New and Collected Stories, p.51Alan Sillitoe
Now and then she could swap shoes and food and clothes with somebody in the next avenue who worked at a toy depot, or she’d barter with the woman next door who packed up pots and pans for a mail order firm. Her aunt was an overlooker at a tobacco factory and Margaret, not smoking herself, was able to give pilfered fags to a man who dug her garden and occasionally whitewashed the kitchen. What was life worth if you couldn’t help each other? The bird flew back to the top of its cage and whistled its agreement from there.
A radio voice talked about a leper colony in Africa, so she switched it to light music. A blue stream of soap powder spun into boiling water and she stirred at the bubbles with a huge wooden spoon that Edie across the way had brought her as a present from Majorca: ‘You can use it to bash the kids with when they chelp you,’ she laughed.
‘Not mine, duck,’ Margaret said, standing by the hole in the fence that connected the two houses. ‘They do as I tell ’em without that. My kids have to be good, not having any dad. Sometimes I tell myself he don’t know the joy he’s missing.’
Fifty bright round faces shifted among the bubbles, rainbows breaking in the stream. ‘They’ll see you right,’ Edie said, ‘when they go to work. You’ll have your joy of ’em yet.’
‘They’ll get married then, duck,’ Margaret prophesied soberly. ‘I’ll find another man, maybe, when I’ve got ’em off my hands.’
‘I shouldn’t wait too long if I was you,’ Edie said. ‘You’re still young. Get a bit of it back up you before you’re too old to feel it.’
It made Margaret laugh just to look at her sallow and serious face with its glasses and long false teeth to match, every second waiting for her to say something foul and funny. She didn’t know how Edie’s husband put up with it yet he seemed to like her well enough.
‘I can do without that for a while,’ Margaret told her. ‘I keep myself company in bed at night, I do’ – which sent Edie cackling back to her kitchen. It was good to laugh, even if it did show a bad tooth or two. The only chance she got was when they showed old silent comedies on the telly, which she’d look at all night if they were on.
She thought maybe Edie was right, because if somebody was found it wouldn’t do to turn him down. Life was too short, but the trouble with men was that they’re just like women, she reflected, no better and no worse. And who’d want to take anybody on who’s got three kids already? It’d be a rope around his neck right enough, though she’d heard people say there were men who didn’t want the bother of a woman having babies, and would rather step into a brood of kids ready-made or half grown up.
But if that was the case where did the woman come in? Maybe he treated her as one of the kids, a pat on the head now and again for good measure. It was surprising what you might end up doing for the kids’ sake, if you didn’t watch yourself, though if mine don’t have a father it’s no more than a lot of others have to put up with. Still, it does touch my heart when I ask in the tally-man or window-cleaner for a cup of tea and see them jumping all over his legs.
Men aren’t the be-all and end-all of my life, she thought, taking the long prop and wedging the line high, all signals hoisted. Pants, vests, stockings, and socks straightened and flapped in the uprising wind. The less you want something the more likely it is to take place, and the more you picture it, the less chance of it becoming real. What you never imagined were the bad things that hit you, and what you always thought of were the good things that never did.
She had got over her husband leaving her. She had been too shattered and upset by it not to survive.
The sallow catkins were full of yellow dust. It was good to go up the Grove for an afternoon walk, smell the spring water of the Trent flooding by down the steep bank. There was nothing else to do but laugh, except cry, she smiled.
With three kids to be fed and looked after there’d been no time to brood herself into the grave or Mapperley Asylum. There was some justice in the world, though you only thought so when it kicked you in the chops, or hoped so when it was about to. In his rough and cunning fashion he’d made certain she’d never be able to take up with anyone else, though maybe in one sense it was generous of him to leave her the kids, otherwise she might not have got over it.
He and his ‘fancy woman’ had prospered after opening a corner shop to sell new and second-hand bicycles. He bought old ones at scrap prices and tarted them up in his clever way, while she looked after the book-keeping and window-dressing. Margaret met his mother one day in Slab Square, and was told all about it.
It didn’t even hurt any more to brood on it, though a man who could forget his children so absolutely must be a real blackguard. He might stop living with his wife, but if he went on loving his kids she could at least console herself that some of this contained a bit of hidden regard for her as well. He never saw them or wrote, nor sent Christmas presents, but had rubbed them out of his life. She sat on a broken elm trunk to rest, wondering how she of all people had ever met such a man.
She thought of the man who courted her before him, as if that might give some clue to it. The war had been on for a long time, though everyone knew it was coming towards its end. Margaret was sixteen, and after two years working in a food factory she joined the Women’s Land Army so as to get away from home and ‘see life’. All she saw were bulls’ heads and pigs’ arses, glowering woods and wet fields, and a poky room in a mildewed and leaking cottage which she shared with six other girls, a muddy and sweating life which paid thirty bob a week and a rough sort of keep.
She began to feel like a slave-labouring appendage to the animals, till one of the farmer’s men taught her to drive a tractor. She learned quickly and got a licence, but because things were now so much better she was able to look back on how bad they had been, and in a fit of anger that she should have been so much put upon, packed her things one Saturday and walked to the village bus stop. Reaching Nottingham in two hours, she left her case at home and went down Slab Square to see which of her girl friends were in any of the pubs.
After the cold black-out night, bruised by huddled gangs of soldiers, the Eight Bells was like a secret cave cut into the hillside of the street-cliff.
She bought a shandy and, every seat being taken, stood near the bar. An American soldier put his hand on the arm of a girl near by, who shrugged it away:
‘Get your hands off me, Yank!’
‘I’m not your sister.’
‘All right, baby.’
‘I’m not your bloody baby, either. If you don’t lay off I’ll part your hair with this pint jar.’
Margaret knew the voice, and saw the face. Smoke and beer-smells, breath and pungent boot-dust exhilarated her. The backs and faces set colourfully along each line of mirrors after two years in the rural dullness heightened the flush in her face and made her stretched limbs tingle.
She laughed at the raucous rat-crack of the protesting voice, knowing it to come from one of her cousins. ‘That’s right,’ she called over. ‘You tell him, Eileen.’
The snow-white hair of a suicide-blonde flashed around: ‘Hey up, Margaret!’
‘I could tell you a mile off,’ she said.
‘What are yo’ doin’ ’ere? Up to no good, like me?’
She wished she hadn’t spoken, for Eileen’s reputation, even in her own family, was almost as low as you could get, her back-chat to the American being only another form of come-on, so that she smiled at him before edging over to Margaret: ‘I had a nobble on an hour ago,’ she said, apologizing for her lack of success so far, ‘but the poor bogger went out to be sick and I ain’t seen ’im since. When did you get back from the cow sheds?’
‘An hour ago.’
‘I’d pack it in, if I was yo’.’
‘I did do.’
‘About time.’ Eileen’s thin face stood out from the robust puffiness of the soldiers around. ‘I don’t blame you. Come and do a stint at the gun factory. You’ll never look back. Too much going on up front!’
Margaret’s laugh attracted someone she could not see during her talk about old times with Eileen. He told her afterwards how that vital and homely sound had gone right into his heart at a time when he met so much falsity night after night – whether he stayed in camp or not, which he usually did in order to write long letters to his parents back home.
And looking towards her laugh he’d seen someone who hadn’t been there before, noting her long dark hair and the pink skin of her plump face. Every young girl was pretty, he admitted, especially if you’d parachuted in with the first wave of the invasion and had the total support of your friends scythed away in a few insane minutes, but her face was different, had a refined trust that, after her laugh, and while she was listening to her blonde friend, had a kind of profound and gentle helplessness. It was as if she’d come into the pub, he said, to wait for him as he had been waiting for her ever since getting to England.
He pushed his fresh yet strangely troubled face between Margaret and her cousin, buying a round for them just before closing time. She could not, even now, gainsay the fact that she was the reason for the drinks. Jimmy Chadburn seemed honest and fair of feature, except for the knife-scar caught in some tussle with a German during the Normandy landings which had closed the left side of his face up a bit. But the right and best side was turned to her, and his inside soul seemed generous enough.
He treated her courteously, and always with a smile, dusted the chair before she sat down, opened the door and prevented her from being jostled as they went out. His teeth were so clean when he smiled that she might have known she couldn’t trust him. And it was difficult to tell whether he was lonely or not – as one ought to be able to do with Americans who had so much money.
Large white single clouds passed swiftly through the sky, crossing the broad avenue of trees. She had sat down too long and the damp was pressing in. Tea-time would come and the kids would be home. There was no way or wish to stop the wheel turning day after day and week after week. But she dwelt a little longer on Jimmy Chadburn. He was her first love, yet she’d heard it said that whenever you start thinking of your first love you are about to meet somebody else. Well, she could wait, especially when it was a question of having to.
She kept no mementoes in life, except memory. All letters and photos were burned, and nothing of him remained. He had gone back to the wife he said he didn’t have, and left her to nurse herself through the scorching deserts of betrayal and smashed love. How could anyone do such a thing to anyone else?
She supposed it was something all people had to put up with at one time or another. It was hard to think of anybody who hadn’t. It was like a vaccination to stop smallpox eating you into a cancer.
The worst thing about being jilted was in the man you took up with afterwards. You acted joyfully because you thought it was all over, not knowing that this was the final bitter kick of it. She saw how true it was now, even though she kept herself free for two years, because it took that long to get over it, which seemed like no time at all when looking back.
It was good to get the ache out of her legs. She broke off a new and living bud, shredded its stickiness with a sharp fingernail, and could hardly remember where she’d met her husband, something that doesn’t speak well for any man, almost proving you were never in love with him. Meeting Albert was probably the last flicker indeed of love for Jimmy Chadburn. Some people don’t believe in love, which only means they’d never suffered from it. Yet if they hadn’t she supposed they were lucky.
She reflected how Albert loved to make her cry, did everything to do so. It was never difficult, but he couldn’t stand it when he succeeded, so jeered to make her stop. Walking down the street she slipped on a piece of rotten pavement, and he hit her, adding insult to injury in his usual way. He used to say all’s fair in love and war, but she remembered that life itself was war to him, a war to get exactly what he wanted for himself. You had to be careful not to get in the way of what he wanted.
