From Far Away

This story takes place in an alternative universe where Julian and Noel do not meet when they are supposed to.


Characters: , , ,





Length: words

Notes: This is a work of fiction and obviously didn’t happen. No disrespect or offence is intended.

From Far Away by Jackie Thomas

If you wanted to cast a spell at Kings Cross Station, the best place to chalk your pentacle would be here, at the exact spot they’ve put the silver jewellery stall. By the platform gates, in front of the arrival and departure boards, where the bright, orange waterfalls of words endlessly cascade. This is the place where the paths of the thousands of travellers who pass through the station cross, where all their converging energies meet.

A brittle, autumn breeze shivers through the station and Noel has the sense of a spell being whispered.

He imagines a wizard robed in midnight, muttering over ancient texts. His yellow monkey familiar tiptoeing between the potion flasks and scampering away from the sparking, crackling magic. Sometimes when he is painting he feels this way, as if every brush stroke forms part of an enchantment. His mind gives up control, and somewhere much deeper and unknowable takes over.

Noel has worked for a few of the stalls and shops around the station. Before he got this job he sold shirts and flowers, sweets and CDs, and a million cups of coffee. Now, it’s chains, charms, earrings, brooches and bracelets. They have to be silver though; an immutable law he doesn’t understand.

If he had any say in it, the stall would look like Aladdin’s cave. It would drip with gold and copper and trashy strings of plastic beads. He would have African mask necklaces, love heart rings and tiny insects trapped in amber. Instead the stall twinkles politely; at home and ignorable in its wipe-clean grey and beige setting.

Still, he does like the station. Even though he often gets bored and moves on to the next shop with a vacancy, and even though he is now one of the oldest at assistant level, he does like working here.

He likes to be still while the rush hour tides of people wash in and out. He likes to witness the start and end of a thousand epic journeys every day. In his pocket notebook, he sketches the awkward beauty of Kings Cross reunions and the foot to foot impatience of those waiting out delays.

There is a man there now. Noel first notices his battered blue plimsolls tied with fraying laces, and begins to follow his restless expeditions across the concourse.

He must be waiting for someone down from Leeds, because these are the platform announcements he follows. Three or four trains have come in since he’s been there and he stands at the gate watching the crowds streaming through the barriers, scanning each face as if the person he is meeting might attempt to slip through in disguise.

Then when there is no one else, he takes out his phone and stares at it, looking for a message that also doesn’t arrive before starting off on his meandering course once again.

Noel is moved by the man’s constancy. Afternoon has turned to evening in the time he has waited. Noel would have given it five minutes, at most.

During one of his circuits of the station, the man wanders over to the silver jewellery stall. He looks at the display without really seeing it, but his eyes widen when he catches sight of Noel. He takes in his long, leopard print coat, red felt hat, black eye make up and notices he is wearing all the necklaces and most of the rings.

Noel smiles warmly, but this fails to put him at his ease. He walks away with a swift, parting glance back. Noel tries not to be hurt. He looks at his reflection in the stall’s mirror and doesn’t get what the big deal is about a bit of cross-dressing.

The man’s own style of dress is closer to that of the Special Brew drinkers the police are always escorting off the premises; a threadbare jumper, an old suit jacket about a size too small for him, and scruffy hair which hangs down like Shakespeare’s.

Noel likes his face though, and he takes his notebook from his pocket to sketch a portrait of him. He tries to capture the wry intelligence behind his tired eyes, the anxious downturn of his mouth.

No one would ever accuse this one of looking like a girl. There is an air of quiet masculinity about his broad, regular features and serious moustache. It isn’t a disgrace like most moustaches; it gives him a distinguished look, which the insanity of his hair does nothing to dispel. Noel wishes he hadn’t frightened him away.

He randomly names the stranger, Howard and calls the sketch, ‘Howard waiting’.

On the opposite page he draws a full length picture of himself with the long nose and pointed ears of an evil elf, ram’s legs and hooves. He scrawls ‘forty per cent human’ across it.

His supervisor arrives to cash up and, as the last trains of the day deposit their passengers, they begin to draw down shutters and close up for the night.

The man he has named Howard is still waiting. He is leaning against a pillar, picking apart a polystyrene cup while the manky Kings Cross pigeons peck at crumbs around him. Noel looks at the board, there is only one more Leeds train and he decides to wait, to see if anyone arrives, and to see who might be worth these wasted hours.

His brother, Mike works in a magic shop. Not pick-a-card-any-card but mystical stuff; incense and amulets, books about druids and Native American myths, divining rods and odd bits of spell paraphernalia. There is a booth in the corner of the shop where psychics and clairvoyants set up stall. Fifteen pounds for half an hour of channelling dead grandmothers or laying out Tarot cards. Noel often sits in with Mike on his days off and he listens to the psychics through the curtain they work behind.

He has come to the conclusion people are not really interested in hearing about their futures. The predictions are often vague and not worth a pound, let alone the price of a new hat. What people want is to have their past and present explained to them. They want to know there is a narrative structure at work, that their life isn’t a series of accidents, but a story written by fate, about them.

Howard is looking bothered, like the narrative to his own story has stuttered and broken down. Because although, about five minutes before the train is due in, he is in place at the platform, he is once again left standing.

Noel does not hold with the idea of destiny. He doesn’t believe there is any kind of plan at work behind his life. He cannot stand the idea that all his mistakes, failures of nerve and missed opportunities are really the universe’s specific intention for him. Noel mistrusts fate and often attempts to give it a helping hand.


Howard jumps, startled out of his transfixed gaze at the arrivals board into turning to look at Noel. Noel deploys his most reassuring smile.

“You’ve been waiting a long time,” he says.


“I’ve seen you waiting.”

“Sorry? Oh yeah, my friend…” He tails off.

“Maybe one of you got the day wrong.”

Howard gives him a hopeful look.

“Do you know if there are any more trains from Leeds?”

“That’s it for tonight.”

Howard stares distractedly at him. “Thanks,” he says and walks away.

When Noel gets home that night, he makes a swift, charcoal drawing of Howard on the largest sheet of paper he can find.

Noel lives in a big, double-fronted house of bed-sits, a short walk from the station. With the curtains open, the lights of Kings Cross and its tacky nightlife blot out the darkness, a hotel sign reflects noirishly off his window. For once, not having natural light doesn’t matter, he feels he could draw Howard with his eyes closed.

He chooses a medium charcoal stick, and his strokes are broad and as careless as Howard’s rumpled jacket. He is walking away. Slept-on hair sticking out all over the place, and an entourage of pigeons flying around him.

When the picture is finished, Noel clears a space on the wall for it. He likes Howard’s solidity. There seems to be no artifice about him; if he doesn’t want to talk to you, he leaves.

The fundamentals of a spell are simple. No more than a recipe and a prayer. Ingredients mixed, Latin chanted. The indefinable element would be the magic. The same thing that makes sex more than mechanics, and art more than copying. The dark-robed wizard throws orange letters like a handful of runes. He brings Howard back.

Noel’s fingers are still smudged with charcoal when he takes over the stall at two in the afternoon. He buys two cappuccinos and tracks Howard down to where he is leaning against Tie Rack.

His hair looks more Shakespearean than yesterday, which is quite an achievement. He hasn’t shaved and he looks like he hasn’t slept.

Howard slowly takes in Noel and his outfit and seems less fearful than he was yesterday. Noel is dressed normally by his standards; just black jeans, leather jacket and studded fingerless gloves. No Rod Stewart crossed with Yootha Joyce today. Though the Goth eye make up, which happens when he doesn’t pay attention to what he’s doing, and the shocking pink, migraine-inducing mohair jumper might have been mistakes in retrospect.

“All right?” Noel says. “You’re back then? Did you speak to your mate?”

“I can’t get hold of him,” Howard replies. “I can’t understand it.”

“I bet it’s nothing to worry about,” Noel says. “Just a mix up.”

Howard’s gaze once again washes over him, and he offers a small, but genuine, smile in return.

Noel tries to give Howard one of the coffees, but this turns out to be a mistake.

“Oh,” he says, as if he is being handed a stick of dynamite. “No thanks. I’ve got to go, there’s a train coming in.”

Noel sighs and watches him set off across the concourse. He might as well try to befriend a pole cat. He goes back to the stall, pins half a dozen brooches to his jumper, drinks both coffees and gets palpitations.

He sees Howard about the station for the next couple of hours. He comes and goes but is always back in time to meet the Leeds trains. He deliberately avoids the silver jewellery stall. It’s depressing really. He was just being friendly. It’s not like he expected him to nip round the back for a terrific bumming. Though that would be good. For a start, it’s obvious he’s waiting for his boyfriend.

Later though, Howard makes his way to the stall. He has a cup from the bagel place and seems fractionally more relaxed.

“All right, Howard,” Noel says before he can stop himself.

“Sorry about before,” he says handing Noel the cup. “I thought you might like…”

“Thanks,” Noel says, aware he is grinning manically. “That’s brilliant. Have you had any news?”

“I have actually. My friend couldn’t come down yesterday and his phone wasn’t working, so… He’s on the next train.”

“Oh, really?” Noel says, unimpressed. “But there’s more than one phone. Even in Leeds. He could have phoned you on the other one.”

Howard meditates on this. “Yes, that is true.” He scratches his stubble gloomily. “I might tell him about the other phone.” He raises his hand in a small wave. “I’ll see you then, Vince.”

Noel drinks the cappuccino Howard has bought him and is ridiculously pleased about it. It is quite a while before he realises Vince isn’t his name.

The boyfriend does arrive, Noel sees him. He is blond, tall and good looking, if you like that sort of thing. He is clearly a dickhead and they are definitely together.

When he finishes work, Noel meets mates in a club and drinks until the edges of the world soften.

“Go on then,” Dave says. “Who have you met?”

He looks in his jacket pocket, but his notebook has gone.

The wizard has dark arts. There is a body lying on the floor of his study and he can pull his heart out through his chest. He can keep his soul in a jar on a shelf next to the graveyard dirt, the mandrake root and the captured north wind.

Noel hasn’t been to work in a week, he hasn’t drawn in three. He hasn’t gone this long since he broke his finger in a car door when he was still at college and, even then he had been desperate to work. Now he has lost his notebook and can’t be bothered to look for it.

He lies on his bed listening to tinny pop on the radio. When he closes his eyes he sees nothing, when he doesn’t paint there is nothing.

The charcoal drawing of Howard walking away is on the wall at the foot of his bed. It was his last piece before he stopped, but all this is not because he will never see Howard again. It can’t be, because he never knew him.

Maybe it’s just what his dad keeps saying to him; that he is too old to be still living like an art student and he should go and get a proper job.

His dad wants him to accept one of the supervisor posts they keep offering him at different shops around the station. They’ll offer them to anyone with a work permit who agrees to stop turning up looking like Iggy Pop. His ultimate goal is for Noel to work in John Lewis. Maybe he should, he could then hate his life but have a bit more money.

The room is freezing because he hasn’t charged up the key metre, but he makes himself get up. He eats, without tasting, the last food in his room; a piece of pita half turned to cardboard, washed down with a flat can of tango. It is a bit of a low point.

He is sick of himself, so he gets dressed and goes to Leicester Square to see Mike in his magic shop. They sit together behind the counter watching the customers wandering in and out. It’s funny to hear his little brother, who used to only know about football, giving advice about scrying crystals and the best books on Wicca. All in his shy, lispy deadpan.

Business is slow and Alison, the duty clairvoyant, has nothing better to do than slag off Noel’s aura.

“It’s brown today,” she says.

“How dare you,” Noel says. “At the very least it’s black.”

“It’s not a fashion accessory. It doesn’t necessarily have to match your outfit.”

“Even I can tell it’s brown,” Mike says. “Bad for business, you are.”

“All right, Mystic Meg. I can’t be expected to sparkle all the time.”

Never mind his aura, he looks a state anyway. He hasn’t even bothered to shave or brush his hair before going out, just zipped himself up into his leather jacket and shoved on a hat to hide the damage. It’s got Mike worried.

“Why didn’t you put your face on? What’s going on?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know, Mike.”

Mike looks at Alison.

“Can’t you do a reading for him? Staff discount.”

She stares at Noel for a while and lays a hand over his. She looks confused. “Did you ever work in a zoo?”

Mike snorts and Noel smiles. “No, but that would be wicked. Do you think I will?”

She shakes her head.

“No, I just—it feels like you should have.”

“It is a bit droppings-focussed as a career choice,” Noel says, but he is disappointed.

“Do you know a ‘J’?” she asks.

“John Lewis?”

“You should have met a J by now.”

“Can you stop telling him where his life’s gone wrong,” Mike says. “I don’t think it’s really helping.”

She closes her eyes.

“I can see you in a small room. You’re surrounded by art, there’s colour all over the walls, something on every space. Brushes in jars, squeezed out tubes of paint, boxes of pastels and charcoal, stacks of canvasses.” She opens her eyes. “It’s a beautiful room. Is it yours?”

Noel nods, even Mike’s gone quiet.

“Just stay there,” Alison says kindly. “You belong there, in that house. If you stay and keep painting you’ll be fine.”

He goes back to work the next day and finds his notebook has been handed in. His supervisor, who has been covering for him, says a man who found it round the station a couple of weeks earlier, left it for him.

He flicks through it, glad to have it back but wondering where it’s been for so long. It is not exactly in one piece either. The creature he has drawn with ram’s legs and a goblin face has wandered off, leaving just the torn edge of the page. In the corner of the facing page, next to Howard’s portrait, a head has appeared; an oval with circles for eyes, a floppy hat, mad hair, and a big banana-shaped smile. The words, ‘goodbye Vince’ are written underneath.

There is a fish and chip shop called the Mirman across the road from Kings Cross station. Noel is interested. He hadn’t known Mirs came in both sexes. Obvious if you think about it, but highly impractical if you think about it too much. Which he does.

Suddenly his notebook is filling up with Mirmen. A Mirman with green skin, seaweed hair, and a long salmon tail. He is basking in shades on a rock, outraged in a fishing net, or sipping cocktails in a pink tutu at a tranny club. Dave turns page after page and tells him there’s something wrong with him.

For a few weeks he goes out with a lovely Greek lad from the fish and chip shop. He is gorgeous and doesn’t mind sitting for hours being drawn. They get on well, except for when they both need the mirror at the same time and then it can get nasty. Also, although he is a gentle, good natured soul he has absolutely no sense of humour and is mystified by Noel’s frequent nonsensical rambles. One evening, they have to leave a comedy club early because he is so baffled. Then he does the breaking up and Noel misses him.

Noel paints a wizard in a blue, jewelled turban, his black hair flowing over his shoulders. Sigils and symbols dot the silk of his robe. A tiny, yellow monkey perches on his shoulder. The monkey looks out mischievously but none of the sketches make any sense until the wizard turns his back. It is becoming a theme.

Noel is using the oil paints his parents gave him for Christmas, finger tip mixing the colours. Oils take forever, so he’s never had much time for them, but gradually he finds himself lost in the process.

He tastes linseed in the back of his throat all the time now and it tugs him home when he is out. Days pass before the paint dries enough for the next coat. Days spent watching and imagining the painting, tentatively touching and testing.

He is as patient as Howard, and with each slow layer, applied with his fingers, by brush and by knife, he has the odd sense of creating something living, of coaxing a heartbeat from the canvas.

He wants to move. He is starting to see Kings Cross as everyone else does; as sleazy and filthy and soulless. He doesn’t want to live in this house anymore, either. The building is practically condemned and full to the chimneys with prostitutes, but that’s not the problem. What’s really tipping him over the edge are his new upstairs neighbours, John Coltrane and Charlie Mingus.

“Listen to it,” he waves his phone at the ceiling. “How am I supposed to paint with jazz fucking fusion going on over my head?”

“It’s not fusion,” Dave says. “It’s free funk.”

“Fuck off.”

“Are you experimenting with cubism again?” Dave asks, which is what happened when one of their tutors at college started playing jazz in class.

“No, but it’s only a matter of time, mate. I can feel Guernica coming on. Let’s go for a beer or you’re going to be in it with three heads.”

The next day, when he is still a bit drunk, he decides to go to work dressed as a girl. Not in a creepy way, he doesn’t try to pretend he has tits or anything. But he has found a really nice, silver mini skirt which he wears over PVC jeans and boots. He gets a wolf whistle as he walks in, which has to be a result even if it is ironic.

The regional manager is on one of his inspections. He looks at Noel like he’s the Elephant Man and sacks him on the spot. Perhaps he could have toned down the make up.

It’s a relief, really. He is starting to hate all the things he used to love about the station. He hates the arrivals and departures, the endless mass of people constantly travelling and never getting anywhere. He hates how he is always looking out for the Leeds trains.

There’s nothing holding him now, he thinks as he wanders home, twirling the electric guitar necklace his supervisor tearfully gave him as a leaving present. He’s always fancied Camden; he’s much more at home there. He could see if there’s anything going in the market or one of the pubs or bars.

Noel takes all the pictures off the wall of his room and a strange, empty expanse of space, dotted with blu tack galaxies reveals itself. He retrieves the charcoal drawing of Howard from the rolls of paper on the floor and sticks it back on to the wall. There are some things he will not take with him.

An hour later, Mike has turned up. Noel is supposedly packing and he is supposedly helping, but it is just not happening. They are lying on the bed, passing a joint between them and looking at the ceiling.

Upstairs John and Charlie are fighting. Voices raise in hard, masculine anger, a bitter argument drags itself to a shouting conclusion. The whole house seems to hold its breath. Then a chair gets kicked over, something smashes and one of them goes thundering down the stairs, slamming the door shut behind him as he leaves.

The house adjusts to the sudden departure. Noel can hear its life resume; water runs in the shared bathroom, the Russian girls two doors down are laughing, a radio talks quietly in a foreign language. For a moment, he thinks he is stupid to leave.

Upstairs, chairs are set straight, broken china is swept and the man left behind starts to pick out simple blues on an acoustic guitar. Then he plays the most beautiful, haunting music Noel thinks he has ever heard. It begins slowly and builds, yearning is threaded through with humour, heartbreak with something darker and more sinister. It quickens and fades into nothing.

It has them both hypnotised and Noel finds himself on his feet and at the door.

“What are you doing?” Mike asks him as if he’s gone mad. He doesn’t know. If Mike hadn’t stopped him he would be half way upstairs by now.

Noel’s wizard takes shape in the corner of the mural. The colours of his shamanic robes are bold and sure, gold symbols bleed magic and power. Turning, he finally shows his face; his sharp, knowing eyes, his complexion of shadows and angles. The monkey familiar hides in the folds of his head dress; wary of the dragon conjured under the light of a watchful moon. From far away a knight is approaching.

Really, he should have listened to the psychic girl and stayed where he was. Because Camden quickly turns bad and winds up in disaster. Proper epic disaster.

At first it goes okay. He room-sits for a friend who is travelling, and is earning money helping out other friends who are opening a bar.

But then he meets a bloke called Craig in a club. He has a Howard-ish moustache and a room to rent in his flat. He leads Noel into his own room before he is even unpacked.

He thinks Craig is strong and steady, but he argues with all of Noel’s mates until none of them will have anything to do with him. He is fed up of being on his own though. Even Mike, who he still thinks of as twelve years old, is moving in with his girlfriend.

Craig is not strong but a bully and, as it transpires, a bit of a psycho. Noel knows Craig gets impatient with him when he is untidy or chaotic, but he thinks this is fair enough. He does not have the sense to see where this impatience might lead.

Noel wants to stay on at a party when Craig wants to leave. Unbelievably, this is how it starts. Craig goes home without him, but he is obviously not happy about it. When Noel gets back to the flat in the early hours he finds Craig has been drinking and waiting for him. Noel is happily drunk and impervious to the atmosphere.

“All right, Craig,” he says, dropping a kiss on to unresponsive lips on his way to get a glass of water. “You should have stayed, it was wicked. Do you know who was…?”

Hands grab him from behind and he finds himself on the floor, head knocking hard against a radiator. He doesn’t really believe it is happening; even when Craig starts kicking and there is nothing but a sharp booted foot on his ribs, not stopping until one of the neighbours bangs on the door.

He has a painful week in the Royal Free filling pages with black biro monsters. He spends a couple more at home with his mum and dad, watching the new leaves on the tree outside his bedroom window tremble in the rain and wind, Exile on Main Street on repeat.

While he is still in hospital, Mike and Dave go to the flat to get his things. They find Craig has moved out, but Noel does not believe he is gone for good.

When he is recovered enough, Dave takes him for a slow walk along the south bank to the Tate Modern. He has loved the gallery since it opened, loved the kindred spirits he finds hanging there; the images as idiosyncratic and abstract as the ones in his imagination. Today, it just upsets him; all the failed attempts to force meaning onto a world where there is none.

He wants to put a knife through the neat arrangements of paintings, tip up the sculptures in a cacophony of metal and stone. He says as much to Dave.

“We’d better go then,” Dave says, putting an arm around his shoulder.

In the top floor bar, they watch the spring sunshine dance off the top of the Thames. The wide, hungry windows swallow London whole and Dave cheers him up with brightly coloured cocktails.

Noel is being paid actual money to paint a blue-grey dragon out of a shadowy dream. As tall as a man, it takes shape on the wall of his friends’ bar. He works, hardly noticing the hours passing and deaf to everything but the music he’s got tearing the place up.

Next door there is a cafe displaying fifteen of his paintings, they are labelled with his name, the title, the medium and incredibly, a price. There used to be sixteen but one of them, the first wizard, has been sold.

He has stayed late to finish the mural in time for tomorrow’s opening. He doesn’t have far to go home anyway as he lives upstairs now and, assuming he doesn’t get offered a million for one of his paintings, he has a job behind the bar to go with the room.

He has never believed in fate but it is increasingly difficult not to believe in a malign kind of influence over his life. This is why he is not surprised when he starts hearing smoke alarms and smelling bonfires.

He is sitting on the pavement, ice cold even though it is a warm, June night, even though the fire is still burning only yards away. The fire has taken the bar, his room upstairs, the cafe next door. The fire has taken everything.

He doesn’t need to hear the description of the man witnessed running from the scene, or look at a photo-fit picture, because he already knows it is Craig. Perhaps, after all, there is a narrative unfolding. His own is lost, but he has become a chapter in Craig’s personal horror story.

He shivers as cold and shock shudder through him. The smoke has made his eyes stream, but anyway, there is no one here to pretend not to cry in front of.

He sees a pair of old blue plimsolls, one tied with a shoelace, one tied with a piece of string.


He is on his feet and urgently pushing his head against Howard’s shoulder, before he rationally knows he is there. An arm goes tightly around him, a hand rests, a moment later, in his hair.

Noel leaves tears and paint and dust and the smell of smoke on Howard’s clothes but Howard seems as unwilling to let him go as he is to let go of Howard.

Noel wakes at the start of a hazy dawn, on what turns out to be Howard’s bed. He has no memory of how he got here but he is wearing Howard’s jacket and is wrapped up in his arms. He is no longer shaking but he is dazed and empty, a balloon that’s had the air let out of it. He doesn’t move, just lies absorbing the soft rumble of Howard’s breathing, until he wakes a couple of hours later.

Last night he was too exhausted and bewildered to question how Howard has brought him back to Kings Cross, to his old house, one floor up from his old room. But now he sits cross legged on the bed, warming his hands around the mug of tea Howard has made for him, and comes to the conclusion he is in a vivid dream, or in a coma, or something because he can’t get his head round it, not any of it.

Everything feels solid and real, but he finds he is looking at his own painting hanging on Howard’s wall. It is theoretically possible, it is the one he has sold; the wizard turning his back, but—come on.

“I got it in the cafe that burnt down,” Howard says when he sees him looking. “I’ve never bought a painting before. Do you like it?”

Now the drama has passed, Howard is more reticent and is keeping his distance from the bed. Noel watches him carefully because he is clearly the key to this hallucination. But he doesn’t act like a creature from a dream. He doesn’t turn into Charlie Watts or try to make Noel join the army, or anything like that. He pads sock-footed about the little kitchen area of his room, making toast and scrambling eggs and forgetting where he has left his tea.

When Noel speaks he tastes smoke in his mouth and thinks of his dragon.

“Why do you keep calling me Vince?” He asks. He needs the answer to this before he can begin to reel reality back in.

“It’s your name. Isn’t it?” Howard asks, turning.

“Not really, no.”

Noel is starting to be able to interpret the minute fault line shifts which constitute Howard’s facial expressions. He looks confused now.

“But you told me your name was Vince. Didn’t you? Look, you haven’t lost your memory or something?” Noel starts a smile. “So, what is your name exactly?”

“Noel?” He says. The question mark is involuntary. “What’s yours?”

“Oh,” Howard says. “Not Howard.”

Noel has to go back to Camden. He has to speak to the owners of the bar and the cafe. He doesn’t see how he can ever make things up to these people. Also, the police want to interview him about Craig. This seems a rash idea while the man is roaming loose.

Howard, whose name is Julian, quietly gets ready to go with him. Neither of them question this.

He washes with Julian’s soap and shampoo, brushes his teeth with his toothbrush, shaves with his razor, dresses in his clothes. Julian says he looks like a geography teacher who’s been the victim of a shrinking spell. He can’t understand how this man keeps making him laugh, when last night he was sure he never would again.

They can find little physical evidence of his old life. He had hoped, somehow, his room had been spared, but the police who are investigating the ruins, say it was where the fire was set. The morning breeze is carrying burnt fragments of paper down the street. He catches flurries like snowflakes and finds them marked with his own pencil strokes. Without Julian’s hand resting lightly on his back he would be blown away in just as tiny scraps. He has no doubt about that.

He does an inventory of his worldly goods. One paint brush; the one he had been using to gild silver on to the knight’s chain mail when smoke started to obliterate the air. He has his painting clothes; the oldest jeans and shirt in the world. A pair of paint-spotted deck shoes, an electric guitar necklace. It is not enough.

It unsettles him when Julian forgets and calls him Vince because he is already harbouring doubts about his prior existence. He ought to feel liberated, some people supposedly do when they lose everything. They see it as a chance for a new start. He doesn’t, he needs something to anchor him.

He remembers the sketches of the Greek lad and the book of mermen, the stacks of drawings and half-finished paintings. He mourns them, as he would a lost limb or even a child. He mourns the animal print coat he was wearing when he first met Julian, all his hats, the silver skirt that got him sacked from the jewellery stall, all his CDs. He even, irrationally, mourns Mike and Dave and his other friends because they seem to him to have melted away along with their numbers in his phone.

“We’ll go and find them,” Julian says, drawing him into his arms in front of about fifty policemen until his panic subsides.

He is painting Julian and Julian is playing his guitar and tolerating him. He is using watercolours, which shows how soppy he is feeling. The bolder autumn colours do suit him though. The colours from the season when they first met.

Noel would like to paint Julian nude, but the idea seems to give him a panic attack. He now knows anxiety is his steady state so he is taking it easy with him.

The tune Julian is playing is his own. The one that once sank down through Noel’s ceiling and summoned him. He wrote it for the half-man who jumped from Noel’s notebook into Julian’s pocket and now lives under a magnet on the fridge.

Noel is helping him put words to the music. It’s not jazz. It isn’t. He has to admit though; he loves the music Julian’s little three piece band plays, which is.

For someone who hates being looked at, Julian spends a lot of time on stage. He does gigs on the London comedy circuit. Noel thinks they are genius, though sometimes he is the only one in the audience who does.

Julian’s hair is just not happening. “There’s something different,” he says. “No, it can’t be. Have you combed it?”

He puts aside the painting and launches across the bed to stick his hands and face into it. The guitar slips to the floor and Julian drags him down into a kiss.

He has the sense of a spell completed. The secret words of power have been whispered, the chalk of the pentacle has been brushed out. They are naked together, sweat-sheened, sheets kicked to the end of Julian’s bed, the window open for the scant breeze of the high summer night, the moon less bright than the Kings Cross neon.


Read the sequel: In an Unmarked Landscape.

+ posts