New and Collected Stories, p.66Alan Sillitoe
His face was long, yet generally cheerful – contrary to what one would expect – a smile settling on it whenever he met and passed anybody on the street, or on his way to the group of shared lavatories at the end of the Row. But his face was almost down and lost to the world as he sat on his chair and brought forth his first sweet notes of a summer’s evening.
It was said that a neighbour in the last place they had lived had taught him to play like that. Others maintained it was an uncle who had shown him how. But nobody knew for sure because when someone asked directly he said that if he had any gift at all it must have come from God above. It was known that on some Sundays of the year, if the sun was out, he went to the Methodist chapel on St Peter’s Street.
He could play anything from ‘Greensleeves’ to ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’. He could do a beautiful heart-pulling version of Handel’s Largo, and throw in bits from Messiah as well. He would go from one piece to another with no rhyme or reason, from ridiculousness to sublimity, with almost shocking abruptness, but as the hour or so went by it all appeared easy and natural, part of a long piece coming from Jeff Bignal’s fiddle, while the ball of the sun went down behind his back.
To a child it seemed as if the songs lived in the hard collier’s muscle at the top of his energetic arm, and that they queued one by one to get out. Once free, they rushed along his flesh from which the shirtsleeves had been rolled up and split into his fingertips, where they were played out with ease into the warm evening air.
The grass in the fields across the stream was livid and lush, almost blue, and a piebald horse stood with bent head, eating oats out of a large old pram whose wheels had long since gone. The breeze wafted across from places farther out, from Robins Wood and the Cherry Orchard, Wollaton Roughs and Bramcote Hills and even, on a day that was not too hot, from the tops of the Pennines in Derbyshire.
Jeff played for himself, for the breeze against his arm, for the soft hiss of the flowing Leen at the end of the garden, and maybe also for the horse in the field, which took no notice of anything and which, having grown tired of his oats in the pram, bent its head over the actual grass and began to roam in search of succulent pastures.
In the middle of the winter Jeff’s fiddling was forgotten. He went into the coal mine before it was light, and came up only after it had got dark. Walking down Leen Place, he complained to Blonk that it was hard on a man not to see daylight for weeks at a time.
‘That’s why I wain’t go anywhere near the bleddy pit,’ Blonk said vehemently, though he had worked there from time to time, and would do so again when harried by his wife and children. ‘You’d do better to come out on a bit o’ poaching with me and Arthur,’ he suggested.
It was virtually true that Jeff saw no daylight, because even on Sunday he stayed in bed most of the day, and if it happened to be dull there was little enough sky to be seen through his front bedroom window, which looked away from the Leen and up the hill.
The upshot of his complaint was that he would do anything to change such a situation. A man was less than an animal for putting up with it.
‘I’d do anything,’ he repeated to his mother over his tea in the single room downstairs.
‘But what, though?’ she asked. ‘What can you do, Jeff?’
‘Well, how do I know?’ he almost snapped at her. ‘But I’ll do summat, you can be sure of that.’
He didn’t do anything till the weather got better and life turned a bit sweeter. Maybe this improvement finally got him going, because it’s hard to help yourself towards better things when you’re too far down in the dumps.
On a fine blowy day with both sun and cloud in the sky Jeff went out in the morning, walking up Leen Place with his fiddle under his arm. The case had been wiped and polished.
In the afternoon he came back without it.
‘Where’s your fiddle?’ Ma Jones asked.
He put an awkward smile on to his pale face, and told her: ‘I sold it.’
‘Well I never! How much for?’
He was too shocked at her brazen question not to tell the truth: ‘Four quid.’
‘That ain’t much.’
‘It’ll be enough,’ he said roughly.
‘Enough for what, Jeff?’
He didn’t say, but the fact that he had sold his fiddle for four quid rattled up and down the line of cottages till everybody knew of it. Others swore he’d got ten pounds for it, because something that made such music must be worth more than a paltry four, and in any case Jeff would never say how much he’d really got for it, for fear that someone would go in and rob him.
They wondered why he’d done it, but had to wait for the answer, as one usually does. But there was nothing secretive about Jeff Bignal, and if he’d sold his music for a mess of pottage he saw no point in not letting them know why. They’d find out sooner or later, anyway.
All he’d had to do was make up his mind, and he’d done that lying on his side at the pit face while ripping coal out with his pick and shovel. Decisions made like that can’t be undone, he knew. He’d brooded on it all winter, till the fact of having settled it seemed to have altered the permanent expression of his face, and given it a new look which caused people to wonder whether he would ever be able to play the fiddle again anyway – at least with his old spirit and dash.
With the four quid he paid the first week’s rent on a butcher’s shop on Denman Street, and bought a knife, a chopper, and a bit of sharpening stone, as well as a wooden block. Maybe he had a quid or two more knocking around, though if he had it couldn’t have been much, but with four quid and a slice of bluff he got enough credit from a wholesaler at the meat market downtown to stock his shop with mutton and beef, and in a couple of days he was in trade. The people of Harrison’s Row were amazed at how easy it was, though nobody had ever thought of doing it themselves.
Like a serious young man of business Mr Bignal – as he was now known – parted his hair down the middle, so that he didn’t look so young any more, but everyone agreed that it was better than being at Radford Pit. They’d seen how he had got fed-up with selling the sweat of his brow.
No one could say that he prospered, but they couldn’t deny that he made a living. And he didn’t have to suffer the fact of not seeing daylight for almost the whole of the winter.
Six months after opening the shop he got married. The reception was held at the chapel on St Peter’s Street, which seemed to be a sort of halfway house between Harrison’s Row on the banks of the Leen and the butcher’s shop on Denman Street farther up.
Everybody from Harrison’s Row was invited for a drink and something to eat; but he knew them too well to let any have either chops or chitterlings (or even black puddings) on tick when they came into his shop.
The people of Harrison’s Row missed the sound of his fiddle on long summer evenings, though the children could splash and shout with their tin bathtub undisturbed, floundering through shallows and scrambling up to grass on the other bank, and wondering what place they’d reach if they walked without stopping till it got dark.
Two years later the Second World War began, and not long afterwards meat as well as nearly everything else was put on the ration. Apart from which, Jeff was only twenty-six, so got called up into the army. He never had much chance to make a proper start in life, though people said that he came out all right in the end.
The houses of Harrison’s Row were condemned as unfit to live in, and a bus depot stands on the site.
The packed mass of houses on the hill behind – forty years after Jeff Bignal sold his violin – is also vanishing, and high rise hencoops (as the people call them) are put in their place. The demolition crew knock down ten houses a day – though the foreman told me there was still work for another two years.
Some of the houses would easily have lasted a few more decades, for the bricks were perfect, but as the foreman went on: ‘You can’t let them stand in the way of progress’ – whatever that means.
The people have
The Gate of a Great Mansion
Fruit boxes were pounded against the shore by a snaking band of oil-logged water. The wood of the boxes was grey, hitting the rocks till it was splintered and stringy. Dead logs were covered in tar. Rotting offal, swirling from the town and jetties, was re-shaped and hardened into a kind of pumice by the battering ebb and flow of the wash. A stench hit the nostrils like ice when the wind veered full in the face. He lit a second pipe before the bowl was cold.
The whole flank of a three-funnelled steamer had gone to rust. Coolies going to work in the tin mines and rubber plantations of Malaya were so crowded on deck that it was hard to see where the mass of people ended and the superstructure began. One day the hulk will vanish in a typhoon, he thought, and the owners will retire on the insurance. A drum of paint costs treble what it does in Europe. Everyone says that business is bad, and they are right. You go inland for hemp, tea and timber, and get little or nothing when you bring them out. When it gets dark a clean wind pushes the stench aside.
The last chord of the sun’s red disc was sucked behind the mountains. Take me with you, he said, when it wasn’t so far down that it might not hear. He wanted sharp hooks that he could throw out to it for a free ride. He looked at the indigo sea chopping beyond his feet, and into the ink maw of the wider bottle. Nothing is free. Beyond the throat of rocks were stars. A lantern glowed at the prow of a sampan that went slowly towards the steamer. The peasants were dying from Revolution, Consumption and Cholera. They sleep-walk after imbibing the vile poppy dust of opium. Wireless telegraphy from Europe talks of war and prices.
He wanted only rain whenever he felt fever or influenza pushing his senses to their limits. The sun was on its way out, but one day it would come back to burn the world. The rain’s cooling wash would flow down the veranda and along the gutters, would run through his veins and clear sludge from the mind, extinguish the unwholesome nightmare all around. He could only think when he was ill, yet his mind turned against him at such times. It must have been during similar feverish bouts that he had gone through the motions of coming to Amoy. He would not forget the smell of drying fish, even a hundred years after he had died.
Today he had been paid, and bought a sports jacket, so that there weren’t enough dollars left for the instalment on his room. Both space and jackets were dear – for Europeans. Perhaps I can hold the landlord back till next month. Disturb him from his game of sticks and coins and a row of little books. Play it as long as you like, but I won’t be here. If he throws me out, he’ll get nothing, because you can’t get taels (nor even cash) from a beggar. He’s heard it often in the last year, but his look will say nothing yet all the same will say: a merchant’s clerk isn’t worth much. A Chinese can do the work better, and for less. Except that Poynter-Davis wouldn’t trust one, though God knows why.
He walked. He was getting nowhere. The first sign of a fever was that the pipe tasted as if it were filled with a well-mixed compound of shit and soot. He was glad when it had burned away and he could knock out the dottle. His mother didn’t know what her brother did for a living out here, only that he was ‘doing well’ – that magic phrase which was supposed to open every gate for the rest of the family. Nobody was ‘doing well’. The Japanese were machine-gunning and bombing their sure way through Manchuria. The world was worn out. He stepped carefully in the dark. The noise of rats squeaking and scuffling away from his shoes made him feel that he was not entirely set apart from the world. He could no longer see the rusting flank of the decrepit steamer that would sink in a monsoon if it took him to England. It would be no easier trying for a job in Singapore or Penang.
He coughed from day to day, but illness was a fraud. Even if you were half dead you couldn’t allow yourself to feel so at thirty-five. There were plenty of lights in the town. There was life. Amoy wasn’t unhealthy any more. The old hands laughed, and spoke about heaps of corpses. The old always swore that things were better for everybody than they had been in their youth, but it only meant they had grown more tolerant of misery – or become richer on it.
Even the Chinese smiled. He hated himself when he shouted. Things were said to be difficult in England. There was no work. There was the dole for everybody. They used the word to terrify. If you came home, you’d go on the dole, they wrote. In any case, he didn’t totally dislike it here. The stench of the town on one side and the odorous piss of sea on the other were homely enough, but his thoughts were caught in the unceasing and remorseless bang of the surf.
Letters were nearly two months getting home. He wrote every week, still the anxious boy who bothered them with mail. If they didn’t look at the date they could imagine each letter took no more than seven days. He would have done, in their places. They’d be happier hearing only four times a year. His father at the bank and his mother at home were, in their old fashioned way, waiting for him to make a fortune in Amoy. Or Shanghai. Or Tientsin. Or Foochow. Anywhere, as long as he was out of the way. From the squalor of human souls you were supposed to get rich.
He could go back if his father died, and live with her. He never would. She loved him too much, she said, but would bore him to death because she hated him. He couldn’t even go back into himself, not as he was before he came out. He would never find his own spirit as long as he stayed in Amoy. This country was too big. He had never known himself, even in a small place. It wouldn’t be possible in the sort of life his father had always led, either. Six hundred pounds a year and a Morris car, and sending in the People crossword every week for sixpence.
He was jostled as he made his way towards the Bund. Coolies with stinking breath pushed against him. His tongue was rancid from fever. A hand went towards his pocket but he knocked it away. His Swan fountain pen was taken just after he arrived, but now he was forever on the lookout. A pair of eyes coming towards him showed the intentions of the mind that lived behind them. They understood each other, so he was safe. He, in his weakness, could ram with his shoulder, choking on the bad language that wouldn’t leave his throat. Crowds always threatened when he wanted to be alone.
Sixteen years ago, walls of wet mud seeped through revetted fresh-smelling planks in Flanders. Walking the zig-zags of his sector, he had forced his way between the members of his platoon waiting to go over the top. That place too had been crowded, but he had felt good to be there. It was small enough in which to know himself. He could tell who he was, clambering the springy ladder and into the open as if into the unlit afternoon attic of a vast house visited as children. Would a ghost leap? A scimitar swing to chop off your legs? It hadn’t. It was good.
He hoped his men would follow. They did. The scimitar got most of them, but it was better there than in school. A patriotic patrol cost fifty men. Life had become dimmer since. Nobody would follow him any more, which he understood because he couldn’t even follow himself, since the only self he might have followed had vanished long ago. If it hadn’t he would still not have known where to go.
At the height of his fever’s influence (no one had diagnosed it, but only he knew a lassitude without pain or headache that had stricken him for no reason and vibrated as far as his brain) he had dreamed he was on a small flat-bottomed boat going between the high walls of the Yangtse Gorges beyond Ichang. He’d only heard the old hands talk of them, of the fact that the river was so boxed in by gorges that the sun could not be seen except at noon, and the moon only at its highest meridian.
But in his dream he was lying happily back, no oars rowing, no motor drumming, no diesel reek or anyone punting him through or pulling perilously from the shore, but going on and on towards the west as if travelling by a benign and co-operative current. In places the river banks sloped away and he could see the huts of a porters’ village, or fisher-boats
The broad and often devastating flow of the Yangtse was east to the China Sea and the Pacific, but here he was on a current running him west through the heart of China. Fever played tricks with the soles of the feet, invented geographical flukes, altered the course of rivers and spun the cardinal points of the world. Fever made humanity feel that it might one day be possible to do the same.
He passed the kitchen, a jigsaw puzzle of culinary gewgaws. He got to his room, and lay down. Hunger was an act of spite on the part of the body. It reminded you to keep on living, and laughed like a demon when you did so.
The ‘old hands’ in their armchairs at the club, or in the lounge of the King George Hotel, mooned on about ‘the China that we used to know, and how damned sad to see it change’. The more obvious it was that their days were numbered the more they thought the misery was picturesque. In reality it consisted of endless landscapes that dying coolies carried them through in their palanquins. They talked of bringing out turmeric and sugar from beyond Chungking, of transporting amber from the north, as well as getting bristles and silk from the wilds of Szechwan.
But in the dining room they also recalled the alluvial plains of great estuaries that kill as surely as famine. The moon rises and sets on destitution. Things he heard almost brought up the vomit. Some of the merchants were virtuosos in their sexual predilections.
Amoy was the gate of a great mansion, but it was a paper house, and the inside was rotten. From his bed he saw only the fire, the burning down, flames spreading and enveloping, that did not scorch when he put out his hands. He heard the crack of burning wood from the interior, and great sparks spitting fearfully out with the energy that only fire could give as huge beams collapsed, and cleaned everything, curing all hungers, even his own.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes