New and Collected Stories, p.18Alan Sillitoe
People got used to seeing her ride down the street, and they’d say: ‘Hellow, duck’ – adding: ‘He’s in’ – meaning me – ‘I just saw him come back from the shop with a loaf.’ George Clark asked when I was going to get married, and when I shouted that I didn’t know he laughed: ‘I expect you’ve got to find a place big enough for the horse as well, first.’ At which I told him to mind his own effing business.
Yet people were glad that Doris rode down our street on a horse, and I sensed that because of it they even looked up to me more – or maybe they only noticed me in a different way to being carted off by the coppers. Doris was pleased when a man coming out of the bookie’s called after her: ‘Hey up, Lady Luck!’ – waving a five-pound note in the air.
Often we’d go down town together, ending up at the pictures, or in a pub over a bitter or babycham. But nobody dreamed what we got up to before finally parting for our different houses. If we pinched fags or food or clothes we’d push what was possible through the letterbox of the first house we came to, or if it was too big we’d leave good things in litter-bins for some poor tramp or tatter to find. We were hardly ever seen, and never caught, on these expeditions, as if love made us invisible, ghosts without sound walking hand in hand between dark streets until we came to some factory, office, lock-up shop or house that we knew was empty of people – and every time this happened I remember the few seconds of surprise, not quite fear, at both of us knowing exactly what to do. I would stand a moment at this surprise – thankful, though waiting for it to go – until she squeezed my hand, and I was moving again, to finish getting in.
I was able to buy a motorbike, a secondhand powerful speedster, and when Doris called she’d leave her horse in our backyard, and we’d nip off for a machine-spin towards Stanton Ironworks, sliding into a full ton once we topped Balloon House Hill and had a few miles of straight and flat laid out for us like an airport runway. Slag heaps looked pale blue in summer, full triangles set like pyramid-targets way ahead and I’d swing towards them between leaf hedges of the country road, hoping they’d keep that far-off vacant colour, as if they weren’t real. They never did though, and I lost them at a dip and bend, and when next in sight they were grey and useless and scabby, too real to look good any more.
On my own I rode with L plates, and took a test so as to get rid of them on the law’s side of the law, but I didn’t pass because I never was good at examinations. Roaring along with Doris straight as goldenrod behind, and hearing noises in the wind tunnel I made whisper sweet nothings into our four ear-holes, was an experience we loved, and I’d shout: ‘You can’t ride as fast as this on a horse’ – and listen to the laugh she gave, which meant she liked to do both.
She once said: ‘Why don’t we go on an expedition on your bike?’ and I answered: ‘Why don’t we do one on your hoss?’ adding: ‘Because it’d spoil everything, wouldn’t it?’
She laughed: ‘You’re cleverer than I think.’
‘No kidding,’ I said, sarky. ‘If only you could see yoursen as I can see you, and if only I could see mysen as you can see me, things would be plainer for us, wouldn’t they?’
I couldn’t help talking. We’d stopped the bike and were leaning on a bridge wall, with nothing but trees and a narrow lane round about, and the green-glass water of a canal below. Her arm was over my shoulder, and my arm was around her waist: ‘I wonder if they would?’ she said.
‘I don’t know. Let’s go down into them trees.’
‘Because I love you.’
She laughed again: ‘Is that all?’ – then took my arm: ‘Come on, then.’
We played a game for a long time in our street, where a gang of us boys held fag lighters in a fair wind, flicking them on and off and seeing which light stayed on longest. It was a stupid game because everything was left to chance, and though this can be thrilling you can’t help but lose by it in the end. This game was all the rage for weeks, before we got fed up, or our lighters did, I forget which. Sooner or later every lighter goes out or gives in; or a wind in jackboots jumps from around the corner and kicks it flat – and you get caught under the avalanche of the falling world.
One summer’s week-end we waited in a juke-box coffee bar for enough darkness to settle over the streets before setting out. Doris wore jeans and sweatshirt, and I was without a jacket because of the warm night. Also due to the warmth we didn’t walk the miles we normally did before nipping into something, which was a pity because a lot of hoof-work put our brains and bodies into tune for such quiet jobs, relaxed and warmed us so that we became like cats, alert and ready at any warning sound to duck or scram. Now and again the noise of the weather hid us – thunder, snow, drizzle, wind, or even the fact that clouds were above made enough noise for us to operate more safely than on this night of open sky with a million ears and eyes of copper stars cocked and staring. Every footstep deafened me, and occasionally on our casual stroll we’d stop to look at each other, stand a few seconds under the wall of a side-lit empty street, then walk on hand in hand. I wanted to whistle (softly) or sing a low tune to myself, for, though I felt uneasy at the open dumb night, it was also the kind of night that left me confident and full of energy, and when these things joined I was apt to get a bit reckless. But I held back, slowed my heart and took in every detail of each same street – so as to miss no opportunity, as they drummed into us at school. ‘I feel as if I’ve had a few,’ I said, in spite of my resolution.
‘So do I.’
‘Or as if we’d just been up in my room and had it together.’
‘I don’t feel like going far, though,’ she said.
‘No, but let’s go home. I don’t feel like it tonight.’
I wondered what was wrong with her, saying: ‘I’ll walk you back and we’ll call it a day.’
In the next street I saw a gate leading to the rear yard of a shop, and I was too spun up to go home without doing anything at all: ‘Let’s just nip in here. You needn’t come, duck. I wain’t be five minutes.’
‘OK.’ She smiled, though my face was already set at that loot-barrier. It wasn’t very high, and when I was on top she called: ‘Give me a hand up.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course I am.’ It was the middle of a short street, and lamp-posts at either end didn’t shed radiance this far up. I got to the back door and, in our usual quiet way, the lock was forced and we stood in a smell of leather, polish and cardboard boxes.
‘It’s a shoe shop,’ Doris said. I felt my path across the storehouse behind the selling part of the shop, by racks and racks of shoe boxes, touching paper and balls of string on a corner table.
We went round it like blind people in the dark a couple of times just to be sure we didn’t miss a silent cashbox cringing and holding its breath as our fingers went by. People on such jobs often miss thousands through hurrying or thinking the coppers are snorting down their necks. My old man insists I get the sack from one firm after another because I’m not thorough enough in my work, but if he could have seen me on this sort of task he’d have to think again.
There was nothing in the back room. I went into the shop part and in ten seconds flat was at the till, running my fingers over them little plastic buttons as if I was going to write a letter to my old man explaining just how thorough I could be at times. To make up for the coming small clatter of noise I held my breath – hoping both would average out to make it not heard. A couple of night owls walked by outside, then I turned the handle and felt the till drawer thump itself towards my guts. It’s the best punch in the world, like a tabby cat boxing you with its paw, soft and loaded as it slides out on ballbearing rollers.
My hand made the lucky dip, lifted a wad of notes from under a spring-weight, and the other scooped up silver, slid it into my pocket as if it were that cardboard money they used to lend us at infants’ school to teach us how to be good shoppers and happy savers – not rattling good coin ready for gro
The light went on, a brilliant blue striplight flooding every corner of the room. I froze like a frog that’s landed in grass instead of water. When I could speak I said to Doris: ‘What did you do that for?’ – too scared to be raving mad.
‘Because I wanted to.’ She must have sensed how much I felt like bashing her, because: ‘Nobody can see it from the street’ – which could have been true, but even so.
‘Kicks are kicks,’ I said, ‘but this is a death trap.’
‘Scared?’ she smiled.
‘Just cool’ – feeling anything but. ‘I’ve got about fifty quid in my pocket.’
She stood against a wall of shoe boxes, and even a telly ad couldn’t have gone deeper into my guts than the sight of Doris now. Yellow arms of light turned full on her left me in the shade – which was fine, for I expected to see the dead mug of a copper burst in at any moment. Yet even at that I wouldn’t be able to care. I felt as if music was in my head wanting to get out, as if it had come to me because I was one of those who could spin it out from me, though knowing I’d never had any say in a thing like that.
She didn’t speak, stood to her full fair height and stared. I knew we were safe, that no copper would make any capture that night because the light she had switched on protected us both. We were cast-iron solid in this strongbox of shoes, and Doris knew it as well because when I couldn’t help but smile she broke the spell by saying:
‘I want to try some shoes on.’
‘Maybe they’ve got some of the latest.’
The idea was barmy, not so that I wanted to run like a shot stag out of the place, but so that I could have done a handstand against the wall of boxes. I lifted out an armful and set them on the floor like a game of dominoes. She chose one and opened it gently. I took up a box and split it down the middle: ‘Try these.’
They were too small, a pair of black shiners with heels like toothpicks. ‘I wish the shopkeeper was here,’ she said, ‘then he could tell me where the best are. This is a waste of time.’
I scoffed. ‘You don’t want much, do you? You’d have to pay for them, then. No, we’ll go through the lot and find a few pairs of Paris fashions.’
‘Not in this shop’ – contemptuously slinging a pair of plain lace-ups to the other side of the room, enough noise to wake every rat under the skirting board. From the ladder I passed down a few choice boxes, selecting every other on the off chance of picking winners. ‘I should have come in skirt and stockings,’ she said, ‘then I could have told which ones suit me.’
‘Well, next time we go into a shoe shop I’ll let you know; I’ll wear an evening suit and we’ll bring a transistor to do a hop with. Try these square toes. They’ll go well with slacks.’
They fitted but, being the wrong colour, were hurled out with the other misfits. The room was scattered with shoes, looked as if one of them Yank cyclones – Mabel or Edna or whatever you call them – had been hatched there, or as if a meeting of cripples and one-legs had been suddenly broken up by news of the four-minute warning. She still hadn’t found the right pair, so went on looking as if she lived there, ordering shop-assistant me about, though I didn’t mind because it seemed like a game we were playing. ‘Why don’t you find a pair for yourself?’ she said.
‘No, we’ll get you fixed. I’m always well shod.’
I knew that we were no longer safe in that shop and sprang to switch off the lights. ‘You silly fool,’ she cried.
Darkness put us into another world, the real one we were used to, or that I was anyway because it was hard to tell which sort of world Doris felt at home in. All she wanted, I sometimes thought, was a world with kicks, but I didn’t fancy being for long at the mercy of a world in pitboots. Maybe it wore carpet slippers when dealing with her – though I shouldn’t get like that now that it’s been over for so long.
‘Why did you switch off the light?’ she yelled.
‘Come on, let’s get outside.’
We were in the yard, Doris without any pair of shoes except those she’d come out in that evening. The skyline for me ended at the top of the gate, for a copper was coming over it, a blue-black tree trunk bending towards us about twenty yards away. Doris was frozen like a rabbit. I pushed her towards some back sheds so that she was hidden between two of them before the copper, now in the yard, spotted the commotion.
He saw me, though. I dodged to another space, then ricochetted to the safe end of the yard, and when he ran at me, stinking of fags and beer, I made a nip out of his long arms and was on the gate saddle before he could reach me.
‘Stop, you little bogger,’ he called, ‘I’ve got you.’
But all he had was one of my feet, and after a bit of tugging I left my shoe in the copper’s hand. As I was racing clippitty-clop, hop-skip-and-a-jump up the street, I heard his boots rattling the boards of the gate as he got over – not, thank God, having twigged that Doris was in there and could now skip free.
I was a machine, legs fastened to my body like nuts and bolts, arms pulling me along as I ran down that empty street. I turned each corner like a flashing tadpole, heart in my head as I rattled the pavement so fast that I went from the eye of lamp-post in what seemed like no seconds at all. There was no worry in my head except the need to put a mile of zig-zags between that copper and me. I’d stopped hearing him only a few yards from the shoe shop gate, but it seemed that half an hour passed before I had to give up running in case I blew to pieces from the heavy bombs now getting harder all over me.
Making noises like a crazy elephant, I walked, only realizing now that one of my shoes was missing. The night had fallen apart, split me and Doris from each other, and I hoped she’d made a getaway before the copper gave me up and went back to check on what I’d nicked.
I threw my other shoe over the wall of an old chapel and went home barefoot, meaning to buy myself some more next day with the fifty quid still stuck in my pocket. The shoe landed on a heap of cinders and rusting cans, and the softness of my feet on the pavement was more than made up for by the solid ringing curses my brain and heart played ping-pong with. I kept telling myself this was the end, and though I knew it was, another voice kept urging me to hope for the best and look on the bright side – like some mad deceiving parson on the telly.
I was so sure of the end that before turning into our street I dropped the fifty pound bundle through somebody’s letter box and hoped that when they found it they’d not say a word to anybody about such good luck. This in fact was what happened, and by the time I was safe for a three-year lap in Borstal the old woman who lived there had had an unexpected good time on the money that was, so she said, sent to her by a grateful and everloving nephew in Sheffield.
Next morning two cops came to our door, and I knew it was no good lying because they looked at me hard, as if they’d seen me on last night’s television reading the news. One of them held my shoes in his hand: ‘Do these fit you?’
A short while before my capture Doris said, when we were kissing good night outside her front door: ‘I’ve learnt a lot since meeting you. I’m not the same person any more.’ Before I had time to find out what she’d learnt I was down at the cop shop and more than half-way to Borstal. It was a joke, and I laughed on my way there. They never knew about Doris, so she went scot-free, riding her horse whenever she felt like it. I had that to be glad about at least. As a picture it made a stove in my guts those first black months, and as a joke I laughed over and over again, because it would never go stale on me. I’d learned a lot as well since meeting Doris, though to be honest I even now can’t explain what it is. But what I learned is still in me, feeding my quieter life with energy almost without my noticing it.
I wrote to Doris from Borstal but never received an answer, and even my mother couldn’t tell me anything about her, or maybe wouldn’t, because plenty happened to Doris that all the district knew of. Myself though
That was the hope of story books, of television and BBC; didn’t belong at all to me and life and somebody like Doris. For three solid years my brain wouldn’t leave me alone, came at me each night and rolled over me like a wheel of fire, so that I still sweat blood at the thought of that torture, waiting, without news, like a dwarf locked in the dark. No Borstal could take the credit for such punishment as this.
On coming out I pieced everything together. Doris had been pregnant when I was sent down, and three months later married a garage mechanic who had a reputation for flying around on motorbikes like a dangerous loon. Maybe that was how she prolonged the bout of kicks that had started with me, but this time it didn’t turn out so well. The baby was a boy, and she named it after me. When it was two months old she went out at Christmas Eve with her husband. They were going to a dance at Derby on the motorbike and, tonning around a frosty bend, met a petrol bowser side on. Frost, darkness, and large red letters spelling PETROL were the last things she saw, and I wondered what was in her mind at that moment. Not much, because she was dead when the bowser man found her, and so was her husband. She couldn’t have been much over eighteen.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes