An Unpainted Portrait, Sizes Matter

Leo Simmons


Sizes Matter…

Behind a bland and firmly closed stable-style door in the basement of the headquarters building, the force stores department consisted mostly of thousands of boxes and loose piles of uniforms. Some of the piles appeared neatly organised while others looked more like heaps of the empty shells of expired police officers. Here and there, between the towering stacks of cardboard that reached up to the polystyrene ceiling tiles in defiance of any fire prevention principles, tiny spaces for humans to move about had been cleared. Dust filled the air, and mysterious pathways through the soaring piles of boxed clothing disappeared into the gloom, inviting exploration. Almost as soon as the door closed behind us, Phil’s head was the focus of attention. Someone must have talked.

The head of the stores department, a man known – with a complex mixture of affection, frustration and a slight but definite sense of awe – as ‘Dennis’ (no surname) appeared silently. I would eventually discover that he had a knack for suddenly materializing, and was always to be found with a very worn tape measure around his neck. The tape, similar to a doctor’s stethoscope, was considered a mark of the man’s trade. Having quietly measured Phil’s head, he moved to a telephone and there held a muttered conversation, accompanied by frequent disbelieving glances in the direction of the cranium in question. Finally, he put the ‘phone down, turned around and looked the rest of us over with an experienced eye.

He was a quiet fellow who wore two pairs of spectacles, one on his nose and the other pair high up on his forehead. I presumed that one set was for reading and the other for lighting fires and burning up ants. He spoke softly and soporifically, and within seconds had begun to measure Phil’s infeasibly small noggin once again. Faced with empirical data, his eyebrows shot upwards. He began murmuring and quietly whistling through his teeth and after a few awkward seconds pronounced that a bespoke helmet was the only way to rectify the crisis. Abruptly turning to one side and using the grubby stub of a pencil which he kept behind his ear, he scribbled a brief note onto a piece of crumpled paper. His eyes moved over my uniform without a blink and moved on, for some of my colleagues had dire need of his services. In a quiet flurry of measuring and mumbling, the great man ordered two new tunics each for Alan and Ian. I suspect that somewhere within the grinding gears of the system, they simply performed a crafty swap across the tailor’s table. Mark was quickly sized up for a pair of trousers better suited to a man with normal legs. Then we got to Bruce.

Our colleague stood with dignity oozing from every pore while the veteran of a thousand ill-fitting uniforms looked him over. The look on Dennis’ face suggested wonder. He muttered to himself. “What was that?” snapped Tendril, uneasy in that hushed atmosphere. Utterly unmoved, Dennis threw him a contemptuous glance from behind his lower pair of spectacles. “I said…that we’ve outdone ourselves with this young man.” His words peremptorily dismissed our leader and cheered us all up immensely in the process. Without further ado, he swung into action, measuring here and there, trying several different tunics on Bruce, swapping his helmet for one which fitted – and then he stopped, looking at the boots; the boots from a dark place nobody ever wanted to visit twice. “Jesus Christ!” he said to himself softly, and then after a long pause; “Well, you’re on your own with those buggers, lad. Can’t help you with those.” Unnerved, he backed away to a safe distance.

While Bruce was being ministered to, it had become apparent that a great many people from all over the headquarters building had suddenly found a reason to stop by and sneak a peek at us over the stable door which did double duty as the department’s enquiry counter. The news of a man – currently on the premises – with a head so small that he had to have a helmet specially made, had spread like wildfire (it must have been a slow day in the headquarters offices). A surprising variety of people had found the need to be ‘passing by’ the department in the basement, which in those days was on the way to absolutely nowhere else in the building. They’d never been so popular.

Inevitably, our thoughts turned – not for the first time – to whether or not Phil’s merchant navy travels had ever taken him to a land of head-shrinking traditions. The principle seemed sound. It felt quite reasonable to assume – based upon his exciting and ever-so-slightly exaggerated tales of sexual adventure – that Phil might have fallen foul of an isolated community after taking unmentionable liberties with a royal daughter or two. Tendril growled at us as in hushed tones we debated the issue amongst ourselves, but we’d already begun to shrug off the schoolboy/schoolmaster relationship to the extent that we felt comfortable having a conversation whether he liked it or not. We were technically adults, after all.

Phil’s deformity was, in our defence, a subject of genuine intrigue and conjecture when faced with such physical evidence. He was demonstrably a highly intelligent fellow, but the whereabouts of his brain – we’d already decided that it could not be physically contained within his tiny cranium – was open to debate and, given his carnal enthusiasm, intense speculation.

While the Stores Department staff set about busily rectifying the rest of our uniform woes, we endured a lunch at the headquarters canteen. It would be the first of many such delights for me, as I was eventually to be posted to that very city, there to wreak mild havoc upon an unsuspecting and undeserving public. During an uninspiring meal at a table far away from everyone else, we were acutely aware of a great deal of unabashed staring from people whom we assumed were regular customers. Perhaps our presence was a welcome diversion from the food. We stood out in our brand new full uniforms while everyone else in the room was in shirt sleeves or not in uniform at all. A mix of civilian employees and coppers took their time to gawp at us clustered together around a long table, as we pretended to ignore the stares and not feel at all self-conscious. We weren’t fooling anyone, however.

Afterwards, any available replacement items of uniform were installed upon the needy among us, and then, to our bemusement, photographs were taken of us all (PC Pinhead we suspected, for future anthropological study) for inclusion in the next edition of the local story-starved newspaper. I confess that as we stood there in the open air smiling awkwardly as traffic passed by behind the photographer, I suddenly began to feel that what I was doing might actually matter. This feeling lasted for about ten minutes before my rising sense of belonging and purpose was dampened by the tangible presence of Tendril’s obvious discomfort. He had been strangely ill-at-ease all day and seemed anxious to get us back on the mini-bus and away from an environment within which he had limited status, and from people over whom he had no influence. Shepherded by his irritable, deflating ego, we found ourselves hustled back into the personnel carrier and heading back along the green lanes of our undeniably beautiful county – our domain – towards the most miserable town within it.