The billet, a hut containing 30 beds on which, in little groups, sit soldiers, very raw, in uniform. All seem cowed, up against it. In the centre of the hut, a stove.
One of the young squaddies says, ‘Hey boys, I just seen a notice in the ablutions, know what it said? “Cheer up mate, it’s not all that bad, the first thirty two years are the worst!”’
I am in the airforce as a conscript.
The others cheer laconically, but without conviction.
‘Watch it!’ says someone. They fall silent, the conversation trickling into nothing, as the Corporal enters, a swarthy dark shortish waspish man, who drawls his speech in a sort of sadistic threat. He strides into the centre of the room, swiping with his cane at a pair of socks on a bed-head as he goes.
‘Right, this is it!’ he spits out. ‘Come up close so you can hear me. Look sharply, sit down. Now. Put that cigarette out. Right. This is it. Now, I don’t know what you blokes did in civvy street and I don’t want to know.’ He shouts, ‘A bloody scruffy bunch of bleeding articles.’ Then he’s quiet again. ‘I don’t know what you did in civvy street. I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I’m not a sadist. Unlike some persons in this camp. There’s one in A company. There’s one in I/C billet that’s scarcely a spit from the throat of the regimental mascot from here! Now I am not, repeat not, a sadist. A young boy died last week in the Naffi.’ He shouts, ‘You scruffy crowd, I don’t like you and I have you in me power!’
Ray, a lacksadaisical young Irishman, comes in with his washing things, semi-dressed in uniform and with a great clatter of boots. He stumbles against a bed as he edges his way into the group, not seeing the corporal who has now sat down.
‘What’s going on?’ asks Ray.
He places his hand on someone’s shoulder, then nods in ‘Here we are and ain’t life great’ style. Then he sees the Corporal, but is only slightly cowed.
The Corporal, ignoring him, says, ‘Now for a start I want one and six from each of you to pay for three broken windows.’
‘But they were broken before we got here!’ says Ray.
The Corporal turns, full of wrath, slowly acknowledging Ray’s existence.
‘Eh?’ asks the Corporal.
Ray says, ‘They were broken before we got here!’
‘What? Where’ve you been? They were broken before we got here what?’
‘They were broken before we got here, Sir.’
The Corporal now starts a long tirade quietly, slowly building to a crescendo. ‘You ignorant soldier, what are you, what are you? You ignorant soldier, what are you? Come along, answer me now. You ignorant soldier, what are you, what are you?’
‘An ignorant soldier.’
‘An ignorant soldier, what?’
‘An ignorant soldier, sir – Corporal!’
After a pause the Corporal continues, ‘It don’t matter very much when they were broken, is that understood?’
The Corporal walks meaningfully over to the window and kicks a glass pane out of it. He shouts, ‘I want two bob from each of you to pay for the four broken windows. Is there any complaints?’
No voice is raised. The Corporal surveys them angrily. ‘Is there any complaints? Answer me, all of you!’
‘No, Corporal,’ some people reply.
‘All of you!’ shouts the Corporal.
‘No, Corporal,’ shout the entire billet at the top of their voices.
The Corporal says, ‘That’s better. Now, general rules. You’ll be confined to this camp for three weeks, after that you’ll be let out on Sundays. You’ll do up your civilian clothes tonight in a parcel and send them home. That’s so any bright boys don’t think they’re going to crawl through the barbed wire fences and beat it. Breakfast is at 0700 hours. Eat your bloody breakfast. A bloke missed breakfast the other day, E WAS A BLOODY GENTLEMAN TOO GOING TO BE A BLOODY OFFICER! Soon as he got on the parade ground he came over weak, the Sergeant saw it, ordered him “double”, he doubled round the parade ground till he fell on his bayonet and he tore out his guts, the M.O. couldn’t see him, he crawled to the Naafi, the Naafi wasn’t open. Later he died stretched out on the Naafi piano, shouting for a cup of char. Always eat your breakfast. Right. These tables, I want them scrubbed and then planed, you, you and you get going with razor blades.’
A man standing next to Ray mistakes this for a joke and laughs slightly hysterically, ‘Razor blades?’
‘Razor blades, what? Any objections?’
‘Sorry, Corp, I thought you was joking, I mean.’
‘Listen Paddy, when I tell you to clean the table with razor blades it’s not because I want you to clean the table with razor blades. You know what it’s for? TO BREAK YOUR SPIRIT YOU LAZY IGNORANT BASTARDS! Like a wild mare! Is that understood?’
‘Yes what, you ignorant soldiers, what are you?’
‘Yes ignorant Corporal!’
‘Yes, what? Yes, what?’
The Corporal stalks around on tiptoe, shouting.
Some of those present appreciate Ray’s slip and, seeing this, the Corporal makes this pretext for a special attack.
‘Funny guy. I know your type, Paddy. Funny guy, I know you Paddy and I’ll remember you. Later we’ll have you sawing logs with a nailfile. Cut the lawns with nail scissors. Paint the latrines with a toothbrush. You won’t enjoy the next twelve weeks Paddy. Now I am not a sadist. And I could say to you, do your bit and I’ll do mine. But I won’t. I’m not going to, am I? I won’t say you co-operate with us and we’ll co-operate with you. No, the army’s not like that. CO-OPERATE OR ELSE! And I hope for your sakes that none of you here will have the misfortune ever to learn what we mean by – or else!’
He spits on the table. ‘Get that table clean.’
As Ray begins to clean it, the Corporal adds, ‘And don’t go thinking that you can desert either. We’ll catch you.’
Jeremy Sandford FanClub Archives
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