An Unpainted Portrait, Singled Out

Leo Simmons


Singled Out

Our fitness program was designed and overseen by a sadistic team of ex-armed forces Physical Training Instructors. Unsurprisingly, they ruled this distressing aspect of our lives with far more enjoyment than was either appropriate or healthy. They varied in appearance from tall and sinewy with a face like a blind cobbler’s thumbnail, to short, squat and muscular with a face like a blind cobbler’s thumbnail. They had joined the police for something to do in between tattoos, fighting and getting new tattoos about their fights. In turn, they were presided over by a somewhat short and spherical balding inspector who had at some point been on the receiving end of too many punches. Either that, or he’d stopped an oncoming locomotive with his face. I instinctively felt sorry for the locomotive.

I’d never seen such an impressively broken nose. His face wasn’t so much lived-in as jumped-on. His name was Bottomley…MISTER Bottomley… Nobody, by the way, ever dreamed of making fun of his name. Even the normally rebellious PTIs showed him deep respect and deference, turning into silly puppies in his presence, eager to please and jumping up at him from floor level. He and Sgt. Stoat appeared to have been hewn from adjoining outcrops of granite. He oozed charisma/danger and as a result, never had to raise his voice in anger. He prowled the centre, not in standard police uniform as befitted his rank, but in a rather garish ‘Miami Vice’ kind of tracksuit. I assume he did this simply because, like Dennis Stoat, he just could, and nobody had the courage to challenge him on it.


In our third week, Mr Bottomley arranged a PT workout on the parade square for the entire intake, and so one sunny morning our entire intake stood in expectation on the parade ground. There we stood in class groups as if on parade again, when the boss man, emanating a friendly air of deadly menace, arrived in our midst wearing one of his lurid outfits. He walked with a rolling limp which suggested either an industrial accident, a sporting injury or, most likely, an embedded WWII artillery shell somehow still caused him some minor discomfort.

Without the assistance of electronic amplification (that was only for more puny forms of life) he began shouting instructions to us all, most of which was unfortunately lost in the breeze whenever he turned his head, but a few words drifted through to us at the back; ”You…lucky….taking…active role….annual parade…Home Secretary…display…” Whatever he was telling us, it didn’t sound good. It looked even worse when Mr B had some of our colleagues fetch four painted logs and leave them at the front of the parade ground. We would soon become more closely acquainted with them.

He then turned to us once again and informed us that we would be the lucky participants in a display of physical exercise with which we would be sure to impress the tradition of excellence in police training upon no lesser a person than the Home Secretary, Sir Lionel Nutbar. The whole affair was known as the ‘Annual Parade’ and was, as the name suggests, a once-yearly event which took place at a different training centre every year. We were ordered to feel fortunate to be taking part, and since of course we always obeyed orders, we spontaneously and immediately began radiating enthusiasm and feelings of happiness at the prospect of being overseen by a man who – on TV at least – resembled the world’s most aloof, toffee-nosed posh git.

Mr B then began organizing us into one cohesive unit, and began putting us through our paces, performing the familiar press-ups, star jumps, burpees and squat thrusts to a rhythmic marshal piece of music played over the public address system. After an hour of this, we began to look and sound pretty good, so long as you think that being covered in sweat and wearing startling items of ill-fitting and stained clothing looks good. At least our shoes and socks were blindingly white…

Almost immediately, we were put through another round of exercises before stopping briefly for breath. Mr B walked slowly towards us and pronounced for all to hear: “What I need now is someone to be a marker for everyone else to take their timing from. I need someone who’s both coordinated and doesn’t look like a sack of shit tied around the middle…” I breathed a huge sigh of relief. That ruled me out of contention.

He prowled among our assembled ranks before returning to stand before us. He’d already made up his mind and was just enjoying a little theatre. That was fine by us, but then we had no choice. Yet again, he put us through what was already becoming a familiar routine and then brought us to a halt. As I stood there gently sweating at attention, he began again; “What I need is…” There was a terrifying pause. “…YOU!” A thick, sausage-shaped index finger materialized a centimetre from my nose. He had very clean nails, I noticed. “Oh God, no!” I thought, possibly aloud.

“YOU!” he repeated, as if sensing my inner wimp. “You are the man for the job! I’ve had my eye on you, young man!” With one huge, leathery hand he gripped me by the shoulder and expertly squeezed a nerve bundle in a way that shut down most of the left side of my body down to the knees. His eyes met mine. Heroically, I didn’t burst into tears. “Get out here! “he yelled suddenly, releasing his grip and walking away into the huge space in front of the whole intake. “What’s your name son? Right Con-stabyewel Simmons, stand on this spot here!” I left behind a small olfactory message of alarm for my colleagues to enjoy and followed the great man. After walking an alarming distance, he finally indicated a painted marker seemingly half a mile away from the front rank and what felt like six inches or so from the spot upon which our esteemed political leader would one day be seated. “You…” he whispered to me in the middle of this barren expanse devoid of human companionship or a reasonable chance of escape; “…will be the person from whom…” Somehow, I thought, excellent grammar seemed incongruous in a broad Manchester accent “…everyone else on the parade ground will take their timing. So, you had better be right on the mark, my lad. If you get it wrong, everyone will get it wrong and if everyone gets it wrong, I will look foolish in the eyes of our superiors.” He looked up at me, one eye closed tight, the other flaying the skin from my boyish, down-covered cheek.

With no little skill, he’d made the word ‘superiors’ sound like ‘wankers’. He then continued menacingly. ”If…you…are…” He wrestled with the best word to use under the circumstances; “…brave enough to make me look foolish…well, laddie…” A silence hung between us like a rotting corpse swinging in a mediaeval gibbet.” I felt it was wise to intervene. “Yes sir, understood completely sir” I managed to whimper in a hoarse, cracked voice between sudden stomach cramps. “Good” he breathed at me, and then, in a more fatherly tone; “I picked you because you are keeping perfect time and you look like you keep yourself in shape. You should feel good about it, you’ve made a good impression so far, so just enjoy yourself lad, and do the exercises the way you’ve been doing them, OK?” He was being nice to me, and yet for some reason, I felt worse. “Yes sir, thank you.” He began to move away “Oh, one other thing, lad…” he said, Columbo- style. “Yes sir, as you wish sir.” I knew I sounded gormless, but he was scaring the crap out of me (almost literally). He looked meaningfully at me; “On the big day, do me, yourself and the home secretary a favour and try not to fart every two seconds please?”

I’d been hoping he hadn’t noticed…