East of Everything

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Chapter 3

In the dark, with curtains drawn against the daylight, René fought for sleep. He hadn’t left his room since Loong Kee. Three nights and two days. His mother had entered his room once but he’d bellowed like a bull and seen her scuttle away; though she continued to bring food, knocking then leaving plates piled high outside his room.

René hadn’t wept in twenty-four hours, which was encouraging, but he still relived every excruciating moment. His tearful breakdown. Her kindness, and pity. Flame had insisted on escorting him home but hadn’t spoken a word on the walk. When they arrived at his front door, out of terror he had asked if they might go out again and she had mumbled something about being busy and left. Now he lay in bed, curled around his shame.

Once upon a time René had been OK. He had a job. It was a good job, at Harley Legal. There would always be debt in the world and it couldn’t collect itself. René hated it, which was to be expected—it was why they paid him—but he was also incompetent, which is unforgivable. For four years his inabilities had been ignored or overlooked, but a major reshuffle, precipitated by the sudden and unexpected death of Mr. Muldridge, Director of Accounts, had done for René.

He had liked Mr. Muldridge. The man had taken him in after he dropped out of medical school and had always been kind. René would go out of his way to pass by Mr. Muldridge’s office and offer him a cup of tea, which Mr. Muldridge invariably accepted. They would sit, often in silence, occasionally making polite small talk. Mrs. Muldridge had been nagging Mr. Muldridge to retire for years. She wanted that cruise. The Seychelles. René had encouraged him to leave but secretly wished he wouldn’t. Mr Muldridge didn’t mind that René was terrible at his job and René didn’t mind that Mr. Muldridge’s office smelt of farts. It gave him a safe space and pleasant company in which to release some of his own. Then one morning Mr. Muldridge had been caught under the wheels of a 205, his head popped like a zit. His replacement, Mr. Newman, or ‘Bobby’, as he insisted his subordinates called him, had instantly seen René for the charlatan that he was.

That was six months ago. René had signed up with both Reed and Office Angels. He had been very specific. He was looking for upwards of £35,000 per annum and something he could do from home. He was very qualified. He had a 2:1 in a hard science from a reputable university and was well-versed in Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. The woman at Office Angels, Charlie, had gone quiet on the phone for a full half minute after she’d heard his demands, and when she returned she was breathless and her tone a half step higher. She would see what she could do. No, they would call him. René had chased her every week for a month till she stopped returning his calls.

A man with no job serves no purpose. And a man with no purpose is a dead man.

René twisted in his sheets. His skin was hot, too hot; and his mouse’s heart wriggled in its nest. His throat closed up and he farted, dolefully, then sat up, gasping for air. It was too dark and too hot. His phone buzzed and René fell out of bed for it, stumbling blindly till he had it in his hand.

‘Outside.’

René stared dumbly at the phone. He placed it carefully on his bedside table then moved to the window, twitched back the curtain then jerked his head away. He turned back to face the room and wiped his sweaty palms on his sides absent-mindedly. René considered the undersized, stained white T-shirt stretched over his paunch; the grey boxer briefs, and his bare feet. He peeked back out of the window and jumped when the doorbell rang.

Downstairs, René shuffled to the threshold of the kitchen door and listened, before carefully opening it. His mother’s kitchen was fantastically messy. Not dirty, since very little cooking took place here—they lived on toast and takeaways—just packed with junk. Old newspapers and magazines lined the room like a giant hutch. At the small wooden table sat a beaming Marie and opposite her, frosty Flame. Her hair was different; her small afro plaited into a spiral, starting above the nape of her neck and ending at her crown, like a beehive. When she turned her head to face him René was once more struck by her profile. She had a small flat skull and held her Roman nose high, seeming to sniff René out before she saw him.

‘Hi.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘René! Is this how you speak to your guest?’ chided Marie.

‘I’m sorry. It’s good to see you—what do you want?’

Marie rolled her eyes and tutted.

‘I’m sorry my dear. I did not raise him like this—we have been talking, René.’

‘About what?’, René squeaked.

His mother looked at him with furrowed brows, ‘About how you met. The sad death of your friend.’

‘Very sad,’ muttered René, over the cheering in his head.

‘I do not recognise my son these past two days. All day he’s just crying in his bed—’

‘Yes, thank you Mother.’

Marie threw up her hands, stood and left the room, but not before winking theatrically at her son. Outside on the landing, she called back, ‘Enchanté, Flame’.

‘Thank you, Marie.’

René closed the door after his mother and sighed. Flame made a show of looking round the room.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

‘Your mum made me one, thanks.’

René moved to the window and looked out at the overgrown garden. The weather was good. A climbing plant partly obscured the window, threatening to entomb them, but René could make out a neighbour’s cat sitting in the tall grass, eyeing up a small sparrow, tail twitching.

‘I like your house.’

René turned and shrugged, ‘It’s not mine’.

Flame nodded, ‘Do you want to go for a walk?’

René ran a hand through his dirty hair and smiled.

It was warm for October and the trees still clung to their leaves. Flame wore a loose, long-sleeved, sky-blue swing dress and canary yellow flats. René wore a grey blazer, light brown trousers and a white collared shirt. From the house on Cross Street they joined Upper Street and ambled up towards Angel. At Flame’s suggestion, they stopped for a drink at King’s Head Theatre. Flame had a large white wine and René endured a warm pale ale. They sat outside in the sun. Flame smoked a cigarette and René hid his erection. At Angel they crossed the road and passed The York. Down by the canal they picked their favourite boats. Flame liked ‘Kettlewell’ but René favoured ‘Mackerel Sky’. They left the canal at the bridge on Wharf Road, turning right at The Narrow Boat and carrying on, past Waterside, the old industrial estate. René said he knew a young writer who used to live there, but he couldn’t recall his name. They took a sharp left at McDonalds, down Micawber Street and then another immediate left to arrive at The Wenlock Arms, a small creaking old pub overlooking Shepherdess Walk. Inside, a bloated mixed race man with a scarred face and deep-set eyes asked Flame if she had heard of the first black Queen of England.

‘Princess Sophie Charlotte. She was Portuguese but black yerno—like you.’

René wanted to blind himself but Flame seemed to be on the old drunk’s level.

‘Get out,’ she said in awe.

‘Married George the Third. Swear.’ The man held up his left hand and swigged with the right.

‘You’re fucking with me.’

‘If only my dear, but no. No. No no, my fucking days are long gone. Now I drink. Is this miserable-looking man yer boyfriend?’

René laughed shrilly, ‘No, we’re just friends’.

‘Ah friends. S’good s’good. Friends. Real friends, know what I mean?’

He lowered his voice conspiratorially, ‘You know what I mean?’

‘I think so?’, René ventured.

‘Real friends is rarer than real love. ‘cos love—PAH! But friends—’

The old man kissed the fingers of his left hand like an Italian gastronomist.

‘She had fifteen children you know. Fifteen. Two died though. Very sad.’

The man seemed suddenly sobered by his own remark and stared forlornly at the suds in the well of his pint glass. René took the opportunity to drag Flame away, but she slipped out of his grasp and breezed back into the pub to down her white wine and kiss the old drunk, before they finally bailed, whooping down Sturt street. The drink, Flame’s company and the old man’s story had put René in an adventurous spirit. He grabbed Flame by the waist and kissed her on the cheek. She looked away and they walked on in grinning silence.

Five minutes of shared daydreaming meant they had to pause a while to get their bearings but then they found Murray Grove, which took them east, straight into Hoxton. When they passed St. John’s, sun broke through killjoy cloud and they stopped to watch the children playing in the church gardens, before crossing Pitfield Street, Hoxton Street and Kingsland Road, to arrive just down from Loong Kee, where they’d had their second encounter.

‘I have an idea’, said René conjuring up a decisive and mysterious air. He led Flame down Cremer Street, up Hackney Road and back down Ravenscroft Street till they hit Columbia Road.

Flame laughed and punched René on the arm when she saw the flower market.

‘I forgot about this—damn.’

The market was packed, the street lined with every kind of seasonal flower: sunset dahlias, pink echinacea, purple salvias, blood-red hibiscus, and many more René had no reason to know. The low sun bathed them in gold and pollen lightly tickled René’s nostrils. He felt a shared sense of peace, of unspoken camaraderie with the strangers around him. René stole Flame a giant daisy and they walked arm in arm down to the The Birdcage, where they moved straight to the toilets without stopping at the bar. This time Flame lifted her dress to show René her underpants. They were simple and purple and René came with the force of a collapsing star.

**

See Madoc; in the street. He is dressed like a dandy and moves like a thug.

Swaggering through Spitalfields, Madoc is careful to make eye contact with every young woman he passes. In their eyes he sees himself. The slight widening at first glance, the furtive flick away and then the second stolen look. Desire. It is what fuels Madoc this evening. It is the float he rides in on as he cleaves a straight path through the crowd, marvelling at his power. He counts each small victory. He gloats over his conquests. You? Not a chance, love.

Today Madoc is precisely dressed in a dark blue double-breasted jacket, a pinstriped royal-blue Oxford shirt, striped white trousers, a solid yellow tie, a puffed white pocket square and emerald eel-green Prada shoes, with no socks. His hair is raked back over a fresh undercut and a pair of tortoise-coloured round Zolman sunglasses rest in his breast pocket.

Madoc pauses outside La Chapelle and considers his reflection in the window, curling hair behind his ear, before shifting focus to the middle-aged gentleman at the back of the restaurant. He is serious and clean-shaven, with a spread of the day’s Telegraph between his fingers. Perhaps feeling Madoc’s eyes on him, the gentleman lifts his to the strange young man at the window. They lock onto each other for longer than is proper, before the man turns back to his paper.

That is Mr. Lundstrom, Madoc is sure of it. His father has arranged for Madoc to meet with him, on account of his son’s current state of unemployment. Mr. Lundstrom is a Senior Fund Manager at Bevan Howard and an old friend of Montgomery senior, though evidently he hasn’t recognised Marcus’ likeness in Madoc’s face. Madoc takes it as a sign and walks on. He wasn’t born to be a fucking bean counter.

Madoc leaves Spitalfields and wanders. On an impulse he ducks into the Hawksmoor on Commercial Street. The basement bar has peacock blue tiling and burnished copper finishings with several enclaves lining the wall opposite the grand, shimmering bar. It is already quite full for a Sunday—of city folk and east-end wannabes in equal measure. Madoc takes a moment to survey the room, meeting and defeating as many looks as he can, before choosing a place at the bar. He gruffly orders a whisky sour and takes stock of his surroundings. There is a solid nine behind him flanked by two sixes. They went quiet when he first took his seat but have now resumed their conversation in hushed voices. Further down the bar to his right is a weak eight, alone, by the looks of things. She looks too self-conscious to be a prostitute. Madoc knows she is here to be picked up and that she would die before admitting it. Either way she doesn’t look to be going anywhere any time soon, and can wait. Madoc strains to hear what the women behind him are talking about but can’t. He catches the eye of the eight at the end of the bar, who gives him a hint of a smile and Madoc decides she is a hard seven, not a weak eight. He grins broadly but is jostled suddenly by a heavy-set woman who plumps herself down on his left. She looks Arabic, Iranian perhaps, and smells of gin.

‘Oh hello there. Zara,’ she declares, extending a small pudgy hand, palm overturned and fingers pointed to the floor as if expecting it to be kissed. Madoc takes it carefully between thumb and forefinger and shakes it side-to-side. It is soft, warm and damp.

‘You alone?’

Madoc nods; his smile has not reached his eyes.

‘I’m here for a hen party and I’m super late’.

The gin on her breath and her strong perfume turn Madoc’s stomach.

‘Just went on a date. It was terrible,’ Zara overshares.

‘Why’s that?’

‘What is it with you men?’

Zara cranes her neck to scout the rest of the bar, then orders a rum and coke.

‘Guess how many dates I’ve been on this month. Go on.’

