New and Collected Stories, p.59Alan Sillitoe
‘My mother died here.’ He poured her another cup of tea. ‘I’ve lived all my life at 28 Hinks Street!’
‘All the more reason to get shut on it.’
That was as maybe. He loved the house, and the thought of having to leave it was real pain. He’d be even less of a man without the house. Yet he felt an urge to get out of it, all the same.
‘So if you want to come,’ she said, not taking sugar because it spoiled the taste of her cigarette, ‘you can. I mean what I say. I’m not flighty Fanny Fernackerpan!’
He looked doubtful, and asked himself exactly who the hell she might be. ‘I didn’t say you was.’
She wondered when he was going to put the light on, whether or no he was saving on the electricity. He hadn’t got a telly, and the old wireless on the sideboard had a hole in its face. A dead valve had dust on it. Dust on all of us. She’d picked a winner all right, but didn’t she always? The place looked clean enough, except it stank of the dog a bit. ‘Not me, I’m not.’
‘There’s not only me, though,’ he said. ‘There’s two of us.’
She took another Craven ‘A’ from her handbag, and dropped the match in her saucer, since it seemed he didn’t use ashtrays. ‘You mean your dog?’
Smoke went towards the mantelshelf. ‘There’s two of us, as well.’
Here was a surprise. If she’d got a dog they’d have to call it off. He was almost glad to hear it. Or perhaps it was a cat. ‘Who’s that, then?’
‘My son, Raymond. He’s twenty-two, and not carat-gold, either. He’s a rough diamond, you might say, but a good lad – at heart.’
She saw she’d frightened him, but it was better now than later. ‘He’s the apple of my eye,’ she went on, ‘but not so much that you can’t come in and make a go of it with me. With your dog as well, if you like.’
If I like! What sort of language was that? He was glad he’d asked her to come to his house after the pub, otherwise he wouldn’t know where to put his face, the way she was talking. ‘The dog’s only a bit o’ summat I picked off the street, but I wouldn’t part with him. He’s been company, I suppose.’
‘Bring him. There’s room. But I’ve always wanted a man about the house, and I’ve never had one.’ Not for long enough, anyway. She told him she might not be much to look at (though he hadn’t properly considered that, yet) but that she had been at one time, when she’d worked as a typist at the stocking factory. It hadn’t done her much good because the gaffer had got her pregnant. O yes, she’d known he was married, and that he was only playing about, and why not? It was good to get a bit of fun out of life, and was nice while it lasted.
He’d been generous, in the circumstances. A lot of men would have slived off, but not him. He’d paid for everything and bought her a house at Yarmouth (where he’d taken her the first weekend they’d slept together: she didn’t hide what she meant) so that she could run it as a boarding house and support herself. The money for Raymond came separate, monthly till he was sixteen. She saved and scraped and invested for twenty years, and had a tidy bit put by, though she’d got a job again now, because she didn’t have enough to be a lady of leisure, and in any case everybody should earn their keep, so worked as a receptionist at a motoring school. I like having a job, I mean, I wouldn’t be very interesting without a job, would I? Raymond works at the Argus Factory on a centre lathe – not a capstan lathe, because anybody can work one of them after an hour – but a proper big centre lathe. She’d seen it when she went in one day to tell the foreman he’d be off for a while with bronchitis – and to collect his wages. He was a clever lad at mechanics and engineering, even if he had left school at sixteen. He made fag lighters and candle-sticks and doorknobs on the QT.
He could see that she liked to talk, to say what she wanted out of life, and to tell how she’d got where she was – wherever that was. But he liked her, so it must have been somewhere. When she talked she seemed to be in some other world, but he knew she wouldn’t be feeling so free and enjoying it so much if he hadn’t been sitting in front to take most of it in. She’d had a busy life, but wanted somebody to listen to her, and to look as if what she was saying meant something to them both. He could do that right enough, because hadn’t he been listening to himself all his life? Be a change hearing somebody else, instead of his own old record.
‘There’s a garden for your dog, as well, at my place. He won’t get run over there. And a bathroom in the house, so you won’t have to cross the yard when you want to piddle, like you do here.’
He’d guessed as much, looking at it from the outside when he’d walked her home but hadn’t gone in. It was a bay-windowed house at Hucknall with a gate and some palings along the front.
‘It’s all settled then, duck?’
‘I’ll say yes.’ It felt like jumping down a well you couldn’t see the bottom of. He couldn’t understand why he felt so glad at doing it.
She reached across to him. He had such rough strong hands for a man who took all night to make up his mind. Still, as long as there was somebody else to make it up for him there’d be no harm done.
‘Every old sock finds an old shoe!’ she laughed.
‘A damned fine way of putting it!’
‘It’s what a friend at work said when I told her about us.’
‘Cheer up! She was only joking. As far as I’m concerned we’re as young as the next lot, and we’re as old as we feel. I always feel about twenty, if you want to know the truth. I often think I’ve not started to live yet.’
He smiled. ‘I feel that, as well. Funny, in’t it?’
She liked how easy it was to cheer him up, which was something else you couldn’t say for every chap.
He polished his black boots by first spreading a dab of Kiwi with finger and rag: front, back, sides and laces; then by plying the stiff-bristled brush till his arms ached, which gave them a dullish black-lead look. He put them on for a final shine, lifting each foot in turn to the chair for a five-minute energetic duffing so that he could see his face in them. You couldn’t change a phase of your life without giving your boots an all-round clean; and in any case, his face looked more interesting to him reflected in the leather rather than staring back from the mirror over the fireplace.
A large van arrived at half past eight from the best removal firm in town. She knew how to do things, he’d say that for her. Your breakfast’s ready, she would call, but he might not want to get up, and then where would they be? Dig the garden, she’d say, and he’d have no energy. What about getting a job? she’d ask. Me and Raymond’s got one, and you’re no different to be without. I’m having a bit of a rest, he’d say. I worked thirty years at the pit face before I knocked off. Let others have a turn. I’ve done my share – till I’m good and ready to get set on again. She was the sort who could buy him a new tie and expect him to wear it whether he liked it or not. Still, he wouldn’t be pleased if he took her a bunch of flowers and she complained about the colour. You didn’t have to wear flowers, though.
He stood on the doorstep and watched the van come up the street. There was no doubt that it was for him. With thinning hair well parted, and bowler hat held on his forearm, he hoped it would go by, but realized that such a thing at this moment was impossible. He didn’t want it to, either, for after a night of thick dreams that he couldn’t remember he’d been up since six, packing a suitcase and cardboard boxes with things he didn’t want the removal men to break or rip. He’d been as active as a bluebottle that spins crazily to try and stop itself dying after the summer’s gone.
When you’ve moved in with me we’ll have a honeymoon, she’d joked. Our room’s ready for us, though we’ll have to be a bit discreet as far as our Raymond’s concerned. They would, as well. He’d only kissed her in fun the other night, but it had knocked Raymond all of a heap for the rest of his short stay there. He’d seen that she was a well-made woman, and that she’d be a treat to sleep with. He hadn’t been with
The dog’s whole body and all paws touched the slab of the pavement as if for greater security on this weird and insecure morning. ‘Now don’t you start getting on my bleddy nerves,’ he said as the van pulled up and the alerted animal ran into the house, then altered its mind and came out again. ‘That’s the last thing I want.’
He wondered if it would rain. Trust it to rain on a day like this. It didn’t look like rain, though wasn’t it supposed to be a good sign if it did? What was he doing, going off to live in a woman’s house at his age? He didn’t know her from Adam, though he’d known people get together in less than the three months they’d known each other. Yet he had never wanted to do anything so much in his life before as what he was doing now, and couldn’t stop himself even if he wanted to. It was as if he had woken up from a dream of painful storms, into a day where, whatever the weather, the sun shone and he could breathe again. He smiled at the clouds, and put his hat on.
But if that was so, why had he got a scab on his lip? He’d been running the gamut of a cold a week ago, and had expected it to be all over by now. Maybe the cold had been operating at his innards even a week before that, and had twisted his senses so much that only it and not his real self was responsible for leading him into this predicament. He was disturbed by the possibility of thinking so. Yet because he wasn’t put out by the impending split-up and change he’d rather think it than worry that he’d been taken over by something outside his control. You couldn’t have everything, and so had to be grateful for the bit of good to be got out of any situation, whether you’d done it all on your own, or whether it was the work of God or the Devil.
‘This is it, George,’ the driver called to his mate’s ear only a foot away in the cab. ‘I’ll pull onto the pavement a bit. Less distance then to carry his bits of rammel.’
He heard that remark, but supposed they’d say it about every house unless it was some posh place up Mapperley or West Bridgford. Maybe the dog caught it as well, for it stood stiffly as the cab door banged and they came towards the house.
‘Get down, you bleddy ha’porth, or you’ll get on my nerves!’
The dog, with the true aerials of its ears, detected the trouble and uncertainty of Albert’s soul, something which Albert couldn’t acknowledge because it was too much hidden from him at this moment, and would stay so till some days had passed and the peril it represented had gone. The dog’s whine, as it stood up with all sensitivities bristling, seemed to be in full contact with what might well have troubled Albert if he’d had the same equipment. Albert knew it was there, though, and realized also that the dog had ferreted it out, as usual, which lent some truth to his forceful assertion that it was already beginning to get on his bleddy nerves.
The dog went one way, then spun the other. All nerves and no breeding, Albert thought, watching the two men stow his belongings in the van. It didn’t take long. They didn’t even pull their jackets off when they came in for the preliminary survey. It was a vast contraption they’d brought to shift him to Hucknall, and had clearly expected more than two chairs, a table, wardrobe and bed. There’d been more when his mother was alive, but he’d sold the surplus little by little to the junk shop for a bob or two at a time. It was as if he’d broken off bits of himself like brittle toffee and got rid of it till there was only the framework of a midget left. That was it. His dream had been about that last night. He remembered being in a market place, standing on a stage before a crowd of people. He had a metal hammer with which he hit at his fingers and hand till the bits flew, and people on the edge of the crowd leapt around to grab them stuffing them into their mouths and clamouring for more. This pleased him so much that he continued to hammer at his toes and arms and legs and – finally – his head.
Bloody fine thing to dream about. All his belongings were stowed aboard, but the terrified dog had slid to the back of the gas stove and wouldn’t come out. ‘You get on my bleddy nerves, you do,’ he called. ‘Come on, come away from there.’
It was dim, and in the glow of a match he saw the shivering flank of the dog pressed against the greasy skirting board. He looked for an old newspaper to lie on, and drag it out, not wanting to get his overcoat grimy. It was damned amazing, the grit that collected once you took your trappings away, not to mention nails coming through the lino that he hadn’t noticed before.
‘Come on, mate,’ the van driver called, ‘we’ve got to get cracking. Another job at eleven.’
There wasn’t any newspaper, so he lay in his overcoat, and spoke to it gently, ignoring the hard bump of something in his pocket: ‘Come on, my old duck, don’t let me down. There’s a garden to run in where you’re going. Mutton bones as well, if I know owt. They’ll be as soft as steak! Be a good lad, and don’t get on my nerves at a time like this.’
The men in the van shouted again, but he took no notice, his eyes squinting at the dim shape of the dog at the back of the stove. It looked so settled, so finally fixed, so comfortable that he almost envied it. He wanted to diminish in size, and crawl in to join it, to stay there in that homely place for ever. We’d eat woodlice and blackclocks and the scrapings of stale grease till we got old together and pegged out, or till the knockdown gangs broke up the street and we got buried and killed. Make space for me and let me come in. I won’t get on your nerves. I’ll lay quiet as a mouse, and sleep most of the time.
His hand shot out to grab it, as he’d pulled it many a time through a hedge by the golf course: ‘Come out, you bleddy tike. You get on my nerves!’
A sudden searing rip at his knuckles threw them back against his chest.
‘Leave it, mate,’ the man in the doorway laughed. ‘You can come back for it. We ain’t got all day.’
Standing up in case the dog leapt at his throat, he banged his head on the gas stove. He belonged in daylight, on two feet, with blood dripping from his hand, and a bruise already blotching his forehead.
‘Smoke the bogger out,’ the driver advised. ‘That’ll settle its ’ash.’
He’d thought of it, and considered it, but it would smoke him out as well. Whatever he did to the dog he did to himself. It seemed to be a problem no one could solve, him least of all.
‘It’s obstinate, in’t it?’ the younger one observed.
‘Go on, fume it out,’ urged the driver. ‘I’d bleddy kill it if it was mine. I’d bleddy drown it, I would.’
Albert leaned against the opposite wall. ‘It ain’t yourn, though. It’s got a mind of its own.’ It was an effort to speak. I’ll wring its neck.
‘Some bleddy mind,’ remarked the driver, cupping his hand to light a cigarette, as if he were still in the open air.
‘I can’t leave it,’ Albert told them.
‘What we’ll do, mate,’ the driver went on, ‘is get your stuff to Hucknall, and unload it. You can come on later when you’ve got your dog out. And if I was you, I’d call in at a chemist’s and get summat put on that bite while you’re about it. Or else you’ll get scabies.’
‘Rabies,’ his mate said. ‘Not fucking scabies.’
‘Scabies or rabies or fucking babies, I don’t care. But he’d better get summat purronit, I know that fucking much!’
Albert’s predicament enraged them more than it did him, and certainly more than the dog. The only consolation came at being glad the dog wasn’t doing to them what it was to him. He heard the tailgate slam during their argument, the lynchpins slot in, the cab door bang, and all he owned driven away down the street. There wasn’t even a chair to sit on, not a stick, nothing on the walls, nothing, only himself and the dog, and that crumbling decrepit gas stove that she’d said could be left behind because it wasn’t worth a light.
He sat on the floor against the opposite wall, feeling sleepy and waiting for the dog to emerge. ‘Come on, you daft bogger, show yourself. You get on my nerves, behaving like this.
It was daylight, but it felt as if he were sitting in the dark. The dog hadn’t stirred. Maybe it was dead, and yet what had it got to die for? He’d fed it and housed it, and now it was playing this dirty trick on him. It didn’t want to leave. Well, nobody did, did they? He didn’t want to leave, and that was a fact, but a time came when you had to. You had to leave or you had to sink into the ground and die. And he didn’t want to die. He wanted to live. He knew that, now. He wanted to live with this nice woman who had taken a fancy to him. He felt young again because he wanted to leave. If he’d known earlier that wanting to change your life made you feel young he’d have wanted to leave long before now. Anybody with any sense would, but he hadn’t been able to. The time hadn’t come, but now it had, the chance to get out of the tunnel he’d been lost in since birth.
But the dog was having none of it. After all he’d done for it – to turn on him like this! Would you credit it? Would you just! You had to be careful what you took in off the street.
‘Come on out, you daft bogger!’ When it did he’d be half-minded to kick its arse for biting him like that. He wrapped his clean handkerchief around the throbbing wound, spoiling the white linen with the blood. She’d asked if it was faithful when they’d first met in the pub: ‘It’ll be obedient all right, as long as it’s faithful,’ she had said. Like hell it was. If you don’t come from under that stove I’ll turn the gas on. Then we’ll see who’s boss.
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