New and Collected Stories, p.29Alan Sillitoe
Everything had gone like clockwork and by the book. The last women to depart had washed the pots and straightened up. Neatness made the house so barren, yet I’d been looking forward to this moment for weeks and, I believe, so had Caroline. The fire was burning well, and now we could sit by it and relax, laugh over the day’s routine.
I kicked off with a harmless enough remark: ‘It went easier than I expected.’
‘Perfect,’ she smiled, ‘thanks to you, Richard. The service was beautiful. “Whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder”.’
‘Ay,’ I assented. ‘They know how to say it.’
‘That was it, wasn’t it?’
‘It was.’ I was conscious and absolutely clear in my brain of the effect every word was going to have before I said it, though it had no brake whatsoever on my self-control. ‘They ought to get out an EP record of the marriage service.’
‘What a marvellous idea.’
‘Add on the first night and make it an LP.’
‘The morning after would make it an album, I expect. Sell like hot cakes.’
‘Are you a bit jangled?’ she asked, having just caught the reek that all wasn’t well.
‘If you like.’
‘Can I get you some aspirin?’ My head was burning, but I said no, that I was all right. She smiled, forgiving when there was no need to be. If there had been, the balloon would have gone up already. ‘You don’t have any regrets, do you love?’
It was too early to say. Did she think that nothing more was to come? ‘None,’ I said, putting my arms around her. I loved her even more than I loved myself, and no man could say fairer than that. I was taken out of myself, as happy as if I were flying over a desert that was just sprouting flowers again. My arms tightened, and her head leaned comfortably on my shoulder. I’d drunk enough that day and perhaps it helped, yet it was something more that set my blood melting. Certainly I didn’t have to tell myself that I was four hours married in order to feel all the breeding and manners ever instilled into me drifting away.
She stood up quickly. ‘I can’t, Richard. It must be in the right way. Not yet.’
‘Why not?’ I shouldn’t have said that, but it came before I could help myself, throwing me back on to a filthy pavement at the butt-end of summer – which is about the only sort of earth I’ve ever known in my deeper moments.
‘It was the same before we were married,’ she cried. ‘Always in too much of a hurry. It’s almost uncouth.’
The ‘almost’ clawed right through me, a mincing qualification that would have made a plain ‘uncouth’ laughable by comparison. It bit deep, sounded like the worst of insults, because a real insult is when somebody tells something about yourself you’ve half-known all along. That’s the cut. If you are told something you couldn’t possibly have known, you just laugh, because it’s not true, what you could not know.
I was unable to answer, and she thought I was sulking in order to get my own back. ‘Why spoil it?’ she said. ‘Would you like a glass of sherry?’
I screwed out a smile. Maybe Bernie had been right after all about a bull at a gate. ‘Please, love.’
‘A slice of ham?’ she called from the kitchen.
Blood in my mouth: I’d bitten my tongue. ‘No thanks.’ I looked around and the spread of presents shrivelled my brain. It was a carnival that lacked a death’s head, skull and crossbones and the King Snapdragon of the lot. I closed my eyes, then opened them with the thought that if I didn’t they might stay shut forever. I spied a heavy poker standing by the fire, one of the gifts already unpacked, squared-off at one end and falling to a point, a beautiful instrument made by a couple of friends at work, the firm’s metal but their skill and sweat – and regard for me.
I picked it up, weighed and balanced it, lifted it high and stood over the whole patchwork regalia. I’ve always taken pride in my arm strength, felt it gathering now in my shoulders for a job to be bloody well done.
There was a shout from the doorway: ‘Richard!’
Her face was white, thinner than I’d ever seen it, and I saw then how much this so-called marriage ceremony had worn her out. I was filled with pity, which I knew to be good and honest because I lowered the poker.
‘What are you doing?’ she righteously demanded.
‘Feeling the weight of it. It’s a lovely piece of work. Last forever, if you ask me.’
She put the tray down. ‘You were going to do something you’d never forgive yourself for. And I wouldn’t want you to do that, because I’ve got to live with you.’ She was always lucid during trouble, and I admired her for it. We looked at each other. She couldn’t stand the silence like I could, after such a day, and I can’t blame her. ‘Oh dear,’ she said in sudden exultation as if that organ music was starting all over again. ‘I was right.’
I had a blinding vision of our four wounded parents squatting among that trash like a collection of grinning gnome-faced jugs, prophesying and winking at each other over the idiotic unknown step I’d taken with the darling of my life, their hats askew and atremble in delight at what we were about to do to ourselves, which was all that they had done, right to the point of out-living regret and bitterness by the time old age came upon them, which lasted a few years and enabled them to fix a grin forever that advised us to live through the rottenness like them, because we’d come to enjoy it in the end and join them in helping to pass it down to oncoming innocents forever.
The force of my arm drove a canyon down that dinner-service and split it asunder, quartered and shattered it by wave after wave of strength and agony. It was rocking, knocking every transistor out of its pocket, buckling ashtrays, irons, pot-dogs, bowls, bows, a shop-window of all the catalogue-goods of servitude spending under my poker quicker than they’d ever reach the dustbin by normal wear and tear. When I thought there was nothing left, I noticed a walnut polished biscuit-barrel untouched at one corner on the edge of the bomb damage. Coaxing it into the middle – no cooper would ever own it from henceforth – I splayed it flat like a star.
I must have taken my time over it, because Caroline had her coat on, a suitcase by her side that she’d gone to Butlin’s with the year before. ‘Right,’ I said, sitting exhausted on one of the stools, ‘going home, are you?’
‘Yes,’ she answered coolly, while my own breath could hardly move.
‘But this is your home, so let’s have your coat off. Put that case away and be sensible.’
‘You really want me to?’
She waited a while, the silence on her side now. ‘All right, Richard, I will stay.’
I didn’t like the way she looked at me while taking off her coat, but then, had I any right to?
Every time Caroline came up in the morning and placed a cup of tea at my bedside she said: ‘How do you know it’s not poisoned?’ and walked downstairs again, leaving me to wonder.
I knew it wasn’t, but how could a man be sure? Not me, certainly, because even in the face of anyone as good as gold I’d never have the nerve to be sure of them. Blind love and adoration would only make me suspicious, while the pure hatred I was now getting couldn’t make it much worse. But the world had to go on, and I never knew whether or not my tea was poisoned till I’d stepped on the bus for work, for if the gripes hadn’t struck by then I could begin to hope again. Usually the bus was so cold I even stopped sweating. It was a bad winter.
According to a newspaper read at lunchbreak one day, marital difficulties are the greatest cause of divorce. As if I didn’t know, being a realistic man. I’ve known some people though, and I won’t mention any names, who seem to regard marriage as a pact wherein each party promises to drive the other mad or kill in the attempt. But it appears to me that most divorces come about because people grow bored with each other – though Caroline and I never got bored, and consequently we had to find another way to split up.
For Christmas she gave me a box of Cuban cigars, plastered wit
She stood up and walked out of the room, vowing never to speak to me again, but later that night when I was taking off my shirt she said: ‘Hasn’t anyone ever told you that patience and understanding are needed in this world?’ She spoke with lips close together, as if to stop her false teeth falling out should she grow too emotional – but she had no false teeth.
‘Not yet, they haven’t,’ I answered with a smile.
‘What you want,’ she said sharply, ‘is for some barbarian to come along and civilize you.’
I fell in love with her again, kept falling in love at forty as much as I had done at twenty. When I admitted this she called me a case of arrested development, not to have altered in all those years. The fact that I’d married someone like her, she said, proved it.
The trouble was, I’d married late, for while living was pleasant I took my time and held it off. When the world was good I felt no reason to be good back to it. I worked too hard for that. I know now that I’d been selfish, but if I saw in those days all that I know now I don’t see how I could have gone on living, so it’s a good job I didn’t. You’re too busy making what’s in store for you to think about the future when it comes – or when it doesn’t, I told myself. The world’s got to go round, after all.
She called me a monster of selfishness when I told her all this, and maybe I did become one, yet I wasn’t too selfish not to fall in with her wish and have a church wedding. I’ve never believed in religious claptrap, but I loved her, and she was fervent in wishing for it, to say the least, and love makes a man honourable in that he’ll do anything for his beloved. He might undo it all again later, though I wasn’t to know that at the time.
Love is like childhood – golden to recall. Galling moments are forgotten, and all those wasted words and waves of anguish vanish before the mystic flights of going to bed, fall like lees of sand to the sea-bottom. I know it, especially if I keep telling myself, over and over again. But I can place the end of what might be called our love with the exactitude of a carpenter’s rule.
We were lying on the bed one summer’s evening after making love, naked and calm, and full of affection, even though our modesty had gone. Her face looked at mine, and she smiled, beautiful and tender, as if we had never known anyone else but each other and had been continually in a state of sublime love from the very first moment. Our kisses were pure, the prime height of emotional life. Caroline smiled again, and as I looked at her an unexpected voice, out of place but unmistakable, came into my mind and said to her: ‘Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.’ She was not allowed to hear it, and I smiled back, alarmed yet thrilled at the intruding voice, which I knew to be as true as the dead wood in my heart.
But it wasn’t over yet – not by a long way. We had our distractions, being a serious couple. She read magazines and romantic fiction, while I went in for a better class of book because I was hard to satisfy in that spiritual way. Otherwise I might have gone to church on Sunday morning like she kept on doing. But I’d only twiddle my thumbs there, want to take a book out and read till it was all over. So I didn’t shame her by going, preferred to brood and read, and hug my mood in the hope of becoming familiar with what was happening inside myself. I’d never allow any preacher to tell me anything, or stop me knowing myself. I sometimes thought I might like to, but the fact was that I couldn’t. I never talked much to other men, being a foreman at work, which gave me some advantage in that at least I could talk to myself with some possibility of not being misunderstood.
