Rumours of a hurricane, p.21
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.21

           Tim Lott

  On the wall there is a cabinet with four shotguns in it.

  Horn returns with two mugs of tea and a plate of biscuits. Charlie nods at the guns.

  You’re taking no chances.

  They’re replicas.

  I assumed.

  I got real ones. Licensed. I’m in the gun club. Passes the time.

  Charlie and Tommy nod. Horn looks around him as if to check that no one is listening.

  Want to see?

  Horn gets up, feels in his pocket for keys. Charlie looks at Tommy. They rise and follow Horn towards the back of the house. He talks, looking behind him.

  You have to have a proper gun cabinet. Two separately keyed locks. Internal ammunition section with a third key. Fixed by four bolts to an exterior wall. Here they are. This is where I keep them. My equalizers.

  He leans over, opens the gun cabinet. He seems half in a dream.

  It’s a wonderful thing, shooting. Got nothing to do with violence, really. It’s the silence. The silence before you fire the gun. Just you, the gun, the sights, the target, and total peace.

  He takes a pistol out of the cabinet, examines it.

  Then BLAM!

  He laughs. Tommy looks more impressed than Charlie has ever seen him.

  It’s a meditative experience, see. From silence to eighty dB of boom. From the stillness of the body to the recoil force. From serenity to destruction. It’s all about contrast.

  Are they safe? says Charlie.

  Guns are not unsafe, says Horn, replacing the pistol. People are. That’s a Bernadelli .22 pistol. Got a lot of stopping power. And that’s a Zabala shotgun. One of my favourites. People’s choice. Not as deadly as it looks, but excellent intimidation value. The Kalashnikov 7.62mm is a semi-automatic. Nice gun. And then there’s the classic Beretta 9mm pistol. That’s a nice gun too. That’s a beautiful gun.

  Can I…

  Tommy reaches out towards the gun case, but Horn slams it suddenly shut.

  Sorry. That wouldn’t be right. Very strict rules. Want another biscuit?

  Tommy nods morosely. The three men return to the living room.

  Day off, is it? says Charlie amiably, taking a ginger nut.

  I’ve got a shift this afternoon, says Horn, checking his watch.

  We’re not keeping you? says Charlie.

  I’ve about twenty minutes. How are you and your wife settling in?

  Now that he is sat down at the table, Horn begins visibly to relax. His smile is wide, suggesting relief as much as welcome. Another day unmugged.

  Mind if I smoke? says Charlie.

  I get asthma.

  Oh, right. Sorry. Yeah, it’s lovely here. My only regret is that we didn’t do it years ago.

  Up from the Smoke?

  Fulham way.

  You’re joking. Anywhere near Munster Road?

  Half a mile or so.

  I grew up there, says Horn.

  Get away with you, says Charlie.

  Now, it seems, they are suddenly firm friends, although Peter Horn left the area thirty years ago, when he was fifteen years old. But he remembers shops, geography, that chime with Charlie. His father had a stall in the North End Road market, selling ornaments. Horn remembers him talking in backslang to the other traders.

  He was a real cockney, the genuine article, says Horn proudly, his own voice free-floating, classless estuary English.

  They both attack London, the joy of leaving. It is too big, too dirty, too crowded, too expensive… Tommy hardly gets a word in edgeways.

  Peter is divorced. His wife left him five years ago. He hasn’t seen his children since 1982 and now lives alone. She is in Melton Mowbray. He has, he says, a few lady friends, but nothing serious.

  Do you want one more? says Charlie, bluntly now, trusting this man because of his accent, because of the way he insists on making a second pot of tea.

  That all depends, says Horn, vaguely suggestive.

  Nothing like that, says Charlie, unoffended. I’m talking about my wife, Maureen. She needs some driving lessons.

  I’m not really meant to, says Horn. You’re meant to go through the office.

  Cash in hand, isn’t it? A favour for a neighbour, says Charlie. They can’t begrudge that.

  They might.

  That nit-picking type of attitude, it gets up my nose, says Charlie.

  I suppose they wouldn’t find out, says Horn.

  What’s the ecrip? says Charlie teasingly. He doesn’t expect Peter Horn to get the joke.

  Through the office, it would cost you a nevis. But I could do it for a rouf.

  They both laugh in recognition and delight.

  Shake on it. Four quid a lesson, says Charlie.

  Done, says Horn.

  I’ll tell Maureen. She’ll be made up.

  Maureen is in the shopping centre. Thirty minutes’ wait for the bus. If there hadn’t been rain in the air, she would have walked. Milton Keynes town centre is only twenty minutes.

  Now it is pouring outside. At the North End Road, she would be hunched against the weather. Here it is warm and bright. For the first time, she has a credit card in her purse. She is not even sure how to use it.

  People hurry by. The spaces between them are wider than in Fulham. They do not bunch together to push past market traders who have taken too much pavement space, or to avoid the belching cars that squeeze down the road to and away from Fulham Broadway. There she would recognize faces, would smile and nod, exchange a few words. It didn’t amount to very much, but she misses the sense she once had that her presence was registered by others. Mrs Patel in the newsagent’s Would always give her a smile, and they might even gossip. Then there was Marie-Rose, Frank in the greengrocer’s. Dolly at the chemist’s. She hardly spoke to most of them, but she knew their names and they knew hers. That was important.

  Here, she is utterly anonymous. She sees clearly what this gleaming crystal construction is about, where it locates fulfilment. She thinks it crude, yet something in her heart responds. Perhaps she has not been selfish enough in her life. All the young women’s magazines speak about self this and self that. She isn’t used to thinking about her own life in these terms, but she half understands the language, like the way she can make sense of simple Spanish in Alicante.

  Everything is loss, she thinks. Robert gone away. Her home left behind fifty miles away. She did it for Charlie. Her bookkeeping jobs abandoned. She sees her face reflected in the plate glass of Boots the Chemist. The lining and stippling of her skin that comes too slowly to be seen yet, having arrived, will never depart.

  She looks up and sees high, glazed galleries. There is Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, WH Smith. There are outlets just for ties, just for underwear, just for socks, just for your body. Shopping was focused, specific, separated into discrete desires.

  She does her shopping for food in Waitrose. Fruit and vegetables are beginning to appear that she has never heard of, that she is too bewildered by to purchase. Starfruit, kiwi, unnameable orange gourds, strange canary-yellow spheres. Even the lettuces are confusing. The most shocking moment for her is when she finds ready-grated cheese. Such indolence leaves her breathless.

  She sticks to potatoes, carrots, peas, oranges and apples. On impulse, she buys four passion fruit, hoping that Charlie will give them a try. Another part of her knows he will not. She bought sun-dried tomatoes a few weeks ago and Charlie refused to believe they were dried in the sun. He said no one would be able to tell the difference if they were dried in an airing cupboard.

  The meat is sealed and unimaginable as part of an animal; in the butcher’s in North End Road, entire rabbit carcasses would hang there, eyes accusing. She finds this plastic and polystyrene universe pleasantly reassuring, buys pork chops and chicken breasts.

  She gets a few luxuries, a bottle of Le Piat d’Or and some of Mrs Bridges’s jams and chutneys – Charlie always loved Upstairs, Downstairs from where the invented character of Mrs Bridges has been appropriated – and the food shopping is
complete. She pays in cash, then sits down on one of the benches to take a breather. She looks around her. Shops aren’t shops any more, it seems, but ‘emporiums’ or ‘centres’. Centres are everywhere. She went past a museum earlier, only to find that even this had become a ‘heritage’ centre. And yet she now feels at the perimeter of her own life.

  She checks to see how much money she has left. A few pounds. She slides out the credit card.

  She suddenly wants to see how it feels. There is a women’s clothes shop just opened in the centre opposite where she sits. It is having a sale and the colourful posters beckon her. She rises to her feet, holding the plastic bags. They feel lighter.

  Inside the shop, an assistant immediately rises to her feet and smiles at her.

  Would you like me to take that?

  Sorry? says Maureen, not at all sure what the woman is talking about.

  Can I take your shopping for you? It’ll be easier to have a look around.

  Oh. Of course. Thank you.

  She hands the shopping bags over and the woman puts them down by the counter, then looks again at Maureen, who is simply standing there, fingering her purse. She has held on to her leather shoulder bag.

  Is there anything you’re looking for in particular? says the assistant.

  Her smile is glowing and kind. She seems genuinely concerned that Maureen should make the right shopping choice. In North End Road they ignore you, keep you waiting to take your money.

  Not really, says Maureen, smiling.

  To cut the conversation short, she starts to self-consciously look at the racks of dresses that line the wall next to her. The clothes are expensive, but Charlie has told her to treat herself. She picks out three, all in a size 16, spots the changing room and disappears into it.

  There is a full-length mirror inside. As she removes her clothes she glances at her reflection, but cannot bear to look for long. She sees only loose skin, discoloration, the slackened muscles. All her efforts at keep fit have failed. All her efforts at dieting have failed. She cannot see what others can see, what Marie-Rose repeatedly insisted – that she is still in good shape for her age, that she is still an attractive woman.

  She quickly puts on the first dress but it does not suit her, makes her seem larger even than she imagines she is. The second dress is better, but an unflattering colour. She is about to try on the third when she notices a fourth item of clothing that has fallen under the seating bench. Someone has left it there.

  She picks it up. The colour is azure, her favourite, and the size is 16. It is mid-length, with a scoop neck and slightly ballooned sleeves. She tries it on. She likes it.

  The last dress is the third of the ones she originally brought in. It is purple, longer, more classic in style, in a heavier, slightly elasticated material. She likes this also. She holds the blue one up against the purple one, but cannot choose between them. Both are expensive. She has decided to take Charlie up on his offer, but there are limits.

  As she changes back into her old clothes, she glances down at her handbag. She wishes that she could have both dresses.

  Suddenly she realizes, with the clarity of truth, that she can. She realizes how simple it is. Without even a shiver of nerve she does something that thrills her. She takes the blue dress that she has found under the seat, folds it, puts it in her handbag and clicks the bag closed. In her other hand, she takes the purple dress. Then, suddenly confident and unafraid, she walks out of the cubicle. The smiling assistant is still there, still smiling.

  Anything you like?

  Maureen holds out the purple dress.

  This one’s lovely. I’ll have it.

  That is a gorgeous dress. Sexy. Special occasion? She takes it from Maureen.

  Sort of, says Maureen. We just moved here.

  Won’t this be too big for you?

  Maureen accepts the compliment, follows her to the checkout. She feels the weight of her bag. The woman is passing electronic readers across scanning equipment. The price appears in ghostly green letters. The assistant folds the dress carefully and puts it in the bag.

  That’s going to be £40.

  It is now that Maureen realizes she has left her purse in her handbag. The blue dress is exposed on top of it. The assistant gazes at her.

  Do you take credit cards? The regularity of her breathing increasing slightly. She is now hoping that the answer will be no.

  Of course.

  Maureen nods. Then, an icy calm comes over her. The handbag is deep. The assistant cannot possibly see from her position. Maureen blatantly opens the clasp top; the bag gapes. The dress is there, mute testament to her temptation and fall. She moves it aside, uncovers her purse and takes it out of the bag. She does not even close the bag again when the assistant takes the credit card and puts it into the swiping machine. Maureen signs the slip. The card is returned to her. To her amazement, the assistant does not even check the signature. She could be anyone. Quite casually, she replaces the card in her purse, drops it in the open bag, snaps the bag shut and picks up her new purple dress. She gives the assistant a smile even wider than her own.

  Thank you very much.

  Thank you, madam.

  Maureen retrieves her shopping and then, at a consciously slow pace, leaves the shop. When she is round the corner, out of sight, she feels a joy rise up in her such as she cannot remember.

  When she returns home, Tommy has gone. Charlie is in the back garden, which is big, at least seventy-five feet. He is laying track. The Alpine peak has made a reappearance adjacent to a scraggy patch of shrubs. Large-scale station buildings and signal boxes push up against a rockery and a rose bush. He has bought a garden railway, G Scale, the latest thing from Germany. The electric-powered steam-outline locomotives are American style, from the 1880s. He has just put up a miniature road sign next to a hypothetical carriage way; it says, ‘Road Narrows’. Big Joe is the driver. Nearby is a farm with artificial dung heap, stable and cheese dairy. There is a smithy and a hay wagon. Charlie is enjoying his break from the more pressing redecorations; it calms him and centres him.

  Maureen sees him bending in the garden, but he does not see her. She goes upstairs, almost at a bolt. Above the landing, there is a loft. Maureen hooks down the loft ladder and then ascends. In one hand, she holds her handbag.

  There is a working loft light. Maureen, on all fours, makes her way into a far corner. There is an old piece of hardboard which runs astride two joists. Beyond it, only an old plastic shopping bag with the word Asda just discernible on it. Underneath, a wide, shallow gap. She removes the blue dress from her handbag, puts it in a plastic bag and places it in the gap, then replaces the hardboard. Maureen scrambles back down the ladder.

  She is filthy. She looks out of the window and sees that Charlie is heading in. Panicking, she goes into the bedroom and begins to remove her besmirched clothes. A few seconds later, his foot is on the stair. She can think of no way to explain this behaviour to him. She sees the second dress, the purple one she has legitimately bought with the credit card, and quickly pulls it on. She sees herself in the mirror; it is flattering, even glamorous. Smoothing her hair, the anxiety gives way to an unaccustomed feeling of power.

  Charlie walks in, stops when he sees her.

  Dallas on tonight?

  It isn’t. Maureen flounders for an explanation.

  This… this is for you, Rock.

  For me? Charlie doesn’t understand.

  It’s the dress you bought me. Maureen turns slowly round. There is something feral in her eyes that he barely recognizes. What do you think?

  What do I think? Charlie swallows air; this moment is completely surprising to him. I think I’m going to have to take a flipping cold shower, kiddo.

  He puts his arms round her waist. She puts her hands over his. He moves under them slightly. A smear of dirt appears on the back of Charlie’s hand. The combination of the dirt and the pristine, glamorous dress also excites him strangely.

  What have you been u
p to? he says softly.

  Maureen starts slightly inside herself, recovers when she realizes that Charlie cannot know what she has done.

  Maureen sees Charlie staring at her hands.

  I was clearing out some cupboards.

  Charlie nods, then starts to kiss her neck. His hands travel towards the top of her thighs. The doorbell rings.

  Jesus God Almighty! Leave it! mutters Charlie.

  He smells dust on his wife, and sweat. Somehow it arouses him further, but she shakes him off. Her face is flushed, her hair mussed.

  We can’t It might be something important.

  Before Charlie can reply, she has left the room. Charlie hears her heavy footfall. He cannot work out who it might be, but he curses them. He smooths his clothes down, pats his hair. He hears a man’s voice downstairs. Then he remembers who is expected.

  He can see Peter Horn standing in the doorway, holding a bottle of wine. Maureen is blocking his path, looking uncertain. She hears Charlie behind her and looks up imploringly towards him. Charlie cannot think: he is amazed by this sudden budding of sexuality. Finally he speaks.

  It’s all right, Maureen. He’s our neighbour.

  Peter pushes the bottle at Charlie.

  I tried to say. Tried to tell her. I think your wife thinks I’m some sort of weirdo.

  Oh, it’s not that, says Maureen. It’s just that I wasn’t expecting…

  No, I told Peter to drop round. He’s got a proposition for you.

  Charlie winks at Peter. Maureen looks bewildered, continues to block the door.

  Let the man in, for heaven’s sake, Maureen.

  Maureen moves to one side and Peter walks past her, smiling. He brushes against her dress, hands the wine to Charlie, then turns back towards Maureen.

  I’m Peter Horn. I live up the road.

  He’s the man with the trowel, says Charlie.

  The gardener. I remember, says Maureen. What kind of proposition?

  You’ll see, says Charlie.

  They walk through to the living room, and Peter and Charlie sit at the table while Maureen goes off to the kitchen with the wine. Peter glances out of the window into the garden. He notices the train track.

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