New and Collected Stories, p.4Alan Sillitoe
I was dead sure he was still bluffing, because Mike and I hadn’t even seen each other the day before, but I looked worried. ‘She’s a menace then to innocent people, whoever she is, because the only bakery I’ve been in lately is the one up our street to get some cut-bread on tick for mam.’
He didn’t bite on this. ‘So now I want to know where the money is’ – as if I hadn’t answered him at all.
‘I think mam took it to work this morning to get herself some tea in the canteen.’ Rain was splashing down so hard I thought he’d get washed away if he didn’t come inside. But I wasn’t much bothered, and went on: ‘I remember I put it in the telly-vase last night – it was my only one-and-three and I was saving it for a packet of tips this morning – and I nearly had a jibbering black fit just now when I saw it had gone. I was reckoning on it for getting me through today because I don’t think life’s worth living without a fag, do you?’
I was getting into my stride and began to feel good, twigging that this would be my last pack of lies, and that if I kept it up for long enough this time I’d have the bastards beat: Mike and me would be off to the coast in a few weeks’ time having the fun of our lives, playing at penny football and latching on to a couple of tarts that would give us all they were good for. ‘And this weather’s no good for picking-up fag-ends in the street,’ I said, ‘because they’d be sopping wet. Course, I know you could dry ’em out near the fire, but it don’t taste the same you know, all said and done. Rainwater does summat to ’em that don’t bear thinkin’ about: it turns ’em back into hoss-tods without the taste though.’
I began to wonder, at the back of my brainless eyes, why old copper-lugs didn’t pull me up sharp and say he hadn’t got time to listen to all this, but he wasn’t looking at me anymore, and all my thoughts about Skegness went bursting to smithereens in my sludgy loaf. I could have dropped into the earth when I saw what he’d fixed his eyes on.
He was looking at it, an ever-loving fiver, and I could only jabber: ‘The one thing is to have some real fags because new hoss-tods is always better than stuff that’s been rained on and dried, and I know how you feel about not being able to find money because one-and-three’s one-and-three in anybody’s pocket, and naturally if I see it knocking around I’ll get you on the blower tomorrow straightaway and tell you where you can find it.’
I thought I’d go down in a fit: three green-backs as well had been washed down by the water, and more were following, lying flat at first after their fall, then getting tilted at the corners by wind and rainspots as if they were alive and wanted to get back into the dry snug drainpipe out of the terrible weather, and you can’t imagine how I wished they’d be able to. Old Hitler-face didn’t know what to make of it but just kept staring down and down, and I thought I’d better keep on talking, though I knew it wasn’t much good now.
‘It’s a fact, I know, that money’s hard to come by and half-crowns don’t get found on bus seats or in dustbins, and I didn’t see any in bed last night because I’d ’ave known about it, wouldn’t I? You can’t sleep with things like that in the bed because they’re too hard, and anyway at first they’re …’ It took Hitler-boy a long time to catch on; they were beginning to spread over the yard a bit, reinforced by the third colour of a ten-bob note, before his hand clamped itself on to my shoulder.
The pop-eyed potbellied governor said to a pop-eyed potbellied Member of Parliament who sat next to his pop-eyed potbellied whore of a wife that I was his only hope for getting the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for Long Distance Cross Country Running (All England), which I was, and it set me laughing to myself inside, and I didn’t say a word to any potbellied pop-eyed bastard that might give them real hope, though I knew the governor anyway took my quietness to mean he’d got that cup already stuck on the bookshelf in his office among the few other mildewed trophies.
‘He might take up running in a sort of professional way when he gets out,’ and it wasn’t until he’d said this and I’d heard it with my own flap-tabs that I realized it might be possible to do such a thing, run for money, trot for wages on piece work at a bob a puff rising bit by bit to a guinea a gasp and retiring through old age at thirty-two because of lace-curtain lungs, a football heart, and legs like varicose beanstalks. But I’d have a wife and car and get my grinning long-distance clock in the papers and have a smashing secretary to answer piles of letters sent by tarts who’d mob me when they saw who I was as I pushed my way into Woolworth’s for a packet of razor blades and a cup of tea. It was something to think about all right, and sure enough the governor knew he’d got me when he said, turning to me as if I would at any rate have to be consulted about it all: ‘How does this matter strike you, then, Smith, my lad?’
A line of potbellied pop-eyes gleamed at me and a row of goldfish mouths opened and wiggled gold teeth at me, so I gave them the answer they wanted because I’d hold my trump card until later. ‘It’d suit me fine, sir,’ I said.
‘Good lad. Good show. Right spirit. Splendid.’
‘Well,’ the governor said, ‘get that cup for us today and I’ll do all I can for you. I’ll get you trained so that you whack every man in the Free World.’ And I had a picture in my brain of me running and beating everybody in the world, leaving them all behind until only I was trot-trotting across a big wide moor alone, doing a marvellous speed as I ripped between boulders and reed-clumps, when suddenly: CRACK! CRACK! – bullets that can go faster than any man running, coming from a copper’s rifle planted in a tree, winged me and split my gizzard in spite of my perfect running, and down I fell.
The potbellies expected me to say something else. ‘Thank you, sir,’ I said.
Told to go, I trotted down the pavilion steps, out on to the field because the big cross-country was about to begin and the two entries from Gunthorpe had fixed themselves early at the starting line and were ready to move off like white kangaroos. The sports ground looked a treat: with big tea-tents all round and flags flying and seats for families – empty because no mam or dad had known what opening day meant – and boys still running heats for the hundred yards, and lords and ladies walking from stall to stall, and the Borstal Boys Brass Band in blue uniforms; and up on the stands the brown jackets of Hucknall as well as our own grey blazers, and then the Gunthorpe lot with shirt sleeves rolled. The blue sky was full of sunshine and it couldn’t have been a better day, and all of the big show was like something out of Ivanhoe that we’d seen on the pictures a few days before.
‘Come on, Smith,’ Roach the sports master called to me, ‘we don’t want you to be late for the big race, eh? Although I dare say you’d catch them up if you were.’ The others catcalled and grunted at this, but I took no notice and placed myself between Gunthorpe and one of the Aylesham trusties, dropped on my knees and plucked a few grass blades to suck on the way round. So the big race it was, for them, watching from the grandstand under a fluttering Union Jack, a race for the governor, that he had been waiting for, and I hoped he and all the rest of his pop-eyed gang were busy placing big bets on me, hundred to one to win, all the money they had in their pockets, all the wages they were going to get for the next five years, and the more they placed the happier I’d be. Because here was a dead cert going to die on the big name they’d built for him, going to go down dying with laughter whether it choked him or not. My knees felt the cool soil pressing into them, and out of my eye’s corner I saw Roach lift his hand. The Gunthorpe boy twitched before the signal was given; somebody cheered too soon; Medway bent forward; then the gun went, and I was away.
We went once around the field and then along a half-mile drive of elms, being cheered all the way, and I seemed to feel I was in the lead as we went out by the gate and into the lane, though I wasn’t interested enough to find out. The five-mile course was marked by splashes of whitewash gleaming on gateposts and trunks and stiles and stones, and a boy with a waterbottle and bandage-box stood every half-mile waiting for those that dropped out or fainted. Over t
I trotted on along the edge of a field bordered by the sunken lane, smelling green grass and honeysuckle, and I felt as though I came from a long line of whippets trained to run on two legs, only I couldn’t see a toy rabbit in front and there wasn’t a collier’s cosh behind to make me keep up the pace. I passed the Gunthorpe runner whose shimmy was already black with sweat and I could just see the corner of the fenced-up copse in front where the only man I had to pass to win the race was going all out to gain the half-way mark. Then he turned into a tongue of trees and bushes where I couldn’t see him anymore, and I couldn’t see anybody, and I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world and I knowing it would be no different ever, no matter what I felt at odd times, and no matter what anybody else tried to tell me. The runner behind me must have been a long way off because it was so quiet, and there was even less noise and movement than there had been at five o’clock of a frosty winter morning. It was hard to understand, and all I knew was that you had to run, run, run, without knowing why you were running, but on you went through fields you didn’t understand and into woods that made you afraid, over hills without knowing you’d been up and down, and shooting across streams that would have cut the heart out of you had you fallen into them. And the winning post was no end to it, even though crowds might be cheering you in, because on you had to go before you got your breath back, and the only time you stopped running was when you tripped over a tree trunk and broke your neck or fell into a disused well and stayed dead in the darkness forever. So I thought: they aren’t going to get me on this racing lark, this running and trying to win, this jog-trotting for a bit of blue ribbon, because it’s not the way to go on at all, though they swear blind that it is. You should think about nobody and go your own way, not on a course marked out for you by people holding mugs of water and bottles of iodine in case you fall and cut yourself so that they can pick you up – even if you want to stay where you are – and get you moving again.
On I went, out of the wood, passing the man leading without knowing I was going to do so. Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jogtrot, crunchslap-crunchslap, across the middle of a broad field again, rhythmically running in my greyhound effortless fashion, knowing I had won the race though it wasn’t half over, won it if I wanted it, could go on for ten or fifteen or twenty miles if I had to and drop dead at the finish of it, which would be the same, in the end, as living an honest life like the governor wanted me to. It amounted to: win the race and be honest, and on trot-trotting I went, having the time of my life, loving my progress because it did me good and set me thinking which by now I liked to do, but not caring at all when I remembered that I had to win this race as well as run it. One of the two, I had to win the race or run it, and I knew I could do both because my legs had carried me well in front – now coming to the short cut down the bramble bank and over the sunken road – and would carry me further because they seemed made of electric cable and easily alive to keep on slapping at those ruts and roots, but I’m not going to win because the only way I’d see I came in first would be if winning meant that I was going to escape the coppers after doing the biggest bank job of my life, but winning means the exact opposite, no matter how they try to kill or kid me, means running right into their white-gloved wall-barred hands and grinning mugs and staying there for the rest of my natural long life of stone-breaking anyway, but stone-breaking in the way I want to do it and not in the way they tell me.
Another honest thought that comes is that I could swing left at the next hedge of the field, and under its cover beat my slow retreat away from the sports ground winning post. I could do three or six or a dozen miles across the turf like this and cut a few main roads behind me so’s they’d never know which one I’d taken; and maybe on the last one when it got dark I could thumb a lorry-lift and get a free ride north with somebody who might not give me away. But no, I said I wasn’t daft didn’t I? I won’t pull out with only six months left, and besides there’s nothing I want to dodge and run away from; I only want a bit of my own back on the In-laws and Potbellies by letting them sit up there on their big posh seats and watch me lose this race, though as sure as God made me I know that when I do lose I’ll get the dirtiest crap and kitchen jobs in the months to go before my time is up. I won’t be worth a threepenny bit to anybody here, which will be all the thanks I get for being honest in the only way I know. For when the governor told me to be honest it was meant to be in his way not mine, and if I kept on being honest in the way he wanted and won my race for him he’d see I got the cushiest six months still left to run; but in my own way, well, it’s not allowed, and if I find a way of doing it such as I’ve got now then I’ll get what-for in every mean trick he can set his mind to. And if you look at it in my own way, who can blame him? For this is war – and ain’t I said so? – and when I hit him in the only place he knows he’ll be sure to get his own back on me for not collaring that cup when his heart’s been set for ages on seeing himself standing up at the end of the afternoon to clap me on the back as I take the cup from Lord Earwig or some such chinless wonder with a name like that. And so I’ll hit him where it hurts a lot, and he’ll do all he can to get his own back, tit for tat, though I’ll enjoy it most because I’m hitting first, and because I planned it longer. I don’t know why I think
I’ve just come up out of the sunken lane, kneed and elbowed, thumped and bramble-scratched, and the race is two thirds over, and a voice is going like a wireless in my mind saying that you’ve had enough of feeling good like the first man on earth on a frosty morning, and you’ve known how it is to be taken bad like that last man on earth on a summer’s afternoon, then you get at last to being like the only man on earth and don’t give a bogger about either good or bad, but just trot on with your slippers slapping the good dry soil that at least would never do you a bad turn. Now the words are like coming from a crystal-set that’s broken down, and something’s happening inside the shell-case of my guts that bothers me and I don’t know why or what to blame it on, a grinding near my ticker as though a bag of rusty screws is loose inside me and I shake them up every time I trot forward. Now and again I break my rhythm to feel my left shoulder-blade by swinging a right hand across my chest as if to rub the knife away that has somehow got stuck there. But I know it’s nothing to bother about, that more likely it’s caused by too much thinking that now and again I take for worry. For sometimes I’m the greatest worrier in the world I think (as you twigged I’ll bet from me having got this story out) which is funny anyway because my mam don’t know the meaning of the word so I don’t take after her; though dad had a hard time of worry all his life up to when he filled his bedroom with hot blood and kicked the bucket that morning when nobody was in the house. I’ll never forget it, straight I won’t, because I was the one that found him and I often wished I hadn’t. Back from a session on the fruit-machines at the fish-and-chip shop, jingling my three-lemon loot to a nail-dead house, as soon as I got in I knew something was wrong, stood leaning my head against the cold mirror above the mantelpiece trying not to open my eyes and see my stone-cold clock – because I knew I’d gone as white as a piece of chalk since coming in as if I’d been got at by a Dracula-vampire and even my penny-pocket winnings kept quiet on purpose.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes