Authors: Fiona Field
For being patient.
As her father’s car drew up in front of Old College, Sandhurst, Samantha Lewis felt a surge of fear, raw, primal fear, and for a moment she thought she might actually be sick, as the adrenalin squirted into her bloodstream. She swallowed, shut her eyes and breathed deeply. When she opened them again after a couple of seconds she glanced across at her father, who was staring back at her. As usual his face was expressionless; no reassuring wink, no flicker of understanding, just an emotionless stare.
It wasn’t unexpected, that was how he was and she was used to it now, and over the years she’d come to accept the reason why, but the lack of empathy and sympathy shown by her father stiffened Sam’s spine. Determination replaced the fear. She’d show him. She’d prove to him she could do this. She’d make it, she’d get through the next year and she hoped when he came to her commissioning ceremony he would be proud of her. Maybe, if she succeeded, she’d finally crack the shell he’d developed to protect himself but which had also kept her at arm’s length for twenty-two years.
A warrant officer in immaculate number two dress and Sam Browne approached the car. Her father, Colonel Tim Lewis, wound the window down and turned his attention to the sergeant major.
The senior NCO glanced into the car, past the driver to Sam and said to her father, ‘If you’d like to park your car over there, sir.’ He waved his pace stick at the end of a line of already neatly parked vehicles. ‘And then, if the young lady would like to proceed into the building, she’ll be given further instructions.’
‘Thank you,’ said her father. Then he said, over his shoulder, ‘Get that, Sam?’
Sam sighed. The instructions were hardly difficult. She’d passed the army officers’ selection board, she had a first-class degree in electrical engineering and her father still treated her as if she was at prep school.
Her father parked the car as directed and Sam got out.
‘I’ll wait for you here,’ said her father, leaning across to talk to her through the still-open door.
Sam smoothed down the skirt of her dark suit and took a deep breath.
‘Get on with it, girl. We haven’t got all day.’
Around them, other cars were also disgorging new cadets and Sam glanced at her fellow inmates and tried to size them up. They all looked bright and eager but Sam wondered if they were putting on as much of a front as she was, trying to convince themselves, as much as anyone else, that they weren’t actually bricking it about what the next weeks and months held for them. She slammed the passenger door and headed for the steps to the main door. A colour sergeant was directing the new arrivals into the building so they could register, find their accommodation and then start the process of unloading all the kit they would need to survive in this environment.
A female staff sergeant took Sam’s name and details, handed her a map of the building, marked in pencil, of how to get to the back of it, where her father would be able to park and they could start the process of unloading.
‘When you’ve finished, Miss Lewis, if you could ask your father to re-park his car back out at the front and then if you could all report to the Memorial Chapel at two o’clock sharp for the Commandant’s welcome.’ Again the map was marked in pencil to show Sam where she needed to be. She suspected that finding her way without asking for further directions was one of her first tests here.
Sam returned to her dad and told him where they needed to go.
‘I’m having flashbacks,’ he remarked as he slipped the car into gear. Well, bully for you, she thought, nerves making her grumpy.
He drove off the huge parade square at the front of the beautiful neo-classical building that was to be Sam’s home for the next year – assuming the army didn’t have other ideas and chuck her out. Not that being chucked out was an option. She knew she had to have the moral fibre and courage to take everything the army might throw at her and get on with it. She had to get through this course. It was only a year. Surely anything was bearable for a year? To fail was unthinkable. She knew if she did she’d disappoint her father and she couldn’t bear to give him more heartache.
While her relationship with her father might be troubled, she hadn’t lacked for affection from other sources. Her grandparents and the succession of three nannies who had looked after her had all told her she was loved and cherished even though her father had never managed it. Now Sam was an adult she understood why, but her earlier bewilderment had left its indelible mark. Back then she’d been sure that he blamed her for the tragedy that had struck his family. Maybe if she’d not been born first everything would have been all right. It was William, her twin, who had died at birth, along with their mother, when the emergency C-section had gone horribly wrong. Sam’s birth had gone well but then William had got stuck and when his heart rate had dipped alarmingly they’d been forced to operate and that was when the placenta had been severed. In the desperate chaotic minutes following this, the team hadn’t been able to save either her mother or her brother. When she’d been old enough her granny had told her what had happened and had assured her that it had been no one’s fault, least of all hers. A terrible accident, ‘one of those things’. But for years Sam had been sure she’d known differently – it was her fault. Her fault for being first.
Now she was older she understood that her father was probably terrified of going through the hurt of loving someone again in case they got ripped out of his life, like his wife and baby had been. Keep everyone at arm’s length, don’t get involved, that way you can’t be hurt again. No wonder her father hadn’t ever been able to love her properly, although for all his shortcomings as a parent she still loved him. And she hoped that maybe one day she’d make him so proud he
love her back.
Michelle Flowers’s father drew his car up on the parade square about ten minutes after the Lewises’ car had been driven off round the back of Old College.
Major Henry Flowers shook his head. ‘You know, I still can’t get my head round the fact that you passed selection.’
‘Get over it, Dad. The army sees my potential, that’s all.’
‘Hmm.’ Her father was far from convinced. ‘Mind you, it’s one thing, pulling the wool over their eyes at the selection board. It’ll be another thing entirely, convincing them for the best part of a year that you’ve got the makings of an officer.’
‘I’ve got everything they’re looking for,’ said Michelle confidently. ‘Brains, courage, spirit…’
Henry snorted. ‘I didn’t hear obedience in that list.’
‘That’s because I’ve got a mind of my own.’
Henry snorted again. ‘There’s a difference between being able to think independently and being wilfully rebellious.’
‘So I don’t behave like a sheep. Baa,’ she added, insolently. ‘I was only obeying orders? Yeah, right. Like those are words which have gone down well in history.’
Henry gave up arguing. ‘Still, it’s made you get rid of those awful dreadlocks and the nose stud so that’s something to be grateful for.’
‘Dad, a couple of piercings and a hairstyle don’t make you a dead loss to society.’
‘No, but a drug habit does. In my day, any hint of drugs or anything like that and the army wouldn’t have had anything to do with you.’
Michelle shook her head in disbelief at her father’s attitude. ‘They’re more enlightened now, as long as you’re clean when you join.’
‘And are you?’ her father shot at her.
‘Chill. Of course I am.’
Her father muttered something about she’d better be and Michelle got out of the car to collect her instructions about accommodation and what she needed to do, as Sam had done just before her.
Sam was on another trip to the car to ferry yet more belongings to her new room. She pulled the ironing board off the top of the pile, one of many items of ‘suggested’ kit on the list that had accompanied the letter formally requesting that she make arrangements to swear the oath of allegiance prior to her arrival at Sandhurst. Also included on the kit list had been shoe-polishing equipment, ten wooden hangers, black court shoes, spray starch, foot powder, padlocks, a steam iron, worn-in trainers, swimming costume, bedding, towels, toiletries, a smart suit, an alarm clock, plus a mass of personal documentation to prove she was who she claimed to be, including passport, birth certificate, P45, national insurance card and her educational certificates. It was like going back to boarding school, Sam had mused as she’d labelled everything and packed it in suitcases which were put in a pile in the hall together with the rest of her kit. Boarding school with guns…
‘Bloody hell!’ exclaimed her father as he turned into the bleak corridor that led to Sam’s room.
Sam jumped and assumed she’d done something wrong. But her father wasn’t looking at her. There, coming in the opposite direction, was an old friend of her father’s, a fellow army officer and the father of a girl she’d shared a room with at prep school.
Sam felt her eyes widen in stunned shock. So if Major Flowers was here that meant Michelle…
And there she was, behind him. OK, she was a lot older than when Sam had last seen her but she was still completely recognisable and still incredibly tall. Only now she wasn’t lanky but elegant and slender, like a gazelle. Sam propped her ironing board against a cream-painted wall and thundered down the corridor.
‘No running,’ bawled a stentorian voice behind her. But Sam had reached her goal and was hugging Michelle. And like their last hug, years previously, Sam still only came up to Michelle’s shoulders.
Both girls were laughing and staring at each other in amazement. And in her absolutely joy at seeing a familiar face, Sam forgot that being friends with Michelle hadn’t always been plain sailing.
‘I can’t believe it,’ said Sam. ‘This is such a surprise. I mean you. You of all people.’
‘I can’t say I’m so surprised about you, following in your father’s footsteps and everything.’