New and Collected Stories, p.41Alan Sillitoe
A mimic does what he is paid to do. By the time I got to the PDSA I had only threepence left for the contribution box. A shilling had gone on chocolate for me and the dog, and for the dog it was the last thing it would ever eat.
On the way home a hump-backed bridge crossed a canal. I went down through a gate on to the towpath. On the opposite side was a factory wall, but on my side was a fence and an elderberry bush. The water was bottle green, and reflected both sides in it. My eyes turned from grey to brown, and I barked as the dog had barked when the woman in the white overall had taken him from me.
This isn’t a story about childhood. It is about a mimic, and mimics have no childhood. In fact it would almost be fair to say that they don’t even have a life of their own. There is a certain price to pay for taking on another face, another voice, even though mimicry need bring no profit. But what mimicry does give is a continuation of one’s life when for some reason that life had been forfeited even before birth. Whether one had done it oneself as a spirit from another age, or whether someone in another age had got hold of your spirit before it was born and squeezed the life out of it, who can ever be able to say? One may be born innocent, but in order to make one’s mark on life, one has to get rid of that innocence.
One puts one’s devilries as a mimic into other people if one is guilty of what blasted one’s life before birth; one takes others’ devilries upon oneself if one was innocent before birth.
To borrow a face is to show no mercy to it. In order to call it your own, you leave the owner of it with nothing. Not only do you see something of an advantage in using someone else’s face, but you seek to rob them of what strength they also get from wearing it. At the same time you mimic them to hide yourself. A mimic therefore can’t lose, except of course that he has lost everything before birth, more than anyone else can lose unless he is a mimic too.
The first person I mimicked, or tried to, was my mother, and I did this by falling in love with her. This is not so easy as it sounds, especially since she had been responsible for giving me birth, but being the person with the power of life and death over me there surely wasn’t any fitter person to fall in love with. But I didn’t let her see it, because my way of doing it was to mimic her one day, and I expected that since she had already given me so much she wouldn’t mind this at all, would be flattered by it in fact. But all she saw was that I was taking everything.
She’d just had a blinding row with my father, and he’d stormed off to see his mates in the pub. At the heart-rending smash of the door behind him she sat by the fire waiting for the kettle to boil. When it did, she burst into tears. I thought to myself that if I did the same, her misery would be halved, so I put on the same expression (the half-closed eyes and twisted mouth, hands to my face-side with two fingers over my ear) and drew tears out with almost exactly the same noise. I’d meant to let my heart flow with hers, to be with it as a sort of comfort, but what I didn’t know was that I’d only irritated her, mocked her – which is what she called mimicking for many years. This barefaced imitation made it worse, though instead of increasing her tears (it could hardly do that) it stopped them altogether. This was what I had hoped for, but only in such a way as to soften her heart, not to harden her. She smacked my face: ‘Don’t mock me, you little bleeder. You’re almost as bad as he is.’ I don’t need to say who ‘he’ was, though in spite of our similarity he never became the mimic that I did.
So I mimicked my father, seeing how my attempt at love for mother had failed. It was quite a while before I stopped tormenting my mother by only mimicking my father in front of her, and began mimicking him to his face. When I did, he laughed, and I’d never seen him in such a good mood. Life is full of surprises for a mimic. He’d loosened his belt one Sunday dinner because he was too full of beer and food. He pulled me on to his knee and kissed me, my mother looking wryly over her shoulder now and again as she washed the pots. He was so pleased at my exact imitation of him, of seeing himself so clearly in me, that he gave me a shilling.
This momentary gain went to my head and, before he could fall into a doze by the fire, I thought I would put on the best show he’d seen by mimicking my mother for him. If he could laugh at himself in me, he’d be more touched than ever to see mother in my face.
I drew myself up on the hearthrug as if I were tall and thin, curved my arms outward from my side, tilted my head, and drew in my cheeks, completely altering the shape of my mouth and putting that fire into my eyes that expected to be swamped out any second by a tidal wave.
‘You’ve been a long time at the pub,’ I said in her voice, ‘don’t you know your dinner’s burnt? It’s a wonder you couldn’t smell it right from the bar.’
His eyes grew small, and the smile capsized like a boat in a gale. Before I knew where I was I was flat on my face. Then a boot got me in the ribs and I was curled up by the stairfoot floor.
Somehow, mimicking my mother in front of my father hadn’t upset her at all, not like when I’d done it for her alone. In fact she was amused now, so when the old man lashed out at me with the old one-two of fist and boot, she cried and railed in my defence, calling him all the cruel gets under the sun.
‘You leave my son alone,’ she shouted, ‘you drunken bully. I’ll get the police in next time you kick him like that. He’s never done any harm to a living soul, and you’ve never treated him right, either.’
Father was baffled. He’d not liked me being disrespectful, he said, as if he’d been at church instead of a pub. I hadn’t any right to mock her. As for him, he could stand it because it was only a bit of a joke, but he didn’t like me doing it to her, the wife and mother of the house.
By this time I’d uncurled myself from the hedgehog position (I could imitate a hedgehog very well at times) and had seated myself at the table. I wasn’t crying. A mimic soon learns to stop that sort of thing, otherwise he’d never do any mimicking at all. To get kicked was one of the risks you ran. And because I wasn’t in tears, they soon made up their quarrel which, after all, had only started because of me. He put more coal on the fire, and she made him some fresh tea. When that was finished they talked and laughed, and she sat on his knee. Then they went upstairs together for a Sunday sleep, and I was left downstairs alone on the hearthrug wondering where I’d gone wrong. I didn’t even have the energy to mimic a strong man booting the cat out of the way because things hadn’t gone too well for him at work.
Some people believe that simplicity can only come out of madness, but who wants to go through madness in order to achieve the dubious advantage of becoming simple? Only a mimic can straddle these two states and so avoid being himself. That is to say, he finds a way of not searching for himself in order to avoid discovering that he has no self, and therefore does not exist. To see finally that there is nothing behind all the faces of one’s existence is to find real madness. And what simplicity is there in that?
At school, I was the sort of person of whom the other boys asked: ‘Is it going to rain today?’ even though I looked nothing like a sage or weatherman. But the clouds or empty sky seemed to be on my side, and I was often right when I told them one thing or the other. It wasn’t so much that I could guess the weather as that I’d take a chance on saying what I thought was going to happen. This comes easy to a mimic, because every person or object that he decides to imitate has a vein of risk in it.
In my young days it took a long while for me to realize that whenever I decided to mimic someone, and actually went through the process of doing so, I was filled with a deep interest in life and did no harm to anybody. But in between times I was remote and restless in turn, and liable to delve into all kinds of mischief. If I was not inspired for weeks to mimic, and at the same time found no opportunity otherwise to work off my bilious spirit by getting into trouble, then I took ill with some current letdown of the body such as pneumonia or mumps. My father and mother would have liked to have blasted me for the bother I gave them but after I had mimicked them successfully so early on th
One Christmas at school there was a fancy-dress party before breaking up for the holidays. I went as a moth, with two great wings and white powder all over me. Some came as musketeers and spacemen, but most appeared as nothing at all, simply wearing a badge, or hat. It was an old school, but there was a stage at one end of a big classroom. I received first prize, somebody else got second, and another boy third. The other two were told to get on the stage and act out what they were supposed to be. They did their best, then I went up.
A teacher put a candle on a low table, and I became a moth, weaving around it so that everybody stopped talking and looked. Maybe the teachers told them to be quiet. It was raining in the street, and perhaps being out of it and in the warmth made it easier for me to mimic a moth, with two wings and dry powder all over me. I went round and round the candle, my eyes half closed, and the flame hardly moving. I took the moth into me, and later heard that they began to laugh. I must have known this, yet didn’t know it, at the time. But I went on circling the candle, and nobody thought to stop me, to break my spell and their spell.
If life is one long quest to avoid deciding what you are, I suddenly knew that I was a moth when one whole wing was touched off by the candle.
The flame came up suddenly and without smoke, but it wasn’t as swift to others as it was to me, and before more than a slight scorch was done the flame was killed stone dead by two of the teachers.
Everybody thought that my days of mimicking were done for good. So did I, because on that occasion it seemed to have got out of control, and though I thought I might like such a thing to happen at some time in my life, I wasn’t ready for it yet.
Before leaving that part of my life for ever (I still can’t bring myself to call it childhood) I remember a photograph of me, that showed a big self-absorbed boy of thirteen. It was taken by an uncle, and then enlarged, and my mother had it framed and put on the sideboard in the parlour where nobody went and so hardly anybody, thank God, ever looked at it. I’d been out of her care and bother for a long time, but she’d taken to liking me again. It made no difference, because once a decision is taken through a failure to mimic, nothing can alter it. Maybe I reminded her of my father who had long since gone and given place to another person, and who she still in some way liked. But I’d never mimic him for her, even so, though I could have done it so that the house would have crowed around us.
This photo seemed to have no connection with me, but everybody swore that it had, and that there couldn’t be a better one. In my heart I’d come to the age where I wanted to please them, so I decided I must mimic that photo so as to become like the image on it. It wasn’t long before I saw that such a thing was not feasible. If you don’t know what you are, how is it possible to imitate yourself? This was the issue that burned me. I could not imitate something that had no life, not even myself if I didn’t have any. And certainly judging by the photo there was no life there whatever. That was what everyone liked about it, my mother most of all, who stuck it on the sideboard in what was to her the place of honour.
Nevertheless, I looked at that photo for a long time, since other people had given it so much meaning. It was there for the world to see, above all, those who close their hearts and say: Know thyself. But I say: Get me a mirror, and according to the antics performed in it you can then (if you have that sort of desire) know everybody in the world.
But a photograph is not a mirror. You do not even see yourself as others see you. For a moment I almost went into the spirit of that photograph, but pulled myself back in time. That would have been evil. I preferred not to know what I was. There was almost triumph in that decision. If I don’t know what I am, nobody can know, not even God. And if God doesn’t know, then there is no God.
