New and Collected Stories, p.40Alan Sillitoe
‘Much of the money I put in the bank, but the peril was I began to like the idea of this world-round journey so much that I couldn’t make myself disappear with it. I kept on, obsessed at the plan. I wrote to many shops and factories and (even in France) they gave me equipment. I charged it all to my clients – as I called them in my secret self. Unfortunately the newspaper wrote stories about my scheme, and put my photo in the print.
‘So our big lorry set out of Paris, and snapped on the road to Marseilles. I repaired it, and from Marseilles our happy gathering steamed to Casablanca on a packet-boat. I had moved battalions of men and tanks (and many prisoners) in every complication over the eye-dust and soul-mud and numb snow of Russia, but this was a happy situation with these twenty people (by this time others had been entered to our committee). It was like being young again. Everyone loved me. I was popular, England, by total consent of all those dear, good friends. Tears fall into my eyes when I think of it – real tears that I can’t bear the taste of. The further I gave in to my sentimental journeying and went on with my dear international companions, the less was the money that I intended to go off and begin my garage with in Spain. I had never had such a skirmish in my conscience. What could I do? Tell me, England, what could I do? Would you have done any better than such? No, you wouldn’t, I know. My God! I am shouting again. Why don’t you stop me?
‘The lorry snapped awfully, at Colomb-Bechar, just before we intend to cross the real desert. But my talents triumph again, and I repaired it, and say I am going to try it out. They are still in the tents, eating some lunch, and I drive off, round and round in big circles. Suddenly I make a straight line and they never see me again. I don’t know what became of them. They were nearly penniless. I took petrol and the cameras, everything expensive, as well as funds. It is too painful for me to speculate, so ask me nothing else, even if I tell you. From Casablanca I come to here, and when I have collected all from my banks I see there is enough to get my garage, and much to spare.
‘And now I am in Spain, you think I have as much as a man could want? I have a Spanish wife, two children and an interesting work. I have had several wives, and now a Spanish woman. She is dark, beautiful, and plump (yes, you have seen her) but in bed she doesn’t act with me. My children go to the convent school, and kiss crosses, tremble at nuns and priests. These I cannot like at all, but what can I do? It has been a dull life, because there’s not much here. Sometimes we go to a bullfight. But I don’t like it. It is a good ritual, but not attractive to a rational human being like myself. All winter we see no travellers, and hug the fireplace like damp washing. Now and again I still do some drawings. Yes, that is one of them over there, that I presented to this hotel. You don’t like it? You do? Ah, you make me very happy, England. Often I go down the coast road to Algeciras, a short trip in my dependable Volkswagen. It is a very pleasant port, and I make many sketches. I know some Russians who have a hotel and let me stay at cost rate. Gibraltar is a fascinating shape to make on paper, which I see from the terrace. I also go across to your famous English fort-rock to shopping, and maybe purchase one of those intellectual English Sunday newspapers there. One of them lasts me a month at least. I find them very good, exceptionally lively and interesting to a mind like mine.
‘Ah, England, let us take a walk and I will tell you why my life is finished. That’s better. The air smells fresh and good. Why, we have talked the whole night through. I tell lies to everyone – with no exception. But to myself – and I talk free to you and myself now – I tell the precise ice-cold truth as far as it is possible. Telling lies to everyone else makes it more possible to tell a more accurate truth to myself. Does that make me happy? For most people happiness is letting them follow the habits their fathers developed. But he changed all that, that’s why we loved him, drilled truths into us so that we didn’t need to live by habit. That would be worse than death – because death is at least something positive.
‘That green speck in the sky over there is the first dawn, a little light, a glow-worm that the sun sends in front to make sure that all is dark for it. Your wife will never forgive you. But women are not rational human beings. Oh, oh, oh – England, you think they are? I can prove to you that they are not so, quicker than you can prove to me that they are. You say that the sun is a red sun? I can see that it will be. But I have been in Spain many times. In 1934 I came here, walking all through, sketching farmhouses and touristic monuments – later published as an album in Berlin. I surveyed the land. Spain I know exceedingly well. This beautiful land we saved from Bolshevism – though I sometimes wonder why. I am afraid of a communist government here, because if it comes, I am ended. The whole world gets dark for me. Maybe Franco will make a pact with communist Germany, and send me back to it. It has happened before. I feel my bed is not so safe to lie on.
‘My life has been tragic, but I am not one of those who self-pities. It will be hot today. I sweat already. I must sell my garage and leave, go to another country. I am forced to abandon my wife and children, which is not a good fate. It gives me suffering in the heart that you cannot imagine. I am slowly taking secret luggage to my other garage, and one day I shall tell her I’m going to inspect things over there, and she will never see me again. I travel lightly, England, but I am nearly sixty years. You will notice that I have not talked about the war, because it is too hurtful to me. My home was in East Prussia: but the Soviets took the family land. They enslaved and murdered my fellow countrymen. England, don’t laugh. You say they should keep the Berlin Wall there for ever? Ah, you don’t know what you are saying. I can see that my misfortune makes you glad. I was not there, of course, but I know what the Soviets did. My wife was killed in one of their bombardments.
‘England, please, do not ask me that question. I do not know who started such wicked bombings of the mass. A war begins, and many things happen. Much water flows under the bridge-road. Let me march on with my story. Please, patience. My two sons are in the communist party. As if that was why I fought, used in my body and soul the most terrible energies for one large Germany. I want to go there and beat them both, beat them without mercy, hit at them until they are dead.
‘Once I had a letter from them, and they ask me to come back to my homeland – not fatherland, but homeland. How the letter gets me I don’t know, but a person in Toledo sends it. They beg me to come back and work for democratic Germany. Why do you think they ask me this? That they are innocent, and only love their father as sons should? Ah! It’s because they know I shall be hanged when I get there. That is why they ask. They are devils, devils.
‘I am leaving Villa Oveja, quitting Spain, because someone came to this town a few weeks ago and saw me. I think from my photo in the Paris paper and other photos issued by my enemies, he recognized me. They have fastened me down, hunted me like an animal, and know where I am now. I know they are leaving me for the time being, because perhaps there is a bigger job – someone more important before they concentrate on the small fish. This Jew wasn’t like the others. He was tall, young and blond. He was browned by the sun, he was handsome, as if he’d been in Spain as much as I had, and one day he came to the door of my garage and looked in at me. He looked, to make sure. I could not compete his stare, and they could have used my face for the chalk of Dover. How did I know he was a Jew, you ask? Don’t mock me, England, because I am no longer against them. I hardly look at his face, but I knew because his eyes were like sulphur, a nice young man who could have been a pleasant tourist, but I knew, I knew without knowing why I knew, that he was one of their people. They have their own country now: if only they had their own country before the war, England. His eyes burned my heart away. I could not move. The next day he went off, but at any time they will come for me. I am still young, even while sixty, yet think that perhaps I don’t care, that I will let them carry me, or that I will kill myself before they come.
‘It is not possible I stay here, because the people have turned. Maybe the Jew told something before he went aw
‘I should not have killed those people. I sat down to eat. They were hungry in the snow, and I could not stop myself. I could not tolerate the way they stood and looked, people who couldn’t work because they had no food to take into them. They kept looking, England, they kept looking. I thought: their life is agony. I will end it. If I feed them Christmas food for three months they will never be strong again. I wanted to help them out of their life and suffering, to get them peace, so that they would be no more cold and hungry. I fired my gun. My way went terrible after that, out of control. I was rational. My soul was black. I killed and killed, to stop the spread of the suffering that came on to me. While I killed I was warm, and not aware of the suffering, the rheumatism of my soul. How could I have done it? I wasn’t like the others. I was an artist.
‘Look, don’t go yet. Don’t stand and leave me by. The sun is making that mountain drink fire. I shall always see mountains on fire, whenever I go and wherever else my feet tread, red mountains shaking flames out of their hat top. Even before the Jew came a dream was in me one night. I was a young scholar at the high-school, and circles were painted in the concrete groundspaces, for gymnasium games and drill. I stood in one, with a book in my hand to read. Everything changed, and the perfect circle was of white steel. A thin rod it was, a hot circle that glowed metal. I wanted to get out of it but I couldn’t, because the heat from it was scorching my ankles. All the force of me was pressing against it, and though I was a highgrown man I couldn’t jump out. I had a gun in my hand instead of a book, and I was going to shoot myself, because I knew the idea that if I did I should get out and be able to walk off a freed man. I shot someone passing by, a silent bullet. But then I woke, and nothing had worked for me.
‘In military life they say there is a marshal’s rank in every soldier’s kitbag. In peace-life I think there is a pair of worn sandals in every cupboard, because you don’t ever know when the longest life-trudge is going to start – whether you are criminal or not. I dig blame into my heart like donkey-dung into good soil. If I was an aristocrat I could claim that all my uncles had been hung up on meat-hooks because they tried to revolt. If I was from a factory I could say I didn’t know any better. Everybody who dies dies in vain, England, so I can’t do that. What shall I do? Your questions are pertinent, but I am practical. I am rational. I won’t give in, because I am always rational. Maybe it is the best thing of quality obtained from my father. I look at my maps, and have the big hope of a hunted man. Do you have any dollars in currency that I could exchange? You haven’t? Can you pay the repair bill on your car in dollars, then? Ah, so. I have another Volkswagen I could sell you, only a year old and going like a spark, guaranteed for years on rough roads. The man I bought it from had taken it to Nyasaland – overearth, the whole return. Pay me in pound-sterling then, in Gibraltar if you like. I can get the ferry there and back in a day, make my purchasing of necessaries for a long trek … no, you can’t?
‘It is going to be a cloudy day, good for driving because it will not be too hot. Your car is now in excellent order, and will run well for long hours. It is a reasonable car, with a stout motor and strong frame. It is not too logical for repairing, and will not have such long life as you thought when you bought it. Next time, if you want some of my best caution, you will purchase a Volkswagen. You won’t regret it, and will always remember me for giving you such solid advice.
‘I am tired after being up all night. Mind how you drive, on those mountain curves. Don’t you see what it speaks in the sky over there? You don’t? Your eyes are not good. Or perhaps you are deceiving me to save my feelings. It says: GUZMAN, GO HOME. Where can I go? I own two houses and my garage here. I own property, England, property. All my life I wanted to own property, and shall have to sell it to them in Villa Oveja for next door to nothing. Go home, they say to me, go home.
‘Rational and intelligent! Everybody is being rational and intelligent. What beautiful words – but they have to be kept in a case and admired, like those two parrots that the hotel keeper brought back from a trip to South America. You look at them, and their beauty gives you heart. An unfortunate American client once wanted to touch them, put his finger too close to the bars, and then the blood flowed after the razor-beak snapped over it. Their colour gives you soul also, but when you are at last hunted down, and only the corner wall is behind you, then what use are being rational and intelligent? Use them, and slowly rolls the big destruction. Hitler made them kill each other in every man jackboot of us.
‘I am light-headed when I don’t sleep the dark, but I must go to work, think some more while I am working. My name is not Guzman. That is a name the Spaniards gave me, proud, sly, and envious, because of my clever business ways. It has always surprised me that I could make my commerical career so well, when I started off life only as a poor hiker drawing faces. Now I am a wanderer, when I don’t want to be.’
Chris, his face the grey-green colour of a living tree branch that had had the bark stripped from it, turned away and walked quickly through the quiet town to the hotel. His wife was feeding the baby. The day after tomorrow, they would be in Africa. Six months after that, back in London.
The car broke down again in Tangier. ‘That crazy Nazi,’ he thought, ‘can’t even mend a bloody car.’
I learned to mimic at an early age, probably at two or three when I sat in front of the fire and stared at the cat. A mimic has a long memory, fine hands, and a face he can’t bear to look at in the mirror, unless he puts on somebody else’s with such intensity that he cannot recognize himself there. His soul is his own, but he buries it deeply with many others because under such a mound it is finally safe. Eventually of course it is so far lost and gone that he is unable to get down to it when he wants to, but that is another matter, and finally unimportant when one knows that age and death will settle everything.
In the early days of infancy I did not know I was becoming a mimic. By all accounts I was such a handsome baby that when my mother pushed me through town in a pram men would stop to admire me and give her five shillings to buy me a new rattle. At least that was her story, though my memory is better than any story, for another line was that because she was so pretty they gave money to me as an excuse for getting off with her.
A still further version could be I was so rotten-faced and ugly they gave her money to show sympathy at her being loaded with such a terrible burden. Anyway, that’s how she met her second husband, which only proves that mimics usually have pretty and wayward mothers, while they may be fair-to-ugly themselves. You can’t be a mimic with a fine-featured face, but for the first few years must stare at the world and take nothing in so that your face stays flat and putty-coloured, with a button-nose, beehive-mouth, and burdock-chin that deflects what sunlight hopes to make your features more heavenly to the world.
While father was at work and my mother in the scullery I’d romp on the rug for a while, then settle down and look at the cat, a black tabby with a white spot between its ears. I’d stare right into its splinter eyes till it opened its great mouth and yawned. Then, facing it on all fours, I’d open my mouth as well, full of small new teeth, stretching the side skin as far as it would go. The way the cat looked at me I knew I was successful, and because of this it seemed as if I felt alive for the first time in my life. I’ll never forget this strong impression. When I mimicked, the light went on, as if somebody had sneaked up behind and slyly lifted off the dark glasses I didn’t have. Finally the cat walked away, as if embarrassed.
I practised on ani
I remember at the age of nine that a young woman in our yard had a puppy, a small dark fat one that had been ill, that she wanted to get rid of. So she asked me to take it to the PDSA, gave me a shilling to put into their contribution box, and threepence to myself for the errand of taking it. The place was about a mile away, and going there I called in many sweet shops, buying chocolate at every stop. The puppy was wrapped in a towel in my arms, and after stocking up at a shop I would sit on a wall to eat the loot, and take another goz at the puppy who was going to be ‘put to sleep’ as the woman had said. I knew of course what that meant, and though the puppy squinted at me and licked my hand when I gave it chocolate it still looked as if it might welcome what was in store for it. I stared hard at those brown eyes, at that fat half-blind face that could never have any say in how the world was run, and between one snap of chocolate and the next I’d borrow its expression, take on that look, and show it to the puppy to let him feel he was not alone.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes