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New and collected storie.., p.62
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       New and Collected Stories, p.62

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  ‘In where?’ she asked, after a while.

  Their feet clattered the pavement. A soldier passed. Another man in the dark nearly bumped into them and stood for a moment as if to say something. He smelt drunk. If it was daylight he might have spoken but if so she’d tell him to get dive-bombed, or to mind his own effing business – whichever was more convenient to his style of life – as they said at work, with more laughs than she could muster at the moment. Mario snorted, as if thinking something similar. ‘You’re in Nottingham now,’ she whispered.

  ‘Nottingham, I know.’ His normal voice made the name sound like the end of the world, and maybe it was, in the blackout, in the Meadows. ‘I was in Addis Ababa. You know where that is?’

  ‘I’m not daft. It’s Abyssinia, ain’t it?’

  He laughed, and pressed her arm. She was glad at getting it right, saw a wild land full of black people and high mountains. Or was it jungle? As they turned into Arkwright Street the crumpled chip paper slipped from her other hand. There was always a smell of soot when it got dark, and a stink of paraffin from factories. A late trolley bus with lights hardly visible was like a tall thin house rumbling along the cobbles. The Methodist Hall was silent, all doors barred against tramps and ghosts.

  ‘It in’t a church,’ she said. ‘It’s a British Restaurant. I sometimes eat my dinner there, because it only costs a shilling.’

  He seemed to belong to her, even more so when he released her arm and held her hand. At the Midland Station he stopped. ‘Not possible to go to centre of city. Not allowed for us.’

  She was glad. In Slab Square people would look at them, and talk, and maybe call out. They turned back. She was also angry, because he no longer belonged to her when he couldn’t go where he liked. There were different laws for him, so they weren’t alone even while walking together in the dark. ‘It’s daft that we can’t go downtown,’ she said. ‘It’s not right.’

  He held her hand again, as if to say that he was not blaming her, a warm mauler closing over her fingers. ‘Not public houses, either, but cinema we can go.’

  Nobody would take any notice if they went and sat on the back row, but it cost more than at the front. Youths would shout out, and there’d be a fight perhaps. ‘We can go to the Plaza. That’s a nice one.’

  He pulled her close into a doorway. He smelt of hair and cloth, and stubbed-out fags – and scent. ‘Tomorrow?’

  ‘Don’t kiss me, then.’

  She couldn’t fathom the scent. It wasn’t even hair cream. His hair was dry. He didn’t, and as they walked along wide Queen’s Drive towards Wilford Bridge she shared a bar of chocolate and the bag of caramels from her toffee ration. You had to pay a ha’penny if you wanted to cross the Trent there, so they called it Ha’penny Bridge. To her it always seemed the only real way to get out of Nottingham, to leave home and vanish for ever into a land and life which could never be as bad as the one she’d felt trapped in since birth. But she had only been taken over to play as a child – or she’d gone across for a walk by herself and come back in half an hour because there didn’t seem anywhere to go.

  They passed the police station, and three years ago she had stood outside reading lists of dead after the air raid, long white sheets of paper covered in typewritten names. Spots of rain had fallen on them, and people queued to see if anybody was on that they didn’t already know about.

  Houses were heaps of slates, laths and bricks. If anybody was dead a Union Jack was sometimes put over. Johnny Towle’s name was on the list. She’d only seen him the Sunday before, when they went to Lenton for a walk. He said he loved her, and sometimes she dreamed about him. A man stopped her when she walked by one smashed house and said: ‘Would you believe it? My mother was killed in that house, and I put a flag over it. It ain’t there any more. Somebody’s stolen it.’ He was wild. He was crying, and she told him before hurrying away: ‘They’d nick owt, wouldn’t they?’

  She wanted Mario to talk because she didn’t know what else to say after telling everything that had been in her mind, but he wouldn’t. He didn’t understand when she said: ‘A penny for your thoughts!’ Everybody must have something in their heads, but he only wanted to walk, and to listen to her, asking her now and again to explain a word he didn’t know.

  Before reaching the bridge she said: ‘Let’s turn round.’ The thought of water frightened her, and she had no intention of crossing to the other side. Their footsteps echoed, and she was glad when she heard others.

  ‘After Abyssinia’ – his voice startled her – ‘go to South Africa. A long way. Then to England. Soon, Italy, when war is finished. I go to work. War is no good.’

  ‘What will you do?’

  ‘I do business.’ He rubbed his fingers so hard that she heard chafing skin before actually looking towards it. ‘Affari!’ he said, and she could tell it made him cheerful to say it, the first Italian word she had learned.

  ‘Affari!’ she echoed him. ‘Business!’ – so that she also laughed. ‘I like that word – affari.’ She would remember it because it sounded real. It was good to do business. Two years ago pennies were short for putting in gas and electric meters, so she and Amy did business by standing on street corners selling five pennies for a sixpenny bit. Some people told them to bogger off, but others were glad to buy. Then a copper sent them away, and she daren’t do it again, though Amy did it with somebody else. She used to collect milk money at school so could always get the pennies. Mario laughed when she told him about it.

  ‘Affari?’ she said.

  ‘Yes, affari!’

  She knew nothing about him, but liked him because even English wasn’t his language, and he had been all over the world. Unlike the lads at work, he was interesting. She took out another cigarette and, embarrassed for him at having to accept it said, hoping he wouldn’t be offended: ‘Ain’t you got any?’

  ‘No. We are paid sixpence a day. Italian collaborators’ work. Pay tomorrow, so we go to the cinema, both, eh?’

  They stood close so as to coax the cigarettes alight. ‘You’ve got a one-track mind,’ she said.

  ‘You teach me English!’

  On Arkwright Street they turned back towards Trent Bridge. She still wondered whether he was having her on. ‘You know it already.’

  ‘I learn. But speech makes practice. Good for affari!’

  She laughed. He was funny. ‘If you like. Pictures, then, tomorrow night?’

  ‘Pictures? Museum?’

  She knew it couldn’t be hard for him to understand what was said because she’d never been able to talk as if she had swallowed the dictionary. ‘No. Pictures means cinema. Same thing.’

  She didn’t want to lose him, but felt a bit sick after she had agreed. They said at work she never talked, not deep dark Edie Clipston at her sewing and seaming machine earning fifty bob a week. But she did – when nothing else seemed possible. The lad who humped work to and from the machine tried to kiss her, and she threatened him with the scissors, but she let him last Christmas when somebody held mistletoe over them.

  ‘It didn’t mean anything, though,’ she told Mario as they stood on the bridge. He had a watch, and said it was half past nine. He had to be in by ten, so pressed her hands hard, and kissed one quickly.

  He walked away and she forgot all about him. She didn’t know what he looked like, and wondered if she would recognize his face on meeting him again. But she felt as if the cobbles had fur on them as she walked back to Muskham Street.

  Hearing no noise through the door she tried the knob and was able to go in, glad the house was empty. She filled the kettle and lit the gas. The cat rubbed against her ankle.

  ‘Gerroff, you’ve had yer supper already.’ It followed her around the room, mewing, so she gave it a saucer of bread and milk. Then she put coal on the fire. When they got back from the boozer they might wonder why she’d done so, but she didn’t care what they thought.

  Her father was tall and thin, and worked on a machine at the gun factory. He took
his cap and jacket off and threw them across the sofa. ‘Pour me some tea, duck.’

  Her mother came in a few minutes afterwards, pale like Edie but her face thinner and more worn. She took off her brown coat with its fur collar and put it on a hanger behind the stairfoot door. ‘What did you bank the fire up for?’

  ‘It’s cold.’

  ‘It is when you stand in a queue to buy the coal.’

  She sat by the glow to warm her hands. Her legs were mottled already from sitting too close too often. She had never queued for coal, anyway, because a delivery man emptied a hundredweight bag outside the back door every week.

  ‘Kid’s don’t understand.’ Her father nodded at the teapot. ‘Let’s have some, then.’

  Joel Clipston had once spent four months in quod for ‘causing grievous bodily harm’ to a man who, wilting under opinionated hammerblows of logic during an argument on politics had called Joel’s wife a foul name as the only way – so he thought – of stopping his gallop and getting back at him. Joel had kept silent in court, ashamed to say out loud what the man had called Ellen, and so he had no defence against having half killed somebody while waiting for opening time outside a pub one Sunday morning. He said nothing to the magistrate, and got sent down for ‘such a vicious attack’. There are worse places than Lincoln, he said when he came out, though he was more or less cured of ever doing anything to get sent there again. For a while he roamed the streets looking for the man who had called Ellen a prostitute, but then heard he had gone into the army. If he don’t get killed I’ll wait for him when he comes out, soldier or not.

  He lost his job over the court case, but now that the war had started it was easy to get another. He was set to digging trenches on open ground for people to run into from nearby houses when aeroplanes came over from Germany. If he worked twelve hours a day he made more money than he’d ever had in his pocket before. Then he got work as a mechanic, and found he was good at it. There was either no work at all, or there was too much, but never exactly as much as you needed. He preferred to read newspapers, play draughts, sit listening to the wireless with a mug of tea in his hand, or spend a few hours in the boozer, rather than work more time than he thought necessary – war or not.

  They sometimes went over the river at Ha’penny Bridge and into the fields beyond Wilford. In spring, Ellen baked lemon curd tarts and made sandwiches, and Joel filled two quart bottles with tea for a picnic by Fairham Brook. The air seemed fresher beyond Wilford village, where the smell of water lingered from the river which rounded it on three sides.

  Even though her brother Henry was younger he chased Edie with a stick, till the end of it flicked her, so she turned round and threw it into the river and both of them watched it float away like a boat. Joel was glad they got on so well. Henry was squat-faced and fair, while Edie was dark-haired and had olive skin like her mother.

  Edie poured tea into his own big white mug, and put in a whole spoon of sugar. ‘When the war’s over,’ he said, ‘I’ll get half a ton of sugar from the shop. Then I can put three spoons in. You can’t even taste one.’

  ‘Pour me a cup as well, duck,’ her mother said. ‘Where did you go tonight?’

  Edie took the tea-cosy off. ‘A walk.’

  Her legs ached as well as her back. It seemed a long way that she had gone, though she remembered every place as close enough – but far off all the same when somebody talked to you who had seen so much of the world, and then kissed your hand. The pot was poised over the cup and saucer.

  ‘Where to?’ Ellen asked.

  ‘I just went out.’ She wondered what else there was to say, for it didn’t concern anyone where she had been, and tonight she felt no connection to her mother or father, nor would she to Henry when he came in.

  ‘Sly little bleeder!’

  Joel tapped at the bars with a poker. ‘You’ll never get a straight answer from her.’

  It had been the same ever since she was born, that if one of them started to get on at her, the other would always join in. She had the feeling that they knew where she had been, and wanted to drag her out of it and back to what she had always hated. She didn’t know how they could tell, but was sure they’d twigged something.

  ‘You ought to stay in at least one night of the week.’ Her mother stood up to cut bread for Joel’s lunch next day. ‘And clean the house up a bit. I have enough to do as it is when I get home from work.’

  She had noticed, as soon as they came in, that both of them smelled of beer. ‘I go to work as well,’ she reminded her mother, knowing when she spoke that they would have succeeded in pulling her out of her dreams. But she’d never say who she had been with. She brought more than two pounds into the house every week, which seemed enough for them to get out of her. ‘I scrubbed the parlour floor last Sunday, didn’t I?’

  Hot tea sprayed over the saucer and the cloth, and the pot itself rolled itself on to the floor before she could stop it. The cup broke with the weight of the big brown teapot. She didn’t know how. Dropped on to it. The noise shocked every bone, and she stood with fingers curled as if the pot were still gripped – or as if, should she keep them held like that, the teapot bits would reassemble and jump back into place.

  In spite of her mother saying that she was always in a dream, that she was as daft as they come, that she had never known anybody to be so clumsy – and several other remarks that she wouldn’t listen to but that would come back to her later when, she knew, she would have even less use for them – she felt that if there had been a hammer close enough she would have lifted it and smashed the remains of the teapot and cup to smithereens.

  But she didn’t care as she looked at the bits of pot mixed among the tea leaves and stains. She remembered Mario’s face by the bridge, when he had taken the cigarette and put a hand over while lighting it, as close as if the whole meeting was happening bit by bit again. She saw both herself and him as real and plain as ever, the pair of them right by her side. The picture hypnotized her, and held her rigid with surprise and a feeling that gave some protection for what was sure to come now that she had smashed the teapot.

  ‘She allus was clumsy,’ her father put in, a mild response which told her to be on her guard. The jollier they were on coming home from the pub only meant that they would be even more nasty and hateful later. It was best to be out of their way at such times, but unless you went to bed there was nowhere to take refuge, and she didn’t want to go to sleep so early after talking to Mario.

  ‘I couldn’t help it.’ She heard the tone of fear, apology and shame, which made her more angry with herself than at dropping the teapot. The accident didn’t seem important, anyway. She wasn’t a bit clumsy at work. ‘My fingers slipped.’

  Her father put his half drunk mug of tea on the mantelshelf, as if it would be safe from her there. ‘What am I going to do in the morning, then? There’s nowt to make the tea in.’

  If she looked up he would hit her, but in turning away she saw his grey eyes lifeless with anger, and his lips tight. Ellen picked up a few bits of the saucer from the cloth.

  ‘Let her do it,’ Joel said quietly. ‘She dropped the bleddy thing.’

  He sometimes chased her and Henry around the room in fun. All three laughed, but Ellen looked on as if thinking they should act their age and have more sense. But the last time Joel had been playful they suddenly felt too old for it. The time had passed when they could play together.

  Edie sometimes said things without thinking, and when she did she was frightened. If she had known beforehand that she was going to be frightened she would still have spoken because she was never able to stop herself even when she thought about it. The words seemed to jump from outside of her: ‘I’m not going to clear it up.’

  He sat down with his tea, and she felt sorry she had cheeked him, so picked some brown sharp pieces of the teapot to put in a little heap on the corner of the table. This methodical enjoyment of her task caused a flash of rage to blot out Joel’s brain. Edie knew it was only r
ight that she should try to clear the mess up, though her mother had already done most of it, and had come back from the coal place with a dustpan to start clattering bits on to it.

  It couldn’t have been worse if a ten-ton bomb had dropped on the place and killed them. All because of a teapot, Edie told herself, about to cry, as if she alone in her might and viciousness had broken the spirit of the house. There was such gloom that, after a few moments, the only thing possible was to laugh. She wanted to be walking again with Mario – while doubting that she ever would – crossing a bright green field with him, under a pale blue sky full of sunshine instead of bombers.

  It was as if her father had picked up the wall and hit the side of her face with it. She wondered how he knew what she had been thinking. The blow threw her across the room, and coconut matting scraped her skin as she slid with eyes closed and banged her head at the skirting board. In darkness she saw nothing, but it was followed by a dazzle of blue lights as his boot came at her.

  When her father lashed out like this her mother always got on at him to have more sense, and now she tried to pull him off, telling him not to be stupid or he’d get in trouble knocking her about like that, thinking of the times he’d pasted her, Edie supposed, but then wondering if she interfered out of spite, because he only answered by giving her another kick that was worse than the rest.

  As she lay half stunned Edie knew she would go to the bridge again and meet him as often as she liked because he had been so gentle and interesting. They didn’t know, but even if they did they couldn’t stop her seeing somebody who made her feel she need never be anybody except herself.

  After a parting half-hearted kick at her back which she hardly felt, her father sat down to light his pipe and finish his tea, ignoring her agonized and shouted-out wish that it would choke him.

  The drawn curtains in her room made the blackout complete, but when she put off the light it was so dark she couldn’t go to sleep. She ached from the last big kick but cried no more, not even when she hoped a German plane would drop a single bomb on them and make the blackout so final that they would never be able to switch a light on again.

 
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