The Death of William Posters, p.1Alan Sillitoe
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The Death of William Posters
All afternoon Frank Dawley walked across the Lincolnshire uplands. Grey cloud corrugated the sky and deadened the sound of his feet on the metalled road. His mind had changed with the landscape since leaving Nottingham, surprising him at times by its breadth. A dog-wind snapped at the back of his head. The country was bleak, hilly and monotonous, and he had no reason for walking along that particular stretch of narrow road.
Journeying was cheap. The sale of his car had enriched him by four hundred pounds which he had split and spun out at ten a week for himself and ten for Nancy – rather than be shoe-horned into another job. He left his suitcase at his sister’s and set off with a small rucksack, walking, or hitching rides along whatever road suited him. Sometimes he would wait for a lift and, seeing a car coming from the opposite direction, would walk across and thumb that, set off north before south, east instead of west, all decisions meaningless now that he had made the great one of his life. One leg took him from Reading to Manchester, with a TV producer in a jungle-green Jaguar, which Frank also drove and so got him there in half the time by steering through the night, after a beano dinner at some typical English pub with Spanish waiters – coffee, brandy and a skittle-shaped cigar to follow, which this TV bloke said would go on expenses, so drink up and let’s blow town, he added, trying to imitate Frank’s life. Blinded with drink; Frank wasn’t, so let him sleep in the back while he, glad to be at the wheel after a fortnight on foot, took them steadily north through wind and drizzle, the radio playing softly the Fly-by-night Favourites for nomad boozers. He felt light and free, so quick moving and empty of all responsibility and the black care of a working life that he expected a flashing light to flag him down, a copper’s voice on the beam-end of it barking for his passport and licence and laughing in his face that it was too good to last. But even his passport was in order, the first official document he had ever voluntarily applied for, on whim six months ago, for no reason but just in case, as important a secret to keep from his wife as if he’d got another woman to warm the other cold half of his life. It was a blue book, new and empty of foreign stamps, the first book in his life he had bought which wasn’t a paperback, and he didn’t begrudge the price of twenty-five bob, but merely wondered what impulse had forced him to buy its so far useless bulk.
When tired of lifts he wandered along lanes and minor roads, revelled in the smell of fields subsiding under dew and mist, the drift and tread of dead leaves, the steaming semicircle of cows staring him out as he sat a few minutes on some gate to eat bread and meat.
A limpid watery sun shone through, livened the grass, and waterdrops fell from branches as if melted like wax by the faint warmth. He walked on, only memories taking over the space of dominant sensual impressions. This made him look as if walking somewhere, though there was no objective in his mind. There was too much to slake off as yet. He was just above middle height, with grey eyes, and darkish hair that gave a sallow and tough appearance to his face. A fairly high forehead when he thought to brush his hair back denoted intelligence, though not the assurance of using it properly every time it was called for. A short white fishbone scar had stayed above the left eye after a pop bottle burst there as a kid. It was the face in which a smile would be giving too much away, betraying the deadpan working-man exterior consciously maintained. Stern, it was fenced up to stop things coming in and going out, often with little success due to an exuberance over which he had little control.
Walking along black midnight roads, off the main trunks where cars were scarcer, ready to tramp all night and like it, the wound of his separation from Nancy reopened. He had often considered packing up his life with her but never imagined it would be on a Saturday afternoon. Such a day made it more sure and permanent. If you walk out on Wednesday you are back by Friday. If you pack up on Friday you walk into work on Monday like a zombie and clock in, going home in the evening for your tea as if nothing has happened. If you leave on Tuesday it’s only a joke, a bit of bluff, but in the cool dead hour of Saturday afternoon it’s almost like cheating it’s so serious.
Walking up the path, he had turned in towards the back door, and thanked God no one was at home. There were so many baby and doll prams thrown by the step that it looked like a bloody cripples’ guild. The five-year rage that had led to this had deserted him; yet it had left him so cool at last that his purpose was inflexible – so inflexible that he distrusted it. Even his heart wasn’t beating faster than normal.
Apart from the good clothes on his back he was surprised at how few he had. They hardly filled the case, and two were bulging when he first came. All the less to carry away, he saw. I’ll get rid of the car and travel light, nothing I can’t pick up in my own two hands. He looked along his row of books: Camp on Blood Island, Schweik, Sons and Lovers, War of the Worlds, Dr Zhivago – to pick out the best, books he had read and enjoyed but finally didn’t trust. Lady Chatterley’s Lover should have been there, but he’d thrown it on the fire in anger and disappointment.
Under the bookshelf was a pile of all-sort records. He was going to look through them but didn’t because he’d leave the gram for the kids. The paperbacks looked derelict, forlorn in his bedroom where he wouldn’t sleep any more, possibly the only things in it that would draw his thoughts there now and again. It was easy to shed leaves out of a thriller from way back. Held over the fireplace, its guts fluttered down, loose enough to make a fair body of flame when he put his lighter to it. Unwilling to see the flame fold up its yellow wings and die in this cold cage of a grate, he split another volume, tearing pages quickly to keep the fire on the upreach, his hands warming at the work and heat, hardly aware of what they were doing. Satisfied when all were burning, he closed his suitcase, and turned to carry it downstairs.
‘Where the hell do you think you’ve been all night?’ Nancy wanted to know, standing in the doorway. His eyes stung from the paper smoke, lips hot and dry. It was hard to answer, but he’d lose no time over it once they moved from the head of the stairs. Her tone changed to one of solicitude for herself, the kids, for him, on seeing his case: ‘Where are you going, then?’
‘Let’s go down,’ he said, moving by and soon half way to the living-room. She called after him: ‘What have you been burning?’ A picture swamped her, of him tearing up their wedding photos, snapshot albums of outings with the kids, marriage certificate maybe, papers and souvenirs that had held them together by more than flesh. ‘What did you do that for?’ she cried, following him. ‘You didn’t need to do that.’
He stood in the hallway. ‘I didn’t burn anything of yours, or ours. I can’t put up with things any longer. I’ve got to go.’
She stood also, still in her coat, her pale face unable to show the thousand expressions crowding behind its façade like corroding moons. They looked at each other. Instinct told him to run, but he was somehow unable to move as long as she was without speech. ‘I don’t understand it,’ she said. ‘Honest. I don’t understand. I knew this would happen though, when you didn’t come home last night. Why did you make me wait all day before I was sure?’
‘I got back as soon as I could.’ Their voices were as closely matched by the twin tones of brevity and desperation as their bodies had often been in the timing and rhythms of love-making. He thought of himself making love to her – on a long summer afternoon when the kids had been packed off to her sister’s, and even when there had been no kids – but such memories were dead, noth
‘I asked where you were going,’ she snapped.
‘What difference does it make? I don’t know.’
‘Well, I’ve got to know. I’ll want money from you every week. You don’t think I’m going into a factory to keep your kids, do you?’
‘I’ll see you’re not short.’
‘You’re always ready with the money, I will say that. Money cures everything, don’t it?’
‘What do you want me to do? Chop off my legs and leave ’em behind? If it’s finished it’s finished. Or maybe it’s only me that’s finished. I’m twenty-seven and I feel like sixty.’
‘I don’t know what you mean. I don’t think you do, either.’
‘Maybe not. I’m off just the same.’
‘I hope you enjoy it.’
They stood like two armless people under the short claymore sentences chopping across each other, dry, painful and cutting deep. ‘I suppose you’ve been fed up with me, as well, lately,’ he said.
‘I was fed up with you five years ago. But I’m not like you. I thought: “We’re married, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s that. This ain’t what I thought it would be like at all, not what the stories and magazines or my own mind led me to believe, anyway, but here it is, this is life.” That’s what I thought, and it didn’t take me long to get to it.’
‘I can just hear your mother saying that. “You made your bed, now lie on it.” It must have made her happy to say it. But I’m not going to be the one to lie for good on the bed you’ve made. Nor on the one I’ve made, either. It’s finished, I tell you.’
‘Don’t keep saying it, then. And don’t call my mother. She’s not here to answer back. It’s a good job for you as well, or you wouldn’t be getting off so light. She helped us a lot when she was alive.’
‘I’m not getting off anything at all. I wouldn’t even bother to argue with her if she was here. I can never argue with people I hate. I just want to get away from them.’
She laughed, and he felt bitter because it stunned the fact that he really wanted to explain things. They stood, unable to walk back from each other, attracted and held like two magnets in a field of iron filings. Their thoughts struggled towards unity of expression, but found it as difficult as if buried deep under a mass of twisted metal, pinned hard, stultified and killed as soon as the desire for release became known. They had lived together too long to produce explanations that either would in any case believe.
He picked up his case and opened the door, walked out of the house for good, a departure so quick that he later reflected that it must have left her with an appalling undying bitterness. He went along the path, a lighter tread than when he came in from work every evening. The gate slucked, instead of the backdoor rattling. His footsteps got quieter, instead of him walking gruffly across the kitchen to hang his grease-stained cap, mac and knapsack on the hook, before swilling his face at the sink and sitting down to tea and kidnoise.
He stood, leaned on a gate, head down and roaring like a muzzled bull before the shambles. It was a black road, with no moon to help, no stars to goad him on. If his legs hadn’t suddenly and for no reason gone on strike against walking, the wound would not have burst. Immobility was still his death. It wasn’t that he had regrets, wanted to go back and wallow again in the bitter salt and honeycomb; but he was roaring at blind solitude surrounding him, at a hermit-like future pulling him in and boding little for his own good. He wondered how long he could go on living through various days and black nights before being drawn into the pit of another job, bed, and life even more null and commonplace than the one that he didn’t yet know in any respectable language why he had left.
Autumn was no time for travel, certainly, hitch-hike, push-bike and footslog, but he was cursed by the St Vitus zig-zags – and who looked at a calendar before running from a long and painful suffocation? He’d intended making his way slowly around the country, but free transport winged him beyond this speed. His skill at driving often shortened each lift in time, and his gift of talk also made a long drive shrivel, the road a spinning discarded umbilical cord lost in bad weather between green fields and sunken crossroads. England was tiny, he’d always known that, but the proof of it in getting from one side to the other in a day gave him the delirium trembles and the kennel-mania shackle-fits. In a fortnight he’d been up to the Lake District, dipped into Cornwall, bounced against Wales, and sped over the flat ditch-crossed Fens between Spalding and Wisbech; hypnotized on the beach near Grimsby by long shimmering febrile blue-black waves speeding at even pace up the immense zone of sand – each one following the other as if to get out of reach of the deep sea where they might drown. Dogger Bank and the Rhumba-Humber, a North Sea cloud spat in his eye and drove him over on the ferry to Hull, as if ‘Bill Posters will be prosecuted’ were written on every blade of grass and white sea wave and he was William himself on the run even beyond cities.
All through the twelve years of his factory days and the years of his marriage he had brooded and built up the Bill Posters legend, endowing the slovenly Bill with the typical mentality of the workman-underdog, the put-upon dreg whose spiritual attributes he had been soaked and bombarded with all through his school, home and working life. Frank had fought them off, being like him in no single way at all. Yet the Bill Posters ethos hung around him like a piteous and dying dog and, being so hard to throw off (he sometimes wondered whether this would ever be possible until he kicked the bucket himself) made life more deep and harrowing for him. It was difficult to get rid of him precisely because his sympathies were in the right place, and because the conditions that made Bill Posters still persisted. In some big way Bill Posters had also been responsible for his exploding out of life so far, leaving wife, home, job, kids and Nottingham’s fair city where he had been born, bred and spiritually nullified. Yet it wasn’t so easy, and on buses and foot he was often cast back into those barren streets to dwell upon the predicament of that man who had a firm place still in his heart.
Poor Bill Posters. Everywhere he was threatened with prosecution. The alarm had been raised for him. The whole country, it seemed, was after him, had been for years in fact, certainly for as long as Frank could remember. He must know no rest, for they were still out to get him, painting his name big and square at every corner, and threatening prosecution. What had he done? Frank had always asked, and nobody would ever say, so it was bound to have been something serious and shameful. He had never seen Bill Posters, but pictured Bill as if he’d known him well, almost like a cousin; saw him as he’d seen him even as a kid of six just learning to decipher those words of menace, as a fairly tall thin man of twenty-seven, thin faced and wearing a threadbare unbuttonable jacket as he hurried, looking from left to right, along the street and round a corner – dodging his everlasting evertrailing prosecutors. Bill was always in a hurry, travelling furtively, travelling light, an unwrapped piece of bread in his jacket pocket which he sometimes munched at as he went along. Sometimes not as much as that to keep him going, maybe only the smell of an oil rag and even that was rancid.
But the great and marvellous thing was that they never got him! Bill had been on the run from birth and was more than a match for his persecutors. They could write his name on every street corner, but they’d never catch Bill – hurrying always one street ahead of them, or perhaps even behind, for he was clever and must have his moments of triumph as, from behind a newsagent’s shutter (the sublime light of underprivilege spreading a smile over his good-natured and cunning face) he watches them painting his name big upon some massive waste-ground wall: BILLPOSTERSWILLBEPROSECUTED – just wanting to burst out laughing yet too smart to give himself away.
He feels a lot as he watches his name
The Death of William Posters by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes