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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.5
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.5

           Alan Sillitoe

  ‘Why go out of your way to make enemies?’ she said. ‘If you try not to make them you’ll still have more than you can handle. You’re not sly enough. You let these people make mincemeat of you. They’ve only got to stick a pin in and you jump a mile. And they always get what they came for, whether it’s the posh papers or the gutter press. At your age you should know better.’

  He spread butter over black rye-bread. ‘At thirty I’d have been as cunning as hell, and was, but what’s the point any more? I’m getting old enough not to bother about disguising my feelings.’

  ‘Too famous, you mean. It’s gone to your head.’

  The house was stonily quiet, children at school, others either asleep or set on various pastimes. A cow moaned from the neighbouring field. ‘Whose side are you on?’

  Whenever they argued it was as if a third and impartial person were present, taking down all that they said to each other – as if they would be ultimately judged on this. She stood up to change his plate. ‘See what I mean? Yours, but you’re too locked in your fame to know it.’

  ‘Fame!’ He spat. ‘I don’t have any.’

  ‘You do.’

  ‘I ignore it.’

  ‘You don’t. You can’t. I wish you did, but they’ve got you.’

  ‘So what? Is my work any the worse for it?’ He hated the word ‘work’ and knew that she knew it, and had made him use it, by angering him on this touchy subject. Art was not work, since it was something you were not forced to do in order to earn a living.

  ‘Not yet it isn’t,’ she said.

  ‘It won’t be. When I’m working I’m completely myself.’

  ‘And when you’re not working,’ she went on, eyes gleaming because a real quarrel was coming up, ‘we’ve all got to live with you.’

  ‘You mean you have. Why don’t we keep personal relationships out of this?’

  ‘You can’t live without them, that’s why.’

  He ate his bread and Stilton, cut up an apple. ‘Stalemate. Let’s pack it in. Divide the spoils and go our different ways.’

  She sat down and looked straight at him, a bad sign, portent of saying something unforgivable and bitter. ‘If you want to give in, you can. But I won’t surrender to all this muck you’ve dropped into. If you want to go, go. Kill yourself. If you left me you’d never paint another stroke, and if you don’t believe me, try it. We’ve suffered too much to fly apart just when the going gets difficult. It might have been possible before, but not now, not any more.’

  ‘I don’t want to leave you, but what gives you the idea that you’re my strength and mainstay?’

  ‘Because I am, though not any more than you are mine, I admit. You’ve got me, but you’ve also got your freedom. I don’t ask questions when you go to London for weeks at a time, so if you can’t manage in those limits you wouldn’t exist in any others.’

  She boiled his coffee, poured it out. ‘We’ve got such a bond, Albert. It would be a pity if you smashed it. We’ve burned in this love and torment since we were almost kids, grown up while our own kids were growing up. If I were sentimental I might call a lot of it suffering, but there was too much love for that. It’s made me hard as well, but in a way that makes me sure of myself, and the more sure I am of myself the more I know that being together is the only thing that matters. We’ve never killed each other in a rotten married way. We’ve been very big about it, right above the rest of the world, and it can’t be shown to anyone else, or passed on, but we own it far more than this piece of property we’ve bought. It’s valuable and unique. It used to be the suffering that ennobles, but now it’s the sort that degrades. So ruin it if you like with your black heart. You can destroy your part of it, but not mine. My part of it’s out of your hands. And it’s safe in mine.’

  ‘I wasn’t serious about ending it. Stop this talk.’

  ‘I shan’t. You were thinking it. You’ve often hinted it. If you want to run off with some girl for a dead and comfortable life, it’s up to you, but I’d never forgive you your lack of backbone in doing it.’

  He smashed his fist on the table, shaking half his coffee out. ‘You’ve said enough. Stop it. You’re poisoning it. I can’t stand to have my love killed. The ancient feminine wrecker is on the move again!’

  She stood by the sink, hands shaking, turned on a tap to stop them. Water ran out uselessly. ‘I’ve said all I want, but if you think I was raving like a lunatic, and that what I’ve said doesn’t mean anything, you’re a fool.’

  ‘You open your mouth, and kill things. It’s disgusting.’

  ‘Go on. I’ll never stop you. Why don’t you just go outside and throw up that rotten bile that’s choking you? Just because some tuppenny journalist has been twisting you around his little finger you have to come in and vent you spleen on me. Not, I notice, until after you’ve had your dinner. Oh no! Food usually sweetens people, but it makes you bilious and sour. I won’t put up with your tantrums. You’re not dealing with those spineless people from London who only say “What a genius!” but never see you as you really are.’

  ‘So that’s it! Jealous, are we? Jealousy brings out the spite, and all the things you weren’t quick enough to get out in our other quarrels but remembered afterwards when you brooded on them. Jealous! I thought you were bigger than that, sweeter and bigger, more intelligent, perhaps. But no.’

  ‘Life’s full of disappointments for the poor of spirit,’ she mocked.

  ‘Turn that tap off. You’re wasting water.’

  ‘I’m not the gallery owner. You don’t have to act the knowing peasant with me!’ But she turned it off, and wiped up his coffee mess. He snatched the rag, and threw it like a dead cat into the sink. ‘You’re going right to the bottom,’ she said. ‘One move and down you go, right into the mud. And once you’re there you’re like an alligator that rips at any living thing.’

  They stood at each end of the kitchen. ‘You can’t run my life,’ he said. ‘You never could and you never will.’

  ‘It’s not worth running. Keep your life and foul it up in your own way. But leave mine alone. I want it for myself, out of what’s been good between us.’

  ‘Have it, then. I’m making you a present of it, tie it up in an old chocolate-box with blue ribbon. I’ll get the undertaker to make you a coffin, bury it with a bloody prayer book, send it to the bottom, all your love and ideals. You can have them, mine as well, when they take a turn for the worse like this.’

  He didn’t see her hand shift. A full dinner-plate seemed to cut off the top of his head, stutter and break on the doorpost behind. ‘I don’t want this sort of marriage,’ she raved. ‘It’s nearly twenty-five years, and I’ve not put up with this. It’s low. It’s ignoble.’

  He staggered, eyes closed, a wetness above the left eye. The salt of blood stuck like a leaf on his palate. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘We had fine instincts, but you want to alter all that, crush it, destroy it.’ He spoke calmly, a ribbon of blood on his face. ‘You can’t do such a thing to me. I’m even more in the real world than you are.’ Keep away from it, he said to himself, a precipice in front of him, don’t throw anything. Smile. For Christ’s sake lick away the blood and smile, or it’s over for ever. Twenty years in jail and only bars to paint.

  ‘You’re weak,’ she cried, ‘bone weak. Your whole life’s been built up on weakness. You can’t pit your will against the ordinary hard life of the everyday world.’

  His hands pressed onto the heavy kitchen table. ‘That’s what you always wanted, me going out to work every morning and bringing money in on Friday night, a nice steady husband with a nice steady job, an aspirin-wife and crispin-haired kids, a bungalow and little car. I’ve long suspected this.’

  ‘It’s not true. I mean weak in a better way than that. The way I mean is just not in your consciousness. You don’t know. You’re of poor material. You never could understand, because you’re idle, unreliable, a liar …’

  He reached her with clenched fist, brought it at her, then emptie
d the sink of dishes, a demon scattering all the confetti of Sheffield and the Potteries at wall and window. ‘Go on,’ she cried. ‘What else can you do? This is the end, though, the end, I tell you.’

  He spun like a windmill. Chairs shook and toppled, the table flew, drawers skimmed and blocked off the door. Deafness and blindness, the awful force of his own movements crushed him, caught him up so that he couldn’t stop. ‘I’ll never forgive you,’ she wept. ‘Never, Never.’

  ‘You’ve got absolutely what you wanted at last,’ he said, sitting on the floor. ‘Are you satisfied?’

  ‘We’re done,’ she said, in tears. ‘Finished.’

  ‘Finished,’ he said. ‘That’s it, then.’

  ‘I can’t take this again.’

  ‘You won’t have to. All your so-called love isn’t worth it. Nobody’s going to possess me in that way.’

  ‘Nobody wants to, if only you could understand. You’d better go then. Let’s get it over with.’

  ‘I’m not leaving like a bloody lodger.’

  ‘Neither am I,’ she said. ‘It’s my house, remember. You got it in my name. You were too weak to get it for yourself. “I won’t be a property-owner,” you said. So I’m not going.’

  ‘Neither am I, I won’t be thrown out.’

  ‘It’s my house,’ she exulted.

  ‘Get the police then, you turncoat bourgeoise slut. You’d stoop to anything.’

  From a sitting position his long thin body ricocheted across the room and caught her uplifted wrist. ‘Let go, or you’ll break it.’

  She put the plate in the sink. ‘I’ll never give in,’ she said. ‘Not even if you crawl.’

  The idea of it made him laugh, brought a spark of humour into his black day. ‘That’s what you’ve wanted all your life, but there’s less chance of it now than there ever was, and there was none then.’ He drew back, in danger being so close, though not of blows flying. He refused all temptation to inspect his aching cut, or touch the congealing blood.

  ‘I want nothing from you,’ she said, holding a hand over one eye. ‘If I’d ever wanted anything we wouldn’t have been together two minutes.’

  ‘But you’ve had plenty. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t even know when he is giving.’

  Her voice was quieter, more even in tone. ‘Not knowing when you give is the same as not giving.’

  ‘You can wrap those bloody semantic floorcloths around your aphoristic neck.’ He couldn’t hold back, in for the kill when he didn’t want to kill, didn’t need to, and when there was nothing to kill. She stayed quiet, knowing it had to stop, her own impetus gone. Choler sharpened his face, staring for a reply that never came.

  The door opened, pushed the table a few inches into the room, and when he snapped around Mandy stood by the pot dresser – the only furniture still upright, apart from her parents. ‘You two been arguing again?’

  He was angered by her buxom insolence, long auburn hair and wide sensual mouth ruined by lipstick. ‘What do you want?’

  ‘Nothing, except a couple of quid to go to the pictures. I’ll go schizoid with boredom if I stay here.’

  ‘Get this room straight first,’ he said.

  ‘Clear up your own mess. I’m not a skivvy.’

  Enid’s voice rang out. ‘Don’t talk to your father like that.’

  ‘I’ll clean it up when I come back,’ she said. ‘What about Maria and Catalina?’

  ‘Probably hiding in the cellars,’ Handley grinned.

  ‘All I want,’ said Mandy, ‘is approximately three hundred quid for a secondhand Mini. That’s not much to ask for, is it?’

  ‘I’ve told you approximately three hundred times the answer’s no. You cost me fifty quid for an abortion last year, and that was enough pin-money for a while.’ But even while talking he took pound notes from his pocket, as if held up at gunpoint. ‘Get going. Don’t let me see you before tea-time.’

  ‘I wish you two would settle your differences in a civilised way,’ she said, unable to move. ‘I hate it when you do this to each other. I suppose it’s the only way you can show love, but it gets me down. I’ll set the furniture on its legs, but don’t expect me to clean the blood up.’

  Handley’s fist struck the dresser, seemed to break every bone, even those in his toes. ‘I’ll murder you when you come back!’ he roared, his grey face through the door she’d nipped out of.

  ‘You asked for that,’ Enid said righteously, pulling the table upright. ‘You’ve never hit them yet, and you see what happens when you try?’

  ‘I bloody-well miss,’ he said, numbed by the pain. ‘By God, the fat little trollop had better not come back too soon. My hand’s finished. I’ll never be able to paint again. What shall I tell Teddy? I’m ruined. And it’s no laughing matter. I can’t move it. Look.’ The back of it was blue and swollen, a short, dark cut in one place. He leaned it against the cool wall and pressed hard.

  ‘Do a bit of work,’ she said, ‘and forget it.’ Bleak sunlight planted itself through the window. He swept smashed plates into a dustpan, rubble chuting musically into the plastic waste-bucket. Taking up the broken chair he opened the window and threw it out onto the quagmire garden. ‘That’s that,’ he said, as if after an hour’s good work.

  ‘That’s that,’ she said, enraged. ‘But it isn’t.’

  ‘I wouldn’t want it to be, either,’ he said, lighting two cigarettes and passing her one. ‘I wouldn’t want all this to be for nothing. As forty-year-old Romeo said to his dear Juliet across the Sunday dinner-table. “What did you expect?” – before dodging the loaded teapot. They were in love though, I suppose, bless ’em.’ He dropped his cigarette into the sink, and slid an arm around her. ‘Every word we say is true,’ he said, ‘between us. But it doesn’t matter. It can’t touch my love, nor yours.’ She said nothing, no bitterness left, words crushed as they kissed, unable to withdraw from the black infesting lust.

  Chapter Six

  Mandy fastened her leather coat and ran down the muddy lane. When far enough from the house she walked, and took out the four notes her father had pushed at her, enough to get to Boston and back, and buy a meal for herself and Ralph. It was just after two by her watch, solid gold that Handley had bought in London and swore cost forty quid – though she knew he’d doubled the price on his way back just to impress her.

  Since his success she’d wondered which was worse, being the daughter of a famous artist, or of a bone-idle penniless no-good. Certainly his fame hadn’t got her the Mini she craved and thought it should have. Before, men used to give her money buy her drinks and meals, now they expected her to pay for them, because her father was supposed to be rich and lavish. Nobody had done a thing for her this last year. It was as if she’d lost her purpose in life. All the force and wiles seriously expended piecemeal on other men now became one long ploy against her father, though, of course, in this relationship she could never play that final card of sexual attraction that she often had with others.

  It rained in the village, and still needed forty minutes for a bus to the station. With a souped-up Mini she could reach Boston in thirty, while this way it was a day trip. Who would imagine that when your own father had seven thousand pounds in his current account (she’d been through his papers and seen his bank statements) he’d be so mean as to refuse you a secondhand Mini for a measly three hundred? What was he expecting to do with such a fortune? Shoot himself and leave it to a dog’s home? He was harder than nails. When she’d got pregnant last year, hoping he’d set her and Ralph up in a new house, since they would have to get married, he’d thrown a fit and made her have an abortion, and on top of it all met Ralph and punched him in the face for what he was supposed to have done, but actually hadn’t because another man had done it. So Ralph was chary of venturing up that neck of the county now, and she had to traipse all the way down to dismal Boston for a glimpse of him. What could you do with such a father? He was too knowing to do you any good at all. He’d never considered what damage an ab
ortion did to you psychologically, especially at a time when all she’d wanted was to settle down with Ralph in a nice house and really have a kid if that was the price she had to pay for it. I can’t stay in a house like The Gallery all my life, she thought, with such terrible black upchucks going on all the time. Not that I really wanted to get married, for Jack Christ’s sake. Trust Dad to see through that one and get me off the hook. A trick that came today and went tomorrow. But what do I want to do with my life? I’m eighteen already and might be dead before I’m twenty-two. It’s all right reading Huxley and Lawrence (and those dirty books Dad brought back from Paris – he’d cut my throat if he knew I’d got at them as well) and brooding in my room over their slow-winded lies, but I suppose one day I’d better make up my mind and do something. Dad’s always on at me to get a job, and so I’d like to if one had any interest in it, but not like I did for six months in that estate-agent’s office, typing cards all day with particulars of houses on them to stick in the window, with Mr Awful-Fearnshaw trying to get his hands up my thighs.

  Thank God for bus-shelters, anyway. He isn’t good for much else. I suppose the highest I can hope for is to be either a nurse, or a teacher, but I don’t want to be anything yet, except something good and worthwhile when I do, so that I can be of use to somebody in the world. I’ve got my School Cert, so I can get my A levels and go to University, because I know that’s what Dad would really like.

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