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New and collected storie.., p.8
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       New and Collected Stories, p.8

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  I’d had an idea before she went that our time as man and wife was about up, because one day we had the worst fight of them all. We were sitting at home one evening after tea, one at each end of the table, plates empty and bellies full so that there was no excuse for what followed. My head was in a book, and Kathy just sat there.

  Suddenly she said: ‘I do love you, Harry.’ I didn’t hear the words for some time, as is often the case when you’re reading a book. Then: ‘Harry, look at me.’

  My face came up, smiled, and went down again to my reading. Maybe I was in the wrong, and should have said something, but the book was too good.

  ‘I’m sure all that reading’s bad for your eyes,’ she commented, prising me again from the hot possessive world of India.

  ‘It ain’t,’ I denied, not looking up. She was young and still fair-faced, a passionate loose-limbed thirty-odd that wouldn’t let me sidestep either her obstinacy or anger. ‘My dad used to say that on’y fools read books, because they’d such a lot to learn.’

  The words hit me and sank in, so that I couldn’t resist coming back with, still not looking up: ‘He on’y said that because he didn’t know how to read. He was jealous, if you ask me.’

  ‘No need to be jealous of the rammel you stuff your big head with,’ she said, slowly to make sure I knew she meant every word. The print wouldn’t stick any more; the storm was too close.

  ‘Look, why don’t you get a book, duck?’ But she never would, hated them like poison.

  She sneered: ‘I’ve got more sense; and too much to do.’

  Then I blew up, in a mild way because I still hoped she wouldn’t take on, that I’d be able to finish my chapter. ‘Well let me read, anyway, won’t you? It’s an interesting book and I’m tired.’

  But such a plea only gave her another opening. ‘Tired? You’re allus tired.’ She laughed out loud: ‘Tired Tim! You ought to do some real work for a change instead of walking the streets with that daft post bag.’

  I won’t go on, spinning it out word for word. In any case not many more passed before she snatched the book out of my hands. ‘You booky bastard,’ she screamed, ‘nowt but books, books, books, you bleddy dead-’ead’ – and threw the book on the heaped-up coals, working it further and further into their blazing middle with the poker.

  This annoyed me, so I clocked her one, not very hard, but I did. It was a good reading book, and what’s more it belonged to the library. I’d have to pay for a new one. She slammed out of the house, and I didn’t see her until the next day.

  I didn’t think to break my heart very much when she skipped off. I’d had enough. All I can say is that it was a stroke of God’s luck we never had any kids. She was confined once or twice, but it never came to anything; each time it dragged more bitterness out of her than we could absorb in the few peaceful months that came between. It might have been better if she’d had kids though; you never know.

  A month after burning the book she ran off with a housepainter. It was all done very nicely. There was no shouting or knocking each other about or breaking up the happy home. I just came back from work one day and found a note waiting for me. ‘I am going away and not coming back’ – propped on the mantelpiece in front of the clock. No tear stains on the paper, just eight words in pencil on a page of the insurance book – I’ve still got it in the back of my wallet, though God knows why.

  The housepainter she went with had lived in a house on his own, across the terrace. He’d been on the dole for a few months and suddenly got a job at a place twenty miles away I was later told. The neighbours seemed almost eager to let me know – after they’d gone, naturally – that they’d been knocking-on together for about a year. No one knew where they’d skipped off to exactly, probably imagining that I wanted to chase after them. But the idea never occurred to me. In any case what was I to do? Knock him flat and drag Kathy back by the hair? Not likely.

  Even now it’s no use trying to tell myself that I wasn’t disturbed by this change in my life. You miss a woman when she’s been living with you in the same house for six years, no matter what sort of cat-and-dog life you led together – though we had our moments, that I will say. After her sudden departure there was something different about the house, about the walls, ceiling and every object in it. And something altered inside me as well – though I tried to tell myself that all was just the same and that Kathy’s leaving me wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. Nevertheless time crawled at first, and I felt like a man just learning to pull himself along with a club-foot; but then the endless evenings of summer came and I was happy almost against my will, too happy anyway to hang on to such torments as sadness and loneliness. The world was moving and, I felt, so was I.

  In other words I succeeded in making the best of things, which as much as anything else meant eating a good meal at the canteen every midday. I boiled an egg for breakfast (fried with bacon on Sundays) and had something cold but solid for my tea every night. As things went, it wasn’t a bad life. It might have been a bit lonely, but at least it was peaceful, and it got as I didn’t mind it, one way or the other. I even lost the feeling of loneliness that had set me thinking a bit too much just after she’d gone. And then I didn’t dwell on it any more. I saw enough people on my rounds during the day to last me through the evenings and at week-ends. Sometimes I played draughts at the club, or went out for a slow half pint to the pub up the street.

  Things went on like this for ten years. From what I gathered later Kathy had been living in Leicester with her housepainter. Then she came back to Nottingham. She came to see me one Friday evening, payday. From her point of view, as it turned out, she couldn’t have come at a better time.

  I was leaning on my gate in the backyard smoking a pipe of tobacco. I’d had a busy day on my rounds, an irritating time of it – being handed back letters all along the line, hearing that people had left and that no one had any idea where they’d moved to; and other people taking as much as ten minutes to get out of bed and sign for a registered letter – and now I felt twice as peaceful because I was at home, smoking my pipe in the backyard at the fag-end of an autumn day. The sky was a clear yellow, going green above the housetops and wireless aerials. Chimneys were just beginning to send out evening smoke, and most of the factory motors had been switched off. The noise of kids scooting around lamp-posts and the barking of dogs came from what sounded a long way off. I was about to knock my pipe out, to go back into the house and carry on reading a book about Brazil I’d left off the night before.

  As soon as she came around the corner and started walking up the yard I knew her. It gave me a funny feeling, though: ten years ain’t enough to change anybody so’s you don’t recognize them, but it’s long enough to make you have to look twice before you’re sure. And that split second in between is like a kick in the stomach. She didn’t walk with her usual gait, as though she owned the terrace and everybody in it. She was a bit slower than when I’d seen her last, as if she’d bumped into a wall during the last ten years through walking in the cock o’the walk way she’d always had. She didn’t seem so sure of herself and was fatter now, wearing a frock left over from the summer and an open winter coat, and her hair had been dyed fair whereas it used to be a nice shade of brown.

  I was neither glad nor unhappy to see her, but maybe that’s what shock does, because I was surprised, that I will say. Not that I never expected to see her again, but you know how it is, I’d just forgotten her somehow. The longer she was away our married life shrunk to a year, a month, a day, a split second of sparkling light I’d met in the black darkness before getting-up time. The memory had drawn itself too far back, even in ten years, to remain as anything much more than a dream. For as soon as I got used to living alone I forgot her.

  Even though her walk had altered I still expected her to say something sarky like: ‘Didn’t expect to see me back at the scene of the crime so soon, did you, Harry?’ Or: ‘You thought it wasn’t true that a bad penny always turns up again, didn
t you?’

  But she just stood. ‘Hello, Harry’ – waited for me to lean up off the gate so’s she could get in. ‘It’s been a long time since we saw each other, hasn’t it?’

  I opened the gate, slipping my empty pipe away. ‘Hello, Kathy,’ I said, and walked down the yard so that she could come behind me. She buttoned her coat as we went into the kitchen, as though she were leaving the house instead of just going in. ‘How are you getting on then?’ I asked, standing near the fireplace.

  Her back was to the wireless, and it didn’t seem as if she wanted to look at me. Maybe I was a bit upset after all at her sudden visit, and it’s possible I showed it without knowing it at the time, because I filled my pipe up straightaway, a thing I never normally do. I always let one pipe cool down before lighting the next.

  ‘I’m fine,’ was all she’d say.

  ‘Why don’t you sit down then, Kath? I’ll get you a bit of a fire soon.’

  She kept her eyes to herself still, as if not daring to look at the old things around her, which were much as they’d been when she left. However she’d seen enough to remark: ‘You look after yourself all right.’

  ‘What did you expect?’ I said, though not in a sarcastic way. She wore lipstick, I noticed, which I’d never seen on her before, and rouge, maybe powder as well, making her look old in a different way, I supposed, than if she’d had nothing on her face at all. It was a thin disguise, yet sufficient to mask from me – and maybe her – the person she’d been ten years ago.

  ‘I hear there’s a war coming on,’ she said, for the sake of talking.

  I pulled a chair away from the table. ‘Come on, sit down, Kathy. Get that weight off your legs’ – an old phrase we’d used though I don’t know why I brought it out at that moment. ‘No, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. That bloke Hitler wants a bullet in his brain – like a good many Germans.’ I looked up and caught her staring at the picture of a fishing boat on the wall: brown and rusty with sails half spread in a bleak sunrise, not far from the beach along which a woman walked bearing a basket of fish on her shoulder. It was one of a set that Kathy’s brother had given us as a wedding present, the other two having been smashed up in another argument we’d had. She liked it a lot, this remaining fishing-boat picture. The last of the fleet, we used to call it in our brighter moments. ‘How are you getting on?’ I wanted to know. ‘Living all right?’

  ‘All right,’ she answered. I still couldn’t get over the fact that she wasn’t as talkative as she had been, that her voice was softer and flatter, with no more bite in it. But perhaps she felt strange at seeing me in the old house again after all this time, with everything just as she’d left it. I had a wireless now, that was the only difference.

  ‘Got a job?’ I asked. She seemed afraid to take the chair I’d offered her.

  ‘At Hoskins,’ she told me, ‘on Ambergate. The lace factory. It pays forty-two bob a week, which isn’t bad.’ She sat down and did up the remaining button of her coat. I saw she was looking at the fishing-boat picture again. The last of the fleet.

  ‘It ain’t good either. They never paid owt but starvation wages and never will I suppose. Where are you living, Kathy?’

  Straightening her hair – a trace of grey near the roots – she said: ‘I’ve got a house at Sneinton. Little, but it’s only seven and six a week. It’s noisy as well, but I like it that way. I was always one for a bit of life, you know that. “A pint of beer and a quart of noise” was what you used to say, didn’t you?’

  I smiled. ‘Fancy you remembering that.’ But she didn’t look as though she had much of a life. Her eyes lacked that spark of humour that often soared up into the bonfire of a laugh. The lines around them now served only as an indication of age and passing time. ‘I’m glad to hear you’re taking care of yourself.’

  She met my eyes for the first time. ‘You was never very excitable, was you, Harry?’

  ‘No,’ I replied truthfully, ‘not all that much.’

  ‘You should have been,’ she said, though in an empty sort of way, ‘then we might have hit it off a bit better.’

  ‘Too late now,’ I put in, getting the full blow-through of my words. ‘I was never one for rows and trouble, you know that. Peace is more my line.’

  She made a joke at which we both laughed. ‘Like that bloke Chamberlain!’ – then moved a plate to the middle of the table and laid her elbows on the cloth. ‘I’ve been looking after myself for the last three years.’

  It may be one of my faults, but I get a bit curious sometimes. ‘What’s happened to that housepainter of yours then?’ I asked this question quite naturally though, because I didn’t feel I had anything to reproach her with. She’d gone away, and that was that. She hadn’t left me in the lurch with a mountain of debts or any such thing. I’d always let her do what she liked.

  ‘I see you’ve got a lot of books,’ she remarked, noticing one propped against the sauce bottle, and two more on the sideboard.

  ‘They pass the time on,’ I replied, striking a match because my pipe had gone out. ‘I like reading.’

  She didn’t say anything for a while. Three minutes I remember, because I was looking across at the clock on the dresser. The news would have been on the wireless, and I’d missed the best part of it. It was getting interesting because of the coming war. I didn’t have anything else to do but think this while I was waiting for her to speak. ‘He died of lead-poisoning,’ she told me. ‘He did suffer a lot, and he was only forty-two. They took him away to the hospital a week before he died.’

  I couldn’t say I was sorry, though it was impossible to hold much against him. I just didn’t know the chap. ‘I don’t think I’ve got a fag in the place to offer you,’ I said, looking on the mantelpiece in case I might find one, though knowing I wouldn’t. She moved when I passed her on my search, scraping her chair along the floor. ‘No, don’t bother to shift. I can get by.’

  ‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘I’ve got some here’ – feeling in her pocket and bringing out a crumpled five-packet. ‘Have one, Harry?’

  ‘No thanks. I haven’t smoked a fag in twenty years. You know that. Don’t you remember how I started smoking a pipe? When we were courting. You gave me one for my birthday and told me to start smoking it because it would make me look more distinguished! So I’ve smoked one ever since. I got used to it quick enough, and I like it now. I’d never be without it in fact.’

  As if it were yesterday! But maybe I was talking too much, for she seemed a bit nervous while lighting her fag. I don’t know why it was, because she didn’t need to be in my house. ‘You know, Harry,’ she began, looking at the fishing-boat picture, nodding her head towards it, ‘I’d like to have that’ – as though she’d never wanted anything so much in her life.

  ‘Not a bad picture, is it?’ I remember saying. ‘It’s nice to have pictures on the wall, not to look at especially, but they’re company. Even when you’re not looking at them you know they’re there. But you can take it if you like.’

  ‘Do you mean that?’ she asked, in such a tone that I felt sorry for her for the first time.

  ‘Of course. Take it. I’ve got no use for it. In any case I can get another picture if I want one, or put a war map up.’ It was the only picture on that wall, except for the wedding photo on the sideboard below. But I didn’t want to remind her of the wedding picture for fear it would bring back memories she didn’t like. I hadn’t kept it there for sentimental reasons, so perhaps I should have dished it. ‘Did you have any kids?’

  ‘No,’ she said, as if not interested. ‘But I don’t like taking your picture, and I’d rather not if you think all that much of it.’ We sat looking over each other’s shoulder for a long time. I wondered what had happened during these ten years to make her talk so sadly about the picture. It was getting dark outside. Why didn’t she shut up about it, just take the bloody thing? So I offered it to her again, and to settle the issue unhooked it, dusted the back with a cloth, wrapped it up in brown paper,
and tied the parcel with the best post-office string. ‘There you are,’ I said, brushing the pots aside, laying it on the table at her elbows.

  ‘You’re very good to me, Harry.’

  ‘Good! I like that. What does a picture more or less in the house matter? And what does it mean to me, anyway?’ I can see now that we were giving each other hard knocks in a way we’d never learned to do when living together. I switched on the electric light. As she seemed uneasy when it showed everything up clearly in the room, I offered to switch it off again.

  ‘No, don’t bother’ – standing to pick up her parcel. ‘I think I’ll be going now. Happen I’ll see you some other time.’

  ‘Drop in whenever you feel like it.’ Why not? We weren’t enemies. She undid two buttons of her coat, as though having them loose would make her look more at ease and happy in her clothes, then waved to me. ‘So long.’

  ‘Good night, Kathy.’ It struck me that she hadn’t smiled or laughed once the whole time she’d been there, so I smiled to her as she turned for the door, and what came back wasn’t the bare-faced cheeky grin I once knew, but a wry parting of the lips moving more for exercise than humour. She must have been through it, I thought, and she’s above forty now.

  So she went. But it didn’t take me long to get back to my book.

  A few mornings later I was walking up St Ann’s Well Road delivering letters. My round was taking me a long time, for I had to stop at almost every shop. It was raining, a fair drizzle, and water rolled off my cape, soaking my trousers below the knees so that I was looking forward to a mug of tea back in the canteen and hoping they’d kept the stove going. If I hadn’t been so late on my round I’d have dropped into a café for a cup.

  I’d just taken a pack of letters into a grocer’s and, coming out, saw the fishing-boat picture in the next-door pawnshop window, the one I’d given Kathy a few days ago. There was no mistaking it, leaning back against ancient spirit-levels, bladeless planes, rusty hammers, trowels, and a violin case with the strap broken. I recognized a chip in the gold-painted woodwork near the bottom left corner of its frame.

 
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