Another favourite passage: The Account of ‘Captain Grief’ II

And here to continue the tale of “Captain Grief”, in George MacDonald Fraser’s unforgettable prose. And I shall be doing be him a grave disservice if I let my own inadequate words stand in the word of his own explanation…. So here goes:

~~~~ Civilian readers may think my description of him, especially his conversation, exaggerated. It is not, and any old soldier will bear me out, for he was a prime specimen of a type in which the British Army has always been rich – I’ve no doubt he was at Hastings, and will be there, eccentric as ever, when Gabriel sounds the last rally: a genuine, guaranteed, paid-up head-case. Which is not to say that he was mad, just that he behaved as though he was. You have heard of them: when touched by genius they become Chinese Gordon or Lord Cochrane or, in the last war, Wingate, that gifted guerrilla who revived the military beard, carried an alarm clock to remind everyone what time it was, scrubbed himself with a toothbrush, quoted Holy Writ, and was an authority on Donald Duck – or so I have been reliably informed. Splendid men, especially to keep away from.

Captain Grief may have been less gifted, but he had all the Deolali hallmarks. He was driven apparently by some high-octane spirit, full of restless energy and strange cries like: “Bags o’panic!” and “Bash on regardless!” and even “Aha, Ermintrude, at last we meet – over the bridge you go!”, uttered with a glittering eye as he paced up and down, clapping his hands. He was tall, rangy, lantern-jawed, and eager as an unleashed hound. His dress consisted of an old tweed fishing cap, a dilapidated bush shirt, corduroy trousers, and brothel-creeper boots, and my heart sank at the sight of him, for I could read the signs: this was one who would probably want the Piat mounted on a jeep, with me manning it in the passenger seat and himself at the wheel, roaring with laughter at top speed and changing gears with his foot.

To be fair, he did have tranquil moments, in which he sat brooding, sighing frequently and talking to himself. But he was in full cry when we drew up his basha.

“Come on, come on, come on!” he shouted, rubbing his hands and beaming. “Lets get weaving! Is this the old iskermoffit? Lets have a dekko!” Before I could get out he was ferreting in the back for the Piat. “Stone me! Who’s been robbing the Titanic’s engine room? Got bags of ammo for it, have you, corporal? Bang on, good show! All right, stand at ease, stand easy, come in, have a pew, let’s get to it! Tea, Sarn’t Jones! Tea and your most welcoming smile for our friend here, Lance-Corporal Whatsit – you don’t mind if I call you Whatsit? It was my mother’s name.” He threw himself into a canvas chair, put his dreadful boots on the rickety table, and beamed at me.  “So that thing’s a tank-buster, is it? Right, put me in the picture! Take a refreshing sip, and shoot!”

I did, and he hung on every word, interrupting only occasionally with exclamations like “Spot on!” and “Just the old boot!” Then I lay on the floor and cocked it, showed him how the trigger worked, and demonstrated the sight, and he promptly tried for himself, recocking it with one swift jerk and whipping it into a firing position in almost the same movement. I impressed on him that the bombs were sensitive, and he cried: “Piece o’cake!”, untwirled the cap, and regarded the gleaming copper nose as though it were a rare gem.

“Bloody marvellous! Look at this, Jones – breathe on it and reach for your harp! Right, corporal, let’s recap – this little isker pierces the target and all the good news rushes through, causing alarm and despondency to those on the other side? Great – woomf!” He flourished the bomb spear fashion, while I made mewing noises and Jones, a stout little Welshman, watched resignedly.

“Not to panic, people! Everything’s under control! We replace the little dinky cap, so – gad, the skill in these two hands! Take it and press it between the leaves of your diary.” He handed me the bomb. “What’s the effective range?”

“I’m not sure, sir. A hundred yards, thereabouts.”

To be continued…..


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