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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.20
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.20

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  ‘We’ll be out of it tonight,’ he called.

  ‘Out of what?’ Shelley’s lips moved, his eyes shone, but from a face immobilised in every pore by the unyielding grip of pain. Frank smiled as if they were on an excursion looking for a beach or oasis pool where they might drink cool beer and swim.

  ‘If I sleep more than eight hours,’ – Shelley’s thin face magically threw off all sign of the blackening blood beating like a drum in his mangled hand – ‘my stomach begins to ache.’

  They laughed. Unreality. ‘That’s hunger,’ Frank said.

  ‘Or conscience. I don’t think I was born to sleep.’ On second thoughts, he added: ‘Not yet, anyway,’ – which saved Frank the hypocrisy of deciding not to contradict him.

  Chapter Eighteen

  They went forward all day, met the sun head-on in the morning, had it pushing them from behind in the afternoon towards another great door of darkness. Ahmed had been killed, the newspaper-seller had died, and the guide had returned to his village because he was no longer familiar with the territory they were in. They were five: Mokhtar, Frank, Mohamed, Idris and Shelley, and it did not occur to Frank how lucky they had so far been in escaping all interception.

  The hills covered with scrub and trees, marked as forest on the map, closed over them at the end of the day. A thicker patch concealed them, and they laid branches over the truck. A stream had water running along its bed, and he could not believe it, until the taste went down his throat. Some rations had been taken from the truck, tins of paté, sardines and chocolate. Shelley could not eat. After a mouthful, he vomited. They hoped to find morphine in the cab, but there was none. He was unrecognisable, mouth black and torn from the grind of teeth, eyes unable to open. He felt them to be a great distance from him, a horseshoe of shadows, each a thousand needle-points trying to force his eyes open and prick them, collectively to push him so that he lost balance and sat down.

  Frank lifted him. He was saturated, as if he’d been taken from a bath of scalding water. Shelley roared. There was more pain in his legs than the injured arm.

  ‘Put him down,’ Mokhtar said.

  Frank wanted to drive full pelt to the nearest town, find an army doctor, any doctor, even if it meant getting captured, then shot or twenty years in prison. ‘Give me some help with him.’

  Shelley didn’t want to go, and staggered to his feet. ‘Leave me alone.’

  Frank held him nevertheless, knowing he’d no right to make such decisions of life and death for him. If he wanted to die rather than become a prisoner, then he must be respected. Fortunately, it was easy to know what his true wish was.

  ‘When we left Ahmed,’ Mokhtar said, ‘he was wounded, not dead. I could have saved him, but I had to save all of us. I saw him badly wounded, but not dead. If we get a doctor for Shelley, we are all caught.’

  ‘Isn’t there an FLN doctor?’

  ‘Not near. We can reach one tomorrow, beyond the road, if we travel all night.’ It meant the big risk of headlights until they ran out of petrol. Frank broke up French cigarettes and packed the tobacco into Shelley’s pipe, but he couldn’t hold it in his teeth. He drove, not yet in the darkest stomach of the night, straight as he could in a north-easterly direction between the trees, torment for Shelley who cried out continually for them to stop. He drove quickly along a smooth track for ten kilometres before turning off, then went back to lights in crossing rocky, thinly-forested country.

  When the moon came up, they travelled by it, eyes aching at the shapes they tried to see, at the boulders missed and flanking by. Part of the forest had been hit by bombs. This war was vicious to trees and men. It was like a ruined tree-city in the moonlight, blasted by lightning and as if already blackened by time, the arboreal remains of a vanished civilisation whose houses had been in the trees. Thinning trunks had been weighed and broken by the heavy fire of their top branches which had laid a thin waste of grey moonshone ash over the ground between. Maybe it was a gallows city blasted by the righteous sun. A soft wind blew ash towards him. It eddied and circled. It was warm, and when he walked a few steps, it burned his feet. Not all the trees had been destroyed. Brown and green streaks still patched some of the black boles. At one a red eye of fire smouldered. It took weeks for flame to retreat from a tree, yet it never totally destroyed it, either. Such wilderness trees always grew again, unless their roots had been absolutely blasted from the earth. It was weird, this scorched wood, reminded him of a ruined city that the inhabitants would one day come back to. Where the moon shone, the birds would return. Its leaves would grow greener than before, trunks less beautiful, but branches stronger.

  He climbed back, and drove on. Why had the wood been napalmed? Perhaps if he had looked closer he would have seen blackened corpses, the flesh still red within, but undeniably dead forever. He had, as they say, blood on his own hands, but he didn’t wish it away, though it seemed to widen the haunting nightmare moonshot visage of the wood he was not glad to have left behind. He couldn’t regret what had taken so many years to bring about. He disliked the idea of destiny yet sometimes found it a useful word. There were too many burning trees for it not to lift up from the pool of his mind. Why was he in Algeria? Was it not destiny, that he had rationalised and decided on before taking the deliberate step? What had come first: a desire to help Algeria, or a desire to liberate himself? He could no longer blame these questions on a false sensibility whose only purpose was to break his resolution. Since they came, they were real. He asked so few questions that he was bound to respect them. He was almost grateful to them, though saw the danger of them becoming ends in themselves, questions that needed no answering, as if they were friends whose presence alone was comforting enough. His love for people was causing the death of people, but he could not look on himself as a murderer, because he was no pacifist. As soon as he stepped into Algeria, it was a matter of kill or be killed, and he could not stand idly by. He had been offered money for bringing in the guns and ammunition, but had not taken it. He had wanted to fight so that those considered the exploited and downtrodden could stand up to the so-called master races of Europe. But now it had become a fight for survival – such was their feeling as they ran from trap to trap, killing nevertheless, but fleeing undeniably. He had imagined something more deadly, more numerous, more dangerous, yet he wasn’t a man to let his imagination hold him up to the ransom of disappointment. That would have been a blow at his pride, and foolish anyway. Perhaps a dozen groups such as theirs had caused the three brigades to be launched into these mountains, and so were drawn from the Kabylie where the main front was said to be in danger. The French had half a million men deployed in Algeria, which was one good reason for him to be here.

  They crossed the main road at midnight. He changed into low gear and, lights full on, climbed the bank. It was wide, and he had an impulse to swing the jeep and go roaring at full speed down the length to get help for Shelley. The lights of a convoy flickered in the distance. Scout cars would reach their crossing-point in a few minutes, and in any case, if he turned along the road, even in the direction where it was dark, he knew that Mokhtar’s revolver would press into the back of his neck. He dipped his lights, and went gently down the opposite slope. Shelley was moaning continually in his unconsciousness.

  He drove by the moon again, met a regular track to the doctor’s village and worked by patient navigation along its faint continual curves. They reached the outskirts just before dawn, and at the same time ran out of petrol.

  Mokhtar and Idris went to make sure that no French were in the village, leaving them to darkness and the quiet of the night.

  ‘Listen,’ Shelley said, ‘use the material in the haversack. You’ll need it. And the money, everything.’

  It was impossible to clap him on the shoulder and laugh. He sat in the back with him, and it was like being close to a fire. His head was a live coal. ‘We’ll get a doctor now. We’re here. It’s all right, at long bloody last.’

  ‘Are there any lights?


  He put his arm around him: ‘Hang on. Hang on.’ Burning sweat went right through to his skin. He was a man dying of pneumonia. There’d be nothing in this village, and Shelley must have known it, too.

  ‘The sea.’

  Frank leaned close. ‘What?’

  ‘The sea. I shan’t see it.’

  ‘Ah! We’ll all see it one day, I’m sure of that.’

  ‘Maricarmen. Write to say I’m O.K.’

  He’d talked of her; his anarchist girl-friend in Barcelona, last heard of in prison. ‘We want a doctor, first. They’re taking a hell of a time getting him. It’ll be light soon.’ The cold dawn wind shelled the soul of its husks, howled around the high plain, the meeting place of south and north winds, sand and gravel, drowning even the wolfish moaning of village dogs, impatient for the warmth of the sun. Blue above the peaks changed to orange, a faint line, and no one to strike it down, nothing to do but welcome it wryly, then turn your back on it while it bled itself to death and rose up white to the top of the sky, to work out its day-long revenge.

  Shadows crowded after Mokhtar. They could go forward. Frank let off the brake, and twenty men pushed the car into the village. The sea was in the light of the dawn. Shelley looked beyond to the prison of outside that forced him back into a prison of pain which seemed to be the underground dungeon in which he really lived, a deep prison with a small window through which he could visualise the fawn sea, with a long, high, single mountainous wave of fawn that would never break. Something had frozen it, fixed it against that sky, had looked down from a sky of ice and snow and pinned that high wave on the fawn sea in a never-breaking position. He felt that when this ruthless, impossible pain stopped, he would melt it, turn it to liquid fire that would only flow over himself. Someone dropped a black cloth over him, and he fought free to look again on the fawn sea and the unbreakable wave. The water should shine and move, and he considered he had a right to expect it, but not at this moment to get it. The pain played tricks on him, so it was natural that the world should, too. If the wave broke, he would drown. It became olive-green, white cloud at the top. The black cloth fell over him again, and he saw no more sea. It drew back from the light of the dawn and turned into day.

  When the car stuck, they pulled stones away, and when a rut was too deep, they filled the hole in, until it was surrounded by low mud houses, and a few score curious people. When Shelley was laid flat and comfortable inside, they took the car to pieces.

  An old man, hale and strong, came out of a house and walked through the crowd with a bundle under his arm. When he looked at them, they drew back. Mokhtar grinned, and watched. It was daylight, and the dogs could sleep. The old man sat cross-legged by the jeep and unfolded the leaves of old sacking. Inside was a long hacksaw and a pack of blades, greased and shining. Four men jacked up the car and took off the wheels, one by one, propping the chassis with stones. The old man sawed through steel posts that held on the hood and top, while other carefully designated demolishers unscrewed everything that it was possible to unscrew. They took out the battery, removed lamps, disconnected bumpers, doors, seats. A human chain stored and hid the priceless material. Tyres were taken from the wheels and cut into four pieces. The old man sawed indefatigably. The divided tools did their work, passed around so that the whole village contributed.

  Shelley lay on the bare floor, wracked and worn with pain that had long since turned into a fight against death. He struggled, eyes closed, arms and legs paralysed. ‘I got you into this,’ Frank said. ‘I made you come at the point of a gun. All you wanted was to go back to Tangier and organise another shipment. That would have done more good for the cause.’ One sharp beam of daylight penetrated from the back of the room, enough, too much. They’d been wrong. There was no doctor here. He’d been taken by the French two days ago. In any case, it was too late. The world had its black side, set up obstacles, sheer walls in the night that you could not see. You moved. They moved with you, around you, dodged you. When you couldn’t get away, you dug a grave, the only escape being into a more permanent and impenetrable blackness. Shelley had found it.

  A younger man spread the canvas top on the ground. Others stood back from the main audience and called out advice. Put one sheet on another and roll it all up together. This was obviously what he should do, but now he didn’t want to do it. He stopped smiling, folded each piece into quarters like a sheet of paper, placed one on top of the other, and carried them away under his arms.

  The truck had been disembowelled: engine set apart from the chassis, surrounded by nuts and bolts freed with spanners from the tool-kit. A stain of oil spread on the hard earth. Most had been drained still warm into a large tin which had once held brine and olives. Frank watched them take it to pieces, trying to escape his tears. It was a slaughter-house: they cut, sawed, chopped, pulled and nothing cried out, because, though beautifully made and capable of great power, it had never been alive. Yet you had to feel sorry for it, this machine that man had made. It would have been a laughable scene at any other time, vandals tearing to pieces something they could never make – especially in a country like England where they were made – in some quiet side-street on a Sunday afternoon. But it was serious here and necessary. War was wasteful and provided loot for the indigent who had nothing. Tinsmiths, blacksmiths and cobblers craved material, and one wrecked car or lorry provided them with it. Each village and oasis had its turn. A crashed twin-engined transport plane by the highway vanished in the night. Vast territorial departments of Southern Algeria were shod on tyres. Nuts, bolts, wire, strips of aluminium, hinges, rubber, screws, found their way by camelback to the distant souks of Siwa, Timbuctou, Fort Lamy and Tamanrasset. War had burned and crashed around for so long that there was no shortage of certain things, though little came their way on which to build up permanent stability.

  He bent down and saw that he was dead.

  A few spare limbs and scattered gobbets of the engine remained to be cleared away, sand and gravel sprinkled over the ground to conceal oilstains and metal-dust. It was a time of rejoicing, as if they’d killed the dragon, or drawn in a bumper harvest of scorpion flowers. Planes flew over, but no one was afraid, for the area had been ‘pacified’ a month ago, meaning that the FLN were free to come back, which the enemy believed impossible since the terrorised inhabitants would not dare to let them. So the planes new mercifully to the south-west, to smoulder and machine-gun, rocket and carpet-bomb the area they had just vacated.

  He lay on the floor inside and let the tears come from him, a pouring out of sorrow and loneliness, heartache and despair. Shelley had known Myra. He was his last link with the world, perhaps with himself. His grief was total and inexpressible. ‘He was a brave man,’ Mokhtar said. ‘A Lion of Judah. I never saw one so brave or skilful. He was wise, a man of books, an American. We’ve lost him when we needed him most.’ Frank stood up. He’s lost a machine, a piece of machinery that fearlessly sights and fires a gun, reads a map, marches, and understands that raving brainchild, that fool-proof invention of Marxism and Algerian nationalism. As long as Mokhtar realises what’s been lost – that’s all Shelley would want.

  A woman washed him and he was carried on a litter to a hole that had been dug by a path leading to their own cemetery. They left a pile of stones on top so that dogs could not drag his flesh out. Those who die are in heaven or in hell, Frank thought, only as long as you remember them. It’s a small place they go to for a while, a lodgement in your memory. After that, if there is any afterwards, they are finished forever. A million worms can’t keep together the body and soul that the person once had, even though the body might be said to live on in those million worms. In any case, for the one who dies it is total blackness. We all know that, or ought to. Who would want his soul distributed among a million worms? It doesn’t give each of those worms a soul, unless the soul was built in a million segments that had each been a worm before they became your soul.

  He could not feel alive, craved oblivion, did not w
ant to be finally left behind by his friend. He looked through what remained of him; an address-book, three passports (the American one was made out in his own name of Shelley Jones, the French for Jean-Jacques Goulet, and one British for John Rowland Hill), a wallet with five one-hundred-dollar bills in the back, a photo of Maricarmen feeding the pigeons in the Plaza de Cataluña in Barcelona, a photo of his mother, and some address-cards. There were two pipes, a copy of Mao Tse Tung’s On Guerrilla Warfare, a map of Algeria and a few pencils. He made a bundle and put them into his own bag. Then he fell asleep for the last few hours of daylight, and shed tears in dreams that, when he woke, he could not remember.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Three French brigades were busy in the Djebel trying to destroy those bands that continually attacked and vanished, harassed and withdrew, but who mostly in the end slipped through their cordons towards the desert. They regrouped outside, marched for the main-base, and moved only at night, lying miraculously concealed during the day in undisturbed hills where no one thought they could possibly be. As they approached the weakened base, revolutionary co-ordination began to work. Mokhtar’s group had become twenty and made contact with other bands to left and right. After dark, an hour was spent rubbing away all trace of the daylight hideouts; two hours before dawn were taken by preparing holes and camouflage for the next day’s conceal ment – thus giving only six hours’ march out of the twenty-four, and those during darkness. Daytime helicopter patrols saw nothing. Land reconnaissances passed close, but the FLN refrained from ambush, unwilling to betray themselves and upset the delicate mechanism of their attack. To the French, the area was dead. It was pacified. The few indigenous inhabitants knew what was happening and kept silent.

 
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