I retire from the Army Reserve today. I joined up back in 1988 but I still remember my first day at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst like it was yesterday:
I BECAME AWARE of his presence before I actually set eyes upon the Colour Sergeant for the very first time. Viscerally, I knew I’d properly fucked up well before I knew the reason why. The year was 1988 and I was trying to extract an ironing board from the back of my MGB GT, a vehicle not best suited to the carriage of such an unwieldy item. It was my first day at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst where I was embarking on a six month leadership training course which, if successful, would culminate in a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the British Army.
On arrival I had been directed to a car park some distance from my new home in Victory College, and instructed to get my kit unloaded and up to my new quarters in double quick time. In addition to the ironing board now stuck between the rear parcel shelf and the seat backs, the kit list of requirements had been extensive, running to several pages of curious back to front wording which transformed seemingly mundane items such as trousers and shoe polish into ‘trousers, civilian w. turn-up’ and ‘polish, shoes black’.
Getting this kit into my little car had been a gargantuan task in itself and I did not look forward to the multiple journeys to and from the car park that it would take to unload it all. In a flash of initiative that I reckoned would serve to highlight my suitability for commissioning, I resolved to bring Mohammed to the mountain and drive my car to an empty car park I had observed directly adjacent to the college. This would more than halve the unloading time.
Having put this unilateral change of plan into action I quickly completed the task, with the exception of the ironing board, which refused to budge. In an attempt to identify the cause of the obstruction I had somehow managed to squeeze my torso into the space between the parcel shelf and the seatbacks when I became aware of the Colour Sergeant at my back.
I inelegantly extricated myself from the vehicle. His towering presence loomed over me. It was obvious that I had transgressed in some way and was about to experience the wrath of the Colour Sergeant.
Immaculately dressed in blue tunic with red sash, brandishing a highly varnished wooden pace stick, the Colour Sergeant opened and closed his mouth a few times as he struggled to find the words to adequately express the full depth of his rage. The effect was like that of a pressure cooker about to explode. His arms and shoulders began to rise and fall in a series of short violent movements, but still no words emerged from his soundless lips. In an effort to diffuse the situation I stuck out my hand and attempted to introduce myself. The Colour Sergeant appeared truly affronted by this gesture, recoiling as if I had slapped him hard across the face. His impressive moustache twitched alarmingly and he finally found his voice.
“I know who you are, Sir. What are you doing on my parade square?”
He managed to make this prior knowledge of my existence sound deeply sinister. It was clear from his intonation that the ‘Sir’ was not intended as an honorific. Unsure how to answer without enraging him further it was my turn to be lost for words. The Colour Sergeant filled the void.
“Are you an amoeba, Sir?”
“Are you pond life, Sir?”
“Have you recently crawled out of a nearby swamp, Sir?”
“Are you not aware of the difference between a car park and a parade square, Sir?”
“Can you get anything right, Sir?”
I was dumbstruck. I had no idea how to respond. After a further few moments of uneasy silence the Colour Sergeant appeared satisfied that he had made his point.
“Cut away, Sir, cut away.”
And he walked briskly off in the direction whence he had come.
It wasn’t the best of starts but it was the start of one of the best adventures.
SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the true story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. All infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart. Now available on Amazon Kindle for the special pre-order price of £1.99.