by L. Roger Quilter
The registered letter addressed to me, arrived a month ago on a warm August morning. What threw me was the manner it was entitled. I recognized my old army serial number immediately, but this was followed by Rfn. The envelope carried the letters O.H.M.S. (On Her Majesty’s Service) as a heading and carried an official postmark from the U.K.
Rfn. is the abbreviation of Rifleman, the lowest form of human life in the British light infantry regiments. At least that’s what my platoon sergeant revealed to me when we started square bashing.
I faced the postman and asked, “What gives? This must be some kind of sick joke.”
“Sign here, please, Sir.” The letter carrier was in a hurry and didn’t want to share my feelings about another piece of mail. I took the proffered pen and scribbled my signature in his receipt book.
“Thank you, Sir. Have a nice day.” He retrieved his book and pen and trudged off up the driveway to disappear from view.
I found no indication that this was the work of a jokester and that worried me. I have several so-called friends who are capable of practical jokes. Was this one of them? I knew I had my honorable discharge deep in a drawer somewhere, but supposing something had gone wrong.
“I wonder if it has to do with the two days I owed the army,” I mused, “they said it was fine to leave for Canada when I requested.”
I departed England to start a new life a month before the scheduled territorial camp I was slated to attend. This would have seen the completion of my compulsory National Service. I had written a letter asking to be excused as the ship was leaving before the date of my last training week-end. To travel thousands of miles to put in forty eight hours crawling through mud soaked fields seemed ridiculous to me.
Strangely enough the army agreed and I received a letter wishing me good luck in my new venture. Where that particular note had disappeared to I had no idea and I began to worry in case I needed it.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” My wife’s voice broke my train of thought. “Who is it from, anyway?”
“My old regiment, I think. Maybe I’ve been awarded a medal.” I chuckled, but still felt uneasy and I didn’t want to open the missive.
“A medal? Hmmph! Fat chance. You only served eighteen months National Service and it was all in peace time.”
“That was followed by four and a half years in the territorials.” I retorted, indignantly.
“You call that service? All you ever did was escalate the beer sales at the local pubs.” Arms on her hips, she stared at me, remembering the times I had crawled home a little tipsy from a couple of weeks in the field. “Come inside and let’s see what it is all about.”
Dejectedly, I followed her into the kitchen and gripped the letter opener she handed me. Slitting open the envelope I withdrew a single, flimsy sheet with a short, terse message inscribed.
It turned out worse than I thought. Her Majesty’s Government accused me of being AWOL, absent without leave, for my failure to show up for a scheduled part of my service and I was ordered to present myself, in person, to the office of the Commanding Officer of the Greenjackets within forty eight hours to give reasons why I should not be charged with desertion. Of course the wording was strictly military in style, short and terse; there were no wasted words.
Desertion? How could they? No reason was given and no travel voucher was included for my journey. Instead of my spirits sinking down into my boots, my blood pressure rose. Of all the stupid, arrogant letters I had read over the years, this one took the cake. It made me mad because I was innocent! Some ignorant short-sighted army clerk needed a hobnailed boot swiftly inserted where the sun don’t shine.
It took me eight hours to formulate a suitable reply. The floor was littered with screwed up paper when I had finished. The first letters contained some very explicit language that I dared not show my wife. The next batch proved to be more acceptable, but I figured I should tone the letter down or I may suffer the consequences. Finally, I edited several different attempts into one cohesive answer.
The gist of my letter stated that permission had been granted to miss the last weekend camp prior to leaving the country. Some years later, in Canada, I explained I developed insulin dependant diabetes and my arteries had narrowed sufficiently to have stents inserted in one of them. My eyesight and hearing were below military standards and the cost of my fares to England and back may prove prohibitive.
Excuse after excuse flooded my brain; legitimate reasons as far as I was concerned, I had gained considerable weight and my uniform, stored in some moth-filled army warehouse, would never fit me.
Military tactics and weapons had been upgraded since I’d been discharged and I needed training in new techniques. Surely it wasn’t worth the effort.
I laid it on thick and heavy, excusing myself for the changes in my situation. I informed them I had become a Canadian citizen, and lived in the far west of Canada. I queried about the statute of limitations. By this time I was weeping in self-pity.
“They can’t force you to go back, can they?” My wife was now alarmed at the prospect I would be sent to the pokey. “You’ve been out for a long time, surely they can’t arrest you.”
