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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART II


 

5:  MY HOURS

The Depot for me remains a moon-haunted memory: for the moon-rays break into our glass box of a hut night after night through some one of the four window-ranks and possess its air. It is marvellous to walk directly from the fug of man into chilly open silence: especially on nights rich with cloud, when the moon, very high, shines down through a casement of this sky-drapery, narrowing its light to just my part of the earth, as it were a room.

However tired the work has left me, I cannot sleep a whole night away: not once since my enlistment. The dark hours march by me, and I lie half-indifferent to them, not particularly wanting to sleep, but still less wanting to think consecutively, or attend to the hut-sounds: for our hut persists in being a main intruder upon what should be mental peace. After midnight my head jars at every vibration across the still air: - fellows dream vocally of girls, muttering their pet names aloud: or shortly moan, 'Don't, don't' (the day-long complainant grumble of the service man is his night-habit too: mutely he begs always for pity, having no self-defence). They sigh and fart, amid the piano janglings of their wire beds - and reveille shatters the end of the night like a last exasperation, just when I have sunk into the custom of lying still. I think I've heard every reveille since that first day in camp.

So the appellant moon easily conjures me outside, into its view. Dressing is the affair of a moment: gym shoes and trousers, with my shirt already on. Sharply the keen air refreshes the stubbled roundness of my head. If only the powers would realise how they dull their men's sensitiveness of reception, by having our hair clipped too short for the wind to play with. I slouch meditatively, my head ever forward, eyes on the ground, to give my negligent feet unconscious warning of obstacles. Wits inwardly turned cannot watch a man's path.

Once after two in the morning the guard-reliefs picked me up. Their corporal half-shouted at me: and my spring of fright, when he too-suddenly broke into my notice, shook him to rueful laughter. 'Can't you sleep, boy?' he asked. I replied that I was walking just for fun. 'Well, go to bed: I wish I fucking well could.' The rough kindness of his tone was as simple and direct as the night air. Poor people achieve this intimate contact in voice more easily than the compartmented rich.

I wandered the other way, to avoid his further kindness, and fetched up at the laundry gate. Its solitary sentry concluded I had toothache. When I said not, his imagination leaped to the other physical cause. It was Thursday: I was broke and hungry. He pulled me two pennies from his pocket, and forced them against my reluctance. 'Get yourself a cha,' he insisted gently, and opened his gate for me to reach the coffee-stall at the cross-roads. 'Go on, mate: it's jonnuk. I'm on till four, and will let you in. Bloody binding to fuck round this cunting fence all night.'

Another time the sergeant of the guard sent his runner to collect me, and asked if I knew that night-walking was forbidden. I said I understood not, on the roads. He shifted ground. It was uncommon. I admitted, dryly, that I'd noticed few doing it tonight. He smiled, and more dryly still begged me not to walk up and down too near the sentries, as my foot-falls kept them awake! At the first greyness in the sky, or just before, I'd return to the hut. When I edged the creaking door open, inch by inch, the slow warm breathing of the fellows would pulse out to my ears, as though a huge beast were stabled there in the blackness.




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