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New and collected storie.., p.58
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       New and Collected Stories, p.58

           Alan Sillitoe

  The house and everything else would be his one day. The sooner the better, he told himself. Even the beautiful pair of Malcombe guns. No facts were altered. Can’t trim facts. To backtrack by dead reckoning and try to find out how it had come about would not help, no matter how much he pondered. Nor could any inbuilt technological amanuensis have fixed it with any kind of precision. A square-search was out of the question. Interception problems were beyond his competence. Perhaps the triangle of velocities would help, or the probability of errors. But he didn’t want to know. There was no purpose in knowing. Silence was freedom now that chaos had turned into order.

  He was left with whatever ruins had been thrust upon him while he sat in the living room cleaning Baxter’s guns – getting them ready over and over again in case that dreadful book-stealing con-man whose pictures were framed all over the house ever came back. He relaxed his stance only when Helen called from her wheelchair in the garden to remind him that they were going to a party in half an hour, and hadn’t he better check the car and make sure that all was ready for him to get her into it?

  ‘I will, my sweet,’ he said, and whistled some mindless tune as he went outside.

  No Name in the Street

  ‘Do you know, you get on my bloody nerves, you do.’

  Albert’s black-and-white dog ran between his feet, making him scuffle out of the way in case he should tread on it and commit an injury. ‘You’ve got on my bleddy nerves all day.’

  It was almost dark when they set out for the golf course. A cool wind carried a whiff of hay from large square bales scattered about the field like tank-traps in the war when, as a youth in the Home Guard, he used to run from one to another with a rifle in his hand. It smelled good, the air did. He hadn’t noticed in those distant days whether it had smelled good or not. Or perhaps he didn’t remember. But you could tell it had been a hot day today because even though the wind had a bit of an edge to it the whiff of hay was warm. ‘You do, you get on my bleddy nerves.’

  The dog quickened its pace, as if a bit more liveliness would mend matters. And Albert lengthened his stride, not in response to the dog but because he always did when he made that turning in the lane and saw the wood’s dark shape abutting the golf course. His dog anticipated this further increase of speed. Having been pulled in off the street a couple of years ago when it was starving, it couldn’t afford not to. Even a dog knew that nothing was certain in life.

  They’d come this way on most nights since, so there was no reason why it shouldn’t know what to do. Why it got on his nerves so much he’d no idea, but what else could you expect from a dog?

  ‘Get away from my feet, will yer?’ His voice was little more than a sharp whisper because they were so near. The ‘will yer?’ – which he added with a certain amount of threat and venom – caused the dog to rub against his trousers and bounce off, then continue walking, almost in step despite both sets of legs still perilously close. ‘You’ll drive me up the pole, yer will. My nerves are all to bits.’

  It wasn’t a cold evening, following a hot day at the end of June, but he wore a long dark blue overcoat, a white nylon scarf, and a bowler hat, more because he was familiar with them than to keep warm. He felt protected and alive inside his best clothes, and in any case he usually put them on when he left the house in the evening, out of some half surfaced notion that if anything happened so that he couldn’t get back home then at least he would be in clothes that would last a while, or fetch a bob or two at the ragshop if he had to sell ’em.

  There was no reason why he should be this way, but that didn’t make it less real. Apart from which, he couldn’t go to the golf course wearing his shabby stuff. The adage that if you dressed smart you did well was about the only useful advice his father had ever tried to tell him, though it was so obvious a truth that it would have made no difference had he kept his trap shut, especially since neither he nor his father had ever done well at anything in their lives.

  ‘Here we are, you aggravating bogger.’ He stopped at the fence, then turned to the dog which, as always at this point, and for reasons best known to itself, hung back. ‘Don’t forget to follow me in – or I’ll put me boot in your soup-box.’

  No hole was visible, but Albert knew exactly where it was. He got down on his haunches, shuffled forwards, and lifted a strand of smooth wire. The dog saw him vanish. When he stood up in the total blackness of the wood, he heard the dog whine because it was still on the wrong side of the fence.

  It showed no sign of coming through to join him, even though it was a job so much easier for a dog than a man. At least you might have thought so, but the bleddy thing was as deaf as a haddock when it came to telling it what to do. It hesitated so long that, after a suitable curse, Albert’s pale bony hand at the end of his clothed arm at last appeared under the fence, grabbed it by the collar (you had to give the damned thing a collar, or somebody else might take it in) and yanked it through, briars and all.

  It didn’t yelp. Whatever happened was no more than it expected. ‘You get on my bleddy nerves,’ Albert said, holding its wet nose close, and staring into its opaque apologetic eyes.

  When he walked along the invisible path he knew that the dog was obediently following. They went through the same haffle-and-caffle every time, and it got on his nerves no end, but it would have chafed them even more if the dog had done as it was supposed to do, because in that case Albert might not even know it was there. And then there would be no proof that he had any nerves at all worth getting on. He often told himself that there was at least some advantage in having such a mongrel.

  He could do this zig-zag walk without cracking twigs, but the dog rustled and sniffled enough for both of them, biting leaves as if there was a rat or ferret under every twig. On first bringing the tike into his house it had shivered in a corner for three days. Then one morning it got up, jumped onto the table (treading its muddy paws all over the cloth) and ate his pot of geraniums almost down to the stubs. Afterwards it was sick on the lino. Then he gave it some bread and milk, followed by a bowl of soup (oxtail) – and from that point on there was no holding it. He even had to get a key to the food cupboard.

  Albert hadn’t felt right since his mother died three years ago, unable to work after losing her, finding that nobody would set him on at any job because they saw in his face that the guts had been knocked out of him. That’s what he thought it was, and when he told them at the Welfare that he felt he was on the scrapheap, they gave him money to keep the house and himself going.

  It wasn’t a bleddy sight. The dog was eating him out of house and home. Every time he had a slice of bread-and-marmalade he had to cut some for the dog as well. Same when he poured a cup of tea, he had to put a saucerful on the floor. So you had to do summat to earn a few bob extra.

  There was a bit of light in the wood now they’d got used to it, and when he reached the fence he saw that the moon was coming. It wasn’t much of one, but it would be a help – without being too much of a hindrance. Sandpit holes in the golf course beyond glowed like craters. The dog ran into a bush, and came out more quickly than he’d expected, nudging his leg with something hard in its jaws. Albert bent down and felt cold saliva as he took it and put it into his pocket. ‘That’s one, any road. Let’s hope there’ll be plenty more.’

  Occasionally when they found one so early it ended up a bad harvest. But you never knew. Life was full of surprises, and dreams. He had visions of coming across more lost golf balls than he could carry, pyramids that would need a wheelbarrow to take away. He saw a sandy depression of the golf course levelled off with them. He even had the odd picture of emerging from the wood and spotting a dozen or so, plain and white under the moon, and watching himself dart over the greenery, pocketing each one. In his dream though, the golf balls seemed soft and warm in his fingers as he slipped them into his topcoat pocket.

  The dog brought another while he smoked a fag, but ten minutes went by without any more. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘we’d better
go and see what we can find. Best not get too close to the clubhouse: the boggers stay up boozing late enough in that cosy place they’ve got.’

  His dog agreed, went through the fence this time even before Albert had finished muttering, glad to be in the open again. They said next door that his mother had to die sometime. Not much else they could say, being as she was nearly eighty. She used to talk to him about his father, who had gone to work one day twenty-five years ago complaining of pains in his stomach, and not come back alive. Something about a ruptured ulcer, or maybe it was cancer. There was no point in caring, once it had happened. The doctor had been kind, but told them nothing – a man who looked at you with the sort of glittering eyes that didn’t expect you to ask questions.

  Then she went as well. He bent down one morning to look, and saw that she’d never wake up. He sat with her a few minutes before going to get the doctor, not realizing till he got out of the door that he’d been with her ten hours in that long moment, and that dusk was beginning to glow up the cold street.

  He was glad to be in the actual golf course because the wood was full of nettles, and brambles twisting all over the place. Stark moonlight shone on the grass so that it looked like frost. Even before he’d gone five yards the dog came leaping back, and pushed another ball into his hand, the sand still gritty on its nose. That was three already, so maybe a jackpot-night was coming up, though he didn’t like to think so, in case it wasn’t. Perhaps he should hope it would turn out rotten, then every find would be encouraging, though at the same time he’d feel a bit of a cheat if he ended up with loads. Yet he’d also be more glad than if he’d hoped it would finish well and it turned out lousy. He’d appear foolish sooner than lose his dream, though he’d rather lose his dream if it meant things seeming too uncomfortably real. The best thing was, like always, not to forecast anything, and see what happened.

  Every golf ball meant fifteen pence in his pocket from the second-hand shop, and some weeks his finds added up to a couple of quid on top of his Social Security. He earned more by it than when he used to hang around caddying as a youth of fourteen before the war. Every little had helped in those far-off days, but there’d been too many others at it. Things had altered for the better when he’d got taken on at Gedling Pit, because as well as getting work he was exempted from the army.

  After the funeral he sat in the house wearing his best suit, and wondering what would happen to him now. Going for a walk in the milk-and-water sunshine he wandered near the golf course one day and saw a ball lying at his feet when he stopped to light a cigarette. He picked it up, took it home, and put it in a cut-glass bowl on the dresser. Later he went back looking for more.

  He ran his fingers over the hard indented pattern, brushing off sand grains and grass blades as they went along. It was an ordinary night, after all, because they found no more than four. ‘Come on, then, you slack bogger,’ he said to the dog. ‘Let’s be off, or you’ll be getting on my nerves again!’

  ‘It’s a good dog,’ he said, sitting at a table with his half pint of ale, ‘but it gets on my nerves a bit too much at times.’

  They wondered what nerves he had to get on, such an odd-looking well-wrapped up fifty-year-old whose little Jack Russell dog had followed him in. One of the railwaymen at the bar jokingly remarked that the dog was like a walking snowball with a stump of wood up its arse.

  Albert sat brushing his bowler hat with his right-hand sleeve, making an anti-clockwise motion around the crown and brim. Those who’d known him for years could see how suffering had thinned his face, lined his forehead, and deepened the vulnerable look in his eyes. Yet they wouldn’t have admitted that he had anything to suffer about. Hadn’t he got house, grub, clothes, half pint, and even a dog? But whatever it was, the expression and the features (by now you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began) made him seem wiser and gentler than he was, certainly a different man to the knockabout young collier he’d been up to not too long ago.

  He indicated the dog: ‘He’s got his uses, though.’

  The railwayman held up a crisp from his packet, and the animal waited for it to drop. ‘As long as it’s obedient. That’s all you want from a dog.’

  ‘It’ll have your hand off, if you don’t drop that crisp,’ Albert told him. The railwayman took the hint, and let it fall under the stool. The crunch was heard, because everyone was listening for it.

  ‘As long as it’s faithful, as well,’ a woman at the next table put in.

  You were never alone with a dog, he thought. Everybody was bound to remark on it before long.

  ‘A dog’s got to be faithful to its owner,’ she said. ‘It’ll be obedient all right, if it’s faithful.’

  ‘It’s a help to me,’ Albert admitted, ‘even though it does get on my nerves.’

  ‘Nerves!’ she called out. ‘What nerves? You ain’t got nerves, have you?’

  She’d tricked him squarely, by hinting that some disease like worms was gnawing at his insides.

  ‘I’m not mental, if that’s what you mean.’ Since he didn’t know from her voice whether she was friendly or not, he looked at her more closely, smiling that she had to scoff at his nerves before his eyes became interested in her.

