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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint




Again, after breakfast, the chief instructor delivered us over to Sergeant Poulton, whom already we had found our worst tormentor. Day-long my eyes had apprehensively watched him pick on first one and then another of the flight, playing with them for an hour, twisting the point of his contempt slowly into their tendernesses. This morning I developed a hollow sense that my turn was due. Each time I looked up, some part of me seemed the target of his hot gaze. Hot eyes he had and a biting trick. Sometimes his knuckles, sometimes his nails. If not, it would be the little crescents of transparent skin alongside the finger nails. These he would chew savagely, his hatchet face screwed up in rage against his fingers.

He did not actually start on me till after his practical demonstration, when it was time for questions. Then he made a fool of me, as is too easy for an instructor with a stammering recruit. Some sense of discipline ties me, tongue-ties me. He drenched my eventual dumbness with all the foul and hurtful names in his mouth: but they seemed not to soak through to the quick of my notice. I hung there more curiously miserable than indignant.

Dickson from the rear rank counselled me in an urgent whisper: 'Answer him back, Cough-drop, answer him. He sees you stuck there like a cunt, shitting yourself, and that makes him go on. Blind him with science same's you do us in the hut'... where among my peers I hold my own in verbal rallies. But when I am standing to attention this obscure respect for duty intervenes. I fear the sight of me miserably squirming to dodge the goad does inflame Sergeant Poulton. 'Look at me!' he yells: but I can't. If I am angry, I can outface a man; but when this hyaena curses me I sicken with shame wondering if my authority, in the past, so deflowered myself and those under me. 'Look at me, look me in the face, you short-arsed little fuck-pig,' he is yelling again. If I meet his eyes for more than a moment, my sight reels giddily outward, and my focus loses itself in a guttering rim of tears. But for that my body's swaying would throw me down. 'Well, I'm fucked, the ignorant queenie' (of our adjectives, printable or unprintable, 'ignorant' is gauged the hurtfullest). 'Funk's looking at me, an' thinks his equipment's right. Blood like fucking gnat's piss.'

It may be an infirmity of my eyes, that they cannot be intensely concentrated for more than a moment. Yet my other senses share their fate. Take hearing. Out of most concerts I get one or two or three exquisite moments when myself goes suddenly empty, the entire consciousness taking flight into space upon these vibrations of perfect sound. Each time lasts an instant only: more, and I should die, for it holds still my breath and blood and vital fluid. Just so the ecstasy of a poem lies in the few words here and there - an affair of seconds.

Sound momentary: sight momentary: smell? Why, a minute after our personality returns home from an absence, we do not even smell ourselves. Touch? I do not know. I fear and shun touch most, of my senses. At Oxford the select preacher, one evening service, speaking of venery, said, 'And let me implore you, my young friends, not to imperil your immortal souls upon a pleasure which, so I am credibly informed, lasts less than one and three-quarter minutes.' Of direct experience I cannot speak, never having been tempted so to peril my mortal soul: and six out of ten enlisted fellows share my ignorance, despite their flaming talk. Shyness and a wish to be clean have imposed chastity on so many of the younger airmen, whose life spends itself and is spent in the enforced celibacy of their blankets' harsh embrace. But if the perfect partnership, indulgence with a living body, is as brief as the solitary act, then the climax is indeed no more than a convulsion, a razor-edge of time, which palls so on return that the temptation flickers out into the indifference of tired disgust once a blue moon, when nature compels it.

By general rumour troops are accused of common lechery and much licence. But troops are you and me, in uniform. Some make a boast of vice, to cover innocence. It has a doggy sound. Whereas in truth, with one and another, games and work and hard living so nearly exhaust the body that few temptations remain to be conquered. Report accuses us of sodomy, too: and anyone listening in to a hut of airmen would think it a den of infamy. Yet we are too intimate, and too bodily soiled, to attract one another. In camps all things, even if not public, are publicly known: and in the four large camps of my sojourning there have been five fellows actively beastly. Doubtless their natures tempted others: but they fight its expression as the normal airman fights his desire for women, out of care for physical fitness.

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