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New and collected storie.., p.14
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       New and Collected Stories, p.14

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  Well, she came down all of a smile (trying to hide it as best she could though) and set his bread and cheese out on the table, but he didn’t touch a bite, only swigged three mugs of tea straight off while she sat in her chair and looked at him as if she, anyway, would make a good supper for him.

  ‘I’ll tell you, mam,’ he began as soon as she came and set herself staring at him from the other end of the table to get him blabbing just like this. ‘I’ve been through hell in the last six months, and I never want to go through it again.’

  It was like a dam breaking down. In fact the crack in a dam wall that you see on the pictures came into his forehead just like that, exactly. And once he got started there was no holding him back. ‘Tell me about it then, my lad’ – though there was no need for her to have said this: he was trembling like a jelly, so that I was sometimes hard put to it to know what was going on. Honest, I can’t tell it all in Jim’s own words because it’d break my heart; and I really did feel sorry for him as he went on and on.

  ‘Mam,’ he moaned, dipping bread and butter in his tea, a thing I’m sure he’d never been able to do with his posh missis at the table, ‘she led me a dog’s life. In fact a dog would have been better off in his kennel with an old bone to chew now and again than I was with her. It was all right at first, because you see, mam, she had some idea that a working bloke like myself was good and honest and all that sort of thing. I never knew whether she’d read this in a book or whether she’d known working blokes before that were different from me, but she might have read it because she had a few books in the house that I never looked at, and she never mentioned any other blokes in her life. She used to say that it was a treat to be able to marry and live with a bloke like me who used his bare hands for a living, because there weren’t many blokes in the world, when you considered it, who did good hard labouring work. She said she’d die if ever she married a bloke as worked in an office and who crawled around his boss because he wanted to get on. So I thought it would go off all right, mam, honest I did, when she said nice things like this to me. It made the netting factory look better to me, and I didn’t so much mind carrying bobbins from one machine to another. I was happy with her and I thought that she was happy with me. At first she made a bigger fuss of me than before we were married even, and when I came home at night she used to talk about politics and books and things, saying how the world was made for blokes like me and that we should run the world and not leave it to a lot of money-grubbing capitalist bastards who didn’t know any more about it than to talk like babies week after week and get nothing done that was any good to anybody.

  ‘But to tell you the truth, mam, I was too tired to talk politics after I’d done a hard day’s graft, and then she started to ask questions, and would get ratty after a while when she began to see that I couldn’t answer what she wanted to know. She asked me all sorts of things, about my bringing up, about my dad, about all the neighbours in the terrace, but I could never tell her much, anyway, not what she wanted to know, and that started a bit of trouble. At first she packed my lunches and dinners and there was always a nice hot tea and some clothes to change into waiting for me when I came home, but later on she wanted me to have a bath every night, and that caused a bit of trouble because I was too tired to have a bath and often I was too fagged out even to change my clothes. I wanted to sit in my overalls listening to the wireless and reading the paper in peace. Once when I was reading the paper and she was getting mad because I couldn’t get my eyes off the football results she put a match to the bottom of the paper and I didn’t know about it till the flames almost came into my face. I got a fright, I can tell you, because I thought we were still happy then. And she made a joke about it, and even went out to buy me another newspaper, so I thought it was all right and that it was only a rum joke she’d played. But not long after that when I’d got the racing on the wireless she said she couldn’t stand the noise and that I should listen to something better, so she pulled the plug out and wouldn’t put it back.

  ‘Yes, she did very well by me at first, that I will say, just like you, mam, but then she grew tired of it all, and started to read books all day, and there’d be nowt on the table at tea time when I came home dead to the wide except a packet of fags and a bag of toffees. She was all loving to me at first, but then she got sarcastic and said she couldn’t stand the sight of me. “Here comes the noble savage,” she called out when I came home, and used longer words I didn’t know the meaning of when I asked her where my tea was. “Get it yourself,” she said, and one day when I picked up one of her toffees from the table she threw the poker at me. I said I was hungry, but she just told me: “Well, if you are, then crawl under the table to me and I’ll give you something.” Honest, mam, I can’t tell you one half of what went on, because you wouldn’t want to hear it.’

  (Not much, I thought. I could see her as large as life licking her chops.)

  ‘Tell me it all, my lad,’ she said. ‘Get it off your chest. I can see you’ve had a lot to put up with.’

  ‘I did and all,’ he said. ‘The names she called me, mam. It made my hair stand on end. I never thought she was that sort, but I soon found out. She used to sit in front of the fire with nothing on, and when I said that she should get dressed in case a neighbour knocked at the door, she said she was only warming her meal-ticket that the noble savage had given her, and then she’d laugh, mam, in a way that made me so’s I couldn’t move. I had to get out when she carried on like that because I knew that if I stayed in she’d throw something and do damage.

  ‘I don’t know where she is now. She packed up and took her things, saying she never wanted to see me again, that I could chuck myself in the canal for all she cared. She used to shout a lot about going down to London and seeing some real life, so I suppose that’s where she’s gone. There was four pounds ten and threepence in a jam-jar on the kitchen shelf and when she’d gone that was gone as well.

  ‘So I don’t know, our mam, about anything, or what I’m going to do. I’d like to live here again with you if you’ll have me. I’ll pay you two quid a week regular for my board, and see you right. I can’t put up with any of that any more because I can’t stand it, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever leave home again after all that little lot of trouble. So if you’ll have me back, mam, I’ll be ever so glad. I’ll work hard for you, that I will, and you’ll never have to worry again. I’ll do right by you and pay you back a bit for all the struggle you had in bringing me up. I heard at work the other day as I’m to have a ten bob rise next week, so if you let me stay I’ll get a new wireless and pay the deposit on it. So let me stay, our mam, because, I tell you, I’ve suffered a lot.’

  And the way she kissed him made me sick, so I got down from my monkey-perch.

  Jim Scarfedale stayed, right enough, the great big baby. He was never happier in his life after getting the OK from his old woman. All his worries were over, he’d swear blind they were, even if you tried to tell him what a daft sod he was for not packing his shaving tackle and getting out, which I did try to tell him, only he thought I was cracked even more than he was himself, I suppose. His mother thought she’d got him back for good, though, and so did we all, but we were off the mark by a mile. If you weren’t stone-blind you could see he was never the same old Jim after he’d been married: he got broody and never spoke to a soul, and nobody, not even his mam, could ever get out of him where he went to every night. His face went pudgy-white and his sandy mouse-hair fell out so much that he was nearly bald in six months. Even the few freckles he had went pale. He used to slink back from wherever he’d been at twelve o’clock, whether the night was winter or summer, and never a bloke would know what he got up to. And if you asked him right out loud, like as if you were cracking a bit of a joke: ‘Where you been, Jim?’ he’d make as if he hadn’t heard a sound.

  It must have been a couple of years later when the copper came up our yard one moonlight night: I saw him from my bedroom window. He turned the corner, and I dodge
d back before he could spot me. You’re in for it now, I said to myself, ripping lead from that empty house on Buckingham Street. You should have had more sense, you daft bogger (frightened to death I was, though I don’t know why now), especially when you only got three and a tanner for it from Cooky. I always said you’d end up in Borstal, and here comes the copper to get you.

  Even when he went on past our house I thought it was only because he’d got mixed up in the numbers and that he’d swing back at any minute. But no, it was the Scarfedales’ door he wanted, and I’d never known a happier feeling than when I heard that rap-rap-rapping and knew that this time they hadn’t come for me. Never again, I sang to myself, never again – so happy that I got the stitch – they can keep their bleeding lead.

  Jim’s mam screamed as soon as the copper mentioned her name. Even where I was I heard her say: ‘He’s never gone and got run over, has he?’

  Then I could hear no more, but a minute later she walked up the yard with the copper, and I saw her phizzog by the lamplight, looking set hard like granite, as if she would fall down and kick the bucket if you as much as whispered a word to her. The copper had to hold her arm.

  It all came out next morning – the queerest case the yard had ever known. Blokes had been put inside for burglary, deserting, setting fire to buildings, bad language, being blind drunk, grabbing hold of grown women and trying to give them what-for, not paying maintenance money, running up big debts for wireless and washing machines and then selling them, poaching, trespassing, driving off in cars that didn’t belong to them, trying to commit suicide, attempted murder, assault and battery, snatching handbags, shoplifting, fraud, forgery, pilfering from work, bashing each other about, and all sorts of larks that didn’t mean much. But Jim did something I hadn’t heard about before, at least not in our yard.

  He’d been at it for months as well, taking a bus for miles across town to places where nobody knew him and waiting in old dark streets near some lit-up beer-off for little girls of ten and eleven to come walking along carrying jugs to get their dads a pint. And sucky Jim would jump out of his hiding place near pieces of waste-ground and frighten the life out of them and get up to his dirty tricks. I can’t understand why he did it, I can’t, I really can’t, but did it he did, and got copped for it as well. He did it so often that somebody must have sprung a trap, because one hard-luck night they collared him and he was put inside for eighteen months. You should have heard the telling-off he got from the judge. I’ll bet the poor sod didn’t know where to put his face, though I’m sure there’s many a judge that’s done the same, if not worse, than Jim. ‘We’ve got to put you in clink,’ the judge said, ‘not only for the good of little girls but for your own good as well. People have to be protected from the likes of you, you dirty sod.’

  After that we never saw him again in our yard, because by the time he came out his mother had got a house and a new job in Derby, so’s they could settle down where nobody knew them I suppose. Jim was the only bloke in our yard that ever got a big spread in all the newspapers, as far as I can remember, and nobody would have thought he had it in him, though I think it was a bit like cheating, getting in on them with a thing like that.

  Which is why I think nobody should hang on to his mother’s apron strings for such a long time like Jim did, or they might go the same way. And that’s why I look at that atlas under my desk at school instead of doing sums (up through Derbyshire and into Manchester, then up to Glasgow, across to Edinburgh, and down again to London, saying hello to mam and dad on the way) because I hate doing sums, especially when I think I can already reckon up all the money I’m ever likely to scoop from any small-time gas-meter.

  The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller

  Sitting in what has come to be called my study, a room in the first-floor flat of a ramshackle Majorcan house, my eyes move over racks of books around me. Row after row of coloured backs and dusty tops, they give an air of distinction not only to the room but to the whole flat, and one can sense the thoughts of occasional visitors who stoop down discreetly during drinks to read their titles:

  ‘A Greek lexicon, Homer in the original. He knows Greek! (Wrong, those books belong to my brother-in-law.) Shakespeare, The Golden Bough, a Holy Bible bookmarked with tapes and paper. He even reads it! Euripides and the rest, and a dozen mouldering Baedekers. What a funny idea to collect them! Proust, all twelve volumes! I never could wade through that lot. (Neither did I.) Dostoevsky. My God, is he still going strong?’

  And so on and so on, items that have become part of me, foliage that has grown to conceal the bare stem of my real personality, what I was like before I ever saw these books, or any book at all, come to that. Often I would like to rip them away from me one by one, extract their shadows out of my mouth and heart, cut them neatly with a scalpel from my jungle-brain. Impossible. You can’t wind back the clock that sits grinning on the marble shelf. You can’t even smash its face in and forget it.

  Yesterday we visited the house of a friend who lives further along the valley, away from the town noises so that sitting on the terrace with eyes half-closed and my head leaning back in a deck-chair, beneath a tree of half-ripe medlars and with the smell of plundered oranges still on my hands, I heard the sound of a cuckoo coming from the pine woods on the mountain slopes.

  The cuckoo accomplished what a surgeon’s knife could not. I was plunged back deep through the years into my natural state, without books and without the knowledge that I am supposed to have gained from them. I was suddenly landed beyond all immediate horizons of the past by the soft, sharp, fluting whistle of the cuckoo, and set down once more within the kingdom of Frankie Buller.

  We were marching to war, and I was part of his army, with an elderberry stick at the slope and my pockets heavy with smooth, flat, well-chosen stones that would skim softly and swiftly through the air, and strike the foreheads of enemies. My plimsoll shoes were sprouting bunions, and there must have been a patch at the back of my trousers and holes in my socks, because I can never remember a time when there weren’t, up to the age of fourteen.

  The roll-call revealed eleven of us, yet Frankie was a full-blown centurion with his six-foot spear-headed railing at the slope, and his rusty dustbin lid for a shield. To make our numbers look huge to an enemy he marched us down from the bridge and across the field in twos, for Frankie was a good tactician, having led the local armies since he was fifteen years old.

  At that time his age must have stood between twenty and twenty-five. Nobody seemed to know for sure, Frankie least of all, and it was supposed that his parents found it politic to keep the secret closely. When we asked Frankie how old he was he answered with the highly improbable number of: ‘’Undred an’ fifty-eight.’ This reply was logically followed by another question: ‘When did you leave school, then?’ Sometimes he would retort scornfully to this: ‘I never went to school.’ Or he might answer with a proud grin: ‘I didn’t leave, I ran away.’

  I wore short trousers, and he wore long trousers, so it was impossible for me to say how tall he was in feet and inches. In appearance he seemed like a giant. He had grey eyes and dark hair, and regular features that would have made him passably handsome had not a subtle air of pre-pubescent unreliability lurked in his eyes and around the lines of his low brow. In body and strength he lacked nothing for a full-grown man.

  We in the ranks automatically gave him the title of General, but he insisted on being addressed as Sergeant-Major, because his father had been a sergeant-major in the First World War. ‘My dad was wounded in the war,’ he told us every time we saw him. ‘He got a medal and shell-shock, and because he got shell-shock, that’s why I’m like I am.’

  He was glad and proud of being ‘like he was’ because it meant he did not have to work in a factory all day and earn his living like other men of his age. He preferred to lead the gang of twelve-year-olds in our street to war against the same age group of another district. Our street was a straggling line of ancient back-to-backs on th
e city’s edge, while the enemy district was a new housing estate of three long streets which had outflanked us and left us a mere pocket of country in which to run wild – a few fields and allotment gardens, which was reason enough for holding an eternal grudge against them. People from the slums in the city-centre lived in the housing estate, so that our enemies were no less ferocious than we, except that they didn’t have a twenty-year-old backward youth like Frankie to lead them into battle. The inhabitants of the housing estate had not discarded their slum habits, so that the area became known to our streets as ‘Sodom’.

  ‘We’re gooin’ ter raid Sodom today,’ Frankie said, when we were lined-up on parade. He did not know the Biblical association of the word, thinking it a name officially given by the city council.

  So we walked down the street in twos and threes, and formed up on the bridge over the River Leen. Frankie would order us to surround any stray children we met with on the way, and if they wouldn’t willingly fall in with us as recruits he would follow one of three courses. First: he might have them bound with a piece of clothes-line and brought with us by force; second: threaten to torture them until they agreed to come with us of their own free will; third: beat them across the head with his formidable hand and send them home weeping, or snarling back curses at him from a safe distance. I had come to join his gang through clause number two, and had stayed with it for profitable reasons of fun and adventure. My father often said: ‘If I see yo’ gooin’ about wi’ that daft Frankie Buller I’ll clink yer tab-’ole.’

  Although Frankie was often in trouble with the police he could never, even disregarding his age, be accurately described as a ‘juvenile delinquent’. He was threatened regularly by the law with being sent to Borstal, but his antics did not claim for him a higher categorical glory than that of ‘general nuisance’ and so kept him out of the clutches of such institutions. His father drew a pension due to wounds from the war, and his mother worked at the tobacco factory, and on this combined income the three of them seemed to live at a higher standard than the rest of us, whose fathers were permanent appendages at the dole office. The fact that Frankie was an only child in a district where some families numbered up to half a dozen was accounted for by the rumour that the father, having seen Frankie at birth, had decided to run no more risks. Another whispered reason concerned the nature of Mr Buller’s pensionable wound.

 
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