Rumours of a hurricane, p.3
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.3

           Tim Lott

  Alighting from the bus, he is assaulted by a smell which, over the last few weeks, he has become almost accustomed to. Like the bus drivers, and Charlie himself, the local binmen are in the midst of a dispute. This does not seem extraordinary to Charlie, merely an irritatingly private blip in an otherwise consistent pattern of public life. Snafu, thinks Charlie, his mind skipping back to army language. Situation normal, all fucked up.

  As he walks, the smell seems to separate into three strands: decomposing food, baby shit from disposable nappies and the remnants of bottles and cans of booze. On each different day, a different smell is dominant. Today it is the contents of a thousand discarded Huggies.

  He progresses past the six-foot-high pile of rubbish bags a few yards from the bus stop. It has been two weeks now since the last collection. Although Charlie feels dutiful about his own union, he makes a distinction between himself and the binmen who have gone on a work-to-rule after the local authority tried to keep their wages beneath government wage caps. They are unskilled labour; he, as a compositor, is a craftsman. Seven years’ apprenticeship. In part of his imagination, the binmen are layabouts and drones whose ‘struggle’ – as Mike Sunderland, the young man in the herringbone coat on the picket line, would have put it – has little connection with the dignity of his own.

  He makes his way past several other depositories of bursting bags, all attended by small squadrons of orbiting flies and bluebottles. The block of flats in which he lives, Ramsay MacDonald House, is constructed of yellow-brown bricks and is four storeys tall. Thin balconies connect the doors on the upper floors and these balconies are edged by rusting fences. A six-year-old girl fell from the second floor two months ago when some welding gave way at the joints. She broke both legs. Still the gap yawns, unrepaired.

  Charlie lives on the ground floor. His neighbour on the right is Mrs Jackson, a septuagenarian who lives alone with four cats and who pops in for cups of tea two or three times a day. Popping in, it seems to Charlie, is the central occupation of her life. Her first name, Violet, is never used. She is pleasant and helpful, although Charlie finds her nosiness irritating and makes himself scarce when she appears.

  On the other side, a young unmarried mother with a six-month-old baby. The mother has bleached hair and a pierced nose. Her name is Carol. Her last name is unknown to Charlie. She wears clothes that Charlie thinks of as threatening and punky, but she is friendly and most of the time plays her music at a reasonable volume. She keeps a clean house. She is outside her flat when Charlie arrives, washing her windows with soapy water. The baby whimpers intermittently from the doorstep of the flat – the flat which, Charlie knows, is in all essentials the same as his and Maureen’s, Mrs Jackson’s and all the others in the block. She turns as she hears Charlie’s footstep behind her. She is wearing a blue faded boiler suit with a badge on the lapel that has the insignia ANL. Charlie is not sure what this stands for but has seen Mike Sunderland wearing the same insignia.

  – Hello, Mr Buck.

  Hello, Carol.

  There is a pause. Charlie wonders whether he has said enough to fulfil his commitment to politeness. He removes his hat and shifts it from hand to hand. Printer’s ink stains his fingers, long-ingrained in the whorls at the tips.

  They always smear.

  You don’t want to use soap.

  You don’t think?

  Plain water and vinegar.



  I don’t want my windows smelling like a bag of old chips.

  Carol laughs, showing good white teeth. There is a slight northern twang to her voice which Charlie takes as Geordie, although she is in fact from Leeds. He thinks, as he often does, about what it would be like to have sex with her. Young women now would do anything, he imagines. The world’s gone sex mad. Charlie indicates behind him. The nearest pile of refuse stands only a few footsteps from the door. When the front windows are open, a rich, thick stink penetrates the kitchen.

  I’d take a bag of chips over that any day, kiddo.

  I’ll give it a try. How’s Robert?

  Charlie shrugs.

  Who knows how Robert is? He’s indescrutable. Like a Chinaman.

  He seems a bit down, says Carol.

  It’s his hobby, says Charlie. If he smiled it would put a crack in his face.

  He’s not so bad. He’s got a lot on his mind.

  Charlie gives a short laugh.

  That’s right, says Charlie. I don’t know where he keeps it all.

  The baby starts crying. Carol reaches down and picks it up, makes little clucking noises.

  Shh, Nelson, says Charlie. He is uneasy with babies.

  There, there, says Carol, rocking the baby up and down.

  He was a great man, says Charlie, unable to think of anything else to say.

  Who? says Carol.

  Admiral Nelson, says Charlie, puzzled.

  That’s not who he’s named after, says Carol.

  Nelson’s screams increase in volume. He writhes and bucks.

  I’d better be going, says Charlie.

  Say hello to Robert. From me, says Carol.

  We don’t talk much. He doesn’t listen much. Anyway. I’ll try to remember.

  Bye then, Mr Buck.

  Bye, Carol. Bye, Nelson.

  It is gone six o’clock now. The light is fading. The front door of Charlie’s flat is gunmetal grey – exactly the same as all the others. The council bought a job lot from a marine salvage company at a knock-down price; it has become the livery of Ramsay MacDonald House.

  Charlie puts his key in the lock, turns it and enters. Inside, the barometer designed to resemble a Spanish guitar shows a prediction of moderate-to-mild. Within the flat, the same law of economics has determined the interior design. In the front room the walls are of diluted brown, which has the effect of compressing and darkening the space which they encompass. This has also been bought in bulk by the local authority. Maureen hates the colour, but, like the other council tenants, she and Charlie are forbidden from making any changes to it, as they are similarly forbidden from altering the door furniture or frames, or the cheap fireplace that surrounds the log-effect gas fire, or any of the plastic light switches that come with the flat.

  Although they have lived here for fifteen years, their status is clear, and testament to that status stands plain and stark in the colour of every wall, in the shape and unalterability of each particular fitting. They are the guests and creatures of the council and are subject to the whim of unseen, unnamed men at the town hall whom neither Maureen nor Charlie ever has any luck in raising on the telephone from the booth on the corner of the street when a pipe bursts or the walls leak damp in the winter.

  Maureen is in, as he expects, and also, as he expects, the table is laid for tea. The radio is on at a moderate volume. It plays the ‘Pina Colada’ song. He can see through the serving hatch into the kitchen that she is done up to the nines – a red dress that she has slightly outgrown, a fake-pearl necklace. He knows that she will be wearing high-heeled shoes, bright lipstick, hair brushed and set with the setting lotion that she gets from the local hairdresser’s.

  Charlie knows that the outfit is not for his benefit. Even in her prime, which Charlie ruefully dates as expiring several years ago, Maureen would not have dressed up for him while staying in. Maureen is dressed up because Dallas is on the TV tonight, sandwiched between Terry and June and Petrocelli. Charlie can never really understand why she gets herself up in her best clothes just to watch a TV programme, but that was women for you. They weren’t rational, like men were. But they were better in their hearts.

  Charlie feels he has done well with his wife, better than he could have expected. He is realistic about his own charms, and although he is proud of his full head of hair, grey kept at bay by Grecian 2000, his once trim body overflows at the waistband and lines seem to multiply daily around his forehead and eyes. The choice of a younger wife was a good one. She is, he decides, neither plain nor
a nag, and she takes care of the home and has been a good mother to Robert.

  No sign of Robert. Charlie feels sure he is in his room. He is always in his room. There or next door with Carol, listening to her awful, furious records. He returns to base at mealtimes, but Robert’s appearances in the communal areas of the flat have become rarer and rarer over the past couple of years. He gets up late, listens to the radio, reads magazines. He has had no job since he left school two years ago with two O-levels.

  Charlie takes off his coat, puts it on the hanger and smooths out the creases. Without turning, he calls out to his wife.

  Hiya, kiddo.

  He now turns and sees Maureen divided into vertical bands by the gaps in the multicoloured ‘Walk Thru’ curtain-strip door. Hearing Charlie’s voice, Maureen feels suddenly aware of the soft spread of her body; the jogging is not having the desired effect. She wrinkles her nose in disappointment, then composes her face and turns to Charlie.

  Hello, Rock.

  The ‘Rock’ is a private joke. Rock Hudson has been her favourite movie star since before the time she met Charlie. Rock Hudson, the embodiment, for her, of manhood. She used to think that Charlie looked like him, but any slight resemblance that existed has now been effaced by age. Nevertheless, keen to please, she dredges up the old nickname from time to time. Charlie is always flattered.

  She smiles in acknowledgement of the joke. She possesses a battery of smiles; it is her default. They contain a series of inflections, defaults-within-the-default. Apologetic, encouraging, puzzled, concerned, defensive, even flirtatious. All merge into one for Charlie, combine into the underlying message, which is of compliance and a determination to please. In a way, Charlie has married her for that smile. He does not notice its mutation over the years they have been together, its sliding away, its slight curl of disappointment. For him the smile merely indicates what it is in fact carefully designed to display – that his wife is happy, and that all is well within their marriage of nineteen years.

  She walks with a slightly exaggerated delicacy because of the smartness of her clothes. Her hair is thin and auburn, and the helmet-like style vaguely mimics Purdey in The New Avengers. Her face is unexceptional. Age has robbed it of distinguishing characteristics. Ten years younger than Charlie, she nevertheless seems well into middle age. Her sexual fantasy, apart from Rock Hudson, is Patrick Mower.

  What’s for tea, then?

  Hold your horses.

  Charlie sits down in the chocolate-coloured cord-effect wing three-seater. Next to it is the sole bookcase in the house, with four shelves. The bookshelves are full of bound books by nineteenth-century English authors – Dickens, Hardy, Austen, the Brontës. Their spines, embossed with gold, please Charlie. Some day he is resolved to read one of them. They are entirely decorative, bought by mail order – £15 for the lot from the Gratton’s catalogue.

  He removes his work boots – Tuf Big Τ – and places them in the cupboard by the door. Then he gets up and switches on the black-and-white television, which, after warming up, produces a picture full of ghosts. He has been meaning to get colour for years now, but Maureen is happy enough with the old set. Like her husband, she is suspicious of both change and hire-purchase agreements – the ‘never-never’. They have a little bit tucked away and they don’t like to see it eaten into. Maureen keeps a sizeable sum of money pared from Charlie’s wages hidden under a loose floorboard in the bedroom. Although inflation eats away at it, she does not trust banks.

  Charlie parades around the room holding the aerial aloft, but the ghosts will not be exorcized. From next door, for the first time, he notices the faint thud of music. He is unable to identify the particular record as ‘Spiral Scratch’ by the Buzzcocks and the low-level vibration is filed away in his mind as merely part of a whole incomprehensible panorama of music that emerged sometime during the 1960s which offends him both aesthetically and, for reasons he himself cannot fully grasp, morally.

  He stares at the wall. He continues staring, as if beaming a certain variety of dangerous radiation towards Carol. It is not like her, so he feels it would be rude to knock on the wall, yet he finds the noise increasingly intolerable. As if his presence has been registered, the volume lowers fractionally – enough for him to drop his gaze, then, gradually, move back and lower himself on to the sofa and put his feet up on the square-quilted spongeable black PVC pouffe – the ‘poo-fay’, as he pronounces it.

  He inspects the room around him. It seems reasonably clean and tidy. Three places, as usual, are laid at the splay-legged Ercol table.

  A nest of three coffee tables stands next to the sofa. On the largest of them, one copy of Reader’s Digest and one of National Geographic. Charlie runs the tip of his finger across part of the surface and inspects the result. Absolutely clean.

  Maureen is fussing with the table settings. Always concerned with tidiness, she is careful to set out the cutlery perpendicular to the edge of the table and exactly spaced. The knives are of the ordinary sort. Good, thinks Charlie. No fish. Maureen folds napkins into precise cylindrical shapes and puts wheat-coloured table mats carefully down, in exact alignment with the knives and forks. Charlie runs his tongue around the soft corners of his mouth, which feels dry and tastes sour. He notices that Maureen is putting out glasses.

  Have we got any beer?

  We’ve run out.

  It occurs to Charlie that he is not feeling himself today. Normally, and consistently, he is of the view that his life is better than most, that his life is an oasis of stability and quiet certainty. Respected in his home and at work. Job for life. Family intact, wife and child. Good health. But he finds himself unable to help but be mildly inflamed by the cumulative oppressions of the stink of the rubbish and the noise of ‘Spiral Scratch’ and the persistence of the television ghosts and the absence of beer. He is also aware that the impending election is playing on his mind for some reason but cannot understand why. He is not ‘political’ like Mike at work. The prospect of change, however, unsettles him. When he speaks, it is quietly, but with an edge.

  Jesus God Almighty, Mo! I did ask you to get some in. I did specifically say…

  Maureen smiles apologetically.

  I didn’t have enough money, Charlie. Not after buying the food.

  Charlie’s face becomes a mask of genuine puzzlement.

  But I gave you ten pounds an’ odd not three days since.

  Everything keeps going up. And the money from the strike fund, it’s not very…

  Charlie winces.

  Hold on. It’s not right to –

  I’m just saying –-

  I’m just fighting for a decent wage. I’m fighting for… for…

  He throws his hand out around the room, around his world, in a gesture to take in the cheap sticks of furniture, the dull walls.

  For all this.

  The sentence comes out portentous, bathetic. The desire to laugh invades Maureen; she pummels it down.

  Charlie, I didn’t mean to –

  I want a beer. I’ve been standing on the picket line for hours listening to the… blather of idiots, and now I need a drink.

  What about the home-brew?

  Charlie has bought a Hambleton home-brewing kit recently and been making his own sour-tasting concoction in a plastic bucket kept in the airing cupboard. His younger brother, Tommy, makes gallons of the stuff, sells off the surplus, watered down. Tommy’s always one for the main chance. It’s cheap, it tastes OK.

  It’s nowhere near ready. It’s got two weeks to go.

  With this, Charlie stands up, puts on his coat and begins to walk towards the door. Again, the smell of the rotting rubbish assails him.

  But dinner’s nearly ready.

  I’ll only be a moment.

  He feels angry, then guilty about being angry, then angry about feeling guilty. He pauses as he approaches the exit to the hall. The ghosts in the television settle into something viewable. It is nearly the end of the six o’clock news now; although the pi
cture is unfocused, the audio is loud and clear.

  The newsreader is Kenneth Kendall. Charlie likes and trusts him for his reassuring manner and beautiful pronunciation. The one on ITV always seems drunk. Kendall is saying that voting is continuing, that the turnout is higher than average. He is trailing the election special that is taking place on BBC I after the polls close. Charlie makes a mental note to watch it, if he can stay awake that long. He hesitates.

  Have you voted?

  Maureen’s voice responds from the kitchen, raised over the tone of the whistle of a boiling kettle.

  Is it today?

  You know that it’s today. Of course it’s today.

  I don’t know, Charlie.

  Charlie shrugs. Maureen isn’t very political either. When she bothers to vote, she votes the same as Charlie. He can’t quite decide whether to vote himself, since it’s a five-minute detour away from the off-licence and it’s a cold night.

  I’m going to make my mark. Be back in about fifteen.

  The tea – it’s going to be ruined.

  The news is finishing now. The expression on Kenneth Kendall’s face changes from gravitas to restrained and dignified amusement as he describes the exploits of a Siamese cat who both enjoys and is adept at low-level parachuting. Charlie leaves, the echo of a soft, tinny miaou pursuing him.

  Charlie, as he walks to the local school where the polling station is set up, tries to get his thoughts clear. Charlie Buck is not a philosophical man, although he tries to have points of view. A man without a point of view, he feels, is not much cop.

  Charlie’s points of view tend to mutate and contradict themselves according to circumstance, peer pressure and his intake of alcohol. Nevertheless, his central and most constant point of view is that a lot of people, wealthy or poor, black or white, short or tall, are up to no good. That you have to keep your eyes skinned or you’ll get well and truly turned over.

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