7: THE NEW SKIN
Rumour has it that today we draw our kit. From breakfast-time we hang about in excitement; hoping to lose, with these our old suits, the instant reminder that we have been civvies: and to escape the disdain we now read in the eyes of uniformed men.
Rumour at last turns true. In fours we march to the Q.M. Stores and there stand up against a hail of clothing flung at us by six sweating storemen, while the quartermaster, upright behind his counter, intoned the list. But the list stood on its head... socks, pairs, three; it ran like that... so nobody could know what was what.
We shouldered the kit-bag, draped the tunics and trousers (khaki, alas!) over one arm, hugged the blue clothes, our ambition, with the other; and were chivied to the boot-store where we tried on as many as we could grab of the hundreds of boots upon the floor. At last each had two pairs, fairly fitting, but barge-heavy, and stiff as cast-iron. The boot-man hung them round our necks by their strings, and we staggered to the tailors who next took hold of us that they might chalk alterations on the seams of our blue tunics. Laden with all else of the mighty kit we steered our way back up the camp roads to the hut.
'Quick!' cried Corporal Abner. 'Into your khaki: yes, it'll fit, of course: all khaki fits - where it touches. You're to get shot of your civvy duds before dinner.' Straightway the staff of the reception hut were transformed into old-clothes' merchants. Our hut swarmed with senior airmen, fingering or looking, appraising, disparaging, bidding. Some optimists posted their suits home for use on leave but to most of us home looks long years away, and leave improbable. 'Puttees on,' insisted the Corporal: 'puttees always in working hours.' We wanted to weep while we pulled the harsh trousers as high as our knees and wound the drab puttee from boot-top upward, till it gripped the trouser-hem above the calf. Then we pulled the slack of the trouser dropsically down again over the puttee to hide the join. It did more than hide the join: it hid the reality of our legs and was hot, tight and hideous, like an infantryman's rig. When we had finished dressing we were silenced by our new slovenliness. The hut of normal men had gone, and barbarous drab troops now filled it.
'Fall in' from the Corporal then, slowly, almost reluctantly. What new thing was coming our way? Off we raggedly clopped past the butcher's and the tailor's, to halt before the barber's door. 'First two men,' and in they went. The hasty barber, one eye on the clock of his lunch, ran his clippers up and over our heads. Three slashes with the scissors jagged our top hair to match the plucked staircase of the back. 'Next two,' yelled the barber's fatigue man. Forty before dinner-bugle. Would he do it? Easy. Back in the sheltering hut we gazed again without comment at the botch of bristles upon each other's pale scalps: and were reconciled to imprisonment in the Depot for a while. It's not tempting to be a figure of fun in the streets.
Khaki is prison garb here, the gate-sentry not letting out a man who wears it. So we are confined till the tailors release our altered blue. In our brief lives few of us have been locked up before, and the very feel of it makes an uncreased wing begin to beat against the bars. One adventurer slipped down to the tailor's, after dark, and brought word that half a dollar will secure priority, and even a bob do something: otherwise the tailors are so busy that it may be a fortnight before they can deliver. A fortnight! We have been here three days and it feels like ever.
The afternoon passes in a first effort to stow our kit after the Corporal's manner, to black the stubbornly-brown boots and to smear brown clay (blanco) over the web equipment with which, in marching order, the airman is harnessed against any wanderlust that might make him yearn to go forth without his all upon his back, like a snail. We make a mess of each single task: and wonder despairingly what will happen as our squad goes on square in such amateur fashion. 'Square' snorted Corporal Abner in derision, as though the square was a privilege of angels - 'You are for fatigues tonight.'