New Year’s Eve can be a delicate affair. Conflicting commitments and the obligation to have FUN at any cost can put undue pressure on a man. However, contrary to expectations René’s night had gotten off to a storming start. Having successfully detached himself from his cloying mother and palmed her off to Jean, a crusty old acquaintance from her time in Paris, René had called Flame, breezily stating that he was back in the country and at a loose end. She seemed pleased to hear from him, although it was always hard to tell with her. In any case he’d donned his Sunday best and headed out to a house party in Shoreditch to ring in the New Year with her.
Steve was the gracious host, although René was certain the name was adopted since no German was called Steve. The venue was a converted Victorian warehouse on Curtain Road and from what René could gather, Steve lived there with about a dozen other people. Open plan for the most part, there were a few winding corridors at the back leading to assorted bedrooms, studios and bathrooms with plaster walls and rusty pipes, as well as access to a roof terrace. The front room was a large open space with a wooden floor and exposed brick walls. Someone had gotten their hands on a glass chandelier and run it up on the ceiling; and a stone Aphrodite wearing festive lights and a hat stood to one side. There was even a bar, currently non-functioning.
René was anxious and had arrived early, so the house was still relatively empty. A few pockets of people hid in corners while Steve sashayed around the room fixing decorations and arranging furniture. René stood near the entrance with a plastic cup of wine and pretended to be fascinated by the preparations going on around him. In truth he was quite content to watch while others did, but didn’t want to take a seat in case he looked lazy. So he stood and nodded and grunted approvingly whenever anyone looked his way, and kept a look out for Flame, who had disappeared into Steve’s room to change.
The man himself wore a silk red kimono with a green dragon on the back and black embroidered sleeves, though it was winter and not Japan. His mousey hair was tied into a small top-knot and his head was small and shaved at the sides. They had only just been introduced but Steve had already grown overfamiliar; once upon a time someone had told him he was charming and now he inflicted it on everyone he met.
René tensed as he approached. ‘You’re looking very handsome René,’ Steve joked, poking him playfully in the chest.
There are two types of German—both are camp.
René showed his teeth, ‘Thank you...Steve.’
‘So I hope you will be good to Flame, yes?’ Steve said with a tilt of the head and a knowing smile.
‘In life René, in life. She is a very special person, you know. She has an old soul, you understand?’
‘I don’t think I do.’
Steve tilted his head back and to the side, like a pigeon, as if to get all of René in his field of vision. He stared at him in silence for a couple seconds more than was polite, a strange little smile fixed to his face. Then he raised a hand and placed it on René’s shoulder, squeezing and massaging. Eventually he said quietly, ‘René, I think the two of you will be very happy together.’
Steve slapped his back, ‘Tonight you will have the best night of your life, I swear to you.’ Then he slid his arm into the crook of René’s, ‘Let me introduce you to some people.’ Steve guided René across the room to Aphrodite, where two men stood in quiet conversation.
‘Ruben, please to meet René.’ The smaller of the two stuck out his hand and shook René’s limply. He had a small dark moustache and a black flat cap pulled over a short buzz cut. His clothes were black, and his black trousers two inches too short, a New Age monk. Steve was called away, leaving René with the small dark man and his taller, fairer friend, who looked amiable enough. Ruben stood hunched, unusual for a short man, and made no eye contact when he spoke, instead directing his ear to René and talking down at the floor.
‘René. Is that French?’
‘I like the French. They know how to be miserable,’ Ruben spat out in a clipped baritone. He produced a silver tin from a pocket, ‘And what’s the age of consent in France, fifteen?
‘I wouldn’t know.’
‘It’s fifteen, I checked.’
René looked to Ruben’s companion, who smiled and nodded reassuringly. He opened his mouth to speak but was cut short by Ruben, ‘Christ, this place has gone to shit. Where do you live René?’
Ruben catfished, ‘I moved out east in 2008 when it was still somewhere to be. There were real artists you know? People doing things, making things. And the parties, fuck. You could go forty-eight hours straight and not pay a penny. You knew people. And people were generous. And the girls, man, none of this attitude they’ve all got now, like you’ve got to be somebody just to talk.’ Ruben held a thin piece of rolled up card clamped between his lips and spoke from the corner of his mouth. In his left hand he fixed an L-plate of two small rolling papers and set it in his palm, then began sprinkling weed with his right. ‘Something was happening—you could feel it. And we were all part of it. And people were honest. No illusions you know? Now everyone’s fucking posturing. No-one’s struggling, no-one’s failing, we’re all shiny happy successful entrepreneurs.
René nodded and wondered if Ruben was dangerous.
‘We’re not artists, we’re wealth creators. No-one makes anything for the sake of it anymore, it’s all marketing.’ Ruben added tobacco to the weed, then the roach at the left end, and began rolling. ‘And you didn’t need a trust fund to pay rent. Now it’s just fucking wanker bankers and KGB kids in expensive, double-glazed, wharfside apartments with underfloor heating and toilets that clean your arse and suck your dick. Euro-trash from Swiss public schools carrying on like rap stars.’ Ruben licked the paper and carefully smoothed it down, ‘We’re living in the final days, man. In five years Hackney will look like Geneva, you watch. Everything good’s already been done.’
‘Please ignore him. He’s not dangerously depressed, this is just how Ruben makes friends.’ The taller man spoke with a slightly elevated voice. He had curly light brown hair, long lashes and an open, honest face. He looked like he could be loved and wouldn’t let it get to him.
‘Of course I’m depressed. We’re all depressed.’
Ruben tapped the base of the spliff against his thumbnail, ‘Stop smiling Alan, you look insane.’ He lit up and inhaled, holding in his breath and staring at his comrade, before exhaling directly into his face.
Alan grimaced and waved the smoke away, ‘You don’t deserve friends.’
Ruben handed the spliff to Alan then turned back to the floor, ‘What do you do?’
‘Me?’ asked René.
Ruben nodded, ‘I already know this arsehole.’
René considered his audience, ‘Um. Nothing.’
‘At all?’ asked Alan.
‘How do you pay rent?’ Ruben’s interest was piqued and his eyes rose to René’s chest.
‘I live with my mother.’
Ruben looked up and into René’s eyes for the first time, mouth parted in awe, ‘Right on.’ He took René’s hand in his and held it, carefully placing the other palm over it, a holy man receiving an elderly member of his flock, ‘That’s what I’m talking about. Honesty.’
‘What about you?’
‘I’m a writer. And not a good one.’
‘Cool cool. What you working on?’
‘A stupid book.’
‘What’s it called?’
‘Not sure yet. What about...’ Ruben raised his hands and eyes to the ceiling, ‘God Hates Your Screenplay?’
René mulled it over, ‘What’s it about?’
Ruben shrugged, ‘Us. This. Everything. It’s a love story. It’s about a bunch of thirty-year-olds at the end of time fucking each other’s lives up for no good reason.’
‘How does it end?’
‘I don’t know yet. I like to be as surprised by an ending as everyone else.’
Alan offered the joint to René who hesitated before taking it.
‘God, don’t look now,’ hissed Ruben.
The trio turned to the entrance to see a man in his mid-thirties wearing a pink and purple tie-dye shirt, short, baggy cream trousers, white socks in sandals, a low fade and a moustache. He was greeted excitedly by Steve, who embraced him like a brother.
‘That man is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with this place.’
‘Who is he?’ asked René, sucking on the spliff.
‘A tossing poser. “Oh ya I’m a freelance taxidermist. I knit jackets for scotch eggs. I’m shooting a Vice documentary about trout, my new band. It’s pronounced troot. We don’t play live we just hum into a Dictaphone then translate it into Morse code and email it to ourselves.” Fucking pop-up wanker.’
‘What do you do?’ René asked Alan.
‘I work at London Zoo.’
‘Alan buggers penguins for a living.’
‘Llamas in fact. And gibbons.’
‘It is actually.’
‘Gimme that,’ Ruben said, snatching the spliff from René. ‘Please stop being so fucking satisfied with your lot Alan—it’s so gauche.’
‘Ruben is allergic to joy.’
‘Where will we live Alan? We are overrun. By grubby merchants and charlatans.’ Ruben flapped his arms wildly, ‘Say Manchester again—say it again and I’ll slap you into space.’
‘It’s natural population migration. We get squeezed so we move somewhere cheaper. We start again. Happens all the time.’
‘We had something. Here. And it was good and they killed it,’ Ruben muttered morosely.
‘Well hellooo boys.’
Ruben stiffened at the sight and sound of his nemesis.
‘Ruben.’ Tie-dye man smiled benevolently.
‘You know my name is Geoffrey.’
‘How you doing mate?’ Alan said, offering his hand.
‘I’m terrific, Alan—thank you for asking.’
‘What you up these days?’ asked Alan, who’s only possible motive for asking would have been to enrage Ruben.
‘Brother, I’ve had a brainwave. Check it. A pop-up bar open twenty-four hours on the weekend, OK? So you get given a onesie at the door, which you have to change into and once you’re in it’s wall-to-wall bean bags and beds and deep sofas and lava lamps and smooth jazz and cats, Alan. Cats. Or kittens more likely.’ René sensed Ruben’s eyes roll out of his head and decided to leave the conversation before he fell about laughing.
‘It’s for folks on a comedown! We’re going to play Pixar films and serve bubblegum tea and pea soup...’
After a couple of wrong turns René located Steve’s room. He found Flame sitting alone in front of a large make-up mirror, illuminated by a ring of half a dozen tungsten bulbs. Her plaits were out and her afro tied up. She was fixing a white lotus flower to her hair and gave René a small smile as he closed the door behind him.
‘I haven’t heard this song in forever.’ René remarked.
‘It’s a guilty pleasure.’
‘I won’t tell anyone.’ he said smiling. They were silent for a while, enjoying the cool-island keyboard and Sade’s shea-butter-smooth contralto. I’ll tell you you’re right when you want.
Flame held René’s gaze in the mirror, ‘I like that colour on you.’
René fingered the collar of his shirt. Lavender. With a dark blue blazer, grey flannel trousers and brown buckled brogues, René was swinging for the fences.
‘So, did you have a good trip?’
René nodded, ‘Saw my dad. You’d like him. Maybe next time you can come with me?’
Flame wrinkled her nose, ‘Bit soon isn’t it?’
‘I’m sorry, you’re right. I don’t know why I said that.’
‘You’re too easy.’ Flame smirked, shaking her head, ‘Almost takes the fun out of it. Almost.’
René laughed hollowly. He felt woolly from the weed, so flopped down on the bed behind Flame. On the wall opposite, Steve had a long free-standing clothes rail, stuffed with coats, scarves, shirts and hats, half of which looked like they’d been lifted from an amateur theatre space. René spotted a white admiral’s hat with gold stitching on the peak and got up to try it on. He bent down over Flame’s shoulder to consider himself in the mirror. His head was too big and he was too self-conscious to carry it off, so he removed it, pretending to admire the stitching, before replacing it on the rack and returning to the bed. Flame watched all the while with a small smile.
‘Are you ready?’
‘Have you been waiting for me?’
‘Not really. It’s a bit quiet out there.’
‘It’ll pick up,’ Flame said, applying red lipstick. René had never seen her with lipstick. He preferred her without; she seemed somehow more distant, less accessible with it on. She shimmered in a beaded pear-green flapper dress, her soft dark skin glowing beneath.
‘I was thinking—sometime in the New Year, maybe you’d like to come round and we could...hang out? Watch a film?’ René made only slight eye contact but couldn’t fail to notice the bolt of panic that flashed across Flame’s face.
‘I don’t know—I’m pretty busy with work and stuff.’
‘Any day that suits you.’
Flame’s face hardened and she looked down, picking at her nails. Had he misread her? Was he being too forward? René felt a strong urge to be very far away, in the dark. He stood, abruptly, and made for the door. Flame made no effort to stop him but as he reached for the handle, the door flew open of its own accord.
‘You bastard!’ Ruben jabbed an accusatory finger in René’s chest. ‘You left us alone with that...cretin!’
‘Oh yea. Sorry.’
Ruben’s face transformed at Flame’s interruption; for the first time, Rene saw him smile in full and without reservation. His face creased up till is eyes were barely visible, the corners of his mouth nearly reaching his temples, as he held out his hands towards her.
‘Flame, my darling, a vision as always.’
‘Oh stop it—you rascal.’
Ruben crossed the room, both hands still aloft, and cupped her face with them when he reached her. ‘Where have you been hiding? I didn’t see you at the twins’ thing were you ill?’
‘Working. I tell you. The goddess is ascending. René we’re being taken to the cleaners. The girls are trouncing us at school and work. They’ll inherit the earth and frankly they’re welcome to it. Soon all we’ll be good for is sex and heavy lifting, and I’ve got a bad back.’ He said all this without taking his eyes off her. ‘Flame my dove do you at all fancy making me a kept man? I’m house trained and speak but one language—the language of love.’
‘Get on with you.’
‘She thinks I’m joking but I’m not. René won’t mind will you? My darling things have become quite desperate.’
‘What happened to your book?’
‘It’s dreadful. And I can’t find the title and without the title it’s a misshapen horror with no name. What do you think of ‘Millennial Men’?’
‘What about jobs? You still applying?’
‘Oh you mean my one man performance art piece: Buttfucked by Fate?’
Ruben began gyrating his hips, doggystyling an imaginary subject, ‘Thank you for your interest in this role. Unfortunately at this time your application has been unsuccessful.’ His thrusts became quicker, more aggressive, his voice rising with each penetration, ‘We wish you the very best of luck for the future...’ He wiped his brow and began making short sharp jerks, ‘...and will keep your…SEE-VEE...ON...FILE!’ With the last screamed syllable Ruben threw his head back, face contorted in ecstasy. Flame applauded slowly and René sulked. Ruben made a low bow and with the ensuing silence, finally picked up the sour note in the room.
‘So what have you two been up to?’
‘I’m going to get a drink.’ Again René reached for the door handle and once again it burst in on him. Alan stood at the breach, fuming.
‘You bastards.’ He said pointing from Ruben to René. ‘You left me on my tot with that maniac.’
Ruben cackled cruelly.
‘He asked my opinion, Ruben. My opinion.’
‘What did you tell him?’
‘I told him he was the next great white hope. Apparently Denzel Washington is investing. His uncle knows him.’
‘That...doesn’t seem likely.’
‘Well if he is, we’re going to be partners.’
Ruben’s eyes narrowed. ‘You didn’t.’
‘I didn’t know what to do! I was on the spot, and it sounds like it could be...an alright idea.’
Ruben was steaming.
‘You left me alone with him! It’s your fault!’
‘I asked you to lend me fifty pounds! Alan. To visit my mother!’
‘I was skint!’
‘How much? How much did you give him?!’
‘I’m not saying.’
Ruben bit his fist, then reached into his jacket pocket. René half-expected a gun, but instead Ruben removed a small wrap, conscious of all eyes on him.
‘Do you mind?’ He perched on the edge of seat with Flame and winked like a rogue. ‘Despite your best attempts to ruin me, Alan I will not be deterred, or disappointed.’ Ruben carefully unwrapped the piece of paper and dumped the contents on the dresser beneath the mirror. Flame passed him a card and he chopped out four generous lines, ‘Who’s got a note?’
Alan fished out a tenner and handed it over.
‘Oh, now you’ve got the money. Scumbag. I’m keeping this.’
Ruben rolled up the note and handed it to Flame, ‘The fat one’s mine.’
Flame covered a nostril and lowered her face to the dresser. She held the note at an awkward angle, like a lefty holding a pen, careful not to smudge the powder with her palm. She sniffed and shot up at a knock on the door.
‘Who is it?’ Flame sang out.
‘It’s me,’ a mimicking high voice replied.
‘Well come in then.’
The door pushed open and a young woman entered. She had a short mousey bob, large green eyes, a sad downturned mouth and the sloping, regal neck of a swan. René recognised her immediately as Howard’s improbable girlfriend, Anna. She looked thinner.
‘Sorry, is it Steve...? Steve said you would be in here.’
‘Shut the door.’ Flame whispered, hustling Anna in.
‘I’m not interrupting?’
‘Not at all. Anna, this is Ruben, and Alan.’
‘Hey,’ the men chorused, an octave lower than usual.
‘Are you having some?’ Flame asked.
‘You can have half of Alan’s—he doesn’t deserve any.’ Ruben offered.
‘Um. Maybe in a bit?’ Anna said brightly, in lieu of a flat no.
‘That’s optimistic.’ said Ruben.
Alan took his turn, then René. His eyes watered when the cocaine hit his sinuses. It stung more than usual and he wondered what it had been cut with—it smelled like something you might find underneath the kitchen sink. His heart rate surged and he felt a little sick. Ruben had his last of all, expertly hoovering the fat line into one nostril and dabbing what remained onto his gums.
‘I’m going to be so afraid tomorrow,’ he said with a smack of his lips.
‘Does anyone want a drink?’ René announced. He couldn’t stay still—his heart felt it might dance out of his chest. He needed to move.
‘I’ll take a beer—any brand.’ said Ruben. The others declined, Flame avoided eye contact and René left the room.
Back in the open front room, René felt better almost instantly. The lights were low, there was music—a compilation of New Romantics—and many more people now. Some nice girls—all carefully done up to look like they didn’t care. Eyebrows on fleek—watching each other like startled hawks. The men wore beards and serious expressions in clothes that were surely designed with a nudge and a quiet chuckle. They looked like a Viking pantomime.
Steve Strange came on with Fade to Grey and René heard himself say ‘Oh that’s my jam,’ and not in an ironic way.
So Flame was being her usual obtuse self. No matter. René had René and always would. He’d come this far—he would go further still. He slid through the crowd, crotch to girl-bum and bum to boy-bum till he found the drinks table. It was a bring your own affair but there were also three black bins full of ice and beer, three punch bowls and a row of cheap rosé. René had brought a bottle of Malbec, like a mug, and it looked like it had already been swiped. He snorted and swallowed, thrilled by the taste of disinfectant.
René froze with his hand in the ice bucket. He knew that voice.
Madoc was dressed in a classic black tuxedo, of course, and winked at René while administering his five-pump handshake. Still holding his hand, Madoc dragged him around in a half-circle, ‘Howard’s here too.’
Howard had shaved his head completely and grown an impressive beard. How long had it been? A month, six weeks? How the hell had he managed it? René resisted the urge to run his hand over his own chin. He had often toyed with the idea of facial hair but tentative experiments had yielded empirically disastrous results. He couldn’t get the coverage for a full beard and with a moustache he looked like a pederast, and was far too self-conscious to do so with any sense of fun or irony. Howard’s beard was so thick, with a reddish hue and streaks of silver, and covered his mouth, obscuring his thin lips and boy’s chin. It stopped just shy of his cheekbones, underscoring them, and his small brown eyes seemed harder. He was dressed down in a khaki army coat, a plaid woollen shirt, jeans and boots, completing his haunted Norse woodsman look.
‘How’s it going mate?’
René offered his hand and Howard took it, meeting his eyes briefly before quickly looking away. The three of them stood in silence for a while, making a show of taking in their surroundings. Madoc stood with his feet shoulder-width apart and hands in his pockets, peering over heads into all corners of the room. Most people forget themselves in crowds and are happy to blend in; Madoc looked like he expected to be noticed, like the close juxtaposition with others only served to make him more prominent.
‘I know where we can get some coke,’ René said, much louder than he intended to.
Madoc chuckled and even Howard cracked a smile.
‘You don’t waste time do you?’
‘It’s very good. I just had some and I want more already,’ René nodded enthusiastically. ‘At school, Madoc, I remember everyone said you’d done cocaine with Olly Strauss but I’d never tried it and always wondered and now I have.’ René said and shrugged. ‘A few times actually.’
‘Alright. Why don’t we get a beer first then you can show me what it’s all about,’ Madoc said, patting René’s shoulder. René felt like purring but before he could direct them to the drinks table he felt a tug at his elbow and sharp words in his ear, ‘I need you.’
Flame took him by the hand and led him away without a word. Down the warren of false walls and corridors, her hand smooth and soft in his. René was light as air—drugged and dragged to destinations unknown by this beautiful woman. He smiled cheerfully into the faces of the strangers he passed. Yes. It is I. Who else? Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be. Remember me.
Flame ushered him into the toilet, ‘Lock the door.’
René obliged and began unbuckling his belt.
‘Why is he here?’ she hissed.
‘Madoc? You said I could invite anyone I liked.’
‘I said you could bring a friend. Madoc is not your friend.’
‘What? That’s—of course he’s my friend! Why? Did Howard say something? I’ll kill him.’
‘And Howard’s here! They’re here! Together!’
‘Yes well, inviting Howard definitely wasn’t my idea.’
Flame gave him a look.
‘I said Madoc could bring a friend! What’s the big deal? Anna’s here...’
‘Except they broke up.’
‘When? For good?’ René fumbled, pulling up his trousers and thumbing his erection into the waistband of his underpants as nonchalantly as the action would allow. ‘Do you think it’ll be awkward?’
‘This is going to be so painful,’ Flame moaned, face-palming.
‘Why don’t you want to have sex with me?’ The marching powder had given René a tremendous nerve and Flame was impressed, he could tell.
‘In the toilet?’
‘I’m not talking about now. I invited you round to mine to watch a film and you burned me.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Show me your tits.’
‘But you’ve seen all of me.’ René said, gesturing to his crotch.
‘Not all that much to see, sweetheart,’ Flame said, raising an eyebrow.
René applauded, ‘Oh very nice. And how ridiculous of me to want some intimacy with my girlfriend. Don’t give me that look,’ he said, jabbing his finger at her, ‘You are my girlfriend.’
‘I don’t know what’s given you that impression.’
‘You do accept that irony isn’t an emotion?’
‘You can’t just demand stuff.’
‘I’m a man dammit.’
‘And what does that mean?’
‘It means I’m tired of masturbating in toilets.’
‘I’m sorry—I didn’t realise it was such a chore,’ Flame said smoothly, and pushed past him and out into the party.
‘Do you think I should talk to her?’
‘Depends what you’re going to say.’
Howard and Madoc stood together, studiously ignoring Anna and Flame across the room. Madoc thought Howard was coping remarkably well. The man had come a long way in a short time. He was a little worried that Anna would tell Howard of their tryst if they started talking again, but reassured himself that she would come off much worse from any such confession.
‘What do you think I should say?’
Madoc made a show of thinking it over and took a sip of his beer, ‘Tell her...you respect her decision and that you don’t resent her.’
‘I’m not sure that’s true.’
‘Say it anyway.’
‘She won’t believe me.’
‘Just keep your distance, don’t try and touch her and don’t pay her too much attention. Just say your piece and enjoy your night.’
Howard snuck a look at Anna, who was speaking furtively into Flame’s ear. Her voice was strained, he could tell by her raised jugular. She looked thinner and he wondered if she was eating properly. He usually did the cooking; left to her own devices she’d live on Hobnobs and Earl Grey. He wished he knew what she was saying.
‘I don’t want her to believe me.’
‘Do you want her back?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Well the only chance you’ve got is if she thinks you’ll be fine without her.’
Howard shook his head, ‘She’s not like that.’
‘We’re all like that.’
René arrived with two men in tow—Madoc took an instant dislike to the shorter of the two. He had a sly look about him.
‘Guys, this is Ruben, and Alan. Madoc, Howard.’
They shook hands, ‘I’ve been expecting you Mr. Bond,’ Ruben muttered just loud enough for Madoc to hear. Alan sniggered and Madoc bristled, but was spared the need to retort by an interrupting hiss of escaping air. They turned to see Steve holding court from a sofa in the middle of the room, filling black balloons from a canister and handing them out to his guests.
‘There goes our night,’ Ruben said heavily.
‘That shit is everywhere—I don’t see the point,’ Alan added.
‘Another drink?’ Madoc said to Howard.
‘Martini? Shaken not stirred?’ Ruben quipped.
Madoc smiled broadly and imagined biting the small man’s nose, ‘Do you expect me to laugh?’
‘No Mr. Bond, I expect you to...no, that’s not going anywhere.’ Ruben raised his beer and touched Madoc’s, ‘Touché.’
‘Let’s not spend New Year’s sucking NOS with a bunch of preening prima donnas, please?’ Alan looked worried.
‘What did you have in mind?’ asked Madoc.
‘It’ll be rammed.’ Ruben said dismissively.
‘So? We can always come back.’
‘I’ve just got to do a thing first,’ said Howard, eyeing Madoc pointedly. Madoc put a hand on his shoulder, ‘Be brave and be kind.’
Howard took a deep breath, nodded and left.
‘What was that about?’ asked Alan.
‘Who cares? Who wants a bump?’ asked Ruben.
Madoc put an arm round the small man’s shoulders and squeezed, his warm smile stopping short of his eyes, ‘I think we could be friends.’
The crowd was dense so they didn’t see him coming. He appeared at Anna’s side like a spectre, making her jump.
‘Oh hi. Wow. Hi.’
‘Hi. Could you give us a moment?’
Flame looked to Anna who shrugged in agreement. Let’s see what the sad man has to say. Flame shot Howard a warning look and moved off.
‘How are you doing?’
‘You’re looking thin.’
‘Oh thanks.’ Howard couldn’t be sure but she looked to be both insulted and thrilled. He would never understand her.
‘And about how I’ve behaved.’ Howard struggled to remember Madoc’s words, ‘I know I haven’t given you any space, I haven’t respected your wishes.’
Anna looked at him properly for the first time, ‘Do you mean that?’
‘I do.’ Howard surprised himself. He really did mean it. ‘I didn’t understand what was happening. Or why. But now I do and it’s painful, but I don’t resent you.’
‘Aren’t you angry?’
‘Maybe a little bit.’ Howard said with a smile.
Anna smiled back, ‘I supposed that’s natural.’
They grinned at each other like idiots, relief flooding their faces, ‘This is weird,’ Howard said.
He fished a beer out of his coat pocket and offered it to her.
She declined, shaking her head, ‘I like the beard. Didn’t know you were ginger.’
‘Neither did I,’ Howard laughed, stroking it. ‘So where have you been staying?’
‘I was up at home for a bit, then I moved in with Flame. She’s got a spare room. She’s been great.’
‘Oh that’s cool. I was worried.’
Anna smiled at him, ‘That’s sweet. I’m OK.’
‘Cool, well I’ll leave you to it.’
‘So you guys are friends now?’ she said, looking over in Madoc’s direction.
‘Madoc? Yea. He’s been really supportive. I feel like I’ve learned a lot.’
‘Just...I don’t know. How to be OK, I guess.’
‘Do you talk about us?’
Howard shrugged hesitantly, ‘I need to talk to someone.’
‘What does he think about me?’
‘I don’t know. We mostly talk about me.’
Howard waited but Anna stayed silent, so he went on, ‘Anyway, I think we’re going to head out in a bit.’
‘Just those guys, I think. I can’t remember their names. And René.’
‘Really?’ Howard couldn’t hide his excitement.
‘Yea. You know Flame and René are sort of seeing each other.’
Howard was stunned, ‘But he’s so strange.’
The queue for Superstore was prohibitive, so they took the cab north to Stoke Newington. Alan said he knew the doorman at Birthdays but he wouldn’t be on duty for another hour so they stopped at The Coach and Horses. Ruben refused to pay for the taxi because it was his coke and Madoc couldn’t be bothered splitting it six ways so he just paid for it himself.
Thick red curtains hang over the entrance to the Horses and once inside, a large mirror on the far wall makes the room look twice as big. The walls are plastered with kitschy faux-retro posters—“Beer - Helping Ugly People Have Sex Since 1862!”—and Christmas lights, all year round.
Oh! You Pretty Things played over the speakers and Madoc was struck by a wall of vaporised sweat as they entered. He carved a path to the bar, Ruben squeezing in next to him beside a curvy redhead and her blonde friend, currently recovering from two shots of what smelled like tequila. Madoc didn’t have to wait long and ordered seven shots of Jaeger and double rum and coke chasers. Anna slipped in next to him and her hand accidentally brushed his, pulling his heart down into his stomach. In the cab, he’d been sat opposite her and the two had studiously ignored each other. Howard, next to Anna and beside himself, had smirked at Madoc and wiggled his eyebrows, which just made Madoc feel terrible for the dolt. Now with the lights low and Jaeger burning a sweet trail down their throats, Madoc and Anna were bolder, and shared a lingering look. Flame caught it and deftly inserted herself between the pair, dragging René with her.
Madoc hadn’t spoken to Flame since their brief liaison at Freddie’s leaving party, months ago—they had been happy to ignore each other at the funeral. She resented him, he knew, and normally he wouldn’t care but if she continued to police his every interaction with Anna then something would have to be done. He heard Ruben over the din.
‘You guys local?’
The redhead immediately turned her back on him, rolling her eyes at her friend. She was a six-and-a-half but thought she was an eight, and her heels gave her some height on Ruben, so she felt entitled to treat him like excrement. Ruben coloured and avoided Madoc’s gaze.
Madoc patted Ruben on the shoulder, ‘Step aside son. Let me show you how a real man does it.’
Ruben looked like he might cry, ‘Fuck you.’
Madoc smirked and manoeuvred the little man behind him.
‘Would you like to play a game?’ Madoc said loudly.
The redhead turned and looked up into Madoc’s face—he caught the familiar flash of lust and panic, before she quickly regained control.
She had thick, painted eyebrows and wore too much make-up. Her lashes were long and her eyes were upturned and Caribbean blue. Her hair, which was curly and a deep orange, was tied up in a topknot. She had pouting, button-lips and a silver septum nose ring with a pale blue opal.
‘I will buy you any drink you want, if you can correctly guess how many tattoos I have.’
Her eyes flicked down over his body and Madoc grinned his gappy grin. Without breaking eye contact, he raised his hands and showed her the backs of them, then turned his head slightly both ways to show her his neck. Nothing.
‘How many guesses do I get?’
‘Three. Bonus points if you can guess what any of them are.’
‘What do we get for bonus points?’ the blonde asked.
The redhead leaned against the bar, blocking her friend and squaring to Madoc, ‘OK I’ll play, but I need to get to know a bit about you first.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a deep sea fisherman.’
She looked disappointed, ‘You don’t sound like a fisherman.’
‘What should I sound like?’
‘I don’t know, rougher? Why a fisherman?’
Madoc shrugged, ‘For the halibut.’
René watched Madoc work the redhead. She had a deep, throaty laugh that threw her head back, forcing her friend to lean away. Ruben stood behind Madoc, looking miserable—a little black hole crushing the end of the bar. Flame and Anna were having some kind of summit, screaming in each other’s ears. René had tried to edge into the conversation but had been shooed away by Flame. So he stood next to Alan and smiled pleasantly at the room, trying to look alert and confident but without making eye contact with any specific person. It’s quite a trick. Eventually Ruben sidled over.
‘Your friend is a real twat.’
‘Madoc? No. Why?’
‘Just—some guys, man. He has no chill.’
‘He’s a good guy once you get to know him.’ said Howard.
Ruben shook his head and pulled the wrap out of his pocket. Alan instinctively squared up to him and took his drink, beckoning to René and Howard to join them. Between the three of them and the pressing crowd they were able to shield Ruben from prying eyes and, dipping one by one like ducks in a pond, took their bumps in turn.
‘Have I got any on me?’ Alan asked, displaying his nostrils for René to examine.
‘A little bit.’ René wiped Alan’s nose for him and felt a surge of brotherly love.
‘I heard you and Anna broke up,’ said René and Howard’s head snapped round. ‘Are you guys cool now?’
‘I don’t really know,’ Howard replied, massaging his beard. ‘We’re talking—so that’s good.’
René could tell Howard felt uncomfortable so dropped it. Ruben kept looking over at Madoc and scowling, and René overheard Madoc order four shots of Bacardi.
‘I’m not drinking that,’ said the redhead.
‘It’s not for you,’ replied Madoc smoothly.
Anna and Flame joined them, having put the world to rights, and for a while they all stood around awkwardly: Howard trying not to look at Anna, she ignoring Madoc, while he appeared to be picking an eyelash from the redhead’s cheek, her breath held and pale face turned up toward his. Her blonde and increasingly disillusioned friend had since slipped away.
‘It’s a bit shit here isn’t it?’ said Flame.
‘My mate doesn’t start at Birthdays for another twenty minutes.’ said Alan.
‘We could try the White Hart,’ offered Ruben. ‘If we can break up double-oh-seven and shitty galore.’
‘Who is she?’ asked Anna.
Ruben shrugged. The redhead now had her back to Madoc and her head bent down so he could see the tattoo at the nape of her neck. It was a shell or a globe, René couldn’t tell from this distance, but he did see Madoc nonchalantly pour each of the four shots of Bacardi onto the girl’s bag and scarf, which she had set next to their drinks, as easily as if he were watering a houseplant.
René wasn’t sure how Madoc then moved so quickly—one minute he was tracing the outline of the girl’s tattoo with his fingertips, and the next the bar was on fire. For a brief moment, a row of six-inch flames danced merrily on the wooden surface to a stupefied audience. Then time jerked forward, the redhead howled and the manager quickly dumped a pitcher of water on her bag. By then though the sleeve of her blouse was alight and she was screaming and flailing desperately at her arm. The blonde came sprinting out from the direction of the toilet, couldn’t slow in time and flew into the redhead face first, sacking her. She then climbed onto her, slapping at her arm with her bare hands, ‘Stay still—stay still!’.
Finally, mercifully, it was over and they were both sobbing, the blonde bleeding from the nose and straddling her singed friend, with the greasy stink of burned hair and polyester heavy in the air.
They found him across the street, leaning against the wall of Hamdy’s News, smoking a Camel.
‘Mate—were you there for that?’
‘Talk about a flaming redhead,’ Madoc said with a wink.
Alan harrumphed and doubled over, steadying himself with hands on knees. Howard started giggling and Flame slapped his arm, ‘It’s not funny.’
But then Ruben succumbed and soon they were all at it: Alan screaming and flailing about in parody, Anna hiding her face and Flame berating them all through a contorted grin, ‘No! Stop it! We are not those people!’ All revelled in the moment, except René, who knew the full truth and wasn’t yet sure how to feel about it.
Madoc patted Ruben on the back, then gave him the rest of his cigarette, and they all made for the White Hart, with René trailing last.
The White Hart is a large open pub just down Kingsland Road from the Coach and Horses. It has an expansive horseshoe bar and comfortable seating next to an open fire, but today Madoc and friends were lucky to even fit inside. This time it was Ruben who was able to navigate a route to the bar, cursing and ducking before finally popping up under the arm of a cute brunette with a bowl cut and a dragon tattoo on her forearm.
‘Oh hello!’ she said cheerfully.
‘Don’t mind me.’
Howard found a spot next to Ruben and dragged Anna in with him. He felt an electric thrill with her warm body next to his, but she quietly manoeuvred herself so they weren’t touching. When she met his eyes Howard smiled like he hadn’t noticed.
‘I’ll buy you a drink if you get the barman’s attention,’ Ruben said to the brunette.
‘I don’t take drinks from strangers.’
‘Oh,’ Ruben was defeated.
The girl rolled her eyes and spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable, ‘So what’s your name?’
‘Well—now we’re not strangers,’ the girl said, smiling.
The girl turned to shake Ruben’s hand and Howard couldn’t help but notice her breasts. She was a perky C-cup with diminutive pink nipples, a silver bar piercing the left one. Howard could tell because her top was quite transparent. It was sleeveless and the back was a matte black but the front was cut from some sort of webbing, like a silver mosquito netting. Howard forced himself to look away, his eyes watering with the effort. He wondered how Ruben was faring so close to the source—it must be agony. The girl turned back to the bar and raised a finger, attracting a barman at the speed of sound.
‘Should we be able to see all around your pupils like that?’ asked Anna with a worried look.
Howard dipped his head in the direction of the girl and mimed ‘boobs’ with his hands.
‘Uhuh, OK—You like boobs.’
‘No—the girl,’ he whisper-shouted. ‘Her boobs are out.’
‘Who?’ said Flame.
‘The one by Ruben.’
‘No they’re not.’
The drinks arrived and the brunette turned back to hand them to Ruben.
‘Holy shit,’ said Alan and teleported to his friend’s side.
‘Mercy,’ Flame sighed, fanning herself.
‘Are we supposed to look? It hurts not to,’ hissed René.
‘Do you think she’s hot?’ asked Anna.
‘Me? God no.’ Howard asserted.
‘I want to climb into her womb,’ said René, making Flame snort.
‘Are you on some kind of list?’ Anna admonished.
Flame jumped in, ‘It is a little hard to take her seriously.’
‘What makes you think she cares? And why do you—It’s her body.’ Anna’s cheeks were flushed. She was becoming irate, Howard could tell.
‘Who knows what she’s thinking,’ Madoc said with a superior air.
‘She must be crazy, right?’ Anna quipped, rounding on him.
‘Yea. For attention.’
‘You’re in a tux.’
‘I came straight from the Savoy.’
Anna rolled her eyes so hard she could have blacked out, ‘That’s not the excuse you think it is.’
Ruben cut the conversation short, pushing into the circle with their drinks and the contentious brunette in tow. Her name was Arabella and she was waiting for her friends. Howard couldn’t remember ever maintaining so much eye contact with a person. He didn’t dare let his eyes wander, even to locate the straw to his drink. Instead he raised it to his mouth and found it with searching lips like an anteater.
Ruben offered Arabella a bump, which she graciously accepted, bending to bring her nose to the card and granting the group a new perspective. Flame kissed her teeth, Madoc smirked and Howard thought he heard René sigh wistfully. Then like meerkats they each took their turn, with Ruben dishing out corners and the others keeping lookout. Anna abstained, content to glare at everyone.
‘Thanks, that’s really kind,’ said Arabella.
‘It’s nothing. It’s what New Year’s is about right?’ replied Ruben sweetly.
‘I can’t stand cheap people—can you?’
‘They’re the worst.’
‘I don’t mean poor. There’s real heroism in being poor. I mean cheap. Scrimping at a group dinner. Taking leftover beers home after a party—you know, cheap.’
Howard made a mental note to buy the next round. Then a Diplo remix of Lovesong by The Cure came on and everyone got down.
‘So what do you do?’ Arabella asked Ruben, bobbing her bowl cut.
‘I’m a writer.’
‘Cool, what you working on?’
‘What’s it about?’
‘Lots of things. Young manhood. The crisis of modern masculinity.’
‘Wow. Sounds serious.’
‘So what’s the crisis?’
Arabella nodded along, ‘When do we get to read it?’
Ruben shrugged, ‘I haven’t started it yet.’
A cheer swept through the pub. Midnight. Howard hadn’t heard a countdown. They whooped and kissed. Awkward handshakes turned to smiling hugs and patted arms and slapped backs. Howard closed his eyes when he held Anna. She smelled of citrus and musk and it was over too soon.
Ruben manoeuvred himself between Arabella and Alan, who’s ogling was becoming distracting.
‘What you saying Alan, should we try Birthdays?’
Alan checked his watch, ‘Yea alright.’
‘The queue’s massive,’ said Arabella.
‘Alan knows the bouncer—you coming?’
She was undecided.
‘Your friends can meet you there.’
‘One for the road, Ruben?’ René was ever hopeful.
‘Tapped out mate,’ Ruben patted his pockets for emphasis. ‘We’ll have to get more.’
They breezed into Birthdays, Alan’s mate Tigger—’coz he’s a bouncer’—granting them free ingress to the downstairs dance floor. With the DJ booth in front of you, the bar lies to the left. There’s a small step to reach it and the staff behind work from a raised platform, looming large over you. Tonight was dubstep and Madoc felt like a paedophile at a PTA meeting. A short man with a tattooed face and a gold grill jostled him, then looked him up and down and laughed pointedly. Madoc clenched his fist and bristled, but no-one from the group had noticed and he wasn’t feeling so tough, so let it go.
Howard announced that he would buy the next round and left. Arabella pulled in next to Flame, smiling and nodding. Alan and René moved to the front, right under the speakers. Ruben fell in behind Anna and whispered in her ear. She giggled and Madoc saw Ruben produce a bump and raise it to her face, his chin resting on her shoulder. The wanker was withholding. Arabella snorted and placed a palm against his cheek in thanks. Then he circled her waist from behind and she closed her eyes and leaned back, resting her head on his shoulder.
Madoc stepped in behind Anna and pressed himself against her. She didn’t turn or move away and he wondered if she had even noticed, crushed as they were in the crowd; but after an hanging few seconds, Anna let her head fall back against his chest, leaning on him. He pulled her into him, his fingers caressing her slim waist. Her scalp smelled of tangerines and was hot under his chin. She placed her hands on his, lacing their fingers together over her stomach. The song broke and the room erupted around them, but they kept still, cocooned in their embrace.
All too soon, Madoc felt Anna wrenched from him. He opened his eyes, fearing Howard but instead found Flame glaring at them. She pulled Anna aside and began to chastise her, alternatingly wagging her finger and jabbing in Madoc’s direction, but before she could properly lay it on, Howard arrived with four beers in each hand. Madoc got his last. They clinked bottles and both immediately turned to check on Anna, but she was gone.
He found her shivering with the smokers, staring out over the barrier south down Kingsland Road.
She turned at the sound of his voice and flashed disappointment, ‘Oh—hi.’
‘Expecting someone else?’ Howard half-joked.
Anna stepped back from the barrier and leaned against the wall, where Howard joined her. She had her left arm folded over her stomach, propping up the right, which held a cigarette. She sucked on it self-consciously.
‘You started again?’ asked Howard.
‘It’s New Year’s.’
‘Got one for me?’
She handed him hers and crossed her arms. Howard kissed her lipstick and inhaled deeply.
‘I was thinking...do you fancy catching up sometime? Flame was telling me about this Nigerian restaurant in Haggerston you might like—’
Anna winced and shook her head, ‘Howard...’
‘Just as friends!’
‘You’ve got to stop trying—’
‘What? I’m just trying to be nice, what’s the big deal?’
Her lips trembled and the tears appeared and fell almost immediately, like they’d been waiting there forever. She wiped her face with the palm of her hand.
‘Can I have that back?’
Howard handed her the cigarette and she took a deep pull.
‘What are you afraid of?’
‘We’re not right for each other, Howard.’
‘It’s got to be hard some of the time.’
‘Not this hard.’
‘It’s not this hard. It’s been fine. You need to meet me halfway.’
Anna scowled and looked away.
‘I’m sorry. I’m not blaming you. I just want you to give us a chance,’ Howard wanted so badly to reach out and touch her, to shake her. ‘Eight years—that’s got to count for something.’
Anna placed her face in her hands, ‘You’ve got to let it go.’
‘I’m not going to harass you. Not like I did at the beginning. That was pretty humiliating, I don’t blame you—but I can’t not try.’
Anna dropped the butt, pushed off and went back inside, leaving Howard alone against the wall.
Ruben was bored of the music and wanted to score more coke, so they left Birthdays and walked down ‘Kingslanding’—as Alan insisted on calling it—to join the queue for Superstore. It was a little shorter than it had been when they passed in the cab, but not by much. Ruben called his man, disappeared for ten minutes and returned to a hero’s welcome. René in particular was beside himself, bobbing with anticipation while Ruben dished out great lumps of the good stuff. Anna declined to partake again and René wondered what was up with her. She’d been down in the mouth all night and he didn’t think she’d even had a drink. Why was she here? To torment Howard? Good for her.
At the front of the queue, under the red and green neon sign, they found the bouncer, a severe looking woman with a pierced face, bangs and an undercut. Madoc and Flame went in first, without saying a word to each other, followed by Howard and Anna. Ruben asked how much it was to get in and frowned at the answer, a fatal mistake.
‘You know this is a gay club right?’
‘No—so what? I can’t come in if I’m straight?’
‘How much have you had to drink?’
‘Seriously? You’re going to turn me away because I’m straight?
‘Shut up, Ruben,’ said Alan
‘Do you not see the irony in that? You, a gay, discriminating against me, a straight man.’
‘Right—you’re not coming in,’ she said, turning to René, ‘Is this your friend?’
René held up his hands, ‘Never seen him before in my life.’
‘Come on!’ Ruben was incensed. René gave a pained shrug and mouthed ‘sorry’ behind the bouncer’s back. When Alan tried to follow Ruben dragged him by the arm.
‘This is my brother.’
Alan protested but Ruben doubled-down, ‘We shared a womb!’
‘You’re not getting in either.’
Arabella stepped up and smiled sweetly at the woman, who looked at her chest and moved aside. Ruben was devastated.
‘Sorry babes,’ shrugged Arabella, ‘Facebook me?’
Dalston Superstore is a club-bar on two levels. The toilets are unisex and the drinks are cheap, for London. René tried to look at home. A very tall man with broad shoulders and an impossibly slim waist stood at the bar. He wore a blonde bob wig and six inch silver platforms that put him close to seven foot. His dress was salmon pink and so short it barely covered his tiny behind. His face was painted white, his lips ruby red and dark eye shadow swept up the sides of his face to his temples. He was beautiful and terrifying and René felt a desperate urge to be his friend. The blonde stood talking with a short, portly young man with thinning hair, a baby’s pacifier hanging round his neck and absolutely nothing else. His penis was small, uncut and jutted out to the side. His feet must be filthy, René thought.
As Madoc approached the bar, they turned their heads to stare, the blonde looking him up and down with a pout while the baby just gawped. Madoc smiled warmly and didn’t miss a beat, asking the others what they wanted to drink. Anna wanted water but Madoc said he’d get her a cocktail. She said she wouldn’t drink it and then turned on her heel abruptly and marched to the loo, dragging Flame with her. Fine, Madoc called after her, he would get her water. Arabella shrugged and said she’d take a double whiskey and coke.
Madoc told them all to meet him downstairs then turned to the blonde and the baby, ‘So what’s good?’
Downstairs at Superstore is a small antechamber on some nth ring of hell.
They were submerged in sweat. It slid off the walls. It dripped off the ceiling and formed small pools on the floor. A smoke machine conspired with a bank of mirrors on the left to make the hot, tiny cave seem larger than it was, and the dance floor lay beyond the small bar, with green lasers cutting across the length of the room through the smoke. Deep House battered them—the dense, crunching bass tickling their sinuses. On the far side, above the twisting, jerking bodies in front of the set, René saw a tall, horned silhouette; a red bull contorted and writhing above the crowd.
A topless woman with a shaved head and buck teeth stamped and stomped close by, while her partner, a thin boy with a long lank fringe that covered his face hung off her shoulders. He looked like he was trying to shout something in her ear but every time he got close she would throw her head back and him off her and then hit the ground with renewed fervour.
The sweat and the heat swamped René’s lungs and made it difficult to breathe. He missed Ruben and his cocaine. Arabella squealed with delight and pushed through the crowd to a small man with a thin moustache and curly red hair, and a taller brunette with bangs. They cheered when they saw her and lifted her up in their arms. The man had a tattoo of a blazing sun that covered most of his chest. It put René in mind of the sun-god Frith in Watership Down.
‘My god—what have we done?’ Madoc appeared to René’s right, flanked by Anna and Flame, carrying drinks. He smiled warmly and handed René and Howard a cup each. René took a sip and grimaced. The beer tasted like antiseptic but no-one else seemed to notice so he drained half of it.
‘Come on then.’ Flame led Anna towards the speakers and René and the others followed. It was better in and amongst it. Safer—less exposed. They couldn’t find Arabella so Howard took her drink. René might have asked to share if it didn’t taste so foul.
René hated dancing but he really had no choice with this crowd—it was dance or be danced. He opted for a safe two-step shuffle, with his eyes fixed in the mid-distance and a vacant non-committal smile, secretly judging everyone around him. Flame was all hips and ass, hitching up her dress to better squat and wriggle, while Anna behind her was bathing in milk, hands slipping over her hair and body. Madoc pumped his fist—a Spaniard in white linen trousers on the deck of a small yacht, and Howard? Howard was waging war on the atmosphere and winning—pale limbs lashing out at nitrogen, throwing shapes no-one wanted to see. He whirled like a Tasmanian devil, thrashing about, a puppet possessed—his neighbours shrinking away from his lethal strikes. René smirked then caught himself gyrating like a degenerate, pelvis thrusting in and out, and realised he was done for. The sickness was contagious—they were going down together.
Sexy at last. René tossed his hair and shook his body, squaring like a bull. Flame laughed, reached up and wiped the hair from his eyes, before kissing him quickly on the lips. René slowed, wide-eyed. Their first kiss. Sweet and chaste—a single warm drop echoing in a deep cavern of affection. He saw lazy afternoons in bed, kitchen food fights, sun on salty skin and limed ice in cool shade. And babies. Caramel-coloured, wild-haired, screaming, laughing, tripping, with her at the centre of it all, smiling back at him. René shivered with pleasure. He had never been so happy.
Flame brought his ear to her face and screamed that she wanted a cigarette. René smuggled her drink out in the waistband of his trousers. Outside, she blew clouds of smoke up at the stars like she might reach them and giggled to herself, before falling back in René’s arms and chest, pressing him against the wall. He drew her to him and kissed her neck.
‘You’re sweating on me.’
‘I’m not sweating. My sweat is Renéing.’
‘I’m sorry about earlier. I was a real idiot—I really don’t want to pressure you, it’s not fair.’
Flame turned her head to look him in the eyes then raised the cigarette and put it between René’s lips, for him to pull on. ‘It’s a bit complicated.’
‘Actually it isn’t.’ She shook her head and took a drag for courage, ‘I just...don’t enjoy it.’
‘Sex. In general.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t really get anything from it, or at least—oh fuck it, i don’t know. I think I’m asexual.’ She waited a moment to gauge René’s reaction. ‘Did you hear me?’
‘But what does that mean?’
‘Like, I’m not really attracted to anyone and kind of ambivalent about the whole thing. But I really like you,’ she said hurriedly, placing her hand on the side of René’s face, ‘Just not physically you know?’
René was winded. This was a new low. He had managed to find a woman that was clinically unattracted to him. He forced a smile. Flame had genuine affection for him, he knew, and what is sex anyway? An itch you can only scratch around. He envied Flame—she was free. Like a house cat with a needy human, sex was something she could happily ignore.
René pulled Flame to him, hands cupping her elbows, ‘I think I can live with that.’
She smiled warmly and embraced him. René felt her breasts pressed against his chest and bit his lip.
‘I knew I was right about you,’ she said. ‘First time I saw you, I had a feeling. You’re a rare breed, René, I’ll make this up to you, I promise.’
René hesitated, dangling from the precipice. But for once his mind was clear, he had no doubts.
‘You’re the most wonderful woman I’ve ever met,’ he said, taking her diamond face in his hands. ‘I love you.’
Flame’s brow slipped and her eyes narrowed as if she had misheard him. René feared he would have to repeat himself.
She pulled away sharply, ‘What did you say?’
René held her hands in his and gazed into her deep black-brown eyes, hot muffins in milk. A strange calm came over him. He felt the hand of fate lay its reassuring weight on his shoulder.
‘I love you.’
Flame’s jaw dropped and she searched his face. Disbelief turned to alarm, as her eyes fell to her drink.
‘Sonofabitch!’ Flame jabbed a finger at him, shivering with rage and ecstasy. She swallowed compulsively and her eyes refused to keep focus. Madoc could only laugh.
‘You’re a maniac! You should be locked up.’
‘Relax. It’s just a little pick-me-up.’
They were back in the bowels of Superstore—René was pouring sweat and appeared to be broken, stuck in some sort of solo rhumba, pacing and twirling while Flame castigated Madoc.
‘You should be banned!’
‘Renny’s not complaining, are you buddy?’
‘I feel fucking fantastic, you shitstick!’ René bellowed, rubbing his belly before spinning on his heel and executing a poorly-conceived James Brown split. Flame watched with a pained expression as he dragged himself back upright, then her mouth dropped open in horror, ‘Shit—Anna! Did you put it in her water?’
Madoc frowned and shrugged, ‘What’s the big deal?’
Flame sped away, hurling dancers out of her path.
Madoc watched René with a curious expression, ‘Where’s your jacket?’
René shrugged, eyes closed and pouting, ‘Madoc, look at my shoulders!’
‘Yes—I can see them.’
‘I feel so great!’ René shouted, rolling his shoulders then curling his arms and flicking his hands in front of his chest, juggling a small sun, ‘LOOK Madoc!’
‘Look at my HANDS!’
‘I don’t know what I’m looking at.’
‘God—I feel so great,’ René was back on the rhumba, his lavender shirt now dark purple with sweat and unbuttoned to his navel. ‘I feel like I’m being rubbed off from the inside. I feel like a giant erection! An erection, Madoc!’
Madoc couldn’t claim to feel the same, but he could sympathise. He felt like an answered prayer. Like three kinds of yes and a pint of best. The fat naked man had delivered. The full nudity, the pacifier—both signposts to paradise: a state of perfect innocence that the fat naked man embodied.
Madoc took off his bowtie, folding it carefully, then placing it in his pocket. Then he undid the top two buttons of his dress shirt. Live a little. René mimed his head being blown. Funny little man.
‘You’re such a great guy Madoc—you’re the BEST.’
‘I don’t know about that.’
‘Yea you are. You pretend to be all…’ René flapped his arms as he searched for the word. ‘ALOOF. But you look out for your friends.' René wriggled on the spot like a toddler with a full bladder.
'Am I your friend?’ He gazed up into Madoc’s face like a kitten.
‘YES. I knew it. Flame said you weren’t but I knew it—you’re so beautiful.’ René clapped his hand over his mouth while Madoc beamed. ‘You’re like a Greek god but without the micropenis.’
‘You think about my dick a lot?’
René shrugged and did an awful robot, ‘I like guessing things.’
‘Like what people are thinking or don’t like about themselves, or are worried about. Howard’s is his hair, obviously. But so’s yours.’
Madoc wanted to hate him but couldn’t, not now, ‘What’s yours?’
‘I bet you get sooo many girls to have sex with you. You do don’t you. Yea you do. I wish I could get lots of girls to have sex with me. What’s the secret?’
‘There’s no secret, Renny.’
The mass of men are entirely invisible to women, and live like dogs in the desert. Even Madoc had experienced the odd dry spell, so felt his friend’s pain keenly.
‘I’m too soft aren’t I? And weird. And my face isn’t right and my body isn’t right. But I don’t care I’ve got Flame and she’s just wonderful,’ René threw his arms around Madoc impulsively, ‘And I’ve got you.’
Madoc squeezed René, enjoying the closeness, ‘You’re much more than you think, Renny. Don’t be so hard on yourself.’
René released him, ‘You mean it?’
‘I do,’ Madoc smiled warmly, then felt uncomfortably kind. ‘And you’re being a real brick about Flame—I’m impressed.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘About our thing at Freddie’s. I thought you knew?’
Madoc wasn’t sure why he’d indulged the impulse to ruin René’s night. He’d felt his new friend growing comfortable in his presence, and for some reason that worried him, but beyond that he really couldn’t explain it.
René’s face fell, ‘You and Flame?’
‘Just the once,’ Madoc said off-handedly. ‘We didn’t date or anything.’
René had stopped what passed for dancing and was now stood, arms limp at his sides, looking like a kicked puppy, ‘Well that doesn’t make it better! Did she like it?’
It was an odd question and Madoc was a little thrown, ‘I...didn’t ask.’
The two men turned to the source of the insult to find Anna bearing down on them, an enraged Flame in her wake. Anna stopped in front of Madoc, reached back behind her and swung, catching him in the face with all the momentum she could gather, snapping his head to the side. He turned back to her, mouth forming round a vowel, and she hit him again, harder, sending a shock of black hair down his face. Madoc put a hand to his burning cheek—thirteen again.
The late Mrs. Montogomery’s quarters are still as she kept them, and the young Madoc visits often. Her dressing room is small and secret, hidden through a false wall in her bedroom. The walls are the colour of gold pearl and the table and fittings are a matte black. Madoc studies the banks of powders and perfumes arranged on the dresser: Sicilian lemon, ylang ylang, musk, clove, black pepper, iris, ambergris—he memorises them all, organising by scent, colour, size or extravagance. Joy has ten thousand jasmine flowers per ounce, Clive Christian No. 1 boasts a five-carat white diamond on the neck and an eighteen-carat solid gold collar, and JAR smells of country air after a lightening storm.
Madoc’s favourite is his mother’s Yves Saint Laurent Elle Intense; if he is still, the woody notes, with raspberry and patchouli put her in the room with him, and with his eyes covered he wills her back to life, perfectly reassembling every atom, retracing every line of her body, every accent of her tongue. Days at the seaside. White sand running through bronzed fingers. Salt water on golden skin. Cool swims in the late afternoon sun. The heat of her skin on his face. Her lips on his hair. Baby Madoc. My baby Madoc. He strains across light years for her, losing himself in the deep dark, snapping back to his body when reason intervenes, then struggling away again.
The boy jerks upright, snatching the silk handkerchief away from his face. For the briefest moment he believes in his own powers of resurrection, but the woman at the door is not his mother. Today, Ms. Porter wears a beige tight knit dress and is barefoot, in spite of the cold.
‘I’ve been calling you. What are you doing?’
‘Is Papa here?’
‘You haven’t opened any of your presents,’ she says, coming to stand at his side. ‘There’s even one from me, wouldn’t you like to see it?’
‘You said he would be here today.’
‘I know—and I’m sorry.’ She turns his chair to face her and kneels down in front of him, placing a hand on each of his, fingers brushing his wrists. ‘I’m sure he’s doing everything he can to be here.’ Ms. Porter reaches a hand to his face, brushes a tear from his cheek, brings it to her lips and sucks it from her knuckle.
‘Let’s get you ready for bed.’
‘I’m not tired.’
‘Come on.’ Ms. Porter holds out her hand for Madoc to take, but he shies away from it, pushing past her and out of the room.
Once again, Ms. Porter stands by the door to the bathroom with arms folded, watching as Madoc undresses, and again he hesitates at the final step, fingering the waistband of his underpants.
This time Ms. Porter moves into the room, letting her arms fall by her sides, ‘I’m sorry about your mother. It’s a terrible thing—to lose her so young.’
Madoc folds one arm over his stomach, cupping his elbow, and looks at his feet. Ms Porter crosses the room in a few short steps, hitches her dress up and squats in front of him. She puts her fingers under the elastic of his underpants and tugs them down. Madoc resists but she slaps his hand away.
’Nothing I haven’t seen before.’
With Madoc’s pants down by his ankles, Ms. Porter pauses, her face inches from his crotch. Their breaths are quick and shallow and Madoc can see his heartbeat down in his stomach. Finally, Ms. Porter releases him; patting his calves before standing.
‘Better get in before it gets cold.’
Madoc lowers himself into the bath with her eyes still on him and shivers as the cold leaves his body. He hugs his knees to his chest and stares down into the water, studying the currents his slight breaths make on the surface.
Ms. Porter watches him silently, then reaches down with both hands, and pulls her dress up and over her head in one smooth movement. Her body is full and plump and Madoc’s eyes are drawn to the dark mess of coarse hair between her legs. He can’t believe it should be so dense.
Ms. Porter puts a foot in the bath, placing a hand on Madoc’s shoulder to steady herself, then lowers herself carefully behind him, her legs on either side of his narrow hips. Madoc can feel her large breasts against his back, the nipples brushing his shoulder blades, and her pubic thatch scratching the base of his spine. Her legs are thick and pink and only slightly longer than his and she wears a silver ring on the second toe of her right foot. Ms. Porter cups her hands in the water then brings them up to wet Madoc’s hair, smoothing it and pulling his head back to rest it on her shoulder.
She starts with his neck and shoulders, massaging soap into his pale skin with a wet cloth. Pulling his arms away from his knees and chest, she washes each of them in turn, tending to every finger, sweeping between them, caressing his palms. She does the same for his feet, cleaning between each toe, then each shin, calf and thigh.
‘You’ll be a big boy soon,’ she whispers into his ear, running her middle finger up a shining shin to his knee, circling round behind it and up the back of his thigh. ‘And handsome—even more than your father I think.’ She massages the outsides of his thighs, then the insides, her heavy breath hot on his neck, sending goosebumps up his back and arms. Then, with just one place to go, she stops, resting her hands on the inside of his thighs. Madoc’s breath catches in his throat and his eyes burn with shame.
‘What do you want?’
Madoc shivers in the water.
‘I won’t know unless you ask? Shall I stop?’
Madoc stares down at himself and clenches his jaw.
He squeaks and blinks, dribbling hot tears down his cheeks, ‘Please.’
Finally, Jenny tends to the straining flesh between his legs, sighing as she takes him in her hand.
‘You’ll drive them crazy, baby.’
‘How did this happen?’
‘Oh you know, the usual way.’
Anna was sat on a low wall opposite Superstore, with Madoc pacing in front of her. She shrugged, ‘I must’ve missed a day.’
‘And that’s convenient.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I’m telling you now.’
‘Why did you come out?’
‘To tell you!’
Madoc threw his head back and grimaced at the sky. Then closed his eyes and sighed at the stars, ‘You shouldn’t have told me.’
‘Have you hit your head?’
‘What’s the point? You’re going to do what you’re going to do, what’s it to do with me?’
‘So I get a say?’
Anna raised a sweaty, shaking hand to her brow and massaged her temples. She swallowed hard, ‘This is bigger than you Madoc—but I need to know what you think.’
Madoc looked up the street to René and Flame, embroiled in their bitter argument: ‘You fucked my best friend!’ ‘He’s not your friend!’
Madoc still wasn’t sure why he’d started it. He could see they were very much in love and in retrospect it seemed unnecessarily cruel. Was he jealous? Bored? Or now just rationalising his bad behaviour?
Madoc stuffed his hands in his pockets and kicked at a cigarette butt, ‘You really hurt my jaw.’
‘Do you think perhaps you deserved it?’ Anna worked her lower jaw like a goat, loosening it and swivelling from side to side, gurning.
Madoc ran a hand over his undercut, testing the needle sharp spurs, ‘Is it mine?’
‘I just said it was.’
‘What about Howard?’
Anna laughed hollowly, ‘Unlikely.’
Anna threw her hands up, ‘Last I checked you were there too! He thinks you’re his friend.’
‘You came to me!’
Anna shrugged and rose unsteadily to her feet, raising her hands in surrender, ‘I’m too fucking high for this. Thanks for that by the way.’
‘I didn’t know—you should have told me!’
‘Oh right—make sure to let Madoc know if you’re pregnant, just on the off-chance he decides to poison you.’
‘Don’t be so melodramatic—where are you going?’
‘My bones are all bouncy,’ she said and hobbled away.
‘What are you going to do?’
‘Be a mother.’
‘That’s not funny!’ he called after her.
Flame, who was now alone and had been watching at a safe distance, came down the road to join Anna and together, arm-in-arm, they limped north up the Kingsland Road.
René had disappeared, probably back inside. Madoc considered joining but really couldn’t face it. He watched Anna and Flame board the 149 north, then followed on foot. He couldn’t go home yet.
She comes for him while he sleeps and is already sitting on his hips by the time he fully wakes. She wears a long white nightgown, now bunched around her waist. He struggles to rise but she carefully places her weight on his shoulders, pressing him back and pinning him to the mattress. She slips him into her then sits up and pulls the gown from her shoulders, letting it slide down to her hips. Her long, heavy breasts turn outward as she grinds into him. She smells of his mother’s Yves Saint Laurent and something else he cannot describe. It is sweet and sickly and strange. She leans forward, covering his face with her breasts and whispers into his hair, ‘Call me Mummy.’
Ms. Porter pushes a nipple into his mouth and Madoc wants to bite it, to tear bloody chunks out of her heaving chest, to throw her to the ground and flee the room, but is too afraid, and excited.
She nibbles his ear and whimpers, ‘Call me Mummy.’
Madoc shakes his head and Ms. Porter slaps him, hard, then grabs his face, pursing his lips and pushing his head back into the pillow as she rides him. She sits up, flicking her hips back and forth, pinching the skin around Madoc’s navel and crushing his narrow pelvis. Her movements grow more violent and erratic till suddenly she freezes, wide-eyed and mouth agape and Madoc fears he has pierced her.
‘Call me Mummy,’ she whines, breathlessly.
She shudders, digging her nails into Madoc’s pigeon chest. Enchanted and sickened, he surrenders to the wave of pleasure sweeping over him.
Madoc closes his eyes on a vision of his mother swimming.
3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine—MDMA—is a synthetic, psychoactive drug with similarities to the stimulant methamphetamine and hallucinogenic mescaline. Mandy at home, or Molly to our American cousins, MDMA was first synthesised in 1912 by Anton Köllisch, a Merck chemist researching drugs to treat abdominal bleeding. Köllisch was killed in action in 1916 with no idea of the importance of his discovery, allowing MDMA to enjoy complete obscurity for the next few decades.
Then, in the mid-1950s the US Army, who appeared to be undergoing some sort of preemptive hippie revolution, ran a series of trials with MDMA and a slew of other psychedelics and psychoactive agents, including LSD, in what is now termed the ‘Edgewood Arsenal Experiments’. At the time, a few uncontrolled field studies held that MDMA induced “inappropriate self-disclosure”, so naturally Uncle Sam hoped to employ it against the Commies.
Unfortunately, there are no reliable animal models for emotional incontinence, so the project was soon abandoned. Besides, LSD seemed to be yielding much more promising results, and was quickly promoted to human trials, which saw CIA staffers busily administering “surprise” acid trips to their colleagues—a practice which, at the height of the Cold War, was a bona fide, agency-sanctioned method of LSD experimentation and a serious occupational hazard for CIA operatives. The subject was never aware they were a target until they had already ingested the drug, at which time they would be duly informed so they could make all necessary preparations for their trip, which presumably included taking the rest of the day off work, buying a kaleidoscope and finding a shady, walled garden in which to spend the next eight hours.
And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, MDMA was overlooked, ignored for another twenty years until 1976, when American chemist Alexander Shulgin, on a recommendation from one of his students, synthesised MDMA and tested it on himself. He was impressed, believing the drug stripped away his habits, allowing him to see the world clearly, and so he called it ‘window’—an intensely unimaginative name. Over the years, Shulgin would take MDMA recreationally, sometimes referring to it as his “low-calorie martini” and introducing it to friends and acquaintances.
One such acquaintance was Leo Zeff, a psychotherapist so taken with the drug he came out of retirement to push it, travelling across North America and Europe encouraging peers and colleagues to use MDMA in therapy. He called it “Adam”, as he believed it placed one in a state of childhood innocence.
From this expanding network of psychotherapists, intellectuals and yuppies, news of MDMA spread, and by the time it was criminalised in 1985, Mandy had crossed the Atlantic and taken root on the island of Ibiza, which was to become her base of operations for the next three decades. From there she spread to the UK and the rest of Europe, becoming an integral part of the gay and rave scenes, infiltrating universities and even schools. Today, she is endemic in the West and the fourth most widely used illicit substance in the world, with only marijuana attracting more first time users.
MDMA is a presynaptic monoamine receptor agonist that works in the reward pathways of the brain by first inducing the release of serotonin and dopamine from synapses, and then competing with their reuptake; much like turning on the taps and then plugging the sink, MDMA floods our pleasure centres. To make matters worse—or better, depending on your outlook—MDA, a metabolite created as the body works to break down MDMA, functions as a postsynaptic monoamine receptor agonist, directly mimicking the already augmented actions of serotonin and dopamine, which can be likened to pissing in the aforementioned flooded sink. MDA may be at least partly responsible for the relatively long tail of the MDMA roll.
Reported effects of MDMA include massive euphoria, enhanced sensation and perception, feelings of empathy and camaraderie, and a sense of inner peace. Some users describe mild hallucinations—colours and sounds—and music enhances all of these effects. Adverse effects include bruxism—the involuntary gurning, grinding and gnashing of teeth—dehydration, hyperthermia, hypertension and erectile dysfunction; the latter dovetailing nicely with the lowered inhibitions and increased sex drive also experienced by most users. If Sod ever partied, you know it was with MDMA.
A typical dose of MDMA is 100mg and the amount required for an acute overdose varies depending on the user, but can be as low as 200mg. Psychological symptoms of overdose include, but are not limited to, mental confusion, paranoia, psychosis, and anterograde amnesia—an inability to create memories after the event—which brings us directly to poor Howard Halworth.
Dear Howard. Howard the unforgivable. Howard the ever hopeful. Howard who unwittingly drank Arabella’s dose as well as his own and is now stood, convulsing alone on a dance floor in an underground gay bar on a long road in darker London with not the slightest hint of what has happened or where his shirt is. Eyes rolling back and jaw unhinged, Howard works to eat his own face, rivulets of sweat running down from his crown and off his fingertips, broken heart juddering in his breast.
He lurches between groups of strangers, leering, straining to bring faces into focus before barking nonsense by way of conversation. Howard is frightening people. They close ranks against him—casting glances askance and shaking heads, with unkind words they turn their backs on him. But with each stony rejection Howard grows more ardent. He spits and slurs and forces himself on them, draping dripping limbs on his unsuspecting public. Howard the menace. Howard the creep. Howard the pest is punched in the chest and cast off the dance floor into the bank of mirrors lining the wall. He takes a retaliatory swing at his assailant that is so ineffective and clear off the mark that the burly queen sees no reason to pursue the matter.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and pressed his cheek against it reflexively, ‘I live alone’.
René had returned—for him! Beside himself, Howard pushed upright to stand. But his legs were rope and he collapsed into René, who had to brace himself for both of them.
‘You’re an oak,’ Howard slurred into René’s face.
‘Howard, can you hear me?’
Howard shook his head.
‘We’ve been poisoned, Howard. By the bastard Madoc. And now he’s gone and so has Flame and everyone else so it’s just you and me good buddy—but don’t you worry I’m going to look after you, see? You don’t want to go home, do you? No—me neither. You should stop chewing your lip like that—it’ll be sore. Fuck yea!’
René punched the air and nearly lost his grip on Howard. ‘I’m going to leave you here good buddy and go and find some water for us,’ René said propping Howard up against the mirrors, ‘For god’s sake don’t talk to any strangers.’
‘I want orange juice and toilet.’
‘What was that?’
René left and Howard now understood that the words in his head were no longer being faithfully transmitted to his mouth, and so resolved to find paper and a pen at his earliest convenience. For now he would simply press his face against the cool mirror and drool.
René skipped the downstairs bar—there was a better chance of being served at the Somme—and ventured back upstairs, where he ran into Arabella. Her ginger friend with the sun-god on his chest was passionately entangled with a distinguished-looking gentleman in a tight white shirt and goatee, who was tenderly cupping the back of the boy’s head as they kissed.
‘Remy!’ Arabella squealed when she saw him and embraced him like an old friend.
‘Are you sure?’
She was quite beautiful. Her bowl cut was weird but she had a wonderful, generous smile, and her eyes—burnt hazel and massively dilated—drew him in like a wasp to warm jam.
‘She went home.’
‘Oh that’s a shame—she’s gorgeous.’
René nodded enthusiastically, ‘I’m a lucky guy.’
‘Oh—’ Arabella remarked in realisation. ‘What are you doing now?’
‘Looking for water.’
Arabella shook her head and fished around in her bag, ‘Have some of mine,’ she said, placing a small bottle on the bar. ‘You should come back with us. We’re going to the Fortress for a bit then on to this party. We don’t know where it is yet but we will soon.’
René marvelled at this new-found ease of conversation. There was nothing in his head that shouldn’t be.
‘Sounds good. I’ll just scoop up Howard and we’ll go.’
Madoc walked for some time in a straight line. He passed up the road like a ghost, his customary affrontive swagger replaced with a stooped and unsteady shuffle. He walked like he had broken bricks in his shoes, his head bowed and hands stuffed in his pockets.
The child couldn’t be his—how could she be sure? Was he supposed to believe he was the only one? That she hadn’t been with Howard or anyone else before or since? She could be mistaken. She could be lying. Madoc ground his teeth and swallowed against the mandy and rising panic. He was not equipped to be a father.
He came to a stop at Stamford Hill, the very top of Kingsland Road. To his left lay sleepy Manor House, to his right, cool Clapton and straight ahead, delinquent, defiant Tottenham. Madoc took a deep breath and with trembling fingers smoothed his inky hair back over his undercut. He was still so high. So terribly high. His eyeballs hummed in their sockets and the streetlights danced in front of him. He stared up at the black sky and tried to focus on a star, but felt dizzy with the distance, and so concentrated on the concrete instead. His tongue was thick and dry, making it hard to swallow. Madoc looked up, and left and right, and noted that he was alone. How was that possible? What was the time? He checked his phone, forgetting it had died hours ago. He listened for the birds but it was still dark.
He thought of Anna and felt his stomach knot with fear and anger. He would not be bullied, or coerced or trapped into any kind of corner. Not by her or anyone. Madoc worked to control his breathing. With his eyes closed he was effervescent—a mass of minute bubbles spilling out from his core, from the marrow of his bones, bumping and bursting against the inside of his skin, running up the edges for any way out. They tickled the backs of his eyes and the base of his skull; they massaged his joints, his elbows and tired knees, and he felt his anxiety fade till he was smiling at the dark again.
