New and Collected Stories, p.43Alan Sillitoe
The mountains were reflected in one, and the village in the other – or so it seemed as I paced back and forth. Another bellow sounded, even after it was dead, and when all the people looked at me at last to make sure that the noise was coming from me and not out of the sky I walked on alone up the road, away from the spoiled territory of the heart, and the soiled landscape of the soul.
I am wild. If I lift up my eyes to the hills a child cries. A child crying makes me sad. A baby crying puts me into a rage against it. I imagine everything. If I go into the hills and sit there, birds sing. They are made of frost, like the flowers. Insanity means freedom, nothing else. Tell me how to live and I’ll be dangerous. If I find out for myself I’ll die of boredom afterwards. When I look along the valley and then up it seems as if the sky is coming into land. The mountains look as tall as if they are about to walk over me. If they want to, let them. I shall not be afraid.
The wind is fresh except when it blows smoke into my face. I build a fire by the hut, boil water on it for tea. The wind is increasing, and I don’t like the look of the weather.
The hut is sheltered, and when I came to it I found as if by instinct a key just under the roof. There’s nothing inside, but the floor is clean, and I have my hammock as well as food. When it is dark it seems as if the wind has been moaning and prowling for days, plying its claws into every interstice of the nerves. I wanted to get out and go after it, climb the escarpment above the treeline with a knife between my teeth, and fight on the high plateau in the light of the moon, corner that diabolic wind and stab it to death, tip his carcass over the nearest cliff.
I cannot mimic either Jack Frost or a windkiller. It’s too dark, pit-shadows surround me, but there’s no fear because outside in the mountains the whole fresh world stretches, waiting for children like me to get up in the morning, to go out into it and be born again.
I have finished with mimicking. I always thought the time would come, but could never imagine when or where. I cannot get into anyone any more and mimic them. I am too far into myself at last, for better or worse, good or bad, till death do me part.
One man will go down into the daylight. In loneliness and darkness I am one man: a spark shot out of the blackest pitch of night and found its way to my centre.
A crowd of phantoms followed me up, and I collected them together in this black-aired hut, tamed them and tied them down, dogs, moths, mothers, and wives. Having arrived at the cliff-face of the present there’s little else to say. When my store of food is finished I’ll descend the mountainside and go back to the inn, where I’ll think some more as I sit drinking coffee by the window, watching the snow or sunshine. I’ll meet again the tall, blonde, rawboned, blue-eyed woman who fed half her meal to the cat – before setting off on my travels. Don’t ask me where, or who with.
Before Snow Comes
The lights below glowed red like lines of strawberries. Snow had been forecast, and when it fell he thought they would be buried. The smell of frost and smoke had softened, and he could taste snow on his lips even before the first flake drifted down on to his hair.
The only thing was to drink, drink, drink, and try not to forget. With glass after glass her face came back with much greater clarity than when he was sober. In full ordinary everyday light she stayed dim and far away, out of sight and all possibility of mind. But in memory she never stood so close that he could touch her.
He recognized the garden because of the rosebush growing in it. The palings leaned as if they would never get up again. They had not been thumped by a good-natured drunk, for then they could have been willingly straightened, but sagged as if someone had deliberately kicked them in passing because he was fed up with life when he had no need to be. They should be totally uprooted and thrown away for bonfire night. Then I’d get some of those new-smelling planks and laths from the woodyard and put good fences around the rosebush. He would get clean steel nails and set out those laths and offshoot wasted planks from the trunks of great trees that he got cheap because one of his mates worked there, and brush off the sawdust lovingly from each one, feeling it collect like the wooden gold-dust of life in the palm of his hands and sift between the broad flesh of his lower fingers. That half-sunk sagging fence wanted a good dose of the boot, to be followed of course by a bit of loving skill for her sake.
He had it because he was divorced. His spirit was turned upside down, the sand in his brain rifting through as in the old days to body and heart, an eggtimer letting its intoxication into the crevice of every vein and vesicle, bone and sinew. He worked and worked, walked from one step to another between elevation and misery. At work they thought him a happy and reliable mate, but every second night he forgot to wind up his watch and had to call on a neighbour to check the time in order to say hello in the morning, otherwise he’d be late getting up for work (or might never get up at all) and that would never do.
He had four brothers and two sisters, all of them married, and all divorced, except one who was killed in a car crash. It wasn’t that his family was unlucky or maladjusted, simply that they were normal and wholesome, just conforming like the rest of the world and following in the family tradition with such pertinacity that at the worst of times it made him laugh, and at the best it sent him out in carpet slippers on Sunday morning to buy a newspaper and read what was happening to other families. What else could you do and think, if the razor-blade of fate isn’t to cut you down and spare you even more sufferings? Sometimes he thought he’d buy a Bible and make prayer-wheels to send zipping into outer space, which seemed the only possible alternative to drinking himself to death, which he couldn’t afford to do. But the world keeps going round, and it was no use asking what had happened to all the good times. The ocean was too deep and wide to escape from the island on which he found himself.
