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New and collected storie.., p.47
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       New and Collected Stories, p.47

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  He had a fair idea of what she looked like, but being unsure of himself he wondered, if he met her in the possible sunlight of tomorrow’s mid-day walking along the street and wearing a different coat, whether he’d be able to tell her well enough to risk saying hello Mavis and how are you?

  Going to the pictures once, on his own, he got talking to a girl inside, and before the end they were kissing as if they’d known each other six weeks. Afterwards, her mother was outside to see her home, but they’d already arranged another meeting. In the following days he forgot what she looked like, not knowing whether she was tall or short or fair or dark – or anything whatever about her appearance. It might even have been a matter of conjecture whether or not she had a wooden leg, for all he noticed.

  When the time came he approached the only other girl outside the cinema, and almost got into a fight because her boyfriend who had just dropped off a bus thought he was bothering her. He went up to several girls in the next half hour, none of whom was the dated one, though he would have gone in with any who said they were. He thought he was going off his head, but told himself that life was like that. When the right girl turned up he spotted her straight away.

  He would know Mavis, however, not so much from her distinct features as from a feeling of her presence that would bring instant recognition. He felt more than saw her slightly plump figure and long coat, her head held back, and short black curly hair, her small curved mouth and full cheeks, shapely ears and pale skin. She wore no make-up, as if to emphasize the fact of not mixing in. There was no taint or smell to disguise any part of her, which he supposed was due to her being only fifteen (though sixteen in a fortnight, she said) and made him think that if he got off with her he’d hear his pals yelling he was a cradle-snatcher, since he himself was already seventeen.

  ‘I’ve known you long enough,’ he answered, which sounded too much like a jocular complaint that one of his mates might use, and one he’d often put on with other girls. Since her voice was softly controlled he imagined she was repeating this in her mind and laughing at him, so he went on to make it worse – trying to forget what an older man at work once said: that ginger-nuts often thought people were laughing at them when they weren’t. ‘I’ll meet you Sunday afternoon if you like, and we can go to Sunday School together.’

  She missed his clumsy joke, and said: ‘I’ve never been to such a place. In any case I wouldn’t go with you. People’d know your sort a mile off– two miles, in fact.’

  He felt better that she’d already gone to the trouble of putting him into a ‘sort’, though he realized this couldn’t have been very difficult. ‘What is my sort, anyway?’ He managed to keep his voice as soft as hers, but only when asking questions.

  ‘Always after the girls,’ she scorned. ‘Johnny Wiley told me about you.’

  He wondered how Johnny Wiley had ever got close enough to tell her anything she’d listen to from a bastard like him. ‘The world’s full of big mouths,’ he answered, gritting his teeth at being jealous so early on. ‘People have dirty minds, that’s all I can say.’

  ‘He knows a thing or two, though, Johnny Wiley.’

  ‘I’m not going out with anybody,’ he told her. They walked side by side, and she didn’t seem to mind. To make an impression he had to spill an interesting piece of news or gossip, as Johnny Wiley had done. Then maybe she’d remember it, and repeat that too. It would be one sort of step forward at least. ‘I went out with Doreen Buckle, but we got fed up with each other. Her old man came back early from the pub and caught us in the house alone. We was only watching the box. But he put a stop to it. You know how it is.’

  ‘That was her excuse,’ Mavis said. ‘She made up lies for all I know. But she blabbed out to everybody that she got fed up with you.’

  He knew he should have spun off some lurid and filthy tale about Johnny Wiley, instead of telling her about his own dull self, both to get his revenge and to make her more interested in him. But he hadn’t thought to lie, because it didn’t seem necessary. Even if it was he wouldn’t bother. Some people were too idle to tell lies, and he-felt this was true of him.

  But he was narked by the accuracy of her news: ‘Why do they spill it all to you?’

  She didn’t respond, and he thought they confided so much in her because they never imagined she’d repeat what they said – with that quiet way of hers. Or she was so young they got kicks out of shocking her. He hadn’t noticed that she had that sort of face, but the idea began to intrigue him. On the other hand, maybe her soft voice brought it out of them. ‘I ought to keep my trap shut,’ he added, putting an arm around her.

  ‘You can if you like,’ she said, meaning it would make no difference. ‘We’d better get a move on or we won’t catch the others up.’

  ‘Not that I want to.’

  ‘I do,’ she jibed, ‘with you hanging round me.’ But she didn’t shake his arm off, nor walk more quickly when the gang in front flowed round a corner.

  Meeting her towards the end of a rainy winter they went to a snack bar and ate cheese cobs with a cup of coffee.

  The place was empty but for them, which made her less shy than if it’d been full. But it was the first time he’d got her so much on her own, and he could see she was uneasy about it. He wondered if that was why he liked her, for if she was nervous there was something worth getting to know, especially when she spoke softly as well. Other such girls, he’d found, were often pan-mouths, shouting and snapping all around the place, and that sort could go and jump over a high wall with glass on top as far as he was concerned.

  Mavis ate her cheese cob and said nothing, and that was the trouble because being so quiet it was up to him to talk, and he’d never been very good at that, especially with girls. So trust him to fall for one that needed the lipwork from him. But he hoped she might improve one day, and that the odds would equalize.

  ‘Cob all right, duck?’

  She wiped a crumb from her mouth. ‘I’m not hungry, but it tastes good. I like not eating at home for a change. They tease me summat rotten, just because I’m the youngest. I’m fed up of it.’

  That’s why she’s quiet and hangs back. Never gets a word in edgeways because she can’t stand being chaffed. ‘We’ll go out and have a proper dinner some-time,’ he said. ‘I know a nice café up Pelham Street.’

  ‘We could do,’ she smiled.

  He told her about his father getting ready to move to Leicester, which meant he’d be shifting that way as well.

  ‘When’s this?’ she asked.

  ‘In a couple of months.’

  ‘There’s no castle at Leicester,’ she said.

  ‘What difference does that make?’

  ‘Nor a river, either.’

  ‘So what?’

  ‘It ain’t got no middle then, has it?’

  ‘Know-all!’ he laughed. ‘When did you go there? I’ve never seen you down there.’

  ‘That’s what everybody says.’

  ‘You don’t believe everybody, do you?’ he scorned.

  ‘It’s not as good as Nottingham, I’m sure.’

  She took his move more seriously than necessary, as if weighing up the points of living there herself. Then he knew he was imagining things. You always did if something was too good to be true. But it frightened him a bit, so he got back to reality: ‘Anybody’d think it was my fault Leicester wasn’t up to much.’

  Maybe it wasn’t. His father had snapped up the chance to go there, not only for a better job, but because Alec’s sister had got pregnant. A change of place would stop all talk about her, and get her away from the man who was still pestering her but couldn’t marry her because he’d already got a wife and kids of his own.

  Mavis didn’t answer. Nothing was his fault; nothing was her fault. Getting her into a café and away from the others meant he could sit opposite and take his time seeing her plain. You had to see somebody like that before you could view them in any way at all, and when you did see them clear you could tell whe
ther there was anything there or not. It was hard to do outside because she was mostly in shadow or never still, or the others were jumping around and pulling at them to go here or there. And while kissing, they were too close to see each other.

  He’d known his sister was pregnant even before his parents twigged it. A certain warmth came into her, a particular and not unpleasant smell as he passed her, plus a sudden weariness in her eyes at something like terror as she tried to subdue a good feeling she felt might gain the upper hand but ought not to.

  He watched Mavis. Her lids were heavy and her eyes looked down, her lips still but always as if about to break into the smallest of sly smiles. Yet at the same time it seemed as if her face were made of stone.

  It stopped raining, so they walked down Alfreton Road. He put his arm over her back and around her waist, noticing how small she was. Other girls had latched their arm about him as well at this stage, but Mavis didn’t, emphasizing perhaps that with her it was no game, rather some sort of going out together that might have more seriousness in it. He realized with an inner laugh how hope latched on to nothing.

  ‘I suppose you’ll be away for good,’ she said, ‘when you go to Leicester.’

  ‘I expect so. But it’s a stone’s throw. I went there on my bike a couple of months ago, and it only took two hours.’

  She laughed in a way he didn’t like, and wasn’t meant to. ‘You aren’t going to come on your bike and see me, are you? All that way!’

  ‘There’s a train. A bike ’ud be handy if I missed the last one, though.’

  ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘that wain’t happen. It’ll be funny – if you do come to see me on a bike.’

  There were times when he just couldn’t fathom her, when she wasn’t friendly and made him wonder why she bothered to meet him in the first place. It seemed the world glittered so much for her that a bike was old-fashioned and out of place, like a horse-and-cart on a motorway.

  The only test was when he tried to kiss her a few doors up from where she lived. The first time he’d got nothing out of her, but now the kiss was good and sweet, as if she’d been dreading it but liked it when it came.

  She let him have most when on the back row of the Saturday-night pictures, where it was all right because nobody could see them. It was the only time she showed a bit of passion, and didn’t always shift his hand when he put it under her coat and over her breasts. But the further they went together in the cinema the cooler she was when they got outside.

  Now that he’d broken the ice all the lads of the gang were after her, whereas a month ago she’d been too young and remote and set apart to bother with, protected by her sister and her own quiet scorn. At the club Pete Whatton would come up behind and try to kiss her, or make a grab for her in other places. But the uproar from her sister stopped it, drowning the words that Mavis quietly spat back. If Alec was there he bumped Pete or anybody else away, threatening to blaze a red trail with them across town.

  So Mavis, now desired, stood her ground among them, and knowing she was safe from all and sundry gave her face a livelier look, an expression that made the kisses for Alec more than marvellous because they were for him alone, though there wasn’t always the warmth behind them that he would have liked.

  They got on a bus and went up Trent Valley to Southwell. Why he took her there he didn’t know. He’d never been himself, had merely seen it marked on his brother’s one-inch walking map and thought it a good place to make arrangements for since it seemed to be out in the country among lots of fields.

  The bus called at villages along the river, and though spring was far on by the calendar it was only just coming in fact, water at half-flood lifting the edge of its leaden grey line up towards the narrow road, a cold wind flapping from the opposite direction unable to beat it back. Darkly packed trees on the other side went right up the steep line of hills, and he wished they’d gone that way instead, where the cover seemed better.

  They walked from the bus stop back to the Minster, which he felt they must look into because he’d often heard about it. He’d never bothered with churches, yet liked the look of this one, possibly because Mavis was with him, a reason that made him feel stupid, as if threatening him with something he not only didn’t understand but also disliked.

  ‘That’s an old gravestone,’ she said, when they were in the churchyard. She took his hand. ‘It’s worn already, and he wasn’t buried more than sixty years ago.’

  ‘Look at this one then: he was only twenty-four. Gives me another seven years!’

  ‘Cheerful,’ she said. ‘I want somebody who’s going to last.’

  ‘Don’t worry about that, duck! I’ll live to be a hundred.’

  ‘All right, duck,’ she mocked. He’d only said it in fun, but noticed how she often used his own jokes, which she pretended not to understand, just to get back at him.

  He liked the Minster, pleased it wasn’t a city church but one placed on its own, an island among green lawns. You could walk all round it, see every angle of its middle tower and two end pinnacles.

  ‘Are you going in then, or aren’t you?’ she said with a smile, as if he needed dragging through the door.

  ‘Can I carry you across the threshold?’

  ‘We aren’t going to live in it, dope! Anyway, you’d drop me.’

  ‘Yes,’ he said, holding the wooden door open for her, ‘it’s a lovely hard floor!’

  They walked around the walls, a few feet apart. He saw how the sun shone through the small panes of plain windows. Other people were about, but far off down the nave. He went quietly behind and tried to kiss her.

  ‘Stop it.’ She swung away more quickly than he thought necessary. ‘We’re in a church.’

  ‘It’s all right. I’ve never been christened.’

  ‘Leave me alone,’ she hissed, buttoning her coat against the cold.

  He felt stalled and irritated, though this feeling went when they strolled into the Chapter House. He reached it first, and stood by himself. He knew it was a beautiful place, the round room and arched ceiling, built so cleverly he couldn’t think how and soon stopped trying to. Looking up and out of the small windows of plain glass he could see the indistinct shapes of the rest of the cathedral, clouds floating by in the light of the sky, like some magic scene which he knew was particular to the spot where he stood.

  Mavis walked around the room, looking at each wooden seat specially built for the prelates of the neighbouring parishes. He read them aloud as he walked, feeling flippant now that Mavis had come into the room. He sat on a seat that had no village name: ‘They must have kept this one for me!’

  She was about to smile at his antic, but her expression changed to one of fury. ‘Get up,’ she cried.

  ‘What?’

  ‘Why don’t you get up?’

  He was puzzled at her rage. ‘I like it. It fits me.’

  ‘Somebody’ll see you.’

  ‘I’ve got as much right to sit in it as anybody,’ he retorted.

  ‘You’re the end,’ she said. ‘Mocking things.’

  She walked out quickly, ahead of him.

  He caught her up at the door. ‘I’m not serious. It was only a bit of fun.’

  She smiled when they were in the sunlight. ‘It’s a nice church.’

  Her bad mood had vanished.

  ‘It is,’ he agreed, taking her arm, and sweating inwardly because you never knew where you were with her.

  They bought two Mars bars and walked into the fields. The grass was dark and rich, but cold looking.

  ‘We went biking last year,’ she said, ‘and you should have seen the things that went on. It was hot, and Whitsun. We ate our stuff up Gotham Hills, and must have stayed a couple of hours. I was bored but they wouldn’t come away. Everybody was in the bushes except me.’

  He laughed. ‘I wish I’d been there. Then we could have taken a turn. Just for a lie down. You need a bit of rest after biking out from Nottingham.’

  ‘Our Helen had it
off Johnny Wiley.’

  ‘How do you know?’

  She took the Mars bar from her pocket, peeled off the paper, and bit a third of it away. ‘You could tell, that’s all.’ Then she wrapped up the rest and put it back for later. ‘The way they crept out … They could hardly bike home.’

  ‘You don’t miss much, do you?’ The tone of her voice hadn’t indicated whether she was telling it as a hint not to do anything like that with her, or whether she was trying to work herself into letting him do as he wanted.

  It was hard to say, when you weren’t sure what was in the offing, so they walked without talking. He cursed himself for his silence, knowing she thought he’d taken her tale as a warning. Wanting to break it, but unable to, made him feel worse. There were things to say but his mouth was full of concrete. He’d expected this before coming on the trip, and all week he’d been storing tales in his mind to tell her, but now he’d forgotten them.

  The sun came out. He took her hand and it was warm, slightly sticky from the sweets she had eaten.

  ‘Maybe we’ll go biking at Easter,’ he said. ‘Just the two of us. I can’t stand going in a big crowd with all the others.’

  ‘I’ve got an aunt at Blidworth,’ she told hm. ‘We could ride up there. It’s not far, but it’s hard in a wind. She might give us a piece of cake. She makes ever such good cake.’

  ‘I went to Worksop last year,’ he said, to prove it wasn’t beyond him. ‘Twenty-seven miles, each way. Coming back I got a puncture and there was still twelve miles to get home.’

  He stopped talking, to find a way for them through a hedge. A twig stuck up his sleeve, and he pulled it free.

  ‘Anyway, I thought I’d better mend it, and called at a farm to ask for a bowl of water so’s I could find the bubble in the inner tube.’

  ‘You aren’t back’ards at coming forward.’

 
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