When he came through the double doors adjacent to room one he was accompanied by Corporal Timms, who was carrying a clipboard, self-importantly. It was hard to eavesdrop, whilst trying to stand perfectly still, but the guy outside room one seemed to say the right things and the entourage moved inside, followed by the room NCO. For about five seconds there was relative silence and I thought maybe it was going to be alright. Perhaps they’d go easy on us, it being our first full day and all that. The first sign that this wasn’t going to be the case was a bedblock being thrown into the corridor. It was followed by Sgt Atkins roaring at the owner. Even when it landed in the corridor, it still looked better than mine. The guy outside Room 2 looked round at us and the expression on his face said it all. He looked like he’d seen a ghost and simply mimed the words, “Oh, fcuk.” I had to stifle the urge to laugh, despite my growing sense of dread and the fact that Atkins was only three rooms away. The destruction of Room 1 took about three minutes. I heard the same process being repeated eight times. First there would be a couple of questions from Atkins, the volume rising dramatically with each word. There would be a short nervous answer, interrupted by what sounded like a bear roaring. The unmistakeable noise of furniture being up-ended was next, followed by a short period of silence as Atkins moved to the next bunk. The system was employed identically in rooms two and three. As soon as they’d moved in to next door, Baker came out and stood beside me.
“You’d better get it fcuking right, Nugent.”
I was shaking like a leaf. I felt like I was going to be sick and drop a dog egg into my underpants at the same time. I counted eight sets of the, by now, familiar banging and clattering and readied myself for the onslaught.
Atkins emerged from room three, red-faced and angry. He made a bee-line for me and stopped no more than a pace away. I looked at him and started breathing in to say, “Good morning.”
“Don’t you fcuking look at me sunshine. Do you fcuking fancy me or summat?”
I switched my gaze to a point above his head and shouted,
“Good morning, Sergeant.” I stopped, because he was shaking his head angrily.
“What I think you’re trying to say is ROOM, ROOM, SHUN.”
Steve and the rest of the lads responded immediately to the authority in Sgt Atkins’ voice. I realised my mistake and started to shout,
“Too fcuking late, don’t bother. And never mind the ‘good morning’ b*llocks either, you’ve already fcuked it all up, beyond redemption.”
He turned to Lcpl Baker.
“Get a grip of your blokes, Cpl Baker, or I’ll get a fcuking grip of you.” He moved past us both and into the room. Baker followed him, shooting me a filthy look as he went by. I hadn’t really dropped him in the sh*t, it was all just a big blag between the DS, but I wasn’t to know that. I was just starting to feel sorry for myself, when Atkins screamed.
“Whose fcuking bedblock is this?” I didn’t really need to look, but I did anyway. He had impaled the offending article on the end of his paystick and was inspecting it with grim fascination.
“MINE, SERGEANT. NUGENT”
“Jesus Christ, this is the worst one I’ve seen so far. It’s like a fcuking elephant’s nest. Did you have boxing gloves and a blindfold on when you did this?”
“Well you should have done. You might have done a better fcuking job. Bad start, Nugent. Bad fcuking start.”
He lobbed it over his shoulder, like a farmhand shifting straw bales. It bounced off my head and onto the floor at my feet. He continued to move through the room, voicing unsurprising opinions about our hygiene, stupidity and genetic make-up, all done at town-crier decibels. Only Col Mortimer came in for a similar amount of flak as me. He’d had the great idea of disagreeing with Sgt Atkins.
“Whose is this one?” said Atkins, prodding Col’s bedblock.
“MINE, SERGEANT. MORTIMER.”
“Think you’ve done a good job do you?”
“ERM, YES, SERGEANT.”
“Well, I think it’s sh*te.”
He pointed to a bulge at the back of the arrangement, that shouldn’t have been there.
“What the fcuk’s that? It looks like you’ve trapped Arthur Askey in there. So you think that’s up to standard do you.”
“So, I’m a fcuking liar am I?”
“What? ERM, YES… NO SERGEANT.”
The rest of us were shouting silently, ‘Shut the fcuk up, Col,’ but he’d already stitched himself up. Atkins continued with the theme.
“So, what your saying is you know better than me. A spotty, little Geordie gobsh*te, who’s not even been in the Army for a week, knows better than me, a Sergeant in the Royal Corps of Signals with twelve years service under his belt?”
“I’ll be fcuking watching you, Mortimer. No one likes a smart-arrse. Especially one with a grid like a pizza. Cpl Baker, sort this fine bunch of w*nkers out.”
He left the room, with Timms in his wake, urgently scribbling on his clipboard. As the melee began in Room 5, Baker debriefed us.
“Fcuking cheers, lads. That’s me in the sh*t. Well fcuk youse lot. When I’m in the sh*t, you’re in the sh*t. I’ll get you sparking, don’t worry about that. Right, put your stuff back together and wait for the next corridor call”
We started reassembling our bedblocks and putting the mattresses back on the beds. It looked like we’d been burgled by gorillas. Baker got called out, by the NCO from Room 3 and left us to our own devices. We were all in our own little worlds, panicking about what might happen next, when Paul Jones shouted across to Col.
“I carn’t fackin’ believe you called ‘im a liar, Col.”
Before Col could protest, we erupted into laughter. Fcuk, did we need it.
“What about me, I’ve got a fcuking elephant’s nest,” I added.
This got them all laughing even louder. When Alistair reminded us of the insult Atkins had levelled at him, about his weight, we were giggling like schoolgirls. He did quite a good impression of the Sergeant as well,
“* me, Mckenzie. You’re a bit of a fcuking blimp aren’t you. When you go to the zoo, do the elephants throw peanuts at you?”