She kept her roses well, and he remarked on them when passing the backyard where her fence was ready to lie down and never get up again, though it wasn’t the worst of them in that terrace by any means. She leaned on the gate smoking a cigarette, a young woman with dark short curly hair, sallow and full in the face below it. Her eyes, a sharp light-blue, gave her expression a state of being lit up and luminous, aware of everything inside her but not of the world. Why she was standing there he didn’t know, because there was nothing to look at but a brick wall two yards away. He stopped, nothing else in his mind except: ‘I like those roses. I could smell ’em as I went by.’
‘They aren’t exactly Wheatcroft specials,’ she said, not smiling.
‘Where’d you get ’em?’
‘My brother lives in Hertfordshire, and he gen me a few cuttings from his garden. Only one took, but look how it blossomed!’
‘It has, an’ all,’ he said. Neither of them could think of anything else to say.
He didn’t see her for a long time, but thought about her. He worked at a cabinet-making factory as a joiner, making doors one week and window frames the next, lines of window frames and rows of doors. The handsaws screamed all day from the next department like the greatest banshee thousand-ton atomic bomb rearing for the spot-middle of the earth which seemed to be his brain. Planing machines went like four tank engines that set him looking at the stone wall as if to see it keel towards him for the final flattening, and then the milling machines buzzing around like scout cars searching for the answers to all questions … It was like the Normandy battlefield all over again when he was eighteen, but without death flickering about. Not that noise bothered him, but he often complained to himself of minor irritations, and left the disasters to do their worst. It was like pinching himself to make sure he was alive.
He gave her names, but none seemed to fit. Her face was clear, but he couldn’t remember what clothes she had been wearing. It was just after midday and he wrenched his memory around like wet plywood to try and remember if the smell of any cooking dinner had been drifting from her kitchen door, whether she’d been lea
After heavy spring rain the Trent flowed fast at Gunthorpe, as if somebody was feeding it along the narrows with an invisible elbow and tipping it towards the weir that was almost levelled out. But after rain there was sunshine and he cycled up the hill. At Kneeton hamlet he stood at the top of the hill with his bike, looking down through the gloomy bracken, along the descending hedge-tunnel towards the ferry and over the opposite flat bank. But for a better view he turned and leaned his bike against a wall, and went into Kneeton churchyard. The river was as grey as battleship paint, none of the small white clouds of the sky visible in it. They were reflected rather on the glistening fields beyond, and the dry red-roofed houses of various farms and villages.
He walked over the soddened grass, around the small cemetery. The gravestone of Sarah Ann Gash had split in the middle and fallen. She was born on September 1st but it didn’t say what year because the split of the slate had gone right through it. Where was Sarah now? he wondered, Sarah who no longer walked around these high woods and looked now and again across the Trent for signs of storm and sunshine.
He’d left his room early, hoping to get in the full brightness of Sunday before the piss of heaven belted down again. He looked across the valley as he’d done dozens of times and brooded on it as he always did, a valley fair and shallow as himself. He told himself it was different now, without being sharp enough at the moment to know why. Locked in his Nottinghamshire room he thought about the past, but seeing this blue sky and so much open land, he wondered about the future, though in such a way that he would allow no useful answer to come out of his musing. He doubted that an answer could come under any conditions, though however unsatisfied he did not want to return to his room and brood without the benefit of such good and placid scenery.
He was a man of forty who considered that nothing had happened in life so far – apart from the death of his parents, and the loss of his wife and child by a divorce which she had wanted, and been willingly given. Just as he believed that a clerk did not work because you could not see his calloused hands and blackheads dotting his face, so he believed that he hadn’t suffered because he wasn’t physically scarred, crippled, or blind. It seemed that a sense of realism regarding the world and what it could do to you, and you to it, hadn’t yet given him the opportunity of being fully born to its wrath, and whenever he felt something near to peace – gazing for too long over the snaky Trent and slowly rising fields on the far side – his face looked more puzzled than pleased. The wind blew against his jersey shirt, and he felt it to the flesh. Anything he felt, he noticed, and this if nothing else brought a smile to his face.
The lane descending to the river went between high hedges with sharp buds scattered over them like green snow, bent slightly on its route to the narrow band of meadow bordering the river-bank. A smell of wet cloud and fields came from the bushes. He wanted to reach the river, but not to plough in his bike and boots through the mud when a paved lane behind would get him there in a little more time but far less trouble.
Four great engines were detonated against the sky, and over the trees to his right a huge plane slid off an aerodrome runway and carried its grey belly far off across the opposite flat fields, suddenly climbing and merging completely with the sky like a bird. Something in him waited for a blue-white flash along the body, a silent unobtrusive packed explosion that would make it vanish for ever from both world and sky, as if it had no right up there where only birds of flesh and feathers could travel. But when it went on its flight he was happy and relieved that nothing happened to it. There is something greater than love, he thought. Far greater. I feel it, something that makes love seem primitive. I can’t say what it is, but I know that it exists, though one can only get to it through love.
He cycled over the long tarmac bridge, considered stopping on the pavement to look at the river’s floodspeed over the parapet, but knew it finally could only interest a child, so turned across the line of traffic and down the lane towards field and gravel-stones sloping between the inn and the water’s edge. The nearby weir was almost level yet still let out a thunderous roar of water from its depths, and in various side-pools of the river men sat fishing, oblivious to it. He laid his bike down, and set off for a walk.
A woman and two children were picnicking beyond the first clump of bushes, and not having a very good time of it. A khaki groundsheet had been fixed on two sticks as a shield against the irritating windbite gusting across the river to scatter sandwich papers and salt. They crouched under it, and he heard the grit of discontented voices. It was difficult to light a cigarette in such a cunning wind, except by opening his jacket and holding it as a buffer. So as not to intrude upon their private feast he walked behind them, but when he was closest he knew he had seen the woman before, leaning against the backyard gate of a house in Radford. A boy of seven felt under a blanket and pulled out a transistor radio the size of a two-ounce tobacco tin, and switched on a thin screech of music. Ducks flew over from the woods, and when their beaks moved during a low swerve towards the fishermen behind, he heard no sound because of the radio.
The mother switched it off: ‘You can play it after you’ve had something to eat’ – and gave him and his sister a hardboiled egg. He heard the soft crack of shell on a stone, and remembered that he had eaten no breakfast. Her thick plum-coloured coat was open to show a pale-green sweater. His stare drew her head around, and he was astounded now that he had a full view of her face, to see how much it had altered, or how much his memory had embellished it with features it had probably never possessed. The sallowness lay on thinner and smaller bones, and she was darker under her eyes. But she drew him with the same force, like a girl he’d been in love with as an adolescent and just by accident met again, suddenly bringing back to him youth and naïvety and the unforgettable depth and freshness of first love that he knew could never come twice in anybody’s lifetime. It struck him that whenever he thought of something that happened a few years ago it always felt as if he were recapturing adolescence.
He stood back, but said when she looked hard at him: ‘I was passing, and recognized your face. You live down Radford, don’t you?’
‘Who’s that, mam?’
‘Shurrup and get your picnic.’ She was puzzled, and not pleased at this plain intrusion.
‘I remember your rosebush,’ he said with a smile. ‘How’s it getting on?’
‘Not very well. I didn’t know you knew me.’
‘I passed your gate, and yours was the only back garden with roses in it.’
She gave each child a radish, and the girl who got the biggest held it like a doll, then grasped the green sprouts and chewed it while thoughtfully looking at the river. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Jean,’ she said, ‘if you like.’
He smiled. ‘That’s a funny way of putting it.’
‘Jean then, whether you like it or not.’
‘We talked about your roses. Don’t you remember?’
She pulled her coat to. ‘Wipe your nose, Paul. Don’t let it go all over your food. A lot’s happened since.’ She was not eating, handled all food respectfully and passed it to her children. A gang of boys went by, waving sticks and swinging tadpole jars at the end of string.
‘That’s lucky,’ he said, ‘no matter how bad it is.’
‘I don’t care, one way or the other.’ Yet her face had relaxed almost into a smile at the few words bartered since he’d stopped.
‘That’s no way, either,’ he said. ‘You know what they say about Don’t Care?’ The boy and girl looked up at him, with more interest than their mother. The girl smiled, waiting.
‘It goes like this, I think:
‘Don’t Care had golden hair
Don’t Care was green at the face
Don’t Care was tall and lame
Don’t Care wore a shirt of lace
Don’t Care was hung:
Don’t Care fell down through the air
Into a pit of dung!’
He felt foolish at such recitation, yet less so when he saw that all three were amused.
‘Where did you learn that?’
He winked. ‘Read it in a book.’
‘What sort of book?’ asked the boy.
‘Any book. No, I tell a lie. I remember my father saying it to me as a boy.’
‘A rum thing to tell a child,’ she said. Wet blue clouds were coming eastwards over the summit of the woods, cold grey at the edges, but a line of sun still cut the mother from her children, moving and warming them in turn.
‘I hope it doesn’t think to rain,’ she said.
‘So do I. I biked up from Nottingham, and now I’m off for a walk. What happened to you in the last two years, then?’ He saw she wouldn’t want to talk about it, but asked just the same, because it was up to her to decide, not him.
‘It’s a long story,’ she said, snubbing him by the silence that followed.
It must be a bloody bad one, he thought, from the way she looks: ‘I’ll tell you one thing, though: no stories have an ending. They never end. So maybe it won’t turn out to be as bad as you think. Take me, for instance. I’m only really happy when I’m working.’
His way of speaking had aroused her interest, as if she was unaccustomed to hearing people speak at all. She asked if he lived alone.
‘I do,’ he said.
‘Me too; but I’ve got two kids. You keep yourself looking well and clean for a man who lives alone!’
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