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New and collected storie.., p.19
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       New and Collected Stories, p.19

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  ‘It just about killed her dad as well,’ my mother said, ‘broke his heart. I talked to him once on the street, and he said he’d allus wanted to send her to the university, she was so clever. Still, the baby went back to him.’

  And I went back to jail, for six months, because I opened a car door and took out a transistor radio. I don’t know why I did it. The wireless was no good to me and I didn’t need it. I wasn’t even short of money. I just opened the car door and took the radio and, here’s what still mystifies me, I switched it on straightaway and listened to some music as I walked down the street, so that the bloke who owned the car heard it and chased after me.

  But that was the last time I was in the nick – touch wood – and maybe I had to go in, because when I came out I was able to face things again, walk the streets without falling under a bus or smashing a jeweller’s window for the relief of getting caught.

  I got work at a sawmill, keeping the machines free of dust and wood splinters. The screaming engine noise ripping through trunks and planks was even fiercer than the battle-shindig in myself, which was a good thing during the first months I was free. I rode there each morning on a new-bought bike, to work hard before eating my dinner sandwiches under a spreading chestnut tree. The smell of fresh leaves on the one hand, and newly flying sawdust on the other, cleared my head and made me feel part of the world again. I liked it so much I thought it was the best job I’d ever had – even though the hours were long and the wages rotten.

  One day I saw an elderly man walking through the wood, followed by a little boy who ran in and out of the bushes whacking flowers with his stick. The kid was about four, dressed in cowboy suit and hat, the other hand firing off his six-shooter that made midget sharp cracks splitting like invisible twigs between the trees. He was pink-faced with grey eyes, the terror of cats and birds, a pest for the ice-cream man, the sort of kid half stunned by an avalanche of toys at Christmas, spoiled beyond recall by people with money. You could see it in his face.

  I got a goz at the man, had to stare a bit before I saw it was Doris’s father, the scrap merchant who’d not so long back been the menace of the street in his overdriven car. He was grey and wax in the face, well wrapped in topcoat and hat and scarf and treading carefully along the woodpath. ‘Come on,’ he said to the kid. ‘Come on, Tony, or you’ll get lost.’

  I watched him run towards the old man, take his hand and say: ‘Are we going home now, grandad?’ I had an impulse, which makes me blush to remember it, and that was to go up to Doris’s ragman father and say – what I’ve already said in most of this story, to say that in a way he was my father as well, to say: ‘Hey up, dad. You don’t know much, do you?’ But I didn’t, because I couldn’t, leaned against a tree, feeling as if I’d done a week’s work without stop, feeling a hundred years older than that old man who was walking off with my kid.

  My last real sight of Doris was of her inside the shoe shop trying on shoes, and after that, when I switched off the light because I sensed danger, we both went into the dark, and never came out. But there’s another and final picture of her that haunts me like a vision in my waking dreams. I see her coming down the street, all clean and golden-haired on that shining horse, riding it slowly towards our house to call on me, as she did for a long time. And she was known to men standing by the bookie’s as Lady Luck.

  That’s a long while ago, and I even see Doris’s kid, a big lad now, running home from school. I can watch him without wanting to put my head in the gas oven, watch him and laugh to myself because I was happy to see him at all. He’s in good hands and prospering. I’m going straight as well, working in the warehouse where they store butter and cheese. I eat like a fighting cock, and take home so much that my wife and two kids don’t do bad on it either.

  The Other John Peel

  When the world was asleep one Sunday morning Bob slid away from the warm aura of his wife and padded downstairs – boots in hand – to fix up a flask and some bacon sandwiches.

  Electric light gave the living-room an ageless air, only different from last night in that it was empty – of people. He looked around at the house full of furniture: television set, washing machine glinting white from the scullery, even a car on the street – the lot, and it belonged to him. Eric and Freda also slept, and he’d promised to take them up the Trent and hire a rowing-boat this afternoon if they were good. Wearing his second-best suit, knapsack all set, he remembered Freda’s plea a few days ago: ‘Will you bring me one o’ them tails, our dad?’ He had to laugh, the fawce little bogger, as he combed his dark wavy hair at the mirror and put on his glasses. I must tell her not to blab it to her pals though.

  He opened the cellar door for his guns and pouches, put them under his arm to keep them low – having a licence for the twelve-bore, but not the .303 service rifle – and went out into the backyard. The world was a cemetery on short lease to the night, dead quiet except for the whine of factory generators: a row of upstairs windows were closed tight to hold in the breath of sleep. A pale grey saloon stood by the kerb, the best of several left out on the cobbles, and Bob stowed his guns well down behind the back seat before lighting a cigarette.

  The streets were yours at six on a Sunday morning, flying through the cradle of a deadbeat world with nothing to stop you getting what fun and excitement you wanted. The one drawback to the .303 was that out of fifty bullets from the army he’d but twenty left, though if he rationed himself to a shot every Sunday there’d still be six months’ sport for the taking. And you never knew: maybe he could tap his cousin in the Terriers for a belt of souvenirs.

  He bounded through the traffic lights, between church and pub, climbing the smooth tarmac up Mansfield Road, then pouring his headlights into the dip and heading north under a sky of stars. Houses fell endlessly back on either side, a gauntlet trying to cup him but getting nowhere. The wireless had forecast a fine day and looked like being right for a change, which was the least they could do for you. It was good to get out after a week cooped-up, to be a long-range hunter in a car that blended with the lanes. He was doing well for himself: wife and kids, a good toolsetting job, and a four-roomed house at fifteen bob a week. Fine. And most Sunday mornings he ranged from Yorkshire to Linconshire, and Staffordshire to Leicestershire, every map-point a sitting duck for his coolly sighted guns.

  On the dot of six-thirty he saw Ernie by the Valley Road picture house. ‘Hey up,’ Ernie said as he pulled in. ‘That was well timed.’ Almost a foot taller than Bob, he loomed over the car dressed in an old mac.

  ‘It’s going to be fine,’ Bob said, ‘according to the radio.’

  Ernie let himself in. ‘The wireless’s allus wrong. Spouts nowt but lies. I got welloes on in case it rains.’

  They scooted up the dual carriageway. ‘Is this the best you can do?’ Ernie asked. ‘You can fetch ninety out of this, I’m sure. ’Ark at that engine: purring like a she-cat on the batter.’

  ‘Take your sweat,’ Bob said. ‘This is a mystery trip.’

  Ernie agreed. ‘I’m glad there’s no racing on a Sunday. It’s good to get out a bit like this.’

  ‘It is, an’ all. Missis well?’

  ‘Not too bad. Says she feels like a battleship with such a big belly’ – and went silent. Bob knew him well enough: he’d never talk just to be friendly; they could drive for an hour and he’d stay shut, often in an icy far-off mood that didn’t give him anything to say or think of. They worked a dozen feet from each other all week, Bob on his precision jobs, Ernie watching a row of crankshaft millers. ‘What guns you got then?’ he asked.

  Bob peered ahead, a calm and measured glance along the lit-up wastes of the road to Ollerton. ‘A twelve-bore and a .303.’

  ‘I wish you had,’ Ernie laughed. ‘You never know when you’re going to need a .303 these days. Best gun out.’

  ‘Keep your trap shut about it though,’ Bob said. ‘I got it in the army. I wouldn’t tell you except that I know I can trust you by now.’

  Maybe
he wasn’t joking, Ernie thought. Bob was clever with hands and brain, the stop-gap of the shop with micrometer and centre-lathe, a toolmaker who could turn off a candlestick or fag-lighter as soon as look at you. ‘Do you mean it about a .303?’

  Bob pulled into a lay-by and got out. ‘Keep clear of the headlights,’ he said, ‘but catch this.’ Ernie caught it, pushed forward the safety catch, the magazine resting in the net of his fingers. ‘God Almighty! Anything up the spout?’

  ‘I’ve a clip in my pocket. Strictly for rabbits’ – Bob smiled, taking it back.

  ‘A waste,’ Ernie said. ‘The twelve-bore would do. Mixermatosis has killed ’em all off, anyway.’

  They drove on. ‘Had it since I left the army,’ Bob told him. ‘The stores was in a chronic state in Germany at the end of the war. Found myself with two, so kept one. I have a pot-shot with it now and again. I enjoy hunting – for a bit o’ recreation.’

  Ernie laughed, wildly and uncontrolled, jerking excited shouts into the air as if trying to throw something out of his mouth, holding his stomach to stop himself doubling up, wearing down the shock of what a free-lance .303 meant. He put his arm around Bob’s shoulder by way of congratulation: ‘You’d better not let many people know about it, or the coppers’ll get on to you.’

  ‘Don’t worry. If ever they search, it’s a souvenir. I’d get rid of the bolt, and turn another off on the lathe when I needed it.’

  ‘Marvellous,’ Ernie said. ‘A .303! Just the thing to have in case of a revolution. I hope I can get my hands on one when the trouble starts.’

  Bob was sardonic: ‘You and your revolution! There wain’t be one in our lifetimes, I can tell you that.’ Ernie had talked revolution to him for months, had argued with fiery puritanical force, guiding Bob’s opinion from voting Labour to a head-nodding acceptance of rough and ready Communism. ‘I can’t see why you think there’ll be a revolution though.’

  ‘I’ve told you though,’ Ernie said loudly. ‘There’s got to be something. I feel it. We wok in a factory, don’t we? Well, we’re the backbone of the country, but you see, Bob, there’s too many people on our backs. And it’s about time they was slung off. The last strike we had a bloke in a pub said to me: “Why are you fellows allus on strike?” And I said to ’im: “What sort o’ wok do you do?” And he said: “I’m a travelling salesman.” So I said, ready to smash ’im: “Well, the reason I come out on strike is because I want to get bastards like yo’ off my back.” That shut ’im up. He just crawled back into his sherry.’

  At dawn they stopped the car in a ladle of land between Tuxford and the Dukeries, pulling on to a grass verge by a gate. A tall hawthorn hedge covered in green shoots bordered the lane, and the bosom of the meadow within rose steeply to a dark skyline, heavy rolls of cloud across it. Ernie stood by the gate: ‘The clouds smell fresh’ – pulling his mac collar up. ‘Think we’ll get owt ’ere?’

  ‘It’s good hunting country,’ Bob told him. ‘I know for a fact.’

  They opened flasks and tore hungrily into sandwiches. ‘Here, have a swig of this,’ Ernie said, pouring some into his own cup. ‘It’ll do you good.’

  Bob held it to the light. ‘What is it?’

  ‘Turps and dash. Here’s the skin off your lips.’

  ‘Don’t talk so loud. You’ll chase all the wild life away. Not a bad drop, is it?’

  ‘A rabbit wouldn’t get far with a .303 at its arse.’ A sort of loving excitement paralysed his fingers when he picked up the rifle: ‘Can you get me one?’

  ‘They don’t grow on trees, Ernie.’

  ‘I’d like one, though. For the next war. I’d just wait for somebody to try and call me up!’ They leaned on the gate, smoking. ‘Christ, when the Russians come I’ll be liberated.’

  ‘It’s a good job everybody ain’t like you,’ Bob said with a smile. ‘You’re a rare ’un, yo’ are.’

  Ernie saw a movement across the field, beginning from the right and parting a diagonal line of grass, ascending towards the crest on their left. The light from behind showed it up clear and neat. ‘See it?’ he hissed, ramming a shell in the twelve-bore. Bob said nothing, noiselessly lifted the .303. No need to use that, Ernie thought. It’d bring a man down a mile off; a twelve-bore’s good enough for a skinful of mixermatosis.

  A sudden wind blew against the dawn, ruffling the line of their prey. Bob’s eye was still on it: a single round went into the breech. ‘I’ll take it,’ he said softly. It was already out of buck-shot from Ernie’s twelve-bore. Both lost it, but said nothing. A lull in the wind didn’t show it up. ‘I expect it’s a hare.’

  Bob lowered his .303, but Ernie signalled him to be quiet: it seemed as if a match were lit in the middle of the field, a slow-burning brown flame moving cautiously through shallow grass, more erratic now, but still edging towards the crest. The cold, star-flecked sky needed only a slow half turn to bring full daylight. What the bloody hell is it? Ernie wondered. Fields and lane were dead quiet: they were kings of the countryside: no houses, no one in sight. He strained his eyes hoping to discover what it was. A squirrel? Some gingernut, anyway.

  A smile came on to Bob’s face, as when occasionally at work his patience paid off over some exacting job, a flange going into place with not half a thou’ to spare. Now it was more heightened than that: a triumph of hunting. Two sharp ears were seen on the skyline, a hang-dog tail, a vulpine mouth breakfasting on wind – with Ernie’s heart a bongo drum playing rhythms on his chest wall: a fox.

  The air split open, and from all directions came a tidal wave of noise, rushing in on every ear but that to which the bullet had been aimed. Together they were over the gate, and speeding up the slope as if in a dawn attack. Gasping, Bob knelt and turned the dead fox over: as precise a job as he had ever done. ‘I always get ’em in the head if I can. I promised one of the tails to a neighbour.’

  ‘Ain’t this the first fox you’ve shot, then?’ Ernie couldn’t fathom his quiet talk: a fox stone dead from a .303 happened once in a lifetime. They walked down the hill. ‘I’ve had about half a dozen,’ he said by the car door, dragging a large polythene bag from under the seat and stuffing the dead fox into it. ‘From round here most on ’em. I’ll knock off a bit and go to Lincolnshire next time.’ The fox lay as if under a glass case, head bashed and tail without colour. ‘It never stood a chance with a .303,’ Ernie grinned.

  He took the wheel going back, flying down lanes to the main road, setting its nose at Mansfield as if intent on cutting Nottinghamshire in two. Bob lounged behind using a pull-through on the .303. ‘I’ve allus liked hunting,’ he shouted to Ernie. ‘My old man used to go poaching before the war, so we could have summat to eat. He once did a month in quod, the poor bastard. Never got a chance to enjoy real hunting, like me.’

  ‘I want the next tail, for the kid that’s coming,’ Ernie said, laughing.

  Bob was pleased with himself: ‘You talk about revolution: the nobs around here would go daft if they knew I was knocking their sport off.’

  It was broad daylight: ‘Have another turps and dash,’ Ernie said, ‘you clever bleeder. You’ll find the bottle in my haversack.’

  The road opened along a high flat ridge through a colliery village, whose grey houses still had no smoke at their chimneys. Silent head-stocks to the left cowered above the fenced-off coppices of Sherwood Forest.

  The Firebug

  I smile as much as feel ashamed at the memory of some of the things I did when I was a lad, even though I caused my mother a lot of trouble. I used to pinch her matches and set fire to heaps of paper and anything I could get my eyes on.

  I was no bigger than sixpennorth o’ coppers, so’s you’d think I wasn’t capable of harming a fly. People came straight out with it: ‘Poor little bogger. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.’ But my auntie used to say: ‘He might not be so daft as he looks when he grows up’ – and she was right, I can see that now. Her husband had a few brains as well: ‘He’s quiet, nobody can deny it, but still waters run d
eep. I wouldn’t trust him an inch.’ At this the rest of the family got on to him and called him bully with neither sense nor feeling, said I was delicate and might not have long for this world – while I went on eating my way through a fistful of bread-and-jam as if I hadn’t heard a dickybird and would last forever.

  This match craze must have started when, still in leggings, I was traipsed downtown by my mother one day midweek. The streets weren’t all that crowded and I held on to her carrier-bag, dragging a bit I should think, slurring my other hand along the cold glass of shop windows full of tricycles and forts for Christmas that I would never get – unless they were given to me as a reward for being good enough not to pinch ’em. As usual my mother was harassed to death (on her way to ask for a bit more time to pay off the arrears of 24 Slum Yard I shouldn’t wonder) and I was grizzling because I couldn’t share as much as I’d have liked in the razzle-dazzle of the downtown street.

  Suddenly I left off moaning, felt the air go quiet and blue, as if a streak of sly lightning had stiffened everybody dead in their tracks. Even motor cars stopped. ‘What’s up, mam?’ I said – or whined I expect, because I could only whine up to fourteen: then I went to work and started talking clear and proper, from shock.

  Before she could tell me, a bloody great bell began clanging – louder than any school or church call – bowling its ding-dong from every place at once, so that I looked quickly at the up-windows to wonder where it was coming from. I felt myself going white, knees quaking. Not that I was terrified. I was right in the middle of another world, as if the one and only door to it had a bell on saying PRESS, and somebody was leaning his elbow spot-on and drilling right into my startled brain.

 
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