Alligator Playground, p.1Alan Sillitoe
A collection of short stories
A Respectable Woman published in Illustrated London News and Paris TransContinental
Beggarland published in Woman and Home
Ron Delph and his Fight with King Arthur published by Clarion Books
Ivy published in Grant’s Bank Magazine and Orion River Review, USA
A Matter of Teeth published in You Magazine
Table of Contents
A Respectable Woman
Ron Delph and His Fight with King Arthur
A Matter of Teeth
Call Me Sailor
By the Same Author
About the Publisher
FACING EACH OTHER across the table they took care their eyes wouldn’t meet, experienced enough to know that the ley lines of mutual attraction ought not to be played with irresponsibly. When one gaze caught the other the light in both went out, each pretending to show interest only in the remaining half-dozen at the lunch party.
Diana was surprised to note so much detail in a surreptitious glance. A photographer would never achieve the same intensity as her intuition, would at most highlight a face like that of a prisoner of war – static, bewildered, plain – whereas the reality her eyes took in would reinforce her memory, and become part of a floppy disc in the snug case of her brain.
He had the sort of face she would like to deal with in her sparetime painting, but rather than get out her sketch pad she knew that safety lay in listening to Charlotte, whose cigarette ash powdered into her barely touched soup. ‘This Tory government’s simply got to go.’
‘But how?’ Norman Bakewell’s mischievous call set Charlotte diatribing about housing, education, unemployment, the National Health Service and privatisation. Diana decided to look worried, better to fix on Charlotte’s obsessions than be yanked into another ocular contest with the fit man across the table.
Charlotte was a life-long left-winger, grappling such unregenerate views to her bosom as if her existence depended on them which, Diana thought, it probably did, in that she was kept from chewing ivy in the woods, or headmistressing the local coven. She was about fifty, and a little over five feet tall. Grey and meagre hair hung a few inches down her face, but what made the coarse features interesting were lips shaped in the tiniest of bows – a perfect little bow – so perfect yet so out of place in such a grim visage as to give the effect of benign though implacable intolerance. She wore a brown sackcloth garment resembling a gymslip, and no one, except perhaps Henry her husband, had seen her in anything else, as if she had a full wardrobe and took out a clean one every few hours.
The present meal – always called that, never dinner or lunch – was served on a long table in the living-kitchen. No cloth, of course, but the place-mats were distinctive to Charlotte’s house, each depicting an episode in the struggles of the working class. Diana’s showed ‘The Taking of the Winter Palace’ and, as far as she saw on another quick eye-shot, the man opposite, whom she’d heard called Tom, was eating off ‘The Massacre of Peterloo’. The novelist Norman Bakewell, sitting next to her, had ‘The Last Stand of the Paris Commune’, and Emmy Brites, across to the left, lifted her plate and with her big blue eyes tried to make sense of ‘The Death of Rosa Luxemburg’. Jo Hesborn had been given ‘The Strike of the East End Match Girls’, while Charlotte, as always, ate her meal off ‘The Lord Mayor of London Slaying Wat Tyler’.
Diana was saying something to Charlotte, Tom noted. Every clandestine flash never lessened the attraction of what he saw. The workman type overalls of the best thin cloth buckled over a well cut shirt of pale grey seemed a mite old fashioned, but the way the front came across her bosom made her look absolutely delectable. The face attracted him no less, high cheekbones, and a slightly forward mouth due to her teeth, giving an impression of mischief and availability, which he knew better than to assume was so. Her almond shaped eyes produced a heat in him not experienced since first meeting his wife. A large-stoned ring, not on her marriage finger, could mean anything these days. Fair hair, in a neat line across her forehead, was tied behind. He circled back to her face as if to puzzle out why it was so compelling, then gave up so that he could enjoy it.
Norman Bakewell lit a cigar and puffed so busily between courses that Barbara Whissendine got the full nimbus of his smoke, as if she was the enemy from whom he needed to conceal the industrial capacity of his output as a writer. ‘Don’t they make you sick?’ she asked.
‘Not so far, my love,’ he said. ‘I smoke about seventy a week, and do you know, I was thinking the other day that if you put them end to end for length it’d make over six hundred yards, and since I’ve been puffing like billy-ho for forty years I’ve travelled nearly fourteen miles, which is just about right in my slow moving life.’
‘I suppose you worked that out when you had writer’s block?’ Barbara, a rawboned steely-eyed literary agent who hadn’t got him on her books for the simple reason that she wouldn’t go to bed with such a toad in a million years, felt able to slam him all she liked. ‘Doesn’t your wife worry that smoking will kill you?’
‘Wife?’ His roar stopped all other talk. ‘What’s one of them?’
‘It sounds as if she henpecked you.’
Was it the downing of another glass of wine that reddened his face? ‘Did you say henpecked?’
‘Stop it, Norman.’ Charlotte collected the plates, and took the roast meat out of the oven. She knew him as one of those déclassé working-class men who, thinking he had nothing to blame his parents for, or being too sentimental to know where to begin, had reduced one middle-class wife after another to suicidal misery.
‘Henpecked?’ he crowed. ‘You don’t know one half. I got carpet bombed from morning till night. Then she came out of the potting shed, thank God, and went off with a woman.’
Jo Hesborn adjusted her collar and tie. ‘I can’t say I’d blame her for that.’
‘The trouble was, she came back.’
Barbara angled away. ‘And you let her?’
He paused. ‘Wanted to get my own back, didn’t I?’
‘You mean you picked up with a man?’ Jo laughed.
Light from the afternoon sun flashed on his glasses. ‘I didn’t wear my heart on my sleeve like a patch of snot, or cry into my blotting paper. I had an affair with a girl who was too young to think of becoming a lesbian.’
‘So why isn’t your wife with you now?’ Barbara did her best to smile, and wiped the failure away with a napkin. ‘I’m sure she’d love hearing the same old patter.’
Gazing tenderly, he took her hand in his, till she snatched it free. ‘I’m glad I didn’t bring her, or we’d both been fighting over you, darling. She’s finally hopped it, I’m glad to say. Greater love hath no man than this, that he hand over his wife to the tender mercies of a woman.’
Jo Hesborn picked up her empty glass. ‘You bastard! You walking gasometer!’
The missile shattered against his forehead, but he stayed calm, not only as if such an event happened every other day, but as if his existence would be without meaning if it didn’t take place now and again. Even so, the grin barely lit the middle of his pallid face, thin lips suddenly with more curves in them.
He swabbed the
Jo was disgruntled at her failure to obliterate – or at least kill – him. ‘Thanks for nothing, scum.’
‘I confess,’ Norman said, fully recovered, ‘that I’m looking for another girlfriend, though I can’t see myself handing her over to you after I’ve done with her. Every likely looking candidate I come across gets a written questionnaire, in any case, so’s there’ll be no misunderstanding. For instance, I want to know whether or not she smokes. I wouldn’t like her to live longer than me and burn all my letters and notebooks, though I expect we’d be separated long before that. I want to know if she’s married. I don’t want to get a dagger in my back from her squash-playing husband. Can she drive? Then I can get drunk at parties and she can take me home. Is she a dab hand at a word processor? That’s essential, because I’m bloody hopeless with them. Does she have a sense of humour? She’d certainly need one. Are both her parents dead? Mine are, so it’s only fair hers are too. Does she have children? I don’t want any of those puking little bastards competing for attention. In any case, little Crispin with the heavenly curls might grow up to be a yobbo and kick me in for hitting his mother. Does she have a job? – preferably with TV or in films, so that she can get my novels put on. Then, of course, will she keep thinking I’m a genius when she hears me fart in bed at night? Does she have a centrally heated flat in the middle of London? I’ve taken a shine to Pimlico. And does she have a cottage in Dorset, with no neighbours to hear the screams when we start quarrelling and I give her a good hiding? And oh yes – God-Almighty, I nearly forgot – can she unravel the mysteries of VAT? A positive response to such queries might result in a satisfactory relationship for a month or two, but in the meantime,’ he ended, with little-boy wistfulness, ‘I’ll go for any halfway personable woman who takes pity on me. Until the paragon turns up, of course, when I’d throw her aside like an old floorcloth.’
Diana noted the admiration on Tom’s face at how Bakewell had ignored the cut from Jo’s glass, and now his awe at such a horrid screed. Her face was warm with hatred, and she wanted to say something that would wither all men to pitiable stumps, though Charlotte came in before her: ‘Norman, I shan’t buy your next novel if you don’t behave to my guests.’
He swabbed his forehead again rather than quarrel with his hostess, and said mildly: ‘You’ll regret it, if you don’t. It’s called The Lovers of Burnt Oak. Bound to get onto the short list for the Windrush Prize.’ He manufactured an expression of repentance. ‘I’m sorry, though. I was feeling a bit on the dark side of bilious when I flopped out of bed this morning.’ He apologised to Barbara, who responded with silence, so he looked around for another victim. ‘Anybody want to talk about modern English literature?’
He lit a cigar when no one did. He was drunk, and Diana hoped everyone would ignore him, but he was malevolent and wouldn’t let them. ‘I’ll tell you about the new novel I’m writing.’ He looked at Tom, whose firm had beaten all competitors to get him on its list during an auction at the Groucho Club. ‘The hero’s a publisher,’ he said, beady-eyeing Tom as if to damage him for having bought him like a slave at the market, and hoping that what he was going to say would turn into a prophecy. ‘Well, his wife has a relationship – dare I call it, Jo? – with a woman. The husband’s quite happy because it takes her attention from a little bit of business he’s got on, also with a woman. Even so, the wife carries on in so shameless a way that at times he feels humiliated, but puts her affair in cold storage, as it were, to be dealt with in the future. Well, our hero publisher and his wife have a grown-up son, who he’s always suspected to be the result of an early affair of his wife’s, though we’ll let that pass. This son has an affair with the daughter of the woman his wife is passionately involved with. Are you following me? A real alligator playground, because listen: both affairs tail off, you might say, but as time goes on the husband feels slighted and his thoughts stray towards revenge. A few years later he has a relationship with the woman’s daughter that his son has by now finished with, and little by little he blasts her life, as only a swine like him can, to such an extent that she does herself in. The mother then lives unhappily ever after, as a played-out harridan.’
‘You’re sheer fucking evil,’ Jo cried, after the silence. ‘I should have pushed this carving knife into your guts.’
‘It’s a very moral tale,’ he huffed. ‘I was hoping you’d see something of that sort in it.’ He began to cry, head forward over the ashtray, and Diana felt a shameful urge to comfort him.
Jo stood, pushing her chair away. ‘The gas-oven’s the only place for a snotchops like you.’
They walked with their coffee through the French windows onto a large well-shaved lawn, the grass dry enough for those who couldn’t find places on the scattered park bench seats. The softened thump of a cricket ball sounded from the vicarage garden next door as Diana went towards the lilac bushes followed by Jo Hesborn.
Jo worked on lay-out for Home and Country. Her grey eyes sparked from behind the smallest of half-moon spectacles which, Diana thought, might be made of plain glass. Her hair was between fair and dark, the androgynous body dressed in a white silk shirt and tie, and checked trousers. She smoked a black papered cigarette from a holder made of bone.
Diana had heard she was a friend of Charlotte’s because she had ‘impeccable working-class credentials’. It was also put about that as a lesbian she had slept with most of the media women in London, who thought it less of a risk to tangle with the working class through her than get involved with an obese plumber or building worker. Diana considered such slander drummed up by a male chauvinist slob who thought it was witty, because she found Jo likeable, plain and straightforward, and envied her for making the only possible protest against Norman Bakewell. After saying so, she asked: ‘Who was that bloke sitting opposite me? Do you know him?’
She spoke with a modified Northumbrian accent. ‘He used to be a writer.’
‘Why is he here, though?’
‘Oh, he did a reportage, for a magazine Charlotte brought out in the eighties called The New Oppressed. She thought his piece was wonderful – social realism stuff straight from the front line, to use Charlotte’s words, far better than Orwell ever wrote, she said, who she’d always thought a traitor to the working class.
‘Tom lived among no-hopers and winos for a month, hung around DHSS offices, talked to kids on housing estates who loved nicking expensive cars and driving them on wasteland to burn. It was a long piece, went through three issues, but the magazine didn’t last long. Even Tom’s brilliant piece couldn’t save it. The chattering classes weren’t all that interested, and the unemployed couldn’t afford it with their giros. They’d have laughed about it, anyway.
‘Tom said that even before finishing it he decided that all he’d met were unhelpable, or just having a marvellous time burning and looting, for which he couldn’t blame them. I’m sure he’s never said as much to Charlotte, which is why she still likes him. Then he went into publishing, and now he’s on the way to becoming a millionaire, or so it’s whispered in the trade.’
‘What about his love life?’
Jo laughed. ‘Don’t ask! When he was slumming among the deadbeats he fell in love with a young married woman he got talking to in the DHSS queue. Or maybe he fell for another at the same time, knowing him. Anyway, it all went wrong. She saw through him, I suppose. Then he went down like a ton of bricks for this hardbitten tart from the North called Angela, a coalminer’s daughter, who worked at his firm. He married her. Got what he deserved, I suppose.’
‘Is he happy?’ Diana wanted to know.
Jo scoffed. ‘No man can be happy, not even if you got him up in heaven and made him God. I don’t know why you’re so int
Diana felt a sudden frisson, but put the hand gently away from her waist, in spite of the steady light in Jo’s grey eyes, which she found hard to resist. She wasn’t ready for that kind of eating, though might give it a try one day – or night – just as almost every woman wanted to have a baby once in her life. ‘It’s a bit far to get to from the BBC.’
‘If ever you feel like it, let me know.’ Wasting no time, she strode between rose bushes and across the lawn to blonde and secretive Emmy Brites, said to be writing her first novel, and whose peach coloured cheeks turned vermilion when the hand went forward.
Languid, dark and late thirtyish, Tom, when chatting at a party (except to a woman) looked continually over the man’s shoulder to see who it might be useful to meet next. He did it without shame, on the understanding that since who he was talking to would know what was in his mind, and was probably doing the same anyway, he could leave without either being embarrassed. He also assumed that those under his scrutiny were talking about him, which was sometimes the case. Glad that Diana had given that lesbian the pushoff, he walked across to talk to her, as she had hoped he would.
He leaned on the arbour post. ‘I had a lot to say to you, and now I’ve forgotten it all. At the table I thought the block would vanish as soon as we were face to face.’
‘And won’t it?’
‘I’ve never felt such an electric connection in my whole life. It was absolutely amazing. It’s still there, even more now that you’re close and there’s nothing between us.’
Fair, for a beginning, especially since he could have been stealing her words. Maybe that was how he had become a millionaire, though these days you could be fab-rich one week and living in Cardboard City the next. ‘I thought it was wonderful, the way Jo Hesborn dealt with that emotional cripple.’
Alligator Playground by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes