New and Collected Stories, p.69Alan Sillitoe
The odour of fungus and running water on clean pebbles was sharpened by the cool of the evening. It wasn’t quite dusk, but Nevill had to peer so as not to mistake him for the shadow of a bush. Looking for the first star, he lowered his head before finding one. The sky was still pale blue.
He saw him by the stream smoking a cigarette. A loosened tie hung around his neck, and he irritatedly brushed leaves from the legs of his dark suit. He whistled the bars of a tune, but suddenly stopped, as if not wanting to hear anything that would take him so far from what had just passed between him and Amy.
Nevill lifted the gun, butt-first. When a frog plopped into a side arm of the stream he saw the rings, and the man turned sharply at the noise as he decided it was time to get out of the wood. After two paces a shadow came at his head which had the force of the world concealed in it. An electric light went on for a second and revealed the trees roundabout. Often when a rabbit wouldn’t die he battered the neck, and his rage was so great that it was no more difficult to smash the man’s temple while he lay on the ground. There was a smell of hard drink when he knelt to make sure he was dead.
At the edge of the wood dusk was coming across the Cherry Orchard like a scarf. When Nevill fired, a rabbit spun on the ground. Then he fastened its two back legs together and walked towards the darker part of the common.
Standing at the door to look for him Amy heard the shot softened like a thunderclap in the distance, and shivered at the evening chill. Nevill passed by the blacksmith’s house and went down the lane, under the long railway bridge to Lottie Weightman’s beer-off in the village. He sold his rabbit for sixpence, then drank a pint. They were talking about the war, of how everybody was going, some saying what damned fools they were, while others thought it the only thing to do. He sat observing them with his slate-grey eyes, smiling at their expressions that did not seem to know what life was about.
Next day he went back into the wood and, hanging his jacket from the spike of a dead branch, hauled the body from its hiding place. He scraped off the turf and hacked at the roots. The soil was dry, but moistened lower down. With Amy last night he had lain back to back, thinking he’d never touch her again. Each press of the spade, pull at the handle and lift, reinforced his feelings about her. From the clear land of the Cherry Orchard he heard children, so put his jacket on and went swiftly to the edge of the wood.
‘You can’t come in ’ere.’
They were three ragged-arsed kids from Radford. ‘We only want blackberries.’
‘Gerroff – or you’ll get a good hiding.’
He looked as if he’d do it, so they went, though one of them called from a distance and before fleeing ‘Fuckin’ owd bastard!’
He worked more quickly and, when the neat oblong hole was deep enough, heard the body thump to the bottom. The smashed head vanished under a first curtain of soil. Dead twigs and leaf-mould disguised the grave. He leaned against a tree to smoke his pipe, till sweat subsided and his breath came back, then he walked through the deepest grass to get the soil off his boots, for it wouldn’t do to be untidy if you were going into town.
Walking up the hill towards Canning Circus he met others on the same errand. He spat on both hands for luck and rubbed his palms on hearing the clash of a band outside the drill hall, thinking that the army would be as good a place to hide as any.
The smell from his skin went as quickly as the spit dried. After passing the medical and getting his shilling he drank a pint in the canteen. Two hours later and still in their own clothes they were marched back down Derby Road to tents on Wollaton Park – only a mile from the wood where the fresh body lay buried.
Farmer Taylor could keep his job at fifteen bob a week. With two hours off the next day, he called to say he had packed it in, and expected to be turned out of his cottage, but the farmer smiled: ‘I knew you would. I told you he’d be the first to go. Didn’t I tell you, Martha? You wait, I said, he’ll go, Nevill will! I’ll lose a good man, but I know he’ll go. Wish I could be in the old regiment myself. I know of no finer thing than going to fight for your country.’
There wasn’t much need to talk. He was invited into the parlour and given a mug of ale.
‘You’ll mek a fine sowjer,’ Taylor went on. ‘I expected no less. Come and see us when you’ve got your khaki on.’ He gave him a florin above his wages: ‘Your wife can stay in the cottage. I’ll see nowt happens to her.’
‘I expect she’ll be able to look after herself,’ Nevill said cheerfully.
The farmer gave him a hard look: ‘Ay, you’ll mek a fine sowjer. Your sort allus do.’
He went home: ‘I’ve gone and enlisted. You can carry on all you like now, because I won’t be coming back.’
She gave him some bread and cheese. ‘God will pay you out, leaving me like this.’
He wanted to laugh. When she went on the prowl for her man it wouldn’t do her much good. He went upstairs to change into his best suit. The small room with its chest of drawers and flowered paper was part of them, as was the bed with its pillows and counterpane. She kept the house like a new pin, he had to admit, but it made no difference. He tied his working clothes and spare boots into a parcel and pushed it under the bed with his toe-cap. He wouldn’t be back for any of them. Most other men in camp wore their oldest clothes, some nearly in rags, but he wanted to look smart even before the khaki came. If they took him away to be hanged he didn’t want to take the drop looking like a scarecrow.
He stood in the doorway for a last look at the kitchen. ‘Everybody’s rushing to the colours.’
‘More fool them. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to join up as well. You’re nearly thirty: let the young mad-’eads go.’
He didn’t know what she had to cry for. She should be glad to get shut of him. He put two sovereigns between the pot cats on the shelf: ‘Don’t lose ’em.’
When she took off her pinafore and began to fold it he was frightened at having taken the King’s shilling. One thing led to another when you killed somebody. Birds were whistling outside the open window. She’d hung the mats on the line. In his weakness he wanted to sit down, but knew he mustn’t.
She rushed across to him. He lost his stiffness after a few minutes, and held her. They had been married in Wollaton church five years ago, but when they went upstairs he felt that he hadn’t known her till now.
He forgot her grey eyes and her auburn hair when walking back by the dark side of the wood. If God paid him out it would be because God was a German bullet. As for the bloke whose brains he had knocked in, it served him right. He was tempted to dig by the bush and look at the body, to make sure everything wasn’t happening in the middle of a dream, but he didn’t have a spade.
The day was rotting. He breathed dusk through his nostrils, a smell that was enough to turn you as balmy as a hayfork, especially in such silence before rain. Happiness made him walk upright across the Cherry Orchard without looking back.
‘You’ll dig yourselves ten feet under,’ the sergeant shouted, ‘when the first shell bursts.’
On parade he was ordered to tie a white tape on his arm, the mark of a lance-corporal, till uniforms came and he could sew on the proper stripe. He was a more promising soldier than the rest, for he did not live from day to day like most of the platoon, not even from hour to hour as some of them cared to. He existed by the minute because every one contained the possibility of him being taken off and hanged. The grave was a deep one, and the man not known in the district – he reasoned hopefully while lying in the bell tent with eleven others and listening to raindrops hitting the canvas. It was also a time when scores of thousands were going to other towns to get into their favourite regiments, so maybe no one would even look for him.
During every package of sixty seconds he gave absolute attention to the least detail of military routine, and became the keenest man in the platoon. When rifles were issued he was careful that each round reached a b
Every battalion had its snipers. ‘On a dark night a lighted match can be seen nine hundred yards away,’ they were told, ‘and that’s as far as from the Guildhall to the bloody Castle!’
It was also the distance from here to where he was buried, Nevill thought.
‘Pay attention, or I’ll knock your damned ’ead off!’
The sergeant savvied any mind that wandered, and Nevill knew he mustn’t be caught out again.
He slid into the loop-holed sniper’s post built by the sappers in darkness. Sacking was around his head, and mud-coloured tape swathed his rifle. He looked slowly from left to right, towards wire and sandbags across ground he had been over in darkness and seen in daylight through a periscope. He knew each grass-dump and crater. A faint haze hovered. Smells of cooking and tobacco drifted on the wind. He savoured the difference between a Woodbine and a Berlin cigar, till a whine and a windrush eruption of chalk and soil caused his elbow to tremble at a shell dropping somewhere to the left. The camouflage net shivered. He heard talking in the trenches behind. An aeroplane flew high.
Amy worked on filling shells at Chilwell factory, earning three times the amount he got as a corporal marksman, but he sent half his pay for her to put in a bank, though he didn’t expect ever to get home and claim it because either a bullet or a rope (or a shell) was sure to pay him out. I always loved you, and always shall, she wrote. Aye, I know, same here, he answered – but not telling what he knew, and cutting her from his mind in case he got careless and was shot. He smiled at the justice of it.
In the space between one minute and the next he expected to see a party of men coming to get him for the hangman’s yard whose walls would smell like cold pumice and rotting planks. He was ready for it to happen from any direction he could name, so that even in the débris of the trenches there was no one smarter at spotting misdemeanours in his own men, or fatal miscalculations on the enemy parapet.
A machine gun half a mile away stitched thoughts back into his brain, eyes turning, head in a motion that scanned the faint humps of the broken line. He didn’t want to give up his perfected system of counting the minutes which kept him going in a job that held little prospect of a long life. All snipers went west sooner or later. He was glad that whole days passed without thinking of Amy, because she took his mind off things.
A smudge of grey by a sandbag, and then a face, and he lined up the sights instantly and pressed the trigger. The crack travelled left and right as he reloaded almost without movement, the bolt sliding comfortably in. The bullet took half a second to reach the face that had sprung back. He heard the word for stretcher bearer – krankenträger and he wanted to laugh because, as in a game of darts or cribbage, he had scored. The more he killed, the less chance there’d be of getting called to account. He didn’t want to know more than that. It was dangerous to think. You’re not here to think but to do as you’re effing-well told – and never you forget it or by God I’ll have your guts for garters and strangle you to death with ’em. But they didn’t need to roar such rules at him.
A retaliating machine gun opened from three hundred yards left. He saw the gunner. Chalk that jumped along was nowhere close enough. An itching started on his cheek, and an impulse to scratch was fought down. When it came back he turned his body cold. It was an almost pleasurable irritation that couldn’t be ignored, but he resisted it, minute by minute. You had only to be at the Front for an hour and you were as lousy as if you’d been there ten years.
Last week he’d had a fever, and hadn’t been able to do his work. No sniper was allowed out with a fever or a cold. With a fever you shook, and with a cold you dozed – though a true sniper would forget such things in his moment of action. Yet an experienced sniper was too valuable to waste. He sensed as much when he moved along the communication trenches at dawn or dusk, and observed how the officers looked at him – after their first curiosity at seeing such an unusual specimen – as if he were a man singled out for a life even worse than death, cooped up like a rat that only waited its turn to kill without fair fight. He knew quite plainly that many didn’t like him because sniping was a dirty weapon like poison gas or liquid fire.
The trench was disturbed. Every eye fixed his stretch of land. They looked but did not see. He let his body into complete respose so as to make no move. The range card was etched on to his brain, and his eyes caught all activity, had even sharper vision because of the body’s helplessness. The whole view was exposed to his basic cunning. His itching leg was forgotten when he pressed the trigger and killed the machine gunner.
Out of the opposite trench, a few fingers to the right, came a man who stood on the sandbags and beckoned. He wore a dark suit. A tie was unfastened around his neck. He bent down to brush chalk-grit from his trousers. When he straightened himself, he smiled.
Nevill lay in the water of his sweat, his teeth grinding as if to take a bite out of his own mouth. His body wasn’t dead, after all. The man was afraid to come closer. Grey clouds formed behind his head, till he became part of them, when Nevill took a long shot almost in enfilade, and brought down a man who looked up from the second line of trenches.
If the man had still been alive Nevill would have shouted at him for his foolishness. Mistakes were as common as Woodbines. Even the old hands made them occasionally, as if tired of a caution which wouldn’t let them be themselves. Something inside decided, against their will, that they’d had enough. In an unguarded moment their previous carefree nature took over – and they died. He smiled at the thought that no such fecklessness could kill him, no matter how deep down it lay.
He couldn’t get out of his place till darkness. Danger time was near. If he chanced one more round they’d get a bearing and smother his place with shot shell and shit. Papier mâché heads painted to look real were put up so that when the sniper’s bullet went clean through back and front, a pinpoint bearing could be made between the two holes which would lead with fatal accuracy to him. So when he saw a head tilted slightly forward and wearing no helmet he didn’t shoot. If he kept as still as dead they would never see him, and he’d known all his life how to do that. When he played dead he was most alive. He felt like laughing but, knowing how not to, was hard to kill. As if in agreement the earth rumbled for half a minute under another nearby burst of shell. It grew in intensity till it sounded like a train going through Lenton station. He wanted to piss, but would have to keep it in.
Tomorrow he would be in a different position and, corked face invisible, could start all over again. He lay by the minute, sun burning through clouds as if intent on illuminating only him. A shot at dusk might succeed, when the setting sun behind sharpened their line of trenches, but only one, because they would be waiting, and he was too old a hand to get killed just before knocking off time.
Raindrops pestered a tin can, and caused an itch at his wrist. There was better visibility after a shower, though gas from his rifle in the dampened atmosphere might give him away if he fired. Their eyes were as good as his when they decided to look. He felt like a rabbit watching from its burrow, and counted the minutes more carefully. If they found him, he’d die. He craved to smoke his pipe. No sniper was taken prisoner. Nor their machine gunners. He felt cramp in his right foot, but tightened himself till it went.
The minute he woke in the morning, either at rest or on the march, or in the line, his first thought was not to decipher where he was but to realize that he hadn’t yet been taken up for the man he had killed. He kissed his own wrist for luck. Other soldiers round about wondered why he smiled, while they only scowled or cursed.
Lying in his cramped hole sometimes brought on a faintness from which the only way out was to spread arms and legs as far as they would go, then get into the open and run. He would certainly be killed, so when blood packed at the extremities of hands and feet, thereby thinning at the heart, he called the minutes through and counted
The minutes he hewed out of life, from the air or his own backbone, or plucked even from the din of the guns, saved him time and time again. In pushing aside the image of the hangman coming to get him across no-man’s-land (or waiting in the form of a Provost Marshal’s red cap when he went back through the communication trench and up towards the broad light of the day that was to be his last) he had only to punctuate his counting of the minutes by a careful shot at some flicker on the opposite sandbags. Away from the trenches, he could not wait to get back, even if on frontline duty as one of a back-breaking carrying party, or as an enfilading sharp-shooter during a trench raid. But mostly he belonged in a sniper’s position that needed only eyes, brain and a steady finger at the trigger while he lay there all day and counted the minutes.
A week in the trenches was as long as a month or a year. He counted the minutes while others marked off the days. But all of them were finally without time and covered in mud, one in ten lost through shellfire, raids, frostbite and bullets.
They drudged to the rear and one night, wet from head to foot, Nevill joined his company in a rush across the churned turf of a field towards the bath-house. Everyone stripped to let the sanitary men get at their underclothes. Lice were everywhere. Scabies was common, and spread like chalkdust on a windy day. Some scratched themselves till bloody all over, and were treated with lavish doses of sulphur – which might give them dermatitis if they got too much of it. Nevill endured the terrible itching, even in his sniper’s post, but on normal duty he woke himself after a few hours’ sleep by a wild clawing at his clothes.
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes