29: THE LAST FATIGUE
Today we were chosen to bring in Decauville material from a derelict aerodrome six miles to the southward. Twelve of our squad, in two lorries: with a colourless sergeant-in-charge, and a physically vigorous corporal, who lent us all day his two ham-hands, and the thrust of his bulging hips, whenever there was a heavy lift. Seldom have I seen a man whose legs more fully required the width of a pair of trousers: and they were wide trousers. Yet he might have been poured into them, to set solid.
We were gay: yesterday Sergeant Jenkins, our Instructor-to-be, had returned off leave. So our probation was finished. There were lots of new recruits to take over our job of doing the Depot's chores: for the Air Ministry broke the hearts of its successive generations of recruits with this purgatory of fatigues, only to save the wages of fifty men on permanent camp maintenance. However, our successors would have to weep their own tears. 'Hope the poor buggers go through it, same as us,' said James, charitably. Tomorrow we should be on square.
The out journey in the empty lorries had therefore to be a jest: and we gave all-corners the chance to share our jest. 'Beaver!' we yelled at every bearded man (it was the period of the Sitwells' silly game), and every girl was waved to by our boiler-suited crew. As the lorry ground on its way through the villages we gallantly raised the age for girls, till every presentable woman received notice.
School-children cheered us over their playground walls: our five men with the racing engine made a fair return. Policemen we hooted. For old men the slogan was 'Mouldy'. We were all young, you see. We passed two trim airmen on the road, with shrieks of 'Up yer' and the Air greeting, of the right arm outflung, while the extended first and second fingers are jerked sharply upward. 'Shit in it,' they called back, rudely. We mewed like cats at an old woman.
And me? I had shrunk into a ball and squatted, hands over face, crying babily (the first time for years) on one corner of the scudding lorry, which rattled like a running skeleton, and at each leap dinted the impression of one projecting bolt or other into my substance. I was trying to think, if I was happy, why I was happy, and what was this overwhelming sense upon me of having got home, at last, after an interminable journey... word-dandling and looking inward, instead of swaying upright in the lorry with my pals, and yelling Rah Rah at all we met, in excess of life. With my fellows, yes; and among my fellows: but a fellow myself? Only when in concert we obeyed some physical movement, whose pattern could momently absorb my mind.
Just then we passed the canal, where barge-families sat sunning themselves on cabin-roofs. Enthusiasm burst all bounds, and provoked its bargee response. Our mild Sergeant in the leading lorry stopped and adjured us, as a crowd of hooligans, for the love of Mike to stop our sodding row. Half a mile on we screamed: 'Stop, stop!' agony and terror in our tones. The driver, a man of action, pulled up in a thirty-yard skid. 'What for fuck's sake's the matter now?' protested the angry Sergeant, to an empty lorry. Everyone was back up the road, cleaning out a chance-met coffee-stall. Then our driver, canny Yorkshireman, grew confused over the way, and halted to enquire it, under the laden branches of an orchard. The apples slaked our throats, finely.
By afternoon some of the spirit had evaporated from the party. Yet altogether we ran eight lorry loads of the Decauville rails for levelling the Depot's new hockey pitch, and six loads of hand-trucks on a Foden steamer. We picnicked for dinner off bread and bully and apples in the old aerodrome. Our hands were raw with blood-blisters. Our last fatigue: and good value to Trenchard.