Roll his body, give him eyes, make him smile for me, give him life…
When Howard woke up, Vince was sitting on the sofa reading NME, curled up against the cushions with a blanket draped over his knees, a length of red tinsel wound around his neck and a white cowboy hat on his head. His feet were huddled together in thin, dirty socks, and he was wearing his Zooniverse jacket over what looked to be several different t-shirts. Howard blinked through his bleary-eyed sleepiness, and squashed his face back into the pillow. The grey, misty light that filtered through the window was a cold one, and since they had no central heating in their cabin the prospect of a warm duvet seemed to be a perfect one. Howard shut his eyes again, hoping Vince hadn't noticed.
It was not to be, apparently. Howard momentarily mourned what would surely have been a long and deep romance with his mattress before sitting up, bracing himself against the winter chill. "You're up early," he said. "It's only…" he glanced at the clock, and his eyes boggled. "Eleven? Bloody hell; we need to feed the animals."
"Don't worry; I've taken care of it."
Howard blinked. "What? What time were you up?"
Vince shrugged, suddenly shy. He unfurled the blanket so that it enveloped his whole body, cutting his head off his neck. With the tinsel necklace, he looked like an elf being hung at the North Pole. "Er…nine?"
"Nine? How the hell did you wake up at nine, Vince?"
Vince quirked his shoulders. "I dunno."
Howard's eyes widened. "Well…why didn't you wait for me, you daft sod?"
Vince rolled his eyes and grinned. "You looked sleepy. Anyway, it's Christmas! You've always got to make an exception for Christmas."
"Why didn't I guess?" Howard grimaced, and he threw the covers off. The icy cold quickly threaded itself into his skin through the inadequately thin protection his pyjamas provided. "Christy, it's cold," he hissed, as his feet hit the frozen floor and the shock of the cold whipped through his veins.
Vince was beginning to unfold his body from its groove in the sofa. "Cup of tea?"
"God, yes. I'm going to have a shower."
"I wouldn't bother if I were you," Vince replied, filling the kettle with water.
"Well, you won't believe this," said Vince, with a laugh of disbelief. "The pumps been turned off, imagine that!"
Howard stood dumbstruck. "So…there's no hot water?"
"I'm going to murder Fossil," Howard growled. "I'm going to murder him and use his skin as a bathmat."
"Just as long as the Guardian don't take you up on it like last time."
"Shut your mouth, Sparkly Jim. That was a momentary lapse and we both know it."
Vince raised his eyebrows. "You asked the journalist to get in your wheelbarrow."
"Yeah, well, my point still stands!" Howard cried, acutely aware that it was difficult to get said point across when wearing stripy blue pyjamas. "Fossil shouldn't do this to us. We're barely getting paid overtime as it is."
"Just look on the bright side, Howard," replied the mod, pouring the exact ratio of tea:milk into Howard's brown mug.
"There's always a bright side for you, isn't there? You're made of sunshine. Not me, sir. I'm as dark as a well-preserved fruitcake."
"You're definitely a fruitcake," Vince chuckled. He turned and handed over the steaming beverage and then stopped, holding Howard's gaze, his blue eyes sparkling. "But there is a bright side. Fossil ain't here, is he? Neither's anyone else. We've got the whole zoo to ourselves."
Howard squinted at him. "Actually, that's a pretty good bright side, now you mention it."
"Exactly!" Vince grinned. "Who cares if we're on holiday duty?"
Howard smiled back with an expression that to any casual onlooker would seem related to Scandinavian Lust, but was actually a rarely-used Excitement. "You're right, Vince. A cold day is no match for Howard Moon, no sir. I've been to the Tundra."
"We've been to the Tundra!" Vince protested, but if he was heard, he was ignored.
"I'm a true Man of Action. I'm gonna survive this."
And with that, he swept off into the bathroom to get changed.
Two vests, one shirt, a jumper and his Zooniverse jacket later, Howard re-emerged from the bathroom. Vince was back on the sofa, re-reading his magazine. Howard rubbed his hands together, and started towards the stove.
"Right. What's on the menu today, Little Man?"
Vince screwed up his face in concentration. "Turkey and stuffing sandwiches. Er…Mince pies. Mulled wine. Quality Streets."
"You didn't think about picking up some vegetables, did you?"
Vince made a face. "Ew, no. Who'd waste money on vegetables on our budget?"
"Fair point well made, sir."
"Exactly," Vince said triumphantly, and buried his face back in the magazine. Howard stood in the middle of the room, looking awkward. He wandered over to the radio, and flicked it on.
So here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody's having-
He turned it back off again. Maybe not. He patted his thigh absent-mindedly, looking around the small hut for a source of entertainment. There were no books that were on offer, at least none that were at all intellectually stimulating. He had issued several complaints to Fossil about the broken TV, but his only response had been an inquiry about his status in the Vietnam War.
Vince looked up from his magazine and smirked. "Bored?"
"Me? No, sir."
Vince shook his head and pointedly turned back to the magazine.
"Did you remember to change the water in the shrimp tank, Vince?"
The mod didn't even look up. "Er…nope."
"Right then," Howard said, and like a true Man of Action he grabbed his coat off the hook and threw the door open, wincing as a blast of cold air hit him right between the eyes. He took a step outside, and blinked.
"What?" came the cry from inside. "Can you shut the door; I'm freezing my balls off!"
"What have you done to the zoo?"
For it seemed that, during the early hours of the morning, Father Christmas had visited and vomited tinsel and fairy lights all over every conceivable surface that the zoo had to offer. There were lights surrounding Bollo's enclosure, mistletoe over the hutch where Technomouse was hibernating and baubles dangling innocently from every tree. Howard rubbed his eyes as he felt his friend casually saunter up behind him.
"Oh, yeah, I decorated," Vince grinned. "What d'you think?"
"Vince, it looks like Rudolph's house party gone wrong."
"Aw, cheers Howard."
Howard sighed. "I'm not cleaning this up, you know."
"Relax!" Vince laughed. "It's genius."
Howard shook his head and rubbed his hands together. "Right," he said, and wandered off to clean the fish tanks.
When he returned, Vince had sprawled the food out over their bench. He patted the seat for Howard to sit beside him, bracing the chilled wood. They opened the sandwiches and sat there together, munching away with an air of contemplation.
"You know what, Howard?" said Vince, popping a sweet into his mouth as Jack Cooper eyed them distrustfully from his pen, a Santa hat slipping over his foxy eyes. "I reckon this is one of the best Christmases I've had."
Howard laughed. "You're joking, Little Man. We've got no water, no electricity, and no proper food. How is this possibly one of your best Christmases?"
Vince shrugged. "I dunno. S'just been nice, y'know?"
"I suppose. At least we won't have to do it again next year.
"Why's that, then?"
Howard's eyes glinted. "Let's just say that Dixon Bainbridge will be receiving a letter from several animal rights groups if we're put up to it again."
Vince nodded his head. "Wow…who's going to do that?"
"That would be me, Vince."
Here's the kitchen - there's your basket; here's the hall - that's where you wait for me…
As he opened the oven, a cloud of smoke rose up to attack him. Howard coughed and spluttered, batting away the smog like an elderly tennis player.
"What?" Howard spat through the black air in his lungs. Naboo gave him an unimpressed look from the doorway.
"That better not be my magic powder you're using."
"No, it's just smoke, I burnt the bloody potatoes…"
"Oh, well done."
Howard nearly growled. "Is there something you wanted, sir?"
"Yeah. Have you seen my hookah?"
Howard shook his head. "Er…no. I think Bollo had it."
As the midget Shaman shuffled away, Howard stared at the blackened potatoes in sorrow. Then he sighed, and threw them in the bin. At least the parsnips were salvageable. At least the smoke alarm hadn't gone off.
"Harold?" came a gruff voice from the doorway.
"It's Howard!" the Northerner replied, pulling the lid off the pan of boiling carrots.
"No. It Bollo."
"No, I mean…oh, never mind. What do you want?"
"When food ready? Bollo starving."
"Oh, Christy…five minutes."
The gorilla grunted.
"Naboo's looking for you, you know." The smoke alarm started to beep. "Oh, f-"
"What?" Howard swung round to the doorway. Vince was standing there, leaning against the frame, dressed in a black ruffled shirt and a white cowboy hat. His cocky smile was mismatched with the slight wariness in his eyes.
"D'you need a hand?" he said, and Howard deflated like a pink, fleshy, Northern balloon.
"Yes please," he squeaked. Vince grinned, and sauntered confidently over to the oven. As he walked beneath it, the smoke alarm was silenced as if in awe.
"Right; what can I do?"
"Just take these out to the table," Howard replied, pouring the carrots into a bowl and handing them over. "I've put the knives and forks out too, could you set them for me?"
"Thank you, Vince," said Howard. He was going for sincere but, judging by the look on Vince's face, had merely come off looking somewhat crazed. He turned back to the oven, and retrieved the Turkey, placing it on a table-top. It was a fine-looking bird, golden and crispy and not at all charred, no sir. He turned back to the fridge and opened it. The Christmas pudding had been placed innocuously next to an identical dessert which had been labeled Naboo's Hash Pudding DO NOT TOUCH ON PAIN OF DEATH. Howard prayed to everything that ever was and ever would be holy that Bollo hadn't fucked around with the signs as he took the normal pudding and placed it in the oven to warm up. Then he took a knife, and began to slice up the Turkey.
When he took the food out to the table, Vince had arranged the cutlery into the face of Bryan Ferry.
"Come and get it!" Howard called out. There was silence. Then the gorilla lumbered slowly around the corner.
"Where's Naboo?" Howard asked.
"He not coming."
"Naboo no celebrate Christmas," Bollo explained in his trademark broken English. "Christmas clash with Xooberon official day of mourning. Also, Harold ballbag."
"Right. Cheers, Bollo," Howard sighed. He gestured to the spread on the table. "Do you want anything to eat?"
Bollo gazed thoughtfully at the food. Then he picked up the bowl of salad, tossed the contents into his mouth, and wandered off.
"Right, then…" said Howard.
Vince appeared once more in the doorway. "Hey, Howard," he grinned, waving a selection of DVDs in the air. "Wanna watch Colobos?"
Howard stared mournfully at the table, and sighed deeply. "I just wanted a traditional Christmas meal, Vince. Is that too much to ask."
Vince laid a consoling hand on his shoulder.
"Don't touch me."
"Aw, c'mon, not even on Christmas?"
"No, don't touch me. Don't ever touch me."
"Alright…" Vince rolled his eyes affectionately. "Sorry, Howard. But, really. Our flatmates include a talking gorilla and an alien shaman, and then there's me, and I ain't hardly the most traditional of people."
"Come on. Let's watch Colobos. It's the Christmas special," said Vince, waving the box temptingly in the air. "A Colobos Christmas Carol?"
"Go on, then."
Vince beamed triumphantly, and dragged his friend off to the living room.
They sat and watched the Christmas special in silence, Vince with his feet up on the sofa, chewing absentmindedly on a packet of gummy worms as an animated crab with a top hat was chased across the screen by a cloaked ghost. Howard threw a blanket over his knees and watched the lights on the Christmas tree flicker.
"I can't believe Naboo was cheap enough not to buy us presents."
"Yeah. You know what he's like." Vince laid his head on the arm of the sofa. "Hey, Howard?"
"What is it, Little Man?"
"What would be your ideal Christmas?"
Howard sat back in the chair, and sighed in intellectual contemplation. "My perfect Christmas…ok, got it. I'm in a small log cabin somewhere rural, untouched-"
"How can it be untouched if there's a cabin there?"
"Shut up. The wind's whistling around the chimney. Outside it's bitterly cold, but in here there's a crackling log fire in the grate. I've just eaten a beautiful Christmas dinner, and the candlelight is flickering around the room. Suddenly, there's a knock at the door-"
"It's Kodiak Jack!"
"Hush your lips, Vince! No. I open the door, and there's a beautiful woman standing there, covered in snow. I invite her in. She's got long, black silky hair and big blue eyes. I pour her a glass of wine, and her clothes sparkle in the light as I take her hand-"
"That's me, you Muppet!"
Howard nearly choked on the air in the living room. "What? No it isn't."
"Yeah it is; that's clearly me."
"Vince, this is a woman of elegance and sophistication…"
"Black hair? Blue eyes? Sparkling clothes?"
"Well, there may be some slight…physical resemblance."
"Don't worry, Howard," Vince grinned. "If that's your perfect Christmas, then you're halfway there already."
"But, but…you're not a woman, Vince!"
Vince didn't reply to that for a moment.
"Well, that speech made you sound well like a rapist. I wanted your perfect Christmas, not your wank fantasy."
Howard didn't know how to reply. But then came a beautiful excuse, as from the kitchen, an alarm began to wail.
"Oh, shit, the pudding!" Howard leapt up and dashed out of the room.
Vince looked down at his hands, and sighed.
Lying in my tent, I can hear your cry echoing round the mountainside; you sound lonely…
There was a branch tapping at his window. Howard could hear it through the thin veil of sleep that lightly dusted his eyelids, and so he pulled the covers over his head and shut his eyes again. It was only when the branch called out, "Howard, let me in, you bumbaclaart, it's bloody freezing out here!" that he thought maybe it wasn't a branch after all, and quickly clambered out of bed. He switched on the light, walked over to the window, and threw his curtains open to see his best friend staring back at him.
Through his mop of sandy blonde hair, Vince eyed him up and down with a smirk. "Tweed pyjamas, Howard? Very fetching."
"What are you doing?" Howard hissed. "It's three in the morning!"
"Yeah!" Vince grinned, and he brandished a small, brightly wrapped parcel in the air. "Happy Christmas!"
"Christy, Vince, you're going to fall off!"
"Let me in, then!"
Howard quickly unbolted the window, drawing the frame high so that his tiny mate could clamber in. The bitter wind stung his cheeks as Vince clumsily toppled through the gap and landed unceremoniously on the brown carpet. Howard looked down at him with folded arms, and quickly shut the window again.
"Shut up!" he whispered as Vince tried to stifle his giggles. "Mum and Dad are going to hear you. How did you even get up here?"
"Climbed the drainpipe?" Vince shrugged. He was clad in a leather jacket and skinny jeans – Howard wondered momentarily how anyone could possibly climb a drainpipe one-handed in cowboy boots – but he was shivering ferociously despite his fixed grin.
"Bloody hell, Little Man, you'll freeze," said Howard, and he fumbled around for his still-warm duvet. He tugged it off his bed and draped it over Vince's shoulders. The mod immediately pulled it tightly around him and, crouched on the floor like he was, he looked a little like a homeless person.
"Cheers, Howard," Vince said. "Hey, look, I brought you a present."
He waved aloof the small flat package that he had been carrying. It was brightly wrapped in pink tissue paper, adorned with purple ribbon and sparkly glitter that fell like snow and disgraced Howard's sensible carpet.
"I don't think Father Christmas has a feather cut," Howard retorted, but Vince merely pushed the package over towards where he sat opposite.
"Go on, open it."
Howard opened his mouth, ready to protest that it was three am, and that present opening could wait until a scheduled time in the morning on Christmas Day itself – but then he caught a glimpse of the light sparking in Vince's comically blue eyes, and the resolve sighed out of him like a pricked balloon. Wordlessly, he reached over and took the parcel from its place on the floor. He stared at it for a few moments, before picking it up and carefully undoing the plastic ribbon, letting it drop to the floor. Then he slid his nails under the skewed cellotape, and lifted up each corner. Vince watched him intently. This was ritualistic, they both knew. Nothing could spoil this moment.
The paper fell away, and Howard sat looking at a placemat. The cork surface had been roughly glossed over with white paint to create a makeshift canvas, and then drawn over with permanent marker. In bright blue pen, rimmed with a thin line of yellow paint, was an odd creature – a small face with huge eyes and curling tendrils, surrounded by small custard-coloured butterflies. The sketch was messy and undignified; so bad it almost flipped into genius, catastrophic and simple and bold and bright and eye-achingly, psychedelically beautiful. Howard flipped it over to see his friend's messy, uneven writing scrawled in pen across the rough surface, covering the whole sheet with its meandering journey: When I was growing up in the jungle with Bryan Ferry, we lived near a small village famous for inhabiting reams of lemon-yellow butterflies…
Vince bit his lip. "Well? What d'ya think?"
Howard frowned, turning the placemat over in his hands. "Vince, this is…"
"I know it's not much, really," the mod replied, running his hands through his hair in the way he did when he was nervous. "I'm just a bit skint, s'all."
"Vince, it's lovely," Howard said, running his hands over the small squiggle of a signature in one corner of the canvas. "Not even. It's beautiful. It must have taken absolutely ages."
Vince squirmed in delight. "Go on, then. Where's my present?"
Howard's face fell like a flat trumpet solo. "Shit. It's underneath the tree."
"You jack of clubs!" Vince grinned cheekily, and he sprung up like a jack without a box. "Come on, then."
Howard looked back, dumbstruck. "What?"
"I wanna get my present. You got mine; s'only fair."
"Vince…" Howard pleaded as his friend made his way over to the closed bedroom door. "You can't go out there, my parents will wake up! I'm not getting grounded just because you fancied trying out your Kate Bush act."
Vince raised his eyebrows. Then he smirked, teeth shining like spotlights, and opened the door, the light escaping out into the dark hallway.
"Vince…don't you dare," Howard whispered sharply. He stood up, tweed pyjamas swishing around his ankles, and held out a warning hand. Vince, seventeen years old and cocky as hell, simply slipped through the gap and out onto the landing. Howard swore under his breath, and slid out after him.
Vince was standing on the top of the stairs, beckoning to him silently. In the darkness, he looked like a fashionable wraith, and his boots made no noise as he tiptoed down the stairs, Howard following after him. The two boys snuck downstairs, Howard wincing against the cold of the wooden floor that shot through the nerves of his feet and the Goosebumps that rose on his arms. He hugged himself to try and keep the cold out. When they rounded the corner, Vince stopped short, and Howard nearly walked into him.
"What're you doing, you berk?"
"Sorry," Vince replied. "Just really love your tree."
The tree was nothing special. It was a small affair, with some scraggly bits of tinsel, some yellow lights and a bewildered looking angel on the top. Even the presents underneath seemed meagre, wrapped in newspaper the traditional Moon way. But Vince's eyes were nonetheless large and glowing. Howard got down onto his knees, and pulled a small package out from the back, and handed it over to him. Vince opened it eagerly. Like the tree, it was nothing big and extravagant – Howard Moon was not a man to overdo things, no sir – but Vince seemed as pleased with the set of acrylic paints as he would have done with tickets to a Stones concert.
Suddenly, there was a creak from upstairs. Howard's neck snapped around to look at the upper landing, where a light had been switched on, and footsteps began to shuffle out from the master bedroom.
"Shit, it's my Mum!" Howard hissed. He grabbed Vince's cold hand in his, and dragged him swiftly into a corner, clamping a hand over his mouth. Vince's eyes were large as his Northern friend pushed him into the grasping shadows until they were nearly cheek to cheek. Vince's breath was hot against his palm, and Howard tried to keep his shallow breathing quiet and even, hoping they wouldn't be heard. After what seemed like forever, the toilet flushed, and the footsteps returned slowly across the landing again, and the door to the master bedroom squeaked shut. Howard breathed a sigh of relief, and unclamped his hand from Vince's jaw.
"Shit…" he breathed. "Thank God for that."
Vince swallowed, and cracked a quiet laugh with a jagged smile. Howard grinned at him, and laughed too, until they were both doubled up with silent coughs of mirth.
"Sorry about that," Howard said when he had regained his composure. "Least there wasn't any mistletoe, eh?"
He turned to go back upstairs, and in the darkness, Vince's cheeks flushed red.
"C'mon," Howard said, unaware. "You can go back the way you came or they'll wonder where you are come the morn."
Vince grimaced. "Yeah, about that…can I stay here for a little bit?"
There was something in Vince's eyes that made Howard stop for a moment; really stop and consider exactly why his friend had turned up at his bedroom window at three in the morning on a frosty Christmas morning. "What happened, Little Man?"
Vince shuffled his feet. "They said I was a thief, didn't they? Said I stole that placemat. An' I mean, I did, that ain't the problem, but why did they accuse me first? They always accuse me, Howard. So I came 'ere. You won't ever do that, will you, Howard? You won't ever say I did something when I haven't. Promise me!"
"I promise, Vince," Howard said hurriedly. "C'mon. Let's go upstairs."
They snuck back upstairs and back into Howard's room. Howard left his duvet pooled on the floor, and Vince only managed to take his cowboy boots off before he collapsed on it, exhausted from his night time excursion. Howard took a blanket out of the cupboard, and lay back down on his bed, covering himself thinly against the chill.
"Night, Howard," came a small voice from his floor.
"Night, Little Man," Howard replied, and soon he too was engrossed in the comforting arms of slumber, curled in a ball of deep sleep and welcome to it.
When he woke up, it was nine o clock, his window was open, and Vince was gone.
I might know what you mean when you say you fall apart, aren't we all the same: in and out of doubt…?
Howard cracked an egg into the bowl, and threw the shell into the recycling bin. He beat the eggs together and poured them into the flour and whisked it into a patter. He cut a banana up into a plastic cup, and took some maple syrup down from the shelf. He flipped a couple of pancakes in silence, and laid his breakfast out on the kitchen table. He glanced at the calendar, and sighed. The flat was silent. The shop downstairs was like a hollow eggshell. It was too quiet, too still, too normal. Howard gulped down the pancakes, and washed up the plate in the sink. Then he made himself a cup of tea and stared at the wall. The silence settled over him.
The note on the fridge said: Howard. Me and Bollo have gone out to the Shaman Christmas party. Don't call me. Don't touch my stuff. It was neither charming nor sentimental. Still, at least they'd left a note. He'd felt like a stranger in his own home since he'd gone to Denmark, and now, especially with Vince, things were more strained than ever.
The presents were underneath the tree, untouched by human hands. Howard went to them, and picked each one up individually, turning it over in his hands. There were the oddly-shaped ones from Naboo, who had relented in his Scrooge-like boycott of anything festive when he realised he would be receiving presents in return, but still didn't have the foggiest of how to buy a gift. Bollo, from the looks of things, had wrapped individual bananas – though, really, it could just as easily have been something else. The presents from him to them had already been unwrapped; the newspaper strewn over the floor in little piles, the gifts themselves already vanished. Howard swirled the tea around in his mouth, and then looked down at the little brown slug-like droplet in the bottom of his mug. He drained it dry, and then with a resilient stance that he'd perfected during his hours as a bin man, he took a black binbag from under he sink and picked up all the stray bits of wrapping.
Merry fucking Christmas, Howard Moon, he thought.
He whistled carols to himself as he lit a fire and switched the TV on. He flicked through the channels one by one, ignoring everything that flashed past. Honestly, what was the point of having an intergalactic satellite package and over five thousand channels from every planet in the galaxy if you still couldn't find anything that wasn't either reality TV or Friends. When an animated crab with a top hat being chased across the screen by a cloaked ghost cropped up, he sighed and switched it off again.
Maybe this was it. Maybe he was destined to forever spend Christmas sitting alone in front of a fire, like Father Christmas on Halloween. He didn't think he liked it very much.
He wandered over to the turntable and ran his finger through every LP in his itemised collection, stopping momentarily to remember the discs that had fallen throughout the year, be it smashed by a gorilla or bitten in twain. After a moment he pulled out a Miles Davis album, and put it on. The warm hum slowly filled the room, breathing and stretching for the first time in years as it slowly awoke. Howard smiled, and scatted along absentmindedly under his breath. Now this was Christmas.
He pulled the remaining presents out from under the tree, wincing as the stray pine-needles embedded themselves in his hand, and undid them carefully. Surely enough, one slightly bruised banana from Bollo, and a small box of bookmarks from Naboo. He folded up the paper neatly for safekeeping. Then there were only two parcels left under the tree: one wrapped in newspaper, bulky and soft; the other square and small. Vince had probably bought him another CD, something mindlessly grabbed out of the discount box at HMV, like that Smiths collection a couple of years back ("I dunno," Vince had grinned, "He's Northern and grumpy. I reckon you two should get on like a house on fire.") Howard had bought him that TopShop jumper he'd been pining over; black and multi-stitched and bloody expensive. He'd spent a good hour, too, wondering whether or not to put those all-important three words into his card, which could make or break (but definitely break) their relationship. Still, it obviously wasn't important enough for his friend to spare a thought for it before he went off to whichever god-forsaken Christmas party he was rocking up at. Well, Howard wasn't going to wait around for him, no sir. He picked up the package, and tore the paper off.
It wasn't a CD. It was a small wooden cube, hollowed out with a hole in the top, like a pencil-holder. One side had been roughly painted over, and now resembled the front of a small shop. The sign above the door had been delicately painted and read Stationary Village Jazz Imporium. Howard turned it over in his hands, ignoring the incorrect spelling, and felt something well up in his heart. Then he glanced at the other package, frowned, and stuffed the box into his pocket. Then he wandered back over to his chair, and opened up the newspaper.
After about half an hour, he heard the faint sound of the bell jingling downstairs as someone, presumably Vince, let themselves through the shop door. Howard stared resolutely at his paper as the sound of platform boots trudged heavily up the stairs. Vince appeared at the top of the stairs, his pale cheeks stained pink with the cold, carrying a large sack in one hand. At the sight in front of him, his smile faded slightly.
"Alright, Howard?" he tried gingerly. Howard smiled tightly.
"M'alright. What're you doing, sitting by yourself? Thought you were hanging out with Lester Cornflakes."
"Vince, he got decapitated, remember? At my birthday party."
There was an awkward pause. Howard pointed towards the bag. "What've you got there?"
Vince looked down as if he'd forgotten about it. "Oh…just a couple of presents, you know. Bits 'n pieces."
Howard raised his eyebrows. "Just a couple? That looks like it could feed a small peasant village."
Vince rummaged around in the bag. "Look what Leroy got me," he said, and drew his hand dramatically into the air, trailing the gift behind him like fumes. He shook the cloth out, and held it up against himself. "Look at that! I've been wanting this for ages."
Howard's face fell, and he felt his heart plummet and crash onto the rocks of sorrow by the sea of disappointment. It had to be that jumper, of course. It seemed even the gods of Christmas had it in for Howard TJ Moon. "That's nice."
Vince gave him an odd look. "It doesn't make me look like a futuristic prostitute?"
Howard frowned. "No. Not at all."
"Oh. Cheers," Vince said, and he folded the jumper back into the bag. He rubbed his arm uncomfortably. "What're you doing?"
Vince nodded. "Cool."
There was a pause.
"You know that's yesterday's paper, right?"
Howard looked at the date, and slowly nodded. "Well, you know me; I just like to keep track of the…past."
Vince was nodding like a toy in the back of the car. "Yeah."
"So, how was the party?"
Vince shrugged. "Oh, y'know…"
"No, I don't, Vince."
"It was just a party." Vince looked down at his shoes. "I dunno. Sometimes I feel like…like a Christmas toy, yeah? Like sometimes there's a bit too much sparkle and it's all flaking off. Do you know what I mean?"
He looked so heartbreakingly lost that for a moment Howard couldn't speak. When the words finally came, he winced at them: "You're Vince Noir. There's no such thing as too much sparkle, right?"
Vince blinked and nodded. "Yeah," he said, with a nervous laugh. "Right. M'just being silly, aren't I? What's with this jazz anyway? I can feel my allergies coming on. Let's put on something decent, yeah?"
He turned to sweep into the bedroom, but stopped short when he saw the single package sitting forlornly under the tree. "Oh. You opened it already?"
Howard felt himself colour. "Oh, yeah. It was…thanks, Vince. It's great."
Vince bit his lip. "I haven't opened mine yet."
"No. I thought you'd left it until after the party, so-"
"Nah, I was gonna wait until we were…" Vince trailed off. Something dark flashed across his eyes. Then he stooped down and picked up the parcel. "Well, see you later," he said, and then he waved and vanished into their room, shutting the door firmly behind him. After a moment, the sound of the Human League came filtering out through the door, mingling with the Miles Davis LP.
Howard put his head in his hands, and groaned. Merry fucking Christmas, he thought again.
There's just something about you, have we been in love forever…?
It was a bright day, freezing cold but with pale sunlight streaming through the ashy clouds above. Howard was resolutely keeping his eyes shut, feeling the warm breath flow in and out of his system. It was ten, and so far he'd only crept out of bed once to draw the curtains. He curled the duvet tighter around his body to preserve heat with the small sigh of someone that has no need to be awakened. However, his wishes were not about to be granted, as he felt the mattress shift underneath him as a hand reached up to touch his hair, stroking over his scalp.
"Happy Christmas," Vince mumbled, entangling his hand in the brown curls.
"To you too," Howard murmured into his pillow. "What time is it?"
"Twenty past ten."
Howard suddenly felt something soft and squishy thwack itself into the back of his head, and he sat up, blinking stupidly.
"What was that for?"
Vince's teeth were shining and his eyes were melting. The duvet had slipped down, revealing his bare, skinny torso. He laughed lowly, covering his mouth with one hand and clutching at the pillow with another. "Well, you're awake now, aren't you?"
"I thought the point of this was that we were supposed to be domestic."
"Fuck off; I ain't your wife."
Howard sank back against the pillow. "Could have fooled me."
A small hand crept slowly, still unsurely, over his chest. "Although…"
Howard turned his head to face his partner. "Absolutely not. No."
The little man's eyes widened in mock astonishment. "What do you mean: no?"
"It's too early."
"You're so old, Howard. I'm giving you the opportunity for a mind-blowing shag and you say no?"
"Piss off!" Howard muttered affectionately. "You're not God's gift to the world, y'know."
"I bloody well am. God looked down on the Earth and decided he would glam things up a little."
"Well, it still stands…" Howard looked about the room nervously, as if the Hitcher was about to leap out of the shadows and slice them both into ribbons. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and said: "Naboo and Bollo…"
"Oh, bugger them," Vince said. Howard laughed, and then tentatively reached down and kissed him. He still wasn't used to these moments: these morning kisses that were slow and laborious, deep and full, just pure movement. Howard didn't know what he'd done in his past life if this was what he was rewarded with, because the sun was shining and Vince was smiling and they were together, and now he knew what it was like to touch that skin with his hands, and he wouldn't have had his life any other way.
With one final birdlike peck, Vince pulled away.
"Bloody hell, Vince," said Howard, dazed and grinning like a loon. "What have I done to deserve this?"
"You ain't done nothing, you jazzy weirdo! Ever since that moment you first looked at me in the playground and said "Hey, I love your shoes" I was smitten."
"Er, Vince…the first words I said to you were: "Your shoes are stupid" and then you pummeled me."
Howard blinked. "Were you really smitten then?"
Vince nodded shyly.
Howard whistled through his teeth. "Christy. So was I."
Vince propped himself up on one elbow. "Really?"
"Yeah. I remember thinking: nobody's ever going to care so much about my opinion that I end up with a black eye ever again."
"Aw, you old softy."
"Less of the old, you. We're the same age, remember."
Vince laughed patronizingly. "Silly Howard. I'm younger than you, aren't I?"
Howard coughed. "Oh, yes. Of course. My mistake."
Vince reached up to tousle his hair again. Howard pushed him away, quietly laughing.
"Get off! Honestly, you're like a lemur."
"I'm not like a lemur. D'you remember those lemurs at the zoo? Fucking pretentious, they were."
"You've got those big eyes."
"Yeah, well, you've got the tiny eyes of a shrew."
"Excuse me, sir? Small my eyes may be, but they've got more depth and passion than your eyes will ever know."
"Oi, I can do depth and passion too, y'know!" Vince grinned, and in one quick motion he was sitting atop Howard's waist. He bent down, and Howard felt strands of black hair tickling his ears as their lips met.
"Still worried about Naboo and Bollo?" Vince asked cheekily, tucking a lock of hair behind Howard's ear.
Vince rolled his eyes. "You're no fun."
Suddenly, there was a click as the door and it swung open. Both men turned their heads towards their landlord, who was gazing at them in disgust.
"Eurgh. Didn't need to see that."
"Naboo!" Vince squeaked, as he fell off Howard's stomach. Howard pulled the covers over his chest and chimed in with: "Don't you know how to knock?"
"Look, me and Bollo are going out," said Naboo. "We'll be back in a minute, though, so no funny business."
"Wouldn't dream of it," said Howard dryly. Naboo shot him a withering look, and shut the door again. The two men looked at each other, and giggled quietly.
"That bloody wizard!" Vince snickered, as the front door shut downstairs. "Well, come on then, let's get on with business. Ooh, hello…"
"Vince!" Howard squealed as the unwanted hand invaded his personal space. "They'll be back any minute, Naboo said so!"
Vince merely shot him a devilish smile.
The world is so loud, keep falling, I'll find you…
On that particular Christmas day, the silverfish sky was the colour of a sliver of ice resting atop a river. The wind trickled lazily across the cool horizon, seeping the cold through the clouds. The trees, naked and skyward-reaching, gazed benevolently down at the small playground in the middle of North London. The playground itself, a mass of garishly-painted concrete and damp wood, had not been particularly well taken care of. A couple of empty lager cans huddled together next to the see-saw; the wind sent used condoms scurrying across the ground. The metal hinges squeaked in the wind. But the small boys who sat on the swing staring up at the sky saw none of this. For them, this dry park with the laughter engrained within the cracks was a haven.
"I wish it would snow," said one of the boys, twisting round on the swingseat until the metal suspenders began to tangle together.
"Me too," said the other one. "It never snowed in the jungle."
"You didn't live in the jungle," said the slightly older-looking boy. "You live down the road. I've seen you when you're out buying fruit gums."
"I did live in the jungle!" the littler boy protested. "With Bryan Ferry."
"You're clearly from South London."
"You're clearly from Leeds."
Lost for words, the older boy stuck his tongue out. The blonde boy snickered.
"Nice comeback, Howard."
"Shut your mouth," said the boy – Howard. "Just you wait till I'm rich and famous."
"Oh yeah? What're you gonna be rich and famous for, then?"
"Oh, everything. I'm a maverick, Vince. I'm gonna be a jazz pioneer, and a photographer, and a famous writer…"
Vince grinned naively. "Cool!" he said.
"What're you gonna be when you grow up, then?"
Vince leapt off the swing and swung his arms out dramatically, looking like a stylish version of the Karate Kid. "I'm gonna be a rock n roll star."
Howard sniffed haughtily. "Are you joking? Rock n roll is rubbish."
Vince swung around, looking like someone had just kicked his puppy. "No it's not!"
"They're all poseurs, Vince. There's no feeling or depth in the lyrics, is there? It's not…" He paused as if in deep though, and then said the next words as if he'd learnt them by rote: "Intellectually stimulating."
"But rock n roll's cool! What about Bowie and Iggy and Adam Ant?"
"Poseurs," said Howard with an air of finality. Vince deflated, and took up his position on the swing once again and then sat there swinging with his hands dangling between his knees. Howard watched him from the corner of his eye, and then twisted his mouth into a small grimace of regret. He cautiously reached out, and tapped Vince on the shoulder.
"But…it's not all bad," he said. "I mean, you could come with me, yeah? You can come with me on tour and learn everything that jazz has to offer, and then when you've learnt your craft you can go and make intellectually stimulating rock music."
Vince's shoulders perked, and a smile crept onto his face. "Really?"
"Sure, Little Man."
"Will you come on tour with me, then? When we're both rich and famous? 'Coz, no offence, but jazz is well boring."
Howard nearly retaliated, but bit his tongue. "Yeah, alright."
Vince gave Howard a look like he'd just hung the moon for him. "Brilliant."
The two boys sat in silence for a moment before Howard spoke again.
"I should go home in a minute. My Mum's making Christmas dinner."
But he didn't move from his position on the swings.
"It's going to be genius, isn't it, Howard?" said Vince, with all the hope he felt reflected on his face; in his eyes.
"Y'know…the future," Vince smiled. "Da foo-char."
Howard laughed, and looked up at the sky.
"Yeah, Vince. Yeah, it is."