Jim’s first station in the war is calm, since the town his company is assigned hasn’t yet been “gas-shelled” or “deserted.” Some of the locals respect the soldiers, but others eye them suspiciously, wanting only to go on with their farming. Jim’s company is scheduled to join the frontlines on December 23rd. The night before, Clancy urges him to “break bounds” by sneaking off to a small nearby village, where there’s a little unofficial bar in the “shell of a bombed out farm-house.” Wanting always to follow the rules, Jim objects to the idea, but Clancy persuades him by saying, “Come on, mate, be a devil. We might all be dead by Christmas.” Laughing, he adds, “I tell yer, mate, in this world you’ve got t’ work round the edge of things, the law, the rules. Creep up from behind. The straight way through never got a man nowhere.”
Once again, Malouf encourages readers to consider the presence of boundaries, this time calling attention to the borders that define the confines of where Jim and Clancy are allowed to roam. Clancy wants Jim to “break bounds,” suggesting that “in this world” a person has to “work round the edge of things.” By saying this, he intimates that, unlike birds—who can fly “straight” to their destinations—humans must learn how to interact with the various borders that define their lives. Even if such demarcations are socially constructed, they still affect how people move about the world, so Jim is forced to learn how to “creep up from behind” and “work round the edge[s].”
Jim agrees to accompany Clancy to the bar. As they set off, a boy named Eric Sawney runs after them. An orphan who seems too young to be a soldier, Eric has latched onto Clancy and followed him everywhere he goes. “Where yous goin?” he asks now, and Clancy says, “Nowhere much, mate. We’re just walkin’ down our meal.” Eric sees through this, revealing that he knows they’re trying to sneak off to the bar and then asking to come along Though Clancy tries to suggest that he’s too young to drink, he eventually gives up and says Eric can join them.
The idea of youth and maturity is strange during war. After all, everybody in the military has been deemed old enough to kill and be killed. As such, the varying levels of innocence and maturity between the soldiers mean almost nothing, even if somebody like Eric seems much younger than everybody else. This is why Clancy stops trying to tell Eric he’s too young to drink.
At the bar, Clancy drinks hard liquor while Jim and Eric drink white wine sweetened with syrup—a drink Clancy mocks. As Eric gets increasingly drunk and sleepy, Clancy tells Jim a long story about his escapades as a philanderer. To his surprise, though, Jim discovers—after having tuned out for a moment—that Clancy has suddenly started talking about a specific woman who seems to have had a significant effect on him. “Margaret she was called,” he says before abruptly stopping. “So there you are. I joined up the next day.” With this, he stands up and rouses Eric, and the three soldiers make their way back. The next day, they set out for the frontlines.
The fact that Jim drinks the same sweetened drink as Eric suggests that, like the young orphan, he isn’t all that mature. This is a reminder that Jim is only twenty years old—and does not yet have a refined palate for alcohol. On another note, this evening in the bar lays the groundwork for Jim’s friendship with both Clancy and Eric. Although these two men aren’t necessarily the kind of people Jim would normally spend time with, the terror of war and the feeling of mutual fear brings these three soldiers together.