Believe me, I knew better!
Three weeks later we arrived in England, ostensibly on vacation; I had decided to face my accusers as soon as possible and give them a piece of my mind. Since the day I received the letter I had become angrier. Dumb army wallahs, they screwed up everything when I did my allotted service, now they had got my dander up.
I spent two days with relations getting over jet lag then set off by train to Winchester. The Royal Green Jackets headquarters, situated in the heart of the old city, was my destination. I even shelled out money for a taxi from the station.
I had dressed carefully for this confrontation. White shirt, conservative tie, grey slacks and a blazer with the Royal Canadian Naval insignia embroidered on the pocket. My black shoes were shone to perfection and what remained of my hair was slicked down. I carried my medical requirements, insulin, test equipment, pills and snacks in a backpack.
As soon as I entered the barracks I accosted by two soldiers, one of them a corporal, who ordered me to remove my pack for inspection. There was no rattle when I removed it from my shoulders despite the number of pills I carried and I found this strange. The second soldier, a pimply faced youth, all uniform and shiny boots, asked me to state my business and did I have an appointment, if so, with whom?
“My name is William Whatknott and I’ve been accused of desertion, so throw the handcuffs on and let’s get on with the grunt.” I spat it out fast and loud, offering my hands to the startled guardians.
“Y-y-you are a deser-serter?” The corporal of the guard was taken aback at my frontal assault. “Just a moment, I’ll have to check this out. Please sit down.” He pointed to a hard wooden bench and I complied with his suggestion, my body held as erect as I could hold it. I sucked in my pot-belly a bit.
The corporal marched into what I imagined was the inner sanctum and I heard astonished mumbling and questions being asked.
A young second lieutenant, Officer of the Guard I guessed, appeared and stood before me.
To my eyes he looked like an immature schoolboy barely out of his teens. He was unsure of what to do. In my day I would have been screamed at to stand to attention and marched off to the nearest cell while the duty officer sorted it out. This pipsqueak was aware that the situation was beyond his capabilities. He hesitated, looked wildly around and drew in a deep breath. Finally he said, “Corporal Snodgrass, take down the man’s particulars while I contact Major Maudlin.”
He strode out of the room at a pace that I remembered only too well; 180 paces to the minute, the marching rate of the Rifle Brigade.
I turned my attention to Snodgrass. Even he was incredibly young, but he had an authoritative air about him.
He produced an army issue notebook and a pen. “Your name?” he demanded.
“Whatknott, William.” I responded.
I gave him my full address in Canada.
“What unit are you with?”
“None. I’ve been demobbed.”
He scowled and sharply demanded, “Which unit were you with?”
“First Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, followed by territorial service with the London Rifle Brigade and Rangers at 24 Sun Street, London, just behind Liverpool Street station.” I stared at him with an angry look.
As I said this a tubby major followed by the young second lieutenant entered.
Major Maudlin had heard my remarks and bellowed, “The Rifle Brigade no longer exists. We are the Royal Green Jackets and have been since 1966.” His thin moustache quivered and his face took on a purple hue. A heavy drinker, I surmised.
“Nevertheless, I was in those two regiments. You’ll have my records in some dusty file somewhere, take a look.” I gave him a withering stare. “By the way my regimental number was 22102311, as if it matters a damn.”
The major was not used to my attitude. Soldiers sprang rigidly to attention and answered, ‘Sir.’ when they were addressed by officers.
“Corporal, escort this man to the battalion office. We’ll soon sort this out.” Turning on his heel the major departed and two riflemen of the guard escorted me to a small office a few yards away. They didn’t like it much because they marched at the regulation rate while I sauntered along casually, swiveling my head around to see what kind of place this was.
As I expected the place was immaculate. The old credo prevailed, ‘If it moves, salute it, if it doesn’t, paint it white.’ I smiled at this nostalgic thought.
We entered a small ante-room where I was told to sit down again. The chair I now sat in while I waited for the army to get off its butt was more comfortable than the wooden bench in the guardroom. The internal décor of all the buildings turned out to be no different from the edifices in my day, austere and forbidding. I felt in control of the situation, but I wondered what was going on. So far people had been flustered, but officers and non-commissioned ranks with more maturity would soon be asking pointed questions. I was going to have a fight on my hands before this day was through.
“Rifleman Whatknott.” The shouted order caused my two escorts to nudge me onto my feet. They still marched smartly while I casually strode in to where my fate would ultimately be decided.
