New and Collected Stories, p.54Alan Sillitoe
‘Travel and topography mostly,’ Baxter said. ‘A few natural history. I sometimes forget what I have got. Fair bindings though, most of them. Came from my father, who collected all his life. Didn’t have the heart to throw ’em out. But space is precious these days.’
It sounded exactly the stuff he was after, but it would be foolish to let the eyes gleam or muscles twitch over it. ‘Do you ever think of selling any?’
Major Baxter ordered two whiskies. ‘I might be, but look, Peter, why don’t you come back and see them – if you’re interested. Time is time, and nobody knows that better than I do.’
He recovered quickly from hearing himself called by his own name even before, as far as he knew, he had given it. At least, it was his middle name, the one his mother had used whenever his father wasn’t close enough to hear.
He nodded at Baxter’s idea, and agreed to follow his car, thinking he might make a fiver or so out of the weird old bloke before the day was finished.
Baxter shopped twice a week, and with all provisions stowed in the boot he purchased flowers from the funny little one-eyed woman who had a stall near the car park. After buying them on two occasions when Helen had been unable to leave her room, he felt he could no longer pass unless he took up a bunch of something. The one-eyed woman expected him to, or hoped he would, and you were obliged, really, to encourage a flower-stall, for they were rare enough these days. Unless there were carnations or mimosa it was often unnecessary to buy because Helen managed to grow some blooms each year in the garden. Mostly there wasn’t much more he could take, because there was nothing she asked for, and little she appeared to need.
The major was a good leader because he drove with care, some would say slowly, deliberately taking bends and rounding corners he had negotiated for the past thirty years with a calculated sweep just short of stalling. Nevertheless he was amazed at how the little red underslung Morgan stayed in his rear mirror and never wavered.
One part of the winding lane was a green tunnel which opened out before turning a corner into a village. Beyond, he waited at a humpbacked bridge for a couple of cars and a tractor to come over, holding back whether or not he had right of way, because he was the sort of driver who tried to stop everyone else on the road from committing the mistakes he himself might have made if he did not hold his recklessness in firm control.
Peter felt confined for life as a part of a two-man bumper-to-bumper traffic queue set in rolling and wooded landscape on an empty road. No wonder we nearly lost the bloody war. There were two places at which it was possible to shoot out and overtake, but on such a narrow lane you could always rely on a souped-up bullet-like Mini to come round a bend at sixty and smash you for dead if you made that kind of move. It was no use anyway because he didn’t know where the old man lived. Like all cunning slow coaches he didn’t give his address so that, with it pencilled on the map, he might have scooted there by himself and waited at his leisure. Maybe he was a bit cracked, and would lead him a fifty-mile zig-zag before vanishing up the drive of some looney-bin or other. Yet if he had the books he said he had, perhaps it might be possible to pry a few dozen loose before other dealers got there.
‘As far as I’m concerned,’ his father had said, ‘you only have two chances in life. You’ve had the first, and it landed you in prison.’
The days when he would have stood up for his father were over. Get on your feet for those who can help you, otherwise … He held his thumb down by the side of the armchair where it wouldn’t be seen. ‘I only got six months.’
Nearly drove into the old bastard. If he’s so mean over his petrol, or careful of his skin, will he ever sell a book? A rabbit which ran along the lane suddenly stood perfectly still with fright, then vanished into the grassy bank as if part of the tarmac road had tipped up under its back legs.
‘Well, I could have got more.’
‘Yes, you’d have been sent down for two years,’ his father shouted, ‘if I hadn’t paid for a solicitor and a barrister.’ He had to calm himself or his heart would go splash. ‘Cashing cheques with my forged name on them is all very well, but not other people’s.’
‘I served four months – with remission.’ Peter could see the fact running through his father’s mind that some people were very law-abiding in prison, and that if they were as well-behaved outside they would never get put into the place.
A second chance was like the second coming: when it appeared he barely recognized it. Flynn wanted him for his book business, and even his father thought it sound enough to spare a few hundred on. It seemed to offer a better living than that expensive school had prepared him for, which had only taught him (and the old bastard put on a higher moral tone to make his point) to be somebody he wasn’t, so as to get things he had no right to, but in such a way that he wouldn’t be able to keep them. And if he did bring something off he was bound to get caught sooner or later – as the silly ass found out when he tried his stunts on a woman who had more astuteness in her little finger than he’d ever have in the whole of his underworked backbone.
‘If your mother had been alive I don’t know what the hell she would have thought, though God knows, I don’t think she would have cared one way or the other what you got up to, knowing what she was herself. When I met her she was pregnant, though a fat lot I knew. I fell in love with her. The war was on. And I didn’t give a damn!’
He’d been drinking whisky at dinner, and was unaware of the malice in his voice, wouldn’t in fact remember next morning, otherwise Peter would have given in to his rage and knocked him down. He rarely got drunk, and was in a good mood, and said he would put money into his ‘trading venture’ (so as to get me off his hands). He even remembered his promise the following day, by which time Peter felt it was rather too late to floor him for having been so vicious about his mother. Not that, at this turn of events, he still wanted to.
His mother had been dead a long time, and all he remembered were her nightly stories during the war when he was four or five which told of his father flying around the sky and coming to earth in a parachute of different colours. The tale often brought tears to her eyes, so after the first few tellings its mystery became tedious, and when he told her so, she didn’t cry any more. But his father had been away in Scotland sorting out legal queries in the Pay Corps and hadn’t flown in aeroplanes at all.
The greenery was rich yet still precise. Garden blossoms stood out delicately clear over the lane. Whenever the road took him to a crest the smokiness towards the horizon kept every detail distinct in the foreground, presaging the season about to break. He was unconcerned with what it might bring because he considered that, in spite of his stint in prison, life hadn’t been too bad so far.
‘It’s five and three-quarter miles exactly,’ the major explained before getting into his Austin A40 at the car park, but it already seemed like ten, in the unfamiliar area of sunken and twisting lanes whose short cuts the old bloke must have worked out some time before the Flood.
Major Baxter felt that the squat sports car had never been anything but set red in his rear mirror and waiting for him to move more quickly. But what was the use of it in this day and age? Still, no one had ever followed with such closeness and precision, though he was certain that Peter’s pilot and navigator training would have allowed him to do the same. He had brought him up that way, as well as providing lengthy answers to every question, careful not to hide or mislead, and courteous in those innocent dealings between a father and son who had never spent much time together. He had sent him to schools which kept him out of trouble, so there hadn’t been any of that and, as time went on, no gaps where it could have occurred, for he went from public school to university, and then via the air squadron to the volunteer reserve, leaving no periods either of idleness or neglect in which he could have contested the rules they had brought him up to respect. Baxter would have found such a dialogue hard to take, and had been glad of the way of life that helped to make it unthi
They’d had much to be grateful for but, like many such parents, had had to pay for it. In those days no one questioned their duty, probably because it had been so plain that they had neither wanted to – nor been able to.
Helen would be glad to see Peter before he went away as unobtrusively as he had come, for she would notice that he was well, and had grown no older while she had so unduly grieved. Perhaps it had been good that they had not mentioned him to each other these last twenty years, for the shock of seeing him might bring her from the prolonged malaise into which she had retreated. The major had not in that time seen one smile or heard any laughter. Her lips had thinned, the mouth had straightened, the eyes had become dull and her movements slower. She spoke far from easily, yet with his help she kept the house and worked in the garden, so that few would surmise she wasn’t living a kind of ordinary life – apart from the occasional breakdown.
They’d never had much to do with neighbours, while other members of the family had died over the years, or been killed in accidents, or in war, or had emigrated, or had become so disaffected for some reason that they didn’t come within a hundred miles. Circumstances separated the Baxters from everyone else, and they maintained a dignity towards each other rather than to the rest of the world, thus reinforcing a feeling that had already been there, but that grew stronger the longer it went on after their son’s death.
It was the best way they could find of living normally, though he knew that compared to her former self she had altered so much as to have died. He had married her, and Peter had come into the world, and by this she had been killed. If he had relapsed into a similar death such truths might not have occurred to him but, being the simple man he was, and tending to be proud of it – suggesting that beneath the simplicity lay a complexity of which he was even more proud – he hadn’t been able to die in that way. And being the kind of man who wanted the richness of life to return to her, he thought that anything was worth the attempt, and that this duplicate of their own son found again and following in his car behind should bring her at least a few moments of joy.
Tyres crunched gently to a stop on familiar gravel. Lifting two laden straw baskets out of the boot he heard a few drops of rain clattering on rose leaves and the roof of the brick garage.
‘You’re late, dear,’ Helen called from the doorway.
He looked up, and noticed an edge of darkening cumulo-nimbus. ‘We have a visitor.’
Peter stood by his car. These old well-kept country places could be packed with all sorts of rare gew-gaws.
‘Follow me in?’ Major Baxter’s plea would have been difficult to ignore, though Peter considered doing so, because the tone suggested that, after wasting time, energy and petrol there might not be any books after all. Nevertheless, he asked to carry one of the baskets, not knowing that Baxter had deliberately paused for him to do so after recalling that his son Peter would have offered no less, for even at twenty he had had enough imagination, as well as a shy sort of kindness, to think of others.
Peter put the basket nonchalantly over the left shoulder and held it in place with his right hand, showing freckles on the back of his wrist. Baxter’s wife recognized him by this gesture before seeing his actual features, and her husband, with sharper sight, was close enough to notice that her lips were unusually tense.
From a distance she looked younger than her husband. She supported herself by the lintel, as if there was some weakness in her legs. Peter also noted the hesitation before she waved, and then called his name – with a smile that recapitulated for Baxter in one fell package the whole twenty years of her deprivation. The pain was intense, but he steadied himself while keeping back the vivid recollection of his own lost love.
His anguish did not alter the rate of his slow walk towards her. He didn’t know whether to hope she’d see this young man as a stranger who reminded her of Peter, or that she would accept him completely as her one-time son. He didn’t know which he wanted more, if indeed he now desired either of them. But her intonation of mother-chiding, suggesting she hadn’t seen him for a week or so, hid a lack of awareness about what was happening, her smile at the same time putting her beyond the necessity for such perception.
Her face was unusually pale, and when she repeated his name it sounded like a call for help. ‘Peter!’
Since leaving prison he had stiffened his spirit by priding himself that nothing could faze him, though he took it as strange that, like her husband, she had known his name before anyone could have given it to her. When it had happened at the hotel he hadn’t liked it at all, but on hearing it from Baxter’s wife at the door of their house, he felt pleased at such an agreeable welcome.
Baxter noted that she didn’t weep at her son’s return, or put her arms around him, or kiss him as if she were aware he’d been away twenty years and that every minute she had gone through enough to break any heart. Perhaps it was just as well. She led him into the house as if she had seen him only the day before.
A stick-and-umbrella stand was made out of an enormously enlarged shot-gun cartridge. ‘Curious old thing, isn’t it? Picked it up at an auction for a penny or two, years ago,’ Baxter told him. ‘Thought it would look rather good by the door.’ He turned to his wife: ‘He’s come to see the books’ – then followed them cautiously into the living room, as if she might suddenly be blessed with reality and blame him for this deception – though there seemed no chance when she turned to say:
‘I do wish you would come home more often, Peter.’
The major smiled, and swung his shoulders back as if standing guard over some truth which he hoped neither of them would ever find. ‘Maybe he will.’
The only books were a row of paperbacks on a window ledge. There was no television, either, though an old wartime one-band wireless set stood on a table by the door. He decided against lighting a cigarette out of an unexpected feeling of respect, as if he had been there before and told it wasn’t the thing to do.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but I’m kept rather busy.’ No apology had ever been easier to make. He hadn’t known about their books, so there’d been no point in paying them a call. There was a stench in the place, confirmed when an enormous and obviously neutered tabby lifted itself from behind a copper plant pot, dropped softly to the floor like an oversized floorcloth, and padded out of the room as if Peter were an intruder it didn’t care to meet.
She peered lengthily at him from a few feet away, and even that didn’t cause him the uneasiness it might had she been someone less strange. ‘It’s nice to be here, though.’
The major coughed. ‘We’re lucky to see him again – so soon.’
‘I hear those planes flying over every night’ – she waved towards the ceiling but looked at the floor – ‘so I know you’re so awfully occupied.’
It was difficult to tell what she saw. Her husband wondered, and stood as though ready to dash forward if she fell. She didn’t. It was obvious that the visitor gave her strength. She didn’t lean for support any more. Clear vision was on her side. She saw Peter, and if it was only a day since he had last called, it had been the longest she could remember. But some days were like that, and it was difficult to tell what made them so. Here he was, and she decided not to fuss too much. The furniture, curtains and walls looked clearer than for years, and reminded her that perhaps it was time to start cleaning the place, since it wasn’t good for her only son to come home to a house that didn’t glitter with tidiness.
It was easier to breathe when rain swept against the leaded windows, and now that Peter had come back she made up her mind not to give in to those inner powers that often beset her when he was absent. Occasionally, if the assault was too sudden, she went away to the coast, and George would say: ‘You’ll be as right as rain in a month.’ She knew at such moments that because there was some anguish he could no longer take, she was to be put into an air-conditio
In his civilian clothes Peter looked almost the same as before going into the air force. She thought he must feel better to be out of uniform for a few hours, but wished he would smile, because he’d smiled a great deal as a child when he ran about on his own as if the flat and open garden was a maze to which only he had the key. Extending and complicating the invisible maze over the lawn kept him busy for hours. At each laugh he had worked out new twists and turns, or devised an exit that hadn’t been there before, or discovered a quick way into the interior that nobody else had been able to find.
He was adventurous and self-absorbed but, after growing up, became serious and hardly ever smiled, and only laughed at moments when neither of them could see anything amusing, or when he thought he was on his own, as if his maze had been wiped out during the greatest disappointment of his life, which was strange, because nothing like that could have occurred, as far as she remembered. He’d turned into the sober young man they’d hoped for, and what could you expect except unexplainable melancholy with this war going on and on? It was a shame that children were brought up to face such troubles.
‘I’ll make you some tea,’ she said.
A glance was sufficient for him to be able to describe someone afterwards, a method perfected in prison where to fix a person for any length of time might cause a fight. He took in enough of Mrs Baxter to remember her blue jersey and dark blue skirt, and that she had straight short grey hair, somewhat vacuous eyes, and dry pale skin which make-up might have camouflaged if she’d been by any chance expecting him. With such features she had once been a lively and goodlooking woman, but he saw that she was now at large in the territories of a fragmented mind, a state which, however, allowed her to maintain those appearances that she had always known were the height of decorous living.
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