Sing Like You Know the Words, page 7
The formalities of the day were every bit as perfunctory and unsatisfying as expected, but afterwards the hired photographer seemed to be determined that at least his own part in the day should not be quickly over. David quickly tired of his attentions. After a while, even his father commented that it was getting a bit much.
-Finish taking the snaps and let’s get on, David instructed him, but the man behind the camera was used to fractious clients and not to be hurried.
Nothing could dampen the spirits of Uncle Bobby. Eyes shining, grinning, with a friendly comment for friends and strangers alike; he was in a fine humour. He found much to admire in the architecture of the university buildings. Although most of the teaching was done in more utilitarian surroundings, the graduates and their guests had access to the leafy environs of the central area for this one day at least.
-Look at that stonework, Uncle Bobby enthused. You can see it has that feeling of being really … old. And wise too. You feel as these buildings have wisdom absorbed into the stones.
David informed his uncle that his lectures had been delivered in a shed of a building that was in the process of falling apart, less than a decade after it was built, but Bobby was undismayed.
-It’s the spirit of the place that matters, he insisted. I should’ve gone to university myself you know. I could’ve done, if the times had been different. You lads have been lucky.
-I’m not sure you missed that much Uncle.
Patricia appeared with her parents and, not long after that, Matthew with his mother and sister joined them. Uncle Bobby was overjoyed to meet the sort of people who sent their children to university. If he closed his eyes and only listened, David could imagine his uncle hopping from one foot to the other with gleeful excitement. But then, everyone seemed cheerful; apart from Brenda, Matt’s sister who always had that long suffering expression and never said much; and of course Patricia’s mother, whose expression never strayed far from haughty.
-Finally, she said, we have managed to extricate ourselves from the clutches of that photographer.
-Ours is just finishing now, Mr Thomas replied
-I only hope the results are worth all the fuss they make about taking them. How tiresome it all is.
Uncle Bobby responded.
-Well, but it’s only once in a lifetime isn’t it? They want to get it right. I remember when Marie and me were married. Marie was almost freezing to death; we were stood outside that long. At least it’s nice and bright today and then we can enjoy the rest of it, eh? I’m Bobby, David’s uncle, very pleased to meet you. Nice to meet other scholars and their parents, isn’t it? I didn’t catch your name.
-Irene, said Patricia’s mother, holding out a gloved hand, which Bobby shook energetically.
David stepped in.
-Did you have any plans for the rest of the day Mrs Harrison?
Irene spoke about wanting to get back home as quickly as possible. They were travelling by train and she thought that the next one should due in about an hour.
She was a smartly dressed lady, a little underweight, with neat, black hair and carefully applied makeup. Her husband, who was mostly silent, seemed much older and quite frail, short and stooping as well as rather portly. His remaining hair was white, and all the life he had left in his body was concentrated in his small grey eyes, that seemed to be smiling at a private joke.
-Mother, we can’t just disappear after we’ve come all this way.
Hearing Patricia’s tone, David could tell that her day so far had been difficult.
-Nay, you can’t go just yet. We should have a meal at least, and something to drink together, protested Uncle Bobby.
-I’m really not hungry, Irene responded.
-We don’t need to catch the very next train dear, said her husband. There’s a good service through till six.
Irene sighed heavily.
Then Patricia caught sight of Ali Abbas and his parents walking down the far side of the small quadrangle. They had not noticed her own group. The Patels looked out of place, she thought: although they were smiling patiently at everything going on around them. Abbas himself looked most uncomfortable; a slight, comic figure, still wearing his mortar board hat and a gown several sizes too big, that made him look even skinnier and more childlike than normal, if that were possible.
-Abbas, come over, she called.
Uncle Bobby was fascinated by the Patels. At home, he said, the only Asians he knew were the family who ran the local curry shop. He said it was rare for him to have the chance to talk to people from different backgrounds.
-I didn’t go to college myself, but I’m always looking out for opportunities to learn something new about life.
Patricia glanced to check her mother’s expression.
-You must come with us, Bobby told Mr Patel. We’re just away to have a celebration meal. I’ve a place comes recommended. And we should get a move on young David. His friend is going to join us you know and the poor lad is on his own. We don’t want to keep him waiting.
They were not given time to argue and so the whole group, with the exception of Brenda, who claimed family commitments, was pressed or cajoled to follow Uncle Bobby to the place his friend had told him about that served good sized steaks not too pricey, with wine if you wanted to push the boat out and didn’t like bitter.
Tim was not there when they arrived, but David and Matthew assured everyone that this was nothing to worry about: he would come in his own time. Fortunately there was space and seating for everyone. Uncle Bobby had started his second pint by the time the tables were pushed together and the cutlery was laid out. David watched Patricia trying to help the Patels with the menu, while keeping an eye on the company in general.
He noticed that his father, not normally a heavy drinker, was not far behind Uncle Bobby in draining his glass. The occasion called for it, he supposed. He looked at Matthew’s mother; nothing like him or his sister. She was a small self-contained lady with a determined but not unfriendly expression. She seemed happy enough to sit and listen to the conversation, a glass of lemonade untouched in front of her.
-I don’t know what they’ll do with their lives; his father was telling her a little later on. It’s good that they have qualifications, obviously, but outside London, it seems that all the jobs are disappearing fast. We’ve only got industries in this part of the world, and they can’t match overseas competition – firms that are starting from scratch. They don’t have the old fashioned ways like us. They don’t have the skills either mind. But the truth is, our industries have given up. The owners have all made enough money over the years and now their children are concentrating on spending it. Everything’s owned by shareholders now; and they only want to get rich quick and move on. It’s an exhausted country.
-There’s no chance I’ll be sitting back ruined by my inheritance, Dad.
-A good thing too David. A little money when you start is alright, but too much is not good for you.
-What a quaint idea, said Patricia’s mother.
-You can smile Irene, but it’s true. These days it’s too easy for people to forget themselves and where they came from.
Matthew could see that Mr Thomas was becoming serious. David would be annoyed.
-No one will ever forget where I come from, with my accent; he interrupted, grinning at his mother.
But Mr Thomas was not to be deflected.
-They may end up having to go down to London to find work, he concluded darkly.
-That won’t happen.
-I adore London, said Irene. Ah look, a late arrival, it must be our missing soldier.
At the far side of the room, Tim could be seen asking a waitress for information. Then he walked, rather unsteadily, towards them. Uncle Bobby stood up to greet him.
-We had to start I’m afraid. They’ll bring you something quick enough if you order right away. But sit down first, let’s make the introductions.
Tim sat heavily in a vacant cha
-That Margaret Thatcher is a real bitch, he announced.
-We shouldn’t really be discussing politics, Patricia suggested. It’s a special occasion for everyone.
-Why not talk about it? Our future, Tim responded.
-And why in your opinion is Mrs Thatcher a bitch? enquired Irene.
David tried to steer the situation to a more neutral place.
-Whether you like her or not, she’s been successful, so far at least. I read that the election was the biggest swing to an opposition party since forties
-More to do with Labour if you ask me, said Uncle Bobby cheerfully. Jim Callaghan should have been pensioned off years ago. He was only hanging on so Healey wouldn’t get the job. That’s not playing the game. But it was the strikes and unions really; that and they needed to do something about immigration.
Matthew covered his eyes briefly. His mother pounced on Bobby’s comment.
-You don’t agree with unions, Mr Thomas?
-Well, yes in principle of course. The working man is entitled to stand up for himself and the bosses don’t give anything away without a fight. But it gets beyond a joke, if you know what I mean.
-What I want to know, growled Tim, is who voted for the bitch.
Abbas answered him, while Uncle Bobby signalled for more drinks for all round, even though most of the table still had half filled glasses in front of them.
-The Tory campaign was very directed, he explained. They went for first time voters, like us students, and floating voters. It’s a small proportion of people who haven’t already made up their minds that are the most important in any election, but no-one has really campaigned in that way before. It’s quite interesting, to me anyway, how they targeted their messages. And of course securing the backing of the popular press was very important.
-The popular press? Tim’s aggression was not to be deflected. You mean the Sun? That’s not a newspaper, and you can be sure its support came at a price.
-Well they never got your vote, David reminded Tim, because you never got as far as the polling station.
-I was busy.
-I thought it was time that maybe a woman should be in charge, said Mrs Patel, timidly. No-one responded.
-What do you think Thatcher will do now? asked Matthew’s mother.
Abbas had an answer ready for that one.
-Based on what the Conservatives are saying, you can expect a radical shift in politics; very different from previous Tory administrations. If the economic policies that are being proposed are carried through, the short term effects will be quite severe.
-The country needs a good shake up, Irene commented.
Bobby smiled at everyone.
-They all say they are going to change the world before they get in power, he observed. Afterwards one lot is much the same as the other.
Abbas smiled too.
-I was about to say that history shows that the realities of power tend to limit the ambitions that politicians develop in opposition. The cost of making structural changes is high, with no guarantee that the outcome will be a success. Just as you said.
-Too many of them are cowards, commented Irene. That’s the problem. It’s different if you have self belief, like she does.
-In any case, Abbas continued, the Prime Minister’s position is not impregnable. She won the leadership more or less by accident, because other candidates tripped up.
-Or were too frightened to stand, said Irene. Doesn’t matter how she won. She is the leader now. That’s what counts.
Matthew’s mother spoke.
-All those so-called senior ministers toadying around her make me feel ill. I read one of them saying how they find her so attractive. But look at her; she’s like a mad headmistress. And they’re like little boys at public school who want their matron. She’s got them wrapped round her finger, looks like.
-Her husband is very rich you know; a millionaire, Irene said.
-What does that have to do with it?
-Everything. Money smells of power, let’s be honest. And rich people know other rich people and feel comfortable with them. Because Denis is rich, other rich people will talk to him and to her, like they never would to that grocer Heath. And so she’ll get lots of good advice from successful people.
-Why is it good advice? Good for them you mean?
Matthew could see that his mother was on the verge of being seriously annoyed, but Irene smiled at her serenely.
-The people who create wealth understand things. They are the ones who are able to help make the country wealthy. Of course it won’t be easy or painless.
Mr Thomas finally spoke. He had been unusually quiet for a while and David hoped that there was not going to be a storm. He’d had a lot to drink, but his voice was calm and very matter of fact.
-She’ll do what she likes, he said. Where it will end, I don’t know. What I do know, what seems to be the case in this country; is that the working man has given up and decided he prefers to be told what to do. I knew she would win, long before the polling day. I’ll tell you how. I was down at the Legion. I nip in now and again – beer’s cheap. And there’s this chap watching the television, intently, and he says to me; who’s that on the screen? He’s never off it these days. So I looked and said, that’s Jim Callaghan, he’s the Prime Minister, and he says well I wish he’d get to the end of what he has to say, I’m waiting for the racing. I asked him if he knew there was an election on and he said yes, he was going to vote for the other lot. So I asked him why, and he tells me have you not seen them posters down the street saying Labour’s Not Working and a queue of chaps on the dole. Dole queues and that like the old days. I can’t afford not to work. I said it’s an advert, it’s not real. The people in the picture are actors. Have you read anything about what the other lot want to do? He looked at me like I was daft and he says, what read about it? I haven’t time for that. One lot is more or less the same as the other, just a bunch of gobshites all round. And I realized if they can get shipbuilders and steelworkers and the like, drinking cheap beer in affiliated clubs; men that haven’t got a pot to piss in, beg your pardon, to think like that and to vote for them, then it’s as I say; they can do what they like.
-Aye well, said Uncle Bobby, smiling a little desperately now. You don’t want to take that to heart so. It was the strikes you see, in the winter. They just took it too far. Beyond a joke.
The rest of the afternoon went well. No food or punches were thrown and even Tim subsided into a good natured stupor. At the parting, everyone agreed how much they had enjoyed the day, and there was a friendly haggle over the bill, all the parents determined to contribute more than their proper share.
Outside it was still light. Patricia and her parents had to dash for their train so the goodbyes were hurried. The Patel family seemed dazed. Tim said he was off to find a proper drink. Then it was time for Matthew and David to part. They shook hands, which felt uncomfortable but necessarily formal.
-You were quiet today, David said.
-Plenty of other people talking. Anyway, lots for us to think about isn’t there? One thing is certain though
-What’s that Matthew?
-From now on, nothing will ever be the same again. Our lives, the country, maybe the world. I´m quiet because I´m imagining what it will all be like in a few years time.
David paused, before answering in all seriousness.
-It will be what we make it, of course.
It wasn´t many years later that Mr. and Mrs. David Thomas completed the purchase of their first real home.
The house in Oakland Ridge was almost too perfect. David would never have found anything like it at the price if he had not been on such good terms with the agent. Any of Robert’s buyers who weren’t already s
It wasn’t in the most fashionable part of town and its condition when they moved in was rather neglected, but even then the house was impressive. Architecturally, its construction was simple and massive. It stood near the top of a low hill, commanding a view of neighbouring parkland from the upper floors. The ground floor was surrounded by an ample garden, gone wild, that was made secret by a high wall of good soot blackened stone.
There were three floors of huge, high ceilinged rooms arranged around spacious hallways. The upper floor bedrooms were a little cosier, nestling under a large skylight window set in the centre of the roof. The staircase rose directly under this window, guarded on three sides by an oak banister, forming a little atrium in the top of the building, flooded with natural light.
The play of light in the staircase and hallways was enhanced by the blue and red stained glass set in the tall windows of the first two elevations, giving the central space a soft yellow light that was like natural sunshine but softer.
On the day they moved in, this was where they stood to take it all in. It didn’t matter that the carpets were ruined or that the heavy oak staircase was piled with layers of cracked and discoloured paint. David took Patricia in his arms and told her that the house would be their home always. Patricia had never felt so happy. Neither of them spoke about children; it was too soon for that, but she was glad that there was more than enough room for a large young family.
Everything was on a grander scale than the houses either of them had known before. The doorways were bigger; the ceilings were higher and more airy; even the cream coloured blocks of stone from which the walls were constructed seemed oversized. Every room had ornate cornices or little bits of tiling in odd places, giving each a little magic of its own. The internal layout had an elegant simplicity without being too predictable. All the flooring was badly in need of attention and some of the walls needed replastering, but only the kitchen was altogether beyond saving.