New and Collected Stories, p.31Alan Sillitoe
I was looking down at the crowds beckoning me back to earth, but, damn them, I would not go till I was ready, not without the safe wings of flying which I felt growing in place of my arms. I would not live among them any more, not in such impersonal chaos. When I go down I might finally end up in the place I’d tried to avoid all my life, though it was true that Caroline has already been there before me without ever actually having said what it was like. I thought that if I went there she would sooner or later join me, and I didn’t want that. I imagined it to be a pretty ordered sort of existence, too much so, as I mildly walked towards the edge of the girder and began to climb down for dinner-break.
Life is long, long enough always to start again. The black pitch of energy is inexhaustible in the barrel, the spirit-fire burning underneath to keep it always at the boil and bubble. Nothing can stop it, not in me. And if we ever meet again, maybe we’ll meet as equals.
One Sunday Dave went to visit a workmate from his foundry who lived in the country near Keyworth. On the way back he pulled up by the laneside to light a fag, wanting some warmth under the leaden and freezing sky. A hen strutted from a gap in the hedge, as proud and unconcerned as if it owned the land for miles around. Dave picked it up without getting off his bike and stuffed it in a sack-like shopping-bag already weighted by a stone of potatoes. He rode off, wobbling slightly, not even time to kill it, preferring in fact the boasting smiles of getting it home alive, in spite of its thumps and noise.
It was nearly teatime. He left his bike by the back door, and walked through the scullery into the kitchen with his struggling sack held high in sudden light. His mother laughed: ‘What have you done, picked up somebody’s best cat?’
He took off his clips. ‘It’s a live chicken.’
‘Where the hell did you get that?’ She was already suspicious.
‘Bought it in Keyworth. A couple of quid. All meat, after you slit its gizzard and peel off the feathers. Make you a nice pillow, mam.’
‘It’s probably got fleas,’ Bert said.
He took it from the sack, held it by both legs with one hand while he swallowed a cup of tea with the other. It was a fine plump bird, a White Leghorn hen feathered from tail to topnotch. Its eyes were hooded, covered, and it clucked as if about to lay eggs.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘we’ll have it for dinner sometime next week’ – and told him to kill it in the backyard so that there’d be no mess in her clean scullery, but really because she couldn’t bear to see it slaughtered. Bert and Colin followed him out to see what sort of job he’d make of it.
He set his cap on the window-sill. ‘Get me a sharp knife, will you, somebody?’
‘Can you manage?’ Colin asked.
‘Who are you talking to? Listen, I did it every day when I was in Germany – me and the lads, anyway – whenever we went through a farm. I was good at it. I once killed a pig with a sledge hammer, crept up behind it through all the muck with my boots around my neck, then let smash. It didn’t even know what happened. Brained it, first go.’ He was so lit up by his own story that the chicken flapped out of his grasp, heading for the gate. Bert, knife in hand, dived from the step and gripped it firm: ‘Here you are, Dave. Get it out of its misery.’
Dave forced the neck on to a half-brick, and cut through neatly, ending a crescendo of noise. Blood swelled over the back of his hand, his nose twitching at the smell of it. Then he looked up, grinning at his pair of brothers: ‘You thought I’d need some help, did you?’ He laughed, head back, grizzled wire hair softening in the atmosphere of slowly descending mist: ‘You can come out now, mam. It’s all done.’ But she stayed wisely by the fire.
Blood seeped between his fingers, making the whole palm sticky, the back of his hand wet and freezing in bitter air. They wanted to get back inside, to the big fruit pie and tea, and the pale blinding fire that gave you spots before the eyes if you gazed at it too long. Dave looked at the twitching rump, his mouth narrow, grey eyes considering, unable to believe it was over so quickly. A feather, minute and beautiful so that he followed it up as far as possible with his eyes, spun and settled on his nose. He didn’t fancy knocking it off with the knife-hand. ‘Bert, flick it away, for Christ’s sake!’
The chicken humped under his sticky palm and hopped its way to a corner of the yard. ‘Catch it,’ Dave called, ‘or it’ll fly back home. It’s tomorrow’s dinner.’
‘I can’t,’ Bert screamed. He’d done so a minute ago, but it was a different matter now, to catch a hen on the rampage with no head.
It tried to batter a way through the wooden door of the lavatory. Dave’s well-studded boots slid along the asphalt, and his bones thumped down hard, laying him flat on his back. Full of strength, spirit and decision, it trotted up his chest and on to his face, scattering geranium petals of blood all over his best white shirt. Bert’s quick hands descended, but it launched itself from Dave’s forehead and off towards the footscraper near the back door. Colin fell on it, unable to avoid its wings spreading sharply into his eyes before doubling away.
Dave swayed on his feet. ‘Let’s get it quick.’ But three did not make a circle, and it soared over its own head and the half-brick of its execution, and was off along the pock-marked yard. You never knew which way it would dive or zigzag. It avoided all hands with uncanny skill, fighting harder now for its life than when it still had a head left to fight for and think with: it was as if the head a few feet away was transmitting accurate messages of warning and direction that it never failed to pick up, an unbreakable line of communication while blood still went through its veins and heart. When it ran over a crust of bread Colin almost expected it to bend its neck and peck at it.
‘It’ll run down in a bit, like an alarm clock,’ Dave said, blood over his trousers, coat torn at the elbow, ‘then we’ll get the bleeder.’ As it ran along the yard the grey December day was stricken by an almost soundless clucking, only half-hearted, as if from miles away, yet tangible nevertheless, maybe a diminution of its earlier protests.
The door of the next house but one was open, and when Bert saw the hen go inside he was on his feet and after it. Dave ran too, the sudden thought striking him that maybe it would shoot out of the front door as well and get run over by a trolley-bus on Wilford Road. It seemed still to have a brain and mind of its own, determined to elude them after its uncalled-for treatment at their hands. They all entered the house without thinking to knock, hunters in a state of ecstasy at having cornered their prey at last, hardly separated from the tail of the hen.
Kitchen lights were full on, a fire in the contemporary-style grate, with Mr Grady at that moment panning more coal on to it. He was an upright hard-working man who lived out his life in overtime on the building sites, except for the treat of his Sunday tea. His wife was serving food to their three grown kids and a couple of relations. She dropped the plate of salmon and screamed as the headless chicken flew up on to the table, clearly on a last bound of energy, and began to spin crazily over plates and dishes. She stared at the three brothers in the doorway.
‘What is it? Oh dear God, what are you doing? What is it?’
Mr Grady stood, a heavy poker in his hand, couldn’t speak while the animal reigned over his table, continually hopping and taking-off, dropping blood and feathers, its webbed feet scratching silently over butter and trifle, the soundless echo of clucking seeming to come from its gaping and discontinued neck.
Dave, Bert and Colin were unable to move, stared as it stamped circle-wise over bread and jelly, custard and cress. Colin was somehow expecting Mr Grady to bring down the poker and end this painful and ludicrous situation – in which the hen looked like beating them at last.
It fell dead in the salad, greenery dwarfed by snowing feathers and flecks of blood. The table was wrecked, and the reality of his ruined, hard-earned tea-party reached Mr Grady’s sensitive spot. His big face turned red, after the whiteness of shock and superstitious horror. He fixed his wild eyes on Dave, who drew back
‘You bastards,’ Grady roared, poker still in his hand and watched by all. ‘You bastards, you!’
‘I’d like my chicken back,’ Dave said, as calmly as the sight of Grady’s face and shattered table allowed.
Bert and Colin said nothing. Dave’s impetuous thieving had never brought them anything but trouble, as far as they could remember – now that things had gone wrong. All this trouble out of one chicken.
Grady girded himself for the just answer: ‘It’s my chicken now,’ he said, trying to smile over it.
‘It ain’t,’ Dave said, obstinate.
‘You sent it in on purpose,’ Grady cried, half tearful again, his great chest heaving. ‘I know you lot, by God I do. Anything for devilment.’
‘I’d like it back.’
Grady’s eyes narrowed, the poker higher. ‘Get away from my house.’
‘I’m not going till I’ve got my chicken.’
‘Get out.’ He saw Dave’s mouth about to open in further argument, but Grady was set on the ultimate word – or at least the last one that mattered, under the circumstances. He brought the poker down on the dead chicken, cracking the salad bowl, a gasp from everyone in the room, including the three brothers. ‘You should keep your animals under control,’ he raved. ‘I’m having this. Now put yourselves on the right side of my door-step or I’ll split every single head of you.’
That final thump of the poker set the full stop on all of them, as if the deathblow had been Grady’s and gave him the last and absolute right over it. They retreated. What else could you do in face of such barbarity? Grady had always had that sort of reputation. It would henceforth stick with him, and he deserved it more than ever. They would treat him accordingly.
Dave couldn’t get over his defeat and humiliation – and his loss that was all the more bitter since the hen had come to him so easily. On their way to the back door he was crying: ‘I’ll get that fat bleeding navvy. What a trick to play on somebody who lives in the same yard! I’ll get the bastard. He’ll pay for that chicken. By God he will. He’s robbed a man of his dinner. He won’t get away with a thing like that.’
But they were really thinking about what they were going to say to their mother, who had stayed in the house, and who would no doubt remind them for the next few weeks that there was some justice left in the world, and that for the time being it was quite rightly on the side of Mr Grady.
When Dick received the letter saying his father hadn’t long to live he put a black tie in his pocket, got leave from the school where he taught, and took the first train up.
In a tunnel his face was reflected clearly, brown eyes shadowed underneath from the pressure of a cold that had been trying to break out but that his will-power still held back. He considered that there had never been a good photograph taken of him, certainly none reflecting the fine image he saw when looking in the mirror of the thin-faced, hard, sensitive man whose ancestors must all have had similar bones and features. But photographs showed him weak, a face that couldn’t retain its strength at more than one angle, and that people might look at and not know whether this uncertainty was mere charm or a subtle and conscious form of deception. He had a wide mouth and the middling forehead of a practical man whose highest ambition was, once upon a time, to be a good tool-setter, until he joined the army and discovered that he was intelligent in a more worldly sense. And when he left he knew that he would never go into a factory again.
In his briefcase were a shirt and two handkerchiefs his wife had forced on him at the last moment, as well as a razor, and some magazines scooped up in case he had nothing to think about on the journey.
Sitting in the dining-car for lunch, alone yet surrounded by many people, he remembered his mother saying, when he was leaving home ten years before: ‘Well, you’ll always be able to come back. If you can’t come home again, where can you go?’ But on a visit after four years he walked into the house and, apart from a brief hello, nobody turned from the television set to greet him, though they’d been a close-blooded family, and on and off the best of friends all their lives.
So he never really went back, didn’t see himself as the sort of person who ever would. Whether he ever went forward or not was another question, but he certainly knew there was no profit in looking back. He preferred a new block of flats to a cathedral any day, a good bus-service to a Rembrandt or historic ruin, though he realized it was better to have all these things and not be in a position of having to choose.
He remembered his father saying: ‘A good soldier never looks back. He don’t even polish the backs of his boots. You can see your face in the toecaps, though.’ His father had never been a soldier, yet this was his favourite saying – because he’d never been forward anywhere, either.
So the only time he did go back was when his father was dying. It wasn’t a question of having to, or even thinking about it: he just went, stayed for a week while his father died and got buried, then came back, leaving his mother in charge of brothers and sisters, even though he was the eldest son.
He stayed with his father day and night for three days, except when he queued for pills at the all-night chemist’s downtown. He felt there was no need to make a song-and-dance about anyone dying, even your own father, because you should have done that while they were alive. He hoped he’d get better, yet knew he wouldn’t. At fifty-four a lavish and royal grip of rottenness that refused to let go had got him in the head, a giant invisible cancerous rat with the dullest yet most tenacious teeth in the world, pressing its way through that parchment skull. He sweated to death, died at a quarter to five in the afternoon, and no one had ever told him he was going to die.
His mother didn’t shed a tear. She was afraid of death and of her husband, hated him with reason because he had always without intending it turned her on to the monstrous path of having no one to hate but herself. She had hardly been in to see him during the last three days, and neither had his two daughters. Dick and his brother held each other in an embrace, two grown men unable to stop themselves sobbing like children.
A young thin woman of the neighbourhood laid the father out, and Dick went to get the doctor, who filled in a death-certificate without bothering to come and see that his patient had actually died.
The undertakers took him away. The mattress was rolled up and put outside for the dustbin men. Then the bed he’d lain on was folded back into a settee, making the small room look empty – all within an hour of him dying. An aunt who’d also lost her husband hadn’t shed a tear either. Maybe it runs in the family, he thought. At the funeral, walking from the house to the waiting car, his mother wept for the first and last time – in front of all the neighbours. Of his father’s five brothers none came to see him off, though all knew of it. It was almost as if he’d died in the middle of a battlefield, there were so few witnesses. But at least he didn’t know about it, and might not have worried much if he had. And who am I to talk? Dick wondered, much later. I never went back to his grave, and I doubt if anyone else did, either. His mother’s lack of tears didn’t strike him as strange at the time considering the life she and their father had led.
Between the death and burial he was nut-loose and roaming free. At first, the brothers, sisters and mother went out together in the evenings, sticking close in a single corner of a bar-room snug, not talking except to stand up and ask who wanted what. Once they went to the pictures, but afterwards drifted into their separate ways.
It was early May, and all he wanted to do was walk. The low small sky of the bedroom ceiling had turned to blue, white angels and angles of cloud shifting across between factory and house skyline. It was vast above, and made the streets look even smaller. He hated them, wished a fire-tailed rocket would spin from the sky and wash them clean with all-enduring phosphorus. He was thirty-three, and old enough to know better than wish for that, or to think it would come when he wanted it to, or that it would make any difference if ever it di
The greatest instinct is to go home again, the unacknowledged urge of the deracinated, the exiles – even when it isn’t admitted. The only true soul is the gipsy’s, and he takes home and family with him wherever he drifts. The nomad pushes his roots about like the beetle his ball of dung, lives on what he scavenges from the rock and sand of the desert. It’s a good man or woman who evades it and is not poisoned precisely because he has avoided it while knowing all about it. You take on the soul of the Slav, and if you can eventually find that sort of soul it falls around you like a robe and makes you feel like a king. The wandering Jew carried the secret of creation in the pocket of his long overcoat, and now he has ploughed it into the fields of Israel. The Siberian nomad has formed his collective or joined a work-gang on some giant dam that will illuminate the wilderness his ancestors were free to wander in. Is the desert then all that is left? If the houses and factories stretching for miles around are a desert for one’s soul, then maybe the desert itself is the Garden of Eden, even if one dries up and dies in it.
But he knew at the same time that life had two sides, and a base-line set firmly on the earth. The good air was blowing through the fresh-leafed trees of the cemetery he was passing. There was moss between the sandstone lumps of the wall, well bedded and livid where most damp had got at it. Between spring and summer there was a conscious feeling to the year, a mellow blight of reminiscence and nostalgia blending with the softening sweet air of late afternoon. The atmosphere made buildings and people stand out clearly, as if the meadow-and-water clouds of the Trent had not dispersed and still held that magical quality of light while passing high over the hills and roof-tops of the city. It was a delight to be alive and walking, and for some reason he wanted the day to go on for ever. There was a terrible beauty in the city he belonged to that he had never found anywhere else.
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