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Christmas at Aunt Ada's

The story of Alan Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is set in post-war Nottingham and describes a working-class district and the people who live there. The main character of the novel is 22-year-old Arthur Seaton, who works on a lathe in a cycle factory. It is a period of industrial boom, there is no unemployment and living conditions have generally improved as compared with pre-war years. Despite this everything in Arthur rebels against the world which had dragged thousands of families such as his through the dole and into the war, had slung him into the Army at 18 and then back to the sweat of the factory. To him life becomes one long battle with those who are in power, who are ready to crush you, to fling the whole humanity into another devastating war.

When the day's work is over Arthur throws himself violently into enjoyment: drink, women, whatever is going. He is out to cheat the hostile world before it cheats him.

This extract describes the Christmas Arthur spends with the large family of his aunt Ada, and acquaints us with the Christmas traditions.

On Friday night he went home with thirty pound notes in his pocket: bonus and wages. On Saturday he bought toys for Margaret's children, and presents for the rest of the family, returning from downtown with full arms and a cigar between his teeth. A bet on Fair Glory in the two-thirty won him twelve pounds. He hid twenty in his room and stuffed his wallet with what was left to see him through Christmas.

As he walked across the market square on his way to Aunt Ada's a blanket of dark cloud lay low over the city as if, were God to pull a lever, it would release a six-feet blanket of snow.

He pushed his way in through the defective back door and Aunt Ada launched into him because he had missed the midday meal, saying that now it was stone-cold in the scullery and fit only for the cats to eat. Arthur dipped his hand into his overcoat pocket and threw sixpenny bits to the children and gave cigars to Bert, Dave, and Ralph, so that the four of them filled the already warm room with clouds of smoke. All that day, Ada told Arthur, they had been expecting a coloured soldier from the Gold Coast.* Sam was his name, a friend of Johnny's who was with the REs** in West Africa. [...]

* (The Gold Coast - now Chana.)

** (REs - Royal Engineers.)

Sam was already there, a stocky Negro with a calm intelligent face, who explained that he had come in on a morning train and spent the day exploring the city. [...] He was the centre of attention, and stood up to shake hands with Bert and Arthur when they came in, Arthur noticing the tight warm grip of his black hand as he said: "I'm pleased to meet you."

Two ginger-haired daughters were trying not to laugh at the ordeal of numberless introductions that Sam was undergoing, for Dave came in five minutes later from the football match and pretended to jump with surprise on seeing for the first time in his life a Negro sitting in the living-room. [...]

Arthur dug his fork into a piece of meat-pie, glad to be in Ada's house for Christmas and showered under by jokes that fell like sparks on the relaxed powder-barrel of each brain. He went with Dave and Bert to lounge in armchairs by the parlour fire, smoking, listening to people walking by outside whose feet punctuated the empty weekend hours between football matches and opening time. The door-knob rattled, and Jane came in, a thin-faced ginger-haired woman of thirty who balanced herself on the arm of Dave's chair. "I want half a crown from everybody towards a crate of ale, for when we come back from the pub tonight."

Uncomplaining, they dug their hands into their pockets. "What about Sam?" Dave asked.

"He ain't giving owt," she said. "He's a guest."

"It's just as well," Bert remarked. "He'd on'y pay in beads."

She turned on him fiercely. "You shut up. He's going out wi' yo' lot ternight, and you'd better be nice to 'im, or Johnny'll gi' yer a good thump when 'e comes 'ome from Africa."

Later the house functioned like the neck of an egg-timer: visitors came in through the backyard, and were disgorged with gangs of the family by the front door. Ada, Ralph, Jim, and Jane went out with the first batch. The under-sixteens were despatched to the last house* at the pictures.

* (snow.)

Arthur left with Bert, Dave, Colin, and Sam. All wore overcoats though Sam shivered. [...]

The Lambley Green was almost empty. Dave ordered pints and they played darts, Arthur siding with Sam against Colin and Bert, Dave keeping scores. Sam possessed an uncanny eye and hit whatever he aimed at - Bert accounting for this as a legacy left over from throwing assegais. In the next pub, more crowded because it was nearer the town centre, Sam offered to buy a round of drinks but was shouted down. [...]

They crossed Slab Square and, fresh from a pint in the Plumtree,* rolled to the Red Dragon** and from there pushed into the Skittling Alley*** and the Coach Tavern**** and finally elbowed through the squash of people packing the Trip to Jerusalem,***** a limpet of lights and noise fastened on to the carcass of the Castle Rock. [...]

* (the Plumtree, the Red Dragon, the Skittling Alley, the Coach Tavern, the Trip to Jerusalem - names of pubs; the Trip to Jerusalem or Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem - a pub built in the Castle Rock of Nottingham and claimed as the oldest British inn (dating back to 1180).)

** (the Plumtree, the Red Dragon, the Skittling Alley, the Coach Tavern, the Trip to Jerusalem - names of pubs; the Trip to Jerusalem or Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem - a pub built in the Castle Rock of Nottingham and claimed as the oldest British inn (dating back to 1180).)

*** (the Plumtree, the Red Dragon, the Skittling Alley, the Coach Tavern, the Trip to Jerusalem - names of pubs; the Trip to Jerusalem or Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem - a pub built in the Castle Rock of Nottingham and claimed as the oldest British inn (dating back to 1180).)

**** (the Plumtree, the Red Dragon, the Skittling Alley, the Coach Tavern, the Trip to Jerusalem - names of pubs; the Trip to Jerusalem or Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem - a pub built in the Castle Rock of Nottingham and claimed as the oldest British inn (dating back to 1180).)

***** (the Plumtree, the Red Dragon, the Skittling Alley, the Coach Tavern, the Trip to Jerusalem - names of pubs; the Trip to Jerusalem or Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem - a pub built in the Castle Rock of Nottingham and claimed as the oldest British inn (dating back to 1180).)

Sam tried to count those jammed into the parlour, but gave up at twenty, when he thought he was counting people already counted. Jane poured beer into cups and glasses. "Come on, Arthur, grab hold of this. Having a good time, Sam?" - she swung around as he came into the room. "This is good beer, Sam," she told him in her bright intoxicated voice. "Jim and me got it from the pub next door. A couple of years ago," she told Sam, "Bert and Dave went down into our cellar with a hammer and chisel and knocked a few bricks out of the wall and got two crates of beer out of the pub cellar next door. Then they cemented it up again so that nobody found out. We had a good booze-up from that."

Arthur's great laugh rang out with the others at the memory of this because he had been in on it, remembering the bricks that he had numbered with a piece of chalk as they were passed to him.

Ada came in with a large white meat dish heaped over with leg-of-mutton sandwiches."Come on, Tribe*, get summat to eat. We want you to 'ave a good time, Sam," she said to him. She turned abruptly to Colin: "Where's Beatty? I thought she'd be up tonight, being as it's Christmas Eve."

* (the Tribe - (here) the family.)

"You shouldn't fill her up so often, Colin," Dave said to him.

"You've only got to look at Beatty and she drops a kid," Bert said, filling his glass and helping himself to a sandwich. Ada wore a gaily coloured dress. "How do you like my parlour, Sam?" He looked around at the walls and up at the ceiling, at the Christmas cards on the marble mantelshelf that hid the clock but for a walnut. dome. "Arthur and Bert papered it for me a couple of years ago. It'd have cost me five quid with a decorator, and they did it just as good."

"Except for them big creases," Arthur said, coming out of a long mistletoe kiss* with one of his ginger-haired cousins. Ralph, wearing a coloured paper hat, and Jim in his pilot-officer's uniform also wearing a paper hat, did a song-and-dance movement into the room, with the second ginger-haired cousin behind flaunting her brother-in-law's Air Force cap. "Don't be leery," Ada said to her.

* (At Christmas there are few homes in which some mistletoe may not be found somewhere. Its presence gives any person the curious privilege of kissing, directly beneath it, any other person, of either sex.)

"I want some ale," she cried.

Ada said she would bat her tab* if she touched a drop. Sam sat on the settee and someone pulled a pink paper hat down over his black grizzled hair. Tubercular Eunice came in with Harry.!...] Mutton sandwiches and drinks were thrust into their hands, and Arthur, by now well-soaked, started the whole room singing, while Bert, Colin, and Dave played desultory rounds of Solo** at the table. Ada told Sam to sing louder, but he said he didn know these songs. "Do yc know Everybody Likes Satu day Night, Sam?" Bert shout from the table, and Sam beame with happiness at the unive sal sympathy around him.

* (bat her tab - (si.) box her ears.)

** (Solo - any of various card games in which one player singly opposes others.)

One by one they went ini the kitchen, until Harry Eunice were left alone, switched off the light sat in the bay of the watching traffic pass road.

When the fire died out in tl kitchen everyone went to be and doors could be heard slan ming all over the house.[...]

Sam was awakened by curses from Bert and Dave as they fought to pull the bed clothes from each other. Children were running barefoot about the corridois, and sun shone through the windows. Sam was left to dress in privacy, and the smell of fried bacon became stronger as Arthur, Bert, and Dave descended to the kitchen. Jane and Jim were talking in their bedroom, and Ralph turned over with a snore behind his closed door. They washed one by one at the scullery sink. Sitting down to breakfast Bert joked about Sam: "Hey, mam, there's a Zulu in my room." Ada told him not to be daft and to leave Sam in peace. When Sam came down he was served with three eggs, and the girls grumbled and said this wasn't fair. But Ada showed them her fist and told them to shut up. They sat in the parlour after breakfast, roasting themselves before the fire. A wire from the kitchen wireless was run through to a speaker, and the whole house was shaken by the chosen blasts of Family Favourites,* part of a Bach concerto roaring like the tumult of a sea into every room.

* (Family Favourites - request radio programme.)

They walked into town. A bitterly cold wind came from the east, and Dave prophesied snow, teasing Sam who had seen it on postcards but never in the streets. The pub noises were subdued and reflective, as if people were spending two hours of silence in memory of the previous night. One moment the sun was in their eyes, the next they were almost blown over by the wind. They had a pint in the Horse and Groom,* and Arthur took five minutes explaining to Sam what an 'awker was: "A man who sells fruit from a barrer1 on the street." Back at the house a special table was set in the parlour, and the fire had been kept blazing for them. They were served by the girls with baked potatoes, roast pork, and cauliflower, and no one spoke during the eating of it. Plates of Christmas pudding followed, rivers of custard flowing down the escarpments of each dark wedge. A noise like a dark sea tide came from the kitchen, where the family was feeding under the stern dictatorship of Ada. Everyone gathered in the parlour to play Ha'penny Newmarket,** the kitty of a glass fruit-dish set in the middle of the table, soon filled with money as the games went on, A dozen played, including Sam and Ada whose big arms rested on the table. Orders were snapped out when cards didn't fall fast enough, coins slid across the polished table-top to start a new round, and some gleeful hand scraped the kitty-dish clean when the round was over. [...]

* (the Horse and Groom - the name of a pub.)

** (Ha'penny Newmarket - Newmarket is a card game, ha'penny - the stake of a half-penny.)

Tea was served in three relays, with Ada the dominant organizer, lording it over her two unmarried sisters. Annie was small and pinched after too many years in a lace factory, a woman of forty with fading and braided hair, wearing a dusk-green frock and a coal-black cardigan. Bertha was taller and older, with a full bosom, a booming voice, and more becoming clothes. Ada came in from the scullery with a dish of salad followed by Bertha with a bowl of trifle* and Annie with a Christmas cake whose pink band made a crown for Ada. Bert reached out for a slice of bread and butter, shouting to Annie for the ham. "Tek yer sweat,** our Bert. You can see I'm busy mashing the tea." Arthur heaped salad on to a plate, balancing slices of tomato on his fork across the white cloth. Bertha was stationed at the table-end with teapot poised, ready to bear down on anyone whose cup was empty. Her eyes rested on Sam: "Sam knows how to eat. He's filling his belly all right." Sam looked up and smiled. "Do you get snap*** like this in the Army?" Bert asked. "I'm sure he don't," Ada said before he could answer. "Do you, Sam?" "No, but sometimes the food is good in the Army," he replied with an instinctive sense of diplomacy. [...]

* (trifle - a dessert made of sponge cake, jelly and tinned fruit, topped with custard or cream.)

** ("Tek yer sweat" - (si.) keep cool; don't hurry me ("не кипятись").)

*** (snap - (si.) food.)

After a round of pubs in the evening they ended at the Railway Club drinking with Ada and Ralph. It was a long low hall with rows of tables like a soldiers' mess, with a bar and stage at one end. Housey-Housey* was in progress. Arthur, Sam, Bert, and Dave bought cards and watched their counters. Near the climax of the game a man wearing a cap suddenly jumped up and screamed with all his might, as if he had been stabbed: "HOUSEY!" Sam shuddered with fright; the others groaned at their bad luck. "Christ!" Ada exclaimed, "I only wanted two to win." "I only wanted one," Arthur said. "What a shame," she said. "You'd 'ave won a bottle of whisky." At ten-thirty the Tribe** streamed out, over the railway bridge, and home. Overcoats were piled in heaps on the kitchen table, and the hall racks were so over-loaded that they collapsed. Beer for grown-ups, orangeade for children, with sixteen the dividing age, and Jane discriminating at the parlour bar. [...] Alma, a girl of fifteen with chestnut hair, wearing a low-necked cotton dress that showed the white skin of plump round breasts, was fair game for Bert who forced her into a kiss beneath the mistletoe. She ran out of the house when he tried to make her kiss Sam. Balloons exploded; coloured streamers floated from the ceiling, Bert pushing his way around the room with an uplifted cigarette. Above the uproar Jane's voice was heard saying to Jim: "I don't believe it. It ain't true. You want to mind what you're saying, you dirty bleeder" - in a voice of hard belligerence. Bert succeeded in getting Annie and Bertha kissed by Sam under the mistletoe, and Bertha asked Sam afterwards if he would write to her from Africa. "And give my love to your girl, won't you?" she said, the slight cast in her left eye glazed by too much drink. "Yes," he answered, "I will." Ada asked if he had enjoyed his Christmas. "Very much," he answered solemnly. "And will you tell Johnny all about us when you get back?" she wanted to know. Sam said he would. "I wish Johnny was here. He's a good lad to me," Ada said. [...] She passed Sam a glass of beer, and kissed him beneath the mistletoe, so that Beatty cried out: "Well, that's not the first time she's kissed by a black man, I'll bet." Someone suggested that Ralph would be jealous. "Jealous be boggered,"*** she said. "Sam's like my own son." The girls squealed when more balloons exploded. "Do you like England then?" Jane asked Sam. She had been out of the room for a few minutes. "I like it very much," Sam stammered. She threw her arms around him and kissed him, turning her back on the rabid face of her husband near the door. Two girls went home, several children were taken to bed by Frances and Eileen. Frank at last took his fiancee out to be sick. Eunice left with Harry. Annie and Bertha put on their coats and went home. Jane and Jim sat on the sofa with empty glasses, Jane sullen, Jim subdued. Sam announced that he would go to bed...

* (Housey-Housey - a game of lotto, known as "bingo" when played in a big hall for prizes.)

** ( "Jealous be boggeed" - (dial.) "Jealous be hanged", not jealous at all; bogger - (dial.))

*** (bugger, a rude word used both as a noun and a verb.)

(Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe)

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