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New and collected storie.., p.49
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       New and Collected Stories, p.49

           Alan Sillitoe

  But he was no angel either, and his marriage had been on the run a few times since, when the mutton-dagger dance came at him. Standing by his press at work he thought the only solution was to have it cut off, but then he got to wondering what he’d pee with if it was.

  ‘That’s what frightens me,’ he said to his mates in the pub, throwing his last dart and missing the double-seven down from three-o-one which would have wiped the floor with them in one deft stroke. ‘Otherwise I’d have the bloody thing done tomorrow.’

  On a warm evening in June he stood up from the hearth and told his wife not to forget to feed the canary because he was going to the pub for an hour or two.

  ‘Don’t get drunk,’ she said, ‘and try not to be too late. It’s work tomorrow. I expect I’ll be in bed by the time you get home.’

  Such orders satisfied them, because even though everything was dead between them, at least they understood each other. He would be glad of some fresh air, and she to see the back of him till morning.

  The collar of his white shirt was spread outside his jacket, and he smoked a cigarette contentedly. Alone and on the loose he felt at peace, as if he’d swallowed a dose of pep-pills young kids talk about.

  Girls he passed on the street looked fresh and smart, jolly dollies with lovely joggletits pushing their blouses out, sights that bucked him up so much he felt like singing and not being responsible for his actions. Yet the only thing left for such a runagate as himself if he craved a bit on the side was a juiceless old dawn-plucker for thirty bob who might put the finishing touches on him. It was best to walk the streets and look at it, for all the harm it did.

  Fifty if he was a day, he felt fourteen and hoped he looked it to young girls he winked at in passing – but so faintly they might have thought he’d gone a bit rheumy at the eyes and couldn’t help himself. Maybe all men of his age felt young enough to be their own sons. What a shame that at fourteen he hadn’t realized how they saw themselves as no older than he was then, and didn’t know much more about the world.

  They only tricked you into thinking they did by putting on a swank about it, wearing their age or grey hairs like the corporal his stripes in the army. Now he was in the same boat and felt as if, on his way up through the orphanage and army, marriage and factory, he’d not been allowed to grow older properly like some people he knew.

  It was the best part of the year, a calm summer evening when everybody had stopped work, and time had put its brakes on so that he would live for ever. When you had that feeling what could you do but think of love and let your little pee-thing stir?

  One small cloud dented the sky, but on reaching the hilltop at Canning Circus it had gone, as if sucked in by the Trent and blown out to sea. He didn’t feel like going into a pub, being held from such human joshing on an evening that seemed too good to waste. Something in his chemical set-up made him already half merry to himself, but it was a faint inebriation caused through a definite lack, and not from having had too much of anything.

  People sat around Slab Square, and after a leisurely patrol he went down Wheeler Gate, but not too fast, nor looking into the sky. It was the wrong side of the city to bump into any friends, which seemed a good reason for coming here, then crossing the canal and going on by the station. He thought how good it would be to meet an old flame who would suddenly turn a corner and say: ‘Hey up, Kenny, how are you, my duck?’ – especially if neither of them had grown a day older.

  It wasn’t likely. Not widow, wife, or whore with a door to knock on in the whole dead-beat district, nothing to stir the entrails of the heart in this or any other part of town during the last few years.

  It was more than that he wanted. It must have been, because he couldn’t think what it was. A young chap walked from the bus stop with two suitcases, into the station to take a train somewhere.

  He wondered what other town he’d get to, and saw him reaching it in two hours time, a strange place whose streets he didn’t know, smelling of bus fumes and dust. He’d get a room at a boarding house and sleep content in a different bed, rising early in the morning to go out and look for a job. Or maybe he had pals where he was going, or his family, or even a girl friend.

  He walked faster at such questions since he had no hope of answering them, though he felt happier at speculating on the life of one man who was travelling, for it made the world bigger and more interesting, and he less alone in it. If people could still get on trains there was a chance for him yet, though he knew he would never catch one himself because he didn’t need to strongly enough.

  He only wanted to go where he was walking, but where that was he didn’t know, except that his steps took him to a beer-off with a fading sign painted on a sheet of tin above the door saying: ‘CAKES PASTRIES SWEETS AND MINERALS.’ During a guarded walk from the orphanage in the olden days such a placard would have made his mouth water, but now it only brought back the memory of his early times.

  With a comforting chink of cupro-nickel in his pocket he went in for a packet of cigarettes. The meaty smell of ale and cooked ham reminded him that he hadn’t yet supped his nightly pint, but he preferred to wait till it was dark so as to get the full benefit of leaving the shadowy street and entering the lighted guts of a pub.

  It was nine o’clock and almost dusk by the time he leaned on the parapet of Trent Bridge. A streak of snake-yellow lay in the western sky, and the river glistened below as if it had a deep black sky of its own.

  He’d had a short life so far, even though he’d done so much of it. It had passed him by in big chunks that now seemed no time at all. Every change had been set off by a hidden fuse. When he was three his father left his mother, so she put him into Bulwell Hall orphanage till he was fifteen because she couldn’t afford to keep him. Then she brought him out so that he could go to work and earn her some money. A few years later she got into bed with him one morning saying: ‘I’ve loved you ever since you was a baby, Kenny.’ The next day he joined the army.

  He didn’t know why he thought of it now, though it never left him. Other knocks were too recent to be considered. Perhaps they really hadn’t mattered all that much, he thought, letting his fag-end drop into the sky below.

  He crossed the road and went down a lane along the river bank. A breeze shaking in from the countryside made him feel colder than he’d done all day. His eyes got used to the darkness and he noticed how the twilight was lasting. Away from the river he could make out hedges, and hummocks of grass.

  A courting couple lingered by a bush, arms around each other as they moved into one shape. Ken knelt to tie the shoelace that had bothered him since leaving the bridge, his eyes level on the two people, a clump of osiers keeping him hidden. The shadow came apart and he squinted as if to bring it closer.

  Satisfied that no one was nearby, the man spread his overcoat. ‘What are we up to then?’ Ken wondered. ‘As if I didn’t know!’ The girl must have sat down also, for they went out of sight for another kiss.

  He wanted to clear his throat, but the trundling river some way behind wasn’t loud enough to hide the noise he would make. A pint of beer would ease his gullet, but he was too intent on going forward, knees bent, hands splayed as if about to fall on all fours and push himself through the grass as he had once done so skilfully in the Malayan jungle. You don’t forget anything, he thought, and that’s a fact, wanting to light a cigarette but having to postpone that too till later.

  A rustling from close by sounded as if an animal were stirring itself before making up its mind to lumber out and get him. Over the field was a thin white moon when he lifted his head.

  The man was on top of the woman, and one of her white legs showed plainly, the almost luminous flesh moving about like a dismembered part of her. They were murmuring as they made love, and he craved to hear what was being said, as much as see what was done, because he never spoke at such times, leaving it to the woman if she felt that way.

  He took the lighter from his pocket, to comfort the palm of his hand w
ith a compact and metal object that worked to perfection and asked no questions. It helped to calm him at something he hadn’t done since a child when, escaping for an hour from playtime at the orphanage, he had chiked a courting couple in the woods near by.

  He felt guilty at chiking, and thought he should go back before the pubs put their towels on. The only sound was one of mutual appreciation going out to the moon. They must love each other, considering how they moaned while at it. He wondered what he sounded like at home, though not being able to chike himself it was something he’d never know.

  The lighter rolled in his palm. He wanted to stop it and press the top, see its flame spurt into a yellow shape and glow on the damp grass that was wetting his trousers at the knee-cap. Though it might warm his windbitten face it would give the game away.

  They went on longer than him, and didn’t complain at the chill. He made up his mind to pull back and go but was fixed in their act and unable to move. His eyes grew large, outweighed his body and rooted him there.

  A light drizzle blew across the fields. They ended suddenly and the man stood up. Half-way to his own feet Ken felt the lighter slide from his hand.

  He glanced at the couple to make sure they had finished. The man turned but, thinking he was some low bush that had grown while they were making love, or seeing nothing strange because the details of the landscape had failed to impress him while searching for a place to lie down, he turned back to ask the girl if she was all right.

  Ken ran his hand through the grass to pick up his lighter. It was time to make his secret retreat. But he didn’t want to go. He was happy enough to stay there for ever.

  The girl was smoothing her skirt: ‘We’ll be late.’

  Late for what? he wondered, his hand moving quickly to look for his lighter. They were kissing again, in a subdued and tender mood, and he paused in case he might miss something, then hoped they would get down a few more minutes so that he could search for his lighter without being seen.

  Extending the area, he lost the exact spot where he supposed he had dropped it. Swearing, he sent his arms in wider circles, half on his feet as if for a better view of what was too dark to see anyway.

  He stood up and kicked at the grass he had been lying on, longing to feel its gentle knock against his toecap.

  ‘There’s somebody there,’ the girl said, in a voice of shame and alarm. ‘He’s been there all the time,’ she wailed. ‘Look!’

  ‘Hey you, you bastard,’ a gruff voice called, responding to her clear invitation to get him.

  Ken would normally have squared whoever named him such a thing into a similar pulverized shape to that which came out of his press when he had given it the works. But it was raining, and who could be bothered at such a time? Having watched them at their games, he’d rather not show his face – though what could they expect but get looked at if they did it in the open?

  There was a rushing of feet through the grass: ‘Come ’ere, you dirty bleeding chiker.’

  He felt he ought to run, but could not do a thing like that. A grip latched at his elbow, more than any man could bear who was out on a harmless walk before going into a pub for his evening pint. He swung, and caught the man a full hard blow in the stomach.

  ‘Oh Bill!’ the girl cried, as if she had felt the pain of it, and now thinking that a chiker might be more dangerous than her boyfriend seemed to.

  The fact that Ken’s solid fist landed where it did, when he had meant it for a higher place, showed how much taller the man was. He had time to wonder not only why he hadn’t run when there was still a chance, but why he had strayed by the river at all.

  He brooded afterwards. Being taller, the man had the advantage of a longer reach, apart from being half his age. He took Ken by the lapels and lammed into him, not just out of revenge for the first strike which, Ken felt as the stars spun, must have been feeble by comparison, but also because he had moral right on his side at having been disturbed in his sweet evening fuck on the grass.

  Ken fell under the vicious hailstorm, and the man stood with fists poised for when he should get up. ‘I’ll kill you,’ he said.

  At the feel of wet blood and flesh on fire Ken stayed kneeling, afraid the man might actually try to. ‘I was looking for my lighter,’ he explained. ‘I lost my lighter.’

  ‘Tell me another, you chiker. You chiker!’ – and he aimed a screaming kick that knocked him flat.

  The girl pulled his arm: ‘Leave him, Bill. He’s just a rotten animal. They can’t help it.’

  ‘I ought to throw him in the river.’

  ‘Oh shut up, and come on.’

  They went away, arguing.

  Things were never as bad as they seemed, though the pain told him that they almost were. He stood up when the couple were beyond sight and earshot and walked back to where he had lain. He couldn’t find his lighter in a month of Sundays, nor ever recognize the man who had bashed him up. Revenge was out of the question, a desolate sensation.

  He smoothed his jacket, glancing around in case the man in his poisonous rage was waiting to paste him once more. But he was alone, and dipped his handkerchief in a pool to wipe his face. Got in a fight in a pub, he said on his way to the bridge. Gave the bastard what-for. I know I’m bruised, but you should see his mangled clock. Lighter? Got my pocket picked. I’ll have to get a new one. I was fed up with it, anyway.

  Talking thus to his wife, or even his mates at work, he walked into the lights to get the last bus home, feeling far away from any convivial pub.

