It's the first time our crowd's seen an officer close to, except when receiving punishment. No, there was the doctor who vaccinated and inoculated us with immense care, that first Tuesday. Strange he should have kept interest in the technicalities of a job he must do one hundred times a week. Even his eyes seemed to see each one of us, apart, before he stabbed us. Otherwise the practice of the Depot was to set an irrefragable bar of non-commissioned officers between us and our natural leaders. It gave the place a foreign tone, like the Prussian Army or the Legion: and orphaned us yet further. N.C.O.s were graduated, from the magnificently self-esteemed first Sergeant Major (tall, splay-footed, voiced like a costive crow) to the jealous touchiness of corporals. Corporals were of all kinds: but the importance of sergeants! The set lips, the momentous tread, the Roman poise of the hat (all hat and no head, often), the ox-weight and dignity. The back of a sergeant's neck is brick-red, thick and hairless. They have slow eyes. Their natures have put away all childish things.
We stood in sized ranks before the Orderly Room. Stiffy, the Drill Adjutant, who is the beginning and the end of training in the Depot, walked with fierce fixed stare down our line. He puffed out his chest, as if saying, 'Will any of you worms dare to face me, pretending a right to live?' Before each man with ribbons on tunic he halted to ask details of previous service. If he confessed Navy, the military moustache perceptibly twitched. Stiffy was Guards - a sergeant-instructor - and don't forget it! Better forget his commission in the R.A.F. It is the Guards' esprit de corps which makes the normal soldier hate them enviously. We can't believe in anything as they believe in their mob.
Finally Stiffy ordered, 'Ex-service to the right: first enlistments left.' I shuffled left amongst the younger fellows. It will be gayer to see the inexperienced making their own vices. We are 5 Squad and the old soldiers 4 Squad. I was regretting the loss of Sailor, when I saw him and Lofty, the lank Marconi-bloke, and Cook returning to the fold. Stiffy wouldn't pass the Navy as part-trained. 'Calls yer a bloody rookie, does 'e?' scoffed the glad China. 'Old soldier old cunt' retorted Sailor. Corporal Abner hissed Silence at us. Kit inspection in fifteen minutes. We broke into a mad rush.
In rehearsal, kit-laying had taken an hour. First we rolled down our mattresses, and covered them with our brownest and least-torn blanket. The other bedding made a chocolate sandwich at the bed-head. On it we laid our great-coats, pressed as square as a box, with polished buttons winking down the front. On top of that our blue caps. We stood back in the alleyway, and trued the pile upright.
Now the tunic, so folded that the belt made it a straight edge. Covering it, the breeches, squared to the exact area of the tunic, with four concertina-folds facing forward. Towels were doubled once, twice, thrice, and flanked the blue tower. In front of the blue sat a rectangular cardigan. To each side a rolled puttee. Shirts were packed and laid in pairs like flannel bricks. Before them, pants. Between them, neat balls of socks, wedged in. Our holdalls were stretched wide, with knife, fork, spoon, razor, comb, toothbrush, lather brush, button-stick, in that order, ranged across them. Into the displayed housewives were stuck needles ready threaded with khaki cotton. Our spare boots were turned soles-up, each side of the holdall. The soles had been polished black and the steel tips and five rows of hobnails rubbed with emery-paper, to shine. Our five polishing brushes, washed and with glass-papered white backs, were lined across the foot of the bed.
All our official effects were so on view, mathematically spaced, folded, measured and weighed: also largely numbered with our official numbers. That gave the game away. Airmen, for dislike of being ticketed, will not wear garments which are visibly numbered. This stuff was just kit-inspection stuff, and our real dirty brushes, our really worn clothes were hidden in our boxes. 'Proper bull-shit' grumbled Lofty when made to Silvo his boot-blacking tin till it simulated silver. Bull-shit it was.
The Squadron Leader, ex-Navy himself, blew freshly round the hut, not looking at the careful kits, but speaking to each man. A recollection of the savage Commandant made me thankful not all R.A.F. officers disgraced their rank. His eyes lit on my books, and he bent down to my locker - scrubbed spotless inside and out - to read their backs. 'What's that?' he asked of Niels Lyhne. 'Oh, you read Danish: why did you join the Air Force?' 'I think I had a mental break-down, Sir.' 'What, what? What! Sergeant Major, take his name.' He passed on. 'Office nine o'clock,' said the Sergeant Major curtly, with a gleam in his eye.
I was marched in under escort. The Flight Lieutenant was grave. He could give me only seven days and the crime of insolence to a Senior Officer demanded extreme rigour. At last he remanded me for trial by the Squadron Leader I had apparently insulted. 'A good game this: shot at dawn, probably' I said to myself not really caring a tinker's curse. We had all been on defaulters', the R.A.F. punishment, already. 'Jankers,' our affectionate name for it, is mainly an irritant, especially at Depot, for recruits' crimes were expunged from their sheets, when they passed out. There is an hour's drill, in equipment and full pack. That is a mild strain, which leaves the muscles aching. Afterwards come extra fatigues, a joke to us, who already do all a man can do. In the intervals we must visit the guard-room every hour, to report. A man regrets his first dose, bitterly, for it is the loss of his clean sheet: and every recruit begins with the fantastic aim of completing his seven years without a crime. Fantastic, because many senior N.C.O.s chase their subjects till they have got them a dose each. After that, it's a swank to collect many entries. All in our hut were case-hardened - so far as 'Office' was concerned - in less than six weeks.
At last I was run in, guarded and bareheaded, for trial by my cause of offence. When the charge was repeated he burst into laughter. 'Bless my Sowl, Sergeant Major; bless my howly Sowl. I told you to take his name in case we wanted an intelligent man for a job. What damned fool drafted this charge? Get out!' He swiped me, friendly, across the backside with his stick. They say I'm the first man to dodge a charge laid by our S. M. Perhaps. I'm bobbing on not getting that intelligent job from him! In the afternoon we moved to Hut 4.