Rumours of a hurricane, p.23
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.23

           Tim Lott
 

  But why’s he back? There must be something wrong.

  I doubt it. He’s probably gone on strike again for something or other. Maybe one of the journalists picked up one of the printers’ pencil sharpeners.

  He’s already on strike. He’s on a full day’s picket. I’d better go.

  Peter says nothing, stands up, walks to where she stands by the window and puts his hands on her breasts, in full view of anyone who happens to glance in.

  You can spare five minutes first, can’t you?

  She shakes him off angrily.

  Don’t be stupid! People have got nothing better to do in this street than gossip with each other.

  Peter takes a step back.

  So what if he does find out! He needs to find out. He needs to be told. This is driving me up the wall. What’s he got to offer you any more? You want someone who treats you right, someone who can look after you. All he thinks about are his silly trains. Trains and that extension… Half his life he’s down the MFI warehouse, the other he’s Casey Jones. You said yourself you’re just going through the motions, you said yourself you hate it when he touches you, you said yourself…

  Maureen pulls on her coat, her back to Peter, who is now jabbing a finger in her direction.

  Shut up.

  What?

  Shut up, Pete. Charlie is my husband. We’ve got a kid together.

  A grandchild, she adds to herself silently.

  She thinks of little Charlie, with a stab of guilt beneath her heart. Robert has promised her he will tell his father soon, that he will be ready soon. The training for the new job is finished, he is respectable.

  You don’t just kick twenty-five years under the carpet.

  Twenty-five years, twenty-five minutes, what’s that got to do with it? The past is all… it’s all in your head, isn’t it? It’s happened, it’s gone. It’s what was. Now is what matters. Now this minute. You and me here in this room.

  Yes, and now my husband – my husband – has come home, and I’ve got to go and see what’s the matter.

  I bet you’ll make him a cup of tea, says Pete with a sulky dip in his voice.

  Maureen turns.

  I will make him a cup of tea. And I’ll give him a biscuit as well.

  Good. You want to throw him a bone as well? He’s like a bloody pet more than a husband. Anything he’s ever done is because of you.

  Goodbye, Pete.

  Goodbye. There is a violent silence. You cunt.

  She slams the door after her, tries to calm her breath. Pete swings the door open after her, his eyes wide with desperate regret.

  Maureen, I’m sorry I said that. You just hurt me. I didn’t mean it.

  But Maureen begins walking. Pete runs out after her, grabs the sleeve of her coat.

  Maureen, I…

  The Sikh who lives opposite at number 7 and runs what Charlie says is a sweatshop out on a business park in Bletchley emerges from his front door. He raises a hand in greeting.

  For Christ’s sake, Pete. Behave, will you?

  Sorry. Sorry.

  He raises his hand in belated acknowledgement to the Sikh, and Maureen waves cheerily. Then she turns to Pete, hisses under her breath although the street is otherwise empty.

  I’ll give you a call later, Pete. Now let go of my coat and stop making a scene.

  Peter, after holding on for a beat more, lets go and retreats, while Maureen, her face flushed, moves off towards number 12.

  As she covers the hundred or so yards back to her own house, thoughts flash into her head unbidden. Despite her fury at Pete, she is amazed to find her own life so much like a soap opera, and is secretly excited. The shouting, the held arm. Cunt. It is as if, viewed through a new window, her existence has refracted into fresh colours. Emotions have become swollen. Risk scatters possibility in all directions. She is the thief of Peter’s heart, of a widening range of designer clothes from carefully lit chain stores, of heritage figurines, of time itself. Now she expects a new drama. In her head there is an invisible spotlight illuminating her as she takes each step towards home.

  Walking through the door, she knows something is wrong, because Charlie is sitting at the table. Simply sitting there, staring at nothing. This is something he never does. He keeps himself busy from the moment he gets inside, tidying up, setting to work on the house, painting his models for the American trains in the garden. If Charlie sits, it is with a newspaper or the television on, or one of his Mantovani records playing at a sensible volume. But now he just sits, doing nothing. It sends a tremble of apprehension through Maureen.

  Something else she notices. He has a highball glass of clear liquid in front of him and she knows it cannot be water, because Charlie always drinks water out of a tumbler. In highball glasses he drinks spirits. She feels certain it is a glass full of vodka or gin. He has not had an alcoholic drink since they moved to the house. Charlie, still not registering her presence, takes a swig that drains half the glass. Maureen searches her vocabulary of phrases for the right thing to say. She has given up watching soap operas, finds them empty and pointless now, but nevertheless she wonders what Alexis Carrington would say, or Angie if it were Dirty Den. She believes with absolute certainty now that Charlie has discovered her affair with Peter. Hovering above her fear is a kind of excitement about the largeness her life is now attaining. Charlie looks up. His eyes are only slightly hazy. There is no accusation in them, only astonished grief. Then he looks down at the table again.

  Charlie. What’s wrong?

  It is not the phrase she had hoped for. It seems inadequate and hangs thinly in the air. She waits for the laying to waste of their life. Maybe twenty-five years is nothing after all, just connections glowing darkly in the brain.

  They sacked me.

  What?

  They sacked me, Maureen. They sacked everyone. Five thousand of us. Just like that.

  Maureen can take enough of this in to feel relief, then registers guilt chasing it. The shame in her delight that Charlie has been sacked rather than discovering her affair.

  Who sacked you? Why? she says dumbly.

  Charlie still does not look up.

  Mike Sunderland was right all along, wasn’t he? They’re only out for profit. They don’t care about nothing else. The years I’ve worked for that firm. I got this letter. It’s like one of those what-do-you-call-its. A form letter. I’ve got six months’ notice. No offer of redundancy even.

  Nothing at all? I thought they had an £80 million fund.

  That was before we went on strike. It’s been withdrawn.

  It’s a bluff. Isn’t it? They’re always bluffing.

  Look at this.

  He holds out a newspaper with a paragraph circled. A quote from an anonymous member of News International.

  ‘Once these people go out, it will be the last time they do it, they won’t come back, never, never.’

  Maureen searches desperately for something to say now that will match up to the enormity of the event. But all she can manage is her lifelong default, her English embrace.

  Oh, Charlie. Do you want a cup of tea?

  Charlie sighs gratefully.

  Yes. Yes, please. That would be very nice.

  The uttering and execution of this familiar ritual is in fact comforting for them both. When Maureen sets the cup in front of him, she touches his shoulder with the flat of her hand. It is as close as she can come to an embrace, with Peter’s memory so near. She feels the fierce sourness of betrayal in her stomach for the first time.

  What are you going to do?

  Charlie looks up, determination in his eyes.

  I’m not going to end up down the dole, I’ll tell you that. All that ‘gissa job’ type of attitude. No. I’m not my son. I won’t be my son.

  Charlie is shaking his head furiously. Maureen speaks gently, for fear of pushing him into some territory where no return is possible.

  They call them job clubs now.

  Now Charlie is practically shoutin
g.

  You can call a duck a sausage roll, but it’s still a duck. Anyway. I’m going to fight it. We’re all going to fight it, to the hilt.

  How can they bring the paper out without you all?

  It’s the bloody electricians’ union. Bloody scabs. They’re doing our jobs. Nonces, untrained Herberts. If that Australian convict thinks he can do things here like he does down under, he’s got another think coming. We’re going to smash his new plant to pieces. We’re going to bring him to his knees. Our leader says he’ll be on his knees in two weeks. We’ve got a right. A right to work, the right to do a job, the right to work at Wapping. We’re going to rise, like, like…

  He takes another swig of the vodka, his eyes blur another degree.

  … like rats from the rubble! That’s it, Maureen, like rats from the rubble!

  Maureen gently takes the glass of vodka out of his hand.

  This ain’t the answer, Pete… I mean, Charlie.

  What?

  Charlie looks up, confused, ploddingly processing the words he has just heard. Maureen feels panic rise up in her, but packs it back down.

  Charlie, Charlie. Sorry, darling. I’ve been spending so much time on these driving lessons, I don’t know if I’m coming or going. Pete’s giving me extra lessons before my next test.

  Charlie grunts. He feels no suspicion, merely resentment at the expense of the lessons and the inadequacy of his wife in being unable to pass the driving test.

  Give the glass back, Maureen. It’s just the one. I’ve had a rotten day.

  You’ve not drunk since we’ve been in this house. Don’t you think it’s a bad idea to start again now? Please, Charlie, for me.

  He looks at his wife, contemplates momentarily what his life would be without her. Something gives way within him. He nods.

  Put it down the sink if you want. I don’t even like the taste any more.

  She leans over to her husband and gives him a peck on the cheek.

  OK, Rock.

  You’re my rock. We’ll pull through this, kiddo. You wait and see. Things are going to get back on course, Mo.

  He looks at the extension.

  I don’t know how I’m going to finish that blooming thing without any money coming in.

  We’ll manage somehow. I’ve got my little bit of pin money. I know that you’ll get your job back.

  It’s a good investment, Maureen. You’ll see.

  I know, Charlie. I know it is.

  And she reaches across and kisses his cheek, smiling determinedly, relentlessly, as she does so.

  11

  Charlie, in a cloth cap and thin brown scarf, sits on a concrete bollard in the fading dusk, now being supplanted by blazing spotlights from within Fortress Wapping. He is surrounded by a jostling mass of bodies. There are thousands of people outside the News International enclosure. Charlie has never seen it so jammed up. He stares at the extraordinary mixture of ages and faces and expressions. But there are only six pickets allowed outside the gates. The rest of the 6,000 or so demonstrators and pickets are kept back across the Highway by the thousand or more police, some mounted, most on foot. Many carry shields and batons; kept in police buses for hours on end, they are bored and keen for a fight. Charlie thinks to himself he must invite Tommy along one of these days. He’d have a field day.

  Like the last big action in ‘79, it has the texture of a kind of war: long periods of boredom, interspersed with moments of excitement, rage, even fear. The police here terrify him. He has seen women and children beaten to the ground. In the pub he was drinking in earlier, they came in mob-handed and pulled about two dozen people out, laid into them, no provocation. These police are not like the avuncular coppers he has seen on TV – they wave their wage packets at the strikers from their buses, laugh as they attack. He hadn’t imagined there were so many Tommy Bucks in the Met.

  Above and in front of him, the high fences, protected by rolls of razor wire sometimes three layers deep. The cutting steel butterflies wound through the thick cable. Around here, all the old warehouses are being turned into apartments. Tower Bridge is lofty, above the fray, in the middle distance.

  He looks behind him and notes the banners that range above the crowd. Most are union banners, but there are also the SWP, Class War, Save the Whale. Some of Class War wear balaclavas and carry black flags. To his disgust, Charlie notes that one of them has impaled a pig’s head on a spike on the railings.

  He wonders what whales have got to do with anything. Charlie doesn’t care about whales, about class, about beagles that smoke two packs of Silk Cut a day. He wants his job back. He wants the past, intact. He wants a brown wage packet with real money inside that he can give to Maureen every week, that she can squirrel away under the floorboards.

  Lloyd stands next to him, shifting slowly from foot to foot. A Volkswagen Beetle passes, moving very gradually, plastered entirely with strike flyers and stickers, speakers blaring from the roof. In the air, the smell of cinnamon, from the old spice warehouses. There are dozens of familiar faces from the old print works at the Gray’s Inn Road, and many more he does not recognize. Daytrippers. A scattering of football supporters that have somehow found their way into the mêlée. There are a number of women with kids. One revealed her breasts to him as he made his way along the lines. She has a sticker over each nipple: ‘Don’t Buy the Sun’.

  He feels out of place, ridiculous. He wants to get on the train back to Milton Keynes, but this is a twenty-four-hour picket and he is committed to sitting out another five hours yet. He tries to concentrate on the book he has brought with him to pass the time, a Ken Follett thriller. He likes it, the way the plot moves along so fast, all so neatly tied up in the end. Life with shape, and justice, and retribution.

  He decides he is hungry. A hundred or so yards away is one of several refreshment vans that regularly attend the picket.

  Want a snack, Snowball?

  From one of those vans?

  No, I thought I’d pop round to the Savoy. Get some pheasant and game chips.

  I’m not eating from those vans. Cat food. Food for dogs. Dogs in the food. Hyacinth made me up something. I don’t like it tonight, Charlie.

  You don’t like what?

  The vibe-ration. There’s something ugly here. I’m looking at him.

  Lloyd grins, rubs absently at his nappy hair with his mutilated hand. The first time he saw it, it revolted Charlie, but now it is part of Lloyd, the absence comprises part of his friend. He would be disappointed if it were somehow made new.

  This crowd is ugly. All you people are ugly. I’m the only, the prettiest man in Wapping, London. Cause I never did fight. Cause I looked after my beautifulness.

  Charlie regards him. A spotlight is shining down on him from somewhere, making his skin shine. A thought comes that embarrasses him: Snowball is pretty, or at least handsome, a fine-looking man in his middle years. Tall, still powerfully built, with a nose that was angular rather than flattened out, big liquid eyes, high cheekbones. Perhaps his stories about himself and the ladies were true, that he was a blade, a one-time Notting Hill dandy. But Charlie dismisses the idea as too far-fetched. Snowball, of Snowball and Hyacinth, of Willesden Green Dominoes Club, hanging round with Johnny Edgecombe and the Keeler mob. Even the stories about him being a boxer he can’t quite believe, although the footwork looks authentic every time Snowball does his party piece.

  See, even you fancy me, Charlie. I can see the way you look at me. But you too ugly, bwoy. Maybe I’ll give Maureen an opportunity one day. A fine woman for a back-a-bus like you.

  Charlie shakes his head, measures the density of the crowd between him and the refreshment van. He decides it’s worth a try.

  Are you sure now, Snowball? Nothing at all?

  Lloyd’s smile has faded.

  It feels bad here tonight, Charlie. I can feel it in my water, in my piss, Charlie.

  Charlie’s hunger gnaws at him.

  We’re too old for this kind of thing, Snowy. This is
Mike Sunderland’s department.

  Not any more, says Lloyd bitterly.

  No, says Charlie.

  You know what he said to me, Charlie?

  You saw him?

  I bumped into him, yeah. On the street. Coincidence. I didn’t want to talk to him much, but he insisted.

  You talked to him? That scab? Wave a salary rise and health package and promotion, and he’s so far up Murdoch’s arse he could clean his teeth for him. Some bloody socialist.

  I talked to him. He was justifying it all, you know. Said his therapist had helped him to think it all through. That he was just suffering from guilt, see.

  And the therapist cured him.

  That’s right. That’s what he said. The therapist cured him. So now he could take the money, see. Because if he didn’t someone else would, and that they would probably be a fascist and a racist and that he would be better inside working inside the system, he used that word, the system, than being out on strike and everything. That he would be more use.

  You let him buy you a cup of coffee?

  No, Charlie. I wouldn’t let him give me a glass of water if I was starving.

  Or dying of thirst.

  Or even that, yeah.

  Talking of food, Snowball…

  He turns away from Lloyd.

  I’ll be back in a minute.

  He fights his way through the crowd to a tea van called the Costa Del Wapping. They offer the usual roadside standards, plus some local specials: ‘Chilli Con Wapping’ and ‘Wapping Hot Pot’.

  Do you want a coffee, mate? says the vendor, a short pale man with a thin head of greased black hair that curls over his collar and then flicks upward.

  I brought my own.

  Charlie holds up the Thermos that Maureen has prepared for him. As he does so, he feels a pressure in his bladder, the faint urge to piss. The Portaloos are a hundred yards away through the thickest part of the crowd. He decides to hold it till the crowd thins out a little.

  What else, then?

  I’ll try the hotpot.

  He nibbles at the hotpot as he makes his way back to his place. Not bad.

  The police are zipped into boiler suits with no numbers or ranks to identify them. They are shifting around nervously. Charlie decides Lloyd is right about the atmosphere. Something sour in the air. He pushes through the dense crowd, reading the banners as he goes. ‘Murdoch is Bad News’, ‘East Enders Reclaim the Streets’. The locals have had it tough, hassled, stopped and searched, just for living here. There are people selling badges and left-wing paraphernalia. In the distance he can hear the sound of a marching brass band, some far-off procession approaching.

 
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