8: OFFICERS' MESS
Tonight at six sees us falling in, thrilled, for our first uniformed parade, raw boots, flat hats and all. The older the airman, the sloppier may he wear the rim of his cap. Our prentice legs in the rasping trousers and bulky puttees swung against each other like baby elephants. The dingy overalls which further deformed our shapes were cross-creased from the bale. Gone with our civvies was the civility of the sergeants. Flight Lawton's vindicating stick fell, not too lightly, on my shoulder. 'You, you, you,' he ticked us off. 'Officers' mess. Jump to it.' We wheeled away, bear-driven by the duty corporal to a softly-shining door.
Our leader entered, looked back, beckoned us inside. Before the kitchen-range stood a shirt-sleeved batman, Irish, red-headed and huge, dressing in breeches to go out. One leg was propped on a chair, while he rubbed with a wet rag at a stain on its threadbare ample thigh. 'Two in there,' he spluttered, pointing to the main kitchen. 'Ye two wash up': but the spick-and-span genius of the scullery waved us away. 'Fatigue men? I've shit 'em,' he said.
'Saucy cunt,' grumbled Red-Head, scratching it: then he opened the door into a yard which gave light to the three great windows of a passage. Their panes were spotted with the scales of old frosting. 'Get these clean.' From a closet came leathers, dusters, a backless chair to stand on. The paint—spots were like isinglass, and had to be scraped off singly with a knife. Red-Head often passed, cheering our futility with horse-noises from his mouth.
In the passage behind my back stood a boxed telephone. Each time the bell rang its batman stepped to it. His callers were generally cronies. We heard snatches of Blackpool, of the Spurs' prospects, of Sunderland, or of winning horses in the older but little esteemed sport. Through the swing-doors came an officer's head, more often officers' voices. Sherry and bitters, gin and bitters, martinis, vergins, vermouths. 'Three whisky sodas quickly' - whose familiar harsh voice was that? My trade-test officer. The bartender splashed full his glasses and hurried to and fro. As he passed the telephone box he would reach a long arm, beer-laden, quickly into its depth. We had finished the windows: but our fatigue must last till nine.
'Come in here,' called Red-Head, through a full mouth, and we returned to the pantry. Its deal-topped table (on good legs of oak) was spread with grease-spotted sheets of the Star. The rout of the Greek Army jostled the dead Duchess of Albany in the headlines. The cook produced a much used plate of butter, an end of jam, and bread:- relics of the mess tea. 'Scran up.' We set to and wolfed. Two other batmen entered, with heaped plates of cold bacon and potato salad. Red-Head sluiced his share with vinegar. Noisily they shovelled the stuff away with the broad of their knives - a fine art. We watched it go. Three glasses of beer were brought, with an old pack of cards. They cut and the penalty was drinks. The telephone's servant joined the rest. Again they cut. 'Lost, fuck it' he grumbled and went out, to return beaming. 'Fucking bar's shut.' Laughter. Red-Head belched loudly, trying with one hand to still his kicking belly.
He was too full of food, and disgustedly banged his ravaged plate along the table at us, with a grunt. 'Muck in.' We did, yet still looked lean. 'You bloody swaddies can't half yaffle,' said he, enviously. 'Chuck 's that bread.' He hacked it thick, loaded the slabs with fat bacon, and rubbed them on the table where the vinegar had spilled. While we worked at this new luck they still talked of football, drinks and officers. 'Who's here tonight?' asked our taskmaster of the operator. 'Old man,' was the sufficient and meaning reply. The veriest recruit knew that 'old man' was the Commandant, the stark skull and crossbones under which the Depot sailed. 'The bastard!' swore Red-Head: he lifted the stock-pot's lid, and spat in neatly. 'A gob for his guts: soup's as rich as old nick.' He took his cap and went.
An hour later we slipped back to our hut and were heroes of the night, for we had the longest yarn and alone had made a meal out of our job. First Post came: last post. The plangent beauty of these night-calls putting duties behind us for eight hours and giving us the delight of a half-hour's bed before sleep:- a half-hour in which the relaxed body, free of its scratchy clothes and clumping boots, stretches itself between the smooth sheets, without censure. Then lights out - the nightly miracle which brought darkness, and silence with the pale moon to rule our boiling hut.