Sing Like You Know the Words, page 5
But just now they were at home. They‘d started to watch a game of football. It was supposed to be an important match. Important to who? Tim had demanded to know. He despised the game, and had left the house to avoid its taint. Patricia regarded football as an acceptable manifestation of the male need to spend time away from women: She didn’t consider it a threat and was content to feel harmlessly excluded. However, the game turned out to be so dull that even the TV commentator admitted to being bored. An exchange about cities with Catholic and Protestant football teams started them talking about religion generally. As usual, David was on the defensive.
-It’s not that I’m religious or a believer or anything like that. Of course I’m not. I’m just saying that if I were, I would have to agree with Patricia that the Catholic version is the only sensible form of Christianity. The other sorts make an appeal to reason you see; and obviously that’s nonsense. How can you believe based on logic?
-You can’t, but there’s a good reason why rational belief is not possible. That’s not an argument for irrational belief. Just because you might want to believe in something doesn’t make it any true. I’d rather cold reason to blind belief.
-Well suppose you are right, who knows? All I am saying is that you could only experience knowledge of god through faith, and faith is knowledge of the heart. And because of that, religion should be tied to beauty. It’s when you are moved by beauty that you have the awareness of spirituality, whether it’s from painting, or a piece of music; whatever. And at least the Catholics have a feeling for beauty, not like the Church of England. So grubby. Did I tell you about the time I went to Westminster Abbey? A thousand years of history and they have broken furniture lying around the corridors, and hand written posters for restoration appeals on the walls. There’s no aesthetic to it. It’s so mundane
-You mentioned it before. But please, don’t give me that guff about knowledge that’s not based on reason. I don’t know that feeling; but I’m sure it’s not knowledge. You shouldn’t trust it. And in any case you can’t help but see that all this beauty that has passed down the ages has come at a price. From where I stand, religion just looks like one more big business that the bosses run for their own benefit like any other. Seems that the Church believes that it’s fine to take money from the starving poor to buy gold plate for the altar or another painting for the bishop´s palace.
-My dad talks like that. He goes on about how the Church has kept the people down wherever it can; but he’s an engineer, a materialist. He only has one way to understand the world. He’s concerned himself all his life with knowing the exact measure of what he can touch. What can’t be touched doesn’t matter to him. To me, there’s a kind of poverty in allowing yourself such a narrow experience of life.
Matthew did not reply to that. Sometimes he thought there was no point arguing with David about anything. He had such certainty that you could never shake him, even when he was clearly wrong. There were ways in which David was even more exasperating than Tim. You’d get to thinking he was reasonable and that you understood him; and then every now and then he would show a glimpse of the inner self; a person driven by obsessions he didn’t understand himself. Didn’t want to understand most likely; given that he was so hungry to feel that some dark mystery guided his path. Matthew could see one truth about David that David couldn’t see for himself: he was a hopeless mystic.
It wasn’t even funny. People’s lives were affected. Take this business with Patricia. David had got it into his head to get married, for no good reason that anyone could see; and now the wedding was going to happen. Matthew had no doubt about that, even if David had yet to inform Patricia of her fate. In Matthew’s experience, once David made up his mind to go after something, he would have it; whatever obstacles might lie in the way. And probably it will end badly for both of them, he thought. But then it was in Matthew’s nature to store up images of impending dread.
As late spring began to hint at the coming of summer, the routines of David and his housemates were disrupted by an unusual invitation.
From the start, it was clear that the party would be a special occasion. David had no scale to measure social events, but his invite was printed on a card which specified that he should wear a suit or dinner jacket. These facts spoke for themselves
The occasion was to be the engagement of one of Patricia’s well heeled girlfriends. The family wanted to show off about it. They owned a big farm somewhere out in the Yorkshire countryside, and the celebration would take place in a giant marquee pitched in the grounds, with lighting and a temporary hard floor laid down for the occasion. More importantly, there would be a live band and free drink for the guests.
-They´ll need the floor to cover up the pig shit that’s lying there for the rest of the year, suggested Tim.
He claimed to hate the countryside and country dwellers as much as he hated football fans. There’s nothing there, he said, but red-faced farty old men drooling into their flat beer, and various kinds of dumb animals crapping everywhere while they wait to be turned into meat.
-Nevertheless when he heard about the free beer, Tim consented to accept one of the additional tickets that had been allotted to David as the boyfriend of the bride to be’s best friend at college. His acceptance was a mixed blessing for David.
-But Tim, and I am serious now, you have to behave and not show us all up.
David was disappointed, even if not surprised, when Matthew claimed a prior engagement that he could not avoid.
-Don’t push him, there’s no point, said Tim. You know how he’s allergic to toffs.
The arrangements would be that Patricia and some other girlfriends were spending the weekend at the farm, so the boys would need to make their own way there and back on the big night. The distance was not so great, but David was surprised when Tim offered to drive.
-Not much point me spending my junior officer’s allowance to keep a car on the road if I never use it. In any case, if I drive I won’t drink, which should put your mind at rest. I think there‘ll be plenty to entertain me without booze. You never know, maybe me having my own wheels might turn the head of one of those buxom farmers’ lasses.
-She’ll need to be blind and daft as well as buxom to be impressed by your car, commented Matthew.
-Always the negative comments Matt. Why don’t you change your mind and come with us? It will be fun.
-Four hours of standing around not knowing what it’s polite to say, while a local band murders creaky old rock and roll hits and some pimple who calls himself a DJ talks over crappy pop records.
-Yes, like I say, it will be fun.
The night before she left for the farm, Patricia asked David for a favour.
-I wondered if you could pick up Abbas on the way, and bring him with you.
-Ali Abbas. You’ve seen him. We used to be in halls together in the first year. You know, the Asian boy.
-Oh you mean the funny little Indian kid. He’s coming to the party? I thought it was just going to be a select few.
-Well you know I got that ticket for Matthew. Only you mustn’t tell Abbas that. The poor boy hardly sees anyone. He never goes out and, well it was short notice. I didn’t know who else would come on their own and I can hardly give the ticket back.
-So he accepted your invitation.
-Yes of course. I told him you would pick him up at seven thirty. You know David; one of the things I like about you is that you are so generous. Be a love and bring him along.
-He’d better be ready when we get there, said Tim.
-Don’t be mean, David replied. He’ll have been ready for the last half hour. Though he might change his mind when he sees us turn up in this thing.
David had thought that Tim was going to let them down. The time when they were supposed to leave passed and there was still no sign of him. Then at the last moment he tur
-He must be crazy giving you the keys to this. What kind is it anyway?
-Ford Escort Mexico. Not many of them about. And I wouldn’t expect a civilian like you to understand why he gave it me. Brothers in arms you see. Do you like the noise it makes?
A short time later they roared into the sad little street where Ali Abbas had his lodgings and Tim slammed the car to an abrupt halt, with just a small amount of tyre squeal. The little Indian guy was outside waiting for them already. He looked at the bright orange monster with an expression of fascinated terror. David started to say hello, while Tim, in a state of high excitement, practically bundled Ali Abbas into the car.
On the way to the farm, David kept turning round to the back, where Ali Abbas was cowering; trying to engage him in conversation, but the boy was so painfully shy and the car so loud that they only managed to exchange a few words.
They arrived earlier than planned. Handwritten signs had been posted in the neighbourhood to direct the guests to the venue. Someone who might have been an old servant, or possibly just a member of the girl’s family, pointed them towards a field where a number of vehicles were already stationed.
-If it rains now they’ll have to get the Land Rover to pull us out, grumbled Tim.
Safely parked and following the other guests inside, they soon met with Patricia, who seemed genuinely delighted to see them. She made some introductions that were instantly forgotten and then she had David by the arm and was leading him off somewhere. Tim also had some definite objective of his own in mind, because he was gone moments later, leaving Ali Abbas worrying whether his suit was appropriate and wondering what was expected of him now.
The next four hours were not the worst of Abbas’ life, although for a short time it felt like they would be. He stumbled into a marquee that was full of people and noise, so dark and so loud that it would have been impossible to have a conversation with anyone even if he had known how to begin one. From there he passed to the buffet, where the guests were being offered immense slabs of meat of various kinds. Ali Abbas did not call himself a vegetarian, but the proximity to so much dead flesh made him feel queasy. He fled. For a while, he was standing in the dark outside hoping not to be noticed, but soon the party activity spilled into the open air. It was the usual Saturday night goings on, but speeded up by the availability of free alcohol. Early on, the sort of men who thought that finding a toilet was too much trouble started making their way outside to relax their straining bladders in the shrubbery. Before long couples were storming across the lawns in pursuit of one another as drunken arguments began. It was barely dark when he saw two boys, looking absurdly youthful in hired dinner jackets, crouching over to vomit in the hedge.
He found sanctuary in the main house, where a number of quiet rooms had been set aside for the social use of family and friends of the family: persons of more mature years who were obliged to attend, but could not be expected to tolerate the volume and energy of the main event. He was offered a cup of tea, and found that the guests seemed genuinely eager to talk with someone who was studying for a degree, even if they were a little confused by his earnest replies to their questions.
Ali Abbas was a good speaker when he had something to say, and it was obvious that the elderly ladies in particular were charmed by him. One of the men wanted to have a serious conversation with him about life in Africa, and it turned out that the man was neither a racist nor a fool. Abbas started to forget where he was and even to enjoy himself.
A number of his present companions seemed to be quietly drinking themselves into a polite stupor, which Abbas found puzzling, but he reasoned that if they were prepared to make allowances for the extraordinary discovery that he did not drink alcohol at all, he should extend a reciprocal open-mindedness to them, even the ones who appeared to be snoring where they sat.
It was well after midnight when he returned to the marquee. The crowd had thinned out and he easily spotted Tim. He was relieved to see that whatever the strange young man had been doing, he seemed to be in possession of his faculties, even if he was rather red in the face.
The music was not so much dying as fading away. Clearly it was the end of the night and time to go home. They found David and Patricia in a small group of people talking in what seemed a fairly coherent way.
Patricia suggested that David should stay the night if room could be found. He replied that it would be wrong to abandon his mates. David said a few words to Tim, obviously trying to assess his condition. Tim seemed fine, though uncharacteristically quiet.
-What have you been doing all night, I hardly saw you?
-Lots to do. Charming ladies to discuss matters with. I been dancing mainly. Don’t worry, haven’t touched a drop.
-God you’re wet through. Must have been dancing all night. I didn’t realize the music was that good.
-Shit music. Doesn’t matter once you’re on the floor.
-What about you Abbas?
-I have enjoyed a most pleasant evening, thank you. And my thanks to Patricia for inviting me.
The car park had emptied quickly and they soon found Tim’s friend’s car. Once they had bumped across the field and edged out of the gate, Tim put his foot down and the noise of the engine cocooned each of them in his own private thoughts. No one spoke as the car sped through the curves and over the humps of the country roads.
David was musing about Patricia, considering what would be the right way to tell her of his feelings and plans. He supposed that a girl would be more receptive to a proposal when her friend was already getting engaged. All the girls had seemed to glow with excitement when wedding plans were being discussed. Thoughts and impressions from the party and plans for the future were washing back and forth in his mind as the darkness enveloped them. His attention drifted.
Suddenly, he was called back to the moment. It happened so quickly that the boundary between reality and imagination seemed not to exist.
The car had been accelerating gradually without David noticing. Now he saw that they were travelling much too fast for the condition of the road. After that everything happened in a blur.
For some reason he looked first to the back seat where Ali Abbas was sitting very upright. The boy’s face only wore the same expression of resigned terror that he had shown on the way to the party. When it came to driving, Abbas had no way to differentiate between too fast, and certain to crash.
Next David turned to his right and was shocked to see Tim holding the steering wheel loosely, eyelids half closed, his shoulders sagging forward against the resistance of the seatbelt.
-Tim, are you asleep?
There was no time to grab the wheel. They heard and felt a hard impact. David whirled round to face the road in front of them and thought he saw something big that could have been a body thump into the windscreen and over the roof.
It was already too late to save the car. Tim came to with a start and pressed all the pedals hard, dragging the wheel hard to his left, but the car steered itself neatly into the ditch running alongside the road on the driver’s side, the nearside wheels remaining on the tarmac and the underside of the car scraping along the ground and complaining horribly. A combination of road camber, the depth of the ditch, and the absolute lack of further intervention by the driver, who seemed to have passed out, ensured that by great good fortune the car skidded to a halt, half buried in undergrowth, but without turning over or hitting one of the many trees that lined the way.
The engine had stalled and for a moment the night was very quiet; impossibly so after the noise of the previous moments.
-Tim, you fucking stupid fuck up. Tell me you’re not dead.
-Good, I’m going to kill you now.
-I’m okay, said Ali Abbas, from the back. We should get out now though. I think the wheel at my side came off and the bottom was scraping along the road. There could be a leak in the fuel tank.
He did know something about cars after all or at least about the theory of them.
They dragged Tim, still semi-conscious, away from the vehicle to what felt like a safe distance. David checked his friend’s pulse, which was racing. His eyes looked funny, but it was difficult to see them properly in the moonlight. David thought that he might have had some kind of fit. He was grinding his teeth and now David remembered that he’d started doing that earlier in the journey home.
-I thought he’d had a heart attack.
Ali Abbas shrugged helplessly.
-We need to find him a doctor.
Tim put a hand on David’s arm.
-No Doctor. Speed, he said.
-You’ve taken drugs? Tim nodded.
David looked at him with disgust.
-Well you’re more stupid than I thought, and you’ve wrecked your friend’s car and almost killed us.
-We should find some water for him, suggested Abbas.
-And drown him in it, David agreed.
-Not friend’s car, Tim struggled to say.
Tim wasn’t making any sense. Ali Abbas was in the habit of carrying mineral water wherever he went. He jogged back to the car to retrieve the bottle. Tim drank greedily once they had forced the bottle to his lips, and gradually they were able to piece together the story of the night from his fragments of coherent speech: how he’d planned to have only soft drinks but spice them with the pills, which he now thought maybe he’d overdone; how he’d decided to borrow a nice car for the evening, something better than his own heap, but there was no friend who had offered the keys. He saw a car he liked and took it.