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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.19
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.19

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  The file moved, seven now that the young man joined them rather than risk walking alone through the French brigades. Shelley talked to him. He’d polished shoes, run errands, carried kit and luggage, lost a bus-conductor’s job because he hadn’t kept his hands out of the fare-bag. The café work was all right. He lived, was wiry and surprisingly strong, useful in a hundred ways. The Frenchwoman who owned it couldn’t know what accurate information he dispensed to those in the street who saw that it reached the relevant people. Often he passed it on himself, trekking the hills with pockets of nuts and figs. He could read French, write his name, recognise the different tanks and aeroplanes, the various guns and weapons, explained to him boastfully by French soldiers who thought they had stumbled on a queer idiot who played up to their cause. In a world of enemies, you can make friends easily, and do much damage before being caught. His smile was too frank and continuous to be quite sane. The brothelised obscenities mouthed out of loyalty to his job and the mistress of the house, the leaflets thrown at great risk onto the backs of speeding trucks, made him known all over this part of the country. When he appeared in the midst of a battalion about to embark on a fisherman’s hunt, a bundle of newspapers under his arm recording successful encounters with the FLN, and predicting a final sure end to the rebellion, they drove him away or, goodnaturedly, advised him to go home. Some would even buy his papers, and then he would walk off with a sulphurous, appealing grin, running a little, jumping, then a quick stroll until he came across a friendly shepherd who would fork up the nearest outflanking ranges to spread verbal messages over the cordoned area, to warn any who did not already know what was coming. He couldn’t think back to how such work began. Nothing definite had pulled him in. Even his loathing, being intermittent, formed no basis for his consistent and intelligent action. Yet he was an easygoing rebel rather than a zealous revolutionary, and perhaps for this reason was able to make a surer contribution to the common war, since his personality fitted him perfectly for this part.

  Shelley retailed it to Frank. ‘He’ll vanish in the night, or some time when we’re through the thick of it.’

  From the height of the mountain they saw into an adjacent valley. Two trucks were set across the end of it like a barricade. Ants moved out, filtering between brushwood. Shelley adjusted the centre-wheel: ‘They’ll need alpine troops to flush us from this. They used them in the Kabylie, but lost too many. We set up the avalanche, and rolled ’em down again. They pulled ’em out quick. There will be trucks in the next valley as well. We’ll go all night and lie flat tomorrow. I’ve got to get this hand fixed.’

  His eyes were points of grey light, ready for the uncontrollable madness of pain. Frank wondered how he could stand it. The hand was blue, swollen enormously, and part of it turned pink and was beginning to split. ‘We’ll tell Mokhtar.’

  ‘What can he do? In a few days, we’ll find someone to hack it off. That’s all I want.’

  ‘Let’s go down to the French. I’ll take you. We’ll make up a good story,’ Frank said. He put a hand on Shelley’s arm. ‘Even a field-dressing would help.’ They had nothing except food, water, guns and ammunition.

  ‘Forget it,’ Shelley said. ‘What’s gangrene between friends? The devil’s bite.’

  Pain was contagious, his jovial madness catching, the violent shaking of his good hand unnerving. Feeling sorry didn’t help, so he tried not to. This was impossible, for it burned into him also. To share it was only to double it, not halve it, but he shared it nevertheless. It would neither help nor cure, as if sympathy were only a way of bearing other people’s troubles without lessening their pain.

  An enchanting fairyland of mountains lay all around them at dusk, under a few bars of purple cloud, the javelins of insurrection subtly out of reach except for those who climbed such heights. They were suspended, self-assured, outstanding, turning blue and pale against the whitening sky around and above, for there was no land higher. A cool breeze ran gently against them, the javelins thickening and growing into iron-purple. The mountain rock-tables were unevenly spread, reddening, a mad abandoned stone-age restaurant that a tribe of giants had fled from after a last vast angry supper. The cliffs were precipitous, so that he could not understand how they had humped their bodies up to the summit they stood on. Ravines and gullies divided them to the north-east, and the sloping sun beamed itself on the trackless direction they still had to take. The tables looked flat, but they were spread with boulders, indentations, cover, declivities. They found a pool among stunted bushes. He pulled out his hand, and it was covered with leeches, festoons of abundance drawing hungrily on the rich bonanza of his blood. With the free hand he found a cigarette and lit it from Shelley’s pipe. ‘You’d better make haste,’ Shelley said, ‘or there’ll be nothing left of you. It’s the first time they’ve fed on good rich yeoman blood coursing with the loam and foam of England.’

  ‘There’s little of that left.’ They dropped off, or burst. ‘Dip your hand in. They cure everything, as well as the fits and miseries. Take the black blood out of your soul, and the life out of your heart. Nature’s remedy for life, meaning death.’ The old man filled his goatskin, scooping water into a mug and straining it through a rag, now and again throwing aside a mash of leeches to make their way back to the source of life.

  ‘I’m not drinking that,’ Frank said. Whether sweet, pure, magnesium or brackish, the water never lost its fulsome taste of the old goat in whose skin it was carried. He’d suffered the pains of dysentery and the blisters of desert-mouth, and unknown ailments that merely nagged at the stomach till he had spots and freckles in front of his eyes so that when he slept he seemed to have lost half his weight and when he walked he swore he’d doubled it.

  The fairyland blackened, became a province of coal while the sky kept its pale blue. Ebony tables and cuttings flowed away, showing outcrops that weren’t noticed when the sun was higher. ‘I wish they were padded with two feet of snow,’ Shelley said. ‘We’d freeze to death, but what else could anyone wish for? I dream of it while I’m walking. I’m up to my waist in snow. If I concentrate I can smell it, blue and bitter, menthol and juniper berries, New England snow, toboggan-sledding in the Hampshires. What do you fix your mind on, Frank?’

  ‘Whatever’s in front of my eyes. If I can’t stand that, there’s a black wall I can conjure up. Or I see Myra and her house in England, but that means I’ve got my tenth wind and am travelling well. Or I theorise on where we’re going and what we’re part of, making up tactical exercises that are so optimistic they make me laugh. I dream of having a book to read when we stop. I’m print-starved. When I get somewhere where there’s print I’ll read anything, though maybe I’ll be so choosy by then, I’ll read very little. I wish that youth had brought some of his newspapers, at least. Still, I think of the books I’ve read, make them up again and watch words passing in front of my eyes on an endless tape.’

  They went on, through deep snow for Shelley, blank walls of the crowding night for Frank. They grumbled, grunted, staggered, no rest because every inch of distance had to be put behind them while it was dark. The half-moon rose and gave them a few hours of shadow, each figure with a mocking, moving twin imitating every slide and footstep, weaving clowns vitiating the bile he wanted to spit at them, but which always stuck in his throat. An icy wind blew against the graze on his head, so that it itched and chafed, as if healing from what salt was in the air. When he once pressed it the burn was like pulp and he drew back his hand, vowing to leave it alone.

  When they stoppped, they shivered, were glad to stand and move on. A wild dog of the mountains took up its night noise and filled the sky with a long undulating never-broken wail, the binding sound a dog in the wilderness could make yet would never help you to find it. You’d need a whole nation of soldiers to catch a few hundred dogs if they were dispersed, not ten to one, but a thousand to one. It spoke on the wind as if it were a microphone, and he thought it might be the same dog heard every night from the Moroccan frontie
r, a huge, wild, soulful dog following their stench and footsteps. He’d never so much as seen its silhouette, Anubis of the sand and stone, mountains and saltmarsh, a unique tree-climbing dog that, at the smell of an aeroplane in the wind, leapt down and ran, its four long legs rattling over rock and gravel before the flame-bomb exploded in the tree and an oily uprushing fire sent its death-breath after him.

  What’s it got to do with me? Its refugee howl runs up my back like danger and flame, but all the same it makes comforting company on the long marches of the night in which you need a soul of stone, a moonstone lit enough to show the way, to lead and beckon you, push and guide. If I saw that dog I’d want to take aim and get its hot flea-blown carcase hugging the dust, but in this sort of day and night I’d bring a thousand bullets down on us. But if I give a second thought, always worth more than the first, I wouldn’t want to floor its anarchy and freedom even though I’m half-way frightened at its soulful howl from the dog-Posters world tracking me into this great self-induced desert of death. I can talk to myself, I can talk, talk myself into the grave of survival, yet that dog tells me that survival is no grave but a state of blessedness to travel for instead of staying behind and howling alone like him.

  He walked easily, no effort to get him forward at the quick goat-like progress dictated by Mokhtar and the guide, who travelled together like four shadows ahead. He let the baying of the dog lull him, turned its noise into music and speech as he watched his own shadow continually in motion before the moon’s suffering light. They traversed the long hog’s back of the range, slowly descending. The guide suddenly led them on a roundabout way down the steep northern slope, so that they could cross where the valley was narrow and danger least.

  Before leaving the heights, they gathered fuel and crushed it almost solid, making a high mound of it. Then rocks were piled on top till the wood was covered in the shape of a huge beehive. They left a small space at the bottom in which to place a slip of paper and so ignite the inside bracken. Frank struck the match; it would burn all night and much of the next day, smoke escaping through the interstices of the loosely joined stones, a smouldering beacon to draw French troops to a vacated area.

  They went down unobserved. In the valley there was no moon. They heard the first explosions of the night, saw humps of blue light opening and closing further down the range, several kilometres away. ‘They’re approaching this cutting so as to close it by morning,’ Mokhtar said. But unfortunately for them as an army the hob-nailed boots of their guns and mortars were heard from far away, giving the moonstruck phantoms or false reports time to disappear. An idle stone rolling by chance down the slope and gathering a few more on the way was enough to establish an ambush or night attack for which the FLN irregulars were both dreaded and famous. Frank couldn’t understand why the French conscripts put up with this sort of war, though there’d been plenty of desertions in the Kabylie to have the army worried. Men and sometimes officers had come over to the FLN with arms, information, and even a will to help in the fight. Mokhtar had boasted about it one night in a rare mood of speech. ‘As it is,’ he speculated, ‘they’ll waste enough bombs on that smoke we left behind to raise Paris, and send at least a company to clear the emptiness around it.’

  They climbed up another flank of a thousand metres. When the sky was blue but the sun had not yet risen, a great shadow lay to the north, as if from clouds when the sun was overhead. It was the sparsely-treed area covering the hills near Aflou which, in the dim light, seemed cooler and more thickly forested than it was, a good place of refuge.

  ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Shelley said.

  ‘You’re wrong. It’s so ideal it’s a death-trap.’

  ‘You say and do the right things. What does it feel like, coming from the purest bastard race on earth?’

  ‘It’ll be light soon,’ Frank said. ‘A big fat sun scorching our noses and elbows for the next fifteen hours.’

  ‘It’s not that,’ Shelley said, ‘but it’s this pain I don’t like. Thirty-six hours I’ve felt it, which feels like all my life. I reckon we’re all full of pain ready to be tapped. Just needs a bullet or a knife to spark it off.’

  Frank spat out a mouthful of goatwater. ‘What have you got against pure bastard races like the English? Sometimes, I think you’re just one of those white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans fighting for the freedom of subject races – as long as they’re reasonably pure. I don’t understand it, you White Anglo-Saxon Freedom Fighter. You’re a WASFF – a WASP with no roof to his mouth. I’ve read all that Jack London-Hemingway crap, and spewed over it.’

  ‘So have I. Leave me to it and let’s get on.’ He looked back at him, but could find no confirmation in Frank’s straight-looking eyes that he was dying. Frank knew he couldn’t, would not give him this leap of satisfaction, found it better to control the outward expressions of his heart when he did not want what his eyes saw to overwhelm it.

  A track ran along the dry, flat bed of the valley. While holes were dug among the rocks on either side, the newspaper-seller pulled down a bush and smoothed all trace of them out of the dust, then put the finishing touches to their burials. They lay under the rocks, loopholes opening towards the track, sweating, choking, killing scorpions that came in dozens to disturb their agony. The youth found a hiding-place, and by full daylight this part of the valley seemed as deserted and empty as the rest.

  His mind reached its limits. They had nailed up the coffin but he stayed alive. Childhood and adolescent horrors came back, as they should at a time like this, otherwise how could you trust them? And how could they be of any use to you? They can’t all have been for nothing, meaningless, those parts you suffered and those you loved. Every man was a coffin until his rifle or machine-gun joined the chorus of others, the new gunchurch of the revolution spitting out their cleansing hymns. He counted six helicopters, man-made tin-plated dragonflies spluttering a hundred feet up, prayed for one to land before their guns so that they could kill the dozen troops on board before they began to disembark, run out like spiders and pull it to pieces. Mokhtar had drawn diagrams showing petrol-tanks and vital parts, and Frank was as familiar with ways of destroying helicopters as he had one time known how to preserve and lengthen the life of his own motor-car when he worked in the factory. He also found it necessary to believe and ponder on the fact that the art of camouflage meant not only to melt against the sheltering land, but equally to withdraw your consciousness out of the atmosphere. If an approaching patrol has no visual hope of seeing you, some member of it will, nevertheless, sense that you are there. Your psyche is as tangible as your body, your ego as plain as iron, and unless you can master these, then the most skilful disguise can betray you. Perfect camouflage is an exercise in self-negation, an utter wiping-out of yourself, a withdrawl into non-existence, so that you can’t in any way be alive to others. The only light to be kept alert is that of the eyes, so that when the ring of your ambush is perfect, the united trigger can be drawn with unexpected and shattering effect. From a state of sublime withdrawal you must leap to a state of active egotism, which means death to all who face the ray of it. Thus the span of spiritual experience is in this way wider, before the final limit chops you off in death.

  They waited five hours. Shelley did not know how long he was groaning. Frank was awake, staring at the road and willing a car, lorry, tank to come along, anything with engine and wheels on which they could take Shelley to a doctor. He’d seen it before, his grandfather die, and a man at work die after being struck by falling girders, remembered the look of utter and painful consciousness on both before the breathing diminished and stopped. He’d imagined that people died quickly, or went slowly but surely under the sleep of drugs, but this state of know-all consciousness both of the world they loved and the blackness they were going to was the most disturbing thing he’d seen, and signs of it were already in Shelley’s eyes. Mokhtar knew it too, and for once the demands of war and survival coincided with the need for mercy towards one of
their wounded. Frank had under-estimated Mokhtar, had kept his eyes open and gun ready in case he should think to make a quick finish of Shelley if he dragged too much on their progress. But Shelley had shown such great and undeniable courage by keeping up with their race, that the Lion of Judah had decided on the way of compassion.

  They felt a signal, and heard the engine. The young man would make no sign if more than one vehicle appeared, for they could not take on a convoy. Handbills still flapping from his pocket, he ran into the middle of the track, waving his arms. It was a desert jeep, with three soldiers in it. The driver dropped gear, its noise change roaring along the flanks of the valley, shouting at him to get out of the way. He stood firm, flapping his papers with an idiot grin of welcome. The driver braked and skidded, and the man was knocked slightly as he stepped aside and fell flat into the dust to save his life, which was immediately extinguished by the only burst of bullets that one soldier of the jeep had time and inclination to fire. Mokhtar, Idris, Mohamed and Frank, two on either side, pressed their triggers at the same time.

  They dragged the bodies behind the rocks, and swept dust over the tracks and pools of blood. Frank put on a soldier’s jacket and cap, and did the same for Shelley. He turned from the dead young men, his heart bursting. He was familiar with the dead, but the more he saw, the more depressed he was. He supposed the war would go on until one side or another lost heart, felt the shadow only of so much useless death, instead of pure energy-giving rage at the stony manifestation of another row of corpses. Slogans, ideals and beliefs weakened when you pulled the warm bodies towards the holes you had lain in while waiting to kill them, with their tortured human faces and limbs still jumping. He took all field-dressings from their packs before heaping on the stones.

  They squeezed in, and Frank turned the jeep around and drove back the way it had come. The guide directed him towards a gap between two mountains. A plane flew high over the loose stones, a bird with an engine stuck in its craw that would not molest them because they were no longer bandits on the run from the great clean-up, but part of it, as the pennant flapping on the car plainly showed. This was treachery, if you like, though Frank could not revel in the moral satisfaction he would have got from it because of Shelley’s ash-coloured face in the mirror.

 
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