Snowstop, p.1Alan Sillitoe
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For Roy Davids
O eloquent, just, and mighty death! Whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared, thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered, thou hast cast out of the world and despised: thou hast drawn together all the far stretched greatness, all the pride, all the cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet.
Sir Walter Raleigh
One skid of the boot and he would be down, clutching at weak or non-existent straws. Well, Keith Blackwell didn’t want to go down, so he would take care not to, but there was snowy ground ahead and a precipice to the right, and no other way to reach Beagle Tarn except twelve hundred feet up and four miles from Ullsridding.
Rohan jacket zipped against the wind, boots oiled and laced, he carried a small rucksack with an extra shirt, and changes of underwear to be sparingly used, like the soldier he’d briefly been. In one sidepocket were packs of Kendal mint cake, plus a sportsman’s flask of four-star brandy – more for show than sustenance, because you didn’t booze while on the run. In the other compartment was a sheathed survival knife which could skin a rabbit or sharpen a pencil. Four crisp fifties folded into his wallet were equal to the pre-War five-pound note his father had said you should always carry on your person.
Keith was fed up with wheeler-dealing on the telephone, and semaphoring across halls of money. Sooner or later the eyes began to swizzle at dancing firefly figures, fingers numb from tapping keys yet loving the changing cash register screen as if the Mona Lisa was stripping off and getting dressed and stripping off again.
He had BMW’d three hundred miles up a motorway more perilous than the rocky gradient to starboard, threaded the needle of wall-like pantechnicons and the fragile mid-road barrier in a welter of oil and grey rain, all lights on and systems go but blinded each time by enveloping slush.
The stream ran dark green where he set up his tent, pegs into the black butter of the turf to hit rock after a few inches. When the night wind threw its weight, the dank covering came in on him, a swathe of stars clearer than ever above London winking on his effort to get it upright. He was surprised at such good temper because far less disturbance at home would have sent the blood racing with venom. The seemingly sackcloth roof dropped again at five but he ignored it and went healthily back to sleep, head near a gap by which to breathe the sweet air of the Lakes.
Unperturbed at the wreck of his billet, in spite of bruised fingers where the mallet had missed, he pulled his primus from the boot at dawn to boil water and fry eggs, starving hungry and shivering through the coat covering his pyjamas. Using the wing mirror, he shaved with his cut-throat, and took time to dress.
Next night the tent couldn’t even fight back – no way. Forsaking lukewarm mush he ate at a hotel, and stayed, the room unheated, window frames rattling like dried bones. Less comforting to his spirit than the tent, dreams unrolled with a phantasmagoric idiocy matching the final mayhem at home.
Lacing his hood against cutting air that blew bad dreams clear, he went on slowly, boots leaving a trail of grey footprints in shallow snow. Sheep scrounged at tufted grass, no human near as he looked at the map because white had untraced the path. His lungs ached from cigarettes, ankles hard and burning from too many sedentary hours. At thirty-seven he needed a few days to get his wind, humping his pack into the hills to set up camp and daring man or beast to dislodge him. He drew a vector on the map and, adding a few degrees of variation, followed a course between low hills, knowing there would be water at the tarn, maybe rabbits to trap and birds to snare.
Summer or winter he would leave London, alone because you could trust no one but yourself, nor want better company, a joy to navigate up hill and over moors, treading blisters down and camping under the lee side of wall or hedge. The desolating question always came: What the hell am I doing here? Did I leave my cushy home for this? But by day three the sky was his roof, down to head level, or lifting so high that the space inspired him to move away from legal footpaths, going stealthily through all obstacles to break the carapace of office and home.
Beagle Tarn reflected the surrounding slopes, no smudge of cloud as he trained his Zeiss on a man wearing a checked shirt, crouching to place white fuel cakes under a kettle. A young woman hung a towel over the rear rope of the tent, then put on a khaki jacket as Keith came near. ‘You’re just in time for coffee. But you’ll have to share my mug, because we’ve only got two.’
‘No, thank you. I had buckets at breakfast.’ Their openness annoyed him, but he let down his pack and offered the flask.
Freckles dotted her pale skin when she smiled, her mug ready. ‘Yes, please.’
He splashed some in. ‘I came for the birdwatching’ – but it didn’t sound right, because what could you see in such a season?
‘Gulls and ravens.’ The man’s face was gaunt above a reddish beard. ‘Not much else at the moment. You might be lucky, though.’
‘Cheers!’ She swigged. ‘Would you like a biscuit?’
The packet was under his nose, but he was tempted to destroy such amiable figures in the landscape, cut them up and feed the wildlife. What a treat for the newspapers. Another, after Gwen was found: But the headlines would be forgotten in a week. You had to kill by the score to be remembered. In any case, he liked the woman’s smile, and the way loose breasts moved under her jacket. ‘It’s nice to see someone else in the wilderness.’
Her weedy boyfriend – though no doubt hardier than he looked – put powdered coffee into a mug. ‘We love it up here in winter.’
The spoon was tiny, and Keith asked if he was a chemist.
‘I’d earn a lot more if I was. We’re teachers, up from Manchester.’
He wondered what they knew between them. His daughter was at boarding school, though he couldn’t say the teachers were much better. In the old days you got what you paid for, but now you paid for what you got whether you liked it or not. ‘I must be going. I have to be back in London by this evening.’
‘Look after yourself,’ the man said.
‘You too. Take care.’ He followed the same way down, fingers sliding icily over tufts of grass, which held him at boot length. Stupid to slip, but that would be one solution, unless he survived as a basket case. He brushed snow clear, laughter at being sent home in a plastic bag to Gwen who, before, would have had to care for him, no time then for her lover. ‘You did it on purpose,’ she would have ranted. ‘You bastard. But it won’t work. I’ll go on doing just as I like.’
Oh, she would have shouted all right, knowing he wouldn’t depart while Laura was young. But why had she let him find out? To leave a letter on the hall table, or an edge showing under her handbag, to have the telephone make its hungry canary call and whoever it was click off on hearing his man’s voice, to call her from work and get no reply when she afterwards swore she had been in all day – such clues dropped in order to wake him to the fact that she was still alive. He did not appreciate it, as she knew he wouldn’t, and when he asked who it was, as she knew he had to, she acted the caught-out wife and told him. She couldn’t bear the pain of deception, wanted the luxury of an affair but also the comfort of his permission.
You weren’t supposed to care these days, though she had told him knowing that the torment would send him to the wilderness for solace, leaving her a few days with her boy friend who was going to Australia for three weeks. When the man had gone she would be pleasant again, and say it was all over anyway, and she was sorry, so let’s carry on w
He recalled the affairs he had had since they were married, none of which he let her know about, mouth shut for ever on that score, for her sake, though she would never know it, and for his own sake because silence was more dignified, and also for the sake of any girl friend who, if she wasn’t married, would be sooner or later. Not that it was such a long list, but by the time he had come to the end he found himself back at the car.
Laying his rucksack in the boot, he noted a feather of cloud, distant banks marshalled by a smart northeasterly. Perhaps she had always wished him dead when he went on such expeditions, abominating the stomach gripes he complained of if he didn’t go. She couldn’t understand the uncontrollable panic to escape the City, his work, even himself – not only her.
At the edge of the lake his boots sank into the sedge, and he did not know how long he stared, but looked at his watch on feeling hungry. The mottled water turned green, rags of cloud edging in, humidity weighty with the promised snow that he could smell in the half-gone afternoon.
The wind chewed his tousled, already greying hair, snapping at his ears that had always been too big, as if to make up in power for what his other senses lacked. The weather would be foul for days, all roads blocked if snow came down, which it surely would. A hole in the cloud was so fiercely ragged it seemed to have been made by an exploding shell. He wanted to reach home as quickly as it took to zip himself up, but the inside of the car was the nearest he could get, snug enough as he stared at a dashboard more complicated, he supposed, than that of a Spitfire. He could never go home again, anyway, and the chances of fixing up a tent in such a wind were zilch. Pegs into holes always went, square or round, you hammered them in regardless, trouble only if they wouldn’t go in far enough.
He cruised the motorway on the middle lane, nothing at the moment to overtake, four o’clock and dark already, mint cake gluing to his palate. Below Stoke he might cut southeast through Burton and Leicester, then toss a pound for the Broads or the New Forest. A secretary he’d had fun with after office hours was married and lived near Bournemouth. ‘If you’re ever in the area,’ she had said, ‘here’s my number,’ which he thought only right after the Mappin & Webb gewgaw he had handed over at the wedding, the husband as dim as they came in thinking what a generous boss she had.
Two years had gone by, and he saw himself in a phone box that yobbos hadn’t paralysed with boot and fist, rain as horizontal as in one of those Japanese prints framed in the hall at home, and hearing her say she didn’t remember him or, hubby hovering, that they already had enough insurance. Or, on the other hand, that she was so happy he had thought of her, and would love to see him, but he would hear a baby screaming from some cosy alcove and say: ‘I’m too far away, otherwise I would pop in for old times’ sake. I just wanted to know how things stood.’
He veered off the motorway towards Macclesfield, and then beyond on one of England’s high-up arterial lanes, lights twitching from farms away to left and right. The road to himself, he couldn’t see the sky but felt it moiling overhead; killed the radio because unable to tolerate the senseless yacker of the disc jockey; better the silence his own brain concocted, which these days was more likely to surprise him than chitchat from the ether.
Blips of snow came into the zone of the headlamps, stuff already fallen shouldering the roadside. Speed made bends and crookbacks, but he took care, oh yes, care not to die or get mangled. He wondered how long he would survive if he holed himself up in the huge forest to the south, a wild man of the woods lost to the world, all ropes cut and nevermore for home.
In his seat of familiar calm, hands lightly at the wheel, he bombed up to seventy on straight bits while brakes shuddered at bends and corners, more bash than on the motorway, a ballet of manoeuvring but always within the forward throw of main beams. Other cars were visible for miles, dip-flash-dip-flash, a corps of signals passing to the west but no one overtaking.
A grey piece detached itself from the snowy verge and hobbled into his track. The car swerved, bumper glancing the bank. Treadling the brakes he went bang, hit a sheep, left it dying behind, and what was worse there was maybe a scratch on his precious car. He fucking-helled, crunching over whitened gravel into a lay-by.
The beam of his heavy-duty Maglite went up and down the paintwork: a feather of wool stuck on the fender turned out not to be when he rubbed back to green with a rag. The cigarette shook at his lips, but it was hunger that unnerved, not fear, as he set a box on the bonnet, pulled out a stove, a pan, a packet of bacon and some bread.
The smell of a common fry-up dispelled the icy cold and, door open, sitting on the step, he looked for stars but saw none, overcast complete, heaven’s roof poised to unleash its burden: I should have continued south on the M6, but here I am, instead of heading for Hampshire, set to steer across the ominous High Peak towards milder pastures in Norfolk.
A car some way behind stopped, turned on a descent to the left. The kettle steamed. Never at a loss for a brew, he looked for a teabag. Another car passed, then one from the opposite direction: the Peak District rush hour. What would he find at those mythical fields of ease, supposing they existed? Not knowing seemed the ultimate comfort, a state he had deserted home and London to attain. On the other hand, snowbound in Buxton or Bakewell on Saturday night was not his idea of adventure, and hellfire scalded his wrist as the kettle fell. A panic button of warning said he wouldn’t be able to drive, but he filled his mug, regretting he couldn’t hold his injured skin under a cold tap, and while the tea cooled walked ten yards to bury the hand under snow till the whole arm ached.
‘Where are you going?’
He stayed calm at the disembodied voice.
‘I’m only asking where you’re going.’
‘Why do you want to know?’
A girl came into the light. ‘That old cow dropped me off in the middle of nowhere after she told me she was going all the way to Buxton. I got frightened when she put a hand up my skirt. I told her what I thought of her, though, and now I’m stranded, unless I walk my bleeding feet off.’
The dubious gift of confetti across the windscreen did not promise a happy marriage to the weather, but rather reminded Aaron Jones that being caught driving in it must prove that earning a living was the most important activity of life. He spun the roundabout of London’s Orbital and steered northerly, twigs from black branches standing out in sulphurous light. The elements had been anybody’s guess, but such behaviour proved that guessing was, even at the best of times, a no-win game.
Solid trunks spaced along patches of January grass stood behind a mourning verge of mud splashed up by passing traffic. Toothache had gnawed since breakfast, top-left on a bed of infection making the rest feel rotten as well. He would have to endure till he got to the dentist, meanwhile recollecting that according to Napoleon the only two things certain in life were death and taxes, though Aaron could add a third which was toothache.
Similar pangs six months ago had receded when his cold got better, and he had gambled on it not coming back, hoping that mortality would cease its inch-like advance yet knowing that it could not. Life was hope, and hope nothing but ignorant optimism, though without hope existence would be untenable.
Last night a floorcloth around the moon prophesied rain, but he hoped to beat the two hundred miles home before wet or worse descended. Plastic rags in a tree waved white and purple to the east: the remains of daylight would clear him of London, and from then on he would set the compass, put the mind into overdrive, and let deca-miles pass while he dreamed of better climates.
The back seat and large boot were packed with books: books in boxes, books in plastic bags, books laid out on an old sleeping bag and on newspapers. With a Schimmelpenninck comfortably lit he gloated over a haul netted on his three-day trip through shops on the south coast. People from the north or abroad retired with their books. When they were unable to make their last shuffle alo
A man stood by the roadside, thumb up for a lift, and Aaron stopped all thought till he got by: a young bloke with long hair and a rucksack at his feet, as if he had been there half the day. Can’t do it. Want to be alone with my maunderings. Sorry, very sorry. He had given lots of lifts in his time, so maybe he had done his share.
Still, he felt vile for a couple of miles, then went back to the bargains he often brought home which more than paid for petrol and overnight bed and breakfast. As for his time, if you dealt in books there was no such measurement. Books glutted the secondhand shops, shelves and even tenpenny boxes spilling treasures, though the finds were less good than ten years ago because assiduous hunters nearer to the sources went fine-tooth combing for what seemed better to have than money, and could be traded if you knew the right place to pass them on to. Prices had gone up, but he could still find what he wanted, and looked forward to showing Baring-Gould’s work on the Cévennes for a pound, which he’d put in the next catalogue for ten and have no bother to sell.
Such care and industry made a living, after dropping his laboratory job to earn money out of his lifelong enthusiasm for books. Early retirement pay had bought two houses knocked into one, at the end of a row in a mining village crumbling under Thatcher’s fist, with a fine view of emerald hills from the front bedrooms. Change jobs in middle age and you end up with two lives for the price of one, because after his wife went away to train as a social worker and didn’t come back, his sister Beryl moved in as a partner to his industrious dealings.
A juggernaut overtook on the dual carriageway, the splash at his windscreen swept aside by clean jets and chasing wipers. Ahead lay high flying galleons of cloud, while his rear-looking mirror showed menacing gaps of steely blue. Living from one bank statement to the next, he no longer worried about the significance of life, as he had to a tormenting degree when working for a salary. Existence had become too real to question why he was on earth. All he needed was faith in the engine which carried him from place to place, and trust in the knowledge that bookselling hurt no one. He kept Beryl and himself in moderate comfort, while anxiety and striving shut out self-indulgent doubts.
Snowstop by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes