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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.13
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.13

           Alan Sillitoe

  The sheets covered her. ‘Get dressed, then I’ll come down and heat some more coffee.’ He put on his underwear, kept his back to her, though knew she wasn’t looking at him. She wanted to get dressed with him out of the room, and this touch of modesty drove him to make love again, which she accepted with the same quick passion as before.

  She came into the living-room as if nothing had happened, almost as if she hadn’t seen him for a few days. He didn’t even have the heart to grin, knowing exactly where he stood and hoping that some time he would be able to go on from there, yet not wanting to because she loved a person whom he respected too much to betray. They drank hot coffee in silence, until he said: ‘Shall we start?’ In Lincolnshire for a few days, he would at least be able to see her. ‘The storm’s letting up now.’

  ‘Do you think we can?’

  ‘Why not?’ He lit a cigar. ‘We can stick to our arrangement.’

  ‘We’d better not. I want to be alone. I hope you don’t mind.’

  ‘Of course I do. But do as you want.’ At least it meant so much that she couldn’t now go with him. He moved to kiss her at the door, and she offered him her cheek, which he touched with his hand, and walked to his car parked on the road.

  On the long drive he reproached himself for what he didn’t do and say that might have persuaded her to come with him. Even at forty, one made the same mistakes as a youth in love for the first time. One could go through it a hundred times and learn nothing. Only a nonentity could believe otherwise. But as hours stretched into darkness and headlights flooded the road he was glad it had ended like this, when there’d been no real wish for it to begin. Full of regret and turmoil till he saw her again, he nevertheless couldn’t really doubt that this was the end, whether he wanted it to be or not. The soft flush of engine-noise carried him to his studio and the large new picture, which took his mind back to colours and shapes and images flooding him for another piece of work that would keep him civilised and abstracted, as far as the family would be concerned, for the next fortnight.

  He drew up to a pub beyond Sleaford for a pint of mild and a meat pie, his first stop, as if fleeing before Frank Dawley’s wrath, who’d magically known of his afternoon’s work though clambed and parched in some wild region of Algeria. He wished Frank had not vanished with such idealistic thoroughness, wanted to see him now, take him to the house and show the new big picture which he knew would interest him. I’ll dedicate it to him, dead or alive. Both he and Myra will like it, because its range and breadth fit him perfectly. The meat pie was so foul it deranged his hunger. He called the woman because he needed more cigars, having to bellow it into her ear to swamp a television speaker racketing above his head. Some radio maniac had fixed them through the pub, even installed a speaker in the lavatory.

  ‘I can hear you,’ she said. ‘You needn’t shout.’

  ‘Do you always have it on that loud, you vile old Lincolnshire hot-slot?’


  ‘I said have you got a match?’

  ‘Are you blind? They’re over there. I don’t know.’ She came down a ladder, all varicose veins and stocking-tops, a lovable Lincolnshire lollipop a long way past it, he surmised, but still full of salt. She shoved two boxes at him: ‘Do you want one for seven-and-six, or one at one-and-four?’

  He passed two florins. ‘Give me four bob’s worth of the small ones. I’m rich, but not a millionaire.’

  ‘I don’t want to know about your private life. I’ve got enough trouble of my own. Some people are the end, the absolute bloody rhubarb-end. They buy a pint of beer and expect five years psycho-analysis thrown in. I’m fed up with it, I am. Feeding chickens all day and drudging around here at opening times.’ She passed him four cigars. He slid one back, trying to wring at least one bit of honesty out of the day. ‘Four bob’s worth is only three.’

  She pondered this. ‘So it is. Are you trying to be funny?’ He lit a cigar and finished his drink, shouting ‘Good night, missis!’ – so loud that even the man reading the news seemed to lift an eyebrow as he walked out.

  Lincolnshire was the county of silence and peace, especially when it was dark, of sandy coast and rolling wolds, and lowlands so waterlogged that he had secret plans in his drawer for a prefabricated fifty-foot fibreglass skull-hulled ark that could be put together in half an hour if the sky looked threatening. Which was why he’d chosen high land to live on. From three miles every light blazed, not a window thriftily blocked, no door closed or spotlight doused, a flared-up nomad camp in a land where all other houses had only twenty-watt bulbs, barely sufficient to stop those who lived in them bumping into the wainscot or treading on a mouse. He liked to see a living house with every eye wide open, lost sight of it entering the village and turning the narrow lane, less bumpy under the wheels at his speed, bushes on either side scratching the windows. Now that Myra wasn’t with him his entrance to the yard seemed so tame that he felt unfocused and irritable, his mind scratching over all that could have gone wrong during the two days he’d been away.

  ‘Did you have a good time?’ Enid said, arms around him for a kiss.

  Mandy looked up from her Pan novel by the stove: ‘I wish you two wouldn’t slop so much.’ Handley gave Enid her headscarf and threw the necklace to Mandy, which was neatly caught. He noticed that she actually smiled. ‘I went to that party last night,’ he said, ‘and saw Teddy this morning. Made me have lunch with him, and I didn’t get away till four. What a life those ponces lead. The same routine day in and day out. Anyway, I’ll have a good show this autumn. We’ll be rolling in it, especially after that recent stuff.’

  ‘You can buy me a car, then,’ Mandy said.

  ‘That’s what you think, you fat little chuff. There’ll be no more cars here except mine, and I sometimes think that that’s one too many. Good God, I’m not in the house five minutes before I’m pestered for a car. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if I went back to begging letters.’

  Enid put down a bowl of chicken soup and he ate hungrily. ‘There’s no going back to that,’ she said. ‘We can’t go back in this house.’

  ‘You say it like a threat.’

  ‘Don’t start,’ Mandy said. ‘I can’t stand it.’

  He finished his meal in silence, and went up to take refuge in his studio, the place he needed to be, where he could sit and smoke in peace surrounded by his work. He knocked on John’s door and went in. He was in bed, lying on his back and staring at the ceiling, hands by his side as if someone had given the order to go to sleep. The radio was switched off, his desk in shadow, earphones on a hook and gun, presumably, in the drawer.

  Albert set a tin by the bed. ‘I got your favourite cigarettes in town.’

  ‘That’s very kind of you, Albert.’

  ‘Feeling well?’

  John’s eyes relaxed and he turned with a smile: ‘All right, but I’m afraid there was some bad news today from Algeria. Reception was good from French army stations, and I broke their codes. Some of it was even in plain language they were in such a hurry to get it out. The trees were on fire. They’re burning down the trees.’

  Handley’s pale face leaned over. ‘What else?’

  ‘Not much. I expect you’re thinking of your friend, but he may not be in this particular part. It’s bad news, though.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  He turned to the wall, ready for sleep. ‘I set up the new aerial system, and it came clear as a bell. I’ll get back to it tomorrow. Geurrillas are attacking a base in the South. It’s not finished yet by any means. There are many trees on fire.’

  ‘I know,’ said Handley. ‘I bloody well know. Thank you, John. Sleep well.’

  He took the stairs slowly, opened his studio door and lit it up. But he didn’t bloody well know. Nobody knew. In the middle of a long great storm the ability to know was replaced by the necessity to act. It was chaos that decided what you could and would do, so that all you had to do was prepare for it, unless you were an artist, in which case every form of
storm was already in you – everything.

  He looked for confirmation of this to his recent painting, slid his eyes from wall to wall, over door and ceiling, under the bed. There were sketches, the skin of a dead fox, a map of Lincolnshire falling into strips, windows of blackness through which nothing could be seen. He leaned on the table, and looked again in a calm and clockwise fashion. Sickness muffled his sight after the vast day he’d gone through, senses losing the edges of their definition. Yet even under his tiredness he knew that everything was in place, stones, paints, pencils, horseshoes, cigars, knives.

  Bursting open the door he launched himself downstairs, entered the living-room with an insane look on his face, though not too far gone to notice the way everyone was frightened at what they saw.

  ‘The painting,’ he said. ‘Where is it?’

  Enid poured him some black coffee. ‘What painting?’

  ‘Somebody took it out of my studio.’

  ‘Nobody’s been in there. It stayed locked all the time you were away. Only you had the key.’

  He sat down. ‘It’s gone. No, it can’t be. I suppose it’s in the house, but who’d move it from my room?’

  Back upstairs he saw that the window had been forced. ‘We’ll phone the police,’ Enid said. ‘They’ll soon get it back.’

  ‘No, I can’t do that. Let me think. I want to be alone.’

  ‘Who’d rob an artist of his work?’ she wondered.

  ‘Who would?’ he said. His hands trembled, he felt drained of all energy, as if he knew with horrifying accuracy and truth what it was like at last to be an old man. The heart was ripped from his autumn show, and if he didn’t get it back he’d never be able to repeat what he had done. Someone had poleaxed him, and he felt himself withering at the thought that there was a person in the world who wanted to do such a thing, a malevolence that for gain or spite would rip the living heart from you because they were unable to wait till you were dead. But since I’m an artist whatever bad happens must be turned into something good if I’m to survive and win. I’ll find who took it, and break whatever backbone is responsible before I’ll let anyone set fire to the tree I’ve grown into.

  Part Two

  Chapter Fourteen

  A tree was burning on a hillside, a single tree in a waste of sand and ash. They knew it well, had used it as a landmark when counter-moving for the last three days to outwit a French motorised patrol from the west. The tree had been dead for a long time but clung to the red friable substance half-way between dry sand and bitter soil, scrubbed and bitten clean by passing camels, picked at by nomads for tea-fires after dusk. No one could say when it had last borne leaves.

  Plane-jelly hit the ground nearby, jumped at the tree like a monster with bared teeth, spreading out to send a black-reddish pall of oil and eucalyptus into the air above. It was a lollipop in flames, expanding like an orange candy-floss fixed in the earth’s tight fist. It burned in a circle of fire, and the longer Frank watched, the more surprised he was that the tree should take so long to be consumed. From a plane it would be visible for dozens of miles, a stationary puff ball down on the grey brown earth. The peeled emaciated tree would not burn through, as if it were made of iron and waiting to melt, mocking the fire which clung to it for not being hot enough to do its job. Now and again, a tiff of wind thinned the smoke, and the white claws of its outer branches were seen, though many were missing because they had already dropped to the ground.

  The bomb had struck earth like the bark of a dog. He’d heard the plane coming and lay dead in the cleft of sand. There’d been nothing for the pilot to see, and he hoped it was slung out to lighten his plane after being hit by gunfire further east, or that he was simply unloading from high spirits before going back to his aerodrome. The coppery flames of the tree cleared away much of the smoke, immolation so total that the reason why the plane dropped the bomb became unimportant, though it was necessary to know it in order to lay a guideline for the preservation of their group. Everything must be accurately deduced, so that they could rationalise and plan. Each day, half day, rest, thought, had to be set into the complexities of these shifting sands, clouds, winds. But the tree fixed his eyes, its scorching fire clearing out the caverns of his mind the short time he looked at it.

  It seemed as if some hidden reserves of resinous sap were feeding the flames, sent them bristling high and forcefully, as if the only hope of the tree to keep its upright shape was to succour the fire that was sure to destroy it. When the quick of the tree was reached, the flame turned white, spilling pyrotechnic fire for a few seconds. Then the whole tree burned black and smoky once more, and two of the strongest branches fell into it.

  It was only now that he noticed a man in the tree, having missed him in the confusion of the first shock. He was halfway up, astride the main branch forking left, arms held around the trunk and head pressed against it. The bomb was so close that the impact must have killed him. He supposed now that the pilot had seen him move, that the man heard the plane and ran up the tree for safety. For some, a chicken in every pot, for others a bomb on every human being to keep the chicken in every pot for themselves. It was a cruel blighting expense of spirit. As soon as people take to the hills or the wilderness, God pulls out of them. You’ve no business in the hills as far as God is concerned: if you aren’t prepared to stay in the valleys and suffer, He won’t look after you. He tried to spit, but the permanent condition of his choked throat spared no saliva to put out the vision of the burning man. What sins was he booked for, to end in such a way? The smoke plumed to vanishing point not too far up, a shaky impermanent stalagmite, the only movement of Nature for hundreds of miles, all that remained of a war between man-made chemicals and an earth-succoured tree. His binoculars showed the body falling into the base of the smoke.

  When you light a match in such heat, the flame is invisible, and if you aren’t careful, you burn your fingers on it. With all smoke gone, a blue trunk appeared, air shimmering around it where the flame was active. They waited thirty minutes to give the plane time to come back and fly away again. New rules were conceived every day. They would not even talk, as if it might hear them with its complex spikes of homing and radar devices. In this life, there was no hope, no luck, only meticulous plotting and the certainty of what had already happened. Before survival had become an obsession they had foolishly thrown away half their force in a fight when the rest of them were lucky to have broken free, but now it had become a profession, a way of breathing, that had flattened them into the earth even before the plane was heard. He pressed hard into the grit and sand, though his body felt airless and light, fought to get deep into the earth as if to relieve the fever of thirst in him, and escape the danger clamped at his spine like a grappling-hook. If he could not cover himself in grit and dust, it was only because it wasn’t deep enough. Walking, walking, walking, you seemed to hold down firmly in your body all the incurable diseases of the world, and when you have to stop and stay flat, you imagine they have got you at last, each one disjointing and attacking the longer you lie there.

  The tree was a black stump that had died long before the fire beat at it, whose white bones had given up through old age, only to suffer this cremation before being blown off the face of the earth by the crepitating slick winds of the Sahara that met in battle with all-battering gusts rolling down from the Atlas. But it seemed as if the stump would last, that the fire would not reach its marrow. He’d seen trees similarly blasted in a grove near Aflou, a meeting of milestone stumps gathered to discuss what to do now that they had lost the distance-marks on their faces. Yet, an anaemic green shoot always grew from part of the sheltered base. It was hard to understand why they were so bent on survival, though looking at them, it seemed that it was not in their power to ask such a question.

  He had been frightened by Algeria before getting used to it. The excess of space had no limits, as much because he was unfamiliar with the geography, as that it was really vast. At dusk, the sun went down as if settin
g into a sea, with the far-off humps of camels drowning in it, or the shipwreck of some oasis foundering at an inexplicable low tide by a mirage of mountains. In dangerous areas, during the weeks of great walks they had done, they marched by night, following a pocket compass, sometimes an Arab guide. The silence made them afraid to talk, and after some hours, it seemed as if it had destroyed their voices, Frank being resigned to never talking again and thinking it wouldn’t be so hard an affliction as long as he could hear and see.

  The fear narrowed him down, became part of growth and helped him to see his lonely stature against an enormous land-mass that was so big in fact and imagination (which fear welded together), that it also eliminated all idea of time. At first, he looked at his watch often during the day, but now it was constantly running down. Only Shelley had any check on what minutes passed from the first red spread in the east to the final blue and gold bath in the opposite direction. In the wilderness, the man who measured time was a god, until the mainspring of his watch finally packed in.

  They burrowed against the scorching shale-troughs several times a day. The valley was a wide, long depression, running south-west to north-east, pointing like a javelin towards the Kabylie mountains where most of the fighting was going on, and where the guerrilla front of the FLN had friendly bridgeheads backing into the sea. From one of them, Shelley hoped to get on to an Egyptian arms ship one dark night and be floated out to Morocco or Alexandria. From Tangier again, or Libya, he would come back on the same run with another load of guns. As for Frank, here he was and here he would stay while the fighting lasted, looking on his commitment as the great oceanic end of the line for him, the wide spaces of the world that he must allow himself to be swallowed by if he was to do any good in it.

  Their line of march was neither along the bed of the valley nor by one of the level crests on either side, but took the more difficult line that invisibly ran half-way up from the oued bottom, so that their brown garb, painfully threading the scorching rocks and thorn bushes of a never-varying contour-line, was least likely to be seen by any plane coming on them before its warning noise scraped out of the sky.

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