Thursday Next

Julian Barratt/Russell Brand. Inspired by Julian and Noel's appearance on Russell Brand's 1 Leicester Square, and before at The Secret Policeman's Ball. I saw sparks.

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Notes: Indebted to my heterosexual life partner Loz, firstly for writing the fic that inspired it, but mainly because I stole from our conversations for this fic.

Thursday Next by Maestro

It’s a packed green room, but they stand out all the same. Odd, like a metaphor, like they should be in an advertisement for something—the bright and the dark, the forward and the hidden—he sees them as if time has slowed down. Although admittedly he has drunk rather a lot, first in an attempt to combat his nerves before going onstage, and then to block out his internal monologue after coming off stage.

The one waving his arms in the air, spilling cheap champagne in a shower of sparkling raindrops, is wearing a suit that looks like it’s been made out of everything obvious in the world. Foil and sequins and glitter and anything Russell has ever seen in his life that went hey there, look at ME! He’s wearing it. Russell’s heard his name thrown around a few times, in comparison with himself, and that makes him curious, because if there’s anything he wants to know more about, it’s himself. He wants to know what people see when they look at him, and this, apparently, is it. Noel Fielding. He gets it, sort of—the hair built up bigger than it needs to be, the figure-hugging outfit and the loud voice, the gestures. Larger than life.

But as much as Noel hogs the room, his eye is constantly drawn to the figure behind him. Julian Barratt. He’s leaning against the wall, a beer bottle in one hand, down by his side. His hair is too long, too dull; it hangs around his face like camouflage. Russell thinks of Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings, John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. He wears an ill-fitting suit, shirt untucked and peeping out from under his jacket. He watches his comedy partner.

He’s everything that Noel isn’t, and by extension Russell isn’t, but Russell can’t stop watching him. He feels like he knows who he is, and they haven’t exchanged two words yet.

There’s a short blonde woman babbling at him, and he realises she’s having to fill the silence that he is creating—which isn’t normal, not at all. He shoots her an apologetic smile, and tells her that those two—he gestures at the Mighty Boosh with a bottle—owe him money. She lets him go, tugging on his arm a little to ensure he doesn’t forget her, although he’s not sure they’ve actually been introduced as such.

Noel looks up as he walks over, through the crowd which sort of moves aside for him, half out of respect, half because they don’t want to be anywhere near him. He grins, wide and loose, and Russell feels a familiar knot form somewhere in his gut. He hopes he’s wrong.

“Alright, Noel Fielding?”

Noel nods, grinning back. “Not so bad. It’s a good night, and the night’s not over yet.”

Russell leans over on one foot, peering theatrically past Noel and into what, after staring at the mirrorball suit, look like shadows. “Alright there, Julian Barratt?”

Julian looks surprised to be addressed, blinking a couple of times, then simply raises his bottle in salute.

Russell positions himself so he can see both of them, forcing Noel to turn a little. “I liked your bit, tonight,” he tells them both. “Made me laugh so hard I grabbed at Chevy Chase.”

“That’s exactly the reaction we aim for,” Noel says, wrinkling his nose.

“Bunny bumming. It could catch on.”

Noel shrugs, playful. “Julian wrote that bit. He likes seeing me get thrown to the floor.”

Julian says nothing, so Russell fills space. “Who wouldn’t?”

Noel smiles in a slow way, and Russell feels the tension in his stomach again. There’s the electricity of the moment that tells him: he can sleep with this man, if he wants to. It’s open. But there’s something behind that, too, and it means he shouldn’t.

Julian clears his throat softly. “I liked your stand-up.”

Russell blinks as Noel chimes in hastily, agreeing. “Thanks,” he says to Julian, feeling the sincerity, it confusing him a little bit.

“Yeah, very, you know.” Noel gestures. “You got… language, it’s really… you really use it properly. I mean, I still gig a bit, and I, what I do, it’s a bit like that. Less newspapers, but lots like that, yeah.”

Julian looks away, quickly, and it’s that which confirms it.

Noel is off his face.

Not that Russell can’t recognise the signs, but he’s generous with his assumptions these days. After all, everyone makes assumptions about him. But Julian’s mixture of disgust and exhaustion, and Noel’s too-bright, too-intense eyes… cocame, Russell thinks. One of the nice ones for gigging, and one that he’s used to. But still a disappointment, especially for a man he’s been led to think of, fondly, as half himself.

Noel chatters on, oblivious to the social signs around him, and one hand rests on Russell’s arm for a moment.

Russell thinks about it. He’s tempted. But drugged-up sex is too like drugged-up life, and one might be the first step on the road back to the other. He doesn’t know what might trigger him, set him back once again, but he’s not risking it this time, he’s strong enough. He shakes Noel off subtly, carefully, but making a point of it all the same.

“It was absolutely splendid to meet you both,” he says in his exaggerated gentleman’s voice, making a sweeping bow, wishing he had a top hat. “But I must depart. Places, people, you know. Enjoy yer evening.” He turns on his heel, walking blindly to anyone he might know, and the last thing he sees is a momentary flash of anger in Noel’s eyes, and the nothing in Julian’s.