Madoc turned his pale face to the sky and felt the first few drops of icy rain. He drew a deep lungful of air and paused, feeling the blood battering his eardrums and rushing across his throat. He clenched his fists, heaved his chest and howled at the night.
The stone and sky remained unmoved—the darkness prevailed. So he took a second breath, deeper this time and roared again, louder, slamming his thighs with the effort. The universe shrugged and Madoc drew a third breath—unleashing it with such force that his stressed vocal cords turned the wolf-howl into a newborn’s scream that echoed over the hill.
With throbbing ears and a shredded throat Madoc got his answer: a distant tapping, of steel on stone, a heavy chnk chnk chnk—the butt of a scythe tripping on granite, or something else summoned from the dark, growing louder and from all directions. chnk chnk CHNK.
‘Yes fam,’ a high voice croaked. ‘What’s good?’
Madoc turned to face the invader: a small man with shaved, coarse hair. The skin around his mouth was dry and cracked and the left side of his neck worn and raw from scratching. He could have been twenty-five or forty-five, Madoc had no way of telling. His clothes were cheap and functional: loose trousers, black trainers and a large black overcoat with a hood. Despite his shambling appearance and the late hour, Madoc saw no fear in the shrunken man’s eyes, but instead a cold and searching curiosity. In his hand, Madoc discovered the source of the tapping: a matte black cane with a steel foot, and for the handle, a snarling, silver wolf with teeth bared and ears pinned back.
‘What you after?’ asked the cripple, leaning heavily on the cane.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You got the dough though?’
The small man took in Madoc’s height, hair and tuxedo, ‘Come with me.’
The man turned and tapped away. He moved at one speed, a surprisingly fast, limping gait, the cane falling at perfectly timed intervals.
‘Where?’ Madoc called after him.
The man stopped and turned to him, ‘You get me?’
Fortress Studios is a three or four-story complex at the junction between Provost and Vestry street just north of Old Street roundabout. The communal room on the first floor is reminiscent of Steptoe and Son: the bar is filthy, the pool table undulating, and the walls, a menacing, Beckettian red. Peppered throughout the building are rehearsal studios of various dimensions, left inexplicably open during the many impromptu late night gatherings the Fortress is infamous for.
René left Howard in a small studio on the top floor, propped up on a black leather sofa with two other catatonic freaks: a babbling fat girl in a Tom Waits t-shirt, Tina, and an unidentified grizzly Mancunian people had taken to calling Terry. Though Howard still had only limited use of his legs, he could now support his head for full minutes and was making at least transitory eye contact. His upper lip was bruised purple and had ballooned to the size of ripe broad bean. René had to periodically slap his arm to remind him to stop chewing, ‘It’ll be sore, Howard!’
Howard signaled for paper and a pen and then seemed content to sit with his new friends, scratching circles into the pad, so René left to explore.
Admission to the Fortress is for paying artists and friends alone and downstairs at the bar René felt a swelling, turgid pride at being at the centre of it all. He didn’t know who these people were or what they did, but he was sure they would be famous. Many years from now when entertaining guests with Flame he would talk at length of the evening he spent with whatsherface and so-and-so, now household names, and people would listen and wonder at the mysterious young René and the remarkable life he must have led.
He stared at everyone in turn, committing young faces to memory, drunk with the importance of the moment. Arabella had taken on a new magic. She spread like a myth; she moved by word of mouth. With a graceful, boyish energy, she flitted between groups, or rather, they circled her, a swirling vortex of cool charisma. She was a lot like Flame in that respect—she weighed the room down around her, pulling everything in.
‘What you smiling about?’
Arabella was at his side—or he at her’s—toying with the straw in her drink.
‘Just something a friend said.’
‘Howard? Is he OK?’
‘No—god no, he’s unintelligible. I don’t suppose he’ll ever be the same again.’
Arabella laughed, flashing rows of tiny perfect teeth and a soft pink mouth. It really was a shame about her hair.
‘Thanks for inviting us,’ René said gracefully.
‘No problem. Shame Flame couldn’t make it.’
‘It is—you would’ve got on.’
‘I really think so.’
Arabella paused a moment, then raised a hand to her cheek and blushed, ‘I was going to say something so embarrassing.’
‘Go on,’ René wheedled, leaning in, ‘You can trust me.’
Arabella looked him in the eye, then down to his mouth and bit her lip, ‘I really want to fuck your girlfriend.’ She clapped her hand over her mouth immediately and gasped, ‘Isn’t that terrible?’
‘Ahaa...that is—why?’ stammered René.
‘Why wouldn’t I? She’s gorgeous.’
‘Do you think she’d be interested?’ She shook her head, ‘I’m being silly.’
‘I really don’t know. Shall I...ask?’
‘Would you mind? Arabella tipped her head to one side and squinted into René’s face, entertaining a thought, ‘I’ll fuck you too if you like.’
‘That’s not necessary.’
‘I mean, I’ll think about it,’ he said, wetting the corners of his mouth.
‘Are you a banker?’
‘Is that what I look like?’
The small man in black was called Nana, Madoc had learned, and he was from these ends. Madoc didn’t know exactly where he was; the top of Dalston perhaps, in one of the many estates originally occupied by East London’s working poor but now riddled with middle class kids from the home counties, paying twice as much for half the space.
‘What’s the cane for?’
‘On disability innit.’ Nana stood, back straight as a rod, glaring at the small carpark in front of them. Madoc sat on a low wall tapping his heels against the brick, ‘How much longer?’
Nana ignored the question, ‘Where’s your squad?’
‘I don’t have one,’ said Madoc, lighting a cigarette.
‘Man needs friends.’
‘Not this one.’
‘What about a woman?’ Nana said, with a glint in his eye.
Madoc pulled on the cigarette and tried to hide his shaking hands. He was exposed, alone out here, and it was making him nervous. He thought of walking away, and then of his empty flat, and Anna.
‘You can get my number later, sweetheart.’
Nana kissed his teeth and grinned, eyeing up Madoc from top to tail. The sounds of gruff voices cut through the dark and Nana was all business again, ‘Wait here,’ he said before tapping off.
‘You’ve got my money!’
‘Trust me, fam.’
‘Do I look like your fam?’
‘Don’t be a prick—stay here,’ Nana hissed and hobbled across the small carpark and round the corner. The voices dropped to hoarse whispers, with Nana’s long shadow thrown onto the tarmac by a solitary street light.
He felt like a fool for just sitting there, asking to be ripped off. He was being taken for a ride and was too much of a coward to do anything about it. Madoc sucked the cigarette down to the butt and threw it away. Then he hopped down off the wall and clenched his right fist, drumming it into his thigh. Let’s go. He couldn’t make out what they were saying but he could identify Nana, and two other men. They were laughing at him, he knew it, or conspiring to rob him. Well he wasn’t going to run.
Madoc pulled his shoulders back as he neared the corner of the building, and nearly soiled himself as Nana stepped out suddenly.
They found an unlocked stairwell to shelter from the cold and prying eyes. Under fluorescent lights Nana looked closer to forty than twenty. His eyes were a dark, brackish brown, with light blue rings circling the pupils, and his dark skin had a grey, sickly hue to it. He stood, while Madoc sat on the least stained spot of the stairs he could find.
Nana reached into the dark recesses of his oversized coat and pulled out a small glass bottle. The bottom was broken off, with a small strip of gauze stretched over the hole.
Nana slid two fingers into his mouth and pulled a small white rock from his cheek, then pressed it against the gauze so it stuck. He leaned back, tilting his chin toward the ceiling and brought the mouth of the bottle to his lips. Then he lit the small rock and inhaled, sucking at the white smoke with the care and compassion of a new lover’s kiss.
Madoc studied all of this with a child’s naïveté, mouth parted and pulse racing. Nana took another hit and smiled at the ceiling, now seemingly oblivious to the young man. He raised the bottle to his lips a third time but Madoc placed a hand on his arm, interrupting him.
‘My turn, right?’
Nana shook his head casually, ‘No son, this isn’t for you.’
‘The fuck are you on about? That’s my money.’
He shook his head again, raising the bottle to his lips, ‘I’m doing you a favour fam—trust me.’
He went down like a controlled demolition—from the ground up, legs crumpling under him. Madoc was up on his feet and standing over him before he realised he’d hit him. The man looked serene, flat on his back with his arms splayed at his sides and a small smile on his lips. His repose could have been mistaken for peaceful slumber, were it not for the trail of dark blood leaking from his nose.
Madoc spat on Nana, then picked up the bottle, mercifully unbroken, with the rock now half melted to the gauze, and wiped the mouth with his sleeve. He found the lighter and lit the rock, kissing the bottle like he’d seen the small man do. He inhaled and within seconds felt icy fingers creep down his throat, across his chest and clutch his heart. Madoc picked up Nana’s cane, enjoying its cool weight in his palm. He turned the wolf’s hungry eyes on his own, took another hit, and knew he’d live forever.
Back upstairs, René found Howard standing, surprisingly, and leading his new friends in a song. The words were meaningless and the tune a borrowed patchwork of Disney classics, but the three of them seemed to be on the same page. Howard had found a tambourine and played the role of conductor-cum-percussion to perfection, prancing about the room with a poise and flair hitherto unseen in the man. Tina wriggled in her seat, streams of tears running down her fat cheeks and ‘Terry’ sang back-up, punching his fist into the air with every barked syllable.
It was 6AM and time to go. Arabella had a bead on the next place and René wasn’t about to renege on his promise to Howard, so they dragged him from the room, leaving the other two in a desperate, passionate clinch.
They took a cab to the venue, a warehouse space under the railway arches next to Bethnal Green tube station. It was a tenner each on the door, which René fished from Howard’s pocket while simultaneously trying to prevent him from embracing the bouncer, ‘Get a grip, man!’
Inside, Arabella made a beeline for the set, past the makeshift bar selling laughably expensive bottled beer and nitrous. A projection of the words ‘Keep On Going’ lit up the brick wall behind the DJ, with an ever-awake, imperious eye looking down on them.
This was who he was meant to be, René knew now. Not skulking in the shadows, a simple sum of his mistakes. Not a brute or predator, nor a bumbling, castrated imbecile, but a Man. Strong, capable, even beautiful.
They buried themselves in bodies—besieged by grimacing, gurning bobbers and shufflers. The beat was death: immutable and eternal—so banal, so basic, so borecore that any minute variation in the bars felt like an honest miracle, drawing whoops and cheers from the morning crowd. René kept Arabella in front of him, and with her back to him they shook and stamped to the monotonous drone. He smelled her dark hair, the sweet sweat at the nape of her neck and behind her ears, while Howard clung to them both like driftwood. They drove themselves into the ground—without fear or future, they were the dancing dead.