In spite of our ups and downs, and the times when we knew in our hearts that it was finished for sure, we were in love for a long time – two years to be precise and show you the exact nature of our optimism. We’d occasionally talk about what we’d do if we had all the money in the world, the charities she’d help, the places I’d visit, the common joy of having no set work. What I omitted in my cowardly way to remind her was that if I hadn’t been going to work forty hours a week we wouldn’t have lasted together three months, because our bitterest quarrels usually took place when she got back from evensong on Sunday night. She walked in in her lilac-blue hat and high-heeled shoes, pale suit, umbrella if it was raining, and at that night’s supper when I’d been longest away from my workshop of friends and machines our fatal, final, common incompatibilities would break in on us like vixens.
One Saturday morning, when we were clearing away breakfast things, she looked straight and tenderly into my eyes. ‘Richard, I love you. You know that, don’t you?’
We stood by the kitchen door: ‘Yes, I know you do’ – and kissed her.
‘I’d never do anything to hurt you, you know that. You’re the only man I’ve ever loved, in spite of everything.’
‘Sweetheart,’ I said, wondering a little bit what was up, but thinking she was just being affectionate.
The vicar came to see her that afternoon. I’d normally have been at a football match, but the pitch was deep in snow, so I sat in the living room playing one of my classical records – I forget which. I had to turn the stereo off when he came in – though two frustrations in one day didn’t seem overmuch for me at the time.
I hadn’t seen him since that day in his cold and draughty church. Not that I had any real dislike for him, for no doubt it would have been somebody else who married us, even if only in a registry office. He was a good man as far as I knew, with a harassed wife and four kids, who lived in a crumbling vicarage opposite his place of work. An ex-RAF man (like myself, who’d been an airframe fitter through the war), he was about fifty, bald, well built, and might have been a stoker in another age.
Caroline gave an embarrassed hello, then went away busily to get tea ready. The parson sat opposite me by the fire, a sweat on his face in spite of the snow, which I suppose he’d hurried through in order to get out of.
‘Some people like snow,’ he grinned, ‘because they find it picturesque, but I think it’s a damned nuisance, really.’
‘I have inside work myself,’ I said, wanting to be agreeable. ‘As long as it doesn’t hold up the buses, and I’m able to get there. “Whom God hath joined let no man put asunder” – especially concerning his work.’ I suddenly had an idea as to why he’d come to see us, and in a detached sort of way could feel my heart choking on its own blood because of it. It was no good. I didn’t love Caroline any more. If one can ever believe in God one can only do so when one is in love. To believe at such a time is the most sublime state of all, I am sure, but I had lost even love, and therefore everything. He had come a bit too late for me to credit his help, though at the same time he could never have been early enough, either.
‘To a certain extent you’re right,’ he argued, ‘but man was created before work.’
‘I always thought God put in a good six days,’ I answered, ‘before he clocked off for the weekend and sat down to rest.’
‘All right, Mr Butler, but you know, Caroline is very unhappy about the way your marriage is going, and as she is a good member of our parish church, and as I had the great pleasure of marrying you both, I simply think that it must then be my duty as a friend and a Christian to ask if I can help you in your trouble. You must excuse this unannounced visit to your home but I imagine, rightly,’ – here he gave a fair laugh – ‘that you might not have stayed in if I’d given you notice. And I couldn’t talk to you at church because you don’t come, I’m sorry to say.’
‘Was this Caroline’s idea?’
‘Well, yes. In a way it was. But I can’t say exactly.’
I stood up. ‘Mind your own business, and clear out.’
Caroline was at the door, our best weddin
‘I’ll solve my own problems,’ I cried at them both.
‘We were made to help our fellow-men,’ the parson said in a quiet and dignified way. He stood and took me by the elbow, surprised at my violence, though confident he could handle it. But his self-assurance, sparking from insolent generations of bossiness, drew blood from my eyeballs. I was surprised at still being able to talk.
‘But not to preach to them,’ I shouted. ‘What gives you a right to understand me?’ I snapped his hand away. ‘You’ve been to college? You’ve got faith? That’ll never be enough, mate. If I need help – and I’m not so sure it’s me that needs it – then it’ll come from inside me in its own good time. You’ll just mix it up and push it back. So get out and find some slobbering grateful arthritic terrified godfearing parishioner who’s ready to peg out and needs your ministrations. Then get the Good Lord on the blower and tell Him how good you’ve been. Reverse the charges if you can’t afford it. Go on, get out of my house.’
He didn’t even say goodbye, and picked up his coat to get it on in the snow. I stood on my own two feet, though aching to hug the earth in my black piercing rage. Pride had got me like a rat, and wouldn’t let go. I was left with Caroline, whose big eyes shone mistily from a pale face. Where had I seen it before? Greens and yellows and long hair, large eyes like candleflames, pupils reaching up to the flaring tip, face derelict and phosphorous, all of it looking at bestial barbaric me through a heavy glass window. But the glass broke, and I staggered across the room at a savage blow from the tray.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes