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New and collected storie.., p.57
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       New and Collected Stories, p.57

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  Still holding the telephone, he got out of bed and walked to the window, drawing back the curtains to let in daylight. ‘I expect you’re right,’ he interrupted, trying not to laugh. ‘He’s such a ripping sport!’

  Baxter chuckled. ‘He won’t refuse one of his best pilots.’

  He lodged the receiver under his chin while lighting a cigarette. ‘How did you find my number?’

  ‘What number?’

  How dense can the silly old bastard get? ‘Telephone number,’ he shouted.

  ‘Oh, looked it up in the book. But don’t forget. Come down and see your mother. She’s not well.’

  The pushbike idea was too much like hard work, but he’d agreed because Baxter did deserve some consideration after having parted with over a thousand pounds. He swore when his ankle caught on the pedals. Nor was the bike much good for carrying valuable old tomes in the saddlebag to his car parked at the station nearly six miles away.

  He opened the War Revision map sheet with Baxter’s name scrawled in pencil along the top margin. The folds were torn after much use. It was not necessary any more but Peter had cycled home on his last visit and used a similar map which, so Baxter insisted, he always carried even though he knew every lane and stile around.

  When a piece of grit lodged in his left shoe he leaned the bicycle against a bush and scooped it clear with his thumb. There was a gap in the hedge. Damp soil, pocked by cow hoofprints, was scattered with bits of dead twig. He screwed up the map and slung it there.

  At the lane a fat youth went by on a motorbike whose noise seemed to tear the heart out of the countryside. Peter glanced at the bulbous pale cheeks under a red helmet, and the hunched body dead-set towards the village. He mounted his pushbike and pedalled the last few hundred yards.

  They stood at the gate like an advertisement for a life of happy savers and insurance payers. He thought Baxter’s arm was around her, but couldn’t be sure. When he was close he saw them wave.

  ‘I shan’t be seeing you for a long time.’ They strolled back and forth on the lawn. ‘The squadron will be packing up for the Middle East soon. I can’t tell you exactly when because it’s very hush-hush.’

  The major’s eyes suggested he’d already said too much. Didn’t he know that rhododendrons had ears? He looked nervously towards the hedge, and then at Helen who said:

  ‘We know you can’t, dear.’

  Brambles were growing outwards from the trees. The end of May had seen thunderous weather and a few hot days, and huge white Queen Anne’s lace – as well as nettles – had become too tall to stand upright. The place looked more ragged than when he’d first seen it. ‘There’ll be promotion, though. Another step up.’

  Baxter liked the idea. ‘Be nice if you could reach squadron leader before it’s over.’

  If the war dragged on he might even get to wing commander, which would be one rank above major. Peter supposed it wouldn’t do at all from Baxter’s point of view.

  We’d be very proud if you did.’ Her dress was too long, but she was smart and self-confident these days, and he was sorry for her that it was about to end.

  The major walked with a stick. He wore a panama hat and a pale light jacket. ‘We must mow the lawn sometime, Peter. Tidy things up a bit.’

  His uniform was too hot, and he unbuttoned the tunic. A black-edged cloud which the met bods hadn’t warned him about stood in the west. If Baxter grumbled at him for being improperly dressed he would tell him what to do with himself. Helen’s ready smile made him think that she knew what was in his mind. Bad show. He had taken the diary home months ago, and there wasn’t a word he didn’t know by heart.

  He sat on a straight-backed chair in the cool living room. Baxter made a jug of lemonade, and Peter hoped he’d splash in some gin. He didn’t. The cat spread itself across a magazine on the window ledge like an old wine skin and closed its eyes. Helen’s smile disconcerted him because it didn’t quite fit what she was saying. She said with folded hands, ‘I pray to God you’ll be all right when you go overseas.’

  ‘See a bit of the desert, mother. Have to brush up my navigation.’

  Baxter put down his lemonade glass. His voice quavered. ‘He’ll do his duty, as we did in the last war.’

  ‘I know he will.’

  She wasn’t absolutely sure, so he said: ‘No worry on that score.’

  He would have had no option except to have done it, yet knew that if he had to do it today he would be most unwilling, though to perform one’s duty might at least help to pass the time. But the need for that sort of duty had not yet come, and probably never would till it overwhelmed him whether he wanted it to or not. He refused to let it concern him while there was an issue to be settled which did not conform to their ideas of duty at all.

  ‘Mother, I wonder if you mind listening to me for a moment.’ He heard his own voice with the same detachment as when he first spoke to Baxter in the pub. Since that meeting times had changed, though he wasn’t sure by how much. The idea that under certain circumstances he would be like Baxter when he got to his age frightened him, and gave him the courage to go on: ‘I have something to tell you.’

  His sharp tone caused her to look up with an expression which asked who was this stranger in her house? Her son’s face was grey. The features shifted from her, but when she smiled, as she must if the life she enjoyed with him was to remain, they came back, and his face turned pale again. He always appeared as if exhausted, and she wondered what was wrong. Something surely was. The more she saw of him the more he looked like she felt. She wasn’t his mother for nothing.

  Peter hadn’t heard such a laugh before, but Baxter had. Every time she looked at George, even when the three of them were happy together, he seemed afraid of something. But she didn’t think it sufficient reason for Peter’s face to turn into that of an ashen-visaged young man so close to death. She would try not to laugh again like that.

  ‘Do you remember when I brought Cynthia home?’

  ‘Who?’

  George’s hand lifted in a half secret motion meant for him alone.

  ‘You remember. Both of you do.’

  ‘Cynthia? Now, let me see …’

  ‘You wouldn’t let her stay.’

  Peter was missing and presumed gone for ever. That trivial incident with Cynthia had only been known to the three of them. He had neither written nor telephoned for a month. The uncertainty had been appalling, but the agony of his death had erased the memory of those weeks. He had put a call through to his commanding officer, and when Peter did come back, nothing was said about Cynthia. Everyone had been sensibly forgiving.

  He’d read the lines so often it was easy to speak them: ‘Met Cynthia. This is the real beginning of my life. I know I’ll never be happier.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘The secret thoughts of your one and only son. You brought me up to rely on you for everything, but when I came to see you with my girl you turned her away as if she were a …’ His voice was about to break, and he thought tears already marked his cheeks, but pride stopped him lifting his hand to find out. ‘I was open in those days, even honest, in spite of the war. There wasn’t much else for me to do except get killed.’

  Baxter filled his pipe, but laid it on the table unlit. He thought it only common sense to remind him that such a thing might have happened anyway, at which Helen hoped he wouldn’t speak again for the rest of his life.

  ‘It needn’t. A lot came through it.’ He smiled in the same resigned way as on the day they had made their feelings clear about that girl. It was the only time they had seen compliance with their wishes mixed with the bitterest despair. He was able to bring it back any time he liked.

  ‘She wasn’t our sort. We told you so at the time.’

  ‘You did, but I was in love with her.’

  Baxter stood up, and reminded him that he was pushing things just a little too far. There was no knowing to what lengths a jailbird and confidence trickster would go, however. On days w
hen Helen had looked her normal self he often decided to tell him not to come back. It would be safe then to bring out that telegram (thirteenth drawer down from the right) and show her the news that Peter was missing and presumed to have been killed. He would say that if life was finished, then it was at an end for both of them. But it was clearly too late to do anything now.

  ‘I wrote another letter to my school.’ It was impossible to strike one without the other. When Cynthia appeared, she was turned away because they wanted him as much as possible to themselves in his last few months. By not seeing how vital his love affair was, they drove him more quickly to his death. They had let him down, one might say, but more fool he for thinking his parents would do anything else.

  Baxter hoped he was mistaken at such malice. ‘To your school?’

  A photograph at home had shown him standing at attention in front of the cadet force armoury door, on which it said: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’ He was surprised not to have found something similar of Baxter’s son upstairs. ‘Yes, to my old corrupting school.’

  With Baxter, self-preservation meant assuming an air of unthinking optimism. He recalled how, when Peter at other times had threatened to reveal something, he had made them even more proud of their perfect son by a last second divergence from it. ‘They’ll be delighted to hear from you.’

  ‘Don’t you want to know what I wrote?’ He didn’t altogether like this side of Peter’s revenge. There seemed to be something of his namesake in him, after all. He much preferred to act the good son than indulge in the reality of his true self.

  Baxter knew they had brought Peter up in such a way that he would surely have forgiven them if he had really come back to life. ‘Don’t listen to him.’

  Helen saw her son, yet not her son. ‘What’s changed you, Peter?’

  ‘I’m not your son.’

  ‘You are. You always will be.’

  He wanted to leave, but couldn’t till he’d made them acknowledge what they had done. ‘I told that pompous headmaster what a vicious little bastard I’d really been. I had great fun making a list of dirty books I’d read, and the money I stole, and equipment I wrecked and let others take the blame for. I explained how I hated the war, and all that crap about dying for one’s country.’

  Baxter’s eyebrows lifted as if jerked by an invisible thread. Such a person shouldn’t be allowed to live. ‘Have you finished?’

  ‘I listened to you often enough. It’s my turn now. I died cursing, and throwing your stale lies back into your face. I’m not Peter. George talked me into it. Didn’t you, George? He played a trick on you, Helen, though he doesn’t know what stunts I worked on him when I came to see you while he was in town shopping. We had some good talks then, didn’t we?’

  She played into the game, and held his arm. ‘We did, George.’

  He wondered what other lies to tell. Baxter was too old to strike. A force of lightning would stab back at him. ‘Don’t go, major.’

  Baxter was able to keep calm as long as any trouble stayed within the expectations of an uneventful life. He tried to remain immobile, to hold the pose for ever but saw, in enormous magnification, a shell going into the breech of a gun. It was big enough for a man to be encapsulated in the package. He shook his head at such a ridiculous picture.

  ‘Peter’s dead, but he could have got back to base after his last flight. His fuselage was riddled with bullets, but he was only injured. He rammed his plane into the Channel because his only thought was to end it all. I’ll keep his uniform as a memento, and his diary, but I suppose you ought to have these.’

  He worked his nails under a tip of his pilot’s wings, and tore them off. They hit the table, and fell on to the floor.

  Baxter knew that the end had come when, at the lowest point of unmistakable decline, he decided that something had to be done to prevent absolute disaster. Too late or not, you still had to act in order to maintain your self-respect, no matter what the consequences. He picked up the wings, looked at them for a moment, then put them in his pocket and walked away.

  He had never left them alone together, and she stood up as if to make the most of it. ‘You’re not well.’

  The truth he had spoken sounded so despicable that he wished everything unsaid. A window had been left open. Wind shook the curtains and the huge tabby cat jumped on to the ledge with a skinned rabbit leg in its mouth. He wanted to hear her say that Peter was finally dead, but she slumped back in the chair, her clarity dispersed as suddenly as it had come. The expression of despair startled him so much that he was unable to go over and comfort her. The right ascension denied itself absolutely. He couldn’t walk away, either. Silence and stillness seemed the only safe possibility.

  She made an effort, and spoke: ‘We did the best we could – whatever went wrong. You’ll do the same with your children.’

  The cat was busy on the floor, and he pushed it from the raw meat. Helen flinched: ‘Baxter never understood me. It wasn’t his fault. He’s not the sort of man to understand what’s going on. I didn’t know how to tell him, but if I had he might have changed so absolutely from the man I knew that it would have made things harder. I needed the person I already knew to help me through the terrors I hadn’t known about up to then. Without being aware of it he passed some of his on to me.’

  ‘I’ve nothing more to say.’

  ‘Don’t be sorry.’

  ‘I’m not. I’m afraid.’

  Baxter’s footsteps sounded overhead, then the noise of his firm tread down the stairs. Every movement in the house could be heard from every other place in it. Peter didn’t know from which way he would appear. The clarity he had forced Helen into brought more pain than he could bear, so the only thing left was to make his way back to the station on foot, crossing fields where normal air existed.

  He said that he must go, and she agreed but hoped he’d come and see them again. He nodded to say he would, and she didn’t believe him. He turned around, and hesitated when facing the hall door, a preliminary to his movement which was so slight as to seem almost a mannerism, and he was still in the living room when Baxter levelled his gun from the bottom of the stairs.

  There was no need to aim. At such short range Baxter would scare him out of his wits so that he would never show his face in the district again – no mean feat with a foulmouthed plunderer who had taken their books and money. And neither would Helen expect him to come back after witnessing the comic antics of his departure. He had fouled her suffering, though he blamed himself for having lured him home that day. It was impossible to say what had happened during the making of a decision for which he could recall no clear feelings of responsibility. Such things happened in life – or they had with him. The same mechanism occurred again when, unconscious of any movement, and in no way making up his mind he pushed the safety catch forward and pressed the trigger.

  The glimpse of George lifting his gun reminded her of one summer’s dawn when she had seen him stalk a rabbit that had been ravaging the kitchen garden. He had got up specially, and in the first light he went inch by inch towards the spot where the rabbit quite plainly plundered the carrot tops and rows of peas, secure in its vandalizing gluttony. It must have taken him twenty minutes to get close – he in thrall to the rabbit and Helen fixed by him – before he risked a shot. She had never been able to observe him for so long without him talking to her or being aware that she was looking.

  Peter stood, his hand at the cold door knob that had to be turned. He didn’t want to go, but Helen suddenly urged him to run, her shriek striking the back of his neck:

  ‘No, don’t! George!’

  The agony of her cry forced him to turn. Her eyes were closed, as if she didn’t want to know who he was. He was given no time to consider the many reasons why this was so. She fastened her arms on him. Looking over her head he saw the levelled gun, and heard it become the end point of an exploding cone which knocked them against the door and covered his stung hands in blood.


  The weight deadened his pain and enabled him to stay on his feet. She clung so hard that he couldn’t hear what she was saying. The hand tore his uniform as he let her fall. The pain was like ice. Her burden smelled of death.

  He wanted to say no, don’t shoot, you have nothing to kill me for. His mouth wouldn’t shape any words, as if he hadn’t enough breath, and when he knew that he was helpless before the fact that there was nothing left to live for, he said: ‘All right, then, kill me.’

  Major Baxter turned his head slowly left and right, remembering something that had to be done, a minor item from long ago that it would be best to do now in case he forgot until the time came when it would be too late, as it was bound to if he didn’t do it this minute, a piece of outstanding business that no one knew about except himself but which tormented him because the matter had been pending for so long.

  An awkward reversing of the unfired barrel pulled the woollen tie loose from the folds of his jacket. The agony that would not let him talk produced only a simper. There was no atonement for what they had done. His lips were pursed: given time, he would break into a mindless whistling of some tune that would be familiar to all who heard it. He was taken by a sudden concentration of mind that nothing could break, and within it his placid expression said: yes, life is like this, and isn’t the world a damned silly place to be in? An assertion he profoundly believed at the moment the explosion spread a volcanic crater backwards and changed his look to one which showed him trying to eat the moon.

  A thunderclap rattled the windows. Peter curled on the floor. The sound pushed itself deeply in and then vanished as pellets of shot grazed his skin. The wind roared through a fever. His fever turned to icecold. Silence when the wind died made him feel he was resting on the ocean bed. Teeth bit into his finger ends. He heard Helen groan, and telephoned to get help.

  He had been visiting them. He often did. They were like grandparents. There was a quarrel which he never did quite understand. Got somewhat bitter, though. Hard to say why exactly. The old major tried to frighten him. Yes, that was it. To frighten them, if you like. He was fond of them both, and they normally got on very well. Can’t think what came over him. Baxter’s gun went off when he knocked against the stair rail. He must have slipped, dammit. Certainly didn’t mean to shoot his wife, but when he did – by accident – he was so appalled that he killed himself. Who wouldn’t be? Eh? The RAF uniform was a fad of theirs. He had been trying it on. They liked him to, occasionally, because it gave them a glimpse of their dead son, whom they said he resembled. Harmless enough, really.

 
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