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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.18
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.18

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  A huge black-winged bird skimmed over the blue corridor of sky, and flew away as if falling to earth. Water was dripping into a cup. He reached and drank some, then replaced it. Falling drops of water were the only sound. There is no greater silence than that which opens around you when you are exhausted, worn to the bone. I must live, he said, I must live, and the regular fall of the waterdrops smoothed his consciousness away.

  Chapter Sixteen

  Heavy rotor-blades thumped, as if the helicopter were descending because the clear blue burning air no longer had the density to support it. They lay, hidden under ledges of rock, like loaves thrown at random into an oven. He felt fresh after some sleep and food, and all the good water he could drink, and wondered why the four who were there didn’t open fire at the huge precise monster, force it to burst and crumble onto the rocky land, so that those inside who wanted to bomb and spray them with fire as if they were animals would instead be pinned on the bloody end of wrath as they tried to escape from metal and burning fabric. But the consensus was that they should sweat in their hideout till the pimping angel of Satan passed over without claiming them. But if by some fluke it suspected their presence and landed to look, they would be killed before they could scramble clear.

  Shelley denied this: ‘They have to get in here first, and our good shepherd knows a way out. Take ’em a year and twenty thousand men to throw a trapnet over the whole range. Even then they might not get us in the end. As long as we don’t move during the day, and go quietly by night.’

  A shadow passed under the sun, darkened the glaring slate. ‘I’d like to look at it. I don’t believe in anything I can’t see.’

  ‘They’ve got machine-gunners on board. Poke your head up and we’ll sell you to a circus, if we can keep you alive: the man without head, hands or feet.’

  ‘Drop dead yourself.’

  ‘Willingly. It’s a flying platform. In some places they carry Alsatian dogs. When the helicopter lands twenty rush out, and God doesn’t help those who get in their way: children, women, people in the fields, even a man with a gun – when he’s not right out of it. Hard to get the dogs back, in spite of good training. They seem to vanish, go black in the night. There are no unmixed blessings, no secret weapons, just a nightmare humiliating grind. It’ll be the same scuffle when it’s finished, though you can’t let that blunt your finer feelings while it’s still on, otherwise you are not a man, and will never become a saint or commissar.’

  Engine-sound weakened far out along the valley. Safe for a while. He saw nothing, suspected nothing. Heavy machine-gun fire thumped back, a man and goats being spread all over the rocks. Its chatter and the damage it did seemed utterly insignificant in such great spaces. It ceased far away, the motor noise squashed like a fly against the hot wall of the sun. The raw, tender graze along his temple no longer throbbed to the beat of pistons or gunfire. He winked at the sky – grey edges and pale blue middle. Their refuge was an oasis never to be forgotten while they were in it.

  Shelley blew a trail of ants from his shattered hand. Tonight, so the promise went, they would enter a village where an Italian doctor lived, who helped the FLN and asked no questions. Flesh had been honed from Shelley’s face, turned grey since yesterday and left his eyes helpless and bitter, a new phase for him. He read his holiest of bibles, Mao Tse Tung’s treatise on protracted warfare, drew maps of imaginary tracts of land on the endpapers with his fountain pen, and with pencil and rubber carried out intricate exercises to make plainer precepts of the great man that he had read many times. His best hand was shattered, a finger smashed and the back a blue hump of broken veins and bone, a map left in the rain whose river delta ran its colours into the mangrove of uncontrollable terrain. He sat in one place, and Frank took water and food to him. ‘At least I’ve still got my legs and eyes,’ Shelley said.

  ‘And one arm,’ said Frank. ‘We’ll get you seen to.’

  Frank left, and Shelley flipped through the book on his knee, print which anthologised the intellectual passion of his mind: when forced into a passive disposition through some false march, a guerrilla unit must try to get itself out – quickly. How this is done depends on the circumstances, but the ability to move away must always be given first consideration. Those who learn to retreat and not flee, move and not be seen, secretly join other groups to attack in force when the enemy is weak, retreat and not scatter after having defeated him so as to avoid giving battle to reinforcements which will nearly always outnumber you, disperse unseen after memorising complex arrangements to meet again, will become invincible and survive continual attacks. But to retreat and not flee you must be aware of the point you are heading for, otherwise you lay yourself open to defeat. Since there is no God in heaven to watch over you or to destroy you, you must take care of yourself and make cause together for the common good. In retreat know where you are retreating to, then the advantage lies with you and the initiative is but one step away. Make sure everyone is assigned clearly defined tasks, topographical limits of manoeuvre, times and places for re-assembly, foolproof means of communication. Rigidity, inertia, self-satisfaction, temptation to sloth, lead to passivity, panic, loss, either the living death of shame and slavery or complete annihilation. Those whose conditions of life you are trying to change will help you and suffer with you if you have a passionate and convincing answer to everything. You must be known to be everywhere by the enemy when he is not there or is weak; and nowhere when he is there and is strong. His weakness is your strength. His strength is your opportunity to weaken him and thereby grow strong yourself. If he is well supplied, then you must live off him and pull him down. Unless the strong can be made to fall, the world will stagnate, people will wither in the spirit and succumb entirely to the unchanging forces of nature. Evil is no mystifying concept. It is the inability to change for the good. It is being slothful among bad conditions of life, and preaching that the acceptance of present suffering makes the adventure of change unnecessary, thereby implying that suffering is sufficient adventure for the soul. One must prove that it is not – by making it possible for the weak to inherit the earth and become strong, and to use their newly-won strength in order to help those still weak in the world, which is no less than the fight for eternal justice, a uniting of mankind to give everyone equality and food and dignity that will enable them to become individuals in a universal sense. The tree must purify and burn, shed its leaves in the fires of insurrection. Trees catch fire, incendiarised by napalm. Those who look on it as an antidote to the upsurging ant-spilling poor of the world can brew it to their heart’s content, but wherever it falls another tree goes up in flames and spreads its light for the so-far unconvinced to witness, to stop wavering and join. Whoever makes it, distributes it, drops it, is destroying his own soul. The art of retreat is foreign to them, skill and cunning far away. Their intelligence is sealed off, the limits of their humanity inexorably narrow, and the seeds of their own annihilation gradually emerge from the vile fungus of reaction into which they sank when faced with newly-moving forces of the earth.

  In order to mislead, decoy and confuse the enemy there should be continual use of stratagems, such as making a ploy in the east but attacking from the west, appearing now in the south and now in the north, hit-and-run attacks, and night actions in which the attackers, though weaker, must always gain because the ways of retreat are infinite and cover is perfect even over open ground. And yet such infallible-sounding advice is nothing until applied by the malleability of the mind and the courage of the human body. One may lecture and discuss, but the endurance of those who fire the gun and run in the night is what counts.

  Frank had climbed up and out of their hiding-place, and the grey edges to the sky disappeared when he reached the highest point of the rock-wall. It was fiery blue, butane gas burning from the holy pivot of the sun. The flat of the valley was small in area, enclosed by jagged sides down which the helicopter hadn’t descended low enough to pick out their hiding-place. Machine-gun fire riveted the
western end, as if a real fight were going on. It was rumoured that Boumedienne, the military brains behind the FLN, had come into the area to enliven it. Mokhtar might know what their part was to be, or he might not.

  Nothing ever came of going into the desert to avoid your fellow-men. You go there to find them, find yourself, by seeking one to find many. Revolutions are initiated by those who, in order to inspire themselves, have to prove to the wretched of the earth that they, too, can be inspired. It is a search by those who want to prove to themselves and the world that they are not spiritually dead, but such effort changes everything. In their crude simplicity they may not see themselves as the makers of a new world, because such striving begins without philosophy, and there is no name in the beginning for what is to become a prime mover of people. Some may give it a name in order to control it, but this is necessary if the wretched of the earth are to become collectively strong and not be defeated by genocidal maniacs.

  He lay watching for an hour before seeing a figure descend the opposite slope and walk directly across the dry riverbed towards him. In all the time there had been no shepherd nor nomad, not a friend nor enemy, and no animal life but the noise of insects and the flurry of an escaping scorpion, the sliding flight of a bird. The dry day seemed to eat up all life in its eternal oven. He sweated and stayed flat, binoculars trained, gun ready.

  It was a young man wearing a blue silk shirt and khaki trousers, open jacket and brown laced shoes. He smiled, as if out for a walk on the edge of the town. Frank showed himself when he was twenty yards off, but the man, thin, of medium height, gold teeth flashing, walked on with no surprise. Leaflets flapped from his pockets. A row of pens and biros were spread like medals along his chest, and he lifted his hand in greeting. ‘I have information,’ he said in French.

  He came sweating down the slope, and his jaundiced face was both freckled and rashed where smallpox had eaten over it. Frank picked a leaflet about to fall from his pocket, holding the gun level with the other hand towards the centre of his back. The man slid down over loose stones towards the waiting gun of Idris, who greeted him Moselm fashion and led the way into the hideout. Frank stayed on watch. A lizard warmed itself among the quiet rocks. Others came out as he lay still. One went over his wrist. A scorpion ran, and a horned viper curled itself up some feet away, as if after a long journey, and he stoned it to death. In the rocks he became a rock himself, because movement would betray as much as shade or colour. You must outdo a lizard in patience for a war like this. Who knows how it will turn out, in spite of such extremist patience? – ‘extremist’ being what you are labelled by those incapable of changing their ways of life, or of believing that people can change the world instead of the world changing them. He cannot expect his extremism not to be tempered later by those whom he helps to power. It is no use snivelling that a god has failed when a few of those who were weak turn into rats after you have made them strong. You move on to help others but do not lose faith. A god only fails you if you are less than a god. Strength in yourself takes time to grow. Tame the wild grit and put it to work. If you learn how to suffer, thank the earth and those who walk over it for teaching you.

  The string signalled at his ankle and he went down, found them listening to the young man who had walked in from nowhere. Shelley pressed his teeth together to stop the noise that shook his whole face to tears. He held a loaded revolver high in his left hand for practice, but the, bad had already infected the good with its pain and weakness and he dropped it in despair. Mokhtar was talking to the young man and the guide, moving his thick finger on the French military map. The leaflet crinkled in Frank’s pocket, and he held it up to read. Shelley put down his gun and went to the water store. ‘You should see this!’ Frank called, laughing without wondering first whether it would be safe to do so. The leaflet told of some café-brothel of Laghouat and was meant for the eyes of French soldiers, complete with prices for the various levels of delight – clean, well-reglemented and safe. The young man handed them to passing convoys and incoming drafts, patrols returning from a hard slog to this staging post of rest and culture.

  Shelley read it. ‘Yeh, it’s bad news. A sweet chick of Nubia heard it from the lips of an orgiastic poilu. Two brigades left this morning to clean up the area. One is spreading from the Laghouat-Aflou road, and the other’s fanning out from the Géryville area. A nice little trap, complete with planes, guns and bunsen-burners. There are a few of us in the bag. We were supposed to be massing for a raid on Laghouat – though I don’t think they knew it. So we break out to the south and gather somewhere else, east of Laghouat maybe, to go in as soon as that brigade leaves, which means we might filter through the thick of them at night, and hit them in the rear if they scoot back to relieve Laghouat. The permutations are endless, but not so that you can’t sort them out if you have half a brain.’

  ‘How’s your hand?’

  ‘Improving. I don’t feel the ants any more. I want to find a doctor. I’ll leave you for a sweet while. When it’s fixed, I’ll hit the trail again.’

  ‘It might be safer to stick with us. Have it fixed and drag along. We don’t want the French to nick you. Got to pull you out in one piece.’

  Shelley smiled, his eyes feverish, and teeth set. ‘Don’t worry. I’m an American journalist come over the Tunisian frontier to report on the situation. Working for the magazine New People. All my papers are in order. Take no chances. They won’t like it, a left-wing mag, but at least they won’t stand me up against a wall, or roast me over a slow fire.’

  ‘I’m glad you’re organised.’

  ‘You’re no good dead. Not that I’m wailing over a smack on the hand by a bullet, or cringing for the Purple Heart. Just a brief statement of principles.’

  ‘They won’t leave you behind,’ Frank said, wryly. ‘And we’ll mend your hand. How do we get out, though?’

  Shelley picked up the revolver again and levelled it shakily at the rockface. ‘We climb to six thousand feet, then go north-east, up and down peaks till we cross the Laghouat-Aflou road. We start in half an hour. We’ll meet no tanks so high up, but we’ll have to crawl on our bellies because of planes and helicopters. The French must think there are thousands of us in this area, but I’d be surprised if there are more than a hundred.’

  Chapter Seventeen

  From a distance the grey and orange flank of the mountain looked unassailable except with the gear of an alpine expedition. They took the hard route out, the long march, the half-possible. To look down made him dizzy, to look up promised a premature death by exhaustion – which was better, he thought, scrambling up a few more feet, than a bullet up your arse or the red cock on your shoulders. Tilt your head back and the wall moves towards your eyes. The wall went into the sky and would swing down unless you threw yourself off to avoid it. So you kept them fixed in front, and since you couldn’t hold back the machine of your legs, you kept your senses locked where they could not distract or destroy you.

  Below the eastern drop of the land lay a cloud of dust and smoke. It looked flat and low from where they were, with a noise as if a forest were hidden beneath, and all trees in it were falling down to the crack of their rending trunks and the dull brush of enormous treetops. ‘Bazookas,’ Shelley said. ‘Grenade rifles. It’s a privilege to fight such a well-equipped army.’

  ‘I’m not proud,’ said Frank. ‘I’d rather be hounded by thugs with sticks and us have the rifles. When do we get to that six-thousand-foot mark? I’ve forgotten my barometer. On a useless stunt like this, I begin to forget who my friends are.’

  ‘Delirium,’ Shelley said.

  ‘I let it have free rein. Then it goes away. I’d like to roam the world in a freebooting tank, guns firing in all directions – at friends who try to help me and enemies who try to destroy me – because there doesn’t seem much difference at a time like this.’

  They lay on the rocks for a short rest out of the hour. ‘The trouble with you is that you’re irrevocably unavoidably rotten. Ma
ybe it’s because you’re English, I don’t know. I love you like a brother, but I can’t honestly see you getting a job in the cabinet when they form the Free Government of Reconstruction!’

  ‘I know,’ Frank said. ‘It makes me sad. I cry myself to sleep about it every night. Maybe I’m rotten, but I’m burning it out of me. A few charred corners are left, that’s all.’

 
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