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New and collected storie.., p.42
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       New and Collected Stories, p.42

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  It is the easiest thing in the world for me to recognize those who believe in the survival of the fittest, which means most people. It is, conversely, difficult for me to meet another person like myself, because there are so few of us.

  But I once met a woman who was also a mimic. What I could never understand was why those qualities that I had, made people trust and love me, especially women. If to mimic is to betray (which it certainly is) then you would expect to be generally disliked, but strangely enough it was more often the opposite. She said exactly the same thing, except that it was especially men who loved and trusted her.

  A friend of mine from the insurance office where I worked was getting married, and I met her at the reception for it. She was a thin green-eyed girl from the tobacco factory, and I listened to her during the meal mimicking the parson, for she had also been at the church. As a lesser friend of the bride’s she was assigned to a more remote table, and I happened to be passing on my way back from the lavatory, where I had mimicked a disgusted man and thrown up what food I’d already eaten.

  The people around her didn’t know whether to be amused or offended. I was merely interested. Her face lost its pallor and grew weightier with the sombre voice she put on. She had great range of tone, and as she went through the service I took the part of bridegroom. Instead of saying ‘I will,’ at the correct moment, I said: ‘I’m damned if I will,’ and the two nearest tables joined in the applause.

  The actual bride, as this went on, shook at the mouth and dropped tears on to her cheeks. The best man and the bridegroom demanded that we pack it in, but some devil was in us both, and our duet went on as if we were in the middle of a field with no audience at all. There was silence for a few minutes before the uproar. A pair of fine mimics had met, an accident of two stars clashing in interstellar space, and nothing could stop us getting to the end of the act.

  The last word was with the best man. I suppose the bridegroom was saving himself for the first night. He only nodded in despair, knowing that it couldn’t end in any other way. When the man hit me I pulled two chairs over and half dragged the tablecloth on to the floor. I sprang up and, mimicking an outraged partygoer whose best piece was being unjustly spat on, punched him right over the table, where his head spliced down through the four-tier cake.

  The bride screamed as if her husband had been killed. I’d had enough. Grabbing the slender fingers of my fellow mimic I ran out of that doom-laden party for all I was worth, wondering how long the marriage would last after such an inauspicious beginning.

  Our association was interesting, but disastrous from the start. We didn’t live together, but shared each other’s rooms. For a few months it was champagne and roses. Coming back to one of the rooms from our respective jobs we would eat a supper (imitating each other’s mastication all the way through), then we would dare each other to mimic certain characters, such as an airline pilot, a policewoman, an insurance man, girl shop assistant. We played with each other, tested each other, acted God and the Devil with the deepest penetrable parts of our hearts and souls. We mimicked each other mimicking each other. We mimicked each other mimicking people we both knew. We mimicked the same person to see who could do it best. When we emptied each other we made love, and it came marvellously on such occasions. We thought we had come to the end of the road, gone over the cliff hand in hand like a couple of Gadarene swine and found we had landed in paradise.

  But to think such things only means that the road is about to enter a swamp. I wanted her to marry me, but it turned out she was already married. So was I. Her husband knocked on my door one Sunday afternoon, and what could I do but ask him in? He was a van driver of thirty, but with his sweater and quiff he looked seventeen. He appeared stupid and sensitive, a not uncommon combination. ‘I know you’re living with him,’ he said, ‘but I’ve come to ask you to come back and live with me. That’s why I’ve come.’

  I stood up and made a quiff in my hair, threw off my jacket, and pulled the sweater down. Then I repeated his speech in exactly the same voice. It’s dangerous mimicking simple people, but I couldn’t resist. He must have gone through all the possible situations that could arise before he knocked at my door, but this wasn’t one of them. He looked horror-struck, and leaned against the outside door. At this, Jean, who’d said nothing so far, got up and stretched her spine against the door to the kitchen with exactly the same expression.

  ‘What’s going on?’ he demanded.

  ‘What’s going on?’ I mimicked.

  He lifted his fist as if about to fly through the room and crash against me. Jean lifted her fist and prepared to spring in exactly the same way. They would have collided and died in an apotheosis of glorious mimicry.

  He turned to the door and opened it. Jean pulled at the kitchen door. We heard him running downstairs, and he never came back.

  I passed him a few months later as I was walking through town. A girl was with him, and he didn’t notice me in my misery. But I saw him all right because I hadn’t seen anyone so obviously happy for a long time.

  I followed Jean from the factory one night, and she met another man.

  She’d been seeing me less and less. I’d expected it, but because we couldn’t live together, could only exist like two cripples, taking turns to hold each other up, I was struck by jealousy as if a javelin had shuddered deep between my shoulder blades.

  When two vampires meet, they meet for ever, until another comes to set them free. But freedom is painful, for a while. For a mimic who doesn’t believe in it, it can be catastrophic.

  I rang the bell of his flat one Sunday morning. As he opened the door Jean made a good imitation of the ringing noise. I saw that I was in for a bad time. Think of what situation you want from the bottom of your soul to avoid, and when you have decided what it is, consider what you’ll do when it comes about.

  He was grinning by the window, and Jean actually offered me a cup of tea. While she was giving it to me I could see her imitating her actions. She had learned a lot, and I wondered where. I never knew his name. To the world he was an ordinary chap in some trade or other, but to me I saw he was trying to mimic something and I didn’t know what it was. I was puzzled, but sat and drank my tea.

  I asked Jean how she was, but she only smiled, and didn’t seem to know. I wondered if she was happy, and could only say that she was. I knew that if I asked direct questions they would combine to defeat me in mimicry, and I had no wish to bring on to myself what Jean and I had poured on to her husband. They knew this. He stayed by the window, grinning, and I withered under the stare that went with it. Nevertheless I looked up at him from time to time. His face seemed a shade paler and thinner. I would fight on my own ground, in other words get up and go – but not before I could see what he was imitating.

  But the stare grew ashen and luminous, especially after I had nothing left to say. I stood up and made for the door, but Jean blocked it. Where had she met such a person?

  ‘I’m going,’ I said calmly. A mimic cannot give up the ground he stands on, without knowing that another piece of land is waiting for him. Here, I was isolated, and the ocean was wide. It wasn’t an honour to be defeated at this moment, but it was essential to me as a man. In defeat one can begin to know what one is, in victory – never. ‘Get out of my way.’

  Behind my back I heard: ‘I’m going. Get out of my way’ – in my own voice exactly.

  ‘Guess what he’s mimicking?’ she said.

  Without turning around I saw reflected in her eyes the sky-blue bones of his skull head, and the fixed grin of the victory I’d been forced to give him.

  I mimicked her: ‘Guess what he’s mimicking?’ and didn’t give her time to answer. ‘A corpse,’ I said, forcing her gently aside, opening the door, and walking away.

  Between bouts of mimicking one person and another, my entity becomes blank. To be able to mimic someone I had to like them. That was the first rule, just as, in the reverse sense, in order to love someone you have to be abl
e to mimic them. When I mimicked people now, they ceased to like me, if they had ever done so. But then, treachery always begins with a kiss. For these reasons I had found it impossible to imitate God, and not only because I’d never seen Him.

  Later, in my isolation, I only mimicked people to myself instead of out loud or for the benefit of others. Don’t force the pace. This isn’t a story. Switch off if you’re not with me. I’ll go on as long as you can, if not longer. I’ve had everything: booze, pot, shock, solitary. Yet though I may be sane, and a mimic of the world, can I imitate Mr Sand or Mr Water, Mr Cloud or Mr Sky with sufficient conviction to become all of them rolled into one realistic and convincing ball?

  I mimic myself trying to mimic myself when I don’t know who I am or what my real self is. I sit on my own in a pub laughing inwardly because I am more king of the world than anyone else. I see faces around me both troubled and serene, and don’t know which one to choose for the great grand mimic of the night. I give up trying to mimic myself, and choose a man talking earnestly to his wife. I stand in the middle of the floor. Everything is clear and steady, but no one looks at me. I talk as if the man’s wife were standing two inches from my face, grinning at the jokes I’m (he’s) obviously making, then looking slow-eyed and glum when she mentions the children. Somebody pushes by with an empty glass as if I don’t exist. I pull him back and he knocks me down. I do exist. I live, and smile on the floor before getting up. But only he notices me, and does so no more as his glass is filled and he steps by me back to his table. It is quite a disturbance, but they don’t even call the police.

  Was Jean’s new man mimicking himself, or was it me? I shall never know. But I would not see her again, even though she might want to take up with me. She’d been in contact with evil, and the evil had rubbed off on to her. Some of it in that short time had jumped to me, and I was already trying to fight free of it.

  When I was mimicking someone I was walking parallel with the frontiers of madness. When I did it marvellously well, the greater was the drop of madness below me. But I didn’t know this. I was driven to mimicry by threat and fear of madness. For some months I totally lost the skill to mimic, and that’s why I got a note from my doctor and presented myself at the door of the local head-hospital. They welcomed me with open arms, and I was able to begin making notes from the seven millionth bed.

  I did well there, announced to all assembled that I was now going to put on a show of mimicking Doctor So-and-so, and what to me was a brilliant act for them turned out to be perfectly still flesh and a blank stare from a person who was me in the middle of the room.

  I had to start again, from the beginning. In order to imitate a sneeze I was thrown on to the floor by the force of it. I turned into a dog down one side of my face, and a moth on the other.

  As I came up from the pit I started to write these notes. I have written them out five times already, and on each occasion they have been snatched from me by the attendant and burned. While I write I am quiet; when I stop, I rave. That is why they are taken from me.

  II

  I didn’t stay long: it took me two years to recover. To imitate was like learning to speak again. But my soul was filled with iron, and I went on and on. The whole world was inside of me, and on any stage I chose I performed my masterpiece of mimicry. These were merely rehearsals for when I actually figured as the same person over and over again, a calm, precise, reasonable man who bore no relation to the real me seething like a malt-vat inside. The select audience appreciated my effort. I don’t think anything was lost on them, except perhaps the truth.

  No one can mimic time and make it go away, as one can sometimes make friends and enemies alike disappear when you mimic them. I had to sit with time, feed it my bones in daylight and darkness.

  This great creation of mine, that I dredged up so painfully from the bottom of my soul, was someone I’d sidestepped from birth. I breathed life in him, a task as hard as if he were a stone, yet I had to perfect him and make him live, because in the looney bin I realized the trap I’d walked into.

  I made a successful imitation of a sane man, and then they let me out. It felt like the greatest day of my life. I do not think my performance could have been better than it was.

  An insane man can vanish like a fish in water, and hide anywhere. I am not insane, and it was never my intention to become so. But one is forced to mimic to perfection a sane man so as to become free, and what greater insanity is there than that? Yet it widens the horizons of the heart, which is no bad thing for someone who was born a mimic.

  Years have passed, and in my pursuit and mimicry of sanity I have become the assistant manager of a large office. I am thirty-five years of age, and never married again. I took some winter leave and went to Switzerland. Don’t ask me why – that means you, the one I’m imitating, and you, who I am not. I planned the space off work and set off for London with my pocket full of traveller’s cheques and a passport. In my rucksack was a hammock, nylon groundsheet, blanket, tobacco, matches, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, compass, a book, notebook, and pencils. That’s all. I don’t remember where I got such a list from but I did, and stuck to it religiously. I was determined that every action from now on should have some meaning, just as in the past every time I had ever mimicked anyone had also had some important significance. One cannot live in the world of chance. If fate will not act for you, then take it by the neck.

