An Unpainted Portrait

Leo Simmons



As per Tendril’s instructions, we made our way down to the improvised parade ground, a volleyball court immediately adjacent to the glass-walled cafeteria. In full view of many dozens of grizzled veterans, we were to be offered an introduction to the fine art of drill. It promised to be embarrassing at best. We’d been warned that the first lesson consisted of how to stand upright. Following that we would move on to the more challenging delights of standing to ‘attention’, after which, I assumed, the sky was the limit. Like a group of whirligig beetles, we shuffled around self-consciously in our un-pressed uniforms and as we did so an awful, terrifying truth became apparent in the pitiless glare of the bright daylight. Bruce, bless his pale blue cotton socks, was wearing brand new work boots – the kind that appeared to have been constructed late one Friday afternoon in the prisons of Siberia and have the texture of snakeskin with measles. These things were so knobbly, we could all see that he had no chance of obtaining the fabled parade ground ‘bull’ – a gleaming, glossy, deep shine – that we knew would be expected.

Our musings on this impending crisis were interrupted by a shrill, inhuman scream. Constable Tendril’s parade boots, closely followed by the man himself, turned the corner of the cafeteria building, and into the three-sided courtyard. I stared…these even bigger boots appeared to be about size twenty-six and must have weighed about sixteen pounds each, fourteen of which would be encrusted antique polish. The overall effect was of a giant – albeit a long way away – with each foot in a coal barge. His tunic was decorated with medal ribbons together with a red sash running from his left shoulder to his waist and he swung a swagger stick around his body like a man defending himself against Africanized bees. With relief, I realized that he looked much more of an arse than I did, even with my bent head.

Despite the volume and undoubted effort that he put into his opening verbal tirade, for the first few seconds I don’t think any of us understood a syllable of what he was yelling. From what I could tell, it was simply gibberish in a high pitched and hoarse shriek, with an occasional “WHAT!”, a few “YOU!” and at least one “SHOWER!”. After a short while, and having watched, entranced, as Tendril turned the colour of a fine claret, we finally caught on to the fact that he wanted us to stand in a line. Alan was unable to keep a grin from his organ-filled face and briefly became the target of the peevish fury of the ‘drill pig’; “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU SMILING AT, YOU MONKEY?! GET YER HAIR CUT!” while the rest of us carefully shuffled into a ‘straight’ line resembling a snake with a broken back. Standing rigidly at what I thought was attention and trying my best not to be noticed, I was, nevertheless, next.

“YOU!” … ”YOU!!” Was he talking to me? “Yes sir?” A manic scream: “SHUTUP!” Huh? “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? ARE YOU HANDICAPPED OR SOMETHING?” I frowned. What the hell was he talking about? “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR ARMS? YOU LOOK LIKE YOU’RE HAVING A PISS!!” There was a definite Bruce-like splutter from further along the line. “MOVE (he pronounced it ‘mooov’) YER ‘ANDS BACK! FURTHER BACK! GET YER THUMBS ON THE SEAMS OF YER TROUZIZ!” I awkwardly complied and Tendril, momentarily exhausted by his indignation, quickly moooved on. However, the damage was done. I had been so sure that I was standing up straight on my back legs, I began to doubt reality. Nobody had ever screamed at me that way. I had the man’s saliva on my cheek. Ick.

Worse was – as we had feared – yet to come. After we had each been ritually and publicly humiliated, Tendril almost (but alas; not quite) had a seizure when his eyes alighted upon the marvels of Soviet industry that were Bruce’s boots. After a few deep breaths, a most unproductive verbal interaction on the subject began with a hoarse

hoarse shriek: “WHAT are THEY?!!!!” Bruce: “Boots, sir.” “SHUT UP! They’re not boots!” A plaintive response: “Yes, but they are sir – that’s what they told me in the shop anyway…” Bruce, I was discovering, could emanate injured innocence like no man I have ever seen. I bit my cheek and vibrated. “SHUT UP!” So as not to be overheard beyond our little gathering, the great man spoke quietly but fiercely to Bruce’s chin: “Don’t you dare argue with me, sonny!” Then, back to normal volume: “THOSE THINGS are NOT boots! Do you know what they are?”

A protracted pause followed while we all tried to communicate telepathically with Bruce to get him to not say what he said next: “…Boots sir?” You see, he knew that he was right on this point. The explosive event which followed was entertaining, if unnecessarily savage but after a couple of minutes, Tendril paused, composed himself and began again. “I told you that they are NOT BOOTS! I’ll tell you WHAT they are…TURDS!” he yelled. “They are HORRIBLE pieces of SHITE!”. He was starting to lose control again. During the brief silence that followed this startling piece of wisdom, it was my turn to splutter. Tendril bristled and glared at me as my attention-standing posture, so carefully created, began to crumble. I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek again, and like a good boy, pressed my thumbs – most uncomfortably – against the seams of my trouziz.

“Stop SMILING, you Baboon!” Tendril, seemingly unaware of his gift for choosing the least effective insults known to man, paused to gather himself and surreptitiously adjust his underwear with an odd twist of his pelvis. Soon, there came the faint but distinct sound of his teeth grinding (imagine grating a carrot) before he snarled from a distance of approximately five centimetres at Bruce’s freshly shaven chin; “You’d bloody well better sort out these boots by tomorrow, my lad, or I’ll…” The big fellah interrupted, bravely: “Yes SIR! I will polish these pieces of shite sir!” We all knew that, though a sincere sentiment, ‘twas an empty promise; the things on Bruce’s feet were already beyond help. Even at that stage of our lives, we all knew that it’s quite impossible to polish a turd, either figuratively or literally.

Our illustrious master snorted and moved on to find another victim for his ire. Of course, he found things to pick on with each of us. With me it had been my question mark-like posture, with my mate Bruce it had been…well almost everything – and the boots in particular – but when faced with Constable Brand he seemed utterly perplexed. From underneath a seemingly huge helmet peeped a cheeky grin and not much else. In order to see anything more than the ground at his feet, Phil had to tip his head back a long way, which only served to enhance the humorous effect. At the sight of this strange uniformed thing, the veteran of a thousand hoarse parade ground screaming fits fell silent, and after a few seconds began muttering to himself. I felt much the same way; it was a little like being in the middle of a Monty Python sketch…