‘Dear Mam, I am bulling my boots’
‘Dear Son, Why are you bulling your boots?’
‘Dear Mam, I am bulling my boots because the Sergeant says that I must’
‘Dear Son, Why does the sergeant say that you must?’
‘Dear Mam, Because he is a bastard’
‘Dear Son, you should not say things like that about your Sergeant, I am sure
that he really loves you all.’
‘Dear Mam, But he told us that he was. He said my name is Bartlett spelt
‘Dear Son, You should know by now that English sergeants cannot spell, they
haven’t had the benefits of a good Welsh education’
‘Knock it off, Taff’ came a shout from across the barrack room, ‘he probably went to one of our best Approved Schools.’
‘Taff’ looked up from his boots and smiled ‘ You shouldn’t read private correspondence, you know’ his soft North Walian lilt in contrast with the harsh cockney tones of ‘Dem’ Haggerstone.
‘Dem’ owed his nickname to a popular song of the moment ‘Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones’. He had acquired it courtesy of a fellow cockney’s wit when Lance Bombardier Button had constantly referred to him as Haggardbones.
Taff’s letters home were a source of constant amusement to the barrack room. He would sit quietly on his bed dealing with some aspect of his kit and conduct prolonged epistolatory exchanges with his long-suffering mother. When the not overly intelligent ‘Smudger’ Smith had asked why he didn’t actually put pen to paper ‘Taff’ had replied ‘ Well you see man, she spends all day on the mountainside looking after the sheep.’ Leaving Smudger totally bewildered and the rest of the barrack room smiling.
Pat Wreathe laid out his brasses on a clean duster spread over his pillow and gazed at them critically, ‘Ah lovely; Shakespeare did say ‘all that glisters is not gold’ but at the moment I am more than content with glistening brass.’
‘You and Shakespeare’ came from ‘Rocket’ Mitchell, who claimed to have been a get-away driver for a gang of criminals before his call up, ‘I’ll bet if somebody mentioned a bank sodding Shakespeare would have said something about it. What did Shakespeare know about banks?’
‘ He knew about banks and did indeed say something about banks’ said Pat and quoted
‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’
‘Barlocks’ said Rocket and went back to his boots, displeased that no one seemed impressed by his willingness to tell them more lurid tales of high drama on London’s streets.
‘Two’s up on the iron Roy’ called Angus Murray, a qualified chartered accountant reduced to humble gun number. ‘Roy’ nodded, ‘Shan’t be long’ He was diligently pressing carefully soap lined creases into the trousers of his best B.D. His nickname came from the day when the same Lance Bombardier had threatened him with; ‘Rogers I’ll kick you all the way to cowboy land where you belong with a name like that.’ With the innocence that masked mischief Rogers had asked ‘Which part Bombardier?’ and had attracted the reply ‘Where the bloody cows are of course’.
Les. Tee was meticulously preparing his kit display on his bed having already made up his mind that he was going to sleep on the floor in order to have a head start in the morning.
Two beds further along ‘Paddy’ Donnelly was laying out his kit display on his mattress placed on the floor, he had resolved to sleep on the springs of his bed using only his blankets for comfort. In the morning, with the help of his neighbour the mattress would be replaced on the bed and his bedroll made up.
Gunner T. A. Cutler, known to the barrack room as ‘Tintack’ began to sing quietly to himself as, with deep concentration, he struggled to square and align his webbing on the pegs beneath the shelf over his bed. ‘And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green……..
As if seeking solace from the mundane tasks associated with what the troop sergeant referred to as ‘interior economy’ other voices joined in conjuring diverse memories of schooldays, church choirs and radio services. The words began to swell to a climax, ‘ I will not cease from mental fight…’ when, with a violent bang, the door of the separate bunk that accommodated two Bombardiers was thrown open and Lance Bombardier Button, unaware of the incongruity of his appeal, bellowed ‘ For Christ’s sake this sounds like a effing church, it’s a bloody barrack room, sing a soldier’s song or shut up’ and he disappeared back into the privacy of his room. Dick Richardson smiled and struck up ‘My old man’s a gunner’ in which everyone joined with gusto giving full volume to the verse beginning ‘My old man’s a Lance Jack…’
‘I fear that we shall arouse the terrible wrath of the offended one yet again’ murmured Pat, lovingly polishing his cap badge, ‘ and if we do the vengefulness will be terrific’.
‘ Who upset him today I want to know?’ snarled Rocket ‘ you bloody clever buggers are all the same.’
‘The wrathfulness was truly terrific and all because we did what we were told’ responded Pat. ‘ He told us not to think for ourselves, I remember most distinctly, he said, ‘you are not here to think you are here to do as you are bloody well told’
‘He does love the Great Australian Adjective’ said Roy
‘What has Australia got to do with it?’ asked Smudger.
What are you on about?’ said Rocket, ‘he didn’t tell the three of you to lead the column through his precious flower borders’.
‘ He distinctly said straight ahead, so we obeyed him’ said Roy
‘You were lucky not to find yourselves on a fizzer’ snapped Rocket
‘Why?’ asked Dick, ‘ for obeying orders?’
‘You would have been if it weren’t pass out parade tomorrow’
‘And that my wise, perspicacious and perceptive friend is precisely why we obeyed his order to the letter’ smiled Pat.
‘What has Australia got to do with it?’ asked Smudger
‘It’s a poem, listen’ said Roy and launched into ‘The Great Australian Adjective’
‘A sunburnt bloody stockman stood,
And in a dismal bloody mood
Apostrophised his bloody cuddy,
This bloody moke’s no bloody good
He doesn’t earn his bloody food
Bloody, bloody, bloody’
‘But that’s all swearing’ said Smudger ‘It’s not poetry. We didn’t do poetry like that at school. Poetry is soppy stuff about daffodils and things. You having me on?’
