The radio had ceased to function. There had been the occasional burst of song, the scattered chat of someone being up-beat for a living, but now there was only the crisp-hiss of static and the grumbling roar of tyres along the motorway. He twisted the dial in search of the elusive sweet spot, but the radio station of his home town was finally out of range.
He squirmed in his seat and stretched his arms against the steering wheel. The cramped interior of the sports car did not lend itself to long journeys and his knees ached from being forced against the dashboard. He switched off the radio and took his bearings from the world outside.
A broad grey river of motorway stretched before him. Up ahead, the Ochill Hills rose sheer from the flat plain of the forth estuary, their steep sided flanks splashed with the bright yellow of gorse. On either side, lay fields of dark chocolate earth, the ploughed ridges topped by the first shoots of rapeseed and beet. It was late spring and a bright day promised the world.
Alec settled down for the last few miles in silence. He mulled over the events of the past few weeks. The farewell to a student life that would remain forever incomplete. The sloughing of old skin before the growth of the new. The muted surprise of old friends. The swearing in ceremony. The issue of uniform. The law manuals and regulation haircut. The sensation of transition. The awkward conversation with his father, heavy with recrimination…’this is not what your mother would have wanted.’
He passed beneath an overhead gantry. A sign pointed towards Kincardine-on-Forth. Another three miles and he would be across the river, through the village and onward to the college. At the first glimpse of the entrance he found that his fingers had tightened on the steering wheel. He relaxed his grip, took a deep breath and turned up past the gatehouse. The road took him along a tree-lined avenue and through the manicured grounds to the college buildings. Little signs had been placed along the route and he followed them to the other side of a complex of low buildings. Around the last of these lay a tarmac area bounded by buildings on two sides that formed a lazy ‘L’. A small access road and an avenue of trees formed the remaining boundary, so that the area formed a rough rectangle. A sign pegged into a narrow strip of grass indicated that this was the Parade Square.
It was a relief to see other people. Young men in suits and ties, young women in power dressing outfits. There was an air of quiet industry. Backs arched over opened car boots. Bags and boxes piled on the tarmac. Alec parked his car alongside a row of others, retrieved his luggage and joined a queue of people at a small side door. They looked for all the world like cruise ship passengers.
A female Sergeant in full parade uniform, a cardboard cut-out, stiff with tradition, watched the new arrivals with a bloodless face. She had a hook nose and thin mouth. Fistfuls of red hair squeezed down either side of her black checkered hat like horse hair from a burst mattress. A male Sergeant, a red sash fitted across his tunic, surveyed the scene from the steps of the doorway. A brown swagger stick was clamped under an armpit. Another male Sergeant, dressed in parade uniform, sat at a tiny wooden desk inside the doorway taking down the details of each arrival. Progress was grisly. He began to sweat. His arms ached with the weight of his bags and the awkward shapes of law manuals and uniform carriers. It was a hot day and he estimated half an hour before he would reach the door. It seemed logical to put his bags down for a while.
They had no sooner touched the ground when there was an ear splitting screech to his left. It echoed around the parade square and made him jump. Birds took off from nearby trees.
“You! Who told you to put down your bags?”
He looked around to see the bloodless Sergeant walk towards him, her mouth turned down, a look of righteous fury in red rimmed eyes. Her arms were locked straight by her side as if glued there, her body bent forward as if her head was the only means by which she could point out the object of her outrage.
“Pick them up.”
It was as if she were addressing a child. Alec picked up his bags and faced forward. He could feel his face glow hot, but no one turned round and he was left alone to deal with the embarrassment. He cursed his luck for drawing attention to himself.
The Sergeant had been spurred into life. Energised by the apparent transgression, she took it as her cue to regale the assembly with reminders of what they now were and how they could no longer “just do what you bloody well wanted.”
The queue remained silent. The other Sergeants looked up for a moment and then looked away. They looked bored. Alec had a feeling that this had not been the first shriek of the day. He took comfort that he was the temporary custodier of her ire and hoped another would come along shortly to take the baton onwards.
He reached the door. The details were basic. Name, force and payroll number. The desk Sergeant asked some background questions and checked his name off a list. Satisfied that all was in order, the Sergeant raised an arm and pointed towards to the side door. Alec was just about to step through when the sash Sergeant stuck an arm out and stopped him. The Sergeant was small and as he stepped in closer Alec could not avoid the feeling that his nostrils were being examined. There Sergeant smirked as he made a play of scanning Alec’s face.
“You thinking of keeping that ‘tache?”
“Yes Sergeant. I’ve become quite attached to it.”
The smirk disappeared. A much harder emotion took its place.
“Smart arse eh? Soon cut you down to size.”
He had made two enemies within a few minutes. It seemed as if there was little margin for error. The control over what you could and could not say felt oppressive. He began mouthing an apology but was interrupted by the desk Sergeant shouting “next” and he found himself ushered into the dark interior beyond.
A gloomy corridor extended from the doorway towards a sunlit stairway. Another Sergeant stood there and shouted at him to come forward. Alec hefted his baggage higher and joined a large group of people at the bottom of a short flight of stairs. They were glum and silent. The Sergeant strode off and, with a windmill swing of one arm, directed everyone to follow. Alec followed the line of people down corridors freshly decorated with gloss paint. The floors, covered in thin carpet tiles were hard and unyielding. The Sergeant walked quickly, turning various corners before entering a long corridor with doors placed at even intervals along one side. On the opposite side stood communal washrooms. They were fitted with showers of the type found in sports clubs. Alec experienced a brief flashback to the awkwardness of his first communal shower at school.
The Sergeant stopped at each door and read off eight names from a sheet of paper taped to the wall. People detached themselves from the long line and disappeared inside. The Sergeant walked on and repeated the exercise at each doorway until they had reached the last room. There were only eight men left. The Sergeant read the names off anyway.
Alec filed in with the others, his arms, neck and shoulders burning with the weight of his luggage. It was a barracks style dormitory. His heart sank and thoughts turned to school outward bound trips and stories of private boarding schools. There were eight metal-framed hospital style beds, the type with chain-linked springs stretched taught between the frame. Each had a thin, blue and white striped mattress. Neatly folded bed linen lay at the foot of each bed. Alec looked around the room. Everything was replicated eight times. The chest high partitions between each bed space, the narrow wardrobe on one side of the bed, the desktop and plastic chair on the other. A card with the name of each occupant, placed on top of the bed linen. He found his bed and dropped his bags in the narrow space in front of the wardrobe. He made eye contact with some of his fellow inmates. Some raised eyebrows, others shrugged and smirked. No one looked happy. No one spoke. Each put their bags in the space they’d call home for the next eight weeks and waited.
The Sergeant entered the room.
“Right lads. Follow me.”
He filed out with the others and joined a long line that threaded its way through corridors and up various stairways. There were other officers. Young, fresh faced and fit. All with starched shirts and knife edged trouser creases. All with mirror polished shoes. Each called out “good afternoon” as they passed. He found himself self consciously nodding at each passer by. Other Sergeants joined the walking convoy, each one periodically shouting “keep to the left” and “no talking.”
After a few minutes he came to a hall with polished parquet flooring. A stage at the far end reminded him of school assemblies. Desks had been arranged in serried ranks. A blue plastic chair stood at each desk and just beyond the front row stood a large wooden lectern, on which hung the college coat of arms. Sunlight streamed in through ceiling high windows. He heard an instruction to sit down and in an effort to put as much distance between himself and the Sergeants he selected a desk in the middle.
The hall reverberated to the screech of chairs being dragged along flooring. Then there was silence. After several minutes two overweight senior officers entered the hall. Each wore an ill fitting tunic. One of them made a short speech. It consisted mostly of themes. Tradition. Discipline. Teamwork. Standards. There was a well rehearsed and repeated tone to it all. With a broad smile, the officer finished with a history lesson. It related to the college, its castle and the motto. ‘BiGlic BiGlic’. Alec heard a female suffer a coughing fit behind him.
The senior officers departed, content they had delivered something inspirational. The Sergeants took centre stage once more. An Inspector joined them. There were forms to fill. Alec looked down at the pile of forms on the desk before him. A pen was provided. The voice shouted out the form to be selected and what part to sign. In unison, like a scene from a dystopian movie, Alec and the other recruits worked their way through the pile, placing each form to the left…then selecting a form on the right. Only later in life would he find out that the police pension scheme that he signed up to that day was voluntary. As were the various charities and benevolent funds to which he would contribute a significant percentage of his salary for the next 30 years. At that moment he didn’t care.
A walking tour of the college followed. Classrooms, dining hall, recreation block, library, ‘student’ bar and a number of minor facilities. All were introduced with the same perfunctory delivery. Alec passed more of the veteran recruits. He felt like a first day pupil at secondary school and began to wonder if he’d done the right thing. In a few weeks he had been transformed from a long haired hippy student to short haired clean shaven police officer. Except he didn’t feel like a police officer. It all felt quite fraudulent. The austere surroundings, the absence of home, the constant shuttling about, the sense of being brought under the control of others. It felt dislocating. Occasionally he passed a large window and glimpsed the sunny world outside. He thought of friends back home and a more carefree existence. Here, it felt like he had joined the army. The culture was stiff and regimented. As if on cue, a barked order shook him out of his daydream and he found that they had come around once more to the dining hall. The Sergeant addressed them all. Other diners stopped to watch and listen, knowing looks on their faces.
“Right. Dinner. You’ll sit at your allotted tables. Look for your names. Sit there. After dinner, meet me in the laundry rooms at the end of your dormitory corridor. Bon appetit.”
He found his table and joined the morose queue at the servery. Sub standard meals were being dolloped onto white plates. It was school dinners again. The hall was vast and filled with large circular tables. The tables, with their stratified seating arrangements, reflected the hierarchical nature of his new surroundings. The new arrivals, conspicuous by their civilian clothes, sat at one end of the hall. The more advanced recruits in their neat uniforms were next, followed by older established officers and yet more officers in suits that Alec took to be CID. They all sat in their own individual groupings. Further away and closer to the far end of the hall were tables filled with Sergeants, three stripes on their shoulders, then Inspectors with two silver pips and further on, senior officers. At the furthest away point sat the college staff. Senior officers and instructors together. Alec noticed that this was the only place where any of the ranks mixed.
The hall was filled with noise. The clamour of voices, the scrape and ching of cutlery, the crashing sound of crockery in the kitchens, the clunk of dull aluminium food troughs at the servery. Sour faced women doled out food to diners, who moved forward to each component part of their meal as if they were on a start-stop conveyor belt.
He sat at his table and looked over to his fellow diners. There were mutters of ‘hi’ and ‘hello’ but not much else. They looked the same age but each very different. They had the look of people who had wandered off the street and Alec guessed he looked much the same. The veneer of a previous life still clung to them. They had not yet made the transition to the new and looked uncertain.
He poked his meal around his plate. The lettuce leaves were brown around the edges and the beef full of gristle. Someone found a slug and held it up for others to see. It broke the ice and talk erupted around the existence of a chip shop in the village nearby. Someone volunteered to take an order. For some reason that he could not work out, no one ventured their name. It was if they had not yet committed themselves and were waiting to see what happened next. And then they were off once more. The exit of the staff Sergeants at the other end of the hall apparently their cue.
The senior officers briefing in the assembly hall had highlighted college protocol. A greeting was to be given to every fellow officer as they passed. Alec now understood the litany of good afternoons he had experienced earlier. It was early evening now. The corridors were full of officers leaving the dining hall, or coming from classrooms and going to dine. He lost count of the number of ‘good evenings’ that he had called out. By the time he had made his way to the dormitory this had been shortened to a simple ‘evenin’. He was certain that it would be a short matter of time before he made the greeting universal, in the style of Dixon of Dock Green. It was with a feeling of relief that he reached his room and could begin the process of settling in.
He had no sooner sat down when a message was passed down each dorm. Everyone was ordered to change into uniform. Alec changed into his white shirt and clipped on his black tie. Epaulettes were awkwardly buttoned on and shoes laced up. There were quiet mutters of “fuck sakes” and “bollocks” around the room. There seemed no good reason to change, but he did as he was told and made his way to the laundry room. The morning drive from his home town now seemed a lifetime away. He pictured his family in front of the tv and old friends who at that moment were free to do as they pleased. He felt homesick.
The laundry room was lit by a single fluorescent strip light and smelled of bleach. Cleaners mops leaned against one wall. Ironing tables, battered and stained, were folded up against another. There were a number of irons of indeterminate vintage. The Fulton McKay look-a-like Sergeant stood in the centre of the room, dressed in track suit and white trainers. He looked like a small town ned. Alec huddled with the others in the small space as the Sergeant, with props, detailed the standards expected of their uniform and how to achieve them. They were extremely high and the methods to achieve them appeared arduous and arcane.
Alec winced as he listened to the descriptions of knife edged trousers seams, starched and pressed shirts and ‘bulled’ shoes. Trade secrets were revealed. Candle wax on the insides of the trousers, the correct amount of spit on the shoe, the use of parade gloss polish. Cotton wool and fresh water to ensure a mirror finish. The means to ensure that shoe welts sparkled. Instructions on regulation hair cuts, the shape and length of moustaches and personal hygiene. The lesson was concluded with the promise of tomorrow. The first taste of marching on the parade square. Another layer of conformity and obeisance. Alec found himself with nagging doubts that he could make the grade.
They filed back to the dormitory in silence. The Sergeant selected a bed and demonstrated the standard that each was to be made. This was the routine for every morning from this point onwards. It looked like a form of bed linen origami. Sheets were to be tucked under mattresses with paper cut folds, the tension so tight a 50p piece would bounce on it. The Sergeant demonstrated this on his finished article. Alec watched as the coin bounced back up into the outstretched hand of the Sergeant. A loose tuck or error of any kind would be punished. The bed would be torn apart and the officer required to do it again until he or she got it right. As if to emphasise the point, the sheets of the newly made bed were torn off and dumped on the floor. The Sergeant flashed a smile.
“Ye didnae think it would be THAT easy did ye?”
The victim, whose bed this was, smiled wanly.
“Anybody here ex-forces?”
Two raised their hands. One, tall as Alec, took a step forward. He had blonde hair and although well built, had skeletal facial features and a small scar across one cheekbone.
The Sergeant hadn’t asked for details, but it was clear the para was determined to put down a marker. There was a long pause.
“Then you know the standard. Your job is to help the others reach that standard.”
The ex-para gave a little short nod. Straight faced and silent.
And then it was over. Day done. As he left the room, the Sergeant reminded them that the bar was off limits on the first night and the time allotted to them for breakfast was 0700 hours. Lights out at 2200 hours.
Alec sat on the bed and pondered his next steps. There was a bed to make and bags to unpack. He thought of the time and effort it had taken him to get to there. He had been one of the lucky few. The initial application, the exams, the interviews, the home visit and the final acceptance letter. He had taken the oath. Had been relieved that it was not to the Queen. He’d burned his bridges. There was no going back. But this day had depressed him. The army style barracking. The petty officiousness. The drab surroundings. The squalid food. The feeling that his life was now under the control of others. Home was less than one hundred miles away, but seemed much further. It was more than geography. He wondered if his old values and outlooks could co-exist with the unrealistic standards of the new.It was at that moment he heard a sharp shout.
“C’moan look at this!”
Alec turned to see his fellow inmates crowd around a dormitory window. It overlooked the huge expanse of college grounds that stretched gently downwards toward the river. It was now dusk, but as he jostled with the others and pressed his face to the window, Alec could still make out the rolling expanse of grass, the access road that cut across it and, beyond that, the sports field and a copse of tall trees. In the far distance stood the tall angular pylons of Kincardine power station, their tops, clear against the dying light of the day, marked by blinking red lights.
The lookout pointed in the direction of some tall shrubs. Alec saw two figures. Young men, their heads bowed, backs hunched, carrying suitcases in each hand so low they scraped the ground. They crept forward through the gloom toward the access road and a row of parked cars. They were now one hundred yards from the accommodation block and had two hundred to go. Someone spoke.
“What the fuck are they up to?”
The lookout grinned.
Alec laughed along with the others. That was indeed what was happening. He watched, transfixed, as the pair broke into a fast walk, backs now straight, legs moving in short, quick, strides. Someone at his right ear laughed.
“Whit a pair o mincin’ fannies.”
The men broke into a run, arms pushed out wide for balance, their luggage bouncing in rhythm. The gap to the first car was closed and the boot thrown open. Cases were dumped and the boot slammed shut. Both men yanked open their respective doors and leapt in. Lights came on and flickered as the engine spat into life. Alec heard the short revving of the engine, a crunch of gears and the car was off. A small cloud of blue smoke hung in the air where it had once sat; like the aftermath of a conjuring trick. Alec followed the car’s trajectory by the bouncing lance of it’s headlights as it crested the speed bumps of the access road. And then it was gone.
“Whit a pair of absolute pricks.”
Alec turned to his right. It was the para. He had a smile that reminded him of Elvis.
“Imagine getting through all that shit. Passing the exams…gie’in up yer job. Gettin’ yer faimly oan side. Just tae gie up oan yer first day. Total fannies.”
There were general murmurs of agreement. Conversation started. By degrees it emerged that they had all come through the same process. Experienced the same hurdles. The exams, the interviews, family misgivings, great expectations. The need for job security.
Alec looked out to the distant pylons. He could see their tops above the trees. He remembered his first sight of them as he crossed the bridge at Kincardine. They seemed to signpost the way back to another world. He wondered where the two escapees were now.
“Fuck them. Their funeral…’
It was the para again. It was clear that he was a mind reader. There were just the two of them left at the window now and Alec found himself talking for the first time that day.
“I can’t say I blame them. This is pretty shite so far.”
The para laughed. Deep and loud. Big white teeth in a big wide mouth.
“That’s how yer meant to feel. Aw shook up and alone. It’s whit they dae in the army. ‘Break ye. Then they make ye.’ It’s so they can build ye in their ain image…”
The para gave a sharp nod in Alec’s direction, a serious look on his face.
“But we’ll be smarter than that. Play the game, heid doon. It’s just eight weeks of yer life. And it gets much easier efter this.”
The para snapped his fingers and a spell was broken. The escapees and the conspiratorial advice had changed the atmosphere. Alec turned around to face the dorm. Chairs had been brought into the middle of the floor and a circle formed. Curtains were closed against the outside world and the warm light of table lamps filled the room. The travellers settled down to talk about the day with a sense of shared experience. Alec sat down in the circle and listened. A radio played in the background. He could hear the feint strains of ‘Star Trekking’. It felt indeed as if he had made a journey across the universe.