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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint


 

25:  HUMBUGGING ABOUT

Yesterday, it was, that we moved huts, from Two into Four. Last night, as the survivors of Two sat together, there hung over us a sense of regret, of loss, of being lost. We had been so obedient to Corporal Abner that we had forgotten the habit of decision. No other corporal has been assigned us, and we feel neglected at not being overseen. It will be curious if service experience takes altogether away our power of free navigation. Very curious in my case, after the wilful life in which I seemed so set. Now my will has apparently turned against itself: despite outside discouragement. The trouble I had to get into the Air Force at all! Surely for less work I could have had my seat in the Cabinet!

In the morning when we woke up it was as if we had never been in any other place. Yet the need of a master cried aloud in us: so we fell ourselves properly in, under Sailor, to manage P.T. and breakfast in the way of uniformity. We are now hardened to P.T. and avoid its acerbities. The younger irks can laugh and play among the half-made beds, when they come off it: but I am distressed till the afternoon. Of course it is partly mental, this distress. I have wished myself to know that any deliberate exercise or display of the body is a prostitution; our created shapes being only our accidents until by taking pleasure or pains in them we make them our fault. Therefore the having to be attentive to my arms and legs is the bitterest part of the bill I pay for this privilege of enlistment.

My determined endeavour is to scrape through with it, into the well-paid peace of my trade as photographer to some squadron. To that I look forward as profession and livelihood for many years: - for good, I hope, since the stresses of my past existence give me warrant, surely, for thinking that my course will not be too long. How welcome is death, someone said, to them that have nothing to do but to die.1

Meanwhile there is this training to be gone through, desperately, with my refuge at stake. Half a dozen times I have nearly cracked: but not very lately. Every week things seem easier. I can eat the food now - provided I miss a meal a day: it's a prize-fighter diet they give us. If only I could sleep solidly! but desert experience taught me to hover through the nights in a transparent doze, listening for the threat of any least sound or movement: and in a hut of fifty strong fellows there is not one minute of night-silence.

We worked today on the new sports' stadium. Carpenters had put a three-barred pale round it, and our job was to spike this over with corrugated iron sheets, to shut the running track off from camp view. The work was heavy for a party of three, but when done was at least something tangible. Five years later I was warmed by the sight of it yet standing firm. Also on such a day as this it was good to be in the open air.

Our taskmaster was a little corporal, who had just slipped out of a charge of theft. He had been bringing back the body of a recruit from the railway line behind the camp: and something which had been in the dead lad's pocket was found in the wrong place. However the evidence was not sufficient: though we, who had known poor Benson before he killed himself (young fellows, shyly bred, were too often overwhelmed when they tried to breast the whole wave of life at once), knew, perhaps, more than the officers wished to know.

Corporal Hardy lay on his back in the grass behind the fence, and lazed in the sun's warmth, watching through his narrowed eyelids how we worked. We gave him warning if anyone serious loomed up. Whenever one of the metal sheets slipped from the fingers of the holding man, we wished for the Corporal's help: but nothing doing. This, he said, was his holiday: before he took charge of our hut. Well, he has been nearly scalded; so perhaps he will be easy.

We worked for days on this fence. The Second Sergeant Major said we seemed to have the hang of it and might continue. It felt always like fine weather, and the scent of deep, brown grass, and the feel of sun-warmed iron are not my least memories of the Depot. We were now careless of the delay. It had a term. We were squadded men, just waiting for their instructor to come back off leave, and we might as well do this as nothing, or something worse. The knowing beforehand what was our work on the morrow made the lying down at night and the rising up at dawn assured and pleasing.


1 Alas: in March 1935 my engagement ran out. J.H.R.




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