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Day twenty-seven – Phew

November 27, 2017

Well, the panto’s over and, other than an exceedingly lame finale, it went better than I expected. Decided not to set the alarm when I went to bed last night. When I opened my eyes and looked at the clock, it was 3pm. Shit. Then I looked at the clock radio and realised it was actually quarter past noon. Okay, not great, but a lot better.

So, the final day of partially written novels.

In 2016, when I wrote An Unhelpful Complication to force my mate Charlie to do another play, people asked me where I’d got the idea. I told them it was one of many half sketched out novels I’d started after Unethical Practices when I thought there was a series to write with Tilly and Roger. This wasn’t true. Yes, I decided to have a character based on Tilly, the crusading journalist, then dreamt up a situation in which she could find herself. From that point on the play pretty much wrote itself. I don’t know why I lied about it. Perhaps it seemed too boastful to say I’d just come up with the idea and written the play in three days.

Anyway, when Charlie and I went for a beer after the Saturday night performance, he asked me how far I’d got with the original novel. I finally confessed there was no novel. He said he thought there should be, that it would be a cracking yarn. I was inclined to agree with him, so last spring I threw myself into the substantial amount of research that writing said novel would require. I even managed to produce the first chapter. Then it all just petered out as other efforts have in the past decade and I buried my disappointment in hours and hours of stupid fucking spider solitaire.

When my friend Darryl visited a couple of weeks ago, he voiced an interest in seeing the video of the play. After we watched it, he said – with no prompting from me – that it would make a good novel. Once again I was inclined to agree.

_____________________________

1950

Jack fucking loved the army. Not least because he could say “fuck” whenever he wanted. God Save the King and God bless the National Service.

Eighteen years old and suddenly free of the smug safety of Tunbridge Wells, free of his cloying, social climbing mother Dorothy, free of schoolrooms.  His mother had been appalled when he announced that he was going to do his National Service before taking up the university place he’d been offered. He had no interest in university. He’d had no interest in attending grammar school. He’d done his best to fail the test, but his best hadn’t been bad enough. Doubtless the fact that his father was the Classics and Latin master at said grammar school had played a role in his failure to fail the test.

His father Albert had understood. Too young for the first war, too old for the recent war, Arthur had agreed that getting his National Service behind him would be a good idea. Better now than when he was a graduate. And Arthur understood duty. He’d spent the war years teaching by day and patrolling the blackout at night.

And so Jack had reported to the Royal East Kent Regiment where he was given a medical examination that consisted mostly of “grab your balls and cough” and a cursory intelligence test. The army didn’t want to turn away too many conscripts. You never knew when Johnny Foreigner might kick off again.

The young servicemen were informed there were two options available to them: they could carry on with their eighteen months of National Service or they could go over to the recruitment desk and sign on for a three-year stint in the regular army. Despite the offer of better pay, Jack was only one of two young men who signed up straight away. The other lad wanted paid training to become a motor mechanic. Jack simply decided that three years away from the twitching lace curtains of Tunbridge Wells was twice as good as eighteen months. His mother was even more appalled when he told her, not that he cared. He’d escaped. He could finally be Jack.

The first time his sergeant screamed abuse in his face, Jack had wanted to punch him, but he’d already seen where that would lead, so he’d simply blinked and agreed that he was indeed a stupid fucking fairy. He got the drill, understood the point of all the verbal abuse.

Basic training wasn’t exactly a doddle, but his years on the grammar school’s rugby pitch had left him reasonably fit and accustomed to spending time in mud. He became the fastest in his platoon at stripping apart and reassembling his Bren gun. A particular aptitude for hand-to-hand combat was duly noted.

Despite the knackered, stupefied state of most of the conscripts by the end of the day’s marches, the NCOs believed in diversions. That’s where the twice weekly football matches came in, pitting platoons against one another. Jack had in his younger days kicked a ball around, but this wasn’t his game and he wasn’t a particularly useful player. Fortunately there were other lads in his platoon who played well enough that they regularly won.

Then there were the weekly boxing matches. Jack was ready for them.

Two years earlier, a Saturday night, spent like most in the pub with the rest of the rugby team. Broad shouldered and six foot two, sixteen-year-old Jack had no difficulty getting served. They’d won soundly that afternoon, this particular celebration more testosterone-fuelled than most. Jack stayed later than usual, had to make a mad dash for the bus stop. As he approached it he could see two louts pressing a girl up against a wall. The girl was pleading with them to leave her alone. Jack had no qualms about wading in, confident he could take them both on. He called a warning, which they ignored, then he hauled one of the louts away from the girl. His reward was a powerful gut punch which immediately forced five pints of bitter out of his stomach, up his throat, spewed out on his attacker and himself. There were a number of blows to his head from both louts before a kidney punch put Jack on the ground, curled up in the foetal position to protect himself from the worst of the kicks.

The bus pulled up. The girl scrambled on. The bus driver shouted that he was radioing the police. The louts took off. Jack pushed himself painfully into a sitting position. “You getting on, lad?” the driver asked. Jack shook his head, mumbled something about needing another bus, which wasn’t true. He knew he’d have an hour to wait before the next bus came. He knew the louts could come back and finish him off, but the truth was he simply could not stand up, did not want the sympathy of the girl or the other passengers at his humiliation. The bus pulled away, leaving Jack sitting on the ground. The girl waved and smiled, mouthed a thank you. Jack managed to raise one hand to wave back.

“You should have found a police call box,” his mother said when he eventually got home.

“Oh, yes?” Jack replied, wincing as she cleaned his bleeding wounds. “And what would have happened to the girl while I was waiting for the police?”

“You should not have got involved,” his mother insisted.

“Oh, for god’s sake, Dorothy,” said his father, who seldom contradicted his wife. “Of course he should have got involved. What if it was your daughter?” Not that there was a daughter, but the point was made. His mother pursed her lips and went back to cleaning Jack’s wounds.

Even a smug town like Tunbridge Wells had its less salubrious quarter and that is where the boxing gym was located. Jack took many more punches before he became the one successfully doing most of the punching.

As he was leaving the gym a year later, Jack spotted the gut-punching lout coming out of a bookies. Jack followed him until the lout took a short cut through and alley. Then he tapped him on the shoulder. “Remember me?” he asked. The lout clearly didn’t, which enraged Jack even more. His knuckles were bleeding by the time he’d finished. The lout’s mother would have a hard time recognising him.

So, yes, Jack did very well in the regimental boxing matches.

Somewhere along the line someone had decided Jack was potential officer material and so, after his three months of basic training, he was duly dispatched to a decaying manor house in Wiltshire to undergo the War Office Selection Board battery of tests.

Jack wanted to make the grade. He wasn’t regretting his decision to sign on for three years, but he had quickly realised that doing so as a buckshee private offered little scope. The NCOs were fine. They were just doing their job, but even they had to take orders from the public school prats who seemed to make up the bulk of the officer corps. Jack did not want to spend three years saluting these pillocks.

The first morning at Leighton House involved tests of physical endurance. The afternoon had been devoted to a series of verbal psychological tests: likes and dislikes featured heavily.  As his parting words, Sergeant Duff of the Buffs had warned Jack to not be a bloody fairy. They were past that particular stage of insults by then, so Jack had considered Duff’s words carefully. Whilst he was reasonably certain he’d never met a homosexual, he knew they existed. And he knew the Army didn’t want ’em. The likes and dislikes test was an almost pathetically obvious attempt to weed out homosexuals. Jack made sure not to like flower arranging or silk sheets.

And then there was the dinner: not the usual huge splodge of stodge on a tray, but a proper, sit down meal. For the first time in his life, Jack was grateful to his mother for her determination to turn him into a proper gentleman. He knew he spoke well. Perhaps not Oxbridge, but close enough. More importantly, as he noted the senior officers noting, he knew which bit of cutlery was used for what. Which was just as well, because all the public school buggers at the table also knew.

More physical endurance tests the next morning, followed by an interrogation session in the cavernous cellars of Leighton House. The interrogation involved electric shocks applied to his fingers. Years later he would be told by the officer in charge that he’d taken more shocks than any other candidate – ever.

A far from friendly rugby match in the afternoon. Jack scored three tries and two penalties. As he left the field a colonel patted him on the back and enquired about other sports.

Jack knew he could boast of considerable prowess in the boxing ring, but he also knew boxing was considered a sport for the lower ranks. “Spin bowler, sir,” Jack said.

“Really?” asked the colonel. “Good to know.”

Jack was reasonably sure he was in.

On their final evening at Leighton House, as what they were told was a reward, there was to be a formal dinner and dance, complete with a selection of Wiltshire’s finest young ladies. They arrived in a coach, all dressed in pastel frocks with matching head bands. Jack was partnered with a horse-faced girl named Cecily, who brayed like a donkey. Just as well, he thought, as he was fairly certain that far from being a reward, this was a final test to establish his credentials as a gentleman. Being a gentleman with Cecily posed no difficulty, as it might have been with one of the prettier girls paired off with the public school lads.

He complimented her on her frock, when he could have more honestly told her yellow really was not her colour. He listened attentively as she prattled on about the local hunt and the doings of the local gentry, of which she was clearly a member.

At the end of dinner he escorted Cecily into the ballroom. For the second time since donning an Army uniform, he found himself grateful to Dorothy. Although he’d rebelled at the age of fourteen, made it clear he did not care what punishment this might entail, he  still remembered all the steps of the bloody dances his mother had insisted on teaching him from the age of eleven. Jack twirled Cecily around the dance floor with the best of them. He worried afterwards that kissing her hand when it was time to say goodnight was a bit over the top, but it certainly seemed to please Cecily, who said she hoped to see him again. He lied flawlessly and told her it would be a great pleasure.

When one of the public school lads later commiserated with him for getting stuck with the colonel’s appalling niece, Jack just smiled.

The following morning they were mustered after breakfast, standing at attention as a Lieutenant read out a list of names of those who could stand at ease. When he’d completed the list and slipped the clip board under his left armed, the Lieutenant thanked those standing at ease for their time and devotion to defending their country, then dismissed them. So, thought Jack, the public school boys win, the grammar school boy goes back to barracks. Bastards. Then the Lieutenant saluted those still at attention on the parade ground and congratulated them. They had passed with flying colours, were deemed to be the best of the best.

The colonel was entering the building as Jack departed with his kit bag and travel chit for Eaton Hall. After returning Jack’s salute, the colonel extended his hand. Jack shook hands for the first time with an officer, feeling as he did so that his world had immeasurably improved.

“I expect it will be back to the Buffs after training, sir,” Jack ventured, although he knew the Army could send him wherever it wanted.

“Oh, no, lad.” The colonel smiled. “We have other plans for you.”

 

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