New and Collected Stories, p.26Alan Sillitoe
‘Go on,’ Donnie cried, the optimist who, even in the most terrible glasshouse of the British Army, averred that things might have been worse in a German deathcamp, and that pigswill was better than no swill at all. ‘We might strike lucky at Eastwood, with an old copper or a mangle. Or an old firegrate. A few stone o’ woollens. You never know.’
‘All we’ll get,’ Bert prophesied, ‘is a couple of bugged-up bedticks that a consumptive man and wife have just pegged out on. We’ll be lucky to get eighteen pence the two: a cup of tea and a bun each.’
‘That wain’t keep my gang o’ kids,’ Donnie put in. ‘But we’ll get more than that though, yo’ see.’
‘I don’t know why you have so many kids, Donnie. I don’t, honest. You know you can’t afford to keep ’em.’
‘They don’t tek any bread out o’ your mouth.’ Donnie’s family was a great consolation to him, and though he could understand why it was made a joke of by his brothers, he had never been able to see the justice of it. His face steeled hard: ‘And I do keep ’em though, don’t I, eh?’
‘Well,’ Dave killed the joke before it went too far, ‘even me and Alice don’t get enough to live on.’
‘You might just as well put your head in the gas-oven and be done wi’ it,’ Ben said.
‘That wouldn’t do, either,’ Donnie smiled. ‘You’ve got no right to talk like that. No use dying, is it?’ Bert’s eyes half closed at Donnie spinning things out to such a dead-end conclusion and, turning a corner, he roared into his ear:
‘Wrap up. Brainless bastard’ – so loud that even above the engine noise a policeman heard its subhuman command and glared into the cab to see what was the matter. Dave’s eyes flashed out a picture of what possessions sprawled on the open back: a coil of rope, heaps of sacks, and a folded tarpaulin that covered nothing because it had been fine when they set out. Everything soaked. But nothing for the copper to get big ideas at either. The eyes of the law swivelled out of sight. ‘You want to be careful what you say,’ Donnie called. ‘I’m a few years older than yo’, you know.’
Bert became solemn, then melancholy, and gave himself up to grandiose dreams as he held the lorry fast to an uphill shove into Eastwood. ‘I’d like to build eight machine-guns into this vehicle – into the bonnet – and blast my way through owt as stood in our way,’ he said with a laugh, slowing at MAJOR ROAD AHEAD. ‘To blast coppers, that’s what I’d use it for.’
‘What about the Blackshirts?’ Donnie said. ‘They’re coppers, aren’t they?’
‘Who’s talking about Blackshirts? Shurrup.’
‘Course they are,’ Dave told him.
‘One ’ud put his hand out to get my licence’ – Bert went on, grinning, ‘six on ’em at a roadblock, and I’d slow down a bit, as if I was all for the law and going to stop.’
‘To give ’em a Woodbine out of the ten thousand we’d got in the back?’
He pulled a face at Donnie. ‘So I’d press this specially built-in button, and hear them bullet-belts starting to move under our feet, and the road in front would get churned up and go all grey and black, and the lorry would go bump-bump over the rubble we’d made of everything, and we’d all laugh together at six coppers snuffing it behind.’
‘Well,’ Dave said, winking towards Donnie, ‘you’d get summonsed then if you killed ’em, I know you would.’
‘That’s what used to ’appen in Chicago though,’ Bert put in. ‘Like in them old pictures, with James Cagney and George Raft.’
‘Well’ – from Donnie – ‘it don’t ’appen anywhere now.’
‘Not even in Russia,’ Bert laughed. ‘Like it did in that revolution.’
Donnie turned serious: ‘If you did such a thing there now you’d end up filling saltbags, in the geranium mines.’ And their laughter exploded, louder than any bomb or gunfire.
Eastwood was wetter than Heanor. They ascended the hill, patrolled rows of drenched uniform houses, desolate and scruffy at the backs, scruffier when TV aerials lifted Martian claws above slate-roofs and chimney stacks. Children were in school, and no one else seemed out on such a day. ‘Pull up,’ Dave rapped out. ‘Let’s get cracking on a couple o’ these streets.’
‘Maybe somebody’s left a crust o’ bread for us, or a claprag,’ Bert scoffed, drawing into the kerb. ‘I’ll bet we don’t see the sweat off a gnat’s knackers – nor even as much as an old gas-stove.’ Donnie caught on to this further wave of descending gloom, kept his monkey-face glum and silent. The lorry stayed by the kerb before any of them had the stomach to get out: the smell of their cigarettes and bodies made an atmosphere of homely warmth that they were loth to leave for wet unwelcoming backyards. ‘It ain’t all that bad,’ Dave retorted to Bert’s bitter weighing-up of their prospects, reaching under the steering-wheel for a pack of newly printed handbills. ‘Before the war it was, but not since. Course, everything still looks the same.’
‘And smells the same.’
‘But all the colliers is on full time.’
‘For a bit, anyway.’
Bert laughed. ‘Everybody’s got dough but us, I know that much.’ For a moment their thoughts and voices had met in harmony, but drew away again when Donnie demanded: ‘We got the lorry, ain’t we?’
‘Well’ – Bert turned as if to rub the nub-end into his face – ‘we wokked for it, din’t we?’ It was impossible to deny this triumphant assertion, and all three brooded for a minute on the months of monstrous overtime in the summer as brickies’ labourers on the new estates – heaving high-loaded hods on bony shoulders, unstacking fresh-baked bricks from lorry-backs and hosing them down, lugging cement bags in the sun, lips cracking under hot tea and the blinding heat of shaving fires – a nightmare that nevertheless made a good memory in this wet daylight of a Monday morning – and which ended each with a hundred pounds to club-in for their rag-and-bone lorry. Dave glared savagely at the top handbill:
We give good CASH for
GAS-STOVES MANGLES LEAD
METALS OF ANY DESCRIPTION
RAGS AND BEDSTEADS
call back in half an hour
‘A lot o’ bleeding good that does us,’ Bert said, digging at Dave, whose idea the handbills had been. ‘If we don’t start making some money I’m going back to labouring.’
Dave groaned. They had discussed chucking it in before, but he prevailed on optimist Donnie to wield the casting vote that kept them at it. What’s up with you? We made ten quid a-piece last week. You can’t expect to get a millionaire’s whack the first few months can you? Or p’raps you like working for a bleeding gaffer? I don’t. I’ve ’ad enough o’ that. You’ve only got to pull out a fag and you get your cards. Or see whether or not you backed a winner at dinner-time. You can bogger that for a lark. I’m not going to chuck it yet. I’d give it a longer try and see what we can do.’ He reached for the map: ‘We’ll try Bolsover next week. The trouble with these places near Nottingham is they’ve allus bin done by some graballing bastard half an hour before; but up there, nobody ever bothers.’
‘Like that place last week,’ Bert thought, cheerful at having egged Dave to go on justifying and encouraging for so long – which was one of the few ways he knew of getting him to talk.
‘If we make a living wage,’ Donnie put in, ‘what does it matter?’
Dave steered them back to work: “Ark at ’im – bin listening to the Conservatives. Thinks he’s got a right to a living wage. Come on, let’s stop boggering around, and get cracking.’ At which they alighted onto the pavement, took up their particular sacks, and spread in three directions into rainshot streets.
Such free-lance fending had sharpened Donnie’s powers of reconnaissance. Each backyard – from dustbin to lavatory, clothes-line to wooden palings – was assessed for articles of value: a thrown-out bicycle, a zinc bathtub on the wall, a sack-covered mangle waiting
His roped-together mackintosh was darkened by rain. The wind rose, couldn’t make up its mind which way to scatter the floods. He’d collected nothing. Locusts and desert, he thought. Every crumb scratched and scraped – and saw himself in the same mind maybe as those poor enormous animals in prehistoric times come to the end of their tether because the sun had dried up the earth – which was better than this wet.
