17: CORPORAL ABNER
After Sunday dinner, for some, a sleep. That's the worst of living in a bedroom with only beds to rest on. 'Off duty into kip,' says the old sweat, that contemptible type of routine-sodden brain. Not that any of us try to bulge with mind. Many airmen have had schooling and have been curious. Thus Horder, two days back, borrowed my Laforgue and has been chuckling slyly over its recondite humours: but happiness in the service and (still more important) good-fellowship, jointly entail our living on the surface.
There lies a golden mist of laughter - even if silly laughter - over our hut. Shake together fifty-odd fellows, strangers of every class, in a close room for twenty days: subject them to a new and arbitrary discipline: weary them with dirty, senseless, uncalled for yet arduous fatigues... but there has not been a sharp word between any two of us. Such liberality of body and spirit, such active vigour, cleanliness and good temper would hardly have persisted save in the conditions of a common servitude.
More and more I feel that the hut receives its serenity from our corporal, who has personality to lend out. The grave brooding of the man has grown dominant. At first he was gentle, admonitory, perhaps father-like. With time he tightened: and our younger fellows resenting (or wishing to taste?) the bit, danced angrily. We have been led here by our innate impulses and are offering the R.A.F. our best. So the curtness of command and its professional severities jar on us. The spur would feel more earned towards the end of the stage. Yet I suspect Corporal Abner is right to harden us early. So large a service cannot be all good. We are its ridden beasts; and of our officers and N.C.O.s some will be bad riders. We must acquire the stolidity to carry on and like the work too well to let it suffer, however they mishandle or punish us, ignorantly. The R.A.F. is bigger than itself.
Abner showed himself very much of a man: but always he was a little sad and quiet. I, hating noise, was grateful that he did not bark like an imitation sergeant major; I suspected him of resenting much that he had to make us undergo, and of seeing the futility of most routine. Routine is too often an easy way of saving thought. Also he bore the Powers' abuse for our shortcomings. We could not be well tutored, because we were scattered, day long, on fatigues. We were too raw to group ourselves, too independent to ask humbly, too ignorant to know what we had to learn. We were more than content, indeed proud, if we scraped through the day unhurt.
So Abner could not hope to achieve great things with us. He was courteous to sincere enquiry, sardonic towards the thoughtless, brusque with the shy. He exacted quick obedience to any order (when at last he drove himself to give one) and threatened the slack. The rebellious? Not yet; we had joined to serve: but many did not care enough about his trifles, and were still lively. At last, after five weeks' patience, he denounced fourteen of us to the Sergeant Major, for untidy kit. The punishment was an extra fire-picket each: a trifle, and he had long endured: but they hated him for it.
Had he been humorous or lewd we should have borne him better. But Abner was ever serious. 'Who's this fellow with no boots by his bed?' was his complaint one morning. When he recognised his own bed he only passed on, grimly. Hard, no doubt, for an oldish man to lodge, week after week, in a monkey house like ours. He had no conversation for us, but one afternoon two friends came for him and he took them to the canteen and entertained them till closing time. Rumour makes him roaring drunk last year at Hendon, on Display night, while he oversaw the clearing of the refreshment tents. We hope so, and repeat the tale to convince ourselves.
Abner was strong-faced with a hollow jaw like a tank, level brows and a broad low forehead. His regard was direct and disconcerting for his eyes were curiously deep and his lower jaw - that very heavy lower jaw - dropped a little. So his parted lips seemed ready either to smile or to speak. It gave him a deliberate air: but always his word was grave and I suspected always pity in his smile.
He was an artist in soldiering, in dress, in kit-folding. None of us could in half an hour equal the bed he squared in three minutes. Yet everywhere was this puritan avoidance of display. Almost he seemed ashamed of being smart. Later, when we had left the Depot, we found this was the mark of the real airman as distinguished from the 'Stuffy pet'. Meanwhile he puzzled us. Of course he was old. In the war he had been an army signaller. He had earned three wound-stripes, and handled our noise as if we could never be things to be afraid of. Only he had too little laughter. Yet, on parade, he would be evidently laughing in his eyes as he poised himself to face us, rocking back a little on his heels to cry an order. What was it so amused him, then?