Chapter 33 - Fourteen and off to India
It would be Matthew’s fourteenth birthday in a week. It would be a good day, the day when he would leave the orphanage. They had been kind to him and the strictness was only what would be expected of having a hundred tear-a-ways around the place. He had never been hungry and had opportunities that most boys his age hadn’t. Being in the orphanage band for one and the mastery of several instruments.
The orphanage, being his guardian, had arranged for him to be taken into the local line regiment. This was the expected for boys coming from the orphanage, so on the appointed day Matthew would rise and make down his bed. Fold the sheets and the blanket and roll up the Mattress. This was not hard; the Mattress was thin and contained no springs which would prevent this and reveal the iron-grey bedstead. He would march down with the other boys and return this and the other possessions they were not allowed to take back to the quartermaster. Then tidy away his few possessions into a small duffle bag the type that sailors carry, the boys were allowed to keep this on leaving the orphanage.
He had also been given a number of new items of clothes to take with him, to say that the clothes were new may be an exaggeration. At least they were new to Matthew and that day, he and two other boys were taken to the stores, issued with those items of clothing which would be theirs’s to take away when they left the orphanage. They as in all things naval had to be marched down to the orphanage store. No teacher or instructor was required to march them there, that is how all boys conducted themselves. When there was more than one boy they would form themselves into two’s or a squad and it was the senior boy’s responsibility to ensure that that they all arrived on time and that there should be no larking around. On arriving at the quartermaster’s store or chandler’s as some called it, the senior boy went in and stood in front of the counter.
The quartermasters had a great rough wood counter worn smooth over time, running near enough the width of the building. This was especially useful, when many of the boys were being issued with several items such as sou-wester’s or cork life preservers. This allowed the quartermaster and his assistants, usually two of the boys, to group and issue these things like a huge conveyor belt. The shelves ran from the front to the back of the room and contained everything from bedding to clothing and every other item from use on water to land that the boys might need. The only items missing from here were those which belonged to the master cook.
‘Three cadets requested to report for transfer clothing Sir.’
The quartermaster looked up his eye caught on Matt, ‘Burns A are we to lose the pleasure of your company?’
‘Aye sir,’ came the usual prompt response.
The Quartermaster issued to Matt several items of clothing that he would require: A pair of boots, a cheap suit of heavy but durable wool, two rough cotton shirts, “one on... And one in the wash,” as the Quartermaster was fond of saying, several pair of socks, underwear and of course a cloth cap to put a lid on the whole ensemble. There were a few other items, such as a jumper and a thick reefer type working coat in dark blue, the type you might see sailors wearing. This coat was at least two sizes two big and hung on Matt’s thin frame, the sleeves hanging over his hands. The Quartermaster lifted the hinged area of the counter and came out to start looking at Matt.
‘Do up the coat lad, let’s see how it fits.’
The coat was promptly done up, Matt knew that the coat was large, but looked at Mr Wigg for approval. Mr Wigg took several looks from many different angles, but no Matter how he lent back or went to a side view and then instructed the coat wearer to, “turn round lad” a pause then would follow “and again”.
They were now facing each other again, Mr Wigg still looking concerned took a pace closer to Matt so that they were in touching distance, he grabbed the front of the coat where it was buttoned and gave the coat and its inhabitant a push and a pull and another push, Matt was now firmly in the back of the coat Mr Wig’s hand was holding the front of the coat in between was the area of coat which was too large, ‘well, It’s a bit big, we could probably fit your brother in here as well, we’ll try it on again when you’ve tried the suit.’
With this Matt took off the coat and placed it on the counter, he took off his boots and uniform and stripped down to his underwear. There were no fitting rooms or chairs, so being young and supple he stood up and raised his leg to undo and take off a boot at a time; being as skinny as he was, he resembled a stork. He was not bashful, having lived in a dormitory with so many other boys. There was nothing to worry about, in fact one or two of the newer boys who had been slightly prudish at first when they had been playing football and had seen the communal bathing arrangements had held back, the officer taking them for football had shouted at them “we’re all the same here, nobody’s got anything different from you, so hurry up, there’ll be no ladies coming in”. This type of coaxing usually encouraged the boys by the embarrassment it caused.
Mr Wigg took his pipe out, from his pocket while he was waiting for Matt to dress. Opening the door he stepped outside, using his thumb to feel inside the bowl of the pipe, it was still half full, he took a box of swans from his other pocket and struck one against the side of the box. He sucked on the pipe briefly until he was sure it had ignited sufficiently, then taking the match from the bowl of the pipe he blew out the match with the smoke he had just inhaled. He stood for a moment looking around and then proceeded back inside to see how his charge was faring.
Matt had hurried to dress there was quite a draught coming through the door, and he had shivered when it was first opened. He remembered what his grandma had said to him when he was younger and he had shivered when he was cold. “That’s because you’ve got no fat on yer bones, now look at me I’m not shivering” indeed she did not, she had a most ample covering on her bones. He smiled inwardly to himself as he remembered, it was strange that these small glimmers of times past made him feel happy and nostalgic, and strangely warm!
He could now smell the aroma of the pipe tobacco, it was the same smell as the one his grandfather used, some pipe tobacco smelt like old laundry, but this one had the fragrance of perfume, it filled his nostrils, he enjoyed the smell.
‘Well, that doesn’t look half bad, it’s just about right, turn round lad.’
As before they went through the same routine Mr Wigg would pull and push and tug at the arms.
‘Well, it needs the trousers talking up an inch and, a good belt will take the slack out of the waist.’ He stood back and looked at Matt.
‘Aye, you’re going to have to fight the girls off when you leave here.’ He winked at Matt, who smiled sheepishly back, as fourteen your olds do, when an adult talks about girls.
‘Now get back in your uniform and go to the office, they’ll arrange for you to go over to the girl’s orphanage and get the suit and coat altered.’
The girls orphanage was a few hundred yards away, though for the strict rules which were imposed on keeping the orphanages separate, it might as well have been on another continent. Matt had been there a couple of times before; once was to help distemper some walls and the other was to have his uniform altered.
The girls were being prepared for service and were also trained as seamstresses and performed any tasks of this nature required by them. Where the boys had no formal ways of obtaining an income for the orphanage, the girls were always fully employed in repair nd laundry work at a cost for town institutions. He now redressed in his uniform, Mr Wigg talked to him as he dressed and bundled up his new clothes.
‘Have they told you which day exactly you will be going’ enquired Mr Wigg.
‘A week today sir.’
‘A week today son,’ he repeated drawing on his pipe. He looked deep in thought as he did it, and Matt waited, performing his impression of a stork again by tying his boot laces.
‘And your brother, he’s of a similar age, is he going out with you?’
‘He’ll follow in nine months sir.’
Another inhalation of the pipe was required, the thoughts again welled themselves up within Mr Wigg, and finally the furrows on his brow rescinded as he spoke.
‘It’ll be a blow for Mr Gregson and the band, he speaks highly of you both and I know he would like you to be able to keep up with your music once you leave.’
‘I’d like to do that Sir, Mr Gregson told me that I am going to be a drummer boy until I’m sixteen. Then I should ask to join the band, rather than be a soldier… He said, that if I become a bandsman, I’ll be trained as a stretcher bearer and wouldn’t have to go round shooting people.’
Another pause followed as the pipe was once again used as a mechanism by which to mull these comments over for a few seconds, before a measured reply could be given.
‘I think Mr Gregson has given you some very sound advice, and it will serve you well in the future to remember his words. You’ll be a man soon and we all hope here that while you boys are here, we can start you off on the right road.’ It was the longest that they had talked, and it was sound advice.
‘I certainly will sir’
‘Good, now you best get up to the office and arrange to get your new clothes altered.’
‘Thank you, Sir.’
Mr Wigg nodded his head in recognition and Matt placed the rolled-up clothing under his arm and left on his way to the admin office. An office which always brought back mixed memories. Whenever he went into this office, he always cast a glance into the small office where his mother had told him and his brother about his father’s death. Yes, he had memories both good and bad about this place. He wished to forget neither, but it was right that he moved on with his life.