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New and collected storie.., p.7
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       New and Collected Stories, p.7

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  Eighteen, he remembered her, and not too tall, with almost masculine features below short chestnut hair: brown eyes, full cheeks and proportionate lips, like Aphrodite his inward eye had commented time and time again, only a little sweeter. She wore brown sweater and brown cardigan, a union that gave only tormenting glimpses of her upper figure, until one summer’s day when the cardigan was set aside, revealing breasts on the same classical style, hips a trifle broad, complementing nevertheless her somewhat stocky legs and fleshy redeeming calves. She had only to move from the counter to the foot of the stairs that led to the upper part of the shop, and Mr Raynor’s maxims of common arithmetic became stale phrases of instruction to be given out quickly, leaving his delighted class with an almost free session.

  What memory could not accomplish, imagination did, and he recreated a tangible image, moved by long-cultivated pre-occupations of sensuality in which his wife and family took no part. He adjusted his spectacles, rolled his tongue around the dry back of his teeth, and grated his feet once more on the bar of the stool. As she walked she had carried her whole body in a sublime movement conducive to the attraction of every part of it, so that he was even aware of heels inside her shoes and finger-tips buried perhaps beneath a bolt of opulent cloth. A big trolley-bus bundled its green-fronted track along the road, and carried his vision away on the coloured advertisements decorating the band between top and bottom decks.

  Deprived so suddenly he felt for a cigarette, but there was half an hour yet for the playtime break. And he still had to deal with the present class before they went to geography at ten o’clock. The noise broke into him, sunk him down to reality like cold water entering a ship. They were the eldest rag-mob of the school, and the most illiterate, a C stream of fourteen-year-old louts raring to leave and start work at the factories round about. Bullivant the rowdiest subsided only after his head was well turned from the window; but the noise went on. The one feasible plan was to keep them as quiet as possible for the remaining months, then open the gates and let them free, allow them to spill out into the big wide world like the young animals they were, eager for fags and football, beer and women and a forest of streets to roam in. The responsibility would be no longer his, once they were packed away with the turned pages of his register into another, more incorrigible annexe than the enclave of jungle he ruled for his living. He would have done whatever could be done with such basically unsuitable and unwilling scholars.

  ‘All right,’ he called out in a loud clear voice, ‘let’s have a little quietness in the room.’ Though the noise persisted, an air of obedience reigned. Mr Raynor was not a strict disciplinarian, but he had taught for twenty-five years, and so acquired a voice of authority that was listened to. Even if he didn’t hit them very often, it was realized that he was not a young man and could easily do so. And it was consciously felt that there was more force behind a middle-aged fist than a young and inexperienced one. Consequently when he told them to keep quiet, they usually did.

  ‘Take out your Bibles,’ he said, ‘and open them at Exodus, chapter six.’

  He watched forty-five hands, few of them clean, unaccountably opening the Bible, as they did all books, from the back and working to the front. Now and again he caught the flicker of brightly coloured illustrations at different points in the class, on their way through a welter of pages. He leaned forward on the high desk, one elbow supporting his forehead, seeing Bullivant whisper to the boy next to him, and hearing the boy giggle.

  ‘Handley,’ Mr Raynor demanded with a show of sternness, ‘who was Aaron?’

  A small boy from the middle of the class stood up: ‘Aaron from the Bible, sir?’

  ‘Yes. Who else, you ass?’

  ‘Don’t know, sir,’ the boy answered, either because he really didn’t, Mr Raynor told himself, or by way of revenge for being called an ass.

  ‘Didn’t you read the chapter yesterday I told you to read?’

  Here was a question he could answer. ‘Yes, sir,’ came the bright response.

  ‘Well then, who was Aaron?’

  His face was no longer bright. It became clouded as he admitted: ‘I’ve forgot, sir.’

  Mr Raynor ran a hand slowly over his forehead. He changed tack.‘NO!’ he yelled, so loudly that the boy jumped. ‘Don’t sit down yet, Handley.’ He stood up again. ‘We’ve been reading this part of the Bible for a month, so you should be able to answer my questions. Now: Who was the brother of Moses?’

  Bullivant chanted from behind:

  ‘Then the Lord said unto Moses

  All the Jews shall have long noses

  Exceptin’ Aaron

  He shall ’ave a square’un

  And poor old Peter

  He shall ’ave a gas-meter!’

  The low rumble reached Mr Raynor, and he saw several half-tortured faces around Bullivant trying not to laugh. ‘Tell me, Handley,’ he said again, ‘who was the brother of Moses?’

  Handley’s face became happy, almost recognizable under the unfamiliar light of inspiration, for the significance of the chanted verse had eaten its way through to his understanding. ‘Aaron, sir,’ he said.

  ‘And so’ – Mr Raynor assumed he was getting somewhere at last – ‘who was Aaron?’

  Handley, who had considered his ordeal to be over on hearing a subdued cheer of irony from Bullivant, lifted a face blank in defeat. ‘Don’t know, sir.’

  A sigh of frustration, not allowed to reach the boys, escaped Mr Raynor. ‘Sit down,’ he said to Handley, who did so with such alacrity that the desk lid rattled. Duty had been done as far as Handley was concerned, and now it was Robinson’s turn, who stood up from his desk a few feet away. ‘Tell us who Aaron was,’ Mr Raynor ordered.

  Robinson was a brighter boy, who had thought to keep a second Bible open beneath his desk lid for reference. ‘A priest, sir,’ he answered sharply, ‘the brother of Moses.’

  ‘Sit down, then,’ Mr Raynor said. ‘Now, remember that, Handley. What House are you in, Robinson?’

  He stood up again, grinning respectfully. ‘Buckingham, sir.’

  ‘Then take a credit star.’

  After the green star had been fixed to the chart he set one of the boys to read, and when the monotonous drone of his voice was well under way he turned again to span the distance between his high stool and the draper’s window. By uniting the figures and faces of the present assistants, and then by dissolving them, he tried to recapture the carnal vision of the girl who had recently died, a practice of reconstruction that had been the mainstay of his sojourn at this school, a line of sight across the cobbled road into Harrison’s shop, beamed on to the girls who went to work there when they were fifteen and left at twenty to get married. He had become a connoisseur of young suburban womanhood, and thus the fluctuating labour and marriage market made Mr Raynor a fickle lover, causing him too often to forget each great passion as another one walked in to take its place. Each ‘good’ one was credit-starred upon his mind, left behind a trail of memories when it went, until a new ‘good’ one came like a solid fiscal stamp of spiritual currency that drove the other one out. Each memory was thus renewed, so that none of them died.

  But the last one was the best one of all, an unexpected beauty back-dropped against the traffic artery of squalid streets. He watched her work and talk or on wet afternoons stand at the counter as if in a trance. The boy on the front row was reading like a prophet, and an agitated muttering sea began to grow about him, and the curtain of Mr Raynor’s memory drew back upon the runners of a line recalled from Baudelaire: ‘Timide et libertine, et fragile et robuste’ – revealing the secret of her classic beauty and nubility, which vanished when the blood-filled phrase was dragged away by the top deck of a trolley-bus laden with rigid staring faces. A tea-boy carrying a white jug slipped out of the estate agents’ offices, dodged deftly through a line of cars and lorries that had stopped for the traffic-lights, and walked whistling a tune into a café further down the road.

  The sea of noi
se surrounding the prophet-like monotonous voice of the reading boy increased to a higher magnitude than discipline would permit, until a wave carried his sonorous words away and another sound dominated the scene. He looked, and saw Bullivant on his feet thumping the boy at the desk in front with all his might. The boy raised his fists to hit back.

  Mr Raynor roared with such fury that there was instant silence, his ageing pink face thrust over his desk towards them. ‘Come out, Bullivant,’ he cried. Libertine et robuste: the phrase fought and died, was given a white cross and packed away.

  Bullivant slouched out between rows of apprehensive boys. ‘’e ’it me first,’ he said, nearing the blackboard.

  ‘And now I’m going to hit you,’ Mr Raynor retorted, lifting the lid of his desk and taking out a stick. His antagonist eyed him truculently, displaying his contempt of the desperate plight he was supposed to be in by turning round and winking at his friends. He was a big boy of fourteen, wearing long drainpipe trousers and a grey jersey.

  ‘Y’aren’t gooin’ ter ’it me,’ he said. ‘I ain’t dun owt ter get ’it, yer know.’

  ‘Hold out your hand,’ Mr Raynor said, his face turning a deep crimson. Timide. No, he thought, not likely. This is the least I can do. I’ll get these Teddy-boy ideas out of his head for a few seconds.

  No hand was extended towards him as it should have been. Bullivant stood still and Mr Raynor repeated his order. The class looked on, and moving traffic in the road hid none of the smaller mutterings that passed for silence. Bullivant still wouldn’t lift his hand, and time enough had gone by that could be justified by Mr Raynor as patience.

  ‘Y’aren’t gooin’ ter ’it me wi’ that,’ Bullivant said again, a gleam just showing from his blue half-closed eyes.

  Robust. An eye for an eye. The body of the girl, the bottom line of the sweater spreading over her hips, was destroyed in silence. His urge for revenge was checked, but was followed by a rage that nevertheless bit hard and forced him to action. In the passing of a bus he stepped to Bullivant’s side and struck him several times across the shoulders with the stick, crashing each blow down with all his force. ‘Take that,’ he cried out, ‘you stupid defiant oaf.’

  Bullivant shied away. And before any more blows could fall, and before Mr Raynor realized that such a thing was possible, Bullivant lashed back with his fists, and they were locked in a battle of strength, both trying to push the other away, to get clear and strike. Mr Raynor took up a stance with legs apart, trying to push Bullivant back against the desks, but Bullivant foresaw such a move from his stronger adversary and moved his own body so that they went scuffling between the desks. ‘Yo’ ain’t ’ittin’ me like that,’ Bullivant gasped between his teeth. ‘Oo do yo’ think yo’ are?’ He unscrewed his head that was suddenly beneath Mr Raynor’s arm, threw out his fists that went wide of the mark, and leapt like a giraffe over a row of desks. Mr Raynor moved quickly and blocked his retreat, grabbed his arm firmly and glowered at him with blood-red face, twisted the captive limb viciously, all in a second, then pushed him free, though he stood with the stick ready in case Bullivant should come for him again.

  But Bullivant recognized the dispensation of a truce, and merely said: ‘I’ll bring our big kid up to settle yo’,’ and sat down. Experience was Mr Raynor’s friend; he saw no point in spinning out trouble to its logical conclusion, which meant only more trouble. He was content to warn Bullivant to behave himself, seeing that no face had been lost by either side in the equal contest. He sat again on the high stool behind his desk. What did it matter, really? Bullivant and most of the others would be leaving in two months, and he could keep them in check for that short time. And after the holidays more Bullivants would move up into his classroom from the scholastic escalator.

  It was five minutes to ten, and to ensure that the remaining time was peaceful he took out his Bible and began reading in a clear steady voice:

  ‘Then the Lord said unto Moses (titters here), now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh: for with a strong hand shall he let them go, and with a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.’

  The class that came in at half past ten was for arithmetic, and they were told to open their books and do exercises on page fifty-four. He observed the leaves of many books covered with ink-scrawls, and obscene words written across the illustrations and decorating the ‘answer’ margins like tattooing on the arms of veteran sailors, pages that would be unrecognizable in a month, but would have to last for another twelve. This was a younger class whose rebellion had so far reached only the pages of their books.

  But that, too, was only something to accept and, inclining his head to the right, he forgot the noises of his class and looked across the road at the girls working in the draper’s shop. Oh yes, the last one had been the best he could remember, and the time had come when he decided to cure his madness by speaking to her one evening as she left the shop. It was a good idea. But it was too late, for a young man had begun meeting her and seeing her safely, it seemed, to the bus stop. Most of the girls who gave up their jobs at the shop did so because they met some common fate or other. (‘Timide et libertine, et fragile et robuste’ – he could not forget the phrase.) Some were married, others, he had noticed, became pregnant and disappeared; a few quarrelled with the manager and appeared to have been sacked. But the last one, he had discovered, on opening the newspaper one evening by the traffic-lights at the corner, had been murdered by the young man who came to meet her.

  Three double-decker trolley-buses trundled by in a line, but he still saw her vision by the counter.

  ‘Quiet!’ he roared, to the forty faces before him. ‘The next one to talk gets the stick.’

  And there was quiet.

  The Fishing-boat Picture

  I’ve been a postman for twenty-eight years. Take that first sentence: because it’s written in a simple way may make the fact of my having been a postman for so long seem important, but I realize that such a fact has no significance whatever. After all, it’s not my fault that it may seem as if it has to some people just because I wrote it down plain; I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way. If I started using long and complicated words that I’d searched for in the dictionary I’d use them too many times, the same ones over and over again, with only a few sentences – if that – between each one; so I’d rather not make what I’m going to write look foolish by using dictionary words.

  It’s also twenty-eight years since I got married. That statement is very important no matter how you write it or in what way you look at it. It so happened that I married my wife as soon as I got a permanent job, and the first good one I landed was with the Post Office (before that I’d been errand-boy and mash-lad). I had to marry her as soon as I got a job because I’d promised her I would, and she wasn’t the sort of person to let me forget it.

  When my first pay night came I called for her and asked: ‘What about a walk up Snakey Wood?’ I was cheeky-daft and on top of the world, and because I’d forgotten about our arrangement I didn’t think it strange when she said: ‘Yes, all right.’ It was late autumn I remember and the leaves were as high as snow, crisp on top but soggy underneath. In the full moon and light wind we walked over the Cherry Orchard, happy and arm-in-arm. Suddenly she stopped and turned to me, a big-boned girl yet with a good figure and nice enough face: ‘Do you want to go into the wood?’

  What a thing to ask! I laughed: ‘You know I do. Don’t you?’

  We walked on, and a minute later she said: ‘Yes, I do; but you know what we’re to do now you’ve got a steady job, don’t you?’

  I wondered what it was all about. Yet I knew right enough. ‘Get married,’ I admitted, adding on second thoughts: ‘I don’t have much of a wage to be wed on, you know.’

  ‘It’s enough, as far as I’m concerned,’ she answered.

  And that was that. She gave me the best kiss I’d ever had, and then we went into the wood.

  She was never happy about our life together, right fro
m the start. And neither was I, because it didn’t take her long to begin telling me that all her friends – her family most of all – said time and time again that our marriage wouldn’t last five minutes. I could never say much back to this, knowing after the first few months how right everybody would be. Not that it bothered me though, because I was always the sort of bloke that doesn’t get ruffled at anything. If you want to know the truth – the sort of thing I don’t suppose many blokes would be ready to admit – the bare fact of my getting married meant only that I changed one house and one mother for another house and a different mother. It was as simple as that. Even my wage-packet didn’t alter its course: I handed it over every Friday night and got five shillings back for tobacco and a visit to the pictures. It was the sort of wedding where the cost of the ceremony and reception go as a down payment, and you then continue dishing-out your wages every week for life. Which is where I suppose they got this hire purchase idea from.

  But our marriage lasted for more than the five minutes everybody prophesied: it went on for six years; she left me when I was thirty, and when she was thirty-four. The trouble was when we had a row – and they were rows, swearing, hurling pots: the lot – it was too much like suffering, and in the middle of them it seemed to me as if we’d done nothing but row and suffer like this from the moment we set eyes on each other, with not a moment’s break, and that it would go on like this for as long as we stayed together. The truth was, as I see it now – and even saw it sometimes then – that a lot of our time was bloody enjoyable.

 
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