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New and collected storie.., p.73
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       New and Collected Stories, p.73

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  He looked at her, unbelieving, while she opened the cupboard and took out a bottle of Jameson’s, and poured a good measure for him and a smaller one for herself. ‘Let’s have a drink. Then we’ll get the food and pop it in the oven for a few minutes. I’m starving, so you must be as well.’

  ‘All right. Nothing else to do.’ He gulped the fiery liquid.

  ‘But I got a fright, let me tell you,’ wondering at her divine calmness about the matter, appreciating it all the same, because it wouldn’t do for two people to get locked into whatever it was.

  Stephen fitted well into the life of the village, and bully for them they made it easy, for he went twice a week to the pub and always came home saying what a good and interesting couple of hours he’d had. They talked gardening, he told her, and sport, agricultural matters, and dispensed local happenings of the past, and any present peculiarities. Someone talked him into exhibiting vegetables at the annual village show, and he got second prize for a huge cabbage, which pleased him in a way she never thought such an accomplishment would. There was even talk about coopting him onto the village council, though since the incident in the car the glamour had gone out of the possibility, in that he had stopped talking about it.

  She saw this so clearly that she was sorry for him not being able to fight what was troubling him, or not having the greater courage by somehow giving into it, as she had done, fighting it if he had to, enduring it at least. ‘I want to stay,’ she said, when he spoke of leaving. ‘I’m just about getting used to country life. I never thought I would. But it suits me now. I’ve slowed down. I’ve forgotten London.’

  He went out in the car as rarely as he could get away with, letting her drive when something was needed from the little supermarket in the town. Hitherto not liking to be much at the wheel, she now enjoyed it, exploring the lacework pattern of narrow lanes till getting to know all the short cuts of the area, discovering wayside shops and farms which were good for organic supplies, where to pull in for the best honey, or free-range chickens, the best village for its butcher, or what town had the most elaborate deli. And she was always conscious of her shadowy lover hovering either beside her or on the back seat, giving indications on sharp bends or dangerous corners, and on straight stretches muttering phrases of love and adoration into her ears, and promising to display further expertise during the coming night.

  ‘You’ve forgotten London,’ Stephen said angrily. ‘But I haven’t. All I know is that we were happy there, even though I did agitate to move down here. I only remember how idyllic it was between you and me, looking back on it.’

  ‘It’s amazing how things change,’ she said.

  ‘Or how you do. Or they seem to have. That’s what foxes me. I thought you’d jump at the chance of living in London again. It was hard enough getting you out here, God knows.’

  ‘I’m used to it now.’

  ‘Yes, but used to what?’

  ‘I just can’t chop and change.’

  ‘Nor can I. But I have to get away. There’s something weird going on in this house.’

  The laugh surprised even her, a shock at its tone which seemed to search out every corner of the large living room for refuse, ringing from beam to beam, from inglenook to window seat. The flames in the fireplace danced at the prolonged sound.

  He was deep in the armchair, then she was on the floor, the laughter following her from the blow at her head. He was standing over her. ‘Never laugh like that again.’ His hands shook, as if he hadn’t finished, so close to killing her.

  ‘Never, you understand?’

  He had some justification, but she gloated at his loss of self-control, until the pain began burning in her cheek. He’d never hit her before, and she felt the glowering disapproval of her lover. More than that, a desire for vengeance. ‘That’s the last time you hit me,’ she called in her rage.

  ‘You asked for it.’ He slumped back into a despair she had no pity for. ‘I’m sorry, though. I don’t know what got at me. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t me.’

  ‘It god-damned well was,’ she cried. ‘The last time. You understand?’

  Close to tears, he went from the room, leaving her to straighten up the small table knocked over in her fall, and set the lamp straight.

  During lunch, having again worn himself out in the garden, he told her he was going to London in the morning. He’d seen an advertisement for a large flat that would do for them, in Ealing. ‘I just want to see what it’s like. It’s in our price range, and we’ll have no trouble selling this place, even though it is haunted.’

  ‘Haunted?’ She crushed a laugh. ‘Who told you that?’

  ‘A bloke in the pub some days ago. He said he was joking afterwards, but it struck a chord in me. So what do you think about a move back to London?’

  She didn’t, not at all. ‘Well, if you have to, then I suppose that’s all right.’ The answer was too ready for her to think she would ever go. She liked it here, but let him think not, if he cared to.

  He set off at nine, midday-midweek for the best traffic conditions, so she had the day to herself, to enjoy the house, to do what she would, to eat when she liked, to take a bath in the afternoon, sit in the summerhouse and hope for sun, stroll to the end of the village and back – her best day in the house so far, because no one else was there – until she lay in the bath and the water rippled for no good reason that she could see. The indistinct cloud rolled over her, and liked what it saw, then left her to the pleasures of herself. She didn’t feel its presence for the rest of the day, as if it too wanted rest, or had something to do elsewhere.

  As evening came on she tidied the house, stowed yesterday’s newspaper into its place under the staircase, noticing the details of two flats circled with purple felt pen, the large one he said he was going to see, but also a studio flat at Notting Hill Gate, which she supposed he would call at as well, though why? She considered all the possibilities, nothing too outlandish or outrageous to go through her mind. Either he intended someday living alone, or he intended fixing up a place to put a girlfriend in. There was no other explanation.

  When he got back she would rail him about it, and though at the moment her thoughts lacked animosity, she would certainly get herself up to it when the time came. Maybe he hadn’t even gone to London at all, knowing she would check the newspaper, and accept that reason as an alibi. He said he would be back by dark, but it was dark already. She supposed he had gone carousing with some of his old friends from the finance place, all hugger-mugger at a pub in the city, or he was cavorting with one of his old flames – hard to say what put such thoughts into her mind.

  She sat before the living room fire with a plate of biscuits and cheese, and a cup of tea, happy not to have cooked a meal. Stephen always laid a fire on the morning after they had used one, so it was only necessary to hold a long match to the paper and sticks, and bring in a couple more logs to replace those she’d put on. She began to want her love, and wondered where he was, too much to be deprived of both.

  Unable to sit still, she walked out to the conservatory and watered the plants. If ever she lived here alone she would get a cat. She liked cats, so beautiful and unobtrusive. Hardly possible to have one in a flat, not fair to them, but here it would be perfect, and she didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of it before – though not a nice moment with Stephen on the road from London.

  Or was he? If he was staying overnight there was no point waiting up. It was gone ten and he should have phoned – if he wasn’t coming back. Maybe she would never hear from him again, a notion that intrigued more than alarmed. People vanish, she’d seen notices of missing persons in The Big Issue. Even these days it was possible. Perhaps I’ll bump into him on Waterloo Bridge in ten years time, burdened down with plastic bags full of rags and old newspapers. She laughed at the way her thoughts were going, the tone of her amusement recalling the evening he had hit her, and surely would again if he had heard this one. But he wasn’t here, and she could laugh as loud a
s she liked.

  She thought about what kind of cold supper would be tasteful enough to have ready when he came in, but after looking at television for an hour she saw it was after midnight, and wondered why he didn’t phone. In the armchair she must have fallen asleep, for it was almost one. Then she remembered he had a mobile in the car, so could have stopped in any layby and called, unless he was trying to punish her for something she didn’t know she’d done. Yet she had never found any malice in him, not to that extent at least, and while searching her memory for any she might have missed it occurred to her that she could phone him. The number was so long she had to look in her address book, never able to remember so many digits, but there it was, and she dialled. It was ringing.

  ‘It’s me,’ she said. ‘Who else did you expect?’

  His voice was stiff, and unreasonable. ‘No one. I’m on my way to my lovely little haunted house.’

  ‘What nonsense. Where are you?’

  ‘On the 303, where else? About halfway. I got caught up with a couple of old friends.’

  ‘Thought so. Oh, and did you like the big flat best, or the little one? Or both?’

  ‘I couldn’t face looking at either. Wobbled a bit there. I’ll get in the inner lane and slow down. Hard to drive while I’m talking. Anyway, I’m coming home to you. I still don’t like London.’

  ‘That’s all right, then,’ she said.

  He sounded little-boy bereft. ‘You don’t sound as if you’ll be glad to see me.’

  ‘Of course I will. What makes you think that?’

  ‘Oh, I don’t know. But thanks a lot.’

  ‘Love you, you know that.’ She tried to sound as if she did, and he seemed taken in. ‘Love you, too,’ he said, soft and low. Then a cry: ‘Oh, oh my God –’ Atmospherics were so loud they tickled her eardrums, and then silence.

  Something had happened, and she knew who had done it. She went to the cabinet to bolster herself with a double whisky for when the inevitable visit took place, as she knew it surely would, when a shade crossed her eyes as if to say that from now on all would be well.

  A jet fighter came low over the house, as they did three times a week, a carpet of sound laid across the fields and then pulled up as the plane sped on its way. ‘I only wish you could do something about them as well’, which persuaded her that nothing in the world ought to be regarded as serious if you wanted to survive in it. ‘Well, shall we go to bed now? You’ve earned it, and so, I suppose, have I. But you’ve taken a bloody liberty, thinking that’s what I wanted.’

  Maybe he was too tired from the work. What work? After she’d drunk her coffee he came back, as if to be with her when the police arrived, unobtrusive, half apologetic, sheepish, yet also self-satisfied, proud you might say, cocksure for certain. He was with her, but being with herself she still hoped to hear BMW tyres on the gravel outside the door. Near misses on the motorway happened all the time, though he ought to stop and say that he was all right.

  Two cars came, one with a blue light flashing. A male officer and a policewoman stood in the kitchen. ‘It must have been about one o’clock. No other vehicle was involved. For some reason or other he went out of control. Well, that’s our assumption. Another vehicle reported seeing him on his mobile, but didn’t give us his name. We got there soon enough, and pulled him out. Funny how he didn’t look much knocked about. But it was too late to do anything about it. It’s still a bit of a mystery, though, why he went off the road like that.

  She enjoyed the homely Somerset accent of the woman, while willing herself to go white in the face with shock at what was heard. In bed she was aware of being comforted in her grief, tears being quickly dried when the pillow should have been wet. She drifted down into paradisal dreams, into light from darkness, sleeping as if to wear off the exhaustion of years.

  On waking it was impossible to tell who, where or what she was, for a moment or two. For the next two weeks she became two people, one in the vaults of a painful anguish and then, at night on getting into bed, the mistress or victim – she was never to know which – of the shade who lay by her. Her sister at the funeral said she must sell the house, and get a flat in town, become her old self again, but Sarah turned the idea down: ‘Stephen wouldn’t want it. He loved the place.’

  ‘He didn’t the last time I spoke to him. He was getting to hate it,’ she said. ‘Some psychobabble about it being haunted. He sounded really disturbed, as if the whole thing was getting on his nerves. I don’t think I’ll ever get over him being killed like that. I was very fond of Stephen.’

  ‘It’s beginning to rain,’ Sarah said. ‘We’d better get everyone back to the house.’ And then out of it, she added to herself as they went down the sloping paved path, wanting to be alone with her love, who would stay with her for life.

  Spitfire

  The silver Supermarine Spitfire was of the finest quality steel, Donald knew, having worked at engineering firms most of his life. A jaunty and effective apparition in the damp November air, the plane seemed about to lift into the murk, its pilot to seek adventures unto death.

  Dates on the gravestone tallied with a brave man’s life. He hadn’t died in his cockpit but lived to be seventy-eight, so what better memorial to defy time and weather? A lot must have been paid to get the model lovingly chromed, an outline anybody should be able to recognise, being shown so often on television. He’d also read books about the Battle of Britain and, smoking a cigarette before setting the roses in front of Edith’s headstone, mused on the aircraft as if willing it to rev up and take off in a benefit performance for him alone.

  He’d heard you should be done with grieving after a year, but he couldn’t eliminate the good times they’d had in their married life, nor the awful months of Edith’s dying either. He stayed longer on his visits rather than less, sometimes for an hour or more, little enough on recollecting how tall and bonny she had been before getting cancer. He always came on Saturday, because saying hello again, and asking how she was, inspired him to carry on through the weekend.

  After twenty years of marriage she was surely still there in the flesh, often wanting to know why they were talking in a graveyard instead of being at home waiting for the kettle to boil, or why he wasn’t in the garden he had made so beautiful for when they first went into the house. His visits always seemed too short to get the best out of such memories, living alone so painful to the spirit, and no good for the body, and the fact that she was dead was hard to let go of, which was why his time by the grave did not diminish.

  No reason in any case why it should but, as if to take his mind from her, and shake off the painful turmoil – which she would not begrudge him – he wondered about the man who had flown the Spitfire in his youth, no comparison with his bit of National Service after the war. Such blokes as the pilot did five years or more, and many never came back. If they had the country might now have been a better place to live in.

  Whoever called at the Spitfire grave laid more exotic flowers than his could afford to be. He once purloined the head of an orchid to put between his daffodils, and give Edith a laugh. The person who brought such a resplendent bunch would hardly miss it.

  He liked to speculate on what emblem would adorn his grave when he died, should there be anyone to put it there. A micrometer, perhaps, or a spanner, which made him smile, because who would wonder about his life on seeing such common tools. Maybe the pilot, back from the war, had become a solicitor, or an engineer building bridges, or the managing director of a factory, though he must have known that nothing would be as exciting as doing aerobatics and having eight machine guns clattering away in the wings. You had to admire and envy him for having handled a plane like that.

  The laying of flowers done, he felt the damp, and buttoned his overcoat. The red flare of the poinsettias under the Spitfire headstone lit the sombre air, and he wanted to know who had placed them there, saying aloud to Edith, without worrying that a man four graves along the row would think him soft in the head: ‘I’l
l come on Sunday next week, so don’t be surprised at me leaving it till then.’

  ‘I’ll wait,’ giving the same old mischievous laugh, which had often been an indication that it was time for them to go to bed. ‘I know your game,’ she went on. ‘Getting nosy in your old age, are you?’

  He could go to the cemetery in the car, but didn’t want to lose the use of his legs, like so many who drove to the shops even though they were only a hundred yards from their door. He enjoyed the twenty-minute stroll back to his council house, crossing the main road and junking though the estate. The only other outing made with any purpose was to the small town library in midweek to change his books.

  On Saturday morning he was up and dressed before realising his decision to call at the grave on Sunday. But he couldn’t wait, the usual day too firm to be resisted. A change of routine might disturb Edith, so he would do it when more reconciled that she was only dust and mud and too long dead to speak to him anymore, if that time ever came, for he never stopped asking himself why her and not me, and knew he’d be done with mourning only when the question ceased to nag.

  She indicated, before dying, that he should get married again, but apart from the fact that he couldn’t see any woman wanting him, he thought the notion very cold indeed. ‘I never will,’ he told her.

  Unable to alter the mechanism of his action, he went on the same day through winter into summer, his puzzlement as to who put flowers on the Spitfire grave not a luxury to be thrown away. If there was any chance of meeting the person, he didn’t want to be seen tending Edith’s grave with flowers so much inferior. In summer he could cut a large bunch of white chrysanthemums, a swathe of marguerites, and a few orange and yellow dahlias from his garden.

  No need of an overcoat on the hot day coming up, though the dry summer did little good to the garden. He walked through the quiet Sunday streets with yesterday’s newspaper enveloping the long stalks of his flowers. A Jack Russell terrier ran from a gate and nearly got hit by what must have been the only car out at that time of morning. Curses gridlocked in the throat of its owner, Donald a few yards ahead amused at his language. A kick at the dog’s ribs and a wild yelp: ‘Gerrin, yer daft bleddy ha’porth! That’s the second time yer’ve done that.’

 
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