It was a brilliant, crisp day on the cusp of January. The pale sun cast a vague, fragrant light over the rooftops of Camden in a cloudless sky, and pale green leaves had begun to emerge from the trees, refracting the sunbeams onto the dusty pavements below. Commuters hurried busily to work, huddling in their coats and scarves, their breath ripping out in rags. Pigeons cuddled together on the ledges of buildings, their feather ruffling as they took flight, gliding like paper aeroplanes towards the centre of Dalston. There, they migrated to the roof of a small, red second-hand shop and gathered on the rooftop as if to listen in to the conversation within.
"Howard, just calm down!" the younger, slighter man sighed. He was young, pale, clad in a bright red jumper that clashed with his raven-black hair and jeans. He was resting in a red barber's chair by the window, looking up from his magazine at the other man who was perched on the shop counter. In contrast to his younger companion, he looked like he had stepped out of a 1930s detective novel, with his fawn coat, left open to reveal a brown Hawaiian shirt, and an unfashionable trilby to protect him from the chill that the permanently open door brought in.
"How can I calm down, Vince?" Howard said. His voice was high and jittery. Vince rolled his eyes in a way that was meant to be irritated but only looked mildly affectionate. "They're meant to be phoning today. Today!"
Another man stood in the corner of the room between the stock cupboard and the stairs, shrouded in shadow, listening in. Naboo the Enigma shivered, and pulled his Shamanistic kaftan closer around his small body. He knew exactly what they were waiting for, and he mentally scoffed at the idea. The ballbags never gave up, did they? They'd had their big break – more than once, in fact – and every time they'd blown it. But, then, after the "angry crab incident" as it was now known in the house, something had changed. They'd both seemed to realise, individually, that they couldn't make it on their own. And so the music had started again. For nights Naboo had had to put up with weird cacophonies sneaking through the walls of the flat. Eventually it had come to an end – mainly with the use of a desperate silencing charm and Bollo threatening to break Howard's fingers if he disturbed his beauty sleep again – but one day the pair emerged from the "studio" (ok, it was a small alcove in the hallway, whatever) triumphant. They'd only written a bloody album – if you could call it that – a collection of brand new songs.
Even Naboo had to admit that it wasn't half bad. It was a bit like their older stuff: whimsical, flighty and just plain strange. But it wasn't quite so painful; it had been fine-tuned and refined over and over again. It was odd, yes, but it was strangely enticing; a bit like the men themselves.
They'd tried out for PieFace Records again, which was a bit weird considering their history with the label, only this time they'd secured a deal. Naboo remembered that day last week when they had to go and play for the bosses. The atmosphere in the flat had been so tense it felt like someone had died, with nobody talking to each other, the nervous energy in Vince's legs the only sound in the room, that repetitive tapping on the floor. They had left white-faced with nerves, bundling their stuff into the van with solemn goodbyes like they were leaving forever…
Naboo had been expecting the worst. They nailed it.
Now they were waiting for the phone call that would either confirm their worst fears or their biggest dreams. Naboo thought it all very over-dramatic, but something had been building up in his little Shaman bones too. He hadn't even touched his Hookah today.
He was jolted out of his reverie by the sudden scream of the phone reverberating around the house. It rang once, twice. Nobody seemed to want to pick it up. And then there was a small click, and Howard's dulcet Northern tones quietly broke the silence: "Hello, you're through to the Nabootique, how can I be of assistance? Ah, Pearl, how are you?" At the name of the PieFace Records director, he looked over the phone to the point where his eyes met Vince's. "Good, good…yes. Yes. Yeah, he's here. What number was that?" He took a piece of paper off the desk and jotted something down. "Uh-huh. That's…yeah. Thanks very much. Ok. Bye."
He put the phone down. From where he stood, Naboo could only see the back of his head, but he was sure that the expression of his older tenant matched exactly the one of Vince, whose blue eyes were widened in anticipation.
There was a pause. Then…
"We got the gig."
Vince froze. "What?"
"We got the gig, Vince. We did it. We're on record!"
Vince flew across the room and hugged Howard, hard, ignoring the weak and feeble protests of his friend. He was shouting loudly with joy. Naboo thought it time to step in.
"Oi, ballbags! This stuff ain't gonna sell itself, y'know!"
But as he turned away, a small smile graced even his lips at the news.
They weren't in the shop that night, and the house seemed empty. The final dancing lights of a drug-induced haze cleared before Naboo's eyes and the silence pressed in on his ears. Automatically, he listened out for the faint smooth jazz tones that were usually being played by Howard, played too quietly because Vince didn't like it, but that seemed to be a constant hum that eventually faded into the background of the flat. But it wasn't there. Instead, the shaman tried listening for the rustle of Vince's magazines, the electric buzz of warming straighteners, the voice that sung quietly to itself as he bustled like a minor whirlwind through the apartment. But that wasn't there, either. Silence at the Nabootique was never silence, not with those two around.
But they weren't around that night. They were playing a gig, a minor venue somewhere in Camden that needed a small act to fit the bill. They seemed to be out most nights, come to think of it. There always seemed to be a venue that needed playing. They were getting popular, as well. They hadn't produced a proper, legit album yet, but the few LPs and singles they had were rising in sales on some of the smaller charts. There was a review of them in the Guardian too – a small one, just an "Acts to Watch Out For" spread that mentioned their names quite flatteringly:
The Artist: Moon and Noir's Electric Circus
Hometown: North London
The Background: Finally – a brand new act that doesn't appear to copy anybody else! The self-dubbed "Jalectro" sound of Moon and Noir's Electric Circus (the name taken from a previous project of frontman Vince Noir) is unlike anything ever heard before by human ears. The fusion of electronic beats and indie rock, with a bit of scat-jazz thrown in for good measure, seems at first glance to be a randomised, crazy, experimental mix. But, somehow, it works brilliantly, with a soul unlike anything seen since the Seventies. To the small-minded listener, the Electric Circus may be a bit hit-and-miss, but music connoisseurs across the country are currently being filled with excitement and delight.
The Buzz: Supergroup Rudi and Spider have instantly dubbed the group "Il Sonida Nueva" after their own famed 2006 track.
The Truth: They may be right.
Most Likely To: Win the NME Award for style – Noir's hair is a force to be reckoned with, and coupled with the understated, more serious charm of bandmate Howard Moon, the pair make for an irresistible mix.
Least Likely To: Play on the X Factor. This is not a sound for middle-of-the-roadies.
File Next To: Bryan Ferry; David Bowie; Big-Face Eddison.
Next Playing: The Velvet Onion, Dalston, 6th February.
Ok, it was a very flattering review. They'd even got Howard's name right. When Vince had seen it, he had been delighted, proclaiming: "It's better than a picture of some sick with our names underneath it!"
"Vince," Howard had replied. "We don't need the words of reviewers good or bad to tell us what we're about." But he had been smiling too, a smile Naboo hadn't seen for a long time.
The flat was too, too quiet without his friends. The objects, collected from years of togetherness, seemed empty, just spare trinkets without the energy of their owners. Then the door to the shop rang downstairs, signifying their entrance. Naboo sighed with relief, and the flat sighed too, finally pleased to have its heart back.
Naboo was standing at the bottom of the stairs, his arms folded, waiting for his employees to come down. This was ridiculous – it was already eleven o clock. Vince he could understand, the bloke was always lazy of a morning, but Howard too? He knew at least one of them was awake; he could hear banging around upstairs, noises that sounded like an elephant trying to be inconspicuous. Naboo was preparing himself for some serious back-turning.
Howard appeared at the top of the stairs, and yawned. He smiled.
"What the hell d'ya think the time is?" Naboo demanded. Admittedly, he knew it was hard to sound angry with the speech impediment and monotonous voice that was characteristic of all Xooberonians, but had Howard been a native to the planet he would have been quaking in his sandals. As it was, he still looked fairly cowed at his landlord's fierce gaze.
"Sorry. We had a bit of a late one last night – over-slept."
"It's already eleven o clock. The shop should've been open hours ago. Where's Vince?"
"He's just upstairs…" Howard muttered meekly.
"Just because you've got a gig on doesn't mean you can get out of work. I expect this sort of thing of Vince, but not you. I ain't paying you to sleep." Naboo reprimanded.
A flicker of pride appeared on Howard's face, but quickly evaporated. "It's hardly a large amount, Naboo. Most of what we get goes back to you, for the rental fee. I thought you'd be happy that we're actually bringing in some real income for a change."
"You can't just ignore your job for a few gigs, Howard. I gave you free tenancy for a whole year after the zoo shut down, remember?"
Howard ran a hand over his face, and Naboo suddenly realised how tired he looked. "Yeah, and now we're paying you back. What's the big deal?"
"What's going on?"
A small face had appeared behind Howard, disgruntled at the blockage on the stairs. Vince's hair, although he had only just got up, was already styled to perfection once more. Naboo turned to face him: "And where've you been? The shop's supposed to have opened by now."
"Bloody hell, 'Boolio, give us a break, yeah?" Vince sniped. Naboo was suddenly very, very glad that he wasn't Howard, who seemed to be at the receiving end of the younger man's bitchier, conniving, snide side more often than not. He made a future note to be nicer to the Northerner. After all, it wasn't completely his fault that he was such a dossbag.
"I give you plenty of breaks, Vince. I'm actually quite generous with my time off. You're the ones taking advantage."
Vince rolled his eyes. "We weren't taking advantage; we were playing a gig."
"I don't care what you do in your spare time; don't let it cut into work hours. I'm going to have to turn my back on you."
And he did.
"What's wrong with you, you midget?" Vince snapped. "What're you being so bloody anal for? Is this what you're like when you're not off your tits?"
Naboo gritted his teeth at the insult, and remained stoically mute.
"Well, fine then! Turn your back on me for all I care. I don't want to work in your stupid shop anymore, alright? Hear that, Mr. Superior? I quit! Yeah, that's right. Me n' Howard, we're quitting. We're in a proper band now. We're gonna be famous. We don't need any of this!"
Then there was the sound of boots clumping heavily up the stairs as Vince stormed back upstairs to the flat. There was a pause.
"Naboo?" came a quiet, soft voice. Howard. "Come on, Naboo."
Naboo turned back round to face him, and glared. Howard shrunk under the gaze.
"I'm sorry about…" he muttered, but trailed off. "Well. You know."
Silence. Howard was looking at the floor, but Naboo knew that had he the courage to look the shaman in the face his tiny eyes would have been full of sympathy, remorse.
"I'll go and open up now, shall I? You can dock it from my pay, if you…"
"Nah, you're alright." Naboo replied, with a shake of his head. There was an awkward moment, and then the two men pushed past each other and disappeared in different parts of the flat.
Naboo was behind the counter when the doorbell of the shop tinkled and they came in. The older one smiled kindly at him, and said: "Hello? We're here about the room?"
Ah, the room. When they had first all moved into the flat, after the zoo had shut down in mysterious circumstances, there had been a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, a bedroom for Naboo, a bedroom for Bollo and only one spare room. They hadn't minded sharing; in fact, both seemed secretly thrilled at the idea, and Naboo had been quiet happy to indulge them their simple pleasures. It was only a small little cupboard room, really, but Howard had smiled with gratitude and called it homely, and Vince had marked it as his own by silently placing a can of hairspray on the floor in an almost ritualistic manner. The decoration had been more difficult – the mixture of styles was evident – but eventually they both decided to keep the purple walls and the orange carpet that had come with the flat to keep the peace. Howard's side of the room had been tidier, minimal, with only the bare necessities. Vince had insisted that all he had were his bare necessities, but the massive wardrobe barely held all of his clothes and the table even less of his makeup, and items often spewed over onto the floor. Howard never seemed to mind.
It was gone now. The room still contained the two beds, the chest of drawers, the table and the recovering wardrobe, but everything that had ever held any essence of the two men that had lived there had followed them to The New Flat. Naboo scoffed. It had to be capitalised, but it made him sound like a jilted girlfriend when he said that. Apparently they'd needed their own space, and the flat was too small a space for a growing band with all the music equipment attached. Vince had given Naboo a hug, and embraced Bollo hard before clambering into the van. Howard had shaken their hands, and offered Bollo a peace treaty. They'd taken the van, too. They had gone, and cleared up after themselves, and now there was no trace that they'd ever been there.
Naboo sighed, and looked up at the girl addressing him. She was very young, early twenties at a guess, with her cinnamon hair down to her shoulders in a neat bob. She was wearing a brown pencil skirt with leather boots, and a cream v-neck jumper. She was smiling, a small, sweet smile, and clutching a box of belongings to her chest with one hand, some cased musical instrument in the other hand. Behind her, another girl hung shyly back closer to the door. Her hair was longer, scruffier, darker. Her eyes were rimmed with kohl. She was clad in very short denim shorts, despite the weather, with a red waistcoat that made her look slightly like a circus ringmaster. She was very pretty, and she timidly grinned at him.
"Oh, yeah," Naboo replied, meeting the warm eyes of the first girl. "You must be…"
"I'm Julia. We spoke on the phone," the girl said, and he nodded in recognition. She gestured to the other girl, "And this is Noelle."
"Alright?" the other girl greeted.
"And you're…" Julia asked, her face betraying her struggle to remember his name
"I'm Naboo, that's who," the shaman said.
"Right! Of course, the Nabootique…sorry."
"This place is genius…" Noelle muttered, fondling the rack of vintage clothes with one hand. "The décor'll be brilliant to draw. And look at this, Ju! These records must be worth a mint!"
Julia shot her friend a doting smile, and placed the instrument case on the floor. "God, I'll never be able to drag her away, now. But, she's right…" she gazed around at the shop, "This place is rather wonderful. I'm glad we stumbled across it."
Naboo tried his hardest not to smile.
"So what about the lease…?" Julia muttered, trying to remain serious but obviously distracted by the brightness in the shop around her. Naboo shook his head.
"Don't worry about that yet. Settle in first, yeah?" He turned around, and cupped a hand around his mouth to call for his familiar: "Bollo!"
"Huh?" came the gruff response, and the gorilla poked his head around the doorway. "What?"
"You comin' to meet the new tenants or what?"
Bollo came lumbering into the room. If either of the girls were at all shocked by the presence of the gorilla in their new home they didn't show it.
"Bollo, this is Julia and Noelle. Take them up to their room, will ya?"
Bollo nodded, and took Julia's small box from her hands and Noelle's suitcase with the other. The girls exchanged looks and followed him upstairs.
When the phone went off, Naboo barely heard it. He was sleeping soundly, but his mind sharpened at the sudden noise. He lay there, listening to it. He glanced at the clock and scowled. It was only eight! Who the bloody hell was calling at this time in the morning?
It didn't matter, though. He heard a door opening across the landing, and bare feet scuffing along the floor, and down the stairs into the shop. He heard Julia's voice, warm and buzzing with sleep, as she stifled a yawn and picked it up.
"Hello…? Um, sure, let me just check…"
And then she came up the stairs and knocked on the door of his room. Naboo quickly got up and opened the door. Julia, by now completely unfazed by the sight of her topless landlord, handed him the phone with an apologetic grimace. He shook his head at her, smiled, took the phone and shut the door.
"Oh, it's you. What d'ya want?"
There was a sharp intake of breath, but Naboo didn't care.
"I just wanted to say hello. Catch up, you know." There was a pause. "Vince is asleep, so…"
Oh yeah, that little titbox.
Naboo rolled his eyes at the stilted conversation. Sure, he and Howard had never been particularly close – that was his and Vince's thing – and Shaman didn't really do closeness, renouncing it when they took their Shamanic Oaths. Even so, Howard wasn't much in the way of socialisation, but conversation usually wasn't that stilted between them. It was usually comfortable small talk. This was different. It was awkward. Howard sounded like he was purposefully trying to keep quiet.
"Who was the girl?"
"Julia." For a moment, Naboo wondered how Howard didn't know who Julia was. Then it hit him. They'd only called three or four times in the last month, and either he or Bollo had picked up the phone those few times.
"Oh. She sounds nice."
"She is. You'd like her."
Silence. Naboo could hear his ex-flatmate shifting over the line, and imagined him sitting alone at a dining table in the middle of a room. For some reason, whenever he imagined the new flat, it was all clean and white, with lots of glass everywhere and clean, new furniture from IKEA. It was empty, devoid of character. He couldn't imagine warm, jazzy Howard living in a place like that. He'd never even seen a picture of The New Flat. Did weird creatures know where to find their go-to victims nowadays without the neon sign of the Nabootique calling them in? Sometimes Naboo rather missed having people to save.
"I'm sorry I…we haven't called. We've just been busy; you know…we released our CD last week. It's been going pretty well…"
Howard trailed off.
"Yeah, so've I." Naboo replied quickly. "Been busy, I mean." It wasn't a lie; his Shamanistic business was booming.
"Well, that's great. How's Bollo? Vince wanted to know…"
"He's alright." Naboo didn't decide to take Howard up on that, but he knew that Howard knew that they both knew that Vince was perfectly capable of phoning by himself.
On the other end of the line, Howard scratched his moustache and the noise crackled statically down the phone cord.
"Um, I should be…you know. Lots to do. He'll be waking up in a moment, so…"
"Right. Bye then."
"Bye, Naboo. Take care."
Then the line went dead. Naboo sighed through pursed lips, and left the phone beside his bed, figuring that there was probably a reason Shaman didn't do closeness.
"Yeah. Start her up."
Bollo nodded, and the carpet rose quietly from the ground, catching onto the one-way wind current, its sides ruffling as it slid through the air like a snake in water. The evening was darkening, the navy velvet night spreading like ink over the sky. The sky was cloudless, but starless too. Eventually, the carpet pulled down in an alleyway behind a large, imposing building. Naboo could already hear the faint excited chatter of a crowd of people on the other side, and immediately breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn't come in through the front. He jumped off the carpet, rolled it up, and followed Bollo through the small door into the back of the venue.
His familiar turned to him: "Bollo meet you in foyer after?"
"Yeah, alright." Naboo agreed. "Break a leg."
Bollo grunted, nodded, and shuffled off to the other end of the building Naboo touched the VIP tag around his neck, and went in a direction which he hoped was vaguely towards the main hall.
It was only a relatively small place, but bigger than the usual clubs that Bollo DJed in. There weren't too many people, but the ones that were there were the usual types: trendy Camden socialites with more fashion sense than…well, normal sense. Naboo waited at the back of the hall until the lights dimmed and the gorilla came on to the cheers of the entire hall to play his set. It was pretty good, admittedly. Unlike his familiar, or indeed his ex-friends, Naboo didn't really have a defined taste in music. Xooberon wasn't exactly famed for its musical explorations. Here on Earth, it was such a big thing, and he'd been surprised by it when he first arrived from his home planet. He liked a bit of everything, really. As long as the notes fitted he would quite happily listen to it. But, he had to admit, Bollo was good at what he did.
The set was over far, far too quickly, and the gorilla left the stage to a steady but hardly encore-inducing applause. Naboo didn't know who Bollo was supporting, and he didn't really care; he'd only come to offer encouragement to his friend. He slipped through the door and back towards the foyer. Bollo wasn't there, though, so he decided to retrace his steps to meet him backstage.
He wandered for a short while through a twisting labyrinth of corridors until he found the hallway marked "Backstage" and a security man waved him through at the site of the tag around his neck. There was a door open, slightly ajar, showering a small section of the floor in a sharp line of yellow light. As he passed the door, Naboo heard something that made him stop short:
"What're you doing, you bumbaklaat? Hurry up!"
"That's a little rich coming from you. You're the one who spent the last hour doing his hair."
"Yeah; some of us know how to appeal to a crowd."
"Calm down. We've got plenty of time before we have to go on."
"No we 'aven't…stop playing that bloody guitar!"
"Vince, cool it! What's wrong with you?"
"What's wrong with you? You're the one who doesn't care if we go on or not!"
"Oh, stop preening! Your clothes are fine, your hair is fine, your makeup is fine!"
"Wish I could say the same for you…"
It was then that the door on the other side of the corridor opened and Bollo emerged to find his master pressed up against the shadows of the wall. For a moment, the ape looked slightly guilty, and hung his head slightly.
"Bollo…" Naboo whispered, using a quietness undetectable to human ears. "You didn't say."
"Bollo thought Naboo refuse to come if Naboo know who headlining." Bollo replied apologetically.
Naboo shook his head sadly. "Nah, I wouldn't do that…Come on, let's get out of here."
As the pair walked back towards the backstage exit, Naboo thought he could hear the sound of splintering wood. He winced, and paused for a moment.
"What is it?" Bollo asked, and the little man shook his head.
Naboo was tired, and feeling more than a little sick, nursing the hangover he had from last night. Kirk's party had been absolutely mental, and he had a vague recollection of tying an unconscious Tony Harrison to a tree in the back garden by the tentacles. Oh well. Dennis would sort it.
Bollo came in, and promptly dropped a magazine down on the table in front of him. Naboo winced at the sudden noise, and clasped a hand to his forehead.
