Rumours of a hurricane, p.17
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.17

           Tim Lott
 

  The wine is full-bodied, heavy. Maureen is not used to it on an empty stomach. She feels unable to put down the stick which she has picked up, despite sensing Charlie’s dislike of her daring agnosticism.

  But what if some other newspaper takes on the computers? Then they’ll be able to do everything much faster and cheaper. And then what’ll happen to you?

  Charlie chews this over. Bearing in mind once again that this is a wedding anniversary, he decides to keep his pique disguised. He musters a grin for Maureen.

  You know what Mike Sunderland at the paper would call you?

  Maureen doesn’t.

  He’d call you a… what was it? A… petty barge wire zee. He’d call you a class traitor.

  Really. Is that what he calls people who tell him stuff he don’t want to hear, then?

  Now Maureen finds it hard to conceal the spite she suddenly feels. Her smile has become brittle. Charlie lets out a long sigh. She is going too far. She doesn’t understand anything about it. He is opening his mouth to speak, to put her right, when the waiter reappears with their first course.

  Gazpacho.

  Here, says Charlie.

  He places the calamares in front of Maureen and the soup in front of Charlie. The portions look very small. Charlie stares at the waiter. Something about him – the way he carries himself, the slight moue on his lips – suggests hatred to Charlie. He studies his soup.

  Please enjoy.

  The waiter gives a small, thin smile that Charlie feels he is somehow intended to notice. He feels suddenly suspicious. He does not trust restaurants at the best of times, and has heard from Tommy, who does work for West End restaurants from time to time, that many are shockingly unhygienic, with rats, maggots and cockroaches vying for space among the fancy cheeses and caviare and all that. Charlie knew what went on.

  He studies the soup again. Maureen is already tucking into her calamares.

  Look at that, Maureen. See that?

  Charlie indicates a small north-eastern region of the soup’s surface, on which a slick of olive oil gleams.

  This is very good. I wonder if they’d give me the recipe.

  Recipe – what recipe? They stick it in a deep-fryer for five minutes. That’s the recipe. Not much of it either, is there? Have a look at this now. What do you make of this?

  What, Charlie? That bit of oil?

  It’s not oil.

  What do you mean?

  Charlie lowers his voice, looks around him as if the other Spanish customers are intent on listening in.

  He’s spat in it.

  Maureen fights back a smile. But clearly this is something Charlie needs her to take seriously.

  Do you think so? Well, you better send it back then.

  I can’t, can I?

  Why ever not? Maureen has drunk three glasses of wine now and feels unusually free to speak as she pleases. They have ordered a second bottle of wine. If the man has spat in your soup then I think it’s only fair that he should bring you another bowl.

  She finishes her last piece of squid, then takes a piece of bread.

  Don’t be stupid. He’s not going to admit it, is he?

  The waiter returns, this time bearing the second bottle of wine. Maureen looks up at him delightedly.

  My husband wants to have a word, she slurs.

  The waiter raises an eyebrow and turns to Charlie.

  Is there problem?

  Charlie shifts in his seat uncomfortably.

  No, not at all. It’s lovely.

  The waiter balefully regards the untouched soup.

  You are not hungry?

  During this phrase, he uncorks the bottle with a single, elegant gesture. Charlie, cowed once more, takes a spoonful of soup. He is convinced now that it contains sputum.

  He looks up. He thinks he sees the waiter smirk. His eye is then caught by something past his shoulder: a Spanish flag with a large, clearly visible slogan. It reads Viva Las Malvinas. This both shocks him and clinches everything for him; his suspicions coagulate into certainty. He points an accusing finger at the waiter.

  You hawked in it. You gobbed in my soup.

  The waiter takes a step back.

  I don’t understand.

  You heard me.

  You are crazy!

  You’re the one that’s crazy. We’re leaving.

  The waiter gives an indifferent shrug.

  If you wish. I will fetch the bill.

  The bill? Que? Que? Listen. You’ve been in our face all night, probably because we’re the only English in here. You’ve been taking the piss because we’ve been kicking your jacksies in the Falklands.

  Now the waiter really does spit, not in the soup, but on the floor at Charlie’s feet.

  Las Malvinas.

  The Falklands. The Falkland bloody Islands!

  The waiter reels back. Faces, nearly all of them olive-skinned, dark-haired, turn towards the table.

  We kick your bloody arse, Winston Churchill, we kick your bloody arse, Maggie Thatcher!

  Hey, Pedro. What about this?

  He gathers the words that he has seen in the newspaper this morning, tosses them like a grenade.

  Gotcha! How’d you like that, hey? Gotcha!

  The waiter turns his back in disgust.

  You don’t like it up you, do you? They don’t like it up ‘em, Maureen.

  All the customers are watching now. Charlie is pushing the table to one side. The manager is rushing over. Maureen stares down at her plate. An argument ensues. A man at the next table spits at Charlie’s feet. Charlie throws him the V-sign. Then he roughly calculates the correct amount for the bill – even in this situation, a sense of obscure rectitude controls him – peels off a couple of banknotes and throws them on the floor. Maureen begins to cry. Charlie takes her arm and steers her out of the restaurant into the night.

  On the way home, Maureen and Charlie sit silently in the front of the ailing Triumph Toledo. They are stuck in traffic. Charlie, although he has promised Maureen to stay sober, is faintly drunk.

  Maureen begins to cry again. Charlie pulls the car over to the side of the road and tries to put an arm around her. She shakes it off.

  I always thought you were different from your brother, but you’re the same. Always picking fights. Tommy, this morning. Now this waiter – on our wedding anniversary, Charlie! You’re not yourself when you’re drunk. And you’re drunk too often. You’re drunk now. I hate it.

  Charlie feels the acid of remorse in his stomach.

  I’m not like Tommy. But you’ve got to stand up for yourself. It’s self-respect.

  Maureen shakes her head, does not answer. Charlie reaches in his pocket for something.

  I’m sorry, kiddo. I’m getting to be a grouch. Got a lot on my mind. And I know I need to cut down on the drinking.

  It’s been a horrible day. Horrible, horrible, horrible.

  Charlie brings out what he has been reaching for in his pocket. It is an envelope.

  She is not prepared to forgive him in exchange for this. She knows what to expect, something bought in the last five minutes of a lunch hour on that same day.

  But the card inside is not a shop-bought one at all. Fine cream handmade paper, Charlie has laboured at it, using the print machines at work and paint he uses for his models. It has taken him days to get it right, and he has had to throw nine or ten prototypes in the bin. It is meticulous in every respect, professional.

  It depicts scenes from their life together. Their meeting at the bus stop, their wedding day, the birth of Robert – all are there in minute detail. He has finished the pictures with his railway modeller’s brush, then glazed it with varnish. He holds it tentatively out towards Maureen, frightened that she will not take it.

  I made it you. I was going to give it you after the meal.

  Maureen takes it. She examines the card, understanding slowly dawning. She is first transfixed, then amazed. The vignettes are competent, even well drawn; both she and Charlie have faces th
at are recognizable. Forgiveness spreads slowly, mysteriously, through her chest, swelling outwards to every part of her body. She feels her eyes well up for the second time that night and then throws her arms around Charlie’s neck.

  Happy anniversary, kiddo, says Charlie, grinning and flushing at the same time.

  Happy anniversary, Rock.

  The reconciliation complete, the embrace dismantled, Charlie starts to drive again. The atmosphere has cleared, but the roads are terrible. It takes them nearly an hour to get to Earls Court. Charlie looks around him at the teeming traffic, the packed houses, the swaying crowds of youths on the street. He sees two scowling young men lounging by a traffic light, decides they are up to no good, locks his door. Police sirens wail. Charlie tightens his grip on the wheel, hoping they will not stop and breathalyse him.

  Bloody London, he murmurs. You take a short cut, and end up five times further away.

  True, says Maureen.

  It’s the way the cookie crumbles, he says bitterly. The way it always bloody crumbles.

  He thinks of Tommy’s place in Theydon Bois, the wide streets of the estate, the private gates, the trees outnumbering the houses. He remembers his childhood holidays with his parents on farms in Cornwall. He thinks of bobbies and red post boxes and smiling white shopkeepers in white coats dispensing gammon and Cheddar.

  When they get home, Maureen goes straight to bed, but Charlie cannot sleep. He pours himself a large Scotch, adds a splash of Coke. He settles down in front of the TV. There are adverts on. Charlie likes the adverts more than the programmes sometimes. The beginning of this one shows a clown in red candy-stripe trousers on stilts. He has seen the ad before many times, but now he decides to concentrate. He loves this miniature film. Although he cannot say why, it produces a yearning in him.

  The clown is in a shopping centre. He is giving out red balloons to children, his hands sheathed in white gloves. He wears a tall hat with a red and white band; the red picks up the colour of the balloons. A close-up on one face, an ordinary-looking white boy with tousled brown hair and an expression of innocent longing. Accompanying the pictures, a piano puts out tendrils to find heartstrings. Charlie feels chords being struck within him.

  The boy, now with balloon, is seen walking past a group of other white children practising martial arts in neat outfits on the floor of the shopping centre. A bearded, avuncular policeman takes the scene in with a benevolent gaze.

  The camera follows the progress of the boy and his balloon through a street market. Charlie sinks another mouthful of Scotch. The boy pulls on a pair of roller-skates and begins to glide on wheels through peaceful, empty cycle paths. A bridge across a main road looks down on surging, nearly new cars, unimpeded by other traffic.

  Charlie watches as the boy glides past a group of children about the same age as himself. They attend to smart ΒMX bikes, which they mount. In the background music, strings are rising, restraining themselves, then rising to higher peaks. The boy glides past a fish and chip shop. The BMX bikes follow, through woodland and cycle paths, flanked by new houses that have been styled to look old.

  A wall is covered by graffiti, but not real graffiti – it is a careful mural that represents ‘street art’. The boy arrives home; he lives in a cottage. Charlie lights a cigarette. The BMX boys pull up outside his cottage. Charlie cannot understand why they have followed the boy, but it does not matter. They are friendly; and their pursuit is some form of tribute, not a threat.

  The boy writes something on a piece of card in a nicely furnished front room. The red balloon still hovers in the foreground. Then they are both out on the road again, going along lush country lanes. Flutes arrive on the soundtrack now, adding a touch of urgency, as the boy crosses a rustic bridge. Birds can be heard singing as the boy greets a friend who is dressed for fishing, like a character from Mark Twain, complete with angler’s hat. The boy leaves his friend, ties his balloon to a tree and skims stones across a glassy lake. The first time the ad was shown, at this point Charlie still did not know what it was that was being advertised. He had guessed bicycles.

  The film cuts to a smiling bus driver. The boy is on board the bus. It travels down empty lanes; the red balloon flutters from the window. Then the bus arrives at its destination.

  This is the bit that Charlie enjoys most, that never fails to produce in him a kind of bliss. The lone boy and balloon run up a flight of apparently freestanding stairs in what turns out to be a sports stadium of some kind. There is a heart-stopping moment when he reaches the top, and the camera sees his point of view: thousands of people, perhaps tens of thousands, and each of them holding a red balloon.

  At last we see an indicator of the product that is being sold. A sign reads The Great Milton Keynes Balloon Race’. Close-ups reveal that the clown is here. He is orchestrating a countdown – five, four, three… At zero, there is a huge cheer and everyone in the stadium lets go of their balloon.

  Charlie is on the edge of his chair, face like one of the child actors that he watches. The sky is blocked out almost completely by red balloons ascending. The faces of the children who have just released them are full of wonder. The bearded policeman gazes on, smiling. Children wearing T-shirts with corporate logos gaze skywards as the balloons fly free. Freeze-frame on the balloons and the sky. Voice-over: Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?

  Charlie is almost in tears. He sees that this city has it all – mobility and security, history and modernity, cars and bicycles, space and air. Above all, there is freedom. The balloons travel to heaven.

  Bloody London, he repeats, and switches off the television. Watches as it fades to a faintly glowing blackness.

  8

  Maureen strides nervously along the Battersea street, checking her body language for anything that might announce her as a victim. She has had a terrible outbreak of verrucas on her right foot, six or seven clustered on the ball, and the tenderness makes it hard for her to walk with confidence, assertiveness, without displaying the slight tinge of fear that she actually feels.

  But this is a journey she is determined to make, despite her discomfort. She is dressed down, in jeans and an old baggy overcoat, so she will not suggest any kind of prosperity, but she realizes that compared with the people who pass her on the street she must look well fed and comfortably off. No wonder Robert has not wanted her to visit. He knows that she will worry, and now she does, now she is worried.

  She studies the photograph that she holds in her hand again. Robert sent it to her a few weeks after he moved in. It shows a large, slightly dilapidated Victorian terraced house with a blue door. She squints to try and make out either of the two numbers on the door, thinks she sees a seven.

  She has been walking the streets around Battersea Park for more than an hour and is beginning to despair of ever finding Robert’s house. She thinks that by now the door may have been painted a different colour entirely, or that it is not in Battersea at all, that Robert is duping her.

  Then, suddenly, she sees it. Without even checking back with the photograph, she knows it is the right door. It is number 37, in the middle of a six-house terrace. The door is exactly the right blue. The arch above the door has a single plaster rose. Maureen stops, tries to take stock of it. The place is not the house of her imaginings. None of the windows are boarded up and there are no graffiti on the walls. It is certainly in a worse condition than most of the houses in the same terrace – the sills to the windows are crumbling, and there is a rusty bath in the small front garden – but on the whole it doesn’t look too bad. Reassured, Maureen takes a step towards the front path.

  She becomes aware of music coming from the interior, something vaguely familiar although she cannot put a name to it. It is loud, repetitive, urgent. The singer shouts, accuses, bellows. Music now is all made out of anger. Maureen cannot understand it.

  She makes it on to the front porch and examines the front door for a knocker or bell, but there is neither. She pushes at the door. It i
s locked. The music continues, louder even than before. Taking a deep breath, she starts to pound on the front door with the smallness of her fist, but the noise she manages to generate seems pathetic. No one comes to answer.

  She thinks of tapping on the window, but there is a basement to the house and it is impossible to reach the ground-floor window as there is a drop beneath the sills of about fifteen feet. The stairs down to the basement look filthy and dangerous. Maureen calculates, then removes her right shoe, holds it firmly by the toe end and begins hammering on the door.

  This time the result is much more satisfactory. The music suddenly reduces in intensity. She hears a footstep approach. She prepares herself for Robert’s reaction, whatever it is. But it is not Robert who opens the door, it is Carol. Both women stare at each other blankly.

  Now Maureen understands why the music seems so familiar. She realizes that it is a record Carol has been playing incessantly back at Ramsay MacDonald House for much of the previous week. At one point she was driven to complain, and Carol very sweetly apologized and turned the music right down. She likes Carol, so she finds herself smiling and is the first one to break the silence.

  Well, look who’s here, is all she can think to say.

  It’s me all right, says Carol, apparently equally dumbstruck.

  There is a footfall on the stairs behind Carol. Maureen looks up, sees Robert wearing a dark blue security uniform with a badge marked ‘Tesco’ above the right-hand pocket. He is holding a baby’s bottle in his left hand. Now the music has quietened down, Maureen becomes aware of the sound of a baby crying from somewhere in the house.

  Oh, fuck, says Robert.

  The bottle loosens in his hand, begins to drip milk gently on the uncarpeted floorboards.

  The four of them sit in the kitchen. It is a nice kitchen, thinks Maureen, airy and spacious. She holds a freshly made cup of tea. She is surprised at how calm she feels. Carol is holding the baby over her shoulder, purring to him.

 
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