Rumours of a hurricane, p.30
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.30

           Tim Lott
 

  *

  That evening Charlie celebrates his first day in business with two bottles of what he assumes is decent red wine since it costs £3.99 a bottle. He gulps down the roast pork, which he enjoys, although eating alone has seemed one of the worst things to him about being divorced. He and Maureen never used to talk much during dinner, but to have someone there made all the difference to the meal, made it not just about the trivial, animal compulsion to feed. By the time he gets to his pudding, a microwavable individual chocolate sponge, he is already at the end of the second bottle. He thinks of Robert, and Maureen and Peter, five miles away, as he spoons at the earth-coloured sponge. The television blares; the repeating patterns and dramas of EastEnders reassure him that there is a place to which he is still connected. It is he who is addicted to soaps now, he who requires a supplement to reality, like the vitamins Maureen used to take for her bones and skin.

  While eating, he divides his attention between Albert Square and the local newspaper, which seems to be full of photos of unattractive children on bouncy castles, disabled people running marathons, and stories about crime, endless crime. Muggers, robbers, Rolex-snatchers, petty fraudsters. From Bletchley to Luton, the whole county is awash with people seizing other people’s rightful property. No wonder Robert looks so drained, thinks Charlie, trying to hold the collapsing seams of everything, of society, together, even though there was no such thing, Mrs Thatcher said, and Charlie felt she’d got it right. Just people in their houses, like his house, trying to get along for themselves. That was about the size of it.

  He flicks through the pages. The pleasure of his first day in business has entirely evaporated now. Worries press down on him about the repayability of the debts he has, the demands of the landlord, the price of stock. He looks about him at the walls, imagines the bricks and mortar underneath the plaster, and this comforts him. He knows the price is expanding as he watches, creating wealth out of nowhere. It is his safety net. House prices, as Tommy has predicted, are still rising and rising. They are an unstoppable force.

  Relieving, by means of this thought, one set of anxieties, he exposes a deeper nerve pulsing within which, he suddenly realizes, has been with him from the day Maureen turned up alone driving a car for which Charlie thought she had no licence, the day Charlie assaulted her, the last day she wiped a crumb tenderly from the edges of his mouth. A feeling materialized then within him almost at that exact moment, like some strange cooling, some suffocation of the muscles of the heart. Through the years of his job, and with his family, in all his years in London, he had felt many varieties of ordinary unhappiness but never this odd constriction. Now he has named it and identified it, this twentieth-century curse, this refrigeration in his veins, this price that choice carries like a parasite on a living thing. This loneliness.

  He cannot think what do with himself. Sometimes he has the feeling that he wants to vomit only he doesn’t have a mouth. It is not just emptiness. It is also a soft choking, a terrible pressure for company, for human connection of almost any kind. It cries out silently and terribly down the new streets of the Barratt homes and carriage-lamped half-lit front doors. It is unbearable.

  He sits at the table, not moving, not really watching the TV, not really reading the paper, not really finishing his pudding. He is in a daze of aloneness; it comes upon him like this sometimes. He drinks fiercely down to the dregs of his glass, but this he knows will not do the trick, short of rendering him unconscious.

  His eye falls once more on the local newspaper. There is a column marked ‘One to One’ – ‘People Like You for People Like You’. He picks it up and begins to scan desultorily the advertisements listed underneath. The men seem to heavily outnumber the women. What women there are seem to favour long walks in the country, salsa dancing, wine bars and cinema. Many seem to be cuddly or full-bodied. Their primary requirements are for good physical height and a GSOH, but Charlie is unsure what this stands for. Many others claim to be happy and satisfied with their lives. He understands the code. He respects the execution of these carefully forged lies.

  There is a form at the bottom of the page for new advertisements. Why not? thinks Charlie suddenly. There’s no shame in it Not nowadays. Perhaps he’s a prize. Not so old, small businessman, own house, gleaming silver Merc. Yes. There would have to be a market out there for him.

  He reaches for a piece of paper and a Biro, tries to concentrate. His first effort at composing an advertisement for himself he finds disappointing. ‘Businessman, own Mercedes, late middle age, seeks lively lady to keep him company and share life’s little up’s and down’s’. He is not sure where to put the apostrophes but feels sure that someone at the paper, a sub-editor, will sort it out. It is not the punctuation that worries him unduly, but the lack of the flavour of his life. It is too bland, too empty, too crude. But how can you trap an existence in so few words?

  He tries again. ‘Middle-aged gentleman, successful, nice home, recently divorced, seeks woman of similar age or younger for company and mutual…’

  Mutual… mutual what? Nothing goes with mutual. However, he is pleased to have excised the ‘late’ from ‘late middle age’. This modest bevelling of the truth’s sharp edges is bound to widen the net. The softening of references to his prosperity also seems to succeed in rendering the ad less vulgar – to announce himself as a businessman seems to suggest that this, too, is a business, this seeking of love. Women, he intuits, will not respond to this. Also, Charlie thinks, it is a positive move to suggest that he is divorced. To never have married in middle age, never mind late middle age, would certainly suggest something fundamentally defective, inadequate. The Mercedes is gone. Again too nakedly transactional. Should he claim to have a GSOH when he does not know what one is? Obviously not, but he decides to claim to be tall, although he is only average, five ten. Mutual what… mutual what? The word is no good.

  Ten minutes and three more drafts on, he settles on a final version. ‘Tall middle-aged gentleman, successful, nice home, solvent, recently divorced. Seeks woman of similar or younger age for walks, company, maybe more?’ He likes this, likes the open-endedness of the final question mark. He feels suddenly sure that it will draw replies. He cuts out the voucher, inserts it into an envelope and decides to go and post it there and then, in case his determination dissipates during the night.

  There is a post box 100 yards away. A neighbour notices him and Charlie smiles at him with some embarrassment, as if he could guess what Charlie was posting, as if the humiliation shone clear through the envelope. For now in the cold night air, he cannot help but see it as a coming low, as a desperate cry. He is no longer Mr Charles William Buck, husband of Maureen Buck, father of Robert Buck, but Middle-aged gentleman. Recently divorced. He hesitates, drops the envelope into the gaping mouth of the box, and it falls with a faint papery flurry. Then he hurries home through the still-falling rain.

  He is amazed at the strength of the wind. It howls and rages down the street, to such an extent that Charlie feels he can almost lean into it and not fall over. On the television that night, Michael Fish had said that the rumours of a hurricane were nothing to worry about. It was a hell of a breeze, though.

  Three hours later, Charlie wakes up from a sleep in which he dreams of Margaret Thatcher shrunken to toy size and driving one of his model trains across a desert. She is lost, looking for her son, Mark. Charlie is helping her with the search. He wakes up just as she toots the horn, which makes a sound like Big Ben. The windows in his bedroom are rattling like a strong man is outside physically shaking them. There is an extraordinary rushing noise in his ears. There is the sense of a world in motion, of chaos descending. He panics momentarily, thinks of the atomic bomb. All that fear throughout the 1950s and 1960s has never quite left him, although the Russians have given up the game now, outbid by Ronnie Reagan. He admires Reagan, his common decency and the pleasant, folksy approachability of his smile.

  The panic subsides as it gradually dawns on Charlie that the so
und is merely the wind barrelling across the spaces between the red houses in the new town at a breathtaking velocity. He thinks he hears tree branches cracking, the sound of breaking glass.

  Clad in his pyjamas, he makes his way to the window, which is shaking violently. He opens the curtains and there is enough light to make out the devastation beneath. Gardens are littered with rubbish, old branches, small logs. Several large trees have toppled at the backs of the houses opposite. A telegraph pole has been uprooted, the wires hanging crazily. Lights are on everywhere, although his watch shows two a.m. Several people are, like him, observing the spectacle through their windows.

  The room is cold. He hugs himself. He wants to go back to sleep, but it seems to him somehow that the drama is too large to be ignored. He has always enjoyed storms, ever since he was a small boy, the sense of safety they produced within him, listening from the warm inside.

  Charlie has been looking into the middle distance, searching for damage. He sees trees swaying at impossible angles. An entire branch detaches itself and takes flight, depositing itself on the roof of a small semi 500 feet distant. Diagonally across the way from Charlie, another light flicks on in a window. Children’s faces appear.

  Charlie has a bottle of Scotch in the room. He pours himself a slug, sinks it in one, then goes back to the window, glass in hand. Now at last, he brings his eyes down to the site of his own back garden. The noise intensifies, the wind threatening now to bust the windows of the house in. The sense of safety is supplanted by a vague awareness of real threat. Charlie peers through the darkness at his garden, which is at that moment illuminated by a flash from a neighbour’s security lights as a frightened cat scuttles past infra-red sensors.

  Charlie slams his glass down. Then he is running, running down the stairs, still clad in his striped flannel pyjamas, his soft cock protruding sadly through the open vent at the front. His breathing is heavy, strained, as he reaches the back door and fumbles with the key. He drops it, then retrieves it, this time engaging the mortise. He fears going out in this fierce wind. But he has no choice. Leaving the key in the lock, he turns the handle.

  The wind is pushing directly against the back door and, to his amazement, Charlie finds it hard to open because of the air pressure. But it moves and then he is outside. He looks up at the house opposite. He notices the children he has seen before staring down at him from the window. He sees them laughing and wonders automatically what the joke might be. Then he realizes suddenly, and with revulsion, that they are laughing at him. He imagines himself seen through their eyes, his full head of dyed black hair standing up fantastically from his reddened, scared, distended face.

  The swilling of wind and rain, the panic in his mind, conceal the fact from him that his cock still protrudes from the front of his pyjamas. There is nothing on his feet in the cold night air. He treads in the mud of the lawn like a padding animal, defenceless prey for larger beasts. The wind batters at him.

  What he has seemed to see from the window of the house is confirmed. His own garden railway, his pride and joy, the models, the station houses and signal boxes, the fire extinguishers, the train, the track itself, have been uprooted and smashed to pieces. Some actually lie in neighbouring gardens, other parts, as he watches, are being carried across the lawn. He chases a nineteenth-century parson, but loses the model through a hole in his fence. The locomotive has been crushed by a small falling tree.

  Now Charlie is on his knees in the mud, trying to gather up these scraps of his imagined world, but larger forces have scattered them irrevocably. All the pieces acquired meticulously and painstakingly down the years have been thrown, literally, to the wind.

  Charlie desperately tries to gather together what is left. The sharp rain beats harder; he throws his head back at the heavens and cries out, an animal cry, wordless. The children watching are crouched over in laughter now. Their parents, joining them, close the curtains, scolding. They, too, find it funny but are disgusted by the old man’s penis flapping around. They might report him to the police, but decide, on balance, that he is simply and harmlessly mad.

  16

  In the nights following the storm, Charlie begins to dream that the world is coming to an end. Or that some seed which has been planted somewhere in the darkness of the past is coming to terrible fruition. Signs and portents are everywhere. The Stock Exchange has crashed; money has been wiped off Charlie’s small holdings in British Gas. There is a bomb in Enniskillen, a deadly fire at King’s Cross.

  And yet the centre holds. While 1987 leaves its trail of chaos, with astonished corpses in Hungerford, the drowned in Zebrugge and armies of abused children in Cleveland, in comes 1988 surfing on a waver bigger, crazier, richer than ever before. Now it has the desperation of the closing hours of a party, but the energy is none the less frenetic for that. Everyone – everyone! – has money, apart, of course, from the multiplying ragtags who find their way into shop doorways and camp out next to ATMs. More and more now, Charlie feels in his pocket for change as he passes. They no longer seem like scroungers and ponces. Charlie has come to understand how bad luck and bad choices can bring a man down, the brute power of circumstance.

  Some of the money is even coming Charlie’s way – as Tommy predicted, the shop is beginning to cover its costs. Rental values are going up, so he faces a hefty hike on the rent review, but even so; leisure and leisure activities are the future. Trade, if not brisk, is respectable.

  And property! Nothing will stop property! In the spring budget, Nigel Lawson announces a cut in tax relief on joint mortgages – but has generously left four months before it comes into effect. So everyone is queuing up to buy, and the money flows in cascades, in waterfalls, rivers of income and expenditure running into oceans of credit and debt. Charlie knows that the value of his house has risen by 30 per cent in the last year, so he feels safe, protected by his hard, bricks-and-mortar cushion. So much money represented by such a small and ordinary little house in such an ordinary little town. Will it end? Will there be a fall? Tommy says no, not yet, and Tommy has been right all down the line thus far, so Charlie listens to him again, and borrows more money against the value of the house to fund greater stock investment and better computer accounting systems (You got to have a computer, Charlie, says Tommy. Computers are fucking tomorrow.)

  Things could be worse, things could very definitely be worse, Charlie tells himself as he closes up shop for the day. They have taken over £1,000 on this very ordinary Wednesday afternoon. It doesn’t add up to much profit when all the overheads are taken into account, but in the long run it’s sound. It has promise.

  Charlie has had replies to his ad in the personal columns. The first week it ran, he got only five responses. He then decided to take out a ‘six weeks for the price of four’ offer that the paper was running and over this period many more letters have come to his doorstep – nearly fifty in all. Each one he reads carefully, and responds to carefully, even if he is not interested. A good half of the women writing seem to him on the cusp of being dislocated by their solitude, and this edge of desperation, although it is one he himself feels daily, repels him. So tremendous is their plight, they barely bother to conceal it any more; the letters are not letters of courtship but of pleading for very life. This is expressed either explicitly, in the semi-literate text of the letters (You sound like exacly the kind of dream bote I have been wating for) or, more often, implicitly, in the tragic photographs, with rounded corners and flared red-flash camera pupils, as if some devil has already claimed them.

  Those remaining are a mixed bag. Some letters are formal, polite, as if distantly interested in a mildly promising business proposition (Dear Sir. I read your advertisement in the Milton Keynes Inquirer with some interest. However, I have a number of concerns…). Others are too short, too terrified, a sentence and an address. Only half a dozen seem to contain, within the shape and content of the hand that frames them, some resemblance to a world which Charlie can recognize as normal or familiar.
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  He has so far met four of these six women. The first, from her letter, seemed an entirely promising prospect. She, too, was a displaced Londoner, from roughly the same district (Hammersmith rather than Fulham) and roughly the same age (fifty-two). She wrote well, grammatically and plainly, and was honest about her situation; about the extent of her loneliness, about how since her husband had died she had had trouble making new friends. But she had many interests, and still considered herself ‘young at heart’.

  Something in the tone of the letter made Charlie warm to her and, after a few nights of plucking up courage, he found the resolution to telephone her at the number she had inscribed in tidy copperplate at the top of the page. The voice that had answered his call was soft and attractive, and they had enjoyed a nice chat of some thirty or so minutes before agreeing to meet at a local steak house.

  Charlie, on arriving, had spotted his date and found her immediately physically repulsive, with a parched, emaciated frame and thinned-out hair that somehow suggested cancer to him. To his shame, he had left without even introducing himself, turning on his heel in the lobby of the restaurant, and headed home to leave an apologetic message on her answering machine claiming that his estranged wife had suddenly returned to him and he was thus unavailable. He realized the improbability of the excuse, but he thought that she would be grateful for even so transparent a lie.

  The second woman had been younger than him, in her mid-forties, and was surprisingly attractive. It had been obvious from the word go, from the way that she scrutinized his belly poking out over the top of his trousers, from the way she looked at him askance as he struggled to pick out the right cutlery from the array of possibilities at the fancy restaurant she had insisted on him taking her to, that she was simply out of his league. She had kept an air of studied indifference and tight politeness all the way through the short dinner. She had criticized the amount that he drank, which admittedly had been excessive even for Charlie, who was by now sinking the equivalent of three bottles of wine a day. In the end, the woman had left swiftly at the end of the main course without ordering pudding. Charlie had felt humiliated, but reasoned that it was poetic justice after his behaviour on the previous date.

 
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