by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Back in her office over the road, Matron and Alan resumed their seats, facing each other across her huge rosewood desk.
“I wanted you to see the kind of work before you made any decision. It’s very important you feel you’re able to cope with it before you agree to take it on. As I said earlier, it’s not the sort of work which everyone can do. It demands patience, humanity and compassion.”
She sat in silence for several seconds, treating him to her long low stare. “Now you’ve seen it, how do you feel?”
Alan tried to speak, backed-off and cleared his throat. “I – I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Matron rose to her feet. This time it was to indicate that the interview was at an end. “Go home and think about it over the next few days. Phone up and let us know what you decide.”
Alan stumbled to his feet also, nearly knocking over the chair. One thing stood out clearly for him. Ultimately there was no denying this Gorgon – this Sybil – this Pythoness – anything she cared to ask of him.
“It’s all right, Matron… I can give you my decision now.”
She didn’t need to say “Well?” She was capable of posing the question in total silence.
He swallowed. “I’ll… do the job.”
“Splendid. I’ll take you to Janice downstairs to arrange the details. You can start on Monday. It will give you the weekend to get used to the idea.”
“Matron’s right, dear,” said his mother, giving him a peck above the right eyebrow. “You’ve got the whole weekend to think about it.” They both carried on in their minds without actually having to say it: time enough to change your mind.
Pop’s attitude was healthier. “Christ! – she certainly saw you coming!” But he could tell from his father’s laughing eyes that he didn’t disapprove. Except for the one possibility – and it was only a possibility – that his son was letting himself be put upon. The whole thing hung on that, as far as Pop was concerned. Alan sensed a conditional reproach. Is this really what you want? – well of course you can’t really be wanting it, but are you willing for it to happen? Because if you aren’t – then be your father’s son and tell ‘em to get knotted.
Pop had been a guardsman. One of the “greyhounds” – continually on the run before the invading Germans – he’d been wounded by a spud-masher and came off the beach at Dunkirk on a stretcher with a big red “M” on his forehead to show he was full of morphine. But that hadn’t been the end of his war. He’d put in a spell running the Sniper School. After that he had “kept animals in cages”, as he put it, as CSM in the Guards’ Depot at Pirbright.
He’d often voiced his determination that Alan wasn’t going to go through what he had done. When in despair at the dearth of vacant jobs in Seagate Alan had floated the idea of signing up with the Regular Army – his age-group being no longer liable for National Service – Pop had rounded on him.
“Look at me! The Army’s already ruined one member of the family!”
But it hadn’t, you know. It had taught him everything he knew. In pre-war Lanarkshire he’d been no stranger to the soup kitchen and the Salvation Army hostel, as he’d never been at pains to conceal. Someone who knew someone else had fixed him up with a job as a policeman – but thinking it was time he had a proper occupation he’d walked three doors down the street, past the police station, to the army recruiting office and signed-up for seven years. He’d been due for demob in 1939 – but Hitler saw to it he was up-in-arms till ‘45.
“What’s it like having a sergeant-major for a dad?” – “Like having anyone else, I suppose,” Alan would reply. He’d gone through eighteen years of his life wondering why everyone was scared of his father. Uniquely among his contemporaries, it seemed to be, his old man had never hit him. He’d left it like a good CO to his mother to discipline him to her satisfaction. Which, in days when parents had been expected to belt their children, had been by exhortation, not violence.
No – when they both said how relieved they were his generation wasn’t going to have to go through what theirs had done – they had meant it.
That this might have produced a certain flabbiness of character was an idea Alan had come up with himself. He’d got it from a diet of dog-eared novels at his boarding school – books with backbone, though mostly lacking spines, filtered through the sensibilities of a cadre of masters in minor holy orders. People on the other hand who’d actually been through the war tended towards the view that forging strength of character through hardship was to get roast pork by burning down the pigsty.
Not that he’d had it as easy as his contemporaries in his home town. Boarding school clung to its Victorian traditions. It hadn’t stiffened his character one fibre, but now at least, as someone who had sipped a soupçon of hardship himself, he was able to see things from his parents’ point of view. As distinct from his masters’ – who had themselves missed the call-up but had been pleased to exchange the black habit of a religious for the strutting khaki of an OTC officer at Saturday afternoons’ compulsory “Cadets”.
More to the point, it had conferred a rare insight into the repressive workings of institutions. Alone in his bedroom, Alan held a level finger under his nose and gave his reflection the Nazi salute.
“Vee are ze masters now!” he growled.
…to be continued.