Rumours of a hurricane, p.33
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.33

           Tim Lott
 
Butterfield smiles hugely. It seems that he is about to burst out laughing at his own joke.

  I’ve worked it all out, Mr Butterfield.

  Charlie picks up the sad pile of scribbled-on paper from the table and waves it like a talisman.

  I know that if I can find a way to… I’ve done all the figures again and again. Minimum projections, nothing fantastical. Irregardless of all the problems I’ve got, I can get through. All I need is one final loan.

  He pauses. Knowing the audacity of the request he has just made paralyses his tongue. He coughs, clears his throat.

  Butterfield seems amazed.

  A loan? A further loan? For how much?

  Forty grand. I mean, thousand… It’s nothing. And then I can make it through.

  A low-flying aircraft passes over the house, making it impossible to say anything for a few seconds. Then Butterfield speaks, in a completely neutral tone.

  You want £40,000? To help you make it through the night?

  He takes off his spectacles, cleans them, smiles broadly.

  You want the National and North Bank to lend you a further £40,000?

  That’s right, says Charlie eagerly.

  On top of the £100,000 they have lent you for your house and the £50,000 the commercial branch has lent you for your business.

  That’s right, says Charlie, less perkily.

  Despite the fact that the most recent valuation on this property is… bear with me a minute…

  Butterfield goes straight to a small pocket on the outer edge of the briefcase and extracts an immaculate set of three letters on headed notepaper. He examines each of them, then returns them to their pouch.

  Despite the fact that the best… the best, Charlie, estimate of the current value of this house is £68,000.

  Yeah, but that’s silly. That’s a moody valuation. The house just down the road, which hasn’t even got as big a garden as this…

  The best! That’s the best, Charlie. Less optimistic estimates put it at little more than sixty.

  But that’s not my fault! says Charlie, suddenly outraged. When you made the loan, you assumed the same as me. We all thought property would keep rising. Your bank even bought a string of estate agents, didn’t it?

  Property consultants, corrects Butterfield.

  You can call a duck a sausage roll, but it’s still a duck. Whatever you want to call them, you took a hiding on them too. So to punish me now, I mean, to not give me a bit of support, is…

  Butterfield hardly seems to be listening. He holds up a hand.

  I’m afraid the fairness of things is neither here nor there. The fairness of the world is not the issue. The issue is the way things are, not the way that they might be.

  Charlie says nothing.

  The way I see it, continues Butterfield, the National and Northern Bank is looking at a hiding on this one. A pasting. We’re in a hole. You are in a situation of negative equity. So we’re all in a hole. Wouldn’t you agree?

  I suppose so, but…

  Do you know what I think about holes?

  Butterfield looks at Charlie brightly, as if he is expecting a serious answer.

  No, mutters Charlie morosely, I don’t.

  I think that when we are in one, we should stop digging.

  Oh, says Charlie, not really understanding.

  I think, says Butterfield, that the files need closing on this situation.

  The files?

  Butterfield brings the flat of his hand down on the table in front of him, producing a resonant thwack.

  We need to foreclose. On both the business and the house. Within thirty days.

  Charlie blinks, once, twice, three times. He feels a tightness in his chest. He has tried not to drink today, but now he aches for the burn of whisky at the back of his throat.

  Are you saying you won’t lend me the money?

  That’s precisely what I’m saying. Your track record simply doesn’t justify it. It’s sad for all of us. Particularly for us, as a matter of fact. You are just a man. A man, Charlie. But we are an institution, and an important one at that. Institutions like ours make this country what it is.

  Charlie nods, hoping that his approval of this lecture will buy him some goodwill.

  Take consolation in this. You’re not alone. I have to deal with cases worse than this every day. Men with wives and children. It’s not easy, I can tell you.

  Butterfield begins to close his briefcase. Charlie holds out a hand which, by a supreme effort of will, he keeps from trembling.

  What if I could come up with half of it myself? Capital. To show you I still have resource… resourcefulness. Would you match it?

  Butterfield pauses. The briefcase hovers half open, half closed.

  Is there any realistic possibility of that? Of you finding £20,000 further unsecured capital?

  There may be, says Charlie.

  Hmmm.

  Butterfield reopens the briefcase and this time goes to a flap that has been concealed. There seem to be thousands of them in there, thinks Charlie, far more documents than the case could ever really properly hold. Again, delicately poised between thumb and forefinger, Butterfield takes out five or six sheets of immaculately typed paper. He slips a calculator from another pocket and punches in a series of figures. There is a claustrophobic, anxious silence in the room. Eventually Butterfield speaks again.

  If you could come up with a lump sum of £20,000 within the next thirty days, I think we could see our way to extending the loan by an identical amount until the end of the year. Until after Christmas. And we would extend the repayment holiday on these premises also. But it would have to be…

  Butterfield now fixes Charlie with a stare that is glacial and seems to him deathly.

  Not £19,999.99. Nor can it arrive in thirty-one days, or thirty days and fifty-nine seconds.

  He smiles again, cheerily, as if things have now been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

  But if you can raise the £20,000 within thirty days, then I’m sure we can do business, for the time being at least, in the manner we have always done in the past. I know you’re trying your best. I know times are difficult. You may find this hard to believe, but we at the bank always have our customers’ interests at heart. And I honestly don’t think, Mr Buck, that it is in anybody’s interests to continue with this situation unless you can produce the required sum within the required time.

  He clicks closed the briefcase and gets up, smooths down his suit. The darkness of the previous few minutes seems suddenly to leave him. He grins, takes a deep breath.

  Thank you so much for the water.

  He turns and offers a hand to Tommy.

  Mr Buck Junior. Thank you for your contribution. I’m sure your brother is grateful for your support.

  Unexpectedly now, he slaps Charlie quite hard on the back.

  Buck up, eh, Buck? Worse things happen at sea, or so I’m told. Although myself, I get seasick, so I wouldn’t really know.

  He gives a small bark of a laugh, turns.

  I’ll see myself out.

  Then he leaves, closing the door gently behind him.

  Tommy and Charlie wait until they hear his car start and pull away from the road before they speak to one another.

  Well, that wasn’t so bad, says Tommy.

  Wasn’t it?

  There’s a chance anyway.

  At this, Charlie glances up eagerly at his brother.

  Is there, Tommy? I know you wouldn’t leave me up there without a paddle. Is there any chance you could, you know, bail me out? Just for a few months?

  Tommy pauses for a moment to take this in. It has genuinely not occurred to him that his brother would ask him for the money.

  What?

  Twenty K, Tommy. You could get hold of twenty K, couldn’t you? I mean, you could borrow it. Your credit’s good.

  You want me to front you twenty K?

  We’re brothers, Tommy. I don’t have Maureen any more. I hardly ever see Robert, and anyw
ay he hasn’t got anything to lend. I lost most of my mates when the job went down. You’re all I’ve got to turn to. It’s just for a few months.

  Right.

  What do you say, Tommy? Otherwise, I’m going down. I’m going down all the way, all the way down shit’s creek. There’s no safety nets any more. I’m in middle age. Late middle age. I’m not strong enough. Tommy. You got to help me.

  Tommy has no idea what to say. Lorraine is pregnant again. She wants them both at private school. She wants a new kitchen. Smallbone. She wants to trade in the series three for the series five. The building trade has gone arse-upwards anyway. There’s been no work for a month. He’s reduced to bits and pieces, shifting bricks around yards. He makes up the difference working as a doorman five nights a week.

  I can’t do it, Charlie.

  What?

  I can’t do it. Not without selling the house.

  But I thought… if you could borrow it… My credit’s shot, see.

  Tommy shakes his head. Charlie’s eyes begin to water.

  Tommy, you talked me into all this. You said I should buy my own council flat. You said I should start my own business. You said that property prices would keep on going up. You made me… shoot for the pot.

  Tommy takes a deep breath, expanding his enormous chest several more inches. He turns his gaze from his brother, inspects his great, salami-fat fingers.

  Come on, Charlie. It’s not me, is it? It’s just… you know… the way things turn out. The… the… fucking times. Suddenly along came all these… choices, didn’t they? I mean, it would have been different twenty years ago. Mo would have stuck by you come what may, slaps or no slaps. You’d have been nice and cosy down in Fulham. There’d have been no business, no loans. But things don’t stay the same. Everything’s changed, mate. It’s a different world, Charlie. You can’t blame me. You know, it’s like cards. Like stud poker. Shoot. Like you say, you shot for the pot. Used to be it was all just like Chase the Ace. That’s what life was. No one won or lost that much. Pennies, buttons and matchsticks. Now it’s all poker. Poker and shoot. High stakes. All or fucking bust. Kaboom.

  Charlie’s hands are trembling. He goes to fetch himself a bottle of Scotch from the kitchen. When he returns, he pours himself a large glass.

  And I went… kaboom.

  Tommy spreads out his hands.

  It’s Chinatown. The way the old cookie…

  All right then, Tommy. All right. Fair enough. I made a few bad calls. But I can still make it back. I can still make the table money. Listen, how much can you spare me? I know twenty’s a bit rich. But you could come up with ten, couldn’t you? Surely you could make ten. That’s nothing to you. I could cash in my endowment on this place, got to be worth a bob or two. I could make up the difference somehow. What can you do, Tommy?

  Tommy shifts uncomfortably in his chair.

  It’s not really the matter of the amount.

  It isn’t?

  See, the building trade is pretty low at the moment.

  You could top up your loan on the house.

  Lorraine wouldn’t stand for it. She wants the kids to go through private school so they can become stuck-up cunts like her. She wants a new car. The whole lifestyle package. You know what women are like. If I could do anything… But I’m lumbered, mate.

  So you’re saying… you’re saying… nothing is what you’re saying.

  Tommy shrugs, kneads his forehead with his knuckle. Even his forehead, thinks Charlie, is fat.

  I dunno. I might be able to knock together a grand, I should think. I wouldn’t have to tell Lorraine about that.

  Charlie nods his head bitterly, as if he suddenly accepts an unpalatable truth.

  A grand.

  Maybe twelve hundred. Twelve hundred is tops, though.

  Right.

  Charlie puts his head into his hands. Through the meshed fingers words come.

  It’s Lolly, then, is it?

  Well, to be fair to her…

  She’s never liked me.

  I’m sure that’s not true.

  Tart.

  Steady on, Charlie… She is my…

  I’ll tell you something about Lolly, Tommy.

  Calm down, Charlie. I mean it.

  She’s nothing. She’s a tart.

  What you talking about? You’ve gone off your…

  Christmas Day, 1980. I saw them in his bedroom. They were together.

  Tommy’s eyes seem to bulge, his great bulk shifts slightly where it stands.

  You’re having a laugh. Together? Who was together? What do you mean?

  Either that or Lorraine’s got a damn peculiar way of cleaning her teeth.

  What? Are you saying…

  I’m saying that the turkey wasn’t the only bird that was having a gobble. Lolly was south of the border, down Mexico way. With Robert. Think I’d make it up? It’s true, Tommy… I saw it. What you think they were doing in there? Toasting marshmallows over the Christmas fire?

  Tommy feels his face go red. All he can think is that his brother has searched inside himself and found the most destructive thing he knows how to say.

  Then he realizes somehow that what Charlie says is true. He knows his brother well enough to be sure that he wouldn’t invent this. But instead of making him hate Lorraine – that will come, that will come later – it makes him hate Charlie, hate him like poison, destroying what little thin sympathy has been unfurling inside.

  Fuck you, Charlie! You’re not getting twelve hundred. You’re not getting a penny. Lolly was right. Robert was right. Maureen was right. Everyone was fucking right, except you, you dopey cunt. You’re a loser.

  Tommy turns to go. He considers chinning his brother, but holds himself back as he sees Charlie’s face suddenly drop. It is too pathetic.

  I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I made it up. You got to help me, Tommy. You got to help me out. I’m not going down. I don’t want to go down.

  But Tommy is gone, gone for ever into the deathly quiet new town twilight.

  18

  Three weeks have passed. There is one week to go before Charles William Buck’s world stands to fall utterly and irremediably apart. He has so far managed to raise £8,763 towards the required £20,000. He has sold off his endowment policy for what is, to him, an astonishingly low figure, despite the fact he has held it for ten years. He has sold his shares in British Gas, in water, in electricity. Robert, to his surprise, has taken out a loan to raise £3,000 for him. He has sold everything in the house of value, leaving him living in a shell, without television, without video, without even cooker and fridge. The last item to go was his Mantovani collection. An enthusiast bought it all. A lifetime’s work – £50. About 50p a record. No call for Mantovani any more. Tastes have changed.

  Now Charlie sits on the floor in his empty house drinking his way through the one luxury he has not disposed of, his drinks cabinet. He has nearly completed a full pint of blended whisky. He can smell himself, the stink of failure. Taking the money from Robert, begging from his own son, was the worst part about it.

  He has one last hope of raising the remainder of the money, but it is a desperate one, a terrible one. He turns it over and over in his head, arguments presented as increasingly blurred and fragmented sentences and questions and justifications.

  I’ll never get away with… But it’s mine really… After all, she left… But where will she keep it?… What if I get caught?… She’ll keep it where she always kept it… Alarms?… Maureen never believed in them… Bitch… how could she do it?… No, no, not a bitch… my wife, my Mo. Kiddo. Sorry, kiddo. I need the money, I need it so bad. You understand… I’m sorry, I… I didn’t mean to do that… Peter will… Peter, that fucking… I can’t do it. I have to do it. Can do. You got to have can do. Winners and losers. On your bike, mate. On your bike and look for work. On your bike and look for treasure. I know where you live. I know where you live.

  I know where you live.

  Standing unsteadily, h
e realizes that this is not entirely true, that he has never been inside his ex-wife’s new house, since Peter sold up his house and they moved over to one of the grandest parts of town, some of it still old, part of the original Milton Keynes village. But he had to drop some legal documents over there once, regarding some technicality about the divorce, and remembers it vaguely, the nicely spaced houses, the well-kept hedges, the 200-year-old pub a short walk from the driveway. The coy name outside, in golden italics on a varnished cross section of tree bark: ‘Mowanpete’. He estimates it is about three miles away.

  He grabs a light coat, a pair of suede gloves and, on impulse, two plastic shopping bags from Sainsbury’s, where he likes to buy kippers for the morning, and places them in his pocket. He staggers again. The drink is muddling him but makes him feel optimistic, brave. He pats his half-full bottle of Scotch.

  Outside, it is late afternoon. He assumes that Peter and Maureen will be at work. They work hard. They must work hard. Robert tells him that their business, despite the recession, is doing well. People always need to learn how to drive. Robert tells him that they work all the hours that God sends. Today the house will be empty. He just knows it. He feels lucky.

  He realizes quite quickly that he has come out of the house under-equipped for the weather, but he does not really feel the cold. He walks along deserted cycle paths, across road bridges, past roundabouts where cars spin and reel endlessly. There are virtually no pedestrians. When he first arrived in Milton Keynes, he remembers the feeling of freedom this gave him, the lack of bustling crowds, of smells and noise. Now he finds the absence oppressive, sinister. He longs for the messy clamour of London.

  He gets lost twice, but after about an hour he spots the pub he remembers from the time he dropped off the documents. It has a thatched roof and low small windows. Now he remembers the name: the Haystack. Somewhere behind here, a few hundred yards from where the car park ends, is Peter and Maureen’s detached house.

  The light rain and the penetrating cold has sobered Charlie up and, as he approaches Mowanpete, he finds his pace slowing. The absurdity, the desperation, of his scheme begin to dawn on him. He knows that he is liable to be first suspect in any investigation. And that the smallest inquiry into his financial affairs will reveal a large sum of money magically appearing from nowhere right on cue. He almost turns back then and there.

 
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