New and Collected Stories, p.25Alan Sillitoe
The Easter I was fifteen I sat at the table for supper and Mam said to me: ‘I’m glad you’ve left school. Now you can go to work.’
‘I don’t want to go to wok,’ I said in a big voice.
‘Well, you’ve got to,’ she said. ‘I can’t afford to keep a pit-prop like yo’ on nowt.’
I sulked, pushed my toasted cheese away as if it was the worst kind of slop. ‘I thought I could have a break before starting.’
‘Well you thought wrong. You’ll be out of harm’s way at work.’ She took my plate and emptied it on John’s, my younger brother’s, knowing the right way to get me mad. That’s the trouble with me: I’m not clever. I could have bashed our John’s face in and snatched it back, except the little bastard had gobbled it up, and Dad was sitting by the fire, behind his paper with one tab lifted. ‘You can’t get me out to wok quick enough, can you?’ was all I could say at Mam.
Dad chipped in, put down his paper. ‘Listen: no wok, no grub. So get out and look for a job tomorrow, and don’t come back till you’ve got one.’
Going to the bike factory to ask for a job meant getting up early, just as if I was back at school; there didn’t seem any point in getting older. My old man was a good worker though, and I knew in my bones and brain that I took after him. At the school garden the teacher used to say: ‘Colin, you’re the best worker I’ve got, and you’ll get on when you leave’ – after I’d spent a couple of hours digging spuds while all the others had been larking about trying to run each other over with the lawn-rollers. Then the teacher would sell the spuds off at threepence a pound and what did I get out of it? Bogger-all. Yet I liked the work because it wore me out; and I always feel pretty good when I’m worn out.
I knew you had to go to work though, and that rough work was best. I saw a picture once about a revolution in Russia, about the workers taking over and everything (like Dad wants to) and they lined everybody up and made them hold their hands out and the working blokes went up and down looking at them. Anybody whose hands was lily-white was taken away and shot. The others was OK. Well, if ever that happened in this country, I’d be OK, and that made me feel better when a few days later I was walking down the street in overalls at half-past seven in the morning with the rest of them. One side of my face felt lively and interested in what I was in for, but the other side was crooked and sorry for itself, so that a neighbour got a front view of my whole clock and called with a wide laugh, a gap I’d like to have seen a few inches lower down – in her neck: ‘Never mind, Colin, it ain’t all that bad.’
The man on the gate took me to the turnery. The noise hit me like a boxing-glove as I went in, but I kept on walking straight into it without flinching, feeling it reach right into my guts as if to wrench them out and use them as garters. I was handed over to the foreman; then the foreman passed me on to the toolsetter; and the toolsetter took me to another youth – so that I began to feel like a hot wallet.
The youth led me to a cupboard, opened it, and gave me a sweeping brush. ‘Yo’ do that gangway,’ he said, ‘and I’ll do this one.’ My gangway was wider, but I didn’t bother to mention it. ‘Bernard,’ he said, holding out his hand, ‘that’s me. I go on a machine next week, a drill.’
‘How long you been on this sweeping?’ I wanted to know, bored with it already.
‘Three months. Every lad gets put on sweeping first, just to get ’em used to the place.’ Bernard was small and thin, older than me. We took to each other. He had round bright eyes and dark wavy hair, and spoke in a quick way as if he’d stayed at school longer than he had. He was idle, and I thought him sharp and clever, maybe because his mam and dad died when he was three. He’d been brought up by an asthmatic auntie who’d not only spoiled him but let him run wild as well, he told me later when we sat supping from our tea mugs. He’d quietened down now though, and butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, he said with a wink. I couldn’t think why this was, after all his stories about him being a mad-head – which put me off him at first, though after a bit he was my mate, and that was that.
We was talking one day, and Bernard said the thing he wanted to buy most in the world was a gram and lots of jazz records – New Orleans style. He was saving up and had already got ten quid.
‘Me,’ I said, ‘I want a bike, to get out at week-ends up Trent. A shop on Arkwright Street sells good ’uns second hand.’
