New and Collected Stories, p.68Alan Sillitoe
The dumper truck swayed as it went down the track hewn in the incline. The narrow ledge frightened him, for the dumper might tumble any minute and take both of them to the bottom. Raymond fought with the wheel and gears, laughed and swore as he swung it zig-zag along.
‘This fucking thing – it’s like a dog: I tamed it a long while ago, so you’ve no need to worry.’ The machine went more quickly. ‘If we don’t get down in one piece, though, I’ll get the push. That’s the sort of world we’re living in, Martin. Owt happens to this dumper, and I get my cards. Don’t matter about us, if we get killed. We’ll get compo, but what good does that do yer?’
He drove the petrol-smelling truck under the digger to take its load, then lumbered it back up the escarpment in such a way that Martin didn’t think he’d tamed it at all. Tipping it from above helped to heighten the embankment: ‘The bleeding gaffer wanted to know what you was doing here, so I told him you was the new mash-lad from Cresswell. He’s got so much on his plate though, that gaffer, that he don’t know whether he’s coming or going. Looked a bit gone-out at me, burree din’t say owt.’
After two trips Martin decided to stay on top. He could watch the beetling dumpers doing their work from a distance, which was better than being down among them. He remembered a word from school that would describe the long deep scar: geology, geological. The layers of gravel and grit and clay were being sliced like a cake so that the motorway could be pushed through into Yorkshire.
In a while he sat down. It was a struggle to keep the eyes open when you weren’t thinking about anything. The wind died and the sun came out. He was dozing in its warm beams, then dreaming, but he never cut off from the distant punch and rumble of machinery, and the occasional shouting that broke through as if finding him at the end of a long search.
Diesel smoke wafted across. He opened his eyes so as not to lose contact with the sort of work he hoped to be getting paid for next year. Raymond nudged him awake: ‘You poor bogger! A bit too early in the morning, was it?’
‘No, it worn’t,’ he snapped.
‘You know why, though, don’t you?’ He had a can of hot tea, and offered him the lid as a cup. ‘Take this. I’ll get some scoff.’
‘Why?’ The sweet strong tea went straight to the waking-up box behind his eyes.
‘You stayed up too late. Can’t go to work early if you don’t get to your wanking pit on time. Not unless you’re over eighteen, anyway. You’ll ’ave to stop reading all them books. Send you blind.’
He’d heard that before – often. ‘I’m not tired.’
Raymond rolled a neat cigarette. ‘What about some snout, then?’
He laughed. Smoke drifted from his open mouth. ‘That’s right. Keep off the fags. Don’t booze, either, or go with women. Stick to your books as long as you can. And you know why? I’ll tell yer: because fags pack your lungs in, booze softens your brain, and women give you the clap.’
With that, he went back to work.
Martin didn’t know what to make of such advice, so it didn’t seem important. He wished he had one of the books he’d stacked and shifted about on the table last night, even if it was only the Bible in Polish, or the Italian dictionary. When dumper trucks again moved into the canyon, and the first one came back loaded, they didn’t interest him any more, though he thought they might if he sat at the wheel of one like Raymond.
An hour later he was so bored that he felt hungry, so finished off his last cheese sandwich. Sitting high up and set apart gave him a picture-view. Nothing happened, and he was bored, yet everything moved so slowly that he wouldn’t forget it as long as he lived.
Raymond’s truck was easy to recognize. He saw clearly across the whole distance, and watched him go with his load up the far slope of the motorway. A wind blew from the streets of a town on the skyline, as if someone on the church top in the middle were wafting it over. With his vivid sight he saw Raymond’s truck go behind a long low spoil bank, the helmet moving slowly. Then his body reappeared, and finally the truck again.
It was manoeuvred into a clearing for about the twentieth time, and guided close to the escarpment by another man. It waited a few seconds, as if to get breath, then it tipped its load. There was no pause before setting off quickly towards the excavation for another.
He stared more closely, imagining he was Raymond sitting on the truck and working the levers, confidently steering after four years’ experience, smelling old oil and new soil and wondering how much he would coin that day. He wouldn’t mind working here, even if he did have to start by seeing to the men’s tea and running errands from one hut to another. A mash-lad was better than a school-kid.
The truck reversed towards the precipice at a normal and careful speed. At dusk they’d drive back to Nottingham. Maybe Raymond would call at home for a bite to eat before going to where he lived in the Meadows – though it wasn’t likely because he never went visiting in his working clothes.
He could almost hear the engines speeding up. ‘I’ll get this one over with,’ Raymond might be saying, ‘then I’ll pack it in and piss off out of it. Done enough graft for one day.’ He sensed the words going through his brain. He said them aloud, as if to save his cousin the thought or energy.
He couldn’t say who was tired most: him, Raymond, or the man whom Raymond’s dumper truck knocked flying over the almost sheer slope. The man had sauntered out of the way as usual but then, for a reason which was hard to make out (though he was sure there must have been one, since there always was a reason – for everything), he leapt back against the truck as if to dive underneath.
It wasn’t easy to decide the exact point of impact. The man’s spade turned in the air, and Martin swore he heard the clatter as its metal head caught the side of the truck.
The body rolled down the steep bank and smashed into a mechanical digger. He watched Raymond jump from his seat. Other men lined the top of the spoil heap. Two or three, Raymond clearly among them, started to scramble down.
The whole heart-side of Martin’s body was dulled with pain. It lasted a few seconds, then left him feeling cold, wind-blown and gritty at the eyes, which now seemed to lose their vision. The sound of an ambulance came from far away as he walked towards the huts. His legs and arms shivered as if from cold. He gripped himself till it stopped. The flashing blue lights of a police car bobbed along the hedge-top.
He noticed how pale Raymond was when he got into the car an hour after his usual knocking-off time. He smoked a cigarette, something he said he never did when driving. ‘That pig-copper told me I’d killed ’im on purpose,’ he shouted above the engine as it roared and sent the car skidding along the muddy lane. ‘They said I must have been larking about.’
‘I didn’t see yer, and I was watching.’
‘A few others was as well, so I’m all right for witnesses. But can you believe it? Killed ’im on purpose! One of the blokes I’d known for weeks! Can you imagine him asking a thing like that? Must be rotten to the bloody core. He just jumped in front of my truck.’
Martin felt as if he was asking the only question in his life that needed a proper answer:
‘Why did he do it?’
After half a minute’s silence, which seemed so long that Martin thought his cousin would never speak again, unless to tell him to mind his own business, Raymond said: ‘You won’t guess. Nobody on this earth would. I’ll tell yer, though. He dropped his packet o’ fags in front of my truck, and because he thought the wheels would crush ’em, he jumped to pick ’em up. The daft bastard didn’t want to lose his fags. Would you believe it? Didn’t think! Blokes who don’t think deserve all they get. I’d have given him half of my own fags though, if only he’d left ’em alone.’ He smiled bleakly at his untested generosity. ‘Can’t understand him doing a thing like that. I thought I knew him, but bogger me if I did. You don’t know anybody, ever Martin. So never think you do.’
‘He’s dead now, though.’
Martin said he was sorry it happened. He hated feeling the tears at his eyes as sharp as glass. ‘Who was he?’
‘An old chap, about forty-odd. Happy old chokker. He was allus singing, he was. You could tell from his mouth, but nobody ever heard him because of the engines kicking up such a noise. He didn’t sing when he thought we could hear him. Funny bloke altogether. All my life I’ve been careful, though, that’s the best on it. I never wanted that to happen. I’m not a murderer, it don’t matter what that copper tried to say. “I’m not a murderer, your honour! Honest, I’m not!” That’s what I’ll shout out in court when the case comes up.’
Back in the lighted streets, Martin said nothing. He had nothing to say, because everything had been done. His cousin drove with one hand, and held his wrist tight when he reached across with the other. ‘I’m glad you came to work with me today, any road up, our Martin. I wouldn’t have liked to drive home on my own after that little lot. I’ll tek you right to your door. Don’t say owt to your mam and dad, though, will yer?’
‘Let me tell ’em, tomorrer.’ He was on the edge of crying. Martin never thought he’d feel sorry for Raymond, but he did now. He felt more equal than he’d ever done – and even more than that. There wasn’t much to look up to. The big mauler was crushing his wrist. ‘Aren’t you going to the boozer with ’em tonight?’
He drew his hand off, to change gear before stopping at the White Horse traffic lights. ‘I think I’ll get off home. Mam might go out and get me a bottle of ale from the beer-off.’ He winked. ‘If I ask her nice.’
Nothing could keep him down for long.
Martin wasn’t as tired as he had been by the motorway. When his parents drove to the boozer he got his books out of the dresser, instead of going to the last house at the pictures as was usual on Saturday night.
The clear clean print was a marvel to his eyes. He started to read the first page, then became so drawn into the book that he didn’t even hear the click of the gate latch when it sounded three hours later.
Just before closing time in The Radford Arms an old man leapt up on a table and started to dance. The other drinkers were so preoccupied that his clearing of pint jars with such speed went unnoticed, though some of them saw how his polished shoes in which their faces shone tapped with a clever sort of energy on the wooden top.
The landlord was trying to decide when to put the towels on (for in Nottingham the clocks seem notoriously unsynchronized in this respect), and for a few minutes his fingers ferried a hand along his watch chain as if he wouldn’t get out his timepiece till everyone saw him and ran in panic to the bar for their final pint – which some of those who considered themselves more deprived than the rest had already stood up to do.
The old man sat as much by himself as was possible on a Saturday night, by the door from where he had a good view of the saloon and could judge when to act. He waited till near closing because at turned-eighty his energy was limited. Everyone later agreed on his cunning, for he caught the landlord at a time when he was unable to imagine such an occurrence, which allowed the old man to get in some minutes of tap-dance and sing-song before the night was brought to an end.
As he waited by the dregs of a second pint, his free hand began to shake, and his slate-grey eyes took on such a glitter that it seemed unlikely they provided him with much visibility. He drew his sleeve across his mouth to wipe the beer away, but also to erase any tremble which might betray his intention, suggesting a strength of character from former days that had not yet totally vanished. He blinked nervously and, when his arm came down, his tongue darted twice across his lips. He wore a knotted tie over a white collar that turned up at the ends, and it could be seen that his dark grey jacket and trousers didn’t quite match.
In the general astonishment at the clattering dance everyone looked at his shoes rather than his face, sensing that if a collapse were to come it would begin with them, and they would see the full drama from the start. Yet the face was more interesting if only because it was difficult to fix on, and hard to accept what it was saying to those who thought only to observe the feet. Anyone who did look at his lips might realize he was trying to tell them something.
His hands were held flat in front as if to push off his audience should they try and drag him down – as he expected and dared them to. They hardly heard the tapping of his feet, and few made out the tune he was singing, for the pub was far from quiet. His mouth moved to a definite song but the words were hard to catch. He relived the murder, but no one listened to his gospel-truth. His sneer was like spit in their eyes though they did no more than grin, or call to get his knees up, or ask him to remember his age and not to be such a loon. Or they ignored him while supping their final jars.
He would dance while he could, and tell again what he’d whispered in that shell-hole near Gommecourt fifty years ago. He shouted names and phrases, and sometimes made them rhyme, till a few listened, though heard little that made sense. He tapped the rhythm and told it clear, and wondered when they’d pull him down and ask why he’d never been taken to the cop-shop and relieved of his money, belt, braces, shoes and false teeth, and got thrown into a stone cell, and brought into court (where he’d have said nothing from start to finish), and finally taken into the hangman’s yard as a proper end to a wickedness he hadn’t repeated to a soul till an age when the edge of his younger days came back and time had no meaning because there wasn’t much of it left.
Every stone had beetles underneath. They lay still and quiet, because of all creatures on earth they were good at knowing how, but in the last few months they’d been growing bigger, till he felt the boulder ready to surge into the air and crush him to even less than a beetle when it came down. The crime had kept him loving and industrious ever after, and even now God hadn’t paid him out.
Nevill passed the house of a blacksmith’s noisy family. The up-and-down stretch of common known as the Cherry Orchard was blocked from the west by Robins Wood. The sun glowed on a bed of clouds, and the surrounding grass appeared so green from his place of hiding that it seemed as if a secret kingdom shone from under the ground.
Too far off to be noticeable, Nevill saw the man walking towards the wood – having been daft enough to think that secrets could be kept. Silence increased the quality of the glow. The stark side of the trees stood out as if they would melt, part of the most perfect summer since the fourteen-year-old century had turned.
Nevill watched Amy follow her fancyman from the lane, by which time he was already waiting in the wood. He plucked a juicy grass stem and, now that they were out of sight, moved along a depression – in case they should be looking from the bushes – towards a spot a hundred yards above where they had entered.
A breeze which carried the smell of grass made him hungry. He had come out before his tea, tracking to where he thought she had gone. There had to be a day when he came home early. The farmer he worked for lent him a gun so that he could stalk hares and be sure of hitting them. He moved like a tree that seemed always in the same place to the delicate senses of a rabbit. Then he took five minutes to lift his gun so that they didn’t stand a chance. Even so, one sometimes escaped in a last-minute zig-zag too quick to be sighted on. Because the farmer gave only one cartridge at a time he could afford no waste. A big rabbit lasted two meals, and made a smell for any man to come home to.
The last of the sun flushed white and pink against his eyes. A raven circling over the wood told him they were still there, and hadn’t gone out the other side towards the west. Its black gloss turned purple in the evening light.
Kneeling, he wondered whether or not to go back to the house and leave them alone. Now that he knew for certain, there seemed no point in pursuing them, for he could call the tune any time he liked. But his legs wouldn’t stop his slow encroachment on that part of the wood they had gone into. A cloud of gnats pestered him. If he had been walking at a normal pace he could have re
Shadows aggrandized each tree and solitary bush. Two rabbits ran from the wood. One stared at him, then sat up and rubbed its paws, while the other turned away with its white tail shivering in the breeze. He heard a hooter from Wollaton colliery, and the blink of his left eyelid wasn’t sufficient to warn the rabbits, one of which was big enough for the pot.
Fingers itched for the safety catch, the shotgun lifting inch by inch. One would be dead for sure, but he fought his instinct, staying the gun while in the grip of something firmer. Rabbits swarmed so much this summer that a week ago he caught two with one bullet.
The long dusk began. A platoon of starlings scoured back and forth on a patch of grass to leave no worm’s hiding place unturned. He wanted to light his pipe and smoke off the gnats, but any movement might reveal his place, so he became a flesh statue with head bowed, green jacket blending into green.
The crack of twigs sounded and she walked, without turning left or right, straight across the Cherry Orchard and back towards the lane. It wasn’t the nearest way home but, when close to the house, she’d expect him to see her coming from the Woodhouse direction in which her mother lived. He smiled at such barefaced cunning, in which they’d talked up their little plot together, he deciding to stay another ten minutes in the wood after she had got clear of it.
Nevill needed only a few paces to reach the trees. Dodging the brambles, he walked from the thigh, toes and balls of the feet descending so as to avoid the heel on unseen twigs. He heard the stream that ran down the middle of the narrow wood. Blackberries were big and ripe. A pigeon rattled up, and he made towards its noise, advancing at the crouch, knowing every patch because his cottage was on the northern tip. When a match scraped along a box he stiffened.
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