New and Collected Stories, p.74Alan Sillitoe
He wandered across the main road without waiting for the lights to change, another reason for going on Sunday, which he should have done from the beginning. Being so early meant a few extra words with Edith, till several families came into the cemetery, changing flowers, talking loudly, even laughing on their day out with the dead, so many he waited at the tap to fill his vases, wanting to get his prime duty done then give his mind to whoever would come to the Spitfire grave.
Luckily the weather was pleasant, and there were sandwiches in his pocket in case the wait was long. He was hungry but didn’t want to be caught with a mouth full of bread and cheese. On the other hand he had to eat sooner or later. A flask of tea recalled that whenever he and Edith went any distance in the car they always packed sandwiches and took the big thermos, not caring to stop at a service station and get stomach cramps. Your own food and tea tasted better than whatever you could get on the road, as well as saving money. ‘Well, I always said that, didn’t I?’ She reminded him, though her voice seemed less clear these days.
The sandwich went in a few appetising bites, washed down a treat by hot sugarless tea. The Spitfire grave couldn’t have been much attended to for a fortnight, so maybe whoever it was had gone on holiday. Somebody like that might have a house in France and spend the summer there. Lucky for them. He couldn’t go away, even if he had the money, having to be at Edith’s grave every week. Not grieving so much was one thing, but he would have to bring flowers now and again.
Birds entertained you with their song, so much green in a graveyard to attract them, but by late afternoon he was the only person left, and knew it was time to go.
A pulsing at his temples told him that, late as it was, the woman who came though the gate was on her way to the Spitfire grave, not only because of the flowers but from the way she looked in its direction, and walked in a straight line rather than use the paths.
He knelt, hoping that Edith had told him in no uncertain terms to arrange the flowers again, sly looks at the woman a few feet away. She was about sixty, with the palest of faces, and a band of grey hair across her forehead, the pallid sort of skin that went with dark eyes and a slender figure. He didn’t doubt that she was the wife, though a good few years younger than the pilot.
She laid down the flowers, taking her time, then stood upright to touch the Spitfire, curling her fingers around the neck, and running them along the body to the tail. A steely rim on high white clouds glistened like the metal of the plane. There was something of a puzzle about her smile as she lifted a hand in the air as if to let the plane go free, or to hear what he inside had been saving to tell her.
You always looked for tears in a cemetery, but she had none, attended to the business of dividing the flowers into two heaps. She took a pair of shears from a basket to cut grass that grew wild when left too long in summer, a waterproof sheet under her knees, the clip-clip above other people’s noise.
‘The grass grows too fast,’ he called.
She smiled, her accent not quite local. ‘I’ve never known it not to. I was on holiday last week.’
‘Did you go abroad?’
‘No,’ she said, as if it was beyond her too.
‘Do you have a long way to come every Sunday?’
‘From Carlton.’ She saw this tall man, who stood erect to talk, with his thatch of short half-grey hair, looking about fifty, though he could, she thought, be a bit older.
‘That’s a good few miles.’
‘Five or six,’ she said. ‘We did live around here, but I left after he died. I wanted to change my environment. It’s no use grieving too long.’
He offered a cigarette, surprised that she took it, leaning forward to a light so that he caught a whiff of her perfume. ‘You come here often enough,’ he said. ‘I always see your flowers.’
Her laugh was throaty and genuine. ‘No too often. My daughter comes sometimes. She thought the world of him. But it looks like rain, so I’d better be getting on.’
He turned to sort out his flowers again, and on looking up she was halfway to the gate, her coat flapping open. She couldn’t have thought much of the pilot, otherwise why had she gone to live somewhere else? It only occurred to him when he was halfway home that he hadn’t asked about the model aeroplane.
Sitting in the kitchen with the light on after dark, a moth came through the open window, did a dance around his large fist by the cup of coffee. When it settled he watched its whiskers, and brown sweptback wings, a sinister little bomber quite unlike the silver grace of the Spitfire, but he felt consoled by its company for a while until, not wanting to damage it, he cupped it in his hand, a fluttering against the flesh of his palm, and watched it fly away as he closed the window.
Next time he asked straightaway about the Spitfire. ‘He must have had quite a time, flying one of those.’
‘You might think so.’ She took the old flowers, which he considered still fresh enough to decorate Edith’s grave, and dumped them on a heap by the tap. He followed with her jars as well his own.
‘Do you want these filled up?’
‘You’ve saved me a journey. Yes, both of them.’
Plenty of time, he took them back, Edith no doubt smiling to herself under the soil. Well, there was no harm in helping somebody.
The lilies were so long she took scissors from her bag and clipped a few inches from each. ‘I shan’t be doing this too much from now on. A year’s enough, don’t you think?’
‘You mean you won’t come anymore?’
‘I expect I shall, but not so often.’
He looked at the plane, securely bolted into the concrete of the headstone, nose at a slight angle as if to give safe lift on take off. ‘You’ll miss the old Spitfire.’
She stood, the job done. ‘It makes your back ache, all this bending.’
‘Not mine. I worked in a factory, and got used to it. What did your husband do?’
He was fascinated by her look of anger. ‘He flew no Spitfire, I’ll tell you that.’
He thought she might be about to cry, but realised she was too angry. All he could do was wait. ‘It’s a good model, thought.’
‘I hope he’s flying it in Hell.’
‘He wasn’t a pilot, then?’
‘Pilot?’ She put the clippers and knee pad into her bag, and he wondered if she would say anything more – to the nosy old bogger he must seem. ‘Pilot? Not him. But he pretended to make them, in a shed at the bottom of the garden. Some he must have made, because he used it for an alibi. He would get over the wall and drive off to see his fancy woman. He spent a lot of time with her, but as long as he held up a Spitfire now and again when he came back into the house I believed he’d been where he said he had.’
To hear all this was more than he had expected, but she went on: ‘I sometimes think he only ever made one, and there it is, stuck on his grave. He told me he made lots, and gave them to his best customers at his video and telly shop in town. When I found out what he was up to I told him he had to see no more of his girlfriend, or I would leave him. Then he started to ail. His heart went. He said I’d willed it on him. Well, I did. It had to be me, didn’t it?’
Now she was crying. ‘And I felt so awful at having done it. When he asked me just before he had the second heart attack to put the Spitfire over his grave I promised I would. I never stopped loving the devil, though. But what can you do?’
The idea seemed unthinkable, so he had to ask: ‘And you won’t be coming again?’
She wiped her eyes with several sheets from a box of Kleenex. ‘I didn’t say that, though that’s what he deserves. I haven’t told anybody about all this before.’
‘It’s because nobody’s asked you, I suppose. My name’s Donald.’
‘Mine’s Teresa. And who’s in that grave of yours?’
‘My wife. She died eighteen months ago.’
‘And what took her?’
She fastened her coat, though he couldn’t think what against. ‘
He liked her smile, and the sense of humour that had carried her through the troubles. ‘We’d better go, or they’ll be closing the gates. If we’re locked in we might get pulled under by the dead, and I don’t want to go there just yet.’
She laughed now. ‘Well, we wouldn’t would we?’
‘I wouldn’t anyway.’
‘No, nor me.’
‘I might see you next time, then.’
‘I shouldn’t wonder.’
He hesitated. ‘Unless you want to come across the road now and have a drink before you go home.’
‘I’d like to, but I’ve got somewhere to go this evening.’ She touched his hand. ‘Still, I expect I’ll be here next week.’
He noticed it well before reaching the grave. A shape had been taken out of the air. Somebody had come with tools and done a very neat job of detaching it with screwdriver and metal saw, maybe thinking to make a nice Christmas present for his lad.
The cemetery seemed empty without the plane, as if there was no reason left for him to be there. Even the arrow in Robin Hood’s bow had been nicked from the statue by the Castle wall, and if that wasn’t sacred to the people of the town then neither was God Almighty. They must have come over the gate like thieves in the dark. It’s no use supposing the world’s full of such villains, either, though it only needs one to make you think so.
‘Would you believe it?’ she said. ‘I can still see it, yet it’s gone right enough. It must be flying in a strange place by now.’
‘I hope the pilot’s taking my wife for a ride.’
‘That wouldn’t surprise me at all.’ A laugh suggested she wasn’t too upset at the missing plane, not as uneasy as he had been for some moments. ‘Let’s hope it brings the bloke who stole it some luck,’ he said. ‘Not that I think he deserves it.’
She laid down her flowers, and took his arm. ‘It’s given me quite a jolt, all the same. I suppose it was only to be expected.’
‘Isn’t there another in his hut?’
‘Not as good as that one was.’
He wanted to make sure. ‘If you found one I could fix it on for you, stronger than before. They’d have to take the gravestone as well, and how they’d get that over the wall I wouldn’t like to think.’
‘I won’t bother. It’s no use trying to mend the past.’
He saw some sense in that. ‘How about going for that drink now?’
The completed their obsequies sooner than usual, and walked out of the cemetery together.
The stories in The Ragman’s Daughter, Men, Women and Children and The Second Chance were first published or broadcast as follows:
Guardian; Pick of Today’s Short Stories; Argosy; New Statesman; Transatlantic Review; The Daily Worker; London Magazine; New Yorker.
Encounter; Nova; Morning Star; Penthouse; Winter’s Tales.
Bananas; BBC Radio; Granta; Guardian; Literary Review; Nottingham Press; New Review; Prairie Schooner; New Yorker; Nottingham Quarterly; Punch.
A Biography of Alan Sillitoe by Ruth Fainlight
Not many of the “Angry Young Men” (a label Alan Sillitoe vigorously rejected but which nonetheless clung to him until the end of his life), could boast of having failed the eleven plus exam not only once, but twice. From early childhood Alan yearned for every sort of knowledge about the world: history, geography, cosmology, biology, topography, and mathematics; to read the best novels and poetry; and learn all the languages, from Classical Greek and Latin to every tongue of modern Europe. But his violent father was illiterate, his mother barely able to read the popular press and when necessary write a simple letter, and he was so cut off from any sort of cultivated environment that, at about the age of ten, trying to teach himself French (unaware books existed that might have helped him), the only method he could devise was to look up each word of a French sentence in a small pocket dictionary. It did not take long for him to realize that something was wrong with his system, but there was no one to ask what he should do instead.
So, like all his schoolmates, he left school at fourteen and went to work in a local factory. Alan never presented himself as a misunderstood sensitive being, and always insisted that he had a wonderful time chasing girls and going with workmates to the lively Nottingham pubs. He also joined the Air Training Corps (ATC) where he absorbed information so quickly that by the age of seventeen he was working as an air traffic controller at a nearby airfield. World War II was still being fought, and his ambition was to become a pilot and go to the Far East, but before that could be realized it was VE Day. As soon as possible he volunteered for the Royal Air Force. It was too late to become a pilot or a navigator, but he got as far as Malaya, where as a radio operator he spent long nights in a hut at the edge of the jungle.
The Morse code he learned during this time stayed with Alan all his life; he loved listening to transmissions from liners and cargo ships (although he never transmitted himself), and whenever invited to speak, he always took his Morse key along. Before beginning his talk, he would make a grand performance of setting it up on the table in front of him and then announce that if anyone in the audience could decipher the message he was about to transmit, he would give that person a signed copy of one of his books. As far as I remember, this never happened.
In Malaya, Alan caught tuberculosis—only discovered during the final physical examination before demobilization. He spent the next eighteen months in a military sanatorium, and was awarded a 100 percent disability pension. By then Alan was twenty-three years old, and it was not long until we met. We fell in love and soon decided to leave the country, going first to France and then to Mallorca, and stayed away from England for more than six years. That pension was our only reliable income until, after several rejections, the manuscript of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was accepted for publication. Afterward, Alan would say that during those apprentice years he had been kept by a very kind woman: the Queen of England.
It is said that an artist must choose between life and art; sometimes Alan would tell whomever questioned him that after his first book was published and he became a recognized writer, he stopped living—there was not enough time to do both. I hope that was not entirely true. But writing was his main activity: He would spend ten to twelve hours a day at his desk, reading or answering letters when he needed a break from working on his current novel. And there were poems, essays, reviews—and scripts for the films of his first two books, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and later others. He was extremely productive. But certainly he also enjoyed social life with our friends and going to concerts or the theatre. This was the heyday of the young British dramatists at the Royal Court Theatre.
Now, in the 1960s, there was enough money for what we enjoyed most: travel, and although in the first few years our son was still a baby, we would spend up to six months of the year away from England. Alan’s books were translated into many languages, which meant that he was invited to many other countries, frequently to literary festivals, or sometimes offered the use of a villa or grand apartment for generous periods of time. I remember a stay at a castle in then-Czechoslovakia, where we were awoken every morning by a scream from our son, who had managed to get his head or hand caught in some part of the rickety crib that had been put in our room for him. We also spent months in Mallorca, in a house generously lent by Robert Graves. During our four years on the island we had become good friends with him and the Graves family.
Time passed … the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties.… Every year or two a new book, a trip to another part of the world. Japan, India, the United States, Mexico, and Latin America: the range extended. I usually went with him, and as by then I also was having work published, sometimes the invitation was to me, and he would assume the role of consort.
Sillitoe in Butterworth, Malaya, during his time in the RAF.
Sillitoe and Ruth Fainlight shared their first home together, “Le Nid”, while living in Menton, France, 1952.
Sillitoe in Camden Town in 1958, soon after the publication of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Sillitoe at his desk in his country house in Wittersham, Kent, 1969.
Sillitoe in Berlin while on a reading tour in 1976.
Sillitoe sitting at his desk in his flat, located in Notting Hill Gate, London, 1978.
Sillitoe writing at his desk in Wittersham in the 1970s or ’80s.
Sillitoe and Ruth Fainlight at the PEN conference in Tokyo, Japan, 1984. They both gave readings at the conference, and Sillitoe was a keynote speaker, along with Joseph Heller.
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