New and Collected Stories, p.65Alan Sillitoe
February and January, back to the hinges of the year. On January 1st there had been no cloud in the sky, a brilliant and empty blue all day, after the full moon of the night. What was the weather any more to him? Every subtle change of heat and sky he’d analysed, but what of the world inside his own flesh and blood, and that continent behind the pale blue eyes of Emily? It was all mystery, and his life had been an unchanging day that defied reading because he was locked blindly in his own brand of unknowing. The more you hide your soul from others the more it becomes hidden from yourself. But why hadn’t he seen that until now?
He’d known she was dead, for ever and irrevocably, the moment he lifted the cushion, and so the calm of understanding took him under its protection. But as the hours went by he became less certain that she’d never talk to him again, and while taking his meteorological readings in the garden he forgot completely that she would not be walking about the house when he went back to it.
Bending down, he put his ear to her breast to see if any pulse was there. The feeling that someone would never come back again – all that his life meant to him – was replaced by the certainty that there were, after all, momentous things still to come.
One by one he pulled his almanacks to pieces and piled them into the parlour fireplace. He felt the excitement of a criminal as he knelt on the rug and shaped them down with his hand before lighting. Perhaps the flames would tell him something, the heat speak to the heat within. Emily moved – but it was a ball of paper to one side of the main heap, twisted by an unseen flame that had crept on an undercurrent towards it.
The enclosed space, the warm room he’d been used to with his wife and through his marriage, the semaphoring flame on the opposite wall, and Emily lying quietly on the chaise-longue, filled him with a joy of life such as he’d never felt. The music swirling and roaring fed his fibres, and blotted out memory so that his feelings were caged into this room and moment.
If there had been real music the ground would have opened more and he would have danced into it, a waltz for his feet, a gavotte for his arms, a minuet for his lips and eyes. But to feel the new rush of hope he sat on a straight walnut-backed chair midway between Emily and the fire, a final quietness in which he sampled the meaning of his past life. It held the agonies at bay, wolves beyond the windows and the wind.
The final black paper-ash crumbled. A draught came down the chimney and swirled it. When the birds stopped he heard its noise. It was a fair, fine day. The nothing-rain had passed over, only a threat. The curtains didn’t meet, and a long sliver of sunlight hung from the ceiling.
A neighing horse outside displaced other noises, and he sat still, earmarked by the gap between its stopping and footsteps which ended with a knock against the side door. He reached to the shelf for his loaded pistol, and put it into his jacket pocket. Never let anyone know that you suspect them. Always keep secret those innermost perturbations that might otherwise ruffle the waters of their treacherous calm. Leave them in peace till the time comes to strike. The barometer’s needle was set for a few days of good weather.
The knocking sounded again, and he sat down. It could be three times for all he cared – and would be. Let him hammer with his pampered fist. He didn’t beat so loud when he came for Emily. He was an ill the world could well be purged of. Tears burst from his eyes when he looked at her. He’d heard them say that he was a wild man, but that meant he’d been afraid too long, set off for church too often perhaps, walking there with his back straight, but returning on his hands and feet. You can never get your revenge on someone who has given the first blow. Forget it, by destroying them.
He smiled, and stood as the third rapping began, walked through his study to the door and pulled it open. The hinges squeaked, alive. Everything had its own noise.
‘What’s wrong with you, Stevens? You must open the place. Are you ill?’ Lady Delmonden pushed her way in. ‘I won’t stand outside.’
He felt the comforting hard weight of the pistol against his bone, his mind splintered at the shock of seeing her. She held an umbrella, as if to lean on it. ‘Tell me’ – she was taller, her finger lifted – ‘has Emily had any word from my son?’
He knew he would have to speak, move his tongue with the same force as his arm when hard at digging. ‘She tells me nothing.’
‘I don’t suppose she does, but I’ll speak to her myself.’
‘No’ – he hadn’t intended to say anything.
‘Won’t I? You must curb your temper, Stevens.’
If he didn’t speak, he would shoot. ‘No, I tell you.’
‘Do you know what you’re saying?’
He searched out his words, because he had never lied: ‘She went on the coach to Tunbridge Wells. I’ll send her to you as soon as she comes back.’
‘Are you all right?’ Her horse neighed again outside, a footman holding the reins.
‘Make sure you do, then. I can’t be kept in the dark like this by the pair of them. Good day to you.’ A final turn of rage brought her back: ‘And next time I call on you, you will ask me into your parlour. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, my lady.’
What did those blue eyes with the pale dead skin around them know? He looked as long as he dared into the waterfall of sky, as if he would collapse, hoping she would go, for his hand was on the cool handle of the gun. When she had come to him, and touted her pregnant maid, he had created in himself a complete scheme saying that really she wanted him to marry her, and this was her devious way of testing the ground for it. In her young years there had been stories of her runawayings and heart-stormings, but he knew that they were as nothing compared to his if he brewed up such ridiculous ideas as this. Who am I? he asked now, as he had then. I saw her first when she came with her mother, carrying a basket of cakes to the village school.
‘Send her to me, then,’ she told him.
He closed the door, and went back to his parlour.
Primroses, sorrel, violets and celandines were in Oldpark Wood, but he’d no energy to go and search out a few. As a child Emily had laid a bunch on his desk one spring. It’s an inhuman machine that won’t let you bring back such tender moments in all their reality. He smelled the soil as he pulled them up by the roots. He pondered on it in his fixity when even his eyeballs wouldn’t move though he wanted them to. Hands on thighs, legs slightly apart, a scene set for his immobile head, waiting for Emily to breathe again.
Hours drew out. There was no time to act because time did not exist. On the sea the waves were molten metal, thin, without smoke. The motion and the endlessness made him sick.
Someone had come into the house. His eyes moved, sending a fissure of life back to his fingers. It was all plain now, and he called Emily in a normal voice, as if she would run to him. A chair went over in the study. He wished he had strewn her with flowers instead of those plague spots of paper bits.
‘Emily!’ Delmonden called.
He stood, and waited, awake again, calm even, but with a faint sweaty smile as if he’d turned back into a child. He wanted to be friendly and answer him, but was sly enough in his stunned and stunted childishness to know that if he did the frame of his new-found tenuous manhood would fall apart. For the first time he was aware of the clock ticking on the wall, and thought it must have stopped yesterday, and for some unaccountable reason started again this second, it was so loud and disturbing as it hammered inside him.
The door was gently opened, and the floor creaked as Delmonden looked in. He tried not to stare at him, and turned aside.
‘Why the devil didn’t you tell me you were here? I don’t want to see over your whole damned house.’
He was of the tall people who could walk in, and look for his daughter, sidestepping any man’s freedom and dignity. There was no life without Emily. He wasn’t afraid of him – as he had been when he watched the whole plot forming but told himself that his brain spun false pictures. What else is there to live for if you’ve stopped bein
‘What do you want?’ – surprised at the clearness of his voice. He stood between the door and chaise-longue.
Delmonden must have ridden hard. His cloak was open – a dark suit under it, pale waistcoat, white shirt up to his throat, a florid ill-formed face just out of youth, a long clean-shaven chin. ‘Why don’t you let daylight in the place? Where is she?’
He stepped backwards to the shelf, a hand at ease in his pocket. ‘She’s not well.’
Delmonden came forward. He saw the road in front of him, potholes whose water reflected the variable sky. The rhythm of hooves still rang in his hearing. His eyes almost touched her forehead. ‘I’ll get the doctor. For God’s sake, why didn’t you?’
He felt his finger on the curve. It was like a hook, and the handle tilted, hidden. Forgive me, Lord: I know exactly what I do. The clock behind him seemed to explode, a noise blowing paper into the air as the bullet flew, a great stone at Delmonden’s stomach.
He screamed, hand to the pain. He wanted to ask a question, but changed his mind: ‘You devil! She hated you. I can see …’
The second ball hit him, this time the whole white of the sun before he fell.
Mr G. M. Stevens, late postmaster of Biddenhurst, was hanged at eight o’clock a.m. on June 6th at Maidstone Gaol, in the County of Kent.
When about to be executed the crowd threw soil and dung at him. He saw these gestures merely as the earth extending a hand, welcoming him to become part of the good fellowship of the loam. The people were enraged by his indifference, because the trial revealed the abominations he had practised on the bodies of his victims. He had been able to keep them a further day before Lady Delmonden’s tenants broke in and found them.
As the mob pelted him, he remained silent, looking at the sky, and feeling the air on his face. It was a south-west wind. The cloud: nimbus. Amount: 10. Temperature (as far as he could tell): 50. The parson had been good enough to inform him, before beginning his futile prayers, that the barometer read 29.620. A slight rain was falling.
His left hand reached for his almanack, and the crowd roared when it swung into the air.
On the banks of the sinewy River Leen, where it flowed through Radford, stood a group of cottages called Harrison’s Row. There must have been six to eight of them, all in a ruinous condition, but lived in nevertheless.
They had been put up for stockingers during the Industrial Revolution a hundred years before, so that by now the usual small red English housebricks had become weatherstained and, in some places, almost black.
Harrison’s Row had a character all of its own, both because of its situation, and the people who lived there. Each house had a space of pebbly soil rising in front, and a strip of richer garden sloping away from the kitchen door down to the diminutive River Leen at the back. The front gardens had almost merged into one piece of common ground, while those behind had in most cases retained their separate plots.
As for the name of the isolated row of cottages, nobody knew who Harrison had been, and no one was ever curious about it. Neither did they know where the Leen came from, though some had a general idea as to where it finished up.
A rent man walked down cobblestoned Leen Place every week to collect what money he could. This wasn’t much, even at the best of times which, in the thirties, were not too good – though no one in their conversation was able to hark back to times when they had been any better.
From the slight rise on which the houses stood, the back doors and windows looked across the stream into green fields, out towards the towers and pinnacles of Wollaton Hall in one direction, and the woods of Aspley Manor in the other.
After a warm summer without much rain the children were able to wade to the fields on the other side. Sometimes they could almost paddle. But after a three-day downpour when the air was still heavy with undropped water, and coloured a menacing gun-metal blue, it was best not to go anywhere near the river, for one false slip and you would get sucked in, and be dragged by the powerful current along to the Trent some miles away. In that case there was no telling where you’d end up. The water seemed to flow into the River Amazon itself, indicated by the fact that Frankie Buller swore blind how one day he had seen a crocodile snapping left and right downstream with a newborn baby in its mouth. You had to be careful – and that was a fact. During the persistent rain of one autumn water came up over the gardens and almost in at the back doors.
Harrison’s Row was a cut-off place in that not many people knew about it unless they were familiar with the district. You went to it along St Peter’s Street, and down Leen Place. But it was delightful for the kids who lived there because out of the back gardens they could go straight into the stream of the Leen. In summer an old tin hip bath would come from one of the houses. Using it for a boat, and stripped to their white skins, the children were happy while sun and weather lasted.
The youths and older kids would eschew this fun and set out in a gang, going far beyond, to a bend of the canal near Wollaton Pit where the water was warm – almost hot – due to some outlet from the mine itself. This place was known as ‘’otties’, and they’d stay all day with a bottle of lemonade and a piece of bread, coming back late in the evening looking pink and tired as if out of a prolonged dipping in the ritual bath. But a swim in ’otties was only for the older ones, because a boy of four had once been drowned there.
Harrison’s Row was the last of Nottingham where it met the countryside. Its houses were at the very edge of the city, in the days before those numerous housing estates had been built beyond. The line of dwellings called Harrison’s Row made a sort of outpost bastion before the country began.
Yet the houses in the city didn’t immediately start behind, due to gardens and a piece of wasteground which gave to Harrison’s Row a feeling of isolation. It stood somewhat on its own, as if the city intended one day to leapfrog over it and obliterate the country beyond.
On the other hand, any foreign army attacking from the west, over the green fields that glistened in front, would first have to flatten Harrison’s Row before getting into the innumerable streets of houses behind.
Across the Leen, horses were sometimes to be seen in the fields and, in other fields beyond, the noise of combine harvesters could be heard at work in the summer. Children living there, and adults as well, had the advantage of both town and country. On a fine evening late in August one of the unemployed husbands might be seen looking across at the noise of some machinery working in a field, his cap on but wearing no shirt, as if wondering why he was here and not over there, and why in fact he had ever left those same fields in times gone by to be forced into this bit of a suburb where he now had neither work nor purpose in life. He was not bitter, and not much puzzled perhaps, yet he couldn’t help being envious of those still out there in the sunshine.
In my visions of leaving Nottingham for good – and they were frequent in those days – I never reckoned on doing so by the high road or railway. Instead I saw myself wading or swimming the Leen from Harrison’s Row, and setting off west once I was on the other side.
A tale remembered with a laugh at that time told about how young Ted Griffin, who had just started work, saw two policemen one day walking down Leen Place towards Harrison’s Row. Convinced they had come to arrest him for meter-breaking, he ran through the house and garden, went over the fence, jumped into the Leen – happily not much swollen – waded across to the field, then four-legged it over the railway, and made his way to Robins Wood a mile or so beyond. A perfect escape route. He stayed two days in hiding, and then crept home at night, famished and soaked, only to find that the police had not come for him, but to question Blonk next door, who was suspected of poaching. When they did get Ted Griffin he was pulled out of bed one morning even before he’d had time to open his eyes and think about a spectacular escape across the Leen.
Jeff Bignal was a young unmarried man of twenty-four. His father had bee
After tea in summer while it was still light and warm he would sit in his back garden playing the fiddle, and when he did everybody else came out to listen. Or they opened the doors and windows so that the sound of his music drifted in, while the woman stayed at the sink or wash-copper, or the man at his odd jobs. Anyone with a wireless would turn it down or off.
Even tall dark sallow-faced elderly Mrs Deaffy (a kid sneaked into her kitchen one day and thieved her last penny-packet of cocoa and she went crying to tell Mrs Atkin who, when her youngest came in, hit him so hard with her elbow that one of his teeth shot out and the blood washed away most of the cocoa-stains around his mouth) – old Mrs Deaffy stood by her back door as if she weren’t stone deaf any more and could follow each note of Jeffrey Bignal’s exquisite violin. She smiled at seeing everyone occupied, fixed or entranced, and therefore no torment to herself, which was music enough to her whether she could hear it or not.
And Blonk, in the secretive dimness of the kitchen, went on mending his poaching nets before setting out with Arthur Bede next door on that night’s expedition to Gunthorpe by the banks of the Trent, where the green escarpment between there and Kneeton was riddled with warrens and where, so it was said, if you stood sufficiently still the rabbits ran over your feet, and it was only necessary to make a quick grab to get one.
Jeff sat on a chair, oblivious to everybody, fed up with his day’s work at the pit and only wanting to lose himself in his own music. The kids stopped splashing and shouting in the water, because if they didn’t they might get hauled in and clouted with just the right amount of viciousness to suit the crime and the occasion. It had happened before, though Jeff had always been too far off to notice.
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