New and Collected Stories, p.61Alan Sillitoe
She liked the water best when it settled into a mirror and showed her face. It wasn’t nice to taste the sky, but just to look at the big white cloud creeping back across her frock to cover both knees so that she couldn’t see them. You got seven years’ bad luck if you broke a mirror, so it was best only to look at it.
She stood up and waved the cloud goodbye, but still saw her mouth and hair saying hello to the sky. It couldn’t talk to her, so what was the use? And if it did she’d cheek it back, her mother would say. She would jump in it except that she didn’t want bad luck. If she got any of that her mam would smack her in the chops, and dad would thump her like he did mam when she broke the sugar basin last week.
A horse and cart went along the street loaded with bottles of lemonade that rattled against each other. If one fell she would catch it and run off to drink it dry in the lavatory – but it didn’t. The big horse was black and white, and the man on the dray shouted and shot a whip at its neck. If a lemonade bottle did fall it would smash before she could reach out and hold it. It’d be empty, anyway.
She’d like to ride on the horse through the pools of water. It went by in no time, leaving big tods steaming on the cobbles. Mr Jones who worked on the railway opened his door and came out with a dustpan. He scooped ’em up and carried ’em back inside as if they was puddings straight out of the saucepan. She’d like lemonade better, but none fell off. He’d give the puddings to his pot plants for their tea. A woman came out with a broken shovel but she was too late. She would have to wait till she heard another horse and cart, and until Mr Jones was at work, because he always got there first.
When she came back to the puddle it was still there. Nobody had dug it out and taken it away. They didn’t like water because there was plenty in the tap, and besides, it was wet. It wasn’t so big now though, because the sun had come out.
‘You’ll come to no good,’ she said to herself, playing at her mother, staring at the fire and gazing at the sky. It was wrong to pull your knickers down and pee in water. There’d be no mirror left, but the pool would get bigger, though only for a minute. Johnny Towle put his finger there yesterday and she kicked him on the leg so hard that the buttons flew off her shoe. ‘I’ll tell yer mam I fucked yer,’ he shouted right round the yard. She didn’t know what it meant, but it wasn’t good, so now she did know.
It was better to look down at the sky when she couldn’t see her face.
Next day Johnny Towle came running into the yard, arms wide out, and a big round scream at his mouth, and his eyes shining like the black buttons she had kicked off her shoe.
‘There’s TOYS,’ he shouted to everybody. ‘A man’s just left a big box of lovely toys at the end o’t street. Quick, run, or they’ll all be gone.’
‘You’re daft.’ Edie didn’t want to run, but her heart shook at his absolute certainty of this abandoned box of real yellow and red treasure-toys waiting for them to dip into and snatch, then take home and play with for ever. Not only his mouth had said it, but his whole body and legs as well, so it must be true, and she ran after the others to get her share.
All it was was a pile of cardboard boxes, and in their disappointment they kicked them to pieces. Johnny Towle booted them harder than anyone, as if he had been tricked as well, but they hated him ever after for his rotten scream of toys when there hadn’t been anything but boxes.
When she mentioned it to her mother, her mother said she should have had more bleddy sense because nobody leaves a box of toys at the end of the street. Edie wanted to cry about this, but didn’t because maybe one day they would.
When your bones ached you could see a long way off, the tool-setter had once said for a joke, fixing the belt on her machine so that it would go for another half hour at least. Some women were getting new lend-lease machines from America but her turn wouldn’t come for at least six months, the gaffer said.
All dressed up and nowhere to go, she stood on Trent Bridge and looked into the water. It was a windy summer so her coat was fastened, causing half the month’s toffee ration to bulge from her pocket. The water was like oilcloth. Her bones always ached by Friday night, but she had five bob in her purse, and no work tomorrow or Sunday, so the bit of a backache made her feel better.
When she turned round three army lorries went by and a swaddy whistled at her from the back of the last one. She waved back. Cheeky bleeder. But why not? Amy had asked her to go into a pub but she didn’t because you had to be eighteen, though Amy didn’t care, for she said: ‘We have a sing-song, and it’s a lot o’ laughs. The Yanks’ll always buy you a drink.’
The wind brought a whiff from the glue factory, and the water smelled cold. A barge made an arrow, and a man at the front who steered it wore only a shirt and smoked a pipe, and stared at the bridge he had to go under. She wondered if it would ever come out the other side. If it vanished in the middle and wasn’t seen again it would be reported in the Evening Post. She wanted to run across the wide road and look over the parapet to make sure. You’re not a kid any more, so don’t, she told herself, watching smoke come up from its chimney.
She looked at aeroplanes flying over, small black shapes scattered across the sky. Maybe she would go to the Plaza picture-house and see Spencer Tracy or Leslie Howard or Robert Taylor. There might be ice cream on sale. Or she’d call at the beer-off for some lemonade and go home to drink it. If she went in the pub with Amy her mam and dad might be there. Or somebody would see her and tell them. After fifteen planes had gone over she lost count.
A man walked along, and stopped near her. They’re going to bomb somebody, but they’re brave blokes all the same. Oh dear. He leaned with his back to the bridge, looking at the wide road. He tilted his head at the noise of the aeroplanes, and spoke to himself. She laughed. He didn’t like aeroplanes, she thought. His big moustache came over his lips like a bush. If it hadn’t been for that he would have reminded her of Robert Donat, who had a thin tash.
She didn’t want to look at him in case he thought she was looking at him, and then he would look at her, and she might have to look back, and if you looked at somebody they might not like it. They’d have to lump it, though, so she looked at him anyway. He had dark eyes, and laughed so that his teeth shone. He’ll bite me if I don’t go away, but it’s my bridge as much as his.
The chill wind reminded her that there were ten Park Drives in her pocket. It was so cold she wanted to smoke. Her mam didn’t like it so she could never have a puff at home. Her dad smoked, though. His pipe smoked all the time. You’ll smoke yourself into a kipper, her mam told him every week when she got his tobacco from the Co-op. So she had to do her smoking at work, one a day in her dinner hour, a packet a week, which left three to spare. At Christmas a woman had given her some rum, and when they got back from the pub she was sick. Then she dropped asleep on a heap of uniforms. The gaffer came by, but didn’t say anything. She didn’t like boozing after that. The gaffer had had a few, as well.
He was like a soldier, but not quite a soldier, in his greeny sort of uniform. She wanted to walk away, and knew she should, but then he might follow her, so she stayed where she was. The water pushed and shoved itself under the bridge, but she couldn’t look at it any more, in case it sucked her in. There was a bit of red and orange in the sky by the War Memorial and paddling pool. A woman walked along the embankment with a pram. The kid in it kicked a shoe off, and Edie heard a smack. Another army lorry came by, but the back was covered up.
The kid cried. She took her fags out, and the man stared so hard she put them back again. Then he smiled: ‘You walk with me?’
Her grandad had lived with them, and she wondered why he got smaller and smaller. When he first came he was bigger than she was, but then he shrank till he was only a titch, and trembled when he got up from his chair at night to close the curtains. When he spilled his tea dad shouted at him. Fancy shouting like that at your own dad. He used to give her pennies but then he’d got no money left, so she gave him one of her fags when nobody
It was a daft idea because where would you walk to when you met each other, but she took out her cigarette packet and held it towards him. You couldn’t say what he was, because there were no badges on his battledress that told her anything. He was funny. He saluted her, then came and took a fag, looking carefully to choose one, though they were all the same.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Now, we walk?’
She felt a touch at her elbow, by a hand on its way to put the fag in his mouth. He puffed while it was still unlit, waved it about in his lips as she searched for a box of matches. Her dad bought a lighter at work which went nearly every time.
‘I ain’t got any.’ She wanted a lighter for herself. Maybe she would buy one when the war was over, after she had got a bike and a handbag.
His face was misery, and she was tempted to laugh, till she thought he might not be acting. But he was. His eyes almost closed, and his eyebrows nearly went down to his nose. She had a photo of Robert Donat from Picturegoer under her mattress that she took out and looked at with her flashlight before going to sleep. He stretched his arms out wide, smacked his head – even louder than the woman who’d slapped her grizzling kid – undid his top pocket, searched half a minute as if expecting to find a leg of beef there, and fetched a single match out in his fingers. Then his smile was as big as the bridge.
She shivered when he looked at her, and at the lit match between his eyes. ‘I’m Italian,’ he said, ‘prisoner of war – collaborator now.’
He’s come a long way, she supposed – watching the lantern made with cupped hands, and then smoke as he put his head almost inside as if he was going to cook it. The dead match somersaulted over the parapet, and she thought she heard a sizzle as it hit the water and was carried away. It’ll be in the sea by morning, she didn’t wonder.
A man who’d lived next door chucked himself over into the water last year, and drowned. They found the body near Colwick Weir. He’d gone to the doctor’s with a sore throat thinking it was cancer, and when the doctor said it was nothing to worry about he thought he was only trying to hide it from him, so he did himself in because he’d seen his mother die of it two years ago. There’d been nothing wrong with him at all, except that he’d gone off his head.
He held his cigarette close to hers. ‘Now we walk?’
‘You’ll have to follow me.’ She didn’t mind at all when he bowed and took her arm. They said at work that foreigners were well brought up, though she supposed everybody was when they wanted something. But when you didn’t think you had much to give it was nice to be bowed to like on the pictures, and smiled at, and walked with arm in arm. You didn’t care whether it rained or not. And even without being told, he walked on the side the wind was coming from.
Two ATS girls looked at her gone-out. Seen enough, you nosey bleeders? she’d have said if they had stared a second longer. Officers’ comforts was what they called them at work, where the two years spent there seemed as long as since she’d been born, a place where she thought she’d learned enough to last the rest of her life.
People couldn’t see who you were with when it got dark, so she was glad when it did. Even when walking with Johnny Towle whom she had once gone out with she hadn’t wanted to be seen because it hadn’t got anything to do with anybody who she was with, and whether she was happy or not, or what they thought she was doing walking out at night.
He’d hardly said a word since leaving the bridge, and now squeezed her arm and walked in step and, as if realizing that such silence was no way to behave in face of his good luck at having found someone to talk to him, stopped abruptly and faced her. She was glad when he broke into her thoughts:
‘My name is Mario. Your name, please?’
‘Edie,’ he said, as if that settled something.
Mario sounded like a woman’s name to her.
‘Twenty-eight years,’ he said.
She’d thought he was at least thirty.
‘I’m sixteen,’ she told him.
He said he was learning English and asked would she teach him. She said she couldn’t teach anybody anything and that if he listened to her his English wouldn’t be much good – though because she had sometimes come top of the class at school, she might try.
He said yes please when she stopped at the smell and mentioned buying fish and chips. At the shop you had to get in and shut the door before an air raid warden spotted the light, and Mario had never seen anyone vanish from his sight so quickly.
He leaned against a wall to wait. He almost went to sleep. How to wait was one of the fine arts of a soldier, and he still found it difficult not to regard himself as one. He also knew after eight years in the army that to receive and to have something done for you bound the person to you who gave or did it. There was no surer way. He had money in his wallet which he couldn’t share with this pale dark-haired girl.
He had worked in South Africa, and saved it from his meagre pay, yet it was no use to him here. They had been fetched out of camp and put on a train to take ship for England at such short notice that he hadn’t had time to change the two big notes for English money. It was true that the camp sergeants had offered to change them, but their rate was so low that he decided to wait and do it later. When they said you couldn’t cash them in England he thought they were lying, but after he got here he found it was so.
The fact that he had been robbed never ceased to bite and hurt. It was only one of many such times that something had been taken from him. All through life you were robbed. At the beginning the greatest act of robbery was when you were taken from the safety of your mother’s womb and fobbed off with air that barely allowed you to breathe. Nobody had any choice about that, but the various robberies of life multiplied thereafter, each occasion leaving you more at the world’s mercy.
Everything contrived to separate you from that middle area of happiness and dignity. You could never escape the robbery that went on all the time. While you expected to lose watch, shirt, money or boots (having in any case done your share of robbery whenever you’d had the chance, for it was only the poorest of the poor who never got such opportunities) you didn’t expect to be parted from your spirit.
He had been brought up to believe that his spirit was of little value, though he’d never accepted the fact. Even so your beliefs were continually waylaid and overwhelmed, but year by year they had become strong again, till such strength was the only thing of importance. As soon as this was realized your spirit got stronger until nothing could break it at last. It had survived the attacks of church and school, and then worst of all the God-almighty State in the shape of Mussolini standing on a shield and held aloft by his gang, the man and the Party you were expected to die for as you had once stood in church and been told to adore somebody who was supposed to have died for you – when nobody had a right to die for you except yourself, and what fool would want to do that? He had had enough for the rest of his life, and smiled at the truth that he would never be able to do anything about such assaults while he continued to blame nobody but himself. Being taken a prisoner of war was the final indignity, but it was also the point from which he had begun to hope.
The fat in the vat was smooth and smoky. The end of your finger would skate if it didn’t get scorched. With three people in front she stared at the dark ice starting to split and bubble, and sending up shrouds of lovely mouth-smelling steam when the man poured a wire basket of raw chips in. His scrawny wife who wore glasses and a turban was pull
‘Two pennorth o’ chips and a couple o’ fish, please,’ Edie said. She didn’t know why she had left Mario outside in the dark, but it wasn’t raining so she didn’t worry. To be seen with a lad or a man would have made her feel daft, and being with an Italian was as bad as going out with a Yank, she felt, in that people said all sorts of rotten things, and if they didn’t say so you could tell what they were thinking, though at work they might have had a bit of a laugh over it. One of the older women could pull a megrim if you as much as mentioned having a good time before peace was declared, in which case somebody was bound to call out: ‘Well, Mrs Smith, it’s a bleddy free country, ain’t it?’
She hoped he’d be gone, but was glad he wasn’t.
‘Long time.’ He hadn’t expected to see her again.
She opened the bundle. ‘I had to wait till they was done.’
‘Cooked.’ It was black but the stars were out, and the smell of vinegar and chips drew her face back to the batter-steam and fish clinging to her fingers. ‘You’d better get some, or they’ll be gone.’
He picked into the paper, and ate more as if to please her than feed any hunger. ‘Good.’ His approval seemed like a question. ‘Thank you.’
Her smile could not be seen in the dark. ‘Lovely, aren’t they? They don’t fry every night, so we was lucky.’
‘You are a good girl.’ He spoke solemnly, then laughed at her and at himself. The wall held him up. He leaned as if nobody lived inside the house.
He is funny, she told herself, though I don’t suppose he’ll murder me. ‘Let’s walk for a bit.’
He held her arm in such a way that it seemed to her as if he was blind or badly, and wanted to be led somewhere. ‘I was in …’ he began.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes