Sing Like You Know the Words, page 14
Nothing much was said. In the end they all just accepted that the old Tim was gone. He was a danger, mostly to himself; a liability no one wanted to take on.
It was still not quite a year since Tim’s return when Matthew went to see him at a rented flat he’d not long moved into. It was close to the town centre, on the eleventh floor of a building that seemed to shift unsteadily in the strong wind. The hallways were dirty and echoing but at least the lift was working. Tim did not encourage him to come in but Matthew more or less insisted. He was shocked to find that the place was more squalid even than their old student house in the worst times. Tim hadn´t lived there long enough for simple neglect to do this. It was as if he had soaked up the decay that pervaded the whole building and determined to concentrate it in his own space.
Tim saw him looking around at the unwashed plates and bowls, the piles of dirty clothes and used bedding spread about randomly; the second hand furniture with the sofa that was missing a leg.
-It’s just temporary, Tim said.
-You need to get out of here. Have you thought about looking for a job yet?
-Three million people unemployed, didn’t you hear? Tim replied.
-But you have a degree. The army makes you more employable. You’ve got lots of advantages.
-I don’t want a job just yet, okay? I waste too much time at the jobcentre as it is. Most of the people down there, when you talk to them, they’re desperate for work; so let them have it. Selfish of me to take it from them isn´t it? I don’t need much to get by.
-Your family would help if you let them.
-Talking about my dad? Poor old bastard is worse off than me. No job and he’s trying to keep up appearances. Quite frankly I don’t give a shit about appearances. You can probably see that. Just a good thing they have the mortgage paid off.
-Tim, no one wants to push you. But you can’t carry on like this. If it was something to do with the army ...you could get help you know.
-It has nothing to do with the army. I wish people would shut up about that.
-But what do you do all day?
Ah, that´s the real question. What do you do? That’s what really worries the normal people; they feel threatened if someone isn´t hard at work like them. Most people need it you know, so they have a reason to get up in the morning, and somewhere to be at whatever time the clock is telling them. Well I don’t need that; never did. You know why they want to be chained to the clock don’t you? Because it keeps them numb; stops them having to worry about feeling anything, or wondering who they are, or where their life is going. Fuck them.
-So what do you do? Matthew did not want to be drawn into a conversation like this with Tim.
-You need to know? My week starts on Tuesday, when I go down the office to sign on. Can you confirm that you are not undertaking any employment? Yes I can confirm that. Are you making efforts to find employment? Yes, my waking hours are exclusively dedicated to that end. Is there any particular kind of employment that would be appropriate for you? Yes, I have always had a yearning to be a philosopher king and govern my subjects with enlightened despotism. When the time comes they will love me for it. So then I get my little green slip of paper, which is called a Giro, and I take it to the post office and it turns into money. Once I have the money I can get a drink, and then the week really begins.
-How long is it going to last?
-They give you a brand new Giro every week.
-You know what I mean.
-Well, you know the Latin – ars longa vita brevis? It means you can be arseholed for a long time in a short life.
Matthew made one more try
-Tim, people who care about you can’t stand to see you like this.
-They don’t have to, do they? Did I ask them to? They can all piss off. You too Matt. I never liked any of you anyway.
Patricia’s inquiry finally ran its course at about the same time as the war ended. It seemed to her that it had been a waste of time, a drudgery that left a bitter taste.
Nothing of any significance had come to light about Mr Obuswu’s death, even though the report seemed to have made everyone happy. The authors were praised for their clarity, and patient, methodical investigation, as well as their dedication. Local politicians queued up to add their endorsement. Everyone who commented was sure that relations between the different communities would move forward on a basis of improved trust as a result of the work that had been done.
Patricia had to admit that what Gerald told her was right: you couldn´t keep forever looking and looking just on the basis that something didn’t feel quite right. The last word is rarely spoken about anything in law or in life, he said, and perhaps just holding the inquiry had been more important than anything it was likely to discover. It was a good lesson for her was that you had to deal with events on the basis of the information that you could reasonably obtain, and then move on. That sounded like good advice but Patricia found it hard to take. She was sure that there was another story that remained hidden. In her mind, she had failed.
She felt she had to visit the Law Centre to explain herself to Alice.
Patricia had long ago given up the volunteer sessions at the local law centre, as her own practice had become busier. She still tried to keep up her contacts with the people, especially with Alice and her husband Des, who did most of the organizing between them. She didn’t visit as often as she would like. The words that Alice spoke to her when they first met were still embarrassingly clear in her memory.
-You young people that come down here to help: you aren’t here forever, dear. You all have you own life to live and that´s as it should be. We are grateful for the time you can give. But remember, me and Desmond have got to live round here for always, even after you don’t come no more. That makes us see some things a little bit different to you. In any case you always be welcome here when you see us.
Back then, Patricia had been certain that Alice had it wrong and she would be the one who always stayed involved with the good work.
The law centre wasn’t pretty. It was housed in one of those public buildings that local authorities make a show of dedicating to community purposes when they run out of other uses for them. The furniture there was had all the comfort rubbed off it by hard use. It was the kind of office where offering a visitor a cup of tea meant finding the least stained and chipped mug. At least it was an office and it was still open.
Alice was a welcoming spirit. She did most of the talking for herself and Des. They hadn’t seen the report, but when Patricia told them that it included no revelations, they did not seem surprised.
-Don’t talk about it as if you’ve got something to be ashamed of Pat. You did your best, and at least that old story got looked into. You didn’t imagine someone was just going to turn up at your door and tell what really happened, did you? You know, there’s some people, like my Desmond, who thinks that it might be better not to know. Stirring up trouble after all these years for no reason, he would say.
-What do you think Alice?
-For myself, I think that the truth is always the truth and a lie is always a lie. That’s just how I was brought up. A lie that’s hidden can sit in the dark like something bad and wormy eating away the good fruit. Probably Desmond is right, but I have to see things my own way. Blame it on being raised with religion. For me, the dead deserve justice as much as the living. I don’t see how you can have it for the one and not the other.
Patricia thought for a moment about her own religion. Desmond made a rare comment.
-What’s true, he said, is that there is not much justice in this world for the living or the dead and you better get used to it. You are never going to know for sure what happened to that poor man and neither is anyone else. One or two who might have some idea won’t say nothing. Raking over old times does no good, and might just do some bad. Some things people just need to forget.
But even if Patricia wasn´t sure that she agreed, what could she do? Th
-Something still annoys me Des. I interviewed the sergeant who was on duty that night. He’s retired now, but he still had that suspicion of me like all of them. It makes it so hard to know if they are telling you all they know. He says that the only person to go into the cell apart from himself and the doctor was a detective who was there just for a few minutes to talk about some other investigation. It seems they would have liked Obuswu to confess to some minor offences that were outstanding on this detective’s files. If I knew for sure there was no one else in the cell that night, it would mean that either the injuries happened earlier, or the officers in the van were responsible in some way.
-And what does the detective say?
-He’s the only one we haven’t interviewed. He wouldn’t talk to us. His name is Derek Moss. He was sacked not long after the incident for petty theft; dismissed without a pension. He doesn’t want anything to do with the police.
-That Derek Moss was a bad man alright. I remember him. He was a racist too. Everyone knew: they should have told you that. Was always causing problems for black kids, for no reason. You ask some of the people round here about him, they will remember for sure.
There was no time to chase after Moss, but before the boxes of documents were returned, Patricia was able to look up the few papers that mentioned him once more, including the cases he had been dealing with at the time and the story of his own disciplinary problems, so far as they were recorded. She copied them down in her private notebook, though she couldn’t say why she did it. His offences seemed to be minor and rather pointless and he had never been prosecuted for them. He’d never been part of the Obuswu investigation and certainly was never considered a suspect.
That trail, if there had ever been one, was as cold as all the others: it was over. She put the notebook in a drawer and tried to forget about it.
David told her, you can’t win every battle. Move on from your failures and think about what you are doing in the present; what you can still get right, or you’ll only sit brooding about the past and be no use to anyone. That was one of the ways they were so different. As soon as David had reached a conclusion like that he´d be able to act on it. He wouldn´t be tormented for years to come about things that could no longer be changed.
Matthew almost missed the afternoon train back from London. By the time he boarded, the carriages were crowded and most of the seats were taken. He eventually found a place where he could just about wedge his bag into the luggage space above and his person into the gap below, between three burly individuals who more or less filled four seats grouped round a table. He’d barely settled himself and opened his book before the train began to pull out of King’s Cross.
From behind his book, he glanced quickly at his new companions, who seemed to be travelling together. They looked like men who were working in the capital and coming home for the weekend. One of them met his glance and gave him a short nod of acknowledgement. Matthew nodded in reply, but he preferred to be left alone when travelling. He looked back to his book and busied himself finding the right page. In any case he had a lot to think about, mostly about the job.
He’d only applied for it at Richard’s suggestion. Matthew felt that he’d barely started to understand how the local paper functioned, and it had seemed presumptuous to put himself forward for a position at one of the nationals. He had been certain there would be many other candidates, well connected probably, who would be better at presenting themselves, with better experience, real or invented, than he could offer. Matthew wasn´t prepared to embellish what he had done, and it sounded trivial indeed to him as he related it.
But they had made him the offer on the spot, more or less. The personnel man had said that he should expect to hear from them in the next few days; but that the wait was a formality and he should expect good news. Matthew was so shocked that he did not know what to say. They’d shown him around the place everyone had seemed so kind and interested.
He turned the pages of the book without absorbing much of the text. His head was still spinning. The three men had been talking more or less continuously all the while, and gradually their conversation began to percolate through into his consciousness.
The men were builders, working on a site in the west of London. They had contracted to work in the capital because of the slow situation at home, but it seemed that even though there was plenty of work to be done in London, their presence was not welcomed by local construction workers. They were comparing experiences in between complaining about their “digs”.
Before long, these topics of discussion were exhausted and the talk moved on to the news of the day. In spite of himself, Matthew was drawn to listen to their views. Protected by the book that he looked at blankly from time to time, he became their audience. It was as grimly fascinating as watching a current affairs programme on television; the same window on what others were thinking, the same urge to interrupt and explain where the speakers had got it wrong.
Even the smallest group will throw up a leader and in this case his name was Bill. He was the one who had caught Matthew’s glance earlier; late thirties, big and balding; with powerful arms bulging out of an undersized short sleeved T-shirt that defied the unseasonably cold weather.
The older man sitting next to Bill was Jack; grey haired and not so confident looking. You could imagine that life had dealt Jack a few hard blows. It seemed that he had lived for some time in the London area previously.
The third; sitting next to Matthew, was an innocent looking youth whose name he did not catch. This one was the same size as Bill, but pinker and fleshier, with a ready laugh for the comments of the other two. Matthew could not see so much of him without making his interest in the group obvious.
They had started to talk about the unions, unsurprisingly since that was the big topic of the day, so far as the media were concerned. Matthew noted that Bill had a crumpled and folded copy of that morning’s “Sun” on the table before him.
-Well obviously you can’t believe all the shit you read in this, said Bill, tapping the paper, but the fact is, the unions has got beyond a joke. Something’s got to be done about it.
-It might be good if we had a union though, the young man replied. If it meant we got the same rates of pay as the London lads.
-It wouldn’t work that way, Bill responded. They’d want their own union to save the work for themselves and keep the likes of us out. No lad, the sad truth is that, trades unions, it’s not the British way. It’s like they say in the paper. Unions is alien to the British culture.
-They keep telling us that, the old man noted. Must be they want us to believe it.
-There’s going to be a right old struggle, Bill nodded.
The prospect seemed to fill him with satisfaction.
-Anyone can see it coming. All what’s happened up to now has just been the skirmishing, but the miners will be next, and then it’s full on war. She hasn’t forgot that they brought down the Tories last time.
-Who’s she Bill?
-Maggie Thatcher lad. Don’t you read nothing? She’ll have her revenge on them, whatever it takes.
-But why are the unions so bad Bill, that’s what I don’t understand. I keep hearing about this union they’ve started in Poland, in the shipyards. You know, what is it called?
-It’s called Solidarity, said Jack helpfully. Only it´s in Polish; but that´s what it means.
-That’s the one. Well, when I hear about that union, they seem to be telling us that it’s a good thing and we have to support all the brave workers, standing up to the state.
-That’s Poland lad. Their situation is completely different. We’re British. They have an oppressive communist government. Solidarity is a political union, but our unions are just looking to grab more money for their members.
-Maybe our unions should be more political then, Jack suggested. Bill ignored the comment
-But; the young man continued, the papers say that our unions are trying to bring down the government, just like they say about Solidarity. It seems that when they say that in Poland it’s a good thing, but here it’s a bad thing.
Bill did not see the problem with this.
-What you need to understand, he said, is that our country is more advanced than them. This is where the industrial revolution started, isn’t it? Back in the old days, there was a place for the unions. It was a struggle for the rights of the working man back then, all well and good, but that was in the past. You’re taking home a pretty good screw this week I expect?
-I’m not doing too bad, the boy conceded.
-So there you are, and the miners are well paid as well. Nowadays anyone who’s not frightened of work can earn good money. But these modern unions we have now, they’re just greedy. A lot of the members don’t want to work and the officials are just in it for themselves, crazy for power or in it for themselves. Look at that Arthur Scargill: he’s mad, you can tell just to look at him. Something’s got to be done, because they are ruining the nation’s productivity.
By now Matthew could see that the young man was taking a great interest in the conversation. Being stuck on a train for a couple of hours was probably a rare opportunity for him to reflect on life. He had another question for his more experienced workmate.
-But what exactly is productivity Bill? Everyone talks about it like it’s the most important thing in the world, only I’m, not really sure what they are on about.
-It’s … well it’s productivity isn’t it? Bloody obvious. It’s about turning up to work and grafting, not just expecting to collect a wage for being there. It’s like what we do. Proper working.
-It’s a measure of the work done per employee, if you average out all the work that everyone does, said Jack.