A Change in the Weather
‘Harry? Harry?’ It’s Linh. Her soft tones muffled, rolling over and over like waves… then gone. I try to answer, but nothing comes out.
‘Stand clear of the doors!’ The harsh voice shatters the silence. Russell Square? What happened to Earl’s Court? I jump up and push through the seethe of strap-hangers. The doors hiss as I squeeze through the narrowing gap. Suddenly I’m in the street and everyone is coming at me. I can’t move. I’m an obstacle in a fast moving river. I see a 98 bus for Edgware Road and manage to leap on it, the sweat on my hands condensing on the cold grab rail. Why am I so freaked out? Nothing’s happened yet – but it will. It always does. The bus has stopped and there’s police everywhere, ambulances with flashing lights, sirens, cordoned-off areas around the exit to my tube station − the one I should have got out at if I’d changed at Earl’s Court. I’m on the top, next to the winding steps, when I stumble. I’m a puppet, falling – limbs all broken and my strings cut. My heart drops to the floor. The expected jolt as I hit the pavement never comes. Instead, I’m on my feet and everything’s suddenly surreally quiet. And there’s Linh getting onto the bus I’ve just got off. I call her name but she doesn’t hear me.
I’m sitting upright in bed, shaking off the same old nightmare. Always 7/7, exactly how it happened. Except for me falling down the stairs… I’d sat downstairs that day. And the bit about Linh. I hadn’t even met her then. Not back in 2005.
I turn over and there she is, curled up so neatly beside me, her breathing regular and light. She’s completely at ease as she navigates her dream world. Her name, meaning ‘gentle spirit’, has never seemed so apt.
The stain of my dream still lingers. I rub at my eyes. Why always this one? It’s not the only time that fate’s saved my life. Perhaps it’s because of when it happened − only seven months after my time in Bangkok. I’d been staying in a hostel in the Khao San Road. It was late December and the city was even more humid and smog-filled than usual.
I can still hear Jason’s voice. ‘Come on, Harry. We’re all off to Phuket. If you don’t get your finger out, there won’t be any coach tickets left.’ And there hadn’t been, after I’d finally got round to it. I’d celebrated a lonely, and barely British, Christmas in the Irish pub – pie and mash as I remember, and not even turkey pie – only to be woken in the early hours of Boxing Day by a trembling, rocking motion. Then the sirens had started. I’d gone to the window to see the city awash with flashing lights. I was missing out on something, but what? I didn’t have to wait long to find out. It was all over the news the next morning. The earth tremors I’d felt were merely messengers of the ensuing tsunami. Beaches, buildings, cars, fishing boats, lives – all wrecked. I never heard from Jason again, or any of the other backpackers I’d met. Not via email, on Facebook… or anywhere at all.
But my personal danger was so much closer on 7/7. I should have been on that tube from Earls Court to Russell Square that day – the one occupied by the terrorist and his backpack. I would have been if I hadn't overslept. That was my rightful fate.
I shiver and snuggle into the curve of Linh’s body. I relax as her warmth dissipates my cold sweat. I can cope with anything the future throws at me now that we’re together. A life without her is unthinkable. I breathe deeply and try to synchronise my breathing with hers. I luxuriate in her scent of lemongrass and coconut and feel myself drifting back to sleep.
She said son, you’re on the road to hell. The guitar riffs slide and skitter across my bedside table. Chris Rea's gravelly voice grazes the air. I lie still and listen. I love my ringtone. It’s my anthem. It rejects everything my father stood for. He was on the ‘upwardly mobile freeway’ all his working life. And where did it get him? To a tiny patch of flower bed in the crematorium.
‘You no answer that, honey?’
I reach for my mobile. It’s my boss.
‘Harry? Get over to the offices now, before the shit hits the fan.’
What is he on about? I can’t have overslept - it’s too dark. I picture Ken’s pasty jowls wobbling like an overweight mastiff.
‘Harry? I know you’re there. Just do it, will you? Pronto!’
‘Concentrate for once, you moron.’ My image of Ken is morphing into a pit bull. ‘I’ve had a tip off. No time to explain. We need to clear the offices. Completely! That bitch has dropped us in it.’
Who’s he talking about? I stretch out and place a hand under my pillow. Probably the last secretary he tried to grope. What was her name? I can’t remember. There’s been so many. I yawn and close my eyes. Why the frosty Miss Chan’s moved in with such a sleazebag I’ve no idea. And why make her his private PA? Surely he didn’t need one? Not that I know anything about business – it’s too boring. She’s probably on the pay roll for tax purposes. That’s my guess.
‘Harry? Say something, goddam you!’ I hear a huffing sound, then ‘See you in ten,’ before the line goes dead.
I slide out of bed, rummaging under it to grab a T-shirt and jeans from my rucksack. I’ve never got into the habit of unpacking. I like to be ready to move on when the mood takes me. The only item I ever unpack is my passport. I keep that with me at all times after I had one stolen from a dosshouse in Laos. Oh, and my business suit, the one Ken supplied, the one I have to wear when visiting clients. That’s hanging up in Linh’s wardrobe, nestling against her clothes, absorbing her scent.
‘Shit!’ I fall back onto the bed holding my toe. My guitar case has surprisingly hard edges.
‘Where you go, honey?’ Linh squirms, stretching herself into the now vacant areas of the bed.
‘Won’t be long. It’s work.’ I kiss her lightly before continuing. ‘And when I get back, we really must talk.’
'About us getting married.’
‘No this again, honey.’
‘Why not? You do love me, don’t you? We must do it before your visa runs out. Then we can travel together wherever we want. I hate red tape. I feel stifled here… in London… in this shitty bedsit… in my job.’
‘Your job not shitty. Is good.’
She’s right. As jobs go it’s not bad. It isn’t just boring office work. I can’t bear being in one place, being told what to do. It’s like I’m prostituting myself. It gives me panic attacks. Like the ones I got at school whenever I was put in detention for being a tiny bit late. I can feel that cold classroom overlooking the cricket field. I can see the shadow cast by the building, its knife-sharp edge cutting me off from the action.
At least with Ken I don’t have to stay indoors all day. I’m out visiting clients in their large houses, sipping tea out of china cups, waiting for them to sign on the dotted line above my countersignature. And in good weather, it often takes place outdoors on wide, tree-shaded terraces full of the scent of wisteria or jasmine. I breathe deeply again, trying to recapture it, but it comes out as a sigh.
‘We’ll never be able to afford anywhere better to live, Linh,’ I say. ‘Not here. China’s the place to be. I’ve had an email from that Aussie guy I met in Cambodia. He’s teaching English in a private boarding school in Dongguan – rich kids from Hong Kong. He’s got away with his fake degree certificate, just like I did in Thailand. They’re only interested in whether you can speak English… oh, and look European. They insist on that.’
‘I don’t know, honey. What can I do there?’
I pull on my T-shirt and bend to kiss her again. ‘You won’t have to do anything. The cost of living’s nothing compared to here. And we could visit your parents in the school holidays. I’ve always wanted to see Vietnam. You want that, don’t you?’
Linh looks wistfully up at me and nods.
It’s raining as I step outside into the half-light – the soft, insistent kind that insinuates itself into everything. I open the car door and drips of warm water trickle from the battered soft top, drool down my neck and under my T-shirt. I sit for a moment, open the window a crack, and light up a cigarette.
I think of Ken’s words, ‘Get over here before the shit hits the fan.’ On reflection, I don’t like the sound of that at all. I’ve never arrived anywhere before a possible disaster. After my very first lucky escape, during my gap year in 2001, I’ve thought of myself as an inadvertent storm chaser, always following the path of the tornado from a safe distance. I say ‘gap year’, but it didn’t exactly turn out to be that. I’d somehow managed to miss my flight from Oz and had to ask my boss at the beach café to re-employ me.
‘You’re the luckiest bludger alive,’ he’d said, when the news of the Twin Towers was announced. ‘But you’ll have to start rattling yer dags from now on, mate. I’m not having you kipping on the job.’
Three months it took me to pay for another ticket. I arrived in New York just as the temporary viewing platform was being erected around Ground Zero. I can still taste the aftermath of 9/11 – the fine white dusting of silence that clung to the inside of everything. The Head of Faculty didn’t take kindly to me missing the whole of the first term, so my university career finished before it had even begun. But then Uni had been my dad’s idea in the first place.
Does good luck only come in groups of three? I turn on the ignition and the car bucks before moving slowly away. Why am I letting Ken’s nonsense dredge up all this baggage? That’s all it’ll be. Nonsense. He’s probably just been ejected from a nightclub − hallucinating after taking some dodgy gear. He’s a difficult person to read. First he’s offering me a partnership, and next he’s shouting at me and calling me a moron.
The car judders and misfires, then jolts unwillingly back to life. I take a last drag on my cigarette and stub it out. I mustn’t allow Ken to bring on this paranoia. But his call had cut into that recurring nightmare, making it so much more intense, preventing me from lying back and altering the ending.
The rain has changed to hail, ripping at the windscreen, pummelling the soft top like a demented bongo player. Everything is turning white, like Christmas. The car shakes and splutters then comes to an abrupt stop. The petrol gauge shows empty. Shit! I knew there was something I should be doing on the way home last night. I’ll just have to ditch it and walk. I’ll be there in about ten minutes if I hurry − plenty soon enough.
I wait for the hailstorm to stop before stepping onto the pavement. It’s like treading on giant chunks of sea salt, but they quickly dissolve. Everything is still as I walk the last few blocks, and the buildings loom down as if to eavesdrop on my silent thoughts. Up ahead, the rain is falling back towards the horizon, the way the sea retracts before a giant wave. All I can hear is the soft squelch of my trainers, as if on wet sand. The faces of the backpackers I’d met in Bangkok seem to hang in the humid air, eyes half closed like the Buddha’s.
But the wind is picking up as I approach the offices. Splashes of blue light bounce in and out of the puddles as I’m buffeted around the corner – right into the eye of the storm. I slip into the shadow of a shopfront just as Ken is being led out of the building by a couple of policemen.
‘What’s all this about?’ he’s shouting. ‘You should be talking to the person in charge. Got a call from him to get over here, but he’s obviously done a runner.’
‘Don’t tell me you didn’t know about the illegals, sir.’ One of the officers has his hand on Ken’s head, attempting to shoehorn his corpulent and struggling frame into the back of the police car.
‘Illegals? Harry Wentworth and Miss Chan deal with the employees and all their paperwork, officer. I’m just the sleeping partner. This is an outrage. Let me go. You need to take it up with them.’
‘We’re about to do that, sir. Now, if you don’t mind.’
I push myself further into the shadows as the police car moves off. I pass my tongue over my parched lips. Illegals? Where was Ken sourcing his employees then? Why haven’t I ever thought of it before? I imagine him scouting around the students’ and backpackers’ hostels in the seedier parts of London, offering them jobs as cleaners and au pairs – just like the guy who had offered me my first teaching job in Bangkok.
I stumble back onto the street. It’s beginning to get light. The sky is turning a deep red as the sun rises. The eye of the storm has passed, but I don’t like the sound of where it’s heading. I can’t possibly go back to the bedsit. I reach for my mobile.
‘Linh? Pack our rucksacks and get a taxi over to St Pancras. Quick! And bring my guitar. All our savings are in the case. We’re going to Paris.’
‘No understand. Why so hurry? Is still middle of night. You OK, honey?’
‘I’m fine. It’s a surprise. A pre-wedding honeymoon. I’ve cleared it with Ken. Just do it now, please Linh! And bring your passport and visa.’
‘No can, honey.’
‘Visa no good.’
‘What do you mean? It’s for the whole of Europe. Please hurry or we’ll miss the train.’
‘Visa finish long time. Is only for tourist, six month. Miss Chan say she fix for me before she go back to Hong Kong, but she already go yesterday. But is OK. She say Ken sort it.’
I’m standing in the middle of the road. The first of the early morning commuters have started to hoot. My chest is constricting… can’t breathe. I'm in a living nightmare that can’t be altered by going back to sleep. The road’s fast becoming a river of cars – water from their tyres spraying high into the air, drenching my already sodden jeans. What should I do? I can’t just stand here, but if I go home to Linh I’ll be arrested. All I've got on me are my credit card, a handful of loose change and... my passport.
Linh’s speaking again. ‘Harry? You still there, honey? When you coming home? Harry? Harry?’