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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.32
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.32

           Alan Sillitoe

  Lurid scorching air threw them back, pushing, until they were half-way down the lane. Red of the fire mixed with red of the morning. ‘What are we going to do, Albert?’

  They stood with arms around each other. He’d always imagined that losing one’s house by fire was a great boon to a free spirit such as himself, that he’d laugh in its face as long as no one was hurt. But this impossible child-dream seemed to have burned him completely hollow. After such a fire there was a law of silence which you could not disobey. They sat among bushes on the damp bank of the lane. He walked up again, to see house and tree vanishing in their own cocoon of destruction, eating each other up. He couldn’t take his eyes from it. Even the fences were burning. A deep crumbling sound lay under the crash of great sparks. The past was burned out, and the future was unthinkable. The spoor of twenty years had gone. The whole edifice was rumbling and rendering down through an enormous mincing machine, fascinating, fantastic, frightening under the crude shock. Foam was still pouring over in a useless attempt to show willing, though Handley thought you might as well piss on it for all the good it would do. He shivered, gooseflesh patching his face and arms, teeth jumping so that his brain was drowned by the noise. He made a great effort, paced up and down till it stopped. A line of fencing collapsed, the limits of the house and its grounds merging with the fields.

  ‘There’s not much we can do, sir,’ a fireman said.

  Handley offered a cigar from his tin. ‘It’s all right.’

  ‘Thank you, sir. A hell of a fire. I haven’t seen one round here like that for a long time.’ He put the cigar in his pocket: ‘I’ll smoke it later with my tea.’ Handley walked away. The intensity was weakening, the world falling apart.

  Mandy had parked the caravans on open ground by the pub. Leaving the Italian girls in charge she backed the Rambler up the lane and passed out two tea-flasks and a bottle of whisky sent by the publican. ‘You’re an angel,’ Handley said. ‘A real heroine. What a family I’ve got, even though the house is down.’

  ‘They’re eating beans on toast,’ she said, wide-mouthed with pleasure at her father’s compliment. ‘They’ve never had such an adventure, all sitting on the caravan steps in their nightshirts. Even Mark’s awake and enjoying himself.’

  ‘It’s a bit of an adventure for me as well,’ he said wryly.

  ‘The whole village is around them.’ She wore slippers, and a coat over her nightdress, her long hair tied into a pony-tail flashing outside. ‘We can get your paintings on the back of the Rambler, Dad, and then they’ll be safe. They’re fixing up rooms at the pub for you lot up here.’

  The whole lane was softly lit by the glow of the house. ‘If anyone asks what I’ve done with my life I can now truthfully say that I made a fire.’

  ‘Someone did,’ Enid said, drinking tea from a paper cup. Handley passed the whisky bottle, then took a drink himself. ‘But where are we going to live till we get somewhere?’

  ‘Come down to Buckinghamshire,’ Myra said. ‘I’ve a large house, and a flat over the garage. There’s room for everybody, and the caravans.’

  ‘There’s not much stuff to move,’ Handley said, relishing the fact now that whisky made him feel better.

  ‘You live near the motorway, don’t you?’ Mandy smiled. She seemed happy and decisive, even mulling on future pleasures, while the others were sluggish, and too wan to think about much.

  ‘You’ll get no time for that,’ said Handley. ‘We’ll be busy for the next month or two. We need a new burrow, but we can’t park on Myra. We don’t want to ruin more lives than necessary.’

  ‘You can, and stay as long as you like,’ she said, knowing that Frank would like such a thing. If John found him and they both came back, so much the better. She hadn’t seen John – no one had.

  ‘Mark’s all right,’ Handley said, at her terror. ‘Is that it?’

  She fell into Enid’s arms, holding on, shuddering. They had forgotten him. No one had shouted his name. In saving the paintings they’d lost him out of their lives. She whispered his name to Enid.

  ‘Where’s John, then?’ Enid cried to them all. ‘Don’t look so dumbfounded, where is he?’

  Mandy screamed, and led a frenzied stumbling run towards the smoking walls of the house. It was almost day on the hill-top, grey clouds rolling high. The firemen pulled Handley back. ‘What is it? You’re all out, aren’t you?’

