Our shaving grace

(Part 2—this story continues The waiting game)

Docs gathered his things and came to sit with us. Andy lay back against his bag again and gestured in the direction of the corporals behind us.

“Are you into hominid fossils, or what?”

“No,” Doc said unhappily. “It’s crustaceans, actually.”

“Oh Christ,” Andy hissed, sitting up.

“What’s wrong with crustaceans?”

“No, look—”

From the far end of the parade ground a gangly man strode toward us, using what looked like invisible ski poles. Even at a distance he looked angry. His beret was rolled up and tucked under his epaulette and flapped about like a pet parrot.

This,” Andy said when the man got closer, “is it.”

This, it turned out, was Corporal Fink. He arrived with crunching boots in a puff of dust. He circled us and surveyed us with obvious disgust. Every now and then he lunged at someone for no apparent reason. He had a long face and long teeth, like a cartoon donkey, and the sharp ridge formed by his hair gave him the appearance of having slept in a corner. While the other corporals were the inevitable outcomes of bad breeding, Fink looked like the result of a more intimate arrangement.

“Get up!!” he cried.

We staggered to our feet.

“See that tree!?”

He pointed at a small, gnarled tree at the far end of the parade ground, in the same direction he’d just come from.

We could see it.

“Go talk to Old Timer!”

We looked at Fink, and at the tree.


And so it began. We ran to Old Timer in confusion, stumbling and bumping into one another. Some of us cheated and didn’t go all the way, turning short with those already on their way back. Fink saw us and we had to go again. The second time, no one cheated, but there were stragglers.

We went again.

And again.

We’d all heard stories told by older men who’d been to the Army and returned. We knew the military expedient of punishing the group instead of the individual. But we also knew that we were still alone. There would be border patrols and riot control, things done at the behest of a government we didn’t like. Everyone had heard of someone who’d died. Most of us were afraid, but nobody said so.

For Andy, in contrast, conscription seemed to be a break from more demanding things. He walked from the parade ground on that first day without lifting his feet, shuffling and grunting, but Fink didn’t notice. We were issued fatigues and taken to the canteen where we ate a meal of glutenous blobs in quiet bewilderment.

“Eat your pumpkin!” Sergeant Sinden screeched.

He had been stalking the aisles behind us and now he jabbed at a lump of pumpkin Andy had isolated on his divided steel tray.

“I don’t eat pumpkin, Sergeant,” Andy said in a tone that the third Earl of Shaftesbury might have used to address his butler. “On principle.”

Sinden inflated until he looked like a five foot semicolon. He was speechless with rage.

“It’s a religious matter,” Andy added.

Sinden emitted a noise that sounded like a muffled engine, and at that Andy stirred his pumpkin.

“I’m also allergic,” he said.

When Sinden had gone, having hovered over Andy while he licked his pumpkin but never quite ate it, we were shown to our barracks. There would an inspection the next morning, Fink announced, at exactly 04:00. To begin with, we were to iron our bunks using toothpaste to sharpen the edges of the blankets.

“I want to clean my nails on them,” Fink shouted by means of an explanation.

We were to shave, shine the floor, bone our boots and square away the rest of our kit. Having shouted all this, Fink left.

“Why the fuck must I shave?” a guy with a beard demanded to know.

“What’s bone?” another guy asked.

Andy got onto his bunk and dropped off to sleep. We set about cleaning things, but after a while we began to wonder what to do about him.

“Let’s wake him,” Doc suggested. “He’ll be in shit.”

We’ll be in shit,” someone else remarked.

But we left Andy asleep and got on with what we’d been told to do. At 03:30 the lights came on automatically. Andy declined offers to get up and we had to leave him asleep. At exactly 04:00 Fink arrived. We were lined up next to our bunks while Andy snored gently near the back of the barrack. Fink took up a position near the door, riding up and down on his toes and heels.

Then he saw Andy.

Thinking back on this now, I’m sure that Fink was saved by the simplistic wiring of his brain. It spared him from a full understanding of Andy’s defiance. He smiled as he strode toward the heaving blanket.

“Rise and shine!” he cried and brought down his boot on a part of the blanket that looked like a shoulder.

Andy put out his head from under the blanket and blinked at Fink. Then he extracted his arm and peered at his watch. He seemed a little irritated and it was obvious that it was only his good upbringing that enabled him to tolerate Fink.

“Could you come back,” he suggested, “at ten?”

Fink hauled Andy off his bunk and dragged him out the door. From the windows we watched as they went down the road between the rows of barracks to Sergeant Sinden’s office. Andy wore what he’d slept in—boxer shorts and an old T-shirt. He shuffled while Fink gibbered and shouted and darted around him. The military police fetched Andy from Sinden’s office. They put him in the back of a van and drove off to the Detention Barracks nearby.

“He’s getting charged,” Levin said.

“How’d you know?” someone asked.

“What’s charged?” someone else asked.

