10: LAST POST
With the startling blast of first post at 9.30 p.m. the hut door is banged violently back. A stick clatters across its panels, with the roar of 'Orderly Corporal.' We spring to the foot of our beds and line up there, end to end of the hut, bareheaded, stiffly at attention, silent. The corporal strides round, noting for report the name over any ownerless bed. Then we tear off boots and slacks and socks, and prop ourselves in bed luxuriously on an elbow, to continue the talk which has been for many evenings marching with the next fellow, a yard away. The babel is many-themed and not all conversational. On two beds at the end are two late visitors to the coffee-stall cramming sandwiches tightly into their mouths. Next them Peters is brushing his boots. He has been, for the last half-hour: these our boots are new with grease and the order is that they shall shine at once, if not sooner. So we polish hour after hour and scrape and bone them desperately with the handles of our toothbrushes and run about after every old-soldier's nostrum of blacking or potato juice or fire or polish or hot water.
In some near beds is grouped a concert party singing, now 'Rock of Ages' and now
You took the sunshine from our alley
When you said GOOD-BYE.
Every man in the hut, bar me, tries shamelessly or shamefully to sing and hum and whistle: and every sort of song goes up at once till two or three voices chance upon one favourite or till that with the most marked rhythm prevails. Then for a minute we have a roaring chorus supported with mess-tin lids and banged boxes. Always there is melody in the hut. Something to which you can tap the foot.
Beyond the concert our sombre corporal is making up a return, bending close over his sheet in the imperfect light. Elsewhere more are eating: two, tired, are already face-down on the pillows: while Dickson in bed, fully dressed and flat on his back, is reciting the Ancient Mariner slowly and particularly. He has been to the wet canteen: and much beer always calls the Mariner out of him. Through the hubbub Sailor and China our champion obscenists are bandying curses across the hut's central bar which hides the twenty-six beds on that side from the twenty-six on this. Someone on the far side in a shout begins, 'The green eye of the Yellow God': and carries on unmoved though a dozen storm 'Binder' at him to the grave of mad Carew.
Second post trickles faintly through the steaming windows: then 'lights out', short and sharp. With the switches' click comes darkness, surprising the late-sitters yet dressed on their beds. A snigger and two muttered curses from up the hut. Corporal Abner's voice rings loud, 'Silence there. I won't warn you again' and silence it is except for an intermittent whisper that might as well be the wind in a cracked window. I see the Corporal's cigarette doused: one more stone on the road to our earned unconsciousness of sleep. But hullo his bed's creaking! I raise my head and just get his whereabouts between me and a whited patch on the wall. Yes, he's sitting up. Now he has slid his legs quietly over the edge of the plaintive bed. His trousers are still on. I rather feel than see him pad down the gangway past me. After whole minutes of dead silence in the hut the swish of slow feet creeps back over the linoleum, and a shadow re-crosses the light patch of wall. A blank run tonight. I extend my left arm and give 'all clear' to the next bed; he passes the signal on. The whispering of the cracked pane resumes.
The moon is a day past its full: and before midnight stands just at the level of the clerestory windows. Through their openness it shines squarely, very yellow and quiet, on my face: though little scurrying night-clouds flock ever about it, as if they begrudged us a full sight of their queen. Its rays fill the hut roof with shifting half-light, in which the piled kits on the long central shelf, with their flat caps atop, nod like drilled mandarins over the shadowed beds.
Everything new in this camp, animate or inanimate, must conform to the straight line that nature avoids and man fails to maintain. So the beams and ties of the roof-trusses are tonight futurist and mysterious, being pendent with all our equipment, slung up there to dry stiff, after scrubbing. The beds, of course, should now be drowning in silence, under the low breathing which is the brother of silence: but R.A.F. beds are so hard that every sleeper turns crampily about, once or twice in the hour, and groans as he turns: and so hot are our bellies that you will not wait three minutes in this hut of fifty-four men without hearing a loud spirtle of wind from someone. 'The cry of an imprisoned turd,' they call it: our surest humour, which may break the tension even of an Armistice two minutes. The very sergeants shake with laughter when one leaps out roundly: for farts are not punishable like any other retort. Sailor can fart every five minutes, inimitably, with all the force and stink of nature. We expect the comment from him, whenever a senior is pompous.