New and Collected Stories, p.71Alan Sillitoe
Clifford pulled both legs into his chest, choking on his blood. ‘They’ll shoot me, without me rifle. I don’t like this tunnel, though. We went over the top, didn’t we, not in a tunnel. Must a bin a mistake.’
He knelt close and saw his face in the light of a flare. ‘Yes, we did go over the top, and you’re wounded, you fool, so shut your mouth.’ He whispered into his ear as he lay down beside him: ‘A real Blighty one yer’ve got. You’ll be out of it for good soon.’
English voices called low in the darkness, and stretcher-bearers found them. When they pulled at Nevill’s arm to part him from Jack Clifford he screamed in agony.
The adjutant went through the rolls at Battalion Headquarters and said: ‘Sergeant Nevill? Wasn’t he the one we sent the signal for? Don’t suppose he got it in time. All they wanted was for him to come back and explain why he had indented for too many ration replacements last week. We’d have put him down for a medal, bringing in a wounded man like that while he was wounded himself, if only the chap hadn’t died.’
When Nevill was demobbed in the spring of 1919 he went back to Nottingham and found Amy. She had her own small house, and took him in as if he’d just come back from shooting rabbits in Robins Wood. Three months later she was pregnant again, and he was already at work on a mechanic’s job that was to last thirty years. He looked after Amy and her first son, and then she had two by him, but he was never brave enough to tell her what he told Jack Clifford near Gommecourt. He was on the point of it often, but sensed that if he let it out they wouldn’t stay together any more.
Those good souls who helped old Nevill from the table in The Radford Arms averred he was no more than a bag of skin and bone. He trembled as they sat him down, and the landlord nodded at one of his bar-keepers to bring a dash of whisky and water. It had already passed closing time, and two more men who were also good enough to order him something were forced to drink it themselves.
‘Funny bloody story he was trying to spin us,’ one of them said, ‘about killing somebody in Robins Wood.’
‘Couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I’ve known him years, and he wouldn’t hurt a fly. A bit senile, I suppose. Come on, get that turps down your throat, then we’ll drive him back to his missis in Beaconsfield Terrace.’
Nevill thought he would have a word or two if ever he met Jack Clifford again about the secret he’d foisted on him but which nobody else had taken notice of when he let it out in the boozer. Not that he had much of a wait before discovering whether or not he’d see old Jack. Nobody was surprised when old Amy found him dead one morning, sitting fully dressed by the fireplace. Having heard about his dancing on the table in the pub, the neighbours had supposed – as they said at the funeral – that it couldn’t be long after that.
In the ten minutes or so while Ken dealt with his large white mug of tea he didn’t take his hand from the handle once, not even when the mug was resting before him on the table as if, Tony thought, he was frightened of somebody coming in and snatching it away.
‘I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t even think.’ Ken’s voice sounded vacant and forlorn. Though not aware of pitying himself it was beginning to get through that you only lived once. He’d always known – and who didn’t? – but regarded the fact as not worth bothering about. The green progress of summer made it more insistent however, as also did the discouraging fact that he had lost his job at the factory.
Thin rain fell noiselessly into the backyard beyond the window. In work you could choose your friends, but out of it you couldn’t, so he had come to see his brother, and he didn’t know why, because they had never felt much sympathy for each other. He didn’t expect any help. His problem was too big for that, and problems were always your own, but he had just wanted to say hello. The only time he looked away from his tea was to glance at his own polished boots, which unaccountably made him put his hand to his throat and realise he wore no tie.
‘I don’t know what you can do.’ Tony stood. It was his dinner time, and soon he would have to get back to work rewiring the canteen of a local small factory. Ken wanted something, and Tony didn’t like to think so because he wasn’t sure what. He’d never seemed much in contact with the world, our Ken hadn’t, and Tony recalled their father saying about him that he was just bright enough to realise he wasn’t all there.
Ken had never understood how they could be brothers, being so physically different. He was tall and lean, with a moustache, and almost bald (or so it had seemed in the mirror that morning) but Tony was short and stout and round faced. Eyes almost closed and a wide smile showed he was thinking of something funny, but he was too tight-arsed to share the joke with anybody else, certainly not with his brother. Only when they looked each other square in the eye did they know they came from the same family.
Ken took a final swig at his tea. ‘Well, I didn’t come here to ask for anything. I suppose we ought to meet now and again, though. We’re brothers, after all.’
Tony had to agree. ‘That’s true enough,’ but as if he’d also been wondering what they had in common. Behind him was a big colour television, and half a dozen shelves of video films arranged in the recess like books in a library.
Ken lit a cigarette, and leaned back in his chair. If Tony wanted him to go, let him say so. ‘The gaffer gave me five hundred quid when he laid me off, so I don’t suppose I can grumble.’
‘That’s the trouble, working for a boss,’ Tony said, puffing his thin little cigar. ‘Sooner or later you get the push.’ He told the familiar tale of how, on coming out of the army, he put a card in his front window saying: ANYTHING REPAIRED. ‘I couldn’t lose. If it was a wireless, you knew nine times out of ten it was summat to do with a plug or a loose connection, or a dud valve. Wirelesses was easy, in them days. If it was a watch or clock it was either a bit of dust in the works, or it wanted winding up. Or one hand was so close to another it stopped both from moving. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know a watch wants winding up. Or they didn’t then anyway. The same with most things.
‘I’d sometimes get called out only to mend a fuse. And if it was owt more complicated I’d tek it to a place in town, and charge the customer a commission. You can always mek a bob or two in this world. After a while there wasn’t much I couldn’t fix in the electrical line: vacuum cleaners, fridges, televisions. Then I moved out of the front room, and rented my own workshop. Took on another bloke to help. Got my own firm going in no time.’
The most successful cowboy in the business, Ken thought, but now he knew so much he wasn’t a cowboy any longer. Last year he went to Benidorm, and this year he was taking Molly to Greece. ‘I like to go abroad now and again,’ Tony went on. ‘Got a taste for it in the army, after my year in Germany. Anyway,’ he winked, ‘I like to see all them topless girls dodging about with a volley ball!’
Ken didn’t begrudge him any of that. Nor did he really mind being out of work. He was nearly fifty, anyway, and would get the dole. He didn’t suppose he could be thrown out of his flat, though sometimes he wouldn’t mind, seeing as how far above the ground it was. Then there was the noise from neighbours, and it got damp when rain blew horizontal from Derbyshire.
All his life he had gone from one job to another because there were plenty to be had and none had seemed good enough. He’d got on well with most gaffers, though, working hard because he liked doing the best he could, and because time went quicker that way. When he realised that even doing the best bored him he opted for another job. Nor did the gaffers want him to leave, but what changes they offered to make him stay had never seemed interesting enough.
When they sat in the armchairs Molly came in with the after dinner cup of tea, and Ken was surprised to see one for him. He remembered her being as ripe as a plum and very good looking, but now she was a dowdy little woman with a few teeth missing. She apologised and said she’d broken her plate that morning, and Ken was surprised that Tony hadn’t been able to fix it. He didn’t say so, but
At election times Tony put a Conservative poster in his window, not a big one, only a label really, and Ken wondered what his brother had to conserve. He was the opposite, but didn’t put anything in his window. If he did only the birds would see it as they swooped by, because it was ten floors up, one of the high-rise hencoops nobody liked living in.
‘I expect you’ll have to sell your car,’ Tony said, putting three spoons of sugar in his tea. ‘Won’t you?’
He sounded as if he would enjoy seeing him do it, so Ken laughed. ‘I’ll be lucky if I get enough to buy a pushbike, and even then it’d be secondhand. I only gen fifty quid for my old banger, and it’s bin more trouble than it’s worth. You’re right, though. I shan’t be able to afford the tax and insurance.’
‘Cut your coat according to your cloth,’ Tony said.
‘That’s my motto – allus has been.’
Ken had done that all his life anyway, because he’d had to. That was the sort of family they came from, with six kids altogether, and their father earning just enough as a shop assistant at the Coop to keep them alive. But the more cloth Tony got, as it were, the more he put into the bank, though he was no miser when it came to holidays and a bit of enjoyment. Apart from the van he had a new Cavalier, which he kept locked in a garage off Alfreton Road for fear somebody would set fire to it in a riot, or drive it away and push it in the Trent for a bit of fun when they’d finished, which could always happen these days. Black or white, the boggers stopped at nothing. Ken stood at his window once and saw some lads down below looking at his car. One of them shook his head, and they went away laughing, to look for a better one.
Too much time was going by, and the ash from Ken’s fag fell onto the carpet. Tony noticed: ‘I don’t think it’d suit me, being without a job.’
‘I’m out every day looking for one,’ Ken said, ‘don’t worry about that.’ Not that he would worry. But he’d been turned down at half a dozen places already because of his age, he supposed, so he might not bother anymore, though if he did he wouldn’t go to the job centre and apply through them.
Tony with a wider grin suggested that if his brother didn’t stick his nose into their office every day and get that bit of paper, and go out to try for a designated job, he wouldn’t go on being eligible for the dole. Maybe that’s how far he would fall, then he wouldn’t care anymore, knowing – as their mother always used to say – that you couldn’t fall off the dogshelf. Then he might plonk himself on to me, Tony thought, either to borrow something, or to cadge a bed for a few nights when he was slung out onto the street.
The street had altered during the stay at his brother’s house. Tarmac and pavements turned into silk and every car was washed clean, even his own as he stooped inside and twisted the key. More often than not it started first time now that his job had gone west.
He had to go home and change the budgerigar’s water, and smiled at the thought that that was all he had to do. In one way he fancied being out of work, or would if he had enough money to keep him halfway happy.
He raised his foot from the accelerator and flashed a bus out of its stopping place. A gentleman of leisure, that’s what I’ll be. Shooting along the boulevard by the supermarket and hosiery factory, he turned left at the traffic lights. I’ve done my stint since I was fifteen, so somebody else can have a go on the treadmill. He was a bit slow at getting away, and a souped-up white van to his right set a horn screaming that almost blew him out of his seat, followed by a bawled curse as it leapt forward.
What was the hurry? They’ll get to the coffin soon enough. It parked only a couple of hundred yards ahead, and the driver, a shaven-headed bully with an earring, ran into a shop with a parcel under his arm.
Maybe he had a girlfriend there, though it seemed as if everybody in the world had an irritable form of St Vitus flu, people either half doped, or in a rage to set on each other and do murder at the slightest provocation.
He used to amuse himself imagining how an unstoppable civil war might begin: late on Saturday night a man, well satisfied with his evening’s boozing, and all set for home, stood on a pub step for a moment to clear his throat. Someone in the dark nearby thought his sound was the beginning of some sneering remark aimed at him, so clocked him one. At the noise of the fight people came out of the pub, and joined in for the fun of it. It turned into such a set-to that the police were called, and the riot spread over the whole area. When TV cameras were set going the people started throwing petrol bombs, just to give the crews better footage, and those seeing it on their screens in other towns sent their streets up in flames as well. Finally they had to bring in the army to mow the boggers down.
In a way he liked the picture, but while parking hoped that one day everybody would be cured of their madness and be able to live and let live with each other. That’d be the day, he thought, sorting out the four keys to get into his flat as if it was Fort Knox. He didn’t see why not, and hope never did anybody any harm.
A ladder leaned across the pavement and Ken wondered about the old-fashioned saying which told you never to walk under one because it brought bad luck. Surely such notions are now forgotten or no longer believed in. But no, during his time standing there to take out a fag, strike the match and light it, three people avoided the ladder by walking out on to the road, all of them a lot younger than him. He did the same, and went on his way up to the Castle.
He’d struck lucky, and got two hundred quid for the car, from somebody who was into vintage makes. It wasn’t that old, but would be in a year or two. He’d be vintage as well soon enough, though doubted whether anybody would pay as much for him. Even he would think twice about giving more than a bob or two.
On the other hand he knew himself to be priceless, getting up to the Castle top without too much heavy breathing, and walking along the parapet which used to be known, and probably still was, as Suicide’s Leap. At least the air’s good up here. Used to be all smoke, and now it’s clear as far as the hills – and the power station. One time you heard the noise of mayhem from the scruffy houses of the Meadows, and the grunt of trucks, but today it was muted except for motor traffic on the road at the bottom of the sandstone escarpment.
The way to the bottom was long, and the body would bounce forever before hitting the railings. A few bushes growing out from the stones might stop your fall, as if to brush the dust off your coat so that you would be tidy before strolling into heaven – though it might be Hell for doing something like that.
The body would spin a bit, it was bound to, and you wouldn’t end up tidy at all. If you chucked yourself off on the q.t. – and funnily enough there wasn’t anybody about at the moment on the long wide terrace – the only witnesses would be the birds, who wouldn’t be surprised because they’d seen a lot of people doing it over the years. ‘Another bloody fool,’ they’d say. ‘Christ! Just look at him’ – then go on whistling.
After the final wicked thump, which he could hardly bear to think about, he knew there would be no bloody Heaven or Hell for him, just blackness. Having imagined the smash so vividly, almost with real pain, he felt as if he had done it, and thought that would have to satisfy him till death came for real from he didn’t know where.
A loop of approving wind spun from behind a corner of the stark Castle, and he buttoned his coat against it. Loving his life, whether joyless or not, he lit a fag and walked smiling down into the town for his morning cup of coffee. Then he would buy a paper and go home to read, and feed the bird, which had always seemed happy enough in its cage.
And maybe somewhere at the back end of th
But they don’t print things like that, do they, then, my pretty little budgie? Tut-tut-tut – come on, and get this lovely birdseed in my hand. There, I knew you would. Tastes like the best steak to you, don’t it? What nice smooth feathers you’ve got. I wish I had a coat like yourn. That’s right, eat your fill.
After I’ve fried myself an egg I’ll close all the windows and let you out of your cage for half an hour. You’ll like that, won’t you? Brothers, did I hear you say? Don’t talk to me about brothers.
The usual yew tree stood umbrageously in the churchyard, in an area of green and among the gravestones. ‘There’s always a yew tree,’ Stephen said knowingly, leaning against the wall where they had parked the car. ‘Always has been. The archers cut their longbows and arrows from them. For the price of tuppence they did for the French chivalry at Crécy and Agincourt. That very tree, I wouldn’t be surprised.’
His reservoir of general knowledge was remarkable, Sarah thought, for a man under forty who had just retired from the frantic life of a whiz-kid on Throgneedle Street. She wasn’t sure they were doing the right thing, but anyway he was dead set on getting out of London and taking up the life of a country gentleman. For some reason he had pinpointed this village, saying he would live here and nowhere else, only there wasn’t a house for sale, and all the neighbouring agents said so. He had badgered them for weeks but, look as he could, there was no place to be had.
It had been hard to park because of a funeral. Mourners came out of the church and followed a trolley, which looked as if it could hardly support the weight, to a graveside beyond the yew tree, where lips of earth indicated the hole. ‘I expect it’s a local who lived to be ninety,’ he said, ‘but let’s go and see what we can find out.’
New and Collected Stories by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes