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Authors: Alan Sillitoe

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BOOK: Key to the Door
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“We owe them ten bob already.”

He cursed under his breath. She saw the shape of the well-formed words. “You dirty beast. Why don't you stop swearing?”

It was finished in a second, as she had guessed it would be. He stood up, took his steaming dinner from the table, and threw it against the burning soot of the fire-back. “That's what your effing dinner's worth.”

But the next day, all smiles and amiability, with a wage-packet in his pocket and a Woodbine fresh between his lips, nothing could shake his happiness. “Hello, Vera, my love,” he said as he came in, hoping she'd forgotten the previous evening. She knew he was sorry now, that he was trying to forget it and hoping hard that she'd already done so. He laughed as he sat down to his food. “Well, my duck, come on, talk to me.”

She turned her head, almost weeping again, his exuberance bringing it back more than taking her mind from it. She had made the meal he had thrown away. The food she had collected and scraped for he had fed to the devil.

“Now then, duck, now then!” he entreated, leaning across to touch her face. She pushed his hand off: it's always the guilty who try to forget, she thought. But he looked into her eyes, and somehow it seemed foolish and unimportant to remember it, until she almost smiled at his clumsy attempts to reconcile her to his good humour, only wanting a few more endearing words and laughs to be won over. But:

“Take your hands off me.”

“Now then, Vera! Don't get like that!” It wasn't possible to rile him tonight. He drew back to begin his meal. “It's pay-day,” he told her, in the same tone of endearment.

“What if it is?”

He laughed: “You want some money, don't you?”

“You want your meals next week as well, don't you?” Her quick retort did as much as his gallantry to break down the memory of the burnt dinner.

“I do,” he admitted, pouring a cup of tea. “Will you have one, duck?” The lure of peace was too attractive, and she relented. “All right. Pour me one in here”—pushing her cup across.

“Have summat to eat, as well.”

“No, I had summat before you came in. I eat bits and bobs all day and don't feel like eating at dinner-time.” He pushed the empty plate aside and took out a cigarette, striking a match across the fender: “I drew thirty-two bob this week.”

“Is that all?” she said, in an alarmed voice.

“I was on short time Monday and Tuesday, you know.”


“Never mind,” he soothed, “we'll get on all right.” The Nook returned to her in a sudden blaze of reality, and she thought that if there were no food or money remaining in the two rooms she occupied with Seaton, then she had only to pack her few things and go back to the Nook, take up life as she had left it before the last outburst from her father. The Nook stood behind her as a refuge, still regarded more as home than her rooms in the city that had been given life only by Seaton's ingenuity and a few bare promises in church, and therefore belonged more to him than to her. But the fatal phrase that she had made her bed and must lie on it sank the solid island of the Nook, left her feeling alone and hopeless in an empty sea, unable to commit herself entirely into the safekeeping of Seaton's capabilities. No one had ever been out of work at the Nook. Her father and brothers had been blacksmiths either at the pit or in private forges where there had always been labour enough, and besides their small but regular wages there were pigs and chickens and a large garden, tangible amounts of food to be seen from any of the bedroom windows, besides a ton or two of pit coal standing in the yard because the coal-house was packed to its gills already. And the house itself, one of Lord Middleton's cottages, cost practically nothing to rent. But Seaton, she told herself, was a duffer and a numbskull—sometimes reminding him of it to his face—pitted inside a city at a mere labouring job when thousands of such men were being sent home day after day because there was nothing for them to do, often to be laid off altogether.

They owed rent, and Seaton decided it was time to leave. He found a house on a lonely lane near the city's edge, closer to the Nook by half a mile, and costing less than the two rooms. Vera was fearful of moving, wanted to stay fixed in the rut they had made for themselves, hating to change the tenuous routine and walls that were familiar and therefore comfortable. To sally out and live on a new lane or street meant exposure to different faces, traffic, trees, and turnings to reach the town centre. Yet she knew Harold was right and that they must go.

The flit was planned for a Saturday night, when Raglin the rent collector (who had a room off the entrance hall) would be boozing in his favourite pub at Canning Circus. Seaton looked on the prospect of a “moonlight” with elation: days beforehand he was taking down shelves and dismantling the furniture, was ready to rent a handcart from a nearby woodyard half an hour before they were due to move, time enough to carry everything downstairs on his broad, long-accustomed shoulders and rope it firmly on.

Vera was nervous. “You're sure it'll be all right?”

“Course,” he replied, scornful of her anxiety. “Raglin'll be off to his pub soon, and then we'll get going.”

“I mean about the house.” He wrapped two pictures in brown paper, a wedding present from one of Vera's brothers. “I told you before: everything's ready. The house is clean from top to bottom and I've got the rent book and keys. All we've got to do is get the stuff there.”

A common peril—having other things to fight beside themselves—made them amiable. They were too busy to quarrel, warmed by the risk of a secret move. Yet Vera tormented herself by wondering how long this happiness would last. “I hope we do better in the new place than we've done here.”

“We haven't done too bad, you know,” Seaton said, making a packet of knives and forks with tea-towel and white tape. He worked with a single-minded intensity, an undeflectable purpose in which action became an emotion and therefore was contentment for him. “Think of it, duck, a house to oursens!”

“It'll be a lot better,” she admitted. “There's too much noise here. And besides, the house is cheaper.”

Blankets and sheets were drawn into brown paper, became a parcel bulging between a squeezing network of thin string. “Put your finger on here,” he said, twisting the first loop of the final knot and pulling it tight. She did so, exerting a gentle pressure where the string crossed. He looped the cord again in the half-dark room. “Take it off now,” he said, and snapped the fixity tight as soon as she did so. “There!” he exclaimed. “That's done.” He sat on one of the chairs to rest. “We can get going in a bit”—and lit a cigarette to wait.

Vera opened the window and rested her elbows on the cool ledge. It was autumn and the red-bricked factory wall glowed with light, turning a salmon-pink from the dying sun that could no longer be seen, making her think of the sun as she remembered it going down behind Wollaton Church, whose spire split the glowing clouds suspended above Baloon House hill. And she thought of suppers at the Nook and the small bedroom shared with Ada and Lyddy, and being half-asleep in the half-light in spite of stories being told in the same or in the next bed and the grunt of ever restless pigs in the sty outside. Now the factory bricks were dull and a few dead-eyed stars came out above the roof. She heard the oven-door clang at the Nook and smelled new-baked bread.

A voice was talking and she turned back to the dark room, in time to remember that she had somehow been landed in the middle of a moonlight flit.

Back from work, he glanced at her distrustfully, saying with unlimited concern: “You ain't bin working too hard, have yer?”

Steak-potatoes-cabbage came from oven to table. “I've got to work, you know.”

He patted her on the stomach: “I don't want owt to 'appen to my little gel.”

“How do you know it'll be a gel?” she joked, sitting by the fire.

“It's sure to be,” he said, eating. “If I want it to be a gel, it will be.”

“I want a boy. He can look after me then when he grows up.” Against you, she added under her breath.

“Whatever it is,” he grinned, “it's bound to be a baby.”

He made her sit down while he mashed the tea. She couldn't help saying: “I wonder how long this will last?”

“What?”—boiling water went into the pot.

“You being so nice.”

“Forever, my sweetheart. You know I'm a good lad to you,” he claimed, pressing the cosy down.

“I don't think so,” she said, almost as uneasy as if he were in one of his rages. But it was impossible to provoke him. He laughed off her taunts, fussed over her and squeezed her hand, got her to tell him what was in the newspaper while he cleared the table and washed the pots. Coming back from the scullery, he seated himself opposite, took out a pair of old trousers to mend. “You're a real jack-of-all-trades,” she said.

“Aye,” he answered, looking for the thimble, “and master of none. I should a bin a good 'polsterer, but my feyther thought too much of his booze to bother learnin' me.”

“You're a sight cleverer than me, I will say.” It was one of two old cottages they lived in—living-room, scullery, and a pair of small bedrooms—set on a lane. Vera missed the sound of factory engines and traffic, found herself immersed again in silent afternoons as she waited for a reasonable time at which the kettle could be set on the fire, or sat with folded hands waiting for the tread of Seaton's shoes on the ash-laid path.

She liked to see him busy, for then he was less irritable. He turned his hand to make tasks, employing such slow-moving methods that she thought he would never be done, when suddenly there was a neat patch, a pair of refurbished shoes, a new latch on the gate. When a brother lent him tools, he made cabinets, and ornamental shelves into which he fixed diamond-shaped mirrors, sold for five shillings to people met in Radford or at work. But his suit still went to the pawnshop on Monday morning, a hand-to-mouth loaning system on which they lived until Friday night.

Winter snowed its snow, created a masterpiece of arctic mist and rain until a vanguard convoy of warm days turned into Easter, with supplies of sun run surreptitiously through from warmer lands. Normally slim Vera felt her body growing to what seemed enormous size, which often made her half-ashamed in spite of Seaton's saying with a laugh that she looked no different from other women, and that was the truth. “In fact, you wouldn't know there was owt inside you at all unless you thought to tek a closer goz,” he argued. Well, she felt too sluggish to worry much.

She walked up the lane one afternoon, passing the sandtip where lorries sometimes came to empty their humped backs. Over the low sandstoned wall lay a stagnant stream, a green and still surface whose tadpoled water beneath seemed to have come from nowhere, a lost tributary of the Lean displaced by the machinations of the pit. She passed primroses and ripening elderberry bushes, and from the railway bridge looked down at the colliery working full tilt. Trucks jangled in the sidings, hooters sounded, and coal rushed into railway trucks from glistening steel chutemouths on the underside of enormous reservoirs that matched the free-wheeling pit shaft in height. Smells of dust and train smoke were in the air, but she enjoyed the sun, and the sight of buttercups growing out of the parapet wall. She told herself that, though Christmas had carried off her twenty-fourth birthday, she was still a girl, felt a girl at any rate, and was somehow distantly frightened that everyone should consider her a woman. And Harold isn't much more than a lad either, she thought.

It was hot and still, a world without wind. Looking in the direction of the Nook, she wanted to leap down the bridge steps and go there, crossing the far ridge to where safety lay. Her mind slipped into the momentary refuge of this idea, saying to run back would mean no more worry about the baby on its way. Once she had slammed the door (hearing the dogs chase off the few pursuing devils), her pregnancy would disappear and she would be a girl again. She stood a long time by the wall, various scenes arising from a well of forgotten relics. It must have been twenty years ago, on a Saturday night when she had been hours asleep with her sisters, that an arm lifted her up, out of bed and room. She huddled to what carried her, still trying to sleep in spite of movement and the sound of creaking stairs. “Now then, Vera, wake up,” Merton said when the kitchen lamp blazed white upon them. He set her on the table and took a screwed-up fist from her eyes to show her a circle of collier pals, with grinning faces, done up in their weekend best, breathing beer and pip-smoke when they laughed at what Merton had done. “She's going to dance,” he said, drumming a rhythm on the table. “I towd yer she was pretty, did't I? Now you'll see her dance as well. Come on, Vera, my duck, cock yer legs up and do us a dance. Come on, and I'll gi' yer a penny.” A man's voice sang and she stepped around the table edge, feet lifting and falling to the tune, smiling at the long moustaches and laughing voices saying what a pretty little dancer she was.

Seaton entered the house whistling a song, cap in hand and coat half off; a minute later he left the house, his face a yellow white, and hurried in the direction of the nearest houses to get a midwife.

While waiting, he set himself to clean the kitchen and scullery, but because of his nervousness this task lasted half an hour instead of a possible two or three. He sat by the fire smoking, his mind clouded by a numb unhappiness, a helplessness at what was going on upstairs. The groans and cries suggested only disaster, an unspectacular black ending of the world that kept him pinned like a moth to the fireside. His enforced quiescence released only a paltry feeling of rage, not strong enough to dispel the hypnotic grip in which each fresh cry caught him. A flame suddenly burned his fingers, its pain reminding him to strike another match and light up in earnest. He thrust a heavy brass-handled poker between the firebars, and glowing coal fell wastefully through into the tin beneath. “How long will it be,” he wondered aloud, “before it's all over?”

BOOK: Key to the Door
12.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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