New and Collected Stories, p.28Alan Sillitoe
Donnie’s fallen cap lay at the edge of the pool, half in and half out of the water like a turtle emerging for a breath of air. His face was rigid, all lines and muscles clamped into place by the grip of his teeth. His hair blew in the wind. ‘You bastards’ – a tearful implacable roar – ‘you rotten lousy bastards.’
‘What’s bitin’ you?’ Bert shouted. ‘What ’ave we done to you?’
‘I’ll kill you both,’ he responded loudly, his brain shut hard against the wind, and all their talk. ‘You’ve ’ad it your own way too long. I’ll show you whether I’m kidding or not. That’s what Dora’s allus telling me, that you put on me. Only I ain’t believed her up to now.’
‘Pack your game up,’ Dave said reasonably, ‘and let’s get cracking. We’ve lost enough time as it is.’
‘Chuck that gun in the water,’ Bert ordered. ‘Or I’ll get mad, our Donnie.’ The sun came out and, standing between them, gave Bert confidence to move nearer Donnie. He knelt at the kitbag to fold it: We’d better tek this with us and burn it. We don’t want anybody to find it.’
‘I suppose not,’ Dave winked.
‘You bastards,’ Donnie said. ‘You think you’re the bosses and can get away with everything.’ His eyes were set on them, unmoving, as hard as the spout of the ever-pointing gun. ‘You should a kept them Stens and not thrown ’em away. You’ll be sorry you wasted ’em like that one day.’
‘I told you it was dangerous,’ Dave said. ‘Our Bert said so as well. You don’t want to go to clink for ten years, do you? I don’t, anyway, I know that much. What would Dora do if you got sent down? Eh?’
Donnie pressed a foot forward. ‘I don’t give a fuck for owt now. I’ll do you both in.’
‘Put it away,’ Dave shouted. ‘You cranky sod.’
Bert eyed him coolly: ‘If you do owt daft, you’ll swing.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘You will. Wain’t he, Dave?’ – nonchalantly.
‘Not much he wain’t. He’ll get my fist as well when I catch hold of him.’
Bert was nearer now, pushing the spacious kitbag over his boots in a kneeling-down position and easing his feet forward while he talked: ‘I know a bloke in the army had his arm shot off, only by accident, but the bloke who done it got ten years. I reckon he deserved it though: an arm’s an arm, and a pension’s no good to anybody. I don’t like guns being pointed at me or Donnie, so you’d better drop it; it brings my cough back, and I feel bad for days then. I get laid-up and earn no dough, so stop it.’
‘You never listen to what I say,’ Donnie complained, crashing in on Bert’s monologue. ‘You think I’m daft. Two on to one. That’s how it is all the time. I’ve only got to say: “Let’s do this,” and you two rotten bastards allus vote it down. But my share in this lorry’s the same as yourn, you know. You forget that, you do an’ all.’
‘I never say it ain’t,’ Bert reassured him. ‘You know I don’t’ – forward again, still closer. Dave, watching, wondered how it was going to end – ‘I’m allus on your side, but you forget that as soon as I see fit to vote with Dave once in a while. Don’t he, Dave?’
‘That’s what I tell him.’
‘You remember that time you wanted to tek Dora and the kids on an outing to Gunthorpe, and Dave said we couldn’t afford the time, and that we should collect some stuff from Derby instead? I voted with you then. So you won, and all your tribe had a smashing day by the Trent.’
Dave backed him up: ‘Course they did. He’s a madhead though, wain’t listen to anybody.’
He was deeply hurt, accused of disloyalty. ‘Yes I do,’ was all he could think of.
‘No you don’t. If you do, put that gun down and prove it. You’ve already made enough noise to bring all the coppers of Derby onto us, and I don’t want to see yo’ nor any on us copped. Come on, I’m clambed to death. Aren’t yo’, Bert?’
Dave imagined a reasonable tone would now creep into their discussion, then: ‘I’m going to count to seven,’ Donnie said slowly, ‘and when I’ve counted seven I’m going to empty this magazine into the pair of you. Then we’ll see who’s got a vote and who ain’t. One, two, three’ – loud like bullets already flying, a supercharged tone of voice he had often heard ordering him about, but had never been able to use himself.
