English novelist (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), short story writer (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), poet and essayist.
On Saturday Afternoon, first published in the collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, in 1959
Available to read online here (search for the title, about two thirds of the way through the document)
This is the fourth of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “First-person fiction, especially today, abounds in stories narrated by persons whose perspective and values are questionable for the reader. Is the speaker missing something? Can we accept his judgments? If we are not sure, we may wish the author had been “clearer” so that we would not be reminded of our own uncertainties about what we see and what we ought to make of what we see. Even after his travels, does Gulliver have the proper perspective?”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now! Also, a trigger warning, as the story deals with suicide.
On Saturday Afternoon
Our 16-year-old narrator, whose name we never learn, remembers a time when he “once saw a bloke try to kill himself”. It happened one Saturday afternoon when he was ten, and he’d left the house because his dad was in a black mood and the best thing he could do if his dad was in one of his moods was to escape the house.
He saw the bloke in the yard – he hadn’t been living in the neighbourhood long. He had a rope with him. When the boy asked him what he was going to do with the rope, he replied, “I’m going ter ‘ang messen, lad”. Why? “Because I’m fed up […] and because I want to. My missus left me, and I’m out o’ work.” The man gets the boy to agree to kick the chair away from under his feet when he shows signs of struggling. The boy tells him that the rope around the light fitting wouldn’t be strong enough for the job, but the man won’t hear of it.
True enough, just when the man is dangling there and the boy has kicked the chair away, “he fell down with such a horrible thump on the floor that I thought he’d broke every bone he’d got.” When the policeman comes to cut him free, he tells him he’ll get six years for that, as taking your own life was illegal in those days. Taken to hospital, he gets a bed on the top floor. It doesn’t take long for him to throw himself from a window on the top floor and kill himself that way.
For the boy it’s a memorable moment; he’s confident he will never be in a position where he wants to kill himself. He’ll never be that black. But he also finds it a thrilling memory – and much more exciting than watching Saturday morning shows at the pictures. He also realises his dad will never have that dark look in his eyes; so, for the boy, it’s quite an optimistic story.
Though relatively short, this is a delicately and finely written piece, which gets under the skin of both the boy and the man – and to a lesser extent, the boy’s father. You can hear the voice of the boy very clearly in the writing, with the use of Sillitoe’s local Nottingham dialect and speech structure.
I take two things away from this story. One is the simple, matter-of-fact determination of the man to take his own life; quietly, unsensationally, calmly. It’s not only the public school alumni who espoused the stiff-upper-lip where it comes to men’s emotions; the man’s inability to say much about his plight shows that it’s a problem that transcends the class system. The other is the undisguised thrill that the boy feels to be witnessing real life drama like this, getting an almost voyeuristic pleasure from what promises to be the man’s last act on earth. He’s not particularly interested in the man’s reasons – although he feels it’s only polite to ask; he just wants to see the final action. The man is also perfectly happy for the boy to witness it; indeed, to participate in it, by kicking the chair away. When he fails to make a clean job of it, the boy is rather disgusted with the man’s inadequacy. When he hears how the man later threw himself out of the hospital window he feels both glad and sad about it. Finally, he also realises that if he’d witnessed the act now, at the age of sixteen, he would have found it a much more horrific and stressful experience. But for a 10-year-old, it was something new to brighten up an otherwise dull Saturday.
It’s an interesting little tale; the reader has a rather curious sense of detachment to it all, partly because the narrator is so emotionless about the whole experience, partly because it took place six years ago, and partly because we learn very little about the victim himself. It’s just one of life’s little tragedies. Life moves on.
The next story in the anthology is the fifth and final of the subjective narration stories, A & P by John Updike. This is another author of whom I of course have heard but never read, so I will be fascinated to see what his style and content is like!