Asking herself what she’d done wrong to make him like this, it became obvious that she was only guilty of having married him – though by then it was too late. In any case he had an equal share of responsibility in having married her. No one could deny it. But to please him she’d have to go out one day and vanish, so that he wouldn’t even have the bother of a funeral, though she didn’t see why she should be the one to do it and make things easy for him.
After three years and three kids he left her, as she told Edie, ‘without even a piece of bread between my lips’. That was the end of that, and as for mementoes, she’d burned even the memories inside herself, stamped on them whenever they threatened to come up, till they hardly ever did any more.
Roy John Callender was an exhibition diver and champion swimmer, whose name was occasionally seen in the more obscure columns of Nottingham newspapers. Though his exhibitions weren’t so enthralling, nor his championships so spectacular, he was considered a man of fair showmanship and prowess in local terms, and all who had seen him dive agreed, over their sedentary drink of beer, that at thirty he was in his prime.
‘When you cut into the water like a javelin,’ he said to Margaret one night in the Maid of Trent, ‘and go right down, you think you’re dying because it don’t seem possible you’ll ever get up to fresh air and see daylight again. But you do. Dead right, you do. You don’t want to move your arms, like they’re tied up with ten balls of string, but they move by themselves and steer you level. Then they push you up, and when your head shoots out of the water you want to go up and up till you crack your noddle on the clouds.’
‘Why do you do it, though?’ she asked naïvely, even after this description which he had perfected over the years, and which half the people in the pub turned round to listen to.
He laughed fit to die, she thought, and told her when he could get his breath from it: ‘I just like the water, I suppose!’
Several times in his career he had dived off Trent Bridge into a canvas area below. Dressed in a one-piece black costume he climbed on to the parapet and, after mock-gymnastics to loosen his limbs in the sharp summer breeze, he faced the chosen crowd with both hands clasped in the air. His stern expression, at the point of turning to begin his dive, changed to a grin of expected success.
Motorists leaned out of their car windows, and lorry drivers waved and wished him luck above the noise of their engines. The black and pink figure framed against the white sky of the distant war memorial turned a somersault above the bridge wall – then fell through the air towards the canvas area of bottle-green water.
He loved doing it, he told Margaret in the pub, because when he made that first great leap he thought he hadn’t strength to do it properly, that he would smash himself against the dark stone of the bridge. But he managed it, and the feeling of dropping down so effortlessly and with such spot-on aim was the best in the world, except the sweet dreams that came after going to bed with a woman he loved – he winked.
She suspected him of piling it on a bit. But then, all men did that. He certainly looked a liar as he swaggered in and walked to the bar for his first drink of the evening. Tall and well built, he had a sharp pink face and dark hair receding in a vee back from his forehead.
He was no empty loud-mouth however, for he had done all he told her about, and spoke sincerely enough, though when Margaret questioned Edie as to whether or not she had ever heard of a champion swimmer called Johnny Callender Edie said she hadn’t, but that that didn’t mean much because she’d never heard of anything, anyway. So Margaret let the promise of him drop, her notion being reinforced that men were bigger bragging liars when they had something to brag about than when they hadn’t. It was better to expect nothing so as not to be disappointed.
One afternoon a dark green van drew to the kerb outside the front gate and Callender himself came up the path with a television set in his arms. She met him at the door, flustered and laughing. ‘Did you get that from under the water on one of your dives?’
He set i
‘If you’ve brought that for me, you can. Shall I mash you a cup of tea?’
‘It’ll tek the sweat off me.’
‘Sit down, then. What sort is it?’ She dropped the kettle-lid, and bent to pick it up.
‘A good one, don’t worry. Brand new.’
‘I’ll bet it is.’
‘No damaged goods where I come from,’ he grinned, ‘except me, perhaps.’
‘You don’t want to say that about yourself,’ she said, with such seriousness and concern for the safety of his good name that he laughed out loud.
‘What’s bleddy funny about it, then?’ she demanded, cut to the middle. She didn’t like being made fun of just because she’d thought his phrase weightier than he could ever have done. ‘If that’s the way it is you can take your rammel and get out.’
‘You don’t think I mean it when I run myself down, do you?’ he said, tears almost lighting up his deep brown eyes. ‘Oh dear, love, when were you born?’
Having been out of circulation for the last nine years there was no telling when she was born, she told him. ‘Though it might not have been all that long after you,’ she added, ‘so don’t think yourself so smart.’
The tea-cosy was on the pot for five minutes till it mashed into a mellow brew, but then she poured it sharply as if to get rid of him as soon as possible. The bird warbled from its cage, and he promised next time to bring a budgie because it sounded as if it wanted a mate as well – helping himself to several spoons of sugar. He takes a lot of sweetening, she thought, and maybe he needs stirring up as well, or perhaps I do, though he’s not the one to do it, swimmer or not.
‘Boy or girl?’ he asked, looking up, smile gone.
‘Male,’ she said, ‘and it sings like a man as well. Men allus sing better than women, especially when they want summat. All a woman need do is bide her time. Then what she gets is twice as bad, I suppose.’
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes