Authors: Alan Sillitoe
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Key to the Door
A Biography of Alan Sillitoe by Ruth Fainlight
Brian, watched by his mother, stood in the paddling-pool without becoming part of the fray. His vacant blue eyes were caught by the broad elbow of the river, though he couldn't be entirely captivated by its movement, and he clutched a mouth-organ as knuckle-duster in case the flying bolts of screamed-up kids should on purpose or accidentally jolt him face down into the gritty water.
Thinking he needed fresh air from the bug-eaten back-to-backs of Albion Yard, Vera had put on their coats and led him up Wilford Road, meaning to save threeha'pence by walking in order to buy him an ice-cream cornet on the way. Maybe she'd even get a free ride back on a tram by saying Brian was under five and winking at the conductor. Harold would paste her if he knew, but then, what the eye don't see the heart don't grieve, and that was the end of that by the time they'd reached the railway bridge and Brian clamoured to see a train drive underneath. Satisfied only when coughing smoke back at the loco-funnel, they walked as far as a boat on the Trent and cows by the far bank chewing beneath tree umbrellas, then turned into the compound of a grass-lawned paddling-pool already full of other kids and mams. Vera picked up a yesterday's
from the bench, to read while Brian with rolled-up leggings stepped cautiously into the water.
The mouth-organ stuck from a pocket, and he played at a recently discovered trick of pressing both hands on his ears, half-blocking the immediate wild yells of spinning kids to hear instead a far-off echo or reflection of it. He completed the illusion by closing his eyes, and the noises of this distant eldorado, though appearing to come from a similar paddling-pool and river, seemed a haven of enjoyment compared to the brickbat yells that assailed him when he took his hands down to test out a hope that they had been magically replaced by those of the more agreeable playground.
“Don't push your 'ands in your tabs like that,” his mother called, “or you'll get canker.” But he was still tuned to the crystal set of that muted unattainable land somewhere beyond the river, wondered where it was and whether his mam would ever take him to where children of another world sounded so much happier than anyone could at the pool wherein his excalibur feet were planted now.
Women paddled as wellâanything for a laughâwhite feet dipping into watered sludge, and Vera remembered wading not in a shallow corporation pool on a sunny day, but in two feet of cold and swirling water from the ancient New Bridge house to the firm ground of Peter's Street. She and Seaton had wakened from a night of thunderstorms, a deluge of water still splashing and ricochetting in luminous flakes against the windows as they descended in the half-dark of morning to see furniture and belongings floating around the darkened room like ducks that had strayed into a trap. Vera paddled out when the rain stopped, followed by Seaton with an armchair on his head. “We'll get consumption if we stay here,” he called. She turned on him: “Where do you think we're going to live then? Under the canal bridge?” “No,” he answered, “we'll get a house.” He stacked each piece of furniture on dry ground, leaving Vera as guard while he went back a dozen times for more chairs, a sofa, a bedâplanted on his hard head and beefy shoulders as he emerged from the isolated lane on which only a pair of cottages stood. Abb Fowler, cloth-capped and jaunty at the door of the other, helped him after his own was done, while Vera was told, by a passer-by, of vacant houses in Albion Yard on the opposite side of town, flea-ridden but dry, that they could be in by tea-time if they looked nippy.
Harold and Abb co-operated in the move, spent sixteen hours pushing a handcart back and forth to move the happy homes, were dead on their feet by eight that night. Harold had been a bloody rotter anyway, and I suppose he allus will be, Vera thought to herself, half an eye on Brian in the pool. I'll never forget the swineâwhat he did over my red coat. I said to Abb's missis after he'd gone to wok: “What does this smell like on my coat, Lilly?” “Why,” she says, “it's paraffin.” “That's what 'Arold done,” I told her. “He got mad at summat before he went out this morning, though I don't know what, and this is what he went and done.” Lilly turned white with rage, somehow making up for Vera's feeling of apathy, who nevertheless had to hold her heart in check for fear it would burst. “You know what I'd do if it was my coat?” Lilly said. “I'd wait for him coming in that gate, then I'd put a match to it and throw it over him in flames. I would, by bleeding Christ, I would an' all. No bleeding man 'un do that to me.” “Well, I daren't. I couldn't,” Vera said, easier now, as if in some way Lilly's outburst and suggested punishment had gone into Seaton's skin while he was at work and let him know what the world thought of such a trick: the bleddy blackclock.
She opened her eyes from the blank-stared reminiscence to hear Brian say: “Mam, let's go to the other paddling-pool.”
“What other paddling-pool?”
“The other one, over there,” and he pointed across the wide river, south into the country.
“There's only one, you daft lad, and we're in it now.” He didn't believe it, thought she couldn't be bothered to take him, and wondered whether he'd ever find it if he went off by his blue-eyed well-legginged self. Though Albion Yard was no playground or paddling-pool, he still, on standing in the common yard of a comparatively quiet afternoon, thought he heardâeven without putting hands to his earsâthe sound of a thousand children joyfully playing by some sunlit story-book river that would need a long bus ride to get to.
But nine lives were his rock-bottom minimum, and out in the rain-puddled wasteland of Albion Yard he scooped trenches with broken bottles and built his walls with sludge-cement, watching the former silt up when they became too deep and the latter topple to earth on reaching too high towards duck-white clouds above often capsizing chimney-pots of the condemned houses. They'd been ordered to leave and several boarded-up dwellings turned their blind eyes on others still lived in. A two-foot piece of wood was fixed into a slot across the open doorway of some, to hold a stick-brandishing two-year-old from prematurely getting at half-bricks and broken bottles, and over which visitors had to step before asking in private to be lent a cup of sugar or a mashing of tea until Thursday. And on that day, when Mr. Mather the next-door neighbour slept on the sofa after the exertion of walking to the dole office, Mrs. Mather would silently lift the pound note from his pocket and stalk to the street-end in her shawl with a white washstand jug in her hand, and make her way to the Frontier, from which post she returned treading delirious footsteps with a devalued pound and a swimming jug, still singing “I want to be happy” as she advanced into a black eye and cut lip from Mather waiting behind the door. She would complain to Vera: “I told him it was all right because we'd leave the rent that week, but he said we wouldn't have paid it anyway and that we'd still be four and a tanner down. Then I offered to make up for it by wangling some grub on tick from Mr. Coutts's shop, but he swore I'd still done him out of the money he was going to buy a budgie with. So what can I do, Vera? If you could see your way to lending me a loaf till next week I'd be ever so grateful, I would and all.”
A rusting motor-bike leaned forgotten against the end wall, bought in the roaring twenties and left to rot in the dirty thirties after the means-test men had valued it at more than it was worth to the bloke who owned it; but Brian drove it from one land to another, pulling levers as the engine in his mouth revved up to take in mountains whose steep sides he had seen in picture-books, and run down witches shown him in magazines by his girl-friend, Amy Tyre. On actual legs he went to the street-end that debouched into the rowdy bonfire-night of the quarter-million town, into the flaming shell-filled no-man's-land of Orchard Street, where crackers barked beneath your legs and the smell of roasting bug-bound mattresses choked you as you flattened yourself against a wall to get farther up the street, running only into another bonfire at the next explosive corner. A warehouse window cracked from the heat, and bales of lace were liberated by fire from their artistic patterns so that fire-engines more fearful than any Little Demon or Australian Gun filled the street with steam and water, driving Brian back to the refuge of his two-roomed house.
The flat world was only real within the radius of his too-choosing sight, missing everything that did not tally with the damp, rarely ignited soil of his brain. He woke up one day to find he had a sister, but this meant nothing until she was able to crawl up to his paper aeroplane and tear it to pieces. He did not know he had a father, only that a man (what was a man?) sat always humped before a firegrate and was liable to throw out a fist like lightning if he went too close; until he came in one day and found his wailing mother bending over a bucket so that blood could drip into it from her forehead. “Your dad,” she shouted. “That's what your dad's gone and done with a shoe.” And so amid the weeping and blood-bucket he came to know what a dad was. He was something else also: a blackclock killer. Dad sat on the stone floor with rug pulled back, holding a hammer and staring at the skirting board, bringing the hammer down with a ringing crash whenever a blackclock thought to run the gauntlet of his keen maniacal sight. The floor was already strewn with corpses, but the killing went on for a long time more, until dad put the brown-juiced hammer back in his toolbox, having grown tired of the game, which Brian took up with the same intent perseverance next day while his mother was washing clothes under the yard-end tap.