Sing like you know the w.., p.19

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 19


Sing Like You Know the Words

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-Oscar, you’re out of order there, said Rodney.

  -It’s fine; he can say what he likes. I’m not too delicate to put your case how you want it, if that’s what you mean.

  -Exactly, I’m relieved to hear you say that, cos that’s how it is ain’t it? You have to work for me. You do what I say.

  The grin had become a sneer or something worse, even though Smith still did not meet Patricia’s gaze.

  -And you might have to lay it on thick as well. Find a better way to say it. That’s what you people do isn’t it, to justify your fancy fees?

  On the way back in the car, Patricia did cry a little but without breaking down entirely. She asked Rodney to drop her at home as she didn’t believe she could face chambers. She was looking forward to a long shower or a bath. Rodney said that Smith knew he was going down and that he was taking his enjoyment from hurting as many women as possible on the way, Patricia included. He talked about getting her off the case, but Patricia would not hear of it.

  -He can have his enjoyment. I’m going to do the best job I can for him , and I hope you won’t think me unprofessional if I say that I’ll be hoping he is convicted.

  -I’ll forget I heard that, but yes.

  It was a three day trial: at the end the jury retired for not more than twenty minutes before returning a verdict of guilty to murder. Patricia didn’t remember the conversation she had with Smith after he left the dock. There was no question of an appeal. She did remember and could never forget the expressions of mingled hate and contempt that were directed at her from the public gallery and the jury box during the course of the proceedings.

  You can’t wash that off, she thought. It was something I thought I knew about but then it wasn’t what I imagined. And it’s not what I thought I would do. I was supposed to make things better not worse.

  Something had changed in her. She was becoming cynical, and everything she found in the world seemed to confirm that cynicism. The realisation gave her a feeling close to panic, as if her living body were being encased in ice or stone and she could feel the crust of it rising up over her. She felt desperate to discover a flame that must continue to burn within, that would redeem her and lead her back to a state of grace, if only she could find some object worthy of it.

  Chapter Seven

  In February 1988, David announced, to general astonishment, that he was giving up the law and selling his interest in the partnership. He had come so far, and so quickly, that no-one, his partners included, could understand what he was thinking of.

  Matthew said the same as everyone else; that he was doing fantastically well and it would be madness to give up now. David replied that the only thing he was doing well was making money.

  And the most profitable work is mostly just buying and selling houses and other kinds of property. Anyone could do it; it’s only that the agents and accountants and bank managers like me, so they send me the business.

  Besides, he added, everyone knew there was a crash coming. These good times were going away and probably not coming back.

  -But there’s more to it than that. There’s more to life. I can feel it. We are put here to do some good, you know, not just to survive.

  Matthew suggested that if he felt that way, perhaps he could take on some more deserving cases, maybe go back to doing voluntary sessions at the advice centre, the way he and Patricia had done in the early days.

  -Patricia is a saint, and I’m not. I couldn’t get away from the place quickly enough, if I’m honest. I only kept going because she did. It was like the drama group at college all over again, all that embarrassment just to be close to her, following her round pretending to be interested. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy enough to put the time in if I could believe that it might be some use, it wasn’t that I resented. Just week after week the same futile complaints. Half of the people I saw were suffering terrible unfairness and there was generally nothing I could do to help them. It was just a case of explaining that they used to have rights; but our wonderful government had recently removed them. The rest of them were looking for tips on how to play the system to their advantage. It was a game with them to see if I could get them to give me the true facts f their case before they worked out from my advice what story they should tell me.

  -Patricia still thinks that kind of work matters.

  -And she’s right, but you know what she’s like. She thinks of her whole career as a charitable project. She imagines these toe rags and thieves she deals with are the working classes, needing assistance to better themselves. You and I are working class ourselves, so we know better. If you live in a street of fifteen families all more or less with the same start in life, and one is a family of villains, you don’t think that maybe you ought to befriend them and try to help them. You just make sure your own kids don’t play with theirs, in case whatever is wrong with them kids rubs off. My dad thought that working class meant you worked, except when our rulers and bosses had messed things up so badly that there was no work to be had. You generally find that socialist lawyers come from comfortable homes: it gives them that romantic view of stealing and cheating.

  David explained that when he thought about doing some good, he had in mind the ordinary people, the ones who were not complete screw-ups.

  -In that case, Matthew asked him, what will you do?

  -You know the old Cromwell engineering works.

  -What about it?

  -It’s for sale.

  -Of course it’s for sale, it’s going under: everyone knows that.

  David frowned.

  -It’s true that the order book is nearly exhausted and the MoD contract is uncertain. Nearly 400 jobs at risk, most of them highly skilled.

  -David I told you about that two months ago. We even printed it in the paper.

  -I’m going to buy the company.

  -How, what are you going to use for money? No, wait, why? Why would you do that even if you could raise the money?

  -My father spent most of his working life in engineering. It’s precision work. Unbelievably skilled. What they do there is a craft. It would be like closing a pit, once you shut it down you can never get it back ever.

  -So you are going to make yourself bankrupt together with them, to show solidarity?

  -It can be turned around Matthew. What is it we keep saying, about businesses let down by stupid, short-sighted management? It’s time to do something more than talk about it.

  David explained that the business was a private company “but we’ll take it to the stock market in two years”. He had some financial backers but yes, there would be a lot of debt, and risk for him. Patricia understood all of this and had complete faith in him

  -You make it sound as if something that is definitely going to happen.

  David smiled.

  -It’s all arranged. We are signing the contract and completing next week. I hope you’ll be able to cover the celebrations for the paper, and join us of course. There’ll be quite a party.

  -Wait a minute David, you’re talking about making the world a better place, but the main part of Cromwell’s business is making parts for tanks. How does that fit in your scheme to help the world?

  David spoke, rather unconvincingly Matthew thought, about the need to find new, peacetime markets, and how it wasn’t as if Cromwell’s was a supplier of weapons: they turned out precision castings for a variety of uses. Tank treads were only one item on the product list. He was more enthusiastic when he spoke about his hopes for developing new technology.

  -We are inventors and innovators of the world in this country Matt. Look at Chobham armour, developed in England. Who else would have thought of using ceramic tiles as armour? It’s light, nothing gets through it. Of course the Americans actually have most of it because it’s too expensive for our army. But imagine the excitement of developing something as new and radical as that.

  Matthew did not bother to argue further. He had seen that look of enthusiasm and unshakeable confidence in David’s face before, an
d he knew that words were powerless against it. So the deal was done.

  The newspapers treated David as if he was a new kind of hero, stepping in to save the factory from certain closure. Afterwards there were regular articles and photographs continuing to show the local benefactor in a positive light.

  However, at first things did not seem to go well with the business, and David’s friends feared that it had all been a disastrous mistake. Week by week it was a case of finding the money to pay wages and keep the plant open somehow, not knowing whether that week would be the last, or how long the banks would remain patient.

  Before long David himself appeared to have been physically reduced by the stress, worried looking, almost hesitant. He lost weight. He even looked shorter than before, if that were possible. And still the new orders did not come in quickly enough. Just when he most needed the bright aura of invulnerability that had always surrounded him, it seemed to be fading away.

  He began to spend more and more time away from home; chasing business, living in hotels, eating and drinking too much. He looked swollen but still he lost weight. In private, his eyes looked haunted, though in public a receptive audience or any kind of social gathering in which he could shine would see him temporarily restored to his former self.

  There was a change in Patricia too. She was alone in the big house so much. Her own legal career had become successful, but it seemed that this was no longer enough. She was lonely. She explained to Matthew that often, now, David was absent even if he happened to be at home. His thoughts were not with her.

  And she started to drink more: not so that she became an embarrassing drunk, but so that a bottle of wine in a day stopped making her sick and started to feel normal. The wine didn’t coarsen her behaviour, but it made her conversation more forthright. She started to tell people just what she thought about things. It was not always comfortable to hear.

  -I never liked you that much Matthew, she confided, and I suppose you knew it and have probably never thought too much of me either. Ironic, don’t you think? That it seems that you and I are now stuck with each other. While he is away doing…what he does, all across the world, here we are like the old married couple.

  In fact Matthew was surprised to hear that Patricia noticed him sufficiently to find him irritating. He was so used to ignoring who people were, as opposed to what they said and thought, that he imagined himself similarly invisible to others. It was true that he was spending more time at the house, and that he and Patricia were alone together more often, now that David was so much on the road. At first Matthew had seen his visits as a kind of duty, but now he began to question his motivation.

  Naturally it was Patricia who took charge. They were in the kitchen at the time, each holding a large and delicate thin stemmed glass in which a splash of clear white wine glittered. Matthew remembered it as the second or third bottle. The kitchen was the very opposite of the snug: all natural wood, expensive tiles, discreet and exquisite ceramic designs and functional polished steel. It was Patricia’s own space as much as the snug was David’s

  Matthew was sitting at the breakfast bar on a stool that was much too fashionable to be comfortable. Patricia was standing, perhaps a little too close to him. He didn´t remember what they were speaking about, but he remembered that Patricia stopped talking, but her glass down on the bar, and leaned in, gently taking his own glass. With her free hand she lightly brushed his cheek, and something about that gesture felt electric.

  -You know there´s no way you can drive home tonight Matt, you’ve had far too much to drink, she said.

  She pulled him towards her, stronger than he expected and kissed him fully on the mouth. Matthew managed not to fall off the stool. Then he was standing awkwardly, not resisting her embrace.

  -Hold me properly. I´m not going to sleep on my own again tonight. Shit, Matthew, I can´t do it. I can´t be alone like this. I´m going to have to sin it seems. Better with an old friend than with a stranger, don´t you think?

  She took him to her bed that night and a few more times in the weeks that followed. Afterwards, she talked to him about David.

  They both knew that it was not to be the grand passion of their lives, and in Patricia´s case the sex was more like first aid for some wounded part of herself than love. Matthew felt more relief than loss when Patricia told him that their cursory affair was over.

  -I’m sending you back to your wounded brunettes and washed out blondes, was how she put it.

  She said she felt sorry for those girls.

  -I know how your mind works. Part of you is already planning how you are going to get rid of them before you have even get to know the poor deluded things.

  It seemed that the price of intimacy was that Patricia could be more brutally frank with him than before. Matthew denied that it was so, but the words stung. Sometimes Patricia spoke as if she did not recognize the line between the honesty of friends and spitefulness.

  Matthew did not notice any change in the relationship between Patricia and her husband, but between himself and Patricia, some new and lasting bond that was not that of lovers had been created. It was not tender, and in fact Patricia showed no greater sign of liking him than before, but now she felt that she could talk to him about anything. There were things she told him that he was sure she would not discuss with David, though in the end her private concerns mostly had to do with David. At times, Matthew felt as if he had been recruited as a counsellor, not a lover.

  And Matthew was surprised at his own attitude to having broken David’s trust. His first feeling was some mild guilt, mixed with a perverse joy that he realized was a sense of being revenged. He had no idea why he should want to seek revenge on David. He had to ask himself once more whether he had always secretly resented David´s success, and his own failure. But with the passage of time, he came to feel as if nothing important had changed.

  And on the outside at least, nothing had changed. Their lives carried on as before and Matthew, if he thought about it at all, reasoned that the times with Patricia had just been a release for both of them. It was a footnote in the story of their lives and no more. David was still away a lot, but Matthew was careful never to ask Patricia whether she found anyone else to ease her loneliness. That was the only question he could not ask.

  He usually met her at lunchtimes now. It was easy since they both worked in the city. Most times they went to the same restaurant. They even ordered the same dishes, like the old couple they had, in some ways, become. And once, long after the familiar pattern of their relationship had been re-established, she said something unexpected to him there as they were waiting for the bill.

  -I do love my husband you know.

  -Why should I doubt it?

  -He’s not very…attentive.

  -He is very busy, always.

  -But you shouldn’t be critical of him for that, Patricia insisted, as if Matthew had ever criticised David in her hearing. It’s not just about the business you know, it’s more than that. It’s more even than the people depending on him.

  -What else could there be?

  -Something more, something indefinable. He knows that he is meant to do something important. He´s not quite down here on this earth like the rest of us.

  Matthew could only sigh. There it was again, imagined fate, haunting them all. It seemed that David had persuaded at least one other person of the sense of destiny that drove him on. For Matthew, the obsession was only a conceit of the ego; but it was no less fascinating, and appalling, to watch this small idea shaping the lives of his friends, maybe even of his own life.


  David might have left the law firm, but Albert remained a constant presence in the gatherings at the Thomas household. Perhaps he had once been David´s client, but it was evident that their hidden relationship went deeper than that. Matthew did not understand why Albert hung around, but he could have said the same about himself.

  His own relationship with Albert had changed. Albert was the same a
s always: pompous, entertaining, pedantic and not entirely serious in the outrageous statements he came out with. But now Matthew started to find these same characteristics tiresome and irritating, rather than amusing. The polite intellectual sparring that Matthew had previously enjoyed could provoke him to real anger now.

  Some part of him knew that it was all about David really. There was a spark of sentimentality in Matthew that was outraged at David making money from owning a business that had a military connection; however far removed it might be from actually making weapons. That David should be a businessman at all was offensive to Matthew in a way that he did not entirely understand, but in any case it was impossible that he should express these vague feelings to David directly. It was not logical, but he found that the anger he reserved for his friend and could not express was transferred to David´s more or less permanent guest.

  Albert chose not to notice any change between himself and Matthew. He remained his charming urbane self, but everyone else could feel the tension growing between them. It was a problem for Patricia: a little aggression added to the social evenings prevented the atmosphere becoming fatuous, but nobody wanted to witness a scene. On the other hand she and David could hardly withdraw the standing invites of two of their closest friends. Privately she told Matthew to stop making an ass of himself and to leave Albert alone if he couldn´t get on with him. Matthew said he would try, but he had become a moth to the flame; unable to ignore whatever it was about Albert that had started to annoy him.

  Then in the snug one night they got talking about Africa. You got the impression Albert had spent some time there, the way he talked. Of course his family had moved from Uganda. But the truth was that Albert talked about everything as if he knew all there was to know about it.

  Matthew was a little drunk, but not more so than usual. Patricia was trying to make some point. It was the famine, in Ethiopia of course, and the Band Aid project and all the hopeful beginnings that seemed to grow out from that. She said she´d always thought that charities were useless, but maybe these events showed that ordinary people could make a difference: maybe she needed to change her mind

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