Madoc feigns some mental arithmetic while the woman looks him over. He opens his mouth to speak but she interrupts, ‘One. And it was awful. Mum says I should move back to Dubai. She says there are real men in Dubai.’

‘Why don’t you?’

Zara smiles and flicks out her tongue, ‘Cheeky.’

She sips her drink, ‘What about you sweetheart, are you a real man?’

‘I wouldn’t know. What’s a real man?’

‘I’ll know it when I see it.’

‘So then you tell me I guess.’

Zara pulls the two small straws from her drink, ditches them on the counter, then drains half the glass in one go.

‘Oh that’s better. You hungry? I’m starving.’

Zara raises a hand for the barman and orders two packets of crisps—salt and vinegar. Madoc takes a moment to study her. She is stout, with broad shoulders unaided by the large winter coat she is wearing. Her head is big and her hair, easily her best feature, is long, dark and thick. She opens the crisps, tearing the packet to share with Madoc and turns to him, leering. Madoc notices her eyes, honey with flecks of green and shaped like a lion’s. For a moment he is captivated, then he notices the creases of fat in her neck, and fumes. She is a five. He is talking to a five.

‘You haven’t got much to say have you? I suppose you don’t need to since you’re pretty. I bet girls don’t care what’s in your head.’

She scrutinises his face with a small smile. Madoc stares back.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Why?’

‘I want you to take me out.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

Zara pouts, ‘You’re not half as charming as you think you are.’

Madoc laughs, ’You’re in denial, my dear.’

Her face hardens and she snatches her bag from the bar. ‘You dress like a clown,’ she hisses and staggers away. Madoc beams after her, that vein throbbing in his temple. He catches sight of the seven at the end of the bar laughing at him and orders another Whiskey Sour.

‘And one for her too.’

**

Howard finely dices an onion and sets it to slowly simmer in a small pan. The Dodos play. Confidence. He adds some chopped parsley to the pan and stirs. Howard finds the smell of fresh parsley sickening, but is following instructions. Next, in goes the garlic, four cloves crushed and chopped. In a small mixing bowl Howard places some tinned anchovies—he has been unable to find any paste—a large blob of butter, a dash of red wine, lemon juice and olive oil. He mashes and mixes the contents into a brown pulp and waits until the onions are caramelised before adding it to the pan and turning the heat down.

Then come the vegetables. Howard parboils some potato wedges, then adds sliced carrots, peppers, quartered onions and tomatoes to a baking tray with the potatoes. He douses the vegetables in olive oil, salt, pepper and honey before mixing thoroughly and placing them in the oven to roast.

Howard throws a white cloth over the small round wooden dining table in the kitchen, smoothing it carefully and picking specks from the surface until he is satisfied it is spotless. He stands back, studying it, then changes his mind and removes the cloth, folding it back up and placing it in the dresser in the living room. He lays out two forks and two steak knives. A medium-bodied Burgundy red guards the centre of the table, with two short tumblers flanking it. Very nouveau pauvre.

Howard feels light-headed and sits down. His hands shake and his mouth tastes bad. He squeezes his eyes shut and clenches his fists. Anna has gone shopping. He visualises her returning home soon to find this surprise dinner. She will be delighted and they will eat. The food will be good, the conversation easy. After the meal, he will ask her to be his wife. He will look her in the eye, take her hand across the table, smile and just ask. He has ruled against kneeling as he is concerned that his mostly-bald head will be less flattering from that angle. Plus it seems too close to begging. Madoc wouldn’t kneel. Howard has also removed the ring from the box since it feels too fussy. He will propose like a man and she will say yes. They will embrace, kiss and make love on the floor, or the table, or both. After, they will lie and talk about children.

Howard checks his phone. It is eight and she is late, of course.

**

‘So what did you say to her?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What did you say to piss her off so much?’

‘She demanded I take her out. I don’t like being told what to do.’

‘Isn’t that why you’re here?’

‘To be told what to do?’

‘To take someone out.’

‘Maybe. But not just anyone. Do I look desperate to you?’

‘Well you do look like you’re trying.’

‘That’s rich—coming from a woman.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘I don’t mean to alarm you, but I can see some face under your make-up.’

‘Hey! I’m only wearing a little bit. And you know that’s not the same thing.’

‘No I get it. If a man wears anything other than a suit or jeans, he’s trying too hard.’

‘I didn’t say too hard. OK fine. Relax. You look good.’

‘Gee thanks miss, you really think so?’

‘OK that’s fair.’

Up close, the hard seven is pushing an eight again. From afar he had mistaken her downturned mouth for a bitter scowl, but it is softer than that; sad but not morose. Her green eyes shine and she seems to blink actively, rather than reflexively, squeezing her lids slightly every time, like she is lacking sleep or hiding a compulsive personality. Madoc is surprised to find this endearing, even though he knows he is too good-looking for her. She seems resigned but resolutely optimistic, like she expects to be disappointed by life but remains open to it nonetheless. The nape of her long neck is exposed to Madoc while she rummages in her bag. It is green and of a material Madoc cannot identify. Is that leather? Some sort of PVC hybrid? Madoc is shocked by how distasteful it is—she had seemed so elegant until now.

‘I owe you a drink’, she mumbles with her oyster card between her lips. ‘Can never find the damn thing—Aha!’

She whips out her purse with a flourish.

‘Another Whiskey Sour?’ she asks with vaulted brows.

‘No sense in changing now. You having one?’

‘Sure—why not.’

‘Are you waiting for someone?’

She hesitates, ‘Why?’

‘It’s a simple question.’

‘Does it matter?’

‘No. It’s just that usually women only come to bars alone if they want to be picked up.’

She laughs, ‘Well thanks but I’m not.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I’m not.’

Madoc raises his glass to his lips and sips, letting the silence do the work for him. She stares into her glass and blushes.

‘So I guess you’re an expert?’

‘On what?’

‘Picking up women.’

Madoc flashes a gappy grin, ‘When I was younger, maybe. I thought I knew all about women but have been proven wrong enough times now. I guess the older I get the less I know.’

‘That’s such a line. “Oh I’m so mature now and baffled and in awe of your mysterious lady-brains, hold me.”’ She shakes her head sadly, ‘Pathetic’.

‘OK you got me. I’m a dog. You’re just too smart.’

She takes a triumphant sip, ‘Well go on then, teach me how to pick up women.’

Madoc smiles to himself. Things can only get meta.

‘I don’t know—it’s a very dark magic. You have to promise to use it responsibly. Women aren’t objects and just because you can, doesn’t mean you should—’

‘Oh shut your cock holster, you bastard.’

Madoc’s laugh is genuine, ‘Ok, well I need a situation—a scenario’.

‘What about her, do you think she’s hot?’

She nods to the solid nine flanked by the sixes in the booth. She doesn’t look English. Dutch perhaps. She has dark, bark-brown shoulder-length hair and her eyes are light grey or blue, Madoc can’t tell from this distance. Her nose is small and delicate, her cheeks are plump and high. Her smile is easy and her lips are full. When she laughs, she brandishes a set of perfect teeth, except for the upper left canine; a snaggletooth, giving her a dash of personality that makes her unique and irresistible.

‘Which one?’

‘Oh please.’

‘The one in the middle?

‘Obviously.’

Madoc furrows his brow, ‘Well, she’s pretty attractive—’

‘She’s gorgeous.’

‘Why not. She’s gorgeous, and that’s going to put most men off because they won’t feel like they have a chance. And they’re right, they probably don’t.’

‘But let me guess, you do?’

‘Settle down.’

‘Sorry, you were saying.’

‘Since she doesn’t get approached very often, on account of being prohibitively hot, she may, paradoxically, be more open to being chatted up than if she were slightly less...gorgeous. Does that make sense?’

‘Yeah—I see that.’

‘So even if you were to get turned down, which is quite likely, she would probably be nice about it, which should give you some confidence.’

‘Nice.’

‘Ok. Now the obvious problem here is that she is flanked by two less gorgeous friends. Have you seen A Beautiful Mind?’

‘Has it got that guy from Gladiator?’

‘Russell Crowe, yes.’

‘Then no.’

‘Right, well Russell Crowe is this brilliant mathematician or whatever, it’s not important, but he’s with his friends in a bar and they see some girls and one of them is smoking hot, and he works out that if they all hit on the hot one, they compete against each other and piss off the hot girl’s friends.’

‘Uhuh.’

‘But if they all make a pact and none of them go for the hot girl, and instead each hit on one of her less hot friends, then they all have a better chance of leaving with someone. It’s basic game theory.’

‘I had no idea picking up women was so nerdy.’

‘Hey, I’m just getting warmed up.’ Madoc downs his drink, ‘Another?’

‘I shouldn’t.’

‘Do you want to hear the end of this or not?’

‘OK fine but this better get me laid.’

Madoc snorts and orders another two Whiskey Sours, ‘OK so—this situation is slightly different. I still have a problem in that the hot chick—’

‘Could we call her a woman?’

‘Sorry, woman—the hot woman is being guarded by two less hot women. If I go in there dick swinging I run the risk of alienating her friends and making them jealous. But if I hit on one of her less hot friends then I could end up A, seeming disingenuous, since they’re probably not stupid, or B, actually ending up with one of her less hot friends, which is not at all what I’m setting out to do.’

‘That would be a disaster.’

‘Indeed.’

Their drinks arrive. Madoc takes a sip and waits.

‘So? What do you do?’

‘Simple. I hit on all three.’

‘Shut up. Simultaneously? Do you have that power?’

‘It’s not as hard as you’d think. It just means flirting and being generally merry with all three instead of trying to cordon off the hot one. Women are impressed by a man that can hold his own. They’ll all know who I’m there for because they’re not stupid. And if she likes me and so do her friends then I get their blessing because they’re not going to try and compete with her.’

‘And what if she doesn’t like you?’

‘If she doesn’t like me she’ll generously palm me off to one of her less hot friends and I can decide to take it or leave it, depending.’

‘On what?’

‘On if I’m the kind of man that settles for second best.’

She snorted, ‘And are you?’

‘What do you think?’

‘I think you make it really difficult to like you. And I think you do it on purpose.’

Madoc smiles, ‘And yet…?’

She finishes her drink and starts on the next, ‘You sound like you learned to pick up women from a book.’

Madoc laughs, ‘No. I’m a freak. A white whale. I’m what they call a natural.’

‘Who’s “they”’?

‘The men who learn how to pick up women from books.’

‘I see,’ she said, nodding sagely. ‘Well go on then. I want to see you in action.’

‘Nah.’

‘Oh I see. You’re all talk.’

‘They’re having a nice evening, I don’t want to intrude.’

‘I’m sure they won’t mind.’

‘No. I’m enjoying myself here—with you.’

She hides her smile in her drink then checks her phone, ‘God—is that the time?!’

‘Somewhere to be?’

‘I’m so late.’

She grabs her revolting purse, puts it in her bag and hops down from the stool. As she makes to leave Madoc grabs her wrist, surprising both of them. He slides his hand down to hers and holds her fingers, lightly. Madoc is suddenly very nervous.

‘I’d like to see you again.’

She takes her hand away, smiling and shakes her head, ‘I knew it.’

‘What?’

‘You don’t recognise me do you?’

**

Howard had worked himself into a strop. Dinner wasn’t ruined but he wished it were. He sat in the dark facing the front door, his head swelling with thoughts of Anna and mysterious bearded men with strong arms and serious brows. With the jangling of keys in the door came relief, swiftly ousted by fresh resentment.

‘I’m so sorry I’m late babe, I lost track of time.’

‘Where were you?’

‘Shopping.’

‘Couldn’t find anything you liked?’

Anna raised her empty hands and shrugged, ‘I guess not. Something smells good.’

‘It’s cold.’

Anna sighed, ‘I said I was sorry, Howard.’

Howard moved into the kitchen to fuss over the vegetables. He silently begged Anna to follow, to kiss his neck and squeeze his shoulder, but she carried on to the bathroom, humming. So Howard followed her there and leaned against the door frame, arms crossed.

