Howard’s mother is barefoot and on her hands and knees, brined in yellow light. She wears a light blue floral dress with a white bow at the back. Her hair is short, cut just above the shoulder, and complete with a gold band two decades out of style. She has a scrub held tightly in her right hand, with her left free to explore the egg-white tiled floor, finding the edges where it meets the wall, so that every inch of the bathroom is cleaned.
She moves in a grid—left to right and right to left with a smooth circular motion, grunting with the effort, only pausing to locate the red bucket of suds and dip the scrub, before resuming. Sometimes she whistles; high jaunty tunes, an opera or a symphony. She has a mind for music. Sometimes she sings along to the radio; her voice sweet and low. She is fond of Cliff Richard—he sounds dreamy.
Howard’s father stands at the kitchen sink in a white vest tucked into brown slacks, which he wears high around his stomach, held up by granite-grey suspenders. In the sink lie a dozen or so Russet potatoes, mud-brown from the garden. The Halworths enjoy leftovers, it’s just easier—so they cook more than they can eat. Howard’s father scrubs and peels each potato, searching with fastidious fingers for rogue eyes and sneaky skin. Howard stands at his father’s side, double-checking the spuds for ‘bad bits’, before placing them in the deep blue plastic bowl on the side.
Howard’s father teaches English Literature at Bristol University. He has published a book of short stories ‘How to Remember Everything You Have Ever Seen’, a handful of critical reviews and one fabulously successful novel, ‘Arresting Anne’, inspired by the true story of Karl Josef Silberbauer, the SS officer responsible for the capture of Anne Frank.
‘What do you see?’ asks Howard’s father, eyes trained through the large kitchen window at the fields beyond.
‘The sky is blue and the—‘
‘What kind of blue?’
Howard takes a moment to think, cocking his head to one side. He is just fifteen and as tall as his father, though not as broad.
‘Deep blue. Opal blue. I see only a few clouds, stratus, far away on the horizon.’
Howard searches the landscape while his father waits with a patient smile, tending to the potatoes without dropping his head from the view. With each new observation Howard’s father nods and grunts in encouragement.
‘The apple trees are starting to bud pink. The one down by the road’s already got its first white blossom. Milly and Dimples are lying under the oak in Mr. Burke’s field, in the shade. It’s noon so there isn’t much of it.’
‘Don’t think so—not today.’
Howard’s mother enters with a basket of laundry. Her hands are full and she takes small steps, careful but deliberate, feeling ahead with her feet.
‘Howard dear could you give me a hand pairing the socks?’
‘But I’m helping Dad—‘
‘Go and help your mother.’
‘But the bad bits—’
‘I’ll be extra careful.’
Howard huffs, slouching away from the sink, and takes the basket from his smiling mother.
‘Thank you dear.’
‘After lunch I thought I’d pop to the shops, if you’d like to come?’
‘What do you need?’ Howard asks, trying not to let the worry into his voice, though of course she must know. His parents hear everything.
‘Just some bits and bobs—‘
‘Well I need cream for tomorrow’s trifle, washing up liquid and stamps.’
‘I can get that.’
‘And rice and toilet paper.’
‘Let’s go together.’
The Halworths live in a small farmhouse just outside of Frome, Somerset. The front door leads almost directly into the kitchen, with only a small, tiled area for coats and umbrellas and muddy shoes.
The kitchen and dining room are combined, with a dark-varnished pine table taking up much of the narrow room, and a cream Aga occupying the rest. A sticky fly-catcher strip hangs from the ceiling above the table, crunchy-black with bodies.
While much of the kitchen is worn and used, the microwave is state-of-the-art. It reads out the options available to you, as well as your selections as you make them. Howard’s father is particularly enamoured, ‘I could roast a chicken in that,’ he often says, but never does.
The adjoining living room houses an old piano, in perfect tune, a green worn armchair and a long yellow leather sofa facing the fireplace. There is a small black and white TV that is rarely on and an old FM radio that is never off. Classic FM usually, sometimes Radio 1. There are no pictures on the walls, of Howard or his parents, though Howard’s mother has a small photo album under her bed that she will give to him if he asks.
Howard lays the table precisely. The tall wooden salt and pepper mills stand in the middle, with salt on his mother’s left and father’s right and pepper on his father’s left and mother’s right. Howard fills a shining pewter jug with water from the kitchen sink. It has a large overhanging lip, a slim throat and a generous bottom—‘Let the water run, dear’—and he does, so it is cold.
Lunch is fish and chips, a special recipe. His father bakes the fish in the oven so it’s safer, but Howard doesn’t think it tastes as good.
‘Howard dear could you pass your mother the water?’ His father says, staring at the ceiling.
‘I already poured her some.’
‘Thank you, my love,’ says Howard’s mother, contemplating her napkin.
They eat, in silence for the most part, his parents grunting their approval, ‘Oh yes,’ if something good comes on the radio.
‘The marrows are nearly ripe—tomatoes are looking good too,’ says Howard’s father, smiling at the skirting. ‘It’ll be ratatouille for the next month.’
After lunch, Howard’s mother sings and plays the piano; a stripped down, sombre take on Dorothy Moore’s Misty Blue, which she delivers in a surprising, husky contralto, while Howard’s father listens to an audiobook of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s A Short Autobiography, set to twice the speed, the chirruping, chipmunk narrator just audible from the adjoining study.
As he leaves the house, Howard is intercepted by Milly and Dimples, who greet him warmly with warm, wet tongues and black grins. They watch stupidly as he shuts the gate leading to the drive and sets of down the winding B-road towards town.
Bramble, Bricks, Tato, Ginger, Lucy, Oscar, Buckles—the Halworths have had many dogs but it doesn’t hurt any less to see one go. Milly is nine now so will be taken away in a year or so and then there’ll be a new friend for Dimples, who’s only five. Howard wants a German Shepherd but his mother likes Labradors, and the dogs are for them, not him.
Most of the land surrounding their house is owned by Mr. Burke, a local dairy farmer, and the Halworths bought their small farmhouse from him when they were expecting Howard. Moving from Bristol was a little inconvenient but they wanted Howard to have some space to grow up in; besides, it’s a straight fifteen-minute walk to Frome and you can catch a bus to Bristol at the bottom of their road.
Howard veers off the road and ducks under a fence. The ground is thick with poppies and wildflowers and he kicks at clumps of earth thrown up by tractor tyres as he makes his way across to the shallow stream on the other side.
It is late August, the air is heavy with pollen and before him lies a shining ocean of blackberries, more than he could ever eat; unbelievably fat, some as big as a fifty pence piece. Howard takes a handkerchief from the satchel slung over his shoulder—his father’s, from his student days—and fills it with the ripest, fattest berries he can find, before tying it up and placing it carefully back in the bag. He finds a spot in the bushes, a well-trodden path where the thorns have been beaten back, and slips through to the bank of the stream, which he traverses carefully, picking his way across to the woods on the other side.
It is cooler here; there is shade from the sun and a sudden stillness. There is no shrubbery, just dry, decaying leaves and tall austere pines, ten feet apart, springing from the earth like hairs on the back of a brown giant’s hand, and Howard proceeds quietly, fancying he could stir the sleeping titan.
His footfalls are light and he walks heel-to-toe, a trick he learned as a boy evading his parents’ attentions. When he was four or five he’d once come across the front door wide open, a singular occurrence in a household where his every movement was carefully policed. Howard, fearing an intruder, ran to hide and of course when the breach was discovered there was pandemonium. He remembered his mother, red and ragged with worry, screaming in the living room, first crouching, then on her knees searching for her boy with scrabbling, clawing hands, while his father shouted in the rain outside. At first it was funny—as real human tragedy can be for toddlers and the criminally insane. Then Howard was afraid, at this outpouring of raw emotion; that he might never be able to put his parents back together again, but by then it was too late to reveal himself—too much time had passed. His parents enlisted the help of Mr. Burke and the school down the road was searched. In the end the police were summoned and only when an officer arrived to take notes was little Howard discovered, peeking out from behind the curtains in the living room. His parents cried into his hair for an hour.
Howard emerges from the other side of the trees, stopping to savour the view. It’s not much: a railway bridge—a rising mound of grassy earth over a small concrete tunnel, but it’s as close to heaven as a sheltered child can get. This is where the older boys and a couple of the faster girls come to waste their time. They drink bad vodka and smoke weak cigarettes and tag the walls with paint. DRIK, DEBZ, FEELA…Howard hasn’t plucked up the courage to add his, since they’ve only just accepted him into the group, but he is becoming increasingly popular, in spite of, or even on account of, his public school accent and careful manners. Howard is the polite little boy they corrupt with cigarettes and swear words.
Today the tunnel is deserted and Howard is disappointed. He was hoping to see Debbie—DEBZ—again. Debbie is fourteen and small, with a tiny waist a hands-width wide and improbably large breasts. She has dark brown hair, usually scraped back in a high ponytail and bright blue eyes that she rings in thick black kohl. She speaks with a smirk: life is a dry joke and only she knows the punch line. And when she looks at Howard, her eyes linger for longer than is proper, putting snakes in his guts and more below.
Debbie’s boyfriend Dennis is seventeen and tall and lean and terrifying. The sides of his head are shaved down to his scalp but a lank mullet grows at the back. He looks permanently dirty, but striking—with high cutting cheekbones, hooded eyes, a small straight nose and full lips, he is handsome in a pointy, mean way. Howard doesn’t stand a chance, and Dennis hijacks his thoughts of Debbie to remind him of the fact.
Howard takes off his satchel and throws it up the steep bank above the tunnel, before grabbing the concrete buttress and hauling himself up onto the grass. He crawls up, careful to lean forward so he doesn’t lose his balance, and climbs till he finds his seat, a slight dip in the earth forming a ledge, a depression in which he can comfortably sit and survey the surrounding country.
Howard takes the handkerchief out of his satchel and unties it, laying the berries out beside him. Next, he takes out a fresh pack of Lucky Strikes, flicking the base so a single cigarette pops up, then turning it and replacing it in the pack like Dennis does. That’s the lucky one. You smoke it last. He selects another cigarette and lights it on the first try, only lightly singeing his eyebrows. Howard’s head is spinning within seconds; he lies back on the grass, turning his face to the cosmic blue and smiles. It is quiet; the kind of quiet you only get in deep country and high summer, when every creature with any sense is dozing in the shade.
Howard’s hair is thick and long and arranged in a high centre-parting. His eyes are a light, fallow brown and he is not unattractive. His face is not angular like Dennis’ and sadly, with puberty, it is losing its budding, cherubic charm, but he is not unattractive. Howard is earnest. Howard is honest.
Howard finishes the cigarette and flicks it away, then folds his hands over his abdomen, enjoying his swimming head, the thick taste of tobacco smoke and this infinite freedom. Up here he is invisible, suspended out of time. He can sit and smoke with life on hold. He is High King of the West Country and summer might never end.
Howard’s mind turns to school. It feels like forever away but soon enough it will be September, and with it the train and classes and chapel and lights out and morning bells and muddy boots and braying boys. There are no girls, no Debbie. It is strange at first but you get used to it. Without girls life is more innocent—more honest. Howard runs through the most popular boys in his year: Archie, Chris, Billy, James, Al, Ed, Olly, Tom, Rob, Nick and Freddie. And of course Madoc. Does Howard’s name fit in there? His face? He is taller now—sprouted a couple of centimetres even since June. Maybe he’ll try out for rugby and get a chance to talk to Madoc then. If he could only get them to notice him, as Dennis and Debbie have, he knows they could all get on.
Howard selects a blackberry and pops it into his mouth, crushing it against his palate, savouring the bursting, bitter-sweet tang. He has a couple more but is still thirsty, so decides against a second cigarette, and instead gathers his things, slides down the bank and sets off again in the direction of Frome.
Howard prefers to visit town alone, as he is often embarrassed by his parents.
Sometimes people stop to fondle the dogs.
‘You’re not supposed to pet them when they’re in the harness,’ Howard was supercilious as a child, but now he just does his best to ignore the general public and urges his parents on.
On his fourteenth birthday the family visited La Bisalta on Vicarage street for dinner. At the next table, twin teenage girls not much younger than Howard, sat spellbound as his mother and father felt their way through three Italian courses, with Milly and Dimples panting patiently at their sides.
‘People are staring at us.’
‘Then stare back for us.’
But Howard didn’t have the nerve, so instead sat with his head bowed, growing red with resentment, first for the shame at his parents and then for the guilt he felt thrust upon him.
Howard takes the direct route back home, slouching along the snaking road up to the farmhouse. It is late afternoon but the sun is still deceptively strong, and Howard grows tired of squinting, so instead closes his eyes completely, seeing how far he can travel in the red-dark. He excels at this game at home where all is familiar, but out here the road is winding and uneven and soon enough, he is grazing his face on the hedges along the side.
There is a sudden light squeaking—or perhaps it was always there, piercing the ambient sound like crumbs on a bedspread, imperceptible till you’re on them and then it’s all you can feel—a chorus of desperate, ragged cries rising from the blackberry bush in front of him. Howard crouches down and parts the low branches to find three kittens in a small nest. The largest one is a deep blue-black, while the other two are smaller and tawny, one with a white ear and the other, a white paw.
Back home, Howard creeps quietly through the front door into the kitchen. He would normally remove is shoes, as the Halworths enforce a strict no-shoe policy, but he is keen to make it to his room undetected.
He traverses the kitchen unmolested; his father sits at the dinner table with a hot lemon and a book, his fingers flying lightly over the pages. The sitting room is vacated and Howard feels a palpable rush of relief as he crosses it to the foot of the stairs.
His mother stands at the top of the stairs, her hand on the banister and her ear pointed at him, white eyes on the wall.
Howard feels the guilty warm weight of his young charges in his satchel and holds down the flap to muffle their cries.
‘There’s no sound.’
Howard draws the satchel to him as his mother descends the stairs.
‘What have you got?’
‘They were alone.’ Howard says by way of an explanation.
His mother feels her way into the satchel, exploring the contents with eyebrows furrowed and eyes locked on the mid-distance. She removes her hand and sighs heavily.
‘Oh dear—we’ve been through this. You mustn’t bring strays home with you, they carry all sorts of awful diseases,’ When she says ‘all sorts’ her voice is high and lofty, nearly cracking with the pitch.
‘Ticks and all sorts of nasty things.’
‘I’m old enough to make my own decisions!’ Howard says, stamping his foot and sweeping his curtains away from his eyes.
‘Now Howard you watch your tone with your mother,’ his father booms from the doorway to the living room.
‘What about the poor mummy cat? What happens when she comes back to find her beautiful little babies have been stolen?’
‘She could’ve abandoned them—you don’t know!’
‘You know what, if she comes back and her babies smell of you she’ll eat them,’ Howard’s father lowers his voice to deliver this piece of macabre trivia.
‘So which is it?! Do you want me to give them back or not? You people are so annoying!’
‘Calm down dear—you’re being unreasonable.’
‘How would you like it if someone stole you from us?’
‘It would be just marvellous!’ Howard replies shrilly, throwing his hands up into the air, an effect that is entirely lost on his parents.
‘Oh dear, Howard.’
Howard brandishes two middle fingers, one for each parent, and thrusts out his tongue for good measure.
His mother gasps, clutching at phantom pearls, ‘I saw that.’
‘How—saw what? I didn’t do anything!’ With this final exhortation, Howard’s voice breaks and he storms out of the house, tears hot on his ruddy cheeks.
The days immediately following New Year’s had not be kind to Howard. Indeed, he had never felt so wretched. Some men are blessed with an opportune forgetfulness, an ability to forget one’s ignominious acts from the night before. Not so for Howard, who, saving for the hour or so between being spiked and losing his shirt, was all too familiar with what had transpired that night.
He had completely blown his chance to prove himself a man deserving of Anna’s love. He had conducted himself in shameful fashion—first, all but begging for her affection, and then spectacularly losing all self-control. He remembered every stupid thing he’d said and done, each poor soul he had badgered—their fear and irritation, of which at the time he had been oblivious, but now weighed so heavily on him. His chest, which was still sore from the altercation in Superstore, was a constant physical reminder of his transgressions. He raked over his hot shame, sometimes crying aloud, barking involuntarily, guttural cries of anguish at each revisited humiliation. Every pure thought was polluted with thick, black, suffocating memories from that ruinous night.
And he was sick. God—how sick. He battled a low-level nausea which threatened to undo him at every turn, and his night sweats, which had eased with his lightening mood in the days preceding New Year’s, now returned with a hellish vengeance. Alone in their flat, he suffered grotesque hallucinations and night terrors: a sleep-waking paralysis where he knew he was sleeping and wished to wake, but couldn’t find the impetus to move, to even open his eyes—a waking coma. Small children played menacingly in hidden corners of the apartment, there was a hissing, alien whispering late at night and once he woke to find an old woman standing in the room with her back to him, a woollen shawl about her shoulders, transfixed by the wall. Most distressing of all, his fainting spells were worse than ever—now all that was required to set off the electric surge and inevitable black-out was a sudden eye movement, or an awkward tilt of the head.
Howard hid indoors for six straight days, hunched and shivering in his tartan dressing gown. He survived off crackers and orange juice. The bed made him seasick so he slept on the floor. On the seventh day Howard scraped himself upright, washed, dressed and went to work.
‘We’re concerned you’re becoming depressive.’
René and Flame spoke to him through the chainlink fence of the Martin Primary School playground. They had arrived uninvited, Howard having dodged a week of their calls, and they were holding hands, the scumbags. René was looking so genuinely concerned, Howard wanted to kick his face off. René was supposed to be the sad, desperate one, not he.
‘I’m not depressed—I’m sad. It’s normal to be sad when something sad happens.’
‘You’re looking very thin,’ said Flame with a pained expression.
‘And you’ve grown that beard,’ added René, who’s motivation could only have been envy.
‘Lots of men have beards.’
‘But yours is becoming quite unruly,’ René quipped, half raising his hand, the one that wasn’t clutching Flame’s, to his chin self-consciously. He stopped himself in time and pretended to adjust his tie instead.
Flame tried a softer touch, ‘You know there are all sorts of creams...or lotions that you could use to groom—’
‘I’m expressing myself—leave me alone.’
Why was René wearing a tie? Who the hell was he trying to impress? The man had no job and lived with his mother, yet he thought it necessary to come down here to condescend to Howard. Things were worse than he imagined.
‘It’s just that...since New Year’s—’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
They were interrupted by the sound of a throat being cleared, and then a quiet, calculating voice joined the conversation, ‘My mummy says not to talk to strange men with beards.’
Young Martha Kent—how long had she been standing there? She wore a black puffer jacket a few sizes to big over her school uniform, making her more adorable than was empirically possible.
‘Not now Martha—go and play,’ Howard huffed.
Martha wasn’t fazed, but took her time to scrutinise René and Flame, who fell victims to her charms and could do nothing but smile back, idiotically.
‘Why are you so black?’ Martha enquired of Flame, levelling her index finger at her to ward off any confusion as to the object of her query.
René gasped and put a hand to his chest, a scandalised southern belle. Howard felt light-headed.
Flame’s icy reply, ‘Because God loves me more than you.’
René’s hand rose to his open mouth as he turned to witness his lover in this new light. Her jaw was clenched and eyebrows raised in a worrying manner.
Martha seemed oblivious to the tension. She took Flame’s riposte at face value and turned it over; tipping her head from side to side and alternatingly considering the sky then the ground, as she teased out all the logical implications of the statement.
‘Well he’s got a funny way of showing it,’ Martha eventually replied, before turning on her heel and skipping away.
The trio watched Martha gambol up to a boy in her class, take a tennis ball from his surprised hand and cheerfully push him over, before hopping away to join her friends.
‘I’m sorry about her,’ Howard said. ’She can be a real cunt.’
‘I’m defending you.’
‘She’s a toddler.’
‘She’s is a cunt though. You saw—’
‘Stop it Howard. It sounds like you don’t like women,’ René admonished, placing a reassuring hand on Flame’s shoulder.
‘Why of course.’
‘What do you like about them?’
‘What is the common trait that all women share, which presumably men don’t possess, that you find so endearing?’
René winced with the mental contortions he was being forced to perform.
‘Are they sweeter? More innocent perhaps? Are women generally kinder than men?’ Howard pressed.
René licked his lips nervously and shot Flame a pleading look, which she refused to acknowledge. He was on his own.
‘Now look here man you’re not being entirely fair. We came here in good faith to buck you up and honestly, well I’m starting to regret it,’ pouted René, stuffing his hands into his pockets.
‘I think you’ve been spending a little too much time with Madoc,’ Flame said to Howard with narrowed eyes.
‘Well we could all do by taking a leaf out of his book. Madoc isn’t afraid of anything or anyone and he doesn’t suffer fools and neither shall I, so thank you and good day.’
With that Howard turned his back on his friends and his attentions to his shrieking class.
Flame kissed her teeth, ‘I’ve got to get to work,’ and swept away, but René hovered for a bit, fingers laced through the diamonds in the wire fence, looking compassionately at Howard’s back. Eventually Howard heard him give up and trot after his woman.
Howard unclenched his fists and swayed. The effort of staying rigidly upright had brought tears to his eyes, but that particular spell had passed. He felt rotten, but he wouldn’t trade on pity. His friends could do nothing for him and there was nothing for it. Here he stood, on the distant edge of the longest third of his life with nothing to show for it. No money, no honey, no sun. Even his memories were no solace, tied up as they were with Anna, tainted by the despair he felt at losing her.
Lamenting her tardiness, Flame hailed a cab and René fell in with her, quite sure she would have left him behind if he had deliberated for even a moment. He had noticed a certain strain on their relationship in recent days, deriving particularly from his state of employment. Now that the holiday period had come to a close, the conscientious, civilised world that Flame inhabited was back to work, yet René was still relentlessly unemployed, and appeared to have entirely given up job-hunting altogether.
‘Why don’t you try bar work?’ Flame had offered combatively, knowing full well he thought it beneath him.
‘Or you could drive a bus? I hear bus drivers are awfully well-paid.’
‘You’d like that wouldn’t you? Perhaps I could wear sackcloth and grow potatoes in a bucket,’ René had fired back. ‘Or pan the sewers for shrapnel.’
‘You’re being hysterical,’ said Flame, down her nose in that cold, removed way she had. ‘I’m only trying to help.’
The more René demurred the less she thought of him, he knew, and yet he had no answers and no options conveniently presenting themselves. The more time passed, the less relevant he grew to the world. He couldn’t go back to work now. How could he possibly explain the yawning gap in his CV to any prospective employer? Could this spate of irresponsibility, this extended adolescence, be convincingly passed off as a sabbatical? Study leave? Perhaps he was recuperating from some grave illness? Yes, that could work. Something sad and romantic, not cancer—he didn’t have the constitution for it and besides, looking so tired all the time could prove exhausting. No, he’d need something a little more remote. Obscure enough to be exotic, but not so interesting that anyone would care to look it up. Mumps? Too pedestrian. Scarlet fever? A little fantastic. Crohn’s disease? He’d heard the term somewhere but had never quite understood—it sounded pretty debilitating. As long as he didn’t have to affect a limp or apply any make-up he was sure he could pass off a chronic illness. It’s all in the eyes anyway. One part defiance, one part dignified resignation, with just a smattering of abject terror. It was quite the trick but René was sure he could look terribly brave for an hour or so, just until they gave him the damned job, whatever that turned out to be. Maybe he could see if—
‘What are you muttering?’
‘Just now—you were talking to yourself.’ Flame spoke with a soft, twisted smile on her lips—a condescending smirk that softened René’s bones like salted butter under a Sicilian sun.
He tried to be aloof, ‘I’m sure you’re mistaken.’
‘I’m certain I’m not.’
René went on the offensive, ‘When do you suppose you might consider Arabella’s proposal?’
Flame leaned back in the seat and shook her head, ‘I’m still amazed you have the nerve to ask. I must be getting soft.’
‘You understand it’s for both our sakes?’
‘How’s that?’ Flame giggled then straightened her face.
‘And you did say you would make it up to me.’
‘Is this blackmail?’
‘Heavens, no. Well, only of the emotional sort.’
Flame exhaled in a long, whistling run, tracing the trajectory of a falling bomb.
‘And you’re quite sure she asked for me?’ she pressed, not because the notion was unthinkable, but simply so she could hear it again.
‘Is it so incredible?’ René asked, slightly tiring of the game.
‘I just didn’t have her down as the type.’
René let Flame flatter herself, and was tense with anticipation as she turned to contemplate the traffic. It wasn’t cold, for January, but her breath still fogged up the glass.
They were in the area and would soon have to part ways. René oozed desperation—it sloshed up the sides of the black cab. He needed an affirmative.
Eventually, she spoke in a torrent, ‘No, I’m afraid there’s nothing for it. It’s out of the question.’
‘For god’s sake, why?’
‘How would it look? Carrying on like that.’
‘Who cares what people think? And who would tell?’
‘Why you of course.’
‘Me?’ René gushed, trying not to blink. ‘I wouldn’t tell a soul. I swear.’
‘What would your mother think?’
‘Are you kidding? She’d be beside herself. She thinks I’m an autist.’
‘I mean about me.’
René turned to face her, ‘Do you care so, my darling?’ he said with a wide smile and shining eyes.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, I just don’t want to disappoint the woman. I respect her.’
‘Then grant her only boy the most wonderful night of his life.’
‘Oh get over it.’
‘Do you want me to beg? Is that it? Because I’ll beg.’
René struggled to his knees, positioning himself like a young boy receiving communion, then crossed his eyes and drew the tight, flat, wide-lipped smile of a buffoon. Flame laughed, obligingly.
‘You did say you’d make it up to me.’
‘I was drugged.’
‘So you meant nothing that night?’
‘I tell you I don’t enjoy it and here you are forcing my hand, and into something so outrageous—’
‘I don’t believe that you don’t enjoy it.’
‘So I’m a fraud?’
‘No, my dove—only you must admit you get off on being withholding.’
‘You do say the most remarkable things,’ Flame said, quietly smiling out of the window.
‘Who knows, you might really like the girl.’
‘And you would be OK with that?’
‘Why not? If it made you happy,’ René said with a stony face.
‘What if we fell in love?’
‘I would squeeze the life from her with my bare hands,’ René growled.
Flame barked a laugh then called to the cabbie, ‘Just here on the left please.’
She paid the man and climbed out.
‘I notice you aren’t worried about me falling in love,’ René ventured.
Flame gave him a pitying look,’You can take the cab home—I’ve paid it.’
‘Is that a yes?’ René called out of the window.
Flame winked, ‘I wouldn’t want to be withholding would I?’
Madoc awoke feet first, kicking out at the new day. He rubbed the shadows from his face, sucked in the morning and flashed his canines in an expansive yawn. He took stock of himself, running a mental checklist of his aching feet, tense back, weak arms and skittering, nervous heart. It could be worse but frankly, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Madoc wasn’t an addict, but he so wanted to be. He wanted to feel tragic, to suffer and in his suffering absolve himself.
His vanity, self-pity and detached logic couldn’t disguise it, and all the ice packed around his proud heart couldn’t keep it. It clung to him like a limpet and here exposed in the cold morning light, he felt the whole world could see it.
He loved the girl. He loved her and he barely knew her. She would restore his faith, in life and himself. She would see the good in him and draw it out even as he fought to hide it. For he was good, Madoc knew it. He was a good man in revolt and it was time to come home, but he needed Anna and this child, his child, to make any sense of it, to give his life the taste and texture of the purpose he needed to swallow it.
With some effort and this new realisation, Madoc could almost block out all thoughts of Nana and the night before, of the pair they had passed by the canal, the young woman smiling discreetly at the adorable gay interracial couple weaving across their path—this tall handsome man and his small dark companion, clinging together in what must have been a lovers’ embrace, as Madoc in fact hauled Nana’s very heavy and very dead body down the thin, winding path between a rock and a wet place, his inflated lateral muscles straining, lungs heaving, cocaine singing in his blood.
And he could barely recall the stiff tarpaulin bag replete with loose concrete and cinder blocks lying in the grass almost at his feet as he collapsed in the dark, unable to take a single step further with Nana’s cooling body pulling him down. Dead weight—there’s nothing heavier than dead. Except loose concrete and cinder blocks and Madoc could hardly remember now, as he sucked the blue smoke from his new old bottle-pipe in the grey light of day, the weight of the blocks he had removed individually, wrestling them out of the bag, then restacking them back, this time on top of Nana’s now stiffening shape. And the ragged rocks of discarded concrete he added for good measure, he had entirely completely totally almost forgotten how they roughed up his palms, and froze his fingertips, and how his knuckles cracked and bled as he hauled the tarpaulin bag to the edge of the canal—a black, fallen figure straining in the moonlight, till finally at the lip of land that meets the water, he was able to complete his work with a slight, delicate tip of his foot, plunging all evidence he could think of, or part with, into the oily black depths for what he had to believe was forever.
Madoc turned his collar up against the sideways, razor-rain and held the warmth of his phone against his cheek. There were worse places to spend a morning—his sad, sanitised flat being one of them. Here there was life, or at least echoes of it. The canal boats squatted heavy in the water, resentful in the rain, and a keen young pigeon pecked optimistically at his feet.
Peck on, pigeon. You’re the cock of the walk, for now, but this town brings us all down in the end and one day soon it’ll be you and your cooling body laid out in the rain, neck broken, or stomach exploded with poison, kicked about by forces too magnificent for you to comprehend. And no one will mourn you lowly pigeon, so peck on.
‘Madoc.’ The voice at the end of the line was all at once imperious, tentative and far further than the straight distance between them.
Madoc was at a loss. He had contacted Montgomery Senior almost reflexively, to stay his hand from calling Anna.
‘Speak up son, I’m in the thick of it.’
‘Is that gunfire?’
‘...I’m on a boat.’
That wasn’t an answer but Madoc wasn’t in the mood for riddles.
‘It’s just...all got a bit busy,’ Madoc mumbled. And then he remembered something from that last morning with Anna, while she had her head on his chest and he could feel his heartbeat reverberating sickeningly against her. She had reached an arm over him, drawing herself closer and begun, strangely, to caress his elbow, of all places. He had ignored it at first, or perhaps wasn’t even conscious of it, but she had persevered, staring up into his averted eyes as she tickled and pinched, plucking the skin of his elbow till eventually he relented and asked her what on earth she thought she was doing.
‘I’m getting into your head,’ had been her enigmatic reply.
‘Through my elbow?’
She laughed lightly and continued to tease.
‘Well, Madoc dear,’ Anna had said sweetly, batting her lids, ‘I hate to burden you like this, but did you know, that your lovely right hand has never touched your exquisite right elbow?’
And so it hadn’t, not before or since, nor would it ever, and for some reason that filled Madoc with an infinite dread; a blinding sadness and a deep sense of loss, of a fractured self, as if that very basic fact of human physiology was somehow indicative, not just of death, for in time we will all of us be forever lost to each other, but also of the curious twist of Life: the vain attempt by an impenetrable universe to experience itself. A hand forever straining to touch its elbow.
‘Is it money?’ Madoc’s father asked, wrenching him into the present. Marcus wasn’t being impatient, just efficient, and Madoc knew this and loved him for it. He searched for the right words and strung several together in his head. Marcus should be pleased his son had finally found someone he liked, however ignoble the circumstances, and a grandchild was always welcome, wasn’t it? Perhaps he would understand then, the measures Madoc had taken a few nights before, for his future, his child. If anyone could understand, surely it were Marcus? But Madoc’s words faltered in his open mouth, tripping and tumbling off his tongue and into the cracks, the sucking abyss between the paving stones of their experiences. His father would never know him as he wished to be known, or understand him as he needed to be understood. Nor could he pretend to do the same for his old man, this superhero—this great man of action who made millions at sea or in the desert. There was too much noise, too much interference in the white matter in and above their heads. He felt the hopelessness of the task ahead, of a hand straining to touch its elbow, and felt his will slip away.
‘Are you crying?’
Madoc realised too late that his face was leaking, his body racking with hissing sobs, and hung up before he could further disgrace himself.
At home, Howard felt better with the first day of school behind him, and for reasserting himself in front of his friends. They really were insufferably smug and what Flame saw in René would forever escape Howard. She was a handsome woman, not as lovely as Anna, and Howard still felt a surge of pride knowing this, but Flame had a unique and striking beauty that should be well out of the reach of a chancer like René. She was stooping to join him, and for what? The man didn’t even have a job, how she could maintain any level of respect for him was a mystery.
Howard felt better and worse at once, working his anger, and elected to stew in his bitterness by running a large, hot bubble bath. He removed his clothes, folding them neatly on a chair before gingerly stepping and lowering himself into the bath—when the room erupted. The walls shook, the water jumped and boiled, and Howard was struck by a great tsunami of sound. For a moment he feared an earthquake or the Rapture, but his frantic mind soon identified the noise as music: electronic, abrasive and played at an antisocial volume from the neighbouring flat.
Howard leapt from the bath, mad at the intrusion, his bitter mood turned to righteous rage. He recalled his neighbour, a sour-looking woman who’s name he and Anna had never bothered to learn. She’d scowled at them from her front door on the day they’d moved in and hadn’t even returned their friendly ‘hello’, but instead had shuffled into her flat and bolted the door pointedly.
Howard exploded out of the flat, bare feet flapping on concrete, fastening his tartan dressing gown around his wet and soapy nudity, and marched round to the vile woman’s front door, which he discovered with incredulity was flung wide open, belching that infernal racket.
He called into the flat with an indignant ‘Excuse me?’ but his voice was crushed by the rolling wall of drum ‘n’ bass.
‘Hello!’ Howard projected into the space but could barely hear himself. He took a step over the threshold and called again.
The floor was a cheap faux wood linoleum, much like the one in his flat, though this one bore more wear and tear. The walls were a worrying shade of red that Howard remembered from elsewhere but couldn’t place.
Now well inside the flat, Howard could divine the source of the noise: a back room off the corridor at the end. The sitting room to his left, which housed a large flat screen and pulled-out futon, showed no signs of life, so he pressed on, inching down the corridor and calling out every other step of the way, the sanctuary of the front door sliding away behind him.
