New and Collected Stories, p.38Alan Sillitoe
He waved a farewell at the last house. Between there and Almeria the earth, under its reafforestation skin of cactus and weed, was yellow with sand, desert to be traversed at high speed with eyes half-closed. The road looped the hills, to the left sheer wall and to the right precipices that fell into approaching dusk. Earth and rocks generated a silence that reminded him of mountains anywhere. He almost expected to see snow around the next bend.
In spite of the faulty engine he felt snug and safe in his sturdy car, all set to reach the coast in a couple of hours. The road ahead looked like a black lace fallen from Satan’s boot in heaven. No healthy tune was played by the sandy wind, and the unguarded drop on the right was enough to scare any driver, yet kilometres were a shorter measure than miles, would soon roll him into the comfort of a big meal and a night’s hotel.
On a steep deserted curve the car failed to change gear. Chris thought it a temporary flash of overheated temper from the clutch mechanism, but, trying again – before the loaded car rolled off the precipice – drew a screech of igniting steel from within the gearbox.
He was stopped from trying the gears once more by a warning yell from Jane, pulled the handbrake firmly up. The car still rolled, its two back wheels at the cliff edge, so he pressed with all his force on the footbrake as well, and held it there, sweat piling out on to the skin of his face. They sat, the engine switched off.
Wind was the only noise, a weird hooting brazen hill-wind from which the sun had already extricated itself. ‘All we can do,’ he said, ‘is hope somebody will pass, so that we can get help.’
‘Don’t you know anything about this bloody car? We can’t sit here all night.’ Her face was wound up like a spring, life only in her righteous words. It was as if all day the toil of the road had been preparing them for just this.
‘Only that it shouldn’t have gone wrong, being two months old.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘British is best. You know I told you to buy a Volkswagen. What do you think is wrong with it?’
‘I don’t know. I absolutely don’t bloody well know.’
‘I believe you. My God! You’ve got the stupidity to bring me and a baby right across Europe in a car without knowing the first thing about it. I think you’re mad to risk all our lives like this. You haven’t even got a proper driving licence.’ The wind, too, moaned its just rebuke. But the honeyed sound of another motor on the mountain road filtered into the horsepower of their bickering. Its healthy and forceful noise drew closer, a machine that knew where it was going, its four-stroke cycle fearlessly cutting through the silence. While he searched for a telling response to her tirade, Jane put her arm out, waving the car to stop.
It was a Volkswagen (of course, he thought, it bloody well had to be), a field-grey low-axled turtle with windows, so fresh-washed and polished that it might just have rolled off the conveyor line. Its driver leaned out while the engine still turned: ‘Que ha pasado?’
Chris told him: the car had stopped, and it wasn’t possible to change gear, or get it going at all. The Volkswagen had a Spanish number plate, and the driver’s Spanish, though grammatical, was undermined by another accent. He got out, motioned Chris to do the same. He was a tall, well-built man dressed in khaki slacks and a light-blue open-necked jersey-shirt a size too small: his chest tended to bulge through it and gave the impression of more muscle than he really had. His bare arms were tanned, and on one was a small white mark where a wristwatch had been. There was a more subtle tan to his face, as if it had done a slow change from lobster red to a parchment colour, oil-soaked and wind-worn after a lot of travel.
To Chris he seemed like a rescuing angel, yet there was a cast of sadness, of disappointment underlying his face that, with a man of his middle-age, was no passing expression. It was a mark that life had grown on him over the years, and for good reason, since there was also something of great strength in his features. As if to deny all this – yet in a weird way confirming it more – he had a broad forehead, and the eyes and mouth of an alert benign cat, and like so many short-sighted Germans who wore rimless spectacles he had that dazed and distant look that managed to combine stupidity and ruthlessness.
He sat in the driver’s seat, released the brake, and signalled Chris to push. ‘Harémos la vuelta.’
Jane stayed inside, rigid from the danger they had been in, weary in every vein after days travelling with a baby that was feeding from herself. She turned now and again to tuck the sheet under the baby. The man beside her deftly manoeuvred the car to the safe side of the road, and faced it towards the bend leading back to Villa Oveja.
He started the engine. The turnover was healthy, and the wheels moved. Chris saw the car sliding away, wife, luggage, and baby fifty yards down the road. He was too tired to be afraid they would vanish for ever and leave him utterly alone in the middle of these darkening peaks. He lit a cigarette, in a vagrant slap-happy wind that, he had time to think, would never have allowed him to do so in a more normal situation.
The car stopped, then started again, and the man tried to change gear, which brought a further roaring screech from the steel discs within. He stopped the car, leaned from the window and looked with bland objective sadness at Chris. Hand on the wheel, he spoke English for the first time, but in an unmistakable German accent. He grinned and said, a high-pitched rhythmical rise and fall, a telegraphic rendering of disaster that was to haunt Chris a long time:
‘England, your car has snapped!’
‘Lucky for you, England, I am the owner of the garage in Villa Oveja. A towing-rope in my car will drag you there in five minutes.
‘My name is Guzman – allowing me to introduce myself. If I hadn’t come along and seen your break-up you would perhaps have waited all night, because this is the loneliest Iberian road. I only come this way once a week, so you are double lucky. I go to the next town to see my other garage branch, confirm that the Spaniard I have set to run it doesn’t trick me too much. He is my friend, as far as I can have a friend in this country where, due to unsought-for happenings, I have spent nearly the same years as my native Germany. But I find my second garage is not doing too wrong. The Spaniards are good mechanics, a very adjustable people. Even without spare parts they have the genius to get an engine living – though under such a system it can’t last long before being carried back again. Still, they are clever. I taught my mechanics all I know: I myself was once able to pick tank engines into morsels, under even more trying conditions than here. I trained mechanics well, and one answered by taking his knowledge to Madrid, where I don’t doubt he got an excellent job – the crooked, ungrateful. He was the most brainful, so what could he do except trick me? I would have done the same in his place. The others, they are fools for not escaping with my knowledge, and so they will never get on to the summit. Likewise they aren’t much use for me. But we will fix your car good once we get right back to the town, have no fear of it.
‘You say it is only three months old? Ah, England, no German car would be such a bad boy after three months. This Volkswagen I have had two years, and not a nut and bolt has slipped out of place. I never boast about myself, but the Volkswagen is a good car, that any rational human being can trust. It is made with intelligence. It is fast and hard, has a marvellous honest engine, that sounds to last a thousand years pulling through these mountains. Even on scorched days I like to drive with all my windows shut-closed, listening to the engine nuzzling swift along like a happy cat-bitch. I sweat like rivers, but the sound is beautiful. A good car, and anything goes wrong, so you take the lid off, and all its insides are there for the eye to see and the hand-spanner to work at. Whereas your English cars are difficult to treat with. A nut and bolt loose, a pipe snapped, and if you don’t burn the fingers you surely sprain the wrist trying to get at the injured fix. It’s as if your designers hide them on purpose. Why? It isn’t rational why, in a people’s car that is so common. A car should be natural to expose and easy to understand. On the other hand you can’t
‘Thank you. I’ve always had a wanton for English cigarettes, as I have for the language. The tobacco is more subtle than the brutal odours of the Spanish. Language is our best lanes of communication, England, and whenever I meet travellers like yourself I take advantage from it.
‘You don’t like the shape of the Volkswagen? Ah, England! That is the prime mistake in choosing a car. You English are so aesthetic, so biased. When I was walking through north Spain just after the war – before the ink was dry on the armistice signatures, ha, ha! – I was very poor and had no financial money – and in spite of the beautiful landscapes and marvellous towns with walls and churches, I sold my golden spectacles to a bruto farmer so that I can buy sufficing bread and sausage to feed me to Madrid. I didn’t see the pleasant things so clearly, and being minus them the print in my Baedeker handbook blurred my eyes, but here I am today. So what does the shape of a car mean? That you like it? That you don’t wear spectacles yet, so you’ll never have to sell them, you say? Oh, I am laughing. Oh, oh, oh! But England, excuse me wagging the big finger at you, but one day you may not be so fortunate.
