Rumours of a hurricane, p.29
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.29

           Tim Lott
 

  He goes to a control box, which is concealed within a model signal box, and engages a switch within. There is a low thin whistle, and the train begins to move along the track, heading away from the station and towards the mountain. Its progress is predictable, inevitable, entirely satisfactory. Charlie watches it make the circuit with enormous pleasure. He does not care to make himself rich through this new business. He simply wants to be able to spend his time doing what he loves with a passion that sometimes feels evangelical.

  For half an hour, he arranges scenery, polishes engines and models on the shelves, cleans dust and grit that remain from the refurbishment of what was once a hardware store off the floor. On a shelf behind the desk, alone, centred, he keeps the empty Leek and Manifold engine casing that was Robert’s Christmas gift in 1980. He takes it down and dusts it off. One day, he thinks, but does not finish the thought. He carefully replaces the casing.

  Still, no one arrives, but at exactly 10.35 a middle-aged man carrying a briefcase and looking faintly annoyed opens the door and walks in briskly.

  Hello, says Charlie. Do you know, you’re my first customer? Welcome to the Milton Keynes Model…

  Where’s the post office?

  What?

  Do you know where the post office is?

  It’s just over in the main shopping centre.

  Where’s that?

  Charlie gestures faintly with his hand towards the north, where there is a large and obvious covered mall. Without another word, the man turns and leaves. Charlie regards the tank locomotive making its umpteenth ascent of the polystyrene mountain. It seems to struggle to reach the top. But it always makes it in the end. Thinks Charlie.

  Maureen feels like shouting at Peter. She does not understand why he cannot grasp what it is she is trying to say.

  We have to be absolutely realistic about cashflow, Peter. It is not important to our customers whether they have the full set of optional extras when they are learning to drivel It’s just money down the drain. Don’t confuse your personal tastes for business. This business is about giving people what they want, efficiently, at the lowest possible price. It is not about having leather seat covers, or electric locking or all the other nonsense that the manufacturers load up the price with. Let’s keep it simple, let’s keep it basic. We start small, we start slow. We get ourselves known, we build up by word of mouth.

  But we have to advertise…

  Of course we have to advertise. We’re not in contradiction to each other. But we have to target the right group. Who’s learning to drive? Mostly people in their late teens and twenties. You advertise in the local paper, well, young people don’t buy the local paper, it’s for old fogies like me and you. You’ve got to go where the business is. Leaflet discos, the colleges. There’s that huge university campus. Knock lessons out cheap for students. I’ve done the figures, Peter, you haven’t. I know where we stand and I know where we have to get to.

  Peter feels winded. He is frequently amazed by Maureen, about how little she resembles the woman he first met, when he stumbled into her house with a bottle of wine. He had thought then that she was just a housewife, much like his own ex-wife, dull, kind, dutiful. But now he sees her pushing through the sheaf of papers, making precise marks in the margins, concentrated, even fierce. It still astonishes him, and he finds that he likes it, that he loves it, that he loves this woman who has so much direction and, well, get-up-and-go. She has transformed everything.

  Have we sorted out that problem with the switchboard?

  I think so.

  You think so? Or you know so? I’ll check.

  Maureen and Peter are sitting in the prefabricated building in the small car park from where they work. Peter is wearing no jacket, exposing purple City-trader braces unnecessarily supporting his snug trousers from Next. There are only two grey chairs and an ordinary desk in the room, and a small bench for anyone waiting in an even smaller anteroom. There are three second-hand Ford Escorts outside, bought by Maureen’s divorce settlement, but they are proving expensive to service and maintain and the customers do not take to them. Maureen has made the decision to buy some new vehicles this autumn. Peter gets excited, wants a raftload of extras. He has all the big ideas, which Maureen has to water down with her instinctive practicality. As a partnership, thinks Maureen, it works well, it balances up. Peter gave up his job to take a chance on her. This evidence of faith she will not forget.

  Has our ten o’clock come in yet?

  He’s waiting outside.

  Where’s Cathy?

  Cathy is the newest of their five employees, a thirty-three-year-old whom Maureen has seen Peter eye with less than the indifference she expects of him. Flattered by Peter’s attention, Cathy takes the security of her position for granted, and is thus sometimes tardy in both manners and time-keeping.

  I don’t know.

  This is the third time in a fortnight she’s been late. If she’s not here in the next five minutes, she’s out.

  Maureen says this briskly and with absolute certainty. Peter looks suddenly uncomfortable.

  What do you mean?

  I mean what I mean.

  The sack?

  The sack. Yes, of course the sack. But I’ve never… I wouldn’t know how… He shifts anxiously in his chair, stares past Maureen’s head at the small window behind her.

  What if she goes to the union?

  Maureen almost laughs out loud.

  Stop it, Peter. You’re scaring me.

  Peter blinks, still uncertain.

  Well, will you do it, then?

  I’ll be happy to do it. Look, it’s five past. You’d better take the customer. Apologize. Offer a discount.

  I’m sure Cathy will be here in a minute.

  This is business, Peter.

  Maureen gets up, walks to the office door and pushes it open. An aerobic smile manifests itself.

  Mr Connolly?

  A young man with an attempted moustache, wearing Adidas trainers, a Nike T-shirt and ballooning track-suit bottoms, comes through from the waiting room.

  Yes?

  I’m most terribly sorry. Cathy Edwards seems to have been delayed. Would you mind taking our senior partner instead? Peter Horn? He’s a far more experienced tutor. And of course for your inconvenience we would be happy to offer you a 20 per cent discount on the lesson.

  The young man shrugs.

  All right.

  Peter picks up his coat and pecks Maureen on the cheek before leaving. Go easy on Cathy. Go and do your lesson.

  Maureen watches as the Escort pulls out of the car park with the pupil at the wheel. A few seconds after it has disappeared, she spots Cathy Edwards’s car, a five-year-old red Mini, appearing through the gap where Peter has just left. It screeches to a halt and the driver stays in her seat. She adjusts her hair, at length, gazing in the rear-view mirror. A minute more for a little make-up. This fixes Maureen’s decision.

  When Cathy enters the office, Maureen does not look up.

  Hello, Mrs B. Sorry I’m a bit late. But it looks like my client hasn’t turned up anyway. So, no harm done, I suppose.

  Could you give me a moment, Catherine.

  Maureen makes a note in her diary to ring the local newspaper and place an ad for a new driving instructor. Then she looks up. And the smile on Cathy Edwards’s face dissolves.

  By late afternoon, Charlie has had precisely three customers. The first, a teenage boy, simply purchases a pot of blue model paint for £2.25. The second, a man in his sixties with an Amish-style beard and an aggressively friendly manner, talks to Charlie about the minutiae of German and European turn-of-the-century locomotives for thirty minutes, then departs without buying anything. The third is a sharply dressed working-class young woman, buying a gift for her husband. She reads from a scrap of paper her requirement for a working water tower kit YG628, manufactured in fibreglass resin with brass parts and wire mesh delivery bag. She departs with the water tower in a matter of three minutes, barely even
glancing at the remainder of the layout.

  It is not much profit for a day’s work, reflects Charlie. But, he thinks, obviously there is going to be a period in which he has to get himself established. Success doesn’t happen overnight. These things have to spread by word of mouth as much as anything. He feels sure people will come.

  Just before five-thirty, which he has decided is the end of his working day, a thin rain begins to fall outside the shop. His spirits are a little low. Under the counter he keeps a hip flask of brandy, from which he has been taking nips all day. The removal of Maureen from his life is a constant ache. A faint feeling of sickness as ever presses at his stomach. Outside, through the skein of grey, he sees a police car with reflector windows pull up. A solitary officer emerges and heads for the shop. The alarm has accidentally gone off several more times. Perhaps someone has alerted the police station. Charlie replaces the hip flask swiftly in the drawer; he is not sure if there are certain rules irregardless of the fact that he is the proprietor. Maybe they’ve had a report. Then he dismisses the thought as silly, almost pulls out the flask again in defiance.

  The policeman comes closer and now Charlie can make out his features. He removes his cap. Charlie sees that the policeman is his son.

  Charlie’s first thought is to hide, to retreat into the bowels of the shop and not emerge. A bolt of biblical pride surges within, too great, it feels, to swallow. But he sees that Robert has spotted him. There is no escape. Robert enters through the glass doors. It is only two years since Charlie has seen him, but he seems much older. His hair, which has been plastered down on to his head by his cap, is thinning badly.

  Hello, Dad.

  Robert folds his arms, surveys the shop with a thin, even gaze. Charlie fights with an impulse to throw him out, but the loneliness of the day has been too much. The confession to himself comes reluctantly, but comes none the less: he is pleased to see his son.

  Got your security sorted out, have you?

  How did you know I was here?

  Robert looks surprised.

  Mum told me.

  Charlie, although he thinks of Maureen often, has not registered that she might also follow his progress in life, and so is vaguely pleased that his efforts have been acknowledged in another’s consciousness. He regards Robert, remembers the night at Wapping. The boy is looking heavier, less of a boy. It strikes Charlie with surprising force that his son is now a fully grown man, not far off thirty years old.

  Charlie ventures tentatively out from behind the counter.

  I’m glad to see you, son.

  Robert nods.

  Yeah, Dad. I’m pleased to see you too.

  The space between them trembles slightly, but cannot be stabilized enough for an embrace. Charlie touches him on the shoulder by his police number inscribed in silver.

  Nice and shiny.

  Take a look at this, then.

  Robert removes his jacket. Underneath, three angled darts on the shoulder.

  What’s this?

  I’m a sergeant, Dad. I got promotion. I’m good at my job.

  Charlie fights with himself, wins the victory within that he seeks.

  Well… well done, Robert. I always… You always what?

  Charlie hears the edge of irritation in his son’s voice, feels an acid stab of regret.

  I’m sorry, Rob. I suppose I never really… had enough faith in you.

  Robert nods, makes no other acknowledgement of what it has cost Charlie to say so much.

  I had some business to attend to up here. So I thought I’d come up and check out your new venture.

  Oh.

  How’s it doing, then?

  So-so. Early days yet. This is my first day.

  I know. I’ve brought you something.

  He hands him something in a small box. At once, Charlie flushes with pleasure. He knows what the gift will be. He glances at the casing of the Leek and Manifold locomotive that sits on the shelf behind his desk. Now at last it will have the engine that Robert promised him all those years ago. His son has done well, as he promised he one day would.

  He tears off the cardboard. Inside is a plastic shopping bag. He takes out the contents. There is a paperweight with a model of a Miami Hotel inside and some kind of item of clothing. Charlie opens it out. The message reads ‘My Son Went to Florida and All He Brought Me Was This Lousy T-Shirt’. Charlie manages a thin smile.

  Clever.

  It’s a smile, ain’t it? says Robert. He picks up a small model fire extinguisher and begins idly examining it. Reckon you’ll do all right, then, do you?

  Like I say, it’ll take time. How are you, Robert? How’s everything?

  All right.

  Robert looks up, past his father’s head, at the gift he once bought his father so proudly displayed on the shelf. Charlie seems to see Robert’s face soften and now, for the first time, Robert lets his eyes rest on Charlie’s face for more than a split second.

  Look, I’m sorry it has had to be this way between us, Dad.

  Does it have to be this way?

  Doesn’t it?

  Maybe.

  Robert puts down the fire extinguisher.

  I’ve got something else for you.

  He turns back towards the blocked-out windows of the police car, makes a gesture. Charlie watches as the door opens. He does not recognize the woman who gets out at first. Her punky hair has disappeared, and the clothes that Charlie always described to Maureen as ‘way out’. She is smartly dressed, with a short coiffed bob, a pair of pressed jeans and a navy cardigan. It is only when she beckons towards the open door and a young boy, maybe five years old, walks out after her.

  Carol’s a good mother, says Robert.

  You and her are…

  We’re just friends, says Robert. I see plenty of Chuck. He’s a nice kid.

  The boy is a little chunky, with thick black hair, and he skips towards the train shop, Carol following after. He does not wait for Carol to arrive before pushing the door open and marching right up to Charlie.

  Are you my grandad?

  Charlie gazes down at him. Sees the cornflowers in his eyes. Thick black hair, his own hair magically transported down two generations. He holds out a hand. The boy grabs it, allows Charlie to shake it once, then lets go.

  I suppose so, says Charlie.

  The boy has already focused away from Charlie and is staring at the model railway.

  Would you like to be a train driver? says Charlie.

  Chuck answers without looking up at him.

  No. I want to be a policeman.

  That’s good, says Charlie. That’s nice.

  Driving a train is boring.

  Hello, Mr Buck, says Carol.

  You should call me Charlie, says Charlie.

  And he closes the space between them in three paces and enfolds her in a hug, wondering simultaneously why he cannot do this with his son. Carol submits, then gently pulls herself away. Chuck is pulling levers in the station box of the train layout.

  He looks like you, says Carol. Doesn’t he, Rob?

  Worse luck, says Robert pleasantly.

  Grandad’s old, says Chuck.

  That’s right, says Charlie, almost to himself, surprised that he has been hurt by this. He turns to Carol.

  You still playing that terrible music?

  Yeah, says Carol.

  You can borrow some of my Mantovani if you like, says Charlie, the lilt of a joke in his voice.

  Who’s he? pipes up Chuck. His voice has Carol’s faint northern shadow.

  No one, says Charlie. Someone who used to matter.

  There is a stretched silence. The past weighs down. The air is still thick with unforgotten hurt. Robert checks his watch.

  We have to be going.

  Going? You’ve only been here five minutes.

  To be honest, I’ve got more police work still to do and I want to drop Carol and Chuck off to see Mum. She’s cooking dinner and that. I just wanted to see if you were all right.


  Are you my grandma’s husband? says Chuck.

  Not any more, says Charlie. We got unmarried.

  Why? says Chuck.

  Things change, says Charlie.

  It’s the truth, says Robert. He shuffles his feet uneasily. We’re a bit late.

  That’s fine. That’s good. Give Maureen my best, eh?

  Of course, Dad. Listen. The shop looks good.

  Thanks.

  He seems to be about to say something else, then turns away instead.

  Sorry about everything that’s happened. With you and Mum, I mean.

  Well, it’s just the way the…

  Cookie crumbles.

  Charlie smiles.

  I’m like a stuck record.

  No, you’re not. You’ve had a go. Life’s hard. People get things wrong.

  Ain’t that the truth, kiddo.

  He puts his hand out to Robert, and Robert takes it firmly and shakes it. His grip is powerful, his hand far larger than his father’s now. Eye contact is briefly made, then unmade.

  See you, then, Dad.

  See you, son. Be careful, eh?

  You be careful.

  I’m proud of you, Rob.

  I know. I know you are. He smiles. Chuck, you want to give your grandad a kiss?

  No, says Chuck. That’s gay.

  Carol, Robert and Charlie all laugh, genuine laughter, this time full and unrestrained. Immediately Chuck begins to cry.

  What’s the matter, Chuckle? says Carol.

  You all laughing at me.

  Carol picks Chuck up and his snivels diminish.

  Say goodbye to your grandad.

  From the face pressed into Carol’s shoulder a muffled voice emerges.

  Bye, Grandad.

  Bye-bye, Chuck. Come and see your old grandad sometimes. You can play with my toy trains.

  Chuck emerges from the folds of his mother, nods at Charlie.

  Bye, Carol. Bye, Rob.

  Charlie watches them all as they climb into the police car and it revs up, then moves away, heads northwards, towards Maureen and Peter’s. He wonders what is for dinner there. At home, Charlie has a Marks & Spencer Roast Pork Meal for one.

 
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