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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.12
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.12

           Alan Sillitoe

  He slept through the day as if it were night, intending to post the letter when he woke in the darkening balm of evening.

  Chapter Thirteen

  When he picked up the menu to order she noticed his damaged hand. He’d been pale and silent in the taxi, as if gritting his teeth for some reason, ‘Did you fight with that man?’

  ‘You know who it was?’

  ‘I thought he was a friend you were being particularly jovial with.’

  ‘It was Russell Jones. I’ve no secrets from you.’

  She understood. ‘I meant to ask you whether it caused much of an upset. It was a pretty bad thing to write.’

  ‘There wasn’t too much trouble. But I still had to have a word with him.’

  ‘You need something over it,’ she said. ‘It might fester.’

  ‘If it does it’ll teach me not to shoot my mouth off. Enid’s right. It would have festered, though, if I had hit him.’

  ‘Didn’t you?’

  ‘I hit the wall. Come on, what would you like to start with? I fancy a bit of salmon, myself. The sight of a swine like that makes me gluttonous. I was only hungry up to then. Gluttony’s a good feeling now and again: it means you haven’t lost your will to live. You can’t let me down by ordering a grapefruit. Have some fish, then a steak, and we’ll wash it down with champagne. I’ll do the ordering, and you just sit quiet. You aren’t living alone while you’re out having a meal with me!’

  She spread her napkin. ‘I’m used to it though, and it makes me afraid. I’m getting into a routine of coping with solitude, and I actually like it. It’s the first time in my life I’ve lived alone, and when you invite me to Lincolnshire I become cautious of leaving. It’s like a disease that you don’t want to lose because it gives you a sense of self-importance, and that’s a vital thing for me right now. In your own house nobody else’s spirit competes for the psychic space you need to feed on. Sometimes I don’t think I’ll be able to live with anyone again. Don’t be afraid,’ she smiled, ‘It hasn’t altered my love for Frank. It deepens it in a strange sort of way.’

  The Scotch salmon lay like thin paper over their plates. ‘We’ll drink to Frank Dawley,’ he said.

  ‘I wonder whether he’s drinking champagne right now?’

  ‘Don’t wonder,’ he said. ‘To Frank.’

  She held her glass up.

  Instead of squeezing his lemon on the fish he pressed it over his knuckles and rubbed them, replacing the dull ache by sharp antiseptic stabs. ‘There’s plenty of time to be alone when you’re in the grave,’ he said. ‘You can’t live alone while you’re alive. I suppose the baby will change that even if Frank doesn’t come back for a while.’

  ‘It’s not so bad,’ she said. ‘You’re more aware of yourself. Maybe after a while your personality would dissolve into a sort of low-grade insanity, but for a time you feel in greater control of yourself than you ever have. I think an individual can only exist if she’s living alone, though you’re not really allowed to live alone, unless you make a great effort. As long as you still feel lonely. Those who live alone, and don’t, have a dangerous kink in them, I suspect. When I stop feeling lonely, I’ll stop living alone.’

  ‘It’s twisty,’ he said, ‘but still not convincing.’

  ‘Here’s to the big painting you told me about.’

  He lifted his glass and winked: ‘Cheers’.

  ‘Will you be able to drive back with your hand in that state?’

  ‘And paint with it,’ he said. ‘I’m always damaging my hands so as to be aware I’ve got them. It shows I love my work, at least. I feel in good form tonight, which stopped me punching Russell Jones the way he deserved.’

  She cut into her steak. ‘I suppose all journalists are pretty bad. That’s just the way they are.’

  ‘Some have honour,’ he said. ‘Some don’t. It’s been my luck to meet one who didn’t.’

  ‘You know,’ she said after a while, ‘I still feel rather guilty about Frank. I was so shattered when George died, even though I didn’t love him in the least, so that I didn’t give Frank what love I really had for him. If I had, he might not have gone into Algeria.’

  His laugh shocked her. ‘I’d never deny anybody’s guilt, or argue against it. It’s a precious thing that stops you going mad, the most precious thing some people have, just as real hatred stops you getting cancer. Still, I don’t think you knew Frank. Hundreds of years of suppressed idealism suddenly came up in him. He’s like a savage who finds an engine and takes it to pieces, sees exactly how it works all on his own, nobody telling him. He’s got the key to the universe. Or his universe, at any rate. Nobody could have stopped Frank. If he’d been an artist I’d say you should have argued him out of it, because no artist has the right to go and fight for the oppressed peoples, etc., unless he’s seen the enemy rape his wife and burn his house, in which case he’s got the same rights as any other man. But Frank was an ordinary man, must have felt before he went like I did years ago when I sensed some talent for painting. Nobody could have made me give it up, just as it would have been impossible for you or anybody else to make Frank forget his ideas. Love can’t do everything, sweetheart! It’s a good job it can’t, or the world would become desperate and degenerate in a day.’

  She listened, handicapped when it came to replying. My love, my love, a pendulum swinging between bitterness and terror, telling the time till he comes back, moving across fields of primroses, wood-anemones, lesser celandines, violets, red campions, moths and seasons pulling me down. ‘It’s nothing,’ she said, ‘to how long some people have had to wait. You hear about it and shake your head and say how sad, but never realise it’s like this.’

  He called for another bottle of champagne, became troubled and soddened, mellow and complex, the longer they stayed at the table. The intensity reminded him of endless nights sat with John when first back from Singapore. He forgot Myra in telling her about him. As a shellshock case John had always thought he would die at the end of the day. He’d go to bed, after suitable goodbyes to everyone, which made them raw and edgy, with a copy of the Bible, a tin of corned beef, a candle, writing-paper and envelopes. When they fixed him up with his radio equipment, he recovered a flimsy sort of sanity. They lured the corned beef away from him one night and made a stew next day.

  ‘You must meet him when you come and see us.’

  ‘They’re waiting to close,’ she said. ‘Are you trying to drown my sorrows in talk or drink?’ She held his hand, and he wanted to draw it away, unable to bear the warmth and softness of it, knowing that her reasons for putting it there were not the same as his reasons for wanting to take it away.

  ‘Both,’ he said, looking directly at her. She met his gaze and smiled, drew her hand away as if she’d not known his was there when she put it in that direction. He called the waiter. ‘I’ll get a taxi and take you up to your sister’s.’

  ‘Are you sure you want to bother? It’s out of your way.’

  ‘I’ll enjoy the ride,’ he said.

  Wearing the same formal suit as on the previous night he left the hotel early and walked across Berkeley Square, streets deserted but for the occasional delivery van. The underground garage was like an air-raid shelter. An attendant pointed to his washed and fuelled car, its nose set towards the exit. It disgusted him the way they lavished so many ‘sirs’. Such treatment turned him sour – which seemed to increase their deference. He once told one attendant not to call him sir, but from then on he ceased to be helpful, and actually disliked him for reminding him of his unconscious servility. If you have money people try to take away your self-respect, believing that no one has a right to both.

  After a long breakfast with Teddy Greensleaves, haggling over conditions for a big autumn show, he filtered his car up Baker Street and steered north towards Hampstead. Traffic not too bad. Smaller fry shifted aside for his Mini-crusher. It was cloudy here, but maybe blue above patchwork fields and closed-in woods. He’d enjoy a sunny ride to the freshets o
f Wash and Humber with Myra, only hoping no great disaster had smitten his hearth and home. A myriad of little ones no doubt had locusted there to chew up his peace of mind for a few days, but that was to be expected. He was in the mood for work, to sing and fly over the off-white canvas world, and once settling Myra into the family bosom he would set to and hope for the whistling best. The black gloom of last night was blown away by the brisk wind of morning. He pulled to the kerb near Hampstead station to look up Myra’s street in the A to Z.

  Someone tapped the window, drawing his eyes from complicated street angles. ‘You can’t park here.’

  Handley waved the ill-printed map, and without winding down the window shaped out an obscene word before drifting calmly off. One might momentarily think that, with his cap, he was driving the car for his employer, yet his sharp face of authority and ownership was immediately confounding. Prejudices went to pieces against the barbs of Handley’s classlessness, which disconcerted most of the English he bumped into. He was so remotely old-fashioned, and at the same time so in advance of most other people that he had few friends. Living without the topo-marks of convention gave a strength and a naivety hard to penetrate, an unbreakable wall of social will that was necessary for life in England.

  Myra was waiting in the hall, Mark in his carrycot on the kitchen table. ‘Would you like some coffee before we go?’

  ‘We can have a jug on the road,’ he said, picking up her case.

  He did a calm unhurried ton on the outside lane of the M1. They seemed reluctant to talk after the openness of last night’s supper, almost as if we’d been to bed together, he thought, and to say as much to himself was showing the black side of his nature swelling up from the sewer depths with vindictive suddenness. In his civilised mind he’d never think such words, but sometimes they caught him unawares, and weren’t to be ignored, for their springs often hid some secret truth he’d otherwise never have known among the shallow verbiage of normal daydreams.

  Mrs Harrod was tidying the bedrooms, but left her vacuum-cleaner to look at the baby, the downcurved mouth of her round face reshaped by a smile: ‘He’ll soon be sitting up,’ she said, holding a finger to him, a wonder in her voice as if such a development was the first time it had miraculously happened. Mark looked at her, full of love it seemed to Albert, who sat in the kitchen while Myra made coffee.

  Leaving Mark with Mrs Harrod, she showed him the house, feeling pleased that it belonged to her. He was the first person to see it since George died, and it was only now, after a promenade through the living-room where George’s books still lined the walls, then to his study bordered by shelves and files of maps, around the garden whose lawns and plots had merged under the unifying heaps of the months, and up into the untouched uninhabited flat over the garage in which George’s mother had died, that she realised the value of what was totally hers. ‘It may be wrong to own property, but I’m glad to have this house. I can shut myself off, and feel free, and it’s a good place to wait in.’

  They stood on the lawn, by the garage door. ‘There’s nothing wrong in owning your own place,’ he said, ‘as long as you don’t exploit people by letting rooms and living off the rent. I’d always wanted to stop shelling out to a landlord, and the first thing I did on getting money was to buy the house we live in.’

  When Mrs Harrod left, she insisted on making lunch, though he needed little prompting to accept. ‘I’m not expected till midnight,’ he said, ‘and if you read the map we’ll get across the country in no time.’

  There was steak in the refrigerator, lettuce and potatoes in a box under the sink, and Albert went to the car for the bottle of champagne he’d been taking to Enid. He could give her the headscarf intended for Mandy, and give Mandy the necklace meant for Freda, and give Freda the Charlie Parker LP bought for the au pair girls, and the au pair girls would have to wait for their loot till he made another trip south or into Boston. Though creased by such manifold responsibilities he blessed them now as he set champagne on the table and saw the pleasure on Myra’s face at such delicate foresight. ‘I didn’t know when we’d need it,’ he said, ‘but I saw us parked in some desolate lay-by while you fed the baby. Since we’re drinking it here I can sling the paper cups, or use them some time to make sketches on if I’m stuck for paper!’

  She went upstairs to feed Mark and change her clothes, came down wearing a white cotton blouse and dark skirt. While they were eating, the champagne dry enough to make a pleasurable meal, the air darkened and large pieces of rain flaked against the window. He frowned at it: ‘I was hoping for a sunny ride.’

  ‘Perhaps it’s only local,’ she said, ‘or it won’t last long.’

  ‘We’ll have a smoke after coffee, then go. I’ll switch on the heater and play soft music. If I could I’d draw the curtains and drive blind – radar-driving, switch on and go to sleep, with a bell to wake me after a hundred and umpteen miles. There was an article in that magazine Jerry-car. A good bit of steak, this.’

  ‘We’ve done nothing but eat since we met yesterday.’

  ‘Never mind,’ he said, ‘we’ll go long walks over the wolds with Enid. We often set out for the day, sometimes walking as far as the coast and taking a taxi back.’

  The pitch and splash of rain increased, till he thought the outside world might be an aquarium, and fish would appear at the window, opening their hobgobble mouths, and waiting for the glass to break. Myra switched on the lights. There would be a storm whose force would press her to stay in the house, unable to leave unless the sky was blue and empty. Wet leaves brushed and slopped in the wind in a way they hadn’t when George was here because the trees were regularly pruned. Her neglect had changed the character of the house. Surrounding noises differed as well as interior settings of furniture. It took on her own temperament. Never in love with George, it needed a long time to forget his thick presence. Life was long and grief short, but in this case it didn’t seem so because, having met Frank just before George died, a low-grade grief for the six-year habit of George was enduring at the same time as her wait for Frank that might turn out to be a greater and more terrifying grief if he never came back. To end George’s nagging unnecessary memory maybe she should sell the house and go elsewhere, though now when the blue light bumped at the French windows she couldn’t bear to leave it, remembering so much while there that she was torn between wanting to lock all doors and windows on herself, and going out of it never to comeback.

  Thunder bullied and brawled, and she thought how comfortable a place it was in a storm, with such proportions and furnishing that she hoped the never-ending furore would become part of normal life, because its spreading calmness subjected all memories to the nullifying elements of the present. To become so purely herself, memory gone, future unimportant, was a rare and luxurious rest.

  Handley noticed her mood, and didn’t speak. The controlled calm of last night that struck glamour in her face had gone, replaced by excitement which he put down to the heavy atmosphere that the storm was trying to break up. He disliked such storms, felt they cut open parts of himself that he wanted to keep hidden. They tormented him, and he walked around the room while Myra went to the kitchen for coffee. He wished they hadn’t stopped for lunch, had gone speeding along roads where thunder and lightning would hardly have been noticed, and not turned out to be so clearly responsible for something that he would only blame himself for.

  When she set the coffeepot on the table he put his arms around her. She gave herself with such an open passion that he knew there could be no love in it for him, which vivid truth caused a black sadness that drove his embraces wild. She received it gladly, as telling herself also that this affair of the moment had no love that could ever prove embarrassing to them both.

  Her body had been waiting for someone to hold and meet her kisses, and the lessening psychic force generated by the storm had enabled it to take place. He wanted to break away, but his body caught him in a trap that he’d made and hoped for since meeting her from the ship
three months ago. Now that she was forcing him to it he could only accept it under some vague conditions of love that he’d never ceased to believe in. But he kissed her closed eyes softly, a hand on her face, tenderly because her gentle need had turned its privilege on him.

  ‘Come up to the bedroom,’ she said. He stood alone for a few minutes, smoking a cigarette, boyishly agitated. It was impossible. I’m falling in love with her, but she’s in love with somebody else, and always will be. He wasn’t capable of walking away. Too abrupt and brutal. Even his lust had vanished. God knows, I shouldn’t have brought in that champagne that’s launching a bloody strange ship. He heard the toilet go upstairs, water in the cistern drowning the noise of outside rain. He poured more coffee, slewed it down half-cold. Here am I, full of admiration for my friend Dawley, and while he in the prime of his guts gets on with his life’s slaughtering work I’m making love to Myra. Maybe the kickback will show me what my ideals are really worth, though to know might strip off my illusions, and nobody deserves a fate like that. A door clicked and, shedding his boots he walked up. Lying in bed, she turned to him. The room was dark, blue air beyond, rain locked out but trying to wear through the glass, its noise drumming away all words inside him.

  They were startled later by a loud knock at the door. She smiled at his alarm: ‘It’s the grocery order. He’ll leave it in the garage.’

  He sat up nevertheless. ‘We’d better go. It’s four, and there are a few miles to flatten before Lincolnshire.’

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