They’re hot property at the moment, so of course they’ll be on his show. The snogging is a bit of a surprise, but nothing he hadn’t already guessed, really. He’s met couples like that before, in showbusiness. On-again off-again, half in the closet but not really, girlfriends they sleep with but not that often. Thinks of Morecambe and Wise in bed together, and wonders how long the comedy-partners-but-also-partners cliché has been going around.

He sits in his dressing-room backstage, half-getting up every time he hears a noise in the corridor outside, not used to silence and sitting on his own. But he needs a moment to look at himself in the mirror, to size himself up. Is he doing the right thing? Is it wise? Will it get him into trouble or, surprise surprise, into the tabloids? Although, to be fair, it’s unlikely to do that. The Sun and The Mirror are having enough fun seeing who can make up the most insane story about him without bothering with the truth.

One hand fusses nervously over his hair, hovering but not touching, not wanting to create a mess he won’t be able to put right. He meets his eyes in the mirror, smudged eyeliner, a little bloodshot—must cut down on the late nights, must do more yoga, must start making smoothies again. He mouths his mantra at himself: every day is a day closer, and a day farther away.

Fuck it, do it. His other mantra, and one that’s, well, let’s say it hasn’t been kind to him over the years, but old habits die hard. He pulls out a business card for Focus12, the rehab clinic that finally worked, and scrawls his mobile number on the back.

Two envelopes sit in front of him, addressed to the boys of the Boosh. Form letters: thank you for coming, Russell and the team really appreciate it, do call again any time you’re in town. Phone numbers and email addresses and the big wheel of networking going round and round as people attempt to stay in touch, build their little media empires.

He slips the card into Julian’s envelope, and seals it before he can change his mind, heart beating just a little faster.

It’s the right decision, sure it is. What’s the worst that could happen?

“What the fuck is this all about?”

The voice on the other end of the phone is gruff, Northern, and impossible to place. Russell racks his brains for a moment, all the possibilities—friends, ex-friends, enemies even. He has not lived a life without blame, and there’s not a day goes by when he doesn’t expect someone from his past to call, someone who has a right to be angry with him.

He leans against the wall outside his therapist’s office, smoking yet another cigarette—so he’s kicked heroin, he’s not allowed some other vices?—and then it clicks. Two days ago, the show, the envelope. A gruff Northerner being petted by an effeminate Cockney on a sofa in Leicester Square.

“Hello, Julian Barratt,” he says with real joy.

“What’s this card about, Brand?”

He winces a little behind his sunglasses, but he hadn’t expected hugs and kisses, really. “Er… birthday? Anniversary?” He clicks his tongue a few times. “It’s not one of those made-up holidays the greeting card industry comes up with, is it? I’ll never gue—”

“It’s a business card for a drug treatment clinic,” Julian says quietly. “Why do I have it?”

A number of smart-arse replies live for a moment on his lips, but finally he answers, “Why do you think?”

There’s a pause. Russell scrapes the heel of his boot against a wall irritably, hand tapping out a rhythm on the cigarette, ash flying every which-way. He manages not to say anything.

“So why didn’t you give it to Noel?” Julian says eventually.

Russell snorts. “I can see that going down really well. ‘Hey Noel, you and I don’t know each other that well, yeah, but can I just try and give you advice about a problem which you’re probably pretty sensitive about? Can I come across in, quite frankly, a very patronising manner, and tell you how things were when I went through what you’re going through? Noel? Where you going?’”

There’s more silence, and Russell isn’t strong enough to leave this one. “You can’t give people advice, they have to ask for it, or they won’t listen. Trust me… in a patronising manner.”

Julian laughs, the merest breath of air into the handset, but it’s enough to make Russell soar. “He’s going to ask for help, Julian Barratt, and he’s going to ask you. I figured that although you’re a hardy Yorkshire type, this sort of thing might be a little outside your expertise.” He checks his watch and swears to himself, stubbing the cigarette out on the pavement.

“Even if that’s true, I don’t like you sticking your n—”

“As fun as this little chat is, I have a therapy appointment to get to,” Russell cuts him off, looking up nervously at the door to the shabby little building. “And my mother taught me not to discuss important personal information over the telephone.” A pause, then, pre-empting as ever, “Of course, a few more pieces of advice on the dangers of drug abuse might not have gone amiss, but one cannot have everything.”

Russell takes a little bit of a breath, soldiering on, it’s right, it’s good, it’s what to do. “I’ll be finished here in about two hours.” He rattles off his address, pausing like he’s saying it to his bank manager, allowing Julian time to find a possible pen. “You can come see me, and we’ll talk it over. Otherwise, I’m sure I’ll see you around, Julian Barratt.”

Julian tries to say something, but Russell hangs up, shutting his phone with a flip of his wrist, just like the Starship Enterprise. Much better than jabbing a button, he thinks to himself, not thinking not thinking about the easy way the phone slides against his suddenly sweaty palm, as he jumps up the steps and heads into the building.

He lies on the couch. He doesn’t have to, but he does, because he’s seen a lot of television and a lot of films and he knows that proper psychology means lying on a couch. They didn’t mention the part where your boots scuff up the arm of the sofa, and you peep at your therapist through the space between them, fiddling with your scarf, but he knows they would if they’d thought of it.

The first minute or so is spent with Russell babbling on about, today, the Starship Enterprise and why no one’s come up with a mobile phone that makes the same kch-chh noise that their communicators did, while his therapist—Philippa—does paperwork and ignores him.

He clears his throat, remembering the time and the cost thereof, and sits up a little bit. “I didn’t have sex with a junkie.”

Philippa barely glances up from her work. “Congratulations,” she says dryly.

“No, but, it’s a big thing, right? Cos I could’ve, easy, but I chose not to.”

She peers at him over her glasses. “Well done, Russell. You didn’t have sex. Do you want a gold star?”

He smiles despite himself. “You’re always saying that I only ever think with one part of my anatomy—although I must say, I don’t think you take into account the relative size of that part. But this time I stopped, I took a moment, and I made a rational decision—that sleeping with someone who was on drugs might not be the greatest move for a recovering drug addict. That deserves something, yeah?”

Philippa puts down her pen, and gets up, moving around the desk to sit in the big armchair near Russell, a sign that therapy time has properly started now. She sighs. “I suppose that is a step in the right direction.”

Russell leaves a pause, combing out the fringe at the end of his scarf with his fingers. “… plus,” he continues, “his boyfriend is very, very fuckable.”

Philippa sighs, unimpressed and unsurprised. “The junkie’s boyfriend.”

“Yeah. I gave him a card for the clinic, see how that’ll go down.”

“You’re planning to sleep with the boyfriend while the junkie’s in rehab?”

Russell shakes his head, shifting up a little as he feels carefully primped hair starting to build up static. “Nah, he won’t go, not yet, he’s not in deep enough.”

“So you gave this man the card because…”

“… because it had my number on it,” Russell tells a half-truth, knowing that he does want to help Noel, sort of, but he also wants Julian, and he’s not entirely clear himself whether the business card was altruistic or not.

Philippa rubs at her forehead a little, nodding. “Any other relationships you tried to break up this week?”

Russell pretends to think. “I yelled at Hollyoaks on television. Max and Clare are at it again, I’d like them to pack it in.”

Philippa takes off her glasses and starts to clean them, not even a flicker of a smile.

“Oh, come on, that was a little bit funny.”

“It really wasn’t.”

Russell hmphs. “Why are you my therapist, anyway? You’re unsympathetic, you’ve got no sense of humour, and your dress sense is three decades out of date.”

Philippa raises one eyebrow a fraction of an inch at the last insult, and then starts ticking off items with her fingers. “One, because you made most of my peers cry, by purposefully telling them possibly fictional stories of your troubled life.”

Russell grins. “I never did finish telling you about my adolescent self-harming and glue-sniffing.” He wishes he was making it up.

“Two,” continues Philippa regardless, part of the reason he loves her a little bit, “I’m a cynical, unemotional lesbian who will not, despite your best efforts, have sex with you.”

“There’s time yet.”

“And three?” Philippa looks him in the eye suddenly, and he shifts under her gaze. “Because I’m forcing you to get better.”

He opens his mouth to argue, and then shuts it again, unable to. He is getting better. Turning down Noel is only one of many examples.

“You’ll sleep with me,” he decides on, eventually, flashing his filthiest grin.

“I really won’t.” Philippa clicks her pen in a decisive manner, entirely unimpressed. “Now. About the junkie.”

What you ought to do, Russell tells himself, sprawled on his sofa and staring at the screen of his mobile phone, what you ought to do, is come up with a good nickname for him. Remember Paris Hilton? People love to get their hands on famous people’s address books, and if you have him down as ‘Julian Barratt’, he’ll have to change his number and he’ll be pissed off. So you need a nickname.

He thinks of a couple instantly, grinning, thumbs hovering over the keys, but then reminds himself that if he has ‘Gorgeous Fucker’ in his phone, and they find out it’s Julian, that’ll be even more perplexing. He resigns himself to simply ‘Yorkshire’ for the moment, although it’s unsatisfying, and he knows he’ll change it to something else soon.

All this is simply filling time, waiting for him to arrive. Stupid to be reliant on someone else to regulate your moods and your happiness, he knows that—it’s as stupid to be reliant on a person as it is to be reliant on a drug, but better one than the other. It’s not like he’s deliberately cleared his schedule for the rest of the day—he couldn’t have known Julian would pick today to call him—it’s just… fate? No. But he doesn’t have a lot on right now. There’s things he could do, and even a couple of things he should do, but right now, the only thing that’s important is whether Julian Barratt is going to knock on his door.

Russell gets up, swinging his long legs off the sofa and standing up in one fluid movement, popping into view of the large mirror on the opposite wall. He fiddles with his appearance one more time—not that he has more than one ‘look’, but still, he needs to do it right. He looks calm, unshaken, not bothered, but inside a little voice is raging.

You think he’ll come? Really? Why? You gave Julian the card, what more information does he need? He’s going to come round here just to hear your little advertising spiel? “Focus12 believes that clients benefit from talking to professional people who have had experience in what they are going through. This is particularly true with clients who suffer from alcohol and substance misuse. Julian, pay attention dear.”

He waves one arm at himself, speaking inside his head and yet somehow still making the gestures that would go along with it. He frowns when he notices that he’s doing it, moving away from the mirror and over to a shelf with his CDs. Oh, music. How crap is it to have music playing when the Barratt arrives? Or is it not crap, is it a good alibi? Hi, Julian, I was just reclining on my chaise longue and listening to the strains of the… of the… his eyes skip over the titles quickly. Hee, Barry White. Probably doesn’t pay to be too obvious.

He settles on Hooverphonic, mellow, good background noise, unlikely to have anything already associated with it in Julian’s head, Belgians that they are. He flicks the setting to repeat, and goes on walking around the room, half-humming, half-talking to himself. He frowns occasionally, or swears, reliving the phone conversation, thinking of things he should or shouldn’t have said.

And even if he does come, Russell, why would it be now? You said two hours, which means he’ll leave it at least three, because God knows you don’t look like the most punctual man on the planet, and he’s not going to be early. You are not friends. But even if you’ve intrigued him, successfully baited the hook, he might have things to do today. And tomorrow. He might not come til next week. Are you going to stay in the flat all that time? Listening to Blue Wonder Power Milk over and over?

Shut up, Russell, he thinks, and then glumly reflects on how there must be half the country thinking that right now. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and changes ‘Yorkshire’ to ‘Aragorn’, checks that he’s got enough signal because sometimes, you know, you put your phone in your pocket and you think it’s okay but it’s actually out of signal, somehow, and people are all trying to ring you and let you know that they’re going to be late and they can’t, okay?

There’s a soft, halting knock at his front door, and Russell jumps, suddenly nervous. He pulls on the scarf around his neck and half strangles himself, and it takes him ten precious seconds to untie the suddenly impenetrable knot and make his way to the door.

He pulls it open wide, grinning.

Julian is standing there, in jeans and some odd cowboy-esque shirt, sunglasses making his expression unreadable, and mentally Russell is already changing Julian’s phone entry to ‘Brokeback’.

“Julian Barratt!” he says, slapping himself in the privacy of his own mind when he sounds far too over-excited. “Do come in.”

Julian’s chewing on something—no Russell, he’s chewing on gum. What else would he be chewing on? Stop that line of thought right now—and he doesn’t say anything for much too long, finally pulling his hands out of his pockets and walking in.

Russell lets out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, and closes the door quietly, listening to the tap of Julian’s shoes as he walks into the living room. It’s a sort of open-plan flat, so the hall is the living room is the dining room. Bedroom, kitchen and bathroom all hidden away, otherwise that would be odd. Hi, come into my place. Yes, that’s my bed over there. Suggestive, what?

Julian stands in the middle of his living room, not looking around, just chewing and standing. “I only came round to give you this back,” he says quietly, pulling the business card out of his back pocket.

Russell walks past him, not taking the card. He wants to sit down but Julian is showing no signs of that, so he leans against the back of the sofa and prays he doesn’t do anything stupid like lean back too far and go flying.

Julian holds out the card to him, and Russell puts his hands up in a ‘no touchy’ gesture. “Julian, I have a boxful of those upstairs. I’m the patron of the damn thing. If you don’t want it, throw it away.” He shrugs, affecting not to care.

Julian leaves his hand out for a moment, and then pushes the card back into his pocket. “Patron? So this is a publicity thing?”

Russell giggles, putting a hand over his mouth a bit to hide his teeth—yet another worry, yet another irrational fear. “Yes, that’s exactly it. I hang around celebrity parties, wait for someone to take something, then I pounce on ‘em and give ‘em a card. And I get ten percent commission on everyone who goes into Focus12 rather than any other clinic, it’s very lucrative.”

Julian shakes his head, and Russell wishes he’d take his sunglasses off. It’s like trying to talk to Darth Vader. He’s a gunslinger, moody and unreadable, poker faced.

“Besides,” and Russell shouldn’t have said it, but you can’t say something like ‘besides’ and then nothing else, not with Julian with his head now on one side and his hands in his pockets, waiting, “besides, you’re going to need it.”

“Am I.”

Trump card. “Noel Fielding isn’t a drug addict?”

Julian chews and stares. “He takes… stuff,” he says haltingly, unconvinced, “but it doesn’t mean…”

Russell grins. They’ve hit his Mastermind special subject. “He lives his life by habit and routine, and if he deviates from it, he’s lost and moody. He wears the same clothes, the same jewellery, the same… scent, even, probably. He likes bands to the point of obsession, hearing one song by someone and then going out and buying all their CDs.”

“I do that,” Julian mutters.

“Maybe,” Russell concedes, holding up a finger, “but where it would just occur to you, oh, you like them, you’ll pick up some of their stuff, yeah? For Noel,” he swallows, but revelation is part of who he is now, “and for me, we’ll think about it non-stop. We’ll play it over and over, trying to recapture that feeling we had when we heard their songs for the first time. We’ll be up at 3am on eBay, looking for rare B-sides and used merchandise.” He shrugs. “We’re addicts.”

Julian laughs a little bit, nothing to do with amusement. “You’ve met Noel… twice? Three times? And you think you know him?”

“I know an addict when I see one, Julian Barratt.”

“Do you.” Julian rubs a hand over his stubble, nodding. “What is it with you and people’s full names, Russell? Why do you have to say everyone’s surname?”

He’s thrown by the question—used to fighting his corner on his theories of drug abuse and addiction, but not sure where this is going. He laughs, uncertainly. “Well, it’s… it’s an affectation, of course.” He twirls one hand as he talks, fingers curled and fey.

“Is there any part of you that isn’t affected?” Julian gestures in his direction. “Look at you. You look like a caricature. Not man, not woman, not anything. You’re a jumble of society’s pretty things, shoved together until they don’t make sense any more.”

All Russell can do is stand and grin, because Julian cuts to the core of a person—or maybe it’s just with him, how would he know? But he hits Russell’s deepest fears about himself, that he’s all style and no substance, that he’s been playing a character so long he doesn’t know who he is, any more. That everyone will be amused by him for five minutes, and then never again.

Julian takes a step forward. “You’re a grotesque, a joke. You’re a Victorian freak show of a man.” His voice drops to a whisper. “People laugh at you.

“I should hope so,” Russell says, his voice shaking just a little bit. “Being a comedian, an’ all.”

“Is that what you are. I did wonder.” Julian plucks his chewing gum out of his mouth, and for one horrible moment Russell has school flashbacks, thinks Julian’s going to throw it at him, or smear it into his hair. But instead he simply pulls out the business card from his pocket, and spits the gum into it, folding it once, twice. He tosses it onto the coffee table to his left, and leaves.

Russell stares at it as he hears the door slam.

Rehabilitation is not a road from A to B, Russell muses, sitting on his little window seat and staring down at the empty London streets. Rehabilitation is all about spits and starts, about going for something and then going back. It’s a repetition.

There was a time, after leaving the clinic, when everything in the world seemed too hard. Everything could make him want just one last hit, to get him through. Shop’s out of semi-skimmed milk? You wouldn’t care if you were on H. Shower out of hot water? You wouldn’t notice the dirt if you were on H. Can’t find your watch? Who cares, when it’s always time to shoot up?

He spins a beer bottle in his free hand, the sound of the liquid swirling around and around comforting, somehow. Alcohol can be an addiction, of course, although it’s one he’s luckily managed to sidestep by virtue of the fact that he can’t stand the taste.

He rests his forehead against the glass, thinking. He’d got over that early, first stage, with help from the clinic and from some good friends, people who didn’t understand what he was going through, but wouldn’t lie to him and say they did. People who pitied him, but were good at hiding it.

But every recovering drug addict has his times of stress. The times when ordinary people have a good cry, or drink until they fall down, or go for a long walk and shout at the clouds. Do whatever it is that normal people do to let it all out, he’s not really sure what’s healthy activity any more.

He knows how easy it would be to head out into the darkness, buy something to take the edge off the jittery hatred of the world that Julian Barratt has left behind. He takes out his phone, flicks through the numbers until he finds the man now down simply as ‘Wanker’.

But you know what, Mr Julian Barratt of Yorkshire? On the scale of important and life-wrecking things that have happened to Russell Brand so far, you barely even register. This is nothing compared to the time he had lunch with his mother, and that man came up to spit in his face and tell him how he was what’s wrong with the world. This is nothing, compared to the suicide of a friend of fifteen years. This is nothing.

Russell has come close to going back on the gear, many times, a lot more than he likes to be known, half for his own sake and half for the charity he represents. Has had to be almost physically restrained, once or twice, and even—one soul-crushing day in Manchester—cooked up and filled a syringe and was ready, and then thanks to a phone call, one simple phone call, turned back.

So this doesn’t even register.

Russell sits, and swirls his beer around and around, and tries to convince himself how much nothing this is.

Russell makes it a point of pride to pick the most irritating and screechy ringtone he can possibly find, if only to live up to the Russell Brand people have come to expect. Today’s offering is one he’s particularly proud of: The Little Birdie Song. A classic. The assembled scriptwriters and production executives stare at him with confusion and boredom as he pulls out his phone, does a cheeky little Cockney dance to it, attempts to get the rest of the room in on it, and fails.

The screen says ‘Absolute Jerkoff’.

Grin still plastered onto his face, he makes the universal sign for ‘just two ticks, sorry’, which some of them may have misinterpreted as the V-sign, and ducks out into the corridor, stuffing one finger into his ear.

“Hello, you’ve reached P. T. Barnum’s Carnival of Weird,” he says in a high-pitched voice. “We’re sorry, none of the freaks and geeks can take your call right now, so if you’d like to insert your telephonic device into your anus, Russell Brand would be most gratified. Ta.” He jabs at the ‘end call’ button viciously, and waits.

He gets to twenty-three Mississippi before his phone rings again, and he counts five Mississippi more just to make sure, before answering it, and saying nothing.

“Hell… o? Russell?” he hears Julian say.

“If it isn’t Julian Pettifer-Barratt.” Because Russell can do research too, oh yes he can.

“Er. Yes. Thanks for, for picking up this time.” He hears the paper sound of something crackling on the other end of the line, probably a cigarette packet. The barely audible click of a lighter confirms this, and he gets a sympathetic nicotine ache.

“What do you want, Julian?”

“I want to apologise. For the things I said.”

Two weeks ago. Which means he’s not really sorry, it’s just that something has happened and now he needs him. Russell thinks about telling him where to go, but doesn’t, and doesn’t know if that’s about attraction or about sympathy or what, but it irritates him.

“So apologise.”

“It was out of order.” A pause. “Look, I thought about it, okay, and I realised that you weren’t being mean, in what you said. You were trying to help, sincerely.”

A small pang of guilt at that, because he was, but him helping didn’t really need Julian Barratt standing in his flat. The images that plagued his dreams had very little to do with help, or only in a very specific sense.

Julian coughs. “Look, can we… someone smart once told me that you shouldn’t discuss personal business over the phone.”

Russell snorts, half at the crude nature of the compliment, half pleased that anyone remembers the crap he comes out with on a daily basis. “There’s a coffee shop in Shoreditch, owned by a woman named Doris. I’ve got some stuff to finish,” here he peeps through the little glass window in the door, only to see that the meeting is going perfectly well without him, “but I can meet you there at about four o’clock, alright?”

“Four, yeah, that’s fantastic. I’ll be there.” There’s a keen edge to his voice which sends a shiver down Russell’s spine, until the thought strikes him that something has happened to Noel. Noel’s done something. Julian’s eager for advice, not for him.

“Yeah, well. Gotta go, right?” He hangs up quickly, thinking: that’s three times I’ve cut him off now. Getting to be a habit.

There’s a small, mean part of him that wants to stand Julian up, serve him right. But it’s overruled by a much more powerful part of his anatomy. Relative size, and all that.

He changes Julian’s name to ‘Friend In Need’, turns the volume of his ringtone up to maximum, and heads back into the office, all smiles.

So not only has he not stood Julian up, he’s half an hour early. Russell stubs out his second cigarette with a twist, little finger sticking out like an old lady drinks tea, and immediately sets about lighting another. He’s ruining his cool, devil-may-care image, he should be twenty minutes late and half-pissed.

As it is, he remembered his sunglasses, so he’s afforded a small amount of inscrutability as he sits right at the back, right in the corner, chain-smoking and sipping herbal tea. Which, by the way, tastes revolting today. Or maybe it’s the effect of the nicotine, who knows.

Didn’t bring a book, because nothing holds his attention long enough these days, and didn’t bring his MP3 player because he came straight from Channel 4, he’s got nothing to amuse himself with other than a copy of the Sun someone left on another table, and he’s already read it three times, and torn out the parts about him, setting fire to them in the ashtray. He’s never even met Charlotte Church, for God’s sake. Couldn’t pick her out of a line-up.

He looks at his watch. Twenty minutes left now, and he’s already making mental calculations, bargaining with himself: if Julian’s really sorry, he’ll be early, so he can be there before Russell arrives, or so he thinks. He might be as early as fifteen minutes, so that means Russell would only have to wait five more. Or, he might not care at all, in which case he could even be late. Traffic outside the window looks awful, and it’s supposed to rain later, all that might slow him down. He could be… half an hour late? So you have between five and fifty minutes to wait, Russell. Sure you don’t want to have a go at the Sun’s Junior Jumble?

Lost in his internal monologue, gesturing and tilting his head at an invisible listener, so it is that he completely misses Julian walking into the coffee shop twenty minutes early, catching sight of him, frowning, checking his watch, and staring at Russell apparently having some kind of seizure. It’s not until Julian sits down opposite him that Russell sits bolt upright and finally sees him.

“You’re early,” is what he can manage when he stops coughing, waving the smoke away.

I’m early?” Julian says with a slight smile, patting down his hair where it’s wet from the rain starting to fall.

“Yeah, well,” Russell attempts to regain his cool-guy image once again, one last time, “I was, you know. Just passing.” He can’t keep it up for long, it’s so good to see Julian. He takes off his sunglasses. “I was lured in by pastries and tea. And the waitress.” He points at Suzanne, who has the largest breasts he’s ever seen.

Julian twists in his seat, following Russell’s finger, and quickly turns back as he sees a smiling Suzanne advance on him, pad in hand.

“Alright, Mr Brand?” she says cheerily. “‘Nother tea, is it?”

Russell smacks his lips a couple of times. “Water, I think. And you, dear? What captures your little fancy, then?”

Julian shoots him a slight look, but orders a black coffee, which if Russell was a betting man—another addiction he has as yet managed to avoid—he would have put money on as Julian’s drink of choice. Suzanne totters off, unbalanced by the combination of knockers and heels, and Russell, as ever, watches her go with a sympathetic jerk of the shoulders.

Julian pulls out a packet of cigarettes, and Russell appreciates him not trying to bum any off him, but nudges his lighter over because that’s okay. Secretly, he harbours a sudden fantasy of lighting Julian’s cigarette for him, but figures like the Barry White, there’s such a thing as being too obvious.

“Weird,” Julian says after the first glorious drag. “I thought they’d banned smoking in places with food?”

Russell shrugs. “This is an old East End caff, Julian. They wouldn’t stand for it.

“East End? In Shoreditch?”

“East End spirit.

Julian smirks. “Is that what it is.” He has a way of asking a question that makes it less a question than a statement, a sarcastic little jab at the cafe that Russell half-loves, always visits and complains about fondly—but he feels… oh, it’s silly, they barely know each other, but he feels like Julian only takes the piss out of things that he likes. Or maybe that’s what he’s trying to convince himself of, after having the piss thoroughly extracted from his person two weeks ago.

Suzanne places their orders down carefully in front of them, and Russell gives her a wink as she goes, aware of Julian watching him. “So, Julian Barratt,” he says deliberately, still watching Suzanne walking away, “you were going to apologise.”

Julian sighs, stirring his coffee entirely unnecessarily, as it has no sugar or milk. “I was out last night.”

Russell leans forward, under the pretence of pushing the ashtray more fully into the middle of the table, where Julian can reach it. “Anywhere fun?”

“Not really. A gig, friends of a friend.” Russell can almost watch Julian’s thought process as his expressions change. There’s a momentary wince as he remembers that he owes this band, whoever it is, some loyalty, and he amends: “You know, the music was good.” And then a frown as he relives the experience. “Bit loud, maybe.”

Russell nods, sipping at his water. “And Noel was away with the sugarplum fairies again?”

Julian licks his top lip, thinking, and Russell tries not to stare. “Yes. He… there was some stuff said. In the heat of the moment. I went home early.”

“Heat of the moment, eh?” Russell says, staring down at the top of the table, but lets it go.

“You tried to help. It’s help I think I need, too. So it wasn’t right, me yelling at you.” Julian harrumphs slightly, clearly unused to apologising. “I didn’t mean it.”

Russell meets his eyes. “Yes, you did.” He shrugs. “And some of it’s true, too. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t matter so much.” He bites the very tip of his tongue in frustration—he didn’t mean matter, didn’t mean to tell Julian it mattered. “But you’re forgiven, Julian Ba—” He stops, composes himself. “Julian.” He smiles. “And my help is yours.”

Julian grins, his eyes crinkling up in gratitude and his whole face transforming. “That’s… thanks.”

Russell hopes he’s thinking: Noel wouldn’t do that. Out loud he says, casually, “And you’re fucking, right?”

Julian swallows, opens and closes his mouth a couple of times like a slightly unkempt goldfish. “I… is that… why do you ask?”

“Because there’ll be a difference in this whole thing, depending on if you’re his friend or his…” Russell waves a hand. “Shit. There’s no good term for that. I fucking hate ‘boyfriend’, and ‘lover’ makes it sound all Mills-and-Boon bodice-ripping, and ‘partner’ is too, I dunno, like you’re opening a bank account together…”

Julian cuts in with, “We’re fucking, yes.”

And it’s a shame to hear it so calm and clear like that, but Russell did know, and the fact that Julian isn’t playing a game of ‘but you don’t understand, we love each other really’ means something too.

“It’s…” Julian shrugs. “It’s not a thing. It’s now and then, whenever. We’re both with other people, usually.” He takes a drag on his cigarette. “We’re not writing our wedding vows.”

Russell smiles, uncertain. “You’d write some lovely ones, though, I’m sure.”

“… thanks?” Julian has a slightly bemused expression, and Russell can’t help wondering, ugh. People say he and Noel are so similar, to the point that he’s received several letters from Mighty Boosh fans asking him to lay off Noel Fielding’s schtick because Noel came up with it first, whatever that means. And so now, all he can wonder is, does Noel babble on like this? Does he say the first stupid thing that comes into his head? Does he fill silence needlessly? He wants to know if Julian likes him—if he does like him—because he’s different from Noel? Or because he’s the same?

“Er… what about you?” Julian says to the silence and the distant look in Russell’s eyes. “Is there any… one? That you have?”

Russell snaps back to the present. “You don’t read the tabloids, then?”

Julian makes a face.

“Well.” Russell leans in a little bit, a look left and then right, lowers his voice to a murmur. “Don’t tell anyone, but it’s actually been a while.” He taps his nose. “But I don’t want that getting out. It’ll ruin my man-about-town reputation.”

Julian rolls his eyes a little bit. “But you’re looking?”

Russell grins, slow and easy. “I might be, yeah. Not, outright looking as such, but more, hanging about and open to ideas.” He bites his bottom lip. “Open to offers.”

Julian laughs, a little half-cough of a laugh, and Russell feels a burst of—oh dear God but he is in deep—a burst of pride and happy warmth that he made Julian laugh. And he opens his mouth to say something else, to add to it, but there’s a whirring buzzing sound that reminds him of the time his aunt left the batteries in her vibrator going through airport security.

Julian blinks, and then holds up his jacket, cigarette dangling from his lips, going through his pockets slowly and methodically. He pulls out an old, battered, and quite frankly out-of-date mobile phone, and frowns at the screen.

“Who is—”

Julian puts a finger to his lips, and answers his phone. “Hi. Yeah, I’m alright. You?” The laugh, the smile is gone, and his face is set more into the lines that Russell can see around his eyes and mouth, the hard, worried lines. He stares off somewhere to Russell’s left. “Yeah, well it wasn’t… I know that. I know. It wasn’t on, though.”

