Rumours of a hurricane, p.4
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.4

           Tim Lott
 

  He thinks bosses are on the make, he thinks politicians are on the take. Judges are perverts, juries are fools. He knows policeman are bent. His brother, wide-as-a-barn-door Tommy Buck, used to be one, a beat copper in Romford. The proceeds, legit and otherwise – mainly otherwise – bought him his three-bedroom terraced house in Theydon Bois. It would have been a detached with double-glazing by now if he hadn’t left the force after losing his volcanic, hooligan’s temper with the station sergeant. Put him in hospital, put Tommy on the dole queue. Tommy never was good with authority. Now he was a builder. Don’t talk to Charlie about builders.

  Yes. People are up to no good. Armies of them, marching in their millions, skiving, cheeseparing, thieving, pilfering, exploiting, loitering, cheating, lazing. Charlie thinks he is an exception to this rule, that he is an honest man in a den of thieves who has been turned over two or three times too often in his life. Decimalization, which he thinks the biggest con trick of the century, has been a set up by big business to raise prices at the expense of the working man. Call them working men, of course, but most are layabouts. Inflation, which he considers the greatest threat to modern life bar nothing, ensures price rises for house-owners, a group within society that Charlie feels he has little hope of joining. Trade unions, with the important exception of his own, hold the country to ransom.

  Women’s liberation is all very well and good, but it is, like communism, against nature. He has no particular objection to homosexuals, so long as they get up to their business in private. Larry Grayson makes him laugh, and John Inman, and so does Frank Spencer, although he is not so sure that Frank Spencer is really one of those. Homosexuals, nevertheless, are also indisputably against nature. He does not consider lesbianism probable, and thus it is beyond the reach of his prejudice.

  Then there are foreigners. Southern Europeans he finds amusing or hysterical. Northern Europeans have a pleasantly enlightened attitude to nudity and sex. The Germans are the only cross-Channel community that he thoroughly dislikes, for all the conventional reasons. The Swiss and the Belgians are boring but make good chocolate.

  He is frightened of young black men, but has no particular grudge against blacks as a group, so long as they don’t take on too much front. Snowball at work is the perfect black man: neither young nor contrary, speaks English with a proper accent, rations his patois. Indian Asians, just defined in his mind as Asians, are peace-loving and hard-working, but they smell strange and are too interested in money.

  Such are the points of view of Charlie Buck, family man, union man, craftsman. Without, in fact, finally bearing any of them in mind, he marches into the polling station. He does not have to think where to put his cross, even though he blames Callaghan’s pay policy – which his employers are insisting on sticking to, suppressing the printers’ wages – partly for the strike on which he finds himself.

  He does not take into account policy or listen to speeches or weigh up differences in political nuance. He strides purposefully into the secret polling booth, feeling momentarily important, and inscribes a cross, clearly and heavily, so that a dent shows through the paper on the other side. He votes Labour, as he always does. He assumes that enough other people similar to him will do the same for Sunny Jim to be returned to power. He cannot imagine any woman occupying Number 10, despite the contrary indications of the pollsters.

  He leaves the school and heads towards the off-licence, feeling strangely elated by the assertion of his democratic right. He fantasizes that the election in their ward will be won by one vote – his. However, he simultaneously recognizes that this is unlikely since the majority stands at some 16,000; it is one of the safest Labour seats in London.

  At the off-licence he examines the shelves. He takes his time; he wishes to punish Maureen for crimes he is nevertheless not sure she has committed. A Bristol Cream Sherry box for £3.75 a gallon. He translates the 75P into fifteen shillings, a habit he cannot quite lose. Good value. A special offer. He is tempted, but there are not enough Christmases.

  He moves past the Melcher’s Advocaat, the Van Huyten Cherry Brandy, the blackcurrant rum, the Domecq Double Century, the Cossack Vodka, the Lord George ‘His Own Special Reserve’ Rich Old Port. Sam, the proprietor, a fat man with a fixed, all-purpose grimace and a perpetually wet mouth, sits uncomfortably behind the counter. Charlie has been coming here for ten years, but Sam still barely acknowledges that he is any different from a customer walking in for the first time off the street. They do not chat. However, on this occasion, Sam graces him with a small nod of recognition. Charlie nods back, encouraged.

