Authors: Alan Sillitoe
Eleven struck from some church. “The first one's worse than waiting to go over the top at Gallipoli,” a workmate had assured him. For the woman it might be, Seaton thought, throwing more coal on, because sometimes they never got over it. No amount of thinking could take him further than that, and his face was ashen with the burden of pity. He wished some pub or picture-house was open, or that some pal would be glad to see him at such an hour, but it was black outside with only the odd bird trying to whistle and maybe a few rats scuttling through long grass in the field.
The coalscuttle was empty: his searching hand rubbed among cobbles and dust on the bottom, so he went outside to the garden shed. He dislodged a ledge of coal in the light of an uprisen half moon, then set to breaking pieces off without spilling too much slack or making much noise. He used both the blunt and blade of the axe, spinning the smooth haft in his palm without once letting it fall, chipping a wedge into the coal grain with the blade, and knocking it apart with the back, until a pan of even lumps had been gathered. A handbrush hung on the wall and he swept the slack up to a corner, then stacked the coal into a more even arrangement as far from the door as possible, happy and content now that his mind was empty, whistling a tune from nowhere that no one had ever written as his stocky waistcoated figure stooped to his made-up work.
By the kitchen door he heard Vera cry. He had forgotten her, and the blinding cry of pain startled him so that he almost dropped the coal. He went in and loaded the fire, but couldn't stay by it. The clock hands had moved on ten minutes, and that was the only difference in his mood between now and before he had broken the coal. Another cry of pain brought a response of hatred and anger, and he leaned on the gate outside hearing the distant beat of colliery engines and seeing occasional courting couples sauntering along the lane to vanish in darkness by hedges further up, until he felt deathly cold and returned to the fire. He swore in a low voice, cursing no one in particular and nothing he could give words to, unless it was whatever made his lips whistle the unwritten tune in the coal-house, that he didn't even know he'd been whistling.
The midwife said it was a boy, and he went quickly up the stairs. “Are you all right, duck?”
“Yes,” she told him, her face bleached with exhaustion. He stood a few moments not knowing what to say. She held something in her arms. “Can I see him?” The baby was shown. “It's small, i'n't it?” was his opinion. “Though I expect it'll get bigger. They all do.”
She looked at him looking at the baby. “It will.”
“What shall we call it?”
“I ain't bothered about that yet,” she said, thinking: I don't want to go through that lot again.
“Call it Brian,” he ventured.
She closed her eyes. “All right.”
“I'm going to work in the morning,” he told her. “But I'll go to your mother's first and tell her to call and see you.” She was asleep; my young gel, he thought, walking down the stairs to make a bed on the sofa, my young gel's got over it at last and it's about time.
Rain beat in gusts against the bedroom window, an uneven rhythm singing with the wind, and Vera realized from her blissful half-sleep that Seaton was still in bed, that he had to be at work by half-past seven, that it must be late because the room was light already. Six-month bottle-fed Brian should cry his guts out from the crib for milk any minute, so she sat bolt upright, while Seaton grunted and turned over in his sleep at the disturbance. She glanced at the clock on the dressing-table, nudged him in fear and apprehension.
“What's a matter?” he yawned.
“Come on, 'Arold. It's gone eight-thirty.” Dressing quickly, she knew there'd be trouble, always the case when he overlaid like this. He acted as if it were the end of the world because he'd be an hour late at his job. She could never understand it; he seemed not to have much fear of losing it, or to be afraid of his foreman; but he became a maddened bull when jerked straight from sleep into something to worry about, a rush that wouldn't let him dawdle by the fire over a cup of tea and some bread-and-jam, then wander off briskly yet with a settled mind along the morning lane. With a glance at Brian she went downstairs, leaving Seaton looking sullenly for his trousers.
She poked ashes through the grate and screwed up a newspaper, shivering in the damp cold. Seaton came down: “Get out of my bastard way”âpushing by and sitting in an armchair to pull on his boots. She spread sticks over the paper. “Why don't you wash your foul mouth out?” she cried, knowing how true it was that their quarrels never began by a stray word and went by slow stages to a climax, but started immediately at the height of a wild destructive battle, persisting with violent intensity to blows, or degenerating to a morose energy-less condition often lasting for days. There seemed no halfway stage between a taunting jungle fray, and a loving happiness. Vera could not switch her moods with Seaton's speed, and so detested his fussiness between quarrels, treating him at the best with brittle gaiety and reserve. She had tried controlling her retorts in the hope of finding some other man in Seaton who never quarrelled, who was kind all the time, who would love her in spite of them both, only to discover that no such breadth existed in him. For six months after Brian was born he had been near to this, but the novelty of a baby soon wore off.
A bootlace snapped and he snorted with rage, muttering inaudibly. Her heart beat wildly: “Why didn't you wake up?” she implored.
“Because the bastard alarm clock didn't go off,” he shouted. “Or you forgot to set the bleeding thing, one of the two.”
Sticks and paper flared in the grate, cracking and sparking. His continual swearing was the carrier of terrible hatred seen in his face; thus she attacked his swearing, as if his hatredâand therefore their troublesâwould go could she cure him of that: “For God's sake, use less filthy talk.”
“You what?” he bellowed. “You what?” She wanted to say something else, but no words were good enough. If only the minute-hand would race around the clock (that he had set on the shelf as an accusation against her) so that he would clear off to work; or if, better still, it would run back to seven o'clock and they were happily drinking tea. She was crying now. “You can get into the factory at half-past nine, can't you?”
“Shut yer cryin', yer mardy bleeder.”
“I'm not cryin' for you.”
“I wouldn't want you to cry for me,” he shouted, dragging cups and saucers from the cupboard. “I wouldn't want any bastard to cry for me.” She sat by the window, which was the farthest point she could get from him in the house without actually running awayâwhich she felt powerless to do. “I wish I'd never married you. And I wouldn't a done if Ada and my mother hadn't made me come downstairs on the day we got married.”
The kettle boiled and he was not deterred from making the tea. “It's the worse turn they ever did me then.”
“I wish I'd never married you,” she wept.
“Well, you know what to do,” he roared. “Go back to that dirty mother o' yourn, and that drunken old man, and that pack of poxetten brothers and sisters.”
She picked up a cup. “Don't you call them, or you'll get this at your face. They're worth fifty of yo'.”
Seaton stood, head and shoulders bent towards her, eyes pierced with madness. “You throw that bastard cup, that's all. Just you throw that cup.”
No thought, no caution. “I will,” she cried. “I will”âwords of affirmation echoing through her memory back to the day she was married.
“Go on,” he hissed, “go on, throw it. Just you throw it, and it'll be the last thing you ever do.” He stood by the wall, a loaf in one hand and a knife in the other.
The table was between. “You think I daren't, don't you?”âher heart breaking in agony.
It flew for his eyes, all her might and aim behind it, smashing to pieces on the wall. He had not leaned out of its track; and then she felt his hand hitting at her face. Reeling back to the sofa, covering her head, she remembered the breadknife gripped in his fist before she let fly with the cup. The stinging blows somehow hurt through to her cheeks despite the protection of her hands, until she felt no more stings because he must have stopped.
“You'll have your day to come,” she sobbed, shaking with misery, hands still over her eyes, “when he grows up upstairs.”
His answer was a barrage of curses: no reasonable reply to her long-term threat, but simply a spring reaction to what could be countered in no other way.
“God will pay you out,” was all she could say to it.
“What bastard God?” he shouted with a sneer. “There ain't no bastard God.” His sacrilege overwhelmed her and she looked blankly out of the window, at tree trunks showing dimly through sheets of rain. You'd think God would strike him dead, saying a thing like that; but happen he was right: there was no God. He was cutting bread and wrapping it in paper for his lunch, then drinking a cup of tea, and all the time she hoped he would put on his coat and leave her in peace.
“'Ave some snap and fags ready for when I get back tonight.”
“You'll get nowt else from me,” she cried. “I'm going home this morning, and I'm taking Brian with me. You wain't see me again, so don't try and come for me.”
He reached for his coat and cap. “We'll bleeding well see about that.”
“You can't stop me from leaving,” she called out.
He spun round: “Can't I?”
“We'll see then,” he bellowed, and with one rush caught hold of the table rim, tipped it, and sent it spinning across the room. Dishes and cups flew towards the fireplace, and a pot of steaming tea sprayed over the rug. He was no one she knew, had never known anyone so wild as this, a stranger here with her, gone mad in a way she hadn't seen before. Her father had ruled the roost right enough, had wielded big stick and bony fist, but had never havocked and scattered his own goods in so blind a way. There was no man left in his unseeing eyes, and she waited, waited.
“It's no good, she said when he'd gone out into the rain, it's no good not knowing what to do, not even crying any more, though the pain was sharper than knives. Can I really go back to my mother's? She decided she could not. It was as bad there as it is here, so either way it's a rotten look-out. What reasoning she did sprang from hatred, the hope that Seaton would be struck down by a lorry and killed on his way to work, or mangled to death when he arrived there. If only he'd injured me, came another burst of reason, and I'd had to be taken to hospital, then he'd happen have been frightened to death by the police, and have been good to me for a bit. She was startled by the baby crying. But how can I stop its rotten father from being such a rotter to me? A positive thought told her to visit one of his brothers, tell Ernest, for instance, what had happened, and ask if he couldn't talk to his batchy brother Harold and ask him to have more sense.
She levered the table back on to its legs and fed the baby. A cup of tea, and a resolution to see Ernest Seaton, made her feel better. It wasn't raining so heavily when she set out, pushing Brian in the pram.
Turning through street after street, she wondered again why Harold was a numbskull, while his five brothers stood apparently on another level, in the firm grip of good jobs. One was a shoemaker, two were upholsterers, the fourth a lace-designer. Ernest managed a draper's shop in town. Harold Seaton, a labouring numbskull, earned thirty-eight bob a week, when he was lucky, at a tannery and skinyard. The explanation had been pieced together that Harold, having had the bad luck to be the baby of the family, had been left behind by his up-growing brothers, and half-forgotten by his too-old parents. He had had rickets, from thoughtless neglect rather than lack of money, and the disease had prevented him from going to school, caused him lifelong to walk with the swinging gait that Vera, on first seeing him, had mistaken for the pull of the three whippets. She suspected that the bad end of a bargain had come to her, and from wondering whether Seaton was more to be pitied than blamed, gave in to another fit of weeping as she turned on to the street of semi-detached houses where Ernest lived.
Ernest himself opened the door, and she was glad at finding him in. He'd got a good job right enough, able to go in when he liked: I wouldn't be here now if Harold had such a job. He greeted her in a friendly way. “Hello, Vera. You are a stranger, aren't you?” He was twelve years older than Harold, with the same dark eyes and complexion, similar stature going to roundness, afflicted with baldness blamed on his army days in Mesopotamia. They've all got strange eyes, though, Vera thought, leaving the pram by the window and following him into the living-room, where a huge fire burned in the grate. He offered her some tea, as if, she divined, being polite to one of his customers. The sound of herself saying no brought all the events of the black morning bursting into her. Ernest was thinking how pretty and lively she was, that Harold, though backward, had known how to go for the women, that in his opinion he'd done better than the rest of them in this respect. He hardly knew what to say to her, though: what could one ask one's sister-in-law, except how one's own brother was?
“I don't know”âher tone was bitterâ“and I don't care.”
He'd thought something like this was in the offing. “What's the matter then, Vera?” He was alarmed when she began to sob, yet also gratified because he had never known his own wife to shed a tear over anything. “Sit down,” he said; “that's right.”
She cried into her hands: “It's your brother. He's a swine to me.”
Ernest sensed that some sort of blame was being thrown on to him. “Harold? How?” and didn't like hearing his brother referred to in this way either.
“He hit me,” she accused, “for nothing. He's a lunatic, that's what he is.”