New and Collected Stories, p.55Alan Sillitoe
‘Mrs Bruce left us a pot of damson jam yesterday. We can have that for tea. You remember Mrs Bruce, don’t you, Peter? She always asks about you.’
There was no need to use his powers of quick recognition in looking at Mrs Baxter, for it was plain that she wanted him to stare at her, though he didn’t because it wasn’t part of his nature to do what people expected. In any case a too studied gaze might disturb her husband, though he laughed on seeing him flush at the mention of Mrs Bruce, whoever she was, as if his embarrassment would have been the same whether he had slept with her or murdered her.
Baxter wondered how aware Helen was of the amount of time gone since Peter’s last appearance. Certainly it wasn’t necessary to tax his memory if Peter was supposed to have visited them in previous weeks. But there was no way of knowing, so it was better to let him talk, though what worried him at the moment was that Mrs Bruce had been dead fifteen years.
‘Of course I remember her.’
The major’s tone was one that he used to put people at their ease, though his laugh scared him in case it revealed anything. ‘Perhaps he’d rather have a sherry. I got two bottles of Dry Sack last week.’
‘I shall have to think about it,’ she said, causing Peter to smile, which made her believe he was doing so out of affection. He had never found it difficult to endear himself to women, no matter how batty they were. One of his girl friends once took him to meet an old aunt, who had talked in the same outlandish way. In the encounter he had combined impeccable behaviour with an ability to carry on a conversation at cross purposes which won him the confidence of the half-crazed lady yet lost him his girl friend because she saw him, so she said at their parting, as being ‘too bloody clever by half’.
‘No, George. He’ll have tea. I know my own son better than you do.’
Her vibrant tone concealed a weakness that neither could go against, and Peter had to tell himself that he had seen Baxter’s glance in his direction before realizing that he had.
‘All right then, dear.’
Helen detected their compliance, and smiled at Peter as if he would show her how happy she might finally be. He was on her side, and would defend her against the dark. He loved her, and his grey-blue eyes were opaque with a concern that would comfort her during any bout of desolation, though it seemed improbable that such could occur now that Peter had come home.
Her glances disturbed him, and he was glad to hear: ‘You two go and look at the books, if you must. Afterwards we’ll have tea in the dining room. It’s such a lovely day!’
Baxter walked along the corridor with shoulders more bent than when they met in town, as if being at home made him older. The house smelled damp, and any books in it had probably gone rotten through being set in shelves against an outside wall. Peter clenched his fists at the idea that he had been tricked into wasting his time, and felt uneasy while following Baxter because he didn’t yet know what if any profit he’d find by the end of the day.
‘What’s the idea, telling her I was your son?’
Baxter’s heavily veined hand trembled at the knob as he closed the door. ‘Keep your voice down.’
‘Tell me what’s going on, then.’
‘I will, my boy, I will’ – his sing-song suggesting he might never be able to. They were in a large study whose furniture, Peter saw, would notch up a fortune in the sale room. The Malcombe shotguns in their case must be worth a thousand. There were no guns finer. The major was delighted to show them, then returned both lovingly to their beds of green velvet. ‘I’m afraid she does think you’re our son.’
The admission demanded a calm response. ‘So I gather.’
A lacquered desk shone with its tiers of many drawers. He’d never seen anything so fine. He walked to a butterfly collection on one of the tables, lifted the lid, and peered at their reminiscent colours. A faint smell of ethyl acetate came out.
Baxter looked over his shoulder, pleased at a common interest that might make them more friendly. It was easy to believe his son had come back, though he fought not to while watching him examine the butterflies as intently as if he really had leapt with swinging net between the bushes. ‘He collected those.’
‘I did the same, once,’ Peter told him. ‘Not on this scale, though.’
‘We didn’t stint him. There are moths as well. You don’t see such things any more.’ The major opened a cupboard that went from floor to ceiling, revealing exhibition drawers of shells, birds’ eggs, geological specimens and beetles. ‘They weren’t all yours – his, rather. Collected some myself. That drawer was brought from India. Filled that one on the Nile.’
Peter walked to his books. People didn’t usually know how to keep them. A man once took him to see hundreds that were heaped in the corner of a garden shed. The smell of mould was appalling. Some were good titles, but all had been ruined, and the only way to move them was with a shovel – straight into a furnace. These, however, were well-shelved and looked after, so it was only natural to expect difficulty in prising a few loose from the old man. He looked at their spines before Baxter unlocked the glass doors.
‘Were these mine, as well?’
He opened a copy of Turton’s Travels on the Rhine of 1828, fingers touching print and paper, then running across the fresh coloured plates. There was Fitzjohn’s Flora of India, and a first edition of Goldsmith’s Wonders of Nature. He reached for Sir Roderick Murchison’s Russia in Europe and the Ural Mountains, with its coloured maps, plates and sections, published in two royal quarto volumes at eight guineas. God knows what it’s worth now, Peter wondered.
Baxter pointed to a first edition of Ford’s Hand-book of Spain, which led Peter to see, on the lower shelf, Penrose’s magnificent Principles of Athenian Architecture, a folio volume with forty plates. He had a client for every book in sight. They would positively slaver at the feel, look and – he wouldn’t be surprised – the smell of them.
Baxter’s face became momentarily anguished. ‘Most of them belonged to your grandfather.’
Peter unusually had some pity for people he knew well, and consequently had more than a little left over for himself, but he had none for Baxter, who would have to accept such dislike as part of their pact. What’s more he was unwilling to waste too much time on something which kept him from the sort of idleness he called independence. He could have been in Brighton by now. ‘What’s in it for me?’
‘Some are yours, of course,’ Baxter agreed. ‘You can browse through others when you come to spend a few hours’ leave with your mother. The only time she smiles is when you’re here.’
‘So I gather.’
‘It’s a great blessing for her to see you after so long. She hasn’t looked so well in years.’ He spoke slowly in order to make sure there was no misunderstanding, though averting his eyes since to look up would give him the new experience of feeling slightly stupid before his son. He threaded his fingers so firmly together that the knuckles turned white. Then he closed the exhibition case of butterflies, all awareness of what had been decided gone from his face. ‘Your mother hasn’t had much of a life in the last twenty years, but perhaps things will improve now.’
The heavy books could not be carried safely under his arms. He had a vision of broken spines and scuffed pages – and of Baxter picking them up from the floor. The bargain was no confidence trick, poor old soul. He would defy even his own father to think so – not that it would matter if he did. Perhaps his quaint barrister prejudice about being in trade would lead him to see this little transaction as a more worthwhile manifestation of it. He placed all six books side by side on the table, then walked to the open window where he heard the insects living out their noisy lives under bushes and between grass stalks.
The major, erect and with springing steps, as if pleased that his mind was made up on a matter that had worried him for years, went to the desk and set his gaze at the lefthand column of small drawers. He didn’t need to stare, but was putting on a show, Peter thought. He counted slowly from th
Peter had expected something else. ‘Why?’
‘He smoked them. They came back with his things.’
‘You lit your last but one in the hotel.’
‘You’re very observant.’
‘Yes. It’s habit. And training.’
The name was the same, but the label a different design. The firm had kept up with the times. They were solid enough as cigarettes, and he rolled one between his lips in case the paper stuck to his skin. He didn’t like being scrutinized, but wouldn’t let it matter, as he scraped the match towards himself and looked hard at the flame to make sure it was alive. The tobacco was dry and tasteless.
When Peter let out the first puff of smoke Major Baxter saw that unless memory was trying to destroy his mind with pernicious inaccuracies his son’s gestures were exactly repeated by this stray fellow who looked so much like him. He had never seen him light a cigarette without a flicker of distaste for the whole process curling his lower lip, before going on to enjoy it more than he should.
Peter pushed certain of his mean thoughts aside because he had the feeling that Baxter could read them as clearly as a title page in one of those mint first editions in the bookcase. He decided to be careful in handling this piece of luck, and be nice to the old girl when they went down for tea.
‘Come on, Peter, I’ll show you to your room.’
He wondered whether Baxter wasn’t going barmy in an unspectacular way, in spite of his cunning expression. He seemed in thrall to something so monstrous that Peter wanted to get as far from the house as he could. But the rules of the game lay with Baxter. It would be cowardly to go, and deprive himself of knowing just what they were up to. At the same time he didn’t like the fact that his curiosity was becoming even more important than the idea of getting something for nothing. Such a thing had rarely ended in anything except trouble.
Baxter’s broad back led him along the corridor, through the dust zone and mothball layer to a converted attic. The studio-type window extending the length of the roof seemed out of character with the rest of the house. A brass telescope on a tripod was placed beside a star-globe, and Peter gripped his hands behind his back so as not to touch its brass framework of co-ordinates. He stood by a table that was covered with maps and drawing instruments.
‘I taught him to use maps. Must have been better than me at it, at the end – and that’s saying something.’ Baxter saw reality in their grid lines and conventional signs, but recalled that his son had mastered their utility more to please him than satisfy any innate love for them. Something had gone wrong over the maps, and he couldn’t be sure why, though it didn’t seem important now that he had – as it were – come back.
The room had been kept tidy, and he imagined Baxter cleaning it every week. The iron grey-painted bed was made up. A fine-drawn line set out from a point on the plotting chart and ended where no towns were, as if whoever had been guiding his pencil along the ruler had heard a voice calling from downstairs and, Peter thought, having been brought up to instant obedience, had stopped work to answer. He had become a pilot, which was as far as he could get from the infantry of his father. When flying, he was on his own.
Baxter took a Royal Air Force uniform from the wardrobe and laid it along the bed. ‘Want to get into that?’
His impulse was to say no, because he too had been brought up to say yes. He had worn a uniform for three years in the cadet force at school. There was also the other garb in prison, whose buttons were made of tin, not brass, and the material was horsecloth, unlike this smartly tailored well-creased blue with its pilot’s white wings and officer’s insignia. He took the flap of a front pocket between his fingers, thinking that if he had been twenty years older he would once have worn something similar, though it would probably have been khaki, and knowing his luck he’d have been brewed up in a tank, or dismembered around a mangled gun. ‘It’s good stuff.’
‘Of course it is.’ Baxter’s sharp tone implied that he ought to realize that they had never given him anything except the best.
There was a school desk in one corner, with an inkwell which must have been regularly filled. The black liquid glittered like the tip of a snake’s tail, and he drew back at the old man’s voice: ‘I’ll leave you to spruce up a bit. I expect a good tea’s being got ready. Don’t forget to bring the cigarettes. And if you’d like to offer one to your mother, that’s all right. It sometimes amuses her to refuse!’
He heard Baxter close the door. There was an old portable gramophone, and a pile of seventy-eight records on a separate table. When he tried to turn the handle he found it fully wound. He’d done nothing for himself, whoever he was. Peter fought off a wish to set it spinning and play a tune. There were foxtrots and tangos, and one or two classical piano pieces under the heap.
He again thought of running away, but what was the point? You always ended by going in circles. In the mirror, he wondered how much longer his lips would conceal the bitterness he felt. But he was happy, while knowing he was trapped. For the price of a few books he was doing a mad old woman a favour.
The uniform fitted, except for a slight pressure at the shoulders. He speculated on what books he would take, and on those he might help himself to on a further visit. Before going down to play his part, like someone who had once fancied himself as an actor, he tried to imagine what sort of person he had been whose uniform he was dressed in. The landscape helped, when he looked out of the enlarged window. The green hill in front was overpowering. Treetops of a copse on either side made a darker smudge, and to the right an unpaved lane led to a thatched farmhouse almost hidden by the thickening vegetation of late spring. Two horses walked across a field, and stopped under a tree to shelter from the rain.
Maybe the other bloke had died with this scenery in mind. He swore, out of pity. Bullets had shattered his plane, a handful of burning coals flung at his back with incredible speed. His parachute hadn’t opened, and he had gone like a stone into water, stunned at the impact and dead before getting wet. He had come back to life. Peter smiled at the thought that the sky was his parachute, and would hold him for ever. He had never given into his father’s bullying request that he get his feet on the ground. Perhaps he had taken his mother’s story too much to heart.
The black shoes fitted. He pulled them off and walked around the room. He was hungry, a feeling which brought him closer to anger than at any time that day. Had he hated this view, and grown sick of looking at it, before leaving for the last time? He put the shoes on again, though they were stiff from lack of wear.
Baxter nodded towards the stairway. ‘He’ll be down in a moment or two.’
‘Do you think he will?’
He watched her. She had thought of setting tea in the kitchen where Peter had liked to eat as a boy, but Baxter insisted on the dining room because it would be stupid taking Peter’s mind back to those pampered days. He used the word ‘stupid’. There was a war on, and one had to forget such times. He said ‘one’ instead of ‘we’ or ‘you’. She had to admit there was no going back, and that she was – they were – lucky to have him here at all with so many boys – well, never coming home again. It wasn’t easy to make out why he had reappeared when for some time she had thought him ‘missing presumed killed’, but here he was and it didn’t do to question too much. You must enjoy happiness no matter where it came from, and whatever the explanation might be.
‘No, don’t call him.’
‘Why ever not?’
‘Just – don’t, George.’ She was determined to get her own way. It was so long since she had done so that she couldn’t remember when it had last happened. But if she won her point now, it wouldn’t matter, except that it wasn’t really important. ‘He must be tired.’ Baxter noticed how embarrassed she was at saying so. ‘You know he likes a quiet few minutes in his room, even when he can only spend an hour with us.’
She had made sandwiches, and smiled while altering the position of the cake on the table for the third time. He counted them. She wondered where Peter would sit.
He told her. ‘Always by the fire. Even when it isn’t lit.’
The photograph on the sideboard was tilted towards the window. There were resemblances in the straight but slightly thin nose, in the same lips and similar forehead. He looked like Helen. But the photograph was of an innocent young man who had loved and respected his parents. He had confided in them and you couldn’t have asked for more than that. Pity he had to die. I didn’t hang back for my country, Baxter thought, but if only it had been me rather than him. He sighed, having wished it every time his son had come to mind.
The photograph hadn’t been in place for twenty years. They had never mentioned his name. There was no need to. She must have hidden it, and looked at it every day. He hadn’t known. There was no reason why he should. Their grief occupied separate regions. He had been deceived. She had once gone to the clinic and forgotten to take one of the many paper bundles, and so had stayed twice as long. Now he knew that it must have contained photographs of Peter.
She was in the kitchen filling the teapot. He heard her trying to get the lid on, so went across the room to pick up the frame. The glass was about to crack in his grip. She would see the blood. He heard the tread of Peter coming along the hall and down the stairs, before the pressure could split his fingers.
She had changed her clothes, Peter saw, wore a white blouse and a pale grey, rather long skirt. Her nails weren’t grimy any more. He took the heavy pewter teapot, wondering why her husband had let her fill and then carry it.
Her fingers shook. ‘You always were kind.’
Baxter leaned against the chair, and Peter saw him looking at his wife as she walked around the table fussily re-laying it as if nothing would ever be right. Every time her fingers touched a plate her smile made her seem younger.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes