Sing like you know the w.., p.2

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 2


Sing Like You Know the Words

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  Tim Price stirred unwillingly, conscious that most of the morning was already gone, but unwilling to confront the remainder of it. It must be close to midday, he thought, judging by the light. The bed creaked as he moved; the springs were exhausted and uneven.

  He was alone. Good.

  He closed his eyes again and listened for movement elsewhere in the house. There was none. He guessed there would be someone sleeping on the couch. There always was. Probably someone else on the floor too.

  All things considered, he didn´t feel too bad. At least he’d made it to bed. He had undressed at least partly; and taken his shoes off. Also he´d remembered to take out his contact lenses. The inside of his mouth was coated with something disgusting, though. He wondered if he’d been smoking again.

  The best thing would be to lie still and wait for David to get up, or better still Matthew. Once Matthew was up he would start to clean up the mess, in spite of himself. Then later he’d complain like a girl that no one had helped him. Anyway Matthew and David could deal with any guests and then Tim wouldn´t need to talk to anyone. Afterwards maybe he could persuade one of them to go to the Uni bar with him. A stale pie and a pint of beer would be the best cure for this head, and for the horrible taste in his mouth.

  He raised himself on his elbows and moved his head, experimentally, from side to side. Until you started to move about, you never knew how bad it was.

  Quite bad.

  He still couldn’t hear any sounds in the house, but now his bladder was demanding relief. Perhaps he could get to the toilet and back without disturbing anyone. Maybe sneak a mug of tea as well.

  Thank god the girl wasn´t here with him. What was her name? The girl would have been a mistake. It wasn´t so much that Tim was still supposed to be going out with Sue, his sixth form sweetheart. She was in Lancaster, wherever that was, studying computing. Both he and Sue knew, or at least Tim assumed they did, though nothing had been said, that their relationship wasn’t serious anymore.

  No, it hadn’t been because of Sue at all; it was the girl herself. Good looking, but you could tell in a minute that she would be a nightmare. High maintenance; takes everything too seriously; get´s too involved too quickly. Written all over her face. Unusual for a posh girl to be the type that wants to get serious, but maybe she wasn´t as posh as she seemed. Though she had that voice all right.

  Anyway she was gone and just as well. He didn´t know what David had been thinking of, trying to set them up with each other. He’d been going on about her before the party and supposedly he’d been telling her how well she would get on with Tim. She was from David´s faculty, reading law. She seemed to take that seriously too, unlike David. That should have been enough for him to know: Tim liked girls who enjoyed having a laugh, not the ones who spent their days in the library. It had been stupid for David to drag her out here to meet Tim. Waste of time for both of them.

  Now he was on his feet, putting on whatever clothes were to hand. The house was always cold, even in the spring. He felt dizzy, and weak, as if he was recovering from having been poisoned; which of course he was. The sensation was strangely pleasant. Tim knew that feeling like this; he would be content to do nothing for most of the rest of the day. If only someone else would clean up the mess from last night.

  Whoever was on or in the sofa stayed buried under a duvet as he passed. On the floor there was a turntable and an amplifier, and the remains of a shelf that had detached itself from the wall at around three in the morning, spilling the equipment and a pile of records. The shelving was cheap do-it-yourself aluminium and chipboard. Clearly whoever had done it themselves had made a poor job of it. The lower part of the upright section was still attached to the wall. The upper part bent inwards with screws hanging uselessly in the plastic plugs that had fallen away, leaving worryingly large holes in the wall plaster. There were small piles of plaster dust on the floor soaking up the spilled beer in the carpet.

  Tim supposed that the landlord would not be happy, but just now it was more interesting to ponder why shelves which sat in place for months without shifting should suddenly give way at three in the morning. There wasn’t any more weight on them than before, but they had been playing music at high volume for what, eight hours? Maybe it was the vibration of the bass that had caused it: the power of music.

  The house reeked of old beer and cigarettes. How did the smell of beer become stale so quickly? Everything was a mystery to him this morning. Empty cans topped with cigarette ash and half empty glasses with butts floating in them. Bits of food on the carpet. Had they ordered pizza? When? Tim passed as quickly and as silently as he could into the kitchen.

  Patricia was already there: that was her name, he remembered now. Okay, no problem: don´t let on you can´t remember anything, just go with the flow and she´s bound to give you some clues. Looks good in that long T-shirt, nice legs. Bare feet not such a good idea in this kitchen though. Bit sticky underfoot.


  -Hi you.

  That´s no good. Give me a bit more to work with. How about, did we sleep together last night and if so did I enjoy it? Sounds like a simple enough question.

  -Tea? I´m already making.

  -Yes. Thanks.

  The kettle was taking a long time to boil and he felt that maybe he should say something. At least she had smiled at him, but that could mean anything. Now she was busying herself with the mugs and spoons. He hoped that she wasn´t paying too much attention to how clean they were. Three mugs. She handed him one, then removed the tea bags from the other two, squeezing them dry against the spoon.

  -See you later.

  She smiled again and was on her way.

  To David´s room. Sly bastard, so that was it.


  David Thomas was the boy who had been lost on the hill. Almost five years had passed. Now, it was the end of the nineteen seventies. He and two friends were sharing a rented house in the north of the city, close to the University.

  The house was part of a terrace in one of many rows of identical terraces that spread across that part of town; all of them old and unloved, coated with the grime of years and sagging resigned and weary under the weight of neglect.

  This particular dwelling had been too many years let to students. It had large sash windows with frames that had worn loose to the point that the draft which blew in when the wind gusted made them rattle. There was a little space at the front of the house, behind a low wall, where weeds grew up through cracked concrete. The only other growing thing visible from the outside of the property was the hybrid of grass and damp moss that seemed to flourish in the ancient wooden guttering. Rainwater flowing into the gutter down the brittle cracked roof tiles was absorbed rather than draining away. Other, indeterminate forms of wetness percolate into the interior.

  The inside walls were almost completely dry most of the time, but discoloured here and there by the dark efflorescence of some organic matter that seemed to bloom in random locations. In the living room, there was a gas fire set in the hearth. The flame of it heated three studded plates made of some grey substance (they hoped it wasn’t asbestos) until the plates glowed pink and gave a cosy warmth, but only if you were within three feet of the fire. Otherwise it would at least provide an illusion of heat. In their bedrooms, each of the tenants kept a plug in fan heater, brought from home to add noise and expense to their lives. Common areas like kitchen and toilet were not to be entered without appropriate layers of clothing during the winter months. The bath was best avoided throughout the year.

  Their landlord, Peter, may have lived in the house as a student, many years ago. Now he claimed to be a lecturer in something or other, though not at the university. He was one of those prematurely aged, but never quite grown up characters that you saw hanging around the student areas, still going to the same bars and wearing the same clothes, as if they had never graduated (which perhaps they had not). In his own mind at least, Peter had opted to join the counter culture.
He wouldn’t have been able to explain precisely what that meant, but he was fond of saying that money was not important. He couldn’t understand why his tenants should become so infuriated when they discovered the various ways he’d found to make a little more of it by skimping on maintenance or making little extra charges on top of the rent.

  After the party, Peter never said much about the damage to the wall, but then he didn’t take any steps to arrange a repair either, so in the end the missing plaster became just another scar left behind to mark their occupation. There were plenty of other ones.

  A few months on, at least the house was warmer. And it was the final term of the year. In the late morning. David and Matthew were in the front room, arguing, when Tim came in from the shops.

  -Shift up; let me get near the fire.

  -Shouldn´t need a fire at this time of year.

  -You wouldn´t if you were outside. It´s warmer out there than in here.

  -What have you got in that bag Tim?

  Tim only smiled and held the bag up. It appeared there was something heavy and bottle shaped inside.

  -What are you two arguing about?

  They were going on about university clubs and societies, more specifically the drama group, which was David’s latest enthusiasm and which he was trying to persuade Matthew to join.

  -I told him, no way, don´t even think about it.

  -But it´s all about literature. That´s your thing.

  Matthew had already heard this line of argument and he was clearly not impressed.

  -Literature doesn’t come into it. What it´s really about are some over-confident arseholes who like dressing up and making a noise, failing to remember speeches that they haven’t understood in the first place. That´s not my thing at all thank you.

  Tim thought it might help if he intervened.

  -You know David is only interested in plays because he wants to spend more time with Patricia. You could just go along to be a mate.

  -If that’s his only reason then I don’t see why he needs me there at all It´s not like he´s the shy and retiring type. You know how he is. Turns up any place and a few weeks later they’re all David this and David that. You’ve joined just about every society going already. I think drama is the only one you’ve missed.

  -At this time in our life we’re supposed to be trying different things, David answered him. It´s a good way to meet people.

  -I don’t want to meet people. I don’t approve of people. And you never stick at any of these clubs for more than a few weeks. How is that any good for meeting anyone?

  -Better than you think. The ones I need to know remember me and I never forget anyone. Anyway with this club it’s different.

  Matthew snorted

  -Like when you persuaded me to join the climbing club, even though I´m afraid of heights. That was going to be different too. You told me it would be an opportunity for me to conquer my phobias, only it wasn’t. I discovered that I didn’t have a phobia, just a rational fear of falling and breaking my neck.

  -You wouldn´t have to do anything frightening in the theatre group. You wouldn’t even need to be on stage. They fight one another for the acting roles. You’d just have to, you know, help out.

  -Sounds fascinating, but I still don´t do clubs and societies. I´m not the type.

  Tim was enjoying Matthew´s discomfort. He broke in again.

  -That´s not true you know David. I can tell you Matthew’s been through every political society on they have; but never for more than a week or two. He’s no better than you in that way. He couldn´t decide whether he´s a socialist worker or a revolutionary worker. Then he realized that he wasn´t a worker at all and neither were any of the others, so I think he decided to be a Fabian.

  -You have no idea what a Fabian is.

  -No but it sounds a bit queer doesn´t it? I suppose they´re poofters who dress to the left.

  Matthew threw up his hands in disgust, but David was not finished. Matthew argued that it was not as if Patricia was actually any good at acting. She said herself that she was struggling to be competent. She only attempted the minor roles. In other words she had no talent; and she didn´t seem to enjoy it, so what was the point?

  By now David was thinking that perhaps he should have had this conversation with Matt before dragging him to attend one of the drama group’s productions. He replied that Patricia was set on being a barrister, making speeches in courtrooms and the like. That was just the same as acting. She’d decided she needed to develop the skill and she was determined enough to persevere even if it didn’t come naturally to her. That took a lot of courage and they should admire her for it. He was beginning to sound pompous again.

  Matthew nodded.

  -What about you David, don´t you need to be able to act?

  -Barristers act. I’m not going to be that kind of lawyer. You need family connections to get on at the bar, and even then there’s no money in it for years.

  -Besides which, you don´t actually like law, added Tim.

  -And there’s that, David confessed. He grinned at Tim. But I´ve been thinking about your telling me that I have no vocation.

  Tim looked puzzled.

  -You mean like a holiday? I don’t remember saying anything about it.

  -You idiot. Stop pretending to be stupid or you’ll end up not needing to. You remember very well telling me I was generally good at everything, and not specifically good for anything. You said with that kind of brain, I ought to do well in business.

  -I was taking the piss.

  -I know, but still I’ve been thinking it might be true. In any case, law or business, that’s just the start. I’m going to do something that people will notice before I’m finished. I’ve been thinking about music possibly.

  Tim laughed.

  -We’ve heard your guitar playing, I should think again.

  -Not playing. I mean developing talent, promotions. The management side.

  Matthew spoke, returning to what, for him, was a familiar theme.

  -You need connections to do anything in this world apart from teaching or working in an office. That´s one thing you soon learn. All those years I spent at school feeling isolated because I was too clever. I didn´t fit in with the boys who went off to work in factories or learn trades. They´ve got cars and houses now, families some of them. I thought, at least at uni I´ll meet people like myself. I mean, it´s not like we were at Oxford or Cambridge, is it? I never even put in for those places; I knew I shouldn’t fit in. But it turns out that even at the vulgar redbrick University of Leeds it´s still all what school were you at and what do your people do. I hate it.

  -Give it a rest Matthew; Tim sank onto the battered sofa, as if exhausted. Don’t you get sick of playing that record?

  But David looked serious for a moment.

  -You might try to make connections with some of those people you complain about, as long as you are here anyway, he said. They aren´t all bad you know.

  -I don´t want to know them, Can´t you understand? As it is I can feel myself changing; becoming more like them. I even pretend to understand references they make to things that they all know about and ordinary people like me don’t. I spent years at home pretending to be more stupid than I was, thinking there’d be a world here where I might belong. And now I’m here, I’m still spending my time playing at being someone I’m not and hoping to fit in.

  -Don´t worry about it, Tim said. David and I are low born scum, just like you. And if what you say is right you should be great at acting. You´re doing it already.

  -Eventually it won´t even be acting, Matthew replied. We´ll be absorbed into their world, allotted some little corner of it to sit quietly in, provided we play the game; which we will of course. We´ll play the game even more than those who really do belong in that world, with all their smug sense of entitlement. They don’t have any doubts, but we´ll be trying to make ourselves invisible like the Jews and the gays in Europe in the thirties, more conformist than
anyone else; living in terror in case our abnormality should be discovered.

  -You can stay in your corner if you like, said David firmly. I´m going to do something with my life.

  Tim had heard enough. It was more of the same old crap the two of them were always talking about.

  -Stop it, both of you, he said. Let´s examine the contents of my magic bag. Look, a pint of milk, bread, some margarine. I know it´s horrible but it´s cheap. And behold, new and unopened, a bottle of port. Could be vintage, look at the dust.

  -Who drinks port?

  -We do now. If we sip it we can make it last until the Uni bar gets going and then we start the evening with a buzz at next to no cost.

  David fetched the cleanest looking of the glasses and Tim poured a measure for each of them.

  -It´s sweet.

  -Tastes shit, Tim agreed.

  -But still.

  Tim eased back in his chair, smiling.

  -Tell us David, what´s so special about Patricia that you follow her around. Tall, charismatic, handsome lad like you. It´s not as if you were lacking female attention. If it was Matt, I could understand it. I mean with him it would be desperation.

  -You´re no oil painting yourself, Tim.

  -Fair point, but still. Tell us David.

  Patricia is the girl I am going to marry

  -What? Tim and Matthew exploded in unison.

  -You haven´t even started to play the field yet, said Tim. Think of all the sex you’ll miss. And you hardly know the girl.

  -How can you make a commitment now, said Matthew, when there´s so much of your life ahead? You make a promise that the two of you will change in the same way, and that you’ll always have a meaningful relationship – that’s nonsense. You don’t know who you’ll be a few years from now.

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