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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint


 

9:  P.T.

Corporal Abner looked up suddenly, with that queer twist of the mouth which might be derision or might be pity, and said, 'You're for P.T. tomorrow: a quarter-past six.' The shades are closing inch by inch. It's this exercise I fear. My body is not worth much, now. The others put on a braver face. 'I'm glad we're going to get drill,' said Park: 'it'll take the slouch out of us.' 'Yes,' chimed in Madden, always quick to follow a lead, 'sort of thing the civvies in London pay fifty quid for, we get harry-freeman's.'

In a hollow dawn (there is early cocoa at the cook-house, but fellows on P.T. can't, in the quarter of an hour's dressing time, run so far and queue up for it) we fall in outside the hut. Our trousers are belted round us with knotted braces and their leg bottoms tucked into our socks. Rolled-up sleeves, of course, and rubber shoes. We are marched to the asphalt square whose smoothness is made skiddy, on such moist days, by its scattered grit. Across it the five hundred of us are spread in open order. Physical training is based on the assumption that the men are asleep or careless, or shirkers. It is an affair of suddennesses; starts and turns, cries, pitfalls and checks. Our fifty are as keen as wild mustard, but timorous for the first day. Many made mistakes and were bawled at till they grew rattled and became the easier victims. To a cool head, the instructors' over-careful precautions gave them away. We quickly learned to meet or avoid their onset. 'Bluff or scrounge,' was the old hands' proverb as they put us wise to labour-saving wrinkles, taking for granted that we were out to make the laziest of a tolerable job. Today, as it happens, we aren't: but tomorrow we shall be. Infection grows.

'Dismiss,' and we were panting on our beds for the ten minutes before breakfast. The fumes of sweat expanded broadly from our wet waistbands and clinging shirts. I missed breakfast because my breathing hurt me. After that Handley crash in Rome the X-ray showed one rib, furred like the bristles of a toothbrush, against the wall of my chest: and much lung-pumping taps its thin dagger-pain into my heart. When the trembling stopped I swallowed some water from the wash-house tap, and was better. We kicked our way into overalls, and paraded for fatigues.

The stick came down and cut off me and Park. 'Butcher's shop,' said Flight Sergeant Walker. Sounds as if my luck was out this morning. Distaste for the sight and feel and smell of raw flesh has made me almost a vegetarian. The butcher is a young corporal, face white and full as a bladder of lard, and his bloodied overalls smell of the trade. Thank heaven he does not want us in the shop. We are to fill and stoke the two boilers outside the door. In half an hour they are full of water, which is getting warm. He shows us by the ditch behind the shop, under a clipped thorn-hedge, heaps of the cut-open sacks in which his frozen carcasses had travelled. These we are to wash.

They must have been long lying there, for they were pressed solid, and stuck together. When we dragged at them they tore. Their insides were earwigged, maggoty and worm-full. Buck found a hedge-stake and prised the stinking layers apart over the grass: happy-looking grass, for it was rankly, greenly uncut and irregular, in the waste triangle behind the butchery.

We were to have treated each sack separately; but the damp ground had so conspired with the salt of the meat and the hedge-drippings against the cloth that it rotted away in our hands. Therefore with our stakes we forked lumps at a time into the coppers. The water boiled and we poled the sackings around under it till they were pliant. Then, fishing them out by sections, we impaled them on the quickset spikes where they steamed with an ardent soupy smell into the mist which was today's weather. The corporal came out rubbing his hands and sniffing our hedge which two hours' work had made mouldy with old jute. 'Good work,' said he, 'you can throw away the lot now.' 'Well I'm fucked,' gasped my half-section, at this futile issue of our toil.

'Posh job, Park,' said I, to tease him. Park, an embryo transport driver, with the swank of a failure calls himself an ex-Brooklands racing mechanic - to gild his degraded present by reflection. He has been at the least a garage-boy; and feels himself a tradesman and unionist. The tradesman has tremendous contempt for the class which knows no trade. So Park could not take refuge in my irony against misemployment as a labourer. Instead he stood up tally, and cursed the Depot and the job and the butcher-corporal and himself and the Army and Navy and Royal Air Force, while the smoke of our coppers vomited into the heavy air and rained down in a black swirl around our faces. 'Steady, Park, you'll curse the fire out.' 'Fuck the fire!' he cried, crashing a heavy boot against the stove door. The butchers came out to see what was the matter. 'Better change the water: that lot's a bit fruity,' ordered the corporal innocently.

Sack-boiling had been his brain-wave to keep at work the fatigue men whom his policy requisitioned daily from headquarters, as proof of the busy-ness of his shop. Headquarters willingly obliged him, for such grinds chastened the hot hearts of their many recruits till they longed even for 'square', for that extremest severity of drill and discipline which alone could qualify them to leave the Depot. Because it is a Depot the recruits must be chased. 'Here we tame lions' boast the instructors at us. But we are very lambs and the regimen of lions strikes hard on lambs.

The corporal did no more than he was told in keeping us foolishly engaged all the wet day. We fetched gallons of water and boiled it over more coke: and flung in worse and worse chunks of sacking till our stew was as much worms as cloth. Still he was insatiable and nagged at us till we banged the stoves to drown his voice and stoked sparks out of the chimney pipes. Euclid, that labourer of the obvious, was driven into tender heads to toughen them. This fatigue was a physical Euclid to teach us our worthlessness. We had enlisted in hope that our improving hands might aid those who strove against the air. A month, two months of this, and we will accept the Force's verdict that our time weighs the same whether we work or waste it. Then will we present to our instructors a blank grey sheet, on which to draw up, by drill and instant obedience, an airman. Let us see if the Air Force can build as well as it has destroyed.




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