Read An End and a Beginning Online
Authors: James Hanley
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An End and a Beginning
There was the high wall, the great door, and the roads leading north and south. A drizzle had been falling for over an hour and the light was begrudging. The man stood quite still. He took off his cap, and after a few seconds became aware of the dampness of his hair. Some fifty yards away a policeman watched him, without interest. Somewhere in the distance he heard the sound of a bell ringing. The policeman, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, thought, “another one”. He clasped hands behind his back and rocked gently to and fro upon his heels. The tall, broad-shouldered man had not moved. Only his eye roamed, following the blurred line of the roads, the one to the city, the other deeper into the country. The road to the city was direct, challenging, magnetic, but the other was only a path to the jungle, reached after much preliminary scouting. The growths varied. A series of enormous rubbish dumps, derelict brickworks, a lane formed by outworn and rusted ship's boilers, great mounds of ash, old tyres, papers, rags, old ropes, tins, boxes, upon all of which the drizzle continued to fall, forming a thin, shining film over the whole congealing mass. The man put on his cap, and thrust his hands deep into his pockets.
“I could go to New York, I've relatives there. Yes, I could go there.”
The policeman watched. And suddenly, out of the mist appeared a small Austin car. It drew up in front of the man. A passenger got out. A short, stockily built, florid-looking man. He wore a black coat, and striped trousers. Only the black bowler hat made him appear pompous and fussy, and he wore it with an air of great importance. He carried an umbrella, too tightly rolled up ever to be opened. He hardly noticed the drizzle. The driver was a woman, at whom the man with the cap began to stare. He stared very hard.
“A woman,” he exclaimed under his breath, “it's a woman.” He then looked across at the little man, who now announced very dramatically, “I'm late”. The man with the cap just went on staring. He could not take his eyes off the woman behind the wheel.
“My wife,” said the short man, “just learning to drive. You look cold. I've come along to meet you. Slight traffic hold up. A little late. Sorry! Come to help. We always do. Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society. Bound to have heard of it. Will you get into the car? Where do you want to go?”
The whole thing tripped off his tongue, easily, from ruthless habit. He talked as out of a dictaphone.
“Run you wherever you wish to go. Cup of tea first. Hope you've learned your lesson. What a miserable morning?”
The man remained motionless. “Perhaps I could look up Maureen,” he thought.
“Are you all right?” enquired the little man, only to receive another rude stare for his pains.
The woman leaned her head out of the window.
hurry, Herbert,” she said. She had a warm, comfortable look, matronly; she appeared considerate, kind.
She looked up at the man whose eyes had never left her. “Are you coming or not?”
An ultimatum. The little man prodded the umbrella into the mud, the puddles. He mused. “It often happens that way. You get a person totally incapable of making up his mind. I've seen so many of them stand in this very place, looking quite helpless, bereft. It saddens one. Sometimes it seems as though they were quite unable to breathe the very air about them. What can
And suddenly looking at the man, asked, “What can I do?”
“Leave me alone.” The man with the cap turned his back to the other.
“One has to have a patience,” reflected the little man. “Just for a few minutes they seem quite lost.”
“Can't you leave me alone,” said the man with the cap, “
The woman spoke. “We are only trying to help you.” And the man thought, “I'm just a pig.”
The woman leaned out of the car, she was closely watching the man.
“Take you anywhere you want to go,” her husband said, and he lifted the umbrella clear of the ground. “
” he added, and there was a note of desperation in the voice. He cautioned himself to be patient.
“Just leave me alone,” the other said.
The little man had tucked the umbrella under his arm. From his overcoat pocket he withdrew two envelopes, and handed them to the man.
” he said, waving one of the envelopes, “
, I was asked to give you. And now, good luck.”
He held out his hand, the other took it, and shook it warmly.
“I just wish to be left alone,” he said.
“And I can assure you, my good friend,” replied the little man, “that I quite understandâperfectly. Goodbye, and good luck.”
He stamped away towards the car. The woman started up the engine. It purred for a moment or two, then suddenly roared away into the morning stillness, but not before she had again put her head out of the window, and wished him a “good morning”.
Nothing could have been more definite, more final, than that single utterance. “Which way shall I go?”
The man held the envelopes in his fingers. Inside one of them there was something hard, and he opened it. Two half-crowns dropped into the palm of his hand.
“Christ!” He opened the other. It contained only a torn, half-sheet of paper. There was a pencilled message, and he read it, once, twice, then a third time, reading loudly, “Contact D at Tilseys.”
Tilseys? Where the hell was that? He had never heard of it.
“Who is D? Never knew anybody whose name began with a D. Is Tilseys a pub? A cafÃ©? A hotel?” He stood quite still, the envelope dangling in his fingers.
“Wonder where they all are? Mother never wrote any more.” And slowly, almost unconsciously, he was tearing the envelopes into the tiniest shreds, and scattering them in the road.
“Better make a move. God! It's damp around here. Can't get warm,” and then he shouted into the empty air, “can't get warm. I wonder if I'll ever feel warm again? Nobody came. It doesn't matter. They're all so old, even Kilkey. But he did write to me. I'll remember that. I'll go now.”
He walked slowly down the road, leaving behind him the wall, the door, the silence.
“I'd better find this Tilsey place. Pub, I expect. But
And who is D? Who in hell is D? Somebody knew I was coming out. Who is this D?” He passed by the policeman, he kept his head erect, he walked towards the city.
“Good luck, mate,” said the policeman as he passed.
“Same to you.”
Wonder if Cavanagh is still in New York? Wonder where Maureen got to? Oh, Christ, I wonder when I'll get warm.
He stood still, shivering, he stamped his feet. “I'll find this Tilsey place. It
be a pub.”
His hand kept travelling towards his inside pocket, from which he would draw out a sheaf of papers, glance at them, then thrust them back again. “If I could get somewhere for ten minutes, just to get warm. I'd go through these papers. Nobody came at all. Odd. Is it? Oh, damn it, it's not, it's not even funny. Too long a time, perhaps they forgot, mightn't know. This road seems to go on and on.” He kept on walking. “Wonder where Anthony got off to?”
The road suddenly widened, it stretched for miles. “Don't remember this road at all.”
He heard footsteps behind him, and swung round. A man. He carried a small brief-case, and he appeared to be in a great hurry.
“Where does this road end?” The man stopped. Where was he going? Where did he want to get to? He asked this without looking at him.
“Want to get into Gelton, the city end.”
“Easy! Walk down this road for two miles, easy as winking. At the first turning, bear left. When you come to the end of that road you will see the tram terminus. Catch one, it'll take you all the way.”
“Thank you. This is a new road?”
“Looks new to me. Wellâgood morning.”
The man with the cap stopped again. He watched the other's figure grow smaller and smaller. Then it vanished. He moved on again. “Expect he's going into Gelton, too. Didn't want to talk.”
The road went endlessly on, and sometimes stretches of it were flanked by blackened trees.
“Wonder who this D contact is?” He turned sharply left, and saw the turning.
“Be warmer in the tram.”
Suddenly he was aware of a small group of people stood near the kerb. “This is it.” They were waiting for the incoming tram. He walked slowly towards them, but kept a clear distance between the people and himself. He was conscious of his suit, his cap, his head. It had never been warm since they cut his hair. And then he saw the man with the brief-case, a girl with red hair, an old woman wearing a shawl over her head. A youth with an enormous check cap, and a face covered with freckles, stared owlishly through steel-rimmed spectacles. A tall, middle-aged woman carried an enormous basket. “Market day,” he thought. He watched them very closely, and he kept fingering the two half-crowns. He thought of D. “Might have been the chap who wrote me about Anthony, can't quite remember, yes, it might have been. Is it a him? Might be a she. Good Lord! I never thought of that. Wouldn't be S, no, that's ended. Must track down old Kilkeyâif he's alive. Letter every three months from him, never missed save the once. Then he suddenly stopped altogether. Wonder why? Oh, hell! Give up wondering. Your head will burst open. Get
” and he began rubbing his hands together, all the time watching the group of people. And he still felt the wall, and the door, and the silence behind him, heard a bell, smelt a mould from his clothes, and went on rubbing his hands. “Kilkey kept me alive.”