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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART III


 

12:  POLICE DUTY

Tonight, Saturday night, saw the end of summer time. So our tricks of sentry-go were an hour longer than military wont. It was strange to walk up and down, killing time, while time, or rather the clock, stood still. This camp is electric - clocked. At first the night was good, for the air (not too cold) was calm. All the camp slept, and there was no traffic on the roads. The transport-yard, our care, opens off the smoothly-tarred main road and is spacious. The moonlight filled it. Across the sky crept a thin haze, so transparent in the beginning that its translucency increased the brilliancy of the moon.

Gradually, as the mist thickened, the moon seemed to wane. Its rays struck upon the cliff of trees which bordered the far side of the road, rendering it more cliff-like, by flattening the planes of its height. The mist was yet dry, so that the light became dusty, and the trees were powdered grey with it. Grey trees, tied about their roots with a grey ribbon-wall of dry oolite slabs, well-fitted: and, shining through the copse (it not being thick enough to leaf over every chink) glowed the watch lamps of the power station, like beasts' eyes: while the transformer, which alone works at night, whined low or loud as it spun round.

The leaves, Autumn's first converts, were falling singly, rarely, sadly, as though the trees were conscious of each loss. The moon and myself counted their fall. By the yard-gate the ragged leaves of a plane-tree lay upturned, so ashy-pale on the black grass edging of the road that they gathered the moonlight: and at first I thought them torn pages from a note-book.

The moon looked on, while I fitted words to what we saw. My vacant eyesight normally sees little: so when anything does get through the mind's preoccupation, at once I try to fix its form in phrases. Tonight I was fortunate, for one end of my beat turned by the alarm-lamp of the fire-station. I used its glow-light to note down the word or group of words which my mind and boots had hammered out on the patrol.

Later the night grew very cold. The chill of the earth soaked into me through the leather under my feet. The mist rallied and altogether hid the moon. My clothes became grey-haired with its wetness: also a longing for sleep weighed upon me, almost uncontrollably. When the clock at last moved again, and the hands crept forward to the half-hour of my relief I was more than glad.

The hot air and light of the guard-room poisoned my face: even as the forced company of the service police, those vermin in the body of the R.A.F., poisoned my self-respect. They pushed free a seat for me on the form nearest the fire, and Shorty passed me his mug of cocoa, to thaw out my tongue. I had interrupted Corporal Payne, a sexual-smelling policeman, in the midst of retelling some adventures in London on last leave. So word-perfect was he (we do not ordinarily excel in fluency) that I suspected many previous tellings lay behind this tale.

The confusion of cold moonlight still weighed on me, and lost me much of his detail. I think his tart's bedroom must have been somewhere off Golden Square. She slept him on a couch, and would not let him into her bed, behind curtains in an alcove: so while she was washing he peeped between: to see a dead infant lying on the counterpane. 'It was three days ago he died,' sobbed the girl.

The Corporal urged upon her the need to lose the body promptly. They wrapped it in brown paper, and took it to a neighbouring court, whose precipitous tenement-walls pushed London's nightcap of smoke and mist almost sky-far away, so that its arc refulgence hardly modified the blackness of the pit.

In the court's centre was a large drain, trap-covered, to shoot surface water away to the sewers. Payne felt round the grating, discovered the hinges, and pulled it open. He began to stuff in the body: but there seemed some obstacle. He kneeled to thrust his arm right down, and clear it: when a hand fell on his neck, and a loud voice said 'Now what do you think you're doing in here?' It was the Orderly Sergeant, and he was asleep in his own bed in the police hut. 'My God, what a relief.'




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