One man's quiet life is shattered when he's forced to confront terrifying secrets he'd thought buried high in the Italian Alps
The New York Times has called his work "daring and remarkably assured," The Washington Post has dubbed it "shamelessly entertaining," and the Los Angeles Times claims it renders "the raw elegence of the human experience itself." Now Paul Watkins returns with his most engaging and atmospheric novel yet. The ice soldier of the title is one William Bromley. Following a disasterous turn in the Alps during the Second World War, William has constructed for himself a quiet and lonely life as a history teacher at a London boarding school. For different reasons, he and his best friend Stanley have given up the world of mountaineering for a more peaceful existence. Peaceful that is, until a soldier from William's mountain regiment reappears, tragedy occurs, and a terrible bargain is made. Slowly, the horrifying events of the war come back to William, and he realizes what he must do. He is to confront his worst fears and memories by returning to the glaciers and peaks of northern Italy.
The little-known role of the army's mountaineer corps comes brilliantly to life in this story of men pushed to the limits of endurance and survival, and haunted by the ghosts of war.
"Paul Watkins is without question one of the most gifted writers of his generation." —Tobias Wolff
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
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About the Author
Paul Watkins is the author of nine novels, including The Forger, Archangel, and Night over Day over Night, as well as the memoir Stand Before Your God. He attended the Dragon School at Eton and Yale, and currently lives with his family in Princeton, New Jersey, where he teaches at the Peddie School and Lawrenceville Academy.
Paul Watkins is the author of many novels, including The Forger, Archangel, and Night over Day over Night, as well as the memoir Stand Before Your God. He attended the Dragon School at Eton and Yale, and currently lives with his family in Princeton, New Jersey, where he teaches at the Peddie School and Lawrenceville Academy.
Read an Excerpt
The Ice Soldier
By Paul Watkins
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2006 Paul Watkins
All rights reserved.
IS HE DEAD?"
I opened my eyes.
The face of an old woman came slowly into focus.
I knew I wasn't dead.
What I didn't know was how I came to be lying on a rain-soaked London street in June of 1950.
My name is William Bromley and, until that moment, I had lived secure in the belief that the gods were looking out for me.
Firstly, through nothing more than luck, I had survived the war.
Secondly, despite the fact that jobs were far from plentiful, I had a steady post as a teacher at a small private school in London called St. Vernon's. This provided me with long holidays and time to take advantage of my membership at the Montague Club, where I had many acquaintances but very few close friends. Nor did I have any romantic attachments, which suited me just fine.
Thirdly, I had a place in the country, where I could spend my holidays. This was thanks to my father, who lived in a quiet Cotswold village named Painswick. When the school term ended, I traveled there by train and spent my days rambling through the woods, or hiking up a bald-topped hill that overlooked the distant mountains of Wales.
It does not sound like a very exciting kind of life, and indeed it wasn't. I'd had all the excitement I wanted for one lifetime in September of 1944. I felt like a man who had once been granted three wishes by a turbaned, cross-legged genie out of a lamp, and who had since spent two of those wishes just to stay alive. I kept that third wish in reserve, hoping that I'd never have to rub the magic lamp again.
Up to now, everything had been going more or less perfectly, but one thing the gods will not stand for is the joy of perfection among us mortals. Even the tiniest whiff of such contentment and they begin to scheme, plotting the chaos that will bring this happiness to an end. It is a law of the universe that anything perfect must be wrecked for its audacity in claiming to be so.
Something you can say in the gods' favor is that they aren't boring in the way they go about wrecking it. Each time, they use a different strategy. This keeps life interesting, I suppose, during those dull days up on Mount Olympus. Their methods even have a morbid sense of humor, although if you are, as I was, the butt of the joke, it's sometimes hard to see it at the time.
IT WAS A FRIDAY afternoon. I had finished up my classes for the week. The history papers I'd collected from my students remained in an uncorrected clump inside the old Hardy fishing bag I used as a school satchel. The bag was a heavy thing, its leather and canvas stiffened from afternoons spent slung across my back when I sat in the rain on the banks of the river Cherwell, taking a break from my studies at Oxford to tempt a few pike out of the tea-brown water. And the Parker 51 pen I used for marking, with ink that advertised itself as "red" but which looked to me more like fresh blood as it flowed from the little gold nib, remained tucked inside my chest pocket. Until Sunday evening, that pen and those papers would remain untouched.
As I did every Friday afternoon during the school year, I made my way downtown to the Montague, where I planted myself in a chair close to the radiator. This was where I always sat, with my back to the wall and a good view of the entranceway.
Barber arrived soon after, bearing a tray on which lay the daily paper while two bottles of Château Figeac teetered back and forth with the motion of his shuffling feet.
Barber was the caretaker of the club and he had held his post for longer than most of the club's members had been alive. Old age meant that he was more taken care of than he was actually taking care. When you asked him for something, he would usually wander off, forget what he'd been asked for, and you would find him asleep in the library half an hour later.
Barber had the look of someone who had once been more substantial but had been worn away by the years, as a piece of glass is scuffed down by the sea. Now he was a student of his own disintegration, and often spent hours just staring at his hands, which were anchored to his wrists like two small, featherless birds.
This particular day was a cause for celebration, because Barber had remembered not only to bring me the correct paper, but even the right kind of wine. The contents of these bottles was to be shared with my best friend, Stanley Carton. Soon he would come through the door, shaking the rain from his umbrella and shivering dramatically, something he did no matter what the weather was outside, in a way that always reminded me of an old blackbird ruffling its wings. Then he would stride towards me across the red-carpeted room, eyes widening as they adjusted to the soothing darkness of the czar's green walls.
Once we had dispensed with any gossip about old schoolmates, most of whom were also members of the Montague, we would settle down to our drinks. Over the next few hours, we would polish off the wine. At the end of this we would, with great solemnity, forgive the world for all its many sins.
By Monday, all bets would be off and the world would have returned to its previous unforgiven state. But on Friday afternoons, Stanley and I made our peace with the planet, which always seemed easier to do after six glasses of Bordeaux.
Glancing at the paper, I read the grim announcement that North Korean troops had crossed the border into South Korea and seemed to be ignoring the United Nations Security Council's demands that they withdraw. Unsettling as this news appeared, I was still getting over the war I had finished with only a few years before, and had no room in my head for contemplating another. My eyes drifted to the story of a British climbing expedition soon to depart for Patagonia.
At that moment Stanley appeared. He handed his coat and umbrella to Barber and marched towards his seat, pausing only long enough to give his trademark shiver.
Stanley had a long Roman nose, blond hair so fair as to seem white, and sleepy-looking eyes which were never quite as asleep as they seemed. He was extremely agile and moved with fluid, catlike motions. He was also incredibly stubborn, which meant that he never did much of anything unless he felt like doing it. If he had ever shown interest in sports at school, he would have been an excellent long-distance runner, but Stanley was not inclined to be ordered about in the rain by a man with a whistle and a starter pistol.
It was this combination of stubbornness and agility which had later made him into such a good mountaineer, a sport neither he nor I discovered until university. In the mountains, he had no one to obey except himself, which was as close as a man like Stanley could ever get to heaven. For a while, it had seemed as if mountaineering would become a lifelong fascination to us both. But circumstances had changed. Now those climbing days were a thing of the past and we had become, each in our own way, outcasts from the mountaineering community. What we'd once had in common as climbers, we now shared as two people who no longer climbed. We even referred to our binges at the Montague as "The Weekly Meeting of the Society of Former Mountaineers."
I had known Stanley for most of my life, not only from Oxford but from Eton and the Dragon School before that. Spend fifteen years elbow to elbow with another person and there isn't much mystery left in either of you, though it does permit you to sit together in silence, which is a thing more difficult to achieve than any art of conversation. This was one of the foundations of our friendship and the reason I so valued our time at the club.
Stanley came to a stop in front of my chair and gave a ridiculous salute. "What is your plan for the evening, Mr. Bromley, sir?"
I looked up at him. "My plan is to drink heavily and agree with everything you say."
"Excellent decision!" He slid into the opposite chair, snatching the paper from my grasp as he sank into the leather cushions. "And how are the pigeons?" he asked.
I had ongoing strife with pigeons on the windowsill of my flat. "Bloody pigeons," I said. "One of these days ..." I made a gun with my thumb and index finger.
"And unlike most people I know who threaten to shoot things, mostly me, you actually possess a gun."
Quite illegally, I had held on to my Webley pistol from the war. It presently resided in a seldom-opened trunk under my bed, along with several other worn-out pieces of kit from my days in the service.
Stanley opened the paper with a dramatic rustle. "What's wrong with the world today?"
"Korea's gone all to hell," I replied.
Stanley glanced at the headlines. "Silly buggers," he said as his eyes wandered across the page. "And as for the mountains of Patagonia ..." He folded the paper and skimmed it onto the windowsill. "They're just another pile of rocks as far as I'm concerned."
I knew perfectly well that he could have found Korea on the map. It was simply his way of reaching the same conclusion as I had when I read the news. He knew where Patagonia was, as well, just as he knew the whereabouts of every other mountainous region on the planet. This, too, he felt obligated to deny.
Just after I gave up climbing, it used to be that any talk of mountains would unsettle me. Lately, though, I was pleased to find that it had less and less of an effect. To prove it to myself, I rolled a smoke. With steady hands I held the fragile paper along the line of my thumb and index finger. Then I sprinkled into it just the right pinch of tobacco, swiped my tongue along the edge of the paper, and rolled the cigarette shut.
"You know," said Stanley, "I don't understand why you still use that little tin as your tobacco box."
My "little tin" was in fact a ration box given out to all Special Operations soldiers in the war. The box was painted green, although most of the paint had worn off by now, revealing the gray glimmer of bare metal underneath. Stamped into the lid of the tin were the words EMERGENCY RATION. PURPOSE OF CONTENTS: TO BE CONSUMED ONLY WHEN NO OTHER RATIONS OF ANY KIND ARE PROCURABLE. NOTICE: NOT TO BE OPENED EXCEPT BY ORDER OF AN OFFICER.
The contents, two hard bricks of gritty-tasting chocolate, had long ago been consumed. I'd kept the tin all the way through to the end of the war and saw no need to break the habit now. It was just the right size for storing tobacco and fit neatly in my coat pocket. This was the practical reason for keeping it, though not the only reason.
To me, the little box had become a mark of my survival. Its dents and scratches were more of a medal than the one I kept in its velvet-lined presentation box.
"It's all bashed up," continued Stanley, swishing the wine through his teeth, which he did every time before he swallowed, as if he were trying out some new flavor of mouthwash. "We ought to take a walk down to Asprey's and get you a decent one. You don't have to roll your own anymore, either." As if to emphasize his point, he had by now fished out his own silver case and was tapping a prerolled cigarette vigorously on his monogrammed initials.
It was not Stanley's fault that he could not grasp the meaning of the box. I had been the one to change, not Stanley, not the club, not the mountains that we used to climb before I went away to war.
Stanley had not gone to fight, and that was why he could not understand. His father had pushed him to join the same regiment in which he and a long line of men in the Carton family had served. But the father's gentle and then not-so-gentle persuasion fell on deaf ears. Stanley announced that he would refuse to join up with his father's regiment, or any other regiment for that matter. The idea of a conscientious objector in the family so horrified his father, who ran a factory that canned meat for the army, that Stanley was hurriedly installed in the company as his father's "personal assistant." The war made Stanley's father a very wealthy man. The Bully Beef his father canned was a mash of pasty white fat and lurid red flesh. It was standard issue to the troops, no matter where they were serving. Soldiers in the jungles of Burma poured it in a greasy liquid from heat-bloated tins and men in the Arctic hacked the meat from its metal housing with the tips of bayonets.
As an employee of this vital company, Stanley had the right to wear a brass badge that read ON WAR SERVICE. By wearing the badge on his lapel, he was able to fend off the ugly stares of men in uniform, or women handing out white feathers, which signified cowardice, to any man wearing civilian clothes who looked as if he ought to be a soldier.
He was proud of this badge and kept the brass highly polished, so that it stood out against his dark jacket. As soon as the war was over, however, he threw that badge off Waterloo Bridge, spinning it out across the water like a skipping stone. Since he had discarded this once-powerful trinket, it made sense to Stanley that I should also put away the relic of my own war days.
But it did not make sense to me. I was not yet ready. Nor was I the only one.
Under the shirt of the bowler-hatted banker who managed my meager accounts still hung the remains of his dog tags. At the school where I taught, the head groundskeeper carried a bullet that had nearly ended his life. It hung on the end of a watch chain straddling his waistcoat pockets. The head of the school's math department slept with a Luger beneath his pillow. And I wouldn't part with my emergency-ration box.
Now and then, as I traveled on the train to my father's home in Gloucestershire, I would be fixing myself a cigarette and sense that someone was watching me. I'd raise my head and come eye to eye with some old soldier, who knew exactly what the box was, and what it meant to carry one.
Having been with us in those moments when we stood on the verge of oblivion, these talismans served to remind us that we were still alive. Sometimes the only way to avoid being overwhelmed by what we had seen was to cling to those symbols of the days when we had taken life for granted, which none of us could ever do again.
I could have told Stanley all this, but I doubted he would understand. For the same reason, I'd never spoken to him in any detail about what had happened on the mountaineering expedition which had closed that chapter of my life for good.
I carried on rolling my smoke.
By now, Stanley was stretched out in his chair, feet up on a cushioned stool and joined heels making a V with his outward-pointing toes. He puffed his cheeks and noisily exhaled.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"I'm in love," he sighed, the way a person might confess to having lost too much money at the races.
I made a vague attempt to sit up. "Sounds serious," I said.
"Oh, it is," he replied.
"Well, who's the lucky girl?" I asked. I wasn't completely sure I wanted to know. One didn't normally discuss one's romances at the club. You could talk about almost anything else, but not about love.
"Her name," said Stanley, "is Helen Paradise."
"Hell and Paradise?"
"Helen," he said slowly. "Hel-en. You've got the Paradise part right, though."
"You're kidding," I told him. "What kind of name is that?"
"French, I think. The name used to be Paradis." He pronounced it Paradee. "But then they came over here and changed it."
"Paradise," I said. "You're bloody joking."
"Paradise," he sighed again. "It's true."
"She's giving a lecture series at my uncle's club."
I gritted my teeth in anticipation of the tirade which usually followed the mention of Stanley's uncle.
The man's name was Henry Carton and he was president of the London Climbers' Club. Many years ago, Carton had made a name for himself as a mountaineer. He was best known for having scaled a previously unclimbed peak in the Alps and for nearly dying in the process.
It was Carton who had first drawn me and Stanley to climbing, and we were not the only ones. Few people had done as much as Carton to ensure the popularity of mountaineering, not only with those who climbed but also with those who had never, and would never, set foot in the mountains.
Excerpted from The Ice Soldier by Paul Watkins. Copyright © 2006 Paul Watkins. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the story of a man who used to climb mountains. He stopped climbing after he leads a doomed mission up a mountain during world war II. When he stops climbing he also stops living. Through a series of events he must return to the same mountain and face the memories he is avoiding. I really liked this book.