Vince had no idea what do about his feelings for his best friend Howard. It was weeks since his life had gone from a happy sunshiney haven of fun to a pit of, well if not actual despair, of really messy confusing emotions that seemed to mean his brain stopped working periodically so it could loaf about and think about Howard and not much else.
With no other options that he could think of, he decided to consult Naboo the shaman, who was also the zoo psychiatrist. Naboo had been expecting it, since he could read minds, and Vince's mind was more easily read than most; it made a Mr Men book seem like Finnegan's Wake in comparison.
Vince lay back on Naboo's comfortable gold-scrolled sofa and tried to think of a clever way to explain his problem while protecting his privacy.
"Uh you see Naboo, I've got this friend ...."
Naboo sighed inwardly.
"... and yeah this mate of mine, see, he sort of fancies someone and doesn't know what to do about it, exactly".
"What kind of person is your friend?", asked Naboo.
"He's brilliant", said Vince fondly. "Really gorgeous, great hair, and a fashion icon. Looks good in hats". He unconsciously touched his own hat while he spoke.
"It sounds as if your friend should think of other things to offer in a relationship besides hats, yeah?".
"Oh no, then I am screwed!"
"Er, Eyam, that's my mate's name. It's Turkish or Dutch or summat. He's screwed".
"You don't think Eyam could give the person he fancies a bit more? Some conversation, make them a cup of tea, see how it goes, yeah?"
"It's never going to work out with me and him", said Vince despondently.
"Who's 'me and him'?", queried Naboo.
"Yeah, um, Meianyim, that's the person Eyam fancies. Burmese, I think ... I can't see it working out if Eyam has to make conversation or tea".
"And what kind of person is Meianyim?"
"A bit boring in some ways, and absolutely no fashion sense at all. But a surprisingly hot body under their lumpy clothes, and quite good company really, and they make a nice breakfast".
"Breakfast? So ... Eyam and Meianyim live together?".
"Oh yeah, in a little hut", nodded Vince.
"And do they work together as well?", dead-panned Naboo.
"It sounds like they're already pretty good friends, yeah?", the shaman suggested.
"Been friends for a while now", agreed Vince.
Naboo looked thoughtful.
"You know Vince, when I was studying to be a shaman I had a friend called Gink. She was a bit like your friend Eyam – pretty and cool. And she dead fancied her best friend Gowart, who was something like Meianyim – slightly awkward, but with a kind heart".
"That's an amazing coincidence", marvelled Vince.
"Yes it is. Anyway, Gink could never find the words to tell Gowart how she felt about him, and he didn't have the confidence to believe that Gink could ever be attracted to him. They were both so afraid of losing each other's friendship that neither of them would risk it by just coming out and being honest".
"So what happened to Gink and Gowart?", asked Vince, feeling strangely interested in the fate of these shamanic students.
"Dunno", said Naboo in a bored voice. "I moved to London and we lost touch. Haven't thought about them in years".
There was a long silence. Vince felt that his session must be over now, and began getting off the sofa.
"Take this", said Naboo suddenly, holding something out to Vince.
"That's a satsuma", observed Vince.
"Give it to your friend", commanded Naboo. "I believe it may help him in some way".
"Is it like, magic or something?", said Vince, examining the orange fruit with excitement.
"No you ballbag, it's just a satsuma", said the irritated shaman.
Vince walked away carrying the satsuma in his hand. He wasn't convinced that Naboo had been any help at all. How could a piece of fruit change his life?
Vince lay morosely on his bed, watching Howard re-catalogue his jazz record collection. He went first by sub-genre, from Dixieland to Electroswing, then alphabetically within each sub-genre by artist, from "Achin' Bones" Amhurst to Zev Zyskowski , then by year of original release.
If the artist had released more than one work within the same year, then the titles were also alphabetised. Howard sometimes paused to explain to Vince how the complexity of his system was actually simplifying the whole process: a paradox which was doing Vince's head in.
Lying down reminded Vince of his psychiatry session with Naboo. He had tried to do as Naboo suggested, and make Howard a cup of tea as a small sign of his interest. Unfortunately, he had no idea where the teapot was kept, and Howard refused to use teabags, so that plan came to nothing.
Vince wasn't as thick as people thought, and he knew that Naboo had been hinting that his "friend" should tell the person he fancied how he felt. But while Vince wasn't so thick he failed to understand that, he was too thick to figure out how to start. The trouble was that, as with most people, fancying someone had immediately lowered his IQ by 37 points, and like many of us, he couldn't afford to lose that much.
Vince tried to sum up everything he felt about Howard, all the thoughts that had been swirling in his head for the past few weeks, and the exact moment when he knew that something had changed. If he just started talking, maybe the right thing would come out, he thought hopefully ...
"David is a useless ponce", blurted Vince.
"Who's David?", asked Howard, trying to decipher the matrix number on an old vinyl record.
"Er, David Bowie", said Vince weakly. It was the only person with the name David who came to mind.
"You love David Bowie", Howard pointed out. "You said yesterday he was one of your all-time musical and fashion idols".
Oh shit, thought Vince, this is harder than I thought.
"Ah yeah, I know, but it's ironic, innit? You think one thing and say the opposite".
"I'm not sure you've fully grasped all the subtle nuances of irony, Vince".
"You know, it's like, what if I said you were dead sexy?", said Vince desperately.
"So you think the opposite of that?", asked Howard warily.
"Well, you could look a lot better, Howard".
Oh fuck, I've cocked it up even worse, thought Vince in horror.
"Thanks Vince, thank you very much", said Howard in a hurt tone.
"I mean, I could help you look better", said Vince. "So other people could see it. Different clothes, maybe style your hair? I mean the basic structure is good, all your bits are facing in generally the right way ..."
"We're not all obsessed with our appearance", said Howard icily.
"Um yeah, but change is good though, isn't it?", Vince rambled. "It's like Bowie said, turn and face the strange. One day you love Bowie, the next day you realise you love someone you always did. And you wish you could make them a cup of tea, but you don't know where the teapot is, and you need more than a hat for this, Howard. So much more than a hat. But I don't mind if you never change, because then it will stay my secret how you look underneath".
"Another fascinating conversation with Vince in Wonderland", noted Howard. "I'd love to keep chatting on the Phone Line of the Absurd with you Vince, but I've got to look something up in The World Jazzcyclopedia K-L". He turned to the bookshelves with an air of finality.
Vince felt defeated. He'd told Howard exactly how he'd felt, and he'd at least tried to make him a cup of tea. If only he knew where the teapot was kept, everything would have gone a lot better. And the whole David Bowie thing had probably been a mistake ...
That's when Vince looked at the satsuma Naboo had given him, sitting on the table beside him. What had Naboo said to him at the time? Give it to your friend, I believe it may help him in some way. Well, he had kept it, and it hadn't helped him in any way, and in fact he'd made a complete berk of himself.
But what if Naboo had been giving him a coded message? Give it to your friend ... What if Naboo had understood what Vince had been trying to say to him all along, and he meant that Vince was meant to give Howard the satsuma?
Of course, genius!, thought Vince excitedly. Give it to your friend. It all makes sense now!
"Hey Howard", called out Vince, "Catch!". And he threw the satsuma at Howard, who turned vaguely when he heard his name.
The satsuma hit Howard full in the face, and bounced off. He looked at Vince in what appeared to be a sort of shocked rage, with a slight mark on his right cheek. There was only one thing Vince could think of to save the situation.
"Satsuma fight!", he screamed. "In our underwear!". Because I'll be damned if I'm getting satsuma juice on my clothes, he thought grimly, shrugging out of them. That stuff stains like a bastard.
"Brian Christ, are you completely insane?", shouted Howard.
"Chicken are you?", taunted Vince. "Afraid to take me on?" He did a chicken dance that Jagger would have applauded before hitting Vince with a massive copyright suit.
"I'm Howard 'Monsoon' Moon! I know no fear, sir! I don't even know its postcode!", bellowed Howard. "When Fear comes knocking on the door, I say, who the hell are you? And get away from my potted violets".
He also began taking off his clothes, shouting, "You are going down, Vince! And I mean right down! I'm going to serve you up a big bowl of pain soup, and you are going to drink it all down, on your knees, until you ... until ... until you gag on it!".
He picked up the satsuma, and launched it at Vince, who jumped over the bed to avoid it, caught it while ploughing his chin into the floor, and tossed it up at Howard, hitting him in the chest. Within seconds, Vince was running around the hut in his underwear with Howard, throwing the satsuma, getting hit in return, and laughing more than he ever had in his life.
The fact that they were both almost naked didn't even make any difference, except to give the fashion-obsessed Vince an incredible feeling of freedom. He'd spent most of his life hiding beneath clothes, crafting an image, and now it was just him, just Vince, having fun with his best friend, just Howard. It was both the simplest of joys, and the most complex of pleasures. Never before had he been so happy.
At last Vince dropped on the bed, panting, giggling, and with juice stains on his underwear.
"I'm going to be covered in bruises", he pouted. True enough, several were already flowering on his pale skin.
"You get bruised walking through a field of wet buttercups", said Howard, not without some obscure satisfaction. "You're like the princess and the pea".
"You think of me as a princess?", Vince said with an impish smile, his big blue eyes looking up at Howard in a way which showed he really wasn't so thick.
Flushing, Howard turned to get the first aid kit, calling out, "Don't worry, Vince. I have made my own anti-brusing cream out of herbs I gathered myself".
He handed Vince a pot of mucky-looking green goo, and gestured to start with the bruises on his face (caused by colliding with the floor and furniture, rather than from contact with a satsuma).
"I'm not putting this on my face", snarled Vince in disgust. "It smells horrible. I'll use a cover-stick, thanks very much".
Vince began smearing the cream into a series of dappled bruises on his thighs. It was quite tingly, Vince thought, yes a definite tingle, more than a tingle, it was -
"Holy FUCK, Howard!", he yowled. "IT BURNS!!!!!"
"Oh yes", said Howard proudly. "That stuff feels like being gored by a young Eastern rhino. That's how you know it's working".
"How is this better than being bruised?", screeched Vince.
"Hang on, Vince", said Howard, grabbing the first aid kit again. "I've also made my own soothing lotion. It will take away the pain, but still allow the anti-bruising cream to work. Come to think of it, I should probably have combined them together".
He knelt down and began carefully rubbing it in circles into Vince's thighs.
"Yeah that feels a bit better", allowed Vince. In fact it felt more than a bit better, it felt bloody fantastic having Howard rub lotion into his upper thighs. It felt worryingly, excruciatingly fantastic.
Shit, think of unsexy things, thought Vince frantically. Bob Fossil. Bollo. Yeah that's working. Bob Fossil and Bollo having sex. Oh no, that's actually getting me turned on a sick way, thought a horrified Vince. Go for the big guns, unsexiest thing ever. Come on, brain.
Dead kittens?, suggested Vince's brain.
Not funny brain, thought Vince. That's revolting. Get back to Bob Fossil, that was working to start with. Bob Fossil having sex with Howard. Oh great, now I'm getting horny and jealous. It was a painful combination, and Vince's eyes sparked with moisture.
"Am I hurting you, little man?", asked Howard in concern. "I'll try to be more gentle". His fingers began moving in slower and more insinuating circles. The lightness of the pressure somehow made Vince feel his touch more deeply. For some reason, being gentle meant that Howard put his head closer to Vince, so that his messy brown hair was brushing against Vince's bare stomach.
Think calming, neutral thoughts, Vince begged his brain.
Cows grazing in a field under a willow tree. Haystacks lit by a warm golden sunset. Waterlilies on a smooth pond. His brain was channelling the French Impressionists, but it was a hell of an improvement on dead kittens. In fact, if he kept sitting here happy and relaxed with Howard touching him much longer, the kittens would have to make a disturbing comeback.
"Th-thanks, Howard", said Vince. "It's much better now".
"Oh okay, Vince", said Howard, getting up and putting the lotion away with what might have been a slight air of disappointment.
Vince's brain had been put on pause for a while there, but he wondered if Howard had really needed to rub his thighs with lotion for quite so long. Wouldn't a vigorous twenty seconds have been enough? (Vince had to sternly ignore the images his treacherous brain showed him as to what Howard and a bottle of lotion could achieve in a vigorous twenty seconds).
Vince looked at Howard, who was standing in front of him with the uncertainty of a man waiting for a bus he thinks he probably just missed. Howard had kept his vest on for the satsuma fight, and it was a lumpy woollen one. Typical of Howard, Vince thought affectionately. Only he could still look desirable in the ugliest underwear ever.
"What's this for?", he grinned, tugging on the edge of the vest.
"Um well, you know, it hides the – the blemish", Howard mumbled.
"You mean this?", said Vince, pulling the vest up to expose Howard's torso. He lightly touched the small birthmark on his chest; it was pale brown and shaped like a jelly bean.
"I think it's quite cute", he offered. "I mean, in a mutant freak sort of way".
He looked teasingly up at Howard, in a manner which suggested his IQ might have regained a couple of points.
"Hey Naboo!", said Vince, running up to him the next day. "The satsuma really helped, you're genius!"
"What, so you and Howard ...?"
"Yeah, we had a satsuma fight", grinned Vince. "In our underwear. It was brilliant. I know you thought we should have a cup of tea and talk, but this way ..."
"You ballbag, what have you done with my magic satsuma?", demanded Naboo.
"You said it wasn't magic", Vince reminded him.
"Of course I did, you can't tell people you're giving them magical objects, or they'll think whatever the magic is doing isn't real", said Naboo crossly. "There's a delicate psychological balance to the shamanic arts, Vince".
"Yeah well, if you tell them it's just a normal satsuma, you can't get angry if they have a fight with it", Vince reasoned.
"Okay Vince, this is really important", said Naboo urgently. "Exactly what did you do with the satsuma afterwards?".
"I didn't do anything with it", Vince replied. "The satsuma was pretty mushy by the end, and I think Howard put whatever was left of it in the parrot enclosure. He probably threw the peel away, he's the tidy one".
"You're both complete ballbags", said Naboo in a temper. "Gink and Gowart wouldn't have treated a magic satsuma like that".
He walked away and disappeared into thin air, a sure sign he really had the hump.
"Whatever, like Gink and Gowart were even real. You just made them up", yelled Vince into the empty air, on the off-chance that Naboo could still hear him.
Naboo re-materialised inside his shaman kiosk, and went to his private area to think things through with the help of his hookah. As he calmed himself to the peaceful zen state befitting a shaman, he remembered the last time he had seen his friend Gink, just before he left for London.
Knowing of her love for Gowart, he had created a magical satsuma, and given it to her as a farewell gift. He felt sure that she would have shared it with Gowart, and as they ate the satsuma together, it would have helped loosen Gink's tongue so that she could express her true feelings, while opening Gowart's heart to allow love to flourish there.
He hadn't thought of them in centuries, and reached for his crystal ball, tuning into Gink's vibrations. The mists cleared, and he could see a stunningly beautiful dark-skinned woman with long black hair looking over an alien landscape from her balcony. Beside her was a plump, red-bearded man with a sweet smile, and the two of them held hands as they talked. From the way they looked into each other's eyes, it was obvious they were very much in love, even after many years.
Naboo looked justifiably smug. It wasn't his magic at fault, but those two ballbags. The pair of them had mental problems far beyond his abilities to solve, and he determined never to give either of them any further relationship advice. They would have to work it out for themselves.
Vince was correct that Howard had given the rest of the satsuma to the parrots, but he was wrong about him throwing away the peel. People were often wrong about Howard – he was a mysterious man containing dark complexities, and one of the few people whose minds Naboo was unable to read. Howard's mind was like trying to read In Search of Lost Time with your left eye and The Egyptian Book of the Dead with your right eye simultaneously: it gave one the most ghastly headache.
Beneath Howard's lumpy moss-green woollen jumper beat a deeply sentimental heart, and before giving the satsuma to the parrots, he had carefully removed the peel and dried it in the sun. Some of this dried peel he placed in an envelope, and added the small package to a particular box he owned with a few keepsakes in it. It is not known what else the box contained, but although you cannot read Howard's mind because of that whole headache thingy, I dare you to read his heart. Not too many wild guesses might lead you to the truth of it.
The rest of the dried satsuma peel he used in a fruit tea mixture of his own creation. Besides making his own creams and lotions from herbs he gathered (at least one with agonising side effects), Howard also made his own tea mixtures from plants that he found here and there. The elderberry and ginger had quite a kick to it, but the stinging nettle and wormwood was probably an acquired taste. No one had acquired it so far, but he lived in hope.
(You feel all clever now that you've read Howard's heart with such success, but have a go at Vince's. It's like a small child's drawing of the waterways of England – completely useless for navigational purposes).
Vince got home from work one afternoon to find the hut filled with an unusually sweet, fresh aroma. Not that their hut actually smelt bad most of the time – just like a small wooden hut inhabited by two men working in a zoo who don't have their own bathroom; a sort of comforting animalistic fug overlaid with cooking odours, streaked with hair and beauty products.
But today Vince could smell fruit, and flowers, and spices, and Howard was sitting at the table in the last rays of the dying sun with a teapot and two cups in front of him. He gestured to Vince to join him, and the smaller man pulled up a chair while Howard poured him a cup of tea. The tea smelled of fruit and flowers, and Vince asked what it was.
"Rosehip tea, my own mixture", said Howard. "With cinnamon and honey".
"Is that orange peel in it?", asked Vince.
"Mm, something like that. I foraged for most of the ingredients in the wild – I've always felt very in tune with nature, with the rough pleasures of the countryside".
"Where did you learn about that?", asked Vince curiously.
"Growing up in the wilds of Yorkshire, Vince", expanded Howard. "Growing up amongst the hills, the fells, the dales, the glens. You grow up with the true countryman's awareness of er, hills and things".
"You're from Leeds", Vince reminded him.
"Well yes, but quite a wild part of Leeds", argued Howard. "There was a park opposite, and a tree at the back of the house".
"Steady on, Nature Boy", jeered Vince. "So where did you gather this tea stuff from?".
"From the fields and hedgerows", said Howard vaguely. "From nature's bounty, from the storehouse of Mother Earth ...".
"Exactly where did you find fields and hedgerows around here?"
"Surrey", admitted Howard.
"The wild fields and hedgerows of Surrey?", said Vince incredulously.
"You have to know where to look", insisted Howard.
"And who has hedgerows of roses?", went on Vince. "You just nicked this lot out of someone's garden, you dodgy bastard. Some old lady in Guildford is saying,'What happened to all my flipping rosehips: I was going to make jam?'".
Howard looked away in apparent guilt, but now that Vince thought about it, he'd never seen Howard act so shifty before. He couldn't look straight at Vince, and his eyes were darting about the room like gadflies.
Something suddenly occurred to Vince and he said, "Hey Howard, you made me a cup of tea. I mean you actually made me tea, your own tea".
"And now you're making conversation", went on Vince. "We're talking and having tea".
"It's nice", smiled Vince. "It's really good tea".
Howard looked pleased, but somehow shiftier than ever.
"I tried to make you a cup of tea the other day", said Vince, "but I couldn't find the teapot. Where's it kept?"
"I carry the teapot with me at all times", said Howard keenly. "You don't want to leave your teapot lying around in a cupboard or under the sink, Vince – an enemy could get hold of it and put anything in it. Poison, drugs ... er ... poisoned drugs".
He suddenly looked sharply at Vince. "What made you want to make the tea, anyway?".
"Oh, Naboo sort of thought I should", said Vince with a shrug.
"Naboo's an interfering fool", said Howard with irritation. "You don't make the tea – you might hurt yourself, or burn the hut down, or forget to warm the teapot first. Making the tea's my job".
"Okay Howard", said Vince meekly. (Suck on that Naboo, his brain shouted triumphantly, in a manner which Naboo couldn't help but psychically hear).
"You do plenty of other stuff", Howard said encouragingly. "Like um ... for example ... the er, thing ... like when you invented satsuma fighting. We should do that again some time".
"Yeah okay", agreed Vince. "Only next time we'll use more satsumas – one only lasted about five minutes".
"I bought a bag of them today", said Howard casually. "Unless you're scared that I'll come at you like a northern bullet".
"You don't stand a chance", scoffed Vince. "I'm a Cockney bitch, a ragamuffin from the streets".
"You'll change your tune once you feel my moves", said Howard. He looked away shiftily.
"I've felt your moves", Vince answered back. "They're like being caressed with a natural yogurt".
"I have powerful new moves", went on Howard, blushing and looking at the floor. "They just arrived this morning, first post".
"Okay, show me", said Vince lazily. "Show me your powerful moves, bullet boy".
There was a brief hesitation, and then Howard reached out and rubbed his hand on Vince's chest. Vince looked unimpressed, but inside his brain was yelling, Yes! Yes! Howard touched me! Touch me again! In his shaman kiosk, Naboo looked slightly sick and switched off his psychic hearing.
"That was nothing", Vince said. "Try harder". He stared deeply into Howard's eyes.
A much longer hesitation, and Howard placed his hand firmly on Vince's thigh, and left it there.
"Not sure that's a lot harder", Vince said with feigned nonchalance. His brain was reduced to babbling wordlessly, followed by an infinity of exclamation marks.
"Give it a while", promised Howard.
"Hey Howard", said Vince. "Take your vest off this time, will you?"
"Okay", said Howard. "And Vince?"
"You can leave your hat on".
That year the parrots bred with unusual enthusiasm, and there were many more chicks hatched than usual. When they fledged, the young birds were exceptionally beautiful and all had the brightest of orange feathers. They were a great drawcard for visitors, and the Zooniverse even featured in the newspapers, Howard's stalking behaviour having dropped out of their pages some time ago.
A wild rumour swept around the zoo that anyone who found one of these orange feathers was destined to find true love, and there was a great fad for trying to gain one for a while (in the usual manner of these local legends, it was made clear you couldn't pull a feather from a bird, but only hope to find one that had been dropped in the way of nature).
Howard was one of those who managed to find a feather, and secretly hid it in his box of treasures. Let's hope that the rumours were true, because I'm pretty sure that if you happen to fall for a Cockney bitch ragamuffin who looks great in hats and has a child's drawing for a heart, the whole true love thing becomes one generally bumpy ride.
Vince was actually given an orange feather by one of the parrots; the two were seen in conversation for some time, but whatever the parrot told Vince remains a mystery. He wore the feather in his hat until the hat went out of style three days later, after which it was never seen again.
The number of orange parrots continued to proliferate to an extraordinary degree. Even Bob Fossil eventually noticed, and kept asking what was going on with all the little flying people with claws who scream and scream at sunset? You know, the flying people with big curved noses wearing little prison jumpsuits? I mean, what's up with them?