He looks up at Russell suddenly, who is obediently and unusually being completely quiet, and Russell quirks an eyebrow. Julian looks away equally fast. “No, I’m in a coffee shop. Yeah, with…” His eyes skitter from left to right. “With a book.”

It’s right then that Russell wants to make a loud comment, something along the lines of ‘no, Julian, you left your underwear on the stairs, remember?’ But he doesn’t. Julian lying about him, to Noel, obviously, this is… it’s confusing. It means that he doesn’t want Noel to know that they’re together, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Him keeping Russell a secret might mean that there’s something to keep secret, and Russell grins, thinking that he can get behind that idea. As a man who has an entirely fictional personal life splashed over the tabloids, he can support secrecy whole-hearted.

“Noel, I don’t really—no. But… look, alright, okay. Fine! Yeah, I will. I will. See you then.” Julian hangs up his phone with a button rather than a flip, and Russell almost launches into his Star Trek rant again, but stops when Julian makes an exasperated face at his phone—at Noel—and slips it back into his pocket.

“You should go,” Russell says before Julian has to start making excuses, saving him that. A good mistress.

Julian makes an apologetic face, packing up his cigarettes and everything, and shrugging his jacket on. “Sorry, I’d love to stay, really, but… last night and everything, you know.”

Russell shrugs, digging out some pound coins and leaving them in an untidy heap. Julian adds some of his own, a little cairn of far too much money, but neither of them take any back.

It’s not until they’ve left the shop and Julian is looking up and down the road for a cab that Russell finally works up the nerve to say, “Do you want to do this again some time?”

Julian stops, looks at him. “Really? You’d like to?”

Russell plucks some invisible fluff from his black waistcoat. “Well. I’m a Victorian freak show, Julian. I must be seen about town, or my reason for living goes unfulfilled.”

Julian is uncertain, unsteady, until Russell smiles, wry, and he lets out a breath. “Right, yeah. Your public, that sort of thing.”

“That’s the one.”

Julian thinks, and Russell can almost feel the instinctive, habitual no. The ‘no’ given to fans and hangers-on, ‘I’d love to do that but I can’t,’ the insincere smile and the handshake.

“I had fun today. I’d love to. Shall we say, same time next week? Same place?”

Russell blinks a couple of times, breathless. “Shall we indeed. I’ll reserve us a table.”

“Great. I’ll see you then.” Julian sticks out a hand, and Russell shakes it. It’s warm, and firm, and not at all callused or rough, how he’d imagined. Not that he holds some kind of irrational mental image of Julian as a manual labourer, working out in the fields all day, the sweat rolling down his back, leaving trails in the dust… he comes back to reality with an almost audible thump, Julian staring at him almost fondly.

He looks into Julian’s eyes, and sees those other lines. The smiling lines. Underused. He hopes he can change that.

It must be how all traditions start. You turn up somewhere, with some people, and you have a good time, and someone goes, “and when can we do this again?” And everyone else says, “well, why not this time next time?” You’re free, they’re free, it only makes sense, rather than trying to fit in everyone’s busy schedules. And the next time you show up, the decision to meet at the same time again is reached faster, until months go by and you don’t even worry about it any more, you just start arranging your life around it. Can’t do anything Thursday afternoon, that’s my Julian time.

They don’t invite anyone else to it, not ever. Russell has his sister staying for a week and doesn’t bring her along, even though she’s a massive fan of the Boosh. Just tells her he has a meeting to go to, and slopes off for the evening, returning with a massive grin on his face and a quiet fizzing in his stomach.

They have almost nothing in common. Any talk of music is like trying to cross a generational gap that doesn’t exist. Neither can explain why they like the things they do, or why they don’t like the things they other does, and a CD exchange leads to Russell calling Julian up an hour later to play Ladytron at him at full volume “as an example of what music should be like.” And then Julian plays Nina Simone back at him, which Russell can’t really deny that he likes and he’s forced to call Julian “granddad” and ask him if he owns anything made in the last year or so, and Julian hunts out an old White Rose Movement CD of Noel’s, and Russell can’t stop laughing.

They can’t talk about anything without arguing. Music, film, books—Julian reads voraciously, when he has the time, Russell can’t be bothered—religion, politics… they often believe the same things but in different ways, and can spend hours bickering on one tiny point of a side issue on something they weren’t even supposed to be arguing about in the first place. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Their arguments aren’t serious, they usually end up with them laughing so hard they can’t breathe, or appealing to Suzanne for a ruling. (Suzanne mostly sides with Russell, but Julian’s started tipping her direct, so she doesn’t have to hand over to the tips jar, and the balance is swinging his way.)

Russell finds he looks forward to their meetings, their little corner booth, the coffee and herbal tea and cigarettes. So much so that when he turns up one afternoon to find an overweight businessman in his chair, he stands in the middle of the cafe, taking odd steps here and there nervously, not knowing what to do. And Suzanne starts waving people away from that corner, on Thursday afternoon. Stops asking what they want to drink.

Russell doesn’t remember when they stopped talking about Noel.

And he changes Julian’s name in his phone to ‘Thursday Next’.