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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.10
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.10

           Alan Sillitoe

  To crawl from the forest and slime of your work, fly above it and levitate by the engines of imagination, sit in that plane-seat and fasten your safety-belt when the dark-haired blue-eyed beautiful steward-goddess looks at you with a brain-scorching gaze that furnishes the energy of all joints and muscles, makes them move with you unaware of it. The earth of your painting is left behind, and trying to forget the fear of the plane floor shaking beneath you unclip the safety-belt and look out of the window at the colours and contours and inhabitants of the work you are making. It doesn’t exactly tally to the map spread on your knee, but that is usual and as it should be. Out of a nearby cloud come the unapproachable hooves of nightmare, but the plane veers and you look instead at the close configuration of ash-grey mountaintops, eyes at the end of binoculars, cocktail-sticks searching out the individual valleys of desolate beauty balanced by their inhabitants of men and animals. Eyes wilt and tire, fold back into you, and soon you become frightened at being so far above the earth with nothing to stop you bouldering down if the energy of one engine baulked against its supergravitational task. He sweated against death, spinning into the colours of creation and never waking up, every minute expecting it in the hope that it wouldn’t come. The journey went on, as dangerous as autumn when it won’t become winter, till suddenly the engines fluttered and the beautiful dark-haired woman stood at the door, and the descent was smooth coming down, down, a quiet and gentle drift towards the canvas once more in human proportion and set on its easel before him.

  He stayed in his studio at night, strip-lighting dazzling the air brighter than day and throwing over the canvas a metallised glaze that, if the actual colour, could only have been done by a man in the last stages of kidney disease. The stopgap night of Lincolnshire blackened outside, and when he switched off the lights, opened a window and looked out in his shirt-sleeves the silence was profound and complete, not even a dog barking, or a crow shaking its mangy spirit free. It was mild June, smell of foxglove and late cowslips, the demise of spring, and a cool drift of fresh air threw a few heavy drops of rain against the leaves of an alder-tree below.

  Colours mixed, and before him were two canvases, one for day and one for night, boodland and deepgreen forest that never came out of the swamp of fecundity boiling on pot and sleeplessness; butterflies and bovine eyes with world on the wing and in retina, the viable inexplicable shapes and colours, themes and highlit pictures of the land and spirit where he had no maps to follow, all came out of his blue-cooled ice-drawn soul-filled heart. Drugs and pot, I’m high all the time on the powders of my own brain, the tadpole blood of my veins – except when I’m not and am low in the swamps of life. I’m free-wheeling over this great plateau, neither young nor old, clock-smashed, calendar-burned and picking my teeth with the compass-needle after chewing flintlock lilies and limestone daisies.

  He came out of the valley of life and death to look at it, green bulbs and bridges, windows into the green where the decomposed has been resurrected and composed, limited by other shapes and colours, log-brown trees across the green where the valley is blocked, branching out till finally a way is open into green, at night and in the morning an ochred sky striking terror and respect into the unruly inhabitants of Handley’s world. Worship is possible, the mutterings and blank stare of animal-men and women who can’t go mad because they do not believe in the past or the future. They have struck an eternal expression that was never seen before, yet is recognised as a universal truth now that it is set down plainly for everybody to see. He pulled it back with him out of the unknown desert-emptinesses that he’d stumbled into and taken the courage to cross. All of last year’s notebooks, sketches, cartoons had possessed these faces, gradually emerging from the subliminal slime and sand of his awkward, pertinacious vision.

  One goes on for months, moody, will-less, unable to paint anything big and solid, then suddenly the tomb of oblivion is opened, the great boulder falls away (a little pull perhaps is all that’s necessary) and in you go, cartwheeling and energetic, phrenetically possessed, haggard and unshaven as you catch its treasure rolling towards you.

  Chapter Eleven

  George Bassingfield’s publishers owned a massive house in Belgravia and used it, not too frequently, for parries and receptions. Tonight they gave one of those long and lavish midweek parties which, because everyone could afford to stay in bed next day, made it seem like Saturday night. So it was a good party, though Handley wasn’t yet drowned in the mood and booze of it, and in fact had no intention of becoming so. He had learned, since enmeshing himself in the so-called cultural life of London, that soberness was the best weapon when faced with an excess of drunken bonhomie. Unable to paint except in his own pure and right senses, he could not insult people unless in that mind either. If an insult wasn’t creative it served no purpose. He preferred that people would leave him alone, would not approach him with fatuous and catty remarks that, when sober, they would only make in their articles.

  Wearing a dark-grey suit, he moved about the large room looking for Myra. He was hungry, and one whisky put him at last into a good mood. Lady Ritmeester was involved with a group of men whose faces he half knew, and she took his arm as he tried to get by. ‘Here’s Handley. Let’s ask him!’

  ‘What?’ he smiled. ‘Are you inviting me to become a social being?’

  Her piled hair was phosphorescent, clamped into place by a blue and gilded fish. ‘Good Lord, no!’

  ‘You haven’t even kissed me, and we can never be friends until we’re over that little obstacle.’

  ‘Now look, Albert, Kenneth here says that those who take no interest in political matters fit very well into a declining society.’

  ‘I don’t take an interest myself,’ Kenneth said with a fat chuckle, ‘so I’m not prejudiced.’

  Not you, thought Albert. ‘An interest in politics is only valuable in a declining society. Then you might get enough blood and brains out of it to make a revolution. If you see what I mean.’

  Lady Ritmeester yelped joyously as if someone had stepped on her tail. ‘I thought painters weren’t very revolutionary people?’

  ‘Some are, some aren’t,’ Kenneth put in. ‘Don’t you think so, Raymond?’

  ‘More or less,’ said Raymond, who didn’t know what they were talking about.

  ‘I didn’t think you were,’ Lady Ritmeester said to Handley, as if a look from her beautiful eyes would bring him back onto the true path.

  ‘I wouldn’t stand you up against a wall, Lady Ritmeester, and that’s a fact.’

  John looked at Malcolm, as if wondering whether they should throw this boor out before the American cultural attaché arrived.

  ‘I’m a revolutionary by faith,’ he said, ‘though perhaps not by conviction, living in England, if you know what I mean, which lacks the imagination or energy to be revolutionary.’

  This seemed more of an insult than his last remark to Lady Ritmeester. Mark and John linked arms and walked off, while only Kenneth was goodnatured about it: ‘You mustn’t mention the word energy at a party.’

  ‘Energy’s a relative thing,’ Handley said, mocking himself with his own pomposity. ‘I once knew a man who worked double-shifts in a factory, sixteen hours every single day, for three months. Then he took a week off to go to the Isle of Wight. On the station platform he dropped a box of matches and when he bent down he never got up again. That particular movement had never been in his job. All the chaps remembered the way he died, and from then on he was the man who never even had the energy to pick up a box of matches.’

  ‘I’m so glad you’re telling us how spineless the workers are, Albert.’

  ‘Imagine bending down to pick up your lap-dog,’ Handley said to her, ‘and pegging out that way.’

  ‘This conversation’s too morbid for me,’ Lady Ritmeester said, turning to another group and hoping to cut the ground from everyone’s feet except her own.

  He moved towards the wall, where huge blown-up pictures of George Bassingfield,
Myra’s late and never-lamented husband looked down from beyond the grave at this strange company drinking homage to his book. Broad forehead, dark smouldering eyes, and bushy moustache gave him the slightly old-fashioned appearance of a works foreman who had volunteered for the First World War and perished on the Somme – probably because the enlargement had been blown up from a snapshot. It was a very English face, of a man who saw and felt everything but had been unable to express anything, except that such a malaise had driven him to write what was by all accounts a quite marvellous book. Copies were stacked on a card-table by the door, and Handley flipped through one while Myra was talking to her dead husband’s publisher. A year ago she’d met Frank Dawley at Handley’s first show. They’d decided to go away together, she leaving her husband whose photograph now looked down so mournfully and proud. On the evening she was to leave him for good George got in his high-powered car intending to run into them and kill both on their way to the bus-stop. By some split-second mishap in his desperate and foolhardy brain he had killed himself, injured Frank, and missed Myra altogether.

  The publisher, Larry, was regretting George’s untimely death. ‘On the showing of this book he had a lot to give the world. He was a poet, really, who’d have knocked Rachel Carson right out of the picture on this line of writing.’

  She looked far from easy, for the party called all the life-changing events of the last year before her. Yet self-control increased her confidence, and set up in her a beauty that Albert had never seen before. Like many men of unstable temperament he tended to fall in love only with unhappy women, but Myra’s misfortunes had inspired her beyond such a state, for which transition he had a respect and tenderness he tried never to let her see.

  The publisher was a tall dark middle-aged man wearing sweat-shirt, jeans and sneakers, who tried to inveigle authors into his net by looking young, being with it and getting rich. When Myra introduced him to Handley he gave a radiantly shy smile and asked if they could publish his autobiography.

  ‘I haven’t written it yet,’ Handley said, still holding Myra’s hand, which she’d given him by way of greeting. ‘My life’s so dull nobody’d be interested. Artists lead dull lives, otherwise how would they feed their imagination?’

  Larry gave a great laugh. ‘There, you see? He says something like that, and wants us to believe he’d write a dull book. We’d give five hundred pounds on signature.’

  ‘If you gave me that much money I’d never write the book,’ Handley said. ‘I’m a painter, not a thief. Everyone I meet tries to get me to give up painting. Maybe I’m good, after all.’ Larry asked if he had any more of those long thin cigars he was smoking, on the principle that if you want to charm someone get them to do you a favour. Albert opened his tin. ‘You offer me five hundred pounds one minute and beg a cigar off me the next. I don’t know what the publishing world is coming to. I suppose you’ll have a knighthood soon.’

  ‘I’ll tell you what, then,’ said Larry, ‘why don’t you do a series of book-jackets for us?’ Relishing the cigar, he mentioned an artist who’d also done some, whom he considered to be Handley’s superior because all the critics applauded him, but whom Handley thought was the lowest kind of paint-smearer – obscene, bloody and perverse. When he said so, Larry gave up and moved away, so that Handley received his first silent compliment of the evening.

  He released Myra’s hand. ‘It’s over two months since I saw you. Thanks for getting them to send an invitation.’

  ‘They were delighted, as you saw.’

  ‘I didn’t much like leaving you alone in your cold house when I drove you back from the ship.’

  ‘Everything’s all right. The baby’s fine. He’s with my sister in Hampstead.’

  ‘Everything?’ he said. She smiled, and it delighted him to see that life had for once ennobled someone. To say there was a bond between them would be too accurate for it to be helpful.

  ‘There’s no news of Frank,’ she said. ‘It’s over five months.’

  ‘I suppose he’s learned how to fix a bomb in a car and connect the contacts to the ignition. That’s all they seem to be doing these days in Algeria. When I first saw you tonight I thought you’d had news, you looked so radiant.’

  ‘He must still be in the desert,’ she said, ‘if he’s anywhere at all.’ She didn’t like to talk about it, and had argued with herself for hours as to whether she should have Albert invited to the party. It was bad enough to think about it on waking for hours in the middle of the night, but to talk of it with a friend who also knew Frank brought back the desperate ache in her heart and stomach, and it was difficult not to be stricken with tears. ‘I can’t wait for him to come back. I’m really unable to dwell on that part of it.’

  It was possible that Frank would not come back, he thought. His life wasn’t worth much, having thrown it into such a desert. There was less chance of him returning than even she thought in her most pessimistic moments, though when speculation joined them as now he was wrong, because her hopes were often in a worse plight than that.

  ‘As I said before,’ he smiled, so that not even she could disbelieve him, ‘we’ll soon see Frank. And who knows, the time might not be too far off.’ Death isn’t the end of all idealists, he thought. Some live to tell the tale. They must. In her wildest moments she had imagined him coming out of it, a sudden turning up at the house that blinded her with all the happiness she’d ever dreamed about. But the swing into oblivion was more bitter. Hope and optimism were a sin to be paid for by the further sin of despair. Both were the deadly enemies of suffering mankind. Handley was trying to comfort her, when the only accurate opinion on the matter was total silence, to push it out of her mind and trust that such policy would never lead to indifference.

  ‘I’d rather talk about other people,’ she said. The party was gathering force. Someone fell down near the door, a crash of glass as he went. A prominent critic gave a halfhearted cheer, as if it were a shadow-faced novelist from the north about to indulge in another blackout.

  ‘My trouble,’ he said, ‘is that my daughter Mandy’s got herself in love with a farmer’s son who’s a bit of a layabout. Not that I mind that. I’m one myself, but he’s a bit of a nut as well. I caught him last week spying out the house with binoculars, trying to see how Mandy lives, I suppose, when she’s in the sanctity of the home.’

  ‘He seems moonstruck,’ she smiled.

  ‘I suppose I must give his binoculars back, because when he saw I was on to him he hid them, and made his getaway. I found them, so when he came back for them later he’d be unlucky. The people I get landed with. Still, I did a painting this last week that I’d have given my right arm for a couple of years ago. I don’t know what anybody else’ll think, but it’s left me all of a sweat.’

  ‘I’d like to see it,’ she said.

  ‘Any time. I’m going back tomorrow. Come up with me.’

  ‘What about Mark?’

  ‘Bring him. My kids’ll be all over him. You’ll have a comfortable journey in the car. I’ll pick you up at your sister’s at twelve.’

  She was tempted. ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘I’ve got to see Teddy Greensleaves for an hour. After that I’ll call on you.’

  She decided: ‘All right.’

  ‘I’m the happiest man in the world,’ he said.

  ‘Wasn’t that the village Frank lived in?’

  ‘That’s it. I’ll tell you all about it. He won’t mind.’ She was even clinging to that. ‘It’s marvellous, Lincolnshire. You’ll like it.’

  She didn’t hear. ‘I’ve finished with this party. Can we go to supper?’ He collected her coat, sensed the inner fight to assuage her suffering. ‘We’ll go to the Blue Dumpling. It’s quiet there, plenty of space.’

  ‘Anywhere,’ she said. ‘Where’s your car?’

  ‘In a garage. We’ll get a taxi.’ She clung to his arm as they went through the hall. Someone greeted her, wanted to talk, but they walked on.

  Outside, in the half-
light, Albert recognised Russell Jones. From a happy and forgiving mood at the beginning of the party, Myra’s torment had now suffused acid into his blood and brought back his morose bitterness. He disengaged his arm – ‘See you in ten minutes’ – walked over and gripped Jones’s wrist.

  ‘Remember me?’

  Jones greeted him with the friendliness of a journalist who imagines that no artist could have any success if it weren’t for them. ‘Albert! How are you? I thought you might be here, and decided to look out for you.’

  ‘I’ll bet you fucking well did,’ Handley said, half dragging him around the corner where it was dark. He slammed him against a wall. ‘What have you got to say for yourself?’

  ‘What the devil do you mean? Let go. Let go, for God’s sake.’ Handley saw that Jones was absolutely unaware how spiteful and slanderous his article had been. If you felt innocent you were innocent – and so such people escaped death by guilty conscience or hanging. Handley’s faith in the ultimate goodness of human nature was shaken once more. He’d never expected otherwise, and he relaxed his grip, though still enraged at the idea of vainly hoping someone like Jones could realise that by any standards he’d done wrong. ‘That article you wrote about me, remember it?’

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