  I’ve been down the polling station.

  Sam nods again, but otherwise does not respond.

  Exercising my democratic right.

  He says this with slight sarcasm, as if the words ‘democratic right’ were in inverted commas. Still Sam does not respond. He moves his bulk on the stool, trying to find some elusive centre of gravity. The discomfort of his weight is a constant oppression. Now Charlie feels vaguely embarrassed at the silence that has been thrown into reliefby his venturing to speak in the first place. He cannot help himself filling up the gap.

  Still, I suppose they’re all the same as one another really, more or less.

  He feels perplexed that he has been manoeuvred into stating a belief that he does not, in fact, hold, simply to gain acceptance from someone he does not, in fact, care about. A long pause ensues in which Sam shifts his weight once more, then smacks his wet lips twice, then, finally, speaks.

  Not this time.

  Now Charlie feels trapped and foolish. He did not expect Sam to have this opinion, did not credit him with the strength of mind. He agrees with Sam, is suddenly desperate to take this unusual opportunity for some kind of connection with this fat man he has seen practically every week for as long as he can remember. But there is no space for him to retreat into. To agree that Sam is right will be ridiculous now. Will expose his need.

  Well, says Charlie. Well.

  This country needs a bloody shake-up, says Sam, getting off his stool, something Charlie has hardly ever seen him do before. No bones about it. I voted for Mrs T. She’s the one for the small businessman. She’ll knock this place into shape.

  He laughs to himself, something that Charlie has also rarely witnessed.

  Well, says Charlie again, knocked off balance once more by both Sam’s sudden fit of good humour and his proclamation of enthusiasm towards someone he vaguely perceives as an enemy on several fronts: Tory, female, anti-union. There is a brief silence. Charlie imagines that in this silence he is meant to make some expression of agreement with Sam. It is, he perceives, a test of loyalty. He fails it.

  Charlie suddenly wants to get out of the shop. He cannot see his normal bottles of Worthington Pale Ale behind the counter to the left, where they usually are. Instead there is a stack of large cans of Double Diamond. Blindly, he points at them.

  I’ll have four of those, please.

  Sam reaches behind him and takes the cans off the shelf. Charlie senses suddenly that the shopkeeper has fallen back into himself, that the gate of communication, briefly opened, has firmly shut once more. He passes the cans and curtly announces the price. Charlie fumbles for his wallet and takes out a £1 note. There is a disappointingly small amount of change. No bag is offered.

  Almost scurrying now, Charlie turns to leave the shop.

  Toodleoo, he says. Immediately, he feels like kicking himself. Not ‘goodbye’ or even ‘bye’ or even nothing at all. Toodleoo. A woman’s farewell. He cannot be sure whether Sam responds or not; there is a slight change in his breathing which may or may not indicate some kind of acknowledgement.

  He checks his watch. He has been gone half an hour. He feels now that the punishment he is meting out to Maureen is overly severe, and a shiver of guilt runs around the walls of his stomach. He quickens his step. As he turns the corner of the main road towards Ramsay MacDonald House, there is a man in a grey mac selling bunches of pink and red carnations
from a trestle table.

  They are a flower he finds prissy, but he stops and buys a bunch to make amends to Maureen. The man in the mac winks at him as he hands them over; Charlie has no idea what this indicates, but he gives a half-smile of acknowledgement nevertheless.

  2

  As Charlie approaches the doorway to the flat, he notices that the dominant smell from the black bags has changed from the heavy tang of soiled nappies to the earthy stink of decomposing food. He cannot decide whether or not this represents an improvement in the air quality. His key turns in the lock. The sight that greets him is of Maureen sitting at one end of the living-room table, a hostess trolley parked parallel. The smartness of her dress, the dark thickness of her melting make-up, juxtaposed with the strange sadness of the trolley, bring out another pang of regret in him. She looks up, with a version of a smile, one that is hollowed out and tinged with anger. But it begins to dissolve into something more real when she sees the flowers. She gets up from the table, wobbles on her heels, nearly falls, then steadies herself.

  I’m sorry, kiddo. Being off work so long is getting to me. It’s not your fault.

  He holds out the flowers. Maureen takes them, reaches up to kiss Charlie on the cheek. He smells scent that he recognizes as perpetually Maureen’s but is unable to name.

  It’s not easy for a man to have no job, says Maureen.

  Charlie feels his pale repentance colour immediately into something darker.

  I do have a job, kiddo, he says, finding it hard to keep the irritation out of his voice. We’re just in dispute.

  You know what I mean, Maureen says blithely. Five months is a long time.

  As long as it takes is how long it takes.

  Maureen nods. She still isn’t sure what Charlie does at work. He has tried to explain, but she cannot visualize it. Once she visited the print rooms. The noise was deafening. All the shouting gave her a headache.

  Maureen goes to put the flowers into water. Charlie removes his coat and makes to sit down at the table. The gas fire on the opposite wall has all three panels lit, yet there is still a chill on this side of the room. There are central-heating radiators, but they are supplied by a central boiler for the whole block. The boiler has not been working for the last two weeks.

  The light from the overhead bulb is not muted or diffused by the tasselled lampshade, but merely contained and sent downwards instead of in all directions. The light is harsh, but Maureen likes it bright during mealtimes. Charlie would prefer the softer, yellower light of the standard lamp in the corner. This, he knows, will not be illuminated until after tea, when television viewing begins in earnest.

  He hesitates before sitting down, then, instead of lowering himself into the chair, goes across the room to the Alba Stereogram and inspects the LPs that are arrayed in the mock-teak cabinet. Between Jack Jones, The Essential, and Jim Reeves, The Intimate, are three discs, all by Annunzio Mantovani – Mr Music, Mantovani Today and Some Enchanted Evening. Charlie loves Mantovani and has a collection of some fifty of his albums.

  He changes his mind about the LPs and examines instead the smaller rack of 45rpm singles that abuts the album section. He takes out three records, wipes them all carefully with a yellow anti-static cloth, then stacks them on the spindle of the record deck. He switches it on. After a few seconds of mysterious whirrings and clankings, the first record drops, then the playing arm moves across, magically locating the first groove. Charlie feels a small sensation of lushness, of greenery, as the first notes seep from the speakers. He turns. Maureen has returned with a glass for his beer. He pours it, sits down at the table and takes a deep draught as the warm blanket of the music cossets him. He adds the words to the soundtrack of the Mantovani record, which he has loved since it was first released thirty years ago.

  Charmaine… my Charmaine…

  Maureen calls out to the back of the flat.

  Rob!

  Charlie smiles contentedly at Maureen as she takes a dish from the hostess trolley, walks over to where he sits and removes the lid from the dish. The smell is unfamiliar.

  Surprise, she says. A new recipe.

  Never a dull moment with you, is there?

  Now it is Charlie who calls down the corridor, much louder and more threateningly than Maureen.

  Robert, your dinner’s ready! Come on, you bloody layabout!

  I got the recipe from an advert in the TV Times, Maureen is saying. It’s called Lumberjack pie.

  What’s in it?

  See if you can guess.

  The mush that is put on to the plate is an odd mix of orange, pink and pale yellow. The smell is stronger now. Charlie finds it faintly sickening, but has made up his mind to feign enjoyment if necessary. Maureen has placed a minuscule portion on her own plate and a vast pile on Robert’s.

  There’s potato, says Charlie tentatively.

  Maureen can wait no longer to give up her secret.

  It’s instant potato, Spam, baked beans and Cheddar cheese.

  Is that so? says Charlie.

  The whole thing only cost 72p.

  There is a noise in the corridor. Robert appears, taking small, reluctant steps towards the table. He smiles weakly at his mother, but does not look in Charlie’s direction. He is dressed in a black T-shirt and straight black jeans. He has clearly not shaved that morning. His ginger hair is unkempt. There are several pimples at the point where his nostrils join his pale, etiolated face. He says nothing, merely sits down and regards the slowly spreading contents of the plate.

  Charlie looks at him, irritated. He puts on a fake voice.

  Hello, Dad. How lovely to see you. And Mother. What a wonderful meal you have prepared for us. So, Father. Please tell me all about your day fighting for a better standard of living for your wife and son.

  Robert does not rise to this, but pushes the mess around with his fork.

  Leave it, Charlie, says Maureen. He’s depressed.

  He’s depressed? I’m bloody depressed. But I don’t moon around in my room all day like a slug with a broken leg.

  Robert fakes puzzlement.

  They don’t have legs, he murmurs.

  Maureen silently dishes up some supplementary vegetables. Carrots, sliced and boiled. Cauliflower, frozen peas. She fills up her own plate with these. A thin cloud of steam drifts into Charlie’s face. Charlie takes a deep swig of the Double Diamond. His belly sits over his belt by two or three inches. Underneath his nylon shirt, he can suddenly feel the pattern of his string vest, which makes him feel momentarily uncomfortable.

  Robert is still staring at his plate.

  What is it?

  Lumberjack pie, says Maureen brightly. It’s instant mashed potato, Spam –

  Pet food, says Robert.

  Don’t you dare start, says Charlie, jabbing his knife in his son’s direction.

  Where’s yours? Robert indicates Maureen’s tiny portion.

  I’m watching my weight.

  Do you think Mum’s fat, Dad? Robert turns to his father for the first time.

  What?

  Do you find her a little on the heavy side?

  Of course not.

  Why’d you buy her an exercise machine for Christmas?

  Because she wanted one.

  Why do you always get her dresses too small for her?

  Charlie clenches his fist around his fork.

  Listen, you –

  Stop it please, you two, says Maureen, primly. Let’s have tea, shall we?

  I mean, it’s not as if you’re body beautiful, Charlie.

  That’s enough. And that’s enough of this ‘Charlie’ business. I’m your father.

  OK, Chuck.

  Charlie unfolds his napkin and places it on his lap. There is a jug of Quosh orange on the table, a drink that Maureen uses as a substitute for wine, since she does not drink except on special occasions. She pours herself, Robert and Charlie small glasses, then sits down. ‘Charmaine’ is finishing on the record player, the strings cascading then fadin
g into scratchy silence, before a new record falls and engages – The Song from Moulin Rouge’, another classic. Mantovani, the soundtrack of Charlie’s dream life: enfolding, warm, soupy, luxuriant.

  Robert pushes the food around his plate. He takes two peas and a carrot, makes eyes and a nose in the mashed potato. He scoops an indent for a mouth, ups the ends into a smile, then down into a grimace. He mutters to himself.

  Happy. Sad. Happy. Sad.

  Just as the music begins to reach its first peak, a thudding begins again from next door. It sounds identical to the first noisy penetration from Carol the Single Mother’s flat, but in fact it is X-Ray Spex rather than the Buzzcocks – ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours’. The difference is lost on Charlie, who stares at his glutinous tea-time meal morosely. The Mantovani strings are being polluted. He stares at the wall. This time the radiation he tries to summon up has no effect.

  Never mind it, Charlie, says Maureen. Try your pie.

  Charlie digs a fork into the mulch on his plate and propels it into his mouth, past teeth yellowed by age and thirty Capstans every day. His tastebuds have been damaged by the smoking, but he has a vague sensation that what is in his mouth is not particularly nice. Although he likes Spam as it comes, or grilled on toast, in this incarnation it seems greasy and unpalatable. Nevertheless, he nods in approbation, but almost immediately takes a draught of the beer to erase the taste.

  Robert picks only at the vegetables, but Charlie dutifully finishes every last mouthful of the rapidly cooling pie. The cooler it gets, the less palatable, as more artificial flavours seem to emerge. He tussles with the problem of being polite to Maureen while ensuring that this meal is never, ever presented to him again.

  Robert has picked up a copy of Tit-Bits from a nearby coffee table and is reading the cartoons. Charlie looks at him sharply.

 
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