New and Collected Stories, p.13Alan Sillitoe
He had gone too far. Why did he make Saturday afternoons such hell on earth? Anger throbbed violently in her temples. Through the furious beating of her heart she cried out: ‘If you want some pastries you’ll fetch ’em yourself. And you’ll mash your own tea as well.’
‘When a man goes to wok all week he wants some tea,’ he said, glaring at her. Nodding at the boy: ‘Send him out for some cakes.’
The boy already stood up. ‘Don’t go. Sit down,’ she said to him. ‘Get ’em yourself,’ she retorted to her husband. ‘The tea I’ve already put on the table’s good enough for anybody. There’s nowt wrong wi’ it at all, and then you carry on like this. I suppose they lost at the match, because I can’t think of any other reason why you should have such a long face.’
He was shocked by such a sustained tirade, stood up to subdue her. ‘You what?’ he shouted. ‘What do you think you’re on wi’?’
Her face turned a deep pink. ‘You heard,’ she called back. ‘A few home truths might do you a bit of good.’
He picked up the plate of fish and, with exaggerated deliberation, threw it to the floor. ‘There,’ he roared. ‘That’s what you can do with your bleeding tea.’
‘You’re a lunatic,’ she screamed. ‘You’re mental.’
He hit her once, twice, three times across the head, and knocked her to the ground. The little boy wailed, and his sister came running in from the parlour …
Fred and his young wife in the house next door heard a commotion through the thin walls. They caught the cadence of voices and shifting chairs, but didn’t really think anything amiss until the shriller climax was reached. ‘Would you believe it?’ Ruby said, slipping off Fred’s knee and straightening her skirt. ‘Just because Notts have lost again. I’m glad yo’ aren’t like that.’
Ruby was nineteen, plump like a pear not round like a pudding, already pregnant though they’d only been married a month. Fred held her back by the waist. ‘I’m not so daft as to let owt like that bother me.’
She wrenched herself free. ‘It’s a good job you’re not; because if you was I’d bosh you one.’
Fred sat by the fire with a bemused, Cheshire-cat grin on his face while Ruby was in the scullery getting them something to eat. The noise in the next house had died down. After a slamming of doors and much walking to and fro outside Lennox’s wife had taken the children, and left him for the last time.
The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale
I’m easily led and swung, my mind like a weather-vane when somebody wants to change it for me, but there’s one sure rule I’ll stick to for good, and I don’t mind driving a nail head-first into a bloody long rigmarole of a story to tell you what I mean.
I’ll never let anybody try and tell me that you don’t have to sling your hook as soon as you get to the age of fifteen. You ought to be able to do it earlier, only it’s against the law, like everything else in this poxetten land of hope and glory.
You see, you can’t hang on to your mam’s apron strings for ever, though it’s a dead cert there’s many a bloke as would like to. Jim Scarfedale was one of these. He hung on so long that in the end he couldn’t get used to anything else, and when he tried to change I swear blind he didn’t know the difference between an apron string and a pair of garters, though I’m sure his brand-new almost-beautiful wife must have tried to drum it into his skull before she sent him whining back to his mother.
Well, I’m not going to be one of that sort. As soon as I see a way of making-off – even if I have to rob meters to feed myself – I’ll take it. Instead of doing arithmetic lessons at school I glue my eyes to the atlas under my desk, planning the way I’m going to take when the time comes (with the ripped-out map folded-up in my back pocket): bike to Derby, bus to Manchester, train to Glasgow, nicked car to Edinburgh, and hitch-hiking down to London. I can never stop looking at these maps, with their red roads and brown hills and marvellous other cities – so it’s no wonder I can’t add up for toffee. (Yes, I know every city’s the same when you come to weigh it up: the same hostels full of thieves all out to snatch your last bob if you give them half the chance; the same factories full of work, if you’re lucky; the same mildewed backyards and houses full of silverfish and black-clocks when you suddenly switch on the light at night; but nevertheless, even though they’re all the same they’re different as well in dozens of ways, and nobody can deny it.)
Jim Scarfedale lived in our terrace, with his mam, in a house like our own, only it was a lot nearer the bike factory, smack next to it in fact, so that it was a marvel to me how they stuck it with all the noise you could hear. They might just as well have been inside the factory, because the racket it kicked up was killing. I went in the house once to tell Mrs Scarfedale that Mr Taylor at the shop wanted to see her about her week’s grub order, and while I was telling her this I could hear the engines and pulleys next door in the factory thumping away, and iron-presses slamming as if they were trying to burst through the wall and set up another department at the Scarfedales’. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if it was this noise, as much as Jim’s mam, that made him go the way he did.
Jim’s mam was a big woman, a Tartar, a real six-footer who kept her house as clean as a new pin, and who fed Jim up to his eyeballs on steam pudding and Irish stew. She was the sort of woman as ‘had a way with her’ – which meant that she usually got what she wanted and knew that what she wanted was right. Her husband had coughed himself to death with consumption not long after Jim was born, and Mrs Scarfedale had set to working at the tobacco factory to earn enough for herself and Jim. She stayed hard at it for donkey’s years, and she had a struggle to make ends meet through the dole days, I will say that for her, and Jim always had some sort of suit on his back every Sunday morning – which was a bloody sight more than anybody else in the terrace had. But even though he was fed more snap than the rest of us he was a small lad, and I was as big at thirteen as he was at twenty-seven (by which time it struck me that he must have stopped growing) even though I’d been half clambed to death. The war was on then – when we in our family thought we were living in the lap of luxury because we were able to stuff ourselves on date-jam and oxo – and they didn’t take Jim in the army because of his bad eyes, and his mam was glad at this because his dad had got a gob full of gas in the Great War. So Jim stayed with his mam, which I think was worse in the end than if he’d gone for a soldier and been blown to bits by the Jerries.
It worn’t long after the war started that Jim surprised us all by getting married.
When he told his mam what he was going to do there was such ructions that we could hear them all the way up the yard. His mam hadn’t even seen the girl, and that was what made it worse, she shouted. Courting on the sly like that and suddenly upping and saying he was getting married, without having mentioned a word of it before. Ungrateful, after all she’d done for him, bringing him up so well, even though he’d had no dad. Think of all the times she’d slaved for him! Think of it! Just think of it! (Jesus, you should have heard her.) Day in and day out she’d worked her fingers to the bone at that fag-packing machine, coming home at night dead to the wide yet cooking his dinners and mending his britches and cleaning his room out – it didn’t bear thinking about. And now what had he gone and done, by way of thanks? (Robbed her purse? I asked myself quickly in the breathless interval; pawned the sheets and got drunk on the dough, drowned the cat, cut her window plants down with a pair of scissors?) No, he’d come home and told her he was getting married, just like that. It wasn’t the getting married she minded – oh no, not that at all, of course it wasn’t, because every young chap had to get married one day – so much as him not having brought the girl home before now for her to see and talk to. Why hadn’t he done this? Was he ashamed of his mother? Didn’t he think she was respectable enough to be seen by his young woman? Didn’t he like to bring her back to his own home – you should have heard the way she said ‘home’: it made my blood run cold – even thou
She stopped shouting and thumping the table for a minute, and then the waterworks began. Fair would you say it was – she sobbed her socks off – after all I’ve struggled and sweated getting you up for school every morning when you was little and sitting you down to porridge and bacon before you went out into the snow with your topcoat on, which was more than any of the other little rag-bags in the yard wore because their dads and mams boozed the dole money – (she said this, she really did, because I was listening from a place where I couldn’t help but hear it – and I’ll swear blind our dad never boozed a penny of his dole money and we were still clambed half to death on it …) And I think of all the times when you was badly and I fetched the doctor, she went on screaming. Think of it. But I suppose you’re too self-pinnyated to think, which is what my spoiling’s done for you, aren’t you? Eh?
The tears stopped. I think you might have had the common decency to tell me you wanted to get married and had started courting. She didn’t know how he’d managed it, that she didn’t, especially when she’d kept her eyes on him so well. I shouldn’t have let you go twice a week to that Co-op youth club of yourn, she shouted, suddenly realizing where he’d seen his chance. That was it. By God it was, that was it. And you telling me you was playing draughts and listening to blokes talk politics! Politics! That’s what they called it, was it? First thing I knew. They called it summat else in my day, and it worn’t such a pretty name, either. Ay, by God. And now you’ve got the cheek to stand there, still with your coat on, not even offering to drop all this married business. (She hadn’t given him the chance to.) Why, Jim, how could you think about getting married (tap on again) when I’ve been so good to you? My poor lad, hasn’t even realized what it’s cost me and how I’ve worked to keep us together all these years, ever since your poor dad died. But I’ll tell you one thing, my lad (tap off, sharp, and the big finger wagging), you’d better bring her to me and let me see her, and if she ain’t up to much, yer can let her go and look for somebody else, if she still feels inclined.
By God, I was all of a tremble myself when I climbed down from my perch, though I wouldn’t have took it like Jim did, but would have bashed her between the eyes and slung my hook there and then. Jim was earning good money and could have gone anywhere in the country, the bloody fool.
I suppose you’ll be wondering how everybody in the yard knew all about what went on in Jim’s house that night, and how it is that I’m able to tell word for word what Jim’s mam said to him. Well, this is how it was: with Jim’s house being so near the factory there’s a ledge between the factory roof and his scullery window, the thickness of a double-brick wall, and I was thin-rapped enough to squeeze myself along this and listen-in. The scullery window was open, and so was the scullery door that led to the kitchen, so I heard all as went on. And nobody in the house twigged it either. I found this place out when I was eight, when I used to go monkey-climbing all over the buildings in our yard. It’d ’ave been dead easy to burgle the Scarfedales’ house, except that there worn’t anything much worth pinching, and except that the coppers would have jumped on me for it right away.
Well, we all knew then what went off right enough, but what surprised everybody was that Jim Scarfedale meant what he said and wasn’t going to let his mam play the bully and stop him from getting married. I was on my perch the second night when sucky Jim brought his young woman to face his tub-thumping mother. She’d made him promise that much, at least.
I don’t know why, but everybody in the yard expected to see some poor crumby-faced boss-eyed tart from Basford, a scruffy, half-baked, daft sort of piece that wouldn’t say boo to a goose. But they got a shock. And so did I when I spied her through the scullery window. (Mrs Scarfedale was crackers about fresh air, I will say that for her.) I’d never heard anybody talk so posh, as if she’d come straight out of an office, and it made me think that Jim hadn’t lied after all when he said they’d talked about politics at the club.
‘Good evening, Mrs Scarfedale,’ she said as she came in. There was a glint in her eye, and a way she had, that made me think she’d been born talking as posh as she did. I wondered what she saw in Jim, whether she’d found out, unbeknown to any of us, that he’d been left some money, or was going to win the Irish Sweepstake. But no, Jim wasn’t lucky enough for either, and I suppose his mam was thinking this at the same time as I was. Nobody shook hands.
‘Sit down,’ Jim’s mam said. She turned to the girl, and looked at her properly for the first time, hard. ‘I hear as you’re wanting to marry my lad?’
‘That’s right, Mrs Scarfedale,’ she said, taking the best chair, though sitting in it stiff and not at her ease. ‘We’re going to be married quite soon.’ Then she tried to be more friendly, because Jim had given her the eye, like a little dog. ‘My name’s Phyllis Blunt. Call me Phyllis.’ She looked at Jim, and Jim smiled at her because she was so nice to his mam after all. He went on smiling, as if he’d been practising all the afternoon in the lavatory mirror at the place where he worked. Phyllis smiled back, as though she’d been used to smiling like that all her life. Smiles all over the place, but it didn’t mean a thing.
‘What we have to do first,’ Jim said, putting his foot in it, though in a nice sociable way, ‘is get a ring.’
I could see the way things were going right enough. His mam suddenly went blue in the face. ‘It ain’t like that?’ she brought out. ‘Is it?’
She couldn’t touch Phyllis with a barge-pole. ‘I’m not pregnant, if that’s what you mean.’
Mrs Scarfedale didn’t know I was chiking, but I’ll bet we both thought together: Where’s the catch in it, then? Though it soon dawned on me that there wasn’t any catch, at least not of the sort we must have thought of. And if this had dawned on Mrs Scarfedale at the same time as it did on me there wouldn’t have been the bigger argument that night – all of them going at it worse than tigers – and perhaps poor Jim wouldn’t have got married as quick as he did.
‘Well,’ his mother complained to our mam one day at the end of the yard about a month after they’d got spliced, ‘he’s made his bed, and he can lie on it, even though it turns out to be a bed of nettles, which I for one told him it was bound to be.’
Yet everybody hoped Jim would be able to keep on lying on it, because they’d always had something against such domineering strugglers as Mrs Scarfedale. Not that everybody in our yard hadn’t been a struggler – and still was – one way or another. You had to be, or just lay down and die. But Jim’s mam sort of carried a placard about saying: I’m a struggler but a cut above everybody else because I’m so good at it. You could tell a mile off that she was a struggler and that was what nobody liked.
She was right about her lad though. Sod it, some people said. Jim didn’t lie on his bed for long, though his wife wasn’t a bad-looking piece and I can see now that he should have stayed between those sheets for longer than he did. Inside six months he was back, and we all wondered what could have gone wrong – as we saw him walking down the yard carrying a suit-case and two paper bundles, looking as miserable as sin and wearing the good suit he’d got married in to save it getting creased in the case. Well, I said to myself, I’ll be back on my perch soon to find out what happened between Jim and his posh missis. Yes, we’d all been expecting him to come back to his mam if you want to know the dead honest truth, even though we hoped he wouldn’t, poor lad, because in the first three months of being married he’d hardly come to see her at all, and most people thought from this that he’d settled down a treat and that married life must be suiting him. But I knew different, for when a bloke’s just got married he comes home often to see his mam and dad – if he’s ha
I got to my perch before Jim opened his back door, and I was able to see him come in and make out what sort of a welcome his mam gave him. She was clever, I will say that for her. If she had thought about it she could have stopped his marriage a dozen times by using a bit of craft I’ll bet. There was no: ‘I told you so. You should have listened to me and then everything wouldn’t have happened.’ No, she kissed him and mashed him a cup of tea, because she knew that if she played her cards right she could have him at home for good. You could see how glad she was – could hardly stop herself smiling – as she picked up his case and parcels and carried them upstairs to his room, meaning to make his bed while the kettle boiled, leaving him a blank ten-minute sit-down in peace which she knew was just what he wanted.
But you should have seen poor old Jim, his face wicked-badly, forty-five if he looked a day, as if he’d just been let out of a Jap prisoner-of-war camp and staring – like he was crackers – at the same patch of carpet he’d stared at when he was only a kid on his pot. He’d always had a bit of a pain screwed into his mug – born that way I should think – but now it seemed as though he’d got an invisible sledgehammer hanging all the time in front of his miserable clock ready to fall against his snout. It would have made my heart bleed if I hadn’t guessed he’d been such a sodding fool, getting wed with a nice tart and then making a mess of it all.
He sat like that for a quarter of an hour, and I’ll swear blind he didn’t hear a single one of the homely sounds coming from upstairs, of his mam making his bed and fixing up his room, like I did. And I kept wishing she’d made haste and get done with it, but she knew what she was doing all right, dusting the mirror and polishing the pictures for her sucky lad.
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