New and Collected Stories, p.12Alan Sillitoe
‘That’s what yo’ think,’ the bloke said, a normal frightened look in his eyes now. ‘I only wanted to hang myself.’
‘Well,’ the copper said, taking out his book, ‘it’s against the law, you know.’
‘Nay,’ the bloke said, ‘it can’t be. It’s my life, ain’t it?’
‘You might think so,’ the copper said, ‘but it ain’t.’
He began to suck the blood from his hand. It was such a little scratch that you couldn’t see it. ‘That’s the first thing I knew,’ he said.
‘Well I’m telling you,’ the copper told him.
’Course, I didn’t let on to the copper that I’d helped the bloke to hang himself. I wasn’t born yesterday, nor the day before yesterday either.
‘It’s a fine thing if a bloke can’t tek his own life,’ the bloke said, seeing he was in for it.
‘Well he can’t,’ the copper said, as if reading out of his book and enjoying it. ‘It ain’t your life. And it’s a crime to take your own life. It’s killing yourself. It’s suicide.’
The bloke looked hard, as if every one of the copper’s words meant six-months cold. I felt sorry for him, and that’s a fact, but if only he’d listened to what I’d said and not depended on that light-fitting. He should have done it from a tree or something like that.
He went up the yard with the copper like a peaceful lamb, and we all thought that that was the end of that.
But a couple of days later the news was flashed through to us – even before it got to the Post because a woman in our yard worked at the hospital of an evening dishing grub out and tidying up. I heard her spilling it to somebody at the yard-end. ‘I’d never ’ave thought it. I thought he’d got that daft idea out of his head when they took him away. But no. Wonders’ll never cease. Chucked ’issen from the hospital window when the copper who sat near his bed went off for a pee. Would you believe it? Dead? Not much ’e ain’t.’
He’d heaved himself at the glass, and fallen like a stone on to the road. In one way I was sorry he’d done it, but in another I was glad, because he’d proved to the coppers and everybody whether it was his life or not all right. It was marvellous though, the way the brainless bastards had put him in a ward six floors up, which finished him off, proper, even better than a tree.
All of which will make me think twice about how black I sometimes feel. The black coal-bag locked inside you, and the black look it puts on your face, doesn’t mean you’re going to string yourself up or sling yourself under a double-decker or chuck yourself out of a window or cut your throat with a sardine-tin or put your head in the gas-oven or drop your rotten sack-bag of a body on to a railway line, because when you’re feeling that black you can’t even move from your chair. Anyhow, I know I’ll never get so black as to hang myself, because hanging don’t look very nice to me, and never will, the more I remember old what’s-his-name swinging from the light-fitting.
More than anything else, I’m glad now I didn’t go to the pictures that Saturday afternoon when I was feeling black and ready to do myself in. Because you know, I shan’t ever kill myself. Trust me. I’ll stay alive half-barmy till I’m a hundred and five, and then go out screaming blue murder because I want to stay where I am.
Bristol City had played Notts County and won. Right from the kickoff Lennox had somehow known that Notts was going to lose, not through any prophetic knowledge of each home-player’s performance, but because he himself, a spectator, hadn’t been feeling in top form. One-track pessimism had made him godly enough to inform his mechanic friend Fred Iremonger who stood by his side: ‘I knew they’d bleddy-well lose, all the time.’
Towards the end of the match, when Bristol scored their winning goal, the players could only just be seen, and the ball was a roll of mist being kicked about the field. Advertising boards above the stands, telling of pork-pies, ales, whisky, cigarettes and other delights of Saturday night, faded with the afternoon visibility.
They stood in the one-and-threes, Lennox trying to fix his eyes on the ball, to follow each one of its erratic well-kicked movements, but after ten minutes going from blurred player to player he gave it up and turned to look at the spectators massed in the rising stands that reached out in a wide arc on either side and joined dimly way out over the pitch. This proving equally futile he rubbed a clenched hand into his weak eyes and squeezed them tight, as if pain would give them more strength. Useless. All it produced was a mass of grey squares dancing before his open lids, so that when they cleared his sight was no better than before. Such an affliction made him appear more phlegmatic at a football match than Fred and most of the others round about, who spun rattles, waved hats and scarves, opened their throats wide to each fresh vacillation in the game.
During his temporary blindness the Notts forwards were pecking and weaving around the Bristol goal and a bright slam from one of them gave rise to a false alarm, an indecisive rolling of cheers roofed in by a grey heavy sky. ‘What’s up?’ Lennox asked Fred. ‘Who scored? Anybody?’
Fred was a younger man, recently married, done up in his Saturday afternoon best of sports coat, gaberdine trousers and rain-mac, dark hair sleeked back with oil. ‘Not in a month of Sundays,’ he laughed, ‘but they had a bleddy good try, I’ll tell you that.’
By the time Lennox had focused his eyes once more on the players the battle had moved to Notts’ goal and Bristol were about to score. He saw a player running down the field, hearing in his imagination the thud of boots on damp introdden turf. A knot of adversaries dribbled out in a line and straggled behind him at a trot. Suddenly the man with the ball spurted forward, was seen to be clear of everyone as if, in a second of time that hadn’t existed to any spectator or other player, he’d been catapulted into a hallowed untouchable area before the goal posts. Lennox’s heart stopped beating. He peered between two oaken unmovable shoulders that, he thought with anger, had swayed in front purposely to stop him seeing. The renegade centre-forward from the opposing side was seen, like a puppet worked by someone above the low clouds, to bring his leg back, lunge out heavily with his booted foot. ‘No,’ Lennox had time to say. ‘Get on to him you dozy sods. Don’t let him get it in.’
From being an animal pacing within the prescribed area of his defended posts, the goalkeeper turned into a leaping ape, arms and legs outstretched, then became a mere stick that swung into a curve – and missed the ball as it sped to one side and lost itself in folds of net behind him.
The lull in the general noise seemed like silence for the mass of people packed about the field. Everyone had settled it in his mind that the match, as bad as it was, would be a draw, but now it was clear that Notts, the home team, had lost. A great roar of disappointment and joy, from the thirty-thousand spectators who hadn’t realized that the star of Bristol City was so close, or who had expected a miracle from their own stars at the last moment, ran up the packed embankments, overflowing into streets outside where groups of people, startled at the sudden noise of an erupting mob, speculated as to which team had scored.
Fred was laughing wildly, jumping up and down, bellowing something between a cheer and a shout of hilarious anger, as if out to get his money’s worth on the principle that an adverse goal was better than no goal at all. ‘Would you believe it?’ he called at Lennox. ‘Would you believe it? Ninety-five thousand quid gone up like Scotch mist!’
Hardly knowing what he was doing Lennox pulled out a cigarette, lit it. ‘It’s no good,’ he cursed, ‘they’ve lost. They should have walked away with the game’ – adding under his breath that he must get some glasses in order to see things better. His sight was now so bad that the line of each eye crossed and converged some distance in front of him. At the cinema he was forced down to the front row, and he was never the first to recognize a pal on the street. And it spelt ruination for any football match. He could remember being able to pinpoint each player’s face, and distinguish every spectator around the field, yet he still persuaded himself that he had no ne
‘What hard lines,’ Fred shouted, as if no one yet knew about the goal. ‘Would you believe it?’ The cheering and booing were beginning to die down.
‘That goalie’s a bloody fool,’ Lennox swore, cap pulled low over his forehead. ‘He couldn’t even catch a bleeding cold.’
‘It was dead lucky,’ Fred put in reluctantly, ‘they deserved it, I suppose’ – simmering down now, the full force of the tragedy seeping through even to his newly wedded body and soul. ‘Christ, I should have stayed at home with my missus. I’d a bin warm there, I know that much. I might even have cut myself a chunk of hearthrug pie if I’d have asked her right!’
The laugh and wink were intended for Lennox, who was still in the backwater of his personal defeat. ‘I suppose that’s all you think on these days,’ he said wryly.
‘’Appen I do, but I don’t get all that much of it, I can tell you.’ It was obvious though that he got enough to keep him in good spirits at a cold and disappointing football match.
‘Well,’ Lennox pronounced, ‘all that’ll alter in a bit. You can bet on that.’
‘Not if I know it,’ Fred said with a broad smile. ‘And I reckon it’s better after a bad match than if I didn’t come to one.’
‘You never said a truer word about bad,’ Lennox said. He bit his lip with anger. ‘Bloody team. They’d even lose at blow football.’ A woman behind, swathed in a thick woollen scarf coloured white and black like the Notts players, who had been screaming herself hoarse in support of the home team all the afternoon was almost in tears at the adverse goal. ‘Foul! foul! Get the dirty lot off the field. Send ’em back to Bristol where they came from. Foul! Foul! I tell yer.’
People all round were stamping feet dead from the cold, having for more than an hour staved off its encroachment into their limbs by the hope of at least one home-team win before Christmas. Lennox could hardly feel his, hadn’t the will to help them back to life, especially in face of an added force to the bitter wind, and a goal that had been given away so easily. Movement on the pitch was now desultory, for there were only ten minutes of play left to go. The two teams knotted up towards one goal, then spread out around an invisible ball, and moved down the field again, back to the other with no decisive result. It seemed that both teams had accepted the present score to be the final state of the game, as though all effort had deserted their limbs and lungs.
‘They’re done for,’ Lennox observed to Fred. People began leaving the ground, making a way between those who were determined to see the game out to its bitter end. Right up to the dull warbling blast of the final whistle the hard core of optimists hoped for a miraculous revival in the worn-out players.
‘I’m ready when yo’ are,’ Fred said.
‘Suits me.’ He threw his cigarette-end to the floor and, with a grimace of disappointment and disgust, made his way up the steps. At the highest point he turned a last glance over the field, saw two players running and the rest standing around in deepening mist – nothing doing – so went on down towards the barriers. When they were on the road a great cheer rose behind, as a whistle blew the signal for a mass rush to follow.
Lamps were already lit along the road, and bus queues grew quickly in semi-darkness. Fastening up his mac Lennox hurried across the road. Fred lagged behind, dodged a trolley-bus that sloped up to the pavement edge like a man-eating monster and carried off a crowd of people to the city-centre with blue lights flickering from overhead wires. ‘Well,’ Lennox said when they came close, ‘after that little lot I only hope the wife’s got summat nice for my tea.’
‘I can think of more than that to hope for,’ Fred said. ‘I’m not one to grumble about my grub.’
‘’Course,’ Lennox sneered, ‘you’re living on love. If you had Kit-E-Kat shoved in front of you you’d say it was a good dinner.’ They turned off by the recruiting centre into the heart of the Meadows, an ageing suburb of black houses and small factories. ‘That’s what yo’ think,’ Fred retorted, slightly offended yet too full of hope to really mind. ‘I’m just not one to grumble a lot about my snap, that’s all.’
‘It wouldn’t be any good if you was,’ Lennox rejoined, ‘but the grub’s rotten these days, that’s the trouble. Either frozen, or in tins. Nowt natural. The bread’s enough to choke yer.’ And so was the fog: weighed down by frost it lingered and thickened, causing Fred to pull up his rain-mac collar. A man who came level with them on the same side called out derisively: ‘Did you ever see such a game?’
‘Never in all my born days,’ Fred replied.
‘It’s always the same though,’ Lennox was glad to comment, ‘the best players are never on the field. I don’t know what they pay ’em for.’
The man laughed at this sound logic. ‘They’ll ‘appen get ’em on nex’ wik. That’ll show ’em.’
‘Let’s hope so,’ Lennox called out as the man was lost in the fog. ‘It ain’t a bad team,’ he added to Fred. But that wasn’t what he was thinking. He remembered how he had been up before the gaffer yesterday at the garage for clouting the mash-lad who had called him Cock-eye in front of the office-girl, and the manager had said that if it happened again he would get his cards. And now he wasn’t sure that he wouldn’t ask for them anyway. He’d never lack a job, he told himself, knowing his own worth and the sureness of his instinct when dissecting piston from cylinder, camshaft and connecting-rod and searching among a thousand-and-one possible faults before setting an engine bursting once more with life. A small boy called from the doorway of a house: ‘What’s the score, mate?’
‘They lost, two-one,’ he said curtly, and heard a loud clear-sounding doorslam as the boy ran in with the news. He walked with hands in pockets, and a cigarette at the corner of his mouth so that ash occasionally fell on to his mac. The smell of fish-and-chips came from a well-lit shop, making him feel hungry.
‘No pictures for me tonight,’ Fred was saying. ‘I know the best place in weather like this.’ The Meadows were hollow with the clatter of boots behind them, the muttering of voices hot in discussion about the lost match. Groups gathered at each corner, arguing and teasing any girl that passed, lighted gas-lamps a weakening ally in the fog. Lennox turned into an entry, where the cold damp smell of backyards mingled with that of dustbins. They pushed open gates to their separate houses.
‘So long. See you tomorrow at the pub maybe.’
‘Not tomorrow,’ Fred answered, already at his back door. ‘I’ll have a job on mending my bike. I’m going to gi’ it a coat of enamel and fix in some new brake blocks. I nearly got flattened by a bus the other day when they didn’t work.’
The gate-latch clattered. ‘All right then,’ Lennox said, ‘see you soon’ – opening the back door and going into his house.
He walked through the small living-room without speaking, took off his mac in the parlour. ‘You should mek a fire in there,’ he said, coming out. ‘It smells musty. No wonder the clo’es go to pieces inside six months.’ His wife sat by the fire knitting from two balls of electric-blue wool in her lap. She was forty, the same age as Lennox, but gone to a plainness and discontented fat, while he stayed thin and wiry from the same reason. Three children, the eldest a girl of fourteen, were at the table finishing tea.
Mrs Lennox went on knitting. ‘I was going to make one today but I didn’t have time.’
‘Iris can mek one,’ Lennox said, sitting down at the table.
The girl looked up. ‘I haven’t finished my tea yet, our dad.’ The wheedling tone of her voice made him angry. ‘Finish it later,’ he said with a threatening look. ‘The fire needs making now, so come on, look sharp and get some coal from the cellar.’
She didn’t move, sat the
‘All right, I’m going. Look’ – she got up and went to the cellar door. So he sat down again, his eyes roaming over the well-set table before him, holding his hands tightly clenched beneath the cloth. ‘What’s for tea, then?’
His wife looked up again from her knitting. ‘There’s two kippers in the oven.’
He did not move, sat morosely fingering a knife and fork. ‘Well?’ he demanded. ‘Do I have to wait all night for a bit o’ summat t’eat?’
Quietly she took a plate from the oven and put it before him. Two brown kippers lay steaming across it. ‘One of these days,’ he said, pulling a long strip of white flesh from the bone, ‘we’ll have a change.’
‘That’s the best I can do,’ she said, her deliberate patience no way to stop his grumbling – though she didn’t know what else would. And the fact that he detected it made things worse.
‘I’m sure it is,’ he retorted. The coal bucket clattered from the parlour where the girl was making a fire. Slowly, he picked his kippers to pieces without eating any. The other two children sat on the sofa watching him, not daring to talk. On one side of the plate he laid bones; on the other, flesh. When the cat rubbed against his leg he dropped pieces of fish for it on to the lino, and when he considered that it had eaten enough he kicked it away with such force that its head knocked against the sideboard. It leapt on to a chair and began to lick itself, looking at him with green surprised eyes.
He gave one of the boys sixpence to fetch a Football Guardian. ‘And be quick about it,’ he called after him. He pushed his plate away, and nodded towards the mauled kippers. ‘I don’t want this. You’d better send somebody out for some pastries. And mash some fresh tea,’ he added as an afterthought, ‘that pot’s stewed.’
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