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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.26
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.26

           Alan Sillitoe

  After lunch she put Mark in his carrycot and wedged it in the back of the car. He was a fat pale baby, anything but placid, and objected to the movement and noise. Her father, seventy-five years old, was ill with a stomach-ache that wouldn’t leave him, and on warm days he lay in the garden on a special bedchair reading the Jewish Chronicle and shouting in rich Yiddish at the black torn from next door who stalked across his lawn after the birds.

  Mark roared, but she couldn’t turn to him, being on the outside lane of the motorway and overtaking a line of cars at seventy miles an hour. The right-hand blinker flashed as she raced along in her new MG. A car from the middle lane suddenly set itself to swing out in front of her. She pressed the horn, and braked sharply. A ripple went through all lanes of traffic, and the ash of panic filled her mouth as she thought of Mark behind. She skidded, but stayed in control, and the car that had tried to join her lane slid back, allowing her to accelerate and roar by. Mark was no longer crying, mollified by the common danger. The only answer to English traffic, she thought, was to get a bigger car, which was safer because it tended to frighten the souped-up souls in their fast sardine-tins. The driver had been a young girl in a red Mini, now on the outer lane but a quarter of a mile behind.

  Her mother came to the car and picked up Mark even before saying hello to her daughter. Myra smiled. Anyone over twelve was valueless to her mother, had to be looked after and deferred to perhaps, but lacked that spark of life in their eyes to say that they were still growing. ‘How’s father?’ Myra asked, struggling to get out the empty cot.

  ‘He’s asleep right now,’ she said. ‘What a lovely baby. He’s like you, you know. I suppose he gets his blue eyes from your grandfather, because George’s eyes were brown, weren’t they?’

  She took off her coat in the hall, and Mark was already in the kitchen and propped in a high chair kept specially for him. The house smelled of the same floor-polish and mothballs, carpet-cleaner and paint, and places where dust wanted to settle but had never been allowed, as when she was a young girl rushing in from school to get out of the hat and uniform she loathed before going to meet friends.

  The baby, whatever her own feelings, loved his grandmother, and never came so much alive as when he was at her house. To her, he was George’s child, and she only knew of Frank Dawley through vague stories from Pam, much of it speculation because Pam didn’t know much either, Myra thought, pleased at how secretive she’d been. Mrs Zimmerman made a bowl of cereal and mashed a banana in it. ‘He won’t be hungry,’ Myra said. ‘It isn’t his feeding time yet.’

  ‘Of course he’s hungry. Look how fat and beautiful he is. They’re always hungry at his age. Don’t think I don’t know. I’ve had three of my own, so I should. And I looked after Pam’s four when Harry left her and she went to get him back.’

  ‘That was rather shameless of her,’ said Myra. ‘I always thought she’d had more pride.’

  ‘He came back, didn’t he?’

  ‘And look how ecstatically happy they are.’

  ‘That’s not the point. The children are better for it. Your father and I were wondering the other day when you are going to get married again. It would make us very happy, you know, especially if you found someone who understood you a bit better. I know you weren’t very happy with George, but we never said anything.’

  ‘That’s true, you didn’t, though I don’t know what you could have said that wouldn’t have made it worse. But I’ve no intention of rearranging my life just yet.’

  ‘I know you went to Morocco with another man just after George died, but since you parted from each other perhaps you ought to get someone else, if only for the baby’s sake.’

  ‘Get someone?’ she smiled, hardly covering her irritation. ‘We don’t live in a slave supermarket.’ Yet it was no use being angry. Their two worlds simply could not meet. Mark, with wide smiles and an arm waving, devoured each spoon of food before him. He was happy, relaxed and lively here, whereas it had the opposite effect on her. If she fed him at this time he could have rejected it, but here, with the inane cuckooing ministrations of her mother, he puffed and blowed and gulped endearingly. ‘Thank goodness you have such a good child,’ she said. ‘And such fair hair. Go on, darling, eat, eat! You melt the ice in your grandmother’s heart. None of Pam’s were like him. He’s so knowing. He knows me, don’t you? And what about grandfather, then? You see, he’s looking for him. He is. You see it? Only seven months old. Eat. Go on, eat! Of course he’ll eat it all up, won’t you? No, he’s certainly not like any of Pam’s. They were never like this at his age.’ A baby in front of her, no matter what its faults, was better in every way than any other far-off baby no matter what its virtues. ‘And to think you waited so long before having one. You should get married again and have a few more. You can’t think how much pleasure that would give, and not only to me and your father. You make such a good mother. Look how marvellous he is!’

  She was beginning to stifle. It was midsummer, and the central heating seemed to be full on. She didn’t feel she made such an ideal mother. Practical, conscientious, loving perhaps, but did that make you a real parent? There was no need to shape a career out of it, though she often felt that Mark might benefit by having a man around, and only time and her own passions could take care of that.

  ‘Do you have any news of George’s book?’ her mother asked, taking a huge cake out of the cupboard, a sight that sent a stab of indigestion to Myra’s heart, though she would enjoy eating it when offered a piece.

  ‘It’s being reprinted. I forgot to tell you in my letter. I got two hundred pounds in the post this morning.’

  ‘Poor George,’ said her mother, ‘that he can’t spend it.’

  ‘It’s over a year now,’ Myra said. ‘Such a stupid accident. It was unforgivable to do a thing like that. Mark was never George’s baby, you know. It came from the man he tried to kill, Frank Dawley. We were going away together.’

  ‘It never said that in the papers,’ she said sadly, sitting down.

  ‘I didn’t exactly tell lies, but I kept everything as simple as possible. No one saw the accident.’

  ‘Dreadful,’ she said. ‘It’s a wonder you weren’t killed. And look at him, beautiful Mark, he didn’t suffer from it, thank goodness. None of you did, really.’

  Her father came in, a frail old man with white hair and luminous eyes. He looked older every time she saw him, more brittle and fragile. His hair, always clipped close to his skull, had in the last few months been allowed to grow long, and instead of the sharp expression that had made him successful in business, his face had softened and become more noble. She had always loved him because he’d never posed the same threat as her mother, whom Myra dreaded turning into as she got older. He’d understood her rebellion, in the light of his own which he had generously and good-humouredly suppressed, realising that no matter how far she strayed from them, the cord of affection would never snap if he permitted her to do more or less as she liked. He had been wise and accurate, always too grown up to fall back on the heavy father-culture that had been perpetrated against him as a young man. He’d recently taken to ordering Yiddish novels from New York, and reading Hebrew again, and this made his wife glad, for it brought him closer to her, but it also made her weep, because it seemed as if he were preparing for the end of his life.

  There was an air of doom about the house, which Myra remembered as a young girl. And yet it was cheerful enough. Surely the subtle spiritual organism of a baby would be able to detect it if it really existed, and here he was, laughing happily. Maybe it was in her rather than the house. Her father laughed too: ‘He is a little devil. I’ll have a piece of that cake, Gladys.’

  They drank lemon-tea amid self-generating chatter, levity that would have embarrassed her if she hadn’t been fond of them. When you get old, life becomes less serious, she thought. Having thrown off their worries they made it seem like the prime of life. One had to think up something like that in order not to feel sorry for them.
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  Her father promised to come out to the country soon. ‘I’ll dig your garden when my aches have gone.’ He piled so much sugar on to the slice of lemon that it capsized and sank, then floated up to the surface for more.

  ‘One breath of a sparrow would blow you over,’ his wife said.

  His eyes glittered, then sparked out, like a rocket on its highest curve. He opened them. ‘This pain gets sharp at times. Maybe some cake will settle it. If your stomach plays up, give it some food to work on.’

  Myra stopped him giving a slab to Mark. ‘He’s still too young, father.’

  Mark rattled his spoon and mug in a fine din, as if to say it wasn’t true, and he’d eat all the cake they gave him. ‘You can see that mouth shaping up already,’ he joked. ‘He’ll be a difficult man to live with. I don’t like the way that downward curve settles in when he’s not smiling.’

  ‘Don’t give him a bad character before he’s actually got one,’ she said. He bent over his tea, scooped out a spoonful and blew it cool, then put it towards Mark’s lips, who jumped up and down at the suspense of its slow approach.

  ‘Make sure it’s not too hot, dear.’

  ‘Don’t be a fool,’ he snapped, ‘by thinking I’m one.’

  ‘Forgive me for speaking,’ she said.

  Myra smiled. Mark was waiting for it like a cat for an unsuspecting bird to come close before leaping. His large blue eyes were settled, as if they threw extra light onto the spoon. He took it, and an expression of uncertainty creased his cheeks.

  ‘He doesn’t like it.’

  ‘Be quiet!’

  He did. He waved for more.

  ‘What a boy!’ he cried. ‘A real Russian, the way he takes to his tea.’ There was colour in the old man’s cheeks, and he stood without thinking of his stick. Myra knew that nothing could bother him at such a time. She saw there’d be somewhere safe to leave Mark if she wanted to go away, or be on her own for a while. It was comforting to know. She’d always cut herself from her parents’ orbit, and now realised how hard it had made her life. To stick in the same district, like Pam, had great advantages, for you and your parents alike, and she felt the dangerous lure of giving in and living close by, the life of a widow with one child who would maybe marry again into a state of eternal satisfaction from where you could laugh at things that happen to other people and feel superior because they don’t bother you. If you are part of a married couple living off each other’s spiritual fat and too busy ever to need anything from others, you turned narrow and blind to the rest of the world. It was a blessed and innocent state of self-induced death, protection and lethargy more than love, yet always an attraction to someone who rebelled against it so strongly. Fortunately, she thought, I am not the sort who could ever consider it. But the draw was so strong and real that the desire she felt to give into it almost frightened her with its sexual intensity. She had only to come home, however, to kill such an idea. The temptation she needed, but not the fulfilment.

  For two hours they played with the baby, and then she wanted to go home, to get away before she stifled – or stayed for a week. The grip of ease was on her, and that was a sure mark that she must be off. Tomorrow they would quarrel, or she would be bored. It was better for them to go on liking each other than that she should stay.

  ‘Come again,’ they said, as she wrapped Mark in his shawl. ‘We love having you both.’

  ‘I enjoy it as well,’ she admitted. ‘I’ll see you next week, and phone you on Friday night.’ They stood by the front gate, her car moving from the kerb and gliding up the road, hidden by the Humber which her mother still drove.

  Back at the house she telephoned Albert Handley to say she’d like to come to Lincolnshire – if it were still possible. It was a month since they’d seen each other, and she spoke of her visit as a break from her loneliness at the house, not particularly as a means of seeing him. ‘Don’t bring your car,’ he said. ‘I’ll send Richard for you. You’ll enjoy the journey that way. If he takes the route I tell him to you’ll see so much beauty in this clapped-out country it’ll make your heart race.’

  ‘When shall I come?’ – hoping he’d say soon.

  ‘When can you be ready? Make it at ten in the morning. You can? Richard will set out at four o’clock, and be there in plenty of time. No, it’s all right. He’ll be glad to. Loves being sent on errands in the Rambler, and you’re perfectly safe with him. Not a better driver anywhere. A very cool lad. Don’t let him charm you, though. No news, I suppose? Oh well, don’t worry – just wait. It’ll be all right in the end.’

  ‘Is there anything I can bring?’

  ‘Only yourself, and Mark. I’d come and get you myself, except that I’m doing a painting I can’t leave. If I left the house while I’m working my heart would drop out. So I’ll see you about three tomorrow, right? Right.’ He went off quickly, as if some menace were advancing on him at the other end, and she sat down to wonder how convenient her visit would be. Beyond the jollity of the telephone line she picked up trouble, then doubted her sharp senses, because it could have been the automatic feedback of her own low spirits after the few hours at her parents.

  She had been buzzed by the same red Mini on the way back, and this time got a better look at the girl driver, with long fair hair and snubbed nose, an attractive fleshy face until it turned and the delectable lips shaped vile words through the greenhouse windows, and continued for half a minute while they were dead level at seventy miles an hour with only a few feet between them. Myra thought they wouldn’t forget each other’s face for a long time, each so vividly seen. Her own expression had been one of steady concentration, coolly observing the masterpiece of dumb obscenity from such a good-looking girl.

  Chapter Twenty-four

  The house was quiet for a few weeks, everyone locked in their various occupations. Handley painted and prepared for his exhibition, brooded on Myra, and the diabolical brewing up of disturbance whose root-cause one could never find when things appeared peaceful. He wanted to write to Myra, phone her, but always drew back at the last moment, because work was stronger than love. He painted in shirtsleeves, skylight open with the coming of summer, intent on blocking out white squares and oblongs with his demanding visions.

  Mandy left three weeks ago, as soon as the red Mini had been delivered. She’d sent picture-postcards from various rest-stations on the M1 showing dramatic views from bridges, and wide-angle shots of complex entrance points – the eighth wonder of the world that crumbled under the mild frosts of winter. She’d headed for Nottingham and Leicester and had been three weeks going up and down the motorway, day and night, non-stop, nothing else, spending a fortune on petrol. He’d sent Adam to get her off, but Adam came back white-faced and shattered saying how many times he’d been near to cremation or manglement trying to hedge her into a service station and get her to listen to reason. She had no driving licence either, though judging by her skill at the wheel she had no need of one. Albert calculated that if she’d driven up and down the M1 since setting off with the car she’d already done over twenty thousand miles and slashed the car’s value by two-thirds, so the company wouldn’t find it worth their while taking it back when they realised that no more payments on the hire-purchase would be forthcoming. He at least expected her to come crying home for a new set of tyres.

  John had his tea at four-thirty precisely, brought in on a large tray by one of the au pair girls. With a prolonged eye-giving smile as she walked from the door to his desk she set down a huge pot of tea, plate of bread and butter, ham and pork pie, jam and cakes. His only other meal was breakfast, and the occasional celebration-dinner.

  He sat at His radio-set at certain hours of the day and night, impeccably dressed because he could never forget the rags of his prison-camp days, filling faint-lined limp-covered school exercise-books with messages which he filed away sadly when the vital link of his existence stayed unexplained, and when various reports on Algeria or Laos had been culled from them and passed on to Hand
ley or his sons. His benevolent heart tuned in to the waywardness of the world made him the conscience and nerve-centre of the family, and they respected his knowledge, age, past sufferings, malarial fits and occasional epileptic violences, or his inexplicable choler at the sudden appearance of strangers who threatened his ordered life and whose stench of the jungle threw his delicate psychic balance out of true. Family turmoil was as much as his frail spiritual condition could stand. He had no wish to see the outside world, and this isolation had so far been his only way of learning to understand it again. And by thus pulling himself back from the precipice of disintegration he also became able to understand himself.

  His amiable and highly educated presence had dominated the Handley household for longer than most of them could remember. He had educated Richard and Adam from the age of five in the romance and ethics of revolution, in the mechanics of insurrection. Being Handley’s children, born in chaos and brought up to fend for themselves, they had been willing learners, less likely to repudiate the teachings of a kind uncle than if the same laws had been poured out by their father. He had also passed on to them his saintly amiability, though this was sided with Handley’s strength and ruthlessness, and so gave a peculiar breadth of character that was unlikely to weaken with age. John’s library was a unique collection of War Office manuals, police instruction books on the handling of demonstrations, French tomes on the psychology of masses and crowds, German and Russian texts on street-fighting and revolution. His favourite words were from the Book of Joel: ‘Beat your ploughshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong.’

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