Rumours of a hurricane, p.20
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.20

           Tim Lott
 

  They stand and stare for longer than they need, to justify the decision to stop. They are bored and a cold wind blows. After a minute or two they retreat back to the Mini Metro. The house is very close now.

  Past a row of trees, and another mini-roundabout. Right at the roundabout, then into a wide boulevard of yew trees. Charlie stares entranced, as he was the first time he saw them.

  Astonishingly to them both, there are only twelve houses in the street. Theirs is the last. They stop outside; although there is a car port, they park in the street. It doesn’t seem enough theirs yet to make a manoeuvre so intimate. The house is only ten years old. Children play quietly halfway down the street. One of them has a balloon. Charlie notes with disappointment that it is blue rather than the red of the TV ad. Three houses along, a man about the same age as Charlie is working at a rockery with a trowel. He looks up as they go by, but does not otherwise acknowledge their presence.

  Look, says Charlie. Keen gardeners up here. Just think, our own garden. We can grow roses.

  Wordlessly, Maureen and Charlie leave the car. They stand and stare. Charlie takes a cigarette out of his pocket and lights it. Breathes in then out, displacing the smoke from his lungs. Replaces it with air made from distant light industrial chemical emissions, a million green trees, decaying matter, gases from space, exhaled breath. All combining into this browning and dampness.

  Then they begin to walk at a slow pace down the newly laid path towards the front door, with its leaded light and plain, dark varnished wood. When they had viewed the property there was a carriage lamp outside, but this has been removed, leaving an unsightly gap in the masonry.

  It seems that they will never arrive. There is no reason for this crawl along through the well-kept front garden. It is as if the gravitational pull of the front door, although finally irresistible, seems too weak to snap them to attention and pull them into what seems clearly marked by this relocation as the second half of their lives, the final half. So they become sluggish and uncertain, a part of themselves resisting what they had thought they wanted. Charlie suddenly feels frightened, though he cannot say why. How could this new, brightly lit, geometrical world be dangerous?

  The sounds. Familiar yet fresh, because out of context. A distant lawn mower. Unnamed birds, complaining mutts. Faint trains, receding airliner. Modern, ancient, urban, rural, mixed as if randomly. But almost nothing is random here. Nature has been tamed and corralled, imprinted upon precisely. This is what has drawn them to the place. Maureen particularly likes its order, its evenness of construction. She likes the alphabetically named grid roads, their emptiness. It is somewhere she feels she could soon learn to drive.

  The sun is weak, but sharp and bright all the same.

  This is it, then, says Charlie.

  Yes. This is it.

  They reach the front door. They notice that the brass letter box, like the carriage lamp, has been removed. The gap looks ugly. Charlie feels in his pocket for the keys, which seem light, insubstantial. They do not recognize their own significance. He removes them, tries the Yale in the lock. It opens easily. Maureen makes as if to walk through.

  Hold on.

  Charlie grabs Maureen round the waist, picks her up in a single motion. He still has the strength, and she gasps.

  Come on, kiddo. Just like Rock Hudson.

  He carries her across the threshold. Maureen is laughing. Charlie is worried about his back. He drops her almost the moment they go inside. She stumbles, and he almost falls, but saves himself at the last moment.

  Maureen looks around her. It is darker than you would expect, given the late sun. The windows are small, to conserve heat. Her pupils expand, take in the scene. Her laughter dies in her throat.

  Jesus God Almighty, says Charlie.

  The house is not merely empty, as they had expected. Plastic light switches have gone, as have the handles to the windows. The skirting boards have been removed, the electrical socket covers have been ripped off. There are no doors, or even door frames. The effect is shocking, one of violation.

  They can see from where they stand that there is no sink in the kitchen. A brief exploration reveals that there is no bath in the bathroom. Some floorboards have been removed.

  The Bucks have arrived into their new world to be confronted with an act of insane greed.

  Well, at least they didn’t hack off the plaster and chip out the mortar, says Charlie feebly, watching Maureen, who will not meet his eye.

  I mean, effing hell I mean, Jesus God Almighty.

  He notices the connecting pipes where the central heating radiators used to be. He laughs bleakly, lights another cigarette, barely able to keep it still. Runs a hand through the fullness of his hair. Maureen’s eyes are desperate. She presses at a fresh ulcer inside her cheek with her tongue. Charlie begins to gabble.

  Aren’t some people funny? Well, I suppose they’re within their rights. It’ll take a while to put this right. Never mind. If we…

  When Maureen speaks it is in a flat tone with all emotion drained out.

  They’ve taken the… the telephone socket is gone.

  Charlie follows her eyes to the gap above where the skirting board once was.

  They’re lunatics, says Charlie.

  Maureen is still staring at where the telephone socket should be. Something about the terrific smallness of the removal snaps her and she gives up the struggle for self-control. Water overflows the corners of her eyes. Charlie makes to say something. Walks across and puts his arm around her, to stop her dissolving. To breach the waterfall.

  Don’t fret, Maureen. It really is nothing. A week’ll sort it. I’ll do it myself.

  Maureen holds him. There is the joyful hooting of a horn outside. Robert has arrived. When he walks through the door he is holding ten chrysanthemums.

  For me? says Charlie, still trying to lighten the awful heaviness that this moment has acquired.

  Five each, says Robert. What in God’s name has happened here?

  It takes them a week to get the house back to a state where it is habitable. Tommy, who is normally chocker with work, or so he says, comes up for a few days from London to help them. There is a pink sticking plaster over Tommy’s ear where a burly Irishman tried to detach it with his teeth during a pub discussion about Ulster politics. On this day, Tommy and Charlie have been working all morning. Maureen appears with a shopping bag and, head down, makes towards the door. Charlie is finishing a ham and tomato roll. There are crumbs around his mouth. Maureen halts her stride and automatically wipes them away. It is raining outside. On the mantelpiece is a giant card illustrated with Charles Schulz’s Snoopy reclining on his kennel in a First World War flying helmet. It reads, ‘There’s No Burden Heavier Than a Great Potential’. It is signed by all the women at Divine Creations.

  There is a trilling noise from somewhere that Charlie cannot locate. Tommy reaches into his toolbox and pulls out a large heavy rectangle of plastic. To Charlie’s amazement, he takes a handkerchief out of his pocket, puts it over his nose, then begins to speak into the box in a feeble but exaggeratedly polite voice.

  Hello, Chigwell and District Loft Company. Hello there, Mr Jenkins! Yes, I’m terribly sorry I couldn’t make it. I’ve had a touch of the flu. Didn’t one of my secretaries call you? Well, I’ll have a serious word with Samantha about that. It’s not good enough. Yes… I am feeling a bit better actually. I’ve got the loft conversion pencilled in now for… hold on… for next Monday. No, Monday week. Yes. Yes. I know I’ve said that before. But… no, I’m afraid the money you gave me has all gone on materials… OK… There’s no need for that kind of attitude, Mr Jenkins. There’s no need to swear. Of course. I’ll be there. Yes. I guarantee it. OK. Goodbye, then. Goodbye.

  Tommy hangs up, catches Charlie’s expression.

  Save me the fucking sermon. I got bills to pay and there’s mugs out there to pay them. What you think of the dog?

  Charlie has not seen a cellular telephone before outside of American
TV series. He decides to make no comment on either Tommy’s business practices or the expensive gadgets that they enable him to acquire. But Tommy, of course, will not let the moment pass. He brandishes the object at Charlie.

  You should get one of these. It’s a godsend.

  It’s a gimmick.

  They said that about television. This is the future. I’m telling you, Charlie.

  They said that about eight-track. Of which you also had a fancy version. They said it about quadraphonic. How much did you blow on that? You even bought a bloody Betamax.

  This is different.

  And I’m a Chinaman.

  I’ll have a number 37 and a side order of egg fried rice.

  Tommy, satisfied that his point has been made, that his prosperity has been displayed, replaces the device in his toolbox. Maureen, who has taken no notice, goes to leave.

  I’m off, then.

  Charlie holds his hand up. He has a way of evening the score with Tommy.

  Hold on, kiddo. I’ve a surprise.

  Charlie reaches in his pocket. Maureen squints to make out what he’s doing. He takes out an envelope, thrusts it into Maureen’s hand.

  What’s that?

  Have a gander.

  Maureen peers inside the envelope. There is a rectangle of plastic.

  Came this morning, says Charlie. Take it with you. Treat yourself to something.

  Maureen looks puzzled.

  I’ve never used one of these before.

  It’s not rocket science, says Tommy.

  You just give them the card. You have to sign it first.

  Maureen puts the card on a sideboard, takes out a ballpoint pen.

  I can’t get my signature in that tiny space.

  Course you can.

  The pen isn’t working properly and Maureen’s first attempt comes out barely legible. Tommy hands her his pen. This time, the lines are thick and firm, and fit the tiny strip perfectly. Maureen holds it up to the light to admire it.

  Now you’ve done it, says Tommy with a smile. There’ll be no holding her back. You’ve lit the blue touch paper.

  Maureen isn’t like that.

  It’s like handing out heroin to teenyboppers. You should see Lorraine.

  I’m not sure, Charlie, says Maureen. It’s not really necessary.

  I told you, Maureen. Just give it a try. You’ve been a bit down. Get yourself a nice dress or something.

  I don’t know.

  Hope you’ve got enough credit on that bloody thing, says Tommy, nudging Charlie in the ribs.

  Maureen puts the card into her purse, gives a faint wave, disappears out of the door and heads for the bus stop.

  Tommy watches her go.

  Up for a pint? says Tommy. I’m fucking parched.

  I’m on the wagon, says Charlie.

  You’re winding me up, says Tommy. It’s mother’s milk to you.

  Not any more. I’ve been overdoing it.

  That’s the whole fucking point of drinking. Maureen get to you?

  I don’t always do what she says.

  Women have their methods.

  I suppose.

  Fucking thumbscrews.

  The rack.

  They laugh. Charlie giving up the sauce had been Maureen’s condition of them moving home. If she was going to have to give something up, so was he. Charlie finds it hard, but the new start makes anything seem possible.

  Tommy, Charlie thinks, has been in good spirits lately. He and Lorraine have moved to Chigwell from Theydon Bois, a house with a conservatory and a double garage. Always one step ahead of Charlie. Lorraine is pregnant. She claims to need the extra space.

  Lorraine’s giving me hell, says Tommy, as he applies a second coat of magnolia vinyl matt to the wall of the front room.

  Don’t talk to me about it, says Charlie. He is fixing shelves into an alcove. By his feet, ornaments ready to place there. Ceramic figurines. There’s no pleasing her at the moment.

  Tell me something I don’t know, says Tommy, raising his eyebrows. I’ve just spent ten Κ on a new kitchen. Fucking Poggen-something. Of course, it’s all wrong. Six months ago, it was new carpets. Now she’s decided she don’t want them. The pattern don’t match the curtains. She wants to tear them all up.

  Cheaper to get rid of the curtains, isn’t it?

  Not by much. It’s those ruched ones.

  Yeah. They’re nice.

  She’ll get her way. The ayatollah.

  Hormones, says Charlie. It’s hormones.

  Although Charlie isn’t exactly sure what a hormone is, he is convinced they have a significant and detrimental effect on his wife’s behaviour.

  What’s it with Maureen?

  I think it might be the Change. That time of life.

  Well, there’s a bright side. No more PMT. No more crimson fucking tide.

  Tommy dips his brush in the paint again. The walls are good, the plaster firm. He wants to make reparations. Charlie hasn’t quite forgotten about the ceiling. This time it’s for free. Charlie puts down his screwdriver, turns to his brother. For all the space between them, for all the subterranean hurt, Tommy is the only person to whom he can confess his life. Sometimes he joins Maureen watching the American chat shows, is amazed by Americans and the readiness with which they unbutton their lives. Nothing to separate thought and word.

  She looks on the negative. Here we are. A brand-new home. A fresh beginning. I get on the train into London, into the smoke and shit and dirt. Do my bit in the sweatshop, then I’m home, and it’s all there. The trees and that. And Maureen is sitting in a chair in front of the TV, watching some soap. There’s no…

  Get up and go, says Tommy.

  Exactly, Tommy. Exactly. Last week I get back, there’s not even my dinner. I’ve got to phone for a pizza. Says she’s got nothing to do. There’s a thousand things to do here. A million. Evening classes. You name it. This is a can-do place. That’s the way you got to be.

  Of course, she can’t drive, Charlie. That must make for limits.

  I keep telling her. It’s as if she’s scared.

  What’s the buses like?

  All right, when they turn up.

  How often is that?

  Not very often.

  What’s the neighbours like?

  Who knows? You never see anyone.

  One of them does driving lessons.

  Charlie blinks.

  You what?

  I seen the car. It’s got a driving school… thing on top.

  Where?

  A few houses along. It’s there now.

  Show me.

  Tommy and Charlie walk out into the street, and Tommy gestures in the direction of the house where Charlie and Maureen saw the tall man with the trowel watching them on the day they arrived. There is no car visible.

  It was down the side, says Tommy.

  The car is parked in an alleyway by the side of the house. This is why Charlie has never noticed it. Sure enough, there is a sign running across the roof of the car: Journeyz Driving School.

  Charlie notices a face at the window. It is the man who was holding the trowel. His face is impassive. He is sallow, with thinning hair and a small, full mouth. He gazes at Charlie and Tommy impassively. Charlie returns his gaze, gives a smile and holds up his hand, but the man does not respond. Instead he lets the curtain fall, as if someone has caught him acting improperly.

  Private around here, aren’t they? says Tommy.

  It’s no bad thing, says Charlie. It’s one of the reasons for being here.

  They hesitate, then walk up the path together. There is no bell, so they rattle the letter box. For several minutes there is no reply. Charlie and Tommy are about to give up when there is a fumbling behind the door. It opens a crack, held back by two security chains. A vertical segment of face appears behind it. No sound emerges from it.

  All right? says Charlie.

  He can see eyes now. They are wary, unconvinced.

  The man behind the door speaks
at last.

  I’m not buying.

  His voice is low, quiet, distinctly London. It has a slightly effeminate, faraway quality.

  I’m not selling, says Charlie.

  I don’t believe in God, says the voice.

  Tommy and Charlie are momentarily thrown by this metaphysical revelation. Then Charlie speaks.

  Do we look like Jehovah’s Witnesses?

  What’s it about then?

  Driving lessons, says Charlie.

  Oh. The man pauses. Office is in the shopping centre.

  Tommy speaks at last.

  This is Charlie. He’s your neighbour. Three houses along.

  What?

  I live here, says Charlie. Just down the street.

  After several seconds the door chains are unhooked. The door opens. The man’s face is plain to see now. He is younger than Charlie thought, but dresses older. He has a pair of trousers with the creases sewn in and a Pringle sweater over a soft-collared shirt. He is tall but not fat, with a well-proportioned body for a man of his age.

  I seen you, he says. Sorry. I’ve had a few break-ins.

  You can’t be too careful, says Tommy. Lot of rogues about.

  The man hesitates another second, as if wrestling with a dilemma. Finally he holds out his hand.

  Peter Horn.

  Charlie Buck. This is my brother, Tommy.

  Peter Horn’s handshake is limp, crushable. When Tommy takes it, Horn almost seems to recoil. Tommy likes to test a man’s mettle by the force of his handshake.

  Would you like a cup of something?

  They follow Peter Horn through a small corridor into the front room. The layout is precisely the same as Maureen and Charlie’s. The house is extremely tidy, not a stick out of place.

  Horn goes to the kitchen and starts clattering about, while Charlie and Tommy sit at a rectangular pine table with an arrangement of paper flowers on it. It is almost the only decoration. Everything else is functional, giving the space a hollow, faintly sad air.

  There is something about the room, its neatness, that means they hush their voices slightly, as if too much volume will disturb the symmetry, throw up dust. There are framed photographs on a sideboard – three young children. There is no sign of a photograph of a wife.

 
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