East of Everything

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Chapter 2

Madoc Montgomery awoke at 7.15am. It was quiet.

His studio flat in Old Street was large and bare and overlooked the canal. Everything Madoc owned could be packed into one Ferragamo suitcase, save the large oil painting of his mother, hanging on the wall above his bed.

Madoc rose, as he often did, with a painful erection. Lady Montgomery stared down at it warmly. Without dressing Madoc crossed the flat, passed the row of arched windows that lined the east side, the low morning sun throwing his shadow into the room, to the large ornate mirror propped up against the exposed brick of the far wall. The frame was wrought iron and the corners were stained with tumorous clusters of small black spots.

Madoc had never read American Psycho but if he had, he might have cried at the end.

He fixed the Sigma STS Heart Rate Monitor Belt around his chest, checking to ensure it was tight against his rib cage, then slipped on the Sigma Pc3.11 Heart Rate Monitor Computer Sports Wrist Watch and adjusted the strap. Then Madoc wrapped the Sony Meb Keflezigh W Series Walkman round his head and pressed play. Farfallone Amoroso punched through the silence.

Madoc twisted to study the muscles in his back, tensing and releasing each buttock in turn. He rolled his shoulders, loosening the tendons, then stretched as far as he could to the high ceiling.

He began with two-arm military presses of two twenty-eight kilo cast iron kettlebells. Ten reps, then descending in twos with one minute breaks between reps. Next came goblet squats, starting with twenty and descending in fives till he hit zero, with one minute breaks between reps. Thirty high pulls gave way to twenty-five then twenty and so on till zero, again with one minute intervals between reps. He completed ten lunge presses, with alternating legs, rested for two minutes, then performed ten more, followed by another two-minute rest. Madoc squeezed out thirty two-arm kettlebell rows, then twenty-five, then twenty and so on to zero, with one-minute intervals. After a two-minute break, Madoc executed twenty Russian twists, then eighteen, sixteen and so on till he reached ten, then back up again to twenty, with one minute breaks in between reps. Another two-minute break and Madoc was back on his feet for circuits. Five deadlifts, ten double swings, five single-arm snatches and then another ten double swings. He rested for one minute then repeated. The swings came down by one each time, while the deadlifts and the snatches remained at five. Once he’d hit five swings, he rested for two minutes then repeated the circuit, climbing back up from five swings to ten, with one-minute intervals between each sequence.

A hand grazed Madoc’s back and he jerked round to find Olympia smiling cheekily in one of his shirts, the pale blue Givenchy he’d had ironed and planned to wear that day.

‘What?’ Madoc snapped, plucking out his earphones.

‘Just enjoying the view.’

He shrugged, ‘It’s free.’

‘Do you want to get breakfast?’

‘I’ve got things to do.’

Madoc put his earphones in and turned back to face the mirror. He would have to go with the grey Harvey Nichols instead. He started jumping rope, showering sweat onto the hardwood floor, and didn’t register as Olympia quietly gathered up her things and slipped out of the flat.

Madoc stopped after ten minutes of skipping, moderately out of breath, and retrieved a bottle of water from the fridge, drinking deeply and emptying the bottle in seconds. The doorbell rang.

Madoc cursed and stalked to the front door, ‘I said I’m busy—’

He stopped mid-sentence. Two men stood in front of him, one shorter, the other older.

The elder’s voice was like syrup, ‘Son, why don’t you put some clothes on.'

Showered, and with his modesty now maintained by a dark, monogrammed bathrobe, Madoc sat at the glass dinner table in the centre of his flat. For breakfast he had prepared two skinless chicken breasts, two fried eggs, half a pound of steamed broccoli and a gallon of fresh orange juice. When Madoc ate, he held his fork like a dagger, twisting his wrist awkwardly to carry chunks from his plate to his mouth.

Opposite Madoc, at the other end of the table, sat the older, taller and more distinguished of the two arrivals. His legs were crossed in a dark blue three-piece suit with a grey tie and cream silk pocket square. He was clean-shaven, with deep-set hazel eyes and full, sullen lips. His hair was grey, high and tight. He wore an expansive, rigid smile, a blue vein throbbing at his temple, as he watched Madoc chewing noisily through his gargantuan meal. Madoc grinned back, perfectly reflecting the older man’s own gappy grin, save for the egg yolk coagulating at the corner of his mouth. Eventually, Madoc slowed and stopped, pushing his knife and fork to one side.

Montgomery senior spoke, his sweet sonorous voice projecting easily.

‘You’re looking well.’

Madoc agreed, ‘I suppose I am.’ His voice was higher than his father’s, and thinner; somehow two-dimensional in comparison.

‘How’s work?’ Madoc wasn’t entirely sure what his father did.

‘You tell me.’

Montgomerys junior and senior gunned at each other across the vast no man’s land of tempered glass.

‘Seeing anyone?’ asked senior, innocently.

‘I don’t need looking after.’

‘Everyone needs looking after.’

‘Who looks after you?’

‘Why—Chris does of course’, replied Montgomery senior, gesturing lazily behind him to the quiet man standing by the window.

‘And who looks after Chris?’

‘Chris is the exception that proves the rule.’

‘I look after meself’, came a broad Lancashire accent.

Chris was 5’10” and in his early forties. He wore a green flannel jacket, a grey undershirt, loose, light brown khaki trousers and black boots. He had a pale, cheerful face, lank brown hair and clear blue eyes.

Chris was ex-Ghurka, hired by Madoc’s father five or six years previous, ostensibly to accompany Montgomery senior on his frequent business trips to various oil-rich countries around the world. Senior had learned through trial and near-fatal error that trouble—like crude—was a natural resource, and therefore both relative and finite. The business of trouble is a zero sum game, so if one finds oneself in trouble it is usually because another party is out of it.

Chris was trouble. The kind of trouble other trouble found troubling. He bore the look of a man who was eager to please but somehow consistently failed to do so. If Chris was here it meant Montgomery senior was travelling and wasn’t expecting trouble, since he planned to bring enough to go around.

Marcus toyed with the gold signet ring on the little finger of his left hand and studied his son.

‘What about the blonde downstairs? She looked presentable—’

‘She’s just a friend’, quipped Madoc.

‘Do your friends usually leave your company in tears?’

Madoc took the question as rhetorical, though it wasn’t. After a short while, Montgomery senior ventured, ‘I’m flying into Kiev tomorrow—you should come.’

‘You think that’s wise?’

‘You might learn something.’

Marcus Montgomery had started his professional life as a lawyer at Slaughter and May. He’d shown a real flair for corporate finance and this, combined with his height and easy charm allowed him to quickly rise through the ranks. Having an uncle as a senior partner hadn’t hurt either.

At the near-tender age of 31, Marcus made partner himself, the youngest in the history of the firm. Two years later, in 1983, he met and married Sofia del Bosque, a 19-year-old heiress from Barcelona, and in December of that year they had a son, Madoc. When Madoc was ten he watched his mother drown in the Algarve. She had been drinking and Madoc had laughed at her from the sand, thinking it a game.

After the death of his wife, Marcus threw himself further into his work, leaving Madoc at the mercy of a troop of nannies and teachers, chief of whom was Jenny Porter, Madoc’s personal tutor, who grew to be a surrogate mother of sorts. While his son pulled through puberty, Marcus suffered a crisis of his own, battling with nihilism, growing restless and despondent.

Marcus needed a break, so surrendered his position at the firm for a spin at investment banking. He was accepted at Goldman Sachs, where he’d made friends while working on their 1996 acquisition of Liberty Investment Management, a UK pension fund. He joined as a junior partner but soon after, when Goldman Sachs went public in 1999, Marcus left with a wave of junior partners disgruntled with their now tenuous positions at the firm. Marcus didn’t mind. He’d been invited to join the Mergers and Acquisitions team at BP and in 2003 was instrumental in their merger with a group of Russian billionaires calling themselves AAR (Alfa-Access-Renova). Together they formed TNK-BP, a strategic partnership that jointly held oil assets in Russia and the Ukraine.

Five years later, in 2008, there was what the papers described as “a corporate dispute over the company’s corporate governance structure and future strategy”, but which essentially amounted to a boardroom coup, spearheaded by Igor Sechin, Russia’s deputy prime minister at the time and chairman of the state-owned energy company, Rosneft.

Then followed several months of what Marcus would later describe as “bother”. BP executives on routine trips into the country were detained and interrogated; some had their visas revoked. Bob Dudley, TNK-BP’s American CEO was accused of breaking Russian laws and received death threats. Vladimir Putin, who five years earlier had so lauded BP and even facilitated the merger, was strangely silent. For the best part of a year, Marcus was followed everywhere he went. He lost track of the number of times he’d enter his flat to find it ransacked. He took to staying at hotels, switching them twice or three times a week. His tyres were regularly slashed, and his staff harassed. He bought a gun.

For five months, Bob Dudley attempted to run TNK-BP from an "undisclosed secret location outside of Russia". He lost two stone just sitting in a chair. In September 2008, BP and AAR signed a five-page “memorandum of understanding” and by December of that year, Dudley had stepped down as CEO to be conveniently replaced by AAR’s president, Mikhail Fridman.

Dudley immediately returned to the States, but Marcus stayed behind. He hadn’t realised it at the time but he liked dealing with the Russians—they were nothing if not straight-forward, and respected a madman, which Marcus must have been to remain in Moscow. He hired Chris and cheerfully went about his business, smiling into faces and shaking the hands of men who, just a few weeks earlier, had been quite likely plotting his murder. He earned their baffled respect. He felt a buzz like no other.

In the first quarter of 2010, Marcus’ old firm, Goldman Sachs sold nearly five million shares in BP, 44% of their holdings in the company, the largest of any firm during that time, pocketing a quarter of a billion dollars. A few weeks later, on the 20th of April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the gulf of Mexico exploded and sank. Over the next 87 days, while engineers struggled to cap the sea floor gusher, 4.9 million barrels of crude were spilled into the gulf and BP’s stock prices fell by over a third. Goldman Sachs had miraculously saved themselves nearly US$100 million and Marcus quietly resigned from BP soon after.

Sixty years young and now worth a modest £300 million, Marcus Montgomery had finally figured out the kind of man he wanted to be. With his contacts in the oil industry and his knack for getting into, but more importantly, out of sticky situations, Marcus set himself up as a private consultant—a facilitator of sorts. Quite simply, he made it easy for oil companies to deal with difficult men. If some young warlord wrested a few hundred square miles of oil fields from a failed state, Marcus was there before the papers were. In 2011, Marcus was drinking tea with Libyan rebels while Gaddafi was still cowering in a sewer outside Sirte. In the first half of 2014, when the Islamic State took over eleven oil fields in Iraq and Syria, Marcus brought the self-proclaimed caliph, al-Baghdadi, a case of Black Label, and he in turn sold Marcus’ clients, the proud EU member state of Turkey, one hundred thousand barrels of Iraqi crude at USD$20 a barrel, which the Turks promptly sold to China for USD$10 million. While young Turks were being castigated for leaving their homes in droves to join IS, their fathers were getting rich off the spoils.

From 2011, the height of the Arab Spring, all through to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Marcus was all things to oil men. In Iraq they called him Johnnie Walker; in Nigeria he was dudu oyinbo—the Black White Man.

Marcus drummed his fingers on the table and pursed his lips.

‘I bought this place on the condition that you would get settled—you’re not a young man anymore.’

Madoc snorted and ran his fingers through his hair, nonchalant, ‘I know what I’m doing.’

‘Alexander had conquered half the world by thirty.’

‘I haven’t got any elephants.’

**

‘Is it a girl, René? Are you in love?’

‘No-one falls in love anymore.’

A week had passed since the funeral and René was feeling wretched. His days were spent moping around the house, alternatively sighing into the fridge or sitting in one of the large bay windows that looked out onto the street from the first floor front room. This was his mother’s house—a large townhouse in Islington that she had secured during her divorce from René’s father nearly twenty years ago. Archie Williams, an accomplished Fleet street journalist and drinker, was now living in the south of France. René liked to imagine it was by the sea.

‘So cynical mon cheri.’

Marie Dubois leaned against the doorway, her arms folded against her chest. She was 46 and so small that from behind she could pass for a child. She wore red, as she always did; today in the form of a scarlet, v-neck, floor-length chiffon dress with a carmine satin sash at the waistline.

Marie had a flair for drama. She tipped her head against the doorframe and smiled at her son, who pouted and checked his phone. Marie pushed off and padded across the room to join René in the alcove, a pair of scarlet kitten heels hanging in her right hand. Her face was plump and her large chestnut eyes shone when she spoke. She had a kind, unflinching stare, one that René found hard to meet on occasions such as this.

Marie balanced delicately on one foot and raised the other to her son, placing it on his knee. He slipped on the first red low pump and fastened it, then the other. He was probably two decades too old for this, and a casual observer would be quite unnerved, but it was a ritual neither mother or son could seem to shake.

‘Have you called her?’

René hadn’t, but he had texted her four times over the past week, and been totally ignored. Each successive missive had sent him deeper into his maelstrom of anxiety and depression.

His first attempt: ‘Heyyy it’s René, from the funeral. How’s it going?’

His second: ‘Hey it’s René. Dubois-Williams. Just Williams really. I got your number from Madoc—he said you wouldn’t mind. Do you mind?’

The third: ‘Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses?’

And finally: ‘So sorry about that last text—I was really drunk with a friend that you don’t know. How’s it going?’

René was shocked by the intensity of self-loathing he was currently experiencing. No doubt Flame, Madoc and the rest of them were all out somewhere having a good laugh at his expense, and he deserved it. He was a fat clown.

‘No-one calls anyone anymore, Mama.’

People only call if they’re drunk, which is inconsiderate, or in trouble, which is worse.

‘Nonsense. If I was her age and I got a call from a beautiful young man like you I would be overjoyed.’ Marie reached across to caress his cheek.

‘Stop.’ René jerked away, but his mother persisted.

‘Stop.’ René smiled in spite himself.

‘I have to dance.’

Marie smoothed his hair then rose and left the room. René drummed his fingers on his knee and stared out of the window at the grey sky.

Once a month his mother went swing dancing, purportedly with friends, but he had never been introduced and she invariably spent the night away. Once he had met a man, Lambros, a Greek with a combover who wore Cuban heels and chain-smoked Parliament cigarettes. He had pinched René’s cheeks and poked his paunch and teased him about girls, while making heavy-handed pop culture references René supposed were intended to be ingratiating. René dreaded Lambros like the last days of summer and suspected his mother was secretly spending her sleepovers with him. Well at least she had the decency not to bring him into their home.

René might have been disturbed that his presence was effectively denying his mother any chance of a real private life, and that by squatting in her house like some giant, overgrown cuckoo he was squeezing her out—forcing her to make so many unfair compromises. In fact, René was far too self-absorbed to realise. He believed his mother needed him and perhaps she did, in some perverse way, to limit her, and in doing so guard her from failure.

René stood up from the window, straightened his collar, cleared his throat thoroughly and raised his phone to his ear.

‘Hi—it’s René Williams.’

‘Who?’ The voice on the other line was brusque and impatient.

‘René Dubois-Williams? From Freddie’s funeral.’

A hundred years crawled by.

‘Oh. Hi.’

‘Hi.’

‘What do you want?’

‘Just to chat—to see if you were OK...after that night.’

‘I’m fine.’

‘Really? Are you sure? I have to say I feel pretty weird about the whole thing.’

‘Well, we weren’t that close.’

René winced and scratched his head, sheepish. Then he caught up.

‘You mean to Freddie. You weren’t that close to Freddie. Figuratively. When he died.’

‘Yea.’

Had he dreamt that scene in the ladies?

‘Is that all? I have to go.’

‘No wait—’ René took a breath, ‘Would you like to come for dinner?’

Five hundred years, and then—

‘Why?’

‘Um, I suppose it would be...a date?’

‘You’re not a weirdo are you?’

‘Well—not a dangerous one,’ René ventured.

‘I can do Thursday.’

‘Great. Me too.’

‘OK—text me. It’s weird to call people.’

‘You’re right of course’, gushed René, but Flame was already gone.

**

Born to poverty in 1967 Roubaix, a French border town just south of Belgium, Marie lived with her parents and twin older brothers, Luc and Renaud, in a ground floor tenement flat in the slums. There was no gas, no electricity, no hot water and no bathroom. The toilet, which they shared with the rest of the building, was outside. The floor of their one bedroom was half-submerged in rainwater. Mould grew in their shoes overnight. If there was kerosene, they burned their lamps while they slept to keep the rats away. If there was no kerosene then they didn’t sleep. One night Marie counted thirteen rats in their room at once. The kitchen windows were broken and in the winter the snow piled high outside. Like many other working class families, their’s had been hit hard by the deindustrialisation of the late 60s and early 70s—the crisis of the French textile industry. In the wake of that recession, Marie’s parents, though loving, struggled to provide for Marie and her brothers. They found work where they could, mostly in neighbouring Lille where her father, Patrice, shined shoes and her mother, Mathilde, sold wild flowers to the society ladies and their house girls.

The children were mostly left to their own devices and quickly turned to pickpocketing and short cons.

One favoured scheme, dreamed up by Renaud, they called La Fille Brisée, the Broken Girl. In the street, the twins would lie in wait for their mark, usually a drunk single man with a car, while Marie made sure to be visible, playing nearby. Once the mark was in his vehicle and attempting to navigate out of his parking space, one of the boys, usually Renaud, would leap out in front of him and slam on the bonnet, ‘Ma soeur! Vous avez tué ma soeur!”. Rattled, the mark would leap from the car and dash to the rear, where to his horror he would find the limp, tiny broken body of Marie.

Of course, with Renaud clutching at his jacket and howling in his ear, the mark would fail to notice Luc skilfully gutting his open and unguarded automobile. Wallets, loose change, even car radios—Luc could hoover up the inside of a vehicle in seconds, hauling their loot away in a sack, while Marie, quietly, painfully, mercifully, blinked back to life in the mug’s arms. In a delicious twist, their victim would sometimes give them money from his own pockets to further alleviate his guilt, only to turn around and discover the real tragedy.

It was an easy con and it was fun and it worked every time except the last time, when travelling salesman and aspiring playboy, Christophe Benoît, panicked by the sight of Marie’s body, fled the scene, smashing the parked car in front and crushing young Renaud in the process. Renaud took two days to die, and did so in agony. Patrice grew distant and lethargic, while Mathilde was lost to grief.

Four years later, in 1981, 14 years old and starving, Marie fled Roubaix and hitch-hiked to Paris where she joined the hordes of street urchins living in the Fifth arrondissement, around Sorbonne University. There she sold stolen postcards to tourists and raided restaurant bins for scraps of food. She was dirty and forever hungry, but it beat the dilapidated tenements and grinding, ceaseless misery of Roubaix. In Paris there was punk rock and soon, New Wave.

And it was here in the Quartier Latin that Marie Dubois met Archie Williams, then a dashing 27-year-old fashion photographer from London, shooting hip parties for magazines like Elle and L’Oficiel. It was 1983, and ‘cool’ in Paris meant idiosyncratic individualism, a minibike and an underage girlfriend. Archie liked Marie’s guarded smile and unflinching stare. They spent their days riding through greasy, crumbling Paris, where Archie took nudes of Marie among the deserted, disintegrating post-industrial blocks; or making love in Archie’s loft on the left bank of the Seine.

Archie shared his place with Martin Laurent, a protegé of French film-maker and vanguard of cinéma du look, Jean-Jacque Beineix. It was Martin who first introduced Marie to cocaine, in a vain attempt to seduce her one afternoon as Archie slept. Marie was not unaccustomed to forceful advances from predatory men; she’d had more than a few close calls in her short life but even she was surprised by Martin’s recklessness. Archie woke and the men fought bitterly; eventually Martin was forced to leave.

Archie and Marie were regulars at the hippest clubs in Paris. Marie favoured black formal dresses with elbow-length evening gloves and Archie was never without his small, 35mm camera. Downstairs at Les Bains Douches they danced among shower stalls, toilets and bathroom tiles to Kid Creole, Talking Heads and tropicalia. They pranced with Prince. They did blow with Bowie and speed with Lou Reed. They got stoned with Grace Jones and caned with Steve Strange. By 11pm the crowd at the entrance would be spilling out into the street, stopping traffic. Most would never see the inside of that club.

After Les Bains, Archie and Marie would often host parties back at the loft, some lasting for days. This was the scene and the movers that made it. These were the champions of New Wave—the artists, directors, dancers, designers, musicians, models and writers that would come to dominate and define so much of the cultural milieu of the latter quarter of the 20th century and even the start of the 21st. And yet, at the time, all they seemed to do was drink and fuck and take cocaine.

In June of 1984, 16-year-old Marie gave birth to her only son. By all accounts the birth of René Dubois-Williams was a difficult one. He was an immense child and with the umbilical cord wrapped round an ankle and both wrists, which made for an awkward, if amusing, delivery. Marie lost three pints of blood, and might have died but for the quick work of Dr. François Allard, the resident physician at Beaujon Hospital.

Archie wept when he held his son.

**

The stress in the days leading up to Thursday had proven almost too much to handle. René’s hands shook, he sported a thin and permanent sheen of cool, greasy sweat and one eye was bloodshot. He looked terrible and felt worse. He’d tried again to masturbate, to relieve some tension, but of course it hadn’t worked, nothing had worked before or since Flame.

Instead, he agonised over his outfit. The average man needs an edge, but without appearing to try. A simple shirt and trousers just wouldn’t cut it, unless you were Madoc, who would look good in a bed sheet and crocs.

How does one look like they’ve made an effort, without looking like they’ve made an effort?

René stood in front of the mirror in his bedroom on the top floor. Weak sunlight spilled through the small window onto his small double bed. A Pink Floyd poster—the one with all the bums—hung opposite. A broken lava lamp and an unopened box of tissues rested at his bedside. René studied his round, blotched face, then switched focus to the specks of dust looping through the air in front of him. It was 6.07pm. He had 1 hour and 23 minutes.

He wore a grey wool flannel blazer, a blue Oxford shirt, black formal trousers and avocado ankle-dress socks. He had tried a tie: a green, navy and black tartan, but whipped it off in dismay almost immediately. Ties made his neck fat bulge out over his collar.

With a guilty look out of the window to check he wasn’t being spied on, René stooped to turn up his trousers, flashing his socks. He rose to consider himself in the mirror, then wanted to kill himself, and turned them back down.

René sighed heavily, smoothing back his hair like he’d seen Madoc do, then tugging at his jowls. He knew he looked desperate. René moved to his dresser and rummaged through his top drawer until he found it: a white and olive green polka-dot handkerchief, one of the many unwanted and unused items of clothing bought for him by his parents when he first went away to school. He had kept them all: the bowties, clips, suspenders, hats, scarves, gloves, shawls, bats and balls from that time; unable to dispose of them through sentimentality or common laziness, he wasn’t sure. Now René folded the handkerchief into something approaching a triangle and stuffed it into his breast pocket. He broke out into a sweaty grin. It was perfect.

René had opted for Loong Kee on the Kingsland Road. Flame lived in Stokey—the restaurant wasn’t geographically equidistant between their homes but it was the best René could do without extensive research. He had chosen somewhere close enough to Flame so he didn’t seem selfish, but far enough to preclude any chance of a nightcap. He knew there was next to no chance Flame would be so overcome with lust that she would demand to fuck him that night, but he didn’t want to take any chances.

René stared up at the red and yellow sign and wondered, not for the first time or indeed the last, what he was doing with his life. No good could come of this. What was he hoping to achieve? He flashed forward—through the terse arguments, the sniping, the grudging silences, the long stretches of desperate boredom and of course, the useless flap of skin that passed for his prick. His head filled with the all the ways he would disappoint her. His eyes watered and his throat seized.

The door swung open, a young Vietnamese woman framing the doorway.

‘You come in?’

René blinked furiously and nodded. He took a deep breath, pulled back his shoulders and entered the restaurant like he had three men behind him.

She was late, of course. Half an hour. The restaurant was stiflingly hot and René knew dark pools had already formed under his armpits, so he wasn’t about to take off his jacket. He had half-hoped he was being stood up but eventually she breezed in, wearing a long, grey mohair cardigan over a pair of high-waisted, sky-blue short shorts and a sheer white ruffle-front blouse. René leapt to his feet, spilling salt and Flame burnt a straight path towards him, turning heads and hearts. She managed a small smile when she reached him. René hugged her, impulsively, awkwardly, and Flame stiffened against him, arms at her sides. She smelt of daisies, or what he imagined they might smell of. When René released her he noticed her shoes, the same cherry red Doc Martens from the funeral; and perhaps it was the familiarity, or the fact that someone so image conscious had made the considerable fashion faux pas of wearing the same item twice in a row for the same person, but for some reason the sight of those cherry red Doc Martens comforted him.

René sat with his back to the wall, a habit he’d picked up from his mother.

‘Have you been here before?’, René asked.

‘I think so.’

‘Do you like Vietnamese?’

‘It’s ok.’

‘What’s your favourite food?

‘um...pizza?’

‘I like pizza.’

‘It is good.’

‘We have so much in common—let’s grow old together.’

Flame smiled in spite of herself. A waiter arrived but René waved him away, ‘A bit more time I think’.

‘It’s OK I know what I want’, piped Flame, and ordered a beef satay sauce with egg fried rice.

‘I’ll have the same.’

The waiter nodded and left. With a rapidly growing silence between them, Flame kept her gaze down, away from René’s. She reflexively reached for her phone but stopped herself and René thought how lovely she was right now, shiny and awkward in front of him. She looked up and caught him staring.

‘So...what do you do?’ she asked.

‘Um...I’m an inventor.’

Flame snorted, ‘What?’

‘I invent things.’

‘Like what?’

‘It’s complicated.’

‘I’m not stupid.’

René paused for a moment, ‘Sorry. I lied. I don’t know why I said that.’

Flame narrowed her eyes, ‘So what do you do?’

‘I studied Medicine.’

‘So you’re a doctor.’

‘Not exactly.’

‘How do you pay rent?’

‘I live at home.’

‘And who’s at home?’

‘My mother.’

They waited in silence for a few hundred years till René ventured, ‘I used to be a debt collector.’

Their food arrived but René had lost his appetite. He watched as Flame squeezed Sriracha onto her rice and mixed it in before spooning on the satay sauce. René tried to meet her eyes but she avoided them. That hadn’t taken long.

René stared down at the quickly congealing beef stew in front of him and his vision clouded. Fat, hot baby tears gathered, stinging his eyes, before rolling down his plump cheeks. He sat, silent, petrified, unable to act.

‘Do you need the loo?’

‘No’, René kept his eyes and tears trained on the beef.

‘I think you need the loo.’

‘I don’t,’ he pouted like a toddler.

Flame stood, ‘Let’s go.’

René shot out of his chair and marched downstairs, sending Vietnamese scurrying out of his path. The gents was out of service so he barged into the ladies, Flame pushing in behind him. She closed the door and locked it.

‘What’s wrong with you?’

‘I don’t know’, sobbed René.

‘Stop crying.’

‘I don’t think I can.’

‘Well do it quieter.’

‘OK.’

René clamped his hand over his mouth and wheezed into it. Flame crossed her arms and tilted her head to one side, stunning. René cried harder.

‘Sit down.’

René sat on the closed lid of the toilet and looked up at Flame, ‘You’re really pretty.’

‘You’re an idiot.’

‘I know,’ he sniffed.

Flame reached into her bag and pulled out a pack of Vogues. She put one between her lips, ‘Well, go on then.’

René pulled down his trousers, already hard. Flame lit her cigarette, while René took himself in his right hand and weeping, lumbered to climax.

**

They drove in silence, Howard staring out of the passenger side window and imagining, as he always did on long car journeys, a massive, muscular titan, leaping over cars, houses and distant hills in single bounds as they sped along the dual carriageway. Howard had wanted to learn to drive but the time had never seemed right, so Anna drove them anywhere they needed to go. She had given him a couple of lessons but he had struggled and she had grown frustrated; so they left it, indulging in a mutual pretence of forgetting and letting the matter slip away without comment.

The past few days had been difficult. Howard had sensed a growing distance between them. If he was honest it had been going on for a year now but his recent blunder outside their flat the night of Freddie’s funeral had caused a precipitous decline in relations. It was a careless comment and she must know he meant nothing by it, and yet now they hardly spoke. She was rarely back for dinner and too tired for sex. Before the journey Anna had wordlessly thrown a packed suitcase into the back of the car. It had felt pointed but then Howard supposed he might be paranoid. Either way, if he didn’t ask a question he wouldn’t get an answer and that suited Howard just fine. It would pass. It always did. She would be back to her usual self, he just had to wait.

He snuck a look across at Anna now. She held her head high; jaw set against the road ahead.

**

‘So Howard, Anna tells me you’ve got a new job.’

He was a great, silverback of a man, squatting at the head of the table with Howard on his left and Anna on his right. His hair was thick and bright white against his bulbous, ruddy face and yellowing eyes. He drank like his throat was on fire. The man had no use for a knife—instead he crushed what could be crushed with the back of his fork, and sawed the rest with the edge, his left hand ever present at the base of his wine glass, fingering the stem in anticipation.

‘Yes sir, I started about a month ago—’

‘Money any good?’

‘Well it’s teaching so—’

‘But you said the head of science is retiring next year, so there’s a chance of promotion isn’t that right?’ nudged Anna.

‘Yes. Well, probably not for me since I’m quite junior but you never know—’

‘Well I wouldn’t worry about it, I’m sure Anna will take care of you’, Dickie winked, squeezing her hand, while Anna smiled conspiratorially.

Dickie Moor was a self-made man. Born in Doncaster in 1959, Dickie left school at 16 to take up a plumbing apprenticeship. Two years later he had set up his own business, selling second-hand radiators to council house owners in the South Yorkshire area. He was a workaholic and a natural leader and by 1979, while the UK was celebrating the election of its first female prime minister, Empire Heating was the single largest outlet for central heating systems in Yorkshire, supplying over half a million homes.

‘Fetch us another bottle would you my dear?’, said Dickie, emptying the final dregs of chardonnay into his glass.

Mrs. Moor rose eagerly from the table and disappeared into the living room. She was a slight, quiet woman; duty-bound to Dickie and twelve years his junior. Dickie was her captain and she, his first mate. Her hair was very long—a squirrel-red chestnut colour with silver streaks that she made no attempt to hide. Today she let it hang over her right shoulder and tucked behind her left ear. Howard sometimes thought about her when with Anna, though he always felt guilty afterwards. Mrs. Moor had a graceful face and countenance, very much like Anna’s. The regal neck, the high chin—but here the similarities ended. In terms of character, Anna was very much her father’s daughter.

Mrs. Moor reemerged, a New Zealand chardonnay in tow. She placed it next to her husband, who rewarded her with a slap on the rear.

‘Stop it, you brute.’

‘Thank you, wife’, piped Dickie.

‘You’re most welcome, husband’, chimed Mrs. Moor.

Howard wondered how she could live like this, with such a man. He felt a keen desire to liberate her, to challenge this fat ugly ogre and win her favour. Mrs. Moor caught him looking at her, smiled sweetly, then looked away. She was so lovely.

‘How’s work, princess?’ asked Dickie.

Anna sighed, ‘I had my annual assessment last week and I said I was hoping for a promotion next year but that bitch said she didn’t think I was taking my job seriously enough and that if I wanted to even keep my job I should do more hours. She hates me. I’m always the first in and the last out. Always.’

‘Well why don’t you find another firm, sweetheart?’

‘Mother, it doesn’t work like that. They time the bonuses so it’s really difficult to leave and if the partners think you’re looking they’ll force you out—then what’ll I do?’

‘We’ll find a way’, said Howard. He stretched across the table to take her hand but it wasn’t forthcoming so instead he patted her wrist awkwardly. Anna smiled perfunctorily then turned to her father.

‘Daddy, what do you think?’

Dickie took a small swig of chardonnay and thought about it.

‘I don’t think there’s any harm in looking. See what’s out there—it’ll make you feel more confident. And next year if you don’t get bumped up I think you should hand in your notice.’

‘Are you sure?’ Anna asked.

‘You’re very capable and they won’t want to lose you. The bitch is bluffing.’

‘Well, if you’re sure.’

Dickie reached over to pet her hand, ‘Work hard my dear and you’ll be fine.’

‘Would anyone like thirds?’ asked Mrs. Moor, gesturing to the bones in front of them. The chicken had long since been picked clean but there were still some stray, lost potatoes and half a jug of gravy.

‘No thank you my dove, that was divine,’ smiled Dickie, slapping his gut. ‘I shall go and smoke.’

Dickie staggered to his feet and shuffled out of the room.

‘Hold up, Dad.’ Anna threw her napkin onto the table and quickly followed, leaving Mrs. Moor to clear the table.

‘I’ll give you a hand.’

‘Nonsense Howard, go and relax.’

‘It’s no trouble—’

‘Don’t be silly. I mean it—run along.’

Mr. and Mrs. Moor lived in a monstrous detached house on Bawtry road in Bessacarr, a posh village just outside Doncaster. It had a white facade, with natural stone detail and blue-grey Glendyne slate on the multi-pitched roof. The ten-foot, solid oak, reinforced, bullet-proof front doors opened onto to an entrance hall, which sported a natural stone floor with underfloor heating and a buttress six-arm black chandelier on the high ceiling. In the ground floor study the walls were lined with bookshelves; a square Persian rug covered the middle of the wooden parquet floor and the mahogany desk was too big for the room. Elsewhere, there was a small breakfast room, a comfortable lounge with a gas fire and skylight, and the formal dining room where the family had just eaten dinner. The kitchen walls and base units were solid oak, with black granite work surfaces and a handmade, bespoke island breakfast bar. On the first floor were five bedrooms, three with ensuite bathrooms and one family bathroom with under floor heating, a free-standing Armstrong and Woodhouse silver-leafed bath and an open overhead Joerger rainfall shower with LED shower head lighting. At the front of the house was a double garage containing Dickie’s silver Rolls Royce and Mrs. Moor’s matte black Mercedes S Class.

The Moors only had one child and Anna hadn’t lived there for years but Dickie had insisted, first on buying the house, and then on keeping it.

A conservatory with double glazed French windows looked out onto the mature, landscaped garden, which was where Howard now found the man himself, sheltering from the light autumn rain under the cedar gazebo. Dickie sat looking out over the garden, away from the house, and sucked on a Camel. He heard Howard approach.

‘Howard my boy.’

Howard took a seat next to Dickie.

‘Where’s Anna?’

‘In her room.’

Howard looked back at the house. A heavy silence quickly smothered the pair. They watched a flock of starling tumbling, pulsating against the grey sky. In the failing light the garden was a cool blue and here they sat together, Dickie smoking and Howard waiting.

‘Have you read ‘This Side of Paradise’?’ Dickie asked, offering Howard the book.

‘Not yet, no.’

‘Anna gave it to me.’ Dickie took one last drag and stubbed out his cigarette, ‘I didn’t really get it’.

He made to rise.

‘Dickie wait—Mr. Moor.’

Dickie sat back down.

‘I thought I’d get your advice on something. Not advice really—’

This time it was Howard who stood, straightening his jacket and smoothing what remained of his hair. He took a deep breath.

‘I intend to marry your daughter, Anna, and had hoped for your blessing.’

Dickie fixed Howard with a baffled smile, then reached into his pocket, knocked another cigarette out of its packet and lit it.

‘Have you bought a ring?’

‘Yes sir,’ Howard reached into his pocket but Dickie raised his hand.

‘I don’t care what it looks like.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Well if you’ve bought a ring I suppose you’re going to ask with or without my blessing.’

‘Yes—but I’d prefer with,’ Howard stammered.

Dickie took another puff. ‘Why now? You’ve been together seven years.’

‘Exactly. I think it’s time for us to take the next step. I want to build a life with her. I want a house like yours, and children—if she’s willing. I want to take care of her.’

Dickie leaned back in his chair. He took a long drag, stared into the distance and exhaled slowly. The rain pattered on the shingle roof and the seconds dripped away from them. Howard sat back down.

‘What do you do when life doesn’t give you lemons?’ Dickie asked, rhetorically.

Howard frowned, ‘I guess...you’re alright then’.

Dickie pointed to a sapling in the middle of the lawn.

‘That—that’s supposed to give me lemons. I give it the best soil, fertiliser, you name it. I want it to give me lemons.’

Howard considered the tree, ‘Maybe you’re trying too hard?’

Dickie turned to Howard sharply, smiling into his open, honest face, ‘Do you suppose so?’

Howard shrugged. ‘Maybe.’ He stared back at Dickie, expectant. After a short while, with each waiting for the other to speak, Dickie turned away and spat, glaring at the shrub.

‘Or maybe it’s the tree.’

**

Anna seemed in higher spirits on the way back. Mrs. Moor had given them a banana cake to take home but they ate it in the car and listened to The War On Drugs. They’d always had music in common. Howard never had to explain his taste to Anna, she just got it. They were moved by the same arrangements, the same sentiments; the inscrutable imps that form the essence of a song, twisting the parts into a cord strung between their tired hearts, pulling them on together. Howard felt it now in Red Eyes as they flew home through the dark. He was bound to her as to no other.

‘What was in the suitcase?’

It had disappeared from the back seat and Howard now felt bold enough to ask. Anna took a moment before replying.

‘Just some clothes I didn’t need at the flat. Thought I’d leave them at home.’

‘I thought London was our home,’ Howard offered weakly. He’d meant it as a joke but it emerged as a whine.

Anna sighed, ‘You know what I mean, Howard.’

Howard coloured, humiliated. A small, unneutered part of him struggled jerkily to its feet and raised a tiny fist.

‘Actually I don’t—I don’t know what you mean.’

Anna was silent.

‘Have I done something wrong?’

‘Now I don’t know what you mean.’

‘I think you do.’

‘I’m sure I don’t.’

Anna opened up the throttle, urging them into the night.

**

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