New and Collected Stories, p.3Alan Sillitoe
So before I knew where I was I was inside the baker’s office watching Mike picking up that cash box after he’d struck a match to see where it was, wearing a tailor-made fifty-shilling grin on his square crew-cut nut as his paws closed over the box like he’d squash it to nothing. ‘Out,’ he suddenly said, shaking it so’s it rattled. ‘Let’s scram.’
‘Maybe there’s some more,’ I said, pulling half a dozen drawers out of a rollertop desk.
‘No,’ he said, like he’d already been twenty years in the game, ‘this is the lot,’ patting his tin box, ‘this is it.’
I pulled out another few drawers, full of bills, books and letters. ‘How do you know, you loony sod?’
He barged past me like a bull at a gate. ‘Because I do.’
Right or wrong, we’d both got to stick together and do the same thing. I looked at an ever-loving babe of a brand-new typewriter, but knew it was too traceable, so blew it a kiss, and went out after him. ‘Hang on,’ I said, pulling the door to, ‘we’re in no hurry.’
‘Not much we aren’t,’ he says over his shoulder.
‘We’ve got months to splash the lolly,’ I whispered as we crossed the yard, ‘only don’t let that gate creak too much or you’ll have the narks tuning-in.’
‘You think I’m barmy?’ he said, creaking the gate so that the whole street heard.
I don’t know about Mike, but now I started to think, of how we’d get back safe through the streets with that money-box up my jumper. Because he’d clapped it into my hand as soon as we’d got to the main road, which might have meant that he’d started thinking as well, which only goes to show how you don’t know what’s in anybody else’s mind unless you think about things yourself. But as far as my thinking went at that moment it wasn’t up to much, only a bit of fright that wouldn’t budge not even with a hot blow-lamp, about what we’d say if a copper asked us where we were off to with that hump in my guts.
‘What is it?’ he’d ask, and I’d say: ‘A growth.’ ‘What do you mean, a growth, my lad?’ he’d say back, narky like. I’d cough and clutch myself like I was in the most tripe-twisting pain in the world, and screw my eyes up like I was on my way to the hospital, and Mike would take my arm like he was the best pal I’d got. ‘Cancer,’ I’d manage to say to Narker, which would make his slow punch-drunk brain suspect a thing or two. ‘A lad of your age?’ So I’d groan again, and hope to make him feel a real bully of a bastard, which would be impossible, but anyway: ‘It’s in the family, Dad died of it last month, and I’ll die of it next month by the feel of it.’ ‘What, did he have it in the guts?’ ‘No, in the throat. But it’s got me in the stomach.’ Groan and cough. ‘Well, you shouldn’t be out like this if you’ve got cancer, you should be in the hospital.’ I’d get ratty now: ‘That’s where I’m trying to go if only you’d let me and stop asking so many questions. Aren’t I, Mike?’ Grunt from Mike as he unslung his cosh. Then just in time the copper would tell us to get on our way, kind and considerate all of a sudden, saying that the outpatient department of the hospital closes at twelve, so hadn’t he better call a taxi? He would if we liked, he says, and he’d pay for it as well. But we tell him not to bother, that he’s a good bloke even if he is a copper, that we know a short cut anyway. Then just as we’re turning a corner he gets it into his big batchy head that we’re going the opposite way to the hospital, and calls us back. So we’d start to run … if you can call all that thinking.
Up in my room Mike rips open the money-box with a hammer and chisel, and before we know where we are we’ve got seventy-eight pounds fifteen and fourpence ha’penny each lying all over my bed like tea spread out on Christmas Day: cake and trifle, salad and sandwiches, jam tarts and bars of chocolate: all shared alike between Mike and me because we believed in equal work and equal pay, just like the comrades my dad was in until he couldn’t do a stroke anymore and had no breath left to argue with. I thought how good it was that blokes like that poor baker didn’t stash all his cash in one of the big marble-fronted banks that take up every corner of the town, how lucky for us that he didn’t trust them no matter how many millions of tons of concrete or how many iron bars and boxes they were made of, or how many coppers kept their blue pop-eyed peepers glued on to them, how smashing it was that he believed in money-boxes when so many shopkeepers thought it old-fashioned and tried to be modern by using a bank, which wouldn’t give a couple of sincere, honest, hardworking, conscientious blokes like Mike and me a chance.
Now you’d think, and I’d think, and anybody with a bit of imagination would think, that we’d done as clean a job as could ever be done, that, with the baker’s shop being at least a mile from where we lived, and with not a soul having seen us, and what with the fog and the fact that we weren’t more than five minutes in the place, that the coppers should never have been able to trace us. But then, you’d be wrong. I’d be wrong, and everybody else would be wrong, no matter how much imagination was diced out between us.
Even so, Mike and I didn’t splash the money about, because that would have made people think straightaway that we’d latched on to something that didn’t belong to us. Which wouldn’t do at all, because even in a street like ours there are people who love to do a good turn for the coppers, though I never know why they do. Some people are so mean-gutted that even if they’ve only got tuppence more than you and they think you’re the sort that would take it if you have half the chance, they’d get you put inside if they saw you ripping lead out of a lavatory, even if it weren’t their lavatory – just to keep their tuppence out of your reach. And so we didn’t do anything to let on about how rich we were, nothing like going down town and coming back dressed in brand-new Teddy boy suits and carrying a set of skiffle-drums like another pal of ours who’d done a factory office about six months before. No, we took the odd bobs and pennies out and folded the notes into bundles and stuffed them up the drainpipe outside the door in the backyard. ‘Nobody’ll ever think of looking for it there,’ I said to Mike. ‘We’ll keep it doggo for a week or two, then take a few quid a week out till it’s all gone. We might be thieving bastards, but we’re not green.’
Some days later a plain-clothes dick knocked at the door. And asked for me. I was still in bed, at eleven o’clock, and had to unroll myself from the comfortable black sheets when I heard mam calling me. ‘A man to see you,’ she said. ‘Hurry up, or he’ll be gone.’
I could hear her keeping him at the back door, nattering about how fine it had been and how it looked like rain since early this morning – and he didn’t answer her except to snap out a snotty yes or no. I scrambled into my trousers and wondered why he’d come – knowing it was a copper because ‘a man to see you’ always meant just that in our house – and if I’d had any idea that one had gone to Mike’s house as well at the same time I’d have twigged it to be because of that seventy quids’ worth of paper stuffed up the drainpipe outside the back door about ten inches away from the plain-clothed copper’s boot, where mam still talked to him thinking she was doing me a favour, and I wishing to God she’d ask him in, though on second thoughts realizing that that would seem more suspicious than keeping him outside, because they know we hate their guts and smell a rat if they think we’re trying to be nice to them. Mam wasn’t born yesterday, I thought, thumping my way down the creaking stairs.
I’d seen him before: Borstal Bernard in nicky-hat, Remand Home Ronald in rowing-boat boots, Probation Pete in a pitprop mackintosh, three months clink in collar and tie (all this out of a Borstal skiffle-ballad that my new mate made up, and I’d tell you it in full but it doesn’t belong in this story), a ’tec who’d never had as much in his pockets as that drainpipe had up its jackses. He was like Hitler in the face, right down to the paint-brush tash, except that being six-foot tall made him seem worse. But I straightened my shoulders to look into his illiterate blue eyes – like I always do with any copper.
Then he started asking me questions, and my mother from behind said: ‘He’s never left that television
‘Well, you know where Papplewick Street is, don’t you?’ the copper asked me, taking no notice of mam.
‘Ain’t it off Alfreton Road?’ I asked him back, helpful and bright.
‘You know there’s a baker’s half-way down on the left-hand side, don’t you?’
‘Ain’t it next door to a pub, then?’ I wanted to know.
He answered me sharp: ‘No, it bloody well ain’t.’ Coppers always lose their tempers as quick as this, and more often than not they gain nothing by it. ‘Then I don’t know it,’ I told him, saved by the bell.
He slid his big boot round and round the doorstep. ‘Where were you last Friday night?’ Back in the ring, but this was worse than a boxing match.
I didn’t like him trying to accuse me of something he wasn’t sure I’d done. ‘Was I at the baker’s you mentioned? Or in the pub next door?’
‘You’ll get five years in Borstal if you don’t give me a straight answer,’ he said, unbuttoning his mac even though it was cold where he was standing.
‘I was glued to the telly, like mam says,’ I swore blind. But he went on and on with his looney questions: ‘Have you got a television?’
The things he asked wouldn’t have taken in a kid of two, and what else could I say to the last one except: ‘Has the aerial fell down? Or would you like to come in and see it?’
He was liking me even less for saying that. ‘We know you weren’t listening to the television set last Friday, and so do you, don’t you?’
‘P’raps not, but I was looking at it, because sometimes we turn the sound down for a bit of fun.’ I could hear mam laughing from the kitchen, and I hoped Mike’s mam was doing the same if the cops had gone to him as well.
‘We know you weren’t in the house,’ he said, starting up again, cranking himself with the handle. They always say ‘We’ ‘We’ never ‘I’ ‘I’ – as if they feel braver and righter knowing there’s a lot of them against only one.
‘I’ve got witnesses,’ I said to him. ‘Mam for one. Her fancy-man, for two. Ain’t that enough? I can get you a dozen more, or thirteen altogether, if it was a baker’s that got robbed.’
‘I don’t want no lies,’ he said, not catching on about the baker’s dozen. Where do they scrape cops up from anyway? ‘All I want is to get from you where you put that money.’
Don’t get mad, I kept saying to myself, don’t get mad – hearing mam setting out cups and saucers and putting the pan on the stove for bacon. I stood back and waved him inside like I was the butler. ‘Come and search the house. If you’ve got a warrant.’
‘Listen, my lad,’ he said, like the dirty bullying jumped-up bastard he was, ‘I don’t want too much of your lip, because if we get you down to the Guildhall you’ll get a few bruises and black-eyes for your trouble.’ And I knew he wasn’t kidding either, because I’d heard about all them sort of tricks. I hoped one day though that him and all his pals would be the ones to get the black-eyes and kicks, you never knew. It might come sooner than anybody thinks, like in Hungary. ‘Tell me where the money is, and I’ll get you off with probation.’
‘What money?’ I asked him, because I’d heard that one before as well.
‘You know what money.’
‘Do I look as though I’d know owt about money?’ I said pushing my fist through a hole in my shirt.
‘The money that was pinched, that you know all about,’ he said. ‘You can’t trick me, so it’s no use trying.’
‘Was it three-and-eightpence ha’penny?’ I asked.
‘You thieving young bastard. We’ll teach you to steal money that doesn’t belong to you.’
I turned my head around: ‘Mam,’ I called out, ‘get my lawyer on the blower, will you?’
‘Clever, aren’t you?’ he said in an unfriendly way, ‘but we won’t rest until we clear all this up.’
‘Look,’ I pleaded, as if about to sob my socks off because he’d got me wrong, ‘it’s all very well us talking like this, it’s like a game almost, but I wish you’d tell me what it’s all about, because honest-to-God I’ve just got out of bed and here you are at the door talking about me having pinched a lot of money, money that I don’t know anything about.’
He swung around now as if he’d trapped me, though I couldn’t see why he might think so. ‘Who said anything about money? I didn’t. What made you bring money into this little talk we’re having?’
‘It’s you,’ I answered, thinking he was going barmy, and about to start foaming at the chops, ‘you’ve got money on the brain, like all policemen. Baker’s shops as well.’
He screwed his face up. ‘I want an answer from you: where’s the money?’
But I was getting fed-up with all this. ‘I’ll do a deal.’
Judging by his flash-bulb face he thought he was suddenly onto a good thing. ‘What sort of a deal?’
So I told him: ‘I’ll give you all the money I’ve got, one and fourpence ha’penny, if you stop this third-degree and let me go in and get my breakfast. Honest, I’m clambed to death. I ain’t had a bite since yesterday. Can’t you hear my guts rollin’?’
His jaw dropped, but on he went, pumping me for another half hour. A routine check-up they say on the pictures. But I knew I was winning on points.
Then he left, but came back in the afternoon to search the house. He didn’t find a thing, not a French farthing. He asked me questions again and I didn’t tell him anything except lies, lies, lies, because I can go on doing that forever without batting an eyelid. He’d got nothing on me and we both of us knew it, otherwise I’d have been down the Guildhall in no time, but he kept on keeping on because I’d been in a Remand Home for a high-wall job before; and Mike was put through the same mill because all the local cops knew he was my best pal.
When it got dark me and Mike were in our parlour with a low light on and the telly off, Mike taking it easy in the rocking chair and me slouched out on the settee, both of us puffing a packet of Woods. With the door bolted and curtains drawn we talked about the dough we’d crammed up the drainpipe. Mike thought we should take it out and both of us do a bunk to Skegness or Cleethorpes for a good time in the arcades, living like lords in a boarding house near the pier, then at least we’d both have had a big beano before getting sent down.
‘Listen, you daft bleeder,’ I said, ‘we aren’t going to get caught at all, and we’ll have a good time, later.’ We were so clever we didn’t even go out to the pictures, though we wanted to.
In the morning old Hitler-face questioned me again, with one of his pals this time, and the next day they came, trying as hard as they could to get something out of me, but I didn’t budge an inch. I know I’m showing off when I say this, but in me he’d met his match, and I’d never give in to questions no matter how long it was kept up. They searched the house a couple of times as well, which made me think they thought they really had something to go by, but I know now that they hadn’t, and that it was all buckshee speculation. They turned the house upside down and inside out like an old sock, went from top to bottom and front to back but naturally didn’t find a thing. The copper even poked his face up the front-room chimney (that hadn’t been used or swept for years) and came down looking like Al Jolson so that he had to swill himself clean at the scullery sink. They kept tapping and pottering around the big aspidistra plant that grandma had left to mam, lifting it up from the table to look under the cloth, putting it aside so’s they could move the table and get at the boards under the rug – but the big-headed stupid ignorant bastards never once thought of emptying the soil out of the plant pot, where they’d have found the crumpled-up money-box that we’d buried the night we did the job. I suppose it’s still there now I
The last time he knocked at our door was one wet morning at five minutes to nine and I was sleep-logged in my crumby bed as usual. Mam had gone to work for the day so I shouted for him to hold on a bit, and then went down to see who it was. There he stood, six-feet tall and sopping wet, and for the first time in my life I did a spiteful thing I’ll never forgive myself for: I didn’t ask him to come in out of the rain, because I wanted him to get double pneumonia and die. I suppose he could have pushed by me and come in if he’d wanted, but maybe he’d got used to asking questions on the doorstep and didn’t want to be put off by changing his ground even though it was raining. Not that I don’t like being spiteful because of any barmy principle I’ve got, but this bit of spite, as it turned out, did me no good at all. I should have treated him as a brother I hadn’t seen for twenty years and dragged him in for a cup of tea and a fag, told him about the picture I hadn’t seen the night before, asking him how his wife was after her operation and whether they’d shaved her moustache off to make it, and then sent him happy and satisfied out by the front door. But no, I thought, let’s see what he’s got to say for himself now.
He stood a little to the side of the door, either because it was less wet there, or because he wanted to see me from a different angle, perhaps having found it monotonous to watch a bloke’s face always telling lies from the same side. ‘You’ve been identified,’ he said, twitching raindrops from his tash. ‘A woman saw you and your mate yesterday and she swears blind you are the same chaps she saw going into that bakery.’
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes