Sing Like You Know the Words, page 3
David was unperturbed.
-It only seems strange to you two, because you haven´t got your lives organized. But I’ve told you before, I expect to do something with my life, even if I don´t know exactly what just yet, and Patricia fits, she´s perfect. We´re perfect together.
-It’s you who doesn’t get it Matthew, he continued; when can you make a commitment in life if not now when all the changes are ahead of you? Do you plan to stop changing at some point? Say you wait till you’re thirty five, then how would you find someone who feels the same way as you do about life, when you’ve lived half of it without even knowing them?
David seemed so sure of himself that it was accepted that the subject was beyond discussion. He explained that he really needed Matthew´s help with the club, because he had no idea what all the talk about plays and authors and techniques meant, and even if he was fairly sure that most of the rest of them knew no more than him, he could not risk showing himself up in front of Patricia.
-And I may have given her the impression that I’m a bit of an expert, he admitted.
Matthew resisted only a little longer before agreeing to help. He was disarmed by David’s candour, but anyway, he´d known from the start that he would eventually give in to his friend. Didn’t he always? Tim declared that they should toast the new adventure. The taking of port before serious drinking commenced was a fine tradition that he intended to establish starting now. Matthew sipped his drink and eyed Tim suspiciously.
-You haven´t paid for this booze have you?
-I cannot tell a lie.
-I wish that were true. Where did you get it?
-From the off licence
-You´ve been shoplifting, from Mr Singh.
-Don´t get angry. I know you would rather I stole from the supermarkets, who can afford it, but the fact is it´s not so easy to get past their checkout system.
-I´d rather you didn´t steal at all.
Tim shrugged his shoulders.
-It´s a bad habit. From my misspent youth. I am trying to give it up. No one is without sin though eh? I mean we all did a bit of it when we were kids, didn´t we?
-No, we most certainly didn´t. Did you David?
David looked slightly sheepish.
-Only once or twice, just small stuff, just for the dare, he admitted.
-You of all people Tim, Matthew persisted. You´re supposed to be a junior officer. The army is supporting your degree. What would they think if you were caught? What would happen to you?
-I don´t give a monkey´s about the army, but I´m not going to get caught. You have to have risk in your life to live it, Matthew. When are you going to realize? What is it that you object to, that it´s wrong, or that I might get caught?
-That it´s wrong, of course.
-So, don´t you want yours? Give that glass here then.
In the final term of his second year at university, Ali Abbas Patel was not sleeping well. He hadn’t any reason to be concerned about his grades; the reason was nothing so obvious as that. He felt as if there must be some energy within him that was not being used, but there seemed no logical reason why that should be the case. He studied hard. He went out for long walks alone, to relax from study and ponder his future. Nevertheless, even after the longest walks, he’d find that if he was lucky enough to drift off shortly after his ten o’clock bedtime, he’d be awake a few hours later, knowing that there was no chance of any more sleep before morning.
Ali Abbas was renting a single room in a part of town not far from the university. Each morning, in the early hours, he’d be waiting as a dismal light started to penetrate the thin curtains. Within a few minutes the drapes would seem translucent with the unattractive yellow glow that gradually seeped into the grey darkness of the tiny room.
He’d already been awake for hours. Not long after four thirty, to the accompanying sound of an electric milk float rattling past and the staccato carillon of empty bottles being jolted in metal crates, he would abandon thoughts of sleep. When the dawn came, he’d be sitting quietly next to the window, sipping weak tea and reading; pausing frequently to polish the thick lenses of his black rimmed reading glasses.
Really this was the only time of day when the light in his room was any good. It was tempting to compare this meagre glow to the brilliant sunlight they’d enjoyed at home, but that would have been false sentimentality. The truth was that home was a fading memory; and maybe his family had been wrong ever to call it home.
He lifted a corner of the curtain, the better to observe the pale light of the day that was leaking into the world. The morning was dry and it seemed as if any gasp of a breeze had died out in the empty alley. Litter and dead leaves lay in a mingled heap without so much as a rustle. He had no idea where the leaves could have come from.
The view from his window was of a back alley that was partly obscured by the high brick walls of the terrace yards. This house had no wall, and beyond what he would have called the garden, he could glimpse a roughly cobbled section of street. Dustbins that the neighbours had put out for collection the previous night were stationed like iron sentinels along the alley.
To Ali Abbas, the dustbins were unfamiliar and strange; galvanized cylinders with the sides pressed into corrugations, capped with heavy lids of metal or vinyl that were jammed hard down on the contents or balanced precariously on the rubbish of overfilled bins. Once a week a council vehicle squeezed down the alley in the early morning and the rough men, cheerful and boisterous, collected the bins and emptied their contents into the wagon or onto the street, making a great show of hoisting the heavy receptacles onto their shoulders, and ensuring that a robust banging and scraping of iron was heard down the terraces as they made their progress.
Ali Abbas had seen nothing quite like it before arriving in this country. Like so much else that was strange to him about England, there was a ritualistic aspect to the refuse collection that he found strangely comforting. It was regular and orderly, clumsy and inefficient, but always the same. You could see that bins had been emptied in that same way for a long time. The process belonged to a style of living where things happened as you expected.
This society was organized around shared routines, as his previous life had been. He could still remember it, though not so clearly now. Curiously it was the far away times, when he’d been very small, that left the most impression. Then at least, the sense of routine had been strong, in the days before the trouble started. He remembered sitting with an aunt in one of his father’s stores, playing and watching the customers come and go, listening to their conversation and absorbing the slow rhythm of the day that was the same as every other day. He couldn’t remember that he’d ever been troubled by uncertainty in those days.
But that was long ago and he told himself that he did not much miss the past. It was only that now his life was very different. It was time for him to prepare breakfast, though he was not feeling the least bit hungry. A cup of tea was enough. The aunts were always telling his mother that she should get him to eat more: he was too thin. But Ali Abbas did not have time to be interested in food (and maybe the aunts were too much interested in food if it came to that). There were so many other claims on his thoughts.
For example, the problem of the lectures troubled him. If he was honest, Ali Abbas was dismayed that so many of his fellow students seemed to regard lectures as worth attending only if they had nothing more interesting to do, such as sleeping. He reminded himself that it was different for the others. Their parents had not needed to make sacrifices. In England, everyone was entitled to study for a degree, provided only that they appeared to be clever enough. That had never been the case in Uganda and certainly once the troubles started, education had been as hard to get as everything else.
Before that time, his parents had been well-off, maybe even rich, though none of them had realized it. His mother had servants around the house. He remembered overhearing snatches of family conversation that he hadn’t understood
When they had to leave home and come to England, everything they had was left behind, but even so they had been happy for a while; relieved to escape the African madness and grateful that the home country had honoured the promise stamped on their British passports (his father had never doubted it). They counted themselves lucky; everyone knew stories about other families who had not been so fortunate.
But relief only buoys the spirits for so long and afterwards they started to reflect on all that was lost. For a young boy with only vague memories looking back and a life ahead of him, the loss was not so serious, but these days there was a nervous edge to his mother’s voice, and a tired anxiety in the lines around his father’s eyes that made him seem older than his years.
In what he said, father clung tightly to the fatalistic optimism that is part of the stock in trade of small merchants everywhere; men who are constantly at the mercy of events that are bigger than they are, that they cannot hope to influence or even fully understand. But Ali Abbas had noticed that on certain days, for no reason that he could discover, his father’s hands would start to tremble, involuntarily, as if his grip was failing. Of course, father had started in business again and things were not going so badly now, but it seemed that he could not free himself from the fear that at any moment, everything he had worked for could be snatched away from him once more.
At university, Ali Abbas noticed that most of the students did not have much contact with home. In fact they never seemed to talk about their families, let alone speak with them. There was a strange form of egoism all around, that he couldn’t quite comprehend, as if all the students were completely absorbed by the question of who they were, or who they wanted to be, and had no time for anything else. Ali Abbas phoned home every other night. Usually he spoke to his mother and father and one or both of the sisters. It was hard to imagine a life where you didn’t feel the need to keep in touch like that.
Comparing his life to the other students made him embarrassed with himself. He pictured himself hurrying to a phone box to make the call at the allotted hour. Maybe he was making himself ridiculous, but then he reminded himself of what they always told each other at home; that nothing was more important than family. He couldn’t help how he felt though; he wasn’t exactly ashamed about ringing home all the time, but it did make him feel not quite adult.
And the monotony of those dialogues, where neither party had anything new to say, sometimes left him feeling desperate. He argued with himself about that too. It doesn’t matter so much what we say as that we speak. And monotony is calming; it can be a comfort; but not when it’s that grinding dullness that leaves you wanting to scream. In any case, it was too late to stage a revolt against the calls now. He should have said something in the first weeks of his first term. Now the routine was fixed; if he missed a day or two, his mother would drag father up here to find him. She’d insist that some kind of tragedy must have struck him. The image of his mother turning up at the lecture theatre was a painful one; it was the way his daydreams turned, more and more frequently, when he thought about home
He felt guilty about that. Remember, that the family is who you are, he told himself often. It has given you everything, not just the opportunity to learn, but the motivation. This is why you have to understand big events like the one that uprooted us. Perhaps one day you could even have a part in the big events.
For Ali Abbas, politics and economics were of more than academic interest: they were levers that he’d seen were long enough to move the world on its axis. One day he hoped to play some part in the movement. He wasn’t sure how just yet. But now he had let his tea go cold and it was time to go to lectures. No breakfast again today.
It was another of those morning lectures that seemed to have too many empty seats. Steve Kirk, one of the few students who Ali Abbas knew well enough to have an occasional conversation with, complained that most of the lecturers just re-hashed what was written in the recommended books, without any comment or insight (and sometimes without apparent understanding, Ali Abbas was too polite to add). Why bother going to a lecture, Steve would say, where the lecturer is even more bored than the students; when you could read the same information in bed or at the library?
This line of argument disturbed Ali Abbas, partly because he found it difficult to disagree with. He wanted to insist that Steve was missing the point of what it was to be at the university, but as usual he could not find the words to express his argument. And the rest of what he wanted to say about personal responsibility sounded ridiculously pompous even to himself.
In any case Stephen was not here and Ali Abbas was left to ponder what benefit he might gain by sitting through today’s turgid recitation. The speaker was clumsily summarising ideas that he had found vital and even exciting when reading the original text, but which seemed more and more flat and commonplace the longer this lecture droned on.
Afterwards, one of the girls; he couldn’t remember her name, asked if she could borrow his notes of the lecture from the previous week. She explained something about having been away at a party that had unexpectedly taken up three days. Not for the first time, Ali Abbas was glad that he never drank. It was obvious that the girl was suffering from a hangover even now and she had probably only dragged herself to the lecture in hopes of begging notes from someone like him. Although he wanted to help the girl, he was nervous as to when he might get his own papers back.
-You could probably manage without them, he told her. Everything that the professor said is in chapters four, seven and eight of the textbook. I can give you the references now if you like. The ideas are actually explained more clearly in the book
-But I’d have to read the book then love. And it’s such a thick one, I wouldn’t know where to start. Go on be a darling. Thanks.
He carefully explained when and why he needed the file back as a matter of urgency. The girl nodded in agreement, but he could see that she wasn’t listening. Ali Abbas handed over the notes, with misgivings. The girl thanked him and quickly disappeared with her friends.
At eleven he visited the refectory for a strong coffee, without milk or sugar, in accordance with his routine. It was his only coffee of the day; the indulgence he permitted himself before his tutorial and then afternoon in the library.
While Ali Abbas was in the library, he found himself musing about his fellow students. He knew that everyone was aware that he knew the course material better than any of them; but he was also conscious that they thought him dull, maybe even stupid in a way that they had probably not bothered to define to themselves. He had all the facts, but in tutorials he offered few opinions of his own. When the other students said things that they imagined were original, he naturally related them to ideas that had been expressed more elegantly in the books and commentaries he had already read. The consequence was that everyone decided that he had nothing fresh to say for himself.
Even his tutors seemed to be afflicted by this ignorance of all that had already been said. Everyone was so determined to be original that they preferred not to know if anyone else had been there first.
He, on the other hand, did not understand why they should place so much importance on what they called expressing themselves. He didn’t want to be unkind, but it was boring when they went on about subjects which it was clear they had not studied in enough depth to have a valid opinion about. What they expressed, badly, was an articulation of what others had said or written earlier and with greater perceptiveness and style.
Ali Abbas couldn’t understand how his colleagues hoped to express something new before they had mastered the subject. But when he suggested as much to Steve Kirk, Stephen laughed at him and told him that sometimes you had to be an ignorant savage to be creative. Why was everyone so willing to believe this, he wondered? Was it just an excuse for laziness, or was he missing something?
And he didn’t want to tell his parents ho
He had to be equally reticent about his social situation. His mother imagined that because he was a good student he must have lots of friends. If he were to confess that he often felt like a social outcast, she might think he was lying about his grades. All he could tell them at home was the same old news; that he was doing well in class, getting high marks, and that there were some nice people on the course.
Tonight, once more he would trudge from his room to the familiar red phone box that was always missing a few panes of glass and always felt cold whatever the season. He would try to ignore the smell of urine as he puzzled over the incomprehensible letters and designs that were scratched into every painted surface of the box, like the frenzied etchings of some lost tribe. In winter it was freezing, but now that the nights were lighter it was worse in some ways. He felt as if he was on show; and it was worse when there was a queue for the phone.
When his turn came, he would pause, jiggling the coins in his pocket, making sure there were enough, and preparing himself to lift the dreaded receiver. It was like not being able to start to pee when there was someone else in the toilets.
Finally, he would make the call: the same evasions and half truths every other night in response to his mother’s innocent enquiries. Worse than what he told her, he knew that he lied to himself about the crushing loneliness that he sometimes felt; pretending that it was the same for all of them and what everyone had to endure. He stayed smiling and friendly, even when days went past without his exchanging more than a few mumbled words with anyone. He could sustain the act because he had a plan and this part of his life was just a stage of it. But sometimes when he listened to the pathetic half truths that he told his mother about his life, it made keeping up the pretence that much harder.