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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint




'You're a fool,' said the Corporal, viciously. 'Now then, what are you?'

Snaggletooth stood solid.

'Do as you're told. Say, "I'm a bloody fool, Corporal".' Hardy was screaming now, hopping up and down on his tiny feet. Snaggle remained stock-still, saying not a word, and Hardy had to retreat by telling off poor Lofty, who asks always for kicking and is such easy meat that it's like kicking a woman. He flops in the ranks like a spare part of the squad.

Corporal Hardy took over (assistant) supervisor of our flight yesterday, from splay-footed Corporal Jackson. He'll sleep in the hut, and look after us on square, for what should be alternating periods with our permanent sergeant. But Jenkins is yet ill, and we are driven from pillar to post. I regret Corporal Jackson, who in his few days shaped to dominate us only less than Abner, but very differently. Abner was strong and not human with us. Jackson could laugh and talk, while remaining a stranger and our boss. He had had nineteen years in the ranks, and was tolerantly awaiting the corporal's-pittance of a pension, which cheapens his required wages outside the force, and so makes job-finding easier.

Hardy we knew to be slack and dirty, and tyrannical by fits. On parade he will march us to the far end of the square, and stand us at ease for a lecture on the finer points of drill. The lecture is in his head, learned by rote, and we hear tags of it whenever Stiffy turns our way. 'When I sez "one" you tear them off your shoulders. No, no, not like that. Christ, man, if I was so big as you I'd eat my rifle: - eat it, an' shit a field gun.' For the rest it's dirty stories, which he tells us with a mirthless laugh. We must echo the lecherous noise (you can tell the smutty laugh a mile off) and mimic his lippy smile, or be bullied off our feet. Poor choices.

'Ten-a-penny N.C.O.s,' we call the corporals. They borrow half-dollars off us recruits: easily, for on fatigue-parades in the evening after instruction they select the men for the duties; and to be marked as disobliging is to sweat your guts out nightly on insensate labour. If only four of them are thus venal, the immunity of those few taints the rest. For our part we carefully humour everyone in authority: laugh at their jokes, jump to their orders. In return they moderate to us the upper tyranny - Stiffy's lightnings. That great figure ramps over the square like a man three-quarters through a boys' pack, showering out extra drills, and scaring every squad into dislocation.

His booked victims look crushed always; and are crushed, if they happen to be 'out' with their instructors. But your corporal debtor guards you from extra drill, however Stuffy may rave and sentence you, however often your name is shouted. Likewise for ready cash we may usually smile (discreetly) at the sergeants' threats to bash us. Only for this money system our life would be bad. Poulton, who's incorruptible, took James, a man half his weight, to the gym last night and battered him sore with the gloves. Then Poulton also knocks his wife about.

Today Stiffy ordered me a haircut. That meant clippers all over, and I fell in, hating myself, outside the orderly room at five-fifteen for punishment parade. But Sergeant Lawton jeered me away. 'Bugger off, lad. There's more fucking cheese on your knob than hair on your block. Drop your slacks and flash it.' I laughed, not very gladly.

My fairness is a misfortune. Stiffy hates white faces and fair heads: such fellows are always catching his eye, and then his anger: and he has not the self-control of a rutting camel. We recruits stand together in the ranks with whispered adjurations: and help swing the clumsy ones round in turns and wheels. Ex-army fellows like Snaggle and me are useful at this, for our book-knowledge tells us what's happening, and how: but when Stiffy breaks loose the rest can't pull me through. My calm goes, and the rifle quavers out of time in my grip.

After dusk tonight Flight-Sergeant Crowe came to the hut and asked me for Raleigh's History of the Air during the war. It's a popular book, and another fellow had borrowed it: so he was unlucky. He gazed at my shelf and wanted to know if I'd studied psychology: and what were the best books to help him write a paper on the psychology of an airman. Would Foyle's keep that sort? If he paid my fare would I run up on Saturday and buy them for him? He'd get me a pass to London.

Also why was I in the R.A.F.? I explained that I'd overdone the imaginative life, as expressed in study, and needed to lie fallow awhile in the open air. That meant earning a living by my hands, as I had no resources, and my scholarly hands weren't worth a meal at any trade. So I had enlisted. I spared him my urge downwards, in pursuit of the safety which can't fall further: and the necessary compulsion to re-learn poverty, which comes hard after some years of using money. I reckon I've got my wishes, so far as being bottom-dog and poor is concerned: but perhaps few doctors would have prescribed Hardy or Sergeant Poulton as a remedy for nerves.

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