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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.34
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.34

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  For a while Frank had nothing to say. It was hard. It seemed as if he had been born in Algeria, and that the question was irrelevant. When they stopped in villages the people now automatically spoke to him in Arabic, as if he could be no other than one of them. But he now felt himself a middle-aged man looked up to by a youth, and he must provide an answer. ‘I came to help people who needed help,’ he said, ‘and to help myself. When you help others, you also do good to yourself. It began when I drove a lorry-load of guns over the Moroccan border, and stayed to take part in the struggle.’

  Djemal laughed. ‘It’s strange, nevertheless. You must be a communist.’

  ‘I might be,’ Frank said. ‘But the one certain thing is that I belong to the FLN, because I have an identity-card in my pocket to say so.’

  ‘I’m a communist,’ said Djemal. ‘After the war we are going to build a new Algeria – right from the bottom, because the country is ruined except for airfields and roads. There’ll be so much work that no one will be idle. We’ll build houses and factories and hospitals, schools, and places where our workers can take holidays. We shall construct a great African country.’

  A tremor passed under the ground. They were near once more to civilisation, with its sensations of fear and the desire to run from the danger of exploding chemicals. They lay all day watching a sparsely wooded hillside burn across the valley. No one was hiding there. It was meant for them, hidden by smoke from their own trap, a screen no helicopter could penetrate. It blocked out the sun and they choked through handkerchiefs and rag saturated by precious water. You didn’t think of the future for fear something in the present took away your capability of ever thinking back on it from a future beyond that. Another rippling explosion gave him a gothic gut-ache. A dead and withered branch fell among them, scattering cedar-cones. Would they now turn to this hill? They were forty in all, caught on the periphery of the base zone and brushing the outskirts of a French brigade. Without reason the beast could send up a ten-man claw in their direction, then call in the planes when it came back mangled.

  They took advantage of the smoke and moved on, their formations the shape of eight-pointed Moslem stars drifting between the trees, until precision was lost and they merely followed the vanguards, though still widely spread. They crossed a track and began to climb. Looking from higher up, the smoke became a shifting bank of dull green, a new forest grown and suspended above the one burned out. The setting sun tinted it purple at the diffusing borders. Staves of flame showed beneath, spiked up by new explosions. They had moved out before the trap closed. An hour later they would have fried and died under it. ‘How did they know?’

  ‘Some French soldier passed on the news,’ said Djemal. ‘It often happens. A lot have come over to our side, even officers. They see we are winning, or that we cannot lose.’ He remembered the man who had ridden them along a dangerous road in his Peugeot, his white fearful face and small grey eyes not turned to them during the whole length of it, as if he didn’t want even friends to recognise him. Meeting him on the street he might seem a typical reactionary colon: presumably the military police took him for such when they stopped him, setting his fear down to the fact that he had come over perilous ground where he might have been sniped at from one of the riverbeds flanking the road. ‘Sometimes we are caught in their traps, and the Gardens of Paradise become pits and sheets of fire. We turn into hares – but spread in the right direction. You must always know which way to run, how to pull out in swift order.’

  They were doing so now. There were cedar-forests on the mountainside, and it was cool and windy among them, refreshing after the sun and sand-ovens of the south. They crossed a track at five thousand feet, then lay down for a rest between bomb-smoke and darkness. A few lights cringed on the foothills, almost red. The evening was clear, strange, neither cloud nor smoke anywhere. There would be no tea for them, either. The sky was purple, hills iron-rust, totally silent. His eyes still ran from the smoke. Immediately after wiping them he could see. Then they were filled again. He ached, even in his blood, though his bones did not feel the roots and rocks under him. The great Djurdjura mountains across the flatlands turned dark like a wall, white sparks above fixed in the ice age of the sky. Beyond would be the sea, white foam and blue waves, ships and a different freedom from the one he had now, a picture that he did not want to imagine until he could taste the salt air that leapt from it.

  Out of one’s confusion comes the greatest strength, if you give in with patience to that confusion and know that some day you will find more meaning in it than you could ever get out of order. No one could see them. Not aeroplanes, nor even helicopters ten feet above the ground. The mats were the same colour as the earth, and they were lying in graves among bones and dust, fighting for life from oddments of the long (and not so long) dead. He spied out the track, too absorbed to notice the sun burning his hair. Like Switzerland, they said the French had continually said, these great inaccessible mountains, craggy and wooded, soon to be snowed up for the winter. But it was like Algeria, because it was like Algeria, and in Algeria, and in no other country on earth, Djemal said before he died. The ambush had taken place far over the valley by a white-walled red-roofed farm. An old man sat outside, a statue of rags with nothing good about him except his hearing, which was phenomenal. He detected a convoy coming along the road, and warned everyone. They took up rifles and revolvers, and spread over the countryside. There were eucalyptus trees at the back of the farm, and olives dotted down the hill. The convoy stopped, and a gun was unlimbered. They fired. A tree before the farm burst into flames. Then the house went up and the old man vanished in smoke and ruin. They re-limbered and went on. Arbitrary law was the rule – which was called war. A boulder blocked their way. The officer got down from the lorry and was shot dead, a bullet out of cedar trees. Only one shot, though two dozen laid the ambush. The soldiers fired, at nothing. They spread out. They came back. They went on, taking the dead officer with them. A few minutes later planes flew over, and Djemal was the only casualty.

  Go forward, go back, circle, stop, run. Sharp-angle retreat. Flank march. Attack. Wait. Scuffle. Retreat. Do nothing for three days. Go forward. You can always go back if that’s where the advantage lies. Grave-stones bake, and bushes that can’t get out of the sun wilt also in silent torment. Great mountain flanks rise across the valley, sheer walls of rusty stone in places, or ash-grey, or banked with olive-woods that seem, through the merging, enlarging, isolating power of the binoculars to be almost as dense and one shade lighter than jungle. Waiting, you isolate faces and scenery in the mind by the wielding of imaginary binoculars, superimposed over the real and dangerous detail that never escapes the eyes. The imaginary lens of discretion shifts at will across the legendary escarpments of memory, over the top, beyond further valleys and into other countries, where your own particular republic lies – height, distance and dense undergrowth removed from the common reality of the half-blind world but which, with one sudden pull of the will, floods in and becomes your real self staring you in the eyes. It is a dangerous exercise – at the moment – because it obliterates the valley and road you have been set there to watch. But he can’t help thinking of his own children abandoned so blithely three years ago. If life becomes the progression of a more or less straight line you are poorer in spirit at the end than you were at the beginning when you first thought it easiest to live your life in that way. To turn back, zigzag, go in circles, demands courage but produces understanding.

  From this spur of land both approaches to the village were controlled by heavy machine-guns, and was sealed off from the other world, first point of a star screening the battalion headquarters. If I were attacking I wouldn’t come along the roads, neither from east nor west, the obvious ways which are easy to defend, but over the high mountains which shoot above it to north and south, and which nobody could be expected to climb. That’s our obvious way of retreat. You’re only on the side of history if you think of and do the impossible. If they com
e against us, we get more of them; if they send a patrol first to mask the main force, we get the patrol, if they send planes over they don’t see us. They can send planes on random off-chance bombing but we’ve been through that before. You can’t lose a war like this, you can only die, which is better than in previous wars when you did both.

  The village is compact and crawls up a hill – like all important villages. Olive and fruit terraces fall away on three sides. People live here, but silently. The tin-rattle of goat and sheep bells still sound round about, but you hardly ever see them. The days are hot in the sun, bring flies and midges out, living off the smell of donkey-shit and steaming pungent straw in a stone shed nearby. It was a long way from the camels of the sand-dunes nine months ago, when the taut skin of the camels reminded him of the oldest preserved body in the world that he’d seen in the British Museum. The camels had died at the same time, great barrel-humps of bodies in a stonehenge circle, with no sign of what had happened to the people on them. He saw the first oasis after the sand, beige and blue houses on a hill surrounded by a deep-green palm-forest.

  A rattling well-chain rapidly unfolds on its wheel, and the bucket smacks hard into water below, all sounds distant yet clear in this alpine silence. The bucket is hauled up twenty times a day, water in abundance, real life at last. He tasted it, cold and earth-fresh, and the stones round about smell of it in the sun for a few minutes.

  The arrow is a liar, the straight line a lure and a trick. The lifeline on the palm of the hand may be straight and definite enough, forcefully curving through the landscape of cuts and callouses, scars and dust, but to circle and go back when necessary is still part of that life arrow, the straight line in the sky that you may look for but never see, but which is always over you. He wondered what geometry had to do with life, despicable shorthand that lopped it off and hemmed it in. See that road at which my optic sights are laid? A mortar-bomb would find its own trajectory, follow the setting it was on. The drifting and subtle decorations of arabesques are equally part of the true spirit. Days were meaningless, counted as units of time. Distances and directions were null and never to be considered.

  He dug both elbows into the stones and pulled himself from the grave. Numerous insects clipped and hustled about the grey light. He staggered as if to fall, the air not weight enough to hold him, leaned against a rock which still had the warmth of day in it and let his piss stream down. It grew chilly, and he searched for the bush where he’d left his blanket. The sky was so white it needed a long stare before making out the lacy network of stars. The sudden pale flush of them sweeping above the blue-ashy precipices of the Djurdjura swung him somehow back to his Lincolnshire night-wanderings when living there with Pat, the pale expanding autumn sky above the wolds met with on his long solitary walks. He smelled the grass and hedges, wavering leaf-smoke and the farm-mould at the end of a lane. He stood still from his walk in order to recall it more clearly, not so much in a mood of loving recollection but out of curiosity to see whether it would come back totally. It did not, almost faded, until he thought of Handley and his brood who, he didn’t doubt, still lived in the rambling and rickety house he’d once visited. He remembered an exquisite encounter with his fair plump daughter, and the odd meeting at revolver-point with someone called John, a mad pensioned-off brother who dreamed of controlling God and the world by radio. He thought of them as if they were part of his own family, and had such a forceful strange desire to be among them again that he seemed to be out of Algeria and danger and almost on his way there. He was disappointed, when his vision dropped, to find it was neither true nor possible. He wanted to see everyone – Nancy and the children, Myra and his child, the Handleys, even Pat who had gone back to her husband. After being so long in the desert he felt he could live at ease with them all as one big tribe.

  He speculated on it, traipsing the valley five miles to get food and a space to sleep in. The wind buffeted between great pinnacles to the north. It was cold and damp, altering the spirit of the seasons, an equinox breaking towards winter, rough seas and snow. But it was still light and comforting under the common moon, and his regular footsteps were strong even to himself, in spite of hunger chewing around the hollows of his stomach. He thought of Handley scoffing food in the Greek Street restaurant, as he had with himself and Teddy Greensleaves the last time he saw them both. Maybe Handley lived in a flat now on Park Lane, and his kids instead of poaching went out at night emptying parking-meters. He suddenly felt human at recalling something he had never given up, the life you could not step out of because it stalked you as a shadow even along this Algerian upland valley with the moon on its trees and the path he walked.

  A rabbit with upstuck ears flopped out of his track, startled him by the feverish zigzag of its grip on survival. It didn’t even have to know when to run, but shot away from its own ripe ruin when the mood of the earth shook it, all nerves and no reason, all fear and no civilised lunacy to stand and fight or find out what the tremors signified. As for them, they starfished at the threat of bombs, but never ran as bleak engines overhead shed noise and planed the hair’s-breadth off their backs.

  The thought of it stirred him to walk more quickly and his shadow caught up with a voice he recognised. He offered Makhlouf a cigarette, who shivered when he stopped to take a light also. ‘There’ll be frost and snow soon,’ Frank said.

  Makhlouf held his hand, smiled over the lighter flame. ‘Every autumn I think we’ll be in Algiers before the snow comes, with cigarettes and coffee, bread and newspapers.’

  They walked on. ‘It’s warmer on the coast.’

  ‘But I don’t think so this year. We’ll stay in the hills. Frostbite and pneumonia.’

  ‘It’s my first time in this wilayet,’ Frank told him.

  ‘They say you’re going out.’

  ‘You have enough men, I suppose,’ Frank said. ‘It’s only guns you want. I can understand it.’

  ‘You brought us guns. But we need men as well – everyone.’ Makhlouf had received a terrible mouth wound, though his lips had grown back into a not altogether unhandsome shape. But his sentences of French came strangely out, sounds not tallying with the movement of his lips, like a speaker in some badly dubbed film. His wound had healed, but he nearly died from pleurisy, and he now roamed the hills like a spectre, thin and active with whatever company would have him. He rattled, rather than breathed, and the shape of his mouth was solidified in the form of an ironic, almost cynical grin – as if put on to apologise for the noise his breathing made. Whoever slept near him and woke in the night, which happened often when broken by exhaustion, heard the weird hollow rhythm of it. Makhlouf knew of this and slept apart, the grin still with him and varying with the intensity of his noise. He was tenacious, quick-witted, and strong, and used these virtues to defeat a concerted move to keep him in some safe rest area. He was a survivor of the Battle of Algiers, and had been a casual labourer on the docks most of his life. Under the red beret of a French paratrooper he’d killed in the Aurès Mountains, his head was completely shaved, a faint grey covering to his skullskin. ‘They’ll get you out,’ he said. ‘I heard them talking about it down at the post.’

  He kicked a stone as he walked. ‘They don’t trust me,’ Frank said, ‘after so long.’

  Makhlouf laughed. ‘You’ve done enough. They want you to go overseas, and tell people about our struggle.’

  ‘No one would listen to me.’

  ‘They don’t trust anyone,’ Makhlouf said. ‘Why should they? They don’t need to. If anything goes wrong, a bullet is the only answer. A quick one. Life is simple.’

  It was, until you thought about it. Then it became a derangement of the senses. It was all right as you waited, hidden, ready to kill, kept your mind drilled on war and politics, but even this was working less and less, the derangement staying uppermost as if he were losing his nerve. They were right to boot him out, no matter what reason was put on it.

  It was cold, and twenty slept huddled in one smal
l room. Even Makhlouf’s rattle of life was welcome since it helped to keep them united, like the low purr of a worn-out fan evenly dispersing the spice and sweatfumes of suffocation. Walls shook with thunder, sounding far beyond the outside, yet sharp enough to penetrate his sleep. It made him uneasy, would stop him remembering his dreams. Orange flashes bumped against his eyelids, turning the blue walls grey. He rolled over and straightened his legs, pushing the bottom of another’s feet. The small space held them in two rows, and Frank, now awake, noted how close he was to the black and red Kabylie blanket drawn half across the door. The spout of a Bren-gun pushed it to the wall, and a guard filled the space with his body and shouts.

  Frank knocked a stump of candle down, pushed from behind by others struggling to get free. A giant handful of earth hit him in the face, and a body fell on to him, rolled sideways and stood up. He staggered and ran to the trees. Blazing branches fell across the house. The inside chains of himself pulled and strained, but he gripped a sharp stone in the palm of his hand as he lay on the ground to stop the chain snapping and leaving him to finally disintegrate. ‘Paratroops have landed where we were yesterday,’ Makhlouf said. ‘Artillery, planes – everything.’ The light in his eyes seemed to be choking him. A green flare shaped out the grove and all their faces, a circle looking in on itself. The bank of a gully descended, and he wondered whether they would stay on the hill-top, or pull out. A radio-telephone sparked. This was one attack they didn’t get word of. He fought his way from sleep, not entirely wanting to wake up and face the reality of something that did not seem quite real any more.

  A cold grey light was let into the valley, streaks of violet beyond veils of dust and smoke. He slithered, hanging to bushes to break a direct fall. The hill-top flamed outwards, shaking gusts of soil and air on to them. A man rolled free, stricken by shrapnel, going down in a ball so quickly that one of his boots flew off. The grey tooth-like crags beyond spewed mist. ‘Bouclage,’ Makhlouf shouted, ‘ou rattisage?’ They seemed to be part of the crumbling cliff. Thorns ripped into his clothes. The tail of a chameleon flickered down among the rubble. LMGs opened up on the hill-top. They reached the oued bottom and found markers to guide them along its course, a climbing flank march to the spur they had just left. Frank heard the noise of the Sikorsky helicopter and flattened with the others. Three passed over, slicing smoke and air to drop another platoon on the hill. The FLN had set fire to the trees with kerosene so that the helicopters hovered helplessly above unable to put down reinforcements the paras had called for. Dull thumping of grenades spanned the distance, but nothing could be seen except black and yellow smoke. White phosphorous spewed out of the pudding. A straggle of mortar-bombs fell across their retreat, bending and fusing the cedar-trees on fire. Helicopters had dropped grenades into the smoke and came clacking back over them. They lay in a forced rest for ten minutes. Any lifting head would have been blasted by their own guns if it gave the company away. Discipline was strict and not without rage. His face was in the soil, and the taste on his parched mouth forced him back to the past as hunger pulls a pig to its empty trough. But the trough seemed to have filled up, and his recollection was so sharp that it stung him to pain and happiness, so that he thought he had stopped living. Any future misfortune must stem from such periods when you did not know what was happening in the present – unless you jerked out of it to smash back the dragons of memory that only emerged from their lair to destroy you.

 
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