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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.14
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.14

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  Keeping so still in the body-worn crevasse, where each grain of sand was a live ant pricking his skin, his joints froze, and arms and legs, so that at one point he felt panic turning over in his depths, ready to surface and drive him to madness. He held on, limbs dying one by one, knowing that if someone were to stick needles in him at this moment he would not feel it, that the points would go through dead flesh and his face would stay pressed against scorching rock without a tremor passing the mouth. To lie dead wasn’t always so difficult, but now under the dead eye of the furnaced midday sun spreading its diamond heat across the whole ashen and stony plateau, his sweat poured out like insects breaking from every surface and running over any space between skin and cloth, columns advancing and crisscrossing in all places inaccessible. He tried to pinpoint each fresh spring, but failed because there were so many. When a river of sweat flicked on to his neck, it seemed to have some mysterious signalling system that caused another to spring from the calf of his leg, as if all outbreaks and sweat-heads were working to a co-ordinated system too subtle and complex for the human brain to pick through. Yet there seemed no purpose in it except to drive him mad, so he gripped his teeth and eventually quietened himself by saying that to succeed in such a project as to send him mad was so minor an achievement for the spending of so much force and plotting that it was not worth succumbing to.

  The tree burned, a black stump surrounded by air of fire, but there had been no man on it. His trunk existed only, in the warmth, as if all the moisture of his body had run but into the grit and sand of his refuge and he couldn’t understand why a wispy column of vapour wasn’t lifting from the hole he had made. The air sucked it up, and he was dry, tinderous, dismembered, separated by yards it seemed from his dead limbs. He was glad there had been no man on the tree, that it must have been a piece of trunk falling into intense, almost solid smoke, a vision of his bodyless eyes.

  The noise of an aeroplane scraped out of the sky. It came low, low-winged and propelled, slow and straight. There was nothing it could see except smoke and emptiness, a stilled sea of lava and rock, and grey sand-patches frozen suddenly as earth. The pilot wasn’t air-conditioned either, as he must have yawned and looked, then swung back towards Tiaret, climbing as if to get nearer the sun where it would be cooler.

  Out of the half-sleep of stupefying sun and exhaustion, his instinct was to rub his legs into life, but his hands wouldn’t move. They lacked food, water, but above all he craved salt, and in his walking visions the sea was a flat metallic shimmer stretching from north to south, a line never more than a few miles ahead, and he increased its reality by wading in it, pushing into the shallow watery salt and lifting it up and over his head like sheets of silk, and in this way he felt better and the false sea became less distinct. Yet any way he turned, the horizon remained, with slothful fishing-boats that had no one aboard lifting and falling a short way out.

  By his side was a bag of ammunition and food, and a plastic container whose water tasted as if it had been run through iron filings in the factory, for the smell was almost the same as that which met him on going in each morning less than two years ago. The wells were deep and the water rotten, but his stomach had sealed itself against bacteria after the first crucifying bout in the Monts des Ksours. He rubbed his hands together, and the ache of life came back into his legs. Lifting his head, he saw Mokhtar and Idris standing in front, Ahmed and Shelley further down the slope, Mohamed behind. He’d been alone, flattening every second into an infinity of isolation, and he was almost surprised to see other people as he got up and swung his arms and lifted his legs to bring the dismembered pieces back to his torso.

  ‘It gets worse every time,’ Shelley said, lighting a pipeful of his precious tobacco to show how bad it was. He pushed his lower lip out with his tongue and tried to spit because it didn’t taste good in the thirst and heat. ‘Two hundred miles as the Mig flies and we’ll be in friendly territory. High mountains and running streams. Winter sports when it snows. We’ll freeze to death then, and see how we like it.’

  ‘It’s friendly enough here,’ Frank said, picking up his rifle. The lorry with the best guns and ammunition, bales of literature and maps, Chinese grenades known as ‘the rice harvest’, had been left in the Monts des Ksours, where the FLN was trying to tie down as many French brigades as possible to ease pressure on the Kabylie, keep a route open to Morocco, and threaten all roads from Colomb-Bechar. Nobody could say that they hadn’t done their bit with that load. The four FLN soldiers had orders to escort them to the Kabylie, and cause as much damage on the way without getting killed.

  ‘Nothing like spending summer in the mountains,’ Shelley went on. ‘Used to go to the Catskills with mother, where my old daddy had a big house for us, while he was walking out some dame in Boston. We kept the house after the divorce. Mother skinned him, pretty well.’

  ‘Nice tales for the camp-fire,’ Frank said. ‘All I want is a shave and a drink of water.’ Shelley seemed untouched by the trek, had a personality so strong that it would not adjust to the dominating sky and landscape, danger and lack of provisions. Every face had thinned to the bone, stubbled grey on Dawley, all eyes of whatever colour unable to shake themselves out of a fixed stare on long stages of the march. Frank felt the sky entering his bones. All extra flesh had vanished, leaving only aching muscle to carry him, as if he had turned into the big ants he sometimes saw; a desert insect when naked, thin and brown, strong and indefinitely living. They once stripped by a muddy pool, brown ants with shaggy heads, thin limbs and bellies firm, rushing into the magnesium filth. Ahmed missed a horned viper and, hoping anything else had fled, they went on bathing, men worn into ants, which was how Frank felt for much of the walking day. He was only a man on coming out of sleep in the morning, when he didn’t have to wonder for any time at all where exactly in the world he was.

  They moved another ten miles before darkness, a line of ants, each fifty yards apart, Mokhtar, the tall intellectual Nubian-Moroccan, in front; Shelley, the ever-suspicious next in line. Frank Dawley was the last man, with a full view of them filing down to the scorching dull silver of a salt lake. There was no beauty in their route, only monotony and desolation, and though now and again such adjectives made him smile, they soon lost meaning, for it was land to cross, not question or define, and the endlessness of it emptied him of all response. You took the easy way by giving your total physical being to it, he thought, so that only the unusual was beautiful, something that shocked and pierced your heart, the purple and lugubrious cold dawn striking your eyes as soon as they dared to open at the mounting pressure of it, the great rose-hipped escarpment on emerging from a twisting and narrow cleft, the sight of a hyena suddenly setting into flight from its frozen position, so that you who were also unexpected may have been a form of beauty for it. He once thought beauty ended with the eyes, struck them and that was all before you turned away, but now it only began with the eyes, and your whole body and life responded to it so completely that often you could pass through a hundred similar beauties in a day and remain unmoved, on the surface, until you tried to close your eyes in the darkness, when the delayed-action shock of the day eventually drugged you into sleep. It was beauty, and not beauty, and only the shifting mind treated you to it at the moment of its choosing.

  Purple and lugubrious dawn flattened into monotone day. The great rose-hipped escarpment turned grey, was climbed and left behind. Mokhar shot the hyena and roasted its flesh for supper. A land so big could hide you like jungle if you followed certain rules. There was no condition of life in which rules were not necessary. If there was, he had yet to find it. When the unexpected vanished, its beauty was gone, because you were totally drawn back into the flattened, staring eyes of the walk, of the oblivion of racked sleep.

  Under this land there was water, oil, manganese, copper, bauxite – materials that one day would put roads and railways where they walked at fifteen or twenty miles between sunstroke and moonbeam. They wanted ice-factories and water
-pumps, power stations and fish-pools, cotton-farms and air-conditioned mills, soil labs and canning-plants: then one might live here and think it beautiful if someone had written poems to tell you it was so, and you had the leisure and comfort to realise that they were right as you drove through it at forty miles an hour to meet its charms half-way.

  They ambled like dead men, seeking refuge from the stony midday sun, no longer knowing that they walked. Land was like alcohol; he walked, and walking was like drinking. He drank it in on waking, and went all day from sundown to blackout wallowing in it until he dropped from exhaustion and total inebriation, happy and not caring if he ever woke again. Trudging all day over the flat stale beer of the stony plain, brandy of hills, mouth shut tight because it seeped in continually through eyes, ears, nose and anus, the drink of land and the never-ending gutterbout of topography, a blinding weekend of landbooze that went on for months. Such drink killed one with thirst, that was the only trouble, but it gave you the required lift, the lighting-up time of the brain in the flaring magnetic dayflash of the desert.

  The valley widened, dry at the bottom, coming from nowhere, ending nowhere, all to no purpose, until Mokhtar fell flat on his belly, and Frank was about to do the same, thinking that his sharp ears registered a plane and that they were in for another half-hour’s insane steaming among the gravel and clinkers, when he saw him breaking lumps of grey crystal from the rock and pushing it in his mouth.

  Frank filled his pockets for a taste later, when his craving for salt came back. ‘We might make the mountains in ten days,’ Shelley said, ‘running streams, a bit more to eat.’

  Mokhtar was walking again. Conversation of a few mundane sentences could take a whole day to shake itself out. Shelley was an optimist of the hard-headed sort, cheerful from the deathbed of his blighted hopes. ‘Did you ever see a tree on fire before? I saw a whole forest burning once in the States,’ Shelley went on, ‘a million trees. But never one burned like this.’

  Frank was engulfed by the memory of it, and for once the land lost its dominance. ‘What did you do?’

  ‘Got in my Lincoln and headed right away, back to the highway and town.’ Frank was silent. When a million burn, what can you save? When one burns you can only watch. The energy of your desire to help must coincide with the moral streak. He rubbed salt along his cracked lips as he walked, fifty paces behind Mokhtar, shaking the gravel from his sandals. He’d torn another piece from his blanket and wrapped it around his feet, but it had come loose and flapped when his legs moved forward. He bent down and tugged it right out, stuffing it in his shirt pocket. He had no real desire to get to the streams and mountains of the Kabylie, wanted to stay in the wide open wilderness, fight if there was a chance, play hide-and-seek at least, hunt if possible, and when at bay turn to break out or destroy, stay in this great outside flank of the prize being struggled for until such time as the French gave in and every member of the FLN joined the march on Algiers, which might not be long in coming, since the split between people and army was deep enough for plenty of premature and treacherous hope. But before then, there’d be negotiations, breakdown of talks. Then, more discussions, and a final betrayal when the country was handed over to the wrong men – or maybe the right ones. For himself, he didn’t mind if they stayed here for good. Whoever they met was friendly and helped them, though glad, of course, to see the back of them in case the French descended and began torturing in the hope of finding in which direction they had gone. North, east, south and west – that is the land which I like best. The ideal guerrilla can send an arm and a leg one way, and an arm and a leg the other, a limb for all four points of the compass, while the head levitates up in the air to make sure they reunite in a prearranged spot later, preferably when it is dark and behind the back of a paratrooper.

  One pain did not kill another, they lived side by side, swapping sensations like goods in a free economy recently collapsed, and there was no limit to what the body and heart could take. They fed together in mutual support, becoming one monster that dominated the life you had chosen to lead, all the time trying to tell you how wrong it was, that the only life to follow was one in which you made no choices, avoided all suffering and turmoil, so that what agonies did strike at you would be acceptable to the world because they were chosen by fate and not by your own godless self. He hoped Myra understood what his mind had been incapable of formulating before he chose to leave her and help a country labouring under barbarous torments and oppression. It filtered through to him with often marvellous though fragmentary precision. He had seen enough to know he’d been right, but that all he could do and had done would not draw the final result nearer by one minute, yet he had been right to follow a positive and interior voice for the first time in his life that clarified its demands by reasons he understood and that could not be gainsaid by any cynicism he now and again dragged up to fight it with. Nothing had been escaped from, only entered into. The freedom of the wide-open wilderness had no meaning, was a myth, nonexistent, outdated, a paradise of false ideas. It pushed you deeper into the prison of yourself. In order to survive it, you were locked and barred and shackled, and accepted it utterly. You were stripped, hardened, tempered. The wilderness hammered the world into you like an iron rivet. Everything beyond your eyes – conical shale-sided hills bordering the gravel-valley they were threading – was clear in all its detail, perfectly understood, but you were the imprisoned man who could only master it by leaving it behind, crossing the same thing again, hiding in another bowl or valley, sleeping beyond a further horizon of the same landscape and pissing there when there was piss in you, the land that pushed you deep into yourself in order to give you the spiritual stamina for traversing the country from which you had come and to which you had still to go, while eventually, the prison of strength crumbled around you. He did not hope or expect to die there, but in his prison of sun and volcanic rock he felt strong, able to do safely what he had come for.

  He had always seen himself as a strong man of the factory, able to handle huge machines, lug hub-boxes and iron castings from trolley to bench. But at the beginning of this voyage he had been as weak as if he’d penned all his life in an office. The unfamiliar landscape doubled each mile, and the heat became worse as they crawled over arid, unpopulated land, following the invisible line on Shelley’s worn-out map, numerous memorised zigzags between one sandmark and the next. His endurance was as good as the others, but not being in their minds, he imagined it bothered them less. Shelley seemed untouched by it, perhaps because he one day expected to reach the coast and get out of the country, which was only fair, since Frank had forced him into Algeria at the point of a gun. He had been silent, except to converse with the Algerians, his thin and rocky face piqued at the way things had turned out, though not openly hostile to Frank when he had all reason to be. Not satisfied with delivering arms, Frank wanted to go right in, and could only do so with Shelley, who knew the land and language. But, in any case, they were cut off from Morocco – Frank argued. ‘And you know it as well as I do.’ Shelley did, but would not reply, and from then on Frank was ready in case Shelley tried to kill him, but after so many days had burned out over them, he realised that Shelley did not at all mind the long march back, even though it would take months from his life. Under the abstracted look and grizzled half-grey hair was the brain of a nonchalant, easygoing man whose idealism and sense of purpose seemed so much nearer the bone than that which had impelled Frank to set out on this ideological adventure. Shelley resented nothing, not even his passport given up at the frontier village in Morocco – because he had four more in his pocket to be used when necessary. With his fluent Arabic, he had planned the hard route in detail with FLN Intelligence in the Monts des Ksours, and checked each day’s stage of it with Mokhtar before setting out on another inch over the map, not even a pencil line to show where they had come from in case they were taken and it fell into the hands of the French. His tall, thin figure walked ahead, caught by a set of ideas that had replaced a
burned-out childhood; ideas that seemed to suit him far better than if he had retained the golden aura of some far off blissful infancy. In one sense, his ideals made up for a manhood he could never have attained, and gave him a far bigger personality than if he had.

  Frank saw now how naive he had been to imagine that a man of intelligence and scholarship might not have the stamina for a trip like this; saw in fact, that accompanying him turned out to be a way of proving himself. It had taken the brawn from his middle height, and he hadn’t bothered to cut his hair since Tangier, in spite of the heat. His blue-grey eyes had sunk deeper, and his cheekbones were high and more prominent, yellowish under fair hair that carried on from the denser growth below. He didn’t want to know what he looked like, but felt that his face had been eaten away, that there were only eyes, mouth and nose which served the body as various instruments of a conningtower head. In the wilderness, you shared the consciousness of those with whom you happened to be, walked along with common nullities, sank to shallow levels of the same uniting thought, paradoxically joined by being alone. As the day went on, sun moving with micrometer slowness down white-blue sky, Frank veered from collective preoccupations nearer to his own geologic levels of introspection and escape, all-absorbed and zombie-like on his walk as he drew on deeper spiritual reserves to get his body over the last few miles, not able to propel himself even slowly on the joined enthusiasms that had set them going in the morning.

  The slaghills of Nottinghamshire multiplied a thousand times as far as the eye could see, humps and pyramids of grey dust and shale covering the plain, not so geometrically pure and satisfying as those in the wayback of home but something to draw in the breath at and wonder if this was to be your last sight of earth. A small, sharp stone worked between his toes, and he knelt to extract it. He disliked the encumbrance of the rifle near the worn-out ending of the day, but it had to be carried, more as a burden of self-discipline than for the use to which it might some time be put in spitting out the unseen bullets of ambush, though the bomb-jelly of fire was likely to get him, he felt, before he could draw its clumsiness up to his shoulder and fire. It was good in attack, but would you ever have the chance to defend yourself with it? Mokhtar carried a revolver, Shelley a small machine-gun resembling a Sten. He walked on with it, quick to set his fifty paces from the man behind. A dogwind worried, swirling fine dust into clothes and faces, as if somewhere a giant egg-timer had been smashed and its contents were dispersing over this terrible extent of windswept land. His only impulse was to talk against the irritation of it, but he couldn’t walk with the man in front, or open his mouth in case it choked him. There was a thin, ululating piping of the wind, a weird demonic tune whose insistence beat on the eyes and brain to make you want to he down and sleep, a surface dust disturbing the earth without killing visibility. The sun could be seen, dimmed and ringed, able to stifle but not scorch, and those in front lost their clear desert definitions and became blurred, laboured figures bending forward, safe at least from patrols or planes. Grit stung his eyes, and his throat turned to rock, blocked by one of those shale hillocks that reminded him of Nottingham slagheaps. It was no use stopping, lying down to let it pass, because it spun in this dust-bowl and would bury you, never pass. You had to pass it, fight your way to sky and clear land. It was the worst day so far, a lingering torment of desolation. No conscripts fighting for a lost cause could undergo this. Mokhtar imparts faith to nomads and wanderers, talks to lop-eyed, underfed people of hamlets and encampments, tin-towns and cave-villages. They listen and agree, laugh and shake our hands, look longingly at the guns, take pamphlets even if they cannot read and hide them as soon as we have gone. Can you create a dust-commune in this unhallowed spot on which the unmerciful clappers of heaven have ceased to open? Yet there was water underneath it all, and if the peasants worked by the sweat of their breaking backs for another twenty years, maybe they could buy the machinery to extract it.

 
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