Sing Like You Know the Words, page 26
Fortunately for him, there were interests working in his favour besides his own persistence. It must have been clear to some invisible senior persons that David and others like him, comparative outsiders, could be useful to them. Perhaps the outsiders could represent a more inclusive vision of what they all still referred to as socialism; but in any case it was clear that they would not owe allegiance to the machinery of the existing local parties. They would be more responsive to the central command.
Soon after coming to the attention of these persons, David was able to secure an interview for a constituency which would fall vacant at the next election. It was not too far from home and it was considered winnable
However before his name would be put forward officially, he needed to persuade the chairman of the local party to accept his nomination. Matthew knew the chairman. The man was a grizzled old trade unionist and, at heart, an unreconstructed Marxist. He told David that he thought the chairman would rather lose the seat to another party than give it up to a moderate. He said that David would be lucky if the man even agreed to meet him. Even so, a meeting was arranged.
-Afterwards David reported to Matthew
-It went well. I think we can do business.
-But he’s more old left than Kierhardie
-Well you know, I wrote him a long letter before the meeting, explaining why I was coming late to the party, how I’d been involved in student politics and with some Trotskyist groups – he liked the word “Trotskyist” I think: kept using it himself. I explained that after that time I´d been disillusioned for a while. I had devoted myself to giving practical help for the working class, creating jobs, but in my heart, I always yearned to rekindle my political engagement. And now finally I can see how I might do it.
-What absolute bollocks.
-Do you think so? Who do you think is going to check a story like that? It’s only a means to an end. And it came to me very easily: I think there is some truth to it, after all. Perhaps that is the internal history of my political journey.
-You’ll believe it yourself in a week.
-Don’t judge me on how I get power, Matt. Judge me on how I use it.
Get power, what did he mean by that? How much power did he imagine a backbench MP would have? Matthew only shook his head.
The nomination was secured easily. David gave the committee a milder version of the personal history he’d given to the Chairman, stressing his discovery of social democratic principles. He winked at the old man as he was telling them the story, to let him know that the truth of his radical ideals would be their secret. The Chairman smiled, believing he was telling the other members what they wanted to hear. The vote was a formality.
More new faces began to appear at David’s house in the evenings: younger faces mostly, men and women who Matthew described as having the blankness of certainty about them. There was a pretty blonde researcher called Briony, and a boy called Hugh with dark hair that grew too little on his head and too much everywhere else. He knew a lot about what he called demographics
Matthew took a particular dislike to one of the blank-faced tribe, a plump, red haired youth who was introduced as Harold. Matthew denied that a person of Harold’s generation could have been christened with such a name. He regarded Harold as an affectation in keeping with the boy’s general character.
Matthew missed Albert, who had been maddening enough in his own polite way, but had always had something outrageous or just thought provoking to offer. But Albert had not been seen or heard from for months. It seemed that he had abandoned them.
Harold was David’s new favourite. He seemed not to mind that the lad barely spoke, or that when he did he sounded like he was reciting a slogan. Harold would spit out some ill tempered phrase as if he did not see why he should waste his time even attempting to communicate with the ignorant fools around him. Then his mouth would clamp shut and he would continue to glare around the room with barely repressed contempt. David said to Matthew that Harold was young and probably felt intimidated. The aggression was just over compensation for feelings of insecurity. Matthew replied that a bully was a bully at any age. Inwardly, he wondered whether he had ever been that arrogant himself. It was a reflection that he did not share with David, who continued to defend Harold.
-Granted he’s precocious, and ambitious, and ruthless too I suppose. But he’ll grow up in time. And in any case, just because those are qualities that you despise doesn’t mean that I don’t need him.
The new millennium was only three years away and, if you believed the news, for the first time in decades, people had started to believe that society was ready for change. In Matthew’s case, too many false dawns over the years left him with no faith or confidence that things would ever be any different. All that changed over time, so far as he could see, was that people got older. Still, he was convinced that David was right about one thing; if a change was coming, it would be people like Harold, not people like Matthew, who brought it about.
He resolved not to respond in kind to the spite that Harold directed at him from time to time. He knew that Harold saw him as a representative of the hated press, which needed to be manipulated or cowed. Amused tolerance would be a better reaction to that, Matthew decided: it was how Ralph would deal with Harold. To understand all is to forgive all, as Ralph might say, perhaps adding that understanding is a thin consolation of growing old.
Matthew didn´t see as much of Ralph these days. The lunchtime drinking sessions were a thing of the past. Everything about work was so much more professional now, and Matthew himself had responsibilities. One afternoon they met in a public house opposite the Town Hall. It was a nostalgic choice of venue; recalling the afternoons spent in the crowded bar, Ralph sharing his odd opinions on everything and Matthew hollowed out with doubt that he would ever find his own place in the world.
They arrived separately and Ralph was already most of the way through his first drink when Matthew arrived. On this day the bar was almost deserted: it seemed sad and broken down. Ralph himself looked older and more decrepit, even lonely, without an audience to animate him. His conversation was subdued at first.
-Thank you for humouring me and coming out. I admit I am a little morose today. The truth is Matt; the old world is slipping away from us. Look through this window, at that Victorian block of a town hall. A fine architecture and the maturity of age. All that grimy coating acquired over I don’t know how many years; testament to something. Now they´re going to steam clean the stone. It will look nice I suppose, but the past will have been stripped off.
-Anyway that’s not my point. It’s a Town Hall: it’s supposed to be a place of work. But it’s an old building and not to the taste of modern administrators, and there are so many of them now. So many things need to be looked into and administered. They have to have more space.
-So now behind the Town Hall, there´s the Civic Buildings, where the work is done. They keep the old place clean and try to find occasions to use it, like a ceremonial uniform that one of those old colonial governors might drag out of the wardrobe every now and then to see what damage the moths have done.
-What I mean is, there´s no purpose to it anymore; the place is just a monument. And I’m the same my boy. I’m as much use as those stone lions over the road. It happens to everyone and everything: the usefulness wears out. No good complaining about it. Fact of life. People turn into statues eventually; temporary memorials to the person they used to be.
Matthew didn’t interrupt. In this bar he only needed to nod to the landlord for their next drinks to be placed on the counter. He got up to pay the man and collect the full glasses without speaking.
- I was in love once you know, Ralph continued. Followed someone to another country just to be near them. That much in love. It turned out badly. Nowadays my prick might as well be stone like those bloody lions on the Town Hall steps. All that’s over for me.
-Instead I can look forward to more years of impersonating mys
Matthew told him he was having a bad day. Depression comes from time to time, to old and young, he said. He reminded Ralph of some of his own comments about life being full of experiences and every part of it being in some way different to the last. It was difficult to know what else to say, there was some truth in the words. Ralph was not so important to the paper these days. Others, like Matthew himself, had passed over him. And his behaviour was not acceptable sometimes; in fact it could be quite inappropriate. Privately Matthew thought that maybe he should set about fixing up a sabbatical for Ralph; give him the chance to follow some other interests for a few months.
But Ralph was not quite finished.
-I’m a dinosaur Matt; not yet extinct, but on the way. One reason is this idea I have that the point of life is to try to do things as well as you can. The world has progressed beyond that notion. We have passed to the age of the accountants.
-The law of accountancy is that you take everything and anything and cut back the quality so it is just a little easier to produce. Then you edge up the price a little so that customers are paying a little bit more than they should, and finally you persuade everyone that what you offer is good enough. The process goes on year after year. Everything has to be made a little worse than it could be: chipping away at whatever contributes to the sum of human happiness in order to have a slightly bigger number on the bottom line of a ledger somewhere.
-Mediocrity is what’s wanted now, at best. They´re all chasing each other down to the lowest common denominator, and they celebrate cheapness and revel in it. No one believes that it demeans them to consume rubbish, because in some idiotic way they have persuaded themselves that being conscious that it is rubbish elevates them above it. That’s what your post-modernism is: the metaphysics of our time. It applies to culture and everything else, as if you can eat all the burgers you want without getting fat, provided you laugh about them being disgusting turd packets of cholesterol whilst you gobble them down.
It was a typical Ralph rant, which cheered Matthew up. It sounded like the old man recovering his zest for life in general and all the things he hated. Later he reflected that maybe Ralph´s words were intended as a personal challenge laid down to himself.
And then he had David to worry about.
When he got the call from David it seemed like they would have a relaxing Sunday ramble. David picked him up early in the morning and they chatted about nothing important on the drive through the Dales. It was a while since they had spent time together like this and Matthew thought it was a good sign that David was finding time to relax. They reached Buckden and parked the car near to the inn. There was still a little of the morning chill lingering in the air as they pulled on their boots and started on the tiny single track lane in the direction of Hawes. At Hubberholme, they turned right past the old churchyard and up the lung testing farm track which climbed to the path that circled the valley head. They paused at the crossing of a stream that cascaded busily off the high ground. David poured coffee for them from a thermos.
-I’ve been having an affair, he announced.
The coffee was hot. Matthew reacted as if he´d burnt his tongue, but it was only surprise.
-Oh, right. Cheers. This is good. Strong and not too much sugar.
Matthew hoped that his expression said that he had absolutely no interest in hearing what came next, but David was not to be put off.
-I need your advice Matt. You have affairs all the time.
-Do I? Is that what you think? I don´t remember us talking about it.
-Well, I need to talk about this. The girl is special. You don’t know her. She’s young; a researcher, very committed, very passionate … about her work.
-How many times?
-We´ve seen each other, like that, on three occasions; or do you mean, how many times?
-Just occasions. I don’t want to know the sordid details. Well, don’t be so gloomy David. Three times is not an affair.
-What is it then?
-Not quite a one-night stand, but more like a fling.
David seemed genuinely annoyed. Matthew was showing more than usual interest in the landscape.
-Are you taking the piss?
-No, but I don’t think you should take your problem quite so seriously. It sounds like you´ve had an accident and I´m sure you´ll get over it.
-I want this girl. She´s my angel.
-Sounds like you’ve already had her.
-But I don’t want to wreck my marriage
-Unfortunately, you´re not the first man to be caught in that trap.
-You know you can be infuriating when you are this cynical Matt, but still I need your help.
Matthew took a moment to compose himself before speaking again, in a more serious tone. He said that he sympathised, but in his experience there was not much a friend could do to help in times like this. It was just a case of listening to the patient talk themselves through their own condition.
-Some part of you already knows what you will do, he added. It’s just that you feel bad to admit it without a struggle. Your finer feelings demand that you suffer indecision, because otherwise you´ve just been stupid and selfish. So maybe I do know about affairs after all. Well, then, tell me the story David. We’ll know your answer once we get to it. Otherwise all I could do would be to give you some objective advice that you’ll ignore and that would make us both feel wretched.
-For now I´d like the advice. I feel wretched as it is.
-You won’t like what I have to say. You’ll tell me it doesn’t apply to you.
David shrugged. Matthew sighed and looked out across the valley floor, then at the stream that would bubble on long after they had passed. He spoke without looking directly at David.
-First thing is that you should leave out of account this person you´re proposing to leave your partner to be with. I assume that’s what’s on your mind. It’s not likely that the two of you are the star crossed lovers you imagine. Even if you are, the stress of the divorce will probably kill that relationship. Usually men don’t settle with the lover who breaks their marriage. All the remorse and self pity that the excitement of the new thing keeps at bay is only stored up for later. If I was as cynical as you think, I might say that it´s normal if the lover is being used, whether you know it or not, to provide an escape route.
-With us it’s nothing like what you describe.
Matthew did not respond to David´s comment.
-Second, everyone knows that after a break up, women fall to pieces, then put it behind them and get on with their lives. Men get a rush of euphoria that tastes of freedom; then they sink into years of depression.
-Third; sad to say, you are not unique. From what I can see, casual sex outside a long term relationship happens to most everybody at some time. It turns out that even these birds nesting here, that partner for life, still make illicit calls to other nests. Our genes have their own survival strategies and they are insistent. If you give in to them once or twice in your life, it’s not such a big deal; unless you make it one.
-There´s nothing casual in how I feel about Briony, David growled.
-You asked for my advice. Just one more thing. Complete honesty is a great thing in human relationships but it has its limits. I can see you´re not going to leave Patricia. For god´s sake don´t say anything to her about this. Confession´s just a coward´s way of shifting a burden off the one who is in the wrong and dumping it on the other. The sinner feels better because the deception is over, and the innocent party feels like shit.
David scowled again.
-That´s it? That’s your advice?
-That´s my obj
-It doesn’t feel like you’ve described my situation at all.
-Of course not. So now tell me your story: only do me a favour David and remember the last thing I said.
If David remembered Matthew´s advice he did not take it. Three weeks later, the crisis had broken and the tearful lady researcher was out of their lives for good. Later, David admitted to Matthew that he’d confessed the whole thing to Patricia that same Sunday. He said that she seemed quite dismissive of it, made him feel like he’d shown a lack of discretion or committed a social gaffe rather than that he’d destroyed his marriage. She refused to take seriously or even discuss his protestations about his feelings for the girl, until eventually he began to see for himself what an idiot he had made of himself.
He said that he´d insisted on sleeping downstairs on a couch, even though Patricia had laughed at the empty gesture and told him he was being depressingly conventional. But in the night, he heard her get up and go to the bathroom. She was there a long time, he said and he had to lay there listening to her sobbing. He told Matthew that he was prepared to spend the rest of his life trying to be worthy of this woman for standing by him when he had been so weak and useless.
It seemed ironic that David, so pragmatic in his public life, should be the one who insisted there could be no dirty secrets in his relationship, while Matthew, supposedly the man of principle, preferred discretion to disclosure in matters of the heart. And in the end, he reflected, I know little enough myself about human happiness. I don’t know whether David is a much better person than me, or just a complete idiot.
He´d never said anything to Patricia about his conversation with David that Sunday, and she´d given him no reason to believe that David had confessed that evening, even though two days later Matthew and Patricia were sharing the same bed.
They weren´t actually having an affair: in any case, both of them believed that to be true, however the case might look from the outside. They met regularly. They were old friends. David was away a lot; and even if Matthew had the impression that the couple were not so close even when David was home, that did not come into the equation. Almost always, their liaisons were completely innocent, and even when they were not, both Matthew and Patricia found it easy to revert to the behaviour of friends next time they met.