There were several officers and a stern faced sergeant major sitting around a table. I noted the computer was on and one officer was studying a printout.
“Come in Rifleman Whatknott, take a seat.” My comfort seemed uppermost in everyone’s mind. “You appear to have lived the life of Riley since you went AWOL.” Another major, whose appearance showed he had spent a lot of time dealing with offenders, was sitting behind the table, “Do sit down. Make yourself comfortable. My goodness, but you look a lot older than you should.” His mocking voice riled me, as he knew it would.
“That’s strange; most people think I look younger.” I retorted. Keep calm and ride this out, I told myself.
There were several gasps as I uttered this latest shot.
Even the major, whose desk sign said he was the battalion adjutant, his name, Furtongue, made me smile, was taken aback. He said nothing and eyed me curiously.
“Let me see Whatknott’s printout,” he ordered a sergeant standing behind the desk. He perused them for several minutes then stared at me and ordered, “Answer these questions, Name?”
“I told you, already, Whatknott, William.”
The sergeant major roared, “Answer the questions and say, ‘Sir’ when you are spoken to.”
”Alright Sergeant Major, we’ll play his silly game for a while.” Furtongue smiled evilly at me. “Your letter says you should not be charged with desertion. Have you anything to say in your defence?”
“Quite a lot, mister,” I retorted, “first of all I served in the Rifle Brigade not the Green Jackets, Royal or not. Secondly, I was discharged early because I was leaving for Canada. Third, I need a snack as my blood sugar is low due to my insulin working overtime, and I would like you to address me as Mister, not Rifleman; I gave that rank up long ago.”
“My dear chap,” his voice dripped sarcasm, “we have you down as twenty five years of age; I wish you a happy birthday, by the way. You joined at age nineteen and that is only six years ago, so how do you account for that?”
It suddenly dawned on me where the error was. Oh those dumb turds. I could imagine my hobnailed boot caressing someone’s rear end already. “May I see my records, please?”
This sentence was the first one that suited their mood because the papers were given to me. I sought the item I knew had to be incorrect. It stared out at me like a beacon.
I pulled my wallet out of my pocket and withdrew several plastic cards and threw them on the desk savagely. Two of them bounced into Furtongue’s lap. “Check those out, pal.”
All of the cards had my photo and date of birth on them. A birth certificate, a driver’s license and my retirement certificate from the Royal Canadian Navy were among them.
“May I point out to you the date of birth on those cards?” I was getting sarcastic, myself. “I demand you correct the error in your computerized files. I was born in 1930, not 1980. My original records must have been produced with a dirty typewriter and the three smudged like an eight. Jesus, you guys, I’ve served in the Royal Canadian Navy for thirty years and wound up as a Chief and I’m too bloody old to do any more sodding soldiering.”
I watched as it suddenly dawned on them I was telling the truth. They had thought I was fifty years younger.
Within seconds the whole room shook with laughter. I had seemed so angry until my last statement had burst forth and then I had smiled and relief was felt by everyone.
The atmosphere in the room changed from hostility to calm acceptance over what had transpired,
“Mister Whattknott, we appear to owe you an apology.” Furtongue appeared almost human. “It is almost noon, so I suggest you take your insulin and stay for lunch. Being an ex-naval rating I imagine you imbibe alcohol?” He passed me back my cards.
“Does a dog raise its leg?” I replied.
As Furtongue and I left, everybody shook my hand and wished me good luck.
He led me to the officers’ mess, where the beer flowed freely for over an hour. I noted several women officers in the crowd at the bar who smiled at me. On the Adjutant’s command, everyone sang Happy Birthday.
There was one particular female captain, quite a looker, who staggered towards me and asked, “Hello. My name is Elizabeth Zulch. Most people call me Eezee. May I wish you a happy birthday?”
“Sure, why not?” I answered with an inane grin.
She wrapped her arms around me and planted her lips on mine. “Happy seventy-fifth birthday, darling.”
I awoke to find myself in my own bed with my wife, holding my morning coffee, bent over and kissing me. It was her voice I had heard. The lovely taste of warm, British beer was gone; and so was Eezee. The whole thing had been a dream; nothing but a damn dream!
I think I’ll have to quit eating cheese sandwiches for my bedtime snacks.
Copyright © 2005 by L. Roger Quilter