Rumours of a hurricane, p.14
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.14

           Tim Lott

  He holds his hand up, inspects it as if this is the first time he’s ever seen it.

  How did that happen? says Mike, leaning forward over the table. I mean, I hope you don’t mind me…

  Got caught in a machine. I’m a machine minder, right? I was minding one. My hand got caught in it. Two fingers on the floor, in with the sawdust. Bwoy, it was something. You should have seen the foreman’s face. Gargoyle having a heart attack. You ain’t seen ugly till you’ve seen that.

  Mike takes a small sip of his wine, puckers up his mouth, grimaces.

  How’s the vintage? says Charlie.

  Mike grins.

  The pub is beginning to empty. Mike checks his watch.

  That’s a nice timepiece, says Lloyd. A real nice chronometer.

  Thanks, says Mike. Of course, I didn’t… I couldn’t. I mean, I’d be perfectly happy with a Timex or something similar. It was a present from my dad after I came down.

  Came down on what? says Lloyd, genuinely puzzled.

  Sorry. I mean when I graduated. From Cambridge. University.

  Cambridge University. You’re an educated man. A civilized man. I respect that. Hey, Mike, ask me something. Ask me about any king or queen of England.

  Well, I don’t think I really…

  For God’s sake, ask him, says Charlie. Let him do his party piece. Then we can get out of here. The fights are going to start in a minute.

  OK. Who was king in 1103?

  Henry I, says Lloyd immediately, grinning.

  What about king in 1704?

  Trick question. It was good Queen Anne.

  You should be in a bloody circus, Snowball. Can we go now? urges Charlie.

  School, you see. In Barbados. We had to learn every single English king and queen, or get licked. I learned. The Bajan man loves England. They call it Bimshire. The finest and warmest of the English counties. How much is that watch worth?

  Oh, I don’t know. A thousand or so, I expect.

  Mike looks fiercely embarrassed. Lloyd exchanges glances with Charlie.

  You ever play cards, Mike? says Charlie.

  Lloyd, Mike and Charlie make their way out into the north London night. It has been raining, but now the clouds are clearing away. They walk slowly. The Astoria is only a few minutes away. Lloyd kicks at a can, then punches the air a few times, blows air out of his cheeks theatrically.

  What’s the deal with this, then, Mike? says Charlie. Not strictly legit, is it?

  It’s perfectly legal, says Mike. It’s just not licensed by the board of control. There’s a few that are over the hill, a bit punchy. And they jazz it up a bit. Razzmatazz, costumes, a bit like wrestling really.

  Look at that, says Lloyd, stopping, staring at the kerb. I love that.

  He is staring at a puddle of oil that, spread thin by the rain, has converted into a gutter rainbow. When he speaks again, he speaks quietly, so that Charlie has to strain to hear him.

  You know, when I first came here, after it rained… You know, they put glass into the pavements here, into the concrete or whatever it is. So when it rained, you could see the glitter of the glass in the pavement. When the rain washed off, I said to Hyacinth one day, I said, it looks like diamonds. Like a diamond pavement. Yeah.

  Lloyd looks up, seems to snap out of his reverie, begins to dance again, then stops, holds the boxer’s pose, then throws a few punches to within an inch or two of Charlie’s face.

  Let’s go. Marquess of Queensberry Rules or no.

  Inside, the Astoria seems immense, far larger than you could guess from the modest exterior. There is a smell of aftershave, and of sawdust, and of old beer spilled on to cheap carpets. Charlie, Lloyd and Mike make their way through a press of red-faced, mostly middle-aged men, many of whom barely fit into their dinner jackets. Mike leads, studying their ticket numbers. Eventually, he makes it to a row of seats about five away from the ring. He checks them again; it seems that someone is sitting in their seats. Charlie, checking his own ticket, gets an impression of the man in his seat – like a side of beef in a evening suit. He puts a hand out to restrain Mike from making a fuss, but it is too late. Mike is already tapping the man on the shoulder.

  I do beg your pardon. There seems to be some confusion over the seats. I think if you check your ticket stubs…

  The man has turned round now. His face is the closest thing to evil Charlie has ever seen. The skin is pockmarked and scarred, the eyes small, red, close together. Each line on the huge face announces that this is a man to whom the details that appear on a ticket stub are of staggering insignificance. He fixes Mike with a blank look that Mike is too stupid, too cushioned, to make sense of.

  I think if you check your ticket stubs you’ll find that those seats are actually…

  Charlie pulls Mike back and occupies his space.

  Sorry, mate. Our mistake. Terribly sorry.

  But Mike blunders on.

  Now just hold on a second.

  Shut up, Mike! Charlie turns to the man. Really sorry to have disturbed you.

  The man carries on staring for a few more moments, then finally turns back towards the ring. Charlie exhales. He turns on Mike, hisses.

  You’re not at a tea party in Hampstead, Mike. Now let it go. That bloke would have torn you a new arsehole in ten seconds flat. These people are villains. I know one when I see one. Christ, my brother’s a card-carrying member of the fraternity. They don’t give a fuck for you or your tickets. There’s plenty of empty seats a few rows back.

  Eventually, the three of them find empty seats with a reasonably good view six rows further back. They settle down. In the ring, the fighting has begun. A short, heavy-set man, who arrived in the ring in a battered raincoat and goes simply under the name of Columbo, is fighting a younger, blond, relatively tall fighter known as Iron Man. In terms of age, reach and physique, the younger man should be winning easily. But Columbo is letting him punch himself out, going into clinches, easily absorbing short blows to the body. After a couple of rounds, the young man is clearly exhausted and is still trying to finish off the shorter, older one. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a great looping swing, starting way back behind Columbo’s head, connects with the Iron Man’s jaw. His eyes glaze, his legs crumple. He stays standing, but only just. The crowd are on their feet, screaming. Columbo throws another punch in the same surreal, scything fashion, this time connecting with his opponent’s nose. Blood spurts everywhere. The noise from the crowd now rises another ten decibels.

  To his surprise, Charlie finds himself up on his feet and yelling. He hasn’t been at a boxing match for twenty years and he is amazed at the transformative power of violence. The blood excites him. The Iron Man begins to topple. Mike is still sitting making notes in a ring notebook. Lloyd is shaking his head, looking faintly sad. Columbo connects with Iron Man’s jaw again, knocking him down. The crowd, including Charlie, roar. On the count of eight, Iron Man is back on his feet. Charlie can hear Lloyd muttering.

  Stay down, man, stay down.

  Now Columbo comes forward step by step. The younger man’s face is a purple mess. He is rocking from side to side. Even Charlie expects the fight to be stopped, but Columbo comes on. He seems to hesitate, as if out of pity. The Iron Man stands there, his guard not even up. The referee makes no move to stop the fight. Now Columbo gives a little ‘what can you do?’ shrug, and Charlie sees his right arm go way, way back behind his head, shudders as he anticipates what is certain to come. He sees the blow approach the Iron Man almost in slow motion, the glove taking him full in his once symmetrical face. The blow seems to almost lift him off the ground, cartoon-style, then he collapses in a bloody heap. The crowd are going insane. Charlie feels excited and then vaguely shocked at his own excitement. Mike just writes in the notebook spread open on his lap. The fight over, the crowd quieten down as seconds rush to attend the spread-eagled figure in the ring. Charlie sits back down, his heart beating nineteen to the dozen. He finally looks towards Lloyd, who has his eyes squeezed close

  What’s the matter with you, Snowball?

  It’s a massacre.

  What were you expecting? Pat-a-cake?

  Lloyd opens his eyes, blinks at the ring.

  Bwoy, this is… I didn’t expect this, Charlie.

  They don’t have to do it, do they? They choose.

  But it’s not even… I mean, the kid didn’t know anything. Against an old pro like that. He’s going to be mincemeat. And the referee didn’t even stop it. Let him mash the bwoy. It’s not Marquess of Queensberry, it’s a freak show.

  Quite right, says Mike, without even looking up from his notebook. It’s going to make a terrific story.

  The evening wears on. There are fighters dressed as cave-men, as super heroes, as cartoon characters. Against this theatre there is extreme violence. Many of the fighters are way past their prime, others seem massively inexperienced. Weights are mismatched, skills are randomly thrown together. The referee never seems to stop a fight before one or other of the contestants has been rendered unconscious. Most of the bout, Lloyd spends with his head in his hands. Mike is writing, filling up his notebook at a prodigious rate, but Charlie is just mesmerized. Despite being aware of a faint shadow of shame, he finds the spectacle of the fight hypnotic, extraordinary. He feels himself lost in the crowd, swaying with it, shouting and jeering with it. He roars, he sways, he exults. As they move further up the bill, the fighters get more skilful, and still more ruthless. The intervals between the fights are short. By ten p.m., they have witnessed six bouts. There are only three left. The last fight was disappointing, Charlie feels. As they wait for the next, he flops in his seat, pulls at a cigarette.

  What’s up next, Mike? he says.

  Mike consults the small, amateurishly produced programme.

  Jungle John versus the Viking Destroyer. Jungle John used to be a first division footballer, apparently, who’s gone to seed somewhat. I don’t know anything about the Viking Destroyer. He looks rather unpleasant from his photograph.

  A rustle in the crowd announces the arrival of the new contestants. The PA begins to play The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ at deafening volume. There is a chorus of boos. Suddenly, Charlie sees projectiles flying through the air, as the boxer who calls himself Jungle John climbs into the ring, then ugly laughter rattling round the auditorium.

  The projectiles are bananas, dozens of them. One hits Jungle John on the top of his head. The laughter redoubles.

  The boxer sits down, his face seems to burn with some closely held emotion. He is dressed entirely in leopard skin. There is even some kind of bone pushed through his thick hair. His face is old, beaten. There is a terrible air of desperation about him. But he is big, over six foot, well built, not all his muscle has yet turned to fat. He gets up from his stool, begins gently to pick up the bananas that are still flying on to the canvas, gathers them up and hands them to his second. Charlie can see that he moves with grace, with a kind of residual litheness. Still the bananas come. One by one, the boxer sadly picks them up. Charlie looks at the faces in the crowd, faces compressed with hatred.

  Then there is a roar. Out of the corner of the auditorium, walking down the aisle, comes a huge man wearing a Viking helmet and animal skins. He is six foot six at least, with a chiselled face, pure blue eyes. He looks arrogant and deadly cool. The music that is playing from the PA switches to The Ride of the Valkyries’. The man climbs into the ring to deafening cheers. He removes his helmet to reveal pure white-blond hair. He flexes his muscles, struts in the ring, eyeballs the other boxer, who does not join in the pantomine, just sits in his corner staring at the canvas, as if composing himself.

  The fighters are brought together in the middle of the ring. The Viking spits at Jungle John’s feet. The black boxer meets his gaze, but instead of staring him out just gives a smile, then turns and goes back to his corner once more, to a chorus of boos.

  The fight is ferocious from the beginning. Each man goes at the other with extraordinary ferocity. The Viking is faster and stronger, but Jungle John clearly has a better technique and can soak up the punches. He is also graceful and fast, despite his age and weight. Every time he dodges one of the Viking’s jab and thrusts, the crowd moans. Charlie feels the hate swilling all around him, the sheer energy of the anger. He finds himself lost in it, caught up in the sheer adrenalin rush of it. He is out of his own body, on his feet, swaying with each punch, roaring as each connection is made.

  By the fourth round, the ferocity of the fight has not abated. The face of each fighter is covered in blood. The bananas which fell into the ring after the first three rounds have now ceased and the crowd is moving as if one animal. Charlie is lost, on his face a film of sweat, his fists punching the air as if he is in the ring himself.

  The exchange of blows comes at an incredible pace now and it is impossible to decide who has the advantage. The Viking’s face is a mess, his legs are tired, but he keeps clipping Jungle John around a cut eye. They use every inch of the ring. At one point, the Viking goes down, to shocked silence, but he is up again at the count of five. He counter-attacks. Suddenly Charlie can sense the black boxer’s fear that the Viking has taken his best shot and come back up. The crowd senses it too and begin to bay. Charlie is there as well, up on his chair now, screaming. The Viking comes forward, one to the body, a heavy one to the solar plexus, an uppercut to the jaw. Jungle John is beginning to sway. Charlie is vaguely aware of the triumphant shouts and screams around him

  Get that fucker!

  Murder the cunt! Knock him back to the jungle.

  And Charlie is vaguely aware of himself shouting,

  Finish him off! Kill him.

  Jungle John goes down to a swingeing right hook to his left cheek. It is immediately apparent that he will not be getting up again. He is flat out, legs spread, eyes closed, the referee counting him out above him. Jungle John’s second is rushing to his side.

  It has been a fight of extraordinary aggression and intensity. The noise from the crowd is astonishing. There is blood on the canvas, blood on the bodies. The Viking raises his hands in triumph. Worried-looking men begin appearing in the ring. Charlie becomes aware of stretcher-bearers approaching the ring from the opposite corner. Jungle John’s second is shouting something from the centre, beckoning, his eyes alight with panic. The Viking is dancing in triumph. More bananas rain down on Jungle John’s inert body. Someone thumps furiously at his chest.

  Charlie comes back into his own body, looks round. Mike is still writing furiously. Lloyd is nowhere to be seen.


  4 May 1982. Charlie is not working today. To the fury of Mike Sunderland, Rupert Murdoch is the new owner of The Times. Unlike Robert Maxwell, it turns out, he is the right sort of person. But Mike’s pique has gradually ebbed, diluted by a generous pay rise, and News International seem to have done little to upset the union applecart. The money, the Spanish customs, all survive. The players change, thinks Charlie. The game stays the same.

  It is on this day, twenty-two years earlier, that he and Maureen were married. Tonight they go out to celebrate. He has started the day with freshly boiled kippers, toast and tomatoes, all presented lovingly by Maureen, in bed. He is re-reading yesterday’s copy of the Sun, which he has held on to out of admiration for the headline. The Daily Mirror, he has decided, is too stuffy nowadays. The Sun has a satisfying photograph of an Argentinian ship, the Belgrano, on fire. It makes Charlie smile with pride.

  He is now out at the front of the flat with a paintbrush. Charlie wears a plastic Union Jack bowler hat that Mike Sunderland has bought him as a sardonic comment on his colleague’s patriotic enthusiasm for the Falklands War, but Charlie, lacking irony, wears it with pride. He looks up and down the line of ten flats that make up the ground-floor layer of this block. For as far as he can see to either side and also above him, doors of gunmetal grey. Dripping from his paintbrush is a colour that is as close as he could come to the chocolate brown of the Leek and Manifold casing, the gift from Robert, which curr
ently has pride of place in the railway set that runs once more in the spare room.

  The day the deeds of ownership came through, the first thing Charlie did was to take all his models, trains and track out of storage and create a new layout. This repainting of the front door was the next thing he promised himself.

  He dips the paintbrush in the tin, and stares at it as the sticky brown liquid drips off the bristles. Something moves inside him. The actual signing of the deeds, the moment when ownership transferred to him, Charles William Buck, had been an anticlimax somehow. Like Christmas, the anticipation outweighed the reality. He had felt no different, merely a strange sensation that combined both weightlessness and the crushing gravity of a debt that stood at some £20,000. But now, staring at the paint fall, an unfamiliar excitement comes upon him. He is a man of property! He can choose the colour of paint, put it where he likes. It is intoxicating. The council is no longer his master.

  He feels a guilty gratitude towards Mrs Thatcher, but knows for certain, and with relief, that she will be removed next time round. There have been huge spending cuts, riots in Brixton and Toxteth, the biggest fall in industrial output since 1921. Unemployment tops 3 million. The country is buckling, as Mike has predicted.

  He has prepared his door, rubbed it down, applied primer. This feeling of improvement, of change, is satisfying in a way he has rarely known. Carol, the single mother, emerges from her flat. She has a new baby in her arms, screaming. Nelson is at a nursery nearby. The baby clutches a Holly Hobby doll; noseless, it seems mutilated to Charlie. The plaits and bonnet are sucked and blanched of colour.

  She seems harassed and pale. She looks up.

  Like the hat, says Carol.

  Got to support our boys, says Charlie.

  What you doing? says Carol, noticing the paint. Her tone is suddenly clipped, slightly afraid.

  I’m doing a spot of redecorating.

  You’ll have the council down.

  Not any more, says Charlie. We’ve bought it.

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