Sing like you know the w.., p.10

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 10

 

Sing Like You Know the Words
 



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  The desk sergeant had not been the only officer in the station, but anyone else would have needed to go through him to reach the cells. However, being an old hand, he might have been prepared to stretch the rules about recording any visits. It could have been that another officer was in the cell at some point without that fact having been noted. Perhaps the sergeant could be pressed to refresh his memory, if he was reassured first that his pension was not at risk.

  What about the detective? He was on record as having been in the cell. He’d declined to cooperate with the investigation, although that was easy enough to understand since the man had later been dismissed for financial irregularities. The notes were not specific about what kind of stealing was involved, and he’d not been charged. Perhaps, after all these years he might be prepared to talk, especially since this was not a police investigation. At least he might remember who else had been in the station that night. The desk sergeant’s memory was a little vague on that score.

  Patricia began the work of comparing the information available from the different sources, bristling with energy and full of righteous indignation; confident that she would find something buried in the records that needed to be brought to light. She had convinced herself that the fact that the case had resisted being consigned to oblivion for all these years meant that there was more to it than had been told in the official versions. There must have been a cover up.

  The amount of paper that had been generated over the years was surprising. They needed a separate room for all the boxes. There were the records of the internal inquiry by the police themselves as well as the witness statements the press cuttings and the station records. But there weren’t any obvious inconsistencies between them: in fact several of the witness statements had clearly been written by the same person using the same words for each witness. Even where this was not the case, the official language concealed more than it disclosed.

  It was maddening: the same trivial details repeated and repeated, and then when you reached the point where something useful might be said; silence. But at least there was an official version; something that was set down in writing and could be challenged, if only she could get at the facts that were buried under all these words.

  Unfortunately, as the work progressed, she found nothing more than unconnected fragments; no pattern; no evidence of conspiracy. Somehow this made her more convinced than ever that there was a hidden version. That conviction, or maybe it was only wishful thinking; the feeling that someone was trying to fool her, was what kept her going. She re-interviewed the serving officers, uselessly. Their conversations were stiff and formal. The matters to be discussed had to be agreed with the men and their representatives in advance. The officers were defensive; resentful of ancient history being raked over once more; suspicious of Patricia and her motives; more as a matter of routine than because they seemed to have anything to hide. The men gave stock answers, that she could have written herself without bothering to ask the questions.

  Soon her initial burst of energy was dissipated and what remained was boxes and boxes of paper that had to be read through and catalogued somehow.

  She sent regular progress reports to Gerald in case he might want her to focus on any particular point, but they had barely spoken since he assigned her to the case. He seemed satisfied that their own files were building up and not at all dismayed by the absence of new evidence.

  The worst thing for Patricia was that she knew that the clerks were directing cases to the other juniors: cases that she felt should have come to her, if not for that she was fully employed churning paper for the inquiry. She had found no hidden treasure in the dusty papers, nothing that might make her name by shaping the course of the review, and now she doubted that she ever would. In the meantime she was slipping back in the race to be the clerks’ favourite junior.

  Then she began to think for the first time that perhaps there was no smoking gun to be found. Maybe she had been wrong to believe that Gerald had put his trust in her because he had some trust in her abilities. It could be that he saw the work as pointless and just some profitable drudgery to hand out. She was the silly enthusiastic girl he’d found to grind out a minute examination of a case that was as dead as it could be but still chargeable by the hour.

  Her sleep began to suffer as her belief began to fade. And still there was no escape. The boxes were there waiting for her every morning and somehow she knew, this thing had to be got through.

  ***

  Like Patricia, Matthew had to get used to his share of boredom and humiliation in the world of work. It didn’t hurt him as much, since he was more inclined to believe that this was the natural order of things. And somehow, in spite of himself, the job started to feel more comfortable

  Looking back, he’d admit that Richard, in his quiet way, and Ralph in his not so quiet way, taught him a lot, probably without knowing it. Just now, Matthew didn’t realize that he was being taught, or even that there were things he needed to know. In general terms he was painfully conscious of his inexperience, but specific ignorance made him more defensive than curious, at least in the moment. Afterwards he’d be furious with himself over the opportunities missed because of pride.

  Finally, after he’d outlasted all expectation and Ralph had become accustomed to his presence, the day came when Ralph suggested that Matthew might accompany his lunchtime visit to the Town Hall Tavern. Matthew was delighted to accept, though he should have realised that being taken under Ralph’s wing would not be an unmixed blessing as regards Matthew’s relations with the management of the paper.

  Ralph had been with the business for longer than anyone could remember. He made his own rules, that management were wary of challenging, on the basis that none of the current bosses could be sure what personal indulgences their predecessors might have granted to him.

  In fact, Ralph would not have described himself as an employee of the paper at all. In his mind, he owned the Examiner fully as much as he was owned by it. The ink of its press flowed in his veins. He guarded his privileges jealously and sought to extend them at any opportunity, as much to thwart the despised businessmen who thought they managed the paper as for personal convenience. The result was that he was regarded with impotent suspicion by management.

  As Ralph’s designated friend, Matthew enjoyed the summons that came most days to join Ralph in the pub for what he liked to call an editorial conference. Although they were inseparable in the office, Richard didn’t share these expeditions, but since Ralph was a senior reporter, no-one could object to Matthew staying as long as he was told to do so.

  Although Mr Elliott couldn’t easily object, he watched and made clear that he did not approve. When the two of them eventually stumbled back to the office, occasion would be found to let Matthew know that his behaviour was proving a disappointment, and that Ralph was not the best person for him to associate with. As a writer, Elliott allowed, the old chap was first class, not a word could be said against him, but as an example that was a different matter. If Matthew wanted to get on, he should realize that men like Ralph; difficult types who caused trouble, were the past.

  Matthew wasn’t interested in getting on and he couldn’t imagine that there were so many men like Ralph. He liked to pretend that he didn’t care what Elliott thought. On the other hand he didn’t want to put his job at risk. He knew that he wouldn’t easily find another one that was so congenial. Sometimes he did become concerned that he was taking too many liberties, and that he would be found out. On the other hand, every journalist he’d met and thought he could respect seemed indifferent to office discipline. Besides he reasoned, if he was going to take Mr Elliott´s advice seriously, he may as well have gone straight from university to banking or accountancy, like everyone else.

  Mr Elliott was more inclined to preach than praise. He made it clear that there was something about young Matthew´s manner that he didn’t approve of. Matthew was prone to depression at the best of times. He began to suspect that Elliott
was planning to be rid of him. Unusually, Ralph noticed there was something wrong. He generously offered to share his own wisdom on the subject of employment. Since it was almost lunchtime, he suggested that the conversation would flow better in the pub.

  The bar was crowded. Ralph was in an expansive mood. He continued the monologue he’d begun earlier as he shouldered his way to the bar and returned, more quickly than seemed feasible, with two pint glasses brimming with beer.

  -Matthew, think of this afternoon as my symposium, which I want to begin today by telling you about politics

  -I’m not much interested in politics anymore.

  -How so? Drink up.

  -I mean, I used to think it was important. I still read the papers and everything. Before Thatcher I used to think that politics was a way to change things: so that everything would be fairer. I’m not talking about college; everything seemed childish there. I mean further back; ideas from home. My mum has strong ideals, I suppose.

  -Matthew, sometimes when you speak, everything comes out at once and you make no sense at all. Now you sound like a doubting young priest. What happened to make you lose your faith?

  -It was the election. I know Labour was exhausted and useless, but people voted the other lot in out of greed and self interest, or what they thought was self interest. That’s the other side of it; once working people lose conviction and a sense of sharing, it turns out you can make them believe anything. The rich tell the not rich what to think and bribe them with their own money to keep quiet while the future is sold off cheap.

  Ralph gave a wry smile. Given the strange physiognomy of his face, the effect was grotesque.

  -Oh, I see. You felt solidarity with the working man until you decided that the working man had let you down by disagreeing with you. A familiar story I believe.

  -I think the truth is that people of all classes are mostly not worth caring about. They’re only interested in getting even a little bit more for themselves, maybe buying a house cheap to sell it at a profit, or making a few pounds when the government sells off what the people used to own. They keep smiling as everything that was shared is wrecked or given away. And the more they get, the less they want to help the people at the bottom, only because they feel that bit further on from the bottom themselves. The messages they hear are lies, but they’re only taken in because they want to believe the lies.

  Ralph smiled again. His glass seemed to empty itself. You didn’t notice him drinking before it was time for a refill.

  -A fascinating digression Matthew. Thank you for your insight. However the kind of polity I have in mind for today is office politics. We are not concerned with a critique of the overrated system of democracy and its many failings. We are more concerned with the practical matter of the struggle for survival and advancement in the workplace. It is not the lofty rhetoric of the Republic, but the sordid intrigues of Empire, that concern us now. The scale of events is not so grand of course, but you may find that the ruthlessness and depravity involved is comparable with the antique Romans. However before we commence I think that it would be in order to recharge these glasses. Your shout, I think.

  When Matthew returned from the bar, still wondering what Ralph was talking about, his friend took a long pull at his fresh pint before continuing.

  - The politics of work, Matthew, are like the general kind. They affect your life; even should you, ill-advisedly, choose to ignore them.

  -You say that, but I don’t see you paying any attention to what is going on at work, or who‘s arguing with who.

  -They may argue with whom they choose. And have you considered that my ignorance of these spats may be assumed? Perhaps I am more a Claudius, than you know. Remember the supposed idiot outlived all those ambitious types who were so desperate to be emperor. But we are talking of yourself not me. The crux is, what must you know to survive and prosper? Which is to ask, not so much what you need to know of the profession of journalism, because any fool can master the few tricks you’ll want for that trade, but rather the more problematic issue of the life and how one may best enjoy it in an age of ignorance.

  He drank deeply.

  -Think about this. People are not always what they seem, and neither need you be. Take, for example our esteemed colleague Richard. Richard, you know, comes from a family of mill owners. For ever so long his grandfather was mayor of one of those godforsaken Pennine towns that no one ever visits. In short, his family is rich.

  -He seems alright.

  -As why should he not? But to return to my theme, you were about to comment that you thought that I was the posh one in the office.

  -I was?

  -Indeed, whereas in fact it was Richard who enjoyed a privileged youth, including a time at Cambridge in the long ago, where he no doubt witnessed, and for all I know participated in that debauched undergraduate behaviour which we read of in the contemporary fiction of the time. And yet to hear him speak now, you would think he’d been a blunt Yorkshire tyke all his life.

  -And you Ralph?

  I’m afraid that my formal education terminated abruptly at the age of fifteen. Thereafter you might say I became something of an autodidact, until a chance involuntary sojourn in Her Majesty’s armed forces provided the opportunity to formally better myself. More night school than gilded academia for me. I might add, if it needs saying, that I am sharing information with you on a strictly need to know basis. Chatham House Rule applies.

  Matthew had no idea what rule Ralph meant. Rather than show his ignorance, he asked why it was important that he should receive this information.

  -We were talking earlier, were we not, about what management like to call your appraisal?

  -If that’s what it was. You mean, when I told you that Mr Elliot said that he feared I would never be worldly enough to make a proper newspaperman?

  -His comment seemed to make you unhappy.

  -I like it at the paper, I feel comfortable.

  -Well then that’s more than halfway to you being a true newspaperman isn’t it? Tell me, what in particular do you feel comfortable? Always specifics remember. We never content ourselves with odious generalities.

  -If I’m honest: I like sitting around with time to think, making up stories – I don’t mean inventing, I mean turning some facts into a story, I like it that people leave me alone, and having time to come out like now for a drink in the day.

  -Well and if you’d told old Elliot that, he would have to agree that you are a natural born hack in all vital aspects.

  -Unworldly, he said.

  -Well, boy, how would you describe me? Would you say I was worldly?

  -It’s different for you Ralph, you’re… larger than life.

  -You’re quite hopeless. If you had spent any time reading Plato, or any of the Greeks, instead of - whatever you did read – you would appreciate the fallacy of your position. We are agreed that I am no more worldly than you, and yet I have been a newspaperman over the course of some two decades, as the payroll of the Examiner will attest. Ergo, worldliness, with whatever grubby association Johnson intended to imbue that unlovely word, is not an essential requisite of the job. You should also have noted, if you had been paying attention, that in the matter of my being larger than life, the persona that I present to the world, being, I like to fancy, that of an erudite sage, disinterested to a fault, rather aristocratic even, I could go on – in any case it should be clear to you that, even if this is the part I was born to play, I was not born playing it.

  Matthew’s face failed to display the expression of sudden enlightenment that Ralph had been expecting.

  -I can hardly put it more simply for you, Matt. Practice dissimulation. Choose a character, become that person and things will go very well for you afterwards. Anyone can collect facts. The skill is to make something of them. How many times have I told you that?

  -But this is life we’re talking about. You make it sound like acting. Is that really what I should do for the rest of my life? Pretending all the time,
just to fit in. I remember talking about that once. I said that was how everyone of my generation would end.

  -And every generation before and since. Nothing unique about it. We say the lines until they become us. And actors are we all, that rise thus nimbly by our daily scrawl.

  -I know that one, it’s Shakespeare.

  -It was a paraphrase not a quotation; remind me to explain the difference. For now, think only that an actor must play many parts, while I am suggesting that you need master only one, and consider that the part that you play is your own invention. I should add that you are not doomed to tread the boards of life as the tiresomely ignorant, blank-faced boy I see before me. Only one word more: I would only caution you, seriously; do not willingly play the grocer. Don’t become like that fool Elliot, The likes of you and I should steer clear of…commerce, or worse still management.

  The words made Ralph grimace as if his beer had suddenly turned sour.

  Matthew knew, or hoped he knew, that Ralph’s insults were offered in a kindly way. He did not take offence at being called ignorant and blank-faced, not least because he felt the description was justified. He considered Ralph’s advice, while his companion drained his glass and offered it to Matthew with an unspoken invitation that it be refilled.

  -Ralph, it must have taken years for you to read all the books you know and to turn yourself into the person you are now; to understand so much about really posh people and how they live.

  -But reading books was what I always wanted to do, so it wasn’t work to me. And I took a lot of it from Wodehouse, which is not exactly hard going. In any case, he added, shaking the empty glass at Matthew to indicate that a refill was now overdue: the main thing is attitude. People will take you at your own estimation with just a few props and a little conviction. Believe me I know whereof I speak.

  ***

 
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