A tree on fire, p.1
A Tree on Fire, p.1Alan Sillitoe
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A Tree on Fire
With four-week-old Mark wrapped in his woollen shawl she went out to the upper deck. Early morning, and the liner was landlocked, grappled in stoneland near the beginning of March, white frost painted on the customs sheds under a smoky pink sky, brilliant and sharply cold, more beautiful than she’d expected, a trace of cirrus cloud, as if just scratched there by a cry from the baby and an unthinking motion of his hand. She held him upright against her shoulder, and his uneasiness subsided.
The ship had died, she thought, watching the steward move her luggage into the first-class saloon, lost its beauty and function. The grace of the sea had withdrawn from it, left dead wood, subsiding metal, a mighty ship disembowelled of its own true spirit. She was anxious to move beyond dock cranes and sheds and dismal marshes, but stood back from the rail, an hour still to go before landing, feeling as if she’d never been to England before, a tourist about to enter a country for which no guide-book had been written. Frank had gone into the sun – or whatever he liked to call it, and the role of gun-runner to Algerian Nationalists fitted him more than most, except that here she was, landing as if she had already suffered her greatest loss because he might be dead and out of her life forever.
Having read of a baby dying on a jet trip, she had taken the ferry from Tangier, and a liner from Gibraltar. The Rock was left in cloud and rain and green upchucking white-lipped sea, the launch packed with people ill from the squall and finally hooked to the enormous port-holed flank, so that she staggered along the gangway with Mark, luggage thrown after her. The safe ship took them in, dull luxury rocking monotonously through Biscay, enclosed among the fine yet doleful trapping of a generation ago, over the bleak Channel, three days of discomfort in balancing herself firmly to bathe the baby each evening, then sitting on the lower bunk and giving him the breast before setting him down to sleep, vivid face become tranquil, cries finished and wind gone. In the first hour of life he looked like a rabbi, the vigorous mature face of a Jewish scholar emerging from the bluntness of Frank Dawley’s fast-receding features. There was now a little more of Frank in him, but the subtleties seemed to be holding their own. By Talmudic law he was a Jew, which made her glad, though she had decided against his being circumcised in the hospital, and she was equally pleased that his father was not Jewish, proud of the rich mixture of his Saxon and Hebrew antecedents, and finally she was embarrassed at her own narrow brand of racism that, before having a child, would not have surfaced with such crudity.
Frank had gone into Algeria and never come back – not so far, anyway. During the birth her sufferings had seemed to be those of his own death, made her wonder why she had decided to bear it in Tangier instead of flying to England as she’d intended. The idea was to wait until the final possibility had beamed itself out. He’d said ten days, and she’d stayed two months beyond his point of no return. How long could one hang on? The umbilical string withered, and a new one flashed before her eyes through a smell of ether. Half conscious, she saw it, felt the final cut and heard the first cry, senses coming back fast and clear before the great inertia of sleep. She had until now looked on her life as a long, violent multi-scaled overture to an opera on which the curtain would never really go up. The magical lifting of it had not so far caught her eye. Yet she thought that perhaps one day it would after all lift and reveal a great new aspect of her life.
Faces passed, dazed like her own at the sudden upshoot of cranes and pink sky, calm frost and bottle-green frogwater. The classbound world of the liner had sheltered them since Malaya and India, wherein they had dressed for dinner as if the middle of the twentieth century hadn’t already passed them by. What would Frank have thought of it? She smiled at his stony nonconformity, the scorn that burned only in his eyes – as he did as he damn-well liked or turned his back on it. They were middle-aged and elderly, withered dummies, formal for fear of crumbling to powder at the sudden treachery of a false move, fashion-plates from romantic pulp-stories in magazines of the thirties. To themselves, they no doubt blazed from each centre, as if a tilting safety-lamp were always about to flare up – death-faces and corpse-skins surrounding and enclosing the fire of life.
As the sun broke clearer through, smoke and fog came smelting along the outlets of the dock, revealing masts and ship-funnels just in, or about to move. Morocco was a long way from these factories, power stations, bridges. On Sundays the power slept, but she saw beyond the ratchet-faces of the English, to the features of those Moslem youths marching down the Tangier boulevard, shouting for independence in Algeria, who would never be like their fathers, because they too hoped the smoke-flags of industry might one day drift over olive-groves and carob farms, when they would also wear the masks of ratchet-faces until all nobility and peace froze out of them.
The dead wood of the unyielding ship was pleasant, no more haunting terrible gale-wail playing at black midnight through the wires and superstructure, its overture of the medieval elements about to shatter and scatter two thousand people over the tight-lipped waves. Mark slept, as if both of them were still on the voyage, an oval face already formed, lips tight to keep the soul, peace and innocence, deliberately in. He had come out sallow and jaundiced, but the world air had tempered his skin to a normal tone. Coming through Biscay and grey humps of spume-crested sea-water as long as the boat, she’d stood one afternoon alone on the open deck, looking towards the shifting rain cliffs and the dark smudge of another ship, the baby held tight. Raindrops caught her hair, spread over glasses until she could barely see, and an impulse gripped her to lean too close, to look too far over and let her arms fall limp. Lightning shivered, a naked needle of it, piercing her infanticidal terror. The deck was empty, wet wood, chairs under cover, the ship lifting, shuddering as if to snap in spite of its liner bulk. It was nothing, they were all nothing. She would go as well, so that both of them like magic would merge with the cold green nothingness of the fish-sea.
A mad malignant nothing drew her back from the rail and the hypnotic, heaving fundamental water. One nothing was as good as any other, and you were closest to death’s bosom when in the deepest trough of some change. You struck the glimmer-light of nothing’s deepest eyes. She sipped hot coffee in the saloon, handed Mark to the nurse for a few hours, not going onto open deck again even by herself, till now when the ship was in dock and its very wood, steel, even light-switches, had died. She had left England with a man she hardly knew, got pregnant by him and ended up in Tangier while he went gun-running for the Algerians. So would run one version of her fate, she smiled. He had promised to come back in ten days, and certainly believed that he would, but his ideals must have got the better of him, and he had succumbed to them, unless he’d been killed crossing the invisible line of frontier that ran through the wilderness, and the baby had been fatherless even before birth. It all sounded too melodramatic – though such hard words might mean she was coming back to real earth and out of this ship.
But Dawley had vanished, and she’d never felt so much love for another person, though his love for her was such that it faded when his ideals took shape towards action. She said to him when he gone that he must not confuse ambition with fantasy. Ambition, she said to him – but to the empty blue-washed wall of her high-up terrace above Tangier – is what comes through patience, tact and skill. Fantasy is what you strive to bring about against reason and sense. Leave it alone. Call it fantasy if you like, but enjoy it in dreams. Ambition is something to attain because at the same time it works for you. Fantasy works a
People were moving off, first class first, which meant her, so she found her pile of luggage and joined the procession, held tightly to the rail as if the ship were still moving and she was afraid of being pitched, baby and all, too quickly down. Through the hangar-wide doorway Albert Handley stood on the quayside, talking to one of the stewards. She had written, not asking him to meet her, yet knowing he would. He wore a long brown overcoat, collar up, and a cap with a short peak. He’d offered a cigar to the steward, lit one himself, talking all the time and looking the ship’s length to try and find her. But he gazed offhandedly along the wrong deck, as if further gangplanks would slide out from there and she would descend, easy to see, all alone but for the baby. He seemed too close to the earth to look in the right place. She waved. He saw her. The great doors of the shed opened, luggage and people already going in. He flapped back: ‘Get off that coffin, before you start to love it. Come on, I’ve bribed the customs to let that pot and hashish through!’
She smiled at such rousing, had seen him only once, dead drunk at the opening of his first Bond Street show that made him catastrophically rich and famous as a painter. Being Frank’s friend, he was tenuously hers, and turned out to welcome her in spite of the final-sounding quarrel when he and Frank last met.
Tall, slim and swart, his eyes glowed with wellbeing, odours of cigar-smoke and after-shave. They neither kissed nor shook hands, but he uncovered the baby and bent close: ‘You go off with my best friend, and this is what you bring back!’ – grinning as they stood on the quay. ‘Come on, my Rambler’s waiting on the other side of that concentration-camp wire-fence. I’ll run you home to Buckinghamshire if that’s where you want to go. Shall I carry the heir to the Dawley millions? I expect he will end up as the bloody Emir of Khazakstan after Frank’s done freebooting around, in spite of his spine-communism. What’s he trying to do, anyway? Liberate colonial peoples from the gin-traps of modern imperialism? He can’t tell that to me. If he was a real liberator he’d be right back here trying to liberate us from these dead tectonic chiselheads about to open your case. Look at them. Go on, look at them! Then he’d really wither up under the napalm of their blank stares.’
She was early off the boat, and three came towards her. A pale long-lined face with bluebottle eyes, holding a notice in front of her saying what she could and could not bring into the country, asked her to read it. The baby cried, and two of the customs men frowned. The one who didn’t must be a Welshman, Handley thought, or a Scot.
‘Open that,’ Jack Lantern said, tapping one of her cases with his notice-board. Albert bent to do so. ‘Are you her husband?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘We don’t live together, either. We do it by post – registered.’
The man looked at her underwear, Moroccan slippers, a Moslem robe, filigree daggerwork from Fez. ‘Can I see your passport?’
‘I don’t have one,’ Handley said, ‘on me.’
‘How did you get into the country?’ A faint smile, as if seeing him already marched screaming back to the ship.
‘He came to meet me,’ Myra said, quietening Mark. More people were spreading bewildered into the enormous shed.
‘You’re not allowed in here,’ Jack Lantern said. ‘You know that, don’t you?’
‘My car’s outside,’ Handley told them. ‘I had a word with the AA man and the RAC man as I came in. They’ll vouch for me.’
‘How are we to know you’re telling the truth?’ Jack Lantern’s pal put in with a sneer.
Handley made a genuine appeal. ‘Would you do me a favour?’
Now they’d got him. He was begging for something, the first stage towards tears and breakdown. They lightened in feature: ‘What exactly do you mean?’
‘Deport me. Go on. Get me on that ship so that I can leave when it turns round, away from the servile snuffed-out porridge-faces of this pissed-off country. It goes to Australia, doesn’t it? There’s a bit of the Ned Kelly in me, so send me there. Not to mention a touch of the tarbrush and a lick of the didacoi. I’m an alien right enough. I don’t even have one of your seed-catalogue passports. So deport me if you don’t believe me, and see if I grovel and scream to stay in this senile dumping-ground.’
He picked up Myra’s cases, and she followed him towards the exit, expecting at any moment to be pounced on and dragged back towards some sort of aliens’ pen. Albert didn’t look round, his neck and face, every pore and inch of skin, fighting to keep the blood from bursting out of him: ‘Frank was right. How can you start here? You can’t. It’ll be so desperate though, when it does start, that you’ll need the training-grounds of Algeria to stand any chance at all.’
His car was parked in the sunshine, a low-slung black American station-wagon with rear red indicators as round as traffic-lights. ‘I need this monster for my mob. Seven kids I’ve got, or did have when I last counted them, and they’ll never leave me now that I’ve struck money. Before, I thought there was a chance they might starve to death or get run over, but now they’re with me for life.’ He assembled a carrycot in the back. ‘I thought you might need it. It was Enid’s kind thought, really. We’ve got a dozen or two around the house and gardens. You can keep it till he walks. A coming-home present.’
Because of his bellicose mood he drove slowly through the patched-up flat marshland of Essex. The radio played, the heater warmed, the baby slept after his psychic shouting at the customs. ‘They couldn’t touch me,’ he said. ‘They could deport me, they could put me inside for a bit, but I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Whatever happens boils up the old paint-pot for when the keel gets level again.’
‘You wouldn’t talk like that if you weren’t a well-known painter,’ she said, though knowing that he would.
He overtook a giant bowser full of milk-shake: ‘It makes me bitter, the way they treat people. All I did was scale a wall, snap open a door, and walk under a crane to get to the ship. When I meet people I meet them, not wait behind a gate as if I know my place. If I wasn’t a well-known painter I don’t suppose I’d be meeting somebody like you at all, coming off a big posh liner. I was at a party last night, and bumped into a publisher – Arbuthnot by name – who’s got your husband’s book on his list – George Bassingfield, isn’t it? – and he was raving about how superb it was. You’re a woman of the world, even if you have had a baby by my best gun-humping pal!’
There was no way to stop him ripping open wounds like letters with a paper-knife. She had sent George’s manuscript to the publisher he’d mentioned while still alive, and would sign the contract now that she was back in England.
She fed the baby in a pub, Handley tasting his first pint of the day at the bar, as the baby supped the milk of Myra’s nowadays ample breasts in a private room upstairs. They were taken for man and wife, Handley lean, sardonic and domineering; Myra cool, dark-haired, attentive to her baby – a couple who, being so hard to place and travelling in such a car, were thought by those who served them to have inherited vast amounts of money they could never have deserved. ‘Do not define yourself. Other people can do that,’ she thought, holding Mark high on her shoulder for his glass-eyed paradisal belch.
On the road again, gliding between frosty March fields to the almost silent sewing-machine engine, Myra thanked him for coming all the way down from Lincolnshire to meet her.
‘Let’s say it’s in memory of Frank, and at the same time to show hope that he’ll come back from Algeria. I only feel really generous when I’m walking in the rain to tell you the truth, not on a frosty day like this. I’d give all I’ve got, then, including the coat off my back. The rain makes me feel good, even when I start sneezing. It’s only when the sun comes out and I’ve got pneumonia that I feel foul. I haven’t done much in the last fortnight, so I came down to London for a break. I don’t paint so easily as I used to. Success is a funny thing: can eat your guts out. But
He roared his car along an empty hundred-yard stretch of dual carriageway, heading for the next narrow bottleneck of the woods. ‘I’ll drive to Russia if I go, through Berlin and Warsaw, strap my canvases to the roof, get a bit of work done while I’m there. Might paint a couple of tractors if they stuff me with caviare.’
Myra listened: the subtleties of a rogue-elephant flattering himself that he had enemies. He had. They’ll get him, she thought, by making him continue to the blind end the role they had forced him into. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Frank hadn’t been able to make him out – though that needn’t mean much, since they’d been friends for such a short time.
‘What are you going to do with a baby and without Frank?’ he asked.
‘Get home,’ she smiled. ‘And ponder things for a while.’
An AA man acknowledged his car, and he gave the clenched fist salute. ‘I was going to say and I talked it over with Enid, that if you’d like to come up to Lincolnshire and muck in with my mob, you’re welcome. I’m having an extension built on, and I’ve got two big caravans in the garden. You’ll find it friendly. Maybe Frank told you: we’re a bit rough, but don’t let that put you off. There are seven kids, a bulldog, six tom-cats and two au pair girls (one of them pregnant already) so you and the baby will be well looked after, fixed up in a room like the Ritz. The air’s good, walks lovely, and people say good-morning again now that I’ve stopped tapping them and stealing their rabbits and cabbages. You won’t even see me from one weekend to another, because though I complain, I’m working all the time for my next show. I’ll send one of the lads to fetch you if you like.’
A Tree on Fire by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes