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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.8
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.8

           Alan Sillitoe

  She was thirty-eight, a schoolteacher, strictly career woman and to hell with her husband when it came to a sweet knock or two on the side. Handley had met her in the bank on a Saturday morning, dropped one of his cheque-books, and who could ever say whether it was accident or design? If a handkerchief’s the only thing a man’ll pick up that a woman drops, he thought, a cheque-book’s the only thing a woman will remind a man that he’s dropped, whether it’s her husband or no. He stood on the bank step admiring the beautiful seventeenth-century houses round about like a tourist from the Home Counties. She tapped his shoulder: ‘You seem to have dropped this.’

  ‘So I have,’ he smiled familiarly. ‘How would I have got through the weekend without it? I only found it this morning, and was getting used to affluence already.’ Large brown eyes looked back at him, lips opened in a smile to reveal teeth that went well with ear-rings and fur coat. Mrs Joan Quickie in his mind’s eye, until she gave her real name.

  ‘If you did find it,’ she said, though not too certain of his seriousness, ‘don’t you think it would be a good idea to give it back?’

  The chill autumn went through to his glum face: ‘Would you like to come for a drink with me so that I can think about it?’ – offering her a cigarette while she made up her mind.

  ‘No,’ she said.

  ‘Then let’s talk standing here. I’m very much attracted to you. Handley’s my name. I always am to someone who wants me to go straight. As a matter of fact I took it from the pocket of an old suit this morning before sending it to the cleaners. Did you think I’d really knocked it off?’

  ‘Not altogether,’ she said.

  ‘Let’s walk along. We’re nearly at the Queen’s Head. Good fire in there. You were coming out of the manager’s office. Been to get an overdraft?’

  ‘The bank manager’s my husband,’ she laughed, walking a few steps.

  ‘I’ve never known a bank manager to have such a personable wife,’ he said.

  ‘You live and learn,’ she said as they went in for a drink.

  ‘Now and again,’ he responded, taking her arm.

  Her name, after all, was Joan, but Mallinson, though she was quick enough when it came to the point, which it did when he thought to call.

  ‘I’m glad to see you, though I don’t suppose I should say so to someone like you. Where have you been this last month?’

  He took off his jacket and stood by the shelf. ‘Painting. Finished a few things.’ The morning papers were thrown over the padded velvet sofa. ‘I saw that article,’ she said. ‘I don’t suppose your wife felt too good about it.’

  ‘Let’s not talk about that. Is there any coffee?’

  ‘I’ll get some.’ Before she could move he held her to him. ‘You had a quarrel,’ she said, a teasing smile.

  ‘Not exactly. The pots didn’t fly.’ He took off her glasses and set them on the shelf.

  ‘But you did,’ she said, ‘here.’

  ‘Shut up, and let me love you. I know you’re a happily married woman, but I’m a happily married man, so it’s not sinful.’ The day lay quiet over the house and whole road, keeping the world silent for them. Only the antique clock wrung out its bomb ticks from the shelf above. His hands were up under the back of her sweater, flattening between shoulder-blades, while her mouth writhed around his face, opened over his moustache and lips. ‘Come and see me more often,’ she said. ‘You can always phone to check whether it’s all right.’

  He pressed her full breasts against him. ‘Tell me that when I’m about to leave’ – clearing his throat. Her mouth stopped him talking, an ether mask going over his windpipe and set for the silence and blackout of love. ‘Let’s go upstairs.’

  He forgot his lust to the extent of noticing the bedroom furniture: the bad taste opulence of wardrobes and dressing-tables marked His and Hers (how can he suspect anything with those staring at him on coming to bed every night?) and orange eiderdown and low head-boarded bed, round piano-stools with powderpuff tops, and white sheep’s-wool mats that, when barefoot, made you look as though you had no feet. The odour of bedroom cold lingered through sudden gasfire heat.

  Her sweater came up and over, face flushed as if at the sight of what Handley could see. It was no love match, for she was like the sea, and Handley the little boy with his finger in the polder-hole. He wanted to take it easy, slowly, woo her, but the rush was on her, and therefore him. It’s not that when we’re in bed I try to make her come, he’d sometimes reflected after it was finished, so much as me trying to hold myself back. It was good, sweet, the whole point of the world, but like that, in complete abandon, would last thirty seconds before his explosion while hers was still a low rumble in the distance, a few spots of sail or seagull wing on the far horizon of a becalmed and enchanted sea. While loving her as both deserved, hand under buttocks and one around neck, kisses fronting between them, he breathed the cool air hard, counted up to ten, felt his impossible drilltip about to explode into a million diamonds deep in her, so tried to think of all the villages in Lincolnshire beginning with the letter N, and when that ran out tried to think of the names of individual seas in the world, stations on the railway up from London, every tree he knew, all spring flowers. He occasionally distrusted such a millstone system, yet it held them back from a headlong rush till they reached the calms and shallows, out of which he became an uninhibited savage and she a fishwife who came with ease and speed, Eddystone in a storm-blind sea, she upswamping as if to put out that top light with a hiss of fire and water, and a groan of triumphant chaos.

  Handley wondered when he could decently get up and look for a cigarette. He kissed her and risked it, his long trouserless legs stretched white over the orange bedside. She pulled him back. ‘How can you be in such a hurry when it was so good?’ But her voice was calm, and she smiled in the dim light. In spite of all hurry, she’d drawn the curtains and locked the door, and he wondered whether in the opposite house they weren’t curious as to who had died. If someone came over and politely asked he wouldn’t be able to tell them at the moment.

  He gave her a cigarette, flicked the lighter near her face. ‘I lead a dull life,’ she said, ‘as a schoolteacher in a small Lincolnshire town.’

  ‘You were born here.’

  ‘What difference does that make?’ The better they found it the more discontented she felt afterwards. So where will it ever end? he wondered.

  ‘You work hard. Why complain?’

  ‘I am complaining, though.’

  ‘I suppose you’d like us to go away together, drop everything and fly south to a romantic life in London or Majorca? I’m not twenty any more. I don’t even love you.’

  ‘But I love you.’

  ‘You’re lucky then. I wish to God I did, a piece of forked lightning come down from heaven and blasted me in two, one part glued to stay and the other wanting to go with some woman to the far side of the moon and rot there in a vile state of love. Fine. Randy and dandy, swoony and loony, a leper between the sun and moon. I say no thanks to it, until it hits me, and then I’ll have no say in it at all. When I’m not in love I can paint great pictures as big as a wall, but if I was in love I’d paint bloody miniatures and choke on them, or do futile pieces of wire-sculpture that I’d fall down in and strangle to death.’

  ‘How about that coffee?’ he said, putting an arm round her when they got downstairs. ‘Perhaps I’m dead inside, a wood-yard of seasoned timber nobody wants.’

  ‘You’re not,’ she said. ‘But let’s go away for a few days, to London or the South coast. We can make good excuses, and it would be so wonderful.’

  ‘It might well be. But I don’t like life in small doses – a teaspoonful three times a day. I don’t imagine you do, either. It’s bad for the system. When it happens it must be all or nothing, but with me it hasn’t happened yet. Oh yes, you’re charming, you’re beautiful, you’re passionate, all the things I like, but there’s something missing, and neither of us can risk saying what it is. Maybe the pinch
of shit in a vat of cream that makes the best yoghourt. Who knows?’

  ‘You do,’ she said.

  ‘I know I do.’ She went to make coffee. Of course he did. It had happened before, and if he thought it might never happen again he’d drive his car at a hundred into the nearest tree. She came back with a tray: milk, coffee, delicate cups, sugar in lumps, biscuits. ‘I hope your husband takes his time,’ he said, ‘wandering around those marshes in his salt-and-pepper drag.’

  Low in the armchair, her legs showed up well. ‘He’ll be in for lunch.’

  ‘So you read that article?’ He’d held the question back, not wanting to spoil their time together.

  She put her glasses on, her brown eyes half closed behind them. ‘I did.’

  Handley drank the scalding coffee in one gulp. ‘He made it all up. Oh well, I’ll bump into him. Nobody’s going to smear me from the safety of their newspapers and not get it back between the eyes. I’ll rip that chuckle out of his blackheads.’

  ‘It was certainly a nasty piece,’ she said, though laughing. He looked into her eyes, his narrow forehead and chiselnose, thin determined mouth, dark dry hair spread short and thick around his gypsy-like skull. She couldn’t imagine where he came from, but hoped that in all his bitter sharpness he’d come straight to her and stay there. He was lost in the vast spaces of his own isolation, wandering between the heat and cold of a continental climate, unconnected to her or anyone in the world, and she wanted to take care of him and manage his life, though in this she would find her own destruction, wall against wall, because there was nothing in him that could ever be looked after. Filled with the latest in modern psychology, she thought he might have been too savagely weaned as a baby, that he mightn’t have been fed regularly, or that he had somehow survived in spite of no care at all, not even nurtured by a wolf, that neither breast nor bottle were ever put to him unless he screamed down the whole sky first, stars, sun and moon, until the dust of hunger went into him and cut him off, the dust and flour of desolation making crusts that fed him through some form of bleak survival, placing him now beyond anyone but the she-wolf of the tundra, ice and sun, quartz crystals and pine-trees. Out of this came his painting, from a man in the middle of great earth-spaces who could not move one foot in any direction.

  ‘There’s a bit of suicide in all of us,’ he said, ‘but only the smallest bit in me.’

  ‘I think you do have a hard time living with the world,’ she said. He had taken away her desire, and she was angry at herself for letting him, falling into his trap. She wanted to get him away from a wife who did not understand him, who was alien to such an artist. It may have been all right while he was unknown, but now it would strangle him. To live in the same way as an important and famous painter as you had while struggling to become one was disastrous. She could show him how to take his place in the world of great and talented men, and she thought herself quite capable of doing this.

  ‘As long as I can live with myself,’ he said, ‘which is all a painter needs.’

  She poured more coffee. ‘You have to live with the world, as well as yourself.’

  ‘Which world, though?’

  ‘There’s only one world for you – the one that buys your paintings. What other can there be?’

  ‘That’s the question,’ he retorted. ‘An artist makes his own world, through himself. He doesn’t go into one ready-made for him. He only started painting to get out of that one. If I was only half a man and half a painter I might not think so, but I have a bigger opinion of myself than anybody can imagine, and even had when I was unknown and struggling. Some people would like me to accept their world because they see themselves the highest common denominators of it, and the fact that I don’t is a poke in the eye to them. My heart just won’t let me take up with this big world you’re talking about, as you and they would like me to do. It’s got nothing for me, and maybe I’ve got nothing for it, but at least I have plenty of ideas and work to do and needn’t concern myself with it.’

  ‘Why do you complain when they attack you?’

  ‘I don’t. They attacked my wife. And there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m just letting off steam. Still, I’d like to punch that drunkard’s nose. He wouldn’t be able to get away with such a thing in my ideal, anarchistic, self-regulating society without getting beaten up for it.’

  They gave up talking for kissing. Intellectual discussion, he said, always made him randy. There seemed nothing she could do with him in any case, which made her passion quick to return, though this time one point behind his.

  Chapter Nine

  Ralph steered his Land-Rover into the depths of a wood, tyres crushing over wet sawdust and wood-chippings of one clearing, and bumping towards another. Mud deepened so much beyond that he decided not to risk it, sat inside studying his large-scale map with the engine still running, memorising details of the terrain between this point and the Handley house so that he would not have to open it outside and see its beautifully decorated paper buckling and warping in the rain, a thought that tightened his lips with revulsion. Beyond the western edge of the wood were three fields to cross, the last rising twenty feet and crowned by a spinney of oak-trees. From such height and cover he could observe the house in all its detail, especially the side giving access to Handley’s studio.

  He put on his cap, fastened the pegs of his duffel-coat, and climbed out. Mud parted around his feet, but once off the track dead twigs and leaves made it seem more solid. Primroses had deepened in the rain, speckled a whole yellowing bank like flag-day badges on the lapels of a football crowd. Bluebells and arum lilies sagged and were flattened by water. Other flower heads littered, but he’d scorned to notice them after the age of sixteen. To do so was a stage of adolescence, to swoon and rapturise over wild flowers, and all the false crap of Lawrence and Powys and Williamson, the ‘I am a wild beast and proud of it but still very sensitive school because my father was a bastard to my mother’ or ‘the cream of my generation was killed in Flanders or Libya’ – as they sat in warm cottages or Hampstead flats. Thank God that sort of thing is dead, he thought, which meant to say he hoped it was and was convinced it ought to be but was by no means sure, England being England and all the things it was.

  He kept well in to the hedge, clumps of soil that looked solid enough in the lee of it now collapsing muddily underfoot, till his boots were so heavily caked that it was impossible to move and he had to pull off the earth with his hands. After a few minutes the same coagulation had built up so high under his boots that he almost overbalanced and hoped for drier weather on the chosen night so that his retreat would be easy and quick.

  From the edge of the spinney he looked across four hundred yards of field at Handley’s residence, heard the misty depressing snap of a canine voice shifting towards him as if it had already picked up his scent. Through binoculars he saw it sniffing between caravans in the yard. After dark it was chained up, which was useful, but he’d carry a pound of best steak on the night just in case. Yet it barked continually at nothing, as his previous nocturnal scoutings had shown, so when he was actually climbing up no one would wonder what was disturbing it.

  The village clock struck eleven. He ate a bar of chocolate. The house would be crawling with parents, six children, two au pair girls, a mad uncle, and a man-eating bulldog; though if he kept his nerve and moved like a bat he could shin his way up the tree, leap to the windowsill, and take the final floor by a nearby drainpipe. Once in Handley’s studio he could lower a picture on a piece of cord, and collect it on the ground after his own descent. It was easy to spell it out like this, but he knew something was wrong, that more was needed than a ball of string and a full moon, a tight lip and a sure grip as he entered that rotten domain. Without a dry night, the painting would be ruined, and if that happened there’d be nothing left to live for, except Mandy, and she wasn’t enough, otherwise he wouldn’t be planning to steal it in the first place.

  Sweet-papers and beer-cans were scattered f
rom previous hours of observation. His theory for committing the perfect crime was that you must carry it out with all possible speed, which meant scrupulous attention to the actual details of break in, though beyond that sphere of action one could be as careless as one’s temperament demanded, in which case a few sweet-papers were neither here nor there. An amateur could get away with murder – as it were – whereas the adept was always liable to betray himself over some clue he’d been too careful to eradicate. A motiveless job was the safest. If even he did not know why he wanted to steal the best painting in Handley’s studio, how then were the police to find out his motive? And if they couldn’t deduce a motive for the so-called crime then there was no reason why he should ever be tracked down. If he got clear of the house, he was away for good. Whoever could rationalise the various stages of a crime had a fair chance of never being detected. So it sometimes worried him that he hadn’t yet concretely pinned down his reasons for wanting to acquire the picture. Those he had outlined to Mandy had been little more than a legpull. If he simply needed to get his hands on a great picture in order to indulge in a lifetime of private viewing then why didn’t he go to Amsterdam and steal Rembrandt’s Night Watch from the Rijksmuseum? He daydreamed through the mechanics of such an operation, which would involve getting it in a taxi to the docks or on a porter’s barrow, then sweating with apprehension as clumsy workers levered it onto the boat. All limbs shook when he saw it slipping in a nightmarish vision from their hands into the slimy bed-green water. I’d better roll it up while in the museum, even if it cracks slightly here and there. But he relinquished the idea, and immediately felt better. A latest Handley would suffice, an easier job because he didn’t live far away and had the use of a Land-Rover. Such a chance came rarely, and the more he dwelt on it the more did his fear of actually stealing it increase. Such marvellous bouts of fear continually sweeping through him must mean there was little chance of his resisting what he had first broached with Mandy as a joke, and that when he came to cross the field and climb that tree all fear would go, and leave him free, cool and swift as he soundlessly scaled that wall to a dangerous height before forcing the window.

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