Sing Like You Know the Words, page 33
-David, dinner’s ready, what are you doing?
Patricia came into the room with her arms folded. He thought she looked tired. She was wearing an old sweater and the leggings that he hated. He dimmed the light and whispered.
-I was just finishing Evelyn´s bedtime story
-She’s too young for your stories.
-She likes the sound of them. Children´s stories last for years. I´m making them for Evelyn now so that she´ll grow into them later, when she can understand better.
-Matthew´s here. He´s in a bad way. Something´s happened between him and Amy.
Evelyn had already fallen asleep. David switched on the audio monitor and they went downstairs to dinner.
Weeks after the final words with Amy, Matthew was still feeling alternately raw and numb. He´d agreed with Jane that they should have some time apart. He was no use to anyone in this condition. Matthew was not sure that he even wanted to see Jane any more. His thoughts were taken up with his own grief; and it seemed to want to turn to bitterness.
Matthew spent a few nights at the Thomas´s. Later, he was there so much of the time that he may as well have moved in. He was drinking too much again. Most nights, David shared a glass with him, but David didn´t seem to be affected by alcohol like other people. It was a time when David didn´t need to be in London, and Matthew was glad. He didn´t want to be alone with Patricia.
David seemed to have something on his mind. Matthew waited to hear it. Soon David asked him what he thought of a certain town councillor
-Joe Reilly? He’s alright I suppose, not the sharpest tool in the box, but seems honest enough. Not something you can take for granted, believe me. He’s been a fixture on the planning committee for as long as anyone can remember.
-That´s what I mean. Decent enough, but chairman of the planning committee?
-Someone has to do the job. It might as well be him as anyone else.
-It’s a very powerful role Matt.
Matthew paused to consider this.
-What are you thinking of doing?
-The local men don’t like me. They don’t trust me because I owe them nothing. And that damages me. I need people I can rely on in my own home patch.
-I hope you’re not asking me to stand for the council because there is absolutely no chance of that.
-Relax; I already have someone on the council.
-What Harold, are you serious?
-He’s served for nearly two years.
-Only because you forced him on them. And Joe’s served for more than twenty years.
-Exactly, it’s time for some new blood.
-You’d never get the old guard to agree with you.
-Not if I went about it as you would like me to; granted. If I go to them, state my case and ask for a general session to debate the position. But that’s not how things are done. They´re a feuding bunch down there; always falling out with each other about who´s been overlooked or found their way blocked. You know how it is; just a question of seeing how the fault lines lay and knowing how to use them. Why are you looking at me like that?
-I thought you were elected to fight the Tories, not your own people.
-That’s right, but I can´t do that effectively while I’m being held back at every turn by people who think they should run everything just because they´ve been around forever.
Matthew made no reply to this. He felt at a disadvantage, in his friend´s house, enjoying his whisky. He was presuming on David´s hospitality and he knew that he was not good company at the moment.
-Why tell me about it?
-You report council meetings and doings all the time. You could…
-I respect your moral scruples, Matt. I wouldn’t be asking you…
-Good, nothing more to say then.
Matthew was annoyed with himself. David had asked him to do something that was wrong and he was the one feeling wretched because he had refused.
Two weeks later, outside the Council chamber, Matthew bumped into Joe Reilly, leaving a committee meeting in a hurry. There had been no public announcement, but a rumour was going round that Joe would be stepping down at the coming local elections.
-Mr Reilly to you
-What’s up with you?
-You know very well what’s up. Your smarmy pal has fixed things up to get rid of me. Do you think I was born yesterday?
-I don’t know much about it Joe. I mean…sorry. There was some gossip about you retiring, but I didn’t believe it.
-You wouldn’t credit it. Twenty three years on the council and this is how they chuck me out.
-I’m sorry, really. Still you know, twenty three years; it’s a good innings. I mean, no one can go on forever. The places are not owned
-No, but your Mr Thomas owns that pimpled little shit who is going to take my place doesn’t he? If that’s the way it’s going to be, I tell you I’m glad to be out.
Harold followed Joe out of the chamber just as this exchange was ending. He was straightening the bundle of papers that he carried. His expression was smug. Reilly turned his back and strode off down the corridor. For once, Matthew could not restrain himself and turned on Harold.
-Are you satisfied with what you’ve got? Was it worth what you had to do to get it?
-Councillor Reilly has understood that he wouldn´t have the support to hold on to his seat. Better for everybody that he retires gracefully. I’m happy for now, thank you.
-Harold grinned at him. The grin naturally curled into a sneer.
-Do you really think that you can make good happen by behaving in this way? Matthew asked him.
-You poor tender hearted thing, Harold replied. Last year we stopped two local schools from being shut down. We got a commitment of funds from government to put a new specialist wing on the city hospital. We’ve got transport and housing schemes going through that will change people’s lives. Of course we can’t make a big fuss about any of it, or else the press; that’s you; will accuse us of socialism. But none of this would have happened without your friend David or without people like me. So yes, thank you very much for your concern; I can sleep well at nights. What have you done for anybody but yourself lately?
-I just don’t see the point of what you do Harold. You think so little of people that you can trample on them, but you tell yourself you are doing it to make them happy. How can that work?
-And I’m glad you don’t understand. I’m not like you: drifting uselessly through life. I got everything I wanted because I planned it from the start – school, college, this job. Everything as I planned, because I took control and made it happen.
-And now you’ve got all you want?
-It’s coming to me.
-Then why do you never look happy Harold? I‘ve never seen you with a genuine happy smile.
-Thanks for that, coming from you Mr Jolly. Harold walked away.
Few tears were shed for Joe Reilly. Many of the council and party members remembered how Joe had made himself chairman of the planning committee in the first place: those who didn´t were subtly reminded. There had to be a dinner to thank him for his many years of service and to wish him well in retirement. As a local MP it was natural that David should make the presentation. Nothing was said publicly, but it did not escape anyone’s attention that the old man who had been stabbed in the back now had to shake the hand that had held the dagger. To see this happen to Joe; the roughest and meanest of all of them, was frightening. Joe Stalin they used to call him. Even he had not seen it coming. If it could happen to him, it could happen to any of them. Perhaps after all, it would be better to work with the new lot rather than against them. At the end of the day, weren’t they all trying to pull in the same direction? And you had to admit, that David Thomas had a certain style about him.
Somewhere in Africa, there was a war going on. It was the normal state of things.
The escort took
A pair of field guns had been placed in the centre of the compound, and the soldiers were directing them against some unidentified target in the centre of town. Hawkins looked to the faraway high rise towers of what had been a modern city, all steel and glass; probably with most of the glass lying in shards by now.
The gun crews applied themselves to the task as they would have approached any other job in this heat: they would fire a few rounds, laughing at the deafening explosions of the guns; then they would become bored or tired and sit around talking for a while, resuming when the conversation wore out. His escort seemed to find the artillery hugely entertaining. They were grinning and applauding the gunners. But the lieutenant had his orders and they moved on.
Further on, some of the child soldiers that you saw everywhere in this conflict were resting in a group. They seemed to be mostly asleep, which seemed incredible given the noise of the guns, but Hawkins knew they were probably coming down from the adrenaline of last night´s action and whatever drugs they had been given to prepare them for it. They looked like boys of ten or eleven, though they could have been older, holding weapons as big as they were. He was careful to keep as far from them as possible. Even without drugs they were unpredictable, comical looking but lethal. Automatic weapons were their toys, and the nearest thing they had to a daddy was the Big Man, even if most of them had been orphaned by his troops. They were fanatically loyal to him, convinced that he could not be killed by bullets, but that anyone else who crossed their path very definitely could be.
Even the crazy white man had not been able to wound the Big Man. The child soldiers dreamed of a time when they would share the Big Man’s secret of invulnerability to bullets, but they knew that only the best of them would ever achieve this.
Albert had been locked up in one of the smaller outbuildings at the far side of the compound, that might have once been the caretaker’s office and store.
The teenage lieutenant led Hawkins to the door of Albert’s cell. There were two heavily armed guards outside, who made a reasonable job of saluting the boy and opened the door for Hawkins to enter. The lieutenant made as if to follow, but Hawkins stopped him, patting the holstered pistol on his own belt and smiling. The young man frowned; then shrugged his shoulders. Hawkins went in alone.
There was a single room, with no windows. The only light came from the holes in the roof, where it had decayed and given way. The hot air was suffocating.
Something that could have been either a man or a bundle of discarded clothes was lying completely motionless in the darkest corner.
-Do you have any water?
-Only for the moment I suppose
-I’ve a little here, take it.
Albert stirred himself to drink, and wipe some of the blood away from his face with a dampened sleeve. The light caught his face. Hawkins winced.
-Jesus Christ, what a mess. Long time no see. What were you thinking of Albert?
-Someone once told me, there’s a line you can’t cross because if you do, anything can happen. Best advice I never took.
-You crossed a line for sure.
-What is the Big Man saying? Did the boys get anywhere near him?
-What do you think; seriously? There´s not a scratch on him. I think he’s in a good mood today. He’s been spinning all these tales about how he can’t be killed and now your team comes along and makes it look as if it might be true, even when the treacherous white men turn on him. I suppose if he had even had a small wound, every white within reach would have been slaughtered by now. It could still happen. Did you stop to consider that? Anyway, give me the story, you may as well.
Albert had been out of the country for months and Hawkins had not seen or heard from him. It turned out that he´d come back only make a personal delivery of some new toys for the Big Man’s army. He´d intended to make a few calls on contacts, and leave as soon as was decent. Then somehow he´d become involved in a desperate attempt to overthrow the regime (if the Big Man’s rule could be called a regime). Two nights earlier, a few well equipped men, veterans of the endless wars of the place, had climbed the walls of the Presidential residence and killed most of the guards before the Big Man was roused. He´d led the counter attack personally with his elite bodyguard. In a few minutes the attackers were captured or, if they were lucky, killed.
-What were you thinking of?
-It’s worked before in this country.
-Not against the likes of him. Would you hope to catch the devil off guard? Jesus Christ.
-What about the boys?
-All dead now, fortunately for them.
-They were dead anyway, before it began. He´d decided to take out their village – decided he couldn’t trust it not to turn against him. He’s insane, you know. Fifteen hundred men, women and children in that village, probably more. One of the ministers told me about it. I expect he’s dead too, but you mustn’t ask me to tell you his name. He was a man from the same village, introduced them to me. Knew I could get the equipment for an operation. We persuaded ourselves that if the worst came to the worst, maybe the stuff wouldn’t be missed from a big shipment.
-Jesus Christ, Albert.
-Are you going to keep saying that? If so I shall have to ask you to leave. Tell me what the deal is.
-You know how it works. We’re all under suspicion now, but fortunately we’re still useful. I’ve been brought here to finish you off. Prove my loyalty I suppose.
-No way out of it.
-I can’t see one Albert. You know my views on such things. If was you or me, then would be you. But it’s worse than that in this case; it’s just you; or you and me both.
-I understand Ray.
-I wish I did.
-I couldn’t watch it happen any more. That was my mistake; coming back. And I was stupid enough to think I could make a difference. I overestimated our importance. But they were good, honest men Ray, they deserved a chance.
-I don’t know how you can possibly think that you know what kind of men they were, or what kind of men they would have become in this place. Supposing it had come off, one of your mates would take over and become just as bad as this bastard in a month.
-I thought if they could make the change, quickly and cleanly, without too much bloodshed…
-Well you’re right when you say that you overestimated our importance. What matters for these men is the will: we only provide the means. I used to think that it was us who gave them power; but I know better now. The truth is they are stronger than us. They have pure intentions in the way that animals do. They’ve turned a bunch of kids too small to hold their guns right into the most lethal weapon in this war. Men like these will take out whole villages armed with nothing more than a few sharp blades. We’ve both seen them do it, in the Congo.
-Those blades were imported machetes that arrived in crates stamped to say they were agricultural implements. Whoever was selling them knew what they were for: enough machetes for every farmer south of the Sahara to have two.
-My point is; we think it’s our doing, but it’s not.
-We tell ourselves that Ray, but we make things worse, when we should be making them better. We keep filling their treasuries with aid dollars, so there´s more for the gangsters to fight over; and then we give them bigger and more deadly toys so that the few can keep the many down. How does that help?
-If you felt like that you should have stayed at home. Why did you imagine that your meddling would be more helpful than anybody else’s?
-Let’s talk about something else Ray, I’m tired.
-Your mouth is bleeding pretty badly
-It’s only teeth knocked out. I guess I shan’t need them now. Tell me about England. Did you manage to sort out that little problem about the Cromwell takeover?
-Sweet as a nut. It seems like an age ago now. The other party could see how the land lay fairly smartish. He was only up for the money. Seemed like a lot of trouble for nothing to me though. It was just one of your front companies wasn’t it? Easier to let it go and find another.
-It mattered a great deal to a friend of mine.
-Your protégé. The one you told me about. I talked to him; seemed grateful. But that sort of thinking is what I call romantic, Albert. I might even say there’s a direct line between thinking like that, and the situation you find yourself in now. Too much reading and thinking has brought you to this.
-Reading stimulates the imagination Ray. Without imagination we are animals and nothing more. But you´re right of course: I´ve been reading too much and the same few books. There are two of them with my things. You might try them. They look like heavy going but I know you´re not as dumb as you try to make out.
-You want to talk about books just now?
-There´s a Russian one, but it´s an English translation, called Crime and Punishment; and another called Nostromo
-Funny name. What are they about?
-The first is about a young student who persuades himself to murder so he´ll be able to do great things for mankind, but then he has to live with the consequences. The second is more complicated; it´s to do with personal integrity, and then it has things to say about whether you can be involved in the business of empire and still be an honest man.