A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.29Alan Sillitoe
She waved away a cloud of thunderflies attracted by the sweat on her forehead. ‘I’d like to sit down for a moment.’
‘Of course. I don’t suppose you have any news?’
‘You must forgive me, but that question was only a clumsy way of getting on to the subject. I’ve thought a good deal about him.’
‘I didn’t realise you knew Frank.’
‘Albert told me. Of all the people I’ve heard about and haven’t met he fascinates me the most.’ They walked two more fields and back in the direction of the house. Wheat was high in one, and the path through the middle was hidden by close high stalks, so they went by the hedge, bending when it arched towards the wheat. He walked with nimble assurrance for a man who hadn’t been beyond the house and garden in so many years, stepping quickly on any small patch of earth to avoid bending dozens of delicate rods. ‘I’d like to meet him,’ he added, ‘one day.’
‘I hope you do. I’m sure he’d like to meet you.’ He opened a gate for her to pass. ‘There’s only one way I can ever see him,’ he said, if he isn’t dead already, he thought. And neither of them talked any more before reaching the house.
Ralph was not unwelcome at The Gallery, which was the most one could say about his appearances there. Handley, being unable to obliterate him, had to forgive him for the desecration of his painting which, in its precision and black thought, had been almost German, which pained him since his forgiveness meant that Ralph would now be able to marry Mandy. He wanted no micrometered nightmares eating into his favourite daughter, yet what could you do if you didn’t intend to marry her yourself, except give her away with a good smile?
The question had been: Where was Mandy? Ralph looked at Handley with worry and loathing and disbelief when he said she’d departed for the battlefields of the M1 with the single-mindedness of an eleven-year-old girl in France from a bourgeois family during the war who’d set out with homemade bombs to join the Resistance. Ralph suspected Handley of having sent her away, hidden her until his passion was iced over.
He called every day to see if she had returned, and now found her locked in the Rambler and refusing to come out, playing patience on one of the lunch trays.
‘Mandy,’ he shouted, ‘please let’s go for a walk. I haven’t seen you for a month.’
‘That’s no reason,’ she said, letting down the window, ‘but I will soon. I can wait. I don’t want to miss the big dinner, though. You seen the booze-chariots going up and down? Dad will get bombed-out, gutter-drunk. He’s got his new bird up here. And Uncle John’s gone over the fields. Things are a bit upsetting, so I’m sticking around for the fun. Are you invited?’
‘I think so; your father mumbled something before pushing me aside.’
‘You’ll really see us in action.’
He’d heard this last phrase from his mother before leaving the house. ‘You’re going there again! Have you ever seen such a family in action?’ She was trying day by day to wear him down, but the guilt he felt after wrecking Handley’s painting had given him so much strength that he’d be able to resist her for years if necessary. It set him up with great self-assurance, which made her give up the loony-bin as a last resort for the dark and twisting path he had chosen, deciding that since he seemed strong again, more normal means of persuasion would be necessary.
He leaned by the car, looking in and down on her. ‘I think I know you all well enough by now.’
‘You think our bark is worse than our bite?’
‘It may be. Come out and give me a kiss. You can’t stay cooped up all the time.’
‘I feel safe in here. I’ve got the spare key in my pocket, and might take it into my head to light off, back to the motorway. With a powerful car like this I could show some of those rotten Minis where to get off, and leave a few wrecks smouldering on the hard shoulder! It weighs nearly two tons and does a hundred and twenty, the best thing Dad ever bought with his money. So don’t keep on about me coming out. What have I got to come out for? I’ve got all I want in here. Yeh, if people keep chipping their tinny faces in at me like rabbits I’ll slide off for another month’s fun.’
He stood back, appalled by her recklessness. Yet it was exactly this tendency that attracted him, Mandy being the only girl he knew who could threaten to crack open his mother’s skull with a starting-handle, which proved that she had more than a fair share for both of them. It was fortunate that she was a woman, and Mandy, and he felt that the sooner they were married the better. ‘It’s getting dark,’ he said.
‘When it does I’ll switch on the light.’
Handley was wisely leaving her alone, and so would Ralph, if only his feet would carry his heart away. He saw Myra come in through the gate with Uncle John, and wondered who she was. They went into the house without a greeting.
‘Give me your hand,’ Mandy said.
He rested it on the half-opened window, and she kissed the back of it, pressed her lips against the padded flesh, and spread his fingers wide. His face reddened, and a burning pleasure stirred him. ‘I love you,’ he said. ‘Come for a walk and don’t torment me so.’
‘I can’t. My legs ache.’
‘After all that sitting down and driving?’
To keep insisting would annoy her, whereas to stay quiet would at least prolong this charming tenderness. ‘I love you, too,’ she muttered, grinding her teeth into one of his fingers.
His yell of pain snapped at the whole house. ‘You bitch!’
Mark was startled by its savagery and began to cry. Helen stood at the caravan door, black hair spread and eyes indignant. ‘Can’t you be quiet? There’s a baby in here. Why don’t you do your courting somewhere else?’
Ralph got into his Land-Rover and bumped down the lane, while Mandy indulged in a new game of patience. He couldn’t take any more. It was impossible. Only Eric Bloodaxe was fond of him at that house, howled when he strode through the gate. Blood slid silently from his finger, went round the steering wheel and fell between his legs on to the floor covered with muddy sacks, not in actual fact a bad wound, but jumping so that it was hard to keep his grip. I’m not an old man, he thought, hanging around her for this sort of welcome which she must have nursed in her bloody little mind after three weeks on the road. He shot the junction beyond the village and almost caught the back fender of Miss Bigwell’s A40. Another story for Mother. It’s lucky I didn’t have an accident. Maybe I wouldn’t be so ready to go back to Mandy if I had. He turned the car, and stopped in the village to buy a newspaper as an excuse for having left The Gallery in such a hurry. Then he went back up the lane, licked and welcomed by the thick green leaves. He also wanted to see them in action at their banquet that night.
Eight champagne-glasses had been stacked on the dining-room table, one base inside each bowl, making a tall slim tower that reached almost to the ceiling.
The long room was set between hall and kitchen, plainly whitewashed, with two large uncurtained windows on one side, and an empty wrought-iron fireplace on the other. The floor was bare planks, for Handley even in his affluence thought that carpets would somehow spoil it, liking to have at least one room where he could hear himself walk in bare feet. A ship’s oak table, bought at a sale in Louth, ran down the middle. A huge eighteenth-century dresser lined the top wall, covered and hung with dinner and tea services. The only other furniture was eight chairs around the table, at which eight people sat.
‘It’s the first real party I’ve had in this house,’ said Handley, taking up a bottle, ‘and I’ve had money for over a year.’ He was sprucely dressed in a charcoal-grey suit, and a white silk shirt with a light-blue rather broad clotted tie going into his waistcoat. ‘So I don’t want to see any murders at the end of it.’
Enid stood a candle on a shelf so that he could blow it out with champagne-corks. ‘I channel my aggression,’ he said, ‘onto unfeeling inanimate objects from now on, eh, Ralph?’
Tradesman’s vans had been rumbling all day through the slush laden with fish, meat and drink. They were eager to serve Handley in the vain hope of getting paid. The fact that he had money made him even worse at paying. If he had money he wanted to spend it, not shell it out on food that he’d already got on credit. So in order to make him pay they supplied more and more, fought for his custom because he spent so freely. But he did not pay, and it was difficult to dun him while still spending. If they dun, buy, for if you start to pay they become insolent. ‘It’s a good thing I’m not living in a depressed area,’ Handley said to Enid, ‘or they’d string me up from the nearest lamp-post. Luckily it’s a good posh county with a long tradition of this sort of thing. I don’t think I’ll move, after all, at least not until they rumble me.’
Thumb pressed against the cork, the other hand turned the bottle in its palm. ‘We’ve a few things to celebrate tonight,’ he said, ‘but I dare say we shan’t know what till we come to them.’ The smell of roasting meat floated from the kitchen. ‘We’re welcoming Myra, for one thing. For another, we’re celebrating Mandy’s engagement. Ralph’s parents should be here, but they didn’t answer the invitation, though they might still come. Then of course there’s Frank Dawley, lest we forget.’ He levelled the bottleneck towards the candle-flame, the room quiet but for his own pattering voice. ‘And John is coming from his own world and back into ours, which might make a difference to somebody.’
The cork bulleted sharply out, left the candlewick smoking and flameless, but not waiting to see where it went Handley held the foaming bottlemouth over the topmost glass which was filled, overfilled, spilled into the one below, then overflowed and levelled up to the rim of the one underneath that, filling and spilling in the manner of a baroque fountain right down to the bottom glass. The second cork sent a sharp neat crack down the mirror above the mantle-shelf so that it seemed in danger of falling in two. ‘Seven years’ bad luck,’ Enid cried, taking plates of olives and anchovies from Maria and setting them along the edge of the table.
Handley laughed. ‘We’ve had them already.’ Each took a glass from the fountain, so that it ceased to exist. A great thirst gripped them after the heavy and troubled day. Six bottles went in the hour before dinner. Handley laced the first draught with Courvoisier and lit a cigar so that he could draw breath between each mouthful. ‘Don’t you feel guilty at such luxury?’ Adam said mischievously, ‘when where’s so much shortage in the world?’ Handley’s forceful laugh startled Richard and Myra from their quiet conversation by the window. John poured another glass for Mandy, who was anxious to wet her lips again because the dry wine seemed incapable of salving her thirst as it should. She grew light at heart and kissed her lover, which doused all his desire for more drink. Handley looked at them, a momentary glare, not knowing whether to envy Mandy’s freedom or his future son-in-law’s luck. He turned to Adam: ‘In some countries cigars are fourpence each, and champagne half-a-crown a bottle. It’s a luxury to us because the country needs bombs and napalm to rain down on the Frank Dawley’s of the world – or his equivalent in all sorts of countries. Every glass of this stuff means a bullet for them. Every packet of fags a workman smokes means the same. We’re all guilty if you like, but pour me some more, then it stops being guilt and becomes blame, and I can drown both with booze till it’s not too bad to bear.’
‘I just wanted to know how you felt,’ said Adam, a sudden disturbing note in his voice. He looked faunlike in the in the candle-shadows, curly hair and straight short nose, small teeth showing when he spoke and faced his father.
‘Do you want a private talk?’ Handley said, pouring more drink.
Adam put the rim of his glass under the same bottle: ‘I want to say it now.’
‘Go on, then.’ There was silence, as everyone waited for him to get up courage. Mandy giggled, and Handley snapped at her to shut up.
‘I’m tired of feeling guilty,’ Adam said. ‘The weight’s become too much for me these last few months. Every time I eat cornflakes or smoke a cigarette I’m tortured by doubt and guilt. I’m not so strong as you, or John, or Richard.’
‘I’m used to carrying weaklings on my back,’ Handley said. ‘Let’s get on with the booze, then the grub’ll come quicker.’
‘That’s not the point,’ Adam said with persistence and courage.
‘What have you done?’ Handley wanted to know.
With a great effort he said: ‘I joined the Young Conservatives last night.’
Mandy laughed, and Ralph cheered. Handley’s cigar dropped. ‘It won’t burn the floor,’ he said, as Enid rushed to pick it up. ‘Is that all? O God our help in ages rotten past, with no hope for tomorrow. I could have understood it when we were poor, but not now that we’re rich. What’s the girl’s name?’
‘Bonser’s daughter? Some girl. So one of my family is marrying into the landed gentry? Do you love her?’
‘That’s a start, anyway. We send you off, and we welcome you back. Thank God I’m an artist, or you’d have broken my heart. I can stand anything. I even sent my eldest son to theological college, so you haven’t really shocked me.’
‘Yes, you thought it was a good thing in those days,’ said Richard.
‘Don’t you start. Our Cuthbert was a brilliant Sunday-school student. He had that superior smile of asceticism ticking away on his clock ever since he was a kid. He’d have been Jesus Christ if he’d been born one thousand nine hundred and sixty years ago. If the vicar hadn’t taken an interest in him he’d still have been here, poncing and sponging like the rest of you. Well, here’s to Adam and Wendy, and a long life to everybody.’
At the head of the table, he uncorked a bottleforest of Bordeaux red and white. Mandy was on his left, and Myra to his right. At the opposite end sat Enid. Adam was subdued, felt snubbed by his father who had not created a row and thrown him out. He sat to the right of Enid, and Ralph was on her left. In the middle and facing each other were Richard and Uncle John. Soup vanished quickly, followed by braised herring, the pride of Dogger Bank. It was a great feast, though the mechanics of chewing did not so far permit any of them to say it aloud.
Waiting for the next course Handley stood up, a glittery restlessness in his eyes. Eight candles were lit down the middle of the table, a flare-line leading to Enid at the other end through a maze of wine-bottles, bread rolls and platters. He took off his jacket, tall and slim in his waistcoat, shirtsleeves fastened by a pair of gold cufflinks. The character of each face prospered in candle-shadow. All were beautiful, Myra thought, their talk more fluid now that the first hunger-pangs had gone. They’d all made concessions, given up some of their lives to be here. Mandy returned from the motorway, John pulled out of his ethereal solitude, Myra travelled from her own rooted house, Ralph dodged his parental curse, Adam left the charms of his newly-found heiress, Richard gave his pamphlets and maps a rest, Enid relaxed her chatelaine role of mother and manager, and Handley descended from his forest-bound swamp-coloured studio. His dark leanness glared at them. The established order of lunacy, family and idealism shook the length of its barbed rope and dragged them in smiling to eat and talk, the subtle uniting captivity of organised deadness. But no, he thought, not with us. We’re different because it’s cold and bare outside, being set on an island between the North Sea and the Atlantic, bashed at by waves from east and west. Just a little dinner-party for family and friends. Is this what I’ve starved for as an artist all my life? As long as I’m still working, I suppose it is.
He smiled, but not for happiness or because he was amused. A smile covered a multitu
‘It’s a bad game,’ Enid said, assembling the plates. ‘Either it doesn’t work, or it causes trouble.’
He drank. ‘Don’t stab me in the back. It isn’t a game. It’s a way of thinking and drinking at the same time. There’s no significance attached to it. How could there be with simple passionate people like us?’
A chair scraped as John stood up. ‘Here’s my toast, to the war, the great hundred years’ war against imperialism and the established order, class war, civil war, dark and light war, the eternal conflict of them against us and us against them, whether it’s taking place underground as at the moment (except in a few choice spots of the world) or whether it’s breaking around us now in this twilit haven of peace. May such a war go on to the victory and hope of the bitter end.’
They cheered, and he stood, bald, erect, matching a stern face with subtle and gentle eyes. He wore a dark blue suit with the faintest of pin-stripes running down the cloth, a red tie at his shirt and a white rose in his buttonhole. He looked at them and spoke slowly, smiling as if knowing they would never take him seriously, long thin fingers of his left hand deliberately turning a glass, the other behind his back. Not all cheered, though the general noise was loud enough to spur him on. Myra and Ralph had kept silent, but Adam, in spite of his recent conversion, approved out of family loyalty and his special regard for Uncle John. ‘And I also propose,’ he continued, ‘a toast to a long journey I’m shortly to embark on, and about which I hope to say more later.’
They drank, but stayed quiet, puzzled by his last sentence. Was he going to leave them to a world without Uncle John? He lit a cigarette, and sat down on seeing Maria and Catalina enter with the platter of roast beef, a great haunch carried between them as if it were a dead man on a shutter. They set it before Handley who was on his feet saying: ‘My toast is to art, to art, do you hear? And to the war that goes on till the bitter end. We’ll leave the other toasts for later,’ he added, picking up knife and steel to carve, and brushing aside their cheers as if they might infect the meat. There was silence during beef, fried marrow and boiled potatoes. Small flat salads of sliced Lincolnshire cucumbers sat between each two plates. Myra admired the cooking and organisation that had gone into the meal, qualities she had tried to instil into the village women of the WI in those far-off days when George was alive and she was a prominent talker at their meetings. She congratulated her, and everyone threw in their agreement. Handley leaned close, a darkening flush to his face. ‘Glad you came, love?’
A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2) by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes