Authors: Rachel Ingalls
Joan met Max when she was working at the library. She hadn’t seen him come in because she was reading a book under the counter but she heard him and, as he approached the desk, she prepared to release her attention from the page.
Every day she read books and magazines, only occasionally looking at a newspaper and then often preferring the less respectable ones that had the scandals and amazing stories and the little snippets of weird fact. At the end of the previous week she’d read that – according to the latest research – four out of five women succeeded in business, whereas three out of five men failed. She’d been wondering about the statistics for most of the morning. Were those numbers just for a few countries? Did they include only particular trades or types of job? One of the other girls at the library had suggested that probably what was meant by business was small businesses started up by a single person who had taken out a loan from a bank: that might make sense, because the women would have to have serious intentions; and the men might just want to raise money to spend on something else.
The best stories, and the one subject that held everyone’s attention, found full scope only in the three or four tabloids regularly read by everyone on the staff. Crime was the
favorite issue; from the information desk to the archives, crime reports had become an addiction with all the librarians. Whether their need to read about it sprang from fear of becoming the victims of violence or from a suppressed wish to lead a more active, passionate – or even lawless – life, they were so eager to get at the latest installment of murder investigations that often one of them would have to hold the paper and read it out loud to the others.
In recent years there had also been many national and international crises and catastrophes but wartime made the act of killing so lacking in personal detail as to be almost anonymous. That thirty people had died in a mortar attack was horrible but not interesting; that someone had killed someone else was shocking and at the same time fascinating. Everyone had at some point had the wish to murder; most possessed the ability to suppress it. Both the hideousness and the allure were immediately understandable. Murder was a civilian crime and for amateurs. Military matters lacked the personal touch. They were for the professional.
Max’s specialty was war. He’d begun on court cases, accidents, political interviews and natural disasters: fire, flood, avalanche, earthquake. Only gradually had he been drawn towards what was to become his chosen field. He’d started with a good ear for languages – that had turned out to be one of his greatest assets: it had allowed him to communicate with all sides in a conflict and then to translate the general sense without being too literal. Experience taught him which people to approach and how to frame questions. And thanks to an ability to speak calmly and clearly while observing turbulent
events, his eyewitness accounts sounded real. Most newspaper readers or radio listeners, like Joan, thought that his reports from the front were completely true. What he told them was better than one man’s opinion: it was information. After a while it could be considered history – a personal account, but one that didn’t twist the facts.
He was at the top now, at the peak of his profession.
Joan, on the other hand, hadn’t really started to do anything. She’d just been reading about it.
With her eyes still on the page, she sensed him coming nearer. She picked up her Degas postcard to mark her place in the book. Just at that moment he asked her to find a title for him.
She recognized his voice and she looked up with an expression of delight on her face, but she couldn’t place the man in front of her.
As for him, he was so taken with the change in her as her concentration passed from her book to him, that he too felt an agreeable sense of recognition, almost like a sudden appreciation of beauty.
She wasn’t beautiful but she was pretty enough to give that impression every once in a while.
He also saw that she liked him and that she was somebody he could talk to.
He spent most of his time talking to people. In war zones and conference centers he talked and listened. And afterwards he’d unwind, also by talking and listening and, sometimes in addition, by making love.
‘I know your voice,’ she said.
‘Do you ever watch the news?’
‘Never. I listen. I watched so much TV when I was fifteen that I’ll never have to have a set of my own, even if I live to be a hundred. But I do lean on friends every once in a while. Are you on television?’
‘Sometimes,’ he said, as if it didn’t matter.
‘By the time I was sixteen, I’d seen every B-feature ever made. It saved my life. Now I go out. Or I do something while I’m listening to the radio. Is this research for a show?’
‘Background information. Just to check if my possibly unreliable facts line up with the possibly unreliable history books.’
‘My grandfather used to say that history was the great subject. History and law.’
‘I think I’d agree with that.’
‘I guess most men would.’
‘Why? What do you think the most important subject is?’
‘Oh, religion. Not that I’ve got one, but I’ve always wished that I’d been brought up in a faith.’
‘Well, otherwise everything’s just bits and pieces. Nothing to live by.’
‘That’s a lot better than war. Religious certainties and intolerance can lead to some pretty nasty activity.’
At the mention of war she recognized him: Max Dangerfield, the famous foreign correspondent.
‘Oh, my God,’ she said, ‘that’s who you are. Of course.
That recording where you could hear the bombs going off. And then the earthquake. And when you were shot and you kept right on broadcasting. I must be the only person in the world who doesn’t know you by sight. How rude of me. I’m really sorry.’
He told her that it was refreshing to meet someone who still listened to the radio. And to find anyone who could remember his work in such precise detail was flattering in the extreme. The trouble with television was that after a certain point audiences tended to think of you as if you were the lead actor in their favorite soap opera or the star who advertised the breakfast cereal. You became part of a pantheon; your appearance on the screen was congenial and reassuring, but nobody really listened to what you were saying.
‘Oh, they listen to you,’ she said.
He asked her if she’d still be at the desk in another forty minutes or so. He wondered whether she’d come out for a cup of coffee with him.
She told him that she’d have loved to, but she didn’t get off work for another two hours.
He repeated the title of his book. There was plenty of reading he could do, he said. Two hours would go by in a flash.
If everything hadn’t happened so fast – if there had been a day between his invitation and the evening out – she’d have been too nervous to open her mouth. But while they were talking she’d felt so easy with him that when he reappeared at the desk with the book in his hand, she was elated. She was ready to enjoy herself.
They took a stroll until the buses and subway trains thinned out the rush-hour crowds.
As they walked, their conversation jumped from one topic to another until something he said reminded her of a newspaper report that morning, about a player of loud music and an old couple he’d had killed because they’d asked him to turn the volume down.
NOISE THUG KILLER SHOCK VERDICT
, the headlines had read. The aggressor himself had received a fairly light sentence: a matter of months. The two boys he’d hired, who had ignited a gasoline trail into the couple’s apartment, had each been given a few years. ‘That’s what I can’t figure out,’ Joan said. ‘Not just that the incredibly painful, terrifying death of two innocent people is only worth a couple of years, but the fact that the really guilty one was the man who hired them and yet he’s gotten away with a shorter jail sentence. None of it would have happened if it hadn’t been for him.’
‘He didn’t do the killing.’
‘But he started everything. That’s the strange thing about the law – it’s so unfair.’
‘It’s merely inexact, like us. It has to cover all kinds of situations and combinations.’
‘Subjecting people to that kind of noise – that unrelenting beat – it’s a recognized torture technique, a form of assault, a kind of oppression. People who inflict it on someone else think they can do what they like and at the same time diminish everyone else’s capacity. It’s an abuse of the powers
that freedom should give you. In a free world you ought to be able to have every thing you want without making life intolerable for the rest of society.’
She laughed a little and felt embarrassed at having talked so much. ‘A completely uninformed view,’ she added. It was then that she realized what had made him ask her out. It might have been loneliness, but it wasn’t. It was desire. She could have said just about anything and he’d be interested. She wanted to say that without equality there were no relationships; there was only the oppressor and the slave, the host and the parasite. Later on she was glad that she’d shut up for a while. It was his turn to speak. And it wasn’t long before she’d changed her mind about equality, anyway. Once you were living with somebody, you had to reorder your ideas.
‘The younger generation has always been loud,’ he told her. ‘Loud, selfish and careless. I think the only difference nowadays is that the technology is capable of boosting sound so high without distortion that most Western kids are partly deaf. So then, of course, they have to turn the volume up higher and even more of their hearing goes. I think I’m beginning to suffer some hearing loss myself, from gunfire and other explosions. But you’re right. Noise is going to become an increasingly unattractive aspect of modern life unless there’s some way of keeping it under control. In most countries it seems to fall into the category of environmental pollution rather than simple assault.’
‘If you’re the one whose walls are pounding with it – like my friend, Katie – that’s juggling with words. Not even
earplugs work against that. She’s had to move out twice. The law can’t help you against neighbors like that.’
‘Of course it can. The law is for people who can’t come to an agreement with each other. They need a third party to make a decision that’s going to be binding on them both.’
Before she could stop herself, she said, ‘And wars are for people who don’t want to get along together, no matter what the law says.’
‘Is that really what you think?’
‘No. It’s what I feel. When it’s too late, you destroy everything and start again.’
‘That’s a counsel of desperation. I’d rather have as little as possible destroyed. The big difficulty is getting people to the bargaining table.’
‘That’s right. After a while, they don’t want to talk. They want to rip it all up and walk away.’
‘But once you can get them to sit down around a table, you can make them see that there’s no need to do that. It’s always better to remain friends, even if it’s only on paper and you never actually like them.’
‘Isn’t it harder to make them listen when they’re in the same room with each other?’
‘On the contrary. You throw a bone to one side and then you slip a tidbit to the others. And if you time it right, pretty soon they’re accepting things they don’t want, so that they can have what they do want. They’ll even give up an advantage in the hope of gaining a different one. No. The difficulty is getting them there in the first place.’
He had a wife – a fact he mentioned that first evening, letting Joan know that the marriage wasn’t working out and that it no longer meant much to him. They didn’t talk about it.
They talked about trivial things or about their past – each bringing out favorite stories and memories: the ones that had become introductory gifts for people they knew they were going to like and wanted to hold on to. She told him about her great aunt and the handkerchiefs; he gave her the ghost story about the apple tree in his grandmother’s back yard. Then there was a pause before he decided to take things further or she let him know that he was the love of her life so it didn’t matter to her whether he was married or not. Anyway, she wondered, if he could understand all the intricacies of hostility and negotiation, and could explain them to other people, why wasn’t his marriage all right? Obviously, something was wrong with the wife.
In the interim they traded opinions and once or twice during the last kicks of the Noise Thug case – when the parents and other relatives of the two teenagers came forward to sell their reminiscences to the papers – went back to the subject of the old couple who were killed for complaining.
‘Isn’t that what wars are about, too?’ she asked him. ‘The abuse of authority and wanting to do whatever you like at the expense of everybody else? Encroaching on other people’s freedom and privacy?’
‘Oh, neighbors’ quarrels,’ he said.
‘What about a disputed boundary line between neighbors – wouldn’t that be the same as a country and its borders?’
‘No. Besides, some wars are fabricated to keep certain
people in power or to maintain sovereignty.’
‘Some neighbors’ arguments, too. They go on and on because one of them has to have the upper hand. It’s always somebody who can’t stand to be equal because he won’t trust the other person not to try to take more power. An aggressive personality.’
‘It’s a question of being able to get along together. That doesn’t always mean equality. It might be symbiosis: a small country and a larger one agreeing to share by trading with each other and remaining separate.’
He was right: it was impossible to draw analogies. His wife, for instance, decided not to fight. She gave in. And yet she’d loved him, hadn’t she?
He wasn’t just famous – he was the youngest of the seasoned campaigners and he had the reputation, even among his colleagues, of being the best. Less respected correspondents went out to the battle zones in ex-army camouflage jackets and special heavy-duty boots lined in the latest scientifically perfected materials. He and three others – a Dutchman, an Englishman and a Spaniard – faced the mortar bombs in an eccentric collection of good-luck clothes, which among the four of them included a tartan hat, a pair of patent-leather pumps that looked like dancing shoes, a cream-colored suit and a purple Hawaiian shirt printed with orange pineapples and worn over a Los Angeles Rams sweatshirt (or a white T-shirt, depending on the weather). His own outfit incorporated several eye-catching items that might have been designed specifically to draw attention,
and therefore, gunfire. But he wouldn’t have dreamt of leaving any of them behind. And as he and the other three went about their business of observing and interviewing the villains and victims of war – or those affected by flood, explosion, earthquake and other disasters – they left younger men shaking their heads and refusing to cross the airfield guarded by snipers, or the clump of burning vegetation next to a lava flow, or the slippery stone pathway across the flood.