New and Collected Stories, p.48Alan Sillitoe
‘She was a nice woman, and put one outside for me. Had an apron on and wore glasses. Even gave me a cup of tea after I’d fixed it up.’
‘I expect there was a lot of sugar in it,’ she said, tartly.
‘Stacks. Sweet as honey.’
They stopped near the hill top, a straight line of dark wood in front. ‘Nearly as sweet as you are.’ When he kissed her she held herself stiffly.
‘Don’t you like it?’ He sifted through his past life for another story to tell.
She said: ‘Don’t be daft’ in such a way he was no wiser, but he kissed her again till she slipped aside and said they ought to get on or they’d be seen. You never knew who was chiking around.
The field was empty, and he couldn’t see anything except green stubble, and sky with the odd hole of blue in it, blue flame drawing itself out and pulling more behind. It made him dizzy to look too long. It was a queer feeling, because though you felt alone in an empty field you couldn’t be sure that the hedges surrounding it weren’t filled with people. He disliked her mood leaping over on to him, having noticed how skilled she was at giving it a push.
There was no wind to disturb them, but she trod warily into the wood – as if afraid of snakes or toadstools. ‘I don’t know why you’re bringing me here. There aren’t any bluebells yet.’
‘Are you frightened of being seen?’
Her sharp denial told him that she was, yet it annoyed him that he couldn’t finally be sure what unease was gripping her. ‘Where else can we go? It’s a change from the field. Would you like to live in the country?’
The path was muddy in places, and he guided her to the drier ridges. ‘It’s all right for an outing,’ she said. ‘I like pavements best.’ It was green and dark, with a strong smell of soft bark and rotting ferns, soil, and hidden water. ‘Let’s get out of it.’
Like a good city dweller he’d noted the way in, and soon they were on the lane going downhill. There was a brook at the bottom, and it was hard getting her across. Being sarcastic and quiet of voice, and so cool towards him he thought she was the same with everyone else, she was finally physically timid when it came to distances, and brooks, and going into woods.
When he kissed her on the other side she clung to him. He was surprised and glad, and thought he was getting somewhere at last, but tried not to think of it in this way because it didn’t tally with the holier feeling of love that swept in and took him over. Her body was hot through both their coats, and her kisses so firm it was difficult to get breath.
They walked towards a hedge and lay on his mackintosh in the driest part, grappling with such force they could not even kiss, clinging as if falling down through space and terrified at the impact that was coming soon.
They caught the bus from Thurgarton, and the city lights were on by the time it dragged up Carlton Hill. She sat on the inside seat, arm in his and head on his shoulder.
There was no doubt they loved each other, and though she hadn’t exactly said so while they were by that hedge, he himself had murmured it a dozen times – which seemed to make up for it. He nevertheless wondered whether she hadn’t held him so fiercely because such a grip would stop her getting the words out, though words, he knew, pushing his misgivings away at the expense of his better judgement, could not express everything. You had to take account, when all was said and done, of how people acted and the feelings shown that could never be mistaken.
They had lain by the hedge for a couple of hours, hands roaming at every part of each other, though they hadn’t, as the gang phrase went, ‘had it’. Because of this the sweet passion still lingering between them was more like real love than when he’d gone all the way with other girls.
During his half-hour walk home from a brief kiss of goodbye at the end of the street where she lived, and a promise to meet in a few days at the club, he felt a strange disheartenment gnawing underneath the incredible ebullient happiness that carried him along.
He saw her little in the next six weeks, and knew from the loud hearsay bandied about that she was going now and again with George Butler, and even that he had ‘had it off her’. When more names were mentioned to her fast-maturing credit he was determined not to let grass grow under his feet. The fresh dates he made with other girls carried him further in a week than he’d got in months with her. But it wasn’t the same, and he was tormented by her face, her soft voice, and dark hair.
Her smile at him was knowing and friendly, and promised less than when it had been cold and she had wanted him to do all the talking. It was true he was going to Leicester in a few weeks, but he did not see what that had to do with it, for with trains all day he could see her so often she wouldn’t know the difference.
She had taken to using lipstick, and her voice had not the same pull-back into her own quiet centre. Her sister didn’t come to her aid any more because there was no need to. This made little difference because she had still not become one of the loud and merry talkers, but when she hung back there was more confidence in it, almost as if she did it for a purpose. It seemed now that anybody could take her out, and this included Alec, because when he asked her to come to the café in Pelham Street she agreed.
They sat in a corner of the hushed and modern room, and Mavis said how nice a place it was, and that if ever she got married this was the sort of decoration she wanted for the front room of her house.
Her gaze was drawn by the coloured shade of the lamp whose light fixed itself on her cheeks and the soft coating of make-up she had put there. The faint smell of it drifting across reminded him of the presence of his aunts when they came for a visit as a child. It was disturbing, and he wished she hadn’t taken to lipstick and powder because of this faint connection with the dimness of years gone by.
‘When do you go?’
‘Next week,’ he said. ‘But I’ll come up and see you, you know that.’
If she had said. ‘Shall you?’ it would have sounded more encouraging. But she didn’t, and that was that. He picked up the card: ‘Let’s have some soup. All right?’
She wore a white blouse with a wide collar, which made her look broader and older. ‘If you like.’
‘I’ll be up to see you, you can bet.’ He saw it was a mistake to repeat it, as if he were trying to convince himself, not her.
‘Next weekend. I’ve got a job already. The pay’s even better than here.’
She folded her paper serviette into triangles, until she couldn’t make it any smaller. ‘What do they make?’
‘Electrical stuff. Same as where I’m at now.’
‘I wish I was going away.’
‘Where would you go?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said.
He wouldn’t come at the weekend, even though she didn’t draw her hand away when he reached under the table.
‘I might not be in when you come,’ she added. ‘I might be out. I might not want to see you’ – and he wondered why she went on teasing him like this.
‘I love you,’ he said, blind to everything. ‘You know that, don’t you?’ He meant it, he told himself, and knew it to be more true than anything he’d ever said, which was why it would be so hard to come and see her, in case she wasn’t there, as she had threatened.
She took her hand away. ‘Are you sure?’
He had a feeling, and hoped he was wrong, and ended up knowing he was wrong, that she had only come out to supper with him because she was making a story from it like that sloppy sort in magazines he’d seen her with. It was something in her eyes that told him this, and the way her lips were about to move but never did when she looked at him. Her head was always slightly turned when she opened her mouth.
After a few days in Leicester he got a note saying she’d like it very much if they never saw each other again.
There wasn’t an hour that she was out of his thoughts. He even dreamed about her when he’d hardly ever dreamed in
Going with other girls wasn’t the same, and there was less talent to click with because he didn’t feel like it. Even when there was they sensed a lack in him, or lost interest because something which griped at his heart would bode no good for them. He seemed too different, wasn’t all there, and so nothing lasted. Not that he wanted it to.
A fair-looking blonde girl with a mole on her neck talked to him at work, and they started going out together. She was nice and pleasant, and open in everything she said, letting him go all the way with her providing he took the trouble to stop her getting pregnant.
He was surprised she could find much to stick with in a person like him, but he was struck most of all by what she said when they were walking back one night from the field they’d been making love in: ‘I like you because you don’t say much in a loud-mouthed way, like some of the chaps at our place. You talk quiet, and I like that.’
The next day was Saturday and he could stand it no longer. He got on a train for Nottingham.
He took a bus from Midland Station, and changed to another in the town centre, already feeling better at being closer to Mavis. From the top deck he looked at places where they’d walked a year ago – and might again if she felt in any small way for him as he did for her.
In the old days he’d never actually gone to her house and knocked at the door to ask if she was in. He didn’t know how she’d take such brashness, but it was the only thing he could do. As he got closer he was afraid of having nothing to say when they came face to face, but she might not be at home anyway, at which he thought of several things, mostly daft and unimportant, but at least he wouldn’t be rooted there like a dumb gawk.
The familiar air encouraged him, together with his heart pushing at the inside of his best suit. It would be better to go to the back door so as to cause least disturbance, and she’d get more quickly to that than the front, anyway, so that if the worst happened and she slammed it in his face it would be over quickly. It was pointless wasting time on something that harrowed you so much.
He had an impulse to run, as if the boiling surf of hell were waiting to pull him in. But his legs, more determined than they’d ever been, took him along the entry where he opened the wooden gate with its rusty latch.
His knee-joints seized up in hesitation, then got to work and took him by the coalhouse and lavatory till there was nothing he could do but get a tight hand from his pocket and knock at the door. Even then he thought of going away, until wrenched by the alarming noise of his knuckles tapping a second time on the wood. He noticed how paint was blistering on the middle panel.
It would be better if her sister Helen came to the door, and he started to rephrase his greetings just in case. It might even be one of her parents.
The door opened and Mavis stood before him, leaning towards one of the lintels.
At least it appeared to be her, and he stared a bit too hard for anybody to feel pleased at him suddenly turning up. She wore heels that made her seem taller. ‘I thought I’d come to say hello,’ he said, ‘being in Nottingham a few days.’
She was almost fat, he saw while waiting for an answer, or a formal greeting at least. Her lips and cheeks were heavily made up, and he could smell it where he stood. Arms showed plump from the shortened sleeves of her damson-coloured sweater.
She was looking at him in the hope that he would vanish, a petulant expression on her lips as if wondering why he’d got the cheek to come knocking at her door and imagine she would go out with somebody like him.
‘Do you want to come for a drink tonight?’ he said.
She must have a regular boyfriend, for the look he was given could mean nothing else. Her eyes seemed to get smaller at the flush of sharp resentment on her cheeks, and he wondered in fact whether there wasn’t a youth in the house at this moment with whom she had been about to make love.
He knew she still saw herself as the much-wanted dark beauty of good figure and small stature, and he twigged that because of this she thought he had no right to come pestering her. But to him she had changed so much as to be almost a different person, while she still considered herself to be worth more than him and able to do twenty times better. It was clear that she did not know how much she had altered. It made him sorry for himself, but sorrier for her, which did nothing therefore to damp down his love.
He said to himself, after another quick glance directly into her eyes, that even so, even if she was, though he couldn’t be finally sure she was pregnant, he’d keep on going out with her if she was only half-way willing but nevertheless wanted to, and even marry her if she thought it might be a good way out of her trouble.
She broke her silence, and he knew she hadn’t sensed anything of what was in his mind. Her world was miles away from him and his. ‘I don’t want to go out with you.’
He made one last try: ‘Can’t you?’
She closed the door even before he reached the gate.
It gave him something to think about on his way back to the station, to brood on for months afterwards till he forgot her or, to be more truthful, remembered her only as he’d recall a dream, the final blow of it leading to the earlier time when he’d thought she was the first and last and only girl he had been in love with.
When the train was ready to leave he was certain there’d be no chance of her hurrying down the stone steps to call him back and say anything it might do him the least bit good to hear.
He opened his sandwich pack when the train began, and sat back to think about where he’d gone wrong. He considered that twenty-five miles was long enough to do it in – not yet knowing he would never lose that feeling of having loved in vain, and would hardly realize through the years that followed where the strength came from that he grew to need.
Yet a presentiment of this led him to wonder whether everything that had happened to Mavis could be blamed on him, and he decided against it when the pit that opened was too deep and black.
‘What would you rather have to keep you warm, my little pee-thing, or a new fur coat?’ Ken whispered to his girl-friend in the fertile darkness of a double entry.
‘Your little pee-thing,’ she giggled, which pleased him so much he gave her a fur coat as well.
The trouble was that while he was still paying for the fur coat on hire purchase his little pee-thing gave her a baby, so he had to marry her and be done with it.
If he’d been a few years older she’d have been young enough to be his daughter. He wouldn’t have minded, but she wasn’t even pretty, and soon looked as old as he was, which served him right for getting carried away in the first place.
He didn’t like things to happen so fast. When they did he got angry and wanted to go to sleep. Perhaps that’s because he had been twelve years in the army and without a trouble in the world, a time when nothing happened that was his own fault.
Even four years as a prisoner of the Japanese wasn’t on his conscience, so it hadn’t really happened, except that he knew it had. You could blame the bleeding generals for that. Such people were the same in civvy street or out. The managing director of the firm he worked at had a face similar to the CO of his old battalion.
Ken had fought like a mad bastard. In an attack he’d scream louder than the Japs, and couldn’t forget the contemptuous look from his platoon commander as they were moving between the rubber trees. The next thing was, he’d snuffed it, and Ken didn’t stop to pick him up or turn to see if he was only wounded.
He remembered sitting by a tree eating the last of his rations, and when a Jap stood over him with fixed bayonet what could he do but offer some? He cracked the butt on top of his head though, and took the lot, which Ken supposed he’d have done in his place anyway.
He lost half h
His teeth went and his hair got thin, but six months back in lovely old Nottingham and he was as right as rain. It’s funny how quick you change from good to bad. Other way as well, I dare say. But he never wanted to go through that lot again, knowing there are things in a man’s life he can’t survive twice. You could tell by his face that he used to be an optimist.
All he had to show for nearly four years was a cigarette lighter taken from a Japanese guard when the war ended. Looting was forbidden by the British officers. It simply wasn’t done. You had to leave it for them to do. But he chased the Jap into the bush and beat the living shit out of him to get that lighter. He’d been weak enough at the time, with only a fortnight’s good grub in him, but with fists so full of greed and vengeance nothing could stop them.
It was a fine-looking gold-plated titbit, fit to last a lifetime. Even now it was a good igniter, wind or no wind, though he’d had it repaired a few times since.
He was thirty when he came back, and looked fifty. Now he appeared the fifty that he was, a small muscular man with short curly hair that had grown like a miracle as soon as he got home to the land of rain and fog. He worked for a firm that baled waste paper from local factories and sent it off to be repulped. He screwed the press-top as high as it would go, piled in the rammel, and pushed the button that formed it into a compact bale and laced it up with wire. Then he released it from its box, and hauled out as neat a cube as any man could who’d been so long on the job.
So because of his pee-thing twenty years ago he’d had to marry her, and if it hadn’t been for his mother dying of the shock of it, or near enough in time for him to think so, they wouldn’t have had a house to live in.
He’d craved for his life to settle into a long routine, but the child he married her for had died at birth. Another didn’t come for three more years, a girl who was now fifteen, so buxom and sloppy he’d have to keep an eye on her, though she’d already had one boyfriend from what he had seen.
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