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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.11
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.11

           Alan Sillitoe

  ‘Of course. It was a jolly good one.’

  His fierce moustached face jutted out as if he were about to fight a battle with his head. ‘You said I had mistresses, was carrying on with God knows how many women, when you knew I was happily married with a wife and seven kids. Many people saw the lousy injustice of it. My lawyer said it was actionable, but I didn’t want to make you more notorious than you are by skinning you of every penny you drunken high-living word-spinning scumpot.’

  ‘It wasn’t meant to be taken in that way at all,’ Jones said, unabashed as he straightened his jacket.

  ‘My bloody lawyer didn’t think so,’ Handley raised his fist. ‘You bastards print what you like, foul up people’s lives and don’t even know it, never mind expect to pay for it when the time comes.’

  Jones tried to push by, but the way was blocked. ‘Tell me honestly, what did you have against me that you’d write something like that? I’m just a bit curious about such an aberration of human nature.’

  ‘I wrote the truth. That’s what people want.’

  ‘I wish I had your editor here as well.’ So did Jones. ‘He allowed it to be printed, though I suppose he’d just smile and say it was nothing but the truth as well?’

  ‘If it wasn’t the truth,’ Jones said, ‘who was the woman you were with just now? Isn’t she one of your mistresses?’

  Handley was afraid to strike. There were some people you couldn’t hit, unless you wanted all the pride sucked out of your marrow. And once you began, you didn’t stop till they were half-dead. He raised his screwed up fist and drew it back, saw the first sign of life in Jones’s eyes when they lit up with panic. Then he smashed his fist with all the human force he could muster – right into the wall behind Jones’s head. The pain nearly split him in two, but it was the only way to take the boiling power out of his body and yet save him from the humiliation of smashing Russell Jones. He held bruised knuckles to his pale, frightened face. ‘Your mug should have been like this,’ – lifted his good hand: ‘And I can still do it. But the respect I’ve got for myself is bigger than the loathing I’ve got for you. I might as well try to knock that wall down as think I can bash some humanity into such a drunken pimp.’

  He left him shaken against the wall. As long as you knew you couldn’t win you could not humiliate yourself, and so they could not hurt you. You kept your faith, while reserving a special category for these innocents of the devil who did not even know when they were doing harm.

  Chapter Twelve

  While Eric Bloodaxe gorged on four pounds of shin-of-beef in the black of the morning, Ralph climbed up the wall with a chisel between his teeth and broke into Handley’s studio. Tall, well-built, lantern-jawed Ralph, pale in bone and fibre, jaundiced skin from his jaunt around the world, and brown eyes that had taken in too much of it, skimmed up by the drainpipe as if he were also hollow inside and weighing no more than a paper figure of himself. Green sweat of the night shone on him, and hot breath came from his slightly open, eager mouth. Action speaks louder than thought, he said as, wearing his old thornproofs and a cap, he pulled flatly up the wall that, though his enemy, he prayed would be his friend for the next few minutes. He’d also prayed while making the dog his friend during the break-in. Make friends with your enemies, and then defeat them, he smiled, as he slipped his sharp chisel under the latch. What else is an honest man to do whose only aim in life is to marry Handley’s daughter?

  He unclipped the huge painting, spread it on the floor and rolled it up like a sheet of old lino. Stale cigar-smoke lay heavy, and the thought of kindling the whole studio into a fire made his heart race, but because Mandy was sleeping below, any conflagration he might cause, no matter how wild and orange when seen from the edge of the wood where he’d stand and watch it, might take her sweet face and nubile body away from him forever. And since he was only indulging in this felony as a roundabout way of winning her, where would be the sense in that? Such a scene moistened his eyes, and muttering that he must get on, get on, get on and act, he took a length of string from his pocket and tied it round the painting.

  It had somehow been too easy, and therefore disappointing. His torch flashed around the room. Should he write a message in red paint across the wall, take out all the light-bulbs, slash the stocks of canvas, mix Handley’s drink in their bottles along the shelf? A multiplicity of ideas staggered and paralysed him, and deciding that ideas only killed action he opened the door and moved silently downstairs.

  Light blinded him, and he switched off his torch so as to save the battery. All doors were closed, no snores coming from the sound sleepers. Silence was heavy in the whole house, the deadest hour of the twenty-four when nobody was awake unless ill or mad. Halfway along the corridor, he wondered if he should try the door of Mandy’s room. A goodnight in her bed would be pleasant while robbing the house she lived in. She’d let him out by the front door, so that he’d lose the peril of a sheer descent down the wall with his half-hundredweight of rolled-up masterpiece.

  But he didn’t know which door led to her room. He wanted to retreat. The glittering light was bad for his confidence, the white metal of the cruel strip-lighting that seemed to mark every few feet of the long ceiling above. He looked for a fusebox, and when it dawned on him that there weren’t any, or in this illuminated madhouse were too cunningly hidden, he asked himself what he was doing in such a long and mercilessly exposed corridor, when he’d merely meant to break in Handley’s studio and flee with a painting. There was no answer except a heavy and inexplicable sense of having failed in his expedition and of now wanting to give in after so much success to the delicious experience of sitting on the carpet and weeping until someone found him and phoned the police, or threw him to the bulldog at the end of its meat-feast. Light wilted him, took his will away, so that life wasn’t worth living, and he hadn’t the strength to walk from its powerful pernicious illumination. This house of light was a prison. Did no one ever switch them off? Were they so rich or sane as not to mind? Mandy had told him about every occupant of the house, but they had become total strangers again due to this passion for light, a startling factor that she hadn’t thought to mention. If Handley suddenly appeared he would grovel and ask forgiveness – but he was two hundred miles away.

  Such light seemed the greatest enemy of mankind. A door-latch clicked, and a baldheaded man of middle height, dressed in pyjamas and holding a writing-pad came up the corridor towards him as if knowing he was there, and merely wanting him to sign a paper before going back to a peaceful sleep. At the sight of another face the malignant and brilliant light lost its influence, and Ralph smiled, recognising the man as Handley’s brother and trying to draw back snatches of his psychotic history related at odd times by Mandy.

  Ralph greeted him with his perfect nocturnal confidence. ‘I have a message for you.’

  John’s eyes brightened at this figure he’d not seen before on his ramblings to and from the lavatory. The effort to hide his surprise and write the message robbed him of speech. ‘I’m on the same job as you,’ Ralph said. ‘The world is nowhere to be seen at night. That’s your message. Send it to all stations.’ He turned and walked quietly up the stairs.

  He took a luggage-strap from his pocket and looped it around the painting, a roll so huge and long that when fastened to his back it looked like a stake to which he had tied himself before some ritual auto-execution. He climbed out of the window and descended safely. Mud jacked-up the sides of his boots as he ran across the field with his burden, wanting to be home before the loathsome day arrived, the dazzling light that turned his flesh so pale that his mother continually complained of how unwell he seemed, though when he came in late at night she would find nothing strange in his complexion. Wind beat against the outer limits of the wood, but deep within it never reached, and the darkness was warm as he walked the narrow path stooping under the nagging weight of his shoulder-roll.

  He bumped along the wood track, then south along narrow lanes, flicking headlights a
t each bend or turn. Luminous lines of day would soon appear across the flat-lands and sea to his left, a flank attack pouring light over him alone, swamping him in molten sunless steel. The main road was wide open, and he drove hard down with a dawn sweat on his cheeks, the smell of wet cloud and grass out of the open window, nothing to see except the inexorable swing of the world spurring him on.

  The cocks greeted him like the false dawn, for it was still more dark than light when he drove directly into the open barn, leapt down and pulled his bundle from the back. It fell in the mud, but he hauled it quickly across to the house. The night’s work had been planned, worked out for months and fearfully sweated over and, enraptured by the idea of possible success, he had often lain on his bed half-conscious, blinds pulled down, unable to stop the shivering of his arms and legs. A tree grew by his parents’ house also, and on several dark nights he’d taken a log of wood up and out again to show his limbs what they would have to do on the real job.

  As he lifted the painting up the staircase his mother called him. She slept between one and four o’clock during the night, and for as long as he could remember she had not been to bed with his father. Refusing to take pills she read herself to sleep, and returned to her book on waking three hours later. He left his roll outside and went in, stepping warily across the room as if expecting to be shot as a Peeping Tom who had inexplicably changed at last to a man of action.

  ‘I knew you were out,’ she said. His room was above, so that she could hear every sound. ‘Where have you been?’ She lay in a double bed, a sidelight shining on an open book, face half in shadow. He kissed her lightly, as was customary and expected, bending over awkwardly so that he knocked her spectacles to the floor. She was forty-five, and not a handsome woman, but anaemic and strong, and who would often remind him, after affectionate feelings that she could not always resist, that she had nearly lost her life in bringing him into the world. But her affection pulled the shutters down over his consciousness, dazed and shattered him. He needed it so much that he couldn’t stand it, and only afterwards when his consciousness returned would he put his arm around her shyly – a time when her love for him had vanished and she felt repulsion at his touch because he reminded her of his father whom she hated.

  He picked up her spectacles. ‘I spent the evening in Boston with friends. We had something to drink and forgot the time. I had a marvellous drive back.’

  ‘I thought you might have been with that Handley girl.’

  ‘I didn’t know you knew about her.’

  ‘I saw you together once, but you didn’t see me. Miss Bigwell told me a few things. She seems a common vicious little slut.’

  Such terrible slander made it difficult for him to defend Mandy. ‘She’s all right,’ he said. Also it was the first time she’d mentioned any of his friends by name, and though angry, he was at the same time pleased to think she took some interest in him after all.

  She shifted her weight across the bed. ‘So you have been with her tonight?’ Their few arguments had always taken place at night, now he came to think of it. ‘There are some good families around here, good Lincolnshire families, with nice young women among them, and I think it’s about time you settled yourself in a career so that you could see your way to marrying one of them.’

  ‘I don’t see why you should be so concerned about me,’ he said.

  ‘I want you to do some of the right things in your life before you ruin it,’ she rapped, ‘instead of ruining it before you do the right things.’ He remembered the story of a younger brother of her father’s, who went to Oxford and gassed himself at twenty-one. When his trunk came home they found it filled with gold sovereigns and pornographic books. He was immortalised eternally as a misguided young devil who should never have been born, but who nevertheless had broken his mother’s heart when he died. ‘According to Annie Bigwell that Handley girl is a disgrace, the things she’s been up to in her short lifetime, She wants horsewhipping. And her parents must be the lowest form of rubbish to let her carry on so.’

  ‘I don’t believe it,’ he said. But it was useless to argue. Mandy had told him, indeed, that Annie Bigmouth Bigwell was a ferocious old dike who had once tried to lure her into bed, and whom she had bitten for her trouble – which explained the stories she would spread about her. There was no point in repeating this to his mother, for what she couldn’t understand simply did not exist.

  ‘It takes a long time to convince a fool,’ she said. ‘You’ll ruin yourself on her. This county’s full of nice people. I thought you liked Jennifer Snow? Don’t you?’

  He knew there was no arguing with your own mother. You could only agree, and ignore her. ‘There are lots of creatures, all horse and no woman. I don’t want them.’

  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’d stay away from Mandy Handley if I were you. Her family’s rotten. A pack of beggars.’

  ‘Her father’s a talented artist.’

  ‘Oh yes, I saw the papers. He should be quietly put into some asylum, doing such fraudulent pictures. I don’t suppose he’s ever painted a horse in his life. Not capable, I should think. If I had a painting of his in my house I’d burn it. It’s a disgrace that he should deceive people so.’

  ‘They’re very good by any standards,’ he said, leaning uncomfortably, wanting to leave, but not able to while she was in this distraught attacking state.

  ‘Anyway, it’s very distressing to receive a letter from a man like that. It came a few days ago, but I’ve not known whether or not to tell you about it.’

  He pressed his hands onto her dressing-table to stop himself trembling or falling. ‘What did he want?’

  She was agitated, and he could only feel sorry for anyone receiving a letter from a man who was, after all, the lowest form of brute in spite of his talent. ‘He wrote about you. Said you were to stop pestering his daughter, which I suppose means this Mandy creature.’

  He smiled at hearing her name from his mother’s lips, even in disapproval, for it brought the softening aura of her beauty right against him. ‘It does.’

  ‘I don’t know why you smile. It was an ugly letter. He also called you a thief. Said you might try to break in and steal his paintings. He must be absolutely insane.’

  ‘I must go now, mother. I’m awfully tired.’

  ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I suppose you had better go and get some sleep,’ – the word ‘sleep’ contemptuously spoken, as if it were opium or marijuana that she’d never thought a child of hers would need. As he closed the door and went with a heavier step than usual to his room, she picked up her book hoping, in spite of everything set against it, that he might after all be changing his habits, and that his daily life would begin instead of end with the dawn.

  He wasn’t conscious of total victory until closed in his room, with drawn curtains and light switched on. The largest and best room of the house, it was an act of spoliation after his return from Cambridge in order to make him feel more welcome. While on his world tour it stayed empty to lure him back, and this constant pampering by his parents (who when he was them didn’t seem to care whether he lived or died) drove him into a frantic melancholy. But at the moment he appreciated their kindness because, after moving table and chairs to the window enough space was left to flatten Handley’s canvas on the floor. He stood a chair-leg at each corner, holding it down like an unrolled map of some complex world with one layer of earth peeled off. It frightened him, the enormity of what he’d done. He flicked off the light and ran up a blind. His window looked eastwards over flat and saturated fields. The dawn was like pale lead, a long red knife-edged streak slit across it from end to end as if someone from a land of blood beyond were trying to prise the sky in two. The day would pour in like a bursting dam, and when you gave in to the dawn you were marked like a wounded animal, to be hunted down by the sundogs of the day.

  Shirt, trousers, underwear went onto the floor. One had to sleep, and what was wrong with the day? Hide by the day in sleep, and those who slept at night cou
ld never get you. He had nothing against Handley when he was safe in his own room, and he stood naked, morosely conning the reasons why he had acquired the picture considering that in many ways he liked him. He was buoyant and bruto and had a crude sort of wit. There was no denying that. But at the same time he’d been a hard-bitten old-fashioned patriarchal beast when he’d wanted to marry Mandy, had forced her into the nastiness of an abortion, which accounted for her wild behaviour so that county baggages like old Miss Bigwell broadcast her exaggerated sins all over the place. He took his old Scout knife from a drawer.

  The cowman sloshed across the yard in his waders, and the main gate squeaked as if it trapped a demon when pulled open. A tractor coughed out the cockcrow and cattle moans. Ralph stepped around the painting, slowly between the anchoring chairs, a widdershins at its disordered colourful soul, his naked faint shadow shimmering the desk and divan bed, the long thorn of knife hovering around the heart of Handley’s work. If I tear it, will it scream? Shall I cut it to shreds and drop it bit by bit down the lavatory during the next three months, or bury it under the barn floor at midnight with a storm-lamp glimmering on the rafters? Shall I wedge it in a trunk and send it by rail to a non-existent inhabitant of Thurso or Wick? I could burn it, but I don’t go by cremation – or by creation as Mrs Axeby, a farm labourer’s wife, put it: ‘When one of my relations died who had got on in Boston he asked to be created, not buried ordinary like the rest of us. What sort of a finish-off is that?’ No, I certainly shan’t ‘create’ it.

  He pulled pyjamas from under the pillow and got into them, slipped on his dressing-gown. What made life rich was the urges you did not give in to. He spent many a fertile hour brooding on them – brewing up even finer urges that he did give in to. The knife went back in its case. He sat at his desk and picked up a pen. ‘If you give me your daughter’s hand in marriage I will send it back safe and sound. You know what I mean. But if you squeak about it to anyone beyond your family, I will cut it into little strips, and then into little squares, and mix it with my father’s linseed cake that he feeds his cattle with. I am not a man to be trifled with, as you may so far have thought. If you do not hurry I shall be only too glad to give in to my atavistic rage – after which I will fly to the ends of the earth. Yet somehow I don’t think that will be necessary, if we are sensible enough to open diplomatic negotiations immediately.’

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