Rumours of a hurricane, p.15
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.15

           Tim Lott
 

  Carol stares at him.

  You’ve done what?

  We’ve bought it. It’s ours, says Charlie proudly. He believes that congratulations are inevitable.

  Is that right? says Carol. You’ll make a nice little bundle then.

  Nothing wrong with honest profit.

  There’s no such thing, says Carol, as an honest profit.

  She pauses, then without another word she turns and walks away. Charlie feels shocked. Carol has always been friendly to him.

  Jealousy, thinks Charlie. It’s only to be expected. A part of him relishes what he thinks of as her envy, but the larger part is disappointed. He does not want this moment to be sullied, so he now decides that she is also suffering from nerves because of the new baby. He applies the brush to the prepared door. He smiles, as if a great secret has been revealed. The door begins its transformation.

  Inside the flat, Maureen is reading a book, Teach Yourself Accountancy. Her brow is furrowed in concentration, despite the soft chatter of the television in the corner. She has two bars of chocolate on the table beside her and is slowly making her way through them. On the television, a woman with a mad, ever present smile, is jumping up and down on to a step. She makes exercise look terrific fun, but Maureen, who is going through one of her periodic losses of interest in keep-fit, knows it is a cruel illusion.

  Maureen puts down the book. She hears Charlie whistling from the outside. It is ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. She makes a few notes on a pad and examines her work. Marie-Rose, pleased with her efforts, has introduced her to other traders. There is a florist in North End Road she helps out four days a month. The fish and chip shop is interested. Maureen is gratified, and faintly amazed at the way she is taken seriously by these people. Her columns are neat, carefully constructed, with just the right balance of honesty and guile. Charlie thinks it is little more than a hobby for her, but something swells inside her when she contemplates each completed set of accounts. It is her creation.

  I think you’d best shift, Mo. It’s going to be like world war fucking three in here.

  Tommy Buck is holding a lump hammer. His face is blackened and bruised from a weekend ruck on the terraces, making it appear distorted and discoloured as if viewed through mottled brown glass. The furniture has been moved out of the room or covered with plastic sheeting. Tommy is knocking down the wall that divides the kitchen from the dining room to create a kitchen-diner. He’s doing it as a favour for his brother, who is willing but unpractised at home improvement.

  Charlie comes in from outside.

  You do know what you’re doing, don’t you, Tommy? says Charlie nervously.

  Are you taking the piss? says Tommy. Stop worrying. You’re always worrying, you fucking old woman.

  Anyway, where’s that ginger streak of piss? I thought you were going to get him to give me a hand.

  Haven’t heard from Robert for six months. He’s got the hump about something.

  I’m worried, Charlie, says Maureen. He could be anywhere.

  Anywhere there’s layabouts.

  Maureen retreats into the bedroom. The hammering begins immediately, and it is deafening. She gives up trying to study the book. In between thuds, she can hear Charlie following up his rendition of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with ‘Charmaine’. The whistling is sweet, resonant. It touches Maureen. A sentimental cloud descends on her. On impulse, she reaches to the top drawer of a small chest and takes out a photo album.

  It has been a long time since she has looked within. A layer of dust coats the leather binding. The images revealed as she turns the pages change her mood into a gathering sadness inside the nut of her chest. Charlie’s grin looks wide, uncomplicated, certain. She seems vaguely frightened. This is the story, she thinks, of her marriage.

  She wonders, for the first time in years, on this day of their anniversary, why she chose Charlie. She could have had others. At nineteen, she had felt plain, but she could see now that she was not. To her surprise, she sees an obvious sexuality there, a muted physical hunger.

  Maureen remembers how before she got married, she went into the factory and how much fun she had in the big place, grinding out things she didn’t even know the name of. The work didn’t matter, but chatting to the other women was fun. And you got a pay packet.

  But then after the marriage it was privileges withdrawn. Back in the kitchen. She didn’t mind. Always wanted kids, anyway. A husband.

  She didn’t mind.

  Suddenly the thought strikes her, as she turns the page and looks at a photograph of her holding Robert in her arms, that this is a lie, a lie that has fossilized, sunk, become incorporated into her.

  Only there is nothing she can do about it now.

  She turns the pages again. Sometimes, looking at Charlie, she wonders why they are together. Fate, she supposes. Luck, accident. What is the difference?

  She had been running for a bus. She was an inch away from the bus, nearly, nearly. It was raining. She wore low heels. Seventeen years old, carrying a plain black umbrella. 1958. She missed that bus and tripped. Flat into a puddle. The umbrella blowing off down the street to the Lord knew where.

  And there was Charlie, helping her up. He had even retrieved her umbrella. She had no idea who he was. She didn’t think he was handsome. Good thick hair, large blue eyes, but a weak chin and sticky-out ears. Nevertheless, he was smartly turned out, in a serge suit. Smelt then as now of Brylcreem and something else which she couldn’t name (it turned out to be ink). He had a handkerchief, pathetically small for the task, but he tried to dry her off. He lingered a little too long over her breasts, and, to her surprise, she found this exciting. She had never slept with a man, but she thought of sex quite often. Then you weren’t meant to, but Maureen did. She played with herself sometimes, down there. She shocked herself.

  Charlie offered to buy her a cup of coffee in the Kardomah coffee house which was next to the bus stop. She knew right away she was being picked up, but that was OK. They had coffee and cream slices while her coat dried off on a radiator. Underneath, her trim bust outlined by a cotton blouse. Charlie kept glancing while he picked the filling out of the slice.

  They had a nice chat. He was very normal, very conservative with a small C. Didn’t like the Tory government. Didn’t like layabouts and oiks either. Him and Maureen nearly got into an argument – her whole family voted Conservative, always had. But politics wasn’t nearly important enough to have a row about. It was just gossip. Everyone was entitled to their opinion. Not all Tories were swine, even though Charlie said that they were.

  Charlie took her dancing at the Kilburn State, to the cinema, for walks in the park. They had only been seeing each other three weeks. Maureen didn’t love him, but she thought he was OK, not the worse one so far. He was incredibly persistent. Also, he had his own flat, which was unusual. One of his three uncles rented it to him. Maureen didn’t know anyone who had use of their own flat. The point being that she could tell her parents that they were going to the cinema and they could go to the flat instead.

  That was how Maureen lost her virginity. She was bored with being a virgin, that was all. Sex was bound to be more interesting than everything else in life. And it was. It was more than interesting, it was wonderful, except that Charlie always reached his climax a bit too quickly and then fell asleep. Still, now that she had discovered it, there would be other lovers, better than Charlie, more accomplished. It was a whole new world.

  Even then she wondered what other secrets were being kept from her. Like real work. To feel you were doing something that meant something in the wider world. Men kept that a secret.

  She’d been out with quite a few men before Charlie. They were a strange breed, but she liked them on the whole. Their strength and containment, the way they controlled their feelings so effectively. She supposed that they did have feelings, but you couldn’t be absolutely sure with men. You had to guess. Sometimes she would try to hurt Charlie just to see if he was alive inside.

/>   Charlie was pretty much what Maureen thought of as the standard model – polite, respectful, a bit of a laugh after a drink or two, not very good with words, wanted a family, wanted a job for life, security, kept his nose clean. Nothing eccentric or odd at all about him except that in those days he smoked Du Maurier cigarettes, which was an unusual brand, expensive. It was the little part of him that he allowed to be different from the mob, but on the whole Charlie was happy with the mob, content to be just the way he perceived everyone else to be. He thought people had it too easy in the main. Charlie drank a little too much, was apprenticed as a compositor. He worked hard and he thought other people should work hard. There were too many immigrants, he said, but he didn’t hate foreigners, didn’t hate anybody really. Hate was a waste of energy, he said.

  So they went to bed in his flat. Maureen had liked him well enough, and supposed he was all right in bed, although she didn’t actually have anyone to compare him with. But she hadn’t felt he was all that, and also they were in many ways different. So when she found out she was pregnant, she was at first distraught, half because she was unmarried, half because she might have to get married to Charlie.

  Charlie, she was simultaneously relieved and disappointed to discover, was determined to stand by her. Offered to announce their marriage right away. Maureen felt she had no choice, and after a while didn’t mind that much. She could do worse than Charlie, she supposed. He seemed nice enough. The world was full of accidents and one had just happened to her. She wondered if it would turn out all right.

  In the end she lost the baby anyway, but she decided to go through with the marriage all the same. Too much momentum to retreat. She remains amazed at how a whole life can turn on one moment. On a gasp, a clutch, a narrowly missed bus. If a traffic light had changed a second sooner, or later, her life would have been utterly different.

  Being with Charlie had become a sort of habit she found hard to break. She got pregnant again, six months later, with Robert. It was that that landed them their first council flat. She was huge. Charlie wasn’t particularly proud, but he accepted it. He was good at accepting things, at letting life slide over him without him really noticing.

  A terrible crash from the front room interrupts her thoughts. She throws down the album and rushes the few yards to where Tommy has been working. He stands in the kitchen, looking puzzled, his face a mask of fine white dust. There is a huge hole in the ceiling, and a mess of crumbled wood and plaster detritus covers the floor.

  Your joists must be rotten, says Tommy amiably, giving Maureen a placatory smile. Been fattening up the old woodworm. Place like this is fucking McDonald’s for them.

  They’ve been all right this last twenty-odd years, says Charlie, who has emerged at the same time as Maureen from the other side of the room.

  I’ll call my mate Tony, says Tommy cheerfully. He’s handy on plaster. A dab fucking hand.

  Well, I hope he’s cheap.

  Charlie is breathing heavily, biting the nail of his thumb and shifting from foot to foot as if needing to spend a penny. Maureen recognizes these gestures; they imply a fury barely contained by will.

  I’ll talk to him. It won’t set you back much.

  Set me back much? What’s it got to do with me?

  Charlie is still unconsciously holding the paintbrush in his right hand. The shock of the noise and the collapse of the ceiling have made him forget himself. Droplets fall on to the new carpet that Maureen dipped into their savings to buy only a month previously.

  Well, says Tommy, with guarded simplicity. It’s your ceiling.

  It might be my ceiling, but –

  Charlie!

  Maureen has noticed the paintbrush. She points wordlessly. Charlie looks down.

  Christ!

  There is a trail from the door to where he stands. Maureen is rushing across with a cloth.

  It’ll come out with a little drop of white spirit, says Tommy.

  Charlie glowers. As a child, he had been protective of Tommy, and Tommy had taken advantage, always taken advantage.

  It better had. Or you can stump up for a new carpet as well.

  Hold on a cotton-pickin’ moment, Charlie boy.

  Hold on! Don’t tell me to hold me. You’re not in my house but ten minutes and you’ve brought the ceiling down. You’re not a builder, you’re a cross between Roy fucking Rogers and Arthur Daley. I should have got you a lasso for Christmas instead of giving you those stupid Kevin Kline jeans.

  They were too small for me anyway.

  I’m not surprised, you fat… you fat cowboy bastard.

  At the word cowboy, Tommy bridles.

  I spent years learning my trade. I’m doing this as a favour.

  Half rate doesn’t entitle you to smash my new house to bits. Anyway, I’ve only got your word it’s half-rate. Who’s going to pay forty sovs a day to someone who don’t know how to prop a ceiling?

  Tommy nods violently.

  I’m a liar too, then, is it?

  Maureen has been rubbing at the carpet with white spirit. The stain has become a penumbra spreading outwards from the specks of paint. She stops rubbing for a moment.

  Tommy… Charlie…

  It’s all right, Maureen.

  Tommy is now removing his overalls.

  I’ve got plenty of other work on that needs to be done where I’m not going to get this sort of grief

  Yeah, that’s right. He’s in demand is Tommy, says Charlie. That’s why they came and took his Astra back. Trading up, is it, kiddo? Roller on order from the factory, is it?

  Now Charlie and Tommy are squared up to each other like fighters. Tommy’s voice can usually be heard halfway down the next street, but now it is very quiet.

  I had a bad patch. They hiked the interest rates. It can happen to anyone.

  It can happen to anyone who hocks himself up to the neck so he can show off to his neighbours in la-de-da land. What you got now? Α ‘72 Allegro, isn’t it? Lorraine must be chuffed up to the eyeballs.

  Tommy thinks momentarily about punching his older brother, but he feels the taboo of being adult tugging at his bunched fist, and the calculation of what it might cost. Family is family. Instead, he looks at Maureen, gathers up his tools.

  I’m off, Maureen. Sorry about the mess. We’ll forget my dough for this morning.

  No need for that, says Charlie, taking his wallet out and removing the entire contents, £65. Here you are. There’s an extra mark-up there for woodworm detection. That’s how you work, isn’t it, Tom? Go on, take it.

  Tommy sighs, holds up a hand in farewell to Maureen and walks out of the door.

  This paint isn’t coming off, says Maureen, still rubbing furiously at the carpet. She only succeeds in spreading the stain still further, unstoppable, the colour of drying mud.

  To celebrate their anniversary, Charlie has chosen Los Caracoles, a tapas bar and restaurant just off Shaftesbury Avenue. Mike Sunderland, who is familiar with eating out in restaurants in a way that Charlie feels he will never be, has recommended it as both intimate and authentic. Charlie and Maureen rarely go to restaurants, and when they do it is to steak houses or hotel restaurants or dinner dances in distant suburban brewery-owned fake barns. Charlie feels unhappy with the rituals demanded, feels threatened by a codified servitude that seems to him obscurely contemptuous.

  Spanish food is, Charlie has been told, all the rage. On their yearly holidays in Alicante, Charlie and Maureen always eat English. But change is in the air and the wind blows everyone before it.

  The restaurant is much smarter than Charlie has expected. He feels suddenly uncomfortable in his shirt and tie, Pringle sweater and brown Marks & Spencer double-pleated flannel trousers. He had wanted something informal, reassuring, but the room is plain and unwelcoming, and the other diners are clearly much younger and more fashionable than Charlie and Maureen. They are made to wait for several minutes before a waiter acknowledges them. He is theatrically Spanish: tight black trousers, red shirt, olive
skin, slicked-back black hair. Handsome. He looks them up and down with a puzzled face. He seems genuinely confused that they are here.

  We have it reserved, says Charlie, in a voice louder than it needs to be. We’re right on the button.

  They have been to see South Pacific in one of the theatres round the corner. Seeing the cinema version was their first big night out as a courting couple, twenty-two years earlier.

  The waiter holds up his finger, as if in admonition.

  Ranch?

  Buck. Charles William Buck. We have a cubicle.

  The restaurant has half a dozen small alcoves. Mike has sold it as very intimate. The waiter furrows his brow, shrugs.

  One moment.

  He disappears, while Charlie and Maureen fidget uncomfortably. In the distance, he sees the waiter talking to a man in a dark suit, who is shaking his head. They laugh together. After another wait of several minutes, the waiter returns. He gives a faint smile.

  No cubicle.

  Charlie feels annoyed, but intimidated.

  But listen. We specifically –

  Is impossible.

  It’s our anniversary.

  The waiter nods as if processing this important information. Charlie feels a grain of hope.

  There is no alcove. It does not say.

  He holds the book out to show the reservation for Buck.

  Well, I don’t think it’s my fault if one of your…

  But the waiter is not listening. Instead he has started moving away from them, beckoning.

  This way, please.

  Don’t make a fuss, Charlie, urges Maureen.

  The restaurant is arranged in an L-shape and the waiter leads them through packed tables to a cramped two-seater in the middle of a row of similar tables. There is barely room to move elbows. Everyone seems to be making a terrific row. Charlie realizes that most of the people in the restaurant are Spanish and that they are speaking in their language. This is what Mike meant by authentic. It unsettles Charlie.

  He hesitates, but the waiter ushers him firmly to his seat and his will collapses. Charlie and Maureen face each other. Both feel uncomfortable but trapped. Having accepted the seat, it seems impossible now to get up and leave. The waiter hands them each a menu and scurries off.

 
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