New and Collected Stories, p.10Alan Sillitoe
‘Come on,’ Bert said, cajoling, threatening, ‘don’t be bleedin’-well mingy, our Colin. Let’s ’ave one.’
Colin stood firm. Finding was keeping. ‘I’m savin’ ’em for our dad. I don’t suppose ’e’s got a fag to ’is name.’
‘Well, my old man ain’t never got no fags either, but I wun’t bother to save ’em for ’im if I found any. I mean it as well.’
‘P’raps we’ll have a drag later on then,’ Colin conceded, keeping them in his pocket. They were on the asphalt path of the Forest, ascending a steep slope. Bert feverishly ripped open every cast-down packet now, chucking silver paper to the wind; slipping picture-cards in his pocket for younger brothers, crushing what remained into a ball and hurling it towards the darkness where bodies lay huddled together in some passion that neither of them could understand or even remotely see the point of.
From the war memorial they viewed the whole fair, a sea of lights and tent tops flanked on two sides by dimly shaped houses whose occupants would be happy when the vast encampment scattered the following week to other towns. A soughing groan of pleasure was being squeezed out of the earth, and an occasional crescendo of squeals reached them from the Swingboats and Big Wheel as though an army were below, offering human sacrifices before beginning its march. ‘Let’s get down there,’ Colin said, impatiently turning over his pennies. ‘I want to see things. I want to get on that Noah’s Ark.’
Sucking penny sticks of brandysnap they pushed by the Ghost Train, hearing girls screaming from its skeleton-filled bowels. ‘We’ll roll pennies on to numbers and win summat,’ Bert said. ‘It’s easy, you see. All you’ve got to do is put the pennies on a number when the woman ain’t looking.’ He spoke eagerly, to get Colin’s backing in a project that would seem more of an adventure if they were in it together. Not that he was afraid to cheat alone, but suspicion rarely fell so speedily on a pair as it did on a lone boy obviously out for what his hands could pick up. ‘It’s dangerous,’ Colin argued, though all but convinced, elbowing his way behind. ‘You’ll get copped.’
A tall gipsy-looking woman with black hair done up in a ponytail stood in the penny-a-roll stall, queen of its inner circle. She stared emptily before her, though Colin, edging close, sensed how little she missed of movement round about. A stack of coppers crashed regularly from one hand to the other, making a noise which, though not loud, drew attention to the stall – and the woman broke its rhythm now and again to issue with an expression of absolute impartiality a few coins to a nicky-hatted man who by controlling two of the wooden slots managed to roll down four pennies at a time. ‘He ain’t winnin’, though,’ Bert whispered in Colin’s ear, who saw the truth of it: that he rolled out more than he picked up.
His remark stung through to the man’s competing brain. ‘Who ain’t?’ he demanded, letting another half-dozen pennies go before swinging round on him.
‘Yo’ ain’t,’ Bert chelped.
‘Ain’t I?’ – swung-open mac showing egg and beer stains around his buttons.
Bert stood his ground, blue eyes staring. ‘No, y’ain’t.’
‘That’s what yo’ think,’ the man retorted, in spite of everything, even when the woman scooped up more of his pennies.
Bert pointed truculently. ‘Do you call that winning then? Look at it. I don’t.’ All eyes met on three sad coins lying between squares, and Bert slipped his hand on to the counter where the man had set down a supply-dump of money. Colin watched, couldn’t breathe, from fear but also from surprise even though there was nothing about Bert he did not know. A shilling and a sixpence seemed to run into Bert’s palm, were straightaway hidden by black fingers curling over them. He reached a couple of pennies with the other hand, but his wrist became solidly clamped against the board. He cried out: ‘Oo, yer rotten sod. Yer’r’urtin’ me.’
The man’s eyes, formerly nebulous with beer, now became deep and self-centred with righteous anger. ‘You should keep your thievin’ fingers to yoursen. Come on, you little bogger, drop them pennies.’
Colin felt ashamed and hoped he would, wanted to get it over with and lose himself among spinning roundabouts. The black rose of Bert’s hand unfolded under pressure, petal by petal, until the coins slid off. ‘Them’s my pennies,’ he complained. ‘It’s yo’ as is the thief, not me. You’re a bully as well. I had ’em there ready to roll down as soon as I could get one of them slot things.’
‘I was looking the other way,’ said the woman, avoiding trouble; which made the man indignant at getting no help: ‘Do you think I’m daft then? And blind as well?’ he cried.
‘You must be,’ Bert said quietly, ‘if you’re trying to say I nicked your money.’ Colin felt obliged to back him up: ‘He didn’t pinch owt,’ he said, earnestly, exploiting a look of honesty he could put at will into his face. ‘I’m not his pal, mate, but I’ll tell you the truth. I was just passin’ an’ stopped to look, and he put tuppence down on there, took it from ’is own pocket.’
‘You thievin’ Radford lot,’ the man responded angrily, though freed now from the dead-end of continual losing. ‘Get cracking from here, or I’ll call a copper.’
Bert wouldn’t move. ‘Not till you’ve gen me my tuppence back. I worked ’ard for that, at our dad’s garden diggin’ taters up and weeding.’ The woman looked vacantly – sending a column of pennies from one palm to another – beyond them into packed masses swirling and pushing around her flimsy island. With face dead-set in dreadful purpose, hat tilted forward and arms all-embracing what money was his, the man gave in to his fate of being a loser and scooped up all his coins, though he was struck enough in conscience to leave Bert two surviving pennies before making off to better luck at another stall. ‘That got shut on ’im,’ Bert said, his wink at Colin meaning they were one and eightpence to the good.
The riches lasted for an hour, and Colin couldn’t remember having been partner to so much capital, wanted to guard some from the avid tentacles of the thousand-lighted fair. But it fled from their itchy fingers – surrendered or captured, it was hard to say which – spent on shrimps and candyfloss, cakewalk and helter-skelter. They pushed by sideshow fronts. ‘You should have saved some of that dough,’ Colin said, unable to get used to being poor again.
‘It’s no use savin’ owt,’ Bert said. ‘If you spend it you can allus get some more’ – and became paralysed at the sight of a half-dressed woman in African costume standing by a pay-box with a python curled around her buxom top.
Colin argued: ‘If you save you get money and you can go away to Australia or China. I want to go to foreign countries. Eh,’ he said with a nudge, ‘it’s a wonder that snake don’t bite her, ain’t it?’
Bert laughed. ‘It’s the sort that squeezes yer ter death, but they gi’ ’em pills to mek ’em dozy. I want to see foreign countries as well, but I’ll join the army.’
‘That’s no good,’ Colin said, leading the way to more roundabouts, ‘there’ll be a war soon, and you might get killed.’ Around the base of Noah’s Ark Bert discovered a tiny door that let them into a space underneath. Colin looked in, to a deadly midnight noise of grinding machinery. ‘Where yer going?’
But Bert was already by the middle, doubled up to avoid the flying circular up-and-down world rolling round at full speed above. It seemed to Colin the height of danger – one blow, or get up without thinking, and you’d be dead, brains smashed into grey sand, which would put paid to any thoughts of Australia. Bert though had a cool and accurate sense of proportion, which drew Colin in despite his fear. He crawled on hands and knees, until he came level with Bert and roared into his ear: ‘What yer looking for?’
‘Pennies,’ Bert screamed back above the din.
They found nothing, retired to a more simple life among the crowd. Both were hungry, and Colin told himself it must have been five hours since his four o’clock tea. ‘I could scoff a hoss between two mattresses.’
‘So could I,’ Bert agreed. ‘But look what I’m going to do.’ A white-scarfed yout
‘What yer got?’ Colin demanded when he came back.
Ingenious Bert showed him. ‘A penny. I just went up and said I was hungry and asked ’im for summat.’
‘I’ll try,’ Colin said, wanting to contribute his share. Bert pulled him back, for the only people available were a middle-aged man and his wife, well-dressed and married. ‘They wain’t gi’ yer owt. You want to ask courting couples, or people on their own.’
But the man on his own whom Colin asked was argumentative. A penny was a penny. Two and a half cigarettes. ‘What do you want it for?’
‘I’m hungry,’ was all Colin could say.
A dry laugh. ‘So am I.’
‘Well, I’m hungrier. I ain’t ’ad a bite t’eat since this morning, honest.’ The man hesitated, but fetched a handful of coins from his pocket. ‘You’d better not let a copper see you begging or you’ll get sent to Borstal.’
Some time later they counted out a dozen pennies. ‘You don’t get nowt unless you ask, as mam allus tells me,’ Bert grinned. They stood at a tea stall with full cups and a plate of buns, filling themselves to the brim. The near-by Big Wheel spun its passengers towards the clouds, only to spin them down again after a tantalizing glimpse of the whole fair, each descending girl cutting the air with animal screams that made Colin shudder until he realized that they were in no harm, were in fact probably enjoying it. ‘I feel better now,’ he said, putting his cup back on the counter.
They walked around caravans backed on to railings at the Forest edge, looked up steps and into doorways, at bunks and potbellied stoves, at beautiful closed doors painted in many colours and carved with weird designs that mystified Colin and made him think of a visit once made to the Empire. Gipsies, Goose Fair, Theatre – it was all one to him, a heaven-on-earth because together they made up the one slender bridgehead of another world that breached the tall thickets surrounding his own. A connecting link between them was in the wild-eyed children now and again seated on wooden steps; but when Colin went too near for a closer look a child called out in alarm, and a burly adult burst from the caravan and chased them away.
Colin took Bert’s arm as they wedged themselves into the solid mass of people, under smoke of food-stalls and traction engines, between lit-up umbrellas and lights on poles. ‘We’ve spent all our dough,’ he said, ‘and don’t have owt left to go on Noah’s Ark wi’.’
‘You don’t ev ter worry about that. All yer got ter do is get on and keep moving from one thing to another, follering the man collecting the cash so’s he never sees yer or catches up wi’ yer. Got me?’
Colin didn’t like the sound of it, but went up the Noah’s Ark steps, barging through lines of onlookers. ‘I’ll do it first,’ Bert said. ‘So keep yer eyes on me and see how it’s done. Then yo’ can go on.’
He first of all straddled a lion. Colin stood by the rail and watched closely. When the Ark began spinning Bert moved discreetly to a cock just behind the attendant who emerged from a hut-like structure in the middle. The roundabout soon took on its fullest speed, until Colin could hardly distinguish one animal from another, and often lost sight of Bert in the quick roaring spin.
Then the world stopped circling, and his turn came: ‘Are you staying on for a second go?’ Bert said no, that it wasn’t wise to do it two times on the trot. Colin well knew that it was wrong, and dangerous, which was more to the point, yet when a Noah’s Ark stood in your path spinning with the battle honours of its more than human speed-power written on the face of each brief-glimpsed wooden animal, you had by any means to get yourself on to that platform, money or no money, fear or no fear, and stay there through its violent bucking until it stopped. Watching from the outside it seemed that one ride on the glorious Noah’s Ark would fill you with similar inexhaustible energy for another year, that at the end of the ride you wouldn’t want to come off, would need to stay on for ever until you were either sick or dead with hunger.
He was riding alone, clinging to a tiger on the outer ring of vehicles, slightly sick with apprehension and at the sudden up-and-down motion of starting. He waved to Bert on the first slow time round. Then the roundabout’s speed increased and it was necessary to stop hugging the tiger and follow the attendant who had just emerged to begin collecting the fares. But he was afraid, for it seemed that should only one of his fingers relax its hold he would be shot off what was supposed to be a delicious ride and smashed to pieces on hitting the outside rail – or smash anyone else to pieces who happened to be leaning against it.
However with great effort and a sinking heart he leapt: panic jettisoned only in the space between two animals. In this state he almost derailed a near-by couple, and when the man’s hand shot out for revenge he felt the wind of a near miss blowing by the side of his face. The vindictive fist continued to ply even when he was securely seated on a zebra so that, faced with more solid danger than empty space, he put his tongue out at the man and let go once more.
He went further forward, still in sight of the attendant’s stooping enquiring back. In his confused zig-zag progress – for few animals were now vacant – he worked inward to the centre where it was safer, under a roof of banging drums and cymbals, thinking at one point to wave victoriously to Bert. But the idea slipped over a cliff as he threw himself forward and held onto a horse’s tail.
The roundabout could go no faster, judging by shouts and squeals from the girls. Colin’s movements were clumsy, and he envied the attendant’s dexterity a few yards in front, and admired Bert who had made this same circular Odyssey with so much aplomb. Aware of peril every second he was more fretful now of being shot like a cannonball against wood and iron than being caught by the money-collector. ‘Bogger this,’ he cursed. ‘I don’t like it a bit’ – laughing grimly and lunging out on a downgrade, pegged by even more speed to a double seated dragon.
A vacant crocodile gave a few seconds enjoyment before he leapt on to an ant-eater to keep his distance equal from the attendant. He thought his round should have finished by now, but suddenly the man turned and began coming back, looking at each rider to be sure they had paid. This was unprecedented. They weren’t lax, but once round in one direction was all they ever did – so Bert had assured him – and now here was this sly rotten bastard who’d got the cheek to come round again. That worn’t fair.
The soporific, agreeble summer afternoons of Masterman Ready, having laid a trap at the back of his mind, caught him for a moment, yet flew away unreal before this real jungle in which he had somehow stumbled. He had to move back now in full view of the attendant, to face a further apprenticeship at taking the roundabout clockwise. It seemed impossible, and in one rash moment he considered making a flying leap into the solid stationary gangway and getting right out of it – for he was certain the man had marked him down, was about to wring his neck before pitching the dead chicken that remained over the heads of the crowd. He glimpsed him, an overalled greasy bastard whose lips clung to a doused-out nub-end, cashbag heavy but feet sure.
How long’s this bleeding ride going to go on? he asked himself. It’s been an hour already and Bert swore blind it only lasted three minutes. I thought so as well, but I suppose they’re making it longer just because that bloke’s after me for having cadged a free ride. This jungle was little different from home and street life, yet alarming, more frightening because the speed was exaggerated. His one thought was to abandon the present jungle, hurl himself into the slower with which he was familiar – though in that also he felt a dragging pain that would fling him forth one day.
He went back the same way, almost feeling an affection now on coming against a nuzzle, ear or tail he’d already held on to going from the sanctuary of ant-eater to dragon to crocodile slowly, then gathering spe
Things never turn out right, he swore, never never. Rank-a-tank-a-tank-tank went the music. Clash-ter-clash-ter-clash-clash flew the cymbals, up and down to squeals and shouts, and bump-bump-bump-bumpity-bump went his heart, still audible above everything else, lashing out at the insides of his ears with enormous boxing-gloves, throttling his windpipe with a cloven hoof, stamping on his stomach as though he were a tent from which ten buck-navvies were trying to escape, wanting a pint after a week of thirst.
A hand slid over his shoulder, but with a violent twist he broke free and continued his mad career around the swirling Ark. ‘He’ll get me, he’ll get me. He’s a man and can run faster than I can. He’s had more practice than me.’ But he lurched and righted himself, spurted forward as if in a race making such progress that he saw the man’s back before him, instead of fleeing from his reaching hand behind. He slowed down too late, for the man, evidently controlled by a wink from the centre, switched back. Colin swivelled also, on the run again.
Compared to what it had been the speed now appeared a snail’s pace. The three-minute ride was almost up, but Colin, thinking he would escape, was caught, more securely this time, by neck-scruff and waist. He turned within the grasp, smelling oil and sweat and tobacco, pulling and striking at first then, on an inspired impulse kicking wildly at his ankle, unaware of the pain he was causing because of stabbing aches that spread over his own stubbed toes. The man swore as proficiently as Colin’s father when he hit his thumb once putting up shelves in the kitchen. But he was free, and considered that the roundabout up-and-down-about was going slow enough to make a getaway. No need to wait until it really stops, was his last thought.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes