Rumours of a hurricane, p.25
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.25

           Tim Lott
 

  What’s Robert going to do now, Charlie?

  Huh?

  Will he be able to come and see us?

  Charlie looks at his wife, almost catching her eyes directly. They have not looked straight into one another’s eyes for many years, both afraid of what they will see there. What he sees now is an ache that seems to slightly arch her entire body.

  I don’t know if I can forgive him.

  For what? For finding himself a proper job. He had no choice.

  He had a choice all right. He could have been a printer. He would have worked by my side.

  It doesn’t look like that would have done him a great deal of good in the long run, does it?

  Instead he’s Tommy. Son of Tommy, Tommy Mark 2, the sequel. What do you mean, it wouldn’t have done him any good?

  Maureen pinches the bridge of her nose, as if to more carefully contain her thoughts within her head.

  You’re not going to win, are you, Charlie? The printers aren’t going to win. He’s never going to have you back after all this.

  It’s not down to him. We’ve got to fight for the…

  Charlie! You’re not looking at it straight.

  You don’t understand, Maureen. The union will wear Murdoch down. We’re not Australian criminals. Not like him. I’ll have my job back. Everything’s going to be like it was.

  Nothing’s ever like it was, says Maureen, and she turns and closes her eyes.

  Charlie lies awake for another hour, staring up into the darkness. The six inches that yawn between him and his wife never narrow.

  Excuse me…

  I’ll be with you in a moment.

  Charlie stands awkwardly in the corridor of the hospital. A woman is parked on a gurney six feet from where he stands. He can’t help staring at her. Streams of ordinary humanity drift past her, carrying gifts or wearing white coats, bearing syringes or anonymous packages. A child is crying, is placated by a lollipop. In the midst of this sputtering life, the woman on the gurney.

  He does not want to catch her eye, or to make contact, so when he glances it is surreptitious, furtive. There is almost nothing of her to see. The bulge she makes under the white worn hospital sheets is tiny, like that of a child. But it is her face that draws his gaze. It is so extraordinarily ancient.

  Her mouth hangs open slightly, a gap that once kissed, told of a good or bad day at work, spoke of small disasters happening to distant relatives. It trembles now, and a thin line of spittle like shredded spider’s web hangs from it. Her skin is scored deep like a dry river bed. She is shrunken as if she has lain in a bath for a week and the skin has sagged to overwhelm the flesh. Charlie does not know why he cannot stop watching her. He decides it is the contrast between the shape under the white sheets and the bustling rivers of indifferent life flowing past. The way they refuse to see each other. He hopes suddenly that his life will never come to this.

  Take me quickly, Lord, when my time comes, he mutters to himself.

  He glances one last time. To his shock, she is staring right at him, right into his eyes. Her eyes are small and black, tiny scooped-out olives, dully reflecting the strip-lighting overhead. They terrify Charlie. They are not blank and lost, as he expected, not sad or dopey or distracted. They are horrified. They contain a universe of fear. They are utterly self-aware.

  Just before Charlie tugs his gaze away, the arrangement of the woman’s face shifts slightly. He cannot make out what the expression is, had thought that she was somehow incapable of expression. Then he sees it is a smile, just the tiniest of smiles, and he senses that it is directed at him. He shivers. He feels obscurely that she knows something awful about him.

  Can I help you?

  What?

  Can I help you?

  Oh. Yes. I’m looking for Lloyd George.

  The receptionist, a woman, black and huge, the size of a manatee, isn’t even looking up. Her tone is completely flat.

  We’re very busy. We don’t have him, or Jim Callaghan, or Lord Kitchener for that matter. If you could please tell me who you’re looking for, I’ll direct you.

  His name really is Lloyd George. Not the Lloyd George. He’s a coloured chap. Was admitted a couple of days ago.

  The nurse looks up sceptically.

  He’s black, is he?

  Coloured, yeah.

  He’s black. Afro-Caribbean.

  Whatever. Whatever. Why’s everyone so sensitive about everything nowadays? Why’s everyone always offended.

  We’re not all from Bongo-Bongo land.

  What you talking about? I never said… Look, luv, could you just tell me where he is, please.

  My name isn’t luv.

  Oh, Jesus God Almighty. Can’t you just tell me where he is?

  She pauses, then slowly and deliberately checks a ledger that is in front of her on the desk.

  Florence Nightingale ward, second on your left.

  Charlie turns towards where she has pointed. He sees, with relief, that the woman on the gurney has disappeared. He walks down the corridor. There are paintings by children decorating the walls. Charlie likes the effect, it cheers him up.

  He sees doors opening on to wards spectrally full of half-hidden patients. This other world is making him more and more uncomfortable. He enters the Florence Nightingale ward and sees Lloyd immediately. His face is a mess. The nose is broken, a cheekbone fractured, the left eye swollen. His chest is tightly bound and there is a drip running into his arm. He sees Charlie, but instead of smiling raises an eyebrow, gives a small mysterious nod to himself. He mutters something inaudible.

  Charlie stands next to the chair by the bed.

  How are you feeling, then?

  Lloyd does not answer.

  Not too much pain?

  The silence is awkward and long. Charlie’s legs are hurting.

  Mind if I sit down?

  There is a grunt from the bed that could be a negative or a positive. Charlie sits down, crosses and uncrosses his arms.

  So it’s not too bad, then?

  Lloyd grimaces. When he finally speaks, his voice sounds dry, hoarse, pressed down into himself.

  What do you want Charlie?

  A nurse comes by, smiles and makes a few adjustments to Lloyd’s drip.

  How are we today, Mr George?

  Depressed.

  Oh, come now, she says briskly, apparently registering nothing of this. You’ll be up on your feet again in no time.

  And with this she is gone.

  Fair bit of crackling, says Charlie, struggling to stay bright. Nurses, eh?

  Again, Lloyd doesn’t respond. Charlie takes a deep breath.

  What’s got into you, then? Why you got the hump?

  Lloyd shifts under the bedclothes, then winces in pain.

  I haven’t got the hump. That’s the one thing I haven’t got. I’ve got a broken rib, a split lip, a busted nose, a bruised face and two fractured fingers, which leaves me only six in total. Nothing wrong with my hump.

  But, Snowball, what’s it got to do with me? Why have you got the hump with me? It’s just the way the cookie…

  Just the way the cookie crumbles, kiddo.

  Lloyd is mimicking Charlie’s voice like a schoolboy tease.

  Well, what has it got to do with me?

  Apart from the fact I took your beating for you.

  Yeah, well, I didn’t mean… I mean, that wasn’t my fault. It was Mike Sunderland. He was laughing, Snowball.

  Lloyd nods again, as if to himself. When he speaks, his voice has changed. It is now far away, disconnected from the scene somehow.

  You know, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in my head. A good licking like that, it kind of sets you to thoughts, if you know what I mean. Clears the old brainbox.

  Charlie, encouraged by the less hostile tone, smiles.

  Like kicking the telly.

  If you want to think of my head as a telly.

  I didn’t mean… The police just made a mistake…

  No mistake
. The reason they came after me is because I’m a black man.

  Oh, I don’t think…

  Now Lloyd sits himself up a little, turns to look at Charlie for the first time.

  You don’t know nothing. It was because I was a black man. You should have heard the verbal I was getting. Nigger this and nigger that. They was having the time of their lives. And then they fitted me up for it. ‘How do you like it now, golly?’ While they were making the statements. I said, I never threw the thing at the policeman. And you know what they said?

  What?

  They said, ‘Yeah, we know.’ And they just had a laugh.

  That’s terrible, Snowball, that’s…

  That skinhead that walked past you. Just before the charge. I heard what he said to you.

  What you talking about?

  He called me a coon. A fucking coon. Then he said something to you. Said I was a monkey. And you smiled.

  Charlie suddenly feels sick, never knew shame could make your stomach so tight.

  Well, what was I supposed to do? I mean, it didn’t mean I agreed with that type of attitude…

  I don’t know what you were supposed to do, Charlie. But that wasn’t it.

  I wanted to say something, didn’t I, but…

  Now Lloyd tries to sit up. He winces in pain. Charlie reflexively reaches over to try and help him, but Lloyd bats his hand away with surprising strength. He has shifted position enough to look Charlie right in the face.

  It wasn’t the first time either, was it? ‘Three times you did deny me.’ That’s what Jesus said too. Who was it, Charlie?

  Jesus? What are you talking about?

  Paul, was it? Or Mark. Some white… motherfucker anyway. Three times. And I turned the other cheek. Hyacinth, she told me to turn the other cheek, because she believes in all that Jesus rubbish, that crosses and angels thing. The boxing. She told me, she said, ‘Turn the other cheek, Lloyd. Charlie is your friend.’ That poor man, that poor sad man in the animal skin, so humiliated, Charlie. And you were on the edge of the chair. I looked at your face, and you wanted him dead. You wanted to kill him yourself, kill him and scrape him off that canvas. I had to walk away, Charlie, there and then, because if I’d seen any more, well, I wouldn’t have been able to fool myself any longer that you were different.

  Charlie becomes aware of the soft beep of the monitoring machine next to Lloyd’s bed. He finds the steady rhythm comforting, tries to concentrate on it.

  Then you invited me to your brother’s house, for cards, with Tommy, and your son, and Mike Sunderland, and your brother, he won’t even shake hands with me, won’t even fix me a drink. I am that much of nothing to him. And what do you have to say about it, Charlie? I listen, I listen for a word from my old friend Charlie, that you will not put up with this, that you will not stand for this, but all you do is play cards. All you do is play cards. All you do is win money so you can show yourself big in front of your son and your brother, your brother who you need to impress so much.

  But, Snowball, I didn’t do anything…

  You didn’t do anything. You didn’t have to do anything. You didn’t do anything at Wapping. You people never do anything.

  Lloyd begins to cough, so loud and harshly that Charlie thinks of calling the nurse, but it soon drops in volume, then disappears altogether. In the silence that follows, Charlie begins to try and pick some words to drop into the emptiness that he now sees gaping in front of him.

  You’re being…

  I know you think Mike Sunderland is full of shit, and he is, he is full of shit, right to his pasty little evil-shit right-on eyeballs. But on this one, he was on the but-ton. I thought it weren’t like that with you but it is. I thought it was Marquess of Queensberry rules between you and me, but it ain’t.

  Charlie feels another surge of shame, but also defiance, irritation, that Lloyd is being hysterical, unreasonable.

  Steady on now, Snowball. It’s all a bit much. Coloured people…

  What colour am I, Charlie? You’re not no colour, is that right?

  Charlie is now completely bewildered. Lloyd has never talked like this before.

  Black people. Afro-Caribbeans.

  Now Lloyd’s voice has taken on the faraway tone again.

  Look at my face, Charlie. I’m a man who was beautiful, a man who could have been a boxer. If he didn’t want to save his pretty face. Pretty funny, eh, Charlie? Especially with the face now. What a waste, eh? Now I’m as ugly as all of you. As ugly as you.

  Charlie can think of absolutely nothing to say. Lloyd’s voice has now quietened to the smallest of whispers. His eyelids are flickering. It is as if he’s falling asleep, can hold on to his slender drift of consciousness no longer.

  No. Not as ugly as you.

  Charlie dredges at the cold ocean inside him for words, but the silver fish dart away, far from his net.

  Snowball, we’ve been friends for nigh on fifteen years. Can’t we…

  And another thing, Charlie.

  What. What is it? says Charlie numbly, leaning over to hear Lloyd’s whispered words.

  Don’t call me Snowball.

  I…

  My name’s Lloyd.

  He holds his mutilated hand up, flaps it faintly.

  You can go now. Tired. I’m tired.

  What?

  Tired.

  At this moment, the nurse appears as if out of nowhere.

  I think Mr George has had enough. I think you should go now.

  Lloyd has turned over and has his face on the pillow, his eyes closed. Charlie adjusts his clothing, stares at the nurse, rubs his nose, tries desperately once more to think of something to say that will make this come right, but sees no possibility, not now or ever. He gets up from the chair, and when he speaks, he is surprised to find his voice relatively normal, if a little loud, a little brisk.

  Right then, I’ll be off. See you, then, Snow… Lloyd.

  Lloyd makes no sign that he has heard him. Charlie looks up at the nurse, who smiles firmly and points towards the exit. Charlie just stands there. Then he holds up a hand, as if in farewell, lets his arm drop and walks slowly away.

  13

  January 1987. Maureen is on top of Peter, pushing her pelvis down upon him. She is amazed at the sensations she experiences now, powerful concentric ripples moving upwards and outwards within her that she thought existed only in the bodice-rippers and Black Lace novels that she used to read, in the soap operas that she used to live for but now almost never watches.

  Peter makes the slightly high-pitched combination of a whistle and a groan that marks his moment of climax. He holds Maureen tightly by the hips, pushes her down upon him. She centres her gravity, feels him expand and contract within her. His face excites her, the way the lips are shot with blood, the deepening colour of the cheeks, the odd absence in the eyes. He is gone; she feels satisfied beyond measure, in control.

  His body relaxes but she stays there, until she feels him begin to slacken within her, until the extraordinary fullness is gone. Only then does she climb off. Peter is looking at her, a face shocked with adoration. It is amazing to her, this look which Peter seems to summon almost routinely, a look Charlie has never given her. Maureen falls down on the pillow, smells the pot-pourri that is set by the bed. A thin shaft of sunlight streams into the room. She is, she is surprised to register, happy. A feeling forgotten for so long.

  There is silence for several minutes, as if out of respect for what has occurred. To speak sooner would be a violation. They both stare at the ceiling, eyes open, holding hands.

  I love your body, says Peter.

  She has given up being bewildered at the adoration this man has for the grooves and swollen slackness of her flesh. The complete acceptance of her has left her free to stop exercising – no more running, jumping, stretching, stepping, power-walking, high-impact aerobics. It is an extraordinary relief, and a relief she feels Peter Horn has given her as a gift. She loves him for it. What else does Peter have that marks hi
m out? Wounds. The deep understanding that things go wrong. Charlie has always had a certain blindness.

  Why won’t you leave him, Maureen?

  Maureen finds this question increasingly difficult to answer with honesty. The fact that she and Charlie are married feels, in truth, less and less insurmountable to her, as she starts to gather and select and focus purely on information that she finds comfortable. Marriages, she has begun to tell herself, break up all the time. It has become, without anyone ever announcing it, almost normal. No two people could be expected to spend a life together now that people live so long. Outdated convention. People change. Her conviction that it is sacrosanct, untouchable, is tarnished. As Peter says, once you are being unfaithful, how sacrosanct can it be? And this is hard to answer. Nevertheless, she routinely makes the same reply.

  You know why. I made a promise.

  Now the real reasons for her intransigence unexpectedly surface within her. She feels pity for Charlie; she does not have the strength to be so cruel. She wants him to pick an argument, so she can blurt it out, but Charlie’s even temper, his particular sense of fairness, stands in the way. Barely a cross word, a raised voice, in their years together. She tries to provoke him often now, but Charlie will not rise to it.

  Also, she is scared. The slab that is their history, that is always on their horizon when she turns her gaze behind her, projects a shadow which almost blots out imagination. The complete uncertainty of a future without Charlie makes her heart race. But she tries to create runnels in her mind for the possibility to leak into.

  I don’t know how long I can go on this way, says Peter.

  Why don’t you leave that driving school? says Maureen.

  This thought also comes from nowhere. Maureen finds herself more and more surprised by the subterranean parts of herself. It is not something she has previously considered. She is as surprised as Peter by the idea.

  What?

  You’re always moaning about how hopeless it is. How they don’t promote themselves, how the cars are breaking down half the time, how the drivers miss appointments.

  They’re going to offer me a partnership.

  They’ve been going to offer you a partnership since year zero. It’s not going to happen, Peter.

 
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