New and Collected Stories, p.11Alan Sillitoe
It was like Buck Rogers landing from a space ship without due care, though a few minutes passed before he was able to think this. Upon leaving the still-swirling platform his body fell into a roll and went out with some force, crashing like a sensitive flesh-and-bone cannonball between a courting couple and piling up against the wooden barrier. The ball his body made without him knowing much about it slewed out when he hit the posts, arms and legs flying against the carved and painted woodwork of the balustrade. Clump-clump – in quick succession – but he wasn’t aware of any standstill either beyond or behind his soon-opened eyes. The rank-a-tank-tank-tank played him out, a blurring of red-white-and-blue lights and coloured animals, and a feeling of relief once he was away from his pursuer, no matter what peril the reaching of solid earth might surround him with.
Bert had watched the whole three minutes, had tried pushing a way through the crowd to catch Colin as he came off – a small ragged figure elbowing a passage between lounging semi-relaxed legs that nevertheless were not always easy to move, so that he reached him too late. ‘Come on,’ he said in a worried voice, ‘gerrup. I’ll give yer a hand. Did yer enjoy your ride?’ – trying to make him stand up. Turning to an enquirer: ‘No, he’s my cousin, and he’s all right. I can tek care on ’im. Come on, Colin. He’s still after you, so let’s blow.’
Colin’s legs were rubber, wanted to stay against the sympathetic hardness of wood. ‘He slung me off after speeding it up, the rotten sod. It was a dirty trick.’
‘Come on,’ Bert urged. ‘Let’s blow town.’
‘Leave me. I’ll crawl. I’ll kill him if he comes near me.’ No spinning now: he felt floorboards, saw legs and the occasional flash of a passing wooden animal. They’d started up again. ‘It’s your turn now, ain’t it?’ he said angrily to Bert.
No time was lost. Bert bent down and came up with him on his shoulders like an expert gymnast, going white in the face and tottering down the wooden steps, towards warm soil and dust. On the last step he lost his strength, swerved helplessly to the right, and both donkey and burden crashed out of sight by the bottom roundabout boards where no one went.
They lay where they had fallen. ‘I’m sorry,’ Bert said. ‘I didn’t know he was looking out for us. And then you go and cop it. A real bastard.’ His hand was under Colin’s armpit to stop him sliding sideways. ‘Are you all right, though? I wun’t a minded if it ’ad bin me, and I mean it. Do you feel sick? Are you going to spew?’ – hand clapped over Colin’s mouth, that was closed tight anyway. ‘The snakey bastard, chasing you off like that. He ought to get summonsed, he did an’ all.’
Colin suddenly stood up, leaned against the boards and, with more confidence in his legs, staggered into the crowd, followed by Bert. Abject and beaten, they walked around until midnight by which time, both dead-tired, the idea occurred to them of going home. ‘I’ll get pasted,’ Colin said, ‘because I’m supposed to be in by ten.’ Bert complained that he was knackered, that he wanted to get back anyway.
Streets around the fair were shrivelling into darkness, took on the hue of cold damp ash. They walked arm-in-arm, inspired enough by the empty space to sing loudly a song that Bert’s father had taught him:
‘We don’t want to charge with the fusiliers
Bomb with the bombardiers
Fight for the racketeers
We want to stay at home!
We want to stay at home!
We want to stay at home!’
words ringing loud and clear out of two gruff voices slopping along on sandalled feet, mouths wide open and arms on each other’s shoulders, turning corners and negotiating twitchells, singing twice as loud by dead cinema and damp graveyard:
‘We don’t want to fight in a Tory war
Die like the lads before
Drown in the mud and gore
We want to go to work …’
swinging along from one verse to another, whose parrot-fashioned words were less important than the bellows of steamy breath fogging up cold air always in front of them, frightening cats and skirting midnight prowlers, and hearing people tell them to shurrup and let them sleep from angrily rattled bedroom windows. They stood in the middle of a bigger road when a car was coming, rock still to test their nerves by making it stop, then charging off when they had been successful, to avoid the driver’s rage, to reach another corner and resume locked arms, swinging along to the tune of Rule Britannia:
‘Rule two tanners
Two tanners make a bob,
King George nevernevernever
SHAVES HIS NOB!’
each note wavering on the air, and dying as they turned a corner; at least it would have sounded like that, if anyone had been listening to it from the deserted corner before. But to Colin, the noise stayed, all around their heads and faces, grinding away the sight and sound of the Noah’s Ark jungle he had ridden on free, and so been pitched from.
On Saturday Afternoon
I once saw a bloke try to kill himself. I’ll never forget the day because I was sitting in the house one Saturday afternoon, feeling black and fed-up because everybody in the family had gone to the pictures, except me who’d for some reason been left out of it. ’Course, I didn’t know then that I would soon see something you can never see in the same way on the pictures, a real bloke stringing himself up. I was only a kid at the time, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed it.
I’ve never known a family to look as black as our family when they’re fed-up. I’ve seen the old man with his face so dark and full of murder because he ain’t got no fags or was having to use saccharine to sweeten his tea, or even for nothing at all, that I’ve backed out of the house in case he got up from his fireside chair and came for me. He just sits, almost on top of the fire, his oil-stained Sunday-joint maulers opened out in front of him and facing inwards to each other, his thick shoulders scrunched forward, and his dark brown eyes staring into the fire. Now and again he’d say a dirty word, for no reason at all, the worst word you can think of, and when he starts saying this you know it’s time to clear out. If mam’s in it gets worse than ever, because she says sharp to him: ‘What are yo’ looking so bleddy black for?’ as if it might be because of something she’s done, and before you know what’s happening he’s tipped up a tableful of pots and mam’s gone out of the house crying. Dad hunches back over the fire and goes on swearing. All because of a packet of fags.
I once saw him broodier than I’d ever seen him, so that I thought he’d gone crackers in a quiet sort of way – until a fly flew to within a yard of him. Then his hand shot out, got it, and slung it crippled into the roaring fire. After that he cheered up a bit and mashed some tea.
Well, that’s where the rest of us get our black looks from. It stands to reason we’d have them with a dad who carries on like that, don’t it? Black looks run in the family. Some families have them and some don’t. Our family has them right enough, and that’s certain, so when we’re fed-up we’re really fed-up. Nobody knows why we get as fed-up as we do or why it gives us these black looks when we are. Some people get fed-up and don’t look bad at all: they seem happy in a funny sort of way, as if they’ve just been set free from clink after being in there for something they didn’t do, or come out of the pictures after sitting plugged for eight hours at a bad film, or just missed a bus they ran half a mile for and seen it was the wrong one just after they’d stopped running – but in our family it’s murder for the others if one of us is fed-up. I’ve asked myself lots of times what it is, but I can never get any sort of answer even if I sit and think for hours, which I must admit I don’t do, though it looks good when I say I do. But I sit and think for long enough, until mam says to me, at seeing me scrunched up over the fire like dad: ‘What are yo’ looking so black for?’ So I’ve just got to stop thinking about it in case I get really black and fed-up and go the same way as dad, tipping up a tableful of pots and all.
Mostly I suppose there’s nothing to look so black for: though it’s nobody’s fault and you ca
‘I feel badly,’ I fibbed. He’d have had a fit if I’d said I was only black because I hadn’t gone to the pictures.
‘Well have a wash,’ he told me.
‘I don’t want a wash,’ I said, and that was a fact.
‘Well, get outside and get some fresh air then,’ he shouted. I did as I was told, double-quick, because if ever dad goes as far as to tell me to get some fresh air I know it’s time to get away from him. But outside the air wasn’t so fresh, what with that bloody great bike factory bashing away at the yard-end. I didn’t know where to go, so I walked up the yard a bit and sat down near somebody’s back gate.
Then I saw this bloke who hadn’t lived long in our yard. He was tall and thin and had a face like a parson except that he wore a flat cap and had a moustache that drooped, and looked as though he hadn’t had a square meal for a year. I didn’t think much o’ this at the time: but I remember that as he turned in by the yard-end one of the nosy gossiping women who stood there every minute of the day except when she trudged to the pawnshop with her husband’s bike or best suit, shouted to him: ‘What’s that rope for, mate?’
He called back: ‘It’s to ’ang messen wi’, missis,’ and she cackled at his bloody good joke so loud and long you’d think she never heard such a good ’un, though the next day she cackled on the other side of her fat face.
He walked by me puffing a fag and carrying his coil of brand new rope, and he had to step over me to get past. His boot nearly took my shoulder off, and when I told him to watch where he was going I don’t think he heard me because he didn’t even look round. Hardly anybody was about. All the kids were still at the pictures, and most of their mams and dads were downtown doing the shopping.
The bloke walked down the yard to his back door, and having nothing better to do because I hadn’t gone to the pictures I followed him. You see, he left his back door open a bit so I gave it a push and went in. I stood there, just watching him, sucking my thumb, the other hand in my pocket. I suppose he knew I was there, because his eyes were moving more natural now, but he didn’t seem to mind. ‘What are yer going to do wi’ that rope, mate?’ I asked him.
‘I’m going ter ’ang messen, lad,’ he told me, as though he’d done it a time or two already, and people usually asked him questions like this beforehand.
‘What for, mate?’ He must have thought I was a nosy young bogger.
‘’Cause I want to, that’s what for,’ he said, clearing all the pots off the table and pulling it to the middle of the room. Then he stood on it to fasten the rope to the light-fitting. The table creaked and didn’t look very safe, but it did him for what he wanted.
‘It wain’t hold up, mate,’ I said to him, thinking how much better it was being here than sitting in the pictures and seeing the Jungle Jim serial.
But he got nettled now and turned on me. ‘Mind yer own business.’
I thought he was going to tell me to scram, but he didn’t. He made ever such a fancy knot with that rope, as though he’d been a sailor or summat, and as he tied it he was whistling a fancy tune to himself. Then he got down from the table and pushed it back to the wall, and put a chair in its place. He wasn’t looking black at all, nowhere near as black as anybody in our family when they’re feeling fed up. If ever he’d looked only half as black as our dad looked twice a week he’d have hanged himself years ago, I couldn’t help thinking. But he was making a good job of that rope all right, as though he’d thought about it a lot anyway, and as though it was going to be the last thing he’d ever do. But I knew something he didn’t know, because he wasn’t standing where I was. I knew the rope wouldn’t hold up, and I told him so, again.
‘Shut yer gob,’ he said, but quiet like, ‘or I’ll kick yer out.’
I didn’t want to miss it, so I said nothing. He took his cap off and put it on the dresser, then took his coat off, and his scarf, and spread them out on the sofa. I wasn’t a bit frightened, like I might be now at sixteen, because it was interesting. And being only ten I’d never had a chance to see a bloke hang himself before. We got pally, the two of us, before he slipped the rope around his neck.
‘Shut the door,’ he asked me, and I did as I was told. ‘Ye’re a good lad for your age,’ he said to me while I sucked my thumb, and he felt in his pockets and pulled out all that was inside, throwing the handful of bits and bobs on the table: fag-packet and peppermints, a pawn-ticket, an old comb, and a few coppers. He picked out a penny and gave it to me, saying: ‘Now listen ter me, young ’un. I’m going to ’ang messen, and when I’m swinging I want you to gi’ this chair a bloody good kick and push it away. All right?’
He put the rope around his neck, and then took it off like it was a tie that didn’t fit. ‘What are yer going to do it for, mate?’ I asked again.
‘Because I’m fed-up,’ he said, looking very unhappy. ‘And because I want to. My missus left me, and I’m out o’ work.’
I didn’t want to argue, because the way he said it, I knew he couldn’t do anything else except hang himself. Also there was a funny look on his face: even when he talked to me I swear he couldn’t see me. It was different to the black looks my old man puts on, and I suppose that’s why my old man would never hang himself, worse luck, because he never gets a look into his clock like this bloke had. My old man’s look stares at you, so that you have to back down and fly out of the house: this bloke’s look looked through you, so that you could face it and know it wouldn’t do you any harm. So I saw now that dad would never hang himself because he could never get the right sort of look into his face, in spite of the fact that he’d been out of work often enough. Maybe mam would have to leave him first, and then he might do it; but no – I shook my head – there wasn’t much chance of that even though he did lead her a dog’s life.
‘Yer wain’t forget to kick that chair away?’ he reminded me, and I swung my head to say I wouldn’t. So my eyes were popping and I watched every move he made. He stood on the chair and put the rope around his neck so that it fitted this time, still whistling his fancy tune. I wanted to get a better goz at the knot, because my pal was in the scouts, and would ask to know how it was done, and if I told him later he’d let me know what happened at the pictures in the Jungle Jim serial, so’s I could have my cake and eat it as well, as mam says, tit for tat. But I thought I’d better not ask the bloke to tell me, and I stayed back in my corner. The last thing he did was take the wet dirty butt-end from his lips and sling it into the empty firegrate, following it with his eyes to the black fireback where it landed – as if he was then going to mend a fault in the lighting like any electrician.
Suddenly his long legs wriggled and his feet tried to kick the chair, so I helped him as I’d promised I would and took a runner at it as if I was playing centre-forward for Notts Forest, and the chair went scooting back against the sofa, dragging his muffler to the floor as it tipped over. He swung for a bit, his arms chafing like he was a scarecrow flapping birds away, and he made a noise in his throat as if he’d just took a dose of salts and was trying to make them stay down.
Then there was another sound, and I looked up and saw a big crack come in the ceiling, like you see on the pictures when an earthquakes’s happening, and the bulb began circling round and round as though it was a spaceship. I was just beginning to get dizzy when, thank Christ, he fell down with such a horrible thump on the floor that I thought he’d broke every bone he’d got. He kicked around for a bit, like a dog that’s got colic bad. Then he lay still.
I didn’t stay to look at him. ‘I told him the rope wouldn’t hold up,’ I kept saying to myself as I went out of the house, tut-tutting because he hadn’t done the job right, hands stuffed deep into my pockets and nearly crying at the balls-up he’d made of everything. I slammed
Just as I was going back up the yard to get my tea at home, hoping the others had come back from the pictures so’s I wouldn’t have anything to keep being black about, a copper passed me and headed for the bloke’s door. He was striding quickly with his head bent forward, and I knew that somebody had narked. They must have seen him buy the rope and then tipped-off the cop. Or happen the old hen at the yard-end had finally caught on. Or perhaps he’d even told somebody himself, because I supposed that the bloke who’d strung himself up hadn’t much known what he was doing, especially with the look I’d seen in his eyes. But that’s how it is, I said to myself, as I followed the copper back to the bloke’s house, a poor bloke can’t even hang himself these days.
When I got back the copper was slitting the rope from his neck with a pen-knife, then he gave him a drink of water, and the bloke opened his peepers. I didn’t like the copper, because he’d got a couple of my mates sent to approved school for pinching lead piping from lavatories.
‘What did you want to hang yourself for?’ he asked the bloke, trying to make him sit up. He could hardly talk, and one of his hands was bleeding from where the light-bulb had smashed. I knew that rope wouldn’t hold up, but he hadn’t listened to me. I’ll never hang myself anyway, but if I want to I’ll make sure I do it from a tree or something like that, not a light-fitting. ‘Well, what did you do it for?’
‘Because I wanted to,’ the bloke croaked.
‘You’ll get five years for this,’ the copper told him. I’d crept back into the house and was sucking my thumb in the same corner.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes