Rumours of a hurricane, p.34
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.34

           Tim Lott
 

  But he pauses. Surely the identification of the money by Maureen will attract the attention of the Inland Revenue. Charlie feels certain that the sum will have been topped up since their divorce, probably from undeclared income of some kind or another. And anyway, he could ring Maureen and tell her what has happened, promise that the money will be returned. She’d be angry, but he’s the father of her son – surely she wouldn’t turn him over to the police.

  In the desperation of his mind, these reasons seem convincing enough. He pulls his collar up around his neck. A young man approaches on a BMX bike, riding on the pavement. Charlie turns his head away as the man cycles past, but he pays Charlie no attention at all.

  Mowanpete is the fifth house on the right. Sure enough, there are no lights on this darkening afternoon and no car in the driveway. He feels sure that the place is deserted. There are six flowerpots along the front of the house, he notes, with a vague excitement. Maureen always used to leave a spare under the flowerpot in Fulham. As quickly as he knows how, he lifts them up, one after the other. There is no key.

  He corrugates his brow in frustration. He checks the frame above the door, he checks under the dustbin, he checks through the letter box to see if it hangs on a string. Now he begins to worry that his presence will be noted. A house opposite sits in clear view of this house and there are lights on there.

  A few more seconds, he decides, and he will give up. The idea now seems more and more absurd to him, and he feels himself seem to shrink inside his raincoat. What if Peter or Maureen were to turn up? His humiliation would be worse than imprisonment. Worse than anything.

  He takes one last look at the house before retreating. He looks bitterly at the sign, ‘Mowanpete’, and invents another, more satisfying: ‘Prickencunt’. Then, as he stares, he notices that the sign is affixed to the brick wall only by a screw at the top. Nothing fastens it at the bottom. On a hunch, he reaches out and pulls the bottom of the sign away from the wall slightly. The key falls on to the front path, jangles on the concrete. He glances around behind him, then picks the key up and palms it.

  Still he is not ready. To be certain, he tentatively approaches the front door, presses on the bell, then retreats as quickly as he can to a hiding place behind the neighbour’s privet. He waits, peering through a gap in the foliage. Thirty seconds, one minute. Nothing.

  He feels in his pocket for the two bags, one for the money, the other in case he should be disturbed and need to be disguised. He feels the plastic stretch between his fingers. Then he moves quickly down the front path again. He fits the key to the lock and turns. It opens easily.

  He is as silent as he can be, although he knows there is nobody in. His shoes click on the tiles, so he removes them. He feels that silence is appropriate to the occasion, even though he knows the house is empty. He takes a Sainsbury’s bag out of his pocket, pokes two holes for his eyes and one for his mouth, but does not place it over his head.

  He cannot resist a snoop around the house before he moves upstairs to look for the money. He feels sure it will be under a floorboard under the bed; Maureen is a creature of habit.

  He is impressed by the opulence of the place – the thickness of the carpets, the gleaming gold of the fittings in the bathroom. The bathroom cabinet is uncluttered, unlike the one they shared. There are expensive creams, hand lotions, perfumes. None of the Bonjela or verruca ointments that used to fall out every time he opened the cabinet they had together. There is a large box of condoms.

  Charlie pads out of the bathroom and into the living room. There is an oil painting of Maureen above the fake open-fire hearth which makes her look ten years younger, a romantic heroine. There is a huge collection of heritage pottery pieces – dray horses, and cottages, and peasants chewing straws on benches. The whole place smells of good polish and air freshener. It is pleasant, but something is disturbing him deeply, although he cannot work out what it is.

  Then it comes to him. He is in a happy house, a place steeped in goodwill, in fresh, unbroken promises, in genuine contentment. A place where love is. This understanding, this final reproof, pierces him, makes it almost unbearable to continue. But he does continue. He no longer has any choice.

  There is a British flag framed in the toilet – Peter’s sole contribution to the decor, imagines Charlie. There are framed photographs of Robert and Little Charlie. Any remnant of Charlie’s marriage to Maureen seems to have been comprehensively erased. There is none of their old furniture, pictures, ornaments, nothing. He is a non-person. He has been erased.

  He pads up the thick stairway carpet to the first floor. There are three closed doors in front of him, and one open: the second bathroom. He does not know which is the main bedroom, only that he will find the money there.

  Suddenly, there is a noise. A kind of soft creaking, rhythmic, distant. He cannot decide if it is in the house or not. He freezes, waits. The noise stops. He reaches in his pocket, decides to put the plastic bag over his head. The faint smell of fish assails him. He feels sick but keeps the bag on, adjusts it so that he can see through the poked eye-holes. He waits again. Still nothing.

  He decides to continue, that the noise must be from a heating duct or distant machinery. He opens the first door. It is kitted out as an office, with bookshelves, a desk and chair, and a computer that is active and running. This disturbs Charlie slightly, as does the image that drifts across the screen, toasters bearing wings, heavenly domestic appliances. He recognizes that this is the wrong room and moves away, pushes open the door to the second room.

  This, too, is not the room he seeks. But to his amazement it is kitted out as a nursery. There is a crib in there, and a mobile, framed pictures of teddy bears and raggedy dolls, a rocking horse, all the paint in pale pinks and blues. Charlie cannot make sense of it; perhaps Peter has a young niece or nephew, although he never mentioned anything. There is no room in his imagination for the other possibility.

  He finally opens the third door and squints through the holes in the bag in the half-light to make out the large king-sized bed in the middle. There is a moment’s hesitation before his senses communicate to his brain what is going on.

  Maureen is there, lying on her back, undressed, face turned towards Charlie, eyes closed. He sees the pregnant bulge of her stomach, the modest hill of her womb. He sees Peter on top of her, pushing at her with quick jack-rabbit motions. He actually hears the sound that the penetrations make, moist, like a swimming costume being wrung quickly after bathing.

  Maureen is moaning in a rapid singsong rise and fall of breath, while Peter is grunting with the effort of his frenetic penetrations. Charlie sees the deep blush of Peter’s face, the grim, delighted effort of withholding himself.

  Charlie stumbles slightly on the carpet threshold as the last granule of his world falls into dust. At the slight noise, Maureen opens her eyes, which immediately stretch wide. She gives an infinitesimal gasp, as reflected light strikes her retina and describes this impossible apparition. Peter at first smiles in satisfaction, then, sensing that something is wrong, that this is not an exclamation of bliss after all, turns and sees a man standing in the doorway with no shoes, grey towelling socks and a white plastic shopping bag fixed over his head.

  Neither Charlie, nor Peter, nor Maureen moves. The moment hangs in the air. Charlie thinks of these things: of running on an empty beach as a child, of how he still loves Maureen, of the sadness of his shoeless feet, of Robert as a baby trampolining on his lap. He sees a shotgun cradled on the wall, hopes suddenly and completely that Peter will use it, will blow his head clean from his shoulders. But Peter does not move. Charlie feels his hand come up, past his shoulders, above his head.

  Slowly, quite indifferently, he pulls the plastic bag from his head. In a glance, Maureen sees all that is written on his face, and feels only grief. Peter tries to rise, but Maureen holds his arms fiercely, keeps him still.

  Another moment passes before Charlie silently turns, takes slow steps down the thick carpeted stai
rs. He hears no noise behind him, so he keeps walking until he reaches the door. He sees his shoes but ignores them, continues to walk. It is raining now; the towelling socks absorb the moisture like sponges.

  He vaguely hears Maureen’s voice behind him as he moves hypnotically down the street.

  Charlie. Come back.

  But Charlie cannot come back, for he is no longer there. His shock and his shame have cracked open the unstable matter of what is left of his life, producing fission. Black energy pours out; he is lost, knows nothing. A blinding pain appears in his head. He puts his fist to his temple and rubs at it.

  For hours he wanders the darkening streets, unable to think, unwilling to think. The bottle of Scotch in his pocket has been emptied. He feels for his wallet. There is money there. Enough. Enough.

  He looks around him in the terrible gloom. As if beckoning, a few hundred yards off, there stands the railway station. He makes his way towards it, mumbles enough information to buy himself a one-way ticket to Euston. There is a train waiting. He gets in it and sinks into a seat next to a woman who is reading the Daily Telegraph. As the train begins to move, she glances at her companion, then moves quickly to find another seat. Already, he senses, he is moving beyond vision, beyond Mantovani, beyond the hurricane. The train moves unshakingly on determined tracks. He dreams he is inside one of his models. He feels he is an artefact, created by someone else, bereft of life. He falls asleep, and wakes somewhere else, someone else.

  Charlie will not come back, for the person who can return is gone, has been shuffled, and scattered, and finally disassembled. Life has done this, at that far edge where it cannot be resisted.

  Epilogue

  1991. The funeral at the crematorium is poorly attended. In the front pew, Maureen sits dressed in expensive black. She holds two babies in her arms that whimper intermittently. Despite the sadness of the day, she smiles at them with cautious, shining eyes. Nothing can touch the deepest part of her happiness. Peter Horn sits on one side of her, Robert on the other. He is a detective now, prosperous, a man of status and substance. He has put on more weight, and the sullenness in his eyes, once an adopted expression of adolescence, has faded into an avuncular gleam.

  He studies the coffin in front of him, as if inspection will solve some puzzle. His life in the police force has made him hard, yet he feels a strange lump in his throat. His father is in the cheap pine box in front of him, waiting for the priest to finish his vague ministrations, before the rollers will move underneath and deliver what is left of Charlie to the fierce, controlled heat of the flames. In the coffin, Robert has placed a model live steam engine, fitted into the frame of Charlie’s Leek and Manifold (Peak District) locomotive. Robert is shocked by the unclenching that is now taking place within him. Tears begin to come. Charlie Junior, sitting beside him, puts his hand on his father’s arm as if in consolation.

  Seven pews back, Tommy Buck sits with his wife, Lorraine. He will not speak to Maureen, whom he believes broke his brother’s heart, and he will not speak to Robert, since he knows what Charlie told him about Christmas Day and him and Lorraine was true. They will slip out quietly at the end, after Tommy has paid his respects. Charlie played his hand like a sap, thinks Tommy, but he was his own flesh and blood. He, too, feels an unfolding within his chest, a losing of part of himself. This goes beyond like or dislike.

  Lorraine sniffs and looks around her. She is barely suppressing boredom, and this lack of respect irritates Tommy. She has a hairdresser’s appointment later that afternoon and finds herself concerned about missing it.

  Further back still, two faces next to each other, one black, one white. Mike Sunderland is a senior executive for Times Newspapers now. He is clean-shaven, dressed in an expensive suit and hand-made shoes. The silver Rolex glints in the half-light. He has no emotions left for Charlie – he came from a different time, from a different age. But the story interests him; he is thinking about putting one of his reporters on to the case. One man’s life through the 1980s, highs and lows, so on, so forth. Too pat, maybe, but still… Poor old Charlie. Never did have much of a clue.

  Lloyd George, no longer Snowball, now a night watchman who is distantly employed in some branch of a private security organization that Robert sells advice to, has heard about the funeral from Mike, who keeps in touch from time to time. For reasons of guilt, he supposes. The therapist did an incomplete job. He doesn’t know why he is there really. Nothing else to do. He wishes he hadn’t come, but it’s interesting to see Mike again. He’s done well. White people always do well.

  Except for Charlie of course.

  The vicar is making traditional noises about returning to the fold, about bringing in the sheaves, about green and pleasant lands far, far away. He knows nothing of the deceased or his life. No one knew about Charlie and his life, Charlie himself least of all. Fragments glimpsed in parts of moments were all there was.

  An ersatz organ chord, pre-recorded, sounds and the pine coffin begins its slow journey towards the flames. It takes no more than a few seconds before the red curtains close behind the oddly small box. There are one or two choked sobs – one from Maureen, one from Robert. Then these are brought under control. There is silence.

  At this point, at the special request of Maureen, the speakers located in the corner of the chapel come to life once more. Plunging, cascading strings issue forth. It is ‘Charmaine’ by Mantovani. And at this cue, the few people remaining in the chapel begin to file out, one by one, of the open door. Out there into the rest of the world, where choice, and accident, and things without warning will yet push each of their lives, desires and intentions unstoppably away from them and into a future barely imagined.

 


 

  Tim Lott, Rumours of a Hurricane

 


 

 
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