‘Stop that bloody talking, get on with yer kit, I’m going to inspect it in five minutes’ came a voice from the N.C.O.’s bunk.
‘Told you so’ said Roy.
A brief hush descended only to be broken by ‘Jock’ Band, ‘Och damn the bluidy thing, I’ve got brasso on my belt’. In high dudgeon he grabbed the offending object and swept out.
‘You got a girlfriend back home Roy?’ asked Tintack ‘You’ve never mentioned one’
‘No, she dumped me second week at Oswestry, said she didn’t want to waste two years of her life waiting for me. I suppose yours will be pleased to see you’
‘I hope so, a little gratitude at my safe return will be much appreciated’
‘What about you Taff have you got a girlfriend waiting for you?’ asked Smudger
Taff looked up, ‘No, we ate her’
I said have you got a girlfriend?’ said Smudger with some exasperation.
‘And I said no, we ate her’
‘You Welsh bloody cannibals or something?’
By now the rest of the barrack room was listening intently as Taff played Smudger as a fisherman plays a trout.
‘ Lovely she was, all soft and warm. Lovely face, man, lovely face, big black eyes, soft curly hair and so tender. I remember the first time we made love. Oh man, it was on a mountainside, one evening. The sun was setting, sunlight glinting on the sea, not a soul in sight except the two of us. I pulled her to me, stroked her hair, oh boyo, there’s nothing like it. Then I looked up and saw her mother standing there looking at us.’
‘What did she say?’ asked Smudger, wide-eyed, mouth hanging open.
‘I shall never forget that moment, she stood there and said Baaaaaa’
The barrack room exploded into laughter
‘But that’s the noise a sheep makes’ said Smudger ‘It’s not funny, why didn’t she say something?’
‘Welsh sheep are different’ said Taff ‘ you know they have shorter legs on one side than the other so that they can stand level on the mountainside’
‘Garn!’ said Smudger
‘Look boyo’ said Taff ‘have you ever watched sheep run, that lot that came past as we were queuing for breakfast yesterday, didn’t you notice how they bounced like rocking horses?’
‘I did’ said Dick Richardson ‘I wondered what was wrong with them’
‘Oh, there was nothing wrong; they were a flock that feeds up and down the hillside rather than along it. Their front legs are shorter than the back ones’
‘Eh?’ said Smudger, now thoroughly hooked.
‘I know that for a fact’ said Roy ‘whenever my mother buys leg of lamb for lunch she always asks for a front one from a downhill sheep or a right side one from a mountain sider’
Smudger sat looking bewildered, his finger encased in a yellow duster on the tip of which he had just placed a layer of Kiwi boot polish. Thoughtfully he licked the polish and spat into the Kiwi tin before realising that he had missed his boot.
‘Lofty’ Morrison began to swear. For some time he had been trying to persuade some coins he had put into the magazine of his rifle to give off a satisfying rattle when he slammed his hand on the partially secured magazine at the present. Having failed with the coins he had put into the magazine the two small keys to the lock on his bedside locker.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Angus Murray walking past on his way to the ironing table.
‘Effing thing’s jammed, can’t get the magazine out’ muttered Lofty.
There was instant interest and sympathy. Lofty was something of a favourite in the barrack room. He was one of those left-handed unfortunates who could only walk or march by swinging his right arm and right leg at the same time. His height, awkwardness and thinness had made him a target for the parade ground invective that everyone dreaded. A natural right marker by virtue of his height, his inability to perform any drill movement effectively had seen him either hidden in the ranks or despatched to the sidelines to watch. The hope and suspicion was that once the troop was called to parade Lofty would be despatched on some mission that would keep him away from the march past.
A little group of sympathisers gathered round his bed trying to work out how to free the magazine. Not only had Lofty forced it part way in without realising that it was the wrong way round but one of the small, thin keys had chosen that moment to try to escape and had become jammed between the magazine and the rear lip. The magazine appeared to be immovable.
At that moment Lance Bombardier Button appeared.
‘Stand by your beds’
There was a hasty scuttle leaving Lofty exposed with his jammed rifle in his hands.
‘And what do you think you’re doing, Morrison?’ snarled the N.C.O.
‘My rifle’s jammed Bombardier’
‘Jammed, nonsense, let me have it. Not even you could jam a rifle’
He took the rifle and stared at the magazine, He tried to pull it out but it refused to budge. He peered more closely at it, ‘And what is this?’
‘A key Bombardier’
‘A key? And wot the ‘ell are you doing putting a key into your magazine?’
‘To make a noise at the present?’
‘To make a noise at the present.’ The N.C.O.’s voice was almost a whisper
‘To make a noise at the present? Morrison you effing numbskull, how can anything so thin be so thick? You prize clown………….’ The voice rose steadily to full N.C.O. auto-pilot mode and lacerated Morrison unmercifully achieving combinations of abuse and invective wonderful to behold, that gradually focused on the entire squad, an ignorant bunch of over educated misfits whose backs he would be glad to see disappearing through the gates.
‘Bombardier what is going on out here?’
The even less loved Bombardier Robertson appeared from the bunk.
Button turned round waving the jammed rifle
‘The f****** f***wit’s f****d the f****** f***** up’ he shouted.
‘Masterful, such clarity of exposition with such economy of vocabulary’ murmured Pat Wreathe