Short story: The Square Peg
Vane glanced sideways, saw it was the Glaswegian. Or was it the one from Carlisle? “A toilet bag,” Vane said.
A hand reached for one of the silver-backed brushes. Yes, it was the Glaswegian; the fingers were black-speckled from welding. He’d talked about working at the Govan yard.
“I believe it is.”
“Well, the initials.”
“Including the hyphen.”
Vane took the brush back and slipped it back under a leather retaining loop, conscious of being stared at.
When Vane returned to the billet the Glaswegian was addressing the world – or that part of it lolling on beds – about siller hairbrushes. Nobody was paying much attention and Vane stowed the toilet bag away in his bedside locker. Picked up Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour.
The billet’s inertia clearly irritated the Glaswegian. He walked over to Vane’s bed, stamping his new boots noisily. “I hae not got a hyphen, ye know.”
Vane was still standing and glad of it. He put down his book and simultaneously punched the Glaswegian full in the nose. The Glaswegian lurched away but worked his feet backwards so that he did not fall. Neat footwork, Vane thought. The other wiped his hand over his nose and inspected the blood with forensic interest. “What ye dae that for?” he asked, as if clearing up a matter of etiquette.
“I was told you chaps like to use your head. For butting.”
“Chaps from Glasgow.”
The Glaswegian laughed in acknowledgement. “Aye, weel we dae.”
The next day a three-tonner took them all to the rifle range at Cannock. To be taught the prone position, to aim .22 rifles, and to shoot at targets twenty-five yards away. Formed up, they marched to the two-hundred yard range and were handed .303 Lee Enfields.
For Vane it was like coming home. Delicately he raised the rifle’s sight, worked the bolt, breathed in and then slowly out, squeezed the trigger. Made a slight correction then squeezed off the rest of the clip. The corporal in charge used binoculars on the target but said nothing. The rest of the billet fired their clips.
The corporal handed Vane the binoculars and barked, “You, tell him what he’s doing wrong.”
Vane wished it had been the Glaswegian but it was an under-nourished airman, probably from Essex, who seemed to find his rifle too heavy. Vane could only count four hits on the target, all widely spaced. “Basic position on the ground wrong for a start,” Vane reported, adding after an insolent pause, “Corporal.”
When they did boxing two days later no one wanted to get in the ring with Vane and the PT instructor, much irritated, pointed to the tallest. Deliberately Vane aimed his straight lefts at his opponent’s gloves, making much noise but causing no pain. Gaining confidence the lad launched a wild round-house which half hit Vane on the shoulder. Those watching applauded and Vane smiled.
The instructor, by now enraged, put on the gloves himself. Far fitter than Vane, and much faster, he nevertheless found it difficult to penetrate Vane’s defences. “Hit me,” the instructor shouted, deliberately leaving his face unprotected and Vane darted a quick but light blow to his solar plexus.
During the afternoon Vane spoke for two coherent minutes about Bertrand Russell when the camp padre, who’d earlier damned “the libertine”, asked for questions.
That evening the billet decamped to the Naafi, overrode Vane’s protests and bought him beer until the Naafi closed. Several asked him the same question in different forms. What was he looking for in the RAF?
“I mean you’re obviously a POM,” said the unhealthy Essex lad.
“What’s a POM?” asked Vane.
“Potential officer material.”
Vane frowned. “I’m not sure about that. I come from an Army family with too many officers. National service is only two years. I thought I’d try something different. God knows what.”
“But where did you learn all this stuff.”
For the first time Vane looked hesitant. “Oh, you know. At school. One of those schools you’re supposed to feel ashamed of. A school for parents, really. Parents with more money than sense. Which describes my lot.”
Walking back from the Naafi he deliberately looked for the Glaswegian, now known inevitably as Mac. “I’m surprised you didn’t have another go.”
“Fechting? Fechting’s stupid.”
Vane laughed. “Don’t tell me you haven’t used your head that way. What is it they say in your city: a mouthful of headies?”
“Moo’fu’ o haidies,” Mac corrected. “But that isna fechting.”
“What is it then?”
Mac stopped to draw on his Woodbine. “Ut’s kind of politics. One quick stroke and yee’re done. It gets everyone’s attention and no sweat. They listen and ye’ve nae trouble. Y’unnerstan?”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“Sudden and vicious. Folk are shocked. Nae need for anything mair.”
“So you were going to use it.”
“Then I was. Not after.”
The POM interview was embarrassing, the interviewer obsequious. A gnarled squadron-leader pilot, close to retirement, with a DFC among his ribbons probably won during the war. Perhaps he’d been promoted from sergeant-pilot and the class step had induced a fuller appreciation of British society’s upper echelons. Certainly his questions about Vane’s school were interminable.
“I suppose the cadet corps was inevitable given your upbringing.”
It was a word and an ethos Vane hated. “Either that or I’d have been sent to the colonies.”
The squadron-leader didn’t see the joke. “But being Honour Cadet wasn’t inevitable?”
Disappointed the squadron-leader referred to another of his “must” points. “No need for me to talk about leadership with you.”
“I wouldn’t like to make too big a claim about the corps, sir. People joined it for all sorts of reasons. Some political, some downright despicable.”
“All the more credit you came out on top.”
Where’s the honesty in all this? Vane asked himself.
“I take it,” said the squadron-leader, “you’d want to take your commission to the top of the tree. The absolute top.”
He’s tipping me the wink. Pointing towards the Air Ministry but without actually using his finger. Vane cleared his throat. “Sir, I see the RAF as a predominantly technical force. Since national service isn’t long enough for me to become a pilot I felt I’d like to keep planes flying. That seems an honourable occupation."
The interviewer’s eyebrows arched. “You mean servicing, maintenance? Air frames, engines, avionics – that sort of thing. I think with your background you could do rather better. You’re in line for what the Army would call a staff position.”
“Look, sir, may I ask a question?”
“My dear chap, of course. This is a two-way street.”
“It’s to do with POM. The necessary qualifications.”
“A bit basic, but fire ahead.”
“May anyone apply?”
“But not everyone is interviewed. Sir, may I ask the basis for - ” Vane was about to say “the first cull” but suspected it might be heard as antagonistic. “Triage” seemed neutral enough.
“Education is the primary criterion. Given the age of the applicants it’s often all we’ve got to go on.”
“So in some cases it may be nothing more than a few O-levels.”
The squadron-leader writhed slightly. “Well, not quite. I can speak man-to-man to you of course. It will come as no surprise the school itself can play a part in the decision to interview. A school with traditions, you know. Traditions which create expectations.”
“Is there no mechanism for interviewing an airman on the basis of his intelligence, sir?”
“But how would we know beforehand?”
“A verbal recommendation, say?”
“But from whom? Look it’s clear you have someone in mind. Obviously I mustn’t know his name. Obviously too I can’t promise anything but I trust your... intelligence. Give me an outline, a hint.”
Until then Vane had pursued an abstraction, a theory of social justice. Now, horribly, he faced facts. Saw Mac inspecting blood on the back of his hand. Imagined himself saying: he’s a welder at the Govan shipyard.
Vane shook his head. “You’re right, sir. It is difficult. I must leave it up to him.”
Somehow the squadron-leader contrived to un-writhe. Became all smiles. “That’s the spirit. It may not be a perfect system but we seem to get it right most of the time. I appreciate your concern but if it’s any comfort I would have no doubts...”
But Vane, involuntarily, stood up, unwilling to hear the rest of that sentence. “I’m sorry sir, I appear to have wasted your time. I apologise enormously. I think it would be better if I withdrew my application.”
Vane stammered, perhaps for the first time in his life. “It’s just that... I can’t be sure... I would make a good RAF officer.”
The squadron-leader may have been obsequious, well stricken in years but he could still make decisions. “In that case, airman, I suggest you leave this room forthwith.”
ON THE penultimate day of basic training they got their trade postings. Mac preferred to be taciturn but was having difficulty suppressing a smile. He showed Vane the slip. “Engine fitter, an eight-month course. The fust job I chose. Jings, I could ha’ welded my last ship’s bulkhaid. Nae more poison fumes. Have a dram with me tonight.”
“Hope I can do that, Mac. Seems my future’s on hold. I may have to rattle some cages.”
“Tonight, ye Sassenach bastard.”
Others wanted to share their good news with the billet’s popularly acclaimed leader. But it was too much. “Just got to go to the bog.”
Inside, the door bolted, he let his trousers down just to discourage anyone who got curious and peered from under. Took out his slip and read: Bedding clerk. RAF Kinloss, Moray, Scotland. One week’s training at camp.
Checked his pockets for telephone change. No point in belonging to a military family if you didn’t want levers pulled.