New and Collected Stories, p.52Alan Sillitoe
He sipped his tea as if she might have put a dash of ground glass in it. ‘You sound proper old-fashioned.’
‘That’s nowt to what I feel.’
‘Why don’t you have a cup of tea as well, duck?’ he said. ‘I’m feeling a bit left out.’
‘I was going to,’ she said, beginning to like him again.
‘Thought I’d get company after what I’d brought,’ he reminded her.
It looked so much better than the cronky old set her brother had palmed her off with. ‘Are you leaving it?’
‘On approval. Depends whether you take to it.’
‘Would you like some biscuits?’
‘If there’s cream in ’em.’
‘I can tell you’ve been at tea with millionaires. It’s plain biscuits at this house. If I got cream biscuits they’d go in a second.’
‘Kids are like that,’ he said, and she wondered if he’d got any of his own.
‘Are you going to plug it in for me?’
He dipped a biscuit in his tea, and held it there too long so that most of it fell off. ‘If I leave it, I’ll have to.’
‘It looks like it, don’t it?’
The scalding tea went down his throat in one long gulp. ‘Let’s see to it, then.’ He clattered the cup back to its saucer, and they went into the living room together.
He didn’t move in, which she thought he might try in his brash fashion, but came to see her once or twice a week, and slept there. He was lavish in presents for the kids, though she saw as plain as day he didn’t really like them, and that his generosity didn’t come natural to him. He was uneasy under the weight of the kids when in their open good nature they clambered up as if to suck him dry. When Rachel wanted a bedtime story he almost snapped at the second asking. Margaret began to suspect he was married and had kids of his own, but when she tackled him about it he told her he was divorced.
‘Why did you tell me you was single, then?’
They sat in a corner of the pub on Saturday night, and in spite of the noise that encapsulated them she almost hissed her question. He looked at her openly, as if proud of what he had done. ‘I thought so much of you I didn’t want you to think I was secondhand.’
She felt herself blushing. ‘I’m the one who’s secondhand, so I don’t know what you’ve got to worry about.’
‘That’s different,’ he said. ‘I’m the one that’s in love with you. If it was the other way round I wouldn’t bother so much.’
‘I don’t know what to think.’ She was bewildered at his calculated lies because she did not know how to let on she knew he was lying. His face deepened into seriousness, as if to disarm her even more, until she began to believe in him to such an extent that she wondered whether he wasn’t about to ask her to marry him. He suddenly broke this intense silence by laughing out loud and calling the waiter to bring another pint for himself and a short for her.
Her disappointment at this breakage of their closeness increased even more because she did not know which of them was the cause of it. Another opportunity might not come around for weeks, and she didn’t feel sure enough of herself to get it back on her own.
His face was such as held its own with the world, so you’d do well to look out for it putting one over on you, she thought, because like all men he treated you as part of the world as well. His face was a hard one, in spite of the gloss that came on it when he wanted something, yet she felt there was a soft centre somewhere – like in the tastiest chocolates.
She prayed for this to be true, because after they’d known each other a few months it was certain beyond all truth she was pregnant.
There was nobody she could spill it to but Edie. Her instinct told her that to let him know the news would drive him away clean and clear, which she didn’t want to do, for though she’d started off being wary she now liked him enough to want him with her for good, if only he’d ever grow up and set his selfish mind to it.
The last thing she expected was to bring another kid into the world, but since one was indisputably on its way and might prove impossible to stop she ought to try and get used to the idea – not doubting for a moment that he’d help her all he could, and maybe actually marry her if nothing worked.
There was no point thinking yourself into a black sweat, so she went into the kitchen and put the kettle on for coffee. If she confided her trouble to Edie she might be able to tell her how and where to get rid of it. Certainly, she knew nobody else who would. She fancied there wasn’t much Edie didn’t know about a thing like that, though having an abortion had never been much in Margaret’s mind when she got pregnant. But this time it was different, and nobody could tell her what to do with her own life and body. Three were enough kids in one woman’s life, especially now they were getting on and the worst might soon be over.
When Edie pulled the chair from under the table to sit on, and sighed as if she had all the work in the world to do in the small space of her own house, and should never have left it for a moment, it was obvious she had something to tell Margaret, who therefore thought it friendly and polite to let her get it off her chest before coming out with her own worries. In any case, she welcomed a reason to defer it as long as possible.
‘How many?’ she said, reaching for the bag of sugar. ‘What bleddy weather, in’t it?’
‘Four, Meg,’ said Edie. ‘Enough to turn you into a fish. Have you seen owt o’ that chap o’ yours lately?’
‘He showed his face a week ago,’ said Margaret, thinking it funny that Edie should mention him when he was on the tip of her own tongue.
‘Is he married?’
Margaret thought it an outlandish question, and wondered what was coming.
‘I hope you don’t mind me asking,’ said Edie.
‘That’s all right, duck. He ain’t as far as I know.’
‘I saw him in town yesterday, as large as life, with a woman and two kids trailing out of one o’ them cheap clothes shops down Hockley. I’m not sure they was his kids, though it looked like it to me. I don’t want to be nosy, but I thought you might like to know. The woman looked so miserable she must a bin his wife.’
She stirred Edie’s coffee and pushed it towards her, thinking yes it was his sister because he’d mentioned her a few times, till another explanation came to her and she realized she was only making excuses for him. There could be no doubt he was married, because it fitted in with his actions ever since she’d known him. ‘Thanks for telling me,’ she said, drinking coffee to stop her lips trembling. ‘I might have known.’
‘They’re all the same,’ Edie said. ‘It don’t matter that much.’
‘No,’ Margaret said, ‘it bleddy-well don’t, I suppose. It ain’t that I mind about him being married. But he might have told me. I hate sly and deceitful people. I expect he was frightened I wouldn’t want him if he said he was married.’
‘It’s no use crying over it, duck,’ said Edie, trying to comfort her, and cursing herself for a big-mouth when it suddenly came to her how things stood. ‘We bloody women get all the bother, and the men go scot-free.’
Margaret’s face was dry and stony: ‘Nobody goes scot-free in the end.’
And she didn’t ask Edie how to get rid of it, because she felt too much of a fool to let her know she was pregnant.
The hot and fine summer seemed to make it worse. She waited night after night, and even went to where he said he’d worked, but that was a lie too, for he wasn’t there and never had been.
He didn’t come for a month, so by the time she told him even her morning sickness was beginning to ease off. When he made an excuse to leave that same evening without going to bed with her, and saying he’d come back again when he’d thought what to do about it, she knew she wouldn’t see him any more, but didn’t want to make too much fuss in case it turned out not to be true and he came back after all. She laid the kids’ things out for school and breakfast, her lips still wet from his one kiss. I shan’t die, she thought, and I shan’t starve, and ne
What she would do, she thought one tea-time while seeing to the budgerigar, was wait till he next did a bit of exhibition diving at Trent Bridge, and then when he was about to jump she’d burst out of the crowd and run to him, shouting at the top of her voice that he was a rotten no-good get who’d got her pregnant and then run away and left her. Yes, she would. She’d hang on to him and go down into the water and never let go till they both drowned and were out of it for good. Let them put that in the Evening Post so that his wife could read about it while waiting for him to come home after boozing with his pals or from doing another woman. But maybe he’d led his wife a worse dance than he’d led me, and I’m well off without him in spite of having another one to feed and fend for.
The bird flew around the room while she cleaned out its cage. At the sound of seed spilling into its pot it darted back and rested a moment on her hand. ‘Hello, my duck,’ she said, knowing she’d do nothing of the sort, and not tackle Callender at Trent Bridge, ‘you got over your little accident in the fire, didn’t you?’ – though not sure whether she would this time, as tears followed the too bright smile at her eyes.
She shut the door when it began to eat.
In the café, an old man sitting next to her began making funny noises.
He wore a hat and scarf and overcoat, so he wasn’t even poor. But he was very old, in spite of a moustache and full head of white vigorous hair. She’d never seen him before, but it seemed nobody else had either, because they weren’t disturbed by the noise he was making.
It wasn’t loud, and didn’t frighten her. She supposed that was why other people weren’t bothered. But it was funny, somehow, though she knew it wasn’t funny to him because who would feel happy with a noise like that for company – especially an old man who must be pushing eighty?
It wouldn’t do to interfere, whatever happened. Maybe he was warming up for a little tiddly-song to himself. Old men were like that, and harmless as long as they weren’t dirty as well. But on a bus once when she was twelve an old man put his hand on her knee. There’s one thing to be said for an old woman: she wouldn’t do a thing like that. So she knocked it away, without causing any fuss.
But if it came back she’d shout at the top of her voice: ‘Get your hands off me, you dirty old swine.’ Maybe he guessed what was on her mind, since he got up and shuffled out at the next stop. Perhaps he only wanted to tell her something, or was in need of company, or he was about to say she reminded him of his own daughter he hadn’t seen for thirty years, not since she was a girl like her. Still, you had to look after yourself, even though she did feel a bit sorry for him.
Her tea was getting cold, but that wasn’t the old man’s fault, because he couldn’t help the noise he was making. It sounded less and less that sort of noise the more it went on. She was the only one with ears. Or maybe the others hadn’t washed theirs out that morning.
They sat with tea and buns, set in their newspapers, or staring into the air which must have been more interesting because they didn’t even need print to hold them down. If you look into the air you look at yourself, and that must be better than any newspaper.
The old man was too busy with his tiddly-song to take much in. At the sound of such noise his eyes must have stopped looking at anything. Nobody else seemed to understand that his eyes had come to a dead end, for the few who glanced at him turned away as if they had seen nothing. Some talked together, and didn’t even bother to look, though they knew what was going on right enough.
It made her uneasy, being by herself. He sat up straight as a soldier against the wall, a hand on the table beside his cup. By making such a noise he was trying to get in touch with someone, but he did not know who or where they were, which she supposed was why no one could bear to look at him in case it was them. It became more insistent until, to her, it appeared to fill the whole café.
She didn’t find the noise meaningless or dispiriting, for it set her memory racing thirty years back to being a child and fading into sleep. Then, as now, she never went from the conscious world straight into sleep like maybe a healthy person would, but into another world between her and deep sleep itself, always a different place through which she had to pass before reaching real sleep, and she only knew she’d done that when she woke up.
She remembered feeling, once in this twilight zone, the horror of being about to die. A huge leaden sphere pressed against her brain as if to crush all five senses at once. As big as the earth, it rolled on to her, till her eyes saw only grey matter and her breath was starting not to pump. She called for her father, who came in and brought her back to full breath by some kind and trivial gesture of distraction.
Because of this outcome it was not a bad memory that the old man’s noise had set off, yet now it began to annoy her, for she had come into the café for a cup of tea as a break from the grind of buying scarves for the children, and hadn’t been in five minutes before bumping into this.
An older woman sitting on the other side had wire glasses and straw-blonde hair, and puffed a fag while looking out of the window as if to burn her way through the glass with the acetylene smoke of it. She was nearer, but Margaret couldn’t imagine her being bothered by him in a hundred years – till she had the strange idea that maybe everybody else in the café had their heads filled with the same thoughts and words that she had.
Her laugh at this interrupted the noise coming from the man’s mouth, her face turning red with shame because he must have heard her and imagined she was laughing at him. She was almost relieved when the rattle started again.
His tie-knot was slightly below the join of the collar. A hand was limp by his side, while the other jerked at the half-empty cup. She thought it a pity he’d let the tea inside get cold, then leaped up and opened his coat, trembling with embarrassment at her big belly getting in the way but acting as if it was the only thing left to do in her life: ‘Are you all right? What is it then? Tell me, for God’s sake?’
He wanted help, and she wanted help in order to help him, for her voice wavered at his eyes rolling, and the sound of finger nails scraping on tin coming from his clenched lips, pressed tight as if trying to stop something getting out for the last time. She was frightened at the sight of his convulsed body.
She pulled down the knot of his tie and flung it open, snapped his collar at the stud though it wasn’t in any way tight at his withered neck: ‘Where do you live, duck?’
Trouser-legs chafed at the supports of the table, as if they could stop him falling down to earth, because the bench he sat on was not enough. She looked from the double-white world of his pot-eyes and shouted in a panic: ‘Can’t somebody give me a hand, then?’
A waitress came over, more, Margaret reflected later, because she thought I might start to give birth if she didn’t, than to be of much use to the old man. ‘Is he badly?’
The noise stopped, and he was dead.
‘You’d better call an ambulance,’ Margaret said, ‘and a copper. But he’s still more alive though than you bleddy lot in here.’
The Second Chance
A swathe of Queen Anne’s lace was crushed in the front wheelspokes as he pushed along the edge of a field, producing a summer smell pleasant to the nostrils. At the lane he climbed on to the machine and followed the lefthand rut, but when it became too deep and the pedals scraped its sides he balanced along the dry hump in the middle, hitting an occasional stone but staying on track. The thin blue-and-black band of a Royal Air Force pilot officer decorated each sleeve.
The sit-up-and-beg pushbike rattled incurably and had no three-speed. Chalk dust covered his shining toe-caps, but a few quick brushes with a cloth would bring the glisten back. It wouldn’t do for the old folks to see him less than impeccable. Why a bike was thought to be more convincing in his approach he did not know. A bull-nosed Morris of the period would have been more in keeping, and in any case he wouldn’t have cycled all the way from his airfield, as they liked to imagine.
It was an effort to lift the bike without spoiling his uniform but, putting his strength at the saddle and handlebars, he tilted the front wheel to the sky and sent it to the other side. The afternoon visit was preceded by a few hours of intense preparation, mostly the perusal of a refresher course which made him properly familiar with the person he was supposed to be.
He sat on the stile before climbing after his bicycle. White feathers of cirrus in the west were as yet only a wispy tenth or two, but a meteorological front was expected, and his study of such matters led him to predict rain by nightfall. He wasn’t to know for sure. Perhaps the storm wouldn’t come till tomorrow. There were no weather forecasts on the wireless in the days he was supposed to be living in.
Out of the next field came sharp stuttering cries from a score or so of sheep. The noise of ewes bewailing the loss of their lambs was continuous, and he felt better when the intensity of their distress was lessened by distance.
The old man brought Helen to the window so that they could witness him coming towards the house. At the next corner of the lane he would see them waving when he leaned his bike against a wooden gate and took off his cap to rake a hand through short fair hair. The telegram said he could only stay for tea, but they would be glad enough of that, living in a world where any sight of him could be their last.
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