Sing like you know the w.., p.37

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 37

 

Sing Like You Know the Words
 



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  The man was staring at him now: probably quite a few people were. There was blood on Mitchell’s torn coat, his hair was awry, and there was more blood running down one side of his face from a slight gash that he would notice later. His placid expression, standing at the pedestrian crossing with his business case in his hand, as if nothing had happened, must have made him seem deranged. But more than this, it was clear to him that the other had recognized and remembered him: a part of him registered this before his conscious brain knew it. His body was turning to run even as his mind struggled to make any connection to the circumstances.

  And the other was following, he was sure of it. He heard the crossing signal beeping behind him and scuffling and shouts as the man pushed crossers out of the way and ran after him. Mitchell headed back towards the station. The lights were against him, but the traffic was hardly moving. He raced between the cars, not stopping to look at anything. He never heard the whining engine of the approaching motor scooter, speeding between the cars; just a squeal of brakes and a thump; then metal crashing against metal as the scooter piled into the cars. He looked round once to see his pursuer lying in the road between the cars, under the helmeted body of the bike rider; kicking furiously to get free.

  Mitchell did not wait to see if either of them got up: he jogged back into the station. There someone stopped him and others came to help him clean up and establish that his injuries were not serious. He insisted he did not want to wait for an ambulance and did not need a check up. He walked a few blocks intending to find a cab. There probably wouldn’t be any more trains that day, so he thought the best thing to do would be to catch the first available flight back to Malaga. Then he started to worry: if the man really was a policeman, he might be able to trace Mitchell. For all he knew they already had his passport details. They could have been watching him for months. Obviously the police believed he really was a partner of Ray Hawkins.

  He dare not use his passport, or even return to Malaga. Even his semi-official existence there would have left some trace. The only safe place for the moment seemed to be the boarding house. No one knew he was there.

  ***

  -And there he stays, Matthew concluded. He told me that this Ray Hawkins was a professional criminal, probably a killer, who he accidentally bumped into some years ago. The man hijacked him to sit in on a conversation in London, with this Spanish person who is supposed to be a policeman. He says he has no idea what the connection is between them. I can’t make sense of it

  -But you got the address? David sounded greedy for the information.

  -Maybe, but hold on. When I’d been talking to this guy for a while, I realized there was more to this than the usual paranoid delusions, even though his story seems crazy. The fear is different: and there are other things. This is not someone who is spinning a complex fantasy around a few coincidences. Those sort of people are waiting for you to raise objections because they have everything worked out. They weave explanations into the story so that they can explain to you how it all fits together. Walcott’s story is full of loose ends, and I don’t believe he has any appreciation of what he is involved in, or what it all means. To be honest, he’s not even interested in making sense of it; he just wants to get clear. All sorts of little hints make me think I should believe he’s telling the truth.

  -Well we can at least help him get clear, that’s my job in fact. If you’ll just tell me where I can find him.

  -David, he asked me not to give those details to anyone, not even you. And in any case it’s a story. It’s like you asking me to divulge a source. I would be breaking professional standards.

  -I see all of a sudden it’s a matter of integrity and you’re a professional journalist: not a cheap scribbler on a local rag who took a weekend break at my expense.

  Matthew looked at him, astonished by this outburst.

  -Matt, I’m sorry I didn’t mean that. I am under a lot of pressure at the moment, nothing to do with this case. But remember you weren’t there as a journalist, you were there to help me help my constituent, so let’s be sensible.

  -But there is a story, even so. There are some other things; things he told me about this mysterious Mr Hawkins, that I should follow up.

  -Hawkins might be dangerous for you.

  -Why do you say that? Anyway my guess is the story doesn’t stop with Hawkins, he sounds like a man who does things that another man decides. I’ve done some digging around already. For instance do you know what titadyn is?

  -A secret society?

  -It’s a sort of explosive, used a lot in mining, common in mines in southern France, which means the Basque separatists can easily get hold of it and have made it their favourite bomb ingredient. According to Walcott, Hawkins told him that the mysterious policeman tried to buy this stuff from them, at a meeting that Walcott attended more or less accidentally. He really has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why Hawkins would say anything to him about it, I have no idea. Anyway, Walcott thinks that the policeman was trying to see if Hawkins had links with ETA.

  -And what do you think?

  -Doesn’t explain all the facts, or at least what I think I know. But I don’t know enough to think anything yet.

  -Certainly you don’t have enough for any story that you could print

  -Agreed, not yet anyway.

  -And it’s a bit far off the beaten track for the Examiner, in any case.

  -I know

  For a while they sat, silently. David had again started to fidget. Matthew sprang to his feet in exasperation

  -For God’s sake David, we are supposed to be friends. Just tell me.

  -Tell you what?

  -Tell me what is the matter? Why should any of this matter to you?

  -I know Hawkins

  -How could that be?

  -He’s an unusual man, maybe not quite stable. From these parts originally, but I think he left for good a long time ago. One of the things he does for a living is selling arms, in a small way; not in a strictly legal way. He’s the one to make deals with the sort of people that others don’t particularly want to talk to. Works on commission mostly. Sometimes he might help out with other problems too, for people who don’t have any other way to get things done.

  -Are you telling me you were dealing weapons through this man?

  -God no, we were never involved in anything illegal like that. But it’s guilt by association isn’t it? Something like this comes out and the hacks from the nationals don’t have to accuse you to your face of anything. They just hint and imply. If you say nothing, they note that no explanations have been given: if you try to explain they take everything the wrong way on purpose and tear you to pieces. If a Hawkins connection comes out, it damages me: just when I’m looking at a ministerial portfolio.

  -You should tell me exactly how much you know about Ray Hawkins.

  -Not much to tell. I was introduced through Albert. You probably guessed that Albert’s people were my backers when I took Cromwell over. You didn’t think I had the kind of money to do it on my own? Poor Albert had friends based in Switzerland.

  -Zurich

  -Yes. You remember the visit.

  -But the company was yours. You had all the shares. You’re the one who got rich. What was in it for them?

  -They took a slice along the way. They needed to have someone they could trust so that they could remain anonymous. That was me. But to be truthful, there was probably more to it than a cut of the profits. I’ve been careful never to look at it too carefully, and you know I’m no accountant, but there are some numbers that don’t seem to add up. I think it may have been useful to them that we had contracts that were classified as defence contracts even though ours was not sensitive procurement. It meant we could trade legally in lots of countries.

  -You always swore to me that all your exports were fully licensed. You said it was just machinery and spares.

  -And that’s true Matt, I swear it now. We never broke the law. You know I never
wanted to sell any kind of defence goods in the first place. I only wanted to save the company. And things were so hard, and I had so many people depending on me. I’d told all of them, no redundancies here, your jobs are safe; we’re in this together. I couldn’t go back to them and say, sorry, I got it wrong, all the profitable contracts have a military application so I’m shutting us down.

  -Go on.

  -All our contracts were legal, and what we shipped was legal, but looking at the paperwork, some of the quantities don’t make sense. If we’ve shipped goods to the value of a hundred thousand, you might see invoicing that suggests we’ve shipped a lot more than that.

  -But what you sell is pretty bulky. If there was a shortfall on the delivery it would be obvious to the customer.

  -Pretty bulky, exactly. So it could happen that by the time they arrived, there might be other things in the containers, besides what we shipped. Less bulky things, more nasty things, things that people were prepared to pay good money for but which shouldn’t have been there.

  -You mean smuggled goods

  -All duly invoiced and paid for, making the money clean.

  -When did you find out?

  -I never did find out. I’m only guessing. I’ve only just admitted to myself that the reason I didn’t look into it more closely was because I preferred not to know. I’ve been turning a lot of old stuff over in my head lately.

  Matthew agreed with David that they both needed a drink. David sloshed whisky into the tumblers. His hands were not steady. They sat down again, facing each other in the armchairs, as they had done so many times over the years.

  -What does Harold say about this?

  -I haven’t told Harold what I’ve told you, but maybe he knows anyway.

  -It’s true he is pretty quick to sniff out dirt. It’s his natural habitat.

  -This isn’t about Harold. You’ve always been hard on him. Someone has to do his job. Do you think the other side doesn’t have their own Harold’s? They have whole teams of them.

  -As you say, this is not about him. You tell me often enough I’m not prepared to get my hands dirty, and how useless that makes me.

  -I’m sorry if I’ve put it like that

  -It doesn’t matter.

  -It all matters. It matters to me when I think about the questionable things I’ve had to do to get this far, and the good I’ve been able to do as a result. I balance it all the time, the good I’ve done and might still do, against the compromises, and what you would call the dishonesty. I weigh the scale in my mind every day.

  -Which way is it tipping now?

  -I can live with anything I’ve done. I know you’re a sceptic, but we have done good work, me and my team; yes Harold as well. We’ve made some things better and fairer than they would have been, even though you tell me it’s impossible to prove that kind of claim. And what’s more important, we can do more; we really can.

  -It’s such a hard climb to get to the point where you can make a difference. You have to do some bad things on the way up, to get there; and all the time you have to hang on to the state of grace; the pure intention; so that when you do have the chance, it is still someone with the right values and ideals who makes the big decisions. You must hold on to the good in yourself even when you’re dealing with the most corrosive realities. That’s why you need family and friends around you.

  -You’ve thought about it a lot.

  -Of course. And I’m on the verge of reaching that point, of having power. Soon it’ll be a seat in the cabinet and then who knows?

  -I thought they were only offering you a junior minister position

  -That’s only the start.

  -I’m sorry David, it doesn’t persuade me. We don’t see the world in the same way. In my world, your future holds as much compromise and shabbiness if you sit on the front bench as if you sit at the back, probably more. Everyone has to take shit. The president in Washington has got to wade through more of it than you do.

  David shrugged.

  -You think like that because you’re resigned to nothing ever changing and the wrong people always getting power, in a world getting a little worse every day. I’m not prepared to give in like that.

  -Let’s talk about Walcott.

  -Give me his address, we’ll find him, bring him back to the UK, where he’s safe, and persuade him to keep quiet about the whole thing. You said yourself he’s got no money, no connections and no curiosity. No-one would listen to his wild stories and he knows it. He’s just looking for an out.

  -Tell me first what Hawkins did for you.

  -You remember when that little bastard Foster tried to take over the company?

  -Of course

  -It was a carefully planned ambush. We didn’t have anywhere to go. He’d spent months gently steering the business to be just where he wanted it. He bought the American company to get us into debt. So when he made his move, the clock was ticking and we only had hours to respond. He was sure we had no way to raise extra cash. In any case he was in league with the weasels at the bank.

  -Albert’s friends agreed to invest some more money in the company, privately, to get us over the hump, but there was still Foster himself to deal with. And he wanted to grind my face in the dirt as much as he wanted anything else. He wasn’t satisfied with just money. Hawkins persuaded him that it would be a better idea to take a very generous payout and go.

  -I never saw or heard about Foster after that, what became of him?

  -He walked away with a suitcase full of cash. Probably more than he would have netted from his dirty little scam. He was still disappointed of course; would have liked to have seen it played through. There’s something about a rat like him that takes as much pleasure in dishonesty for its own sake as what he can get from it.

  -Suppose he hadn’t agreed to back off?

  -The question didn’t arise, because he agreed. Are you going to give me these details or not?

  Matthew was sitting on the edge of the chair, back arched over, head in his hands; one arm trailing an almost empty glass.

  -I can’t tell you just at this moment. I’ll ring you later tonight. Do you mind if I refill this?

  He sloshed more whisky into the glass.

  -So that was you and Albert then, he continued. I’ve often wondered. I miss him a lot you know. I suppose a bad thing happened.

  -I couldn’t say. He just disappeared.

  Matthew thought about that.

  -But it’s like if your cat goes missing. After a while you know that you won’t see him again.

  -You know I was thinking just the other day, about a story Albert told me, from when he was in North Africa, doing a deal with someone he only called the Major. He wouldn’t say more than that about the business, but I suppose I can guess now. Anyway, he explained to me in some detail this visit that the Major had organized to a local brothel, and Albert and everyone else was obliged to be there. I suppose they were proud of the facility and the hospitality was compulsory. He was amusing in the way he talked about it; he didn’t let his own feelings show: but I was thinking, why is he telling me this about himself? I was a little disgusted to be honest.

  -I can see now that it would be helpful for him to have a sin on his mind that he could actually confess. I’m sure that the other things, all the secrets that he couldn’t mention, made him feel worse.

  -I think that what he was trying to let me know was that it disgusted him too; this episode and all the other bad things he did. But he refused to turn away from them or pretend they hadn’t happened. He’d look at them without blinking. He would have liked to say, I am better than these things I’ve done, only he couldn’t, because he was honest and he believed that you were no more or less than what you did. I hope he found a way through all that anguish in the end. He was more troubled than we realized.

  David swirled the contents of his glass, without drinking. He appeared to be making a big effort to control a powerful emotion; whether of fear, impatience or anger was difficult
to say.

  -I don’t know about any of that, he said, but I can tell you the last thing that Albert said to me. He said that the English had begun to terrify him.

  -He never did like it here much.

  -You’re wrong. He loved this country. You know how he was always going on about Joseph Conrad? He used to say, let me get it right, that Conrad was a Pole who felt privileged to be a part of the British Empire at a time when it was a civilising principle as much as a collection of territories, even though he could see that it was based on robbery as much as idealism. He said he felt a little the same, that he was an outsider who felt privileged to witness the same nation in the vanguard of civilisation’s decline.

  -That doesn’t sound so complimentary. Why did we scare him?

  David tried to find words to explain. It was hard. The drink had affected him more than he expected and his mind was on other things. He saw Albert, occupying the chair that Matthew now sat in. The only one left from the old days. He tried to remember the exact words.

  Europe looks to Britain to see its future; not for the useless cars or the dying industries, but for ideas, music and language. There’s no linguistic insulation to keep American culture at bay, and it has killed off the continental tradition of looking at society as a collective enterprise. In Europe religion has died, but there are established institutions and habits of thought that enforce at least lip service to the idea of living together for mutual benefit. Americans despise collective society. They worship god and the individual, sincerely. But they have so much of everything that no-one starves, and their god recognizes philanthropy as the supreme egoism The American businessmen will swindle and cheat widows and orphans for the glory of being able to give the proceeds away to good causes. Englishmen will do the same but put the money in a vault.

  England is unique in taking on the American notion of a society that is all against all, but without the mitigating idealism of religion. In the future, the American god will die like all the others, and the American denial of society will infect Europe, which does not have the energy to resist; and so we end the same. The English are the laboratory mice, crammed so closely together that they have started to bite each other

 
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