did people do that kind of thing, he wondered? Unpremeditated desertion? He’d taken nothing with him, no supplies, no overcoat, so everyone would be surprised. They might even assume that he’d been caught by the enemy in the forest. Westman’s Germans might have got him. There was nothing to show any sign of actual desertion. Actually, he realised, this was probably the best way to do it.

He started to laugh. It was rather funny, all things considered. One minute he’d been sitting around, doing nothing, the next he was a deserter from the British Expeditionary Force. He’d known a few. Browne and Peace had made a run for it one day and been caught in each other’s arms a few miles away, hiding in a barn. They were brought back and shot. The sergeant had told them to stop holding hands and go down like men but they told him to fuck off and then the bullets flew. Bancroft had been shot too but he hadn’t deserted, of course. He’d put his guns down after that business with the German boy in the trench and said sorry, I’ve had enough of this nonsense.

Would this mean that he would never be able to go home again? That he would never meet Jane’s blind-in-one-eye fiancé? Never answer any more of Mother’s letters? No, the war couldn’t go on forever, after all. It had been going on long enough as it was. But hold on, just because the war might end didn’t mean that it would all be forgive-and-forget when it came to deserters, did it? Might there be an amnesty of some sort? Unlikely. He shook his head. He couldn’t think about all that right now. He’d made his mind up.

Of course the trouble was that he didn’t know exactly where he was. He wasn’t even entirely convinced that he knew what country he was in. He could narrow it down to two or three, of course, but it would be a tight call to pick the right one from there. Where should he go? Switzerland, he supposed. That’s where everyone went, wasn’t it? He could help them out along the Jura. Or just hide out on the other side of it.

The clearing before him didn’t make a lot of sense. It was like a harvested field in the centre of countless acres of forest. He could walk across it but the trees on the other side might stretch on for several hundred miles. If that were the case then he would be marching towards his own death. This didn’t seem to bother him enormously and he worried that he was losing his mind. Something like that should bother him, after all.

He heard a rustling sound behind him and crouched down, burying himself in the undergrowth. A bird flew from a branch, followed by another; further along something noisier, more cumbersome. He held his rifle out before him as he tramped through, expecting a fox perhaps or something more malevolent. But nothing appeared and he relaxed again, slinging the rifle back over his shoulder.

He walked on, glancing up at the gibbous moon and guessed it was close to nine o’clock by now. Mother, Jane and Joseph would be home by now, laying stockings out by the hearth. The man from the war department might be with them, on the receiving end of cold stares from Joseph. The servants would be making early preparations for Christmas morning breakfast. The ones who were still there, that is. He’d run into William, who had been with them for seven years, when their battalions had crossed paths a few months before.

‘Hello William,’ he’d said. ‘Fancy seeing you here.’

William had knocked on his bedroom door late one night when he was seventeen and asked whether there was anything he could do for him. Hawke had shaken his head, surprised.

‘Not a thing, thanks,’ he said.

‘Are you sure about that, sir?’ asked William.

‘Quite sure,’ said Hawke. ‘Think I’ll turn in now. Goodnight, William.’

It had been months before he’d understood what that was all about and when he did he desperately wanted to tell someone but couldn’t think of anyone to tell. It felt as if he might not come out well from the story.

‘It’s Private Hinton, Private Hawke,’ said William, when they met in the trenches, taking the cigarette out of his mouth and examining the tip. ‘We’re the same, you and me.’

He thought of goose now and roast potatoes. Parsnips, Brussels sprouts and pheasant. Mince pies, brandy butter and bread sauce. Mother asking for more wine and telling them the story of how, when she was a girl, her brother’s friend had taken her on the bar of his bicycle to the church for Christmas morning mass, a scandal from which it had taken her months to recover. Father, when he was still alive, toasting the King. The time Jane had choked on a turkey bone. The morning Joseph threw a tantrum when he finished opening his presents. Were they thinking of him now, he wondered?

Ahead of him, voices. His rifle raised again. He paused and listened, wary of German accents, harsh words, guttural sounds formed at the back of the throat. Would it be so bad to be taken prisoner? Or to be shot? He’d seen it happen so many times and it was usually over in a moment or two. It was hard to imagine that you’d feel any pain. He’d prefer it in the chest though, if it came to it. He didn’t like the idea of his head being split in two. He felt uncertain which way to go, the trees were surrounding him, claustrophobic now. He marched through; he would take his chances.

McGregor, with a red hat on his head. A Santa hat. How on earth had he found this? Oakley, not crying for once, sitting still and staring into the distance. Summerfield, handing around pieces of marzipan, a Christmas treat.

‘Anything to report, Hawke?’ asked the sergeant and he shook his head. He’d doubled back on himself. He looked down at his boots; they had betrayed him. What year was coming up? This couldn’t go on much longer, could it? It was getting ridiculous, the whole thing.

‘Thought you’d done a bunk when we couldn’t find you,’ said the sergeant.

‘Me, sir? No, sir.’

‘Only joking, Hawke. Don’t take everything so seriously. Have a piece of marzipan, why don’t you? Summerfield, come over here and give Hawke a piece of marzipan. My mother used to make it every Christmas Eve, you know. Filled the house with the smell of it. Wonderful memories.’

Hawke took a piece and chewed on it, the flavour of almond and honey sweetening his saliva. He stepped down into the trench and continued along into one of the empty foxholes, placing his rifle beside him and leaning into the wall, closing his eyes. Sounds in the distance, across the fields, beyond the stepladders and the barbed wire, the divots and the bloodied mud. Boots dancing on the duckboards. The shelling starting, the guns firing. The noise of the men as they fell down into their lines. Christmas Eve and no rest for the wicked. He grabbed his rifle again and settled the Brodie on his head. He needed to be at ladder five. No time to waste. Rockets exploded in the sky above him, one of the great free light-shows on earth. Better here than in a forest all alone, he decided, as he put his boot on the rung and climbed up, not hesitating as he threw himself over, stood up straight and started to charge.

It’s a beautiful sight, he thought, as the land lit up before him like an entrance to another world. You don’t see things like this at home.