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New and collected storie.., p.35
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       New and Collected Stories, p.35

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  They had to move, and Amy picked up their belongings, unable to stop water running over the sleeve of Stanley’s jacket. ‘You see,’ she chided, ‘if you hadn’t insisted on coming all this way down we wouldn’t have needed to shift so early.’

  He was sleepy and good-natured, for the food hadn’t yet started to eat his liver. ‘Everybody’ll have to move. It goes right up to the road when it’s full in.’

  ‘Not for another twenty minutes. Look how far down we are. Trust us to be in the front line. That’s the way you like it, though. If only we could do something right for a change, have a peaceful excursion without much going wrong.’

  He thought so, too, and tried to smile as he stood up to help.

  ‘If everything went perfectly right one day,’ she said, ‘you’d still have to do something and deliberately muck it up, I know you would.’

  As he said afterwards – or would have said if the same course hadn’t by then been followed yet again – one thing led to another, and before I could help myself …

  The fact was that the whole acreage of the remaining sand, peopled by much of Nottingham on its day’s outing, was there for an audience, or would have been if any eyes had been trained on them, which they weren’t particularly. But many of them couldn’t help but be, after the first smack. In spite of the sea and the uprising wind, it could be heard, and the second was indeed listened for after her raging cry at the impact.

  ‘You tried me,’ he said, hopelessly baffled and above all immediately sorry. ‘You try me all the time.’ And the jerked-out words, and the overwhelming feeling of regret, made him hit her a third time, till he stood, arms hanging thinly at his side like the maimed branches of some blighted and thirsty tree that he wanted to disown but couldn’t. They felt helpless, and too weak to be kept under sufficient control. He tried to get them safely into his pockets, but they wouldn’t fit.

  A red leaf-mark above her eye was slowly swelling. ‘Keep away,’ she cried, lifting her heavy handbag but unable to crash it against him. She sobbed. It was the first time he had hit her in public, and the voices calling that he should have less on it, and others wondering what funny stuff she had been up to to deserve it, already sounded above the steady railing of the nerve-racking sea. An over-forward wave sent a line of spray that saturated one of her feet. She ignored it, and turned to look for Ivan among the speckled colours of the crowd. Pinks and greys, blues and whites shifted across her eyes and showed nothing.

  She turned to him: ‘Where is he, then?’

  He felt sullen and empty, as if he were the one who’d been hit. ‘I don’t know. I thought he was over there.’

  ‘Where?’

  ‘Just there. He was digging.’

  ‘O my God, what if he’s drowned?’

  ‘Don’t be so bloody silly,’ he said, his face white, and thinner than she’d ever seen it. Bucket and spade lay by the basket between them. They looked into the sea, and then towards land, unable to find him from their mutual loathing and distress. They were closer than anyone else to the sea, and the old lifeboatman had gone. Everyone had moved during their argument, and the water now boiled and threw itself so threateningly that they had to pick up everything and run.

  ‘What effect do you think all this arguing and fightin’s going to have on him?’ she demanded. He’d never thought about such outside problems, and considered she had only mentioned them now so as to get at him with the final weapon of mother-and-child, certainly not for Ivan’s own and especial good. Yet he was not so sure. The horror of doubt came over him, opened raw wounds not only to himself but to the whole world for the first time as they walked towards the road and set out on a silent bitter search through the town.

  For a long while Ivan sat on the steps of a church, the seventh step down from the doors, beating time with a broken stick as blocks of traffic sped by. He sang a song, dazed, enclosed, at peace. A seagull sat at his feet, and when he sneezed it flew away. He stayed at peace even after they found him, and went gladly on the train with them as if into the shambles. They seemed happily united in getting him back at last. The effort of the search had taken away all their guilt at having succumbed to such a pointless quarrel in front of him. He watched the fields, and heavy streams like long wavy mirrors that cows chewed at and clouds flowed over and ignored.

