New and Collected Stories, p.2Alan Sillitoe
You see, by sending me to Borstal they’ve shown me the knife, and from now on I know something I didn’t know before: that it’s war between me and them. I always knew this, naturally, because I was in Remand Homes as well and the boys there told me a lot about their brothers in Borstal, but it was only touch and go then, like kittens, like boxing-gloves, like dobbie. But now that they’ve shown me the knife, whether I ever pinch another thing in my life again or not, I know who my enemies are and what war is. They can drop all the atom bombs they like for all I care: I’ll never call it war and wear a soldier’s uniform, because I’m in a different sort of war, that they think is child’s play. The war they think is war is suicide, and those that go and get killed in war should be put in clink for attempted suicide because that’s the feeling in blokes’ minds when they rush to join up or let themselves be called up. I know, because I’ve thought how good it would be sometimes to do myself in and the easiest way to do it, it occurred to me, was to hope for a big war so’s I could join up and get killed. But I got past that when I knew I already was in a war of my own, that I was born into one, that I grew up hearing the sound of ‘old soldiers’ who’d been over the top at Dartmoor, half-killed at Lincoln, trapped in no-man’s-land at Borstal, that sounded louder than any Jerry bombs. Government wars aren’t my wars; they’ve got nowt to do with me, because my own war’s all that I’ll ever be bothered about. I remember when I was fourteen and I went out into the country with three of my cousins, all about the same age, who later went to different Borstals, and then to different regiments, from which they soon deserted, and then to different gaols where they still are as far as I know. But anyway, we were all kids then, and wanted to go out to the woods for a change, to get away from the roads of stinking hot tar one summer. We climbed over fences and went through fields, scrumping a few sour apples on our way, until we saw the wood about a mile off. Up Colliers’ Pad we heard another lot of kids talking in high-school voices behind a hedge. We crept up on them and peeped through the brambles, and saw they were eating a picnic, a real posh spread out of baskets and flasks and towels. There must have been about seven of them, lads and girls sent out by their mams and dads for the afternoon. So we went on our bellies through the hedge like crocodiles and surrounded them, and then dashed into the middle, scattering the fire and batting their tabs and snatching up all there was to eat, then running off over Cherry Orchard fields into the wood, with a man chasing us who’d come up while we were ransacking their picnic. We got away all right, and had a good feed into the bargain, because we’d been clambed to death and couldn’t wait long enough to get our chops ripping into them thin lettuce and ham sandwiches and creamy cakes.
Well, I’ll always feel during every bit of my life like those daft kids should have felt before we broke them up. But they never dreamed that what happened was going to happen, just like the governor of this Borstal who spouts to us about honesty and all that wappy stuff don’t know a bloody thing, while I know every minute of my life that a big boot is always likely to smash any nice picnic I might be barmy and dishonest enough to make for myself. I admit that there’ve been times when I’ve thought of telling the governor all this so as to put him on guard, but when I’ve got as close as seeing him I’ve changed my mind, thinking to let him either find out for himself or go through the same mill as I’ve gone through. I’m not hard-hearted (in fact I’ve helped a few blokes in my time with the odd quid, lie, fag, or shelter from the rain when they’ve been on the run) but I’m boggered if I’m going to risk being put in cells just for trying to give the governor a bit of advice he don’t deserve. If my heart’s soft I know the sort of people I’m going to save it for. And any advice I’d give the governor wouldn’t do him the least bit of good; it’d only trip him up sooner than if he wasn’t told at all, which I suppose is what I want to happen. But for the time being I’ll let things go on as they are, which is something else I’ve learned in the last year or two. (It’s a good job I can only think of these things as fast as I can write with this stub of pencil that’s clutched in my paw, otherwise I’d have dropped the whole thing weeks ago.)
By the time I’m half-way through my morning course, when after a frost-bitten dawn I can see a phlegmy bit of sunlight hanging from the bare twigs of beech and sycamore, and when I’ve measured my halfway mark by the short-cut scrimmage down the steep bush-covered bank and into the sunken lane, when there’s not a soul in sight and not a sound except the neighing of a piebald foal in a cottage stable that I can’t see, I get to thinking the deepest and daftest of all. The governor would have a fit if he could see me sliding down the bank because I could break my neck or ankle, but I can’t not do it because it’s the only risk I take and the only excitement I ever get, flying flat-out like one of them pterodactyls from the ‘Lost World’ I once heard on the wireless, crazy like a cut-balled cockerel, scratching myself to bits and almost letting myself go but not quite. It’s the most wonderful minute because there’s not one thought or word or picture of anything in my head while I’m going down. I am empty, as empty as I was before I was born, and I don’t let myself go, I suppose because whatever it is that’s farthest down inside me don’t want me to die or hurt myself bad. And it’s daft to think deep, you know, because it gets you nowhere, though deep is what I am when I’ve passed this half-way mark because the long-distance run of an early morning makes me think that every run like this is a life – a little life, I know – but a life as full of misery and happiness and things happening as you can ever get really around yourself – and I remember that after a lot of these runs I thought that it didn’t need much know-how to tell how a life was going to end once it had got well started. But as usual I was wrong, caught first by the cops and then by my own bad brain. I could never trust myself to fly scot-free over these traps, was always tripped up sooner or later no matter how many I got over to the good without even knowing it. Looking back I suppose them big trees put their branches to their snouts and gave each other the wink, and there I was whizzing down the bank and not seeing a bloody thing.
I don’t say to myself: ‘You shouldn’t have done the job and then you’d have stayed away from Borstal’; no, what I ram into my runner-brain is that my luck had no right to scram just when I was on my way to making the coppers think I hadn’t done the job after all. The time was autumn and the night foggy enough to get me and my mate Mike roaming the streets when we should have been rooted in front of the telly or stuck into a plush posh seat at the pictures, but I was restless after six weeks away from any sort of work, and well you might ask me why I’d been bone-idle for so long because normally I sweated my thin guts out on a milling-machine with the rest of them, but you see, my dad died from cancer of the throat, and mam collected a cool five hundred in insurance and benefits from the factory where he’d worked, ‘for your bereavement’, they said, or words like that.
Now I believe, and my mam must have thought the same, that a wad of crisp blue-back fivers ain’t a sight of good to a living soul unless they’re flying out of your hand into some shopkeeper’s till, and the shopkeeper is passing you tip-top things in exchange over the counter, so as soon as she got the money, mam took me and my five brothers and sisters out to town and got us dolled-up in new clothes. Then she ordered a twenty-one-inch telly, a new carpet because the old one was covered with blood from dad’s dying and wouldn’t wash out, and took a taxi home with bags of grub and a new fur coat. And do you know – you wain’t believe me when I tell you – she’d still near three hundred left in her bulging handbag the next day, so how could any of us go to work after that? Poor old dad, he didn’t get a look in, and he was the one who’d done the suffering and dying for such a lot of lolly.
Night after night we sat in front of the telly with a ham sandwich in one hand, a bar of chocolate in the other, and a bottle of lemonade between our boots, while mam was with some fancy-man upstairs on the new bed she’d ordered, and I’d never known a family as happy as ours
My pal Mike got let off with probation because it was his first job – anyway the first they ever knew about – and because they said he would never have done it if it hadn’t been for me talking him into it. They said I was a menace to honest lads like Mike – hands in his pockets so that they looked stone empty, head bent forward as if looking for half-crowns to fill ’em with, a ripped jersey on and his hair falling into his eyes so that he could go up to women and ask them for a shilling because he was hungry – and that I was the brains behind the job, the guiding light when it came to making up anybody’s mind, but I swear to God I worn’t owt like that because really I ain’t got no more brains than a gnat after hiding the money in the place I did. And I – being cranky like I am – got sent to Borstal because to tell you the honest truth I’d been to Remand Homes before – though that’s another story and I suppose if I ever tell it it’ll be just as boring as this one is. I was glad though that Mike got away with it, and I only hope he always will, not like silly bastard me.
So on this foggy night we tore ourselves away from the telly and slammed the front door behind us, setting off up our wide street like slow tugs on a river that’d broken their hooters, for we didn’t know where the housefronts began what with the perishing cold mist all around. I was snatched to death without an overcoat: mam had forgotten to buy me one in the scrummage of shopping, and by the time I thought to remind her of it the dough was all gone. So we whistled ‘The Teddy Boys’ Picnic’ to keep us warm, and I told myself that I’d get a coat soon if it was the last thing I did. Mike said he thought the same about himself, adding that he’d also get some brand-new glasses with gold rims, to wear instead of the wire frames they’d given him at the school clinic years ago. He didn’t twig it was foggy at first and cleaned his glasses every time I pulled him back from a lamp-post or car, but when he saw the lights on Alfreton Road looking like octopus eyes he put them in his pocket and didn’t wear them again until we did the job. We hadn’t got two ha’pennies between us, and though we weren’t hungry we wished we’d got a bob or two when we passed the fish and chip shops because the delicious sniffs of salt and vinegar and frying fat made our mouths water. I don’t mind telling you we walked the town from one end to the other and if our eyes worn’t glued to the ground looking for lost wallets and watches they was swivelling around house windows and shop doors in case we saw something easy and worth nipping into.
Neither of us said as much as this to each other, but I know for a fact that that was what we was thinking. What I don’t know – and as sure as I sit here I know I’ll never know – is which of us was the first bastard to latch his peepers on to that baker’s backyard. Oh yes, it’s all right me telling myself it was me, but the truth is that I’ve never known whether it was Mike or not, because I do know that I didn’t see the open window until he stabbed me in the ribs and pointed it out. ‘See it?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I told him, ‘so let’s get cracking.’
‘But what about the wall though?’ he whispered, looking a bit closer.
‘On your shoulders,’ I chipped in.
His eyes were already up there: ‘Will you be able to reach?’ It was the only time he ever showed any life.
‘Leave it to me,’ I said, ever-ready. ‘I can reach anywhere from your ham-hock shoulders.’
Mike was a nipper compared to me, but underneath the scruffy draught-board jersey he wore were muscles as hard as iron, and you wouldn’t think to see him walking down the street with glasses on and hands in pockets that he’d harm a fly, but I never liked to get on the wrong side of him in a fight because he’s the sort that don’t say a word for weeks on end – sits plugged in front of the telly, or reads a cowboy book, or just sleeps – when suddenly BIFF – half kills somebody for almost nothing at all, such as beating him in a race for the last Football Post on a Saturday night, pushing in before him at a bus stop, or bumping into him when he was day-dreaming about Dolly-on-the-Tub next door. I saw him set on a bloke once for no more than fixing him in a funny way with his eyes, and it turned out that the bloke was cock-eyed but nobody knew it because he’d just that day come to live in our street. At other times none of these things would matter a bit, and I suppose the only reason why I was pals with him was because I didn’t say much from one month’s end to another either.
He puts his hands up in the air like he was being covered with a Gatling-Gun, and moved to the wall like he was going to be mowed down, and I climbed up him like he was a stile or step-ladder, and there he stood, the palms of his upshot maulers flat and turned out so’s I could step on ’em like they was the adjustable jack-spanner under a car, not a sound of a breath nor the shiver of a flinch coming from him. I lost no time in any case, took my coat from between my teeth, chucked it up to the glass-topped wall (where the glass worn’t too sh
I didn’t think about anything at all, as usual, because I never do when I’m busy, when I’m draining pipes, looting sacks, yaling locks, lifting latches, forcing my bony hands and lanky legs into making something move, hardly feeling my lungs going in-whiff and out-whaff, not realizing whether my mouth is clamped tight or gaping, whether I’m hungry, itching from scabies, or whether my flies are open and flashing dirty words like muck and spit into the late-night final fog. And when I don’t know anything about all this then how can I honest-to-God say I think of anything at such times? When I’m wondering what’s the best way to get a window open or how to force a door, how can I be thinking or have anything on my mind? That’s what the four-eyed white-smocked bloke with the notebook couldn’t understand when he asked me questions for days and days after I got to Borstal; and I couldn’t explain it to him then like I’m writing it down now; and even if I’d been able to maybe he still wouldn’t have caught on because I don’t know whether I can understand it myself even at this moment, though I’m doing my best you can bet.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes