|The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it.|
Maybe he could spend the day asleep? That might be okay. Or drunk. Even better. Perhaps it might have been ideal to get drunk the night before, and then spend the 17th trapped inside a foggy spider-web of physical and mental discomfort. That sounded pretty appealing, all things considered. But it was too late now. All things were too late now, he thought mournfully. He looked at the pristine, unmarked calendar (a freebie from the local Chinese takeaway) and hated it with the force of many, many stabby things.
Finally, in what had to be one of the worst decisions of all time, Julian got mind-blowingly drunk in that faux-sober way where you can still speak and do complicated things with doors, and then he went to a party.
It was an extremely annoying party. It would have been annoying anyway, but on this particular day it made him want to kill things with only the power of his mind, and he was drunk enough to actually try it, too. People kept looking at him sympathetically. He sat down on his own and surrounded himself with a sort of alcoholic force-field of hostility, which meant that any well-meaning person who approached found an excuse to go away again, quite quickly.
In a further unfortunate turn of events, Russell Brand was there, and he was notoriously impervious to force-fields of hostility.
"Hello," said Russell, invading Julian's personal space on the sofa. "Would I be right in thinking you have surrounded yourself in a force-field of hostility?"
"Yes," said Julian.
"Yeah, I thought as much," said Russell. "'Ere, have some of this delicious aqua minerale."
"No thanks. Er, would you mind moving over just slightly? You're invading my personal space just a tiny bit." Julian put as much venom and hostility as he could into this polite request, but it met with total resistance.
"Sorry!" said Russell cheerfully, staying exactly where he was. "Aw, you're very drunk, aren't you?"
"Yeah, can't say as I blame you. I'd do the same meself if I weren't a recovering alcoholic, and what-have-you."
"Yeah... well, it's a sad time, innit?"
"Yeah, you know, what with Noel disappearin' like that exactly a year ago. I mean, I don't know about you, but I'm not having a very nice day."
"It's like, everything I do to try and cheer meself up, you know -- polishin' me trinkets, having a new pair of trousers installed, relations with ladies and so on -- is all imbued with a sort of grey sheen of worthlessness."
"Mmm. Must be awful for you."
"Well... yeah, it is. I expect you're experiencing a similar sense of futility."
"Well," said Julian. "Yes, that and a desire to punch you quite hard in the face." He was slurring slightly, or at least, he thought that was him.
Russell looked at him earnestly. "Would that make you feel better, then?"
Julian thought about it. "Probably not."
"Oh," said Russell. "'Cos I was prepared to make that sacrifice. The sacrifice of not being not in pain, I mean. If it would have done, I would have sacrificed that, happily. But as it is... best not, eh?"
"Should I go away now?"
"All right, well... d'you reckon you maybe ought to go home, then? Maybe?"
"Remember where you live?"
Julian had a think, but his brain seemed to be full of zebra finches, for some odd reason. They made thinking hard. "No," he admitted.
"Right," said Russell, taking charge. "Does anyone know where Julian lives? Don't you worry, dear, we'll get you home safe and sound. Oh, these nice ladies says they'd like to come along too. You don't mind, do you, Julian? Nah, Julian don't mind, bless him."
Julian was starting to think that Noel had had the right idea all along.
When Julian woke up the next morning, he was disappointed to discover that the world was still going and that he was still a part of it, only now he was trapped inside a foggy spider-web of physical and mental discomfort. Pity. He'd rather hoped the world might have ended while he was asleep. He got out of bed and stumbled down the stairs without giving himself time to wonder whether or not it was actually a good idea.
Russell was lying on Julian's sofa in his underpants, flicking through the channels on Julian's telly. He was eating something with a teaspoon.
"Is that my Muller Crunch Corner?" said Julian in a sort of enraged croak. "I was saving that!" He looked around the room. Something else wasn't right. "And why is it so hot in here?"
"Oh, hello!" Russell looked up and grinned. "It's all right, I found your thermostat. Why ain't you got no porn on your telly?"
"Because in some unimaginably distant past I used to have a girlfriend, and I lived an ordinary civilised life," said Julian. "Sort of. What are you doing here?"
"You know," said Russell. "If you ask them, they'll put the porn back for you. You only have to ask."
"Yes, but what are you doing here?"
"We took you home, didn't we? Me and some girls. Nice of us, that was. Kind of old Russ." He winked.
"Right." Julian scrabbled distractedly at his hair. He suspected it of attempting to grow back into his scalp and get inside his brain. "And where are these girls now?"
Russell shrugged. "Dunno, they had to go home or somethin'."
"Well," said Julian acidly. "I hope you were all very comfortable on the sofa."
Russell looked at him, wide-eyed. "On the sofa? But... I slept with you, Julian."
Julian said nothing. He hoped that if he stared at Russell long enough the look would eventually pierce his brain and kill him. Or, failing that, make him go away.
"Nah, not really, I made that up," admitted Russell eventually. He leapt up off the sofa, in the sprightly manner of someone who hasn't had an alcoholic drink in four years and wants you to know about it. "Right, come on. Best get goin', or we'll be late!"
"What," said Julian glacially, "for?"
Russell looked at him in surprise. "The antiques fair, o' course! I thought... cheer you up."
Julian sighed heavily, and stumbled back to bed.
He was woken some two hours later (or at least that was what the clock seemed to be trying to imply) by a thunderous knocking at the door. He sighed, dragged himself upright again and plodded down the stairs.
"There's a doorbell there," he said to Russell, "for a reason. Have the courtesy to use it."
"Oh, sorry," said Russell. "Anyway, I bought you a wardrobe. Look, these nice men come along to deliver it and everything!"
"Right, why did you do that?"
"...Cheer you up?"
"You bought it accidentally, didn't you?"
Russell fidgeted. "Well, them auctioneers... they're bloody strict, you know! I was only bein' friendly."
"I've already got a wardrobe."
"Well... It don't go with none of my stuff! I don't care about antiques, do I? I only went 'cos I got invited!"
Julian looked at him in silence.
"Oh come on," said Russell. "I'm bein' nice. Me heart's in the right place, ain't it? I might be trying to offload an old bit of tat I never wanted in the first place, but I thought of you, Julian!"
Julian sighed. He seemed to be doing a lot of that so far today.
"All right, well... thanks," he said grudgingly. The 'nice men' had by this time unloaded the wardrobe, moved it into his living room, and gone away again, so accepting the situation seemed the path of least resistance. Anyway, now he looked at it, it was kind of all right looking. Sort of... old, and that.
"It smells nice, an' all," said Russell.
"Yeah, have a go."
Julian went over to the great furniture beast, and opened the door. Russell was right. It did smell nice. Sort of... familiar.
"It's got some little sort of drawer things," said Julian, absently. "With little knobs. And a mirror and... stuff." He didn't know why, but he suddenly felt happier than he had in months. Who would have thought it? All he really needed in order to come to terms with his crushing sense of loss and pointlessness was a new wardrobe.
"Funny, I never realised," he said, idly fiddling with one of the little drawers. "Apparently, I'm nearly as shallow as you."
"I'm not shallow!" said Russell. "You've hurt my feelings now."
"Hmm... oh look, there's a bit of paper in here."
He fished it out from the back of the drawer -- it was yellowed with age, its folds soft and fragile. It must have been in that drawer a long time. Carefully, he unfolded it. It seemed to be some kind of letter, or memoir.
He read it. Then he read it again. Then he sat down rather suddenly on the sofa.
"Are you all right?" asked Russell, concerned enough to come out of his sulk.
"I think..." Julian said carefully, "we've found Noel."
"What? What d'you mean? Where is he?"
"Sorry, but, um... what the fuck are you on about?" asked Russell eloquently.
Julian passed him the paper. "1905," he said faintly. "That's Edwardian."
"Oh," said Russell. "Right."
He read the letter. Out loud, of course. He was Russell.
Dear whoever, the letter began. I quite like this wardrobe, so I'm going to let it have this letter thing. No, honestly, it really is quite a nice wardrobe, so you look after it, you hear me? Right. Good.
So here's the thing, right? I'm pretty fucking pissed off. No, I am, actually. Try some of this absinthe, they said. Go on. It's a bit of a hangover, but it's worth it. Be a laugh, they said. Well, cheers, girls. Bit of a hangover? I'm hungover by a hundred and two bloody years! Backwards! I mean, for fuck's sake!
I was doing all right, you know? I had a nice life. Me and Julian, we were doing our thing. People liked it, they asked me to sign bits of themselves sometimes. I had nice hats!
Actually, come to think of it, I've still got nice hats. Whatever, that's not the point! My natural timeline has been buggered about with, and I am not fucking happy!
Woke up in Paris, for fuck's sake. Okay, to be fair, not the first time that's happened. But everything was a lot less, I dunno, historical, the first time. I come back on a ferry. Anyway. The point is, this time I woke up in 1905, and I was extremely fucked off about that!!
To be fair again, I didn't do too bad in Paris. Did a bit of painting, hung around the Moulin Rouge a bit. Bought some nice hats. Had a girlfriend for a while. Nice little flat overlooking the Seine. But, as I say, that's not the point! I was meant to be ON TOUR!!!
Thought I'd better come back here though. 'Cos, you know, London, innit? It's me home. Except... well, it isn't, actually. Because my London had all my stuff in it, like my flat and all my boots and my mates and my telly and my job and that. And, like, Julian and stuff. My London had my life in it. This London... well, it's got none of that, has it?
And that, basically, is why I am not very fucking happy. 'Cos I want my life back. I miss it.
Anyway, yeah, so. Bye.
Lots of love, Noel (Fielding, in case you were wondering).
ps. I come from the future, which is kind of cool when you think about it.
pps. Actually, that's cheered me up quite a bit.
ppps. If you are also from the future, say hi to Julian for me, and sorry and that. Except if you're from really far in the future, when they have jetpacks and live in space and wear silver foil. In which case, someone looked after this wardrobe really well. Cheers!
Russell looked up. "D'you reckon it's some kind of joke, then?"
"Funnily enough," said Julian, who was very busy staring into space. "No. I don't."
"No," said Russell. "Me neither. I s'pose that's the thing about things what are true, ain't it? They've sort of got a ring of truth about them."
"Mm," said Julian. "Do you want some toast?"
"No... neither do I."
Russell looked at the old letter in his hands. "Should I put it back then, you reckon?"
Julian shrugged. "Might as well. Don't suppose it matters one way or the other, really."
Russell gently replaced the letter in the drawer and shut the wardrobe door. "Poor Noel," he said. "That's an awful thing to happen, that going back in time and stuff." Then he frowned.
"What?" said Julian.
"Nothing, it's just... well, he could've mentioned me! "
Julian looked at him. "I expect you've got stuff to do," he said, evenly.
"Yeah, as it happens, I have. I shall be off, sir! But, um, I'll come back."
"Will you?" said Julian. "What for?"
"See what happens next," said Russell. "Obviously."
"What--" Julian scrubbed at his face with his hand and closed his eyes in frustration. Unfortunately, when he opened them again, Russell was still there. "Nothing's going to happen next! Russell, don't you get it? Noel is gone! He's not coming back! Not any more."
"Oh. Right." Russell looked at the floor. "Well, in that case... I'll just come round, give you a cuddle, cheer you up. Bye!"
He was gone. Finally, Julian was alone in his own house. It... wasn't all that nice, actually. Maybe, he thought, he could be like Russell and get his own little harem to attend to his every need, day or night. He stood still, imagining it, and shuddered. Rarely had he had a more horrific daydream.
He looked at his new old wardrobe. Well. At least he had something to look after.
In actual fact, another month went by before Russell turned up again at Julian's house. Or... well, to be honest, he didn't exactly turn up. Julian phoned him.
"Where the fuck have you been?" he demanded, opening the door.
"Oh that's nice! I been busy, ain't I? Becomin' a international superstar! Plus, you did sort of give the impression you wanted none of me, so to speak. Don't know if you realised..."
"Yeah, I know, sorry," said Julian, letting him into the house. "But look, you're the only one who knows about--"
"Why d'you look like Doc Brown?" interrupted Russell.
"Out of Back to the Future. You do, you look like him in them films, when he'd invented something. I think it's the hair. And the eyes."
"Look, shut up for a minute. Something's happened."
"I thought you said--"
"I know what I said, but I was wrong. Look."
His hand trembling slightly, he held something out to Russell. A piece of paper. An old, yellowed piece of paper, gone soft at the creases.
"Is this..." Russell unfolded it. He looked up at Julian. "Oh, bloody 'ell."
"Yep." Julian nodded. "It's a new one. He's left a new one! It just appeared one day with the other one, in the wardrobe."
Russell scanned the paper. "Oh right, so he's running a... what's a haberdashery?"
"I dunno, something to do with clothes. Ribbons and buttons and stuff, I suppose. Accessories. Bits of crap."
"Oh, right. Makes sense. Well, he looks like he's doing okay. It says here he's lookin' into going on the stage. Music hall and that. Nice!" He read on. "Still don't seem very happy though, do he?"
"Well, of course he's not happy! He's in Edwardian London. He needs to come back here, to his own time. To me!"
"You mean us."
"That's what I said, us. His friends, the people who care about him. What's Noel going to do in Edwardian London, eh? They won't understand him, they'll think he's a... a freak. He is a freak, yeah, but that's not the point. They'll tear him apart, Russell!"
"I dunno," said Russell, still reading the letter. "Seems to have invented Top Shop, so far. That ain't too bad."
Julian threw himself down on the sofa and ran his hands through his hair. "If only there was some way of..."
"We could send him a message!" said Russell.
"What do you mean?"
Russell shrugged. "It's obvious, ain't it? He leaves a letter in the wardrobe, it comes forward to here. We leave one, it goes back to there."
"Oh," said Julian. "Yes. Well, that could work, I suppose." He frowned. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Nothing," said Russell, grinning. "Just... your 'air. It's gone a bit... No, I like it, I think it's nice."
"Shut up," said Julian.
Julian had had Noel's wardrobe installed in his bedroom, banishing the one he'd bought from Ikea to the spare room. The new wardrobe was a bit big for the room, to be honest, but he didn't mind. He found it comforting.
"Aw," said Russell, looking at him sympathetically. "That's nice. Sort of intimate, ain't it? Do you go and sit in there, sometimes?"
"No, I do not!" said Julian. "I'm a busy man, too, you know. I've no time for sitting in wardrobes."
"Plus," continued Julian, "you seem to be forgetting one very important fact."
"I still want to punch you quite a lot."
"Oh," said Russell. "Well. I don't think that's very nice, as it happens. In fact, I might just be goin' home now."
"Look, all right, I don't actually want to punch you that much. Just a little bit, now and again. No more than anyone else does -- but anyway. I do actually need your help, so please... you know. Stay."
Russell smiled. "All right then. Seein' as you asked so nicely."
They wrote Noel a letter. Julian's bit of the letter started:
What the bloody hell do you think you're doing, you complete cock? Poncing about Edwardian London like a twat, what are the rest of us supposed to do? Eh? It's been bloody awful....
...and ended: Anyway, just try and act like a normal person if you can, or they'll lock you up. Eat plenty of veg. Boil the water before you drink it, right? So... I hope you get this, mate. Bye. Julian.
Russell's bit went: Hello! It's old Russ 'ere! What's it like in the olden days? I tell you what, can you get me one of them old silver watches what goes on a chain--
"For God's sake, Russell. He's not on holiday. He can't bring you back presents from the past!"
Julian says I'm not allowed to ask for stuff. So... anyway, hope you're all right. WHAT'S THE SHAGGING LIKE??? LOVE YOU! BYE! Love Russell. xxxxx
Carefully, in absolute silence, they placed the letter inside the drawer and pushed it shut. A sense of grave ceremony seemed to hang over the scene. When it was done, Julian stepped back and softly closed the wardrobe door. He looked at Russell. It seemed to him that there was nothing left to say. As usual, he was wrong.
"Do you want that cuddle now?" said Russell.
They had agreed to meet in a small vegetarian cafe near Russell's house. Well, Russell suggested it, and then he agreed with himself, and Julian went along with it to save argument.
When Julian arrived, Russell was already there, sipping herbal tea in an alcove and flirting with the waitress.
"Do you mind?" said Julian. "There's a time and a bloody place."
Russell looked as though he was about to say something sarcastic, but then seemed to change his mind. "Sorry," he said, and winked at the waitress, who went away. "So what--" he started.
"Hang on, I need a coffee," Julian interrupted. "I haven't slept for three nights." He went off to order one.
"So what--" said Russell again, as Julian returned, but Julian held up a hand, busy with his coffee. Russell fidgeted.
"Oh, hurry up, will you?" he said. "I wanna know!"
Julian put his empty coffee mug down. He felt much better. He could see properly now, and feel his legs. Mouth somewhat scalded, but you couldn't have everything.
"It worked," he said.
Russell grinned. "He got it?"
"Yep." Julian handed over the new letter to Russell, who opened it.
"Oh, ain't that nice?" said Russell, smiling fondly. "He's used all the swearwords he could think of!"
"I could probably think of a few more," muttered Julian. "Ungrateful bastard."
"To be fair," said Russell. "We ain't actually done nothing yet. Not as such."
"We made contact! Is that not enough? I even offered him advice!"
"Yeah..." said Russell, dubiously.
"Well, what else can I do? I'm goin' out of my mind here, Russell. And all that fucking wanker can do is complain."
"Aw, you love him really."
"Of course I bloody love him!" shouted Julian, getting to his feet. "Why the fuck else do you think I'd be here, shouting at you of all people, in a fucking... vegetarian cafe, about to pass out from fucking lack of fucking sleep?" He blinked. Russell had gone all blurry, which was really fucking annoying of him. Typical. "Me, I mean," he clarified. "Not the cafe."
When he came round he was at home, in bed. Russell was sitting by his bedside, holding his hand. He thought about snatching it back again, but he didn't think he had the energy. And he had to admit, it was kind of soothing.
"How did I get here?"
"Oh, you know" said Russell, airily. "I works in mysterious ways, don't I? Anyway, I was thinking, while you was having a nap -- you could always go and visit him."
Julian turned his head and looked at him. What? said the look.
"In the wardrobe," said Russell, and shrugged. "Goes back in time, don't it? Said you ought to sit in it. Cheer you up."
Julian passed out again. He felt it was for the best.
They stood in front of the wardrobe. Russell had taken great pleasure in dressing Julian up in what in he confidently proclaimed was 'top Edwardian gear'. Julian had looked in the mirror, removed it all the bits of it you could see, and put on an overcoat.
"But you don't look authentic!" Russell had complained.
"I didn't look authentic before, either. I looked like an idiot, dressed by an idiot."
"Sorry," Julian said. "But it is true."
"Yeah, fair enough."
Now, the moment was finally upon them. The wardrobe stood in front of Julian like an impassive cliff-face of polished oak just waiting to be scaled, waiting for him to turn the handle, to open the door, to enter... another world...
"You sure you're ready?" asked Russell.
"Well, go on then!"
"All right! In a minute. Just... getting my bearings."
They stood a little longer.
"Do you want me to come with you?" asked Russell.
"Right, well, come on then." Russell took a deep breath and pulled open the wardrobe door. "Off to see the wizard and all that."
Russell looked at him. "What?"
"You're not..." Julian waved a hand at him. "Prepared."
"Oh!" Russell said, catching sight of himself in the mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door.
"Yeah." Julian nodded. "Exactly."
Russell reached up and made a brave attempt to flatten his hair, smoothing it carefully behind his ears.
"What about... the rest of you?"
"Julian," said Russell. "We're going to Edwardian London. Look at me. If anything, I'm gonna look out of date."
"Fair point," said Julian. "Just try not to call attention to yourself, all right? If anyone asks, you're an undertaker. Come on."
"Can I hold your hand?"
"If you absolutely must."
Together they stepped forward and advanced through the open door of the wardrobe...
Travelling through time, thought Julian, was a lot like when he'd gone on the Waltzers when he was seven. In that it made him want to throw up, and it wasn't an experience he ever wanted to repeat if he could at all help it. And he really, really hoped he would be able to help it.
"Oh my God," he moaned, when the world appeared to have stopped. "Oh my God, oh my God."
"Normally," said Russell, who by the feel of it was sprawled across Julian's legs, "when people say that to me, it's a good thing. You're just sayin' it because you want to throw up, aren't you?"
Julian said something nobody could understand, including him.
"Well anyway," said Russell. "I liked it. I thought it was exciting!"
"Kindly fuck off and die," said Julian.
"Bit rude, but all right," said Russell, and threw open the wardrobe door. Light flooded in.
"Too bright," moaned Julian, flinging an arm in front of his eyes.
"Oh God!" Russell stumbled to his feet. "It's the past. Julian, we did it. We're really in the past. Look at it!"
Julian crawled groggily to the edge of the wardrobe, and looked.
They were in someone's bedroom. The walls were covered in a delicate rose-patterned wallpaper, augmented here and there with bits of graffiti. Against one wall there was a large brass bedstead, unmade, its covers thrown in a messy heap in the middle of the mattress. Opposite that was a washstand with a chipped jug and ewer on it. On the wall above the bed, there was a framed watercolour of a young lady in a long dress, sitting artistically on a swing. She had been... defaced. Clothes were strewn everywhere. Hung over one brass bed-knob was an obscenely large purple hat, decorated with the feathers of some poor, probably now extinct, bird.
It was quite obviously the bedroom of an untidy, slightly pissed-off person living against his will in the past.
"Noel," said Julian. "This is Noel's room." He felt a big, soppy grin creep slowly onto his face.
"See?" said Russell, grinning back. "Told you."
"All right, what are you two tossers doing in my wardrobe?"
They looked up. Standing in the doorway was Noel. He was wearing a suit. He looked all... neat. His hair...
"What the fuck have you done to your hair?" exclaimed Julian.
"Oh, cheers!" said Noel. "Haven't seen you for a year, give or take a hundred, and you start off having a go at the hair! Some of us have got a facade to maintain, you know."
"But it's all... short, and... and neat."
"Hello? 1905! What did you expect? They already suspect me of all sorts."
"All right! There's no need to be--"
"Noel!" called Russell, over the top of the steadily escalating argument. "It's me, Russell. Hello!"
Noel's face softened a little. "Hello, mate. You all right?"
"Yeah, not bad, thanks" said Russell, and promptly flung himself at Noel. "Oh, it's bloody good to see you."
"You too," said Noel through a mouthful of Russell's hair.
"Noel, I could kiss you!" declared Russell. "In fact, I'm gonna."
"Cheers, Russ. 'Preciate it."
"I'd take it further," murmured Russell confidentially, "but I have certain requirements, you know."
"Good to know, mate. At least," said Noel pointedly, over Russell's shoulder, "someone's being supportive."
"What the f-- I travelled through time for you!"
"So did he."
"Yeah but -- he's an idiot!"
"No he's not!"
"No I'm bloody not!" said Russell, turning round. "You wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for me."
"All right, sorry, sorry. You're not an idiot... very much. In fact, I've sort of... started to like you a little bit, for some strange reason."
"You know, it's funny," said Russell, absentmindedly teasing his hair back into its regular bouffant. "People say that sort of thing to me a lot."
"But look, this is all beside the point!" said Julian. "Noel, we've come to save you. Get back in the wardrobe with us, we can get you home! I think."
Noel sniffed. "I dunno," he said. "I've got Mrs Anderson downstairs in the shop, she wants buttons."
Julian stared at him. "You're not serious?"
"I bloody am, actually. They're hand-designed. By me."
"Yeah, you know, I've got a life here, Julian. It may interest you to learn that I can actually survive on my own."
"These people depend on me," said Noel, passionately.
"For their... haberdashery?"
Julian laughed. He couldn't help it. It was either that or claw out his own eyeballs with his fingernails.
"Well, I'm glad you think it's all so fucking funny," said Noel, stonily. "But some of us have got customers to serve." He turned and went down the stairs.
"Fuck," said Julian to the ceiling.
"Yeah..." said Russell.
"What am I gonna do, Russell? I can't leave him here."
"Are you sure?" said Russell doubtfully. "He does seem to be all right... and we can always come and visit, you know, in the wardrobe."
"No, you don't understand!" Julian ran his hands through his hair. "Look, you know who else was a haberdasher, don't you?"
"John Merrick! The Elephant Man was a haberdasher, Russell, and look what happened to him. They put him in a travelling freak-show!"
Russell looked at him sceptically. "Is that really true, or did you just make it up?"
"It's true -- look it up on the internet if you want! I am not letting that happen to Noel, Russell. I'm not."
"Well, it's obvious, then, innit? You've gotta go after him."
Julian looked doubtful. "But... it's 1905 down there."
Russell shrugged. "It's 1905 up here, an' all."
"Go on," said Russell. "I'll stay here in the wardrobe and wait for you."
"All right. But remember keep the door open a crack. And Russell?"
"That's all right," said Russell.
It was amazing, thought Julian. Here he was, looking out through a half-open doorway into a real, live, working shop from over a hundred years ago. A real, live, working Edwardian shop run by a stubborn, pointy-faced git from the future. Bloody a-fucking-mazing.
Noel had just seen out an unreasonably frilled-up lady in a big hat. She'd seemed pleased with her buttons, anyway. Julian tried to catch Noel's eye before anyone else came in.
Noel looked round.
"Oh. What do you want?"
Noel looked at him. "All right. I'll turn the sign round. But we can't be long, I've got a living to make, you know."
Noel led him outside into a small, walled backyard. "In here," he said.
"Is that the toilet?"
"Yeah, so? It's not exactly all mod cons here, you know. Look, it's just... more private, okay?"
They squashed into the little outhouse together, leaning uncomfortably against opposite walls. Noel folded his arms. Funny, thought Julian, studying the crazy-familiar angles of Noel's face. A whole year. I might have forgotten what he looked like, almost. I didn't, though.
"It's good to see you," said Noel. He didn't smile.
"Yeah, you too."
"Thanks for coming."
"Yeah, sorry if I was a bit of an idiot back there..."
"Just a bit of a shock, you know. Wasn't expecting it."
"God, I could really do with a fag," said Noel, and cleared his throat. He smiled. "They haven't got filters here, you know. Rough as old dogs, those fags are. Like smoking a fuckin'... hedgehog."
"Mmm," said Julian. "Hedgehog roll-ups. Nice."
"Yeah, they roll themselves up. Convenient."
There was a small silence inside the lavatory.
"Come home, would you?" said Julian.
Noel looked uncomfortable. "It's not -- It's just I've kind of got used to it here. I've got stuff going on..."
"You had stuff going on there, remember? Lots of stuff."
"I know, but--"
"What about your family? Your friends? Your girlfriend, remember her, Noel?"
Noel looked at him. "I had a girlfriend, Julian. She was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. I won her heart through the power of song, but... she had consumption, and she -- she died."
"That's Moulin Rouge."
"Yeah -- I said, didn't I?"
"No, I mean, that is actually the plot of the film Moulin Rouge."
"Oh. Oh yeah. Well, there was a lot of opium going round at the time."
"All right, Noel, but really -- your girlfriend? Your real girlfriend?"
Noel looked at the wall next to Julian's head. He shrugged.
"I dunno, do I? It's been a year since the -- the absinthe incident. And anyway..." He trailed off.
"She still cares about you! She thought you were dead! We all did."
"Well. I'm not, am I?"
Julian sighed. "Well, look, I don't know, what about--"
"You can't say it, can you?"
"Say what?" Julian smiled, but then he looked at Noel's face, and Noel wasn't laughing.
"You can't just say, 'What about me?' Can you?"
Julian swallowed. He hunched his shoulders and let them drop again. "All right," he said in a low voice. "I'll say it, then. What about me?"
"Well, I bloody well missed you, didn't I, you fucking cunt!" Noel's eyes were wide.
"Oh, thanks," said Julian. "Yeah, that's lovely, thanks."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Ju, I meant it nicely." Noel rolled his eyes. "God, you're so thick sometimes." And then he leaned forward, pushing Julian back into the wall, and kissed him.
Interesting, thought Julian with the small part of his brain that still seemed to be functioning. Without really meaning to, he closed his eyes.
"There," Noel said, pulling back and leaning the flats of his hands against the wall above Julian's shoulders. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. He seemed a little out of breath. "There you go. That's what about you."
"Oh. Okay," said Julian faintly. "Well, I wasn't... really expecting that."
"No? You kissed back, though."
"Yep," said Noel. "What you gonna do about it?"
"Oh, shit," said Julian with feeling. He buried his face in Noel's neck and pulled at him, folding him in close. He stood for a while and breathed it in -- the never quite forgotten scent of Noel, now suddenly and startlingly immediate. Noel's arms crept up between Julian and the wall, and held him tight.
It's been such a bloody awful year, thought Julian. I deserve... something. Don't I?
"The wardrobe smells like you," he mumbled. "And your hair is stupid. I hate your hair and I've really fucking missed you, and could we maybe... talk about this later?"
Noel leaned back, leaving a strange emptiness where his body had been, an unfortunate lack of Noel pressed up against Julian. Oh shit, indeed. "Right, so I'm coming back then, am I?"
"Well... yeah," said Julian, just barely resisting the urge to grab at bits of Noel's clothing like a half-wit. "Obviously. I wasn't going to leave you here, was I? I'm not bloody going through that again. Now, look, can we get out of this toilet before people start to talk?"
"Yeah, right, Ju," said Noel, following him out into the daylight. "I come back from the dead after travelling through time via the media of absinthe and wardrobe, and you're worrying that we once went in the same toilet. In nineteen hundred and fucking five..."
He shook his head and grinned.
"You got him!" said Russell, jumping up as they entered the room. "Yeah, well done, mate. Just in time, too, I was terrified some maid or something'd come in, and I'd have had to have it off with 'er just so's she'd keep quiet."
"Yeah, you look really terrified," muttered Julian.
"Russ, mate, we've been over this," said Noel. "What does you having sex with women not do, as a general rule?"
"Make 'em keep quiet and... not talk to the press and that?" said Russell, and looked sheepish.
"Right. Anyway, I haven't got a maid. Why d'you think the place looks like this?" Noel turned to Julian. "Right. We ready then?"
"Yep." Julian smiled at him. "Back to the real world, and... and so on."
"Yeah." Noel smiled back. "And so on."
"Actually..." said Russell.
Julian groaned. "Oh, what now?"
"I was just thinkin'..." He toed the ground with the toe of his left boot. "I bet I could run a haberdashery."
"You wouldn't like it, Russ," Noel assured him.
"I like... things!"
"You'd be shit," said Julian.
"No, I wouldn't!"
"You fucking would! You've got the business sense of a... a wallaby."
"Julian!" hissed Noel. "That ain't working."
Julian held up his hands in defeat. Noel went to sit next to Russell on the unmade bed, where he was sulking with his arms folded. He patted Russell gently on the knee.
"Russell, listen to me," he said. "You wouldn't like it here. Trust me."
"Because they don't have Sky."
Russell looked at him in sudden horror. "Oh, yeah," he said. "I never thought of that."
He jumped up off the bed and bounded across the room. "Right! Last one in the wardrobe is gay, not that there's anything wrong with that!"
"Well," said Noel, taking a last look around his erstwhile bedroom. "I'll miss this place."
"Will you?" asked Julian.
"Er... nah, not really. It was a bit shit, and I couldn't have a shower."
"Sure you don't want to take anything with you?"
"No," said Noel firmly. "Leave it all here, where it belongs. I mean, you can design buttons pretty much anywhere. Or when."
"Mm," said Julian. He looked at Noel. "So..."
"We'll, um, have a proper chat, then, shall we? When we get back?"
"Yeah. Yeah, that'd be good," said Noel, and smiled.
Julian held out his hand. "Back to the future, then. After you?"
"No, actually," said Noel, taking Julian's hand and gripping it tightly. "After you. Yeah, really. I insist."
The wardrobe door closed behind them with a click, and (in 1905, at least) that was the way it stayed.