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New and collected storie.., p.72
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       New and Collected Stories, p.72

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  ‘I’ll get the umbrella from the car,’ she said. ‘I think it’s going to rain.’

  ‘It usually does at a funeral.’ He unlatched the gate and, walking up the steps, slipped forward on the asphalt, but managed to right himself before a nasty crash. They stood behind the line of half a dozen people, in time to hear the vicar, or whatever he was, in a white surplice, intoning his ashes to ashes and dust to dust piece. When they saw the widow Sarah nudged him in the ribs: ‘Surprisingly young for the wife of a ninety-year-old, don’t you think?’ The black draped woman took a lump of soil from a proffered spade and let it fall, with copious tears, onto the box.

  Sarah always admired the way Stephen was able to begin a friendly conversation, often in the most unlikely conditions, and supposed that to be why women found him so compelling. She had seen him go up to someone at a party he hadn’t seen before, and in minutes the head would be bending forward to hear more, whoever it belonged to laughing at whatever line he was putting over. To her, only his wife for ten years, he spoke little, and in the morning was never in a mood less than dangerous if you happened to speak yourself, more especially if he’d had something to drink the night before, or come in so late from the office that he had been seeing a girlfriend and couldn’t tolerate waking back into the deadly reality of marriage.

  If they did live out here he would be free of the fleshpots and temptations of London. Her few friends spoke up against leaving the flat in Maida Vale, so it was doubtful they’d ever call to see her in this remote place. As for having to give up the gym, she supposed country living would throw up enough activity to take its place.

  He talked to the man next to them: ‘I’m awfully sorry. Was he your brother?’

  The man’s laugh caused other people to look in his direction, but it was more as if amused by the increase of rain than at the demise of someone else. ‘Good Lord, no. My brother-in-law. My sister’s husband is a term I like better’ – from which they deduced that he hadn’t been much liked, and she knew Stephen very much wanted to find out why. The rest of the mourners dispersed, cars already starting to move. Stephen introduced himself formally, and the man said his name was Larry. ‘Did he live in the village?’

  ‘They did, but my sister won’t be staying here much longer. She has no good memories of the place. Can’t stand it, in fact.’

  ‘Yes, I can imagine.’

  The man laughed again. ‘Oh no you can’t. She had one hell of a life with him, and wants to put as much of it behind her as soon as she can.’

  ‘What did he die from, then?’

  He took out a tin of Gold Block and filled his pipe, as if needing to calm himself at such talk. ‘Car crash. What else? That 303 gets like a battlefield at times. They reckon it was about two in the morning. Nobody saw it. The police thought he must have nodded off at the wheel, but my view is that some husband he had cuckolded drove him off the road. He was that sort of chap. My sister doesn’t know how lucky she is. He didn’t take two years to die, nor get sent home in a plastic bag. But she thinks he’ll probably come back to haunt her if she stays in this village. He was always in and out of women’s beds, so you could say he had it coming to him. Anyway. I must look to my sister. She’s had a blow, all the same. Nice meeting you.’

  ‘Where is her house?’

  ‘Oh, just down the road from the pub, on the right. Stands on its own. You can’t miss it. A long house, hamstone, plenty of ivy.’

  They left the car, rather than move it a few hundred yards, and could just see the house from the pub window while eating their lunch. ‘It’s exactly the thing.’ He chomped at the beef on his large plate – with all the trimmings. ‘I’ll be there as soon as it comes on the market. It’s a beauty.’

  She ate her cheese and baked potato, pleased at his smile.

  ‘It’s almost too good to be true.’

  ‘Things sometimes are. But I’ll be down again in a week, to knock on the door, and ask to see the place.’

  Three months later they moved in, pantechnicons – they needed two – leaving just room for cars to get by on the village street. Stephen in his joy couldn’t resist helping the men to shift furniture onto the pavement, while Sarah in the house busied herself telling them where to put things, and making pots of tea whenever Stephen gave the hint. The men were quick in their work, too much so, for they dropped a container of her best china, laughing that they would get it back on the insurance – not a good omen, she thought.

  She had never known him so happy, yet felt that something wasn’t quite right with the place. Certainly it was perfect for him, she could see that, with its neat beams and inglenooks, ivy at the door, a large and splendid living room, and a top floor studio to hide himself away in and call it work, and apple trees in the garden. Nothing more that either could want, they would even have a bedroom each, yet an aura lurked about the place which disturbed her, though not apparent to him as he whistled and sang and then, when the removal men indicated that they could do the work themselves, wandered around the house and garden, almost gloating at what he had come into. It was the first house they’d had, and not a thing needed doing to it on moving in.

  His joy continued after the men had gone, when he went upstairs to unpack the boxes containing his books and computers. She stood at the Aga cooking their first meal there as if someone were looking over her shoulder. She wondered why the dead man’s wife had put herself through such an uprooting to get away from the place when her husband hadn’t even died there. The village had shop, pub, post office and a filling station on the outskirts, and from what she’d heard, the women had gone to live in a hamlet only ten miles away, which had none of these.

  ‘I like the meat rare.’

  ‘What?’

  Raindrops spattered the window, and she shivered. She went to the foot of the stairs, spatula in hand. ‘Darling!’

  He sounded annoyed at being disturbed. ‘Yes?’

  ‘Did you speak?’

  ‘Only to myself, I expect.’

  The day had been long, almost like three days, coming from the London flat after handing keys and best wishes to the new tenants, then the three-hour drive, and all the bother of seeing things put in their right place. She felt utterly wrung out, so exhausted as to be hearing things. But she could have sworn somebody had spoken, so distinctly he must have been right behind her. She’d even felt breath on her neck.

  ‘I’m not sure I like this house,’ she said when they were eating, a bottle of Bordeaux open before then.

  ‘That’s a right bloody helpful thing to come out with when we’ve just moved in.’ His elevated moods were easily punctured. Normally she would think before speaking, but maybe the first glass of wine, with immediate effect because she was so tired, had betrayed her. He broke the sullen silence: ‘And why aren’t you sure?’

  ‘There’s something – well – spooky about it.’

  He finished his second glass. ‘Oh my God! You – to say a thing like that.’

  ‘I thought someone talked to me while you were upstairs.’

  ‘Well, I didn’t hear anything. Nobody spoke to me. It must have been someone passing the house. The window’s open, so you’d easily hear conversation from outside.’

  She laughed at such an obvious explanation. ‘I suppose you’re right. Glad to know I’m not going out of my mind just yet.’

  ‘That’ll be the day.’ It was the beginning of September, darkness already coming earlier than she liked. ‘I’ll pick up those drops from the lawn tomorrow. Some of them are Bramleys, and I’ll make a pie.’

  They usually slept in separate rooms, but he wanted her in his bed on the first night. She was put off by noises in the attic, as if a squirrel was loose, or a pigeon had found a way in or, at times, someone was drumming impatiently with their fingers. Waiting for us to finish, she thought.

  ‘I’ll go up there in the morning, and if I see any sign I’ll put traps down. A dab of Somerset brie on each one should tempt the little devils
to their doom.’ She didn’t know whether he had heard it as well, or was only trying to calm her. Either way, she didn’t like it, and had to fake her pleasure.

  There was so much to do in the next few weeks, arranging the furniture, stacking shelves in the kitchen, dusting and sweeping, filling the wardrobes with clothes, and cupboards with bedding, that they took little note of life in the village, only too glad to fall into a dead sleep in their separate bedrooms at night.

  But Sarah’s sleep was far from dead. First there were the dreams – nightmares, more like – which she couldn’t tell Stephen about. He might be upset, though he was looking less happy the longer they were in the house, a further reason not to tell him. Her dreams were like a full theatre, with lights, noise and human movement. A face which she thought she had seen before kept appearing in the glare. Much of her day was taken up trying to place it, Stephen often accusing her of not paying attention to what he was saying. The face was that of a man in early middle age, in full vigour, eternally persuading her to come with him, his expression one of promise and charm, as if to lead her to a state of endless pleasure. But he always spoiled it by waving her away when she had made up her mind to follow, implying that he would come to her, and when he did she turned to see streaks of blood on his distorted face.

  One morning Stephen said: ‘I seem to be going through a spate of the most peculiar dreams.’

  ‘Oh, do you?’ she said brightly, pressing the coffee grinder which made such a noise that she wouldn’t have to hear what he had to say for twenty seconds.

  ‘I dream I go outside to the car,’ he said, ‘and all four tyres are flat, and there’s this dread that I have to get in and drive away to save my life or yours. Another time the whole windscreen’s gone, and the car’s covered in dust and cobwebs, as if they hadn’t been used for years. Then again I was driving along the dual carriageway and the car went out of control. I expect it’ll pass. Sounds as if I’m afraid of going impotent.’ He kissed her. ‘No sign of it, though.’

  She poured water into the pot. ‘I should say not,’ but she didn’t tell him about the laughter she heard when they were making love. Maybe it wasn’t fair not to tell him her own dreams, but it would be too ludicrous to do so, like someone saying: ‘I’ve got cancer,’ and the person replying: ‘How strange! I have it as well.’ Not the thing to get into at all.

  The fact was that they were here, and you had to press on with your life. Nothing could go on forever, either good or bad. If things got better you were lucky, and if they became worse that was only a sign for them to improve, in any case. She would like to think so, and could when the dreams hadn’t bothered her for a week, in which case where had he gone, and why? The possibility that she might be missing his attentions now seemed worse than the dream itself.

  Stephen said to her one morning, after coming in from mowing the lawn and cutting the jungle back: ‘There are times when I think of getting out of here.’ She wanted to say: ‘You’re right. We must. It’s not good for either of us,’ but a vision from her wayward dream, of the man so charming and persuasive, showed with a finger to his lips for silence, and she obeyed. Even worse, feeling a joyful lightheadedness, she said: ‘But why? We’re just about settled in. And we’ve done so much work to make the place comfortable.’

  He sat down and peeled an apple, giving half to her. ‘I’m so glad you feel that way. We’ll stay, then. It was only an aberration.’

  She hoped so, yet didn’t think it could be. He’d heard something she hadn’t, or maybe even seen something, therefore she ought to know about it, but had stupidly put him off from explaining, and couldn’t now reopen a wound he’d been too glad to close.

  With a sink in her bedroom she didn’t need to use the bathroom to do her teeth. A light above the glass showed her drawn features: she had certainly lost some pounds in the last few months, which she was pleased about, though not at the scheming yet frightened expression in the eyes that looked back, which also showed the man standing behind her, and she decided to carry on as if he wasn’t there, though knowing that it was the request on his face that forced her to keep looking at him and not shout for Stephen, as if her life depended on it even more than did his.

  Her cold body thawed and became warm, as a grey wraith hardly visible came around and touched her breast, the sensation as if done by a real but gentle hand which knew exactly the pressure to exert, then withdrew at the same moment as the face disappeared like a light out of her life. A last glance at herself before getting into bed showed flushed cheeks, and an avid glint in the eyes which denied her exhaustion.

  A few nights later, when it began, she put a dot with a circle round it in her handbag diary, in pencil and not easy to see. Reading in bed, her habit before going to sleep, she found the pages increasingly difficult to turn, and looked to see if anything was sticking them together, though nothing was apparent. She smiled at taking it for a sign of lights out, no disagreeing about that, put the book down, settled the pillows, and drew the sheet up to her neck, feeling for the switch.

  The blackness was complete, also the silence. In London, no matter where you were, there was always the distant roar of traffic, but here, except for a late car going through the village, it was bliss. Blackness and nothingness should have been perfect for being pulled into oblivion, yet it rarely was. Those nights she got to sleep easily provided the weirdest and thickest of dreams.

  She was on the way, when someone tugged at her sheet, no mistake, wanting to get into bed, and it could only be Stephen, though she must have been nearer to sleep than she thought because there had been no noise of an opening door. ‘Oh, leave me alone tonight,’ she said. ‘I’m too tired.’ No one was there, but she was caressed as in a dream come to life, unable to resist until drawn into a sleep without visions.

  The awakening was better than for weeks, even months. All day the sensation lasted, and in the evening she suggested as a treat, mainly for Stephen, that they drive five miles to the local town and eat at the Red Lion.

  ‘I don’t know why it is,’ he said, ‘But I’m nervous about getting in the car these days. It’s as if I’ve had an accident recently, and scared of being at the wheel again. I can’t explain it more than that.’

  Well, she thought, you’ll damned well have to get used to it, because we’re living in the country, and if you don’t you’re stuck. ‘Then I’ll drive,’ she said. ‘No problem,’ a response which surprised him, because she hadn’t really asked what the problem might be. She didn’t say it, but he probably intercepted her words. Any such thing was likely in this house.

  ‘No, it’s nonsense,’ he said. ‘I’ll drive, of course, but I want to go in on my own, and get a very elaborate takeaway from the Indian restaurant. The old Tandoori’s supposed to be excellent. You can set out the candles in the dining room while I’m gone. I’ll get everything going that looks good.’

  ‘And all the trimmings?’ she said archly.

  ‘You bet.’ The gleam in his eyes showed his distrust of everyone, but especially her, she thought, though he tried to show that she wasn’t included in it. She kissed him. ‘I can’t wait, so don’t be long.’

  He was longer than she thought, though half expecting he would be. Whoever or whatever had got into her bed last night had left her so excited it would never do to mention the phenomenon to Stephen. She knew she ought, but if she did maybe the visitations would stop, and not only that but perhaps it would disturb Stephen enough for him to have his dream of country living blasted sufficiently to give the whole experiment up and move back to Town, and she didn’t want to do that to him.

  Even now, alone in the house, Ralph, as she called him, was with her. She felt the familiar draught as he came to look over her shoulder while she was reading her book, as if taking in the lines slightly quicker and wanting her to turn the pages before she was ready. But she held back, unwilling to let him have it all his own way, thought he was so tangibly present that it became hard to concentrate. Then he left
her, so abruptly that it was impossible to know why. For a while she felt bereft, as if betrayed, irritated at the emptiness of the house, for he had gone right away from it she was sure, as if called out on an urgent errand.

  She felt sweat on her forehead, and reached for a paper towel, but the skin was dry, and she wondered if she weren’t going a shade crazy in wanting him back, the sudden absence of someone she was used to now painful to her. She stood to light a cigarette, which she hadn’t done since coming to the place, but luckily Stephen always kept a few packets scattered around, having started again recently.

  To the town and back shouldn’t take more than an hour, even if he had to wait, which you invariably did at a takeaway. She put plates in the oven on low, then heard the car stop quickly, and a violent bang of the door as he got out. She’d put the porch light on to guide him in, and went to help with his boxes, but he almost knocked her down as he came to the door, took her by the waist, and pulled her back into the kitchen. She had never seen such a look of fright on anybody’s face: ‘What is it?’

  ‘I wish I knew. But I’m sure somebody tried to kill me, and I can’t think why. On the way back something dark and grey seemed to sit on the windscreen. I couldn’t see a thing, whatever it was, so put on the brakes. I skidded and grazed a bank, then nearly hit another car that came around the bend with lights blazing. Then whatever it was cleared off. At first I thought it was a person, then I wasn’t sure.’

  ‘It could have been a freak mist. You get them sometimes.’

  ‘I’d like to think so.’ He paused, and stared across the room as if seeing it again while – and she couldn’t help such a banal thought coming to mind – the boxed food in the car was getting cold. ‘But I don’t. I can’t,’ he added. ‘It came only for me, like a panther, dark grey, jumping across.’

  ‘It was one of those things,’ she said, ‘Accidental. Best not to imagine it was anything else. How could it have been? We live in the real world, after all.’

 
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