Rumours of a hurricane, p.7
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.7

           Tim Lott
 

  A year of struggle. However, within a few weeks of the newspaper starting production again, wildcat strikes and stoppages begin once more. An agreement has been made that there will be a switch from the hot-metal composing rooms to an electronic composing room, but the agreement is showing few signs of sticking. The union chapels have, as ever, proved themselves both irascible and indomitable.

  Charlie has a late shift today, so he is enjoying a bit of a lie-in. Maureen has gone for an early appointment at Divine Creations, the hairdresser’s on the main road. She is contemplating a complete restyle. Robert has left, is living in a squat somewhere in south London. Six months ago to the day, Maureen stood in the doorway as he moved his things out, fighting to hide the desolation that she found suddenly within her. She put on a brave face. She wrought a new smile for the occasion. Yet after Robert left, her exercise and diet regime collapsed. Self-hatred grew, a living culture on the surface of her loss. Her weight ballooned.

  Maureen finds determination once more, flowering in the dryness within, the toughness of cacti. Eventually, her running resumes, increases from three to four times a week, despite the plague of her verrucas. Weekly, she hacks at the dead skin around the tender cores with their malignant black pinpoints. Sometimes it feels as if her feet are pitted, cratered, scooped out. She has substituted yoga for still-life painting on Wednesdays. In yoga, she tries to empty her mind, but Robert seeps into it, the memory of him taking his first steps, being tossed in the air and caught.

  On this day, Charlie rises from bed. It is still hot. There is again something wrong with the radiators. Having so long been cold, now they will not turn off. The council, as ever, is proving elusive and tardy about remedying the situation. Charlie and Maureen are soon to have a telephone installed; this will make the never-ending tussle with the local authority weighted slightly more in their favour. The endless trips to the telephone box, the waits outside as teenage girls talk dim-wittedly and for ever to invisible friends, wear both of them down. Charlie decides it is an investment worth making.

  Feeling the sweat on him, he takes a shower. The water comes out, as ever, in a sad trickle, impeded by gravity. He washes with unperfumed soap and dries off on a canary-yellow towel which he carefully folds and replaces on the heated towel rail. He is shaving with a disposable razor; there are six or seven of them already in the Tidybin. It is Robert who will eventually explain to him that you can use them more than once. A girl with big eyes holding a kitten stares down at him soulfully. The picture is called Innocence and it is by an artist called Mojer. It is Maureen’s choice.

  He returns to the bedroom, removes his maroon dressing gown with piped edges and puts on a wheat-coloured Arnold Palmer slimline shirt, a pair of dark blue Yorkers trousers with a slight flare and a ‘Sweden’-front cardigan with Acrilan back and sleeves.

  In the front room, he picks up his copy of the Daily Mirror from where it lies on the brown coir Welcome mat. The news is not good. A fourteen-year-old has murdered his disabled grandfather. The steelworkers’ strike is continuing. Charlie Drake is successful in the West End. The Yorkshire Ripper is still at large, mocking the police. All men are considered by an ever increasing number of women to be rapists. T-shirts announcing this discovery are selling well. Charlie briefly wonders if he could rape anyone, then dismisses the thought as absurd. Inflation and unemployment are continuing to rise. The train drivers of the London Underground are on strike after 200 teenagers wreck a train in Neasden.

  There has been a budget the previous week. Now Maureen has to pay £1 for her Tryptophan. The council are raising rents after Michael Heseltine cuts back their grants. There is talk of £50 a week. Charlie is outraged by the fact that Social Security is to be withheld from strikers – why should his family be penalized for something that is management’s fault? There is a billion in cuts. Margaret Thatcher, as Mike Sunderland at work had predicted, is hated, and is magnetizing unrest. However, the girl on page five in the bikini looks as irrepressibly chirpy as ever, and Charlie is cheered as he examines the contours of her breasts while he stirs his tea.

  The print world is a small world. He imagines he probably knows the compositor who laid out this page with Luscious Lucy from Luton, turned from beckoning flesh to solid metal then 10,000 tiny shaded dots on 5 million newspapers. This thought he finds comforting, feels a direct connection with the pulp that his blackened fingers grapple with as he chews on a slice of toast and margarine.

  He begins to attack his boil-in-the-bag kippers. Charlie loves kippers, even the bitter silver-black skin underneath. He spreads the liquefied butter over the orange-stained surface of the split fish. The aroma he finds wonderful. He cuts a first slice, but then feels his mouth go suddenly slack. There is a small double-column story on page seven. It is headed ‘Goodbye, Mr Music’. He swallows, stops chewing. Butter stains the edge of his mouth. There is a picture of a man with grey and white hair, a crooner’s smile, dark, quizzical eyebrows. He reads:

  The King of Easy Listening, Annunzio Mantovani, died last night at his home in Tunbridge Wells at the age of 74 after a long illness. In 1951 his first big hit, ‘Charmaine’, showcased the big ‘cascading strings’ sound that he developed with arranger Ronnie Binge.

  Mantovani was the first act in the music business to sell over 1 million stereo recordings, and he far overshadowed his light-orchestral rival, Semprini.

  Before his recording career took off, Mantovani served as musical director for a number oflong-forgotten British musicals and plays, including several by Noël Coward.

  Charlie feels a dryness in his mouth. He reads the paragraphs again, as if the story might alter on the second reading. Then he leaves the rest of his toast and kippers uneaten. The tea grows cold. A full five minutes he sits in his chair, barely moving.

  Eventually, he gets up and he goes into the kitchen. In the Frigidaire, at the back, there is a bottle of Asti Spumante that he was saving for Maureen’s birthday this weekend. He decides that he can always buy another and uncorks the bottle. It is 10.30 a.m. Foam cascades down the neck. Charlie finds a glass, wide as a saucer, in which he believes champagne should be properly served, as he has seen on an advertisement for Babycham. He takes both glass and bottle into the main room and sets them upon the table, where the molecules in his tea are slowing, losing energy. Then he goes to his stereogram, carefully takes out his copy of ‘Charmaine’ and sets it upon the turntable. He turns the volume control to High. The liquid strings fill the room. He raises his glass towards speakers that issue this preserved remnant of a dead man’s imagination, silently makes a toast, then drinks the Asti down in one swig and refills the glass.

  Charlie has switched the record to Replay, so ‘Charmaine’ comes on again and again. The second glass of Asti sets him to brooding in a way he cannot remember doing since the death of his parents, who, although both in their seventies at the time of their demise, he had considered to be functionally immortal. As he tears out the cutting from the Daily Mirror and places it in his wallet, those earlier losses seem to flash back. In his mind, he sees himself standing over each of their coffins and experiences the disturbing sense that life was much odder and less located in time and space than he had grown used to thinking. The death of Mantovani, whose warm, soupy music had acted as a soundtrack to his adult life, is troubling him in the same way.

  He is just pouring himself a third glass, smacking his lips and wiping them with the sleeve of his cardigan, when the doorbell rings. He assumes Maureen has forgotten her keys. But when he opens the door, a man in blue overalls and a second man in a cheap-looking suit with dandruff traces on the shoulders are standing on the doorstep. The second man carries a clipboard. The expressions on their faces are indifferent, but something in the way they carry themselves, a kind of cocked stance that seems to contain authority, makes him wary.

  Mr Buck? says the man in the suit. His voice is thin and sharp.

  Yes.

  Council.

  Yes?

&nb
sp; Charlie is bewildered. He is grieving, slightly drunk.

  We’re here to see about the radiators, says the man with the overalls. His voice is gravelly, south London tough.

  Charlie nods, suddenly comprehending.

  About blinking time, says Charlie, emboldened by the drink.

  Sober, he would be unlikely to risk provoking the council. They are too powerful. The man in the suit stiffens. A slight unpacking of muscle that seems to raise his height half an inch. Charlie stands back to let the men in. As the suited man crosses the threshold into the hall, he appears to register the smell of alcohol on Charlie’s breath. He recoils slightly, then takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and blows. Then he neatly folds it and returns it to his pocket. All this time there is complete silence. Finally, the man turns to Charlie, without looking at him. His eyes scan the detail of the flat.

  I understand there is a malfunction.

  That’s it, says Charlie.

  How long has the unit been failed?

  It’s not exactly failed, says Charlie.

  The man in blue adjusts his shoulders, which look massive even under the looseness of his overalls. He looks up at the suited man, who is three or four inches taller than him.

  It states clearly here that there is a thermal loss.

  Uninvited, the overalls man begins inspecting radiators. He produces a spanner from a kangaroo pouch at the front of the dungarees.

  How does it seem to you? says Charlie, to the taller man.

  I beg your pardon?

  It’s Hawaii in here.

  What?

  It’s high season on the Costa del Sol.

  A small rivulet of sweat is forming at the base of his back. ‘Charmaine’ still plays. Bubbles in the Asti bottle softly explode. His eyes drift to the Spanish guitar barometer on the wall. It predicts fair and warm.

  The man in the suit seems irritated and confused.

  Mr Buck, you have a reported a fault. I have it noted. Now you are saying there is no fault.

  That was last time, says Charlie. The radiators broke last time.

  He’s right, Mr Huxtable, says the man in overalls. They’re functioning 110 per.

  OK, Stan, says the man with clipboard. He makes a note.

  I exist, says Charlie, turning on overalls man. Don’t talk over my head. There’s no need for that I’m-the-king-of-the-castle type of attitude. Listen, the problem isn’t that they don’t work …

  The man in the overalls, again uninvited, has disappeared into the corridor that connects the bedrooms.

  It’s just that you can’t turn the bloody things off, says Charlie in frustration.

  There’s no need for language, says Huxtable. He purses his lips.

  There is an uneasy silence. Charlie is not sure what is meant to happen next. He feels a free-floating nervousness under the hard skin of his pique.

  Stan has reappeared from the corridor.

  I’ll have to make a report, he says.

  Central maintenance or peripherals? says Huxtable.

  We’ll copy it, says Stan.

  Aren’t you going to do anything? says Charlie.

  Huxtable looks wearily at Stan but says nothing.

  I’m making a report, Stan says, in a slightly different tone, less deferential. Charlie has to guess that it is pitched at him, since Stan is looking away.

  Why can’t you fix it now? says Charlie.

  Stan again addresses Huxtable rather than Charlie.

  We can send a chit to the boiler people.

  Is that procedure? I don’t think that would be procedure.

  Why won’t you talk to me? You bloody people.

  Charlie bites his tongue. His self-awareness, his protectiveness, close in through the cloud of drink.

  I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any unpoliteness.

  But now Stan is looking directly at him for the first time, with disinterested malice. He slaps the spanner into the palm of his hand. Phlat.

  One thing here, Mr Huxtable. I think you should take a look at it. There’s something in the tertiary unit.

  Stan turns and walks back down the corridor. Huxtable takes short, brisk strides in his wake.

  This is my home, says Charlie desperately.

  It’s council property, says Huxtable, without turning his head.

  Stan has reached the door of the spare bedroom. He walks in and Huxtable follows.

  The three men stand in spaces in the island in the centre of the train track. Stan shifts his foot; a Victorian Woman with

  Parasol disappears under the shadow of his rubberized sole. There is a barely audible crick.

  What are you doing? says Charlie.

  You will have to make restitution, says Huxtable, indicating the carefully painted wall of trees and valleys. This is in contravention. Without question.

  Stan has picked up an Andrew Barclay locomotive for the Campbeltown and Mackintosh light railway.

  Does this actually run? he says to Charlie.

  Of course, says Charlie.

  I mean, is it a real steam engine?

  No, says Charlie, a faint note of regret edging his voice.

