Next time I see her I make an effort to be nice - to soften my voice. I lean forward, elbows on knees, hands as if in prayer.
‘Andrea’ I say ‘I think you’ve got the wrong idea about me. I’m really not just this miserable old bastard who hates the world...’
‘Really?’ she says flatly.
‘Really. I know people love to harp on about how life’s so hard these days - how the world’s so much more dangerous than it used to be...’
‘Because it is. Where the hell have you been?’
‘What? Andrea, how can you, how can anyone who knows any history whatsoever think that the world is a worse place now than it used to be?’
She looks at me blankly.
‘Pick a period, any period. Warfare, torture, slavery, massacre, pestilence, plague. Ok the technology’s changed. We’re screwing up the environment. But otherwise...’
‘Gabriel, I hate to break it to you, but didn’t you read the papers? I know you lived like a hermit but did you not hear about 9/11 where you were?’
‘Which was terrible, of course. But compared to World War One? The Black Death? The Holocaust? The Crusades? The Inquisition? And that’s just Europe. Seriously Andrea, there’s just no comparison.’
‘Do I have to remind you where I spent the last few decades of my life Gabriel? AIDS? Genocide? Rape? Torture? Child soldiers?’
I almost point out the connection between the word ‘infantry’ and ‘infant’ but manage to resist. But I can’t compete with her on first hand experience and it seems crass to even try. I think she’s missing the point though.
‘I know’ I say gently. ‘Obviously I’m not suggesting that the world’s a lovely safe harmonious place. That’d be ridiculous. I’m just saying that compared with the rest of human history the twenty-first century’s been a doddle. The modern tragedy is that we don’t bother to look after people these days even though we could. We didn’t used to have the option.’
She still looks defiant but doesn’t argue. I see her soften a little, or slump a bit actually.
‘Look’ I say, ‘I know what you’ll say, and it’ll sound funny coming from me, but actually, in many ways I do believe things are better now than they’ve ever been. I believe there’s hope. We’re at a turning point. For the first time in history, life doesn’t have to be nasty, gruesome and short. I know it still is for a lot of people but it doesn’t have to be. There’d be more than enough to eat if some of us weren’t so greedy. We can travel and communicate as quickly as we’re ever likely to need to. We’ve got cures for most of the major diseases... And incidentally,’ I add for good measure, ‘I think you’ll find the UN figures show there’s less wars nowadays than at any other time in history, and with fewer casualties.’
I know I’ve slipped back into my pompous voice again and I know she’ll be sarcastic back.
‘Well that’s alright then’ she says, huffing exasperatedly, leaning back with her arms crossed, but then suddenly leaning forward, in my face. ‘All that stuff’s irrelevant Gabriel. It’s not about technology or medicine or communications. It’s about how people behave... And I don’t see any grounds for optimism there. Quite the reverse actually...’
‘Are you serious?’
‘What about the abolition of slavery? What about democracy?’
‘What about them?’
Now it’s my turn to be exasperated. I lean forward and count on my fingers. ‘Ok, look, it used to be taken for granted that the victims of war would be massacred or raped or sold into slavery, yes?’
She nods and shrugs simultaneously.
‘Racial segregation and queer bashing were normal, accepted behaviour.’
She nods again, somewhat impatiently.
‘Until very recently, a woman belonged to her husband to do with pretty much as he liked. Child abuse was pretty much a fact of life...’
She looks unimpressed. I lean back. Her turn.
‘But Gabriel, all that stuff still goes on. Honestly, I think you’re being a bit naive about all this.’
‘But nowhere near as much, and now it’s pretty universally considered to be wrong isn’t it? All over the world, even where you were – you know, human rights, international law...’
‘But they’re still getting away with it.’
‘Precisely. They’re getting away with it. Don’t you see? It’s not acceptable any more. It’s a crime. That’s huge, don’t you think? That’s unprecedented.’
Another pause. We stare hard into each other’s faces.
‘Ok, so who’s going to arrest these guys? The United Nations?’
‘The United Nations is crap Gabriel. I’ve seen them – they’re worse than the warlords some of them.’
‘A few I'm sure, but I still think it comes under the heading of things that are basically a good idea but need work.’
‘You’re familiar with the old adage about the road to hell presumably.’
‘But you have to have good intentions Andrea. How can you possibly achieve anything without good intentions? Just because it doesn’t come off doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea. That’s all I’m saying. We need to try harder.’
She looks fed up. I think maybe it’s time for us to call it a day but then she says ‘Well, I still think you’re being somewhat idealistic Gabriel.’
‘Fine’ I say, throwing up my hands. ‘That’s fine. I’d rather be idealistic than a “miserable old sod” as you put it.’
After a while, sitting, getting our breaths back she says quietly ‘The UN never did anything about what was happening where I was...’
I look into her eyes. She looks away. She almost looks like she might burst into tears any moment. I hate to think of some of the things she’s seen. I really want to stop now. We’ve hardly got any time left together. Why are we wasting it like this? I want to just stop and go over and hold her and cover her in kisses and tell her it’ll all be alright. But I can’t, can I.
‘When I left Somalia’ she continues, ‘I mean, ok, there were the desalination plants along the coast, and a whole lot of Hydro-Gen plants, and things were definitely getting better but then there were a whole load of new mines going in, killing the rivers with cyanide, and then they started fighting over it all, again, which meant more mercenaries, more child soldiers, then more refugees, more disease, more starvation.’
‘Mainly because of Mithras.’
She looks at me unhappily. ‘Well, partly...’ she says. ‘Things had been settling down before that and then these companies came in and... Not American actually, the Chinese, the Russians, the Arabs...’
‘But the way people behaved was nothing new was it? It was the technology that changed, and the climate of course, but that was ultimately caused by the technology. Do you see what I mean?’
‘I do’ she says and sniffs a little, ‘but I don’t see what you’re getting at.’
‘I’m getting at... Hang on...’
She huffs at me impatiently. What am I getting at?
She prompts ‘People are just as bad as ever but technology makes things worse?’
‘I’m saying people are much the same as ever - good and bad.’
‘So that’s quite a major point don’t you think? You were telling me how terrible everything is “these days”, as if things were so much better in Victorian times for example, or during the cold war...’
‘So... what? It’s all technology’s fault now?’
‘No’ I say with exasperation, collapsing back in the chair melodramatically. ‘Well maybe, but the point I wanted to make, is that you talk about how dreadful we all are “these days” and I don’t.’
‘I don’t. Actually I like people.’
Now she really looks like she doesn’t believe me. I’m not surprised. She’s angry and tired I know but I don’t know why she wants me to concede that everything is hopeless. I don’t understand why that would make her feel better.
‘Ok look, we’ve talked about whether human nature is essentially good or evil.’
‘And since we’re so obviously not saints you’ve decided we must therefore be just plain evil. People love talking about all the murders and abuse and wars and torture and so forth. Journalists are the worst – they revel in that stuff. Good news is no news, right? But just because they give us more and more atrocities to look at doesn’t mean there’s more and more going on out there.’
I look at her and she has an intense, hard glare I’ve not seen before. I have to look away.
‘But I wasn’t reading about it in the Daily Mail or whatever’ she says, a disturbing grin on her face. ‘I didn’t watch it on CNN. Do you really want me to tell you about some of the things I came across while I was out there? About the boy that came onto my ward with his shiny new semi-automatic and just started shooting the kids in their beds, grinning at me, daring me to try to stop him? Hm? Do you want to hear about that? Or the time I had to try to help a woman who had been raped with a... a...’ She leans forward, bending down so far that her head is between her knees, her hands covering her face, sobbing hard into them. I kneel down before her and try to put my arms around her but she just stiffens, even takes a feeble swipe at me. I crouch there with my hand resting on her hip not knowing what to do. Her hip feels like bread dough, freshly proved from the airing cupboard. All I can say is ‘I am so sorry’ over and over. I’m near to tears myself.
Time passes. I look around at the room.
She sits back and takes the tissues I have in my hand. ‘I’m sorry’ she says and blows her nose. She even smiles a little at me apologetically and clutches my hand.
‘No. I’m sorry’ I say, ‘going on and on like that at you.’
‘No. It’s ok.’
I wait a moment for her to collect herself.
‘You must have believed it was worth trying though’ I say softly, ‘when you started out, I mean.’
‘I did. And I’d do it all again – probably will. It’s just sometimes... Sometimes it’s hard not to believe the human race isn’t just full of evil and hatred and destruction – you must know what I mean?’
I nod. I saw some of it in my time, but nothing like what she describes. We grip each other’s hands for a time. She wipes her face and it gradually reverts to its normal, pale complexion, apart from her nose, which stays bright pink. I’m ready to call it a day but she says ‘You think there’s hope for us yet. Tell me why you think that.’
Where to start, after all this?
‘I just can’t accept that human nature is plain evil’ I say after a while. ‘Ok, obviously it’s a part of human nature but I don’t think we’re fundamentally good or evil.’
I sit on the floor before her. After a while I realise I’m massaging her feet. She doesn’t stop me.
‘You want to know my theory?’ I say. She nods. ‘Ok. I think most people, most of the time, just want to get on with life. They don’t want to upset anyone especially. They aren’t especially greedy or violent, and usually they’ll try to help if it’s not too much trouble. That’s what I believe. Everybody is mean sometimes and everybody is generous, but nine times out of ten the people you’ll meet will be honest, decent, helpful...’
She’s sitting forward in her chair, her hands between her knees, clutching her mashed tissues. She looks past me but nods. She knows this, or she wants to believe in it, one or the other.
‘They might be scared,’ I continue, ‘they might be desperate, but given the chance, they’ll do what they can for you. You know that don’t you.’
‘That’s the problem with your thesis though isn’t it’ she says sadly. ‘What’s that quotation about evil flourishing if good people stand around and do nothing? People get scared and they do terrible things.’
‘I know, and ignorant – you left out ignorant. But it still doesn’t make them evil. I’ve had people point out to me that everyone has their price and they think that proves we’re all scum at heart but it doesn’t. People behave badly. People behave well. It doesn’t prove anything. Anyway, I don’t believe you should judge people by what they do when they’re desperate.’
‘Really?’ she says, quite taken aback, as if this is an entirely novel idea and she’s not sure if it’s worthy of ridicule or serious thought.
‘I suppose it’s the opposite of what most people think but I believe in it very strongly. The trick is to try to make sure people aren’t desperate, if at all possible.’
I see her relax a little. She sits back and thinks about it, smiling a little. She has very nice feet – small and rounded.
‘All want to be good and all want to prosper’ she quotes. ‘God grant you never have to choose.’
‘Exactly. That’s exactly right. I think real evil’s quite rare. I always think ten percent sounds about right. Mostly people just want to quietly get on with life.’
‘But there’s always that ten percent...’
‘They sure do keep us busy.’
‘Law and order breaks down and the psychos take over. It’s why I’m not a revolutionary in case you were wondering. Some people just lurve the chaos...’
‘I suppose... Mostly it was just ordinary people. I couldn’t believe it. I’d known a lot of them... from before...’
She turns away, looking across the room at her memories, clutching her tissues. I know my reasoning seems ineffectual in the face of all that horror but it’s all I have. I lean forward, speaking softly, trying to be comforting, trying to be optimistic. She looks so hopeless. ‘Ten percent you reckon’ she says.
‘It’s always the ten percent’ I say.
‘Seriously’ she says, with just a trace of a smile. ‘They’ve measured it I suppose.’
‘You’re making this up.’
‘No I’m not. Ninety percent of road accidents are caused by ten percent of drivers. Ninety percent of classroom disruption is caused by ten percent of pupils. It’s a fact. Look it up. It’s about as close to a sociological rule as you’ll ever come across.’
She laughs a little, which is good to see.
‘Given the chance’ I say, clasping her hands, ‘I think most people would rather do the right thing, don’t you? If they possibly can? Even if they don’t really like you, they’d rather not hurt you? Actually I really believe in people.’
‘Seriously? I find that hard to believe’ she says, suppressing a humourless laugh.
‘I mean it. Scoff all you want, but you know what I mean. Stuff people do, sometimes, given the opportunity, when they try... You must have seen it, amidst all the mayhem. Seriously, I have great faith in the human race.
Ok. You know I told you about that night I ended up on the pavement outside the Top Rank? The night I got beaten up?’
‘I don’t really remember a lot about what happened immediately after that. I remember a lot of people standing around, asking each other whether they thought I was alive or not, whether they should try to move me. Nobody actually wanted to touch me, not surprisingly...’
‘People love to gawp...’
‘Doesn’t mean they’re not concerned.’
‘Doesn’t mean they are.’
‘Anyway, next thing I know, I’m in the back of a black cab and there’s a young lad sitting across from me, and I’m propped up in the corner and the driver’s saying something about not bleeding on his upholstery but the lad’s ignoring him, just glancing over at me from time to time. He couldn’t’ve been more than about twenty. Lanky, blond, good-looking kid. Student probably. He says they called the police but they couldn’t spare an ambulance and the taxi driver wouldn’t take me on my own so there we were. I heard him mutter that he was supposed to be on the dance floor by now, with all his mates. I was trying to work out what he wanted from me but he just sat there, looking out the window. Anyway, we arrive at the hospital and I can hear him telling the driver how he can’t afford the fare back into town. He even got out and started walking but I think the driver took pity on him. Anyway... an example.’
She looks at me for a long time. I know it’s not exactly The Good Samaritan and anyway, it’s just an anecdote. I know it doesn’t mean anything in itself, on its own.
I can see she wants to say something. She wants to find fault, to dismiss it somehow – question the lad’s motives in some way or make it trivial. All she can come up with is ‘Sounds like he was quite pissed off with you.’
‘Absolutely’ I say. ‘But he did it anyway. That’s precisely my point. If he’d got some pleasure out of it it wouldn’t have meant so much would it?’
She smiles at me gently. So now I’m just a harmless lunatic.
‘He did it because it was the right thing to do, even though it pissed him off, having to.’
I feel very strongly about that lad. Andrea does not contradict me. I came across a lot of well-meaning do-gooders in my life, and all credit to them, but that lad... He’s the one I remember. He maybe saved my life.
‘So how come you had so much trouble with the rest of us back there?’ she says.
I sit back and look as if I’m thinking about it but I already know the answer – I think maybe I was one of the ten percent.
‘I don’t know’ I say eventually. ‘Most people just do what's normal. I don’t blame them especially. I just wish they’d tried a bit harder, thought things through a bit more.’
She sits and thinks a bit more.
‘So you believe there’s a ten percent of good people too?’ she says at last.
‘Well you should know babe’ I say, grinning.
She smiles sadly but doesn’t argue. We sit in silence for a while. We should have finished ages ago.
‘You think I’m deluded don’t you’ I say.
‘I don’t, not entirely.’ She shoves the mangled tissues in the tiny pocket of her tunic. They don’t fit. She looks about for the bin. I pass it over to her and she drops them in. ‘Actually I think you’re right about a lot of it, at least in theory. I just don’t know if it’s very realistic, things changing I mean.’
‘Doesn’t matter. You keep trying because you know it’s important.’
She sits back and nods appraisingly at me. The smile on her face suggests that she thinks I am an idealistic old fool, but that’s ok. I’d rather that than the cynical, defeatist old git she thought I was before.