New and Collected Stories, p.56Alan Sillitoe
He felt that Baxter didn’t like her smile. It made her look more normal, and therefore unusual. A visitor altered the atmosphere. He was afraid of what lay behind it. Lack of perception meant loss of control. An expression of hesitating tenderness was noticeable in Baxter, as if he saw an unpleasant aspect of her that he’d thought would never come back.
Peter held her chair, then sat down himself. Looking across the table he saw the major nod and smile. The drifting veils of rain had gone, and a shadow-line of sun crossed a pile of magazines in the window. He found it painful to watch her hand shaking when she tried to lift the pot. A trivial upset, such as the dropping of a spoon, would send her back into a state of fragile helplessness.
When he went to her she slapped him playfully away: ‘If your mother can’t pour you a cup of tea, then what use is she?’
Helen wondered why Baxter was so restless – though it didn’t disturb her as much as when he was calm. He found it too peaceful, in fact, and had learned to tread carefully because in such tranquillity conflict was always imminent, and at such moments he thought about war with a touch of passion half concealed. Watching Peter and his wife, he knew there was something vital in life he’d never had, though he wasn’t sure exactly what it might have been. Yet he knew that the love he had for his son was greater than Helen’s. He smiled at the word ‘eternal’, and Helen reacted to it as if to mimic him when he turned for a moment from Peter. Whatever he hadn’t got, it was obvious that Peter had, and had come back to stop him having to the end, though Baxter was willing to go without so as to give Helen the serenity she hadn’t enjoyed for so long. There was nothing he would not do so that one day they would be able to talk about their dead son. But he was beginning to see that everything had its price.
He had learned in prison how to get secrets out of the walls, how to see through windows that did not exist, so it was easy to surmise, walking around the trap of his namesake’s room, where the hide-outs of a tormented mind could be located. The diary rested on a ledge up the chimney, wrapped in layers of brown paper and pushed into the sort of canvas bag in which he took his gym shoes to school.
Careful not to pull down soot or pebbles, he carried it to the open window and shook the grit away. There had been no cause to start it before August, but after so many years he could smell his elemental panic through the faint pencilling when he did: ‘Mummy and Daddy turned her away. I didn’t write to them beforehand because I knew they would, though I had hoped they wouldn’t. I can’t believe it, but it’s happened, so I have to. They didn’t say why, but were quite firm about it as soon as they saw her. I didn’t have the opportunity to tell them what she meant to me, but it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. I’m sure of it, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.’
No fires had been lit in the grate. Such comfort might have spoiled him. Everything instead had been lavished on hobbies and education, which made the chimney a good place in which to keep his diary.
He read her full name scripted vertically down the page of half a week: Cynthia Weston, common enough with probably a few in every phone book in the country. Some days after her visit, and before Pilot Officer Baxter went ‘missing presumed killed’ there were more entries, but Peter was called down before he could read them. At the major’s shout he anxiously placed the diary back in the soot, and stood up to make sure there was no sign of it on his uniform.
His mouth was half full of chicken-paste sandwich. Even the tea was good. No teabags here.
‘Saw a couple of Heinkel One-elevens over France yesterday. Got one of them at twelve thousand feet. A cannon shell scraped my starboard aileron, but there was no trouble getting back.’
‘It must be dreadful, for those poor French people,’ she commented.
Baxter grunted. ‘Didn’t feel much for them in the last war.’
Her torment lasted till Peter came again, but on some visits she was uncertain who he was, and had to make up her mind whether or not to acknowledge that he was Peter whom she thought she had lost. The more hesitation, the greater her fuss when she did recognize him – Baxter had observed. At her distressed moments she knew him from his walk rather than his face. Sometimes he didn’t even look like his photograph, poor boy, which was because he worried so much. The war seemed as if it would go on for ever.
‘It looked beautiful from up there, those fields spinning under me. I saw the Heinkel hit the deck before any parachutes came out. Sorry about it, though.’ He had practised reducing his smile to a look of ruefulness. ‘I hate killing.’
