Welcome to the cupboard of broken toys — Part 11


The Ward Sister orders me to go to the Stores and draw my Barrack-Dress uniform. I need it for my formal interview.

I open the packing crate containing my possessions and recoil from the smell. Everything is stale and horrible. I look at the stores clerk who shrugs indifferently. It all stinks. It stinks like a school gym-bag that has been left in a locker over the holidays. It smells really, really badly.

I select a No 2 dress shirt, woolly jumper, pair of shoes and a pair of olive-green barrack-dress trousers. Plus, my stable-belt and beret. Everything is wrinkled and disgusting. I can’t possibly wear it in this state. I appeal to the Ward Steward. She takes the shirt, trousers and socks away to the laundry. All I can do about the woolly-jumper in these pre-Febreeze days is hang it up outside for airing and spray it with deodorant. I give my shoes a bit of a polish. My shirt and trousers come back, freshly laundered, pressed and starched.

I have a shave and try to brush my hair properly. I dress in my uniform. I begin to feel like a soldier again. I can’t remember when I stopped feeling so, but it was somewhere along the line.

Bombardier Lamb, age 23, 1980º

A few explanatory notes concerning working-dress uniforms. The British Army barrack-dress uniforms tend to be drab and utilitarian in shades of olive green with black shoes and a dark-blue beret. But there are a couple of sartorial flourishes. The cap-badge gives a dash of heraldry to the ensemble and the stable-belt a flash of lurid colour. The Royal Artillery belt is particularly flamboyant in brilliant-red, blue and yellow stripes. It is very smart.

I am nervous. I am going to my Medical Board. In practise, this means waiting outside a meeting-room in the Admin Wing, with a queue of other people, mostly in uniform. I am first to be called in. The Medical Board sitting comprises four officers and a Board Secretary. My board includes Major Holst and Colonel Armstrong-Sydney, the chief army psychiatrist.

I am invited to remove my beret and sit down opposite the Board. They each have a file containing an abstract of my medical notes and recommendations.

“Good-morning, Bombardier Lamb.” Says Colonel Armstrong-Sydney. “This is the regular monthly review Medical Board. Our task is to review your case notes with a view to considering your medical grading.”

I should explain; The armed forces use the acronym PULHEEMS for service personnel medical grading. Is goes like this:

P — Physical Capacity. U — Upper limbs. L — Locomotion. H — Hearing. E — Eye, Right. E — Eye, Left. M — Mental Capacity. S — Stability. A medically fit soldier must be graded at level 2 or less in each category to be eligible for full service anywhere in the world.

They inform me that I have been downgraded to level 8 for the ‘S’ category. This will be reviewed in 6 months. I stand up, replace my beret, salute and march out.

Being downgraded practically means the end of my career. No more promotion, no postings. No further training. It is not the beginning of the end. It is not the end of the beginning. It is the end.

“For you Bombardier Lamb, ze career in ze army is over.” You have to say that in a bad German accent.

The thing is that Sergeant Jackson, Major Holst and Mulholland have been preparing me for this over the past month. They have been gently trying to get me to rehearse my emotions on being told the bad news so that I would be best prepared to deal with it. The actual decision to downgrade me had been made weeks ago. The interview this morning was merely a formality. And I knew it. But despite all the effort to prepare me for this I am still crushed with the enormity of it. My chest feels tight and I want to be sick.

I return to the ward with my eyes brimming. The medics and nurses see me arrive but allow me some privacy. I can’t just stay on the ward with the other patients looking at me like I am from another planet. I go out onto the Common and find somewhere to sit and cry.

I don’t want to see anyone. There is a clump of bushes at the top of the Common so I go and sit there for a couple of hours. Mulholland comes to find me. He knows all the likely hiding places. He sits next to me but says nothing. After a while he helps me to my feet and we go back to the ward.

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