Rumours of a hurricane, p.2
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.2

           Tim Lott
 
No donations. The beating heart, the grey filter of kidneys, the soft sponge of lung are always too hardened, too softened, too punctured and fatty and gristled. And the liver of course… No. These are not prime cuts. No patient, even a dying, desperate, breathless, dialysis-tethered one, would embrace such maimed offerings.

  The journey to the hospital is uneventful. In the wake of the ambulance, a few of the abandoned pedestrians are still staring at the brown penumbra of blood, are still guiltily enjoying the excitement. The paramedics are thinking about how long is left on their shift. The man on the stretcher is delirious. His thoughts are like scattered, broken glass, each containing a reflection connected, yet unconnectable, with a larger picture. He thinks of a wide boulevard dotted with yew trees. He thinks of a woman with auburn hair removing a plucked and trussed bird from a microwave oven. She is smiling, but unhappy. He thinks of an overheated room and a barometer shaped like a Spanish guitar. He hears the sound of cascading orchestral strings.

  At the hospital doctors and nurses crowd around him as he is unloaded. Something in him is grateful for the attention, even flattered by it. He thought he had forgone such privileges long ago. Injury is elevating. People grant you respect.

  Soon after the unloading, the man loses consciousness. He has been given a general anaesthetic. The surgeon, a cynical, hunched-over sexagenarian with a hatred of life that has somehow been generated by its endless sluicing through his hands, can hardly find the wherewithal to operate. He has taken his saviour’s knife to too many street roughs and drunks and hopeless cases with their ruined insides, keeping him from spending valuable time on those he thinks of as more valuable people, those he believes misfortune, rather than personal weakness, has laid low. He hates what he tries to save; a futile drain on resources.

  He immediately forms the conclusion that this man is probably going to die. The vital functions are too far gone. It is a waste of time. He removes what is left of the leg, out of a sense of propriety and tidiness. Then he closes the man up again, half hoping for a flat line there and then on the screen. But a weak pulse continues producing its sharp green hills. Another misuse of a hospital bed.

  The man is moved to the intensive-care ward. Although he has a National Insurance card identifying him as Charles William Buck, no relatives can be traced. An old digital watch, newly smashed, is removed from his wrist. On the back it bears the inscription ‘From Mo to “Rock”‘.

  There is no money in the pocket of his wallet. The only content is a torn and yellowed newspaper cutting, an old obituary. The headline reads ‘Goodbye, Mr Music’. The orderly who is responsible for these matters, thinking it worthless, throws it in the rubbish bin alongside a batch of used dressings.

  No one is there to watch this stricken coda to the life of Charles William Buck. Or almost no one. There are professional carers who visit the ward, death angels. They are predominantly women acting out of mixed motives. To comfort the dying, but to comfort themselves, who are also dying, at a more sedate pace. They look for a way of believing themselves good. They look for a way of being useful in their middle years, now that the children have left home and are off to university, or in their first year in respectable jobs. They flit from bed to bed, seeking out misery to alleviate, consciousness that can be fleetingly connected with.

  One of them stands by the bed of Charlie Buck. There is a radio playing in the room. It is broadcasting a speech by the Prime Minister, John Major, who is making a national address in order to prepare the nation for war in the Gulf. The woman, who is fifty-three, the wife of a circuit court judge, has regretful, unfocused eyes. She sits on the bed. The man, who is on a ventilator, seems to exist merely as an extension of a network of clear tubes removing and supplying various kinds of fluid to what is left of him.

  The woman talks to the mutilated contour under the blanket, his face distorted by the tubes and by the sad encrustations of his sixty-one years of lived life. She knows from the wreckage of the parts of his face that remain uninjured that he is a drunk.

  She is puzzled by grief and madness. She has completed courses in counselling, she has sat in on dozens of sessions with weathered, slightly embarrassed men and woman declaring their names and their afflictions: I am an alcoholic, I am a drug addict, I am my illness.

  Charles Buck, she says, in a voice so soft that she imagines even a fully conscious patient would not be able to hear her. May I call you Charlie?

  She waits for a few seconds, imagines a reply.

  What happened, Charlie?

  She thinks: he was a child once, running to the corner shop for sweets, hugging his mother’s knees. The thought makes her want to cry. She is sentimental. Emotion is part of her income for attending here. It is a kind of recreation.

  To her surprise the man in the bed seems to show a response. It is as if he is attempting to frame a reply. But if there are words, she cannot catch them. She thinks, after a few seconds, that she imagined them. He is too far gone.

  No more. Other unspoken words are interrupted by interior darkness.

  She leaves the bed, sighting out of the corner of her eye a flickering of awareness in a stroke victim three beds along. The radio stutters, background noise to join harmonies with the soft mechanical and electronic devices that, defying nature, maintain life.

  John Major is finishing his speech. The words Charles William Buck hears, but cannot make sense of, before a disturbance on his electrocardiogram triggers an alarm at the nurses’ station, are:

  Goodnight, all. And God bless.

  PART ONE

  London

  1

  3 May 1979. The truth that confronts us every day in the twenty-first century, that pushes in on our worlds through every crevice and loophole in our lives, is still, in this as yet unacknowledged fulcrum of a year, a kind of secret.

  The secret truth is this: that things change. That things are change. And, hard as it is to reimagine, standing where we do on the precipice of an avowedly and perpetually crumbling world, this reality is, at the end of the 1970s, still under the carpet. People are beginning to trip up on it; but looking round, they are still puzzled by the cause of their bruises, their damage. It is a stranger place than you might expect, this remembered country. Recognizable, of course, yet oddly distorted, at odds, for a past so slightly receded.

  Inflation, decimalization, the three-day week, industrial chaos, oil-price hikes, Irish terrorists taking their deadly suitcases and shopping bags to the streets and litter bins of England – the age is replete, like all ages are, with weird multiplicities of denial. But contradicting the fact that things happen is the popular embrace of a bigger, more established and comforting fact that things stay the same. The Queen reigns and is loved by all her subjects, with the exception of a few loudmouth punks. England stumbles on, making the best of a bad job. The unions fight with the bosses, and the government, Tory or Labour, steps in to sort things out when the two of them can’t manage it themselves. Coffee is instant. Bread is sliced. Weather is rainy. Car, for Charlie Buck, is a plum-coloured 1973 Triumph Toledo with a starter motor that is always jamming.

  Charlie, on this particular day, is on strike. Charlie, like his father before him, is a compositor at Times Newspapers. And, like his father before him, Charlie quite routinely finds himself on strike. It is a matter of no great alarm or surprise. Striking is much bemoaned by the politicians, and the public and the newspapers alike, but it is part of the texture of life in this particular version of this particular country. This fondness for industrial action will never change, just as prices will not stop rising, just as beer will remain warm and dark brown and tasting of the industrial processes that produce it. If the English have a common belief, it is a belief in certain kinds of inevitability.

  Charlie Buck blows on his hands in an attempt to keep out the unseasonably cold weather. He has stood on the picket line in London’s Gray’s Inn Road for more than seven hours now. A coal brazier burns on the street, outside the entrance to the newspap
er’s offices.

  His threshold for boredom, like that of most of his countrymen, is necessarily high, yet he finds himself all the same becoming restless, scoured by tedium. At the beginning, the strike – which is unusually protracted – had, in a strange way, been fun. It brings back to him his faint memory of the war. When that had started, no one had had any doubt that they would win in the end, and, even when danger had seemed imminent, it was often more monotonous than anything else, waiting out the time until the certain victory would arrive.

  Victory was certain here, too. The management would cave in. They always did, they always had, they always would. Then Charlie and the rest would get back-pay, and things would be the same as they were before.

  He checks his watch. Time to go home. He gathers up his possessions – a white plastic shopping bag containing the remains of a sandwich packed by his wife, a Thermos of coffee and a book by Sidney Sheldon. He straightens up, then raises a hand towards the six or seven other strikers. There are mutters of farewell. Two hands are raised in return. One belongs to a tall, slightly stooped black man in his fifties, with grey beginning to penetrate the dark thickness of his hair. The hand is mutilated, has the index and middle fingers missing. The other belongs to a young man dressed in jeans smoking a roll-up cigarette. His overcoat is too large on him, has a herringbone pattern and displays signs of tattiness. Yet he wears an expensive watch, a Rolex.

  See you, Snowball.

  Bye, Charlie. You keep well, bwoy.

  Mike.

  Don’t forget to vote. You’ve got till ten.

  They’re all the same, says Charlie.

  What about the card game? says Snowball.

  Charlie catches the man called Snowball’s eye, throws him a look.

  There’s a card game? says Mike.

  I’ve got to get off, says Charlie.

  Charlie turns his back and begins to make his way towards the bus stop. Without looking round, he raises a hand in farewell.

  What card game? says Mike.

  But Snowball has moved to another section of the picket.

  Five miles to the south west, in a small municipal park, Charlie’s wife, Maureen, runs. Her trajectory takes her away from the small council flat she lives in with Charlie and their son, Robert. She is dressed in a pale blue nylon track suit and white running shoes. Her lungs burn fiercely, her legs ache. Shortly, when she reaches the children’s paddling pool that has been drained of water leaving only green scum, she will turn and begin the return journey. This is always the hardest moment for her, just before the homeward stretch, when there is more ahead of her than behind her and her whole body is complaining. But she is determined. She tightens her lips and narrows her eyes to focus on the paddling pool, which still seems impossibly distant. She listens to her breath harshly drawing, feels her breasts rise and fall with the rhythm of her footfalls.

  She runs towards a young woman navigating a pushchair through a line of concrete bollards. In the pushchair a toddler, a little girl, is kissing a pink rabbit. She looks up at Maureen and holds the rabbit out towards her as she approaches. Despite the increasing pain in her chest, Maureen smiles, lessens her pace slightly. The girl smiles back, then drops her rabbit in a puddle and begins to cry. Maureen stops, picks it up, wipes it off and hands it back.

  Now Maureen begins to run once more. The paddling pool is closer. Seagulls perch on the climbing frame that is constructed ten yards to the right of the pool. She feels sputum in her throat, checks that no one is watching her, then hawks and spits carefully into a litterbin. The gobbet misses the interior of the container and hits the side. Maureen immediately stops, finds a paper handkerchief from her pocket and carefully wipes the tiny stain away, then drops the tissue into the bin.

  She picks up pace again. The paddling pool grows larger. She wants to stop now, wants to rest on a bench, drink oxygen. But the magazine article she has read insists on a minimum of twenty minutes’ aerobic exercise, four times a week. This is if it is to have the desired effect of increasing her metabolic rate and thus easily burning off the pounds. She is worried that her looks and body are folding into the indiscriminate uniformity of middle age. She is thirty-eight years old, ten years younger than her husband.

  She reaches the paddling pool, does a circuit of it, starts to head back. Her body hurts as much, but psychologically it is easier. She even ups her pace slightly. A woman she recognizes as a neighbour approaches, pushing a shopping trolley.

  Hello, Mrs Jackson.

  Maureen. Here. Did you hear that –

  Can’t stop. Charlie’s home in a minute. I’ve got to put his tea on the stove.

  You be careful. You mind yourself.

  I will.

  She pushes on, checks her watch. Charlie will be back in an hour. He likes to have things just so. She needs to find a recipe for tonight. Robert complains that she is not adventurous enough.

  She leaves the park and goes out into the street. A dog barks, worries her heels. She stops momentarily, at the same time anxious that any interruption of the activity will negate its effect. Nevertheless, she pats the dog, ruffles his coat. She is outside the greengrocer’s.

  That mutt is always making a nuisance of himself

  He’s a nice dog, Frank. You should look after him.

  He’s a mutt. What you up to?

  What’s it look like?

  I dunno. Running.

  That’s it.

  She pushes off. Frank is a decent man, but he is sloppy with his weights, overcharges when he can get away with it. You have to watch people.

  Her breath is coming in great gasps now, but she is determined to sprint the last few hundred yards. Her breath rasps, her legs feel shaky. There’s a bunch of kids hanging around the entrance to the estate as she approaches. They begin to laugh and jeer as Maureen comes into view. She stops to remonstrate but cannot find her breath. The kids run away, laughing. She knows where they live. Later, shell have a gentle word with their parents.

  Last few hundred yards now. She does not let up, checks her watch once more. Exactly twenty minutes. Mission accomplished. She slows to a walk. Robert is on the porch, smoking a cigarette. He is five ten, skinny, mussed-up red hair. Eighteen, but looks older. He smiles as she approaches.

  Can’t be good for you, he says to his mother.

  At least I try, says Maureen.

  I’ll give you that, says Robert, drawing deeply on the cigarette. You have a go.

  Charlie walks the few hundred yards to the bus stop and waits for the bus to take him home. After twenty-five minutes, a double-decker appears. By now there is a ten-yard queue, but the bus that arrives is completely full. It drives past without stopping. The queue shuffles and a few words are muttered. Then it settles back down, as if a single animal, into disconsolate resignation. It is just the way things are. After fifteen more minutes, another bus appears on the horizon. This time he just makes it on, last but one. He leaves behind him a queue of twenty people. The bell sounds, the bus trembles and moves forward.

  It is a forty-minute ride to Fulham, where Charlie has lived for the last fifteen years of his life. London rolls past him as the bus progresses in fits and starts, engorging and disgorging its cargo at a dozen or so chilly bus stops, where long queues shuffle and mutter. He begins to enjoy the roll and sway of the old Routemaster, and although he gives up his seat to a woman holding a baby, he feels quite comfortable and has a good view through the window, which, incomprehensibly, is clean whereas the remainder on the bus are too grimy to see through.

  Although he has lived in London all his life, he has no love for the clogged-up streets, sagging shops and dirty pavements. London is a place he has always dreamed of escaping from, to somewhere there is air and light and the sound of birdsong to wake you in the morning. He likes to watch birds, finding the cataloguing of their varieties, their shapes and colours and strange modes of existence comic and graceful. He has a pair of binoculars for this purpose. A gift from Maureen, Christmas
1975. Or was it ‘76? Or was it Christmas at all? His memory, he decides, is not what it was.

  The bus travels through Knightsbridge. He watches Hyde Park go by on his right-hand side and the military barracks. He thinks of the wealth that flanks him without envy. It would be as pointless to envy the birds. The species are as different, as alien.

  The bus conductor whistles a tune from South Pacific as he collects the fares with a cheerful efficiency. He has sandy hair and freckles and a likeably snubbed nose. When he disappears to the top deck, Charlie finds himself continuing the song in his own head.

  Down the Cromwell Road, out towards the west. The great museums stand as testament to the history that somehow holds the country, holds it together, holds it back. Charlie notices them separately – the V & A, the Science, the Natural History – and, as he often does, makes a mental promise to pay them a visit soon. He likes to think that he is keen to expand his horizons and yet finds it boring when he tries. The promise, he half-knows as he makes it, will not be kept.

  The bus turns off the Talgarth Road at the junction with North End Road, heading south. Charlie has finally found a seat, but now rises well in advance of his stop. He likes to be prepared, worries that things will fall out of control if he is not. He presses the Stop button and allows his finger to stay there for several seconds, concerned that the driver will not hear. But the bus slows as it approaches his stop and the familiar topography of his neighbourhood comes into view.

  The shops seem tired, crammed together, indifferent to the disposal of their contents. There is a cluttered electrical supplies shop, Frank’s greengrocer’s, a fish and chip take-away which has now begun selling Jamaican patties as well as saveloy, cod and grey rock salmon, a newsagent’s where Charlie buys his cigarettes and copy of the Daily Mirror every morning. There is a hairdresser’s and an off-licence.

  A pub stands on the corner, the Eagle, which has recently been repainted and now sells Sumptuous Cold Collations instead of ham and cheese sandwiches. Charlie visits here regularly and disapproves of the refit, which features mock-antique sporting goods and fake Victorian shop signs. It has driven many of the locals away, to be replaced by a younger crowd. But he accepts the development as he accepts most of the substance and detail of his life. Acceptance is what has been placed in the vacuum where for others there is choice. Such dreams as he has are small and, on most days, are comfortably hidden from his own view.

 
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