Rumours of a hurricane, p.5
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.5

           Tim Lott
 

  Found a job yet?

  Yeah.

  What?

  Airline pilot.

  Did you look for a job?

  Why? So I can go on strike? It hardly seems worth the effort.

  He has not taken his eyes off the cartoon. Charlie feels the muscles in his back tighten.

  You can’t keep poncing off us for ever.

  I’m not poncing off you.

  Yes, you are.

  I make my own money. I’m on the Social. Plus Uncle Tommy gives me a bit for helping him out now and then.

  I forgot that you’re fleecing the taxpayer. And what do we see of that? You spend all that on fags. And as for your Uncle Tommy… well, you don’t want to end up like him.

  I like Uncle Tommy. He’s a laugh. And he does all right. Got a nice house. Owns his house.

  He’s a laugh all right. He’ll laugh you all the way to Wormwood Scrubs.

  He’s all right. Sees me all right.

  Charlie feels himself going red in the face.

  That chancer. Listen. Tommy only does anything for himself You should keep away from him. I told you that.

  Happy. Sad. Happy. Sad.

  What?

  Keep your hair on. Anyway, don’t you like your little brother?

  Don’t you smart-talk me. We put a roof over your head, we –

  Feed me, look after me, supply me with hot water and soft toilet paper. Change the record, Dad.

  You need to face up to your responsibilities.

  Change the record.

  What record?

  I fucking hate Mantovani.

  Don’t you dare swear in front of your mother.

  You won’t have to put up with it much longer.

  There is a silence. He looks at Maureen, who is staring down at her plate. Charlie decides to try and lighten the atmosphere.

  Mo, Carol next door. Who’s her baby named after?

  When Maureen answers, it sounds as if she is distant, thinking unrelated thoughts.

  Nelson?

  Yes, Nelson.

  Don’t know. The sailor, I suppose.

  No. She said it wasn’t.

  Maybe the father is called Nelson.

  The father’s called Trevor.

  Nelson Riddle? says Maureen.

  She wouldn’t know of Nelson Riddle.

  Robert yawns.

  He’s named after Nelson Mandela, he says.

  Who’s he when he’s at home? says Charlie.

  What do you mean, we won’t have to put up with it much longer? says Maureen finally.

  Robert blinks. He had thought the remark had been forgotten.

  Dunno, he says.

  You don’t know.

  There might be a place.

  Now Maureen begins to fidget with her necklace.

  A place? she says.

  It’s not far, says Robert. Might not happen anyway.

  Oh, happy day, says Charlie.

  But Maureen is punctured by the thought of her only child leaving home. She slowly clears away the plates and returns with cling peaches in syrup. There is a tin of evaporated milk, perforated on either side.

  Are you all right, Mo?

  Sorry about the tin, Charlie. I broke the jug today. It slipped while I was washing up.

  Butterfingers, he says, not unkindly. Then he turns back to Robert. How you going to afford the rent on this place, then?

  Isn’t any.

  What do you mean, there isn’t any?

  It’s a kind of… squat.

  Maureen looks shocked.

  You can’t live in a place like that.

  Why?

  It’s with a load of other layabouts, is it? says Charlie.

  Not everyone who lives in a squat is a layabout.

  Charlie bites back his anger in deference to Maureen’s obvious upset. He dispenses the thin white liquid on to the peach slices and begins to shovel them into his mouth. He likes the flavour more than that of fresh peaches, just like he prefers instant coffee powder to percolated. He finishes a second can of Double Diamond. He is experiencing some mild effect from the alcohol now and feels himself growing slightly expansive.

  Are you really going? says Maureen.

  Of course he’s not, says Charlie, who then decides to switch the subject, to take Maureen’s mind off it.

  Would you like a coffee, Robert? says Maureen.

  Thanks, says Robert, desultorily finishing off his peach slices. Got any percolated?

  Yeah, and get him a glass of champagne while you’re about it, says Charlie. Then you can feed him some grapes.

  There’s only instant.

  I’ll pass then.

  He rises from the table.

  Where you going?

  Thought I’d go and see Carol. Sounds like she’s got some new records.

  You and her pals, are you?

  Not really. She’s just got some good records.

  You could clear up, says Charlie.

  It doesn’t matter, interjects Maureen brightly. You go next door.

  Thanks, Mum.

  Robert gives his father a triumphant look, grabs his jacket and sweeps out of the flat. After a few moments, Charlie and Maureen hear the bell ring next door.

  That kid, says Charlie, hacking at his peach slices with the edge of his spoon.

  You’re too hard on him.

  He never makes an effort. Just drifts. He’s eighteen years old. He’s a man, for God’s sake. I was in the army at his age.

  If you keep telling him he’s a failure, then that’s what he’ll learn to be.

  Charlie barely hears her.

  He’s just like my brother. Never sticks with anything. Floats around. Ducking. Diving. Chancing it. No wonder he’s so fond of Tommy.

  You’re his father, Charlie. You’re who he looks to.

  He treats me like dirt. He treats us both like dirt.

  He does look for jobs. He does try. But he doesn’t tell you about it, because every time he gets another rejection he thinks you’ll throw it back in his face. He thinks that if you don’t see him trying, then you won’t see him failing.

  You’re too soft, Mo. You give him an inch, he’ll take a mile. Or a kilometre or whatever it is nowadays.

  Charlie finishes off his peaches. As they disappear, so his mood dissipates. He regards his wife fondly as she carefully separates the sugary syrup from the peaches before eating them. He leans over, pecks her on the cheek.

  How’s your day been then, kiddo? says Charlie.

  Nothing special, Charlie. I saw Mrs Jackson while I was out running.

  How is the old busybody?

  She’s not so bad. I helped her do her hair. She’s suffering most terribly at the moment with the arthritis. She can hardly move her hands. They’re like claws. All bent like claws. Her sons aren’t much use either. The last time she saw either of them was about three months ago. She’s all alone.

  Not much of a life, is it?

  She wouldn’t want any pity. She’s got a lot of pride. She brought me a box of crystallized fruit.

  That was nice. Still, she can’t be nasty really, can she? Lonely people can’t afford it.

  We can have some later, if you like.

  Maureen slowly finishes her peaches, chewing each mouthful at least twenty times, as she has read is best for digestion, then makes her way back into the kitchen, taking empty plates with her. Charlie settles back in his chair. Maureen returns and places a cup of instant coffee in front of him, and a jar of Coffee Mate. She can never quite get the proportions right, so she lets Charlie do it himself. Charlie places exactly one and a half teaspoons in, watches the powder dissolve. He prefers the taste to that of fresh milk.

  Maureen leans over and wipes a few crumbs from the dinner off the corner of his mouth. Somehow he always leaves residues of food on his face; Maureen has made this tender gesture a thousand times.

  Mucky pup.

  Charlie smiles in acknowledgement. Maureen hurriedly tidies away the last o
f the cutlery and plates. Her eyes are darting towards the television screen. Although the sound is turned down, the TV remains switched on and she can see the opening titles to Dallas beginning to flash up, Larry Hagman grinning like a friendly devil.

  I’ll do the washing-up, kiddo. You settle down, says Charlie.

  Thanks, Rock.

  Charlie opens his throat to dispatch his third can of beer. He lights a cigarette, allows it to rest in his mouth. Shards of ash fall on to the plates as he clears them away into the kitchen. At the heart of the cigarette, a blaze like a star. Charlie has that day read in Reader’s Digest that everything we are made of was forged in the stars. He looks around him at the Formica work surfaces, the Brillo pads, a jar of chutney. Impossible to believe.

  On the windowsill by the sink there is a photograph of Robert when he was about fifteen. Charlie glances at it as he watches a cloud of bubbles develop in the sink. To Charlie’s eyes, his son is not good-looking, with a weak mouth, pale unhealthy skin. Maureen tells him that girls find him attractive, want to look after him. He finds this incomprehensible.

  The familiar Dallas theme tune pipes into the room from the lounge, now attaining its crescendo and ending. Charlie pictures his wife, as he scrapes Spam and Smash from the cornflower-pattern plates, seeing her fade into the television, into the world of oil wells and company duels and sex. This television version of Maureen has lips that are moistened, predatory. In his imagination, Charlie thinks her sexual once more, before familiarity wore down that perspective, before she became distilled into mother, provider, housewife. He doesn’t care to watch Dallas himself, finding it not real enough. The Yanks always had to go over the top.

  But as for Maureen, nothing could get her out of the room on the nights when Southfork manifested itself into the corner. Her evening classes, on Mondays and Wednesdays, are movable feasts, dispensable, born out of a need to fill space in her life rather than true enthusiasm, Charlie suspects. Still-life painting and yoga. Dallas was different. Maureen’s brother died a few months previously; she had left the wake almost as soon as arriving rather than miss the programme. She had kept her funeral gear on until the closing credits.

  He had asked her once what it was she loved so much about it.

  I don’t know, she had said.

  Then there had been a long pause. Charlie was leaving the room, having abandoned hope of receiving an answer. Then, a murmur.

  It’s something about power, I think.

  That was the last word he ever got out of her on the subject.

  Charlie finishes the washing-up and then completes the drying also, with a tea-towel that is a souvenir from Ireland and is imprinted with shamrocks, shelalaghs and leprechauns. Finishing, he folds it carefully, and inspects the shamrocks, mistaking them for clover. He still looks for a four-leaf one when he sees a patch of them. But his superstitions tend to be less overt. He avoids certain thoughts in case the act of thinking them will bring them about. When a goal is scored against his football team, Fulham, he sometimes thinks it is his fault. Sometimes he is at the centre of his own magical universe and believes that what he thinks has a mysterious effect on the wider world.

  Back in the sitting room, JR is arguing with Sue Ellen. Charlie stares at Sue Ellen’s lips, and wonders momentarily what it would be like to experience her performing fellatio. Maureen won’t do it. It is one of the few regrets of his marriage. JR is shouting. His eyebrows working up and down. JR storms out. Cut to Bobby. He is a good man in a difficult situation. Charlie identifies with him.

  Charlie decides to go to the spare room. He loosens his belt a notch and sips at the fourth can of beer. He doesn’t like Double Diamond much: too gassy. He wishes he had been more assertive with Sam.

  In the spare room, he opens the door, which he has rehung to open outwards. He reaches his arm in and round the corner to switch on the light. Inside, a complete miniature world. There is a grey and white mountain that dominates one corner of the room. Behind it, a vista of blue sky and rolling hills painted directly on to the walls. Charlie has taken a chance that the council will have no cause to check inside and has broken the rules.

  There are figurines clustered around a small wooden-roofed railway station building in the centre. They are dressed in Victorian attire. A young woman holding a yellow parasol with a bonnet. A man with a high collar and a top hat. A working-class family: tykes, a barrel-chested man with a cloth cap, a plain wife. A fat matron, a parson, a grandfather and grandmother. Two babies in prams.

  The world spreads in all directions. There are several small illuminated buildings that fill with light the moment Charlie bends his arm into the room and hits the switch. There are trees, made of sponge and wire, a level crossing, perfectly miniaturized road signs. Milk churns, red fire buckets. The small world fills the room.

  Thirty minutes after the end of Dallas and Maureen has changed into a nightdress and dressing gown. She hears the soft thud of music from next door, nurses a mug of cocoa that she sips to help her sleep. It is not long before her bedtime. She contemplates doing a few exercises but rejects the idea, though promises herself that she will do double the number in the morning.

  She hears Robert’s key in the lock. He sees her immediately, comes and sits in the chair beside her.

  Want a biscuit with that?

  Maureen says nothing. She suffers from mouth ulcers; runs her tongue now around a small crater on the inner surface of her bottom lip.

  What’s the matter?

  Maureen looks up. There is lipstick on Robert’s neck. She gives the smallest of smiles.

  Have a nice time next door?

  It was all right. What’s the matter?

  I don’t know really.

  Robert nods.

  Is it about me leaving?

  I suppose so.

  Dad’s right, you know. I can’t stay here for ever.

  She reaches for her son’s hand. To her surprise, he lets her take it.

  Why don’t you like him, Rob?

  Dad?

  Yes, Dad.

  He’s all right.

  He thinks you hate him.

  Robert shifts uncomfortably in the chair.

  I don’t hate him. He just winds me up all the time. He’s got me marked down. He thinks I’m a big fat loser.

  I’m sure that’s not true. I’m sure he doesn’t think that.

  He wants me to be a brain surgeon or something. You know, I’m not all that… clever. It’s not easy getting a job. He should try it sometimes. I don’t know. He just makes me feel… like… He makes me feel…

  Like what?

  I don’t know. Like giving up. I suppose.

  Robert removes his hand from Maureen’s.

  That’s silly, Rob. You’re only eighteen. Your dad loves you, you know. He just wants you to… fulfil your potential. I think he over-estimates my potential.

  Rob, will you do me a favour?

  I’m listening.

  Try and make it up with him a little bit, will you? Especially if you’re leaving.

  Maureen pauses, hoping for a retraction from Robert. There is only silence.

  You are leaving, aren’t you?

  I think so. Yes.

  Well, then. You don’t want bad blood between you and your father.

  Robert sighs.

  I’ll have a go, Mum. But he…

  I know. I know.

  The gas jets that supply the fire hiss. Charlie’s footfall can be heard from his room.

  Is the pep talk over? says Robert, smiling.

  It’s over.

  I’m off to my room, then. I’ve got to get up early to help out Uncle Tommy.

  What are you doing there?

  A bit of this and that. Site dogsbody really. A bit ofhod-carrying. Tea-making. General bodging.

  Why don’t you tell Charlie about it?

  You know how he feels. He thinks Uncle Tommy’s a bad influence. But at least he’ll know you’re trying.

  He doesn’t see
me working with Tommy as trying. He sees it as betrayal.

  Maureen nods, sips the last of her cocoa.

  I don’t like keeping secrets from your father.

  Perhaps I shouldn’t confide in you any more. Is that what you want me to do?

  No.

  Robert takes his mother’s empty mug to put in the kitchen.

  Something will come along. Don’t worry. G’night, Mum.

  I know. Good night, Rob.

  Charlie goes over to one of the cottages that stand at the edge of the room. He flicks back the roof to reveal a small array of switches. He engages one; immediately there is a soft sound from the far side of the room. A locomotive pulling a series of three brown-and-cream-liveried coaches begins to move along the OO-gauge railway that curls round the edges of the room. A whistle emerges from the engine; wisps of smoke appear, generated by the small heating element in the chimney.

  Charlie sinks down into the middle of the array and watches the train navigate the route. He finds its progress reassuring. Up the mountain on rack railway of the sort that helps trains climb the Alps. This is what the mountain is supposed to represent, although the small world is otherwise British. There are red post boxes, a station clock, British signal boxes. Occasionally Charlie changes the points on the track to send the train on a slightly different circuit. But he enjoys the way the journey is always more or less the same.

  He picks up a model box that has a small set of unpainted figurines. The box reads ‘Seated American Tourists’. He takes out a man in a Homburg hat with a confident expression and a square jaw. Then, with the flat edge of a screwdriver, he opens a small tin of Humbrol enamel paint and begins to carefully apply a brown glaze to the man’s hat. His tongue protrudes slightly as he concentrates. The train continues whistling and clicking on the track. It rises and falls on the mountain. The Victorian figurines watch mutely, never to board.

  It is ten o’clock before Maureen puts her head in the doorway. The seated American tourist (male) is now wearing a blue-grey suit, a yellow tie and a cream shirt. Maureen’s make-up has been wiped off. Night cream has been applied, making her ghostly in Charlie’s eyes.

  Do you want a cup of cocoa, Charlie?

  He thinks of the skin forming on the top of the coloured milk and the idea suddenly revolts him. He declines the offer, wishes he had more beer, even Double Diamond. He feels woozy, hungover. Hair of the dog is what he needs. But the off-licence will be closed now. The corner shops are all closed by five o’clock, earlier on a Wednesday.

 
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