New and Collected Stories, p.9Alan Sillitoe
For half a minute I couldn’t believe it, was unable to make out how it had got there, then saw the first day of my married life and a sideboard loaded with presents, prominent among them this surviving triplet of a picture looking at me from the wreckage of other lives. And here it is, I thought, come down to a bloody nothing. She must have sold it that night before going home, pawnshops always keeping open late on a Friday so that women could get their husbands’ suits out of pop for the week-end. Or maybe she’d sold it this morning, and I was only half an hour behind her on my round. Must have been really hard up. Poor Kathy, I thought. Why hadn’t she asked me to let her have a bob or two?
I didn’t think much about what I was going to do next. I never do, but went inside and stood at the shop counter waiting for a grey-haired doddering skinflint to sort out the popped bundles of two thin-faced women hovering to make sure he knew they were pawning the best stuff. I was impatient. The place stank of old clothes and mildewed junk after coming out of the fresh rain, and besides I was later than ever now on my round. The canteen would be closed before I got back, and I’d miss my morning tea.
The old man shuffled over at last, his hand out. ‘Got any letters?’
‘Nowt like that, feyther. I’d just like to have a look at that picture you’ve got in your window, the one with a ship on it.’ The women went out counting what few shillings he’d given them, stuffing pawn-tickets in their purses, and the old man came back carrying the picture as if it was worth five quid.
Shock told me she’d sold it right enough, but belief lagged a long way behind, so I looked at it well to make sure it really was the one. A price marked on the back wasn’t plain enough to read. ‘How much do you want for it?’
‘You can have it for four bob.’
Generosity itself. But I’m not one for bargaining. I could have got it for less, but I’d rather pay an extra bob than go through five minutes of chinning. So I handed the money over, and said I’d call back for the picture later.
Four measly bob, I said to myself as I sloshed on through the rain. The robbing bastard. He must have given poor Kathy about one and six for it. Three pints of beer for the fishing-boat picture.
I don’t know why, but I was expecting her to call again the following, week. She came on Thursday, at the same time, and was dressed in the usual way: summer frock showing through her brown winter coat whose buttons she couldn’t leave alone, telling me how nervous she was. She’d had a drink or two on her way, and before coming into the house stopped off at the lavatory outside. I’d been late for work, and hadn’t quite finished my tea, asked her if she could do with a cup. ‘I don’t feel like it,’ came the answer. ‘I had one not long ago.’
I emptied the coal scuttle on the fire. ‘Sit down nearer the warmth. It’s a bit nippy tonight.’
She agreed that it was, then looked up at the fishing-boat picture on the wall. I’d been waiting for this, wondered what she’d say when she did, but there was no surprise at seeing it back in the old place, which made me feel a bit disappointed. ‘I won’t be staying long tonight,’ was all she said. ‘I’ve got to see somebody at eight.’
Not a word about the picture. ‘That’s all right. How’s your work going?’
‘Putrid,’ she answered nonchalantly, as though my question had been out of place. ‘I got the sack, for telling the forewoman where to get off.’
‘Oh,’ I said, getting always to say ‘Oh’ when I wanted to hide my feelings, though it was a safe bet that whenever I did say ‘Oh’ there wasn’t much else to come out with.
I had an idea she might want to live in my house again seeing she’d lost her job. If she wanted to she could. And she wouldn’t be afraid to ask, even now. But I wasn’t going to mention it first. Maybe that was my mistake, though I’ll never know. ‘A pity you got the sack,’ I put in.
Her eyes were on the picture again, until she asked: ‘Can you lend me half-a-crown?’
‘Of course I can’ – emptied my trouser pocket, sorted out half-a-crown, and passed it across to her. Five pints. She couldn’t think of anything to say, shuffled her feet to some soundless tune in her mind. ‘Thanks very much.’
‘Don’t mention it,’ I said with a smile. I remembered buying a packet of fags in case she’d want one, which shows how much I’d expected her back. ‘Have a smoke?’ – and she took one, struck a match on the sole of her shoe before I could get her a light myself.
‘I’ll give you the half-crown next week, when I get paid.’ That’s funny, I thought. ‘I got a job as soon as I lost the other one,’ she added, reading my mind before I had time to speak. ‘It didn’t take long. There’s plenty of war work now. Better money as well.’
‘I suppose all the firms’ll be changing over soon.’ It occurred to me that she could claim some sort of allowance from me – for we were still legally married – instead of coming to borrow half-a-crown. It was her right, and I didn’t need to remind her; I wouldn’t be all that much put out if she took me up on it. I’d been single – as you might say – for so many years that I hadn’t been able to stop myself from putting a few quid by. ‘I’ll be going now,’ she said, standing up to fasten her coat.
‘Sure you won’t have a cup of tea?’
‘No thanks. Want to catch the trolley back to Sneinton.’ I said I’d show her to the door. ‘Don’t bother. I’ll be all right.’ She stood waiting for me, looking at the picture on the wall above the sideboard. ‘It’s a nice picture you’ve got up there. I always liked it a lot.’
I made the old joke: ‘Yes, but it’s the last of the fleet.’
‘That’s why I like it.’ Not a word about having sold it for eighteen pence.
I showed her out, mystified.
She came to see me every week, all through the war, always on Thursday night at about the same time. We talked a bit, about the weather, the war, her job and my job, never anything important. Often we’d sit for a long time looking into the fire from our different stations in the room, me by the hearth and Kathy a bit further away at the table as if she’d just finished a meal, both of us silent yet not uneasy in it. Sometimes I made a cup of tea, sometimes not. I suppose now that I think of it I could have got a pint of beer in for when she came, but it never occurred to me. Not that I think she felt the lack of it, for it wasn’t the sort of thing she expected to see in my house anyway.
She never missed coming once, even though she often had a cold in the winter and would have been better off in bed. The blackout and shrapnel didn’t stop her either. In a quiet off-handed sort of way we got to enjoy ourselves and looked forward to seeing each other again, and maybe they were the best times we ever had together in our lives. They certainly helped us through the long monotonous dead evenings of the war.
She was always dressed in the same brown coat, growing shabbier and shabbier. And she wouldn’t leave without borrowing a few shillings. Stood up: ‘Er … lend’s half-a-dollar, Harry.’ Given, sometimes with a joke: ‘Don’t get too drunk on it, will you?’ – never responded to, as if it were bad manners to joke about a thing like that. I didn’t get anything back of course, but then, I didn’t miss such a dole either. So I wouldn’t say no when she asked me, and as the price of beer went up she increased the amount to three bob then to three-and-six and, finally, just before she died, to four bob. It was a pleasure to be able to help her. Besides, I told myself, she has no one else. I never asked questions as to where she was living, though she did mention a time or two that it was still up Sneinton way. Neither did I at any time see her outside at a pub or picture house; Nottingham is a big town in many ways.
On every visit she would glance from time to time at the fishing-boat picture, the last of the fleet, hanging on the wall above the sideboard. She often mentioned how beautiful she thought it was, and how I should never part with it, how the sunrise and the ship and the woman and the sea were just right. Then a few minutes later she’d hint to me how nice it would be if she had it, but knowing it would end up in t
But she finally did ask me directly, and I saw no reason to refuse when she put it like that. Just as I had done six years before, when she first came to see me, I dusted it, wrapped it up carefully in several layers of brown paper, tied it with post-office string, and gave it to her. She seemed happy with it under her arm, couldn’t get out of the house quick enough, it seemed.
It was the same old story though, for a few days later I saw it again in the pawnshop window, among all the old junk that had been there for years. This time I didn’t go in and try to get it back. In a way I wish I had, because then Kathy might not have had the accident that came a few days later. Though you never know. If it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else.
I didn’t get to her before she died. She’d been run down by a lorry at six o’clock in the evening, and by the time the police had taken me to the General Hospital she was dead. She’d been knocked all to bits, and had practically bled to death even before they’d got her to the hospital. The doctor told me she’d not been quite sober when she was knocked down. Among the things of hers they showed me was the fishing-boat picture, but it was all so broken up and smeared with blood that I hardly recognized it. I burned it in the roaring flames of the firegrate late that night.
When her two brothers, their wives and children had left and taken with them the air of blame they attached to me for Kathy’s accident I stood at the graveside thinking I was alone, hoping I would end up crying my eyes out. No such luck. Holding my head up suddenly I noticed a man I hadn’t seen before. It was a sunny afternoon of winter, but bitter cold, and the only thing at first able to take my mind off Kathy was the thought of some poor bloke having to break the bone-hard soil to dig this hole she was now lying in. Now there was this stranger. Tears were running down his cheeks, a man in his middle fifties wearing a good suit, grey though but with a black band around his arm, who moved only when the fed-up sexton touched his shoulder – and then mine – to say it was all over.
I felt no need to ask who he was. And I was right. When I got to Kathy’s house (it had also been his) he was packing his things, and left a while later in a taxi without saying a word. But the neighbours, who always know everything, told me he and Kathy had been living together for the last six years. Would you believe it? I only wished he’d made her happier than she’d been.
Time has passed now and I haven’t bothered to get another picture for the wall. Maybe a war map would do it; the wall gets too blank, for I’m sure some government will oblige soon. But it doesn’t really need anything at the moment, to tell you the truth. That part of the room is filled up by the sideboard, on which is still the wedding picture, that she never thought to ask for.
And looking at these few old pictures stacked in the back of my mind I began to realize that I should never have let them go, and that I shouldn’t have let Kathy go either. Something told me I’d been daft and dead to do it, and as my rotten luck would have it it was the word dead more than daft that stuck in my mind, and still sticks there like the spinebone of a cod or conger eel, driving me potty sometimes when I lay of a night in bed thinking.
I began to believe there was no point in my life – became even too far gone to turn religious or go on the booze. Why had I lived? I wondered. I can’t see anything for it. What was the point of it all? And yet at the worst minutes of my midnight emptiness I’d think less of myself and more of Kathy, see her as suffering in a far rottener way than ever I’d done, and it would come to me – though working only as long as an aspirin pitted against an incurable headache – that the object of my having been alive was that in some small way I’d helped Kathy through her life.
I was born dead. I keep telling myself. Everybody’s dead, I answer. So they are, I maintain, but then most of them never know it like I’m beginning to do, and it’s a bloody shame that this has come to me at last when I could least do with it, and when it’s too bloody late to get anything but bad from it.
Then optimism rides out of the darkness like a knight in armour. If you loved her … (of course I bloody-well did) … then you both did the only thing possible if it was to be remembered as love. Now didn’t you? Knight in armour goes back into blackness. Yes, I cry, but neither of us did anything about it, and that’s the trouble.
While Jones the teacher unravelled the final meanderings of Masterman Ready, Colin from the classroom heard another trundle of wagons and caravans rolling slowly towards the open spaces of the Forest. His brain was a bottleneck, like the wide boulevard along which each vehicle passed, and he saw, remembering last year, fresh-packed ranks of colourful Dodgem Cars, traction engines and mobile zoos, Ghost Trains, and Noah’s Ark figures securely crated on to drays and lorries.
So Masterman Ready was beaten by the prospect of more tangible distraction, though it was rare for a book of dream-adventures to be banished so easily from Colin’s mind. The sum total of such free-lance wandering took him through bad days of scarcity, became a mechanical gaudily dressed pied-piper always ahead, which he would follow and one day scrag to see what made it tick. How this would come about he didn’t know, didn’t even try to find out – while the teacher droned on with the last few pages of his story.
Though his cousin Bert was eleven – a year older – Colin was already in a higher class at school, and felt that this counted for something anyway, even though he had found himself effortlessly there. With imagination fed by books to bursting point, he gave little thought to the rags he wore (except when it was cold) and face paradoxically overfleshed through lack of food. His hair was too short, even for a three-penny basin-crop at the barber’s – which was the only thing that bothered him at school in that he was sometimes jocularly referred to as ‘Owd Bald-’ead’.
When the Goose Fair came a few pennies had survived his weekly outlay on comics, but Bert had ways and means of spinning them far beyond their paltry value. ‘We’ll get enough money for lots of rides,’ he said, meeting Colin at the street corner of a final Saturday. ‘I’ll show you’ – putting his arm around him as they walked up the street.
‘How?’ Colin wanted to know, protesting: ‘I’m not going to rob any shops. I’ll tell you that now.’
Bert, who had done such things, detected disapproval of his past, though sensing at the same time and with a certain pride that Colin would never have the nerve to crack open a shop at midnight and plug his black hands into huge jars of virgin sweets. ‘That’s not the only way to get money,’ he scoffed. ‘You only do that when you want summat good. I’ll show you what we’ll do when we get there.’
Along each misty street they went, aware at every turning of a low exciting noise from the northern sky. Bellies of cloud were lighted orange by the fair’s reflection, plain for all to see, an intimidating bully slacking the will and drawing them towards its heart. ‘If it’s only a penny a ride then we’ve got two goes each,’ Colin calculated with bent head, pondering along the blank flagstoned spaces of the pavement, hands in pockets pinning down his hard-begotten wealth. He was glad of its power to take him on to roundabouts, but the thought of what fourpence would do to the table at home filled him – when neither spoke – with spasms of deep misery. Fourpence would buy a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk or some stewing meat or a pot of jam or a pound of sugar. It would perhaps stop the agony his mother might be in from seeing his father black and brooding by the hearth if he – Colin – had handed the fourpence in for ten Woodbines from the corner shop. His father would take them with a smile, get u
It was marvellous what fourpence would do, if you were good enough to place it where it rightly belonged – which I’m not, he thought, because fourpence would also buy a fistful of comics, or two bars of chocolate or take you twice to the flea-pit picture-house or give you four rides on Goose Fair, and the division, the wide dark soil-smelling trench that parted good from bad was filled with wounds of unhappiness. And such unhappiness was suspect, because Colin knew that whistling stone-throwing Bert at his side wouldn’t put up with it for the mere sake of fourpence – no, he’d spend it and enjoy it, which he was now out to do with half the pennies Colin had. If Bert robbed a shop or cart he’d take the food straight home – that much Colin knew – and if he laid his hands on five bob or a pound he’d give his mother one and six and say that that was all he’d been able to get doing some sort of work. But fourpence wouldn’t worry him a bit. He’d enjoy it. And so would Colin, except in the space of stillness between roundabouts.
They were close to the fair, walking down the slope of Bentinck Road, able to distinguish between smells of fish-and-chips, mussels and brandysnap. ‘Look on the floor,’ Bert called out, ever-sharp and hollow-cheeked with the fire of keeping himself going, lit by an instinct never to starve yet always looking as if he were starving. The top and back of his head was padded by overgrown hair, and he slopped along in broken slippers, hands in pockets, whistling, then swearing black-and-blue at being swept off the pavement by a tide of youths and girls.
Colin needed little telling: snapped down to the gutter, walked a hundred yards doubled-up like a premature rheumatic, and later shot straight holding a packet with two whole cigarettes protruding. ‘No whacks!’ he cried, meaning: No sharing.
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