East of Everything

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Chapter 8

The sun had the good sense to stay away, leaving the day appropriately grey. Rain gathered in black clumps overhead, but kept a respectful distance, waiting for the sermon to end and the first cold fistfuls of dirt to be thrown down, before falling like arrows on the small group of mourners in the East Finchley Cemetery.

Howard shivered under a large black umbrella, and felt nothing but the cold.

‘She cared for you a great deal you know.’

Mrs. Moor’s long greying hair was tied up in a neat bun and her eyes were red but clear. She smiled bravely and squeezed Howard’s arm as she delivered her few words of comfort.

Dickie was faring much worse: he leaned heavily on his wife, his blotched face running like a faucet, heaving with silent sobs. It was quite a profound display of grief for an Englishman, and Howard wondered if he would ever be put back together.

There was to be a wake—Steve the unlikely German had graciously offered to host it at his, and most of the mourners, friends, largely from Anna’s student days, had already slunk away for warmth and wine and a chance to begin to forget.

Howard’s parents approached, led by the dogs. They were late but it didn’t matter, the dead will wait. Howard introduced his parents to Anna’s and then wondered why they had never met. He was ashamed of them, of course. Of the two people that had brought him into this world, who had loved him unconditionally and unreservedly, and without once ever seeing his face, the colour of his hair, or the quality of his smile. Of these dear, sweet people, he was ashamed.

The Halworths smiled at the sky and exchanged pleasantries with Mrs. Moor, and then they all stood together in silence and tried to ignore Dickie, who was still weeping uncontrollably, his great hairy hands shaking as he scooped streams of tears and mucus from his face.

One in one hundred thousand. Howard baulked at the odds. One in one hundred thousand. He reeled at the statistics. One in one hundred thousand. It had happened in the space of a few hours. The coroner explained that complications had arisen from the drugs Anna had been prescribed to expel the foetus from her womb. She had caught a streptococcal infection, and sepsis and toxic shock had followed soon after. It had all happened so suddenly—she’d slipped away in the ambulance en route to the hospital.

One in one hundred thousand. Howard had looked it up. The chances of death from this manner of medical abortion were one in one hundred thousand. One runs about the same risk of death when skydiving. Childbirth, in a safe and clean hospital surrounded by a team of seasoned obstetricians, carries a one in ten thousand chance of death. Women, you are ten times more likely to die giving birth than if you elect to save yourself the trouble and destroy the foetus. With odds like that every act of abortion is arguably saving a life, and yet, Anna had been felled by what was routine for so many women, and now Howard was left with pointed shards of dreams that had not come true, but instead had come apart.

Howard supposed that given enough time, the chances of death grew to one in one, so it was inevitable that Anna would die now, or then; but contemplations on the infinite are of little comfort at times like these.

Where was Madoc? Howard needed his strength now. Madoc would have something dry and profound to say, and he was the one person who would understand why Howard was so angry. At Anna’s cruelty and arrogance—to unilaterally decide to end his child’s life with absolutely no consultation. She had smiled in his face and stabbed his baby in the back and Howard was wasted. He knew he could say nothing to no-one but Madoc, but with no-one to vent at, his rage was turning inward. Where the hell was Madoc?

Howard wanted to cry. He had lost his lover and his child and he wanted to bunch his fists and bawl like a fat red baby, like Anna’s father, who was now hyperventilating and whining between great, racking sobs. Mrs. Moor placed a tiny hand in the small of the great man’s back, and with the other supporting his elbow, led her husband carefully back into her matte black S Class to take him home.

Howard kissed his mother and shook his father’s hand and said goodbye and promised to visit soon—not this weekend, but the next. It felt strange, making the usual plans while standing over Anna’s grave. We have no culture of death in this country. In the past, we celebrated death. We gave him a face. We brought death to life. Now we ignore it. Death hangs over us all like a boorish superior’s greasy fart. A terrible pall to which we daren’t draw attention. We solemnly stick each other’s bodies in the ground, offer the usual platitudes to those closest to the deceased and then shuffle back to our desks to wait our turn.

**

There seemed to be more people at Steve’s for the wake than there were for the funeral, all packed in and speaking in hushed, excited voices. There were conspiracy theories abound: overdose, suicide, even murder—there was talk of a sordid affair and a jealous ex, and when Howard entered the room flanked by Flame and René, there was a noticeable shift in attention: a colony of penguins witnessing an eclipse. Howard was a minor celebrity; not famous enough to stop and clap for, but certainly enough to promote begrudging stares and muted gossip.

Howard seemed not to notice, and stood swaying slightly on the spot where he had entered, while Flame rubbed his back gently and shot warning looks into the crowd.

‘Would anyone like a drink?’ René asked. Howard nodded slowly but Flame declined without making eye contact. She had completely withdrawn since news of Anna’s death. René understood that she was grieving and that Howard needed all the affection he could get, but did that mean there was none left over for René? He was starting to feel like an imposter—more so than usual.

René shrugged and staggered through the crowd in what he hoped was the direction of the drinks table. He’d secreted a hip flask of gin in his breast pocket and had been pulling on that throughout the service, so was at least halfway drunk, but still self-conscious. His ego had taken a bit of a battering since the incident with Arabella, and Flame’s distance hadn’t helped. Where was Madoc? René had tried calling every day since the terrible news but with no luck. He missed the man’s complete disregard for other people, it was inspiring.

Music sprang out of nowhere: a low-key, sombre electro-duo mumbling about love or austerity, it was hard to tell. Apparently the mourning period was over and the party were being slowly led back into the land of denial. The atmosphere picked up, someone giggled and was chastised, but not seriously. Life moves on, and though René felt alienated as always, he took some heart in the fact that everyone he knew would one day be dead; even Arabella, though probably not before him, as she was a woman and in rude health—he could attest to that, he thought, and sighed audibly.

René arrived at the drinks table and had just secured a cup of Rioja in each hand when he heard his name, ‘René.’

‘It is I,’ he said, turning with a flourish, then felt his stomach drop out of his arse. Arabella stood, small and magnificent, dressed down in a black miniskirt and leather jacket, with her ginger friend from New Year’s; the one with the sun-god Frith on his chest. René had assumed he was around their age but now, under sensible indoor lighting he could see the man was at least forty, and looked to have lived each year like it were his last, with deep laughter lines etched into his brow and cheeks.

‘This is Orville, but everyone calls him Lucky. I don’t think you met last time.’

They shook hands and though Orville smiled, there was a malicious glint in his eye. He looked like he tortured animals as a child.

‘How’s it going—’

‘Where’s Flame?’ asked Arabella, riding roughshod over René’s attempt at small talk.

‘Why?’ asked René, unable to mask the trepidation in his voice, and saw Orville smirk. Of course he knew. Flame was right, everybody knew. René’s deepest, most shameful humiliation was now a matter of public record.

‘I haven’t seen her since...’ Arabella trailed off. She maintained a deadpan expression, but Orville was creasing. He spluttered into a coughing fit and took one of the drinks from René to dampen his throat. René felt like blinding him.

‘Well—this has been a treat. If you’ll excuse me,’ René said, as courageously as he could, and turned away from his tormentors.

He took a circuitous route back to Flame, so as not to lead Arabella and her jackal, and bumped into Alan and Ruben, looking suitably morose. Alan had been made redundant and was now training to be a plumber—‘There’s always money in pipes!’—and Ruben had been evicted; the bailiffs had taken all his things and he’d been forced to move in with his mother. When René heard the news he hugged him compulsively, which Ruben seemed to enjoy.

‘Life is a surprise exam that everybody fails.’ Ruben said, rubbing René’s back. It was hard to tell who was consoling whom. Perhaps they were both just clinging to each other for assurance.

‘Where’s Madoc?’

René detached from Ruben and looked up in time to see the man himself, Madoc, all in black, slide into the room like a jagged edge of night.

**

Madoc stood stock still in the doorway for a moment, letting the familiar looks of envy and admiration grease him like butter on a hot pancake. He looked terrible, he knew, but like a rogue or rascal, he was dishevelled in a mysterious, rather than destitute way. Nevertheless, if you looked closely you could see the cracks just starting to form in his youth’s fragile façade, forking around his spear-grey eyes and in the downturned corners of his mouth. A sulky demeanour is a luxury afforded only to the young; with age a sullen look turns cantankerous and far less alluring. Alas, from certain acute angles, Madoc’s haughty pout could now be mistaken for the sneer of an old grouch.

There was a small commotion among the bereaved—guests flung asunder and expanding ripples of complaint, till finally René came bounding out of the crowd to greet him. Madoc was relieved the man stopped short of an embrace, and instead pumped his hand warmly with that inane grin crumpling his face. It was the sort of smile that couldn’t be taught, and Madoc wondered what else they had in common besides their fathers’ smiles.

‘Where have you been?’ René asked in a conspiratorial whisper.

‘I was held up.’ Madoc answered, peering nonchalantly over his head and into the far corners of the room.

‘Have you seen Howard? He’s gone all quiet and funny.’

‘I hadn’t, no.’

René nodded as if Madoc had said something deeply profound. ‘Well—this is something isn’t it?’ He said dumbly, stuffing his hands into his pockets and rocking onto the balls of his feet.

Madoc smiled weakly and peered around the room. At home the news had felt more real. He could see the spot on his bed where Anna had once lain, now long cold, and truly believed that she would never return, like so many other women before her. He would no longer hear her voice, or smell her skin, he knew all this in the sterile space of his flat and had made peace with it.

But here, now, at Anna’s wake, Madoc half expected her to come stalking out of the crowd of her own mourners, with her head balanced carefully on that long neck, wearing the shy smile that first betrayed her to him. It had been just a few weeks since they had played together here at New Year’s, when he had drugged the people he supposed he must call friends in order to steal her away, and he still felt her energy about him.

Madoc wondered how many people would come to his funeral. Would anyone? He struggled to think of a single person who would show. His father would, of course, out of love or duty, but the assumption was he would be long gone by then. René? Could René really be his only friend? He looked at the small round man in front of him aching for his attention and the thought chilled him. Or Howard? But he had betrayed Howard, and then Howard had defeated him, even without knowing. Anna had chosen Howard over him.

Madoc thought about the last time he had seen Anna, back in her room at Flame’s. After Howard’s interruption, Madoc had been forced to return for his cane. He and Anna had fallen into each other’s arms for a final time. It had been childish and dismal and charged with every sentiment they could never share—all too much for Madoc, who had clung to her like a baby after, but Anna had been resolute and turned him out onto the street that same night.

It was a surprise when it reached him—grief often arrives unannounced—but when it did it sandbagged him, making his throat constrict and his knees tremble. Anna had chosen Howard over him and then she had done exactly what he would’ve, had he been in her position; but for some reason he just hadn’t entertained it as an option for her.

Was he responsible? The thought, which had been hanging horribly over him for days, came slicing down. Had he placed her in an impossible position? Had he driven her to this untimely death?

**

René stood in awkward silence for a time, scanning the quietly swelling room for a conversation piece, anything to lubricate this inept exchange. He hadn’t seen Madoc since New Year’s—he had missed him terribly, and if he was honest, had expected a much warmer reception today. For god’s sake, Madoc had called René his friend at Superstore. They had bonded—or had they? Perhaps René had simply imagined that golden minute of brotherly love they’d shared before Madoc had disappeared for the night.

Everything had seemed possible then. Madoc was his friend and René was a lothario capable of bedding two gorgeous women simultaneously and to mutual satisfaction. And Anna was alive of course, lest he forget.

René wondered if he cared. She hadn’t been unkind to him, but he could tell she had been surprised by Flame’s apparent interest in, or more likely, tolerance of him. After a little quiet deliberation René decided that, on reflection, he didn’t in fact care that Anna was dead, though he was quite unnerved by the speed at which his contemporaries were dying off. At this rate he couldn’t make acquaintances quickly enough. Flame cared, of course. She and Anna had grown very close in a short space of time and if Flame cared then of course so did René.

‘They said it might snow tonight,’ he ventured.

‘That would certainly be something,’ was Madoc’s generous reply.

At a stretch that could have been mistaken for a coded exchange between intelligence officers, but it was still terribly dry. No-one was getting ‘silenced’ or ‘turned’ as a result. Perhaps some light industrial espionage or a picture of a politician with his pants down but nothing really meaty. Just as René was about to lose himself entirely to despair, Flame materialised at his shoulder.

‘I need to see you please,’ she hissed, pinching his arm and dragging him away into the crowd and down one of the winding corridors to the bowels of the house. She stopped short of the toilets and gave René a stern look.

‘Madoc gives me the creeps—I don’t like you talking to him.’

‘That’s funny—I don’t like you fucking him but that still happened.’

Flame narrowed her eyes, ‘Like I’ve said, several times already, it was before we met—don’t be a bore.’

‘Then why do it? If he makes you so uncomfortable?’

‘I’ve made mistakes. It would appear I’m still making them.’

‘Don’t threaten me. I’ve had to endure a cuckolding by you twice now, and what do I get? Threats and insinuations!’

‘That wasn’t my fault—it was your idea!’

‘Well I thought it would be different. It wasn’t. It was horrible.’

‘I told you to see a doctor—’

‘I don’t want some greying old man touching my penis.’

‘Why on earth would he touch it?’

‘To see if it works—Christ it’s like talking to a lamp post with you. My cock doesn’t work!’

‘Calm down. It does work, I’ve seen it work. Maybe he’ll give you pills—’

‘Viagra! Is that what you see when you look at me? Some horny, leathery geriatric in a thong? I’m still a young man!’

Flame’s demeanour switched so suddenly René feared he had broken her.

‘I can’t take this anymore,’ she whined, thick tears springing from her eyes and running down her cheeks like hot wax from a candle.

‘Is everything alright?’ said Arabella, apparating on cue. Flame shielded her eyes in embarrassment but when René reached out to reassure her, she flinched from his touch.

‘There there—it’ll be OK,’ Arabella said, smoothly placing a hand on Flame’s shoulder and another at her waist. ‘Let’s find you somewhere quiet.’

‘I’m not a fool, Arabella. I know what you’re up to,’ René spat, the evening’s drink coalescing into courage.

‘There are just some things you will never understand, René.’

‘Oh of course—about her exquisite lady-brain.’ René huffed, ‘I suppose you’ve got all the answers.’ He reached out to Flame to take her back but had his hand slapped away by Arabella.

‘No! You’re being very aggressive right now and making us both feel unsafe.’ And with that coup de grace, Arabella shepherded poor Flame away, leaving René stunned and second guessing.

**

Howard stood, broken up under the full moon, sucking in the night. Steve’s roof sported a panoramic view of Shoreditch; the surrounding boroughs lay in quiet darkness, while the blue, abducting lights of the City loomed over them like those of an invading alien spacecraft. Cheerful fairy lights lined the low wall bordering the warehouse roof, which was otherwise bare.

Earlier, Howard had interrupted a young woman fellating her companion, and now the couple stood, a little distance away, whispering unabashedly between themselves and pretending it hadn’t happened. Howard despaired for his generation. Blowjobs at a wake—is that who we are now? He supposed what he found most upsetting was that he wasn’t surprised or angry, or even disappointed, just resigned.

Howard had come out here alone in the cold to feel closer to the stars and therefore to Anna, who he fancied was nestled among them somewhere, throwing her heat and light across the void towards him. It was all nonsense, he knew—Anna was no more up there than she was under the ground in the East Finchley cemetery or sitting in a jam jar in his kitchen, but he needed something, a point in space on which to fix his attention. He needed to remember her, before he could start to forget.

Howard sensed a presence behind him—a subtle shift in air pressure felt with his inner ear and the hairs on the backs of his hands. He turned, and his spirit was lifted by the sight of dear Madoc, smiling cooly at the moon. The man looked well, but worn, and there was something else—something new and frightening, but familiar all at once.

He was likely taking Anna’s death harder than he was letting on—Madoc was like that. All diamond edges and indifference, but Howard knew, somewhere beneath the bluster and bravado, lived a keen and gentle spirit. After all, it was that spirit that had recognised Howard at school all those years ago, that had seen his lowliness and desperation, and hadn’t reacted with contempt or derision, but had colonised his heart and given him a home.

‘Life is an exercise in letting go,’ Madoc declared, up into the void. ‘We all have so much left to lose.’

And with those words, launched carelessly into space, Howard was given permission to weep, and so he did, silently and terribly for the love of his life.

**

Madoc made no effort to comfort his friend, but instead squinted at the moon, scrutinising it as if for the first time. He tapped the cane on the concrete floor absent-mindedly—chnk chnk CHNK—the third time he bounced it hard on the floor, making a sharp crack, before catching the shaft in his hand smoothly, the handle flashing in the moonlight.

It took a few seconds to register that Howard’s weeping had abruptly stopped. With a sudden and inexplicable unease, Madoc turned to see his friend staring mad-eyed at the thing in his hand—at the snarling silver wolf, with teeth bared and ears pinned back, and knew he’d been a fool.

**

René was exceedingly drunk. The kind of drunk born only out of deep disquiet. A happy drunk drinks because he can; a sad one because he must. René drank because he ought to, given the circumstances, and was taking his obligations seriously. He drank like a detective, emptying then scouring each glass with baleful, ever-drooping eyes for clues that might lift his curse.

René stumbled through the warren of corridors, searching for a friendly face, but in finding none, plumped for the next one.

‘I say—listen here,’ he hissed, handling the unfortunate man by his lapels. ‘The lesbians are winning.’

René raised a finger to the man’s quaking lips, swearing him to secrecy, his eyes swinging about wildly, searching the sliding corners for spies. Satisfied that he hadn’t been overhead, René released his prisoner and darted off sideways, trailing ethanol—scuttling down the corridor like a disturbed crab back to its burrow.

He came upon the foot of the stairs to the roof and heard the commotion above him. He was drawn to it, as all drunks are drawn to drama, and took a deep breath before mounting the stairs with all the grace of a palsied penguin.

I’m coming,’ René called up cheerfully. ‘Wait for me.’

**

On the roof, Howard held a trembling finger inches from Madoc’s greying face, apoplectic.

‘You couldn’t let me have her—you couldn’t let us be.’ Howard’s lips were purple and curled in fury. He had stopped crying, but now his nose ran, carrying streams of snot down over his moustaches and beard.

‘I never planned this, Howard.’

‘Of course you didn’t. The universe continues to heap blessings upon you dear friend.’ Howard gestured to René, who was weaving on the spot and following the exchange with a look of intense, pantomimed concern.

‘The rest of us have to work—we have to fight for love but you Madoc, love sticks to you like shit to a new shoe. It’s as easy as breathing.’

‘So what am I?’ Madoc spat. ‘A stone? You think I don’t feel it as keenly as you?’

‘I doubt you feel anything but greed and envy.’

‘Howard!’ René was aghast, his parents divorcing all over again. With one eye drooping, he raised a finger like a preacher and took a breath, but before he could embark on an unfathomable, rambling soliloquy about friendship, Howard threw an arm across his chest, forcing him behind.

He shook a clenched fist at Madoc, ‘I was loyal to her for years. I cared for her when she was sick, and she for me. We were family. And you—how long had you known her? A day? A few hours, before she...’ Howard trailed off, not willing his tongue to follow where his mind had led.

Madoc sensed an opening, a lull in Howard’s tirade, a gap through which he might slip away. He raised his hands, placating, and prepared to speak soft words of due deference, when he saw the cold, electric blue lights playing over his pale fingers, encircling his wrists.

Down in the street, Madoc heard armoured car doors closing with a purpose, which, coupled with the lights on his hands, René’s dark hair and Howard’s red, crumpled face, spoke to Madoc of official, state business—big men with bigger guns in public service. Here came the dogs, responsible for protecting sheep from the wolves—Madoc realised, as if watching himself onscreen, wolves like himself.

They were here for him. They had to be. No-one here had a darker secret. He had been a fool to imagine he could have hidden Nana that easily. How deep could a canal really be? What looked obscured by murky waters by night must have lit up horribly during the day. Perhaps the body had somehow escaped and floated to the surface, swollen and putrid in the winter sun, or the bag had been accidentally dredged, snagged on the keel of a passing narrowboat; or maybe it had been as simple as someone spotting him that night, immaculately dressed and huffing in the moonlight by the water’s edge like some grotesque, Dickensian villain.

With one ear down in the street and the other with the wake, Madoc heard the knock from both sides of the front door. Seconds later the music stopped abruptly, the party hushed. He scanned the roof for any exit other than the stairs up which he had come. Nothing. The wolf was trapped—there was only one way out. It could be long or short—but the only way was down. He looked into the faces of his friends: Howard trembling with righteous fury, having finally found a deserving target for his grief-turned-rage, and sweet René behind him: eager, hopeful still, believing the best, willing to accept any excuse, any sign that Madoc was simply misunderstood.

‘Howard, if you still believe that what you get and what you deserve are in any way acquainted, then you are some new species of idiot.’ Madoc smiled smugly, sucking Howard into the abyss between his front teeth.

‘The child was mine.’

Howard’s hand lashed out without instruction, catching Madoc in the mouth, cutting his lip. Madoc let out an involuntary high shriek and punched Howard in the head, sending him scrabbling back into René, who tripped over the low wall and dropped from the roof without a sound.

**

He felt the stinging wind, boiling regret, then nothing.

**

Madoc picked his way downstairs through Steve’s twisting flat, working with the current. Flame had gotten wind early and burnt a straight path ahead of him—those that fell into her wake, blocking his way, Madoc moved aside with a detached and casual violence.

On the street he witnessed the scene from underwater or light years away; he could see Flame, kneeling in the flashing blue light of the silent sirens, but not hear her, though her jaw hung slack and the tendons in her slender neck strained with grief. He noted the three large men in black and armoured vests, heads cocked, hands on rifles, radios to mouths, herding the crowd of guests spilling out of the building, penning them in; but they were too late—amidst the gore and confusion Madoc had already slipped through the net, and was now stood across the street with the passing voyeurs.

He held the body in his peripheral vision, not looking directly—lest the scene leave some lasting indelible impression—but rather kept the crumpled mass of black and white and dark, pooling red in the corner of his eye, just for a moment, before allowing himself to drift out into the night like a phantom.

Madoc hurried north up Curtain Road, cutting across Hoxton Square, which was deserted, and arrived at Pitfield Street. At the corner of Purcell Street, he veered into Saveway Express where Hassan, a young man with a kind smile and a full beard, sold him a ten-pack of camels and a lighter; after which Madoc hung smoking outside the Healthy Living Centre next to a gaggle of Chinese exchange students, who paid him no attention. He finished his cigarette and lit another, holding his breath between drags until it made him dizzy. He bought a small bottle of Jameson from Hassan, drank half of it and felt sick, then smoked another cigarette, and felt worse.

From the south end of the street, rolling up towards him, Madoc heard a cheerful whistle. It was old and summery and very English and at odds with everything. It irked Madoc, so much so that he impulsively stepped into the man’s path as he was about to pass.

‘Got a light?’ Madoc asked gruffly.

‘Art al’reet lad?’ said the small, shabby man, peering up into Madoc’s face with clear blue eyes.

The hairs on the back of Madoc’s neck curled up and his hands shook as he took the lighter from the stranger. Such was the strength of association, that Madoc’s peripheral nervous system recognised the man before Madoc himself did.

Chris, his father’s violent valet, was dressed unobtrusively in grey khakis, a blue collared shirt, a long black winter coat and woolly hat. Madoc fixed his jaw and scanned the shadows about them.

‘Th’art t’come wit me,’ Chris said cheerfully.

‘Who says?’

‘Yer Pa.’

‘Why?’

‘Ees worried ‘bout his lad.’

From the south-east, on Kingsland Road down Shoreditch-way, distant sirens broke into earshot. Both men pretended not to notice, but knew the other had.

‘Says you called him in a tizzy.’

‘Doesn’t sound like him,’ said Madoc. ‘Say, do you have to speak like that? I’m sure you think it’s rather fine but it’s actually quite trying.’

The sirens had now separated to two distinct sources, two vehicles at the lights before the Geffrye museum, maybe closer. Madoc stuffed his hands in his pockets to hide the trembling, and shrugged. If he could get the little man to lose his bottle, Madoc might just have time to melt into the shadows and evade capture a second time. There were plenty of places to hide at night in this part of London, and Madoc knew the area well enough.

‘Ah yer a right mardy little git.’

‘I don’t know what that means,’ Madoc sneered, as one of the sirens pulled into Hoxton street. They could be upon them in under a minute, two assuming they didn’t know exactly where he was.

Madoc felt a bead of sweat dribble down from between his shoulder blades to the small of his back, making him shiver in spite of his racing heart and pounding ears. He took a small, surreptitious step back into shadow and raised his voice to be heard over the wailing police car, speeding closer.

‘Look Chris, you work for me as well as my father, and so I simply don’t feel the need to stand here and negotiate with you,’ Madoc said breezily, his eyes flicking to the blue refracted lights bouncing of the concrete at the bottom of the street. He took a shaking hand out of his pocket and placed it on the small man’s shoulder in a manner he calculated was just slightly over-familiar enough to both intimidate and disarm.

‘You can tell the old dog I’m fine, now run along—’

Chris was lightening quick, jabbing him in the solar plexus, then catching Madoc by the shoulders as he sagged into him. Madoc brayed like a birthing donkey—his lungs spasmed and he went limp in the small man’s arms. A black Golf materialised from round the corner of Saveway Express and Chris dragged Madoc with terrifying ease to the curb where he bundled his young charge into the back seat.

‘Eigh up,’ Chris grunted, shifting the gasping, crying Madoc to make space for himself. The police car pulled into Pitfield Street and cut the siren, though the blue lights still flashed.

As it pulled up beside the Golf, Chris ducked out of view, spreading himself over Madoc to both restrain and shield him, while their driver, who apparently had balls to spare, lit a cigarette and rolled down the window, letting his hand dangle out of the car as the police car crawled by. He nodded at the officers as they passed and all three held their breath till the sirens resumed and the police car was off, wailing north up De Beauvoir Road.

Madoc, finally breathing again, wasn’t taken it for granted, and was sucking in huge, wheezing gulps of air between sobs. Chris signalled to the driver and Madoc slumped against his door as they pulled away, then slid off into the night.

**

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