An Unpainted Portrait

Leo Simmons


An Unsettling Welcome

Over a period of time measured in seconds but which felt like hours, I opened the box that lay upon the bed. Within lay four blue shirts wrapped in plastic and three pairs of black trousers. A black leather belt, leather gloves and white cotton gloves also peeped out at me together with an array of epaulettes, each of which bore a four-digit number. I stared at the number for a few seconds; there lay my new organizational identity. Somehow, the idea of being swallowed inside a vast machine became even more real. As far as the police force – and the public – were concerned, I would be that number from this point on. It still gives me chills today; nineteen years old, quite alone and fully aware of the implications for perhaps the first time, yet making that choice to step completely into an alien and very adult world.

Propelling me forward was the knowledge that my father had done the same kind of thing – only much, much worse – as a fifteen-year-old boy when he joined the Royal Navy immediately after the Second World War ended. A sudden feeling of shame at my own weakness compelled me to put the damned uniform on. It was time I felt, to step up; time to leave the boy behind and do what an adult would do. I had so wanted to be a man throughout my adolescence, and now that particular wish had come home to roost. Braving the radioactive curtains, I opened the window to let out the awful smell of fear and finally began to get dressed in my uniform for the first time.

Well, I thought, this was it. They’d really made clothes for me! The outfit also included two anti-strangle clip-on ties and, of course, the internationally famous Bobby’s helmet. I dressed and placed the sacred headgear upon my noggin, turning toward the mirror. A surge of panic followed because…well…to be blunt, I looked like an arse. The helmet looked too small, it was slightly crooked (or else my brother had been right for all those years and my head was bent) and it felt like it was about to wobble off whenever I looked to the left or right. It only felt secure if I jammed it onto my bonce with sufficient force to lower my ears half an inch. It wasn’t an encouraging start.

There was of course an undeniable thrill that accompanied the wearing of the uniform, which felt very heavy and hot having been made from a nylon and wool mix to be sure of being uncomfortable in every climatic situation. However, it fitted me extremely well, as if it had indeed been skilfully tailored for me. My excitement mounted as I did a very creditable impression of my elder sister getting ready for a night out, posing and assessing my ‘look’ in the mirror. Did my bum look big in those trousers? Yes, yes it did. But then it always did. I had always avoided mirrors and to this day still do so; the fact that I lingered in front of one for so long is an indication of how attached I was rapidly becoming to my new work clothes, and with them, a new version of me.

Since we were all billeted on the same corridor, it came to pass that we felt the need to share our respective new ‘looks’ in the hallway. We were all keen to show off and after some shouted negotiations, we tumbled out into the corridor more or less at the same time. For a few seconds, it was very quiet as six fully dressed – if slightly crumpled – police officers regarded each other for the first time. Carefully, in case that helmet fell off, I looked around me. It was immediately apparent that I had been much, much more fortunate than my comrades.

Mark’s ‘these are my big bruvver’s pyjamas’ pants flopped over his new boots in a way that put ‘Scooby Doo’s friend ‘Shaggy ‘ to shame. Phil was wearing what looked like an enormous helmet which allowed a full view of his grinning mouth and not much else. Iain appeared to be wearing the tunic of a man twice his size, could turn fully around in it without disturbing it, and apparently had no hands. Meanwhile, Alan had courageously – and obviously with no little effort – squeezed his way into an insanely tight straitjacket which seemed to be forcing all his vital organs into his head. Although meeting our gaze with a cheerful grin, sweat was trickling down the side of his purple face.

As for Bruce…well it’s fair to say that my new friend suffered from a little of everything – short trousers exposed his pale blue socks, his tunic fitted quite beautifully all the way to the point of his elbows, where the sleeves appeared to lose any enthusiasm for reaching his wrists and gave up with a whimper halfway along his forearms. This exposed an impressive amount of crumpled blue shirt sleeve. His helmet teetered on top of his head like a marble on a football, and the overall effect, coupled with Bruce’s pensive expression was enough to reduce us all to tears of laughter.

While we admired one another’s shortcomings a small, sinister character had crept up on us unobserved. Suddenly, with a creak and a hiss, there stood…a housekeeper! Doris regarded us with a steely, unfriendly glare from four feet and ten inches above floor level. Carrying a mop and bucket in a way that invited no questions, she looked us up and down and smiled. Now, I said that she smiled…please don’t run away with the foolish notion that it was a welcoming expression. The effect was chilling, and the cheerfulness slowly left our faces under her gimlet gaze. Faintly purple hair crowned a pale and wrinkled face, a Gingham apron proclaimed her role and status within the building (God-like), and brown, heavily wrinkled hose plunged recklessly into brogue shoes leaving no room for doubt. She was the boss.

“Now then!” she snapped in a voice that could slice bacon at thirty yards, “What you up to?” She knew perfectly well, of course. She’d probably seen this little pantomime played out a hundred times. We explained the situation, although not one of us doubted that she had inside information, and needed no telling. Another faint grimace spread reluctantly and tentatively across her features. “Ah see. Well…” There was a pause – the kind of pause you get before the next lightning strike. “Just make sure you don’t pee in the sinks!” We stopped breathing. “If I find anybody’s been pissin’ in the sink, I’ll scrub the bloody thing with your toothbrush!” she said, fixing each one of us in turn with her good eye. There seemed to be no adequate response to that. I had never before that day even considered pissing in a sink, anywhere. I began to wonder if I should have; if it was one of those ‘man’ things that I’d unwittingly missed out on as I grew up. With that startling threat (and nobody present felt that it was an idle one), she shuffled past us and into the utility room at the end of the corridor, from where random banging noises presently broke out. She was, I felt sure, rearranging her sink-pissing test kits.