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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.15
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.15

           Alan Sillitoe

  It became as deep as snow, black snow, hot snow, filling all the inlets of his sandals, grating on to the fingers that gripped his rifle, swirled in circles as if they were beating at last towards the centre of it, the blackest eye of the earthly death that was to draw them in and through. The sun was out of sight and they pulled close so as not to lose each other in obscurity. Shadowy black buffs were nearer on either side as if they had strayed into a sinister cul-de-sac, but Frank noticed that less dust was blowing. They climbed over drifts or waded it.

  Shelley stumbled. The gap widened ahead. Beyond, milk-white cloud filled the sky. The only relief was change – either danger or speculation. The brain had died, perished in dust and the effort to choke through. Thought was coming back, but the thin whistle of the wind went on as if warning them of impending earthquake, and grit flew in ordinary contemptible rolls. They gathered under a rock, sheltered from the immediate dust-storm but baking in its oven.

  Frank wondered how he looked, so observed them, and at the sight of each other they too wondered how close they were to dying of thirst, wandering destitute paupers of the desert supposed to be battleworthy guerrilla soldiers ready at a moment for ambush or stab-in-the-back. ‘Come on,’ Frank said to Shelley, ‘now that we’re really in a bad way, recite us the Communist Manifesto!’.

  His boots were off, purple scabs and iodine feet. ‘Oh, you irrepressible bastard. Always ready with a joke when the sky falls in and the earth knocks you in the crotch.’

  ‘Recite it in Arabic,’ Frank said, ‘if you like. I’ll get the gist of it. We’re all brothers after all. This rest is killing me. I’ve got the strength to walk but not to uncork my bottle for a swig. Are you all right?’

  ‘The same as you.’

  Ahmed took a handful of beans from his pack, passed them under each face before eating some himself. Frank took one, donkey-food, chewed through the sugary straw-like covering and sucked at the hard beans inside. His stomach gripped them with tigerish hunger.

  ‘They’ve sent us out as bait,’ Shelley said, ‘but we’ll surprise them by getting this long march over. Honourable bait, however. It’s all in the game and the book. Somebody’s got to do it, and I’d have accepted it out of my own will and wiles. They want to keep the wilderness alive – and they do. I don’t think we’re the first lot.’

  ‘You wouldn’t trust your own brother,’ Frank said.

  ‘Him least of all. I’d trust everyone else.’

  ‘If we’re bait it’s for the shite-hawks and dust. We got that French truck, but burst all the tyres with our own fire and smashed the steering. Then the planes nearly got us, or would have if we hadn’t rabbited south for two days and nights.’

  ‘The game is to trust them completely,’ Shelley said, ‘and to distrust them completely. It exercises the mind. I’m a realistic idealist. I do it with the FLN, and the French. We’ll never forgive each other when we all wake up.’

  Three hours before dusk. How can the mind live when you must learn to walk without hoping to get anywhere, never a point or picture set at or beyond the horizon on which you can visualise and feed? Not even the shape of a hut or well, the outline of a tree-cleft or hillock, not a cloud that kept form and colour. It was easy. He would match it with what life had been like when he was in the factory where he’d worked twelve years, except that now the landmarks were unknown and unimaginable so that one could hope, whereas then they had been fitted into place by three generations of family which engendered nothing but despair. He’d grown old in that life, knew it all, with wife and two children and the whole mass of housing-estate inhabitants to smoke out his giant idealisms. He’d woken up, and the joy of it was in his head, thrust him young again so that the pain of it went only to his feet and half-starved body. The crossing of the frontier had been survived and, even better, surveyed. At first, he’d been like a manipulated dead man, forgetting ideals while obeying orders, marauding and killing when the rare possibility arose. He could not think, carried a brain blacked out except for cunning and the long control of his body lurking in ambush. At the time he seemed to observe everything from a plane of normal spiritual reflection, but he had been an ant-zombie in the transition from a life in which he had grown old to a new life in which he had not yet learned to live, needing the nimble rock-scrambling feet of a goat, the locked forgotten loins of a hermit, the narrowed barely-surviving guts of an ant, the heart and brain of a newborn man who now wanted to be on his own. And even this was given to him in the never-ending march.

  A huge overhanging rock made a lean-to, and they formed a circle, while Ahmed and Idris drew a smoke fire and poured water into a kettle. The strong aroma of brittle mint revived them. Frank climbed a rock and looked at the vermilion earth as far as the horizon, where the sun had almost set. The whole sky was bruised and dark, as if the sun were slowly descending right on to them, seeping invisibly down into the earth they camped on. It grew redder as he looked, then fell black in the space of a few minutes, so pitch that an inexperienced man might not have found his way back to the camp.

  A glass of scalding tea was put into his hands. The fire was out, last smoke drifting, mixing with the sweet smell of mint from each glass. They fed on a mess of chickpeas and rancid mutton, biscuits and dates. ‘It didn’t bother me to see the tree burn,’ Shelley said, ‘but it sure surprised me to find it there in the first place. Must be water not far under it.’

  He’d forgotten the tree, and it burned again, blindingly over his eyes, flashing and sparking through the all-enveloping blanket of his exhaustion. He could hear it falling to pieces, cosmically destroyed now that no roaring bomb-spilling plane interfered with his pure vision of recollection. He took the bolt out of his rifle, spread the materials of a cleaning-tin at his feet – rag, pull-through, phial of oil, a mechanical action by which he hoped to shake off the white light of the tree. He didn’t know whether it made a good or bad memory. Wholly good, or wholly bad, it had not yet played itself out, but the nagging uncertainty of its portent palled on him. His hands and feet were cold, but the sheltering rock held off the worst raging bitterness of the night, now a few dozen degrees down on the fetid dustfire of the day. They were busy, making guns to slick in all parts as good as new, knowing that the first hour of the next march would blemish them once more. Ahmed, Idris and Mohamed had said their prayers towards Mecca. Mokhtar grinned, did not believe in it, and Frank was glad, since it took the insult out of his own grin. Shelley, having performed the ablutions on his gun, passed his flashlight over the map. One day maybe I’ll tell Myra what the Israelites felt on their way out of Egypt. They, too, had to fight a war before taking over the promised land.

  ‘Did you ever think you’d be a soldier,’ Shelley said, mocking the loving care he was showing his rifle, though he’d lavished even more consideration on his own.

  ‘I’m a communist first,’ Frank said. ‘It’s not the same thing as you mean.’

  ‘Tell that to the Mecca boys.’

  ‘Mokhtar’s a communist. You remember?’ A few weeks ago, Mokhtar had assembled the score or so people at a village along the route and lectured them on the coming liberation, throwing in some choice bait on land-reform and common ownership, according to the running translation Shelley made in Frank’s ear. One old man lifted a blunderbuss, which looked as if it would blast dangerously but not quite kill. Frank sprang and the gun fell without exploding. The man was covered by them, while Mokhtar went on with his talk, grinning and full of good nature. He agreed to forgive the man who had wanted to kill him, providing he repented before them and promised to work for the benefit of the revolution. The man, who looked to Frank as if he wasn’t fit to do much work for anything, agreed, glad to get off so easily. Mokhtar wasn’t satisfied, wanted the verdict of the whole village, which, after an hour’s discussion, considered that Mokhtar was just and good, and that his judgment should stand. Mokhtar was pleased. ‘In that case the man must accompany my soldiers to the next village, in order to show his faith
in us.’ They set off before dusk, and two days later, Mokhtar killed him while he was asleep.

  ‘Are you as good as he is?’ said Shelley.

  ‘I am,’ said Frank. ‘And so are you, I suppose. The lion of Judah, he breaks every chain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t Mokhtar’s turn one day.’

  ‘One bark at a time,’ Shelley said. ‘That’s all every dog gets that has his day. Not that I’m an animal lover.’

  ‘If you don’t trust Mokhtar why don’t you peel off?’

  Frank rolled his one cigarette of the day, hoping that the small bag of tobacco would last until more might come along. Shelley smoked a long shallow-bowled pipe. ‘My life depends on him. I wouldn’t survive for a week in this land on my own. I’d get my throat cut at the first village I stumbled into and crowed for a drop of water. It’s a thin lifeline we’ve got.’

  ‘You’ve got,’ said Frank. ‘You’re right not to light off.’ He kicked a stone, and it rolled down the slope, dragging several others with it, leaving silence but for their own soft speech.

  ‘All I remember about my childhood,’ said Shelley, ‘is snow. Long winters and snow. In the books about such days the writers tell us how warm it was, and how long the summer lasted.’

  Frank pulled the blanket closer to his shoulders. ‘I can’t stand the tune of this bloody wind. It’s pulling like a knife at my tripes. I remember summers as well, though, because we had six weeks out of school. It was when I grew up that the snow fell. It was O.K. in the factory, where I was in with the right sort of blokes. But even when I was a kid I’d had ideas as to what the world should be like and how it should be run, and after so long I could stand it no longer, came up against a dead-end, a brick wall that I had to get through.’

  ‘And now you’re through it,’ Shelley said, ‘into the sandpit, gave up wife, kids and country because you were burning with a subconscious desire to help the world’s underdogs? Drop dead.’

