5: FIRST DAY
The morning passed with us lolling here and there on imperfect pursuits. Breakfast and dinner were sickening, but ample. Without being told we set to and cleaned the hut. The voluntariness of our mob astonished me: I had expected sullenness, in reaction against the nervous effort of enlistment. Certainly we all still funked our prospect and hung about distractedly heartening one another, a dozen times over, with the same vain summary. ''Tasn't bin so baad. 'Tisn't goin' to be too bad, d'y'think?' Though we can see in the eyes of the drilling recruits that it surely is. Groups of us pressed round any man with a rumour or experience to repeat.
Testing and examination went on, intermittently. The R.A.F. standards were severe - more so than the Army's - and many of us found difficulties. The supervising officer was prompting his rejects to go up elsewhere for some regiment. Those he had passed came back to the hut confessing their success with good-humoured rueful resignation: but in secret, they were proud. Those who failed saw yellow and thanked their stars - too loudly to convince us. On the credit side was our laughing, our candour, our creeping obedience: on the other side the uncanny gentleness of sergeants and officers whenever we met them. Always I thought of the spider and its flies. Around us, for the rest, the unheeding camp lived its life to a trumpet code and a rhythm of bells like ships' bells.
In the afternoon I was called, set to a table, and told to write an essay on the birth-place which I'd not seen since six weeks' old! I did what any infant in my place would do - improvised gaily. 'You'll do,' said the Lieutenant, liking my prose.1 He handed me to a bald-headed officer whose small eyes must have been paining him: for he had taken off his glasses and repeatedly pursed his eyelids in a tight grimace, while he put me through a stiff catechism. London had told me my formalities were over, bar the swearing-in, so I was taken by surprise and in unreadiness shifted my feet and stammered parts of a history. He got very impatient and banged out, 'Why were you doing nothing during the war?'
'Because I was interned, Sir, as an alien enemy.' 'Great Scott, and you have the nerve to come to ME as a recruit - what prison were you in?' 'Smyrna, in Turkey, Sir.' 'Oh. What... why? As a British subject! Why the hell didn't you say so directly? Where are your references, birth certificate, educational papers?' 'They kept them in Maria Street, Sir. I understood they signed me on there.' 'Understood! Look here, m'lad. You're trying to join the Air Force, so get it into your head right away that you're not wanted to understand anything before you're told. Got it?' Then his eye fell on my papers in his file, where the acceptance I had stated was plainly set forth. He waved me wearily away. 'Get outside there with the others, and don't waste my time.'
As we waited in the passage for the oath which would bind us (we waited two hours, a fit introduction to service life which is the waiting of forty or fifty men together upon the leisure of any officer or N.C.O.), there enwrapped us, never to be lost, the sudden comradeship of the ranks; - a sympathy born half of our common defencelessness against authority (authority which could be, as I had just re-learnt, arbitrary) and half of our true equality: for except under compulsion there is no equality in the world.
The oath missed fire: it babbled of the King; and, with respect, no man in the ranks today is royalist after the antique sense in which the Georgian army felt itself peculiarly the King's. We do certainly observe some unformulated loyalty with heart and soul: but our ideal cannot have legs and a hat. We have obscurely grown it, while walking the streets or lanes of our country, and taking them for our own.
After all was over a peace came upon us. We had forced ourselves so far against the grain, our unconscious selves rebelliously hoping for some accident to reject us. It was like dying a death. Reason calls the grave a gateway of peace: and instinct shuns it.
When we had sworn and signed our years away, the sergeant marched us back to the hut. There seemed a new ring about his voice. We collected our tiny possessions and moved to another hut, apart from the unsigned men. A sober-faced corporal counted us in. His welcome was the news that henceforward, for weeks, there would be no passes for us nor liberty to go through the iron gates. The world went suddenly distant. Our puzzled eyes peered through the fence at its strangeness, wondering what had happened. In the evening we began to talk about 'civilians.'
1 Three years later and wearing a different shape I came before the supervising officer, to be set an essay on Sport. As he read my disfavouring of all sports he called me out and questioned, 'Were you here some years ago under a different name? And did you then write me an essay about the sea-side of Wales?'