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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.7
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.7

           Alan Sillitoe

  ‘You’re exaggerating.’

  ‘Not altogether. I could walk out with one, but I won’t. If you want one that badly you’d better break in and steal it, but it’ll be difficult. We’ve got alarm-wires on the gate and a bull-dog near the front door. Then there’s Uncle John who’s completely insane and sits awake all night listening to his radio with a loaded revolver nearby in case anybody comes to take him away.’

  ‘I hadn’t seriously considered it.’

  ‘That’s the only way,’ she said. ‘The trouble about dreams is that they cause so much trouble.’ They sat on a gate to enjoy a temporary burst of sun, his arms around her shoulders. She leaned comfortably close. ‘And if Richard and Adam got hold of you they’d be delighted to practise karate on one of the landed gentry. I can see it all.’

  ‘I’ll bet you damned well can.’

  The kiss lasted till they lost balance and nearly fell off the gate. The surest way to make him do something was tease him about it. He knew it, too, but didn’t want to resist his fate unnaturally – while wanting to seem as if meeting it of his own free will. ‘You want the date and the time?’ he grinned. ‘I’m not so stupid as to tell you that.’

  ‘Life gets more exciting every day,’ she said, on the last mile towards Wainfleet, rain pouring onto them when they were too happy to worry about it any more.

  Chapter Seven

  After dusk light was abundant, as if they lived next door to a power station and tapped it free. More than anything else, they must have light. Once put on, a bulb was left blazing even in the smallest and most useless hall or cupboard, one, two, three-hundred-watt incandescences in every room – a thousand watts to the kitchen, another thousand to Albert’s studio, and what Uncle John consumed on his spiritual searches through the ether nobody could even guess. There was a uniting family passion for light when the world around them was dark. If Albert opened a door by mistake, and in passing noticed there was no light within, he absent-mindedly flicked down the switch so that from then on the light would permanently blaze in a renewed self-created aura. The lit up house was visible from far and wide, planted firmly on a high ridge backing against the sky.

  Only Enid remarked, but just once, on the superabundance of light, and the possible waste of it. They were walking home after an hour at the pub, and from a bend in the lane four uncurtained windows were flooding the approaches with a sickly phosphorescence. Albert’s studio lights were eating at the sky above. The caravans were illuminated. Side windows shone from either flank of the house. ‘Anybody would think you were afraid of burglars,’ she said.

  ‘I’ve always liked light, I don’t know why. If there were a power failure I’d die.’

  ‘I suppose you need something to light up the black pits of your soul,’ she said.

  From the right window came the full-blast noise of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, and from the left the rhythms and phrases of Uncle John’s ecstatic morse sounds mixed sublimely with the music, killed by it as the wind veered. Opening the gate, they trod carefully over power-lines supplying the caravans. ‘It’s good to have light,’ he said. ‘I can beat the moon. Get down, Eric,’ he said to the welcoming dog, ‘you bloody fool, get back.’

  ‘I don’t see what good it is,’ she said, ‘it might let you see every inch of the house inside, but once you’re in you can’t see at all beyond the windows. If you want to see outside you’ve got to switch ’em off.’

  They went into the kitchen that was so clean not even the smell of cleanliness remained. Enid put on the kettle for tea and a hot-water bottle. Handley sat at the table, forgetting to take his cap off, and looking as if about to set off for the night-shift. ‘Perhaps I’m religious,’ he quipped, ‘being afraid of the dark.’

  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you haven’t grown up, and that’s a fact.’

  ‘There’s plenty of time for that when I’m dead. I’m in no hurry. Grown-up, mature people are ten-a-penny. They’re all over the place, like flies in summer, strong-faced vacuous venomous pipe-smokers and happy savers and careful drivers. Don’t talk to me about the lumpen living-dead. Put them in a room with a strong light and they’d start to confess. Me, I’d ask ’em to turn it up a bit. Even take off my dark glasses to show good faith. Still, we can put a forty-watt bulb in your room if you ever want to escape and get back to reality.’

  ‘You’ve made your point,’ she said. ‘Do you want milk or lemon in your tea?’


  ‘Milk or lemon?’

  ‘Lemon, then.’

  The house at next morning’s breakfast fell into silence when papers and magazines were brought in, and the quiet concentration at the altars of soft-brained reading-matter began. Mandy looked up before turning a page and noticed her mother staring with unmixed loathing and malevolence at her father. She walked quietly out of the room with her particular newspaper, wondering what cloudburst they were in for now, and before closing the door she reached back and turned the radio full blast to some church service, thus drowning the door slam and her rush upstairs.

  Windows were steamed from breakfast cooking, masking a thin continuous drizzle outside. On such days cold rain wedged them into the house, or shunting quietly from one caravan to another. A rush to the Rambler or Land-Rover, and a quick acceleration down the mud-flooding lane was the farthest anyone would get on such a day, to the village shop where they weren’t allowed to dawdle, but were served before other people because of the enormous bills they ran up with such thoughtlessness.

  Maria dipped her bread in coffee. Brought up in a staid Milan family, it was as if she had now been pitched into a brood of Sicilian peasants who had won on the lottery, or killed grandma and inherited her secret wealth. The employment agency was a villain who had misrepresented the job to her – ‘a modern house belonging to an elderly childless couple on the northern outskirts of London.’ Handley had met her at Heathrow late one night, and the northern outskirts proved to be five hours away, ending in a pandemonium scream of rage and fear when she finally stepped from the Rambler into six inches of pure Lincolnshire mud as a wilful dawn light was breaking over the hills.

  Enid did not look malignantly at Albert but merely hard, and he was so busy in a dash to kill the religious heat of the radio’s breath that he didn’t notice it till sitting down again. She threw the magazine at him, one corner splaying across the open butter dish. ‘Read that.’

  ‘What? That bit about stately homes?’

  ‘Open it. You’ll see.’

  He knew what it must be. ‘I’ll read it out loud. Listen, everybody. An article about me, and don’t double up till I’ve finished.’

  ‘Get on with it,’ she snapped.

  The reproductions of his work were superb and should have been left unexplained, but accompanying them was an inflated view by Russell Jones on Handley at Work, and Handley at Home, Handley the half-mad inspired painter, the uneducated gypsy-like creature running amok with paint-brushes in a house without books, that was guarded by a pair of good old English bulldogs. After this drunken rubbish came a few sentences on how he actually worked, undeniably accurate, but then more personal detail reappeared, and this was obviously the cause of Enid’s dangerous set stare.

  His female admirers were mentioned – to which Handley had presumably admitted – for, Jones wrote, when the photo of a pretty girl fell from his wallet Handley said with a smile that it happened to be of a girl with whom he was in love at the moment. A few general smears and critical sentences rounded off the article so beautifully printed and laid out.

  ‘What a laugh it is,’ said Richard. ‘They’ve got you, Dad. You might as well sit back and enjoy it.’

  He tried to explain. Adam slid a mug of tea across, at which he sipped now and again. ‘It was a photo of Mandy. I saw his eyes pop, so thought I’d have a bit of fun. You know how irresistible it is. I don’t see how I can be blamed.’

  Enid felt nothing but shame – not, she retorted, that she could ever be insulte
d by that dirty magazine, but because Handley had been so intent on having his senseless stupid fun that he hadn’t considered her feelings at all. They’d had this out before, often, but whenever journalists came crawling to the door, especially from posh papers, he just slobbered all over them like an adolescent instead of acting like a grown man, spewed out everything like a clown instead of behaving with dignity and sense. If you didn’t know how to handle them, why let them in at all? Slam the door in their faces and they’d think none the worse of you. And now your naïveté has led to this, a little weasel of the intellectual gutter smirking his foulness into a so-called reputable magazine.

  ‘That’s enough,’ Handley said, standing up again. ‘I know all about it now. I’ll get that jumped-up fretwork little bastard. I’ll make a wax figure and stick pins in it. I’ll burn his effigy on bonfire night. I’ll go down to London and pummel his putty head on every pavement in Knightsbridge.’

  Adam and Richard cheered. Uncle John continued his silent reading of the newspaper, looking perhaps for some cryptogrammatical clue that would send him on another frantic and exhilarating search across the far-and-wide ether.

  ‘Wipe your mouth,’ Enid said, ‘there’s foam on it.’

  ‘I’ll write a letter to the Editor. I’ll sue them. I’ll go to the Press Council about it.’ She leaned towards him and shouted four words, as if they were the final message from a beleaguered and capitulating city before the defenders blew themselves up on the powder magazine: ‘WILL-YOU-NEVER-LEARN?’

  Richard took her arm: ‘Mother, please, don’t get so upset.’

  She snapped him away. ‘I’m supposed to be living in a house where your father is openly carrying on as if he had a harem.’

  ‘As long as it’s not true,’ Handley said desperately, wrathful and hurt by any attack on his wife’s dignity.

  ‘It would be better if it were. But now you want to make things worse by trying to do something about it. You’re deliberately ruining our world. Go on, though, smash it up. That’s what they want you to do. They’ll applaud you. The clown is performing again. A letter from you, and they’d gladly put it in, giving that interviewer the last crushing word of course.’

  He felt emptied, blistered, pilloried. She was right – perhaps. A free spirit was abroad, and they were out to pull you down to the general level of nonentity that never thought to question anything. Woe betide any poor and stupid bastard who recognises himself as a free spirit, because once you did you weren’t free any more.

  ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll do nothing. You’re right, though it chokes me to say so. By driving me to say it, you’ve jumped onto their side.’

  ‘That’s your last word, is it?’

  ‘It is.’

  ‘Is it?’

  ‘Yes, it is. I’ll bump into him at a party some time, and then we’ll see.’

  Richard pinned her down at the wrist. Nevertheless the full black pot of scalding tea capsized and ran over the table.

  Chapter Eight

  Code and cipher manuals brought out of the army, marked CONFIDENTIAL and NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY and TOP SECRET were stacked by the long-range communications receiver. Though useless and out-of-date, continual study enabled him to break any code piercing his earphones. A few nights of concentration and he worked them into plain language. There were no secrets he could not tap, useless commonplaces for the most part, yet they might one day yield a precise solution to the whole pattern of his life that he could fall down before and worship.

  The set had not been switched on. He smoked a cigarette. It seemed a dead part of the week for exploring ether. It was no use trying to make contact with God or any other king of the universe with such misery in the house, Enid and Albert battling vindictively out of natures generous and broad-living. Tear-marks still on his cheeks, it shocked him that when prosperity entered by the front door peace packed its bags and left by one of the windows. An undeclared war went on continually. If they would acknowledge it, peace could be made, but when he spoke in all gentleness they’d claim to be happy, kiss and cuddle in front of everyone to prove it. They couldn’t bear to have their problems brought to the surface and solved, he thought. Nobody knew why they fought, blamed success, money, or the invidious snooping of newspapermen, but these symptoms, he knew, only concealed the disease, like bushes on fire surrounding a plantation of foul fungus. Sometimes Albert and Enid did try to discuss their troubles, but the soul was involved, and so words from the human mouth were not enough to isolate and cure it. He sat long hours at his desk and wept for them because they were beyond his help. He was always hoping to save them, head in hands and tears falling as if attuned to some divine heart-rending music, waiting for it to end and the magic oracle to speak from some far-off spot of the universe. His world, their world, the whole world seemed to be in his hands, the strain of it heavy, fetching forth the tears, breaking his spirit time and time again, yet leaving him with renewed faith, a strengthened conviction that he would find a solution and be everybody’s saviour – by which method he might therefore be his own.

  Handley came in and sat on the spare stool. ‘Any news of Frank Dawley?’

  ‘Not yet,’ John said.

  ‘Let me know when it gets interesting down there. I’ll have that new aerial fixed in next week, then perhaps we’ll have better luck.’

  When Handley left, he switched on, out of despair and away from it, electricity easing its weasel way through the whole superheterodyne system of valves and condensers and impedences. The magic eye came alive, green growing deeper and more vivid as if lid, pupil and retina had been lifted off the middle Polyphemus eye of God’s forehead, and was there for him to stare into. He searched and listened, when noise swelled into the earphones.

  Handley got into the Rambler, knocked over a dustbin on a quick three-point turn, slid down the muddly lane like a barge, and sank between a line of bare-branched elms. He laughed, not really upset by the events of the morning. The god of the family had roared and scorched his hair, but that was all. Rain stopped as he wheeled onto the paved camber through the misty village. A few mid-morning light-bulbs glowed in cottage windows, and a group of men were making their way to the pub from work. He turned right for Catham and climbed a steep hill as if to roar into the sky, but he levelled at the top and went at seventy along the narrow lane.

  Steaming fields beyond the hedges were humped and rich after winter, smells of earth and moisture reaching him through open windows. It was good to get away from the pointless bloody savagery of that house, that fogbound ship without lifeboats, and liable any minute to sink or go up in flames. A band of faint smoke stood up straight from a farmhouse chimney, and when his eyes came back to the road a large black jack-rabbit slipped from hedge to hedge.

  He stopped the car on Bluestone Ridge, tasting silence of the indeterminate season, spring emerging from a brittle rat-trap of winter. Air was clearing over Catham and the flattish patchwork of fields by the coast, and he imagined slugbreakers coming in on slow rebounds from the vast level sea, flaking phosphorous breaking on shrub and gravel, as he had seen it so many times when walking on empty bereft beaches without a shilling in his pocket, waiting till dusk before starting the twenty miles home if he didn’t get a lift, back to Enid and the kids with their reasonable wants and he unable to do much about them.

  Buds were sharpening on hawthorn hedges, and when the wind stopped drifting it was almost warm. Below a wood on the opposite hillside a tractor crawled along the furrows, breaking silence, undisturbing under the clouds. Every so often he felt it was time to make a change in his life, yet he distrusted this as the promptings of chaos. To swing violently onto another course was certain to kill your work for a while, and at the moment it was going well. He was deep in the industry of it, and only questioned it after some heart-shaking quarrel at home that set him to wonder whether he was living in the best possible way for his work. Such quarrels fragmented his confidence, and that was always bad. Yet without such th
reats, he smiled in the sweet headclearing air, the very force behind his work would rot.

  He joined the main road and dropped two hundred feet towards Catham where it was raining again, a steady drift of fine spray against slate roofs and cobbled streets. It was almost as quiet as the countryside when he drove under the railway-bridge towards newer houses sprawled on the far side of town. She was in, he saw, even before turning into the crescent. Smoke came from the chimneypots, and her Hillman Minx stood outside. He could smell the sea as he stood to lock his car, grains of wet sand crossing the flats from Toddle Fen. There’d been no thought of coming to see her, yet in fleeing from home he’d landed without thought on her doorstep.

  He hurried up the gravel, a tall figure bending from wind hitting the back of his head. Curtains flicked at the window, and the fancy glass panelling of the door swung open before a hand came out of his pockets to knock.

  ‘Hello, Albert!’

  He stepped by her into the hall: bookcase, holding Principles of Banking, Practical Knowledge for All, Complete Ornithology and a few deadbeat thrillers. Then an umbrella-stand, mirror and coat-rack. ‘I thought you’d be out, so I came to see you.’

  Her laugh stayed. ‘As long as you aren’t disappointed.’

  ‘I can’t tell yet.’ He pulled her to him, tall and buxom, long brown hair falling away. ‘Breadwinner in?’

  Her brown eyes opened wide. ‘He’s gone birdwatching. Heard of some wild geese mating near the Wash. Went out at four this morning – instead of going to the bank.’

  ‘I hope they take their time over it.’ Sitting by the coal fire in the living-room she asked how things were at home. ‘Wonderful,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t betray my wife if everything weren’t perfect between us. That’s why I haven’t been to see you lately. Too many rows.’

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