Shortlist 2014: The Undertaking

Read an extract from the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize shortlisted novel, The Undertaking

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The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

He dragged barbed wire away from the post, clearing a space on the parched earth, and took the photograph from the pocket of his tunic. He pressed the picture against the post and held it in place with string, covering the woman’s hair and neck, but not her face. He could still see that, still see her sullen eyes and sulking lips. He tied a knot, and spat at the ground. She would have to do.

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He lay down to soak up the last of the summer sun, indifferent to the swirling dust and grit, wanting only to rest, to experience the momentary nothingness of waiting. But he sat up again. The ground was too hard, the sun too hot. He lit a cigarette and stared into the shimmering heat until he located a rotund figure, its arms and legs working furiously, but generating little speed. The man arrived eventually, grumbling and panting, sweat dribbling onto the white of his clerical collar.

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‘Why are you so bloody far away?’ he said. ‘I wanted privacy.’

‘Well, you’ve got that. Is everything ready?’ ‘Yes.’

‘Let’s get on with it, then,’ said the chaplain. ‘We should make it just in time.’

He drew a pencil and piece of crumpled paper from his pocket. ‘Who is the groom, Private?’

‘I am.’

‘And your name?’

‘Peter Faber.’

‘And the witnesses?’ said the chaplain.

‘Over there,’ said Faber, pointing at three men curled up in sleep.

The chaplain walked over and kicked at them.

‘They’re drunk.’

Faber blew rings of smoke at the blue sky.

‘Are you drunk too, Faber?’

‘Not yet.’

The chaplain kicked harder. The men moved, grudgingly. ‘Right, we ’re doing this now. Put your cigarette out, Faber. Stand up. Show a little respect.’

Faber stubbed the cigarette into the soil, pressed his long, narrow hands against the earth and slowly got to his feet.

‘Hair out of your eyes, man,’ said the chaplain. ‘Who is it you’re marrying?’

‘Katharina Spinell.’

‘Is that her there? In the photograph?’

‘As far as I know.’

‘As far as you know?’

‘I’ve never met her.’

‘But you want to marry her?’

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘You’re keen.’

‘To escape this stinking hellhole.’

The priest wrote briefly, and returned the pen and paper to his pocket.

‘We can begin,’ he said. ‘Your helmet, Faber?’ ‘That’s it. On the ground. Next to the photograph.’

‘Gather round, men,’ said the priest. ‘Right hands on the helmet.’

They squatted in a small circle around the dirty, dented helmet, knees and elbows tumbling into each other.

‘Groom first.’

Faber placed his hand on the metal, but quickly took it off again. ‘It’s too bloody hot.’

‘Get on with it,’ said the chaplain. ‘It’s a minute to twelve at home.’

Faber pulled his sleeve over his hand.

‘The flesh of your hand, Faber. Not the sleeve.’

The priest picked up a fistful of earth and scattered it over the helmet. ‘There.’

‘Thank you.’

Faber replaced his hand, and the other men followed. The chaplain spoke, and within minutes Faber was married to a woman in Berlin he had never met. A thousand miles away, at exactly the same moment, she took part in a similar ceremony witnessed by her father and mother; her part in a war pact that ensured honey- moon leave for him and a widow’s pension for her in the event of his death.

‘That’s it,’ said the chaplain. ‘You’re now a married man.’

Each of the men shook his hand.

‘I need a drink,’ said Faber.

He picked up his helmet, but left the photograph and walked back to camp.

Read an extract from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah here

Read an extract from Hannah Kent's Burial Rites here

How many of the 2014 Baileys Women's prize shortlisted books have you read? Tweet us @ELLEUK #ELLEBookClub

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