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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.3
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.3

           Alan Sillitoe

  Jones swore under his breath. Like hell he was serious. He’d passed much of last night at the pub buying drinks for the customers and finding out how much was known about the Handley Kraal up on the hill. As hearsay was so much more picturesque than the truth, and rang so convincingly as to sound like the truth, he’d discovered more than ever he hoped would be possible, facts still spinning in his head because that predatory dog had all but emptied it. Fortunately, working for respectable papers in England had advantages in that whatever you wrote was accepted as the truth. Articles weren’t his regular occupation, and he looked on such assignments as a holiday from the regular chore of reviewing. Not that Lincolnshire could be classed as vacation land at this or any other time of the year. What else could one do but become famous if one had been stuck in it for twenty years? Either that, or go mad, if you had anything about you, as Handley presumably had – though we’ll see about that.

  They went into the hall. Where a portrait of the Queen had stood when he was poor, a framed photo of Mao Tse Tung hung now that he was, by comparison, rich. Handley, though tall, had a slight stoop at the shoulder, as if he had walked great distances at some time in his life. He also, Jones noted, had the faintest beginnings of a paunch, not uncommon in a man past forty, a painter who had had half a year of fame with which to glut himself. But Jones found the atmosphere bleak, and was glad when they descended into the large warm kitchen, where Enid passed them black coffee in Denbigh-ware bowls, and thick slices of white bread and butter on wooden plates. Jones thought there was a certain austerity about the house, though nothing that an extended visit to Heal’s wouldn’t fix.

  ‘What’s to be the tone of your article?’ Handley said, fastening the neck of his collarless shirt. ‘I’m perished. Still, we’ll have the central heating man in next week, then we can start to live.’

  ‘Don’t you think central heating makes people soft?’Jones said.

  ‘You mean like the Russians?’ Handley snapped. ‘I’ve nothing against it.’

  Jones was glad of the coffee. The uptilted bowl almost hid his small mouth, and wide all-knowing eyes, brown curly hair coiled aggressively above. ‘Much to do with painting?’ Handley went on.

  ‘It’s more of a profile – painting, of course, but a general sort of article, something very respectable on you as a man, to explain your painting.’

  ‘High in tone, low in intent. That sort of thing?’

  ‘You’re mixing us up with another paper,’ Jones laughed.

  ‘I’ll tell you when I’ve seen it.’

  ‘What newspapers do you take?’

  ‘I don’t. I pick one up once a month, just to make sure I didn’t need to.’

  ‘Don’t you find yourself awfully cut off?’

  ‘From my painting?’

  Enid filled his coffee-bowl without asking, and he absentmindedly helped himself to another slab of bread and butter. ‘London, for example?’

  Handley reached for toothpicks. ‘Is this the interview already, or are we just chatting?’

  ‘Whatever you like,’ Jones said, managing a smile. An au pair girl came into the room, all black ringlets and bosom, a sallow Florentine face at the stove putting on hot water for more coffee. She must be dying in this dead-end, Jones thought, though from what people in the pub said she mightn’t be as bored as she looked. Probably just tired.

  ‘Whatever I like gives me a crick in the diaphragm,’ Handley said, ‘so we might as well get it over with.’

  Enid was cutting vegetables at the other end of the table: ‘You could at least be polite now he’s here.’

  ‘I don’t need your advice.’ Albert said. ‘It’s taking me all my time not to choke. Just give me another pint of coffee and shut up.’

  ‘You encourage these people, then insult them, go on as if they were your mother and father or something. They’ve got to live. Everybody has their work. You ought to control your craven emotions a bit. I know you got out of bed a bit sudden, but it’s no use taking it out on him.’

  Jones shrank, but soon it was plain that the more Enid spoke the more affable Handley became. ‘She doesn’t mean to insult you!’ he said.

  Her face went cold and grey, but kept its remarkable beauty. Who wouldn’t become famous living with such a highly passionate handsome woman, Jones thought, who’d even allowed Handley to give her seven children? She spoke to Jones as if using language and enunciation she might once have had command of, but had lost after her marriage to Handley: ‘There are some people to whom being an out-and-out bastard gives strength. Oh, I don’t mean the weedy or puffy sort who never have the strength to be real bastards anyway, like you. But I mean the man who, not strong in the beginning, like Albert, soon finds himself becoming so when he gets money, and the urge to be a swine gets into his blood.’

  Jones felt as if he had been struck in the face. He was ready to leave. Albert had also gone white at this whipcrack from Enid so early in the morning, a time when he found it extremely difficult to take such insults. He grasped Jones by the arm: ‘Let’s go to my studio. I’ll raise the drawbridge and drop the portcullis, boil oil and sharpen spears. There’s brandy up there.’

  ‘I think I’ll leave,’ Jones stammered, hurt to the core. What kind of family was this, that took a total stranger to its quarrelling heart and clawed him to death?

  ‘Don’t go,’ Handley said, concerned for him. ‘I can’t let you come all this way for nothing. Enid’s got a bomb on her shoulders this morning though, and I don’t like shrapnel.’ They walked across the hall and towards the stair-foot. ‘I’ll buy a new overcoat if you aren’t insured, or don’t get danger-money. I’m sure editors are as mean as any other gaffer.’

  They went in silence to the first floor, Russell Jones taking note of what regions of the house he was privileged to go through, trying to fix the many noises muffling from behind various closed doors. Handley’s studio was an enlarged attic, skylight windows showing grey clouds drifting overhead. It was bitterly cold, though Handley took off shirt and trousers, standing naked to put on underwear and dress properly. ‘You’ll excuse me,’ he said to embarrassed Jones, ‘but I’d die otherwise.’ Shirt, trousers and two pullovers went on, then a waistcoat and jacket, followed by a heavy woollen scarf, a cap and pair of mittens. ‘Sit down while I light this pot-bellied stove. It’s a cold as Stalingrad up here.’

  Jones thought how strange it was that rough language from Handley had frightening barbaric undertones about it, while the same words from his London friends seemed neither uncivilised nor out of place. He watched him break an orange-box in pieces, rake out cold ash, and pull a lump of coal into cobbles with his bare hands. With such habits where did the subtlety come from to be found in many of his paintings? He looked around the room: apart from the bed were two large old-fashioned kitchen tables covered with the usual painter’s bric-a-brac – queer-shaped stones and pieces of wood Handley had picked up on his walks, odd drawing-pads, pictures from magazines, heaps of books, horseshoe, magnifying-glass, cigarette-lighter. Along one wall was a record-player, heart of a stereophonic system. The record on the turntable was Mozart’s Coronation Mass.

  Under the skylight a large half-finished picture stood on an easel. Shelves were filled mostly with modern novels, books on country life and natural history. On a low table were bottles of brandy and beer, a packet of cigarettes and a box of Havana cigars. In an opposite corner was a small sink heaped with glasses and cups. What struck Jones with great force, and what he held his eyes from until the last, was the newly cured skin of an outsize fox pegged neatly on the frame of an old door – leaning beside the now closed door they had entered by. He only took his eyes from it to look at the presumably new painting from Handley’s brush.

  Handley was making feverish work at the fire, which was now on the point of springing into strong life. ‘Whenever I’m painting I want to sleep. I want to sleep more than I want to paint whenever I pick up that brush, but somehow I paint, I work at it. I don’t go ma
d like any old Jack Spatula puttying away, mind you, but I think I’m right in saying it’s sleep that drives me along.’

  In the painting he had used the shape of the fox pinned on the door, a fox motif, the spreadeagled vulpine set in an aureole of colours, a fox in the rising sun flaring over the sea. From subtlety and delicate feeling at the centre, the form and colours had been made to expand, reaching a brilliance and panache Jones had never seen before – a great spending of the daywake above the grey blue line of the Lincolnshire sea, and in the bottom left corner a man humping home from an all-night fish or poach with a moon in his net. Observing Handley’s face as he knelt by the stone brought the word ‘Byzantine’ to mind.

  Handley took off his jacket and cap, poured two glasses of brandy. ‘A man from the Daily Retch came up a month ago, and needled me about being rich. He got ratty on the way out so I gave him what for. You should have seen the article: they really set the dogs on me. I don’t care about being rich. We’re rich, it’s true, compared to a year ago. But the stuff we lose or get nicked. If only I was rich enough to look after my things and lose nothing. Still, I wouldn’t be an artist then. Cheers!’

  ‘Cheers!’ Brandy after coffee brought his tone of confidence to exactly the right pitch. Handley stood before the picture, eyes glowing: ‘I’ll have to do it again. Nothing’s ever quite right. Never was.’

  ‘Do you manage to work all day and every day?’ Jones asked.

  ‘There are certain questions I can’t answer.’ Handley said, wrenching open a bottle of turps. ‘If I was a journalist I’d ask people the sort of question they only put to themselves in the pitch-black at four in the morning.’

  ‘I’m interested in how different painters work.’

  Handley leant over and nudged him sharply with his elbow, an exaggerated wink and leer. ‘So you’re a bit of a voyeur, are you? Eh? Dirty old bastard! Still, don’t be ashamed of it. Do go on. Ask me something else.’

  ‘I’ll be quite happy,’ said Jones, ‘if you just talk.’

  ‘I’ll bet you will. But I’m not frightened of hanging myself. I was born in Wolverhampton. The old man had a builder’s yard. Left school at fourteen and worked for him, slaved, I should say. Nothing ragged-trousered about me: had no trousers at all most of the time. Never work for your father. The old bastard owned a row of slum houses, and we never knew it till he’d croaked. Six brothers, and we sold up the lot. Got forty pounds apiece after the lawyers had done. I’d left home by then, came up from London to collect it. Boozed it all up in three days, then joined the artillery. The war had just started, and I thought I’d get stuck into fascism. Knew all about it from fourteen because I read a lot and heard what was going on. Stuck on the Lincolnshire coast, bored to death so started painting, reading, demobbed, married, writing begging letters. A bad life with seven kids to keep, but there was no other way. Anything else?’

  Jones found it difficult to believe that this lank man of forty had been able to paint such pictures. Rough and bordering on the primitive, they had yet a certain beauty almost belied by the rancorous striding bully in front of him. ‘What about politics?’ he asked mildly.

  ‘Politics?’ Handley sat in the other armchair. ‘I left off that sort of thing as soon as I felt they were necessary, as soon as I understood them and realised I had nothing left to learn. I’ll only take an interest in politics where there’s a civil war. In the meantime, let who will rule. If they want to indulge in that kind of self and mutual destruction it’s up to them. I’ve got too much work to do, and leave that sort of thing to people like Frank Dawley, who’s more fitted for it than me. He’s in Algeria somewhere, taking pot-shots at the French. At least I hope so: I wouldn’t like him to die on me, though I would feel better if he was taking pot-shots at some of the British I know.’ He poured some more brandy: ‘Let’s drink to good old Frank.’

  ‘Certainly. To Frank,’ – whoever he was, but it was good brandy, anyway. ‘Don’t you think the artist should take an interest in politics, Mr Handley?’

  ‘If you start mistering me I’ll shut up and sulk,’ he laughed. ‘Like the rest of the world I’m a split personality when it comes to art and politics: I can’t hear the glories of Mozart’s Coronation Mass without catching an echo of the Ça ira in the background, the sublime about to be pushed aside – temporarily, of course – by the clogs and sandals of the proletariat. So don’t ask me for an opinion, old rum-chum. Two of my lads are up to their necks in this Ban-the-Bomb stunt, so I’m involved to that extent.’

  Like many people who drank a lot Jones got drunk too quickly. By the third large brandy his brain lost its usual middling sharpness, and the soporific warmth of the stove made his eyes heavy. ‘Aren’t there any political causes you help?’

  Handley lit a cigar. ‘That depends. I do send money to certain organisations – if they look like causing enough trouble. That’s the only thing. So few of ’em do. It’s throwing away good money. Maybe something’ll turn up one day. You see, I have a system. I’ve invested five thousand pounds in industrial shares, and what dividends I get go into any trouble-making or revolutionary organisation aimed at disrupting the system we live under. You can’t be more apolitical than that, can you? Invest in the system in order to destroy it. Not that I think it’ll ever be destroyed, mind you, but if I thought it would last forever I’d not paint another thing. Maybe I’d be happy if I just lived on an ice-floe that never stopped drifting, painting until it melted under me and I took to the boat to find another ice-floe.’

  Jones grinned. There were times when he seemed like one of us after all. ‘What if there were no boat?’

  ‘I’d sink.’

  ‘Would you mind?’

  ‘Not all that much. I’ve got a couple of heavy quick-firing ambush-guns defending this house, well-placed and concealed, a fine field of fire organised mainly, I must admit, by my son Richard, and my brother John, who’ve studied such matters. The cellars are stocked with food – self-perpetuating flour, expanding water – all that sort of thing.’

  ‘Don’t you find yourself a bit cut off from reality?’

  ‘Closer. How much closer to eternal reality can you get – an artist with a machine-gun waiting for the end of the world? I drink strong tea and walk through fields, fight with a cat-and-dog family, stand alone on the strand at Mablethorpe and watch the steamroller waves updrumming for me as I run back over the dunes dropping my notebook which they hobble-gobble, and cursing them as they spit defeated in my face. What do you mean, not normal? Do you think I should work in a factory? Hump shit around a farmyard? Paint fashionable nose-picking pictures that’ll reproduce nicely in the posh magazines? Get hooked. I’d rather listen to the wind and flirt with chaos.’

  ‘Do you often fall in love?’

  Handley smiled. ‘What do you think?’

  ‘I don’t know. I’m asking you, really.’

  ‘No, I’m asking you.’

  ‘I might say “yes”,’ Russell said.

  ‘You might be wrong. If I said “often” you’d say I was sentimental. If I said “rarely” you’d say I was cold. It’s hard to answer with a simple yes or no. But I do fall in love from time to time.’ He reached to the table and opened a book so that a photograph of his daughter Mandy fell out. Jones picked it up. ‘I’m in love with her at the moment,’ said Handley, snapping it back between the covers before Jones could twig the similarity of feature. ‘But I don’t see what it has to do with me as a painter.’

  ‘I was just curious.’

  ‘Anything else?’ Handley wanted to know.

  ‘What about theories?’

  He closed one eye, and farted. ‘Theories?’

  ‘Regarding art – painting.’

  ‘You can fart as well – if you want to. Liberty Hall. I know it’s catching. A theory is only a way of explaining how your art died. I never use ’em.’

  Jones was exasperated, needed a break. ‘Do you mind if I go to your john?’

  ‘Down the stairs
and second on the right.’ Handley wondered how someone like Russell Jones had already become acquainted with his brother John.

  He was at the door: ‘It’s all right. I’ll find it.’ Handley shrugged, turned to his painting. The head-down fox was falling back to earth after its trip to the sky, a visit to the foxgods who forthwith sent him speeding to the nether world, his life one long and agonising vacillation between air and fire, space and boiling rock, vulpine trap into which he had by chance of birth been driven. The blazing circular limits of the sun surrounded his existence, and yet at the same time the eternal powerhouse of his drive showed him him as the lit-up centre of Handley’s wide-scope world immediately forgotten as he plunged back in.

  The stairs were narrow, but Jones found his way to the wider landing of the lower floor. A girl was pushing a sweeping brush ineffectually around dark corners. He thought of trying to kiss her, but his nerve for it wasn’t in the right place this morning. Opening the second door without hesitation, he found it didn’t give into a lavatory at all, but a normal-sized blind-drawn room flooded by brilliant electric light. Much space was taken by racks of wireless receivers and transmitters, wavemeters and goniometers, speakers and microphones. At a table beside it sat a bald, middle-aged man wearing earphones and with hands busy at a morse key. On being suddenly disturbed he sprang up, careful to unplug the earphones, lifted a heavy service revolver and set its spout towards Jones. ‘Get out!’ he cried hoarsely, ‘Get out!’ – an unforgettable picture.

  The door had closed behind Jones who, being so certain he was in the right room, had advanced a good way into it before realizing the mistake which now seemed set for ludicrous and terrible proportions as this pop-eyed sallow-faced maniac came for him.

  The door seemed to have locked itself: ‘I can’t get out. I can’t.’ Though unaccustomed to shouting, Jones did so now. It somehow humanised him, reduced the tension in the room to one of ordinary pathetic impotence, and at the panic-pitched sound of it the man who threatened him put down the gun, and a charming smile spread over his face.

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