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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint


 

13:  VANITIES

Our fatigue today was as fortunate as our P.T. Saturday is only a morning, and we were set to sweep and dust the Cinema after the Friday night of its glory, which had left the airmen's seats husky with nut-shells and toffee-wrappings and the officers' boxes floored with the silver foil of cigarettes and chocolate. Plain housemaiding seemed fun after our degraded week. So we made a song of it, so loud a song that the Second Sergeant Major, a great but mild star, looked in at the door and asked what we thought we were: the next glee-party, or fatigue men?

Snaggletooth, who was nearest the door (an older fellow, dark-faced, soldierly), gave him a pert answer not knowing him against the light. 'Christ' he called to us after, 'I didn't half drop a bollock then. It was old man Jim himself.' 'Yes,' called back the little S.M. who had left the first door only to peep in at the second 'and' (coming nearer) 'Jim's going to be very rude to you, my lad. I'm going to call you Beaver.' The laugh was on Snaggle, whose chin was indeed black. The sunlight capped our happiness. Was it not Saturday, a half-day: and Sunday, all day, tomorrow?

Good news in the hut, at noon. The tailors had taken pity on our imprisonment, and sent up the breeches and tunics for us all. These rawly blue clothes, littering the brown beds, lent to our mustard-coloured crowd something of the brightness of the summer's sky, outside, upon this noble day. Likewise they promised us the freedom of the gate. Few of us had served before, or experienced servitude. So we lusted for the wideness of the civilian world and burst out towards excess like escaped starlings. Some fellows picked up their 'bits of skin' even at the camp gates, by virtue of the rude maleness which is the service-man's repute.

But first there was a mass trying on and innocent vanity of the new dress, which was to be our best for the next years. If we were not just right the scrutiny of the sentry might know us for recruits, and the guard-corporal come: and then we'd be in trouble. With such a cloak of care for R.A.F. smartness did we hide our curiosity competition, and desire to look well in the sight of 'birds'. These boys, in fancy dress for the first time, went stroking and smoothing their thighs, to make the wings of the breeches stand out richly. The tailors had taken them in at the knees, by our secret request. so tightly that they gripped the flesh and had a riding cut. Dandies put a wire in the outer seams to spread them more tautly sideways. Posh, that is.

Each dressed fellow blushingly accosted his half-section (so ruddy by contrast the high collar and pulled down peak made the familiar face) and said, 'How's this tunic? Are my cap, breeches, puttees right?' Corporal Abner, pestered too much, rose, reached for his cap and lounged slowly through the door, smiling always, gravely. Groups swarmed about the communal mirrors each end of the hut, enjoying the set of their breasts and pockets. It was nearly an hour before the last had trickled out to the open air and left me the hut and mirrors for my own.

These clothes are too tight. At every pace they catch us in a dozen joints of the body, and remind us of it. The harsh friction of the cloth excitingly polishes our skins and signals to our carnality the flexure of each developing muscle or sinew. They provoke lasciviousness, by telling so much of ourselves. Airmen cannot swing along like civvies, unconscious of their envelope of flesh, For them there is a sealed pattern of carriage, of the head, the trunk, the feet, the arms, the hands, the stick.

God's curse on that stick! A slip of black cane with a silver knob. I'd as soon dandle a doll through the street. We were ordered to hold it in the right hand, between thumb and second finger, at the point of balance, ferrule forward, sawing the fingers loosely and easily across it as we walked, so that the stick stayed always parallel with the ground, while the hands swung back and forward, to the height of the belt-line in front and rear at each stride, not bending the elbow, the hand going back as the foot went forward. Try it, someone! and remember that fear is with us when we break this rule. Any N.C.O. or officer, whether in uniform or plain clothes, if he see an irregularity has upon him the duty of taking our names. That the decent ones ignore this duty is to discipline's hurt and does not greatly help us: for every R.A.F. station has its pariahs, its service police, whose commendations are for reporting such minutiae of offence.




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