Rumours of a hurricane, p.27
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.27

           Tim Lott
 
You know about… things. You can do your job. You can fix the house up. You can make – your special worlds, your railway worlds. You’re a decent enough man. I’m no better than you. I’m worse. But there are whole parts of my life that… that you just don’t know.

  Charlie nods politely, feels that he needs to go through the charade that this makes sense.

  You should have just let everything stay the same, Charlie. You would have been better off. All these changes. Changing things is dangerous.

  Charlie tries to ignore this.

  Never mind me. This isn’t about me. Why did you steal all those things?

  When Maureen answers, it is without pause or reflection.

  It felt good.

  It did? says Charlie.

  Yes.

  What did? What exactly?

  A lot of things.

  What kind of things?

  This is excruciating. He wants to take Maureen, to shake the knowledge out of her, but he has never laid a hand on his wife in all the years they have been together.

  I don’t know really. The taking of them. Getting away with it. They just put it all out in front of you. They make you want it, don’t they? They build it into their budgets.

  What?

  Thieving. They allow for it. So it’s not really all that bad. But actually it wasn’t the taking of it. It wasn’t really the stealing. That was just the exciting bit. But that wasn’t what made me keep doing it.

  A pause. The conversation is like a gun with empty chambers save for one live, deadly bullet. Each sentence is a trigger pulled. Charlie feels himself bracing.

  What was it then?

  Click.

  It was the fact that nothing happened.

  What?

  I did a bad thing. And nothing happened. I did it again. Still Nothing happened. I did it again and again and again. Nothing happened, Charlie. There were no… consequences. Do you understand?

  Charlie looks, and feels, utterly blank.

  What on earth are you talking about? he says desperately.

  Click.

  You can do things, Charlie. You can do things, and what the world says is going to happen doesn’t. It makes all sorts of things possible.

  Click.

  All sorts of things?

  Click.

  Yes. And then… something else. It gave me something else.

  I’m listening.

  He tries to regain the initiative by sounding stern, in control, even as he knows he is a small boy waiting hopelessly in the headmistress’s chamber, fateful cane looming on the wall.

  When I came here, Charlie, I was so lonely. Everything was gone. My whole world was gone.

  It was a new start. It was our new…

  It was just… it was like a big nothing. All the people Yd known. Everything I was familiar with. All gone. But I did it for you. I had nothing, though. You had your job, your trains, your new house to boast to Tommy about. Your cards, your damn extension. You had me. I even gave up my job. I know you thought it was pin money. That it counted for nothing. But it was my job. And I needed something else.

  Click.

  You need to be a robber, do you? A villain, like Tommy?

  Secrets. That was the best thing, secrets… When I stole, it gave me something of my own. Something that had nothing to do with you. And I had these secrets, and they felt good, and nothing happened.

  Yes.

  And then, I wanted more secrets. Or, if I didn’t exactly want them… I wasn’t afraid of them any more.

  More secrets?

  Yes.

  Suddenly a piece of information collects and coalesces inside Charlie.

  Click, bang.

  When you drove here just now?

  Yes.

  Maureen knows what is coming. At last, she welcomes it.

  You were alone?

  That’s right.

  You can’t drive alone. You haven’t got a licence.

  There is a long pause, in which Maureen alone knows that the entire span of her married life hangs in the balance. She can still step back. For the last time ever, she can step back. She draws breath one more time, cannot find the strength to stand between the hammer and the powder.

  I have, Charlie. I’ve had a licence for a year.

  No, that’s not true. You haven’t.

  Then Charlie nods as if he fully understands and approves this information.

  But… you didn’t tell me.

  No.

  Why not?

  Now the truth blows at him, bitter wind, but he turns his back to it, huddles.

  Because…

  Because you just wanted another secret, right? You wanted to keep it a secret that you could drive.

  That wasn’t the secret, Charlie.

  The slug finds its way to Charlie’s temple, begins to bury itself. Imaginary blood falls invisibly, mixes with the red paint around the blurred, treacled coating on the miniature steam engine.

  It wasn’t?

  No. It was an excuse.

  For what? says Charlie, although he already knows.

  Peter. Me and Peter… Peter and I… we…

  Charlie nods. The bullet has reached his brain, exploded with a blinding flash, with its terrible cargo of knowledge.

  Charlie stands up quietly, prosaically, then pulls Maureen to her feet, feels his fist come back. It is as if he is outside himself, watching as the punch lands on his wife’s sad, collapsing face. She falls to the ground. She does not make a sound. He wants her to scream, to beg for mercy, to accept retribution, to undo everything that has been done, but she does not make a sound. He kicks her once; she gasps. Her chest harder than he would have expected. She lies amid unworn clothes, seeming to turn the colour of parchment, but it is only the late afternoon light.

  Charlie stops as suddenly as he has started, begins to cry. He has never cried in front of Maureen before, never cried at all, since he was a child. He falls to his knees. Maureen gives an almost-smile, tasting the blood in her mouth as she does so. She reaches up. She strokes his arm, even as she feels consciousness slipping away. She sees a crumb of food at the side of his mouth, feels herself reach up weakly to wipe the mess away. Outside, the wood in the conservatory creaks as it contracts. A snail crawls upon the roof, trailing silver.

  Charlie puts his hand over Maureen’s, then feels it slide away. He pulls back. He sees the hammer resting by the base of the chair. Slowly, as if in a dream, he picks it up. It seems graceful, weightless, yet reassuringly solid. He tests his grip on it, feels its firmness between his suddenly old fingers. He stares down at his wife, batting her hands feebly in the air. The moment holds.

  Then Charlie turns and rushes out of the door, hammer still in hand. He runs, he runs, he runs, blindly, not sure where he is going, and does not stop. A cold wind batters him. He runs across one mini-roundabout, then another. A man in an anorak passes him but keeps his head down.

  In two minutes, he is where he now realizes he wants to be. He hurdles over the fence at the edge of the field. He goes for the smallest first, the calf, mottled black and white like all the rest, takes a single swing at its stupid, blank, indifferent head. Three strikes are enough. The cows are more fragile than he had thought, chicken wire and spray concrete, the lumpen solidity only an illusion. The head falls into the grass.

  He attacks all the other five before he is exhausted. Then he collapses in the middle of the decapitated herd, his breathing agonized, tears pouring out. Six concrete heads surround him like a ritual circle. What’s left of the cows – neck, body and legs – still stands around him, mutilated, finally indestructible, entirely indifferent.

  14

  The divorce lawyer – greased, slicked-back hair, florid jowls, lips that always seem wet – gazes at Charlie with what aspires to be absolute neutrality. But Charlie feels sure that there is pity there and it frightens him. He feels shrunken inside his clothes, which are smart – grey suit, tie, a shirt too big for him, polished shoes. He is intimidated by
lawyers, their unnatural brisk efficiency in the face of expanding human chaos. When Charlie speaks he barely recognizes his own voice. It is parched, small, like Maureen’s once used to be.

  What happens now?

  I presume she’ll file a petition as regards your unreasonable behaviour.

  My unreasonable behaviour? She’s been going at it with my next-door neighbour for the past … God knows how long.

  It hardly matters whose unreasonable behaviour it is. The courts don’t exactly take into account whose fault it is.

  But she’s been betraying me all this time.

  Mr Buck, you beat her up.

  At his words, Charlie seems to shrink further inside his suit, his neck seems to protrude like a turtle’s from its shell. He puts his head in his hands.

  She should get it all, after what I’ve done. All of it. I don’t deserve a penny. I can’t believe that I…

  The lawyer cuts him off. He has heard it all. Human beings, he has discovered, are almost entirely predictable in these particular circumstances.

  You won’t always feel the same way. The future, as they say, lasts a very long time. Is she going to press charges?

  I don’t think so.

  Well, that’s some good news anyway. It’s not going to look good in the family court, though. But the bruises will have faded by then, thank heavens. Anyway, most cases don’t make it that far. There’s no question of custody here, of course. No dependent children. It’s just a matter of a financial settlement.

  What’s going to happen? What does it all boil down to?

  There are two sides to this. Capital and income. Let’s take income first. What is your employment situation? You are a …

  The lawyer consults a sheaf of papers in front of him, makes a small moue.

  You are in the printing trade. And you are currently involved in an industrial dispute. What is your legal status in terms of employment?

  What you mean?

  Do you have a job?

  I’m not sure. Strictly speaking, we’ve all been sacked. It doesn’t look good.

  Is there any question of redundancy?

  It’s hard to say. There’s some kind of fund being suggested. From what I hear it’s peanuts.

  Well, whatever it is – if it comes to that – you will be doubtless expected to make allowance for your wife – or ex-wife, as she may well be by then – in the final settlement. Of course, if you have no income, you will not have to pay her maintenance. But if you do start to get yourself back on your feet, then she will be able to apply to the court at any time for an adjustment.

  What? You mean even if she’s left me for another man, and he’s looking after her, and she’s doing nothing all day, I’ve got to pay her money?

  I’m afraid that’s the case, yes. Typically 20 to 30 per cent of your income.

  Charlie nods. The collar is scratching at his neck. He is not used to dressing formally and it makes him feel awkward, forces his words out in a way that seems artificial to him.

  And what about the matter of capital? says Charlie, giving a small cough.

  What are your present assets?

  Assets?

  Let’s start with the house. What’s that worth?

  Charlie feels himself puff up slightly, feels his status move a degree closer to that of the lawyer, whose professional objectivity he can’t help but see as contempt.

  Well over 100 grand. Maybe 120. And it’s in my name of course.

  I’m afraid, says the solicitor sadly, that is irrelevant.

  How can it be irrelevant? says Charlie. I worked my guts out to make the money to put up that deposit.

  Nevertheless. The law will see it as a joint asset. And the mortgage?

  Thirty K. Just under.

  And what else is there?

  Not much. A few stocks and shares. Tell Sid, you know.

  Charlie fills his suit out a little more. He is a shareholder, a possessor of financial products, something he never dreamed of.

  Any proceeds from these, you will expect a proportion to go to your wife.

  Shock is beginning to work now, all the grief of the last few months beginning to coalesce into this moment. Some events are not stuck in time; they unfold endlessly within. He stares out of the window, sees three birds he cannot identify standing next to each other in a tree he cannot name. They twitch and shuffle, open beaks for dumb, inaudible song. His mind drifts towards them. In the distance, he hears the solicitor’s voice again.

  Does your wife have any sole assets?

  Maureen? What do you mean by sole assets?

  Money or possessions that she might consider to be hers alone.

  Charlie shakes his head confidently.

  No, no. Well, only what she kept for both of us.

  The solicitor raises an inquisitive eyebrow.

  I’m not quite sure what you …

  Maureen didn’t really believe in banks. I used to hand her my wage packet every week. She’d take something out and put it in a box somewhere. It was a fair sum.

  How much, precisely?

  I’m not sure precisely. Last I heard, it was about twenty-five K. That’s a lifetime’s saving. It was going to go towards our pension.

  The solicitor makes a note on the pad in front of him. Something about the way he bows his head makes Charlie anxious.

  And where is this money kept?

  Maureen puts it somewhere. Under the floorboards. In a box, a strongbox.

  And it’s in cash you say. Do you have any proof of its existence?

  Charlie now feels bewildered.

  Proof of its existence? Why would I need proof of its existence?

  The solicitor brings out from a yellow buff file a thick wad of papers and begins to leaf through them.

  As you know, I have now received Mrs Buck’s financial disclosure forms and there is no mention of this sum.

  Charlie looks back out at the tree. The birds have gone. He sees something come free from the branch and begin to descend, turning in the air. A sycamore helicopter. His mind scours itself for the appropriate explanation.

  She’s worried about the Revenue, I shouldn’t wonder.

  But I understood you were a schedule E employee? All your tax would have been paid for you.

  I sometimes did extra shifts. Not at Gray’s Inn Road. That was schedule D. Maureen did a bit of work for pin money. She never declared it. I expect that’s the reason. I’m sure that’s the reason.

  So are you telling me that you and your wife are going to come to a private agreement about this sum?

  Yeah, I’m sure that’s it.

  I see.

  There is a heavy pause. Then the solicitor picks up a pencil and begins making calculations on a blotter in front of him. After about thirty seconds, he speaks.

  At the end of the day, Mr Buck, if I may sum up, if we assume that your valuation of the house is correct, and we add on the other bits and pieces, and then deduct the proceeds of sale, and of course my fees and court charges and so forth, and we assume that you achieve 40 per cent of the capital value of your house…

  What do you meant, 40 per cent?

  Well, I’m afraid that since you are unable to pay your wife any significant maintenance, it may well be that she receives the lion’s share of the capital in order to compensate for this. The courts are rather old-fashioned in this respect, I’m afraid. They consider that the woman has less potential for earning than her partner.

  But my career is finished! There’s not going to be any more work for compositors! Not with all these new computers everywhere. And I’m fifty-six years old. No one’s going to want to employ me.

  Nevertheless, the courts will still be liable to see your relative position as advantageous over that of your spouse and, in lieu of maintenance, are liable to make a favourable award bearing that consideration in mind.

  Charlie shifts uncomfortably in his chair. The future, already thin, translucent, seems to stretch tighter.

  What
am I going to get left with, then?

  Bottom line? I think you’re probably going to make it out of here with around £40,000. If Mrs Buck plays with a straight bat.

  Charlie repeats the sum very quietly. To his surprise, having turned it around in his mind, it still sounds like a considerable amount. He thinks of it stacked up in £1 notes, how much space it would fill.

  Plus half what Maureen has got stashed, of course.

  The solicitor smiles. To his surprise, Charlie notices that he seems to be smiling genuinely, with real amusement, for the first time.

  Of course.

  Charlie sits in the front room of Tommy’s house in Chingford. He has just arrived. He looks around him disconsolately. In the hall, yellow emulsion. The living room is decorated with blue and white pinstriped wallpaper from Colefax and Fowler. His heels click as he walks across the bare floor.

  When you getting some carpets in, then?

  It’s meant to be like this.

  You’re having me on?

  Floorboards. All the rage. Ask Lolly. She gets all the magazines.

  He gestures towards a matt-black magazine rack. Charlie notices without surprise that there are cuts all over his knuckles. The magazine rack is full of copies of The World of Interiors.

  A baby bellows in the background

  Lorraine! Do something, will you?

  You do something! comes the retort.

  It is from upstairs, where Lorraine is applying a sponge soaked in Autumn Verbena emulsion to the bedroom wall. She is finding it difficult to achieve the effect required. Her lips move as she struggles to pick up the tips laid out in the copy of House Beautiful that she has spread out in front of her. The waterfall of peach-coloured ruche that falls from beneath the pelmet has been carefully covered in transparent polythene to protect against paint splashes.

  Do you want a cup of tea, Charlie? says Tommy, walking over to the kitchen.

  We’ve just had a whirlpool bath fitted. Want a look?

  Not at the moment, Tommy.

  Go on. It cost me…

  I’m really not in the mood.

  Tommy, disappointed, returns with a cup of tea and sits with Charlie at a table by the window. Tommy has also placed on the table a bottle of Scotch and two glasses. Charlie pours himself a large glass and takes a hefty slug. The window is criss-crossed by leading that Tommy has bought at trade price and now features on every window in the house. Above them, replica wooden beams complete the country-house effect. The baby’s cries louden. Tommy shrugs and pours himself a whisky also. Despite the fact that he has always thought of his brother as a mug, a stiff, it pains Tommy to see him in such a condition. For the first time in his adult life, he has that day witnessed his brother’s tears. Charlie has been struggling to convey the enormity of his situation to Tommy, but so far little has emerged other than curses and blanket condemnations of the opposite sex, to which Tommy has nodded sympathetically. Now Charlie has entered one of his periodic glum silences. Outside there is a low grey sky pressing down on the estate of identical red houses, like a rag of ether on an invalid’s face.

 
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