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“Fall in, Private!” Yes, Sgt. Spraggon was a woman. Not an ordinary looking woman, even by the Army’s standards, but a gap-toothed Amazon with huge biceps and a moustache that was longer than the stubble on her head. I could not but smile at the transparent fatuousness of the top brass, how they must have reasoned that by putting me at the behest of such a person will somehow stop me from putting forward the women’s cause. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, it had now become a challenge. You don’t get to be in my position without `people skills’, and I would make it as much my duty to get on with this particular superior officer as with anybody; I’d never step out of line, keep my nose clean, get the job done then back to civvy street with another notch on my CV.

Predictably, I guess, Spraggon didn’t make it easy. I could only surmise that she must have once been the classroom bully, since she felt obliged to give us female recruits the kind of hell a male officer simply wouldn’t get away with. An inattentive girl would have her hair pulled at the lower temple, slowly upwards until she was on tiptoes in a vague attempt to ease the increasing pain. Any attempt at backchat usually meant you had your cap knocked off, your hair grabbed hard and your face pushed into her ample, heaving bosom. A “Don’t sound so clever now, do we?” usually followed that one. Sometimes she’d walk behind you and despite current regulations that allowed girls to have hair down to earlobe length, if `Sarge’ thought it was too long then just an admonishment wasn’t enough. No, instead she had to produce the sharpest scissors you ever saw and SCHNIK! Instant bald patch. No warning, no chance of redemption, she performed the duties of judge, jury and executioner in half a second. Ponytails were her favourite, I reckoned she must be collecting them. In fact all her discipline seemed to revolve around hair; I wondered if it were related to the fact she herself wore hardly any. None of the punishments that she meted out could ever be visited upon a woman with a number 1 crop, so maybe she wanted us all to look that way. By now I was only a week away from finishing the assignment and as it happened, my hair had grown back so fast after its initial mowing that I worried whether I might qualify for the shears treatment. Nearly but not quite, thank God, and in just seven days time I would be away from this woman for good.

Character building. That’s the euphemism they use to justify the treatment, so by now I figured I must have a personality to rival my TV celebrity size ego. And boy, I’ve had to work for it, maintaining a firm stance in the face of the Sergeant’s sledgehammer sarcasm about my size (at 5ft 5ins I just about made it to her breasts), my `posh’ BBC voice, my education, the fact that I was more attractive than she was, (not difficult under the circumstances), and of course, my TV work. “Think you’re something, do you, just because you get your fizzog on the idiot box?” she taunted. “Not really, ma’am, but it pays more than the Army.” That’s one in the back of the net. “Oh, very droll. And I suppose when the towel-heads start getting ideas, it’ll be you clever college types who’ll be charging at the enemy, bloody microphones at the ready!” ” No, the regulars will be doing the charging. But with respect, ma’am, without us clever college types doing our job, no one would ever see them doing theirs.” The monster’s eyes narrowed. “Listen, sunshine” she hissed, “I don’t know who I think you are, but I know what your game is. You swan in here all high and mighty, spouting your arty-fartsy liberal crap to the camera, and yet you know full well that when 30 thousand of your oppos are sent off to the Gulf, some maybe never to return, you will be back in your comfy TV armchair filing your nails and counting your filthy lucre, while we die on our arses just to keep you in a job! Soft scum like you wouldn’t last five minutes in the real Army; you couldn’t even pick a fight with Miss Piggy. In fact, you need toughening up right now, I’ll see you in my office at 1800 hours.” And that was me put in my place. What made things worse, was the fact that she was quite correct. I was only really acting a part, which may have explained why, in spite of what had just occurred, Spraggon was actually more lenient with me than some of the others. Like the poor girl who got punched in the face for turning left instead of right, or the other one who had half her hair literally pulled out because the sergeant thought it was too long (again, as if we needed reminding, one of her pet hates). Unless, that is, she had something awful in mind for me. It was with some trepidation that I knocked on her door at six o’clock.

“At ease, Jane!” It was a very unfamiliar Sergeant Spraggon that greeted me from behind the desk. She was actually smiling, something I had never witnessed before. She had a sort of casual air, was even smoking a cigarette, and I noticed that she must have just returned from the camp barber’s for her large head had been almost shaved bald, and she seemed unusually pleased with herself. And, did she just call me Jane ? I mumbled a formal acknowledgment. “Sorry about the rollocking, but you know I do have to impose my authority ever so often!”. What was her game? One had to wonder if this was in fact the same woman. Also, if I didn’t know better I’d have said her mouth had formed some trace of a smile, though this was not the time for presumptions. “I understand, ma’am. Er, you wanted to see me, ma’am?” “Please, forget the formalities, Private. I mean, Jane. In fact, for now you may call me Toni. My given name was Antoinette, but I’ve never felt like an Antoinette. I think Toni suits me better. What do you think?” Still on the defensive, I responded to the effect that I wasn’t paid to think, not in the army, and were I so to do, the nomenclature of my commanding officer would not be high on the list. The Sergeant sighed, and looked somewhat crestfallen.

“I don’t expect you to like me, Jane…” Unbelievably, there were tears in her eyes. “I know that in a perfect world, we’d all get on together, we’d all try our best for each other and there would be no need for all this square-bashing and ear-bashing. My job is to lick young recruits into shape, not to win any popularity contests. But let me just say, Jane, that I don’t dislike you. You are one of my fav – er, one of the better types in this command, and like me, you also have an important job to do. Which is why I’d like to help you.” My mind raced. “Help me? How?” “Well, we both know that TV thrives on stories, you know, gossip and the like, that’s right, isn’t it?” I nodded, uncomprehending. “Well, I can give you all that you need. Stuff that will blow this place wide open, things that will make you famous for ever. But first, you have to do me a favour.” Now, an offer like that, to a journalist, can never, under any circumstances, be too good to refuse. To get the `lowdown’ on the British Army, some juicy titbits, God knows, a scoop ? That’s what I was here for, and now someone is offering it to me on a plate. It seemed too good to be true, of course, but what had I to lose? I would know before long. Now, what was that favour? “Well first, what I am about to tell you has NOT come from me. Understand? You will promise me never EVER to reveal your source. Otherwise, Jane, I will kill you.” A good hack never betrays their source on principle, and I was well aware that `I will kill you’ was no idle promise, so I agreed. Alarmingly, I could feel myself turning rather moist at this mouth watering prospect. And second?

“I want you to let me shave your head.”

I wasn’t quite sure what she’d said so I asked her to repeat it. Which she did. What planet was this woman on? It had been plain to see throughout the recent few weeks how she’d do anything to part other girls from their locks, and now she wanted the very last of mine. Turned her on, I guessed. But then, the words “exclusive news” are nigh impossible to resist. “I’d just like to know, why?” I thoug
ht it reasonable to ask. She replied, “Just let me do it”. “But Sarge – er, Toni, I have my TV work to do next week…” It was a feeble response, and we both knew that what remained of my hair would soon end up in my lap. “It’ll grow back in no time, and you’ll look different every week, like you used to.” Were they her words, or my self-reassurance? It was hard to say. But in no time at all a towel was being thrown over my shoulders, and Toni’s portable clippers were making great inroads into what remained of my hair. Up and down, side to side, the passes were random and unpitying but they did the job. I put my hand to my head, to feel nothing but fine sand adhering to a smooth rock. Then came the water, then the lather. “Are you ready, now?” I was, now it’s your turn. Toni, give us the works…

“Right, now, you know the Big Cheese …er, Commander Faulkner, yes….well, he’s been having it away with Lieutenant Blake for about 18 months….” My head was now fully lathered up and the headblade (no Mach 3 here, this woman actually owned a real blade) was poised. “And Sgt. Potter, he’s been giving Private Jenner one up the ass for nearly a year now…” The blade scraped harshly across the whole side of my head. It felt like it had taken some skin with it too, for what it left seemed impossibly white and cold, like the Antarctic. “…how do I know? Because Jenner’s a guy, that’s why, and he’s barely come of age…” SSCRRITCH! Great swathes of bare scalp saw light for the first time since leaving the womb. Was it scalp, or bare bone? “See those two queers on B platoon, Mutt and Jeff? You know who I mean…well, that’s only half the story, `cos Jeff used to be a woman…” Without pausing for breath, my officer-in-charge had scraped every single vestige of hair from my head. You could not imagine a more perfectly round, white, gleaming sphere; and it had my face on it. Still she would not shut up. “…and that pretty young thing third on the left from you on parade today, she’s one of us make no mistake – I should know `cos I’ve had her on the assault course…” My head was as smooth as a freshly peeled onion, and my heart was sinking fast. I had to tell her to stop.

“Toni, you know I can’t use any of this stuff, don’t you?” A blank stare. “Well for a start, it’s personal, probably slanderous and really none of anyone’s damn business!” The sergeant looked first shocked, then a smile played on her lips. I carried on. “I thought you were there to enlighten me with a blinding insight into the modern army, or reveal some scandal that we could say was in the public interest. But instead you’re just giving me inane tittle-tattle!” “But…you said you wanted gossip. I’ve seen daytime TV, they love that kind of thing. There’s loads more…” But I wasn’t listening, for at that moment two blinding realisations entered my newly shining head. One, she’d known all along that I could not repeat what I was being told. It was just a ruse to shave my head, and gain some form of control. And two, what did she mean, one of us?

I was about to find out. “Please, Jane, let me make it up to you…” What followed was a fetid, glutinous mixture of conflicts and contradictions. It happened at the precise moment that my consciousness had registered what was going to happen. It was over in seconds, but seemed to take an hour. It was horrible. Interesting? No, just profoundly horrible. In a flash Spraggon had whipped out from behind the desk, discarding her combat trousers as she did so. Before I could react a hairy, muscular forearm was at my throat as she writhed behind me. “Now turn around..” I felt the hot, sticky breath on my neck, and, paralysed, had no choice but to obey. As I turned she removed my pants in what was obviously a well-practised manoeuvre, next thing her lips were clamped onto mine, and now the hot sticky breath seared my neck from the inside. Pulling away wasn’t an option, I could only wait for her to draw breath. Finally she did. “I could ruin you for real women!” Her voice was hoarse, and whilst one hand caressed my polished dome the other was… NO! PLEASE, NO!! By now the mouth was again locked into mine and its tongue was duplicating the actions of its third finger…. the final straw. In my desperation to extricate myself I fell backwards and the big lump was now on top of me, grunting, groaning, groping. “Gnnnnhh! Gnnnhh!” Now it was kneeling on my chest, aiming to expel the very life breath from me, as my compressed lungs struggled to take in air under the pulverizing load so it became impossible to exhale when its weight shifted forward and I was about to suffocate beneath the Sergeant’s sweating sickly dripping pudenda, drowning in a dank pool of oily tuna fish “GNNNNNNHHH!”

They say your life flashes before you in situations like these. I don’t recall that. But from whence I suddenly developed the prodigious strength to wrench a heaving mass more than double my weight from off my face and throw it halfway across the room, I’ll never know to this day. But it happened, and for no other reason than it had to happen. It must have been fight or flight, and I had fought. And won. With the Sergeant spreadeagled on the floor, shell shocked, I put back on my trousers and left without a word.

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