New and Collected Stories, p.46Alan Sillitoe
Jam pot, butter dish, knife, and crumbs were spread over the kitchen table when he got himself something to eat. Not that it bothered him, that his father might have been killed, because when they had left him for an hour on his own a few months ago he had wondered what he would do if they never came back. Before he’d had time to decide, though, they had opened the door to tell him to get a sandwich and be off to bed sharp, otherwise he’d be too tired to get up for school in the morning. So he knew they’d be back sooner than he expected. When Johnny Bootle’s father had been killed in a lorry last year he’d envied him, but Johnny Bootle himself hadn’t liked it very much.
Whether they came back or not, it was nice being in the house on his own. He was boss of it, could mash another pot of tea if he felt like it, and keep the gas fire burning as long as he liked. The telly was flickering but he didn’t want to switch it off, even though heads kept rolling up and up, so that when he looked at it continually for half a minute it seemed as if they were going round in a circle. He turned to scoop a spoonful of raspberry jam from the pot, and swallow some more cold tea.
He sat in his father’s chair by the fire, legs stretched across the rug, but ready to jump at the click of the outdoor latch, and be back at the table before they could get into the room. His father wouldn’t like him being in his chair, unless he were sitting on his knee. All he needed was a cigarette, and though he looked on the sideboard and along the shelf there were none in sight. He had to content himself with trying to whistle in a thick manly style. Johnny Bootle had been lucky in his loss, because he’d had a sister.
If they didn’t come back tonight he wouldn’t go to school in the morning. They’d shout at him when they found out, but that didn’t matter if they were dead. It was eight o’clock, and he wondered where they were. They ought to be back by now, and he began to regret that he’d hoped they never would be, as if God’s punishment for thinking this might be that He’d never let them.
He yawned, and picked up the clock to wind it. That was what you did when you yawned after eight in the evening. If they didn’t come soon he would have to go upstairs to bed, but he thought he would get some coats and sleep on the sofa down here, with the gas fire shining bright, rather than venture to his bedroom alone. They’d really gone for a night out, and that was a fact. Maybe they were late coming back because they’d gone for a divorce. When the same thing had happened to Tom Brunt it was because his mam had gone to fetch a baby, though he was taken into a neighbour’s house next door before he’d been alone as long as this.
He looked along the shelf to see if he had missed a cigarette that he could put into his mouth and play at smoking with. He had good eyes and no need of glasses, that was true, because he’d been right first time. In spite of the bread and jam he still felt hungry, and went into the scullery for some cheese.
When the light went, taking the flickering telly with it, he found a torch at the back of the dresser drawer, then looked for a shilling to put in the meter. Fortunately the gas fire gave off enough pink glow for him to see the borders of the room, especially when he shone the torch beam continually around the walls as if it were a searchlight looking for enemy planes.
‘It was a long wait to Tipperary’ – as he had sometimes heard his father sing while drunk, but his eyes closed, with the piece of cheese still in his hands, and he hoped he would drop off before they came in so that they’d be sorry for staying out so late, and wouldn’t be able to be mad at him for not having gone to bed.
He walked across the room to the coat hooks in the recess, but his mother’s and father’s coats had gone, as he should have known they would be, since neither of them was in. There was nothing to put over himself when he went to sleep, but he still wouldn’t go upstairs for a blanket. It would be as bad as going into a wood at night. He had run across the road when a bus was coming, and seen Frankenstein once on the telly, but he wouldn’t go into a wood at night, even though lying Jimmy Kemp claimed to have done so.
Pushing one corner at a time, he got the table back against the sideboard. There was an oval mirror above the mantelshelf, and he leaned both elbows on it to get as good a look at himself as he could in the wavering pink light – his round face and small ears, chin in shadow, and eyes popping forward. He distorted his mouth with two fingers, and curled a tongue hideously up to his nose to try and frighten himself away from the bigger fear of the house that was threatening him with tears.
It was hard to remember what they’d done at school today, and when he tried to imagine his father walking into the house and switching on the light it was difficult to make out his face very clearly. He hated him for that, and hoped one day to kill him with an axe. Even his mother’s face wasn’t easy to bring back, but he didn’t want to kill her. He felt his knee caps burning, being too close to the gas bars, so he stood away to let them go cool.
When he was busy rolling up the carpet in front of the fire, and being away from the mirror, his parents suddenly appeared to him properly, their faces side by side with absolute clarity, and he wished they’d come back. If they did, and asked what the bloody hell he thought he was doing rolling up the carpet, he’d say well what else do you expect me to do? I’ve got to use something for a blanket when I go to sleep on the settee, haven’t I?
If there was one skill he was glad of, it was that he could tell the time. He’d only learned it properly six months ago, so it had come just right. You didn’t have to put a shilling in the clock, so that was still ticking at least, except that it made him feel tired.
He heaved at the settee, to swivel it round in front of the fire, a feat which convinced him that one day he’d be as strong as his father – wherever he was. There was certainly no hope of the gas keeping on till the morning, so he turned it down to number two. Then he lay on the settee and pulled the carpet over him. It smelled of stone and pumice, and of soap that had gone bad.
He sniffed the cold air, and sensed there was daylight in it, though he couldn’t open his eyes. Weaving his hand as far as it would go, he felt that the gas fire had gone out, meaning that the cooking stove wouldn’t work. He wondered why his eyelids were stuck together, then thought of chopping up a chair to make a blaze, but the grate was blocked by the gas fire. This disappointed him, because it would have been nice to lean over it, warming himself as the bottom of the kettle got blacker and blacker till it boiled at the top.
When his eyes mysteriously opened, old Tinface the clock said it was half past seven. In any case there were no matches left to light anything. He went into the scullery to wash his face.
He had to be content with a cup of milk, and a spoon of sugar in it, with more bread and cheese. People were walking along the backyards on their way to work. If they’ve gone for good, he thought, I shall go to my grandma’s, and I’ll have to change schools because she lives at Netherfield, miles away.
His mother had given him sixpence for sweets the morning before, and he already had twopence, so he knew that this was enough to get him half fare to Netherfield.
That’s all I can do, he thought, turning the clock to the wall, and wondering whether he ought to put the furniture right in case his parents came in and got mad that it was all over the place, though he hoped they wouldn’t care, since they’d left him all night on his own.
Apart from not wanting to spend the sixpence his mother had given him till she came back, he was sorry at having to go to his grandma’s because now he wouldn’t be able to go to school and tell his mates that he’d been all night in a house on his own.
He pushed a way to the upper deck of the bus, from which height he could look down on the roofs of cars, and see level into the top seats of other buses passing them through the town. You never know, he thought, I might see ’em – going home to put a shilling each in the light and gas for me. He gave his money to the conductor.
It took a long time to get clear of traffic at Canning Circus, and he wished he’d packed up some bread and cheese before leaving the
He knew the name of his grandmother’s street, but not how to get there from the bus stop. A postman pointed the direction for him. Netherfield was on the edge of Nottingham, and huge black cauliflower clouds with the sun locked inside came over on the wind from Colwick Woods.
When his grandmother opened the back door he was turning the handle of the old mangle outside. She told him to stop it, and then asked in a tone of surprise what had brought him there at that time of the morning.
‘Dad and mam have gone,’ he said.
‘Gone?’ she cried, pulling him into the scullery. ‘What do you mean?’ He saw the big coal fire, and smelled the remains of bacon that she must have done for Tom’s breakfast – the last of her sons living there. His face was distorted with pain. ‘No,’ she said, ‘nay, you mustn’t cry. Whatever’s the matter for you to cry like that?’
The tea she poured was hot, strong, and sweet, and he was sorry at having cried in front of her. ‘All right, now?’ she said, drawing back to watch him and see if it was.
He nodded. ‘I slept on the couch.’
‘The whole night! And where can they be?’
He saw she was worried. ‘They had an accident,’ he told her, pouring his tea into the saucer to cool it. She fried him an egg, and gave him some bread and butter.
‘Our Jack’s never had an accident,’ she said grimly.
‘If they’re dead, grandma, can I live with you?’
‘Aye, you can. But they’re not, so you needn’t worry your little eyes.’
‘They must be,’ he told her, feeling certain about it.
‘We’ll see,’ she said. ‘When I’ve cleaned up a bit, we’ll go and find out what got into ’em.’ He watched her sweeping the room, then stood in the doorway as she knelt down to scrub the scullery floor, a smell of cold water and pumice when she reached the doorstep. ‘I’ve got to keep the place spotless,’ she said with a laugh, standing up, ‘or your Uncle Tom would leave home. He’s bound to get married one day though, and that’s a fact. His three brothers did, one of ’em being your daft father.’
She held his hand back to the bus stop. If Uncle Tom does clear off it looks like she’ll have me to look after. It seemed years already since he’d last seen his mother and father, and he was growing to like the adventure of it, provided they didn’t stay away too long. It was rare going twice across town in one day.
It started to rain, so they stood in a shop doorway to wait for the bus. There wasn’t so many people on it this time, and they sat on the bottom deck because his grandma didn’t feel like climbing all them steps. ‘Did you lock the door behind you?’
‘Let’s hope nobody goes in.’
‘There was no light left,’ he said. ‘Nor any gas. I was cold when I woke up.’
‘I’m sure you was,’ she said. ‘But you’re a big lad now. You should have gone to a neighbour’s house. They’d have given you some tea. Mrs Upton would, I’m sure. Or Mrs Mackley.’
‘I kept thinking they’d be back any minute.’
‘You always have to go to the neighbours,’ she told him, when they got off the bus and walked across Ilkeston Road. Her hand had warmed up now from the pumice and cold water. ‘Don’t kick your feet like that.’
If it happened again, he would take her advice. He hoped it wouldn’t, though next time he’d sleep in his bed and not be frightened.
They walked down the yard, and in by the back door. Nothing was missing, he could have told anybody that, though he didn’t speak. The empty house seemed dead, and he didn’t like that. He couldn’t stay on his own, so followed his grandmother upstairs and into every room, half expecting her to find them in some secret place he’d never known of.
The beds were made, and wardrobe doors closed. One of the windows was open a few inches, so she slammed it shut and locked it. ‘Come on down. There’s nowt up here.’
She put a shilling in the gas meter, and set a kettle on the stove. ‘Might as well have a cup of tea while I think this one out. A bloody big one it is, as well.’
It was the first time he’d heard her swear, but then, he’d never seen her worried, either. It made him feel better. She thought about the front room, and he followed her.
‘They kept the house clean, any road up,’ she said, touching the curtains and chair covers. ‘That’s summat to be said for ’em. But it ain’t everything.’
‘It ain’t,’ he agreed, and saw two letters lying on the mat just inside the front door. He watched her broad back as she bent to pick them up, thinking now that they were both dead for sure.
A Trip to Southwell
Alec leaned from the window of the empty compartment to fix the time by the platform clock.
Even if she ran down the stone stairs in her click-heelers shouting for him to stop he’d shrug and turn away with a slit-grin that would grip the heart painfully – knowing there was no chance of her coming whatever he felt or hoped.
At the age of seventeen, if you fall in love with a girl younger than yourself, you don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for. It pulled you to the middle of the earth and was hard to get out of once you were that far down. There was so much honey you got stuck like any black and orange bee. When you weren’t gassed with sweetness your feet got burned.
To begin with he hadn’t even known he was in love, and she was still fifteen, what’s more. Things shifted under you like on the cakewalk at Goose Fair, but it had always been like that with him, and he expected it never to alter. If he hadn’t lived in Nottingham he wouldn’t have met her, which might have been for the best. When things went wrong what could you do except wish they hadn’t happened?
Then his old man got a better-paid job managing a butcher’s shop in Leicester instead of cutting up chops and joints under somebody else down Radford. But you couldn’t blame him for the break-up no more than you could for getting me in the world in the first place. So they moved, and there he was as well, or would be (and for good) when the train got there in forty minutes – time enough to go back over the whole tormenting issue.
Everybody was het-up after spilling from the late-night pictures, and the distant smell of a fish-and-chip shop came through the thick and icy fog. Alec saw her standing apart from her sister and saying nothing, while noise from the rest of them clattered around the lamp post.
The best compliment you could make in those days was that somebody was ‘quiet’. He once heard Doris Mackin say a boy named Bernard was smashing because he talked so quiet. Well, when he saw Mavis Hallam, and heard her reply to her sister who called out to come and join the gang, he thought how marvellous that her voice was soft.
Even though it was quiet he heard her say: ‘I don’t want to, our Helen. We’ll have to be going soon, or dad’ll shout at us when he sees us coming in late’ – as if shouting was the worst punishment anybody could have, and that they should do anything to avoid it.
‘Don’t be daft,’ Helen called, punching Bill Cotgrave who tried to get too much out of her: ‘We aren’t even courting,’ she bawled at him, ‘so get your scabby ’ands off of me.’
Mavis turned without answering, and sensed Alec looking at her. While he thought of what to say, in an equally low voice if he could manage it, he remembered that her softened tone was nevertheless a bit sarcastic. Though not lost on him, it didn’t matter at a time when he’d give his right arm to know more about her.
Joshing and laughing the whole gang turned from the lamp post and straggled up Berridge Road. The world had divided into moving through the dark mist, and the quiet presence of Mavis who came on not far behind.
Between the two, Alec surmised that even though she lagged out of sight, and in spite of her soft voice and sarky tone, she still wanted to mill in with the rest. There was much of that in him too. Larking about bored him,
He waited for her. ‘Why don’t you catch up?’
‘Why don’t you?’ she asked, quiet and unhurried, and close enough for him to see her smile.
‘I wanted to drop back a bit and talk.’
He tried to hold her hand, but she pulled it away.
‘If that’s how it is,’ he said.
‘I said talk, not grab. I don’t know you that well.’
She didn’t raise her voice through this, or even sound harsh, which made him want all the more to hold her. He saw it was going to be a long job, especially after this rebuff, and what he thought of as his first mistake.
He’d only seen her a couple of times, because Helen, her elder sister, didn’t consider her old enough to mix with the rough and tumble she herself kept. A couple of the lads had already ‘had it’ with Helen, but he couldn’t ever see himself getting on the same track with Mavis – though you never know how things might turn out. He felt something more than that towards her, and didn’t know what it was, unable to put it down to her soft voice, which would be too easy.
‘Anyway,’ she said, pushing the silence away, ‘I don’t know whether I like people with ginger hair.’
She was the first who’d ever objected to it, which he supposed was something else that made her different. ‘I’ve got blue eyes,’ he said. ‘I expect they put your back up as well. I’ll dye ’em if you like. If I’m too tall for you I’ll take a correspondence course in shrinking. Maybe I could even do it at night school.’
Her laugh was more an attempt at one, though he liked her for it because it showed he was on the right track. He’d never seen her properly in broad day or electric light, always in the shifting flicker of a street lamp or the dim colours outside a cinema, and he longed now, searching for the wit to make her laugh properly, to see her clearly.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes