Sing like you know the w.., p.27

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 27


Sing Like You Know the Words

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  Matthew never visited the Oakland Ridge house when David was away any more. He and Patricia met at lunchtimes, usually at their favourite restaurant. It was natural since they both worked in the city. But Matthew´s flat was very near, and sometimes it was easier to meet there. In fact the thing that was spontaneous and almost an accident seemed to happen only after that call from Patricia suggesting a changed venue. Everyone in Matthew´s office apart from him knew that if the phone rang on Tuesday at a certain hour, and he closed his door to take the call, it meant that he would be anxious and irritable for the rest of the morning.

  Matthew thought of their situation as regrettable but civilised, if he considered it at all. Most of the time he managed to avoid thinking about it.

  He remembered that on that particular Tuesday afternoon, Patricia had been telling him something about David and he´d been more irritated than usual at having to spend so much time hearing about her husband. But it had not been anything about the affair. She said that she had started to worry about David.

  -You mean, in case he should find out about us? Why, has something happened? Matthew had willed that his voice should not sound too anxious.

  -Don’t be silly. There is no us; you know that better than I do. I’m talking about this mystic faith or belief that he has. It’s frightening sometimes.

  In fact Matthew had noticed that David´s personal mania about his purpose in the world had started to take on an almost religious tinge, but what could he do about it? With Patricia, there was always talk in the bed, and mostly he could let it wash over him. He liked to hear the talk: it was never like that with his girlfriends. He would have found bedtime conversation with them off – putting, but with Patricia it was a reassurance that what was happening was only cosy and safe. In fact they often spoke about the girlfriends. It made Matthew smile to hear Patricia steering him away from one girl, or suggesting that he get closer to another. She could be so obvious about trying to manipulate him that he believed himself immune to her influence.

  She would be talking to him until just before the end, though he seldom remembered about what. Then finally, she would become transformed into someone he had never known and would never know. There was something dark and animal about her orgasm, as if she was falling down to a black secret place where he could not follow. For a moment he glimpsed something dangerous, with sharp claws and teeth, and then he was overtaken by his own animal self, demanding relief.

  There was no sense of joining in that moment of greatest intimacy; or if there was, then what was joined was not their individual lives, but some part of them that came from the deep and did not answer to their names. It was impossible to say whether those were the moments when they understood each other perfectly or only learned that they hardly knew each other at all.

  But after that less than a minute of shared anonymity, silent and holy as it felt, Patricia would pick up the thread of conversation again, and he was grateful for it. Her cool dispassionate tones were a lifeline back to himself, reassuring Matthew that the act had not been taken as a promise giving the lie to the limits they had set. Patricia did not want or need a future with him. They could be comfortable again once she started to speak. What had just happened was reduced to a manageable scale; as if they had gone to the theatre together, or shared a meal.

  Always and inevitably, the conversation came back to David. Like this comment now about his famously unshakeable self belief. Matthew was tired of hearing about it, though he answered as reasonably as he could.

  -David’s had this idea that it’s his destiny to do important things for as long as either you or I have known him. I thought you went along with it to be honest. If he’s adding religion to the mix, I can’t say I’m surprised. Right back when you two got together, I remember Tim predicting that David might become the first atheist to be made a knight of the Vatican.

  -What did you say to that?

  -I think I only said that he wouldn’t be the first one by a long way.

  They talked about other things, but Patricia couldn´t leave this subject.

  -Some of the things he says sound so odd coming from him. I mean, you believe what you like at home, or in private. But he wants to be in politics.

  -You used to talk like that yourself, Matthew reminded her. But yes, I read an interview where he was talking about his faith being important to him. The interviewer seemed embarrassed and couldn’t get off the subject quick enough. It seemed odd at the time and it did make me wonder what faith he was talking about. But we´re talking about David here. You can assume that he´s worked out how it will play before he said anything.

  -He’s serious about it. I mean he talks about “being received into the church” one day, and how it might affect his political prospects; as if the world cared one way or the other.

  -It’s just another enthusiasm. It will pass. What did you say to him?

  -I said that if he announced a conversion to Rome, it would make him look eccentric. Better to wait until he’s finished with politics. I’m afraid I fell into that pompous way of talking about it that he has

  Matthew couldn´t resist.

  -Patricia, you´re putting his eternal soul in jeopardy. Imagine if he died before the glorious day, unconfessed and damned, because you had made him put it off.

  -Don’t you start. I just don’t want him to make himself look ridiculous. He wants to be seen as a - conviction politician - I think they call it. It’s just some idea he has picked up from American politics. We´re English after all. It makes us uncomfortable when someone starts talking about god.

  -You’ve changed from the serious Catholic girl I remember.

  -It’s different for me. I grew up with religion. It’s more of a habit than a conviction. I don´t get carried away with it. Poor David, it’s niggling at him all the time, even if he doesn’t admit it. He suggested going to mass with me next week. I hadn´t even thought about going myself. It´s not something I do usually. I don’t know how I should manage if he became like that all the time. Nothing worse than a zealous convert you know. They’re like those people that give up smoking.

  -You gave up smoking.

  -Well I’m not pious about it, I hope. Anyway, I still do have an occasional cigarette, when no one is around. I’m not very good at giving things up entirely, as you know very well.

  And she´d kissed him then. Matthew couldn´t remember anything in their conversation that suggested she´d only just discovered that her husband had been sleeping with another woman, or that she´d spent a night crying about it. But then, he couldn´t remember feeling any strong urge to share David´s confidence with her. Both of them had known, without either being aware that the other knew, and they kept the parts of their lives in compartments that were sealed so tightly that even the big things didn´t leak out. It´s exactly as Pat says, he thought. I may write the news, but I never see what´s happening.

  It wasn´t long before they met again. Patricia was feeling better, and it was nice to have Matthew to talk to. She was alone so much otherwise, even with her many friends; and the two of them had known each other for so long. It was true that he was a hopeless idiot and had almost no conversation of his own; but then that was probably why he was so attractive to all these needy and wrecked women who latched on to him. He gave them a mirror for their own lives; a flat, calm, reflective surface. Then eventually they bored him and the trouble started.

  She was musing about it after they finished, lying comfortably naked together. She thought that feeling the warmth of another´s skin next to your own was one of the best things.

  -There’ll be a problem for you one day, she told him. When you finally meet someone who isn’t completely wrapped up in herself, you’ll have to talk about your own feelings to fill the space. I wonder how you’ll manage.

  Matthew didn´t answer, and there was silence for a moment. Her thoughts turned back to David. That trip to France, the break that he´d said they both needed, had really set him off again. The
spiritual thing wouldn´t leave him alone, it seemed. They had driven across via Dover. The plan was to fill the car with cheap champagne on the way back, and they had spent a night in Rheims; a pretty town. It was David’s suggestion that they visit the Cathedral.

  The outside of the place was merely beautiful. Inside was one of those impossibly high, endlessly buttressed spaces that seem to exist outside of time, bathed in the light of a different world. The way the sound carried through the dry air was extraordinary. It was as though, in coming through the door, they had entered a dimension that was almost but not entirely the same as their own: every small detail held subtle differences.

  She had noticed straight away that David was greatly affected. They didn´t pick up any of the printed guides, but wandered around taking in everything at first hand. Then they came to the great window that had been made by Chagall. She supposed it was the brightness of it, the warmth of the colour of the thing, that made it so special; but there was something more. Humanity, she thought. Patricia could see and respond to the power of it, but David was overwhelmed. He stood before the window for minutes, looking up with tears rolling down his face, oblivious of where he was.

  Afterwards they took a coffee at one of the pavement bars. They talked about the marvellous cathedral and how inadequate speech was to describe it: impossible to say anything at all without sinking into cliché and hyperbole. You could only try to express fragments of emotion, that might echo in the heart of someone close to you deeply enough for both to know that they had shared the same feeling, even if the feeling itself could not be spoken.

  -We are close, still. Patricia said to him. Strange to think of it now, in the arms of another man. That makes me happy. But that window. It was something else again. It did something more to you. I thought I could see it fully, but you saw more than me.

  -It was the angels, he answered. I could see them. I was watching the angels dancing in the light around the glass.

  So far as she could tell, he was completely serious. She worried about how it might affect their futures; a politician of vision was one thing, but a politician who saw visions was quite another. But in any case the world beyond their own little lives was moving on.

  Soon there would be an election. All the smart commentators said that Tony Blair’s new vision of the Labour Party would finally make the party electable. New Labour would sweep away an exhausted conservative administration that had its reputation for competence and even honesty in tatters after too long in power. Politics would never be the same again.

  This was taken as read by everyone except people like Matthew and the Labour party itself, traumatised as they were by decades of internal bickering, and defeats snatched from the jaws of victory. On the left of politics, whether you read about it in the media or heard about it at David’s house on an evening, there was an obsession with the need to keep discipline and not to break ranks. Don’t try to do too much about this at first; don’t let the Tories get to the right of you on that. Make sure there are plenty of fresh faces. Above all don’t fall into the stereotype; wear a good suit and try to sound grown up

  It sounded like an impossible trick; walking a tightrope carrying an anvil. Matthew struggled to understand what any of it had to do with turning around years of government by the rich for the rich. When you listened to the speeches, and read what everyone had to say, it began to sound as if a Labour government would not be so very different to the other kind. All the parties were targeting what they called the middle ground, like two fat men trying to sit on the same small chair. But if so many things were going to stay the same, where would the big change that everyone was getting excited about come from?


  Ralph had been missing from the office for a few days. It wasn´t the first time, but it worried Richard Tuttle more than usual. Normally, before one of Ralph´s episodes there would be warning signs, like the plumes of smoke and ash that precede a volcanic eruption. But lately Ralph had seemed quiet by his standards.

  After work, Richard drove round to the flat. He sat in the car for a while, parked at the kerb, reminding himself that his sense of foreboding, like Ralph’s absence, was nothing new.

  Richard had a key, so that he could feed the cats when Ralph was away. He knocked anyway, but there was no answer.

  Ralph’s flat was on the upper floor. One of the cats brushed against Richard on the stairs, hungry and indignant. She complained at him with a long and petulant mew. Richard ignored her. All three of them were bad tempered creatures that despised him, even when he was being their food provider. Their sense that he did not unconditionally adore them was enough to stir them to resentment.

  The flat was laid out in a modern style, though the building was old. There was an open plan lounge at the top of the staircase: it was deserted and the whole place had an abandoned feel. Richard called out softly, but no one answered. The door to the kitchen was open. He opened the fridge and found it empty.

  He found Ralph in the main bedroom. Here again the style was bright and modern. The high ceiling was angled to match the pitch of the roof, and the roof beams were left exposed, to make the space feel more like a loft. They were made of heavy timber, supported by sturdy cross pieces. It was a roof that was more than strong enough to support the weight of Ralph’s thin body, hanging from one of the beams. He’d used a belt for the noose, buckled to another that was looped round the beam and nailed. It looked like a fragile arrangement, but it had proved fit for its purpose.

  From the look of it, Ralph had climbed onto a chair back, balanced for a moment, and then kicked the chair over. Richard knew little about how such things worked. He could only hope that Ralph had looked into it properly, and that he had managed the business well enough so that his neck was snapped by the fall. Better that than hanging till he choked.

  The body was very still, stiff even. That was what shocked Richard most, though it should have been expected. It was the rigidity that gave him the sense that the living, breathing, speaking being that had once been was now turned into a mere object. You could call what was hanging there a body, but that would sound as if the thing suspended from the beam retained some essence of personality or animation; that something at least of the spirit remained. But at that moment, Richard only felt that Ralph was gone, and this dead skin was just something to be cleared up and dealt with: it was even too commonplace to be horrifying. The resemblance of the lifeless hanging thing to Ralph was only a cruel joke.

  Richard went back into the living room and sat down. He felt sadness but no anguish: his mind was calm. The things that needed to be done and the people who needed to be told began to crowd his thoughts, unbidden. He realized that he’d rehearsed it all before in his head, many times, without ever intending to. In his imagined versions of the moment, it had been pills that were the cause, or only a failure of some vital organ hastened by the years of ragged excess; perhaps even a fall or some other domestic accident after drinking himself insensible.

  Hanging seemed too melodramatic for Ralph’s taste: too much a grand gesture and too unambiguous. Hanging required you to be settled and determined in your mind, for the planning and the execution. And leaving a body hanging, needing to be cut down, was like a mute reproach to the world: a statement in itself. That was the way kids did it; the ones who were too screwed up to realize that dying was just the end, and that after it didn´t matter what anyone thought about you. He couldn´t imagine that Ralph would have been thinking in that way. Maybe he just didn’t trust pills.

  It was a surprise that he hadn’t made any arrangements for the cats, but then they had the cat door as a route of escape. Probably Ralph thought they might move on and find new homes, rather than providing something else for Richard to worry about.

  He rose, and walked to the kitchen. There was food for the creatures in the usual place. Richard was used to the task and did it mechanically. Better ring his wife and explain he’d be late home, and why.

  He knew that there
were practical things that must be done, but he felt reluctant to start, as if something heavy were pressing him back. He knew that as soon as he spoke to another human being, the business of the living world would reclaim him, and his final connection to Ralph would be broken. He sat down again, just for a moment.

  -It will hit the lad hard, he thought.

  One of the cats, white and black, sloped up to him and began to rub against his shin. He stroked its head, absently. Fickle monsters, he thought.


  -I found a note, Richard explained to Matthew, a few days later. – Just six words. “Done because we are too many”.

  -That’s a quote. Thomas Hardy, I think.


  -In Hardy’s story the father killed his family, then himself, because he couldn’t afford to feed them.

  -That´s right.

  But Ralph lived alone, Matthew said.

  -I thought about it, Richard answered. It’s meant as a joke I think. He´s saying there are too many of all of us. Humans.

  -Makes sense I suppose. But it’s hardly a reason to kill yourself.

  -I can´t think that Ralph ever lacked a reason to kill himself Matt. I think what he needed were reasons not to kill himself. I remember he used to like that phrase from Sartre – nous sommes de trop. Same idea. People are superfluous.

  -It says nothing about himself. Although it does sound like Ralph, and I wish it didn’t. If this had to happen at all, I´d prefer to think that he did it when the balance of his mind was disturbed. Better that he was temporarily off his head than that it was a considered decision. Like he´d passed a verdict on himself. I keep remembering the jokes we used to make when we had to report a suicide. It was only gallows humour I know, but now it leaves me feeling guilty.

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