Not for the Bonfire
Alan Sillitoe, the author of brilliant and biting tales of the life of the English working class, was born in Nottingham in 1928. His father was a factory labourer and Alan Sillitoe himself started work at 14. His first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning appeared in 1958. Since then he has published' more novels, The General (1960) and Key to the Door (1961), two books of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959) and The Ragman's Daughter (1963), some poetry and a book about his visit to the U.S.S.R., Road to Volgograd (1964).
Key to the Door is Alan Sillitoe's third novel. Brian Seaton, the hero of the novel, is born into a world of poverty, drunkenness and unemployment. The time is the 1930's, a period of economic depression in England when literally thousands of men were out of work. The first part of the novel deals with the life of various families in pre-war Nottingham, and it is within this framework that Brian's childhood is described. The lot of Brian's family - lack of regular employment, never enough money to make ends meet, poor housing conditions - is seen to be that of many in industrial Nottingham.
The extract we include here deals with an incident from Brian's young days and casts some light on both the Guy Fawkes' tradition and economic conditions at the time.
They were alone, side-tracked beyond lights and out of notice. Bert kicked the pram: "I'd like to chuck that in as well, but I'd get a pasting if I went 'ome without it. Our Midge is on'y four and mam pushes her up to t' clinic every week to get her leg seen to." He flashed his torch, a flat model for one-and-four-pence bought from money cajoled with the Guy in town. His fingers gripped it, pressed - and light came again from the one eye of Polyphemus bulging white out of the top.
Brian drew back from a twelve-foot fall into bottomless water, not only cold but wet as well, heavy on your clothes, and nothing to grip down there but smooth walls when and if you surfaced. "Come on then, let's get the Guy Fawkes. Yo' tek one arm; I'll tek the other; and we'll let go." He looked over again: "It wain't 'alf splash."
"It's a crying shame" - Bert shook his head, "It'd burn well if we took it 'ome and saved it for the bonfire." Brian hated a change of wind. It made him uneasy - because his own unsure mind was inclined to follow every switch. A simple decision often meant hard work, and to break it an extravagant waste of spirit. The decision to buy torches with the Guy Fawkes money had been easy to make, but both were now guilty at not splitting the three bob between their families for food, and needed to get rid of the Guy to prove, when recriminations flew at their faces, that it had been stolen from them by bigger boys before they could earn a penny. "It might not sink for all we know," Brian said. "And when a copper comes along in the morning it'll look like a man who's chucked 'issen in. Then the copper'll sling his hat and coat off and goo in as well."
That decided it. "P'raps he'll drown if he does," Bert said. "Yer never know. Not all coppers can swim."
"Coppers don't drown though," Brain said with conviction, fastening the Guy's coat as if it were a paralysed and much-loved brother in danger of catching pneumonia. "If a copper dived in he'd get out. We wouldn't, but he would." "He might not" - Bert held the agreeable vision for as long as he could make it last - "he might get cramp. It's cold enough for cramp, if you ask me. Once you get cramp you're a gonner. A lad at Poor Boys' Camp got it in his leg last year, and he went under twice before anybody could gel to him. He didn't die though."
Brian caught on to his vision. "Well, if a copper got cramp and I was near, I wouldn't help him to get out." The Guy lay between them, flat like some derelict drunk, a sack- bag arm across button eyes, as if not wanting to see what the world had in store for him next. One leg was akimbo and Bert kicked it straight. "Even if I'd got a lifebelt I'd chuck 'im 'a brick. Coppers is bastards. I was down town last week and opened a car door for a bloke. A copper cum up and batted my tab.* He said I'd get sent to Borstal** if I didn't clear off. I worn't bothering nobody."
* (A copper cum up and batted my tab. - (si.) A policeman came up catching me unawares.)
** (Borstal - Borstal Institutions, establishments for educating and training young offenders between 16 and 21; named after the Kent village where the prototype was set up.)
Brian flashed his torch, revelled in the magic of it. "Rotten bogger."
"All coppers are like that."
"I don't know why they have coppers," Brian said. "They're worse than schoolteachers."
"No difference," Bert said, lighting his nub-end in the darkness. "It's all part of the gov'ment. They're all Conservatives, as well. I know that for a fact, because dad towd me. Conservative" - he was proud of such a posh formidable word - "if ever yer vote conservative, dad said, I'll smash yer brains out. And 'e showed me 'is big screwed-up fist to prove it. Then on Saturday night I seen him thumping a bloke outside a pub, and I suppose it was because dad 'ad got to know he'd voted conservative. He bashes mam sometimes though, but I don't know what for, because she don't vote Conservative."
"Millionaires vote Conservative. John Player and the bloke who owns Raleigh."*
* (Raleigh - make of a bicycle; a Birmingham firm that produces bicycles.)
"Well I wouldn't. Even if I'd got ten million pound notes I'd still vote red for Labour."
"Me as well," Brian said. "Shall we chuck the Guy in the locks then, like 'e was a copper?" And an idea came quickly. "Let's get a couple o' bricks and fasten 'em inside, so's he'll sink right to the bottom."
"Nobody'll think it's somebody drowned." Bert objected. "It wain't be seen."
Brian's face exploded into a laugh, the force of a decision that took no deciding, happiness giving character to his face unseen in the darkness. "It'll mek a big splash though," he managed to say at last, and Bert, relaxed and disarmed, knew that it would.[...]
The final drawback, then a masterly satisfying swing of the stone-bellied straw corpse into the air and over the welcoming water. [...]
It was late enough for a traffic lull along the near-by big road; a rough silence reigned between the corridor of its lights, and amohg the distant railway yards. The Guy, leaving their lunging arms, spent a glorious moment of freedom suspended in black harmless air, then, a straw-emasculated monster, it descended while Bert and Brian held their breath with anticipated delight.
It hit the water with a justified explosion', a reverberating thump creating havocs of sound in the cany.on of the deep lock, while Bert and Brian embraced with roars of delight - and then set to pushing the now empty pram back along the towpath, their newly bought flash-lamps making spaces of clear light before them.
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