New and Collected Stories, p.15Alan Sillitoe
We used to ask Frankie, when we made camp in the woods and squatted around a fire roasting plundered potatoes after victory, what he was going to do when the Second War started.
‘Join up,’ he would say, non-committally.
‘What in, Frankie?’ someone would ask respectfully, for Frankie’s age and strength counted for much more than the fact that the rest of us knew roughly how to read and write.
Frankie responded by hurling a piece of wood at his interrogator. He was a crackshot at any kind of throw, and rarely missed hitting the shoulder or chest. ‘Yer’ve got to call me “SIR”!’ he roared, his arms trembling with rightful anger. ‘Yer can get out to the edge of the wood and keep guard for that.’ The bruised culprit slunk off through the bushes, clutching his pole and stones.
‘What would you join, sir?’ a more knowing ranker said.
Such respect made him amiable:
‘The Sherwood Foresters. That’s the regiment my dad was in. He got a medal in France for killin’ sixty-three Jerries in one day. He was in a dug-out, see’ – Frankie could act this with powerful realism since seeing All Quiet on the Western Front and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer – ‘behind his machine gun, and the Jerries come over at dawn, and my dad seed ’em and started shootin’. They kept comin’ over, but the Old Man just kept on firin’ away – der-der-der-der-der-der-der – even when all his pals was dead. My Old Man was ’it with a bullet as well, but ’e din’t let go of ’is gun, and the Jerries was fallin’ dead like flies, dropping all round ’im, and when the rest o’ the Sherwoods come back to ’elp ’im and stop the Jerries coming over, ’e counted sixty-three dead bodies in front of ’is gun. So they gen ’im a medal and sent ’im back ter England.’
He looked around at the semicircle of us. ‘What do yer think o’ that, then?’ he demanded savagely, as if he himself were the hero and we were disputing it. ‘All right,’ he ordered, when we had given the required appreciation to his father’s exploits, ‘I want yer all ter scout round for wood so’s the fire wain’t goo out.’
Frankie was passionately interested in war. He would often slip a penny into my hand and tell me to fetch the Evening Post so that I could read to him the latest war news from China, Abyssinia, or Spain, and he would lean against the wall of his house, his grey eyes gazing at the roofs across the street, saying whenever I stopped for breath: ‘Go on, Alan, read me a bit more. Read me that bit about Madrid again …’
Frankie was a colossus, yet a brave man who formed us up and laid us in the hollows of a field facing the railway embankment that defended the approaches to the streets of Sodom. We would wait for an hour, a dozen of us with faces pressed to the earth, feeling our sticks and trying to stop the stones in our pockets from rattling. If anyone stirred Frankie would whisper out a threat: ‘The next man to move, I’ll smash ’im with my knobkerrie.’
We were three hundred yards from the embankment. The grass beneath us was smooth and sweet, and Frankie chewed it by the mouthful, stipulating that no one else must do so because it was worse than Deadly Nightshade. It would kill us in five seconds flat if we were to eat it, he went on, but it would do him no harm because he was proof against poison of all kinds. There was magic inside him that would not let it kill him; he was a witch doctor, and, for anyone who wasn’t, the grass would scorch his guts away.
An express train came out of the station, gathered speed on the bend, and blocked the pink eavings of Sodom from view while we lifted our heads from the grass and counted the carriages. Then we saw our enemies, several figures standing on the railway tracks, brandishing sticks and throwing stones with playful viciousness into a pool of water down the slope.
‘It’s the Sodom gang,’ we whispered.
‘Keep quiet,’ Frankie hissed. ‘How many do you see?’
‘There’s more comin’ up.’
‘Pretend they’re Germans,’ Frankie said.
They came down the slope and, one by one, lifted themselves over to our side of the railings. On the embankment they shouted and called out to each other, but once in the field they walked close together without making much noise. I saw nine of them, with several more still boldly trespassing on the railway line. I remembered that we were eleven, and while waiting for the signal to rush forward I kept saying to myself: ‘It won’t be long now. It can’t be long now.’
Frankie mumbled his final orders. ‘You lot go left. You other lot go right. We’ll go in front. I want ’em surrounded.’ The only military triumph he recognized was to surround and capture.
He was on his feet, brandishing an iron spear and waving a shield. We stood up with him and, stretched out in a line, advanced slowly, throwing stones as fast as our arms would move in to the concentric ring of the enemy gang.
It was a typical skirmish. Having no David to bring against our Goliath they slung a few ineffectual stones and ran back helter-skelter over the railings, mounting the slope to the railway line. Several of them were hit.
‘Prisoners!’ Frankie bellowed, but they bolted at the last moment and escaped. For some minutes stones flew between field and embankment, and our flanks were unable to push forward and surround. The enemy exulted then from the railway line because they had a harvest of specially laid stones between the tracks, while we had grass underfoot, with no prospect of finding more ammunition when our pockets were emptied. If they rallied and came back at us, we would have to retreat half a mile before finding stones at the bridge.
Frankie realized all this in a second. The same tactical situation had occurred before. Now some of us were hit. A few fell back. Someone’s eye was cut. My head was streaming with blood, but I disregarded this for the moment because I was more afraid of the good hiding I would catch from my father’s meaty fist at home for getting into a fight, than blood and a little pain. (‘Yer’ve bin wi’ that Frankie Buller agen, ain’t yer?’ Bump. ‘What did I tell yer? Not ter ger wi’ ’im, didn’t I?’ Bump. ‘And yer don’t do what I tell yer, do you?’ Bump. ‘Yer’ll keep on gooin’ wi’ that Frankie Buller tell yer as daft as ’e is, wain’t yer?’ Bump-bump.)
We were wavering. My pockets were light and almost empty of stones. My arms ached with flinging them.
‘All right if we charge, lads?’ Frankie called out.
There was only one answer to his words. We were with him, right into the ovens of a furnace had he asked it. Perhaps he led us into these bad situations, in which no retreat was possible, just for the fine feeling of a glorious win or lose.
‘Yes!’ we all shouted together.
‘Come on, then,’ he bawled out at the top of his voice:
His great strides carried him the hundred yards in a few seconds, and he was already climbing the railing. Stones from the Sodom lot were clanging and rattling against his shield. Lacking the emblematic spear and dustbin lid of a leader we went forward more slowly, aiming our last stones at the gang on the embankment above.
As we mounted the railings on his left and right Frankie was halfway up the slope, within a few yards of the enemy. He exhorted his wings all the time to make more speed and surround them, waving his dangerous spear-headed length of iron now before their faces. From lagging slightly we suddenly swept in on both flanks, reaching the railway line in one rush to replenish our stocks of ammunition, while Frankie went on belabouring them from the front.
They broke, and ran down the other slope, down into the streets of Sodom, scattering into the refuge of their rows of pink houses whose doors were already scratched and scarred, and where, it was rumoured, they kept coal in their bathrooms (though this was secretly envied by us as a commodious coal-scuttle so conveniently near to the kitchen) and strung poaching nets out in their back gardens.
When the women of our street could think of no more bad names to call Frankie Buller for leading their children into fights that resulted in black eyes, torn clothes, and split heads, they called him a Zu
It was a fact that Frankie’s acts of terrorism multiplied as the war drew nearer, though many of them passed unnoticed because of the preoccupied and brooding atmosphere of that summer. He would lead his gang into allotments and break into the huts, scattering tools and flower seeds with a maniacal energy around the garden, driving a lawn-mower over lettuce-heads and parsley, leaving a litter of decapitated chrysanthemums in his track. His favourite sport was to stand outside one of the huts and throw his spear at it with such force that its iron barb ran right through the thin wood.
We had long since said farewell to the novelty of possessing gasmasks. Frankie led us on a foray over the fields one day, out on a raid with masks on our faces – having sworn that the white cloud above the wood was filled with mustard gas let loose from the Jerry trenches on the other side – and they became so broken up in the scuffle that we threw each one ceremoniously into a fire before going home, preferring to say we had lost them rather than show the tattered relics that remained.
So many windows were broken, dustbins upturned, air let out of bicycle tyres, and heads split as a result of pyrrhic victories in gang raids – for he seemed suddenly to be losing his military genius – that it became dangerous for Frankie to walk down our street. Stuffing a few shreds of tobacco into one of his father’s old pipes – tobacco that we collected for him as cigarette-ends – he would walk along the middle of the street, and suddenly an irate woman would rush out of an entry wielding a clothes-prop and start frantically hitting him.
‘I saw you empty my dustbin last night, you bleddy Zulu, you grett daft baby. Take that, and that, and that!’
‘It worn’t me, missis. I swear to God it worn’t,’ he would shout in protest, arms folded over his head and galloping away to avoid her blows.
‘Yo’ come near my house agen,’ she shouted after him, ‘and I’ll cool yer down wi’ a bucket o’ water, yo’ see’f I don’t.’
Out of range, he looked back at her, bewildered, angry, his blood boiling with resentment. He shouted out the worst swear-words he knew, and disappeared into his house, slamming the door behind him.
It was not only the outbreak of the war that caused Frankie’s downfall. Partly it came about because there was a romantic side to his nature that evinced itself in other means than mock warfare. At the end of many afternoons in the summer he stood at the top of our street and waited for the girls to come out of the tobacco factory. Two thousand worked there, and about a quarter of them passed by every evening on their way home to tea.
He mostly stood there alone in his black corduroy trousers, patched jacket, and a collarless shirt belonging to his father, but if an older member of the gang stayed for company it by no means inhibited his particular brand of courtship. He had the loudest mouth-whistle in the street, and this was put to good and musical use as the girls went by with arms linked in twos and threes.
‘Hey up, duck!’ he would call out. ‘How are yer?’
A shrug of the shoulders, a toss of the head, laughter, or a sharp retort came back.
‘Can I tek yer out tonight?’ he cried with a loud laugh. ‘Do you want me to treat you to t’pictures?’
Occasionally a girl would cross to the other side of the road to avoid him, and she would be singled out for his most special witticism:
‘Hey up, good-lookin’, can I cum up and see yer some time?’
Responses flew back like this, laced around with much laughter:
‘It’ll cost yer five quid!’
‘Yer’r daft, me duck, yer foller balloons!’
‘I’ll meet you at the Grand at eight. Don’t forget to be there, because I shall!’
It was his greatest hour of mature diversion. He was merely acting his age, following, though in a much exaggerated manner, what the other twenty-year-olds did in the district. The consummation of these unique courtships took place among the bulrushes, in the marsh between the River Leen and the railway line where Frankie rarely led his gang. He stalked alone (a whistled-at girl accompanying him only as a dim picture in his mind) along concealed paths to catch tadpoles, and then to lie by himself in a secret place where no one could see him, self-styled boss of osiers, elderberry and bordering oak. From which journey he returned pale and shifty-eyed with guilt and a pleasurable memory.
He stood at the street corner every evening as the summer wore on, at first with many of the gang, but later alone because his remarks to the passing factory girls were no longer innocent, so that one evening a policeman came and drove him away from the street corner for ever. During those same months hundreds of loaded lorries went day after day to the edge of the marsh and dumped rubble there, until Frankie’s secret hiding place was obliterated, and above it lay the firm foundation for another branch of the tobacco factory.
On the Sunday morning that my mother and father shook their heads over Chamberlain’s melancholy voice issuing from the webbed heart-shaped speaker of our wireless set, I met Frankie in the street.
I asked what he would do now there was a war on, for I assumed that in view of his conscriptable age he would be called-up with the rest of the world. He seemed inert and sad, and I took this to be because of the war, a mask of proper seriousness that should be on everybody’s face, even though I didn’t feel it to be on my own. I also noticed that when he spoke he did so with a stammer. He sat on the pavement with his back leaning against the wall of some house, instinctively knowing that no one would think of pummelling him with a clothes-prop today.
‘I’ll just wait for my calling-up papers,’ he answered. ‘Then I’ll get in the Sherwood Foresters.’
‘If I get called up I’ll go in the navy,’ I put in, when he did not offer an anecdote about his father’s exploits in the last war.
‘The army’s the only thing to join, Alan,’ he said with deep conviction, standing up and taking out his pipe.
He suddenly smiled, his dejection gone. ‘I’ll tell you what, after dinner we’ll get the gang together and go over New Bridge for manoeuvres. I’ve got to get you all into shape now there’s a war on. We’ll do a bit o’ training. P’raps we’ll meet some o’ the Sodom lot.’
As we marched along that afternoon Frankie outlined his plan for our future. When we were about sixteen, he said, if the war was still on – it was bound to be because the Germans were tough, his old man told him so, though they wouldn’t win in the end because their officers always sent the men over the top first – he’d take us down to the recruiting depot in town and enlist us together, all at the same time. In that way he – Frankie – would be our platoon commander.
It was a wonderful idea. All hands were thrust into the air.
The field was clear over New Bridge. We stoo
There was no sign of the Sodom lot, so Frankie ordered three of us to disappear into the gullies and hollows for the rest of the gang to track down. The next item on the training programme was target practice, a tin can set on a tree trunk until it was knocked over with stones from fifty yards. After fencing lessons and wrestling matches six of the Sodom gang appeared on the railway line, and at the end of a quick brutal skirmish they were held fast as prisoners. Frankie wished neither to keep them nor harm them, and let them go after making them swear an oath of allegiance to the Sherwood Foresters.
At seven o’clock we were formed up in double file to be marched back. Someone grumbled that it was a late hour to get home to tea, and for once Frankie succumbed to what I clearly remembered seeing as insubordination. He listened to the complaint and decided to cut our journey short by leading us across the branch-line that ran into the colliery. The factories and squalid streets on the hill had turned a sombre ochred colour, as if a storm would burst during the night, and the clouds above the city were pink, giving an unreal impression of profound silence so that we felt exposed, as if the railwayman in the distant signal box could see us and hear every word we spoke.
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