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A Man of His Time
By Alan Sillitoe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Alan Sillitoe
All rights reserved.
A tin alarm clock shattering the first glimpse of daylight broke into Ernest Burton's dreamless sleep. At half-past five on May 2nd 1887 he strode to the mantelshelf in his nightshirt and turned the noise off so as not to wake his brother Edward in the same bed. The ironed striped shirt pulled over his head was followed by his second-best suit. Travelling in working clothes wasn't for him. Finished at the end of the day with the world of fire and iron in the forge, you threw off the leather apron and washed sweat away with strong carbolic to spruce up for the alehouse. Or you walked into the garden to get a whiff of fresh air and bent your back to do some weeding. But on a journey you must look your best.
He arranged the watch and chain into his waistcoat, synchronized to the minute by the church clock. Time meant little to a blacksmith. You started work at six and if trade was good didn't notice the hours till it got dark, but every minute away from the forge was for you to enjoy, not caring what the next hour would bring.
A sluice of the head from a bucket filled at the garden pump sharpened him further after last night in the White Hart supping a pint while talking to his mates and saying goodbye to the barmaid Mary Ann. He trawled fingers through short wet hair and, drying off, opened the curtains to let in light. At twenty-one, with his lines as a journeyman blacksmith, he was off to work for his brother George in South Wales, to get experience and earn his bread – as their father had said.
He'd been to Derby and Matlock, but now he was going to an unfamiliar place, and George who was eighteen years older had drilled him on how not to reach the wrong town by mistake. You had to go where the work was, blacksmiths being as common around here as houseflies in summer, but if the pay wasn't good where he was going he'd come back even if he had to walk, though if all went well, which he expected, it would be better than putting up with the snipe-nosed lot in this area whose horses he shoed, like that preachifying lickspittle Bayley who spent all his spare hours on church business. Once when I fixed his nag he threw sixpence at me for a tip, so I looked him straight in the eye and left it for the striker. I don't take tips, and only touch my cap to a personable woman.
In Wales I'll be working for George, and he doesn't stand for any cap-touching either. People who want their horses shod spout all the penny-pinching notions to save a farthing or two but make no bigger mistake because it isn't economy in the end. They'd come back a lot sooner if I didn't tackle the job my way. A badly shod horse is like a house with rotten foundations.
He took sticks from the warm oven to lay over last night's embers and, when flames stopped chasing each other up the chimney, put the kettle on. Stropping his razor till the water turned hot, he filled a mug for as careful a shave as could be without leaving nicks of blood. You never knew what handsome woman might be met with on your travels.
A slice of pork fat over the piece of bread turned crisp at the heat. Normally it was a crust and a drop of water, before a proper breakfast in the forge at eight, but he was setting out on a journey, and didn't want to get famished.
He checked his bag of tools by the door: hammer, buffer, rasp, drawing-knife, long pliers – everything in place. George told him he didn't need to bring any. They were there already, he said, and they were a weight to carry. Well, George could think what he liked. You worked best with your own tools. You knew their balance. You kept them sharpened to your taste. They were always clean. And as for carrying them, what did you have arms for?
Ernest, at six-feet-five the tallest in the family, overlooked his father's balding head when he came down dressed for work. 'You must have been through those tools a dozen times already. They won't run away.'
Ernest tied the string. 'They wouldn't get far if they did.'
'Tell George when you see him he ought to send Sarah a bit more money.'
Ernest ignored him. You couldn't tell George anything.
'Did you hear me?'
He went through the other cloth bag to make sure of his best suit, spare shirts, razor, boots for walking out, a couple of ironed handkerchiefs, socks, a piece of towel, and some soap in an old tobacco tin. 'I did.'
'Tell him, then,' but knowing he would get no more words from such a stiffnecked son.
His mother came in, a shawl over her nightgown, long grey hair not yet pinned. 'You're off, Ernest?'
'I might as well be.'
He was her tenth child, and the youngest. 'I've put bread and cheese in your bag, and some eggs.'
'So I noticed.'
'You'll spoil him,' his father said.
'No, I won't. He'll not go hungry. It's a long way.'
'A couple of hundred miles, bar an inch or two, so George said.' Ernest smiled. 'I'll be all right, Mother. I expect I'll be back in six months.'
He might meet a girl and marry, stay away for good. Or there'd be an accident and he'd get killed. Or he'd catch a disease and die. Things happened to a young man of twenty-one. You could tell what she was thinking. 'If you meet a nice girl who can write, ask her to send a letter and let me know how you are.'
A cold idea: if he found a girl it wouldn't matter whether or not she could read and write. That wasn't what he'd want her for.
'Do you have enough handkerchiefs and shirts?'
'All I'm likely to.'
She poured tea for his father, then for herself. 'We should have sent you to the Board School. I always knew you'd have to go away.'
'I don't care about such things.' He could tell time, and reckon the numbers for cash. When he was ten George saw him playing by the forge, and decided that nobody was too young to learn the trade. He would have started him earlier if his arms had been long enough and strong enough, and if their father had agreed. 'Don't worry about me, Mother. I can look after myself. And I'm not going to the other side of the world.'
His father, on a second cup of tea, looked up at Ernest. 'It's time you were off. You'll need every bit of daylight to get there. The earlier the better.'
He took his jacket from the back of the door, put on his cap, folded the light raincoat over his arm, picked up both bags with one hand, and said nothing as he walked out.
Air fresh and pleasing, the birds whistled their hot little hearts out after a wormy breakfast. He lifted his cap to the windows of the White Hart hoping Mary Ann would wave back, but she'd be laying fires in the kitchen so couldn't.
Long strides took him towards the hooting train and grey-black smoke over Lenton station. He could have saved a penny or two by walking to Beeston, more in the Derby direction, but the tool bag wasn't light so he would put wheels under him as soon as possible. A young brewer, Harry Hughes, set out on foot last year to a promised job in Sunderland. Men did that, but no Burton was such a pauper he couldn't afford twenty-one shillings for the workman's fare. He'd put a bob or two by for a few months, denying himself the odd pint at times, to avoid the indignity of walking. He could have borrowed the money from his father, but wouldn't owe anything to anybody.
Some come by good fortune easily. A bloke in the pub the other night said that a gang of labourers knocking a house down in the middle of town found what looked like pieces of tin or bottletops. They pelted each other till realizing they were ancient coins, when they ran to get a good price at the silversmith's.
The five-minute ride into Nottingham took him by the castle, squat and bleak on its high rock, thunderclouds piling above he hoped wouldn't follow him to Wales. Fifty or so years ago it was set on fire, an old codger told him who'd seen it as a youth, one of thousands cheering the rioters, the sky all flame when not blotted out by smoke. 'I watched the fire till it started to rain, then walked home. Some of those who stayed were caught, and hanged.' The Duke of Newcastle got twenty-one thousand pounds to have it built up again, so the poor paid for the bonfire out of their own pockets. All the same, it must have been a treat to see it go up.
Smoke in his throat at Derby station, he asked a porter which platform to stand on for Worcester. 'You've got half an hour yet, sir, time for a cup of tea in the refreshment room.'
No reply to that. Time to go outside to the Midland Hotel as well, but he wasn't thirsty, boots clattering on the ironwork of the footbridge, light in the head at belonging to nobody for a day, everything he owned on his back or in his hands, and not caring who was left behind – not even Mary Ann, if it came to that – or what he would find on getting where he had never been.
Tea urns steamed in the refreshment room but he stood outside watching engines and wagons shunting through, footplate men shovelling coal to keep the pistons moving, all the doing of that clever chap Stephenson who'd invented the things, though they'd taken some of the blacksmith's trade.
Two young women went by – he'd bet a guinea they were sisters – the handsome one a year or two older but with the same small nose, pale high forehead, and cherry-rich lips a man would give a fortune to kiss, or stake his life to do even more. The older one wore a tall hat with embroidered flowers along the brim, but the other had a swathe of fair hair roped into a coil and pinned under a sort of yachting cap. Near the edge of the platform, halfway facing him, he fixed them with his eyes so that one or the other would sooner or later turn, and once they became aware of him they might want to make sure of what they had seen, and look again.
A goods train went to the shunting yards, another belched from the engine sheds. When the women moved from getting splashed at sudden rain the younger caught the fire of his grey-blue eyes, took in his tallness, and stare – firm but without being offensive – the trim moustache, and thin features. Premature speech was the mark of someone unsure of himself, though he didn't want to lose an opportunity by such an attitude. If they got on a train before his at least he'd had the pleasure of being noticed. He could afford a look yet keep his dignity as a blacksmith.
Her smile was the best present he could wish for. If they were going in the Birmingham direction he would find himself by chance in the same carriage. 'Are you travelling far?' She must have liked the way he touched his cap, not to know he only ever did so for a woman. 'We're waiting to meet someone.'
It should have been obvious they weren't going anywhere, without hatboxes and portmanteaux. 'You live in Derby, I suppose?'
The glare from her sister deserved a smack in the mouth, but he touched his cap to her as well. She buttoned her mauve gloves, as if he might try to shake her hand. 'Maud!'
'We live at Spondon,' Maud told him, ignoring her sister.
'Do you ever go into Nottingham?'
'Sometimes, to the shops.'
With such a smile the other would have trouble keeping her on the rein. 'We might cross each other's path, then.'
Most unlikely, her look said, nor had he thought so, but you never got anywhere unless you tried it on. He recalled delivering a piece of iron grating to a house in Nottingham, a bit of fancy work his father had done. The woman was a parson's wife, but after a bit of joshing he'd had her on a couch in the summer-house.
The elder girl tilted her head. 'Here's the train, Maud. And they'll be coming first-class.'
Pleased at the encounter, he hoped for better luck in Wales. A crowd along the platform, he pushed through before the train stopped, to find a seat.
Blossom from the trees came down like confetti at a wedding, as if earth and sky thought a meeting might do some good. The Trent flashed steely water now and again, meandered its merry way through the meadows. If the girls at Derby had got on the train he would have helped them into the carriage, a bit of a climb for such dainties, and if they hadn't wanted to talk to him – though he couldn't see why not – he'd have kept an eye on Maud for a mile or two. With the glint in her eyes she looked as if she'd spend marvellously, though he didn't doubt that the one with the sour face would bring the house down as well when she came.
Forgetting them for a moment, he pictured Mary Ann at the White Hart, a well-built girl the same age as himself, worth twenty of them. The blue and white striped high-necked shirt with a lapis lazuli brooch at the throat told him she was no common sort of barmaid, as she assiduously filled the pint pots, or dispensed stronger stuff from a high façade of bottles behind the bar, responding with a flick of her auburn hair if anyone made the kind of remark she didn't care to hear. He wasn't daft enough to talk like that to any young woman.
On first seeing her and asking where she came from her soft though decisive voice had a different twang to the neighbourhood accent. She stood back to answer. 'I was born at St Neots.'
'Where might that be?'
'In Huntingdonshire. I was a milliner's apprentice' – which showed in the neat dress fitting the slim waist so nicely, noticed as she walked into another room at the call of her mistress.
'How did you come to find this situation?' he asked another time.
'My father saw an advertisement in the newspaper, and thought I'd be better off in service than looking for work as a milliner.'
She could read and write, so belonged to a decent family. 'Are there many girls at home like you?'
'I'm the fourteenth child out of fifteen,' she told him, 'but seven died when they were babies.'
'That was a shame. I'm the youngest of ten, and we're all still alive. Will you come out with me on Sunday afternoon? We can walk to the Trent. It's pretty in the meadows.'
'I only have one day off a month.'
He already knew, but the more words from her the better. 'Come on that day.'
'I can't. I go to church. Mrs Lewin sees me there, and fetches me after the service. Then I have other things to do.'
He disliked being denied. 'Such as what?'
'I must write to let my parents know how I am. And then I have to see to my clothes.'
'If that's the way it is.' Men at his elbow were calling for ale. 'Pump me another before you go back to your work.'
He ignored her for a few weeks, though noticed her look in his direction when he asked Ada the other barmaid to fill his tankard. He could have had her for tuppence. Her mouth always open, he called her the Flycatcher, not that he had ever seen a fly go in, and she wasn't bad-looking, but would have been prettier if she closed her mouth. Mrs Lewin the landlady told her about it once, but it didn't get through. Even when she smiled her lips barely met but, gormless or not, she'd have done all right under a bush, though to try and get her there would have spoiled his chances with Mary Ann.
Hard to keep his glance from whatever part of the bar she was in, and enjoy the modest way she served, wondering how she could favour anybody more than him as she went quietly about her work. When not at the bar it was because Mrs Lewin had her attending to household matters in the back, or busy on a millinery job. She'd be a useful wife, though he wouldn't tackle wedlock yet, there being so many willing girls in Nottingham.
He had gone home a few weeks ago with a woman called Leah who worked in a lace factory, her husband doing shifts as a railway shunter, and had the sort of time that showed no need to marry for what he wanted. A lovely robust woman ten years older, he seasoned her till she was greedy for all he could give, asking him to call any time he liked, as long as nobody else was in the house.
The only way of getting Mary Ann into bed, and he wouldn't think anything of her otherwise, was with a marriage certificate pinned on the wall behind. So maybe he should ask her hand before anybody else did, though if she turned him down there were plenty of others to keep him busy.
He smiled when his name was called, on realizing it was that of the place they were stopping at, a smell of beer and hops wafting in from the breweries. The train went puffing its way by foundries and forges, workshops and coalpits, wholesome beer fumes replaced by a sulphurous stink. Laden drays trundled up to their axles in mud along lanes and tracks, but even if he got off here he would find work as a trained blacksmith, though he couldn't because George was expecting him in Wales, and George didn't wait for any man, brother or not.
It was George who had tutored him in the basics of the trade from the day he could swing bellows, shoulder pieces of iron, hump bags of coke to the fire, or hold a hammer with a firm hand, and any mishap on the uptake, or slowness in obedience, he got a blow across the shoulder with a bar of iron. George had a temper when it came to doing your work properly.
Filling the unfamiliar idleness Ernest recalled George's fury after setting him to polish a pile of horse brasses. At eleven Ernest hadn't brought out a sufficient shine so George held him against the wall and banged his head until stars prettier than any from the anvil followed him into blackness.
Excerpted from A Man of His Time by Alan Sillitoe. Copyright © 2004 Alan Sillitoe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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