  The usual lamp post didn’t shine, because somebody had put its bulb out the night before, but going towards home it felt as if the scalding burn of its filament had been transferred to his own flesh. The window was in darkness, so it seemed everybody was in bed.

  From the pavement the front door opened straight into the parlour, and pressing the light-switch he saw Janice lying under her boyfriend on the settee. The place stank so much it nearly pushed him back into the street.

  They straightened themselves. Janice, expecting him to rant and bawl, was more frightened the longer he kept quiet. Usually so talkative, he held his face at an angle, not wanting to take in what he plainly saw, even though it only heightened the bruises on his cheeks and forehead.

  ‘What’s wrong with your face, dad?’

  ‘I saw you,’ he cried, his hand brushing her question away as if it were a troublesome fly.

  ‘We was lying down,’ said Bernard, a youth who lived a few doors along the street.

  ‘Is that what you call it?’

  ‘What did it look like?’

  ‘Less o’ your bloody cheek!’ But he hung his jacket on the back of the door with a gesture that took the bite from his words and made Janice think it might yet be all right.

  She straightened her skirt: ‘I don’t see what you’ve got to shout about.’

  ‘It stinks like a brothel.’ He turned to Bernard: ‘Get out, you.’

  ‘I was going to make him a cup of tea,’ his daughter said.

  Ken reached her quickly and the sound of his smack at her face bounced from the four walls right back against him. ‘Pick up your pants, you filthy bitch!’

  ‘I’m not a filthy bitch,’ she wept, reaching down to the settee.

  ‘Touch her once more, and I’ll do you,’ Bernard said, though plainly afraid of him.

  ‘Get to bed,’ he ordered Janice.

  ‘I’m fifteen,’ she cried out at the injustice of life, ‘and I go to work. I’m fed up with this.’ On seeing his hand move she rushed out of the room and up the stairs.

  Bernard was sullen. ‘You’d better not do that again.’

  ‘Piss off, you.’

  ‘She’ll let me know tomorrow if you do.’

  He lit a cigarette from a box of matches on the shelf. The door clicked softly as Bernard left. He’d show ’em. She was too young for it yet, even though she’d had it already. There wasn’t much you could do about it if the world was to go on, but at least they could st
op using his front room.

  Smoke from his cigarette inflated him with a sort of warmth. The good mood he’d started the evening with came back to him, and reminded him of his lost lighter. He sat and brooded on it, and didn’t like brooding because it got you nowhere. Anybody knew that, so it was best not to do it, except when you couldn’t help it.

  The canary woke and made merry, while Ken was black with a grieved sort of worry. It sang as if wound tight by some mysterious force that wouldn’t let up no matter how late it was. A piece of his own heart had been ripped away, and he didn’t like it: ‘For God’s sake, stop your noise.’

  It might have heard, but took no notice, flitted around its circular cage and went on whistling. Birds had to sing when they were cooped up, though why did it go on without stopping? It was no good putting your hands to your ears because such noise could get through anything. Its beak pointed at him when he stood, opening and closing as if trilling a tune to the four corners of the room in turn.

  ‘Be quiet, you bastard. Knock off.’

  He smiled when it stopped, as if obeying him, but suddenly it started again, more full-throated and clogged with life than ever.

  A blaze joined his eyes together, packed in with ice at the temples. He set the cage on the rug and, careful to prevent the bird escaping, opened the door and stuffed in crumpled newspaper, one piece after the other till it filled half the cage. The bird sat on top, flitting around in the small space left to continue its endless and piercing song.

  He took the firescreen away. The cage fitted the grate as perfectly as his packs of waste paper slotted into the press-jig when he baled them.

  Lighting another cigarette, he threw the dead match down. There was no time left. He felt neither young nor old, neither lit up nor black dead, only a cubic area of matter sitting by a cool summer fireplace that had a bird cage in it, from which a concatenating whistle chipped away the last fibres of his organism.

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