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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.41
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.41

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  Handley had, for reasons of family solidarity and to put on a show of love and understanding in front of Frank and Myra, been rehearsing a few lily-white phrases of a welcome-home speech, but now they flew back in his mouth and choked him purple. ‘Sit down,’ he commanded, standing up. ‘You’re the only one of all my brood who is worse than me. One day you’ll steal my turps and cut my bollocks off. You’re the sort who in the Middle Ages would have taken a quiverful of poisoned arrows to the top of a brand-new cathedral built to the glory of God and picked off his friends first and his enemies second. Still, welcome back, Cuthbert. I think no one will object to such a valuable sackbag of assets joining our community. There was never much of “hear all, see all, say nought” about our Cuthbert – was there, Cuthbert? So I’m sure his time with the trainee clergy has been an admirable exercise in self-restraint. And when he does open his mouth nobody can accuse him of having a concentrated epigrammatic idiosyncratic style either. So before we get down to a night of drinking, talking, knifing, remembering John, and cracking nuts, I’m going to have the last ceremonial word, as an artist always should. We’ll found this community as a memorial to my brother John, and to his life, such as you all know it was. There should be enough money to keep this project going, but if there isn’t then we’ll have to find ways of getting it. England’s a rich country still, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t support us while we’re trying to bring it crashing down. And if ever it does crash we’ll be able to fend for ourselves, because some of us will be running it. And if it’s beyond a state when it can be run at all, by anybody, then we’ll still keep alive, because chaos is very conducive when it comes to the likes of us living off the land.’

  Cuthbert turned his eyes from one member of the family to another, and to those who were strangers to him. Frank saw him, and burned his look away. Introductions would come later, but there were no smiles between them.

  ‘We all have our pledges,’ Handley went on. ‘Mine is to keep painting, to open the furnace-ovens and pull out the steel, work till I go mad or drop dead, to keep my patience and courage even when I can’t do a stroke for weeks, to work cheap and sell to the highest bidder. My labour and long hours cost nothing, is so dirt-cheap that it’s free where art is concerned, and in the end I place no money-value on what I turn out. But I know what it is worth to others, and I also know that my heart is never willing to sell it. But it’s no use creeping into a corner to have a quiet cry when Teddy Greensleaves takes half a dozen canvases away on a tumbril cart to their doom in his gallery, though I know that when they go a few more gobbets of irreplaceable flesh have been snapped off my backbone. And so all I can do is have bad dreams, and carry on painting – as long as the rest of you work with me.’

  Cuthbert stood up with tears on his cheeks, and a glass in his hand. ‘We’ll drink to that, Dad. We’ll drink to that. And to Uncle John. And to Mother, and all of you.’

  Everyone gathered around, including Ralph. Handley looked at them all with obvious distrust, but concealed love, then smiled sardonically and put an arm around Cuthbert. Frank was bemused, saw many weeks, even years of invigorating chaos ahead, of great ideas, and great work, and to this only he lifted his glass.

  This is the second part of a trilogy, of which The Death of William Posters is the first.

  Turn the page to continue reading from the William Posters Trilogy

  CHAPTER ONE

  Albert Handley left his car in a meter-bay behind Oxford Street, and went into a shop to buy a transistor radio.

  ‘How much is that?’ he asked.

  ‘Costs twenty-seven guineas,’ said the young salesman.

  Ash dropped from his thin cigar. He’d smoked all the way down that morning. His daughter Mandy had asked him not to, otherwise he might die of cancer. ‘Who’ll make the money to keep us in the sort of idleness we’ve got used to if you get carried off? The trouble is, you think of nobody but yourself.’

  ‘Looks good.’

  He twiddled a knob though it was not switched on. There were no batteries in any, and they were chained by their handles to the wall. He was eating himself so hard that cancer wouldn’t get a look in.

  ‘It’s very fine,’ the salesman told him, as if he weren’t a serious customer, but was passing the time before going to a pornographic picturedrome down the street.

  Handley unbuttoned his short fawn overcoat. He was tall and spruce-looking, with brown eyes, and a face more reddish than the ruddy glow it had when he’d been poor and walked everywhere. Yet he was still thin. No matter what food he shovelled down, and in truth it was never much, he did not put on weight. There was something intelligent and ruthless about his face, until he smiled and spoke, when whoever he was addressing might make the mistake of thinking him an easy person to get on with.

  ‘I want something powerful,’ he said. ‘A good radio with lots of short-wave. I live in the country, and like to feel cut off from the one I’m in!’

  His brother John had been a wireless enthusiast, and so Handley wasn’t as unfamiliar with radios as the salesman thought. But John’s dead, you fool, he snapped at himself in his momentary abstraction. What do you mean dead? Of course he’s not. Why do you say that? He never was dead nor will be dead. He can’t be. If he died I wouldn’t paint another picture. I’d die myself, in fact. But he was dead, all the same. Killed his bloody self.

  He saw a black, complex, heavy model with a multiplicity of wavebands, switches and aerials. ‘What do you rush for that one?’

  ‘A hundred and ten guineas. It’s a Philips, from Holland.’

  ‘You look as if you could really communicate with it. Turn it on, will you?’

  He unlocked the chain, and fixed in batteries.

  ‘It’s a good smart model.’

  ‘Can you get police-bands?’

  ‘Everything. Fire-brigade, aircraft, radio-taxis, ship-to-shore in morse and telephone. Anywhere in the world, providing you adjust the aerials.’

  The tone was good, trilled with spikey clearness when he spun the wheel over short-wave. ‘Pack it up, then, I’ll take it with me.’

  He got back to his car and found a ticket fixed on the windscreen. He supposed it must be a two-pound fine because – as he now realised, looking at the meter – he’d forgotten to put money in. He drove off without touching it and, going smoothly along Oxford Street, flicked on the wipers till the little cellophane envelope flew out of his sight forever.

  He cursed his carelessness – as well as the vindictive warden so assiduous in his packdrill duty – and picked his way through the traffic. His sleek black Rambler Estate made easy progress, but it still took some time getting to the Arlington Gallery after finding a vacant bay in Hanover Square.

  String-wire-and-tinfoil sculpture that formed the basis of the current exhibition looked flimsy but interesting, something between Futurist muck, Surrealist crap, and a heap of socialist-realist junk thrown out of a builder’s yard. In other words, it didn’t lack imagination but had no talent whatsoever, only a demonic persistence on the part of the artist to create something or die. The man’s name was famous in the art world, and though Handley couldn’t begrudge him that, he was annoyed at the fact that he didn’t know what it was about, feeling insulted because the sculptor hadn’t done something that his by no means simple intelligence could understand.

  Still, maybe it was only a bit of obstinacy on Handley’s part, because many people were paying high prices for it, and countless critics were vomiting words in order to explain it to each other. It kept them out of mischief, though he felt that the more words a picture needed the worse it was.

  Sir Edward Greensleaves, large and affable, stood up from his desk. Handley was a few minutes early and this disturbed him but, due to reasonably good breeding, it got no further than his own thoughts. Known as Teddy to Handley and his friends, he was at the pinnacle of several hundred years of family history – a genealogical cutting tool. The Greensleaves had one of the oldest pedigrees in Englan
d, which meant they came over as vicious-narrow-eyed plunderers with Norman from France. Handley could have reminded him, however, that his clan were in England even before the Norman Conquest and even, maybe, prior to the Roman Invasion, but such length of service can be a positive disadvantage especially if, instead of mixing and breeding only with the best names as Teddy’s lot had done, you mucked in with all the jailbirds and riff-raff feeding on fur, feather and fin that happened to come your way. Teddy was the last of the Greensleaves, and being of a certain nature, was not likely to extend the name for another generation. Handley, with a family of seven kids, seemed set for a few more centuries at least, unless the world blew itself up in the meantime.

  Greensleaves often boasted how he had pulled Handley from the gutter of direst hardship and turned him into a man of the world. He had given him his first show two years ago, and made him rich and famous. Handley didn’t see it like that. He had always been a man of the world, and was no different now in either talent or spirit to when he was without money or recognition. His wife and seven kids had got along on national assistance, poaching, begging-letters, and raffling paintings now and again in the Lincolnshire village they’d lived in. He shook Teddy’s warm, pudgy hand. ‘I need money, that’s why I’ve come to see you.’

  ‘You had a thousand last month. Are you sure?’

  ‘There are a score of us living in our self-styled community, and that means twenty idle mouths to feed. I’m not idle, because I happen to be the breadwinner, but I don’t mind that because it stimulates me for my work.’

  ‘I wonder if you’re making a mistake, living in a community?’ Greensleaves ventured.

  ‘Of course I am,’ Handley said. ‘I’m just one big twenty-two carat mistake like any other human being. It’s not many months since my brother John died, and it seems like we buried him only yesterday. Living in a big group helps me to get over it a little bit.’

  Edward didn’t like Handley to be so much at the mercy of ordinary emotions. If the artist’s brother died he should swiftly absorb the fact, however tragic it might be, into the mainstream of his creative powers – he suggested.

  ‘We’ll never see eye to eye,’ Handley said. ‘I enjoy coming to see you because it makes me feel so civilised. I mean, it amazes me how cultured people like you can live so far down in the mud.’

  Teddy laughed. ‘Let’s not go into that.’

  ‘Or we’ll never get off it,’ Handley said, pushing his face close, ‘will we?’

  ‘I mean,’ Teddy said, ‘wouldn’t it be better for you to live in Majorca, or some place where the sun is warm, and living cheap?’

  He grinned. ‘You want to get rid of me?’

  ‘I want you to be happy.’

  ‘I thought so. You want me to stop painting.’

  Greensleaves flushed, as if caught in a secret criminal thought, which deepened when he realised there was no basis for it.

  ‘Don’t take me seriously,’ Handley said, ‘or I’ll cry. I’m the only one who knows how I can live.’

  ‘You’re painting well?’ Teddy said, pouring two brandies. He had the look of a man who had his vices under control, but who also knew exactly what they were – which was something.

  Handley sat in a leather chair, his feet on the long mahogany desk. ‘Never better, in my humble opinion. You can put another show on as soon as you like.’

  ‘It’s only three months since the last. We don’t want them to think you’re too prolific.’

  ‘Afraid they’ll stop buying?’ Handley jibed.

  ‘They may want them cheaper. We can’t afford that.’

  ‘Why not? It’ll hurt you but it won’t hurt me. I’m working as if I’m on piece work. Bull week, every week. Grab, grab, grab. Call it inspiration if you like.’

  Teddy pushed the brandy over. ‘Leave the tactics to me.’

  ‘Cheers! I suppose you might get thin if you didn’t make so much money.’

  He sipped and laughed. ‘I don’t think you realise it, Albert, but I like being fat.’

  ‘There’d be nothing left of you if you weren’t.’

  ‘It’s good to be fat in this business. A thin art dealer isn’t trusted. A thin partner, yes, but not someone like me.’

  He’s trying to reassure me, Handley thought, that he’ll never run away with my money. He’s devious and corpulent. His eyes are shifty and incompetent. I’m sure he’s robbing me. But he’s good-natured, and I like him. ‘Have you always been fat?’

  ‘Generally, yes. People make way for a fat man. They respect him.’

  Handley lit a cigar. ‘Unless there’s a war on.’

  ‘No danger of that.’

  ‘Civil war, I mean.’

  Teddy laughed. ‘When I go into a restaurant the waiters smile. I’m always served first, whether they know me or not. I get bigger helpings, what’s more.’

  Greensleaves’ office made him uneasy because three of his paintings hung on the well-lit walls. They seemed out of place, set there for dealers and customers who saw them only as so many square yards of investment. Handley knew, however, that his attitude was a bad one, indicating a lack of detachment and even backbone. He was, after all, happy enough when Teddy took out his cheque book and passed a chit for three thousand pounds.

  He put it in his wallet. ‘That’ll get me through the weekend! I don’t need the other for the moment.’

  They were disturbed by the buzzer, and when the door opened Handley recognised Lady Daphne Maria Fitzgerald Ritmeester (names he’d seen in an up-to-date Who’s Who which he’d bought to get basic facts on people he bumped into now that his paintings sold at the proper prices).

  ‘You’ve already met, I believe,’ Greensleaves said.

  ‘Twice,’ Handley stood up, ‘and both times I asked her to kiss me, but she didn’t.’

  ‘On the first occasion you were drunk,’ she said, with half a smile. Her charming and grating voice was the sort that would make you feel unsure of yourself if you thought there was a chance of going to bed with her. She was a thin middle-aged woman with dark hair piled over a splendidly intelligent face. Her grey eyes seemed over-exposed due to skilful make-up and care, and her faintly spread nostrils created a subtlety for her lips that they might not otherwise have had. Handley sensed that men would have to be a hundred times more gentle before such women would come to like them.

  She turned to Greensleaves. ‘I just popped in to give you this,’ taking an envelope from her Florentine leather bag.

  Teddy blushed at money instead of sex. There has to be something that embarrasses him to the marrow, Handley thought. Lady Ritmeester had bought some of his work, including the Lincolnshire Poacher, that star piece of his one-man show at which they’d first met.

  ‘How long are you in town?’

  ‘Depends,’ he said. ‘Till tomorrow, perhaps.’

  She lit a cigarette and sat down. ‘How’s the country?’

  ‘Restful, as long as I can get away.’

  ‘I hear you run some sort of community?’

  ‘An extended family, really. A five-star doss-house.’

  ‘I thought the revolutionary thing nowadays was to eliminate the family.’

  He laughed. ‘That sort of theory’s for young people who haven’t got families. I have seven kids, so who could get rid of that lot? There would have been another but my wife lost it after our house caught fire in Lincolnshire. I’m afraid to make up a manifesto against the family in case she gets pregnant again. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The only thing is to make it bigger. It drives me up the zigzags.’

  ‘You could simply walk away,’ she teased, much to Teddy’s enjoyment as he opened her envelope, and put the cheque in his drawer.

  ‘If a man’s up to his neck in a bog how can he get up and crawl off? He needs a tractor to pull him free, and then it might yank both his arms out and he’d bleed to death. Still, there is some good in the family. The State’s helpless against it – or one like mine. Any system t
hat screams against the family only wants to abolish it for its own ends – good or bad. It wants such power for itself. Who wouldn’t? Will you have lunch with me?’

  Launched in the same tone as his speculations on the family, the request took her by surprise: ‘What a strange idea!’

  ‘It would be if we went to a fish ’n’ chip shop for a piece of grotty cod washed down with a bottle of high-powered sauce,’ he said. ‘But I mean real lunch at the Royal Bean up the street.’

  She was an expensive production with the palest of porcelain skin as if, should you start to take her clothes off, she’d come to pieces in your hands. ‘You fascinate me.’

  ‘You’re like a woman,’ she answered. ‘Full of tease. A real man, I believe it’s called.’

  No response was good enough, at least not while he expected it. ‘I’d be delighted if you’d have lunch with me.’

  If he thought about it he couldn’t imagine anything more grisly, but it was too late to back out now. ‘As an experiment, then,’ she said, still with that damaged but maddening smile.

  Teddy wondered if they’d need to use his desk to make love on – they were getting along so well – and had an impulse to begin clearing it, so as to inch himself back into their talk. They had forgotten him, and only such rude and crude behaviour could make them pay for it.

 
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