Rumours of a hurricane, p.24
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.24

           Tim Lott
 

  The jostling increases. As he makes it back to Lloyd he hears a chant from some of the balaclava-wearers, but cannot make out what it is. There is a bus coming towards the gates. Charlie looks towards the line of policemen straddling the Highway. Behind them, mounted police, batons hanging from their saddles. It is strange to see them here, hundreds of them, when no crime has been committed other than to strike.

  Behind the police lines there are raised terraces of benches on which the press and television crews arrange themselves, like spectators at an arena. At this moment, Charlie hates them as vultures, but thinks they are also maybe protection, although cameras and notebooks are sometimes snatched from them.

  Now he can make out the words of the chant, which is coming, he thinks, from the Class War lot. Or is it the Trots? They are goading the police line.

  Who’s got the brain tonight?

  The sergeant’s got the brain.

  The policemen’s faces are tight, angry. Suddenly, without warning, the crowd begins to surge past the invisible barrier that stands at the edge of the Highway. The police tighten their ranks. An officer reaches for a megaphone. The reason for the sudden press of bodies, a coach full of strike-breaking workers, comes into Charlie’s view. There are cries of ‘scab’ and ‘blackleg’ as it approaches the compound gates. It is becoming impossible for Charlie to read his book. He gives up and puts it into the pocket of his car coat. The noise increases. Lloyd leans over to him.

  Who is it in there?

  Can’t see. Hacks, I think.

  Pen-pushing pricks…

  A few stayed out.

  Twelve.

  They think we got it soft.

  We got it soft? Us? With their expenses? Sitting on their arses all day.

  There is the sound of a breaking bottle, then another chant begins, something about Margaret Thatcher. Charlie is aware of the police advancing slightly.

  What’s she got to do with it, then? says Charlie.

  What’s the whales got to do with it and all? says Lloyd.

  They’re like printers, isn’t it? Getting extinct.

  Charlie and Lloyd are being pushed along by the force of the crowd now. They are coming closer and closer to the police line. The officer with the megaphone begins to speak. It is hard to hear what he is saying. Charlie strains his ears.

  If… do not… vacate… ten minutes… consequences…

  A man with an Anti-Nazi League badge pushes hard up against Charlie. He knocks the Thermos out of Charlie’s hand. Charlie thinks he looks scruffy and needs to wash his hair. The man turns angrily.

  Watch it, mate.

  Charlie turns in astonishment, bends down to pick up his Thermos, grips it tightly. He feels suddenly angry.

  Who are you to…

  But when he straightens up, the man is gone, disappearing into the crowd towards the police.

  A man with a megaphone is standing on an upturned box, appealing for calm. Charlie recognizes him as a SOGAT official. He looks harassed and confused. Charlie cannot understand what he is saying.

  A flashgun goes off. There are reporters from other newspapers, lights for television cameras.

  The crowd is acting as one now. A large bullet-headed man whom Charlie recognizes as one of the printers from the works at Bouverie Street is pushing past. He comes very close to Lloyd, is pushed right up against him. Amid the tumult he hears half a muttered sentence.

  … coons doing here?

  He looks up at the printer, who has now pushed past Lloyd, who does not appear to have heard. Charlie thinks of remonstrating, but the man is big and he frightens Charlie. The man with the cropped head turns to Charlie now.

  This is a fucking circus. With pigs. He looks back at Lloyd. Pigs and monkeys.

  Charlie nods, mutters that it is, gives an automatic, polite smile. The pressure in his bladder is worsening. The crop-headed man pushes past him.

  Someone is standing on his foot. He feels garlic breath in his face.

  Now a police megaphone is sounding, this time distinctly. The voice, even through the distorting filter of the amplification, is hectoring, edged with menace. This time, Charlie hears the message clearly.

  Anyone in this area after I count to ten will be arrested.

  Charlie wants to comply but is trapped by the crowd. Off to his right a sudden mêlée. He tries to see over the heads of the men in front of him but can make out only a disturbed ripple in the crowd about thirty feet off. There are shouts of anger, cries, indecipherable curses. Then the tussle dies down as suddenly as it flared up.

  Behind him, there is some singing – West Ham Football chants. The confusion grows. The coach, windows covered by wire mesh, comes closer to the compound gates, still impeded by a wedge of bodies that have toppled police crowd barriers. Ahead, by the gates, the police stand firm, but Charlie gets a sense of tensing, of imminent release.

  A bottle flies over his head and crashes in front of the police lines. Another shout:

  Over the wall we go! All coppers are bastards!

  And:

  Pig! Pig! Pig!

  The coach inches forward. Demonstrators are spitting and hammering on the sides. Charlie is aware that the police have begun to beat their shields. He sees a video camera being held over the heads of the swaying crowd. A policeman knocks it down. TV lights illuminate the side of the coach. He squints, and sees nervous faces at the window. He thinks that he glimpses a bearded face with a roll-up sticking out.

  He checks again, is sure. Mike Sunderland, looking pale, face turned slightly away from the window. He has been promoted to chief sub-editor, features. Charlie sees him turn towards another journalist. Then he does something that shocks Charlie to the core. He laughs. He throws back his head and laughs.

  You have five seconds to comply.

  Charlie is freezing. He looks at the warm fug in the coach, feels a surge of intense, bewildering anger. The glint of a silver Rolex on Mike Sunderland’s wrist. He feels the Thermos of coffee in his hand and, before he can think what he is doing, hurls it in the direction of the coach. His throw is weak and it falls short and to the left, hitting a policeman on the shoulder. The top, which is only loosely attached, falls off, and hot liquid spills on the policeman’s uniform. The policeman winces and opens his mouth, bellowing. Charlie sees this clearly, feels shocked and regretful, then suddenly frightened, as the policeman points in his direction. Other policemen follow the direction of the finger.

  There are ten policemen on horseback. They too follow the policeman’s finger to where the flask of coffee came from. The moment holds, seems to be frozen, and then the coach progresses slightly more quickly now, nearly at the gates, which slide open behind the police lines.

  Suddenly, the front line of police, the snatch squads in there to pick out troublemakers, start to move forwards and the horses break into a trot. The line of pickets bends and breaks, and in an instant Charlie is aware of truncheons being used some twenty feet in front of him, and screams of pain. The horses are headed in his direction and he feels a surge of panic.

  Again, a bullhorn from the union representative, telling everyone repeatedly, uselessly, to keep calm. Missiles begin to fly towards the mounted police. Charlie looks round desperately. From behind him too, now, he sees police pressing the crowd in between riot shields. He has not seen fully kitted-out riot police before and their appearance is terrifying, inhuman. They are pressing the crowd together, squeezing it out. He looks forward once more. A brick has hit the coach as it moves through the open gates.

  Scab! Scab! Scab!

  Lloyd turns to him. His face, normally the warm colour of coffee cake, has drained into a sickly grey.

  Let’s go! Let’s go! says Charlie.

  But they cannot move. The crowd has pressed even closer, and they are being carried by the current of anger, retribution, the spirit of the ruck, moral indignation. Charlie cannot believe this is happening, feels it has nothing to do with him.

  Lloyd is trying to say
something else to him, but Charlie becomes aware of a police helicopter hovering above which swoops lower and lower, blocking out his voice. A searchlight comes from above now, dancing close to where he stands. The light is ghastly. On either side, police advance, half with riot shields and truncheons, half on horseback. Through the infernal row of the helicopter, he makes out cries of pain and anger. The police on horseback advance, raining down blows. He sees the crop-headed man fall to the ground under a blow from above.

  Charlie feels his heart beating so hard it seems to be knocking against the thin cage of his chest. He does not know which way to turn. There is a blow on his head; someone has thrown a beer can at the police line and it has struck him. Warm liquid dribbles down his face. He assumes it is blood, gives a cry, raises his hand to the wound. He examines the liquid. To his amazement it is clear, yellow. He raises it to his nose and recoils. The can is full of urine.

  An elbow is in his ribs. He feels he is going to faint. The noise is incredible. The coach is through the compound gates now. Suddenly things start to quieten and the crowd around him begins to loosen; the panic within him abates slightly. He looks around once more.

  To his horror, the mounted police are continuing in his direction, pointing at where he and Lloyd stand. He can see the faces of the policemen on the horses now and they seem to him robotic, inhumanly determined. The horses are massive, steaming in the cold air. He turns the other way, but the line of riot police is still there. Another protester goes down under the horses’ hooves. A placard with ‘Reclaim the Streets’ scrawled on it goes flying.

  Charlie now feels an overwhelming, irresistible desire to piss. He looks around desperately for an alternative, then grimaces, relaxes himself. He feels a warm stain spread out from his groin. Then another sudden movement of the crowd, a clearing of the stream, and the horses are nearly upon them. Charlie turns to try and move away; he hears voices from above. The policeman who got hit by the Thermos is right up in the front line of horses, shouting.

  It was the… there… Can you see him… there! There! With the…

  The policeman, Charlie realizes, is pointing at Lloyd. With amazing swiftness, the police at the front of the line move in his direction. An elbow hits Charlie in the guts. He buckles up in pain, then recovers himself, searches the horizon for Lloyd once more. He locates him immediately. Fixed plain in the field of his vision, a sight that liquefies his guts, stings his eyes.

  Lloyd has taken up the boxer’s stance, the stance he took in the pub before the fight at the Finsbury Park Astoria, legs apart, fists raised, chin high. In that moment he appears as a tableau, or a statue, lit by fierce blue spotlights, long shadows thrown on to the bodies behind him, elegant, poised, nothing but proud disdain on his face.

  He looks like a photo Charlie once saw in an encyclopedia showing a Victorian boxer squaring up to an equally courteous and posed opponent. In front of him, three policemen, truncheons raised high in the air. Charlie almost seems to feel the blow as the first strikes Lloyd square in the face.

  He wants to go back and do something, explain to them that it was all a mistake, that it wasn’t Lloyd, it was him, Charlie Buck, and that the Thermos was aimed at Mike Sunderland, not the police, but instead he merely speaks at a pitch barely higher than his normal voice, a sound that is immediately swallowed up by the crowd noise.

  Leave him alone.

  A policeman nevertheless turns towards where he is, as if he has heard, and starts moving in his direction. He panics, turns, and so senses rather than sees Lloyd go down under three, four blows to the head. He is too scared once again to do anything. Suddenly a gap in the crowd opens, like a gasp of relief, and he is able to break through it.

  He turns once more, sees Lloyd holding his head while he gets dragged away as if into the maw of a great blue, hydra-headed beast. In the direction Charlie is travelling, the riot police advance step by step. The line comes to an end about twenty yards to his left. Charlie makes for the gap, hoping that he can break past it and out into Wapping Lane, where the crowd has scattered into free-moving pockets.

  He pushes and shoves. There are women in the crowd. One to his amazement has a baby on her back. Both the child and the mother are screaming. He stops and shouts at the woman, asks if she wants any help. Tears run down the woman’s face. All he can hear is, Fascists!

  Why has she brought a baby to a place like this? He wants to help her, wants to go back and help Lloyd, but he sees the end of the line, sees an escape from the terrible crush and threat.

  He suddenly breaks through. A thirty-foot dash and he will be free. The last policeman on the line of riot police is moving into the crowd and away from him. A gap opens in the crowd and he runs to make his way through it. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a single policeman peel off and shadow his course. He increases his pace and the policeman increases his also. He is shouting something.

  He feels a huge panic squeeze the air out of his lungs and he tries to run, but trips over the kerb that is the only barrier now between him and the apparent freedom of Wapping Lane. He tries to get up, but he realizes without looking that the policeman is above him. He hears his breath, seems to feel his shadow.

  He bunches his hands over his head, waiting for the blows to come, arches his body downwards to protect his genitals. He winces and bends, catches the sour aroma of his own urine drifting up from his groin.

  The impact does not come. Instead, he feels a hand on his shoulder. The helicopter has retreated and the sound begins to drop. Moments pass. He is vaguely aware that the crowd is drifting away from him. The hand is moving, trying to turn him upwards.

  He gradually uncurls himself, waiting for the retribution that must now come. Risks a glance upwards in what is left of the light. The policeman is invisible behind a visor, but he sees that he is slowly, almost tentatively, lifting the visor up. As it rises, he feels the knot of fear in his stomach change its configuration. The sick sensation now is one of recognition, of gathering, horrified amazement.

  Robert.

  He reaches up to his head, brings his hand down, and sees it is covered in sticky darkish brown liquid, vaguely understands that he is bleeding. Robert’s face is stricken. Other policemen behind him are beating their shields.

  Dad, I’ve… There’s a first-aid post…

  Get away from me.

  I wanted to tell you. I was waiting until… I thought…

  He tries to get hold of Charlie’s arm, but Charlie, eyes wide, shrugs him fiercely off.

  This is Tommy’s doing! Tommy put you up to this!

  Charlie feels himself backing off, Robert becoming very slightly smaller in his vision, his perspective shrunk. Robert seems unable to move.

  Uncle Tommy… it was his idea but… I’m not like… It’s two years of training… a professional career…

  How much you making? How much you getting? What’s the going rate now for a tickle?

  Nothing. Nothing, Dad. I’m not the same as Uncle Tommy, I’m just trying to…

  You’re just like him! You’re just like him! You’re just like him!

  Then Charlie senses a space clearing behind him, sees Robert take a step forward, reach out an arm, and Charlie recoils, turns, runs, doesn’t stop running until his breath chokes in his throat and he can feel the very trees and fronds of his lungs running with salt and acid and the bitterest of bile.

  12

  It was the only decent job he could get.

  Charlie is lying in bed with Maureen. Maureen has told him the whole story – about how Robert has been training these past years, keeping it all concealed. About his unimagined grandson, about how Robert needs to support his family now. Charlie feels exhausted by all the new knowledge, scoured by it. He hates Maureen for her deception, but also understands it somehow, a mother’s love for her son the strongest thing.

  His pyjamas feel uncomfortable, twisted on his body, and he cannot get them straightened somehow. He has his hand down the back, scratching his butto
cks. Stress expresses itself for him here, ignobly, in rashes and itches. Maureen notices but tries to ignore it. He and Maureen lie like this, six inches of clear space between them. The pillows, freshly laundered by Maureen, have a faint floral aroma that Charlie enjoys, better than real flowers.

  What was he doing before?

  Oh, this and that. Rubbish jobs, says Maureen sadly. Like working in burger bars. Didn’t have much in the way of qualifications. The manager had a degree from bloody Cambridge. What chance did he have?

  No wonder he didn’t want to see us.

  He didn’t want to see you, Charlie. Because he thought you’d be ashamed of him. So he heard about police recruitment – from Tommy, yes from Tommy, of which he didn’t approve but went for an interview anyway. They wanted him. Can you imagine what it feels like to be wanted, when McDonald’s don’t even want you? Big call for police. He was on the miners’ strike too. Made a fortune, he says. He says he likes it. He likes being a copper.

  What does he like about it? The kickbacks?

  No kickbacks, Charlie. Robert’s not like that. He likes the uniform. It gives him a bit of respect. You don’t get much respect doling out Bender Brunchburgers, do you?

  I can’t believe he would go up against his… his own father, says Charlie.

  Maureen watches his face, cannot believe that he is not slightly enjoying the melodrama, in the way that she has found herself doing lately.

  Maureen tries to imagine the scene at Wapping, without success. While Charlie was being chased down Wapping Lane, she was in bed with Peter, having the miracle of cunnilingus performed upon her.

 
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