Rumours of a hurricane, p.22
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.22

           Tim Lott
 

  That’s unusual.

  My ‘toys’, you mean?

  They’re not toys, are they? I’ve got a friend who does those. There’s a real art to it.

  Charlie sits forward. He is excited and surprised by this sudden acceptance. Most people make a joke out of it.

  What’s that one there?

  He points to a Leek and Manifold casing to an engine which sits alone on the mantelpiece. It is the gift that Robert bought him, Christmas 1980.

  That? That’s nothing. Charlie finds this painful to talk about. Where is Robert? Of course, there are people who are obsessed by the things. Gricers we call them. Never stop going on about their bloody train sets. For me it’s just a nice hobby.

  Doesn’t it all rust, in the rain?

  No, it’s made especially for outside.

  It’s impressive. I can see the appeal.

  Most people can’t. It’s your own private world, you see. You can make it exactly how you want.

  Unlike real life, says Peter.

  Exactly. Exactly.

  Maureen arrives with the open bottle, two glasses, and a mug of tea.

  Not having any, Mrs Buck? says Peter.

  I am, says Maureen. It’s him that’s off the juice.

  It’s true, says Charlie ruefully. I’m happy with a cup of tea nowadays.

  Would you like a piece of cake? I baked it myself.

  That would be a treat. It was all my ex could do to defrost a treacle tart from Tesco.

  Maureen makes an outstanding jam sponge.

  You’re a divorcé, are you? says Maureen, retreating to the kitchen and returning with a covered cake tray.

  Peter tells him about the woman in Melton Mowbray and their three children. Maureen sips at her wine, registers polite concern. The dress accentuates her breasts. She notices when Peter’s eyes come back to them a second time. She sips her wine, cuts cake for Peter and Charlie. Again, she feels powerful. She thinks of her stolen dress, secretly above them.

  Peter is a driving instructor, Charlie is saying. He’s offering lessons at cost.

  I’ve got quite a bit of experience, says Peter. Been qualified for three years now. I’ve got a better success rate than most.

  Who’s the worst driver you ever had? says Charlie. I bet it was a woman.

  It was a man, funnily enough, says Peter.

  Of course it was a man, says Maureen, finishing her wine, laughing.

  He ended up killing a woman and her four-year-old child, says Peter ruminatively.

  Maureen stops laughing. Charlie scratches his nose.

  Did he pass? says Charlie.

  There’s a silence, and then Maureen begins to laugh again, then Peter, and then Charlie joins in until they are all chorusing, Charlie’s dry, coughing laugh counterpointing with the tumbling liquidity of Maureen’s and the odd hack-hacking of Peter’s.

  That’s terrible, says Maureen eventually, when the moment is worn out.

  Charlie pushes the remaining crumbs from his sponge around his plate.

  What do you think, then, Maureen? says Charlie. Fancy giving it a go?

  I don’t see why not, says Maureen brightly. I’ll try anything once.

  10

  Spring, 1986. Maureen has a small biscuit tin which she has kept since the 1950s decorated with two cheery but fading Scotty dogs wearing vast tartan bows around their necks, like Valentine gifts. She takes it from the secret hiding place under the floorboard beneath the bed, alongside a large envelope bulging with cash. She still does not trust banks completely. There is a sizeable sum there, five figures.

  The biscuit tin is full of mementoes, scraps of her life. Charlie knows of this box, but has rarely seen it, let alone looked inside it. It is private to her, one of the small fragments of her life that she has managed to keep undisclosed from her husband. She is beginning to understand that located invisibly within secrets there is compacted power.

  Maureen opens it. There are a few love letters here, from pre-Charlie romances. Harry Smith, a big gimp of a boy whose letter was virtually illiterate. She had let him kiss her only once. His nickname was Donkey because of his ears. Jack Thomas, the greengrocer’s son, hands everywhere, quite good-looking and sweet. He had run off with Henrietta Green and they had got married.

  There are fading photographs of her dead mother and father, bus tickets from journeys to the Essoldo and the Gaumont when she was courting Charlie, a typing certificate from secretarial college. Most recently it has been joined by her first accountancy qualification, from the Open University, Milton Keynes. It has put her in good stead. She has part-time work, assisting with the book-keeping at Peter’s driving school as well as at a small factory making ceramic models of old English villages that has recently opened in a nearby business park. One of these is also in the tin box. In her tea breaks, she sits and watches the production line taking what seems like an endless stream of these models on their journey towards the clay ovens and then, cooling, towards the painters and finishers. Her model is of a man sitting on a village bench with a pipe and an old beaten hat. She stole it. It was easy and satisfying.

  Maureen has to dig down deep into the box for what she seeks. Past their wedding certificate, past Robert’s birth certificate, past both sets of the ticket stubs for South Pacific when Charlie had taken her to see the film on an early date and when they had gone again, to the theatre this time, on their twenty-second wedding anniversary. She sometimes wonders what will happen to this box after she has gone, and if it will mean anything to anyone else, and what else will appear in it over the next thirty or so years of her existence to testify to her brief and puzzling stay on this earth.

  Right at the bottom is what she has been looking for. It is an autographed black and white photograph of Rock Hudson. Her father, in one of his many professional incarnations, had been for a short while a doorman at the Dorchester Hotel, where her hero had briefly stayed in the 1950s. When he had presented her with the photo, she had felt close to fainting. It was like being almost touched by an almost god. His very hand had described these lines and curls in ink.

  She does not believe what today’s newspapers have said about him. What they have implied, for there is no proof. Heterosexuals could catch AIDS too, decides Maureen. If Rock Hudson could get it then no one was safe.

  It wasn’t long after his death the previous year that the stories started repeating the slander that Tommy had once uttered, which Maureen had shrugged off. Now, as then, Maureen refused to believe them, turned over the TV if they appeared on the news. He had been married, after all. He was friends with Ronald Reagan. She had watched him in McMillan and Wife, in Dynasty, loving him even as the creases began to fold into his still-beautiful face. She thought of him kissing Doris Day in a dozen bedroom farces, she remembered when she saw him in Giant, how he made her tingle inside.

  The way they went on about him being a homosexual was silly. If he was ‘gay’ – that was the new word, wasn’t it? – then why had the papers not mentioned it earlier, all those years he was famous. Now he was dead, of course, they could just slander him all they liked. Jealous, vicious, petty.

  She looks at the autograph to see if she can find any signs of effeminacy in his handwriting. It seems to her a strong hand, vital… male, for heaven’s sake. Replacing the photograph and closing the box, she resolves that she doesn’t want to hear any more of this nonsense. Everybody is always talking about sex. Like Charlie says, the world’s gone sex mad. It was all around you, on the telly, selling you face flannels and verucca ointment. Sex has arrived like an IRA fragmentation bomb in the West End, penetrating everywhere. Are you getting enough? Have you had any lately?

  She wonders if it is safe for her and Peter Horn to carry on making love without a sheath. She has had a coil in her uterus for years and sometimes she imagines that her change of life is under way. Lately, her periods have become irregular. She fears losing what it is that makes her a woman and Peter helps to reassure her that this loss is not i
rreversible, reminds her that there are other ways of being a woman. They are both lonely.

  How did it happen? She had only had three lessons, when his hand covered hers where it rested on the gearstick and she let it remain there. When, instead of returning the car to the driving school, they went to his house and silently, fearfully, it seemed to her, he took her to bed.

  The whole thing was extraordinary, improbable, but only for the first few minutes. Then somehow, very quickly, it became the way things were, and had been ever since. Peter was a weak man, and he was not particularly intelligent. But his need, his simple desire for Maureen, is like elixir. She feels him filling her up, pushing out the dryness of her years. Inside the walls of his house, inside the echo chamber of his bedroom, forgotten chords are struck.

  She returns to the kitchen table, where she has a set of ledgers ready for tallying.

  There is a mess overflowing from the rear extension that Charlie has been building. It irritates her. However much work she puts into it, the dust and dirt will not cease their invasion into the main part of the house. She notices a thin film of wood dust on the leather binding of the ledger.

  Charlie has borrowed more money to make it possible, and the last of their savings, excepting the sacrosanct cash under the bed, has also gone into the house. A new kitchen, double-glazing. Maureen cannot understand what the point of all this is; the place is already too big for them, and it will take a lifetime to recoup the cost of the new windows on heating bills. But Charlie says it is an investment, freeing up your capital. And it is true the house is swelling absurdly in value, already worth double what they paid for it.

  Rivers of wealth flow towards them. Charlie has bought shares in British Telecom with the money he saves through the tax cuts in his pay packet. They were worth triple what he paid for them. It is strange and wonderful, and yet Maureen often sits and thinks of their little council flat, Carol and Mrs Jackson next door, Marie-Rose teasing Maureen’s hair into new styles that Charlie never noticed.

  Now Charlie spends nearly all his spare hours in the back garden, rain or shine, working at the extension or moving his trains around the fixed track, adding model after model, sometimes whole villages, an entire infrastructure of artificial life. Building other worlds, while the real one remains in his peripheral vision, separately unfolding. He takes photographs of his efforts every week, dates and places the results in an album so that he will have a full record. On the first picture he writes, in black marker pen, ‘Here we go! The “great bodge” begins!’

  She picks up a perfect, round Florida orange, cuts it into four and sucks at the segments. Even now, it surprises her that she can do this without pain, but for some months now her mouth ulcers have been in unprecedented remission. A tube of Bonjela remains unopened in the bathroom cabinet. Her teeth tear at the flesh of the orange, separate it from the pith, and she swallows.

  The taste of the orange is disappointing. Like most of the fruit and vegetables she buys from the hypermarket, the appearance is enticing, symmetrical, proportionate, unblemished, but the flavour is dilute, mediocre.

  She is taking her driving test today. It is her third attempt. She will fail, not because she cannot pass but because she wishes to fail. It provides the ideal excuse for her and Peter to be together. They drive out to the countryside, sometimes stop in a tamed wood, and make love in the back of the Ford Fiesta. Peter tugs at her hair as he moves, and she wriggles to push him in further. He wants her to leave Charlie. She does not know what to do. Marriage is a promise that no one else seems to keep, and yet to her the words spoken at the altar carry a sanction that hangs heavy on her life, down all her wedded years and to this day.

  Maureen checks her watch. Soon she must leave for work.

  *

  The workshop for Happy Heritage is much at odds with the products it produces. Instead of a thatched cottage, the works are enclosed within a prefabricated building rather like an enormous garden shed, only windowless, illuminated by huge sheets of chilly neon light. It gives the interior a stark, clinical appearance. There are around fifty people here, working on moulding, glazing, painting, firing, packaging. The figures produced by Happy Heritage are cheap ‘collectables’, a downmarket version of the far more successful ‘Lilliput Lane’. The goods are shoddy and break easily, but are individually numbered and hand-painted by a team of poorly paid housewives who sit at the end of the production line, finishing off the figurines – dray horses, rustic idiots, village pubs and, of course, thatched cottages – at a terrific speed, since they are paid by the piece. The results, which sell through mail order for between £20 and £30, are surprisingly popular, particularly in new towns like Milton Keynes itself

  Maureen works from a small glazed area to the side of the main production floor, as an accounts clerk. On this day, she finds herself daydreaming, staring out at the endless lines of historical gewgaws which pass within her sight. Her boss has gone out for lunch, and she has finished the tallying and checking that are her function here and awaits new tasks. In the meantime she sits and toys with the model of three smiling children by a village pond that she has in her pocket, out of sight. It is worth very little, but, as usual, the theft of it gives her a strange glow inside. She will give it to Peter that afternoon, she decides.

  She wonders what Charlie is doing on the picket line, wishes he was back at work. There is something awful, she decides, about a man without work. Not because they need it more, or deserve it more, but because for Charlie, for men, it is the best part of what they are. Maureen senses that she is more than what she does, but Charlie is not. What would Charlie be without his craft? She sees the fear in him, even now, that he might lose the battle, that he will be thrown upon the ever growing human scrapheap that hides behind the unemployment statistics.

  She stares through the window at the multitude of figures. Most of them are women, with bad skin and cheap make-up. Women, she supposes, like herself. Some are fixed over their work with bleak, lined faces, but others are laughing and joshing with each other. She likes her own sex, she decides. Men have been ruined by the tight packing they are pushed into. They have the power, they have the money, but they are shadows somehow. Even Peter is a shadow, but Maureen believes he can be redeemed in a way Charlie could not; the grooves of who he is are not so deeply etched.

  She yawns, checks her watch, sees her supervisor approach through a distant portal at the edges of the workspace. It’s not like being with Marie-Rose and the girls. There’s no fun in it. But the alternative, dabbling around the house all day while Charlie saws and plasters and screws and hammers at his pointless extension, seems to her the worst option, by far. She adjusts her clothing, checks her face in the mirror. How can Peter find it beautiful? But he does.

  She returns at three in the afternoon. Peter has arranged for them to meet at his house. She sees his car in the driveway and knows that he will be inside. There will be fresh flowers in the bedroom. The articles in the cupboards, once chaotic, have been rearranged, all Maureen’s work. Female touches have begun to appear in a stark and functional male environment. Pots of herbs, new curtains. She is seeping, like fresh blood, like water, into his life. Maureen has a drawer here with underwear, clean clothes.

  She walks in, using her own key. Peter is lounging on the sofa, reading Popular Mechanics. He does not get up when she arrives, merely looking up and smiling.

  You’re early.

  The bus was actually on time. She reaches into her bag. I bought you a present.

  She hands the figure over to Peter, removes her coat.

  That’s lovely, Mo. Thanks ever so.

  He places the figure in a space on the mantelpiece, then returns to the sofa and picks up his magazine again.

  Make us a cup of tea, will you, while you’re up?

  Maureen blinks. She runs her tongue across the inside of her lip, searching for ulcers, but there are none. Peter’s request hits her, for some reason, like a barely withheld slap. A quizzical
look slides across her face. For the first three months of their affair, on her arrival, Peter always had a bottle of chilled wine ready and little presents for her. He fussed and complimented, he grabbed her the moment he saw her. Lately, as his confidence has grown, these attentions have been fading. Yet she is convinced that he loves her. She cannot believe she would have done something so enormous with someone who did not love her. The perfunctoriness of his acceptance of her gift also rears up within her. Then she feels a smile of supplication generating itself inside her, of service. It begins to find its way on to her features. Peter settles more deeply into the sofa. Maureen snaps the expression back, crushes it with her new will.

  Make it yourself.

  What?

  You heard me. Make it yourself. Who am I, Mandingo?

  Who’s Mandingo when he’s at home?

  He’s a slave.

  Peter puts down the magazine, looks suddenly regretful.

  To Maureen’s surprise, instead of snapping back at her, he jumps up and grabs her by the waist.

  I’m sorry, Maureen. What was I thinking of?

  She is vaguely astonished. She had not known what powers lay beyond regretful smiles and the soft applications of guilt.

  After a glass of wine, which Peter fetches from the fridge, they play a game of checkers. It is not always just sex now, though the wine is loosening Maureen up, softening her. She thinks about going upstairs. A vase of flowers catches her eye on the windowsill; the flowers are dying.

  You should change the water, Pete.

  They’re too far gone now.

  I’ll get rid of them.

  She goes to the window bay, and, as she gathers the flowers, she glances up. She sees Charlie’s Allegro parked in the bay. She immediately takes a step back, flushes.

  Charlie’s back.

  Peter laughs.

  You look like you’ve been caught with your hands in the till. Don’t worry. There’s nothing peculiar about going to visit a neighbour for a cup of tea.

 
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