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New and collected storie.., p.30
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       New and Collected Stories, p.30

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  I didn’t go to work for three days. Nor did I eat during that time, and I think it was this more than me actually hitting her back which finally made her turn the way she did. If I’d just hit her and carried on as if nothing had happened, things might in some strange way have got better between us, in spite of my inability at the moment to see how they ever could. But in breaking the normal routine of life I had cracked, and this disconcerted her so much that she could never forgive me.

  I went in the spare room and lay on the single bed without a mattress, would not open the door in spite of her sobbing and knocking. In my darkness I railed at her having called in a parson to try and sort out our troubles (which after all were only a way of life and could have been stuck to the end of our days) so that the more I brooded on it the smaller my heart became. I’d grown up proud and hardworking and independent, lived by all those dead-true clichés that only mean so much when somebody spits on them.

  If I belched on my way to work I’d know I hadn’t been poisoned. The sun promised and sweet April threatened, a fusing scene of unease and well-being which made the streets feel friendlier and more protective than on other days. Mist was blue and fresh in early morning, the first breath of skinless springtime over the city, and if I didn’t inhale too deeply on the doorstep it smelled pleasantly nostalgic and reminded me of the happiness I’d once had. Fortunately it didn’t pierce deeply enough to get through to the irrevocable layer of smoke and swamp underneath, which would make me wish I hadn’t lit that cigarette after putting on my hat, and that I had never got married in the first place. The trees were less brittle and blue on this particular day, faintly streaked with the emerald of spreading buds. It was a more colourful morning than I could ever remember, and it didn’t occur to me to wonder why until I reached for the rail of the bus and slid back into the gutter.

  Since my encounter with the parson she’d been out to get me. ‘How do you know it isn’t poisoned?’ she’d smile on bringing my tea up in the morning, said it so often that after a couple of months I didn’t believe it was any more. If I’d had any sense I should have booted her out the first time she said it, but it had always been my biggest fault, to think quick and act slow.

  I might have known something was wrong when she said goodbye in an almost affectionate tone. The tea tasted strange, but she said the milk had gone off, and I thought no more about it till my legs weakened and my heart raced, and it burst as I reached out for the bus. She’d been grinding up sleeping pills, and because of overtime I hadn’t got in till ten the night before. I fell into bed and slept like an ox, and welcomed the bedside tea next morning with a smile.

  I woke up in hospital, and for the first time in my life I both thought and acted quick at the same time. What made me spout the right words I don’t know, but it wasn’t reason, and it wasn’t emotion either. Nor was it a sense of love and protection I owed to my wife, because from then on Caroline would never be a wife to me again. We’d mean nothing to each other. She had brought on us the law of the jungle by trying to kill me, and I’d never let myself live in a jungle. And yet, who knows really what the jungle is like, and what goes on in the mind of animals who live in it? Do animals kill more of one another than men do? Maybe this was spinning in my mind when I woke up and blurted out: ‘I didn’t mean to kill myself. I took the tablets by mistake.’ I smiled when I saw how easy it was to make them believe me no matter what Caroline might say.

  But she knew how to handle her side of life too; came to see me during my few days in hospital, walked up to the bed with a bunch of flowers and a widow’s smile, as if just back from my burial service at church. We’d finished each other off with such utter completeness that it almost made me sad. I wanted to shout to the nurse: ‘Take her out! Go on, or I’ll really kill myself!’ – except that it would have showed up my lie on coming out of the dark.

  She sat by the bed, so triumphant I could almost have fallen in love with her for the last time.

  ‘What did you tell them?’ she asked.

  ‘That I didn’t mean to kill myself. What nice flowers.’

  ‘They’re for you.’

  ‘They’d have looked more fitting on my grave. Take them away.’

  ‘I’ll ask one of the nurses to put them in water as I go out. Why did you tell them that?’ She straightened my pillow, all wifelike.

  ‘Will you do it again?’

  Her smile was wide, right at the deep end. ‘Do what?’

  ‘Try to murder me.’

  A blush of anger went over her. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

  I laughed, really happy for the first time that she hadn’t succeeded. ‘That’s the stuff. Better to have it on your conscience than me on mine.’ The nurse, smiling a young beautiful unencumbered smile, came up with my tea-tray.

  ‘You always were good at self-sacrifice,’ Caroline said.

  ‘Better than sacrifice,’ I quipped. ‘Don’t go. Let them see how you love me, or they’ll suspect you tried to kill me. Stay and pour my tea.’

  Tears were in her eyes, and she stood up. ‘How can you joke about it?’

  ‘Look,’ I pleaded, ‘let’s go hand-in-hand into the loony-bin: they’ll separate us at the gate, but what an end for us! What a gesture! You can show me the way there since you’ve been in already.’

  ‘I hope it’s not true,’ she said, ‘that men and women aren’t made to live together.’

  ‘I know two that aren’t, anyway.’

  ‘You are mad,’ she said. ‘Now I do know.’

  ‘Get away,’ I cried. ‘Don’t come here to torment me. I forgive you, so what more do you want?’ And I did forgive her, because that was the only thing left for me to free myself from her completely.

  It was the end, and should have been the beginning, but I stamped it right out of us. Some people split up after ten years in a state of emotional squalor, a decade of under-development, but at least we’d done better than that, in about half the time. Our marriage had been a terrifying mistake which had been allowed to go on only through inanition and neurosis. I for one couldn’t go back. I didn’t want to. And there were certain things I wouldn’t go forward to, either. What have I got to lose? I wondered. Everything, I told myself, but lose it, nevertheless, because underneath the love you have for someone else, the battle for your own survival goes on even more remorselessly.

  It was the end, also, of what went into the psychiatrists’ tape-recorder. They wanted to hear about my childhood and the earliest memories of family life, but I was only willing to tell them what had been bothering me. I’ve reconstructed the tape out of my head, because I naturally never got a copy of it. I spent a long time in that office, sitting in an ordinary leather armchair, and talking while those infernal wheels of the tape-machine slowly revolved.

  When I first went in the two psychiatrists were chatting normally about what was on at the pictures and what books they’d been reading, altogether ignoring me for a few minutes, as if this was part of their policy. Then I was offered a cigarette, which I was glad of, though they never really put me at ease. Doctor Brown, the one in charge, was short, slim, and had ginger hair, and reminded me of a man who works at the factory – under me. Yet I was half-afraid of them, tardy at going in and diffident when I got there, taking the lift to their big room of an office in a building behind the council house.

  Since I’d admitted trying to kill myself the idea of my going there was rather insisted on, though at least I was able to choose a good private man recommended by my own GP. I didn’t want my brain chopping about just because I’d reacted with the finer instinct of an animal in trying not to get the same thing done or worse to Caroline. It was bad enough having the neighbours point at me when I walked up the street, bad for any man to stand, while she was talked to with deference and understanding because she had a husband who was sick in the head. Once your pride starts to go, the wind takes it a long way. Still, she needed people to talk to her more than I needed them to t
alk to me. I never spoke another word to her, because, when I’d said it was the end between us, that was the way I made it turn out. I’ve always been a moral man who realizes his value to society, but there’s a limit to what one can be expected to take – or should be. Social laws are to be kept up to a point because they make life easier among the pain and squalor, but when you stray by mistake into a swamp you are obliged to fight for your life and get out of it. If you can’t keep your dignity, then all laws have to be thrown overboard.

  During that long talk to the psychiatrists I held on to mine, though it wasn’t easy, doing something no part of my soul wanted to, yet having to whether I liked it or not. I simply told my story, and almost felt pleased that they and the tape were listening to me, sensed the good that might come if I gave myself into it, the comfort at being able to spout hour after hour about myself and my so-called troubles and having no one to chelp me back, only to help me when and if they could. I suppose that was the nearest I got to real madness, because there was nothing wrong with me, seeing how they should have had someone else under the arc-lights.

  ‘Doctor Ridgeway and I will go through this tape,’ Brown said, ‘and we’ll have another session at the same time next week. All we need do in your case is continue these little talks for a while.’

  He seemed lighthearted about it, and I can’t blame him, since he was dealing with a sane man. Maybe other people he treats are sane also. Still, I was thankful it wasn’t as unpleasant as I’d imagined, and that I didn’t have reason to wish that Caroline hadn’t under-estimated the dose necessary to kill me.

  The drizzle and mist of the city felt good outside, mid-morning traffic quietened by it. A comforting sense of freedom fell on me as I stood in the doorway and lit a cigarette before stepping into it. I’d go for a cup of coffee before taking the bus home. Yet the gulf seemed to be actually and physically under my feet, and I tried to step lightly in my walk. It was now, having talked it out, that I felt as if there was nothing left between me and Caroline, and in another way between me and the world. We were finished, pulling ourselves apart and to pieces, and I thought for a minute that every man and woman married or living together were really also in this state, the whole of their way of life about to fly apart. And you might ask, what would we have then? Well, you tell me.

  But I was fed up with the past, after all that tape-work. To think so much about the past is like a desperate and unhappy person running back to his mother for comfort. Life would be so much easier if what you thought and what you did bore some relationship to each other. And yet when I felt for the macintosh on my arm, and realized that I’d left it in the psychiatrists’ office, I had a clean and uncomfortable feeling that they did in too many vital ways.

  I went up on the lift, and back in again. There was no receptionist to announce me, but I didn’t think it mattered, since they were such pleasant informal people. Those inside didn’t notice my entrance, being so involved in what they were listening to. An inane tune was jigging through my head, and this may have helped me to remain self-absorbed and unnoticed for so long.

  Hearing them replay the tape, it was now that I properly enumerated the furnishings of the office. Desk, pictures, books, three chairs – how bare and empty it was, how hollow now that I stood in as one of them, but for a minute unbeknown to them, no longer part of the furniture, listening to my own voice going towards every corner of the room. I’d heard myself on tape before, so recognized its low-keyed, precise, cocksure, rambling vibration touching off their laughter.

  Doctor Brown, who was controlling the machine, switched it to another section of my talk that he was anxious for them to hear. All three were in on it, one a tall broad man, as well as those I already knew. ‘He tried to kill himself, and now he says it was his wife who tried to murder him.’

  ‘Delusions of paranoia,’ said the new man knowingly.

  ‘Listen to this then,’ laughed Doctor Brown, and clicked the reel forward with as much zeal as if the forthcoming funny bit had actually been made up by him, and he wanted the credit for it, so that they could gag about it all through lunch.

  So on my voice went, telling of my fight with the parson. At first I couldn’t believe they were amused by me, and my mind was flitting around inside itself searching for some parallel motive which might be entertaining them. It was as if, while listening seriously to my talk, they remembered a joke spent between them an hour before and were merely laughing at that. But they were too engrossed in the tape for such to be true, which was also lucky, in that I stayed by the door some time before anyone noticed me. The pain was compounded when part of me also, on hearing their continual laughter, thought that my long confession was funny, and I felt grateful to them for laughing at it, and almost wanted to join in and relax about it with them. But this was only a passing slim impulse – which was the forerunner of the most total black rage I’ve ever felt. It was beyond shame, spoiled vanity, insult, not even a matter of them being wrong in what they were doing. Everything in my mind was quick and clear, and I’ve never known black anger to do that, because it left my judgement free when it seemed more necessary than ever in my life before or since.

  They flicked the reel, and it hummed along till it settled on the final meeting with my wife by the hospital bedside. They even found this hilarious, but to me it was interesting, my carefully rehearsed story that had been going through my head for weeks at last pinned down. I didn’t think it funny though, and wanted them to stop joking about it so that I could follow what was being said, as if it weren’t me on the tape at all.

  ‘You always were good at self-sacrifice,’ Caroline said.

  ‘Better than sacrifice,’ I quipped. ‘Don’t go. Let them see how you love me, or they’ll suspect you tried to kill me. Stay and pour my tea.’

  Tears were in her eyes, and she stood up. ‘How can you joke about it?’

  ‘Look,’ I pleaded, ‘let’s go hand-in-hand into the loony-bin: they’ll separate us at the gate, but what an end for us! What a gesture! You can show me the way there since you’ve been in already.’

  ‘I hope it’s not true,’ she said, ‘that men and women aren’t made to live together.’

  ‘I know two that aren’t, anyway.’

  ‘You are mad,’ she said. ‘Now I do know.’

  ‘Get away,’ I cried. ‘Don’t come here to torment me. I forgive you, so what more do you want?’ And I did forgive her, because that was the only thing left for me to free myself from her completely.

  They laughed. ‘Priceless,’ said Doctor Brown.

  ‘Turn it to the wedding, then,’ said his colleague.

  ‘Let’s have lunch first. We’ll go right through it this afternoon.’ Nevertheless he flicked back the tape to the marriage part, as if it were going to play them out like a signature tune. ‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘these damn schizos give me the horrors. Which is why I listen to them, I suppose.’

  ‘Must be,’ said the other, with a dry laugh.

  Then Doctor Brown saw me.

  I’d been listening to the tape, true, but also I spied a heavy walking-stick standing in a corner. My rage was back in full, and so was my clarity, and they gave me wolfish strength. The swing of it made a magic circle around me. I wasn’t the one at bay, because I heard their voices asking me to put it down, almost pleading. ‘It wasn’t nice, ethical, or clever,’ I said, ‘to laugh at me.’

  Down came a blow that shot the tape out and up into the air, sent it spiralling towards the ceiling as if the flies up there were holding a victory parade. What was left in the other half also ticker-taped up, coils of brown ribbon shooting and snapping over the room, and all three afraid to touch me or move in case I turned on them, which in my finely conscious state I had no intention of doing, though they were too cowardly to realize it.

  ‘I trusted you,’ I shouted, with another burst at the disintegrating tape jerking and squirting away from me as I finally threw down the walking-stick and went out of the room.
>
  I worked on a building-site in London as a labourer, a very high building, and all the men wondered why I had so much nerve, how it was possible that after so short a time on the job I wasn’t in the least afraid of such terrifying heights. The foreman had a good word for me, told me I knew what to do without much explanation and carried out my work calmly. He talked about giving me my own gang on a big job coming up the following year.

  As I worked, so high up, there was the sound of aeroplanes passing all day towards the airport, gracefully sloping down between me and the sky, beautiful pieces of machinery that are so much more perfect than men, and more useful. The sight of them inspired me one minute and depressed me the next. If it weren’t for the fact that men had made them, I would no longer have wanted to go on living. I was often sad at night when I could no longer see those beautiful machines. Yet I could still hear them as I lay trying to sleep, thinking that aeroplanes had replaced the old romantic noise of trains and train-whistles, and that one could fly a much longer way in them.

  Back on earth my escape had been made, out of the swamp I’d landed in but couldn’t swim in because there were too many monsters out for my arms and legs. I thought at first I might be brought back for what I did in the psychiatrists’ office and for not carrying on my treatment with them. But I heard nothing, touch wood. Perhaps they realized what damage they’d done, and so made it all right for me. If so, it’s the least (and most) they could do, and those particular ones are the sort of people a human being can deal with, if he ceases at a lucky and crucial moment to be a human being who is dependent on them – which is the least I can say for such wayward immoral bastards.

  I work hard on my job, because at the moment not much else is left, though it will be. Often on my fetching and carrying high above the river I look up into the sky. Clouds are shrouds to wrap the sun in, hustle it away to doom and ruin. But I can look down as well. In my house there are many mansions – with different coloured wallpaper, maybe, and it’s a hard house to get out of, especially if you are walking on the roof, and you can look between your feet into every room at once.

 
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