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

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