Rumours of a hurricane, p.10
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.10

           Tim Lott
 

  Ho fucking ho, you cunt.

  Tommy Buck starts laughing, his great belly wobbling from side to side. His wife, Lorraine, slim, a little over five feet tall, emerges from the other side of the door, shooting Charlie a despairing look.

  Come on, Charlie. Crack a smile, you miserable twat.

  Tommy pulls off the beard. At forty, he is ten years younger than his brother, and Lorraine is younger still. They are childless. Charlie is not sure of her exact age, but she cannot be much over thirty. Her cheeks still bloom. Under her coat she wears tight Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, stretch denim indigo. A white blouse thin enough to see her bra through.

  Come in, Tommy. Lorraine.

  Now Tommy peels off his Santa hat, revealing close-cropped hair. He hands his bag of presents to his brother.

  Stick those somewhere. I want to show you my Crimbo present.

  From who?

  From me to me.

  He shouts past Charlie’s head, towards the kitchen.

  Oi, Mo! Happy Christmas, love!

  There is no answer. Maureen has Radio Two on loud, and cannot hear. Lorraine pecks Charlie on the cheek and takes back the presents. Tommy makes a beckoning gesture towards Charlie.

  Come and have a goosy-goosy-gander at this.

  I haven’t got any shoes on.

  You got your slippers on, haven’t you? Come on, don’t be such an old fucking crock.

  Reluctantly, Charlie follows Tommy outside. Twenty feet away, parked in the road, a sky-blue car gleams immaculately.

  What is it? says Charlie.

  Astra. When I was a copper we used to drive these. Fucking good motors. Course, they’ve improved even since those days. Those halcyon fucking days.

  Charlie nods as they approach the car. Already Tommy is huffing and puffing with the exertion. Charlie calculates he must be fifteen or sixteen stones.

  Must have set you back.

  Three and half fucking K. With extras.

  What’s it got?

  Strut front suspension. Phosphated body shell.

  Charlie doesn’t know what either of these is but nods sagely. Lorraine hovers on the pavement, looking nervously at two young black men who pass them without comment. She finds the way they walk irritating, too sassy. One of them turns and looks at the Astra, smiles. Lorraine hears something.

  Pussy wagon.

  Claat.

  She tightens her lips as the men walk on. Tommy is continuing, as Charlie nods, uncomprehending.

  Aerodynamically designed. Hydraulic tappets.

  Looks like a gravy guzzler.

  28.8 m.p.g. at fifty-six.

  That’ll do. On the never-never, is it?

  It’s on tick, sure. Got a good deal on it. A red-hot deal. Friend of mine’s in the business.

  Poke?

  Nothing to sixty in 12.6.

  Charlie admires the interior, the new-car smell, the ashtrays, the design of the gear stick. Eventually he generates sufficient admiration to satisfy Tommy and they withdraw inside. Charlie insists to himself that such things are unimportant. But the gleam of the blue paintwork stains his eye. Tommy puts his huge hand round Lorraine’s waist, gives it a squeeze. She wriggles to extricate herself.

  You still driving that fucking Toledo?

  Charlie nods.

  Rustbucket, a fucking rustbucket. Why don’t you get one of these, Charlie? I’ve got a mate at Vauxhall. He can do you a deal. A good deal.

  How come?

  Tommy leans close.

  Actually, he’s not really at Vauxhall. To tell you the truth, they’re nicked. Well, not exactly nicked. I mean, it’s safe. They’re from fucking Cameroon or somewhere. No chance of tracing them. It’s a right steal, I’m telling you, three and a half. Let me get you one.

  It’s not really me, Tommy. I’ve not got the money spare.

  Come off it, Charlie, you boring fucker. You fucking square. You and Maureen must have saved up a pretty penny over the years. Spend some of it for once.

  That’s not really the point.

  Oh, it’s the fine upstanding citizen routine, isn’t it? Get with the fucking programme, Charles. This is 1980. Every man for himself.

  No thanks, Tommy. And the money I’ve got saved is for retirement. Or a rainy day.

  It’s always a fucking rainy day, says Tommy.

  The trouble with you, Tommy –

  The trouble with you, Charlie boy, is that you’re fucking frightened of fucking everything. You think life’s dangerous.

  It is dangerous.

  What’s anything without a few chances?

  Tommy drops his beard and removes his blouson jacket. He bellows.

  Mo! Happy Christmas! Where the bloody hell are you?

  Maureen finally emerges from the kitchen, wearing an apron with ‘The Boss’ printed in yellow across the torso. Tommy encloses her in a tremendous hug, so that she almost seems to disappear beneath his folds of flesh.

  There she is. Laughing girl. There’s my lovely Mo. You’ve lost weight, love. Nothing of you. Ain’t cheerful Charlie feeding you?

  Hello, Tommy. She extricates herself from her brother-in-law’s grasp. Happy Christmas.

  Happy Christmas, sweetheart. Tommy looks around the room. Here, where’s that no good son of yours? Where’s that lanky fucking carrot-headed bastard?

  He’ll be here later, says Maureen quietly. He wouldn’t miss seeing his favourite uncle.

  His only uncle, says Charlie quietly, half to himself.

  He’ll be here all right. Not going to miss out on his old mum’s cooking, is he?

  Not so much of the old, thank you, says Maureen, grinning none the less.

  Everyone’s old when you’re a teenager, Mo. Even Lorraine’s old to Rob, ain’tcha, Lol?

  Suppose, says Lorraine, who has removed her coat and is sitting down, crossing and uncrossing her legs.

  If I’m that lanky streak of piss’s favourite uncle, Robert’s Lorraine’s favourite nephew, ain’t he, Lol?

  He’s a nice boy. He’s got a nice face. Sensitive.

  He’s a fucking ginger, that’s what he is. Tommy pronounces both Gs hard. Νah, he’s a good boy all right. Clever. Don’t know where the fuck he gets that from. Has to be all from Mo, eh?

  He laughs uproariously, as if this were the biggest joke in the world. Charlie ignores it. Tommy is doing well, or claims to be. Charlie suspects it’s all HP, all show. He and Lorraine have driven here from the Barratt house in Theydon Bois.

  Tommy and Charlie might not get along, but family is family, irregardless, as Charlie has said to Maureen on countless occasions. Tommy the builder, the ex-copper, the jack of all trades. He is not, in Charlie’s eyes, a good man or a craftsman. Both are titles he guards jealously for himself.

  Tommy is all crocodile smiles and large, expansive gestures. He has meaty arms, breasts larger than Maureen’s. He wears a West Ham supporter’s shirt; on his right hand, one letter crudely inscribed just beneath each knuckle: WHUFC. Tommy frequently turns up with cuts and bruises. Today there is a purplish mottling the size of an orange on his neck. He is fond of recreational violence.

  Charlie finds his brother vulgar, disreputable and loud, but he envies him his wife, whose body is tight under the close-cut outfit. Her lipstick is frosted, her hair bundled up on to her head. She has a thin, mean mouth. When she walks, she takes small, self-consciously dainty steps.

  Did you get a nice Christmas present from Charlie? says Lorraine to Maureen.

  Come and see, says Maureen, moving towards the kitchen.

  Hold on, says Tommy. This I got to see. Saucepans, was it? Gold-plated fucking Brillo pads?

  Tommy follows Maureen and Lorraine. He can barely squeeze through the door into the kitchen without moving sideways.

  Lorraine is studying the microwave admiringly.

  Oh, yeah, they’re great. I wouldn’t be without mine.

  What is it, a Creda? says Tommy. Who’s Creda, then, when he’s at home? We got a Japanese one, didn’t we
, Lol? Those fucking Japanese, boring little yellow bastards, bridge over the River fucking Kwai, but they know their white goods. Great fucking cars, great fucking electricals.

  I’m not sure where it comes from, says Maureen.

  At least Maureen knows it’s not off the back of a lorry, says Lorraine. It’s probably got a receipt and everything. Six months’ guarantee.

  A year, says Maureen.

  A year’s guarantee. How come none of the stuff you get me has ever got a guarantee, Tom?

  What you need a fucking guarantee for? It’s all kosher goods. It all works. Proper stuff. Advertised on TV.

  Police Five, says Lorraine.

  Lorraine returns to the living room, sits down on the sofa. Tommy follows her, huffing and puffing. He sits down by her side. The springs creak under his weight. He rubs her leg lecherously.

  All right, girl?

  She sniffs.

  Hang this up for me, will you, Tom?

  He takes the voluminous cardigan that Lorraine has draped over her shoulders. It has a picture of Tintin’s dog, Snowy, knitted into the pattern on the back. Tommy hands it up to Charlie as if lord to vassal. Charlie bridles, but bites back his irritation on account of it being Christmas. He hangs up the cardigan.

  Lorraine, who has been looking after the presents, gets up, removes them from the bag and carefully places them under the artificial silver Christmas tree. An angel straddles its peak at an obtuse angle, as if its wings are unable to support it. The expression on its face suggests that it is posing for a snapshot on a celestial package holiday.

  Tommy is holding something in a plastic bag. He removes an album from it.

  Present from Lorraine. Thought I might give it a fucking twirl, eh, wot wot wot?

  The record is War of the Worlds by Jeff Wayne. Without waiting for permission, he removes The Mathis Collection from the turntable and turns up the volume a couple of notches. Charlie glances at the cover: aliens in machines. He finds the music irritating, but again shies away from confrontation.

  Would you care for a drink? he says to Lorraine.

  He stands by his cocktail cabinet. It is covered with quilted PVC Con-tact in silver, with splayed 1950s-style legs.

  Campari and Britvic please, Charlie.

  We don’t have any Campari.

  How about Baileys?

  I could do you a Kahlúa.

  That’s more of an after-dinner drink, isn’t it?

  I don’t suppose it matters.

  Can you do me a gin and tonic, then?

  Okey-doke.

  Ice and lemon.

  There’s no lemon.

  Lime?

  Charlie is growing irritated.

  We’ve got some Jif lemon.

  That stuff that comes in the plastic fruit?

  Lorraine wrinkles her nose and picks at a bowl of peanuts.

  Got any dry-roasted?

  What we’ve got is what we’ve got.

  I’ll have a Whisky Mac, thanks, Charlie.

  Tommy, sensing the tension, seeks to defuse the situation. Then he goes back to reading the telly pages for the day.

  Ice?

  As it comes.

  Charlie fixes the drink, pouring a large glass of Cossack Vodka for himself, mixed with tonic. The second of the day. Robert is late. Maureen emerges from the kitchen.

  Should I give Robert a ring, Charlie? I can’t imagine where he’s got to.

  His phone’s probably been disconnected again.

  Probably still in bed, says Maureen. I’ll give him a try anyway.

  Maureen picks up the phone and dials. She wears a smocked, elasticated bodice-style dress with narrow straps.

  Four minutes later, Maureen is still hanging on the phone.

  What are you doing, Maureen? says Charlie.

  I’m waiting for him to get off the phone. It’s engaged.

  Charlie blinks in astonishment.

  Maureen, in all the times you have ever phoned anyone who is engaged, have they ever come off the phone?

  What?

  Tommy and Lorraine are watching now.

  Has it ever been your experience that anyone has come off the phone while you’ve been waiting for the engaged signal to stop?

  Maureen seems flummoxed.

  I don’t…

  They don’t come on the phone when they hang up. The engaged signal just continues. Even if they stop the call.

  Charlie suddenly realizes that he is humiliating his wife and tries to sugar things.

  I don’t suppose, using the payphone all the time, you had much…

  But it is too late. Tommy has started laughing, great gusts of noise.

  It’s that fucking microwave, Mo. The radiation gets out, see. Fries your fucking brain like a rasher of streaky.

  Lorraine giggles in tandem. Maureen replaces the receiver and disappears into the kitchen without a word. Charlie, feeling a blazing shame under his string vest, follows her.

  Maureen, I…

  Maureen is biting her lip. She never raises her voice to Charlie, but she knows how to brew an atmosphere, knows how to generate certain kinds of silence that accuse and reproach. Charlie tries to put his arm over her shoulder, but is shrugged off. He begins to speak, but suddenly there is the sound of the doorbell. Maureen shakes herself, begins to tease her hair.

  Sorry, kiddo.

  You’d best answer the door.

  Charlie knows he is unforgiven, but decides to leave his offence to the unpreventable erasures of time. He opens the door to a man wearing a red motorcycle helmet and an all-in-one leather suit. He carries several badly wrapped parcels under his arms. For a moment Charlie cannot solve the conundrum of who this might be. Then Robert removes the helmet, gives a broad grin.

  All right, Pops? he says.

  His face is scrunched and clenched, as if by the wind and the cold. He attempts a smile, to show gappy teeth.

  What you dressed like that for? says Charlie, bewildered.

  He’s a fucking poof. A kinky poof. All the leather gear, says Tommy, who’s come up behind his brother.

  What time d’you call this, anyway? says Charlie, jabbing at his watch.

  Robert ignores his father, walks through the doorway. Immediately, Tommy picks him up and throws him over his shoulder head-first, until he is nearly inverted. Robert starts laughing.

  You fucking ginger poof

  Robert struggles, but it is hopeless against the size and strength of his uncle.

  All jacket and no bike.

  Stop it, Uncle Tom! I’m going be sick.

  Come on, Lol. Give him a tickle. He always loved a tickle when he was kid.

  Lorraine begins to chuck him under the arms and Robert begins to scream delightedly.

  No… Hold on… Cut it out… Aunty Lol!

  Faintly embarrassed and regretful, Charlie watches these scenes. He has not yet touched his son.

  Finally Tommy puts Robert down. Robert is still laughing.

  You fat bastard, Tommy.

  Enough of that, ginger nut. Or I’ll get your Aunty Lol on to you again.

  All right then, Twiggy. Hold on though. You have lost weight.

  Despite himself, Tommy looks pleased.

  You can’t be more than a ton and a half now.

  Jokingly, Tommy raises a fist and Robert whacks him in the stomach, but the blow bounces off.

  It’s like hitting a bloody space-hopper.

  The pantomine over, Robert struggles out of the leather one-piece. Lorraine helps him. Underneath, a pair of camouflage trousers, DM boots, a T-shirt with a badge decorated with an eagle and the word ‘Bundeswehr’ inscribed beneath. The clothes look filthy, encrusted with grease and food stains.

  Bike wouldn’t start.

  Those fucking rinky-dink mopeds are a nightmare, says Tommy, grinning.

  It’s a Kawasaki 8oocc, says Robert.

  That must kick, says Tommy, nodding gravely. What was the damage?

  Worth about seven fifty.

&nb
sp; Where did you get that sort of money? says Charlie, shocked.

  Saved up of course, says Robert.

  Oh, right, says Charlie, in a voice heavy with doubt, with suspicion.

  He glimpses the gleaming motorcycle out in the yard, next to his brother’s Astra. His Toledo looks sad, ridiculous.

  Robert. Maureen advances on her only son.

  What can it do? says Tommy.

  Hundred and twenty in six seconds.

  Maureen embraces Robert, will not let go.

  Tommy whistles between his teeth.

  Phew.

  Maureen surrounds him with her eyes. His leaving is the greatest grief she has known. Each return is a miracle.

  I love the leather suit, says Lorraine. Kinky. Can I have a go on the bike?

  Robert shrugs.

  Don’t see why not.

  Fuck me, she’s gonna end up spread all over the road. Strawberry fucking jam, says Tommy.

  Robert gives his mother a kiss.

  Happy Christmas, Mum. You’re looking gorgeous.

  That’s where you get it from, says Lorraine.

  Robert steps back outside, and Lorraine grabs her coat and follows.

  Charlie catches a glance between Robert and Lorraine. Tommy is now outside inspecting the Kawasaki. Robert climbs on; Lorraine spreads her legs behind him, wraps her slender arms round his waist. They begin to move forward, Lorraine squealing with laughter. To his father, Robert looks rat-like, emaciated. His teeth are badly stained; one that had been intact on his last appearance is missing. How did he get the money for the bike?

  Then Robert and Lorraine are gone, in a flash of red. Tommy turns to his brother.

  I know a man who does those half price. Safe. Unfucking traceable.

  5

  Maureen studies the manual of the Creda 40131. Charlie has insisted on this. For reasons she cannot really fathom, it seems important to him. It is as if it renders the Christmas dinner his achievement somehow, rather than hers. But Maureen identifies this as an ungenerous thought, and she is always concerned to do battle with ungenerous thoughts. I must, she thinks to herself, in an incantation she has taught herself, or been taught, leave this world a better place than that which I came into. This is the mark of a successful life.

 
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