‘Ah! So! Marvellous, as you say: clever Guzman has flipped into second gear, and maybe I do not need my towing rope to get you back to town. I don’t think you were so glad in all your life to meet a German, were you, England? Stray Germans like me are not so current in Spain nowadays.’
Shadows took the place of wind. A calm dusk slunk like an idling panther from the hips and peaks of the mountains. A few yellow lamps shone from the outlying white houses of Villa Oveja. Both cars descended the looping road, then crept up to the lights like prodigal moths.
As he stopped outside Guzman’s garage, Chris remembered his ironic goodbye of an hour ago. A small crowd gathered, who’d perhaps witnessed other motorists give that final contemptuous hand-wave, only to draggle back in this forlorn manner. God’s judgement, I suppose they think, the religious bastards. Guzman finished his inspection, sunlight seeming to shine on his glasses even in semi-darkness – which also hid what might be a smile: ‘England, I will take you to a hotel where you can stay all night – with your wife and child.’
‘All night!’ Chris had expected this, so his exclamation wasn’t so sharp.
‘Maybe two whole nights, England.’
Jane’s words were clipped with hysteria: ‘I won’t spend two nights in this awful dump.’ The crowd recognized the livelier inflections of a quarrel, grew livelier themselves. Guzman’s smile was less hidden: ‘Rationally speaking, it must be difficult travelling with a family-wife. However, you will find the Hotel Universal modest but comfortable, I’m sure.’
‘Listen,’ Chris said, ‘can’t you fix this clutch tonight?’ He turned to Jane: ‘We could still be in Almeria by twelve.’
‘Forget it,’ she said. ‘This is what …’
‘… comes of leaving England with a car you know nothing about? Oh for God’s sake!’
Guzman’s heavy accent sometimes rose to an almost feminine pitch, and now came remorselessly in: ‘England, if I might suggest …’
The hotel room smelled of carbolic and Flit; it was scrupulously clean. Every piece of luggage was unloaded and stacked on the spacious landing of the second floor – a ramshackle heap surrounded by thriving able-bodied aspidistras. The room dosed so heavily with Flit gave Jane a headache. Rooms with bath were non-existent, but a handbasin was available, and became sufficient during their three days there.
Off the squalor of the main road were narrow, cobblestoned streets. White-faced houses with over-hanging balconies were neat and well cared for. The streets channelled you into a spacious square, where the obligatory church, the necessary town hall, and the useful telegrafos, emphasized the importance of the locality. While Guzman’s tame mechanics worked on the car Chris and Jane sat in the cool dining room and listened to Guzman himself. On either side of the door leading to the kitchen were two bird cages, as large as prisons, with an austere primitive beauty about the handiwork of them. In each was a hook-beaked tropical bird, and while he talked Guzman now and again rolled up a ball of bread that was left over from dinner and threw it with such swift accuracy at the cage that it was caught by the scissor-beak that seemed eternally poked without.
‘I come here always for an hour after lunch or dinner,’ he said, lighting a small cigar, ‘to partake coffee and perhaps meet interesting people, by which I signify any foreigner who happens to be moving through. As you imagine, not many stay in our little God-forgotten town – as your charming and rational wife surmised on your precipitant arrival here. My English is coming back the more I talk to you, which makes me happy. I read much, to maintain my vocabulary, but speech is rare. I haven’t spoken it with anyone for fourteen months. You express motions of disbelief? It’s true. Few motorists happen to break up at this particular spot in Spain. Many English who come prefer the coasts. Not that the mosquitoes are any lesser there than here. Still, I killed that one: a last midnight black-out for the little blighter. Ah, there’s another. There, on your hand. Get it, England. Bravo. You are also quick. They are not usually so bad, because we Flit them to death.
‘I suppose the English like Spain in this modern epoch because of its politics, which are on the right side – a little primitive, but safe and solid. Excuse me, I did not know you were speeding through to Africa, and did not care for political Spain. Not many visit the artistic qualities of Iberia, which I have always preferred. You are fed up with politics, you say, and want to leave them all behind? I don’t blame you. You are wisdom himself, because politics can make peril for a man’s life, especially if he is an artist. It is good to do nothing but paint, and good that you should not linger among this country. Why does an artist sit at politics? He is not used to it, tries his hand, and then all is explosioned in him. Shelley? Yes, of course, but that was a long time ago, my dear England. Excuse me again, yes, I will have a coñac. When I was in London, in 1932, somebody taught me a smart toast: health, wealth, and stealth! Gesundheit!
‘Forgive my discretion, England, but I see from your luggage that you are an artist, and I must talk of it. I have a great opinion of artists, and can see why it is that your car broke down. Artists know little of mechanical things, and those that do can’t ever be great artists. I myself began as a middling artist. It is a long story, which starts when I was eighteen, and I shall tell you soon.
‘Your car is in good hands. Don’t worry. And you, madam, I forbid you. We can relax after such a dinner. My mechanics have taken out the engine, and are already shaping off the spare necessary on the lathe. There are no spare parts for your particular name of car in this section of Spain, therefore we have to use our intelligent handicraft – to make them from nothing, from scrape, as you say. That doesn’t daunt me, England, because in Russia I had to make spare parts for captured tanks. Ah! I learned a lot in Russia. But I wish I hadn’t ever been there. My fighting was tragical, my bullets shooting so that I bleed to death every night for my perpetrations. But bygones are bypassed, and arc a long time ago. At least I learned the language. Chto dyelaets?
‘Well, it is a pity you don’t have a Volkswagen, which I have all the spare pieces for. Yet if you’d had a Volkswagen we wouldn’t have been talking here. You would have been in Marrakech. Like my own countrymen: they overtake every traveller on the road in their fast Volkswagens, as if they departed Hamburg that morning and have to get the ferry ship for Tangier this evening, so as to be in Marrakech tomorrow. Then after a swift weekend in the Atlas Mountains they speed back to the office work for another economic miracle, little perceiving that I am one of those that made that miracle possible. What do I mean? How?
‘Ah, ah, ah! You are sympathetic. When I laugh loud, so, you don’t get up and walk away. You don’t stare at me or flinch. O
‘But, believe it or not, I earned a living for longer years by my drawing than I have done as a garage man. The first money I earned in my life was during my student days in Königsberg – by drawing my uncle who was a ship-captain. My father wanted me to be a lawyer but I desired to be an artist. It was difficult to shake words with my father at that time, because he had just made a return from the war and he was very dispirited about Germany and himself. Therefore he wanted me to obey him as if I had lost the war for him, and he wouldn’t let me choose. I had to give up all drawing and become a lawyer, nothing less. I said no. He said yes. So I departed home. I walked twenty miles to the railway station with all the money I’d saved for years, and when I got there, the next day, it transpires that the young fortune I thought I had wouldn’t even take me on a mile of my long journey. All my banknotes were useless, yet I asked myself how could that be, because houses and factories still stood up, and there were fields and gardens all around me. I was flabbergasted. But I set off for Berlin with no money, and it took me a month to get there, drawing people’s faces for slices of bread and sausage. I began to see what my father meant, but by now it was too late. I had taken the jump, and went hungry for it, like all rebellious youths.
‘In my native home-house I had been sheltered from the gales of economy, because I saw now how the country was. Destituted. In Frankfurt a man landed at my foot because he had dropped from a lot of floors up. England, it was terrible: the man had worked for forty years to save his money, and he had none remaining. Someone else ran down the street screaming: “I’m ruined! Ruined utterly!” But all those other shop-keepers who would be ruined tomorrow turned back to their coffee and brandy. No one was solid, England. No solidarity anywhere. Can your mind imagine it? In such a confusion I decided more than ever that the only term one could be was an artist. Coming from Königsberg to Berlin had shown me a thrill for travel. But Berlin was dirty and dangerous. It was full of people singing about socialism – not national socialism, you understand, but communist socialism. So I soon left and went to Vienna – walking. You must comprehend that all this takes months, but I am young, and I like it. I do not eat well, but I did eat, and I have many adventures, with women especially. I think that it was the best time of my life. You want to go, madam? Ah, goodnight. I kiss your hand, even if you do not like my prattle. Goodnight, madam, goodnight. A charming wife, England.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes