Sing Like You Know the Words, page 30
David should have realized that the first seed of doubt had been planted in Matthew´s mind: inevitably, it would grow and start to cast a shadow over his happiness. Amy and Matthew would be free of the shadow for a time, but the darkness is patient.
Neither of them was the sort of person who cared to map the future. Matthew had never even been able to plan holidays in advance; much to the annoyance of his earlier girlfriends, who´d suspected with some justification that it meant he was not sure they would be together by the summer. For him there was a trace of superstition in it too; as if speaking a possible future out loud might curse it.
Amy wasn´t lacking in commitment or scared of tempting fate: it was more that she accepted certain things as inevitable; like the two of them being together and all that implied. It wasn´t that she didn´t know her own mind. She only seemed to be on such good terms with life that it flowed in her direction. Matthew thought that Amy understood life and knew what she wanted from it. Perhaps she even knew what she wanted from him. He accepted that whatever secret she possessed could not be spoken; and so they were both content to inhabit the present, and to let time be something that flowed around them.
Their lives became more intertwined, without much discussion. Amy knew how she felt. She heard what Matthew said about how he felt and took him at his word. Everything else was simply natural. The time spent travelling between their respective houses was just wasted. She moved in to his flat. They had more time together. Amy said that he should be certain to keep up his interests and friendships, but he only wanted time to spend with her. When he could see and hold her he felt safe from the doubt and regret that had plagued his other life.
But that was how the darkness started. Matthew brooded: it was what he had always done. Gradually, he stopped seeing his own friends. He preferred to tag along with Amy and her friends when they met after work. Then it seemed that he was more comfortable when they didn´t go out at all. Amy said that she didn´t mind if they did nothing, she was happy for them just to be together. He was asking her what she minded all the time these days: it sounded foolish even to himself.
He started to plan and organize things that just the two of them could do together, except he needed reassurance that Amy would not find them boring. She was younger than him and probably she needed more excitement. He started to be interested in the sort of music and clothes that had bored him when he was Amy´s age. Amy was only confused, and had no answers to his nagging questions about what she might want to do. It was as if Matthew was pressing her to develop some consuming passion so that they might share it.
He was spoiling everything, and the worst was that he knew it, but could not stop. And now the future started to obsess him.
David told him he was being an idiot.
-You know more about girls than I do, but don´t you think you might drive her away? She fell for the person you are Matt. How are you going to keep her by turning yourself into someone different?
-I can´t see where we go from here. She´ll get tired of me. Some days I think it would be better for me to break it now. It will hurt too much if we grow apart.
-I don´t know about Amy, but I´m tired of you. Dump or be dumped; is that the best you can do? It sounds like playground stuff.
Patricia couldn´t help him. She said that it was clear to everyone that he and Amy were meant for each other, and that with all the women he´d known he should be able to trust the emotions he felt now and know that he had something rare and special. But now Patricia had her baby, she didn´t need him, he thought, even though he´d never been more than a surrogate for David really. He remembered the other women, and the strategies he´d used to get free of them when the thrill was gone, all too well.
He doubted his own ability to make a commitment. He knew that he was devoted to Amy now, but what would come of that in time. They´d met just after the thing with Patricia finished; just after he´d learned about the child. That could be just chance, or that he´d not been open to a deeper relationship before because Patricia meant more than he thought. It could mean only that he´d needed to move from one temporary emotional crutch to another. How would that feel two or five years from now?
He started to hate himself and believe that he wasn´t worthy of Amy. Leaving her would save her from him. What would happen to them if he stayed? What life could he offer? Patricia told him that was Amy´s business not his. Amy was perfect, but Matthew had always believed that perfection was an illusion. At any rate he was sure that he was far from perfect himself.
Other times he would reflect that if his memories were distorted; if Patricia had kept him on a leash for so long, or if he´d been so shallow that he could never connect with those other women, then it meant that he was even more pathetic and lucky to have Amy than he imagined, and he should hold on to her however he could. He saw now that the other girls, the ones that David called his conquests, had never really been lovers. They hadn´t seen him at all, absorbed in the dramas of their own lives, in which he was allotted only a minor role. He´d been content to remain invisible, only providing them an empty space for a time, until he ran away, which was what he did best. Only now he couldn´t run.
One night, in the middle of it all, he asked if she´d like them to be married. Amy gave one of her smiles
-I should think not, she replied. I´m not sure what you mean by “be married”? It sounds a bit half-hearted; like you would consent to being a husband, but you wouldn’t want to go through all the tedious business of a wedding. It doesn’t even sound as if you are talking about you and me. More like a general enquiry as to my preferences. You´d have to do better than that to convince me.
-Of course I meant us. I’m sorry, that was clumsy I know. I’ve never proposed to anyone before.
-I’m only teasing Matt. But remember you have been married before.
-I know. Still, that was just something that sort of happened. Now it´s different.
Amy thought for a while, and then she said that she hadn´t yet considered marriage enough to know whether it was for her or not. She would need to understand what it was for and why they might do it. She added that if she ever decided that she did want to be married; then she expected that she would want to be married to Matthew. And she was smiling again.
Matthew thought he felt relief at her reply. He wasn’t sure why he’d raised the subject in the first place. It was a catharsis of sorts: not that he didn´t want to marry Amy, but he was forced to ask himself why she would want to marry a man who had turned himself into a mirror image of the man she met: insistent, whining, on edge all the time; finding significance in the most minor things; obsessing about possible futures. He realized how close he had come to destroying what they had, and although he couldn´t altogether turn from the path of self destruction overnight, little by little he began to recover happiness.
She pulled us through, just by staying herself, he thought of Amy. She´s not stupid: she could see what I was going through; but she kept talking to me as if I was the person she knew, not the deranged maniac I´ve been. More than ever he could see what a special person she was and understand that his first obligation was to do his best to deserve her.
David had arranged to meet Matthew at his mother’s house. Amy was going to be there too, and later, if he turned up, Tim. David wasn´t sure whether Matthew or his mother was behind the invitation, but he did feel that he owed the old lady something more than the impersonal MP´s response she´d had to her letter to him, and he would support any effort to break Tim out of his current situation, though he doubted it could be done. He knew that Matthew wanted to show him the part of David´s constituency where he´d grown up, and he rather feared he was due to be lectured at.
Even so, he hated to be late for any kind of meeting, but it was tough to know how much time was needed for a journey across town these days, even on a Saturday. Parts of the city were permanently choking on traffic.
David drove through the centre, r
The centre was growing, outwards as well as upwards, and now it was insulated from the inner suburbs by a ring of tarmac. The rows of terrace houses were gone, together with the breakers’ yards, cheap office space, and warehouses that had crowded among them. In their place moving lines of vehicles; and between them, banked expanses of grass that no-one ever stood upon. It wouldn´t be long before the office workers would be able to pass from their suburban homes to their expensive parking spaces without catching sight of the poor estates.
He steered the car around the curve of the final interchange and took the spur that headed south, passing under a deserted pedestrian footbridge. Abruptly the image of civic modernity faded. The road narrowed and its surface became uneven. The old buildings crowded in closer to the highway. There were people walking about in the streets, plump mothers herding young children and the scrawny elderly hunched over in their raincoats.
It was a strange sensation to drive this route after so many years: not because the streets were unfamiliar, but because they were so little changed, when everything else had moved on.
David took a short cut, making a right turn by the old park. He was pleased with himself for remembering the way. But the park was a mess. It had not been a pretty space to begin with, but what bored youths had vandalised the council had ignored. The grass had died or been burned away in patches and broken glass was trodden into the hard ground. The houses that fronted the park did not look too bad but there was rubbish in the street and in the front yards. It was a place no one cared about any more.
Matthew’s mother lived a few streets further on, where the houses were neater, and the gardens grew things that were planted rather than dumped. The cars and the windows looked clean, but there was graffiti on the wall of the chip shop at the end of the street that was now a Chinese takeaway. It must feel like being under siege living here, he thought.
Mrs James welcomed him in, offered him tea and asked him to sit in the front room, all in one breath. Instead he stood in the tiny kitchen talking to her while the kettle boiled. They had only met a few times, but he remembered her well and knew the type of lady she was. If you wanted a conversation, the kitchen was the place to have it. In any of the other rooms, she would be up and about constantly, picking at half finished tasks or finding new ones that needed to be done. Here in the kitchen, where the work was done standing up and everything that was needed was close to hand, was the nearest she would come to being at rest.
-It’s been a while David. I’m sure that Matthew will be along soon. He’s late for everything, as you know. Not very polite of him though, when you´re so busy. He told me he´d like the two of you to spend some time in the neighbourhood before dinner: or lunch I should say. I don´t know what he thinks you´ll find, but anyway it’s always nice to see you.
-We´ve known each other too long to worry about Matt being polite, but I can´t stay all day. He said something about showing me how the ordinary people live. I think he believes I’m in danger of forgetting.
-He wants to save your soul from the damnation of politics.
-I don’t think Matt believes in souls.
Mrs James took on a more serious expression.
-Well, I’m not sure that I do either. But after what we heard you say on the radio, I suppose that has something to do with it.
-I read your letter. You didn’t approve.
-You said some things that you don’t believe. At least I hope you don’t. If you do, you’ve changed your opinions a great deal. I supposed that you were saying what you did because you thought it was what voters wanted to hear.
-I’m trying to be a member of parliament. To do that you have to keep being elected.
Mrs James gave him a hard stare.
-I understand that way of doing things. I can’t say that I think much of it. I’m a simple person, I know. To me there’s right and wrong. You do your best to say what’s right, as you see it, then people can choose whether they agree with you or not. It might not be an easy path but if you leave it I´m not sure where you end up. Some of your friends in parliament seem to say whatever is most convenient for them.
-They´re not friends. And if I did that, I would know, inside myself, that what I was saying was wrong.
-Would you, David? Are you sure? Matthew tells me that you do believe in the soul. He says that´s why you trust yourself to make good choices. That’s lucky for you. The rest of us have to rely on principles.
-You make it sound as if you think that I don’t have any.
-I’m sorry; I didn’t mean that. I meant to say; most of us need some fixed rules that we can live by. Rules that are bigger than ourselves, even if we reason them out for ourselves. We don’t hear some inner voice that might tell us one thing on one day and the opposite thing the next. I don’t believe I could trust in that.
-I wouldn’t have expected you to have thought so much about it.
-Because I’m a practical old woman? Well it’s a practical matter isn’t it? Besides, I’ve lived a long time. And I never had much school to make me think the same as everyone else. I´ve had to work out my opinions for myself.
David took a sip of tea. The conversation was turning out to be more interesting than he had expected.
-Do you read the newspapers Mrs James?
-I buy one of the cheap ones, out of habit, for the puzzles and the TV pages. I listen to the radio to find out what´s happening. The papers are funny though, the way they twist everything. Once you understand the trick, it’s like a game to imagine what really happened or what someone might have really said, from what they report; and how the paper has changed it to make you think about it in a certain way. I suppose most people read newspapers that way now, as entertainment. I hope so at least.
She paused to offer him a biscuit, David declined.
-It´s popular to think that people are stupid, she continued, but I don´t believe it. Most of them just prefer to let themselves be carried along by all the nonsense because they don´t think they can do anything about it – I suppose to make their jobs and their lives easier. Oh, and I do read the Examiner of course – well, usually. Some of it is a bit dull I admit, but don’t tell Matthew I said so.
-If you understand how the media works, then I suppose you know why I have to be careful about what I say in public?
-I’m not sure that I do. I understand it might make things easier for you, if you pretend to believe what everyone else says they believe, but what’s the point of it? What are you trying to achieve? Matthew says you don’t need the money, which I suppose is why most politicians are in it, so what can you get that is worth being dishonest for? It ruins a person, telling lies. It becomes a habit like it did for Matthew´s father. And that’s what they are you know - lies. I’m sorry I have to put it like that, but to me, when you’re saying things that you know aren’t true, or that you don’t believe, then you´re lying.
She seemed to be quite upset at what she was saying, but having made up her mind to say it, she was determined to finish.
-If you said, this is what I think and if you agree with me, then this is what we’ll do, I’d stand up and cheer that even if I wasn’t sure it was the best thing. But the pretending…in the end what is the difference between someone who pretends to believe the wrong things, and someone who does believe them. They both end up doing the same thing: one because he wants to and the other because he’s trapped into keeping up the pretence.
They heard an engine noise outside. Mrs James peered through the kitchen window.
-Looks like Matthew is here at last. Is that your car outside the house? It’s nice, but I expected something a little grand
-Yes, that’s one´s mine. I’m not really interested in cars.
-Well good for you, neither am I and there are too many of them round here. You should see the speed that some of the young ones come down here, and hear the noise they make. Anyway you let Matthew and Amy in and go through into the front room. Maybe we can talk some more about this later. Or you can make up your mind that I am a crotchety old lady who you don’t need to take seriously. I know I talk too much. It comes from living on my own I’m afraid. If you think I’ve been rude I hope that you won’t hold it too much against me. You see I like to talk, but I never picked up the habit of gossip.
David opened the door for Matthew and Amy and everyone crowded into the narrow hall for a moment, exchanging greetings.
-Our Brenda´s joining us later, Mrs James told her son. Just her, not the family.
-It´s going to be a squeeze then.
Matthew realized that his sister would have insisted on attending when she found out that Tim was a guest. She strongly disapproved of him and no doubt felt that her mother should not be without moral support.
-Oh there´s plenty of room, Mrs James insisted. The more the better. It´s only a shame Patricia couldn´t join us then we would have a full house.
-She would have liked to be here, only she´s busy. A new case, said David.
-Yes, Mrs James replied.
She and Amy made a fuss of each other and then Amy followed Mrs James into the kitchen saying that they should leave the boys alone.
Matthew and David stood in the hall a moment longer. Matthew intended to show David round the tiny dwelling, which he´d only visited three times before and never seen beyond the front room, but now he felt a strange reluctance to begin. Whenever he came home, the house seemed smaller and poorer in reality than the child´s memory that reasserted itself when he was away for a while. In fact the place never altered. The rooms were too small and the light was not good, but it was always clean; always neat. Nothing replaced only because it was old, but only as it had become broken or used up.