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New and collected storie.., p.50
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       New and Collected Stories, p.50

           Alan Sillitoe
 
Face set hard with emptiness, he struck a match and held it through the bars of the cage: ‘Now stop it.’

  He had a vision of smoke and flame drawn swiftly up the chimney. With a roar and rustle it would put a final stop to the singing. He dropped the match when it burned his finger.

  Being alive again, he bent and opened the cage, put his hand in to get the bird again and set it free.

  The firescreen fell at his attempts to grasp it, and blood flooded his head from the quick change of position. He sat exhausted in the armchair. The bird stayed where it was, in spite of the door being open, but it didn’t sing any more.

  A car went by, like a heavy blanket being dragged along the street. Stones weighed at his heart with so much force that it was even more difficult to say what was tormenting him. He exchanged the silence for deep sobs which rent every part of his body.

  His wife came downstairs, wondering what it was, softly in case it was nothing. She stood behind the door, breathing slowly so that he shouldn’t hear her through his weeping. ‘That’s twice he’s done that in the last year,’ she said to herself. ‘I’d better leave him alone so’s he can get over it.’

  She walked slowly up to bed, needing her sleep because she had to get him to work in the morning.

  Ken drew the curtains fully back and opened the window on to the street. He looked blankly at the bird and the wide open door of its cage, but it seemed as if it would never make a move.

  It sat on its perch and kept quiet, waiting for him to shut it before beginning its song again.

  The End of Enoch?

  I was asked by the matron of a clinic where I recently had an operation whether I would ever write a sequel to ‘Enoch’s Two Letters’, which she had read in a magazine. She wanted to know, and quite rightly, what finally happened to an eight-year-old boy who had been abandoned by his parents.

  At the time I was in no position to consider her request, and now that I am I can only argue in her favour. Perhaps I should have finished the story properly at the time, but I felt then that the important thing was why he was abandoned, and not so much what took place after he was. Yet thinking about it, it seemed quite natural that Miss E––, or indeed anybody else, should want to know more about Enoch. I would also like to know, and so decided to find out for the possible benefit of all concerned.

  Of course, this is a story, not a case history, and so it isn’t simply a matter of writing a few letters, or going to Nottingham to read the newspaper files, or talking to the neighbours in the street where Enoch stayed with his grandmother. It’s not as easy as that.

  Nor is it easy to write the end of the story. Even after finishing this one I might be lucky enough to get a letter from some reader, irate or otherwise, asking what happened after that. And then after that. There is rarely an end to any story, only an arbitrary decision by the writer when he’s had enough and can’t think of anything else to say, or when various demons in the people of the story have temporarily run out of mischief. Or let’s say he tries to stop writing when something definite has happened, when the climb down from a big event has landed the main character either in marriage, a mental home, or a state of near-contentment according to the rules and expectations of the society we live in.

  The first story about Enoch happened many years ago, and I can bring you up to press (as they say) in a few more pages. Enoch’s mother left the house one morning intending never to come back to the husband, and as the demon that held them apart would have it, the father left home on the same day determined not to return to his wife. Each thought that the other (whom they had had enough of, to put it succinctly) would still be there to look after the fruit of their ten-year misalliance – red-haired, round-faced Enoch – when he came home that afternoon from school.

  But no one was there, and after staying the long night by himself – poor little bogger, as the neighbours said sympathetically when the story got out – he had the gumption to get on a bus and go to his grandma’s house miles away across town.

  When his mother reached Hull she wrote to her husband, and when his father arrived in London he dropped a line to his wife – one envelope white and the other blue (as if it made any difference) – and both were picked up by the grandmother when she went back with Enoch the following day. She took Enoch and the letters home with her, and all three items stayed unopened for years, the letters propped behind the walnut-wood biscuit barrel on the sideboard, waiting, like Enoch himself, to be claimed, or sent on when news was heard.

  Many a time when Enoch was in bed and she sat by the fire waiting for her forty-year-old son Tom to come back from his surreptitious courting, she picked them up and turned them over. She saw herself opening them, heard the sound of crinkling paper as she unfolded it, to see if any address was inside so that maybe she could put Enoch back in touch with his parents. But a letter was a letter, and neither one was addressed to her. They had stamps on that had been bought with money, and she had no right to touch or read anything that was inside. All she could do was wait until they came back – one or the other of them – so that she could hand them over, together with a piece of her mind, which meant the biggest bloody rollicking they’d ever had in their selfish and unthinking lives.

  Whatever they’d done they’d done it for good though, or so it appeared, which was something she helped to make sure of by selling off their furniture and telling the agents that they’d left the house. When she walked past it a few weeks later it was already filled with another family. What bit of money she got for the furniture and belongings bought a secondhand telly and a few clothes for Enoch – at one canny blow providing for his physical and spiritual wellbeing.

  She told the Child Welfare when they nosed around that Enoch’s parents had farmed him on her ‘by prior arrangement’. That was Tom’s phrase, and she added, as if only by afterthought, that she hadn’t heard from them since they left more than six months ago.

  ‘No,’ she repeated firmly, ‘I ain’t heard a dicky-bird in all that while.’ Unwilling to mix things up too much, she did not mention that they had heard from each other, or at least that some attempt had been made at it.

  The Child Welfare Officer was no more than a girl, who from her face didn’t seem to know much about the world as yet, though no doubt she did on paper. Still, she was given a cup of tea and a chair to sit on. As a result of the visit a few forms drifted through Grandma’s life, but seeing that Enoch was obviously well looked after they were happy to let him stay there.

  It took Enoch a long time to get used to living at his grandmother’s. He’d often been there visiting with his mother, and always liked the trip across town and the fuss his grandmother made, but actually staying for good in the house was strange to him. It was somewhat quieter than if he’d been living with his parents still, and rare enough because nobody ever seemed to quarrel. For this reason time went more slowly and in a dreamier way.

  But though the process was a lot softened by his going to a new school, he was all the time looking forward to living at his grandmother’s properly, so that it would become like being with his mother. Even after a year such a state seemed a long time coming. He thought that if it hadn’t been for Uncle Tom taking him fishing or to the pictures now and again it wouldn’t have looked like coming at all.

  By the time he’d forgotten about expecting his life to be normal, he stopped thinking about it, so that it more or less became so, except that at certain times of the year it seemed still as if there was something missing.

  Tom was like a lighthouse with his guiding principles and care. He had a fad about memory training, and ‘cultivating the powers of observation’. He sat by the fire facing Enoch, who was looking hard at him. Tom took several objects out of his pockets – a few coins, a penknife, a watch, a pencil, a cigarette lighter – and put them into a handkerchief without saying a word but making sure that Enoch’s big eyes were on every move. Then, at the same time next day, he asked Enoch to write on a piece of paper all that he’d see
n go into the handkerchief the evening before. The idea was, he explained, to find out whether he’d observed correctly, and remembered. Enoch passed often and too easily, so Tom gave it up, though he went on inventing other games and wit-tests.

  A long time went by until Enoch was ten. One day he wondered sharply to himself when his mother was coming back, and piped up to his grandmother: ‘Where do you think my mam is?’

  She looked at him hard and a bit long, as if he’d said a dirty word, or farted at Sunday dinner. Then she smiled, and pushed her glasses back up her nose: ‘She’s gone off with a black man, for all I know. Get over there while I lay the table.’

  ‘What shall I do, then?’ he asked.

  She opened the knife-and-fork drawer, and put her hands in without looking: ‘You’re all right here, aren’t you? You’re as right as rain, with me and Tom.’

  ‘I know I am,’ he said, thinking that was that. There were bushes in the back garden, and a lilac tree, more growing green than there’d been in the house down Radford.

  In spring he wondered the same questions as he sat at the table for dinner. Outside, it was sun one minute and snow the next, the greenery either black, or dazzling its way back to emerald. It was the worst spring for a long time, the worst this year, any road up. Only the birds were doing well out of it, having gorged the breakfast scraps. One was so fat that when it swallowed a piece of bread it waddled away like a duck. It just got to a bush before it fell over.

  She went out for an hour on business of her own and it seemed as if she’d been gone for years, and that it would take years getting to know her again when she came back. Whenever she walked out of the house, especially in summer, he thought she had gone for ever, and wondered who he’d move on to now.

  At times of black frost it was a different matter. You knew how things stood, and could sit by the fire eating bread and best butter. But this time he didn’t feel so good because he’d got the hot flushes. Even the television made his head ache, and when his grandma thought as much she switched it off and sat dozing opposite. He not only wondered why his mother had gone, but what he’d done with her. He must have done something with her if she’d gone, and she must have gone because he hadn’t seen her for such a long time.

  The fact that he’d sold her to a circus played on his mind whenever he thought about it. When the big tall man with a top hat and whip had come to fetch her Enoch had taken the four pounds ten that had been pushed into his hand and gone off to spend it on sweets.

  His mother must be roaring in a cage somewhere, though he supposed she’d grown to like it by now, since she didn’t think to escape and come back. Maybe she’d even married a lion, you never knew. Anything like that could happen. But he was the one who sold her to a circus, so it was all his fault that she wasn’t here no more.

  When the man gave him the money he’d winked at him, and squeezed his fingers so hard that his ear began to itch. He remembered it plainly, almost as plain as a dream. And when he scratched his ear to stop it itching, he got the hiccups, and he hiccuped while his mother was being taken out to join the circus he’d wickedly sold her to, and the hiccups didn’t properly stop till he stuffed the first sweets into his mouth while still standing in the shop. You had to get something for doing a thing like that to your mother. He hoped she’d done well at the circus, otherwise the man might turn up and snarl for his money back, saying she was no good to them. If she came back as well he’d have to sell her to another one, to get more sweets.

  ‘You look as if you’re ready for a talk with the chimney-sweep,’ his grandmother would say to him, after a supper of cocoa and bread-and-cheese, meaning that he should go to bed and get some sleep.

  In summer-time he rarely thought about his mother. His grandma asked him to carry a chair into the garden, on a sunny day when it was warm and humid, so that she could sit there and read the paper. When she got tired of that she went into the house for the scissors, then sat on the chair cutting her toe-nails, while he stayed inside feeling shy about it and doing his homework.

  He thought that if she went on cutting her toe-nails like that in the garden, with the hard bits flying all over the grass, maybe a tree would grow in a few years’ time. What sort of tree though was beyond him to say. But he knew that any sort of tree would be a miracle.

  Three years after his mother left, she came back. The time had been very short to her, so little had happened in it. When Enoch grew up and looked back it seemed a very short time to him as well, until he began to think about it, when it became longer and longer, almost as long as it had been at the time.

  He only thought properly about it after his grandmother had died. His own mother is still alive, because she married another man and Enoch, who didn’t care one way or the other because he spent much time at his grandma’s till she died, grew up and got to university, and never regretted the burning fact that he had started it all off by selling his mother to a circus. In any case, she must have had a good time in it, though it hadn’t stopped her growing old, nor, at last, coming back to search him out and say nothing at all when she looked at him about what he’d done to her.

  His father also came back to Nottingham, and lived with his fancy woman. Enoch saw him from time to time with his other new kids, and was occasionally taken for a treat up Colwick, and even sent something at Christmas and birthdays, though Enoch never forgave him, not until he grew up and realized that nothing that anybody did was their fault, since you were always liable to do the same yourself.

  The two letters that his grandmother had saved finally got to where they should have gone a long time ago, but didn’t make much difference to Enoch. He saw his mother tear up the one to her from his father into little pieces after hardly reading it. And what his father did with hers he never knew, and forgot to even wonder about.

  Enoch only knew that when nothing was happening, everything was happening. The action was only mime. He knew as well that by doing nothing we all connive in our own disasters. One letter would have been enough, if it had been addressed to him – who alone knew what had caused the whole thing.

  Scenes from the Life of Margaret

  The budgerigar greeted her as she came in and laid her basket down. The kids ate at school but she needed a meal herself, so took off her coat and lit the gas. Rain swept over fences and clattered against the window as if spring would never cease, she thought, hoping one day for sunshine.

  A year ago the bird had got out of his cage and flown into the fire, and though Michael was there to dart in a hand and pull him free, the smell of singed feathers and burned skin was everywhere, and the poor bird lay for days doctored on warm milk and coddled in clean handkerchiefs. Bit by bit it came to life, its warm breast throbbing with song after song, and half-speech imitations that she and the kids had taught him before the accident.

  His feathers had grown back in places, vivid emerald and blue, with a patch of white over the left eye. She’d never expected it to live, and found it surprising what fire and grief and God knew what else such a creature could survive. It didn’t seem much to do with its own will whether it got back to life or not, but something else which neither of them knew about.

  Such reminiscing reminded her of her father’s death the year before, and she wondered whether it had been any worse to him than the fire the bird flew into. She’d been afraid to walk into the other ground-floor room and see him, though he was beyond all help and wouldn’t have known her. She was too proud of him to see him die, and didn’t want to witness what he might in after-life (if there was such a thing, but you never knew) feel ashamed that she had seen.

  She mashed some tea, then ate bread and cheese. It was strange how lonely you could be with three strong kids, for they went out hand in hand after breakfast, and didn’t roar in again till tea-time. The budgerigar woke from its perch of sleep near the window and sent a trill of stone-chipping notes through its wire cage.

  She put in a hand and held the warm soft-feathered body, now s
inging out its second life as if nothing terrible had ever happened to it. Michael, who was eight at the time, willed it to get through the tunnel of that suffering, while she had given it up. Only the children’s tears had brought her faith that it might choose to live after all.

  When she opened the cage it darted like a blue pebble over the settee and settled near the front window. For a while they hadn’t let it out when the fire was lit. Not that it would have gone there anyway, but it had become too precious for such rash chances. Nowadays it was safer because the chimney was closed, and a less harmful mock-electric fire fitted in the grate.

  Carefully closing the door she walked down the path to meet the baker’s van. The grey house-roofs were drying, and the freshening air reminded her how some neighbours even grumbled because the estate wasn’t so black and cosy as the slum they’d not long left.

  One of the eight kids who lived across the road came to buy two loaves. The baker held one hand out to get the money, and the other with the bread, but the child didn’t have money to give so he put the bread back.

  ‘I suppose his dad sent him out to try it on,’ Margaret laughed, collecting her own loaves.

  When he was ready to drive off the kid came again, this time with coins, so that he got the bread. Then three other kids ran from the same house to buy cakes with equally ready cash.

  ‘You’d be surprised at some of the antics people get up to,’ the roundsman said, ‘just to save a couple o’ bob.’

  Being on National Assistance and her husband’s allowance, money was short for her as well, but they still weren’t as bad off as in the old days because she had a council house for one thing, and for another the rest of the family helped her along. Her mother worked at a food warehouse and brought a load of purloined groceries up on the bus every weekend. Her sister was in a shoe factory, so they never had wet feet. Her brother served at a clothing shop and rigged them out when he could. Another was a radio mechanic, so she had a reject telly in the living room. A cousin who helped in a butcher’s shop did his best not to forget her.

 
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