New and Collected Stories, p.67Alan Sillitoe
A Time to Keep
Martin drew the cloth from the kitchen table. An old tea-stain made a map of Greenland when held up to the light. He folded it into an oblong and laid it on the dresser.
After the anxiety of getting his brother and sister to bed he lifted his books from the cupboard and spread them over the bare wood, where they would stay till the heart-catching click of the gate latch signalled his parents’ return.
He was staying in to see that the fire did not go out, and to keep the light on. He was staying up because he was older. When that unmistakable click of the gate latch sounded he would set a kettle on the gas to make coffee. Funny how thirsty they still were after being in the boozer all night. His two-hour dominion over the house would be finished, but as consolation he could give in to the relief of knowing that they had not after all been hit by a bus and killed.
Most of the books had been stolen. None had been read from end to end. When opened they reeked of damp from bookshop shelves. Or they stank from years of storage among plant pots and parlour soot.
He put a French grammar on to Peveril of the Peak, and a Bible in Polish on top of that. The clock could be heard now that they were out and he had extinguished the television. He sang a tune to its ticking under his breath, then went back to his books. He would start work next year, and didn’t know whether he wanted to or not. Things could go on like this for ever as far as he was concerned. You got booted out of school, though, at fifteen, and that was that.
The certainty that one day he would be pushed into a job had hovered around him since he first realized as a child that his father went out every morning in order to earn money with which to feed them, pay the rent, get clothes, and keep a roof over their heads. His mother used these phrases, and they stabbed into him like fire. At that time work had nothing to do with him, but it soon would have. It was a place of pay and violence which his father detested, to judge by the look on his face when he came home every evening with his snapsack and teacan.
Under the dark space of the stairs he shovelled around for coal to bank up the dull fire – a pleasurable task, as long as the flames came back to life. A hole in the pan needed bigger lumps set over it so that cobbles and slack wouldn’t spill on the mat between the coal-heap and grate. They’d rather have a few pints of beer than buy a dustpan.
He washed his hands in the scullery. He liked soap that was keen to the smell. Arranging his chair, he sat down again and lifted the cover of a beige leather-bound volume of French magazines. He read a sentence under the picture: a bridge over the River Seine near Rouen. In other books he was able to put Portuguese or Italian phrases into English. When a word appealed to his sight he manoeuvred through the alphabet of a dictionary to get at its meaning, though he never tried to learn a language properly. He handled books like a miser. In each one his name was written in capital letters, though there was no danger of them being stolen, because they were gold that could not be spent. The strange kind of hunger he felt in looking at them often fixed him into a hypnosis that stopped him using them properly.
If burglars came they would nick the television, not books. They were stacked according to size, then sorted in their various languages. Excitement led him to range them from high at both ends to small in the middle. He bracketed them between a tea-caddy and a box of his father’s car tools so that none could escape. Then he spread them out again, like playing cards.
Summer was ending. It seemed as if it always was. He had a bike, but Friday night was too much of a treat to go out. He also thought it a squander of precious daylight on his parents’ part that they should have been in the pub for an hour before it got dark. And yet, as soon as the outside walls and chimney pots were no longer clear, he swung the curtains decisively together, pushing away what little of the day was left. Once it was going, he wanted to be shut of it. He switched on glowing light that made the living room a secret cave no one could get into.
His parents were used to his daft adoration of books, but for anyone beyond the family to witness his vital playthings would make him blush with shame. Aunts, cousins and uncles would mock him, but what else could you expect? If it hadn’t been that, they’d have teased him for something else. They had never actually seen his books, though they had been laughingly told about them by his parents. Books and the people he knew didn’t belong together, and that was a fact, but he knew it was impossible to live without either.
He wondered what other eyes had slid across these pages. Their faces could be frightening, or happy. They had come in out of the rain after doing a murder. Or they closed a book and put it down so as to go out and do a good deed. How did you know? You never did. You had to make it all up and scare yourself daft.
In any case, how had they felt about what they were reading? What houses had they lived in, and what sort of schools had they gone to? Did they like their furniture? Did they hate their children? He would rather have been any one of those people than himself. Maybe nobody had read the books. They got them as presents, or bought them and forgot to read them. The thought made him feel desolate, though not for long. Books always took his mind off the world around. He lifted the picture-album of France, and pondered on every voyage the book had made. It had been to Chile and China, and all the other places he could think of, between leaving the printers’ and reaching his table in Radford.
A clatter of footsteps at the yard-end and the boisterous notes of a voice he did not at first recognize dragged him clear. Print had hooks, but they were made of rubber. Before the warning click of the gate latch his dozen volumes were scooped off the table and stacked on the floor behind the far side of the dresser.
By the time the door opened the gas was lit and a full kettle set on it. He put sugar, milk and a bottle of coffee on the table, then sat looking through a car magazine as if he hadn’t moved all evening. His cousin Raymond was first in the room. No stranger, after all. His mother and father breathed a strong smell of ale.
‘He’s the quickest lad I know at getting that kettle on the burning feathers!’ his father said. ‘A real marvel at it. I drove like a demon back from the Crown for my cup o’ coffee.’
‘And you nearly hit that van coming out of Triumph Road,’ Raymond laughed.
Martin wondered whether he should take such praise as it was intended, or hate his father for imagining that he needed it, or despise him for thinking he could get round him in such a way. He was already taller than his father, and there were times when he couldn’t believe it, and occasions when he didn’t like it, though he knew he had to get used to it. So had his father, but he didn’t seem bothered by such a thing. He decided to ignore the praise, though he had got the kettle on in record time.
‘You brought him up right,’ Raymond hung his jacket on the back of the door. ‘He worn’t drug up, like me.’ He bumped into his aunt. ‘Oops, duck, mind yer back, yer belly’s in danger!’
Martin laughed, without knowing whether he wanted to or not. His father would put up with anything from Raymond, who had been to Approved School, Detention Centre and Borstal, though he was now an honest man of twenty-two, and able to charm anybody when he wanted. He did it so well that you were convinced he would never get caught stealing again. He could also use a bullying, jocular sort of self-confidence, having learned how to live rough, half-inch a thing or two, and die young if he must, without getting sent down every year for a Christmas box or birthday present. Another lesson well taken was that he must always look smart, talk clear and act quick, so that anyone who mattered would think he could be trusted. At Borstal he had done boxing, because it seemed that both God and the Governor were on the side of those who stored the deadliest punch. He had developed one as fast as he could, and wasn’t afraid to use it whenever necessary. He was loyal to his family, helping them with money and goods to the best of his ability and hard work. He was often heard to say that he couldn’t go back to his old ways, for his mother’s sake.
Martin wanted to be like his cousin, thou
Raymond, with his bread and cheese, and cup of coffee, was first to sit down. Martin moved across the room, leaving the fire to the grownups. The yellow flames blazed for them alone, and for their talk that came from the big world of boozers that he hadn’t yet entered but was avid to. Raymond stretched out a leg, and expertly belched the words: ‘Pardon me!’ – at which they all laughed.
He held his cup for more coffee. ‘I’ll be off to Alfreton again in the morning. Help to build another mile o’ that motorway. You know how it’s done, don’t you? I open my big gob wide. Somebody shovels tar and concrete in. Then I walk along shitting out motorway and coughing up signposts!’
‘It’ll soon be as far as Leeds, wain’t it?’ his father said quickly, trying to head off such remarks, which he found a bit too loud-mouthed.
Raymond detected the manoeuvre, and to save face, turned censorious: ‘It would be, Joe, if everybody got cracking at their job. But they’re too busy looting to get much done. The fields for miles on either side are laid waste by plundering navvies. Some of ’em sit around smoking and talking, and waiting for a turnip to show itself above the soil. As soon as it does, up it comes! They go straight into their snapsacks.’
He was a joker. They weren’t sure whether it was true or not. No gaffer could afford to let you get away with not working full-tilt. But he had brought vegetables home. Ripping up a basketful was the work of a few minutes in the dusk: ‘A bloke the other day came to wok in his minivan,’ Raymond told them, ‘and drove it a little way into the wood. He kept the engine running so’s we wouldn’t hear his chain-saw, but when I went in for a piss I saw the bleeder stacking logs in the back. A nice young pine tree had gone, and he covered the stump up wi’ leaves. Nowt’s safe. It’s bleddy marvellous. He’s going to get caught one day, doing it in the firm’s time!’
Martin seemed born to listen. Maybe it went with collecting books. If he read them properly he’d perhaps start talking a bit more, and it might be easier then to know what other people were thinking.
‘He don’t say much,’ Raymond observed, ‘our Martin don’t, does he?’
But he did at school. Among his pals he was as bright as an Amazon parrot. If he tackled a book properly, on the other hand, he might talk even less. It was hard to say until he did. Cut anybody’s finger off who got too fresh. The teacher once stopped him bashing up another boy, and said if he caught him at it again he’d pull his arm off. He couldn’t really be like Raymond, who’d once got chucked out of school for hitting a teacher right between the eyes.
‘He’ll be at work next year,’ his mother nodded at Martin. ‘It’s looney to keep ’em till they’re fifteen, big kids like him. Give him summat to do. And bring us some money in.’
‘The bloody road tax is twenty-five quid now,’ his father said bitterly, and Martin felt as if he were being blamed for it.
‘I didn’t have one for six months last year,’ Raymond boasted. ‘I stuck an old Guinness label on the windscreen. Nobody twigged it.’
Martin knew it wasn’t true.
‘You never did!’ his father said, who believed it. ‘I wish I’d had such an idea.’
‘No, I tell a lie. It was only on for a fortnight. Then I got the wind up, and bought a real ’un.’ He turned his grey eyes on to Martin, as if embarrassed by somebody who didn’t continually give themselves away in speech. ‘I’ll get our Martin a job wi’ me on the motorway, though,’ he said. ‘That’ll settle his hash. He’ll come home every night absolutely knackered.’
I expect I might, Martin thought. ‘What would I do?’
‘You’d have to get up early, for a start.’
That wouldn’t bother him. Lots of people did. ‘What time’s that?’
‘He’s dead to the wide at six. It’s all I can do to get him out of bed by eight o’clock.’
‘I’m not, our mam.’
Raymond looked at the fire, as if he would have spat at the bars if it had been in his own home. ‘I pass here in my car at half past. I’ll pick you up tomorrow, if you like.’
‘Will yer be fit for it?’ his father wanted to know.
Martin, taking more coffee and another slice of bread, didn’t think he’d heard right. He often looked at the opening of a book, and when he understood every word, couldn’t believe he’d read it properly, and then went back to make sure. ‘Tomorrow?’
‘Well, I din’t say owt about yesterday, did I?’
If Raymond said something, he meant it. He often said that you must regret nothing, and that you should always keep promises. It helped his reputation of being a man who showed up in a crowd. So he promised something in a loud voice now and again in order to keep himself up to scratch. ‘I’ll stop my owd banger outside the Co-op. If you’re there I’ll take you. If you ain’t, I’ll just push on.’
‘I’ll be waiting.’ Martin felt like one of those sailors in the olden days who, about to set off west, wasn’t sure he would ever get back again.
The sky was clear and cold. He saw it over the housetops, and above the façade of the bingo hall that he first went into as a cinema one Saturday afternoon nearly ten years ago.
The wet road looked as clean as if a light shone on it. He buttoned the jacket over his shirt. You never wore a top coat to work unless you were one of the older men. It was too early for traffic, making the road look different to when it was pounded by buses and lorries during the day. His mother had disturbed him from a hundred feet under the sand below the deepest part of the ocean when she had tried to wake him. She had to grab the clothes off him in the end.
Sandwiches bulged in his pocket. He enjoyed waiting, but his hands were cold. ‘Never put your hands in your pockets when you’re on the job,’ Raymond had said. ‘A lot of ’em do, but it don’t look good.’ He couldn’t do it while waiting to go there, either. He wished he were setting off to work properly, and that he didn’t have another year to do before he got real wages. There wasn’t much point in starting work today, and then next year as well.
A postman went by on a bike. ‘Morning, kid.’
Raymond’s car had rust along the bottom of the door as it swung open towards him. ‘Get in.’
He sounded disappointed that Martin had been able to meet him. The car sailed up Wollaton Road like an aeroplane, spun around the traffic island by the Crown, and went along Western Boulevard. ‘Tired?’
‘It’s a treat, being up early.’
‘Bring owt t’eat?’
‘Yeh. Mam forgot some tea, though.’
‘I’ve got a mashing.’ He played the car with hands and feet as if on a big picture-house organ. ‘Sugar, tea, and tinned milk – solid like a cannon ball. Enough for a battalion. Trust our mam. She’s old-fashioned, but she’s a marvel all the same. You can stand a garden fork in her strong tea.’
Beyond the town there was a cloud like a big white dog. Martin yawned, and expected it to do the same.
‘We like to start as soon as daylight hits,’ Raymond went on. ‘That’s where the money is, in overtime. You don’t mind getting out o’ yer warm bed when you can mek a bit of money. I’d wok all hours God sends, for money. Watch the tax, though. Bastards will skin you dry, and fry you rotten. Dangerous work, as well. Nearly got scooped up by a mechanical digger the other day. But it’s money that I like to be getting into my pocket, fartin’ Martin! As soon as I know there’s money to be earned I’d dig that soil up with my fingernails. They don’t need to tell me when to start sweating!’
Martin had a question. ‘What do you do with it?’
‘The money you get.’
‘Ah! Booze a bit – that’s me. Treat everybody – now and again. Save a lot, though. Gonna buy a house when I’ve got the deposit. Me and mam’ll live in it. Not the other spongers, though. They wa
His brothers and sisters had reputations as scroungers. Serve ’em right if Raymond dealt with them as they deserved.
The narrow lane was so rutted he thought they’d get stuck, the car swaying from side to side, sharp privet branches scraping the window. The wheels skidded on the mud in a couple of places, but it didn’t bother Raymond. He steered as if in a rally car, then grumbled: ‘Fuckers should have cut that hedge down’ – seeing in his mirror another car grinding too closely behind.
As they topped the rise tears of muddy water lashed against the windscreen. When the wipers flushed over it Martin saw the vast clayey cutting between green banks. It was a man-made valley occupied by lorries, cranes, mechanical diggers. Those already moving seemed to be the ones that owned it. He was surprised at how few men there were, having expected to see them swarming all over the place.
Raymond drove parallel to the valley, and parked his car by a cluster of huts. He got out, and farted, then stretched his arms and legs. ‘See that trailer?’
‘Well, I’m going to book myself in.’
The nearest wooden hut, full of tools, smelt as if it were made of still-growing trees. He expected to tread on leaves as he went in to have a look, but there was a crunch of gravel under his boots. His eyes were sore from little sleep. He yawned while trying to stretch his arms without being seen.
The sound of engines moaned and jerked from the canyon. They formed a chorus. There was never silence. Raw earth was being cleared. Soon it would be covered, and packed, and solidified, and paved to take traffic and huge lorries between London and Leeds. The men who did it knew what their work was for. They could see it as plain as a streak of paint across a piece of new wood. But it must go so slowly that a month was like a day.
Raymond came back wearing a helmet and a livid pink jacket. ‘Don’t stand idle,’ he called sharply, so that Martin didn’t know whether he was joking or not. ‘Let’s get on that motor.’
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