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New and collected storie.., p.17
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       New and Collected Stories, p.17

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  ‘You’re a long way from Churchfield Lane,’ I said. ‘Ain’t you got chip shops up that part?’

  ‘Dad says they do good fish here,’ she told me. ‘So I come to get him some, as a favour.’

  ‘It’s better at Rawson’s though, downtown. You ought to let me take you there some time – for a supper. You’d enjoy it.’

  It was her turn at the counter. ‘I’m busy these days. Two shillings’ worth of chips and six fish, please.’

  ‘Where do you work, then?’

  ‘I don’t.’

  I laughed: ‘Neither do I.’

  She took her bundle: ‘Thank you very much’ – turned to me: ‘You won’t be able to take me out then, will you?’

  I edged a way back to the door, and we stood on the pavement. ‘You’re a torment, as well as being goodlooking. I’ve still got money, even if I don’t go to work right now.’ We walked across the road, and all the time I was waiting for her to tell me to skid, hoping she would yet not wanting her to. ‘Does it fall from heaven, then?’

  ‘No, I nick it.’

  She half believed me. ‘I’ll bet you do. Where from?’

  ‘It all depends. Anywhere.’ I could already see myself taking her the whole way home – if I kept my trap flapping.

  ‘I’ve never stolen anything in my life,’ she said, ‘but I’ve often wanted to.’

  ‘If you stick around I’ll show you a few things.’

  She laughed: ‘I might be scared.’

  ‘Not with me. We’ll go out one night and see what we can do.’

  ‘Fast worker. We could do it for kicks, though.’

  ‘It’s better to do it for money,’ I said, dead strict on this.

  ‘What’s the difference? It’s stealing.’

  I’d never thought about it this way before. ‘Maybe it is. But it’s still not the same.’

  ‘If you do it for kicks,’ she went on, ‘you don’t get caught so easily.’

  ‘There’s no point in doing something just for kicks,’ I argued. ‘It’s a waste of time.’

  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You do it for money, and I’ll do it for kicks. Then we’ll both be satisfied.’

  ‘Fine,’ I said, taking her arm, ‘that sounds reasonable.’

  She lived in a big old house just off Churchfield Lane, and I even got a kiss out of her before she went into the garden and called me a soft goodnight. Doris, she had said, my name’s Doris.

  I thought she was joking about stealing stuff for kicks, but I met her a few days later outside a cinema, and when the show was over and we stood by a pavement where five roads met, she said: ‘I suppose you just prowl around until you see something that’s easy and quiet.’

  ‘More or less’ – not showing my surprise. ‘It might be a bit harder than that though.’ I held up a jack knife, that looked like a hedgehog with every blade splayed out: ‘That one ain’t for opening pop bottles; and this one ain’t for getting stones out of horses’ hoofs either. A useful little machine, this is.’

  ‘I thought you used hairgrips?’ She was treating it like a joke, but I said, deadpan: ‘Sometimes. Depends on the lock.’ A copper walked across the road towards us, and with every flat footstep I closed a blade of the knife, slipping it into my pocket before he was half-way over. ‘Come on,’ I said, lighting a fag, and heading towards Berridge Road.

  The overhead lights made us look TB, as if some big government scab had made a mistake on the telephone and had too much milk tipped into the sea. We even stopped talking at the sight of each other’s fag-ash faces, but after a while the darker side streets brought us back to life, and every ten yards I got what she’d not been ready to give on the back seat of the pictures: a fully-fledged passionate kiss. Into each went all my wondering at why a girl like this should want to come out on nightwork with a lout called me.

  ‘You live in a big house,’ I said when we walked on. ‘What does your old man do?’

  ‘He’s a scrapdealer.’

  ‘Scrapdealer?’ It seemed funny, somehow. ‘No kidding?’

  ‘You know – rag and metal merchant. Randall’s on Orston Road.’

  I laughed, because during my life as a kid that was the place I’d taken scrap-iron and jamjars, lead and woollens to, and her old man was the bloke who’d traded with me – a deadbeat skinflint with a pound note sign between his eyes and breathing LSD all over the place. Dead at the brain and crotch the fat gett drove a maroon Jaguar in an old lounge suit. I’d seen him one day scatter a load of kids in the street, pumping that screaming button-hooter before he got too close, and as they bulleted out of his way throw a fistful of change after them. He nearly smashed into a lamp-post because such sudden and treacherous generosity put him off his steering.

  ‘What’s funny about it?’ she wanted to know.

  ‘I’m surprised, that’s all.’

  ‘I told a girl at school once that my dad was a scrapdealer, and she laughed, just like you did. I don’t see what’s funny about it at all.’ You stupid bastard, I called myself, laughing for nothing when before you’d been getting marvellous kisses from her. A black cat shot through the light of a lamp-post, taking my good luck with it.

  ‘He’s better off than most people, so maybe you laugh because you’re jealous.’

  ‘Not me,’ I said, trying to make amends. ‘Another reason I laughed, if you want to know the truth, is that I’ve always wanted to be a scrapdealer, but so far I’ve never known how to get started. It was just the coincidence.’ While she was wondering whether to believe me I tried changing the subject: ‘What sort of school did you go to where they’d laugh at a thing like that?’

  ‘I still go,’ she said, ‘a grammar school. I leave at the end of the year, though.’ A school kid, I thought. Still, she’s a posh one, so she can be nearly seventeen, though she looks at least as old as me, which is eighteen and a half. ‘I’ll be glad to leave school, anyway. I want to be independent. I’m always in top class though, so in a sense I like it as well. Funny.’

  ‘You want to get a job, you mean?’

  ‘Sure. Of course. I’ll go to a secretarial college. Dad says he’d let me.’

  ‘Sounds all right. You’ll be set for life, the way you’re going.’ We were walking miles, pacing innumerable streets out of our systems, a slow arm-in-arm zig-zag through the darkening neighbourhood. It was a night full of star holes after a day of rain, a windy sky stretching into a huge flow over the rising ground of Forest Fields and Hyson Green and Basford, through Mapperley to Redhill and carried away by some red doubledecker loaded with colliers vanishing into the black night of Sherwood. We made a solitary boat in this flood of small houses, packed together like the frozen teeth of sharp black waves and, going from one lighthouse lamp-post to another, the district seemed an even bigger stretch than the area I was born and brought up in.

  An old woman stood on a doorstep saying: ‘Have you got a fag, my duck? I’d be ever so grateful if you could manage it.’ She looked about ninety, and when I handed her one she lit up as if ready to have a nervous breakdown. ‘Thanks, my love. I hope you’ll be happy, the pair of you.’

  ‘Same to you, missis,’ I said as we went off.

  ‘Aren’t old women funny?’ Doris said.

  We kissed at every corner, and whenever it seemed I might not she reminded me by a tug at my linked arm. She wore slacks and a head scarf, a three-quarter leather coat and flat-heeled lace-ups, as if this was her idea of a break-and-entry rig. She looked good in it, stayed serious and quiet for most of the walking, so that all we did now and again was move into a clinch for a good bout of tormenting kisses. She moaned softly sometimes, and I wanted to go further than lipwork, but how could we in a solid wide open street where someone walking through would disturb us? With the air so sweet and long lasting, I knew it would be a stretch past her bed time before she finally landed home that night. Yet I didn’t care, felt awake and marvellous, full of love for all the world – meaning her first and th
en myself, and it showed in our kisses as we went at a slow rate through the streets, arms fast around each other like Siamese twins.

  Across the main road stretched a wall covering the yard of a small car-body workshop. As soon as I saw it my left leg began trembling and the kneecap of my right to twitch, so I knew this was the first place we’d go into together. I always got scared as soon as the decision was made, though it never took long for fright to get chased off as I tried to fathom a way into the joint.

  I told Doris: ‘You go to the end of the street and keep conk. I’ll try to force this gate, and whistle if I do. If you see anybody coming walk back here, and we’ll cuddle up as if we’re courting.’ She did as she was told, while I got to work on the gate lock, using first the bottle-opener and then the nail-file, then the spike. With a bit more play it snapped back, and I whistled. We were in the yard.

  There was no word said from beginning to end. If I’d been doing it with a mate you’d have heard scufflings and mutterings, door-rattlings and shoulder-knocks and the next thing we’d be in a cop car on our way to Guildhall. But now, our limbs and eyes acted together, as if controlled by one person that was neither of us, a sensation I’d never known before. A side door opened and we went between a line of machines into a partitioned office to begin a quiet and orderly search. I’d been once in a similar place with a pal, and the noise as we pulled out drawers and slung typewriters about, and took pot shots with elastic and paperclips at light bulbs was so insane that it made me stop and silence him as well after five minutes. But now there wasn’t a scratch or click anywhere.

  Still with no word I walked to the door, and Doris came after me. In two seconds we were back on the street, leaning against the workshop wall to fill each of our mouths with such kisses that I knew I loved her, and that from then on I was in the fire, floating, burning, feeling the two of us ready to explode if we didn’t get out of this to where we could lie down. Nothing would stop us, because we already matched and fused together, not even if we fell into a river or snow-bank.

  There was no gunning of feet from the factory so that a lawful passing pedestrian could suspect we were up to no good and squeal for the coppers. After five minutes snogging we walked off, as if we’d just noticed how late it was and remembered we had to be at work in the morning. At the main road I said: ‘What did you get?’

  She took a bundle of pound notes from her pocket: ‘This, what about you?’

  I emptied a large envelope of postage stamps and cheques: ‘Useless. You got the kitty, then.’

  ‘I guess so,’ she said, not sounding too full of joy.

  ‘Not bad for a beginner. A school kid, as well!’ I gave her half the stamps and she handed me half the money – which came to twenty quid apiece. We homed our way the couple of miles back, sticking one or two stamps (upside down) on each of the corners turned. ‘I don’t write letters,’ I laughed. It was a loony action, but I have to do something insane on every job, otherwise there’s no chance of getting caught, and if there’s no chance of getting caught, there’s no chance of getting away. I explained this to Doris, who said she’d never heard such a screwy idea, but that she was nearly convinced about it because I was more experienced than she was. Luckily the stamps ran out, otherwise the trail would have gone right through our back door, up the stairs and into my bedroom, the last one on my pillow hidden by my stupid big head. I felt feather-brained and obstinate, knowing that even if the world rolled over me I wouldn’t squash.

  By the banks of the Leen at Bobber’s Mill we got under the fence and went down where nobody could see us. It was after midnight, and quiet but for the sound of softly rolling cold water a few feet off, as black as heaven for the loving we had to do.

  Doris called for me at home, turned the corner, and came down our cobbled street on a horse. My brother Paul ran in and said: ‘Come and look at this woman (he was only nine) on a horse, our Tony’ – and having nothing better to do while waiting for Doris but flip through the Mirror I strode to the yard-end. It was a warm day, dust in the wind making a lazy atmosphere around the eyes, smoke sneaking off at right angles to chimneys and telly masts. By the pavement I looked down the street and saw nothing but a man going across to the shop in shirtsleeves and braces, then swivelling my eyes the other way I saw this girl coming down the street on a walking horse.

  It was a rare sight, because she was beautiful, had blonde hair like Lady Godiva except that she was dressed in riding slacks and a white shirt that set a couple of my Ted mates whistling at her, though most stayed quiet with surprise – and envy – when the horse pulled up at our yard-end and Doris on it said hello to me. It was hard to believe that last night we’d broken into a factory, seemed even more far gone than a dream; though what we’d done later by the river was real enough, especially when I caught that smell of scent and freshness as she bent down from the horse’s neck. ‘Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea? Bring your horse in for a crust as well.’

  It was a good filly, the colour of best bitter, with eyes like priceless damsons that were alive because of the reflector-light in them. The only horses seen on our street – pulling coal carts or bread vans – had gone to the knackers’ yards years ago. I took the bridle and led it up the yard, Doris talking softly from high up and calling it Marian, guiding it over the smooth stones. A man came out of a lavatory and had a fit in his eyes when he nearly bumped into it. ‘It wain’t bite you, George,’ I laughed.

  ‘I’ll have it for Sunday dinner if it does,’ he said, stalking off.

  ‘It wain’t be the first time,’ I called. My mother was washing clothes at the scullery sink, and it pushed its head to the window for a good look – until she glanced up: ‘Tony! What have you got there!’

  ‘Only a horse, mam,’ I shouted back. ‘It’s all right: I ain’t nicked it’ – as she came out drying her hands.

  ‘A friend of mine come to see me,’ I told her, introducing Doris, who dropped to her proper size on the asphalt. My mother patted the horse as if it were a stray dog, then went in for a piece of bread. She’d been brought up in the country, and liked animals.

  ‘We had a good time last night,’ I said to Doris, thinking about it.

  ‘Not bad. What shall we do with the money?’

  ‘Spend it.’

  Our fence was rickety, looked as if it would fall down when she tethered the horse to it. ‘Funny,’ she said. ‘But what on?’

  ‘How much does a horse cost?’ I asked, tapping its nose.

  ‘I’m not sure. Dad got me Marian. More than twenty pounds, though.’ I was disappointed, had pictured us riding in the country, overland to Langley Mill and Matlock Bath without using a road once, the pair of us making a fine silhouette on some lonely skyline. Then as on the films we’d wind our way far down into the valley and get lodgings at a pub or farmhouse. Bit by bit we’d edge to Scotland and maybe at the end of all our long wanderings by horse we’d get a job as man and wife working a lighthouse. Set on a rock far out at sea, the waves would bash at it like mountains of snow, and we’d keep the lights going, still loving each other and happy even though we hadn’t had a letter or lettuce in six months.

  The sun shone over our backyards, and I was happy anyway: ‘I’ll just get rid of my dough, enjoy myself. I’m out of work, so it’ll keep me for a month.’

  ‘I hope we don’t have to wait that long before doing it again,’ she said, brushing her hair back.

  ‘We’ll go tonight, if you like. I’ll bet the coppers don’t know we went into that factory yet.’ My mother came out with a bag of crusts for the horse: ‘I’ve just made a pot of tea,’ she said. ‘Go and pour it, Tony.’

  When we got behind the door I pulled Doris to me and kissed her. She kissed me, as well. Not having to chase and fight for it made it seem like real love.

  We went on many ‘expeditions’, as Doris called them. I even got a makeshift job at a factory in case anybody should wonder how I was living. Doris asked if it would be OK to bring a schoo
l pal with us one night, and this caused our first argument. I said she was loony to think of such a thing, and did she imagine I was running a school for cowing crime, or summat? I hoped she hadn’t mentioned our prowling nights to anybody else – though she hadn’t, as it turned out, and all she’d wanted was to see if this particular girl at her school would be able to do this sort of job as cool as she could. ‘Well, drop it,’ I said, sharp. ‘We do all right our oursens, so let’s keep it to oursens.’

  Having been brought up as the ragman’s daughter and never wanting for dough, she had hardly played with the kids in the street. She hadn’t much to do with those at school either, for they lived mostly in new houses and bungalows up Wollaton and would never come to Radford to call on her. So she’d been lonely in a way I never had been.

  Her parents lived in a house off Churchfield Lane, a big ancient one backing its yards (where the old man still kept some of his scrap mountains) on to the Leen. Her dad had worked like a navvy all day and every day of his life, watching each farthing even after he was rich enough to retire like a lord. I don’t know what else he could have done. Sucked icecream at the seaside? Gardened his feet off? Fished himself to death? He preferred to stick by sun, moon or electric light sorting metal or picking a bone with his own strength because, being a big and satisfied man, that was all he felt like doing – and who could blame him? Doris told me he was mean with most things, though not with her. She could have what she liked.

  ‘Get a hundred, then,’ I said.

  But she just smiled and thought that wouldn’t be right, that she’d only have from him what he gave her because she liked it better that way.

  Every week-end she came to our house, on her horse except when the weather was bad. If nobody else was in she fastened her steed to the fence and we went up to my bedroom, got undressed and had the time of our lives. She had a marvellous figure, small breasts for her age, yet wide hips as if they’d finished growing before anything else of her. I always had the idea she felt better out of her clothes, realizing maybe that no clothes, even if expensive like gold, could ever match her birthday suit for a perfect fit that was always the height of fashion. We’d put a few Acker Bilks low on my record player and listen for a while with nothing on, getting drowsy and warmed up under the usual talk and kisses. Then after having it we’d sit and talk more, maybe have it again before mam or dad shouted up that tea was ready. When on a quiet day the horse shuffled and whinnied, it was like being in a cottage bedroom, alone with her and in the country. If it was sunny and warm as well and a sudden breeze pushed air into the room and flipped a photo of some pop singer off the shelf and felt softly at our bare skins I’d feel like a stallion, as fit and strong as a buck African and we’d have it over and over so that my legs wobbled as I walked back down the stairs.

 
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