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A Start in Life
A Michael Cullen Novel
By Alan Sillitoe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 Alan Sillitoe
All rights reserved.
I remember childhood as an intense and wonderful love-affair that was stamped out by the wilful circumstance of growing up. So you can be sure I won't spend long on it.
It's hard to take things very far back, except to say that I came into the world without a father. A man must have been somewhere involved in it, but I didn't know who he was, and I felt for a long time that my mother hardly did, either. In this sense I married my mother at a very early age, so that until I grew conscious of the world, I lived the most perfect existence. But when I tried to stop rivals getting into bed with her, she slapped me, saying: 'Get out of the way, you little bastard.' If she hit me hard enough I did as she told me, otherwise I crawled under the bed and slept to the gentle rocking noise above.
She sometimes called me a foreign bastard, but there was no great insult to strangers in this, for it only meant I was foreign to her own body, which could not help but be, having come right out from it. As soon as she thought I had reached the age of reason she stopped calling me these names for fear I should understand their exact meaning, of ask her to explain them to me. In this way I remembered the appellation till I was able to look up its significance in a dictionary at school.
She knocked me around, but fed me well and put good clothes on my back, so in the world we lived in there was no reason to complain. The war was on (don't ask which), and I took great interest in it from the wireless going continually. It seemed that every soldier in the world, on our side anyway, had to knock at the front door and, a few hours later, slip out of the back on his way up the line to death. They were stuffed with gin, and me with lollipops, while my mother seemed to thrive on fags and chewing-gum. As far as I was concerned that was how the war was won, and if children of mine ever think to ask: 'Dad, what did you do in the war?' I'll say, 'I kept my trap shut and loved every bit of it.'
Nothing lasts for ever, though you don't think so at the time. If it's bad you want it to go quickly, and if it's good you like it so much your heart marks time to hold it close, though you soon get tired of its dotty rhythm. A neighbour looked after me while Mother went to work and I played in the soil wearing clouts and rompers (and in summer nothing at all) till Mother came down the yard in her democratic overalls, an egalitarian jaunty fag at her lips, when I'd run to take her hand and we'd go together to the back door, me holding a biscuit she'd saved from the canteen at dinner-time, but unwilling to eat it quickly since it seemed the only visible proof of her love.
My father's side I didn't know about, for my mother never spoke of him. But she had parents still, so I got enough talk from her family to last for both sides. They lived in a house at Beeston, and she'd take me there, out of the streets and along Faraday Road as far as the bridge, where she'd pull me up to the top deck of the bus because she wanted to smoke. Then I could look out through clouds of it at wide spaces spreading left and right at the university that I thought at first was a hospital. One summer's day we went on foot, a short way along Cuthrough Lane which she always called Cut Throat Lane because as a girl she used to walk or cycle along its narrow and leafy path which was so secluded that it put her in that frame of mind.
Grandma was scrubbing the house and when she told me to sit down I did so where a chair was usually placed. But I fell in a bucket of muddy water laced with snakey and lukewarm floorcloths. I set up a scream – only drowned by my mother's of rage when she pulled me out of it. The house was dark with the shutters shut. It was bigger than ours and stood on a side lane off the main road, and had a walled garden. The tree in the middle was stout, an ancient elm that was rotten inside, but Grandad was frightened to chop it down because he thought it might crush the kitchen jutting out from the house, or smash through the wall and block the road. I tried to climb it at an early age. For a long time it defeated me because I was so small, but there were always other troubles waiting. I got into scrapes so much, not because I was unhappy, as people often believe, but because I was confident and full of hope. Grandma used to say how cheerful I was, continually busy and knocking about, a handful of such brazen curiosity that I'd take some looking after, by God I would, which was the way of children who were born like that.
I ran out of her gate one day while they were drinking tea and eating cake. Across the road and by the kerb was a dark green motor van and I opened the door without thinking. Inside I found a new world of leather upholstery and dials, handles and knobs, as well as a monstrous wheel. Standing up I could look out of the wide front window and see down the sloping road. I was strong enough to pull the door shut after me, and then found force to grip another handle that suddenly fell forward with a clatter, causing the flesh of my palm to ring as it hit its limits somewhere forward. A rumble under the whole car told me all was not right with the world, and standing straight I saw my grandad's brick wall sliding backwards along the car. Then another house was in view, and, full of terror, I dropped into a bundle on the floor and cried out for my mother.
The car made ominous bounces down the road, ran across a junction at the bottom, and buried itself in a tall privet hedge, grinding its side against a concrete gate-post. A man came running, and when the door opened I felt a solid hand thumping at my head, and heard a voice calling me all the bad names that came to it, one of which at least was true. I cried, and thought my more-or-less pleasant world was coming to an end. My mother must have been told what was happening, for I heard her curses as she began bashing the man at any part of his body she could reach. Grandma pulled me out and soothed me, praising God I hadn't been killed, and shouting against stupid, dead-headed gets who left their cars by the roadside with open doors, and threatening to get the police and have the bewildered culprit sent down for murder and kidnapping.
But the man was in tears, because he'd saved up half his life to get a little van to take his wife and kids along the Trent for fresh air at weekends. He'd polished it faithfully every week, fed it with oats and water like a true yeoman of England grooming his horse, and now this act of God in the shape of the Devil's imp had caused its shining flank to get sheered off.
I lived in the dark, and didn't know at the time the awful blow I'd dealt him, only felt the panic blows he'd thrown at me. The cries of humanity were being raised at the fact of my birth, and at the sight of me who was begotten in love – if in nothing else.
Whenever Grandmother cursed, she said it was the Irish in her. She had a great sense of justice, and knew exactly what was right and wrong. I got these feelings from her, and not my mother, who smoked too much to have them, it seemed to me, and who was too nervous ever to pass them on to me if she did feel them somewhere deep inside her. It was true though that my grandmother was Irish, for she told me later that her grandparents had come to England from County Mayo a hundred years ago. She talked about the Famine which was caused by the terrible English, something I took in silence because I thought that perhaps my father had been English (whoever he was) and that though my grandmother had the right to slur him I hadn't. When I hinted this she gave a great Irish laugh and said he might have been American for all anyone knew, and that, if he was American maybe he was Irish, in which case my boy you're altogether one of us. I didn't know what to make of this and didn't much care, because I lived in Nottingham, and that was the world to me.
I was spoiled as only a bastard can be spoiled, unless he's ruined by being despised. I sat on a wall and aimed pebbles at passers-by, dropping over on to a wasteground when they saw me. My grandmother told me to be good, but I didn't know what she meant because she couldn't show me. All she could do was open her mouth and let go sounds like a flood-warning when she told me what would happen if I didn't be good. But even this was so comforting in its tone of care and love that I laughed and asked for more cake, which she invariably gave me.
School was the torment of my life, and every morning my mother left me early by the closed gates because she had to be on her way and get to work by eight o'clock. She put a three-penny bit in my hand, and when I saw the shop opening across the street I'd saunter there and buy a lucky bag of sweets that tasted like honey as I sucked them, leaning against the school wall.
When the other kids asked what job my father did I said I hadn't got one because he'd been killed in the war – which may have been true for all I cared. But even at five or six I thought my mother hadn't married because no man would own me, and I didn't much mind this, for I was used to it, and anyway liked to have her to myself. Sometimes she bundled me off to Grandma's at Beeston while she went to Blackpool or London, but this was a glorious holiday because then I didn't have to go to school.
My grandfather was the best of men to me, though when he stayed home from work and drank a lot of beer he sometimes got nasty-tempered and called me a bastard – which is what I understood a boy to be whose mother couldn't find a husband to live with her.
One day when I picked up some marbles in the playground the boy cursed me by shouting I was a rotten bastard. I thought he'd rumbled my secret, and hit him so hard it got around I really was a bastard. Not that this grieved me because nobody had any proof, and also I'd become pals with a couple of boys who I felt sure were as much bastards as I was.
One was Alfie Bottesford who lived on Norton Street, and he had no father. His mother was fat and wore glasses, and she worked at Player's on a cigarette machine. For a long time I imagined her sitting at a bench with a little rubber-rollered fagmaker in her hands, turning up cigarettes all day that other women smoothed and put into the packets to be sold in shops. Alfie was her only boy, and his great passion when he wasn't at school, was playing marbles on the cobbled street. When he wasn't playing marbles with himself he was eating bread and treacle. I never saw him eating anything else. Sometimes when I went to his house after school his mother would give me bread and treacle, which I ate hungrily because I had an hour to wait before being able to go home and find my mother there. Mrs Bottesford would also give me a cup of tea that was so strong it smelled like iodine. Being a man of many colours I drank it down, and dreamed all night, dosed by the fire-and-brimstone of that awful meal.
I was taught to read and write at school, but not much else. The teachers pushed me to the back, and ignored me. But out of spite, and perhaps a desire to please, I got good marks in reading and writing. Then they kept me at the back of the class because I didn't seem to need the same attention as those duffers who couldn't even learn that much. At about this time, when I was seven, my mother and grandmother got wind of a nearby house that had been abandoned. Someone had done a moonlight flit to Birmingham and left a lot of stuff behind because the van was full. So my mother shuffled herself through the scullery window one afternoon and opened the door for me and Grandma. There wasn't much loot except a few old tats and pots, but I went into the parlour and saw that the floor was covered with large books of music. They were scattered everywhere and I sat looking through them, fascinated by the sheets of complex musical notation. They stood out black and plain – quavers and crotchets and minims, words I already knew from school – and I ran my fingers over them as if they were written in braille. I took two away under my arm, and was proud to own them, though later they disappeared to I don't know where, but for years afterwards those lines of soundless music went through my dreams stoked by Mrs Bottesford's iodized tea that you may have been able to stand a spoon in, as the saying goes, but could not have stood up in yourself.
My Beeston pal was Billy King, whose family lived in a cellar on Regent Street. He was unique among my friends in that he never asked me a single question during the year we knew each other, not even so much as what time do you think it is? or, are you hungry? This didn't worry me, because having a fatal flaw to hide, I felt that his taciturnity in this respect was all to the good. But I regretted it when in my natural and more exuberant curiosity I wanted to ask questions of him, only to be met by a mind your own business, or don't ask questions then you'll get told no lies, or, if he was in an affable mood because he'd been able to acquire one of his father's cigarettes, he'd simply say nothing at all, and dig both hands deeper into his pockets as he puffed ceremoniously away. I had to wait for him to tell me things of his own free will, and when he did it was like rich seeds falling on three-year fallow land as they took effect in my imagination, and the slightest event that happened to him achieved unwarranted growth. I mention this as a possible reason why I later became such a good listener, and often held back from asking the right sort of questions. People always tell you more when their boiling heart burst of its own accord, and I liked listening to stories, true or false, not out of idleness and the inability to tell my own, but because I am a gullible and good-natured man who listens to other people's troubles soothingly, and who, while hearing obvious lies and boastings, accepts the entertainment of them without questioning their morality – unless I fall a victim to their tricks.
Yet, how could I be a born listener if I had an Irish grandmother? The fact was that she told me few ancestral stories that I could repeat, at this early age or even later. Mostly she did little except laugh and shout, and occasionally threaten her husband when he got too drunk to dig the garden, and bawl after her daughter who hadn't been to collect me for three weeks. But I loved my grandparents even more than if they'd been my real parents, since it was two to one against. The proof of this is that when my mother left me at home to go to sleep at night because she was going up to the boozer with some boyfriend or other, I didn't cry or let it worry me. Yet when at Grandma's she and Grandad wanted to go for a walk or a drink I cried and all but panicked at being left on my own. The end of the world seemed close as the summer evening sun came into my bedroom and I had no one to share its light with. I wasn't a mother's boy, but a grandparents' boy, and if one wants to divide children up I suppose that isn't a bad way to do it.
I never went into Billy King's cellar when I called for him but shouted down the grating that spread its steel bars under my feet. He'd come running out of the house to which the cellar belonged. His mother and father, who lived down there with two other children, had rented it on the understanding that they'd only use it to store furniture while Mr King found another house. But having been thrown out, the family had nowhere to go, and so camped between its whitewashed walls. Once, Billy came out totally black and bruised, saying that a coalman had taken off the grating that morning by mistake and dropped a full hundredweight down the sloping chute on to the children's bed below, and if it hadn't been that they were curled together under the clothes in one snug ball then their heads might have suffered from that thoughtless avalanche.
The winter was the worst in living memory, and in an igloo built around my grandad's tree, Billy and I ate cakes and chocolate that we'd stolen from shops, looking out through a window-hole towards the gate in case anyone should come in after us. Our knees were wet on the floor of snow and soil, but it was our hideout that no one would imagine man or beast to be in, and we sat for hours in silence like two vagabonds waiting to be led off and hanged. The true and dreadful world was beyond the ice, and in our tomb of refuge we were untouchable because no grown man could crawl down that inlet of a hole – though at night in bed I dreamed of a pickaxe splitting through the ice-dome roof and barely missing Billy and me.
Excerpted from A Start in Life by Alan Sillitoe. Copyright © 1970 Alan Sillitoe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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