Read Birthday Online

Authors: Alan Sillitoe

Birthday

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Birthday

A Novel

Alan Sillitoe

IN MEMORIAM

June Sillitoe

Part One

ONE

Arthur dropped gear going downhill. ‘Trams clanked through here once upon a time. Then you got tracklesses. Now there's ordinary buses. But it pays to have your own car. Saves hanging around.'

Brian's bedtime reading, set in the smokey-hot olive groves of Greece, was a potent antidote to the sight of his home town. ‘I like driving from London in a couple of hours, to call on the family whenever the mood takes me.'

‘We're always glad to see you,' Arthur said. Trains at one time grumbled up and down the double line through Basford Crossing, from the main station in town to populous colliery places such as Bulwell and Kirkby and Sutton-in-Ashfield, not to mention Newstead, which Brian had noted long before he knew of the Abbey and Byron.

‘Coal smoke used to reek as if it would cure the flu,' Arthur told Avril, out for the first time since her bout of chemotherapy. ‘Even when it makes you cough enough to think you'd got TB it was a tonic for us.'

‘I'll bet it was,' she said wryly.

Shops selling food and cheap clothes, ironmongery and paraffin, had been packed around the crossroads. A public library gave shelter to a few down and outs in winter while they read the papers, and those with nowhere to lay their heads at night could trudge to a workhouse not too far up the road. A park for sitting in on sunny days had a pond at the centre, and Arthur thought God help the poor bloody fishes, though they seemed lively enough when fingers twirled the water, even if they did have two heads and a split tail from the bleach works nearby.

Children out of school would shout to be heard above the thunder of the unstoppable rhythmical puffer under its whitey grey coils of smoke, eyes showing envy and maybe fear at an engine that didn't care (as if it could) whether they lived or died.

Brian remembered counting the trucks, and marvelling at the load a shining black locomotive could haul, staring as if his soul was struggling to get free from under the heaps of coal so that he could run as far away as his feet would take him. Magic names stencilled in big white letters along their sides flickered in his dreams on hearing wagons rattle through by night as well, unseen places more glamorous than the one he lived in.

‘I'm sure it's altered a lot,' Avril said, who had been brought up in London, and could only laugh at their talk of past and difficult times. ‘It must have done, by the look of it.'

Arthur recalled standing on the footbridge, which was still there, with its terracotta girders and white grid rail to stop people tumbling over. No more coal trucks laboured under canopies of smoke because there were no collieries for them to go to. ‘We never thought it would change like this.' Pubs and pawnshops and bookies had been a part of the place as well. ‘There were crowds around here, but it's a desert now. It's half past seven on a Saturday night, and where is everybody?'

Shop doors were boarded up: brambles and dandelions sprouted from doorsteps, strips of paper swayed from a hoarding between two shops like the withered arms of a dead octopus, and a faded notice from way back advertised three-piece suits. ‘People are in flats and new houses,' Avril said, ‘and good luck to them.'

The lights on stop, Arthur gently braked before a wider road with more traffic on it. He would have gone through on yellow, but there was always a flash bastard coming the other way in a BMW to clip you. ‘Some of us didn't mind living like that. We didn't know any other life.'

‘I remember telling people at a dinner party in London about my early days,' Brian said, ‘and they asked whether I'd been happy growing up in a slum. When I said I didn't remember it like that they thought I was putting it on.'

Arthur pointed out the white stuccoed façade of an old picture house, now an emporium for builders' materials. ‘You're right,' he said to Avril. ‘It wasn't so good living around here. You just didn't realize until you left.'

Lights flashed permission for Arthur's Peugeot to rumble over the crossing. The Methodist chapel, having lost much of its clientele for Christian worship, had a social security office on the upper floor, while newish houses beginning to replace the grubby dereliction of the old looked as if no one lived in them. His attention didn't deviate from the macadam while nodding to Brian in the back. ‘I expect Jenny'll get a shock when she sees your phizog at the party.'

‘I suppose she will.' It was another reason for being here, apart from seeing his brothers, and trawling what places of his youth were still upstanding. They mostly weren't, many Stalingrads having come and gone on the old stomping grounds, though he'd never stopped regarding his home town with affection, whatever happened to it, hadn't left with alacrity at eighteen out of dislike for the place as because he wanted to see more of the world. No matter how changed, it was an area in which he had no need of maps. Everything was in the past, but an event could leap to mind with such intensity it might have happened in the last five minutes.

Whatever his age, he contrived not to take in the reality of the staring face during his morning shave, and joking in a pub with his brothers about living forever was a fair reason for drinking to the prospect, while aware that death's blackout could descend any minute. Lucky the man to whom it came quickly, though going to Jenny's seventieth birthday party kept such thoughts at bay.

‘It's a good job me and Derek will be with you,' Arthur said. ‘We can't have you getting her in the pod again.'

Such jibes called for the expected Seaton laugh, because Jenny Tuxford, after a lifetime of misery endured with unimaginable saintliness, had been freed at last from an anguish which must have seemed eternal while it was going on. She was his first love, never forgotten, so he had been invited to the party. ‘I never did get her pregnant. Some other swine had to do that.'

They had gone at it every weekend on the settee in her parents' house like rabbits in a thunderstorm or, to use another local phrase, had many helpings of hearthrug pie in front of the fire. Her father, a miner at Cinderhill, got a good allowance of coal to heat the council house, as if such juvenile passion needed it.

He had never seen her with no clothes on, nor had she witnessed him ‘bare' – as they would have put it. In those days a man's shirt wouldn't come off except over the head, and he might have to pull it back on at the click of a gate latch. It was bad enough undoing braces to get your trousers down, though there was never a man smarter at yanking them up.

Jenny was armoured in roll-on, heavy duty brassiere, lisle stockings and suspenders, though the advance guard of his fingers always closed on the vital spot, which led to the soaking of camiknickers in love juice (the embarrassing term came back to him) until he learned enough from a mate in the factory to call at the chemist's once a week and provide himself with an adequate supply of french letters. No lack of sex education for him, and with such memories who needed pornography?

Arthur broke in: ‘A woman can have a baby at whatever age she likes, or so I read in the paper. Maybe Jenny will make you use a contraceptive this time, and put your spunk in her deep freeze. She'll have the kid in five years' time, and let one of her great granddaughters bring it up. It's hard to say, with a deep one like her. But if she does have a kid you'll just have to keep sweating your bollocks off writing them television scripts to pay the maintenance. She might even have quads.'

‘You are a devil,' Avril laughed, ‘talking like that about a respectable woman.'

‘You never know how respectable anyone is,' Arthur said, ‘till they're dead.' He crossed the dual carriageway going left to the city centre and right to the M1, over on the free lights to go through the estate of Broxtowe.

A tranquil evening, the blaze of late sun caught the roofs as if to set them on fire. Nearly every council dwelling had its car, sometimes a caravan for whoever hadn't been able to get far enough from Basford Crossing but liked a look at the Lincolnshire coast now and again. And if they were too dead-alive to go that far a satellite dish pulled in four hundred channels of boring television.

‘This is an area of high crime and vandalism,' Arthur said. ‘In the old days the houses were a lot closer together, so people policed themselves. They had to, if they wanted to live in peace. Anybody thieving or making trouble would get a good thumping, and if your parents didn't do it, one of the neighbours would. If anything went missing from a house in our street all we had to do was find Billy Jones, who lived a few doors away. Somebody would put a fist under his nose, and make him give back what he'd nicked. If Billy said it wasn't him you showed him the other fist and then he'd tell you who it was. I think thieving was in his blood. A woman spotted him taking a meat grinder from under his coat at the pawnshop one Monday morning, and knew it belonged to Mrs Greatton, so she gave him a terrible pasting, and took it back to her.'

Brian laughed. ‘It nearly always was him' – though you might also say Poor Old Billy, who had even more scars inside than out, and almost from birth had never known where his next meal was coming from. He belonged, if that was the word, to parents who fought all the time, when they weren't boozed up on dole money, or on the proceeds of whatever their children earned or stole.

‘They had eight kids and a grandma in that family,' Arthur said, ‘and I'll never know how all eleven fitted into one little house. I expect they slept in a row on the floor. I went in one day to call for one of the kids, and I nearly got gassed. Nowadays I expect they'd all be in care.'

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