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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.23
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.23

           Alan Sillitoe

  A thin drum-rhythm sounded. There were trees by the well, the shadows of their branches marked on tent roofs. Faint ropes of smoke curled towards clear sky, and the crazy fluting notes of a raita chipped the air and mixed with the pattering voice of the drum. The enchanted sound of alert and graceful music in the middle of war and wilderness emphasised how isolated and alone he was, and that he no longer felt any emotion or loss when he speculated on people who formed a great part of his life. The rope that held him to them was burned free. He could not remember how many weeks and months he’d been away. All disturbing memories had withdrawn beyond some horizon he’d left far behind or passed unnoticed in the night. Each broad day was an island that he crossed, and so was each night, and he felt that without injury from war or nature, the desert was a healthy place for one to live in, with a little food and water now and again. Optimism was arrowed into his veins, a love of life in the continuous beauty of light and air, and emptiness that was quiet enough for thought and sufficiently wide to suck out all weariness.

  Children came to watch him: a boy in a ragged robe, and a mèche of hair sprouting from a shaved head that made the skull seem too big. He stared, while the girl smiled. The men and women from the crumbling wall of the well were looking at three ragged performers between the tents. He unclipped his bottle, and stood to watch, all of them now silently waiting. The music came faster. An old man played the raita, scarred and bitten legs coming below his rags, feet slightly moving to the sound of his own music. A clout had been twisted around his skull, and he was staring into the sky but away from the sun, with a smile of tenderness that hoped for some sort of reward. Frank thought he was blind.

  Camels tied to the trees were searching the length of their tethers for roots. A boy threw stones to drive them back into the shade. They nuzzled and pawed the ground. The music caught his blood and he forgot his thirst and fever. The second performer wore a long, patched robe, had a white face and reddish or hennaed hair. He did nothing except move his head from side to side and look scornfully at those gathered to watch, presenting a demonic aspect of thin wide lips and a long chin covered with a grey beard, and a scanty moustache with a gap under his nose where it would not grow. At his feet lay a damp sackbag, something moving inside as if striving to shift with the music.

  No one spoke. They watched glumly. The third member was a lugubrious young man who played the drum. Black curly hair came from under his embroidered skull-cap, and his dress was a long dark robe with odd buttons down the front. He played his single stick as if disliking the inspired rhythm it produced, his intelligent face made sensitive because of his distaste for the job he was doing, as if between sessions or on the move he escaped such a life by dreaming over some tattered but unimportant book.

  Drum and raita dominated the silence and finally deepened it, each tap-note soaring sharply. Frank gained strength from their fluency, forgot his fever till the whole world he saw pressed close and gentle against his eyes. The white-faced, red-haired man softened his scornful look for a moment, then reinforced it and stared towards the mountains as if his eyes would cut a way through while the music, in spite of its faster beat, never lost the fluid racing lines of its rhythm. Yet it remained graceful and weak, pipe and drum trying their uttermost to become powerful rather than merely hypnotic. The old man’s body curved, but the youth with the drum stood with hunched shoulders and tapped out quicker rhythms with just as much ease as at the slower beats of the beginning, his look of impotence growing, as if his performance had gone on long enough and the time had come to end it. Yet the speed increased, when Frank thought it impossible. The audience seemed to be waiting for a revelation. To Frank all those in the desert looked haggard and exhausted, worn-out and noble, as if about to wake from sleep. Whether working or resting, this common quality linked every face and lost itself deep beneath the skin, shaping the bones, steeping their eyes in it and giving them the pathetic dignity of people struggling to visualise their place in a world of food and water which was continually denied them.

  Palm branches flipped and rustled in the wind, grit whirling around their feet and faces. Drum and pipe notes jumped on every grain and dragged it to earth, because no one was disturbed by it. The white-faced man of the three resumed his look of disgust, his lips curling, as if ready to: give them up as lost and vanish forever into the orange-tinted hills. As if on second thoughts he bent down to the filthy sack at his feet and moved his hand around inside, a look of green, glistening fear on his face. The old man with the flute weaved more violently, veins humped on his tobacco-coloured temples, as if about to faint or fall to the ground and still go on with his thin, wild music. The man bending down at the sack suddenly sprang up, holding a live snake.

  The crowd drew back in fear from this man possessed of power and talents beyond the limits of their lives, holding, a weapon that could strike them but not him. Perhaps they hoped he’d lose sight of them, so they stood still, and from his expression of phosphorous rage he certainly saw no one, the pupils of his small eyes shifting in bile, mouth open and moving to insensate music. The snake held them, spade-head and fangs fixed by the neck as it coiled round his arm to fight the demonic grip. But it was impotent against such strength and he smiled in a way that set the audience laughing – which he took as a signal for the real battle to begin.

  He roared from his wide-open mouth, long and grating, as if he would destroy his own throat. A shade of fear passed over him. The strong snake lashed around the sinews of his bare arm, a loathsome scene that Frank stayed and stared at and felt the deep blackness opening below all sense and thought, his whole world collapsing as if he were about to drop into the cold black water, back into primeval slime that lay beyond the coast of horror. The real island was the truthful inner night that only truth could show you, and only truth lead you safely away from. His bowels turned to water, his brain to ice.

  Palm branches swayed. Nothing obtruded. He stared at the madman turned savage who held up the snake and fought, mocking it to do its worst, bringing it closer to his open mouth as if to spit on it, then spun it round, stunning it against the air. In such an elemental contest, he could not sympathise either with man or snake. Its force pierced all stomachs and pinned them into awe. Both knew absolutely what they were involved in, a common image proclaimed under a life-and-death struggle. Frank felt a desire to empty his gun at the three men and end their show. Yet looking at it had cured his fever, left no pain from his scrapes and scratches. His blood flowed marvellously free in its proper circuits, so he let go of his gun, thinking to save his rage and ammunition for the purpose first rationally intended.

  The snake’s head, dazzlingly coloured, a large desert asp, worked further from the grip of his manic fist, turned to plant its scorching fangs in the soft armflesh. Perhaps he was immune to its poison, Frank thought, a man of so much snaky bile bursting to mingle with the sweet venom of the snake, so that if the snake bit him it had an equal chance of dying. They became one animal, set on introvert destruction, the reptile an arm of his arm trying to kill the rest of the body even if it died itself. It turned the man into a monster, and as the fight went on between the man determined not to be bitten and the snake not to be strangled, it became a fight for sanity among the scattering notes of insane music, the man and the snake one normal sane creature locked in a dream-battle of reality that by some dread fluke the world had at last given him to watch, as if looking at himself in some great mirror that stretched from earth to sky, across beautifully painted scenery, and showing a reflection of himself set there by his own eyes.

  He forgot everything. The snake relaxed, its life almost squeezed out. The skin on the man’s face was yellow, bones stretching as if he and the snake might after all die together. Their scene was a door, an exit and entrance, but Frank longed for it to be over, for he and all people to be released and set back to normal life – if such a thing were ever possible while this day that had been unlike any other lasted.

  The snake
revived, but the man was quicker, used his other hand to grip it half-way along the body while the thin whip of its tail caressed his wrist. He had mastered it at last, and Frank felt a wave of joy, shared the feelings of those around who grunted and smiled at the man’s feat. He felt thirsty again, thinking the show was finished. But the music weaved with more intensity, as if something else was yet to come. The victory had seemed too easy, carried the disappointment of a false dawn while the real day had still to be witnessed.

  The raita fledged up its notes as if scattering feathers into the air, followed by drumbeats set on the impossible job of chasing them, and dragging them back to earth. The white-faced man held the snake, limp and pliable, not yet dead, gripped it with two hands near the neck.

  A groan broke from everyone. With eyes closed, he was biting the snake at the neck, ripping into its flesh. The music stopped, the youth turned away, but the old man looked on, shaking as if ready to fall, but his face gentle and smiling at the victory helped by the exertions of his music. The snake-head was in his mouth, its body thrashing helplessly while his knife-teeth tore at it. As he bit on the snake the wound in Frank’s arm burst into excruciating pain, the same ache as before only increased to such a pitch that he roared out. The wound burned, the air grew black, but he fought for consciousness. At his cry, other men shouted as if they too had old wounds that came back to life at the sight of the snake eaten in its final convulsions of life.

  He forced himself to the horror, dying with the snake yet killing it himself, legs shaking, jaws locked. The man was swallowing pieces of the snake, eating it alive. Where had they come from, this sect from the bowels of the white and livid earth? His eyes were closed, stomach expanding under his rags, falling in, pushing out again, an unleashed madness devouring the earth’s own snakes.

  There was a movement behind, two newcomers approaching the outer fringe of the audience. They had been watching for some time, and one of them broke through with a revolver lifted, and Frank saw Mokhtar fire shot after shot into the body of the man who was eating the snake. He fell, writhing and spitting, flesh and blood pouring from his mouth and wounds. Mokhtar shouted at the others, a wild rational rage in his words, and they began to move. The dusk was blood red, colouring the wilderness all around as they attended to water and fires. The air before Frank went black. His eyes were pressed into his head, and he fell to the earth, raving in his fever that had returned with devastating fire.

  Soil closed around him. The sun vanished, taking away consciousness, and all pictures out of his mind. He burned in the grey ash-bed of the night, he crawled towards water to escape the cares of the world, using the last remnants of mole-like strength after he fell. Mokhtar and Idris dragged him to a tent. Opening his eyes, he saw nothing. They closed, driven by fear into beneficient blackness.

  He was moved with the caravan to the nearest village, the turbulent camelback journey distorting his black sleep. Lemon-rind was rubbed round his mouth, and he fought eyeless against water dripping over his teeth. He was tied on, a blanket over him, where he would drink his own sweat, rave and freeze. The village was by a spring in the mountains, with tree groves nearby, and a wall of cliff banking him off against the north.

  Part Three

  Chapter Twenty-one

  His impulse was to get out of Lincolnshire, break camp and flee like some nomad chief who feels the approach of an almighty force that will sweep him away. To lose such a painting was a disaster, the thieving of his life’s soul, a base robbery of his best work that barred a desperate groping to achieve something in life.

  He walked up and down all night, in his studio and then around the house. A trip to London always brought bad luck, stirred the cauldron of fate, cut all guidelines and distorted his compass-bearings. And yet, he decided, it wasn’t the time to flee, for he slowly realised with the coming of dawn that whenever he thought about abandoning everything he was on the point of solving whatever bothered him. A revelation was at hand. Standing far down under his studio window, by the old tree which leaned so close that it was continually lopped to give more light, he looked over the fence and across the field, towards the wood where, a fortnight ago, he had seen someone sniping him with field-glasses. It was such a facile explanation to all his troubles that it must be true. He lit another cigar. London hadn’t been entirely unlucky, merely confusing. He’d been in love with her for longer than he’d imagined, but their lovemaking only emphasised the unholy fact that she felt nothing comparable for him and never could, because she still hankered after Frank Dawley who had vanished months ago into Algeria on a bout of misguided and cranky idealism. If I leave Lincolnshire where do I go, with a wife and seven children, a dog, two cars and two caravans, and a brace of au pair girls? You don’t often hear of a flat to let in London with a car-park attached. He looked up at the stars for some time, before realising there weren’t any, I’m too old for baling out. Forty-three is the pineapple age, sweet and upright. Yet maybe I’d get young again if I blew all this up. The bourgeois trap is a long one, a tunnel without end, a burrow. You went into it though, and forgot your dynamite-Nobody lured you. I’m not trying to get out. I’m leaving nobody. I’m not that sort. I’m not at the end of my tether. But I don’t have ideals to help me off the hook and as an excuse to bolt.

  A long tartan dressing-gown was drawn tightly around him, each hand lost in large sleeve folds and resting on the kitchen table. He was perfectly still, and when Enid entered she thought he was sleeping in that position. But his light-brown eyes were open, gazing at empty air. Water rattled in the kettle. ‘Haven’t you slept?’

  He didn’t look round. ‘Why do I only crave what I’ve lost? A man should want more out of his life than that.’

  ‘What else is there though, except to want what you haven’t got?’

  ‘I want both,’ he said, smiling faintly to reflect the ice-old bitterness. ‘What you haven’t yet got is what you lost. They’re the same thing, let’s face it. God forgive me for getting all mystical, but when I look at those fields near the coast after a day of rain in the summer, and when it’s beginning to clear up about seven, and they go all soft and distinct under the sun reddening through cloud – then I begin to want what I haven’t yet got, and realise it’s something that I lost in the days when I was half-conscious and didn’t know I had anything to lose. In those days, I was king of myself and knew exactly what I wanted, which turned out to be this. I wish it weren’t true that I had everything a person is supposed to want, that I wasn’t in a position a left-handed person would give his left arm to be in. Even though I know I’ve got such a lot more work to do, I know that my life and all I’ll damn well do is a failure. If I didn’t have this lump of cold water always in my stomach maybe I’d never do these paintings that make me feel such a failure.’

  Whenever he was in this rare mood of self-questioning and self-pity she felt full of love towards him. Yet at the same time she was afraid, knowing from experience that it was inevitably followed by a terrible frenetic bust-up. ‘You’ve always known your work is good, or you wouldn’t have done it.’

  He took the coffee-grinder from her, turned the handle slowly. ‘Good, bad, what difference does it make? It doesn’t rip the despair out of my guts.’

  ‘You’re a successful artist,’ she said, knowing that he sometimes liked to hear her say this.

  ‘There’s no such thing. You can be a successful shopkeeper or football player or film-maker or critic, but you can never be a successful artist. As soon as you succeed you fail.’

  She made the coffee, ran a skin of butter over some bread. He wolfed it, famished after no sleep. ‘Something must have got under your skin in London,’ she said.

  ‘I bumped into Russell Jones.’

  ‘So that was it. I wondered how you’d hurt your hand. You were stupid enough to hit him!’

  ‘Even my own wife doesn’t know how noble I am, so I’m bound to cut my throat one day. I was going to hit him, it’s true. But I resisted, hit t
he wall instead. There are some people you just can’t crack open. He was terrified, the little worm, and that was enough for me. I just wanted to see whether he was human after all. There’s a successful man for you. They get terrified at the wrong things.’

  ‘And you’re so nervous you won’t even call the police to find out who stole your picture.’

  ‘I’ll get it back without that.’

  She knew it was something worse than losing a picture, which would bring out his rage, but not this hopeless despair. ‘Did you see this Myra, in London?’

  ‘Frank Dawley’s woman? I bumped into her at a party, had dinner with her and Greensleaves the night before last. I asked her to come back here and stay with us for a few days but she wouldn’t.’

  ‘A pity. We could do with a bit of company. I get fed up, seeing nobody week after week. We don’t even have to make ends meet any more. That at least took my mind off it.’

  ‘If we don’t get that picture back we might have to struggle again soon enough. I have a pretty good idea who did the job, but I’m not saying yet.’

  The au pair girls shuffled in, sluttish and dreamily beautiful, sat down and waited for Enid to serve them coffee. He leaned back and laughed. ‘I had a letter last week from somebody who asked me what was wrong with the world, so I wrote back and said what do you think I am, a writer? If I could tell them that I wouldn’t be painting. And if I knew what was wrong with the world I’d know what was wrong with myself, and if I knew that I’d know how to put both right.’ He had that look of a short-sighted man whenever he sat at the table trying to clarify his thoughts. At the moment they eluded him, not because he wasn’t capable of clarity but because he was tired. Clarity only came as inspiration, unasked and unexpected, as a pleasure when it fitted into a scheme and enabled him to build some huge edifice beamed through with its light.

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