  Shelley’s pipe rattled against the stones. Being an expensive one, it didn’t break. Frank’s fist drew back from a real blow. By the time Mokhtar opened his eyes, Shelley had re-lit his pipe, stood up and walked into the darkness. He didn’t go far. ‘I was seeing how you’d react to the arguments I try to beat down my own spirit with. One hears often that no man is an island, and does not live by bread alone, and all that crap, but if that’s true, what the hell is there? All my life I’ve been trying to prove that I can live alone, without man and without God, and to make it easier for me I’ve dedicated myself to the cause of helping people towards the togetherness of socialism.’

  Frank laughed. ‘Still, what you’re trying to do is the main thing. What makes you do it shouldn’t be much worry. There’s no world happening outside of this one. This is the world, the only one and I’m glad it is. I wouldn’t like another one moaning around, because this bugger we’re on takes all I’ve got.’

  ‘An individual can only exist if he’s lonely,’ Shelley said. ‘In a socialist society, with so much social activity, you can really be lonely. You can then become more completely an individual than ever.’

  ‘It only sounds convincing in the dark dust-storm of the night,’ Frank said. The raw cold and his own exhaustion fixed him tight so that he leaned back, using his arm for a pillow, his last sight that of Shelley’s thin light moving across a small area of the map, backwards and forwards over the route they were to take, before he split his consciousness between day and night and lost touch with the world he lived in.

  Chapter Fifteen

  The dome-shaped mud roofs were hard to pick out from more than a few hundred yards away. A grove of sickly palm-trees surrounding a mud-banked pond of clear water showed its existence to Frank’s binoculars. Veiled women looked at them as they entered, black hoods, black veils, eyes so black and rounded with expression that he saw brief pictures of the nearby bleak landscape in them. Hard earth divided the houses, blank walls whose livelier backs faced the water, and children played on those that had weakened and fallen in like eggshells. They seemed built to hide people rather than shelter them, and it seemed a strange way of living after so long from such inventions when the only shelter had been cave, or rock, or the occasional nomad’s tent.

  He felt unsure of his legs on flat solid soil stamped down by the village. The remaining grey ash of the desert ate more fiercely into his sandals, scraping his feet as if there was sandpaper even inside the eyeholes of each buckle, down through the cloth to his skin which seemed suddenly weaker near to earth so free of gravel. Flies were bigger and fiercer, flew at his face and settled as if he didn’t have the habit of bashing them off. He did, they came back only to drop dead when he caught them, one so full that he had blood on his face for the first time, which he wiped away with a rag. These people, living in such poverty and dirt with no will nor ability nor hope, were enough to make him believe it was impossible to do anything about it, that it wasn’t worth fighting for, but he knew that what despair there was inside was only a wastepipe through which any uselessness that besets the mind is emptied. You can always crawl into your self-contained and tastefully furnished hole, he thought, and say what’s the use as you tuck into a big dinner. All we can do is fight to get the war over, and then see what can be done for this country and these people. Children stared at their single file of ragbags and scarecrows. The men of the village had clean robes on, patched but complete, not lousy and tattered as their clothes were. After weeks of cliffs and mountains, the solidity of terrain that took all strength before allowing you to pass through it, he felt he could push even the most solid houses down with one good shove. Sunlight lifted its guillotine blade of midday as they bent low and entered the poorest house of the village. The room was empty but for a blanket which Mokhtar, standing in the middle, was already peeling back and pointing to a hole they were to climb down. Frank followed in his turn, descended a swaying rope-ladder that he thought would unhinge and slither him into a fall of countless feet, though the rope might be attached to the supports of the house itself. His feet touched bottom, and once his eyes fully opened in the paraffin lamps he saw they were in a large hewn-out room, walls as smooth as the baked mud of the houses above. It was cool but airless, and he wanted to climb the ladder and get in the sun again. His clothes turned heavy, a layer of paste on his body. A faint song of morse came from the other end of the room, and was drowned now and again by a wind that moaned from ventilation chimneys. There were other people in the room, and Mokhtar was talking to a new voice nearby, a man who wore khaki trousers and a newly-washed shirt, had a broad forehead, short black hair, a prominent nose and a thick-lipped smile, smoked a cigarette, and wore a ring on his left hand with a large opal stone in the middle. There was a trestle-table but no chairs. Some men slept by another exit, leaning against piles of ammunition-boxes and a rack of machineguns. The table was thick with maps, and piled with sheets of yellow paper. He felt easy now that he could see. The youth working at the radio sat crosslegged on the floor, earphones on his knee, as if waiting for someone to replace them by a plate of food. Being in a human room and surrounded by houses made his stomach constrict as if he hadn’t eaten for days, but he fought it down, for to take in details of the room seemed more important than a passing hunger, as if to notice everything was to take possession of it. He did not know how long they would stay, and his interest was increased by a contempt for this comfortable secret headquarters which controlled – most of the time at least – thousands of square miles of mute and void land, the unalloyed mercury of the sun’s strength and a few scoops of muddy water never easy to find.

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