East of Everything

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Chapter 1

René loved church. Entry is free and there is always somewhere to sit. He dozed, allowing the cool air to mix with the priest Davis’ rasping, undulating voice and wash over him.

‘Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles: I leave you peace, my peace I give you.’

René inhaled through his nose, fancying the consecrated wind rushing over his sinuses, crossing his blood into his brain and baptising his synapses. Stale hymn books and pomp—you can’t get that smell anywhere else. Peace. He exhaled, a little too loudly, and sensed the strangers around him stiffen, some even turning in their seats.

Let them look. Nothing could bring him down today. Today was a good day.

René arched his back, stretching luxuriously into a yawn, then opened his eyes as if waking from a pleasant dream. God damn he loved church.

‘...and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom where you live for ever and ever.’

The service was sublime. The congregation were into their third hour and showed no signs of flagging. They had heard from friends, family, past and present girlfriends, old school teachers and brothers-in-arms, all of whom had unanimously agreed that Freddie was a decent sort. An all-round good egg. A gentleman, a gallant.

Of course they hadn’t known Freddie as a boy. René had known him to be quite the psychopath, devoid of any compassion. Possessed with a vicious, malevolent spirit, what Freddie lacked in empathy he more than made up for with brute strength, being blessed with a seemingly supernatural hardiness from birth. René recalled how Freddie had revolutionised a perfectly innocent schoolboy pastime, introducing metal clips into the paper pellets fired from his rubber band, lending the game a visceral sense of jeopardy. Things weren’t really the same after that. During the ensuing arms race, a boy, Charlie Hewitt, lost an eye and another—not Freddie—was expelled.

Freddie had once choked René for arguing his preference for The Corrs over All Saints. René had—quite astutely—pointed out that the Irish songstresses were the more charming and talented outfit—the brother was ever overlooked—but Freddie was having none of it. When René regained consciousness he discovered, to his dismay, that his boots had been stolen and his football shorts and pants pulled down to his ankles, exposing his tiny pink peanut-penis to the greying skies. Later, he discovered the word ‘HOMO’ had been scrawled on his forehead in mud.

Had Freddie appreciated the irony at the time? Had he knowingly married homoerotic injury with homophobic insult? If so, the boy was an artist, and no-one, least of all René, had given him anywhere near the credit he was due. Victimhood has little else going for it besides the accompanying presumption of superior intellect, and years later, with the sting of shame from the actual incident having long since faded, René was still racked with doubt: had Freddie been smarter than him? The thought was chilling.

Freddie St. George. No, they hadn’t known Freddie as a boy, so they hadn’t known him at all.

René closed his eyes and tried to repair his mood, sliding down in his seat and letting the back of his head come to rest on what he imagined was the pew behind him but was in fact a set of gnarled fingers. René lay there for a while, till he felt a pinch and jerked upright, massaging his scalp. He turned and scowled at the affronted old woman behind him. Her blue eye shadow, pink blusher and red lipstick did little to mask her pallor, but instead lent her the look of a melting, grey clown. She wore a large diamond ring, the offending article, and René checked his head for blood, curling his lip to snarl at her, when he noticed on either side of the clown-crone sat two large, mean-looking brutes. These must be relatives of the deceased. They certainly had the fatheaded, murderous look of Freddie about them. Distant cousins, mercifully removed, or they’d be closer to the pulpit. Unlike René, these men were plainly frustrated by the length and pace of the service and were eyeing up René like he might just be their ticket out. No. Not today gentlemen. Today was a good day.

René remembered why he was there and broke out into an expansive grin. He turned it on each of them in turn, sunlight bursting through cloud, bathing the clown-crone and her henchmen in rapturous light. At that exact moment the choir struck up and they were up, on their feet and filing out. Time to put the bastard in the ground. René felt like dancing.

It was a short trip from St. Monica’s to the East Finchley Cemetery, and René politely hijacked a cab with a young mother and daughter, probably more distant cousins. As mum daydreamed out the window, the girl, who looked about five—a wonderful age—scrutinised René with intense suspicion while ferrying snot from her nose to her mouth.

By the graveside René looked down on the coffin, turning his collar up, and burying his chin in his chest so he couldn’t be caught grinning.

Freddie had died well. He had followed the natural career path of the sadist, joining the army straight out of school. No university for Freddie, no sir. No books, no lectures, no fierce, ill-informed debates, drug-fuelled nervous breakdowns or regrettable lays, not for Freddie. Just highly organised, state-sanctioned killing. Somewhere out in Iraq or Afghanistan, René forgot which. Did it matter? They hate us and we’re all going to die. Freddie had ventured out there to kill them first but instead had caught one in the back of the head. René smirked. Friendly fire. He thought it might be ironic but then decided it wasn’t; it was just funny.

René looked up to find Madoc staring at him from across the open grave. The smirk fell away from René’s face at once. He tried to pass for nonchalant but knew he looked timid. Madoc Montgomery! René hadn’t seen him at the service, how could he have missed him? The man had hardly changed since their school days. Perhaps even taller and broader. Madoc stood at well over six feet, and managed to look both relaxed and alert in his classic, tailored black suit and tie—oh why had he worn tweed! At the time, René had supposed he was being wickedly cavalier but now it felt grossly inappropriate and a little frumpy.

No, actually on closer inspection Madoc looked quite different, he just had the same aura about him. No, now René could see his hair was more refined, swept back over a sharp undercut instead of the lank mess René had been accustomed to. However, it was still jet black, his face was still broad and angular, with that Bafta nose, and Madoc’s eyes were just the same: deepset, steely grey and entirely empty—they looked down on René from light years away.

**

Who was that man? He looked very familiar. Madoc recognised the face but couldn’t find the name to go with it. He was good with names, so this was an unusual feeling; not uncomfortable, just different. Was it Remy? No. Renny! Renny Dubois-Williams—‘Frenchie’ or ‘Double Renny’ on account of his girth—incredible! He had entirely forgotten the man existed and yet, now here he was standing across a grave from him and it was like they had never left school. Madoc wondered what had happened to him in the intervening years. He studied the round little man’s features as if some clue might be scrawled on his face. The whorish mouth. Those same thick, pouting lips, which when relaxed were parted to reveal two slightly buck teeth. The upper lip apparently required near-constant moistening, his tongue flicking out like some gross deep sea slug to molest it. Renny’s eyes, however, were large and a rich, milk chocolate brown—unequivocally beautiful. In many ways he looked exactly as he had done all those years ago; slightly rounder perhaps but that was to be expected, although Madoc was careful to remind himself that he was in even better shape now than he had been as a youth. Renny still had a full head of hair though, good for him. Madoc worried about his hair.

**

Could Madoc even see him standing here? René felt like a ghost under that gaze, like pollen in the face of a stiff breeze.

Madoc was flanked by two striking women, the blonde René remembered from the service as Freddie’s girlfriend. She had herself pressed against Madoc, who in turn had draped a consolatory arm around her. They looked like stars. René didn’t know what they were selling but god damn it he was buying. The other woman René couldn’t place, but going by her minimal make-up, asymmetrical hair, fierce, angular face and flawless skin, she was likely a failed model-cum-fashion-blogger. Or she marketed lip gloss. René had met a few of her sort in his time; they could be quite condescending. He made a mental note to not be mocked by her.

Finally, Madoc winked and flashed a warm gappy grin, his eyes registering all the emotion of a chisel. It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul—if that is the case then Madoc’s soul lived in a soundproofed cellar, conducting its base affairs from behind his teeth.

**

Madoc wasn’t sure why he had winked at Renny. They hadn’t been particularly close at school but Madoc had learned that winking at people made them happy and it didn’t hurt to make people happy, so he winked at them. And so Renny had been winked at and, as predicted, been rendered happy.

Madoc broke eye contact with Renny, who was grinning like an imbecile and starting to unnerve him, and snuck a look at the woman in the crook of his arm. Olympia. Her blonde hair smelled of peaches, and was curled in tresses, carefully arranged down one shoulder. She had a small, turned-up nose and a short upper lip, a form which Madoc currently favoured. Her large, honey-drop eyes were pulled up at the sides, which, coupled with her heart-shaped face, gave her a feline look. She wasn’t tall, but that hardly mattered in a woman. Freddie had chosen well. Madoc enjoyed the sensation of having her large, warm breast pressed against his stomach and pulled her in closer. She let out a sad moan and circled her arms around his slender waist, testing his abs. Madoc resisted the urge to slide his right hand down to her backside—there’d be time for that later.

He turned to sneak a surreptitious look at Flame. The woman was a bit of a mystery to him. Her height and aquiline features gave her a haughty air, one she was careful to cultivate, but to him she always looked uncomfortable and out of place. A couple of months ago at Freddie’s farewell party, a typically debauched affair, Madoc’d had her in the pantry, roughly up against the bread mixer. She hadn’t enjoyed it. She hadn’t complained but she hadn’t been as enthusiastic as Madoc would have hoped, or expected. It was curious, no more, and Madoc hadn’t given her a second thought till today. He made a mental note to get tested soon. After Olympia.

Madoc shifted. His feet were sore and the arm cradling Olympia was starting to numb. He ground his teeth, shot a dark look at the priest then chided himself. It wasn’t his fault. Death mattered to people, he could see that, but surely this was milking it. Could they not have one big funeral for everyone in perpetuity and leave it at that? Jesus died on the cross for all our sins—past, present and future. He doesn’t have to keep coming back and dying again every time you ‘forget’ to tip your waitress, or eyefuck that girl on the tube—that would be totally impractical. Madoc liked that. It was efficient. It was special. This endless repetition made everything a chore. Perhaps he was just tired.

Once the Lord’s Prayer had been mumbled and soil thrown, Madoc moved to the priest, taking his small, soft hand in both of his, thanking him.

‘Were you close to the deceased?’ the man asked dutifully.

‘He was my best friend.’

‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’

Next, Madoc made his way to Freddie’s parents, first taking the mother in his arms. He squeezed her, just long enough to show he meant it, then took the father’s hand firmly, smiling bravely.

‘John.’

‘Madoc.’

Freddie’s father was tall, nearly as tall as Madoc and desperately old, Freddie being the very youngest child from his third marriage. He leaned heavily on a cane, his left knee tremoring slightly, and smelled of strong tobacco. He fidgeted with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, rubbing the fingertips together compulsively every few seconds.

‘Those were such lovely words at the service Madoc, thank you.’

Freddie’s mother was in her late forties and almost pretty. Madoc had often wondered if he would, and liked to imagine that he might. Her hair was like straw, her grey eyes shone, even when not filled with tears, and she had a high, staccato laugh, like a rare bird. Madoc hoped he might hear her laugh again and soon; he didn’t like to be glum, but there was no escaping it under these circumstances. He wondered if it would be improper to invite Olympia for a drink so soon after the service.

‘Hello!’

Madoc started at the voice—but it was only Renny. What was he looking so pleased about?

‘Ah—Double Renny.’

**

René beamed. Madoc Montgomery had remembered him, albeit by a cruel sobriquet but still! Then he pulled himself short. No, it would not do to fawn like this. Montgomery had no power over him, he was a man now. René pivoted, suddenly blasé.

‘One and the same.’

‘Didn’t know you and Freddie were friendly.’

‘We had our moments.’

‘Fair—you keeping well?’

‘It’s my birthday.’ René recoiled from his id. It’s my birthday. He had outed himself as a nonentity, attending a funeral alone on his birthday. The death of Freddie St. George was the best present he could have hoped for but Madoc wasn’t to know. He must think him desperately sad.

Madoc stood for a moment, a curious grin fixed in place. From the corner of his mouth and without taking his eyes of René, he called out:

‘Girls, let’s celebrate—what do you say?’

Flame and Olympia turned, alarmed and intrigued by the impropriety. Madoc was done mourning, and he had that way with words that made others follow without thought or complaint; that knack of giving voice to what one wished to say, but had neither the head nor the heart to.

Madoc set off down the hill with a swagger, his trousers three inches too short and his socks, a deep crimson. René immediately fell in line, trotting to keep up, with the girls sheepishly bringing up the rear.

Halfway down, Madoc stopped short, raising his hand to his forehead, theatrically shading his eyes from an imaginary sun with that hardy, hooded squint common to all handsome men, and called out in a clear, controlled voice, ‘Henry? Henry Halworth!’

In the mid-distance, at the foot of the hill, a small, string-bean of a man wheezed into the cemetery, his cheeks flushed with exertion and embarrassment, an earnest spring in his tired step.

**

René sat perched on a soft red cube, straining to hear the others over the music. They hadn’t booked ahead but had been relatively early and managed to secure a table at the back of the room, furthest from the stage; yet René could barely hear anything over Benoit Viellefon & His Orchestra. René disliked swing and cared less for jive, though he’d be hard pressed to define either.

The Nightjar is a basement bar on City Road just off Old Street roundabout, with a plain black bouncer in front of a plain black door in a plain black wall. You’d miss it if you didn’t know where you were going, but Madoc knew where he was going and had slapped the bouncer on the back—‘Charlie, my man!’—while gallantly ushering the rest of them in.

They'd had to negotiate some dimly-lit stairs to reach the underground drinking den and René’s heart had sunk with their descent. These were not his people. The bar was all exposed brickwork, faux wood and crumbling furniture. Flapper girls and flat caps as far as the eye could see. Then came the truly bewildering list of cocktails. René was uncomfortable making decisions at the best of times, but being forced to make one to stride jazz was his hurt locker. In the end he plumped for a Smokey Joe—Henessy Fine de Cognac, lemon, Martini Gran Lusso, artichoke tea, balsamic grape jelly and bee pollen syrup. That didn’t sound too bad.

**

Howard didn’t mind that Madoc had called him Henry. He’d quietly corrected him the second time, while Madoc was enthusiastically pumping his hand and slapping his back—‘Henry, my man!’—and Madoc had been profoundly apologetic, but he didn’t mind. Howard had been late for the service because Anna had insisted on going into work that morning, although it was a Saturday, and had been delayed. Howard didn’t like waiting. Neither did Anna, which is why, he supposed, she made others wait instead. And so they had missed the service, which Howard was cross about, but careful not to let on. It didn’t do to sulk. Anna wouldn’t have it.

She was a good-looking woman, too pretty for Howard, he knew, but Fate—the mischievous collider—had flung them together at university, two strange and rare elements, and they had stuck. Anna’s boyfriend before Howard had also been good-looking, and popular—too popular perhaps—and after, she’d been looking for someone kinder, when along came Howard. They’d fitted, and having shared the occasional adulthood of their mid-to-late twenties, had arrived together at thirty, a little wiser and much poorer.

A couple of years back, Anna had fallen pregnant, but decided not to keep the child as she was on a law conversion. Howard had been silently bitter for months after, desperate to be a father, while Anna had seemed coldly, cruelly detached, unwilling even to discuss it. Howard supposed she was being strong, or feeling guilty—nevertheless he was optimistic about the future. He knew time was on his side and eventually Anna would succumb to nature and beckoning motherhood. Five weeks ago, Howard had bought a ring in the hopes of catalysing the process. It was a modest half carat diamond on an eighteen karat gold band. He had yet to find a suitable time to present it to her.

Howard admired Anna now. She had large, inquisitive green eyes, a sad mouth and the sloping, regal neck of a swan. Her mousey hair was flat and straight and cut into a long bob. Howard was trying to follow something that Anna was telling him about the trip to her parents’, but the music was too loud, he couldn’t make it out. So he nodded and smiled—‘Sure!’—she seemed satisfied and Howard turned to watch the rest of the company.

Madoc was confiding in Olympia, who was making a good show of looking glum, allowing herself only the odd rueful smile, but you could tell she was enjoying herself. Howard wondered what Madoc was saying that was making her blush so. Anna was giving them a strange look. She probably pitied Olympia.

On Howard’s other side, René and Flame were sitting in pained silence. René looked extremely uncomfortable. He was red and appeared to be sweating. Flame was bored, or was that just her face? It was a striking face, Howard thought. One felt the need to please it, though any attempt to do so was sure to be in vain.

‘So what do you do?’ screamed Anna, over the din.

‘Sorry?’

‘I said, what do you do?’

‘Oh. I’m a fashion illustrator’, replied Flame, cooly.

‘I bet you model too.’

Flame curled a lip, flashing a cluster of brilliant teeth, dazzling against her midnight skin.

‘I do.’

A strangled noise came from the corner and the party turned to find René hacking into his palms.

‘You alright there buddy?’, Madoc enquired, looking slightly peeved that his moment with Olympia had been interrupted. René waved with one hand for the company to continue, while drawing out a handkerchief with the other. He coughed into it then caught Howard’s eyes and looked away.

Howard wondered about René; he had always thought him insincere. In René’s presence he found it hard to shake the impression that he was being sneered at. Howard didn’t like to dislike people. He felt that everyone had goodness in them, if one would only look hard enough. The trouble with René was that he was just too irritating to warrant the effort. He wasn’t a team player. He was a chancer, an ingrate and he had been rightly worked over at school. You just couldn’t trust him.

Howard supposed René was good looking, in an obsequious way, with hot chocolate eyes and full lips, but there was just something about him. Something greasy.

Howard, on the other hand, was a good sport. Everyone thought it. He was well liked, despite lacking the prerequisite physical characteristics that usually designate popularity. What Howard lacked in conventional attractive traits he more than made up for in likeability. It wasn’t charm, or charisma. He was a mascot. He was tolerated by any clique, he could move in any circle. This had served him well at school, where he was able to effortlessly glide between in and out crowds. Madoc, in particular, had taken to Howard, adopting him as a pet and initiating him into his inner circle in that way he had about him that looked in the act as carefree as a whim, but felt to all involved like a sincere and deeply held wish. And Howard had basked in Madoc’s glow, reaping the rewards of status and security, while still retaining the presence of mind to be modest. Unlike many other boys—René for example—who might have found themselves in his fortunate position, Howard was careful not to overplay his hand. He was neither servile nor a tyrant. He treated his betters with quiet deference and his subordinates as anything but. Howard was nice. And not by happenstance, he knew he was nice and was careful to cultivate it as his most endearing attribute.

Howard caught Anna’s eye and smiled, then reached over and squeezed her knee. He wondered if she would fuck him tonight.

**

René tried to clear his throat without a fuss. He’d expelled most of the Smokey Joe from his lungs but there was still some small lingering liquid. So, Flame was a model, well quelle surprise! René had scoffed and received the instant karmic reward of choking on his cocktail. He thought he’d gotten away with it, then Howard had given him that funny look. But then Howard had a funny face so it was to be expected. René knew Howard disliked him and René didn’t care much for Howard either. He had silently rejoiced when first he saw Howard in the cemetery and noted the man had lost nearly all his hair. The balding process had begun back at school when they were sixteen so it was no surprise. Now all that remained were two doleful-looking patches, one above each ear, and some loose strands clinging to his dome. Oddly, Howard’s face looked just as taut and smooth as it had been 14 years ago, saving perhaps for the conspiracy of crow’s feet loitering at the edges of his tiny, copper eyes. He looked like he could grow a beard but kept a very close shave. He had very light eyebrows and thin, fair skin. René thought how much like a boiled egg Howard’s head looked now.

Howard wore a brown suit and, René noted, ridiculous socks. Duck egg blue. René found the idea of Anna and Howard together, as an item, preposterous. It was an affront. What on earth did she see in him? It had been the same at school: while René had been so badly mistreated, Howard, who by all honest accounts looked like an old baby, enjoyed the company, camaraderie and protection of the elites.

René glanced over at Madoc, who had all of his attentions focused on Olympia, an arm slung round the back of her chair, fingertips brushing her shoulder. Flashing that gappy grin. Madoc somehow managed to attract a waitress’ attention and ordered for himself and Olympia, completely ignoring the rest of the group. She would have a Honey Smash and he, Tortuga. He toyed with a lock of her hair, brazenly, forcing her to push his hand away.

‘Stop it, you—’ she said, a little too loudly, so as to be heard over the roar.

Olympia hadn’t been unkind but Madoc was disappointed and took his arm from around her, turning his body away a fraction. Their drinks arrived and Olympia snatched at hers, nearly spilling it in her haste.

‘Cheers.’

Madoc raised his drink to Olympia’s with a thin smile and sipped. He avoided her eyes and set his glass down in front of him, then caught René looking at him and winked roguishly.

René beamed back but his bonhomie evaporated when he turned to Flame, who was looking either bored or disgusted, it was hard to tell. Her resting face was that of a woman who couldn’t quite shake a faint, lingering bad smell; as if some intrepid prankster had traced a shitty finger under her nose while she slept and now awake she was nursing a quiet, bewildered revulsion. René cringed. Why wouldn’t she say something? Madoc had Olympia and Howard had Anna, why couldn’t she say something? He shot her another furtive look. Her face was inscrutable, pointing out into the mid-distance. René could feel himself colouring and a bead of sweat trickled down his back. Well he wasn’t going to say anything either! Why the hell was it up to him to fill this terrible silence? Maybe he was the one that was bored. Yes! He was bored of her. Terribly, terribly bored of her face and body and anything she could possibly have in her head. Flame took out her phone and flicked through it mindlessly.

How could she behave like this? The bar was packed, they were lucky to still have their table, and the uproar was deafening—frenzied, bullish energy swung from one side of the basement to the other, stomping and spinning to that scratchy catchy honky tonk—but between himself and Flame lay a vast desert of pure and perfect silence. René’s mind darkened. He tried to think of something else and his thoughts turned to his mother. Not for the first time he felt adrift, at odds with everything. René twisted in his chair. A familiar rage surged, splashing out; then boiled away as suddenly as it had come, leaving him alone with his swollen, naked sadness. His nose prickled.

‘So how old are you?’

René sat up as if he had been slapped.

‘What?’

‘It’s your birthday, right?’ shouted Flame.

‘Yes’, he hollered.

‘So—how old are you?’

René was thirty; too old to fall in love, and young enough to believe that were true.

**

Madoc noted Olympia’s discomfort and made a show of looking round the room. He said something boorish to Howard, who laughed dutifully, then asked Flame if she would like a drink. She declined but Madoc wasn’t listening, he was putting the screws on Olympia.

‘So what are you up to these days?’ Madoc spoke without addressing his subject.

René snapped to attention, looking to both sides before replying, ‘Ah...you know, this and that. Thinking of starting my own thing. You?’

‘Drapers. Hedge fund,’ Madoc lied.

‘Is it good?’ René ventured lamely.

Madoc ignored the question, downed his drink and stood up, looking like he might leave. He felt Olympia stiffen beside him and knew that he had her.

Women like Olympia need attention like oxygen. Madoc had spent most of the evening spoiling her with his, and he’d waited, pushing his luck in small increments: a lingering look here, a careless caress there, till she could no longer play the innocent, but had to either actively resist or capitulate—either way, the end remained the same.

Olympia had resisted, taking his hand from her hair and turning him down as graciously as she could, which had finally allowed Madoc to make his real move: gone the lothario, enter the gentleman. Where he played the boy, now came the man. He wasn’t awkward or ashamed, or angry or defeated. He hadn’t redoubled his efforts and tried to win her over, nor had he retreated into a sulk to lick his wounds and rationalise his shame away. Instead, he had accepted her rebuff calmly and at face value—he was baffled and a little disappointed, that was all. She wasn’t what he’d hoped but no matter, they would of course still be friends, his genial smile reassured her of that.

And now of course Olympia was enjoying some creeping doubt, because there a few things more alluring—or maddening—than a man who accepts rejection with good grace.

Madoc stepped over the low table and sauntered to the bar, stopping in front of a barmaid concocting an obscure green cocktail. She was very small and had to hold her arms at chin height to work the bar. She wore a grey waistcoat, white shirt, a blue polka-dot bowtie and green leather sleeve garters. When she mixed she moved like a robot, complete with slight body pops at the end of each smooth flick of a measure or pat of a shaker. Madoc watched her with a small smile, transfixed.

She spoke without looking up, ‘There’s table service. If you wait at your table someone—’

‘I don’t like waiting.’

She looked up sharply, but immediately softened when she saw Madoc, although she made a decent job of hiding it.

‘What do you want?’

‘A shot. Tequila.’

‘Easy enough.’

‘You having one?’ Madoc leered.

‘You buying?’ Her face was open and common; Madoc stirred, smiling broadly.

‘Sure.’

She poured out two shots of tequila, black Patrón, and handed one to Madoc with a flourish.

‘Are you a dancer?’

Her eyebrows shot up, ‘How did you know?’

‘The way you move when you’re mixing. Are you practising for something?’

‘No I quit.’

‘To become a barmaid?’

‘Mixologist. And I hurt my knee.’

Madoc raised his glass, ‘Here’s to starting over.’

They had their drinks, Madoc putting on a show, gasping and spluttering, till the girl cracked up. She looked eighteen though was probably twenty-five. Her eyes were large for her face and her smile was warm and unhindered. Madoc realised with some surprise that she was happy, genuinely so, not for now but in general, and it was infectious. He shot a look back at Olympia, who was doing a poor job of looking aloof.

‘You sound posh’, she said, wiping her hands on a towel.

‘I am posh.’

‘What do you do?’

‘I’m a spy.’

It doesn’t matter what you say, just how well you say it.

‘Sure you are babe.’ But she was interested.

‘Want to see my gun?’ Madoc drawled with a smirk. Her eyes drifted reflexively to his waistline then shot back up.

‘Go on then.’

Madoc was stumped. He’d talked himself into a corner, trapped by his own innuendo. He smiled easily, running dozens of scenarios simultaneously; none of them ending well. He didn’t have the words. She raised an eyebrow but before Madoc could back down he was rescued, jostled from behind.

‘Oi watch it you dozy cunt!’ a high voice came from below.

The interloper was short, well-built and evidently having a frustrating night, which had put him in a fighting mood. Though now he was staring up into Madoc’s teeth and bearing the full force of his muted, displaced rage, he was starting to consider other outlets for his aggression.

‘Madoc.’

Olympia stood to one side, holding an empty glass.

‘Can I get you anything?’ The mixologist raised a bottle and a flat smile. Olympia ignored her pointedly.

‘Madoc, I want to go home.’

Madoc turned back but the man had slunk away. He relaxed, smiling again.

‘I’m not done yet.’

Olympia coloured, ‘Oh—OK.’

‘Why don’t we take it back to mine. Just me and you.’

Somewhere in the unguarded space between her mind and mouth, the flat ‘no’ turned to an unequivocal yes.

**

René craned his neck to watch Madoc go. He thought he would’ve liked to say goodbye but then chided himself for being a drip, cursing louder than he meant to. Howard snapped round, looking at him strangely and René sagged, squatting on his red cube. His back hurt and his gut protruded.

Today was a bust. It’d had started out so well and at first he’d been excited to be in the company of old school friends. Friends was a strong word. But they were more than just acquaintances. ‘Survivors’ might be a tad dramatic but closer to the truth. So many had been lost in those twelve years since they left; to war, disease and simple misadventure. Thom Bell caught cancer (lung). Paddy Clement, Afghanistan. Giles Bertrand-Cooper hanged himself wanking. Phil Turner, cancer (blood). Justin Campbell-Twigg fell off a mountain. Harry McBride drowned in Bali. And now Freddie. René had been to every funeral. Every memorial. Some were better than others but none could compare to the unbridled joy he had felt today. For a few hours René’s spirit had soared, but clear day had turned to night and now René could see nothing had changed. He could take no lasting pleasure in the death of St. George. He felt lonelier than ever.

Howard was smiling absently at the bar around him, while Anna and Flame talked in strained voices. They seemed to have warmed to each other.

‘So what are you into?’, shouted Anna politely.

‘Leather goods mostly’, screamed Flame, ‘Handbags ‘n’ that.’

‘Done anything I might’ve seen?’

Flame whipped out her phone, ‘I did a couple of clutches for ASOS and a belt for Missguided.’

She found some pictures and handed the phone to Anna.

So what made you get into fashion?’ René bellowed, inserting himself into the conversation.

Flame shrugged.

‘Did you do it at uni?’

Flame shook her head, ‘I didn’t go to uni.’

‘Why not?’

‘I knew what I wanted to do. It felt like a waste of money.’

‘Fair enough. It looks like you made the right choice.’

Flame nodded and smiled, ‘What?’

‘I said it looks like you made the right decision.’

Flame nodded and smiled again. She hadn’t heard him.

‘So where are you from?’

Flame’s face hardened, ‘You mean, why am I not white?’

‘…no—’

‘If you want to know just ask—don’t mince your words, it’s irritating.’

‘Well actually that’s not what I meant—’

‘My dad is Nigerian and my mum’s from Ghana—happy?’

‘Listen, I wasn’t asking about that. I meant “where in London do you live?”’, René was very conscious of the fact that, through the effort of straining to be heard and hopefully understood, his voice was reaching a very unmanly pitch. He also noted that Flame was now ignoring him.

‘Excuse me? Hello?’

‘This one’s so hot’, Anna held up the phone for Flame to see.

‘I’ve got some samples, I can send you one.’

‘Really?’

‘Course, give me your number.’

René’s cheeks burned and his arse felt cold and exposed, ripe for a paddling, as it always did when he was humiliated. He stared daggers at the side of Flame’s face. Her long, straight neck. Her stiff back. The curve of her breast just visible under her blouse. Down to her slender legs. She wore a short black pencil skirt, wholly inappropriate for a funeral, and cherry red Doc Martens. He fancied he could snap those long dark legs, the large boots made them look breakable. He showered her with black thoughts but she was oblivious, or indifferent.

René leapt to his feet and shuffled round the table. He knocked over Flame’s drink and the girls shot away in a chorus of squeals. René apologised, shambling away, and wondered if it had been an accident.

In the toilets, René sat in a cubicle, his small feet propped up on two rolls of toilet paper and therefore not visible from below. He had his fly open, and his big red balls rested against the cool white plastic of the toilet lid. He listened intently to the conversation outside.

‘I really like that colour on you.’

‘Thanks—I think it’s teal.’

The sounds of the bar faded away, a distant pinprick of light in the back of his mind. René was invisible, a dark spectre, hovering at the ceiling, looming over the two strange girls as they gabbled. He smelled their hair, fingered their brassieres, held their slender waists, kissed their necks.

‘I love your shoes.’

‘They make my feet look big.’

‘No they’re gorgeous—where did you get them?’

René had only managed a semi and was stroking ferociously to coax himself to attention. It was starting to hurt. He made one last frenzied effort then slumped back against the cistern. He hadn’t masturbated to completion in six weeks. He’d sampled a bewildering array of fetishes, venturing far into the dankest corners of the web but nothing had given him relief. He had the energies and impulses of a man, but without the wherewithal. He was a trombone without a slide. A boiled teapot without a spout.

René jerked upright as his cubicle door opened. He hadn’t locked it. He always locked it. But this time he hadn’t locked it. René’s heart kicked up into his throat and his skin burst into flame. His guts writhed and twisted, screaming obscenities at his mind, which packed up, unwilling or unable to deal with the situation in real time. Better to pick over the pieces later and forever.

Her pulse fluttered at her throat. Her mouth went slack. Her bright eyes, big as ballrooms, took in his walnut-brown brogues, propped up on the two rolls of toilet paper, the beige corduroys round his ankles, his ruddy face slick with sweat and tears, and René’s pale prick, lying useless on his balls. A sad slug on a space hopper.

Five thousand years passed between them, and then, very slowly, Flame stepped into the cubicle, closing the door behind her. She locked it, pointedly. The hairs on the back of his neck curled up. She reached into her studded clutch and retrieved a thin cigarette, while René reflexively scanned the ceiling for smoke sensors, in spite of himself.

Flame lit her cigarette, inhaled deeply, then raised a shining boot, placing it gently on the edge of the lid, between his legs, trapping the skin of his sack. She exhaled delicately, smoke escaping through her pursed lips in tiny spurts, then twisted her foot in a slow stubbing out motion, pinching him. René purred like a walrus.

When he had finished, she carefully wiped her boot on his corduroys, stubbed out her cigarette and left.

**

Howard had wanted to take a cab, but didn’t have the money and didn’t want to ask Anna. So they walked to Old Street and took the tube north.

East Finchley is leafy and sleepy. Orthodox Jews and the more temperate Albanians fight a quiet, passive-aggressive turf war through the various delicatessens and corner shops that crowd the high street.

Their one-bed flat opened out onto a small shared courtyard. The kitchen was small and spotless, Howard made sure of it. The living room had a fireplace (non-functioning) and two bookshelves (Ikea). The bedroom was just big enough for their queen-sized bed, with white wardrobes along one wall. The window looked out onto a neighbour’s large backyard. At night they could hear foxes fighting or fucking, it was hard to tell. In the summer, toddlers played with dogs and paddling pools, but it was October now. Howard didn’t mind. He was looking forward to winter. He liked warm fires and big jumpers and Christmas and most of all he liked Anna and the nest they had built together.

They walked in silence from the station. It was warm for autumn and Howard was itchy in his suit. He fiddled with the box in his pocket. Could he do it now? He supposed the setting was romantic, although he wasn’t exactly sure he knew what that meant. He had a vague idea of sunsets and beaches and champagne but he also knew that stuff didn’t matter, did it? Not if you loved someone. If you loved someone you could propose anywhere, surely. And it would be perfect because you were meant to be together. Howard took the box out of his pocket and started to count. He would get to ten then step into her path, drop to one knee and do it. He reached ten and kept counting, passed twenty, thirty and fifty. Howard thought of Madoc, of how he’d had Olympia in the palm of his hand that evening. He was fucking her right now, Howard knew. Madoc would know how to propose to Anna. He wouldn’t have a ring. He’d grab her by the arm and sweep her up into his strong arms—‘Marry me doll’ he’d say, or something equally terrible that would be just brilliant coming out of his mouth.

Olympia was very beautiful. Anna’s beauty was more reserved, you didn’t have to look carefully, but it wasn’t as brazen as Olympia’s. She was a nymphet, all pouting lips and gigantic, Bambi eyes. He supposed it must get quite inconvenient when she wanted to be taken seriously. Poor girl. His prick stirred and he felt guilty so banished her from his mind.

Howard had noticed Anna sneak one or two looks at Madoc in the bar. He’d felt a surge of jealousy and considered sulking but then had thought better of it. It wasn’t her fault—who could blame her? Madoc was a handsome man but honestly, Howard pitied him. Yes, he could likely have any woman he wanted, or at least he gave the impression that he could, but Howard couldn’t remember him ever having a girlfriend, and so for all his bluster, he couldn’t really be happy. He must be terribly lonely, Howard thought. He didn’t know what he’d do without Anna. Some nights he lay awake listening in terror to her shallow breathing. He imagined her slipping away from him in the early hours and waking up next to her, stiff and cold. They were young, but young people died all the time. Look at Freddie.

Poor Freddie! Lying in dirt, lost and alone. He looked like Freddie now but soon he would be bloated—disfigured and decayed then nothing, a few broken bones and stardust. How could he have missed the funeral? She could be so selfish! He resented Anna now so strongly and yet feared losing her more than ever.

He must have seemed serious because he caught Anna looking at him strangely.

‘What are you thinking about, pumpkin?’

Howard didn’t want to lie, ‘Freddie’.

Anna made a sympathetic noise and linked arms with him. As they passed under a streetlamp, a young bearded man tripped passed them in the light. Howard caught him looking at Anna and bristled. He didn’t like it when men looked at her. He had to propose and soon. But not tonight. Not after a funeral. Not with Freddie so fresh in the ground.

‘Do you think we’re old?’

Howard was surprised. He didn’t think Anna worried about that sort of thing.

‘Compared to what?’

‘You know what I mean’

‘You’re as young as you feel’, said Howard. It was something he’d once heard and had seemed profound at the time.

‘How young do you feel?’

Howard considered the question but didn’t like any of the answers. With a whoop, Anna leapt onto his back.

‘Carry me, piggy!’

‘Oh—come on!’

‘My lady-legs are tired.’

Howard hustled down the narrow alley to their flat. Soon his breathing became laboured. He’d never been in great shape but had noticed a significant drop-off in fitness since he’d hit thirty. It must be in his head though, his body couldn’t know it was thirty.

‘You tired already?’

‘I’m fine,’ Howard wheezed.

‘You sound like you’re about to croak.’

‘You’re deceptively heavy!’

He felt Anna immediately stiffen on his back. As he approached the steps leading up to their flat she slid off, fumbling for her key, then opened the front door and entered their home without a word.

Howard stared up at the low sky and the few dull stars, like wormholes in the lid of a great coffin, and wondered if he’d lost her.

**

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