New and Collected Stories, p.36Alan Sillitoe
‘I worked as a wardmaid at the hospital.’
‘I shouldn’t think that’d be up to much.’
‘It wasn’t. I was scrubbing floors and serving meals from morning till night, and looking after dying men. It was a cancer ward. Did you ever see anyone die of that? Nothing kills the pain with some. They spin like crazy animals, right under the bed, and I had to help the nurses get them back and give them a jab.’
‘It’s the sort of work somebody’s got to do.’
‘I tried. But it wasn’t possible.’
‘Sure you did.’
‘I went on all right for quite some time, though I didn’t enjoy it, but then I got ill and had to be looked after myself. Now I’m better, but I can’t do that sort of work any more.’ She wasn’t the kind of girl I’d normally meet in the district I lived in, and maybe this as much as anything drew me to her. She wasn’t so rare and extraordinary, but her nervous face hinted at more intelligence than usual, and I imagined that on happier days her slightly curved nose and thin lips would mark her as being witty and fond of a good time. She spoke in a clearer way than I did then, the headlights of that Nottingham accent dipped almost as if she came from some other town. I wondered how old she was, and thought she could easily have been thirty from the lines around her face. ‘What part of the world do you come from?’ I wanted to know.
She didn’t like my question, but answered: ‘Nottingham.’
I guessed she wanted me to mind my own business, yet went on: ‘Why do you stay here, then, if you don’t like it?’
‘He don’t seem to look after you very well.’
‘I’ve no idea where he is, and I don’t much care.’
In spite of everything she seemed easier when I went on pumping her. ‘Why did you split up?’
‘He’d never work, expected me to go out and keep him. He’s a wireless mechanic, quite clever, but I couldn’t stand him any longer and left. Or he left me, rather. We had a room, and I had to leave that this morning because I couldn’t pay the rent.’
The waitress was talking to a couple of postmen, so left us in the clear. I gave all the sympathy I’d got, for there wasn’t much else I could part with, and feeling sorry for her made it seem less like trying to pick her up, for I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to.
‘That’s the worst of working for these great institutions,’ I said. ‘They slave you to death then throw you out. They’ve got no heart. I know, because I was in one myself, with a big wall around it. They said my time was up, contract finished. I was a model worker and earned my remission, so I argued about the contract and rates of pay, said remission didn’t worry me, yet told them that wages and conditions were rotten. But the boss swore at me, said he’d not take me on again when times were bad, that he’d let me starve if I didn’t have less of my lip. I threatened him with a strike even, but before I knew where I was I was outside the gate, a hole in the arse of the suit I’d been taken in in.’
I looked at her through the mirror, and knew that nothing could dislodge the boulder of apathy across her brain and eyes. When people talk about apathy at election times they don’t know what it means, I thought, hearing a speaker-van passing by outside asking us to vote for something or other.
Beyond her shoulders I saw rain falling, followed by hailstones in an October madness, a revolution of proletarian ice-heads rushing downwards to be softened by the still warm earth. A red bus came out of a rank, left gravel for tarmac and took a turning for Newark when the eyelids of the traffic lights lifted to a prolonged stare of green.
‘I’d even like to be on that drowned rat of a bus going north along an up-and-down road,’ I said, ‘or rocketing down the motorway towards London.’
‘Are you another who’s always running away?’
People listened to the hail and rain as if the dim voice of God would start to come through it, so that her question couldn’t be heard by anyone except me among the semi-darkness and clink of cups. ‘I’m either running away from something,’ I answered, ‘or running into something, I don’t know which. But I’m not a shirker, if that’s what you mean.’
‘Amen,’ she said. ‘Try running on nothing to eat, and no money.’
‘You’re right. I’ve never done much on an empty stomach. That’s why I’ve always landed in trouble.’
Tea and fags were finished, and she asked if I’d ever tried working. ‘Many a time,’ I said, feeling grim and rotten whenever I told the truth.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sure you did. You seem wide awake enough.’
‘Too pepped-up to find it easy. There’s a shortage of work now: the bosses are frightened of losing their profits.’
She laughed – which in my stupidity I took as a good sign.
‘My husband used to say that. I don’t think it means much. Not that you’re anything like him, though!’ – remembering her previous opinion – ‘Nobody could be as bad as he was, regarding work. He wouldn’t go to bed at night and wouldn’t get up in the morning. So we never had money, except what dole he wheedled, or National Assistance, or what I brought in. He didn’t mind half starving, as long as he could sleep, and I think he’d really have been happy enough to see me on the streets.’ This insistence upon work was grinding my nerves down, especially when I’d been wearing my legs off for the last fortnight trying to corner some.
She had no make-up on, not even lipstick, nothing to disguise the fact that she’d just fought clear of an illness. I wanted to get outside, but to leave her seemed too much of a risk. I glanced at her, not through the mirror but into flesh and blood, and, seeing her eyes closed felt afraid she’d faint, so put my arm behind her in case. Her mouth trembled, and tears came from beneath her eyelids, which gave me real distress, because in a way I liked her and felt sorry there was no useful help in me. I couldn’t even offer my handkerchief, it was so black.
The girl behind the bar thought we were having a silent set-to, so stayed away and punched open the till as she served a customer, dropped a coin in with a dull click (which told me how full it was) and scooped out some change. Money. That’s all she needed, a good meal, a few drinks and a warm bed, and she’d be a different woman. I pressed her hand till she looked at me. ‘Wait half an hour, duck, and I’ll have something for you, to help while you get a job.’
She nodded, unbelievingly. ‘You wain’t go away?’ I said. She shook her head. ‘Everything’ll be all right when I come back.’ She couldn’t answer, was numb inside and out, and had no faith in what I was trying to say. ‘You believe me, don’t you? I won’t be long. I know where I can get some money.’
I could have smashed my dum-dum head against a wall I felt so useless, but she nodded when I asked her again to wait just half an hour.
The rain had stopped. Nothing and no one – the sky least of all – has a mind of its own.
There were no pictures in the sky, so I looked at the gutters running with brown water, a full spate of production thrusting a straight way between kerb and cobblestones and leaving fresher air in its wake, dragged under further down by sewer grates and carried unwilling to the black and snaky Trent. Whether you fight with all the force in your spring-jack arms to make headway, or roll along like oil and water, you’re sucked into the black grates of death just the same.
Thoughts come to me in grey and enclosed places, and in clink I closed my hand over and set them in the warm nest of my brain to stop me going into screaming madness. I remember the pals I had at school and see their lives, how they were mostly married by twenty-one, and an aeroplane flies out of heaven, sky-writing THE END across their world. Or they finish with the army and see the same message. But I was in the nick till twenty-four, and the army would never have me, so I’m still on the advance towards new fields and marshes. The two-word telegram can’t frighten me, and when I came from the cell and under an archway the plane quickly wrote THE BEGINNING and flew away from the chaos that surrounds my life. Hemmed in with my shattered brai
Slab Square’s dominating timepiece handed out twelve o’clock like charity. How could I get money for what’s-her-name sitting in the tea bar? Print it, mould it, stamp it out like a bloody blacksmith? I zigzagged through the bus station and stood by the market watching people go in and out. She’s expecting me back with something borrowed from a barrow-boy pal who happened to be conveniently near, and I thought: if only the world was made like that.
I walked between the stalls with weasel eye and hungry hand set for any chance at all. Above the bustle of women buying supplies for their family fortresses, and old men looking at stuff they were too slow to pinch and too broke to buy I listened to cash-tills ringing in and out like the bells of Hell. Ping! Ping! Here, they were saying, here! Pinging like shots against a barricaded bank, while I stood spellbound in midstream of a strong crowd current, petrified with pleasure at the irregular rhythm and chorus of it, coupled with the call of voices, the clash of pots from crock stalls, breezes of fish and fruit and meat and the low thundering pass of traffic from outside. Money was pouring into pockets and tills, filling baskets and banks, hearts with greed and eyes with incurable blindness. Ping! Ping! And here was I with a poor bit of a rundown woman who was short of a few bob to stand on her feet, while a poster outside told me in dazzling colours I’d never had it so good and would soon have it better.
A sweet old Dolly-on-the-tub swayed by, a head-scarfed hot-slot from Notts with a homely mangel-wurzel face, a dyed army overcoat on her back. A purse lay in the basket between a packet of soapflakes and a wrapped loaf, so I followed the trail of her steamy breath. The place was jammed, and if my life had depended on a clear way through, all trouble would have been finished for good. Near the wide entrance my hand snaked and struck towards the basket, and in my imagination had already opened the purse, cursing my luck as I flung away bus tickets and pawn tags, pension book and worn-out photos, wading through all that to find only eighteen pence, because she’d never had it so good either. She swung towards the fish section, leaving my hand in mid-air and my bent back locked in a terrible lumbago cramp.
The fishmonger lapped paper around her bundle, slapped it on top of the purse. A pal of Dolly’s pulled her by the elbow, nearly crushing my toes. ‘Can’t abide this weather,’ she said, after greetings. ‘I just can’t abide it, Mary, my duck.’
Mary couldn’t, either, because it brought on her railway-husband’s bronchitis. Such talk gave my hand the twitches, for it hovered like a semi-black meaty rare tropical butterfly near the back of my neck and was trying to get down between a butcher’s assistant and a bus conductress, then through to the basket and purse that I couldn’t even see any more. I had to look as if I were moving without really doing so, appearing cheerful and treadmilly mobile as if on my way to the tea-stall whose cups steamed not far beyond.
‘Aye, it does take some beating, don’t it? I wouldn’t mind it so much, except that I can never get my washing done, and it stokes my rheumatics up summat wicked.’
A deep sigh came from Mary, and I was close enough to blow in her ear, though still couldn’t steer my mauler through. A couple of other women were jammed near. ‘Well,’ Mary grumbled, ‘you mustn’t grumble. You’ll allus find somebody worse off than yourself.’ You’re looking right at him, I thought, unless I can get my hand on your pal’s change-bag.
The way cleared, and I could see through to the basket, and when my hand was getting scratched on the straw I noticed the glassy eyes of the mackerel that had rolled from their paper specially to glare at me: ‘You bring your thieving fingers any closer,’ they seemed to say, ‘and we’ll scream.’ Someone pushed, not heavy enough to be on purpose, but I was a few inches back again. He had difficulty getting through, and the roll of his fat neck came dead-level with me.
My heart crashed in and out like an oxygen bag, and my feet moved from the cloth I was staring at, because I’d seen the colour of that uniform a good few times before: blue-black and ready for that stainless Sheffield flick-blade I’m glad I didn’t have or, being so close to falling from the post-penthouse tight-rope I might have buried it between his shoulder-bones and run for my spent life. I made for the exit, the purse out of my mind, and hearing only the quick dying trail of someone swear as I put my foot on theirs without stopping to apologize.
I leaned against the wall outside, my heart and blood signalling far and wide the news of my miraculous escape. Then I remembered the girl in the café who was down on her luck and waiting for me to lope in, my sound pocket stuffed by the wherewithal to do her a lot of good. And in the same crashing breath I hated myself like arsenic because I’d thought of robbing a poor old trot of her short-changed purse, a woman worth ten of me because she’d suffered more and was older, while I hadn’t and was still young. I could have smashed my head on a railing spike and ended it all, because if I robbed anyone at all it shouldn’t be anybody like her.
A bus drew in at the stop and people got off, stuffing used tickets like good citizens into the slot provided, being as afraid of dirtying the street as they were of shitting their own pants, wanting to keep the roads clean even though their hearts might be black. One four-eyed bowler-hat even put some coins into a little red box for uncollected fares. Luck puts the wind up some people. You’ve got to pay for everything in this life, old-fashioned church voices whisper from the insides of their hollow skulls, and so they believe it, young and old, clutching a conscience like an extra arm they can’t do without, but which is really a rudder steering them through a life they’ve got used to and never want to change, since they’re dead scared of anything new. And you can only change such a system by chopping that arm right off and burying it six feet under like any corpse. I was hungry and bitter, and knew it was wrong to be either, so told myself to stop it, stop it, or I wouldn’t be free much longer.
I considered getting on a bus and opening one of those little red boxes, but threw the idea out because even though I might be a robbing bastard I was no fool. Walking towards Hockley I felt sure the girl would wait till I got back, for her present mood was familiar to me, had often nailed my body and soul into the ground and kept it there for countless hours so that I hardly knew time was passing and didn’t care whether I died or not.
But now I was a man of action and wondered whether I should go to a bookshop and nick an expensive manual on engineering and sell it secondhand for ten bob or a quid. Useless. I turned from the clothes shops whose fronts were decorated with overalls, cheap suits, and rows of boots. I passed their prices labelled in big creosote figures, then walked between deserted lace factories and tall warehouses, booting a black rat-killing tomcat that ran from under a wooden gate. A few office tarts were strolling around, but I went through them like a ghost, and sat on a stone bench by a churchyard thinking that maybe I ought to go into Woolworth’s and sneak my hand up like a cobra to drag down a few fountain pens.
Pacing the green old gravestones I came face to face with a church door, pushed it open and went in. There were rows of empty seats and a deserted altar, as if it were never used even by the rats. I read notices about this and that meeting, or service, or charity, and on a table lay booklets telling of church and parish history. But my eyes moved to a lightly padlocked box on which was painted in white letters: RESTORATION FUND.
I was outside in a second, but stopped for some reason on the steps. Feeling rain I had good reason to go back inside, but seeing granite scrolls and marble slabs, caskets with hangdog flowers, railings with heads like barbarian spears, emptiness crossing the narrow streets like an unhurrying copper, an exhausted sky only stopped from falling flat on its guts because of sharp chimneypots and pointed eaves, I had better reasons for stay
A few minutes later I pushed that oak-stained door once more and stood inside the church before it had time to slide to behind me. A piece of matting lay in front of the padlocked box, as if to encourage people with cold feet to step on it for long enough to part with their lolly, and I hoped it had been successful as I too stood and took a last glance around the church to make sure it was empty.
I looked at that lovely phrase saying RESTORATION FUND, which was the right one anyway, for I could think of two people at least who wanted restoring. Gripping the padlock as if about to do a clever judo move and sling the box skyhigh over my shoulder, I gave it a maniacal twist, my other hand pressed down hard on top. The wrench was strengthened by desperate need choking the girl I’d left in the café and it was plain, as the screws gave and the lock buckled, that a tenth of such force would have been sufficient.
I threw the lock on to the matting, and lifted the lid to see at least a pound in coin. It was strange how most of the money had dropped in and rolled to the left side of the box. I couldn’t get a grip on the last few with my fingers, took some time getting fingernails under each before flicking them up into my hands where they rattled with a willing heart at freedom, glad like a bunch of prisoners at being in circulation again. An idea of gratitude struck me, of which I was always full, and because I rarely had the opportunity to give it I felt in my pocket for a pencil and wrote plainly under RESTORATION FUND: ‘Thank you, dear friends.’ I then dropped the cash pell-mell into my pocket and walked out.
People might think I’ve been in to light a candle for my grandmother’s soul, and that I’m pleased she’s being warmed at last in stone-cold heaven – I laughed as I went between gravestones into the street, then back towards the bus station café, where the girl no doubt sat looking into an empty teacup, unable to read her fortune because a leafless tea-urn had taken even that kick away.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes