MY FRIEND THE GENERAL
The Colonel was angry.
It wasn't what he said, or what he did, but we all knew he was angry. I suppose it was, if anything, because of what he didn't say and couldn't do. And thereby hangs a tale.
Permit me to introduce myself: Sapper Harry Flagg, at your service. Fifteen years in the R.E.s; three times promoted - once to sergeant - three times reduced to the ranks. Still, as Ginger Morris, our Staff Sergeant, sometimes says: "Even the Colonel's a sapper in the Royal Engineers." Which brings me back to the Colonel.
He'd a bit of a cold that morning and found it difficult to speak in more than a hoarse croak. I suppose that's why, when he heard the General was planning a spot inspection of the camp that day, it put him in a bit of a temper straight off.
It wasn't often we were inspected by top brass during the War; I suppose they were too busy most of the time moving little flags across great boards. When they did inspect us, though, it was usually done at short notice as a surprise. I reckon that's why, after the Colonel had been caught on the hop a couple of times, he arranged for Captain Matthews to be transferred to GHQ. Their sons were at school together, or some such thing, and he could always rely on old Matty to tip him off if something was in the wind.
On the particular day I'm talking about it didn't take the Old Man long to get cracking, in spite of his cold. Not that he could make it too obvious, for the inspection was supposed to be a surprise. But by eight ack-emma the instructions had percolated through the system until the camp was a hive of feverish activity. At least, that's the impression it gave; not a man jack of us could be seen walking about without at least a bucket or a brush in his hands.
My allotted task was relatively simple. Or should have been. According to Ginger Morris, I was to "Get a brush and shovel, Flagg, and tidy up the borders. Then rake them over if necessary."
"Yes, Staff," I replied dutifully, though I didn't feel a bit dutiful. The "borders" were something else we had to thank the Colonel for. He'd had flower borders laid along all the paths surrounding Company H.Q. and Wing H.Q. and he'd had geraniums planted in them. this meant that once a year they had to be taken up and potted, and once a year they had to be replanted. The rest of the time the borders were left to go to pot - no pun intended! Except, that is, when we had an inspection. It wasn't the job I minded so much as the fact that the whole time I would be subject to the gaze of whoever cared to look out of the CHQ or WHQ windows, and there'd be no chance of a crafty fag.
Anyway, I got on with it and I expect it was the fact that some other bigwig had visited us a few weeks earlier, because I had the whole flipping lot looking as spick as a unused thingumbob inside the hour. That was when I got the idea of using up the two cans of white paint that had been left lying around the motor pool since the beginning of the War. You see, I had to keep busy for at least another hour if I didn't want someone to keep me busy, and the border surrounds looked as if they could use a bit of brightening up.
Really, I reckon, I shouldn't have done it. And presumably if anyone had spotted me they'd have laid the law down. But - isn't it just marvellous! - when they should see you, they never do. Perhaps they were all too busy with their own duties - or just lying doggo.
Whatever the case, I got the job done with about ten minutes to spare before the General was due and, even if I do say so as shouldn't, those borders sparkled like the eyes of a girl who has just had her first kiss. Then it was time for me to do a disappearing act - and I knew just where to go. Into the latrines behind the cookhouse, through the door into the shower-room, and then it was just a case of pick up the stool from inside the door, put it in one of the cubicles, and smoke in peace for thirty or forty minutes until the coast was clear. Believe you me, old Flaggy's not been demoted three times without keeping a trick or two up his sleeve. Besides, I'd done all this before.
This must have been my unlucky day all round though. I hadn't got half way through my second snout when the door of the shower-room opened and two pairs of feet stepped inside. Believe me, that fag was out and my breath was held before you could say Adolf Hitler.
I reckon it must have been about two minutes that I heard them walking about and talking, wondering how much longer it would be before they discovered me, when I heard the plane overhead. And I reckon it was less than thirty seconds after that when the bomb started to fall.
Well, I've heard it said that the only bomb that gets you is the one you don't hear. For all I know that may be quite true. But I tell you, without a word of a lie, not only was I not prepared to test that theory at that particular moment, but I was out of that cubicle quicker than a greyhound from its trap.
And that's when it happened.
Some goon had left the remains of a bar of soap just outside the cubicle and, true as a dye, my size nine landed on it. A second later I was skating along the shower-room floor on a part of my anatomy they haven't yet built skates large enough to fit, gathering up another figure in khaki on my way, until the two of us landed up outside the shower-room door amidst a huddle of figures who had already thrown themselves to the ground. Which was the precise moment the bomb landed about thirty yards away.
After the dust had settled we picked ourselves up and I extricated myself from the tangle that was me and the General. The General dusted himself off and turned to Ginger Morris, standing stiff as a ramrod beside him.
"D'you know this man, Staff Sergeant?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. Sapper Flagg, sir."
"Well I want to commend him for his quick thinking and prompt action," said the General. "And you'd better get the Colonel out," he added.
From inside the shower-room came the sound of gurgles and splutters. It appeared that the blast had demolished the shower-house cistern, and the Colonel, who had thrown himself on the floor of one of the cubicles at the time of the explosion, was now under about three feet of water.
Well I reckon you've guessed what had happened. Jerry, on his way back from a raid on London, had a bomb left it would seem. From where he was, the white-painted border surrounds must have shone like a beacon. A regular invitation. But after the General's commendation there wasn't much the Colonel could do to me. Which, I reckon, is why he did nothing.
As for why he didn't say anything: he couldn't. By the time they'd got him home and dried him off, he'd lost his voice completely.