Friday, December 16, 2011
On being grown up
I’m cold. I’m wet. I’m tired. It’s an early Autumn evening in Thetford Chase and I’m sitting on wet, muddy grass in a semicircle of exhausted schoolboys dressed in 1940’s battledress.
We have survived a day of pretend warfare, firing blanks from .303 rifles and throwing thunderflashes at each other. The Blue Team captured the Red Team’s flag. I’m in the Red Team and am not enjoying our collective failure. Mr Topsfield thinks its good for us. Helps us grow up. Makes men out of us.
He’s right. On this day I discover the truth about being a man. The hope, the risk, the ultimate disappointment.
He introduces us to a Major from the Inniskilling Dragoons who snaps to attention in front of us.
The Major is beautiful. He is handsome. He is the bloke we all want to be.
His boots are mirrors, his trouser crease sharp enough to shave with. His medals gleam. His belt is blinding white and carries a shining leather holster. A white lanyard is fixed to a ring at the base of the pistol’s grip at one end, the other end a loop around his neck. He is over six feet tall and obviously in tip top nick. He smiles at us. His teeth glint. We hold our breath.
‘I am now going to show you how to throw a thunderflash five hundred yards,’ he says, his voice, crisp, business-like, mellifluous.
We are stunned. It’s impossible to throw a thunderflash more than fifty feet. It’s made of cardboard and weighs nothing. It’s a big banger that cadets like us throw at one another to simulate a grenade attack. It’s explosive but not very. It certainly makes us jump. We know this Major is talking rubbish. But he has the look.
‘You will need,’ he says, ‘One Thunderflash.’ It appears in his left hand. He holds it up. We can see that it is, indeed, a real, pretend grenade.
‘And,’ he says, ‘One Verey pistol.’ He unbuttons his holster and extracts a flare gun. It looks like a real gun except it has a rather large muzzle.
‘First,’ he says, ‘You load the Verey pistol with a flare.’ He breaks the pistol open, produces a flare and puts into the pistol. He snaps the pistol shut.
‘The colour of the flare doesn’t matter,’ he says, ‘but my pistol is now loaded with live ammunition so I need to exercise care.’
We shrink back. Pointedly, he doesn’t point it at us.
‘Now comes the tricky bit,’ he says, ‘You insert the thunderflash into the barrel of the pistol.’
He does this as he speaks, It’s a tight fit and he uses a number of powerful shoves to force the thunderflash into the barrel. At last, content, he looks up and smiles. His teeth glint.
‘You’re all set,’ he says, ‘Watch!’ As if we could tear our eyes away.
‘First, You strike the Thunderflash.’ It has an emery paper striker which through friction, ignites the fuse. It will explode ten seconds later. He strikes the Thunderflash. It fizzes.
Everyone silently starts to count. One. Two…
‘Next,’ he says, ‘You assume the position with the pistol at about a forty-five degree angle to the ground.’ He raises his arm, looks at us, smiles and pulls the trigger. Three…
It’s a dud flare. Four.
The thunderflash fizzes bright. We are mesmerised. Five…
The Major’s face is contorted in a rictus of terror. Six...
Then inspiration strikes. Seven...
He smiles and sweeps his arm back. With a mighty swing, he throws the pistol as far away as he can. Eight...
Which is about three feet because the pistol is on a beautiful white lanyard round his neck. Nine…
It flies to the end of the lanyard. Drops down to the Major’s stomach. Ten.
The explosion is deafening. His stomach is black, his face black, his uniform ragged, the muzzle of the pistol a tangle of bent metal.
‘That,’ he says, ‘is not supposed to happen.’