“My brother got charged,” Levin said.

“What for?”

“He refused to do PT on the Sabbath.”

A few minutes later Fink returned and kicked over Andy’s unmade bunk. Then we went to the parade ground and talked to Old Timer about Andy.

Andy returned after dark. He had a bruise under his left eye and didn’t answer questions about the Detention Barracks. Some were angry at him for the punishment we’d received.

“Dude,” a fat guy threatened, “we got fucked up because of you.”

“You got fucked up because of Fink,” Andy said calmly. “Nothing here is because of me. Or you.”

He sat on his bunk and laced his boots.

“Yeah,” the fat guy insisted, “but if you got up when we did, none of this would’ve happened!”

Andy stopped what he was doing.

“If I had, something else would’ve happened.”

Andy ironed his fatigues and helped to polish the floor. Then he went to the bathroom and shaved his head.

Our hair was to be cut the next morning, and we all dreaded this. The hairstyle applied to new conscripts was famous, and a basic thing, a short shearing that left you looking like half a tennis ball. The goal was uniformity and a loss of identity.

“What you do that for?” Doc asked when Andy returned. “You look like Humpty Dumpty.”

I’d like to decide what my hair looks like,” Andy explained. “Besides, I could’ve been bald to begin with.”

At 04:00 Fink resumed his position near the door, riding up and down on his toes and heels.

Then he saw Andy.

“Where the fuck’s your hair!?” he demanded when he reached him.

He was taller than Andy and bent over him.


“Where’s it!? What!!?”

“Corporal said fuck, Corporal.”

Fink almost lost his balance.

“So fucking what!!?” he sputtered.

“Sergeant Sinden said to report instructors who swore at us, Corporal.”

Fink hauled Andy out the door and down the road to Sinden’s office for a second time. The military police came and fetched him again, presumably for shaving his head and thereby damaging military property.

“Now he’s fucked,” Levin whispered.

Fink returned to the barrack but we didn’t go to talk to Old Timer. As punishment he instructed the barber to shave our heads as well. We queued up with the other platoons but Fink had seen to it that we went in first to ensure that his request was properly executed. We emerged one by one, bald, to the growing alarm of recruits from other platoons waiting outside.

The barber was a leathery, wry man. He smoked incessantly and his beard was stained a large yellow dot around his mouth. His was an easy, unchanging job, and Fink’s request had leant a touch of excitement to his day. He also had an assistant—a serviceman with little ambition to do anything else—and they shaved us in pairs. Doc and I went in together.

“I have a mole,” Doc warned before the barber could begin.

“Is that so?” the barber mused. “I have a squirrel.”

“No,” Doc said, “on my head.”

“You’re lucky,” the barber replied as he adjusted his clippers. “The squirrel has to stay at home.”

He turned up the radio playing from a shelf on the wall.

“What’s the squirrel’s name?” Doc ventured nervously.

“Look,” the barber said, stopping as he was about to start, “what’s this bullshit? Next you’ll want my address so you can meet the squirrel. Then there’ll be phone calls in the middle of the night. Before I know it you’ve moved in. Fuck that. Now shuddap.”

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The waiting game

(Experiences in the South African military, some mine, some Jack’s, part 1)

The people who design military bases are the ones who couldn’t get into prison design school. Rejected, they set about trying to prove themselves. This much was clear to me on the dreary morning I arrived at Voortrekkerhoogte for basic training. There were fences everywhere, high walls, drab buildings, and little by ways of colour. I had dreaded this moment ever since I’d turned sixteen and the Defence Force had started sending me yearly call-up orders. Now I handed these to the guard at the gate and went inside.

On the parade ground young men stood around awkwardly. More arrived in busses from the station, conscripted to the base from elsewhere in the country. They had travelled far and looked haggard. They disembarked and disappeared into the crowd of waiting men. We were left to our own thoughts, to fidget with our small bags of personal belongings, and to watch one another. Like sheep dogs, sergeants and corporals barked orders to herd us together, but otherwise they left us alone.

It’s strange to see how quickly one’s idea of what’s normal can change. Within minutes we looked motley and absurd. Through a separating fence we could see troops drilling in another part of the base. They looked uniform and spruce. A soldier ran alongside a marching platoon with his R4 rifle across his shoulders like a yoke. Even he looked neat. In comparison we were tattered, unchoreographed, and vulnerable—new inmates in the prison yard. We were together for now, but there wasn’t any safety in the loneliness we shared.

Around ten o’clock a sergeant with a megaphone stepped onto a crate near where I stood. He was sinewy and tough, with bandy legs and a chin so weak that his face ended in a wide moustache. He looked like a shaved ferret. He triggered the megaphone and made it honk.

“My name is Sergeant Sinden!” he squealed.

He paused to let this information sink in. While he looked around, handing out hard stares, I tried to imagine that he’d always had that name, as a baby and later as a small boy—Sergeant Sinden.

“Has Sergeant Sinden made a poo-poo,” his mother crooned when he’d soiled his nappy.

I could see him called forward in kindergarten to hold up a crude drawing of a house and an outsize cow. It was signed Sergeant Sinden in an uncertain hand. Maybe he also had the moustache—

“What the FUCK are you smiling about!?”

Sergeant Sinden was looking straight at me.

“Nothing,” I called out.

Sinden almost fell off his crate. Then he was on top of me, in two quick strides, thrusting the megaphone into my face.

“Nothing who!?”

“Sergeant,” I tried.

He was springy with anger and had turned a darker colour. He held the megaphone to my ear.

“Nothing Sergeant!”

“Sergeant! Nothing Sergeant!”

“That’s better! Now get the fuck up!”

He got back onto the crate while I picked myself up under his unwavering gaze.

“I’ll kick your arse so fucking hard,” he crowed, “you’ll have a brown taste in your mouth.”

He looked around and collected himself. Then he delivered a speech of goodwill intended to welcome us and dispel some of of the misconceptions we might have had about the Army. One of these wrong ideas, he said, was the notion that swearing was condoned.

“So,” he shrieked, “if any of you cunts hear instructors using words like fuck or shit, you come and tell me!”

It was clear that the no-swearing policy had been conceived somewhere above him. He honked the megaphone again, like a bosun’s whistle. We were to line up for hearing and eyesight tests, and to pee on paper strips which would test for blood and protein in our urine.

“Fucking move!”

The Army wanted us to have no blood or protein in our urine—at least, not yet. The idea, as we saw it, was to have blood and protein in our urine already. One guy poured a Coke onto his strip and I stuck mine up my nose before I peed on it. It got all bent and didn’t look right. I threw it away and went to ask for another one.

“Buggerfuck me!” the medical officer roared. “You shit on it?”

“I lost it, sir.”

He put his nose very close to mine and bounced my fringe with his voice.

“And I feel for you like a mother with a wooden tit!”

Then he gave me another strip and followed me to make sure that I peed on it. He escorted me back to the rows of tables where the medics inspected it and sent me along in the snaking queue herded by shouting men. They called out our service numbers one by one. Service numbers started with the two digits of the year they were assigned. From these I could judge the ages of the other men. One man with thick glasses had a service number issued ten years before mine. When his number was called out he went up to Sergeant Sinden who was still standing on his crate. He explained something to him.

“Doctor!?” Sinden mocked him, using the megaphone. “Well, well, fucking well. Fancy that!”

The man said something else and appeared to make a helpful suggestion.

“Fall in, Doc,” Sinden brayed, making the megaphone squeak, “or I’ll fuck you so hard you’ll have with a whole new blood type!”

With their printed lists and practiced voices the instructors shouted us into groups. Each group numbered around forty men, but not all the men had arrived. We sat in the dust and waited.

“Just look at them,” the guy next to me said.

His name was Andy. He had long hair, all the way down his back, and a well-travelled look. He lay against his bag, one leg over the other, his hands locked across his chest. He seemed very relaxed at a time when the rest of us were very tense.

“Have you noticed,” he said, “that none of them has a proper chin?”

I looked at the corporals moving between the new conscripts, shoving them and shouting. They all seemed to share a basic body plan that suggested generations of unschooled sex.

“Only a recipe with very few ingredients could produce such consistently similar results,” Andy remarked.

As we watched them, Doc tried his luck with another sergeant, but Sinden spotted him. Soon he was doing pushups with Sinden’s boot in his back.

“Old Doc there is in for a hard time,” Andy said. “He thinks he can convince these people that he doesn’t belong here.”

When Doc started struggling after a few pushups, some of the corporals gathered to jeer at this outrage of physical weakness. One leant in and counted for him, shouting near his ear. When Doc’s arms gave out, he was yanked upright by the men who surrounded him. They abandoned their requirement of pushups and taunted him with questions instead.

“Doctor fucking what?” one of them howled.

“Palaeontology,” Doc explained glumly.

His face was red and dusty.

“So you’re not a doctor then?” another corporal asked.

“Polly-fucking-tology!” Sinden announced over the megaphone.

“If you had any expectations involving culture,” Andy warned as he chewed on a blade of grass, “it’d be good to adjust them now.”

The instructors lost interest and left Doc alone. He stood with his bag on the ground between his feet, cleaning his glasses. Then he sat down to wait.

A few minutes later, a stocky corporal with particularly simian features waded past.

“The People versus Natural Selection,” Andy snorted when the corporal was out of earshot.

Doc overheard this and smiled to himself.

“What’s up, Doc?” Andy called to him.

There was a moment of silence as Doc considered this question.

“We’ve gotta stop meeting like this,” he quoted from the seventies movie.

Andy sat up and smiled. He looked at me, and then at Doc.

“You know what?” he said. “It’s going to be alright.”

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