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Authors: Alan Sillitoe

Her Victory

BOOK: Her Victory
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Her Victory

A Novel

Alan Sillitoe

Contents

PART ONE Making the Break

PART TWO Home from the Sea

PART THREE Meeting

PART FOUR The Women

PART FIVE Love

PART SIX Adrift

A Biography of Alan Sillitoe by Ruth Fainlight

PART ONE

Making the Break

1

‘What are you trying to climb into the freezer for?' George wanted to know.

A plastic orange gift-cannon of the Napoleonic type fell out of the cereal box and pointed its muzzle at his forehead. Such an omen, from behind a barricade of cornflakes, indicated the sort of week coming up that he could well do without. When he glanced at rain clouds forming beyond the half-steamed window there was no mistaking the picture of Monday morning. Yet even that was an advantage, because his habit was to leave the house earlier than on other days. He might therefore have thought it the best time of the week if he hadn't, on coming downstairs, seen his wife Pam wearing a bright green blouse, a dull beige cardigan which she had knitted the previous winter, and a crimson skirt from the New Year's sales. Such colours spun against his retina like a mad woman's rainbow.

‘Well, what for, then? The bloody
freezer
?'

Every morning for years she had decided to leave him, but this autumn dawn was different because he had never accused her of climbing into the freezer before, when she was only trying to clean it out. There were times when his sense of humour defeated him and, being shocked, he could only sound like the bulldozing swine he had always been. She said: ‘It gets too hot in this kitchen.'

He scattered white sugar over the cornflakes with his dessert spoon, then picked up the cannon and hurled it across the room into the sink. Crackshot. It floated in a bowl of water. ‘If you open a window, there'll be a draught. I only got rid of my cold last week.'

Can't you see I'm dying?

Aren't we all? he'd said once too often.

They had been married long enough for him to know that he must rehearse every phrase before speaking, but he had never been able to live up to the high expectations he had set for himself. Nor had it been possible for him to exist under those she had no doubt proposed for herself. ‘Remember how long we shopped around for such a good quality freezer? I'll never be able to use it again if you do yourself in in it.'

Airtight plastic bags of peas and beans; kilner jars of blackberries collected from the purlieus of Sherwood Forest; breast of mutton; a length of chops like the red and white keys of some fantastic piano which he had brought home in his car from the cutprice wholesaler downtown; yoghourt-containers of soup and squash; portions of carrots; packets of sausages and kidney; all lay scattered around, extracted piecemeal, he assumed, so as to make room for herself. She had only taken everything out in order to defrost and clean. He laughed when she told him. ‘Try gas, then. Or pills.'

He got on well with his workmen, his humour sufficiently earthy and loudmouthed to keep them conscientious, even these days. He'd been in their place himself, and knew every dodge in the book. He also paid above the union rate. ‘Give 'em money, and they'll work. And if they work, my profits rise. It's as simple as that.'

It was hard for him to talk without boasting, but at such devastation he could hardly speak: ‘And what about all that grub? Think of the trouble we took. It'll go rotten if you don't put it back, sharp.' Terror sparkled in his eyes. If he made what he thought she was attempting to do sound funny perhaps she would stop getting her legs into the freezer-chest, and come back to the table.

She was trying to do no such thing, but before he could say more she glared: ‘You're supposed to put me off doing it.'

To laugh was better for his pride than crying. ‘Am I?'

‘You're my husband. Or have you forgotten?'

She was going too far back in time. Pushing by to get milk from the refrigerator, he pressed a firm hand on her shoulder to show that he owned her absolutely, and said sorrowfully: ‘What would be the point in trying to stop you, you see, if you're so dead set on it?'

Ice gripped at the heart. Her purpose had been to clean the freezer, and check what was inside. ‘It's stupid of you to try and drive me mad. You know very well I'm not that sort of person.'

‘How the bloody hell do you expect me to know a thing like that?'

He wasn't as calm as he looked. A man who prided himself on his sense of humour was always quick to lose his poise. She finished cleaning the freezer, and began to put things back, though it made no difference: ‘You were trying to stuff yourself in the ice-chest. I'm not blind. But I do wish you'd make up your puny little mind about it.'

She closed the lid quietly and sat on the kitchen stool to face him across the table. She was one skip ahead, but he wouldn't realize it until whatever happened had passed him by. ‘I suppose you would like me to kill myself.'

‘Think of Teddy.' He was enjoying his favourite breakfast. ‘If
you
kick the bucket, there'll only be me to look after the poor little sod.'

‘He's eighteen. And he's at college.'

‘Thought it was quiet this morning. He's usually got that jungle-band on his hi-fi bursting our eardrums. When'd he go back?'

‘Last night. He was glad to get away. Remember?'

Milk splashed on to the table. ‘Of course I bloody well do.'

‘There's no need to swear.'

‘Oh, but there is. There always bloody was. Teddy's old enough to look after himself now.'

She was happy about that. Her tears were falling. ‘I've never known anyone as dense and selfish as you.'

‘I sometimes think you've never known anybody at all.' He could be even more cutting when he didn't try to be funny. There had been a time when she had known everything about him, but that was when there hadn't been very much to know, or when she wasn't sufficiently acute to see what was there. But now he seemed a stranger with whom she didn't want to become familiar. She wondered whether he didn't think the same about her, and decided it wouldn't much matter. It was best that nothing ever again mattered between them. She finished putting food back into the freezer.

He lifted the spoon to his mouth, always at his most specific when she tried to make amends: ‘You bitch.'

She was hardly audible. ‘Am I?'

‘You're making my life a misery.' What was the use holding back if she was going to do herself in? You might as well tell her everything you'd always thought but not said for fear of hurting her, before she did kill herself, because if she happened to pull it off you might not get another opportunity.

She imagined such words ticker-taping into his brain, which made it more difficult to detach herself. ‘I don't particularly want to know anybody.'

His face showed pain, as if he regretted his words. ‘In my plain old view you aren't realistic in the way you look at the world.' His smile was kindly, till he shouted: ‘But you're right when you say I'm selfish, if that's what it is. God knows, I realize I'm not perfect. Nobody is, are they? To be selfish is the only way I know to save you from yourself. If I slobbered all over you, and kissed your shoes, pleading for you not to kill yourself, you would do it, out of spite, just so's I'd have to take a few days off work. But you'll never do it when you know I don't give a damn whether you do it or not, will you? Will you, then?'

He was asking her. How much proof did he want? But would she really do it? Maybe he was right, because who would kill herself for him? Trust him to think she would do it for him instead of for herself. Not only did he consider himself to be the centre of the world, but he still thought the earth was flat.

He was reasonably tearful. ‘But I do care, anyway.'

So much speaking before midday undermined his self-confidence, and made him sweat. If he were late for work he would never forgive himself. He hardly ever said anything at breakfast, and neither did she. He awoke from sleep as if he were recovering from a dose of poison that hadn't been quite fatal. God knows what he dreamt. On once asking, he answered proudly that he didn't, and never had. He slept like a stone that water dripped on, a torment he was only vaguely aware of on waking up, which made his temper so vile that it was best, they had long since agreed, if neither spoke.

Button-lips, he told himself, was the order of the day. Everything he thought, she spoke usually before he had any notion of saying it. Internal and disputatious life was blocked off. He wanted to make her feel deficient about not properly caring for him, so put on the usual mask of a little boy who had been abandoned by all the supports he had grown accustomed to, the real face underneath surfacing only to indicate that he hadn't had many good things to get used to in his hardworking life anyway. He wasn't aware of this, she felt, so the toll it took of him drained the life out of her.

‘I think you've got to have a bit of selfishness to get through life,' she said, still wondering whether she would leave him today.

Her clear statement surprised him. ‘Selfishness is next to godlessness,' he retorted and, in the same breath: ‘Fry my eggs and bacon, duck. I've got to be going soon.'

‘Why don't you leave me alone?' Her request came from the misery of a greater plea that she hadn't been able to make, because to do so would give her even more into his mercy. She tried to see him as if for the first time, hoping not to be so strident in her conclusions. For reasons of self-preservation she adopted the obvious rather than the speculative, seeing a man of five feet six inches in height, and solid like a barrel, with muscular arms and big hands. When he walked, the world made way, especially in his own small factory where twenty workmen at lathes and milling machines turned out precision parts which could not yet be mass produced. He went to work in a boiler-suit to prove he was one of the men, but she had to make sure that a clean one was laid over the stair rail every morning for him to get into. When he stood before a machine to do a special piece of engineering that couldn't be trusted to anyone else, his underlip pushed out in intense concentration, he kept his shirtsleeves rolled down so that a pair of gold cufflinks glittered.

BOOK: Her Victory
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