Rumours of a hurricane, p.9
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.9

           Tim Lott
 
It’s not necessarily your fault.

  Does that include you?

  In what sense?

  Are you a racialist?

  I try not to be. I make an effort.

  Hear that, Snowball? We’re all racialists. Except for Mike.

  True, man. I’m a fucking racialist. I’ll tell you who I hate.

  Who’s that, then?

  You ever been to Guernsey? Can’t stand ‘em, the Guernseys. Sweater-knitting sons of bitches.

  Lloyd and Charlie laugh. Mike looks puzzled. Then he smiles and nods.

  I’ve got to go to the ghazi.

  What? says Charlie.

  Mike’s eyelids quiver slightly.

  The ghazi. You know. The loo.

  Lloyd and Charlie burst out laughing again.

  Back in a minute.

  When he is gone, Lloyd and Charlie finish their meals as quickly as they can.

  What a prize lemon, says Charlie.

  Let’s get out of here before he takes us on one of them protest marches.

  It takes only a minute to clean their plates, but before they can make their exit Mike comes striding towards them from the toilets. They try to hurry past him, but he positions himself in the centre of the small space through which they must move in order to exit.

  Do you like boxing? says Mike.

  Boxing? says Lloyd. I was a boxer. When I first come over here, the boat was full of boxers. I was going professional. Marquess of Queensberry Rules.

  Lloyd takes up a formal boxing stance, legs apart, fists raised, head high.

  But in the end I didn’t want to mess up my pretty face. You know what they used to call me?

  Rice Pudding, says Charlie. Like what you couldn’t punch the skin off.

  The Yellow Devil. Because my skin is so light, see? High yeller. Man, those bad boys had to watch me. I was a viper.

  Lloyd is dancing on the spot now, ducking, punching the air. Charlie yawns.

  Now you’ve gone and done it. You’ve started Snowball talking about the good old days.

  Lloyd bobs and feints. Although he is a little heavy, it is clear that he has trained.

  Pow. Pow. I knew ‘em all, bwoy. Johnny Edge. The gunslingers. The gangsters. No one messed with Lloyd George.

  Mike looks nonplussed.

  Lloyd George.

  That’s his surname. Why do you think he don’t mind being called Snowball?

  Lloyd goes into a clinch with Charlie, nearly knocking him off his feet.

  Get off, you… old man, you, says Charlie, laughing.

  Mike shuffles uncomfortably.

  I was just wondering… You see, sometimes I get boxing tickets from a friend on the sports desk. I thought… well, I thought you might be interested.

  Lloyd and Charlie come out of their clinch.

  I’m listening, says Lloyd.

  It’s not exactly official. We have this story about unlicensed boxing. At the Finsbury Park Astoria. Quite an experience, apparently. Anyway, if I get tickets, I thought you two might like to come along.

  Lloyd looks at Charlie. Charlie returns the glance.

  Can’t wait, says Charlie.

  I’m there, says Lloyd.

  Mike’s face breaks into a wide grin.

  Terrific. Terrific.

  Yeah. Terrific. See you, Mike.

  See you… lads.

  Mike heads back towards the third floor, a spring in his step.

  People like that… says Charlie.

  Free tickets, says Lloyd, is free tickets.

  And he takes up the boxing stance again, dancing, dancing, puncturing the air.

  4

  Christmas arrives, rounding off the first year of the new decade. Yet what was the 1970s still persists strongly, as a mental habit, a hidden coastal shelf of long-held assumption.

  Times Newspapers, as Mike Sunderland predicted, is up for sale. The deadline for proposals is 31 December. No buyers as yet have been found. William Rees-Mogg, the editor of The Times, has turned down Robert Maxwell because, according to Rees-Mogg, he isn’t the right sort of person.

  Still Charlie feels confident about retaining his job and salary. His imagination falters at any alternative. Stasis is what he understands, what he expects, what, on a deeper level, he is in love with. His secret fear is choice.

  The new government reinforces Charlie’s belief that the world is not mutable – by its very attempts to prove otherwise. The revenge of stasis is mighty; Mrs Thatcher is hated, is plummeting in the polls. Unemployment has hit a post-war high, over 2 million. Inflation rages. All these occurrences result in the diminishment of Mike Sunderland’s fashionable Weltschmerz by several degrees. In his world bad news is good, it proves all his points. Michael Foot has been elected as Labour leader. The droop of Mike Sunderland’s moustache picks itself up a further millimetre or two. Charlie thinks Foot may be a bad choice; he seems like a dithering old fool in a donkey jacket. He prefers Denis Healey, is attracted by the strength in his eyebrows.

  Maureen is trying to guess who shot JR. Mark Chapman, in a parallel universe, has shot John Lennon dead in New York. This continues to be overshadowed for Charlie by the death, nine months earlier, of Annunzio Paolo Mantovani.

  There are traces of mourning even now for this loss, while a younger world eulogizes Lennon. Charlie’s grieving for Lennon is purely recreational. He simply enjoys the size of the event. He thinks of Lennon as a Scouse herbert who couldn’t pen a tune to save his life.

  Now, on Christmas night, he is asleep, his wife by his side in bed. The presents are wrapped. Tomorrow, they expect the arrival of his brother, Tommy, and his wife, Lorraine, for Christmas dinner. Robert has also promised to come, in a rare phone call from his squat in Battersea. Since moving, he has hardly been seen or heard from. Maureen lives with the ragged hole he has left, a hole that feeds into a vacuum.

  Charlie’s breathing is soft as Christmas dawn approaches. He is dancing with his wife, across a parquet floor, with a mirror globe sending out specks of coloured light into every corner of the immense room – so immense that the walls seem to blur with distance. Maureen is dressed as if for Dallas, except for her shoes, which are running shoes.

  He looks down at her shoes, thinking them a poor match for the outfit, and sees that the floor is now made of ice. Hairline cracks are appearing, and puddles of water. He feels unnerved, but continues the dance. The music is ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, Mantovani’s version, but oddly rearranged so that there are loud rhythmic beats interspersed with the drifting melodies. This distracts him, makes it hard for him to keep his step. The music changes again.

  What is that… what is that damn music?

  Then he recognizes it, sung by children, heartbreaking somehow. It is ‘Oh come, oh come, Immanuel’. Charlie sang it at Christmas as a child at school. He has always loved it, its sadness and its promise.

  Oh come, oh come, Immanuel

  Redeem thy spirit Israel.

  The floor is water now, but still Maureen and Charlie dance on the surface, desperately trying to keep their footing. They begin, very slowly, to sink. Then the water is closing over their heads. Charlie cannot breathe. He reaches out for Maureen but cannot find her hand. He tries to shout his panic, but water rushes in.

  Charlie opens his eyes, tries fiercely to locate himself in space and time. He focuses on pinoleum blinds that let the morning light through as ever, and woodchip wallpaper that was once white but has faded into magnolia. He comes awake.

  Pausing for only seconds to acclimatize to the day’s fresh consciousness, he rises from the bed. The dream is not remembered. A carol is issuing from the radio alarm – ‘Oh come, oh come, Immanuel’. It is uncomfortably warm. He puts on his dressing gown and opens the windows of the bedroom. The glass in the frames is sweating, and dozens of rivulets of liquid trickle on to the inside windowsill, leaving dozens of small pools of water. The light which illuminates the room is greyish-brown. Early, not far off dawn. He has always been an early riser.

/>   He wipes his brow with the sleeve of his flannelette dressing gown. The perspiration he finds there leaves a slick on the material. It is stuffy. The radiators are on and they still cannot switch them off. Outside, it is an unseasonably warm day.

  He turns to look at his wife, still asleep in their king-size divan bed. Her hair is drawn tight into curlers and she is snoring lightly. A small droplet of liquid has gathered at the base of one of her nostrils, some kind of bodily fluid. Behind her, a headboard in quilted gold-coloured vinyl. To the left of the bed, a Goblin Teasmade begins to dispense hot water into the waiting cups.

  He walks over to her and plants a chaste kiss on her cheek. They made love the night before. Charlie wondered if it had been Maureen’s Christmas present to him. Or perhaps it was the job at Divine Creations which Charlie had reluctantly agreed to her accepting. A few months after Maureen began, her sexuality had flickered momentarily. It had then receded, but had subsequently revived on several occasions, usually after she had completed some fat ledger or balanced two particularly intransigent columns of figures.

  Last night, it had been over very quickly, and he had sensed that Maureen had been relieved afterwards. Now Charlie observes her as she shifts slightly under the covers. A thought strikes him, evaporating as soon as it is observed.

  I love my wife.

  The moment passes. Charlie feels a pressure inside his bowels and moves towards the bathroom. He walks with a slow, slightly awkward gait. He never feels quite at home in his body, never feels that it is designed for him but rather for someone else entirely. He feels that his head is too small to hold the thoughts he sometimes has. His legs are thin and pasty, and are beginning to display the odd baldness on the calves that heralds decay. His arms and chest he has been trying to build up using a Bullworker 2. It was both isometric and isotonic but still didn’t seem to work. It was boring and made his back hurt. He was amazed that Maureen kept this exercise business going.

  He opens his bowels and studies the results. Someone has told him that the Germans have shelves in the toilet bowls for this purpose. It adds to his impression that the Germans are dangerous, efficient, borderline insane.

  The stools are small, like rabbit pellets. Wiping himself, then rising and washing his hands, he studies his face in the mirror and feels oddly depressed. The more you were meant to enjoy a day, the more sad it was. Always the way. The face stares back, the same as every morning, nondescript, mottled, oddly apologetic. The fullness of his hair. A fleck or two of dandruff. Another year going by. Tommy always said Charlie played it too safe. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was true. Life bogged down. But that is how safety feels, he decides.

  He returns to the bedroom, where he sees that Maureen is now awake and moving around the bedroom like some skittish animal whose livery is quilted vermilion.

  Hiya, kiddo.

  Maureen returns Charlie’s smile.

  Happy Christmas, Rock.

  He pecks her cheek, then gestures towards a large box in the corner of the bedroom. Maureen is in her housecoat. Her slippers are pink, and upon each is attached a cotton-wool powder-puff ball. It was her present this time last year, along with the machine that had stood unused in the corner of the bedroom for the last six months: the Helitron ‘Trim U Fit’ Deluxe Electro Vibro Massager. It rankles with Charlie how quickly she has lost interest in it. He even senses that she had not wanted it, although she had given every appearance of being enraptured at the time. But now her gift was a sure-fire winner, he felt certain.

  It’s awfully early to be opening presents.

  It’s never too early for Christmas.

  Maureen regards the amateurishly wrapped box quizzically.

  It’s very big.

  Open it, why don’t you?

  Maureen goes to the box, attempts to lift it.

  Heavy, too.

  See if you can guess what it is.

  I couldn’t.

  Go on, have a poke.

  Oh, Charlie, I don’t know.

  Come on.

  Charlie shifts his weight back and forth from the balls of his feet to his heels. He anticipates his wife’s forthcoming joy and surprise.

  A microwave oven?

  Charlie feels a sheet of anger illuminate him darkly from within.

  Just open it.

  It’s not, is it, Charlie?

  Maureen seems to sense vaguely that she has said the wrong thing, and increases the pace at which she is removing the wrapping.

  Oh, it is. Oh, Charlie. You shouldn’t have. These are terribly expensive.

  Don’t worry about that. You deserve it. Having to put up with me.

  He leaves a pause for her denial, but it does not arrive. He continues.

  Look at that. It’s top of the range. A Creda 40131. You wouldn’t believe this thing. It can cook the dinner in ten minutes. It’s got a browning tray.

  How does it work, then? asks Maureen, carefully peeling off the last of the layers of wrapping paper, folding the pieces up, ready for another occasion.

  It’s all done by radiation. It actually cooks the food from the inside.

  Charlie is gesturing at the large metal box excitedly.

  It’s the greatest labour-saving device since the washing machine. The radiation agitates the… er… the protons in the food.

  Maureen gives this some thought.

  What’s a proton, Charlie?

  A proton. A proton. He shakes his head in disbelief. He is amazed that Maureen is holding down this new job. It’s like an atom, only a bit smaller. The oven itself doesn’t even get hot. And you can roast in it. It’s got a browning tray. It defrosts. It can soften butter. See inside? That round thing rotates so that it cooks evenly.

  Maureen is reading her card. It has a photograph of a bunch of roses on the front, which stands out in relief from the rest of the card. Inside, gold script describes a short poem:

  For you, my love, on this special day

  Who makes my life happy in every way

  I hope that we may always be

  Together, you and I, eternally.

  In a scrawl, underneath, Charlie’s signature. It was illegible, but Maureen knew what it said: C. Buck. Charlie is reading the manual.

  Simple as pie. We can take it easy this morning, kiddo.

  That’s right.

  Maureen places the card on a shelf in an alcove in the corner of the room which otherwise supports an arrangement of silk flowers and peacock feathers. Then she pauses, turns and squints at Charlie.

  What do you mean?

  Charlie is still reading the manual and hovering over the oven. He looks up, picks up a cup of cooling tea that is still waiting by the Goblin Teasmade and frowns slightly.

  The Christmas dinner won’t take nearly so much time now. This thing can knock off a turkey in no time.

  Maureen flushes and she begins to fidget with the buttons of her housecoat.

  Oh, I don’t know, Charlie. I think it might be best if I got used to it first.

  Nothing to get used to.

  Charlie bites his lip. He regards Maureen. She is a wonderful woman, he decides. A wonderful woman. A child she has borne him. Keeps a perfect house. Not one to complain. Never a nag. He just wished sometimes she’d show a bit more… get up and go. Initiative. That was what was lacking in this household.

  Come on. I’ll set it up. It’s got to have a plug put on.

  Charlie. It’s wonderful. It’s just… I think… best to start on small stuff. I’m not very good with these gadgets.

  It’s not a gadget. It’s modern.

  All the same.

  For the second time, Charlie feels vaguely cheated. Bloody Christmas. He decides he will have to play his trump card.

  That ‘gadget’ was £250.

  You’re joking!

  That’s right.

  But we can’t afford that.

  Nothing’s too good for you. You’ll love it, you’ll see. Come on. I’ll put it through its paces.

 
Charlie seems more excited than Maureen. He lifts the oven up and cradles it in his arms.

  But Charlie, don’t you want your present?

  Let me just take this for you. I’ll be back in just half a mo.

  Charlie staggers into the kitchen. He places the microwave oven on the Formica work-top and takes a screwdriver out of the drawer. By the time he has finished attaching the plug he is sweating.

  So hot.

  At this moment, Maureen walks through the door of the kitchen, carrying a parcel with a card attached to it. She holds both out towards Charlie.

  I wasn’t sure what to get, so…

  Look at this, Maureen. Get a mug of water. Put a tea-bag in it. Go on.

  Maureen deflates slightly, but Charlie does not notice. She puts down the card and the present and goes to the tap, fills a mug decorated with cornstalks with water. The water travels through a pink rubber attachment that is attached to the nozzle. She adds a tea-bag, then hands it to Charlie, who places it into the microwave compartment. He closes the door and rotates a plastic knob on the right-hand side of the oven’s fascia. He turns a second knob anticlockwise to High. A light comes on inside the box and a humming sound begins. The mug can be seen rotating inside.

  See that, Maureen! It’s going round! The protons are all shaking about like billy-o. It’s pure energy.

  After a minute, the oven makes a loud pinging sound. Charlie opens the door and carefully removes the mug with a tea-towel. Steam pours from its surface.

  Look at that. You can make a cup of tea in a minute.

  He puts in a cold spoon to stir the tea-bag. The water reacts to the coldness by suddenly overflowing, boiling liquid pouring out on to the work-top.

  Bugger it, says Charlie, feeling that the display has been ruined. He doesn’t like to use bad language in front of his wife. He dabs at the boiling liquid with the tea-towel.

  Maureen retreats from the kitchen, puts Charlie’s present and card under the Christmas tree. The moment for giving has somehow passed.

  There is a knock on the door at midday. Charlie, now dressed in a smart casual jacket, shirt, knitted tie and permanent-press brown trousers, opens it. But there is no one there. Suddenly, a big red-faced man jumps out from the left-hand side of the doorway. He wears an Adidas track top, Wranglers, blue Dunlop ‘Superflash’ trainers, a leather blouson jacket with elasticated cuffs and a Mandarin collar. But on his face is a huge fake white beard. His hair is concealed by a red felt Santa’s hat. Over his shoulder a bag weighed down with presents.

 
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