Read Key to the Door Online

Authors: Alan Sillitoe

Key to the Door (9 page)

BOOK: Key to the Door
11.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

She wavered, unable to stand up to him: “You know I don't like to see steel on the table during a storm. It might get struck.”

He let out a terrific “Ha!” like a bullet: “You'd take 'em off the table just because it's lightning?” he shouted. Brain drew back: what's he getting on to me for as well? Merton jumped up, so that Brian almost lost his fear of the storm in wondering what he was up to. “I'll show you there's no bloody need to be frightened at a bit o' lightning.” He scooped a bundle of knives and forks, flung open the window, and held them outside, waiting for a flash of lightning while Brian and his grandmother froze by the table.

Had Merton been at work, Mary would have taken an oil lamp on the stairs, where lightning was invisible and thunder muffled. For whenever the faintest flicker of lightning carved up dark and distant clouds like a Sunday joint, she would say to whoever was in the house: “It's a bit black over Nottingham,” knowing that soon the storm would turn its deluge towards Wollaton. The children had been made to sit countless times on the stairs when they were young, and Vera never forgot the hours spent under the dim oil lamp that created shadows of merged and huddled forms on the landing walls. Not until the last low rumble of thunder had died away would she tentatively open the stairfoot door and motion her children back into the kitchen.

A sudden fleet of hailstones bullied the geraniums, sang against Merton's cutlery, and bounced into the house. “Here it comes!” he cried, so that Brian, kept quiet by fear at the time, remembered the joy in his grandfather's voice. A sheet of blue light covered the window. I heard it, Brain said to himself. I heard it sizzle—shielding his face and looking through splayed fingers. He's dead. The dark kitchen was lit up, and immediately a thousand guns of thunder rolled over the house.

Merton slammed the window and turned round. “You see? There's nowt to be frightened on.” Brian took his hands down: It ain't touched him.

“God'll repay you for such things,” Mary said, “and for frightening poor little Brian like that.”

“Go on,” he scoffed, slinging the cutlery back on the table as if contemptuous at its inability to kill him. “Old Nimrod ain't frightened, are yer?”

Brian breathed hard; the circus act had seemed as much directed against him as his grandmother. “No, grandad. Course I ain't.”

Grandad wasn't won over by this. He sat by the fire, an image of the inside storm, while hailstones and rain torrents outside fought hand over fist to get down eaving and drainpipe into the safety of waterbutts placed around the house, a swishing and scrambling that discouraged Brian from talking for fear he wouldn't be heard. Hailstones smacked against the window-panes, zigzagged down the chimney and died in the fire, or ricochetted so quickly from the fireback that they didn't melt until hitting the hearthrug.

Knives and forks stayed on the table, but Mary wouldn't touch them while lightning flashed. She lit the lamp and fetched tea food from the pantry, so superstitious that she did everything as if God were watching her: never threw bread on the fire (which was feeding the devil), never ill-treated a dumb animal, never turned a beggar away from the door. Even forty years with Merton had kept these principles alive, and they were so strongly instilled into her eight children that their children would also live by them.

Brian left his chair and went to Merton. “Grandad?”

“What's up, Nimrod?”

“What meks lightnin' an' thunder?”

“Nay, I don't know.” Merton was puzzled, forced to give something thought that he had taken for granted these last sixty years. Then his stern face changed to mischief and enlightenment. “It's like this,” he said, leaning forward: “as far as I can mek out, God asks Sent Paul to get 'im a load o' coal up from't pit in 'ell, an' Paul gets wagons loaded up wi' some o' the best. Then 'e 'itches up ponies and trundles it up to 'eaven where God is. Well,” his eyes flashed with inspiration, “when Paul unloads the coal it meks a noise, an' that's when it thunders.”

Brian's laugh was belief and doubt. “It i'n't,” he said.

Merton grinned. “Yo' ask yer gra'ma, an' see whether it's true or not. Hey, Mary, ain't that right?”

Salmon, pickled cucumber, bread already buttered, were spread on a white cloth, and they drew chairs in to eat. “That's right,” she said, amused at such blasphemy since it put Merton in a good temper. Brian leaned across the table: “Hey, grandad, well, what about lightning?”

A forkful of cucumber was speared before the answer came: “That's when they open the furnaces of 'ell, to see'f fires is still goin', an' if they need some more coal.” He grinned at his easy victory. “Look, old Nimrod don't believe a thing I tell 'im. I don't know, I can see nobody'll ever be able to tell 'im owt wi'out he looks at 'em in that funny way, enough to call 'em a liar!”

Sun glistened on the wet slate wash-house roof across the yard. “He only believes what his mother tells him, don't you, Brian?” Mary said. He shook his head, mouth full, at the sight of a hedge dripping with fresh rain. One line of hedge turned into another, bordering unused forgotten pathways, trodden deep between house-wall and pigeon coops, where you stood and could see nothing, yet heard the throaty warbling like water going through a broken-down whistle from perches beyond hexagonal-holed wire. The front door of the house faced away from the lane, over a garden into which Brian went after exploring the suburbs of inhabited hedgerows. He saw the well, conventional and frightening, a fairy-book piece of architecture on a low hill. He wanted to touch the wooden triangular roof and turn the chain-laden roller of wood, to sit on the circular low brick wall and let down the bucket for filling. But he was afraid. When he said: “I'm going out now, gra'ma,” she said, looking up from her pastry board: “Don't go near the well then, will you?” He was eager to be off but asked: “Why, gra'ma?” “Because you'll get drowned,” she told him ominously. Sometimes he saw Uncle George coming from it with a yoke across his shoulders, walking down the slope with two lead-heavy buckets. “When can I fetch water from the well, Uncle George?”

“Soon,” Uncle George told him, and went on to the house.

“Soon,” he discovered over square-wheeled months, was a misfit, a no-good word, a trick to fob him off with because it wasn't a definite length of time like a minute, hour, week, or even year, but was whatever of those divisions he or she who said “soon” wanted it to be. So from now on, he told himself, whenever anyone says I can do something “soon,” I'll say to them, yes, I know all about that, you bleddy liar, but when, when, when? “Hey, gra'ma, can I sleep here tonight?” he asked, bursting back into the house.

Merton spat on the hot bars. “This'll soon be your second home, I reckon. Would you like to live here, you young bogger?”

“Can he sleep with you two?” Mary said to Lydia and Vi, looking up from her paper.

“He can for me,” Lydia replied. “It'll be a bit crowded, but I don't mind.”

That was settled. “Thanks, gra'ma. Can I play in the parlour?”

“Yes, but don't break the gramophone, will you?”

“No,” he said. “Uncle George?”

George's forkful of egg was reprieved for another minute: “What?” he asked, looking up.

“Can I build a Goose Fair with your dominoes?”

“Don't break 'em then, or I'll cut your nose off.”

“And you wain't look up to much wi' no nose,” Merton put in. “Will he, Mary?”

The only time he'd seen anyone in the parlour was when his grandad went in there on Saturday night to change his boots before going out, and then to take them off for Sunday dinner after an hour on the razz-mattaz in one of the beer-offs at Radford Woodhouse. Merton would lean back in a chair, and if Brian happened to be there, call for him, saying: “Unlace my boots, you young bogger.” Then: “Now pull for all ye'r worth.” Sometimes the boots would come off slowly and Brian would stagger back only one pace; often, pulling and lugging and all but twisting, they would loosen suddenly and send him crashing against the wallpaper, with Merton grinning from the chair when Brian on the rebound resentfully called out that he was fawce bogger, and boxed the curtain out of the way so that he could go into the kitchen.

Sometimes when Merton sat at ease in his high-backed chair at the fire he imperiously held out one of his long heavily knuckled fingers and called to Brian: “Hey, Nimrod, pull this.”

Mary tut-tutted: “Stop your tricks.” George and Lydia watched, smirking—or perhaps would turn away and try not to watch. Brian suspected a trick but pulled hard and strong at the finger anyway, and Merton would let out a long unmistakable splintering fart as he did so, a performance that brought the house down, and caused Brian to remark: “You dirty bogger,” and walk off.

When Merton was at the pit, or otherwise occupied around garden or toolshed, Brian was alone in the beamed parlour playing with Uncle George's dominoes on the polished mahogany table. The dresser was covered with interesting untouchables: curios from Skegness and Cleethorpes, a porcelain war-memorial, sea-shells, a ship in a bottle. On a stand blocking the front door was an enormous horn that played tunes when the gramophone handle was turned two dozen times. A cracked voice—impossible to say whether man's or woman's—sometimes sang:

“O my darling Nellie Gray

They have taken her away

And I'll never see

My darling any more.…”

And when he asked his grandmother who Nellie Gray was, she said she supposed it was some woman or other; and when he asked Uncle George, he was told it was a horse, a grey horse; so he saw a woman in a grey dress with a horse's head whenever the maundering and cracked voice wove an arabesque through the cluttered room.

Above the mantelpiece hung a huge picture of a shy narrow-faced long-haired girl holding a posy that a waistcoated muffle-necked youth by her side had given her. They were sweethearts, he said to himself, and when his grandmother dusted the parlour he pointed to the picture: “Gra'ma, was that you and grandad?” “No,” she answered. “Who is it then?” “I don't know.” But she must be having him on, for who else could it be but his gra'ma and grandad? Under the painting two lines were written, the last words of both sounding similar but for the first letter of them:

If you love me as I love you

Nothing will ever part us two

which he chanted to the click of falling dominoes, or copied on the white paper bordering indecipherable newsprint, or sang to the tune of Nellie Gray when the whining voice of the man or woman got on his nerves, building his Goose Fairs until all light had been drained into the garden and killed by some monster there, when he ran into the oil-lamped kitchen because darkness made him afraid.

A double-barrelled shotgun slung over his shoulder, Merton walked up the garden path and cut through a gap in the hedge, followed by Brian shouldering a stick, and Gyp the dog. Silently through a cornfield, they climbed a stile into a meadow, Gyp now picking a fight with stones that Brian ducked-and-draked for it over the grass. Brian stepped behind the tall upright figure of a grandad carrying a gun directly there was a feeling of birds in the blue sky, ink blots swooping to a rise in front.

Merton lifted the gun, and the persisting tune of Nellie Gray died on Brian's lips. There was a roar, a startling explosion that imperceptibly moved the right shoulder above, and looking from behind the legs, he saw birds falling towards grass on either side of a stream.

“Go on!” Merton shouted to Gyp. He smoked his pipe, waited for the dog to lay the limp and bleeding thrushes at his feet. “Put 'em in the bag, Nimrod,” he said, “then I'll let yer 'ev one for your supper.” Blood and feathers came off on to Brian's hands, and he was startled by another double-crash of the busy quick-firing gun.

Merton's hand made an eaving across his forehead. Brian saw a controlling skyscraper in halfway motion between a wave and a point, shouting: “Goo after 'em, Gyp”—as if each word were shot out by the downward bash of a piston somewhere in his chest.

Brian ran, competing with Gyp at finding peppered half-stripped birds, licking blood from fingers as he peered under a bush for what the dog might have missed. Who was Nellie Gray, grandad? (His grandad was the one he hadn't asked, but he knew he wouldn't get a straight answer, so didn't bother.) “Get down flat,” he was told, “flat as a pancake, Nimrod.” And just as a nettle stung the end of his nose, another shell exploded a hundred feet above, and before he received the order to stand up, three more thrushes slapped his neck and legs. He punched the dog and took them for his own pocket, making his way through the wheat to where his grandad was lighting another pipe.

Brian and Gyp followed the swinging bird-bag to the house. “Thrush-pudding for supper,” Merton laughed, pipe-smoke drifting over them, “wi' custard.”

“Will they be sweet then, grandad?”

“Ay, like new-born cabbages.” Merton waited, pushed the dog in front with his boot, and Brian with his open hand.

“Them's not sweet,” he contested, looking round.

“Go on, you young bogger, you'll be tellin' me as rhubarb's not sour next.” He gave a satisfied grunt as he pushed open the door. Brian pummelled Gyp on the cinder path outside, getting his ears chewed in return for being a bully and not letting the dog enjoy its own world. It freed itself, but stood by him waiting to be attacked again, tongue falling so far down between two molars that he could have tugged it like a girl's plait at school.

“Gyp! Here, Gyp!” Merton called, appearing at the door with a bone. A fist crept to its face, then withdrew, and it waited for another knuckle-bound assault. (“Gyp! Gyp!”) “Go on,” Brian said, “grandad's calling you.” The dog's eyes said: If I turn you'll jump on me. What do you think I am? When Merton called again it still didn't run for the bone, and the next thing Brian knew was Merton striding towards them with a stick. “I'll teach the bloody dog to come when I tell it.”

BOOK: Key to the Door
11.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Jennifer's Garden by Dianne Venetta
And One to Die On by Jane Haddam
Christmas with Tucker by Greg Kincaid
Unlucky in Love by Maggie McGinnis
The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff
Last to Die by James Grippando
Changing Times by Marilu Mann
Full Impact by Suzanne Weyn