A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.4Alan Sillitoe
The door knocked Jones in the back, and he stepped aside, forgetting the painful jolt in anticipation of the next surprise assault. The great menace was still the man with the earphones hanging round his neck like a stethoscope. He gave a fixed and fearful smile as if, having come from Italy to some bruto northern court in the Middle Ages, he was demonstrating it as a new invention for the human face – a subtle yet novel expression that could be used by anyone not absolutely perishing of melancholy, and that was now sweeping the Mediterranean world.
‘John,’ Handley said, ‘sit down and get back to work.’ Smile drained, John revealed a mature and gentle face, brown sensitive eyes, and a tan as if he either suffered with his liver or spent much time out of doors. He wore a grey finely-cut suit, well-polished shoes, collar and tie. Beside his morse-key was a gold fob-watch, and a writing-pad two-thirds covered by pencilled block-capitals. The opposite wall was racked with books, and one by the door was laid with a map of North Africa. Jones noted all this with a trained eye, while Handley explained: ‘You said to me “Do you mind if I go to your John?” Well, this is my brother John, and I admit I was mystified, but I thought you’d been talking to people in the pub last night and knew about him. You were my guest so I couldn’t come the “Am I my brother’s keeper?” lark. John, this is Russell Jones, a journalist who’s come to interview me.’
John mumbled a greeting, showing a nature basically shy, if at times unpredictably violent. ‘He lives in this room with his radio gear, has in fact ever since he came home from the Jap prison-camp in 1945. He was in the army – signals – had a commission, which I was brother enough never to hold against him.’
‘I didn’t mean to turn on you,’ John said. ‘I feel rather bewildered if I’m disturbed. It doesn’t happen often, I might say, which I suppose makes me react more noticeably than I need to when it does.’ He spoke gently, and now that the shock was wearing off Jones felt that here at least was one member of the Handley household with whom he might have something in common – even if he was a raving lunatic.
‘Mind you, he never does make contact,’ Handley said in a kindly voice. ‘Do you, John?’
His eyes gleamed, as if his whole life had been a disappointment, yet as if this continual state contained the seeds of hope. ‘Not yet, Albert. I keep on trying, though. Perhaps I just never get on the right wavelength at the right time, or maybe I’m asleep at the moment when I might be making contact. I get lots of false hope, and false messages even – as if somebody else engaged in the same thing is always trying to thwart me from making contact even though it may at the same time stop him doing so. It’s a dog-eat-dog world up in the ether, I suspect, all sorts of imps and birds and atmospherics trying to foil me, so that I’m sure the devil himself has a hand in it. The whole sky, from earth to stars and even beyond, is where my signals criss-cross, so you can imagine the scope I have, the space, the great, grandiloquent marvellous space! Oh, of course, I get plenty of ordinary messages, but they don’t count. I can send messages too, to ships or Moscow, but it’s not the same. I want to make contact with someone I’ve had in mind for a long time.’
Sweat ran down his leathery face as he felt for a case and took out a cigarette, a normally courteous man who, because he did not offer one, must have forgotten they were in the room. ‘It’s no easy task,’ he smiled, ‘but I feel that someone has to make the attempt, and I seem to have been cut out for it. As I go on trying in my mundane methodical fashion I also dream about the time when I will finally make contact. I can’t tell you how the thought of it thrills and sustains me. It’s as if the whole light of the world will go on, when my signals and those signals meet in the ether, and the great love of the universe illumines every face, when I ask the only question and an answer comes through at last, as it is bound to do. Still, I sometimes have to admit that it’s a lonely life. I hardly ever leave this room, for who knows that in the few minutes I’m away, it wouldn’t have been the time and opportunity for me to make the first contact? My eyes often ache, my hand often falters, and a touch of despair forces me into sleep when I should be awake, but I go on, losing count of time, listening to all the signals and waiting for the propitious time to send out my own words in order to make the great meeting. I suppose you find this uninteresting?’
Jones caught the dark threat of his question and replied that no, just the opposite, the idea seemed rather a thrilling one. What he wanted to know, but hadn’t the courage to ask, was what he was trying make contact with.
‘Someone,’ John continued, as if reading his query, ‘once stumbled into this room and had the temerity to ask what or with whom I was trying to make contact. But the world is full of such people, fools and doubters who want to drag all spiritual people like myself down to hell, tempters and demons continually hoping to annihilate one, who know plainly in their very bones what it is one must always strive to make contact with, but who can’t bear the sight and sound of anyone trying, and so attempt in all ways to destroy them and their faith. I fought with him desperately, for he nearly overcame me with his strength and valour – until I got him outside and threw him down the stairs.’
‘I remember,’ said Handley. ‘It was the window-cleaner.’
‘Don’t you think he deserved it?’ John demanded.
Jones leaned against the door, arms folded. ‘Yes, I suppose I do.’
‘Aren’t you sure? Are you one of them? Once upon a time I was interested in politics, and met quite a few of your sort. Maybe I’ll be interested in them again one day. In fact I’m sure I shall be, after I’ve made contact. But let me tell you, because I remember it clearly and can never forget it, when I was in the prison-camp at Singapore, not long after we were captured by the Japanese devils, some of us formed a left-wing group, all from the ranks except me. In those hell conditions we kept ourselves alive by talks and meetings, and managed to produce a sort of newspaper, in opposition to the British officers as well as the Japanese. Naturally, the officers got to know that we left-wingers were giving secret lectures on militarism and the class-war, in which we condemned their incompetence and cowardice. Do you know what they did? The Japanese had quite rightly ordered them to work with the rest of the men on building-sites, but in order that they would not persevere with this order the CO did a deal. He betrayed us, and agreed to keep them informed of any future suchlike activities, if he and his brother officers were not forced to work the same as the ordinary men. Out of those groups I was the only one who, by accident, came home alive. Shall I strip and show you my scars? Is it any wonder that I’m trying to make contact?’
Jones felt the blood draining out of himself. He was not so much horrified at the story, as at the effect on John while he was telling it. Handley stood at his brother’s side, an arm over his shoulder: ‘Get some sleep, John. Have a bit of rest. I’ll send Enid up with some soup.’
‘I’ll have the soup,’ John said, calm and forceful again, ‘But I’ll go on working for a while.’
The morse-key was rattling feverishly as they went quietly out. ‘At one time,’ Handley said when Jones came back from the lavatory, ‘I thought we’d have to have him certified, but he’s quietened down a bit since then. He went through such unimaginable horrors in those prison-camps that it almost finished him off. But he came to live with me, and bought that wireless stuff with his gratuity. Gets a pension still. The rest of the family wouldn’t have him, he was so much off his head. But I never thought so. He’s on some search, you know, Johnny is. He’s doing some of it for me, maybe for all of us – in this house. We believe in him. He’s the man in the boat whose spirit’s kept this place afloat for years.’
‘But that anecdote about the prison-camp,’ Jones said, ‘is it true?’
They went upstairs, back to the studio, and Handley turned at the top step: ‘Is that the only question you’ve got? You were privileged to see your John just now, though I don’t imagine it means much to you. There’s only one story in John’s life, and that’s it.’<
Handley moved to the other side of the studio table and lit a cigar. He offered one, but Russell Jones took out a large curved pipe, so Albert pushed a tin of tobacco towards him. ‘Try this Spanish stuff. Teddy Greensleaves brought it back from the Canary Islands.’
It was dry and flaky, and Handley had put two cuts of apple in to keep it moist. One of these small pieces was inadvertently packed into the huge space of Russell’s pipe bowl, and before Handley could tell him, it was being lit, and a fragrant smell of burning fruit filled the room. Russell glanced uneasily, but continued puffing.
‘I think you took a chunk of my apple,’ Handley said, ‘moistener, you know.’ Russell looked as if he’d been poisoned, but didn’t know which of them had done it, then apologised and picked it out, dropping it like a dead black-clock in the ash-tray.
Handley put it back in his tin. ‘How do I know,’ he said, ‘what sort of an article you’re going to write?’ He prised up a skylight window and ledged it. Clean air rushed in, cold and ruthless, though sweet to Handley once the scarf was back round his neck.
‘You don’t, really,’ Russell smiled.
‘I have to take it on trust?’ Handley yawned, and at the sight and sound of it Russell felt an impulse to do the same, but fought it off in order not to appear imitative or weak. ‘I’m afraid you do, really.’
‘Really?’ He slammed the window, frame dropping as if to smash. ‘Fresh air’s the bane of my baleful life. Shakes the cobwebs. Makes me hate people. But listen: no lies. Do you hear? No lies, or I’ll come down to London and pull the tripes out of you.’
Russell smiled. That sort is ruthless, Handley thought, born and bred to it. But I’m ruthless as well. The trouble is that my ruthlessness makes me suffer. Nevertheless, mine wins in the end because it has a soul burning somewhere inside it. ‘You can smile,’ he said, ‘but I’ve seen the way you scumpots and editors treat people who are trying to do real work. Not that you can really do them harm, but by God you do your best. The toffee-nosed posh papers are the worst of all, because those who write for them once fancied themselves a bit as well.’
‘You’re quite wrong,’ Russell said, standing up to fasten his overcoat. ‘Your work is much better than it was, so why do you have to make these unnecessary and insulting statements? Your personality isn’t that bad.’
‘I’m so bad that even breeding couldn’t make me perfect. But don’t patronise me. Just try and get close to the truth if you must scribble your impressions.’
‘I use a typewriter. I wanted to invite you down to the pub for lunch.’
‘If you don’t get out I’ll set the dog on you. I’ve nothing against you, personally. It’s just that everything you stand for sticks in my craw. Still, I’ll show you out. I suppose we must part on reasonable terms.’
The village clock struck eleven, a distant booming carried on the wind as they stood by the front door and shook hands.
The mellow and subtle mood of many days had broken. He was poisoned but not dead, half-way between ashes and honey. What man could stand up to it? They hit you with vilification, thumped you with praise, and any day you might die of heart bruise. He could add nothing to the canvas, threw down his brush. Treat them civilly and you felt like a collaborator with the Germans who deserved to be shot or have your hair shorn. If you insulted them you betrayed your own easy and generous nature. It was no easy matter. Perhaps there was some clever and not unnatural balance between the two which his psyche had not yet struck (or was that merely the final proof that he wanted to cooperate with them?) which would put them in their place while leaving his self-respect unsoiled. Fortunately such questions were an aberration on the endless world of his work that he was king of and could walk across at will, that dominated all waking and sleeping hours as if life and sanity depended on it. Reaching beyond the end of what he had never seen any other artist do, he was out in the wilderness, crawling through fire with an unquiet soul.
He walked down, along the corridor to Richard’s room. It seemed amiable and light compared to his own cave hemmed in by cloud and canvases. A large space was taken up by a table covered by conjoined sheets of the Ordnance Survey quarter-inch map of England and Wales. On the walls were maps in enlarged detail, special tracings of atomic establishments and bomber bases drawn up by some draughtsman who knew his business well. ‘What’s the situation in our civil war?’ Handley wanted to know, lighting a cigar.
Richard’s fingers went over the intricate formation of coloured pins and labels, as if he were blind and the battle situation were set out in braille. Above an opposite notice board hung a huge Algerian FLN banner which Mandy had been pressed into painting during the long nights of last snowbound winter. ‘It’s confused,’ he said, ‘but at the moment, on balance, we seem to be losing.’
He was tall and swart, with black curly hair and a Roman nose, high cheek-bones, sallow below the eyes – which were quick to see through the hugely complex patterns that led to the main chance, a skill developed during twenty years learning how to deal with a father like Handley who never had one thought or action similar to any that had gone before. In that sense, Richard was dominated by his father, yet it had trained him to dominate everyone else. He wore a camel-hair sweater and smoked a home-rolled cigarette.
‘You’d better stop losing,’ Handley said.
‘After the A-flash over London and Liverpool, government troops are hounding all guerrillas into the Midlands. I don’t like the look of it.’
‘Break it off then,’ Handley said. ‘Melt ’em away and pull back through the Marches. Re-form in Wales. The Black Mountains’ll make a good base – plenty of blokes to draw on from the valleys. Good lads, them Taffies. Promise ’em self-government when it’s all over.’
Richard began to argue, the only way to find out what was on his father’s mind. ‘I’d thought of that, but …’
‘Got a better plan?’
‘What about some in the Lakes and Devon?’
‘No good. Keep ’em together at the moment. Wales is big enough. They’ll be too busy cleaning up to bother with us for a while. Then, but all in good time, we can come back, take Shrewsbury, and make for the Black Country. Like fish in water. Move in with the spring tides, with the people. They’ll rise for the bait, don’t worry. If not, we’ll suck our rings and drop dead.’
Richard was moving the pins, and Handley bent over the map with a feeling of satisfaction. ‘Sent off the plans of the secret bases yet to Moscow?’
‘Last week. Rolled them in a bundle of New Statesmans. Printed matter, unregistered, surface mail – to make sure they’ll get there.’
‘Send another batch then, this week.’
‘All right,’ Richard said. The telephone rang, and he listened.
‘They’re liquidating the Coventry group. Regular army.’
He straightened up from the map, threw his cigar out of the window. ‘What did I tell you? Get them to melt, turn into carol-singers or poppy-sellers. I’ll call in this afternoon when I’m back from the pub. Maybe you’ll have better news.’
‘Father, there’s just one thing. Adam and I found a beautiful old printing-press in Louth. We can get it for fifteen pounds, then go ahead with the magazine. It’ll cost fifty pounds an issue if we set it up ourselves.’
He thought for a moment. They’ll be the ruin of me, if I’m not too stingy with them. And the same if I am. ‘Win that civil war to my satisfaction, and I’ll do it.’
‘That’ll take weeks. We could print some subversive leaflets in the meantime. I know a way to get them handed round factories in Nottingham. Also at Scunthorpe.’
He took half a dozen ten-pound notes from his pocket and, in mint-condition, they swallowed down onto the Thames valley. ‘Get the press, then, and we’ll see how it goes.’ Richard stood back to consider the overall situation. Handley’s head showed in again. ‘Shove the poetry out of your mind for a bit – do you hear me? – an
He walked aimlessly around the garden. Furrows underfoot were muddy, ridges of salt-loam beaten in by sea-wind, this part of the garden scarred by miniature craters where cabbages had been ripped out from mother earth. It smelt good, felt soft and rich, tender to his elastic-sided boots hardly meant for the treading of such intense soil. The fruit-trees – apple, plum, pear – were empty and withered. He felt dead, snuffed out by too much winter and isolation, as if his soul were drifting and he was unable to pull it back under control. Let it drift, he thought, let me go, idle and blind, stricken and numb. I don’t mind floating like a brainless fool: the quicker I get to the end and die, the sooner I’m born again. I don’t believe in death, at least not in life, not for me. But oblivion is breathing close unless something happens.
Hoping to throw off such thoughts, he went in for dinner. Enid put veal and salad before him. ‘That journalist didn’t seem in a very good mood when he left. Walked down the hill as if he had an eagle on his back. He didn’t even talk to Mandy, and that’s rare.’
He cut up his meat, appetite good. ‘I gave him what for. He wanted to draw me out, so I let him overdraw me. That’s the only way.’
‘Is it?’ she said, setting her own plate down. They’d fallen in love when she was seventeen and he nineteen, in those far–off days on the Lincolnshire coast, and Enid was well pregnant at the marriage, soft-faced and big-bellied, earnestly looking at him, and he shy with a wide-open smile at being dragged into something that made him the butt of his mates’ jokes while also marking him down for some special unspoken respect. She had a slim straight nose, small chin, full mouth. Her light-blue eyes had a slight slant, upper and lower lids never far apart, Tartar almost in shape, one of those rare English faces that looked as if they had come from central Asia, then full smooth cheeks and fair hair, a face on which the troubles of life do not fall too hard, though Enid had been familiar with every one. Loving Handley, she wasn’t even aware of having ‘put up’ with him, which may have contributed to Handley’s youthfulness, while hers was certainly rooted in it. Her long bound-up hair was as pale as when they’d met, and her skin had an unchanging attractive pallor, in spite of bitter Lincolnshire winters and the never-ending work of seven children. Handley loved her also, and in some way they had never stopped being afraid of each other, but during their quarrels they loathed each other so profoundly that it couldn’t even be said that they were in love any more.
A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2) by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes