An Unpainted Portrait, Several Stages of Morning

Leo Simmons


Several Stages of Morning

Having woken ourselves up through the medium of running around the campus for no other reason than to wake ourselves up (!), we were allowed to adjourn to our accommodation blocks and prepare for our very first meal on site. Each block was nominally supervised by a sergeant who lived on the ground floor in what we assumed was palatial splendour. Unbeknownst to us, were ‘lucky’ enough to have a living legend as our block sergeant. A decorated veteran of several armed conflicts, he was no little legend in the second largest metropolitan force in the country.

Dennis Stoat was famous both on the campus and the area from which he had been involuntarily transferred – so rumour had it – in order to protect the criminals. A genuine eccentric, he proved to be a man who valued the discipline of rules and regulations yet also managed to overtly enjoy living outside of them. His role was chief swimming instructor, and as such, he lived the proverbial life of Riley. The bosses knew it, he knew it, but nobody in authority dared to risk putting him back into a situation where he was ever again going to come into contact with an unsuspecting offender. Within the confines of the training school, the thinking went, he could do the minimum of harm. The truth of it was, however: he deserved an easy life. A tireless champion of numerous charities, he was a bona fide hero to many hundreds of young, disadvantaged people whose lives he had helped transform.

On this first morning, as we jostled for shower space with our new colleagues, the hubbub had apparently woken the legend/Kraken far too early. His sleep-ins, we would come to understand, were just one of the tolerated quirks of his existence at Bruche. At the start of our first day, we had ruined his morning, and he was not best pleased. Dressed in a lurid turquoise nylon tracksuit, brown/grey hair in comical disarray, eyes the colour of oxtail soup and despite a lit cigarette jammed in the corner of his mouth, Dennis gently attracted our attention thus: “WILL YOU F***ING T***S PIPE DOWN SO I CAN GET SOME F***ING SLEEP!”

Now when someone in authority – even an obviously hung-over person in authority wearing a turquoise tracksuit bursting with unfettered body hair – makes such an eminently reasonable and articulate request, it seems natural to comply immediately. So, we did. In sudden convent-like silence, and for at least part of the process under the bleary eyes of the great man, we completed our ablutions in double-quick time, scuttled back to our rooms and dressed. What followed was, without any doubt whatsoever, the very worst breakfast I had ever eaten while conscious. It would only be surpassed for awfulness by a meal provided by Air Canada some years later.

This startling excursion into culinary terrorism aside, daylight afforded us all our first proper glimpse of the campus. Although spotlessly clean and tidy, the view wasn’t particularly inspiring; 1960s architecture – a generous term for hastily-constructed grey concrete boxes – mixed unhappily with brick and mortar remnants of the Second World War. The main hall in which we’d been formally frightened the previous evening, did indeed have many of the characteristics of a wartime Nissen hut, although many times larger and with masonry walls supporting the unmistakable charms of an asbestos domed roof, which sat there in all its pugnacious glory, quietly poisoning both us and the neighbouring housing development.

A network of narrow, spotlessly clean roads with very obvious and slightly oversized nameplates branched out in all directions from a kidney-shaped roundabout in front of the main administration building/dining hall complex. Opposite the dining hall stood the teaching block. Somewhere, there was a swimming pool and large gymnasium/arena of torture where, we were assured, we would be taken to the brink of total physical collapse. Furthermore, the rumour went, so disturbing were the sounds of suffering that resulted from such treatment, the building was placed well away from the rest of the campus so as not to disturb other lessons. We nervously laughed off such taunts, blissfully unaware that they were entirely truthful.

The teaching block was a faithful replica of a school designed by ill-tempered Soviet architects and looked for all the world as if it had been stealthily removed from a Siberian educational establishment and dropped into the site by helicopter. Constructed of glass and concrete, this building would soon prove – during what would turn out to be one of the hottest summers on record in Britain – to be an early example of an experimental microwave unit, capable of partially cooking up to two hundred young, fit people in a single sunny day. Attached to it – in fact almost completely hidden away sneakily in a corner – was a secondary, quite diminutive gymnasium that was too small for any competitive sports. However, it represented the likelihood of further physical torture in the form of circuit training and self-defence sessions; a spectre which would no doubt be materializing shortly.

Those days – although we were entirely ignorant of it – constituted the ending of an era regarding teaching methods, and the classrooms were laid out in the old, familiar school style. Single desks and chairs sat in neat rows and columns a fixed distance apart, all facing large writing surfaces and projecting screens. We shared the facilities with officers from a wide variety of forces, the main contingent being – as you might expect – from the two large metropolitan forces in our part of the country. Broad scouse dialect mingled uneasily with Mancunian accents, while those of us floating around somewhere on the outskirts of, and in between, the two huge conurbations more or less bridged the linguistic gaps (Bruce’s Northumbrian dialect notwithstanding).

As the result of a brief suspension of the natural laws of the universe, by morning Bruce and I had somehow managed to get his shoes to look reasonable. I should qualify that: when I say reasonable, I don’t mean reasonable. To be more accurate, almost shiny and vaguely resembling normal footwear was the best we had been able to achieve in the time available. Stupid spacetime and its linear nature, we thought. Why couldn’t we compress several months of restorative work into a few hours?

Having produced a minor miracle, I was, to put it mildly, chagrined to see that my friend had, in utter disregard of the dress code and by way of some kind of rebellion-induced logic, decided to brighten everyone’s day by wearing a pair of red socks. When he walked about, the socks were not really noticeable unless you were sensitized to that sort of thing (which, by the way, all the instructors and fellow recruits most certainly were), but when he sat down and his anarchic trousers rode up his shins…well let’s just say that the back of the room had a warm, rosy glow about it. Red socks, while not a major problem in the real world, were bound to cause trouble in that rarefied atmosphere. Little wonder, then, that he and I had, like naughty schoolboys, occupied seats close to one another at the very back of the class. While we had no plans to throw paper balls or fire peashooters at our colleagues, we hoped to head off – or at least delay – the inevitable response to his sartorial individualism. Red-faced shouting, pointing and press-ups (usually in that order) might, if he were lucky, be postponed for a little while. Hopefully, for about fourteen weeks.