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New and collected storie.., p.37
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       New and Collected Stories, p.37

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  Calmness left me. The older I was the more scared I got afterwards, not like the old days when I stashed open a post office in a light-hearted devil-may-care way and came out with a cashbox under my coat – and ran straight into the arms of a copper. The old lags had weighed me up right in saying I’d lose my nerve sooner or later. I used to think they were wrong and couldn’t tell a cut lip from a black eye no matter how long they looked, but truth was somewhere at the back of it, because my legs would hardly hold as I turned by the market. With my rattling pocket I felt as if fifty sharp-cornered cashboxes hung around me like a Christmas tree at the wrong season. But losing your nerve doesn’t matter so much, as long as you keep a tight control over yourself.

  I was some way down from the bus station café where I’d left my dark and beautiful stranger, and being so close I dared at last to plunge my hand in and feel those cool shapes of money. A strong and wilful hand fell on my shoulder.

  I’d have dropped stone dead on the spot if the life force hadn’t thought I was worth saving at the last moment. Bleak terror sent me totally cold – before the voice broke. I was in court, given up as a bad job and put away this time for good, plunged into the cattlepen of no-man’s-land for what days were left to me, finished at the turn of a frost-filled iron key. My mouth was full of iodine and sawdust, coal gas and common bird-lime, and it stayed just as strong as ever when I heard the big bluff voice that followed the blow on my shoulder: ‘You thought I was a copper, didn’t you, you rogue! Still the same Jack Parker who can’t keep his hands to hisself! I’d a known you a mile off, walking along like a hungry jack-rabbit.’

  I turned, and who should it be but my old pal Terry Jackson, whom I hadn’t seen for three years and wouldn’t have known but for his face, for he was dressed like a millionaire in a charcoal-grey suit and striped shirt, a small knotted tie and spick-and-span shoes. He was smoking a long cigarette and looked so well turned out that labels should have been stuck on him saying ‘Fragile’ and ‘This Side Up’ and ‘Don’t Bend’, which made him altogether different to the cross-eyed scruff in a shattered coat who’d gone with me into that warehouse. He was well fed, built on meat and solid salad, not so tall as I was, but his fair combed hair smelled of scent and his shaved chops of eau-de-cologne. He hadn’t exactly a film star’s features, but money had lifted his chin higher and given an extra sparkle to his eyes, seemed to have made sure that wherever he stepped in his tailor-made shoes everything would shift out of his way. Even the pimples had gone without trace, packed up their pus in a hurry and left.

  ‘I’ll bet you thought your number was up. I can just see both your pockets stuffed with fivers,’ he laughed.

  ‘I wish they was,’ I said, glad to see him. ‘How did you drop into all this wealth? And don’t tell me you earned it as an errand boy.’

  He grinned, spent another bash on my shoulder. I bashed him back. ‘I ain’t seen you for years,’ he said. ‘My old pal! I thought you’d signed on for twenty-one with the army, or killed yourself in some other way. And driving along in my new sports bus I see you. As if that could be anybody else but Jack Parker, I thought to myself! Where you bin, then?’

  ‘All over. After a month sunning myself in the Isles of Greece I went to live in France. Worked there a couple of years. Had a marvellous time. Better than this dump.’

  ‘Why did you come back then?’

  ‘Got fed up. You know how it is. Which is your car?’

  He pointed down the kerb, at an open sports with a girl in it. It was red and thin like a lobster, the sort you’d buy at the fish shop rather than a garage, looking as if it would crack in two if you sat on the middle of it.

  ‘It can do a hundred in the shade,’ Terry said. ‘The other day on the road to Newark, you should have seen it, skimming along like a speed boat. I daren’t look at the clock. It was smashing.’ The girl waved to him, to hurry back and stop talking to that scruff. From a distance she looked a stunner, fair-haired and well dressed, little pink fingers drumming the side of the car, but not too hard in case she dented it or disturbed her C & A hat.

  ‘Nice piece,’ I said.

  This made him happy. ‘She ain’t a piece. She’s my wife. Married her a year ago. Her old man owns roundabouts and sideshows at the fair. Loaded with dough, and lets me help myself. Loves me like a son – which he never had. Come on the fairground next week and look us up. She’s got an aunt who tells fortunes. It’s a scream. Allus says I’ll come to a bad end, but it’s only because I can’t stop laughing. She’ll tell your fortune if you come.’

  I took one of the fags he offered. ‘If I’ve got time.’

  Gold cigarette-lighter. ‘Mek time. What are you doing these days?’

  I’d nothing to hide. ‘Looking for a job.’

  ‘You ought to find a wife. Settle down. If you want a job I know a factory office you could do. Dough comes in from the bank on Thursday night for payday time. Need a drop of gelly though, that’s all.’

  I pulled him up: ‘I’ve just been inside for three years and want to stay out for good now. Anyway I think my luck’s changed as from an hour ago.’ I said this to save him offering me a job on his roundabouts, because he’d be scared of me walking off with the week’s takings of some coconut stall, and I’d be afraid of ending up on a spinning roundabout that got me nowhere. ‘Still live in Denman Terrace?’ he asked. ‘We had some good times there, didn’t we? A terrible crumb-dump. Has it been bombed yet, do you know?’

  ‘Don’t think so.’

  ‘Let me know when it has. I’ll have a double whisky on it.’

  ‘I’m going back to London next week,’ I said. ‘Get a job on a building site. Or work as a railway porter. You have better times down there.’

  He was impressed. ‘No kidding? I’d go with you, but’ – nodding towards his piece of skirt – ‘I’m hooked.’ He couldn’t take his eyes off her.

  ‘What’s she like then?’ I asked.

  ‘In bed?’ Before I could stop him his grey eyes lit as if to burn through any she-cat: ‘Boy, she’s marvellous. I never get tired. When I come it’s like Siberia. It goes on and on, and there’s no end to it. I’m flying, man! Flying!’

  ‘Introduce me. You’ve set me on.’

  ‘Come to Goose Fair next week, then I will. Don’t forget.’

  ‘All right. Meanwhile lend’s a quid or two. I’ll pay it back when I see you there.’ I said this in spite of myself, because up to that moment I’d preferred to steal rather than borrow.

  Like a good friend, he pushed a couple of five-notes into my hand, and even laughed over it. ‘Plenty more where that came from!’

  We cracked each other a few more times on the shoulder, then I watched him drive off, his ringed fingers waving farewell like a king as he clipped the traffic lights.

  My pocket bursting its seams with money I went back to find Floradora, who’d at least have a good few quid till she found work enough to stay on her feet. The time I’d seen her had set my mad brain going about her marvellous hair, and unhappy face that was good-looking if she’d ever escape from the uppers of her luck. I hoped I’d be able to know her better and though it might not come off, I thought, pushing open the door, it could be worth a bit more than my dead life to get in there and try. What with that, and bumping into Terry Jackson, I didn’t give a sod for any job or body, saw the nick as a fading bad dream, and the rain now behind me washing out the past and what blame was latched to it, making the way clear for some future I was ever too blind to see.

  The same wet smoke and tea smells, and the stink of beans-on-toast greeted me, but I’d never felt less hungry in my life, eyed the line of backs stuck on each seat over supped cups and nibbled plates, so many people in caps and coats, I couldn’t immediately find the girl for whom my pocket jingled and rustled. Terry’s long cigarette was still young, and flipping off the ash I walked between the tables but knew she couldn’t be at any one of them. The search was casual, went to the more likely bar, and from head to he
ad again looking for dark ringlets on one bent slightly forward.

  I put off the truth as long as possible, unwilling to tell myself she wasn’t there, had vanished, flipped-out with worries that a few quid and what care I could give might have fixed, gone also with her red lips and dark skin and agile thinness and all the madness and gaiety that lurks in a girl who can become buried by such lunatic unhappy weather. Still unable to believe it, I said to the waitress: ‘Remember me, duck?’

  She leaned all her softness forward: ‘Who wouldn’t?’

  ‘What happened to the woman I was sitting with half an hour ago?’

  There was a quick dark scuffle in her memory. ‘Wore a maroon coat?’

  I nodded.

  ‘She went just after you left. I thought she’d gone to look for you.’ Perhaps she saw my disappointment, but there was no use hiding it. What they can’t see they sense, and think you less of a man for keeping it quiet under your coat. She asked me who she was, and I lied for the third time that day: ‘My wife.’

  I walked out of the café and back into the streaming rain to look for her, my good pocket full like my heart to bursting, weeping and cursing that she hadn’t even waited the promised half-hour.

  I’d find a job, but I’d never see her again. To look for both in the next few days was possible, but the search turned out to be hopeless. That’s the way things are arranged, in this super and abundant world, which must go on turning, like a dead pig over the slow fire of my body and soul.

  After three months in the sanatorium working as a stoker and doing my penance for the sick and healing, I looked again, but all I found was Terry Jackson. I took him up on the job he’d offered, and one day after a ragbag year of saving, during which time I was often tempted to rinse my fingers in the till but didn’t, a year of all work and no expensive pleasures, I set out on a gang-hitch to ancient Greece, to the happy isles, the lotus hash-land where I’ll stay forever, meaning for as long as I’m able to think back on what I am and have been. The sun is good and healing, the sausages here are real meat, the sky blue and the wind sometimes bitter, but my love has gone and will never come back.

  We walked slowly up the stony track, zigzagging like donkeys after a hard day in the blinkers, between cork and carob and pine and olive, flashes of sea to keep us happy in the sweat and heat of the climb, taking an hour to reach the village where somebody’s friend had promised us another night’s doss on the stone floor of a wash-house.

  ‘You’re a long way from Nottingham and all that now,’ Michael said. Not as far as you might think, I told him. I thought distances were small to all of us, and time had less meaning still. I’m right, they say. Life has no meaning after all, so long live life! That way we’ll live forever, I say. It goes on like this ever upward path, my bright bird chips out from two loops below. I love you for that, I say, blowing a kiss that she doesn’t see. My feet are free and my eyes are hot.

  Down here in the olive grove I’m a great one for my stories, because what else is there except the gift of the gab, the talk, talk, talk, to stop the black sea rushing in? But all I’ve got left is enough LSD for half a trip, and hash for half a blow. My foot-fare home I’ve got, and as for June I think she’ll make out, staying or leaving, unless I throw her off the Acropolis the day after tomorrow on our way through.

  All the cash is spent, until I can peddle another selection of Turkish Delight, or Indian Rope that you can vanish up easily enough, or Persian chopped rug you can actually fly on. So in the meantime I’ll bum around or starve, in the hands of pot, pot God, hash heaven, the acid bath of hell and all delight, on the straight but corrugated path that widens when it gets closer and closer and over the deep dip on the edge of the world. But I’ll go over it thinking of my dark-haired beauty, thin-faced and maybe at death’s door, the one I never got, so lost. And a man like me can’t ask for more than that. If he does he suffers too much, and that sort of thing went out with the angels, didn’t it?

  Guzman, Go Home

  Bouncing and engine-noise kept the baby soothed, as if he were snug in the belly of a purring cat. But at the minute of feeding-time he screamed out his eight-week honeyguts in a high-powered lament, which nothing but the nipple could stop. Somewhere had to be found where he could feed in peace and privacy, otherwise his cries in the narrow car threatened the straight arrow on Chris’s driving.

  He often had fifty miles of road to himself, except when a sudden horn signalled an overtaking fast-driven Volkswagen loaded to the gills. ‘Look how marvellously they go,’ Jane said. ‘I told you you should have bought one. No wonder they overtake you so easily, with that left-hand drive.’

  Open scrub fanned out north and west, boulders and olive trees, mountains combing the late May sky of Spain. It was sombre and handsome country, in contrast to the flat-chested fields of England. He backed into an orange grove, red earth newly watered, cool wind coming down from the fortress of Sagunto. While Jane fed the baby, he fed Jane and himself, broke off pieces of ham and cheese for a simultaneous intake to save time.

  The car was so loaded that they looked like refugees leaving a city that the liberating army is coming back to. Apart from a small space for the baby the inside was jammed with cases, typewriter, baskets, flasks, coats, umbrellas, and plastic bowls. On the luggage-rack lay a trunk and two cases with, topping all, a folded pram-frame, and collapsible bath.

