New and Collected Stories, p.44Alan Sillitoe
He laughed: ‘It’s not too difficult.’
‘Some men find it so.’
‘I’ll be going for a stroll then.’
‘What’s your name, anyway?’
‘Mark,’ he told her. ‘Maybe I’ll pass your house again for another look at your roses. I’ve never seen such fine ones in Radford.’
He climbed a gate and made his way through wet nettles that came up to his knees and brushed his trousers above the tops of his leather boots. Across the path striated puddles barred his way, an edge of the yellow round sun reflected in them. The sky was blue and heavy, patched, rimmed, and streaked with thinning grey cloud. Whenever faced with a long walk he began to feel self-indulgent, wished he hadn’t set out, and speculated on his point of no return. The fields stretched into the distance, reluctant to slope up through mist into the hills beyond Southwell. He stood by the edge of a copse that barred his way, black trunks and evergreen tops forming an impenetrable heart in his path. There was a paralysis in his legs that would not allow him to find the free flow around it so as to continue his roaming. What was the point in going on if you could not get easily to the heart? Two pigeons flew out of the field and buried themselves in it without difficulty. It looked even more of a job to get into that than one’s own soul, a million times harder, in fact.
It started to rain. The soul was a moth fluttering in smoke, down on the concrete floor of his personality, sometimes touching it with the tips of its wings, flying above it, but always conscious that it was there in the smoke and darkness, and that it could never get through to the richer fields below, where connection with the universe and the clue to the real meaning of life lay. He could not burst that concrete as others presumably had, blast a way through to his soul with the dynamite of hardship and suffering. It was a mystery to him how it was done. Where does one begin? What is the secret or quality of disposition towards nature that one must have in one’s marrow? Two pigeons, back out of the copse, were flying through the rain towards the river, and without thinking he headed back in that direction himself. Jean and her children had packed up and gone – which didn’t surprise him because the thin consistent rain already reached through to his skin. He rubbed the beads of water from his bicycle handlebars and rode with head down along the main road back towards Nottingham.
The rose bushes had indeed withered: some organic malevolence had bitten them at the root and travelled up to every point of life. The blight had crippled them, in spite of all hope and intermittent care between bitter and useless quarrels with her husband. His departure had been the talk of the yard, but everyone had known right from the beginning that their marriage had been broken-backed and would dissolve one day. So did Jean know, now that it was all over. Even the children had stopped asking for him after a few weeks, knowing that to go on doing so would make her unendurably irritable for hours.
She tried to revive them, bought various compost powders from the ironmonger’s and dug up the rock-cake soil around each one, but they seemed unwilling to risk flowering in the closed-off urban air. Their thorns stayed rusty in summer, shining under the blue complacent sky.
While cooking the children’s breakfast she remembered the man who had talked to them on their last excursion to Gunthorpe. If only it had been as fine a day as this, she thought, glancing out of the window at a clean warm sky, I’d have felt more like chatting him back instead of driving him away with megrims and miseries. She could find excuses for it, but no reason, though the memory by no means depressed her as she stirred porridge and put sausages under the grill. They had a meal at school, and got their own tea till she came in at six. As for men, she did not care if she never had another one near her for the rest of her life. She’d had two bellyfuls from Ken, and got no joy out of either. Any of that, and she could manage it herself, as most self-respecting women had to do.
Janice came down, dressed already, but Paul still had his pyjama-bottoms on and his clothes bundled up like a bomb under his arm. She snapped and tugged him into a dressed creature in two minutes, and Janice was pouring cold milk into his porridge when she went out of the back door to catch the bus for work.
Mark cycled over in his dinner hour, but she wasn’t in. He didn’t like being seen in his overalls, but was able to look towards her back door while smoking a cigarette, careful not to lean on the sagging fence which looked as if it would stay up for ever it was so rotten. The neighbours assumed he was her boy-friend, and couldn’t understand that someone who must have crept into her house now and again when it was dark – though no one had actually seen him – should be so gormless as to come here in the middle of the day merely to stand and look at the scullery window.
I ought to mend that fence, he told himself. A few good posts and a line of deep holes filled with concrete, and I’d ram in the supports to last till the slum clearance brigade comes round. Wouldn’t take me a day.
He’d had the disease most of his life of asking questions before the time was ripe – if it ever was – and so destroying what pleasure he might be destined to feel if he did the impossible and kept his mind closed. But at half past eight that evening (while it was still light: the neighbours thought he had a cheek) he knocked at the back door with a definite proposition in mind.
A large white towel was swathed around her sopping head, just up from its final rinse at the scullery tap. The two top buttons of her blouse were open, and he turned red at the face. ‘I was passing, so I thought I’d say hello.’
‘Oh!’ she said, the green-eyed twilight blank and clear at the back of his head. ‘It’s you! I thought it was going to be Flo Holland. What do you want?’ The offputting brutality of this abrupt question was lessened by an assumption in her tone that he had a right to come here and want something, and that for some reason she by no means considered him a total stranger. Her face seemed less pale, a little more healthy with the dark hair invisible, lines slightly hard like a woman’s in a bathing cap and devoid of make-up or lipstick. Through the main window he saw the white electric flash of the telly reflection. ‘I’ve just washed my hair,’ she said. ‘It saves a few bob to do it at the sink. You can come in for a cup of tea in a minute.’
She closed the door, and he was sure she’d forget him, accidentally-on-purpose, as it were. He stood by the fence smoking, only this time on her side of the gate, and it was amazing how strong that gate looked in comparison to the rotten decrepit lines of paling on either side.
When he was about to walk away the door pulled open. The scarf that bundled the drying hair gave her a gipsy look, darkened her eyes and narrowed the face. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘I’ve got the kettle on.’ Sometimes when cycling he would go for miles deep in thought, and suddenly realize he could not remember passing any of the familiar landmarks on the road behind. So now, filled with happiness instead of thought, he could not recollect details of getting to the table and facing her from his abstracted melancholy stance by the gate.
‘What made me call,’ he said, ‘was the sight of that fence.’
‘I thought it was me,’ she said.
‘Don’t get sarky. I’m a chippie and can fix it for you.’
‘How much do you want for it?’ she asked.
‘I’ll do it for fun.’
She held a slice of bread at the fire with a long fork. ‘I wouldn’t bother. It’s been like that for so long. Anyway, if we have a bad winter like the last one I’ll use it for firewood to save me or the kids queuing at the coke-yard.’
‘The toast’s burning,’ he said. She buttered it, and poured a mug of tea. ‘I don’t eat till the kids are upstairs. I get indigestion at their antics. When Paul broke a cup tonight I screamed as if somebody had thrown a knife at me. Frightened the poor little bogger out of his wits.’
‘No use getting nervous,’ he laughed.
‘It’s no use telling me that. I was born like it.’
‘Who wasn’t? Sometimes it goes.’
‘In middle age,’ she said, ‘I’m waitin
‘There’s a long time yet,’ he said.
She leaned over for a light. ‘Ever go to the pubs?’
‘Not as a rule. Do you?’
‘Not really. It’d get me out a bit if I did, I suppose.’
‘Where do you go for your holidays?’ he said.
‘You met me on them.’
‘I take the kids now and again. Last year it was Matlock for the day, boating on the Derwent and then into the caves. They enjoyed it, I’m glad to say. We have better times since Ken left, though there’s a bit less money to throw around.’
‘I expect he’ll be back,’ he said, as if very happy at the idea.
‘When the kids asked me where he’s gone – they didn’t like him all that much, but they missed him at first – I said he was off to work in London for a while. But they know he won’t come back. I was down town a few weeks ago with Janice, and we was just crossing the road in Slab Square when a bus stopped at the traffic lights, and out of the window I heard this voice shout: ‘How are you, Jean, my duck?’ and when I looked it was him sitting there as large as life with another bloody woman! Janice asked me who it was so I said it was nothing to do with us, and pulled her round when she tried to look. No, he’ll never come back to me. Not that it would do him much good if he tried. More tea?’
‘Please. I’ll do that fence on Saturday. I often go to work then, but I can leave off overtime for once.’
Neighbours stopped and looked into the small of his back as they passed along the yard, or from the end of it turned to see what he was on with. Clouds were low, and the heavy oppressive warmth of summer weighed over the kitchens and lines of lavatories. Once started on a job he didn’t want to stop till it was over and done with. It was a change from making the eternal doors and windows at the factory. He uprooted the rotten palings and prised out rusty nails so that he could lay each piece of redundant wood under the front window for next winter’s kindling. The holes were plotted with a ruler, marked by temporary sticks while he mixed the concrete. He’d pushed the new palings up on two journeys by bike the evening before, and she grumbled but gave in when he insisted on them staying overnight in the kitchen. Out in the garden, someone would be bound to pinch them, as he had done.
Janice and Paul watched, chewing caramels he’d treated them to. ‘You’re making a good job of it,’ Jean said, bringing a mug of tea.
‘I might as well, while I’m at it.’
‘I’m off shopping. I shan’t be long’ – as if he should be embarrassed left all alone in a strange yard.
He straightened and took the tea. The first three posts were in, packed upright by bricks. ‘If you’re going out to do a week’s shop you might need some money. Take this’ – holding a few pounds.
‘No,’ she said, with a finality that he could neither change nor broach, ‘it’s all right.’
He crushed the notes back in his hand, fingers kneading till the knuckles went white, hoping they would disappear and prove he hadn’t been so stupid as to offer it.
‘I’m not being fussy,’ she smiled, ‘but I just don’t need it. You’re doing enough as it is.’
‘It’s good tea,’ he said, ‘and I was ready for it. I thought I’d help out, that’s all.’ He took off his cap and rubbed the sweat back into his hair. ‘Do you play draughts?’
Arms were folded under her breasts, drawing in her blouse. ‘Not for years, but I can.’
‘I’ll give you a game tonight.’
‘All right then. I’ll bring some fags back.’
He couldn’t refuse them, as she had rebuffed him over the money; in fact such fine tenderness on her part sent as much pleasure through him as if they had indulged in a secret and unexpected kiss.
When the fence was finally up, and the kids packed off to bed, they sat down to a peaceful supper of sliced meat and farmhouse bread, coffee and pickles, cobs and jam. ‘You’ve worked hard,’ she said, ‘and I’m glad of what you’ve done.’
‘I’ve worked hard,’ he said, his mouth full. ‘Hard or soft, it’s all the same. It’ll stand up a long while. I’ll guarantee that.’
They went through three games of draughts, and he beat her every time, though the last one wasn’t so easy. ‘I don’t think we’ll play any more,’ he laughed, standing to put on his jacket. He felt in a pocket for his clips. ‘Ever thought of taking a lodger?’ he said, looking close at her.
She had, but wouldn’t say so. It was too soon. He came close to kiss her, but she pushed him gently away and went with him to the door. She liked him, because he seemed to think about everything and took nothing for granted. What’s more, he was kind and helpful, and such a man was rare. The sky was clear, but stars weren’t often in it. Only telly aerials and chimneys were between you and the sky, and they helped to keep you warm.
‘I’ll think about it,’ she said, touching his arm.
He seemed dejected, being at the end of the best day he’d spent in years, as he walked up the yard and out by his new-made fence.
The gate clicked, so she shut the door and went back to clear the table.
He didn’t come for a month, but every day she expected him. She saw her husband several times in various parts of the city, but never once did she bump into Mark. Why doesn’t he come? she wondered. He builds a brand-new marvellous fence, and then thinks he can just go off like any cock-a-doodle dandy and say no more about it. I suppose he can, she thought, sitting alone one night. He must have been offended when I wouldn’t take money towards my shopping, but that’s just like a man, to get haughty when they can’t make a kept woman out of you in the first five minutes. They either do nothing, or want to do everything too quickly.
But he was close to her, so near, so close that sometimes she could see him clearly, though if she tried to touch him he vanished. She waited for him, but it seemed he’d gone for ever, either because he was scared of her and two children, or because he’d been discouraged by her coldness. She considered herself more hot-blooded than he knew, and as proof thought of the many times she had not been able to tolerate the knowledge of her husband going to bed with other women, until all vestige of love between them had been destroyed. Even Ken lost his jauntiness, and often his desire for whoever he was running after at the time. Their continual battles were fought with such unplanned unconscious spite that a note of fate and heroism crept into them both, bent as they then became on the complete destruction of each other’s emotional base. Neither won, and neither lost – unless Ken could be said to have done so because he was the one who had walked out. She used to think during such fighting that the longer two people lived together the less possible did it become for them to do so. When she didn’t speak to him for three days, at least not to say anything civilized, the atmosphere seemed to be damaging her actual brain cells, as if she would never again be able to see anything clearly without the most desperate effort. And when she did nothing else except speak to him for three days it was just as much of a torment, and the damage seemed to be even worse, because neither had a civil word left to say to each other.
But these memories vanished as soon as she thought of Mark, and she felt almost happy again. Then he came back.
He felt the soft warmth of midsummer, and an agreeable wind whose noiselessness was drowned by a gentle continuous brush of incoming water. For the first time in his life he was at peace not only with the world but also with those who lived in it. The clash of the children’s spades into the stones sounded somewhere beyond his closed eyes. It was impossible to brood on the misery that had brought such good fortune. The sea excluded all unnecessary reflection. Its rhythms cut him off from any past machinery that may have had control over him. The place he lay on was a bridgehead on the land, and the stones pressing under his body were all that he owned. He reached out and met Jean’s thigh, lifted higher until he could take her hand and press it tenderly. You went near the sea so that it could claim you, though it never did, dared it to
Jean sat up to spread their lunch, and he heard the children throw down spades and pull themselves over without standing up. ‘Mark,’ she said, ‘I can’t get the tops of these flasks off.’
‘Knock ’em with a stone. That’ll loosen ’em.’
She threw a pebble which struck his shoe. ‘If you don’t move I’ll kiss you, lazy good-for-nothing.’
She bent over, the sea on her lips, hair cutting out light when he opened his eyes. ‘You weren’t so lazy in bed last night.’
‘The mattress was hard.’ He jumped up yelling from a sharp nudge in the ribs, then got on his knees to twist the caps off. He couldn’t screw his eyes down to the very stones and earth they sat on, but stared vacantly while exerting his strength, towards the far-off grey breakwater that divided a pale blue sea and a pale blue sky, its nearer arm coming out from grey shingle and off-white cliffs. They had come for a fortnight on his hundred pounds saved, taken two rooms half an hour inland on the uppers of the town, but with a wide view over the sea.
At night when the kids were sleeping they went to the front, along it and back, the sky still on fire and the sea blood-black and flat, walking out to the waterline without shoes or socks, and standing under the cry of the nightbirds, holding hands.
When they lay naked in bed together, lightbulb shining directly over them, he in her and both locked in restfulness after making love, he thought he saw her eyes screwed up with pain, until he realized it was the light from above shining through the strands and lines of her hair and reflecting them on the skin surrounding her closed eyes. The nights were becoming one night, days one day now that the holiday was ending. The children would remember the days, but they would only remember the nights. She felt the warm thickness of his shoulders and back, the relaxed flesh of his buttocks. It was all comfort, and love, and silence, and she wondered when it would break up into the violent colours of chaos, then smiled at her pessimism and drew deeply on the hope that it never would.
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