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

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  ‘Get home,’ she smiled. ‘And ponder things for a while.’

  An AA man acknowledged his car, and he gave the clenched fist salute. ‘I was going to say and I talked it over with Enid, that if you’d like to come up to Lincolnshire and muck in with my mob, you’re welcome. I’m having an extension built on, and I’ve got two big caravans in the garden. You’ll find it friendly. Maybe Frank told you: we’re a bit rough, but don’t let that put you off. There are seven kids, a bulldog, six tom-cats and two au pair girls (one of them pregnant already) so you and the baby will be well looked after, fixed up in a room like the Ritz. The air’s good, walks lovely, and people say good-morning again now that I’ve stopped tapping them and stealing their rabbits and cabbages. You won’t even see me from one weekend to another, because though I complain, I’m working all the time for my next show. I’ll send one of the lads to fetch you if you like.’

  ‘After a fortnight at home,’ she said, ‘I might feel like a change.’ She couldn’t force herself to say much, though her mind was full. A bomb had fallen on her life, and the pieces hadn’t yet come together. Handley, for all his affluence, was rooted in the earth, a tree that died and flowered frequently but never changed colour or character, and she thought he wouldn’t understand the recent fragmentation she had undergone. Yet being an artist perhaps he would, though she still couldn’t begin to tell him until she could with absolute clarity begin to tell herself. Maybe the baby had completed the powerful outspreading flower of the explosion. Life before he was born seemed purifyingly simple, but now she was not only geared to her own unanswerable complexities, but also to Mark’s creature-like timetable wants that occupied her till midnight and claimed her again at six in the morning. His darkening hair and Dawley-blue eyes kept her body and soul separate from each other because they dominated both. He was her life and suicide, the great divider and conqueror that would not allow her to use the fragments of her past life in order to construct a future. With husband dead and lover missing he warmed her, an organism fully alive but not yet conscious, eyes to see and lungs to shout with, the facility to eat, excrete, inexorably grow yet everyday seem exactly the same. She was stunned by this ruthless parcel of give-and-take that nature had put into her arms. She could now understand how certain natives of the South Seas had never thought to connect childbirth with sexual intercourse, whereas before such an idea had seemed hilarious.

  The integuments of passing landscape drifted by: layers of brown field and lead-green wood, cottages smoking like old men, a countryside at rest as if it had never worked to deserve it, peaceful, apathetic and full of beauty. The sky was clouding, as if they were driving towards rain, a softening watery grey that made the green grass picturesquely livid by the roadside, a piebald emerald covering the pre-Raphaelite soul of England. She existed in it, felt the cool grass-air on her cheek, merely by looking at it, still familiar after her years in the country with George.

  ‘I expect you’re glad to get back,’ Handley said, ‘orange-juice and cheap milk.’

  ‘There’s always some reason to come back,’ she answered, ‘usually unimportant. I need to put my house in order – literally.’

  ‘Then what?’

  ‘I don’t know. But I shall.’

  ‘Come up to us for a while. There’s nothing like violent change to shake perspective into place. Not that I’m suggesting our place is violent. I hate violence because there’s so much in me. I love an ordered life – never having had one. I used to think that once I got money I’d achieve this peace that pisseth out understanding, but no such luck. My daughter Mandy banged at my studio door the other day. She’s seventeen: “Dad, can I have a car?” When I looked at her as if my eyes were hand-grenades she pouted and said: “Only a Mini.” I tried to throw her out, but she threw a fit and tipped paint on a big job I’d been working on for weeks and that I might have bought two Minis with. Then she shouted: “Do I have to go on the streets before I can get what I want, you tight-fisted rat?” That’s only one thing. I could go on, but why bother? Richard – one of my sons – he’s more devious. Wants to set up a magazine, devoted to pacifism and the arts – poems and things. Promised a whole issue to an intellectual assessment of my own work! My own son! I could have battered his skull in. But my life’s bloody-well plagued. I didn’t know how mean I was till I had money. But I’d be in the gutter again if I wasn’t. I’m thinking of buying a shotgun and mounting guard over my cheque-books. My wife’s all right, the angel in the house, so we could do twelve hours on and twelve off. As soon as the money started rolling in I began to really get into debt. There’s not a radio, furniture, books, clothes or food shop for miles around at which I don’t owe a few hundred pounds. My instinct told me this was right, for if ever the money stops rolling in I shan’t be the only one to suffer. The whole economy will go under with one terrible groan. I used to live by sending out begging letters, but nowadays it’s me that gets them, floods of them every morning. In fact if I get another begging letter I’ll do my nut, because I suffer when I read them. Not long after my money started to roll in all my relatives came up from Leicester to say hello, poured out of their cars and hinted how I ought to give them a few bungalows for holidays in summer. They didn’t notice the rural slum I was living in. I soon pushed that snipe-nosed lot off. They still drop in in ones and twos. One of the best begging letters I ever penned bounced back to me because Mandy had spent the stamp-money on sweets, so I had it mounted and framed, hung above the mantelpiece for all of them to see. Of course, then they said: “Aw, old Albert’s a bit of a lad! Likes a joke,” as they knock back some more of my whisky. Money is a bloody curse, when you think about it. They say that a fool and his money’s soon parted, but I wouldn’t regard him as a fool – though I’m learning to hang on to mine just the same. I used to think that what an indigent artist needed was money, until I’d got some, when I thought that all he wanted was to be indigent. But as long as he’s hard as iron it don’t matter what he wants nor what he gets. It’s being hard that’s made me an artist, nothing else, and it’s being hard that’ll keep me one. When I was poor a local bigwig who bought a picture now and again asked me if I was a catholic because I had so many kids. “You’re an artist, so you have plenty of other things to do besides that.” “Maybe,” I told him, “but it’s the Chinese you want to get at, not me. We can pack another fifty million into this country yet. Don’t talk to me about the population boom. I don’t mind sharing my dinner with you if you’ll share yours with me.” He got offended at that and humped off for good. I’m not saying they were fine days, but I was anybody’s equal and still am. Many’s the time I took off my watch before walking into the National Assistance Board. I was interviewed not long ago by some putty-faced pipe-smoking chubbyguts from that magazine Monthly Upchuck of the Arts and all he could do was try to needle me about “class”, wondering when the day was going to come when my “origins” – that’s his sickly word, not mine – were going to show more clearly in my work. So I asked him when his origins were going to stop showing in his stupid questions. I nearly puked over his snuff-coloured suit. The article never came out, thank God. Teddy Greensleaves was disappointed: “If you aren’t careful,” he said, “the critics will give you the kiss of death.” “As long as it’s a big kiss,” I said. “Why do you keep on acting the fool, Albert? It’s just that little bit passé, you know, to go on talking about money, and be forever ranting against the critics.” I didn’t answer, because that would be playing his game.’

  ‘Why do you?’ Myra asked, drawn at last from the somnolence of his car and monologue.

  ‘You know why? Because it’s a smoke-screen behind which I can carry on my real work – without being bothered by a lot of soapy-mouthed English stupidities. Mind if I roll the window up? I shan’t smoke another cigar: since I’ve been rich I feel the cold more. You’re right, though. It’s no use getting excited about it. We’re all a pack of grown-up half-educated neurasthenics. Camus came to the conclusio
n that, after all, the artist was a romantic. I began there. Where I am now I know exactly; but where I’m going I never shall know till I get there.’

  Chapter Three

  It was the sort of fine rain that would never soak you, rasping over the leaves, light enough in weight not to bend them, yet steady enough to turn the lawn soggy underfoot. Her only task in life was to resurrect the house, and look after the baby. The garden, which had been totally neglected, needed unearthing like the ruins of Troy, and she had hardly made a start on it. Vegetable proliferations feeding on rich soil had climbed and coiled from fence to fence. Paths had vanished under it. Flowerbeds with stone and tile borders could not be seen. Lush on top, it was rotten underneath after seven months’ absence. Frogs like small vivid leaves had come up from the river and made it their private jungle. She cleared the paths, but the rest did not matter.

  Myra had darkened after the baby, and a more ample figure made her appear taller. Hair grown long made her seem plainer. She looked in the full-length bedroom mirror, a corner of the double-bed reflected at her knees and thighs. The baby slept in a heavy, antique wooden rocking-cradle set between the bed and far wall, a cradle that had been in the family for generations, passed on to her by Pam. Their grandmother, one of twelve who had slept their first months in it, had tugged and handled it from the far marches of eastern Europe – hardly any luggage, and pulling that huge heavy mahogany cradle across tracks and platforms and guarding it on the deck of a crowded rat-eaten rusting steamer from Hamburg. Mark looked safe in it, eternal, never wanting to grow up, grateful to that misty forgotten grandmother for taking so much trouble. It rocked him gently, high sides dwarfing the Dawley blood in him.

  The house was a corpse, and she gave it the kiss of life – phone, gas, electricity, water. Everything shone again except the garden. The house glowed from within, warm from the baby out. Having a child alone with her, she was sometimes terrified of a disaster happening while asleep upstairs, that she would faint or die and, nobody aware of anything, and thinking she had gone to her parents in London, the baby would starve to death. The vision haunted her on deep and windy nights of spring, a penalty of winter’s end, and punishment for living alone.

  Her body in the mirror shone back, had reshaped well from the birth, firm and immobile as she looked at it, different now that her breasts were full, aching slightly from the weight of the next feed, marked by blue veins where they rounded towards her arms. She drew back at the touch of her own thighs and slipped the nightdress over. Down in the darkness the garden was three sides around the house. She sat on the edge of the bed.

  Outside it was mist and mud, primroses beyond the leaded windows, the elaborate cave of the house. Cat, paraffin, coal-smoke from the stove while the central heating was re-engineered. Wet grass, night birds continually, a cow in labour bellowing, dunghills steaming in the nearby farm. Buds, confetti stuck on thorns for the marriage of mist and mud under the hill of Thieving Grove. An aeroplane prowled on old-fashioned engines through low cloud. She’d read Wuthering Heights and Pilgrim’s Progress. Her house was under the cat-back of the hills. She’d bought mimosa in Aylesbury, but the house odours soon killed it. The toothless cat, old marmalade, sat on the outside windowsill downstairs, senile and independent. There had been no sun till four in the afternoon. Where was he? Lost in the vast freezing acreage of the bled? Her body shuddered for him, shook as she gripped herself.

  The baby was fed, changed, back to sleep by the time Mrs Harrod unlatched the gate next morning. Mark was put to bed, and she was putting herself back to a lonelinesss similar to when George was with her, now that he wasn’t here any more. The day was cold, so she built a wood fire in the living room, heaped up logs and drew back furniture that might get scorched, smiling to realise there could be no danger of it. It was a waste of wood, for she still had work to do and could not be near it, but it was like another inhabitant of the house in which everything nevertheless was so strange. She wanted to fill the house with noise and fires and people, drench it in light and vigour. But at the moment that seemed a dream. So in her quiet way she worked to restore it to a common translucent state of ordinary comfort, oblivious to anything beyond the foundations of what had been built years before by George and herself. When perfection reigned and ruled you could venture elsewhere.

  Chapter Four

  Albert Handley’s house had been named The Gallery, and often he didn’t know whether one might call it an art gallery, a rogues’ gallery, or a shooting gallery, though mostly it was a bit of all three rolled into one mad house. It stood on a hill beyond the village, at the end of a lane that wound up from the paved road between two thick closed-off copses – a large simple house with two floors and a spacious attic, late Victorian country-nondescript that had at one time served the manager of an estate long since hammered up. The slate roof glistened in weak morning sunshine, its brick façade glowed. Two caravans stood in the large front garden, forming a sharp angle pointing away from the house like a scarp designed on Vauban’s defence system. Across the path, amid a marshalling-yard of tracks and rut-marks, stood a Land-Rover and a well polished Ford Rambler. A newly built kennel beside the front door stored a bulldog that, when standing belligerently out, looked like a miniature iron bedstead about to leap. Behind the house was a long newly-erected wooden hut used as a children’s playroom, and a solarium had been built nearby, as well as a new fuel store. This was the house that Handley had lived in while poor, and that he preferred to stay in now that he was better off.

  After his unaccustomed toil up the hill Russell Jones noted these details of the Handley locale for when he sat in his London flat to write a monthly middle-piece on Albert Handley the painter. If his rise hadn’t been so sudden and from such obscurity Jones might have thought of him as an artist instead of a painter – but there, a man of his sort couldn’t have everything, though it looked as if he had much of it already to judge from the various mounds of obsolescent gear scattered around the house: ‘like the camp of some gypsy king who had struck it rich in middle age.’ Or should he say ‘Middle Ages’? He’d decide on the train going back. ‘Someone who had been through the biggest supermarket in the world and collected with a free pass more than he could ever need.’ If phrases came so quickly the article should be good. He’d been feeling rather stale of late, too many parties, too much drink, proved by the ache in his legs and the constriction in his lungs on his walk up from the village pub. His well-planted hair was too warm under his Moscow fur hat – he’d imagined frost and flecks of snow persisting on these northern wolds, but the worst of it had gone, and his London ears proved tougher than he’d even given them credit for.

  He stood to light a cigarette. Handley should be expecting him, but the house seemed deserted. At nine in the morning where were the children on their way to school? He sensed that all was not right in the kennel. By the threshold lay a gnawed unheeded bone, and for a moment he thought of swinging his camera onto it, for a possibly symbolic shot in another illustrated article which he might publish under his mother’s maiden name. A piece of sacking hung over the kennel exit, and suddenly framed in its place was a wide-headed vile-toothed British bulldog. Jones didn’t know whether his fur hat flew off at the sight of it or whether it wasn’t released a second later as the dog sped through the air for his collar and tie.

  In the far-off top-floor studio Albert stirred in his sleep. He’d worked till two, then undressed and slid into the camp-bed so as not to disturb Enid’s ever-fragile slumber. It was just about warm all through, though the cold was ever poised outside to heave against and overwhelm him. Pushing his legs straight, he tried to ignore it. It sounded as if somebody had left the wireless on, and a wild drama to which no one listened played in a dark room. He couldn’t believe it was morning. The noise ate into the old army blankets covering his long body. It seemed as if his great fear had at last come about, that the family had united against Eric Bloodaxe, the pride and prime of the bulldog breed to do him th
at final and fatal injury together that no one had the courage to attempt single-handed. Enid kept a crowbar in the hall should he ever get out of control, but that was only for reassurance since he had so far been the gentlest of pets where the family was concerned, kept when they were poor to hold creditors at bay, maintained now that Handley was rich to ward off gutter-press journalists, professional beggars, and ill-wishers from the village. There were shouts, doors banging, vague blows, and a rending series of howls from Eric Bloodaxe. Was the ship going under at last, and water about to pour through the portholes that fate had left maliciously open? His long thin body was naked, his face irascible and swarthy as he drew on trousers and shirt, not even a mug of black coffee to sustain him on a flying rush down the stairs.

  Russell Jones crouched, back to the gate, a round and raddled face inadequately protected by his uplifted arm, an angular tear hanging from the sleeve of his expensive tweed overcoat.

  ‘Haven’t you heard of the bloody telephone?’ Handley shouted from the door. Eric, foam on his mouth, pulled on the extended radius of his chain, clawing the ground a few inches from Jones’s camera.

  Enid stood with a bar suspended over the dog’s head should his chain snap. Three school-aged children grinned from the door of the nearest caravan. ‘It’s out of order,’ she said. ‘I tried to get the off-licence for more wine last night but couldn’t.’

  ‘Back!’ Handley commanded, and Eric shuffled inside. ‘He might have had the arse off you,’ he said to Jones. ‘I don’t want to be responsible for that. Who are you anyway?’

  Jones stood up, pale as a bottle of milk that had been left all night in the snow: ‘I came to interview you. Did you receive our letter?’

  ‘Sunday Pulp was it? Or Old Nation? I didn’t think you were serious. Come in and have some breakfast. Don’t mind the dog: he does his best.’

 
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