One day, Vince left the Nabootique to become a rock star.
Against all expectations, one of the many bands he’d started actually caught the attention of a promoter, and before Howard knew what was happening, Vince was standing in their shared bedroom, cheerfully stuffing clothes into suitcases.
“Japan?” Howard managed to choke out, standing in the doorway. “Why Japan?”
“Apparently the Japanese are well into glam and androgyny. Mental, isn’t it? All this time I could’ve been huge in Japan instead of being stuck here working in a shop! Roger thinks we should do some festivals there, distribute our EP, build up a following.”
Roger was a record label representative, and Howard had hated him from the first moment he heard his stupid name, and that hatred had only deepened when he saw his stupid, stupid face, and those beady black eyes, leering at Vince from the back of the Velvet Onion.
Vince was packing up every single piece of clothing he owned with disgusting enthusiasm, and Howard could only watch him, dumbfounded, his stomach churning painfully.
“It’ll be genius, Howard. Do you think I’ll see some real geishas? I bet I’d look fantastic as a geisha, don’t you? Maybe I’ll go on stage in a kimono! But, like, a customized one, like a glam rock kimono.”
He babbled on and on like this, but Howard wasn’t really listening. He pictured all these sentences leaving Vince’s mouth in the shape of big soap bubbles, slowly floating up towards the ceiling, more and more bubbles, until the room was filled with them. And then he imagined himself taking out a bit long needle and spitefully bursting them all, one by one, in front of Vince’s eyes.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, not with Vince headed for greatness and Howard left working in a dingy shop in Dalston. Somehow, he’d always thought that if they made it one day, they would make it together. Vince wasn’t supposed to have his big break and leave Howard in the dust.
“Are you ok, Howard? You look like you’ve swallowed a lemon. Are you practicing your facial expressions again? Lemme guess this one: Nordic Jealousy!”
Howard didn’t dignify this remark with an answer. He spun on his heel and stomped down the stairs to go back to the boutique.
Later on, when Vince asked him to accompany him to the airport, Howard told him that he had to reorganize Stationery Village and couldn’t possibly leave the shop. He noticed Vince’s crestfallen expression and felt petty, so he turned his back to Vince and tried to focus his attention on Paperclip Castle. He could feel Vince hovering by the doorway, shuffling his feet awkwardly.
They both stood there for a hundred years, or it might have been a dozen heartbeats. Finally, just as Howard was about to break the silence, Vince spoke.
“Well. I guess this is it.”
Howard ground his teeth but he pretended he didn’t hear and kept fiddling with erasers and push pins. After several more minutes, Vince sighed, opened the door of the Nabootique, and walked out. Howard didn’t move until the sound of Vince’s footsteps had faded away completely.
Afterwards, Howard hid in the broom closet and gave himself a particularly painful Chinese burn. It was either that or chase Vince all the way to the airport. Howard Moon had his dignity, he did not chase after anyone. Especially not disloyal, traitorous berks.
The following day was a Sunday, which meant that Naboo’s shop was closed. He and Bollo were out on some obscure shaman business and Howard found himself alone in the flat. He didn’t remember it ever looking so colourless and empty.
He picked up the phone and tried phoning Leroy, but he wasn’t home. Then he tried Lester, who was apparently too busy repairing an antique flugelhorn to speak with Howard for more than a few seconds. After that he rang every member of the jazz club one after the other, but no one was available or interested in talking to him. One of them didn’t even seem to remember who Howard was. In desperation, he even phoned Bob Fossil. Thankfully, as soon as he’d finished dialling he realized what he’d done and slammed the phone back down on the first ring, staring at his own fingers in horror. Surely he couldn’t be so lonely that he’d consider the company of Bob Fossil?
Howard sat on the sofa and brooded for a while. Then he had several cups of tea, took a long bath, and spent the rest of his day watching television, all the while constructing conversations with Vince in his head. At the end of each of these imaginary scenarios, Vince would break down sobbing, apologize for even thinking about going to Japan without Howard, and fall into his arms. Howard would smile indulgently and pat Vince’s back, and everything would be alright.
That night, Howard’s sleep was fitful and troubled, and when he woke up the next morning, it was with a vague memory of flowered silk on pale flesh, dancing blue eyes, and lips that tasted of candy. He was embarrassingly and painful aroused, and when he took care of it in the shower, he had to make a conscious effort not to think of skinny South London idiots wearing silk kimonos.
Howard missed him. He didn’t mean to, but he missed him, insanely and pathetically.
He had to come to terms with this fact on the day he found himself in the shampoo aisle in Boots, two weeks after Vince’s betrayal, staring at a familiar-looking row of bottles. He’d walked in to buy some shaving cream, but the orange bottles had caught his attention. It was Vince’s shampoo. Unable to resist, he flicked a bottle open and inhaled. The familiar scent hit him like a punch in the gut and he nearly stumbled, reaching a hand out for the shelf to keep his balance.
It was only a few minutes later that he noticed the two teenage girls giggling and staring at him from the other end of the aisle. For all his delusional tendencies, Howard was pretty sure that they weren’t staring at him because he cut a dashing figure. They were staring because he was standing there in the middle of Boots with a bottle of shampoo to his nose and a hard-on tenting his trousers.
