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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.37
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.37

           Alan Sillitoe

  ‘We’ll be on the ship in three days.’

  ‘That’s what they say. It’ll be more like three or four weeks.’

  Saturated by snow up to the waist they followed the track of the donkeys. John had learned enough to know that Frank was looked on with special favour by the FLN. He was not one of the thousands of Germans who deserted in such numbers from the Foreign Legion merely to be repatriated back to the cushier life of the economic miracle in the hope that their war crimes had been forgotten. Dawley had actually driven a huge cargo of arms from Morocco south of the Monice Line, and stayed on to fight with them.

  ‘You can stuff personal comfort,’ Frank said at that night’s resting-place, ‘as far as I’m concerned. Black bread or white bread, it makes no difference to me, as long as I can think on it and move on it.’

  The northern slopes of the Grande Kabylie, well-covered with cork and olive-trees, ran sharply down towards the sea. Frank and John Handley shared a cave with other soldiers. They entered through a maze of thorn-bushes – though the area was completely free of the enemy – into a space large enough to stand up in, a hideout running twenty feet back into the hillside. A further compartment which burrowed out at an angle was used as a storeroom for food, arms and ammunition. They walked down towards the sea, but were turned back by Sten-armed FLN pickets.

  Winter mist that spread along the coast gave Frank sore guts and rheumatism. White chops foamed on the sea, and passing ships were invisible though their hooters sounded – lost, melancholy, but determined at any cost to make tracks away from this inhospitable and stricken coast. He didn’t blame them, wishing he could also leave it, in his present mood. ‘I’d like to live on a ship, John, be the only passenger on a large cargo-boat that goes around the world, on every route and eventually to all parts of it. I’d have a cabin and part of the deck to myself, and would see all regions of the earth from the ship: Spitzbergen, Macassar, Valparaiso, Odessa, Yokohama, New York, Socotra, Buenos Aires, Singapore, Sydney, Archangel, Java. I’d never go ashore again, but I would see people. That ship would be a bit of everything, monastery, brothel, zoo, office, hotel, floating beer-hall, workshop. Lots of people would pass through it. Yet no, as soon as people start coming into it the idea loses its attraction. I’d like to be a hermit-figure on that ship. In the end I’d want to die at sea, dropped into the warm tropical tin-opened ocean. How’s that for the end of the world, John? You never expected me to say such things, and I suppose it all comes from the miserable moth-eaten all-consuming past, and meeting someone like yourself who has just come out of it, and is trying to show me my place in it again. Such pipe-dreams have to be put in their place, pulled and stamped on if you can’t burn them while they’re still inside. And if you want to fight against the extinction of your better self you’ve got to scorch out the sort of past that can only give you such paltry and hollow pipe-dreams when you’re at the end of your tether for a day or two. Plough the past under the rubble, and sow the best sea-salt in it – that’s the only thing to do.’

  They waited for the ship to come. Myra’s letter had dropped to pieces, soaked and creased to extinction, and he left the remains of it in the hollow bole of an olive-tree. It was a simple letter, giving news of Mark, wanting him to come back, and hoping he was alive and well. But it was warmly written, and he longed to see her and his son. He also wanted to visit Nottingham to find Nancy and his two other children. The only thing out of your past that was ineradicable was children. After three years he had a blind and painful yearning to see them again and help them, somehow wanted to live where they could all be close to him, an insane proposition that haunted him on this wild, saturating and hungry coast while he waited for some boat to take him off it.

  On waking in the morning he climbed to a lookout rock and scanned the sea with John’s binoculars hoping for some spectacular scene to fill his eyes – other than the usual files of men and donkeys. Perhaps one dawn I’ll see a huge P & O liner stranded on the rocks below. Or maybe I’d wake in the night, startled by the grinding noise of its collision, then by hordes of destitute Algerians streaming by the cave intent on loot, and materials for the army. And I would go out and join them, walk down to the great liner and help them strip it of its luxury for their subsistence against the all-beating elements.

  During the long days of waiting they talked little, considering how much each had to say, as if saving the flood of it for the safety of Lincolnshire. He hoped the storm would let go its fury, for he wanted to cross on a leaden calm. The prospect of gliding along over a great watery placidity attracted him after the torment and turbulence of the last year. Or perhaps it’s my only hope of a rest, he thought, before the greater confusion to come. What right had anybody got to a peaceful life?

  ‘Does Albert know you’ve come out here?’ he asked, on a walk they took together through the drizzling mist.

  ‘The less I talk, the more I do. I only discuss what I’m not going to do. But on this occasion we were all having dinner, including Myra, and I did tell them I was coming here.’

  ‘What did he say?’

  ‘That I was a fool. But I felt sufficiently in control of myself to agree with them, and still set off.’

  ‘Don’t you think you were lucky to find me?’

  ‘I believe in fate. I was fated to.’

  ‘You just happened to meet me.’

  ‘Fate.’ John snapped out the word, like a saw going through wood.

  ‘Suit yourself.’

  ‘Albert will judge when we get back.’

  He smiled, careful to make it compassionate should John take it into his occasionally muddled and paranoid head to snatch at the revolver bulging under his torn and stained coat. ‘I might be more inclined to talk about it in Lincolnshire,’ Frank said. ‘Let’s hope we get through that black sea. We might be in for months of gales. Makhlouf told me it was sometimes like this all winter.’

  After dark he couldn’t sleep. It was still raining, a night laden with blackness. John slept in the shelter wrapped in coat and blanket, oblivious to the chill, stretched out straight and peaceful as if still in his army bed in England. It seemed that nothing could trouble his sleep, and Frank envied such animal-like capacity for indulging in it. He himself had lost it, being on his way out, while John took to slumber as if he might be here for good, which made Frank superstitiously wonder whether or not he’d ever feel the deck of a good steamer under his feet.

  The sea was boiling up, as if the devil would make tea with it. Stretch out your arm with a kettle on the end and it would get snapped off. The wind was a mad steamroller, could push down trees, throw a helicopter against a cliff-face like so much spit. It roared along the coast and over the sea out of control, dangerous because of the night, crushing stars and pine-cones – though ships were moving through it. The roar was so great he expected boulders to be thrown up into the forest. The ship must attack the storm if it is not to be smashed itself. It sets out on an offensive against nature in which survival is a great victory. From a fish in water he would become a ship if and when he left Algeria, set out on his fight against the all-conditioning soul-moulding world. To fight was the only way to combat extinction, to mount the totality of his mind and body against annihilation by the sedate and backward sliding world. Yet he felt, in his agony of suspense, and the infinite postponement of getting away, in the tormented state of mind at being forced to leave and yet not wanting to, that for him complete victory was impossible because he had not been tempered in the true steel of the materialist world. In fact just plain victory was out of the question. You can conceivably break through the enemy lines, but you die on the barbed wire. Or, at most, you cut out your enclave in no-man’s-land, and hold off all comers, friend and enemy alike, until you have dug galleries and catacombs in which to work out your ideas to the bitter end. The conception of wide-open spaces beyond the bloody lines of battle and death is only a dream, valuable only for drawing you into the conflict in the first place. But it is a con
flict in which neither armistice nor surrender is ever possible to contemplate.

  The storm lessened, and one night a boat waited offshore in the mist. Men were grunting by with loads on their backs. The moist hills rolled behind them. He stood outside and an FLN officer shone a torch in his face. ‘You go down in an hour, at two o’clock.’

  Back in the cave he took papers from a briefcase. ‘Both of you.’ They crouched. He counted ten one-thousand-franc notes. ‘This is your pay, a thousand francs a month. Please sign here.’

  Seven pounds ten for a year. He’d expected nothing, but that was what the ordinary FLN soldier received. Then he gave it back. ‘Keep it, for the cause.’

  They embraced. ‘We won’t forget what you’ve done for us,’ the officer said. ‘Tell everyone how we fight for our liberty. A guide is waiting for you outside. Here is your laissez-passer. You have plenty of time to get down.’

  It was six hundred feet and three kilometres to the sea. Baked within and sweating outside, he hauled up his pack, and they set off for the rocks. He felt lean and nimble, not turning to see whether John was lagging behind. His arms were bars of steel, currents of energy running in to keep them working. Young lambs bleated from under carob-trees. How had they survived? It’s a wonder God didn’t turn in his grave at what was perpetrated in this war. He could no longer think of it. Such things would come to him later. They trotted the brown wet soil, filtering between trees, the last bouts of wind knocking into them, thorns ripping at his ragged slacks as if to send him out naked. The full moon was half-hidden, clear, then obscured, and plain again.

  John fell, and he turned to help. ‘Keep it up. We’ll soon be on the boat.’

  He was gasping as if his chest-wall would splinter. ‘Leave me if I can’t keep on. Leave me alone.’

  Frank could not believe that the boat and a certain sort of liberation was so close. Their party descended steeply, no path to be seen, an occasional smoothness under the feet if they didn’t look down too often or anxiously. ‘I won’t leave you,’ Frank said, ‘not even if you throw an epileptic fit. Come on, get up.’ He took his belongings, heard him panting behind, and followed the vague shadow of the guide waiting below.

  The sea made no recognisable noise, and the wind had become part of their breath with its soft hissing. The raingrit lifted but showed nothing, then came down again. He felt himself going quickly to the edge, towards some endless sudden drop of the land. On waking as a child he stood on the bed, still in his dream, and walked to the edge, fell off into his world of wakefulness – and a broken ankle. You stopped falling, and there was no broken drop that the body could not take nor the soul catch up with though badly jarred. When they rested he felt the power of John’s set eyes wildly against him. ‘Let’s smoke,’ he said. ‘Shield everything.’

  ‘The sky won’t see it,’ John smiled. ‘Its black eyes are shut tight tonight.’

  ‘They’d better be. Your fags will just about last till we hit Gibraltar – or wherever it is we’re dropped. I’ll take you out to a meal – by way of thanks and gratitude for you having come all this way to get me back safe and sound.’ It was impossible that they’d ever reach anywhere, except the stony ground of this bleak coast, in a thousand gobbet-pieces after the French warships blasted.

  John threw down his unlit cigarette, stood and looked around as if the bars of the world were shutting in on him. He ran back up the hill, springing and zigzagging like a mad goat, stones and soil scuffing from under his feet, scattering at Frank who chased him. He ran to the left, a shallow outflanking move that soon set him in front. He leapt from a treebase and brought him down. John foamed and kicked, but Frank fixed his limbs and bones tight. A rattle shook his throat: ‘Let me go! Let me go!’

  ‘Where?’ cried Frank. ‘Where? Where do you want to go?’ Did he want to crawl back into the desert like Jesus Christ? He was too old. He’d die, and it couldn’t be allowed, for Albert’s sake, for everybody’s sake. A black chilling emptiness spread through Frank at this unexpected bar to their departure, shrivelling his will, denuding every field in his world of hope and desire. He neither wanted to get on the ship nor go back to the war. His spirit sank into a pit of emptiness. Despair tightened his stomach as if it would never let go. Yet somehow he kept his hard physical controlling grip on John as if he were some animal he had to vanquish. He felt the revolver under his hand and took it from him, feeling an impulse not to use it on John, but to kill himself.

  ‘Where do you want to go?’ he asked again. ‘Tell me, you madman. Maybe I’ll learn something.’

  ‘Leave me. I want to stand up. I won’t run.’

  ‘Stop struggling, then.’ But he heaved and pushed, and Frank’s strength was breaking under it. ‘Do you hear?’ He took the revolver away from his own mouth. It was something he could not do. If he wanted to die, and at that moment he had suffered enough to find it possible, then he would go on living and kill himself that way. The gun was pressed against the wild beast that lay under John’s heart. ‘If you try to run again,’ Frank said, ‘I’ll shoot you, and get rid of you for good and all. One false move and you’ve got all that you ever wished for all rolled up into one big wish. Do you understand?’

  He nodded.

  ‘Go in front of me. We’re almost at the beach. If I kill you no questions will be asked. Stand up and walk.’

  Head down, John staggered towards the shore. For some reason Frank exulted, thought of his entry into Algeria when he had driven Shelley Jones forward at the point of a Sten-gun. Foam splashed onto the black rocks, sent curving lines up the gravel.

  There was a cat on the beach, a small cat sitting by the rocks, hard to see because of its grey and white stripes. He had never seen a cat on a beach before. He found a stone shaped exactly like an egg and threw it at the sea. He imagined throwing real eggs into the sea, a black insult, like pelting life with life, a holy pagan waste, a madman’s defiance, potlash, eggs into the salt sea, a negative backward turning motion that you could not do.

  They climbed on board the motor-launch, subdued and quiet, and set off through thickening mist towards the ship.

  Part Five

  Chapter Thirty-two

  A cold orange fireball of dawn split up the semi-detached houses on the southern outskirts of Paris. Frosty clotheslines and lights in the unseeing windows, and the smooth whining eardrum-click of the train swaying along under its own track-lights, and the short no-man’s-land permanently laid between the dead-still established lives and the moving caravan of those who never stopped, registered on John’s glazed eyes and ears. A woman walked the corridor with an enormous borzoi hound, and smiled at him, the obvious oblivious Englishman, bald, well-shaved, and already dressed. It is dangerous to lean out of the win-down. He stood firm, even to a sudden sway, underfoot vibrations well controlled. Dawn was the time he felt so guilty at being on earth that he could face anything from breakfast to self-annihilation. The terrors of light and night met each other at daybreak – in dreams if you were still in bed. Either way you could not escape. Standing in a train you smiled at the reflection of your own face as the train swept under a bridge, a face going so quickly by that there was no time to take a gun and blast the glass that kept you from its actual yellowing flesh. The revolutionary struggle is also a spiritual struggle. He and Frank were in agreement, and both were right. Energy, Imagination and Intelligence were to replace the autocratic triumvirate of Inertia, Stagnation and Reaction. The coup d’état called for a parachute-drop, fireball surgery, and he wondered whether the creeping takeover of guerrilla warfare were enough. He needed like everyone to set the forces of liberation against his own heart and soul, the consciousness that controlled him, ambush the laws he lived by, mine and blow up all preconceptions, erode them away if they were too strong, retreat only to prepare further stratagems against these ancient enemies of a new and resurgent spirit, make all one’s life a protracted war against the flesh-built habits and indulgences of yourself. It is a method of ceasing
to live under water, of eventually reaching higher consciousness where energy, intelligence and imagination can be used for the benefit of oneself and other people. Not yet fifty, he felt too old to go on living. It wasn’t a matter of age so much as being worn out in a struggle he should never have started and undertaken, maintained through false hope and stale pride and the softening idealism of the congenitally demented. The animal talent and human bravado had been given to his brother Albert – the imagination, energy and intelligence which he used for his work. The instinct to survive was good and necessary, but never enough, without the paraphernalia of self-assurance pushing you upstream at every lock and difficult weir. Lack of self-assurance was the basis of all illness that gave you the golden trinity of consumption, syphilis and cancer – or whatever three reigning death-monarchs happened to be on hand for those who denied themselves the life-force in any particular era. Lacking the spirit of force and fire you called on death to do its worst, and if you didn’t lack enough assurance for death to take up the call with avidity, it might be necessary to do the job yourself if you could stand the pain and poison of a razor’s-edge life after years and years of it.

  He boarded a bus outside the station and rode across Paris, the wide cobbled avenues and boulevards coming to life, layered by exhaust petrol from Peugeot and Renault, Ondine and Simca. He read metal names on passing bonnets, smelt the drift of coffee and smoky frost under the wide open blue sky of cold northern Paris.

  At the Gare du Nord he checked in his luggage and walked over the boulevard. His greying border of hair needed clipping, and he wanted the civilised barber’s perfume to float around him in place of petrol and dust. Dawley had gone to London by plane, indulged in the luxury of a cheap night-flight, for he wanted to see Myra and his son, and visit his wife and children in Nottingham. On landing at Gibraltar he had craved pork, but the first big chop had laid him up sick for three days in the Queen’s Hotel, cursing all the vile trichinoid pigs of Spain while retching into the chamberpot. John had said goodbye to him at the airport, then taken the ferry across to Algeciras. The idea of travelling by air was the one genuine fear left in his life, and though he valued it for that reason, he could not bring himself to give in and overcome it. He had, in any case, a strong premonition that whatever plane he flew in would crash, fall like an ironfisted boulder out of the sky as soon as everyone inside had been long enough there to feel safe and on their way. So he would not travel by that method with Dawley, his one last desire in the world being to see him safe back to England, delivered into the place where he would do the most damage and complete the work of revenge that John had dreamed of for twenty years, that his own soul had sweated and rotted over, and that his own body had never in any way been able to carry out. But Dawley was a man who had not suffered in the way John had. Those who can’t forget anything cannot learn anything and are unable to improve their lives or carry out their deepest wishes. But Dawley had been hard enough to undergo a baptism of fire in a real revolutionary war. His course was set, his strength gauged, his determination focused. He had no label, but his purpose was such that the safety of such a precious cargo could not be jeopardised. Even superstition must be used to guard him to his final destination.

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