It was like the first day in the car park again. All these bodies with strange faces were there. It was because all the sick, lame, and lazy had turned up. The ones who did selection in installments at a much slower pace. “TA are here,” I said to my mate.
“Ain’t they just,” was his unimpressed reply. The staff dealt with the TA first, which actually afforded me the extra time I needed to get my boots on properly, but the days of doing ’em up were long past. I watched these TA guys in their brand new kit, all clean and polished; they knew we were looking at them but they never looked back. I had made my mind up that not one of these toilets was going to get to the other end before me, even if you gave them each half a day’s head start. It would haunt me for the rest of my life if one did. The deal is, to pass as a regular, you need to be doing about six to seven kilometers per hour with all of your kit. The STABS could afford to go at three kilometers per hour, stop for breakfast, lunch, tea, and have afternoon snacks if required. In my mind, it was farcical. At that speed, a teenager of average fitness could complete the test.
On the truck, no sooner had I lit up my cigarette when one of these additions complained. I just ignored him. His mate nudged him. He got the message and realised he was on the truck with guys who had been doing this for four weeks instead of a day. It was still dark, and the whine of the truck as it went round the muddy Welsh lanes was unrelenting. I knew we didn’t have far to go. I had an extra cigarette just to piss my new mate off. Daz knew what I had done and was quietly laughing to himself about it. We had known each other for years.
I could hear truck tailgates being dropped before we even got there—another sign the TA were in town. If you dropped one noisily before, you got a bollocking. These new geezers didn’t give a shit about that; this was their big day on the hills with the men. It was all about looking good.
We were all in our groups, waiting to go. Usually it was a fairly simple affair, but today, maps were being unfolded like quilts and torches were shining in people’s faces. I couldn’t wait to get going and get away from this circus. There was a stream of orange marker panels going up the first ridge line at a snail’s pace. I was getting cold, but it was pointless to put whinge kit on. I was gonna come out of my trap like a train, and I would not be stopping to take kit off. I managed another cheeky smoke. It was frowned upon, but all the truck drivers were smoking, so I kept the hot coal hidden and got away with it on the strength of the driver’s smoke.
The last of the orange snails was limping up the hill, and the regulars were being released. I was right near the end. Finally, the DS confirmed I had the right grid and bearing, then I was off. The first leg was about four kilometers long, all uphill and covered in people. I didn’t need my map or compass, I just needed to get my head down and tab like a monster. I was striding out like a man just out of jail. Although it was quite steep, I was already shifting. The last orange snail had gone over the brow. I knew it would not be long before I caught one, though they had about two hours on me. Sure enough, I went past the first one who, incredibly, had stopped for a brew within three klicks. I went past him and thought he must have already given up. I pushed on. I could see loads of snails just waiting to be passed. It was keeping me going. I knew if I got a good eight hours under my belt, the second half of the day would be easier. There’s absolutely no point in thinking you can make the time up later. You won’t.
The trick for me was to just keep smashing it out. It was getting quite light, and my eye was straining; the injured retina was not adjusting properly, so it was like having a bright torch shining in it. Well, at least it’s distracting me from my smashed-up feet, I thought to myself. There was no point whatsoever in stopping other than to check navigation or at checkpoints to speak to the DS. If my body got wind there was a rest to be had, it might have wrapped altogether. As I went past snail after snail, I could think of nothing I would like more than to sit down and have a chit chat and socialize like them. But they weren’t going to become badged members of the world’s elite, so dream on, I told myself. On Monday, those clowns would be back stacking shelves or at whatever honking job they did for a living.
As midday approached, the snails were few and far between—wasted by the hills and their awe-inspiring three-kilometer-per-hour pace, I chuckled to myself. I know it’s not right to take so much pleasure from others’ misfortune, but it honestly helped in this scenario. You have to take every last thing you can and turn it in your favour when the chips are down. I learned that as a kid in the council estate children’s homes I’d been in. In my own mind, I was now around the halfway point, but I still could not bring myself to ease up. If I was way out, it would possibly break me later. Throughout the entirety of the hills part of selection, the objective is to get to the next checkpoint to find out where the next one is. That is all.
As a general rule, you don’t talk to others on the way ’round. You certainly don’t take advice or help unless you have given up or are about to pile in. But as it got dark, I was walking the same route at about the same speed as others. In that case, the odd acknowledgement was acceptable—if you couldn’t map-read by now, you would never have made it here. I was approaching the reservoir at about 2000. I’d been going for about 14 hours. I had one cigarette left that I had promised myself I’d get at the end. Sod the end, I thought. I needed a morale injection now.
I cut out of sight, knelt down, and lit the thing. It made me go a bit dizzy. I could see lights in the distance and guessed it was a checkpoint. Because of the water in between me and the lights, I could not properly tell how far it was away, but I knew it was in the area of my checkpoint. I must have drawn that whole cig down in two puffs. I got to my feet, started to tab, and my pace increased. I tabbed towards the lights for what seemed an age. I could hear trucks maneuvering. The thoughts of the end were creeping in, but I kept telling myself, “not yet.” It could be the mother of all sickeners.
Nearly on my 18-hour point, I was approaching the checkpoint. Sure enough, there was lorries parked up, but I couldn’t see anyone on them. The DS was just sitting in a small bivi with a tiny light shining from his head torch. As I approached him he said, “Name,” to which I replied, “Campion.”
“Do you know where you are?” he asked.
“Yes, Staff. Grid 435 573.” I wasn’t wrong. I wanted him to say, “Get on the truck,” but instead he said, “Come and get your next grid.” I wanted to say “No, no, no you’re wrong, this is the end!” but I ignored my emotion and said, “Cheers, Staff.” I plotted the grid.
When I was done, I showed him and off I went again. I was gutted. I felt like an empty windsock. The bearing I was now on was taking me straight up a bloody great hill. I got about 200 meters up when a figure stood up. It was a DS, instantly recognisable by his jungle combats.
“Get on the truck,” he said.
“But Staff,” I complained, “I’m fine. There is nothing wrong.”
“I know,” he said. “That’s it. You’re done.” Again I expressed how I was good to go and was not even tired. It then hit me that this genuinely was the end. I’d made it.
I walked around the four-tonne lorry. The driver was in his cab.
“Want a Mars bar, mate?” he asked.
“I could eat a dead dog between two pissed mattresses,” I said. “Thanks very much.”
He leaned out and passed me the chocolate. It was all I could do to catch it. I lumped off around the back of the lorry, limping and hobbling. I must have looked a sight. I managed to get my Bergan off, straight onto the back of the lorry. There was nobody there. I must have just missed a load, I thought. Hence the easy sickener from the DS. The driver heard me trying to climb up. I made it just as he came into view.
As I pushed my Bergan to the back of the truck where I planned to get my doss bag out, he said the magic words.
“Fancy a smoke, mate?”
Music to my ears. I jumped back down off the truck, resurrected like a footballer who goes down just to get up fine two seconds later. “Don’t mind if I do,” I said. “Thanks.”
“You must be a regular,” he said. “You won’t see the TA ’round here for a few hours yet.”
Thank God for that, I thought. I laughed and lit up the cigarette. “Nope. I ain’t seen one for miles. They’re rarer than rocking horse shit, now.”
I jumped back on the truck after a bit of banta with the driver, who happened to know a few old mates of mine. The Army is a small world, and you usually know someone who knows someone if you chat to another guy for long enough. Slowly but surely, the truck filled up with similar figures, limping and hobbling like myself. The drive back could have been 1000 miles for all I knew, because I was asleep like a baby. When we got to the camp, I could hardly move. Remembering I had left some cigarettes in my locker had me reaching ramming speed as I walked up the hill to my basha.
Daz was already there. “What kept ya?” he said, laughing.
“Your mum,” I replied, laughing even more. The hills were over, and pass or fail, there was nothing to be done now. The Grim Reaper would grab you out of the basha overnight if you’d failed. So it was a case of get fed, get a brew, smoke a last cig, and get ya nappa down. If you’re still there in the morning, you’ll be driving to Hereford for the next phase. Or if you’re TA, you’ll go back to your honking civvy day job.
The next morning I woke to the sound of people rushing around to get beds stripped and kit handed in. I realised the Grim Reaper had not come in my sleep, so I had passed. There was no ceremony for the regular lads. This was only the very beginning of what was to come. The plan was now to drive up to Hereford, claim my new bed space, and then have a weekend off. On the following Monday, I would be back and on parade for a couple of weeks of training before deploying to Brunei. To me, the jungle was what selection was about. I could not wait to go.
That was “man town.” That’s where the men would be separated from the boys. The hills was a means to an end. A painful means to an end, but nonetheless, just there to say I had enough endurance to get around the trees. There was a feeling of excitement because, for the next two weeks, unless you had a total balls-up, you were not going anywhere until the plane left for the Far East.
As we pulled up at the gates at Hereford and signed in, I could have put my bed in a skip. I didn’t care. I was still on the course and my dream was still alive.
(Featured image courtesy of seeker401.wordpress.com)