  The dog came back from its crisp. ‘Gerrunder!’ he told it harshly, to prove that his nerves were as strong as the next person’s.

  Her homely laugh let him know that such a thing as strong nerves might certainly be possible with him, after all. She had a short drink of gin or vodka in front of her, and a large flat white handbag. There was also an ashtray on the table at which she flicked ash from her cigarette, even when there seemed to be none on its feeble glow, as if trying to throw the large ring on her finger into that place as well. Her opened brown fur coat showed a violet blouse underneath. He’d always found it hard to tell a woman’s age, but in this case thought that, with such short greying hair fluffed up over her head, she must be about fifty.

  ‘Let him know who’s boss,’ she said.

  He felt the golf balls in his overcoat pocket. ‘I expect he wants his supper. I’ll be getting him home soon.’

  Her hard jaw was less noticeable when she spoke. ‘Don’t let him run your life.’

  ‘He don’t do that. But he’s fussy.’

  He observed that she had mischief in her eyes as well as in her words. ‘I’ll say it is. Are you a local man?’

  ‘Have been all my life,’ he told her.

  She stood up. ‘I’ll have another gin before I go. Keeps me warm when I get to bed.’

  He watched her stop at the one-armed bandit, stare at the fruit signs as if to read her fortune there, then put a couple of shillings through the mill. Losing, she jerked her head, and ordered the drinks, then said something to the men at the bar that made them laugh.

  ‘You needn’t a done that,’ Albert said, when she set a pint of best bitter down for him. ‘I never have more than half a jar.’

  He needed it, by the look of him, this funny-seeming bloke whom she couldn’t quite fathom – which was rare for her when it came to men. She was intrigued by the reason for him being set apart from the rest of them in the pub. It was obvious a mile off that he lived alone, but he tried to keep himself smart, all the same, and that was rare.

  She pushed the jar an inch closer. ‘It’ll do you good. Didn’t you ever get away in the army?’


  ‘Most men did.’

  The dog nudged his leg, but he ignored it. Piss on the floor if you’ve got to. He’d go home when he was ready. ‘I was a collier, and missed all that.’

  She drank her gin in one quick flush. ‘No use nursing it. I only have a couple, though. I kept a boarding house in Yarmouth for twenty years. Now I’m back in Nottingham. I sometimes wonder why I came back.’

  ‘You must like it,’ he suggested.

  ‘I do. And I don’t.’ She saw the dog nudge him this time. ‘Has it got worms, or something?’

  ‘Not on the hasty-pudding he gets from
me. He’s a bit nervous, though. I expect that’s why he gets on my nerves.’

  He hadn’t touched his pint.

  ‘Are you going to have that?’

  ‘I can’t sup all of it.’

  She thought he was only joking. ‘I’ll bet you did at one time.’

  When his face came alive it took ten years off his age, she noticed.

  He laughed. ‘I did, an’ all!’

  ‘I’ll drink it, if you don’t.’

  ‘You’re welcome.’ He smiled at the way she was bossing him, and picked up the jar of ale to drink.

  Sometimes, when it was too wet and dreary to go to the golf course he’d sit for hours in the dark, the dog by his side to be conveniently cursed for grating his nerves whenever it scratched or shifted. At such times he might not know whether to go across the yard for a piss or get up and make a cup of tea. But occasionally he’d put the light on for a moment and take twenty pence from under the tea-caddy on the scullery shelf, and go to the pub for a drink before closing time.

  If he’d cashed his Social Security cheque that day and he saw Alice there, he’d offer to get her a drink. Once, when she accepted, she said to him afterwards: ‘Why don’t we live together?’

  He didn’t answer, not knowing whether he was more surprised at being asked by her, or at the idea of it at all. But he walked her home that night. In the autumn when she went back to his place she said: ‘You’ve got to live in my house. It’s bigger than yours.’ You couldn’t expect her to sound much different after donkey’s years landladying in Yarmouth.

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