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New and collected storie.., p.24
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       New and Collected Stories, p.24

           Alan Sillitoe
 
‘Come and have one with me then, before you go home. You’ll enjoy it.’

  She flushed: he thinks I’m trying to knock on with him, and the idea made her so angry that she said, though not too loud in case she was heard and shown-up more for the flirt she might seem to be: ‘What you need is a smack across the face.’

  ‘I suppose so.’ His voice verged on sadness. ‘I’m sorry if I offended you, duck. But come and have a drink with me, then we can make it up.’

  He was the limit. ‘What do you tek me for?’ – a question that puzzled him since it was too early to say. ‘In any case,’ she told him, ‘I’m married, respectably married.’

  ‘So am I,’ he answered, ‘but I’m not narrow-minded’ – then kept his trap shut while the bus went slowly through bright lights and traffic, stopping and starting like possible future answers formulating in Nan’s mind in case he had the nerve to speak again.

  At the terminus they filed out onto the asphalt, and when he repeated his proposition in the darker shadows of the station yard both were shocked at the unequivocal ‘yes’ that for a few seconds kept them apart, then pulled them passionately together.

  IV

  Fred’s brainstorm thinned-out at a predictable speed, leaving an unclouded blue-sea vision of a mind from which the large ship had slid away. He walked out of the ward with a suitcase in one hand and morning paper tucked under the other arm. His fervent kiss irritated Nan, but all she could say was: ‘You’ll be better off at home.’

  ‘I know I shall. And I’ll never want to leave it again love.’ He stared with pleasure at the lush green of middle spring, the febrile smell of grass and catkins beating petrol smells through the open bus-window. Water charged under the lane, into an enormous pipe, a swollen silver arm speckling a field that cows drank from. He rubbed sun from his eyes as if after a fair spell in prison, was too absorbed in his journey to say much, enjoying his way out and back, Nan thought, as she herself had revelled in his absence once the shock of breakdown had worn off.

  The first bungalows lay like tarted-up kennels over suburban fields, and he turned from them: ‘I feel good, love. I feel marvellous.’

  She smiled. ‘I thought you did. You look as though you’ve had a long holiday.’

  ‘I suppose it was, in a way.’ He took her hand and squeezed it: ‘Let’s go down town this afternoon. Go for a stroll round, then spend a couple of hours at the pictures. We can have a real holiday between now and Monday.’

  ‘All right’ – doubting that they would.

  As he walked down the yard, the neighbours thought him another of Nan’s fancy men who had gone into the house via the back door late at night in the last months, and slid out of the front door early next morning. She had been sly about it, but not sly enough, they grinned. Not that Fred was in danger of being informed, for it was hard to imagine him pasting her: she was beyond that by now, and in any case he would never be man enough for it. And when he did find out – as he must in time – then there’d be no point in knocking her about for what had become history.

  They had to look twice before recognizing the Fred they’d known for years. His sallow face had filled out, and he had lost the lively movements of his brown eyes that, through not being sure of themselves, had given and received sufficient warmth and sympathy to make him popular. His best suit would have shown as too tight if Nan hadn’t thought to take his mac which, having always been slightly too big, hid the worst of his weight increase from curious eyes. Most obvious was his face, which had broadened. The expression of it was firmly tainted by middle age, though the neighbours were to swear how much better he looked, and what a lot of good the country air had done. ‘It’s fattened him,’ they said, ‘and it’ll turn out to have fattened her as well – though it wasn’t fresh air and good food as did that.’ Fred caught their laughter by the back door.

  The smells of the yard were familiar, tea-leaves and coal dust, car fuel and midday stew. He revelled in it, couldn’t wait to get back to work next Monday and walk among those hot, oilburning machines, which would make his homecoming complete. Nan hung up his mac, while he turned to the living-room. He thought they’d walked into the wrong house. ‘What’s this, then?’

  ‘What’s what?’ She smiled at his frown, though it seemed like insult to her: ‘What’s what, Fred?’

  ‘All this’ – waving his arm, as if it indicated something that wasn’t worth a light. He shifted his stance, uncomfortable at the change that had taken place while he was away.

  ‘Don’t you like it?’

  ‘It’s all right,’ he conceded after a pause. ‘It’s a surprise though.’

  ‘Aye.’ He looked carefully, again. The old furniture, the old wallpaper, the old curtains and pictures – all gone, swept away by a magic wand of six dead months. The room was brighter, stippled green-contemporary and (though this didn’t occur to them) resembled more the hospital he had just left than the previous homely decoration of their married life. ‘You don’t like it, then?’

  He saw a thundercloud-quarrel looming up, and only ten minutes back from the hospital. ‘It’s lighter. Yes, I reckon it’s OK. It’s marvellous, in fact.’

  ‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I thought you’d jump for joy. I’ll make you a cup of tea now.’

  ‘It must have cost a good bit,’ he called into the scullery, losing some of his strangeness at being home.

  ‘I spent my football money on it,’ she said. ‘All but a few quid.’

  ‘I suppose that’s how you was able to look after me so well, bring me things every time.’

  ‘It was,’ she said.

  ‘And I thought it was because you was such a good manager.’

  ‘Don’t be sarcastic. I often wondered what I’d do with it, you know that, and now you can see. I suppose you think I’m a dope, blowing it on the house when you spent your share on yourself, on a … wireless set. Well, I expect I am, but I like to keep the home nice. As long as you’ve got a pleasant place to live in there ain’t much as can happen to you.’

  ‘That’s true.’

  ‘Takes work and money though to keep it going, but it’s worth it. Not that there’s owt wrong with work.’

  He stood by the fire, drinking his first cup of tea: ‘You can say that again. I’ll be glad to clock-in on Monday.’

  ‘It’s what makes people live,’ she went on, almost happily, he thought, ‘and you as well, if I know you. You’ve always been a lad for work. Course, after a while there gets as if there’s not enough for a woman to do when she’s got no kids. That’s why most women in my position should be in a factory. No good moping around all day, or gossiping, or just sitting by the fire pulling a meagrim because you’ve read all the books at the library. You need a proper job. You can fit your housework in easy enough, and let them as say you can’t come to your house and prove it.’

  ‘What are you going on like this for, then?’ he cried.

  ‘Because I’m going to start work as well on Monday, at my old firm.’

  Knowing what her game was, he became calmer. ‘Maybe they don’t need anybody.’ They sat for a meal: cold ham, fresh salad and bread, sardines, a porkpie each in a cellophane wrapper. ‘I went the other day to see ’em. They’d love to have me back, as an overlooker as well. The processing hasn’t altered a bit since I was last there.’

  He smiled: ‘It wouldn’t, not in a hundred years, no more than it would where I work.’

  ‘I’ll be like a fish back in water after an hour or two,’ she exulted. ‘I didn’t tell ’em I’d only be there about three months, though while I am I’ll put a bit of money by.’

  ‘We don’t need money,’ he said, his appetite failing, ‘because we’ll be all right when I’ve pulled in a few wage-packets.’

  ‘Not as I see it. We’ll want all we can get, because I’m pregnant.’ He smiled, then the smile ran from his face before the claws of her meaning savaged it. ‘Pregnant?’

  ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Can’t you see it? My belly’s up. We’
ll have a kid in the house in six months. You won’t know the place.’ She glared, as if hoping he’d try denying it. But the healthy bloom of fresh air had already left his cheeks.

  ‘You’ve got things fixed up, then, haven’t you?’

  ‘Things often fix themselves up, whatever you do.’ Her heartbeats were visible, breasts lifting and falling, making it seem to him as if her blouse were alive.

  ‘Whose kid is it?’

  ‘Nobody’s as matters.’

  He trembled the teacup back into its saucer. ‘It matters to me, it bloody-well does.’

  ‘We can have another kid between us after this, so you needn’t carry on.’

  He stood from his half-finished meal. ‘That’s what you think. You’re a lunatic’ – and his slow intimidating tread of disappointment on the stairs filled her more with sorrow for him than for herself.

  She hadn’t expected him to cave-in so deeply at the first telling, hoped he would argue, settle what had to be settled before going off to soothe his injuries in solitude. ‘Maybe I am a lunatic’ – and though she never imagined he lacked guts for such a vital set-to, it could be that she’d accepted too blindly the advice that things have a way of working themselves out better than you expect – given by Danny on telling him she was pregnant, and before he lit off for a new construction job at Rotherham. She remembered him saying, after their first night together, that whenever he met a woman the first thing that crossed his mind was ‘If I have a kid by her, which of us will it look like?’ ‘And is that what you thought about me when you started talking to me on the bus?’ ‘What do you think?’ he’d laughed. ‘Of course it was, you juicy little piece.’ But now he’d gone, and only she would be able to see how the kid turned out. Maybe that was why he wondered – because he knew he’d never be there to see. The bloody rotter – though there wasn’t much else he could have done but hopped-it. Still, (her sigh was a sad one), the last few months had been heaven, a wild spree on what was left from her football money. She’d boozed and sang with Danny, in a pub tucked somewhere in the opposite end of town. It was a long while since she’d laughed so much, played darts and argued with the young men (some no older than teddy boys) all earning fair money at Gedling pit and out for a good time while they could get it. She’d never imagined her pool winnings would come in so handy, had even taken to filling coupons in again, which she and Fred had sworn never to do once they cleared a packet. Getting home at night she had felt Danny’s hands and lips loving her: warm and ready for him, she came alive once more as the sweet shock of orgasm twisted her body. She hadn’t bargained on getting pregnant, but couldn’t feel sorry either, in spite of Fred clattering about upstairs. She’d hoped that the bliss of his absence would turn into the heaven of his coming back, but that had been too much to hope for, like most things. Tears forced a way out. Thoughts of Fred and their past life were too vivid and accurate now. ‘I couldn’t help it,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want to have anything to do with Danny, but I wasn’t myself.’ She’d often forgot Fred’s existence, her mind withdrawing to a time even before meeting him, a sense of paradise so far distant that she’d sometimes write on a postcard: VISIT HOSPITAL TOMORROW and lean it against the clock, so as not to lose him altogether.

  There seemed no doubt to Fred upstairs than an end was reached but, seeing his half-filled suit-case on a chair, the end was like a sheer smooth wall blocking a tunnel in which there wasn’t room enough to turn round and grope for a new beginning, though that seemed the only hope.

  The fag-end nipped his fingers, fell and he let his foot slide over it. In the darkness of the cupboard he saw pictures of his London journey that afternoon, a long packed train rattling him to some strange impersonal bedroom smelling of trainsmoke and damp, and a new job, struggle, solitude, and even less reason for living than he had now. Still, there’s not much for it but to get out. The moves of his departure were slow, but he smiled and told himself there was no hurry.

  Ivor’s toys had gone, cleared away by Nan after he’d been carted-off that morning. The jig-saw made sense, showed her returning alone from the hospital and not knowing what to do because he, Fred, was no longer part of the house. He saw himself smashing Ivor’s toys by boot and hand, a lunatic flailing after a brainstorm harvest too abundant of life and energy.

  Something half-concealed by a piece of clean sacking flashed into the back door of his eye before turning away from the cupboard. Pulling it clear he saw the radio set, black, deathly, and switched off, lying like some solid reproachful monster in place of the dustbinned toys. He grinned: Nan had intended hiding it where she imagined he was unlikely to see it, and he wondered why she hadn’t scrapped it with the toys. He knelt towards the eyes and dials, touching and spinning in the hope that agreeable noises would lift from it.

  Its size and dignity were intimidating, made him stand back and view it from a point where it disturbed him less. The vision began as half a memory striving to enter his brain. It edged a way sharply in. He laughed at it, tapped a pleasant hollow-sounding noise on the lid with his fingers, not like an army drum but something more satisfying, primitive and jungle-like. It reminded him of Peter Nkagwe, whose illuminated face was locked like stone as he battered out messages hour after hour in the signals office years ago.

  The black box weighed a hundred pounds. Two hands flexed and stretched over it, pressing the sharp rim into his groin as he moved, breathless and foot by foot. His dark hair fell forward, joined beads of sweat in pricking his skin. Hospital had made him soft, but he resisted shifting the radio in two stages, found enough strength to do it the hard way, drawing on the rock-middle of himself to reach the table at one agonizing go, and set it so delicately down it would have been impossible either to see or hear the soundless contact of wood and metal.

  It was a minute’s work to screw on aerial and power, click in earphones and switch a current-flow through valves and superhet. Energy went like an invisible stoat into each purple and glowing filament. The panels lit up and background static began as if, when a child, he had pressed a sea-shell to his ear and heard the far-off poise and fall of breakers at Skegness; then such subtlety went, and noise rose to the loud electric punching of a full-grown sea in continual motion. He turned the volume down and sent the fly-wheel onto morse code.

  The sea calmed for its mundane messages of arrival and departure, of love and happy birthday and grandma died and I bought presents in Bombay, and from this festive liner – white, sleek and grandiose – once more seen between clear sky and otherwise desolate flat sea – signals were emitted saying that a son had been (or was it would be?) born with love from Nancy in a place where both were doing well.

  He slung the pencil down and stared at the accidental words, grew a smile at the irony of the message. He frowned, as if a best friend taunted him. The calm boat flowed on and a voice spoke over his shoulder: ‘What have you got there, Fred?’

  ‘A message,’ he answered, not looking round, sliding his hand over so that she wouldn’t see it. ‘I take them down from ships at sea.’

  ‘I know you do.’

  ‘All sorts of things,’ he added, sociable without knowing why. The earphones fell to his neck and he needle-spun the wavelength, a noise that reminded Nancy of running by the huge arboretum birdcages as a kid: ‘What though?’

  ‘Telegrams and things. Ordinary stuff. Listen to what this funny one says’ – sliding his hand away – “FRED HARGREAVES LEFT HOME AT ONE O’CLOCK THURSDAY AFTERNOON.”

  She turned: ‘You’re not going, Fred, are you? I don’t believe it.’

  ‘That’s what the telegram said. Everyone I take down says the same thing. I can’t get over it.’

  ‘Talk proper,’ she cried. ‘It’s not right to go off like this.’

  He laughed, a grinding of heart and soul. ‘In’t it?’

  ‘What about your job?’

  ‘There’s plenty more where that came from.’

  ‘What about me?’

  He laid his
earphones down, and spoke with exaggerated awful quietness. ‘You should a thought of that before you trolloped off and got a bastard in you.’

  ‘It’s all finished now. Didn’t I tell you? It’s about time you believed me.’

  ‘You told me a lot of things.’ It was more of a grouse than a reproach. ‘All on ’em lies.’

  ‘I thought it was better that way.’

  ‘And going with that bloke? Was that better as well?’ His shout startled her, brown eyes, glittering under darkening shadows, as if his exhaustion had never been lifted by a sojourn at the hospital. Neighbours from next door and out in the yard could hear them shouting. Don’t tell me he’s found out already. Well, well!

  She was still in the new dress worn to fetch him home, and it showed already a slight thickness at the waist. ‘I couldn’t help it,’ she cried, able to add, in spite of tears on her face: ‘Anyway, what did you expect? We’d had no life between us since Ivor died. I was fed up on it. I had to let myself go.’

  ‘It was too bad though, worn’t it?’

  ‘I’m not saying it wasn’t. But I’m not going to go on bended knees and ask you to stay. I’m not an’ all.’ She stiffened, looked at him with hatred: ‘It’s as much your fault as mine.’

  ‘I’m leaving,’ he said, ‘I’m off.’

  ‘Go on, then.’ Her face turned, the tone mechanical and meant, the quiet resignation of it a hot poker burning through his eyes. It was a final torment he could not take. Dazed by the grief of her decision she didn’t see his hand coming. A huge blow, like a boulder flying at top speed in a gale, hit the side of her face, threw her back, feet collapsing. Another fist caught her, and another. She crashed on to the bed, a cry of shock beating her to it there. As she was to tell her mother: ‘He hadn’t hit me before then, and he wain’t hit me again, either. Maybe I deserved it, though.’

  He tore the message off and screwed it tight, flung it to the far corner of the room. Then he went to Nan and tried to comfort her, the iron hooves of desperate love trampling them back into the proportions of matrimonial strife.

 
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