"Bollo, make us a Resolve, will ya?" he mumbled. "I've got a blinder."
"Naboo drink too many Veroccas last night."
"What the Hell's a Vero-…oh." It was slowly coming back to him. "You mean the Vodka and Berocca combinations? What was I thinking?"
"Dunno. Bollo off his tits on poppers."
Naboo shook his head at the sheer uselessness of his familiar and picked up the magazine that Bollo had chucked unceremoniously before him. It was, surprisingly, a music magazine, entitled Beatstix, which looked like a smaller version of NME, or that other stupid magazine Vince used to read. Naboo frowned.
"Why've you given me this, Bollo?" he called into the kitchen. The ape shuffled into the dining room, and slammed the Resolve in front of his master. Naboo flinched at the sound of glass hitting the scratched wood, but didn't say anything. It wasn't Bollo's fault he was so loud.
"Look at page 36." The gorilla said cryptically. Naboo sighed, and downed his Resolve in one. It didn't help that much; it was a shame no Shaman had ever invented a cure for a blinding migraine but they were usually supposed to use their powers for the good of humanity and all that. Nursing his head, he flicked through the glossy pages of the magazine. From what he could pick up, it was a lowbrow thing, mostly dedicated to rubbish Indie bands and adverts for semi-designer clothing that took up most of the space.
It was at the bottom of the page. Most of the article was dedicated to an electro band that had released a new album, but a small neon yellow box covered with miniscule text in the corner highlighted the picture. The photograph was very unflattering. Vince had fallen on his knees outside a nightclub, by the looks of things. His big blue eyes, that had once been used to draw in customers, were now blank and unseeing. His face was pale and slack.
If this picture (Vince Noir, pictured left) is anything to go by, lead singer of new focus band Moon and Noir's Electric Circus Vince Noir has already fallen from grace as the go-to name for this year's most successful new artist. After the release of their first album, Bryan Ferry versus the Jalectro Fox, two months ago, Moon and Noir have been on the rise of a cult hit with their unique new sound. But pictures showing frontman Vince Noir drunk outside the Velvet Onion nightclub last weekend tell a different story. With rumours that bandmate Howard Moon has quit over the disorderly behaviour of his singer, has this year's biggest band also become this year's biggest flop? Turn to page 15 for more on this year's hottest new names in music…
Naboo sighed, and pushed the magazine slowly off the table. Bollo looked at him, with his small, black eyes that held too much silent emotion for a gorilla.
"Why did'ya want me to see that, Bollo?" Naboo asked.
"Bollo thought Naboo might be interested." The gorilla shrugged. "Vince not looking too good. Bollo think Vince happier here. And, er…Harold too."
Despite the broken English, Naboo understood exactly the sentiment. "Yeah, well. It's nothing to do with us anymore, Bollo. What can I do?"
Bollo shrugged; scratched his fur. "Uh. Bollo going to Tescos. Need to get food for Precious Noelle and, er…the other one."
Naboo chuckled, despite himself. "You're unbelievable. It's Julia, you jerk-off!"
"Precious Noelle…" Naboo scoffed. "What happened to Precious Vince, anyway?"
Bollo shook his head. "Vince no precious no more."
Naboo was silenced. Then the phone rang. Bollo lumbered out of the room as the sound seared into the Enigma's mind, and he quickly tore into the shop to grab it.
"Naboo…is that you?"
Naboo frowned. "Howard?"
"Yeah. I, er…I need to ask you a favour…"
Howard was sleeping on the sofa in the flat; the big black-and-white one that Vince had chosen from a retro charity furniture shop, back in the day. His stuff was still, after a month, in piles around him. It was surprising how little possessions he owned – a small pile of LPs which held another small pile of books sat in a darkened corner out of sight and out of mind, for the most part. His guitar lay in its case by the edge of the sofa, holding a small pile of clothes which the maverick would wash once a week, in an attempt to be considerate to his landlord. Aside from a toothbrush in the bathroom, that was it. He never complained, though. When he had returned home to find his bedroom gone, taken up by two students, he had just smiled and asked if it was a problem to crash on the sofa. Of course, Naboo hadn't said a word.
The older man had been sporting rings under his eyes when he arrived back, and he looked exhausted. Naboo hadn't wanted to question him about his sudden reappearance at the Nabootique until the next day when he'd decently slept. It turned out that the rumours were true – Howard had quit the band…the band that had consisted only of him and a sparkly neon futuristic prostitute. He got a strained look on his face whenever it was mentioned, and so the Shaman didn't press the issue, and Bollo, although a lesser life form; did have enough tact to avoid the man at a pointed glare from his master.
Howard was working in the shop, now. Naboo would had thought, had he not spent the last couple of years pulling him out of various surreal scrapes, that he was alright – happy, even. But he wasn't. You only had to have a proper look at those Patrick Swayze eyes to see that. But he still played jazz, returning that faint background hum to the flat, and as the month had gone past one could, if they were lucky, be able to catch him scatting quietly to himself with a small smile on his thin, moustachioed lips.
He'd been quite taken with Julia and Noelle, surprisingly. Naboo remembered how he had reacted last time he'd been "replaced" but that seemed to have been turned on his head. He would have automatically assumed that the Northerner would have favoured the caramel charms of Julia, but it had turned out that Howard had become instantly fond of Noelle. He could spend hours talking to her; bought certain types of food for her when he went out shopping; had even taken to calling her "Little Lady" every so often. For her part, the bouncy undergraduate seemed secretly thrilled at the platonic interest of the sweet, eccentric older man who slept on the sofa outside her room. Not that Julia was ignored in the slightest. Naboo had opened the door of her room one day to find Howard strumming his guitar whilst Julia blared out the refrain from Baker Street on her saxophone. They had both been beaming at their shared taste for obscure jazz.
After a week of having returned to the flat, Howard had firmly stated that it was unfair that he should scrounge off his friends and went back to working in the shop. At first, there had been one or two people that had recognised him, but he had maintained that no, he wasn't Howard Moon, he had never heard of neither Vince Noir nor the Electric Circus. In the end, people had just stopped asking. The shop had breathed a sigh of relief when he returned, whistling quietly as he began his stock-taking, but there was still a sense that something was missing…
Things were back to normal now. Or as normal as they would ever be, Naboo supposed.
"You're leaving? Why?"
"It's not that we don't love the flat, Naboo. We do, we really do. But Noelle's grandma came from a line of French Aristocrats, and now she's died and left her this massive inheritance. We've had our eyes on this studio in Kentish Town for a bit for Noelle's painting and my music, so…"
Naboo nodded. Howard was trying his best not to appear crestfallen. Julia smiled sadly.
"And anyway, we thought Howard should have his room back." Noelle piped up.
He did get his room back, after a few teary goodbyes. He took his stuff in in a cardboard box, looking lost, as if it wasn't quite right. He spent a day shut inside, decorating it, getting it back to normal. But Naboo was surprised to walk in at the end of the day to find, rather than the brown-and-green shades he'd been expecting, that the walls were purple and the carpet was orange. Howard was lying on the single bed that was pushed up, like all of his other possessions, against one side of the room. It was an unbalanced setting, looking more like a surrealist painting than an actual room to live in. Naboo half expected it to tip over to one side.
"I prefer it like this." Howard had shrugged when asked.
They ate dinner together. Bollo made macaroni and they all sipped beers and chatted and laughed. In the old days, Howard had used to make his own food and eat separately from everyone else, usually shut in his room for a quiet half hour when he could listen to his music whilst Vince was too preoccupied to complain.
The only new addition to the room, Naboo noticed, was a typewriter. It was old, and battered, and he thought he recognised it as the one from the Zooniverse. Howard would use it sometimes, and would happily spend time in his room with a mug of tea, clicking away on the keys.
"What are you doing?" Naboo asked one day. Bollo was upstairs attending an anti-STD potion that Kirk had requested, and he had come downstairs to find his flatmate curled up on the sofa, typing frantically, his lips pressed together and his eyes intense.
"You writing something?"
"Yeah. A novel. It's just something to pass the time, really. It's not serious."
"It's more therapeutic, really…"
Then there was a crash upstairs and the sound of Bollo swearing and the conversation was cut rather short.
Jones was sleeping fitfully on the sofa, and when Dan looked closer he could see a small alcohol stain running down the side of one cheek. He sighed, and shook his head. He didn't know what to do…what he could do. The smaller man looked so tiny when he was asleep, awkwardly furled inwards like a baby. Dan could see why people thought he was so precious. It was at moments like these, when the pale moonlight clawed its way through the curtains to be the first speck to catch Jones's cheek and make it gleam, that Dan almost forgot everything that had happened. He could remember all they'd been through, all the weird and wonderful adventures, and Jones's beautiful, radiant smile that brought the world crashing to his feet. He could almost forget that those eyes would soon snap open and the man would be staggering and ill. It was a shame that the only moments he was needed nowadays were when Jones was drunk or hung-over.
With a sad smile, Dan tucked a small strand of hair away from Jones's eyes. He couldn't keep doing this. He couldn't sit here and watch the boy self-destruct. He knew he should stay. He knew he was a coward for running. He couldn't help it.
He quietly got up, and packed up all his possessions from his room. It didn't take him too long, but by the time he was done the sun had begun to rise. Jones was still asleep. He would be asleep for a long time, Dan knew – he was nocturnal now, sleeping in the day and then gathering up the scraps of self-destroying energy once the first star showed its face. Dan stashed his mobile into his pocket, and moved into the hallway. He pressed a few buttons, and held the phone to his ear.
"Hello?" came a familiar voice. Dan sighed with relief, knowing he could always count on Nathan to rescue him from any situation.
"Nathan? Is that you?"
"Yeah…" he sighed. "I need to ask you a favour…"
By the end of the day, he was home again. The mobile was left on his bed in the empty room.
Naboo sighed. The manuscript, entitled A Trumpet Full of Memories, was floppy in his hands as he finished it. Howard certainly had been busy to write so much in a little less than a month – the whole thing covered his life almost as long as Naboo had known him, from the Zoo to the flat to the shop. Some of it was very Howardian, he had to admit: over-complicated, over-indulgent and over-worked, and he really wasn't sure about the name given to his written counterpart (Nathan? Really?), but it was also, unfortunately, very insightful.
The phone rang, and he went into the next room to pick it up, leaving the manuscript on the table, knowing full well who it was.
"Alright, Kirk. That potion you were wanting's all done; you can pick it up tomorrow."
Naboo froze, and glanced around the empty room. Everyone else was upstairs.
"What d'you want?" he hissed down the phone.
"Um…I just…is Howard there?" Vince asked morosely.
"Yeah." Naboo replied shortly.
"C'n I speak to 'im?"
Vince sighed, and it was a resigned sigh. "Didn't think so…well, when you speak to him, can you tell 'im…"
"Tell him what?"
"Never mind. S'nothing."
"Right. Well, bye."
But Vince had already hung up. Naboo swore under his breath, and slammed the phone down. When he turned around, Howard was standing in the doorway, looking tired.
"Who was that?"
"Nobody." Naboo replied.
"Oh…Did you read the manuscript?"
Howard just nodded, and walked through to the kitchen.
"Have you got anything?"
Naboo ran a hand over his face. "This is ridiculous. He's not even on MyFace?"
"Oh, bloody…I'm going to have to turn my back on you!"
Bollo sighed; shook his head. "Naboo. Back-turning not work on laptop."
Reluctantly, the shaman swivelled around again. "Worth a shot. So there's absolutely nothing. It's not like he's got a common name or anything! There're only twelve results on Google!"
"Still nothing. Apparently also name of Australian fishmonger. Why Naboo so interested, anyway?"
Naboo sighed. "Oh, I dunno, Bollo. I think it's these human emotions rubbing off on me."
"Must be. Naboo not touched hookah for weeks."
Naboo reached over his familiar's furry shoulder, and closed the computer screen. It seemed that Vince had disappeared. In an age of surveillance similar to the ones Orwell had prophesised, it would seem virtually impossible for someone to vanish out of public sight, especially someone whose idea of "blending in" involved feathery capes and sparkly top-hats. But there was nothing. Save calling the police (and Naboo was avoiding them after that raid at the last Shaman Council office party) he couldn't access anything. Twelve results on the most popular search engine for Vince Noir and none of them were who he was looking for. The man had had a cult following before he started the band, for God's sakes, why were they ignoring him now?
He didn't even know why he was doing this. He didn't want to be involved in human affairs. They were messy and complicated and over-dramatic, a bit like throwing silly string at a party, and he didn't like them at all. They weren't anything to do with him.
Only, they sort of were. The Council used to ask him why he shared his home with two human, non-magical men with less-than-average IQs. He'd used to tell them that it was a means of steady income. But, being honest, it wasn't really, was it?
He wished he was back on Xooberon. Lentils with the King would have been preferable to this.
The Shaman jolted out of his reverie. "Yeah, Bollo?"
"Bollo going to Shamansbury's. Christmas Shopping."
"Already? It's still November!"
"Early gorilla catch banana. Naboo need anything?"
Christmas. Naboo hated to be a killjoy, but he hadn't grown up with anything of the sort and found it all a bit weird. He'd tried buying presents once, and had been given really odd looks by his flatmates for the weird selection of items. Nowadays they didn't mind when he didn't get them anything. They could keep their traditions and he could keep his, and his tradition was a joint or two in front of Peacock Dreams. Now that was Christmas.
"Nah, you're alright."
As Bollo left through the jingling shop door, Howard pushed past him with a bag or two of presents. He was smiling happily to himself as he placed the bag by the stack of Jazz LPs where nobody would want to go near them.
"I'm great, sir. Oh, Naboolio, I wanted to ask you something."
"What is it?"
"Can I have the night off on Christmas Eve? There's a gig down at the Stoke Newington Jazz Club; well, an amateur's night, really, and I've got a short slot. Might blow them all away with some hot steaming jazz!" Naboo gave him a look. "Or I might not, you know…"
Naboo sighed. "I suppose you'll want the whole day off? And Christmas Day, too?"
"Yeah, if that's alright."
"Go on then, if you must."
"Ah, you're such a Scrooge, Naboo. Thanks!" Howard grinned, and bounded upstairs to his apartment.
Naboo frowned. What in God's name was a Scrooge? And why was he one?
December 24th (Christmas Eve)
The Jazz Club was packed. People were jostling for a view of the small stage, which was just a slightly raised platform at one end of the room. The lights were dimmed, with only a blaring spotlight on the stage for comfort. He couldn't believe Howard had actually convinced him to come along, but in the end he had broken Bollo with promises of free gigs, but so far, the music had been alright. Most of it was pretty unmemorable, but it had been a pretty mixed set for an open-mic night. There had been one teenage metal band called Satan's Hoof, and when they had played their set Naboo had felt a pang of anxiety that they would raise Nanatoo again, but it had thankfully gone off without a hitch. There were a couple of older Folkies, and some younger Indies, and a couple of Jazzies and even a young rapper who the audience had surprisingly liked.
Judging from the chalkboard-timetable on the end of the wall, it was Howard's turn next and he was last on the bill. Naboo felt someone knock into his shoulder, and he turned around to see Bollo clutching two plastic cups of indistinguishable alcohol. He took one and sipped it.
"Bloody humans…" Bollo grumbled. "Got drink on my fur…"
"Shut up, Bollo, it's starting."
Surely enough, the lights had dimmed even more (and Naboo wasn't sure how that was possible) and people cheered politely for a man they didn't know as Howard walked onto the stage. But he was accompanied by another person, one who was batting their lashes at the audience and smiling coyly, but with a glint of happiness in their eyes.
"Is that…?" Bollo asked.
"Yeah." Naboo nodded, stunned.
