Sing like you know the w.., p.28

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 28

 

Sing Like You Know the Words
 



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  -That’s only part of being human lad. Laughing at it all is how life goes on.

  Then Richard said that Matthew would have to deliver the eulogy. Matthew could not understand why it should be him, which seemed to shock Richard.

  -You were his best pal, he said.

  -Was I? Matthew seemed genuinely surprised. Surely lots of people knew him better than me. The two of you have been friends for years.

  -But he thought the world of you Matt. He had a great ... affection for you. Did you really not know? Think back, do you see? It has to be you, or you’ll be sorry afterward. Ralph would have wanted it.

  Matthew felt that he had no choice, but still he had no idea what he should say. He did the research diligently, in a way that he supposed Ralph would have approved; meeting old friends who could give him a more rounded picture of Ralph’s life; reading back through the archives. There were no close relatives that they could trace. The time was short and a solitary existence yielded little in the way of anecdote. The external details of Ralph´s life could be summed up in a few sentences, but what to say about the inner man?

  Richard and Matthew resolved that for present purposes Ralph should be considered Church of England, although they had no evidence of his faith or lack of it. The service was booked at the crematorium by the ring road, on the north side of the city. It was held on a sunny morning. The funeral people had managed all of the arrangements with quiet efficiency. They advised that the day was a busy one with a number of ceremonies scheduled, so everyone must take care to be punctual. Richard had sorted out somewhere for drinks and light refreshments afterwards.

  Matthew owned a dark suit, not black but near enough. He met Richard at the funeral parlour and rode with him in the official car. There was only the two of them. All the way, the rustle of paper in the right hand pocket of his suit reminded him of the speech he would have to give. He kept putting his hand in the pocket, without thinking, as if wanting to check that the words were still on the paper. He noticed that his hands were sweaty and wondered whether the occasion or his speech was to blame.

  At the crematorium, they stood in sunshine that seemed to mock the purpose of the day and shook hands with various people who Matthew had never seen before. Richard seemed to know some of them. There were many more people than Matthew had expected and it seemed odd that they wanted to express condolences to him and Richard, as if the occasion were to mark their private loss. They were cast as surrogate relatives for the day.

  They needn´t have bothered so much with the floral arrangement because there were many bouquets sent or delivered for the service. The mourners were of all kinds, but mostly older people. Shaking hands with strangers, Matthew kept seeing the same expression in eyes that made a point of meeting his. It was a practiced expression of restrained sadness, that gave Matthew the feeling that they were all part of a ritual he didn´t quite understand, and some response was demanded of him that he didn´t know how to make.

  -I feel as if these people are expecting me to tell them something. What should I say? he whispered to Richard; but Richard was as much in demand as he and had no time to reply.

  Mindful of the time, they were ushered inside. Matthew again became painfully conscious of the crumpled paper in his pocket. Some music that he didn´t recognize was playing. It didn´t sound religious, but played on an organ it seemed to fit the occasion.

  The minister began to speak and the calm rhythm of his words made Matthew believe for the first time that yes this was really happening; that Ralph was gone forever; dead whatever that meant, and that this was their goodbye to him. Absurdly, the realization came as a shock. At first the minister said a few words about Ralph and who he was. His words were carefully chosen and sensible and he didn´t make the mistake of speaking as if he had known Ralph personally. Still this preamble made Matthew more tense, and he was grateful when the minister began to speak the formal words of the service.

  And all the time the sheets of paper in the right hip pocket of his suit seemed to grow heavier and heavier.

  He´d spoken briefly with the minister before the service; a solidly built man of middle height with reddish hair, bald on top. His manner was kindly in a practical way: the sort of man to reassure that everything was happening, and would happen, as it should. It was hard for Matthew to imagine that such a man could believe these words about god and eternal life.

  Even so, the recital of the familiar words was comforting in its familiarity, though some phrases that had been updated for modern ears seemed to jar. What would Ralph think of that? But then what would he make of the “in sure and certain hope of resurrection” that this practical man declared so confidently. How could anyone who was not deluded talk about a certainty of resurrection without pretending? But then there was a pause and he was being gently summoned forward.

  Standing at the front of the chapel, looking back to the congregation, everything looked different. Matthew realised for the first time how crowded the place was. He couldn´t remember seeing so many, outside. Expectant faces, turned to him. The service had been understated and in keeping with the occasion, but it could have been for anyone. Now it was up to him bring them something that would make the occasion personal to Ralph: that would make it different from all the other services that would be conducted on that day and all the days that came after. So many services; so many lives forever ended.

  Matthew took the notes from his pocket and saw that his hands were shaking. He hadn´t prepared himself to be so nervous; he´d only told himself there was no reason that he should be. That had been a mistake. Looking at the words on the paper, he found he could hardly read them. He scanned the lines and saw only meagre scribbles that were inadequate for the occasion.

  He made a start, concentrating on pitching his address to the back row of the congregation. At least he should be heard. As he came to the end of each sentence he could detect a rising tremor of anxiety in his voice, in sharp contrast with the strong soothing tones of the minister. The chapel was quiet for him. Only one or two coughs punctuated his words.

  From his research he could speak about Ralph´s early life. It was ground that the minister had been over already and it was soon covered. Then he said a few words about Ralph joining the staff of the Examiner, and after that it was time to talk about the man he knew. He stuffed the first page of notes back into his pocket and scanned the second sheet.

  Matthew tried to speak, but words wouldn´t come; only a sort of noise that he didn´t recognize as coming from him. He folded up the rest of his notes and put them away.

  -I, prepared some words as you see. I wanted to tell you about the time I knew Ralph. I thought of the right things to say, the usual things. But you all knew Ralph. He never said the right things or the usual things. That was never good enough for him. He only wanted to get to the heart of the matter, even when that made a difficult situation for everyone.

  -He was embarrassing to be with sometimes. Not that I never saw him embarrassed.

  There was some shuffling in the pews.

  -I never saw him behave as if anything out of the ordinary was happening, even in bizarre situations, so I suppose he would feel quite at home today.

  -Anyway, it’s good to see so many of you here. Ralph knew many people and everybody who knew him loved him in some way. I don’t know how someone who inspired feeling like that came to be so much alone. I don’t know whether he wanted more from people and couldn’t ask for it, or whether he was genuinely content to be so much in himself. There´s a lot I’d still like to ask him, and now I never can. It makes me sad.

  -Whether from the congregation or from himself, Matthew felt a growing urgency that he should get to the point, if only he could find what it was. He remembered the warning about the next service starting and that he should not take up too much time: but still he had not found the right words.

  -Many of you knew him better than I did. But I do know that Ralph was wise and kind, even if he had a tongue that coul
d drip pure acid. And he was strong. He decided who he should be, and made himself that person, by an effort of will and intelligence: I admire him for that. And he was my friend, and he never took shit from anyone.

  There was not much else to say, and if he said more, afterwards Matthew could not remember it. At the moment that he spoke to word “friend” he had a revelation of how deep a friendship he had experienced with Ralph. The rest came out automatically, until a moment later he was appalled at his own choice of words.

  The minister continued the service as if nothing had happened, but Matthew returned to his pew and endured the rest of it in the certainty that his ears were burning crimson and that everyone in the congregation must be staring at the back of his head. Outside, Richard assured him that his words had been fine and that everyone had understood and appreciated the sentiment, but still Matthew found himself unable to go on to the reception. He made his excuses and left Richard to pick up the pieces as usual. He felt that he had let Ralph down by his inarticulacy more than by his minor profanity.

  And afterwards of course life continued, although it seemed that work would not be the same. With Ralph gone, Matthew seriously considered, for the first time, the idea that he might leave the Examiner. He thought about giving up his current line of work altogether. Perhaps it was time to strike out for something more serious. He was almost forty years old and still puzzling over what to do when he grew up.

  Gradually that sense of restlessness passed. He stayed on. In a way it felt as if a responsibility had passed to him. He and Richard were the elder statesmen now, and Richard was not many years from retirement. He found himself reacting to certain situations as Ralph would have done: not the hedonistic, riotous Ralph, but the pedantic wise old head who insisted on standards being maintained and who the others looked to for a particular kind of guidance. He heard his own voice speaking with more authority, and sometimes wondered if that confident tone could really be him.

  His own life remained a mystery to him, but living it became less of a struggle, at least most of the time. He was sustained by the thought that if he could hold on to the few things he was sure of, even if they amounted to no more than a few rules of grammar and syntax, and maybe the rudiments of a house style, then the rest might take care of itself.

  It was just occasionally, on nights when he was alone and unable to sleep, or else he woke up thinking about Ralph’s death, that his thoughts were troubled by the idea of suicide. Not that he was tempted to it, but he remembered the reports of similar deaths that had been allotted their few brief lines over the years. Richard was right; you had to laugh, because each such death was a challenge, much more when it was someone you knew.

  Usually you could explain it easily: people with terminal illnesses and in pain; crazies; teenagers at the mercy of chemical imbalances; cries for help that went wrong; inability to cope with the decrepitude of age. The histories were sad in themselves, but they had their own logic. Ralph’s case was different: it was as if he had weighed his life in the balance and come to a rational decision to end it. He’d acted on the judgement quite calmly. On his worst nights, the last challenge that Ralph had thrown down for Matthew was to ponder what verdict should be pronounced if his own life were to be weighed in the same balance.

  ***

  It was some time after Ralph´s death, and David could tell that Matthew was still affected by the death of his colleague, even if Matthew himself couldn´t see it. David was sure that the preoccupation was unhealthy. He suggested to Matthew that he ought to visit Tim. It had been a long time, and maybe it would be good for both of them. Spending time with Tim might help Matthew recover some perspective on life instead of moping. Matthew was surprised that David even knew where Tim lived. He should have remembered that David never fully abandoned his friends. He was more surprised when David gave him the address, just around the corner from where Matthew´s mother lived.

  Tim welcomed him warmly enough, asking in the same breath if he had a smoke. Matthew said he didn’t. Tim admitted that he knew that Mrs James was a near neighbour. He had seen her in the street a few times, without introducing himself. He said that he was not over anxious that people should see him as he was just now.

  -I mean, don’t make polite noises; this place is just a complete shit tip, right? And it´s not as if I look like I´m out of place here.

  -It wasn´t an assessment that Matthew could argue with.

  Tim managed to find two mugs that passed as clean enough to make tea. There was no milk. They squatted on a mattress in the living room, sipping the scalding brew. Tim said that this was the room he lived in, mostly. He didn’t go upstairs much: there was no point and anyway the house was too cold. Matthew nodded.

  -One of the windows is broken; you can see it from the street.

  -I’m going to get it fixed soon. Got any spare cash?

  -It doesn’t look as if cash would be good for you. You’re using a lot of drugs I suppose. Looks like it anyway.

  -It depends on what you call a lot. David comes to see me pretty regular. He always leaves money.

  -And how does that help you?

  -Well it helps me not to have to do the things I’d have to do otherwise to get hold of all the drugs you were talking about. But then again David was never such a miserable, self righteous prick as you. Is the tea all right?

  -It’ll do. What happened? Tim looked blank. To you I mean.

  -I got off the bus and I never got back on again. That’s all. Don’t come over all pious and concerned and don´t tell me it has anything to do with the bloody war. I never was a real soldier anyway. I´m just someone who went through the system and decided to have a break. It´s only that the break stretched on for a while and now here I am. You know, once David stopped inviting me round to the house - I don’t blame him for that mind. I was out of order in so many ways. Anyway after that it was like my final link to the proper world was gone. And I didn’t miss it. At least he keeps in touch, not like you.

  -I remember you running round the house with that toilet seat around your neck, hitting people with the toilet brush. It was funny, looking back anyway, but not very pleasant.

  -Like I said, I´ve no complaints. I´d become smelly I remember.

  -You’re smelly now.

  -But here there’s no one to mind; only you, and you can piss off if you don’t like it.

  -Tim, you could get yourself cleaned up and start again any time.

  -But I’d have to want to, wouldn’t I? Anyway, you asked to hear my story so shut up. I was quite happy for a while, you know, with the money they give you for turning up each week to prove you haven’t died. But then they offered me this job working in the dole office. And when I say offered, it´s not like you can turn it down. It’s another level of hell where they send the long term claimants, as if we haven’t got enough problems. Their way of saying; you lot are so shit that this is the only job you are fit for and don’t imagine we can’t make your life worse than it already is.

  -So I was there for a time and I did try to make a go of it, in my own way. I mean, you can find something to laugh at anywhere can’t you? But that was the trouble. No sense of humour, none of them. So here I am again. I never caught the habit of work like you three. David wants to run the country one day. Patricia thinks she is doing god’s work because she is making a lot of money representing liberal causes. You I don’t know.

  -Just a kind of cowardice in my case, I think.

  -Something like that, probably. Anyway I never had a family to support and I can’t see the point of being bored all day when there don’t seem to be enough boring jobs for the people who want to do them.

  -I’ll come back and see you again soon.

  -I’ll try to arrange my social calendar to be at home. Thursdays and Fridays I´m at my club. The one on the corner. Beer’s cheap but I can´t go when the bingo´s on.

  The meeting gave him something to think about, but if David had encouraged Matthew to see Tim to make
him count his blessings, he should have realised that given Matthew´s nature, he would instead start to question that his own way of life was truly better than Tim´s, though at least he could afford soap.

  ***

  Later that month, Patricia told Matthew she was pregnant.

  -This is strictly in confidence, David doesn’t know anything yet

  -But why not?

  -Sorry, we’ve never spoken about this? David can’t have children; it’s a sperm thing. We’ve known about it for years of course. I supposed everyone suspected. Catholic wife and no children.

  -But then, who is the father? And why are you telling me about it before him?

  Patricia gave him one of her hard stares.

  -You are more hopeless than even I expect Matt. The father is you of course

  -But we never, well I mean, we have, obviously. Now and then; not something we’re proud of – accidentally sort of.

  -Keep going Matt, you’re hilarious. I never cease to be amazed at the capacity of men to file their separate experiences in neat little boxes, keeping all the inconvenient ones locked safely away. Don’t panic, I never imagined that we would be running away together, but would it surprise you if I reminded you that you have accidentally fucked me on fourteen separate occasions in the last twelve months?

  -I never thought of it like that. I suppose it’s true. I assumed you were – taking some precautions

  -It seems you can’t protect against idiocy. And stop talking like a sex education manual. If I get a few years older I shan’t need to take precautions, shall I? Nature will take its course.

  -You sound like you are thinking of keeping it.

 
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