Sing like you know the w.., p.11

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 11


Sing Like You Know the Words

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  The Obuswu inquiry dragged on without any obvious progress. For Patricia it was a slow time that didn’t become easier to bear when David made partner at his firm.

  He was very young: to some he was still newly qualified. On the other hand, no one could claim surprise. Although the partners hated to share equity, especially with one who had not served his time, they had realized that it was a choice between making him up and losing him to another firm. The difficult part for David had been to help them see that without making them feel like they had guns to their heads. To make partner early was unusual, but to do so without making too many enemies was rare indeed.

  By his own admission, David was no better than average as a lawyer, but he did have a knack of making each client feel that he had only their interests at heart. Even when he failed to return their calls they didn’t hold it against him. He wouldn’t blame his office for failing to pass on messages, as others routinely did, but somehow he was able to give clients the impression that he was accepting personal responsibility only because he was too much of a gentleman to point a finger at whoever had really let them down.

  According to David, his lack of interest in the law as a discipline made him better at the job. He wanted to find practical solutions to his clients’ difficulties, regardless of technical niceties. In a negotiation, he would start modestly, appearing to yield to his opponent’s legal analysis of the situation; perhaps pointing out the one or two areas of doubt that he might bring up later. It was only after the deal was done that his opponent would wonder why his own client had made so many concessions if their case was really that strong. David could sense when the opposition was likely to be made more tractable by having its pride massaged.

  His personal charm was all the more potent for seeming to be employed without calculation. Unfortunately charm was not always enough. There were all kinds of lawyers. The worst were those who capitalised on their own notoriety, trusting that their well known intransigence and blind self absorption would force the other side to despair of agreeing a reasonably fair outcome and concede. These were the self-made monsters who demanded and obtained surrender on the basis that everyone knew it was the only way to avoid excessive damage to the interests and pockets of both sides. Although some clients were as bad, when it was more important to them that their lawyer should be seen to be unreasonably aggressive than that their case should succeed.

  It was clear that psychology was more important than logic in the supposedly hard boiled world of commerce. David had a grudging respect for the mad dogs. They were all about winning. Often they knew every statute and every procedural twist; and they were completely indifferent to their clients’ best interests. Their approach reminded him of the American president who persuaded the Russians that he was crazy enough to press the button. When he came up against this type he’d often need to advise his client to see the case as a ransom demand that had to be paid. It couldn’t be denied that the mad dog approach got results, but then so did David. The difference was that his clients came back next time.

  The clients were important. Even more important were David’s dealings with other professionals and contacts; the men who passed the clients on to him. Business development, they liked to call it. David brought in business, which meant that he was fishing at the head of the stream. If he left, the firm would lose some fish, but worse than that, the source would dry up. That was why they needed to keep him happy.

  How or why the business contacts came to be so close to David so quickly was difficult to comprehend, but the partners were practical men, not minded to deny the world as it was. In a bigger firm, the issue of status might have been more important than the monthly income that was being billed, but Simpson Rose, for all its pretension, was just of a size for the bottom line to be sovereign. This being so; David’s claim was unanswerable.


  It was round about this time that David developed an enthusiasm for hill walking; which surprised Matthew for various reasons.

  -After all you said about your father and his hiking boots.

  David affected not to remember any such conversation. Matthew thought of reminding him about the tale of the mysterious lost cottage, which had not been heard for a while, but he knew that story would never be a joking matter so far as David was concerned.

  -It’s the one time I can be with my own thoughts and no interruptions, David said.

  -What about that gadget you have, can’t they reach you with that?

  -The mobile telephone you mean? There’s no signal on the hills and anyway I wouldn’t carry that thing with me. It’s the size of a brick and it weighs more. Useless really; just one of those businessmen’s toys that everyone is mad to have until the craze passes.

  -I’m amazed you have the time for hiking anyway.

  -There’s time for everything if you make it.

  Inevitably, it was not long before Matthew became a co-opted accomplice; a duty he didn’t so much object to, though he would have been reluctant to admit it. He understood what David meant when his friend talked of finding a rhythm of movement that let his thoughts drift where they would. Most times they didn’t say much after the first twenty minutes: there was no need. Matthew found that he didn’t look at landscape so much as unconsciously experience it, except there was something truly out of the ordinary to see; Yorkshire sunshine for example.

  Sometimes they did pause to admire the view and then they’d chat. One day, they were walking quite close to home: testing a short stretch of a long distance path that David was planning to complete one day when there was more time. This day, as usual he was pressed, but you would not know it in the quiet calm of the country.

  -So tell me what I am looking at, Matthew demanded, breaking the comfortable silence.

  -On a day like today, David replied, you see it all. Behind us to the east, that’s Almscliffe Crag, I suppose you know. That’s more or less where the hills give out and then across the plain you can see the North York Moors rising in the distance, looking as if they’re floating in the haze. West, up the valley that’s broad and flat because it’s Wharfedale, that mast you can see is Norwood Edge and beyond that Beamsley Beacon that looks down on Bolton Abbey. You have the best view of Ilkley moor from that side. We’re just on the edge of the Dales here. You don’t have to look at anything in particular. The country’s not an art gallery. Wouldn’t you say it’s more about feeling this particular day? The balance of the light that’s always shifting a little, the difference in the breeze, the pale sky. It just is. You bring your own thoughts out here. It doesn’t tell you what to think.

  -Very poetic. I expected more of a geography lesson

  -You shouldn’t knock geography. I know you always thought of it as a good subject for boys who weren’t clever enough for other things, but at least it taught me some things that were worth remembering after the exam.

  -I don’t remember saying anything against geography, Matthew sniffed. Anyway, it’s nice to be away from the world that was made by people. Why is that funny?

  -All of this landscape was made by people. The Bronze Age settlers came to hills where the forest was thin enough to clear when they made the first farms: that’s what made the Dales. After that, civilisation flowed down these valleys like melting ice. Then Roman roads, and later on pack horse routes set the lines of these paths we have through the hills; straight and winding; bringing salt from the coast and whatever else was needed. You can read the story of it on the map if you know what to look for. Look there – Psalter’s Gate, you see that everywhere – gate meaning a way. It was for the salters, nothing to do with psalms. When I have time, I like to look at maps and read the past from them.

  -Ah, so now the geography lesson.

  -Well, there are stories everywhere. Look at that name, Ben Rhydding. Sounds Celtic doesn’t it? Not very Yorkshire. Where do you think that comes from?

  -I suppose you know.

  -It’s a made up name, romantic sounding to attract Vi
ctorians to the Spa that someone had built there. I think it was called Fairley before. There has been bullshit as long as there have been people, Matt. It’s a shame you let it upset you so much.

  They lapsed into silence, but neither seemed eager to be on their way. On the hill, the day was calm. The only sound was the flies vaguely buzzing, as if they were about to fall asleep. Above them, the winds were stronger. Clouds of brilliant white skidded across the sky, changing the pattern of light and shade across the valley every few moments.

  -My mother sees the story of the land differently, Matthew said.

  -What does she say about it?

  -She claims it’s the same story in every place, only the details change. Men and women start to grow crops and tend animals where they find soil that will stand it. Others preferred to live by stealing what they produce. Both sides develop their technologies, the farmers to grow more and the thieves to steal more effectively: wheeled machinery and domesticated cattle to pull it for one lot, sharp weapons and fast horses for the other.

  David nodded. Matthew continued.

  -Then, some of the robbers realize that they might do better offering the farmers protection from other robbers, in return for a share of the produce. That way they’ll have plunder every year, and not be constantly looking for new farms to rob. These thieves settle down and become kings, dukes and earls. Soon they forget how they started. Their old skills aren’t much use. They recruit a new class of clever people to do their thinking for them. The clever people have various jobs, but most importantly they have to make the farmers understand why it is so important that the established, titled robbers remain in charge. Of course the kings and dukes and earls have always to be on their guard against unlicensed thieves who might want to move in on their space, which is how laws start.

  -Your mother said all that?

  -She didn’t say it all at once but yes; she says polite society is a protection racket with manners. You know she’s fairly quiet normally but once she gets going you get the full story. I’ve only given you the summary. She talks about the industrial revolution in the same way. She describes a factory as a machine with metal parts and human parts that depends upon the human parts being persuaded to give up their humanity. She explained how Victorian industrialists around here became the uncrowned kings of their small city states. They gave themselves made up titles like the old robbers had done; city fathers, and aldermen. She’s full of ideas like that.

  David took out a flask from his back pack and unscrewed the cap.

  -Do you want tea? There’s milk but no sugar.


  -It’s going to rain later on, or tomorrow at latest.


  Matthew drained the cup and handed it back to David, who poured tea for himself into the same cup.

  -You’ll have to tell me what you believe yourself one day Matt.

  -Why does it matter what I believe?

  -It should matter to you. How are you supposed to understand the world and give it meaning if you don’t believe in something?

  -Maybe the world doesn’t have meaning.

  -I knew that’s what you would say, but you’re wrong. And even if you were right, that would mean it was up to us to invent the best meaning we could find for it, don’t you think?

  Matthew didn´t reply. Each of them sipped tea for a moment, lost in his own thoughts.

  -Tell me one thing at least, David continued. You spend so much time pondering on life; you must have an opinion about this.

  -Fire away.

  -Do you believe in redemption? I don´t mean the religious kind. I mean, if somebody did something quite bad, let themselves down as a human being, but afterwards they did a lot of good; maybe even spent the rest of their life trying to help other people. Don´t you think that the good they did would make up for the bad?

  -That´s a strange question to ask me just now. I suppose I think that for me the good would more than make up for the bad. But probably for that person it would depend on them and how they ended up feeling about themselves. To feel redeemed they’d have to learn to forgive themselves for whatever went wrong. I suppose that´s why criminals find god when they are in jail; it lets them pretend that someone else has pardoned them. When I was younger my mother did that for me. Children don’t do anything so terrible but they often need pardoning.

  -I never had my mother there for that.

  Once more, Matthew cursed himself for his insensitivity and the way he had of treating every comment about life as if it were an exam question, never thinking about the human context before he opened his mouth. He was too embarrassed to ask David why he had raised such a strange question.

  The good thing about being out here was that you could pick up the thread of a conversation twenty minutes after you started it, or drop the subject entirely. For now they only needed to watch the clouds rolling overhead, and the subtle changes of light and shade in the valley below them. David seemed lost in his thoughts of who knows what, and Matthew was content to let his own conscious thoughts drain away, to be no more than in the landscape and a part of it.

  Chapter Three

  The winter snow tormented Belfast: it was the sort that blew in on a frozen wind and lashed your face with its dampness. Snow that couldn´t decide whether to settle or thaw; that would never look clean or even vaguely white, only grey. The grey bled into everything, draining any colour there might have been from the night time city and sky.

  Although he was from a northern city himself, Sergeant Raymond Hawkins hated this sort of weather. After this tour, that´s it, he promised himself. No signing up for another three years. Whatever happens next, I’m going somewhere warm.

  Falling snow deadened sound, which was good, but probably made it easier for him to be followed. For the moment his main concern was to keep the car pointing in the right direction. There’d been no gritters again and the roads were treacherous. It would not do to end up sideways on and having to ask for help in this neighbourhood. It would not do at all.

  Hawkins was good at only worrying about one thing at a time. Even so, he was fairly sure that he was being followed, which was stupid of them, since they knew where he was going. The meeting place was their choice, not his. The question in his mind was; where had he been followed from? He’d met one of the go-betweens in a bar earlier, but if they had been shadowing him before that, then the situation later on would quickly become embarrassing.

  The designated meeting place was a club on one of those loyalist housing estates where there were UVF flags on all the lampposts, faded and hanging in tatters but still there because it was more than your life was worth to remove them. Giant murals: crude paintings of masked men holding automatic rifles daubed on the gable ends of houses, same tired old graffiti on the walls. It was grim and exhausted, like the city itself so far as Hawkins was concerned. He suspected that most people wanted to jack in all this troubles crap and get on with their lives. Only the arguments were like the flags, they´d been hanging over everyone so long until they were just bits of dirty rag, torn and meaningless but impossible to get rid of.

  And of course there was always somebody making a good living out of a bad situation like this.

  He drove once past the club, slowly, before he parked the car. It looked fairly lively, in the sense that there were people coming and going outside, though none of them were going so far as to smile. They were shadows, with faces that came to life briefly as they passed into the sodium glare of the main door lighting. Above them, a string of electric lights had been stretched across the facade under the eaves, shining weak defiance at the bleak December evening. Pinpricks of red, white and blue; the only colours around. The club itself was ugly enough; brick built and practically windowless, more like a place to be defended than a place to meet. He could imagine men getting drunk in there, but not in a happy way.

  There was a line of parked cars in the street. Hawkins found a gap in the line that would accommodate his vehic
le, far enough away from the streetlights. He waited and watched. In a moment he spotted the headlights of another car that was coming to a halt in one of the side streets opposite. Sure enough, it was him. He saw the shadow of the driver getting out of the car and moving in the direction of the club, but no-one appeared at the end of the street, though the driver had not gone into any of the houses. The driver’s shadow had simply disappeared.

  The passenger side door of his own car was in darkness. Hawkins eased that door open and slid out gently, making sure that his figure did not show above the level of the car roof. Then, gently and quietly, he pushed the door closed. Without making another sound, he lowered himself to the ground and began to crawl down the line of cars. This filthy snow will ruin these clothes, he thought. The foul night was beginning to irritate him.

  When he’d slipped into a little alley that ran parallel to where the shadow had been he began to walk normally. He went down the alley and came around the far end of the side street, so that he was looking back towards the club. He walked down the road, past the car that had arrived just after him. The driver was pressed into a doorway still watching Hawkins’ car intently. Hawkins was close enough to see that the man had an unlit cigarette pressed between his lips. He was dying for a smoke, probably. You’ve been watching my car for twenty minutes, and I’ve been watching you for fifteen, was what he might have said to the man. But in fact he didn’t say anything, just took him down from behind like on the training ground: no problem. The stamp on his head after wasn’t in the manual, but Hawkins added that flourish on account of the stressful times and disgusting weather.

  Billy was sitting alone, near the door; waiting for him to show up Hawkins supposed. There didn’t seem to be anyone with him. Probably he didn’t feel like he needed anyone else, if it came to it. You could say that everyone in the place was with him, plus he thought he had his own man outside. Ray considered ways to play the situation. As usual, what came to mind was direct and to the point.

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