Julia bent down and opened her saxophone case, to the approving mumbles of the audience, as Howard strung his guitar over his shoulder and sat down on the chair. He adjusted his mic and smiled awkwardly at the audience.
"Hello." He said quietly into it, and his voice echoed around the room. "I'm Howard Moon, and this is my lovely assistant Julia."
Julia grinned shyly, and pushed on his shoulder. Howard laughed, and it filled the room with its warm, smoky bubbliness.
"Alright, she's my musical partner. This song is called Mulled Wine in the Snow."
He strummed a few keys on his guitar, tuning it, and then played a series of chords. Before long, the long, soft notes of the horn joined in, complementing it, swirling around in a mass of liquid gold which hushed the audience. Then Howard began to sing.
"I really like Christmas
It's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it
I am hardly religious
I'd rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu, to be honest
And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To consumerism, the commercialization of an ancient religion
To the westernization of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it.
I'm looking forward to Christmas
Though I'm not expecting a visit from Jesus
I'll be seeing my love,
My landlord and flatmate, my best friends, I know,
They'll be drinking mulled wine in the snow
I'll be seeing my love,
My landlord and flatmate, my best friends, I know
They'll be drinking mulled wine in the snow
I don't go in for ancient wisdom
I don't believe just 'cause ideas are tenacious it means that they're worthy,
I get freaked out by churches
Some of the hymns that they sing have nice cords but the lyrics are dodgy
And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To the miseducation of children who in tax-exempt institutions
Are taught to externalist blame and to feel ashamed
And to judge things as plain right or wrong,
But I quite like the songs
I'm not expecting big presents
The old combination of socks, jocks and chocolates is just fine by me
'Cause I'll be seeing my love and,
My landlord and flatmate, my best friends, I know,
They'll be drinking mulled wine in the snow
I'll be seeing my love,
My landlord and flatmate, my best friends, I know
They'll be drinking mulled wine in the snow
And you, my little man,
My excitable lover,
You'll be bounding round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
And you don't understand
But you might learn someday
That wherever I am and whatever I face
You are the people who'll make me feel safe in the end
My sweet blue-eyed friend.
And know, my darling one,
Whether you're twenty-one or thirty-one,
When Christmas comes around
If you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
Just know what ever comes
Your flatmate, your landlord, and me, yes you know,
Will be waiting for you in the snow
Whenever you're low
Your flatmate and landlord, your friends and companions,
Your admirers, and me, 'coz I'll never go,
We'll be waiting for you in the snow
Drinking mulled wine in the snow,
Darling, wherever you go,
We'll be waiting for you in the snow,
Drinking mulled wine in the snow
Waiting for you in the snow
Waiting for you...
I really like Christmas
It's sentimental, I know..."
Julia blew a long note on the saxophone, and Howard strummed a final chord. The audience was silenced, the anticipation electric. Then Howard leant towards the mic:
"Thank you very much."
And the crowd burst out into wild applause. Howard beamed, and smiled up at Julia, who rubbed him on the shoulder and then clapped as well.
"Bloody hell. Bollo not expecting that." The gorilla muttered.
"Nope. Me neither." Naboo replied. "I suppose it makes sense now, don't it?"
Bollo gave him a look. "No."
"Fair enough." Naboo shrugged. "C'mon. Let's go."
He turned around, and stopped short, barely noticing when Bollo walked into his back. He was standing in the middle of the crowd, being jostled by those filing towards the exit, staring blankly at the empty stage where Howard had been beforehand. His hair was messy and disheveled, and not in a deliberate way. He was wearing black jeans and a red jumper that Naboo recognized. For a moment, his head turned, and he caught the eyes of Naboo and Bollo gazing at him, and his mouth slackened a little. Then he looked down at the floor again and followed the herd of people. By the time the Shaman and the Gorilla had managed to leave the club, he had vanished.
"Bollocks…" Naboo muttered, casting a gaze around the throng of people that were mingling outside in the cold night air with their drinks. His breath was foggy in the frosty atmosphere.
"No. Look." Bollo said, and he pointed down the wall to the side of the club. Sure enough, he was standing there, leaning against the wall. A second figure emerged from the stage door, and he jumped up. Then there was a conversation which seemed to turn into an argument very quickly, and then it just looked frustrated. Then he said something and Howard froze.
"Monkey Hell…" Naboo breathed. "They're swinging through the whole spectrum in less than five minutes." He shook his head slowly. "I don't understand humans, Bollo."
"Bollo no get them either." His familiar agreed.
"C'mon, let's leave them to it."
"Aww! Bollo want to see what happens!"
"Go on, Curious George. I've got the carpet ready. We'll find out soon enough."
"Curious George not a gorilla. Naboo use inferior insult."
They began to walk back towards the carper, but when Naboo looked back, the two men were pressed tightly against each other. He smiled fondly, and rolled his eyes.
He supposed Vince would be wanting his room back soon. That could be arranged. He wondered if the littler man would be joining them for Christmas Day. He was pretty sure he could install a fake snow spell in the shop for a day.
On the other side of North London, the Nabootique sighed in relief.
Note – Wow, that was sickeningly fluffy. And ridiculously clichéd to boot. Still, if you can't be clichéd at Christmas, when can you be? Have a good one!
Disclaimers – I do not own any recognizable characters, nor do I own the (modified) version of "White Wine in the Sun" which is owned by Tim Minchin – which I recommend if you haven't heard it. I do, however, own Julia and Noelle…just about.