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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART II


 

19:  ODD MAN OUT

Stiffy today took our flight for second morning period. It was a miracle of competence. His orders came in such perfect time that they were a pleasure to obey. He's more considerate as instructor than as parade-commander. We had an easy every fifteen minutes, and he was careful when repeating a practice to tell us just what improvement in our acts he wanted. Before he went we had forgiven him last week's lecture lapse. He's too supreme a drill-master for any man in uniform to despise.

For smartness we are now ranked first of the advanced squads: and we lead the show at cenotaph rehearsals. Sergeant Jenkins has worn well and the being under him has been all profit. When full of drink he may be sudden and dictatorial but we take no offence. Indeed, one day we were happy to help him. We were going on square when he muttered desperately to the leading files, 'For Christ's sake, look after yourselves. I'm that pissed I can't see where you are.'

It was true. He was reeling drunk: but we carried our drills off with so high a head that Stiffy never spotted the thing wrong. Taffy is an exemplar of the old disappearing fleshly and bloody N.C.O., the type which lasted from Smollett down to 1914, but which must disappear with the class from which it sprang. He's a master of arms-drill, and pleasedly content, therefore, with the masterpiece which is himself. It's a simple standard. On ceremonial parades Taffy emits a running fire of disrespectful comment, half under his breath, on Stiffy's every order and maneuvre. He often sorely tests our gravity.

In the hut we fellows remain good-tempered and solid, one with another: but we grow no personally nearer than on the third day. We attained an instant friendliness, and there stuck, three paces short of intimacy. To Kennington and others I make a joke this depot life, and of myself, the slowest and silliest thing in it. 'Why don't you take a commission?' they ask, little knowing the feebleness of power. Airmen must help themselves. Good comes up from below. Yet when I face the Depot honestly, I know that I am dully miserable here.

First cause is the physical trouble - that my worn body has no margin against the exercises they prescribe for us: whence come aches and sprains, breathlessness, sickness, even that broken finger. I am dog-weary at the end of each week and begin every new week fatigued. Evening finds me tired-sick with the work done and fearful of the morrow: yet each free evening I snatch an hour in London, at the cost of as long in the train there and back. It's a craving for the feel of streets and to rub shoulders with an indifferent crowd: for no one sees a uniformed man. Their eyes note 'airman' or 'soldier,' registering class and not individual: - and they pass on. One is already a ghost while still full of blood and breath.

Dawn is a struggle to get up. I feel like Adam when the first trumpet of our daily resurrection goes. Night is a struggle to sleep, so in a crowd. If I might be alone a moment: yet it's now too cold for out of doors or wet: and we dare not dull the boots whose polish will be looked for first thing in the morning. The hut is too populous and chattery: homelike, for its sort: but I'm a strange sloth strayed into this section. My hope of getting back to humankind by fettering myself to my likes, seems to have hopelessly failed. I'm odder, here, than when by myself in Barton Street: the oddness must be bone deep.

At Oxford I was odd, too: my only familiar man the whisky-lover, who after a day and a night locked into his room would invade me at dawn conjuring me, by all that was friendly between us, to find him a way out of life: some way which would save the insurance money for his people. In officers' messes too, I've lived about as merrily as the last-hooked fish choking out its life in a boat-load of trippers.

In those days I used to radiate discomfort to the surrounders: while here it is only my single person which will not fit. The fellows take my digestibility for granted: indeed, they are astonishingly good to me. Every tub, in the services, must stand on its own bottom: but I have privileges, am deferred to. Since China left, they have even come to leave me untouched. China would maul and handle me till I longed to scream.

Yet the basis of this dull misery I feel is not just physical. Weariness I have often fought down and conquered with endurance, my spare quality, which I have in such abundance that it fails to be a virtue. The root-trouble is fear: fear of failing, fear of breaking down. Of course my vanity will suffer, if I prove worse than the others in their work. Also I seem stiff and clumsy of body. That hurts me: this miserable flesh should do my service without complaint. I don't want to be laughed at, or to have reason to laugh at myself; and also there is the school-fear over me, that working against hazardously-suspended penalty which made my life from eight to eighteen miserable, and Oxford, after it, so noble a freedom.

Here we will be (we are) punished for any mistake, for any falling short of standard; or of requirement, or fancied requirement: or punished merely because someone thinks it's about time we were. Headquarters sent our flight commander the reminder one day, 'Mr. Maclaren, there is not enough crime in your flight.' I've been lucky to get off all but three charges: and to that last one I did not wish to make any defence: but I have seen others suffer glaring injustice, just to satisfy the system. So I go in terror, not of the punishment (man suffers only so far, and then pain fades), but of the state of being punished, the notoriety or pity of it. That week when I was catching it badly the fellows vied to do me little kindnesses, showing they were sorry for me. It was like hot fingers stroking my shame.




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