New and Collected Stories, p.63Alan Sillitoe
She’d die of shame if daylight ever came, but if it did, she would never let anybody hit her again. If her father lost his temper and tried to, she would blind him with whatever she could grab. That sort of thing was finished from now on. She didn’t know how, yet knew it was, because she had made up her mind, hoping that when it looked like happening she would be able to remember what she had made up her mind to do, and blind him no matter what.
She heard them arguing downstairs, though not what was said. Their speech sounded like the flood of a river hitting a bridge before going underneath. Now that she wasn’t there they could start on each other. They could kill each other for all she cared. They had been cat-and-dogging it for as long as she could remember, but no wonder when she thought about what her mother used to get up to.
When dad was out of work – she would tell Mario (whether he could understand or not, because if you didn’t tell your thoughts to somebody there was no point in living) – which went on for years and years, that mam kept going downtown at night saying she was off to Aunt Joan’s, but one day after she’d bought some new shoes and a coat, and things for the house as well, and wouldn’t say where she had got the money, dad followed and saw her on Long Row talking to somebody in a car.
He felt so rotten at the idea of her picking up men that he hadn’t got the guts to put a stop to it. He didn’t even let on he knew, though she must have known he did. But one night, after it had gone on for a long time, he decided he’d had enough, and caught her sitting in Yates’s Wine Lodge as large as life with a man who’d had his nose blown off in the last war. Where the nose should have been there was wrinkled skin and two small holes that dripped if he didn’t press a hanky to it.
When dad saw this he let his fists fall, but swore at them both and told mam never to come home again or he would murder her and the kids and then cut his own throat. Me and Henry liked what happened, because dad didn’t even shout at us now she wasn’t there. He pawned her clothes one day, and took us on a trackless into town and treated us to the pictures and an ice cream each with the money. The woman who lived next door often gave us toffees when we came home from school because she was sorry for us having no mother. It made us feel like orphans, and we liked that.
We were drinking tea and eating toast one night when somebody knocked at the door. The tap on wood was soft, as if a beggar was hoping we’d ask him in and give him some of our supper, and when dad opened it we were surprised to see old No-nose come in from the cold. Dad was mad at being disturbed from his newspaper and his peace, but No-nose asked: ‘I want to know if you’ll be kind and take your Ellen back.’
‘Take bloody who back?’
‘Your Ellen,’ No-nose said.
Dad stood by the mantelpiece, as if ready to crank his arm up for a real good punch. No-nose stayed just in the door. He wore a nicky-hat and was wrapped up in a good topcoat and scarf – as well as gloves – because he had an office job and was better off than us. He would have been goodlooking if he’d still had a nose.
Me and Henry was too frightened to say anything, and when dad, after a bit of an argument in which nobody said much, said that mam could come back if she liked, No-nose looked as happy as if his nose had come back on to his face, which made us want to laugh – though we daren’t in case dad turned on us.
He went out to get mam. She’d been standing at the end of the street waiting for him to come and tell her whether it was all right or not. No-nose gave us some chocolates and sixpence each, then went away after shaking dad’s hand but saying not a word to mam. He only nodded at her, as if he’d had enough of the trouble she’d caused – though he was to blame as well.
When he’d gone mam sat on the other side of the fireplace to dad. They scowled at each other for half an hour. Then mam laughed, and dad said a string of foul words. He’s going to get the chopper and kill her, I thought, but suddenly he was laughing and so was she. Me and Henry was even more frightened at that, and said nothing, because we weren’t able to make things out at all.
Mam and dad kissed, and sent us to buy a parcel of fish and chips out of the few quid that No-nose had given her. Afterwards we had a good supper, and everybody was supposed to be happy, though I wondered how long it would last.
When Edie started to feel more sorry for them than for herself she fell asleep.
With her coat tight-wrapped around her, and holding Mario’s two South African banknotes folded into her pocket, Edie went downtown into Gamston’s Travel Agency to try and change them for him. She was glad that only one other person was being served as she opened the notes out and showed them over the counter, feeling daft because she had not been in the place before.
‘Can’t change ’em,’ the bloke said, an old man with a moustache who first looked over his glasses at them and then at her.
‘Why can’t you?’ Money was money, she’d always thought, and Mario had earned every penny of whatever it was called.
He held a pen, as if about to write all over her face. ‘Because we can’t. We’re not allowed to, that’s why.’
She stood, hoping he’d alter his mind, whether they were supposed to or not. ‘Oh.’
‘We can’t anyway. It’s regulations.’
He went to get a railway ticket for somebody but, not wanting to leave without doing what she had come for, she didn’t move. Last night Mario had showed her some photographs of his mother and sister, and his two brothers, and they all looked as nice as Mario himself and she felt that if she couldn’t get his cash changed she’d be letting them down as well as him. So she held up the large gaudy-coloured banknotes again.
The man came back. ‘There’s nothing I can do for you. It’s foreign money, and there’s a war on, and that’s why we can’t change it. Come in after the war, then it might be all right!’
‘It’ll be too late then. I need it now.’
A woman behind the counter put a cup of tea by his elbow, and maybe he didn’t want to let it get cold because he said, as if ready to fetch the police to her: ‘Where did you get ’em from?’
She saw by his face, and knew from his tone, that he thought she had nicked them or – she screwed the words painfully into her mind – earned them like that. Her mouth filled with swearing, but she couldn’t spit it at him as he deserved, so walked out and then went quickly along Parliament Street towards a café where she could get a cup of tea.
The sun was in her eyes so she turned her back to it. When Mario walked on to the bridge she gave him the banknotes: ‘Sorry.’
‘The bleeders wouldn’t do it.’
He scowled. ‘Bleeders?’
Neither spoke for half an hour. They walked by rowing boats tied to wooden landing stages, and she wondered when and at what place they would reach the sea if she and Mario got into one of them. Maybe they’d land on a beach in Italy, and have no more trouble from anybody.
He held her hand tightly, so she knew he was brooding about something which it was no use asking him to explain. But he didn’t seem angry. He was miles away, living in sounds and colours she had no hope of understanding, though she liked the warm and dreamy feeling when she tried to picture them. With an English bloke she wouldn’t have had such dreams. They’d have joshed and teased like kids – whereas with Mario she saw mountains and yellow trees, and a sky so blue it would blind you if you looked straight at it. But she didn’t want to because her dream was too far beyond her normal mind. You had to be grateful for small mercies, and this was bigger than most.
Grey water slopped at the concrete steps. There was a noise of children playing from the other side of the river. She felt easy with him because, though he had suffered and was far from home, he had a light heart and could make her laugh. But she took his larger hand in order to share his bitterness, and let whatever he felt was too much to bear pass into her. She had always known that there were some things you could only keep quie
The streak of green and blue turned into the last flush of the day. Children stopped playing suddenly. They were alone on the embankment with no one to see them. Not that she cared. She’d hold his hand whoever was looking on. They could take a running jump at themselves for all she’d bother. Once upon a time she had clutched her father’s hand, but she hadn’t spoken to that bully for days.
‘Never mind,’ she said to Mario. ‘They’re dirty robbers, that’s what they are.’
Her whole body shook when he kissed her, and she could never remember feeling so protected.
‘I love you,’ he said.
She didn’t know how to say anything. To speak like that seemed a funny way of putting it, though. They walked on, and she couldn’t find words to answer, even when he said it again. It was time to say goodnight, and promise to meet another day, but she couldn’t stop walking and say anything while still so close to that total change already made between leaving home and meeting him. To walk away from the comfort of holding hands seemed neither right nor possible.
She still felt stupid at not having got some English money for his foreign banknotes, but it was a failure that brought them closer, and made her want to stay longer with him, so that she was almost glad they’d been so rotten to her at the travel agent’s.
A policeman stood talking to the woman tollkeeper who leaned by a tiny brick house to collect money from any carts or motors that went over Ha’penny Bridge.
‘Not go there,’ Mario said.
There was plenty of dusk to hide in, so she wondered what he meant. They were on the lowest step by the water which, had it come up another inch, would have flowed over her shoes. ‘It don’t matter, does it?’
‘In camp at ten. No Italian out after ten o’clock.’
It was too late, anyway. The world was full of trouble when you did things that caused no harm. She wondered who started it, but didn’t know. If Mario walked about after ten at night it wouldn’t stop the day beginning tomorrow. ‘Will you get shouted at?’
He smiled. ‘I have given sergeant money. But the police don’t know, and they ask for papers, maybe, then send me back, and tell Captain. Then Mario will not walk with Edie for three weeks.’
If they crossed Ha’penny Bridge to the fields they’d be safe from prying eyes – and from having to make up their minds to go anywhere. He pressed his face to her hair and said things she didn’t understand but that she was happy to hear. She was also glad she had washed her hair last night.
He led her up the steps and back to the roadway. ‘Police gone now,’ he whispered.
She took two ha’pennies from her pocket. The old woman at the gate wore a thick coat and scarf to keep out the damp. The river pushed itself forcefully along, and the other side seemed far off from where they stood. The noise of a cow sounded from the fields.
The tollkeeper took her ha’pennies. ‘You’d better be back before twelve.’
‘Are you going to wind up the bridge, then?’ Edie asked, thinking that coming back was too far in the future to worry about.
‘Cheeky young devil!’ the old woman called.
A sliver of sharp moon showed as if about to come down and cut the river to ribbons. But there were streaks of night mist towards Beeston, and white stars glittered above. Halfway over, Mario said: ‘You give her money?’
‘Only a penny. It’s a toll bridge.’
‘Money to pay,’ she said. ‘Somebody private owns it.’
He walked more quickly. ‘Not good.’
‘It’s always been like that.’
Her arm was folded with his so she had to keep pace. A plane flew over. ‘One crashed last year. An American plane. The pilot knew a woman in a house at Wilford. He went over ever so low to wave at her. But he crashed, and everybody in the plane was killed.’
She didn’t know whether he understood. It didn’t seem to matter, but she went on: ‘Five men died, and all for nothing. The pilot had wanted to say hello to his girl. And now she will wear black for evermore because he is dead. And she had a baby afterwards and they couldn’t get married. She saw his plane blow up when it hit a tree with no leaves on in the middle of a field.
‘Bad story,’ he said.
At the end of the bridge they walked down the lane, no lights showing from any house. They were used to the dark. She didn’t know on which field the plane had crashed, but perhaps it was near Fairham Brook where she used to play with Henry when they went on picnics from Albion Yard. At work they’d said what a shame it was, and wondered whether the poor girl would ever get over it, and what would happen to her baby if she didn’t, because she was packed off to live with her grandmother in Huntingdonshire. Others heard she’d killed herself, but all sorts of rumours flew about, and you couldn’t believe anything, though she wouldn’t be surprised.
When he stopped singing it was only to kiss her hand. She heard the grating cry of a crow from the river that looped on three sides of them. She liked his tune, and would have sung a bit herself if she had known it, though she was happy enough to listen as they went through the village that seemed dead to the world and into a field where they would stay till the bombers came home.
‘When I last saw you – a year ago,’ Mavis said resentfully, and with more disappointment than he cared to notice, ‘you told me you had only three months left to live.’
He remembered it vividly, while reflecting that mendacity was an illness for which there was no proper cure. It was possible to recover from it, however, when you had no more need of such unsubtle ruses. In other words you might grow out of lying by the simple process of growing up. He hoped it was only a matter of time, that though old habits never die they might simply fade away.
It happened at June and Adrian’s party, a disaster that was indeed difficult to forget. What’s more, his ploy hadn’t worked, so he might just as well have saved himself the trouble of lying. Yet it was undeniable that he had lied, and enjoyed it. He could only apologize to her – first, because he was still here on earth to make her remind him of it; and second, that he was still alive and might yet lie again.
His apology didn’t seem to make much difference. Her disapproval was so profound that he saw some chance of them getting to know each other better. She watched him take a cigarette out of his packet, then put it back. He wasn’t going to lie again, after all. Or perhaps it only meant he wasn’t going to smoke much today. He was showing her that he was cutting down his smoke production, so that at least he couldn’t convincingly repeat his lie of a year ago.
‘I’ve only got three months to live,’ he had said.
She laughed, loud. ‘You’re joking.’
The folds of her red-and-white African safari-wrap shifted under her laughter. She was big and fair and, talking to someone a few minutes ago, he’d heard that she had just left her husband. He thought he couldn’t go wrong, until he told his silly lie.
‘Well, no, I’m not lying, or joking, though it sounds stupid, I admit. I wish to God I was. It was only this afternoon that I was told.’ He looked straight into her face, and watched the expression change. If you weren’t merciless to people who made fools of themselves they would never believe in you again.
Her features showed an inner horror, as if she had touched previously unfathomed depths of callousness in herself – which frightened her far more than any predicament he might be in at having only three months left to live.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘really I am. I shouldn’t have told you. You’re the first one. Why should I burden you with it? Even my wife doesn’t know yet. I only heard today, in any case, and I haven’t been home. I went to see a blue movie in Soho, then came straight on to June and Adrian’s shindig.’
They stood in the small garden in which only a few others had sought refuge from the crushing noise because most people thought it was still too damp ou
It was his faint northern accent that brought back the feeling that he might still be lying. The only thing that stopped her disbelief was the fact that no one in the world would lie about such a matter. ‘Both,’ she told him.
‘I don’t even believe it myself,’ he said, ‘so if you think I’m lying I can easily understand.’
Maybe so few people came into the garden, he thought, because it was close to the main road, and a huge bar of orange sodium light glowing above the hedge had the ability to plunge its searching fire into any heart, and detect those untruths which everyone used at times like these. But against a monstrous lie it would have no power.
She felt herself unfairly singled out to receive this terrible information. It was as if someone had come up and married her without her permission. Her soul had been sold in some under-the-counter slave-market. At the same time she felt privileged to be the first one told – though a gnawing uncertainty remained.
‘Forget it,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t have spoken. I feel slightly ridiculous.’
Her husband had never told her anything. If he’d heard from his doctor that he was going to die he’d have kept the information to himself and slipped out of the world without a murmur, so that she’d be left with the plague of having nagged him to death. Her frequent and fervent cry had been: ‘Why don’t you say something? Speak, for God’s sake!’ Once when they got into bed, after a day of few words passing between them, she said in a friendly tone: ‘Tell me a story, Ben!’ He didn’t even say goodnight by way of reply. Thank heavens all that was finished.
She touched his wrist. ‘It’s all right. It’s better to speak.’ The glass she held was empty. In the glow of the sodium light it was difficult to tell whether he was pale or not. Everyone looked ghastly under it, and she understood why most of the others stayed inside. Adrian and June must have bought the house in summer, when the days were long.
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