Rumours of a hurricane, p.8
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.8

           Tim Lott
 

  I think she’s being unfair to Sandy, says Maureen. Sandy is Meg’s crippled son. He was only saying what he thought.

  You can be too honest, says Marie-Rose, examining Maureen’s roots.

  Is he genuinely crippled? says Maureen.

  Sandy? says Marie-Rose.

  Is he normal in real life?

  I don’t know, says Marie-Rose. I think so.

  Meg has to be strong, doesn’t she? says Maureen.

  Don’t we all? says Marie-Rose, laughing. It’s a woman’s lot. We can wash this off now.

  I admire her, says Maureen. It must be wonderful to run your own business.

  It’s not all champagne and lunches at the Rib Room, says Marie-Rose, gently manoeuvring Maureen’s head back over the sink.

  You’ve made a go of it, though, haven’t you, Elsie?

  She hesitates as she feels the hands that are in her hair roughen their pressure.

  … Marie-Rose?

  It’s not easy, Marie-Rose says, pointing the nozzle of water at a space behind Maureen’s ear.

  It is almost scalding hot, but Maureen is reluctant to complain. The position she is in, bent backwards, renders her almost completely submissive.

  No. But all the same…

  Marie-Rose stands in front of her, hands on hips.

  Why don’t you get a job, now that Robert has gone?

  She leans over Maureen and applies Elseve Balsam.

  I don’t expect Charlie would like it.

  Well, he can lump it, then, says Marie-Rose.

  You don’t know Charlie. Anyway, what could I do?

  There must be something. You’re not stupid, are you?

  Oh, I’ve not got all that much upstairs, I don’t think.

  Cock and bull, says Marie-Rose.

  I suppose I do get bored sometimes, says Maureen.

  Time on your hands.

  Of course, I keep myself busy. You’d be surprised how much work –

  You can sit up now. Hold still. Excellent. There we are. What do you reckon?

  Maureen’s colour is more vivid than she has expected, but it pleases her. She nods in approval. Marie-Rose falls silent and begins to tease at the hair with a dryer. Maureen picks up the copy of She once more. It falls open at one of the several articles on orgasm. Marie-Rose leans over her shoulder.

  Picking up a few tips, are you? says Marie-Rose, winking.

  I think me and Charlie are past all that, says Maureen. She imagines the menopause approaching, like distant cancer.

  You’re a young woman, Maureen. What are you talking about?

  It’s different for you, says Maureen.

  You don’t know what you’re missing.

  This, it strikes Maureen, is precisely true. She has never quite understood the magnetism of sex, although now it seems to gesture at her from the most mundane of advertisements: breakfast cereal, cutlery, even pension plans. Charlie has never exactly located her clitoris, she ponders. She does not blame him. It is unwilling to be discovered, like Shangri-La. Imagined others may strike this chord, but Charlie’s investigations have proved fruitless. Now he is disheartened, has abandoned the quest.

  Marie-Rose lowers her voice.

  Have you ever had a multiple?

  Maureen is momentarily puzzled.

  A multiple what?

  Orgasm, of course.

  Maureen laughs out loud.

  I’d be chuffed with the occasional single.

  Marie-Rose joins in. But Maureen feels a constriction around her heart, as if an invisible hand is squeezing there.

  I’ve nearly finished now, says Marie-Rose, standing back to admire her handiwork.

  Maureen’s hair looks only marginally different; tidier, the flecks of grey stripped out. She fears anything more substantial.

  You could help out here if you like, says Marie-Rose.

  I shouldn’t let me near a pair of scissors, if I were you. I’d cut some poor devil’s ear off in a week. Butterfingers, Charlie calls me.

  I need someone to do the books. Are you any good with figures?

  Maureen remembers at school, the way she could move numbers and symbols around in her head, manipulate them, make them come out right. She remembers how it used to satisfy her.

  I’m quite handy. But doing the books…

  It’s easy, says Marie-Rose breezily. Just putting things into columns. And there’s a bit of you-know-what of course. I need someone I could trust.

  You-know-what?

  Come on, Maureen. It’s a cash business, isn’t it? Everyone does it.

  Oh.

  The thought of cheating the taxman obscurely excites Maureen. The powers that be which determine her life bamboozled for once.

  You think it over.

  I’ll have to talk to Charlie.

  Oh, Charlie, she says, raising her eyebrows. You don’t want to let men walk all over you, Maureen.

  Charlie is my husband, says Maureen.

  Marie is unimpressed.

  You think it over, she repeats.

  Maybe I will, Els – Marie-Rose.

  With a flourish, the pink sheet that covers Maureen’s shoulders is removed. She feels a renewal that is greater than her hairstyle. She looks forward to seeing Charlie later that day. Yet she doubts that he will notice any change.

  On the third floor of the Sunday Times building, Charlie hunches over the stone on which he makes his page layouts out of slugs of metal. He has to read it back to front… ‘Prophets of Doom Predict Economic Gloom’ in 72-point Roman.

  A few yards away, the men on the Linotype machines are setting type out of hot metal, which drips from a suspended ingot into a pot containing a plunger. The noise as the molten metal is punched into the matrices creating the slugs is deafening, a constant thud and hammer. Alongside the Linotype machines is a group of Ludlow machines which are used to create the headlines in blocks of metal.

  These Linotype operators are the aristocrats of the printing trade. They make small fortunes, tubby middle-aged men driving Jags and owning holiday villas. You have to know the right people to get that job. Charlie doesn’t know enough of the right people, and anyway he feels happy with what he does, his easy mastery of his own skill.

  Close by is an office bustling with proof-readers, copy-holders and revisers, who check the galleys of type and pages as they are set and made up, who hold the copy for the proof-readers to read. Everything is divided precisely into functions. Journalists come down here, and woe betide them if they try even to pick up the wrong piece of paper or touch the wrong piece of machinery. The unions – SOGAT, NATSOPA, the NGA – are powerful, and watchful, and protective of their demarcations. Any infraction of the arcane rules can easily result in tools being laid down. When a dispute does arise and time is lost on the newspaper, it is often settled by the management bribing the union involved by paying money into a ‘pool’ as an inducement to make the time up. Then the day will come when you get a nice little tickle, when the pool money is redistributed among the chapel members involved.

  Another perk which Charlie has enjoyed is known as a ‘tap day’, when he gets a tap on the shoulder from the FOC and is told to take the day off. The FOC is the ‘father of the chapel’, the head of the particular section of the particular union. It’s all a bit moody, but nothing to compare with what goes on in warehouses around Fleet Street, or the van drivers and their bucks, the men who bundle and unload the papers from the vans. Some of them are small-time villains, or hold second jobs as cabbies, which amounts to the same thing in Charlie’s mind. Big, surly men from Orpington and Bexley-heath. Some of these men, mostly SOGATs or NATSOPAs, sign on for work under another name. These non-existent workers are known as Mickey Mouses, Dicky Birds or Charlie Chaplins. The shift men will entice these spectral workers out of the pubs on a Saturday night to put down their name on the rosters before returning to the pub. The £75 a night will be split with the men on shift.

  Charlie doesn’t think about all this any more, it
s normal practice, it’s just the way things are. He checks his watch. It is time for a break. Charlie has a hangover from the morning. He is anxious about the men from the council. The vision of the Victorian Lady Passenger with Parasol shattered oppresses him. He looks up and is pleased to see Snowball George approach, chewing a pencil. Snowball, a machine minder in the print room, has been on holiday for three weeks. He looks relaxed, healthy, extraordinarily young for a man of fifty-three. A Bajan, light-skinned, he is tall with a slight stoop. Tendrils of grey invade his neatly cut hair. He removes the pencil and grins.

  Snowball, says Charlie, but the word is completely swallowed by the cacophony around him.

  Snowball mimes drinking and eating. Charlie nods and gestures towards the stairwell. Snowball’s real name is Lloyd, but nearly everyone at the print works calls him by his nickname. Charlie finishes up what he is doing and joins Lloyd at the top of the stairs that lead down to the ground floor. He slaps him on the back with inky fingers.

  You’re looking good, Snowy. Like Sidney… what’s his name?

  James?

  Poitier.

  Charlie, you look like you died and someone dug you up. He takes one of Charlie’s cheeks and chucks it roughly. What’s vexing you?

  Nothing. Nothing. Just a bit of nonsense with the council. Let’s get something to eat.

  Outstanding. After all that fresh fruit and grilled fish, I can’t wait for a soggy chip.

  With gravy.

  With Brussels sprouts and baked beans.

  How was the holiday? Where did you go?

  We went to Lido de Jesolo. Fantastic, I tell you. Those Italians know how to live. We went to Venice. A day trip. My God, the water. We took a gondola. How’s Maureen?

  She’s all right. Keeps herself busy. You and Hyacinth should come over. Maureen’s a cordon bleu cook now.

  Ah, you know Hyacinth. Not much for the socializing. More for the churchgoing.

  She’s going to find out you’ve been gambling one day.

  Not so long as I keep winning. And I’m too good with those cards to start losing, bwoy.

  We need to find some mugs for a new game.

  Ain’t we already got some? Gaz and Baz just love giving their money away. They should get registered as a charity.

  Gary and Barry Philimore are twins, warehousemen Charlie sees from time to time in the Printer’s Devil pub. Both are terrible at cards and feckless with money, and are thus frequent visitors to Charlie’s long-standing once-a-month game. Charlie shakes his head.

  Gary’s been transferred out of London and Barry won’t come without Gary. We need some new mugs.

  Anyone in mind?

  Charlie shrugs.

  No one ideal. My brother, Tommy, is always after a game, but I suspect he’s a bit handy. Also…

  Also, you don’t like him.

  He’s all right, I suppose. He’s a crook, that’s the trouble.

  What about that son of yours? Nice kid.

  Mo’s always after asking me to invite him along. It’s a bit lambs to the slaughter.

  That’s what lambs are for. And who better to teach you than your dad?

  They walk through the swing doors into the staff canteen. Immediately they see Mike Sunderland sitting by himself at a table, working his way through an enormous lasagne and reading a large book. Mike is a sub-editor on the newspaper; from time to time Charlie has worked with him on the stone, and the three of them have chatted on picket lines. Both Charlie and Lloyd are suspicious of him. His vowels are too rounded, his hair too long, his principles too ostentatiously worn. Mike looks up, catches Charlie’s eye, raises a hand in acknowledgement. Charlie has no choice but to raise one in return. Mike beckons them over. Charlie reluctantly nods and gets behind Lloyd in the queue for the canteen food.

  We’ve been got, says Charlie.

  He’s not so bad, says Lloyd.

  He’s a bit arty-crafty. One of those do-gooders.

  Piety, saieth the Lord. All is piety. Something like that. In the good book.

  Maybe he’ll be gone by the time we’ve got the food.

  Why not give him a few card lessons?

  Him? Look at the state of him. Dirty old jeans. Shoes look like they’ve been picked out of a dustbin. You can always tell a man by his shoes.

  Not always. His watch must be worth a few hundred pounds. And his voice, bwoy. I’m telling you, there’s money there. He’s a mug. A real live patsy. He’s asking for it.

  I dunno.

  Look. He’s one of them socialists, isn’t he? Reads the Guardian and that. He wants a pet darkie as mate. And what with you in the council house, it’s two niggers for the price of one. Let’s teach him a thing or two about the redistribution of wealth.

  He gives me the creeps. Hello, Connie. Shepherd’s pie, peas, carrots and beans please. And don’t be mean. I’m starving. I’m dying of hunger here.

  You’ll get the same as everyone else. What about you, Harry Belafonte? Connie, the woman behind the serving counter, says, turning to Lloyd. She looks pale and harassed as she stirs a heated tray of baked beans with a long metal spoon to bury the skin that has formed on top of them.

  Give me the sausage and mash, Connie, says Lloyd, winking at Charlie. A big pork sausage. You like a big pork sausage, Connie? A big old banger in your mashed potato.

  Connie doesn’t even look up as she hands Charlie his plate and begins ladling mashed potatoes on to Lloyd’s.

  I do, luv, but it’s all I can do to get a chipolata nowadays.

  You’re with the wrong man, girl. You come and see Snowball. I like the big girls. Something to get hold of.

  One shepherd’s pie. One soss and mash. Next please.

  Lloyd and Charlie both laugh, pay for their food and scan the restaurant for a table. To Charlie’s disappointment, Mike Sunderland is still where he was. He has recently grown a beard, and it ages him ten years. It does not summon up the revolutionary air that he clearly hopes for, but makes him resemble Dave Lee Travis.

  Lloyd and Charlie make their way over to join him. He closes his book. Charlie reads the title: Principles of Political Economy.

  A real page-turner, says Charlie.

  He has the new Jeffrey Archer in his back pocket. Mike smiles, puts the book away in his briefcase. Charlie puts his plate of food on the white Formica table.

  How are things upstairs, Mike? says Lloyd.

  There are rumours, says Mike.

  What kind of rumours? says Charlie.

  Mike lowers his voice slightly.

  The whole place is going up for sale.

  I’ve heard it all before, says Charlie.

  This time it’s different. I’ve started looking around. The Guardian are interested. Very interested.

  Sounds like a marriage made in heaven.

  There are practical difficulties.

  They won’t pay you as much, says Charlie.

  You’re a cynic, says Mike.

  There are worse things, says Charlie.

  Piety, saith the Lord, says Lloyd, loud enough for Charlie to hear. Mike seems oblivious.

  How are you, anyway, Charlie? You look a bit under the weather.

  Charlie’s vexed up. Something about the council, says Lloyd.

  Really? says Mike, craning forward, screwing up his face as if this was the most fascinating information imaginable.

  That’s right, says Charlie, unwrapping his knife and fork. Telling me I couldn’t do this or that.

  Mike nods vigorously. He looks at Lloyd.

  How was your holiday, Lloyd?

  All right, says Lloyd, taking an enormous mouthful of mashed potato.

  Mike nods vigorously again, then falls into silence. There is a damp slick of tea around the moustache of his beard.

  I’ll tell you. Give them a clipboard, it’s like they’re suddenly Napoleon, says Charlie.

  Mike smiles, leans forward towards Charlie again.

  I hope you don’t mind my asking, but what’s it like livi
ng in a council flat?

  Charlie shrugs. Not so bad.

  I can’t believe what Thatcher is doing. She’s destroying the stock of social housing. Selling them off in that fashion. It’s completely inappropriate.

  Charlie grunts, takes his copy of the Daily Mirror from his pocket and begins turning towards page five.

  She’s just trying to appeal to the worst in everyone. People are better than that. That’s why people hate her.

  Charlie nods. Caroline from Carshalton is disappointing. The open friendliness of her smile somehow erases sex.

  Is yours a nice block?

  About average, says Charlie. Pair number of slags. Slags, tosspots and loafers. Like my bloody son.

  I didn’t know you had a son.

  Not so much a son. More a species of root vegetable. More of a potato than a man. Living on the Social. Holed up in a squat.

  A squat! says Mike. He is clearly impressed. Noticing Charlie’s disapproving look, he modifies his expression.

  Pass the salt, Snowball.

  Mike frowns, nibbles at his lip. The hair of his moustache is too long; gobbets of unidentifiable food are suspended in it.

  How does that make you feel? says Mike, in a soft, polite voice.

  Lloyd pretends not to hear, takes another forkful of mashed potato.

  Do you think it’s appropriate to refer to Lloyd in that way? says Mike, this time to Charlie.

  What way’s that, then, Mike? says Charlie, turning the page of the Daily Mirror.

  You know, says Mike. ‘Snowball’.

  Am I offending you, Snowball? says Charlie, still not looking up from the newspaper.

  Not really, Charlie.

  Well, says Mike, a little more conviction in his voice now, a little more push. You should be. You ought to be offended.

  He takes a pack of cigarette papers out, extracts one, then a pack of tobacco. He focuses his attention on constructing the cigarette. Charlie sighs, looks up.

  The trouble with you, Mike, is that you don’t know real people. You live in a different world.

  I don’t think that’s fair.

  Charlie takes a deep breath.

  Is what you’re saying I’m a racialist, then?

  Mike finishes the cigarette, puts it in his mouth, lights it and draws.

  It’s unavoidable.

  Is it?

 
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