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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.38
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.38

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  The train going across northern France, towards a country he loved but never wanted to see again, seemed like a new home to him, a place he would like to settle down in on condition that it never stopped. He talked to a young man who had been teaching English in Madrid. A pale face, threadbare jacket and long hair made it seem a parsimonious living he had made. He was not glad to be going back to England, he said, hated the food, expense of wine and cigarettes, dourness and compliance of the people, weather, dirt, hard life and dogshit, ravelled up in his own tautologies and complaints. ‘Not that I dislike England,’ he went on. ‘I’m sure I’ll enjoy it as long as I can feel like a tourist. When that feeling stops I’ll have to swim the Channel, get back to sanity and the mainland.’

  John’s eyes blazed, and the man grew silent, reaching for a bottle of Fundador brandy from one of his kitbags. He offered a drink, but John refused. Words went through John’s mind, insistent bangings at the back of his head so that he did not know whether or not he was breaking the sound-barrier and the person opposite was able to hear what he was saying. The country he was born in had, in the final throes of imperial rottenness, sent him to Malaya to fight for the retention of greedy mercantile piracy that he had no heart for and could never believe in. He had seen men starved and tortured to death – human, pathetic, mercy-pleading men – for wicked principles, a policy of grab-all and keep-all by the free use of men’s backs and blood. Since there was such base evil on all sides what was the use of surviving? And yet, around him during his imprisonment had been those who looked on with patience and cunning, waiting to assume the noble privilege of their own government and destiny. The soft-brained words blazed through him, circling at great speed the nearer he got to the coast. He let the window down for a fullblast smell of the sea, saw the open landscape billowing towards clifftops and a moving rash of white birds mute above the inexorable tread of the train.

  He went to the door and opened it, held it from swinging out by the strength of his wiry suit-covered arm. As for England, he thought of its ageless and gentle countryside, mellow people with smooth and matey lives, and the ingrown spite of a failed and debased empire. Casual days without intelligence or equality, an octopus sinking back in clouds of inkiness and sloth, fobbed off by dreams and nostalgia for its vanishing manacled days. After all, one could see it at last, the English were an island people who had once been thrown into temporary greatness by a hundred-year bout of energy. They were insular plain-speakers once more who muddled through by clan and hierarchy, the eternal mean categorisation of a rattled élite, and a dead bourgeoisie, and the people who knew their place because they had taken into their systems the poison of centuries from this so-called élite, and into their bodies the serf-bones of degradation – except for the chosen few who were buried under the common mass. They stared such poison in the face as they flopped before telly or radio every evening after eight hours of labour which they at least enjoyed more though they would never admit it. They were all in all a good people, safe on their island, pottering around in rundown factories and protected farms. Frank had faith and patience, and did not believe any of this, and for him who had these qualities it need not be true with such devastating force that struck at John. Many people in the country had twentieth-century brains and energy but were held under by the eternal sub-strata of hierarchical soil-souled England. They didn’t even know how to pull themselves up by their own bootlaces, because they were made of silk and gold-tipped and might snap if yanked too hard. The soul of indoctrinated England was sprayed at the people every night like deadly insecticide, spew created by intellectual semi-demi-masterminds in the form of advertisements and songs of yesteryear, and those were the days, and these you have loved, and scrapbook for this and that, and as you were, and this is how you are as others see us, and O’Grady says, as you were then exactly and nothing more, and you’ll never be any different because that is how God made this right-little-tight-little offshore island and you should be proud of its past greatnesses.

  He managed to close the door, sweat shining on his face. The train drew into the town and towards docks. Tonight he would be talking to Albert, Enid, Richard, Adam, Ralph, Mandy, Myra and perhaps even Frank if he was back already from Nottingham. He had neither sent nor received news since leaving two months ago, so was anxious to get the late train for Lincolnshire and bask in their congratulations for a great job safely done.

  Yet when the ship crept out of Calais he considered staying in London for a few days. The delights of the wolds, and of his family, seemed as empty and unacceptable as the rest of the world. He did not even want to see Frank. There was no hurry, unless you lacked confidence and did not believe in what you were hurrying towards. He stood on the top deck of the ship, case at his feet, alone. A strong cold wind that rocked it among the waves buffeted him and played weird tunes in the aerial wires. Morse sang from the radio-operator’s cabin telling of gale-warnings and rising seas, the incoming weather of the final world in a language he understood. The last word was weather, elemental weather fearful to ships ploughing the white-green waves, a ship that bucked and furrowed, engines burning underneath it all.

  The gullshit cliffs loomed out of drizzle and mist, sending a pain of hopeless love through him. England, he thought, if only you could begin again from nakedness, become a green infant born from the soil and salt sea, put a coat of all colours on your back of all colours, and start in intelligence and gentleness, but without me, without me.

  He opened his suitcase on a wooden bench and hastily searched through it. Under the clothes lay stacks of loose papers in foolscap sheets, years of radio-logs compiled in his Lincolnshire room out of loneliness, a tenacious persistence in taking down radio-messages from a thousand sources in the hope of finding and hearing and recording for himself and everyone a message from some non-existent God or god-like fountain beyond all the layers of the stars that might contain the precious message of life that would fill him with energy, imagination and intelligence.

  As the hundreds of sheets of paper covered with his neat writing scattered like birds and snowflakes and dead leaves over the arms of the harbour that the ship now entered John’s hand gripped the butt of his long guarded and loaded revolver. Forgive me, Lord; I know what I am doing. He opened his mouth wide, as if to shout at the pampered disputatious gulls of Dover and tell them to watch out for what was coming. Placing the barrel of the gun well inside, he tilted it to what he hoped in his final lucid moment was the correct angle, and pulled the trigger. The nearest gulls wheeled away sharply at the noise, and the humble abrasive boat-siren announced that he was home at last.

  Chapter Thirty-three

  ‘Where have you been?’ Nancy demanded, as if he’d gone to the pub for some fags and come back two hours after the dinner had burned to a cinder. She stood aside so that he could set his suitcase in the hall. ‘The bad penny turned up again.’

  ‘How are you, love?’ he said, kissing her.

  ‘I’m all right. What the bleddy-hell was you doing all this time? How are you?

  ‘Going around Algeria. I’m fine, fit enough. Won’t you make me some tea?’ She’d altered little in thirty months, a few lines by the side of her hazel eyes, oval face paler – though everyone seemed pale in this country.

  ‘You’ve got a cheek,’ she cried, ‘leaving me all this time and then walking back in here as large as life and asking for a cup of tea.’

  ‘You didn’t expect me to crawl in, did you, and sup at the dog-bowl?’

  She was trembling with surprise and anger, but managed to get the kettle under the tap and on the stove. ‘Why didn’t you send a telegram at least?’

  ‘You might have thought I was dead or something. I don’t like to frighten people.’

  ‘I suppose you wanted to see who I was living with?’

  He noticed a uniform tunic hanging on the wall. ‘You live with who you like. I left you.’

  ‘You can hardly deny that.’

  ‘I don’t wan
t to.’

  She set out two cups. ‘Do you want some cheese on toast?’

  ‘Please.

  ‘I’m not living with anybody, except the kids, if you want to know. One bloody man’s enough in my life, especially if his name happens to be Frank Dawley.’

  He pointed to the tunic. ‘Who’s is that? Where are the kids?’

  ‘The third degree. That tunic’s mine. I work on the buses, and I’m due on the afternoon shift in an hour. The kids are at school and when they finish they go to Mary’s for their tea. Then she comes and puts them to bed, so they’re fast asleep by the time I get home at eleven.’ She sliced dried-up mousetrap cheese onto toasted Miracle Bread and slid it back under the grill.

  ‘You look smart,’ he said, ‘in that shirt and skirt.’

  ‘I had to earn some money. I’t rather be independent than rely on a rotter like you.’

  He embraced and kissed her. ‘It didn’t do either of us any harm.’

  She snapped away. ‘The toast’ll burn. You do look altered, though, I must say. You’ve got less meat on you. And your hair’s gone grey. Did you have a lot to put up with out there?’

  ‘Not more than I could manage.’

  ‘So it seems. But still, you look in the prime as well.’

  ‘I had to get to it some time. Phone up the bus depot and tell them you’ve got flu.’

  ‘Pull up your chair and eat this. You make impossible demands on me.’

  ‘I don’t want you to dislike me, that’s why.’

  They sat at the small kitchen table. Nancy drank tea. ‘I can’t dislike you, though that’s what you deserve.’

  ‘Is it? It’s not. You’ve never been out of my mind, you and the kids. In the tightest spots in Algeria, when I was close to being killed a dozen times – I don’t suppose you believe it – but you were all in my mind, you and others. I had to go out there for the sake of people like us, as well as to do what I could for the Algerians – all equally. I’ll tell you something about it soon. I’m not sentimental, but I couldn’t have kept up that sort of life for long if I hadn’t thought about certain people, good people whom I’d see again when it was over and if I got out of it.’

  She looked at him, and their hands touched on the table. ‘Don’t let your toast get cold. You’d have wolfed that down at one time, without me telling you,’ she said. ‘I believe what you’re saying. But it’s been hard for us here. I’m not complaining though. I’m just telling you.’

  ‘I know, love, I know.’

  ‘But I won’t give up my job,’ she said. ‘Whether you’ve come back or not I’m going to stay independent. That’s one thing I believe in. If a man can be, a woman has a right to be. Nobody can take that from me any more.’

  He stood to hang up his coat, then finished his meal. ‘Have you got four pennies for the phone?’ she asked.

  Alone he wandered into the living-room. It was roughly tidy, the children’s toys swept into a corner. There was a new television set, and a transistor radio on the windowsill. The stair-carpet was badly worn. In their bedroom his record-player was closed up and wedged between the wardrobe and the wall, with a cardboard box of his books secured by string and set on top. On the dressing-table was a photo of himself taken three years ago, when he was twenty-seven, sporting his best suit and looking grim but youthful, a tight squat unopened face when compared to the grey middle-aged visage facing him in the mirror. Nearby was another photo, of a plain mannish sort of woman he did not know, with: ‘To Nancy, affectionately from Laura’ scrawled along the bottom. He assumed it to be some pal of hers from the bus depot – as if there weren’t enough men: though maybe not if they nipped off to Algeria and such places. The window looked on the untended plot of housing-estate garden, barren and frozen under the bitter haze of winter.

  He went down and sat in the kitchen, poured himself another cup of tea, then ate an apple. He had come back out of friendliness to Nancy, and to see the children, and did not know what would come after this. He had undergone the discomfort of travel and war in order to obliterate and avoid the greater discomfort of life at home, she thought. But if that was so, why should he come back when the journey was finished? The truth was that for him it would never be ended.

  She walked in, reddened by the cold air outside.

  ‘O.K.?’ he asked.

  ‘Just for today. I don’t like to let them down.’

  ‘Are you glad to see me back?’

  ‘You’re a stranger to me. I never expected to see you again. But the kids haven’t stopped asking for you, so they’ll be glad.’

  ‘That’s one thing’

  She smiled. ‘Of course I’m happy to see you, you damn fool.’

  ‘I hoped you might be. You can’t kid me.’ Not that he would stay long, but he had gifts, and perhaps plans for them all. ‘Nobody ever leaves for good,’ he said, ‘unless they kick the bucket somewhere.’

  In the living-room he emptied the scuttle onto the dying fire, moved coal around with the heel of his shoe, which he drew back to the carpet when a cloud of white smoke shrouded it. He remembered how he had left her two summers ago, packed and walked out one Saturday afternoon with few words, only the feeling of an unexploded bomb inside and the simple stark message that he had to go. His silence and her bitterness corroded all communication, so that the parting was inevitable and somehow too easy.

  He sat by her on the sofa, drawn close to the flames. ‘You’ll have to tell me about Algeria,’ she said. ‘It must have been interesting doing something you’d always talked about. You are lucky. But I suppose you have lots of plans.’

  ‘Some,’ he said.

  ‘Do they include me? I’m not begging, don’t think that, but I just want to know.’

  ‘They’ll have to, I think. I’m glad the kids are all right.’

  ‘They’re fine.’ Simon was seven and Janet eight, and he saw a photo of them above the fire, augmented shadows of the smaller bodies he’d known yelling for first turn on his knee when back from work. He kissed her. Something had to take place before they could enter the sea of conversation both felt boiling inside and unable to break loose. ‘Let’s go up to bed, until they get back from their tea.’

  She stood. ‘You won’t go for a few days though, will you? I’m glad you’re back for a while, anyway. Give me a few minutes, then follow me up.’

  He didn’t wait for the bus, but made his own way to Myra’s from the station. He had grown accustomed to walking, finding the cross-country tracks and going from A to B in a straight line. It felt like a game he’d bought in a shop, a one-inch map from the bookstall and off he went on a seven-mile jaunt of mild English Trackopoly. Winter time, sludge on the footpaths – go back six squares; leave luggage at station – go forward ten. The space was small, but there was no one to run from yet, no need for lying low in copse or wood. Yet he was singling out patches of forest for the assembly of ambush groups, hideouts for murder gangs, secret routes for lone assassins, areas for concealing arms and food dumps, rearguard defence lines. At the edge of the town a car stopped and a man’s hand waved to give him a lift. ‘No thanks,’ he shouted. ‘I’m walking for my health.’ But the cold made his various scar-wounds ache, and he sat on stile or gate now and again for a smoke.

  It was hard to believe all this rich land was his, that it belonged to him and everybody else. It was a good thought, yet false, though if anyone had tried to scare him from the footpath now, saying he was on private property and had no right there, he would have murdered them in a light-hearted revolutionary way, counting him the first casualty in his own personal war of national liberation. He cut a yew stick and walked along, musing on Handley’s surprise and maybe pleasure when he visited him next week in Lincolnshire. He’d come down that morning from Nottingham on the train, after spending a week with Nancy.

  A woman rode along an intersecting path on a bicycle. She wore a blue mackintosh, and a knitted hat was pulled over her ears. On a special seat behind sat a young child,
comfortably tied in, looking up and around at blackbirds crossing a field as his mother pedalled along, her body bent for more leverage. Frank stood and shouted after her. She rode on. By the farm was a large compound of pigs, the sun glistening on their pink backs. He called again, and started to run, but she hadn’t heard. The rasping sound of a machine-saw came from a close-by wood, and the lazy noise of a jet-engine filled the momentary space when it stopped, echoing high beyond the low hills. She had come from Wingham direction and was heaving along a flat unfenced cart-track, wobbling slightly to avoid ruts. There was a brown field to one side and a green one on the other, and she went towards Parkwell by her own short cut.

 
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