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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.16
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.16

           Alan Sillitoe
 
He sat on the floor with the others, regretted not having pushed a book into his pocket on leaving Tangier. So far he hadn’t felt this lack, because there’d been nothing to wait for, only to walk towards, and then the immediate descent into sleep at night straight after food. He walked to the table. The man in khaki was writing. ‘He wants us to stay a few days on his turf,’ Shelley said. ‘We’re close to the N1 road, all pretty and paved down to Ghardaia, and he thinks we might pull off a lorry. Won’t say what’s in it – if anything. Just to show our strength.’

  ‘As long as he’s not throwing us away, and I don’t suppose he is.’

  ‘It’s not that kind of war.’

  Frank laughed. ‘Every war is that kind of war.’

  ‘We’ve got no say in this one,’ Shelley said. ‘But it’s organised, the old one-two: uproar in the east, strike in the west. Pull out of the west and get chased. Then the grand slam in the north. They’re so subtle it makes my nose itch.’

  ‘Are we the ones to get chased?’

  ‘We’re not, but get your mummy rags on: we’re going to be buried for two days. We’re the uproar in the east. But don’t get worried.’

  ‘I won’t. I just like to know.’ He didn’t know anything yet. It was impossible to know, because it might never take place, and plans could be changed to some different work. You could think, but need never worry, and all that your face might show was the accumulated bile of not taking part in anything that made sense until you became too numbed and exhausted to care. ‘You’d better let the others know.’

  ‘Mokhtar’s doing it.’ The wireless-operator disconnected batteries and aerial. Frank had seen him before, or a similar shadow far back in Lincolnshire, the visage of Handley’s mad brother who sprang up and levelled a sweating gun at him. The figure of this man he’d never really known blocked out the present cellar he’d dropped into, took on uncanny featureless power as it played his memory and suddenly overwhelmed him. The face smiled, huge and important, though not so close as to be intimidating, not so distinct as to be told off as either good or evil, but a peculiar memory to roll over the earth at such a time. Or had it only come to him because he was underground? ‘Don’t talk for a while,’ Shelley said. ‘The cats are upstairs.’

  A scout car stopped in the village. Frank’s hunger came back. He disliked this tomb that was too deep to leap from and slip away unseen. Twenty people in it were petrified, as if ready for an archaeologist to break in with pick and flashlight and claim a great find. The FLN officer had given Shelley a tin of English tobacco, and he pressed in the steel tooth to cut away the foil covering. A pudding-sweet smell hissed out, and for some minutes he didn’t know why it stirred him so pleasantly. It touched off a memory of freedom and happiness, being more than ten years ago when he was full of youth and living a life forgotten but now recreated in every sense by this smell of newly-opened tobacco. He was puzzled, had a great yearning to be in that life, reverse the sun and moon, and live as part of it again. Yet he couldn’t remember when he’d ever been happy. With half-closed eyes he counted back ten years, to a time as he had considered it then of extreme discontent working as an advertising copywriter on Madison Avenue at a job he hated because it fed the very roots of evil in a society he now wanted to destroy.

  It irritated him that this unexpected whiff of desire for something lost should turn out to have been tutelage and desperation. Do you have to die before finding out what is real and what is not? he wondered, putting the cap back on the tin.

  The truck left, and he woke Frank. ‘They’ll be feeding us soon.’ Mokhtar talked French so that both understood: ‘There’s a system in this area. If the troops in the scout car throw any weight or hurt people to get information, we send a signal, and in the ambush try to kill everyone on it. If it causes no damage, it runs unharmed through the ambush, which it cannot see. No one suffers. It’s an unwritten treaty we have with the French, because conscripts don’t want to die for what they don’t believe in. It’s a safe zone and we’re supposed to leave the road in peace, though our side will end that policy soon, because though it may be locally agreeable to the French, it’s not ruthless enough for us. We already have a new headquarters.’ They would open up the area to flame and spoil, sending a wave through all contiguous wilayets. Maybe the base zones in the Kabylie were crumbling, though the French would find it more expensive to move around this territory in force.

  A veiled woman came with a large round tray, and he was given food in an earthenware dish, beans, mutton, mint tea and bread. The radio was tuned in again to the French Army. Apparently, the scout car had gone its way in peace. Salaam aleikum! He wanted to get out of this hole, but he ate slowly, chewing the stringy tasteless mutton and sipping tea through his bread. ‘What’s the possibility of sending an airmail letter to England,’ he asked Mokhtar, ‘or a postcard?’

  He went to find out. Frank wanted Myra to hear that he was alive, though she might not be interested in knowing it. He remembered the promise in Tangier to come back in ten days, wait with her for the baby to be born and settle down in the never-never-land of love and loyalty with the undamped fire burning the marrow of his backbone to bitter ash. And to suffer so meant dragging the other in for company, the laws of love and disappointment meshing into a poisonous stranglehold. Myra hadn’t come with him, so she had nothing to reproach him for, and he could not reproach her, either, if he went back and found her ensconced in her English dream-house with two more kids and some other man.

  He had come here to escape, he had come here to find, to escape what he had come to find, to find what he had come to escape, to do it unquestioningly, to move, shoot, blow the guts from his fellow-men, shift, make the break and mend the rift that had been in him from birth. Godless and beleaguered in a brown land that only lit up and changed colour according to the motion of sun and moon, he above all wanted to live at peace, but desired it so strongly that he could only achieve it on his own terms. To settle for less would be the game of half a man, a twisted fly-blown nothing-soul that was on the world only to one day die. It might be different if you believed in heaven, but there were no dreams in heaven and therefore no point in seeking it.

  To kill meant to empty yourself of all that was good; to go into the desert meant emptying oneself of all that was bad in order that what should have been there in the first place could then enter. Life had so far trained him to deal with the world in simple and mechanical terms, as if his thought were based on a philosophical system thousands of years dead but that had entered into common use again at the time of his birth. Desert trek and loneliness brought reflection: all things to all men, it fitted tightly into aphorisms, often platitudes, wasn’t the reasoned essays of someone who had been used all his life to logical pondering before committing himself only to rational courses of action. And if the psychic shuffledown after such travelling left him in the same state as before he started then so much the better, because he hadn’t been after all evil, for if he had it would have been impossible to begin a search in the first place.

  He was given a dish of dates and raisins, a smile under the veil as he thanked her in Arabic. When plagued by a question he could not answer, such as what was he doing in a cellar under a house in the middle of the wilderness, he could only reply that it was his fate or destiny. So much was unanswerable because one didn’t at the moment understand one’s purpose in life. Having entered into it in response to an ideal of helping oppressed people (which seemed now to have meant walking into the unknown), he had at the same time become far too complex to accept that as a satisfactory answer to his question. Three months ago it might have appeared convincing enough for the question to leave him alone, but now his total preoccupation with it caused it, by fading into the background, to take him over completely.

  Mokhtar returned: ‘They’ll try and get your letter off in a week by courier over the Tunisian border, but at the moment our postal arrangements are erratic!’ He added that they were to leave at darkness on the first twe
nty miles north, towards a five-day rendezvous ending in the south-east. They bedded down to snatch a few hours oblivion beforehand. At five o’clock, a plane flew low and dropped all its bombs. Half fell on the village. Still asleep, the earth was pulled from under him like a blanket, and he jumped up, head into clouds of fire. Flame shook its blue and yellow wings, bloody and shot through with dust. Two paraffin lamps had spread over the ammunition boxes, and they were trying to drag them out of the flame. Rubble was pouring from a crack in the wall and a wooden support had split. He cursed at the bad dream, hoping to fall back into peaceful sleep. Paraffin smells choked him. The room felt as if it were sinking deeper into the earth, gently and hardly noticed, as if like a crippled submarine they would never be able to surface from it. It was this feeling that stopped him rushing in panic towards the ladder on a desperate scramble to find air and daylight. The ice of hopelessness made him look around to see what he could do. A chain was formed to get the wireless operator and his equipment through the debris.

  He gripped the burning handle of an ammunition box and dug his heels in to heave it clear. He knew nothing else except wanting to let go, pull away and nurse the seared flesh that made him grit his teeth to stop the tears blinding him. During the worst of it, he rehearsed his run to the clear painless air of freedom with such vividness that the box had moved a yard before unquenchable reality burned itself back. But others were helping. He ripped his hand free and flattened himself on the box, clothes rolling out the fire. Shelley threw a blanket, and they pressed on it, the room still sinking, a pressure on the head, soil and air weighing Frank down. As he worked he waited for the last enormous explosion to shatter them all. It never left his mind, the thump that would blow his eardrums out and let in the fishes. His father as a younger man than he had been trapped in a coal-mine explosion, flattened in a cavity for twenty hours, expecting the roof to crush down before his mates could get through and pull him out. ‘But you know what I did, Frank? You know what I did? You won’t believe it. I lay there and did nothing. Not a bloody thing. And because I did nothing, I thought nothing. I just lay there with my eyes open doing nothing and thinking nothing. They expected to find me either dead or raving mad. But when the lads dragged me clear, I stood up, brushed myself down and wobbled home. The twenty hours didn’t go too badly, and I had to pull myself up sharp a time or two. But I didn’t think at all – no pictures in my mind, a sort of sleeping while I was wide awake. It was a very funny do. But I’ll never forget it. Not as long as I live.’ He’d heard the story till he was bored to death with it, but the memory filled his mind now. That feeling of the room sinking was suffocation. He moved, electrifying himself, beating out other flames, until they were all stamped out. They ripped off the lids.

  The air was easier. Paraffin gas, and burned paint smells had thinned. Most of the men had climbed out. The room had stopped sinking. Frank thought there would still be a climb of a hundred feet to get free, but a few rungs up the ladder he saw daylight, a crazy paving of pure jagged glass through earthen slabs, bricks and pieces of wood. He forced open his scorched hand. ‘Help me,’ he said to Shelley. ‘Hold it there, for God’s sake, and keep it flat.’ There’s no point in going into the desert unless you intend coming out of it. Some of those born in it were pulled from collapsed houses and laid on clear ground. White flags were spread on the rubble. An old man dipped a fist into the open belly of a donkey and smeared a broad red cross on a sheet. The animal’s legs still kicked. Tears had mixed with dust and made a paste over Frank’s face. ‘Let go, now,’ he said. ‘I’ll get some rag on it.’

  Machine-guns were set among the houses in case the plane came back. ‘They ain’t got an unofficial treaty any-more,’ Shelley said. ‘On jobs like this they send one plane, saying he unloaded his bombs because he didn’t have enough gas to carry him home. It was an accident. Two planes would be a deliberate raid, but there aren’t any accidents in a war like this. We’ll get them, though.’

  Beyond the houses falling dust was turning the water grey. People lined it, dipping pots to bring comfort to the wounded. A child was led by with a crushed arm. They put up with this, he thought, didn’t lynch us for it, didn’t choke the lot of us. They tore with hands at a heap of bricks, and a young woman crawled out, naked to the waist, holding a baby. She slapped the face and its eyes opened. He expected her to smile, but she laid it on the ground and clawed at the rubble, pulling out an elaborate, dented teapot. Holding that and the baby, she ran screaming towards the water. ‘If that plane comes back,’ Shelley said, ‘we’ll be finished off, no matter how many machine-guns go at him.’

  He opened the breach of his rifle and a cartridge jumped out. ‘I know why I’m here. I was asking questions a couple of hours ago, but I know one big answer to keep me going. I knew then, but I know more now. They can’t do this all the time and get away with it.’ He wiped the cartridge on his shirt, and slid it back, setting the safety-catch.

  ‘When a patrol is ambushed,’ Shelley said, ‘and somebody killed, they do this as a sort of punishment. It’s normal. Everything’s normal.’

  ‘I know,’ Frank said, but he felt responsible and melancholy. The trap closed around your neck, the bag over your head, and you had to battle a way out of it, get free by more skill and fighting, fire your gun at the crucial moment when all patience is eaten out of you in order to avenge this, and then the need for vengeance comes again on one side or the other, except that you, yourself, must keep on calling it war, war of liberation, for the victory of socialism, for justice, for freedom of the people. You worked with those at the bottom in order to be reborn, Bill Posters coming secretly into their country (Bill Posters who’d never allow himself to be prosecuted or persecuted), to fight for them and help them, but making them suffer the more he fought so that they would be with him and you right from whatever depths of themselves they had been able to keep a hold on. You put self-respect on their shoulders, and they staggered bloody and shattered under it, but did not throw it off.

  A pall of dust and flies lifted above the rubble when bricks from the street were thrown on to it. To know is to love, he told himself. You don’t love until you know everybody, everything. It was cool, but they would bury the dead in the morning. The people had been persuaded to stay in the village in the belief that they would not be stricken again. The wounded were hidden in the cool of the houses, away from preparations for burial and the shrillness of the mourners. A man had been trained in France as a doctor, and with two women as nurses, he saved what he could. A few small planes in the public service could make this village fit to live in, but at the moment, there was nothing. He felt helpless, and would be glad to get out of it. Disinfectant, fertilisers, medicines, radio-sets, ropes, ladders, spades – to want this was nothing. Concealed in a camouflaged shelter, on the edge of the village and untouched in the raid, was a Peugeot station-wagon, fully primed and ready to go, in which a receiver-transmitter set was installed, loaded with food, water, medicines, Very pistols, guns and ammunition, in case the secret headquarters should need to move quickly, a possession that they tapped and looked on with pride, so that even in their terrible destitution, they were not without hope.

  They walked north, close together, a quarter-moon giving out light. The riverbed was dry stones, loose and slippy under weights that seemed heavier and more onerous than yesterday, after the meal and daytime rest. He opened and closed: his hand, splitting burned flesh under the bandages, swinging his arm when the pain was too great to bear. Where do you come from, Dawley? I don’t know. Where do you? Nottingham, the same as you. But that’s the past, and the only good thing about the past is that it’s finished with. Why did you ask? Just to make sure. Where do you think we’re going? North. That’s down, or is it up? My hand’s giving me gippo. Forget it. The only way to do that is for you to shut your claptrap desert mouth. I can’t. I like talking. Where else in the wide world would you like to be now? On my own two feet, which means just here. I’d be a real two-timing
split personality if I wanted to be other than where I was. That’s a fair Way of putting it. You’re going to get your head shot off. It’ll cure this hand then, like nothing else will. There are more important things to think about than death. That moon up there – will tell you that. Or ought to. It was never my idea to come all this way to let death worry me. You won’t say that when God puts in the boot. Drop dead, He wears sandals. Don’t get excited. I’m not. It’s always possible, isn’t it, that you are? So was being born. Just get back to your gammy hand. The same to you.

  The oued ran roughly north, and Mokhtar had a large-scale map as well as the guide – which meant that serious planning had taken place. He picked out the Pole Star, almost overhead. The rattle of feet and gun-slings seemed to fill every crevice of the hills. The ululations of a hyena had followed them from the village. Its voice was of a deliberate luring melancholy, crying out for them to stop and wait, to take it with them wherever they were going instead of heartlessly leaving it to spend a Lifetime pitching its voice in competition with that of the continual wind which was bound to outlive it. They climbed a slope, zigzagging so as not to slip back, a groaning of collective heavy breath as they crawled to the crescent-shaped skyline of the col.

  Across the plain, they saw an orange pinhead of fire. The horizon beyond was in darkness. He lay on the stones, plans winding like cold rivulets through his head. At such time, while waiting to move, expose oneself to bullets and flame, he lay as still as if already killed by them, except for the intense eyes trying to drag detail closer from the darkness or distance, flat and quiet and nevertheless expecting the world to open its arms in welcoming approval, lay as if all his senses were coming firmly and surely back at last after a long illness, the malady of the trek draining away and leaving him a clear smile at the cunning ideas of action pitted into the common ring. Fire would combust on the hillside and attract the patrol. Then, in utter stealth, making a half-circle towards the camp from which it had departed, they would attack those remaining there. When they had been finished off, they would meet the returning other half of the patrol coming back in haste to see what was the matter – and finish that off, also.

 
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