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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.21
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.21

           Alan Sillitoe

  Frank walked along, part of the gathering mass, a man in a dream, with nothing to justify his shape as a human being except the tangled thoughts in his head. He ate little, drank little, knew when it was time to scramble from his tomb and time to get down and dig another. He felt that sooner or later during a long journey there comes a point when the questions that assail you like hailstones have to be answered. The outside world that he had lived in could no longer answer them, which was the one good reason why he had left it. He stood alone, and though many answers came, he found none of them convincing, neither from the left hand nor the right hand. They merely served to block the question-holes inside you, instead of healing them up forever – so that others could grow in their place. In this country, question-holes turned into bullet-holes. Though he did not want perfection, and knew that everything would end up being ‘more or less’, the answers stopped coming. They had come to Shelley who, seeming more intelligent and complex, was able to accept the rough answers because that was the only way he could go on living. But my brain is clumsy and more simple, he thought, so I can’t adapt myself to what isn’t perfect and precise and what, therefore, isn’t necessarily more true, because I don’t have the subtlety to accept something rough-hewn and make it complex out of my own reasoning. I’d be happier if I did, and there’d be far more answers to the few questions I ask, so many that I’d even be able to pick and choose!

  A true answer should contain within it a decision and the seeds of action. One such answer – whether true or false – had brought him here, and it had turned out good because, while acknowledging the unalterable and universal principles of the situation, it would also lead to a further spiritual leap into the depths of his life. This he felt strongly enough for it to be true. One answer usually leads to other answers. You could go through life leapfrogging over questions until your death, and the question you might then be moved to ask would not matter – assuming you had time to ask it. It was a case of whether the question was more important, or the answer. Was anyone ever so naive as to imagine you could have both, that questions could contain their own answers, or answers their own questions? Some people had a knack of striding rough-shod from one answer to another, never mind the bloody question, but others took years working towards the perfect question whose answer would solve all their problems, before discovering, in a flash of destructive inspiration, that there could be no complete and final answer. So they left off questions altogether and spiritually died.

  After going on for so long with the nagging of half-buried questions you suddenly realise that you have had the answers for a long time. Then, after a while, you find they are not the answers you want and that you did wrong in accepting them so glibly. They are false, in spite of the struggle you went through to obtain them. So you have to set out once more on the long march and the deep search. And that’s where matters stand, whether you like it or not.

  A march of four nights brought them north of the base. Planes landed and took off from the airfield on a north-south axis, lifting over their heads. Two glittering lines of runway headlights channelled traffic in and out. From the point of view of retreat it would have been sensible to attack from the south-west, since they could then have spread into uninhabited country that, nevertheless, possessed a scattering of wells and water-holes. But they would have forfeited the advantage of attacking from high ground. This problem had been foreseen, and in order to help them in their imperfect line of retreat several neighbouring villages would, on the night of the attack, pass into the hands of the FLN and so keep open a route to the south-east, which led to equally wide-open spaces and a similar number of water-wells. Food-stores and hiding-places had been organised in that direction. All this presupposed that they would not capture the base. At this elated stage they thought there was a good chance of doing so. This would not only bring back the three brigades from the Djebel in a hurry but would also cause troops to be pulled out of the Grandes Kabylies. At the same time, negotiations concerning the future of Algeria were taking place, and this attack, timed to begin after dusk, might speed them on to the advantage of the Algerian Provisional Government. Main and subsidiary roads leading from the town and oasis were blocked by mines, and traffic using these routes, either to get out or to counter-attack, would be ambushed and dispersed. Reinforcements for the base would, likewise, incur losses. If the garrison wanted to move out, it could only do so to the south, and certain groups were waiting there to harass them. If they did break through, they would find no succour in that direction.

  To comprehend perfectly all details of a complex plan, and at the same time to know that he was taking part in it, filled him with a transcendental joy and gave meaning to his existence. He was again united with the only part of the world that mattered. It was a similar experience, certainly as real and perhaps more valuable, to when he was first set on a machine in the factory fifteen years ago. The great lathe was fixed before him, and when the tool-setter showed the blueprint of what was to be made on it and then produced one as an example, he understood the plan, the object, and its purpose in the lorry-engine for which it was due. He was making something useful, and there was no deeper satisfaction, until he chafed at the fact that there was an even greater pattern to strive for and fit his life into.

  He lay apart from the others, looking at the sparkling star-carpets overhead, smoking cigarettes plundered from the truck they had taken in an effort to get Shelley to a doctor. I am for progress, progress at any price, but when the world is socialist – then what? Yet I can’t say: ‘Then what?’ until all the world is socialist or socialised. And since it will probably take more than my life and lifetime, what’s the point of asking: ‘Then what?’ Perhaps there is a point, and that when socialism is achieved (if that’s the word), we’ll be free in our spare time to indulge in private mysticism: Zen masters, Zen commissars, Zen Stakhanovites. Even collective mysticism. When the state has withered away we can be mystical for part of the day, and material the other – of the world yet not in it; in the world yet not of it. East and West meet in the east and meet in the west. Unless you want to know what you will feel like after what you are fighting for has come about, you won’t begin to fight for it.

  The present drew him back, words for Myra, lines of poetry and rigmarole about her and the child, what his love for them meant and ought to mean, words repeated continually in his mind as he walked along, until what had been clear and perfect phrases became garbled by too much repetition, the order even of words uncertain, so that the message he strove to get into his own mind no longer existed, and his body and soul were locked in the effort of climbing and descending, a weird wild pulsing at the heart which blotted out everything, and only the stars were clear when he managed to look up, as if they would give breath to help the receding vision come back to him.

  Mokhtar’s group moved towards the scintillating edge of the aerodrome. Hand-grenades were given out. A large transport-plane rumbled low as they descended from stone to stone. The cold of the hills left him. He did not even sweat, felt dry and warm, wide awake, careful and half-afraid. He was coming back to life, and when he turned to look for Shelley, realised with pain that he wasn’t there, had been drawn away from the world, was out of sight and reach and rotting under stony earth. The mass thinned into a line, guided perfectly into place by the perimeter and approach lights, and men set as markers, standing up from the holes in which they had been hidden to beckon and point. Mokhtar had an accurate map of guard-posts and pickets, all details vouched for by Algerians who worked at the base. By giving away such secrets, they needn’t fear for their jobs, for there would be more work when the attack was over.

  Hundreds of men, some in uniform, some in Moslem dress, a few in European clothes, picked their way between the stones in silence, the smell of spice and cleanliness flowing in the wind. The night blackened, no moon. The commonplace bothered him, gravel in his sandals, ants and lice biting. He never bargained for a mass attack. Was it a raid me
rely, or a Dien Bien Phu?

  They flattened for cover and went forward, a thousand deadly lizards closing towards the northern edge of the airfield. They passed under the tall posts of the approach lights, half sawn through, whose bulbs glowed steadily, as if to say that beyond this point lay the darkness of the heart, and that all who went there must leave the passport of their soul, and if there was a quick retreat, there would be no collecting it on your way out.

  Clandestine wire-cutters had cleared gaps, through which ferka after ferka found a way. As guerrillas, they had gradually amalgamated into an army whose discipline was pooled like a spiritual experience. He watched and felt it. There had been no drill practice to make cohesion instinctive. A movement of social intelligence went through all of them, and he hoped such a valuable lesson was not only possible in preparation for an act of war. Beyond their darkness the sky was blue with light. East of the aerodrome spread the European quarter and the oasis. In the confines people were still walking, the curfew not yet down. Frank felt himself at the end of an enormously wide tunnel, along which he had staggered for hundreds of miles. An outlet into the land of dreams at last lay in front, which was about to be destroyed – or some of it, or none of it. The glow on the sky was a sheltering roof that lured them on. It was the first time he’d been waiting to attack with so many others, with a feeling of being an empty shell whose weight he could not carry, of having nothing to lose but wanting even less than ever to lose it.

  Huge explosions came from villages east of the main agglomeration, shaking the ground under them. While all attention and, it was hoped, some reinforcements began moving in that direction and towards skirmishing in the south, the main force went in from the north. Openings were still being laid in the barbed wire. Heavy machine-gun bursts came from the outskirts of the town. The line spread beyond the wire, and he seemed to be on his own. Dust was blown by a strengthening wind, and grenades weighed him down. A hundred yards on was a sandbagged post and wireless hut, and beyond planes were silhouetted in their dispersal points by the airfield lights, which for some reason had not been shut off. The ground vibrated from exploding shells or bombs, he could not tell which, but he was running, now in a group, too close, too close, the gap in them elsewhere, choking from dust. Someone fell, and he went against the continual buzzing as if his head were jerking at invisible telegraph wires. He was alone again, running diagonally between two defence posts. He was not alone: bodies flattened by the wire were busy at it, as if that were all they would have to contend with. It seemed dreamily slow. He worked his way along and ran back towards one of the posts from the rear, unhooked a grenade, took out the loop, and fell flat to do the counting. Above the gunfire someone was sobbing. He was impatient to get through the wire, but hugged the bomb. He had no desire to stand up and let go, wanted to lay his head on it like a pillow and fall asleep. The world inside would splinter and come to rest. He would be in the desert, and out of it forever.

  He leapt up and threw, no time to drop before the crack of dawn and dusk, daylight and night, and blue-orange flashes bumping over him. Stones and dust shivered and fell, and he ran on all fours, then bent low and stumbling over bodies that gave to his weight. Alone once more, he saw how organisation bred chaos and loneliness. He stood up, almost bursting from his own sobs. He was full of fear at suddenly not knowing what to do. It lasted a moment. Smoke and danger spilled out of the sky. You could smell it in the dust, and in the resin of shattered posts. Shadows filled a gap in the wire, and firing from the rear diminished. The airfield was lit in every detail.

  A hand of great strength pulled at both legs, threw him with a crash onto the stones. The air was on fire, and he covered his head with folded arms. There was no sky left, nor light. He did not know how long he lay there, but similar earthquakes erupted all around, and he was riding a sea of stones, explosions punctuating the continuous wind and wirehowl that lay at the root of his bruised ears. He seemed to have been down for hours, then staggered towards the ineradicable noise. The group he had been with was nowhere to be seen.

  At the twin-engined plane he unhooked two grenades and planted one to explode at each huge wheel. He ran to another and did the same. Blinding light opened in a split second as fighter-planes further on the airfield fell like collapsing beds into a heap of fire and dust, then burst into flames. His own planes exploded, one an old Dakota so full of petrol that a column of smoke roped over it, and he ran back towards the wire, screaming at the shock of heat.

  To see such priceless and beautiful machinery burning brought a feeling of shame. It was obscene to destroy engines by these shorthand sadistic explosions after so much effort and precision went into making them. To pulverise machinery would have been a pain to his manhood, except that these planes were used to hunt and burn them out. His hair was singed, face blackened by smoke. There was time to smile at his reflections, sentimental mixed feelings that never lead to vacillation because what you wanted to do was always stronger than what you felt about it. Through the smoke there was one last plane intact, and he ran towards it. He tied a length of string to his unpinned grenade and threw it up and over the cockpit, where it hung, and he unwound the string and laid a heavy stone on it, so that the bomb would stay high and do the work of two.

  A black cloud lifted, gave a great push as he ran between burning huts. Others were turning back to the wire, shadows in the distance emerging from the smoke. Exploding bombs forced them to the ground. Frank ran on. There weren’t enough to meet the counter-attack. Some were trying, bullets spitting around him. He waited for them to come through the gap in the wire. Mokhtar ordered a halt to their firing. The approach lights of the airfield had been destroyed, leaving patches of light and darkness according to how far they were from the fires. A huge transport-plane overhead that had been trying to land now turned south when rifle-fire struck it from the hills. Houses were burning in the European district. A great roll of wire burst into the air.

  Retreating shadows melted into the cover of smoke and flames, some showing their backs, while the better-trained flattened and moved only when the wish rather than necessity took them. Mokhtar saw him and came over. ‘We leave,’ he said. ‘Too many counter-attacks. We can’t hold them.’ Bombs from their own mortars fell in front.

  They ran over the fallen posts, split and flayed by dynamite, wire and glass underfoot. ‘Where are they?’

  ‘They’ve gone back,’ said Mokhtar. They lay behind rocks. Frank emptied a magazine at encroaching figures who, he thought, might be Germans from the Foreign Legion, so sent off another clip for Stalingrad. They rushed across an open space and sun-fires behind made them hard targets, but several fell and they drifted away. Mokhtar gathered survivors and drove them through the safe ground of a gully. Frank caught a final view of the airfield burning, burning planes, light-beams, threading smoke, corpses and wasted wire.

  They climbed. Frank was lighter of ammunition and grenades, but felt like a lead man going up, impossible to lift himself. Shells exploded from the town, and small arms fire rippled overhead.

  ‘Are we the last out?’

  ‘Absolutely. Except the wounded,’ – who were still shooting or being slaughtered. ‘Both,’ Mokhtar said. ‘And the dead are being killed again.’ Planes had taken off to drop flares over the hills in front.

  Chapter Twenty

  The horizon of obvious retreat was lit up green and blue. Night no longer existed. They turned east instead of north, the burning town in view all night. Bonfires had been started on the hillsides and peaks while the attack was still going on, and now they became white and orange under the flares, a warning to keep away from the direction they burned in. Helicopters were machine-gunning around their flames. A tongue of napalm licked up a mountainside, a sudden pictorial manifestation that made him shiver with horror. From white, it turned red, rose into a column of deep orange, shooting a smoke-pillar through the greenish light of the flare that preceded it. Handley should be here to paint this, Frank thought
, though maybe it would be better for him and all concerned if he imagined it, otherwise such confrontation might burn out the spirit of his genius. It’s enough to destroy any painter, though I’d like Handley to see it, because he’s the only one I can think of whom it might not ruin.

  They joined others, walking as quickly along the ravine as they dared without slipping twenty feet into the dried river-bed below. Most had guns, but no ammunition. A few had unused grenades swinging from their belts. Frank had a clip of thirty rounds. Mokhtar, who carried a revolver and a long sheathed knife, grunted and hounded, pushed them along, threatening to kill any who dropped behind, and Frank preferred being on his own in the belief that he would have a better chance of getting clear. The effort of each step was too intense, and for the first time he felt no automatic urge to go on and on and increase the rate of his advance. His only desire was to slow it and stop, drag behind and separate from the others. But he kept on because safety still lay with numbers. Four months had taken the guts out of him. Perhaps tonight would be the worst, and all would be well if he could pull himself along by the light of each star, drag into the fire of another day. Fortunately, there was the insistent sparkling cold to beat at night that tried to get a grip on you, pierce through despair and sharpen your marrowless bones. The mixture of sensations – climate, terrain and the terrors of your own soul – made you walk. Mountainous shapes ahead, shadows, noise of planes passing that could not see them, frightened him. When they stopped he shivered. A sliding stone caused his hands to shake, made him wish for brandy and cigarettes, tea and food. But there was nothing – from now on walking through emptiness and touching the last emptiness in yourself. How long, how long? There was no sense in hoping to get out, looking beyond it to another state, because this was life, all there was, the vast dark area of the end that wanted you to die before letting you free from it. It encircled him, and to be encircled was to be blind.

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