I went back to my sweeping. It was a fact I’ve always wanted a bike. Speed gave me a thrill. Malcolm Campbell was my bigshot – but I’d settle for a two-wheeled pushbike. I’d once borrowed my cousin’s and gone down Balloon House Hill so quick I passed a bus. I’d often thought how easy it would be to pinch a bike: look in a shop window until a bloke leaves his bike to go into the same shop, then nip in just before him and ask for something you knew they hadn’t got; then walk out whistling to the bike at the kerb and ride off as if it’s yours while the bloke’s still in the shop. I’d brood for hours: fly home on it, enamel it, file off the numbers, turn the handlebars round, change the pedals, take lamps off or put them on … only, no, I thought, I’ll be honest and save up for one when I get forced out to work, worse luck.
But work turned out to be a better life than school. I kept as hard at it as I could, and got on well with the blokes because I used to spout about how rotten the wages was and how hard the bosses slaved us – which made me popular you can bet. Like my old man always says, I told them: ‘At home when you’ve got a headache, mash a pot of tea. At work, when you’ve got a headache, strike.’ Which brought a few laughs.
Bernard was put on his drill, and one Friday while he was cleaning it down I stood waiting to cart his rammel off. ‘Are you still saving up for that bike, then?’ he asked, pushing steel dust away with a handbrush.
‘Course I am. But I’m a way off getting one yet. They rush you a fiver at that shop. Guaranteed, though.’
He worked on for a minute or two then, as if he’d got a birthday present or was trying to spring a good surprise on me, said without turning round: ‘I’ve made up my mind to sell my bike.’
‘I didn’t know you’d got one.’
‘Well’ – a look on his face as if there was a few things I didn’t know – ‘I bus it to work: it’s easier.’ Then in a pallier voice: ‘I got it last Christmas, from my auntie. But I want a record player now.’
My heart was thumping. I knew I hadn’t got enough, but: ‘How much do you want for it?’
He smiled. ‘It ain’t how much I want for the bike, it’s how much more dough I need to get the gram and a couple of discs.’
I saw Trent Valley spread out below me from the top of Carlton Hill – fields and villages, and the river like a white scarf dropped from a giant’s neck. ‘How much do you need, then?’
He took his time about it, as if still having to reckon it up. ‘Fifty bob.’ I’d only got two quid – so the giant snatched his scarf away and vanished. Then Bernard seemed in a hurry to finish the deal: ‘Look, I don’t want to mess about, I’ll let it go for two pounds five. You can borrow the other five bob.’
‘I’ll do it then,’ I said, and Bernard shook my hand like he was going away in the army. ‘It’s a deal. Bring the dough in the morning, and I’ll bike it to wok.’
Dad was already in when I got home, filling the kettle at the scullery tap. I don’t think he felt safe without there was a kettle on the gas. ‘What would you do if the world suddenly ended, Dad?’ I once asked when he was in a good mood. ‘Mash some tea and watch it,’ he said. He poured me a cup.
‘Lend’s five bob, Dad, till Friday.’
He slipped the cosy on. ‘What do you want to borrow money for?’ I told him. ‘Who from?’ he asked.
‘My mate at wok.’
He passed me the money. ‘Is it a good ’un?’
‘I ain’t seen it yet. He’s bringing it in the morning.’
‘Make sure the brakes is safe.’
Bernard came in half an hour late, so I wasn’t able to see th
The next three evenings, for it was well in to summer, I rode a dozen miles out into the country, where fresh air smelt like cowshit and the land was coloured different, was wide open and windier than in streets. Marvellous. It was like a new life starting up, as if till then I’d been tied by a mile-long rope around the ankle to home. Whistling along lanes I planned trips to Skegness, wondering how many miles I could make in a whole day. If I pedalled like mad, bursting my lungs for fifteen hours I’d reach London where I’d never been. It was like sawing through the bars in clink. It was a good bike as well, a few years old, but a smart racer with lamps and saddlebag and a pump that went. I thought Bernard was a bit loony parting with it at that price, but I supposed that that’s how blokes are when they get dead set on a gram and discs. They’d sell their own mother, I thought, enjoying a mad dash down from Canning Circus, weaving between the cars for kicks.
‘What’s it like, having a bike?’ Bernard asked, stopping to slap me on the back – as jolly as I’d ever seen him, yet in a kind of way that don’t happen between pals.
‘You should know,’ I said: ‘Why? It’s all right, ain’t it? The wheels are good, aren’t they?’
An insulted look came into his eyes. ‘You can give it back if you like. I’ll give you your money.’
‘I don’t want it,’ I said. I could no more part with it than my right arm, and he knew it. ‘Got the gram yet?’ And he told me about it for the next half-hour. It had got so many dials for this and that he made it sound like a space ship. We was both satisfied, which was the main thing.
That same Saturday I went to the barber’s for my monthly DA and when I came out I saw a bloke getting on my bike to ride it away. I tagged him on the shoulder, my fist flashing red for danger.
‘Off,’ I said sharp, ready to smash the thieving bastard. He turned to me. A funny sort of thief, I couldn’t help thinking, a respectable-looking bloke of about forty wearing glasses and shiny shoes, smaller than me, with a moustache. Still, the swivel-eyed sinner was taking my bike.
‘I’m boggered if I will,’ he said, in a quiet way so that I thought he was a bit touched. ‘It’s my bike, anyway.’
‘It bloody-well ain’t,’ I swore, ‘and if you don’t get off I’ll crack you one.’
A few people gawked at us. The bloke didn’t mess about and I can understand it now. ‘Missis,’ he called, ‘just go down the road to that copperbox and ask a policeman to come up ’ere, will you? This is my bike, and this young bogger nicked it.’
I was strong for my age. ‘You sodding fibber,’ I cried, pulling him clean off the bike so’s it clattered to the pavement. I picked it up to ride away, but the bloke got me round the waist, and it was more than I could do to take him off up the road as well, even if I wanted to. Which I didn’t.
‘Fancing robbing a working-man of his bike,’ somebody called out from the crowd of idle bastards now collected. I could have mowed them down.
But I didn’t get a chance. A copper came, and the man was soon flicking out his wallet, showing a bill with the number of the bike on it: proof right enough. But I still thought he’d made a mistake. ‘You can tell us all about that at the Guildhall,’ the copper said to me.
I don’t know why – I suppose I want my brains testing – but I stuck to a story that I found the bike dumped at the end of the yard that morning and was on my way to give it in at a copshop, and had called for a haircut first. I think the magistrate half believed me, because the bloke knew to the minute when it was pinched, and at that time I had a perfect alibi – I was in work, proved by my clocking-in card. I knew some rat who hadn’t been in work though when he should have been.
All the same, being found with a pinched bike, I got put on probation, and am still doing it. I hate old Bernard’s guts for playing a trick like that on me, his mate. But it was lucky for him I hated the coppers more and wouldn’t nark on anybody, not even a dog. Dad would have killed me if ever I had, though he didn’t need to tell me. I could only thank God a story came to me as quick as it did, though in one way I still sometimes reckon I was barmy not to have told them how I got the bike.
There’s one thing I do know. I’m waiting for Bernard to come out of Borstal. He got picked up, the day after I was copped with the bike, for robbing his auntie’s gas meter to buy more discs. She’d had about all she could stand from him, and thought a spell inside would do him good, if not cure him altogether. I’ve got a big bone to pick with him, because he owes me forty-five bob. I don’t care where he gets it – even if he goes out and robs another meter – but I’ll get it out of him, I swear blind I will. I’ll pulverize him.
Another thing about him though that makes me laugh is that, if ever there’s a revolution and everybody’s lined-up with their hands out, Bernard’s will still be lily-white, because he’s a bone-idle thieving bastard – and then we’ll see how he goes on; because mine won’t be lily-white, I can tell you that now. And you never know, I might even be one of the blokes picking ’em out.
To Be Collected
Donnie came out of the snackshack in Heanor marketplace, paused to wipe crumbs from his mouth with a damp sleeve of raincoat. ‘Belt-up, you rag-bags,’ he shouted, to his two brothers beckoning from their government surplus lorry.
He ploughed into waterpuddles, socks and flesh soaked. ‘Can’t you see I’m coming? Now look at what they’ve made me do!’ Curses ate into him like a corkscrew – ‘I’m wet through now. I’ll catch me death o’ cold. You poxed-up bastards,’ he raved, a fist pushed further into his groin pocket when he’d like it to be out and slamming them. He broke his tirade to grin at a couple of wide-eyed shopping women who thought he might have less dirty talk. ‘Can’t you wait a bit? You must have drainpipes, not guts, swallowing scorched tea like that.’
Tall Dave leaned out of the cab. His rawboned face, and grizzled-grey hair topped by a faded cap, jutted over a little boy pushing a tricycle. ‘There ain’t all day. We want to get cracking to Eastwood, see what we can get’ – his voice raised but reasonable. Back inside he lit a cigarette, shifted to the middle: ‘Hudge up, Flaptabs wants to park hissen.’
Bert, foot on the clutch and revving up loud, pressed himself against the door. He was the driver so, though the youngest of the three brothers, held the balance of which-way-turn and what-snackbar-stop decisions. He’d worked some time at the pitface, but too many changes of temperature, dampness and water, had marked him with pleurisy, menaced him with TB. Illness was shameful and unmanly, neither to be tolerated nor surrendered to, so he opted while sound for an outdoor life. This situation made him even more violent and morbid, see-sawed between pessimism, and hilarious pipedreams which came to nothing because he was so busy earning a living, though at the same time they enabled him to face making one.
‘It’s pissing down,’ Donnie observed, installing himself in the warm, smoke-filled cab.
‘Do you good,’ Bert said, changing gear, ‘get you a wash.’
‘You can’t beat a drop o’ rain,’ Donnie said, ‘keeps ’em home for when the ragman calls.’ He’d been involved in the last few days, in sporadic argument with Bert, though he’d given signs of wanting to pack it in without losing pride: ‘I ’ad a wash this morning before I came out, which is more than yo’ did, our Bert, you blackfaced bastard’ – he grinned from his perished, intense face.
Dave hated argument: ‘Why don’t you two stop fucking-well needling each other? I’m not kidding, but you’re driving me off my bleddy nut, day in and day out.’ Neither took him up on this so, map reading, systematic a
‘If I did it’d be enough to keep us for a year at the wage we mek.’ Bert took Dave’s directions smoothly, as if thinking them out for himself.
As the eldest Dave felt it his right to give orders, though he was careful to modify his voice and phrases when doing so. ‘Get round this corner and we’ll head for Eastwood. We’ve got to call at them houses we left hand-bills at this morning.’ An old man, macless and without umbrella, shuffled off the pavement. ‘I’ll run that old bastard down,’ Bert said. ‘Can’t see a foot before ’im.’ He cupped a hand to his mouth: ‘Get off home and DIE!’
‘Less to feed,’ Donnie laughed, no longer the butt-end of their fun: ‘Don’t hit him, though.’
‘Listen at old soft-heart,’ Bert jeered.
Dave agreed: ‘Wappy bleeder’ – scornful because they obviously wouldn’t run the man over, and because Donnie’s sympathy reminded them that they daren’t. Able to cross between studs, the old man held his pace and shambled towards safe pavement. ‘Join the army,’ Bert shouted. ‘They’re crying out for blokes like yo’, dad!’ The man turned. A worn white death-mask of a starvo face opened into a smile. He shook his fist and stood on the pavement laughing.
They waved back. They all laughed, and the lorry shot forward. Shop awnings were pelted by violent rain: ‘Whose idea was it to come out today?’ he moaned, a side-glance at Donnie. ‘Shaking it down in buckets and nowt between us and getting into debt but the price o’ five fags and a gallon o’ petrol. What a life. Out on the road in all this weltering piss.’ He grumbled with a deadpan face, drew back his gears to the pitchdown of a steep hill, going fast between houses and towards a railway on the valley bottom, scarves of mist and black smoke boiling from pit-chimneys and train funnels. ‘I wouldn’t live out ’ere for a pension.’
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