Once the two gatekeepers had stopped bickering, the group was handed over to a young blonde boy who, wherever he was, definitely wasn't on Earth. He led them silently, occasionally giggling madly at a puddle, past trendy cafes and independent clothes shops towards a large building in the middle of the city. The building itself was pretty magnificent. In comparison to the towering grey blocks of the rest of Camden, the Wizard's palace was painted a bright, vivid red that made Vince's eyes water. Wordlessly, the stoned child ushered them through the heavily-guarded front door, where they were met by a tall bald man wearing an extravagant cloak.
"What do you want?" the man queried as the boy slunk back into the shadows.
"We're here to see the Wizard," Vince explained.
The guard sneered. "The Wizard is very busy. He does not take visitors."
Vince frowned incredulously. "What?"
"You can't come in; I'm afraid your journey has been as wasted as Kirk."
"Oh yeah?" Vince scoffed. "Who's going to stop us?"
"I am," said the man, and he unsheathed a massive sword from underneath his cloak. "I am Dennis, Captain of the Palace Guard."
Vince looked at the sharp metal and edged cautiously backwards. He would not want to be found in a cupboard with this man's wife. "Alright, cool your boots!"
A rough hand tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned to see Scarecrow's upset eyes staring at him. "What do we do now, Vince?"
Vince looked at his companions, who were looking at each other with sorrowful expressions. "I'm sorry I dragged you all here."
"It ok, precious Vince," consoled Gorilla.
"Yeah. We can just go back, but…how are you going to get home?" said Tin Man.
Vince shrugged. "Fuck knows. The Good Witch told me the Wizard would help."
He turned around to see Dennis looking suspiciously at him. "What?"
"Did you say the Good Witch sent you?"
"Yeah. He…she…it even gave me these boots." Vince stuck his foot out, and as the crimson reflection shone onto the Guard's face he smiled broadly.
"Well, why didn't you say so?" he cried. "Any friend of the Witch is a friend of the Wizard. Follow me!"
Exchanging triumphant grins, the foursome trailed after the Guard, through the somewhat psychedelic interior of the Wizard's palace. After a short while they came too a large green door, which swung open under Dennis's hand. The room they found before them was large and mystical, with strange hypnotic sounds and sweet-smelling incense that wafted gently around the room. The room was divided in half by a large red curtain, with a cartoon monkey face drawn over it. As the group watched, the smoke gathered into a ball and formed the shape of a large face that glared down at them.
Dennis stood to attention. "Forgive me, my Liege," he called out. "Were you in a trance?"
The hypnotic sounds suddenly stopped. "No," said the face in a bored, lisping voice. "I was listening to Fleetwood Mac."
"Ah. You have visitors," said Dennis, and he swiftly left the room. The face turned towards the group, and frowned deeply.
"I'm the Great and Powerful Wizard, that's who," he said. "Who are you?"
Vince gulped, and stepped surely forward. "I'm Vince Noir, rock n roll star," he said, attempting his best charming grin.
"What d'you want?" the Wizard replied, already sounding exasperated.
"Oh, nothing, nothing…"
"Yeah! Only I might have got myself into a bit of trouble with a flying house?"
The smoky face rolled its eyes. "'Ere we go…"
"Yeah, and Scarecrow here needs a brain, Tin Man needs a heart and Gorilla really needs some courage. You wouldn't mind helping us out a bit, would you?"
There was a long, tense pause, and Vince felt Gorilla sway behind him trying to resist the urge to faint.
"The Wizard will grant your request…"
The group looked excitedly between each other.
"But first you must do something for me."
"You must travel far into the depths of West London," said the Wizard mystically, "And you must bring me back the Top Hat of the Green Wicked Man Witch of West London."
Vince frowned. "That's a bit of a mouthful, ain't it?"
"Bring me back the hat and I shall grant your request."
Gorilla nervously shuffled on his paws. "But what if Witch kill us?"
The face was silent, and slowly dissolved before their eyes. Vince took a deep breath, and looked at his entourage. He tried a cheerful grin.
"We'll be alright," he said. "Come on; let's get this over and done with, eh?"
The group left Camden in solemn silence that hung over them like a dark cloud, Gorilla's words buzzing silently behind like an insect. It was Scarecrow who led the way, for now there was no Yellow Brick Road to guide them; Vince had very little recollection of the orienteering Howard had once tried to teach him. Although it couldn't have been past midday, the sky quickly darkened as they made their way over ragged hills and ruined bricks that looked like they had once been houses. The trees lost their leaves, becoming more twisted and gnarled with each step. Mountains rose before them, slicing through the horizon. Shadows wound their way around the light and suffocated it, until even Tin Man's shiny exterior seemed dull.
After a long while, Vince stopped. "Christy…" he groaned. "You'd think I didn't have better things to do with my time. How long is it going to take?"
"Well, we're going at a steady speed, and judging by the sun we've walked two miles, so it should be…fifteen minutes?" Scarecrow replied.
"Yeah, and the castle's over there, you numnut," muttered Tin Man, pointing to a place in the midst of the craggy rock. The castle was almost invisible amongst its mountain dwelling, but when Vince looked closer he could just make it out.
"What is that?" Gorilla asked, suddenly sounding terrified. Vince followed his gaze, and gasped sharply. There was a swarm of something dark gathering over the mountains; an army of dimly lit shapes that moved as one unit, growing swiftly closer.
"Abandon ship! Mommy!" Tin Man cried out, and grabbed Vince's arm. Vince turned and began to run back down the path with Scarecrow and Tin Man directly behind him. But when he turned the swarm was close enough to make out the individual shapes. They were monkeys, airborne on tattered wings, flying faster than Vince could ever hope to run. Gorilla's massive bulk dived in front of him, acting as a shield, but it was no use. He felt cold talons close sharply over his shoulders, digging into the fabric of his top, and then he was lifted off his feet. He yelled as the ground vanished underneath him and he was tugged high into the ink-stained atmosphere. Below him, his friends were trying to fend off more of the beasts, but soon he could no longer see them as he was carried towards the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Eventually, he unceremoniously landed on a parapet. The monkey flew away, and Vince quickly checked his shoulder for any rips in the fabric (and potential scratches, secondarily). Then he scoured around him for any means of escape, but save for a long and probably lethal abseil with no rope, it didn't seem too likely.
"Hello there, squire," came a rasping voice, and Vince wheeled around to see a figure shrouded by the shadows. It was the same voice he'd heard in his ear that morning – had it only been that morning?
He swallowed. "Alright?"
The person in the shadows stepped forward, revealing a stooped old man with emerald skin and a thick white ring over one eye. He leered menacingly.
"That were a bad time for you, weren't it, boy?"
Vince shrugged. "I've had worse."
"Don't give me lip, son, or I'll slash your head off your neck," growled the Witch. "I'll kick your face off and give it to the monkeys, and then I'll do something unspeakable to your stump. You got that?"
Vince nodded. "Er…yeah."
"I saw you coming!" cried the man. "I saw you in my crystal ball; I said is that a geezer or a lady? Don't matter, mind, 'coz he's wearing something what's rightfully mine."
Vince pulled at the fabric of his shirt. "This is from TopShop…"
"Not that, you onion! The boots!"
The crimson glimmer attracted Vince's eye once again, and he looked down with a cheek-splitting grin. "Oh, yeah! These are genius. I can see my face reflected a thousand times on each foot; how cool is that?"
"Now you see, boy, I want those boots. Give them to me and I might let you keep one of your eyes."
Vince frowned, and shuffled back towards the crumbling wall. He set his jaw and looked the Witch squarely in the polo.
"Nah, I don't think I like that plan very much."
The Witch leered. "Do I look like a reasonable man, or a peppermint nightmare? I'm a simple bloke. How about you give me the boots and if you don't like that transaction, I'll jab you in the gums with me screwdriver."
"Yeah, but, you can't hurt me," Vince grinned, triumphant. "I'm a gifted child. And I got the boots."
The Witch snarled at him for a moment, like a hungry animal. Then he smiled an evil smile, and grabbed Vince's shoulder in a vice-like grip. "Alright, boy. I'll play your game. But just remember, mind, a lot of bad things could happen to a boy like you."
With that, he roughly steered Vince down off the parapet and into a small room on the very edge of the castle. There was a small window that looked out onto the wasteland of the East, and Vince found himself being pushed up against it. Below him a group of green uniformed guards marched around the castle's perimeter. He could see no sign whatsoever of his travelling companions.
"You see that?" crowed the Witch. "When I get those boots, I'll rule the Universe. An army of green bitches, marching and destroying everything in their Cockney wakes! It won't be long now, boy." He walked over to the only object in the room, a small sand-timer on top of a red velvet-clothed table, and turned it upright.
"When that sand runs out, there'll be nothing in the world can protect you. Your pretty face will look like Picasso when I'm done with it."
He cackled, and quickly left the room, locking it behind him. Vince ran after him and pounded on the door, but it was to no avail. A tune began to play outside, and when he looked, he saw that the army had each begun to play on a small pipe. The music sent fear rushing through his veins, and he cursed under his breath.
"Howard, for fuck's sake…" he muttered to himself. "I dunno what to do."
He slapped the wall with the palm of his hand, and then slumped against it in despair. After a while, he looked up at the room around him. It was dark and barren, and too small to deserve any credit. Vince really thought it could have done with some glamming up, but who was he to comment on the décor choices of a Cockney nutjob? It was cold, and shadowy, and he was scared.
He didn't know how long he sat there, picking at the moss growing through the damp stone walls and trying to ignore the rustling drip of the sand-timer. But suddenly, after what seemed like hours, there was a thump against the door. Vince leapt to his feet, and glanced towards the table, where the sand was nearly gone. His heart in his mouth, he backed himself into a corner as something large bashed repeatedly at the door, and the wood began to splinter. Then it burst open, and there came a gasping wheeze.
"Gorilla need therapist when this over…"
"Oh, my sweet Lord!" Vince cried as his friends, dressed in the dark skeletal uniforms and bowler hats of the guards (with what looked like his strawberry bootlaces cellotaped to their faces, but he wasn't one to dwell on details) piled into the room. "I almost had a heart attack!"
"Vincey, you're ok!" cried Tin Man as oily tears of gratitude began to stream from his eyes. Gorilla sucked on his asthma inhaler in victory, and Scarecrow ripped the pink moustache from his face.
"We should leave," he said, his breathing heavy. "If we take a left turn and go round the back we should be able to cross the moat before the Witch finds us."
"Good plan," Vince agreed, and the group made to leave. Then he remembered something. "Oh, wait a minute!" he called, went over to the table, and turned the sand-timer onto its head. Then he grinned, and took off after his friends.
The group ran through echoing corridors and down twisted staircases through the labyrinth of the castle, discarding their uniforms along the way. True to Scarecrow's deductions, the route they took led them towards the gateway of the castle. But suddenly, two guardsmen appeared from behind a column, and they screeched to a halt and turned back as a cry of, "They've escaped, boss!" bounced off the stone and reverberated throughout the building. Vince's lips were dry and his body was beginning to ache, but still he stumbled onwards.
"We're going the wrong way!" he yelled out, at the same time as Gorilla called, "They gaining on us. I got a bad feeling about this."
"We haven't got a choice!" Scarecrow called back as he led them frantically up a flight of steps. The group burst through a doorway, and Vince found himself breathing in a lungful of cold air as the walls vanished and the parapets of the castle stretched out before them. But then his steps faltered and died away, as another set of guards rounded the corner, the Witch at their head, blocking off the exit. The Witch stepped forward.
"Oh. We're in deep diarrhoea…" muttered Tin Man.
"Foiled, foiled by a sparkly androgyne. Oh, the sweet irony!" the Witch cried, sneering a smile of pure evil. "But I've got you now. You hand over those boots, or I'll find a better use for these dildos here. Come on, boys, knock their murdering smiles right off their faces! I wanna see twisted bone and meat all over the back wall by the time I'm finished!"
Gorilla growled, and stepped protectively forward.
"Do not harm precious Vince," he snarled menacingly, and it might just have been the high altitude, but Vince felt sure the Witch flinched. Tin Man followed suit.
"Yeah, you better watch it, or I'll be all over you like a nun sandwich," he snarled.
The Witch snarled. "Oh, really? Are you bulletproof, boy?"
"Yeah!" the metal man replied. "You ever felt a bullet-proof vest against your naked skin? It's better than beautiful. It's beauteous."
"Er…right," said the Witch, withdrawing a switchblade from his pocket. "I'm still gonna slice you up, mind, one by one. It'll be like Connect 4 in dagger terms."
"You can't do this!" Scarecrow protested. "We'll take you down. I rain down the pain, comin' atcha like a kestrel."
"Oh, really?" said the amused Cockney. "I don't think so, squire."
He pulled a lighter from his other pocket and it lit up with a magnificent orange flame. With a malicious sneer, he threw his arm back, and sent the weapon flying at Scarecrow. It hit the straw man squarely in the torso, and Scarecrow stumbled backwards as the dry hay that made up his body slowly began to catch. Vince swore, and launched himself at his friend, trying to pat out the flames. Then he felt something seeping through his top, and he stepped back to see Tin Man holding a large, conveniently-paced bucket of water. Scarecrow's chest was immediately doused, and Vince breathed a sigh of relief. But then there came a blood-curdling scream from behind him, and he spun around to see something strange happening to the Witch. Great bulbs of green goo were dropping to the floor as the evil man began to melt away.
"Aargh! It hurts! It burns! You've liquefied me, you slags!" screamed the Witch, and then he was gone, with only a smoking hat and a green puddle the reminders that he'd ever been there at all.
"Oh. Right," Vince said after a moment. "If he melted under water, then why the fuck was there a bucket of it right there?"
Scarecrow shrugged. "Some things we will never know, Little Man."
The bemused soldiers looked between themselves, unsure of how to act. "Who wants some malt loaf?" one of them suggested after a moment, and a chorus of, "Yeah, I'll have a slice," came in return. The army casually drifted away, no longer caring about their prisoners, leaving only the occasional murmur of, "I'm a Cockney, I'm a Cockney…" in their wakes.
Vince stooped down and picked up the hat. He looked at his friends and beamed.
"Let's get ourselves some wizardry!"
The walk back to Camden seemed after that a lot shorter, and a lot more pleasant, than it had been on the way to the Witch's castle. Vince carefully carried the precious hat all the way, and listened quietly to his friends babbling on and on about what they would do with the gifts the Wizard would bestow on them. Before long they were back at the city, the now-solitary gatekeeper (who seemed to have relinquished Harrison of his duties) let them in wordlessly and they found their way to the castle unaided. Dennis seemed pleased, if slightly perplexed, at their reappearance, and led them straight to the Wizard.
"Alright, Wizard," Vince said cheerfully, as the large face appeared once more before them. He held up the accessory for all to see. "I got your hat!"
The Wizard frowned. "How'd you do that?"
Vince shrugged. "It was quite easy really."
"The Wizard cannot grant your request today. Come back tomorrow."
Vince paused, flabbergasted. "Hang on, tomorrow? I need to be first in line for a TopShop sale at six in the morning, I can't hang around."
"The Wizard has spoken; get out."
"Oi, what're you playing at?" Vince shouted, becoming more irate by the second. "We did your dirty work, we got you the hat, now give us what we came for!"
Next to the floating head, a hand appeared holding a picture of two kittens. "Look at the picture of the kittens in a barrel. Look at them; they're having a whale of a time."
Tin Man made a noise of endearment, but now the others were angry too. "You can't just go back on your promises like that!" Scarecrow protested.
"I am. Let that be a lesson to you. I'm going to have to turn my back on you now."
"I've had enough of this!" said Vince as the face spun away from them. "What's behind that curtain, eh? Potions and lotions, I'll bet. You better give them to us, Mowgli, or we're gonna hurt you!"
With that, he strode forward and wrenched apart the huge red curtain in the centre of the room. They slid back effortlessly along the rails, to reveal a small kiosk in the centre of the empty space. Inside the kiosk was a small man, frantically pressing buttons and pulling levers. It was the Wizard.
"What's going on here…?" Vince muttered. The man looked up at him warily.
"Er…shit," he muttered, and the microphone sent the curse booming around the room.
"Too right! You're not a Wizard, are you?"
"Nah, I work at Dixons," said the Wizard, adjusting his turban.
"So…you can't give us all the stuff you promised?" asked Scarecrow sorrowfully. Beside him, Tin Man had begun to whimper again.
"Look, maybe there is something I can do," the Wizard grudgingly replied. He reached down, and pulled up three small objects. He held up the first, a small bottle.
"This is liquid genius," he said. "It's made from the tears of Steven Hawking. If you drink this, you'll instantly know everything there is to know about the universe." He handed the bottle to Scarecrow, who looked at it as if it were gold.
The Wizard took up another small box. "This is a box of owl beaks," he said, passing it to Tin Man. "You won't have any problem with love after this, I can tell you."
"Thank you, Wizard. I should kiss you on the mouth with gratitude."
"Please don't. Finally, this…" he withdrew a small scrap of paper. "Is a short anecdote. If you tell people this story, they will fear you more than anything."
Gorilla took the paper, and frowned. "Who is Chiko?"
"He's your friend. Or was," the Wizard nodded wisely.
Vince leant towards him as his three friends moved a little way away to discuss their new possessions. "That's actually quite genius," he admitted. "Those will all really work? And that potion's really going to give Scarecrow a brain?"
"I doubt it; that was just Lucozade."
"Right…so, how are you going to send me home?"
The Wizard glanced towards the floor. "Yeah, about that…"
Vince straightened up, and his mouth fell open. "You can't send me home?"
"I'm powerless, Vince. That lot are simpletons; they'll be happy with those. But you actually need magic for that, and that's something I can't do."
"My carpet license has been revoked. Have you tried an Oyster card?"
"Well, this is fucking brilliant!" Vince cried out, ignoring the concerned glances his friends shot him. "I'm going to be stuck here forever, am I? What about me? I've got a life. I've got friends. I've got an unruly mob of followers. What's Howard going to think? He'll be shitting himself! I want to go home."
Suddenly, there was a searing bright light that burst around the room, and a cry of "I'm Old Gregg!" rebounded off the walls. Vince turned around to see the Witch adjusting his tutu, with a manic grin.
"Hi there," the Witch beamed.
"Yeah, actually, I've got a bone to pick with you!" Vince cried, marching over to the funky merman. "You said if I went to the Wizard he'd be able to help me, but he can't even send me home!"
"Easy now, fuzzy little man peach," said the Witch soothingly. "The Wizard has helped you, hm? You learnt the value of helping others in need."
Vince frowned. "Fuck that; I've got priorities. I need to straighten my hair!"
"You had the power all along," replied the Witch. "Those boots on your feet are magical. If you tap them together three times and think of home, they will take you back to funky freedom."
"Really?" Vince sighed. "This is all over?"
The Witch nodded.
Vince looked over towards his three friends, and stepped over to them. He looked into Gorilla's mournful eyes, and the animal wiped a tear away before enveloping him in a bone-crushing hug.
"Bye, Gorilla," he mumbled into the soft fur. "Thanks for, y'know, protecting me and all."
"Anything for Precious Vince," the monkey replied, and slowly released him. Vince turned towards Tin Man, and patted him on the shoulder as his eyes began to leak again.
"Just promise me you won't get rusty again, alright?" he said. Tin Man shakily nodded.
Scarecrow was shuffling awkwardly on his feet when Vince turned to face him.
"I think I'm doing to miss you most of all," he sighed. "You small-eyed genius."
"How dare you?" replied Scarecrow half-heartedly. "Your face is too…visually noisy."
"Your comebacks are getting better," Vince smiled, and then pulled the straw man into a hug, ignoring the muffled "Don't tou-...oh, never mind," against his shoulder. When he pulled away, Scarecrow smiled gratefully at him.
"Thanks for everything, Vince," he said.
Vince winked, and surveyed the group of onlookers around him. Then he closed his eyes, and tapped the heels of the boots once, twice, three times together. He thought of the sound of buses running through puddles, and all-night Tapas bars. He thought of neon signs and fashionable haircuts and the colour that leaked through the grey streets of Dalston. He thought about a shop bell ringing, and about jazz hummed under mustachioed breath. He thought of home.
"Vince...? Vince? Vince!"
Vince opened his eyes. There were two faces above him, looking down, and he was lying on something hard – wood. He was on the floor. Why was he on the floor?
"Vince? Naboo, he's awake!"
He sat up slowly, and looked around him to see Howard and Naboo looking at him in concern. Howard's eyes flooded with relief, and he sighed deeply.
"Christy, Vince, are you alright?"
Vince grimaced woozily. "Er...yeah, I think so. What happened?"
"We came in and found you passed out on the floor," Howard explained. "I don't think you were here long, though."
"You been going through my stuff?" Naboo suddenly demanded, all anxiety gone, and Vince shrunk away from his landlord's fierce gaze.
"Sorry, Naboo! I was looking for a hairdryer," Instantly, his hands flew to his hair, and he whimpered to find it still wet and messy from rainwater and dust.
"What, and you decided to have a little look at my whirlwinds? That was a powerful one you opened."
"I know," Vince said sagely, with a serious nod. "I know what it is. It teaches you how to tolerate others, regardless of their faults. It don't matter if a man has courage, heart or brains if he hasn't got friends to help him through. I learnt so much, Naboo."
"I'm glad to hear it, but that's not what it's for."
"What?" Vince cried. Naboo shook his head, his arms folded.
"It's a powerful hallucinogenic drug from Xooberon. It creates an extreme visual trip. Kirk wanted one for the next Shaman Council office party. Ballbag."
Vince rolled his eyes, mortified at his mistake, and scurried off to wash his hair.
It was only much, much later that he remembered the most important thing about his mind-trip adventure. He was sitting in the red barber's chair in the shop window, reading the issues of Cheekbone he'd missed whilst unwillingly high out of his mind. Howard was checking over the till, and glanced up when Vince suddenly gasped in horror and dropped the magazine.
"Where are the boots?" Vince cried desperately.
Howard frowned. "What boots?"
"I had these amazing platform boots on! Aw, they were gorgeous, all encrusted with rubies and they were a perfect fit. Where did they go?"
Howard shook his head. "You weren't wearing any boots, Vince. It was a dream, remember? You took your shoes off when you came in, despite me telling you how dangerous it is…Vince? Vince…are you weeping?"