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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.28
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.28

           Alan Sillitoe

  Enid lifted a thick sheet of sweet ham on to a slice of bread: ‘London’s ruined you, I think.’

  ‘My imagination ruined me before ever I got to London.’

  Enid watched Myra watching him and told herself that thay had been to bed together. When, she did not know, but surmised there must have been some opportunity between tragedies. Yet it couldn’t have been serious if Albert invited her to stay in the house. He had done it on her once or twice, she suspected, but had been painstakingly discreet. She didn’t really mind what he did, as long as he didn’t commit the ultimate foolishness of leaving her. She was convinced he would never do that, yet had to guard against it nevertheless. If he had brought this Myra to the house with any idea of fornication she would make a public announcement of her pregnancy – which the doctor had told her about only that morning. That would put a stop to it. And if he hadn’t, he would go into raptures at the news, as all men should, and as Albert had often enough for it to become a reflex action of cheer and jollity that led to a total blackout of drunkenness when the terrible truth went finally into his middle.

  He poured tumblers of Bordeaux claret, little sensing what he was in for. Myra, who had a headache, preferred tea, while Richard, with a ton of dust in his throat, downed the glass and asked for more. ‘I don’t lag behind when there’s wine flowing like water – which is rare enough.’

  ‘It may be rare,’ Handley said wryly, ‘but I owe the wine-merchant three hundred pounds, which makes about five hundred bottles of steam in the last few months. I drink beer much of the time, so if we aren’t careful this family will be wiped out by cirrhosis of the liver.’

  ‘I found an empty crate in the caravan yesterday,’ said Enid, ‘which I suppose Maria and Catalina scoffed.’

  ‘I’ll put a stop to it,’ Handley said, corking the bottles.

  ‘What about Mandy?’ Richard said. ‘She’ll die of hunger.’

  Enid pulled a tray from beside the sink, set down food and a cup of tea, then walked across the yard in the thin showering of rain. When she slid it through the car-window Mandy pulled it in greedily and began to eat. ‘Thanks, Ma. I’ll come to the kitchen as soon as they’ve finished at the trough.’

  ‘If you don’t,’ Enid said, ‘I’ll pull you out and give you a good hiding. We can’t have you upsetting everything with your tantrums.’

  She showed Myra her room, next to Uncle John’s. It was carpeted from wall to wall, and in the middle was a low three-quarter divan with a white cotton bedspread touching the ash-blue carpet on all sides. A small chest of drawers painted yellow stood under the curtainless window. The walls were white, and facing the bed hung an early picture of Handley’s. It lacked the quality of his present work yet was easily recognisable. A small shed stood in the middle of a wood, with a slanting wall of red fire drawing towards it. She thought it might be rather terrifying to wake up from a nightmare and have it as the first sight of the real world.

  ‘It’s a beautiful room,’ she said, thinking it the apotheosis of colourful spartan negativism. She sat on the only chair, a thin cushion spread over the seat whose centre had broken through. Enid was curious: ‘Have you known Albert long?’

  ‘Just over a year. I was introduced at the opening of his exhibition, by a friend of mine, Frank Dawley.’

  Enid opened the window. ‘This room hasn’t been aired since it was painted. Richard will close them all when he brings your baby up. Have you ever been to bed with Albert?’ The house had turned quiet, though the weather was roughening outside. Maybe it would grow calm with the new moon, which would be full tonight. Myra stood, and Enid noted her figure, a great deal younger than her own, yet not much better for all that. ‘I’d better leave,’ Myra said.

  Enid laughed. ‘No, really, don’t do that. As soon as I saw you I knew we were going to be friends. The thought just popped into my mind, and I asked it.’

  ‘Why didn’t you ask Albert?’

  ‘I’d never get a straight answer. He doesn’t know the meaning of the truth, and never has. I wouldn’t want it, either, not in those details. Men and women can have secrets from each other, but not women.’

  Myra liked her dignity and hard charm. Her presence explained much about Albert, because it seemed that with any other women he would have appeared smaller. ‘I did go to bed with him once. We weren’t in love, but neither of us could resist it. I’m in love with Frank Dawley, who gave me my child.’

  Enid knew that Albert downstairs must be wondering what they were talking about, and that soon he would start pouring brandy down his throat or throwing chairs around, knowing it was about him. ‘Men are such babies,’ she said.

  It seemed a banal remark, not worthy of her. Maybe she hadn’t known a man well enough yet. ‘I didn’t come up here to be with Albert on those terms. I’m not as stupid as that. Just to get out of my house for a few days.’

  ‘Albert told me,’ Enid said, believing her. ‘We were thinking of going to the seaside tomorrow in the Rambler. Not long ago poor Albert used to walk there, twenty miles, and take some drawings that he hoped to sell on the sea-front for a few shillings each. I often wonder how many there are stuck on people’s walls in Nottingham, or forgotten in drawers somewhere. Still, it kept him fit. He hasn’t succumbed to the soft life yet.’

  ‘I don’t think he will,’ said Myra. Mark was crying downstairs.

  She took Myra’s hand: ‘I’m glad you came. Now that we’ve been honest we can really be friends.’

  Mark sat quiet and smiling on Handley’s knee, who snapped his fingers and pushed out his tongue, winked and made popping noises with his mouth as if he were the father. Thirteen-year-old Helen begged to take him out. She was slightly built for her age, her face the same colour as Albert’s and similar to Handley in feature, with long black hair falling in ringlets down her back. Her great heroine was Mandy, and she followed her tantrums and victories as if all her body breath was needed to keep the glow of admiration in her eyes. Handley gave Mark to her, who enjoyed being passed around, and let her take him out. ‘Will he be all right?’ Myra asked.

  ‘Forget the little blue-eyed Dawley,’ he said. ‘They’ll feed, cuddle and worship him at the caravan. Helen will see to him. He can play with Rachel, as well. She’s our three-year-old. We’ve got them to suit all ages.’ Paul who was twelve sat in a corner surrounded by a thousand parts of some plastic construction set, unwilling to break off and talk. ‘He won a scholarship last year and got taken on at the local grammar school. The others were just as intelligent, but they never passed that pernicious test, I suppose because I was too broke at the time for them to be considered. Still, John took care of their education, taught them all sorts of useful arts like tactics and bomb-making. That reminds me, you’d better set his tea out. It’s nearly half-past four. I’ll go up and see how he is.’

  The eyes of the radio were dim, its face of fifty dials cold and blue-black. John lay on his bed, shirt open at the neck, and gazing at the white ceiling. ‘No work today?’

  ‘None,’ said John. ‘I’m pondering.’

  ‘Am I disturbing you?’

  He sat up. ‘Not at all. I’ve been thinking for some weeks, Albert, that my world is too small. I’ve outlived this room, and am wondering what to do, what for example would be the right course to take compatible with the way I’ve spent my time here. It must be something in tune with it, because the fifteen years ought to be given some meaning.’

  ‘I can see that,’ Albert said, ‘but it should come right from your heart, if it comes at all.’

  John sat at his table, stacking the scattered logbooks into some sort of order. ‘You’re right, Albert. It’s good to have a brother who understands me so well. I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me. You gave me back my life.’

  Albert gripped his hand. ‘Don’t overestimate it, John. You suffered, and I understood. It went right into my own bones. I wondered if you’d like tea downstairs today. Myra’s come to stay a few days with us. I mentione
d her once, the woman of Frank Dawley who went off to Algeria last January and hasn’t been heard of since. Her life depends on him, but I’m beginning to think she’s given up hope, which is a pity. She’s the sort of person whose spirit withers without hope. She’s got his baby, too. It’d be easier I suppose if she had a telegram to say he’d been killed, but she never will, not from a guerrilla war. You either come back, or you disappear. He chose that sort of war, though no woman chooses to get left behind.’

  ‘If he went into the country through Morocco,’ John said, ‘and if he’s not dead yet, he must be somewhere in the Kabylie mountains. Last time we talked about him I looked at the map. He’d go to where there was most fighting, naturally, though the distance is so great that it would be a feat even in peacetime to reach the Grande Kabylie from southern Morocco on foot. There’s too much desert and wilderness.’

  ‘How much?’ Handley asked.

  ‘Could be over eight hundred miles. You can’t go a straight line over open country. Too dangerous. And zigzags could double it.’

  ‘Sixteen hundred?’

  ‘In the summer. A hundred and forty in the sun. No water. Nothing to eat. Hunted. She may be right.’ He looked sad, as if he’d spent days wearing himself out over it.

  ‘I’ve never thought about it in this realistic way,’ Handley said. ‘She has, obviously.’

  ‘You swim in the ocean of your paintings,’ said John. ‘It doesn’t excuse you, but it exonerates you.’

  ‘I don’t think it does,’ Handley said, his eyes glittering.

  He switched on the radio, its panel lighting up. ‘I can hear anything on this, messages never sent, morse that forces my hands to write words that stick like hot needles in my guts. If you want to stay alive and see trouble, stick close to the devil, and maybe Dawley is all right after all. And if you get killed you’re still the winner, because you know nothing any more about the trouble you were in. When the devil betrays you there’s no pain attached to it. Limbo is worse torment than hell, because there’s always a hope that hell will be destroyed, shocked and shaken from within, broken down on all sides by the forces of torment and despair. What is the message I was waiting for, but never came? Well, it was written down in block capitals, and said: AN INSURRECTION BEGAN IN HELL THIS MORNING. GOD AND THE DEVIL WERE TAKEN OUT HAND-IN-HAND AND SHOT. THEY WERE SOBBING AND COMMISERATING LIKE TWO PANSIES. ALL SUFFERING HAS BEEN STOPPED BY DECREE. THOSE WHO CONTINUE SUFFERING UNNECESSARILY WILL BE SENTENCED AS COUNTERREVOLUTIONARIES.’

  ‘Stopped by decree until further notice,’ Handley said.

  ‘Forever,’ John said firmly. ‘Otherwise why should one wait so long. Isn’t fifteen years a long time to hope for such a telegram?’

  ‘What about heaven? Did the revolution strike there as well?’

  ‘Heaven does not exist. Never did, except perhaps as an abandoned suburb. God may have a villa there but he commutes every day to hell. Men were led to believe that heaven existed after death in order that they wouldn’t be moved to seek it on earth, and so destroy the flimsy social order in which they lived. In the twentieth century they’ve started, quite rightly, to seek it. When hell is destroyed, build heaven in its place, until neither exist. There is no room for them. People were persuaded that hell existed after death so that they would not try to create it on earth. But that never stopped them, so all we need is to build the most perfect earth possible without the help of such concepts and balances. Most people exist in ways that would qualify them for a certificate saying that they live in hell – men, women and children who are all innocent, but who in their sublime naïveté and sense of justice get hold of guns and join the rebellion. Your friend Frank Dawley is fighting in Algeria from the sickness of false pride, and in one way is as guilty as the French he is fighting against – though if he is still alive he probably qualifies for innocence because of his experience in suffering.’

  ‘Frank’s no idealist,’ Handley said, ‘but a workman who saw the futility of his life and used his energy to try and lift others out of their suffering. He’s on the right side, in spite of his using the revolution as a spiritual quest, like most of us. Revolution is the only remaining road of spiritual advance. I’m not on it, but I know it is. I don’t mean the revolution of those middle-class English marxists who live in Hampstead or the juiciest of Home Counties, because at the first sniff of civil strife they’d join the government militia or run to hide in the nearest police station. Frank Dawley isn’t one of these and never could be. What I’m talking about is the common quest for spiritual energy that you get from the idea of revolution.’

  John went down for tea, and Myra had gone upstairs to sleep off her tiredness and headache. She lay down, her case not yet unpacked, wondering why she had come to this house. Though feeling some affinity to the more tender aspects of Handley and his art, she seemed nervous and raw among his family, while hoping she did not show it. But it was right that she had come, for there had been nothing else to do.

  Her glasses lay off and open on the bedside table staring at the window, while she stared at the opposite wall. Her unaided eyes saw things more clearly than they used to, and she would either get a less powerful pair or perhaps go without them altogether. Yet they made her alert in the morning if she still felt sleepy, increased her range of hearing, and helped her to judge people better with her glasses on – in general more able to deal with the world. When among people you liked but did not know why, and could not ask the cool question as to why you were there, a higher reason obviously existed for your presence with them, that you could not understand at the moment, but that would be illumined later during the greater confusion of being alone.

  She drifted into pleasant oblivion, but got up after an hour and washed her face. Mark was being fed in the infants’ caravan, and was glad to see her when she came in. But he soon clamoured once more for Helen, so she went outside. It was cooler and quieter along the lane she had ascended in the car that morning with Mandy sobbing beside her. The mud had not yet dried in the wind, and well-patterned car-treads were printed on it by a delivery-van coming up in response to a panic-call for more drink and food. She looked directly up at the sky through thick leaves that turned black against the broken glass of the blue, then climbed the steep bank, pulling herself up by stumps and branches, blue blouse and skirt merging into them. A wide field of stubble fell through the slit of sky, a well-marked footpath only a few inches wide cutting it diagonally across and spearing a small wood at its far-off tip.

  Heavy clouds piled above the trees. It was an unnatural feeling, being so alone, without the baby, without Frank, and out of her own house, so far away from narrow ties and preoccupations of normal base-life. She felt better than at home. In the wood a man was plucking leaves from a bush and putting them to his lips. She had entered by a broken fence, so self-absorbed that her footsteps made no noise in the thick grass.

  He bit at some of the leaves, took them away from his mouth so that they fluttered to the ground. He walked to the nearest tree and clipped off a piece of bark. He flaked it to dust, and smiled. The humid summer had eaten it through. The lazy call of a bird made him look up nervously. There was something tender and pathetic about him, and so no cruelty in secretly observing him. He broke a stick and smelled the white disfigured joint. She wondered where she’d seen the face before, or of whom it reminded her. Lines of pain creased his forehead at what he had done, and he straightened the stick and put it in the grass as if intending to come back later and bury it. What unease remained in his expression was caused by some vital disillusionment that his sensibility had taken years to overcome. The marks of the first great inhuman betrayal were still in the lines around his eyes, and would stay till he died because they had become a permanent part of his features. She made no noise, but he turned and they recognised each other; never having met before.

  ‘You must be Myra,’ he said. ‘Albert told me about you.’

  ‘You’re John. He told me about you, too.’
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  ‘I recognised you by your hair and eyes.’

  ‘He must have described me well,’ she said. ‘He’s a painter, of course.’

  ‘It’s not that. It’s that air of being alone in the world that you carry about with you. I like to meet people who can’t conceal what they are, and what ails them. It’s very touching and refreshing. I hope you don’t mind me saying so?’

  ‘No,’ she said. ‘Albert told me you never left the house.’

  He took out a cigarette, and gave her one. ‘This is my first time in fifteen years. You are the first person I’ve met. I suppose you thought I was someone just escaped from a lunatic asylum. I was just renewing my contact with vegetation, trees and grass. It was very painful, until I knew someone was watching me, and I saw it was you.’

  She noted how similar his voice was to Albert’s, but without the demonic edge of assertion. ‘I came to stay a few days,’ she said.

  ‘I know. I was to meet you at tea, but didn’t. It’s better this way.’ They went through the wood, John in front to clear the way. Reaching another field they walked side by side. ‘So neither of us know the way,’ she laughed. ‘But I don’t suppose we’ll get lost.’

  ‘I read your husband’s book,’ he said. ‘He must have been a profound and unhappy man. Those who write so lovingly and understandingly about the earth are really only happy when they become part of it. That may sound cruel, but it’s an observation I couldn’t help making as I read it. It must be a great success, because that sort of earthly love has an appeal for many people in this country.’

  ‘The critics approved,’ she said, not wanting to talk about it. He sensed this, and they walked a few minutes in silence. He pulled up a handful of grass. ‘Albert and Enid saved my life.’

  ‘I know.’

  ‘I’m glad you do. They’ve had hard lives, but found the love to save mine and not boast of it. I’m beginning to wonder what I can do to make my resurrection and their sacrifice worth while. I can’t continue to live at ease with myself and do nothing for the rest of my life.’

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