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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART III


 

1:  RAIL JOURNEY

Being dressed for my train-journey was like a dose of jankers: tunic, breeches and puttees: - that's a hot kit. Marching boots so hobbed that every pavement became a skating rink. My overcoat (mid-August). Complete equipment so thickly clayed that at any movement its brown powder rained like pollen on my clothes and neighbours. Full pack, weighing many pounds. A bayonet - for the Great Northern Railway, ye gods! Looped over the bayonet, a little haversack of cold beef and bread, balanced on the right side by a filled water-bottle. This poor man's camel had dumbly accepted its load so far: but at the two-and-a-half pounds of lukewarm water it found voice. Regulations. You're in the Depot still. Hold your blasted tongue or you'll go inside the guard-room.

At the station gate they threw on my shoulder (knocking my cap off) the kit-bag of all my spare goods: only eighty more pounds. For the 'stuffy airman' a porter would be a crime as capital as an umbrella. Before I reached the end of the platform, sweat was running like a hot bath down my arms and legs.

The trip slowly convinced me that this military equipment was not designed for peace-time trains. I had become too wide to advance frontally through any carriage door. In each queue or press I jabbed the next man with a buckle in the mouth, or browned the next woman with my equipment's clay. When I sat, the little sidebags and skirts of my clobber occupied two places. The pack fouled the back of the seat, so I had to perch all the while on the edge, and block the gangway.

The old lady next me in the underground wore a flippant skirt, all doo-dahs. My scabbard chape enlarged one of these. She rose up and went, more fretted even than the skirt. I bulged with relief into her extra space: but my water-bottle tilted nose-down on the arm rest, and filled the vacant seat with a secret lake. Then, fortunately, I changed trains.

It was all changing trains: and as I learnt how, I stood in the vestibule for the short trips, to lessen my unavoidable nuisance to the public: and took off my harness and overcoat for the long spells. That was much better, until water began to drip from the rack. So I disentangled the silly bottle from its straps, and emptied it out of the window (into the window next door, as we soon heard).

By Victoria I was fed up with changing trains, and funked the press of lunch-hour in the city. So I climbed into an empty bus for King's Cross, taking the seat nearest the door. The top, of course, was out of my power. We were past Russell Square and again empty, when the conductor came back, and looking down on my cap's polished peak said 'Ah, we didn't wear our marching order nicely blancoed in them days. You wouldn't think it, but I was one of the original four thousand in your mob. That was in '14; days of the war. Bit before your time, sonny.' 'Yes, dad,' I murmured, blandly.

At King's Cross a half-hour to wait: good, for the trains today were crowded. I got a corner and sat down. The scurrying crowds peered in and passed: people do not travel with service fellows if they can help it. We had a quiet long run all across the sunny fens. Another change was due at tea-time. I got up to resume my harness, for railway platforms abound with service police, who report airmen not wearing it properly.

To put on equipment in camp you hold it out in front, dart one arm suddenly through it and with a cast of the disengaged arm and a lively whirl of the body on the left foot, spin into the rest. This calls for eighty square feet of floor space. To attempt it in a crowded compartment would be to knock too many teeth out. For a while I tangled myself like a fly in a web, trying to slide into it quietly: but then a grown man in the carriage rose and held it for me silently and professionally, like a strait waistcoat. A minor effect of the war's military education of England had been notably to ease the lot of an airman travelling by rail.

Another change, another journey, dusk, detrainment, and a long road. The lights of the camp were like a town, east and west of the arrow-straight tarmac. Time I got serious. Positively that was a guard-room ahead. We feel these buildings by some instinct. My curiosity grew very keen. Here I would spend years: what was its first impression? Distinctly good. The sentry had only a cane, no belt or rifle. Inside, the dazzle of light showed me a mob of service police. Will have to look out for them. Their sergeant took my papers, and directed me to 83 hut, down the second path on the left. 83 hut, it seemed, was kept furnished with beds for chance arrivals. That sounds like consideration for the men. I peered into its not very bright corners, and guessed it empty: but someone in the bunk heard the scrape of my boots, for its door opened. Out came a solitary man: an A/C like myself.

'Hullo, where'd you spring from? Depot? Well, you're in luck here: this place is cushy. Any bed you like: there's no one but us two. I'm sort of hut orderly. Spot of grub in the canteen? Right O. . . . Roll call? Yes, they do have a sort of a one, I fancy, down in the lines: but the corp won't tool all the way up here. Your next stop'll be Adjutant tomorrow. I'll tool you along.' He was the runner at headquarters.

'What about a wash?' I asked, beginning to peel off the loathly clothes, all gummed to me by the hot trip. Barnard waved to the hut's entrance, through a shallow annexe. 'Help yerself: two baths, hot and cold.' After Depot it seemed too good: but it was true.




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