Rather than mimic the photograph of myself and believe in God I decided that I’d sooner be a moth.
Being such a good mimic I couldn’t hold down any job for long. Sooner or later the foreman was bound to turn up when I was doing an imitation of him before all my mates. I worked harder than most though because I was so self-absorbed that nothing was too difficult or arduous for me. It was always with great regret that I was sacked.
On the other hand, all women love a mimic, except the mimic’s mother, who ceases to matter by the time he becomes interested in other women. If you want to get off with a woman all you have to do is talk. Let the steamroller roll, and talk, talk, talk. Flatter her if you must, but the main thing is to talk. No woman can resist a constant stream of fulsome talk, no matter how inane and irrelevant, as long as you keep it up and make her laugh. Even if she laughs at you, it doesn’t matter. By that time she’s softening, you can bet.
And a mimic, even if he’s so much speechless putty when left alone with himself, can mimic a funny and talkative man when the need arises. Of course, when the girl falls in love she never gets what she thinks she is getting. But then, who does? There is much wisdom in the world. Certain basic rules were formulated for me by Sam England who worked in the plywood factory where I took my first job. Never, he said, marry a girl who hates her mother, because sooner or later she will start to hate you. He also added that if you want to know what your girl-friend is going to look like in thirty years’ time, look at her mother now. And if you want to know what your girl-friend expects you to look like in ten years’ time, look at her father.
Whenever I met a girl I had to decide, by her face and talk, and the sort of home she came from, what sort of a person she’d like me to be. There weren’t many girls who could ever put up with a strong silent type for the first three dates while he weighed up the situation. But after that I fell into the slot, and the talk began, the endless jokes and self-revelations that come from anyone no matter what sort he is.
If I wanted to get rid of a girl, I made an abrupt change of character. None of them could stand this. They thought I had either gone mad, or lost my respect for them. In the soiled territory of the heart the precise configuration of the land only comes with continual and intense familiarity.
One girl I could not get rid of. I changed character no less than five times, but she wouldn’t go away, so there was nothing I could do except marry her.
If there’s one thing I’ve always found it hard to mimic it’s a happy man. I’ve often been happy, but that was no help when I was indifferent and wanted to let someone else see that I was full of the joy of life. I knew that I had to overcome this problem and prayed that on this vital issue my talent for mimicry would not let me down.
In the very act of getting married, in order to appear happy to the girl I was to live with, I had to behave like a fool. When I should have slipped the ring on her finger I put it on mine – then on to hers. When we were declared married I attempted to kiss the best man, a fellow clerk from an office I was then working at. He fought free and pleaded with me not to be bloody silly, so then I kissed the bride, and apologized to everyone later by saying I’d been too happy to know what I was doing. They believed this, and forgave me, and I loved them so much I could have mimicked them all, one after another to the end of time.
When I changed for the sixth time it was only to mimic a man getting married. That was the one character she couldn’t stand, and by the time I had come to believe in the act, and had almost grown to like it, it was the one finally by which I got rid of her. When we parted six months later I did a very tolerable job of mimicking an amicable man, who had taken one step wrong in life and wanted to go two steps back. She went home to her parents, and took the television set among all her cases in the second run of the taxi. We had always made love in the most perfect way, because I’d had enough experience to mimic that like a stallion, but it had made no difference to our final feeling for each other. She’d never been able to get through to the real me, no more than I had. And after a yea
This is not a tale of love, or the wail of a broken marriage, or a moan about impossible human relationships. I won’t dwell long on any of that. I can go on for years telling you what all this is not. It’ll be up to you to tell me what it is.
Ambition has never been strong in my veins. To be ambitious you have first to know what you are. Either that, or you do not have to be concerned with what you are. My talent for mimicry was an end in itself. If I could observe someone, I thought in the early days, and then become exactly the same, why should I go through years of work to accomplish it in the reality of society?
I had never any intention of working, but what society demands of you is in fact what life itself wants. So you must imitate it – instead of allowing your soul to be destroyed by believing in it. As soon as you accept something, and cease to play a role regarding it, you are done for. Your soul is in danger. You have even less chance then of ever getting to know the real nature of yourself.
The same must be with everything you are called upon to do in life, whatever action, whether it lasts a minute or a year. Mimic it, I told myself at times of danger when caught by a suspicious joy of life I was about to acquiesce to. The successful mimic is he who not only takes on a role completely so that everyone is deceived, but actually from a distance sees himself with his own eyes doing it so that he himself is never deceived. I only learned to do this later, probably after I broke up with my first wife.
One might imagine that if the main thing in life was the survival of the fittest, then one as a mimic would be wise to imitate and continue to imitate one of the fittest. But not only would that be boring, it would be inhuman, and above all foolish. We know that it is not the fittest who survive, but the wise. The wise die, but the fittest perish, and they perish early on from having settled on to one role in life. They have determined to keep it to the very end, and also to defend it to the death against those who would try to show them that the world is richer than they have made it.
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