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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.40
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.40

           Alan Sillitoe

  ‘We’ll fit in,’ Handley said. ‘It’ll make twenty of us, including Eric Bloodaxe. Twenty-one souls if Cuthbert comes back. I’ll have a few things to say to him though when he does. He’s bound to. Getting thrown out of that cushy theological college and about to be ordained. To think a son of mine could have been criminal enough to be so stupid! Still, if we get a bit overcrowded we’ll put up tents. Do a few of ’em good, a life under canvas. Or we can build a bungalow between here and the house, and a few can sleep in the Rambler. We could get hundreds in our little community, come to think of it. We’ll call it the Villa Back-to-Back if we want to give it a continental flourish. It’ll be so small and high, the whole packed lot, that if we sling a wall around it we’ll have a genuine medieval city on our hands. As for transport we could turn into a mobile column at a pinch, with three cars and two caravans. Send the Mini and four people ahead as a spearheading scout car with the quick-firing pulverine mounted on top, then the Rambler pulling the heavy caravan with five in each, and us poring over the map-tables, then the last eight in the light caravan, and the rest in the Morris as a rearguard. At night we’d form a laager in some lay-by and pitch tents. Still, I don’t see that being necessary for a while, though it’s as well to bear it in mind. Might be a way to have a continental holiday. Let my lot loose at the heart of Germany and they’d surrender in two minutes, though don’t ask me who.’

  ‘You’re the only one of us all who never seems to change,’ said Frank light-heartedly.

  Handley slung his cigar into the bin: ‘I did my altering while you were in crappy-nappies. My first deep breath took me to the age of thirty or so, then I changed into the low dumps till I was thirty-six, when I switched gear into mainstream. Now I keep the black ship going to hell, all sails flapping, panache and spinnakers taut as drums and pointing across my cold uncharted sea. It’s not that simple, but it’s way of putting it, Frank, my old lad. We’ll be having the big reunion dinner tonight, so I’ll go and see how the organisation’s going on. Don’t get too drunk on my three-star plonk.’

  He went out, coughing through the icy mist. The compound seemed unnaturally quiet as soon as the door fell to, an unnerving impossible silence as he sat in the dim light listening to it. He didn’t know at the moment for how long he would be able to immerse himself in the Handley round-about. But the stillness matched the temporary peace of his life long enough for him to make decisions out of the deeper quietness of his heart.

  He stopped thinking while the noise stayed far away, switched off all lights but one and sat in his own dusk, smoking ruminatively. He had the nagging uncomfortable feeling of being a member of society once more, even though it was composed solely of Handleys. But the thought that perhaps he had only exchanged one form of guerrilla band for another made him feel more optimistic.

  Myra came in. ‘Mark’s asleep at last. His teeth give him a lot of trouble.’

  ‘He’ll know how to bite on life, then!’

  She sat by him. ‘Do you really approve of me giving my place to Albert and his family?’

  ‘It’s your house,’ he said.

  ‘Don’t evade the question.’

  ‘Their house burned down. You gave them yours.’

  ‘But Albert has enough money to buy another. In any case, I do consider it to be your house as well.’

  ‘If it had been I should have done the same.’

  ‘The village is already up in arms. Nobody talks to me at the shop any more, and I can’t have anything to do with the Womens’ Institute even if I wanted to. They complain every day to the police about noise and litter.’

  ‘Does it bother you?’

  ‘No. Mrs Harrod even stopped coming.’

  ‘There are enough of the Handleys to make up a labour force. The au pair girls like it here because it’s nearer to London. You don’t mind me bringing Nancy and the kids down, then?’

  She said she did not. ‘As long as they fit in, the more the better, I suppose I look on it as a sociological experiment, or I would if I didn’t like it so much.’

  ‘You do a lot of work,’ he said, ‘catering and caring for everyone. It must be like running a hostel.’

  ‘Most of it runs itself. I think it’s what I always wanted to do. I have you, so I feel happy at last. I’m fond of everyone who lives here.’

  ‘I hope you like Nancy.’

  ‘I don’t see why I shouldn’t. I hope she likes me.’

  ‘I think she will.’

  ‘Adam says you are going to collaborate on a book about your experiences in Algeria.’

  ‘Yes. I write it all down, then he’ll advise me on the finer points of style. I suppose he’ll actually rewrite it. We’ll become a literate community in spite of ourselves, a hotbed of books and conspiracy. Richard has many other ingenious plans, all sorts of stunts and tricks of sabotage. The Handleys are so mad and wild that no one would suspect them of intelligent planning.’ He stood up: ‘Let’s go over to the house and see about the big dinner.’

  Chapter Thirty-five

  He was blinded by a combination of strip-lighting, table-lamps, ordinary bulbs, and candles, that turned the room into a chamber of dazzling incandescent clarity, with such light pushing to the limits of all-white walls that there seemed to be smoke in the air, though no one had yet lit a cigarette. The dozen of Handley’s paintings spaced around the walls could only be seen as grey and metallic – unless one came in for a special show during light day. The house had turned into far more of a Handleydrome than his former Lincolnshire residence had ever been able to.

  Bottles of Yugoslav Riesling stood along the table, and each person’s name was written on the back of a photo of Uncle John. Handley stood up from the head of the table and moved two chairs down to the left. ‘It’s got to stop,’ he said in a loud voice. ‘There’s to be no top of the table any more. Let’s kick off in the right way. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s an ordered life. Put the cards in your pockets and sit where you like. And if you’re forming factions already before I have time to wipe my nose, then on your own heads be it.’

  There was a muted irritation at this deliberate displacement of seats, which gradually eased however as the first line of bottles wavered and disappeared. The main course was rabbit stew and rice, and the bottles of Riesling gave way to a stolid line of Nuits St Georges. Enid, in a thoughtless moment, had put Schubert’s quintet on the record-player, but reasonably low so that everyone could talk against it. Adam stood up, his glass dark red to the brim, and his mouth full. His elfish face was sad because Wendy Bonser had long since fallen out of love with him. Unable to stand the voices at the Conservative Club he had mimicked several of them brilliantly at the bar one night and been thrown bodily out. He was now deeply back in the family, more subversive than he’d ever been. ‘Let’s drink to living off the land. The dozen rabbits that make up this stew were caught the night before last by Richard and me, with the help of our twelve-year-old apprentice Paul. Of course, we were well-trained in traditional Lincolnshire poaching by our assiduous dad, and we have now transferred our skills to Buckinghamshire.’

  ‘You’re boasting,’ cried Mandy. ‘You’re drunk already. Sit down.’

  Ralph had not spoken to anyone for days. In fact Richard thought he hadn’t opened his mouth since joining the Handley family except to push food and drink into it, but couldn’t be sure because he’d never been close enough until tonight. He now broke silence and stood up, leaned over the table supported by ten springy outspread fingers, dark hair splayed, face heavy and pale as he glared at them all: ‘You’re thieves. You can’t even keep your exploits quiet. You just want to embarrass Myra, and me.’

  ‘If you back me up again,’ Mandy called, ‘I’ll blind you. Nobody has a right to back me up. I can defend myself.’ He sat down, and though not a man of excessive weight the chair almost cracked under him at the ponderoushess of his smashed ego. He drained his glass at one long throatslide, and smiled to stop himself going mad and ru
nning amok.

  ‘We have a certain mission in this village,’ Richard said, facing his brother who now sat down. ‘Believe it or not, Ralph, we’re going to civilise it. I don’t suppose you know what that word means. For example when we came here there was a notice tacked up outside the village pub which said: NO DIDACOIS. NO GYPSIES. We found it repulsive in its racialist smear. Well, it was down the first night. They put it up again. In fact it goes up and down half-a-dozen times, but they no longer have it there now. We’re planning to have some of our gypsy friends go in, and if they don’t get served it’s war on that pub. Oh no, we’re not going to complain to the Civil Liberties Council. Nothing like that for us. Nobody’s going to get us on that bourgeois treadmill. That pub will go into the ground with everybody in it if it doesn’t serve all comers. So will a few pubs in neighbouring villages, as well. That’s just one of our minor campaigns. Now, about the ethics of poaching rabbits …’

  Myra smiled. On her property they were safe, it was their ‘base zone’, and nothing from the outside world could move them. She was joined to them by her respect for Albert’s painting, and by an inexplicable fondness for the whole following. Her grief at the suicide of his brother (whose death she connected with his expedition to a civil war to bring back the father of her child) also welded her to this family. She lived in a compound where no relationships seemed fixed, and where no one temperament was like another. The final test and complication would be the arrival of Nancy and her children – whenever Frank chose to bring them in.

  As for money, she had cleared twenty thousand pounds from the share-out of her father’s will, even after the death duties had been lopped off, and such a mountainous sum, invested on Handley’s advice in a London Borough Council, was accumulating interest for them all, an abundance of reserves that would hold them up for a long time. She was buying two fields near the village, satisfying her own desire to own more land, on which they could build, use it for picnics, or put it to any use that the community might decide on.

  She looked at Frank across the table. He smiled. He was like a man back from famine rather than war, a traveller who had been to the magic circles of the moon and fought with the demonic apotheosis of evil till the bones went white within him and had suffered more than his soul had the capacity to take, as if he had been robbed of the ability to love, and had taken on the incurable sickness of compassion. His eyes were edged with chaos, and a strength that thrilled and frightened her. He was the man who was leaving the demanding sphere of the moon and entering the machine-age pull and energy of the sun, a man half-way there but who had been through the worst fire of getting free, and was now where it seemed that little could stop him making the great change of the world, though no one was to know yet what the cost would be.

  Enid grew angrier the more Richard expatiated on the political significance of poaching. ‘Sit down,’ she said, when he came to the end. To break in before would be to tread on a holy theme of the Handley way of life. ‘I only believe in poaching if we’re too poor to buy food, and at the moment we’re not.’

  ‘That’s contrary to our policy of living off the land,’ Handley said quietly.

  ‘If I want any rabbits I can buy them at the Co-op,’ she said. ‘I never ask you to steal them for me.’

  ‘Death to all shopkeepers!’ cried Adam.

  ‘I don’t see why we should be driven out of this village,’ she said.

  ‘Let them try,’ said Richard. ‘We can hold them off for weeks.’

  Only Handley and Enid were on their feet, the normal end of any upheaval, it seemed, in whatever house they occupied. Frank did not see how their community could exist for long under this internal tension. But he grew to see that because of such upheavals – which were, after all, merely the Handley method of debate and consensus – it could go on for ever. And if he could not stand it he could always remove himself to a land where the bonfires of insurrection had burst into reddening flame, to lead or follow against the dark forces of whoever governed.

  ‘I suppose,’ Handley said to Enid, ‘that you’re getting latched on to your usual neurotic dream of wanting an ideal place to live and die in, where you are on totally unrealistic terms with the people, and are unselfconsciously hobnobbing with the local gentry? I don’t have to ask where Mandy gets her death-wish from. All these ideas ought to be chased from the brains of such grown-up people. You can’t live at peace with the world. Not this world which won’t ever let you live at peace with it except on its own impossible strait-jacket terms. We’re not that sort of gang, family, tribe, or whatever you like to call us. The world hasn’t got to be only lived in, because even if you keep yourself at a distance it will corrupt and destroy you by forcing you to keep your distance, but it has to be continually attacked, raided, sabotaged, marauded, plundered, insulted and spat on. It’s not the sort of place you can walk around with your head cocked back in bollocky-eyed disdain and splendour, because even the birds of the air which they’ve trained and which had been trained without meaning to be, will go peep-peep and shit in your eye. You only make your mark and set up your score by giving no quarter either within or beyond the law. The village may not be ours by day, but it will be by night. We can’t at the moment melt in among the people like fish in water but after a few years the situation may be different.’

  While he was speaking the lounge door opened, and a tall burly young man wearing a cap and overcoat stood a little inside the room. Handley noticed him but went on talking. The man slowly opened his overcoat at the food-heat, and took off his cap. He wore a black shirt, and the white reversed dog-collar of a priest. His face was sensitive though overfed. He had a long narrow nose and thin expressive lips, and curly fair hair that fell over his forehead and the depth of his brow. He could have been any age between twenty and forty. Listening at first with respect and attention in what may have been a habitual expression, his lips slowly took on the shape of contempt that finally was exactly duplicated on Handley’s face when he stopped talking and looked at him for a moment. That, thought Frank, must be Cuthbert.

  Handley was determined to finish: ‘But we can forgive Enid balking at some of our activities, because she is basically a noble and gentle soul who can’t throw out her past because she’s still living in it. And as for Ralph, he should be ashamed of himself. His family are rich Lincolnshire loam-farmers who plundered their tenants and workers for decades, and when he shows a bit of individuality his pain-in-the-heart of a mother pitches him out without even a strip of field to use as a necktie or arserag. And as for Mandy she’s just got the same belly-yearnings as her mother, combined with my pitch of obstinacy, which she’s perverted to her own sybaritic use.’

  ‘You’re talking like a madman,’ Enid cried. ‘In a few years you’ll be in jail and we’ll be destitute. You’ll soon be as crazy and epileptic as John whom we sheltered and kept alive for so many years unless you get back to your painting and stop all this nonsense.’

  Cuthbert broke in, shouting through his smile: ‘Well, well, I can see the old matrimonial death-grapple is still going on. Call it a community, call it what you like, but I can smell it a mile off for what it is. I come home and what do I find? The same old gluttons at the pig-trough. What you want around here is a bit of plain speaking!’

  Enid’s back had been to the door, and only now did she notice his presence. She turned and smiled at her favourite and eldest son. ‘We didn’t expect you till next week, Cuthbert. How are you, my love?’

  He ignored her. ‘Aren’t you going to welcome your firstborn, Dad?’

  ‘Sit down and get some stew,’ Handley said, grim-lipped. ‘Maybe it’ll stop your mouth up.’ Cuthbert was the perfect blend of his parents, in that you could not distinctly see either of them mirrored in his features, though at the same time you knew he could be none other than their son. Enid set him a place, and Maria brought a plate of stew. Richard, not too willingly, poured his wine. Frank sensed that the equilibrium of the house had been perman
ently displaced by his arrival.

  ‘I’ve got news for you, Dad,’ Cuthbert said between food. ‘I’ve been thinking that with everybody’s permission I’d like to stay here, because I’ve nowhere to go since leaving college. I hope nobody minds.’

  ‘You’re welcome,’ Handley said, ‘as long as you fit in like the rest of us. There’s plenty of work to do. We all earn our own keep.’

  ‘Give him time,’ Enid said indignantly. ‘He’s only just stepped through that door.’

  ‘And he can step right out of it again if there’s any trouble or disruption. He had the best bloody prospects in the world, of becoming an ordained priest in the Church-of-rotten-England, and he spoils it all through lust and greed, and I suspect a bit of simony and black mass thrown in. He could have infiltrated right into the middle of the enemy’s juiciest pie. What a chance gone to dust and ashes. It gives me the knee-ache to think of it.’

  Cuthbert stepped up by his chair, kicked a couple of bottles aside and blew a candle out with the flap of his trousers. He stood full height on the table, his head bending slightly under the smooth chalk of the ceiling. With a deliberate gesture he ripped off his priestly white collar, so that only his black shirt remained. ‘In coming here I chose freedom. Do you hear, father? FREEDOM! I’ve had enough of being your germ in a sealed train steering for the heart of the imperial poxetten church. I resented being used by you, and used by them, which is what it amounted to. By intermittent intelligence, continual fawning, and eternal hypocrisy I nearly got stuffed into that pit of frayed hymnbooks and incensed cassockrags that you intended me for. But I’d rather risk my life than my spirit. I was beginning to like it, and if I’d stayed another month I’d have been so genuinely deep in it that you’d have lost all control of me. That’s what I call a crisis of conscience: getting out before you are too far in. I can’t lead a double life. I had to come back here so as to stay loyal to you and the family. It’s all right for you, Dad. You think it’s easy to live six lives at once, because you’re an artist, but me, I’m not an artist. I’m honest, and can’t stand having my guts corroded by playing false-face to something as corrupt as the Church of England. Oh no, not me. I can be treacherous to a cause which has been genuinely set up to help a large section of hapless mankind get out of its awful sufferings, and all that stuff. Find me a good cause to rip open like a rat from the inside, that I can believe in from the bottom of my heart, and I’ll enjoy no finer work destroying it. Then I’ll show you what skill and patience I’ve got in me, so that even you would pat me on the back – father.’

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