Welcome to the cupboard of broken toys — Part 8

Success in the armed forces depends on ambition and competitiveness. It helps if you are accomplished at mainstream sports and that you have an aptitude for management and leadership. And are of a ruthless disposition. I have none of those qualities. None. Plus, I tend to crack under pressure. That must be a minus point.

I am in the wash-room looking at myself in the mirror. My reflection looks back at me with a sour expression on his face.

“You are a mess, Bombardier Lamb,” he says. “You need to sort yourself out.”

I am a mess. I need to sort myself out.

For obvious reasons, we are not allowed to use proper safety razors. Instead we have those plastic disposable things that don’t work properly. And I have come out in a rash of spots. Possibly in sympathy with Mulholland. Shaving is now a dangerous sport. My face is a mess of zits, scars and blood spots. Plus, bum-fluff in places where I am too afraid to wield the razor. In addition, I haven’t had a haircut in months. I disgust myself.

Joe Crabbe comes in. “You’ve got spots all over your back.” He announces. Thank you, Joe. You annoying little shit.

I finish washing and put my tee-shirt on. It has flecks of blood on it. You are a mess, Bombardier Lamb. You need to sort yourself out.

Word has got around that there are new books available and other patients are queueing up to borrow them. When they find out what is on offer they have second thoughts. And I am starting to have second thoughts too. I am reading Kerouac. ‘On the road’. I used to think I liked it but now I think I hate it. Joe asks me what it is about.

“It’s the seminal ‘Beat-Generation’ novel. According to legend, he wrote it all in one sitting on a single roll of paper.” I tell him, “It is supposed to be an account of him travelling over the United States in the late 1940’s and meeting odd people. Actually, it’s more about him doing menial jobs and sneering at his blue-collar work-mates.” I am beginning to think Kerouac and his crowd were a bunch of snidey, self-indulgent gits.

“Have you got anything I can read?” Asks Joe.

“What do you like?”

“Adventure stories.”

“Here, take this.” It is my copy of ‘Lord of the Rings’. “In fact, you can have it.” I realise I am having second thoughts about that book as well.

I write on the inside of the cover; “To my friend, Joe Crabbe. All my love, Andrew Lamb”

Joe’s eye mist up a little and he blushes pink.

“Thank you,” he says in an uncharacteristically soft voice.

I have made peace with Waite. I find a quiet moment and make a sincere apology for stepping out of order and losing the plot. He says he understands and apologises for getting my name wrong in the first place. It turns out that Joe is wrong. Two apologies do not cancel each other out.

One morning soon after that, Mulholland and Waite arrive at Ward Rounds in civilian clothes instead of their starched medic’s whites. When they come out of rounds they come to me in the sitting area.

“We have been reviewing your case files,” Says Mulholland in a serious tone of voice. “You are demonstrating the early symptoms of ‘claustrophobic-reaction’ for which there is only one known cure.”

“What’s that?” I ask in slight dread, wondering what fresh misery I am lined up for.

“Cabin-fever, matey. Get dressed. We’re going into Town.”

“What?” I can hardly believe it. After all this time, I’m going to do something relatively normal. I am excited and nervous beyond belief. I start to feel sick.

They decide that Joe can come with us, although I do catch them rolling their eyes at the prospect. Joe and I are issued with day-passes and we four go out to the bus-stop. I am wearing my green cords, sports coat and flat cap. The others are wearing jeans, tee-shirts and leather bomber-jackets. It is not a style I particularly like but has caught on big in soldier’s circles. Joe is excited enough for all of us and won’t shut up.

In town, we go into a café and I have to pay for a cup of coffee. Imagine the sheer novelty of such a thing. I am able to go into a barber’s shop for a haircut. Although there is nothing they can do about the spotty rash.

But the best thing, the very, very best thing, is going into Smith’s and browsing the book shelves. This might be my most favourite thing in the world. Just wandering around bookshops. I wish I could go on doing it all my life. An author’s name catches my eye. It is a sci-fi/fantasy writer called Michael Moorcock. I have never heard of him but am captured by the cover art. I buy a series of books called The Dancers at the End of Time. They are a revelation. I have discovered a whole new genre of literature to explore. The prospect pleases me no end.

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