New and Collected Stories, p.20Alan Sillitoe
The bells got louder, so’s I couldn’t any longer hope it was only the cops or an ambulance. It was something I’d never seen before nor dreamt of either: a flying red-faced monster batting along the narrow street at a flat-out sixty, as if it had been thrown there like a toy. Only this weighed a ton or two and made the ground shake under me, like a procession for the Coronation or something – but coming at top speed, as if a couple of Russian tanks were after its guts and shooting fire behind. ‘What is it, mam? What is it?’ I whined when it got quiet enough to speak.
‘Only a fire,’ she told me. ‘A house is on fire, and they’re fire-engines going to put it out.’ Then another couple of engines came belting through the deadened street, both together it seemed, turning all the air into terrifying klaxons. I started screaming, and didn’t stop until I’d gone down in a fit.
Mam and a man carried me into the nearest shop and when I woke up there was nothing but toys all around, so’s I thought I was in heaven. To keep me calm the shopkeeper gave me a lead soldier which I was glad to grab, though I’d rather have had the toy fire-engine that caught at my sight as soon as I stood up. It was as if my eyes had opened for the first time since I was born: red with yellow ladders and blue men in helmets – but he turned me away to ask if I was all right, and when I nodded walked me back into the street out of temptation. I was a bit of a bogger in them days.
The long school holidays of summer seemed to go on for years. When I could scrounge fourpence I’d nip to the continuous downtown pictures after dinner and drop myself in one of the front seats, to see the same film over and over till driven out by hunger or God save the king. But I didn’t often get money to go, and now and again mam would bundle me into the street so’s her nerves could have a rest from my ‘give-me-this-and-I-want-that’ sort of grizzling. I’d be quite happy – after the shock of being slung out had worn off – to sit on the pavement making wrinkles in the hot tar with a spoon I’d managed to grab on my way through the kitchen, or drawing patterns with a piece of slate or matchstick. Other kids would be rolling marbles or running at rounders, or a string of them would scream out of an entry after playing hide and seek in somebody’s backyard. A few would be away at seaside camp, or out in the fields and woods on Sunday treats, so it worn’t as noisy as it might have been. I remember once I sat dead quiet all afternoon doing nothing but talking to myself for minutes at a time on what had happened to me in the last day or two and about things I hoped to do as soon as I got either money or matches in my fist – chuntering ten to the dozen as if somebody unknown to me had put a penny in the gramophone of my brain as they walked by. Other people passing looked at me gone-out, but I didn’t give a bogger and just went on talking until the noise of a fire-engine in the distance came through to my locked-in world.
It sounded like a gale just starting up, an aeroplane of bells going along at ground level with folded wings, about ten streets off but far enough away to seem as if it was in another town behind the big white clouds of summer, circling round a dream I’d had about a fire a few nights ago. It didn’t sound real, though I knew what it meant now, after my downtown fit a long time back in the winter. Hot sun and empty sky stopped it being loud I suppose, but my heart nearly fell over itself at the brass-band rattle, it went so fast – sitting in my mouth like a cough-drop or dollymixture getting bigger as the bells went on. Most of the other kids ran hollering to where the noise came from, even when I thought they were too far off for anybody else to hear, went clobbering up the street and round a corner until everywhere was quiet and empty except the bells now reaching louder all the time.
I wanted to join in the chase, fly towards fire and smoke as fast as my oversize wellingtons would take me, to see all them helmeted men with hatchets and ladders and hosepipes trying to stop the red flames but not managing so that the only thing left was a couple of cinders one on top of the other. And then I’d try to sneak up and blow the top one off. But I’d never be able to catch them, that much I knew as sure as God made little apples, so I waited till my face changed back from white to mucky and my blood stopped bumping, and went on playing tar games in the sun.
But sometimes I’d sit and hear the bells of a fire engine that none of the other kids would hear, would leave off playing and listen hard for it to come closer, hoping to see one swivel around the bend at the top of our street and pour down with its big nose getting closer – and if it did I wouldn’t know whether to stick by and see what happened or run screaming in to mam and get her to hide me under the stairs. I was always hoping for a sweltering fire close by so that I could watch them trying to put it out – hope for one at the bike factory or pub or in some shop or other. But I just heard them now and again in my mind, sat (before I cottoned on to this) waiting for the others to hear it and run yelling to where it came from, but they didn’t and then I knew it was just in me the bells had played. This was only on summer days though, as if the sun melted wax in my tabs and let me hear better than anybody else – even things that didn’t happen at all.
But fire-engine fires were rare as five-pound notes, and up to men then nearest a big blaze ever came to our street was on Bonfire Night. They told us about Bonfire Night at school, about how this poor bloke Guy Fawkes got chucked on a fire because he wanted to blow up parliament, and I learned as well about the Great Fire of London where all the town got lit because everything was built of wood. What a sight that must have been! Thousands and thousands of houses going up like matchboxes. Still, I didn’t like to think of people getting burnt to death, I do know that. I was terrified on it, and so was dad, and though he used to poke the fire cold out every night, and pull the rugs a long way back from the grate and set the chairs under the window, I was still worried in bed later in case a hot coal lit up again and walked to right across the room where the rugs were; or that somebody next door would go to sleep with his pipe lit and the first thing I’d know was a rubber hose slooshing water through the window and onto us four kids. I wouldn’t even have heard the dingdong-belling of the fire-engine I slept so deep – and that would have broken my heart.
On Bonfire Night fires were lit like cherry trees, two or three to a long street like ours, and the only thing I ever prayed for was that it wouldn’t rain after the bigger lads got busy and set their matches under piles of mattresses, boxes and old sofas. The flames climbed so high by ten that house walls glowed and shone as if somebody had scrubbed them clean, and I used to go from one fire-hill to another eating my bread and jam and jumping out of the way when firecrackers got close. I was so excited the bread almost wouldn’t go down, and my breath gulped as the warmth tried to ram itself through my throat when I went too near the fire.
If only flames like this blazed all winter, was my one big wish. But they didn’t, my brain told me: they flared for one night, hands of fire waving hello and good-bye while we shouted and danced, then died to a glowing hump of grey ash for corporation carts to clear away like the bodies of big runover dogs next morning. Christmas was a letdown after these mountainous fires.
This Bonfire Night I stayed out till twelve hoping, now that everybody else had gone, for a last-minute flame to shoot up for one second and show its face only to me; but all that remained was the smell of fire-ash and gunpowder. Then in the dead quietness I heard the bell of a far-off fire-engine, flying down some empty street with bells full on, passing houses that were so quiet you might think God had gone before and like some fat publican shouted TIME in each. I looked at the fire again in the hope that it would flare and bring the distant engine to where I was, frightened a bit at the same time because I was on my own and would have nobody to stand with if it did. All I got for my waiting though was a spot of icecold rain on my arm, and the sound of another big drop burying itself with a hiss chock in the middle of the ash. And the fire-engine went tingling on till I couldn’t hear it no more, off to some street where, I thought, they had a bigger fire than could ever be built in ours.
My first fires were nothing to s
So nobody bothered me and my midget fires, because they could see I wasn’t doing no harm. One or two of the nosey parkers went as far as to tut-tut loud when they looked over the fence in passing and saw wisps of smoke floating in front of my eyes, but they soon got used to the sight of it and stopped pulling meagrims. They must have known mam knew I’d got the matches, and didn’t want a row with her because she was still a wild fighter badly or not. I soon stopped making fires outside our back door, though, because one day I collected a whole tin of matchsticks off the street and they burnt so long in a bad wind that when mam smelled them up in the bedroom dad kicked the fire out with his boots and locked the gate on me. I’d only got a couple matches left, and had forgotten to snatch up the newspaper when dad’s fist lifted me, so I was feeling hard done by as I sulked near the yard lavatories.
At the first nip of a cold rainspot I went into the nearest because if there was one thing I didn’t like it was getting wet. It made me feel so miserable I could have put my head in the gas-oven or gone to the railway line and played with an express till I was bumped into, rolled over, and blacked-out for good. Whenever a spot of rain fell I sheltered in a shop doorway or entry until it stopped even if I was there for hours, because when rain landed on me it was like a shock of pins and needles sending me off my nut, as if every bit of me was a funny bone. And big rain was worse than ever, for it seemed to stick into me like falling penknives.
If I hadn’t opened the door and gone in to get out of the rain I’d never have noticed the wad of newspapers stuffed behind the lavatory pipe. Two or three thick Sunday ones, the sort I liked because they’d got bigger letters on the front page than any. Once at Aunt Ethel’s one of my grown-up cousins was reading the Sunday paper and his brother put a light to the bottom for a lark, and the other didn’t know what was going off till flames reached the terrible headlines and started licking his nose. Or maybe he did, for he stayed as calm as if it had happened before: he was near the range and when the whole paper was in flames just leaned over and let it fall in the firegrate to burn itself out – as if he’d read all he wanted to anyway – and calmly asked his mam if there was any more tea in the pot. I laughed at the thought of it for days and days.
As soon as the heap of papers caught I ran out of the yard and rattled to the bottom of the street, went up to a gang of pals and played marbles so’s nobody’d twig anything. I was so excited at what I’d done, and at listening all the time for a fire-engine (that I hoped somebody had called to come rumbling full tilt down the cobbled street with bells ringing), that I lost all my five marbles because I hardly knew what I was doing.
I didn’t hear the bells of a fire-engine though: the only ringing that went on was all night in my ears after the old man had given me a good pasting when I went home a long time later. The whole yard talked about my fire-making for days: ‘The little varmint wants taming. He’s got too much on it.’
‘You’d better lock your door when you go over the road shopping, or he might sneak in and send your home up in flames.’
‘If I was his mother I’d take him to have his brains tested, though she can’t do a sight at the moment, poor woman. So he gets neglected. I don’t know, I don’t.’
‘He’d be better off at Cumberland Hall,’ another woman said – which made me shiver when I heard it because Cumberland Hall’s a stark cold place they send kids to as ain’t got no mam and dad, where they hit you with sticks, feed you on bread and porridge, and get you up at six in the morning – or so mam once told me when I asked her about it. And it was a long way in the woods, she said, so’s I knew if I got sent there I wouldn’t be able to hear a fire-engine for years and years. Unless I made a fire on the sly and one had to come and put it out, then I might, but you couldn’t depend on it because I knew by now that fire-engines didn’t fly ding-donging to every bit of fire in the open air: they had to be big ones, which meant I was beginning to learn. Also I didn’t want to get caught again and have my head batted, for as well as it hurting a long time afterwards it might send me daft or dead which would be terrible because then I wouldn’t be able to make the fires or hear the engines.
So I knew I’d got to be careful next time and thought about how secret you could be if you did it in a wood and how big a fire it’d grow to if once it got going and the wind blew on it. I dreamed about it for weeks, saw yellow matchlight jump to paper, spread to dry leaves and twigs, climb to dead wood and branches and bushes and little trees and big trees, changing colour from red to blue and green and back to red as the big bell ding-donged through everything, racing from the main road. And all the firemen would just stand there, helmets off and scratching their heads because they wouldn’t have a dog’s chance of putting it out. I was sweating myself at the thought of it. Once on the pictures I saw where a big oil well caught fire, and they had to have dynamite to put it out. Dynamite! Think of that! Many’s the pasting I got from the teacher at school for being half asleep in these daydreams. Once I was called out to the front for it, and as he was holding the strap up to let me have it, the thundery quiet of the classroom was filled with the roar of a fire-engine out on the boulevard. A few seconds went by as everybody wondered where it was going, and I thought the teacher would let me off at such a fire-awful noise, (though I don’t know why he should), but the next thing I knew the strap had hit the outstretched palm of my hand as if a large stone had fallen on it from a thousand feet up. The bastard. I should have been listening to him telling us about how the army of some batchy king or other chopped up the senseless blokes of another army; then the two kings shook hands and signed a bit of paper to say things should be the same, but peaceful, and all the soldiers just sat in gangs around their little fires boiling soup and laughing, when all I thought of was how all these little fires could be joined together into a big blaze, as big as a mountain, with the two kings on top instead of that poor bloke called Guy Fawkes – just because he had a funny name.
I went off early one morning, a sunny day one Sunday, all by myself after a breakfast of tomatoes and bacon. Dad was glad to get rid of me because mam was still badly and the doctor was up with her. She hadn’t spoken to me for a week because she’d been sleeping most of the time – and all I had to do, dad said, was keep out of her way and then she’d get better quicker.
Well, I was glad to because I’d got other things to brood on, walking down the street well into the wall with a box of matches and some folded paper in my pockets, my hand clutching the matches because I didn’t want them to jump out – or fall through the hole that might get wider as I walked along. I’d be hard put to it to get any more if they did, because I hadn’t got a penny to my name. Admitted, I could always stop and ask people to give me a match, but it was risky, because I’d often tried it, though sometimes I managed to beg one or two from a bloke who didn’t care what I was up to and perhaps wanted me to smoke myself to death, or set Nottingham on fire. But mostly the people I asked either pushed me away and said clear off, or told me they were sorry but their matches were safeties and no good without a box. Now and again a bloke with safeties would give me a few anyway – wanting to help me and hoping I’d find some way to strike them, though I never did, unless I lit them with proper matches I latched on to later. The people I never asked were women, after the first one or two had threatened to fetch a copper, being clever enough to twig what I was up to.
After a good while of more walking I cut off along a lane at the next bridge leading towards the wood I’d set my heart on: a toy for Christmas. I was excited, already heard fire-engines crossing the sky, bells going off miles away, a sound that thrilled me even though I did know I was hearing things. The wheat was tall, yellow and dusty-looking over hedges and gates, bushes so high along the lane that sometimes I couldn’t see the sky. Faded fag packets and scorched newspaper had been thrown among nettles and scrub by lads and courting couples out from Nottingham, for the fields weren’t all that far off from the black and smothercating streets. My teeth still felt funny at the screams of tree-trunks from Sunday overtime at the sawmill not far off, though after a while I couldn’t hear anything at all, except the odd thrush or blackbird nipping about like bats trying to get their own shadows in their beaks. I’d been out here a time or two with pals looking for eggs in birds’ nests but I wasn’t interested in that any more because my uncle once caught me with some and told me it was wicked and wrong to rob birds of their young ’uns.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes