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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.39
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.39

           Alan Sillitoe

  He stopped running, but gave a final shout ‘Myra!’ She came to a paved lane, and pedalled out of sight. His mountain eyes were mystified by damp fields. He had lost his desert certainty, and the split-second assurance of wide-open spaces. The calamity of narrowness made him doubt that it had been Myra. The longer you look the less convinced you are, because that which needs looking at for a long time is most open to doubt. The clear winter vision baffled him, and he walked on along the path, hoping he would find her at home. He’d telephoned from the station but had been answered by some childish shuddering idiot who said that Dad had gone to the funeral at Dover. She’d obviously changed her telephone number from the one two years ago.

  He walked into the village street of thatched houses, and bus-shelter opposite shops and grey stone church, remembering his injuries when her husband had tried to kill them both. In the side-garden of her house were two large caravans, and the once impeccable lawn had been trodden into bare earth. A four-year-old girl in duffle-coat and pixie-hood smiled as he walked along the path. He recognised Myra’s old car standing beside a red Mini and a new M.G. A dark-haired girl came down the caravan steps and gave the younger one a glass of milk.

  By the garage door was a pram in which a baby slept, a boy stowed under the blanket and windshield hood. He bent close and stared at him. The Italian girl pulled at his arm: ‘Here, what the bloody-’ell you think you are doing? Who are you?’

  ‘Whose baby’s this?’

  She saw his smile. ‘You like children?’

  ‘Yes. Is it Myra’s?’

  ‘That’s all right.’

  ‘It is?’


  ‘He’s my son, then.’

  ‘My God! You never seen him before?’

  He slept. ‘I’ll wake him later.’

  ‘He’s a good baby,’ she said. ‘A very good boy.’

  Twelve-year-old Paul stood by the back door, pulling the triggers of a double-barrelled shotgun. While Frank was wondering where he’d seen him before, Mandy came from the kitchen and pushed her brother outside: ‘If you want to play soldiers with that thing go up the gack garden. It’s a jungle enough for you to hide in. Hello,’ she said, recognising Frank, ‘where did you jump from?’

  ‘I came to see Myra. What are you doing here?’

  ‘Living. You’ll be unlucky. She went to Dover yesterday with Dad, to see about Uncle John’s funeral.

  ‘Uncle John? Which Uncle John?’

  She stared at him. ‘Uncle John. I don’t suppose you knew. He blew his brains out. What few he had. Those who blow their brains out never had any to blow out. But by the time they know it they’re dead.’

  They walked into the kitchen, Mandy weeping: ‘This is the fifth damn time I’ve cried today. I can’t stop. Poor Uncle John!’

  ‘Sit down,’ he said. ‘Don’t get upset.’ It seemed like a premeditated Handley-drama faked for his arrival.

  ‘I can’t help it,’ she said. ‘What else is there to do?’ No blinds were drawn, or black suits being aired, but then, the Handleys never went in for things like that. Had it really been a joke, they would have.

  ‘What are you talking about?’ he demanded. ‘Why are you all at Myra’s?’ He felt as if he’d walked into a nightmare and dream all thrown into one. Sun shot through the window over the checked linoleum tablecloth. He leaned on the washing-machine.

  ‘Back in Lincolnshire the house burned down, so we all came to live at Myra’s. I don’t know why. We aren’t short of cash. Dad just wanted to, so maybe he was knocking on with her. At least that’s what Mam threw at him when they were quarrelling one night.’

  He shook her: ‘For Christ’s sake, tell me what happened to John.’

  ‘Take your cowing hands off me, or I’ll let fly. How should I know? He left on the night of the fire, and we still don’t know if he had anything to do with that little disaster, to look for you in Algeria. It seems he found you. Then the other day a copper knocked at the door. Dad started trembling like a leaf, till he remembered he was rich. Next thing we knew he was ready to shoot off to Dover with Myra. Mam thought it was an elaborate trick for a dirty weekend, and went with them as well – so don’t look so blue. Dad phoned this morning to say John had shot himself. They left me looking after the place, with a hundred mouths to feed. I’m married now, made it six weeks ago with the world’s most genuine zombie. There’ll be another little zombie in the world soon.’

  He was back in Handley-land, where a manic non-stop gift of the claptrap reigned over all residents and comers. ‘Why did he shoot himself?’ he asked.

  ‘Pardon me,’ she said. ‘God isn’t back from lunch yet. But I’ll be sure to ask him though when he comes in. I expect John had had enough. Or maybe he thought he hadn’t had anything. He was always strange, apart from epilepsy. But he was so sweet and kind. Oh, don’t worry, I shan’t bawl again. I can see it troubles you.’

  ‘It’s the cause of it that disturbs me, not your crying. I can’t believe it, though. I said goodbye to him at Gibraltar airport. He wouldn’t come on the plane because he didn’t like flying. It might crash, and he’d get killed, he said. Maybe he thought he might be tempted to do it during the flight. He was in a hurry to get away from me because I kept pressing him to come on the plane, and I suppose he thought he might give in.’

  ‘You didn’t try hard enough,’ she said. ‘He must have tried a bloody sight harder when he went out there to find you.’

  ‘I didn’t ask him to come for me,’ he said.

  ‘You were glad to see him, I’ll bet.’

  He hadn’t been, but this wasn’t the time to say it. ‘When is Albert due back?’

  ‘Late tonight. He’ll go again for the inquest, I suppose. He’s broken up about it. Sounded terrible on the phone. Sleep here if you like. There’s room in the flat.’

  ‘My luggage is at the station. I thought I might have to stay in town.’

  ‘Fetch it in the Mini, and buy a gallon of petrol on the way. If you’ve got no money tell ’em to put it on our account. Everybody does. We owe hundreds round here already. It’s a good job we left Lincolnshire, with the creditors closing in. I thought when I got married I’d stop living like a bandit, but Ralph’s mother cut him off without a penny, and so we’re still part of the worm-eaten ship.’

  The regular thump-thump of a machine sounded from upstairs like a heavy loom or treadle worked by hand. ‘That’s Richard,’ she said, ‘and Adam at the printing-press. The turn out loads of stuff, send it every day all over the country. This house is the middle of the spider’s web of revolution, and it’s costing us the earth. Dad paints more than he used to, and earns more money, but it’ll ruin him in the end.’ Her oval heavily-lidded eyes speculated on a future she wanted, and wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t yet get before she was twenty – with less that a year to go. ‘My heart’s set on a simple life,’ she said. ‘Ralph and I would be happy if we could get a small house right away from here, where we could live in peace.’

  Late that night the Ford Rambler drew up on the road outside. Handley, Myra and Enid came into the kitchen breathing smoke and frost.

  Frank stood up. The picture of the day had altered, switched into complete indifference now that they were home. It had turned him from his own house with Nancy and the children packed off to school, through train corridors and a walk across countryside, to this establishment full of weird and fateful people. He saw it on their faces as they came in and he looked around.

  Myra noticed a strange man in her house, another friend of Albert’s perhaps who had dropped by on his travels – either one of the family, or a recent painter acquaintance up from London. Handley, mouth down, took off his fur hat, and overcoat that reached his ankles. Enid pushed by him and put the kettle on, the tips of her long blonde hair brushing Frank’s shirt. The silence was bruising them, a strange quiet bout of recognition and surprise, and all wanting to speak and break it. Myra had taken off her glasses getting out of the car, res
ting her eyes by not forcing them to see clearly. Here was a different person, this man with an olive skin stretched over the bones of his face, a scar below his left ear, a face without a smile and not willing at the moment to say much. She thought how possible it would have been to pass him on the street – except for the eyes, which she would have noted in any man. The grey eyes looked at her, bringing no humour from the wilderness of his travels, and no mercy in the love he had pulled back with them. They were not the eyes he had gone away with, for the lustre was no longer there, the light had drawn back into the depths, shining onto the interior acres of his thought rather than too much and too shallowly on the outer world as they had done before. He stood more alone than anyone else in the room, though that may have been because her love was enveloping him and ready once more to attempt possession. But not entirely. He was alone, stronger, so that with such eyes and rendered features he would stay that way, the one controller of his own mind and actions. He had gone away with the idea of destroying his love and her love. But the cinders and dead ash had brought him back just the same. He wasn’t powerful enough to wreck anyone’s love, not even his own, and this knowledge had kept her thinking of him every day, wanting to talk to him, touch him, her visions all the more immediate because she had never been entirely convinced that he would come back. She’d had a hundred premonitions of his death, seen him so many scattered lumps of clay, tortured, hanged, shot, dead of hunger and thirst, wandering insane with his senses spread broadcast by hot sandy winds of the summer desert.

  She smiled and went to him, hands touching. As I grow older I know better how to be young. She felt the flooding emotions of passionate love on seeing him again. Handley’s forehead creased, but he smiled nevertheless. ‘Let’s drink to your safe return, anyway.’

  ‘I’m sorry about John,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you about it. But there was nothing I could do. Nothing. I thought that once we got out of Algeria he’d be all right.’

  ‘I know,’ Handley said. ‘You don’t have to say it. I tried for over fifteen years, and failed. I softened his life, worked for him, nursed him, and yet, all the time at the back of my mind was the dread of this happening. It was always there, nagging and tormenting. I knew it over the years, a panther behind his face waiting to spring. My own brother does a thing like this, and the wickedest thought I have is: Why didn’t he do it at the beginning instead of wasting his life for another fifteen years? That’s wrong. If he had, none of us would have been here thinking about our own rich lives yet to be lived. I was the only one who tried to stop him when he first proposed going to Algeria. I should have locked him up: barred his window and fastened his door with wood. And yet, what can you do? What bloody right have you finally got to settle a man’s life when he’s set firm on his own way?’

  He poured glasses of whisky for them all. Frank looked at Myra. Being in love, he remembered telling himself on the plane from Gibraltar, to fight down his rising emotion at the thought of seeing her again, is a state of paralysis and death. You can’t act when you are in love, or do anything, unless the woman is willing to follow you anywhere, which is not love. Love and passion combined make the pleasantest form of suicide, yet here he was, more in love with Myra than he’d ever been with any other woman. It was strange, falling in love with a woman who already had your child.

  ‘Have you seen Mark?’ she asked.

  ‘I was playing with him. He’s a beauty.’

  Handley laughed. ‘There’ll be a few more soon. Enid’s having one – her last, I should think. And Mandy’s having her first. Let’s drink to them all!’

  Chapter Thirty-four

  Taking a flashlight he walked to the large studio-hut which Handley had erected at the end of the garden. Permanent heaters had been installed, and warmth and the smell of paint, the comforting reek of turps and glue met him as he came in out of the frost. He found the light-switches, and closed the door. The fantastic colour-cathedral of Handley’s life covered every wooden wall, so that it was like being in another man’s stomach, seeing with his eyes, smothered by his entire vision. He must be a machine to turn out so much. It was a wonder his arms had strength, never mind the imagination. If Mandy’s idea was right, John had tried to burn all this when he set fire to the house in Lincolnshire, before setting off for Algeria to pluck him from the raging fires of civil war. Even the Handleys needed their legends, since anarchy was not enough.

  He sat by one of the large tables and smoked a cigarette. Of all places on the compound this was the quietest. Only faint waves of shouting penetrated from the inhabitated areas. Albert had done well to place himself here. The house, the caravans, the flat above the garage, all were eruptions of strife and metallic noise that only subsided for a few hours of darkness each night. He sometimes longed for the silence and danger of the desert. Eric Bloodaxe, that blue-blooded bulldog that held some corner of affection in Handley’s twisted heart, howled balefully over the roofs of the village.

  John had been buried a fortnight. The inquest said he’d committed suicide while of unsound mind. No other verdict was possible. The lumpen-bourgeoisie demanded it. It had to be suicide if they were to keep their confidence and survive. The idea of actually choosing death in opposition to the best of all possible lives that they offered was alien to them. Well, they would keep it until it was ripped away from them by machine-guns and Molotov cocktails. The one infallible answer was always violence, violence and still more violence. In Algeria it was already succeeding in what it set out to do. It couldn’t fail, provided it was prolonged and violent enough. If the sky starts to fall in, pull down the stars as well. When you are surrounded by a ring of fire and can’t get out, all you can do is learn to jump. While learning to jump the fire goes out. You are free. Once free, burn every bush till there are no bushes left, till even the ash burns again to ash and the soil itself jumps into flame. Destruction appalls them. They are terrified of losing their property. The scorched-earth policy is the one sure answer to such endless indoctrination, and to defeat the easy power that they have. Threaten the fourth dimension of civil war, the end-all of life from which renewed life can spring more quickly than if no destruction had taken place.

  This outpost-compound had its armoury of Sten-guns, rifles and shotguns. Handley had seen to that, stowed them under the garage floor from where they were taken out for a ritual pull-through and polish every week. There were stores of food, petrol, and John’s radio transceivers which Richard and Adam knew how to work. Even while poor they had been prepared, though no one knew precisely for what, with the possible exception of Richard. Certainly no one could accuse Handley of thinking himself to death, since he considered he needed no philosophical justification for what he thought and did. They had left the atavistic age of being content merely to live for the moment, and had entered the era of wanting to survive, which no one else seemed to have done, apart from the government and all its offices, which was only to be expected. Handley couldn’t work unless such supplies and equipments were close by. His spirit would be paralysed, hands crippled, brain sedated, eyes bandaged. They meant freedom to him, expansion, gave stature and a final sense of self-respect in face of the impending bourgeois atomic juggernaut. On their side they had the Bomb, and if he didn’t have a gun or two on his he would curl up and die at the vast injustice of it. He could only marvel at the fact that he’d fallen in with such a talented and bandit crew, franc-tireurs of the atomic and conformist age. Yet Frank considered that one had to be careful not to get rounded up in the incipient disorder of their lives, and to avoid this the community would have to be worked on, given security and direction in both social and military spheres. Handley was happy to let it run itself, to stagger from debt to debt and scandal to broiling set-to, but Frank and Adam talked of forming a permanent council to guide things in a more organised way. Frank thought they should begin immediately, but Adam, being a Handley, knew the ways of the family somewhat better, and so suggested that the present way of life went on unt
il social and moral disintegration set in, at which point a permanent council would almost form itself with everyone’s automatic and grateful consent. There matters stood. And there, Frank saw, they might stay for a long time yet.

  The door opened, and Handley came in. ‘I knew I’d find you here.’ He opened a cupboard and poured brandy. ‘I don’t suppose you had much of this among the Moslems.’

  ‘I didn’t need it, somehow. Where’s Myra?’

  ‘Feeding Mark. She’ll be in in a bit, as soon as he’s hit the sweet pillow. How do you like the community now? You’ve been here a fortnight.’

  ‘I’m part of it, it seems.’

  ‘You are.’ They smoked cigars, ash falling unnoticed. Handley was recovering from the shock and emptiness of his brother’s death, his mental landscape no longer swamped and intolerably burdened by it. He had breathed it fully in and knew that he had to work and live without John for the rest of his life. There had been no black sign on the house, for it was never one of the Handley colours. ‘I’m opposed to it,’ he had said, ‘in clothes, flags, food, excrement and paintings.’ But his love was too brotherly for him to forget his grief at this futile unnecessary suicide. Yet no spark had gone out of him, no lustre drained from his eyes. He seemed as energetic, abusive and lively as ever. He had worn his cap and topcoat to get from the house to the studio, always considerate of his health where the weather was concerned, and when he felt particularly well.

  ‘Am I stopping you from working?’ Frank asked.

  ‘Nobody ever did that. I can slap paint on, whoever’s around, as long as they don’t mind a blob now and again in the left eye. Did you talk to Myra about bringing Nancy and kids here?’

  ‘She agreed. I must go to Nottingham soon and collect them. They’ll take a bit of persuading, but I think I can manage it.’

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