They call him a marvel. Whenever someone new joins the team, they always whisper and point at him, and then the girl – it usually is a girl, some pretty blonde filly who picked this job because she wants to help, God bless her – will bat her lashes and her red, red lips will curve into a perfect circle in shock. Personally, he quite likes being a marvel. He's made up for it now, finally, eventually. Sometimes, the girl (whose name will be Sally, or Kelly, or something else ending in l-y) will come over to him and test out the theory for themselves, and he likes the attention, even though he usually doesn't have a clue what they're talking about. He just nods, and smiles, with a mouth that doesn't have any real teeth in it any more, but his eyes are big and sincere.
They've got a new girl today, and it's the whisper on everybody's lips. She's called Letitia, or Lettie for short, and she's the exception to the rule; different to every other girl who came in here before her. They introduce him to her, and they call him a marvel, and she nods, unimpressed. She's wearing neon-pink skinny jeans and a geometrical top, and her eyes are filled to the brim with the wise boredom of youth. The others glance at her disapprovingly, their judgemental eyes raking over her too-skinny frame and her messy unwashed hair. He hears later that she's on work experience.
She comes back later, because she's been told that she needs to talk to him if she wants to bond, which she clearly doesn't, and he sees her awkwardly pretty mouth thin into a frown. She folds her arms, and the laces on her purple boots are undone as she walks up to him and plonks herself down in an armchair. He smiles, she rolls her eyes.
"Alright?" she mutters, after a long pause. He just looks at her, and she sighs heavily. Her eyes are full of contempt; his pitifully simple expression and the complete trust in his face disgusts her. "So, what makes you so special, eh?"
"Hello" he whispers, and his voice is paper-thin.
"Yeah, hey there" she says, looking around, already exasperated. "My God, this place is so dead…"
"It is…isn't it" he says. It takes him longer to get out the words than he would have liked, but she quirks an eyebrow at his retort.
"What's your name then?" she asks, and he frowns. He can't…he can't…
"I don't know" he says mournfully.
"Harold, isn't it?"
"No!" she jumps at his sudden ferocity. "Not Harold! Not that damned Boom again!"
"Whoa, alright then!" she mocks, deciding to hazard a guess. "I dunno…Howard?"
He sinks back into the chair, relieved. "Yes…Howard…that's right"
She's quiet for a moment, not used to this sort of communication. "They said you were special. A marvel" She is a sceptic. "What's so great about you?"
"I don't know" he replied truthfully, with a small smile, and the hair on his moustache tickles his upper lip. The tips of her mouth curls in a smile that lasts a second, and then its right back to the scowl.
"What?" She's confused. She doesn't understand when people talk slowly.
"Pretty name. It's nice…to meet you"
She tries not to look flattered. Flattery isn't her look. It's just then that one of the other nurses come over, clucking like a mother hen, doughy belly pressed against a dress that really is too tight for her, all dyed strawberry blonde hair and hard, steely eyes.
"Hello, Mr. Moon" she says, bustling around him, and he frowns. He's not quite so sure about this change of scenery. "Is Letitia here being nice to you?"
This new nurse (her name tag says Kate, but he can't remember her) is treating them both like children, and behind her he sees Lettie stick her middle finger up at her back. He laughs, breathlessly, and the nurse gives him a funny look, and he quickly switches to being serious again. "Oh, yes…" he says, meek and mild, just like they want him to be.
"Well, if you need anything, just call me, alright?" she says, patting his arm in a way that is surely meant to be affectionate but just feels patronising. "It's almost four thirty, Howard. Visiting time, remember?"
No. Of course he doesn't.
Has he got a visitor? He can't remember anyone who might want to visit him. The nurse leaves, beckons to his new friend to follow her, and the teen gets up off the enveloping paisley armchair with a huff. The nurse (he's forgotten her name already) takes her into a corner, and gives her what looks like a stiff talking-to in a horrendously false stage-whisper. He can't hear much of it, but he picks out the occasional phrase.
"Dementia…deep-set…can't remember…be nice"
Lettie forces a nod, already far away in her own mind, and goes to sit back down in the armchair. She stares at him at he scratches a liver-spot on his arm.
"So, what, you can't remember anything?" she asks, and he nods in response.
"Not even your own name?"
He shakes his head sadly.
"But I told you five minutes ago, how can you have just forgotten?"
A pitiful shrug.
"It's Howard, isn't it?" His face brightens, and she crows triumphantly. "See, you do know! Ok…how old are you?"
His face falls again, like a sad clown. Again, the shrug.
She ventures again. She's not playing, just curious. "Do you know where we are?"
"Sunnydale dementia care home!" he says, po-faced, and she frowns.
"How the hell did you know that?"
He grins mischievously to the sign above the door behind her with a cackle. She turns, following his trembling finger, and then turns, smirking.
"Bit of a cheeky one, aint you?"
"D-D…" She looks at him carefully. "Do you…like…jazz?"
She laughs unsurely. "Um…no! Do you?"
He makes an odd growling noise in the back of his throat, his hands sliding over his lap: "Ow! Chicka chicka!"
"What was that? You are the weirdest old person I've ever met"
"You are…the weirdest…teenager…I've ever…met"
"At least I…haven't forgotten…how to scat"
She giggles, sounding more normal by the second. "That's what it was? Well then, I bet most people would rather you had"
She sobers suddenly, remembering herself. "Still don't get what's so great about you, though. I mean, you're alright, for an ancient, Northern, jazz-freak, but I bet there's loads of oldies like you, yeah?"
"Yeah, sure" she scoffs. "Dunno what all that "marvel" crap was about"
His head hangs, dejected. It's then that the nurse comes in, the same one as earlier. She smiles sickly around at all the patients in the room, and announces in a voice that's too falsely bright for anyone: "Four thirty, everyone! Visiting time!"
He sees Lettie turn to the door, as if expecting bright lights and band music, but he knows she'll be disappointed. A few middle-aged people reluctantly slope in, the children who really don't want to be here, smaller grandkids clutched in their tight fists. That's it. And then, someone else steps in, cheeky grin on his pointed face. His jeans are as tight as you can get at his age, and he's wearing a black leather jacket over a red shirt. Handsome, once. He looks around for a moment, and his eyes, big and blue and watery, stop on Howard. They lock. And then he remembers.
Handsome comes sauntering over, and falls down in the armchair opposite Lettie as if he is completely at home here.
"Alright, Howard?" he says with a grin. His voice is dry and cracked, but it still retains an edge, a tone of raw humour and life. Nothing like Howard's.
"Vince!" Howard says, and Lettie is amazed at how excited he seems just by the appearance of this new man. He seems younger, almost. Rejuvenated.
"You alright?" this man, Vince, asks, and his feet are up on the coffee table, his hands resting on the back of his head, completely at ease even though he looks so…young, so foreign in the surrounding room. His voice overrides all other awkward mumbles in the sitting lounge, drowning out the TV and the rest of Bertha Parkinson's embarrassingly loud monologue about the problems with her bunions.
"Fine. What about you, little man?" The endearment slips out easily. Vince's eyes gleam like the reflection of sunlight on a tent peg.
"M'good" he replies. His eyes rake over Howard, landing disapprovingly on his head. He sighs, and shakes his own, his greying locks swinging around his face.
"Look at your hair, H'ward!" he fusses. "It's not even like brown smoke anymore. It's just steam! Wish you'd let me do something with it, eh?"
Howard shies away from the fingertips that brush against his scalp. "Gerrof!" he mutters, and then, just to spite: "I might just get it all cut off"
"No!" the horror on Vince's face is evident, and almost comical. "Bald isn't a good look for anyone! Well, maybe 'cept bald eagles, but they've all got toupees now anyway. Nah, don't cut it off. It's alright, really. Just a bit thin. But that's ok. You can pull it off. S'a bit like…purely theoretical hair, yeah?"
"Yeah, alright" Howard grudgingly accepts.
"Wouldn't wanna look like the Ape of Death now, would ya?" Vince mutters, his lips twitching. Howard laughs, a big barking laugh, and then his friend collapses into giggles. It's a private joke, shared, possibly one from when they were both young. And Lettie, for one, is surprised that Howard, who couldn't even remember his own name a few minutes ago, can remember something from so long ago. But it's more than that. It's all of him, all of Howard. His eyes are full of gentle mockery and adoration, when before they were just glazed, and his speech is so much more fluent and he even looks younger.
"You're one to talk" Howard retorts once he's stopped laughing. "You're starting to look like that blue weirdo from the desert. You know…the one with the combover?"
Vince burst out laughing again, slapping his knee. "Oh God, yeah! That was horrendous! How dare you compare me to 'im?" he reaches up, tentatively touching his own scalp. His hair is silvery, with tints of faded black. "M'not going bald yet, you jerk-off! Just a bit grey. I tried to get Naboo to take me back to Xooberon, get us some youth-juice, and 'e said that 'ed lost the amulet, but I reckon he's tapping it into his shower system! But, it's alright, you know? I got Carmen to keep in me black streaks, so it don't look too bad"
"You look great, Vince"
Vince smiles, broadly. "Cheers. Won't be making the cover of Cheekbone anytime soon, though. Not unless Glamour Nana's the new look"
"Yeah, but, we've already done that"
His talkative companion looks blank for a moment, and then realisation floods his eyes. "Yeah, that's right! Now you mention it…" he shudders, his neck twisting to look around at his surroundings. "This place is a bit like Nanageddon, ain't it? 'Cept without the creepy bingo-caller"
"And I don't go around socking people in the face"
"God, you were such a pillock then! Well, you still are, but yeah"
"Oi" Howard smiles. "Watch it there, Vince. Or I'll come at you, eh? You'll be feeling my moves; won't know what's hit you. I'll come at you like a buzzard"
"Or a bald eagle" Vince counters, and they giggle. Suddenly, the younger man slaps his knee, his mouth curving into an O, having just remembered something. "Oh my God, I forgot! Howard, you'll never believe it!"
Howard's excitement is evident. "What? What? Tell me, you Juicy Dangler!"
"Alright, so, I was walking down the road yesterday, near the Blue Aubergine, right, you know the one. And you will never guess who I saw"
"Who? Oh, come on, Vince, who?"
"Mrs Gideon!" Vince says, his voice strained with glee. "Yeah, she was just walkin' along with her shopping. And I stopped to say hi, and she was all like: "Where's your friend? The one that you used to hang around with at the zoo?" and I said: "You mean Howard?" and she said: "Yeah, Howard, that's the one!" So that means she remembered you, Howard. All that time, and she remembered you!"
Howard looks shell-shocked.
"But she never even remembered my name…"
"I know! All that time, and she remembered you" Vince repeats with a grin. He shakes his head, and his hair swings gently. "Can't believe it. Seems like yesterday we were sittin' around in that hut at the zoo. Where do the days go, eh?"
Howard nods, and closes his eyes momentarily, basking in the warmth of his companion. Vince smiles mischievously, looking up at his friend from under his black eyelashes. He wets his lips before speaking: "Hey, Howard. Howard. Howard" The older man opens his acorn eyes, and looks at him sideways. "You know the black bits in bananas? Are they tarantula's eggs?"
There is a pause, and then the two men burst out laughing again. In the background, the younger girl sits and observes them, unseen. She is unused to being ignored, isolated, but now she has no choice in the matter as Howard speaks again.
"Please don't speak to me ever again in your life"
"Oh yeah?" the black-silver-haired man teases. "Where would you be without me, eh? Trussed up the bottom of the ocean being raped repeatedly by a transsexual merman, that's where. Now 'e had bad hair"
Howard visibly shudders, but regains the mischief in his eyes. "Well that works both ways, little man. Where would you be without me?"
"Um…" Vince thinks for a moment. "I'd probably still be the Chosen One, come to think of it. That was good; I liked that"
"Vince, they enslaved me" Howard mentions. "And buried us up to our necks in sand"
"Yeah, well, they weren't all bad" Vince says. His hand slips into his jacket pocket, and pulls out a strawberry bootlace. He rips off a piece and sticks it into his mouth. "I tell you who really pissed me off" he mumbles through the chewy sweet. "Lance bleedin' Dior. I mean, who did 'e think 'e was, takin' on the Prince of Camden?"
"God knows" Howard agrees. "But he didn't hold a candle to you, Vince. I mean, look at you. You're still the Sunshine Kid. You've got colour coming from your fingertips"
"Aw, cheers H'ward" Vince smiles, with a swallow. The smile lights up his face, like the sun, and the light reflects onto Howard's. The Sun and the Moon, personified. "And they tried to steal our crimps. What an outrage! Remember the four-way crimp off?"
"How could I forget?"
It's an odd sentence, considering his predicament, and the girl furrows her brows. But Vince, who seems oblivious to everything around him, just grins, and opens his mouth into an oval. She watches, mesmerised, as the invalid does the same.
"Oh…" they say in unison. "Crimpity crimpity now now, crimpity crimpity ask me how, crimpity crimpity humble pie, crimpity crimpity ping…" and it seems to be some sort of song as the most outlandish words fall from their mouths, a song without much melody but a song nonetheless. It's difficult to keep up, and it's attracting attention from both cow-eyes nurses and irritated visitors, but it's magical in its own way. And she has to wonder how he can remember such complex rhymes, the sudden twists of the mouth and the difficult formations of lips pressing down on the words. And if there was ever any proof that God existed then it is standing right in front of her, because she knows that this is the miracle that the nurses were talking about.
"Crimpity crimpity fuck you" the men finish, completely oblivious to the silent scrutiny around them, and they laugh like young men again.
"Classic times" Vince mutters.
"Crazy days" Howard counters.
They laugh, and then Vince launches headfirst into an anecdote about himself and somebody called Bollo. She is too stunned to take in any details, and so the words wash over her. Howard occasionally snuffles with age, but he is listening in complete enrapture. She wants to speak, wants to make her presence known. She isn't sure why Vince hasn't noticed her yet, or why Howard had forgotten her so quickly, but if she were to hazard a guess it would be that the appearance of the handsome man with the greying hair and the reappearance of Howard's memories has pushed her into the scenery, and she isn't sure what to make of it all.
They bicker for a long time, and the clock slowly ticks on behind them. After a long while, Vince fishes another piece of bootlace from his pocket. This time he doesn't stuff it in, but takes his time sucking thoughtfully on one end, like an artist might do on a pencil. He clamps it between his teeth in order to speak.
"So, how're things down here? I reckon I caught that nurse givin' you the eye earlier"
"Still got the Moon charm" Howard brags, and Vince rolls his eyes.
"Yeah, whatever. It is alright, ain't it?" and suddenly he looks anxious. "You know you gotta tell me if it aint, Howard. Coz if it's not…You're not lonely, are you?"
"Wait, what? What do you mean, Vince?"
"It's just…" Vince shifts uncomfortably. "Don't like the idea of you being 'ere, on your own. And I miss you bein' around. Now 'Boolio's expanded the flat downstairs into the shop, it kinda seems…empty. Like it's too big a space to fill and I'm too small to fill it. And that's a first for me! It's weird. And I worry 'bout you, on your own"
"It's fine. I'm fine! Stop worrying, eh, little man?"
Vince relaxes a little, but he still looks tense and more than a little nervous. "Yeah. Yeah, alright"
"Don't need to worry about me, Vince"
Vince scoffs. "Oh, yeah? I reckon we've disproved that a few times. Anyways, it's my job to worry 'bout you, 'Oward"
"Yeah, well…" Howard looks a little uncomfortable, but it doesn't take a genius to see that he's hiding his relief and delight at the words not fully spoken.
"Who'd look after you if I didn't, eh? 'Coz as much as I love 'im, I wouldn't trust Naboo with my life, let alone yours. I mean, remember when 'e tried to smoke my conditioner?"
"Yeah. That was an interesting day"
Vince rakes his hand over his head, his hair parting like water at his fingernails.
"M'always worried 'bout you, Howard…I mean, we used to go on all those adventures, 'n I was always worried you'd be ok"
"We're not on an adventure anymore, Vince"
Vince grins, and his suddenly sullen face brightens up again; radiant.
"What d'you mean? We're always on an adventure, Howard. Everything's an adventure if you see it in the right way"
A chuckle bubbles in the depths of Howard's throat, and he leans back in his chair, smiling, his eyes not leaving his friend's face. With a cracked and yellowing fingernail, he scratches at the remaining bristles of the moustache he was once proud of. In the background, visitors have been slowly trickling out, eager to get away from the papery eggshells of their family members. Many of the residents are staring glassy-eyed and unfocused at a television on the wall, which is playing an excruciating program entitled The Top 100 Worst Adverts of the Noughties, which is currently showing an image of a strange-looking young man dressed as a dancing crab. Howard's eyes flicker in the dim artificial light of the pasty pallor of the room.
"You look tired, 'Oward" Vince murmurs fondly.
"I'm not" Howard protests, with the subdued ferocity he used when she got his name wrong earlier. But it doesn't take a genius to see the wrinkles around his drooping eyelids; the way his lips are slightly parted. And Vince is no genius.
"Yeah, you are" he smiles. "Why don't you 'ave a little sleepy, eh?"
"No…" Howard protests, and it's a losing battle. She can tell, and so can Vince. He glances at the clock on the wall, where the minute hand is slowly ticking around to five, as if apologetic at the job it has to do; as if deeply ashamed at being forced to rip the two apart and spoil the best part of its day.
"Yeah, you do that" Vince mutters again, peeling his eyes back towards his friend. "'Ave a sleep" The next part he says with subdued reluctance. "I promised Leroy I'd be at his by five thirty. I'm gonna 'elp him clear out Helen's things. Says he can't stand to be around them no more, since she died…" he trails off, and his eyes lock briefly with Howard's. But then he brightens up again, looking like his normal old self, because as long as he keeps talking he can ward off the world. "But I'll tell you what! Bollo found one of your old Charlie Mingle LPs, yeah. Says he'll bring it for you when 'e and Naboo come down this weekend. Becomin' a bit of an old softy in his old age, I reckon. Going a bit grey around the fur"
And she can see that as his calm, melodic voice keeps going, Howard's eyes are slowly weakening, even though he is desperately clinging on to the light in Vince's eyes. And when Vince slowly stands up, his mind tries to follow him.
"You'll come back, won't you?" he mumbles, and Vince laughs.
"'Course I will, 'Oward" he grins. "I'll be back in two days, I promise. I always do"
"Yeah…alright" Howard smiles. She watches him close his eyes. Vince smiles affectionately as his mate's breathing steadies, his head lolls. And then, satisfied, he moves quietly and slowly towards the exit. But once his back is turned, Howard's eyes flicker open again, and he watches the skinny silhouette disappear through the door, and she sees the remains of his memory fall from his brain and shatter like pieces of glass on the floor. She turns to him, and he smiles at her.
"You really a marvel" she states, and he just grins wider.
"Am I?" he asks innocently. And then his head flops as he falls backwards into a deep sleep, lost in dreams of memories forgotten. And he leaves the present behind to dabble in the past, leaving behind what he wants to and holding on to Vince.
Note-Ok, so I wrote this as a fluff-fest, but in truth I really have no knowledge of dementia, so if I got anything wrong (apart from the obvious) please mail me and I will happily edit. Thanks for reading!