Sing like you know the w.., p.20

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 20


Sing Like You Know the Words

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  -It was the film of the children that made the difference for all of us, she said. Most people are decent. Once they are confronted by the horrible reality of suffering they demand a change.

  -I´m not sure, Matthew replied. I thought that about the Falklands war. It would be like in Vietnam: once people saw the reality the public support would disappear. But it was the opposite – the public couldn´t get enough. Our masters had learned how to manage the news I suppose, so our wars now can be entertainments.

  -You can´t make a starving child entertaining Matt, Patricia sounded slightly shocked at the suggestion.

  -No, but famine is nothing new. And we become accustomed to things so quickly. The coverage needs to be more explicit every time in order to shock us. I´m not sure that it´s healthy or where it ends. Shock is an instant emotion and then it´s gone. And I don´t know how much you can build on emotion.

  -You can´t build anything without it Matt, Patricia insisted.

  Albert was being unusually quiet.

  In his mind, he was back in the horn of Africa. Sitting for days in that hotel, waiting for the Colonel to decide. Everyone was there; the whole gang from all the countries of the north. All of them with expensive toys to offer to the new emperor. The bastard had spent as much in that month, celebrating a decade of his revolution, as it would have cost to feed the people in the dry zone for ten years.

  The hotel was not so bad. The obligatory five stars. The usual problems with air conditioning, food and bedding of course. Otherwise the place was fine. The plumbing carried the waste somewhere off site and beyond that you didn´t enquire. The pool had been dry, but none of them felt much like swimming. There was ice in the bar, if you were prepared to risk whatever organisms might be frozen in it, and they said that the water was good. Even the climate was pleasant once you got used to the slightly thin air. You could loiter in the avenues lined with eucalyptus trees and come across almost nothing to suggest that the Colonel had spent most of the last ten years murdering his opponents and waging war on sections of his own people.

  No one was supposed to leave the hotel without their official guide, but everyone did. It wasn´t so much that they were curious as that they were bored. It was easy enough to take a cab and sometimes the weyela would talk to you as his colleague drove you to your random destination.

  It was just the beginning then, and he supposed that things got worse later, but in the capital you would not have known there was famine threatening the country. Even the officials seemed to have chosen not to believe in it. In the street you heard stories soon enough, if you kept your ears open, but it was difficult to know how much to believe. The Colonel felt obliged to give the media, at least the African media, some sort of access. He was head of the organization for African unity, after all. What you heard from those guys was bad enough and they were sure they had not seen the worst of it.

  Everyone knew that the harvest in the north had failed again. That was bad, but it was said that the government troops had actually been burning food stores in the affected regions. Nobody he talked to had seen it, but they all seemed to believe it.

  He remembered that Ray Hawkins had been there; not to trade as he said, but only to look after a nervous little man from Turin who never seemed to leave his room. They were all wasting their time anyway: the Colonel suspected that anyone who spoke English was an agent of the hated Americans. The Colonel had all the Russian arms he needed. He even had troops from Cuba at his disposal, but the word was that he preferred to let hunger kill his enemies.

  Somehow Ray had sources of information. He said that the stories were true. The idea was to depopulate the rebel areas. Most of the rebels would be among the five million who might die. It was the traditional way, the Colonel said. In any case the land was overpopulated and with modern farming methods the country did not need so many peasants.

  It sounded about right. Albert had heard enough about the regime not to have any illusions. He’d seen some of the street posters. “Temporary setbacks shall not deter us from our final objective of building communism” was the official view. Making a paradise for the poor if it meant killing most of them in the process.

  They never met the Colonel, but they heard he was neither stupid nor corrupt, which seemed to make matters worse. The most frightening thing about the man was that he was sincere about his revolution.

  Albert had wanted to find out more. Ray had asked him why he would want to know. Ray’s final words on the subject stuck in his mind.

  -I like you Albert. I don’t know why. But you´re not cut out for this business. You should get out now. All this death; it’s getting to you.

  - It’s the same for you.

  -But I don’t have your refined sensibilities. I’m not looking to make sense of it all the time. You know my philosophy. If someone gets in my way, he goes down before I do. I think I’m maybe what you would call a bad man, in that way. You’re not like me at all.

  He’d taken Ray’s advice to the extent of getting out of the country. Not long afterwards everything escalated and the world discovered the situation. It suited everyone after that to treat it as an undiscovered human disaster, even though all the governments had known what was going on, he supposed. He had only been an observer, just a little closer to the events than the people he was among now. But what could he tell any of them about it that would sound true?

  There are no accidents on the scale of genocide, he thought, and there are people in the world who can give the orders that such things should happen, not because they are sitting in a presidential palace isolated from the consequences, but because they have seen understood the consequences and willed that they should occur. And men like these live in all continents, not just in what we call the third world.

  He had no words for these thoughts, and for once he felt out of place and wished he were far away from the polite and happy company. He hoped tonight they would leave him alone. But Matthew was talking to him, standing slightly too close, sounding too jolly.

  -You’re fond of telling us about imperialism, aren’t you Albert?

  -I’ve seen some of its effects in the world.

  -I was saying that pictures of suffering don´t explain the causes and that´s what we need to understand. You can tell us about how the old empires affected what happened in Ethiopia

  -Ethiopia wasn’t part of anyone’s empire. It was one of the oldest kingdoms in the world; independent for centuries except when the Italians invaded for a while.

  -But you know what I mean. Tell us, which was the worst colonial power, the English or the French?

  Albert realised that Matthew was remembering words that they had exchanged a week earlier. He´d said that for all the atrocities committed by the Belgians and other Catholic invaders, the damage they did was limited in scale; primitive acts of savagery that were sustained by the promise that it hardly mattered if thousands of unbaptised heathens perished if the word of god could be brought to a few, and a good profit earned in the meantime. It was the patient English and Germans he said, with their systems and their administration, who were the most dangerous. In Africa at the turn of the century, the English had invented concentration camps and the Germans had perfected methods of extermination that obliterated the entire Herero people from the southern Cape.

  -The French were not exactly Catholics, he´d said, but they imagine themselves philosophers, which is worse. There is no depth of egoism, vanity or sheer stupidity that a man will not stoop to in the name of philosophy. As for the English, if you believed their own words, they conquered half the globe only because wherever they found themselves, things were in a terrible mess that needed to be sorted out; only so that common sense and order should be established. And common sense sometimes looks so much like self interest that you can´t tell the difference. They were pragmatists, they preferred not to take out their motivations and examine them in the cold light of day. That was their strength.

  That conversation was only a few
days in the past, but tonight all the words seemed so trivial that Albert had no time for them.

  -You seem very annoyed about something Matt. Is everything ok with you?

  -Never better. Bit too much booze, that’s all. Well what do you think?

  Patricia stepped between them, hoping to change the mood.

  -All that was a long time ago. At least those horrible things couldn´t happen today. People would get to know, and they wouldn´t stand for it.

  Albert replied in spite of himself.

  -Like in Ethiopia in eighty four you mean? What do you think people knew? It wasn’t just a crop failure. There were people starving in camps practically next door to depots that were full of food, and then the government decided to move nearly half a million starving people out of the region. They died in their tens of thousands on the road.

  -There’s inefficiency and corruption everywhere, Patricia replied.

  -It wasn’t incompetence Pat, it was a war, and starvation was a weapon. The government wanted to empty the land so that there would be nowhere for the rebels to hide.

  Patricia looked as if she was not sure he was being serious.

  -If that were true then it would the most shocking crime.

  Albert shrugged.

  -It´s the same in every place. How were you taught that the First World War ended? Did you think the Germans in the trenches ran out of bullets? Germany was blockaded by the English navy and the people starved. The blockade went on for a long time even after the surrender. Imagine starving to death when the war was already over. Food as a weapon is nothing new.

  Matthew responded angrily. It was an anger that he did not understand even as he expressed it; made worse by Albert seeming to have answers for everybody´s questions.

  -I suppose it is the English who were the real war criminals again. But still, you were happy enough that your family had British passports and you could come here when the trouble started in Uganda.

  Patricia looked at him, genuinely shocked.

  -Matthew, I hope you are going to apologize for that later. That’s too much.

  Albert remained calm.

  -I wasn´t talking about my personal story, Matt. I´ve been lucky I know and I have a lot to feel grateful for. I don´t think that makes bad things that happened in the past alright; still less bad things that might happen in the future. But if you´re saying that a British passport makes me not quite British, or second class British, and I should keep my mouth shut, then I´m sorry.

  Matthew was silent with shame. The emotion that had made him speak so aggressively had vanished as quickly as it came. It was a mystery to him. His head was spinning with anguish and self disgust and alcohol. He needed another drink quickly. What had he felt the urge to shout at Albert? It had been something about demanding that he take life personally for a change and show that he actually cared about something instead of only knowing about everything.

  But really that´s me, isn´t it? And it´s worse because I´m supposed to be the journalist and the one who tells people what is happening and makes them feel compelled to act. Journalist: don´t make me laugh.

  Matthew stood in the garden for a while, holding a glass of whisky that he never tasted and letting the quiet darkness insulate him from the muffled sounds of voices from inside the house. By the time he´d recovered himself and gone back to apologize to Albert, his friend was back to his charming self and refused to accept that any offence had been given.

  There were other thoughts that he wanted to share with Albert, when they could talk without everything needing to be polite. Shock was no substitute for compassion, he wanted to say. People were always hungry for novelty but they could resign themselves to any kind of cruelty if it was distant enough. He thought he had the words now but it was too late, the conversation had moved on.

  Albert told him that he would be leaving for a while in the next few days. He had some unspecified business to attend to but he expected to be back soon. In the end there were no hard words between them, but it was a bad way to part with someone Matthew would never in his life see again.

  Chapter Eight

  It seemed as if 1992 was going to be a much better year for them all. Matthew was almost happy, because there would be an election and he was as certain as everyone else that the conservative government could not win; discredited by personal scandals and backbiting; clinging on amid the ruins of its economic policy. The next prime minister would be Neil Kinnock, and even if he wouldn’t be perfect, at least it meant that the country could start to recover from the ravages of Thatcherism. You almost felt sorry for his opponent, John Major. After her own party had stabbed Thatcher in the back, Major was the only one left who was senior enough and not steeped in the blood-letting, so he took nominal control. He’d be a forgotten man by the end of the year.

  David warned Matthew not to hope for too much in the way of a new age, but even he could hardly have believed that the government would hold on to power. He only said that the world had moved on in thirteen years of Tory rule. Some of the industries and institutions that Matthew wanted to see revived didn’t exist anymore, and people had changed their view of what was normal. David didn’t press the issue. Matthew knew much more about current affairs than he did: that was his job; and in any case he always thought that Matthew was cleverer than him. It was just that when it came to making predictions, in print or in private, he always seemed to be wrong.

  So far as David was concerned, he didn’t expect much from politicians, but he was pleased that the business seemed to have passed through the crisis and now at last they were making reasonable profits. He didn’t say much to Matthew about it, but desert wars were heavy on tank treads and the conflict in the Middle East had been good for Cromwell.

  And he’d been right about the housing crash. The same people who’d called him crazy to walk out on legal practice now spoke about him as a young man who knew a thing or two. In the local papers, he could do no wrong. He was the man who had saved jobs and turned a dying business around. Still, he thought, it wouldn’t have hurt Matthew to have given him a positive article about Cromwell occasionally.

  It seemed that only Patricia didn’t share the general mood of optimism. She was making a name for herself at the bar, she had plenty of other interests to occupy her time, and so far as David could see they were very both happy. It was Matthew in his role as confidante who got to see another side of her mood.

  Matthew met Patricia at the law courts. It was easier for him to plan his arrival for their regular lunchtime meeting that for Patricia to know when she would be finished. When the weather was decent, he preferred to wait outside, in the pedestrian zone by the main entrance. The back doors were only for prison vans depositing remand prisoners for hearings, or collecting them afterwards, like so many empty milk bottles.

  The court building made Matthew uneasy, although to Patricia the place was like home. He didn’t fit with the harsh women, large or skinny and their too many children come to see if dad was coming home, or with the nervous tattooed men with haunted expressions always looking for somewhere to smoke; and he could never be mistaken for a lawyer. He belonged to a class of outsiders; respectable looking individuals who were probably there to stand as witnesses and seemed lost: ignored by all, including the superannuated court ushers, flapping around busily with their black gowns and their official clip boards of cases.

  When Patricia appeared, they went out of the building and round the corner to the old Victoria pub. Matthew asked Patricia what she felt like eating. She wasn’t hungry, so it would be only a liquid lunch for them. He asked if she’d been busy.

  -Nothing important. Only a couple of hopeless bail applications.

  -I thought you were beyond that sort of thing.

  -Rodney wants to keep the clients happy. Two of his regulars: petty criminals but they keep coming back – bread and butter stuff.

  -And did they get bail?

  -Raj and Pete? Not likely. They’d have colla
psed with shock if we’d won. Likely to commit further offences while on bail, they say. Not likely so much as certain. When the trial comes up they know they are looking at a six months stretch, so for them freedom is a chance to work hard and put something away with no extra risk. But there old lags; they know the score. They came down for a day out and to collect cigarettes from Rodney’s clerk.

  -It surprises me sometimes that you keep at this. You know; crime. Don’t you get fed up of them all?

  -No I don’t. I can see how you might think I should be something important, like a tax barrister for example, but Raj and Pete are no worse than other clients I might have, and it matters that someone speaks for them. I remember being warned off crime: it’s not first rate work you know. The first time in my life I turned away from whatever was hardest and had most prestige, but I never regretted it.

  Matthew smiled.

  -You tell me that David has no doubts about life, and I have nothing but doubt. But Pat, you’re life is all about struggle. If life isn’t already a struggle, you’ll make it one. It’s as if good fortune was a curse and you have to spend your time trying to prove yourself worthy of it.

  Patricia considered telling him about the sense of failure that still haunted her from that old Obuswu case. She wasn’t sure why is should be relevant, though it seemed to be. That memory represented something that she had not explained even to herself, so instead she only shrugged.

  -If you’d been a Victorian lady, Matthew continued, you’d have spent your time doing good works and caring for the poor.

  -Maybe, but we’ve progressed. We know that the underprivileged deserve rights not handouts; and that charity demeans the giver as well as the receiver, when it’s not about getting a tax break.

  -If you say so. Is that why you prefer crime?

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