‘Didn’t we all?’ Baxter added that he knew those fields. ‘We drove around there before the war. Don’t you remember?’
‘They were wonderful days,’ Helen said. ‘But so short.’
‘On our way to the Loire.’ Baxter usually smoked cigarettes, but occasionally lit a short well-worn meerschaum. He calmly released smoke away from the table: ‘Stayed the night in Bapaume. Showed you my old sector on the Somme.’
Peter was tired of watching them adore each other, and suspected they only indulged in it when he was in the house. ‘Of course I remember. I found a piece of shrapnel by the lane that led to the War Memorial.’
Baxter looked at him with suspicion, yet was grateful for such sharpness, with its hint of generosity towards his mother. Must have seen it in the drawer of his room. ‘You’ve still got it, I suppose?’
‘It’s in my desk upstairs, wrapped in cotton wool, in a tobacco tin with an old ten franc piece.’ There was no use denying anything. They could have whatever part of him they wanted – except that which would not even share its secrets with himself.
‘You’re too thin. I do wish you’d eat more.’ Helen spoke as if all her troubles would be over if only his appetite improved.
He lit a cigarette with the crested silver lighter found on the bedside table. The flint had lost its roughage, but went at the second go. ‘I’m really too full for anything else.’
Baxter disapproved of him having left nothing unturned in Peter’s room. Peter smiled. Of course he had been through his things. What did he expect? Neither of them could dispute that they belonged to him.
‘In the last war we couldn’t get enough to eat,’ Baxter said.
To get into a Spitfire and spill around the sky at over three hundred miles an hour was the perfect antidote to such a home life. Every takeoff was a farewell. They hadn’t even got his ashes back, not an ounce of salt or soil, only an ex-jailbird and con-man a score of years later to remind them of him. He touched her wrist, and picked up another sandwich. ‘You’re right. They’re so good.’
‘Your old school phoned the other day,’ Baxter remarked, as if he too must play his part.
Helen poured more tea with a steady hand. ‘They were really glad to hear about your adventures.’
‘The headmaster read your letter to the boys.’
The notion of having grown up to become a credit to his school, not to mention a prime example of self-sacrifice, pleased him in a way he didn’t like, though he put in: ‘I only wrote what I felt. I just thought they’d like to hear from me.’
‘You made them so happy,’ she said. ‘And us.’
However convincing he was, the little play had gone on long enough for today. The pendulum clock ticked sanely by the doorway. Didn’t she know who he was? It was hard to imagine it could be otherwise. He felt sorry for her, but she wasn’t the first person in the history of the world to have lost an only son. When he was fourteen a friend’s cousin had run from the garden gate to be struck dead by a speeding car. He was an only child. His mother was a grey shadow, walking the streets but avoiding everyone when she could. She felt no offence when dodged in turn by those who saw her as too stricken for them to say anything that would make either them or her remember it without embarrassment. They were abashed at their helplessness, and she was too agonized to believe that any verbal contact would comfort her, or indeed that she would ever be sane again. Six months later she was working as
He fastened the top button of his tunic. ‘I’ll collect my books, and then I absolutely must be away.’
Her disappointment was easy to cover with a smile. A cake was packed in a box. I’ll throw it out of the car. Every time he left there was a cake in a bloody box. The bow came undone as she put it on the table. But she retied it before the major could get up to do so – as she had known he would.
Baxter handed him his card by the door: ‘Telephone when you can come again,’ he whispered. ‘Make it as soon as possible.’ He had written his request on the back also, and there was a similarity to the sharp cramped handwriting in the diary. He put it in his flap pocket. Peter had no longer been a young man when he had scribbled those last entries.
He saw himself telling his tale in a Notting Hill pub. I’ve got this batty old pair who think I’m their pilot officer son killed in the war. He couldn’t, though it was hard to give up what laughs he might get. Baxter admired his car:
‘New one, isn’t it?’
‘I borrowed it’ – he loosened his tie, and threw his cap on to the back seat – ‘from the adjutant.’
A few more visits would complete his tour of operations. He’d often decided not to call on them again, not even for the cupboard of toys he had discovered under the stairs. He had taken away one or two that wouldn’t look amiss in an antique shop window. But the Baxters had been different from his own parents in their treatment of the son they had once had, because they had kept all he’d ever possessed. His father had flung everything out when he’d gone to prison.
Baxter was whistling some idiot song from the thirties as he stood at the stove cooking breakfast. He stopped as soon as he was aware of Peter’s approach, and glanced at his undone tunic. When nothing came of it he went to work with the spatula to prevent bacon and sausages burning. ‘Did you have a good sleep?’
Peter lit a cigarette, to cut the pungent smell of smoking fat. ‘Marvellous, thanks.’
‘The air’s fresh down here, that’s why. There are cornflakes over there. Sauce. Bread. Butter. Marmalade. All you need.’ Every time he stayed overnight he was given the same instructions, as if he was never expected to learn. ‘Grapefruit you’ll find on the dresser.’
Whenever he had gone so deeply into sleep he wasn’t hungry for breakfast, yet took one of the leathery, stained eggs on to his plate while Baxter sat to a meal of scorched streaky and broken sausages, surrounding it with blobs of sauce and dabs of mustard, as if laying out picquets against wily enemies waiting to launch a surprise assault from the wilds of Waziristan. When he suggested they go shooting that afternoon it was merely his way of giving Peter the morning to himself. ‘We’ll take the Malcombes.’
Baxter put both plates in the sink. ‘Doesn’t hurt to use them now and again. We might get a rabbit, or a pigeon if we’re lucky. There’s not much else around these parts.’
There was peace in the house, until an aggressive banging of church bells from the village began. The unholy assault on his senses as he wandered around the garden was so intense that he went up to his room and lay on the bed to look through the diary of his last year alive. A large greenish fly lifted into a zig-zag course before he brought a hand close to turn the page.
‘I don’t much care whether I live or die. In fact it would be easy for me to make sure of the latter.’ The last entry came soon after, and he was disappointed that there was so little to read: ‘Back to the squadron! I can’t wait. Better there than here. More bang-on sport, the only sort I like.’
At lunch every button of his uniform was shining and fastened. He laid his cap carefully on the dresser, and as soon as Helen ladled the soup he said: ‘I’m having trouble paying my mess bills these days.’
Baxter stopped eating, eyes flashing behind his glasses, as if the shock was greater precisely because he had expected it, and he was now uncertain how to respond. Peter couldn’t decide whether he was the most devious bloke in the world, or the most dense. ‘I’m afraid a few awkward questions are going to be asked.’
During the long pause Baxter’s face assumed a blank expression, and became as sunburned as if he’d done another stretch in India. He was about to speak, but reached for his glass of lager, grunted, and drank off half of it.
Helen’s hand lifted, and she looked at Peter. ‘You must have been very careless.’
‘I believe I was.’
‘We shall have to help you’ – though speaking as if she at least wouldn’t mind.
‘I’m sorry. It’s an awful situation. But I need three hundred quid immediately. I’d hate the wing commander to find out.’
‘You should damn well watch your mess bills,’ Baxter grumbled. ‘Take better care of things.’
He wanted to laugh at him squirming like a snail on a nail. ‘I’ll try – from now on.’
‘It’s easy to run ’em up, but hard to pay when the time comes.’
‘I’m sure he will try,’ said Helen.
The glare was steady with disapproval, but Baxter felt too unsure of himself to say much more than: ‘Will he, though?’
Such well-contained rage could be ignored. ‘I might.’
‘You will, won’t you, Peter?’
He hadn’t stopped eating, so they couldn’t complain of his lack of appetite. ‘I’ll have a go.’
It had been a gamble, though he’d enjoyed the risk, which seemed almost as good sport as going after the clumsy old Stukas. Top-hole, in fact.
‘He’s such a nice young man, isn’t he, dear?’ Helen said breaking the silence.
Baxter thought he might as well get something out of the situation, so looked as if unwilling to emerge from his sulk. ‘Who?’
‘Don’t be silly, dear. You know who!’
She’s never been deceived, Peter thought. She won’t tell, either. It’s Baxter who’s deluded, though it’ll make no difference in the end.
Baxter climbed a stile and moved across the meadow with the training and care of a lifetime. A couple of prime rabbits, ears at the sky, neither heard nor saw him. Peter stood fifty yards behind, aware that he would be hopeless in the matter. Two shots were so rapid that the noise rolled into one. Both rabbits spun on the grass, and Baxter ran from one to the other, stilling each with a chop at the neck.
‘Damned good cat meat.’ He wiped specks of vivid blood from his glasses, then put the empty cartridges into his game-bag with the rabbits.
In spite of his flying boots, he went forward more silently, but on squeezing the trigger found to his chagrin that he had forgotten to push off the safety catch. He felt better, however, when he fetched a couple of pigeons down: ‘I’ll get my batman to roast ’em on the spit!’
‘You should. You seem to pay him enough.’ Baxter was unwilling to call him a robber outright. ‘I suppose you lost money at cards?’
Peter reloaded. ‘It’ll help pay my rent.’
‘Or on women. That sort of thing.’
‘Not at all.’
‘Go on you can tell me.’
The wind had strengthened and changed direction. They couldn’t get into the lee of it without wading the stream. ‘I owe a packet on my car. Don’t want them to fetch it back.’
‘Mess bills are sacred. You should lay something by. Wouldn’t hurt. Apart from showing the white feather, it’s the worst thing out.’
He put the safety catch on. The temptation to become involved in the creation of a fatal accident was too great. ‘I’ll try to be more economical, but I’m afraid I’ll have to come back for more if things keep getting out of hand.’
Peter watched him moving up the lane, game-bag slung too low behind, gun crooked in his arm, head looking to left and right as if dreading an ambush. By the dark copse he turned a corner, too angry to want his company on the way home.
He need never see them again, yet a new-found formality with regard to Mrs Baxter contain
A voice grated into his ear like a file pulled across balsa wood. ‘Peter?’
‘It’s the middle of the night, for God’s sake.’
‘It’s me – Baxter. And it’s nearly midday.’
The curtains were thin, and let in sufficient light for him to see his watch. God knows how he’d found the number. Maybe he’d followed him, or had him followed. Perhaps he’d searched his car while he’d been in Peter’s room looking for more secrets, or gone through his things in Peter’s room while he had been talking to Helen in the garden. But he’d never let them out of his sight or sound. ‘What do you want?’
He saw Baxter in a phone booth near the market, just off the High Street, a pile of coins neatly stacked on the Bakelite shelf. Couldn’t phone from home in case Helen heard. ‘Your mother wonders when you’re coming down for a day or two?’
Peter’s lips were ready to shape obscenities at his pleading tone, but decided they were too good to waste at such a distance. ‘Don’t know when I can.’
‘We’ll be glad to see you. You know that. Don’t you?’
His head ached, and he wanted breakfast to sop up the whisky he had been drinking till four o’clock. After days of intense work compiling a catalogue of their best books, many of which came from Baxter’s choice collection, he felt the need of a long rest. ‘Do I?’
‘Can’t you wangle a bit of leave? Even thirty-six hours?’
He hadn’t been to see them for a fortnight, being tired of acting the part of their long lost son. When you found such easy plunder you were never far from being caught, so jump – before the axe fell. He put some encouragement into his voice: ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
His speech droned on through his hangover: ‘Ask the CO. He’ll let you have it. I remember him. He’s a very good chap. I’m convinced he will.’
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes