New and Collected Stories, p.27Alan Sillitoe
He pulled the bag forward, held it from the ground by unyielding strings. It weighed heavy and, replacing it, a piece of cardboard finished its journey and slid onto the stones behind. Torn from a shoebox and crayoned on the white surface, the words he held up were: TO BE COLLECTED.
His heart bumped. By who else but him? A find, it looked like. Who’d have thought it in all this drenching rain? It was meant for the scrapman to pick up and relieve whoever had left it of an unwanted rubbish-burden. It felt like old metal against his boot, a mixture of bits and bobs no doubt, that would need sorting but hadn’t been considered valuable enough to sell. It was no use sorting it now: he pictured his brothers doing that like vultures later, cursing him, he shouldn’t wonder, because the stuff – after his dreams of a unique find – wasn’t worth much after all. Still, it was marvellous to get something. He spat on both palms and honed them well, lifted the bag onto his broad shoulders and lugged it out into the street, a miracle that such a light heart supported it.
Most of their time back at the lorry had been spent cursing Donnie – ‘the dilat’ry bastard’ – for dawdling, when from their vantage point of the high cab they saw him staggering along the street with what looked like a treasure of a load. Old rags didn’t weigh that much, for Donnie was a carthorse, a man of iron never known to flinch or tire under the most back-breaking weights. So what could it be and where had he clicked to be shouldering such heavy responsibility?
‘Trust old mental to get all the luck,’ Bert said. A grateful feeling lurked somewhere behind his scowl, though he could only show it by feeling envious. ‘We didn’t even get a bleddy claprag between us. Where did you find it?’ he bawled.
‘From a church.’
The metal was all sharp elbows, dug corner after merciless corner into the muscle of Donnie’s shoulders. The pressure had now passed aching point, become pain – fiery and unbearable. At Bert’s abrupt question, though only a few yards from the lorry, he let the sack roll over his head and crash logwise on the wet pavement. It pulled his new cap off: ‘Can’t you bleddy-well wait till I get to the lorry?’ he shouted angrily at Bert. Dave was helping him to carry it there.
Bert hung back, opening and closing the blade of his jack-knife. The crash sounded tinny, like kids’ toys hammered together to take up less room – but Donnie wouldn’t know the difference. Old wool-nut thought all metal a miracle of gold and silver, and only leapt into life at the noise it made. Which perhaps was a good thing for a bloke on this job, for look how he’d toted that sack from God knew where. Bert slid to the pavement when all work was done, snapping strings with his razorsharp knifeblade.
‘Steady-on,’ Donnie cried. ‘Give me a chance to get the bleddy thing down. You’ll slice my finger off if you aren’t careful.’ He stood back, sullen while they ravaged his prize. Bert started to unthread the cord through each eye-hole, but was beaten to it by nimble, systematic Dave. All three fixed their eyes on it at the same time.
Dave held it as he must at some time have been taught to during his various brief stays with the army: left hand under the barrel a little behind the spout, arm out at a sufficient angle to give rest to the magazine – which he instinctively slotted on; right hand at the trigger; and skeleton-butt under his arm. Then it swivelled downwards, mouth pouting to the pavement.
‘Christ!’ he said, all breath shocked from him. Bert balanced a slender tin casing of magazine on his palm. It was full of bullets. ‘What sort of a chapel did you say you got it from?’ He was amused, as much at Dave’s tight-set face seeing prison and death and all the discomforts that oscillated between for possessing such a thing, as at the sight of the Sten machine-gun he unwillingly toted. Donnie was the least surprised or perturbed, still thought of it as scrap, guns and magazines to be sledge-hammered into solid unrecognizable slabs and flogged at the junkyard. Nobody would know. It had been done before; and they might be as much as a quid each to the good.
Dave turned on him: ‘You barmy bleeder. You crazy bastard. Bringing things like this!’
Maybe he was putting on a rare joke, though the pained face made Donnie suspect him in earnest. ‘What do you mean? What are you calling me like that for?’
A woman, carrierbags hooked to each hand, came around the corner from the main road. Dave rammed the gun under cover and they talked about last night’s film. ‘I suppose you’re going to tell me you found ’em in a dustbin next?’ he demanded when she had passed.
‘They was near a dustbin,’ Donnie explained, hurt at such ingratitude. ‘A card was on top of the bag saying: TO BE COLLECTED. Somebody meant it for us, I’m dead sure o’ that. It’s government surplus maybe, that’s all.’
Dave’s anguished face showed he was nowhere convinced. He set the bag down a yard from himself: ‘Carry ’em up the street again.’
‘Not me. Yo’ can do it if you like.’
‘We’ll get ten years each in bleeding jail if you don’t.’
Donnie climbed into the cab and slammed the door on himself. ‘That’s the bleddy thanks I get for struggling all that way with it.’
‘He might get nicked taking ’em back,’ Bert said. ‘We’d better dump ’em on the lorry and get shot on ’em when we come to a lonely place.’
The whole day boggered, Dave plainly saw. Would you believe it? That was the worst o’ working with batchy bleeders like Donnie. His narrowed eyes, grizzled hair and creased forehead gave an impression of forcefulness that would never break. ‘It’s looney,’ he said, yet saw reason in Bert’s advice. He slung the sack on the lorry-back. ‘All right, Bert’ – giving unrepentant Donnie a black look – ‘let’s get cracking out of here. We’ll drop ’em in a reservoir somewhere.’
Bert drove to the main road as if to go quietly from the pitch of their crime, filtered through the traffic of Hilltop and descended into the valley, eager to put distance between them and Eastwood. ‘I expect it’s only scrap though, you know.’
‘Course it is’ – a desperate note in Donnie’s voice – ‘They wouldn’t ’ave put it there if it worn’t. I don’t know. All this bother over a few bits o’ junk.’
‘You mental bastard,’ Dave cried. ‘You think it’s scrap – with ammunition? It might have been army surplus but we worn’t supposed to tek it. Anybody with a bit o’ sense would have known it. I expect you thought they put it there for us, specially? “Perhaps somebody’ll want to start a revolution,” I suppose you thought they said. “Or maybe somebody’ll want to do a bit o’ target practice at the rent man, or knock off the odd copper or two?” Christ!’ He banged his fist against the lorry door, emphasizing a decision that needed no democratic majority to force it through: ‘We’ll get rid of it somewhere past Ripley, then beat it back to Nottingham. I only hope nobody gets onto us about it, that’s all. If they do, I’ll brain you. You might want to get away from your ten kids for a few years, but I don’t.’
‘It’d be better if we could sell it though,’ Bert said. ‘I know an IRA bloke who’d give his right arm for stuff like this. Happen we could dump it somewhere, and then let him know where it is, at a price.’
Fields, hedged by mounds of stone, rose from either side of the road. Towns were left far behind. Dave turned to his brother: ‘Look, nut, if you think I’m going to get twenty years, you’re wrong.’ His hand went to the door: ‘I’m getting out.’
‘I was only joking,’ Bert said, though slowing down in case Dave really wanted to get out. But he pulled the door to and they drove on in silence, three factions as much as three brothers.
Beyond Ambergate lay tranquil countryside, low cloud and rainmist on purple inhospitable hills around the Matlocks. The road contoured into another valley, and no one spoke. Such wild land kept words penned in. Donnie’s normal face was one of open good-humoured speculation as to whether the day would yield fair loads and a living wage, but his triumphant find at the chapel (‘It couldn’t have been a chapel,’ he told himself now) gave it a self-importance that his brothers would not acknowledge;
Rain hung, a carbide sheet of blue above grey-green rolling hills around. Trees were bowed down by the weight of water, bare twigs shining silver with it, the soaked smell of the green and soily earth more extreme and frightening than the rancid stink of protective streets. Hopeful Donnie assumed that every wayside house was a missed opportunity of a brass bedstead or heap of iron and lead. But Dave sat immersed in the webbed roads of his map, and Bert’s eyes showed only a flat concern for his firm motionful steering along the highway.
Dave grunted them into a by-road and Bert silently obeyed, putting the lorry at grinding first gear for a steep incline. The high-roaring life of the engine plunged Donnie’s memory back to another faraway lorry that, in the depths of a smoke-screen, increased speed regardless of what might be in its way. He was going on foot through a paraffin midnight, each quiet step betrayed by a choking cough, delayed by a case bulging with silk stockings snaffled from a shop hidden within the bull’s-eye of a few dozen shrouded streets.
On the boulevard a woman screamed, and Donnie jumped (the first time afraid that evening) thinking she was under its double wheels. He was close enough to touch her. ‘Where are you, duck?’ he called, as the unheeding vehicle thundered away. ‘Are you all right?’
The voice that answered sounded young and sweet, even behind such swearing laid on at the unthinking driver: ‘The bleddy swine might a killed me.’
‘Tek my arm,’ Donnie said. ‘I’ll see you ’ome. Did you miss your last bus?’
‘Aye,’ she answered, quick off the mark, ‘I did.’
‘What a shame,’ Donnie said, leading her along, and thinking that most likely some chap had ditched the poor gel.
Her name was Dora and, talking readily, they made a harmless couple passing the copper propping up the labour-exchange in the artificial fog. They went home to Donnie’s, and slept a sinful sweet kip together. From his attache-case Dora thought he was a nice young man, a commercial traveller perhaps (which he was but not in the way she thought) and fairly well-off when he opened the case in the morning and gave her a dozen pairs of fully-fashioned stockings; and Donnie, when they decided that same day to live together (‘I’ve got a house in Cuckney Terrace just down the road,’ she told him) deduced her to be living alone because her husband was in the Forces. Both, thinking they were on to a good thing, were disappointed. Dora found soon enough that Donnie was on the run and thieving for a living; and Donnie discovered even sooner that Dora already had four children in the house (floors and faces well-scrubbed though to receive him) and that she was separated from her husband because he was in jail. Such disappointments cancelled out, and they were happy together. Donnie stole hard to keep her and the kids, liked being the master of his house and having something to go steady for. Dora loved him and bred well so that there were three more kids by Victory Day. ‘We’ll buy the silly bleeder a dartboard, or a game of ludo,’ Dave said. ‘He thinks there ain’t owt else to do in the world but that.’
‘You’d do better to whitewash his cellar out and knock a few bunks together,’ Bert answered. ‘If it worn’t already full up.’
One of the children could not have been Donnie’s, not well enough synchronized with his spells in prison, but he accepted it just the same. This, he found, lowered him still further in the eyes of his brothers: ‘She’s done it on him, the poor bogger. If she was my woman I’d paste her from one end of Hyson Road to the other,’ he heard Bert say once when he came in from the bookie’s because he’d lost his money sooner than intended. ‘I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if none o’ them kids are ’is,’ his mother was saying. ‘She’s an old bag, and nowt else,’ Dave said sternly as Donnie came in through the scullery. ‘How else could she have lived, though, while he was in clink?’ was the final verdict.
Riding along with a load of hot guns, all silent because they’d share a life sentence if caught, Donnie felt they were ripping away his credit for what could be a profitable find. His grievance came from the memory of his desperate yet strangely happy years during the war, and of what he had overheard after his bad luck on the horses which only now did he relate to himself – and so long ago, he thought, beaming his mortally injured sight on the set visages of Dave and Bert.
A sun blade made the road shine like a roll of liquorice. Clouds moved above wooded spurs and crags of the lonely Pennines whither Dave had guided them by constant reference to his magic map. ‘They have wicked weather out here,’ he said. ‘Only a month ago the snow nearly covered the telegraph poles. I’d rather be in streets.’ It was a long time since they passed a house, and none were now in sight. The woods seemed dead and February bare, yet when Bert stopped the lorry under a hill bushes showed spring buds like the green tips of novelty matchsticks.
They got down, stamped their feet morosely against wind and the smell of open country beating up their limbs; it felt clean and agreeable to the stale stink of cab and backyards. Dave led them over a five-barred gate and down a bank. Bert carried the kitbag to a large pool of stagnant water, hurled a stone towards the middle that landed with a healthy penetrating sound: gluck! ‘It’s deep. Be good enough to swim in, if it worn’t so cold.’
Dave, slashing the bag with a penknife, looked at Donnie as if he would slash him next: ‘All we want now is for a copper to come by. Think of the time and petrol we’ve lost on this stunt.’
Shirtsleeves rolled up, Bert rubbed the beneficial ointment of wind into his white heavily veined skin. ‘It’s like a holiday. Leave Donnie be,’ he said. ‘We know how you feel by now.’
Donnie stood by the rising ground, feeling the injustice of their so-called democracy. His great effort of the rain-soddened morning had come to this! – slung into deep and muddy water, sunk out of sight when they had stood to make a fiver each – which he for one could do with, Dora being pregnant and soon to leave for the hospital. He’d often thought how this ragman job was too low paid, having such a mob of kids to look after, but the family allowance helped, and it was better than working for a gaffer no matter how low the money. He had been the one brother reluctant to part with his hundred pounds, giving in eventually because without it there’d be no business – something they had willingly forgotten. And now they’d got the sort of find often imagined with glowing eyes and pints suspended they were chucking it away, just like that. ‘Come on,’ Dave cried. ‘Give a hand to get rid o’ this stuff.’
Donnie couldn’t move. ‘I’m for keeping it. What about yo’, our Bert?’
‘I’m snatched,’ Bert said, struggling back into his coat. He turned to Donnie: ‘I don’t know. Honest to God, I don’t.’
Dave picked out the top Sten gun. ‘I do. It’s got to be slung away. If it ain’t I’m not getting in that lorry again. I’d rather walk back to Nottingham.’ His words burned with righteousness, and of all three he had the clearest ideas of right and wrong (though he didn’t always abide by them), which made him a hard man to argue with. At election times Donnie never voted; Bert sometimes dragged himself between one pint and the next; Dave always did, being at heart a simple political man and swearing at others whom he suspected of not having bothered. With him an idea once expressed stuck until a new one took its place, causing the old one to fuse with the hard core of his personality.
Bert turned to Donnie: ‘I reckon we’d better sink ’em. They aren’t any good to us. Too risky to keep, as well’ – an opinion sending Dave into action before Donnie tried once more to swing the vote. The first gun sailed to the middle of the water. It sank. Another followed. Bert joined in, threw a gun and tailed it with a hollow magazine.
Donnie strolled casually over and picked out a gun, as if to help, then sorted through rusting magazines until he reached one that was loaded. He clipped it onto his gun, the sound hidden by resplendent waterspouts caused by t
‘I thought that was what yo’ did,’ Bert laughed.
‘I mean everybody though.’
‘Maybe they will in the next one.’
‘There wain’t be a next one, or time to do this if there is’ – Dave spun the last weapon as high as it would go, the two of them drawing their heads back – seeing bordering rocks, treetops and a gulf of cloud – to follow the upward and downward flight. ‘A bull’s-eye,’ Bert shouted, blinking at its impact. ‘Chock in the middle.’
Dave gave in to a rare bout of self-praise. ‘I can’t help it if I’m a crackshot!’
A savage, sharp explosion burst through the air, a needling crack of white fire directly connected with the chip that flew from the moss-covered rock a bare yard from Bert’s foot. The shot itinerated every crevice-point of the hills, came back again and again, each time with diminishing vigour.
The sight of Donnie holding the machine-gun, as if he had been a professional guerilla all his life, sent a pain through Dave’s feet that seemed to come from the soil he stood on, fastening him to earth and shrubs like a charge of electricity high enough to cause a rheumatic pain but not to sling him a dozen yards away. He was afraid to move, to try and rid himself of it in case it would increase – or for fear a bullet from Donnie’s gun would strike him all unbeknowing – smack in the guts. He stared at the apparition of his brother, was startled by Bert calling: ‘Drop it, Donnie, you daft sod. Come on, knock it off. You’ll do some damage if you aren’t careful.’
‘That’s right,’ Dave said, and to Bert: ‘You should a kept your bloody eye on him.’ The derogatory tone, stabbing through to Donnie’s incensed brain, brought forth a further terrifying shot. Dave and Bert scampered towards different boulders beyond the pool. ‘Why don’t you mind what you’re saying?’ Bert hissed across to Dave. Then in a commanding yet considerate tone: ‘Donnie, put that bleeding gun down. I’ll get mad in a minute.’
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