With his head turned to take in the greasy disarray of the kitchen, a small shape broke into his peripheral vision. A child, no older than four, had appeared at the t-junction at end of the corridor. She wore an old t-shirt of a Disney princess and absolutely nothing else, and the sudden sight of the her tiny, pink crease punched the air from Howard’s lungs. He saw his father’s face. Howard’s future streaked hot across his mind’s eye, and icy dread filled his veins. He needed to not be here, immediately.
Howard raised his hands slowly, placatingly, and the child screamed, of course, cutting through the din like an electric saw on stone. His neighbour, the mean old woman with no name, rushed from a dark, dank recess of the flat to the child’s side and at first was entirely oblivious to Howard’s presence. Only when the nude girl raised an accusatory finger, did the old woman notice and then recognise the bearded, wild-man Howard, her features jerking, sliding and rearranging themselves through shock, terror and red rage in the time it took to fully turn her head.
Howard back-pedalled but the woman was faster and caught him halfway to the front door, flailing madly—beating and kicking and cursing him. Howard tried, between falling fists, to explain his position, but to no avail. He was an accidental pervert, but a pervert nonetheless, deserving of castration, exile, electrocution, drowning and to be torn apart by wild dogs. Howard even felt guilty, though he knew he was innocent, such was the strength of her condemnation, the weight of her assumption.
Back in his flat and with the neighbour’s music now switched off, reproachful, judgemental silence descended, and Howard slowly and shakily dressed for what he knew must be coming. The bath was wasted, left cooling, as Howard pulled on a grey suit, with a black tie, white shirt and dark brown brogues. If large men with guns were coming to take him away it wouldn’t be in his dirty, tartan dressing gown, like some furtive masturbator. Howard looked at himself in the long mirror in the bedroom and, satisfied that he was ready, sat down to weep for fear and shame.
It was a full twenty minutes before the knock on the door came, a thunderous booming that rattled Howard’s nerves. At the front door, the knock came again, harder this time, shaking the door in its frame. Howard opened it to reveal a greying, painfully overweight man with a blotched, jowly face and cruel, puffy eyes. He stank of cigarettes and wore a hi-vis jacket stretched over his paunch, with a yellow helmet clasped in one hand. He was a little taken aback at the sight of Howard’s suit but rallied.
‘What you doing in my house?’ The man said, breathless and doing a poor job of hiding it.
‘This is my house—’
‘Next door you cunt. That was my wife and granddaughter.’
‘I’m so sorry sir, it was just—the music was so loud and I was trying to have a bath—’
‘Are you some kind o’ paedo?’
Howard was aghast, ‘Sir, I’m wearing a suit—I called at the front door but no-one could hear me so I went in, just a little bit—’
‘I oughta clobber you. My wife says I oughta clobber you.’
From the expansive gut to the burst blood vessels in his face, Howard could see that any altercation with this man wouldn’t last thirty seconds; but he could tell from his eyes that twenty were all he needed.
‘Sir, I am so deeply sorry—I really meant them no ill-will or harm. I’ve never been in a fight—you see I’m not any kind of threat—’
‘What if I got the coppers down here?’ The fat man said through bared teeth.
Howard was starting to warm to the idea, ‘Of course you must do what you think is right but really sir, I can’t stress enough how sorry I am. I’m not a predator—I’m a teacher,’ Howard said, and then started to question his life choices.
The man raised a hand to Howard’s face, making him flinch, and wagged a large sausage finger at his nose, ‘You stay away from my family.’
‘Of course,’ gushed Howard, and then, ‘Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?’
He wasn’t sure why he said that. The man looked like he’d been invited to an orgy, and nervously scanned the darkness behind him. The last thing Howard wanted was this disgusting man stinking up his flat, splintering his furniture and shattering his crockery with his giant football-sized fists.
The man made a vague, noncommittal sound and backed away. Howard smiled cheerfully and nodded, closing the door slowly and making careful eye contact in what he hoped was a polite and reassuring way, but he suspected looked predatory.
Alone in his flat again, in the warm dark, Howard swore to never leave again. He would order groceries to be delivered and when his money ran out maybe he would venture outside to scavenge, but only at night. And he would need to find an alternative route to his front door, one that didn’t pass by his neighbours’. He would collect rain water in buckets for washing and drinking and steal candles for light. Yes, he would live quite well with nothing and no-one.
Howard thought of disappearing completely, of fading away like innumerable men before him, into the still-wild woodlands of Wales or Scotland. To find a quiet clearing by a still, hidden lake. To pitch his tent, to build a shelter in a place no man had ever been before and sit and think and turn from brooding blood and bone to bark. He was comforted by this last resort, this bold and final act of defiance. He would renounce a world that had no use or need for him and end his life alone. Howard felt comforted and noble and more sorry for himself than he thought possible.
He half missed the light knock on the door, such was the severity of his self-absorption. Instead it came to him in a hazy memory, like a quickly fading dream after a deep afternoon sleep. There had been a knock. Not in his head but on his very real front door. There had been a knock.
Her cheeks were pink and her mousey hair secreted under a pale blue red bobbled woolly hat. She had love in her eyes and his heart in her hands and something else with her; an invisible secret, heavy and terrible—a cannonball in the corridor.
A well-fitted suit will lend even the lowliest man an air of potency, and Anna’s eyes shone when she saw Howard in his, mistaking degraded for debonair.
‘I’ve made a terrible mistake,’ she spoke simply, chewing her lower lip with hands clasped at her front like a young church girl.
Howard was born again.
Madoc felt like an intruder in his own flat as he stood silent in the centre, reacclimatising himself to its sounds and smells: the muffled traffic, looping silver dust and light buzzing of the fridge. How long had he been away? Five days? A week? It felt longer. Madoc could feel the filth in his hair and skin. He made his way across the room to stand in front of the large iron mirror, with its black age spots and honest face. His tux was ruined: torn at the armpit from his assault on Nana, his trousers were irreparably stained and he’d lost his tie, but he still had the cane, Nana’s cane—the snarling silver wolf with bared teeth and ears pinned back. Madoc straightened his back, stretching to his full height. He hadn’t seen his face in a week. His eyes shook imperceptibly in their sockets, juddering his peripheral vision, the hairs on his body were on end and his skin was sore, tender to the touch. He was exhausted, likely malnourished and in the early throes of a wicked cocaine comedown, with the worst still to come, but there was something else, hiding in the lines of his face—a new violence. A dirty look he couldn’t place.
Madoc stripped, carelessly, letting his trashed clothes lie where they fell, without once taking his eyes off himself. He hadn’t touched his weights in weeks, but his body was still hard and muscular, moulded from years of obsessive training, though he looked markedly weaker, leaner, and felt the ensuing surge of guilt at his lack of discipline. Madoc’s eyes were drawn to the twin kettlebells squatting smugly in the corner. Perhaps it was the frustration, or the cooked cocaine, but he had something to prove.
Madoc dragged the bells into position and began to stretch, rolling his shoulders and alternatingly reaching for the ceiling and crouching on the floor. Thirty star jumps later and he was warm, if a little out of breath. He grabbed a bell in each hand and swung them up and clean, clutching each against his chest beneath his chin. He squatted once and felt a twinge in his lower back. Halfway through his second squat a searing electric bolt of agony shot down his right leg, buckling it and bringing fifty-six kilograms of rough cast iron down onto his chest. He thought he heard a crack, but couldn’t think how over his screaming. The pain in his back was oscillating, shooting up to his right shoulder and clavicle and down to his foot, cramping his toes.
Madoc rolled onto his side, which felt worse, then dragged himself toward the mirror and up, till he was face-to-face with his own mortality and saw what he had missed earlier. The genie had left his hooded eyes. The little god had fled his teeth. He couldn’t be alone any more. He couldn’t pretend to be this cold and allow himself to slip further from the world.
Madoc rolled slowly on the spot to turn from the mirror and screamed anew as fresh bursts of agony sprang from his back. Then he felt hands on him and earnest words in his ear and it took a while to separate the real from the fever of pain, but this was definitely Howard Halworth, blessed, kind Howard, in his flat, with his arm round him trying to lift him onto his feet.
‘I heard the screaming,’ Howard panted with the effort. ‘What the hell happened?’
‘How are you here?’ Madoc spat out through clenched teeth. He leaned heavily on his friend, bowing Howard’s head down towards his navel.
‘The door was open—Christ Madoc, your willy is right there man!’ Howard squealed, screwing his eyes shut.
And like this they hobbled, painfully, slowly together toward the kitchen counter, till finally Madoc had something solid to hold onto and steady himself against till the pain subsided. Meanwhile Howard collapsed into a low armchair and mopped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve.
In time, Madoc began to move again, sliding across the counter slowly, sideways like a careful crab, till he reached the fridge, where he was able to retrieve a carton of orange juice. It was old, but good. He offered Howard some without turning, but the man declined.
‘You alright?’ he heard Howard enquire mechanically. All the concern was gone from his voice—he sounded preoccupied. And Madoc couldn’t turn to see Howard’s face which made his tone all the weirder.
‘Getting there. Why are you here?’
‘Anna came to see me.’
The bottom of Madoc’s stomach fell away. What had she told him?
‘She told me she’s pregnant.’
Madoc heard the chair creak behind him as Howard stood up, and felt a hot spike of adrenaline. He picked the carton of orange juice with his left hand and took a long swig, throwing his head back for effect, while his right hand slowly slid a steel kitchen knife out from the block beside the fridge. He put down the carton, closed his eyes and prepared himself for an agonisingly sharp turn but Howard was already upon him. Madoc was caught off guard by the speed and strength of Howard’s grip as he bear-hugged him from behind.
‘I’m so happy.’
For a moment, Madoc thought he had misheard, but as Howard buried his head in the cold sweat between his shoulder blades, he relaxed, letting the long knife slip from his hand onto the counter. What he had taken for assault was in fact a loving embrace. Howard, the poor, sad fucker—he couldn’t be that pathetic, could he? To simply assume the child was his? Bewildered, Madoc carefully turned to confront the man. It was only when he looked into Howard’s face, plastered with fat tears of unbridled pride and joy and the boundless, invincible grin, that he fully understood the noxious truth—the lengths Anna was willing to go, and for what? To protect her from shame? To hurt Madoc?
‘I owe you everything—the way you’ve helped me with her,’ Howard gushed. ‘You’re the reason she’s taking me back, and now I’m going to be a father—’
‘And that’s truly wonderful news—perhaps you could help me into some clothes?’ said Madoc, as nonchalantly as he could.
In the cab, with a head full of codeine and a heart full of spite, Madoc gripped Nana’s cane and tapped out that same deliberate beat on the floor—chnk chnk CHNK. It was a short trip to Flame’s and Madoc was aware that he had nothing to say. He was angry, he knew that much, and was feeling deliciously wronged—one of those rare moments in life where all fault lies unequivocally at the feet of another, and we are martyred—but he had yet to find the words to properly articulate his grievances, since, in truth, he was flattered and not a little titillated at the idea of cuckolding his friend.
But every man has his limits. We must each of us live by our own code; a conflicting array of pithy platitudes, ill-formed philosophies and part-absolutes we cobble together and generously call our honour, and Madoc was mostly sure that allowing his friend to unwittingly raise his child as his own was a bridge too far.
The car slowed to a halt. Madoc paid the cabbie in change and stepped out into spitting Stoke Newington. Flame lived in a basement flat on Cazenove Road, just off Kingsland Road, and this is where, he had learned at New Year’s, Anna had been claiming sanctuary since leaving Howard. It was early evening and already dark and Madoc loitered across the road from the front door for ten minutes or so, feeling self-conscious in his deep blue Ted Baker suit and waistcoat. It was one of his cheaper outfits, unfitted though still well-fitting, and in his haste he had neglected to wear a tie, so was now concerned he could be mistaken for some kind of salesman, or an Italian—they are endemic in this part of London.
Madoc could see into both bedrooms of the flat through the long rectangular windows low in the street wall and spotted Flame shuffle into the one on the left, kick off her shoes and collapse onto the bed. The other room must be Anna’s, he thought, and yes, in time there she was, cloaked in a white dressing gown, with a pale, pink towel turban-wrapped around her head. Madoc crossed the road like a cat, then squatted by her window and knocked softly. Anna shot a look up, drawing her dressing gown tight across her chest. Soon she recognised that it was Madoc crouching in the dark, and her trepidation turned to delight, though she feigned annoyance.
Anna had to stand on her tiptoes to reach the window, and cracked it open, allowing Madoc to slide in on his stomach. He misjudged the distance to the floor and caught her bedside table with his foot, pivoting dangerously, sending her possessions clattering about, before landing awkwardly by her bed. Unable to overlook the damage he had wrought, Madoc swept his long black fringe back over his undercut with a majestic flourish, then threw his arms up, mimicking an Olympic gymnast after a dismount.
‘Don’t worry, I probably didn’t need that lamp,’ Anna quipped.
‘Then why did you have it?’
She gave him a withering look, ‘Had you considered how you might get back out?’
‘I hadn’t thought that far ahead.’
‘It’s becoming a habit.’
‘Oh zing.’ Madoc said drily and eased himself into Anna’s bed, lengthways and with his shoes of course still on. Anna was irked but didn’t want to seem precious so bit her tongue, and Madoc felt the familiar warm glow of control.
‘Are you hurt?’ Anna gestured to the silver wolf-cane Madoc had clasped to his chest, as if in death.
‘It’s just for the look of it,’ Madoc replied, shifting to relieve the throbbing in his back.
Anna moved to the far side of the room and made a show of tidying the contents of her wardrobe, and Madoc’s eyes were drawn to the rows of heels and flats lining the chipping walls, each hanging from a hook to make a shimmering multicoloured mass—like shining birds of paradise caught and fixed in some squalid hunter’s cabin.
‘Such East. Very art,’ jibed Madoc.
‘If I leave them on the floor overnight they grow mould,’ Anna said solemnly.
Madoc checked to see if she was joking. She wasn’t.
‘Christ. The shit we put up with in this town,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘I’m not sure you’re in a position to empathise, given you live like a seventies Hugh Hefner, but I appreciate the effort.’
‘Hey—I have problems.’
Anna scoffed dramatically, ‘Like what?’
‘A girl I know is trying to pass off my child as my best friend’s.’
Madoc didn’t look at Anna when he delivered that line, preferring instead to stare smugly at the ceiling and gauge her reaction from the drop in air pressure.
She maintained her composure, though her voice cracked with dread, ‘I’m guessing you didn’t tell him or he would be here—not you.’
‘You can’t expect me to stand by and let—’
‘Howard will make a great father,’ Anna blurted out, then looked away. The implication was clear.
He sat up suddenly, propping himself up on one elbow and fixed her with a leaden stare, ‘It’s my child.’
‘So?’ Anna’s eyes flashed angrily and her jaw jutted out in defiance.
‘So, I have rights,’ Madoc returned, and regretted it. Rights are for women, and the weak.
‘You’re not going to carry it for all these months. And you won’t be there when it’s born.’ Anna shifted her gaze to scrutinise her nails and waited for Madoc to pick up the hint.
‘You don’t need me to tell you you’re special.’
Anna glared at him and fired back without thinking, ‘Maybe I do.’
Love is like an Escher print: the space between the sexes is a twisting and tortuous terrain; an ever-widening gulf that can be traversed by a single step. But you must know where to plant your feet—when to advance and when to retreat.
Madoc saw his future loom terrific before him and had not the stomach for it. Where before he imagined committing to Anna would bestow upon him a new sense of direction, and of purpose, a piece of immortality even, now he only saw drudgery and compromise. Anna would never be as beautiful as she was today, or as uninhibited. Each day forward would be heavier than the last, and what would start as a trickle would soon grow into a maelstrom of bitterness, complacency and disappointment, sucking down every sense of themselves and what they had first seen in each other.
‘Howard tells me. Every chance he gets. He loves me like his next breath.’ Anna took no pleasure in the words as they fell.
‘It’s not perfect but it’s enough.’
‘You would make a cuckold of him?’ The line had sounded better in his head. It felt priggish out loud.
Anna shrugged, matter-of-fact, ‘What does it matter? He wants me, and he wants this baby.’
She placed a hand on her stomach for emphasis and Madoc was surprised by how natural she made the gesture look.
‘We can be happy. The rest is immaterial,’ she added.
‘Then tell him, if it’s so easy.’
‘Why would you wound him like that? Just to prove a point?’
Madoc snorted and shook his head like a disappointed parent, ‘Honour is a male abstraction—I wouldn’t expect you to understand.’
Some great romances take years to burn away, while others are snuffed out in an instant. Madoc felt Anna’s love leave him like air from a loose balloon, and sagged. He saw a great weight lifted from her as she witnessed him in this new, lesser light; and she grew in his eyes, even as he shrank in hers.
‘You’re perfect just the way you are, Madoc,’ Anna said with kindness, but no affection. ‘You’re exactly what you need to be.’ Her voice was low and steady, with a new power. She was aloof and untouchable, as if the pregnancy had conferred on her some new holiness. Madoc wanted to tear the speck of flesh from her womb and with it her new self.
‘You tell him,’ Madoc growled, sad and angry and more in love than ever. ‘You tell him or I will.’
At that very moment the doorbell rang, saving each from the other. They heard Flame answer and her voice register surprise and pleasant recognition, before giving way to a second voice, soft and high and breathless with excitement. It was Howard’s voice, of course, and presumably accompanied by his brain and body.
Anna was the first to react. Casting all pretence aside, she fell upon Madoc, harrying him up out of her bed and onto his feet, ‘Get out! Go—you must go!’
‘Swear you’ll tell him.’
She whispered hoarsely, ‘We can talk again soon—’
‘No—tell him now!’
‘I can’t. Please. I can’t do this alone.’ She cried mouth-first, her lips twisting, forming around her pain, before her eyes watered and spilled over. She pushed against Madoc, softly beating his chest with her fists, but he resisted and stubbornly stood his ground. He had been humiliated, and would now see her suffer the same. Anna clapped both hands over her mouth to mask her panicking voice, her green eyes wide and wet, as the front door closed and voices entered into the hall.
Howard thanked Flame graciously and watched her retire to her room, then stepped lightly to Anna’s door. He thought he heard voices and knocked once before carefully entering.
‘I hope I’m not interrupting?’
Anna stood with her back to him, her pink towel on the floor, and her dressing gown hanging half open, as she strained up onto tiptoes to close the high window to the street.
Howard hurried to her side, and though only a couple of inches taller than her, they were enough, and he managed to fasten the window shut. He turned to her and beamed, every inch a man.
‘You’ll catch a cold.’
Anna drew her dressing gown around herself and half-turned away from him. it was clear she had been crying—the tracks of her tears were still wet on her soft cheeks.
‘Stupid hormones,’ she sniffed. ‘I don’t know what to feel from one minute to the next—it’s quite inconvenient.’
She was being glib but he could tell she was terrified.
‘I’ll be with you every step of the way.’
Howard held her small pink hands in his and tried to smile reassuringly. He too was afraid, but not nearly as afraid as he had been a few days ago when he had no-one and nothing but a plan to move to the woods and die of exposure. With Anna by his side Howard knew he could handle whatever life threw at him. He was no fool, or at least, not wholly one; he could see her attraction to him had long since waned, but there was some affection there, and if he could prove himself to be dependable, and kind and stoic—an immoveable rock, a port in any storm, well she might see in him what she had at the beginning, when they were just two loud kids at university with nothing to do but love, and she would press his blushing cheeks in her palms and sting his hungry lips with kisses.
Anna smiled with her mouth and slipped her hands from his, ‘Cup of tea? I’m gasping.’
She left the room quietly, weighed down with worry, while Howard took a seat on her bed to wait. He thought of his parents and how proud he would make them, and of the lovely Mrs. Moor; and of prams and onesies and nurseries and school runs and Anna in the happy throes of motherhood, flushed with fear and fatigue, and he wondered what on earth she wanted with the snarling silver wolf cane, with teeth bared and ears pinned back, glaring at him from her bedside table.
René stood in the middle of his room, a black bin-liner in one hand, antibacterial spray in the other, and shivered with anticipation. Into the bag went the cracked lava lamp, he tore the posters from the wall. How long had it been since his last successful sexual encounter. Eighteen months? Two years. Sophie. The ex-rower with all the teeth. She had seemed keen and they’d spaffed a couple of times but then she stopped returning his messages. He suspected he hadn’t been ambitious enough for her.
René still thought of her sometimes. He liked to imagine she was out there somewhere, brutally savaged and hanging upside down in some financier’s basement.
René chuckled cheerfully and forgot about Sophie forever. By the end of the night he would no longer be a practicing virgin, but born again, and in what spectacular fashion!
The overhead light had no dimmer switch, and so was left off. Instead René strategically set up two desk lamps he’d borrowed from the study in such a way that the light fell softly, invitingly but not intrusively, onto the bed, which René had already stripped, bundling away the white cotton sheets for his mother’s attention and replacing them with a set of black satin sheet and pillow cases he’d bought online earlier in the week. The heavy duvet he eschewed, reasoning that the night’s activities would preclude the need for home comforts. He was quite sure Hugh Hefner didn’t own a quilt; he lived in a dressing gown and even that didn’t look very comfortable, just slippery—the man looked like he entered into every human interaction pre-lubed.
Downstairs, there was a slammed door and a shriek, ‘Putain!’
Marie Dubois cursed for many reasons: an unexpected bill, the French far right, burnt toast—but that particular expletive was usually reserved for the special men in her life. René’s heart sank. He needed his mother up and out of the house within the hour as promised, for his night to go as planned. His mother was no prude, far from it. She actively encouraged him to meet women, but René could think of few greater mood killers than the sight of Marie poking her head round the door every twenty minutes to ask if anyone wanted biscuits.
René approached the door to his mother’s bedroom with caution—the door was closed, a singular occurrence. His mother had an aversion to closed doors, appearing to delight in causing René quite serious distress on a near daily basis.
René nudged open the door without knocking. Inside, the curtains were drawn and the lights off, but by the weak slats of streetlight René could just make out his mother flat on her back, a flannel over her eyes, and her arm flung out over the side of the bed at a tragic angle.
‘Maman? Ça va?’
Marie moaned softly and shifted her weight in response.
‘Mother what has happened? Are you ill?’
‘I am old and stupid.’
René rolled his eyes so hard his head hurt.
‘Come now Mother, you’re a vision. You look half your age. Why, any man would be—’
‘Your sweet words and silver tongue will not work this time, René,’ Marie whined.
‘Then what, mother?’ René asked, irritation pitching his voice. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be going dancing? Lambros will be—’
‘Don’t talk to me about that cockroach!’
René had been praying for his mother to break it off with the Greek for months and now, on the evening of what was set to be his greatest achievement, his magnum opus, but which hung so precariously on the promise of an empty house, it seemed his wish had been granted.
‘He is a devil like your father.’
‘What’s happened?’ René asked, impatiently.
‘He treats me like a plastic bag,’ his mother spat, venomously. ‘Or an old glove—to be used and thrown away. You men are all the same.’
‘You know...Archie is very sick now.’
‘I heard the bitch. On the phone, laughing. They were laughing at your poor old mother.’
‘Why don’t you call him back?’
‘Oh! So I should beg? Maybe I should say sorry too and make him a motherfucking sandwich!’ René reeled at the pure violence of expression. ‘I didn’t beg your father and I won’t beg this Greek fuckpig.’
‘Archie said his biggest regret in life was not winning you back.’
His mother stopped raging and sat up slightly, raising the flannel to peek out from under it, ‘He said that?’
‘C’est vrai,’ René lied.
His mother fell silent at this, though he could hear the battle against a smile raging across her face. René sounded the bugle for a final lethal charge.
‘You know, he never loved again—he couldn’t.’
That, at least, was true.
Now with his mother’s full attention, René sighed wistfully, ‘I just hate to think of him like that—all alone in that small house, full of regret.’
Marie let out a high, short moan in sympathy.
‘We’re so lucky,’ He paused for effect. ‘We will have each other.’ René let the last few syllables slither into the far corners of the room, embedding themselves in the walls, nesting in the foundations of the old house. He felt his mother tense in bed and held his breath to stop the prayer spilling out.
‘René can you please pick out my red Valentino.’
‘Of course, mother,’ said René, feeling his way to the walnut wardrobe on the far wall. He slid it open and smiled into the dark recess within.
He saw Marie off, tripping down the pavement in red, and silently punched the air once she’d turned the corner and was out of sight.
Back upstairs, René selected a pair of boxer briefs that best presented his package: gathering, hoisting and offering up his raw cock and balls, like a fat red apple in the mouth of a suckling pig. He wore a cool lavender shirt—though a different shade to the one he’d worn at New Year’s, he was beginning to believe this might be his colour—and left the two top buttons undone, exposing a tuft of black wiry chest hair. It was risqué—salacious even, but with his shirt tucked into a pair of sensible blue jeans, René didn’t feel in danger of being too aggressively sexual. Matched with a pair of moss green loafers, René at last began to feel quite convincing as this nascent slayer of women, this neo-lothario.
Downstairs, René stood in the bright enclave behind the front door, listening to the light switch hiss, absorbing the potential of the moment: the sucking, kissing, caressing tendrils of his imminent prospects tugged at him like a sexy future-smoke. He buzzed like a licked battery, he surged like a kicked amp. When the doorbell rang he didn’t start, since he’d felt her presence halfway down the street.
René opened the door immediately on the second ring, with a smile that shamed the sun.
She wore a small black A-line dress and an embarrassed look. Her lips were dark, almost mauve, and her eyes were painted a bruising purple, with heavy black eyeliner that ticked up at the sides. She was clean fusion. Peace in the Middle East. She was entirely unattainable and she was all his.
René surrendered to the urge to bow smartly and invited Arabella in, ‘Flame isn’t here yet.’
‘Oh—that’s awkward. Do I look really keen?’
‘Not at all. She’s always late.’
René took her coat and hung it up by the door.
‘I feel rude, I didn’t bring anything.’
‘Like what?’ It was a nonsense question, offered as a reflex, and Arabella ignored it the way René had grown accustomed to at New Year’s: smiling and stepping through it into the house with a light flutter of her eyelids.
‘Nice place,’ she said, her eyes sliding over René like marbles on a mirror. He sensed her impatience and tripped over his feet to make way, gesturing for her to take the stairs. She hesitated at the first step, scanning the unknown spaces above her and within his head, and René felt like any man would: a predator, though he was the lamb; and while the thought of hurting her hadn’t yet touched his mind, now it dripped in through his ears.
He could tear her clothes from her body like wet paper—break her bones like breadsticks if he desired. He had no wish to harm her, but for now it was all there was between them. She smiled through her bangs, and René felt guilt and shame and a great surge of spite.
‘The kitchen’s on the first floor,’ he tried to say nonchalantly.
René watched Arabella put her life on the line, again, and together they climbed the stairs to the kitchen.
They sat in silence for a time; René drumming his fingers on the kitchen table and bouncing his foot on the floor, while Arabella smiled around the room like it was littered with pirate treasure.
‘Can I take my shoes off?’
‘They’re a bit impractical,’ Arabella grunted as she pulled off her heels.
‘Would you take a biscuit?’ René asked, though he had none.
‘Do you have any whisky?’
René knew he had nothing but champagne, which his mother took like medicine, and a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which he had bought online specially and secreted in the larder.
‘I’m not sure. Shall I see if we have some wine—’
‘You know what they say.’
‘Whisky makes you frisky,’ Arabella rattled off innocently, and René calculated the distance to the corner shop and back, before reining himself in.
‘Well—what does wine do?’
Arabella shrugged and let her eyes slide off him in that easy way she had, ‘It’s fine I guess.’
René made a show of rummaging around the small larder before returning with the bottle in hand. He poured them both a generous glass each, ‘So—how have you been?’
‘What do you mean?’
This had all been much easier at New Year’s, with the mess and mandy and heat of the moment. When he was new and strange he could be anything he wanted. He could hint at hidden depths and allow her imagination to plumb them, but now, in the sober light of his mother’s kitchen, René was losing his mystique.
‘Do you know when she’ll get here—’
‘Music!’ René exclaimed, to himself but unintentionally loud. He clapped his hands and leapt to his feet, beaming like a baboon.
René took the stairs to his room two at a time and was back in the kitchen in under a minute, his laptop balanced precariously in one hand, desktop mouse in the other.
‘What do you like?’
‘Deep House and Chirp,’
René stared at her blankly, ‘I have Nirvana.’
Arabella returned his look, under heavy painted eyes, ‘Why?’
Why indeed. His thirteen-year-old self took a run-up and hoofed her in the vagina, but at thirty he was far less sure of himself. The bell rang and René realised he’d had his buttocks clenched the entire time, and relaxed. She was here. Flame, his far more agreeable half, was here to protect him from himself. He had no idea why he felt safe with her. She was cold and detached and he felt he was forever trying to please her but when she was around he was strong by association. René bounded to the front door like a puppy.
The dress was tight. Grey or silver, he wasn’t sure, and matched with a pair of pink, low-heeled pumps. She had a high waistline and dark legs for days. She gave René a short, warm smile, then stalked past his open mouth into the hall.
‘Am I late?’
‘You’re always right on time.’
They turned to see Arabella at the top of the stairs, hands clasped behind her back like a girl and wearing a wide, bashful smile. She was entirely transformed. Gone was the biting cool, the hot molten irony and acidic sarcasm; the woman was practically purring. She waited at the top of the stairs as Flame mounted them slowly, René watching her arse working from behind, till she reached Arabella’s level and stood, nearly a head taller than her and no space for Jesus between them.
René came up behind her and slid past, ‘Would you like some wine, my dear? I’ve got fine bottle of Chateauneuf we’ve been trying to save...’
René’s words dried in his throat, as Arabella circled Flame’s waist with her pale arms and drew her in. The action was familiar, friendly even—one old lover embracing another. Arabella smiled up into the taller woman’s passive face, then tipped onto the balls of her feet to bring their lips together.
Flame was motionless at first, stiff as a mannequin, as Arabella pawed at her back and waist. Then she seemed to melt, her limbs settling and relaxing into the embrace. At last she kissed Arabella back, suddenly and enthusiastically, her left hand sliding up and resting at the smaller girl’s collar, then tilting her chin up and to the side, so she could nibble her ears and throat. With her flushed face turned to René, Arabella shot him an impatient look.
‘Shall we retire upstairs?’ René asked, reading her mind like writing in the sky.
Arabella turned back to Flame, who was looking piqued but a little embarrassed, and smiled, then nodded to René to lead the way.
The bedroom felt small and hot with the three of them together, and René congratulated himself for his ruling on the duvet. Flame stepped out of her shoes and as Arabella beckoned to her to undo the zip at her back, tilting her head to the side as she did so to expose her jugular fluttering at her throat, René remembered his laptop downstairs. It was essential, of course. He could not proceed without music. And so he excused himself and left to retrieve it, whistling a rushed and fabricated tune to no-one.
Downstairs, René stopped to regard his reflection in the hallway mirror. He considered pinching himself, but if this was a dream, he didn’t want to wake. Some events truly are once in a lifetime, and usually almost over by the time one knows to take advantage, but René was ready. He felt like he had been training for this moment since puberty. How many weeks, months, years of pornography had he glared at? How many inches ferociously rubbed? This scenario was a classic—he knew all the moves.
René returned to find Arabella, fully nude, peeling Flame out of her dress. Her body was small and pale next to Flame’s and René remembered those perfect breasts from New Year’s. The women were on the bed now, with René still fully clothed and looming over them, his laptop in one hand and mouse in the other, like some ghost of I.T. past.
Arabella crawled over Flame, singeing her collar with kisses, and René selected Aretha Franklin’s 30 Greatest Hits. Flame took a pink nipple in her mouth, rolling it around with her tongue, making the girl gasp and shudder and René changed his mind—Dire Straits felt more appropriate. Arabella slid down Flame’s long body, planting her head between her slender thighs, and René thought he had better get undressed. He paused for a while in his boxer briefs, proudly exhibiting his package, as Arabella went to town on Flame, tossing her head like a worm blindly searching for its burrow.
When it became apparent a formal invitation would not be forthcoming, René elected to join the fray. Sidling up to the tangled, heaving mess, he placed his hand gingerly on Arabella’s pale side then froze, as if posing for a picture with his boss’ new car. He realised he hadn’t a clue how to behave.
The rest of the evening continued in much the same fashion: the women lost in each other, with René guarding the sidelines, studiously queuing up greatest hits, the perfect soundtrack to his growing disillusionment. Flame opened her eyes once to look at René, but he didn’t recognise her, nor she him. Finally fed up, and with no more throat to clear, René attempted to insert himself into the proceedings, climbing over Flame and roughly kissing her open mouth while Arabella was otherwise engaged. Flame was receptive and even willing, if a little distracted, but it seemed either the magnitude or the strangeness of the situation had gotten the better of poor René, and in time he was found wanting, so shuffled off the bed back into the corner, where he drew up a chair from which to witness his perfect emasculation.
After Arabella had gone, René sat cross-legged on the bed, entirely naked, while Flame pulled on her clothes in silence. René stared down at his penis, which had the good sense to look abashed, drawn white and first drooping sadly on his balls before retreating, disappearing into its collar like a startled anemone under his master’s caustic glare.
‘Do you suppose she’ll tell anyone?’
Flame sighed sadly and bent over, taking René’s puffy face in her long slender hands, looking down on him with bright, black, ballroom eyes.
‘Yes my dear, I imagine she will,’ she said, rasping the stubble of his cheek tenderly.
René was dejected, ‘Was it that good?’
Flame collapsed on the bed next to him to spare her shaking knees, ‘It was miraculous.’
‘For fuck’s sake.’
‘Have you been to a doctor?’
‘It’s not impotence!’ René exclaimed. ‘It’s impertinence!’ And began slapping his junk, plucking at his poor cock and squeezing his balls till they were angry and red.
‘Stop it, you’ll hurt yourself!’
‘I might as well be a fucking eunuch—they bring me nothing but shame and gross discomfort.’
‘Stop it—you terrible freak.’ Flame grabbed him by the wrists and kneeled opposite him. ‘You don’t give yourself a chance.’
Flame shuffled forward and placed his hands at her narrow waist, then leaned in and planted a soft, warm kiss on his mouth, melting into him and galvanising his weak blood; and it was then, in the wake of René’s greatest defeat, but with his star about to rise—his phoenix barely born in the ashes, that he got the call.
It was Howard, reporting that Anna was dead.