Sing Like You Know the Words, page 6
-But you had keys, I saw you.
-Brought my own keys for the look of the thing. It’s a Ford. Easy enough.
He seemed exhausted beyond measure.
-David, I think you’ve probably got everything useful he can tell us, Ali Abbas said gently. We can’t stay here all night.
-And in the morning, we’ll be charged with taking a vehicle without consent, at least; and who do you think will believe that the two of us didn’t know what was going on? I get a conviction and I can say goodbye to my legal career. Probably the army puts it down to youthful high spirits on Tim’s part; unless the drugs part comes out. You, I don’t know.
-My mother will die if she hears about this.
David had no reply for that. They were silent for a moment.
-We hit something, or someone, he said He had been avoiding saying it for some time.
-I don´t know, Ali Abbas claimed, miserably.
They listened. The night was completely silent. No moans of pain or cries for help.
-I was looking at Tim, when we hit, David said after a while. You must have seen something.
-I thought there was a person, Ali Abbas admitted. I have an image of someone; an old lady. But I must have imagined it. I was so frightened. What would an old lady be doing on the road at this time of night?
-She could be walking her dog.
-Wouldn´t we hear the dog?
-We have to check, David said. He walked back to the car. Ali Abbas stayed where he was. He felt unable to move.
He strained to watch a vague shadow walk back to the car. He lost sight of the figure against the dark bulk of the wrecked vehicle; then he saw David’s shape pacing up and down the road for a while. In his own mind, Ali Abbas felt only a strange calm, surprising to himself, and an absolute reluctance to do anything but remain exactly where he was.
Eventually David returned.
-There´s nothing on the car that looks like we hit a person, he announced.
-You mean no blood, Ali Abbas asked him?
-I couldn´t see anything at all. They left it at that. And I couldn´t see a sign of anyone along the road. There´s no sound.
-That may not mean anything, Ali Abbas felt obliged to say. An impact at that speed could send even something heavy a long way. Impossible to calculate the direction. If it was something. If it was a person who... couldn´t make a noise. Maybe you wouldn´t find them till daylight, even with a proper search.
-Don´t talk like that, we don´t know there was anyone; or anything. Could have been a deer if it wasn´t our imagination. Most likely there was nothing at all.
-Do you think?
-There´s more, David said. I was looking along the road. I suppose I was hoping there would be a lake we could push the car into, or some other magical way to hide the damn thing, but maybe I found something better.
-This road looked familiar. There’s a sign back there, just before we started to skid, that confirmed it to me. We were coming back on ourselves. This idiot had started to drive us in circles. The car is facing the wrong way for going back to town.
-I don’t see how that helps us.
-Look: a car was stolen in the city by some joyriders who ran it off the road here. Happens all the time. Nothing to do with us.
-Apart from all the people who saw us at the party.
-It’s just a Ford car. It was dark. No one noticed what we arrived in. Did you see all the really fancy cars that were there? Anyway, they’re country folk. Probably think nothing of it. Wouldn’t be the first time someone round here has driven their own car into a ditch blind drunk and then staggered home and reported it stolen next day.
-But it’s not our car
-So we don’t even have to report it. I’m telling you, no one will connect this to us, and even if they did, they couldn’t prosecute without evidence. And there is none, provided we all stick to the same story.
-The car is evidence.
-Not if it’s burnt out and it’s pointing the opposite way to the way we were going. That’s what joyriders do with cars when they’re finished with them. They set them alight.
-You’ve got tears in your eyes David. You’re upset or you wouldn’t be talking like this. If we set the car on fire it’s another crime, and it’s dangerous. We’re not the sort of people who do things like that.
-Any sort of people can do any sort of things, David snapped. It’s a question of deciding to do them and it’s a question of will, but we have to decide together. Me and you. Don’t worry about him. He’ll do whatever we tell him. For you and me, it’s a simple choice: whether we want to wreck our futures or live with one lie on our conscience.
-I’m not a liar, David.
-Nor am I, believe me. I’m someone who is meant to make the world a better place. I have things to do: important things. And I am not going to give them up because of this stupidity. So this is what we are going to do. We’re not so far from home, not much more than three miles. We can easily walk it before light. There’s a smell of petrol around that car already. It won’t need much to help it on its way. We just take off the filler cap and light a rag soaked in petrol. It will go up in seconds I suppose. There’s no-one around to see at this hour unless we are really unlucky. No-one’s come past all the time we’ve been here. After, we go home, we go to bed, and forget about it. If anybody asks questions, we went to the party in Tim’s old Ford, and anyone who remembers different is mistaken.
-What if they don’t believe us?
-What matters, so long as we stay calm, is what they can prove.
-But David, we might have injured someone. They could be lying out there somewhere.
-Or they could be dead, in which case we can´t help; or that person could be an animal, or might only exist in your imagination, which is most likely. Or are you telling me that you definitely saw someone?
-I just don´t know.
-I´m going back to the car.
Ali Abbas was terrified that David would set fire to himself, or that the car would explode, but in the end, everything turned out exactly as David had said it would, except that the walk back was more than three miles. Tim revived a little as they walked, but a look from David told him to keep quiet and after that he slouched along a little way behind the other two.
Ali Abbas was uncertain how he would react if he was ever asked questions about that night. Whether he would be able to maintain the lie, he didn’t know. But he never needed to find out, because they heard no more about the car or the accident. He supposed that the car had been reported as just one more stolen vehicle, not interesting to anybody. He never checked the newspapers or tried to find out if there had been a person injured on the roads that night. He was fairly confident that David didn’t search the news either.
David never spoke to him about that night; never contacted him at all. At first Ali Abbas was resentful that his own complicity was taken so much for granted. There should be some kind of meeting of conspirators, he thought. But then, what would they have to say to each other?
But for years afterwards he had a dream in which some obscure and forgotten guilt was coming back to him from an imaginary past. As the dream progressed the lies unravelled and his part in whatever awful crime had been committed came to light. He would wake up half believing that he really must have done the evil thing that was being exposed in his dream and that he had somehow made himself forget the awful things he had done.
It was a dream that never left him entirely, even when it went away for months at a time. The dream that took many forms but it always involved some hidden guilt that was gradually revealed to those who loved him. Much later on, when he thought about some of the truly bad things he had done, this incident seemed so trivial that it made him smile. Even so, it was that night which brought him the dream; and the dream came to define him. When he thought about it like that, a part of him despised his own weakness and just for a moment he knew that he hated David Thomas.
The next year was their final year of studies. It passed strangely. People kept to themselves more, either determined to excel or desperate to retrieve some kind of degree from the wreckage of their course work. Once Christmas was over, everyone was looking forward to May – work hard until then, and after one final long summer to enjoy whatever else should happen. Not many of them were like David, carefully planning the future with his next steps already worked out.
At the end of March, the English parliament passed a motion of no-confidence in the country’s government, which meant there would be a general election soon. The final year students hardly noticed. There was too much else to think about.
The election was at the beginning of May and the Conservative party won a big majority. At the end of that month, the students sat their last examinations, said their unnatural sounding goodbyes, and went away determined to forget about university until the results should be published. Those whose parents could afford it went off on holidays. Others looked for casual summer jobs or hung on in the city, struggling to eke out the last of their grant finance. One or two already had jobs to go to or, like Tim, obligations to honour.
When the exam results were published, Ali Abbas registered a sense of quiet satisfaction that lasted for a whole day and a morning. Then he began to worry about what he should do next. In the exams, he had done even better than he’d hoped. His grades were more than good enough for him to take up the postgraduate course that had been lined up for him. Everyone in the family took for granted that his academic career was just starting, and that it would be brilliant. Only Ali Abbas himself was no longer sure that he even wanted to return to a university.
There was another problem. He had been looking forward to spending time at home after the discomfort and loneliness of college. Everything there would be easy for him there, except that when he came home, he found that he no longer belonged. The daily routines and private family concerns of which he had once been part now felt silly and empty; like an old and once treasured toy that makes you smile when you find it in the back of a drawer. It was nice to see, but it no longer had any meaning for him.
He felt he’d lost both his future and his past. In any case, the family, under the surface, was not the same, even if no one else saw it, Ali Abbas had noticed that his father had become old; worn down, not just by exile, but by the life they had found in their new home.
It was better that Grandfather had not lived to see it. He had always been so proud of working for the British, of being a civil servant, and of what he called his English education. The family had understood what their passports confirmed, that they were privileged participants in the great British Empire. No wonder that some Ugandans hated them more than the whites. The Asians in Africa were administrators; they didn’t seek out or even desire great wealth, but they had education and position, which for his family counted more.
Things had started to change in the time of his father’s generation. After independence, government posts were quickly closed to Asians. For a time, that seemed to be a blessing in disguise for the family. His father was young, confident and resourceful and soon he was working for himself and earning more money as a merchant than Grandfather could have dreamed of at his humble clerk’s desk. Before Ali Abbas was born they had moved into the big new house and opened more stores, investing profits for the future.
But resentment continued to grow; in fact it worsened. The new people in charge didn’t know how to run a country. They’d never had the chance to learn, since the British had never really prepared to leave. Conditions became worse for the ordinary people, but every day men like Abbas’ father seemed to grow richer. Even a happy little boy, playing in his father’s store while his aunt served the customers, noticed mysterious scowls and heard ferocious voices complaining about prices: raised voices that suddenly sounded very different to the happy raucous cacophony of the street, or home.
And that was before the maniac, Amin.
In any case they had left it behind and things turned out not so badly. His father was resourceful, knew how to grow a business, but these days he walked around like a beaten man. He did not say much, but Ali Abbas thought he understood. It was the prejudice. His father was an understanding, tolerant man. He’d been able to see why the black Africans resented them and how the hatred was being stirred up by bad leaders. It was a bad situation, sometimes terrifying, but the reasons were clear.
In Britain it was different. Being British had always been a source of family pride, and his father had been pleased to come here, in spite of the weather. He’d been eager to contribute to the common good and become a respected person in his neighbourhood. Instead, all the time he was talked to as if he was both very stupid and incapable of understanding anything and on the other hand very crafty for having sneaked himself and his family into the country.
It was assumed that they had arrived from Pakistan, a country they only knew about as a name on a map, and that the family was in receipt of large, unspecified handouts from the state. Abbas’ father and people like him were regarded as a problem at best. At worst he met with open hostility, not so different to what he had left behind in Africa.
Not long after they arrived, father had read something aloud to them from the English newspaper. It was an article reporting that one of the big English cities had paid for advertisements in the newspapers to advise Ugandan Asians that they would not be welcome to settle there. Father had chuckled and told them that it showed that there were a few very silly people in every part of the world.
-You might come across something like this at school in the first few weeks, he had warned them. Just take no notice and it will all be forgotten before you know.
For some reason his father had taken up a pair of scissors and cut out the article. He’d folded it away carefully: maybe he had it still, but if so, Abbas did not believe that reading it again would still make him smile.
In his turn, Ali Abbas had started to regard certain doors as closed to him. The old idea that he would discover the meaning of the powerful forces that shaped destinies and maybe one day be in a position to influence them in some small way now seemed very fanciful. And the more he understood these forces and how they became manifest in the real world, the more distaste he felt for the structures of power. It was as if power arose only from the worst impulses of humanity. Ali Abbas was not quick to pass judgement on anyone, but when he found himself in the presence of people behaving badly, his first instinct was always to leave the room.
Lately he’d started to think that maybe his life should take a more practical direction. For example, he knew there were still family members and contacts spread across Africa. He had a vague notion that there must be some way to use that network. He could become a merchant, like his father (though it would break his mother’s heart). Lots of people seemed to make their living by travelling; perhaps he could do the same. He couldn’t be like everyone else. He didn’t want to be like everyone else. And if he could not feel at home here or anywhere, why not make use of that condition?
Already, university life seemed like a fading memory. He had almost forgotten that he would have to go back for graduation, although the day was never far from his mother’s thoughts. In her mind she imagined a carnival of celebration that would acknowledge her son’s achievement. No words of his about what would really happen at the modest ceremony could prick that bubble.
Ali Abbas knew very well what was involved. They would be dressed up like pantomime scholars and crowded into the great hall. When your name was called, you walked up in front of everyone, shook hands with some important person and received a scroll of paper. Then you had your photograph taken to prove that you had been there. That was it: the whole thing would be a huge anticlimax and perhaps he would be embarrassed by the family, but there was no way to avoid it.
At least it so happened that his congregation date would be the same as Patricia and David’s, and David’s two friends, so h
The degree ceremony was a pain for everyone, not just Abbas. Attendance wasn’t compulsory and many recent graduates expressed a real or pretended reluctance to show up. But then there were the parents, insistent or nagging, and the irritating sensation that the whole three or four year experience had not been properly punctuated. There ought to be something more at the end of it than those hurried goodbyes exchanged after the final exam. In the end most of the students decided or were grudgingly persuaded to congregate.
David had no romantic illusions about college and his life was already moving forward. Given his father’s undemonstrative nature, the ceremony might have passed him by, except that it was an opportunity for David to bring his family and Patricia’s together.
In any case, his Uncle Bobby somehow found out that each student could be accompanied by two adults, and from that time on Bobby was determined to join the party and make sure that they all made a fine day of it. There was never any doubt that Patricia’s mother and father would be there, so the meeting arranged itself.
Matthew’s mother and father had not spoken for years. Even if she’d had any idea where he might be, mother would see no reason why father should be welcome at her son’s graduation. There was an understanding that Matthew’s elder sister Brenda, three years married and pregnant again, would accompany her.
No one had heard from Tim so as usual no one knew what to expect from him, but on the day he did turn up, unaccompanied. He gave a vague explanation about his parents having intended to accompany him but something urgent had come up at the last minute. By the time Matthew and David met him, he’d already attended his own ceremony earlier that day. He had no time to talk as he wanted to return the hired gown as quickly as possible and be done with the whole sorry business. They had barely arranged a time and place to meet later before Tim was gone.