He sat down beside the boy, saying nothing for a moment, but then he saw Briarley's lip quiver and lifted his arm, resting it gently on the boy's shoulder. He said, at length, 'Was he a professional, Briarley?' and when Briarley nodded, 'We couldn't have held out this long without them, lad. They taught us everything we knew in the early days,' and then, when the boy made no reply, 'Do you care to tell me about him? I've served in the Lys sector twice. Maybe we met, spoke to one another.'
He could not be sure whether his presence brought any real comfort but it must have eased Briarley's inner tensions to some extent for presently he said, 'I didn't see a great deal of him, sir. When I was a kid he was mostly in India or Ireland. He came here once, on leave. Last autumn, it was. We… we sat here for a bit, waiting for the school boneshaker to take him to the station.'
'Did he talk about the war, Briarley?'
'No, sir, not really. He only…'
'He said if anything did happen, and he was crocked and laid up for a time, I was to be sure and do all I could to look after the mater while he was away.'
'Are you an only child, Briarley?'
'No, sir. I'm the only boy. I've got three sisters, one older, the others just kids.'
'Well, then, you've got a job ahead of you. Your mother is going to need you badly. That's something to keep in mind, isn't it?'
'Yes, sir. I suppose so, but…'
He began to cry silently and with a curious dignity, so that David automatically tightened his grip on the slight shoulders. There was no point in saying anything more. They sat there for what seemed to David a long time and then, with a gulp or two, Briarley got up. 'I'd better start packing, sir. Algy… I mean the headmaster said I was to go home today, ahead of the others. Matron's getting my trunk down from the covered playground…' And then, in what David thought of as an oddly impersonal tone, 'The telegram said “Killed in action", sir. What exactly – well, does that always mean what it says?'
'If it hadn't been that way it would have said “Died of wounds", and there's a difference.'
'Thank you, sir.' He was a plucky kid and had himself in hand again. He nodded briefly and walked back towards the head's house. David would have liked to have followed him, letting himself be caught up in the swirl of end-of-term junketings, but he could not trust himself to move. His hands were shaking again and his head was tormented by the persistent buzzing that always seemed to assail him these days in moments of stress. He said, explosively, 'God damn everybody! Where's the sense in it…? Where's the bloody sense, for Christ's sake?' And then, like Briarley, he was granted the relief of tears.