Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Cutting it Fine for a New Year’s Resolution

I don’t normally bother with New Year’s Resolutions.  What is so special about the start of another year, other than the fact I am grateful to still be alive to see it, yet be reminded I am one year closer to death?  Besides, those resolutions I made while a hopeful teenager never came to fruition.  I did not manage to shag Mary Goodenough who lived at the end of our road because, as she cruelly pointed out in the presence of her giggling friends, I was not good enough.  I did stand up to the local bully but rather than best him, I got my head kicked in.  As a teenager I was not only spotty, I was chubby so I resolved to give up chocolate.  I lasted about two days. 

Having so far successfully given up the demon drink when all around me said I would die if I tried without expensive medical assistance, I have decided to give up smoking as well.  This shall be my New Year’s Resolution for 2014.  As far as alcohol is concerned, I am dry.  Now I want to go into the New Year clean.  If my lungs weren’t a few more fags short of emphysema I am sure you would hear them cheering.  As it is all they can manage is a gurgling sigh of relief.  When I gave up the whisky, I still had an undrunk case of the bloody stuff.  It is still sitting there next to the fridge.  Now, as I take the first step towards giving up smoking, I realize I still have five unsmoked packets (about a day and a half’s consumption) on my desk.  I am sure I will be able to finish the packet I am on and kill one more before fireworks light up my bit of sky.
Just as I knew I would never be able to give up whisky without the help of a non-alcoholic substitute, I also know that I will never be able to shake off the urge to smoke without a little help.  I really wanted to give up before the New Year but at such short notice, would the help I needed arrive in time?  That help arrived at 1800hrs this evening, hand carried by Marcia from the DHL office in town.  The package was sent to me in response to my plea for help by a good friend of mine in UK.  The package contained a CE4 EGO Kit.  Now I know what many of you are thinking, especially those who know me well; the last thing an arrogant sod like Hippo needs is a kit to boost his ego and I would agree with you whole heartedly.  These egos, however, are E Cigarettes.

I have been after a decent electronic cigarette for ages.  A while back another friend of mine said he would get me one from Botswana.  I waited patiently for his return only to discover that the electronic cigarettes he had brought me, two of them, were not refillable with the e liquid contained in the two bottles of the stuff he had also brought me.  I had the e liquid but nothing to use it in.
For those of you who don’t know what an e cigarette is I will explain.  It is basically a nicotine delivery device.  The trouble with tobacco is that it contains nicotine which is, by all accounts, more addictive than Class A drugs.  Cigarette manufacturers figured this out decades ago so adulterated the tobacco in their cigarettes by adding more nicotine.  For many years, insurance companies did not consider cigar smokers as smokers as the tobacco was pure and normally savoured in the mouth, not inhaled.  If nicotine was the only thing cigarettes contained, it would not be a problem, well, nowhere near as big a problem, but tobacco also releases various other toxic substances and gases such as tar, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide and other volatile carcinogenic compounds. I inhale all this muck into my lungs every time I smoke but even though I know I am killing myself slowly and inexorably, I can’t stop because after so many years, body and mind are virtually hard wired to depend on nicotine.  An e cigarette will deliver similar doses of nicotine without all the other components contained within tobacco smoke.  The difference between it and other nicotine delivery devices such as chewing gum and patches, is that an e cigarette replicates the act of smoking and, as I argued when about to give up alcohol, cigarette smoking is as much habit and environment as addiction.  In order to get a dose of nicotine the user has to draw on the e cigarette and is rewarded with what to all intents and purposes looks and tastes like cigarette smoke but is actually only water vapour laced with nicotine.  The vapour exhaled is pure water so is inoffensive.  An e cigarette, therefore, addresses both the addiction and the habit without the evils associated with tobacco.  I shan’t bore you with the technical details save to say an e cigarette consists of a USB rechargeable power source, a reservoir for the e liquid and a coil that heats up every time the cigarette is drawn, vapourising the e liquid to produce the ‘smoke’.

Bizarrely, the manufacturers of e cigarettes are not allowed to market their products as nicotine delivery devices and it is completely verboten for them to suggest e cigarettes might help normal smokers give up.  To do so would reclassify their unregulated recreational device as a medical device requiring years of expensive testing and trials before it could be legally sold.  Tobacco lobbyists wanted e cigarettes to go the same way as nicotine chewing gum.  When nicotine gum was first released, it could only be obtained on prescription.  The lobbyists even managed to get their ‘concerns’ about easy access to e cigarettes as far as the European Parliament which for a while looked as though it would cave in to pressure and declare e cigarettes a medical device subject to the usual constraints.  Fortunately, the proposal failed.  If anyone doubts the cynicism of politicians and their susceptibility to lobbyist pressure please be aware that two years after the link between smoking and cancer was medically proven, the British Cabinet, under PM Eden, on three occasions in 1956 discussed the causal link between smoking and cancer and what to do about it.  I think I can best summarize those meetings by describing the first as:  Oh my God!  Cigarettes are killing people, we must let the public know!  The second meeting as:  But we derive loads of tax revenue from tobacco!  And the third as: ‘It’s not really medical evidence, it’s just statistics, let’s do nothing.
Given that I have waited a long time to get my hands on one, I was reluctant to bugger it up so I did what I normally never bother to do, I read the instructions.  I wanted to start ‘vaping’ as e cigarette smokers call their habit, right away, so I needed to know how to fill the reservoir and how to screw all the components together.  I have to admit, this e cigarette appears very well made.  It is about the size and weight of an expensive fountain pen.  Mine is in black and chrome so even looks like an expensive fountain pen.  I was a little bit surprised it did not come with a clip as do all pens so that it could be stored safely in a suit jacket or shirt pocket when not in use.  I haven’t even tried the damn thing yet and already I am suggesting improvements.  I think my new EGO and my old one will get on well together. 

Then I got to the bit about charging the battery before first use.  I had to wait five hours.  Five hours!  I checked the time, 18.45!
So, my dear friends, I will just make it by fifteen minutes.  I will enter the New Year not as a smoker, but as a vaper. 

I know some of you are already a year ahead but I wish all of you the very best of health, prosperity and happiness for 2014.  I love you ALL dahlings!

Monday, 30 December 2013

Getting to the Wedding On Time

Time for coffee warning!

On the morning of my first wedding, my Best Man and I were detained by the police in Leamington Spa.  The wedding was set to take place at eleven in Leicestershire which did not give us a lot of time to talk our way out of jail.  A good soldier knows every inch of his uniform, especially his dress uniform.  I had handed my Blue Patrols over to the care of Sketchley’s Golden Dry Cleaning Service some two weeks before.  Golden Service, for those of you not familiar with England’s premier high street dry cleaners includes restitching any loose seams, button replacement, stubborn stain removal, invisible mending of any tears, extra care when pressing and the client pays for the privilege.  Items of clothing so handled are delivered with a check list with all the boxes neatly ticked off and signed by the manager to prove that the item has been lovingly cared for and examined in detail.  Naturally, I was somewhat dismayed when the day before the wedding, the manager of the emporium, too casually for my taste, informed me that my uniform was not ready and that I should come back the following day, the morning of my wedding.  The procedure was only supposed to take a few days, he had  the uniform in his possession for over two weeks.  I was understandably tense and suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to drag the little oik over his counter so I would be better able to leave a lasting impression on his tiny little mind.  Fortunately Steve, my best man, was able to convince me that he could get me there again at eight in the morning allowing us plenty of time to get to Leicestershire.
At a quarter to the appointed hour we were outside the cleaners and at five to, the manager arrived and opened up.  With a flourish, he produced my carefully wrapped uniform and, as a concession along with a profuse apology, waived the bill.  I was somewhat mollified but nevertheless, something told me to unwrap the uniform and check it.  Blue Patrol tunics have a high collar that wraps tightly around the throat and clips together using hooks and eyes under the chin.  The whole ensemble with skin tight trousers (called Mess Coveralls) with red stripes down each leg, riding boots (called Mess Wellingtons) with spurs, a crimson tassled sash, loads of gold braid and a sword on the hip looks pretty damn sexy.  It does not look sexy though, if some git of a dry cleaner has half ripped the collar off.  I held up the jacket to show Steve.  The collar hung there all torn and forlorn.  That’s when I lost it.
The police sergeant back at the station, an ex-soldier judging by the impressive array of medal ribbons displayed on his tunic was very sympathetic once Steve had explained (I had tried to explain but could not help littering my narrative with expletives which all present agreed was unlikely to help my cause) and I was let off with a caution.  The valves were bouncing in Steve’s car as he sped northwards with his foot driving the accelerator pedal through the bulkhead and me in the passenger seat waving to astonished wedding guests as we overtook them on the Kenilworth bypass.
Ever since then, when it comes to important engagements I prepare anally far in advance and so it was with the rather smart wedding Marcia and I were invited to attend which took place Saturday last.  As soon as I knew I would not be able to duck out of it, I sent my suits to the cleaners, praying I might be able to lose enough weight in three weeks to be able to squeeze into one of them.  I dug out and polished my boots and shoes.  I have worn neither since the snake bite but hoped that by soaking them with polish the leather might soften up to provide enough flexibility for me to get them on.  I told Marcia to buy me a new shirt, socks and a belt.  When the suits came back from the cleaners, I realized that while I could force myself into them, I looked like a sack of potatoes tied up in the middle and to attempt to wear trousers that tight for over twelve hours would leave me with agonizing stomach cramps, always assuming I had not already fallen to the ground as my legs, strangled of circulation, gave way beneath me.  Recognising my express diet had failed, three days before the wedding I bought two new suits and spent a morning turning up the trouser hems and invisibly stitching them to the correct length.  Of all the things I learnt in the Army, the two most useful were learning to sew and the other to press suits and shirts to the highest standard.

I was ready but I still had to service the car.  The last thing I wanted was a non-starter or a break down.  I finished off by washing it inside and out.

The day before the wedding Marcia who being a woman and religious to boot, leaves everything to the last second and trusts in God, headed off into town to collect her dresses from the cleaners.  She was very late getting back.
‘What happened?’ I asked.

‘The radiator burst,’ said Roddie, the driver.
‘But it is OK,’ added Marcia, ‘the Portuguese mechanic fixed it at the Comuna, that’s why we are late.’

‘How did he fix it?’ I asked.  To fix a bust radiator requires removal from the car and braising of the affected area,  that would normally take more than a few hours.

‘He used this special putty.’
‘That may have got you home, Marcia, but it will never hold for a trip to and from town on a hot day and in Saturday traffic.  Roddie,’ I said, turning to him, ‘get back to town and go and rent a car, any car so long as it has air conditioning.’

Marcia disagreed strongly.  I looked to Roddie for support but this would mean more work and less sleep for him so he took Marcia’s side assuring me that the putty would be OK.  I was only going to this blasted wedding because I knew it meant a lot to Marcia.  The last thing I wanted to do was end up in a fight the night before so just shrugged and quietly added a lot more cash to the small pile of important things I should have with me the next day (passport, driver’s licence, fully charged telephone, spare telephone top up cards, four packets of cigarettes, spare lighters, bottle of DomTom, needle and thread, boot brush and polish).
At six in the morning, the taxi came to take Marcia to the hairdresser’s.  Roddie would arrive at ten to pick me up and drive me into town in my car.  The wedding was at 12.30.  I completed a final check of my kit, noticed that Marcia had forgotten her clutch bag and the invitation so added those to my pile and then sat watching the news in my underpants.   At eleven, Roddie finally turned up so I dressed and we headed off.  Marcia rang telling me she had also forgotten her evening gown so we turned round, collected it and tried again.  I had given money to Roddie the day before to fill the car so was irritated when he pulled into a petrol station to fill up admitting he hadn’t done it the day before.  It was midday by the time we hit the traffic on the outskirts of town and we still had to collect Marcia from the hairdresser’s.  When asked, Roddie admitted he did not know where it was.  I rang Marcia who gave some unnecessarily complicated instructions and we were soon lost in the Bairros.  Three more phone call and thirty minutes later, we pulled up outside the hairdresser’s and Roddie switched the engine off.  The radiator exploded in a cloud of steam accompanied by the high pitched scream of escaping steam which masked my own scream of frustration.  I wandered across the dirt road and walked into the hairdresser’s. 

‘Marcia!’ I called, ‘can you come outside, please?’
‘Let me just pay the bill,’ she said.

‘I think you will have plenty of time to pay the bill,’ I said, ‘just come outside now.’
I thought it best not to point out to her that we were stranded in a bairro ten kilometres from a wedding that according to the invitation had started twenty minutes ago.  I was annoyed with Roddie for not doing what I had asked of him the night before but at times like this, recriminations only waste time and do nothing to resolve the situation.  Better to keep the hired help on side and appeal to their better nature.

‘This is all your fault!’ Marcia yelled at Roddie.  It was going to be a long day, I decided.  I strongly disagreed with Marcia’s attitude but could not be disloyal to her in front of Roddie.  With each insult, the cost of Roddie’s goodwill, if he had any left, was becoming ever more expensive.  Finally, along with the car, she had vented all her steam, finishing off with a plaintive, ‘We might as well go home and forget the wedding.’
I stepped in.  I told Marcia to ring the mechanic and tell him to get down there with his spanners and braising kit.  I pointed out to Marcia that the car was automatic so could not be towed unless the prop shafts were disconnected.  I pointed out that the car was stranded in a bairro and if the car was not stolen during the night, at the very least it would be stripped of mirrors, headlights, indicators, windscreen, wheels and probably vandalized occasioning a repair bill of several thousand dollars.  I suggested it might be wise of her to offer the mechanic five hundred dollars to come out now with all his kit.

‘A-a!’ I cautioned her as she was about to argue with me, ‘I am only going to this bloody wedding because I know it means a lot to you.  Patricia is your friend and she obviously loves you.  She has bent over backwards to make sure you attend.  She has dressed you from head to foot and, by the way, you look stunning.  She even offered to buy me suits.  You two may be lesbian lovers for all I know but I do not care.  You WILL attend that wedding and I will get you there in good order but from now on, you keep your mouth shut and do as you are told.’
I rejoined Roddie, gave him a load of cash to pay the mechanic and told him to get me a taxi, any taxi and to get it fast.  He made a phone call and told me one would be here in ten minutes.  I told him to stay with the car and wait for the mechanic who was on his way.  I told him to make sure the radiator was taken off, flushed and braised, remounted and then the car should be delivered to the wedding venue.  I peeled off a few more hundred dollar bills and restored his good humour.

The taxi when it arrived was a two door little Toyota, they call them Rabo de Patos here, Duck’s Arses and about as roomy.  No aircon of course and as soon as we started moving over the potholed roads I realized it had no suspension either.  At a quarter to two we pulled up at the gates of the most expensive hotel in Luanda and were refused access.  No way was security going to allow a local poor man’s taxi drive us up to reception so we had to trudge on foot from the gate to reception under a blazing sun.  We were both pretty subdued, but for different reasons.  I was cursing not putting my foot down the night before and Marcia was upset she had missed the ceremony.  Then, just as quickly as everything had gone wrong, it started to go right again.  I noticed Patricia’s sister, surrounded by her kids, unloading the boot of a car.  She was not dressed for a wedding but the suit and dress carriers she was passing out suggested she had everything she needed to change into.  Apparently the time shown on the invitation was Angolan time so 12.30 actually meant 14.30.  We still had time to grab our room keys and get cleaned up (Marcia was really impressed that I had thought to bring along needle and thread matching her dresses so I could quickly repair a loose hem) before wandering along lofty corridors of marble and chrome to the chapel.
I have never seen a chapel with a bar set up just outside the entrance.  It was great.  No sitting around in a stuffy church gagging for a drink wondering how long the bloody ceremony was going to last, here you could tank up and subsequently endure almost any torture.  I settled for tonic water and tried not to look at the impressive array of malt whiskies on offer.  A traditionally dressed and decorated African dance troop was on hand to entertain the guests while they waited for the bride to arrive.  It was a networker’s paradise with lesser mortals toadying up to ministers and generals while wives and mistresses critically inspected each other’s couture in an air conditioned atmosphere heavy with insincerity.  I was beginning to warm to this wedding. 

The bride was stunning.  So often in the past I have seen Angolan brides being photographed in front of the then few patches of greenery in the city and they all looked like something out of a gipsy wedding.  Not so in this case.  The bride wore a Parisian creation of delicate lace which flattered her décolleté and emphasized her delightfully petite figure.  The bridesmaids, not one of them over six, were little angels and heartwarmingly clumsy getting themselves tangled up in the train.  The African dancers really let rip and preceded her into the chapel, miles more impressive than Mendelssohn.  There were more people than chairs so we men stood in the aisles allowing the ladies to sit and get the best view.  The place was packed.
I keep calling it a chapel for want of a better word but it wasn’t really a chapel as there is no religious element in an Angolan wedding, it is a civil ceremony conducted by a bureaucrat.  Normally, the happy couple would queue up outside his office and be attended only by necessary witnesses and a few friends, space being limited but this couple were sufficiently blessed for the bureaucrat to not only leave his office but work on a Saturday.

Perhaps, given his audience, he decided to lighten up an otherwise extremely dull procedure because, unlike the minor officials I have encountered who behave like little Hitlers such is their overbearing arrogance, this one demonstrated a sense of humour which on occasion bordered suicidal.  There are a number of certified documents which the couple have to produce and must be recorded by the registrar.  Permission to Marry, Freedom to Marry, Medical Examination, Certificate of Residence and, in the case of the groom, documentary evidence of having completed compulsory military service or authorized exemption.  No military service, no legal nookie.  All these documents have to be read out, the relevant laws quoted and be attested to by the witnesses.  Boring in the extreme and as dull as ditchwater.  When this guy got to the military service certificate he asked the groom whether he had actually completed his military service or had his father got him out of it.  There was a sharp intake of breath and my grin was a mile wide.  The groom muttered something about going to university instead whereupon the registrar said, in front of all those generals, ‘Quite right too, we can’t have brains in the Army!’  The registrar must be a close friend of the family.  Either that or as I write this he is now doing his military service on a firing range, as a target.  He then got to the bit where he asked the groom under which regime he wished to marry his bride, seperação de bens (divided property), bens adquiridas (only the chattels they acquire together after marriage are jointly owned), or communião de bens (joint assets).  The groom selected joint assets.  ‘Congratulations!’ said the registrar, ‘you have just taken on all the debts of the bride’s family!’
There were four photographers and two guys running around with impressive video cameras.  Each one made sure that he photographed or videoed every single guest present as well as the proceedings.  After the ceremony, the bride insisted on a few special photographs selecting family members and a few of the guests to pose with her and be filmed and snapped.  She dragged Marcia up in front of the cameras and then, to my acute discomfort, hauled me up as well.  Unless the man editing the wedding film is Edward Scissorhands, the final result will be bigger than Ben Hur.  I hate cameras at weddings which is why you will have to wait until the official photos come out.  Despite Marcia’s protests, I refused to take my camera along which was a shame, I realized, when we got to the reception.  The place was filled with beautifully decorated tables clothed in white linen, each seating ten and groaning under the weight of silver and crystal.  Attention to detail was much in evidence, even the starched napkins were embroidered with the happy couple’s names.  Each centre piece, resembling a crystal fountain, was surmounted by a spectacular flower display, in fact there were more flowers evident than would be in Holland at the height of the growing season.  Idle curiosity compelled me to count the tables, I stopped at fifty.  I realized I should quickly locate the loos in case Marcia needed them and as I circumnavigated the large central colonnade dominating the hall I realized there were just as many tables on the other side.  Patricia had ensured our table was one in the VIP area the only advantages I could discern being its proximity to the dance floor and the quality of the champagne.

I have no idea why I tortured myself like that but even though each group of four tables had an attractive waitress clad in provocatively tailored national dress, I had to check out the bars for myself.  Normally, in every African country I have visited, any blended 12 year old scotch such as Black Label or Chivas is considered classy.  Faced with a choice between Johnny Walker or any old cheap blended scotch, I’ll take the cheap one, I hate Johnny Walker, it’s a spiv’s drink and I certainly would not pay the extra for Chivas.  I would, however, be prepared to pay extra for decent single malt.  Imagine my angst, therefore, as I surveyed the shelves of the bar knowing it was all free, and saw row upon row of Aberlour, Glenmorangie, Glenfarclas, Arran, Balvenie, Dalwhinnie, Glenlivet, the variety was endless.  Glenfarclas is a particular favourite of mine and my now long deceased father.  Every time I came home on leave I would bring him a bottle of 25 year old Glenfarclas and help him drink it.  I have never drunk any since his death.  A taste or flavor can be so evocative of fond memories, oh how badly I wanted to try a glass of Glenfarclas, close my eyes and think of the Old Man.  They did have Johnny Walker, the Blue Label.  That should keep the plebs happy.
Since I was on my feet and badly in need of distraction, I scoped the buffet.  The variety of food was bewildering and was displayed on several twenty yard long counters.  During the evening I discovered three more set ups like the one I was visually savouring, in all several hundred yards of hors d’oeuvres, main dishes and desserts.  My heart leapt at the sight of smoked salmon, the irregularity of the slices suggesting they had been inexpertly cut from whole fish rather than arriving machine sliced in vacuum sealed packages.  My heart positively soared when I saw, inexplicably displayed at the opposite end of the counter to the salmon, caviar.  Naturally, this is Africa and we all have to make some sacrifices so I was stoic when my enquiry revealed there was no horseradish sauce or rye bread.  They did, however, have capers and cottage cheese along with crusty white bread so I made do.

Marcia would be wondering where I had got to so having located the loos, scoped the bar and food, all I needed to know now was the location of the smoking area.  A pretty waitress tried to explain to me where it was but I was too distracted by her radiance to pay enough attention so she guided me there.  It was a glass cubicle open to the skies.  Any smoker using it would do so in full view and slowly roast in the heat radiated off the glass walls.  Instead I located the rear entrances to the building and walking out discovered a row of five spits with a steer roasting on each.  As I choked a cigarette down I chatted to the men slaving over the barbeque pits.  They had started the roast at six in the morning rotating the spits by hand all those hours under a blazing sun.  There wasn’t a bottle of water in sight, a matter I quickly rectified to be rewarded with the first taste.  The meat was tender and delicious with a pleasant hint of smoke.  I hurried back to Marcia licking my lips.
The table had filled by the time I got back and by amazing coincidence, I found myself seated next to my old friend Bartolomeu Dias and his wife.  Deep joy!  He is wonderfully entertaining, a larger than life effusive character but a very shrewd businessman.  When I first met him over fifteen years ago, he drove a Ssangyong Musso and had big ideas.  A few years later he was driving the latest model S Class Mercedes and wanted me to front up buying a passenger jet for him so he could start a regional airline.  It was my task to sort out when and where delivery would be deemed to have taken place thereby releasing the bank guarantee.  The American seller, unsurprisingly perhaps, felt that there was every chance he would deliver the aircraft to Angola whereupon it would be seized or otherwise lost to him as a result of some corrupt malfeasance so he wanted delivery in Johannesburg.  This, Dias told me was unacceptable to him for reasons that remained somewhat obscure to me.  Nevertheless, I got an all-expenses paid trip to California and was able to bring buyer and seller together in happy agreement and Dias started his airline buying several more aircraft from the same delighted broker.  Dias is now listed in the top 100 richest Angolans.

With such beautifully laid and well attended tables I was slightly embarrassed at the thought of plonking upon it my plastic mineral bottle full of DomTom.  The bottle in question was under the table between my feet and concealed by the table cloth.  I had stupidly fired up the whisky demon and now desperately needed a slug of my elixir.  There is a poor man’s country moonshine made by the locals here out of fermented coconut palm tree sap called Maruvo.  In appearance only, it is remarkably similar to DomTom and is usually stored, as is my DomTom, in one and a half litre plastic mineral water bottles.  I could not imagine the reaction of the cream of Angolan society when they conclude they are seated next to an Englishman drinking Maruvo, the very hooch that leaves their workers inebriated and even lazier than usual.  I tried smuggling a glass off the table and, clamping it between my thighs, pouring some DomTom into it but such suspicious activity focused on my groin accompanied by sound effects normally heard in a latrine attracted the immediate attention of my fellow diners who presumably assumed I had been too lazy to locate the toilets.  I explained my predicament to a curious Sra Dias.  She laughed and explained it to Dias who demanded to see the bottle.  He studied it, then unscrewed the top and gave it a tentative sniff.
‘What is it?’ he asked.

‘Ginger Juice, Lemon and cider vinegar,’ I said.
‘No alcohol?’

‘No alcohol,’ I confirmed.
He poured himself some and took a slug.  He looked as if he had just sucked on a particularly bitter, well, lemon.  ‘What do you drink this for?’ he gasped.

‘I drink it instead of alcohol, Sr Dias,’ I told him, ‘I do not drink whisky anymore.’
He looked stunned.  He examined the table in front of me.  Sure enough, the only glass of mine with anything in it contained water.  In all the time he had known me, he had never seen me at any kind of function without a glass of whisky in my hand.  The DomTom stayed on the table for the rest of the evening.

In some respects the Angolans are far more civilised than Europeans.  For a start, they can all dance. I do not mean the jiggling about that passes off as dancing nowadays nor the mechanical, cold, graceless perfection of Come Dancing, but the elegant flowing way two people can glide around a dance floor in perfect harmony of movement.  Right next to the dance floor I had the ideal opportunity to admire the relaxed skill of the couples, the intricate and very close footwork yet never a toe stepped upon.  None of it appeared in any way choreographed so natural did it appear but it would take me years, perhaps never, to achieve anything close.  For Angolans, dancing is as hard wired as scuttling out of the incubating pit their mother had dug and heading to the sea is for newly hatched turtles.  Even though I did not dare join the happy throng on the floor, the dancing made the evening really special for me.
I have mentioned the attention to detail but I have yet to mention how thoughtful were our hosts.  All girls like to look their best and will often, especially when it comes to elegant shoes, suffer hell on earth to do so.  Marcia, in her brand new shoes was in agony.  My boots were twenty nine years old so well broken in yet even I was footsore.  For every lady present, the bride had arranged a pair of white dancing slippers and, as the dancing entered full swing, these were made available to those who wanted them.  Pretty soon, almost every girl had kicked off her shoes and was wearing slippers.

I never thought for a moment I would last more than a few hours.  Marcia had assured me it would be OK to leave at eight.  I had enjoyed more than just a plateful of smoked salmon and caviar.  General Miala, Inspector of the Republic (head of all Ministers) and Godfather of the bride recognised me (I was last in his office in 1998 begging him not to have me expelled) and invited me to his table for a chat and a catch up.  I had plenty I could entertain him with about what I had been up to and seized the opportunity to remind him I still did not have residency but trod carefully when remarking on the way he had occupied his intervening years since he had spent a few of them in jail accused of attempting a coup.  For that reason I felt it impolitic to comment on his remarkable weight loss.  Even for VIP guests of the state like him, prison food is pretty dire.  Thankfully he soon changed the subject and seemed content to discuss the wedding reception which, as Godfather of the bride, meant it was his largesse I was enjoying.  Earlier in the evening I had heard a rumour that the catering bill alone was $165,000.  He asked me what I thought of the reception.  ‘Worth every penny,’ I said and I meant it although I could not help sparing a thought for those living in abject poverty only stone’s throw away in the bairro where I had abandoned my car. Thus reminded of the teensy weeny impediment to us getting home, I excused myself and hurried off to find Marcia.
‘Any news on the car?’ I asked.

‘Do you want to go now?’ she replied.
‘Not unless you want to, darling,’ I said, ‘but we are not going anywhere without a car.’

‘The keys are with reception and the car is in the car park. Roddie did try to get hold of you.’
Dammit, I’d forgotten to turn my phone back on after the marriage ceremony.  One thing was certain, though, I wasn’t yet in the mood to call it quits and go home.

‘What time is it?’ I asked Marcia.  My watch battery died three years ago and I never bothered to change it so have not worn a watch since.
‘Midnight,’ she said.

‘But there are still people arriving!’ I exclaimed.
‘Darling, this party will go on until tomorrow morning!’

Mr and Mrs Dias made their excuses and left.  Another General clutching an ice bucket into which was buried a bottle of Bollinger dropped into Dias’ vacated seat.  Selecting three champagne flutes off the table he examined them briefly to ensure they had not been used and then poured out three glasses.  He hadn’t said a word yet so Marcia and I were studying him curiously.  He passed one glass to Marcia, one to me and then held his glass up as if to propose a toast.  Marcia picked up her glass but I hesitated.
‘I am sorry,’ I said, ‘but I do not drink alcohol.’

‘Yes you do,’ he said.
For a moment I thought he was throwing his weight around and I bristled but then he said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you Sr. Tomas?  When I last saw you, you were quite the drinker!’

Oh Christ yes!  The penny dropped.  ‘Saurimo, 1995,’ I said.  I introduced him to Marcia and insisted that Marcia sat between us who assured the General that as far as alcohol was concerned, I had had my epiphany.  As a result, he appeared to lose interest in me and concentrated his attention on Marcia, courteously refilling her glass as required and enlightening an enthralled Marcia about my scandalous behaviour all those years ago.  Bugger this, I thought, I’m off for a fag.  This time I went out front, mainly to see where in the vast car park Roddie had left the car.  I gave up after a couple of fag’s worth of walking around in circles and returned to the main entrance.  Parked on the road at the end of a white carpet leading from the entrance to the road was a 1942 black Cadillac in immaculate condition.  Under the street lights, it looked awesome.  I spoke to the chauffeur who allowed me to snap with my phone a couple of pictures of the interior.  I was about to take an outside shot when a lithe beauty in a gossamer thin dress wafted up to me.
‘Excuse me,’ she said in Portuguese, ‘are you English?’ I would have confessed to any nationality if it would make her happy.

‘I am going to England in the new year for three months to study English,’ she continued in a voice so seductive I thought I was being bathed in warm milk and honey, ‘I need English to help with my modelling career.’
‘Oh I am sure there are easier ways for you to learn English,’ I said with a wicked smile, ‘all you have to do is find an English boyfriend, suck on his tongue long enough and you will come away fluent in English.’

She blessed me with her unblinking gaze and moved closer, backing me into the Cadillac. I caught a hint of perfume on the warm summer breeze and noticed as she ran the tip of her tongue across them that one of her teeth was ever so slightly crooked which only added to her charm. ‘Single Englishmen are hard to find in Angola,’ she said. I didn’t even have time to consider that now, after divorcing Dominic’s mother and not yet having got round to marrying Marcia, technically I was a single Englishman in Angola before Marcia’s voice said, ‘And you still haven’t found one!’  I jumped out of my skin.  There was Marcia standing not two yards away in the company of a Chinese couple. I slithered away from the young lady and was introduced to Linda and her husband, the couple who act as import agents for the stuff Marcia brings in from China.  We chatted a while and I thought I had got away with being caught with a young lady climbing into me but then Marcia said, ‘I think it is about time I took you home.’
‘I have checked all through the car park,’ I told Marcia, ‘the car is not there.’

‘It’s in the VIP car park.’ she said.
‘Oh,’ I said.  I guessed we were going home whether I wanted to or not.

It was a fantastic party, all the more enjoyable because I was sober throughout.
As I relaxed into the leather upholstery of the car, the aircon set just right as Marcia drove us home, I was really pleased with myself.

‘You did enjoy yourself?’ Marcia asked me.
‘Oh yes,’ I assured her, ‘when is the next wedding?’

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Of Foxes and Chickens

‘Righto lads!’ I said as we all assembled in the RMP storehouse, ‘Make yourselves comfortable.  Forget FBO (Full Battle Order), just make up your bed spaces and dump all that shit at the back of them.  All I want is rifle slings as belts, magazines in pockets and rifles.  I want one GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) per Sangar so get them ready to move.  Why haven’t we got a radio?’
‘We have radios, Sir!’ said the signaler busy unpacking the VHF sets.

‘Not those sort of radios,’ I said testily, ‘the kind that play music!’  One of the lads ran back to the barracks to fetch one.  Music while you shoot?  This was new for them.

There were only two radio stations in Belize.  The national station, fine if you loved Bob Marley, and BFBS, the British Forces Broadcasting Service.  BFBS Belize while in the very capable hands of Mr. Marc Tyley was brilliant. 
‘Right.  I only want two guys in each Sangar, a gunner and his mate.  The rest of you just make yourselves comfortable.  When in the sangars I want you to smoke, laugh, joke, cough, chat loudly amongst yourselves, shine torches around, brew fucking tea.  If you need a piss, step out of the sangar and piss up the side of it, I don’t care, just do anything to prove to the enemy that you are the bored unprofessional soldiers you really are.  I want you to relax and have a good time.’  Rarely has any order given by an Army Officer, other than ‘you can all knock off now’, received such approbation.

‘FOWO, can I ask you to see that the maps of the camp are up on the wall, organize the ops desk and see that the comms network is up and running?  Thankyou.  Staff Smith!  With only two men per Sangar, we have enough men for a three shift system, two on four off.  Draw up a duty rosta for me will you?’  Cpl CALLAGHAN!  Where are you, you idle bastard?’  ‘Right behind you Sir!’ he bawled back in my ear making me leap about ten feet in the air. ‘Get me eleven of our fittest, biggest and meanest blokes and hold them to one side.  This will be your section and none of them are for sanger duty so be quick about it before Staff Smith grabs them.  I will brief you and them separately.’
Every unit, even if filled with misfits has a few men so dedicated to soldiering, so khaki brained they were born with dog tags.  Cpl Callaghan was such a man even if he was cocky.  It was my custom to go for an early morning run before breakfast and then knock off at three in the afternoon and go for another run.  That meant I was covering 70 miles a week for fun.  When Callaghan found out, he asked if he could join me.  Having a running partner is brilliant.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the solitude but having someone equally fit pushing you is invigorating.  Not long after he said that some of the other lads wouldn’t mind running along as well.  Pretty soon there were about thirty of us and more being encouraged to join every week, not just RAOC, but REME, Catering Corps, Signals, HQ Company, you name it.. 

I shared an office with the Stores Platoon Commander, a Captain.  As an ex ranker I really hated the term GOPWO, the really disparaging way Sandhurst trained officers referred to what some of them considered ‘grossly over promoted Warrant Officers’.  Normally an enlisted man can do 22 years reckonable service calculated from his eighteenth birthday.  After that, aged only forty, he’s on Civvie Street looking for a new career.  It is within the Queen’s gift, however, to accept the advice of the Army Board and grant Commissions to outstanding Warrant Officers thereby preventing the Army from losing such experienced and loyal individuals by extending their service another fifteen years to age fifty five, the normal retirement age for an officer.  It did wonders for their pensions.  No one would expect a forty year old to go through the testing rigours of the Standard Military Course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst during which they would all probably keel over and die, never collecting their pensions, so they were sent instead on what everyone colloquially referred to as the ‘knife, fork and spoon course’ and were then granted a Quarter Master’s Commission.  Quite right too.  These chaps (did I say ‘chaps’ again?) had spent twenty two years running around on behalf of the Army so to expect them to revert to the rank of Officer Cadet and do recruit training again would not only be pointless, it would be a bloody insult.  Imagine a Warrant Officer 1st Class being beasted by a Colour Sergeant? 
I was commissioned from the ranks but went through a different system.  I was only a young Corporal when I attracted someone’s attention and a Unit Selection Board was convened.  I passed and went up to the Army Officer Selection Board at Westbury which I also passed.  Unbeknown to me, I was then discharged from the Regular Army and reenlisted in the rank of Officer Cadet.  For one day, I had been a civilian and no longer subject to military law.  Had I known, I would have driven to JHQ Rheindahlen and punched the first military policeman I saw.  Instead I went to Sandhurst and slogged my way through basic training a second time.  Afterwards, even though technically an ex ranker, I was considered by my fellow Sandhurst trained officers a ‘bit of a lad’ but ‘Sandhurst’ nevertheless.

As a Corporal I was oblivious to such prejudice.  As far as I was concerned, if a man had pips or crowns mounted upon his epaulettes, he could make my life a misery.  If he had pips AND crowns, I was especially well behaved and made an excellent cup of tea.  Mind you, Regimental Sergeant Majors were pretty bloody scary too.
My first inkling of the social strata in the Officer’s Mess came with our first company smoker to which I invited a delicious young lady who earned her crust as an air hostess for an exotic regional airline.  Paying her all the attention a chap does when he is trying to climb inside her knickers, I was interrupted by Captain Gopwo who took it upon himself to give this young officer some fatherly advice, in front of my young lady guest, concluding with the statement, ‘After all, you couldn’t possibly take HER into the Mess.’  I, an undefeated Sandhurst light middleweight boxer, was across the table so fast and only a nano-second away from a court martial when I was expertly rugby tackled in midair by Captain Bowles, RCT who, living up to his moniker, bowled me over and out of the restaurant.  ‘You have to understand, Tom,’ he said concluding his little fireside round-the-back-of-the-restaurant chat, ‘the man is not Sandhurst’.

I had to share an office with this guy and I hated him.  He was a GOPWO.  One day I watched while he pulled out a stores requisition from F Company and, frothing with indignation, waved it in front of my face screaming, ‘FUD 2! FUD 2!  For fucking paint brushes!’ before screwing the requisition up and dumping it into his waste paper basket.  I wasn’t a storeman, I was just doing the regimental duty I needed to get under my belt before going back to the Army School of Ammunition to change my qualification from Ammunition Technician to Ammunition Technical Officer.  All through officer training and the time since being commissioned I had been allowed to wear my medal ribbons but I had to remove my AT badge from my uniform.  The badge is basically a black circle surrounded by flames, supposedly to represent an exploding bomb.  I wasn’t interested in his parochial bloody stores issues.  I wasn’t a fat blanket stacker like him.  All I wanted was my Flaming Arsehole back.
As a result of this disinterest, I can’t explain to you what FUD means.  All I knew was that the lower the number, the more importance the man filling it out, or the unit sending it, were attaching to the requisition and the faster the demands of the requisition should be fulfilled by the stores platoon commanded by the man sitting in front of me who had just screwed a FUD 2 request up and tossed into his bin.  FUD 2 is as high as you can go in peacetime and it wasn’t as if this was a request from the catering corps worried about applying an even egg wash to the Brigadier’s steak and kidney pie, this was F Company.  So when he reminded me it was time to go back to the Officer’s Mess for lunch, I declined.  After he had gone I reached into his bin and smoothed out the requisition on my desk.  Sure enough, it was a FUD 2 for paint brushes.  Outrageous.  FUD 2’s are for ammunition, fuel, rations and other mission critical items, not bloody paintbrushes.  The whole camp was connected by a telephone network so I thought I would try and use it to call F Company.  Someone answered on the third ring.

‘We are really fucked,’ confessed the guy candidly on the other end of the phone after I explained what I was calling about, ‘the RAF have delayed a Puma so if we can get the brushes onto it and down to Punta Gorda we should be OK’.
‘Why do you need paint brushes so urgently?’ I asked out of intense curiosity.

‘Because we have broken our fucking ribs!’ came the irritated reply, ‘and you shiny arses couldn’t give a toss!’
Blimey.  I’d had a few bust ribs in my time and I knew they’re bloody painful but there was no need for that!  Now that I knew F Company were writhing about on the ground in agony unable to breathe, of course I gave a toss.
‘Do you want me to call the medics?’ I asked, by now very concerned.

‘I’m going to find you, you smart bastard, and I’m going to poke yer eyes out.  GIVE US SOME FUCKING PAINT BRUSHES!’ said the calm voice at the other end of the telephone.
‘I can do you some paint brushes, we must have loads in the stores somewhere but are you absolutely sure you don’t want a medic as well?’

Good Lord, with all of F Company gasping their last with broken ribs, no wonder the requisition was FUD 2.  There was no time for paperwork.  I was alone in the stores.  I had to make a decision or men would die horribly gurgling under an unforgiving tropical sun. I couldn’t make the connection between broken ribs and paintbrushes but I was only a bullet mechanic and newly commissioned officer, they were Special Forces so obviously had their own way of dealing with things like a mass outbreak of broken ribs.
‘Can you send someone round to the stores right now to collect what you need?’ I said.  Five minutes later there was a Landrover, minus roof and windscreen parked round the back of the stores.
‘Where’s the paintbrushes?’ asked the first and particularly healthy looking guy to leap out of the vehicle.
‘I have no idea,’ I confessed.  The stores were huge, we even had tank engines on the shelves.  How the hell was I supposed to know where we kept the paintbrushes?  Still, I was badged RAOC and these were technically our clients so I tried to do my best. ‘Perhaps if you all split up and had a bit of a root around?’ I suggested in a Sergeant Wilson sort of voice.  They all rushed off into the stores and helped themselves, all bar one.  Now I don’t want to bore you with descriptions of chiseled jaws and ice cold blue eyes but I am sure you get the picture.  As his men loaded the Landrover up with a lot more than just paintbrushes I had to ask him, ‘How do you fix broken ribs with a paintbrush?’
‘Easy,’ he said, ‘you just use Tratoplas, a two part adhesive; brush it onto the rib skin, apply a rubber patch, let it cure and then re-inflate.  We can fix most of our ribs like that’
Bugger me.  I’d been through basic training twice now and we had learnt all about dealing with sucking chest wounds but this was a new one for me.  Blimey, these blokes were hard.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘Sorry I bawled you out on the phone, this is really decent of you. Now that we’ve got the Chopper, any chance of some two stroke oil?  We’re always short of that, in fact we are desperate for everything!’
‘Two stroke oil?’
‘Yes, for the ribs.’
‘You’re talking boats, aren’t you?’ I said in a Benny-from-Crossroads voice as the penny finally dropped.
‘Yes, rigid Inflatable boats, RIBs’
‘Ah well’ I said, ‘in that case, come and have a look at these shelves.’  They were loaded with brand new outboard engines gathering dust.  I had asked Captain Gopwo for permission to re-engine the two Force ski boats with them so I could take the lads out water skiing or fishing but had been refused on the grounds that these were reserved for F Company.  So fuck him, I’d give them to F Company.  It would take him months to realize they’d gone.  He’d then order a complete stock take, the Special Investigations Branch of the Military Police would run round like headless chickens for a couple of weeks without any result and write off any discrepancy to theft by the locals and Store Company’s accounts would balance once more.  It wasn’t like I was nicking them for personal gain, I just could not believe the attitude of Captain Gopwo, ‘Stores are for Storing, if they were for Issues, they’d be called Issues’.  Here was a unit performing a vital role its success only impaired by being strangled through lack of supplies by their own side.  Stores Company was as bad as the bloody military Police, I decided.
The attitude here reminded me of the battle of Isandlwana during which absent Commander, Lord Chelmsford occasioned through a combination of arrogance and incompetence (qualities I recognized in my immediate superiour), the worst defeat the British Army ever suffered at the hands of a bunch of natives.  It was said that the firing line facing the Zulu Impis collapsed and was over run through lack of ammunition, the Quarter Master apparently deaf to the entreaties of the ammunition bearers as he ensured his accounting procedures were followed, right down to reconciling every last brass screw securing the lids of the wooden ammunition boxes.  This was all bollocks of course.  They didn’t issue every bloody soldier in the British Army of the time with a screw driver so he could carefully open an ammunition box under fire before distributing the much needed ammunition to his mates and returning screwdriver and screws to his pocket.  The poor old Quartermaster, who was killed in the action, was probably shoveling the ammunition boxes off his horse drawn carts as fast as he could and the soldiers were opening them in the way they were designed to be opened in a hurry, a smart oblique tap on the edge of the lid with the butt of a Martini Henry rifle.  Chelmsford cocked it all up by underestimating his enemy and trying to defend too long a perimeter.  He lost his army, over a thousand blokes, yet a few hours later, 120 Welsh Guardsmen successfully defended themselves against 4,000 Zulu at Rorke’s Drift by standing shoulder to shoulder three ranks deep behind upturned carts and gunny sacks in a tight perimeter.  It was all too easy for an embarrassed Government to accept Chelmsford’s report blaming an overly efficient Quarter Master for the disaster at Isandlwana and then lash out loads of Victoria Crosses for the heroic defenders of Rorke’s Drift who proved to the satisfaction of the Times newspaper and all its readers that despite the odds, the Empire was still invincible.
‘You had better take a good supply of filters and spark plugs as well,’ I said, ‘and if you request any other parts through the system, use the serial numbers of your old engines, not those belonging to these, they’re all the same make and model so they’ll fit.’  By ‘these’ of course, I was referring to the two brand new engines they had dumped into the back of their Landrover on top of all the other kit they’d nicked. ‘Oh, before you go,’ I called dragging a brand new tarpaulin off a shelf, ‘cover it all with this, will you?  It won’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where it all came from if someone sees you driving through camp like that.  And another thing!’ I added as they were leaving, ‘Please make sure it ALL goes onto the helicopter to PG.’
Captain Gopwo was so anal, he personally controlled the issue of things as trivial as pens and pencils to other units.  I kid you not.  He also hated the RAF which meant they generally got bugger all.  In order to make things more efficient, and I am sure the spit ran backwards in many a Group Captain’s throat, some technocrat had decided that it would be more efficient if the RAF were supplied all their non-technical requirements through the Army’s logistic system.  If they needed to swap out a Harrier engine, they could fly a replacement in on one of their Hercules aircraft but would have to come to us, the Army, to beg a pencil to fill in the requisition form to get it loaded in UK in the first place.  One evening I was working my way through the Playboy book of cocktails at the officer’s mess well stocked and staffed bar when an RAF officer pitched up in front of me and stuck three biros in front of my face. 
‘Do you know what this is?’ he demanded.
Momentarily nonplussed by his use of the singular I tentatively ventured, ‘A set of biros?’
‘No!’ he said, drawing out the N sound and clipping the O so together it sounded like a mosquito straining to break the sound barrier. ‘This,’ he declared with a manic gleam in his eye, ‘is one month’s allocation by the RAOC of pens for the RAF!’  He slapped the pens together with the original requisition form on the bar, turned his back on me and ordered himself a drink.  I took a peek at the requisition.  The RAF had asked for fifty blue pens, fifty red pens and fifty black pens.  A line had been drawn across the document and scrawled on the back, in Captain Gopwo’s handwriting, was written: ‘Sorry, no pens in stock, can spare you three’ as if he was doing them an enormous favour.  The thing is, he was lying.  We had shelves full of them.
This was ridiculous.  How could a grossly over promoted Warrant Officer prejudiced against desperately willing Puerto Rican Air Hostesses and Brylcreem Boys ground Belize’s Air Defences by denying his RAF colleagues a biro?  I fancifully thought we were all on the same side.  Good job he didn’t live in the mess.  I could almost guarantee that since he was so universally despised, no one from any other arm or service would sit next to him at dinner so Corps loyalty would require me to, a thought sufficient to give the bravest man nightmares.
I slid down the bar and pushed the requisition in front of the RAF officer.  ‘Do you think,’ I said, ‘you could have a landrover round the back of the stores tomorrow lunchtime and ask one of your lads to ask for me and no one else?’
‘Could do,’ he replied.
‘Good, I’ll be waiting for him.
The RAF officer and I hit it off.  I told him that I was attempting to drink my way through the Playboy book of cocktails before my tour of Belize ended.  He thought that was a brilliant game so since I was already so far ahead, I did the decent thing and started again.
Pretty soon, we had it all organised.  If Captain Gopwo turned down a requisition, I would receive an informal requisition.  If it was from the RAF, it would be delivered by my equivalent in the RAF Movements Section over a gin and tonic in the officer’s mess.  If it was from F Company, it would be a hissed, ‘Boss?  Boss?’ delivered at night through the mosquito netting protecting the window of my room in the mess.  Either way, delivery was always guaranteed by lunchtime the following day.  I was better than the yet to be born Amazon dot com.  From not having a clue where anything was in the sheds, I was even starting to amaze the storemen.  I heard one of them call out, ‘For fuck’s sake, does ANYONE know where the double overhead chrome dipsticks are?’ and, before I could stop myself, I called back, ‘Aisle E, halfway down, top shelf, brown box right at the back.’
I recognized that the Army had a very efficient logistics apparatus which depended on everyone following well developed and tested procedures so it was perhaps surprising that a young officer would hone larceny to such a fine art and buck the system.  Not really.  I just hated Captain Gopwo and delighted that every time a theft was detected, he had to stay up all night supervising a 100% stock take of the stores and identify any discrepancies so the extent of the theft could be determined.  For a holder of one of the very rare Married Accompanied appointments, this must have been especially galling, counting blankets instead of sleeping under one with his wife.
For some reason, he took an instant dislike to this young officer, an ex-Corporal, now Sandhurst trained who could eloquently express himself much faster than he could think.  What really irritated him, though, was how well liked I was by the troops.  He insisted that this was due to familiarity on my part.  There is a necessary divide between other ranks and officers.  For an officer to become over familiar with the soldiers under his command can be disastrous for his authority and, in war, cost more than just status when instead of orders being obeyed immediately, they are questioned.  He cited, as an example, that at least once a week I could be found not only drinking in the FOCInn, I would be pulling outrageous stunts.  The FOCInn was all ranks.  Everyone from Private soldier up to Field Marshall had the right to enter the bar.  Senior NCO’s and Officers had their own messes in which to let their hair down but occasionally, it was nice to get in amongst the troops, the guys that did all the hard, sweaty work.  Dressed in mufti without the pips on my shoulders, I learnt a hell of a lot.  The things that really pissed the troops off but were so easy to rectify as well as improvements to procedures and any number of other good ideas these lads who actually worked the system had.  All I had to do was listen.  And if occasionally, well tanked, I stacked one barstool on top of another and climbed the unstable pile right to the top until, inverting myself, I could plant two boot prints on the high ceiling of the Nissen hut while all the lads, with fore fingers and thumbs making pretend pilots goggles chanted, Dah Dah dah de Dah to the tune of the Dambuster’s theme, so what?  The floors were wooden planks; I bounced well if I fucked up.
The stores were suffering from ‘Stock Shrinkage’ long before I arrived.  I am sure that my contribution to the overall loss was negligible, the local tea leaves ran rings around camp security and the military police and we were not talking about kit you could stuff in your pocket.  Hundreds of Landrover tyres would disappear out of the war maintenance reserve, even vehicles.  But I still felt guilty that every time a loss was identified, these poor buggers, instead of drinking in the FOCInn, were trying to match store records with stock on shelves.  You didn’t think Captain Gopwo was going to do it by himself?  Of course he wasn’t.  He would turf the troops out and delegate responsibility for supervision to me, retire to his office and sulk himself to sleep.  Brilliant, the poacher left in charge of the estate.
Of all the very pissed off storemen going through their own section of the sheds, not one had an overview of overall losses.  I was receiving the individual section reports so it was up to me how I reconciled them.  If I realized that F Company had hammered the boat supplies a bit hard, I could let them know they had to lay off for a month so I could roll some of the losses over to the next month and normal service would resume a couple of months later.  It was the same with the RAF and both parties knew to keep their gobs shut and let me run my end of the parallel logistics system.
Having worked the guys through the night, I would would usually finish off by pointing out to the OC how hard his men had worked, without sleep and that, by the way, F Company had scored an LCL (Landing Craft Logistic) and were going to sail out to the Cayes to fish and barbecue and had offered to take our lads along in gratitude for the excellent service we, as storemen, were providing them.  As Force Training Officer I pointed out that if the Guatemalans charged down the Western Highway to take the airport, we might have to move troops via sea and tropical islands so that, by landing them at Dangriga we could outflank the enemy and retake the initiative by pushing pretty much unopposed up the Hummingbird Highway, the Vaca Plateau protecting our left flank and the sea our right, to San Ignacio, cut the enemy’s supply lines and relieve the aptly named Holdfast camp’s defence of the route to the airport at the same time.  
This was all bullshit.  You could execute such an audacious maneuver with enough well-trained light infantry but with a handful of cooks and bottle washers?  Anyone with even a modicum of tactical awareness would have realized that such an ill-trained no doubt sea sick force, no matter how well led, would not make it more than ten miles from the beach.
My boss was impressed so the lads and I got our regular fishing and diving trips courtesy of F Company.  Did I think there was any chance of Guatemala invading Belize?  No, of course not, but I liked fishing and diving.
On other occasions I could report to him that the RAF were running water skiing lessons and a barbecue with free beers and were wondering if some of our chaps would care to join them?  He would appear slightly concerned how his stores would continue to run so denuded of staff but I was always able to convince him that, if Captain Gopwo remained in charge, a skeleton crew could deliver the service and how, with such experience, the personnel comprising the Defence Company he commanded could be so much more effective.
Captain Gopwo was a lazy bastard.  His annoyance grew in parallel with the increasing numbers of his platoon in Callaghan’s and my running group.  At that stage, we were only running very early in the morning, still making breakfast and morning parade so he really had nothing to complain about.  I thought it a little unfair that I, as Training Officer, could knock off at three in the afternoon and go for another run and still make tea and toast in the Mess.  We were at nominal wartime staffing levels but had a peacetime workload so most of the guys were bored shitless.  Fortunately, Captain Gopwo rarely had the energy to venture out of his air conditioned office outside of mealtimes so the lads did not have to spend all their time trying to look busy but could play cards hidden away in one of the store sheds instead.  I could not force everyone to go running, except during scheduled physical training periods, but if there were volunteers, keen to keep themselves fit, why couldn’t they run on the Army’s time rather than their own?  There was no point talking to Captain Gopwo about this (which was rich considering he always knocked off at four, earlier if he was off on one of his frequent shopping trips to town) so I slid the idea past the Old Man pointing out that his unit had always come last in the inter company and inter corps sporting events, apart from cricket, and that at the last inter-company shooting competition, one of our men occasioned a negligent discharge and had been promptly marched off the range and jailed.  I said that as Force Training Officer, I was embarrassed at the woeful performance of my own unit compared to the others I was training and really wanted to do something about it.  He agreed with me but once again was concerned how stores platoon could maintain its service if all the men knocked off at three pm.  I assured him that only volunteers would be running and that since, by three in the afternoon, most of the outstanding daily requisitions would have been cleared, the remainder, under the stores platoon commander’s guidance, would cope.  Besides, I said, if every other unit sends men along for extra training, it’ll start to look bloody odd if we didn’t.  The OC gave me the go ahead.
Captain Gopwo’s reaction was predictable.
‘How fucking DARE you buck the chain of command!’ He screamed at me, temporarily halting all work in the store shed as soldiers dropped work in favour of sneaking close to the offices and listen in.  ‘You are NEVER to go directly to the OC without talking to me first.  I am your superior!  You work for ME! DO YOU FUCKING WELL UNDERSTAND!’  He paused, eyes and veins popping, his face a very peculiar shade of puce.  I paused just in case he would do the decent thing and keel over with a heart attack allowing me to save my breath but no such luck was forthcoming.
‘Actually, Sir,’ I said, ‘I am not part of Stores Platoon.  I am the Force Training Officer and as such report directly to the Commanding Officer Force Troops through Officer Commanding Force Ordnance Company.  That is why I have to go to the Brigadier’s weekly O Groups over at HQ British Forces Belize and you don’t’.  Now if THAT didn’t induce an immediate and catastrophic myocardial infarction, nothing would.
I think I can safely condense what followed by describing it as being barfed over by a giant rabid dog.  Had he been a great deal lighter and fitter, I am sure he would have left boot prints all across the ceiling.  As it was, the only thing he could manage was to barge a bit of furniture over so keen was he to get his hands around my throat, all the time yelling obscenities and telling me exactly how many years I would either spend doing extra duties or in jail after my court martial for insubordination and insolence.  The troops thought this was hilarious; the man had really lost it.
At that moment the door to the flimsy glass partition separating us from the store shed and by then virtually all of stores platoon opened and Captain Inions, the Supply Platoon Commander walked in.  Captain Inions was the living, breathing embodiment of a young Sergeant Wilson only with pips on his shoulders.  I never heard him raise his voice or get in a flap about anything.
‘Tom, run along to the OC’s office, please.’ He said quietly.  All the time I had been in Captain Gopwo’s office, my back had been turned to the glass partition.  As I came out of the office I saw all the lads wide eyed and grinning.  I hurried down the corridor to the OC’s office, knocked and walked in.
‘What’s that all about?’ asked the OC.
‘Captain Gopwo is a little upset with me for coming to see you about the new volunteer training programme without obtaining his permission first.’
‘A LITTLE upset!  I thought he was murdering you! Didn’t you talk to him about it first?’
‘No Sir, I didn’t’
‘Why ever not?’
‘Three reasons, Sir.  Firstly, it is not just his platoon, it is supply platoon, all the other platoons; it is REME, catering corps, HQ Company, Signals everyone in Force Troops bar Infantry and Royal Engineers.  Secondly, by asking him I would have established in his mind an authority over me he does not possess, I report to the CO through you, I just happen to share an office with Captain Gopwo.  Thirdly, had I asked him, he would have said no and placed me in the awkward position, having acknowledged his authority, of not being able to do my job.’
‘You didn’t tell him that did you?’ asked the OC hopefully.
‘I did, Sir’
‘Christ!’ he muttered.  I could have sworn I detected a note of awe.  Many times we had all heard Captain Gopwo giving the OC, who was by nature a very kind man spending all his time fruitlessly trying to please everyone, a hard time so we all knew the OC wasn’t exactly fond of the pain in his side that was his arrogant and opinionated stores platoon commander.
Captain Inions walked in, without knocking I noticed,
‘Well?’ asked the OC.
‘Ach, I think the fat bastard is just worried he’ll have to do some running as well,’ said ‘Onions’ with breathtaking disregard for the golden rule of never criticizing a fellow officer in front of a subordinate.
‘Well, there’s no way Tom can carry on sharing his office.’ said the OC.
‘There are no more offices free,’ Onions pointed out.
‘I could easily set up a desk in the typing pool with the secretaries,’ I suggested.
And that, dear children, was how the cunning fox persuaded the farmer to let him into the chicken coop.