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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.42
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.42

           Alan Sillitoe

  Handley suggested a taxi, but she preferred to walk the two hundred yards. They had the luck of a table near the curtained window. He offered a cigarette from his packet. ‘Do you eat out much?’

  ‘Reasonably often.’

  ‘I usually get stomach poisoning, though this place looks all right.’ He snapped his finger, but no one heard it.

  ‘That’s the disadvantage of a restaurant,’ she said. ‘Not good for one’s self-confidence.’

  She was enjoying herself, and what man could want more than that? He knew he was not very strong on courtship, and Daphne Ritmeester sensed it, too, and was trying to make him pay for it. But time was on his side, and they were no longer close to the prying ears of Teddy Greensleaves, which made them somewhat easier on each other.

  ‘If a man is eating alone,’ he said, ‘and he complains about something or other he gets good treatment. But if he dines with a woman he doesn’t because the waiter’s back goes up, since he thinks he’s only trying to impress the woman. Even if the man is justified in his complaints the waiter thinks he should show solidarity with the male sex and not mention them, especially in front of a woman. You can’t win. They’ve got the class war in one eye and the sex war in the other. If I had my way there’d be nothing but counters where you had to go up and get your own.’

  ‘How perfectly horrible,’ she said. ‘I’d never eat out.’

  ‘You could bring a maid,’ he suggested, ‘and she’d queue for you.’

  Had he really done the paintings she so much admired? It was like having lunch with your chauffeur simply because he was a good driver. And yet, not quite. This might turn out more interesting. ‘Tell me about your life,’ she said when half a melon, big enough to float away on across the blue lagoon, had been set before them. ‘How did you become a painter?’

  ‘My life’s simple,’ he replied. ‘Always will be, I hope. After prep school, Eton and Oxford, I got a commission in the Brigade of Guards. Fought in France, back through Dunkirk, went to Egypt and got wounded – though not in the groin. I rejoined my battalion and went to Italy, wounded again, invalided out, nothing to do except draw my pension and paint pictures.’

  She laughed. ‘That’s not what you told the newspapers.’

  ‘You’ve got to make up a good story,’ he said, pushing his melon aside because it tasted like marrow. ‘Uncle Toby would disown me if I didn’t. I love you. But you must forgive me – not for saying that, because I can’t imagine anyone not coming out with it – but for being so blunt and common. I can’t make pretty speeches. I paint, not talk. I’ve never been good at weaving snares of words around women. If I’m so tongue-tied that I can only say “I love you”, you’ll have to forgive me.’

  It seemed impossible to get through to him. There must be a gap in his armour somewhere. He knew she was thinking this, and saw that if he kept up his rigmarole long enough she might come to bed with him. ‘Do you paint all the time?’

  ‘Every minute God sends.’

  ‘Don’t you get bored?’

  ‘I love you, Daphne.’

  ‘Don’t you get bored with that?’ He was too impertinent to be her chauffeur.

  ‘Let’s go to Paris for a couple of days.’

  ‘Certainly not.’

  ‘Venice, then.’

  It was ludicrous. She laughed. He rubbed his hands under the table. Wiping them on the cloth, she thought, pointing to the napkin. He drew it across his moustache.

  ‘You haven’t got your passport,’ she said.

  He took it out of his pocket. ‘I never leave the house unless it’s on me – even if only to the pub for a packet of fags – in case I decide not to go back. I always do, though. You only vanish when all the ends will be left hanging.’

  ‘You’re a very destructive person.’

  ‘Not really. To myself maybe.’

  ‘You make my blood run cold,’ she mocked.

  ‘Here’s the horsemeat,’ he said, glad to end such a note.

  For a thin woman she showed great appetite, and if he kept up with her it was only to get his money’s worth, and because he’d left home with no more than half a grapefruit and a thimble of black coffee under his belt.

  He filled her empty glass close to the brim, hoping she’d bend her lips to the table to sip it, so that he could look down her dress. But he’d underestimated her dexterity, for she lifted it easily without spilling a drop.

  He apologised: ‘I’m no good at serving people.’

  ‘You’d never make a waiter,’ she smiled. ‘When did you last go to the mainland?’

  ‘Fortnight ago. Got so bored with my community I lit off in the car. Drove five hundred kilometres to this posh hotel south of Paris. Cost fifty francs for a room and bath. Same again for something to eat. I got sloshed over dinner, so daren’t use the bath I’d paid for in case I drowned. I climbed into bed with my boots on to make up for it. After all, fifty francs is four quid. I really do love you.’

  She jumped, though not, he noted, with annoyance. He imagined it might be due to his quick change of voice and because he touched her warm, silken kneecap under the table. ‘Why do you keep on?’

  He sensed she’d be disappointed if he suddenly lost heart. She hadn’t been entertained at lunch for a long time, and so unexpected.

  ‘Listen,’ he said confidentially, eyes lit as he leaned closer, ‘I can get all the women I want, just by telling them I love them. If I say it earnestly enough – but not like a beaten dog – no woman can resist it. It always works, even if you do it only ten minutes after meeting them. Often that’s more effective because they think that if you can fall in love so quickly you’ll never be able to see their faults. A thing like that almost persuades them they’re in love with you. But only the best women believe you when you say you love them, and they’re the ones you want.’

  She noticed how impeccably dressed he was, how lean-faced and handsome, with his well-chiselled head, short hair and clipped moustache. ‘You may not know it,’ she said, attempting to divert him, ‘but I’m married.’

  ‘Your husband’s on the board of fifty-four companies.’

  She tapped her empty plate. ‘Fifty-six.’

  ‘My stud-book’s out of date.’

  She picked up the menu to choose dessert.

  ‘He’s afraid the country’s heading for a Labour Government.’

  ‘It’ll shoot rapidly out as soon as it gets in,’ he reassured her. ‘There’s nothing predictable about the English, bless ’em. I was in the butcher’s the other day buying the daily cow, and he was bewailing the power of the trade unions and said what England needs is a dictator to put a stop to ’em. He was in raptures at the thought of it, so I said: “Yes, I’d love that as well. That would really ruin the country. Blokes like you would go down first. I’d bloody love that, because as soon as it happened I’d be on my way to Switzerland.” You should have seen his face drop. Because I’d got money he thought I was on his side.’

  ‘Poor fellow!’ she said.

  ‘You know,’ he went on fervently so that she couldn’t interrupt, ‘I can normally look people in the eyes, but when I’m in love I can burn anyone off the face of the earth. Your eyes are generous and clever. Don’t think I don’t fall in love even though I am forty-three. My brain may get soft, but the charge is still there. It’s not lust or wick-fever either because when I’m in love, as I am now, my slonker isn’t so ready to stiffen though it burns like a poker in the fire when it gets there at last. My sight is clearer and I wear glasses less when I’m painting. I’m not shy and devious anymore when I’m in love, even though I have more to hide because I’m married as well!’

  Her hand shook at the menu. The smile left her. She was glad the waiter came, and they ordered a dessert which, he reminded her, was as high and ornate as the hat she’d been wearing when he first saw her two years ago: ‘I’ll do a picture when I get home. The idea’s forming in my third and visual eye. Lady Ritmeester’s hat! It won’t be
a big one, but its colour will dazzle the world!’

  She’d heard more loving speeches in the last half hour than from her husband in fifteen years. The skin under her make-up was burning. ‘I’ll order more wine – no, champagne,’ he said, ‘to toast the way I feel about you.’

  He felt a hand on his wrist. ‘Pay the bill,’ she said. ‘We’ll get a taxi to my flat on Mount Street.’

  It was a last ploy to call his bluff, but she knew it wouldn’t work, and hoped it wouldn’t, and it didn’t, though under her confidence she wondered where it would lead – if anywhere.

  So did Handley as he helped her into her coat and caught another whiff of her subtle expensive perfume, and a glimpse of the pearls laying along the pale flesh of her neck.

  From the long corridor he could see it was the sort of flat that cost a hundred pounds a week to rent furnished. Everything was Harrod’s best, tables of expensive rosewood, dark green panelling, heavy half-drawn curtains, an elaborate dressing-table with a pink marble top, built-in wardrobes (a bad touch that, he felt) and a high, enormous bed which redeemed everything. She’d led him straight into the bedroom so that the maid wouldn’t twig.

  He stood alone, smoking a cigar and blessing such unexpected luck, his back to the empty fireplace. Or was it luck? There was no saying, though he couldn’t think she’d shown him to her bedroom for a drink of beer. There were no pictures or ornaments on the walls, and only a faint sound of traffic through the double wondows.

  She clicked the door to. ‘I hate cigars. Do put it out.’

  Sitting at the dressing-table, she lifted off her wig. Its sudden absence diminished her face, made it slightly less thin, and dark hair underneath was so short she resembled Joan of Arc.

  ‘Don’t kiss me,’ she said, when he went to her. ‘And don’t undress me. Just take your clothes off.’

  He didn’t trust her, though he had nothing to lose so could see no reason for it. But he got out of his jacket, shirt and trousers, watching her observing him through the dozen mirrors, and noting the slightly exaggerated curve of her lips, as if she too didn’t know why he was there. If you couldn’t kiss her, how else could you lead up to it?

  Her short wispy hair made her look younger and more vulnerable, as if she ought to be glad of having him in her bedroom rather than trying to make him feel so privileged. Her face was also a little hard in its thinness, and the mix-up gave to her eyes a mocking air that he wanted to get rid of.

  ‘It’s a fine bedroom. It suits you.’

  She took off her pearls and bracelets. ‘I camp here. You should see the bedroom at Flaxton, my country place. It would make your mouth water, I’m sure.’

  ‘I like this one.’

  ‘It’s mine,’ she smiled, standing to let her skirt fall. ‘My husband is allowed to visit me in it now and again.’

  The transformation from the elegant Lady Ritmeester with the elaborate and high-piled coiffure to the short-haired naked thin woman with a smile like a Hampstead housewife off for an afternoon with her boyfriend was so disconcerting that he found it erotic, and went towards her. The remains of her personality had retreated into her voice. She backed away and said in the normal Ritmeester timbre: ‘Don’t. I’ll come to you.’

  Since they weren’t more than a few feet apart he could afford to wait, though to pass the time he took off his pants and stood naked. She reached out and touched him in the only spot that seemed to matter, for under her delicate fingers it lifted, a very obedient horn. Her small breasts lured him because he had never seen any so perfectly white. Even the nipples were pale and merged into the flesh. The rest of her body was firm, and only slightly less pale, and he bent forward and kissed her slender neck, his hand on her stomach.

  They stroked each other, and Handley was locked in the circle of her as if gripped by fatigue. His dream made him feel she was the most powerful woman he’d ever met, and he was disturbed at his liking for her, though his ready mechanism of self-preservation pushed it immediately away. ‘Don’t let’s burst,’ he said, noticing her eyes were closed, and pressing her gently.

  ‘Don’t touch me there,’ she said, when his hand went between them. He wondered if they were to do it by extra-sensual perception, or some such mystical stuff, but he wasn’t prepared to enter a brother and sister act either, so pushed her firmly towards the bed. She let herself on to the counterpane, eyes staying closed.

  ‘Not yet,’ she said, opening her legs. He knelt beside her on the bed, able to stare because she still refused to look at him. Her fingers rippled at herself, and suddenly her whole body played with some sensation he wasn’t allowed to share.

  Unable to resist, and he assumed he was not meant to (you had to be careful with such a woman), and being at full height, he slid lusciously into her. Whenever he tried a kiss she moved her face, so he had to be satisfied with neck and shoulders, shifting gently as if afraid of breaking her, none of the usual forceful thrusting, but slowly and tenderly, one hand spread under her buttocks until another trembling broke deeply inside her, so that this time he got the force of it. Her dry breath jerked strongly out of her nostrils and against his cheek. A few moments later he also came, a weird flood that filled her narrow tunnel. It was an issue too soon for his taste, but he was never at his best on a fed stomach and a bottle of wine.

  ‘Get off me.’

  He lifted himself. ‘Thank you.’ There seemed nothing else to say, though he would rather have lain a bit longer.

  ‘Get dressed.’

  ‘Why do you keep your eyes closed?’

  ‘It’s much better,’ she said. ‘I get my enjoyment more quickly. I go into other worlds.’

  ‘What worlds?’

  ‘Wouldn’t you like to know?’

  ‘Of course I bloody well would.’ He put on his underwear and shirt, grateful for some explanation at least. While his back was turned for his trousers she leapt silently off the bed towards a grey silk dressing gown.

  ‘Does your husband know you carry on like this?’

  She sat by the dressing-table and lit a cigarette. ‘He thinks I have lesbian relationships, and that’s all right.’

  ‘Do you?’

  ‘Sometimes. Just to allay his suspicions – or to head them off.’

  The encounter had left him feeling deprived, as if it had been too civilised. ‘I expect he likes to watch.’

  She frowned. ‘He’s not perverted. As long as I tell him about them.’

  He was half-way to lighting a cigar, but remembered she didn’t like her bedroom stunk up – which made him want to get on the street where he could be free and in peace.

  ‘One has to live,’ she said. ‘And there are many ways of doing it.’ Her wig was back. ‘Perhaps you’d better go.’

  He put his coat on. ‘How do I get to kiss you?’

  ‘You’ll have to marry me.’

  ‘You already are,’ he grinned.


  ‘Well, so am I, come to that.’

  He had lost his patter, which was another gauge of her success. ‘What does your wife do while you’re out with other women?’

  ‘She doesn’t know.’

  Lady Ritmeester laughed. ‘Have you asked her?’


  ‘Then how do you know?’ She had found his weak spot. He trusted too much in his own strength. And what a big weak spot it was – such non-existent strength! ‘Still,’ she said, not wanting to warn him of the disaster she saw in store, ‘you can hardly complain if she does the same as you.’

  ‘I won’t. But how do we keep in touch?’

  She smiled. ‘We don’t.’

  ‘You serious?’

  ‘Don’t ever telephone me.’

  ‘I’ll walk up and down outside with a sandwich board over me, saying DAPHNE I, LOVE YOU on one side, and KISS ME, DAPHNE on the other.’

  He was almost back on form, so she could be more indulgent. She hated men who became serious afterwards.

  ‘Perhaps we’ll
meet at the gallery.’

  That was enough. Why push too far? He blew a kiss, and she sent one back. Sweethearts at least. ‘Do let yourself out,’ she said. ‘I feel a headache coming on.’

  He crossed the street and nearly got knocked over by a taxi. The driver cursed. Handley thought of shouting back, but why bother? He made his way to the car in Hanover Square. With Teddy’s cheque in his pocket he could go back to the bosom of his community without a soul being any the wiser.

  Two more parking fines had been attached to the windscreen by a rotten little Hitlerite traffic warden, and it was more in sorrow than in anger that he set the car moving up the street, and once again flipped on the wipers so that they went off like a pair of birds in freedom, narrowly missing a Rolls-Royce behind.

  It was the last real carefree day he could remember.


  Cuthbert came downstairs in his green-and-white striped pyjamas, switching on lights at every turn. If there was one thing the Handleys loved it was light, and in this at any rate he was no exception to his father.

  Formerly, in the Lincolnshire house – called The Burrow when they were destitute, and The Gallery after the old man had struck it rich – bulbs had burned all the time, as if they lived close to an immense inexhaustible powerhouse of a dam. But the family hadn’t made much of an impression on Myra’s place in the south Midlands, where they had come to live after the Gallery had been burned to the ground by mad Uncle John. They seemed subdued by a subtle combination of middle-class economy and bourgeois abundance.

  The décor, the pictures, the smell, even the creak of stairs underfoot made Cuthbert see how much of a trap the freedom-loving Handley family had fallen into by accepting the bonds of this puerile community of twenty souls. Roundabout the house Myra had kept the lawns smooth, the trees pruned and bushes trimmed, and therefore safe against free-booting Handleys who had been so free they had finally imprisoned themselves in the middle of it. The shining motor-mower ready for instant action, primed and fuelled in its centrally-heated garage, was a threat to everyone, and from his stance by the kitchen door Cuthbert pictured rose bushes and fruit trees surrounding and enlacing the house, with their aroma of damp tea leaves and delicately rotting bark, clad with ivy and wistaria gently crushing bricks and mortar to death.

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