  Though you can get those. I can’t really afford it. That’s what they call live steam. A real miniaturized engine fired by butane gas. They run to hundreds and hundreds of pounds though. That’s without the casing. A bit out of my league. Now, if you look at these engines over here…

  Live steam or no live steam, it’s a fire risk, says Stan, putting the engine to one side.

  This whole contraption is afire risk, says Huxtable. It’s too… It’s too… He frowns, looks questioningly towards Stan.

  Big, says Stan, matter-of-factly.

  Big, says Huxtable. Absolutely. Toys, of course, are a permissible…

  It’s not a toy, says Charlie.

  Toys, repeats Huxtable, within certain limits, are…

  This is my home, says Charlie. I want you to leave.

  He grabs the lapel of Huxtable, who shakes him off.

  You’ll be hearing more from us, says Huxtable.

  He does not move, and makes notes on his clipboard. Stan has moved in between him and Charlie. The spanner strikes his hand once more. Phlub.

  This is wasting council time, says Stan. The boiler is operative.

  Get out, says Charlie.

  Huxtable and Stan, in what they make clear is their own time, leave the room, and Charlie goes to follow. He notices the Victorian woman and parasol in pieces on the ground. Huxtable has turned.

  This door has been rehung. You must make…

  Restitution, says Stan.

  Charlie is examining the broken figurine.

  This took me two days, he says, more to himself than to the men, who have now left his sight. He waits a few seconds, hears the sound of the front door closing.

  He cradles the remnant of Victorian female passenger. He makes his way to the door. He trips on a miniature railway crossing; again there is the sound of breakage. He ignores it. He makes his way out into the corridor, raises his fist.

  This is my home!

  Mantovani has stuck in the groove, repeating the same brief cascade of strings endlessly. Charlie walks back into the living room. The broken woman is in his palm. He places her gently on the table, next to the bottle of Asti. He drinks directly from the bottle. The woman’s back is smashed and is beyond all repair.

  Maureen Buck sits in the middle chair of five at the hairdresser’s. She picks up magazines as she waits for the dye to take on her hair. There are copies of She, Woman and Cosmopolitan. Confined in this chair, she seems to feel age scraping at her, time’s emery board. Her skin appears loose and grey to her gaze. A new ulcer has appeared on her tongue and she flicks it between her teeth.

  Marie-Rose, her stylist for the last ten years, is chatting. Her real name is Elsie. The rebranding has been inspired by the sauce in which prawn cocktails are suspended. Maureen has asked Marie-Rose to cut and dye her hair in the style of Sue Ellen.

&nb
sp; Maureen is on the F-Plan diet, but Marie-Rose recommends combining. She says it’s all a matter of the correct relationship between carbohydrates and proteins. The issue of roughage is no longer prime. Calories are prehistoric. Marie-Rose has lost five pounds in a week. Maureen considers this a miracle. The F-Plan plays havoc with her bowels. She has lost three pounds, but suffers explosive flatulence and dislikes the pulses and baked beans which Audrey Eyton prescribes. Charlie is beginning to complain.

  Marie-Rose finishes her glowing peroration of combining. She is only slightly Maureen’s junior but wears clothes that are years younger – on this particular day, a rah-rah skirt and an all-in-one leotard, with white moccasins decorated with tiny coloured glass beads. A ragged sexuality hangs about her. She owns the salon and is confident and outspoken in a way that Maureen admires but finds hard to emulate. Marie-Rose moves on to another client while Maureen waits, her auburn hair, now tinted red, damply piled upon her crown.

  Maureen inspects the magazines on the ledge in front of her. She has already read Woman and she considers Cosmopolitan slightly outside her sphere of interest. She picks up She and flicks through the pages.

  The large-format magazine has changed from the innocent cookery and short romantic story format that she remembers. Now there is much about orgasm and possibility. The fashion seems extravagant. Oral sex features in one of the articles. Maureen reads her stars. A long-overdue change is imminent. A friend she holds in high esteem will disappoint her. She is advised to keep a clear head through present troubles, which will in due course be resolved. Marie-Rose returns.

  What about that Meg?

  She is talking about the owner of the Crossroads Motel.

 
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