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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.25
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.25

           Alan Sillitoe
‘Your father pointed this way. I went in ever decreasing circles till I – got you.’

  He found his pipe, and smiled. ‘I love you. I’m sorry I jumped.’

  ‘It’s understandable,’ she said. ‘I love you too. I really do.’ They stood a few feet away, looking at different parts of the wood, he the centre, she towards the edge.

  ‘How are things at home?’

  ‘Wild,’ she answered. ‘If I don’t get out of that zoo soon I’ll have cubs.’

  ‘Sit down,’ he said. ‘This wood belongs to my father. If I’d known you were coming I’d have brought some armchairs out, and a cocktail cabinet. What’s the matter then?’

  ‘The old man’s as sick as a dog. He lost a painting and blames it on poor Uncle John. As if he’d steal anything. He really is losing his grip.’

  He was amused at this unexpected suspicion. ‘Did he get my letter?’

  ‘Look,’ she said after a silence, ‘if you’ve been writing stupid letters again asking for my hand in marriage I’ll do my nut. You know how crazy the last one drove him. It may be your little kick, but he doesn’t dig that sort of stuff. It’s county crap. If you want to marry me we can do it any time you like, and you know it.’

  They sat by the tree. ‘True,’ he said. ‘But I have my mother to deal with first. If only we could be born without families.’

  ‘We’d starve to death,’ she said. ‘Where’s the painting?’

  ‘In my room.’

  ‘Let’s get it.’ She took his arm, twigs and bushes pressing her. ‘I know why you did it, but we must get Uncle John out of trouble.’

  If Handley didn’t suspect and hadn’t received his letter (maybe that vicious bulldog gobbled it up), then there was little point in keeping it. And if, as Mandy said, he wouldn’t object to them getting married there was even less reason – except for the gaping hole in the middle.

  ‘I knew it was you,’ she said. ‘But there are times when Dad’s brain doesn’t work fast enough. He hasn’t cottoned on yet. He’s moaning in bed, covered in hot-water bottles and waiting for the doctor. Thinks he caught flu in London.’

  Ralph’s father, a tall amiable man wearing an old jacket and a limp felt hat, was shovelling pigshit into a dumper truck. Mandy smiled and greeted him. ‘I can’t shake hands, my dear. If you both want a job you can help me clean this up.’

  The humid heavy air drove the stench up her nostrils. ‘Perhaps one day,’ she said. ‘Ralph borrowed my father’s latest painting and I’ve come for it back. He’s getting an exhibition ready for the autumn, otherwise he wouldn’t bother.’

  ‘I’ll help you later,’ Ralph said sheepishly, no intention of doing so. His father knew it also, and smiled sadly. Spilsby was a humanist, a man who believes one gets wise with age, and that everyone else did also. He was often disappointed in this respect, but never admitted it, otherwise he would not have been a humanist. ‘Mother’s in town,’ he said. ‘Gone to get those curtains.’

  ‘Mandy and I love each other, father. We want to get married.’

  He leaned his spade against the barn. ‘Want to? What a way to treat a girl! Speak like a man, Ralph, and say that you must!’

  Mandy smiled, huddled close. ‘I’m pregnant.’

  ‘So, you’d like to get married,’ he muttered. ‘We must have a drink.’ They walked into a parlour furnished with antique chairs and tables and a richly embroidered sofa, but with excruciatingly garish lampshades hanging from wall-brackets. Spilsby poured three glasses of brandy, and hoped they’d be happy. Mandy’s throat drew hers in with one graceful slide. Then she kissed Ralph modestly on the cheek, and shook hands with his father. Ralph shifted from one foot to the other, as if his unpredictable courage had tricked him into a situation he was now rather afraid of. ‘I imagine you’ll both be well looked after,’ Spilsby said. ‘We’ll have to have a long talk with your parents, Mandy, before anything can be settled.’

  ‘It is settled,’ she said, pouring a second glass of brandy and drinking it down. ‘I’m in the family way,’ she said, helping herself to a third, fulfilling her simple and effective philosophy of: If you want it, take it.

  Spilsby put the bottle back in the cupboard. ‘Of course it is, my dear. But there are always details. Did I hear you say you were pregnant?’

  ‘You did, really.’


  ‘Really. Aren’t I, Ralph?’

  ‘Really?’ asked Ralph. ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘Yes, really. Really really.’

  ‘Really?’ said Spilsby.

  Ralph was reeling, his face white. It was the first time he’d heard about it, thinking at first it was one of her flippant jokes. ‘Well, yes,’ he said to his father, not knowing whether he ought to stand by her like a man, or back up her stupid joke.

  ‘Perhaps you’d better wait until your mother comes back before we talk about your engagement.’

  Mandy saw him turning nasty if they stayed ten more minutes. ‘I want that painting for my father,’ she said. ‘He’s got the gallery man coming at twelve from London. I’d love to meet your wife, Mr Spilsby. Maybe I’ll call tomorrow.’

  They went up to Ralph’s room. He’d been dreading this, though no one could say he lived by dread alone, which may have explained his continual jaundice and the liverish twitch that sometimes controlled his mouth. She went unsteadily to his bed, and lay on it, head resting on the spreadout palm of her hand, hair draped like a waterfall over the pillow: ‘Aren’t you going to get me a drink?’

  He stood far off, to keep her tempting beauty in full view, and yet stay safe from it. ‘You’ve had three already. Are you really pregnant?’

  ‘Don’t start that again.’

  ‘Are you?’ he shouted, fists clenched. ‘Are you?’

  ‘I might be,’ she smiled. ‘I’m very late. I’ll fall down those stairs if I don’t have some black coffee. I suppose he sits up half the night making that brandy in the barn. He’ll break the last of his three-star bottles one day and nobody’ll be fooled anymore. It got me drunk too quickly to be any good. It’s ratbane and acid. I’ll get the customs and excise on to him. It got me right at the back of the head, here. Something’s inside, eating me away. Right here. Feel it?’

  ‘I get that,’ he said, a hand on her neck. ‘Is it like a lot of ants crawling about?’

  ‘That’s it. You are sensitive, after all. I suppose that’s your idea of sympathy. If somebody told you he had cancer you’d say you had it as well, then expect him to feel better by feeling sorry for you.’ She pointed to a huge roll standing in the opposite corner. ‘Is that the painting?’

  ‘Are you pregnant, or aren’t you?’

  ‘Of course I am,’ she cried, ‘till my period starts. What does it matter anyway? We’re engaged, aren’t we? I hope you don’t expect me to get that great canvas on a bus. They’ll have to tie it on top.’

  ‘I’ll drive you home,’ he said. ‘But I won’t be able to stay for lunch or anything.’

  With such a weight on his shoulder he seemed relaxed to her, more fitted for life than she had ever seen him. He was unaware of raindrops falling between the house and Land-Rover. ‘When we’re married,’ she said, ‘maybe we should go to Canada.’

  He slid the logroll of the painting in. ‘Why Canada?’

  ‘You might like it there.’

  ‘A good place to bring up children,’ he said, searching for his key. He backed out, to find his way blocked in the yard by his mother’s powder-blue Morris Traveller.

  Mrs Spilsby unfolded from the door of her car. Her husband rushed over from his work. ‘We have a visitor, dear.’

  ‘Ralph,’ she cried, ‘where are you going?’

  ‘To take Mandy home.’

  She came around for a better view. ‘Who?’

  ‘Mandy,’ Mandy said, her large eyes staring. Wind flipped raindrops across her face.

  ‘What are you taking from the house? There, in the car?’ She was almost Ralph’s height, her hair broken in i
ts rolled shape by a brown hat. She pulled off her gloves as if about to drag the canvas out into the yard. She was short-sighted, but didn’t wear glasses even when driving. ‘Is it a carpet?’

  ‘Won’t anybody tell me who she is?’ Mandy said.

  Spilsby was red-faced. ‘It’s my wife.’

  ‘I’m pleased to meet you,’ Mandy said, offering her hand.

  She ignored it. ‘Take that carpet back.’

  ‘It’s a painting of my father’s. Ralph borrowed it one dark night from his studio.’

  ‘This is my carpet, and you’re stealing it. You belong to a notorious and thieving family.’

  ‘Mandy and I are engaged to be married,’ Ralph told her.

  ‘Leave that canvas alone. Your son stole it, not me.’


  ‘I’m afraid it seems like it,’ her husband said.

  Mandy held the door-handle of the Land-Rover, wanting to get away as soon as possible. ‘You’d better be careful if you’re going to be my mother-in-law. I’ll be the one that’s marrying into thieves, and it’s lucky your son wasn’t put away for five years for nicking that painting. My father sent me to get it back, instead of the police. Or my brothers would have come with guns. There’s no messing around in our family.’

  Mrs Spilsby let go of the painting: ‘You’re a vicious little liar.’

  ‘It’s not true,’ Spilsby said. ‘It can’t be.’

  ‘We love each other,’ Mandy said, tears of rage in her eyes. ‘And nobody’ll stop us getting married.’

  Ralph’s peculiar misery made him smile ‘Come on, Mandy.’

  ‘I’ll get the authorities on to this,’ his mother shouted.

  ‘Who the hell are they?’ Mandy wanted to know. ‘You’ll get the ground ripped from under you.’

  ‘You’re a disgraceful little baggage,’ she cried. ‘I’ve heard all about you. You’ll never marry my son.’

  ‘I won’t, if you’re not careful. You’re a nasty-tempered, dirty-minded, interfering old bag. And I’m not going to put up with it.’

  Mrs Spilsby rushed towards her with uplifted hand: ‘I’ll thrash you, I’ll …’

  Her husband held her. ‘She’s pregnant,’ Ralph said.

  She swung round. ‘What? Oh my God!’

  Mandy took the starting-handle from the Land-Rover and held it high with both hands: ‘Don’t let that stop you. Come on, try and thrash me, you domineering bitch. Your sort can’t frighten me. I’ll flatten you.’

  Ralph pushed her into the car, got in the other side and sped out of the gate. ‘I’ll have him put away,’ his mother was shouting, and Spilsby’s condolences were scraped by engine-noise.

  They drove in silence, until Mandy laughed. ‘Whether you marry me or not,’ she said, lighting a cigarette, ‘you’d better get away from her.’ A lane turned towards green hills, sun and rain mixing on the high crestline. ‘You’re twenty-five,’ she said. ‘How much longer will you put up with it?’

  ‘I’ll get away,’ he said, ‘when I’m ready. If your father says so we can be married in a fortnight.’

  ‘He’ll say yes. I would have killed her.’

  ‘It’s a good job you didn’t. It’s weird though. I’ve never felt like the son of my parents. Either they were born burned-out or I was.’

  ‘I expect you all were,’ she said. ‘Still, most other people are.’

  He drove up the mud lane to Handley’s house. Binoculars were trained on the car when it entered the village. It disappeared under the tunnel of leafy trees, then came out at the turning, spitting mud and twigs from its tyres. Handley, dressed now, pale and tight-lipped, went down to greet them.

  ‘I’ll carry it into the hall,’ Ralph said, his heart on fire. ‘But first I’ll turn the car round.’

  Mandy selected a dry patch of ground and climbed out: ‘Don’t be afraid. He’ll welcome you with open arms to get his painting back.’ And she would have her heart’s desire of a new red Mini, and Ralph after all had unknowingly set off the action which led to it.

  ‘I have to see someone in Boston,’ he said, ankle-deep in cold mud, ‘otherwise I’d stay.’

  Handley stood at the door. ‘If you drop it you’re a dead man.’ Eric Bloodaxe licked Ralph’s hand, which so enraged Albert that he came from the doorway and kicked him between the jaws, sending him back into the kennel without a growl of protest.

  They trod silently upstairs to the studio. He remembered Mandy saying Handley was prostrate and ill, but he seemed all right at the moment, albeit silent and grumpy.

  ‘Let’s open it,’ Albert said when they were inside, ‘and see those pretty games of noughts-and-crosses you’ve been playing.’

  Ralph turned to run, but Handley’s scissor legs reached the studio door and slammed it shut. He spun the key in the lock: ‘Let’s be grown up, shall we? I want to see how vicious respectable people can behave. Unroll it.’

  Ralph opened a heavy penknife. ‘Put that back in your pocket,’ Handley said. ‘I don’t want any last minute suicide sabotage. Undo them with your fingers.’ They watched. If it weren’t perfect Mandy saw her beautiful spruce car sinking into the quicksands. While knots and string were being undone, Handley lit a cigar and poured out a brandy. He was going to give Ralph one, but drew the bottle back until he saw the painting.

  It seemed in perfect condition. Globes of sweat stood on Ralph’s face and his hands trembled. Mandy gasped when the painting lay flat. A hole had been cut neatly in the centre, meticulously measured, as if Ralph had wanted to contribute something to the total effect, a few inches in diameter, small compared to the whole area, but a hole nevertheless, through which all other details of the colourful and complex design seemed intent on flowing. If looked at long enough it hypnotised and psychically unsettled one, and appeared as if all the intricacies of Albert’s art had been born through it.

  Something stopped him flying at Ralph across his sea of creation. They pored over it like ghosts, midday lights on, Handley noting the few threads of canvas sticking out loosely from the generally neat edges of the perfect circle. He had violated his painting, gouged out its eye with diabolical patience and delight.

  ‘So you think you’ve done for me?’ he said, with a faint smile.

  Ralph stood up to his full height, a man who always used his courage at the wrong time. ‘No, I don’t. But you deserved it. What else could I do to make you feel ashamed of the way you treated Mandy last year?’

  ‘What’s he talking about?’ Handley said.

  ‘I don’t know,’ Mandy wept, her red Mini vanishing. ‘What did you do it for? How stupid can you get? What’s the point of it?’

  He was stunned by sudden regret, wary at the sight of Handley who didn’t seem as upset as he ought to be.

  ‘You want my daughter’s hand in marriage, do you? Is that it? And you want a new Mini, do you? Well, you can have her for your wife with a bullet-hole right through her. And you can have a new car with a grenade-hole through it. Get out of my sight, both of you. Don’t let me see you again.’

  Ralph unlocked the door and went down the stairs.

  ‘I’m not budging,’ Mandy cried, ‘unless I get that car.’

  ‘Aren’t you? Do you want to go flying out of that skylight window like batman there?’

  ‘I got the painting back. Now I want that car.’

  He took out his wallet, and wrote a cheque for three hundred pounds.

  ‘It costs six hundred,’ she grumbled.

  ‘You think I’m buying it cash?’ he said. ‘Get it on the never-never, then we’ll never pay for it. Now get out.’

  She kissed him. He called her back. ‘Tell your mam I’ve got the painting, and that it’s all right. And be careful on the roads.’

  The sun went and came in again between pale blue water clouds. Fresh air hit him from an open window that he couldn’t yet lock after Ralph’s little job. He’d get Mandy to hem the painting round the hole. Maybe a patch would be possible. The green man of
the tree shook its leaves and rustled. He couldn’t imagine leaving Lincolnshire, but lack of imagination was the state in which he committed his most decisive actions. The new record caught his eye, and he put it on the gramophone thinking it might relax him before going down for dinner.

  Elgar’s Nimrod music was so sweet that he loathed it, yet listened to its long mellow pre-womb Edwardian English dirge as if playing before an impassable wall that the spirit of the music was too gutless to climb and cross, weaving out the soothing sounds of glorious resignation, the peculiar self-satisfied English pipe-smoking resignation that engenders viciousness and sadism if it goes on too long. It showed him the corrupt rotten soul of the English played out of a burning stillborn heart. He understood its suffering: such music lacked the messianic human love of great work, locked as it was on an island where no armies have moved or revolutions swayed for hundreds of years and where liberty has no meaning any more. Elgar had his hands in its entrails all right, writing music while his country rotted – not the Enigma Variations, but the Enema Variations, more like it.

  He lifted the needle and slid the record back into its case, thinking he might give it to Ralph as a wedding-present. He reset the painting against the wall, flush on the biggest easel. Cancer is the sum of their unrealised ideals, the festering nation that hasn’t got rid of its king or queen recently. He stood back and surveyed the hole, the eye, the magic eye, the third eye and only eye, not my left or my right but my middle and best, straight from Tibet by P & O packet-boat. I’ll hem it round and paint it blue, and leave it like that, Albert Handley’s third eye looking out on this world of yours, with no one looking in on mine.

  Chapter Twenty-three

  She pulled up tufts of grass that grew from the borders of the path, and where she had worked already was clearly defined, but beyond, where she had not, only a thin uneven trail led between two apple-trees to the back fence. It was slow work, without purpose if there were more important things to do – which there were not. What had frightened her into sending Handley away? Was it fear of being deflected from her course of waiting for Frank to come back? From that sort of war she might wait ten years, then discover he’d died at the beginning. Or she might know nothing at all. Nevertheless, she could wait. She was fond of Handley, and to say she had sent him off out of fear was merely a way of gratuitously attacking her resolution, so she changed her reason to one of self-preservation in order to be more truthful and feel better.

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