Sing Like You Know the Words, page 8
As the house was built on the side of a hill, the rear elevation was lower than the front, which meant that the back kitchen door was above ground and access to the substantial cellar was down just a few steps. Here David made plans to establish his den and extend the property. He could picture himself entertaining in the large rear dining room that looked out over the garden (they would make the windows bigger) and afterwards summoning the male guests to his private basement bar.
The house needed work, but it seemed incredible that after two years of marriage, they could have this much already. The couple seemed blessed in other ways. It was clear to all his colleagues that the new boy at Simpson Rose, the one with the pretty barrister for a wife, was going places fast. How he managed it was a mystery; and as the carefully planned social invites began to arrive from Oakland Ridge, there was more surprise and some muttering that such a junior member of the firm could afford to live so splendidly and entertain so well. It was assumed that there must be family money; a misapprehension that David did nothing to correct. One or two wise heads surmised that young Mr Thomas was living on credit, gambling on a quick success and hoping to avoid painful failure. The truth was that David had given no thought to failure.
There were other colleagues who thought, privately or not so privately, that a chap like David Thomas had no business being at Simpson Rose in the first place; that he was too brash for their taste. After all, although Simpson’s was not the biggest firm in the city (David had avoided the biggest firms since they had too many people already in line for the top jobs) it was considered, at least by its partners and associate lawyers, to be the firm of quality. Simpson Rose did not admit just any young solicitor; and once you were in there were certain standards that had always been observed, even if one didn’t speak of them.
Then one day, in had marched this tall young chap; charming, good looking in a not too obvious way; seeming full of confidence, although he didn’t know anyone and everyone knew that he’d barely scraped a passable degree from the local redbrick.
Worse than that, within a year of qualifying he was being talked of openly as a future partner. And all he seemed to do was property law; not exactly brain surgery, though you have to admit it pays the bills. There was talk of him bringing in a lot of business and being loved by the clients, as if that had anything to do with being made partner.
It was a sad state of affairs and times certainly were changing. These days the senior partners were more likely to ask you to explain your chargeable hours for the month than invite you for a round of golf.
David had worked out early on that although property was not intellectually stimulating, not only did it pay very well, but the other work seemed to flow from it. He also realized that the senior partners of Simpson Rose were acutely conscious of these simple facts. Their unspoken policy was to reward young men like him very well in the early days and to promise them great things for the future. The work was arduous and stressful and the idea was to keep the young men running hard until they burned out, by which time a new intake of young men would be ready to replace them. But David had no intention of burning out.
This kind of life was a war and he already had his plan of campaign. Oakland Ridge would be his base of operations as well as a weapon in his armoury. Besides it was an early fulfilment of the promises he had made to Patricia. For her, the house was simply a blessed space which the dedication of time and care would make perfect.
Patricia’s own career did not progress so serenely as David’s. It had been hard to find chambers prepared to accept her as a pupil. A rare first class honours degree from the local law faculty should have opened doors for her, but instead it seemed to create new barriers.
Heads of chambers wanted to know why she was looking at the provincial bar rather than London. As she made the rounds of interviews, one of them gently suggested that with an academic standard like hers, perhaps she should consider postgraduate study. Privately some of the interviewers noted that she was a rather shrill young girl; a little too intense. They somehow doubted that she would fit in.
At least Patricia didn’t lack persistence. Eventually she found a place in a middling set of chambers that had one or two well thought of names. She resigned herself to the unavoidable grind of chores; running after the more experienced barristers, carrying papers, surviving on a meagre diet of guilty pleas in the magistrates’ courts: appearances that solicitors were too busy or lazy to attend to themselves. She kept busy by working extra hours as a volunteer at the local law centre and the citizen’s advice bureaux. David joined in at first to show support, but soon he was too busy to continue.
Unfortunately, Patricia felt as much out of place at the law centre as she did in the courts. All the time at university, she had been around people who came from a more privileged world. Matthew was always going on about it. Patricia recognized the differences but felt no sense of exclusion. It was the world that her mother had prepared her for, and though she thought that she disagreed with her mother about most things, it was the world where she most felt she belonged.
She would share that gracious existence with the people who were born to it, although her own life would be validated by a career of good works and dedication to the cause of justice. But at the law centre, she experienced for the first time the sense of meeting a different class of people, whose concerns were really very different to her own. She was fascinated and sometimes appalled by the smallest details that only made David shrug and say there was nothing worth brooding over.
At this stage in her life, Patricia spent a lot of time brooding, not so much about the lower classes as about the legal profession and her place in it. She’d told herself she was prepared for the routine frustration and humiliation of being a pupil working her way up. She’d been told what it would be like, but the daily reality was not so much the crushing embarrassments that were painful enough when they arrived, as the deadly dullness of it. And she didn’t want to become bitter. She was conscious that the experience of being an outsider, struggling for a foothold in a strange world, was leaving scars.
Friends noticed something hard developing in her character. She became prone to sarcasm. It would have been easy to conclude that the cause was related to the contrast between hers and David’s experiences. Her brilliant academic career had led to humiliation and begging for work, while David, who’d never studied seriously, seemed to rise without visible effort. If there was any tinge of jealousy to her frustration, she would never allow David to see it. Other people close to her, Matthew for example, caught occasional glimpses of suppressed rage that sometimes threatened to overwhelm her calm exterior.
None of them saw much of Tim in those days. The army had sponsored his studies and now, as he said, he had to repay his debt to society. He thought that he would spend another year with the army of the Rhine, perfecting his German with as many girls as would speak to him and researching local brews. He came back on leave from time to time and didn’t seem much changed. Apart from the short hair there was nothing military about him without a uniform: just the same skinny imp with dark eyes and a malicious sense of humour. It was the rest of them who were changing.
Matthew was still ever present in their lives. Like David and Patricia, he had stayed in the city after college. More accurately he’d never left. His family lived on the poorer south side of town, so going to university had only moved him a few miles north of home. He seemed less a leaf in the stream than a leaf in a flat becalmed pond. Matthew himself said that anything that happened to him resulted less from his conscious decisions as from his constant indecision.
An unspectacular version of good fortune attended Matthew even when character failed him. When it had come to choosing colleges, he’d not wanted to stray far from home, preferring to be near to his mother. That had led to a problem about his grant, but somehow Mrs James had settled that with the education authority on his behalf. His father was long gone; dead so far as Mrs James
For a while, Matthew drifted, until someone from the faculty who remembered his name put him forward for a work experience vacancy with the local newspaper. It was an unusual kindness, but Matthew seemed to provoke a general goodwill in others without inspiring anything so positive as friendship. He put it down to the general air of haplessness that he supposed attached to his person, making others feel sorry for him.
The idea was that he would spend a few weeks at the paper finding out whether he might be interested in going on to journalism school, but when his placement expired, it happened that the paper found itself short of a junior writer, so instead of returning to school, he stayed on as junior reporter.
It wasn’t much but it was a real job. So long as he was careful to avoid being noticed enough to be singled out for promotion or dismissal, he might keep at it for years without his inner life being too much disturbed. It was enough that he had to contend with a vague competitiveness that he didn’t understand and preferred to deny, without the outside world getting in the way of his wish to lead a quiet life.
When it was known that he would be staying on at the paper, his boss told him that he should spend some time with Tuttle and Grayson, who would show him the rudiments of the craft. Up to then he had been doing mostly odd jobs. Mr Elliott explained to him that Richard Tuttle and Ralph Grayson were the senior staff reporters.
-Does that mean that they are in charge of the news?
-No, it bloody well does not, and don’t let them tell you otherwise.
Mr Elliott assured him that he would learn a lot from the senior reporters, who had a many years experience between them. They would be great fun to work with, he said. He led Matthew to the doorway of their office from where he made rudimentary introductions and left rather hurriedly. It seemed that Mr Elliott was not entirely comfortable in the presence of these two.
Ralph Grayson looked at the new boy and grunted with disgust. Ralph was a tall spidery man in a tweed jacket with elbow patches. He had greasy dark hair and what remained of it on top was roughly combed over the bald patches. His face was long and thin, but it seemed that the top and bottom did not match, the high forehead was so narrow and the powerful jaw so pronounced. It was fascinating to see, a face composed of features that were ordinary in themselves but combined to make something so ugly. Matthew had to will himself not to look so directly at Ralph as to stare, without actually avoiding looking at him: it was an effort.
Richard seemed quite ordinary in comparison: short grey hair, slightly paunchy, a bit of a beard and reading glasses pushed well down a broad nose.
-Don’t expect us to waste our time showing you anything, were Ralph’s first words, and don’t get in my way. That ass Elliott told us to expect you, but I don’t suppose you will stay around very long. Most of them don’t. In too much of a hurry to land a job in radio, or one of the nationals, or maybe television. Anything they can get that doesn’t require more than a vague grasp of the English language. If they fail at that, some of them even leave to get proper jobs – working for a living, ugh. I suppose you have ambitions to work in television.
He didn’t wait for an answer to this, but continued.
-Anyway, I have never liked being around children and please don’t expect me to make an exception in your case. In particular do not expect me to correct your grammar, syntax or spelling; although in all fairness I should warn you not to rely on our fool of an editor in that respect either. In fact probably you should avoid writing anything so far as that’s possible, as your likely to embarrass yourself. The best advice I can give you, as long as you’re here; observe, reflect, and be silent.
-Richard grinned at Matthew and offered his hand.
-Welcome, lad to the National Union of Journalists, Trappist monk section, he said.
It wasn’t an auspicious start, but soon Matthew decided that he might make a go of being a local newspaperman. He quickly got used to the slow rhythms of Richard’s soft Pennine accent and the harsher tones of Ralph’s acidic version of BBC English. It was easy to follow Ralph’s instruction to be quiet around these two: they seemed to have so much to say, not about the world as it should be, but the world as it was. He felt dull and stupid in comparison. For the first time (perhaps because no one joked about it) he was conscious of feeling shamed by his own brutal Leeds accent, rather than being aggressively defensive of it.
Matthew found a one person flat to rent, that was not too expensive, but for him as for his friends, life centred on the house at Oakland Ridge.
As soon as the house was fixed up enough for Patricia not to absolutely prohibit visitors, David and his wife began to host social evenings for the ever growing circle of friends and people who it would be useful for David to know. As an old friend of the family, Matthew had a standing invite. He joked that he was there to prove that the happy couple had lived ordinary lives before they became aspiring yuppies. The word was new; and its use made a few pained lines appear on David’s otherwise untroubled face. But Matthew had a certain licence to say uncomfortable things. Generally he behaved himself.
Sometimes he would bring Carol with him, but more usually he’d be alone. Often Patricia would play hostess, attaching him to whichever lone guest seemed to be feeling out of place.
A character so easily given to resentment as Matthew sometimes had to kick against becoming, as he said, a stage prop in someone else’s social life; but the truth was that he enjoyed these evenings, especially after the more stuffy guests had gone. Everyone relaxed and the serious drinking began. And although Matthew had felt ambivalent about alcohol as a student, now he joined in with the rest. With drink in him, he would feel less tongue tied, more able to talk to strangers. It gave him a feeling of freedom.
David’s hospitality was lavish. Few of the guests knew or cared that much of the upper floor of the house was still in a condition that Patricia described as ruined. Towards the end of the night, drinking wine that was inappropriately good for the hour, one or other of the guests might wonder aloud how someone so young as David could afford such a fantastic home.
Then David would talk like a wise estate agent for a few minutes, pointing out that the neighbourhood was not great (cheap new homes crowded outside its high walls and hedges). The house needed a lot of work and it would be too big for most buyers. True he’d negotiated a good deal but in all honesty the house would never sell for much (not that they intended to leave). The guests would nod at his modesty which didn’t alter the fact that the place was a mansion. Matthew knew that the reality was that David could not afford the house. He was gambling on being able to grow his income to match his outgoings before his situation became too serious.
His friend’s finances were one more thing for Matthew to worry about. Meanwhile, in the daytime at least, he had the job of writing for the paper to occupy his time.
He was offered plenty of advice. Someone told him that a local paper never used more than eight basic stories. The news was just these few standards, shuffled and rehashed. Richard told him that the nationals were the same. Ralph claimed that really there were only six stories not eight.
But there was more to it than just writing. Early on, there was a boy who had been killed in a horrific motorcycle accident and Matthew was assigned to get the human interest story from his girlfriend.
-Richard, why would she want to talk to a stranger about it?
-She won’t at first, that’s why we’re sending you. You’re young and sympathetic. Imagine what she’d think if Ralph went.
-But what can I say to her?
Matthew was deeply uncomfortable. Richard’s smile was not unkindly.
-You don’t need to say much at all. Just ask her if she wouldn’t want the lad to be remembered. You could say
-What do you mean?
-It’s a dying young story. Basically there’s two kinds. You can have promise unfulfilled or doomed romance. Promise unfulfilled is about what a brilliant person the victim would have turned out to be if he’d lived, so with a biker you’re better off with doomed romance. Have a look at some of my old clippings. You’ll get the drift.
-It seems wrong. Dishonest.
Richard saw his problem.
-Ah, ethics. You feel that we’re intruding and trivialising? Well look at it the other way round. The girl is going out with this boy and suddenly he’s smeared down the road; there one day, gone the next. Makes no sense to her or anyone else. She has the chance to say a few words about it to a young lad like yourself who’s so sincere that he seems a bit dim. Even if she thinks she’d rather not at first, it will do her good. And later she reads your piece and life makes a little more sense, because she understands her part. She’s the tragic bride to be. She’s read that story before about someone else. Now she knows how to behave; the facts have been given a meaning and a context.
-But it’s not her meaning. We’ve reduced her to a conventional figure.
-I could be pretentious and call it a shared narrative. The world repeats itself endlessly lad. The same tale with different players. That’s what’s true, as you’ll see soon enough. Individuality is not as important as you believe. It’s stories that we need. Without stories we wouldn’t know how to act at all.