Rumours of a hurricane, p.12
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.12

           Tim Lott
 

  The trouble with you, Maureen, is that you’re old-fashioned, he says. I’m no fuddy-duddy.

  Maureen is shocked. She had been certain of agreement.

  Am I, Charlie?

  I’ve got a Christmas surprise, Mo. I’ve gone and got the forms

  What forms?

  Charlie pauses, wonders momentarily if he can carry this off. But it is too late to back-pedal.

  The right to buy. It’s discounted 40 per cent. You can’t go wrong. The repayments are less than the rent now that they’ve put it up. And then we got capital.

  Good move, Charlie, says Tommy gravely.

  He claps his hands together as if in applause. A plate of Christmas pudding steams in front of him and he applies custard and brandy butter.

  Maureen’s eyes dart back and forth from Tommy to Charlie. She is shocked that this private secret has been made so suddenly public, that this information has been withheld from her.

  Are you having a laugh? says Robert, genuinely surprised.

  No, says Charlie, pursing his lips.

  Robert gives him a crooked half-smile.

  You just made it up. You’re just trying to impress everyone, he says.

  That’s rubbish.

  Charlie is suddenly terrified of being found out. He resolves to get the forms first thing in the New Year.

  Get on the property ladder, says Tommy. That’s the thing.

  The market’s on the up, says Charlie.

  I might buy something myself, says Robert quietly. He is privately impressed by his father’s unaccustomed daring.

  Hark, says Maureen. The three wise men.

  The washing-up having been dispatched, it is time to open the presents. Charlie, as has become traditional, prepares to distribute them. The rest of the family sits around in a semicircle. Drink and food blur each of them. Charlie starts to experience a slight but noticeable pain in the centre of his stomach. He hopes that the protons have not poisoned the turkey.

  OK. This one is from Robert to his Aunty Lol.

  Lorraine takes the gift and begins unwrapping it. It is a T-shirt. On the front, in large letters, is written ‘Whoever Has The Most Money When They’re Dead Wins’. Lorraine laughs, and goes across and gives Robert a loud kiss on the lips.

  It’s the truth, she says.

  Lolly loves her lolly, says Robert, grinning.

  She’s a yumpy, says Charlie.

  What’s that? says Tommy.

  I read it in the paper. Young Upwardly Mobile Professional.

  Charlie picks out another present at random.

  Us to Lol. Lucky Lol gets all hers first

  Pick out another, Charlie. I can wait.

  Luck is luck. Go ahead.

  Lorraine smiles and opens the gift. It is a thin gold bracelet like a knotted rope. Surreptitiously, she checks the hallmark. It is 18 carats.

  Thanks, Charlie. Maureen.

  She does a poor job of hiding her disappointment. The heavy atmosphere weighs down.

  If you don’t like it, I’ve still got the receipt, says Maureen.

  No, of course I like it.

  Of course, it’s hard buying jewellery, says Charlie.

  It’s fine. It’s lovely. Thanks.

  Lorraine slips it into her pocket. She never wears anything less than 24 carats.

  The distribution of gifts continues.

  Maureen gets a Pifco ‘Super Callboy’ kettle, a Rima Toasted Sandwich Maker, a glazed ceramic fruit pyramid and twenty porcelain ‘Miniature Whimsies’ by Wade, including a spaniel, a kitten, a duck and a corgi. Lorraine gives her a bottle of Rive Gauche perfume, which, like the anklet, will never be worn.

  Charlie gets 200 Benson and Hedges, a Black and Decker drill from Maureen and a bottle of Tabac Original to add to his collection. Tommy gets him The AA Book of the Car, with a washable silver cover, and the Reader’s Digest Book of the Road. Charlie slips £20 into Tommy and Lorraine’s card – Tommy always insists on a bit of cash, seeing Christmas as essentially practical and transactional.

  Robert gets a pair of Nike Tailwind trainers from his uncle and aunty. He grunts his appreciation. He has bought Tommy a silver beer tankard with the West Ham club logo on it. One of the last gifts to be distributed is from Robert to Charlie. Charlie opens it and feels a small sweet spark at the centre of his chest.

  Sorry I couldn’t afford the whole thing, says Robert. He seems fiercely embarrassed.

  It’s… wonderful, says Charlie.

  And he is truly touched. It is the casing of a Leek and Manifold (Peak District) locomotive in chocolate brown. The beautifully crafted bodywork that Robert has bought him is designed to be fitted around a live steam engine, the miniaturized locomotive that burns butane and pours out real plumes of smoke.

  I know you haven’t got the engine for it, Dad. I know it’s for live steam and that. But one day, when I’ve got myself on my feet, I’ll buy you the rest of it. The running chassis with wheels and valve gear. The boiler. All the ancillaries. Then you’ll know I’ve arrived. Then you’ll know I’m not a complete dead loss.

  Thanks, says Charlie.

  He is surprised and moved. He leans over to ruffle his son’s hair, but cannot quite reach.

  I know you think I’m a flop. But you’ll see. I’ll get you that engine one of these days.

  Charlie is speechless. Unable to ruffle Robert’s hair, he goes to shake his hand instead, but Robert misunderstands the signal and leaves his hand where it is, so Charlie just pats his shoulder.

  Thanks, son. It’s very special. And… I don’t think you’re a flop.

  Yes, you do, says Robert quietly.

  There is a silence. Then Charlie says, I’ve got something special for you too.

  He hands a small parcel to Robert, about four inches square. The paper that covers it depicts joyful reindeer. Robert prepares himself; he expects his parents to get it wrong.

  He is surprised to find that the calfskin wallet within appeals to him. It is plain black, elegant, with no unnecessary detail. He inspects the pouches and pockets, trying to work out what to put where.

  Thanks, Mum. Dad.

  Keep looking, says Charlie.

  Robert checks behind the coin pouch, expecting maybe a £10 note. Since it is his only gift, he thinks a little cash will make up the difference. There is a piece of paper protruding slightly. He removes it, surprised to see that it is not money at all. Charlie smiles at his secret.

  I had to go through hell and high water to get that.

  Robert is perplexed. He studies it, then finally calculates what it is.

  It’s a meal ticket, kiddo. A job for life. I had to wheedle the FOC for months. Very hard to come by. But once you’re in, you’re in for the duration. You get overtime. Short days. Plus the old Spanish customs.

  He touches his nose conspiratorially.

  Robert turns the NGA union card over in his hand. He glances up at the look of expectation on his father’s face, ready for approbation in front of the small, vital audience.

  Hoy, cloth ears. Can you hear what I’m saying?

  Your dad spent days and months on end sorting that out, says Maureen, noting the puzzled look on Robert’s face.

  Shhh, says Charlie furiously.

  Robert nods, chews at his fingernails. Finally, he speaks.

  Thanks, Dad. There is sadness in his voice. Thanks for putting yourself out like that.

  You know what I’d do for you, son, says Charlie tenderly.

  Robert places the card on the sideboard.

  I’ve wangled a meeting with one of the boys from the machine room. He’ll sort you out.

  I…

  Robert runs out of words.

  Charlie looks at Robert, sees suddenly what the silence indicates.

  It’s a job for life!

  There’s no such thing any more.

  Robert suddenly feels something within him coalesce, a tender defiance. When he speaks again, it is softly but firmly.

  Anyway. Don
t take this wrong, Dad. But your life isn’t the life I want.

  Charlie feels a shooting pain in his stomach, then a hotness invading his entire body. He sees his brother’s face, thinks there is the ghost of a mocking grin. When he speaks again, he cannot keep the bitterness from his voice.

  I suppose you’ve got the right to mess up your own life however you want. But the trouble with that dropout type of attitude is that it’s all very well when you ‘re young. But sooner or later you’re going to get old. I know it’s hard to believe. I never believed it myself.

  I’m not a dropout, says Robert, turning his head away.

  Obviously not. Obviously not. I mean, you’ve got a brand-new motorbike, for instance. The Social must be giving out Christmas bonuses this year.

  Come on, says Maureen. I’m sure Robert…

  You been taking a few lessons from your Uncle Tommy in villainy, have you, son? Is that the life you want? Taking the piss out of Joe Public the rest of your life. Thinking the world is just a collection of mugs waiting to be taken advantage of.

  Leave off, Charlie, says Tommy. Robert’s not got the head on him for villainy. Worse luck for him. Takes after his dad. Old goody-two-shoes there.

  Thank you, Tommy. I know you understand my son far better than I do. I’m only his father, after all.

  The silence that follows is long and awkward.

  Anyone fancy a cup of tea? says Maureen finally. Or coffee?

  Have you got Earl Grey? says Lorraine.

  I’ll have percolated, Robert says to Maureen.

  Your mother’s got a name, says Charlie darkly.

  Yeah, says Robert, not so loud that his father can hear. Mandingo.

  What’s that? says Charlie.

  Later the television is switched on. Charlie and Tommy want to watch the Queen’s speech. Robert is in what was once his bedroom, listening to records. Lorraine has gone for forty winks in Maureen and Charlie’s room. Maureen is handing out glacé fruits, dates and chocolate plums to Tommy and Charlie. Charlie pours himself a large Scotch, then sits in the empty armchair, although it only gives him a 45-degree view of the screen. The picture is colour and sharp; Charlie has invested in a new set to celebrate his return to work after the strike year.

  The Queen says that the world can never be free of conflict, but that Christmas draws attention to all that is hopeful and good. It speaks, she says, in a voice that Charlie thinks of as serene and gravely wonderful, of values and qualities that are true and permanent, and it reminds us that the world we would like to see can come only from the goodness of the heart. The expression of this sentiment takes twelve minutes. The National Anthem sounds. Before it is finished, Tommy snorts.

  What a lot of cock.

  She’s all right, says Charlie.

  He likes the stuff about values being true and permanent. He thinks of goodness of the heart and feels himself soften towards Robert.

  I like Charles, says Maureen. It’s nice to see him having found love at last.

  Do you reckon he’s a poof? says Tommy.

  I shouldn’t think so, says Charlie. That Lady Di is a little cracker.

  That don’t mean nothing. I reckon he is. I reckon he’s gay.

  What do you know about it? says Charlie.

  When I was a copper, I met a bloke who used to do some bodyguarding for him. Said he tried to touch his arse and everything.

  Charlie shakes his head doubtfully.

  The thing about homosexuality, says Charlie thoughtfully, is that it’s against nature.

  You’ll never believe this. Do you know what I heard the other day? says Tommy. From this feller in the pub, used to be a driver for a film company. This bloke told me that Rock Hudson is gay.

  Maureen pushes him with the side of her hand. She is still in love with Rock Hudson. Her most prized possession is a signed photograph.

  I’ve never heard anything so daft, says Maureen. She is laughing, but she is obscurely upset by this extraordinary suggestion.

  It’s true, apparently, says Tommy. He knew all about it. A right arse bandit.

  It must be true, then, says Charlie, if he was in the business.

  Cary Grant too, says Tommy.

  Can we change the subject? says Maureen.

  I hate poofs, says Tommy mildly.

  They don’t do any harm, I suppose, says Charlie, removing a remnant of chocolate plum from between his teeth.

  That’s not the point, says Tommy.

  What is the point? says Charlie.

  That’s not, says Tommy, and lapses into a curt silence.

  Charlie feels another dreadful shooting pain in the side of his stomach. He almost doubles up.

  ‘Scuse me, he says, and scuttles towards the bathroom as fast as he can.

  Entering the bathroom, Charlie kneels in front of the toilet seat. His abdomen contracts and he vomits. Vomits again and again, until only a thin trickle emerges, until he is dry-retching. In the pan, visible carrot, Brussels sprout. He tries to muffle the sound as best he can, does not want Maureen to know that either the turkey or a rogue proton has done this. A drum beats in his head. Bile is in his mouth.

  He stands, wipes his mouth with pink tissue. He does not understand why a puppy advertises this. He flushes the toilet. Brushing his teeth to try and remove the taste, he feels the mint mix with the slick of bile. He runs a comb through his thick dark hair.

  He thinks of his life in the composing room, the sweat he has shed. How today his son has made it seem to count for nothing. He thinks of holding Robert in his arms after he was born. The warmth and smell of talcum and faint blood. Now it is Tommy who puts him over his shoulder, it is Lorraine who tickles him and makes him shriek with laughter.

  He reaches in his pocket for a cigarette. The pack is empty. There are 200 stored in what was once Robert’s room. He feels drowsy, half drunk despite the sickness.

  He turns the handle into the room. The light is poor. He is about to flick the light switch when he notices two moving shadows in the corner. He waits for his eyes to adjust. He cannot make sense of what he sees at first, of exactly what Aunty Lorraine is doing with her nephew. Why his eyes are closed, why he is breathing so heavily. Why his Aunty is on her knees, her head bobbing back and forth. He thinks she has dropped something, then, suddenly, the scene makes sense, makes awful sense.

  Without a word, he closes the door, returns to the bathroom and begins retching once more.

  6

  Maureen winces as she dabs Bonjela on to a small but painful sore on the tip of her tongue. Her body, it seems to her today, is the bitterest of enemies. It never responds to treatment. It never recalibrates its shape. It bleeds and sweats and emits odours. It is out of control, and she hates it for its soft wilfulness, its wilful softness. A new line has appeared by the side of her mouth today, faint, the thickness of baby hair, but noticeable. Her body was once so powerful, could pull men towards her, bend them to her will. Now it is punishing her, squeezing her within, threatening her very existence.

  But she will not give up. It can be tamed. If life strips her of her power, her body can still be her slave. It is simply a matter of willpower. Willpower, Maureen, willpower! This time she savours the bite of the ointment on a second ulcer, on the inside of her cheek. The pain refreshes her, reactivates her sense of purpose. No one beats Maureen Buck that easily. Certainly not Maureen Buck herself, certainly not that pink amorphous mass of muscle and bone and fat.

  Maureen has just finished her aerobics class at her local community centre. There is a mirror there that covers an entire wall; she examined herself as she stretched and jumped and bent and straightened. She compares herself with the other women, fares badly. They are for the most part younger, do not have the knowledge that she possesses, the knowledge that it all fades and slackens. The knowledge that gravity pulls us all down in the end, down towards the magnetic earth. Her running kit lies in a heap on the bathroom floor. She will place it in the washing machine before she leaves, and dry
and iron the clothes when she returns from work.

  Work. She checks her wristwatch. Twenty minutes before she has to be at Divine Creations. How grateful she is to Marie-Rose for providing her this lifeline. She has an office to herself at the back of the shop, her domain. Now it is no longer a matter of just the monthly books. She helps do the annual income tax returns and sorts out the VAT, making calls to Customs and Excise to soft-talk the distant, powerful men on the other end of the phone. She files receipts and does the wage slips, filling brown envelopes with their salaries. Her empire outside the home increases. It is a small empire to be sure, but it is real, it feels real. Sometimes she thinks her life at home with Charlie is ghostly compared with this, the real substance of work, paid work.

  She gets ready to leave, taking her coat from the hook in the hall, grabbing a slim briefcase from a space next to the umbrella stand. The veruccas make her limp slightly, but the discomfort today is not too bad. It seems to be less acute when she leaves the house, seems to disappear by the time she reaches the shop.

  She checks herself in the mirror. Smart cream slacks, a candy-pink blouse, brown sandals with one-inch heels. Her coat is a raincoat from British Home Stores, Elderberry. The outfit, she decides, strikes a nice balance between the businesslike and the informal.

  She is just about to leave when there is a ring at the door. She checks her watch. If it’s Mrs Jackson, there’s no time to gossip. But when she opens the door, it is Carol who stands there, dressed in a violent-pink fluffy jacket and black leather trousers. Her hair is dyed orange, but her face is plain, without make-up. She looks anxious. She is hugging herself as if she is cold, but the day is warm enough.

 
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