East of Everything

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Chapter 5

Anger is an energy.

The road to healing heartbreak is not a straight, uniformed march to acceptance, wholeness and zen. It is not a shared pilgrimage to enlightenment or a sponsored jog to absolution. There is no yellow brick road. Healing heartbreak is a zig-zagging, desperate hike through badlands and bat country, with no discernible directions beyond you’ll know when you get there. While mostly taken at a geriatric shuffle, at times spurned lovers can be spotted striding with a purpose in all directions toward the red horizon; jaws set and fists clenched, the stinging wind at their backs, swollen sun reflected in streaming eyes, swept forward by a springing black magic.

Bitch. For eight years he’d endured shopping trips, dinners, spin classes and cookery courses; he’d humoured each new fad and fixation. Eight years of bad haircuts and health drives. Of morning breath and blood on the toilet seat. Eight years of breakdowns and tantrums, of bitching about friends, work, her poor mother, of men and women and the unfairness of it all. Eight fucking years and a fucking note. Forty-nine words.

Howard was flying. He was terrific. He sat, steaming on the train to Doncaster, mauling a cheese sandwich. He hadn’t felt this hungry in a long time. Opposite sat a young father and two toddlers, twins perhaps. The boy was using the seat as a trampoline, the girl babbled mindlessly, fingering her vagina through her tights, while the father just sat, still and quiet, staring out at the countryside. He seemed blissfully absent. Howard felt a sharp stab, a twisting in his chest, but forced it down. No, he did not want children. He did not want Anna back. He was better off without her. He was going to force her to confront and admit to what she was doing. He wanted closure. She was throwing him away. He had been nothing but good to her and she was throwing him away and he wanted to know why. She was short-sighted and callous and cruel and uncaring and he needed her to see it. He needed to see her see it.

The boy lost his footing and took a tumble, falling into his father’s crotch knee-first. The man jerked away but could do nothing to deflect the blow. He doubled up, cursing.

‘Sorry Daddy.’ The boy rubbed his father’s back.

‘Daddy hurt his willy.’ The girl pointed, cackling.

The man looked up at Howard through glassy eyes. Kill me. Howard could have no sympathy. This man with sore balls and snot on his jumper was living the dream. Howard’s dream. He was a Father—a provider and protector. Little people depended on him. Somewhere, there was a woman waiting for him to come home with her children. She would take his heavy head in her hands and kiss his mouth and they would laugh about the time little jimmy jumped on his balls. Yes, there would be fights. She would snipe and he would withdraw. She would goad him and he would lash out. They would complain bitterly to anyone who would listen, and would resent each other for the time they’d lost together, while each raging against their own warping, fading beauties. They would live in growing disappointment with each other and themselves; there may even be an affair or two, but ultimately somehow, they would learn to love and live with each other. They would grow old and mad together and nothing else mattered.

At the station, Howard was too cheap to take a taxi and too aggrieved for the bus, so he put his earphones in and walked the three miles to the Moor’s home in Bessacarr. It was coming up to midday but there was still frost on the ground and it was quiet. Howard’s ears were ringing from the cold and his breath came in shallow rasps as he plotted the events that would follow. He would demand to see Anna. They might lie or obstruct him but he would insist. If that fat old man tried to stop him he would slap him in the face. They thought he was weak, Howard knew. He could tell from the snide comments, the private jokes and sidelong glances at the dinner table, they thought he was stupid and weak, but Howard was not weak. Howard was kind.

Holocene came on and with it the first signs of another fit. Something about the deserted A road, the pinching cold and Vernon’s clinging falsetto combined to set off the sparks, and Howard had to prop himself up against a low wall to ride it out. He hyperventilated, sucking in great lungfuls of air, and slapped his face, which helped a little. The dizziness passed and Howard set off again.


Mrs. Moor wore an old oversized white collared shirt and a pair of red leggings. Her long hair was tied back in a loose ponytail. The thumb, forefinger and palm of her right hand were stained red and purple, as was her shirt.

‘Oh hello Howard.’

‘Hello Rebecca.’

‘I wasn’t expecting you.’

‘Is she here?’

Mrs. Moor narrowed her eyes slightly, ‘I’m afraid not.’

Howard pushed passed her into the hall and called up the stairs, ‘Anna?!’

‘Howard, there’s no-one here.’

‘Anna!’ Howard waited at the foot of the stairs but no reply came, ‘Where is she?’

‘London, I imagine.’

Howard stood awkwardly, uncertain of how to react.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ asked Mrs Moor.

‘No. Yes. Have you got anything stronger?’

They took their coffees in the conservatory. Mrs. Moor poured her single malt straight in but Howard sipped his on the side. They sat in silence for a while, looking out over the garden where Howard had confided his intentions to Dickie only a month or so ago. He wondered if the man had warned his daughter against him.

‘I like the stubble. It suits you.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Are you growing a beard?’

Howard scratched his jaw self-consciously, ‘I just forgot to shave.’

Mrs Moor tipped her head to one side, ‘It makes you look rather heroic.’

‘Do you think?’

‘I do.’

Howard rubbed his face some more and tried not to smile. Mrs. Moor now had her hair arranged down one side like she usually did, her small elfin face framed by silver and chestnut. She leaned forward suddenly and placed a hand on Howard’s, letting some strands fall from behind her ear. Howard’s breath caught in his throat. Her fingertips were cool but her palm was very warm.

She held his gaze for a while before speaking, ‘I know you must be suffering my dear but how you behave now is most important, perhaps more than how you were when you were together.’ She rubbed his hand reassuringly, seeking his eyes as he looked away. ‘She won’t come back because you need her, but she may if she thinks you don’t.’

‘Did she say anything? About me?’

‘Oh she doesn’t talk to me.’ Mrs. Moor removed her hand and leaned back, tucking the hair behind her ear again, ‘But no-one likes to feel guilty, even if they should.’

‘I was going to propose.’


‘Because I love her.’


‘It’s normal isn’t it? It’s what you do. You find a girl you love and who loves you and you get married—it’s not difficult!’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

You’re married.’

‘It was a long time ago. Things were different. You kids have more options—you don’t have to do what we did.’

‘So if you met Dickie today you wouldn’t marry him?’

Mrs. Moor considered the question, ‘No, I think I would.’

Howard sank his head into his hands.

‘More coffee?’

After some time Howard straightened, propping himself up on one elbow, ‘Where is he?’

‘Conference. Slough. ‘The future of faucets’ or some such.’

‘What are you working on?’

‘It’s complicated.’

‘Can I see?’



‘It’s not ready.’

Mrs. Moor’s huge studio was built on the side of the house, with access through the garden. Towering, deformed figures of reclaimed scrap metal loomed in every corner. None had faces, but instead the metal was bent and welded to form the outlines of faces, with hats and scarves and hair fixed in frozen motion. Howard remembered how, in the early days, he and Anna would come at night by candlelight, to see how long they could stay without entirely freaking out. By night the giant faceless statues were pure, unrefined nightmare fuel.

‘Dickie thinks they’re hideous.’

‘He said that?’

‘Not in so many words.’

Mrs. Moor paintings were in a similar vein, although perhaps less assured than her sculptures. Many lay unfinished, propped up in the far corner between a nine-foot steel postman and what looked like a Victorian fishwife, judging by the basket and bonnet.

‘Here’s what I’m working on at the moment,’ Mrs Moor said with a heavy sigh. She came to stand beside Howard, opposite a wide painting leaning against the wall.

A deep, red and purple gash ran horizontally across the canvas, pinks and blues shooting out the sides, blossoming folds with golden tips. It looked messy, but consciously so, as if extra care had been taken to colour outside the lines. Stuck to the canvas at random were broken pieces of glass, screws, nails, clips and other small and jagged objects.

‘What do you think?’

Howard tipped his head to one side. An angry vagina.

‘What do you think?’

‘You think it’s awful.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘Well, I don’t care.’

‘I think it’s quite compelling.’

‘Is it now. You feel compelled.’

‘I do.’

Mrs. Moor turned to him; they were close now and Howard could smell the coffee on her breath. ‘To do what?’

The words clung to them like static before a storm. Howard felt her breath quicken with his own. Without thinking, he put a hand to her waist and felt his fingers fizzle there.


He drew Mrs. Moor to him, his leg in the warmth between hers, and kissed her softly. She obliged, kissing him back but as his machinations grew more passionate, Mrs. Moor withdrew, removing his hands from her backside and placing them carefully in his chest.

‘I’m married.’

‘I’m sorry.’

But he wasn’t. She was so lovely. Howard looked down on her, her face flushed and her lips parted, her warm hands still clasped around his, high at his chest.

‘How can you stay with him? I see how he treats you. He doesn’t see you.’

