4: THE FEAR
After dusk the camp paths became thronged with men, all seeming friends, who met with a freemasonry of unintelligible greeting. I shrank from them and equally from their canteen with its glare and its hospitable smells. The thought of our hut returned to me as a refuge. Thankfully I made for it.
When I opened the door the long interior with its pendent lights offered indeed a refuge against the night. Its colouring was gay: - primary white walls sectioned by pilasters of hot brick, or by slender roof-posts painted green aligning themselves over the concrete floor between the close rows of brown-blanketed identical beds. But there was no one there, and the roof seemed full of staring eyes. I stumbled dizzily, under their view, down the alley of polished linoleum which lay like a black gangway across the concrete. Did the floor pitch slightly, with a rise and fall, like a deck? Or was my head swimming in the brilliant silence which thronged the empty place?
I lay, sickly, on my allotted bed. For a moment my bedfellow was perfect fear. The globes stared unwinking; my external imaginings flocked to the pillow and whispered to each ear that I was attempting the hardest effort of my life. Could a man, who for years had been closely shut up, sifting his inmost self with painful iteration to compress its smallest particles into a book - could he suddenly end his civil war and live the open life, patent for everyone to read?
Accident, achievement, and rumour (cemented equally by my partial friends) had built me such a caddis-shell as almost prompted me to forget the true shape of the worm inside. So I had sloughed them and it right off - every comfort and possession - to plunge crudely amongst crude men and find myself for these remaining years of prime life. Fear now told me that nothing of my present would survive this voyage into the unknown.
Voyage? Yes, the long hold-like hail had the sheer and paint-smell and sense of between decks. The pillars and tie-beams of its louring roof barred it into stalls like the stalls of a cattle boat waiting its load. Awaiting us.
Slowly we drifted in, those who had come with me today, till on the made-up beds five or six of us were lying subdued to the strangeness and the silence: a silence again pointed by that faint external creeping roar of the tramcars which swung along the road behind. Subtly our presences comforted one another.
At ten o'clock the door was flung open and a torrent of others entered, those stagers who had been here for some days and had gained outward assurance. They fought off nervousness by noise, by talk, by Swanee River on the mouth-organ, by loose scrummaging and japes and horseplay. Between the jangles of sudden song fell bars of quiet, in which man whispered confidentially to man. Then again the chatter, a jay-laugh, that pretence of vast pleasure from a poor jest. As they swiftly stripped for sleep a reek of body fought with beer and tobacco for the mastery of the room. The horseplay turned to a rough-house: snatching of trousers, and smacks with the flat of hard hands, followed by clumsy steeplechases over the obstacles of beds which tipped or tilted. We, the last joined, were trembling to think how we should bear the freedom of this fellowship, if they played with us. Our hut-refuge was become libertine, brutal, loud-voiced, unwashed.
At ten-fifteen lights out; and upon their dying flash every sound ceased. Silence and the fear came back to me. Through the white windows streaked white diagonals from the conflicting arc-lamps without. Within there ruled the stupor of first sleep, as of embryons in the natal caul. My observing spirit slowly and deliberately hoisted itself from place to prowl across this striped upper air, leisurely examining the forms stretched out so mummy-still in the strait beds. Our first lesson in the Depot had been of our apartness from life. This second vision was of our sameness, body by body. How many souls gibbered that night in the roof-beams, seeing it? Once more mine panicked, suddenly, and fled back to its coffin-body. Any cover was better than the bareness.
Night dragged. The sleepers, their prime exhaustion sated, began to stir uneasily. Some muttered thickly in the false life of dreams. They moaned or rolled slowly over in their beds, to the metallic twangling of their mattresses of hooked wire. In sleep on a hard bed the body does not rest without sighing. Perhaps all physical existence is a weary pain to man: only by day his alert stubborn spirit will not acknowledge it.
The surge of the trams in the night outside lifted sometimes to a scream as the flying wheels gridded on a curve. Each other hour was marked by the cobbling tic-tac of the relief guard, when they started on their round in file past our walls. Their rhythmic feet momently covered the rustling of the great chestnuts' yellowed leaves, the drone of the midnight rain, and the protestant drip drip of roof-drainings in a gutter.
For two or three such periods of the night I endured, stiff-stretched on the bed, widely awake and open-eyed, realising myself again one of many after the years of loneliness. And the morrow loomed big with our new (yet certainly not smooth) fate in store. 'They can't kill us, anyhow' Clarke had said at tea-time. That might, in a way, be the worst of it. Many men would take the death-sentence without a whimper to escape the life-sentence which fate carries in her other hand. When a plane shoots downward out of control, its crew cramp themselves fearfully into their seats for minutes like years, expecting the crash: but the smoothness of that long dive continues to their graves. Only for survivors is there an after-pain