Howard left without the shaving cream, but he bought the shampoo. After the intimate moment he shared with it, it would’ve been in bad taste to leave it on the shelf.
On his way back to the flat, Howard wrote an entry in his mental diary:
Day 15 since my sidekick/apprentice Vince Noir abandoned ship. Not literally of course. I am using a metaphor in which
I am the Nabootique is a ship (of which, of course, Howard Moon is the captain).
It’s just as well that he’s out of my life, as it gives me more time to devote to jazzercise and I finally have enough peace and quiet to write my memoirs. I don’t miss him at all.
In his mind, he underlined the last sentence three times in red ink and circled it for good measure. Then he remembered the Boots carrier bag he had in his hand and sighed. He mentally crumpled the imaginary page and started over.
I wish the little titbox would come back.
Two days later, his freshly-washed hair smelling of Vince’s shampoo, Howard decided to write him a letter.
It wasn’t a very remarkable letter, all things considered. He told Vince about the Larry “Big Face” Edison record he’d bought that afternoon, talked about the customers that had been at the shop, described at great lengths his new taupe corduroy trousers, and might even have mentioned the weather. He didn’t pour his soul out on the page, didn’t tell him anything he wouldn’t have told him in day to day conversation, but after he’d dropped it in the post box, he felt better.
Vince’s first letter to Howard was written on the back of one of his own set lists, which was vaguely infuriating, and it was an eyesore. Every word seemed to be written in a different colour, and there were doodles and stickers and pink fingerprints all over the page. Howard imagined Vince sitting on his hotel bed, with multicoloured felt tip pens scattered around him, poring over the page in concentration, his pink tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth. The fingerprints meant he’d been eating some sort of awful sugary candy that made his lips and fingers all sticky and sweet. Howard smiled despite himself.
Can’t believe you sent me a letter, haven’t you ever heard of email? It’s alright though, it was cool getting some post from home on proper paper with a stamp and all, well old-fashioned. Tokyo is REALLY strange but genius, I went shopping a lot, you wouldn’t believe the things I found, I’ll be the envy of all the Camden cool kids when I come back, they will welcome me back like an oriental prince. I’ve already designed outfits for the whole band, you should see them, they would blow your mind! I’m thinking of accessorizing the outfits with umbrellas, the ones here are much prettier than the boring black ones everyone’s got in London.
We’re going to be huge, I can feel it. We’ve been doing gigs every night, small clubs, but it’s brilliant, it’s like I’m a proper full time rock n roll star now. Say hi to Naboolio and Bollo for me alright? Write me back, yeah?
After checking around him to make sure no one was watching, Howard pressed the letter against his nose and closed his eyes, and for a moment he was able to pretend that his best mate wasn’t on the other side of the planet.
That night, Howard went to sleep with it tucked under his pillow, and tried not to hate himself for it.
From that day on, they wrote to each other every few days. It was a strange new aspect to their relationship. Before Vince had left, they’d never really needed to communicate in writing. Their correspondences had consisted of little notes left in the old zookeeper’s cabin, or later, in the flat:
Coffee on stove. Bought milk for your cereal. Finish the old milk first!
Lester the Creeper phoned for you, ring him back!
But now, their letters were the only way they could stay in each other’s lives. Every morning, Howard paced the shop and waited for the postman to come, unable to concentrate on any task for more than a minute at a time without glancing at the clock, or poking his head out the door to look down the street. The postman was a grumpy old cockney who intensely disliked Howard, ever since that day Howard had crashed into him by accident in front of the Nabootique. The letters had been scattered all over the street by a gust of wind, and the man had been furious. Most days, he seemed to take a great deal of perverse pleasure in telling Howard that there was no mail for him, but once or twice a week he would begrudgingly shove one of Vince’s letters into Howard’s hands, as if holding it for too long burned his fingers, and then leave in a huff.
On those days, Howard loved the postman. He would wave at his back cheerfully, wish him a fantastic day, then scramble back inside the shop with the letter clutched greedily in his hands. He would hide behind the counter or in the storage room and read it in secret, like an alcoholic sneaking a drink away from the public eye.
Their letters got longer and longer with each passing week, and somehow Howard found himself telling Vince things that he never would’ve told him face to face. It was easier like this, scribbling things on bits of paper. When he didn’t have to look at Vince’s mocking face or hear him laugh derisively, he could tell him anything. With Vince at the other end of the world, he could say things like it’s too quiet here without you and I miss the mess you make and I listened to the Human League today, and I might’ve been hasty when I called them electro nonsense, and he didn’t have to feel embarrassed.
Vince’s letters always looked and smelled much the same, but over time their content started changing too. At first it was all sunshine and roses and glitter, with long descriptions of gigs and outfits and how true fame was clearly just around the corner. But after the first few weeks, Vince would leave little hints that maybe things weren’t going exactly as he had hoped. Roger kind of creeps me out actually, the way he’s always looking at me like a rapist. I think he wants to bum me, but no way I’m letting him. And then, in the next letter, The drummer is really cheesing me off, his haircut is well outdated and he won’t let me sort it out for him. He’s a ball bag. It was also becoming more and more obvious that Vince was starting to feel a bit homesick. The food is alright I guess, if you’re into seaweed. I’d kill for a curry or some fish and chips. I miss you.
Once, Naboo caught sight of the last few lines of one of the letters Howard was writing and made fun of him for days, calling him the soldier’s wife, asking if he was writing love letters to his husband at the front lines.
Although Howard was annoyed, Naboo had been partly right. It hadn’t been a conscious decision, but somewhere along the way his correspondences had turned into subtle love letters of sorts. There were no outright declarations, but he signed them with I miss you and your Howard.
He liked to imagine Vince reading his letters while sitting by a koi pond, under a cherry blossom tree, with Mount Fuji looming in the background. He liked to imagine that a smile would creep onto his lips at Howard’s prose, and that he would flush with pleasure when Howard told him how much he missed him.
Even after Vince had been gone for nearly six months, Howard still could not keep his stupid, pointy face out of his mind. Vince seemed to be present all over the flat even after all this time; the smell of his hairspray still lingered in the air, and his belongings still cluttered their shared bedroom. Occasionally, Howard would find a stick of eyeliner under the sofa, or one of Vince’s multicoloured socks would somehow find its way in with Howard’s laundry, and he missed him so much that his stomach ached. If this is what love feels like, he thought one day, sitting on the sofa with his face in his hands, it’s really not all it’s cracked up to be.
He kept all of Vince’s letters hidden safely underneath his pillow, and ignored the uncomfortable lump under his head when he went to sleep.
Howard’s last letter was written in the middle of the night.
He woke up embarrassed and frustrated after a particularly vivid dream that involved Vince and a Japanese umbrella, and, biting back an angry yell, he jumped out of bed to pace the small room. On a whim, he stomped over to the airing cupboard and rummaged around until he found an empty hat box, then returned to his room and shoved his pillow aside to reveal the small mountain of letters that Vince had sent him over the previous months. He grabbed them roughly and stuffed them into the box, shut it tightly, and then kicked it under his bed.
That done, he wandered into the kitchen to put the kettle on to boil, sat down at the table, and wrote.
Oh sweet Vince, with your face like a cream oval
Enough with the cream imagery. I love you more than jazz fusion, corduroy, pipes, and stationery all put together. Please come home.
Howard T. J. Moon
P.S. I blew you a kiss, it should reach you tomorrow. Japan is pretty far away.
He ran out into the street wearing nothing but a vest, pants and unlaced boots, and dropped the letter in the post box before he could think better of it. He hurried back inside, and then went on a massive bender of jazz and liquor to try to erase his own words from his brain.
Vince’s last letter barely deserved to be called a letter. It was scrawled hastily on the back of a till receipt, with none of the usual stickers or flashy colours. Howard stared at the paper, skin tingling.
You IDIOT. Why did you have to make me wait until I was on another continent? I’m coming home. Vince x
Vince was back on that same day. He was standing there in the late afternoon sun, in front of his mountain of luggage, grinning brilliantly. His hair had grown longer since Howard had last seen him, but otherwise he was unchanged. He was wearing a ridiculous outfit, a strange mash-up of eastern silks and Camden trendy, and his top could only be described as...
“Check out my glam rock kimono! You like it?”
He should’ve looked awful and jetlagged like any normal person who had just got off of a plane after travelling half way around the globe, but of course Vince didn’t. He looked as fresh as a daisy and more alluring than ever.
Howard’s stomach lurched, he could barely stand to look at him; his heart was hammering inside his chest, like it wanted to burst out of his ribcage and land at Vince’s feet, still beating. He could feel himself speaking even though he wasn’t sure what was coming out of his mouth. His own voice came from a long way away, unrecognizable, babbling something about unexpected returns and flights and suitcases and he kept talking even as Vince rolled his eyes and closed the distance between them and flung his arms around Howard’s neck. Howard’s voice died in his throat and he stood there, petrified, suddenly afraid that if he moved an inch he would be sick.
“Don’t touch me,” he said as an afterthought, but there was no force behind the words.
Vince felt warm and solid against him but his nose, pressed against Howard’s neck, was cold from the December air. There was black hair in Howard’s face and he could practically taste the hairspray, but beneath that there was the familiar scent of Vince’s shampoo and Howard had to squeeze his eye shut and bite his lip to keep from making an embarrassing noise. It was a full-blown attack on all of Howard’s senses. How was he meant to keep his defences up under such a heavy barrage? It’s really not fair, this, he thought desperately, trying to conjure up the courage to speak, or move, anything but this frozen stupor. Vince was hugging him tightly, and his breath tickled Howard’s neck when he spoke.
“You’re amazing. You take a long time getting there, but when you do, you go all the way.”
“You’re, erm, I mean, that’s…”
“Shut up, Howard,” Vince said, and kissed him.
Sometimes, Howard realized, it’s no use resisting. So he slid one hand around Vince’s waist and tangled the other in jet black hair, and kissed him back.