  It was a new car, but dust, luggage, and erratic driving gave it a veteran appearance. They had crossed Paris in a hail and thunderstorm, got lost in the traffic maze of Barcelona, and skirted Valencia by a ring road so rotten that it seemed as if an earthquake had hit it half an hour before. Both wanted the dead useless tree of London lifted off their nerves, so they locked up the flat, loaded the car, and sailed to Boulogne, where the compass of their heart’s desire shook its needle towards Morocco.

  They wanted to get away from the political atmosphere that saturated English artistic life. Chris, being a painter, had decided that politics ought not to concern him. He would ‘keep his hands clean’ and get on with his work. ‘I like to remember what happened in 1848 to Wagner,’ he said, ‘who fell in with the revolution up to his neck, helping the workers to storm the arsenal in Dresden, and organizing stores for the defence. Then when the revolution collapsed he hightailed it to Italy to be “entirely an artist” again.’ He laughed loud, until a particularly deep pothole cut it short in his belly.

  Flying along the straight empty road before Valencia they realized the meaning of freedom from claustrophobic and dirty London, from television and Sunday newspapers, and their middle-aged mediocre friends who talked more glibly nowadays of good restaurants than they had formerly about socialism. The gallery owner advised Chris to go to Majorca, if he must get away, but Chris wanted to be near the mosques and museums of Fez, smoke kif at the tribal gatherings of Taroudant and Tafilalt, witness the rose-hip snake-green sunsets of Rabat and Mogador. The art dealer couldn’t see why he wanted to travel at all. Wasn’t England good enough for other painters and writers? ‘They like it here, so why don’t you? Travel broadens the mind, but it shouldn’t go to the head. It’s a thing of the past – old-fashioned. You’re socially conscious, so you can’t be away from the centre of things for long. What about the marches and sit-downs, petitions, and talks?’

  For ten hours he’d driven along the hairpin coast and across the plains of Murcia and Lorca, wanting to beat the previous day’s run. They hadn’t stopped for the usual rich skins of sausage-protein and cheese, but ate biscuits and bitter chocolate as they went along. He hardly spoke, as if needing all his concentration to wring so many extra miles an hour from the empty and now tolerable road.

  His impulse was to get out of Spain, to put that wide arid land behind them. He found it dull, its people too beaten down to be interesting or worth knowing. The country seemed a thousand years older than it had on his last visit. Then, he’d expected insurrection at any time, but now the thought of it was a big horse-laugh. The country s
melt even more hopeless than England – which was saying a lot. He wanted to reach Morocco which, no matter how feudal and corrupt, was a new country that might be on the up and up.

  So when the engine roared too much for good health at Benidorm, he chose to keep going in order to reach Almeria by nightfall. That extra roar seemed caused by a surcharge of rich fuel at leaving the choke out too long, that would right itself after twenty miles. But it didn’t, and on hairpin bends he had difficulty controlling the car. He was careful not to mention this in case his wife persuaded him to get it repaired – which would delay them God knew how many days.

  When the plains of Murcia laid a straight road in front of them, it wasn’t much after midday. What did hunger matter with progress so good? The roaring of the engine sometimes created a dangerous speed, but maybe it would get them to Tangier. Nothing could be really wrong with a three-month old car – so he drove it into the remotest part of Spain, sublime indifference and sublime confidence blinding him.

  He shot through Villa Oveja at five o’clock. The town stood on a hill, so gear had to be changed, causing such a bellowing of the engine that people stared as if expecting the luggage-racked car to go up any second like the Bomb, that Chris had fought so hard to get banned. The speed increased so much that he daren’t take his foot from the brake even when going uphill.

  The houses looked miserable and dull, a few doorways opening into cobblestoned entradas. By one an old woman sat cutting up vegetables; a group of children were playing by another; and a woman with folded arms looked as if waiting for some fast car full of purpose and direction to take her away. Pools of muddy water lay around, though no rain had fallen for weeks. A petrol pump stood like a one-armed veteran of the Civil War outside an open motor workshop – several men busy within at the bonnet of a Leyland lorry. ‘These Spanish towns give me the creeps,’ he said, hooting a child out of the way.

 
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