Birthday, p.1Alan Sillitoe
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Arthur dropped gear going downhill. ‘Trams clanked through here once upon a time. Then you got tracklesses. Now there’s ordinary buses. But it pays to have your own car. Saves hanging around.’
Brian’s bedtime reading, set in the smokey-hot olive groves of Greece, was a potent antidote to the sight of his home town. ‘I like driving from London in a couple of hours, to call on the family whenever the mood takes me.’
‘We’re always glad to see you,’ Arthur said. Trains at one time grumbled up and down the double line through Basford Crossing, from the main station in town to populous colliery places such as Bulwell and Kirkby and Sutton-in-Ashfield, not to mention Newstead, which Brian had noted long before he knew of the Abbey and Byron.
‘Coal smoke used to reek as if it would cure the flu,’ Arthur told Avril, out for the first time since her bout of chemotherapy. ‘Even when it makes you cough enough to think you’d got TB it was a tonic for us.’
‘I’ll bet it was,’ she said wryly.
Shops selling food and cheap clothes, ironmongery and paraffin, had been packed around the crossroads. A public library gave shelter to a few down and outs in winter while they read the papers, and those with nowhere to lay their heads at night could trudge to a workhouse not too far up the road. A park for sitting in on sunny days had a pond at the centre, and Arthur thought God help the poor bloody fishes, though they seemed lively enough when fingers twirled the water, even if they did have two heads and a split tail from the bleach works nearby.
Children out of school would shout to be heard above the thunder of the unstoppable rhythmical puffer under its whitey grey coils of smoke, eyes showing envy and maybe fear at an engine that didn’t care (as if it could) whether they lived or died.
Brian remembered counting the trucks, and marvelling at the load a shining black locomotive could haul, staring as if his soul was struggling to get free from under the heaps of coal so that he could run as far away as his feet would take him. Magic names stencilled in big white letters along their sides flickered in his dreams on hearing wagons rattle through by night as well, unseen places more glamorous than the one he lived in.
‘I’m sure it’s altered a lot,’ Avril said, who had been brought up in London, and could only laugh at their talk of past and difficult times. ‘It must have done, by the look of it.’
Arthur recalled standing on the footbridge, which was still there, with its terracotta girders and white grid rail to stop people tumbling over. No more coal trucks laboured under canopies of smoke because there were no collieries for them to go to. ‘We never thought it would change like this.’ Pubs and pawnshops and bookies had been a part of the place as well. ‘There were crowds around here, but it’s a desert now. It’s half past seven on a Saturday night, and where is everybody?’
Shop doors were boarded up: brambles and dandelions sprouted from doorsteps, strips of paper swayed from a hoarding between two shops like the withered arms of a dead octopus, and a faded notice from way back advertised three-piece suits. ‘People are in flats and new houses,’ Avril said, ‘and good luck to them.’
The lights on stop, Arthur gently braked before a wider road with more traffic on it. He would have gone through on yellow, but there was always a flash bastard coming the other way in a BMW to clip you. ‘Some of us didn’t mind living like that. We didn’t know any other life.’
‘I remember telling people at a dinner party in London about my early days,’ Brian said, ‘and they asked whether I’d been happy growing up in a slum. When I said I didn’t remember it like that they thought I was putting it on.’
Arthur pointed out the white stuccoed façade of an old picture house, now an emporium for builders’ materials. ‘You’re right,’ he said to Avril. ‘It wasn’t so good living around here. You just didn’t realize until you left.’
Lights flashed permission for Arthur’s Peugeot to rumble over the crossing. The Methodist chapel, having lost much of its clientele for Christian worship, had a social security office on the upper floor, while newish houses beginning to replace the grubby dereliction of the old looked as if no one lived in them. His attention didn’t deviate from the macadam while nodding to Brian in the back. ‘I expect Jenny’ll get a shock when she sees your phizog at the party.’
‘I suppose she will.’ It was another reason for being here, apart from seeing his brothers, and trawling what places of his youth were still upstanding. They mostly weren’t, many Stalingrads having come and gone on the old stomping grounds, though he’d never stopped regarding his home town with affection, whatever happened to it, hadn’t left with alacrity at eighteen out of dislike for the place as because he wanted to see more of the world. No matter how changed, it was an area in which he had no need of maps. Everything was in the past, but an event could leap to mind with such intensity it might have happened in the last five minutes.
Whatever his age, he contrived not to take in the reality of the staring face during his morning shave, and joking in a pub with his brothers about living forever was a fair reason for drinking to the prospect, while aware that death’s blackout could descend any minute. Lucky the man to whom it came quickly, though going to Jenny’s seventieth birthday party kept such thoughts at bay.
‘It’s a good job me and Derek will be with you,’ Arthur said. ‘We can’t have you getting her in the pod again.’
Such jibes called for the expected Seaton laugh, because Jenny Tuxford, after a lifetime of misery endured with unimaginable saintliness, had been freed at last from an anguish which must have seemed eternal while it was going on. She was his first love, never forgotten, so he had been invited to the party. ‘I never did get her pregnant. Some other swine had to do that.’
They had gone at it every weekend on the settee in her parents’ house like rabbits in a thunderstorm or, to use another local phrase, had many helpings of hearthrug pie in front of the fire. Her father, a miner at Cinderhill, got a good allowance of coal to heat the council house, as if such juvenile passion needed it.
He had never seen her with no clothes on, nor had she witnessed him ‘bare’ – as they would have put it. In those days a man’s shirt wouldn’t come off except over the head, and he might have to pull it back on at the click of a gate latch. It was bad enough undoing braces to get your trousers down, though there was never a man smarter at yanking them up.
Jenny was armoured in roll-on, heavy duty brassiere, lisle stockings and suspenders, though the advance guard of his fingers always closed on the vital spot, which led to the soaking of camiknickers in love juice (the embarrassing term came back to him) until he learned enough from a mate in the factory to call at the chemist’s once a week and provide himself with an adequate supply of french letters. No lack of sex education for him, and with such memories who needed pornography?
Arthur broke in: ‘A woman can have a baby at whatever age she likes, or so I read in the paper. Maybe Jenny will make you use a contraceptive this time, and put your spunk in her deep freeze. She’ll have the kid in five years’ time, and let one of her great granddaughters bring it up. It’s hard to say, with a deep one like her. But if she does have a kid you’ll just have to keep sweating your bollocks off writing them television scripts to pay the maintenance. She might even have quads.’
‘You are a devil,’ Avril laughed, ‘talking like that about a respectable woman.’
‘You never know how respectable anyone is,’ Arthur said, ‘t
A tranquil evening, the blaze of late sun caught the roofs as if to set them on fire. Nearly every council dwelling had its car, sometimes a caravan for whoever hadn’t been able to get far enough from Basford Crossing but liked a look at the Lincolnshire coast now and again. And if they were too dead-alive to go that far a satellite dish pulled in four hundred channels of boring television.
‘This is an area of high crime and vandalism,’ Arthur said. ‘In the old days the houses were a lot closer together, so people policed themselves. They had to, if they wanted to live in peace. Anybody thieving or making trouble would get a good thumping, and if your parents didn’t do it, one of the neighbours would. If anything went missing from a house in our street all we had to do was find Billy Jones, who lived a few doors away. Somebody would put a fist under his nose, and make him give back what he’d nicked. If Billy said it wasn’t him you showed him the other fist and then he’d tell you who it was. I think thieving was in his blood. A woman spotted him taking a meat grinder from under his coat at the pawnshop one Monday morning, and knew it belonged to Mrs Greatton, so she gave him a terrible pasting, and took it back to her.’
Brian laughed. ‘It nearly always was him’ – though you might also say Poor Old Billy, who had even more scars inside than out, and almost from birth had never known where his next meal was coming from. He belonged, if that was the word, to parents who fought all the time, when they weren’t boozed up on dole money, or on the proceeds of whatever their children earned or stole.
‘They had eight kids and a grandma in that family,’ Arthur said, ‘and I’ll never know how all eleven fitted into one little house. I expect they slept in a row on the floor. I went in one day to call for one of the kids, and I nearly got gassed. Nowadays I expect they’d all be in care.’
‘Most families managed better than that,’ Brian said, knowing that not a few of his mates, including Billy Jones, had been packed off to Borstal and then to prison. It was easier to get sent down, because the police looked into every small crime, if they got to know about it.
‘I’ll keep an eye on you at the party,’ Arthur told him, after a silence. ‘You were lucky Jenny’s daughter invited the whole Seaton mob and not just you.’
Maybe he wouldn’t recognize her after all this time. She would certainly look different, and so would he. Mutually knowing each other on the street would be impossible. At sixteen she’d been robust and full of hope, lived only for the passing day, earned her living and had nothing to fear from anybody. If she imagined the future it was only to picture the man who would fall in love with her generosity and treat her as she deserved. SCUM would have his bollocks for thinking so, but in those days it was true, and in any case Jenny would have laughed at such notions.
On days when they walked out, a freshly ironed blouse covered her bosom, and an open brown cardigan (which she had knitted) draped over that, the brown skirt not so low that he couldn’t see her legs. Hair cut in a fringe across her pale forehead fell long and dark over her shoulders.
As a self-absorbed sixteen-year-old youth he had stood on a winter’s evening by the arched redbricked gateway of a clothing factory with Pete Welbeck who was waiting for his sweetheart Lottie. She came out arm in arm with Jenny, among scores of other women who worked eight hours a day among the noise and dust of sewing machines, long rows in a vast room, three floors of women running up pieces of khaki serge to make uniforms, hair hidden from speeding belts by turbans which outlined their features like bathing caps, some worn to show the colour of hair underneath. The only males to be teased and flirted with were lads below the age of eighteen who shifted enormous bundles, or acted as rudimentary toolsetters, tutored by one or two chargehands over military age.
The vitality in Jenny’s gait, even after a day’s work, illuminated her good nature beneath which, nevertheless, a calculated stoicism blandly assessed whoever she looked at. Pete told him next morning that she had been curious about him as well, wanting to know his age, where he worked, and what street he lived in.
They had no photographs from those days, not even separate ones to exchange. Camcorders were ten a penny now, but few people had cameras during the war or for a long time afterwards. Yet the memory was so much richer for dragging scenes back through the haze, whereas clear photographs would do nothing for the reality he and Jenny had known.
Walking the streets, they were said to be courting, but he had never thought the responsibility applied to him, a feckless workman of seventeen (by the time they had split) and nowhere near as staid as Jenny expected. She was too proud, or lackadaisical, or too imbued with a paralysing infusion of both, to broach the fact, only wanting him to speak the homely promise and sooner rather than later.
He knew well enough what she wanted but, in his juvenile slyness, let her wait, caring only that their weekends of love would go on for as long as forever might be. You didn’t think about getting older, or making up your mind on anything as deadly as wedlock, which locked you up and no mistake, having only to recall the past miseries of his parents to know that such a state was not for him.
The parting was sudden, though he had known for some time that she wouldn’t for much longer endure his wilful indecisiveness. He lacked direction in the world as it was, lived in a dream he couldn’t let her share, because even not knowing exactly what it was, he wanted it for himself alone. On the other hand his sensibility, not entirely blunted by selfishness, knew all too well what was in her mind.
Meeting one evening on the street as arranged, she told him she was fed up and didn’t want to see him anymore, but was going for a walk with a couple of girls a few yards away laughing, as if they had put her up to it, he thought. The three of them would sit in the pictures and see what lads they could pick up. He was surprised at a firmness she had given no sign of before, knowing from her tone it was no use arguing, that such determination to pack him in was a kindness that saved him pleading for her not to do so.
In any case he didn’t want to, and his self-esteem suffered no bruising because he went out with another girl too soon afterwards to wonder whether Jenny had chucked him or he had chucked her. There were all the boys for the asking and all the girls for the taking, always had been and always would be plenty more pebbles on the beach, so you had to make hay while the sun still shone.
The same pure breeze from the Derbyshire hills came through the car window on its way to the middle of Nottingham. In winter it was cold enough to work through the thickest jacket, but the benediction of sweet air at the moment brought back all youth’s hopes and expectations.
‘We’ll be a bit early,’ Arthur said, ‘but I expect they’ll let us in at The Crossbow. Jenny’s daughter’s booked the upstairs room from eight o’clock.’ A mile away to the right the M1 crossed the old bucolic courting grounds of Trowel Moor, slicing a wood and a few fields out of existence to make room for a service station. ‘Something else gone forever.’
So will we be soon enough, but Brian didn’t say so because Avril had cancer, and in any case they were going to a celebration. Jenny’s daughter had written to him in London that she and the other grown-ups were arranging a surprise birthday party, and would he come up for it? ‘She talks about you now and again, so I know she would love you to be there.’
You can’t say no to a request which might give some meaning to your life. Why otherwise had he said yes? His existence couldn’t have been more different from Jenny’s, and that of the man she went on to meet. At nineteen she’d got pregnant, and the baby was now the woman of fifty who had organized the surprise party for her mother. After having the daughter Jenny got married and bore six more kids from a man who was to wish many times he had never been born.
‘She used to come up to the house now and again, and have a cup of tea with mam,’ Arthur called out. ‘I suppose she had to talk
Brian nodded. ‘Jenny’s old man was a cheerful bloke, though I expect he knew what I was getting up to with his daughter. Luckily, he was fond of his ale, and went out with his wife to the pub every Friday and Saturday night.’
‘You had it made,’ Arthur laughed. ‘And you fucked her blind on the sofa.’
‘Well, who wouldn’t?’
‘Men!’ Avril gave her usual dry laugh. ‘That’s all you can talk about.’
‘It was the same,’ Arthur retorted, ‘when Sarah called on you a couple of years ago. You thought I’d gone out, but I was in the living room with my ear stuck to the wall. I looked in the mirror, and my face had gone like a beetroot.’
‘I’d have known if you had been there,’ she said. ‘Even when I’m in bed and you go out into the garden I can tell you’re not in the house.’
‘Anyway,’ he said to Brian, ‘I’d have fucked Jenny blind as well. You should have stayed with her.’
‘I ought to have done a lot of things, but they’d have been just as wrong as what I did do.’ His many mistakes in life had only been useful for counting over and over when he couldn’t get to sleep.
‘She’d have had a better life,’ Arthur said, ‘though I don’t suppose somebody like you would have stayed with her for long.’ He nodded towards the mass of clean slate roofs going down the hill. ‘Do you remember all them blocks of flats they built there twenty years ago? They had to demolish ’em after ten years because the partition walls turned into wet cardboard when it rained. A fortune was lost over that, which must have gone into somebody’s pocket. Nobody got sent down for it, and I expect a lot of people are still living in Spain on the proceeds. I’d have stood ’em against a wall and shot the lot. Some made even more money when they built new houses in their place.’
Birthday by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes