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New and collected storie.., p.16
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       New and Collected Stories, p.16

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  One by one we climbed the wire fence, Frankie crouching in the bushes and telling us when he thought the path was clear. He sent us over one at a time, and we leapt the six tracks yet kept our backs bent, as if we were passing a machine-gun post. Between the last line and the fence stood an obstacle in the form of a grounded railway carriage that served as a repair and tool-storage shed. Frankie had assured us that no one was in it, but when we were all across, the others already rushing through the field and up on to the lane, I turned around and saw a railwayman come out of the door and stop Frankie just as he was making for the fence.

  I didn’t hear any distinct words, only the muffled sound of arguing. I kept down between the osiers and watched the railwayman poking his finger at Frankie’s chest as if he were giving him some really strong advice. Then Frankie began to wave his hands in the air, as though he could not tolerate being stopped in this way, with his whole gang looking on from the field, as he thought.

  Then, in one vivid second, I saw Frankie snatch a pint bottle from his jacket pocket and hit the railwayman over the head with it. In the exaggerated silence I heard the crash, and a cry of shock, rage, and pain from the man. Frankie then turned and ran in my direction, leaping like a zebra over the fence. When he drew level and saw me he cried wildly:

  ‘Run, Alan, run. He asked for it. He asked for it.’

  And we ran.

  The next day my brothers, sisters and myself were loaded into Corporation buses and transported to Worksop. We were evacuated, our few belongings thrust into paper carrier-bags, away from the expected bombs, along with most other children of the city. In one fatal blow Frankie’s gang was taken away from him, and Frankie himself was carried off to the police station for hitting the railwayman on the head with a bottle. He was also charged with trespassing.

  It may have been that the beginning of the war coincided with the end of Frankie’s so-called adolescence, though ever after traces of it frequently appeared in his behaviour. For instance he would still tramp from one end of the city to the other, even through smokescreen and blackout, in the hope of finding some cinema that showed a good cowboy film.

  I didn’t meet Frankie again for two years. One day I saw a man pushing a handcart up the old street in which we did not live anymore. The man was Frankie, and the handcart was loaded with bundles of wood, the sort of kindling that housewives spread over a crumpled-up Evening Post before making a morning fire. We couldn’t find much to talk about, and Frankie seemed condescending in his attitude to me, as though ashamed to be seen talking to one so much younger than himself. This was not obvious in any plain way, yet I felt it and, being thirteen, resented it. Times had definitely altered. We just weren’t pals any more. I tried to break once again into the atmosphere of old times by saying:

  ‘Did you try to get into the army then, Frankie?’

  I realize now that it was an indiscreet thing to say, and might have hurt him. I did not notice it then, yet I remembered his sensitivity as he answered:

  ‘What do you mean? I am in the army. I joined up a year ago. The Old Man’s back in the army as well – sergeant-major – and I’m in ’is cumpny.’

  The conversation quickly ended. Frankie pushed his barrow to the next entry, and began unloading his bundles of wood.

  I didn’t meet him for more than ten years. In that time I too had done my ‘sodjerin’, in Malaya, and I had forgotten the childish games we used to play with Frankie Buller, and the pitched battles with the Sodom lot over New Bridge.

  I didn’t live in the same city any more. I suppose it could be said that I had risen from the ranks. I had become a writer of sorts, having for some indescribable reason, after the evacuation and during the later bombs, taken to reading books.

  I went back home to visit my family, and on my way through the streets about six o’clock one winter’s evening, I heard someone call out:

  ‘Alan!’

  I recognized the voice instantly. I turned and saw Frankie standing before a cinema billboard, trying to read it. He was about thirty-five now, no longer the javelin-wielding colossus he once appeared, but nearer my own height, thinner, an unmistakable air of meekness in his face, almost respectable in his cap and black topcoat with white muffler tucked neatly inside. I noticed the green medal-ribbon on the lapel of his coat, and that confirmed what I had heard about him from time to time during the last ten years. From being the sergeant-major of our gang he had become a private soldier in the Home Guard, a runner indeed in his father’s company. With tin-hat on his sweating low-browed head Frankie had stalked with messages through country whose every blade of grass he knew.

  He was not my leader any more, and we both instantly recognized the fact as we shook hands. Frankie’s one-man wood business had prospered, and he now went around the streets with a pony and cart. He wasn’t well-off, but he was his own employer. The outspoken ambition of our class was to become one’s own boss. He knew he wasn’t the leader of kindred spirits any more, while he probably wondered as we spoke whether or not I might be, which could have accounted for his shyness.

  Not only had we both grown up in our different ways since the days when with dustbin lid and railing-spear he led his battalion into pitiless stone-throwing forays, but something of which I did not know had happened to him. Coming from the same class and, one might say, from the same childhood, there should have been some tree-root of recognition between us, despite the fact that our outer foliage of leaves would have wilted somewhat before each other’s differing shade of colour. But there was no contact and I, being possessed of what the world I had moved into often termed ‘heightened consciousness’, knew that it was due as much to something in Frankie as in me.

  ‘’Ow are yer goin’ on these days, Frankie?’ I asked, revelling in the old accent, though knowing that I no longer had the right to use it.

  His stammer was just short of what we would once have derisively called a stutter. ‘All right now, I feel a lot better, after that year I had in hospital.’

  I looked him quickly and discreetly up and down for evidence of a lame foot, a broken limb, a scar; for why else did people go to hospital? ‘What were you in for?’ I asked.

  In replying, his stammer increased. I felt he hesitated because for one moment he did not know which tone to take, though the final voice he used was almost proud, and certainly serious. ‘Shock treatment. That’s why I went.’

  ‘What did they give you shock treatment for, Frankie?’ I asked this question calmly, genuinely unable to comprehend what he told me, until the full horrible details of what Frankie must have undergone flashed into my mind. And then I wanted power in me to tear down those white-smocked mad interferers with Frankie’s coal-forest world, wanted to wipe out their hate and presumption.

  He pulled his coat collar up because, in the dusk, it was beginning to rain. ‘Well, you see, Alan,’ he began, with what I recognized now as a responsible and conforming face, ‘I had a fight with the Old Man, and after it I blacked out. I hurt my dad, and he sent for the police. They fetched a doctor, and the doctor said I’d have to go to the hospital.’ They had even taught him to call it ‘hospital’. In the old days he would have roared with laughter and said:

  ‘’Sylum!’

  ‘I’m glad you’re better now, then,’ I said, and during the long pause that followed I realized that Frankie’s world was after all untouchable, that the conscientious-scientific-methodical probers could no doubt reach it, could drive it into hiding, could kill the physical body that housed it, but had no power in the long run really to harm such minds. There is a part of the jungle that the scalpel can never reach.

  He wanted to go. The rain was worrying him. Then, remembering why he had called me over, he turned to face the broad black lettering on a yellow background. ‘Is that for the Savoy?’ he asked, nodding at the poster.

  ‘Yes,’ I said.

  He explained apologetically: ‘I forgot me glasses, Alan. Can you read it for me, and tell me what’s on ton
ight.’

  ‘Sure, Frankie,’ I read it out: ‘Gary Cooper, in Saratoga Trunk.’

  ‘I wonder if it’s any good?’ he asked. ‘Do you think it’s a cowboy picture, or a love picture?’

  I was able to help him on this point. I wondered, after the shock treatment, which of these subjects he would prefer. Into what circle of his dark, devil-populated world had the jolts of electricity penetrated? ‘I’ve seen that picture before,’ I told him. ‘It’s a sort of cowboy picture. There’s a terrific train smash at the end.’

  Then I saw. I think he was surprised that I shook his hand so firmly when we parted. My explanation of the picture’s main points acted on him like a charm. Into his eyes came the same glint I had seen years ago when he stood up with spear and shield and roared out: ‘CHARGE!’ and flung himself against showers of sticks and flying stones.

  ‘It sounds good,’ he said. ‘That’s the picture for me. I’ll see that.’

  He pulled his cap lower down, made sure that his coat collar covered his throat and neck and walked with stirred imagination off into the driving rain.

  ‘Cheerio, Frank,’ I called out as he turned the corner. I wondered what would be left of him by the time they had finished. Would they succeed in tapping and draining dry the immense subterranean reservoir of his dark inspired mind?

  I watched him. He ignored the traffic-lights, walked diagonally across the wide wet road, then ran after a bus and leapt safely on to its empty platform.

  And I with my books have not seen him since. It was like saying goodbye to a part of me, for ever.

  The Ragman’s Daughter

  I was walking home with an empty suitcase one night, an up-to-date pigskin zip job I was fetching back from a pal who thought he’d borrowed it for good, and two plainclothed coppers stopped me. They questioned me for twenty minutes, then gave up and let me go. While they had been talking to me, a smash-and-grab had taken place around the corner, and ten thousand nicker had vanished into the wide open spaces of somebody who needed it.

  That’s life. I was lucky my suitcase had nothing but air in it. Sometimes I walk out with a box of butter and cheese from the warehouse I work at, but for once that no-good God was on my side – trying to make up for the times he’s stabbed me in the back maybe. But if the coppers had had a word with me a few nights later they’d have found me loaded with high-class provision snap.

  My job is unloading cheeses as big as beer barrels off lorries that come in twice a week from the country. They draw in at the side door of the warehouse, and me and a couple of mates roll our sleeves up and shoulder them slowly down the gang-plank into the special part set aside for cheeses. We once saw, after checking the lists, that there was one cheese extra, so decided to share it out between a dozen of us and take it home to our wives and families. The question came up as to which cheese we should get rid of, and the chargehand said: ‘Now, all look around for the cheese that the rats have started to go for, and that’s the one we’ll carve between us, because you can bet your bottom dollar that that’s the best.’

  It was a load of choice Dalbeattie, and I’d never tasted any cheese so delicious. For a long time my wife would say: ‘When are you going to get us some more of that marvellous cheese, Tony?’ And whatever I did take after that never seemed to satisfy them, though every time I went out with a chunk of cheese or a fist of butter I was risking my job, such as it is. Once for a treat I actually bought a piece of Dalbeattie from another shop, but they knew it wasn’t stolen so it didn’t taste as good as the other that the rats had pointed out to us. It happens now and again at the warehouse that a bloke takes some butter and the police nab him. They bring him back and he gets the push. Fancy getting the push for half a pound of butter. I’d be ashamed to look my mates in the eye again, and would be glad I’d got the sack so’s I wouldn’t have to.

  The first thing I stole was at infants’ school when I was five. They gave us cardboard coins to play with, pennies, shillings, half-crowns, stiff and almost hard to bend, that we were supposed to exchange for bricks and pieces of chalk. This lesson was called Buying and Selling. Even at the time I remember feeling that there was something not right about the game, yet only pouting and playing it badly because I wasn’t old enough to realize what it was. But when I played well I ended up the loser, until I learned quickly that one can go beyond skill: at the end of the next afternoon I kept about a dozen of the coins (silver I noticed later) in my pocket when the teacher came round to collect them back.

  ‘Some is missing,’ she said, in that plummy voice that sent shivers down my spine and made me want to give them up. But I resisted my natural inclinations and held out. ‘Someone hasn’t given their money back,’ she said. ‘Come along, children, own up, or I’ll keep you in after all the other classes have gone home.’

  I was hoping she’d search me, but she kept us in for ten minutes, and I went home with my pockets full. That night I was caught by a shopkeeper trying to force the coins into his fag and chewing-gum machines. He dragged me home and the old man lammed into me. So, sobbing up to bed, I learned at an early age that money meant trouble as well.

  Next time at school I helped myself to bricks, but teacher saw my bulging pockets and took them back, then threw me into the playground, saying I wasn’t fit to be at achool. This showed me that it was always safest to go for money.

  Once, an uncle asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I answered: ‘A thief’. He bumped me, so I decided, whenever anybody else asked that trick question to say: ‘An honest man’ or ‘An engine driver’. I stole money from my mother’s purse, or odd coppers left lying around the house for gas or electricity, and so I got batted for that as well as for saying I wanted to be a thief when I grew up. I began to see that really I was getting clobbered for the same thing, which made me keep my trap shut on the one hand, and not get caught on the other.

  In spite of the fact that I nicked whatever I could lay my hands on without too much chance of getting caught, I didn’t like possessing things. Suits, a car, watches – as soon as I nicked something and got clear away, I lost interest in it. I broke into an office and came out with two typewriters, and after having them at home for a day I borrowed a car and dropped them over Trent Bridge one dark night. If the cops cared to dredge the river about there they’d get a few surprises. What I like most is the splash stuff makes when I drop it in: that plunge into water of something heavy – such as a TV set, a cash register and once, best of all, a motorbike – which makes a dull exploding noise and has the same effect on me as booze (which I hate) because it makes my head spin. Even a week later, riding on a bus, I’ll suddenly twitch and burst out laughing at the thought of it, and some posh trot will tut-tut, saying: ‘These young men! Drunk at eleven in the morning! What they want is to be in the army.’

  If I lost all I have in the world I wouldn’t worry much. If I was to go across the road for a packet of fags one morning and come back to see the house clapping its hands in flames with everything I owned burning inside I’d turn my back without any thought or regret and walk away, even if my jacket and last ten-bob note were in the flames as well.

  What I’d like, believe it or not, is to live in a country where I didn’t like thieving and where I didn’t want to thieve, a place where everybody felt the same way because they all had only the same as everyone else – even if it wasn’t much. Jail is a place like this, though it’s not the one I’d find agreeable because you aren’t free there. The place that fills my mind would be the same as in jail because everybody would have the same, but being free as well they wouldn’t want to nick what bit each had got. I don’t know what sort of system that would be called.

  While as a youth I went out with girls, I used to like thieving more. The best of all was when I got a young girl to come thieving with me. The right sort was better than any mate I could team up with, more exciting and safe.

  I met Doris outside the fish-and-chip shop on Ilkeston Road. Going in to get a supply fo
r supper she dropped her purse, and a few obstinate shekels rolled into the road. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I’ll find them, duck.’

  A couple of other youths wanted to help, but I got one by the elbow. ‘Bale out. She’s my girl-friend. You’ll get crippled for life.’

  ‘All right, Tony,’ he laughed. ‘I didn’t know it was you.’

  I picked her money up: ‘This is the lot’ – followed her into the light of the fish-and-chip shop where I could see what she was made of. ‘I’m going for some chips as well,’ I said, so as not to put her off.

  ‘Thanks for getting my money. I have butterfingers sometimes.’ Her hair was the colour of butter, yellow and reaching for her shoulders, where my hands wanted to be. We stood in the queue. I’d just eaten a bundle of fish-and-chips downtown, so even the smell in this joint turned my guts. ‘Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’ I asked.

  ‘You might, for all I know. I’ve been around nearly as long as you have.’

  ‘Where do you live, then?’

  ‘Up Churchfield Lane.’

  ‘I’ll see you home.’

  ‘You won’t.’ She was so fair and goodlooking that I almost lost heart, though not enough to stop me answering: ‘You might drop your purse again.’ I didn’t know whether I’d passed her on the street some time, dreamed about her, or seen her drifting across the television screen in a shampoo advertisement between ‘Blood Gun’ and ‘The Kremlin Strikes Again’. Her skin was smooth, cheeks a bit meaty, eyes blue, small nose and lips also fleshy but wearing a camouflage of orange-coloured lipstick that made me want to kiss them even more than if it had been flag-red. She stood at the counter with a vacant, faraway look in her eyes, the sort that meant she had a bit more thought in her rather than the other way round. She gave a little sniff at the billowing clouds of chip steam doubled in size because of mirrors behind the sizzling bins. It was impossible to tell whether or not she liked the smell.

 
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