Bert broke in. ‘Donnie, you rat’ – and moved closer, covered by his ruse of the kitbag. Dave stood, graven.
‘Four, five’ – slow and definite, each echo overriding Bert’s plea, moving the gunspout now in a circular pointing motion that, though not making for accuracy, gave fate a chance to operate and seemed more menacing. ‘Donnie, chuck it,’ Dave yelled. ‘You can have the bleeding lorry, but drop that gun.’ Bert had stopped moving, was fastened by Donnie’s eyes.
Nothing happened. ‘Who are you kidding?’ Bert said, standing up.
Donnie grinned. ‘You thought I meant it, didn’t you? Well I do. But if you think I’m going to do it when you expect it though, you’re both bleddy-well wrong.’ Bert’s senses were fixed hard between guile and humour, and he said with a smile: ‘Drop that rod, and I’ll strip stark naked and swim in to get them guns out, one at a time – then we’ll flog ’em to the IRA. Eh? What do you think o’ that, then?’
It made no impression against Donnie’s maniacal stare. Without warning, his arms lifted for the aim.
Bert fell to the ground, flattened like a spread-out frog. Dave followed, keeling over like a post, low-current electricity of fear moving like a threat through his limbs. Donnie’s arms spun like propellers working in competition, and after several illogical movements both gun and magazine somehow parted and leapt free of his swinging arms, falling into the water. On lifting their heads – a broad margin of some seconds after the splash – they saw Donnie widely grinning.
‘Oh you should a seen yer! Christ, you should a seen yer! Frightened to death, the pair of you. What a treat! Never in all my born days …’
They ran at him, wild for vengeance, and before they reached him Donnie knew it was no use making out it had been a joke. Gaiety withered on his face.
‘You swine,’ Dave screamed, gripping his waist and dragging him down. He had wanted to smash Donnie’s life out, had promised himself the marvellous vicious treat of it while petrified by the Sten in such crazy hands – but a relatively harmless grip was all he could give now that the time had come. Bert found Donnie’s head from out of the scuffle, and thumped him between the eyes in a business-like way, hard. ‘You cranky bastard, doing a thing like that.’
In spite of smoke-stacks and colliery headstocks the distant landscape was clear: sun out to stay and clouds lingering only to the cold watery north. Bert manoeuvred the lorry like a madman, light hearted now that their incriminating load had been cast off. The lorry, it seemed, was a sort of zip mechanism causing the road to fasten-off the hills behind them as they descended. Dave sang snatches of songs they had beaten out together in last Saturday’s pub, the map crushed and stained under his muddy boots. Donnie sat between them, smiling, his face dirty, hand at last taken from the swollen eye sustained in the final settlement at the pool. Dave put an arm around his shoulders, pulled him close, hugged him: ‘Old barmy sod. Old madhead’ – yet with a certain deference that Donnie was too happy, and Bert too careful at the corner before Tipley, and Dave too close to it, to notice.
Donnie pulled away. ‘Less of the barmy,’ he threatened, as if still holding the Sten.
‘Hark at him,’ Dave sang back. ‘Scarface. Al Capone. It’s a good job we got rid o’ them guns, or he’d a bin down at Barclays tomorrow asking for a loan.’
‘Bogger off,’ Donnie retaliated, though laughing with them at such a Robin Hood picture and grateful that it saved him feeling foolish for having stuck them up. ‘I wouldn’t do owt as daft as to rob a bank.’ Here was a story they could talk and laugh about for ever among themselves, without being able to tell it to another and so mock Donnie with.
Donnie was indignant. ‘Now hark at who’s talking. Christ! That’s what I was trying to tell you back there. It’s too bleddy late now.’
Dave’s imagination drew back, having touched on some too open wound. He was the calm and thoughtful leader once more. ‘Forget it. I’m only kidding.’
‘Perhaps we should ’ave though,’ Bert said, feeling for the crumpled kitbag between his legs, aiming punches that swerved the lorry from one side of the house-lined street to the other. ‘We could a kept two or three. Donnie was right.’
‘No he worn’t,’ Dave said, but quietly. ‘And I’m telling the pair of you – that you don’t know owt about no guns – that you’ve never seen any. Forget ’em, see?’
‘They’ll never find ’em,’ Bert said.
‘What a bloody time we ’ad though,’ Dave laughed, nudging Donnie.
‘I wonder if Dora’s had her kid yet?’ Bert asked, spitting out of the window. ‘I can see owd Donnie ending up better off than any of us. He’ll be sitting back like a sheik while his twenty kids bring their wage packets back from the factory every week.’
‘It’s not due for a day or two,’ was all Donnie said. Drab windswept houses funnelled them up the hill, and dinner could be detected journeying from gas-ovens to tables of waiting children home from school. ‘It’s only one o’clock,’ Bert said, stopping at the marketplace, ‘but I feel as if a week’s gone by since this morning.’
‘Shall we eat here, or in Heanor?’ Dave wanted to know. Smells from a snackbar drifted over the cobbles as a bus conductor opened the door and stood fastening his silver-buttoned coat over a just-fed belly.
‘Here,’ Bert opted, ‘I’m clambed.’
‘I reckon we should go to Heanor,’ Donnie said. ‘It ain’t far off.’ Bert said they could eat just as well where they were, so Donnie turned to Dave: ‘What about yo’? At that place in Heanor you can get a big plate o’ stuff for a couple o’ bob.’
Bert pulled the door shut. ‘Let’s make our bleddy minds up.’ Cigarettes were lit to relieve the strained atmosphere of voting. Fingers drummed hard on the drumsounding door. Dave’s long face made up its mind, yet no sign was showed of a decision: ‘Heanor.’
Even on the second syllable Bert had given in and pulled out the choke, and they were rolling down the hills again towards Eastwood. Once a majority vote was reached it became a unanimous decision. A hard wind drove tension clear of the cab. ‘I forgot to tell you,’ Donnie said. ‘It was a scream.’ He laughed until Dave told him to get on with it then. ‘Well, I went to this house at Eastwood, before I found the guns, and a collier comes to the door, a great big bastard still in his helmet and pit-muck, his trousers patched and his vest in tatters. “What do yo’ want?” he bawls out at me. I thought he was going to smash me with the pick he’s got in his hand. So I says: “Got any old rags, mate?” and he looks at me for half a minute, then says, “Ar, TEK ME!” and slams the door in my face.’
It was the best joke in years: three crimson faces choking behind the windscreen of the descending lorry. Bert pulled into the side of the road and switched off, tears flowing from all but Donnie, who knew it was a good story, but wasn’t paralysed by it. When the lorry started again he felt happy – in spite of the half-soaked cap (rescued at the last minute from the pool) whose damp side ate through to his hair – singing to himself because Dora might have another boy. He still didn’t know why he’d insisted that they eat in Heanor because, all said and done, it didn’t matter to him where they ate, as long as he was able to fill his aching guts with something.
The service was over, and we signed the book, stood outside the late-English Perpendicular nondescript church, while the buffed-up blackened eye of the camera fixed us forever in the bewildered yet happy world.
Confetti snowed down, coloured snow, tips of spring flowers falling over our bent backs as we got into the car. Life was beginning, and we laughed, never wondering whether or not we would cry at the far end of it all. The preacher’s claptrap still fed my humour, though it wasn’t long before I began to look back on it as one big farce. My mates didn’t even grin when I agreed to a church wedding. They thought I was quite right to give in to her, the spineless lot, and so I was glad to change into another department where the hypocrisy of friendship hadn’t had time to jell, so that we could all concur how soft I’d been to slide back on my principles, even though it hurt me to say so.
I was nearing forty, and Caroline who became my wife had just turned thirty, so it was late for both of us. But every old sock finds an old shoe, as those at work laughingly put it. With my parents dead, I lived alone in the house I had just finished buying, and that as an only son I had grown up in. It was a house of the better sort, with three floors instead of two, and set a few yards back from the pavement. My bride now came there for the reception.
She looked so beautiful, among all our friends at the table, that I wondered how she’d come to marry me, which explains why I’d let us be spliced in church perhaps. But looks never counted for much between us. I’m well set up and stocky, with all my hair still and swept back neat. What’s more I’ve never been got at by illness. All that bothered me was a tape-worm in Gibraltar during the war, but it wasn’t so rare as to be a real sickness, though such a thing growing inside me, no matter how much they pulled it out, took weeks to get rid of. In fact I became so badly that I was shipped home, and sometimes I wonder if I’m not still harbouring it, I feel so jumpy. Maybe it’s just the memory, and time will tell, though it has enough to live on in the meantime if it really is down there chewing away.
I was looking at the darling I’d married, tall and thin-faced, with fine fair hair that I hoped she’d now grow long (though she never did), and good features when she was pleasantly smiling. Otherwise I’d stick my thumb towards the earth and enjoy feeling a swine – but it’s too early to start being hard on myself. I’d only met her six months before, and what all the hurry was I couldn’t now say. Certainly, I didn’t know then that she’d gone through a bout of mental trouble at twenty. Even if I had known there’d have been no backing out, but rather I would have worn the fact in my buttonhole to show everyone what a noble sort I was.
So many presents piled on the sideboard gave me a funny feeling, a disturbance I couldn’t remark on because it hardly existed, and in any case it wouldn’t have been polite to do so at such a time. Around the glory of the cake was a spread-out zone of toasters, dinner-services and tea-sets, electric blankets, transistor radios, horseshoes and telegrams, records and ashtrays, plastic fruit and paper flowers, kettles and bedside lights, that everyone looked avidly over, stuff which almost brought tears into Caroline’s eyes when she passed them by to take off her dress upstairs.
Two rooms had been opened into one, and the space was full, tables put together down the middle and bordered by every chair in the house, plus a few brought by her brother in his brand-new estate car. Trimmings were up, lights on, and drink was flowing. What could go wrong with such a spread of cake and salad, ham and wine? I said so in my speech after we’d all set to. A friend from work mumbled something about going at it like a bull at a gate, but I stopped him in mid-flight. I didn’t like a thing like that, because I considered it the vilest kind of talk. Times were changing, and there was no call for smutty humour any more. It brought silence for a few moments, but I noticed how Caroline smiled her thanks, and that was good enough for me. As for Bernie, I’d plaster him when I got back to work, unless it slipped my mind, which it most likely would. I was glad again. The lights were back on in the attics of my brain – except when they glimpsed that sideboard-pile of presents.
‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ I shouted, and they fell quiet. ‘Friends,
‘Married!’ Bernie shouted, my old friend.
‘Married. Thank you. That was it. To tell you that I am now married! You can’t know how much it means to me when I tell you that, but I thought I’d explain the presence of all this food and drink, and those gifts you can see behind me, all that fantastic stack of gifts … otherwise you might wonder!’
‘Good old Richard.’
‘Get on with it then!’ That was from Bernie again. He never could leave well alone.
‘So here’s a toast to my presence here, and to Caroline, and to all of you who’ve come to honour us. We left it rather late, but better that, I feel, than the other way. I’m not much of a hand at weddings, this being my first. I didn’t go to my parents’, like some people I’ve met who might have done, so excuse any lack of formality, dear friends.’ I was sweating now, and more and more toasts didn’t help. Neither did the food, which I wasn’t able to touch. The arrangement was that we’d stay in the house that night, and leave for Hastings at ten the next morning, and train times kept going round in my head.
The only thing now was to render a couple of songs for them, which I did. My voice was good, and I’d often entertained at friends’ houses and on bus-outings from work. I gave them, but mainly for Caroline’s sake, because I knew she loved both: ‘I’ll Walk Beside You’ and ‘Abide With Me’. But that was the last time I did any such thing, which was a pity, because I was always proud of my voice.
One by one they left, wishing me luck and happiness. I felt like going with them, shaking hands with the bride and invisible bridegroom, bestowing on them the best of health, then vanishing into the autumn dusk of chip smells, fog and freedom. Yet it was my wedding, proved by those glittering and intimidating presents on the sideboard, above all by that pagoda of pots, the kingpin dinner-service in dazzling flowers and cottages. I couldn’t believe I’d have to use them for the rest of my life, drink out of them, eat off them, warm myself by them. One or two people didn’t want to leave, or were too drunk to do so, and the trouble is I wasn’t too drunk to envy them. But I remembered my position as man and husband of the house, and helped them out into the street.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes