Rumours of a hurricane, p.18
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.18

           Tim Lott
 

  Shh, Charlie.

  Maureen smiles. Within her, a battlefield of competing, cataclysmic sentiment, and each separate emotion battles for dominance. The anger, at the moment, is crushed beneath the weight of Maureen’s tenderness. She holds out her arms to the baby.

  Can I hold him?

  Of course. Of course you can.

  Maureen holds the child, the child she has seen dozens of times before, in its pram, on the stairwells, at the shops. In front of her, Carol has always called him Chucky. How can she have been so stupid not to have made the connection.

  I have to go to work in a minute, Mum.

  What’s your father going to say, Robert?

  He’s going to go mad. Please don’t tell him.

  How can I not tell him? I see Carol nearly every day. I see his grandchild nearly every day.

  Robert’s face sets in a determined grimace. Maureen recognizes that expression. It is inherited from her and so she knows how pointless arguing is. Robert sits on the chair opposite his mother.

  You mustn’t tell him. Carol’s moving in here next week, so it won’t be such a big deal.

  Won’t be a big deal!. He’s got a grandson and it’s not a big deal!

  You don’t understand, Mum! Dad already thinks I’m the flop of the century. This’ll be the last straw for him. I just want… I just want…

  It’s wrong, Robert, it’s plain wrong. How can I keep a secret like that?

  I just want him to know that I’m not worthless. That I’m not just working as a stinking security guard in Tesco, living in a squat with a six-month-old kid. I want to do the right thing, Mum. I just haven’t had time to do it yet. I haven’t had time to find out what it is yet. Give me some time to sort things out, to get myself on my feet. When he finds out about this, I want him to be happy, not furious.

  But what are you going to do, Robert?

  Robert looks suddenly crestfallen.

  I don’t know. Something. There’s no jobs anywhere. The jobs there are – they’re rubbish for people with my qualifications. Or lack of them.

  You’re a clever boy. If you’d tried harder…

  If this, if that, if the other. This is how it is, and I’ve got to solve it the way it is.

  You need to get in touch with your father. We haven’t heard hide nor hair from you for months.

  Robert bites his lip till the flesh turns white.

  Come on, Rob. You keep telling me you want to face up to things. If you want me to keep quiet about this, you’ve got to make an effort.

  Hmm.

  Look. What about going to one of your dad’s card games? As a first step. I mentioned it to him not so long ago.

  And what did he say?

  Nothing.

  Right.

  But I know he’d like to see you.

  What am I going to gamble with, Mum? You don’t get much spare cash out of security guard work.

  Maureen reaches past the baby for her purse. Robert starts shaking his head.

  No, Mum. I’m trying to stand on my own two feet.

  Don’t be silly. This isn’t about you buying a motorbike. This is about you making friends with your dad. Take it. Lose it. Lose it to your dad, if you can. Take the first steps. Then…

  Robert looks up, pleading.

  Then I’ll do what you want, says Maureen quietly.

  Carol comes over, puts a hand on Robert’s shoulder, toys with the nylon epaulette of his uniform.

  Take the money, Rob, says Carol.

  Robert takes three £20 notes from his mother’s hand, brushing against her fingers. Carol reaches over and tickles the gurgling infant.

  Robert’s a good man, Mrs Buck.

  You’d best call me Maureen now.

  Maureen. A lot of blokes would have just pissed off. I mean, it’s not that we love eacsh other. We’re just mates, really, and it… it happened. But he knows that Charlie is his, as well as mine. And I know it too, which is why we called him after his grandfather. Robert’s all right. He’s not… Yosser Hughes. He’ll get a job, a good job. He just doesn’t know which one yet.

  Maureen shifts position with the baby, cradles him now in her arms, looks down into the moon of his face.

  I could speak to your Uncle Tommy. He knows people.

  The wrong sort of people. I’ve spoken to him too.

  You didn’t tell him about the baby, did you?

  No, of course not. Strictly about a job. Tried to get me to go and work on the building site. But I don’t want to be a bloody hod-carrier. All the same…

  What?

  All the same… he did have one good idea. Nothing to do with the building trade. Totally legit. I might take him up on it. I really might. Good wages and getting better all the time. Respectable. Opportunities for promotion.

  Sounds terrific, says Maureen.

  Not that terrific, says Carol archly.

  A hot evening, late August, Tommy’s house in Theydon Bois. Tommy, Charlie and Mike are sat around a table.

  Tommy is shuffling cards. Hooked on Classics by the Royal Philharmonic is on the turntable. Mike Sunderland is excited by the pronounced ordinariness of the surroundings. There are beers on the table and cigarettes. Cheese and onion crisps, Twiglets, silverskin onions on cocktail sticks. Already the ashtrays overflow and the room is softened into a deep fug. Lorraine is on a girls’ night out at a wine bar Up West.

  This mate of yours, handy, is he? says Tommy. He divides the pack into two, expertly flicks one stack into the other. Bit of a fucking sharpie?

  Snowy? He’s not a mug, but he’s not all that good, says Charlie. He’s lucky, though. He gets the luck every stime. I don’t know how he does it. It kills me, the luck that man has. You know, he doesn’t play the odds, he kind of spots runs of luck, rides on their coat tails. It’s black magic.

  Tommy turns to Mike, who is quietly making a roll-up.

  You play much cards, Mick?

  Oh, I don’t know. I used to play a little duplicate bridge from time to time.

  Tommy laughs.

  That’s not fucking cards. That’s old ladies waiting to die.

  You’d be surprised. It’s quite intellectually challenging.

  Oh, la-de-da, pass the fucking champers, Maud. All your mates at work like this, are they, Charlie? Christ, if I had my head that far up my arse I’d be able to whistle Dixie with my farts.

  Mike stops rolling his cigarette, looks suddenly taken aback.

  Don’t mind Tommy, Mike. He’s never quite got the hang of manners.

  Nah, don’t you worry about me, Mickey boy. I couldn’t care less where you come from, Hoxford or bloody old Cambridge, wot wot, so long as you bring your money. That’s what we’re here for. A bit of moving and shaking, a bit of the old fucking redistribution of wealth.

  Tommy takes a big pile of fivers bound by an elastic band and slaps them on the table.

  So, take that fucking plum out of your north and south and show us the size of your wad.

  Mike nods, removes a small wallet from his inside pocket, and takes out four £50 notes, places them on the table opposite Tommy’s.

  I hope that’s sufficient, he says quietly.

  That’s sufficient, yeah, that’s sufficient, snorts Tommy. That’ll pay for a bottle of Bolly or two, wot wot, that’ll pay for a new cigar lighter on the old Bugatti.

  The doorbell rings. Tommy gets up to answer it, wobbles violently all the way there. Mike is pulling furiously at his cigarette and is already making a new one as the old one expires.

  You all right, Mike?

  Well, to he honest, Charlie, I feel a hit nervous for some reason.

  Don’t mind my brother. His bark’s much worse than his bite.

  Tommy wobbles back into the room. Staring for the umpteenth time at the clear red mark that resembles the imprint of a set of teeth on Tommy’s cheek, Mike finds this hard to credit. Tommy has his huge arm around Robert’s shoulder and is squeezing him.

  That lanky streak of ginger piss
is here. Hope he’s brought money and not fucking buttons. And tell him we don’t cash cheques from the Social here.

  Tommy laughs uproariously at his own joke, chucks Robert’s cheek. Robert grins weakly. To Charlie’s surprise, he is wearing a suit, has a scrubbed face and short, carefully cut hair. He looks vulnerable, extraordinarily young. Charlie suddenly finds himself unsure what to do it’s such a long while since he’s seen him. He has an impulse to jump out of the chair and embrace his son. But habit and pride get the better of him. He raises a hand in acknowledgement, stays where he is.

  Hello, Dad.

  Hello, Robert.

  There is an awkward silence. Mike gives a small cough.

  Robert this is Mike Sunderland. He’s a sub-editor on the newspaper.

  Mike rises, holds out his hand.

  Very pleased to meet you.

  Behind Mike’s back, Tommy puts his hand on his hip, goes camp and mimes very pleased to meet you.

  Robert ignores him, smiles at Mike, shakes his hand.

  You too.

  He sits down. Then he gets up again, removes his coat, looks round for somewhere to put it and, seeing nowhere, puts it on the back of his chair. He sits down again, then spots a coat-stand on the far side of the room and gets up once more.

  Fuck me, it’s Zebedee, says Tommy. Do you want a drink, you ginger nut?

  A beer would be good, Uncle Tom.

  What about you, Mikey boy? Gin fizz? Babycham? A spot of the old shampoo?

  I’ll have a beer too, thanks.

  Tommy walks over towards the kitchen.

  You all right, Dad?

  Robert is sitting in the chair opposite his father. The table is oval and he sits at the point of the oval, the largest distance possible.

  I’m fine, Robert. It’s… He hesitates. It’s nice to see you.

  Nice to see you too, Dad.

  Where the fuck is this other stooge of yours? says Tommy, returning with the drinks. I’m not here for a getting-to-know-you event. Let’s do this. Five more minutes, we’ll start without what’s his-name, Snowflake. How did he get a silly fucking name like that anyway?

  He’ll be here, says Charlie.

  Right on cue, there is a buzz on the doorbell. This time Charlie goes to open it. It is Lloyd, smartly dressed in a dark blue raincoat, and a yellow shirt with a sky-blue tie. He is breathing heavily.

  Sorry, Charlie. Bloody buses.

  You should get a taxi.

  Not on my wage.

  Come in, Snowy. Let me take your coat.

  Lloyd removes the coat, to reveal a very low-waisted jacket with padded shoulders and peg-top trousers with slit pockets. He looks flashy, smart.

  Snazzy.

  You won’t believe this, bwoy. This is the suit I wore when I first came over here. Look! Still fits me perfectly. Ain’t I pretty?

  You’re pretty all right. You’re a doll. Snowy, meet my brother, Tommy.

  Tommy, who is fumbling with ice from the ice bucket to put in his double Scotch, looks up. Charlie notices a kind of freezing of his stance. Lloyd strides over, holds out his hand.

  Nice to meet you.

  Tommy doesn’t move. Finally speaks.

  Nah, better not. Hands wet.

  Then he heads back to the kitchen. Unfazed, Lloyd turns to the table where the other men sit.

  Hello, Robert. My, you’ve grown. You was just a nipper last time I saw you. Now look at you. And you don’t end up ugly like your father neither.

  Thanks, Lloyd.

  Do you want a drink, Snowy? says Charlie.

  Do I? says Lloyd. Rum and blackcurrant.

  Charlie shouts through to Tommy in the kitchen.

  Tommy, get Snowy a drink.

  There is a silence. Then Tommy comes back into the room, carrying more snacks – Hula Hoops and peanuts.

  Where’s Snowy’s drink? says Charlie.

  Did he want a drink? I didn’t hear nothing.

  Tommy sits down on the opposite side of the table to Lloyd. Charlie sighs, goes into the kitchen and returns with a drink for Lloyd. Hooked on Classics fills the brief silence in the room.

  What’s this mush? says Robert.

  Music with a bit of melody. What’s wrong with that? says Charlie.

  I pity the fool, says Robert.

  He likes to watch Mr T in the A Team, whose catchphrase this is.

  Robert goes over to the record player, takes off Hooked on Classics and puts on a record from his bag. He turns up the volume. Spraying guitars invade the room.

  A chorus sounds.

  Jesus God Almighty… What is this? says Charlie.

  Anti Nowhere League, says Robert, nodding his head to the sound.

  Rubbish, says Charlie.

  It’s got fantastic… energy, says Mike Sunderland eagerly.

  Punk filth, says Charlie.

  I like it, says Tommy. It’s like… it makes you want to fucking chin someone.

  Oh, God, says Charlie.

  Anyway, it’s not punk. It’s Oi.

  Oi? says Tommy.

  Oi, says Robert. As in OI!

  Tommy laughs. Charlie gets up, pushes past Robert and takes the single off. He replaces it with Mel Tormé.

  Bloody commotion.

  Tommy shuffles.

  Nice place you got here, says Lloyd to Tommy.

  What’s it to be then? says Tommy curtly.

  What about Chase the Ace? says Robert.

  Charlie shakes his head.

  It’s a kid’s game, Robert. We’re not at a Christmas party now.

  Cool Hand Luke, says Lloyd, sucking at his teeth.

  What’s Chase the Ace? says Mike brightly.

  Like I say, it’s a kid’s game, says Charlie firmly. What about pontoon first?

  What do you usually play? says Mike. He is the solicitous head teacher at the sixth-form party.

  Pontoon. Shoot. Stud poker. Sometimes a little gin.

  Let’s go for poker. Let’s go for broke-a, says Tommy, grinning like a lizard.

  He feels himself taking on a role, the chancer, the all-or-bust man. This is how he is in cards. Charlie is always more cautious, rations his bets, plays the odds, never wins or loses much.

  Pontoon first, says Charlie.

  Twenty-one it is, says Lloyd. Let’s have a lickle tickle.

  OK, says Robert.

  He has taken his wallet out and is counting four £5 notes on to the table. There is a big bowl of change in the middle.

  Is that the same as blackjack? You know, vingt-un, says Mike.

  Charlie inspects Mike’s pile of £50 notes. He wonders why Mike always dresses so badly when he is clearly so prosperous. He pronounces vingt-un in an aggressively authentic French accent. Charlie bridles slightly.

  Pontoon is pontoon. No sticking on fifteen. Split and burn. Split any card. Burn on 14. You can buy the bank, otherwise we cut for it. Pontoon takes the bank. Minimum bet 50p.

  I think I get the idea, says Mike, converting one £50 note into change.

  One other thing you need to know, says Charlie.

  What’s that? says Mike.

  Snowball uses voodoo.

  Lloyd grins, showing teeth discoloured by the thickness of the blackcurrant cordial.

  Just good play, bwoy.

  Robert lights a cigar, feels good. Everything is fresh, no luck has played itself out yet. Lloyd gives a private smile.

  Pontoon takes up the first hour of the evening. Robert takes the bank; the other players have to beat his hand. As predicted, Lloyd is lucky, pulling in around £30 over the period. Tommy is reckless and unpredictable, throwing large sums at mediocre cards. But he enjoys the drama, doesn’t mind losing £20 at a pop. Mike Sunderland plays textbook: moderate bets on most cards, high bets on good, a bit of instinct, a bit of luck. Comes out on top. But Charlie plays as he always plays: cautious, marshalling resources, careful, fearful of loss, watching odds, not believing in runs. He always places the minimum bet unless the odds are heavily in his favour, t
hen he always bets the same: a £5 note, which pays him back, in the long run, more often than not. At the end of the game, he has slightly more than he had when he started.

  Doesn’t look like it’s going to be your day, says Charlie to Tommy, eyeing his shrinking pile, which Tommy now tops up by converting another note into change.

  You are the most boring fucking card player I have ever seen, says Tommy gruffly. At least I have a bit of fun. You got to take a few risks in life.

  This isn’t life, says Charlie. It’s cards.

  Same thing, says Tommy.

  Ain’t it true? says Lloyd. He has taken out a toothpick and is gouging at a crushed Twiglet near the base of a molar.

  What? says Robert.

  It’s true, ain’t it? says Lloyd. Your pops plays at cards like everything. No unnecessary risk.

  I can take chances, says Charlie, obscurely hurt. I’m just not silly about it.

  If you aks me, says Lloyd, you’re a pussy.

  Unusually, Tommy makes some kind of response to something that Lloyd has said. He gives a small, dry laugh.

  A little bit short in the bottle department, you might say, says Tommy.

  I got all the bottle I need, says Charlie, throwing a glance at Tommy.

  There is an awkward silence. Charlie starts swiftly dealing out cards.

  So, your father tells me you’re trying hard to find a job, says Mike.

  Yeah, says Robert, staring at the pack of cards.

  Mike shakes his head in apparent despair.

  It’s appalling out there. The unemployment. It’s a deliberate policy, you know. To drive down wage costs. The government wants high unemployment. It weakens the unions, it drives down wages.

  Right, says Robert, picking up his cards.

  Have you had any luck finding anything at all? says Mike earnestly.

  I’ve got a few things on the boil, says Robert.

  He catches a sceptical expression on his father’s face, feels suddenly enraged.

  I’m in training right now, as a matter of fact.

  Really, says Mike. In what?

  The security profession, says Robert.

  That’s the place to be, says Tommy. It’s like the filth, only private. It’s the future, private prisons, private screws, private fucking army. That’s a proper job. You can crack a few heads. When I used to be a copper, it got so that you couldn’t even give some hooligan a slap without some fucking social worker calling you to book. What a load of bollocks.

 
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