New and Collected Stories, p.32Alan Sillitoe
He walked over Bobber’s Mill bridge, far enough out to smell soil of allotment gardens, loam of fields, water of the mill-racing Leen that had streamed down from beyond Newstead. In spite of petrol, the reek of upholstery, and fag-smoke coming from a bus-door when it stopped near him, he held on to this purity of vision that made him believe life was good and worth living.
He walked by the railway bank and through the allotment gardens – still exactly there from fifteen years ago. Feeling himself too old to be indulging in such fleshly reminiscence, he enjoyed it all the more, not as a vice but as if it were food to a starving man. Every elm tree, oak tree, apple tree, lime tree represented a leaning-post for kisses, a pausing place to talk and rest at, light cigarettes, wait while Marian fastened her coat or put on more lipstick. Every wooden gateway in the tall hedges that were as blind as walls brought to mind the self-indulgent embraces and love-making of his various courting mates. Different generations of thrushes were still loud in the same tree-tops, hawthorn, and privet, except that their notes and noise were more exactly the same.
The brook was as usual stagnant, yet water came from somewhere, green button-eyed weed making patterns on the surface to blot out cloud reflections and blue sky. Tadpoles had passed away, and young frogs were jumping under the unreachable part of the hedge. To observe all this, connect it to his past life and give it no part in his future, made him feel an old man, certainly far older than he was. Maybe he was merely mature, when what you saw and thought about no longer drove you on to the next action of your life no matter how small that action turned out to be.
The uterine flight of reminiscence, the warm piss of nostalgia as he stood by a hedge and relieved himself where the shaded pathway stretched emptily in both directions, was a way of filling in the void that a recent death created, especially the death of a person whose life had been utterly unfulfilled – of which there are so many, and which makes you feel it deeply because on the watershed of such sorrow you sense that your life too could turn out at the end to have been equally unfulfilled. The vital breezes of clean air shaking the hedgetops don’t let such thoughts stay long. The lack of your own persistence in real life is often bad, while the lack of it in self-destroying thoughts at such times as this is occasionally good.
The canal had dried up, been dammed and drained and in places built over. In the mouldering soft colour of dusk he walked from one bank to another. The old stone bridge had been allowed to drop into the canal below and fill it in, hump and all, and a white-lined and tarmacked road had been laid straight across it.
He followed what was left, walked along its old tow-path towards the country. A large open pond lay down to the right with indistinct banks except for a scrap of wood on the western side now touched by a barleycorn dip of the sun. A smell of raw smoke and water was wafted in his direction. The headstocks of the colliery where his grandfather had worked blocked off an opposite view, and it was so close that the noise of turbines and generators made a fitting counterpoint to re-awakening senses.
It was dark by the time he stepped into the Ramrod and Musket and ordered a pint of beer. A fire burned in one of the side rooms, and he sat by it, loosening his raincoat. Everyone he saw he felt pity for. The wells of it had not stopped pumping, and the light of it was too blinding for him to turn it round on himself, a beam he alone could explore the world with, prise it from the darkness it lived in. He had come here thinking he might meet someone known from years ago, though he would never acknowledge such a lapse in case its nerve-racking mixture of pride and weakness might poison all hope in him.
Going outside to the back, there was no bulb in the socket to light his way. Indigo had faded completely from the sky, and he stepped slowly across the yard with eyes shut tight, under the illusion that he could see better than if he walked with them open and arms held out for fear of colliding with something.
The liquid in his pint went down, a spiritual nilometer latched by the river of his momentarily stilled life. He felt comfortable, hearing the homely accents of the few other men dealing out chitchat that in London he wouldn’t give tuppence for. Nostalgia was sweet, and he allowed it to seep into him with a further jar of beer. The others sat back from the fire, glasses set on labelled mats, sliding them around to make a point.
He hated beer after the third pint, a senseless water-logging of the body that adiposed it to the earth one tried to get away from. He thought of going on to another place when no one came in that he knew, but considered a pub-crawl futile – except that the ground covered between them is different and shakes the stuff to a lower level to make room for more. Otherwise stay at the first one you stumble into.
The more he drank the more his cold bothered him. Death and the funeral had held it off, but now it spread the poison and colour of infection, a slight shifting of every feature from its spot-on proportion in order to recoup the truth and clarity of things past. One’s feelings were important during a cold, in showing what you are really like and what stirs your mind from one decade to the next. It was almost as if the real you was a reactionary because it rooted you so firmly to the past without calling on detail as a support, giving it the slightly sick air which all reactionaries must have as a permanent condition. In so many cases the only key to the past is sentimentality – unless one has that cold or sickness which puts it in its place. He had reviled the past, but to loathe something was the first step to understanding it, just as to love something was the first step towards abandoning it. The past is a cellar, twisting catacombs or filled-in canals, but a cellar in which you have to walk in order to put a bullet into the back of the head of whatever monarch may be ruling too autocratically there. Only you have to tread slowly, warily, to make sure you get the right one, because if by any chance you get the wrong one you might end up putting a bullet into the back of your own head.
He was married, and had three children, one of them a few weeks old, so that his wife had not been able to come up from London with him. It was years since he had been so alone, and it was like a new experience, which he did not quite know how to handle, or realize what might come of it. People so alone rarely had chance meetings, yet the day after his father had died, walking across the city centre on his way to register the death, he heard someone from the roof-tops calling his name.
He didn’t think he was hearing things, or going mad, because it was not in his nature to do so. His physical build seemed absolutely to preclude it. But he stopped, looked, then felt foolish at having been mistaken. It was a fine, blustery Nottingham day, with green double-decker buses almost surrounding the market square, and a few people actually crossing the road.
‘Dick!’ The voice came again, but he walked away since it was obviously some workman shouting to his mate. ‘Dick! Dick!’ The voice was closer, so he stopped to light a cigarette in case it really wasn’t meant for him.
His cousin came scurrying down a series of ladders and dropped on the pavement a few yards away. He was, as the saying goes, ‘all over him’ – they hadn’t met for so long, and had been such close friends, born on the same fish day of March, a wild blizzarding day in which no fish had a chance of swimming.
Bernard was thin and wiry, even through the old jacket and trousers of a builder’s labourer. His grey eyes were eager with friendship, and they embraced on the street: ‘I didn’t know you was in Nottingham,’ he said fussily. ‘Why didn’t you write and tell me? Fancy meeting like this.’ He laughed about it, seeing himself as having climbed down from the sky like a monkey.
‘I came up all of a sudden. How did you recognize me from right up there?’
‘Your face. And that walk. I’d know it anywhere.’
‘Dad was ill. He died last night.’
‘Uncle Joe?’ he took off his cap, pushed back fair and matted hair in the wind, bewildered at the enormity of the event and, Dick thought, at not being able to say anything about it.
‘He had cancer.’
There was a pub near by: ‘Let’s
‘Won’t the foreman mind?’
‘I expect so. Come on. They’ve had enough sweat out of me. I’m sorry Joe died.’
They sat in the otherwise empty bar. ‘Come up and see us all before you go back,’ he said. ‘We’d be glad if you would. I don’t know what you live in London for, honest I don’t. There’s plenty of schools you could teach at in Nottingham. They’re crying out for teachers, I’ll bet. I suppose it’s a bit of a dump, but you can’t beat it. At least I don’t reckon so.’
‘It’s all right,’ Dick said, ‘but London’s where I belong – if I belong anywhere.’ They talked as if it were on the other side of the world, which it was against the background of their common memories – even further.
‘Well, you can’t beat the town you were brought up in – dragged up, I mean!’ Bernard said. Dick remembered, and talked about it before he could stop himself, of when they were children, and he and Bernard used to go around houses asking for old rags and scrap, which they would then sell for picture-money and food. The houses whose gardens backed on to the recreation ground were somewhat better off than the ones they lived in, and therefore good for pickings. At one a youngish woman gave them bread and jam and cups of tea, which they gladly accepted. They didn’t call often, and not many others went around to spoil their pitch. And yet, good as she was, sweet as the tea and jam tasted, they couldn’t keep going there. There was some slight feeling of shame about it, probably quite unjustified, yet picked up by both of them all the same. Without even saying anything to each other they stopped calling. Dick wondered what the woman had thought, and whether she had missed them.
Though he remembered this common incident clearly, it soon became obvious that Bernard did not, and that his mind was a blank regarding it, though at first he had looked as if he did vaguely recollect it, and then as if he wanted to but couldn’t quite pull it back. ‘Still,’ Dick said, laughing it away, ‘you can’t go home again, I know that.’
‘You can’t?’ Bernard asked, full of surprise. ‘Why can’t you?’
‘I can’t, anyway.’
‘You can do what you like, can’t you?’
‘Some people can.’
They drank to it.
‘Bring your wife and kids here to live. Get a house up Sherwood Rise. It’s healthy there. They’ll love it.’
‘I can’t, because I don’t want to.’
He laughed. ‘Maybe you are better off down there, at that. I can’t trap yo’ into owt. I’m sorry about Uncle Joe though; Mam’ll be upset when I tell her.’
‘It’ll be in the paper today.’
‘She’ll see it, then. Let me get you one now.’
‘Next time. I must be off.’
Dick watched him ascend the ladders, up from the pavement to the first storey, then to the second. From the roof he straddled a parapet, turned and looked down, a gargoyle for one moment, then he took off his cap and waved, a wide frantic smile on his far-off face. Dick had time to wave back before he leapt up and was hidden by a chimney-stack.
The past is like a fire – don’t put your hand in it. And yet, what is to stop you walking through it upright, all of you, body and soul? It was a weekday, and the pub hadn’t filled up. Near to ten o’clock he couldn’t bear the thought of going home. His impulse was to flee towards London, but he’d promised to stay on a few days. It was expected of him, and for once in his life he had to obey.
He’d called here often for a drink with Marian, though she’d always insisted on having her shandy outside because she wasn’t yet eighteen, as if it would have made much difference. After a summer’s night on Bramcote Hills the thirst was killing, and he drank more beer in those days than he could ever stomach now. The good food of London living had peppered his gut with ulcers – or so it felt, without having been to any doctor – and the heartburn was sure to grip him next day if he put back too much.
The last bus was at half past ten, and he thought he might as well walk home. Outside, fastening his coat in the lighted doorway, the insane idea came to call on Marian, to go down to the estate and knock on her door. Why think about it, if you intended doing it? The one advantage of dwelling on the past was to act without thought if you were to get the utmost from it. In that way, of course, it would end up getting the utmost out of you, but that was nothing to be afraid of.
Fifteen years was a long time, judging by the excitement the hope of meeting her again let loose in him. It was similar to that when they had been ‘going out’ with each other for what seemed a decade, but which had not felt much like being in love at the time.
Having started factory work at fourteen, he was a seasoned man by the age of eighteen, and those four years had slowed down to become the longest in his life, possibly because there was an end to them which he hadn’t foreseen at the time. In them, he grew up and died. His courtships had seemed eternal, even when they only lasted several months – looking back on them. The time with Marian went on longest of all, and being the last it was also the most important in that micro-cosmic life.
A fine drizzle powdered across the orange sodium lights of the housing estate. The roads were just as wide as he’d remembered them. If so little alters in a man’s life, who but the most bigoted can believe in progress? Such a question came, he knew, of having too little faith, and of too complete immersion in a past so far away and severed that it couldn’t be anything else but irrelevant fiction. Yet it didn’t feel like it, and it did not disturb him that it didn’t. The familiar dank smell of coal-smoke hovered even along the wide avenues and crescents, and the closeness of his cigarette tasted the same in his mouth and nostrils as it had all those years ago. Privet hedges shone with water under the street-lamps, and a well-caped railwayman rode by on a bicycle that seemed to have no light until only a yard away. He pulled up by the kerb, and the latch clattered as he went up the path and round to his own back door.
It was a good distance, yet he wished it were longer, both because he was apprehensive at meeting Marian and because it would spin out further the pleasant anticipation of her being at home. She’d been going with his friend Barry when he first met her, a carnal and passionate love similar to the one he at the time was pursuing with someone else. But Barry went into the army, driven from home by a black-haired bossy mother and a house full of sisters, lit off at seventeen into the Engineers just as the war ended. Letters and the occasional leave were no way to keep love’s fires stoked between him and Marian, and one night Dick met her by chance and, on seeing her home, fell into honeyed and violent kisses by her gate. She agreed to see him again, and he didn’t realize to what extent he had run his mate off until Barry clocked on with the army for twelve years and went straight off to Greece to serve two of them. They even stayed friends over it, yet the blow to Barry had been hard, as he admitted when they met, years later.
He made up his mind to turn at the next corner and go home, to leave the past in its matchwood compartment and not smash over it with the bulldozer of his useless and idiotic obsession. She would be out, or a husband would meet him at the door and tell him he’d got the wrong house. He smiled to remember how, during the war, an American soldier had called one night on the woman next door, as had been his habit for some months. But this time his opening of the door was answered by the husband, who had unexpectedly finished his stint on nights. The American stared unbelievingly at the pudgy and belligerent face. After a few seconds he backed out with the lame remark, ‘Sorry, I thought it was a public house.’ The husband had accepted it as a genuine mistake, but there were some snide comments going around the street for a long time on how lucky Mrs So-and-so was to have such a numbskull for a husband. So if Marian’s husband was at home, or some man she might be living with, he’d merely say: ‘Is Mrs Smith in?’ and make some excuse about getting the number of the house wrong.
Having decided to go home and not be such a fool, he kept on his track towards Marian’s as if locked in some deep and se
He found the road and the number, opened the gate, and walked down the path with even more self-assurance than he ever had after courting her for a year. There was a light on in the living room. The fifteen years had not been a complete blank. He’d heard that her mother had died and that she had married a man who had been sent to prison and whom she had refused to see again. Barry also told him that there had been one child, a son. The first five years after they split up must have been agony to her, blow after blow, and it was as if he were going back now to see how she had borne the suffering that followed in his wake. But no, he could never admit to so much power. He stood at the back door, in darkness for some minutes, torn at last by the indecision that should have gripped him on his way there, and splintered by the remorse he might feel after he had left. The noise of a television set came from inside, music and crass speech that made it impossible to tell whether one or a dozen people were at home.
He too had gone into the army, and when her letters grew less frequent he was almost glad at the sense of freedom he felt. But her thoughts and feelings were not of the sort she could put easily in writing and transmit that way, as he found when they met on his first leave. Passion, because it was incommunicable, was her form of love. It was fully flowered and would go on forever with regard to him, incapable of development yet utterly complete. He expected letters, subtlety, variation, words, words, words, and couldn’t stand the emptiness of such fulfilment. She could foresee no greater happiness than that they get married, and would have demanded little more than the most basic necessities of life. If he had been a man he would have accepted this, because he also loved her; and if he were a man now he would not have come back looking for her, unable to say what he wanted, whether it was love or chaos he hoped to resurrect.
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