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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.35
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.35

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  Makhlouf pulled his arm. They moved away from the oued and went up between the thickening trees, scouts ahead and behind. They pass through a former village, a collection of charred places, bits of rag and paper, where the paras had been three weeks ago. The men had fled, but all women and children were caught in their net. They walked quickly in silence, one village out of thousands. What did memories matter when something like this blotted them clean away and sent in its place a catastrophe that would be remembered forever? Everything living had been shot down.

  Smoke to the south-east rose up slantwise as if to avoid the sun. Shame at this picture of massacre made him want to die, to never get out, to kill his uttermost and perish here. Those who saw it were robbed of their manhood, never able, to face women and children again without remembering what they had been powerless to prevent. Did it shrivel the souls of those men who acted in this way? He didn’t think so. German Nazis from the Foreign Legion had set up torture-houses in Algiers, trained others in the same game. Yet thousands of Germans had also deserted. The Algerians didn’t like them, but took them carefully to the frontiers on an arduous trek of repatriation. The Germans handed over weapons and ammunition as the price of their ticket to friendly soil. Tell the world about our struggle when you get out, the FLN officers said, and some Germans organised arms traffic, sent money to collecting-points in Paris. A few of the deserting legionnaires – Italians, Germans, Yugoslavs – changed their minds in Tunis and Rabat, and came back over great and perilous wasteland routes to rejoin the FLN.

  They lay on a hill-top, hidden among stones and gorse, a ferka of thirty men with twenty rifles, three LMGs and a mortar. Warmth spread through cloud and sweated them like a Turkish bath, became a knife-edged autumn sun. There’d been no water for a day, and then only a few hand-cups of green slime that he’d preferred not to look at. He could only croak, impossible to converse with Makhlouf, so looked with care and interest between the bushes and across open ground of the uplands. It was hot and silent, a smell of stones and sweat, and of cedar bark rising out of thick forest. Faint notes of a cowbell came from a far-off meadow. They expected nothing, yet had never waited when nothing came.

  Helicopters, ‘those putrid horseflies of pacification with ten maggot-murderers in each body’ – to quote a leaflet he had just read – passed over now and again, and they collectively willed one to descend on impulse. It was a good landing-ground, uneven but tenable, as perfect as one could allow if they weren’t to suspect a trick.

  Flies and midges hounded them, touched eyes, walked up nostrils, bit lips, but such torments were set apart from his patience. Five hours passed, and at times he almost slept. It was an inviting hilltop to occupy, pacify, fortify, employ as watchpost or base from which to send out patrols. Lost and isolated, it looked as if no soldier’s boot had ever stepped on it. To sleep meant chaos and death, sudden fire and nightmare, so his eyes stayed open, unseen slits between flesh-puffed bites he’d thought himself immune to after a year in Africa. In the Kabylie mountains they bred more fiercely than in the south, venom his blood could not yet absorb without pain.

  They were ordered by radio to keep their position all night, sweat out dreams on to thorn and gravel. Biting mist hurt into his marrow. The greatest fight during the crossings of successive wildernesses had not been with the French, but to keep up with the physical tenacity of people around him who had come to the FLN because they could no longer bear to be treated like dogs, who had lost friends and families in endless and unendurable massacres, and who had reasoned that the only place for them was under the green and white flag. Bitterness and idealism toughened them even more than the previous hard life.

  A green light near the coast lost itself in cloud, finding the one free hole to heaven, and good luck to it. Man-arsed sparks would disintegrate, unseen cold dust falling back to earth after they had lit up some poor bastards for a hail of bullets and phosphorous. Springs in his eyes snapped open when he tried with great effort to sleep.

  Insects flung their last bites before being banked down by snow. He could smell it. Over six thousand feet up, it was ready to float on to them, hail in by crosswinds. What if some bullbrain mulling over a map in Legion headquarters should spot the subtly formed contours of their hill and decide to pacify it in the morning, to attack from landward on all sides and destroy their fondest hope of a godsent ambush. It was a game of psychic hide-and-seek, of pulverising the rectitude of Lambert gridlines on the map one by one. An attack would chase them down from the hills like frightened stallions into the flaring waves of the sea.

  He sweated, began to see more in the world than the next tree, the oncoming rock, the ragcap in front. Gates of fire and chaos fell on him. Unable to sleep, he wanted to get up and make for the nearest barrage or deathpost, through darkness into the blackest night of all. He gripped hard so as not to let go, a sharp stone and the magazine of his rifle, the pack of bombs and ammunition between bare feet. Chafing fleas were armed with minute hooks, power and virulence that for months his flesh had resisted or brushed off as too unimportant to kick against. Another rash of lights went up, green lace flickering along the pale-blue undergut of cloud. A low rumble of guns or thunder followed. An attack at night was rare. After the vicious scrambles of the day you either slept at the backend of exhaustion or, more often, moved elsewhere in an endless game of musical chairs that, going on long enough, was designed to paralyse the less arabesque mind of the adversary. He imagined it would be difficult for a man who had commanded or been involved in this kind of revolutionary war to take over in peacetime, to set a raw and idealistic country along the line of material progress and development, especially one just out of complete and utter ruin. Maybe a man stored up the sort of energy and talent that would let him make a good job of it.

  Moonlight flaked on surrounding pinnacles, tall fingers, rockhands, light-grey fists and knucklebones, a frightening sight, blue flames and limbs of panic ready to rush down from the highest peaks like overpowering ghosts and finish off all contenders whether they were guilty or innocent. The machine and metal of his gun squashed such terror, pushed fear into locked cupboards from which it would not emerge until or unless the age of machinery was destroyed. A gun saved him from the despair of not being able to distinguish good from bad, ghost from reality, day from night. In normal life maybe he would not need it, but now he did, in this eternal insanity of move and countermove. Its clean hard metal and machine-shaped wood set him apart from trees and rocks, and told him on which side of them he stood, even though other machines and metal were trying to destroy him unless he could take cover and sufficiently hide among those same trees and rocks.

  Metal and living wood fused in him as he fell asleep.

  When madness ended, sanity began. Thirst, fleas, hunger and midges pulled away with the magic scene of a helicopter gliding towards them up the valley.

  It hovered over clear but bumpy land, looking for the softest point to set down its wheels. Cloud had lifted, woods and lesser hills below had lost their smoky purple of the morning, lay flat and green, hillocks and ridges waving away to the next upshoot of high peaks. LMGs were sighted on the door, rifles and the mortar set for intervening space. The expected monster looked fragile and vulnerable. His vacillation and fear had vanished in an hour’s sleep.

  The pilot took care but suspected nothing. Guns swept the ground but they lay with iron control, hidden. The first soldiers came out skilfully, throwing themselves to the ground at great speed. He would have heard the thumps they made, but four were caught in mid-flight by the first bursts, and fell dead or wounded. Six others fired from under the helicopter’s belly, then moved forward. Frank lined his sights at the petrol-tank, sent his magazine into it.

  Shouts and gunfire shut off engine-noise. His second magazine went for the cockpit, calmly manipulating trigger and bolt as if on piecework at his old job in the engineering factory, but still as always keeping up the quality of articles sent out. Nightmare had gone, and a worksh
op of calmness and order closed around him. Mortar smoke flashed along open ground. He fired on fixed sights, unmoving elbow dug painfully in.

  The helicopter sagged. A whistle blew and he wanted to laugh at the out-of-place half-time sound of it. His mouth was full of coffee-grounds, accumulated bile-dust of day after day passed in the unnatural forced drive of exhaustion; He existed for a moment in emptiness, a human spent cartridge suddenly without senses. He shook it off, recalling his love of life and power of endurance. Two men nearby slumped over their benches as if they had worked too hard, or as if bent in shock at some mistake in their pay-packets. Another screamed in rage and pain because the machine seemed to have packed up on him.

  Noise died as smoke cleared. He reloaded, senses sharp, danger always in silence and emptiness. A paratrooper stood up and rushed forward, arm swinging back, a brave fellow with nothing to live for. Frank fired three times, and as the man folded the missile curved towards them, slow, gentle and sure. Bullets cracked through the explosion. Warm dust and flesh threw him sideways. The aarif stood and shouted orders, and Frank unhooked his granades. The engine roared back into dominance, and the machine tried to lift, blades driving smoke in a large circle.

  The aarif knelt, and two men near him went down. An LMG trained on the cockpit spat whole magazines away. Frank ran and hurled three bombs. None reached the machine, hid it from view of every gunner. He swore, and hugged the ground, disappointed at not hearing the final rending smash-up. Someone ran over him thinking he was dead, and leapt across open ground in front. He clipped on his last magazine, and followed.

  A fist of light threw him back, hot smoke boiling in as the helicopter exploded. He crawled away, a terrible ache in his shoulder.

  They withdrew from blackening fire and carnage, a beacon-signal for French reinforcements. Nothing remained that needed assistance, but it would draw them nevertheless, and they had to move speedily down, after fighting into the flames to collect arms and ammunition.

  In the forest they were five men less, but they had rifles and machine-guns for another dozen. In such an army there were always more men than guns. Frank could barely carry his own. The fight had taken twenty minutes of their lives, and he felt the accumulation of twenty days travail tearing him apart. He kept up with their running, Makhlouf at his side wherever possible on the narrow track.

  Feet shook as he followed the rough steep steps of a cliff face, fifty metres’ drop over the tops of cedars, corpse-grey backbones and poisonous dark-green cauliflowers and a midday pullulating heat pulling him dizzily down towards them. A continuous high-pitched note humming through the back of his head made it difficult to keep his eyes open. He saw Makhlouf in front, in startling three-dimension, swaying along under a load of guns and pouches, and a spare beret like a red ear hanging from his pocket. The soft clarity of his movement was like an exceptionally marvellous painting come to life. Beyond him were others, blurred in dull brown going down through the trees. Only the nearest man was in focus, and he had no voice, no sounds penetrating his ears as roundedly as Makhlouf did his eyesight. He was black from the fire, sooted and corked, and all were unrecognisable one from another by face or race, united in moving quickly along a rocky valley, a track devoid of trees.

  Helicopter-engines muttered, homing onto the smoking chaos they had fled from. They ate half-cooked beans, and supped from a few tins of condensed milk, which gave energy but choked him with thirst. His shoulder burned, but there was no blood. To touch it would be putting a hand into the fire. Both hand and fire lodged in his one body, but longed to stay apart, to widen the gap until it disintegrated out of pain and life.

  Chapter Thirty

  John Handley boarded the steamship El Djezair at Palma, carrying his own luggage, and dressed in a pale grey suit. It was the end of September. The sky was hazy along the line of Majorcan mountains, but clear blue over the pinnacles and buttresses of the cathedral. The boat funnel was already churning, and a tree of smoke shadowed the baking sunclean quay. ‘Yes sir, she’s my baby’ pounded from the bar radio, and a group of people were handclapping its rhythm as a steward showed him to a plastic deckchair along the port side of the boat. Smells of food and fuel oil permeated everywhere.

  He stood at the bar with a bottle of lager, toasting himself in his brother’s style: ‘Here’s the sky on your head!’ After backpedalling from the quay, the ship steamed slowly into the widening bay. In ten hours he would land in Algeria, but his purpose was muted after many delays in Paris, time spent establishing FLN contacts whose addresses had been given him by Richard. At last he had been accepted by them, and received a laissez-passer from the FLN Provisional Government.

  Tunes being played were composed at the time the ship was built, he thought, the jogtrot of the French colons from the twenties and thirties. Studying their faces, he saw that it was all finished for them, that the dance of gaiety covered brave despair which their flushed and half-cheerful faces would not admit to. A Frenchman danced with his wife, half young and half carefree, dark and good-looking, but her expression was growing towards that of raddled anxiety, of the soon to be dispossessed. He did not imagine it. The boat reeked of racial venom that the blue sea could not wash away. The Algerians of tourist class kept apart, less noisy at their separate tables. John had read and heard enough in Paris to know why. It was a boat whose passengers showed neither joy nor anticipation for the end of their journey, as if they would not stay long in the place they were going to.

  In the dining-room an elaborate and stultifying four-course meal was served, and John saw how scrupulously and tactfully the stewards had assigned places at table so that no Moslem sat with Europeans. Facing him was a Spaniard with a business in Algiers, who wanted to know why an Englishman should visit Algeria at this stage of its history. He would do much better to come in a couple of years when the rebels had been finished off. He scoffed at the idea of John being a tourist. What was there to see, in any case? He’d lived there forty years, and there was nothing, nothing now but filth and laziness, barren mountains and sand, and a handful of rebels causing trouble, Algerian riff-raff who had undone all the good of civilisation. ‘And as for the people, they’ll cut your throat if you go beyond the suburbs of Algiers.’

  ‘I won’t let that worry me,’ said John, standing up to go back on deck. His ineffable middle-aged gentleness worried the Spaniard, who stood by him later at the rail. John would have preferred an overnight journey, for there was nothing to see except the occasional steamer passing from east to west. The bar was closed after coffee, and people wandered up and down, or dozed on deckchairs as the boat rattled its way across the sea he had last sailed on coming from Singapore in 1945.

  ‘You mustn’t go beyond Algiers,’ the Spaniard repeated.

  ‘I thought a million French troops had made the country safe at last?’ John said, wanting to get rid of him and study his maps in peace. Richard had procured a thick packet of large-scale survey maps for him, of areas where fighting was heaviest, and of zones said to be already liberated by the FLN.

  ‘It will never be safe for us, not with ten million troops.’

  John pitied him, yet wished he did not exist. The man was frightened, and because John was not, saw a danger of losing the protection that his fear gave him. If everyone were afraid they could at least learn how to feel safe. Those who were not tainted with fear were traitors, saboteurs, or innocent foreigners who did not realise what was at stake. They weren’t pulling their weight, and detracted from the collective fear needed to give vital energy for the defence. And because John was an outsider the Spanish–Algerine felt as if the finger of the world were pointing at his insecurity and guilt. John asked what business he had in Algeria, and he replied that he owned a farm near Algiers, and a block of flats in the town. He was sixty-five, and if he lost both, he would starve. ‘So you see, we can’t leave.’

  ‘To lose all,’ John said, turning from water racing by to set his grey eyes fully on the man, ‘is to become fre
e. When you own nothing then you can live. Your eyes only open when you have nothing. Your spirit will flower. Ever after, you can share the fulness of your heart with others. If ever you lose everything’ – he took a small card from his wallet, his name and the address of Albert’s non-existent Lincolnshire house written on it – ‘come to me here, so that I can willingly share all I have with you’ – he grasped the shocked man’s lapel with a gaze that burned into his eyes and in some way frightened him. ‘There’ll be a camp-bed in my room, and food on my tray.’ The Spaniard sweated, thanked him, and went quickly to his deckchair where he tried to sleep for the rest of the journey and keep out of this madman’s way.

 
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