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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.24
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.24

           Alan Sillitoe

  The girls went upstairs and plugged in the vacuum-cleaners, motor-noise whirring and shaking through the house. Mandy came in wearing her dressing-gown, sleepy and petulant, which made her face chubbier and pale as wax. She sat at the table as if never intending to leave it. ‘It’s about time you were down,’ Handley said.

  ‘Do you expect me to stay in bed when those vacuum-cleaners are going like pneumatic drills outside my door? You only got that sort out of pure bloody spite.’

  ‘Your eyes will look like three-coloured chrysanthemums if you talk to me like that,’ he said, bending close. ‘There are only two things that will get you from that stinking bed of a morning. One’s noise, and the other’s hunger. You could live off your puppy-fat for a week, so noise is the only hope. You wouldn’t think so though to see the fat little chuff scoffing away.’

  ‘What can you expect?’ she said. ‘I’m pregnant.’

  Handley looked horrified, while Enid stayed calmly at the sink. When crisis or bad news broke, his feeling and expression matched perfectly, which was the one time he could guarantee that it would. ‘Again?’ he said. ‘I hope you aren’t playing any more tricks.’

  ‘It’s only the second time,’ she said. ‘And I’m nineteen, anyway.’

  ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Nineteen. It’s not the modern generation that’s at fault. They can’t be that bad. It’s just my daughter. I suppose it was that picture-stealing vampire called Ralph again?’

  ‘It wasn’t his the first time.’

  ‘I’m reeling,’ he said. ‘Don’t tell me any more. You said you wanted to marry that apostle of spineless determination, remember, last year?’ He looked into the impenetrability of her pretty face. ‘Who the hell was it, then, eh? Tell me that. Oh, what the hell do I want to know for? It doesn’t matter.’

  She stood up and brushed her wide-flounced housecoat by him, head in the air, which in any case came to below his chin, and walked up to the sink to empty her coffee slops before refilling the cup. ‘I don’t suppose it does interest you. But if you want to know who it was the first time, it was that friend you brought here early last year, when there was deep snow everywhere.’

  Uncle John walked in, shaved and fully dressed, wearing his best dark suit with small golden links showing below the cuffs. Handley greeted him: ‘I’m glad there’s one good soul in the house who isn’t hellbent on doing me evil.’

  ‘You exaggerate, Albert. But it’s a pity we have to wait for the millennium to arrive before we learn to live amicably together. Isn’t it, Mandy?’ Enid plugged open a tin of fruit-juice and set it before him with a dish of cornflakes and a jug of cream. She then turned to the stove to fry egg and sausages, because he was the only one in the house who wanted the full gamut of breakfast – after his prison camp experiences. ‘Why don’t you tell him Mandy?’ John said. ‘He burst into my room first – looking for the toilet. I scared him away at gun-point. Then I suspect he found it, and as I came out to see what was happening in the hall, you were talking to him – and pulled him into your room, where he stayed about ten minutes. That, I suppose, was enough.’ He spooned up his cornflakes. ‘Wasn’t it?’

  ‘You’re the only person I can stand in this house, Uncle John, but you see too much,’ she said, disgruntled at not being able to tell her own story.

  Albert sat as if sand were being poured down his back. ‘Frank Dawley?’

  ‘I didn’t even know his name. He left me three pounds ten.’

  ‘You’re lying,’ he said, a weird smile, hands shaking.

  She stood up, afraid of him. ‘I wasn’t pregnant then, but I was when he left. Poor Ralph got the blame.’

  ‘It couldn’t have been Frank,’ he said.

  ‘Albert!’ Enid shouted, the loaded frying-pan half towards the table. ‘Sit down. Don’t touch her.’ With her free hand she brought a heavy crash against Mandy’s cheek. ‘Get out, you.’

  ‘My best friend!’ Handley moaned. ‘My best bloody friend does such a thing!’

  ‘At that time,’ Enid said, ‘he was only a stray boozing companion you’d picked up.’

  ‘I saw him,’ Mandy sobbed, ‘and knew he was a man. I’ll never forget him. Why did he have to go off like that and never want to see me again?’ John ate his eggs and sausages in amiable silence with himself, as if in a transport cafe with a wild fight going on. But he absorbed each painful word stinging his heart, the tears bleeding into him.

  Mandy sobbed in agony, and Handley stood up. ‘Why didn’t you tell me? If you don’t speak, how do we know. I wouldn’t have talked you into having an abortion if I’d known it was Frank’s. I’d have got hold of the bastard, made him get a divorce, and you’d have been married by now with another kid on the way.’ The idea almost cheered him up. Life wasn’t a series of ups and downs: with this family it was a roller-coaster that never stopped.

  Richard came in, black hair uncombed, shirt and trousers thrown on. ‘If only it would rain. At least then there’d be some noise outside the house as well.’

  ‘Don’t you start,’ Handley said. ‘I’m beginning to feel ringed. Do you or Adam know anything about that picture that was stolen from my studio the night before last?’ No one did. Albert stood, his face pale and packed tight with ancestral rage: ‘There’ll be a bleeding holocaust in this family if you don’t all set to and find it. I keep you in luxury and bone idleness month after month – which is fair enough I suppose because you’re my family, the family, the sacred bloody Christian Western civilised family that rots the foundations of any free and human spirit – so the least you can do is rally round when somebody like me who is an artist and as it so happens the breadwinner is attacked, and do something about it. Get your curved pipe, Richard, put on your deerstalker and take out Eric Bloodaxe. John will lend you his magnifying glass. Comb the county till you find it.’

  Richard chewed at a roll and butter. ‘Talk sense, father. Adam and I were up half the night printing leaflets about American intervention in Vietnam. Last month’s batch were handed out around Scunthorpe steelworks, and at the Raleigh in Nottingham. Next week we do Birmingham and Leicester. That’s more important than finding your painting.’

  John had come to marmalade and toast: ‘I know who it was, Albert.’

  ‘So do I, John. Let’s see if we tally.’

  ‘I saw that young man Ralph in the house the night before last, at four-thirty in the morning. I was at the radio getting news from Algeria. The FLN attacked a French base in the south.’

  ‘How did they go on?’

  ‘It failed. A shambles. The French are pursuing the guerrillas, as well as mopping up at another place. Then I went across to the bathroom and saw him.’

  ‘So it failed,’ Handley said, sweating. ‘Poor old Frank. He must have been in on it. Why didn’t you call Richard and Adam and have the young bastard thrown out? He’s the one I suspected.’

  John wiped his hands on the napkin. ‘I thought he was staying with Mandy. I didn’t want to break up something ineffably tender.’

  ‘You needn’t have bothered,’ Mandy said. ‘I sometimes think you’re just a dirty old man, Uncle John. I slept as pure as driven snow. You must believe me, father.’

  ‘I do,’ he said. ‘Richard, get the text together about French tortures in Algeria. Call it: The Rights of Man: This Wicked Oppression Must Stop Now. Have a French version done as well so that we can send some to Paris. They’re cracking up, so we can help them on a bit.’

  ‘What about a letter to the press, signed by you?’

  ‘You know I never do that. If I dabbled in politics, they’d say I was forgetting my place, and that would upset them. They’d never take me seriously again. Let’s be realistic, and anonymous – for the time being. John, keep on to Algeria for me, will you?’

  He took out a cigarette, and Albert flashed a lighter under it. ‘I’ve broken their codes. They’re pounding the guerrillas, but they’re worried, because there’s still plenty of trouble in the north, which they want to give
the appearance of holding in check because of the talks going on.’

  ‘Get me a report on it, then. Adam will find you the maps. There are quite a few of us interested in Frank Dawley’s fate, not to mention the lives of those brave Algerians fighting for their freedom. Things are getting too complex for me. Oh, for the simple days that never existed. Richard, tell Adam to sort out his burglar’s tools, because he’s going on a little job. Mandy can draw us a plan of the house, because I’m sure she’s been to Ralph’s bedroom often enough.’

  Mandy fetched the morning paper, and locked herself behind it. ‘I’m finished with him,’ she said, ‘if he’s got that painting.’

  ‘I wish you’d all come down for breakfast together,’ Enid said, as Adam walked in.

  ‘Sorry, Mother. I only want a cup of tea.’

  ‘We made coffee.’

  ‘Coffee, then.’ He dropped a pile of letters: ‘Post, Father.’

  Bills, printed matter, income-tax demands, begging letters, a copy of Elgar’s Enigma Variations from an admirer, and a letter with a Boston postmark, which he opened at once. He’d been hoping for one from Myra, to say she’d decided to come after all, or that she wanted to see him again in London, or that she was in trouble – any word and he would have abandoned everything and gone to her. What moral obligation had he now not to betray Frank when he had made his own daughter pregnant and caused so much trouble? And yet, and yet, one should go to Algeria and save him if he weren’t dead already and the sun hadn’t dried up his brain and blood. How tragic and exciting life becomes when it loses its blind simplicity at last!

  He stood up and glared at the shivering paper. To be angry while seated was ignominious. On your feet it was more dignified, did not allow your raging twisted anger to lock itself like a piranha in your bent torso.

  ‘Listen to this,’ he said. ‘“If you give me your daughter’s hand in marriage I will send it back safe and sound. But if you make one squeak about it to anyone beyond your family, I will cut it into little strips, and then into little squares, and mix it up with …”’ He couldn’t finish, threw it to Richard who read it to the end.

  For the first time that morning, probably for years, there was awe and silence at the breakfast-table. ‘You see the sort of people I have to deal with?’

  ‘It’s all Frank Dawley’s fault,’ Mandy said, letting her newspaper fall. ‘I’d never have taken up with Ralph if …’

  Albert turned on her. ‘Don’t be so bloody cracked. Let’s not try finding people to blame. It’s too late for that. What I want is to get the painting, and see that Ralph lying face down in a brook with the back of his head blown off. Not that I’m vindictive, but I just don’t think he should be allowed to live, the great big corpse-faced loon, frightening the life out of me with such a letter. He even signs it. I could get him put inside for ten years. I’ll teach him to steal art treasures. What are you blubbering about again?’

  ‘You heard,’ Mandy said. ‘I said I was pregnant. And whose baby do you think it is? Now you want to get him ten years in gaol. Don’t you ever think of anybody but yourself? I’ve yet to meet somebody in this world who doesn’t. I know that much. I could starve or wither for all you care.’ Uncle John, a flicker in his left eyelid, sat with hands pressed together on the table, as if fixing them into position before bringing them to pray.

  The sea roared in Handley’s head, waves flowing by a lighthouse flashing at the approach to some great empty ocean he dreaded drowning in. ‘I want to take action,’ he said from narrow tormented lips, ‘but there’s always something to hem me in. That child can rot in your womb, but I’ll get my picture back.’ John, unable to bear any more, walked from the room saying he preferred to listen out for Algeria.

  ‘Don’t say anything you’ll regret, Albert,’ Enid said, laying the tea-towel back on its rail.

  ‘Regret? Is it possible to open my trap and not say something that you lot wouldn’t like to cut my tongue out for?’ He rushed to Mandy and put his arms around her. ‘Mandy, my love, don’t cry. I’m sentimental; I can’t stand anybody crying. He won’t get ten years, I’ll see to that. Adam will sharpen his burglar’s kit, and we’ll get it back without any trouble, I promise. Don’t cry. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you.’

  Enid passed her a Kleenex, and more coffee. Mandy sat down at the table: ‘It’s not that. It’s just that all the men I get in with do such stupid things. It’s my own fault really.’

  ‘That’s a matter of opinion,’ Handley said. ‘But don’t let’s have any guilt. We’ve got enough trouble without that. Thank God we’re not Christians. All I want is to get that painting. I was working well, but it’s put a full-stop on me. I shan’t do another for months.’

  ‘I’ll get it back,’ said Mandy, ‘all on my own. I’m the only one who can.’

  ‘No fear. He’d chop you up as well. He’s a homicidal suicidal maniac. He’s too pale for me. I never did trust pale people.’

  ‘He doesn’t sleep enough,’ Mandy said, ‘that’s all. But I’ll bring it back, I promise.’

  ‘I’m sure she will,’ Enid said. ‘Then we can forget about it and get back to normal life.’

  Handley wondered whether this was a threat or a promise, but he agreed. ‘All right. And if you do it, I’ll buy you that new Mini you’ve been wanting. But you’d better work on it straightaway, otherwise me, Adam, Richard and Uncle John will go and pay him a visit, and if we do we’ll leave his old man’s farm a smoking ruin. If he thinks he’s going to commit the crime of the century and get away with it he’s mistaken.’

  ‘I wish I didn’t come from parents who were working-class,’ Mandy said. ‘What’s the point of being so violent?’

  Handley, calmer now, lit his after-breakfast cigar. ‘If you came from any other class he’d be inside already. I’m treating him like a human being. I’ll just punch him up.’

  Richard and Adam went off to their various subversive tasks. Mandy grabbed his hand to kiss it, and he dragged it away: ‘What the hell are you trying to do?’

  ‘You’re our lord and master, aren’t you?’

  ‘I’ll kick your arse,’ he said. ‘Whose side are you on, anyway?’

  ‘Suicide,’ she laughed, and went upstairs to dress.

  ‘If there’s anybody in this family who’s likely to drive me off my head,’ he raved, ‘it’s that fat little trollop. I’d walk out if I thought it would do any harm, but I know it won’t, so I might as well stay.’

  ‘If I hear another word out of your mouth today,’ Enid said, ‘I’ll be the one to go. Get up to your studio and give us a rest. If one of your paintings had been stolen a couple of years ago when you were raffling them off at a shilling a ticket – couldn’t even give them away in fact – you wouldn’t have bothered about it.’

  Chapter Twenty-two

  The summer woods were thick and green, odours of broken elderberry stalks and a rabbit spinning across the clearing when he stood still a few minutes. He could tolerate the day only when he walked in the woods, abandoned the heavy sun and thunderous air, and whirled his stick through a bank of mildewed bluebells. Such cool shade was invigorating after sleepless days and nights. He’d left the house quite early, loth to be there when Handley’s black Rambler purred through yesterday’s mud and his family ranged forth to recover the painting and do him injury in the process. Handley was nothing if not impetuous. All the complexities that might make him stop and ponder went into his paintings, and such a man could not have it both ways. On the other hand he was dangerous when you did something to make him think he could, and that force and subtlety would combine to make a whole man of him.

  He sat on a fallen tree-trunk and lit his pipe, agreeably at peace with the world whenever he could stop thinking. Usually this wasn’t necessary, but the hole he had cut in the middle of Handley’s painting blew an even larger hole in his tranquillity. He was a surgeon, a murderer and a vandal. The trouble about such decisive action was that it made him question himself, and th
erefore settled nothing. His mother this morning had nagged him about Mandy, and forbidden him to see her, a promise that seemed unreal except to make him realise how much he was in absolute conflict with his parents, and would therefore end up doing all they wanted him to do. They would wait, and give him everything he craved or even mentioned, which was the modern technique of parents who, far from being modern, wanted an even more traditional response from an only child. Parents lived a long time, and they could wait, wait till you were thirty, forty, fifty, or even dead, and only come to crisis-point in such patience if for some reason you were sent to prison. By making no positive decision they bred in their children equal disabilities and so ruined them for life. From prison they might disown you, and set you free, though there was always a chance that they’d forgive you, in which case you might as well hang yourself, for you’d lost, and forever. One could always go away, but then there’d be no anguish of the just, and all in life would lose its value. He’d tried it, discovered that being their son it was impossible to exist without this problem, and that they’d got him until they chose to let go – when he had his own children in a similar grip.

  Pipe-smoke cleared the gnats away, but made him cough. By the time you ask yourself what you want out of life, you know already. He needed a house, land, income, book-lined idleness, and love for the rest of his days, to achieve which he would scheme against friends and enemies, and shatter his dream of peace and idleness to such an extent that he’d be sick at the advent of it.

  Wind ruffled the treetops. Summer in England was his favourite season, and he wanted a continuation of it for ever and ever, short nights and long variable days. A twig cracked, and two arms closed around his neck. He cried out and jerked free, pipe spilled in the bracken.

  ‘Does my love frighten you so much?’ Mandy said. ‘It’s not going to kill you.’

  ‘How did you find me?’

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