Rumours of a hurricane, p.13
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.13

           Tim Lott
 

  Hello, Carol

  Mrs Buck, sorry to bother you.

  Maureen is caught between the twin impulses of a desire to be polite and a determination not to be late.

  Carol, I’m just heading off to work. I’m sorry, but I can’t invite you in.

  Oh, that’s OK. I was just wondering if you have a number for Robert.

  Robert?

  Yes. It’s just… I’ve tried to call him. And his phone seems to be cut off.

  I didn’t know you were still friendly with Robert.

  Well, you know. We try to keep in touch from time to time. Only I’ve got to reach him.

  What’s the hurry?

  There is a pause. Carol feels in a pocket of her jacket, brings out a badly crushed packet of cheap cigarettes.

  He left something in my flat. I’ve got to give it back to him.

  Really? He was at your flat?

  Carol lights a cigarette. Maureen checks her watch again.

  That’s right.

  Odd that he didn’t come and say hello. Look Carol… perhaps if you drop round this afternoon.

  I mean… you don’t know if he’s changed numbers or anything.

  I don’t think so. He hasn’t said anything to me. Carol, I have to leave now.

  Maureen steps out of the flat, closes the door behind her. Carol moves aside, still hugging herself.

  Are you all right, Carol?

  Oh, yes. Fine.

  She attempts a weak smile.

  Well, then…

  Tentatively, Maureen steps past Carol towards the main road.

  Do you have his address?

  I’ve never been there, love. He’s never invited me, to be honest. I know it’s somewhere near Battersea Park. And it’s… got a blue door. He sent me a photograph. But he’s… Robert’s not given me an address. He can be funny like that. Secretive. Look, if he calls me, I’ll tell him he’s forgotten his… What is it that he’s forgotten?

  His… his watch.

  Watch? I didn’t know Robert had a watch. Says that people are too ‘hung up’ about time.

  Oh. Well, maybe it’s someone else’s, then.

  Even if it is his, I dare say he can do without it for a week or two, eh?

  And with this, Maureen strides purposefully towards the exit of the estate. She has only five minutes to get to work, and she hates to be late. Fortunately the verruca on her heel seems to be diminishing. She can make it, she thinks. A few minutes shy at worst.

  Bye, Mrs Buck.

  Carol turns, mutters something under her breath. She does not make her way back to her flat, just stands there. The thin complaint of Nelson, her infant son, sounds from her kitchen window.

  When Maureen arrives at Divine Creations, she knows immediately that something is wrong. It isn’t the fact that all the chairs are empty – trade doesn’t usually begin to pick up until late morning or lunchtime – or the fact that Marie-Rose is gesturing angrily to whoever she is talking to on the phone. It is the fact that there is no music playing. Marie-Rose, from the moment she arrives at the shop to the moment she leaves, always has music on. She believes that without it the atmosphere in the shop is sepulchral, and there is something in this; the available light is reduced by the presence of a large decorated awning and the paintwork is maroon. The whole place needs lightening up and Marie-Rose believes that music is the only method that works. The dozen or so spotlights seem ineffective against the gloom. The compensation is that the light is very flattering. Each mirror presents each client in the best possible incarnation. Even before their hair is attended to they experience an improvement.

  Marie-Rose slams down the phone and turns to Maureen.

  Where the hell have you been?

  Maureen checks her wristwatch; She is precisely three minutes late, the amount of time she spent on the doorstep with Carol.

  I’m sorry, I didn’t…

  Oh, never mind. It doesn’t matter.

  Marie exhales and crumples down on to a bench. The shop junior hovers in the background, nervously arranging hair products on shelves.

  I’m sorry to snap, Mo. The thing is, we’ve got a bit of a problem.

  What sort of a problem?

  Customs and Excise. A man was waiting for me on the doorstep when I arrived. Wanted to check all the books.

  Maureen sits next to Marie-Rose, pats her gently on the back.

  Don’t worry, love. I’ve kept everything in order.

  I know you have. You’ve done a good job. But you know and I know that the books are not… precisely everything they should be.

  That’s because you told meto…

  I know I told you. It’s all right, Maureen. I’m not trying to blame anything on you. You’ve only done your job the way I’ve asked you to. And you’ve done it beautifully. Not a seam left unsewn.

  So what are you worrying about?

  Something I didn’t think of. The bastards. They get you every time. How’s anyone supposed to make a living?

  Why don’t I make you a cup of coffee? Then you can tell me all about it.

  Marie-Rose looks up. Although she is close to Maureen’s age, she sees her as supportive, motherly.

  OK. I’ll put the Closed sign up. We need to work out what we’re going to do here.

  It sounds serious.

  It is serious.

  Maureen takes off her coat, puts the kettle on and spoons some instant coffee into two plain white mugs. She sits at her desk, puts her briefcase down, pulls at her cuffs. She does not feel panicked by Marie-Rose’s obvious distress. The kettle boils. After a minute or two, Marie-Rose comes into her room, fingers fluttering in the air. Maureen hands her the steaming mug.

  I’ve put an extra sugar in it. You look like you need a few comfort calories.

  Thanks, Mo.

  She sips at the coffee. Maureen sits calmly, and waits.

  The thing is, Mo, he wants to see the appointment book for the last six months.

  The appointment book?

  That’s right. And I know, I know, I should have made up some cock-and-bull story about having lost it, I mean, what could they have done, but I didn’t think. He caught me unawares.

  You didn’t give it to him?

  Oh, no, Mo. I’m not that much of a dummy. I said I’d left it at home. That sounds stupid enough, but he didn’t have much choice but to accept it. He’s coming back at one o’clock this afternoon to check it. That’s in less than three hours! And if it doesn’t marry up with the books, we’re in trouble. I’m in trouble. The VAT men are a nightmare, Mo. It’s not just a matter of sorting it out with them, about coming to some arrangement, like with the Revenue. They prosecute. They take you for years of back-tax. I’ve got a friend who did three months in Holloway. Almost the same set-up. She was never the same. And her business, that went down… I don’t know if I can ever –

  Elsie!

  The use of her real name seems to make the woman in front of Maureen snap to attention.

  Come on now. Pull yourself together. We can sort this out. Don’t worry.

  But how, Maureen? The book has got twice the number of appointments in it as are shown in the figures. It’s a clear case of fraud.

  We’ll just have to get a new book, then, won’t we?

  Oh, I’ve thought of that! It won’t work, Maureen. It will look new. And what about the handwriting? It would all be different. You can’t just sit down with a pen.

  We can do it. Get all the girls in. Get some pens and pencils sorted out. I know a stationer’s that no one ever goes to – they’ve probably got books that look about a hundred years old, let alone six months.

  It’ll never work, Maureen. We’ve only got a few hours. Then it’s all got to marry up with the patterns of income in the book-keeping. You’d have to be a bloody artistic genius.

  Then you’ve got the right woman. Come on, get on that phone. We’ll sort this out.

  Marie-Rose wipes away a tear. She looks up at Maureen, who is already putting on her
coat.

  Do you really think we can pull this off?

  Not if you just sit there blubbing, says Maureen, and bustles towards the exit.

  *

  When she returns from the stationer’s just off the Fulham Palace Road, Marie-Rose and her four regular stylists are all waiting. Maureen is holding a large buff-coloured appointment book. It is dusty, slightly yellowed. The paper is curling at the edges. It is loose-leaf, with pages that detach from a retractable central spine. Maureen opens it.

  It’s not perfect, but it’s something to work with. Everyone get a pencil or pen. Make sure the pens are different colours, different types. Here…

  She reaches into her pocket and brings out a handful of different writing implements.

  I’m going to go and get the books, then I want you to do what I tell you.

  Maureen returns, carrying all the files she has available for the last six months. She opens the new appointment book at the first page. Then she opens her cash ledger, the one that the VAT man has inspected, and examines that also.

  Right, Mane-Rose. Since you’re the boss, you can go first. We need about fifteen appointments for the first day. You can have four, Sue can have three, and you two can have four each. Get on with it. Try and vary the handwriting a bit. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Sometimes less hard, sometimes lightly. We’ve got to make this look convincing, or we’re all out of business.

  Tentatively, Marie-Rose writes a name in pencil on the first page, one of her regular clients, ‘Barbara – 10 a.m.’. She stands back and admires her handiwork. The other stylists all cheer weakly.

  For two hours solid they work at the book, swapping pens, inventing client names and telephone numbers, trying to establish the proper degree of randomness. It is surprisingly difficult to make the book look authentic. Spontaneous, improbable patterns keep creeping in and need to be effaced.

  By half-past twelve, the inscriptions are all finished and they marry up, more or less, with the patterns of cash flow that exist in Maureen’s ledgers. Maureen studies the end result with a critical eye. The five other women in the room await her judgement.

  It’s not good enough, says Maureen. It still looks too new. The writing is all right. We can get away with that. The pattern of entry is good. It matches up. It’s the paper. There just isn’t enough wear and tear. It still looks new.

  What are we going to do? says Marie-Rose. He’s here in thirty minutes. I might as well confess it all. It’s hopeless. This is just going to get me into worse trouble.

  Quiet, Elsie. Lock the front door. Take the pages out. Move the chairs as far to the edge of the room as possible. Pull the blinds down.

  What?

  Come on. Snap to it. Help me, girls. Help me spread these pages all over the floor.

  Maureen hands pages of the appointment book to each of the waiting stylists, who, puzzled, begin laying them out flat on the lino floor, while Marie-Rose pulls down the blinds and locks the door.

  Now what? says Marie-Rose.

  Now? says Maureen. Now we walk on them. We walk on them for fifteen minutes, until they’re dirty and torn-looking, and a bit rough at the edges. We walk on them until they look real. Come on. Get to it.

  There is a moment’s pause. Then, as if one beast, the women in the room all start moving around on top of the pages, some jumping, some doing pigeon steps, some striding. Maureen walks briskly from one wall to the other. It is Marie-Rose who starts laughing first.

  Oh, my God! What are we doing?

  Then she bends over as the absurdity of the scene hits her – five nearly middle-aged women parading around a deserted hairdresser’s, stomping, hopping, kicking and scraping at the paper beneath their feet. Maureen joins in. Within seconds, the whole room is a cacophony of giggles and screeches of laughter.

  Come on, says Maureen, through the gale. March! March to victory!

  One of the stylists starts to dance on the sea of paper underneath and, seeing this, Marie Rose puts on the music. Then they are all dancing – jiving, bopping, twisting, funking together, throwing their arms in the air. The paper tears and crumples, soils and ages as they dance.

  After ten minutes the women are left breathless. Maureen checks her watch, yells over the music.

  That’s it! He’ll be here in a few minutes. Let’s get these pages sorted out.

  Together, they gather them up and systematically sort them back into the correct order in the appointment book. Maureen clips the mechanism on the spine, scratches at the metal a bit to make a few marks on it. Marie-Rose pulls the blinds back up and unlocks the door. Then the stylists adopt studiedly casual poses, reading magazines, arranging shampoos, wiping down sinks. Maureen inspects the book carefully.

  Much better, she says, almost to herself.

  She picks it up, ready to retreat to her room. Marie-Rose gives her the thumbs-up sign. Then, right on cue, a small portly man in a dark blue suit and carrying a combination-lock briefcase, walks in.

  Sorry, I’m a bit early, he says, giving a vaguely malicious smile.

  Oh, don’t worry, says Maureen, approaching him, hand extended. We’re ready.

  *

  Charlie sits in the corner of the pub. It is full to the extremities of hefty-looking men, some in dinner jackets, all looking vaguely threatening. There are no women. Apart from Lloyd, who is struggling to get served in the crush at the bar, everyone is white. He has been waiting for more than five minutes. Finally, he returns to their table, carrying two pints of bitter.

  Tell me, Charlie. Can you see me?

  What are you talking about?

  I must have just rematenalized back here. I swear I was invisible up there. Five blokes standing behind me and they all got served before I did. Then they tried to overcharge me.

  Well, busy, aren’t they? I expect they get confused. Charlie raises his glass in Lloyd’s direction. Cheers, Snowball. I hope this is going to be worth spending an evening with the Tooting Liberation Front for.

  Ah, I can feel it all coming back. Lloyd, who is still standing, shuffles in his tiny space, throws a few punches in the air. The Yellow Devil. Christ, those beers were expensive. When I first came to this country –

  Here we go, says Charlie.

  When I first came to this country, you could get a pint of best for sixpence. Sixpence, man! Those were good days. People talk all the time about going back to the old country. It’s nonsense, Charlie. As soon as I got here, I knew England was the place for me. Home of Shakespeare! Of Dickens! Of cricket! Of the page-three girl! Of Larry Grayson! Of course, it’s going to the dogs all the same. Too many foreigners.

  Ain’t it the truth? says Charlie.

  The Guernseys, Charlie. They’re everywhere. Taking our jobs. Screwing our women.

  Charlie laughs, pulls at his beer.

  Guernseys. That’s a good one, Snowy.

  Knitting their bloody jumpers. Bastards. Not like in those days. No Guernseys then. And there was always work in those days. Not like today, millions unemployed. You know, when I came off the boat, I saw all these chimneys on the houses. And I had never seen a chimney on a house before, because they don’t have them in Barbados. You know what I thought?

  You thought all the houses were factories.

  I thought all the houses were factories! You know, our family had to sell three cows to get me on that boat, Charlie.

  That’s right, Snowy. It was £28 10s, wasn’t it?

  Charlie yawns, looks up, sees Mike Sunderland come through the door to the pub, blinking through the smoke. He raises a hand, trying to get his attention.

  A lot of money. A lot of money. The youth today, they got no idea. That boat was full of boxers, the finest boxers. I wonder what happened to them all. They ate them up and spat them out, Charlie, that was what happened.

  Who did?

  Jack Solomons, Ted Lewis. Those promoters, bwoy. Maybe this was the best luck I ever got.

  Lloyd holds up his mutilated hand in front of Charlie’s face.
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  Because this way, I didn’t hold on to no stupid dreams. And I stayed pretty. You know the first thing that struck me when I got here, Charlie?

  Mike! Over here! It was cold, Snowy. You thought it was cold.

  It was warm enough, actually. I came in the middle of spring. No, what I thought was how ugly everybody was. Their faces. Men, women, children. Gargoyles all over the place, every shape and size. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame times 50 million.

  Mike arrives at the table, breathing heavily through the cigarette smoke. He is wearing a donkey jacket, with a thick cable-knit sweater underneath. He hands one ticket to Lloyd and one to Charlie.

  Sorry for the unpunctuality. My therapist’s fault. He was running late.

  Lot of crazies out there, says Charlie. Fruit and Nut cases queuing for miles.

  Hey, Mike. Mike, is that a Guernsey? says Snowy, pointing at Mike’s jumper.

  Charlie smiles.

  What?

  Don’t mind him, says Charlie. What are you having?

  Well, yes. I’ll have a dry white wine, if you don’t mind.

  Any particular year?

  What?

  White wine it is, then. Same again for you, Snowball?

  When Charlie returns from the bar with the drinks, Lloyd and Mike Sunderland are deep in conversation.

  You see, Lloyd, it’s about guilt. I don’t know, it’s this thing… I mean, I don’t know if it’s the same in your culture. I don’t think the same kind of sick mindset applies.

  What culture is that, Mike?

  Well, yes. That’s a moot point, I suppose. What culture indeed? You see, even bringing it up, I begin to feel bad. I begin to feel wrong. Do you see what I mean about guilt? It’s what white people grow up in, it’s the… sea we swim in. Going to the therapist helps me to reimagine things in a different light. I mean, just because I feel guilty doesn’t mean I’m always in the wrong. Of course, it’s not the only issue. Self-esteem is another one. My father always… Oh, I expect Ym boring you with this.

  You are a bit, yeah, says Lloyd, taking his drink from Charlie. But I know something about crazy. Lot of people I know went crazy. They didn’t take to this country too much. Even me. I went crazy a while. After this, I went a lickle bit crazy.

 
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