Mrs. Moor took her hands away and a half step back.

‘I think your work is wonderful.’

‘Come on.’

‘You could do so much better. Don’t you feel wasted here? You could be anything.’

‘I could run Google.’

‘I’m serious.’

‘So am I.’ Mrs. Moor looked away, her usual composure evaporated, ‘I hate working.’ She fingered the bottom of her long shirt, picking at paint, ‘I know how it sounds. I’m not stupid, I know. But I’m not a leader. There’s always going to be someone telling me what to do. Either it’s Dickie or it’s another fat white man, but I would rather it were Dickie. He’s good to me and he’s my fat white man.’

Howard stood stunned for a while, then hung his head, ‘Anna’s my fat white man.’

Mrs. Moor embraced him carefully, ‘I think Anna’s a lot more like me than she would care to admit, and so are you, which is why I don’t think it can work for you two.’

‘What do I do?’

‘Don’t go bad over this.’ Mrs. Moor took his face in her hands and kissed his cheek firmly, ‘The beard really does suit you.’


Madoc sits cross-legged by the fire in the grand hall. He wears forest green corduroys, a dark grey woollen jumper and light brown loafers. His curly black hair is parted in the centre. Two dragons face off in stone above the fireplace and an iron grate protects the boy from spitting embers. A red armchair with short legs and a tall back sits unoccupied at his side and a twelve foot Christmas tree stands by the stained glass bay windows at the far end of the room. Snow falls in feet outside, dampening all sound save for the ticking of the austere grandfather clock behind him.

Madoc’s brow is furrowed and lips pursed as he applies a dab of glue to the back of a blue star, before turning it over and carefully pressing it to the banner, smoothing the edges so it lies flush against the card beneath. He stands and reviews his work.

‘Welcome back Papa!’

The words are purple with a gold outline and laid against a long piece of black card. Blue and silver stars have been applied judiciously and a looping, leafy, silver border has been meticulously painted in a thin strip around the card.

‘That looks wonderful, Madoc—well done.’

Madoc turns and nods modestly in acknowledgement. ‘Has Papa called?’

‘He did. Just now.’ Ms. Porter speaks with a soft, lilting Edinburgh accent. ‘Unfortunately your father is running late at work and won’t be in till tomorrow. But he’s going to be on the first train to Edinburgh and here in time for lunch.’

Madoc is hurt but has learned not to show it. Ms. Porter smiles reassuringly, but there’s a childish, mischievous quality too. Her flaxen hair is cut in a short bob and her grey eyes are magnified by a pair of large round glasses. Her skin is pale and her cheeks are pink. She wears a short-sleeved, knee-length body form magenta dress, black flats and a white open cardigan. She is in her early thirties but could pass for twenty-five.

‘Shall we put it up so he sees it tomorrow?’

They carry the banner to the entrance of the hall and Ms. Porter fetches a wooden chair from the dining room, holding it steady as Madoc climbs up to fasten the first, then the second end of the banner up above the doorway.

‘Let’s get you ready for bed,’ says Ms. Porter and pats his backside gently.

Satisfied the banner is straight, Madoc climbs down, ‘Yes, Ms. Porter.’

‘It’s been a fortnight now, just you and me. Call me Jenny.’

‘Yes, Jenny.’

In the bathroom Ms. Porter stands by the door and watches as Madoc undresses. He is tall for his age and already reaches her chin, although he is still very thin, with long gangly limbs and a narrow chest. Down to just his underpants, Madoc hesitates, looking everywhere but at his housekeeper.

‘Don’t forget to wash behind your ears,’ she says cheerfully and leaves, closing the door behind her.

In bed, Madoc wears black cotton pyjamas and Ms. Porter tucks him in up to his chin, ‘Did you put up your stocking?’

‘Yes Ms. Porter.’ He corrects himself, ‘Jenny.’

‘That’s it.’ Ms. Porter smoothes Madoc’s hair and face, ‘Just one more sleep. Your father will bring you something wonderful tomorrow, you’ll see.’


Christmas came and went with the usual anticlimax. Madoc had spent it alone, as he always did, so he supposed he had little to expect from it, and yet he still felt a small disappointment; at the lack of magic, of ceremony. With the holiday so close to his birthday he couldn’t help feeling a certain sadness—at the passing of time and his own fading prospects. His father had called at midday, as he usually did, and they had spoken for a few minutes about nothing at all and then wished each other a merry Christmas. Marcus had been graceful enough not to badger and in return, Madoc hadn’t been obnoxious.

Madoc’s present to himself was a Breguet watch—the Classique—with a 10Hz rotating dial chronometer; the classic blued Breguet hands off-set by some subtle red detailing on the face and the brushed red leather strap. He wore it now, carefully positioned to peek over his cuff, with his hand resting on the table he shared with Howard.

The Fox in Haggerston serves full pints of unsettlingly strong craft beer and Howard was already beginning to look the worse for wear.

‘Fuck her. Seriously, I’m done. I’m just so...bored. It’s boring. Love is boring,’ Howard slurred, circling his beer like a fly.

Madoc smiled along and ran his watch hand through his hair. He knew the red strap must look good against his jet black undercut, and today he had completed a particularly punishing workout, so was feeling at ease, cocooned in his bunching, swollen musculature.

Today was Boxing Day, and when Howard had called him, desperate for company, Madoc had obliged because, if he was honest with himself, he was also little lonely. He missed Anna. He wasn’t sure why, he barely knew her, but spending this time with Howard somehow worked to ease his discomfort. They were in the same boat, whether Howard knew it or not.

‘I didn’t have a single space to myself. She took over everything. A third of a wardrobe, that’s what I got.’

‘Did she have you peeing sitting down?’

Howard was astonished, ‘How did you know?’

Madoc choked on his beer, ‘You’re not serious.’

‘No, I’m not,’ said Howard, triumphant, ‘ But she could’ve, that’s the point.’ Howard shook his head and took a sip, ‘I’m better off I tell you.’

Madoc nodded, ‘Dodged a bullet, brother.’

‘I was going to propose, Madoc.’ Howard revealed, spit flying with the emphasis.

‘Hey it’s not real love unless the government’s in on it.’

‘That’s how much it meant. And she threw me away.’ Howard stared down into his pint and looked like he might cry. ‘What a fuckin’ kick in the dick.’ He emptied his glass and set it down unsteadily.

‘What do I do?’

‘What do you want?’

Anna. On that they could agree.

‘I want to be like you. You. You’ve got your shit together—’

‘No you don’t.’

‘Yes I fuckin’ do!’ Howard slammed his palm down on the table, making their neighbours jump. He dropped his voice to a loud, sloppy whisper till normal pub volume returned, ‘You always get the girl. I want the girl. Why can’t I get the girl?’

Madoc shrugged, ‘It doesn’t matter either way.’

Howard’s eyes widened, ‘How do I do that? How do I not care? Teach me your ways.’

‘I don’t know—fake it,’ said Madoc, then worried Howard thought he was faking it.

‘Teach me.’

Madoc sighed and sipped his drink, ‘I don’t see how.’

‘Go on you bastard. Look at me. I’m fucking desperate man! I cried on the underground today.’

‘Say it ain’t so.’

‘She’s got me weeping on public transport—’

‘OK, OK.’

Madoc was surprised by Howard. He made for a very entertaining drunk. Perhaps it was the desperation. He had nothing to lose—it was electric. Madoc looked the man over, realising for a horrible, splendid moment that this man was now his friend, maybe even his best. ‘The beard is a nice touch by the way.’

‘Thanks, I grew it myself,’ said Howard, shifting in his seat. Madoc noted Howard had also shaved his head entirely, losing the sad patches above his ears. He looked harder, meaner, and since his mouth wasn’t as visible, his red eyes could be mistaken for fatigue or lunacy, rather than grief. Howard leaned too heavily on his right elbow and slipped, nearly chinned himself on the table and sending his glass spinning. Madoc managed to right the glass before it fell on the floor.


‘I’m fine—Come on, out with it.’

Madoc scanned the room, checking the long bar behind him. He turned back to Howard with a plan.

‘OK you see the girl at the bar?’


‘The one that looks like someone pissed in her porridge.’


‘What’s she doing?’

‘She’s reading a book.’

‘And what does that tell us?’

‘Don’t tell me, I know this one,’ Howard squinted and rubbed his temples. ‘She isn’t blind. No! She speaks at least one language—’

‘Who comes to a pub to read? She’s lonely and looking for company. That’s why she’s here.’


‘But not any old company. She wants the right sort of company.’

‘What sort of company?’

‘Your sort, Howard. She wants you.’

Howard sat back in his seat, mouth agape, rocked by this new information. After a short while he spoke, ‘I don’t feel like she does want me.’

‘Howard, I want you to buy the next round. I want you to stand next to that woman at the bar—not at a respectful distance, next to her, and I want you to order our drinks. That’s two Hook Island Reds. And when you’ve ordered our two Hook Island Reds and you have received our two Hook Island Reds, Howard I want you to ask her what book she’s reading.’

Howard beamed in dawning realisation, ‘Clever, get a convo going, shared interests—’

‘Shut up, I’m not finished.’


‘Now once you’ve asked her what book she’s reading and she’s told you what book she’s reading, I want you to take a moment, enjoy the silence, and then say...’ Madoc leaned in for full effect, ‘“huh”.’


‘That’s correct Howard, “huh”. Then walk away.’

‘How do I say it?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Is it a question?’

‘Huh? No. It’s a statement.’

‘What does “huh” mean though?’

‘That doesn’t matter. You let her worry about what it means.’

‘What if she asks me what it means?’

‘She’s not going to Howard because what are you going to do immediately after saying “huh”?’

Howard’s eyes lit up and he nodded in understanding, ‘I’m going to walk away—’

‘You’re going to walk away. And for god’s sake don’t forget our Reds because there’s no going back.’

‘But then how do I get her number?’

‘That’s not the point. This is an exercise. Power isn’t about what you can do Howard, it’s about what people think you can do.’ Madoc tipped his glass back, sinking the rest of his beer, ‘You have it, she wants it.’ He thrust his empty glass into Howard’s chest, forcing him to take it, ‘Make me proud.’

Howard rose unsteadily to his feet and squared his shoulders, ‘Huh?’

Madoc pointed at him and winked like a cruise ship crooner, ’Huh.’

Howard moved towards the bar, tripping once over a low step but recovering without drawing too much attention to himself. He ordered the drinks, paid upfront then turned his body, leaning with his elbow ever so casually against the bar.

He waited until the first pint was poured, then delivered his opening line.

‘What are you reading?’

The woman appeared not to hear, so Howard leaned in, ‘I said, what are you reading?’

‘What? She looked up, distracted. Howard could now see the tears in her eyes, but the small alarm that started to sound in the back of his head was no match for Madoc’s clarion call, willing him on.

‘Must be good,’ he said, gesturing to the book.

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Isn’t it? You’re reading it in a public place.’ Howard shrugged, then smiled like they were old friends, ‘Maybe you’re hoping someone like me will ask you what it’s about.’

She flipped it over to reveal the cover: a woman swimming against a rough tide at sunset. Emblazoned across the front in all caps: What To Do When A Child Is Diagnosed With A Terminal Illness; and below that: A Survival Guide For Parents.

The woman paused long enough for Howard to read all this and more, her big brown eyes searching his. Howard took a moment to consider his options.


He turned, in treacle, and reached for his drinks.

‘Sorry mate, got to change the barrel.’ The barman stood with a hand on the pump; the second pint only half full.


‘Did you want anything else?’

To die.

‘What does “huh” mean?’ The woman was small, with long mousey brown hair, a little bubble nose and slight double chin. She wore no make-up and her eyebrows, which were fair and thin, were now raised in indignation.


‘Is it a question?’

‘No. It’s a statement.’

‘A statement of what exactly?’ She pronounced the ‘h’ in ‘what’ and maintained perpetual, penetrating eye contact, which Howard felt forced to return so he didn’t look guilty.

‘I’ll go change the barrel,’ the barman said after an uncomfortable silence. Howard ground his teeth. Take your time, buddy.

‘It’s nothing really. Forget I said anything.’

‘No, I want to know. Is it funny?’

‘What—no, god no.’ Howard fumbled for the right combination of words that would rescue him, ‘I’m very sorry for your—not that—Is it your—? You seem very young to have a child.’

She didn’t, but really it was all Howard could think to say. It seemed to work; she sat back a bit and broke eye contact, turning back to the book on the bar.

‘My niece has leukaemia. I wanted to read this before giving it to my sister.’

‘That’s terrible. I’m sorry.’

‘That’s life,’ she said, in that dismissive way that betrays the most agony. ‘You end up with less than you started with.’ She picked up the book and resumed reading.

‘Can I buy you a drink?’


Howard was grateful for the silence that followed and soon enough the barman returned and filled the second pint. As Howard left he mumbled awkwardly, ‘Have a good evening,’ but didn’t think she heard.


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