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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint


 

14:  HOLIDAY

The rare privilege of a half-day made me anxious lest perhaps I miss some shred of its enjoyment. I wandered again into the park, to feel its decaying beauty: but achieved less keenly. My new kinship with the uniformed inhabitants bent my eye to draw longer pleasure from the blueness of a knot of fellows asprawl, gambling, in the grass, than from the greenness of the wild grass itself. I peeped to see if their breeches were shaped the way of ours: and my attuned ear found their gleeful ribaldry more apt than the chirping of the birds.

Tea-time and I cut it, luxuriously making the trumpet sound after me in vain. Our ration meals were plentiful, business-like, unappetising, because of their sameness in look and taste. So a yearning for the liberty of unofficial food conquered me. In my pocket rested a week's pay. I would visit the canteen and please myself.

Already, the days so drew in that they had turned on the lights: and the long wall of windows, which was the canteen, seemed brilliant across the dusk. In the small wet bar were a dozen airmen, cosily drinking. Only a dozen. The Air Force off duty craves food, not drink.

I passed to the entry of the dry-bar and pushed through its thin door where the loose-hung latch clashed behind me twice or thrice with the nervous haste of indecision. After all the huge room was not brightly lit. Behind the counter that ran athwart the near end stood a row of girls in uniform, to serve. Across the far side stretched a file of billiard tables upon whose green flats stood cones of yellow light from shaded overhanging globes. Dull-clothed men were moving restlessly around the tables, to the click of balls. As they leaned forward to play, their buttons glittered and the lamp-glare detached their white faces as so many masks against the shadowed walls. The sharp tread of nailed ammunition boots on the linoleum, or the sibilant shuffle of rubber gymnasium shoes came obscurely from the half-light. These and a chink of thick cups on thick saucers were thrown up like castanets, shakily, over an undertone of humming conversation.

I took place by the counter in the queue: among a continual come and go of men, in whose faces despite their common, airmanly likeness (the professional mark, general even here, off duty, in our own house, unfixed) shone a new alertness, a mobility of eye and interest in the matter in hand: which was generally food. Tea and wads, sausages and mashed. Are they able always to eat?

I can, anyway . The girl in blue overalls handed me a filled plate with the smile and gay word which was the fleeting routine of these hard-pressed servers. It was cheap food and plain to bareness: but not worse than most of our lives' habit. The mere exercise of choice is the attraction. The voluntary faculty atrophies in service life except we buy here from our own pockets much what the 'mess-deck' would give us freely. Yet slop tea tastes better from a cup than from a mug, and so on.

For me there promised, also, the rarity of an independent table; one of that colony of four-seater tables which chequered the middle of the room. Their cotton cloths were splotched with food stains, gravelled with old crumbs, and blocked with the used plates and cups of my forerunners. No matter: at least half of them were free. I shouldered open a clearing for my load, and sat down to taste a lonely pleasure after two weeks of the crowd. I had taken on this effort partly to replace myself in a world from which much solitary thinking had estranged me: just now I was feeling the first, worst, strain of it: a short interlude of dreamy quiet would be refreshment, not recreance.

Round the walls hung tinted photographs of King George, Trenchard, Beatty, Haig, some land-girls, a destroyer at speed. Even there was a small picture of me, a thing later conveyed slyly to the ever-open incinerator. The gloom-shrouded trusses of the distant roof fluttered restlessly with other dusty relics of war-time: cotton flags of the late allies. Behind my back a piano struck up. It hesitated on certain notes, and the listening at stretch while my imperfect ear tried to pick out which notes these were, had the effect of waking me again before I had properly lost myself. For the matter of that the keynote of the great hail was restlessness. In ten minutes I was sauntering up and down it, like the others, in the grip of their contagious not-knowing-what-to-do.

Some had met the problem, temporarily, by starting a dance on the bit of floor by the piano: dancing to the tune of anything, played oddly anyhow by a man in blue. He was not expert and the piano's wires had gone slack with over-hammering. Surely there was something sorry in the sight of those twenty couples of men circling together? They would be womanless now, most of them, for seven years. Their faces were grim. To them dancing was a rite; and the confined floor to their taste. They gladdened themselves in the press when they bumped together - so solemnly. There was no public laughter here or anywhere in the hall: no raised voices in its ebb and flow: only gentleness to one another and a returned gentleness to the quick-eyed serving-women. We receive the rough tongue from sergeants and corporals all the day-time: and the first smart of that makes us glad to extend a public gentleness, ourselves, whenever it is permitted.

The night was turning to mist: and our hut was yet empty. So early a return was not in order for a holiday. But the hut was now my friendly familiar place and my bed in it a home. There the quietness which had eluded me in the canteen waited or returned, as I lay remembering with shame my panic at this hour of my first night in the Depot when I was so fearful of what the other fellows might do to me. Shyness with men was now and for ever overpast after fourteen days, only; long days: but my soul, always looking for some fear to salt its existence, was wondering what seven whole years of servitude would do against the hasty stubbornness which had hitherto buttressed my values. The question took a self-pitiful turn, and I mizzled gently in the white-walled silence, to the minor accompaniment of the cinema orchestra refined into faintness by passage through two buildings and across a hundred yards of air. Surely it must have begun to rain? That trumpet call had an almost liquid beauty.

The others began to come in from the streets. Animal heat steamed from the dampness of their clothes, with the sweetly-cloying smell of a sheep-pen some October evening. The hairs of their tunics' curling nap were spangled with the first drops of the night's rain. Late-corners were sodden to blackness. Airmen's knees get wet, first, because the edges of our over-coats conduct the drip thither: and the strained cloth over the joint laps up the water in a moment. Life is hard for service men whose spare-clothes are wet through. We have no drying fires: and by day everything, wet or dry, must be folded away to pattern. So it may take a week of night-airing to get them right.

Cook, the ex-seaman, staggered through the door. At once his pals took charge. One hastened to put down his bed while another stretched him on the hut form and stripped him. Together they tucked him up: in turn they held his basin while he vomited. Some laughed at his plight, but the seniors checked them, saying, 'Poor bugger: he's properly loaded.' The sense was that one of us had met misfortune. James, our young and very proud acetylene-welder, sneered with the uncharity of the not-yet-fallen. 'Cunt shouldn't bastard-well drink if he can't carry it.' 'Wait' said Peters angrily, 'till you grow up and a man offers you a wet.'

As I lay dozing, snatches of these Saturday conversations shouted through the din on three sides of my lying-place assaulted my ears. 'Jock had a pot tonight in the wet canteen.' 'Bollocks: the barman only shook his bloody apron at him, and he went arse-ways on the fucking floor.' 'They do the hesitation and the chain in the same movement.' 'Golly, I didn't half want it: she fair lifted.' 'He swore he'd been on sherry and bitters all fucking night, and it was only bastard-well twenty-past six, and the bloody bar hadn't opened till six.' 'Her eyes were starey, like a haddock's: gave my fucking arse-hole a headache.' 'The poshest guy had white shoes, and white flannel slacks, and his blue tunic. Boy, he looked bloody smart.' 'If we're daft they're fucking lunatics at Rugby.' 'What about the brooches lost? The M.C. calls Silence, any Lady lost a brooch? See all the tarts grab their tits.' 'Stoke's famous for cracked pots.' 'Anyway, it doesn't take six cunting towns to make our burg.' 'One snaky piece had a low dress, and she shimmied.'

A fescennine court-martial, some beds off, woke all to full attention, it was so loud. Sailor's rich voice, beer-polished, rose and fell across China's snarl. Lofty was being charged with blanket-drill. 'Swinging the dolphin' Sailor called it with a lapse into seafaring. Corporal Abner moved up two beds to interfere if the parties fell to demonstration: but it ended in alcoholic laughter, by good hap. Drunkenness sometimes unbridles the flesh, as nightmare hounds out the brain.

Without in the darkness the rain affirmed itself. Closer columns of raindrops bore down on the supine earth and drove all life to cover. Lights out came at last, to my craving ear. Silence wiped out their horrid babel and let the rain-sound, already ruling the outer air, win the dark hut and rule it too. There was no moon, only a road-lamp glimmering through the windows to pencil edges of light along the roof-beams and their gallows of rafters, overhead. Very deep in the night I woke again, because a squall lashed our windows. Its wind had cleared half the sky and betrayed the moon's disc wobbling in the wet-filmed panes.




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