The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
There were three of us, and he now made the fourth. We hadn't expected to add to our tight number: cliques and pairings had happened long before, and we were already beginning to imagine our escape from school into life. His name was Adrian Finn, a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and him to himself. For the first day or two, we took little notice of him: at our school there was no welcoming ceremony, let alone its opposite, the punitive induction. We just registered his presence and waited.
The masters were more interested in him then we were. They had to work out his intelligence and sense of discipline, calculated how well he'd previously been taught, and if he might prove "scholarship material." On the third morning of that autumn term, we had history class with Old Joe Hunt, wryly affable in his three-piece-suit, a teacher whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom.
"Now, you'll remember that I asked you to do some preliminary reading about the reign of Henry the Eighth." Colin, Alex and I squinted at one another, hoping that the question wouldn't be flicked, like an angler's fly, to land on one of our heads. "Who might like to offer a characterisation of the age?" He drew his own conclusion from our averted eyes. "Well, Marshall, perhaps. How would you describe Henry the Eighth's reign?"
Our relief was greater than our curiosity, because Marshall was a cautious
know-nothing who lacked the inventiveness of true ignorance. He searched for possible hidden complexities in the question before eventually locating a response.
"There was unrest, sir."
An outbreak of barely controlled smirking; Hunt himself almost smiled.
"Would you, perhaps, care to elaborate?"
Marshall nodded slow assent, thought a little longer, and decided it was no time for caution. "I'd say there was great unrest, sir."
"Finn, then. Are you up in this period?"
The new boy was sitting a row ahead and to my left. He had shown no evident reaction to Marshall's idiocies.
"Not really, sir, I'm afraid. But there is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event -- even the outbreak of the First World War, for example -- is that 'something happened.'"
"Is there, indeed? Well, that would put me out of a job, wouldn't it?" After some sycophantic laughter, Old Joe Hunt pardoned our holiday idleness and filled us in on the polygamous royal butcher.
At the next break, I sought out Finn. "I'm Tony Webster." He looked at me warily. "Great line to Hunt." He seemed not to know what I was referring to. "About something happening."
"Oh. Yes. I was rather disappointed he didn't take it up."
That wasn't what he was supposed to say.
Another detail I remember: the three of us, as a symbol of our bond, used to wear our watches with the face on the inside of the wrist. It was an affectation, of course, but perhaps something more. It made time feel like a personal, even a secret, thing. We expected Adrian to note the gesture, and follow suit; but he didn't.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf (2012)