Length: 5-10k words
Notes: Despite the title, this really has very little to do with Brokeback Mountain—there are no spoilers. The only thing the two have in common is the idea that a fishing trip may not be all about fishing…
Brokeback Milky by Maestro
Vince mooched about on the beach, kicking at the sand. He tried to ignore the organ music being played behind him.
Precious bloody Lilywhite. Correction—Precious bloody Moon.
It figured that the first time he managed to get Howard alone, away from any distractions like goth girls or mermen, that Howard would still, even then, find someone else to be with apart from Vince. That man was so incredibly blind that he’d rather waste away the rest of his life with that milk-headed whore than give his best friend a second look in the sexuality department.
Vince heard laughing and shouting behind him, but clamped his hands over his ears. If Howard wanted to find him, he would have to come and look. Not screech his name out from the other side of the island and just expect him to come running. Bastard.
In the silence of his own mind, Vince kept replaying that afternoon Howard had told him about the engagement…
“I don’t get it.”
Howard’s face fell by a millimetre, hardly diminishing the manic expression he was wearing. “What’s not to get? I’ve asked Precious to marry me.” He held up his hand, showing Vince the engagement ring woven from coconut matting.
“But why?” Vince folded his arms, glaring over Howard’s shoulder where he could see Precious already giving Ruby the good news.
“I love her, Vince. Isn’t that reason enough?”
Vince beckoned him a little closer, putting an arm around his shoulders, and spoke in a low voice. “Is she…” He made a slightly obscene gesture.
Howard just looked at him.
“You know—in the family way?” Vince said quietly, watching him. “Because you might be overreacting. I mean, I know a guy up the beach—I can vouch for him—he could, maybe… help Precious out?”
Howard recoiled, pushing Vince’s hand away. “No! God, no!”
“Look, it’s a simple procedure, yeah? She wouldn’t be in any danger… he’d just go in, and—” Vince made a quick whooshing sound to spare Howard the details, raising his eyebrows.
Howard shook his head vigorously. “Nonono… how could you think… I mean, how would that even be… no!”
“Well, what then?” Vince gave him a sly look. “Does she know something? Is she blackmailing you?”
Howard gaped. “We’re in love, Vince. I’d think you, of all people, would understand.”
Vince swallowed a little, his mouth suddenly dry. “Why would I understand?”
“Well, you know… you’ve got Ruby.”
“… and Lisa, and Angeline, and Cherry, and if the rumours going around are true, Simon.”
“Yeah, I’m an experienced guy. It’s no secret,” Vince said moodily. “But why does that mean I’d understand you throwing your life away by marrying her?”
Howard gave him a warning look, but let the remark pass. “Well… you know what it’s like to be in love, Vince.”
Boy, do I, thought Vince.
“I mean, I know I’ve only known Precious a few days, but I already feel like we’ve got a real connection, you know? We just click.”
Vince ducked his head, kicking at the dirt with his shoe. “You love her?” He couldn’t bear to look at Howard’s cheerful face.
Howard took a deep breath, and looked off into the distance, his face full of hope and pride and thoughts of the future. “Yes.”
Vince shook his head. “And you think she loves you, do you?”
Howard narrowed his eyes. “Vince…”
“What about the rumours, eh? What about all her ex-boyfriends?”
Howard held up a finger. “I won’t tell you again.”
Vince carried on wilfully, knowing that it was a mistake but desperate to do anything to make Howard see sense. “She’s violent, Howard. I’ve seen photographic evidence. Sure, she’s fine when everything goes her way, but you wait. The first time you guys argue about throw cushions or whatever, she’ll come at you with a standard lamp. You won’t know what’s happening.”
“That’s enough!” Howard shouted.
“She’s a, a, a cheap coconut tart, is what she is! And you’re going to regret this for the rest of your life!”
As he said it he knew it was an incredibly stupid thing to do. As much as it was true, as much as everyone knew it was true, and as much as he desperately wanted Howard and had wanted him for about as long as he could remember, you did not ever ever insult the girlfriend. Because the boyfriend wouldn’t believe you anyway, and all you’d do is make yourself the enemy.
Howard pulled his lips into a thin line, a sure sign that he was furious. “I was going to ask you to be best man, Vince. But if that’s what you think, you won’t be at the wedding, will you?”
Howard didn’t listen, just turned on his heel and stalked back to Precious and Ruby. Vince watched him go with a horrible feeling of finality.
“I give it a week!” he called after him.
And they really hadn’t seen very much of each other since that day. Vince had kept thinking that Howard might come to his senses, had sent some of Precious’ ex-boyfriends round to have a word and let him know what he was in for, but in classic Howard Moon style, once he had made a decision, he stuck to it no matter how stupid and misguided a decision it was.
Vince felt a hand on his shoulder, and he turned slowly, taking his hands away from his ears.
Howard and Precious stood there, each with their arm around the other’s waist. Howard had customised his red shirt with leaves (last season’s, Vince thought bitchily) to make it look more like a tuxedo, and had put one of the island’s native red flowers in his buttonhole. Vince really, really hoped it would turn out to be poisonous.
“The ceremony’s over, Vince,” Howard said with a hard note in his voice that said, ‘see? Told you I’d go through with it.’
Vince crossed his arms. “So?” He avoided looking at the matching coconut rings on Howard and Precious’ fingers.
“So… we thought that you might like to come to the wedding breakfast.”
Vince glanced at Precious, who he was sure was smiling quietly to herself. She knew how he felt about him. Everyone but Howard was oblivious, that was always the way. And he was damned if he was going to turn up to their party so she could rub her victory in his face.
“It’s just a small thing, close family and friends only… Ruby’s going to be there.”
Ruby. Precious’ maid of honour. They’d had a lot of fights about that over the past couple of days, proper shouting matches that the whole island probably knew about. Not that he and Ruby were really “together” except in the vaguest sense. He stared irritably at the sand, thinking how little Howard knew about him that he thought Ruby being at the party would make him want to go.
Howard looked from Vince to Precious slowly. “Sorry darling, do you think…” He escorted Precious a little way up the beach, talking quietly to her, and left her there with a kiss, coming back to Vince alone.
“Please come, Vince. It won’t be the same without you.”
Vince watched Precious, standing alone in her handmade wedding dress, grinning at him. Thinking she’d won. He turned his attention back to Howard. “No.”
Howard rubbed the back of his neck, a little sunburned. “I… I really wanted you to be my best man, you know.”
Vince tried to steel himself, but found himself weakening to Howard’s charms once again. “Who did you get instead?”
“Milky Joe.” They shared a grimace. “I know. It was awful, he kept quoting philosophy all the way through the wedding. And then he wouldn’t give me the rings unless I could name all the members of the Algonquin Round Table. It was a nightmare. I had to wrestle them off him.”
Vince unsuccessfully attempted to suppress a smile at the thought of Howard smacking Milky Joe down.
“Come on, Vince.” Howard tugged at his wrist lightly. “We’ll have a drink, we’ll have a dance… it’ll be just like old times.”
Vince looked down at Howard’s hand closed around his arm, the pressure warm and gentle, and let his eyes follow the arm up until they met Howard’s. Maybe there was still hope. There was always adultery, after all.
He sighed. “One drink, yeah?”
Howard looked delighted. “Absolutely! One drink, great.” They walked up the beach together, back to where Precious stood. “And maybe you could stop Milky Joe doing his best man’s speech. It has a slide show.”
Vince got plenty of action at the party, he always did. But where other people, normal, educated people with more than two brain cells to rub together, would have asked, ‘Why does Vince Noir go from partner to partner indiscriminately? Why does he appear unsatisfied when he has his pick of the women, and most of the men? What is his life lacking?’ Howard just accepted Vince’s promiscuity with a superior remark to his wife about the follies of youth.
Ruby, luckily, was an open-minded woman who had pretty much given up on Vince. They shared a coconut shack together, but that was more for convenience than anything else. It was common knowledge on the island (to everyone but Howard, naturally) that their relationship was nothing more than a sham. They were both free to date as much as they wanted, and had a nice little system going on who got to use the house when they needed it for their respective conquests.
Considering it, Vince admitted to himself that Ruby probably knew about his feelings for Howard, partly through several late-night drunk and depressed conversations, partly because he had called his name out a few times during sex. But that was okay, because he knew from the distant look in Ruby’s eyes under him that she was thinking of someone else—and from certain drunken things she’d revealed, he suspected that someone was probably Precious, which just made the whole thing very poetic and appropriate.
Vince spent his days drinking and socialising, picking out the latest coconut on the scene to get it on with. And he tried really hard not to think about Howard, storing up all the hurt and loneliness and anger until those times when he could afford to get properly drunk, not just that steady level of tipsiness he stayed at during the day. He’d get into a fight, and work out his frustrations that way, ending up back at the coconut shack bruised, bleeding, and empty.
Overall, though, everything was working out—or if not working out, then at that level of organised chaos where everything was falling apart so slowly that it looked like it wasn’t. So the affair was a bit of a surprise. And Howard starting the whole thing was even more of a surprise.
It started with a knock at the door of the coconut shack when Vince was busy with David, an up and coming photographer who had recently moved to the area, and hadn’t yet heard of Vince’s reputation.
Cursing, Vince buttoned his bamboo drainpipes and told David to hold that thought. He opened the door angrily. “What?”
Howard smiled nervously, doing that little dance thing he did when he wanted to ask something but wasn’t sure how it would go down. “Vince! Hi. How are you?”
Vince moved in the doorway slightly, trying to block Howard’s view of David, horizontal and breathless on the bed. Not that it really made any difference. “A bit busy, actually. What do you want?”
“Oh.” Howard’s face fell. “Nothing. Just… no. Nothing. Not if you’re busy.”
Vince fixed him with a look. “Howard.”
“Well, just… I’m just going a bit stir crazy cooped up in the house all day, and I’m getting under Precious’ feet, and I thought maybe you and I could… you know, since we haven’t seen a lot of each other lately… do something? Together?” Howard trailed off, wincing a little and looking at the ground.
Vince cocked his head. A steamy session with a nubile young coconut, or spending the day with Howard, probably talking about jazz and Sartre? What an incredibly hard decision.
He looked at Howard, standing there in his out-of-date castaway clothing with a pathetically hopeful expression. “Give me two minutes, yeah?”
Howard grinned, a beautiful movement that transformed his face and made Vince’s stomach do something that reminded him of being drunk. Which, since it was after breakfast, he already was. But this was something extra.
After bidding a confused and sexily rumpled David goodbye, with a promise that he would definitely call him later, Vince rearranged his clothing into some semblance of respectability, and met Howard outside his house. He could hear Precious bustling away inside, and tried to suppress the sudden feeling of jealousy.
“So, what did you have in mind?” he asked Howard.
“Oh.” Howard thought for a moment. “I hadn’t really thought about it. I mean, Milky Joe’s doing another lecture, if you wanted to…” He caught sight of Vince’s face. “No.”
Vince sighed, and started to walk off into what little jungle there was. Howard followed him, and they silently fell into their familiar rhythm, side by side.
“We haven’t done this in a while, have we?” Vince said, sneaking a look at Howard out of the corner of his eye to see if he looked regretful.
“Well, I’m a busy man, Vince. Married life and all that. Responsibilities.”
“Yeah.” Vince kicked at a stone in his path viciously, which rebounded off a log and hit Howard in the knee. He yelped in pain, looking around for the source. Vince hid a grin.
After a few minutes they came to what would probably be called, for the sake of argument, a stream, although in actuality it was little more than a foot wide. The muddy water moved slowly downhill, devoid of any life.
Howard saw that Vince was looking at his watch, and panicked. “We could try fishing,” he said quickly.
Vince looked from Howard, to the miserable stream, and back again.
“Yeah, I mean… we probably wouldn’t catch anything, but that’s not the point of fishing, is it?” Howard said desperately.
Vince just raised an eyebrow.
“And, and,” said Howard, struggling, “and isn’t that what married men do? Go fishing with their mates?”
“We don’t have any equipment, Howard,” Vince said with a slight smile, as if that was the only obstacle.
Howard looked around for anything approximating a fishing rod, and found two long, thin fallen branches in the trees along the side of the path. He tested them for flexibility, and handed one to Vince. “There you are. Easy!” he said triumphantly.
Howard crossed the stream in one step, and moved a little way uphill until he found a big flat rock with room for two people to sit on. Still standing where Howard had left him, Vince looked at his branch-cum-fishing rod, pondering the fact that it had no line, no reel, no handle, no hook, and no bait, and was, in fact, about as unlike a fishing rod as it was possible for anything to be, except maybe a fish.
However, he didn’t say anything, simply gripped the rod in one hand and made his way over to Howard, sitting down next to him and putting the rod out over the water. He turned and looked at Howard for a few moments, with a puzzled expression on his face. Howard had pretty much ignored him for the past week or so, and now a desperate need to go fishing in a place where you couldn’t actually fish? It was all a little strange.
Nevertheless, it became a sort of regular thing. Every week Vince would offer to hold a spot open in his busy schedule in case Howard wanted to go fishing again, and every week Howard would say that he would probably be busy, Precious had some things around the house that needed doing, and yet each week they would find themselves at their spot by the stream, holding out the same two branches and chatting softly about anything and everything until the sun set and they had to grip each other’s arms in the dark because they couldn’t find their way back.
And it would be difficult to say when exactly it became more than just fishing. Howard always maintained that he had made the first move, but Vince found this incredibly unlikely. He remembered it more like:
A blazing hot day, worse than anyone could remember, and they’d almost decided to give the fishing a miss today. Their rods were left resting on the rock over the water while they sat in the shade of a coconut tree nearby, their backs jostling for position against a trunk that was far too thin to support two. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was that Vince was drinking more these days or that Precious was becoming more distant, but when Vince playfully pushed Howard aside, claiming the majority of the shade for his own, rather than just giving him a superior look and sitting under another tree, Howard pushed back.
Of course, Vince couldn’t let him get away with that. He gave Howard another push, a harder one that sent the taller man sprawling into the sun. For a moment Vince thought he’d gone too far, but then Howard got up with a wicked grin on his face, and took a run towards Vince, grabbing him round the waist and throwing him to the jungle floor.
They hit the dirt with an ‘oomph!’, Howard grabbing his arms and pinning him to the floor in a way that wasn’t entirely unwelcome. Vince wasn’t about to give up without a fight though, and twisted suddenly, throwing Howard off and rolling so that he was on top. As he reached down to pin his friend, Howard sat up quickly, pushing Vince off onto his back, and sat on top of him heavily, straddling his waist with his knees. He leaned forward and trapped Vince’s wrists either side of his head, pressing his body against him to stop him squirming.
They stayed there for a moment, panting. Luckily they had landed back in the shade, and Vince could look up at Howard’s face a few inches away, his hair falling down in a curtain that felt like it shielded them both from the rest of the world.
A few strands flew into Vince’s mouth and he blew softly. “You need a haircut, Howard.”
“Do I, now.” Howard’s voice was breathless and strange. There was a wild look in his eyes. “And where am I going to get one?”
“I’ll do it for you,” Vince said, still panting. He saw Howard’s eyes widen as they both rose and fell with the rhythm of his breathing, and he breathed a little deeper.
Howard bent closer, his hair drifting softly against Vince’s cheeks. “I think maybe you’re too busy with all your little coconut conquests, Vince.”
“You know about them?”
“Difficult to miss.” Howard was really very close now, his eyes hid in shadow.
Vince tried not to look at Howard’s lips. “That a problem, is it?”
Vince bit back a retort about how it was rich of Howard to complain about his womanising when he was married to Precious, realising that mentioning Howard’s wife at this point would be fairly stupid. Instead, he contented himself with asking, “Jealous?”
“Yeah,” Howard whispered huskily.
Vince lifted his head and closed the gap between their mouths. He pressed a hard, desperate kiss to Howard’s lips and then lay back down, determined not to do anything Howard didn’t want. Not to press the issue, or use his charm. Wanting everything to be considered, and careful.
Howard stared at him.
Vince swallowed. He opened his mouth to blame the heat, or a blow to the head, but as he did so Howard moved in and kissed him back violently, his tongue using the gravity on his side to dive deep into Vince’s mouth, swiping and tasting.
Howard broke for air, letting one of Vince’s wrists go to grab at his cheek, and Vince used this freed hand to pull Howard closer into a softer, sweeter kiss; a long, long, hot and sultry kiss that went on for a lot longer than was strictly necessary, or medically safe.
It was highly likely that Vince had embellished his memory along the way, and made it more pornographic. In actuality there had probably been more awkward silences and conversations about sexual orientation and making comparisons with David Bowie, and finally discussions about what, exactly, it was that two men did together, which Vince explained by drawing in the dirt with his fishing rod and humming song lyrics and finally just by pinning Howard against a palm tree and showing him, clumsily.
Either way, the fishing expeditions became less about fishing. Not that there had ever been much fishing going on, anyway.
Howard didn’t tell Precious, and Vince didn’t tell Ruby. The fishing expeditions started getting longer, starting earlier, and soon they were going out to fish three, maybe four times a week. Sometimes they would stay overnight, on the grass underneath the trees, and Vince would lie in Howard’s arms and talk nonsense while he just laughed.
They lay on a sort of incline, a grassy hill that was just perfectly comfortable, and provided ample room for sweaty rolling around together. They were both out of breath and dishevelled, Vince resting his head on Howard’s bare stomach, Howard combing his hair lightly with his fingers and watching the dark head rise and fall in time with his breathing.
There was a glorious sunset lighting up the sky like a rainbow, the sort of view that made one instinctively reach for a paintbox and canvas. It turned their skin a delicate shade of pink, and made each look as if they were constantly blushing. Naturally, that was impossible—nothing could shock Vince.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this all the time?” said Vince sleepily, and Howard just smiled.
“What, you mean set up camp here? Live off the fish?”
Vince turned his head a little so Howard could see his face. “No, I mean… you and me. Together. As a regular thing.”
“This is regular. We do this every week.”
“You know what I mean, Howard,” Vince said a little testily, wondering why he was avoiding the obvious question.
Howard stopped touching his hair, and put his arm behind his head. “I think we’ve got something good here, Vince. We shouldn’t do anything to spoil it.”
Vince watched him carefully. “Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to sneak around?”
“And what would Precious and Ruby say, hmm?”
Vince sat up slowly, propping himself up on one elbow. Howard avoided his eyes. “Ruby wouldn’t care. You know about me and Ruby, I told you, remember? We’re not really a couple any more.”
“Well, it’s different for me.”
“I don’t see how!”
Howard shrugged, refusing to be drawn into an argument.
Vince sighed, plucking at the grass fiercely. “Look, just think about it, yeah? You tell Precious,” Howard closed his eyes in frustration, “I dunno, get a divorce or something, right? Ruby’s been on about looking for her own place anyway, something up at the new development on the west beach… you and I could have the coconut shack. Together.”
Howard kept his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling.
Vince changed tack suddenly, getting up and straddling Howard, forcing him to acknowledge him. Howard opened one eye. Vince leaned down slowly, very carefully pressing himself against Howard’s chest, and placing his hands either side of his head, holding himself above Howard’s face. The setting sun streamed through his hair and made him look like some sort of beautiful bisexual saint.
“Just think, Howard,” he breathed. “We could do this all day… every day… whenever we wanted. No more excuses or secrets. Just you, me, and a coconut shack.” He kissed Howard slowly and passionately, forcing the point home with his tongue. Howard reached up and put his hands around his waist.
They broke apart, and Howard looked at Vince wistfully. “It’s a nice dream, Vince. But I can’t.”
Vince sat up. “Why not?”
“Precious is… she’s a determined woman. She wouldn’t just let me leave. And anyway, I made a commitment to her, remember? ‘Til death us do part.’ That’s not the kind of thing I take lightly.”
“Oh yeah? And what do your marriage vows say about this then, eh?” Vince said, gesturing at their compromising position.
“This is different,” Howard said doubtfully.
Vince stood up, his legs still either side of Howard, looking down at him. “Right, yeah. Hot gay loving is fine, but divorce is completely out of the question. Of course.” He stepped off of Howard and picked up his leaf bandanna, starting to put it back on.
“Vince…” Howard sat up as Vince started to leave. “Don’t be like that. I thought we were going to make a night of it?”
“I’ve gotta go wash my hair!” Vince called over his shoulder as he stormed off through the jungle.
Arguments about Precious were fairly common, but on the whole Vince contented himself with what he had managed to get, after several long years of trying. There were times when he would be looking out of the window and see the two of them together, taking a walk along the beach or customising their little wooden house, and he’d get furious, but most of the time he kept his usual calm. Howard wasn’t in love with Precious, he was ninety-nine percent sure of that. Howard loved him. Which meant that no matter what everyone else thought, Vince was the winner of that particular battle. Howard leaving Precious wasn’t an ‘if’, it was a ‘when’.
Ultimately, the relationship with Howard was good for Vince. He stopped drinking, and stopped sleeping around. His change of habits meant that he found himself with a lot of extra time on his hands, most of which was spent down at the stream, but he still needed something to do. He decided to go into business with an old flame, and started up a nightclub on the beach, which was immensely successful, naturally. He bought himself a car, and did up the house, buying some new clothes and jewellery for Ruby. The air smelled sweeter. The sun looked brighter.
But just as Vince was unhappy on the day of Howard’s wedding, as Vince became more successful and popular, Howard started to spend more time indoors. The fishing expeditions became less frequent—Howard couldn’t find the time to get away, he said. Precious had some DIY that needed doing around the house.
They lay on the bank together. Howard had been strange all afternoon, jumpy and oversensitive. It was ‘don’t ever touch me’ all over again, so Vince was taking everything a bit slow today. He contented himself with just fooling around for now, nibbling at Howard’s neck and reaching a hand inside his shirt.
Howard sat up suddenly. “We can’t do this any more.”
Vince sat up behind him. “Really? ‘Cause I think I’m good for another half hour, at least.” He put a hand around Howard’s neck from behind and started kissing it again. “You could just, you know, lie back, if you’re tired…”
Howard pulled away, and Vince stopped, moving around to sit next to him. Howard looked down at his hands. “No. I mean… this. Us. We can’t do it any more. This is the last time.”
“Because I say so,” Howard said angrily. “Do I need a reason?”
Vince looked at him in disbelief. “You don’t want to do this any more?”
Howard nodded once, quickly.
Vince reached over and put a hand on his neck again. Howard pulled away, but unwillingly, and Vince kept his hand where it was. “You’re not into it any more?”
“No.” Howard spoke into his chest, quietly.
Vince shuffled over and looked Howard in the face, turning his head to face him. “I mean, this doesn’t turn you on at all.”
Howard didn’t say anything, but he couldn’t look Vince in the eye.
Very carefully, Vince bent forward and kissed Howard just in the spot where his collar opened, the little hollow at the base of his throat that never failed to get Howard going. He sucked hard, and Howard did nothing to stop him, instinctively tilting his head back and making a glorious moaning sound. He fell backwards a little, one hand supporting him on the bank behind, the other fisted in Vince’s shirt.
Vince stopped and sat up. “So, I think we know that isn’t the reason,” he said smugly.
Howard rubbed his neck a little, licking his lips. He sat up, looking about as sad as it was possible for a man who’d just had his neck kissed to look.
“So Precious found out, right? She knows we’re not up here fishing.”
Howard looked at him in surprise.
“Oh come on… she was bound to find out sooner or later, right? It’s not hard.” Vince rubbed his chin, musing. “What I don’t understand is why this means we have to end everything.”
“Well, she’s hardly going to let things carry on as they are, is she?” Howard said bitterly.
Vince shook his head at Howard’s blind stupidity. “Yeah? So? Who cares what she thinks?”
Howard sat in silence.
“For fuck’s sake, Howard, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for! Leave her, and move in with me!” Vince said, throwing his hands in the air. Why was this so difficult to understand?
“I can’t,” Howard said very quietly.
There was a moment of silence.
“She’s not pregnant, is she?” asked Vince, once again trying to remember the name of that unlicensed doctor he’d met on a drunken moonlight night on the beach.
“Then what?” Vince got up, and sat himself in front of Howard, examining his face. “You don’t love her! Do you?”
Howard finally met his eyes, grabbing Vince by his shoulders and looking at him intently. “No, Vince. I love you.”
Under any other circumstances, it would have been a very touching moment. The two of them had been dancing around that question ever since they got together, and for Howard to come right out and say it was a major step in their relationship. A relationship that was ending, it seemed.
Vince felt he couldn’t let it go by without returning the favour. “And I love you, Howard. I’ve waited a long time for this to happen, and I’m not just going to let all this just slip away.” He put a hand around one of Howard’s wrists, and Howard let go of his shoulder and held his hand gently.
“It’s over, Vince. I’m sorry.”
Howard got to his feet, still holding onto Vince’s hand, and Vince was pulled up. He made a frustrated noise, a sort of growl that got louder until it became a yell. “Why?! I don’t understand!” He gestured wildly with his free hand. “I love you. You love me. You don’t feel anything for her. Why the hell are you doing what she wants?”
“It’s not that simple!” Howard said, letting go of Vince to put his hands on top of his head, pulling at his hair slightly. As he reached up, his shirt rode up a little around his waist. Vince got the briefest glimpse of a red mark just above Howard’s hipbone.
“Oh no…” he said, reaching for Howard’s shirt, but Howard, realising what he had accidentally revealed, was too quick and stepped backwards.
“It’s nothing, Vince. I’m handling it.” He pulled his shirt down briskly.
“Howard, tell me she didn’t. Please tell me it’s not true.” Vince pressed one hand to his mouth.
“I know what you’re thinking, I do, but it’s not that!” Howard wasn’t convincing anyone, and his voice had a slight shake to it. He avoided Vince’s eyes. “I was just doing some DIY, putting up a shelf, and… I slipped. I dropped it, and it hit me. That’s all.”
“At waist height?”
Howard was silent, staring at the ground, both hands still holding his shirt down.
Vince tried to reach out and touch Howard, reassure him, but Howard lurched backwards violently, ducking his head and shielding himself instinctively with an arm. Vince felt physically sick—Howard thought… oh God… he thought that Vince could, might ever be able to hurt him? He put his hand down, overwhelmed by a feeling of desperation, of something immensely precious slipping away and not being able to do anything about it.
When he felt able to speak again, he did so quietly. “Howard, we have to do something. You have to leave her.”
“No!” Howard’s response was too loud. “I’ll deal with it, Vince. I’ll sort it. Just… we need to take some time out from you and me. For a bit, yeah?” He was already backing down the path, back towards the beach.
“Don’t go back to her, Howard,” Vince said, taking a step after him, but stopped when he saw Howard’s wide eyes.
“I can take care of myself,” he said, turned and fled.
Vince was left alone. This whole thing was out of hand. Precious had a reputation for violence, and now she was taking out her frustrations on Howard. On his Howard. She had to be stopped.
His first reaction was just to force his way into their home and beat the crap out of her. Forget all that ‘don’t hit a girl’ stuff—if someone goes after you and yours, you get them no matter what chromosomes they have. Just thinking about what she might do to Howard made him clench his fists, a horrible sick feeling rising in his stomach. But Howard had made it pretty clear that he didn’t want Vince to intervene, at least directly, and Vince couldn’t forget Howard’s reaction when he’d reached out for him. Howard, afraid of him, or at least ready to be. More violence was the last thing needed at this point.
So, something more subtle. From working in the nightclub trade Vince had a few underworld contacts. He was owed a few favours around the island from certain influential figures… it wouldn’t be too hard to arrange for something to happen to Precious. Nothing too major, maybe just putting her on a raft, letting her drift off somewhere else.
Vince sighed, following the path back to the beach. The whole situation needed delicacy and care. It needed a light touch, which luckily Vince was renowned for. He would… hmmm.
A party. At the club, tomorrow night. He’d invite Howard and Precious, get Ruby to come along, and see if they couldn’t sort the whole thing out like civilised people. Maybe if she were confronted in public Precious would give the whole thing up. Either way, he could get between her and Howard, and if he could get Ruby to take her aside, work her little lesbian coconut magic, maybe they could solve this whole mess.
Vince clapped his hands loudly as he came to the coconut shack, and was aware of Precious watching him from the window of her house. Desperate to give her the finger, he contented himself with a jaunty salute instead.
The club was packed, as ever. In his office Vince ran his eyes over the crowd, looking for any potential troublemakers. It was going to be tricky enough dealing with Precious, he couldn’t afford any distractions. Luckily he’d managed to build up a good security team who ought to be able to handle anything, but still—there was no harm in being cautious.
He saw Ruby chatting with some mates by the bar, and waved. He had explained the ‘plan’, such as it was, to her earlier that evening and she hadn’t seemed too happy. But they were agreed on one thing—Howard and Precious were not going to go home together that night. Vince didn’t think Ruby believed him about the abuse, just as blind as Howard had been, once, but he didn’t much care. All his attention was on Howard tonight. Ruby was a smart girl. She wouldn’t get herself into anything she couldn’t get out of. At least, that was how he was justifying it to his conscience.
He grabbed his car keys off his desk, locked his office, and made his way through the crowd to the outside of the club. He started his car, his heart racing, and left to pick up Howard and Precious.
Vince pulled up outside their house, and got out of the car, leaving it unlocked just in case. He smoothed down his outfit carefully, and walked up to Howard’s front door. The house was dark and quiet—not a good sign.
He knocked on the door, and Howard opened it, dressed in the same clothes he had been wearing the night before. He looked rough, and not in a good way. He was hiding half in shadow.
Vince swallowed, trying to hide his worry. “Howard, what are you doing? You’re not even dressed!”
Howard looked confused.
“We’re having a big calypso party on the beach,” Vince reminded him. He looked over Howard’s shoulder to see if he could see Precious anywhere, but she must have been further back in the house. From Howard’s scared expression, she was definitely close.
“Uh, yeah,” Howard said weakly. “I can’t really come out right now.”
“What? Why not?” Vince asked. His plan depended on Howard coming to the party. He needed to get them both out of the house, into the open. Somewhere public where they could have it out. Most of all, he needed to get Howard away from that empty-headed coconut bitch.
“You know,” Howard said, not meeting his eyes. There was some movement behind him, and he turned quickly, shielding his body with an arm. “Yeah, it’s just Vince. Won’t be a minute.”
Vince felt a stab of anger as he realised that how afraid Howard was of leaving the house. He raised his voice, hoping Precious would hear. “Oh, come on. Everyone’s gonna be there. Even Milky Joe’s put in an appearance.” For some reason no one could fathom, Precious was a big fan of Milky Joe.
Vince was leaning in to the house, trying to catch a glimpse of Precious, so Howard took a step forward, pushing him back. His face came into the light as he did so.
Vince gasped. “What’s wrong with your eye?”
“Nothing! I… fell over,” Howard stuttered, shielding his eye with a hand. But he couldn’t conceal the black eye that covered almost half of his face. The bruising looked fresh, and incredibly painful, and when Vince looked closer, he could see strands of coconut hair in it. Precious.
Vince was furious. He didn’t know a lot about domestic abuse, but he knew that once the blows moved from easily concealed areas like the ribs to somewhere like the face, it was getting out of hand. It meant Precious didn’t care who knew that she knocked Howard around. And it probably meant that Howard had plenty of other bruises in places Vince couldn’t see.
“Has she been hitting you?” he said loudly, again more addressing Precious than Howard.
“No!” said Howard quickly.
“Look, I could say something to her,” Vince said, raising his eyebrows to mean, ‘let me in and I’ll sort it out’.
Howard shushed him quickly. “Keep your voice down!”
“She’d listen to me. I could just… talk to her.” Talking was the last thing on Vince’s mind. He wanted so desperately to just grab Howard and make a run for it, bundle him into his car and get away from there.
“Just leave it. You’ll only make it worse, alright?” Howard said quietly. He looked back nervously into the darkened house. “I’ve got to put a shelf up.” He looked Vince in the eye. “I’m sorry.”
Vince practically exploded. “You’ve got to put a shelf up? It’s 11.30 at night, we’re having a party! Just do it tomorrow morning!” Yes, just come with me to the beach, Howard, and let’s see how this whole situation looks in the light of day, when I’ve got you safely tucked away in my coconut shack.
“Well, you know, I’ll get in trouble, okay?”
“Howard, you’ve got to start standing up to her,” Vince said, shaking his head. Meaning, ‘we’ve got to stand up to her.’ Meaning, ‘let me in.’
“I did stand up to her, and this is what happened, okay?” Howard pointed at the truly hideous bruise around his left eye, and Vince swallowed.
He rolled up his sleeves a little, and started to head into the house. “This is out of control, I’m gonna say something.”
Howard stopped him with a hand on his chest, pushing him away. “Leave it, okay?”
Vince opened his mouth to say that he couldn’t just leave it, that he was taking Howard away, but Howard cut him off.
“I’m really sorry, I’ve got to go.” He gave Vince one last apologetic look, and turned back to the house. Just before the door closed, Vince heard him say, “Coming!”
He stood there for a few moments, just looking at the door and listening to the noises coming from inside. What could he do? Barge in there? Physically drag Howard away? He was sorely tempted.
He turned away slowly and walked back to his car, feeling like a coward and a failure, but knowing that there was really nothing more that could be done that evening. In the morning he’d call the police. If he stuck close to Howard, maybe he could get him to testify against Precious. If not, there was always the Coconut Mafia.
Vince downed his fifth tequila slammer, and motioned for Alphonse to fill it up again. Alphonse gave him a look like he wasn’t sure that was such a good idea, but Vince ignored him, banging his glass on the bar. One of the perks of owning a nightclub was that no one could refuse to serve you.
A young and giggly coconut girl sidled up to him, but he waved her away. “Not tonight, love. I’ve got sorrows to drown.”
He sighed heavily, a world-weary sigh that seemed to start somewhere near his boots and use up all the oxygen in his body. “I mean, what can I do? Alphonse? Mmm?”
Alphonse said nothing.
“I know… I just know that she’s knocking him around, but what can I do about it? I want to just get him and grab him and take him away,” he waved a hand around drunkenly, almost knocking over his refilled drink, “but I can’t. He won’t let me.”
Vince tapped his slammer on the bar, and downed it quickly, making a face. “Gaaaah. I hate tequila.”
He put his forehead down on the bar, glad of the cool wood. “I’m going to lose him. I mean, I’ll call the police, but what can they do? They can only help him if he… if he wants help. And if he doesn’t want it off of me…”
The pulse of the music beat through his forehead into his brain, giving him a headache. He lifted his head unwillingly, supporting it with a hand, and sighed again.
Alphonse gave him a sympathetic look.
“Do you think I’ve done the right thing?” he asked him, slurring the words slightly.
Alphonse gave him a look that said that he didn’t think it was his place to say.
Vince peered at his blurred reflection in the bar counter. “I’ll never see him again. I mean, I feel it. Deep. In my bones.”
When he looked up he saw that Alphonse was looking off into the distance. He was about to complain that he wasn’t paying attention when he followed his eyeline, out across the beach.
Howard was making his way towards the club.
Vince sat there, open-mouthed. “Howard…”
It was possibly the greatest sight he’d ever seen in his life. And it wasn’t as if he had any shortage of things to top that list, he’d lived a full and varied existence with many different things that could have qualified as “best sight ever”. But suddenly none of them compared to a scruffy, unshaven, unfashionable jazz freak walking unsteadily towards him over a sandy beach. Nothing compared to the fact that Howard had left his wife for him.
He got to his feet, a little wobbly, holding the bar for balance. “Howard!”
Howard looked nervous. “Vince, can I have a word?”
Vince looked at Alphonse, and winked a goodbye. Although he didn’t show it, he knew that Alphonse was smiling inside.
Vince followed Howard a little way up the beach, where the music was quieter and there were less people around. He watched Howard’s back as he walked in front of him, and thought that he’d never been as happy.
Tonight was the beginning of something magical.