New and Collected Stories, p.22Alan Sillitoe
To spend a hundred quid in one fell bout of shopping demanded bravery, and Fred was the sort in which, if bravery existed, it was anything but spontaneous. Still, he had seen things worth buying which, so far, was more than could be said for Nan. Walking around town Fred had come across an all-wave ex-army wireless receiver staring him out from behind plate glass, the exact communications set he’d worked during his war stint with the signals in Egypt. It stayed in the same window for months, being, he surmised, too expensive for anyone to step in and say: ‘I want it.’ So he took his time in sparking up courage to walk by that array of valves and morse tappers, to make a purchase by pointing between heart beats towards the window.
Many afternoons he’d stood at the window fixed by the magic black box of the communications receiver, and at so many long and regular absences Nan began to wonder whether he had set himself up with a piece of fancy work met in the factory – and she said as much when he once came home looking piqued and sheepish. He still hadn’t been able to walk in and buy the radio, and so felt poor enough in spirit to go straight over and kiss her: ‘Hello, my angel, how are we today?’
She turned her face away. Half a dozen books were stacked on the sideboard after a visit to the library. ‘What’s the idea? What do you want?’
‘I don’t want anything.’
‘You’d better not, either, until you tell me where you go and what you get up to every Saturday afternoon.’
So that was what he’d seen boiling up, something so far from his mind that he could only say: ‘I’ve bin down town looking around the shops.’
She pulled the curtains across and set the table, while Fred dug himself in the fireside chair, watching her as she worked. Her face had altered, become sterner in the last year or two, as if it had done enough battle with the world since Ivor had been drowned. But at thirty she was still good-looking, pretty almost, with her small even features and smooth skin. Her face was round and pleasantly fleshed, her eyes cool and outgiving when she was not anguished or perturbed. He smiled as she reached into the crockery cupboard: the best might be yet to come. How can she think I’d ever look at another woman? We’ve been through a lot together, the worst of it being the terrible way that Ivor went. If there’s anything worse than her blaming me for him having fallen into that canal while reaching for a batch of tadpoles, it’s her blaming herself, which I know she does even though it was three years ago and an accident. To think we paid that batchy girl half a crown every time she took him out, and she let this happen. My first thought on hearing he’d been killed like that was: ‘The daft little bogger. Wait till I get my hands on him. I’ll give him what for.’ I couldn’t believe it then, but I can now, just about.
‘Have you been looking at the shops thinking how to spend your football money?’ she asked in a more amiable voice, passing a cup of tea. They’d married on his demob leave in forty-six, after a mere week of kisses five years before, and four hundred letters in which by an inexhaustible permutation every aspect of common romantic love had been exchanged between them. Distance had made both hearts grow fonder, and out of sight out of mind had been disproved, apart from the long letters, by a frequent transmission of photographic images on which were stamped the thousand proofs of far-off love that kept Fred and Nan alive for each other. It was as if they were married after the first three months apart, as if they had already spent a honeymoon at Matlock and been wrenched from it by the first year, and had been long settled into an unthinking matrimonial rut by the fourth. They wrote of houses and work and children, and by the time they stood outside the church posing for their first photo together Fred anyway felt that the marriage about to begin was a plain print of black and white on positive paper, as opposed to the flimsy and transient negative of the preceding years.
Nan didn’t see it like this, found it necessary to distinguish between the correspondence course and her new full status as a housewife, became more competent than Fred at tackling problems after returning from a week at Matlock. To go shopping – pale, young and full of thought – in the raw fog of a December morning and come home to see that the fire had died, brought reality closer than Fred’s daily dash to his factory incarceration in which machines warmly hummed and men baited him still on his recent honeymoon. Through the war Nan had stayed in a cold and exacting climate, while Fred had picked dreamily at radio sets in his monastic army life. Fascinated by the Nile Valley, he had ventured with his pals on a trip to the Great Pyramid, and his lean young unsure face looked down from the high back of a camel in a Box Brownie snapshot sent to Nan who, though stuck with the hardships of air-raids and rationing, saw him as adventuring around wild desert with an independence boding good for when they were married.
Not that she’d had much to complain about; in fact during her pregnancy Fred was as good as gold – she told her mother. And when Ivor came along he was even better, so she was now in the position of knowing that something was wrong yet not being able to complain, a state for which she couldn’t but blame him, and which led to frenzied unreasonable quarrels which he could only define as ‘temper’ and blame on her.
‘You’re always curious about how I’m going to spend my share of the football money,’ he said, ‘but you haven’t got rid of your whack yet. What are you going to do with it?’ Answers to this question lacked venom, for money was now the only discussable topic which did not disturb the unstable bed of their emotions. She looked up from the newspaper: ‘I haven’t thought about it much, though I daresay I shall one of these days.’
A waterhen went out from the nearest bank, going as smoothly over the water as if drawn by a piece of cotton pulled by an invisible boy on the other side. Its head with button-eye and yellow beak was perfectly proud and still, and the green and blue back-feathers were comparable to colours made by flames appearing on the surface of a fire that had acted dead and out. The sun was good, and he didn’t intend going to work until after dinner-hour, even if it meant another big row with Nan. The sound of machinery would cripple all reflection, and its manufacturing teeth pulling him back like a bulldog to earning a living for himself, Nan, and a possible future kid, seemed appalling in this unexpected sunshine – just as did the idea of going home to Nan again after their awful purposeless scrap of the morning.
It was the first time such a thing had happened, and it gnawed at his peace of mind because he’d had no intention of pushing her back so hard against the sofa. His hand had left the hot side of the cup and collided with her before he could do anything about it. It frightened him. If only I’d done it deliberately, known what was in me. The gone-out stare in her face drove him from the house, and he doubted whether he’d get back into it. Then again maybe she’d have forgotten it by evening, which would only go to show how much effect these rows had on her. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to get back into the house anyway. Out of it the pain was less, and sitting in the park having eaten two porkpies and a thimble of sunshine sent it right away except for occasional stabs of the memory knife.
He walked through the main gate, towards the radio shop in the middle thoroughfare of the driving city. His football winnings took on value at last, a lump sum of over a hundred pounds to be handed in for a high-class radio set that would put him in touch with the short-wave world, give him something to do and maybe stop him being such a bastard to Nan. If he ordered it now the shop van would deliver it tomorrow. And after the dinner-hour he’d go back to work, otherwise, with it being Friday, he would get no wages.
Earphones on, he sat alone in Ivor’s room, tuned-in to the Third Programme like a resistance radio operator receiving from abroad instructions that were the life blood of his cause. A fastidious voice was speaking unintelligibly on books and, as if not getting his money’s worth, Fred clicked on to short wave and sent the needle rippling over hundreds of morse stations. Sounds chipped and whistled like clouds of tormented birds trying to get free, but he fixed one station and, as if from the fluttering of wings pinn
Alistair Crossbanks, 3 Hearthrug Villas, Branley was the lucky man, yet not the only one, since Fred took several more such messages. They came from sea-liners and went to waiting lovers who burned with the anguish of tormented separation – though he doubted whether any had spanned the same long time as Nan and himself before they were married. But the thought of ships steaming through a broadly striped sea at its sudden tropical darkening caused him to ignore further telegrams. He pictured a sleek liner in a thousand miles of ocean, a great circle bordering its allotted speed as, day after day, it crawled on an invisible track towards Aden or Capetown. He felt its radio pulse beating softly in his ear, as if by listening he had some control of it, and the remoteness of this oceanic lit-up beetle set off his own feeling of isolation in this sea-like suburb spreading in terraces and streets around his room.
The room had belonged to Ivor before he had been killed. Wallpaper of rabbits and trees, trains and aeroplanes, suggested it, as well as the single bed and the cupboard of toys that, even so long afterwards, neither had the heart to empty. Ivor had dark hair and brown eyes, and up to the age of four had been sharp and intelligent, thin, voracious and bright, all running and fighting, wanting and destroying. Yet for several months before slipping into the cold pocket of the canal he had turned back from this unnatural liveliness as if, not having such life responded to, the world had failed to get through to him, to make touch with his spirit in a way he could understand. Fred couldn’t even regret having ill-treated him – that anyway would have made him easier remembered. All he saw was his wild boy breaking up an alarm clock and screaming off into a corner when the bell jangled his unready ears. But the lasting image of Ivor’s face was one of deprivation, and this was what Fred could not explain, for it wasn’t lack of food, clothes, toys, even money that gave this peculiar look, but an expression – now he saw it clearly – bound into Ivor’s soul, one that would never let him respond to him.
He threw the master switch, and sat in evening silence, overpowered by this bleak force of negative feedback. Trust me to blame an innocent dead kid for what could only have been my fault and maybe Nan’s. Ships were moving over untroubled oceans, set in such emptiness and warmth that for the people on them the tree of ecstasy was still a real thing. He switched on and, by the hairsplitting mechanism of the magic box, such poems were extractable out of the atmosphere. Another telegram from ELIZABETH said HOPE YOU BOOKED US A ROOM STOP CAN’T WAIT, and to break such torment he turned to news agency Tass explaining some revolutionary method of oil drilling in the Caucasus – a liquid cold chute of morse that cleared all passion from his mind.
He stayed undisturbed in Ivor’s room, knowing that Nan would sit feasting at the television until calling him down for supper at half-past nine. He felt strange tonight; a bad tormenting cold depressed him: at such times his senses were connected to similar bad colds in the past, and certain unwrapped scenes from them hit him with stunning vividness.
Egypt was a land of colds, brought on by a yearly inundation of the Nile widening its valley into a sea of water and mud. Triangular points of the dark brown pyramids that reared beyond appeared sordid, like old jettisoned cartons fallen somehow in such queer shapes, and looking from this distance as if, should a prolonged breeze dry them of rain and flood-water, a more violent wind might uproot and lose them in the open desert like so much rubbish. In Cairo he had been a champion at morse, writing it at thirty-two words a minute and reading it at thirty-six. His brain, perfect for reception, drew in streams of morse for hour after hour and jerked his fingers to rapid script with no thought barrier between, work from which other less dedicated operators were led glassy-eyed and muttering to some recuperation camp by the blistering bonny banks of the Suez Canal. Fred enjoyed his fame as speed king, which, though pre-supposing a certain yoga-like emptiness of mind, demanded at the same time a smart brain and a dab hand. Yet in nothing did he look speedy: his sallow face made him seem always deep in slow thoughts beyond the understanding of his noisier pals – who were less efficient as radio men. Their respect for him was for his seriousness as much as for an uncommon rate of morse, which must have been so because even those in the cookhouse, to whom signalling prowess meant nothing, didn’t bawl so sharply when a gap lay between Fred and the plate-filling man ahead. He was a priest of silence among blades of bed-tipping and boozing, singing and bawling and brothel-going. Some who didn’t muck in were subjected at least to apple-pie beds, but Fred was on good terms even without trying. He was somehow found congenial, and would often have tea brought back for him from the mess by someone who came off watch at a late hour. When Fred returned this favour it was even more appreciated for being unexpected.
Mostly he would sit by himself in the library writing long letters to Nan, but the one friend he made was flown up one day from Kenya in the belly of a Mosquito fighter-bomber – which dropped its extra fuel tanks like turds somewhere over the desert. The shortage of good operators was so desperate (at a time of big offensive or retreat – nobody could ever tell which, since all differences were drowned in a similar confusion) that Fred was working a hundred hours a week. Not that he felt shagged by it, but the Big Battle had started and another man was needed, so in stepped Peter Nkagwe, a tall cheek-scarred black African from Nairobi – freshly changed into clean pressed khaki drill and smiling a good afternoon boys as he entered the signals office. The sergeant assigned him a set, and Fred amazed, then envious, saw his long-fingered hands trembling the key like a concert pianist at an evenness and speed never before seen.
Peter Nkagwe was no ascetic sender and receiver like Fred, but smiled and looked around as he played the key with an accurate, easy, show-off proficiency. He not only read Reuter’s cricket scores from Australia but, which was where Fred failed, his fingers were nimble enough to write them down, so that his sheets of neat script went from hand to hand around the base until falling apart.
One day Fred called over, words unrehearsed, ignited from such depth that he didn’t even regret them after he’d spoken: ‘You beat out them messages, mate, like you was at a tom-tom.’
Peter, unflinching, finished the message at his usual speed. He then took off his earphones and stood over Fred in silence.
Fred was uncomfortable at the length of it: ‘Lost owt?’
‘There’s a look in your eyes, MATE,’ Peter said, ‘as if your head’s full of shit.’ He went back to his radio, and from then on Fred’s signalling championship was divided. They became friends.
Night after night at his communications receiver, Fred hoped to hear messages from his old HQ unit that, though long closed down, would magically send the same signals rippling between familiar stations. He might even pick up the fast melodious rhythms of Peter Nkagwe, that vanished ghost of a friend who, somewhere, still sat keying out indispensable messages whose text and meaning, put into code and cypher by someone else, were never made known to him. He turned the dial slowly, hoping to recognize both callsign and sending prowess of his old friend. It was impossible, though much time at the set was spent shamefaced in this way as if, should he try hard and stay at it long enough, those lost voices would send out tentacles and pull him back to the brilliant sun-dazzle of the Mokattam Hills.
His lean face, and expert hands moving over the writing-pad, were set before his multi-dialled altar, the whole outlined by a tassel-shaded table lamp. If I’d had this radio in Ivor’s day, he laughed, the little bogger would have been at it till the light didn’t shine and the valves packed in. Talk about destruction! ‘Destruction, thy name is Ivor!’ He remembered him, as if he were downstairs drinking tea, or being bathed in front of the fire, or gone away to his grandma’s and due back next week. Anything mechanical he’d smash. He took a day on a systematic wipe-out of the gramophone, then brought the pieces to Fred, who suggested he put t
Ivor with a round, empty-eyed happiness, took huge bites of bread, and wiped jamstains down his shirt. Fred couldn’t keep the sarcasm from his voice when telling him to stop, so that the bites had changed to tiny, until Fred laughed and they returned to big again, relaxing the empty desperation of his tough face. Such memories were buried deep, going down like the different seams and galleries of a coalmine. In the few months before his birth Ivor had moved inside Nan, kicking with life that had been distinct enough to wake Fred at night – and send him back to sleep smiling.
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