A broken heart beats twice as hard. Howard’s was sick with adrenaline. It flapped like a frog in a handbag.
Shrill screams and howls of anguish—and the clash of weapons and armour, of wood on stone. Bounced rubber on tarmac. It was break time at Martin Primary School and Howard was responsible for the thirty-one tiny humans in Year 1. He leaned against the iron wire fencing the playground and tried to drown out the skirmish.
‘Are you married Mr. Halworth?’ came a cherubic voice, high and sweet.
Martha Kent. Five and impossibly blonde, with big shimmering Tobago-blue eyes. She smiled at Howard through four missing front teeth. Howard winced. He remembered that dull pain. Tonguing, nursing his tiny teeth. Biting and crushing them against his gums, hungry for that ache, the sharp pinch of tearing roots, till eventually they could take no more and one by one they fell: on a dinner plate, on the bus, in the swimming pool; he shed them all but never once felt macabre. Gore is wasted on the young.
‘No. I’m not.’
‘But you’re so old.’
‘Go and play.’
‘I’m going to get married,’ Martha oozed with a big turd-guzzling grin. ‘And I’m going to have a baby.’
‘Good for you.’
‘Guess who I’m going to marry. Go on, guess.’
‘I don’t know-’
‘Luke!’ she squealed triumphantly. ‘He said we have to get married now because we kissed and that’s what you do when you kiss, you get married.’
When she spoke Martha clasped her hands behind her back and rocked from side to side; head cocked, wide-eyed, eyebrows stretched up and smiling her strange, fixed smile through those ravaged gums. She looked unhinged.
‘He’s silly really. Once he held my arms like this—’ She demonstrated, clutching her wrist, ‘and pushed me back on the wall and then he kissed me on the lips.’
Howard hesitated, ‘Are you ok?’
She nodded vigorously, ‘Ya. And then at Aleesha’s birthday I kissed him for some cake. It was really silly but it felt really good.’
Howard’s voice rose a touch and he tried not to look panicked, ‘What do you mean?’
‘We’ve kissed—’ Martha eyes rolled up and she muttered under her breath, ‘eleven, no twelve times now. And it’s really good.’
Howard checked to make sure no-one was in earshot, then dropped to a knee in front of her, ‘Why—what’s good about it?’
‘Luke has eczema.’ Martha looked serious for a moment and raised her fingers to her lips, lost in a memory, ‘It tickles really good.’
In the flat he was covered with Anna. He wore her like a leotard. She coated his gums; she lined his teeth and lungs. She was bigger than death. At night she came to him uninvited, always remote, superior, indifferent; parading her troop of faceless, bearded paramours before him. Howard slept four hours a night in cold pools of oily, putrid sweat.
Everything hurt. The shock had worn off and now Howard felt it all. Boundless, bottomless grief. Don’t leave. He called her every hour on the hour. Don’t leave. He left broken voicemails, sent obtuse texts, wrote long wheedling emails, alternatingly pleading and recriminating, and received nothing in return. He didn’t know where she was or with whom. He blamed himself, of course, and held long winding arguments with the Anna in his head. He made his case, called his witnesses forward. He was eloquent and persuasive and finally exonerated every time. Then he would be smiling, sometimes laughing and joking aloud before he returned to reality and the full weight of his loss bore down on him again. Don’t leave.
Howard continued to suffer fainting spells, although none quite as severe as the first. He could predict them now: that thick taste of burned rubber, followed by shooting starbursts of electricity. By then he could usually find somewhere to sit in time. They weren’t painful and he always felt better for it, but it wouldn’t be long before thoughts of Anna and the tension in his head built up again. He was certain he had cancer but couldn’t face a physician.
In their bedroom, Howard rooted through her possessions, pawing and poring over her shiny, pretty things. The silver necklace with the hand of Fatima, a gift from Ms. Moor for Anna’s twenty-first. The faux emerald ring Howard had found in a charity shop in Dalston—it matched her eyes. The countless scrubs, soaps, creams, lotions and ointments she used every day to absolve and maintain herself—she had left everything. She must be at home, but Howard was too afraid to call the Moors. If she hadn’t yet told them then there was still hope. In the absence of truth lie infinite possibilities and some saw Anna safely back to him. So Howard waited. And called and waited.
Madoc lay in bed, watching a clump of cobwebs fluttering on the ceiling and tried to make sense of the past few days. He’d behaved abominably, he knew, and yet felt no guilt.
Anna was a treasure. Snoring softly in his sheets. Her twisted downturned mouth, now silent, but which for days had gabbled incessantly. Madoc had never been so entertained, or kissed so kindly. Anna kissed like she was curing cancer, pouring herself into him—straight into his head and heart. How could he feel bad? He felt drunk.
Anna hadn’t mentioned Howard once, except for at the start. It felt like years now since she’d first called Madoc, the very same night she left Howard, the night they’d met by chance at the Hawksmoor.
‘I’ve left him,’ she had wept. And then again, on Madoc’s doorstep, louder this time, stronger, ‘I’ve left him.’
Madoc hadn’t asked her to. He hadn’t expected to see her again after the Hawksmoor and yet here she was. He thought of Howard but suppressed the impulse to agonise. If your friends don’t want to fuck your woman then you need a new woman. Or new friends.
Anna stirred and Madoc shut his eyes, feigning sleep. They had played this game every day for a week. He refused to be the one caught staring.
‘I know you’re awake.’
He took his time, ‘Well, I am now.’
‘I can tell you’re awake because you’re not drooling.’
Madoc opened his eyes and raised his head on to his hand, facing her, ‘You should stop watching me sleep—it’s creepy.’
Anna sat up, letting the sheet casually fall away from her breasts in a smooth practiced motion. They’d been naked for a week but she was still self-conscious in the mornings.
‘I think I’m finally out of underwear.’
‘So buy some more.’
‘Well Marzena’s coming tomorrow so—’
‘Who’s Marzena?’ Anna’s voice was strained and Madoc saw she instantly regretted being so transparent.
‘She’s...um...you should see her...this exceptionally beautiful Polish girl I know—I see her once a week and she um...how do I put this? So I have these needs—’
Anna slapped Madoc’s chest, ‘You have a maid?’
‘Yea but don’t worry she does laundry too. Anything on the floor gets washed so just leave it.’
Anna winced, sucking air through her clenched teeth, ‘Remember a couple of days ago when we discussed thinking before you spoke so that people didn’t immediately hate you?’
‘But I was doing so well!’
‘Well, you’ve set yourself back some, mister.’
‘I’ll get over it. Tell you what, you make me some breakfast, I’ll take an omelette, thanks.’
Madoc shook his head, ‘Sorry love, no can do. You’ve eaten all my food and like I said Marzena isn’t in till tomorrow.’
Anna face-palmed, ‘She does your shopping doesn’t she.’
‘Why don’t we order in?!’ Madoc said excitedly.
Anna’s groan rose till she was howling at the ceiling, hands clawed upwards, ‘You’re not real!’
Madoc’s face creased into a laugh and he ruffled his hair, carelessfully curling it over his forehead then sweeping it to the side. He tried not to look at the pair of black kettlebells, looming large by the mirror in the far corner of the room. A week of no training; he’d been getting plenty of cardio but a week with no weights and he was sure it was starting to show. His shoulders didn’t ache like they should and the muscles in his back and arms weren’t as tight. He wondered if he could squeeze in twenty minutes while Anna was in the shower. She had a habit of dragging him in with her but maybe today he might get some time alone.
‘I’m bored—let’s do something.’ Anna said with a sigh.
‘Want to play a game?’ Madoc asked, innocently.
Her eyes narrowed, ‘What game?’
‘How do you play?’
Madoc seized Anna’s wrists, pinning them together with one hand and flipped her onto her back. In a flash he was sitting on her stomach, she squealing and wriggling beneath him. He pulled her arms up and held her wrists to his ear, cocking his head in mock concentration. Then he sucked the index finger of his free hand, wetting it thoroughly, and stuffed it into her ear.
‘Hello? Operator?’ Madoc chirped in a high, clipped and quintessentially British accent, ‘This is Mrs. Arnold Hamilton. Could you put me through to the Harrods department store?’
Anna roared, bucking and kicking at him till finally he released her, falling to her side, guffawing. She slapped at him with one hand and cleaned out her ear with the other, ‘You brute! You complete power tool, I hate you!’
‘Not bored anymore?’
‘Why don’t we go outside today? Pub lunch?’ Anna ventured, running fingers through her tangled hair.
Madoc felt a rising panic. Inside was sex, just sex. Anything else was a recovery from, or prelude to sex, but outside? Outside was gloves and boots and walking and quiet conversation by fire and taking pictures and making plans and that awful green handbag. Madoc felt immediately put upon and surprisingly angry, and then, with impeccable timing, Howard texted. Again. He wanted to meet. He needed to talk. At first Anna was against it, ‘He’ll know something’s up as soon as he sees you!’ but Madoc thought it would seem odd if he refused to meet the man. He couldn’t put it off indefinitely. Perhaps it was hubris, but who can ever tell at the time? He wouldn’t hide from Howard.
For their tête-à-tête, Madoc chose The Macbeth, a black, dingy pub on Hoxton Street, ‘A change of scenery will do you good, Howard my man’.
Howard looked sick and desperate in the corner under the wide, grimy window, but still Madoc felt nothing. Then Howard opened his mouth and the words came out: hesitant at first, shuffling forward, then with purpose till they were cartwheeling, tumbling, falling over each other and Madoc was awash in a stinging sea of guilt.
‘We had a fight. About a week ago. I don’t know why but I suppose it’d been brewing. On the cards. And then—well, I haven’t heard from her.’
‘You broke up?’
‘God no. No. I’m just so worried something might’ve happened.’
‘What did she say?’
Howard buried his face in his palm, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’
‘Have you tried her parents?’
‘Yes’, Howard lied. ‘They haven’t heard from her.’
‘What about the police?’ asked Madoc, and felt cruel.
‘It was just a fight. Just a silly fight. I know she still loves me. I don’t know what I’d do without her, Madoc. We’re supposed to get married you know? I picked a ring, look—’
‘I don’t need to see that.’
‘She’s my flower Madoc—I’ve lost my little flower.’
Suddenly, bizarrely, Madoc ached to confess; to prostrate himself before this fraying, wretched man and beg his forgiveness. He restrained himself. The kindest thing to do now would be to never let his friend discover how completely he had been betrayed.
Howard looked up from his beer mat, ‘So you’ll talk to her?’
‘What—No! Why? How? I don’t know her.’
‘I don’t want her to get over me—I need to see her.’
Madoc thought of Anna now, of the plan they had hatched, brutal in its simplicity, and the total desolation that Howard was soon to suffer.
‘You don’t know what it’s like with him. It’s suffocating. It’s hell.’ Anna was wrapped in Madoc’s dark bathrobe, her hair wet from the shower. She was being defensive.
‘He’s not that bad,’ said Madoc.
‘Yea? Then you go back to him’
‘I’m not saying that—I’m just saying you could talk to him.’
‘No. Because I know what he’ll do, he’ll guilt me into staying. He’s a tyrant, and he uses pity and guilt so you can’t say a bad word about him without burning.’
‘He’s in a bad way.’
‘So am I! Just ‘coz I’m here doesn’t mean I’m not suffering—’
‘But he’s alone.’
‘When did you suddenly grow a conscience?’
Madoc shrugged and added smartly, ‘I guess you make me a better man—’
‘I preferred you when you didn’t give a shit.’
‘Believe me, I don’t.’
‘He’s really not as kind as everyone thinks. And it’s been a long time coming. Look, if you don’t want to see me anymore that’s super, but don’t pretend it’s out of concern for poor old Howard.’
Anna stood and wrapped the gown around her pointedly, ‘I suppose it’s time for the next girl anyway.’
This was Madoc’s cue, he knew. He would smile patiently and hold his hands out, pacifying. She would shuffle to him head down, and bury her face in his chest. He would wrap his arms around her and smooth her hair, ‘You’re right of course, I’m sorry,’ and they would fall to the ground and make wanton, burning-ship-love.
She was gone. Madoc leaned against the door frame, massaging his chest. He hadn’t expected it to turn violent. She felt cheated, and who could blame her. For a while it was right and then today it wasn’t, and that was that. You can’t bargain or bully for it. You can’t beg for love.
Madoc turned to the two kettlebells crushing the corner of the room. Twenty-eight killer-grams a piece. His head wasn’t in it. Tomorrow. Today he would celebrate his new-found freedom. Madoc took off his clothes and went back to bed.
Howard felt a little better for the recent company. It was painful to be outside but he’d been alone for so long now he’d begun to talk to himself, something he hadn’t done since he was a child. Madoc was a good man. He was right, it would be OK. Howard resisted the urge to call her but instead pledged to tidy the flat when he got back. Anna might be home any minute. He’d wash too. He’d feel better for that. It was a crisp, sunny November afternoon in East Finchley and quiet, as always. Howard listened to his footfalls and shallow breathing and felt a different kind of sadness. He missed his parents and didn’t know why.
He opened his front door and knew she was back. He smelt her perfume and felt her warmth in the air. ‘Anna?’ he called into their home, dashing into the kitchen. ‘Anna!’
In the bedroom it dropped him like a hard punch to the gut. Her flats, pumps, kicks, heels and her dresses, her tees, her jeans, her coats, scarves, hats, rings and the rest of her shiny pretty things—gone. All gone. He should have waited. She had returned when he was out with Madoc—he hadn’t been home to welcome her, and she had taken it as a sign and left. He called her now, scrabbling with his phone. Perhaps she was still nearby. It rang with no reply. Howard howled, flinging the phone at the wall, and kicked the wardrobe, splintering plywood. Then he saw it. The little, pink, folded bomb on their bed.
My dearest Howard,
I know you must feel it too. Our time has run out and I don’t want to hate you. You’ve taught me so much and I hope I’ve done the same.
Please stop calling me. I think I need to be alone for a while.
Howard sobbed, breathing burned rubber.
René careers around the room in ragged figures of eight. His face is dirty, his pyjama bottoms are blue and loose and his white vest is stained with mango. He obliges his admirers with high-fives and passing hugs, but will not be picked up. There’s too much to do. The deep red, straight lattice rows in the Persian carpet are hot lava beneath his feet—the large, intricate diamond patterns in between are safe islands. René leaps to one, but it is occupied by a tall thin white man with blue eyes and teeth too big for his mouth. He wears a black suit with no shirt, and a single thin gold chain adorns his bare chest. He stands laughing with a muscular blonde woman in a cropped black leotard and black lace fingerless gloves. She is Louise Leclavier of La La La Human Steps. René lands on the thin man’s foot, spilling his drink. The man sneers, but René knows it is a smile, because this is how David Bowie smiles. It is 1989.
‘You’re going to have to pay for that, young man.’
David Bowie bends down and René gives him a quick kiss on the lips and throws his arms round his neck, ‘Désolé, David Bowie’.
The music is loud and the large room is so full that René can only see a few feet ahead. His neck hurts from craning up to look into faces and his eyes are heavy with sleep.
‘You think I don’t know you, but I know you—you bastard!’
René’s pushes past a pair of hairy legs in gold hot pants to find his mother in a small clearing ahead of him. He hides behind some oversized striped trousers. His mother is barefoot and slurring her words. She wears a little black dress and holds a glass tumbler in one hand while the other is pointing, weaving inches from her husband’s reddening face.
‘Woman—what do you know?’
‘Putain! I know when you start taking the pictures, I know what you’re trying to do—that camera is a publicist for your tiny penis!’ She blasts him, wiggling her little finger for emphasis.
René’s father wears a dark blazer and a black and white striped t-shirt tucked into a pair of high-waisted cream slacks. A gold chain is visible over his t-shirt, as is his 35mm Nikon, which hangs around his neck. He wears a pair of demi-amber and gold Carrera 5595 sunglasses.
‘It’s not me that’s drunk, it’s you that’s sober!’
‘You have a son—and a wife!’ Marie bangs her chest
‘You’re talking about Vanessa? She’s a model. It’s my job to take her picture!’
‘Oh mais oui, c’est une coïncidence, pardonnez-moi monsieur,’ Marie bows deeply, placing her glass on the floor in one smooth movement, then launches herself at Archie, hammering his stomach and chest with her tiny fists.
Archie leans back to keep his face away from her flailing arms, ‘Marie! You’re embarrassing yourself!’
‘She is sixteen! Putain!’
A crowd is now gathered around the bickering hosts. Archie spins Marie round and pins her to him. He kisses her neck, then her cheek and finally her lips. She softens in his arms and he releases his grip allowing her to turn back round and slide her arms around his neck. He lifts her up, she wraps her legs around his waist and the crowd cheers. Someone sprays them with champagne. Then Archie howls, throwing Marie to the ground and clamping a hand to a deep cut in his lip, checking it for blood. Marie smiles from the floor through bloody teeth, winning a deep ‘Ooooooh’ from her guests. Archie steps towards her but is immediately blocked by a friend. It’s not worth it Archie. He takes his coat and leaves with a small entourage, slamming the door to the loft.
Marie remains on the floor, smiling madly, ignoring offers to be helped up. René watches, waiting for the switch.
Marie’s chest swell like a filling blimp, ’Out!’ she screeches, then fills her lungs again, ‘Everybody OUT!’
Marie herds her protesting guests out of the loft, harrying the more stubborn ones—‘Michel why do you force me to push you every time?’ ‘Can’t you see I’m tired, Isabel? My baby is tired, come on’—till finally they are alone.
She closes her eyes for a moment, the finger and thumb of one hand at her temples, shielding her eyes theatrically. She takes a deep breath and sighs, ‘Where is my little prince?’
René stands in a dark corner, hiding behind a curtain.
‘Mon dieu! Où est-il? My boy has left me, oh pauvre de moi!’
René giggles and leaps out from his hiding place, ‘Je suis ici! Je suis ici!’
Marie feigns shock and relief, then chases René down, finally cornering, capturing and covering her son with bloody kisses. He squirms to escape her but she is too strong. René starts to cry.
‘Quel est le problème? Est-tu fatigué, mon cheri?
A lisping voice from the shadows speaks, ‘Mais oui, il est fatigué.’
The source of this wisdom is a small man with a grey ponytail, a tanned face and a thick pouting, down-turned mouth. He sits in a corner near a radiator and wears a tailored shiny black suit, a matte black shirt and tie, black boots and a pair of large dark Chanel sunglasses. On his hands are black, leather fingerless gloves—in his left hand he holds a bottle of diet coke and in his right, a gold Japanese folding fan with black tips.
The man speaks with a thick German accent and French inflection, ‘Children have only two ways, huh? Crazy or tired.’ René is afraid of Karl Lagerfeld because Karl Lagerfeld does not fawn over him like the others, and he has never seen his eyes.
‘Your father will make me sick with jealousy,’ René’s mother laments, picking her drink from the floor and downing it.
René wriggles out of her embrace, knocking the glass out of her hand and shattering it against the floor. His mother’s hand is cut, she sucks at the wound and sobs. René returns to console his mother but she holds him at arm’s length, ‘No—you will hurt yourself!’
‘Viens. Come and sit with me, my boy.’
Karl Lagerfeld beckons to René, who joins him in the armchair, pulling himself onto the man’s knee and sitting, legs dangling on either side. Karl Lagerfeld gives him his gold folding fan and René hides behind it, watching his mother weeping on the floor.
When Karl Lagerfeld speaks he punctuates the odd sentence with a guttural ‘huh?’; it is part-question, part-reproach. He opines, ‘I told you Marie, huh? What did I tell you when you said you were pregnant? This child will make you old. There is no romance, no poetry in old age, huh?’
‘René look at your poor mother, you see what your father has done to me?’ She wipes snot on her arm, ‘Is that what you want to be when you grow up, René? A brute like your father?’
Marie sobs harder, hands shaking, ‘Karl, is there more cocaine?’
‘Is that what you want?’
Marie snivels and shakes her head, ‘My brothers would not let him treat me like this. Mon beau frère-’
‘The past is the past, Marie. And the good old days are just old.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in December is mild and dry. It is off-season and prices are dramatically reduced, making it an ideal place to winter. René landed in Aeroport Marseille Provence with more baggage than he had brought, and took the train to Avignon, where he caught the 57 bus to St Rémy. At the station he took a taxi one mile north to a small cottage just off La Crau and paid the driver with a ten-euro note, ‘Gardez la monnaie’.
