The White “Clinker” [short story, 16 February 1918]

[Editor: A short story published in Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, no. 2, 16 February 1918.]

The White “Clinker.”

To-morrow, old man! There’s a place where to-morrows don’t exist. There’s no to-morrows there! No to-days, no Mondays, no Tuesdays, no Good Fridays nor bad Fridays, nor any days at all! When you touch gravel inside a detention gaol, old son, its just TIME — TIME — hung, drawn and quartered into lumps o’ work, and physical jerks! It’s a brick kiln, that place, kid, and its damnably clean, logical and well-thought out in its arrangements. The law and order architects thought of most things, old son, and cut out anything sugary.

My son, that place is the quintessence of wowserism! A sky-pilot yapping about the future would be wasted there — there’s nothing else to think about — it’s all Future! . . . ’Cept once, there was ONE To-day. And number thirty-two made it. And he made — well — Thirty-two was on C3 landing, a row of little grey homes for naughty swaddies, and long sentence cusses at that — beauties, every one, my son, the very salt of the clink.

He had broken pretty nigh every written and unwritten law, and there wasn’t a white spot on his military body.

When Thirty-two got going at his cell work, sandbag stabbing, I could just see his head through my top grating, and I timed my work by him. Why? Well, we weren’t out for cutting each other’s throats by speeding up with cell work and you can’t get any warmer by turning out sand-bags at break-neck speed.

Silence! Silence! Yes, silence, old son, that was our worst punishment, and who could blame us if we found out ways and means of communicating.

Bang! bang! bang! went the cell doors. Thirty-two toed his mark and stood at attention. “Work out!” snarled old Clickety, the warder.

With a clatter, the rifles, utensils, and finished work were piled on the landing. Bang! bang! bang! went iron doors again; a jangle of keys, a shuffle of slippered feet, and we were free to enjoy fifteen minutes of what? — nothing!

Carefully screening my actions from the peephole, I rolled a beech-leaf toilet paper cigarette, and succeeded in getting a light from an improvised tinder and steel. The smoke was carefully directed down the ventilator. By holding my arm in front of the light, I could cast a shadow on Thirty-two’s table. Five times I signalled, but Thirty-two made no response.

Something up, eh! Unusual for Thirty-two. Was a warder watching? It was always risky for Thirty-two to signal back for he had to face the peephole in the door. No, it could not be that, for he had his back turned towards me. Dopey or homesick, perhaps. Poor old Thirty-two! He had done two years of doubling to the tune of the drill sergeants, and had earned four months’ remission of sentence. Could he carry on until his time was up? I often doubted it. The warders socked the boot into him more than ordinary. So, oh, Mr. Thirty-two, that’s the joy, is it? A letter, eh? Wondering whether it was safe to read it, eh? Who has given it to him? Who has managed to crib a pencil? After a weak fight against the lure of the forbidden fruit, he opened the letter.

No. Thirty-two’s luck was out, old son. The corridor warder had glimpsed him through the ventilator on the upper landing.

“Wot’s yer little game now, Thirty-two? Don’t yer move till I get down there!” Old Clickety the warder got down thirty-six steps from the top landing in twelve steps — I counted them. Thirty-two remained sitting! His luck was out alright!

A jangle of keys, a bolt was shot back, and I could just see the leering dial of old Clickety as he faced Thirty-two. “Gimme that letter!” he demanded. Thirty-two toed his inspection mark and stood to attention. “Gimme that letter!”

Not a word from Thirty-two. “Look ’ere! if you don’t gimme that letter and tell me who wrote it, you’ll get a D.C.M. as well as lose yer remission!”

No move from Thirty-two. “So that’s it, is it? You think you’d like another year in His Majesty’s Hotel, eh! Right oh, old cock! I’ll see as how you get a pressing invitation. The menu’ll be bread straight and water cocktail for a while. En if I finds out who’s got that pencil, you’ll be having company.” Thirty-two never moved or spoke. He might look to be a poor specimen of humanity, a sort of cuss that fits a prison suit to perfection, but he held on dead tight to that letter. Whatever he was guilty of, he wouldn’t peach on a pal.

“Strip!” snarled out old Clickety’s voice.

He knew something about making a search, did old Clickety, but after about a quarter of an hour of it, he gave up the task.

Bang went the iron door again, the bolt was shot home, and Thirty-two looked up at me and actually smiled. Yes, my God, Thirty-two smiled, and spat out the remains of his letter!

He wasn’t all black that clinker.

E. Shonk.

Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, no. 2, 16 February 1918, pages 10-11

Editor’s notes:
D.C.M. = District Court Martial

peach = inform, dob in

sky-pilot = a member of the clergy, especially a military chaplain

wowser = someone who is puritanical, bigoted, censorious, or overly moralistic, particularly those who aim to force their morals upon others (in the past, the word was especially applied to temperance campaigners)

[Editor: Added closing quotation mark after “remission!”]

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