Someone has left behind the evidence. An empty packet of condoms and “the Hatchet” as Commander Buchanan is called, is not pleased. What sort of punishment should Olivia Fielding, who incidentally is a lady in her own right, her father being and Earl and all, receive for such outrageous behavior. As she stands there blubbering, “the Hatchet” looks on in disgust while she contemplates her options, including shaving off her hair, but will she go that far?
Olivia Fielding risked a glance to one side. Five young ladies stood to attention, each in her neat khaki uniform, the peaks of their caps and the points of their polished black shoes making two straight lines towards a blank magnolia-painted wall. Slightly to one side a window opened onto the straight paths and green-painted Nissan huts of Rushmoor Camp. The sky was clear, with a light breeze making the flag flutter and sending golden brown leaves tumbling along the ground. Olivia knew what had to be done, but found herself wishing that she was outside instead of lined up with her fellow ATS educational officers.
She didn’t feel like an officer, but very small and very guilty like a suspect; the others looked as if they felt the same.
Each girl, blonde or brunette, had her hair bound up into a tight bun beneath her service cap and her eyes fixed at a point in space just above the head of the single, very different woman who faced them. This was Senior Commander Buchanan, whose harsh features and elongated, bony body had earned her the nickname of “the Hatchet”. The name also suited her character, and her voice, which was both hard and sharp.
‘Your purpose in being here,’ she was saying, ‘is to make up for those regrettable shortcomings in basic education that are so common among our troops, notably those conscripted and now ready for demobilization. Reading, writing and arithmetic, Ladies, not going to the cinema, not visiting public houses and most definitely not this.’
She stopped abruptly, and as she did so she pushed at an object on her desk, not with her finger but with a pen. The object was a small, square box of thin cardboard, once red and white, now smeared with mud but not so dirty that Olivia was unable to read the legend printed in bold, flowing letters “Lucky Dips” and below that two words that explained Major Buchanan’s disgust, “Prophylactic Condoms”.
‘American,’ the Hatchet continued, as if that in itself were enough to condemn whoever had brought the packet onto the base. ‘An empty packet. Originally it contained three items, which would seem to imply that one of you, or just possibly more, has … eyes front, Subaltern Fielding!’
Olivia snapped back to full attention, the blood rushing to her face in a hot flush that spread slowly down to her chest and belly, leaving her stomach in a tight knot and her fingers trembling. There were rumours about Senior Commander Buchanan, nasty rumours. Two girls had been transferred abroad, suddenly and without explanation; both Chief Volunteers and both exceptionally pretty. Then there had been Susan Pirbright, a Volunteer from Cheltenham so shy she barely seemed able to lift her eyes from the ground, also very pretty, with exceptionally long legs and a bottom as round as a ball. Susan had been hauled up in front of the Senior Commander for no apparent reason, and she’d been very reluctant to make use of the bathhouse that evening too. But when ordered, in no uncertain terms, to get stripped off, she’d revealed rear cheeks with a distinctly pink flush. Later, Olivia had spoken to Susan.
‘… gross irresponsibility from persons who should be setting an example,’ the Hatchet was saying. ‘Whoever is responsible will therefore step forward, this moment.’
The knot in Olivia’s stomach tightened. Dizzy, her heart pounding and her cheeks burning, hardly knowing what she was doing, she took a step to the front. The girl to her left gave a faint gasp; maybe from shock but maybe from amusement. Then there was silence. Olivia stood stock still, her gaze fixed firmly to the front, but already hazy with the tears gathering in her eyes. She knew what the other girls were thinking, their disbelief compounded with disgust, but perhaps there was also a little envy and certainly a secret delight in Olivia’s downfall. Not that it mattered. What mattered was the reaction of Senior Commander Buchanan, who made no effort to conceal the doubt in her voice as she went on.
‘You, Subaltern Fielding?’
Olivia managed to speak. ‘Yes, ma’am.’
The sound of her own voice, so weak, so pathetic, released the first of the heavy tears that had been building in the corners of her eyes. She blinked, desperate to conceal the fact that she was crying. But it did no good, merely nudging a second tear free so that two moist streaks decorated her cheeks as the sharp voice continued.
‘I am astonished. Very well, the rest of you may leave.’
The other girls filed out. Olivia stood rigidly to attention, trying desperately not to snivel, but the tears now rolled freely down her cheeks. Even as the door closed behind the last of the girls, Senior Commander Buchanan began to speak once more. ‘Yes, I am astonished. In fact, amazed might be the more suitable word. And yet they do say it’s often the quiet ones. So, what is to be done with you?’
She stopped, her hand moving to the point of her chin as she regarded Olivia, who had given up trying not to cry. Her make-up now ran in black lines down her face, and her nose wrinkled as she struggled to avoid adding the shame of a snotty nose to her already agonised feelings. It was getting hard to breathe as well, her chest heaving and her uniform suddenly tight across her breasts, while for some hideously embarrassing reason her nipples had begun to grow stiff. The Hatchet sat back, making a steeple of her fingers as she carried on.