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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint


 

21:  THE SOCIAL CODE

Sergeant Lawton, who has general supervision of the fatigue parties, gave me to the camp barber, for today. This job sometimes lets us wangle a free haircut, if trade's slack. Otherwise there is not much in it: the fatigue man keeps the stove burning, sweeps the floors every hour or so and, when there are many customers, lathers in readiness the chins of those awaiting shaves.

A quiet job: but out of it I got a social shock, when the barber began our hut chant of 'Sally'. Did the fellow think himself a man, like us? Troops are so cabined in their private world that they believe the services hold a monopoly of manliness. In them, all we are bound and equal: except this one is quicker-limbed at drill, or that one more experienced. Of class-difference there isn't a suspicion. In our hut newspaper boys and Cambridge undergrads lived level, and tried to speak the same choppy airmen-dialect. But civvies, like this barber, aren't in the picture. His familiar friendliness disagreeably stiffened me. Odd.

Tonight China came back in a mess. He had got half-drunk in the town, and had taken a tart down the canal towpath, to shag her. There he quarrelled with two bargemen: probably his fault, for he is impossibly foul-mouthed, when canned. One he hit: the other blacked his eye. He fell, got a kick in the belly, and rolled into shallow water. When he staggered through the hut to his bed, he was silent and white-faced: but he was always white, with a face of sourness and lewdness incomparable. All thought him merely fuddled. He undressed to the skin, which confirmed our guess. The poorer the man, the more shy of nakedness. We much miscall the officers for their public-school fashion of loosely walking their bedrooms, undressed, before batmen.

He sprawled over the bed, rolling his head queerly and bowing his trunk backward over the head-rail and pillow, with gasps which turned to groans. Then we gathered round, and in a stifled string of oaths he explained his scrap with two civvies who hadn't fought fair. His eyes closed, and his ribs pumped in and out with a struggle for breath. He seemed bad. Feebly he piped for Sailor, his pal.

Sailor came with a leap over the central stall of the hut: and when he had heard the cause of trouble, began to massage his abdomen, heartily. After ten minutes China was lying at peace on the bed. Snaggletooth went to the coffee-bar (which a humane custom permitted till midnight just inside the gate, to refresh those coming in off late pass) and brought back a mess-tin of hot tea. China drank, and slowly fell asleep. In the morning he was at P.T. just as usual, the performance of the night before clean out of memory. I think it had been a craving for sympathy after his beating. Besides, Boyne, our precise ex-officer, had been with China and witnessed the fight: avoiding it, because China was in the wrong. This was a sin against the code of Clerkenwell and Boyne was less of our company, after.

Public-school and state-school do not mix easily. In a pillow-fight some evenings ago several bolster-cases were torn. The Corporal asked for the names of the guilty. Everyone stood mum. Corporal Abner waited a confession: none came. So he pronounced sentence upon us all. We should do three successive fire-pickets, and the damage be stopped in a levy on our pay. An hour later Horder (ex-Haileybury), leader of the pillow-fight, returned off fatigue. When he heard the news he went up to Corporal Abner and declared himself the prime cause and responsible. So we got off free: but the hut was puzzled and resentful. 'Prick, to go bobbing round the Corp and taking things on hisself. Fuck the fire-picket.' He had nipped our pleasure in combining to lie low and take a hut-punishment. We begin to want to be a squad, not individuals.




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