A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.30Alan Sillitoe
She nodded, and he said: ‘Do you still love me?’ Mandy listened, a smouldering cigarette between her fingers as she forked up the beef. Myra saw how irresponsible he was. ‘I didn’t come to hear this,’ she said, loud enough for Mandy though not for Enid. ‘I’m fond of you, and nothing else.’
But Enid saw what was happening, having taken a small portion, and finished already, breaking off knobs and beads of candle-wax from the nearest stick and putting them back in the flames. John rescued Myra by asking about Morocco. Had she been as far south as the Tafilalet, or gone through to Colomb-Bechar in Algeria? And if so, what was the landscape like? What months of the year had she been there? His questions implied so much more knowledge on his part than she had gleaned from her few months’ stay that she wondered if he had been to the country while hoodwinking everyone for a month that he had stayed in his room.
Richard and Adam sat side by side with mutual expressions of misery and betrayal. ‘Why did you do it?’ said Richard. ‘You must be on a secret mission for Uncle John, who wants you to join them and find out about their strength and organisation. What else could it be?’ He didn’t look at him, but spoke straight in front at the wavering candle-flame.
Handley stood with his glass high: ‘We’ll have a toast from Mandy before she passes out.’
‘Get crocked,’ she said. ‘I can swamp down as much as anybody.’ She pushed away her plate of meatscraps and cigarette-ends, and lifted her empty glass for Handley to fill. Adam fetched in another armful of bottles and began to uncork them. ‘Here’s my toast,’ said Mandy, ‘to the racing-car my good sweet father is going to get me as soon as the Mini’s worn out. Then I can go to Germany for a run on the autobahns. They’re hundreds of miles long.’ Her eyes moistened as she looked around, then slid back all her wine.
‘I have bad news for you,’ he said thickly. ‘That Mini you twisted my arm for hasn’t had a penny paid on it, apart from the deposit. They’ll be here in a few weeks to pull it from under you.’
‘If I get a sports car in part-exchange, it won’t cost all that much.’
‘You’d better enjoy that Mini while you can,’ he said. Their two voices were joined in a deadly duel, as if the loser would be shot dead and vanquished, pushed unsung into the earth.
‘I’m going to sell it,’ she said, ‘and put the money as down-payment on a sports.’
‘You’ll end up in jail,’ he said.
‘You will. You signed the guarantee.’
There was silence, while they stared at each other. Then Handley smiled and sat down, calling that those who wanted second helpings should push their plates along. While waiting for his to be filled Ralph made a toast, hands trembling and eyes averted, wanting to say: ‘A curse on this house.’ But it would stamp him as melodramatic, and they would roll his sanity in the mud. He had been their football for too long, but would get his revenge when he married Mandy, when they’d think twice about sending a son-in-law to prison. He looked at Handley whose eyebeams blazed across waiting for him to speak. Or would they? They might see it as a neat way of unloading him and at the same time striking a blow at his parents, who had not answered his invitation so as to injure their own son. You couldn’t jump off that spinning family roundabout without spilling your jelly brains in the dust. He held up his glass: ‘In all sincerity, I drink to Mandy.’
She was on her feet. ‘Oh no, you don’t. Why do you want to show me up? Can’t anybody leave me in peace?’
‘It’s a perfectly acceptable toast,’ said her father. ‘A bit wet, maybe. But here’s to the happy couple, the gentleman-farmer and his lady wife, Ralph and Mandy. I know they’re going to be very happy because they came into the world at the right time.’
Mandy resumed her chain-smoking. Even with a box of matches nearby she lit a fresh cigarette from the tiny end of the one just used. Handley swallowed and spoke: ‘I’d like to drink to this house, this Jerusalem-on-the-Wolds where I’ve spent twenty years. But I’m thinking of leaving it soon, packing us all off down south.’
‘That’s the first I knew,’ Enid said, flushed. ‘It’s my house, anyway, and I’ve no intention of moving. You were born in Leicester, but I belong to Lincolnshire.’
He took a scrap of newspaper from his pocket. ‘How’s this for a good buy? Listen: “Converted Thames dredger moored off Gravesend. A lovely home. Vast. On two floors. Seven bedrooms, three reception rooms, L-shaped bridge, cloaks, hall and two bathrooms” – not counting the rather large spare one outside! “Running water and gas central heating. Garden on shore. A snip at eight thousand pounds.” That’s for me, captain of a boat that never sailed and never will. My beautiful family squatting in the bilges. Garbage disposal through the portholes. If life gets too hard you scuttle it and swim away like a rat.’
Enid fetched a huge cartwheel of cherry-dotted cake, carved out portions and sent them around the table. ‘So you’re getting into that sort of mood are you? Wanderlust and family hate? Well, it won’t do you much good tonight, because I’m not going to put up with it. I’ve a little announcement, but it can wait until I do a little toasting of my own.’
He poured liberal glasses of muscatel. Myra wondered when they would get up and murder each other, but considered they were too open and violent for that. Anything so quick and merciful would be against the rules. A warm white flash swept across the room, and Richard lowered his camera. ‘Yes,’ Handley said, ‘it is a historic occasion. Pin us down forever so that we can look back on it as a great gathering. Make an album and call it The Family. It’s bound to sell well.’ He held Myra’s hand and kissed it. A score of bottles had been emptied. ‘The cake’s good,’ he said. He took Mandy’s hand also, but she dragged it away: ‘Not until I get my sports car.’
Pots of coffee were set out, sweets, brandy, cigars, bowls of fruit, cheese and more salad. The candles were burning low, flames shaking into cups of fat. John fetched fresh ones, walked along the table fixing them in.
‘What are you going to drink to?’ Handley said.
Myra hadn’t thought about it, but stood up. He filled her brandy glass. Should it be Mark first, and then Frank? Or because Frank was in danger maybe the toast would do him more good, for Mark was safely asleep in the caravan. ‘To Frank Dawley,’ she said, ‘and to his son. To Albert’s painting, Mandy’s happiness, Enid’s marvellous supper. To John’s liberation, Richard’s dedication, and Adam’s vacillation. All one can do here is drink to everyone.’ The camera drenched her in white phosphorous. All light blinded you, never showed the way. Only in the dark were you able to see, by keeping daylight as a far-off memory to guide you at the utmost pitch of blackness.
‘Put that camera away,’ Albert said. She sat down, but could not see. The candles wouldn’t emerge from the flashing shadows and refocus. She felt tired and dejected because she did not know what she was doing here. She felt part of them, a mute appendage of their mad society, yet as if she had no right to accept it. Yet her reason for being here was that in their noise and violence and madness they seemed nearer to Frank Dawley than she ever was, even though she’d lived with him and had his child. It helped in the sacred act of recollection, for it was hard to pull him back from the haze and fire of the desert, see his eyes and body in the specific action of walking, eating, drinking, talking to friends. This was difficult not through lack of imagination but because he was still alive. If he had died she would see him with greater clarity. George was complete in every nuance whenever he came to mind because he was no longer on this earth, while Frank was indistinct because he didn’t so much want her to remember him as be with him.
‘Toasts are meaningless,’ Richard said, ‘so here’s to all things of meaning. You have to persuade yourself that life has some significance otherwise you sink into the morass of the living dead. When you’ve persuaded yourself that your life has meaning it is your duty to help the living dead.’
‘Well put,’ Handley said. ‘I couldn’t have said fairer than that myself.’
Ralph leaned over for an approving light at the same candle. ‘Nobody loves it more than me,’ Handley said, ‘but I don’t like it very much.’
‘We’d all of us do the place more good,’ Adam retorted, ‘if we at least liked it. Any love for England in this room is destructive sentimentality. All love is destruction, that I’ll allow, but I like this country as well.’
Uncle John stood, cigarette still smoking, and sipped at his glass of muscatel. Brandy and cigars he’d never taken to. He spoke quietly, so that they had to listen. ‘In talking about love, and like, and England, you are losing a sense of proportion, Adam. We are no longer living in England, but in the world. It may be difficult to accept. In fact it took me fifteen years in a cell padded by my own thick thoughts to disentangle the tentacles of octopus England and discover that I belonged to the world. I’m forty-five years of age, not twenty. Many young people nowadays know it instinctively, are born with it, though I’m afraid that most do not. The world is one country, topographically speaking, divided by a system of seas and rivers and mountains. Those who say they love England are only in love with their childhood and youth, and those who stay in love with it go immature into the grave. Love of country is a fatal infatuation, especially to those whom you make your enemies.’ His eyes glittered, and the aura of gentleness shifted to one side. ‘It may take an act of cosmic violence to unite the world. We hope not. But it will certainly need innumerable civil wars and revolutions before the world can agree to become united. We are at the beginning of the hundred years’ war, a series of sporadic conflicts under which the world as we know it will disintegrate. At one of these, in Algeria, we have a mutual friend who set out to take part in it. Some of you know him, all of you except Ralph have met him in one way or another. He came to this house once, and left marks on various people. I drove him from my den and solitude at the point of a gun, because in those days my sanity turned to insanity when it was disturbed. My senses have now recovered their power and sense of proportion. Nine months ago Frank Dawley went to Algeria and hasn’t been heard of since. Anyone who takes on that task is helping in some unrewarded, idealistic, mystical way to bring about the unification of the world. In the future they may become the new yet unacknowledged saints, men who went into the desert, fasted by necessity, fought by conviction, and died by faith. A man who values his life at nothing, and whose belief in something good becomes everything to him, is a religious man. All great changes towards materialism and socialism are brought about by religious men. For a truly religious man the light can never fail, and if universalism becomes a religion and socialism is the way we have chosen to bring it about then even the mistakes and tragedies of socialism have to become acceptable. That fact alone is a severe test on a man’s faith, on his sense of spiritual quest, but the greater the test on his faith the greater his faith becomes. I imagine it is unfashionable to confuse religion with politics, but such a steel-like mixture is necessary if we are to fight not only our opponents but also sometimes the system we are using. To make religion politics, and politics religion, is the only way we can use our faith, and at the same time keep it, and not be dragged down by a defeat of the spirit. Religious faith sharpens the bayonets of a political system. The desert wind blows hot and cold, is covered by light and darkness, yet always exists around your feet. It has taken me fifteen years to get back a sound mind and formulate my faith, and now that it is accomplished, I’m going to leave the love and protection of my brother and this house and go on a journey. I don’t know how long I shall be away, or even if I shall ever come back, but I think it is fitting that someone from this family should make it his mission to go to Algeria, find Frank Dawley and help him, or bring him back if he is no longer fit for the fight. That will be my task, so my final toast is that we should drink to that journey, and to Frank Dawley who has already made it. After I’ve prepared myself and worked out the details I shall set off. You cannot sit thinking in a room all your life. Sooner or later you have to step outside and act.’
Handley did not drink with him. ‘You can’t do it, John.’
‘Is my brother going to fail me?’ he smiled.
‘It’s not a matter of failing. I’ll never do that. But you’ve made your life good and whole again. You can’t throw it away. It’d be a fool’s errand.’ He stopped, had a sense of betraying Myra who might, he thought with horror as he sat down, think he did not want John to go to Algeria and bring back Frank because he was too selfishly in love with her.
‘I shall go to Algiers,’ John said, ‘get into the Kabylie mountains, and some way or other join up with the FLN. Richard can print my papers on his press. I shall be a foreign but sympathetic journalist, and I shall find Frank Dawley, because I don’t imagine many Englishmen are involved in their fight. Do you want me to go, Myra?’
The question seemed unreal, buoyed up on the hot air of shimmering candles, cigar-smoke and wine smells. So did her answer: ‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Why not?’ Adam stood in such a hurry he upset his glass. ‘John’s going on a personal quest to help Myra by finding Dawley with whom she is in love. It’s no revolutionary idealistic project he’s indulging in, but an old-fashioned romantic search.’
‘There’s a bit in it for everybody,’ Handley observed. It was strange, the first toast that meant anything left them embarrassed and antagonistic. No tree burned in a swamp of indifference, for the miasma around it could not catch fire, and water would suck out the flames. John would be taking the soul out of the house. ‘You belong with us. Think it over for a few months.’
‘I belong where I want to go,’ he said. ‘It’s decided, so why don’t we bless it, the whole family, by drinking to it?’
‘You’re going over the bloody precipice,’ Handley said, ‘so be careful. We’re all part of you, and don’t want you to take us with you. Most of all, I don’t want to lose a brother. Dawley’s a young man: he’ll survive.’
‘It’s not a question of survival. Such a word is unworthy of you, Albert. Which of us here will survive?’
Myra stood up and walked outside, through the hall and into the garden. Their shouts could not bring her back. Had they no consideration for her feelings? Frank would laugh at such a party, such sentiments. It was indelicate of John to connect her with his breaking away from the house. He was noble in his intentions, but being noble left its scattering of hurt people. He could have talked about it rationally to her alone, or to Albert, but this set-piece drama before everyone made it trivial and embarrassing. Yet why should the contemplation of a noble deed be dragged into the mud? She should fall on her knees and thank him, wish him godspeed and all success in wanting to find her lover at the war. Sickness was smeared across her heart. A noise of shouting and smashing glass came from the house.
She went in immediately, and they were crowded around John, laughing and happy. Enid was setting more candles along the table. John was embracing them, shaking them all by the hand. Myra did not lie at his feet, but she kissed him, and said she would stay at the house until he left on his mission.
Moonlight was pouring into her ro
Mark cried in his cot, alarmed at her vision, and she soothed him for fear he would waken the house. It was a momentary dream, and he slipped back into peace. To ask what she wanted from life was a wild and irresponsible question that she was unable to answer while Frank was missing from it. In London she once saw him walking along Oxford Street, and ran after him through packs of shopping people. An insane rush of hope pushed her along, yet when the man turned out to be someone else she was glad. If it had been Frank how would he have explained being in England and not back with her and their son? No excuse would have been good enough.
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