Sing like you know the w.., p.18

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 18


Sing Like You Know the Words

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  David laughed, and said that he had to speak with some of the other company but he would catch them later. For once Matthew did not resent being the spare social appendage for the evening.

  -You too have a lot of catching up to do, David said.

  But the next day, thinking it over, Matthew realised that Abbas, or Albert as he now was, had said very little about himself or what he had been doing; only that he travelled a lot. It had been fascinating to talk with him at length, and in a way he was just like before: always wanting to talk about the world of the mind, forever analysing the world around him. Only now he spoke about serious things with great levity. At times Matthew was not even sure that he was not being quietly made fun of. Yes, they had spoken about politics, about travel, and about the world in general, but about Albert himself; who he was these days and what had made him so; he had said nothing.

  Over the next weeks they saw a lot of Albert. In the years he’d been away, he seemed to have read and seen everything. On general principles, Matthew decided he must be some kind of fraud. He made pronouncements about the world in general that sounded as if they came from books, without any apparent self-consciousness. No one had such a range of knowledge; or if they did, they would not express it so freely as Albert was in the habit of doing. And why the reticence about himself? No-one even knew where he was living.

  But Albert was good company and more interesting than the self- important businessmen who Matthew normally found himself stranded with at David´s. In his old fashioned way he was as charming as David himself. So here was another problem for Matthew to brood on: why did he sometimes find himself downright irritated by the man? Perhaps it was no more than his own weak character that gave in to petty jealousy. First David and now Abbas, or whatever he wants to call himself, he thought. I´m becoming a bitter and resentful person; blaming the world for my own failings. There´s no reason for me to be suspicious of either of them.


  In one way at least, the transformation of skinny, serious Abbas into fat, funny Albert, was like that of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Although Albert´s speech sounded pompous, he took nothing seriously, including himself. His conversation fluttered around every subject. He seemed to know everything and have an original opinion on it all, but he had also discovered the knack of ending a monologue before it became tedious.

  He took a particular delight in talking to Matthew, for no good reason that Matthew could see. Perhaps he was amused by Matthew´s clumsy, earnest manner; his inability to make polite conversation or to keep his mouth shut when silence was the best option. Neither had a regular partner and both spent much of their free time at David´s house. David referred to them more than once as his resident professors, as if he were a renaissance prince and they his tame savants.

  They all spent nights together in the downstairs room at the back of the house that David liked to call his snug. It was the shabbiest room in the house, too small and poorly lit to be of much use, but all the social evenings seemed to gravitate there in the end. A small bar was set up against the back wall, with an impressive selection of spirits on the shelves behind. As students, none of them had drunk spirits, but now David took pride in offering a range of single malts as well as a selection of obscure liquors and mixers. There was a small glass fronted refrigerator for the beer.

  So far as Patricia was concerned, the furniture in the snug was the stuff of nightmares: David described it as comfortably ruined: mis-matched leathers and outmoded cloths shiny with wear, but cosy enough. The place was a male refuge from the prim chic of the rest of the house, and Patricia respected it as such, claiming that this was cheaper and safer than allowing David a shed in which to develop home improvement skills.

  Somehow Matthew and Albert were pitted against one another, verbally sparring all the time. Albert said Matthew was the only journalist he knew who had no curiosity about the world around him. Matthew replied that his job was not to investigate things but provide words that were a comforting backdrop to everyday lives, a reassurance that everything was as his readers believed it to be. As he said the words he thought about Ralph telling him the same thing and how he’d felt when he first heard it. Matthew joked about the old Abbas he had known.

  -You´ve changed so much. You used to be far too busy with important things like politics and economics and I don´t know what other –ics. You didn´t have time for trivialities like literature, and yet now you seem quite the authority.

  -It´s true I used to imagine that the world was governed by logical principles if you could only understand them. I even thought I might be destined to play some small part in the great play. When one becomes disabused of such illusions, the consolations of literature become a comfort.

  -You don´t believe in reason now?

  -I´m afraid not. You know how the human brain developed: by adding new parts to the old. In the front part here we have grown fantastic abilities to do and think, but the further back you go, towards the spine, is where our motivations sit: the primitive lizard brain that has hardly changed at all. And so we live in chaos, driven on by urges we don´t understand and hardly control.

  -It sounds like a frightening world.

  -But I came to see it as inevitable. If we evolved so far as to be fully logical, we´d have no reason to do anything. We´d only sit in our rooms and we waste away.

  Sometimes it seemed that Albert practically lived at the house for long periods: then he would disappear suddenly. When he came back he might pick up the thread of a conversation that he´d been having with Matthew three weeks earlier, without any explanation. He seemed to work on a different time scale to the rest of them.

  One night there were four of them in the snug: Albert, David and Matthew, and some woman whose name Matthew did not remember, though he half suspected that she was hanging on because she was interested in him. She was very drunk. They all were; even David could not have been sober, though he gave no sign of intoxication. Matthew supposed that Patricia was somewhere in the house, probably working on a legal brief.

  David insisted on serving more good whisky, though none of them needed or even wanted it. The woman asked for some water. Matthew decided that she was probably going to be sick in a short time and resolved to keep well away from her. Albert was saying something about eastern systems of belief compared to western thought. It was one of those meandering conversations that take their own course; so that the end seems to bear no relation to the beginning, unless perhaps the end and the beginning are in the same place.

  He was talking about being able to accept the truth of different propositions even if they were contradictory. Albert claimed that western thought lost more than it gained by insisting on their being only one version of the truth. He said that approach was too literal minded. David commented that it was useful to have a single consistent world view if, for example, you wanted to build a bridge or send a rocket into space.

  Albert was speaking with the exaggerated dignity of the truly inebriated. He claimed that the world itself was contradictory and inconsistent. To understand it you must be able to maintain beliefs on different levels. Being comfortable with ambiguity, he called it. He was playing to his audience as usual, carried away by the sound of his own words: You could see that David was enjoying himself too. Matthew thought that most of what Albert was saying sounded impressive enough, without actually meaning anything. Now David interrupted.

  -I´m not against mysticism, I´ve had mystical experiences myself. The effect has been formative. I remember once, I must have been about thirteen, and we were on a family holiday in Lakeland. My mother had just died and I was pretty upset and confused. She was very young. Anyway, everyone was off on one of my father’s route marches across three counties, and I refused to go. I was sulking I suppose. But later on in the day I went out walking on my own in the hills and the bad weather came in, and I became lost. I was up there for hours; no proper clothing, and suffering from hypothermia and exhaustion. I
even started hallucinating I think. The point is I survived, even though I had no right to. You see I’d done every stupid thing, and everything that could go wrong did, and by all logic I should have died, but I didn’t. And you know, ever since that, I’ve had the feeling that it wasn’t me getting myself through the situation, but that I was saved. And I came to think that if I was saved, it must have been for a purpose.

  -He tells a different version of that story every few weeks, said Matthew, who had become quite tired of hearing it. Just be grateful you heard the short one.

  -But the point of the story, David insisted, is that it’s true; it expresses a truth.

  Matthew did not say anything. He only wondered whether, in David’s mind, being true and expressing a truth meant the same thing.


  Rodney had warned Patricia about Smith before their meeting. He went so far as to say that she might not thank him for instructing her in this case. That was stupid. Rodney was the defence solicitor and Patricia would be defence counsel in a murder trial – it was the chance she had been waiting for. Hardly surprising if the defendant was not a charming person. The sort of lawyer who worried about that would have no place at the criminal bar.

  According to Rodney, his client had insisted on having a female brief speak for him.

  -Maybe he thinks he’ll be able to bully me into running some stupid argument he’s dreamed up. We’ll see about that.

  Rodney smiled. He thought of himself as something of an uncle figure for Patricia, but he knew from the specific enquiry he had made of her clerk that she had not dealt with a case like this before. She was bright enough, but talking as if she knew it all fooled neither of them.

  -Smith is a nasty piece of work even by the standard of your average violent criminal, he warned her. Most murderers are not like proper crims. They just do the one crime, usually at home, and maybe it’s due to bad luck or bad character or both. Often they deny guilt only because they can’t face up to it, even in their own heads. With that type you might think, if they let him go, probably no chance he’d do it again. Not that I’m saying that’s what should happen. Anyway, with Smith, you don’t have that impression.

  -Well, he’s not most murderers is he? He’s an alleged offender who is our client, and I believe he’s saying he is not guilty. So it’s our job to get him acquitted if we can.

  Rodney only snorted at this.

  They were at the prison. Naturally Smith was remanded in custody. Every time Patricia went there, she had the thought that for a first time inmate, the place must be enough to make them doubt there own innocence and maybe everything else they thought they knew. Perhaps that was the point of it: the combination of Victorian Gothic in the architecture and Stalinist utilitarianism in the rooms and corridors, like this one with its bare walls, sparse plastic and formica tables and chairs that seemed too small for the room; tube metal framed with the metal discreetly chained to the floor. Something miserable and hopeless had been rubbed into the furniture by successive generations of offenders. It wouldn’t drive you crazy so much as make you think you may as well just give up the struggle against fate.

  Whilst they waited for the guards to bring the prisoner, Patricia went over in her mind what she knew about the case. Simple enough. Husband comes home from work, argues with wife, stabs wife, wife dies. Families shouldn’t argue around kitchen cutlery. Husband makes feeble attempt to conceal body and flees. Daughter finds wife dead when she comes home from school. Husband arrested.

  Soon, Smith arrived in person: an ugly, scrawny man with an overlong neck and thinning black hair that might have been dyed. Patricia had the impression that his eyes were very cold, too calm, and flickering about the room all the time as if looking for something he could use. She told herself the appearance meant nothing. He’s taken a life; don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is particular significance in his face just because of that fact. But still, a jury are not going to like him. She tried to imagine what he might have looked like to the victim, when they were first married: she couldn’t do it.

  Smith walked up to them and sat down at the free chair, ignoring their polite standing up by way of greeting. Still he had not met the gaze of either of them. He sat facing slightly away from Patricia; then he inclined his head and grinned at her in a cockeyed way. Perhaps that is an acceptable greeting in his circle, she thought. Don’t be too quick to judge: sometimes nervousness comes over as aggression.

  Smith turned to Rodney for a moment.

  -Pretty enough, he said. How’s it going Mr Jackson? Did you get my smokes?

  -There you go Oscar, call me Rodney, his solicitor replied.

  -Right you are. And this is…?



  It was easy to see that it was important to Smith to have the feeling of being in charge. He paused for a moment, giving the cigarettes his full attention. Then he grinned again.

  -What’s the news?

  -It isn’t looking good, Rodney answered. They have a good set of prints from the knife, and there’s the blood on your clothes.

  Smith shrugged.

  -It’s not as if there is any doubt who put the knife in poor Edith. I mean I left it inside her. I wasn’t going to pull it out. It was horrible.

  Patricia spoke next.

  -But you did stab her more than once Mr Smith.

  -That was when I didn’t know what I was doing.

  -And have you finally decided how you are going to plead.

  -Not guilty, same as I told the magistrates. Not guilty to murder; guilty to manslaughter with diminished responsibility. Me being so upset about what she said to me that I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I expect you can agree that in advance with your chum in the prosecution.

  Rodney sighed.

  -It doesn’t look like the prosecution will agree to that. Patricia will explain why.

  -They think they have a lot of additional evidence, Oscar. For one thing the knife was taken from the kitchen, but the incident was in the main bedroom, which raises the issue of premeditation. It doesn’t look spur of the moment you see. Also they have records of your wife being treated for earlier injuries that seemed to be…domestic in origin. Prosecution will say that you were violent to her in the past. And the other main thing is that you say she told you that she’d been seeing someone else for months and that she was going to leave and take your daughter with her, but there is no evidence that such a lover ever existed or that your wife ever saw anyone else. You can’t give us a name, and friends and family say there was no such person and that it’s a story you have invented.

  -Well if you can’t find him, maybe Edith invented him, have you thought of that? I can only tell you what she told me. Maybe she imagined it would be easier to leave me that way. I wasn’t to know was I?

  -There’s also the times you threatened her, in the presence of other people, Rodney interrupted. There’s one statement that you told her you would rip her guts out.

  -Yeah, well people say all sorts, and then after a tragedy like this, it gets exaggerated. Doesn’t mean I intended to do anything. Patricia can explain that, it’s what you people do. I mean, we had a tempestuous relationship, but it was a loving one. Fifteen years.

  -What about the beatings Oscar? There will be medical reports.

  -I was coming to that. It’s a bit delicate, with a young lady present as well. The truth is; poor Edith liked it a little rough, though it’s embarrassing to say. Got her more excited. Sorry miss.

  -You don’t need to worry about making me blush Oscar. But the records show that there were three hospital attendances in the last two years for fractures. That would be more than a little rough.

  -Oh but they weren’t any part of that. That was just accidents in the home, like she told them when she went to the hospital. I mean, I expect that’s what she told them, because it’s true. Poor Edith you know, she was a good mother, good around the home, but clumsy like. Always in the wars even from
when she was a little kid.

  Patricia paused in her note taking.

  -So the story is that your wife of fifteen years, who liked rough sex and was accident prone, told you one day that she was fed up and had been seeing a man, who doesn’t seem to exist, and that she was intending to set up home with him and your daughter?

  -I love my daughter. She’s the apple of my eye. I’d do anything for her.

  -And as a result of that discussion, you rushed downstairs, grabbed a kitchen knife, ran back upstairs and stabbed your wife, is it three times or four, all before you had time to think?

  -Maybe I took the knife only intending to frighten her with it: to make her calm down. Yes, that feels more like it. I couldn’t bear to lose her and I thought if I could stop her leaving at that moment I would be able to talk her round.

  Patricia tried to fix Smith with a stare, but the man’s eyes were never still.

  -Oscar, my job is to tell your story in the best way it can be told, but it has to be your own story. What you are telling us now…

  -It’s god’s truth Patricia.

  -That’s between you and God. It doesn’t matter what I believe personally. What matters, and what I have to advise you to think about, is that it seems to me very unlikely that a jury would believe that story. And I also have to tell you that the court would be harder on you if you were found guilty after putting the family through a trial and making allegations about your wife without any proof.

  -What family? I’m her family. Don’t forget I am a victim of this situation as well.

  -Edith’s mother? Her sister, your daughter?

  -I never liked her mother or her sister, gobby cows. You’re not getting the wind up are you Pat?

  -What do you mean?

  -Don’t think you’re up to persuading them? I wanted a woman brief because, well the story sounds more credible coming from a woman. But if you don’t think you’re up to the job…

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