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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.9
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.9

           Alan Sillitoe

  It was hopeless, but he would do it, and succeed because he knew it was hopeless and because he had absolutely no control over whether he did it or not. He sat for hours in the tree-fork trying every optic combination of the binoculars to bring that house a foot closer across the field, the house which contained two things he wanted most in his life. He’d been there once with Mandy and, having those dull louche-brown eyes of a born reconnoitrer, remembered everything. Framed by field, sky, fences and trees, he saw again into the rooms and stairways as if the walls were glass, recollecting the positions of doors, locks and windows. He knew the direction of Uncle John’s radio room, and where everyone slept, each secret nook of the worn-out worm-eaten labyrinth.

  He reached into his pocket and took a long drink of brandy, careless of precarious balance, hoping to stave off an ulcerous hunger. An unfurled hedgehog came from a grassy bank and walked at leisure across the path, eyes calm under spiny impregnable defences. Ralph considered it put on a fine front against those it had no wish to be bothered with, an anti-social bore in the hedgehog world, when no one in his right mind could wish to be otherwise in any sort of world.

  A single block of enlarged vision beyond the twin funnels of his binoculars scanned the multitudinous bricks of the great wall, broken only by the high elm leading to the side window of Handley’s studio. His will centred on it as he examined all possible angles and limits of that huge flank, always drawn back to the window until it seemed that if he spread his arms and gave one great foot-thrust from the fork of the tree he would fly across the deceptively narrow expanse of field and land in a few seconds by the window he so much wanted to go in by.

  Lowering the glasses, it was as impossibly far off as ever. It didn’t worry him. Subtlety and solitude ruled out any shocks from life, and he smiled at the pleasures of continual observation, that nevertheless gave no results and got him no closer to what in such a desperate key he wanted to get his hands on. It was a game, and the course was an unstoppable zombie-like action leading to a double and satisfying jackpot. He smoked a pipe to comfort himself under the drizzle and raindrops from higher branches, which might have been torture to anyone less fundamentally preoccupied.

  When he next allowed his focus to drift up to Handley’s window he saw that it was slightly open, a pleasant surprise, because he felt as if it had suddenly become more human. It had. A head fixed there had a sort of machine where the eyes should have been, and with a shock he realised that they were more powerful binoculars than the infantry glasses of his father’s slung round his neck. By some invidious mechanism of auto-attraction both sets of glasses seemed unable to cease observing the other, and this situation was painful to Ralph, because he’d been at it longer and could only be the cause of this unexpected retaliation. He wanted to smile, wave, and nonchalantly slip his glasses back in their case, but they seemed glued to his eyes, his arms frozen at the joints, and he would have been set in that pose all day if Handley’s window had not slammed shut. He imagined he’d heard the noise of it, though he couldn’t remember having actually seen the face rip aside even though he’d been fixed on it to the end.

  Half in and half out of an overcoat, Handley ran at great speed across the yard, disappeared for a moment between the caravans, then seemed to go head first through the window of his Rambler. A few seconds later it dropped out of sight like a submarine.

  Embarrassing questions stung his face like ants, and all the answers pointed to the fact that he’d better get out of the wood. He threw the empty bottle into a bush, and the ten-foot jump folded him like a joiner’s ruler, but he straightened and looked for a hollow tree-bole in which to hide his binoculars, where they would stay dry and safe till he returned for them in a few days.

  When they were stowed, and the tree noted by pointing the bottleneck towards it from the far side of the path, he walked leisurely back to his car. Studying the map in its dry cabin, it was obvious which way Handley would go to bar his exit to the metalled road. And yet, perhaps when he dashed out so wildly to his car just now he’d only gone down to the village for a drink, and not because he’d seen him perched in the tree. But his paranoid senses told him that such an assumption was the dangerous road to normality, and that evasive tactics were necessary. To avoid Handley’s obvious manoeuvre, his best plan was not to turn back but to continue through the wood, in spite of the quagmire, and take the bridle track running through Waller’s farm, which would eventually bring him to a road miles out of harm’s way, so that while Handley was waiting in useless fury at the southern exit he would be through Catham and half-way to Boston.

  After appalling difficulties in the mud, tackled with such noble restraint that he actually enjoyed them, he drove along the last stretch of hedgebound track before the paved road. Turning a bend on the last hundred yards his way was completely blocked by the longside view of a black twenty-foot station-waggon. Handley himself stood by it, smoking a long thin cigar to calm his impatience, and on first seeing the Land-Rover – which he thought for a moment might be Waller’s who also had one and who wore a cap the same style as Ralph’s – he felt a pang of disappointment, which then turned to joy at having an intensely complex plan worked out in a few seconds triumphantly succeed.

  Being so neatly trapped made Ralph reflect that maybe older people were more devious after all, and had developed greater reserves of cunning in the extra time that one still had to suffer through. This reflection showed on his face in a cold look of neutrality, an unexpected meeting with someone he tried not to know.

  Handley walked up to his cab. ‘Where are your binoculars?’

  ‘What binoculars?’

  ‘Eyes. Glass eyes. Spy rings.’ He looked inside but they weren’t to be seen.

  ‘I haven’t any,’ said Ralph.

  ‘You’ve been spying on my house for the last two hours. My sons were watching you, and I saw you as well. Get down.’

  The sudden closing of the trap in a ten-to-one chance had unnerved Ralph. He wanted to stay in the protection of his car, but Handley came back from his own with a long heavy monkey-wrench. ‘If you don’t get down, I’ll smash your headlights.’

  He lifted the spanner, and only a quick strangled cry from Ralph stopped it splintering the glass.

  ‘All right,’ Handley said, when he stood before him on the path. ‘If you don’t stop chasing Mandy I’ll break every bone in your body. You’ve no right or reason to sit like a batman in that wood for days with your binoculars trained on us. I’d think you were casing the joint if I thought there was anything worth nicking. But next time I see you spying you’ll be for it. I’ve got enough witnesses to peg you down. It’s called loitering with intent to commit a felony, and don’t think that because I’m an artist and an anarchist I wouldn’t call the police and have you put away. I could have done it any time this morning, and they’d have been on to you while you were still stuck up that tree hoping for a sight of Mandy, and you’d have been in the loony-bin already. All that stopped me was the thought that it might upset her, and no man in his right senses would want to do that, which makes me wonder how straight in the head you are if you’re supposed to have any regard for her at all.’

  Ralph heard him, and did not hear. The words registered, but did not hurt. Paranoia absorbed his tirade, and vanity took the bite out of them. Handley didn’t like him, because he was almost as invulnerable as he was himself, with that firm jaw, penetrating brown eyes and a pride that, because it didn’t fit the final uncertainty of them, was flawed in a grave way.

  ‘Is that all?’ he wanted to know.

  ‘Yes, but it’s only the end if you make sure I’ve seen the last of you.’

  There was no apology, explanation or voice of regret. He climbed into his Land-Rover in silence, started the engine as Handley, face pounding with rage, backed his car into the road and drove off.

  Chapter Ten

  The pint of coffee went cold as he paced his studio, but he swigged it off straight as if it were beer
. It’s no use thinking about the state of the world when you lift that pot and wield your paint-brush at the great white canvas bigger than you are tall. In all ways vast, it dazzles you with off-white pallor, limited by the clear borders of a giant oblong, ambitious to become a tabloid of colours that mean something to every eye but only all to mine, my third Polyphemus peeper with the black patch off, opening into me and burning like magic its green and red rays over that canvas. I paint, and the world pours into the neck of an egg-timer, distilled sand in the bag of myself drowning out through that fragile lit-up funnel onto the sandless desert of my canvas.

  I forget all else and others when the feeling for this big one is building up and over me like pot-seed culled from the far side of the sun and peppered in front so that my nose unknowingly breathes it in. Empty for weeks and never waiting, but living in the acceptable torment of domestic war until now I’m waking, walking, set to paint in the land of the dead. For I’m dead when painting, a corpse because nobody in the land of the living can get at me, paint best when I’m that sort of corpse, temporarily dead, self-induced deathly dead so that colours can pour in and I’m set for a trance like throwing a switch during those days or weeks, and in that trance I’m flying.

  A time of inner torment is slowly building up from part of my submerged everyday life so that it’s almost unnoticed. Then as if at some pre-set signal the anguish stops, and I die, begin to paint a picture. It lasts some days or maybe more, and I die because while painting I’m not aware of my existence, become a vampire, half dead, a foot in the grave and one in life, wondering whether I’ll live to finish it, whether the world will end before I can – a stake to be driven in my heart to finally finish both me and this painting off.

  I’m so sure of myself I don’t even hurry when priming the canvas, hours, days and weeks are insects crushed under my boots as they vanish into the land of the living. Forked lightning of way back and a sharp distance forward don’t flash by in a shocking and temporary junction but stay locked in me, shake hands in my brain and declare peace in my heart as they travel through me hand-in-hand like two filaments meeting to light me up, mixing energy in my hands to paint by day and night. I don’t call it anything or even think about it, because to explain at such a time is to destroy, refute, negate, spit at the stars, and belch at the sun when it comes from behind the clouds.

  The biggest colour began as green, fields, oases, valleys, seaweed and estuary, life-perpetuation, love in the environs of Venice and Voronezh, vile green effluvia falling from bomb-canisters lobbed on paddy-fields, lodged in ditches where green men were fighting or burning (a change of colour here towards yellow, orange, saffron robes of Buddhist monks firing modern and complex artillery with deadly precision from fortified pagodas) or flashpanning out over hamlets from which men have fled but women and children cannot. Green gas yellowing over green fields to destroy all seeds and shoots of life. A leg goes green, gangrene, dead-green and livid, jealousy of green by those who are dead for the living flowers of people unconscious in life but full of work and struggle. Iron and steel go green in that humid green forest, blistering enmouldering green, emerald of defeat for the iron merchants and industrial strong whose chewing-gum tastes of spite and who try to belt down the guerrilla men and women of the coming world. The green hand lopped by the sinewy arm of a riceman who cometh for the whole lot to eject them into the green and boiling sea, is carried off by a green snake into a part of the forest-world no one can penetrate. The green mould from far away is rotten, the diseased soul trying to transplant itself on their earth, but the homegrown home-green forest of the sovietcongo partisans hides them in ambush and makes them invincible. Green is my fear, green is my friend, and on they go fighting with no end possible except the ultimate friendships of green because green will be my peace in which to paint the colours of mine or somebody’s soul.

  Grey is a sky, a bird, turning into a dive-bomber I shot at in the war, now an airliner, a vanguard whale of a hundred people lifted into that grey cloud and through into the far-off corner blue of dome-sky, a hundred souls divided between four great engines bursting with primal power, making one co-ordinated soul of ascent and hoped-for descent. Grey is machinery, machines in a factory, each with its stream of sud-bile sizzling over metal and shavings, grey flour caked in years of grease, I’ve worked in long enough to know, like and dislike of long ago, remember how those grey faces turn pink or pallid on stepping into open air, as if that putty-colour was only in the noise of grey machines. Christ, what haven’t I done in my two-score paltry years, walked or crawled through every colour I can think of or make up. Take red, a rust-red blood on newspaper deadened with age in a green copse, dark brown, as if somebody had been wounded and spilled himself on print before staggering for help. The red blood left had been shone on by warm sun, dried, left by the green summer bush till going orange like the saffron of those Buddhist monks and composition returns to life, out of suicide which was only a trick to frighten it back into the cosmic order striven for. Blood on that mantrap, for evil be to him who poaches, and a shock of steel teeth grabs him round the waist when he walks towards a patch of cowslips all yellow and bright. You had no business here, you know, but neither had yellow, yet in it goes, over red, green and grey, blue and bile, throw my semen on the canvas and paint a magic eye in it, mark of generations and regeneration, showing the third eye, the cosmological squirt and squint in bile and blue and grey and green, far-seeing and deep-sighted as you step inside and look at it from foot and window-distance among work and colour there already.

  The grand design comes up and gets my throat, starting with skeleton fabric, working from each rim and edging in, fix the middle and moving out, creating this engine with universal gears, forests and fields, sealine and winking sun, moon and magic eye, flanking fanbelt cogwheeling the existence of all men and making me momentarily wonder whether I’ll ever paint another picture after this, but knowing that I will before forgetting such an insane question and setting to.

  Red is the thing I can’t get away from, blood-red and blind red, dazzling crimson and falsehood carmine streaking down the back of a shorthorn cow in one of the top corners, and vermilion merging to rust-red down the back of a man riding it. Red and rust, all forms of shamblemark making horrorpitch in various set places easing from the blues and greens of oblivion. That’s fine maybe, but what I’m always shying off is brown, the baking earth-cracked paper brown, meaningless cloaca brown unless perhaps it means the final unfeeling melting back into underneath with which I never can be bothered. I spit on my hands and leave such a vein, this pit-seam in my lowest galleries, turn my headlamp up and go on to red again and rust if temptation gets my throat and won’t let go. A hundred subtleties make big crude things, but even they can be refined, splayed and coaxed back into their subtle coats, yet this time grander still and more exactly what I wanted and will deem worth while.

  Out of the forest, down from the mountains, back towards animals and men, yellow of butterflies meeting in valleys and vineyards of abundance, coming like smoke from farmhouse chimneys, bridging the banks of the lazuli river and patching the gardens among ox-blood and olive, emerald and Baltic-blue. Tributary streams burn quicksilver down the hillsides, a waterfall at one point verging to yellowy brown as it filters through soil and rocks and all this is the big eye of a cow under the chiselwedge of a slaughterer, the enormous bovine peephole of the world of Albert Handley’s painting growing day by day under my fungus hand and furtive eye.

  The other eye is green, already done and gone, dead and finished with, a jungle holding its own, backed up by the men who make their own guns (or steal them, which is more my line), wear tyre sandals, grit rice between their teeth and call it a meal. When in doubt say yes, do it, walk, but best is never to be in doubt, like them, unless from caution, when weigh it in your hands before throwing it like a hand-grenade at the feet of whoever is coming forward without seeing you. Fight shy of the stiltmen of Spital Hill, because a demon has brea
thed on them, a tatterfoal haunting the lower slopes, lurking for unwary travellers that pass at night, facing a shaggy foal that leaps right out and hugs them to death in mist and darkness. A grey-black tatterfoal lurked at the exit to his abundant valley behind primeval cowland Lincolnshire before ditches were dug, its eyes so wide they must be blind, but deepening nostrils beamed on unwary people gloated with meat and knowledge staggering safe out of cottages but never to return, having laughed at legends but never taken them as warning, the wandering wild tatterfoal still and silent as a milestone on a mud road until it got you in the night and put the lights of that valley out of your eyes forever in death by hugger-mugger, as you swirled for eternity through the colours of the rainbow and some that the rainbow had never thought of, a painful spectrum paying you out for the sins of your art and the indiscretions of an occasionally unpalatable palette.

  Mount your painting like a horse and ride it away, or better, let it carry you, control the uncontrollable so that the uncontrolled can control you. The burden of the spirit is a sack of flour that you need to live on. But the sack gets filled as you tread those fields of yellow corn and are born again, borne on the wings of Pegasus, no longer the shaggy tatterfoal of myth and nightmare from the quaint tales of old and scatty Lincolnshire.

  In one far corner the sun turned blue, raylight merging with the sea that was always humid, made to appear limitless, and phosphorescent. The oxy-acetylene stars joined this enlivening universe, beneath which there had to be sea, for otherwise there would be no life. And so had the sun, because both were the soul of blue, the twin lifedip of electricity. Sweat bled and blood perspired in a land beyond all tarns and towers, hummocks and nipple-hills. The barbed wire had bled him white, but his own land had been claimed out by the brute force and iron in the soul of a born survivor, and the bridge of jungle rope from himself to the canvas, slim and dangerously swaying yet somehow eternally secure, was used by the jungle men cast off from himself who crossed it with grace and depth, colours on their backs as they flattened themselves onto the empty desert plains of the canvas to escape the devastation – guns of self-criticism and turned into a humanised landscape at last. Then the devil in him churned it up, goodness of evil that soon came closer to what he’d intended in the beginning when the work of transference was once more complete.

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