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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.27
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.27

           Alan Sillitoe
He switched off his high-powered receiver, laid down his earphones, and passed an hour eating, and idly looking through his notebook: ‘Turn your back on politics,’ it said. ‘Politics have nothing to do with Revolution. And civil disobedience is useless unless its principles are stiffened by the backbone of Revolution.’ On another page: ‘The American rocket and bomber bases must be treated as were German bases in occupied France during the war. Adopt the attitudes of the French Resistance to the Nazis. And not only the land of the bases, but also the land of the fox-hunters must come under the hammer. The police, the armed forces, civil defence personnel are an army of occupation. Those who join their ranks are traitors. Those who sit on jury service are traitors. Those who hold state secrets and do not try to divulge them to an enemy or to make them public knowledge are also traitors.’ He read more: ‘The people, by acquiescing to the possibility of nuclear war are giving in to their own death-wish, since they have allowed themselves to be diverted from their ability to become large in spirit and carry out a revolution. The ruling class prefer this death-wish to permeate and operate rather than that the will to revolution should develop. That is presumably what they mean by being better dead than Red. They are already dead. But are they dead beyond the powers of resurrection?’

  ‘All the time one must be ready. All through life one must educate and train oneself for the Revolution, imagine it in all its detail and in a thousand permutations. One must breathe and live for the Revolution, because a revolution is a mystical occurrence as much as something which is brought about and controlled by organisation. It is a healthy state of mind. The perfect and ordered world around one can crumble in a week, and one must be ready to step in and stoke up the fires of destruction in order that you may build when they have gone out – but not until.’

  ‘A revolution is not an impossible pipe-dream in this small old-fashioned country. One must make a career of helping to bring about the Revolution in face of the imponderable forces of inanition. This modern world could become prehistoric and half-empty in four flat minutes, and until that time the only political philosophy will be that of Positive Nihilism.’

  He pursed his thin lips between cups of tea, smiled at his sense of humour. Revolution must become a religion, civil war a religious war. Ideological was a poor word for it and didn’t state the case well enough. A man who died for a political cause was a deeply religious man, though one should not ask too closely who his god was.

  Tea finished, he lit a cigarette and sat back with the restfulness of sanity and good health, laying aside the turned-up papers of his notes. Flies landed and took off from the vertical landing-grounds of the window-panes above rows of books, but he saw no reason to kill them and still their engines. They flew where warm sun heated the glass, summer bluebottles at liberty to annoy him with their touch and noise, thoughtless and helpless innocents feeding from the effluvia of the rotten earth or refuelling on his jam-stained spoon. Flame crawled up the matchstick, and he let it fall into his waste-paper-basket. Worn-out carbon-paper soaked in thousands of words twisted under invisible heat. He should douse the fire out, but wondered how much the flame would eat before he grew afraid and leapt on it. Every man who owned a pen, shoes, a slice of bread, was an enemy of the Revolution he envisaged, if he did not consider that it also belonged to someone else. Everything on your back, feet, in your mouth was common property. There was to be no ownership whatsoever, and no state to distribute it, either. Your house was everyone’s house, provided everyone’s house was your house. Abolish private property, and you abolished privacy, for who would want privacy if they had no property. Privacy is piracy. The prime sin of the world was the ability and opportunity to possess, to have and to hold till the heart grew cold and became an object from which all evil sprang. Privacy was the root of compounded malice and evil. The only time privacy was essential was in order to preach all this, but even then you had no right to such privacy for long, even to the extent of owning a wastepaper-basket that was about to catch fire.

  He opened the window, and bluebottles flew out, then picked up two dusters and lifted the basket at arm’s length before sending it down the side of the house like a missile to repel invisible invaders. It landed by a blackcurrant-bush, that did not take fire, though the noise brought forth frenzied growls from Eric Bloodaxe around the corner.

  His hands shook, unable to plug in the earphones, so he listened from the loudspeaker instead. Signals fell over themselves to get at him, each with a different pitch and music. Fifteen years had gone by since he came to this house, and though he was wiser and steadier in the heart, he seemed no older, felt in fact more full of vigour and youth than he ever had.

  He stood by the open window looking down at the charred basket and flakes of paper leaping in the wind. Sweat glistened below brown calm eyes that gazed beyond the garden at fields rising and falling towards knots of wood and coppice. At first it had repelled him, that vegetable charnel-house of the earth. Distance chilled him, space horrified. All he had wanted was four walls, the self-imposed limits of his own world. Yet without reason he thought of getting out, going on some journey to a place where he could put his so far wasted life to some ultimate use. Perhaps the impulse now set on him was what he had waited for all along, began as a vague but irresistible restlessness that unconsciously clarified itself while he continued his normal life and only occasionally brooded on it. The calamity of his existence came upon him as he stood by the window, the enormous gap of full consciousness that now gave back a promise of his native strength.

  Hands under control, he switched off the radio, disconnected himself from the exterior telegraphic signals of common affairs and business scything and chipping and pulsing through the air, and pondered on the various world situations to decide in which direction he must go.

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Half-way across England they stood in a lay-by hoping for some fresh air, but all they got was a petrol reek whose rainbow stains beautifully coloured the road. ‘It’s foul,’ said Myra. ‘How long can one go on living in it?’

  ‘Get a mile up one of these side-lanes and it’s sweet enough,’ said Richard. ‘I’ll take a detour in Lincolnshire, and the air will be so clear you’ll faint. It’ll cut you in two. I like living in cities, though. I’m kinky for factory-smoke and petrol-fumes and plenty of machine-noise. I love it. It’s blood and gold-dust to me. Two years I spent in Leicester working in a factory were the best of my life. Factories, power stations, machines – that’s all that matters. When I look up and see a four-engined jet sliding across the sky I want to go and see my best girl-friend. I think of love.’

  They drove on, and he continued talking. ‘I hitch-hiked to Cornwall last November to have a look around. Father thought of moving there, heard of a house, and wanted me to look at it. On the way back I got a lift and reached Oxford late at night, and I went into a place for some coffee. A group of students were standing at the counter, and when I went up they made sneering remarks about scholarship boys. I was amused. It was rather a nice experience to be taken for an undergraduate. The more roles I have in life the better.’

  His head was held back slightly, as if to see more of the road. He had dark curly hair, and a long rather sharp nose that gave a piercing distant gaze to his eyes. ‘I drank my coffee, and singled out the ringleader. When he left I followed him, and caught him up as he turned off the main street. I became all the working-class scholarship boys rolled into one, and had an idea that this young blood or whatever they call themselves shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. I’m a man of ideas, and sometimes they’re so strong that I’m forced into action.’ He laughed, reached a straight piece of road and overtook a lorry that had slowed him down for the last half-hour. ‘If I act from bravado or boredom and not out of an idea it’s usually a fiasco. So I have to be careful.’

  ‘What kind of an idea?’

  ‘Well, while talking to you just now I was wondering whether man can benefit from having his soul laid bar
e. It makes him hate himself so much that he’s going to destroy himself because he can’t stand it. He’ll lose all confidence, and that’s bad. Nevertheless, he’s got to learn to live with his own soul, with the depths of his own real and far-out soul, though sometimes I think he’d rather die than do it. That person who made the stupid remarks about scholarship boys didn’t have the human vision to have a soul. I tried to talk to him and make him listen to me, but he didn’t like it, so to defend myself I sunk my boots into him. His social hatred wasn’t enough for him to do much about it when it came to the crunch. It was all very silly, really. I don’t suppose for one minute it helped him to think next time before opening his trap. From then on, when I got a lift in a car or lorry I told them I was a student from Oxford. You’ve no idea how easy it made things. I did it as an experiment, and it worked so well I kept it up. I got so good at it I nearly vomited one day, and that ended it.’

  ‘You’re almost as bad as your father.’

  ‘That would really worry me. Father has great talent, but he’s ruthless, unscrupulous, over-generous when he feels like it, and being an artist his thoughts are totally disorganised. There are times when I actually have a great liking for him, even though he is my father. I nearly flattened him two years ago when he lifted his fist to my mother, but there were no ill-feelings about it. He wouldn’t have forgiven me if I hadn’t stopped him. Some silly quarrel or other.’

  ‘About money, I suppose,’ she said, ‘in those days. You were all terribly poor, weren’t you?’

  ‘That’s true. But they never argued about money, never. It was always about the children, or about his ideas as an artist, or – well, anything. They loved each other so much that everything was important enough to quarrel about, bitterly and violently at times. They had their hell, we had ours, so there was nothing to reproach them with. It was all out of love, you see – and still is. Father was determined never to go out to work, and Mother was determined never to let him. That was the whole basis of their happiness, so how could they quarrel about money? Their mutual agreement about what they would never disagree about saw them through. I often marvelled at it, as soon as I began to understand. I suppose we had a perfect childhood, really, having Father at home all the time, like any sons of the idle rich, and we never actually went hungry, thanks to all his tricks. He used to write begging letters, and say that when he was famous he’d get them published, and call the book: The Collected Begging Letters of Albert Handley, R.A. But he won’t, of course. Now he says he’ll save them in case we ever get poor again.’

  To Myra he was an intelligent young man who, being so young, was a complete mystery until he explained himself. It was one of her faults that she rarely understood or sympathised with, those whose ages differed from her own. She drew Mark up to show him the road. Passing cars were clocked on his senses by a wave of his arms. He was in a peaceful and interested mood as the car funnelled through green landscape. Now and again the colic struck, and but came the rose-hip syrup, but travelling usually soothed his blood, as if he were already setting his gypsy eyes at the open road and thinking to search the world for his father. It calmed her also to be on the move, disencumbered from the house and all petty thoughts.

  They were well on into the flat fen zones, the holland drains of the country. The air was different from any other part of England, with its smell of sun and water. Seabirds hovered over green and yellow fields, slipped across loam and worried at the tractors. A red Mini stood by a gate, barely parked off the road, and a girl leaned on it looking blankly at any traffic that passed. The bonnet of her car was up, but she did not wave.

  ‘I know that attitude of troublesome despair that bodes ill for all and sundry,’ Richard said. The car stopped smoothly, shot into reverse and drew up by the Mini’s side. He wound down the window, shouting: ‘Are you back from running in the M1?’

  ‘Drop dead,’ Mandy called, tear-marks on her face. ‘It took you long enough to find me.’

  ‘I wasn’t looking for you, love,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry to say. Had a breakdown?’

  She smiled, as if to give him canker. ‘No, I’m smelling petrol. It sends me.’

  ‘Maybe the good wold wind’ll blow your bad mood away. This is Myra Bassingfield.’ Myra recognised her, the terror of the motorway for the last three weeks, the angel at the wheel who had buzzed her and whom she had passed at seventy miles an hour. They didn’t shake hands. ‘She’s coming home,’ Richard said, ‘to stay a while. A friend of father’s.’

  ‘Another one to feed,’ Mandy said. ‘That makes twelve of us.’

  ‘Thirteen,’ Richard laughed. ‘There’s a baby inside.’

  ‘Is it father’s?’ she asked. ‘I’ll never know how many brothers and sisters I’ve really got. It’s a horrible life.’

  ‘He’s not your brother,’ Myra said. ‘And don’t be afraid for your food.’

  ‘You’ll walk back if you’re not careful,’ Richard said. Myra offered a cigarette, and wrung a thanks from her. ‘I’m broke, flat broke. No fags and not even the price of a cup of tea, nor the money to phone a garage. There’s enough petrol in my tank to get home, but that’s about all, except that the bloody thing won’t start. Nearly six hundred pounds of brand-new British rubbish.’

  ‘You’ve knocked it to death,’ he said. She went sulkily into the Rambler, found some sandwiches in the glove-box and pulled them apart in a few seconds. Richard tried the Mini for ignition faults, fuel failure and mechanical defects, but could not start it. ‘We’ll lift it on to my luggage-rack, and carry it home like that.’

  ‘You only want to humiliate me,’ Mandy cried. Black rings of exhaustion made her eyes look bigger, big enough, Myra thought, to send any man mad. She had in fact hoped for a romantic rescue by some stranger, but much to her disgust no one had stopped. ‘We’d never get up the lane with it on your luggage rack because the tree branches are too low.’

  ‘Well,’ said Richard, smiling at her show of dignity, ‘we’ll just have to tow you. It’s only forty miles, and we can leave it at Stopes’s Garage.’ He uncoiled a rope and attached it to both cars. ‘I’m frightened,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how to drive on tow.’

  ‘Just watch the brakes,’ he said. ‘I won’t go over thirty.’

  ‘Lend me some money and tell the next garage to send a breakdown truck. Then I’ll see you as soon as it’s fixed.’ He caught the glint in her eyes. If he lent her ten pounds and the car was mended there was no telling where she would head for next. He was afraid to let her go without a week’s rest, for there was a desperate look in her eyes as if, because of the breakdown, she couldn’t wait to get back on the road and plough into it. If she came home the house would stop worrying.

  Myra offered to drive. ‘You can stay in with Richard, and look after Mark.’

  Mandy looked fiercely at her, then at Richard. ‘All right. But if anybody scratches it, I’ll do my nut.’

  ‘I’ll take care,’ Myra smiled.

  ‘You didn’t buy the bloody car,’ Richard said, tired of her irrational stubbornness, ‘so shut up.’ At a wave from Myra he cruised along the road.

  The Rambler, having discarded the Mini, made its way up the muddy lane, lush branches and nettles as high as a man clawing its sides as if to welcome their black panther back. Handley came out in shirt-sleeves to greet them, glad of an excuse not to work for a few days. He hoped to go for walks with Myra, or take her by car to the coast, or to the various high-spots of the county so that they could talk about many things. Enid would come too, of course, and a gay party would be made up.

  Myra admired the caravans, the compound, the house. ‘Did he look after you well?’ Handley asked.

  ‘Perfectly,’ she said, feeling tired. ‘We drove Mandy the last forty miles, which made it merrier. Her car had broken down.’

  ‘Where is she?’ he snapped, then remembered that it wouldn’t be polite to break the month’s peace while Myra was here. ‘I’ve something to say to her.’

>   ‘In the car,’ Richard said. ‘The Mini’s being fixed. Nothing serious.’

  ‘I hope not. That’s our second car.’ Handley looked thinner, browner, as if he were much of the day out of doors. But she also found him more open and nervous than during his time in London, as if gripped by continual worry and irritation. ‘Mandy! Come out of there.’

  She sat up on the back seat, winding down the window. ‘I’m not. Tell Mam to throw me some sheets in. I want to sleep here.’

  ‘Don’t be daft,’ Handley said. ‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We all have breakdowns some time or other.’

  But they could not persuade her, and went into the house, Handley carrying Myra’s case, while Richard followed with the baby. Enid had set out a cold lunch in the kitchen, of ham and cheese, cold fried fish and chicken, wine, beer and tea, and many kinds of bread. She met them at the door, wearing a beige woollen jersey-dress in which to shake hands. She was fair and tall, and Myra was impressed by her broad eyes and narrow smooth-skinned face, and an expression of passion and intelligence marking the curve of her lips. Here, she thought, is a woman who says yes to everything because there is nothing left to say no to. ‘I had a very good trip,’ she answered, ‘in such a superb car.’

  Albert smiled with pleasure. ‘Yes, it’s not a bad old bus,’ and took her coat.

  ‘It’s his favourite toy,’ Enid said. ‘He’d be lost without it.’ Myra imagined so. They were immediately like two sisters trying to put the only man present in his place. He should have expected it, rather than bank on a society of equals, all pally and sexless until he made his grab, then appallingly and deliriously willing. He poured four tots of brandy: ‘Here’s to a peaceful and pleasant stay. We’ll have a bite now, and leave the banquet till tonight.’

  ‘I’ll have to see to Mark soon,’ Myra said.

  Handley downed his brandy. ‘Don’t think about him. Helen will do that. She’s capable – be fourteen next birthday. I wouldn’t mind a pint of muscatel and a t-bone steak.’

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