New and Collected Stories, p.33Alan Sillitoe
It was no use standing in the dark with such thoughts, so he knocked at the door. She opened it, set up the two steps in an oblong of pale orange light. ‘What do you want?’ she said, seeing only a stranger and at this time of night. The protective voice of a boy called from inside:
‘Who is it, Mam?’
Regret, indecision, dread had gone, for he had acted, had the deepest instincts of his heart carried out for him, which really meant that he had been acted upon. He smiled, telling her who it was.
She repeated his name, and looked closer, eyes narrowing almost to a squint, ‘You! Fancy you!’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I was passing and thought I’d see if you still lived here.’
She asked him in, and they stood in the small kitchen. He saw it was painted white instead of cream, had an electric stove in place of the old gas one, but with the same sink now patched and stained.
Who is it, Mam?’
‘I’m surprised you still knew where I lived.’
‘I don’t suppose I could ever forget it. In any case it’s not that long ago.’
‘No? It is, though.’
‘It doesn’t feel like it to me.’
But, to look at her, it was. And she was thinking the same. She seemed taller, was more full-bodied, no longer the pale, slim, wildlife girl of eighteen. The set lines running from her mouth, which he remembered as being formed by that curious smile of wanting to know something more definite and significant about what had caused her to smile in the first place, had hardened and deepened because her curiosity hadn’t been responded to, and because the questions could never be formed clearly enough in her to ask them. The smile had moved to the grey eyes, and was more forthright in its limitations, less expressive but no longer painful.
‘Come in,’ she said. ‘I’ll make you a cup of tea, if you’d like one.’
‘All right. I will for a minute.’ Once inside he forgot his absence and hesitancy and took off his coat. Her twelve-year-old son lay as far back as he could get in an armchair, watching television from too close by, a livid perpetual lightning flicker to Dick, who wasn’t facing it. His mother made him turn it down. ‘This is Peter,’ she said. ‘Peter, this is an old friend of your Mam’s.’
Peter said nothing, an intelligent face blighted by sudden resentment at another man in the house. He looked harder into the telly in case his mother should ask him to turn it right off. Marian’s hands shook as she poured the tea, put in sugar and milk. ‘I can’t get over it,’ she said, ‘you coming to see me. Of all people! Do you know anybody else around here?’
‘Nobody. Only you.’
She was happy at the thought that he had come especially to see her. ‘You haven’t altered much in all these years.’
‘Neither have you.’
Her ironic grin was the same: ‘Not much I haven’t! You can’t lie to me any more. You did once though, didn’t you, duck?’
He might have done, and the fact that he’d forgotten was made to seem unforgivable by the slight shock still on her face at his sudden reappearance. Still, she managed to laugh about the thought of him having lied to her once, though he knew better than to take such laughs at their face value. ‘Did you come up by car?’ she asked. ‘What sort is it?’
‘I don’t have a car.’
‘I thought you would have. Then you could have taken me and Peter for a ride in it some time. Couldn’t he, Peter?’
A ‘yes’ broke from the back of Peter’s mind. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘when I heard you’d become a schoolteacher I had to see the funny side of it. Fancy me going out for so long with a man who was going to become a schoolteacher! No wonder you chucked somebody like me up. I don’t blame you, though.’
‘That wasn’t why I chucked you up. If I did.’
‘You might have done – anyway,’ she reflected.
‘I don’t remember who chucked who up.’
‘You loved me though, didn’t you?’ She said this so that Peter wouldn’t hear, from within the clatter and shouting of his private gunfight.
‘I did,’ he answered.
‘You said you wanted to stay in the army for good, and so getting married wouldn’t be fair to either of us. I remember all of it clearly. But I could see that that wasn’t it at all, though. You’d just lost interest. There was nowt else you could get to know about me, after all the times we had. We didn’t even fall out with each other. I didn’t know what to tell the girls at work when they asked about you.’
Every word and nuance of her recollected past was accurate. It was no use saying he was only eighteen at the time, because he (as well as she) held himself totally responsible for his actions. Four years at work made him man enough already, and it wasn’t so much shame he felt now as a failure of masculine responsibility. Yet some innate and ruthless sense had steered him from a life he was unfitted for. She spoke as if it were last year, whereas to him it was a whole lifetime ago, and could be considered in one way as the immature skirt-chasing of a callow youth, and in another as the throwback past of a man who, being incapable of forgetting it, had been unable to grow up. And if, beyond all this, he had stepped from one world and settled himself securely in another with a wife, three children, and an all-absorbing job, why had he made this painful and paranoid expedition to the world he had launched out from? His age didn’t justify it. Maybe in his deracinated life he was forgetting where he had come from, yet wasn’t a visit home enough to remind him? One had to make journeys in all directions, was the only answer that came while listening to Marian. Happy are those who don’t make journeys and never need to, he thought, yet luckier are those who do.
Peter had gone to bed, more willingly than he expected. He opened a half-bottle of whisky bought in the pub, and Marian set out two glasses: ‘To you and your life,’ he said.
‘To yourn,’ she answered. ‘I hardly ever drink, but this tastes good for a change. It might buck me up.’ She sat on the sofa they had made love on countless times, and he stayed on a straight-backed chair at the table on which plates, cups, and sauce-bottle still rested. A clothes-horse barricaded the fire from them.
‘I work at the same place still,’ she said, ‘at the stocking factory. I’ve got a better job now, though: I fault them, prick them under a glass so that they won’t last more than three months. It’s a good job, faulting. I can make twelve pounds a week on piecework. It’s hard though in wintertime, because I go to work on my bike, riding up the hill with a January wind hitting me head-on. I went on a bus once, but halfway there the driver had a dizzy spell. He turned round, shouting for everybody to jump off, before he was able to stop it. The only time I ever went on the bus, as well! Everything happens to me!’
‘What was this I heard about your husband?’ he asked, noticing the regularity of her teeth. All were false, and none of his had come out yet.
‘Him?’ she said. ‘Oh, when you left me I got married a year later. I met him at a dance, and never realized he was no good. Not long after we were married, while Mam was still alive – though on that morning she’d gone out shopping, thank God, or she’d have died at the shock I’m sure – I was in here washing up when two policemen knocked at the back door and asked if Arthur Baldwin lived here. I felt my heart going like mad, pitter-patter, and thought he’d been run over or killed in a machine at work, ready for the tears to burst out of me. But it wasn’t that at all. They’d picked him up on the street because they’d found out he’d been breaking into houses, and I don’t know what else he’d done. I didn’t go to court, and never even read the papers about it. In fact he hadn’t been at work for a long time, and I thought he had. I was such a baby I never realized what was going on. He’d been in trouble with the police before we met, but I didn’t know anything about it, and nobody thought to tell me. He’d even got another woman he was keeping, in the Meadows. His mother asked me to go down to the court and plead for him, because I was pregnant already, but I didn’t. I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. “He’s
‘He was sent to prison for two years, and I haven’t seen him since. As I say, I was pregnant, and Peter was born while he was in prison. He don’t know anything about it yet, though he’ll have a right to some day. I just tell him that his father left me when he was a baby. Mam and me got a bed down from upstairs when I had Peter, and fixed it up in this corner, and I had him on it. Then a year later Mam went, and I’ve lived alone ever since, the last ten years. I wouldn’t get married again now, though, not for a fortune. All I’ve got is Peter, and it’s enough for me, bringing him up. He’s a bit of a handful at times, being without a dad, but when he is he gets my fist. Mind you, we have some good times together as well. We go fishing now and again, and he loves it, sitting by the canal with all his tackle and bait, net and floats. He feels a proper man, and I don’t mind buying him the best stuff to do it with. He’s very clever though at mechanical things. All he does is build things up. He’s got all sorts of radio kits and construction sets. I never have to touch a fuse: he mends them all. He fixed a transistor radio last week for Mrs Barnes next door, and she was ever so pleased. She gave him ten bob.
‘I work hard, so we live well. Last year we rented a caravan at Cleethorpes with the couple next door, and stayed a fortnight. I look a sight in a bathing costume, but we went swimming every day, and had a marvellous time. Mr Barnes got a car and we went all over Lincolnshire picnicking. It won’t be all that long now before Peter starts work, and then he’ll be bring in some money as well. He doesn’t want to stay on at school, at least he says he don’t, though I don’t think he’ll be able to change his mind if he decides to.
‘I suppose it was hardest for me though when Mam went. It was cancer, but she wasn’t badly for very long. She never went to bed, stopped going when she knew she was going to die, though nobody told her, just lay on this sofa at night and sat in that armchair during the day. I don’t know how we managed with just each other. I knew she was going to die, and that when she went there’d be no one left. Then I’d hear Peter crying, and knew that there would be, but it didn’t make much difference for a long time. Still, we’ve all got to go, though it don’t do to think about it.’
‘We’re young yet,’ Dick said. ‘We’re just over thirty.’ He sat by her on the sofa and took her hand. Was it true then that in all the troubles people had, no one could help anyone else, be of much use to soothe and comfort? Was everyone alone in their own black caverns and never communicating by tunnel or canal?
‘I had help,’ she said. ‘The neighbours did what they could. At a time like that only God can help you, and it’s only then you realize He can’t. We aren’t taking a holiday this year. I can’t afford it because I got Peter a pickup and tape-recorder. But the year after, if we’re still here, we’re hoping to go to Norfolk for ten days. Give us summat to look forward to.’
‘I expect you’ll get married again one day,’ he said.
‘Married?’ she jeered. ‘Not me, mate. I’ve had my life. No more kids, either. The woman next door had a baby last week, and when she came in to see me with it I laughed at her for being so quick in her visiting and said: “Hey, don’t come in here spreading your feathers!” And she laughed as well, as if it might not be a bad idea, but I knew it worn’t. All I want to do is bring Peter up, give him a good start in life. I don’t mind working for that, and living for it. I’ll work till I drop, but as for getting married, you don’t know what I’ve had to go through. And don’t think I’m squealing about it. I might have done at one time, but not any more, because it’s all over. I’m not going to get married and have them all come back.’
‘You can fall in love, you know.’ He detected a weakness in her that she had obviously long brooded on.
‘No, I won’t.’
‘That’s what you say now. There’s no telling when it’ll come.’
‘I loved you,’ she said, ‘and you can only be in love once in your life, the first time. There ain’t any other.’ Her conviction was quiet, all jeering gone. She pressed his hand, and he leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. ‘It’s like a dream,’ she said, smiling, her eyes shining as if the tears would break. ‘You coming back. I can’t believe it. I can’t, duck, honest I can’t.’
She wasn’t in love with him, no more than he was with her, but he had lured her into the spider-trap of the past, and she was sweetening within it. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I’ll never fall in love.’
‘You don’t have to be in love to get married,’ he said.
‘That’s what I thought before,’ she answered, ‘and look what happened.’
‘Love is a destroyer if you wait for it too long. If you like somebody, love can come out of it. It’s no use wrecking your life for want of being in love. Sometimes I think that as soon as you start talking about love it’s on its way out, that really it’s nothing more than the bloody relic of a bygone age that civilization no longer needs. There’s something wicked and destructive about it.’
‘I don’t properly understand you,’ she said gently, ‘but you’re wrong, anyway. You’re only saying it to soothe me. You don’t need to, you know, I’m all right. I’m not as sour as I sound.’
The door opened without warning and Peter appeared in his dressing-gown, eyes blinded by the light as if he’d already been half asleep, though Dick thought he may have been listening to their talk for a while. ‘What do you want?’ Marian asked.
‘I’m looking for my comic.’ He found it, under a cushion of the sofa they were sitting on. ‘Don’t stay up late, duck,’ she said. ‘You’ve got to go to school in the morning.’
He stood by the door, looking at them. ‘Are you coming to bed then, Mam?’
‘Soon. We’re just having a talk about old times. I shan’t be long.’
He went up the stairs, slowly, drawing the sleeve of his dressing-gown against the wall.
She made more tea, took out a box of photographs and went through them one by one, then got him to empty his wallet and show pictures of his wife and children. The past was impotent, finally, with no cleansing quality in its slow-burning fires. Yet they could never be put out because the canals that led to them were baked dry at the bottom with the rusting and tattered debris of the life you lead.
‘I didn’t think you’d ever go to live in London, though,’ she said. ‘It’s a long way off.’
‘Two hours by train. There and back in half a day. Nothing.’
‘Not if you live there, and was born here. Shall you come and see me again?’
He stood up and put on his coat. ‘I’d like to, if you won’t kick me out.’
‘Well, maybe I won’t.’
‘I don’t come up too often, though.’
‘It don’t matter. We could go to a pub or summat, couldn’t we?’
He held her close. ‘We could.’
‘It don’t matter though, if you don’t want to. But come in and see me.’
‘All right, love.’
They held each other close, and kissed for a few seconds, standing near the kitchen door. ‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘I still can’t. Why did you come back? Why?’ He couldn’t say. He didn’t know. The fifteen years fizzled down to nothing. It wasn’t that he’d been a man at eighteen. He was a youth, and the raging sweet waves of it crushed into him, two flat heads of vice-steel closing with nothing in between.
‘What did you say?’ he asked.
‘Nothing. I didn’t say owt.’ He kissed the tears out of her eyes.
After midnight he walked through fire, tattered and burned, going the same track home as on the hundreds of occasions when he had stayed late and missed his bus, blinded and blindfolded across the wide roads and by the black hedge-bound f
Lights crouched in the distance all around, every tree-root holy, the foliage damned. The narrow path was hedged in by uncertainty and chaos, life’s way spun out of suffering and towards death. Artificially lighted air blighted your lungs, and you now and again stopped on your walk by some half-concealed bran-tub to dip your hands into the entrails of the past when destruction wasn’t coming on you fast enough; the past is only good when what you pull up can be seen as part of the future.
But his heart was full of Marian’s fate, up to her death and his death, and he felt better in knowing that at least they had this much in common whether they saw each other again or not.
When Ivan was five his parents took him on a day-trip to Skegness. They wanted to spend a few hours out of the city and see the coast where they had languished for ten days of a misty frustrating honeymoon of long ago, but Stanley said: ‘Let’s take Ivan to the seaside. It’ll do him good.’
‘Yes,’ his mother said. ‘He’ll love it.’
And Ivan, sucking a lollipop as they walked up Arkwright Street, was oblivious to the responsibility they had put on to his shoulders. Yesterday the car had broken down, so they were going by train. To Stanley everything always happened at the crucial moment, otherwise why did it happen at all?
Ivan wore a new navy blazer, and long trousers specially creased for Whitsun. His shoes were polished and tight around his checked socks. Dark thin hair was well parted, and shy blue eyes looked out of a pale face that tapered from a broad forehead down to his narrow chin and royal blue tie. He held his father with one hand, and gripped his lollipop with the other.
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