The thought finally occurred to Howard - arriving symbolically with the cold gust of air from the open window - that he would have to face criticism.
All art did.
He was sometimes capable of convincing himself that his latest work was faultless - it was based on actual, perfect events from his own life, after all - but then he felt he was giving away too many personal details. Even Vince would be able to figure out the substituted character names, if he bothered to read it.
Without Vince in the flat, and simultaneously playing around in the poetic pastures of Howard's mind, he found he was able to quickly and accurately assemble his novel. It was an exploration of their relationship, since a certain stunted birthday party, with narrative assistance from Howard's heart, which found its way to the brain controls too frequently, these days.
Howard tried to speak, to summarise the moment and emotion before it escaped him, but found typing to be easier. He was working through a lengthy description of that night, after they'd kissed, when Vince found him sulking in the bedroom and insisted on holding his hand. He had to find a way to make this all sound acceptable; it had worked out well in the end, even if he felt sick with embarrassment and confusion at the time.
"It's nice," Howard finally said, "to have Vince away for a bit."
Naboo glanced up from his pipe, relieved that Howard managed to finish the thought. His voice still lacked the necessary conviction, but at least he stuffed some words together.
"Get some work done, eh?" he continued, quietly. Because Naboo was glaring and twisting his fingers torturously over the gem-studded tubing.
Howard rested his fingers over the centre line of keys. His thinking pose.
"Sorry," he said, "just thought it'd be nice to have some intelligent conversation for once."
He wished he had a pipe to play with, although not the kind Naboo offered him. Instead, he set one hand against his chin to graze the stubble.
"I thought you liked Vince," Naboo countered. He made a show of using his pipe, now, knowing Howard was running out of things to do.
"Like, really liked him," Naboo continued.
"I do," Howard said. He rushed to add "not like that," to shut Naboo up, even though this was now officially untrue.
He typed another line. His best yet. An ideal topic for intelligent and out-of-practice conversationalists to spar with. He stretched.
"But he can't think for himself… just does whatever everyone else is doing, gets us all into trouble, and then laughs about it. Almost like he - like he likes - hurting me? It's easier to write when he's not here, in any case."
"You writin' about him, then?"
He was. About the way their fingers fit together, and the spoonful of syrup Vince stirred into his voice when he asked if Howard 'needed' their beds pushed together for the night. At the memory, Howard found himself saying, 'yeah.'
Naboo muttered something about Bollo owing him a tenner, while Howard tried and failed to recapture his creative 'flow.' That's what Vince used to call it, every time he interrupted it.
As he did, again. Every time, Howard reminded himself that this was something he should expect, followed by the inexplicable and cascading hope that next time would be different.
"All right, Naboo," Vince's voice crept in from the staircase, preceded by the sound of his heeled boots meeting the wood. "Hey, Howard."
"Yeah," Howard sighed back.
"What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing," Howard replied, "I'm trying to write."
Writing, luckily, was the least flimsy of Howard's fleeting passions, and, even more luckily, was one he was good at. By now, after a few years of it, Vince knew that Howard lost more of his communication skills during his writing process, trading them for prose and selling them immediately to anything that could pass as poetry. Vince did not expect much of a conversation.
"I got new canvases," he said, parting with the sequined shopping bag he wore over his shoulder.
Vince's painting process was very much the opposite of Howard's writing one. He would talk endlessly about his inspiration, give constant instructions to whoever volunteered to pose for him, and would generally talk until Howard was exhausted just from listening.
Howard rarely disputed the amount of talent involved in producing a meaningful painting, but he certainly regarded it as easier than writing. It was capturing a butterfly in one's hands, preserving a moment. Writing was trying to persuade a tiger to slip itself into a collar, and to walk willingly on a lead, for the rest of its life. Something like that, and he scribbled it down in his cream-coloured notebook.
"I'm gonna have another go at you," Vince removed one of the canvases from his bag, and set it out on the table. "You can stay and write and everything… I'll get the typewriter in, too. It'll be well vintage. Might even do it in black and white…"
Naboo exhaled a cloud of the steamy smoke, for the sole purpose of peering through it.
"So you're finally gonna be a serious artist, are you?"
Usually, Naboo's lopsided attempts at compliments were directed at Howard. He was trying to adapt his new note about authors and tigers into a defense when he realised it was Vince Naboo was attacking. Vince knew already, and deciphered Naboo's tone better than Howard could.
"Yeah, I won't be needing any'a your magic on this one."
"Whatever," Naboo's voice was thin, scraped down by the smoke, "BTEC Nationals don't pay bills."
"Yeah," Vince repeated, "whatever." He propped the canvas up on the table, and dug a packet of pencils and fine brushes from the box by the stairwell. He was genuinely trying to be quiet and unintrusive, so Howard could continue his work. But this was all instantly undone by Naboo, who enjoyed standing and tossing down the pipe before announcing he was going to the shop, if anyone needed owl beaks. It was his favourite joke, because he had to force the other two to understand it. He liked seeing them uncomfortable, for a change. Or at least one of them.
Howard rolled his eyes. 'Uncomfortable' was one of the few emotions he was able to both display and internalise, for what would, in any other case, be an impressively long amount of time.
Naboo promised he would 'just get a couple' as he moved down the stairs, completely satisfied with himself.
"Can't you paint someone else?" Howard tried to sound helpful, but tripped and fell into impatient on the way, "Might be giving Naboo the wrong idea, there."
"You think I'm givin' him the wrong idea?" Vince countered, "Isn't your novel about me?"
Howard was fairly certain Vince hadn't committed to reading it ("I can't read more than a line of yours at a time, it gives me a headache") and wondered if his face had finally done something distinctive and given him away. Vince's thoughts, as usual, were skipping along the same line, eager to disprove him.
"You're good practice," he said, "With your face, I can fill up a whole gallery and say it's anyone."
"Yeah, and you're filling up loads of galleries, aren't you?"
"I've still published more books than you 'ave."
Howard squinted at him.
"That's… not what this is about."
Vince's automatic response was to widen his eyes and smirk.
"I think it is."
Howard tugged the half-finished paper out of the typewriter bay, and set it over the keys instead. Part of him wanted to crumple it up, another part wanted to rip it into thousands of pieces, and the final part made a convincing case for reading it aloud immediately. Not entirely sure where that last one came from, he thought, shaking his head.
"I didn't mean you should stop," Vince's voice was softer now, and he took the seat beside Howard at the table. "Read me a line of it, go on."
"Just one line?"
"Yeah, any one you want. Hit me."
It was, as the stack of finished pages and dog-eared notebooks suggested, impossible for Howard to limit his feelings for Vince to one sentence. He tried, several times before, but every hopeful typeset line quickly turned into one of disappointment and tipp-ex.
"I'd, er… I'd have to think about that."
Defeatedly, Vince tossed his hands. He was always trying to get Howard to 'live', as they both reluctantly put it, and do things without thinking about everything that could go wrong, first. By the time Howard compiled a list of possible negative outcomes, he was paralysed - too worried about any of them happening to go through with it.
"Whatever," Vince shrugged, "I'm gonna go with Naboo, anyway."
"You just got back from the shops."
"Yeah," Vince said, tilting his head toward the coat-hooks, "I'm goin' again."
Vince was thankful that Naboo was only capable of such comparatively short strides. He had no trouble catching him, about halfway to his destination.
"Thought so," Naboo said, before Vince even entered his line of vision. Vince muttered 'what?' and 'christ!' to himself, before Naboo shrugged and greeted him more conventionally.
Vince dropped his hand after waving, feeling ridiculous.
"What'd you mean, 'thought so'?"
"Thought Howard would bore you to tears, too."
Vince blinked at him, unsure. Naboo adjusted his turban.
"Oh," he said slowly, tapping the side of his nose. "Lovers' tiff."
"I don't think so."
Naboo slid his hands into the robe's deep pockets.
"Couple years late, if I'm honest. You gotta fight back. Can't just let him suck the life out of you like he does."
"I thought he was a demon the first time you introduced us. Kept trying to find him in m' book. And I know Bollo's ripped a few pages out. He's gotta be in those," he gave a decisive nod. "I can feel it."
"Are you trying to tell me Howard's a-?"
"I am, flat out," Naboo said. "Suckin' the life outta you."
He lifted a fistful of reddish dust from one pocket, and threw it on the path in front of them. It only succeeded in staining some fallen leaves and thickening a puddle of standing rainwater. He swore to himself and tried the slightly darker red dust, from the other pocket.
Then he vanished.
Vince sighed, and knew better than to call after him. He would finish his walk into town alone with his thoughts. And they were being cooperative. Usually, when he managed to get time alone to think, all his mind could come up with were dogs in neon chelsea boots, or flowers growing upside-down from conservatory ceilings. This time, he was met with the painfully clear image of Howard, wielding an industrial hoover, knocking at the front door in his brain, and his secretary could think of nothing to say. She looked older than Vince thought she should, anyway, with an extra layer of concealer too obviously framing her eyes. Was that Howard's fault? Vince wished he would go away.