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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint


 

26:  CHINA'S TROUBLE

Last night, taking advantage of there being no corporal in the hut, China, our lurid Cockney, crossed after lights' out to Snaggletooth's bed and had a half-hour's whispering with him. Snaggle (one of his incisors has been snapped across the middle) is a man of twenty-four, reliant and knowledgeable, who did six years in the Army; though he wouldn't admit it to Stiffy the other day. I guessed China was in trouble, and saw its traces at fatigue-time next day, when he was silent and more than ordinarily bitter-faced. Not that the look of this pallid whirlwind-biting sneerer was ever a whit genial.

The afternoon was Saturday and our off time. I had a craving to lose sight, for a moment, of this camp which has been part bagnio, part ergastulum, and, till of late, wholly disagreeable. So I dressed all in my shoddy glory, and walked towards the little town. By the tram-stop outside the Seven Bells stood China, biting his nails on the kerb, a picture of uncertain discontent. When two airmen cross on a pavement they exchange an esoteric wink: but China put out his hand, 'Half a minute, Bo.' He walked into the road, gazed down the empty tram-line, came back and said hoarsely, urgently: 'Come and have a drink.' I hesitated: China's drinking would be death and damnation to me: but clearly such urgency had cause. I went inside.

'Mine's a bitter,' he confided in his half-whisper. 'Yours a small port?' His notion of a posh drink: and in the hut I'm posh, not for my bookish accent (pound-note talk) but for having the only active wrist-watch. Not ten times but fifty times a day I have to call out the hour, by request. Being patient, always I do it exactly: and in return courtesy they defer to me, when they seek something, as 'Mister.'

However, the drinks were served. A crony of China's, corporal of service police, was drawn into our round. China began to jerk out that his bird had turned up from Londonderry, that day, to find him; and now he must straightway marry her. He'd met her when he was garrison in Ireland, and had told her that as soon as demobbed he'd join the R.A.F. So she had searched him out. 'Must you marry her?' asked the Corporal. 'Well, a girl with guts enough to come across and find me... she's a boxer; a proper champ.' China was so moved that he forgot his f. and b. adjectives. The Corporal agreed one must play up to a girl like that. A champion boxer: just so. The next round was on me.

China was yet ill at ease: bleak: miserable. There was more. It seemed he had been warned yesterday that on Tuesday he was to leave for Halton where he'd been posted for training. Short notice: but the Corporal knew Halton; and encouraged him. She could enter the R.A.F. hospital there, and get it over. A bramah hospital... China interrupted, trembling, 'Yes, that's three bastard fucking days off. Where the fucking hell am I to get the girl lodgings in this cunting place? The old girl gave her three quid for coming over. They're R.C. like me. It'll have to be a civvy marriage: can't square the padre by Monday.' He was near crying. The Corporal began an air-force-law explanation of what China must do. 'The Old Man's married;' (that's the Squadron Leader for whom I suffered last week) 'he won't be hard on you, if you tell him all about it. He'll let you off light.'

The tram was heard, and the Corporal left us to air his police armlet on the pavement. He had spoken decently, to my surprise. The army has a rule that N.C.O.s mayn't consort with privates - or rather, there was such a rule before the war. In the R.A.F. all men are equal: an amendment which makes much for efficiency and modesty. But we don't count service police as men. Unhappy hybrids: - they can earn their fellows' praise only as they neglect their duty.

China gloomily offered another drink. A pity the Corporal's duty had abstracted him when it was his turn. I was scenting lack of money as China's trouble, so took the round myself, being careful to let him see the two pounds in my pocket. 'If the cash would be of any use, China?'... He grabbed at it like a drowner. 'Christ Almighty: hope you'll not want to be paid right now... Well, I'm buggered, who'd have fucking well thought it.' Leaving the drink he rushed out and on to the east-bound tram, after wringing my hand to the bone: I took my penniless way back to camp. The money was what he'd wanted all the time, but his hardness had made him too brittle to ask me directly. Also he'd needed the relief of confession to his unlikeliest confidant. We'd lived together since August: yet, only two days ago, he'd told little Nobby I was a deep fucker, whom he couldn't sort of size up.

You see, I cannot play at anything with anyone: and a native shyness shuts me out from their freemasonry of fucking and blinding, pinching, borrowing, and talking dirty: this despite my sympathy for the abandon of functional frankness in which they wallow. Inevitably, in our crowded lodging, we must communicate just those physical modesties which polite life keeps veiled. Sexual activity's a naïve boast, and any abnormalities of appetite or organ are curiously displayed. The Powers encourage this behaviour. All latrines in camp have lost their doors. 'Make the little buggers sleep and shit and eat together,' grinned old Jock Mackay, senior instructor, 'and we'll have 'em drilling together, naturally.' But China and I had defeated him. In camp we were strangers: and the wall of our strangeness broke down only here, outside camp bounds, when he and I were the two surviving spots of blue in a world of plain clothes.




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