Sing Like You Know the Words, page 23
Mitchell drove past the house twice and then parked a few streets away, where he felt the car was safer. He walked back to the address. Some of the houses were boarded. Number 27 was lived in, but run down. He didn´t really expect anyone to answer the doorbell ring, but Raj and Pete invited him in almost without explanation, as if they were so bored they were grateful for the chance to talk to anyone.
In the house there was almost no furniture, only in the front room a giant TV screen, a games console, and some dirty cushions against the back wall. Empty beer cans and pizza boxes littered the fireplace.
-Want a beer? They asked: Mitchell declined on the basis he was driving and anyway did not usually drink before ten thirty in the morning. He asked them if they were in employment.
-Nah, we’re burglars generally, Raj replied.
-But looking to rehabilitate ourselves, added Pete.
-That’s what my partner said, Mitchell told them, mentioning Derek’s name.
-That man is a arsehole, said Raj. Mitchell nodded his agreement.
-Believe me it in’t easy, said Raj. They don’t give you no help when you try to go straight. Sometimes you think you was better off when you was inside.
Mitchell considered this.
-But it looks as if you’ve been helping yourselves a little bit; with all these purchases from the catalogue. I´ve got the list here look. You’ve not exactly been doing without, looks like. That’s a lot of stuff and a tidy bit of money you owe. And so far you´ve paid back, let´s see; nothing. But I don’t see much of anything lying around here now.
-No man, we sold most of it straight away, said Pete.
-But you’re still supposed to pay for it.
-Yeah, right. With what?
-The way we look at it, Raj explained, these people was practically giving us free money. We didn’t even have to tell them no lies – well hardly. So if they are stupid enough to do that, right, then what we owe them is not our fault.
-Well now I’m here. You´ve been traced. I have to ask you to pay something to me on account and to make an agreement to clear the debt in a reasonable time
-We can sign an agreement if you like.
-Yeah we can afford to give you a promise.
-I’m used to that, believe me, Mitchell sighed.
On balance it was not such a bad visit. At least the car was not damaged when he went back to it.
Derek told him that burglars weren’t dangerous, just inadequate. They all did time inside because they kept getting caught. They were incompetent to begin with and then they had to be drunk or high to find the nerve to do the job. Even when they didn’t screw up completely, there was no money in burgling. You had to practically give away whatever you lifted. According to Derek, it was just a few people and the police could easily take every burglar in the country off the street in a week; except there would be no point because the lawyers and the court system would put them back on the street the week after.
On Thursday night, Sue’s mother had the kids over for the night and Mitchell managed to talk himself into her into bed after they left the pub. At least that was the way he described it to himself. In reality, it felt more like Sue had decided that they may as well have sex as she was not doing anything else that evening.
Afterwards, Mitchell worried more about his wife finding out than he would have expected. He felt there must be some telltale sign about his body that was invisible to himself but that a woman would spot instantly. If there was such a thing, his wife was not interested enough to notice it.
The truth was that he had found the experience pleasant enough, but unsatisfying. There had been no pursuit, no difficulties to overcome. And nothing had changed, not even Sue. On Friday, she spoke to him with exactly the same preoccupied voice that she always had; still went about her work looking bored by it all. They had agreed loosely that they would meet again in the following week but he was not sure it would happen.
I’m just as invisible to her as I am to everyone else, he thought.
Late Friday morning, he gathered all the books together, determined to produce a consolidated analysis of the business that even Derek would understand. After an hour and a half he gave it up and retreated to the Old Fox, alone. I’m turning into Derek, he decided.
But it turned out that Derek was not so completely useless as he had supposed. On Sunday morning he phoned Mitchell at home, sounding genuinely excited and claiming that he had finally tracked down Ray Hawkins. The account was delinquent in a big way. Hawkins owed the bank the thick end of a hundred and twenty thousand. Took the loan as cash and vanished. It´s a diamond trace, Derek crowed.
The catch was that the address was a hotel where Hawkins would be staying in London; but no-one knew how long he would be there. All they had to do to get paid was verify it really was him and report back. No need to speak to him at all, only it had to be done quickly. And he was certain to be there Monday evening. Derek would go himself, was desperate to go, but absolutely could not on that night, for reasons he could not go into.
Mitchell didn’t press him. He was so bored he would have volunteered to take Derek’s place. Something happening at last.
Mitchell spent most of Sunday in his study. Actually it was only a spare room that was just big enough for a desk where he could shut the door on the family and claim to be working. Mitchell didn’t read much: reading was one of the many things he had given up on. In his study, he preferred to look at old maps and travel guides, planning journeys he knew that he would never make: journeys he´d never known he wanted to make in the years when there would have been nothing to stop him going.
He couldn´t remember when he´d started to experience a longing for travel. He supposed it coincided with an awareness that he´d wasted half his life through lack of courage, or appetite, or maybe just desire. Over time the imaginary journeys became more vivid and detailed. The roots of fantasy took hold. The nature of his daydreams also changed. Now he was beyond the idea of a holiday trip to an exotic destination; nothing less that the idea of a new life stirred him, in a new place where no-one knew his name; where he could start again as a different person; someone better. The fantasy had become not so much about the places he would go to, as the person he would become.
The reality of a trip is always different to the anticipation.
Ray Hawkins had been dining and drinking alone when he introduced himself to Mitchell. He was a big man, not tall but solid, with big rough hands that he waved about a lot. He rose from his own table and covered the space between the two of them with a speed that was startling, even though he looked perfectly at ease. He filled the space in front of Mitchell, beaming an easy grin that had something sharklike in it.
Ray invited himself to sit at Mitchell´s table, tapping his empty pint glass for the waiter to see and commanding beer for both of them
-I might have to drive later, Mitchell protested.
-No one but a resident eats in a hotel restaurant like this. You must be staying here. Drink up.
Ray questioned him about his business, noticed that he was from out of town (from up north, like me) and suggested that the two of them ought to stick together in the big, dangerous city.
-It is a coincidence that you should choose to eat here, because when I saw you sliding into this little corner table here, it occurred to me that I’d spotted you earlier on today, on the street, twice in fact. Almost as if you were following me around.
He smiled pleasantly as the waiter arrived.
-Very good. Beer for both of us. Better than this fizzy water you´ve been sipping for half an hour. Charge them to my room please.
-Now then, tell me. Who sent you after me?
Mitchell considered his options: looking at Ray, it did not seem a good idea to insist that his presence was only a coincidence.
-The bank, he admitted weakly.
Ray’s smile became b
-What I thought. That’s a relief then, nothing serious.
-You don’t call a hundred and twenty thousand serious?
-A hundred and twenty? It was only ninety when they gave it me. The rest is interest and charges piled on I suppose. Robbing bastards aren’t they?
-Can you pay?
-You should be asking me, will I pay.
The hotel restaurant had big, plate glass windows. Outside the streets were filling up; mostly young people out to enjoy themselves; on their way to theatres and bars. Inside, the room was too brightly lit; in fact everything about the place was too bright. The buzz of adventure that had been with Mitchell for most of that day, vanished in the second that he saw Ray get up and move towards him: instead he felt sickness in his stomach. The man looked more cheerful than his photograph, but somehow the cheerfulness was more threatening than a serious expression.
Inwardly Mitchell was cursing Derek; his excuses, his evasiveness, his laziness, maybe his cowardice. But still Ray was smiling at him, insisting they share another drink.
-We’ve got some time to kill, he said. Let me tell you a little story.
The story had to do with Ray, in the days when he was a soldier of some kind in Northern Ireland, being followed by one of the “Micks” for reasons that he didn’t go into. The way Ray told the story; it had been a charming diversion for all concerned. From his tone, you´d think maybe the tale was going to end with a shaking of heads and a friendly handshake. Mitchell guessed that, in fact, it would not end like that at all.
-And mind you, Ray continued, you ended up respecting the Micks. They were soldiers, they had a purpose. We had to shoot one or two of them in the head, after our little chats, but they didn’t whine even when they knew it was coming. They knew the score. And it got me to wondering why we were up against them, and what good were our lads doing there.
-They planted bombs and blew up innocent people didn’t they?
-They did that, but they were at war. And hasn’t every army in every war in this century busied itself with blowing up innocent civilians on one side or another? But I see your point, yes. One thing to kill civilians by dropping bombs from the sky, but poor form to deliver them personally. In a perfect world bombs should only be dropped from aeroplanes. Keeps that random element that makes it easier on the conscience. If you can’t afford aeroplanes you shouldn’t be allowed to fight wars.
Ray took a long pull on the beer.
-Where was I? Oh yes, the story. But I should say, as an aside, that after I’d been to Ireland a second time, I was more interested in why the British Empire was there at all. I mean there’s never been any oil anything precious in the ground in Ireland; no emeralds in the Emerald Isle. That’s a bad one, I admit. So far as I could find out, we Brits were only there in the first place because some of our rulers had stolen land from the locals to set up farms for themselves that they liked so much they weren´t prepared to let go. Of course it got more complicated later on, when the religion came into it. But the more I found out about it, the more I thought that if I’d been Irish myself… well you know.
-But anyway, to continue this tale; there I was, and there he was, and it seemed clear that he understood that I knew that he was following me. These situations get complicated, is my point. Ah, but here is our guest now, clever of you to choose a nice confidential table for our chat.
Ray stood up to greet a newcomer. Mitchell’s back was to the door, and he felt he should not turn without permission.
-Don’t think of walking away just now, Ray whispered to him, one big hand on his shoulder as the other was extended in greeting to the stranger.
The newcomer, who Ray greeted effusively, was a short, slightly built man, with an unusual appearance. He had very black, neatly combed hair, a long face with a small chin and sharp nose. His brown eyes seemed to glare at them both without blinking. His clothes were very neat, and not quite English, and Mitchell guessed that he was older than he looked. Although he was so much smaller than Ray, he did not seem at all intimidated by him. Ex military, Mitchell thought, like Ray, but officer class.
Ray ordered wine and they sat down. Mitchell said nothing. He was astonished when Ray began to speak to the stranger in a foreign language, in which he appeared to be quite fluent. Mitchell guessed that the language was Spanish, but the exchanges were too rapid for him to make any sense of what was said, other than a few isolated words that sounded familiar. He gave up trying to make any sense of the conversation and made himself concentrate on watching the pair of them, only as a way to contain his rising sense of panic. Both of them had faces you would remember. At one point it became clear that he was being referred to in the conversation, but no comment seemed to be expected of him.
Then the voices sounded quite heated and Mitchell strained to understand whether the men really were angry, or was it only the way that conversations sounded in this language. The stranger began to bang on the table to make his point, so it must have been anger, but even then they spoke in low voices. They seemed to calm down quickly enough, though it was plain from the body language that Ray was trying to placate his guest and that the man remained more than ready to take offence.
-Suddenly the stranger began to speak in English, addressing both of them.
-I want to tell you something about myself, he said. You remember, perhaps, in my country el teniente coronel Tejero, of the guardia civil?
Ray screwed up his small eyes in thought.
-I remember something about that name.
-He was the man in eighty one, who had the courage to storm the Cortes, and hold the deputies hostage.
-Ah, yes. He went into the parliament with his troops, and held the ministers at gunpoint. I remember seeing pictures of it. An excited man with bulging eyes and a silly hat. He was calling on the king to get rid of the politicians. But the king didn’t want to know and it all fizzled out.
-He was trying to save the nation, the stranger insisted. From the communists and maricons. But the king … well one cannot blame the king. He was inexperienced and he had his advisers. He was…
-For the people, Ray suggested.
-In any case he was not for the communists and queers, but now they are in charge anyway.
He became more composed.
-I tell you this is because my uncle was there with the coronel. And maybe he was there at another time before, when the need of the country was great and he did not refuse to make the sacrifice that was called for. My uncle was a man who did not shirk his duty and nor do I.
He paused for a moment.
-It is important for you to understand that we are serious men: men of honour who will do what needs to be done. England is an old tired country and here you believe in nothing, and that nothing will change. You imagine that things will go on in the same way forever. But Spain is an even older country, much older in many ways, and we know that this is not so. And because of this, my friend, you should not think of me as some deluded Quixote for whom you do not need to have a serious regard. I do not stand alone.
-Then we understand each other. Bueno.
The whole thing lasted about an hour. Nobody touched the wine. When the newcomer stood to leave everything seemed cordial. They shook hands again and Ray squeezed his shoulder with his free hand
-So, he said, nos entendemos, we will try again, and do our best, but we cannot promise anything, claro?
-Si, understood. Hasta luego, and with a short bow to each of them he was gone.
Curiosity got the better of Mitchell. Noting that he had been referred to in the conversation he supposed that he might have a right to know something of what it was about. Ray explained to him that this was not the case; and that in any event, the less he knew, the better it would be for him. Ray seemed to be in a good mood for some reason.
-Now you and I will have a few more drinks to be sure Pedro has gone, he smiled.
-Is Pedro his real name?
Neither of them spoke for a minute as Ray drained his glass and poured more wine for them both.
-Let’s just say, Ray confided, that Pedro wanted to buy something from me, but I’m not sure whether he really wanted to buy it, or only to know whether I had it to sell.
-What was he asking you for?
-Well you have an honest face, meaning that you look like you know nothing about anything, so it’s safe to talk to you. He said he wanted to buy supplies of something called titadine. It’s a product used in mining. It makes a loud bang.
-What’s so surprising about that?
-It’s just not the sort of thing policemen like Pedro go around buying.
Ray would not say any more on this subject, but he made sure that they stayed in the bar long enough for Mitchell to become hopelessly drunk.
-About time for your bed now. I’m in a good mood tonight, almost a helpful mood. I think I’ll go on somewhere after this, but I might grant you three wishes first.
-The hundred and twenty
-You don’t want to go spoiling my mood
-I need to go back with something.
-Really? I supposed your job would just be to find out where I was staying; check it was really me. Isn’t that how it goes? You don’t seem like a person anyone would send to collect money from me.
-Well that’s true enough, but the way it works, now that we have spoken, I have to be able to say that I tried to collect some money on account from you; and to agree a payment schedule.
-Now you are becoming tiresome, Ray sighed. I need somewhere with a bit more life than this place. Come along if you want. No. Well in that case it has been very nice to meet you.
Ray made as if to rise but hesitated.
-Remember my story about the Irishman. I didn’t finish it.
-I’m not anxious to hear the ending.
-So you are not totally stupid. It was useful for me tonight, that Pedro should think I have my associates with me. I’d rather him not know I was on my own. He’s more dangerous than you might guess. And then there’s myself, I can be dangerous too. So your best bet to be out of this situation and not even thinking about it in your own private thoughts. Am I clear? You put it out of your mind. Good.