We finally reached the start of our long anticipated last week at West Kirby and there was a rising air of excited expectation amongst us. We had just about recovered from the effects of our epic outing to Wales, most having suffered blisters, but mine were mercifully only small ones compared to some. Our legs ceased to ache and now the march was declared by none less than Manic to have been nothing more than 'a piece of pudden'. We worked feverishly at our boots in an attempt to restore their former glorious toecap state of mirror-like gloss, as we knew the forthcoming inspections would be the most stringent yet.
A precursor to the Passing Out parade had occurred the previous Tuesday when we sent not two but four of our collars to the laundry, as two were to be starched Chinese fashion as a form of exceptional 'bull'. When they came back the two appeared to be made of glossy pale blue aluminium and in due course they proved to live up to the name 'Chinese' in that they were sheer torture to wear.
That weekend I was greatly pleased to see a notice in the NAAFI which read that the Mick Mulligan trad jazz band, together with a jazz singer called George Melly, were coming to our Astra cinema on the night of our passing out parade. I had never before been able to get to a live jazz performance and neither had my friend Colin, so we determined that we would go together, especially as it would provide a suitable memorable celebration of the end of our square bashing. However, several days later, Sheffield announced that he had organised a dinner and booze-up for the inmates of our hut on the same night. Now there was a dilemma for Colin and me as it would be considered bad form, to say the least, if we did not attend. But then we were let off the hook, as the idiot Sheffield announced that there were only twenty places on the coach, so the pair of us cunningly waited until everybody else had put their names down first before we offered to do so. I was very relieved with this outcome as I badly wanted to go to the jazz event and in any case I was worried that my stomach might not be up to the combination of eating and drinking together.
After several run-throughs of the sequence of parade evolutions, on the Wednesday of the final week the Dress Rehearsal was held. A platform had been erected at one side of our drill square and one or two unfamiliar officers stood there watching hawk-eyed as about a hundred or more of us performed the necessary variations of marching and salutes, round and round the square and doing it very smartly despite having to endure intermittent rain showers, but encouraged by having an RAF band to help things along. Despite the choking effect of the appallingly uncomfortable starched collar, there were no major cock-ups, in fact everything was performed very well apart from a few being picked out during the inspection, but even then their sins were only of a very minor extreme nit-picking type. Eventually we marched past the platform in a final salute to the senior officers, our flight being led by our Flight Commander cautiously brandishing a presumably borrowed ceremonial sword. Everything went without a hitch, this resulting in kind words from our Flight Commander, and a begrudging lack of unkind ones from our DIs. Euphoria all round! We'd done it, weren't we great? It was almost as if we'd completed the real thing.
The evening was spent in final pressing and polishings of the various bits of our uniforms. We went to bed tired but happy. Tomorrow was to be our last day!
We awoke to find that the rain was hammering down in stair rods, but as the parade was to be at 1400, there was still time for the awful weather to clear up. The whole morning was available for final titivating which of course included lots more attention to our boots. At about eleven Gaunt came in and we all leapt up. 'Well lads this is what you've been waiting for, it's where you'll be going next and these here are your posting chits and rail warrants', he said brandishing a fistful of papers. 'First Coombes. Coombes you are to report to RAF Jurby, Isle of Man, for Officer Training'. There was a combined gasp from the rest of us. 'Congratulations Coombes, well done. So if we should meet up again I'll be calling you 'Sir'. But not until then mind you.' Coombes simpered. Then it was alphabetical order, so my name was next. 'Adams, Ground Radar Fitter. That's a good one. You'll be reporting to RAF Locking'. I was delighted as it was what I had been hoping for, but it had by no means been a foregone conclusion. Each time Gaunt announced that someone was to go for Fitter's training he always commented that it was a 'good one'. It was as if he admired those who had the ability to enter a skilled trade. Stanley was selected for his Engine Fitter's training, while Graham who had worked in a bank, was very suitably required to be a Pay Clerk. Colin had no idea what was coming for him but seemed happy enough to become a Medical Orderly.
Eventually it was Sheffield's turn and he was destined to be a Cook's Assistant. A huge roar of derisive laughter erupted from us. 'Hard luck Sheffield' said Gaunt with a chuckle, 'but it's probably what you deserved.' Sheffield could not stand this humiliation but he was in no position to do more than emit a loud snarl. Then Manic got his come-uppance too. He was to be a Batman/Waiter, that is, an officer's servant. When the second round of derisive laughter died down Gaunt continued 'Serves you right too, but pull yourself together, cut out the lip and conform, and then you'll be on a cushy number.' It was blindingly obvious that Corporal Gaunt was totally on the ball, somehow he'd got each of us weighed up exactly right. There was one more announcement. Due to the continued expectancy of heavy rain, the passing out parade was to be conducted in the hangar.
That evening twenty of our comrades duly went off for their celebration dinner. As he went out Sheffield snarled at me 'You standoffish sod Adams, we'll get you when we get back.' I could tell that he meant it. He didn't say the same to Colin, so why to me? Perhaps I'd laughed too loudly and for too long at his earlier discomforture. Nor had I regularly lobbed Rothman Kingsize cigarettes his way throughout the entire ten weeks as Colin had done. Nor joined in the raucous singing of Pop songs as Colin had also done. What did he mean by 'Get me'? The bootpolish treatment I supposed. But it was high time to go to the Jazz so we scuttled up to the Astra with only five minutes to spare. The bloke in the ticket booth was apologetic 'Sorry lads but we've sold out. You should have been along sooner.' But we couldn't have been there sooner, as we had not wanted Sheffield to know that we had chosen jazz in preference to his beer. Saddened and frustrated at this turn of events, we were just turning away when an usher emerged. 'Just those two officers' seats left' he reported to the man in the box office. We were beckoned back. ' I don't suppose any more officers will be along now. We'll see if you can sit there.' The usher trotted back inside to enquire, presumably of the senior officer present, if that would be permitted. He was soon back and wearing a smile, so we paid our money, and were led to one end of the very front row. We stood there looking at the nearest officer and he actually gave a grin and indicated that we should sit. At that instant the wild music of Maple Leaf Rag burst out from behind the closed curtains which then immediately swept apart.
It was a most marvellous evening. The Mick Mulligan band was superb, each instrumentalist a supreme master of his art. And then there was the strange George Melly, unknown to us until then. Male jazz singers were few and far between, he was probably the only one in the country to do it. Mostly his half dozen songs were Blues and he did them in true Negro style and performed them so well. There was one number I remember which lamented an untimely death when he came on carrying a miniature coffin on his shoulder.
Another new and rather strange thing I experienced that night was perhaps caused by the way in which the officers enjoyed it all just as ecstatically as the main audience of recruits. It was a moment of insight, a new feeling of belonging, a bonding almost, caused by the colour of our clothing and by our common enjoyment: those god-like men in the smooth uniforms were not that much removed from the common herd after all.
Back in the billet I wondered what I could do to thwart Manic's intent. It was just possible that he might have too much to drink and would forget about his threat. But that was unlikely. Perhaps my friends would help protect me? Possibly, but they would have been drinking too. What I needed was an escape plan. Could I spend the night in the bath house, bolted in a cubicle? Possibly so but it would be damned uncomfortable. I decided the best solution was to just go to bed and chance the outcome, but I would take the precaution of leaving the window above me wide open behind the curtain, thus providing an easy escape route if such was required. Colin opened his window too as an alternative exit. An additional precaution was to go to bed with my shoes on in case I might have to run to an indeterminate more distant elsewhere if the way to my intended haven was barred.
At ten minutes to eleven the drunken crowd returned: the door crashed open and the lights blazed on. There was a loud hubbub as they stumbled in singing and shouting. Immediately Manic screamed 'Right get the bastard' as if he'd been anticipating that very moment all evening. My bedclothes were ripped off and the unexpected sight of my shoes revealed. 'Goin to kick us was he? Right, give him a good kicking first then, the bastard.' A passing glance revealed Coombes sitting cross legged like a Buddha on his bed, slowly rocking from side to side and his face transfixed with a silly grin. Stanley was laid out flat on his bed holding a pillow clamped across his face. Obviously no help would be forthcoming from either. But the bellowing mob made the mistake of all coming at me from one side, not wanting to invade Coombes' bedspace no doubt, so I was able to roll off on that side and dive under my bed. I wriggled up to the bed's legs near the wall and wove my limbs around the metalwork, somewhat protected on each side by a locker. Shoes appeared in view and made repeated futile attempts to kick me but they couldn't quite do it without their owners' shins being cracked on the bed frame. The yelling intensified as the mob's frustration increased. 'Pull the sodding bed out' screamed Manic, and the bed started bumping about, but for some welcome reason did not move more than a few inches from the wall. Then there was a massive bellow which cut through the noise of the mob. 'What the f*****g hell's going on here? What's this bloody row? Why are these f*****g lights on? Do you buggers want to go home tomorrow or not?' It was the oh so sweet tones of my now dear friend Corporal Abbott. Immediately there was total silence. 'I mean that you know. If you lot want to stay here I can bloody well arrange it. For God's sake lads, we've all had a good night but what do you think you're doing? It doesn't mean you can forget discipline, that always comes first. As it is the whole lot of you warrant being on a charge. Who the hell's that skulking under that bed? Come out you. The rest of you get in your pits at the double. You've three minutes.' Totally abashed they scurried away obediently and I crawled out. Abbott brusquely enquired 'What the f**k were you doing under there Adams?' 'Avoiding boot polish, Corporal' 'Hmmm. I see. Well you're bloody lucky, you seem to have managed it. Make up your bed and get in it.' Then he called to the rest 'You've one minute now to get in bed. And if you think you've got scores to settle, forget it. Or come and settle them with me in the morning. Now button it.' He put the lights out and left. There was one low growl of 'We'll get you Adams' but most must have taken on board that their game was well and truly over.
In the morning Coombes tentatively apologised for having been unable to assist me in my predicament and blamed the drink. So did Stanley, but rather more sincerely. He added that he was sorry to have missed the chance of giving Sheffield a bloody nose. Colin and Graham laughingly told me that while trying to give the impression of helping to pull the bed out they had actually been pushing it back. But my real salvation had been the open windows : Abbott's billet was quite close and he must have heard the din as soon as it started.
Very little was done that morning apart from returning our rifles to the Armoury, our bedding to the Bedding Store and the packing of our kitbags. I remember congratulating Coombes on his elevation to the aristocracy. He laughed and modestly said it was not so very wonderful really as he expected that like many National Service officers he would most likely be merely employed as a Flight Commander at one of the five square bashing camps. After the midday meal there was much handshaking and wishing of luck all round and we were taken in groups at different times to the railway station. On the train all the 'Oxford' lads were together again and sitting in the same compartment. To my surprise, Fox had a companion, an attractive Irish girl he had met at a dance in Meols and he was taking her home to meet his parents. I considered the reception I would get if I had been doing the same. But mostly I was luxuriating in the feeling of intense relief that this period had been successfully accomplished. I was heartily glad to be going home : it wasn't the hardships that had worried me, but the fraught tense atmosphere that had prevailed throughout and I wondered if it would be the same at RAF Locking, wherever that might be. I would miss but few of my recent companions, and I knew that even those friendships had been somewhat superficial and expedient. I wondered if that was how it was always going to be in Service life.
Footnote Virtually all that you have read here is true, and the endorsements below confirm that my account is an accurate portrayal of life at West Kirby. However, due to a poor memory some of the names of the recruits inevitably have had to be invented. What may be at variance from the exact truth are the words uttered by the various characters as it is impossible to recall after the passage of fifty years the precise words used, but the ones I have put into the characters' mouths do sincerely convey the essence and style of what was said then.
Virtually all that you have read here is true, and the endorsements below confirm that my account is an accurate portrayal of life at West Kirby. However, due to a poor memory some of the names of the recruits inevitably have had to be invented. What may be at variance from the exact truth are the words uttered by the various characters as it is impossible to recall after the passage of fifty years the precise words used, but the ones I have put into the characters' mouths do sincerely convey the essence and style of what was said then.
Endorsements....or....Be posted with me to RAF Locking
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Text © 2007 D.C.Adams