New and Collected Stories, p.60Alan Sillitoe
No, I won’t, so don’t worry, my owd duck. He lay down again near the stove, and extended his leg underneath to try and push it sideways. He felt its ribs against the sole. What a damned fine thing! It whined, and then growled. He drew his boot away, not wanting the trousers of his suit ripped. He sat again by the opposite wall, as if to get a better view of his downfall. The world was coming to an end. It’s my head I’ll put in the gas oven, not the dog’s. Be a way to get free of everything.
The idea of shutting all doors and windows, and slowly turning on each brass tap, and lying down never to wake up, enraged him with its meaningless finality. If he died who would regret that he had disappeared? Especially, if, as was likely, he and the dog went together. His heart bumped with anger, as if he’d just run half a mile. He wanted to stand up and take the house apart brick by brick and beam by rotten beam, to smash his fist at doors and floors and windows, and fireplaces in which the soot stank now that the furniture had gone.
‘I’ll kill you!’ He leapt to his feet: ‘I’ll kill yer! I’ll spiflicate yer!’ – looking for some loose object to hurl at the obstinate dog because it was set on spoiling his plans, rending his desires to shreds. He saw himself here all day, and all night, and all next week, unable to lock the door and leave the dog to starve to death as it deserved.
His hat was placed carefully on the least gritty part of the floor, and he drew his hand back from it on realizing that if he put it on he would walk out and leave the dog to die. It’s either him or me, he thought, baffled as to why life should be that way. But it was, and he had really pulled back the hand to wipe his wet face, his tears in tune with the insoluble problem.
He leapt to his feet, full of wild energy, not knowing whether he would smash his toffee head to pieces at the stationary hammer of the stove or flee into the daylight. He spun, almost dancing with rage. Feeling deep into his pocket, he took out something that he hadn’t known was there because it had slipped through a hole into the lining. He dropped onto his haunches and hurled it at the dog under the stove with all his strength: ‘I’ll kill you, you bleeder!’
It missed, and must have hit the skirting board about the dog’s head. It ricocheted, shooting back at an angle to the wall near the door. He couldn’t believe it, but the dog leapt for it with tremendous force, propelled like a torpedo after the golf ball that he’d unthinkingly slung at it.
Albert, his senses shattered, stood aside for a good view, to find out what was really going on on this mad day. The dog’s four paws skidded on the lino as the ball clattered away from the wall and made a line under its belly. Turning nimbly, it chased it across the room in another direction, trying to corner it as if it were a live thing. Its feet again sent the ball rattling out of range.
There’d be no more visits to the golf course tatting for stray balls. The dog didn’t know it, but he did, that he’d as like as not be saying goodbye to his tears and getting a job somewhere. After his few dead years without one, he’d be all the better for the continual pull at his legs and muscles. Maybe the dog knew even more than he did, and if it did, there was nothing either of them could do about it.
The dog got the ball gently in its teeth, realizing from long experience that it must leave no marks there if the object was to make Albert appreciate its efforts. It came back to him, nudging his legs to show what it had got.
His boot itched to take a running kick at the lousy pest. ‘That’s the last time you get on my bleddy nerves, and that’s straight.’
It was, he thought, the last time I get on my own. It wasn’t a case any more of a man and his dog, but of a man and the woman he was going to. He bent down to take the gift of the ball from its mouth, but then stopped as if the shaft of cunning had at last gone into him. No, don’t get it out, he told himself. You don’t know what antics it’ll spring on you if you do. Without the familiar golf ball in its trap the bleddy thing will scoot back to its hide-away. Maybe he’d learned a thing or two. He’d certainly need to be sharper in the situation he was going into than he’d been for the last few years.
He straightened up, and walked to the door. ‘Let’s get after that van. It’s got all our stuff on board.’ He raised his voice to its usual pitch: ‘Come on, make your bleddy heels crack, or we’ll never get anything done.’
With the golf ball still in its mouth there was no telling where it would follow him. To the ends of the earth, he didn’t wonder, though the earth had suddenly got small enough for him not to be afraid of it any more, and to follow himself there as well.
She came through from the lounge, passing between two tables in the bar, and asked the waiter to get her a drink.
He noted everything about her: dark hair, pale face, red sweater, big bosom, black slacks and high heels. But there was too much shadow to see more than the barest details of her face.
On her way to sit down he asked her to join him which, to his delight, she did. He offered her a cigarette, and she took it.
‘Are you lefthanded?’
‘No,’ she answered, ‘but my father was. Are you?’
‘No. My mother was, though. Are you married?’
‘Was. We split up.’
‘So did I.’
At least he wasn’t secretive, which was a good thing, because she knew that secretive men were often rather simple in their relationships with women.
‘The best women are divorced,’ he said, ‘it seems to me.’ Every woman responded to flattery, in spite of female enlightenment, or whatever it was called, and he had long since told himself never to forget it.
She laughed. ‘And the best men are married.’
‘I can tell you don’t believe that.’
She sipped her vodka. ‘My husband was a spendthrift.’
‘Vodka’s best if you knock it back.’
‘I know. He’d get through five hundred pounds like a snake on fire.’
He noticed the shifting unharnessed bosom under her sweater when she leaned forward to bring the ashtray close. ‘Apart from that,’ she added, ‘he was a real old sour-socks! You remember that famous picture of “The Remittance Man Returning From Abroad” with his pathetic expression of wanting revenge yet also needing to be loved? I forget which museum it’s in. He looked a bit like that. Very strong minded, in that he never knew what to do. Could only rest and feel wanted when he went into hospital to have his appendix out.’
‘Tell me more about him,’ he said, also leaning forward. ‘You make me sweat.’
‘Do I? There’s not much to say, though. He was really a greedy little male chauvinist fascist under the skin. We had quite a time. He had that favourite male-swine’s trick of pretending to be gentle and good humoured, while I was pushed into being outspoken and fierce. When we were on our own he was repressive, scornful, and plain bloody mean, just so that he could see my spleen burst when we were in company. The only way I could get my own back was to attack him in front of his friends – all of whom, I suspect, were having the same problems. Either that, or to give them a rough time. Then he’d have to soothe them, so that they all thought him a nice, diplomatic, and put-upon sort of person, while I was a shrew. He had a desert in himself, and tried to call it an empire.’
She looked very pleasant to him now. He wanted to asphyxiate himself on her two beautiful plump breasts, give her a kiss on the lips which would hopefully lead to a touch of the tongue, and end in an Epicurean lick of the epiglottis. ‘I was happily married for ten years,’ he told her, ‘so I do have something to be pleased about.’
There was a tremor of curiosity in her deep blue eyes. ‘What happened?’
‘I came back early one day from my travels – I’m a commercial traveller.’
‘So am I,’ she put in quickly. ‘Hosiery.’
‘I’m in electronics. Well, I found her with my best friend. They were eating chocolate-covered wholemeal biscuits with slivers of Cheddar cheese. Both were in the bedroom, with nothing on. She’d been sleeping with
‘Do you always smoke a cigar as if it were a haystack?’ she asked, when she’d stopped laughing. ‘It reminds me of that delectable piece of haddock you usually get for breakfast at this hotel.’
‘I like a good smoke.’ He finished his whisky. ‘A friend of mine drank a bottle of his wife’s perfume after a three-day quarrel, and went blind. Nobody ever knew what they had been arguing about, because they led blameless lives, but he didn’t get his sight back for a fortnight, and in that time she really went off the rails.’
She made sympathetic noises, unable to get upset about it. Evenings, after all, were the only times she had to relax. ‘A friend of mine had been married to her second husband for two years,’ she told him, after a long pause, ‘and it suddenly occurred to her that she had never seen him shave. One day she woke up, and he was gone. His appetite, though, had been as regular as sin. She never saw him again.’
He called the waiter over for more drinks. ‘Same?’
‘All right. I prefer Dutch treat, though.’
‘Don’t worry, I can afford it. Trade’s good. Everybody’s got money to buy hi-fis and calculators.’
‘They’re fun, I know. But I’m making good money, too.’
‘It used to be the tobacco that counts: now, it’s pocket calculators!’
But she didn’t laugh, asking instead: ‘Do you think it’s easier to recognize your own face or your own voice?’
‘Know your enemy,’ he replied, ‘though not too well, or you may become like him – or her. Your face, I suppose.’
This seemed to upset her. ‘I believe in the voice, really.’ It had always been difficult to accept that she had delicate susceptibilities, and as for him – he’d usually preferred to learn the hard way. ‘Get me a vodka then, for God’s sake,’ she said.
He thought she was going to cry, which seemed admissible in a big woman. They always cried sooner than small women.
‘I read lately,’ she said, making her usual good recovery, ‘how common it is for a man and a wife to develop the same neuroses as they grow older together. What I think is that they fight each other’s neuroses till a benevolent kind of stalemate takes over. This can go on until death. Quite often, though, one or the other can’t stand such nullity and takes a lover so as to keep what individuality she’s got left. But if it comes back completely it means a divorce. And then maybe they both begin the whole process again with their new partners – if they’re idiotic enough. Maybe such things only happen to weak and ordinary people. But if they do, who does that exclude, I’d like to know?’
‘It bloody well excludes me’ – though he was sorry he said it so harshly and abruptly. That was the effect she had on him. ‘Sex,’ he countered, ‘becomes too important in a marriage when not enough of it takes place. When the man and woman are so preoccupied with their work that they forget to make love as often as they need, they become antagonistic towards one another without knowing why. They only make love after a quarrel, so it seems that sex is more important than it should be. Or they get to think that the marriage is “based on sex” when it clearly is not.’
She hoped for something better every year, but it was always the same. ‘I did try to save you.’
He put the expression on his lips that he could never control – simply, of course, because he didn’t want to – a mixture of despair and disdain for her and all the world. It was unmistakable, and he always backed up the accompanying deadness of his eyes with some words or other: ‘Those who save us destroy us, if we aren’t careful to resist their blandishments after we no longer need them.’
With her usual bravado she drank her vodka straight off, which was no more than a cover while she took in his words slowly, so as to get the full cut of their blades. Then she picked up an olive and, carefully putting the stone on the rim of the ashtray, flicked it across the bar and into the lounge. She had picked it so clean with her teeth that it rolled along the well-worn carpet, and tapped against the reception desk – which a dark-haired intelligent-looking woman making enquiries about a room did not notice.
‘You never miss,’ he said. Her actions had always been the best part of her, in spite of her throaty voice.
‘I work hard,’ she said, ‘so I have the right to relax in my own way.’ He knew all that. By her travelling for a hosiery firm, their tracks crossed often, though each actual meeting had to be deferentially fixed. She was the chief traveller, and earned as much as he did.
Now it was his turn to feel like weeping, but he was able to say: ‘People like us don’t live long enough to see the results of their mistakes. And if they did I suppose they’d only look like glorious moments in an otherwise dull life. Even three hundred years wouldn’t be enough.’
She touched his wrist, an indication that, in her view, he was improving.
This made him feel confident enough to add: ‘It’s a mistake to live in the future all one’s life.’ He tried to make a last bridge that might bring them together again. ‘It’s generally pretty miserable, because when you get old you have nothing to live for. Or so my instinct tells me, though I’ve always believed that instinct to be blind.’
Neither spoke for five minutes, and then she said firmly: ‘I know you have. But the first thing you must realize about instinct is that it’s not blind, then at least you might be able to get some advantage from it.’
Silence was still their enemy, so he put the usual question: ‘What have you been doing with yourself this last year?’
She slurred her words. They were getting drunk. In the room they would, as usual, prove to be nowhere near it – but it was necessary for them to feel so in order to get there. ‘I don’t have much spare time. I know how to look after myself, though. What do you do?’
When their answers to the same questions coincided he knew they were getting to the end of the evening, though he added earnestly, ‘Are you happy?’
She laughed. ‘My lip feels dead.’
‘Please. I read a lot.’
‘So do I.’ He called for a pot of coffee. It would be as weak as dishwater, merely causing him to get up every hour of the night. He thought it strange how some people never learn. Not to know how to learn showed a fundamental lack of intelligence, even though a person may be very bright and quick on the surface – he suggested.
She poured his coffee. ‘Sugar?’
They had made each other suffer, so maybe that alone was love, especially since no marks showed. She used to think he didn’t know how to suffer because he suffered too much in silence. If you were in love you’d have the generosity to let the other person see it.
‘It seems ridiculous,’ he said. ‘Yes, I’ll have some of that heart-attack white sugar.’
‘Don’t. I’d hate it if that happened. But what sounds ridiculous?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘I don’t know what you mean if you don’t tell me. I don’t live in the land of the unspoken any more.’
Everything had to be brought out. They were the ambassadors of two nations, and nothing could be left unsaid. ‘Meeting once a year to see if we can’t get back together again and make a go of it. That’s what’s bloody well ridiculous.’
In one way he was right, but at least they’d been able to talk in a civilized way whenever they’d met over the last five years. This hotel was beginning to feel like home. If he threatened to kill himself, or began knocking her about in his quiet far-off tigerish way as if to kill her, then at least she would be nearer help than in that detached subur
When they had lived together, their love, if such it was, had been one of incurable polarization. And however tempting it was to return to it she knew that, given her perverse temperament, she must never give in to what she craved. This was the closest she could get to happiness, and she must count herself lucky. She thought it the nearest he could get to it, as well.
His laughter sounded so genuine, and set apart from their insoluble dilemma, that she envied him, though she suspected it, because nothing he had ever done, no sound he had ever made when with her, was not part of some scheme to get at her. ‘What are you laughing at?’ she asked.
‘I once knew someone who put back great quantities of gin, then suddenly stopped drinking on the advice of her doctor. Three months later she died of cancer. She’d been riddled with it. The booze had been holding it at bay.’
‘I’ll have to think of some good ones for next year,’ she said, adding that she would certainly do without that kind of drink. He hadn’t thought there was much point in it, but he always hoped. ‘A score of beginnings,’ he said, ‘but never an ending in sight.’
If anything would win in the end, she reflected, it was his sense of humour. ‘Let’s go to bed.’
‘I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it,’ he said.
She was already standing. ‘I have to set off for Bristol early in the morning.’
‘And I have to go to Hull,’ he said, seeing that it was to be the usual thing, after all, but happy at least for the night that was coming.
A Scream of Toys
Edie looked a long time at blue sky in a pool of water after rain before dipping her finger down for a taste.
It got wet. The edge of a cloud was bitter with soil and mouldy brick, telling her that the old backyard was in the sky as well. It was everywhere, even when she walked out and on to the street, and to the road at the end of the street, for wherever she was she knew she had to go back to Albion Yard because that was where she lived.
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