Rumours of a hurricane, p.26
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.26

           Tim Lott
 

  Oh, I don’t think…

  Maureen is surprised by the steel in her voice. New, unsuspected aspects of herself are surfacing all the time now, the surprise of spring crocuses.

  It’s not going to happen, Peter. Why would it happen? You’ve shown yourself as being prepared for second best. You’ve threatened to leave three or four times. They laugh behind your back. They know you won’t do it. They’ll never make you a partner.

  Peter lies, his naked body soft and shapeless as an ink blot, his cock shrunk to almost nothingness. He seems stunned.

  What are you saying?

  I don’t know what I’m saying.

  But Maureen is tossing a thought about, fighting the temptation to deliver it. It is too large, too revolutionary. Yet it emerges all the same, the rough weight of the words threatening to chafe her throat raw as she speaks them.

  Start your own business.

  Come off it, Maureen. How am I going to get the money for that? The mortgage on this place is too big. I’m still paying maintenance for three kids. I couldn’t handle the stress on my own.

  What if you weren’t on your own?

  Maureen’s eyes light up with the daring of her own idea. She thinks of Marie-Rose, with her business, she thinks of the excitement of moving those columns of figures around, all that energy turned to black hooks and spindles on the page. She remembers Dallas, the shining grail that is commerce. Oil wells. Fancy foreign sports cars. A fleet of six Ford Fiestas; the M&P Driving Centre. This is the name she suddenly favours.

  Peter sits up at this point. His belly is loose and covered by a fine down. Maureen, too, is naked, flesh spreading in all directions. To each other they are holy.

  What are you saying?

  I could do the accounts. Help with marketing, administration. I’m good at all that. Charlie always says I’m an organizational genius.

  Pete looks momentarily excited, then sinks back on the pillow.

  Yeah, but… where’s the money going to come from? It’s a pipe dream, Maureen. It’s Scotch mist.

  Not necessarily. My and Charlie’s house is worth well over £80,000 now, especially when the conservatory is finished. The mortgage is only £30,000. I’ve got some cash hidden away. If we skimped it, there’d be enough to get off the ground. I mean, if we… if we were…

  She has never spoken the word before and finds it sticks on her tongue. She works to expel it. It is ugly, overwhelming in scale.

  If we were divorced, Yd get half of everything, wouldn’t I?

  If you were divorced?

  I’m not saying I would get divorced. I’m just daydreaming really. But it’s not completely mad, is it?

  I don’t know.

  How much is a car?

  Slow down, Maureen. Hold on.

  What?

  I don’t know if I’m cut out for business.

  Maureen suddenly becomes aware of something she experiences as fierce heat along the pylon of her spine. It is excitement.

  I am, though, Peter.

  What do you mean?

  I could do it. I’m good with figures. I’ve got a qualification in accountancy. I understand about money. I could run the business side.

  You? But you’re… but you’re…

  What? A woman?

  Well. It’s not that exactly.

  It is that. It’s that exactly. Listen, Pete. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life making cups of tea and chit-chatting down the supermarket. I’ve had enough of that. If she can do it, then I can. She was a housewife, wasn’t she?

  Who?

  Her. Mrs Thatcher.

  What’s she got to do with anything?

  Everything. Maybe nothing. I’m just saying. They snap to attention when she comes into a room. All those shiny men. When I come into a room, people ask me if I’ve got any digestive biscuits.

  Peter looks blank.

  Have we?

  Would you leave your job, Peter?

  It’s a big risk.

  Would you?

  I don’t know, Maureen. If I did it…

  What?

  If I did it… Well, it would be a hell of a thing, wouldn’t it?

  Wouldn’t it, though? says Maureen, biting at the edge of his ear now and moving her hand down, down through the white-grey forest of his chest.

  Charlie stands back, adjusts the F-stop, focuses, takes a photograph. The conservatory is complete. He already has ninety-six colour prints in an album that charts the progress of the extension from holes in the mud to this epiphany, this perfect moment.

  The extension is Georgian hardwood, French doors included as standard, with three-point Espagnolette locking system. Full-coat microporous spray factory finish in deep mahogany. Double-glazed, of course. Pitched roof, powder-coated aluminium, with decorated crest finials. A 600mm dwarf wall. He inspects each feature with a deep sense of satisfaction, ticks the list off in his mind. The red brick matches the brick of the house almost perfectly. Sunlight pours in through the six glass panels of the windows. Although the whole thing is bought as a kit, it takes considerable skill and resourcefulness to put it all together. He wants to celebrate. Three feet from where the dwarf wall stands, the miniature railway track runs. Thus his invented world expands.

  He wants to celebrate. The strike at Wapping grinds on and he feels that this is the only good and complete and successful thing he has done for the past twelve months. With his sleeve, he wipes at a smudge of fingerprint that he has left while fitting the French doors. Otherwise it looks just as perfect as it did the day he saw it in the London Modern and Traditional Conservatory Company catalogue. He considers how superior the world of materials is to the world of humans; how, finally, screws and cement and wood and steel bend to your will, take the shape of the promise delivered in blueprints.

  Maureen!

  Maureen is indoors studying The Highway Code for her next test. Sometimes Charlie thinks that she will never pass, but he admires her determination. Nothing seems to put her off her lessons. Peter Horn has even offered a 20 per cent reduction in the hourly rate, which strikes Charlie as decent, neighbourly and also a feat of superhuman patience.

  Maureen!

  Maureen emerges from the door that leads from the lounge into the conservatory. She is framed there in sunlight. She wears slacks from Principles and a plain white blouse. Charlie’s glance extends to a gaze. He is surprised that he finds her beautiful and something chokes tenderly within him. The move to Milton Keynes, he decides, has suited her well, despite all her reservations. The open air, the promise and possibility of the place. The get up and ruddy well go. She pushes the French doors with bronze-effect handles and comes out into the chilly air. The worn copy of The Highway Code is gripped in her left hand. He walks across to his wife, kisses her on the cheek, puts his arm around her.

  Guess what, kiddo?

  What?

  It’s finished, Maureen. It’s actually finished.

  Maureen smiles. Her smile, Charlie has noticed, is different lately. Less perpetual, and yet this seems to indicate a greater happiness. When it comes, it has more force than before, more radiance.

  That’s marvellous, Charlie.

  Irregardless of all the other stuff that’s been going on, I feel… well, I feel satisfied.

  She smiles, pecks him on the cheek, folds her arms, then stands back to examine her husband’s handiwork. What she sees satisfies her. She feels genuinely proud. Charlie nods in approbation. She has not seen him this happy for a long time.

  It’ll put ten, fifteen Κ on the price of the house, easy.

  I’m sure you’re right.

  You’ll never guess what they sold that place up by the junction for.

  Which one?

  You know. Number 7, I think it is. A dog’s dinner. No double-glazing. No car port. One less bedroom than us, I think. There was a board outside. Where the Pakistanis were.

  They weren’t Pakistanis, Charlie. They were Sikhs.

  The Indians then. With
the skip outside. And guess what it went for.

  I don’t know.

  Go on, guess.

  I couldn’t.

  Charlie feels a shimmer of irritation spoiling his moment of joy.

  Guess, Maureen. Take a wild guess.

  About £80,000?

  Disappointment edges his mouth.

  That’s right.

  There is a pause, while the exultation over the extent of their new wealth overbalances the disappointment at Maureen’s prescience.

  So what does that make us, Maureen? Hey? We’ve got an extra bedroom. And now this extension. This place has got to be worth over 100 K. Think, Maureen. The mortgage is only £30,000. We’re worth £70,000. And it’s going up every week. Every day!

  Maureen smiles. She has already made her own set of calculations, involving division rather than multiplication.

  Who’d have thought?

  Who would have thought?

  I think this deserves a celebration, don’t you? A glass of bubbly.

  Coca-Cola or Tizer? says Charlie resignedly.

  Charlie is still discouraged by Maureen from drinking.

  I think we could indulge in a little bit of the real thing, don’t you? I’ll nip down to the off-licence and get something.

  Really?

  You’ve earned it.

  No need to go down the offy.

  How’s that?

  When we first moved in, I had a few bottles. I wanted them out of temptation. So I squirrelled them away.

  Fetch them out, then, Tufty.

  We’ll chill it down in no time.

  Charlie moves past Maureen into the main part of the house. He feels complete, for once. He feels like a man.

  Where have you hidden them, you sneaky thing, you little squirrel? says Maureen, giving a pout that she usually reserves for Peter.

  Charlie is leaving the room now, grinning broadly.

  In the attic.

  Charlie is not there to witness the blood drain from Maureen’s face. She whirls round.

  Charlie…

  But Charlie is already moving up the stairs. A few seconds later she hears the hooks at the end of pole that unlocks the loft ladder seeking the steel eyes. She scurries along behind him, gabbling.

  I thought we’d get something special. Maybe some proper Moët.

  This is the real McCoy. Vintage. I got it as a present from Tommy. A while ago. Top-of-the-range fizz.

  Maureen scrabbles about inside her head for ways of escaping this danger. She thinks momentarily of pretending to faint, but abandons the idea as ridiculous. Charlie already has the hatch open and is climbing through. She tries to calm herself. There is no reason to think he will find what she fears. She searches for an ulcer to probe with her tongue, but there are none. Along with her verrucas, they have disappeared, disorders neutralized by the newness of her life here.

  The loft light has blown. It’s dark as hell up here. Jesus God Almighty.

  The light from the landing beneath just illuminates the attic enough for Charlie to move forward as his pupils dilate to allow in what available light there is. He cannot quite remember where he put the bottles, only that they are on the far side of the attic. He strikes a match and the attic space is illuminated by flickering yellow light. On the far side, under the strut of a roof beam, he can just make out the plastic Asda shopping bag that contains the bottles.

  The pitched roof is low. He takes tiny steps, balancing on the struts that support the ceiling beneath, not wishing to risk the plasterboard. The match is extinguished by a sudden draught. He fumbles for another, and as he does so he stumbles and falls.

  Damn and blast!

  Still prostrate, he reaches in his pocket, finds the matchbox. He lights a match once again, decides this time to proceed on all fours. In the corner, just to the right of where the plastic shopping bag is, a sheet of hardboard rests across the struts. He crawls across it and reaches out a hand, gains purchase, then pulls the hardboard back. The match goes out again. He fumbles with the matchbox once more but drops it. His mouth is dry. He feels suddenly desperate for a drink, had forgotten how much he has missed the faint burn of alcohol on his tongue, its sweetness in the blood.

  Jesus God Almighty.

  Now using only touch, he feels about for the matchbox. There is a gap against the wall where the hardboard stops and he imagines that the box may have fallen in here. He moves his hand about, seeking, a tiny animal scuttling through the dark. Charlie is surprised at the texture he feels in the gap. Instead of dry dirt and wood, there is something silky. He registers, to his surprise, that a faint whiff of perfume is detectable. He rubs what he finds between his finger and thumb; some kind of cloth. Letting go, he continues his search for the matches, then realizes that there is more of the material down there. After another thirty seconds or so, he finds the matchbox. He strikes; the scene is illumined.

  At first in the dimming yellow match-light he cannot make out what it is he sees. There are a few plastic bags. There are piles of material. He can just about make out the names – Next, Principles, Marks & Spencer. These are flotsam floating on a sea of coloured cloth. There are what look like scores of items here. Even in this struggling light, he can now see that they are clothes, brand new, apparently unworn. The match shears down to his fingers, burning him. He fumbles, lights another. Now his hand is shaking slightly. He sees that the colours in front of him all blend into a shadowy blur, but as he picks at the pile he can make out shapes. There are dresses, slacks, coats, underwear, tights, skirts, blouses. There are three pairs of leather gloves, two pairs of knee-length boots. Scarves, sweaters, cardigans. It is a whole collection. Charlie’s mouth sags open, takes in dust. He swallows, feels a clogging there. His thirst redoubles, turns from simple desire into need. His mind works to make sense of what he is seeing. No explanation fits. His mouth closes, purses, opens again. When he speaks, his voice is croaky, hollowed out.

  Maureen!

  There is no reply.

  Maureen! What the merry hell…

  But when Charlie descends the ladder once more, backwards, smeared and layered in dust, grime on his face, tragic champagne still in one hand, Maureen is gone.

  Charlie sits and stares out of the front window. Maureen has been gone for five hours now. The light is fading, turning brown. He shifts uncomfortably, feels a hardness beneath him. There is a hammer which he has been using to finish up the extension that has worked its way under his pillow. He removes it, puts it by the base of the chair and settles back down. He pours the last of the second bottle of champagne into a glass and smokes the tenth cigarette of the previous hour. An overflowing ashtray is in front of him. There is a sour fug of smoke filling the room.

  A newspaper is laid out in front of him, and three or four cans of Humbrol paint. His hand shakes slightly as he applies a final layer of red paint to the casing of an LGB American-style Mogul 2-6-0 Tender, a turn-of-the-century steam engine. Through sight slightly blurred by alcohol, Charlie scrutinizes his work. Paint runs in blobs and colour overflows into colour. The shell is a terrible mess. But he continues to paint, randomness incrementally gathering. A smear of red falls on the bare metal of one of the wheels. He does not bother to wipe it off.

  When he finally hears a car pull up outside, he does not bother to do more than glance up. He sees the Journeyz sign on top of the Ford Fiesta and registers, without understanding the implications, that Maureen is driving the car unaccompanied.

  He continues to paint as he hears the key in the lock. Maureen walks in, and he sees her at the edge of his field of vision, staring at the clothes that cover the floor, that cover the chairs. Dozens of them. The colours are clear now. They are strong, unapologetic. Bright yellows and blues, echoing candy pinks, greens the colour of new sprouting leaves. The front room has become a soft, static kaleidoscope. Maureen picks her way through the items until she reaches a chair opposite Charlie. She sits down calmly. She looks at Charlie directly. He had expected an averted g
aze.

  Aren’t you going to take off your coat?

  It is all that Charlie can think of to say.

  There’s no need.

  Charlie nods, as though he understands. In fact, he has no idea why Maureen does not remove her coat. He is expecting her to lighten herself, to prepare herself for contrition.

  His head clears slightly and he feels that he needs to take a no-nonsense approach, that he needs to clear the air.

  You stole these, didn’t you?

  He is surprised by the strength with which Maureen answers in the affirmative. There is no shame, no apology. He has an odd sense of his inner stance moving towards the defensive, but cannot understand why.

  Yes.

  There’s dozens of them.

  I expect so.

  I’ve never seen you wearing any of them.

  No.

  Mystery mounts upon mystery. He reaches for his glass, but finds it empty. He is expecting words from Maureen, even imprecations, but nothing is coming, and this throws him off balance. He decides he must plough on through the heavy air.

  Why? Why on earth would you do something like that?

  I don’t know.

  You don’t know?

  Maureen’s face is tight. Charlie is unsettled by the fact that it seems to contain not contrition but a kind of packed determination.

  I don’t know.

  Right.

  Charlie taps cigarette ash into an overflowing crystal ashtray. Instinctively, Maureen stands up and reaches for it, goes to empty it into the rubbish bin. Charlie grabs her arm.

  Jesus God Almighty, Maureen. Leave that!

  Maureen tamely puts the ashtray back down again, returns to her chair. Charlie sees lines on her forehead working as if she is processing something heavy and sour inside.

  The trouble with you, Maureen, is…

  The trouble with you, Charlie, says Maureen, suddenly cutting him off in a way that is unprecedented. Then her words hit some closed door, rebound. Oh, what is the trouble with you?

  Maureen searches for language that has been locked down for so long that she has forgotten its location. Finally, in cool blue light, she discovers it.

 
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