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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.36
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.36

           Alan Sillitoe

  John stood alone and during his musing remembered the fire he had started in the kitchen on the night of his departure, and smiled in the hope that it had succeeded in consuming the destructive pride of the family. If not, he would try again when he got back. If so, they would live in tents and caravans, and prosper under the hardship, pride gone, comrades once more.

  Approaching Algiers the air was sultry, yet on top deck, exposed to the wind, it became damp and penetrating. Sailors were hoisting signal-flags, which shot out on the lap of the wind when the string was pulled. The coast to the east merged with heavy air and cloud that no stiff breeze could shift. An oil-tanker was waiting to enter the roads. Trying to penetrate the bad visibility with field glasses he half discerned distant peaks of the Kabylie Mountains.

  After a fortnight in the sombre humidity of downtown Algiers John gave a taxi-driver twenty-five English pounds and was driven to the nearest FLN roadblock in the Kabylie Mountains. After many detours he arrived there at five in the afternoon, having taken all day to do the hundred miles, and been shot at several times by Algerian militiamen. His papers were checked at the roadblock, and the major said they had organised a tour for him, to see a hospital, schools and training camps, and that it might also be possible for him to interview prisoners.

  John nodded, wise and of few words. ‘Are there any Englishmen fighting for your cause?’

  The major did not know. ‘Some English deserters came over to us from the Foreign Legion, but I believe they were repatriated through Tunisia. All deserters can choose repatriation, and most of them do.’

  Two orderlies struggled up the hillside with his suitcase, camera, field-glasses and haversack. For a fortnight he was guided about the hills, seeing the black and blighted circle of one doomed village after another, the marks of massacre, endless graves. He was shown an improvised arms factory, and caves in which grenades were made out of milk-tins. He watched a napalm attack by French planes on Algerian Nationalist positions, a distant upsurge of boiling nightmarish colour that brought the spread of childhood horrors bursting out of his mind. He lost balance, held a tree branch to stop the sight of collapsing trees spinning him to the ground. Even when the earth had settled down to the steady work of burning itself to death, he heard from within it the thump and scatternoise of fighting, and remembered his own short-lived term as a soldier. He calmly scanned the hills and boulders while the major pointed to landmarks of the trap now drawing in more French forces. He took John’s hand. The vantage-point was no longer safe, and they had to run.

  He saw the prisoners next day, young men of twenty in their camouflaged commando suits. They were ragged, weary, hungry, though not particularly disgruntled, and stood in line between the trees. John chose the man who looked most dispirited and asked why he had been taking part in this war. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’m a conscript.’

  ‘Did you like fighting?’

  ‘No,’ He was tall, sandy-haired, and had a raw unhealed scar down his left cheek.

  ‘Where do you come from?’


  ‘What do you want to do now?’

  ‘Nothing. Go home.’

  ‘If you get home,’ John said, ‘will you tell others about what’s happening here?’

  ‘Perhaps. It’s terrible. I don’t know.’ John reflected that it was beyond the resources of the Algerian Nationalists to indoctrinate each of the million Frenchmen set against them in this way, should they be sent in the tracks of those already captured.

  He saw children gathered outside a hut and being taught to read by a young man from the city. The remnants of a European suit showed how recently a change of heart had sent him to this bleak wilderness. John had often come across groups of such dispossessed infants, grazing between trees like flocks of half-starved goats yet guarded by an adult who negotiated food for them and tried to see that none actually died. They were fed on a priority scale, which sometimes meant as much nutriment as in normal conditions. As far as possible they were kept under the green umbrella of wooded areas, for in the open any flicker of movement would be blasted from the air. Cut off from house, parents or village they ran and fought in the sunlight, rolled in autumn leaves, slept in outside djellabas. ‘The children are cared for as much as our soldiers,’ his guide told him. ‘They are the future citizens of Algeria.’ He had learned good English at the Lycée in Constantine, had not in fact wanted to take to the hills, because he had enough pro-French middle-class ambition to get control one day of his father’s transport agency. But his brother was arrested – by mistake as far as he knew – and died while in the hands of the paras. There was no decision to make. Life became simple. At the first attack he was wounded in the leg and permanently lamed, and so he became a teacher and shepherd of orphan children, spent his night whenever there was a lamp or candle reading the French text of Kapital. He was well read in all matter concerning revolution, including the phase of government when the war was over. John made him a present of his fountain-pen, and a street-map of London.

  ‘Here,’ said the major, ‘is our hospital.’ Nets and camouflage-cloths were spread high and flapping between the trees. Huge poles had been rigged where trunks were sparse. John looked for huts or tents, motor-cars perhaps. ‘It was,’ said the major, ‘one of the best hospitals in the wilayet. Before moving it here we used to put out red cross signs but they were machine-gunned. Now our wounded can be looked after in secret. We occasionally spread red crosses where nothing exists just to test their panache, and we are never disappointed to see bombs and napalm raining down.’

  They entered between two bushes. John thought the path would lead to an encampment, but steps descended under his feet and feeble lamps flickered along the narrow tunnel. Fumes mixed with damp earth, caused him to cough and wonder what it was like being carried down with shrapnel or a bullet in the lungs, and the thought brought tears to his eyes. The mutual cruelties of the world mauled his senses, and at such times the justness of the cause being fought for did not help his manhood to face these realities. It was easy and comforting and necessary to believe certain things and fight for them, but to see what suffering took place during the transformation of the social order (or one part of it) was enough to break the heart.

  The tunnel turned at right-angles, and then again sharply, for soldiers had been known to advance into such places preceded by flamethrowers, and such an intricate entrance was better for picking off the machinist before he came into the central ward, gave time for the lightly wounded to escape by an emergency exit.

  He stood ten minutes in the dark. Wounded men were lying on the floor wrapped in greatcoats and ragged blankets. Damp petrol fumes made even John join in the coughing, and as he walked between them the disinfectant stench brought him close to retching. He could see clearly, and those sitting up showed gaunt faces, olive-wax features wondering who this man was from another world, who found it so warm that he paused to force out the peg-buttons of his sheepskin coat. The major explained that a doctor and three nurses looked after the hospital. Once the wounded reached it there were few deaths, but fatalities were common between battleground and casualty station. They had still not solved this kind of problem. The rules of Red Cross protection were hardly refined enough to help in such a struggle, but perhaps they would be so when this type of war became more general. John wanted him to finish before asking the question he made at each stop, but at the end of the row, following his own intense scrutiny of every face and revealed feature, he saw Frank Dawley resting with his back against the rocky wall. His eyes opened, and were set in a dull stare.

  The black earth stank, the reek of months or years, of petrol and wound odours, palliasses soaking in urine and excrement. His hopes, when he’d imagined it would end like this, had been nightmares, sweat-rivers and black seas desolate under the light of a slaughter-moon, a sickle-back sweeping along the rim of the earth. Any man who came down to this must count it as a certain end in his life, the point at which only d
eath or resurrection could occur. The major talked on, and it seemed to John that the top of the ladder in guerrilla warfare was the gift of an easy and authoritative tongue, with little way to go before it led to a government post.

  His eyes closed for a moment. They were hemmed in by grey bristles that spread over the pallow-eyed face. John took out his wallet, and gave him the letter from Myra which contained a photo of her and the child. ‘This is the man you were looking for?’ the major said.

  ‘Who are you?’ Frank asked, taking the envelope.

  The doctor was a young man of twenty-five who had not finished medical school. ‘He was brought in a fortnight ago, and is ready to be discharged. His papers are in order for repatriation – out by the coast.’


  He laughed. ‘We don’t know.’

  ‘My name is John Handley,’ he said. ‘I’m Albert’s brother. I’ve been sent here to look for you.’

  Those who could walk were allowed into the fresh air, stood at the entrance waiting for eyes to focus on humps of rock and twisted tree-pillars. ‘I made up my mind to come and find you,’ he said, hand on his arm. ‘It was so easy that I still can’t believe I’ve done it. A month ago I was in Lincolnshire with Albert and Myra, and all the brood.’

  Frank smoked one of his smooth well-packed steel-tasting cigarettes. ‘You may not find it so easy to get back.’

  ‘Has this life made you pessimistic?’

  ‘Not at all. But I know what is involved. The Yugoslav ships don’t have a regular schedule, and often they can’t get in at all. French warships go up and down playing guns and searchlights on the coast. We may wait months.’ He wondered whether anyone but John could have discovered him in this way, and at the same time talk so blithely about getting out. He’d only seen him for thirty seconds two years ago, at Albert’s house in Lincolnshire when he’d inadvertently strayed into his room while looking for the lavatory. John, sending morse at his radio-set, had picked up a huge revolver and threatened to blow his brains into the wall if he didn’t clear out. ‘I left my passport at the last place in Morocco,’ Frank said, ‘but it followed me by FLN courier. There’s more organisation here than you imagine. I suppose it looks like one big slice of chaos with everything so worn-down and shabby, but it works better than any so-called civilised town.’

  John was amused by his defensiveness. They walked some way from the hospital, sat on a spur of land looking into a valley. ‘Did you bring any books with you?’ Frank was eager to set his eyes again on print that could be immediately understood, wanted for a while to restrict his world to clear shapes and lines of letters that would liberate his mind into the sort of pictures he chose to make from them. ‘My luggage should catch me up tomorrow,’ John said. ‘There are one or two things you might like.’

  ‘The fact is,’ Dawley said, ‘I feel at home here. I’m a part of this country. I’ve learned to exist in it. I don’t know that I want to leave just yet.’

  ‘You don’t have much choice. They’re sending you away.’

  ‘That’s true. I’ll have to go. I wouldn’t want to hinder them. They’re all right, in spite of what they’ve had to do at times.’

  ‘And you helped them, I think.’

  ‘I wanted to. What else could I do? A friend of mine died, an American. When I get out I must write to his father, even though they loathed each other. I must write to his girl-friend as well.’

  ‘Did you want to die?’

  Frank laughed. ‘You’re bringing the wrong values in. That was always an irrelevant question.’

  ‘Still, I’m asking it.’

  The sight of John, his clothes, speech, manner, face and body with the air of externalised living still on them made him hungry. The sparse diet he had grown used to seemed not enough at the apparition of this man newly-arrived from the outside world. He had a wild craving for food, for pork, cheese, sugar, cake. The desire went through his whole body and he laughed aloud at this strongest material sensation he’d had for months. He mentioned it to John.

  ‘I suppose that answers my question. It’s a good sign.’

  ‘I don’t believe in signs. It’ll pass, this unnatural unnecessary hunger. I’d like to stay here with these people, right to the end. I believe in their cause. I’ve been with them so long that it’s mine as well. There’s nothing false about it any more.’

  ‘It’s also mine,’ said John, ‘though I needn’t say it. But I came here to find you, and to see that you got safely back to England. Myra wants to see you. She’s never known in the last year whether you were dead or not. She’s grieving for you.’

  ‘I tried to send a letter,’ said Frank. ‘I thought she might have stopped caring. Yet I never did, really. You can never be sure of these things. The morning I left her in Tangier was a dream I was always trying to get back to. I managed it only when I was most desolate and disembodied. I must see her soon, or I will die completely. It’s funny, but I was strong before you came, but now I feel as if I’m caving in. I’m human again, weak. No, it’s all right, John. Don’t despair! I always was, but I kept it down. It was always a fight, for me. I’ve never been half so strong as I think I am. But I feel strong in realising that. I want to go away for a while, because I know that a rest from this will never weaken me towards it.’

  He lit another cigarette. ‘Myra wants to see you. We all do.’

  ‘I’m busy here. I love Myra, but I believe in what we are trying to do in this country. How can a person be in love, and fight, and still be sane? Don’t you have to give up one or the other? Can any dedicated man, even a poet, say, claim to be in love with someone while he is writing his verses? Still, maybe you don’t have to believe that love is dead to draw enough strength to fight for a cause you believe in. Otherwise you’re not a whole man. I can get out of here for a while to see Myra, and then come back quite easily if I want to, or go to another war like this. There’ll be plenty in my lifetime.’

  ‘You seem determined.’

  ‘But this one will soon be finished. France can’t go on. I can’t understand why you came out to look for me, John.’

  ‘I wanted to see what kind of a man you were. The glimpse I had of you when you came into my room by mistake wasn’t enough. I frightened you off with a gun then. I don’t think I could do the same now.’

  ‘So you won’t tell me?’

  Both were silent. Explosions vibrated through the cold black night. ‘You know,’ John said at last, ‘we don’t want you to perish out here.’

  ‘Perish! What language. It’s good to be talking English again. But how can one perish? You mean die. What does dying mean? I once knew a man who had cancer six times but didn’t die. Each time he went right to the point of death, and then became completely cured – by the guiding hand of his own spirit, as far as anybody knew. He went down from fifteen stones to five. Worked in our shop at the factory, and we got fed up visiting him and having collections for a wreath. He developed anti-bodies when close to pegging out, then his weight shot up to normal for another few years. Nothing could get him, but everything had a try. He even had TB as a young man. Then syphilis between two bouts of cancer. Lost the use of his kidneys once. In the end, when he was nearly sixty, he got run over by a loaded furniture-van. I don’t suppose he could stand old age. So don’t talk to me about perishing or death. Why should I worry about that when I’m not yet thirty?’

  Chapter Thirty-one

  Half-a-dozen grey-haired donkeys as small as dogs were strung along the footpath laden heavily with baskets of mortar-shells, cartridge-belts, food and oil. A roll of cloud that hid the great drop below looked firm and solid, as if any legs that lost foothold or balance would not be let down by it. They ascended towards more wet cloud, then crossed a plateau so deep in snow that the donkeys, led by an old man, were barely visible.

  ‘It seems we forgot our skis,’ John said, hurrying after them. ‘But never mind. Perhaps we’ll come back one day for winter sports.’ Frank had made an overc
oat from his only blanket, cut arm-gaps and head-hole and drawn it around him with a length of rope. John had at first insisted he take his sheepskin coat.

  ‘You need it more than me,’ Frank said.

  ‘I’d be honoured if you take it, though.’ There was a glint of compassion and self-sacrifice in John’s eyes that irritated him, a blackmailing mothering solicitousness that smouldered like a lamp about to tip over and ignite. It was an English attempt at dominance that he had not met from anyone in Algeria, a final feeble wish to make contact with another human being by the only means left to him, which in this case would mean John sickening from exposure. He felt sorry for him, but would not give in. ‘I’m warm enough, thanks. I’ve toughened up a bit this last year.’

  ‘Really,’ said John, hurriedly taking it off. ‘I shan’t need it.’ His sharp face was thinned by the fires that burned in him, giving the temporary impression that he could cross Siberia naked and survive.

  ‘If I faint from hunger,’ Frank said, ‘I might ask you for a loan of it, but not now.’ He swung his own blanket-overcoat around himself and drew in the rope. John had thrown away his suitcase and fitted the remains of his belongings into a copious but lightweight pack in which he still carried his loaded service revolver. He levelled this at Frank: ‘Take my coat,’ he cried. ‘Take my coat. You need it more than I do.’ His hand shook, and he rubbed sweat from his face.

  Frank snatched the gun. ‘You should give this to somebody who has better use for it.’ But he laughed at the argument and gave it him back, and John put it into the pocket. ‘You wear it the first week,’ Frank said, ‘and I’ll wear it the second – if you still want us to share it.’

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