Rumours of a hurricane, p.19
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.19

           Tim Lott

  Charlie shakes his head. He has heard from Maureen that Robert is working at Tesco. His son could have been a craftsman.

  Is this a card game or is this not a card game? says Tommy. Let’s rock and roll. Let’s shoot that shit.

  He sees himself as American when he is gambling, a pistol in his pocket, heroic and unafraid of danger.

  Let’s go for stud, says Charlie.

  All righty, says Robert. He counts his pile. He is down £6.50.

  Stud it is, then, says Tommy briskly.

  He empties another can of beer, lights another cigar. Mike Sunderland looks at him in awe, the tattoos on his knuckles, the red flayed face. The real thing, pure and unsullied.

  Tommy is as reckless at stud as he has been at pontoon, but he has a little more luck this time. Also he is good at bluffing and raises the stakes so high everyone is afraid to match them, apart from Mike, who calculates effortlessly, who is in fact a practised poker player. Tommy makes £20. Mike’s luck is not good, but his tactics are flawless. He and Tommy both emerge as winners; Robert loses out again, and Charlie is slightly down after pushing three of a kind too far against Mike’s full house. Lloyd does not like stud, and coasts through it, keeping the betting low. He comes out slightly down, but with enough resources to attack the final game, shoot, which begins at the end of the second hour.

  Now this is where the drama begins, says Tommy. This is when we talk the turkey.

  I don’t think I know this, says Mike.

  Very, very simple, even for a mug like you, says Tommy.

  Mike glows, pleased that he has been accepted enough to attract friendly abuse, to be included in the banter.

  Everyone puts a five spot in the kitty, says Charlie. Then all you do is deal out two cards face up to everyone. Then you have to gamble on whether the next card dealt is going to be in between the two cards.

  So what if I get a five and a seven? says Mike.

  Minimum bet is £1.

  I’ve got to bet £1 even if there’s only one card I can win on?

  That’s it. Even if you can’t win, you got to bet, even if you got two cards the same, you got to bet. That’s how the kitty builds up. And you can only bet as much as is in the kitty.

  So the best hand is, what, an ace and a two, or a king and a two?

  That’s it. But if you shoot for the pot and the card that comes up matches one of your cards, you pay in double.

  Mike nods.

  So if I had a king and a two, and there was £50 in the pot and I shot for it all, I would have to put £100 in if a king or a two came up.

  Bingo, says Lloyd.

  Communism in action, says Charlie.

  For the first half-hour, the game is uninteresting. The pot never builds up beyond £20 or so and every attempt to shoot it is successful. But then Robert shoots at a £25 pot with a jack and a three.

  Go for it, Rob, urges Charlie. You can buy me that steam engine at last.

  But he gets dealt a jack. Right away, £75 in the pot. Robert looks sick. A few hands later, Mike Sunderland gets dealt king-two. He hums and haws, wants to show himself a man in front of the boys. He shoots the pot. There is a gasp from all of them; it is a king. Mike blinks.

  Bloody hell.

  He hadn’t anticipated losing more than £50. Now he has to put in £170. Suddenly there is about £255 in the pot. It is the biggest any of them can remember it making.

  The atmosphere in the game has changed now. From being a lark, a bit of fun, it has become deadly serious. The pot gets chipped away at, Lloyd betting £50 on a queen-two, Robert putting thirty on a queen-three. But then Tommy draws a king against his king-four and his bet of £75 gets doubled into the pot. Now there is more than £300 in there.

  Then Charlie gets dealt an ace-deuce. Next to him, on his left, Tommy gets a king-deuce. The atmosphere sharpens, closes in. The deal comes round to Charlie again.

  Shoot it, Charlie! says Lloyd.

  He won’t do it, says Robert flatly.

  Charlie studies the cards as if they will give up some secret. He glances at Robert, registers something obscurely, that this is important beyond the card game itself. Tommy is grinning, confident. Charlie looks around, thinks about which cards in the pack can beat him. Two of the deuces have gone. Lloyd has been dealt another ace, matched with a queen; no good to him, but eliminates another potential enemy. There are only four cards in the pack that can take him down. Four cards out of… what… he finds it hard to think… forty-three, forty-two. Four cards out of forty-two. Good odds. Very good odds. But he is afraid. To lose means he has to put more than £600 in the pot. It is an enormous amount of money. It is a decent second-hand car, it is a fortnight’s holiday in Malta in a decent hotel with Maureen. Maureen would hit the flaming roof. He is frightened.

  I haven’t got the stomach, says Charlie.

  He looks at Tommy’s cards. He knows that Tommy will shoot for it. He senses that Tommy will win too. He glances again at Robert, expecting disdain to be registering in his face. But Robert looks worried.

  Don’t do it, Dad. It doesn’t matter, he says quietly.

  Come on, Charlie, says Tommy, himself sweating slightly. You never take any chances. Life’s a gamble.

  I think maybe we should just pack it up, split the pot and go home, says Lloyd.

  Yeah, says Robert. Maybe Lloyd is right.

  Don’t be a sissy! bellows Tommy. Go for it, Charlie. Shoot the fucking pot. Shoot it down in flames. There’s only three cards in there that can take you out. Show us what you’re made of.

  Charlie fidgets again. His whole nature militates against the play, but four cards… only four cards. To walk away with £300. To show Robert that he is fearless. To show Tommy and Snowball that he has enough bottle to open an off-licence.

  Maybe I’ll take £50, he says tentatively.

  Tommy groans.

  I’m going to take that pot, big brother. I’m going to fucking take it. I fancy it, I double fancy it. And I’m going to take it. Because I got the big fat hairy balls to. You poof.

  OK, shoot! says Charlie suddenly.

  Mike Sunderland makes a movement to deal the card.

  No! says Charlie. Let me think a moment more.

  He stops, his hand on the card. But there is nothing to think about any more. The odds have been calculated. The potential profits and losses are clear. There is only courage left. He feels the eyes of Robert on him, both wanting him and not wanting him to do it. Most of all, he feels Tommy mocking him, as ever disdaining his caution. He wants to do it. He wants to break the spell of his life, marshalling chances, job for life, always watching the rear-view mirror. Trains on tracks.

  There is silence. He takes one last look at the deck of cards, as if it can reveal to him the card underneath with sufficient scrutiny. Then, softly this time, but his voice charged with a mixture of determination and resignation, he speaks.

  OK. Shoot it.

  You sure?

  Shoot it.

  The card turns slowly up. Charlie swallows. His throat is dry. No one is moving. The kitty is piled in the middle, a mound of notes and coins that practically spreads to the edges of the table.

  Eight of diamonds.

  There is a sudden cacophony of voices, a charge of released tension.

  Old Charlie Buck, says Lloyd in a singsong voice. He gets all the luck.

  I bet he drinks Carling Black Label! yells Robert, punching the air.

  Balls like watermelons, shouts Tommy, slapping his big brother on the back.

  Well done, Charlie, says Mike Sunderland, smiling, delighted at the authenticity of it all, despite his loss. Balls like watermelons.

  Charlie sits there amazed, guilty at taking this money from his friends, from his family, but astonished that he was capable of taking the chance, and, having taken it, being rewarded. Not just the game but life itself suddenly seems cast in a different light. Tommy was right, is right, has always been right. He is too cautious. He pulls the money towards
him in a daze. Although all of the faces around him must hide disappointment – it is their money he is taking – he sees nothing but admiration and a kind of delight. Winners are loved; this truth begins to dawn on him. He wants to win again.

  Charlie Buck suddenly feels that he wants to win for ever


  New Town


  1984. Orwell’s year of communist nightmare. Charlie once read a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the book, thought it was over the top. And so it proves.

  Charlie and Maureen are approaching junction 14 of the MI. The Triumph Toledo has been replaced by an Austin Mini Metro, this time only five years old. The boot and the back of the car are packed with suitcases. Charlie can hardly see behind him in the rear-view mirror. The stream of traffic carries them, steel flotsam, until they take the turn-off marked Milton Keynes.

  Charlie considers only a few days in his life to have been extraordinary. His first day in the army, his first job, his wedding, the arrival in the new council flat with Maureen after Robert was born. Each seemed too large to imagine as he was experiencing it, its true scale becoming apparent only looking behind him – a rear-view mirror unobscured by baggage.

  But on this day a genuine sense of new beginning seems to shine, for behind each landscaped hedgerow, each flower bed on each of the seemingly endless roundabouts as they approach their destination, some two miles away from central Milton Keynes, in an estate near the array of concrete cows that is the town’s only famous landmark. Charlie reflects that, as Tommy has always protested, he has been too cautious with his life. Today, choice seems to spread out magically in all directions, in three dimensions, and with it, beckoning, benign consequences. For once Charlie does not find this disturbing but invigorating.

  The drive is dreamlike, as it had been the first time they came to search for property here. Charlie liked the architecture of the place; everything new, but designed to imply the past. Countryside, but not the frightening solitude of real countryside. Cars that could move, air that could be breathed without choking. A decent space between everyone. Privacy.

  It was not, he knew, the paradise shown in the ads – Charlie and Maureen were too long in the tooth to believe in places like paradise, too many rings under their bark to believe in advertisements. But nevertheless, it was closer to paradise by a country mile than Ramsay MacDonald House, SW6.

  Here there are shops increasingly full of wider and wider varieties of… stuff, all sorts of stuff, stuff nobody had thought possible when they were growing up. Here they would live, not in a council flat, not even in a private flat in a council block, but amid fresh air and open spaces, in a detached house, and with other pioneers like them; others who owned their own property, who had means, gumption, get up and go. Get up and go was what Tommy always said he’d never had. Now he was proving him wrong. He had got up and, Jesus God Almighty, he had gone.

  They’d made a packet on the flat. Fulham, to his amazement, had become what some people now thought of as fashionable. Shit had turned to gold. They’d cleared about £15,000 on the place. The figures had sat like miracles in his bank account for a few magical hours as the bridging period was crossed. He had never imagined that someone like him could have so much money. He noted down these five digits, stared at them; if he could understand their secret, he felt that a world of endless possibility would somehow be revealed.

  Their detached three-bedroom house has cost them £41,000. It’s a lot of money – a lot of money. But the beauty is, the money is still there, as Charlie sees it, dissolved into the mortar, soaked into the red of the bricks. It is like fissionable material. Energy can be extracted from it.

  After a lot of thought, they go for an endowment mortgage rather than repayment. Tommy has a policy, swears by it. Their financial adviser – Charlie and Maureen can hardly believe they even have such a thing – is a nice man, sincere. He came to Ramsay MacDonald House, he drank their tea and ate two Digestive biscuits. Cleared up the crumbs afterwards and put them in the bin. He was even-handed about it all, but came down on the side of the endowment, because it was sure to leave them with a pretty penny on top at the end of the day when the mortgage was paid off. More money for nothing, a prize for simply joining in this wonderful new game.

  The grid roads are named alphabetically and numerically. They travel along V11, then H5, get lost somewhere between H4 and V9. The roundabouts seem to be ubiquitous. They drive past the peace pagoda; there is a settlement of Buddhist monks here.

  Well, says Charlie, it’s a spiritual place. You can feel it.

  The wide spaces open up the sky. Today a wind is blowing. No pedestrians can be seen. The city is invisible.

  Robert was supposed to be following them in Tommy’s builder’s van, bringing most of the remainder of their possessions. They lost him somewhere around Hanger Lane but expect he’ll find his own way.

  Maureen is the doubter in this project. Charlie, having made the leap away from a lifelong caution in his own mind, having felt the touch of gloss paint on the door of what was once council property, has discovered the passion of the newly converted. He is not to be left behind, not here at the crest of the 1980s. He may be a fuddy-duddy, he decides, but he’s no fool.

  Charlie has a secret. He voted for Margaret Thatcher in the last election, following her triumph over the Argie menace. It made the Prime Minister swell in Charlie’s imagination, it made him respect her. And there was more money appearing in his pay packet as income tax shrank, and he was sick anyway of the loony lefties, and although Foot was now gone Kinnock was a windbag and, worse still, he was Welsh, a bloody troll. It wasn’t the Labour Party he used to vote for. Anyway, Charlie figures, he can always come back to the fold.

  In the meantime, not a soul knows of his conversion. He is part of a large secret community: the Labour-supporting Tory voters. Tommy, who is open in his admiration of Thatcher, suspects as much, but nothing he can say will extract the admission from his older brother.

  But it’s clear to Charlie that Maureen does not understand or appreciate this new Britain. It takes all his powers of persuasion to get her to shift up to MK. At first she had said no. However, in ‘81 she had wanted to stop Charlie buying the council flat for fear of debt. But Charlie talked her into it, and her astonishment at the quick profit they subsequently turned has shaken her confidence in her own judgement, edged her closer to Charlie’s point of view. They had doubled their savings without any work being done. It was extraordinary, money for nothing. It went against some inherited, deep-rooted idea of how the universe worked, but there it was all the same. Charlie promised her more where that came from. Tommy had never had so much work, had bought himself a five-series BMW, could you believe it? He said that there were good times ahead for property. They could move up and up.

  Still, Maureen proved hard to convince. She hadn’t wanted to leave her friends at Divine Creations, at her evening classes, at the local shops. She didn’t want to leave Carol and Mrs Jackson. She had her little jobs that brought in a tidy sum. The fear of debt that Charlie is beginning to shake off, to triumph over, continues to haunt her. She cannot drive.

  She didn’t want to be so far from Robert. But Robert has promised to come and visit regularly, just as soon as he finishes training in his mysterious new job. Maureen has warned Charlie to expect an announcement about Robert, good news by all accounts. Charlie finds it hard to believe. Maybe his son has been kicked upstairs to Sainsbury’s, he muses bitterly.

  Charlie has talked it all up. She could learn to drive; they would borrow the money to buy a second car. She would love the vast new shopping centre in MK. She could shop, not for bread and potatoes and kitchen flannels, but for the good things in life. She could shop for pleasure. Charlie has made a bargain with her that if she goes along with the plan, she would have not only a beautiful home but one full of beautiful things. He harangued, he cajoled and, above all, he bribed. Maureen wanted to carry on working, maybe even studying h
er accountancy. Charlie said that the Open University was right there in Milton Keynes, that she could study all that stuff to her heart’s content. Secretly he thought it was all a waste of time, a hobby, but still. She could shop, and study, and all in a place that was as near as damn it countryside.

  Finally Maureen gave in. She, too, was hearing stories, of friends from school, a friend who once worked in Woolworths, living in places not far off palaces. Places that were always rising in value, that had £10,000 kitchens. She has heard of acquaintances married to plumbers who were driving Mercedes. Rumour states that anything is starting to be possible. And Charlie has prised her caution off her, with the jemmy of his will, just as he has blown the caution off himself with the packed breath of envy for his brother. Envy: there is such energy there; if you could package it, you could light the country. And in a thousand homes, in a hundred towns, the same thing was happening. Money was there for the taking. You just had to have the courage, the nous, to reach out and take it. And you had to get ahead, or the lives of those around you would mock you.

  They turn off one of the endless roundabouts. First, second, third on the right. Suddenly Charlie stops the car. He is studying something out of Maureen’s sight.

  What are you doing, Charlie? says Maureen.

  I want to see the cows.

  Then he is out and standing by the fence, looking at the famous sculpture. He is disappointed. There are only six cows, smaller than he expected and crude in execution. They are black-and-white friesians. Three are calves, one of which is half spread-eagled, as if invisible weights bear down upon it. Its concrete mother looks back at it dumbly. Cows four to six either gaze at nothing or nose at scrubby grass.

  They’re a bit rubbish, aren’t they? says Charlie.

  Oh, I don’t know, says Maureen.

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