Rendezvous in No Man's Land

Pat Barker's 'The Ghost Road' is the new Booker winner. In this extract the central characters, Rivers, a psychiatrist, and Prior, a young officer, discuss returning to the Front

e went to Greenwich by train, visited the portrait bust in the Painted Hall, then continued his journey by steamer, arriving at Westminster steps in the late afternoon. The underground was crowded, he couldn't find a taxi, and by the time he turned the corner of Holford Road Prior was already there, standing on the steps. 'Have you knocked?' Rivers asked.

'No, I saw you coming. Been at the hospital?'

'No, I've just got back from Ramsgate.' He fitted the key into the lock. 'Now if we tiptoe across the hall ...'

Prior smiled, having encountered Rivers' landlady many times in the past.

'All clear,' Rivers said.

They walked upstairs side by side, Rivers noticing how easily Prior was breathing. Sometimes, during the past summer, he'd listed to Prior's step on these stairs and counted the pauses. He'd never gone out on the top landing to greet Prior as he did with all his other patients because he knew how intolerable he would find it to be seen fighting for breath. But now his chest was remarkably clear, a reflection perhaps of the satisfaction he felt at going back to France. Rivers opened the door of his rooms, and stood aside to let Prior enter.

Somehow or other he had to prevent this meeting becoming a confrontation, as consultations with Prior still tended to do. Prior would enjoy the skirmish at the time - there was nothing he liked better - but he'd regret it later. 'Well, sit yourself down,' Rivers said, taking Prior's coat and pointing to a chair by the fire. 'How are you?'

'Quite well. Chest works. Tongue works.'

'Nightmares?'

'Hmm... a few. I had one where the faces on the revolver targets - you know, horrible snarling baby-eating boche - turned into the faces of the people I love. But only after I'd pulled the trigger, so there was nothing I could do about it. 'Fraid I killed you every time.'

'Ah, so it isn't a bad nightmare, then?'

They smiled at each other. Rivers thought Prior was entirely unaware of what he'd said, though that was always a dangerous assumption to make about Prior. Perhaps because he'd recently been thinking about his own father Rivers was more than ususally aware of the strong father-son element in his relationship with Prior. He had no son; Prior utterly rejected his natural father. 'Oh, by the way, congratulations on your engagement.'

Hmm, Prior thought. Charles Manning's congratulations had also been brief, though in his case the brevity might be excused, since he'd had to take Prior's cock out of his mouth to be able to say anything at all. 'Thank you.'

'Have you fixed a date?'

'Next August. We met in August, we got engaged in August, so ...'

'And when do you leave for France?'

'Tonight. I'm glad to be going.'

'Yes.'

Prior smiled. 'Do you think I'm ready to go back?'

A slight hesitation. 'I think I'd be happier if you did another twelve weeks' home service. Which would still, ' he persisted across Prior's interruptions, 'get you back to France by the end of November.'

'Why?'

'You know why. Two months ago you were having memory lapses. Rather bad ones actually. Anyway this is purely hypothetical. Wasn't my decision -'

Prior leant forward. 'I was afraid you'd write.'

'It never occurred to me anybody would think of sending you back.'

'I think the MO was against it. Well, that was my impression anyway. How would I know? As for the Board, well, they wanted to send me back. I wanted to go.'

'What did they ask you about? Nerves?'

'No, not mentioned. They don't believe in shell-shock. You'd be surprised how many army Medical Boards don't.'

Rivers snorted. 'Oh, I don't think I would. Anyway, you're going back. You've got what you wanted.'

'At the moment I can't wait to see the back of England.'

'Any particular reason?'

'It's nothing really. I just had my fur rubbed up the wrong way.' He hesitated. 'Manning took me to meet Robert Ross. I don't know whether you've met him? Through Sassoon?'

'Briefly.'

'I liked him, he was charming - I wasn't keen on some of his friends.'

Rivers waited.

'One in particular. Apparently he'd been stood up by his boyfriend - he'd been expecting an amorous weekend - and the poor chap had decided it wasn't worth the train fare from Leeds. And this man - Birtwhistle, his name is - was saying, ''Of course one can't rely on them. Their values are totally different from ours. They're different species, really. The WCs.'' Smirk, smirk.'

Rivers looked puzzled.

'Working classes. Water-closets. The men who're getting their ballocks shot off so he can go on being the lily on the dung heap. God, they make me sick.'

'I'm sure you more than held your own.'

'No, I didn't, that's what bothers me. It all got tangled up with being a guest and being polite. To Ross, of course, not him. Anyway I decided to give this prat a run for his money so we adjourned upstairs afterwards.'

'You and Manning?'

'No, me and Birtwhistle. Birtwhistle and I.'

'It doesn't sound much like punishment.'

'Oh, it was. Nothing like sexual humiliation, Rivers. Nobody ever forgets that.'

Rivers looked into the trustless eyes, and thought, My God, I wouldn't want to cross you. Though he had crossed him many times, in the course of therapy, and refused more than one invitation to 'adjourn upstairs'.

'I just wish your last evening had been pleasanter.'

Prior shrugged. 'It was all right. It just ... he happens to represent everything in England that isn't worth fighting for. Which made him a rather bracing companion.' He glanced at his watch. 'I'd better be going. I'm catching the midnight train.'

Rivers hesitated. 'Please don't think because I personally would have recommended another three months in England that I don't have every confidence in your ability to ... to ...'

'Do my duty to King and country.'

'Yes'

'Rivers, you don't think I should be going back at all.'

Rivers hesitated. 'The Board at Craiglockhart recommended permanent home service and that wasn't because of your nerves, it was on the basis of your asthma alone. I haven't seen anything to make me change my mind.'

Prior looked at him, smiled, and slapped him on both arms. 'I've got to go.'

Rivers said slowly, as he went to get Prior's coat, 'Do you remember saying something to me once about the the the ones who go back b-being the real test cases? From the point of view of finding out whether a particular therapy works?'

'Yes, I remember.' Another smile. 'I was getting at you.'

'You always were. Well, it just occurs to me you're actually rather better equipped than most people to observe that process. I think you have great powers of detachment.'

' ''Cold-blooded little bastard,'' ' Prior translated, then thought for a moment. 'You're giving me a football to kick across, aren't you? You remember that story? The Suffolk's kicking a football across No Man's Land when the whistles blew on the Somme? Bloody mad.'

'No, the battle was mad. The football was sane. Whoever ordered them to do that was a very good psychologist.'

'The Ghost Road' is published by Viking at pounds 15

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea