New and Collected Stories, p.23Alan Sillitoe
The small lamp gave one-tenth light, leaving most of the room in darkness. Fixed at the muttering radio and reaping an occasional message out of the air with his fast-moving hook of a pencil, Fred felt his mind locked in the same ratio, with that one-tenth glimmer unable to burst like a bomb and explode the rest of himself into light. He composed silent questions about Ivor, like sending out telegrams that would get no answer. Why was I born? Why didn’t I love him so that he stayed alive? Could I love anybody enough to make them stay alive and kicking? Would it have made any difference if I’d loved him even more than I did? He couldn’t lift the dominating blackness from his brain, but struggled to free himself, ineffectually spinning the knobs and dials of his radio, fighting to keep even the one-tenth light in his consciousness.
He opened the radio lid and peered in at the valves, coloured lights of blue flame deep in bulbs as if he had cultivated in his one-tenth light a new shape of exotic onion. Thoughts passed through his mind, singly and in good order, though the one just gone was never remembered – only the sensation remained that it had been. He tried to recall the thought or picture slipping from his mind in order to lynchpin it to the one now pushing in – which might, he hoped, be seen to have some connection to the one following. It turned out to have nothing in common at all.
‘Never mind, sweetheart,’ I said, when Ivor was drowned. ‘Never mind’ – rocking her back to sense. But she turned on him, words burning now as if he had taken them down in morse: ‘Always “My sweetheart”,’ she cried. ‘You never say “My wife”.’ He was hurt and bitter, unable to understand, but saw now that not saying ‘My wife’ and never getting through to Ivor with his love, were the same thing.
The earphones blocked all sounds of children, traffic, next-door telly, and he wrote another message from the spot-middle of some ocean or other, a man-made arrowhead of peace steering from land to land: ARRIVING HOME 27TH CAN’T WAIT TO SEE MY MUMMY AND DADDY – LOVE JANET. The big ship sailed on: aerials sensitive, funnels powerful, people happy – sleeping, eating, kissing or, if crew, heavy with work. He saw himself in a smaller craft, marooned in a darkening unmapped ocean where no one sent messages because he was the only passenger, and no person would think to flash him a telegram anyway. Neither could anyone wish him a good journey because he had never announced his port of destination, and in any case no one knew he was afloat, and there was no one to whom he could send a marconigram stating his imminent arrival because even if he were going somewhere he wouldn’t even know where nor when he would get there, and there was even less chance of anyone being at that end than from where he’d started. All he could do was fight this vision, and instead keep the big jewel-lit liner in his mind, read what messages flashed to and from it.
Earphones swung from the jacks-socket, and in the full overhead light he snapped open Ivor’s cupboard. Horses and trainsets, teddy bear and games and forts and tricycle were piled where the boy had last thrown them. Morse sounds no longer hit him like snowflakes from his lit-up fabulous ship. He stared blindly as each toy was slung across the room, towards window, door, fireplace or ceiling, until every limbless piece had found a new resting place. He went back to his wireless as the stairfoot door snapped open and heavy sounds thumped their way up at his commotion.
The ship remained. Its messages of love and arrival for some, godspeed for others, birthday wishes and the balming oil of common news, still sped out from it; but such words from the black box made a picture that he couldn’t break like the limbless toys all around him. His breath scraped out of his lungs at the real and coloured vision mercilessly forming. The ship was off centre, but he was able to watch it slowly sinking, the calm grey water of tropical dusk lapping around it with cat-like hunger, as if finely controlled by a brain not apparent or visible to anyone. The ship subsided to its decks, and the endless oil-smooth sea became more easy-going and polite, though kept the hidden strength to force it under. As the ship flooded, people overflowed the lifeboats, until nothing remained but an undisturbed grey sheet of water – as smooth and shiny as tin that can be used for a mirror – and a voice in the earphones saying something Fred could not at first decipher. It was a gruff, homely, almost familiar tone, though one that he knew he would never be able to recognize no matter how long he concentrated.
The lock on the bedroom door burst, and several people were trying to pull him away from the radio, Nan’s voice imploring above the others. Fingers of both hands – white and strong as flayed twigs – held on to the radio, which was so heavy that those pulling at him thought it was nailed to the bench and that the bench was riveted to the floor. Fred held on with great strength, without speaking, cunning enough at the crucial moment to withdraw his hands from the radio (before superior odds could pull him clear) and clamp them with an equally steel-grip on to the bench, strange grunts sounding like trapped animals trying to jump from his mouth.
Eventually they dragged him free. Sweat glistened on him, as he waved his arms in the middle of the room: ‘I heard God!’ he shouted. ‘Leave me be,’ he roared. ‘I heard God!’ – then dropped.
Nan said not to bother with a doctor and, when they argued, stood to her full height, thanked everyone very much, and bundled them out of the house. Neighbours were a godsend, but there was an end to what goodness you could let them show. When Fred was undressed and into bed she stood by the window of Ivor’s room, wondering why exactly he’d had such a fit. Hadn’t he been happy? As far as she knew he lacked nothing, had all that most men had. She thought a lot of him, in spite of everything, and was quite sure he thought a lot of her, in spite of the fact that he was incapable of showing it. Neither had any reproaches to make, and apart from poor Ivor being drowned their life hadn’t been so bad. Of course, she could never understand how he’d survived Ivor’s death so well, though maybe it was bravery and self control that hadn’t let him show what this barbaric piece of luck had done to him – which was all very well, but such dumb silence had made it ten times worse for her. She’d paid for it, by God, and it had just about done her in. It was hard to believe he’d felt it as hard as she had, in any case, when the first action of his fit had been to pulverize poor Ivor’s toys. That wasn’t something she could forgive and forget in a hurry, even though he may not have realized what he was doing. If he’d been full of drink it would have been a different matter, maybe, but Fred only drank much at Christmas or birthdays. Still, it wasn’t like him to have such a black paralytic fit.
Next morning she phoned a doctor. He was violent and screaming all night, had ripped off great strips of wallpaper in his unreachable agony. During these long hours she was reminded of a new-born baby gripped for no reason by a blind unending temper, and there is nothing to do except draw on all the patience you have and try to soothe. Thinking of this kept her calm and able to manage. In a few bleak minutes of early morning she persuaded him to enter a mental hospital. ‘I don’t want you to go, love. But everybody thinks it’ll be for the best. And I think so as well. They know what to do about such things there. You’ll be as right as rain then in a couple of months.’
‘All right,’ he said, unable to care. Afloat in the ocean like his favourite unanchorable ship, he was carried away by a restful warm current beyond anyone’s control.
She packed a case as if he were going again on a five-year jag to the army. She looked anxious and sorry, unable to stop her tears falling, her hand trembling as she turned out drawers for handkerchiefs and pyjamas. Fred sat in the armchair, his dressing-gown collar pulled up to his white immobile face, shaking with cold though the room was warmed by a huge, expert fire.
She travelled in the ambulance and saw him into the hospital, registered, examined, sedated, finally laid full-length in a narrow immaculate bed. Everything happened so quickly that she began to doubt that they could do any good. ‘It’s very nice,’ she remarked, while his eyes stayed open, looking at the cream-painted blank ceiling of the ward. ‘You couldn’t be in a better place. I kn
‘Aye,’ he acknowledged, though out of it all.
‘I’ve got to go now, love, or I’ll miss the bus.’
At first there was nothing to do except keep the house clean. Polishing glass on the pictures, shining knives and forks, putting fresh paper on the kitchen shelves, she hoped his nervous breakdown wouldn’t take too long to cure, though tears fell at the huge cannonball blow that had landed its weight against her: such mental things could last years. First Ivor gone, and now Fred; it was a bit bloody much. She cried to the empty house between sobs. She came in for sympathy from the neighbours: ‘He was as good as gold,’ a woman met shopping said, as if he’d already been buried and prayed over, ‘but them’s the sort that suffers first. It’s a shame. Still, Mrs Hargreaves, if there’s anything I can do for you, duck, just let me know.’
The novelty of living alone wore off. She began to feel young again, but it was a different sort of youth to when, every Thursday during the war, she walked across the road with her allowance book to collect Fred’s fourteen shillings from the post office. It was a lonely, thrilling sort of freedom that began to dawn. She begrudged the frequent visits of both families who thought she wanted to stay in a continual state of being cheered-up, and when she told all of them in a loud voice that this wasn’t so, her own parents retired hoping that she, after all, wasn’t going the same way as ‘that poor Fred’, while Fred’s mother and father went away thinking they could see at last who had made their poor son the way he was.
Dates changed on each evening paper, and months passed. Men began noticing her in the street (or she noticed them noticing her again) giving looks which meant that they would like to get in bed with her. She found this far from agreeable, but it did hold back the full misery of Fred’s incarceration from turning her into an old woman. Anyway, why shouldn’t she feel pleased when men smiled or winked at her in passing? she thought, seeing that it had taken misfortune to make her realize how firm her figure was at the bust and hips, how smooth-skinned and pale her face under dark hair. These sentiments descended on her with as little warning as Fred’s illness had on him. To everyone else she stuck it out like a widow waiting for her husband to come back from the grave.
Twice a week she took a bus through curving lanes to, the sudden tower that dominated the camplike spread of lesser buildings. Getting off the bus with her bundles and magazines, flowers and grapes, and clean handkerchiefs with the odour of ironing still on them, she felt desolate at being one of so many, as if such numbers visiting sick-minded men and women made it a shameless and guilty job that fate had hooked them into, and that they should try and hide their own stupidity and bad luck from each other.
She hurried head down to be first in the ward, going along corridors whose low ceilings sported so many reptilian pipes that it seemed as if she was deep in one of those submarine ships seen on the pictures. She then entered a light-enough ward, to find a waxen spiritual embalming of her husband that even pins would not wake up.
‘Fred,’ she said, still on her feet and spreading gifts over the bed, ‘I’ve brought you these.’
‘Aye,’ he answered, an affirmation used by their parents, which he had taken to since his illness.
‘Fred, they tell me you’ll be getting better soon.’
‘Aye’ – again.
‘Did they give you them new drugs yet?’
‘As long as you don’t get that shock treatment. Everything’s OK at home. I’m managing all right.’ She had to sit and look at him for an hour, because to leave before then, even though there was nothing left to say, was unthinkable. His mind might be a thousand miles away under his skin, but he’d remember it. She wondered what weird force had turned his life into a half sleep that she could no longer penetrate. He wasn’t suffering, and that was a good job. Sometimes they saw snakes and dragons and screamed for hours, but Fred looked quiet enough, though there was no saying what he was like on days she didn’t come. His brown calm eyes watched her, and she wondered if he still heard those morse codes he’d been so cranky on when they came from his expensive black radio. Of course, she nodded to her thoughts, that’s what sent him, hearing those terrible squeaking messages night in and night out. Once, she had switched off the television and listened by Ivor’s door, and to her the swift high-pitched dots and dashes had sounded like a monkey laughing – or trying to, which was worse. God knows what he made of such noise, and there was no way of finding out because he set fire to his papers every night, saying in his maddening know-all voice how wireless operators had to keep secret all messages they took down, otherwise it was prison for them. If she’d been the jealous sort she would have told him off about spending so much time at his wireless because, back from work, he could hardly wait to get his tea and a wash before he was up those stairs and glued to it. Still, most blokes would have been throwing their money away in a pub, and getting ulcers into the bargain. You can’t have everything, and that was a fact, she supposed.
‘I’ll bring you a custard next week, love,’ she said, wondering how else she could cheer him up.
‘If you want anything, drop me a postcard.’ She didn’t see him as helpless, treated him almost as if he had chosen to lie in that fashion and could come out of it at will – though from the way he smiled it was obvious he couldn’t. In his locker were half a dozen paperback books she’d brought him, but she knew he hadn’t read them. Still, they looked good in a place like this, and maybe he’d need them soon. You never knew when the steel band at the back of his eyes would snap and set him free again. She held his hand, shyly because many other visitors were in the ward, though they were too busy holding other hands to notice.
Always first into the hospital, she came out last, and so had to find a seat on the top deck of the bus, where pipe and cigarette smoke spread thickly. Surging, twisting movement was a relief – the bus eating its headlit way through winter’s approaching darkness, speeding when the black canyon of trees straightened. She arched her back after the busy day, stared along the bus where other people talked out the highlights of their visit. Up to now her grief had been too new to allow for making friends, or do more than nod to a greeting, but when the man next to her asked:
‘How was he today?’ she replied:
‘About the same,’ and blushed as red as the sun which, hovering on the fields, resembled a beetroot going into the reverse of its existence, slipping back to the comfortable gloom of winter soil from which it had come. I’m a fool she thought, not daring to look. Why did I answer the cheeky devil like that? But she glanced at him, while his own eyes took in the bleak fall of night outside which, from his smile, made the bus interior feel like snug home to him. He was a young man who seemed born for nothing but work, awkward when his best clothes claimed their right to dominate him one day of the week. He was about thirty, she guessed, unmarried perhaps, since his approach was anything but furtive.
‘It’s a long job,’ he said, ‘once they get in a place like that. Longer than TBI reckon.’
‘Well,’ she said, thinking his face too red and healthy-looking for him to be a collier, ‘they wouldn’t keep ’em in longer than they had to either, would they? Cost too much.’
He took out a cigarette and, in spite of her retort, the smoke didn’t increase her annoyance, for his lighting-up was debonair, matched to the feel of his dressed-up best. A cigarette suited him more than a collar and tie, and she didn’t doubt that a pint of ale would suit him even more. Maybe he’s nervous, she smiled, underneath it all. ‘I don’t suppose they would,’ he said, having taken his time over it.
‘It ain’t the sort of thing they die from, either,’ she added.
‘There’s that to be thankful for. I’m sorry’ – out came his twenty-packet again – ‘Smoke, duck?’
‘No, thanks.’ Who did he think he was? Who does he think I am, as well? ‘Yes, I will have one.
‘I like a fag,’ he said. ‘Keeps me company.’
The opening was plain a mile off, but she refused it: ‘Who do you see at the hospital, then?’
‘A pal o’ mine. He’s in surgical though. Fell off some scaffolding last winter. He only broke an arm – that’s what we thought, anyway – but he ain’t been the same in the head since. He’s an Irish bloke, a paddy, you know, and none of his family get to see him, so me and the lads tek turns at having half a day off to see he’s all right. Shovel in a few fags and things. Be out in a couple of months, according to the doctor.’
She hardly listened. ‘You’re a brickie, then?’
‘Brickie’s labourer. Who do you go and see? I mek good money though.’
‘My husband.’ At Redhill the lights of Nottingham blistered the sky in front, drew them down to its welcoming horseshoe. His naïve glance seemed too good, and she wondered if such an expression weren’t the ultimate extension of his guile. ‘I shan’t be sorry to get home,’ she told him. ‘It’s a long day, coming all this way.’
The frown left his face as soon as he thought she might see it: ‘You can spend too much time at home. I like staying out, having a good time.’
She saw where his glance went, and began to fasten her coat. ‘There is something to be said for it, I suppose.’
‘There is, an’ all,’ he grinned.
‘It’s a long time since I had a drink,’ she claimed, self-righteousness seeming the only defence left.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes