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New and collected storie.., p.21
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       New and Collected Stories, p.21

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  So I walked by the hedge, keeping well down till I got to a gap. It was dim and cool in the wood, and so lonely that I’d have been frightened if I hadn’t a pocketful of paper and matches to keep me company. Bushes were covered in blackberries, and I stopped now and again to take my pick, careful not to scratch myself or eat too many in case I got the gut ache when I went to bed at night.

  It was long and narrow, not the sort of wood you could go deep into, so I jumped over a stream and found the middle quick enough, a clearing, more or less, with a dry and dying bush on one side that looked just ready for a fire. I worked like a galley slave, piling up dead twigs and leaves over my bit of paper that soon you could hardly see. I wondered about the noise but what could I do? and anyway soon forgot my worry and went on working. I knew it must be past dinnertime when I stood back to look at my bonfire heap. Sweating like a bull (though nothing to how them trees would be sweating in a bit, I grinned) I measured the chances of a fire-engine fire: the bush was sure to light and so would the two small trees on either side, but unless there was a good wind the main trees would be hard put to it.

  The first match was slammed out by the wind that blew strong over my shoulder as if it had been lurking there specially; the head of the second fell off before I could get under the paper; the third-time lucky one caught a treat, was like a red, red robin breaking out of its shell, and I soon had to stand back to keep the burning blazes off my hand. I wanted to put it out at first: the words nearly choked me; ‘Stread on it. Kick it to bits.’ I twisted my hands up in front of me, but couldn’t move, just stood there like the no good tripehound dad often called me (and which I dare say I was) until the smoke made me step further back – and back I went until my head scraped into a big-barked tree. The noise of the fire must have been what frightened me: it was as hungry as if it had got teeth, went chewing its way up into the air like a shark in Technicolor. A stone of blood settled over my heart, but smoke and flame hypnotized me, stood me there frozen and happy, rubbing my hands yet wanting to put it out, but not being able to any more than I could kill myself.

  I didn’t know fires could grow like that. My little ones had always gone out, shrunk up to black bits and flew into the air when I set half a breath against it. But then, that was only true with a scrap of newspaper on an asphalt yard. This was in a wood, and fire took to it like a kid to hot dinners: it was a sheet of red flame and grey smoke, a choking wall and curtain that scared me a bit, because I was back to life, as if big hands would reach out and grab me in for good and all. Like my uncle had said hell was – though I never believed him till now.

  It was time to run. I sped off like a rabbit, scratched and cindered as my ankles caught on thorns and sharp grass. The hammer-and-tongs of a fire-engine were a long way from me now, and I was a ragged-arsed thunderbolt suddenly tangled in a high bush, stuck like a press-stud that fought a path out, and went on again lit-up and cursing. At the edge of the wood I slowed down, and halfway to the lane looked back, expecting to see a sheet of fire and smoke bending out over the trees with flags flying and claws sharp.

  But nothing. I could have burst into a gallon of tears. Nothing: not a butterfly of smoke, not an ant of flame. Maybe I’m too close to see, I thought. Or should I run back and stoke up again, blow it and coax, pat and kick it into life? But I went on. If the wood caught fire, as I still hoped, who’d get the fire-engines? And if nobody did would I hear and see them? Being as how I’d caused the fire I had to get miles away quick without being spotted, so how could I poke my nose in at the nearest copperbox and bawl out there was a fire in Snakey Wood and not risk getting sent to an Approved School for my good deed? I wished I’d thought of this already, but all I could hope for now was that some bloke at the local sawmill or a field-digger from the farm would twig things while I wasn’t too far off and get the fire-engine on its way so’s I could run and see it.

  By the lane I turned, and there it was: no fire yet but a thin trail of smoke coming up like a wavy blue pole above the crowded trees. I’d expected it all to be like it was on the pictures, boiling away and me having to run for my life, with a yellow-orange carpet of flame snap-dragging at my heels, but it just showed how different things were to what you expected. Not that I didn’t know they always were, but it still came as a shock I don’t mind admitting. The wood was burning, which was a start, and though I couldn’t see any flame yet I didn’t wait for it either, but dodged under the hedgebottom and crossed the open field to the big outstanding arm-beam of a canal lock. I puffed and grunted to get it shut, then crept across on all fours – using it as a bridge – to the towing path on the other side. Nobody saw me: a man was humped over the bank fishing a bit further down, but he never even turned to see who was passing. Maybe he ain’t got a licence to fish, I thought, and no more wants to be seen than I do – which I can easy understand.

  The wind blew stronger and the sun still shone but I daren’t look back towards my pet wood which I hoped by now was crackling away to boggery. Walking along I looked like a fed-up kid out for an airing who was too daft and useless to have been in mischief – but because it seemed as if butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth didn’t mean I hadn’t set a fire off in which butter wouldn’t stand an earthly. I didn’t want anybody to twig anything though, as I walked up to the main road and into a world of people and traffic where I wasn’t so noticeable any more.

  Back along the canal, far-off thick smoke was going up to the bubble-blue sky, black low down as if from an oil-well, but thinning a bit on top. It was burning all right, though people walking by didn’t seem to think much was amiss. I sat on the bridge wall, unable to take my eyes off it, rattled a bit that people didn’t turn to open their mouths and wonder what I was looking at. I wanted to shout out: ‘Hey missis, hey mester, see that smoke? It’s Snakey Wood on fire, and I done it’ – but somehow the words wouldn’t come, though God knows I remember wanting them to.

  I started off towards home, one minute happy that I’d brought off my own big fire, and the next crippled by a rotten sadness I couldn’t explain, hands in pockets as I walked further and further away from the column of my fire and smoke that, if you think about it, should have made me the happiest kid in Radford.

  From this changeable mood I was neither one thing nor the other as I went downhill towards the White Horse – almost home, having nothing else in my head but a shrill-whistled Al Jolson tune. Then into my ears and brain – through the last barbed-wire of my whistling – came the magic sound I’d longed all day to hear. The air went blue and electric, as it sometimes does before a terrible sheet-ripping thunderstorm, and cars at the crossroads stopped and waited, drivers winding their windows down to look out. My mouth opened and I stared and stared, the only picture in my mind for the next few seconds being that of the last Bonfire Night but one, in which I’d wandered off on my own up Mitchell Street and come across the best fire I’d ever seen. It was already twice as high as any man, and impossible to stoke anything else on top. A pile of mattresses still had got to be burned and a couple of big lads dragged them one at a time up on top of a chapel roof by whose side-walls the fire had been lit. When all of the two dozen bug-eaten mattresses were stacked high on the slates, the lads swung each one out, perched up there like demons in the blaze of the rattling flames, and let them crash down one by one into the very middle of the red bed. Everybody said the church would go, but it didn’t, and when I saw that it wouldn’t I walked away.

  My eyes were open again on broad daylight, and from the top of the opposite hill sounded the bells I remembered hearing that very first time as a kid when downtown with mam. But this time there were more bells than I’d ever heard; a big red engine, fresh out of the vast sheds of town and coming between the shops and pubs, shot the crossroads as if out of a flashgun, all bells at full throttle so that two blokes talking outside the pub couldn’t make themselves heard and stopped till it had gone by. But they still couldn’t start talking again, because another engine was almost right b
ehind.

  My legs trembled and I thought my ears would fall away from my head. One of the two men looked so hard at me that his face swam, and I thought: What’s he making himself go all blurred like that for? – but when my ankles became heavy as lead and my legs above them turned into feathers I knew it was my eyes swimming, that I was about to cave in again like I’d done that long time ago with mam. I took a step forward, screwing my eyes and opening them, then held on the window ledge for a second, until I knew I’d be all right, and was able to stand another engine bursting in and out of my brain; then another.

  Four! No sooner could I have shouted with joy, than I found it hard to stop myself letting the tears roll like wagons out of my eyes. I’d never seen four fire-engines before. The whole wood must be in flame from top to bottom, I thought, and was sorry now I hadn’t stayed close by to watch, wondering if I should go back, because I knew that even four engines wouldn’t get a fire like that down before tonight or even later. All that work and walking gone for nothing, I cursed, as another engine broke the record of the last one down the hill. I waved as it shot by, yet felt as if I’d had my fill of fire-engines for a long while.

  Six passed altogether. By this time I was sobbing, almost stone-dead and useless. ‘What’s up, kid?’ one of the two men said to me.

  ‘I’m frightened,’ I managed to blurt out. He patted me on the shoulder. ‘There’s no need o’ that. The fire’s miles away, up Wollaton somewhere, by the look on it. It wain’t come down ’ere, so you needn’t worry.’ But I couldn’t stop. It was as hard to dry up as it had been for me to start, and I went on heaving as if the end of the world was just around the corner.

  ‘Do you live far?’ he asked.

  ‘I’m frightened,’ was all I said, and he didn’t know what to do, wished by this time he’d left me alone: ‘Well, you shouldn’t be frightened. You’re a big lad now.’

  I walked towards home along Eddison Road, my eyes drying up with every step, the great stone in my chest not jumping about so much. Six fire-engines made it a bigger day than Christmas, each red engine being better than a Santa Claus, so that even after my fire-bugging I never got over red being my favourite colour. When I went in through the scullery dad looked happy, and such a thing was hard for me to understand.

  ‘Come on my old lad,’ he said. I’d never seen him so good-tempered. ‘Where’ve you bin all this time, you young bogger? It’s nearly tea time.’ He pulled a chair to the table for me: ‘Here you are, get this down you. You must be clambed to death’ – took a plate of dinner out of the oven. ‘I thought you’d got lost, or summat. Your mam’s bin asking for you.’

  ‘Is she all right then, dad?’

  ‘She’s a bit better today,’ he smiled. ‘I expect we’ll pull her through yet’ – which I was so glad to hear that it made me twice as hungry, as if the fire had burned a hole in me as well as Snakey Wood, because a whole load of food was needed to fill it. Dad brought in the teapot, and I drank two mugs of that as well. ‘My Christ,’ he said, sitting opposite me with a fag on and enjoying the sight of me eating, ‘I heard a lot of fire-engines going by just now. Some poor bagger’s getting burned out of house and home by the sound of it.’

  Nobody knew who started that big fire all them years ago, and I know now that nobody will ever care, because Snakey Wood has gone forever, even better flattened than by any fire. Its trees have been ripped up and soil pressed down by a housing estate that spread over it. As it turned out I only burned down half, according to the Post, and though everybody in our yard knew I was a bit of a firebug nobody thought for a minute it might have been me who set fire to Snakey Wood. Or if they did, nowt was said.

  In the next load of weeks and months I lost all interest in lighting fires. Even the sound of a fire-engine rattling by didn’t bother me as much as it had. Maybe it was strange, me giving it up all of a sudden like that, but I just hadn’t got the heart to put match to paper, couldn’t be bothered in fact, after mam got better – which happened about the same time. I expect that big fire satisfied me, because whatever I did again would need to be bloody huge to get more than six engines called out to it. In any case there was something bigger than me to start fires, for after a couple of years came an air raid from the Germans and I remember getting out of the shelter at six one morning when the all-clear had gone and standing in the middle of our street, seeing the whole sky red and orange over the other side of Nottingham – where, I heard later, two whole factories were up in flames. They burned for days, and I wanted to go off and see them but dad wouldn’t let me. People said that fifty fire-engines had to come before that was put out – spinning into Nottingham from Mansfield and Derby and all over everywhere.

  And not long afterwards I was fourteen, went to work and started courting, so what was the use of fires after that?

  The Magic Box

  I

  Fred made his way towards the arboretum bench.

  Though it was well gone eleven he hadn’t yet clocked in, and wouldn’t, either. There were some things a man would be glad to work for, but that morning his head was full of thoughts that would have got him hung – if anything could have been gained by swinging.

  He sat down, drew two porkpies from their cellophane wrappers and exposed them to daylight. Half closing his eyes (as if his palate were up there and not in his mouth) he bit into the first pie: the meat wasn’t bad, but the pastry was chronic. When the crumpled bag settled in the prison of the half-filled litter basket he chewed through a prolonged stare towards the ornamental pond and park wall, hearing the breathtaking gear-change of traffic chewing its way up the hill outside.

  Morning was the worst time. He hated going to bed, and he hated getting up even more, but since these two actions were necessary for life and work he preferred getting up – by himself. God alone knew why Nan had risen with him this morning, but she had, and that, as much as anything else, had been the cause of the row that had burst over them – from her. In six years of marriage he’d learned that to argue at breakfast always led to a blow-up. It was better to argue in the evening (if you had any choice) because sooner or later you went to bed.

  Though in many ways pleasant, half a day off work wasn’t the sort of thing he could keep from Nan, since she saw his wage-packet on Friday night. Not that she nosed into everything, but her skill at housekeeping demanded that each bob and tanner be accounted for. He would be laughed at by his workmates if they knew, though many of them lived by the same arrangement, and that was a fact. In any case how could they find out? Nan wouldn’t drive by in a speaker van and let them know, for she often claimed: ‘My place is to go shopping and clean the house, not to wait for you outside that stinking factory. When we go to the pictures on Friday you can get me a place in the queue, and I’ll meet you there.’

  He only hoped that one day Nan would see him as the good man from the many bad, a bloke who didn’t deserve to be bossed and tormented so much. But she hated the factory, as if to punish him not only for having married her but also for stipulating soon after that she should stop going out to work. He’d only insisted on it because he loved her, thinking she wanted him to press her on this and prove even greater love than he was capable of. Not many would have loved a woman enough to see it that way. But since the gilt had worn off she became bitter about having left work at all, hinting that staying on would have made her a forewoman by now. In fact she had only offered to give in to his manly insistence because she wanted him to see that she loved him more than was considered normal, and he had been blind and selfish enough to take her up on it.

  ‘Well’ – now wanting some peace in the house – ‘why don’t you go and ask them to set you on again if that’s the way you feel? I’m not a bleddy mind reader.’

  This took the row to a higher pitch, as he’d known it would, but he hadn’t the sense to sit down and say nothing, or walk out of the house whistling. ‘How can I?’ she called. ‘I’d have to start again on a machine. I’d never get back to the o
ld position I had when I was loony enough to take note o’ you and pack my good job in.’

  He didn’t know how it had begun that morning. He didn’t suppose she did, either. He would like to think of her as still brooding on it, but not likely. No sooner had the door closed than she’d smashed the cup he’d drunk from, though he’d bet his last dollar she was out shopping now, and laughing with other women as if there’d been no quarrel at all.

  It was fine enough weather to make everyone forget their troubles. Autumn sun warmed the green banks of the park, ants and insects proliferating among juicy-looking blades of grass. Small birds fed at a piece of his cast-off porkpie beyond the diamond wirespaces of the litter basket, like a dozen thumbnail sketches that had come to life. Two pigeons joined the feast, enormous in comparison to the thrushes, but there was no bullying. Both pigeons and thrushes seemed unaware of any difference in size, and the fact that both wanted to get at the same piece of pie was, after all, a similarity.

  He smoked a cigarette. A young man walked by with a back-combed suicide-blonde in a black mac, who looked as if she hadn’t had a square meal for a month, and she was saying angrily: ‘I’ll bleddy-well nail him when I see him, I bleddy-well will, an’ all’ – with such threat and vengeance that Fred felt sorry for whoever this was meant for. The world thrives on it, he thought, but I don’t, and in any case life’s not always like that. Bad luck and good luck: it’s like a swing on a kids’ playground, always one thing or the other. We’ve had more than our share of the bad though, by bloody Christ we have, too much to think about, and the last bit of good luck was almost more trouble than it was worth. He thought back on it, how a year ago, at the start of the football season, a cheque had come one morning for two hundred and fifty quid, and a few hours later his mug (and Nan’s) was grinning all over the front of the newspaper. She enjoyed it so much that it certainly didn’t occur to him to remind her of all the times she had threatened to burn the daft football coupons on which he had wasted so much time and money. No, they got in a dozen quarts of beer and a platter of black puddings, and handed manna around to anyone with the grace or avarice to drop in. The man from the Post had asked: ‘What are you going to do with the money?’ Fred was surprised at so much bother when all he felt was disappointment at not hitting the treble chance and raking in a hundred thousand. Two hundred and fifty nicker seemed so little that before Nan could spin some tale of intent to the reporter Fred butted in: ‘Oh, I expect we’ll just split it and use it as pocket-money.’ Which was duly noted in heavy type for the day’s editions (POOLS WIN: POCKET-MONEY FOR NOTTINGHAM COUPLE) so prominently displayed that though Nan had the spirit left to tell Fred he should have kept his trap shut she hadn’t the nerve to make him do anything else with the money but what he’d said he would for fear of being known to defy the bold public print of a newspaper that, as far as Nan knew, everyone had read.

 
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