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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.31
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.31

           Alan Sillitoe

  In spite of her body-and-soul ache to see him again maybe she did not want to until he had utterly purged himself of all desire to trek away from reality. Solitude had taught her to mistrust men’s ideals, especially those realised at her own desolation of spirit. She loathed her meanness but acknowledged it. To abandon Frank was a thought impossible to set in motion. She believed, but could not act. You could not act until you ceased to care. You didn’t act upon your own ideals. Other people did that, without deciding to do so. You made your ideals known, spun forth the message of love and brotherhood and war, but going out to forge and prove helped no one but hurt many. You split open the body and mind, let the sensibility and love fruitlessly pour over the desert sands, and in the end the damage was greater to yourself than even to the one you love. Man was not big enough for such a combined operation. Even Uncle John knew this, and would only leave on a mission of rescue rather than a jaunt of idealism, as Adam had been sharp enough to see. Frank will only succeed in what he wants to do if he dies at it. Perhaps that was why she did not want him to come back, because to look on a broken man for the rest of one’s life would be heartbreaking for her. If he came back he would be crippled, so she cried with bitter tears that there was no point in him doing so. When you abandon the moon, and walk too near the sun, your eyes are burned and blinded. The moon is gentler than the sun, might kill you slowly in the end or send you mad, but it doesn’t burn you up in one great flash when you step within the limit of its power. Why couldn’t she have told him this before he went? The transition was gradual, he would not have listened, and the moon confuses, weakens, does not allow the steel pivot of reason to be inserted. The moon demands that you be subtle, and subtlety does not work with someone enamoured of a scheme of the sun. He had to go. You had to let him, and the solitude his absence leaves teaches you to distrust men’s ideals and the harsh, rational ideas of the sun.

  She sat by the window, the metal-grey moonlight pouring over her. People walked up and down the stairs, restless, looking for tea or cigarettes, or a final drink. Only John’s room was silent where he slept profoundly, she thought, exhausted by his intense and unremitting preparations for the long journey south, his own pathetic surrender to the hard time of the sun. It was a warm, full-mooned night, and the house smelled of food, drink and tobacco. She came back from the lavatory, and saw Handley walking up with a tray of bottles. He wore trousers and collarless striped shirt, stepped along in bare white feet. ‘Come to the studio,’ he said softly, ‘and I’ll show you my painting.’

  She was about to say no, not wanting to be alone with him, but walked up behind, will-less because she did not want to be alone with herself. Enid was there, in any case, smoking a cigarette. The studio seemed unnaturally tidy compared to the disorder of the dining-room. Windows and skylight were open, but it was nevertheless hot from too much lighting.

  ‘Sit down,’ Enid said, a warm smile for her. ‘This is the hottest part of the house in summer, yet far from the maddening crowd. We’re thinking of building another house soon, two miles away, so that we can leave this one to the tribe. I’ll take the bus here every day to see if they’re all right, just as if I’m going to work.’

  He poured brandy, water, slipped in ice and passed it around. ‘I’ll show you this painting now that the light’s right for it.’ A large cloth fell from a five feet by eight canvas standing on two boxes by the far wall. Sky took up some of it, a band of eggshell blue and grey smudges along the top, then came trees, valleys, the earth, animals and men, which loaded the greater area of the picture. Near the bottom was a band of soil, the thick chocolate skin of the crust, and finally a line of jet black where the depth of his consciousness had been reached.

  ‘It looks as if it’s coming to get me,’ Enid said. Handley explained that it was supposed to. What was the use of a painting if it didn’t get you by the scruff of the neck and pull you into either bathroom or jungle and show you things you’d never seen because you’d been afraid you might like the horror of them? It did the same to him, but he smashed them to bits on the anvil of his mind and re-arranged them on canvas so that it could do the same to others. Myra noticed a small hole in the middle of the painting: ‘What’s that for? Was it torn out?’

  ‘That’s another story,’ he said. ‘The ideal place for this picture to be hanged is between two trees, so that the closer you get to it the more you see through this hole into reality. It’s what I called Albert Handley’s Third Eye, the theme and keynote of my exhibition. It would work if you set it up at a window in the middle of a city and saw the slums and factories through it, or if it was physically possible you could hang it across a main road and while looking at the picture and wondering what the hole was for, a bus comes running through and blacks you out for dead. It’s the third eye that’s as plain as all piss-water but which nobody sees, the third eye of dream and reality that looks at you through the territory of my painting.’ He picked up small pieces of canvas, fitting them over the hole and blocking it, unable to choose one that harmonised. ‘Ralph cut out the original, when he stole the painting, a prime piece of Lincolnshire witchcraft to do me an ill-turn but which only gave me a fine idea.’ Over the hole he finally fixed an old photo of Uncle John as a young man in uniform, sad and raw, sepia-faced and faded, forlorn and wondering where the hell he was. Myra went forward and recognised him, dark hair showing under his service cap, his gentle eyes strengthened by the thinner and more youthful lines of his face. It fitted the picture so well that she shuddered, a heroic framework for this life-beaten man who in his resurrection was actually determined to carry out an act of heroism. They knew John would do it, or die doing it, and Handley’s inspired action in using him as the eye of the third eye in this one particular painting of his soul proved his extreme and brotherly faith in him.

  ‘You can’t hate England,’ Myra said passionately. ‘You can’t. I’m sure you don’t.’

  He was delighted. ‘You see it, then? You really get the intention?’

  ‘He never did hate it,’ Enid said, sipping her brandy.

  ‘We won’t talk about that. It’s too difficult. The last shot I fired in anger defending the maggoty homeland was at German bombers flying over the east coast to gut Nottingham in the war. After that I became an instructor. But our John in that uniform looks like somebody in 1914. There were plenty of photos of that sort in our family, the only thing left of them by 1918. A photo. A million dead. Someone has to bridge the gap between the million dead and the soul of today. It’s never been done. They were born of a tight-fisted nation that could not survive the loss of one million dead ripped from its cities and fields. Other countries did, and have. I’m monstrously English, frighteningly, rottenly marvellously English. So maybe I’m Jewish. I hope so. But wasn’t it fantastic that those millions didn’t walk away from it all? I brooded on it last night. It stopped me from sleeping. A million dead. Two million Germans. Two million French – though some of them at least had the sense to mutiny. I wondered why so many consented to die, and came to the conclusion that it was one vast, overcivilised homosexual international holocaust, a group of nations fucking each other to death in a cosmic daisy-chain, and each dead man the spermatozoa of countless millions crushed in the uncreative death-womb of the mud. It was the earth turning in on itself, inverted sexuality. As another sixty thousand perished in the mud a general in the headquarters chateau wanked himself off in the porcelain bog. I got them all weighed up. So had a few million Russians when they refused to take part in this obscenity and voted with their feet for peace. A country only deserves love when the potential for that sort of dirtiness has passed from it. Imagine what sexual dreams the generals and presidents must have when they know that the pressing of a single button can cause such massacres. I’ll paint a picture of a general masturbating with one hand, and launching rockets with the other.’

  ‘That wouldn’t be art,’ said Myra.

  ‘But it would be truth. What more do you want? I could do a s
eries of cartoons, call ’em “The Pleasures of War” if it weren’t for good old Goya. It would be a fair title, anyway. The art wouldn’t be derivative, that I’d guarantee. But there’s an endless fascination for me in 1914 and thereabouts. It’s still in the English blood, because the artists and writers haven’t taken it in yet and let it flow back to the people. Nobody’s tried. Maybe they never can, and are never meant to. 1912: Rudolf Otto von Sachsenschloss, a twenty-year-old callow youth all down at mouth (because a sabre-scar hadn’t yet healed and lifted it up to a glittering smile of strength) a reserve ensign of a Wurtemberg sharpshooters’ regiment, met Lieutenant Oswald Burton of the Sherwood Foresters who was spending his leave in the Rhenish Palatinate complete with Baedeker guide-book, on a hiking tour of six weeks, whither he’d repaired after being blighted in love. It was a long hot summer (one of those they used to have before 1914) and the pine-smelling needlegums took flame, and fired large acres of forest. The two young men helped to fight the blaze, heroes side by side, so that they were fed and wined by grateful villagers after it was all out and over.

  ‘The following year they meet in the Pyrenees, go up to great heights on muleback, eat their picnic meals, take champagne, brandy and cigars to help down those delectable patés and sausages. They swim in mountain pools, discuss great battles of the past, and drink toasts to eternal friendship.

  ‘We now switch to Christmas 1914. Earthworks and molehills zigzag the fields and gentle humps of north-east France. British and German soldiers are playing football in no-man’s-land, laughing and running to keep warm. Lieutenant Oswald Burton, thin-faced and looking thirty, goes over the parapet with revolver in hand to get them back on the afternoon of Boxing Day. There is fury and hatred in his eyes, more for his own men than the Germans. The lads from Worksop and Mansfield, Radcliffe and Lenton hate his guts as well. On the German line Oberleutenant Rudolf Otto von Sachsenschloss borrows a rifle from his batman. He is looking for a little sport. It was the British who suggested football. He fixed this irate English officer in his sights who is threatening his own men with a revolver. He drops the rifle and picks up field-glasses. “Mein Gott! It is Oswald.” He reflects a few moments on the tragedy of war, chews a quotation from Goethe in his teeth which he finally spits out, then shrugs his shoulders and picks up the rifle again. Burton drops dead with a bullet in the middle of his forehead. No more Sherwood ale for that landowner’s son. At the same moment a random shell whistles over from a drunken battery of the Royal Horse Artillery, seems to hover in the sky as if not knowing quite where to land to do most damage. Men of both sides scatter and drop. Rudolf Otto, too proud to do so, is blown to pieces. Only the football was safe: the dizzying spiral of European history took one more savage plunge into the abyss – opening the door towards the vast oozing shit-pits of Passchendaele – as the football rolled into a crater and bobbed about among nub-ends and shellcases.’

  They sat at either end of the divan, Handley in a chair. ‘People see everything through dark glasses. Without a third eye you are blind and lost, live in the abyss, unless you can read a book or look at a picture that can give you the use of one for an hour or so. There’s neither forward time, nor backward time, only vision, and a truth of scene that could never have occurred to you.’

  ‘You should write it in your manifesto,’ Myra said.

  ‘It’s all gobbledegook. It wouldn’t mean anything – except to critics, of course. It would be an act of megalomania to write it down, and an act of intellectual arrogance to try and interpret it. If people don’t see it without having it explained to them (after a continual viewing of fifty-six hours, which nobody ever gets) then the painting has failed.’

  Enid walked to the window. ‘I certainly hope your next show is successful, because we’ll be needing money by the end of the year.’

  ‘That’s your invariable reaction,’ he said, ‘to when I talk about my work.’ Myra was ready to go back to bed. ‘Downstairs at our shambles of a dinner a month ago,’ Enid said, ‘I never got the opportunity to make my toast.’

  ‘Do it now,’ he said, glad of a diversion from her baiting.

  They filled their glasses. ‘Here’s to my next child, then.’

  He drank, but nearly choked. ‘You can’t be.’

  Her head was held back. ‘Why not? I’ve had six already.’

  ‘Seven,’ he said.

  ‘Seven, then. So why can’t I be pregnant again? Eight is the figure of plenty. It often happens. I’m only forty-one. I knew I’d got seven already, but you were testing me, weren’t you? There are three here, three in the caravans, and one at college training to be a priest. Have I passed? If I hadn’t picked you up on it you’d never have forgiven me. Anyway, there’s no mistake. I knew a month ago, but couldn’t tell it to you till it hurt. I’m not an alarmist or a common trickster like Mandy. So look cheerful and drink to it. You always did before, if only with a glass of beer.’

  ‘And so I do now,’ he said, inwardly raging at her breaking the news with such intentional spite before Myra. He drank his brandy, and walked to the open window as if to heave himself over the ledge and out. But there was no point in flying, because you hit the earth and quick on a moon-night like this, plummeting through tree-branches and digging your own grave at the impact. ‘Don’t do it,’ she mocked. ‘It’s got to be born and fed. And so have we.’

  Myra felt a sort of appalled admiration at the cruel way they went for each other, surprised that they could take it, and still stay together. ‘It won’t settle your problems that easily,’ he said, splashing out a large glass of soda-water and drinking it off. ‘It’s so damned hot in here. We must be in for a heat-wave.’ Enid also felt a strange warmth in the room, that pressed against her eyes and temples like a headache. ‘Give me a drink as well, and some for Myra.’

  They stood by the table, as if for protection and reassurance. ‘I don’t like it tonight,’ Albert said. ‘The devil’s around, or maybe it’s just the bloody moon eating through my veins.’

  Enid laughed. ‘You’re so funny when you get in this mood.’

  ‘As long as you love me,’ he said. Their hatred had gone, but Myra felt that something worse had taken its place, and wished for the hundredth time that she had not left her own house where she felt spiritually undisturbed. She preferred not to witness this sort of life while her own was so much confused.

  ‘You’re spoiled and self-indulgent,’ Enid said, ‘to get into such moods.’

  He ignored her so successfully that she thought he might not be well. He leaned out of the window and sniffed, then turned an altered face towards them. Hot oily smoke, almost invisible yet pushing upwards like a wall, was coming from the kitchen.

  He ran for the door. ‘The house is on fire.’

  On the floor below he pulled Ralph out of Mandy’s bed, so that his thick naked figure stood tall before him. ‘Quick,’ Handley roared at his bleak face that even the pleasures of love had been unable to soften, ‘get up to my studio and steal every painting you can lay your hands on. The house is burning down.’

  Mandy ran by with a bundle of clothes. ‘Get the Rambler and the caravans clear,’ he shouted. Richard and Adam had been talking, and were still fully dressed. Thank God for the gift of the gab, he thought, as the three of them descended to the kitchen. The skeleton of a flaming door fell across their toes, and they drew back. Handley picked up a carpet and, using it as a shield, fell inside. Acting blindly in flame and smoke he plugged both sinks and turned on the taps, then opened the window and dived out into the mud.

  Paintings were sailing out of the sky like eagles, falling on fences, bushes, into mud, the ruination of his sweat and dreams. Mandy towed both caravans at once down the over-leafed lane, those inside not knowing what peril threatened as they swayed and bumped along in the safety of their bunks. At the bottom she met a fire-engine, and by a swift efficient manoeuvre drove clear and let it through.

  Richard and Adam hosed water towards the centre of the fire, but he
at and smoke drew it short. He knocked the rubber pipes from their hands. ‘Too late. Get out what you can.’

  They ran up the stairway into his studio. Ralph who had made a rope, turned into a naked sweating demon impervious to sulphur and smoke. He hooked up boxes and bundles of papers and slid them down the still cool wall. Myra caught them, sent the rope back. Enid stacked them. Handley freed Eric Bloodaxe and tied him to the outer gate, then watched the house reddening slowly, put on its mantle of smoke so as to expire in dignified secrecy. He stored the more precious objects inside the large kennel, for a few drops of rain were scattering. The garden was littered with clothes, books, papers, bric-a-brac, furniture. A radiogram smashed to pieces on a concrete bench. It’s a good job I never furnished it Well, Handley thought, as fire-engines arrived and turned on the foam. Or had many possessions. The caravan idea was brighter than I thought. His limbs trembled, and he lit a cigar in order to feel more at home now that he plainly had none. ‘Anybody left inside?’ the fireman said. Handley pointed to the studio, still floodlit with electric light. ‘There are three in there, but they’ll get down by the tree.’


  He pointed. Adam was already in the tree-top, a bundle tied to his back. Enid and Myra were carrying things to the front of the house and laying them out tidily. Hot smoke boiled as floors and roof dropped into the centre. Foam seemed to help it. Richard fought his way through crinkled char-edged leaves, and with Ralph above him they slithered through in a few seconds and fell to the ground. Handley assembled his canvases by the gate before paint on them melted.

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