New and Collected Stories, p.45Alan Sillitoe
‘Happy, love?’ he said, sensing it, never daring to ask if he knew she was not.
‘Oh yes. You?’
They shifted on to their sides. ‘Never more happy,’ he told her. ‘You know that.’
It was raining when they climbed into the train next day, a soft warm summer letdown from low cloud that made them happier than if they’d left the seaside with sun still shining. ‘I’ll save up,’ he said, ‘and we’ll come again next year.’
‘How many months is that?’ Paul asked, digging his spade into the carriage floor.
Mark told him.
‘How many weeks, then?’
‘How many minutes?’
He took out a biro and wrote on the margin of his Daily Mirror. ‘Twenty-one thousand,’ he laughed.
‘I’ll count them,’ Paul said, as the train jerked and he fell against his mother.
The fence stood up, and so did the rosebush, every branch stem lined with concealed thorns among the remnants of decaying blossoms. More than a year had passed, and the sooty frost of winter lay over factories and houses. The factory covered more acreage than the houses. Across Ilkeston Road whole streets were cleared, a ground plan of cobbled laneways revealed. Blocks of flats, thin and high up the hill towards Canning Circus, stood like strands of hair stiffening at some apparition on the horizon that no human being could see because they were not made of concrete and girders, windows and seasoned wood. Such flats had now replaced the bucket-hovels that had held down the daisies for a hundred years, he thought, riding home on his way for dinner.
Home was where Jean and the children had once lived with her husband, and now allowed him to stay, though not in the man and wife sense, for his bed was in the parlour. ‘I don’t see why we can’t share one bedroom,’ he said.
‘I do,’ she retorted. ‘I want some privacy in my life.’
Coming back to Nottingham after their sublime fortnight by the sea had the opposite effect to what he’d expected. The bliss of it seemed to have broken the back of their tenuous need for each other. Instead of the fabulous beginning of a full rich life together he now looked on their holiday as the height of affection and intimacy from which, through some unexplained perversity in Jean, they began to descend. Though not afraid to have the neighbours think they were living together, she seemed ashamed that she and Mark should actually do so.
At times she regretted having ‘taken a lodger’, useful and loving though he was. He was calm and tender, nothing upset him, neither the fact that his tea was late, nor the surge of kids jumping like mad things over him after an evening consumed in the sweat of overtime. He was goodness itself. Silver spoons must have been laid out for him at some time in his life, no matter what state he was born in. His goodness increased her feeling of guilt at having driven her husband away – though knowing in her heart that she was at least no more at fault than he had been.
Mark came home in the evening with a wide smile at the sight of her, and she tried to match him in it, would stand up from the table to greet him, while feeling desperately shy if the children were there. If they were out playing she would not even stand up. Because he was happy all of her moods were a torture to him. When he asked what was wrong, and she could not reply, it only proved that he was superfluous in the house.
‘I’ll go then,’ he said late one night.
She jumped up. ‘No, don’t Mark, don’t.’
‘What else can I do?’
‘Stay, stay. I’d die if you left me.’
He held her. ‘I don’t want to go. My god I don’t. I couldn’t. But why aren’t you happy, love?’
‘You’re too good,’ she said, her tears wetting his close face. ‘You’re too good to me, Mark. I don’t deserve this.’
‘You do,’ he said, fighting back a bleak inner weeping of his own. He questioned what she called his goodness, but it seemed no time to argue about that. ‘You deserve any good thing that can happen to you,’ he went on, pleading with her to accept whatever he had to give. But she went on crying, as if a moss-grown moon of despair had lodged itself in her heart that she had no hope of ever prising loose. It was hard to give comfort, impossible to reach her, but he stayed close and stroked her hair, saying that he loved her, loved her, thought she was beautiful, wonderful, the only woman of his life. But he felt empty, knew he was saying all this at the wrong time, that none of it was getting through, for she was beyond all aid and sympathy, untouchable. ‘Leave me,’ she moaned, ‘leave me.’
‘I can’t. I never will.’
‘Leave me alone. Go away.’ It wasn’t the first time she’d been so upset, but now it felt so bad that he thought his heart would burst, suffering so much himself at the manifestation of her grave unhappiness that he could in no way help her. She had so much, everything when you knew there was nothing further that she could attain or reach for.
Sometimes her sister came to look after the children and they went to see a good film, or walked around the streets talking and holding hands, going later into a pub to sit alone and lost in their own common glow. Every weekend they took the children either boating to Beeston Weir or for a picnic over Catstone Hill. He not only did his best for them, but enjoyed it so that he didn’t seem to be doing anything at all. She sensed this, hoping that if he did put himself out he would perform miracles and make her life worth living after all. If she could not have everything, then the world was a desert in the depths of the night that could never be walked away from.
He was inadequate before her desolation. ‘Don’t be so upset, Jean. What is it? What can I do for you?’
The very fact of asking meant that he could do nothing. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘I feel frightened all the time. Something’s wrong, and I don’t know what it is. I don’t even know why I’m on this earth.’
‘What does it matter? What do you want to know for? It doesn’t bother me, not knowing.’
‘I know it doesn’t. That’s why you’re so good!’ Her cries shook against the house, as if she were being deliberately tormented by some totally unfeeling person. But it was all coming from inside her, he thought, tightening his grip. The torture of helplessness passed on to him, the fact that his selfless love could do nothing to prevent the unexplained agony of her suffering – that he could not bear to be close to. It shook his heart to the core, and his own tears fell, filled with remorse because he could not follow Jean where some anguish he was not privileged to be part of had taken her right away from him.
They held each other tightly, sat on the floor, and wept aloud.
He got up one morning and fried an egg for breakfast. Jean did not go to work any more, and he took up a cup of tea before leaving.
A black dawn drizzle was falling outside, rattling against the loose window frame. It was a shame to sally into it, yet he liked going to work, being absorbed all day among noise and sawdust, fitting together unending rows of doors and windows. As labour it was less monotonous because he was now head man in the department, an unofficial foreman whose position was not yet confirmed by the management because they wanted to delay his increase in wages. But it would come, though he was already paying for it by having less jocular talks with his friends than before. Still, it was a better life, even if he did take a stint on actual chipping to make sure the quota was rushed out at the end of each day.
The stairs creaked under him as he went up with the tray. The children were staying for a week with her sister, and they had slept the last few nights together in her bed. ‘I’m off to work,’ he said, bending to her ear.
Her white shoulders and the pink straps of her nightdress shone under the bed light, dark long hair spreading back across the pillow. She opened her eyes, and saw his thin-faced smile turned on her, an expression of uncertainty because he was never sure in what sort of mood she was going to wake up. Their faces were like the two covers of a book, and when they pressed together everything was packed between them, a
‘Right under,’ she smiled.
‘You’ll feel better today, then.’
She thought how good his face was, how handsome and thin, full of intelligence and feeling and everything a woman might want and be happy living with. She was tranquil and happy. ‘Don’t go to work.’
‘I can’t let a drop of rain put me off,’ he smiled.
‘All right. Give me another kiss before you go.’
When he went home in the evening he saw from the yard-end that the blinds were down. The gate was padlocked and bolted against him. It was dusk, and a sharp fresh wind came between the houses as if to clean out the backyards. A radio played from the lit-up house next door. He stared, as if to penetrate the bricks, fixed in his own desperate musing. In a moment the lights would mushroom and he would hear the hollow voice of the television set, and when the lock dropped away from his cold fingers he would open the back door and see her sitting there in the warmth they had created for themselves.
A man and woman passed him in complete silence, and walked into a house further down the yard. He pushed at the gate as if to split its hinges. It held firm. Then his whole weight went against the fence, wanting to smash down every foot and paling of it. He grunted and moaned, pitting black strength at it till his shoulder felt cracked and shattered. It stood straight, unbendable. Looking into the garden he saw that the rosebush had rotted and withered right to the tips of its branches, but remembered it as beautiful, petals falling, a circle of leaves and pink spots on the soil.
He went to the neighbour’s house and knocked at the door. ‘Where’s Jean, then?’ he asked when the scullery light fell over him.
‘I’m sorry,’ Mrs Harby said. ‘Her husband fetched her in a taxi this afternoon. She left your case here. Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Was there anything else?’
‘I can soon make you a cup of tea if you’d like one.’
She pulled a letter from her apron pocket. ‘There was this she asked me to give you. It’s a shame, that’s all I can say.’
He balanced the heavy case over the crossbar of his bike. Why had she gone, in such a way and without telling him? If he had talked to her she would never have done it. They could have loved each other for ever but, having gone to the threshold of a full and tolerable life, they had shied back from it. But he didn’t know. You never did know, and he wondered whether you had to live without knowing all your life, and in wondering this he had some glimmer as to why she had blown up their world and left him.
He leaned his bike against a wall, and stood the case close by. Street lamps glowed up the sloping cobbled street. Nothing had ever seemed so completely finished. The hum of the factory swamped into him, a slight relief on the pain.
He went to another lamp post, and under its light tore the unopened letter into as many pieces as he had strength for, held them above his head, gripped them tight in his fist. When his arm ached, he spread all fingers. The wind snapped the scraps of paper away, up and into the darker air beyond the lamp light, as quickly as a hundred birds vanishing before snow comes. He stood there for some time, then clenched his fist again. After a while he walked on.
Enoch’s Two Letters
Enoch’s parents parted in a singular way. He was eight years of age at the time.
It happened one morning after he had gone to school, so that he didn’t know anything about it till coming home in the evening.
Jack Boden got up as usual at seven o’clock, and his wife, who was Enoch’s mother, set a breakfast of bacon and egg before him. They never said much, and spoke even less on this particular morning, because both were solidly locked in their separate thoughts which, unknown to each other, they were at last intending to act on.
Instead of getting a bus to his foundry, Jack boarded one for the city centre. He sought out a public lavatory where, for the price of a penny, he was able to draw off his overalls, and emerge with them under his arm. They were wrapped in the brown paper which he had put into his pocket before leaving the house, a sly and unobtrusive movement as he called from the scullery: ‘So long, love. See you this afternoon.’
Now wearing a reasonable suit, he walked to the railway station. There he met René, who had in her two suitcases a few of his possessions that he had fed to her during clandestine meetings over the past fortnight. Having worked in the same factory, they had, as many others who were employed there saw, ‘fallen for each other’. René wasn’t married, so there seemed nothing to stop her going away with him. And Jack’s dull toothache of a conscience had, in the six months since knowing her, cured itself at last.
Yet they got on the train to London feeling somewhat alarmed at the step they had taken, though neither liked to say anything in case the other should think they wanted to back out. Hardly a word was spoken the whole way. René wondered what her parents would say when they saw she’d gone. Jack thought mostly about Enoch, but he knew he’d be safe enough with his mother, and that she’d bring him up right. He would send her a letter from London to explain that he had gone – in case she hadn’t noticed it.
No sooner had Jack left for his normal daylight stint at the foundry than his wife, Edna, attended to Enoch. She watched him eat, standing by the mantelshelf for a good view of him during her stare. He looked up, half out of his sleep, and didn’t smile back at her.
She kissed him, pushed sixpence into his pocket, and sent him up the street to school, then went upstairs to decide what things to take with her. It wasn’t a hard choice, for though they had plenty of possessions, little of it was movable. So it turned out that two suitcases and a handbag held all she wanted.
There was ample time, and she went downstairs to more tea and a proper breakfast. They’d been married ten years, and for seven at least she’d had enough. The trouble with Jack was that he’d let nothing worry him. He was so trustworthy and easy-going he got on her nerves. He didn’t even seem interested in other women, and the worst thing about such a man was that he hardly ever noticed when you were upset. When he did, he accused you of upsetting him.
There were so many things wrong, that now she was about to leave she couldn’t bring them to mind, and this irritated her, and made her think that it had been even worse than it was, rather than the other way round. As a couple they had given up tackling any differences between them by the human method of talking. It was as if the sight of each other struck them dumb. On first meeting, a dozen years ago, they had been unable to say much – which, in their mutual attraction, they had confused with love at first sight. And nowadays they didn’t try to talk to each other about the way they felt any more because neither of them thought it would do any good. Having come this far, the only thing left was to act. It wasn’t that life was dull exactly, but they had nothing in common. If they had, maybe she could have put up with him, no matter how bad he was.
For a week she’d been trying to write a letter, to be posted from where she was going, but she couldn’t get beyond: ‘I’m leaving you for good, so stop bothering about me any more. Just look after Enoch, because I’ve had my bellyful and I’m off.’ After re-reading it she put it back and clipped her handbag shut.
Having decided to act after years of thinking about it, she was now uncertain as to what she would do. A sister lived in Hull, so her first plan was to stay there till she found a job and a room. This was something to hang on to, and beyond it she didn’t think. She’d just have to act again, and that was that. Once you started there was probably no stopping, she thought, not feeling too good about it now that the time had come.
An hour later she turned the clock to the wall, and walked out of the house for good, safe in knowing that shortly after Enoch came in from school his father would be home to feed him. They had lavished a lot of love on Enoch – she knew that – maybe too much, some of which they should have given to each oth
She left the door unlocked so that he could just walk in. He was an intelligent lad, who’d be able to turn on the gas fire if he felt cold. When Mrs Mackley called from her back door to ask if she was going on her holidays, Edna laughed and said she was only off to see Jack’s mother at Netherfield, to take some old rags that she needed to cut up and use for rug-clippings.
‘Mam,’ Enoch cried, going in by the back door. ‘Mam, where’s my tea?’
He’d come running down the road with a pocketful of marbles. His head in fact looked like one of the more psychedelic ones, with a pale round face, a lick of brilliant ginger hair down over his forehead, and a streak of red toffee-stain across his mouth.
Gossiping again, he thought scornfully, seeing the kitchen empty. He threw his coat, still with the sleeves twisted, over to the settee. The house did have more quiet than usual, he didn’t know why. He turned the clock to face the right way, then went into the scullery and put the kettle on.
The tea wasn’t like his mother made. It was too weak. But it was hot, so he put a lot of sugar in to make up for it, then sat at the table to read a comic.
It was early spring, and as soon as it began to get dark he switched the light on and went to draw the curtains. One half came over easily, but the other only part of the way, leaving a foot-wide gap of dusk, like a long, open mouth going up instead of across. This bothered him for a while, until it got dark, when he decided to ignore it and switch the television on.
From hoping to see his mother, he began to wonder where his father was. If his mother had gone to Aunt Jenny’s and missed the bus home, maybe his father at the foundry had had an accident and fallen into one of the moulds – from which it was impossible to get out alive, except as a skeleton.
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