New and Collected Stories, p.64Alan Sillitoe
‘It’s not,’ he said, ‘but I’m one of those people who can’t really help myself. If I’m not talking I’m not alive. I often wonder if I talk in my sleep.’
Illness that is fatal, she had read, was nearly always brought on because the inner spirit of the afflicted person was being prevented from opening and flowering – or simply from a lack of the ability to talk about yourself and your problems. He didn’t seem to be stricken in that way at all, though every rule had its exceptions – so they say.
‘I’ve often thought of buying one of those ultra-sensitive modern Japanese tape-recorders which are switched on by the sound of your own voice,’ he said, ‘then playing it back in the morning to see if I’ve uttered any profundities, banalities, obscenities, or just plain baby-talk during the night.’
Her husband, who had been in advertising, had believed so much in the power of the spoken word that he would say very little, except perhaps at work, where it could be taken down and transcribed by his secretary, and used to make money. She dredged around at the back of her mind for something to say. Maybe her husband had been right when, in reply to one of her stinging accusations that he never said anything, rapped back: ‘It takes two to make a silence.’
‘But I never did,’ he laughed. ‘They’re too expensive. Anyway, I might have said something that would have frightened me to death! You never know. And in any case, when I say something I like to make up my mind about what I’m going to say a second or two beforehand.’
‘Is that what you’re doing now?’
People were coming out through the open french windows with plates of food. Neither the sodium lights nor the damp would bother them if they had something to do, such as eat.
‘Absolutely,’ he told her, ‘but because I’m talking to you I don’t let it stop me.’
The northern accent, slight as it was, far from making him seem untrustworthy, now had something comforting about it. If he’d had the accent, and spoken very little, it would have been merely comic. But he had something to say, and that was different. He was also using it to good effect, she suspected.
‘What work do you do?’ It wasn’t much to ask, but it was better than nothing.
He named one of the minor publishing houses, that was trying to become a big publishing house but was having a hard time of it. ‘I work for them, but I’ll be giving it up. Force majeure.’
‘Perhaps things aren’t as bad as you think.’
‘The same thought crosses my mind – every alternate minute.’ He suddenly got tired of it, and thought that if he didn’t go and talk to somebody else he really would be dead in three months – or even in three seconds – from boredom. ‘I must have a drink,’ he said, glancing down. ‘Be back soon.’
Later she saw him from a distance, talking intently to someone else. He came behind her in the queue for food, turned round because he had forgotten to pick up his napkin-roll of knife and fork, and looked at her as if she were a mirror. Thank God she’d stopped herself in time from smiling and saying something. After heaping up his plate with a choice of everything he walked over and talked to a woman with grey hair, an iron face, and a big bust.
She observed him for a while, convinced he wasn’t spinning the same tragic tale he’d put out to her – though not doubting that it was something with an equal come-on bite. He wore a formal and finely cut navy blue suit, had black hair and dark eyes, which did make him look even more pallid under the light inside the house.
She asked someone who he was, and he said: ‘Oh, that’s Tom Barmen’ – as if even talking to him was a peril no level-headed person got into, so she went upstairs to where June and Adrian kept the telephone directories, and found that he lived on Muswell Road, which wasn’t far away. She dialled the number, and a woman’s voice answered. ‘Is that Mrs Barmen? I’m afraid I have rather sad news for you.’ Someone had to tell her, after all.
‘Would you rather be a man or a woman?’ Joy Edwards asked, when Mavis got to the bottom of the stairs.
‘Depends for how long,’ she said.
‘All day,’ Harry Silk laughed, muscles bulging under his sweatshirt, a hand flattened on his bald head.
‘Five minutes,’ said his wife, heavily pregnant.
This was more like a party, Mavis thought, saying: ‘Both at once? Or one at a time?’ – and went to the bar for another glass of white wine, not caring now whether she got tight or not. She’d said all she had to say, for one evening at least.
When the doorbell rang, sounding faintly above the noise, she thought it was a taxi come to collect someone. Because it was after midnight one or two people had already left. A tall woman, still with her coat on, pushed through the crowd. By the kitchen door there was a crash of (unfilled) coffee cups, though the woman who had just arrived was not the cause.
‘It’s Phyllis Barmen,’ she heard someone say.
She met him a year later at a publisher’s cocktail party in the huge new Douglas Hotel. In the crowd she saw a hand throw down the end of a cigarette so that it went into a tray of peanuts instead of the ashtray. She looked up and saw who it was. He was dressed in the same suit, or one very similar.
‘Did I?’ he said, in response to her accusation. ‘I’m sorry about that. Parties are so deadly boring.’
‘The end of the last one, where we met, was quite exciting – I thought,’ she reminded him.
‘Thanks to you.’ He looked as if he wished that she had only three months to live – or less.
‘I suppose we should both apologize, really.’
She was totally miscast in her assumptions, he said to himself. Her mind was misshapen, the whole bloody lot warped.
She sensed she was misreading everything, judging from his mischievous look. It was devilish. She was glad there were other people around them.
‘You were chosen,’ he said. ‘I knew I could rely on you, though you were so long going to the telephone that I was beginning to wonder whether I’d made a mistake. But when I saw you go up the stairs I knew I’d picked a winner.’
He had taken her seriously, at least.
She had taken him seriously, which wasn’t bad going.
‘I needed one more public set-to with my wife to end my deadly boring marriage,’ he said. ‘She wanted it too, so never feel guilty about it. It was quite mutual. We’re well shut of each other now. I did feel sorry for June and Adrian, mind you.’
‘So did I.’
‘But they couldn’t say they were bored for that last half hour. I haven’t seen them since, though.’
‘They miss you.’
‘I’m sure they do.’
She couldn’t resist gloating. ‘All this is pure hindsight on your part.’
‘There’s no such thing as hindsight – in my way of looking at things.’
‘You didn’t plan it at all,’ she persisted.
She felt so kicked in the stomach that when he asked her to go out to dinner after the party she said yes, and from that time on never had a moment to wonder whether she had done the right thing or not. It became more and more obvious, however, that she had been just as scheming when she’d gone upstairs to make the telephone call at June and Adrian’s party, and over the years it was easy enough to make sure that he knew it.
The Devil’s Almanack
Mr G. M. Stevens, postmaster of Biddenhurst, in the County of Kent, on Tuesday April 17th, 1866, at exactly nine o’clock a.m., was taking readings of the barometer, thermometer and hygrometer, and pencilling them into the blank pages of his specially printed almanack.
As he stopped to look at the rain-gauge he noticed, for the benefit of bird observers, that a muscular and energetic magpie flitted from the lawn and went into a willow tree which was just beginning to put on leaves. Tomorrow the solemn ash would come, and then the lime, followed by the maple, showing how true it was that the years went on and on, yet stayed the same.
He put a handkerchief to his nose to stem the flood – white spots on red one day, red on
You recorded the weather when nothing either good or bad occurred. You filled in columns of figures every day, read dials, fitted a neat extra leg to the month’s gentle or jagged graph – when you didn’t want anything to happen. But for how long had this labour-hobby held life back? A drop of sweat fell in the rain-gauge, and another hit the soil.
He was short and fat, and bald at fifty, but he stood up straight and pencilled rough calculations into his notebook. Cloud: cumulus. Amount: 7. From sun to cloud took little time when spring was a long while coming. Wind: west. You never trusted sunshine in the morning. It was beautiful, but menacing. You drank it in from the back step, the soft warm air vibrating with birds who suddenly knew why they were alive, hoping it would last but knowing it would not – the reality of birds who fed on ivy for their joy, the laudanum of sunlight for him, the sense of eternal wellbeing between waking up to take it, and going into the horrors, that fatal hiatus of any drug or drink or taste of pink-blue sky. Barometer: 29.937. Thermometer: 50. Hygrometer (Dry Bulb): 57½. (Wet Bulb): 48. Altitude: they say 400 feet, but no map shows it.
He smiled, glad the sun had gone so that he need no longer wish it would stay. Anxiety was both the spice and bane of his life. Lady Delmonden’s black cat shimmered its midnight fur through the tall lawn-grass so that just its back was visible. He clapped hands but it didn’t run, turned its head towards him, though he could see only its ears, and not the green-yellow eyes that managed to look so helpless and threatening at the same time. The ripple went to the hedge. Even cats are safe in Biddenhurst. It would soon be chill again.
He took the last reading and went indoors, glancing in at the parlour where his daughter Emily’s body was neatly tucked on to the beige chaise-longue.
There had been no need for it, but there never is. He went into his study. God fulfils our needs, as we fulfil God’s, and providing the compact is kept by all His creatures great and small – as well as by Him – we have no cause for fear in this life. But it troubled Stevens for a moment that he was worried by it – after promising himself that he wouldn’t be. May the Good Lord strike me dead, he sighed.
He smiled at such a predicament, but became easy as he put in his last observation of the morning. Closing the specially bound fully-ruled logbook from the stationer’s in Tunbridge Wells was a beautiful manoeuvre of finality, prelude to opening it again. In one compartment of his desk were half a dozen letters from Lady Delmonden to her son who started two weeks ago with his regiment for Gibraltar. Because he kept them neatly, their presence did not intimidate him. Their journey ended here, of necessity a short one, instead of where they were sent – those slim packets of tearful pleadings which he’d never thought would come from that tall, frigid, ugly woman.
Her soldier son was lean and fair, and ugly too. Disagreeable, until he chose to smile which – by its very rarity, like a primrose in bleak November – charmed the unwary or the stranger.
Emily had heard him kicking snow from his boots at the scraper outside, before he walked in with letters for the evening post. Counting stamps, she forgot whereabouts her finger had been on them when he demanded some for himself. That must have been how it started. From his study just behind, he’d heard the loud and throaty voice, but went on working out his average temperatures and comparing this year’s monthly pressures with last year’s. Had he been there to serve him would God have made it any different? If not that day, then another. Each day was the same, except for his recordings of the weather.
A sharp angle of shadow sliced the garden into light on one side and dimness on the other. White spots of daisies on either part, some blessed and the same amount not, and no one to say the why or wherefore of it. Perhaps the wind would change, bring back the sun to stay, feed the leaves and dry the grass, ruffle the cat’s fur that once more walked across the lawn towards the kitchen garden, stalking all movement.
He came often after that, laughing as he bought more stamps, improperly confiding that he’d fallen in love and needed to send her letters every day, which put Emily off her guard while opening her eyes to him.
The heart would ache but never burst. The blood rose like burning paraffin. John would get no letters from his mother while ever he was postmaster here, unless by a fluke she dropped them in another town – though she was the sort of woman who these days would grieve only at home. Neither would she get any Royal Mail from him if he could stop it. In any case Delmonden, for all his show to Emily, was no writer of letters, cared only for his pleasures at other people’s heartbreaks.
His one letter back which he had intercepted, and held open now to read again, was posted to his mother, and said that he, John Delmonden, after waiting a long time for a suitable ship at Weymouth, and then the appropriate weather, found that the army’s dispositions had been changed, and that his regiment was ordered back to Dover – not far from Biddenhurst – so he would gallop over the Romney Marsh and come up through Appledore and Wittersham to see Emily Stevens.
‘And mother, no matter what you say about her being below my station, I mean to marry her, and nothing will stop me, so set your mind to it as well. As you, and I suppose everybody by this time knows, we were married enough already – and now I aim to make it final. God willed I should not leave for Gibraltar, and I know His voice – by God! – when I hear it. Anyway, I shall go to her first when I get to Biddenhurst.’
No, he was such an engine as did not know what it was doing. At the same time he was as feeling as the barometer and the thermometer, the hygrometer and clock and calendar put together, only he was not responsible for moving the measurements of them. Everybody had their feelings, but thought little of their effect on others unless they knew God was reading and recording them hour by hour – and there were devils who did not care, even then.
How long could it go on? The columns of his readings made no sense. He closed the book, and gripped Lady Delmonden’s letters to her son in his left hand, wanting to eat them, burn them, throw the bundle out through the rain at the stalking black cat with pink ribbon round its neck.
Ever since Emily was born he had been afraid of losing her, of her catching fever or consumption. After her mother died, his black dreams turned on taps of his own sweat at night. With blankets up and blinds drawn they harassed him in the darkest sleep, till he awoke happy it was all unreal – but weak, though able to go to her room where she slept, and look in at her untroubled face.
The earth wasn’t generous in giving breath, because it wanted all people walking about to be under its soil and feeding it. It was the greed of the earth that made it beautiful. Life was a thin join of air in every body. What the Lord provides He takes away, but was it the earth, or was it God?
The soil gives abundantly to ivy tendrils and leaves, a parasitic growth whose coils lap as thick as pythons around tree-trunks and suck the tree’s sap, till it dies and falls into a heap of dust to feed the earth. Likewise, ivy destroys a house. That picturesque green mat at the wall is a many-armed monster sent up by the rich vindictive earth to bring all things level with it.
Five drops of laudanum would not be enough – nor even fifty. He took the first letter of the bundle and tore it into confetti, and let it fall over the face of Emily. Her lips were thinner, the nose small and narrower at the bone than it had been, the forehead like paper. Be careful what you dread, in case you bring it to pass. But what you dread is only
Her face and form were littered with the paper bits of John Delmonden’s letter. When he’d pushed the pillow against her mouth it was only to stop his own agony of what she had told him. He began pressing in order to hide her face, and went on with all his force when she was beyond consciousness because he couldn’t bear the thought of her coming back and reproaching him for what he was doing.
Rain was tapping on the window. Perhaps the Romney Marsh would swallow Delmonden up for what he’d done. His hands were pale and puffy, and trembled as he tore the month of April out of his almanack, and made the scraps of that descend to join the other. The air was sweetening, the glass falling, the pressure a great weight on his eyes.
Each separate bone was bitterly tired. He steadied himself by the wall, the paper now the colour of laudanum, belladonna, gin, recalling how four years ago Lady Delmonden had quipped that such a widower as he get married again, that it was sinful to stay single on God’s earth. Wasn’t he lonely?
‘I have a daughter to keep me company,’ he answered – but she looked very strange at that.
A maid of hers would need a husband soon, she said, young, able, and bonny too. Perhaps he should have flowed with it – he tore March out as well, and the stitching came loose – but some stubborn notion gripped him, and he said no, and she was thwarted in her idea, so walked out cold-faced but polite, and never mentioned it again. But there’d been hidden pleading in her icy eyes. Six months later that same maid had a bastard drawn out of her, and who the lover was no one knew, except for certain hints about her roaming son.
Such a festering entered his vision when Emily told him the real truth of the tale he’d dreaded hearing when she came back five days after going with John Delmonden, and he joined it to the pictures in his own mind, and to Lady Delmonden’s rigid face, and to her son’s smile, and then to his new-found rage, and picked up the cushion because he couldn’t bear the sight of tears on her cheeks. Was it only to wipe them gently away?
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