Rumours of a hurricane, p.16
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.16

           Tim Lott
 

  It’ll be fine, Charlie, says Maureen encouragingly, as Charlie looks around him, tugs at his shirt sleeves awkwardly. I think it’s nice here.

  It’s a bit arty-crafty, says Charlie. Mike says the food is top of the range.

  Maureen makes an attempt to put some romance in the evening, which is feeling under threat. She leans forward over the table.

  Happy anniversary, Rock.

  Charlie responds, as best he can, although his heart isn’t in it, what with the hassle from the waiter.

  You’re my rock.

  He picks up the menu, is immediately shocked at the prices. He looks up at Maureen and catches her face in studied neutrality as she battles to understand the Spanish dishes, none of which are translated into English. Her lips move slightly. This gesture, the unconscious innocence of the action, brings forth a judder of affection in Charlie. It reassures him. He has sometimes been uncertain whether he loves his wife. He has never doubted that Maureen loves him, however, although she has not told him so for twenty years at least. It was natural for a woman to love; that was what they do, while he worked, and provided, and supplied the final word in difficult decisions. He is strong, and he believes that she admires this strength.

  In the few seconds that he stares at Maureen, he thinks, mine has been a successful marriage. Of course, none of their friends have been divorced, because people like them, of their generation, of their standing, didn’t get divorced. You saw things through, for good or ill. And mostly, it had been good. She hadn’t complained, anyhow. And he has been satisfied. Also, tonight she looks good. A simple black dress, gold earrings, hair piled up. Although now forty-one years old, she stands up better than many, thinks Charlie. Under the thick powder, her skin has not lost all its elasticity and there is brightness still in her eyes, a direct connection to life itself that Charlie feels is the talent of women. Men put a defensive wall between themselves and living; they have no choice.

  Charlie feels the tightness around his neck of the stiff collar. He isn’t accustomed to wearing a tie and he notices that the people at the tables around him are dressed more casually. The noise from the nearby customers seems to be getting worse. There is Spanish music being piped that seems to have got louder since they arrived. He needs to almost shout to try and make his next words heard.

  You look good enough to eat, says Charlie.

  What?

  You look good enough to eat.

  I can’t hear you, Charlie.

  Charlie gives up.

  It doesn’t matter.

  Maureen smiles back, then returns to the menu. Charlie ponders for a moment, then finds a pen and writes the compliment on a napkin and passes it over to his wife. She reads it, smiles, blows him a kiss, then returns to the menu once more. Charlie feels obscurely disappointed. He had expected more in return for his chivalry.

  The waiter returns, looking harassed. He keeps glancing at other tables while he asks if they’d like an aperitif.

  Do you have Pina Coladas? Like in the song?

  Maureen is smiling grimly. Charlie feels a pellet of bile form in his mouth.

  The waiter seems to retreat slightly.

  Pina?

  I don’t know what’s in it exactly. Coconut of some kind.

  She looks at Charlie for confirmation.

  Isn’t it, Charlie?

  Charlie takes a deep breath. The noise has abated slightly.

  Maureen, they don’t have that kind of drink here. You want something to, you know, clear your palate. What about a Campari and Orange? You like them.

  Maureen’s lips seem to thin slightly.

  The orange juice hurts my ulcers. What about Midori? It’s made out of melons.

  The waiter intervenes. A smile plays about his mouth.

  Of course, madam. I think we have some… somewhere. And for sir?

  Whisky, says Charlie.

  Which brand, sir? We have Glenlivet, Laphroaig…

  Charlie is determined not to be wrong-footed.

  Teacher’s, says Charlie abruptly. With Pepsi.

  We don’t have that brand.

  Charlie feels flustered now, and blames Maureen. If she hadn’t asked for the Pina Colada, he would just have said yes to one of the ones that the waiter recommended. Now he can’t remember what the brands were.

  What you got again?

  Laphroaig, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie…

  Glenmorangie. That’s a nice one. I’ll have that. And make it a double.

  With Pepsi, sir?

  Charlie flushes. He isn’t going to be intimidated, he decides.

  Yeah, with Pepsi.

  The waiter nods and retreats. Charlie feels a sense of relief. Maureen speaks again.

  It’s all in Spanish.

  It’s part of the atmosphere.

  I don’t know what anything is.

  It’s mostly common sense. Calamares fritos. That’s like calimari, isn’t it? Fried squid.

  Too fattening.

  You’re always on this new diet. The trouble with you, kiddo, is that you can’t accept yourself as you are.

  But secretly he is pleased that she is still making an effort for him, that she will not let herself slide into lard. She is the most visible symbol of what he has or has not achieved, of his success or failure in life.

  What’s albond… albond… albon-digas.

  I dunno. Have the paella. You know what that is.

  I’m not all that keen on rice.

  You like Chinese, don’t you?

  It’s done differently.

  Alitas de pollo. Pollo is chicken. It’s chicken something. You like chicken, don’t you?

  What’s macedonia? It’s a place isn’t it?

  Eventually they settle on calamares for Maureen to start with and the gazpacho for Charlie. Then paella for Maureen and Charlie takes a risk on pulpo a la gallega. Even though he does not know what it is, he is determined to order it anyway as a bit of an adventure, to show Maureen that he is not the fuddy-duddy everyone takes him for. When the waiter comes for their order he does not understand Charlie’s pronunciation, and makes a great theatre of shrugs and eyebrow-elevation. Eventually they are forced to point to the dishes in question, and the waiter repeats everything exactly and elaborately, as if to throw into relief Charlie’s inarticulacy in Spanish.

  Vino?

  I’d like some Vinho Verde, says Maureen.

  You got Vinho Verde? says Charlie.

  Is Portuguese. I’ll bring you the vino de la casa. Blanco o tinto?

  Yeah, I’ll have some of that.

  What?

  The… the blanco o tinto.

  The waiter explains. Charlie’s face, reddened by the stiffness of his collar, deepens a shade. He understands that he has to make up ground now, that he cannot accept the house wine.

  Hold on. Haven’t you got a wine list?

  The waiter shrugs and disappears.

  I don’t mind what we have, says Maureen.

  It’s a special occasion, says Charlie.

  The waiter returns with the wine list, which seems to Charlie to contain several dozen wines all outrageously priced. He’d thought Spanish wine was cheap. He gazes uncomprehendingly at the catalogue of Riojas.

  Would you recommend anything?

  The waiter is checking the other tables again. He answers Charlie while still looking the other way.

  It depends.

  What on?

  On how much you wish to spend.

  Goaded, Charlie snaps back.

  The price doesn’t matter. What’s good?

  Would you prefer something very dry… or light? Full-bodied? What are you having to eat?

  Charlie finally feels his patience exhausted.

  Look, you just write it down. You just bring us a bottle of decent red wine.

  With the octopus?

  What octopus?

  Pulpo a la gallega.

  Charlie swallows the distaste he feels.

  I’m paying, so I can have wh
atever I ruddy well want.

  Of course.

  With this, he turns elegantly and heads back towards the kitchen.

  Dagos. Onion-munchers. Fucking –

  Shhh, Charlie.

  Sorry, love.

  Charlie tries to avoid swearing in front of Maureen, although he knows that such delicacy is nowadays antique. The collapse of the ceiling and the row with his brother still weigh down on him. He reigns himself in. He tries to concentrate on making what is left of the evening a success.

  He tries to improve his mood by thinking of South Pacific. The tunes still leave a residue in him and a strange yearning. Can it really be like that in the South Pacific? Apart from Spain, he has never been abroad, and he finds it unimaginable that such a place can really exist, such colours of blues and yellows and strange women who did not mind showing their breasts. They make it all up, don’t they? Probably the South Pacific was an s-hole.

  As they wait for the food to arrive, Charlie struggles to make conversation with his wife. It is rare that they find themselves in this position, in such sealed-off intimacy where conversation becomes a necessity.

  Are you still worried about Robert? says Charlie.

  He never calls me. His phone is disconnected. Of course I’m worried about him, Charlie.

  He’ll be all right. He’s a Buck. It’ll all come out in the wash.

  He thinks you don’t like him.

  I don’t have to like him. He’s my son.

  I know you love him, Charlie. But he’s sensitive. Why won’t you make an effort?

  What kind of effort? What can I do?

  Well, you could invite him to one of your card games, for one thing. You’ve never invited him. Father and son spending the evening together. He’d like that.

  But Charlie doesn’t appear to be listening.

  He should have taken that job I sorted him out. He’d have been sitting pretty.

  The rejection of the union card that Christmas stings him still, and part of him seeks vengeance, wishes his son’s destitution. But despite holding this view absolutely, he does not admit it to himself. The part of Charlie that is visible to himself wishes Robert well.

  Charlie looks up as the waiter reappears with a bottle of wine which he offers to Charlie for tasting. There is a grain of cork in the liquid.

  It’s corked.

  No, no. Is OK. Please to taste.

  The waiter says this in such a steely tone that Charlie is cowed. He takes a tentative swig. The wine tastes OK, but he is uncertain what it is meant to taste of. He nods reluctantly. The waiter pours and disappears. Charlie wishes that he had stuck to his guns. He feels he has lost face in front of Maureen.

  They lapse into silence. After twenty-two years of marriage, all opinions seem to be known, all prejudices and tender points and raw nerves have been noted and catalogued. Life seems simply a matter of floating predictably around well-mapped rocks in a flat, transparent pool. Charlie feels, without thinking it, that Maureen is a known quantity to him, as certain in her boundaries and workings as the stone in the compositors’ room, reading the hot-metal letters back to front, something he had absolute confidence in his ability to do. Maureen, compositing; both solid, fixed, known and reliable. Also dull, but then Charlie has not been brought up to expect excitement from life, or even happiness. Things are what they are; the trick is to maintain them, to protect what you have.

  Maureen sees breadcrumbs attached to the edge of Charlie’s mouth. She wipes away the mess with a napkin. It is she who finally breaks the silence.

  What’s your happiest moment of our marriage?

  Charlie feels caught off guard, taken aback.

  That’s a funny question.

  Is it?

  Charlie is aware that he is suddenly on delicate ground.

  That’s tough, Mo. So many of them.

  He tests the truth of this statement, finds it wanting. He does not understand happiness, only its absence. Sadness is so much more dogged a force in the world. He knows an answer is required, scours distant maps of the past.

  Give me a moment. What’s yours?

  Maureen answers immediately.

  The day Robert was born.

  That was something sure enough.

  Charlie wasn’t at the hospital when Robert was born. When he heard the news, he went out and bought himself a cigar. He didn’t like cigars, but he went ahead and bought himself one anyway, because he had learned from the films that this was what you did when children were born. The smoke made him feel sick.

  He had felt scared. He didn’t know how he had found himself in this marriage. Going and getting her pregnant like that. He should have known better. Him and his Hampton Wick. It had got enough men into trouble before. Charlie had thought that he was smarter, but they all thought they were smarter, didn’t they, until women got their fingers around the neck of your life.

  Now it was just him and her for the rest of his days. Maybe thirty, forty more years. A long time. A bloody long time. But the world was full of things you couldn’t deny, couldn’t do anything about. War was one. Your place in the world was another. Marriage was another. Kids were another. You just had to fall in, didn’t you? Fall in! He hears the sergeant-major’s shout in his head, echoing down from when he did his National Service. He smiles to himself. Fall in. That was what life was about.

  Have you thought of anything? Maureen says intently.

  The true answer, he realizes, is the time Maureen went away for a month with Robert fifteen years ago to see her parents, who had moved to Australia. He had had his sole affair of their marriage, a brief fling with a secretary in classified advertising. Maureen had never suspected, and it had been pure excitement, with no price tag. He remembered waking up at the secretary’s flat, where a magpie perched on the windowsill, then flew away. He had watched it disappear into a dot. The smell of coffee. Her perfume, like scented earth. The way she touched his face when they made love. Every day he thinks of her.

  The secretary had left for a job abroad two weeks after Maureen returned and he had never seen her again. That had been the last time he had slept with a woman who wasn’t his wife.

  Yeah. When Robert was born.

  They lapse back into silence.

  What’s the latest from work, then? says Maureen.

  They’re still playing silly buggers. Threatening this and that.

  It occurs to her that in all their years together she has only ever been to Charlie’s place of work once and therefore has very little idea what he does all day. He has tried to explain it to her but she finds it hard to follow. Not because it is too complicated, but because it bores her too much to concentrate. Of course, she would never reveal this to Charlie. There are many things she would never reveal to Charlie. She understands far better than he does what can and what can’t be spoken.

  They’ve got all these fancy new… technologies that they’re trying to bring over. From the States… Computers. They let you keystroke directly on to page layout. We’ve said all along that we have to keep control of the keyboard. Compositing… it’s a craft, a craft that goes back centuries. You can’t just dump that in the bin because big business lifts its little finger. It’s a matter of politics. All they care about is maximizing profit. The working man counts for nothing. Well, they’re not getting away with it. We’re standing firm.

  He sees a familiar faraway look in his wife’s eyes. He had planned to tell Maureen about demarcation and differentials, but noticing the look the words stop in his throat.

  I have to use the little girls’ room, says Maureen. She gets up from her chair, barely managing to squeeze through the gap that separates their table from the adjacent one. Her hips expanded after childbirth, and have continued to do so, despite the wide range of diets she has systematically placed herself on, despite the Trim U Fit massager, despite the jogging and the morning aerobics. Her figure remains the figure of the woman she is: a middle-aged mother.

  Mother. Charlie watches
her go, past two women in their twenties with hard bodies pressed into black dresses. He thinks again of the day this title was bestowed on her. Was it a proud day? What’s to be proud of? Sticking it in was all it took.

  Maureen returns. They have been waiting for their food now for half an hour. Both of them are starving. For want of anything better to fill the silence, he decides to continue his lecture on the printing industry.

  He talks about demarcation agreements, piecework, Linotype, maintaining differentials. She has heard it all before. All she knows is that he doesn’t seem to work that hard, or that often, and compared with most of the people she knows he produces a decent wage packet – around £330 a week. She has come to dislike the expression he has on his face at this moment, which is one of petulant morality. Charlie is upset that the ‘bosses’, as he likes to call anyone who occupies a senior position to him at the newspaper, should try and tell the union what to do.

  … of course, the bosses always try to push it. It’s natural. If you’re a union man like me, you learn that. They’re not all bad. Marmaduke Hussey is a natural gentleman. But some of the others – the self-made men… people like Murdoch – got this idea that they’re above us. They’ve got another think coming, I’ll tell you that for nothing.

  Maureen shakes herself out of her encroaching trance, which she attempts to conceal, as ever, with a light, noncommittal smile.

  But surely, Charlie, you can’t stop progress. If they’ve invented these computers, they’ve got to come sooner or later. How can you stand in the way of that?

  It is unusual for Maureen to offer an opinion so contrary to the one Charlie has expressed and a look of mild surprise crosses his face.

  Kiddo, it’s hard to explain. Of course the computers have got to come. But when? Now? Next year? In fifty years? Who’s to say? Is it the management who has the only say?

  Well, they’ve got a business to run, haven’t they? If they can’t run a business, you wouldn’t have any jobs. It’s uneconomical to keep things like they are.

  At first amused by Maureen’s contrariness, Charlie now feels irritated.

  You’ve got it the wrong way round. You can’t run a business without workers to work in it. We are the business. They just cream off the profits, like their sort always have done. Sitting on their fat behinds, smoking cigars. They do all right. You have to make a stand whenever you can. Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.

 
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