  He sat on his father’s knee, who held him as if he were a rather unusual but valuable tip a customer in the restaurant had left. Ivan felt nothing. The frozen soul, set in ancestry and childhood, fixed his eyes to look and see beyond them and the windows. The train wasn’t moving after a while. He was sleeping a great distance away from it, detached, its jolting a permanent feature of life and the earth. He wanted to go on travelling forever, as if should he ever stop the sky would fall in. He dreamed that it had, and was about to black him out, so he woke up and clung to his father, asking when they would be back in Nottingham.

  The Rope Trick

  While making an efficient fire on which to roast sausages, on a rock bed built between carob and olive trees in Greece, one of the happy-go-lucky girls called June, who was nothing if not stoned and with it (and with me) said: ‘I can see you’ve done your time in Sherwood Forest.’

  ‘Listen,’ I snapped, feeding brittle wood into the smoke. ‘There are two ways you can do time in Sherwood Forest. One is in the army, and the other’s in the sanatorium. I did mine in the sanatorium, but as a stoker not an invalid, which was after I came out of prison and met the girl of my life – if I remember.’

  They laughed. Yes, it was very funny. We were all recovering from a strong dose of the pot, and lay in deadbeat poses eating at bread, and sausages burnt in pine and juniper branches. A hot wind came from up the grey wall of mountain as if someone were wafting it down through the asphodel for our especial benefit. We got to talking about love, and to my surprise none of them thought much of it – though we all had our birds, the birds were there, and they didn’t wear feathers, either. Neither did I believe in love – though I had an idea I was lying as usual.

  ‘The sooner you lose all trace of love, the better,’ I said. ‘I can see that now, having never got her, yet realized that she was the love of my life and was bound to have some influence on it.’

  June moved over to let me sit on the tree-trunk after such a selfless stint by the fire. ‘Love is the end,’ said Michael, ‘the end; so go to greet love as a friend!’

  ‘And turn queer,’ someone shouted, I forget who.

  The blue sea puffed its spume tops along all the caves of the coast, fisherboats smacking down into it, and swooping along. ‘I can never turn anything,’ I said. ‘But I’ll try and tell you about her, if you’ll pass me some more of that resinated fishwater that in these parts goes for wine.’

  I didn’t even know her name – no name, no photo and hardly a face, yet the memory bites at me so often that I think it must end up a good one. Either that, or it will rot my soul.

  They looked at me, my travelling companions, friends of the fraternity that one bumped into on the Long Grand Tour. They listened as always, which was pleasant for me, because if you don’t have anything to say how can anybody know you’re alive? And if people aren’t sure whether or not you’re alive how can you be expected to know yourself?

  I was lucky to have a few good pennies left in my pocket on that raw October morning, for it meant I still had one at least without a hole in it, which may have accounted for the fine and heady feeling as I walked down Mansfield Road. Stepping off the kerb I almost became good for nothing but a few black puddings as a petrol lorry flowed an inch from my foot, but even that shock didn’t shake my tripes, and the flood-roar of swearing stopped in half a minute. Buns in a baker’s window looked as if pelted with coal-specks and baked in canary-shit, so I thought I’d rather throw my remaining coppers on a cup of cold tea in a dirty cracked cup with lipstick round the edges, for the half-hour buckshee sitdown would be a break from the never-ending traipse over concrete and cobblestones looking for a j
ob, a hard thing to find after a long stretch of the penthouse.

  But at least I’d paid society for my crimes, which as you can imagine made me feel a lot better. You think it did? When you’ve stopped laughing, I’ll go on. No matter how much quod you get you don’t pay back anything. Some who thieve were born to make good, can’t wait between snatching the loot and getting pulled in, but I’m not like that, didn’t hand back a shilling of all I took in spite of my spell in the nick, for it was spent before they got me.

  When the powdery rain eased off, a blade of sun leapt a row of pram and toy shops, as sharp and sudden as if God had whipped out a gold-plated flick-knife to prise open a door and break in. But the sun went back. He’d changed his mind because the shops weren’t rich enough, being the sort that could go bankrupt any day. I pulled up my collar for the umpteenth time, the changeable weather lifting clouds high only to let them fall low again. If this sly and treacherous rain kept on peeing itself I’d sit in the library for a dose of reading, I said to myself.

  Being still so close to clink I told the other half of me things it might have thought healthier to forget. I remembered a tall man inside, with black hair and a Roman conk whose brown eyes stared too much for his own good. Up to then I’d thought only blue eyes could stare so much, but his brown ones gazed as if a fire blazed between him and the world. Maybe he glimpsed something that could never be reached, even beyond the blue skies of outside. He was down for a seven-year stretch after manslaughtering a pal who’d knocked on with his wife, and he had a habit of pushing a scrap of paper into anyone’s hand he passed close to. One day I happened to be going by on exercise and felt something pressed into my own. Despite the friendliness I wondered how much of a good thing it was, for if it had been a cigarette you had to be careful it wasn’t a choir-boy getting round you, for it was a common move of theirs.

  Back in my cell I opened the postage-stamp of lavatory paper and read LENIN written in wavy capital letters. He’s a brittle worm-eaten nut, I said, throwing it away. Yet I changed my mind, spent time looking till my fingers groped over it, then swallowed hard into my stomach and went back to reading Byron – which was all I was fit for in those not so far-off days.

  One morning he threw a terrible fit in the grub hall, and smashed everything his hands could reach. He looked consumptive, thin, almost without muscle, yet I saw a match of strength I’d never seen before. But the screws battened the roaring bleeder down and humped him off to the loony bin.

  So he was buried alive, and I was stomping the cobbles in my freedom, rooting for work to stop me starving. Not that you’re at liberty the minute you set your snout beyond that iron gate. Being let loose after a thousand days was both fine and dangerous, a well-concealed trap in front of eyes and feet to trip me up and send me a header into some well-stocked shop or house, and so once more into the bullock-box. It’s like recovering from a broken leg or pneumonia, when you need a few weeks’ convalescence for fear of dropping back. So I trod softly for my own raw good, looking normal but stepping along that piece of taut rope, which is all right when it’s on the ground and your head is solid, but after jail it’s as though the line is six foot above the pavement and needs but one flick of an eyelid to send you arse over backwards. You may be lucky and pick yourself up from the right side of the rope-walk, but then again you might wake with a black eye in a cell at the copshop before you know where you are, supping a cup of scalding tea that one of the bastards had brought so’s you’ll look good in front of the magistrate next morning – all because an unexpected windfall made you slip on to the bad side.

  Air and bridgestones shook by the station as a black muscle-bound express boned its way out towards Sheffield. Coiling rubbernecks of smoke and steam shot above the parapet to spar with the sky, and I wanted to be in one of those carriages with a ticket and ten quid padding my pocket, fixed on a seat with a bottle of ale by one paw and a filled fag-case in the other, looking out at fields and collieries and feeling good wearing a new suit got from somewhere, my eyes lit up with the vision of a sure-fire job.

  The steamy tea bar was full of drivers and conductors, hawkers, tarts, and angels of the dole, but nobody I knew, thank God, for I wasn’t in any mood to moan about the weather and shake my head over the next war. They couldn’t drop the Bomb soon enough for me, right there and then. I had no property to lose, caught sight of myself in the mirror, not looking good for much, because prison and long walks searching for work had kept me thin, my suit elbow-and-arse-patched, and prime King Edward spuds at the back of my socks, and a gap in one of my boot-toes big enough to compete with Larry Adler on the mouth organ. I never was a handsome brute, with a low forehead, thin face, and starvo eyes, and a change of fashion hadn’t yet made me as prepossessing as I am now – with hair nearly on my shoulders.

  I’d shaved that morning with a razor-blade sharpened on the inside of a jam-jar, but still looked as if I’d spent three years in jungle not jail, hunted by tigers, and enormous apes, swinging like an underdone Tarzan over streams and canyons with never a second’s rest from chasing and being chased by devils inside and out. You can see what a man is by looking into his eyes, I thought, though I hope not everything he ever will be. I’d stared myself out while shaving, because the mirror in our kitchen was no bigger than a postage stamp ripped in half, which was why the safety razor cut me to ribbons. That’s how you see anybody though, through smashed bits of mirror, and nobody can say which way and in how many pieces the mirror was going to break when it dropped and gave that seven years’ bad luck. But through the pattern of such glittering scraps it’s easy to tell whether a person is used to being knocked about by the world and has no option but to let it, or whether he’s got something in his brain and stomach that makes him spin into action like an ant with bladder trouble against all the Bible-backed pot-loathing bastards of the universe.

  The café had once been smart, done up for old ladies and Tory widows to sup tea in while waiting for buses to take them home to matchbox bungalows and yapping mole-dogs, but now the chairs were slashed and battered, a late-night hideaway for beats and riff-raff, and the wet floor was scraped from hob-nailed boots and specked with nub-ends.

  A swish bint behind the counter with a soft white face and long hair asked what I wanted, and I would like to have told her the truth, though even so her heart seemed pleased when I answered: ‘A cup of tea, duck.’

  I must have been dug right into myself, because I’d sat next to a girl without knowing it. Not that I’d have shuffled off to a quiet corner and brooded alone if I had seen her, but I might have sparked an opening shot before sitting down. Giving the sly once-over with one eye, I watched my drink slooshing from a hundred-watt brass tea-tub with the other.

  The maroon coat had padded shoulders and thick cuffs, and she must have been walking in the rain, because I could whiff the fresh wetness of autumn on stale cloth drifting through tea-fumes and fag-smoke, and saw where raindrops had dried on the nearest cheek to me. Her face was dark, going to sallow because of thinness, and would have had a better complexion with more meat on it.

  I liked the dark hair she had, for it fell on her neck in ringlets, as if the wind had blown it around before she’d had time to think of drawing a comb through it. I couldn’t see her full face, but enough at this cockeyed angle to sense that something was wrong.

  I made up a story saying that maybe she’d lost either husband, parents or perhaps a baby, was in a bad way and didn’t know what to do now she’d finished her cup of tea.

  A hand reached up to her face, a movement that startled me as if before then I’d been looking at a person not quite alive. She stared at the sheer mirror that rose like an empty sea above a rocky shore of Woodbines and matches, and the only two faces looking back from it were hers and mine, me at her and she at nothing.

  I pushed my hot and untouched cup of tea across to her. ‘Are you all right, duck?’

  ‘What are you staring at me for?’ she demanded – in such a tone
that I knew she wouldn’t feel too good if I answered the same way.

  ‘I like looking at people.’

  ‘Pick somebody else, then.’

  ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been seeing the same dead mugs year in and year out behind bars, and that’s enough to drive even a sane man crazy. The government’s had me worried and bullied blind, and I’m just about getting back into my heart.’

  After such a reason she became more sociable. ‘I see what you mean. I’ve never been in one of those places, but I suppose it is strange to be loose again.’ She spoke softly, yet jerked her words out in a breathless way.

  ‘You catch on quick.’ I pushed a fag over, one of a couple lifted from the old man’s packet that morning before he pushed me into the yard and told me never to come back because the sight of me made mother ill. I took him at his word, and never did see either of them again.

  She hesitated. ‘I shouldn’t smoke.’

  I scraped a match along the brass rail. ‘Don’t take down, then it wain’t hurt.’

  ‘I haven’t the price of a cigarette,’ she said, ‘to tell you the truth.’ Hair and eyes made her sallow skin look darker than it was, and she could almost have been the sister of the bloke in clink who’d plagued me with his Lenin message month after month. Smoking gave her more colour, coupled to the tea she sipped. ‘I’ve neither digs nor a job at the moment. I was kicked out of both as from this morning.’

  I lowered my fag, to get a clearer view of her face: ‘What happened, then?’

 
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