  It was so cold I thought my head would break like an old teapot, but as I walked away from the lake and along the narrow road between banks of trees I got used to it. The walls of the mountains on either side were so steep it seemed that if anybody were foolhardy enough to climb up they would fall off and down – unless they were a fly. Perhaps I could mimic a fly, since already in the cold I had conjured a burning stove into my belly. A car passed and offered me a lift. I waved it on.

  It was getting dark by five, and there wasn’t much snow to be seen, a large sheet of luminous basilisk blue overhead, and behind me to the south a map-patch of dying fluorescent pink. The air was pure, you could certainly say that for it. The sun must have given the valley an hour each day, then a last wink before it vanished on its way to America.

  There was snow underfoot, at certain higher places off the road, good clean snow that you could eat with honey on it. I could not see such snow and fading sun without death coming into my heart, the off-white powder humps in the dusk thrown between rock and tree-boles, flecked among the grey and scattered rooftops of a village I was coming to.

  Bells were sounding from the church, a leisurely mellow music coming across the snow, so welcoming that they made me think that maybe I had had a childhood after all. I walked up the steep narrow lanes, slipping on the snow hardened into beds of ice. No one was about, though lights were in the windows of dark wooden houses.

  Along one lane was a larger building of plain brick, and I went inside for something to eat. A girl stood by the counter, and said good evening in Italian. I took off my pack and overcoat, and she pointed to tables set in the room behind.

  They did not ask me what I wanted but brought soup, then roast meat, bread, and cabbage. I gave in my passport, intending to stay the night. A woman walked in, tall, blonde, rawboned, and blue-eyed. She sat at another table, and fed half her meal to the cat. After my long trek from the railway station (stopping only in the town to buy a map) I was starving, and had eyes for nothing but my food. The first part of the walk was agony. I creaked like an old man, but now, in spite of my exhaustion, I felt I could walk on through the night.

  I did not sleep well. In dreams I began to feel myself leaving the world. My hand was small and made of copper, tiny (like hammers that broke toffee when I was a child), and I placed it on my head that was immense and made of concrete, solid, but that suddenly started to get smaller. This was beginning to be an actual physical state, so I opened my eyes to fight it off. If I didn’t I saw myself being pressed and squeezed into extinction, out of the world. It didn’t seem as if I would
go mad (nothing is that simple) but that I would be killed by this attrition of total insecurity. It seemed as if the earth were about to turn into concrete and roll over my body.

  I got out of bed and dressed. The air in the room, which had firmly shut double windows and radiators, was stifling. When you think you’re going mad it’s a sign you’re getting over it. The faces of everyone I’d ever mimicked or made love to fell to pieces in turn like a breaking jigsaw puzzle.

  My boots bit into the snow as I closed the door behind. It wasn’t yet midnight. There was a distinct ring around the full and brilliant moon. There was snow on the mountain sides, and it seemed as if just over the line of their crests a neon light was shining. I walked along the lanes of the village, in the scorching frosty cold.

  To question why one is alive means that one is only half a person, but to be a whole person is to be half dead.

  Sun was shining over the snow next morning as I sat by the window drinking coffee. I was near the head of the valley, and the mountain slopes opened out. Most of it was sombre forest with occasional outcrops of rock, but to the west, at a place shone on directly by the sun, I could see green space. Then nothing but rock and snow, and blue sky. My eyes were always good. I never needed glasses or binoculars, and just above the meadow before the trees began was a small hut. No smoke came from it.

  I paid my bill, collected my pack, and said good-bye. At the road a cow had been hit by a car and lay dying. The car’s headlamp was shattered and the animal lay in a pool of blood, moving its hoofs slightly. A group of people stood around, and the driver was showing his papers. Another man rested a notebook on the car-top to write. It was all very orderly. I pushed through and looked into the eyes of the dying animal. It did not understand. As a last gesture it bellowed, but no one was interested in it, because the end was certain. No one even heard it, I was sure. The damson eyes were full of the non-comprehension of understanding.

 
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