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New and collected storie.., p.34
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       New and Collected Stories, p.34

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  ‘It’ll be marvellous to get to the sea,’ Stanley said. ‘It’s a hard life being a waiter, and good to have a whole day off for a change.’

  Amy agreed on all counts, though didn’t say so aloud. Ivan wondered if there’d be boats, and she answered that she dare say there would be. Stanley picked Ivan up and put him high on his shoulders: ‘We’d better hurry.’

  ‘You’ll have a heart attack if you’re not careful,’ she laughed. ‘Like in them adverts!’

  ‘We’ve got to get going, though.’

  ‘There’s still half an hour,’ she said, ‘and we’re nearly there.’ Such bleak and common rush seemed to expose her more to the rigours of the world than was necessary, so she would never run, not even for a bus that might make her late for work if she missed it. But then, she never was late for work, and it was part of Stanley’s job to get a move on.

  He fought his way into the carriage to get seats, and even then Amy had to sit a few rows down. Ivan stayed with his father, now and again standing on his grey flannel trousers for a better view. The carriage was full, and he adjusted quickly to his new home, for all the unfamiliar people in the compartment became part of his family. Strange faces that he would be half afraid of on the street or in dreams seemed now so close and large and smiling, loud in their gaze or talk, that they could not but be uncles and aunts and cousins. In which case he could look with absolute safety at everything outside.

  His blue eyes pierced with telescopic clarity the scene of a cow chewing by green indistinct waterbanks of a flooded field that the sky, having been fatally stabbed, had fallen into. A hedge unfurled behind the cow that stood forlorn as if it would be trapped should the water rise further – which it could not do under such moist sunshine.

  Gone.

  Railway trucks at station sidings fell back along the line like dominoes.

  Gone.

  An ochred farmhouse came, and stood for a second to show a grey slate roof, damp as if one big patch had settled all over it, the yard around flooded with mud and a man standing in it looking at the train. He waved. Ivan lifted his hand.

  Gone.

  A junction line vanished into the curve of a cutting.

  Gone. All going or gone. They were still, who were gazing out of the windows, and everything was passing them.

  The train found its way along, seemed to be making tracks as it went and leaving them brand-new behind, shining brightly when they turned a wide bend and Ivan stretched his neck to look back. An older boy smiled: ‘Have you seen my new toy?’

  He was sullen at being taken from such never-ending pictures that seemed to belong to him. ‘No.’

  ‘Do you want to?’ He put an object on the table, ovoid, rubber, with four short legs as hands and arms. A length of fine tubing ran from its back to a hollow reservoir of air – which the boy held in his hand. Ivan stared at the rubber, in spite of not wanting to, then at the object on the table that sprang open and up, a horrific miniature skeleton, ready to grow enormously in size and grab everyone in sight, throttle them one and all and send them crushed and raw out of the window – starting with Ivan.

  He drew back, and Stanley laughed at his shout of panic, hoping the boy would go on working it so that he too could enjoy the novelty. ‘Stare at it like a man, then you won’t be frightened! It’s only a skeleton.’

  When the boy held it to Ivan’s face, it became the arms and legs of a threatening silver spider brushing his cheeks. Fields rattled by but gave no comfort, so closing his eyes he buried his head against his father. ‘You are a silly lad. It’s only a toy.’

  ‘Make him stop it. I don’t like it.’ But he looked again at the glaring death-head, phosphorus on black, shaking and smiling, arms and legs going in and out as if in the grip of some cosmic agony. Amy came along the gangway at his cry and knocked the boy away, daring his near-by mother to object. She took Ivan on her knee: ‘He was frightening him, you damned fool,’ she said to Stanley. ‘Couldn’t you see?’

  The train stopped at a small station. A gravel depot was heaped between two wooden walls, and beyond the lines a rusting plough grew into an elderberry bush. No one got on or off the train, which made the stop boring and inexplicable. People rustled among baskets and haversacks for sandwiches and flasks of drink.

  ‘I want some water,’ Ivan said, staring at the open door of the waiting room.

  ‘You’ll have to wait,’ Amy said.

  ‘There’s an hour yet,’ Stanley reminded her. ‘He can’t.’

  The train jolted, as if about to start. ‘I’m thirsty. I want a drink of water.’

  ‘O my God,’ his mother said. ‘I told you we should have bought some lemonade at the station.’

  ‘We had to get straight on. We were late.’

  ‘A couple of minutes wouldn’t have mattered.’

  ‘I wanted to get seats.’

  ‘We’d have found some somewhere.’

  To argue about what was so irrevocably finished infuriated him, but he deliberately calmed himself and rooted in the basket for a blue plastic cup. His whole body was set happily for action: ‘I’ll just nip across to the tap.’

  ‘The train’s going to start,’ she said. ‘Sit down.’

  ‘No, it won’t.’ But he didn’t get up, paralysed by her objection.

  ‘Are you going?’ she said, ‘or aren’t you?’ A vein jumped at the side of his forehead as he pushed along the crowded gangway, thinking that if he didn’t reach the door and get free of her in a split second he would either go mad or fix his hands at her throat. Their carriage was beyond the platform, and he was out of sight for a moment. Then she saw him running between two trolleys into the men’s lavatory as another playful whistle sounded from the engine.

  ‘Where’s Dad gone, Mam?’

  ‘To get some water.’

  Everyone was looking out of the window, interested in his race: ‘He won’t make it.’

  ‘I’ll lay a quid each way.’

  ‘Don’t be bleddy silly, he’ll never get back in time. You can hear the wheels squeaking already. Feel that shuddering?’

  ‘You’re bleddy hopeful. We’ll be here an hour yet.’ The face disappeared behind a bottle: ‘I’ll live to see us move.’

  Money was changing hands in fervid betting.

  ‘He will.’

  ‘He won’t.’

  At the second whistle he bobbed up, pale and smiling, a cup held high, water splashing over the brim.

  ‘What’s Dad out there for?’ Ivan asked, lifting his face from a mug of lemonade someone had given him. The wheels moved more quickly, and Stanley was halfway along the platform. Odds were lengthening as he dropped from view, and pound notes were flying into the bookie’s cap. A woman who wanted to place two bob each way was struggling purple-faced to get from the other end of the carriage. Her coins were passed over.

  Amy sat tight-lipped, unwilling to join in common words of encouragement even if it meant never seeing him again. Their return tickets were in his wallet, as well as money and everything else that mattered, but she wouldn’t speak. He can wander over the earth till he drops, she thought, though the vision of him sitting outside some charming rustic pub with twelve empty pint jars (and the plastic cup still full of water) in front of him, while she explained at the other end about their lost tickets and destitution, didn’t make his disappearance too easy to keep calm about.

  The carriage slid away, a definite move of steel rolling over steel beneath them all. He was trying not to spill his hard-won water. A roar of voices blasted along the windows as the train gathered speed. ‘He’s missed it!’

  The door banged open, and a man who had slept through the betting spree jumped in his seat. He had come off nights at six that morning, and his false teeth jerked so that only a reflex action with both hands held them in the general neighbourhood of his mouth. Red in the face, he slotted them properly in with everyone looking on.

  ‘What’s the hurry, you noisy bogger?’ he asked, at Stanley stan
ding upright and triumphant beside him.

  They clamoured at the bookie to pay up, and when his baffled face promised to be slow in doing so they stopped laughing and threatened to throw him off the bleeding train. He’d seen and grabbed his chance of making a few quid on the excursion, but having mixed up his odds he now looked like being sorted out by the crowd.

  ‘Leave him alone,’ the winners shouted. But they clapped and cheered, and avoided a fight as the train swayed with speed between fields and spinnies. Stanley stood with the plastic cup two-thirds full, then made his way to Ivan and Amy, unable to understand what all the daft excitement was about.

  ‘What did you have to make a laughing-stock of yourself like that for?’ she wanted to know.

  ‘He needed some water, didn’t he?’

  ‘You mean you had to put on a show for everybody.’ Their argument went unnoticed in the general share-out. ‘You can see how much he wanted water,’ she said, pointing to his closed eyes and hung-down lower lip fixed in sleep.

  The sea was nowhere to be seen. They stood on the front and looked for it. Shining sand stretched left and right, and all the way to the horizon, pools and small salt rivers flickered under the sun now breaking through. The immense sky intimidated them, made Skegness seem small at their spines. It looked as if the ocean went on forever round the world and came right back to their heels.

  ‘This is a rum bloody do,’ he said, setting Ivan down. ‘I thought we’d take a boat out on it. What a place to build a seaside resort.’

  She smiled. ‘You know how it is. The tide’ll be in this afternoon. Then I suppose you’ll be complaining that all the sand’s under water. It’s better this way because he can dig and not fall in.’

  A few people had been on the beach but now, on either side, hundreds advanced on to the sand, hair and dresses and white shirts moving against the wind, a shimmering film of blue and grey, red and yellow spreading from the funnel of the station avenue. Campstools and crates of beer staked each claim, and children started an immediate feverish digging as if to find buried toys before the tide came back.

  ‘Can I have a big boat?’ Ivan asked as they went closer to the pier and coastguard station. ‘With a motor in it, and a lot of seats?’

  ‘Where do you want to go?’ Stanley asked.

  Ivan wondered. ‘A long way. That’s where I want to go. A place like that. Up some road.’

  ‘We’ll get you a bus, then,’ his father laughed.

  ‘You want to stay at home with your mam,’ she said. They walked further down the sand, between people who had already set out their camps. Neither spoke, or thought of stopping. Gulls came swooping low, their shadows sharp as if to slice open pools of water. ‘How much more are we going to walk?’

  ‘I didn’t know you wanted to stop,’ he said, stopping.

  ‘I didn’t know you wanted to come this far, or I wouldn’t have come. You just walk on and on.’

  ‘Why didn’t you speak up then?’

  ‘I did. Why didn’t you stop?’

  ‘I’m not a mind-reader.’

  ‘You don’t have to be. You don’t even think. Not about other people, anyway.’

  ‘I wanted to get beyond all this crowd.’

  ‘I suppose you wanted to dump us in the sea.’

  ‘I didn’t want to sit all day in a café like you did, and that’s a fact.’

  ‘You’re like a kid, always wanting to be on your own.’

  ‘You’re too bossy, always wanting your own way.’

  ‘It usually turns out to be better than yours. But you never know what you do want, anyway.’

  He was struck dumb by this irrational leap-frogging argument from someone he blindly loved. He stood and looked at the great space of sand and sky, birds, and a slight moving white beard of foam appearing on the far edge of the sand where the sea lay fallow and sleepy.

  ‘Well?’ she demanded. ‘Are we traipsing much further, or aren’t we? I wish you’d make up your mind.’

  He threw the basket down. ‘Here’s where we stay, you hasty-tempered bitch.’

  ‘You can be on your own, then,’ she said, ‘because I’m going.’

  He opened a newspaper, without even bothering to watch her go – which was what she’d throw at him when she came back. ‘You didn’t even watch me go!’ He should have been standing up and keeping her retreating figure in sight – that was fast merging with the crowd – his face frowning and unhappy in wondering whether or not he had lost her for ever.

  But, after so long, his reactions would not mesh into gear. They’d become a deadeningly smooth surface that struck no sparks any more. When she needed him to put an arm around her and tell her not to get excited – to calm down because he loved her very much – that was when his mouth became ashen and his eyes glazed into the general paralysis of his whole body. She needed him most at the precise moment when he needed her most, and so they retreated into their own damaged worlds to wait for the time when they again felt no need of each other, and they could then give freely all that was no longer wanted, but which was appreciated nevertheless.

  ‘Where’s Mam gone?’ Ivan asked, half-hidden in his well-dug hole.

  ‘To fetch us something.’

  ‘What, though?’

  ‘We’ll see.’

  ‘Will she get me a tractor?’

  ‘You never know.’

  ‘I want a red one.’

  ‘Let’s dig a moat,’ Stanley said, taking the spade. ‘We’ll rig a castle in the middle.’

  He looked up from time to time, at other people coming to sit near by. An old man opened a campstool and took off his jacket. He wore a striped shirt over his long straight back, braces taut at the shoulders. Adjusting his trilby hat, he looked firmly and unblinking out to sea, so that Stanley paused in his work to see what he was fixing with such determination.

  Nothing.

  ‘Shall we make a tunnel, Dad?’

  ‘All right, then, but it’ll crumble.’

  The thin white ray was coming towards them, feather-tips lifting from it, a few hundred yards away and suddenly no longer straight, pushed forward a little in the centre, scarred by the out-jutting pier. It broke on the sand and went right back.

  ‘She’ll be in in a bit, don’t worry. We’re in the front line, so we’ll have to move,’ the old man said. ‘Half an hour at the most. You can’t stop it, and that’s a fact. Comes in shoulder-high, faster than a racehorse sometimes, and then you’ve got to watch out, even from this distance, my guy you have. Might look a fair way and flat one minute, then it’s marching in quick like the Guards. Saw a man dragged in once, big six-footer he was. His wife and kids just watched. Found ’im in the Wash a week later. Pulls you underfoot. Even I can find my legs and run at times like that, whether I’m eighty or not.’

  If it weren’t for the trace of white he’d hardly have known where sky ended and sand began, for the wetness of it under the line was light purple, a mellower shade of the midday lower horizon. The mark of white surf stopped them blending, a firm and quite definite dividing of earth and water and air.

  ‘Come here every year, then?’ Stanley asked.

  ‘Most days,’ the man said. ‘Used to be a lifeboatman. I live here.’ His hand ran around the inside of a straw basket like a weasel and pulled out a bottle of beer. He untwisted the tight cork, up-ended it, and swigged it into his bony throat. ‘You from Notts, I suppose?’

  Stanley nodded. ‘I’m a waiter. Wangled some time off for a change. It don’t make so much difference at a big hotel. There used to be a shortage, but we’ve got some of them Spanish chaps now.’ His jacket and tie lay on the sand, one sleeve hidden by a fallen rampart of Ivan’s intricate castle.

  Looking up he saw Amy making her way between patchwork blankets of people, a tall and robust figure wearing a flowered dress. A tied ribbon set hair spreading towards her shoulders. She never tried to look fabricated and smart, even on her job as a cashier at the local dance hall. He was almost an
noyed at being so happy to see her, yet finally gave in to his pleasure and watched her getting closer, while hoping she had now recovered from her fits of the morning. Perhaps the job she had was too much for her, but she liked to work, because it gave a feeling of independence, helped to keep that vitality and anger that held Stanley so firmly to her. It was no easy life, and because of the money she earned little time could be given to Ivan, though such continual work kept the family more stable than if as a triangle the three of them were too much with each other – which they wanted to be against their own and everyone’s good.

  She had sandwiches, fried fish, cakes, dandelion-and-burdock, beer. ‘This is what we need to stop us feeling so rattled.’

  He wondered why she had to say the wrong thing so soon after coming back. ‘Who’s rattled?’

  ‘You were. I was as well, if you like. Let’s eat this though. I’m starving.’

  She opened the packets, and kept them in equal radius around her, passing food to them both. ‘I didn’t know how hungry I was,’ Stanley said.

  ‘If anything’s wrong,’ she said, ‘it’s usually that – or something else.’ She reached out, and they pressed each other’s hand.

  ‘You look lovely today,’ he said.

  ‘I’m glad we came.’

  ‘So am I. Maybe I’ll get a job here.’

  ‘It’d be seasonal,’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t do for us.’

  ‘That’s true.’

  While Ivan had his mouth full of food, some in his hand, and a reserve waiting in his lap, she asked if he wanted any more. Even at home, when only halfway through a plate, the same thing happened, and Stanley wondered whether she wanted to stuff, choke or stifle him – or just kill his appetite. He’d told her about it, but it made no difference.

  After the meal Ivan took his bread and banana and played at the water’s edge, where spume spread like silver shekels in the sun and ran around his plimsolls, then fell back or faded into the sand. He stood up, and when it tried to catch him he ran, laughing so loudly that his face turned as red as the salmon paste spread on the open rolls that his mother and father were still eating. The sea missed him by inches. The castle-tumulus of sand was mined and sapped by salt water until its crude formations became lopsided, a boat rotted by time and neglect. A sudden upsurge melted it like wax, and on the follow-up there was no trace. He watched it, wondering why it gave in so totally to such gentle pressure.

 
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