‘Open ranks!... Close ranks!... About turn!... Slow march!’
God, if he doesn’t stop soon and give us a fag break, I’m going to drop. As sure as Hell is full, I’m going to drop.
The platoon wheels in a column past a line of beech saplings on a verge of grass that’s peppered with beads of sheep dirt. Sometimes we march on such dirt in the parade square and the smell gets high into our skulls. It takes a toothbrush to clean it from the wedges in the thick soles of our army boots.
He usually brings us to a halt when the church clock reaches midday and gives us a five-minute break. Not today, though. Someone whispers that he must have rowed with his missus last night, and didn’t get his hole. Stroppy head on him, says another. Others say other things that are about as far removed from kind as is possible.
He pivots on the square, a full ninety-degree turn on his right heel. Head erect. Autumn sunlight catches his cap badge. Glints gold as though fingered by Midas. A wind sweeps across the barrack square, pitching his orders high and low, bringing the fragrance of burning leaves to our nostrils. I’m grateful to the lad who’s burning the leaves. At this stage, any sort of smoke in my lungs will do.
‘Left!... Right!... Left!... Right! He roars, increasing the tempo of our cadence. Then he springs into Irish, ‘Clé! Deas! Clé! His barrel-chested voice booms. ‘Heads erect! Swing those arms close to your side! Keep your thumbs down! You’re not hitch-hiking! Stad! Not a move! Steady!’
Then he turns us to the right and tells us to fall out.
Fag break. Succour at last. The fag, a John Player, warms my lungs, caresses my nerves. A fag is a life jacket. There’ll only be time for a couple of drags, snatched puffs. Most of the platoon are non-smokers. There are just a few diehards like myself. Comfort smokers, the foot-drill instructor says. Although we have other names for him, his real name is Paul Morris—Sergeant Paul Morris. Initials PM, for Pre-Menstrual, which one of our female recruits said was sexist, but in this case she would let it go.
He’s right about the smokes, though. Cigarettes keep my nerves from tumbling over the edge. Since I joined the army, I’ve begun to eat them. I looked at myself in the mirror one morning, as I shaved, and caught the reek of my breath. I decided to quit, but then on the square the Sergeant rolled me over, saying I had dust on my beret—not army issue dust either, so it shouldn’t be fucking there! Loose threads on my trousers. My boots weren’t up to scratch. By the time he had run through me, I was gasping for a smoke.
‘Bull them!’ he had said about my boots. ‘Do you know what I mean by “bull them”?’
‘Sarge? Sarge...? I’m not your friend. Do I look like I’m your friend?’
‘Get those boots sorted—I want to see my face in your toecaps from here-on-in.’