‘How would you like it?’

‘Like what?’, Anna sat on the toilet with her pants round her ankles, clutching a small wad of toilet paper.

‘Your steak.’

‘Can this wait? You know how I like it.’

‘You might have changed your mind.’

‘Why would I have changed my mind? I like it well done.’

‘People change their minds all the time. One day they like it well done, the next they want something else. Maybe they don’t like steak at all anymore.’

Anna pulled up her pants and stood up, ‘Aren’t you tired of this?’

‘Of what?’

Anna angrily pushed passed Howard and moved to the bedroom. Howard followed.

‘Tired of what?’

Anna blinked hard at the ground, with her back to him, ‘I don’t know why we have to keep doing this’.

Howard sensed danger, ‘You’re right, I’m sorry. Let’s do the steaks. I’m trying a new sauce, it’s got anchovies!’

Anna sat down on the bed, but still wouldn’t meet his eyes, ‘I’m not hungry’.

‘I’m sorry.’

Anna face-palmed, rubbing her temples with the thumb and middle finger, ‘Don’t do that.’

‘Do what?’

‘Don’t make a fuss and then apologise. If you have a problem with me, then be a man and say it.’

‘I don’t.’

‘Really? ‘Coz it felt like you did a moment ago. Now you’re totally fine?’

‘Yes?’

‘You’re fine with all this? You hate nothing about our situation? About us? About me?’

‘No. I love everything about you—why?’ Howard faltered. ‘What don’t you like about me?’

Silence fell like a muted nuke, flinging them apart.

‘Why are you taking so long?!’

‘I don’t want to say something that isn’t true!’

‘How hard can that be?!!’

Anna bounced her right foot and wrung her wrists, ‘I feel like a long time ago we made a mistake. Like we got lost a while back but didn’t notice. And we stayed together because it was easy when what we should have been doing was looking for something more...difficult. Because now it is difficult, and it shouldn’t be.’

‘What?’

‘Don’t you ever wonder what your life would be like if we hadn’t met?’

Howard slid his hand into his pocket and squeezed, digging the diamond into his thigh, ‘No.’

‘I don’t want to hate you.’

‘Then don’t.’

‘Life is so short,’ Anna stated, dumbly, ‘And people don’t change. We won’t change.’

Howard shivered. With telescopic sight and certainty he noted that Anna was still wearing her coat and shoes, her handbag gripped at her side and her green leather purse, the one he’d bought her on their trip to Venice that she’d begged him not to but he’d insisted on because he thought it matched her eyes, in her hand.

‘You’ll feel better after dinner, come on.’

Anna squeezed out a tear and shook her head.

‘They’ll go bad if we don’t do them tonight.’

Anna stood and shuffled to Howard. She took him in her arms, lightly, and rested her head on his chest.

‘Just stay the night. We can talk in the morning. You can say whatever you need to—I’ll listen.’

Anna kissed his neck and squeezed his shoulder.

When she was gone, Howard stood in their bedroom and waited. It came to him as a whisper, turning his inner ear. The room pitched to one side, he felt vertigo and fell from his body. Howard felt plucked out of time, a last autumn leaf, brittle and drifting. He opened his clenched fist, raised his hand to his lips and sucked the blood from his palm, taking the ring into his mouth. It tasted of burnt rubber. A series of short, sharp electrical currents pulsed from his hindbrain, spreading over his cortex. For a second or so Howard lit up like a faulty Christmas tree. He felt his head hit the wall, but not the floor.

**

In the dark René lay listening to London drinking in the street outside. For once he didn’t feel separate, apart. He thought of Flame and felt an immediate, exquisite terror.

Love, he marvelled, with acute boyish wonder. Ain’t that something. Love! He exclaimed with an electric midnight thrill. Love, he whispered to his pillow in the early hours. Love?

With dawn came her sister, doubt. So René did what any thinking man with means would do in his position—he left the country. At the airport he bought two bottles of Rémy Martin and four and a half kilos of Toblerone.

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Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.