Aldershot, January 1981.
The barracks are gone. Modern grey blocks, six stories high, concrete plinths with tiny square windows, one window for every two bunks have been built in their place and one day, looking up as I passed, a squaddie was thrown through the glass of one of these tiny windows, on the fifth floor, they must have squeezed him out, I thought. But we were marching and so we couldn’t stop.
We were marching to the armoury, because today was weapons day, the first time that any of us would hold an army issue weapon and, after we had learnt its basic mechanisms, it would be ours to take and hold and keep in our lockers. Learning this weapon is known as the ‘naming of the parts.’
Before the naming of the parts, we learned each other’s names and, as the barracks are gone, so are some of the names and I wonder if every intake is the same. The same men, the same characters, the same love.
In my intake already a soldier Jim Tunn, six-foot-five Galswegian who did not tolerate fools gladly, his wings ‘up’ already and waiting to go for the second time to Westbury for officer selection which he would fail again and only fid his place as a Lance Corporal, shot in the arse on Mount Longdon. James Mangles, son of a pastor, a questioning recruit who was told two Fridays in a row by Corporal Sam that that was his last day and when Mangles told Corporal Sam he’d ‘see him on Monday’ for the third time, Corporal Sam told him to fuck off or he’d shoot him himself. And Coton, glamorous Graham Coton, thickset and pop-star pretty with an earring and a purple triangle dyed into his newly buzzed hair. He lasted with us until he was turned around away from barracks, with so many of the others on that day in March, sent home to his waiting wife Buffy, ‘she slept with two of the Boomtown Rats’ he told us, a threesome, as if that were a cherry on their layered wedding cake. Dunridge, who, as a newly passed out Marine Commando officer woke up one morning and decided that he no longer wanted to be a Marine Commando officer, but that was a year ago and needing the structure and the other men, he was in another military now, brimming with new confidence, knowledge and old and quick camaraderie. Andy Stone, dark haired and made of smooth rock, this was his destiny from which he never faltered. He became, in the end, a Sergeant-Major and in return for this recognition he bawled and bailed out the men who in turn loved him. And then Dart, odd Stuart Dart, a lanky liar who would return from weekends with the unlikeliest stories of impossible sexual conquests, all consumated over the bonnet of his mother’s Ford Fiesta. In the barracks Dart kept a small transistor radio that played on every night until he was asleep and his comfort annoyed me and then comforted me too, a radio is a friend and the distant voices that spoke lulled me too. It was a distant, unfindable static like an unearthed noise maguffin from a Hitchcock film. Wright was here for the second time, tough looking with a head of straw and a moustache to match and a voice deep and poetical. With him he carried a copy of ‘Other men’s flowers’. Dudley, a man out of time and out of place, too soft for the barracks life, not made for our regiment and so we left him on the ground in a pub car park one night and told the medics where to find him. King, who made it through all the way to jump school then Brecon and beyond, to the Falklands, where he was sent on a path split to fetch more ammo and ran onto a Claymore and with his legs blown away drained of the blood of life all the while asking his oppos to shoot him. They sent his campaign medal back.
Hovering above all this was Corporal Bird, ‘Dickie’ to his mates, and to us when no staff could hear, even though his name was not Richard. All seeing, all knowing, all things to all people. He stalked our barrack room day and night like a boot polished house-breaker prowling for an open window of opportunity, looking always to catch us out, to steal our army future back. Many times he’d thrown the contents of my locker to the floor.
‘I’m here to fail you,’ he said.
Tidy your room,’ he said, ripping out the contents of my locker and scattering them between my bunk and Coton’s. ‘It’s a mess. You’re in the army now.’ Or ‘Have you shaved today?’ ‘Yes Corporal.’
‘Try standing closer to your razor.’
And then he came upon me writing this letter.
‘Who are you writing to Mannion?’
‘My mother,’ I said.
‘Put it away son, I’m your mother now.’
All things, to all people.