New and Collected Stories, p.5Alan Sillitoe
Gunthorpe nearly caught me up. Birds were singing from the briar hedge, and a couple of thrushes flew like lightning into some thorny bushes. Corn had grown high in the next field and would be cut down soon with scythes and mowers; but I never wanted to notice much while running in case it put me off my stroke, so by the haystack I decided to leave it all behind and put on such a spurt, in spite of nails in my guts, that before long I’d left both Gunthorpe and the birds a good way off; I wasn’t far now from going into that last mile and a half like a knife through margarine, but the quietness I suddenly trotted into between two pickets was like opening my eyes underwater and looking at the pebbles on a stream bottom, reminding me again of going back that morning to the house in which my old man had croaked, which is funny because I hadn’t thought about it at all since it happened and even then I didn’t brood much on it. I wonder why? I suppose that since I started to think on these long-distance runs I’m liable to have anything crop up and pester at my tripes and innards, and now that I see my bloody dad behind each grassblade in my barmy runner-brain I’m not so sure I like to think and that it’s such a good thing after all. I choke my phlegm and keep on running anyway and curse the Borstal-builders and their athletics – flappity-flap, slop-slop, crunch-slap, crunchslap-crunchslap – who’ve maybe got their own back on me from the bright beginning by sliding magic-lantern slides into my head that never stood a chance before. Only if I take whatever comes like this in my runner’s stride can I keep on keeping on like my old self and beat them back; and now I’ve thought on this far I know I’ll win, in the crunchslap end. So anyway after a bit I went upstairs one step at a time not thinking anything about how I should find dad and what I’d do when I did. But now I’m making up for it by going over the rotten life mam led him ever since I can remember, knocking-on with different men even when he was alive and fit and she not caring whether he knew it or not, and most of the time he wasn’t so blind as she thought and cursed and roared and threatened to punch her tab, and I had to stand up to stop him even though I knew she deserved it. What a life for all of us. Well, I’m not grumbling, because if I did I might just as well win this bleeding race, which I’m not going to do, though if I don’t lose speed I’ll win it before I know where I am, and then where would I be?
Now I can hear the sportsground noise and music as I head back for the flags and the lead-in drive, the fresh new feel of underfoot gravel going against the iron muscles of my legs. I’m nowhere near puffed despite that bag of nails that rattles as much as ever, and I can still give a big last leap like galeforce wind if I want to, but everything is under control and I know now that there ain’t another long-distance cross-country running runner in England to touch my speed and style. Our doddering bastard of a governor, our half-dead gangrened gaffer is hollow like an empty petrol drum, and he wants me and my running life to give him glory, to put in him blood and throbbing veins he never had, wants his potbellied pals to be his witnesses as I gasp and stagger up to his winning post so’s he can say: ‘My Borstal gets that cup, you see I win my bet because it pays to be honest and try to gain the prizes I offer to my lads, and they know it, have known it all along. They’ll always be honest now, because I made them so.’ And his pals will think: ‘He trains his lads to live right, after all; he deserves a medal but we’ll get him made a Sir’ – and at this very moment as the birds come back to whistling I can tell myself I’ll never care a sod what any of the chinless spineless In-laws think or say. They’ve seen me and they’re cheering now and loudspeakers set around the field like elephant’s ears are spreading out the big news that I’m well in the lead, and can’t do anything else but stay there. But I’m still thinking of the Outlaw death my dad died, telling the doctors to scat from the house when they wanted him to finish up in hospital (like a bleeding guinea-pig, he raved at them). He got up in bed to throw them out and even followed them down the stairs in his shirt though he was no more than skin and stick. They tried to tell him he’d want some drugs but he didn’t fall for it, and only took the pain-killer that mam and I got from a herb-seller in the next street. It’s not till now that I know what guts he had, and when I went into the room that morning he was lying on his stomach with the clothes thrown back, looking like a skinned rabbit, his grey head resting just on the edge of the bed, and on the floor must have been all the blood he’d had in his body, right from his toe-nails up, for nearly all of the lino and carpet was covered in it, thin and pink.
And down the drive I went, carrying a heart blocked up like Boulder Dam across my arteries, the nail-bag clamped down tighter and tighter as though in a woodwork vice, yet with my feet like birdwings and arms like talons ready to fly across the field except that I didn’t want to give anybody that much of a show, or win the race by accident. I smell the hot dry day now as I run towards the end, passing a mountain-heap of grass emptied from cans hooked on to the fronts of lawnmowers pushed by my pals; I rip a piece of tree-bark with my fingers and stuff it in my mouth, chewing wood and dust and maybe maggots as I run until I’m nearly sick, yet swallowing what I can of it just the same because a little birdie whistled to me that I’ve got to go on living for at least a bloody sight longer yet but that for six months I’m not going to smell that grass or taste that dusty bark or trot this lovely path. I hate to have to say this but something bloody-well made my cry, and crying is a thing I haven’t bloody-well done since I was a kid of two or three. Because I’m slowing down now for Gunthorpe to catch me up, and I’m doing it in a place just where the drive turns in to the sportsfield – where they can see what I’m doing, especially the governor and his gang from the grandstand, and I’m going so slow I’m almost marking time. Those on the nearest seats haven’t caught on yet to what’s happening and are still cheering like mad ready for when I make that mark, and I keep on wondering when the bleeding hell Gunthorpe behind me is going to nip by on to the field because I can’t hold this up all day, and I think Oh Christ it’s just my rotten luck that Gunthorpe’s dropped out and that I’ll be here for half an hour before the next bloke comes up, but even so, I say, I won’t budge, I won’t go for that last hundred yards if I have to sit down cross-legged on the grass and have the governor and his chinless wonders pick me up and carry me there, which is against their rules so you can bet they’d never do it because they’re not clever enough to break the rules – like I would be in their place – even though they are their own. No, I’ll show him what honesty means if it’s the last thing I do, though I’m sure he’ll never understand because if he and all them like him did it’d mean they’d be on my side which is impossible. By God I’ll stick this out like my dad stuck out his pain and kicked them doctors down the stairs; if he had guts for that then I’ve got guts for this and here I stay waiting for Gunthorpe or Aylesham to bash that turf and go right slap-up against that bit of clothes-line stretched across the winning post. As for me, the only time I’ll hit that clothes-line will be when I’m dead and a comfortable coffin’s been got ready on the other side. Until then I’m a long-distance runner, crossing country all on my own no matter how bad it feels.
The Essex boys were shouting themselves blue in the face telling me to get a move on, waving their arms, standing up and making as if to run at that rope themselves because they were only a few yards to the side of it. You cranky lot, I thought, stuck at that winning post, and yet I knew they didn’t mean what they were shouting, were really on my side and always would be, not able to keep their maulers to themselves, in and out of cop-shops and clink. And there they were now having the time of their lives letting themselves go in cheering me which made the governor think they were heart and soul on his side when he wouldn’t have thought any such thing if he’d had a grain of sense. And I could hear the lords and ladies now from the grandstand, and could see them standing up to wave me in: ‘Run!’ they were shouting in their posh voices. ‘Run!’ But I was deaf, daft and blind, and stood where I was, still tasting the bark in my mouth and still blubbing like a baby, blubb
Because I heard a roar and saw the Gunthorpe gang throwing their coats up in the air and I felt the pat-pat of feet on the drive behind me getting closer and closer and suddenly a smell of sweat and a pair of lungs on their last gasp passed me by and went swinging on towards that rope, all shagged out and rocking from side to side, grunting like a Zulu that didn’t know any better, like the ghost of me at ninety when I’m heading for that fat upholstered coffin. I could have cheered him myself: ‘Go on, go on, get cracking. Knot yourself up on that piece of tape.’ But he was already there, and so I went on, trot-trotting after him until I got to the rope, and collapsed, with a murderous sounding roar going up through my ears while I was still on the wrong side of it.
It’s about time to stop; though don’t think I’m not still running, because I am, one way or another. The governor at Borstal proved me right; he didn’t respect my honesty at all; not that I expected him to, or tried to explain it to him, but if he’s supposed to be educated then he should have more or less twigged it. He got his own back right enough, or thought he did, because he had me carting dustbins about every morning from the big full-working kitchen to the garden-bottoms where I had to empty them; and in the afternoon I spread out slops on spuds and carrots growing in the allotments. In the evenings I scrubbed floors, miles and miles of them. But it wasn’t a bad life for six months, which was another thing he could never understand and would have made it grimmer if he could, and it was worth it when I look back on it, considering all the thinking I did, and the fact that the boys caught on to me losing the race on purpose and never had enough good words to say about me, or curses to throw out (to themselves) at the governor.
The work didn’t break me; if anything it made me stronger in many ways, and the governor knew, when I left, that his spite had got him nowhere. For since leaving Borstal they tried to get me in the army, but I didn’t pass the medical and I’ll tell you why. No sooner was I out, after that final run and six-months hard, than I went down with pleurisy, which means as far as I’m concerned that I lost the governor’s race all right, and won my own twice over, because I know for certain that if I hadn’t raced my race I wouldn’t have got this pleurisy, which keeps me out of khaki but doesn’t stop me doing the sort of work my itchy fingers want to do.
I’m out now and the heat’s switched on again, but the rats haven’t got me for the last big thing I pulled. I counted six hundred and twenty-eight pounds and am still living off it because I did the job all on my own, and after it I had the peace to write all this, and it’ll be money enough to keep me going until I finish my plans for doing an even bigger snatch, something up my sleeve I wouldn’t tell to a living soul. I worked out my systems and hiding-places while pushing scrubbing-brushes around them Borstal floors, planned my outward life of innocence and honest work, yet at the same time grew perfect in the razor-edges of my craft for what I knew I had to do once free; and what I’ll do again if netted by the poaching coppers.
In the meantime (as they say in one or two books I’ve read since, useless though because all of them ended on a winning post and didn’t teach me a thing) I’m going to give this story to a pal of mine and tell him that if I do get captured again by the coppers he can try and get it put into a book or something, because I’d like to see the governor’s face when he reads it, if he does, which I don’t suppose he will; even if he did read it though I don’t think he’d know what it was all about. And if I don’t get caught the bloke I give this story to will never give me away; he’s lived in our terrace for as long as I can remember, and he’s my pal. That I do know.
A middle-aged man wearing a dirty raincoat, who badly needed a shave and looked as though he hadn’t washed for a month, came out of a public lavatory with a cloth bag of tools folded beneath his arm. Standing for a moment on the edge of the pavement to adjust his cap – the cleanest thing about him – he looked casually to left and right and, when the flow of traffic had eased off, crossed the road. His name and trade were always spoken in one breath, even when the nature of his trade was not in question: Ernest Brown the upholsterer. Every night before returning to his lodgings he left the bag of tools for safety with a man who looked after the public lavatory near the town centre, for he felt there was a risk of them being lost or stolen should he take them back to his room, and if such a thing were to happen his living would be gone.
Chimes to the value of half past ten boomed from the Council-house clock. Over the theatre patches of blue sky held hard-won positions against autumnal clouds, and a treacherous wind lashed out its gusts, sending paper and cigarette packets cartwheeling along unswept gutters. Empty-bellied Ernest was ready for his breakfast, so walked through a café doorway, instinctively lowering his head as he did so, though the beams were a foot above his height.
The long spacious eating-place was almost full. Ernest usually arrived for his breakfast at nine o’clock, but having been paid ten pounds for re-covering a three-piece in a public house the day before, he had stationed himself in the Saloon Bar for the rest of the evening to drink jar after jar of beer, in a slow prolonged and concentrated way that lonely men have. As a result it had been difficult to drag himself from drugged and blissful sleep this morning. His face was pale and his eyes an unhealthy yellow: when he spoke only a few solitary teeth showed behind his lips.
Having passed through the half-dozen noisy people standing about he found himself at the counter, a scarred and chipped haven for hands, like a littered invasion beach extending between two headlands of tea-urns. The big fleshy brunette was busy, so he hastily scanned the list written out in large white letters on the wall behind. He made a timid gesture with his hand. ‘A cup of tea, please.’
The brunette turned on him. Tea swilled from a huge brown spout – into a cup that had a crack emerging like a hair above the layer of milk – and a spoon clinked after it into the steam. ‘Anything else?’
He spoke up hesitantly. ‘Tomatoes on toast as well.’ Picking up the plate pushed over to him he moved slowly backwards out of the crowd, then turned and walked towards a vacant corner table.
A steamy appetizing smell rose from the plate: he took up the knife and fork and, with the sharp clean action of a craftsman, cut off a corner of the toast and tomato and raised it slowly to his mouth, eating with relish and hardly noticing people sitting roundabout. Each wielding of his knife and fork, each geometrical cut of the slice of toast, each curve and twist of his lips joined in a complex and regular motion that gave him great satisfaction. He ate slowly, quietly and contentedly, aware only of himself and his body being warmed and made tolerable once more by food. The leisurely movement of a spoon and cup and saucer made up the familiar noise of late breakfast in a crowded café, sounded like music flowing here and there in variations of rhythm.
For years he had eaten alone, but was not yet accustomed to loneliness. He could not get used to it, had only adapted himself to it temporarily in the hope that one day its spell would break. Ernest remembered little of his past, and life moved under him so that he hardly noticed its progress. There was no strong memory to entice him to what had gone by, except that of dead and dying men straggling barbed-wire between the trenches in the First World War. Two sentences had dominated his lips during the years that followed: ‘I should not be here in England. I should be dead with the rest of them in France.’ Time bereft him of these sentences, till only a dull wordless image remained.
People, he found, treated him as if he were a ghost, as if he were not made of flesh and blood – or so it seemed – and from then on he had lived alone. His wife left him – due to his too vile temper, it was said – and his brothers went to other towns. Later he had thought to look them up, but decided against it: for even in this isolation only the will to go forward and accept more of it seemed worth while. He felt in a dim indefinite way that to go back and search out the slums and landmarks of his youth, old friends, the
No pink scar marked his flesh from shell-shock and a jolted brain, and so what had happened in the war warranted no pension book, and even to him the word ‘injury’ never came into his mind. It was just that he did not care anymore: the wheel of the years had broken him, and so had made life more tolerable. When the next war came his back was not burdened at first, and even the fines and days in prison that he was made to pay for being without Identity Card or Ration Book – or for giving them away with a glad heart to deserters – did not lift him from his tolerable brokenness. The nightmare hours of gunfire and exploding bombs revived a dull image long suppressed as he stared blankly at the cellar wall of his boarding house, and even threw into his mind the scattered words of two insane sentences. But, considering the time-scale his life was lived on, the war ended quickly, and again nothing mattered. He lived from hand to mouth, working cleverly at settees and sofas and chairs, caring about no one. When work was difficult to find and life was hard, he did not notice it very much, and now that he was prosperous and had enough money, he also detected little difference, spending what he earned on beer, and never once thinking that he needed a new coat or a solid pair of boots.
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