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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint


 

19:  SHIT-CART

At eight in the morning four of us stood about the Transport Yard feeling out of sorts with life. Just our luck to have clicked 'shit-cart' on a Monday, the double-load day. Our scruffy driver (all 'Drivers Pet.' in the R.A.F. are scruffy) tickled his bus, and struggled to swing her coldly-sluggish engine. At last she roared off. We flung ourselves at her flying tail-board and clambered in. The lorry turned left, down over the bridge. To M. Section, evidently. Hillingdon House looked forlorn, because of its black windows, behind whose wideness the clerks lounged with their first cups of tea. 'Jammy cunts,' sneered Sailor enviously. Clerks hadn't to get up at six. Our hands were cold and the lorry's dirty body jigged rattlingly over the rough road.

M. Section cook-house. 'Two of you to each' ordered the Corporal. We lifted the tall galvanised-iron bins and staggered with them along the beset kitchen area up the muddy cement steps to the road. There we joined forces, three heaving up the bins while the other, in the lorry, pulled from above. Twenty-six bins, say two tons. A lot of kitchen spoil for eight hundred men? Yes, but each service throws away enough food to feed the other two.

Some of Saturday's bins were packed hard with the settling of their own weight of soot, bones, paper, broken food, plates and glass, hundreds of tins, rotting meat and straw, old clothes: and mouldy green bread which smelt like coconut. Someone had poured gallons of black stuff, like treacle, on the top: and this had cemented even ash and potato peelings into one tight pudding. Four bins refused to tip out: we had to spoon their contents forth with our hands. It was not so bad to the touch, but a shivery sight to see a clean arm go into it: and hard to know how to hold the polluted limb afterwards.

The lorry was half-filled. Up we went in her again. Now we were not tossed about, after she started. The enchaining muck was much over our knees. As the speed increased, the lorry's jerking riddled the load. What was wet and heavy silted to the floor: while the dust and ashes rose to the top. Even they rose beyond the top, in a haze which slowly thickened as the road ran away behind us. To save Camp from the infection of blown filth, Authority had tented over the refuse wagon with a tarpaulin tilt, and prescribed that the back curtain must be kept tightly down. Our today's fatigue corporal was a literalist, so we obeyed literally. Yet the refuse uttered a choke like fire-damp. We four inside passengers stumbled to the tail, and thrust our gasping heads through the crack of the back curtain. By craning round the side of the bus we could get our mouths full of the blessed wind made by our passage at speed up the rising road.

Here's the officers' cook-house. Five bins: cushy: though after forty lifts and carries the single bin feels not so light as it did. On again the few score yards to our cook-house. Plenty more bins: but, thank Heaven, level ground. The thin handles have cut and blistered our finger joints, and our forearms ache with lifting these tons of muck. Also something, probably the reek within the lorry, has cut short our breath at the root. 'Double up with those last bins,' cried the Corporal who knew it was only a few minutes to dinner-time. 'Double up, yourself,' growled Boyne, angry like the rest of us and feeling the full severity of each lift, now, as only a dispirited man can feel long work and the loss of his dinner. I was trying not to laugh at the other three. The ashes sifting into their eyebrows and down their sweaty cheeks had made such smooth old men of them. And of me doubtless, had I seen myself.

Up, down: up, down. A long walk back with the light bin; and a stagger out again with a full one. Up, down: up, down: up, down. The maddening repetition is over. Boyne lends us his hand from above, and we pull ourselves stiffly up the high tailboard. None of this morning's monkey-jumping, now. Down with the curtain again, I suppose. We are buried much more than thigh-deep. As the lorry lurches round corners we sprawl into it helplessly, coughing and spitting. My overall-legs are getting stuffed from the bottom with ordures of sorts. Something bubbly and soft is working up into my crotch. Too smooth for a rat, anyway. We are running fast, just here, down the long stretch to the incinerator. Hurrah, we've passed the canteen and may lift the curtain. Nobody to report us on this road at dinner-time. Clean air began to filter in as the dust and ashes streamed out.

The driver pulled up at the incinerator and we got down to cough and gasp the red back to our faces. 'Back her in and drop the tail-board,' saith the Corporal. But the driver is an old sweat, not a rookie's easy meat. 'Will I fuck! Think I'm on bastard heat? She'll stay as she fuckin' well is till I've had me bleedin' conner.' 'Fall in, you four,' barked the Corporal at us, harshly, to cover his discomfiture: and he marched us stiffly back to cook-house, calling left, right, left—right—left, to draw attention to his regimentality. The squads were just going on for their afternoon drill: we blushed they should see our drudgery. The being marched before onlookers, unnecessarily, humiliates troops more than anything. It rubs in their bondage.

The cook had not kept any dinners: but after a grumble he produced a pan of broken stuff. As the Corporal did not let us fall out for a wash we could not pretend annoyance when they judged us too smelly for the dining hail. So we wolfed our grub, standing, in a corner of the scullery passage, off the lime-washed lids of the bins we'd emptied. Fifteen minutes later we were marching back. Left-right, left-right. Damn the fool.

Now it was spade-work. We had to shovel our load into the hopper of the incinerator. Back-breaking exercise for tired or sorry men. More blisters: months since we had shovelled anything. 'Why O why did I join the Air Force?' comically grieved little Nobby, a weakling whose inclusion in today's party has thrown extra work on Boyne, Sailor the cheery, and myself. Our corporal was driving us hard. After the refuse we should have to fetch the swill, which many called the worst of the job.

We ground back, up the gradient. M. Section's swill (the emptyings of every man's plate, and all wet objects of food judged fit for the camp pigs) filled eleven bins. We loaded them complete into our lorry. They weighed heavier than the rubbish, for every one brimmed with gallons of sour milk. This wasted cow-juice soured us too: camp tea was so bitterly under-milked.

Whenever the lorry jumped a pot-hole the bins erupted over us in great gouts. A stale-smelling bath. Here and there in the camp we found more stuff to pick up: the hospital was throwing much away. Then at last down the park road to the pigsties, whose population squealed us a delighted welcome as their great moment of the day arrived. We poured out grey lakes into each trough and they bathed in it.

Our day seemed finished. The Corporal gave us a breather in the golden sunset, saying. 'Half-past four: pretty good for a Monday.' We failed to glow with his praise. He had not lent us a hand's turn all day. In this he had the letter of regulations on his side: but there were few corporals poor enough to put the letter before the job.

One of our hut fellows had flung me a letter, last time we pounded down the road. I now fished it from the pouch of my swill-stinking stiffened overalls. The splashes we had caught in the lorry were soaking coldly through our shirts, making our skins tacky like perished rubber. The letter too was soaked, and its envelope shredded open in my raw hand. I read with smarting eyes the offer of a friendly publisher to give me the editorship of his projected highbrow monthly 'Belles-lettres'. I stared from the lovely clouds to my foul clothes, and wondered how it would feel to go back.

We imagined we were resting the last moments of the working day so as to return dutifully late to the orderly room for 'dismiss'. But suddenly the Corporal called us to fall in again. 'Cunt thinks he's drilling the fucking depot,' snarled Nobby, beside his thin soul with rage at this pretence to ceremonialise a job of scavenging. Get those forks, and shift the pig-shit into the lorry.' 'Want to make yourself a nice bed, Corp?' questioned Sailor blandly.

We felt like murder. Was the show never going to end? We had done nine hours of it already. I could feel the reality of my own aches: if the others were as bad, then we were a sorry crew. Only I dared not, with my pound-note accent, fall down and fail in a job. They'd have taken for granted I was too soft for man's work. So I lifted the great fork and tried to pick up the stringy dirt. At last it was all in. The lorry moved over to the garden, where was a manure heap: painfully we added our share to the pile. This did end the fatigue. 'You can ride back,' offered the Corporal. Boyne and I jumped out. Not for us one voluntary minute of the uncleanly stench which had poisoned us all day.

At the hut, near six o'clock (no tea for us, of course) we two hastened to wash. The ashes had caked with sweat into every wrinkle of our bodies. So I fetched the hand-scrubber from the hut, and lay in the washing-trough, while he roughed the grainy scab off my back and front, and swilled me down. Then he went over me again, carefully, and pronounced me wholesome. After, I spent a while on him. The cold water stung and chilled us: and the stiff bristles brushed my thin skin into red here and there. We dressed numbly and went on fire-picket. The Sergeant made us clean out the fire-station. I was too broken even to look a protest.

We got back for roll call, and bought ourselves a mess-tin of tea and three sausage rolls from the coffee-stall. At least I paid, having ninepence (Nobby and Sailor were wholly broke) while Sailor found the guts to go over and fetch it us. Boyne, being ex-officer, was over nice for tuck. Then to bed but not, in my case, to sleep. Partly I was too tired: partly the smell of swill and refuse oozed slowly from my soiled things and stagnated into a pool over me. I lay staring into the black roof for hours, trying to forget the five days that must pass before my laundry went.




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