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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint


 

16:  MESS DECK

The dining hail (Mess Deck in our tongue) was a vast cross headed hall, with floor of resonant cement, about which the iron legged forms and tables were dragged with a sound of thunder. Din filled its walls at meal-times, when we packed in, twelve a table, all talking deeply through food-thickened throats. Din of the iron food-trays: din of those who wielded the heavy serving-spoons. The last two corners to each table have to fetch the grub from the kitchen (in a bay off the central limb) and dish it out. So tables are filled at the run, men jostling each other to avoid the invidious last seats. Their boot-nails scream like tearing silk or the swilled floor: a sharp sound which went well with the occasional sharpness of knife or fork against a plate.

Across this body of noise would cut the sudden whistle of the orderly sergeant, to introduce the officer of the day. If these were decent fellows they came in hat in hand: if old soldiers, they swaggered through as in a street. At each table when they passed, the end man would jerk to his feet, bark 'No complaints Sir,' and drop like a shot rabbit. He could not stand longer for the form cut into the back of his knees: so a bobbing undulation and staccato fire of words marked their progress. There were never complaints: we might be recruits but we knew that first law of safety. Just the fast work with knife, fork and spoon went on till the plateful was finished and a swill of water from one of the table's four mugs washed it down. Meat came in one tin, vegetables in the second: and often pudding in a third.

The division was as fair as haste and amateur judgment allowed: though a recording angel, taking down our talk, would not have thought it. We pretend to the lowest opinion of our betters' honesty. If margarine is short, it is the cook who has pinched it, or the Air Ministry is saving on our rations. Biscuits (not eatable biscuits, but the iron ration) are issued in place of bread for Friday's tea: - because we are paid on Friday, and the Air Ministry wants our hunger to give the canteen first pick of our pockets.

We soon grumble at the food, and grow tired of it. If we have any money we are likely to reject it queasily, and go buy much the same stuff in the canteen. The atmosphere of Mess Deck was against any estimation of its meals, and forbade the entertainment of any flavour but its own. To enter the echoing place between meals was repellent. The dank gloom so caught throat and nose with its reminder of cooked meat.

Sometimes the Powers, suspecting monotony in our diet, order the cooks to create a novelty. God save His airmen! Tinned salmon and fried onions they gave us for breakfast once. 'Hell' shouted China. 'Next it'll be winkles and fucking watercress.' Again: - 'Chips for dinner: fuck 'em,' said Hoxton in disgust. He had always eaten his chips of an evening, with fish, from a stall. Your workman dislikes the untried. Yet at the end of dinner Hoxton wiped his mouth with a 'Well, that wasn't too bad,' the services' highest word of praise. Stomachs agree upon only one point: that bacon and eggs make the world's richest breakfast. Give to a table twelve spindly brine-sodden rashers, and a tin of stale eggs noisomely splattered in the grease which a half-hour ago had been frying fat - and twelve men will roll out of Mess Deck, ripe-feeling and full, with praise of the messing officer. 'Bon' are bacon and eggs.




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