  Handley fought free, a demon running to the charred walls. ‘My brother!’ he screamed. ‘John! John!’ He was thrown back, slung onto the soil and cinders, the scorching clinkers of his ruin. He crawled away groaning. Enid and Myra lifted him up, a terrible wrenching misery possessing them all. ‘Did anybody see him?’ Richard cried. ‘We’d have seen him or heard something. He couldn’t have been in there.’

  ‘Nobody could have died like that. He didn’t even shout.’

  ‘It’s not true,’ Enid said. ‘I can’t believe it. He must have gone somewhere.’

  At that moment he was standing on the platform at Louth station with two packed suitcases and a briefcase by his side, waiting for the first train to London. He flicked his lighter, and lit a cigarette with the sharp white flame.

  Part Four

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  The woman came in and set down his tray of chickpeas and mutton, dates and sheep’s milk. He was craven and blind with hunger, but would vomit if he touched it. The smell of real food tormented him. He scooped something from the first dish. The woman smiled, and shuffled out. Those who visited him did not wear veils. Being sick, he was inhuman, or a child. The elder woman had a sleek plump face, thick lips and brown eyes that looked with a smile at every dish to see if he had eaten. Ragged trousers showed under her skirts, drawn in tight to her brown calves. There were gold teeth in her mouth. She wore a kerchief on her head. He ignored her out of physical weakness. The fatigue of observing these small points forced his eyes to close. She had three daughters, one who was sixteen, slim, pallid and consumptive, the first one out as if her role of leading the other and the first shock of world air had been too much for her, wilting the forceful spirit and turning it in on its own weakness. She never smiled, but burned her way by him smelling of spice as she picked up his slops or the colourless camelhair blanket that had fallen on the floor. She was white and gaunt – finished. He’d known a girl once who worked in a tobacco factory and one day went to a sanatorium never to be seen again. She had the same impermanent, brittle, stern expression. Her breath went straight to heaven, they said. The mother bullied her, but only enough to prove to the girl that she wasn’t ill enough to die. To stop bullying would frighten her. The girl was taller than her mother by a foot.

  He was a casualty, kaput, unable to stand or eat, suspended above every sensation he’d ever known, and wondering whether he’d been left here to die. The world was divided into those who lived with their mouths open, and those who went with them closed. You saw the latter all over the place, the permanent open-mouths who were naive and unselfquestioning, the gums of all countries, John and Audrey Gum hand-in-hand in a corner of the sunless snug with never a care in the world or a word between them. He’d known many, but never for more than a few minutes at a time. He closed his mouth.

  His watch had gone, and he never felt anyone take it. It was an act of mercy to be relieved of time, hours of revolution, days of sickness, weeks of hope. In this house all comers offered a hand to be shaken, whether they knew you already or not, as if you had just met in the middle of a wilderness, even though you’d touched hands a dozen times before with a smile and only a shade of recognition. It needed many greetings to establish friendship. What use was a watch among such people? No acquaintance is ever finally made, no friendship killed unless you die of wounds or your liver dries up. They brought him lemon syrup every time he opened his eyes. The consumptive girl poured yellow thick fluid into a cup and filled it with water from a beige earthen jar. He gulped it half-way and she refilled it. Another great swallow and in poured more wa
ter until the syrup lost all taste. The well was deep, the water good, not even reminding him of the buckets that dragged it up. She belonged to people who lived before the invention of the smile. It never distorted her thin face and pale straight lips. She would not touch him or get too close, or let her gaudy cinnamon-smelling dress swing near. He smiled out of weakness because he could not talk, having come back along a tunnel towards daylight and now hanging onto the solid ledge at the entrance as if he were made of straw and had no strength, clinging till he became solid and his force returned so that he could crawl away over the level and open earth.

  He was naked under the blankets, and as far as he knew owned nothing except twenty-four hours of half-sleep every day. He was a landed and spiritual proprietor of sleep, owning sleep, all of it, forests and gardens of sleep, and the will to occupy a million square miles of wilderness, to descend from the tree of fire to the nether zones of ice and guts, down into twisting tripes and corridors of graven dream. It was nothing but memory, pure vicious iridescent memory, the primal slime of the past and his parents’ past waiting to pull him in by neck and leg, hair and teeth, into the heat of midday and the sweat of the afternoon pall.

  The hour before dawn was deceptively cool, when he felt he could stand up and walk out of the house, holding onto its outer wall perhaps, then by stick and guile make his way across the hills. He would be discovered and shot down, or the sun would shake him into leaf and powder. He lay like a hollow stone. Weakness made him panic, as if that were the permanent and final state of his life till death caught him secretly while fast asleep. The one escape seemed to get up and walk, crawl, either live or die, but not trough down into this panic wash of debility. For a time it made him loathe people, every fit person he saw coming into his room. But beneath his weakness he knew that this was wrong, that he should not run out and die alone, and that behind his tissue and spiritual inanition was a faint determination to survive. There was nothing to do but wait, drink the vile and bitter herbs, the dust-coated pills brought from God knew where and at what cost, and hope that the trick of life would work. He put his thumb on a large red ant to squash it, but it bit his flesh before he could find the force to press down. The earthen walls were bare, blemished in spite of the planing effect of use, breath and smoke. The smell of kerosene and burning oil came in at dusk from the next room, filtering around the edges of sacking hung in the archway. All he wanted was to drink and sleep, but no water would douse his fever, and no sleep refill his veins with desire and strength.

  Pamphlets and papers in French were put beside him on the floor by these women who were fiercer at heart and even more revolutionary than the men. But he wasn’t bored at the endless days drifting by, not even by the thought that he might be a burden on those who looked after him. He seemed to be taking weeks of their priceless hospitality, but only ten days went by before he began to wake from his illness and notice his room and the people who cared for him.

  One of the leaflets he picked up, yellow paper and large pockmarked print, described the big attack he had taken part in, telling how it came as an astonishing surprise to the enemy who, being so far south and in such open country, had always considered themselves safe. Frank could not understand how they had been taken unawares. Drawing towards the town on the previous days and nights all had seemed confused and obvious. Those who had taken part were referred to as ‘heroic soldiers’ – ‘Les heroïques soldats luttant contre le légionnaire et le mercenaire, les combattants loyaux luttant contre le napalm …’ – who had destroyed seven transport-planes and damaged ten others, and caused heavy losses to the enemy. The country was denuded, so no one had thought to suspect or look. The beige flat-topped hills towards the town and oasis had crawled with hundreds of men, brown and olive patches that from the air may have appeared like clumps of alfalfa grass or vegetation that a chance shower had drawn up from the baking flats. No plane had flown over low enough, and no binoculars from road or outposts had penetrated the sage-green and purple hills. They lay in their private ovens for the common good, the Algerian Moudjahid risking a daytime death-trap in order to spring down at dusk and do with rifles and grenades what should only in all sanity be attempted with mortars and artillery. The planes went up like jellyfish laden with gasoline, white lights bursting the crab-exterior of wings and wheels. The vague scuffling under a vast umbrella of stars and noise portrayed nothing glorious, but the leaflet turned it into an inspired strike for independence, and it needed no poet to put such phrases together, but only the experience of having been part of it for the fine words to dominate your fibres forever.

  He could claim no share or glory, because he was exhausted and sick, and because he had so far survived. Dozens had been left behind, out of the oven and into death, and scores more had been killed in the organised rattisages of subsequent days. The hunt was always on, and any time the sackcloth might be pushed aside and show the automatic rifle of some para or legionnaire. He was old enough to know that he could worry about that when it happened. Eyes burned through an inch of grey stubble hiding his emaciation. A shirt of white and charcoal stripes had just been given him, loose and with long sleeves, and his khaki shirt and trousers lay newly-washed on the floor ready for when he was able to get up one night and walk away.

  The air was close, and smells hung thick from his morning ablutions. A cock scraped out its cry beyond walls and doors where a blue-white sun smothered the hills. By thinking of it, he could feel it, and the fear of it no longer daunted or pushed him back into sleep as a defence against the recollection of something dangerous. He wanted to leave at no matter what risk. A scorpion lay flat and literate on the wall, an analphabetic insect shaping itself in the first clear letter of the world, grey lines with grey callipers and an aerial sting-tail which looked as if it came from a big family and was a long way from home. He reached for some paper and crushed it before it had time to kill itself. It was an easy enemy, that you could see. Its twin-brother had turned into a globe of sweat, and broke into a run down his face. The greatest heat, when you were lying in bed, came at five in the afternoon, with the sun on its first slow pull away from your part of the earth, collected humours of the day falling into its track, and an intense pitch of fiery dampness turning his shirt into a foul dishrag without one muscle moving.

  He read the papers, eyes close in the dim light. In earlier campaigns Azrou had been burned, Nahra flattened, the people of Laghouat wiped out. Massacre and destruction had been poured onto them, oil into flames by the self-conscious madmen of Europe, gaolers and bullies and scum-soldiers who perpetrated atrocities they would never mention to their grandchildren who would sit on their knees when they became kindly old men. They indulged in frenetic cruelties of ‘pacification’, they humiliated, exploited, butchered wherever they went. Behind them came the technicians and tillers of soil, roadmakers and administrators, idealists who did even dirtier work because they believed it was good, or were glad to have a career and servants they would never have achieved in their own country. But after a hundred and twenty years the Algerians had finally risen, and would not be put down. He found his friends proud and competent, dedicated and amiable, endlessly suffering and brave. ‘Le Moudjahid! he is the soldier of the FLN, the political militant, the contact-man, the shepherd, the herdsman, the schoolchildren who go on strike in Algiers and Oran, the man who fights by sabotage, the student who joins the men in the hills, the man or woman who hands out leaflets, the poorest peasant who, with his wife and family, can only suffer and hope. The Moudjahid is the combined effort of a whole people guided by the FLN and having but one idea: the independence of their country.

  ‘The Moudjahid is the one who cuts telegraph-wires, derails a train, burns down the house of the colonialist farmer. Every peaceful means to free ourselves from colonialism has been tried, and all that is left is to take up arms in order to recover liberty and independence. The Moudjahid is in the mountains and valleys; in every town and village he is the heroic soldier fighting
against the mercenary and the legionnaire. Our wounded bleed to death or succumb under torture, perish by arbitrary justice, die protecting women and orphans. But the virtues and moral worth of the freedom-fighter are an indivisible part of the Algerian Revolution. Such qualities will lead us to victory, because true dignity and spiritual greatness are the first attributes of this fight without mercy, this fight to the death in which nevertheless we must not lose our sense of humanity, so that in the future we can remember our sufferings and in so doing recover our tenderness, affection and sensibility in order to build a free and democratic country for the people.

  ‘The occupying powers have tried to divide the Algerian people among themselves, separate brother from brother, but they can never succeed. The people are united and determined to triumph in this war of liberation. Our people will confound and defeat the enemy: they are the creative force, the inspiration and faith of our fight. The secret of our success resides in the support of the people. The Moudjahid is a citizen-soldier face to face with a conscript who does not wish to die for something in which he has no belief. The Moudjahid has a social duty, and a clean conscience, and though he is willing to die for these ideals, the fear and thought of death never for a moment enters into his soul.

  ‘Small groups yesterday have become a regular army today, developing a power of offensive, gathering their war material, and improving their tactical skill. Faced with an enemy bent on genocide the Algerian army has rapidly reorganised. The Moudjahid in uniform operates in the mountains and wilderness. The Moussebelines – those without uniform – operate in the towns and villages, accomplish their missions in the streets, in cafés, cinemas, on the roads, in public gardens. They hunt down informers and torturers. They destroy police stations and guard-posts. They transport guns and ammunition, hide and look after the wounded, act as guides and liaison runners, report on the movements of the enemy. They draw the enemy into ambushes, form scout guards around our halting-places. The enemy cannot sleep or rest. He can never remain calm, or forget that we are there. Faced with the young and old, people of the towns, peasants of the countryside, students and workmen, all those who make up the FLN the enemy has the whole country against him. The colonialist hordes continue their savage repressions against unarmed people, their extortions and pillage, and remain a devastating force. But they will be met by the serene courage of the Algerian Moudjahid. In combat he always stays within the limits of the laws of war. He must respect the human being, the plants and crops, animals of the field and all those works necessary to the wellbeing of the population. As well as fighting the enemy he must assist the people for whom he is fighting. He must help them in their misery and hunger, ignorance and illiteracy.’

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