It was late afternoon and the sun was weak and already low in the sky. The surrounding fields lay barren, the burnt red earth exposed. The house was white with an ochre, terracotta roof and René could smell the camphor of the lavender hedges lining the compound. In front of the house squatted a Judas tree, its lime green leaves long since fallen for the season, and beneath the tree lay an old hunting dog with red fur like the burnt earth.
René tentatively pushed open the rusted iron gate, dragging stones on the ground. The dog cocked an ear and opened its eyes. It got to its feet and stretched, yawning in the shade. René froze, unsure of how he would be received, and the dog stared back. René pushed the gate open a little further but the dog remained still. Finally, René took a step into the compound and the dog turned and lumbered slowly round the side of the house, pausing once to check René was following.
In a small orchard on the south side of the property, under a lemon tree with no lemons, sat a greying man in a blue folding chair with a thick wool blanket over his lap. His eyes were closed and his mouth was slack open and he made no sound. One arm was folded resting on his stomach, while the other hung over the edge, a copy of The Old Man and The Sea lying in the dust just beyond his fingertips. The red dog sat beside him and licked his fingers but the man looked to be made of stone.
René took a moment to study his father’s face. He looked older than his years, with drooping eyes and blotched skin. His lips were full like René’s but his eyes were smaller and he was thinner. Was he dead? René noted that his father’s lips were a deep purple and panicked at the thought, feeling a sudden dropping weight in his stomach. For a moment he was a boy again, with a stained vest and dirty face.
René raised a hand to shake his father, but before he could the old man coughed abruptly, gasping out of his apnoea. His blue eyes watered as he wheezed and panted into an upright position, ‘Why didn’t you wake me?!’
René felt guilty, ‘I—I didn’t know-’
Archie waited to regain his composure, bowed over till his breathing returned to normal.
‘Are you OK?’
Archie looked up and smiled through bleary eyes, ‘Hello, son.’ He rose shakily to his feet and held out a tremoring hand, which René shook.
Archie’s movements were uncoordinated and his breath smelled of ammonia, ‘It’s wonderful to see you. How long do you suppose it’s been?’
‘That all?’ When Archie smiled his entire face creased up, the corners of his mouth rising to greet his eyes, revealing broken rows of yellow-brown teeth.
‘This is Red,’ he croaked. ‘Hungry?
The sun was setting, shooting gold and pink into the open sky, and the cold was drawing in. Red led the way towards the cottage with Archie hobbling after him, the heavy blanket wrapped round his shoulders.
The house was essentially two rooms, with a small glass conservatory at the back. The front room housed the dining table and kitchen and at the back was a bedroom with a double bed and the bathroom with a simple shower and toilet. A mezzanine level held what was to be René’s room: a single mattress, a few boxes of junk and a green ottoman. Round the back of the building was the small orchard where René had found his father earlier, and which was also home to a donkey, Geraldine, and two goats, Phoenix and Kevin.
The house itself was small and simple, with stone floors and warped wooden beams and an open fireplace in the front room. Archie had few possessions; most appeared to be books, which were piled high on every surface, and cooking utensils. A framed signed photograph of Vanessa Paradis hung above the mantelpiece. The near-naked teen stared out of a grubby window at squalid eighties Paris.
Archie had a large cast iron pot he was particularly proud of, ‘I bought this for twenty-five euro off a gypsy in Marseilles and I’ve had it for twelve years,’ he said, heaving it onto the stove. ‘You’ll live to a hundred but it’ll still outlast you.’
Dinner was bread and soup. The bread was brown, the crust tough and chewy and the centre puffy. The soup was potato and leek—a little salty, but good. The wine was a red, local Grenache. They ate and drank in silence, save for the odd slurp and smack of lips and the constant droning wheeze from under the table. The old dog licked René’s shin once or twice during the meal but made no real effort to beg.
Archie looked healthier indoors and by candlelight. Some pink had returned to his lips and cheeks with the warmth and wine. He finished his meal, wiping his bowl clean with bread and setting his spoon aside, then grinned encouragingly at René until he had done the same.
‘Tomorrow, we lunch in Cavaillon,’ Archie declared, refilling his glass. They had drunk most of a box and René was feeling sleepy.
‘How is your mother?’
‘She’s fine,’ René replied reflexively. He hadn’t expected his father to be so forthright and lied without thinking, ‘She sends her regards.’
‘Aha,’ nodded Archie. ‘And you? How are you?’
René shrugged, ‘I’m OK.’
‘Are you happy?’
René considered the question; people rarely want an honest answer, ‘I think so.’ Then he thought some more, ‘I don’t have a job.’
Archie drained his glass and refilled it before topping up René’s, ‘Why not?’
René took a deep pull and licked his lips. His head was starting to spin, ‘I’m lazy and I think I’m better than everyone.’
Archie nodded sagely, ‘You should be a writer.’
René shook his head, ‘I don’t have anything to say.’
Outside, a white northern mistral kicked up, peppering the house and rattling the windows in their frames. René closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose. His head ached, ‘I should get some sleep.’
In bed, René watched his father sitting in his armchair by the fire, staring into the dying embers, still drinking. He cast a long shadow on the wall, his nose turning to a snout and his scraggly hair to winter fur. René fell to sleep like a stone, his father the grey wolf guarding him.
He woke in the early morning to the sound of retching. René closed his eyes, pretending to still sleep, as his father moved past him to the kitchen. In time the acrid, boozy smell of vomit was replaced with coffee and tobacco smoke and René decided it was safe to rise.
His father, already dressed, greeted him with good cheer outside in the morning sun, ‘Sleep well?’ His breath was bad.
‘Well get some clothes on, we’re heading out.’
‘No need,’ Archie said, patting his stomach. ‘It’ll be lunch time soon enough.’
René wore a hooded sheepskin jacket and blue jeans and Archie a white shirt, Harris Tweed jacket and beige corduroys. His collar was open and he completed the look with a grey trilby and wooden cane.
‘Won’t you be cold?
Archie raised a foot, resting it on a low stone and revealing his bony ankles and thermals underneath, ‘Never leave home without ‘em.’
Archie drove a classic, mint green VW beetle. Thankfully it was only ten miles to Cavaillon and the back roads were relatively clear. René clenched his buttocks and gripped the armrest as his father bullied the car, accelerating powerfully in the straights then braking suddenly before cornering. He goaded the vehicle, ‘Come on, you dirty bitch!’ when she complained, gears crunching into place, fan belt flying, a rising cloud of red dust in their wake.
An old mixtape played bands René knew instinctively from his early childhood; and he remembered his father too then. Archie with the quick smile and the camera—his parents arm in arm by the Seine or racing with René in the park. And of course the parties, and the twisted, bitter arguments that followed. Simple Minds, Cyndi Lauper, New Order—these were the theme tunes to René’s broken childhood and yet for all the misery, he longed for those days again. For his father young again, and strong. For his mother, before she had settled into her little madness; before she had given up on Archie—before she wore red.
Parking was easy in Cavaillon and Archie had his foot out of the car before it stopped moving. He seemed to be powered by a strange devilry—a twitching, dark sorcery. His scrawny body moved awkwardly, limbs striking out as if he were being driven, or strung along. René didn’t remember his father like this. He remembered him in control—wild yes, but capable, competent. The man goose-stepping ahead of him lived like he was riding a bull—just hanging on.
‘Slow down,’ René called out.
His father turned and stopped, fidgeting, ‘Sorry old boy—day’s getting the better of me.’
It was a short walk to Au Miami, a small restaurant on Cours Bournissac. The croques-monsieur were excellent, as was the wine, and they had a litre to themselves.
‘I never asked how you were,’ offered René hesitantly.
‘Well my eyes are still good, but I suppose I don’t move like I used to,’ said Archie. ‘Was never much of a dancer anyway.’
René laughed dutifully, ‘You seem very energetic.’
‘S’got nothing to do with me.’
Father and son gazed out of the window, together with their thoughts. Archie’s blue eyes were clear, despite the wine and René wondered how much he drank a day. Did it matter? The one perk of knowing what’ll kill you is knowing what won’t.
René topped up his father’s glass and noticed the old man’s hand shaking worse than it had as he raised it to his lips. He took two large gulps and set his glass back down.
‘Shall we have a little adventure?’ Archie asked, winking.
‘First we’ll need supplies.’
At the nearby Monoprix they bought six boxes of red and six chicken thighs and René loaded them into the car, Archie directing with his cane. They drove back to St. Rémy, turning south down Avenue Vincent Van Gogh before finally arriving at the old Saint-Paul Asylum, where a century ago the artist had spent a year recuperating after mutilating his left ear.
The cloistered gardens are deathly quiet, as if a veil has been drawn over the grounds, shrouding and setting them apart from the surrounding town. Van Gogh prints hang on stone walls, between trees and bushes; some are easily missed, like ghosts haunting the compound.
They stopped in front of a self-portrait positioned in a corner behind a low stone urn. The pair stared and the artist stared back. René tried to discern something noble from his expression, some hint of deeper insight, but saw only anger and recrimination. Was it unrequited love, or thwarted ambition that vexed Van Gogh so? Whatever it was he seemed to hold the world responsible, and it was comforting to know that even genius could be petty and pathetic. In any case René found the swirling lines in the background more interesting than the subject. Up close he fancied they revealed something of the painter’s personality; a sublime mix of pedantry and psychosis.
‘He looks game for a laugh doesn’t he?’ quipped Archie.
‘Probably didn’t get too many cards at Christmas,’ René replied.
Inside, Archie slumped at the base of the stairs and René took his arm instinctively. The day’s strength had fallen away from the man but he was determined to press on. So they climbed the stairs, a step at a time, till they reached the landing, where Archie paused again to catch his breath. René was shocked by his father’s sudden transformation. All the alien energy had vanished, leaving him bent and hollow. He shepherded his father into Van Gogh’s former quarters and set him down on the single bed.
‘It’s not as bad as it looks,’ wheezed Archie. ‘Just all the excitement. Need a breather is all.’
René’s eyes burned and clouded. He moved to the window and blinked out through the bars at the wheat fields beyond; fields the artist had painted repeatedly and in every season all those years ago. In winter the young wheat is yellow-green, with complementary purple from wild lavender, and René wondered if Van Gogh had also viewed the field through a stinging prism of tears. Was that the reason, the inspiration for his swirling brushwork? In his paintings he hadn’t included the bars on the small window, but another artist might have, as some sort of crude personal commentary. Van Gogh chose to omit them. He saw around them.
‘I wouldn’t overthink it. The man drank paint.’
Back home, the pair sat out under the lemonless tree and watched the sun go down. Where there was pink and gold the day before, today was a question of deep purples and violets; the sky seemed heavier and Archie predicted a storm, a rare black mistral. René was amused to see Phoenix standing on the back of Geraldine in order to reach the leaves of a small box tree.
‘She won’t let Kevin on her back, only Phoenix,’ explained Archie. ‘I’d say there’s a lot more going on there than we think.’
The goat didn’t look grateful and the ass didn’t seem put out.
‘What do you suppose she gets out of it?’ asked René.
‘I think she’s in love.’
‘With a goat?’
Archie lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, ‘Wouldn’t be the first.’ The line was delivered at a high, pinched squeak, and followed by a great exhalation of smoke.
With the sun set they made preparations for dinner. Archie was too weak to cook so he directed proceedings, sitting on a low stool with his hat on his knee and conducting, poking at utensils with his cane. Tonight was Coq au Vin and Archie made René collect herbs from the garden and bring them in for him to rub and sniff, before putting them in the pot.
‘Got to take care of the little things, my boy. Got to enjoy the little things,’ he opined between gulps of wine.
At the table, René served his father first and waited for Archie to taste it before sitting down.
‘Not bad,’ said Archie, catfishing.
‘No I think you’ve got it.’
René was pleased and they got stuck in. Archie could only hold a spoon and even so had to alternate between his left and right hands. René watched carefully but his father made no complaint; the meat was soft.
Once again they ate in silence and by candlelight, René topping up Archie’s glass when it ran low, Archie grunting approval between mouthfuls and Red snoring under the table. This time it was René who waited for his father to finish before speaking.
‘Do you suppose you’ll ever come back to London?’
Archie looked surprised, ‘Why?’
René shrugged and raised his eyebrows pointedly. Because of your condition.
‘I like it here,’ Archie said, taking a sip. ‘This is my home.’
‘But you’re alone.’
‘We haven’t spoken in years,’ Archie licked his spoon, ‘If you’re looking for an apology—’
‘I’m not.’ said René, and continued hurriedly. ‘I’ve met someone. And it got me thinking. About you and Mum.’
Archie nodded and set his spoon down, ‘Your mother was a real head case. I suppose you remember. But I was no saint either. We both weren’t as kind as we could have been.’
Archie waved for his glass to be refilled, which René dutifully did, and he went on, ‘When I got sick, it changed a lot. It’s not her fault. I didn’t want her to see it.’
‘Please come back to London.’ René begged, surprising himself.
Archie looked sympathetic, ‘What would I do in London?’
‘Get some help. And we’d get to see you more.’
‘You know where you can find me. And what would I do with Red? He’s not a city dog and he’s too old. He won’t know what to make of it all.’
The rain picked up outside and Archie smiled, closing his eyes, ‘I sleep better when it rains. Rarely does down here though.’
‘Well there’s lots of that in London.’
‘I hadn’t forgotten.’ Archie scratched his head, then smoothed his hair back down before continuing, ‘So what’s she like?’
‘Not your mother. The girl.’
‘Oh. I think...she likes me.’
‘You sound surprised.’
‘Frankly I don’t know what she sees in me.’
‘Well you’d better figure it out soon. This self-effacing shtick only goes so far with a woman. What have you got to be so ashamed of?’ Archie said, sitting back and taking his son in.
‘You’re not bad looking. You’re strong aren’t you? Got a bit between your ears.’
‘I feel like there’s some secret to living that I don’t know.’
Archie laughed and shook his head, ‘There’s no secret. Find something you don’t hate doing and stick with it.’ Archie went on, ‘And figure out how you want to end up.’
René didn’t recall his father ever being this vocal.
‘And if you’ve found a woman that loves you, for god’s sake don’t go volunteering reasons for her to stop, she’ll think of enough on her own in time,’ Archie added.
‘Did you meet anyone after Mum?’
Archie shook his head, ‘It all spills over or runs out in the end.’ He shivered and René stood to get his blanket from the armchair.
‘No leave it there. Let’s get a fire going.’
While René built the fire, his father heckled from his armchair, still clutching his drink, ‘You’ve got to build a pyramid boy. How’s the air supposed to get in when it’s all flat like that, use your head.’
The wood was dry but tough and some pieces were too big to burn, but René didn’t want to look incompetent in front of his father and so broke them up with his hands, sweating and straining until his fingers were sore and splintered. Finally, with the fire going, Archie grunted, satisfied, and René took his seat.
‘I can’t believe you do this all by yourself,’ René said, aching.
‘Well I’d normally use the axe,’ Archie said, pointing to the one propped up in the corner. ‘But I suppose your hands work just as well.’
‘I said use your head.’
René turned his attention to the fire dancing in the grate and thought about Flame back in London. Was she thinking about him now? He hadn’t heard from her, but then it had only been a couple of days. He ached for her, to be close to her—to tell her all about Archie and his mother. Could this be it? He’d never missed anyone so violently before, save perhaps his mother. It was strong and strange.
‘When did you know you wanted to marry Mum?’
René turned just as the glass fell from his father’s hand, shattering on the stone floor. The old man was drawn and pale, with his head slumped in his chest, and his sparse, long hair flopped over his face. His neck was bent at an impossible angle, and his head look like it could roll off his body at any moment. He was still.
‘Dad?’ René reached over, heart drumming in his chest. ‘Dad!’
Archie snorted loudly then rolled into a steady snore. René sagged, burying his heavy head in his hands until he felt the adrenaline leaving his body. He rose unsteadily and stood over his father, picking off the blanket and folding it in his hands.
With the rain beating down outside and wind battering the house, a monstrous thought, totally unbidden, stole into his mind. René reached down with the thick blanket and forced it down over his father’s head and mouth, covering his rancid breath. The old man jerked awake and fought back, struggling with surprising strength, clawing at René, pinching and scratching his forearms till finally, mercifully, he surrendered, not all at once, but in fits and spastic spurts—his thin, pale arms flailing, then falling limp by his sides.
René shivered and dropped the blanket to the floor. Reaching under Archie, he lifted him up, cradling him in his arms and like this, straining son carried snoring father to bed.
René is only pretending to be asleep. His pyjama bottoms are blue and loose and his white vest is stained with mango. Instead of lying on his mattress, he stands peering through the thick purple curtain that separates his sleeping quarters from the rest of the loft. His feet are dirty and the backs of his knees and calves are sore, the tendons strained from standing still for so long. To his right, against the wall, is a stacked tower of Rémy Martin cartons.
Through the curtain René can see his parents sitting on the floor with a small group of friends. They are playing cards and drinking. His father’s shirt is open and he is stripped down to his underpants. His hair is dark brown, nearly black, thick and swept back into a ponytail. He sits, legs akimbo behind Marie who leans back against his chest, holding her cards up to his face in consultation. She is topless and Archie cups a small breast in his hairy hand. Her nipples are dark and her skirt is adjusted to reveal a slender thigh. René does not recognise the man opposite her, the fat greying man massaging her bare foot. He raises it to his lips and sucks and René’s mother squeals, while his father looks on grinning. There is a blonde woman on the fat man’s left whom Archie is eyefucking. Her breasts are full and heavy and her nipples are very large, as big as René’s fist, and her hips jut out from her waist awkwardly, at near right-angles. She wears a pair of tights and nothing else. Archie stares, transfixed by her chest, only breaking his gaze to look at the cards Marie is thrusting at him. The woman passes a small mirror to Archie, who takes it with a wide smile. He snorts half a line and offers the rest to Marie, holding the mirror for her while she takes her turn.
The hand is played and Marie curses, then stands and wriggles out of her dress, sliding it down her childish hips to reveal a pair of black briefs. René’s aching knees are stiff, and so he bends one, rubbing it, but loses his balance and accidentally nudges the tower of Rémy Martin to his right. The bottles shake and shift in their boxes and for a horrifying, strung out second, René fears they may topple and fall on him, but they settle.
René peeks back through the curtain to find his father staring straight at him, eyes narrowed. The boy panics and dives into his bed, careful not to make the springs squeak. Has he been discovered? It was dark in his corner, they couldn’t see him through the curtain, could they? René’s heart skitters in his tiny chest, the blood in his ears pounding like it could burst his ear drums and splatter the sheets. He hears footsteps and draws the sheets up to his chin. The curtain is pulled aside and a tall, broad, dark figure steps into his room. This is not his father. René shrinks into the mattress and does not dare to breath. He can hear his parents laughing with their friends, but the few feet separating them may as well be miles. His throat is tight with frozen screams, and he watches, helpless, as the dark shape advances, growing impossible large, till it is looming over him.
He can make out hands now, and a face, darker than he has ever seen. She is a woman, but moves like a man. She has a fierce, angular face. Her cheekbones jut out below her lion eyes. Her red lips sulk and her afro hair is a tight monolith rising from her head. Her skin shines like a sheet of black diamonds and she wears a red zoot suit.
She leans over René, closer, till her face is inches from his, and speaks in a low, dusky monotone.
‘Tu cherches quoi?
A recontrer la mort?
Tu te prends pour qui?
Toi aussi, tu detestes la vie.’
A century passes until finally she releases him, straightening to her full height and staring down her nose like a sphinx. At last, she reaches over René and pulls a box of Rémy Martin from the stack, before retreating back through the curtain into the light. René is left afraid, alone, and with his very first erection.
René rose again to the sound and smell of his father vomiting. With some cajoling, he agreed to stay for breakfast, but was fully dressed and packed soon after. At the front door, Archie embraced his son, hanging off his generous frame. René presented him with the two bottles of Rémy Martin he’d bought duty free and Archie kissed him on both cheeks, ‘You’re a good boy’.
It was a bright winter morning and outside at the gate René took a last deep breath of lavender, turning to wave at his father for what he couldn’t help but imagine was the last time. As the taxi pulled away René felt the dragging weight of the years they had missed, time together lost forever. Who knows what kind of a man he’d be if he’d had those moments with Archie. More sure? More successful? A better man; or at least, better at being a man. René missed Archie already, but he couldn’t leave his mother alone at Christmas.