Sing Like You Know the Words, page 17
He considered the battered and ancient state of the aeroplane, reflecting that it was better not to know what maintenance and fuelling programmes had been applied to it. Even so, as the engines strained at take off and they struggled to gain altitude, looking down on the arid landscape, he felt safe for the first time in many days.
He kept watching. From the air the country seemed greener, and as you got further away from the bitter and pointless struggles between the humans below, you felt calmer.
If you flew around the world at altitude, he thought, not in space, but high enough in the sky so that you didn’t have to see the actual people, then it would look as if most of the world that wasn’t water was busy growing food. You’d be looking down on fields mostly, with just the occasional urban sprawl, and you might never realize how many people were crammed into those urban areas, or with what ferocity they competed with each other and shaped the lives of all the rest.
Albert was in the middle seat. The man sitting next to the aisle was British too. Albert was talking to him and Hawkins listened with half an ear to the conversation. Their neighbour was a red faced engineer with a Scottish sounding name. He’d come to build a dam, that would probably now never be built, even though what sounded like a serious amount of money had already been spent on the project. The engineer was most indignant, for the wasted money and for his dam. He was sure that the revolution was a bad thing, because it was the end of his dam. As to the causes of the unrest, or the violence that might follow it, he knew and cared nothing.
Albert asked the engineer, quite gently, what good the dam would have done for the people, most of who lived on small farms that weren’t supplied with water. His companion did not follow the argument, it was evident that the dam was a good thing, or else the engineer would not have been sent to build it.
Hawkins could see that Albert was amused by the conversation. Later, as the engineer occupied himself with trying to secure a decent gin and tonic, the little guy gave him a big smile and whispered.
Ray, that is so British. They need a dam because he has to build a dam. It’s that unselfish egoism. Whatever you happen to be doing is the most important thing and it’s always for the general good.
Hawkins nodded. He was grateful to Albert and he liked the man, even if you couldn’t always make out what he was talking about.
As time went by, Matthew found that he was no longer certain that he cared for journalism. Unfortunately, he could think of nothing else that he cared for more. It seemed that the fixed points in his life were the job and his friendship with David and Patricia.
He’d married Carol eventually, but for both of them the marriage had not seemed to take. They drifted into and out of it over the course of a few years, without the process seeming to make much impression on either of them. Matthew only registered the death of some illusions that for him had never really come to life in the first place.
Looking back, the word that seemed to apply most to his marriage was lacklustre. In fact, he thought, he could apply that description to his life in general.
Without enthusiasms, he seemed only to be waiting for life to begin. After the divorce, his consolation was the discovery that there was a type of woman who was drawn to his prematurely world weary pessimism. His face was getting older, starting to match his temperament, and it surprised him that a succession of these women found their way into his bed. The languid pursuit of them gave him comfort and a hiding place from the unspecified sense of disappointment that haunted his days.
He knew that David did not approve of this way of life: Patricia also he supposed. Neither of them said anything to him about it except to make the occasional joke at his expense. And now, he reflected, I´m the dissolute friend as well as the failure.
Work was another comfort, as well as an entertainment. Richard and Ralph had strong opinions about the most surprising things and it seemed that they could not stop themselves delivering their views to the world in general. Most days one or other of them would find something to set him off, though neither considered himself opinionated. On slow days, Matthew would dedicate research to topics of conversation that he guessed might provoke one of Richard’s terse expressions or a tirade from Ralph’s that might stretch intermittently from one coffee break to the next.
Ralph was unable to tolerate any kind of journalism that allowed the personality or activities of the writer to intrude upon the story. Any text which Matthew submitted that offended this sensibility was ruthlessly excised.
-Just the facts lad. No-one is interested in how you came by them or how difficult it all was. This is not the Washington Post. You don’t go to the circus to hear the lion tamer lecture about the hours he spent persuading the lion not to bite his head off, do you?
-I don’t go to circuses. I don’t like them.
-Well then, don’t try and make a circus of this office. If our readers wanted to be dazzled by writers who have to explain how clever they are, they would buy one of the nationals. Just the facts.
-I don’t see what you have against editorial.
-Our readers aren’t eager to look under the surface of things, or to have it suggested that their preconceptions may be wrong. They are satisfied to have the surface of things described to them succinctly. From this they are able to deduce that the world is precisely as they have always imagined it to be.
-We only offer them bland reassurance then?
-You say that as if it was a bad thing.
Another thing Ralph could not stand was the media self consciously discussing itself; newspapers and television programmes about what the other newspapers and television programmes were reporting. There seemed to be more of it all the time. Richard was malicious enough to set him off, reminding Ralph of the quote about the media being the message.
-Some ignorant people may have said that, replied Ralph, but if you analyse what they intend to signify by their words, you will find that they are only making noises with their mouths that are literally meaningless except to make a pattern of sound. It is the sort of language I hear from business manager´s, calculated to impress rather than communicate, and I know that you, Richard, have only mentioned it to wind me up.
Matthew thought that perhaps the rant could be extended.
-You don’t like managers much do you Ralph?
-I prefer to converse with those who have some idea of what they are talking about, which a professional manager, by definition, does not, since his supposed skill is to manage the efforts of others. As Shaw said, those who can, do.
-I really feel that you need to explain this to me more fully.
-An editorial conference?
Invariably the lunchtime conferences occurred in Ralph´s favourite pub and were lubricated by enthusiastic sampling of the local brewer´s chief product.
It was almost a happy time for Matthew. He left Carol with the house and moved into a small flat in the centre of town, overlooking the river. It was a new development, put up at the time when builders were just beginning to think about riverside apartments as an alternative to starter homes in the suburbs. Matthew was one of the first buyers, on David’s advice.
Financially, it turned out to be the best thing he ever did. Prices climbed so quickly that by the end of the first year he would not have been able to afford the place. There were drawbacks, however. Being close to the town centre meant that it was easy for friends to visit.
Late one night, he received an unexpected call from Ralph. Matthew had never had a work colleague call him before. All the journalists shared telephone numbers, but their kind of news was not normally made outside office hours. It was surprising to him that Ralph had been able to find his number.
A moment listening to Ralph´s voice made it clear that he was drunk; hopelessly and helplessly so. The level of his voice on the line kept changing, as he struggled to keep the phone at a steady distance from his face. His speech was slurred. There was a lot
-You have to come and get me, Ralph told him.
-Get a taxi Ralph, it’s late.
-Not possible. You have to come. Need some assistance.
-Are you OK? You’re not hurt?
-Little bit drunk, I think.
-It’s one thirty in the morning. I … oh, all right. Where are you?
-Don’t know. Come as quick as you can.
Matthew managed to talk Ralph through the process of discovering which bar he was patronising. Fortunately it was a place Matthew knew. By the time he had walked there and persuaded the doorman to let him in, the crowd inside was thinning. Ralph was conspicuous at the bar by virtue of being double the age of anyone else and because he was still wearing his office suit.
-Hope I haven’t caused too much trouble.
He could still barely speak and there seemed to be a real danger of him falling off the stool. Matthew helped him to stand. He started to move, but stooped down.
-Mustn’t forget my briefcase.
-Have you been drinking since five thirty?
-Well, no. Left the office early today. So, little bit longer than that. Think it’s time to go home now though. Where’s your car?
-I didn’t bring the car. I had some wine earlier. Let’s get you home. A walk to the taxi rank will do you good.
Matthew had assumed that some disaster must have happened to Ralph to put him in such a state. Had he finally pushed Elliot too far, and been sacked? But, it seemed that there was no reason for the self destructive urge taking hold; none that Ralph could explain anyway.
Matthew had intended only to make sure that Ralph reached the taxi, but as they walked together, he began to worry that Ralph would not be capable of getting from the car into his house, even if the driver found his place. He could barely walk with Matthew’s support. Since Ralph lived alone, anything might happen to him.
-Listen. We’ll stop in at mine. It’s on the way. I’ll make you a coffee, only no throwing up, okay.
-Don’t ever throw up sadly. Feel better if I did. Knew I could rely on you. Told Richard. Sound chap.
The stairs were difficult. Eventually, Matthew got Ralph settled onto the sofa, if settled was the right word. He was sitting bolt upright with his hands in his lap, swaying slightly; an expression of utmost concentration on his face. Although his motor functions seemed all but extinct, Ralph’s speech was rational, if slurred. Matthew decided that his colleague wasn’t in any physical danger, but he went to the kitchen to make coffee, expecting that when he came back, Ralph would be toppled back on the sofa with his mouth open, unconscious.
In fact, Ralph seemed to rally a little.
-Thanks, coffee. Good idea. No milk lots of sugar. That’s the way. Said to Richard could rely on you, sound chap.
Matthew sat opposite. He saw that there was an ugly bruise beginning to develop on Ralph’s jaw, which he had not noticed before.
-Did you have a fall?
-No, of course not. Don’t fall over. What do you take me for? Oh, you mean this. No this was something different.
-Nothing important. Was in the bar, minding my own business, a bit unsteady. Place was crowded, you had to stand. Some young chap, never seen him before. Little fellow, came running at me from nowhere. Launched himself at me. Gave me this and ran off. Didn’t see where he went. Was on the floor I’m afraid. Not so bad if you’re making a nuisance of yourself. I’ve had worse when I deserved it. But a bit thick when you’re behaving.
-Did you complain?
-Don’t be silly.
-You must have done something to annoy him.
-I suppose I didn’t fit. The suit you know; and I don’t look so young as I used to. Sometimes it’s enough if you seem just a bit different.
Matthew had a closer look, but there did not seem to be any serious injury.
-What’s in the bag?
-Oh, that. My column for evening edition tomorrow. Wrote it while I was drinking. Not in that bar: earlier. Here, you’d better read it through. Check it makes sense.
Matthew took the notes. Ralph wrote longhand with an elaborate but very clear style. The article was perfectly legible, spare and elegant prose. The content didn’t seem like anything that would induce serious drinking in the writer.
-Nothing wrong with it.
-Good. Oh, there’s this as well. Your piece on the new floral gardens. I had to pull it.
-It’s shit. But don’t worry you can redo it tomorrow. Won’t spoil for a day.
-What do you mean, it’s shit?
The question seemed to sober Ralph up, at least temporarily.
-Not good enough. You can do better. Here look, take it. I’ve ringed the worst bits. You’ll see what I mean. It’s all Wordsworth this and Shakespeare that. It won’t do. You’ve actually typed “in the words of the Immortal Bard” there. We can’t have something that bad in the Examiner.
-But it’s only a few hundred words to support all the advertising we’ve been chasing from them. Who cares? Besides, you use quotations all the time.
-It’s the Examiner Matthew, so I care. Don’t sulk. Quotation is permissible if the words express a complex idea succinctly or in a way that makes the reader think. Otherwise only when your reader or interlocutor is someone who will catch your reference. Then it can be a kind of shorthand that saves a longer explanation. Language is about signifiers. An author’s name might stand for, say, a particular outlook, between individuals who understand that language. But mostly, such individuals do not read our reports of flower shows.
Ralph was suddenly and temporarily lucid.
-You throw references at me every day that I hardly ever catch, Matthew objected.
-Because I am doing you the compliment of preferring to think of you as half-educated rather than fully ignorant.
-And what about that theatre review you had in last week? Hedda Gabler. That was full of fragments of quotes and references that no one would make head or tail of.
-Ibsen, you idiot. It was a theatre review. The people who read that would have been disappointed if they could understand it. They read about the flowers to see whether it would be worth a trip over to the show in the motor on Sunday. They scan a review of Ibsen to be reassured that culture is going on somewhere in the city. Heaven forbid they should have to sit through it.
-In any case, my sin is no justification for yours. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone? That’s nonsense: if we believed that, there would be no literary criticism whatsoever. Hypocrisy is ubiquitous, thank god. Without it the world wouldn’t turn at all.
Finally, the conversation appeared to have exhausted Ralph entirely. He fell asleep almost at the moment that these final words were out of his mouth, sitting where he was on the couch.
Matthew realised that he had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, like almost everyone else he knew. In fact, all his relationships with people other than his family revolved around alcohol. He suspected that alcohol was destroying them all; whether it was the quick spiral to oblivion that seemed to have taken Tim away from them, or the binge drinking that rendered Ralph helpless from time to time. On the other hand it was impossible for him to imagine his world without drink. The only way to change would be to move to a new place and start everything again.
And on reflection, he decided that he probably wouldn’t be like Tim or Ralph: more likely he would just become so soaked through with regular drinking that he no longer knew or cared what was happening to him.
The next morning, he had no sooner got Ralph out the door and started to prepare for work, than he remembered that he was invited to David’s house in the evening.
There was some mystery about it too. David had made a point of saying that he needed to be there. But when Matthew arrived, later than usual and a little tired from his dealings wi
Matthew then considered what he should have to drink. Perhaps if he went in for a night without alcohol, once a week say, he would not feel so run down all the time. The difficulty was; what to choose. He thought about lemonade, a juice, maybe water. In the end he settled for a bottled beer. It felt like a reasonable compromise.
From nowhere David appeared at his shoulder, with the new client in tow.
-Say hello to someone you already know, Matt.
Annoying David. It was so easy for him. He was able to recall not only the names but important life details of everyone he met. It was part of his charm armour. He claimed there was just a trick to it and that you didn’t need a fantastic memory. He’d even offered to teach Matthew the trick, but Matthew had told him no thanks. So why was David embarrassing him now, hanging him out to dry with this Indian businessman, who he’d probably met once before at some civic function and forgotten instantly.
-He doesn’t remember me David.
It was true, but now that he spoke, the voice was familiar.
-It can’t be. Abbas?
-Hello my friend. It’s not your fault I have changed so much. Everyone calls me Albert these days. It was easier in certain circumstances and the name has stuck.