Sing like you know the w.., p.38

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 38


Sing Like You Know the Words

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  That was only part of what he’d said. How to summarize it for Matthew? David sighed. He wasn’t sure it mattered anyway.

  -It was as complicated as you’d expect, he said. He saw the future of the developed world here. He believed we were the proof that once ordinary people felt secure enough not to rely on their neighbour for help, they no longer cared about their neighbour. Once that happens, things start to fall apart. It’s a vicious circle, he said; once you feel you personally don’t need the collective resources, you stop valuing them and start to resent contributing to them. You come to view the people who do depend on them with increasing levels of contempt. Those people are a challenge to your value system as well as a cost. He had a lot to say like that.

  -Did he convince you?

  -I don’t know. It’s been a long night. I can’t think clearly about it now. Give me the Spanish guy’s details and let’s just stop for now.

  -I told you I can’t say now whether I am prepared to do that. I’ll call you in the morning. I have to go home now, anyway. I’ve had too much to drink, and I can’t think straight either. I feel like one of Albert’s Englishmen, doomed by the laws of natural selection, and general incompetence and lack of faith.


  Two days later, Mitchell Walcott decided he couldn´t stand his situation any longer. He had to take some kind of action. Matthew James had told him to stay put, had even given him some money for the room. James had said that he would be back in touch again soon: but since then, nothing. Meanwhile Walcott could not step on the street. The glance of each stranger he passed seemed to carry a hidden significance, and the meaning was always sinister.

  After breakfast that morning, Mitchell checked out of the hotel and asked the owner to get him a cab. He paid the bill in cash, reminding him that his own funds were not going to last forever.

  The taxi driver held the door open for him, and closed it behind, taking Mitchell’s pathetic remnant of a case with exaggerated care and moving to the back of the vehicle to drop it in the opened trunk. The boot was slammed and the driver got in. The cab moved away from the kerb. Except that it was not his driver at the wheel. Mitchell looked back to see the taxi driver standing in the road, gravely watching his cab disappearing. So who was in the driver’s seat?

  -Hello again Mitchell, good to see the face of another Englishman in this country. I’ve been a bit lonely here.

  Ray Hawkins turned round and grinned at him, shark-like as ever.

  -Lovely day for a drive, don’t you think. Where shall we go?


  David could not shake off the memory of his last conversation with Hawkins. He poured himself another drink and sat, brooding. It was late evening. The house was silent. He was alone.

  Hawkins had expressed no surprise on hearing from him, though they had not spoken for so long. It was only by chance, David thought, that he had kept the number, after that time in Switzerland. Hawkins had told him that he was in the area and some things were best not dealt with on the telephone. He’d called round to the house as soon as David could be sure of being alone, but David hadn’t needed to explain very much. Hawkins simply said that he saw the problem and would deal with it. They both understood that David did not want to know the details of what dealing with the problem might mean.

  David had thought that would be the end of the conversation, but Hawkins had something more to tell him; about Albert.

  It was a shock to hear that news, but not exactly a surprise. David had never asked his ex-partner about his other business interests, but he had long assumed they involved some element of danger.

  -Did you know Albert well? He´d asked Hawkins.

  -In the way that our paths kept crossing; I suppose, was the reply. He spoke to me about you once or twice. He was quite proud of you. Said that you were a man of principle, always keeping your eye on the greater good. He was always going on about abstract things like that. It´s beyond me, mostly. I think he saw you as a little bit innocent. Quite amusing given our current transaction. You could say Albert was a business associate of mine.

  - Tell me, what kind of business was it? Did it ever involve Cromwell in any way?

  Hawkins laughed.

  -You still don’t get it at all do you? Your business was all about arms dealing; pure and simple; right from the off.

  -You´re mistaken. We were an export company; precision engineering mostly. We made some caterpillar treads for tracked vehicles; some of them were classed as military. But that´s all. And we had licences for all those jobs

  -Is that what you really believe? You must have wondered what was in some of your shipping crates besides the official contents. And didn´t you ever get curious about any of the invoices?

  -Are you saying that Cromwell was a front?

  -Partly that, but as well most of what you made and exported was military too, even if it wasn´t obvious. If you´re clever enough you can make what you call your precision parts look harmless enough. When they get where they are wanted, maybe with a bit of simple modification, they turn out to be just the thing to upgrade your helicopter gunship or whatever toy it might be.

  -Albert wouldn´t have known how to do that. He was no kind of engineer.

  -Of course not and in any case the officials looking at these things are not stupid, but they can turn a blind eye if the thing doesn´t look too obvious. Albert used to use a phrase, plausible deniability. And he had help of course, from his bosses in British Intelligence.

  -Now you’re telling me he was a spy?

  Hawkins sighed as if he was explaining a simple matter to a not very bright child.

  -Albert was an arms dealer, in a big way. Think about it. I do small time business, but even I go to places and speak to people that the spooks want to hear about. And they know all about me of course. I have to be careful; keeping them happy but not giving them anything that will come back to me. The way it works is that I help them with these bits and pieces, and my existence is tolerated.

  -You and Albert, on the other hand, well the volumes and the sort of stuff that you shipped, I wouldn’t call it arms dealing. Foreign policy more like. Albert was on their payroll more or less from the start. Maybe he started as a simple trader, like me, but you know he did actually believe in what he was doing. He thought that underneath all the dirt, he was part of trying to make things better; pushing a government in the right direction, toppling a dictator here, supporting a democracy there.

  -Did it ever make things better?

  -You´re asking the wrong person. I was a soldier Mr Thomas, before I was anything else. You don´t get to see a master plan in the poor bloody infantry: just a succession of fuckups and one damn thing after another. The only principle I´ve found that was worth remembering was the one about my enemy’s enemy being my friend. But the bastards keep swapping places. I never saw any pattern or greater scheme in it. Albert used to say that you could only deal with your own part of the puzzle and trust that whoever was directing operations had the right motives – keeping the greater good in mind, so to speak.

  -But you know, in the end, he couldn’t believe even in that any more. That was what finished him.

  -What you’ve just finished telling me is that I have been living a lie for half my life.

  -No need to sound so glum about it. You’re alive, you’re well off. I was reading about you in the paper. Wealthy businessman turned politician, tipped for future high office. That’s all bollocks of course, you must know. If you got close to office you´d have to be vetted more closely, and then someone would pass a quiet word about your past to the right ear, in a discreet sort of way.

  -On the bright side you are protected. Nothing will ever come of this Spanish thing whatever happens, but as for being a minister of state, forget it.

  David had not taken in much of the conversation after hearing those words. He was ashamed but honest enough to admit that they had obliterated the sense of repugnance he was feeling for what he was asking Hawkins to
do, as well as wiping away any feeling of sympathy for poor Albert.

  It was true of course. He was finished before he had even properly begun. No one would even know why it should be so. He’d felt only relief when Hawkins left him alone. Now he sipped a whisky that seemed to have no taste or fire to it anymore, and struggled to think clearly.

  What had it all been for? If this was as far as the road went, how should he balance the scales: the little good he’d managed to do against the dirty compromises he’d agreed to or winked at? Could he be sure that he had ever had the right motives to begin with? If so, why had he not told Hawkins to leave that grubby little man in Madrid alone, now that it was all for nothing? Not that Hawkins would have taken any notice. He had his own reasons to get rid of Walcott.

  For some reason, David started to remember a trip that he and Patricia had taken the year before, to a Spanish island. They had gone for a few days to enjoy some winter sunshine. The whole island was a volcano, and he’d driven the hired car from the coast to the top of it. As they drove across the vast flat plain that lay inside the original caldera, he wondered at the scale of an eruption that could have created this landscape like the surface of a dead planet. They parked at the foot of the slope of the present, active cone that stood in the centre of the lava desert. From there you could take a cable car to the very top, but they had decided to hike.

  Coming up in the car, they had gained height too quickly for David’s body to adjust to the thin air, and every movement and breath cost him an effort of will. Patricia seemed completely unaffected, so David had said nothing. But when they started to walk, the slope seemed to be much steeper than he had imagined. There was the smell of sulphur, and in places yellow smoke emerging from little cracks in the rock: his insides felt like water mixed with acid, and soon his face and fingers were tingling. Eventually he could not continue, and sank to his knees. Patricia, a little way ahead, continued for a while then stopped and turned. He waved her away as he began retching. His eyes were full of tears that clouded his vision.

  He’d imagined then how it would feel if the volcano started to erupt at that moment. An image formed in his mind of people in a town below; he was among them; seeing the smoke and gas and ash fill the air. There were no reds of molten lava, no colours whatsoever: just the grey of smoke and the grey of ash that began to cover everything and bleed the colour out of the world. He could hear choking coughing as people fought for breath, as he was doing. And the world was becoming grey: everywhere the taste and smell and colour of ash, that covered everything like dirty snow which would never melt. In that moment he could taste the imagined memory of ash in his mouth.

  He could taste it still.

  David went back into the office, where the whisky was kept, to fetch another bottle. There were two battered paperback books on the little table that Hawkins had handed to him without much comment. The spines were broken and the paper was stained but all the pages somehow clung together. David began to leaf through some of the well thumbed pages. When he looked up, Albert was waiting for him, seated in his favourite wrecked armchair that David had never been able to bring himself to throw out. David looked at him with mild surprise.

  -They told me you were dead.

  -That’s about right. Not exactly the way I had planned things.

  -Well, make yourself at home

  -Thanks, I’ll have whatever you’re having.

  -Here. What’s it like, being dead?

  -I’m still learning. Not so very different I suppose, but not much in the way of earthly pleasures.

  -I suppose not. I did finally arrive at my own view of heaven you know.

  -I’m not allowed to comment, David.

  -I understand. But you see the problem for me was eternity. Just a long time sitting on a cloud, waiting for something to happen. And now, I think that heaven is just be the moment and it can only be a moment, when you have done it all; become all that you can be. All the false starts and mistakes that you made, and the others you didn’t; they all come together and you live through all of them, everything that happened and everything that might have or could have happened. You understand all the narratives that could have been you, or were you. Everything potential becomes actual. You live it backwards and forwards and sideways, in a moment and in eternity, because at that moment, time is meaningless.

  -Some people say there are worlds where other yous are living those lives right now: who knows? In any case, you always lived half in your imagination, David. It’s one reason why I could never give up on you entirely.

  -But look at poor Matthew: he’s been paralysed all his life by the thought that everything he chooses to do means six less choices he has left. He wanted to save all his choices. It’s absurd, looking at life as if it was a magic lamp with a set number of wishes inside. I’ve told him so many times that in the end, if you go that way, you do nothing at all. At least I always knew that you have to spend yourself on something. No good being a miser of life. But then your life fails, and what do you do then?

  -How should I know? You carry on, I suppose. You know what Hawkins will do to that poor man, don’t you?

  -Yes. Another of my crimes. I thought it would be worth it if I could make it those last few steps up the ladder. I could do good things that would outweigh the bad. But then I found out that the ladder ends closer to the ground than I’d planned. No good trying to call off Hawkins, he’s got a personal involvement.

  -That’s right. But you never thought the story would have a happy ending did you? You know what they say about political careers ending in failure. They all do.

  -I didn’t expect that the end for me would come so soon.

  -Don’t worry about it. All lives of whatever kind end in failure when you think about it. Your heart stops, or a disease kills you, or you are run down by a car. That’s why people are so suspicious of happy endings. They’re unrealistic. In any case you’re not finished yet, unlike me. There are lots of things you can do.

  -I don’t see how.

  Albert laughed at him, but not in an unfriendly way.

  -You don’t get any special wisdom, not being alive any more, he said. But I have noticed that endurance becomes the most important quality for most of us eventually.

  -I don’t see how I can carry on. I’ve done bad things, wrong things, and it turns out that they were all for nothing.

  -You underestimate yourself David. Give it a month. You’ll have made up a new story of yourself. And what good would it do you if you couldn’t? There isn’t a way to make everything come out right for everyone.


  -It isn’t that kind of world.

  -David reflected that Albert wasn’t looking any older. Compared to me, he thought, I’m aging fast. It was good to see him, even so.

  -I missed you, you know.

  -We had our best times, here, I suppose. The most purposeful, even though I spent so much time talking about nothing.

  -I suppose so, Matthew misses you as well.

  -How is he?

  -I’ll tell you. He said to me the other day that he’d decided, early on in life, that the world wasn’t going to change much in his lifetime and that he had better get used to it. And here we are, he told me; we’ve been through three or four wars, and we’re still fighting others. The Berlin wall came down and as soon as they were free to do so Europeans started slaughtering each other again. There’s still a world war going on in the African continent and no-one seems to know why. And we’ve started fighting over religion as well as resources. Meanwhile, as a species, humans are sacrificing their planet to assert the sacred right of every one of them to have their own television, car and refrigerator. He said he wished he’d been right about nothing much happening.

  -It doesn’t sound like he’s changed much. But at least now you have a labour government

  -Very funny. He went on to say that clearly he had lived in momentous times, but that, looking back, it felt like everything had happened somewhere
else, as if it had never really involved him at all.

  -He always did prefer to live inside himself

  -But not me. I’ve always tried to be involved. I wanted to be at the heart of everything. And yet I knew just what he meant. All my own plans and struggles, don’t seem to make any difference to all of it; to everything that is going on

  -You wanted to make a difference

  -Or maybe I just wanted everyone to look at me, or to make up for the bad I know that´s in me. I suppose I’ll never know now whether my intentions were really good.

  -Do you suppose that anyone ever knows that for sure about themselves?

  David was quiet for a moment, collecting his thoughts.

  -Back to Matthew though. His case is curious. Would you believe that he is happy? He doesn’t even know it himself. I suppose he stopped thinking about happiness a long time ago. But it’s true.

  -I’m glad to hear it. How did this come about?

  -I think that he forgot about himself. When we talk now, he’s more interested in the things he can see with his own eyes, and touch, and feel, and what people around him have to say. He doesn’t seem to worry so much about what it all implies for him.

  -Not so unusual I’m afraid. Intellectual curiosity recedes with hairline, and the next meal you eat becomes more interesting than the next book you read.

  -I don’t think it’s that. Well a little, maybe. His mother would put it more simply: she’d say he found ways to make himself useful.

  Albert nodded.

  -For myself, I should have liked to see what comes next. Everything must collapse. I still believe that. It should have started when the Wall came down. Capitalism and communism were like two dinosaur fossils supporting one another’s weight. You’d have thought that when one went over the other would topple straight away, but it seems locked in position still. It’s only a question of time. And something new will emerge from the ruins. You can’t stop it David, you can only make things a little better or a little worse in the tiny space where you happen to live. How is your life these days?

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