He knocked at a back door and, after a prolonged rattling of bolts and latches it was pulled violently inwards, irritation sounding even in the squeak of its hinges. A tall, thin, middle-aged collier stood there, still in his shirt-sleeves from the night shift. His deep grey eyes flashed:
‘What do yo’ want?’
Donnie usually spoke first, making his request against a blank stare. But this time he was stopped dead by abrupt rage in the collier’s face as if, should it turn out he had been dragged from his breakfast for nothing, he would swing the hand from behind and wield a pick over Donnie’s head, ready to bring down a well-aimed prostrating blow.
‘Any old rags, mate?’
The collier’s scarred features took time off to consider. Then: ‘Ar,’ he bawled, ‘tek me’ – and slammed the door at his face.
He wondered whether his brothers were having better luck. A whippet, entombed in some distant kennel, howled dismally at the general condition of the rheumatic world. Rain belted down, yet the sun shone in Donnie’s brain of day-dream and optimism, illuminating the sudden find of lead-rolls outside some half-built church he would never pray in, laughing like mad with his brothers as they set upon the gold-find with axe and crowbar, stuffing sack after sack which would weigh on their shoulderbones till they felt sick with lugging it to the lorry. A raindrop running down to his ear caused him to scrub away the itch of it. He missed half a dozen houses due to his daydream. The collier’s rebuff seemed so comic that he thought to tell it later to his brothers for a laugh.
He knocked at another door, and a woman opened it, a cherubic tow-headed kid making an aeroplane out of the collection leaflet. She held an old brass kettle: ‘If you’ve come for scrap, you can tek this, my lad.’
‘How much do you want for it?’ he said, thinking it better than nothing.
‘Nay, lad, I’ll tek nowt from thee, seeing as tha’s had such a lot to put up with in the war, while many a one was staying at home.’
He looked modestly into the kitchen beyond. ‘That’s the way it is.’
‘It’s a bleddy shame they don’t look after you better when you’ve been all them miles away fighting for ’em, it is and all.’
‘Well,’ Donnie said, ‘as long as they fill their own pockets. I was in a Jap prison camp seven years. I’ve still got scars all over me, and one of my lungs is gone. I don’t like to think about it. There’s many a night I wake up all of a groan and sweat. And what did we get when we come back? Twenty-six bob a week. No good to a living soul. But I’ve got eleven kids now, so I suppose I’m good for something.’ He stuffed the kettle into his sack, left his thanks as the door closed. He heard her going through the parlour muttering loudly to the uncomprehending kid: ‘Seven years! Poor bogger. Seven – that’s funny, though.’
At the end of the street stood a red-bricked chapel, a body-snatcher guarded by railings and fronted by wide steps leading to the principal door. It was a chapel no longer, but a get-together of shabby drill-hall and dead-beat billiard saloon. Donnie found a nub-end pinned under the crossband of his cigarette case. Maybe they’re clearing the place out, he thought, for it looked as if it were about to fall flat on its face. He pushed open a side gate and walked up the entry. The backyard hadn’t seen sunshine since its walls were built. Windows were wooden-barred and barbed-wired. Broken bottles spiking the top bricks turned it into a well-defended backyard of the house of God. Donnie noticed a row of dustbins, each caved-in or holed, which several experienced kicks showed to be empty. He grunted at the dampness, a dispiriting waterlogged atmosphere more tied to an outlaw’s heart than any other smell and feeling.
He glanced back for a last check-up. Under an awning of corrugated tin stood a canvas kitbag tied at the neck. He went over and, giving it an immediate kick, expected the unresistant cave-in of cardboard and paper, but was not surprised (already suspecting that it looked too good for any old rubbish) when his boot hit against some kind of metal. He thumped it for being so puzzling, closed his fingers over corners of whatever was inside. Undo the string, you silly bogger, and have a look – an irritating and unrewarding job, for his fingernails broke at the first try. He stood back a moment: the cord was knotted and double-knotted, and shrunk and solidified in the damp air.
He was bemused, at what a kitbag meant to many but had never meant to him. Gunner Donnie Hodson – you didn’t keep your kitbag long: came on leave one day and never went back – stayed by the fireside in a long paralysis of fear and rage, smoking what fags you could cadge until your mother chucked you out and told you to get some money or clamb. Them was funny times. One day he was at the kitchen table when knocks – back and front – sounded from the wide-awake street. He was hungry for his tea, holding a sharp knife and not knowing whether to cut his throat or a slice of bread. His mother did what was needed of her. Donnie ran up to the attic, coolly setting the skylight down when once on the roof. And there he was, hanging out on the slates like Monday washing, under the summer sky and counting German planes that slid over low and let rip with machine-guns. Shellbursts like dirty wool seemed to be exploding not many feet from his head. The sirens were moaning like a runover cat, and it was hard to imagine anyone in his right mind out on the roof – so the coppers must have thought. But Donnie wasn’t in anybody’s mind except his own, which turned out to be right enough, and his instinct told him one sure thing, that it was better to risk a bullet from German planes than go back through that skylight and get parcelled off to the army again. ‘What did mam do with them two full cups of tea she’d just poured? Did she sling ’em in the sink before the coppers could see ’em?’ – were his sole speculations as shrapnel (from AA shells he would have been firing had he not been where he was) zipped viciously by like petrified dead sparrows onto the slates, breaking some, others ricochetting, one piercing the skylight window that finally stopped the coppers’ courage from thinking he was out there.
Looking back on this one uncomfortable glory of his life, he couldn’t help but laugh. Nothing from the past was sad, no matter how awful it might have been at the time. Only the present was classifiable into good or putrid, but every incident that he could remember was laughable for the simple reason that it was past, and that he had survived it without mortal damage. While Donnie was sitting on the rooftop with shrapnel and bullets pissing all around, his mother was being questioned by coppers and redcaps, unable to speak out where he was, yet wanting to in order to get him off that dangerous roof.
They got him in the end, cornered as a rat by bigger rats in a cul-de-sac one dark night, a suitcase of plundered whisky at his feet. Dave had got away, rattled his longer legs among streets at different angles to Donnie’s, until dark distance drew him into a maw of safety. Donnie was pounced on by a couple of stalwart Specials and manhandled to the police station: ‘We’re helping our country’ – bump – ‘and trying to do our bit,’ – bump – ‘but you blokes are worse than the bloody Germans’ – bump-thud. ‘You want bleeding-well exterminating,
That was the only way to get the war over. Go and fight, they had said. What for? Show me what I’ve got to fight for, and then I’ll go. You can’t though, can you? There’s nobody in this bloody country can show me that. ‘You’re a pacifist,’ Dave dinned into him. ‘Like me. See?’ It was still the middle of the war when they let him out of jail and turned him over to the redcaps, so he hopped it a second time, and uniform number two burst into paraffin-flame from the bedroom grate.
In 1945 the redcaps collared him for the final bout, made him pay for having kept out of the war as successfully as they had by declaring on him a private and spiteful war of their own. Even that terrible time was laughable. He had wakened up one fine day to find himself between the clean sheets of heaven. ‘A mental home,’ the man in the next bed grinned. Marvellous. No more bread-and-water, cells, packdrill, kicks and punches and buckets of freezing pond-scum splashing against thin denims. You had to laugh, at what men who should have been your own mates in factory or on building site did to you. You just couldn’t help laughing, though you could bet that some bastards had put them up to it as well. Such a grin gave you toothache on the lips. It was funny, too funny even to tell anyone about, and so Donnie had a reputation for being soft, almost daft and, unlike his brothers, slow in ways of self-preservation. He was also reluctant with his speech, dense it was said, often unable to make his opinions fit the subject under discussion, or make them influence it when they did. His family and friends began to think that such attitudes had been there from birth, to be pointed out and taken advantage of.
The rain was a mere drizzle, easier to accept and fight, and he shook himself to regard the actual physical bulk of the kitbag. This one stored rubbish – a useful purpose to what most carried. He searched for another cigarette, but found none. ‘I’ll ask Dave to lend me one when I get back. I’d better start moving, or they’ll wonder where I’ve got to.’
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes