Too tired after Tai Chi to discover what I think today, so here’s a story instead… a soldier’s life is terrible hard, said Alice – when Christopher Robin went down to the Palace! It didn’t seem that way to me when I joined the army at eighteen.
I’d left school, and was mooning around at home not knowing how to get myself to university. I didn’t think I was pretty enough to be a model, or clever enough to be a nurse, so uni seemed the only option; until the day my military father came home and told me he’d made an appointment for me with the local recruiting officer. To say I was flabbergasted would be only a partial description. I was also deeply depressed, but consoled myself with the thought that at least I’d be earning money so I could buy books and records and bury myself in them.
So I signed up, and went off to be tested to see if I was officer material. And there I had a pleasant surprise – though I was the youngest, everyone else was young and full of fun – life began to look up. So when I continued to drive my parents mad dreaming around the place waiting for the date to join up, and my father would utter with relish threats like: “they’ll wake you up when you join the army”, and: “you’re going to get the shock of your life when you get there”, I wasn’t too worried.
I got there on the wrong day, just as I’d got the dates wrong all my life, taking half term holidays when every-one else was at school, arriving to catch the plane as it landed the other end, taking a train to Chester instead of York, or Birmingham instead of Cardiff. Everyone had given up meeting me off trains, because it was so unlikely that I’d be on the right one.
So my unheralded arrival at the depot caused great consternation, and several anxious conferences I discovered later. It was decided to park me with the recruit company which was already half way through its training. The quartermaster resolutely refused to issue me with a uniform, because it would screw up her account books, but was prevailed upon to allow me a pair of shoes in order to do all the marching I was about to embark on.
Not knowing the procedure, when they took me to the quartermaster’s stores, I took fitting my shoes as seriously as though I was in Russell and Bromley buying some fabulously expensive gear. I pinched the toes, checked the heels, worried about the width, and walked up and down trying several different ones for size, while the quartermaster’s staff looked on in dumb disbelief, and allowed me to get away with it, since I was obviously away with the fairies! Later I discovered that it was just a question of saying your size and taking what you were given. Innocence was bliss…
I was then escorted to the barrack-room, with a corporal helping me to carry my stuff. As we neared the entrance, I heard the clatter of seventy pairs of shoes thundering along wooden floors, and can still remember my subconscious thought, “ Oh, they must have taken the carpets away for cleaning”…
Since the Quartermaster – a fearsome figure – had dug her toes in over my uniform, I had to trail around at the end of the squad in my red raincoat, the only thing I’d brought with me. Every time the Colonel – another fearsome figure – saw my red mac, it was worse than a red rag to a bull, because she then trounced the Adjutant for the incompetence of everyone down the chain of command who hadn’t issued me with uniform. Thus, unbeknown to me, I became famous or rather, infamous throughout the depot.
Meanwhile I solemnly got on with the job of being a recruit, with a lot of help from my fellows, who thought I was going to be a clerk or a cook like them. Since I was out of sequence with the other officer cadets, I was in with a room of diverse and fascinating girls, some escaping the slums, some escaping their parents, others escaping an unhappy marriage, or a cruel employer. There were also two girls from the Gorbals, the notorious Glasgow slums, whose speech was salted with curses and swear words – most of them new to my ears.
One night, after another exhausting day of “by the right, by the left”, right wheeling, left wheeling, right form, and lectures, with the same programme on offer the next day, I got tired of their strident voices and obscenities keeping us all awake while we tried to get our much needed sleep. So I said very crisply in my pukka Queen’s English, down the length of the barrack room – “Good Bloody Night”. There followed a deafening silence and I went straight off to sleep.
At lunch-time the next day, a deputation from the barrack room came to me, and asked me very seriously not to be corrupted, and start using bad language. They gently told me I’d been brought up properly, and they didn’t want me to be influenced by people who didn’t know any better!I promised them I’d be a good girl, thinking of my father, and wondering if he would think I was getting that shock to the system that was going to wake me up!
Because I’d muddled up my dates, when I emerged as a fully fledged recruit, my fellow officer cadets were still some weeks behind me, so I was a spare wheel. They invented a temporary rank for me, and I was called a Senior Private. I had the job of marching the new recruits to the cookhouse, which was no sinecure, because you had to remember the right military words of command, shout them loud enough for a long column to hear, and get them timed for the right feet to come to a halt in sequence.
My counting was a shambles, so they stumbled instead of coming to a brisk halt, and the worst time was when we’d reached the cook house and I couldn’t remember the word for Halt! Finally, as they were in danger of piling up against the door, continuing to march with no word of command to halt them, I shouted “Stop!” in desperation, and I could hear them all muttering things like, “we didn’t get the right foot… she didn’t give us the right command… what’s wrong with her”… responsibility is a terrible thing, I would have told Alice.
By now I was in a new barrack room with all the tough old hands, and one morning in the first week, someone dropped their highly polished shoes for parade, and exclaimed: “Shit”. There was a heavy intake of breath around the room, and then silence. She turned to me, and said “I’m sorry”. “Why apologise to me?” I asked in amazement. “Because we all decided we wouldn’t swear when you came into this room,” she said!
My poor father would have been sadly disappointed – coddled and protected, when was I going to wake up! Well, that’s another story! But a soldier’s life was terrible fun!
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Feeling chilled after getting back from Tai Chi on another cold night, I decided to spoil myself as I collapsed into bed. Hot chocolate flossied up with some orange essence drops, since I hadn’t got a fresh orange, some drops of vanilla essence, and a tot of kahlua. I slept like a top.
Food for Thought
It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. Virginia Woolf 1882 -1941 renowned writer who pushed the boundaries of literature.