Normally, at around 4.00 in the afternoon, my writing life will be dominated by one of two things.
If I’m in writing mode, it’ll be the sounds of Bjork in my headphones and if I’m in skiving mode it’ll be some crap TV show like Come Dine With Me or Deal or No Deal as I lounge on the sofa.
Recently however, I have discovered the delights of Simon Mayo on Radio 2 and having been listening to his excellent ‘Confessions’ slot, I have been inspired to confess something of my own. Not because I feel guilty about it and need forgiveness, but because I just feel the time is right to get it off my chest. So here goes…
In 1982, whilst a young, impressionable and innocent Corporal, I was dispatched to Ascension Island as a part of the Royal Air Force detachment involved with the South Atlantic Task Force. For those who do not know, Ascension Island is a volcanic rock in the middle of the South Atlantic. It’s hot, windy and dusty which can make things extremely uncomfortable when you’re living in tents and what with that and the huge amount of aircraft movements taking place, sleep was at a premium during the day.
More importantly, the island is home to a beautiful and very long runway which meant that it provided the perfect operational hub for the men and equipment being put together to repel the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands. As a consequence, by the time I arrived, at around the same time as the first British ships heading for war, it was somewhat busy.
Now, my job will remain secret for reasons which would be obvious if you knew what they were but suffice to say, my shift pattern was 24 on, 24 off. Unfortunately, the ‘on’ portion involved my sergeant and I remaining both awake and alert which whilst fine at first, was not fine after about a week. Zombies comes close.
As a consequence, we began a rota where one would snatch sleep whilst the other remained awake doing the work of two men. This worked well for a few days until it all went horribly wrong. Or to be more specific, I cocked it up.
It’s fair to say that being on an active and very busy airfield during time of war is extremely exciting but as you can imagine given our location, the facilities left something to be desired. And by facilities, I mean specifically, toilets.
This was fine for ‘number one’s’ but when the body placed additional demands on you (if you get my drift) you needed an actual toilet. And let’s face it, I wasn’t in the Army, I was in the RAF so our much higher standards meant that we couldn’t and indeed wouldn’t, just ‘go’ anywhere!
Unfortunately, the toilets for us lowly airmen were about half a mile away and consisted of what are known universally as ‘long drops’. These being basically long planks of wood with holes cut in them. I will leave you to work out the rest but to say they leave a lot to be desired is an understatement. Especially at 3.00 in the morning when it is pitch black.
However, within one hundred yards of my building on the side of the aircraft pan were four chemical toilets of the sort you see at music festivals and on building sites. The problem for me was that these were specifically for officers, pilots and aircrew and we oikes had been expressly forbidden to use them under pain of disciplinary action. Indeed, so serious was this threat that they were actually surrounded by barbed wire with a small gap providing the only entrance.
As you can imagine, being lowly non-commissioned officers, toilet envy rapidly became a huge factor in our lives. Something exacerbated by what I can only describe as the habit of ‘showing off’ by those eligible to use them.
Well, at some ungodly hour of the morning during one particular shift, I was, to be blunt, caught short. With the airfield reasonably quiet and my sergeant fast asleep under his desk, I took the decision that rather than wake him and endure my long walk to the long drops, I would risk it. My thinking being that not only would I be away from my desk for a shorter period but I would obtain a small victory for junior ranks everywhere by taking a dump in the officers bogs. Such victories are, after all, what the British Armed Forces are based on.
So within minutes, I’d crept out of the building and in full SAS mode, has slunk through the darkness across the extremely crunchy volcanic ash, ducked through the barbed wire and was sitting comfortably doing what came naturally.
Inevitably, after two or three minutes I heard footsteps approaching and it suddenly struck me that I could soon find myself in serious trouble. I was after all, disobeying a direct order. But just as importantly, so could my sergeant who was at the very moment blissfully unaware that I wasn’t actually there holding what should have been a very secure fort whilst he was fast asleep on active duty. Being one of the most serious offences in the military, had he been caught he would almost certainly have faced a court martial which could well have resulted in a demotion and possibly even a prison sentence and dismissal from the service. We were after all, at war.
As all this ran through my brain, all I could do was sit and hope to goodness that the fast approaching officer would not even try the locked door to my cubicle (something which might well have led to him asking who was in there) but would simply enter one of the three empty cubicles thus allowing me time to escape.
It was at this point that I noticed that I had neglected to lock said door and I also realised that I couldn’t simply place a boot against it because it opened outwards. It was lock or nothing but even as I reached for it, it swung open to reveal a very senior officer silhouetted against the South Atlantic sky.
As he took a step forward, I suddenly realised that it was so dark inside that he hadn’t actually seen me sitting there and so all I could do was shout ‘BOO!’ at which point he let out a high pitched scream, turned and ran back at high speed toward the collection of portacabins which formed the operations centre.
Within seconds I was sprinting after him and made it through the gap in the barbed wire just as an alarm went off and all hell broke loose.
By the time I made it back to the safety of my building, the first of the armed patrols had arrived as rumours spread that the very real fears of an Argentine Special Forces attack on the airfield had been realised.
It was some hours before things calmed down and an investigation began into what had caused such a flap. Of course, being the closest building to said toilets, suspicions that the culprit was close to home soon centred on yours truly but my vehement denials as well as my sergeants assertions that I had not left our office at any time meant that I escaped unpunished.
A few days later, the first shots were fired down South and the incident was forgotten but it has stuck with me ever since and the time has now come to put my hands up.
Not because I almost gave a senior officer a coronary or caused him a degree of embarrassment (after all, he screamed like a little girl and ran away) or because numerous police and soldiers ended up spending hours scouring the locality looking for non existent invaders, but because of my sergeant.
For not only did I almost cost him a twenty year career, his pension and a spell in military prison, but he spent the next five weeks terrified of shutting his eyes whilst we were on duty in case I actually did end up dropping him in it in some way. Mind you, that did mean I got all the sleeping time.
So sorry Tim. I hope you’ll be pleased to know I feel much better for getting that off my chest.
Per Ardua Ad Astra.
My latest novel, Wings of a Sparrow is available in ebook and paperback format from either Amazon or iTunes.
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