New and Collected Stories, p.53Alan Sillitoe
‘If you must go,’ Baxter had said, ‘and you must – we all know that, don’t we, Helen, my dear? – then don’t for God’s sake join the army and have to march along those horrible pavé roads in France!’
He laughed, as he was meant to while they looked at the hump-haze of the Downs. He was genned up to the eyebrows: ‘You don’t go from a university air squadron into the infantry!’
Instead of marching at two-and-a-half miles an hour on cobblestones towards the Front as in the olden days Peter had flown at almost a hundred in a Tiger Moth, and later at over three times that in a Spitfire. They welcomed him at the gate as a perfect memorial to their twenty years of happiness – while he knew himself to be nothing of the sort.
Major Baxter found the features so similar, and mannerisms so close when he first noticed him at the bar of the pub-hotel in Saleham that he stood shaking his head as if not wanting to believe what he saw, while knowing it was likely that he would have no say in the matter. The uneasiness of sensing that he should draw back, mixed with a confused vision of what would happen if he did not, vanished like the sort of dream that couldn’t be remembered on waking up.
The ordeal of seeing this spitten image of his dead son was so great that he forgot why he had come into the hotel. There was a smell of beer, dusty sunshine and olives (or were they pickled onions?) and a reek of tobacco smoke. He stood and patted the outside of each pocket to locate his cigarette case, which gave time, and saved him being noticed while in a state close to shock. To be caught staring would make him think he’d done something immoral, so he took out a cigarette and had, thank God, to search for a match.
He felt he might be going to faint, and the last time he had known such a sensation was when a shell splinter struck his thigh near Trones Wood in France, too long ago to bother. Having gone unhurt through so many dangers made him also proud of the fact that he’d never been stricken by an illness. Not even as a child had he broken bones or got put to bed.
He turned from his own image in the mirror, hair and moustache silver, tanned face gone pallid. A force that ached in his heels urged him to get set for the door and run, but he was unable to move for the moment, merely telling himself he must not speak to the young man sitting alone at the bar who, if he had worn an RAF officer’s uniform with a pilot’s white wings on his breast above the left pocket of his tunic, would have been none other than his actual son.
Baxter knew it was useless to say never because no sooner did the word manifest itself than the action began which drove him towards what he had decided not to say or do. To determine never to take a certain course deprived you of that flexibility of mind needed for solving a problem, and laid you open to doing exactly what you had resolved to steer clear of. He knew those ‘nevers’ all right! A soldier and a man of business had always to be aware and to beware of them. At the same time he realized that, as in every crisis, the necessary action would demand a combination of will, judgment and luck, a trio of factors he had rarely managed more than two of at any one time.
He had come into the hotel because his cigarette case was almost empty. His vigour made him more likely to admit that he had ‘seen things’. But he hadn’t. Yet having acted, even in so small a fashion, the shock was no longer disabling. To do anything at all would clear at least one part of the mind, and suddenly he found himself as far as the bar.
He was a large man, stout but erect, and a one-handed grip at the rail, vital to his pride, allowed him to appear nonchalant when the waiter came through an archway. The young man who looked like his son spoke before Major Baxter could give his order. ‘A pint of your best bitter.’
‘I have the most raging thirst.’ When he drew out his wallet and opened it wide to pull a five pound note from an inner pocket Baxter’s sharp eye took in the details of a formally lettered business card.
‘It’s the first hot day of the year,’ the waiter said, robbing Baxter of saying the same.
‘We waited a long time for a touch of the sun. Always have to in this country, I suppose.’ The voice had a tone of lassitude and disappointment which Peter’s never could at the age he had died. Yet it made him seem even more as if he might be Peter, who hadn’t grown a day older in appearance but who, having seen everyone else put on the years, reflected the fact in his voice.
Baxter stood so that he could see the young man’s face in the glass from both angles. Different images shifted and confirmed the exactness. But he questioned whether it was such a likeness, whether he hadn’t in the space of twenty years forgotten what his son looked like, and whether the young man merely resembled one of the photographs in the snapshot album.
At sixty-six Baxter recalled how true it was that a few years after Peter’s death he had, out of an inner and ever-burning grief, forgotten the precise shape of his son’s features. Yet nowadays he was able to see people and events of twenty or even forty years ago with a sharpness that hadn’t been possible when nearer to the circumstances themselves. Thus he remembered his son’s face as if he had seen him only five minutes before, and knew it was the same in every part as that of the young man lifting the glass of beer to his mouth.
He asked for cigarettes, and a double whisky so as to make sure his impression was correct, and to convince himself that he wasn’t going absolutely bonkers. He had little philosophy of life beyond the injunction to check everything once, twice, and three times – which was periodically necessary if you were to get anywhere, and defend yourself against the world.
He knew that the neutral and jovial tone was characteristic of himself. His left hand shook, but was controlled the moment he was aware. He hoped no one would have noticed the inner shaking of veins that led to his fingers. But by holding even his elbow still in its tracks he was afraid the whole limb might turn to stone. He saw his own features, and how the much whitened eyes bulged even more from their sockets, causing him to reflect that he always did look like a bloody fish, with too much eye and bristle.
The young man noted Baxter’s smile, as well as his blue and white striped shirt, the grey tie and blue alpaca cardigan, and the heavy black horn-rims that looked like National Health specs but that no doubt cost a bomb-and-three-quarters at some posh optician’s. He saw that he had grey hair, a moustache half hiding lips which he thought to be too thin, and deep blue eyes. Small town pubs were full of such lonely old souls, though Peter felt he had nothing to lose by answering:
‘Driving to Brighton. I get so thirsty on the road, not to say bored.’
He wore a good jacket, and a shirt without a tie. Wouldn’t allow it in the evening, Baxter told himself, even these days – conceding however that he looked smart enough. His hair had the close and even waves that had been his son’s, and was similarly short. He clipped his words in the same way.
‘Going there for pleasure?’
He turned, and by laughing at this harmless query fell into the trap Baxter had laid to gain several advantages at once, for while recording the full intensity of the grey-blue eyes, Baxter also got a sight of the teeth, and was able to gauge the tone of the laugh itself, as well as notice how he put slightly more weight on the left foot than the right. He used the word uncanny in his summing up because he couldn’t think of one that fitted the coincidence more neatly. The shape of the fingers, the motion of the hands, the clean-shaven texture of the skin – were the same.
There was no reason to be unsociable. ‘Heavens, no. Stay in Town for that!’
During one vacation Baxter’s son had spread a navigation chart on the study table to do some plotting practice. He had looked over his shoulder and watched his hands manipulating a pair of dividers, opening and closing parallel rulers, wielding fine-pointed pencils, and dextrously twiddling the knobs of a Dalton computer. The fingers matched those now reaching for matches on the bar, and lighting the same brand of cigarette that his son had smoked.
Hating the nosey parker he had suddenly tur
He was saved the trouble: ‘It’s work I’m bent on. Business, you know.’
‘Are you now?’
The matter was left for a moment. Baxter thought he might offer him a drink, yet saw no point in keeping him. If he vanished for ever that would be fate, for both of them, as well as for Helen. He at least had been vouchsafed another sight of his son, and mulled on this till he remembered that Helen might wonder why he was late coming home. She wouldn’t, and never had. When Baxter had come home that day and heard that Peter was reported missing presumed killed she was just turned forty, and had been concerned about nothing and nobody ever since.
After a long hot day in early autumn Major Baxter had returned from a field exercise with his Home Guard company. At forty-six years of age he was ready, with his good health and experience, to lead his men once more. Others like him had been in the trenches, and in defence would have the kind of staying power that the young couldn’t know about. Nineteen-eighteen seemed like yesterday to those who had served in France, and they were excellent stiffening for the others, as well as being good shots.
Baxter was known as ‘Old Scissors’, and wore the faintest of smiles when he got them on parade, or had them semicirded about him for a lecture, because he knew they didn’t realize that he was aware of his nickname. But they did. There was a point beyond which he wasn’t much bothered, but it took him deep enough in the association for them to trust him, and be willing to follow him anywhere providing it wasn’t too far towards the besetting sin of incompetence. He was a good leader, because he knew how to lead gently. Yet he was more aware of their limitations than he was of his own, and maybe that was the reason he was never given a battalion.
He came home exhausted and filthy, yet still excited from his time out of doors, throwing map case, field glasses and tin hat on to the stand in the cool hall. A seventeen-year-old had broken his ankle leaping a ditch, so he would have to call and see him tomorrow on his way to the office. The damned fool should have waded over, but he was a young bull who could hardly let experience take the place of brains because he hadn’t yet got any. God help some of them if the Germans came, though they still had a few tricks tucked into their gaiters.
Helen stared into the food safe.
‘Better shut it,’ he told her, ‘or the flies’ll make an entry.’
She didn’t turn: ‘George, there’s a telegram on the table.’
He saw it. ‘Open it, then. Must be from your mother.’
‘You do it.’
Unbuttoning his battledress tunic, he felt an unexplained rage eating at his backbone, as if the ache of two days were attacking him all at once. ‘We’ll see what it says, shall we?’
Her plea went into him like a thorn, but he kept his voice in its proper place, assuming that one of them would have to for the rest of their lives. ‘Oh, come now, my love, close that thing, and let’s have tea.’
It was as if she had turned to wood. He picked up the small brown envelope. The telegraph boy had known what was written there, and so had she, hands shaking as she scribbled in his receipt book for the telegram which they had dreaded since the war began.
She heard the faint rip as if the sky were being torn in two. ‘Please!’
Impossible not to bring out the small piece of folded paper. She sounded as if she would never forgive him if he did, but what he read dimmed all feeling, such pain at least promising that nothing would ever hurt him again. Her eyes told him to say nothing, while he forced her as gently as was in him away from the food safe and into the living room. He obeyed her by not repeating the words of the telegram, and wondered ever afterwards why he had locked the message away with his insurance policies and never looked at it again.
Peter had cycled home a few days before his last sortie over France where he had been killed in his fighter above the towns and villages Baxter knew so well. While Helen slept he looked at his old maps and wondered where it was, but packed them away on hearing the shuffle of her feet as if they were love letters from some liaison which it would break her spirit to learn about.
She said nothing, but his nothing in response was of equal intensity. The perfect union between mother and son had been blighted by death. Baxter’s own love, though it was all he had, seemed little by comparison, the sort of nothing that didn’t even have anything beyond except nothing. But she didn’t say a word, as he recalled, and neither could he, for any speech on the matter would have been so shallow as to have spoiled that ideal love.
The affection between father and son had also been perfect, in its fashion, but different in such a way that it would always remain impossible to define. There was no label for it, and he was not the man to give one, or to try and sort out whatever lay behind it if he did.
Not a tear had dropped from Helen’s eyes in over twenty years. He would have liked to have seen some stain marking her cheeks, a sign of pain from which it might be feasible to recover. The thought sometimes occurred that maybe she wept in secret, but there was never any indication to reinforce – let alone confirm – such a suspicion. And if she did, which in spite of having known her so long he still couldn’t be certain of, he had no right to venture into such an intensely personal area. Because she never wept, he learned to live without hope, and did so with no complaint.
He watched her hair turning grey, like a flower settling too soon into winter after an unexpectedly bitter frost in August. To anyone looking on, it appeared that she took Peter’s death like others stricken in the same way, but the loss fixed her to the day on which the telegram came so that time had no effect on her soul.
Baxter had always imagined that the dead were the lucky ones. They had felt it in the trenches even if the saying had stayed unspoken, a common deception to make their peril more tolerable. But the death in this case had caused those who remained to die and Helen, who had taken the shock too profoundly for it ever to go away, wasn’t lucky at all. He couldn’t understand it, but had always thought that one day he might. Yet he understood perfectly. The fine balance kept him living, and drudged him along in a state which never failed to make people think that in spite of his occasional cynicisms concerning the uselessness of life, he too was ‘putting a good face on it’.
Only half of her lived. Life was unjust to her in that he was able to absorb the shock with what appeared to be his more stoical nature – and perhaps, he sometimes thought, indifference. The heart can take only so much pain, yet it was also as if he had been used to such agony since birth. He was thankful that these deficiencies – if that’s what they were – enabled him to provide the vital support. One of them had to, and the unspoken treaty allowed Helen to go on living yet never talk about her son.
Forever locked into each separate fire of deliberate forgetfulness was their only way of never putting Peter out of their minds for a single instant, and kept him more alive than if they had gone through endless seasons of grieving together. It was as if one word about him from either would consign him to a void into which all their memories would inevitably follow, and that was unthinkable.
But he continually pondered on ways of bringing Helen back to life without breaking their sacred pact. She stood in the garden and looked with vacant eyes as the engines of Lancasters or Dakotas or Spitfires sounded overhead. Peter’s belongings of watch, spare uniform, trinkets and books came home, which Major Baxter signed for and locked away. A friend motored over with his bicycle, and thank God it was on a day when Helen slept from sheer weakness of body and spirit.
Doing the housework, or walking the garden, she would half faint for no reason. Nothing was diagnosed. For years a girl from the village had to be there if he was not. When the war ended he began to hope that she would one day come out of the near
Music and voices blended from the dining room. The young man clacked his pint glass on the bar. ‘Well, I must be going.’
Major Baxter drank his whisky. ‘Not much of a meal you had.’
‘I prefer to drive at lunch time. Less traffic on the road. I hate cars!’
‘We all do. But we drive ’em.’
‘Not to mention that twenty-mile red-bricked push out of London – through All-the-Croydons.’ Peter looked vacantly at himself in the mirror, then turned away. ‘I came via Leatherhead and Box Hill. Longer, but less dreary. I’ll have tea later, in any case.’
He didn’t care to ask a direct question, but there were occasions when all subtlety must be thrown aside: ‘What sort of business are you in?’
Peter would no doubt have grown to show his lack of amusement in the same way: ‘Books. The antiquarian kind. I’m going to Brighton on the off-chance of picking up a few. What do you do?’
‘I’m Major Baxter – retired. Was in insurance.’
Peter’s face lost all interest. ‘Nice.’
‘I have a lot of books.’
There was no plan, yet Baxter knew what would happen. The occurrence was packed within the limits of a scheme that was manoeuvring him, about which he could do nothing because the will to do, or not to do, had been taken away. It was a new experience, perhaps a necessary one, but he masked the fact that he didn’t much like it by telling himself that at least it was happening late in life. Had he been younger, his pride would have spoiled it, while even now, an ever-present inanition might cause him to give in and do nothing.
Peter felt blood coming back into his face at the prospect of finding a well-tooled leather-bound hoard he only dreamed about. But there were probably no more than a few damp novels, a children’s encyclopaedia, and a mountain of pulp magazines. He could smell them already. Hose ’em with petrol and apply a match. ‘What sort of books?’
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