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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART II


 

22:  GAOL-DELIVERY

A fellow came running to me from the orderly-room: a letter was just through from Air Ministry, posting me instantly to a unit. So I dodge the last weeks of depot training and the orgy of fitness-tests with which it closes. The Lord be praised. Someone, Trenchard probably, has been looking after me. Incidentally we heard much more of Trenchard that time we were on guard. The corporal of the night had been his batman: the one who went out with him to Egypt in our boat last year. Of course, he did not know me: but all night, whenever Taffy wasn't talking, we egged out of him yarns about his master. The eyes in which it is good to be a hero are one's valet's.

By tea-time news had reached the Office. Corporal Hardy came back and warned me for orderly-room tomorrow at nine o'clock. 'Old Stiffy's hopping mad at a man being sent off before the end of training. Chewed my fucking balls up, something cruel.' So I went there knocking at the knees and gave Stiffy a wonderful salute, in palliation. He looked down at me as if I were ugly and ill-smelling:

'How long you here?' I told him.

'How much drill d'you know?'

'Very little, Sir.'

'How's that?'

'First month's all fatigues, Sir: since, it's been all cenotaph practice.'

He heard me in a silence of disgust.

At nine-forty last night, so soon as rounds were over, the east end of the hut, Fane, Park, Corton, Garner, Madden and company threw their cleanest bed-sheet over the table, put a form each side and spread the top with food from the Y.M. and the canteen. There were Zepps in a cloud (sausages and mashed) and Adam and Eve on a raft (Hoxtonian for fried eggs on toast) as main dishes: with every available trimming of cheese, tomatoes, and wads, penny or tuppenny. Three water-bottles of 'Stall tea were the finishing touches of this feast for which they'd put up every last copper of their joint pay. It was their farewell to me, who surely must have been a little human here: no one ever ventured to banquet me, before.

These distinctions of an east and a west end to our hut arose naturally when we first settled in it. Pound-note speakers, men who were book-learned and of posh trades, collected round the western stove: and those who swore by the pure Camberwell gravitated towards the other. In the centre slept the neutrals. Time absurdly made me almost the unconscious arbiter of the west end. Westerners would bait the east end, gently, as a bit of the real life-with-knobs-on.

Tongues often joined battle of a Saturday night. The east liked its beer: liked more than it could carry. Particularly Corton. He was a burly fellow, who'd end his arguments with the invitation to put 'em up. No one in the hut, bar Sailor and perhaps Dickson or Cook, could have matched him. Corton was not one of my first admirations: when in drink (and each seventh day he was nasty drunk) a little streak of what seemed gross used to declare itself in him. He'd charge the door open, and roll in from the latrine all uncleaned, with his dropped breeches flouncing round his knees. He'd throw down the blankets of the first empty bed and squat there with a leer on his mouth, rocking and rubbing his nakedness on the sheets. When this had cooled him enough, he'd slide his heavy body by his hands over the bed-end, to stand crowing and pointing with happy finger. 'Oh, shitty,' he'd say, 'he's shit the bed.' Afterwards, to piss, he'd creep from pretended sleeper to sleeper watering in each pair of cleaned boots till he could squeeze out no more.

My squeamishness over him kept itself secret for fear of seeming high-brow: also it knew that its body could not fight Corton's. Others, however, began to moan behind his back. Perhaps Sailor said something to him: anyway after the third week-end the bad habit ceased. During that month the west had lost some airs and the east had learned some: while we all in the daily commerce of misery had found what realities lay behind the airs.

Fortunately for me: for when I fell out with the Corporal over that refused loan, a week before my last jankers, he shifted Corton up the hut to be my oppo. The intended spite missed fire. Upon near acquaintance the big man proved rarely, bluntly, honest. Quite near acquaintance: we were three feet apart all night. Nor did he ever hurt me, when he was in drink. He'd bend over my pillow, gently stroking my hair and murmuring, 'Naughty, naughty' while the hut, looking for me to be flung out suddenly, shivered in delight.

At the melancholy end of the feast, over the ruined food, the givers began to say things about losing me: evoking good-byes which stung terribly in my throat. To my collected mind this posting is a godsend: yet soon, now in fact, I'll start regretting it. Anonymity is a yearly-rarer dish for me. Only by hiding that past identity can I get squarely treated, like the plain run of men: and then I discover myself as rather less useful a person than the average of my kind. A sound lesson in modesty: but a costly lesson, for acting the new man demands a day-and-night vigilance which only physical excitement can brace me to keep up.

Here I have been on my own, and up against it: stretched almost beyond my failing body's bearing to sustain the competition of youth. Depot will have the backward-looking warmth of probably my last trial: survived at least, if not very creditably. Though sometimes I've laughed aloud while I cried hardest into my note-book. And the gain of it is that I shall never be afraid of men, again.

For I have learned solidarity with them here. Not that we are very like, or will be. I joined in high hope of sharing their tastes and manners and life: but my nature persists in seeing all things in the mirror of itself, and not with a direct eye. So I shall never be quite happy, with the happiness of these fellows who find their nectar of life, and its elixir, in the deep stirring of some seminal gland. It seems I can get nearest it by proxy, by using my powers (so sharpened by experience and success in war and diplomacy) to help them preserve their native happiness against the Commandants and Poultons of this world.

The R.A.F. for me is now myself: a vocation absolute and inevitable beyond any question under the sky: and so marvellous that I grow hot to make it perfect. I have hated to see the bloom of its virginal recruits wasted by the inept handling here. My own injuries are risible always: every man's own injuries are risible always, only too easy for him to forgive, if, indeed, they ever earn that great word 'forgive.' Could a Poulton, however early he got up in the morning, collect enough subtlety to hurt me memorably? But when he offends the others I am indignant. He sins against the Air.




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