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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART II


 

16:  OFFENSIVE

Trouble on the running track after dinner. We pay. An outside trainer had been brought in by the Commandant to train our flight for a walking relay-race of five laps: and Sergeant Cunninghame, the good little P.T. chief, had not known he was coming. They clashed and had a public row. It was referred to the officer in charge of physical training and Cunninghame lost. So after we had been walked nearly blind of both eyes he insisted on finishing our period of P.T., to vent his rage on us.

He doubled round and round the triangle, himself leading us at his sharpest pace: and he had not been walking laps. Then he dizzied us by volleys of starts, tumbling over immediate halts. This is like sawing at a brute's mouth. We were soon staggering, unable to heed his shrillest curses.

By tea-time the others were apparently recovered: but I was sick while I dressed for the sixth defaulters' drill, and sick again (tearingly on my empty stomach) when I came off it. Sergeant Walter had given us a horrible chasing, which made my next-rank man's nose bleed: but I seem to have grown callous to everybody's pains. Now it's ten at night and I'm too fagged to undress: the first night I sleep in my clothes, here. And in these overalls of all things. Cunninghame threatened, last thing, to crease us tomorrow. If he does that'll be my Waterloo, I think. Exactly five years since I felt as broke as this. I was a fool to try and be a man again.

Next day . Sergeant Cunninghame was absent: gone on weekend, they say: leaving Corporal Hemmings orders to do us in. Anyway Hemmings took us away from the gym to the thick grass behind the canteen and there kept us running and arms-and-legs-out-jumping, turning, and on the hands down for an hour and a quarter without break. Not one of his efforts tried to be a P.T. exercise: just 'mucking about,' inflicted maliciously in his meanest style. Only he does not know how to hurt a man. We responded in kind, swinging the lead so cunningly that the long spell took little out of us. In my own case I didn't even sweat much: whereas the regulation daily dose, conscientiously done, makes of me a most insanitary mess till my cold shower before bed.

Hemmings lost his temper as we laughed and leaped provocatively through the grass. The afternoon became a duel with him always attacking and us riposting by the pretence of enjoyment. No man could make fifty horses drink: so we won easily: and rubbed in our victory by swaggering over the parade-ground twenty minutes late for Stiffy's ceremonial. Stiffy had been ramping up and down (we are leading squad), sending messengers who vainly searched the gym for signs of us. Our corporal was nearly struck by lightning when we did appear; but he threw the blame in time on Corporal Hemmings who was sent for at the double and blasted hip and thigh before everybody, for exceeding his duty. Stiffy couldn't know that he was trying to break us, by order.

Bad work, this scoring off. All the flights are talking of it tonight and the publicity compels our hut to go through with it, shirking and hitting back. It's the first parade we have shamefully scrounged but the circumstances of our wrong-doing make us cheerful sinners. Yet, none the less, it's an evil and competitive jubilation which may easily turn septic unless we are more moderate in victory than these fools of P.T. instructors who've thrown down the open gage.

Sailor was a little aerated this Friday night. He came in from the wet bar and summoned the huge Cook to court-martial for sodomy. 'He threw, Sir, a half-crown on the floor of the lavatory before a band-boy. The rest can be understood.' But Horder had not our late lamented China's suavity, as president of a court. So the fun languished.

Sailor did not. Suddenly he grappled Cook and with a wrestler's twist flung that thirteen stone of man across his shoulders. Cook turned there and strained upward, to ride his neck. Sailor tottered, caught the next bed behind his knees, and collapsed over it with his burden. Three, four, five others leaped upon them. From the human knot came his joyous cry of astonishment 'Why, there's a fucker in the bed': and little Nobby's pathetic face, drowsy and sleep-puzzled, began to wriggle from under them. It reminded me of Sigurd under Fafnir's coils.

They disentangled. Sailor caught Nobby by the scruff with one strong hand, held him out, and with the other hand peeled off his pants and socks, cleanly, like a glove. The little yellow cock-robin legs frantically pedalled the air. Cook chuckled, snatched somebody's blacking-tin and with three swift passes of a bootbrush painted his doings jet-black. Torrents of applause. Exit Nobby, blaspheming, to the dark cold wash-house. The band struck up '0 God, our help in ages past'.

Enter White with tea and shortcake biscuit for Sailor, who took them, clapped biscuit over cup and inverted it successfully, crying, 'Elementary fucking science.' Cook sprang again on his back. Smash went the cup, splash the tea. They jazzed singing down the gangway, where Cook slid to the ground. A word, and Sailor bowed his head into his chest. Cook with a running leap was standing upright on his shoulders.

Sailor staggered forward. 'We are COMING' he yelled — our dirty parody of a favourite ballad. Cook's crash to the floor was bone-shaking. 'We are arrived' said he, in a breath-expelled whisper, across the instant of silence which followed on the crash. Our mandoline broke into the 'coming' song, and an unbuttoned ballet danced it stertorously, bellies in, bellies out. 'Star Evening News Standard' howled Madden, the one-time paper boy. The hut was now properly alight.

I was on my back feeling as though I were growing into this bed which once had seemed hard. Tonight was my seventh and last punishment-drill and only in moments can I yet realise the ineffable freedom which will be tomorrow. Beside me Corton's flapping butter-churn of a voice rose to a screech, that his hourlong recital of a failed confidence-trick might continue to reach Horder across two beds and the din.




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