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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.6
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.6

           Alan Sillitoe

  Miss Bigwell stopped in her new A40: ‘Want a lift?’

  ‘I’m going to Louth,’ Mandy said, ready to take anything to get out of the rain and sit between four wheels. Always prone to dislike someone before she could possibly grow to like them, Mandy made an exception for Miss Bigwell, for whom she had a vague admiration. In the old days, that is to say two or three years ago, half-frozen in her winter mittens, she sometimes made her way to Miss Bigwell’s cottage at the end of the village with a book of raffle-tickets hoping to sell a few at a shilling each for a painting of her father’s. Because Miss Bigwell usually bought half-a-dozen and at the same time never won a picture (no one did) she was careful not to go there too often.

  Pulling into second gear, her car shot from the bus-stop. ‘Why on a day like this? It’s pouring mackerel. Boyfriend, I suppose. I’m off to see my brother Joe – not well again.’

  Miss Bigwell was said to have a private income, in order to explain how she lived well and did no work. The reason people called it private was that few of them knew where it came from, though Handley said she was the only daughter of the Coningsby Bigwells. There was little he didn’t know about the rich families of the county, for he had tapped them all at one time or another. She and her brother Joe had sold all the land when the old man finally croaked and invested the money in the holiday-making industry of Skegness. She was a big shrewd woman of about sixty, with a moon-face and glasses, whom you might have thought rather common if she didn’t have money and a few of the ways that go with it. Like every local person she couldn’t resist pumping Mandy about how her father felt now that he was famous. It never ceased to amaze Mandy that local people almost respected him, while to her he was the same old stingy bastard he’d always been. Her aim in getting away from the family was simply to reach some state in life where there was so much money that it ceased to have either meaning or importance. Lack of it had always cramped her natural zest for living – and so it was more vital in her life than it ought to have been. When she was a child in school the headmistress had said hands high those who want to pay two shillings for a Christmas party. Mandy shot hers up because it was all her father could afford anyway. But no one else moved because they knew what was coming: hands high those who want to spend five shillings for a real party – as if this price included champagne, the sheep! A wheatfield fluttered, naturally. When they subsided she said let’s see again, (laughter already) those who even now want the cheap rate of two shillings. I still said yes, to everybody’s surprise. Imagine thinking I’d change my mind just because I was all on my own! The headmistress went, then came back with a beautifully bound hymn-book inscribed from her, which she was giving me for my ‘independent spirit’. I said thank you. What else could I say? She must have made about five pounds profit on that party, so what was a miserly hymn-book to her? Yet if she gave me something it ought to have been more than a book I never opened and couldn’t even sell to the girls. So I went through all that for him, and he won’t even buy me a car now that he’s rolling in it.

  Once in the car and it stopped raining she wished she’d waited for a bus instead of putting up with Alice Bigwell’s endless ramblings about the best way of making compost-heaps. She pumped on concerning slops and vegetation and manure and proportions of water, (nothing after all except complex euphemisms for common shit) building it up and putting it to bed, taking temperatures and saying how long it took to become soil. Mandy wondered whether she hadn’t an incurable and repulsive obsession with birth and cannibalism, and whether she didn’t serve the stuff up as a first course to any starving and unsuspecting traveller who knocked at her door for a bite of bread and cheese. Nothing would surprise her from the people around here. Though born in the place, she didn’t really belong, for her father had come from Leicester (where they still went occasionally to visit hordes of the family) and didn’t have an occupation like everyone else round about. He’d always been either a malingering no-good on the scrounge or, as lately, a celebrity with a murky past they were so ready to forget that it would surely be thrown up in his face with real fury if ever he went back to scrounging. And with the confidence of people who had lived for generations in one place, they realised how possible this was.

  Because there was no saying when his suddenly acquired fortune would vanish, Mandy wanted to get out before it did. She couldn’t believe that from now on he’d be able to earn good money doing something or other in the world of art. He could turn his hand to many things, but being pigheaded, would never do anything his integrity told him was wrong. Otherwise why had they lived a desperate existence for so many years? To deviate from such principles would turn it into an awful waste, and though she realised how much of a pity this would be, at the same time she didn’t want to go on living in the greater uncertainty that unexpected affluence had created. She was the daughter of a true aritst in that she wanted the sort of settled life her upbringing had denied her the means of acquring. And having the same determination as her father she would go to great lengths to get it, in the course of it justifying the inversion of the common maxim to say that the sins of the children are visited on the parents.

  Sun flooded the coastal meadows with light, dust jumping from her train seat when she fell on to it for a better view of the fields embossed in green and yellow. Comfort was beauty, and she was always passing both. When you liked the landscape but had no feeling for the people set there, it was a place where you could live with pleasure but not grow up in, which at eighteen was a good reason to get out even though it broke your heart. The fact that her parents lived here would make it easier.

  She met Ralph by the Stump. ‘I’d have waited all day and all night,’ he said, as if she’d been hurrying for his benefit. ‘Time never drags when I’m expecting you.’

  ‘I wish I knew when you were being sarcastic and when you weren’t.’

  ‘That’s easy,’ he laughed, as they walked arm in arm towards the bridge. ‘I never am. Bitter, disappointed, perhaps, but only a fool is sarcastic.’

  Ralph had long ago made up his mind never to do any farming, and so was locked in an internecine conflict with his father who was determined that he should – who wished he’d never encouraged him to go to Cambridge, though in fact there’d been no choice. After getting his degree in English Ralph set out with fifty pounds on a trip round the world. His father drove him as far as Grantham, and shook hands with a grin that expected to see him back in a few days. Ralph felt this, but strode off south along the Great North Road in anticipation of his first real lift. Tall, ruddy-cheeked, a gleam in his eye that had not yet received its baptism of worldly irony as had his father’s, he travelled fast and reached Yugoslavia in a week. He there discovered a profitable frontier trade in foreign currency and so made enough money to live on the Dalmatian coast for a few weeks before resuming his advance through Greece and Turkey. In Ankara he translated letters for a business firm, then bought an old Italian motor-bike to ride across Iraq and Persia. He wore jeans and checked shirt, with a sheepskin coat for the mountains, and a pipe of cheap local choking tobacco was gripped in his teeth as he bumped at fifteen miles an hour over boulder roads. In place of his ruddiness came a sallow tan, permanently stamped when he became ill in Baluchistan with a violent form of liver-fluke. He lay for weeks on a rope bed in a remote khan, gaunt and bearded, raving at the cannonball lodged in his stomach. A junior consular official of the same age walked in one day as the worst of his fevers and cramps were leaving. He was taken to a salubrious Dak bungalow, and lived there on bacon and tinned carrots until fit to ride east again – which he did against the advice of the consul with so little grace that they afterwards marked him in their common memories as one of those northerners whose taciturnity is only a mask for a cretinous disposition.

  The guts of his motor-bike dropped out above the high gorge of the Indus, and he picked it up bodily and threw it hundreds of feet towards the water, so that it narrowly missed a floating raft on which some family had s
pread their pots and tents.

  Weeks later he reached Bangkok, and at Cook’s found three dozen letters from his parents begging him to come home. In one sense he was heading there, but not in the way they expected. They filled him with rage, then profoundly depressed him. He was getting out of their clutches at last. The fact that they’d done so little for him since he was born except send him to live with moronic relations was beginning to make them feel guilty, and so they didn’t want to lose him – which made him feel free and happy as he tore the letters up.

  In Saigon he got work with the American ‘advisers’ typing inexplicable orders for the replacement of lethal supplies to the South Vietnamese army – in those early days. His genial and generous employers said his job could only be temporary, until he was politically ‘cleared’ by an organisation in Washington. For some reason he was not ‘cleared’, and regretfully told that he must go. He picked up his pipes and tobacco, helped himself to the contents of an unguarded cash-box, and walked out at six o’clock one evening. Two minutes later a tri-shaw loaded with TNT was pushed into the main door of the building, and no one inside escaped death or injury.

  He was pulled from his mosquito-net next morning and questioned by American detectives, but he was too innocent for any blame to be laid on him. The astuteness that enabled him to see what was going on in South Vietnam also persuaded him to keep his mouth shut when speaking to people or being interviewed, as he was now, by two intelligent numskulls. He answered slowly and reasonably, as if to comprehend yet stay out of trouble merely showed an absence of passion. While talking he dimly sensed that he would acquire this passion only when he had lost both these talents. He was blessed with the good sense of a young man with a conventional upbringing suddenly out on a limb and doing something unusual – he reflected while travelling deck-class to Hong Kong. The rusting steamer slid through oily blue water under a sun that blistered down for six days. After a few hours he found it necessary to escape from the overcrowded decks, and the only way to do this was by taking refuge in himself. He knew what the boat must look like from shore or passing ship, having seen one once going down the Saigon river – a dilapidated steamer of four thousand tons whose decks, funnels and superstructure were completely hidden by human beings. Nothing else could be seen, not an air-vent, porthole, or derrick.

  He gave English lessons in Hong Kong and caught a mild venereal disease from one of his earnest and beautiful slit-skirted pupils who only wanted to learn phrases of endearment for her work with those American advisers recuperating from their assistance to South Vietnam. He regretted that the lessons had taken such a practical turn, but was able to get his ailment cured in Japan, the next stop on his world tour, where he got respectable work lecturing on English literature at certain universities. He waited there for a visa that would allow him to pass through America on his way home, the whole journey having taken a year out of his life.

  Leaning over the parapet of the bridge with Mandy he still hadn’t sorted out his impressions, even though a year had passed and he had reached the ripe age of twenty-five. The sheer built-up sides of the river had been left mildewed by the outgone tide, its water licking fitfully way out in the sand of Boston Deeps. Traffic stifled the air with fumes and thunder, and a coastal barge worked itself towards a quay downstream. Mandy had forgotten the fight with her father at home, being with Ralph and trying to talk to him, break her way through into that set face gazing along the river.

  ‘I told you we shouldn’t see each other again,’ he said, without turning round.

  ‘You were waiting for me.’

  ‘I happened to be here.’

  She looked at him, glad he was turned away so that she could do so without starting a fight. ‘If you can stand it, I can. If you think you’re going to make me talk about love you’re mistaken. It doesn’t make me happy to go on like this, but it seems to satisfy you. I suppose hanging around for weeks is the only way you’ll make up your mind.’

  His long sallow face became indignant at her accuracy. ‘You’re talking a lot of rubbish as usual. You’ll be threatening to put your head in the gas-oven next, if I’m not careful and don’t humour you.’

  ‘You’re marvellous when you say things like that,’ she laughed. ‘I feel you really mean it, so it’s the only time you look properly alive – except when we’re making love.’

  ‘It’s a pity you’re so young,’ he said. ‘Otherwise you’d have walked off instead of laughing.’ He was determined to get his own way, but was so strong in it that she never knew what it was. Neither, in fact, did he, and the force of this subterranean desire was sapping his life before he had even started to live. His trip around the world had thrown him so basically off balance that he was unable to make up his mind concerning a career, or even on taking another trip round the world, which he often wanted to do.

  They went into a fish-bar, but neither was hungry. She split open the batter and ate some of the white flesh. Ralph drank thirstily at his cup of rotten tea. ‘Will you still come away with me?’

  ‘Yes,’ she said readily. ‘But I wouldn’t mind knowing where.’

  ‘Neither would I. The old man wants me to go to agricultural college and learn the trade of raping the earth. But it’s not in me, though I toyed with the idea just to please him.’

  ‘It doesn’t sound your style.’

  ‘What is my style?’

  ‘Not that.’

  He pushed his plate away. ‘A lot of help you are.’

  ‘As much as you want me to be. You’re afraid of me helping you in case it should show that I love you. But I don’t anyway. Never have, never will, and never could.’ She stood up and fastened her coat. He took her elbow and opened the door, her shoulder against his chest as they went through.

  They walked into the country invigorated by a forceful moist breeze coming from the sea. ‘What I really want to do,’ he said with an enthusiasm that irritated her, ‘is to get a house in Lincolnshire and fill it with books. Live on my own, I think, perhaps work as a teacher at some local school. It’s the only thing that appeals to me at the moment.’

  It amazed and distressed her that he might after all know what he wanted, and that this might well be it. The life he drew appealed to her as well, and for this reason it seemed horrible, decadent, corrupting, a way of dying before you really started to live. She listened to him talking about gardens, dogs, a couple of guns to go shooting now and again, the rubbish-bin of his father’s already fulfilled and deadened desires. He’d furnish the house from auctions at market-towns round about so as to get beautiful antique furniture. She knew that if he really set his heart on it his ageing daddy might buy him a house simply to get rid of him.

  ‘That trip round the world knocked holes in you,’ she said.

  ‘It showed me what I wanted.’

  ‘When you know that you’re finished.’ They walked quickly, open country on either side, keeping well in to avoid traffic.

  ‘That sounds like another of your father’s sayings,’ he said. ‘I like his paintings, but I don’t like the way he justifies them.’

  ‘If you want to be with it,’ she said, ‘stop knowing what you want. Dad couldn’t have told me that.’

  ‘I’d still like to have one of his pictures, anyway,’ he said. She’d once taken him to the studio to see Handley’s work, about the time all the fuss had started. When he said he’d like to have one for his own room, she’d retorted that he should have thought of that a year ago when he could have chosen anything for a few quid.

  ‘I thought you were set on having a house? You can’t have both.’ Perhaps, he thought, but realised that it would be morally wrong, if not actually degenerate, not to try and get all he wanted while still young enough to remember what it was he had wanted in the first place.

  ‘I could,’ he suggested, ‘if you persuaded him to give me one. He hates my guts after what happened last year, but I don’t think he’d bear a grudge all his life.’

laughed, showing her fine even teeth, before a cigarette went between her lips. ‘He wouldn’t give a pencil stroke away any more.’

  He cupped his large hands and passed a light over. They were pale and smooth after the long recuperation from his trip, for he hadn’t even helped on his father’s farm, she thought, since coming back. ‘He’s got a trunk full of notebooks, that he’s written ideas in for the last twenty years. An American university offered him a fat sum for them, but he wouldn’t part. Keeping them for a rainy day, I suppose.’

  ‘Why don’t you just walk out with a painting for me?’

  Grey clouds were torn into shreds by invisible dogs of wind. ‘I hope we bit Wainfleet before it rains,’ she said. ‘I get a bus from there. Still, it’s better doing this than moping around Boston. The only time you talk is when we’re walking. Your words are like tadpoles: they have to grow legs before they jump out.’ She waited for him to retaliate, but he became morose, which was his way of self-control. ‘What makes you so eager to get at the old man’s painting? You haven’t even seen the latest.’

  ‘I want to stick one on my wall for as long as I can stand it, and try and get to know something about you.’

  ‘There’s no connection between them and me. It’d probably send you absolutely off your bonce.’

  ‘It’s a good idea though. Don’t you think so?’

  ‘It gives us something to talk about,’ she said. ‘I thought you’d have known plenty about me. We’ve had it often enough.’

  ‘You’ve been reading too much Lawrence, I suppose. That sort of thing actually stops you getting to know somebody, blinds you to everything about a person. But to have one of your father’s pictures on my wall would really tell me something.’

  ‘What a love-affair ours is!’ she said. ‘You’ve burned me out at eighteen! I can get you one of my father’s paintings any time, but I expect I’d go to prison for it. He’d put his whole family behind bars if it’d interfered with his work. You’ve no idea what he’s like. Ruthless isn’t the word. He’d track us to the end of the world to recover a fading sketch in a penny notebook if he knew he might never have a chance of looking at it again. Give him a hundred for it, and that’s another matter.’

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