The War in the Air – Day 18 of 115

“There’s people in the world,” said Bert, “who wouldn’t recognise us, who’d know them bicycles again like a shot, and we don’t want to go on with no old stories. We want a fresh start.”

“I do,” said Grubb, “badly.”

“We want to forget things–and cut all these rotten old worries. They ain’t doin’ us good.”

Nevertheless, they decided to take the risk of these bicycles, and they decided their costumes should be brown stockings and sandals, and cheap unbleached sheets with a hole cut in the middle, and wigs and beards of tow. The rest their normal selves! “The Desert Dervishes,” they would call themselves, and their chief songs would be those popular ditties, “In my Trailer,” and “What Price Hair-pins Now?”

They decided to begin with small seaside places, and gradually, as they gained confidence, attack larger centres. To begin with they selected Littlestone in Kent, chiefly because of its unassuming name.

So they planned, and it seemed a small and unimportant thing to them that as they clattered the governments of half the world and more were drifting into war. About midday they became aware of the first of the evening-paper placards shouting to them across the street:–


               The War-Cloud Darkens

Nothing else but that.

“Always rottin’ about war now,” said Bert.

“They’ll get it in the neck in real earnest one of these days, if they ain’t precious careful.”

So you will understand the sudden apparition that surprised rather than delighted the quiet informality of Dymchurch sands. Dymchurch was one of the last places on the coast of England to be reached by the mono-rail, and so its spacious sands were still, at the time of this story, the secret and delight of quite a limited number of people. They went there to flee vulgarity and extravagances, and to bathe and sit and talk and play with their children in peace, and the Desert Dervishes did not please them at all.

The two white figures on scarlet wheels came upon them out of the infinite along the sands from Littlestone, grew nearer and larger and more audible, honk-honking and emitting weird cries, and generally threatening liveliness of the most aggressive type. “Good heavens!” said Dymchurch, “what’s this?”

Then our young men, according to a preconcerted plan, wheeled round from file to line, dismounted and stood it attention. “Ladies and gentlemen,” they said, “we beg to present ourselves– the Desert Dervishes.” They bowed profoundly.

The few scattered groups upon the beach regarded them with horror for the most part, but some of the children and young people were interested and drew nearer. “There ain’t a bob on the beach,” said Grubb in an undertone, and the Desert Dervishes plied their bicycles with comic “business,” that got a laugh from one very unsophisticated little boy. Then they took a deep breath and struck into the cheerful strain of “What Price Hair-pins Now?” Grubb sang the song, Bert did his best to make the chorus a rousing one, and it the end of each verse they danced certain steps, skirts in hand, that they had carefully rehearsed.

“Ting-a-ling-a-ting-a-ling-a-ting-a-ling-a-tang… What Price Hair-pins Now?”

So they chanted and danced their steps in the sunshine on Dymchurch beach, and the children drew near these foolish young men, marvelling that they should behave in this way, and the older people looked cold and unfriendly.

All round the coasts of Europe that morning banjos were ringing, voices were bawling and singing, children were playing in the sun, pleasure-boats went to and fro; the common abundant life of the time, unsuspicious of all dangers that gathered darkly against it, flowed on its cheerful aimless way. In the cities men fussed about their businesses and engagements. The newspaper placards that had cried “wolf!” so often, cried “wolf!” now in vain.

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