An Unpainted Portrait: Not such a close shave

Leo Simmons


Not such a close shave

Aside from keeping our uniforms in the best possible condition at all times, we were also expected to maintain a high level of personal hygiene. When on parade, for example, a hair out of place, whether it be head or facial, was grounds for serious over-reaction. So when, one fine parade day morning, for some stupid reason I forgot to shave and remembered that fact only as we stood ready for inspection, I knew I was in trouble. At the age of nineteen, my beard growth was less than luxuriant, but this only made things look more obvious. Horrible Harrison prowled the assembled ranks and I waited as he drew closer. Slowly, as a predator stalks its prey, he strolled through the lines of impeccable officers. Unlike a predator, the sound of his boots crunching on the asphalt in the silence of a spring morning gave his location away second by second. With each step, tiny pieces of gravel and the steel hobnails in the soles of his boots met one another and signalled another moment nearer to my doom. He passed behind me first…then around to the front. While maintaining a steady gaze over my shoulder, he stopped a foot in front of me and directly in line with my nose.

Quietly (thinks: oh thank God, he’s in a good mood, he likes me…!) he growled “Have you shaved today mister…” He glanced at my name badge. “…Simmons?” He did a magnificent job of making it sound like “Shithead.” I trembled respectfully, paused, and made an extremely poor choice. Relying on the babyish nature of my chin, I tried to blag my way out of it. “Yes, Sergeant.” I said, instantly feeling myself falling thousands of feet onto cold, jagged rocks…I half-closed my eyes and braced myself. “You have, have you? he almost whispered” “Yes, Sergeant.” (Oh God – I just did it again!) “Oh, I see” he murmured in a thoughtful, almost intrigued way. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him staring across my face, into the distance, perhaps towards a place of execution. I clenched everything I was capable of clenching and one or two other bits joined in for good measure.

After a few moments of silence to heighten the tension, he leaned towards me and without any warning set off an explosion one millimetre away from my face. “YOU BLOODY LIAR!” Obligingly, I jumped a few inches without any help from my legs, my helmet landing slightly askew on my head. “YOU are a BLOODY DISGRACE! GET OFF MY F….” He checked himself. “…MY PARADE SQUARE!” This was delivered with such force and venom that it took a second for me to process that I was being emphatically ordered off the parade square. I’d never seen – or more accurately, heard – anyone ordered off the square before. Wondering what this development might mean for my career, I tried very hard not to soil my underpants. I’d bought some new ones after the grand parade nut-swinging incident, and it would have been a shame to welcome them into the world in such a way. Things just about held together.

However, I’d hesitated a microsecond too long. “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR, YOU DIMWIT? QUICK MERCH OVER THERE, ‘EFT ‘IGHT, ‘EFT ‘IGHT!” Thus, trembling with every fibre, I found myself ‘merched’ very quickly to a distant corner out of the earshot of the rest of the parade, whereupon he laid into me again with much less volume but the same alarming purple hue to his face. He was genuinely mad. “You f***ing idiot!” he said. “You’ll be outside my accommodation block tomorrow at 0630hrs in best uniform, understand?” “Yes Sergeant”. “Now get out of my sight and get a f***ing shave before you go to class”. I slunk away to have an emergency crap and to ponder both my immediate future along with my stubbly face in the mirror. I didn’t much like the look of either.

The following morning turned out to be one of the very few non-sunny ones we experienced in our time there. In my best uniform – impeccably pressed if I may say so – there I was at 6.30 am, standing disconsolately and in silence outside the drill sergeant’s quarters. Aside from the pulse thumping in my head, all was still. It was also foggy; very foggy. To understand the significance of what this means, I must enlighten you: damp air is the arch enemy of meticulously pressed wool-and-synthetic-fibre uniforms. Mist is an evil little imp that gently and silently removes creases in minutes, but full-blown fog? Fog is the absolute nemesis of the sharpened trouser leg or tunic sleeve. There is no escape from fog. It silently settles upon a pressed uniform and turns it into something resembling chewed newspaper.

Engulfed in the low cloud, I tried not to cry while all the beautiful, precise and sharp creases – the best I’d ever managed after a long and anxious evening sweating over the ironing board – fell out almost audibly. As my trousers turned into something akin to black plastic bin bags, I was still there at 7.00 am… I was still there at 7.30 am, as the much thicker fabric of my tunic sleeves transformed into black, dimpled blancmange. Finally, having been passed by just about everybody on the campus on their way to push their appalling, nutritionally-challenged breakfast around battered Home Office plates, the man himself appeared. He was immaculately turned out as always and on the way to partake of his own grim culinary catastrophe. My hyper-alert senses detected a slight but definite pause as he caught sight of me. He’d forgotten I was going to be there! Twat! Without even looking in my direction he paused directly in front of me, stared into the middle distance somewhere off to my left (he liked doing that) and quietly said out of the side of his mouth in a deep, gravelly voice ravaged by years of screaming at little idiots like me; “F*** off, lad. And never – ever – try to bullshit me again”. It was a lesson well and truly learned.

With a palpitating heart and a damp, crumpled uniform, I raced back to my room, changed into my ‘number two’ rig – which was now in much better shape than my ‘ones’ – and with my mind elsewhere, dispiritedly shuffled off to stare at a breakfast of boiled bacon, boiled fried eggs and boiled toast. Entirely due to the fact that I was unable to taste anything at all through the filter of my humiliation and self-imposed misery it proved, without doubt, to be the best breakfast I consumed during the entire fourteen weeks. Silver linings…

It was yet another one of those small growing up moments that Horrible’s use of the word ‘lad’ served to emphasise. As scared of his wrath as I may have been, this incident led to a conversation with him later that day in the bar. Put very simply, the man was a delight to speak with. Wise, kind and funny, he was full of advice and understanding for a too-young man jumping into a big organization. He succeeded in putting me at my ease as well as reassuring me that, despite the events of the previous morning, disaster did not lie around every corner. I wished – and still wish – that I’d known him for longer, and much better; if I had, I might have learned even more.