Rumours of a hurricane, p.1
RUMOURS OF A HURRICANE
‘Rendered with loving exactness… This reads like the work of a formidably talented writer relaxing into his voice’ Daily Telegraph
‘Compassionate, tragic and breathtakingly beautiful… I cannot remember reading a more exhilarating or emotionally affecting novel. A masterpiece’ Sunday Independent
‘The tender, disquieting autopsy of an unsophisticated and commonplace marriage. What a touching, honest and courageous book!’ Jim Crace
‘Intelligent and interesting. A powerful indictment of the bruising social upheavals of the Thatcher years’ The Times
‘Tim Lott seizes the irreconcilables of the Thatcherite legacy [and] out of it he spins a bigger picture – of social turmoil, family division, racial and sexual convulsion. Cleanly and compulsively told the story reaches its conclusion with a satisfying and painful thunderclap’ Evening Standard
‘A moving, beautifully observed tale’ Mail on Sunday
‘Nothing John Mortimer, David Lodge or Michael Frayn have written – or Nick Hornby, for that matter – comes close to the considerable breadth of what Lott has achieved here. He has given us a modern English novel with a life of its own… an English version of Updike’s “Rabbit” books. A very funny, yet genuinely tragic story’ Eileen Battersby, Irish Times
‘Acute and disconcerting… once opened Lott’s novel is hard to put down, and even harder to forget’ Sunday Herald
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Lott was born in Southall, Middlesex in 1956. He attended Greenford Grammar School and Harlow Technical College, after which he joined the local newspaper. He subsequently worked as a pop music journalist, a publisher and an entrepreneur. In 1983 he attended the London School of Economics as a mature student and achieved a degree in history and politics, after which he worked as a magazine editor and a TV producer before turning to writing. He is author of The Scent of Dried Roses, which was awarded the 1996 J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, White City Blue, winner of the 1999 Whitbread First Novel Award, and a second novel, Rumours of a Hurricane, shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award 2002, all of which are published by Penguin. He is divorced, has three daughters and lives in north-west London.
Rumours of a Hurricane
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
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Rosebank 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published by Viking 2002
Published in Penguin Books 2003
Copyright © Tim Lott, 2002
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Dedicated to Jeff Lott, my absent friend
John Amlot and Garden Railway Specialists, Princes Risborough, the Littlewoods Catalogue Company, Paul Griffiths at English Partnerships, Mick Kitson, Nick Oatridge, Penny Jones and all at DGA for keeping me bucked up, Lesley Levene, Juliet Annan for her consistent enthusiasm and support, David ‘Mr Music’ Godwin for going beyond the call of duty on this one, and Rachael Newberry
Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis
Times change, and we change with them
It is 1991. Winter. The woman sits, writing, at a desk in her office in the New Town. The office is one of two rooms in a prefabricated cube that sits at the easternmost perimeter of a small car park. A fleet of nearly new cars sits outside, polished and gleaming in the chilly sunlight. Atop each there is an identical plastic sign, ‘M&P Driving Centre’, picked out in red, white and blue.
The woman stops what she is doing and looks up. She scrutinizes the cars with a matronly, protective gaze. Her glance lingers on one of them, newer than the others, a brand-new Ford Fiesta in Cobalt. This particular car has a special significance. The school took delivery of it only today and it is their twentieth vehicle. The roundness and cleanness of this figure, 20, she finds seductive, rolls it around in her head like a cool green marble.
She notices one of her team of driving instructors leaving a simple breeze-block staff room which squats plainly on the opposite perimeter of the car park. The man makes his way briskly towards one of the neatly parked cars. With faint disappointment, although she knows it is a good and inevitable embroidering of the scene that she surveys, she watches as the car is occupied and begins to roll away to pick up the first of the day’s customers. By midday, the car lot will, as usual, be empty, before the cars are all sucked back in during the late evening, like particles breathed in and out of a lung. The cars leave as carbon and return as oxygen, as profit.
In a town like this, where everybody needs to drive, and which is expanding at a rate greater than anywhere else in Europe, everyone needs to have this everyday skill. The growth in demand is demographically predictable. Yet the disruption of the grid of the twenty vehicles, laid out in a five-by-four rectangle, disturbs her enjoyment of the neatness of the scene.
The woman relishes geometrical arrangements. It is not obvious from her appearance, which shows none of the outward signs of asceticism that one might expect from an enthusiast of informal mathematics, from a devotee of the proper ordering of things. She is tanned from a recent foreign holiday, a real tan topped up now with a tone from an expensive bottle. Other than her heightened colour, her most prominent quality is that of density. She wears a thick gold chain, has a thickly powdered face, thickening thighs and thickly plastered lips. There is nothing angular or parched about her. She is clearly middle-aged, but seems sprightly and satisfied. Her suit is bright red, with a black collar and slightly padded shoulders. She wears court shoes with medium heels and fake Chanel earrings. Her hair is auburn, her eyes, which suggest a strange mixture of both softness and buried, implacable determination, miss nothing. In front of her, two bound ledgers, arranged exactly flush to the edge of the embossed green leather-topped desk at which she sits. Her right index finger makes circular patterns on the cover of the left-hand ledger, a kind of foreplay to her imminent teasing and massaging of the figures into the book-keeper’s bliss of perfect symmetry.
The phone rings and she considers ignoring it, since it is only eight o’clock in the morning and she has not finished her coffee and fresh raisin Danish pastry, bought from the hot-bread shop in the large shopping mall to which her office is juxtaposed. After due consideration, she makes a mental pact: if it continues after ten rings, she will answer. On the eleventh, she picks up. A soft northern voice emerges from the earpiece.
Is that Mrs Buck?
Good morning, Mrs Buck. My name is Julie from British Telecom. I’m sorry to bother you, but we were wondering if you would like to take this opportunity to avail yourself of some of the new services which we are –
No, I’m sorry. You’ve made a mistake.
I beg your pardon –
I mean, I’ve made a mistake. This isn’t Mrs Buck.
I do beg your pardon. I thought you said –
I used to be.
Not any more.
Maureen hangs up. She wonders how long it will take her to stop being Mrs Buck, and hopes it will not be too much longer. Her fresh life suits her. And it is fresh, feels fresh and warm, like the pastry she delicately devours in small bites rounded off by elaborate mouth-cleaning operations with the napkin she has been offered to accompany the pastry. She drains the last of the contents of her cup with a smack of her lips, since no one is there to hear her transgress the good manners that she has tried hard to cultivate since she was a young woman. Then she turns to the ledgers and opens the one that her finger has been caressing. The news contained inside it, she knows already, will be good.
As she opens the ledger, fifty or so miles away to the south a man stands under a flyover in London, swaying slightly back and forth from the balls of his feet to the flat of his heels. He keeps this rocking movement going for five, maybe six minutes. There is no sunshine here, only a steady dull downpour.
People hurrying by on the way to the nearby underground station entrance avoid looking at him. The pointlessness, the giant inappropriateness of his smile, the rock, rock of his ruined body put them on guard, register him as mad, render him invisible. His smile widens; something like a laugh emerges, but is obliterated by the rumbling of the tube train.
The smile dissolves. He takes a long, deep draught from a can that is clutched in his left hand. Then he crushes the can and lets it drop to join the five or six empties that he has previously let fall there. He stops rocking. His face is still, at rest. He closes his eyes.
His face, now expressionless, exposes clearly the topography of its damage. Thin, vermilion blood vessels snake across his cheekbones and nose. There is the remnant of a serious bruise there, and his hair, of which there is a thick mass, stands up with caked grime as if gelled and set. The effect is that of broken feathers on the back of an injured pigeon. His mouth is thin and inclines down heavily at either end. The impression is not so much of sadness but of anaesthesia. There is not the animation any more to drag the lips up at the extremities, to continue the pantomine of a private joke being shared with the battering rain.
His eyes are still closed. People hurry past. The rain strengthens and the wind that drives it pulls sheets of water whipping under the flyover. Yet still the man does not move. Another train arrives.
His clothes are soaking now, on every side. The damp seems to neutralize their colour, so that they appear not colourless but unidentifiable as any shade of any hue in particular. It is the colour of that which has fallen from the secret edge of the world.
A pale flicker of the smile reappears. Then the eyes open once more. They are shot. They were once cornflowers but now have come to resemble the damp non-colour of the man’s clothes. Yet briefly they seem to blaze with some light, a light that is somewhere at the dark end of the blue-green spectrum and that sends out messages nobody is there to read. The lids widen slightly. Then the man closes them again. And takes a step forward. The flow of pedestrians redirects itself to avoid the obstruction, forced now to momentarily recognize the man’s existence and thus recalibrate their own.
The traffic boulders down the main road at an urgent pace, each pair of windscreen wipers battling the downpour, the moment-by-moment flicking between clarity and opacity. When the trains pass and the traffic is growling, the sounds combine to make a thick, tumbling wall of noise that blocks a human voice pitched at the normal level. Car and train, train and car, the systematic indifference of machines. The man takes another step forward. The pedestrian flow redirects automatically.
The man reaches the kerb and he stands there, steadily, waiting until the trains and cars combine to create the necessary duet of obliteration. The quality of the noise is the cue he has given himself, pointless and nonsensical. He considers this apt. The 8.03 is late. A mechanical failure at Stratford is responsible.
Eventually, however, the man hears the train approach. He swallows. And again, then blinks, once. Although very drunk – he has been very drunk now for one and a half years – he feels, unexpectedly, a subterranean bolt of fear. This means he muffs his step slightly when he leaves the kerb, the ghost of a second thought hobbling him. So the lorry, when it hits, does not take him full on, but propels him from the shoulder, at an angle, twenty feet into the distance. It is not enough. Instead of the warm darkness which he hoped for, there is a cacophony of world-obliterating pain.
As if the rain were adrenalin, the crowd, a moment ago so united, so careful in its indifference, so discerning in its chosen horizons, flows undammed towards him. He hears himself screaming, and he hears voices babble around him, words that are rendered meaningless and incomprehensible by his agony.
The pain has not merely failed to kill him. It has brought him vibrantly alive, made him aware of the oldest edict coded into his genes: to survive. His cry sounds from somewhere he had not previously understood to have existed. The deadness of his spirit is in momentary retreat. For the first time that he can remember, at the chosen moment of his death, he wants to live. He is beyond registering the irony.
It is some time before an ambulance arrives. After the first excitement of the incident, which will be translated into a hundred anecdotes, each of them inaccurate in its own particular way, each inadequate to the size of the event, people are embarrassed. Many have moved on, refusing to let a wino’s fate admit entropy into the grooved regularities represented within their loose-leaf appointment books. Others are fascinated by the blood which still pours in extraordinary quantities from several wounds on the man’s head, chest and what is left of his right leg, and their initial shock has been replaced by an irrepressible voyeurism. A third group are paralysed by a need to do something and, countervailing that, a complete inability to do anything at all.
But to move on seems more callous than staying. So they shuffle from foot to foot, and they chatter concernedly, in lieu of more positive action. The dying of this man is too extraordinary a spectacle to leave; and yet now they want to be released from it, to glide back into their lives and consign this to memory, and then forgetfulness.
Some few of this third group try to talk to the man out of whom life is leaking, but their words emerge as diminished, shrunken by the dimensions of this event. Where does it hurt? The ambulance won’t be long. Can you move your leg? You’ll be OK.
This last, tender lie is the most profound of the deceits woven into the scene, so violently does it disagree with the remnant that is prostrated on this cracked and bloodied pavement. The words are uttered by the lorry driver, whose eyes are wide with surprise, who never expected to kill a man today. He is delivering plastic canisters to a feed manufacturer in Wakefield. Despite his upset, he worries that he will be late. He takes out a cigarette and lights it, and almost immediately puts it out again. The point is in the doing.
The consoling sound of an ambulance can be heard now. A wash of relief begins to crest above the spectators; they want their responsibility for this event to end now. But the siren turns out to be a police car, on another mission entirely. It passes by and the siren fades.
The right leg is almost severed below the knee. Corals of bone, shocking white, have appeared. One spectator finds it too much and the sound of retching joins the chorus of anxious muttering, motor engines, seagulls, descending planes. Another train arrives. Traffic is moving as before, drivers sequentially irritated by the hulk of the lorry stopped on zigzag lines.
Now the ambulance really is coming. Announcing itself by sound
The ambulance pulls up behind the lorry. Two men emerge, wearing yellow reflective vests over their uniforms. They take in the sight without registering shock or revulsion. They are both experienced; carnage is banal.
They go through the routine. A glance is enough to trigger the first part. One man, who is big, red-faced and naturally angry-looking, radios the hospital, ensuring that surgeons will be at the ready at the anticipated arrival time of around fifteen minutes. He speaks calmly, even delicately, despite the fury of his face. The fury is an illusion; he is a kind man who finds his work taxing and doleful.
The other man, smaller and younger, is attending to the shivering heap on the pavement. He mutters some words to him; takes various appliances from a bag, prepares an injection and administers it. The patient quietens down somewhat. He whimpers now, instead of screaming, but he remains frightened; the drug is not strong enough to erase this primal directive.
Within minutes he is loaded on to a stretcher, his half-severed leg, now tourniqueted, loaded on almost separately, nearly an afterthought. It is obvious to both the ambulance men that the leg is beyond repair. It is obvious to them also that the man they are now guiding into the small holding cell that is the rear of the ambulance will not be needing it anyway in a short while. A day, maybe two. Perhaps not even that long – a DOA.
The possibility of organ donation automatically crosses the mind of the older ambulance man, but he almost laughs at himself for making such a slip. The parts of a wino are detritus, particularly one of this age; early sixties, he guesses, subtracting ten years from what the face shows to allow for the wear and tear of street life.