Liam drove the Union’s 14-seater minibus up to where the small, sullen group of LGBT students was waiting. Max caught Gavin’s eye as they silently loaded up. It was going to be a dismal Tuesday quiz night at the Carne Arms. The lesbians were at least talking together in low tones, probably about the boys, judging by the direction of their glances. Rupert sat next to Peter, the two of them seeming to take comfort in their mutual unhappiness.
Alasdair, on the other hand, had found a place as far from Chris as he could possibly manage. Clive had not returned to Stevenage. Jimmy was red-eyed in the back seat next to Tommy. Billy sat apparently oblivious to the emotional wasteland he had created around him, and to the mixture of looks shot his way.
Miles was the only one who seemed to be enjoying himself, and that not in a nice way. Tommy was brooding on his own troubles. He had dressed to match his mood: a long dark dress and a hat with a veil. His nail paint was black.
‘I suppose they’re all coming only because they need to pick up the IDs for Thursday night’s backstage passes.’
‘Fraid you’re right, sweets,’ Max admitted. ‘LGBT Soc is in meltdown. But cheer up, it’ll get better. And it is not your fault!’
A pale smile answered this reassurance. Max knew Gavin’s self-accusatory default mode all too well.
The drive to the pub was made with hardly any of the banter to be expected from a normal group of young people out on the town. They trooped silently inside and went about picking up their quiz sheets.
‘That woman, there?’ queried Ted the landlord.
‘Yes? The tall one in black?’ replied Gavin
‘Yeah. She seems a bit mature for a student, though you can’t tell a lot through a veil. Tasty bit for all that. Lovely legs.’
‘Do you want me to introduce you to her? She’s very nice.’
‘Nah! If the missus saw me and her talking there could be all sorts of argy-bargy, know what I mean?’
‘Best to be on the safe side.’
‘Exactly, Gareth. Yer read my mind.’
Max and Gavin dragged Tommy and Liam into their team. Mina and her friends made up another. Rupert, Peter and Jimmy were a third, and the as-yet-untouched pair of first-year lovers – who Gavin thought were called Ahmed and Josh – joined Miles and Billy, much to Gavin’s alarm. That left Chris and a resentful Alasdair, who reluctantly occupied a table together.
Miles, who now sported a rainbow tattoo of his own on his hand, sat glued to Billy, being very physical, touching the American’s leg and hanging about him. Gavin noticed the black looks Chris was shooting at the pair.
The pub was quite full that night. As the rhythm of the quiz gradually distracted people, Gavin began to relax a little. Chris and Alasdair were finally talking, even if it was only quiz trivia … which, mind you, had been the better part of whatever conversation they did have even before the Billy crisis, as Max observed.
At the end of the quiz, people kept on drinking. Gavin watched Peter, Rupert and Jimmy anxiously. He was relieved to see that all three seemed to have made friends and cheered up under the influence of a few pints, though they were ostentatiously not looking in Miles and Billy’s direction.
Perhaps someone should have been keeping a closer eye on Chris. Gavin later suspected Alasdair of having spiked his drinks.
Apparently, Billy had influenced Miles into smoking. The two of them went outdoors to stand under one of the patio heaters, cigarettes in one hand and beers in the other, chatting. Gavin didn’t notice when Chris disappeared, but he did hear the sound of breaking glass from outside.
Gavin looked at Max, who looked at Tommy. They all three leaped up and headed for the door. When they reached the patio, they found a confused-looking Chris standing unsteady with a broken beer glass outstretched in his hand. Billy and Miles were open-mouthed, Miles with his hands out, staring fearfully at the jagged glass which was pointed in his face.
When Tommy and Max took in the situation, they froze. Not so Gavin. ‘Put that down now, Chrissie,’ he said coolly, walking up beside his friend.
‘What? Gotta do this. He’s a fuckin’ monster. Gotta stop it.’
‘Stop what, Chrissie?”
‘These two fuckers. They’re ruining everything.’
‘No, Chrissie. That’s not the way.’
Chris sparked with anger, which overrode the disorientation of the alcohol. He focussed on Miles. ‘Specially this fucker! Like a fucking jackal, this one. Picking up his roadkill!’
Gavin noticed that the LGBT group had spilled out behind him. A woman shrieked as Chris lunged at Miles, who yelped and fell backwards over a chair.
Gavin grabbed at Chris’s wrist and wrenched it down. He realised as he did it that he was a lot stronger physically now than he had been before he had become Enoch. His hand was like a vice, and Chris was powerless to resist him. The glass fell from Chris’s grasp to shatter on the concrete. He struggled, but Gavin effortlessly pulled his arm behind his back.
The drama on the patio seemed to Gavin to be playing out in slow motion. He became aware that Miles was up again and getting ready to punch the now-restrained Chris. Deftly releasing Chris’s wrist, Gavin pulled him down by the shoulder so that Miles’s punch flew over him. Miles’s eyes popped as Gavin’s fist took him hard in the stomach and sent him piling back into Billy, knocking the two of them into a heap on the floor.
It was just a few seconds, but at the end of them Gavin was the only one left standing. The other three were lying at his feet. He looked around. ‘Well! One of you help Chrissie!’
Astonished faces stared at him. Peter grinned up at Gavin as he knelt next to Chris. ‘Yes sir, Mr President!’
Gavin was making coffee in their flat. Tommy eyed him across the kitchen table as if he were about to do another trick.
‘Full of surprises aren’t you, Gav?’ Tommy finally commented when the coffee was placed in front of him.
‘That’s my guy, alright. You always gotta watch the quiet ones.’ Max smiled as he shook his head.
‘So er … where did you pick up unarmed-combat training? Cos I’m pretty sure that what I saw at the Carne Arms was professional.’
‘Just luck and adrenalin,’ Gavin replied.
‘Luck? Baby, you flattened three very big guys, men twice your size.’
‘I don’t think so.’
Max came to Gavin’s aid. ‘Gav’s just quick. Always has been. He … er … used their strength against them.’
Tommy looked unconvinced.
Gavin moved on. ‘So what you wearing to the party tomorrow?’
‘Just boy clothes. Since your friends don’t know me, it’d hardly be fair to turn up in uniform. Tell me about them.’
Max replied, ‘The party’s for Fritz. He’s a Rothenian in London. Speaks great English. He was educated in London and the States.’
‘Wow. Is he a relative of yours, Jammy?’
‘Probably. Everyone in Rothenia seems to be related.’
‘They do have a certain generic look,’ Gavin contributed.
‘Where’s it happening?’
‘Highgate. Fritz’s family is close to er … Andy and Matt.’
‘Andy and Matt? How do they rate an “er …”? What are you concealing?’
Gavin shouldered the burden of explanation. ‘My former boyfriend Henry was friends with them. He took me to stay and we hit it off, especially Andy, though Matt’s nice too.’
‘They a gay couple?’
‘They’re the gay couple.’
‘Sir Andrew Peacher and Matthew White.’
A long silence followed. ‘Okay … I’ve taken a deep breath, and now I’m going to ask very slowly: who … the … fuck … are … you … Gavin?’
Max intervened. ‘He’s my boyfriend, Tommy. That’s all. Maybe there is more, but if so, wait, and it may then be made clear.’
Gavin nodded. ‘You’ll know more tomorrow. But mostly it’s to do with Henry Atwood, my ex. He had a talent for getting into trouble, and meeting people who were interesting as well as dangerous. I just got dragged in along with him.’
Tommy continued to stare. ‘Will he be there tomorrow?’
‘No, Henry lives in Strelzen with his civil partner and their kid.’
‘Sorta,’ admitted Max.
Tommy drained his drink. ‘It’s way past midnight, and I’m too tired for this. Where do I crash?’
‘I’ve got a duvet for the sofa if that’s okay.’
‘Just point me in the right direction.’
They exchanged kisses. Gavin and Max headed for their room. ‘Night, Tommy.’
‘How’s the head, ya idiot?’ Alasdair was not in a forgiving mood. The question was a lot louder and closer to Chris’s ear than was absolutely necessary.
Chris, lying flat out on their frayed and greasy sofa, flinched. ‘Hurts. Oh God, let me die.’
Peter entered with a plastic bag full of ice scavenged from the otherwise empty freezer. He placed it gently on Chris’s forehead. Chris whimpered.
‘Thanks for helping with this daft tit, kid,’ acknowledged Alasdair generously. ‘You’d better head back to the halls.’
Peter shrugged. ‘I’ll see him up to bed first. Will he be alright?’
‘He’ll be puking all night and feel like death in the morning, but yeah, he’ll survive. This isn’t the first time it's happened. He can’t take alcohol and he never learns.’
‘Has he ever been violent before?’
Alasdair shook his head. ‘Nah … that was new. But then, there’s been a lot of new stuff for Chris to take in recently, like Billy’s dick, for instance. Must be the inevitable breakdown. I knew no good would come of it all.
‘So … er, he – I mean Chris – was like, a virgin before he met Billy?’
‘Pretty much. Whatever else has been up him, it hasn’t been a bloke’s cock till now.’
Peter fell silent. He hadn’t quite been able to work out the relationship between Chris and Alasdair, but it plainly wasn’t sexual. He was strangely relieved at that realisation.
Eventually, Alasdair suggested they try to put Chris to bed. They roused him and laboriously struggled to get the drunken man up the narrow stair. Peter had one of Chris’s arms round his neck, and Alasdair used his bulk to push from behind.
Peter laid Chris on the bed, took off his trainers and winced somewhat at the state of his socks, which he also pulled off. ‘Should I … er … undress him?’
‘Better not. Just remove his jacket. Here! Put this bucket next to the bed.’ Alasdair gave a sigh and wheezed back down the stairs.
Peter stared for a while at the comatose young man on the bed. His lank red hair was in his eyes, his cheeks were mottled with the remains of acne and he badly needed a proper shave. Chris would never be good-looking, whatever you did to him, and he smelled a bit. But there was something about his green eyes that had touched Peter. They looked lost, like those of a small and desperate boy struggling to make sense of the world. The man was lonely too. That had also touched Peter, who knew very well what loneliness was.
Peter shook his head as if to clear it. He went downstairs and peered round the lounge door to say goodnight to Alasdair. Then he took the empty Hitchin Road back to the campus.
Tommy, Gavin and Max settled at a table on the National Express non-stop service from Stevenage to King’s Cross. The midday train was full. Voices with northern accents chatted around them. Tommy was looking frankly eatable in a tight faux-leather hooded jacket with a white vest beneath. He wore shades, trainers and grey-blue jeans, and had spiked up his thick short hair with gel. His cross-dressing was just hinted at by a white leather cosmetic bag hanging from his shoulder. He caught Gavin’s eye and snickered. ‘It’s only got my iPod and mobile in it.’
The train made a long stop at Stevenage, time enough for a few late travellers to wrench the doors open and climb aboard. One student just made it before the whistle. ‘Rupe! Hey, Rupert!’
‘Oh hello! What a coincidence. So you’re heading into London too?’
‘Come and sit down with us, Rupe,’ invited Max. ‘How’re you feeling today?’
The young man put his bag on the rack and settled next to Max. ‘It was a good night with Peter and James, and I feel the better for it as a result. To see what Gavin did to Miles and Billy was just the icing on the cake.’ He gave something that looked to Gavin very like a grin.
Rupert seemed a lot more cheerful that day. ‘And now I’m taking Gavin’s advice and distracting myself in the big city.’
‘You’ve got family up there?’
‘Yes. Several cousins close to my own age. I hope to see one or other of them today.’
‘Yours is a big family then, Rupe?’
‘More involved than big, you might say.’
‘Where do your parents live?’
‘Down in Surrey, near Dorking. It’s a family place.’
‘I might have guessed,’ observed Tommy.
‘Well … you’re a bit posh, mate. I’d guess you’re county gentry, aren’t you?’
Rupert shook his head. ‘Those sorts of labels don’t really make much sense nowadays. Where does the middle class end and aristocracy begin? This is no longer the Britain of Anthony Trollope and Queen Victoria. Death duties, agricultural depression and two world wars have ended those times.’
‘You’ve thought about it quite a bit, haven’t you?’ smiled Gavin.
Rupert grew on you, Gavin concluded. His buttoned-up public-school air had been subverted already by Stevenage. His clothing was now student standard.
The four chatted amiably till the train slowly entered the great metropolitan station. People began standing and pulling down bags. Rupert, ready ahead of his companions, gave them a cheery farewell before disappearing into the crowds disgorging on the platform. King’s Cross was full of whistles, shouts and the rumble of diesel engines. Gavin sniffed the city air and enjoyed it.
The Northern Line took the three comrades out to Highgate. Gavin led the way by back roads towards the Village, where they stopped at the long frontage of an eighteenth-century townhouse. The door opened as they approached to disgorge a small blond man in his thirties, who shot out and grabbed Gavin into a hug. They were much of a height. Then he embraced Max.
Andy Peacher looked round. ‘And you must be Tommy’
Gavin enjoyed the unusual sight of a shy Tommy. But the man gathered himself and shook Andy’s hand. Andy put an arm behind Tommy’s back and guided him inside.
The big house was not as full as Gavin had feared, though there were at least a dozen people in the garden lounge. A buffet table was laid out, and drinks were circulating. Andy took charge of Tommy and introduced him around, then left him settled with Max next to Phil Maddox, where he began to get acquainted with Ben, Phil’s partner.
Gavin in the meantime was dragged down between Andy and Matt. ‘So how are you, Gavin?’
‘I don’t believe it,’ Andy smiled.
‘He has a point, Gav,’ agreed Matt. ‘If I were a man who'd lost superpowers and become an ordinary student in a bottom-feeding university, I think I’d be a bit thrown off my stride.’
Gavin was completely at ease with the older couple, whom he dearly loved. ‘I’ve had this conversation with Henry. You don’t know what it was like. I had years on my own at Biscofshalch before Lije turned up. I had a job. I couldn’t travel far, and if I did go into cities I couldn’t talk to anyone, or even be seen by them. It was very lonely.’ He looked over fondly at Max, who was chatting away to a young female executive from Matt’s media business. ‘Life’s incredibly better now.’
‘But hopping instantaneously from continent to continent? Talking with angels?’
‘The angels were Henry's department. I got the demons. Did I mention the fear?’
‘You almost make me feel sorry for you.’
Andy intervened. ‘Hush, Matt. That was a bit insensitive. You reassure me, Gavin. We were worried about you. How’re the studies?’
‘Okay I suppose. They’re the hard bit. I’ve been turning up for class, which is more than I can say for one or two of the tutors. Something always goes wrong. We’re planning to complain to the head of the programme next week. It’s not right.’
‘And you’ve taken on the running of the LGBT Society. Tell me about that.’
Gavin spent the next quarter of an hour delighting Andy and Matt with an account of the Stevie queers. Max wandered over to sit on the arm of the sofa next to his lover and add his views.
They got on to the Billy problem. ‘What a complete bastard!’ exclaimed Matt.
‘You got that right,’ agreed Max. ‘All that interests him is getting his dick up other boys … any boy. He even screwed Chrissie, which frankly I’d need an anaesthetic before contemplating.’
Gavin shook his head. ‘It’s worse than that, I think. He seeks out vulnerable boys. He hit on me, but lost interest when he found I knew exactly what I wanted sexually, and it wasn’t him.’
‘You didn’t mention that, sweets.’
‘Didn’t want to make a bad situation worse. What I mean to say is that he deliberately seeks out the sort of vulnerable gay to whom he can do the most damage.’
‘That’s … awful!’ Andy had his hand to his mouth.
Gavin agreed. ‘He’s like a wolf loose amongst a flock of lambs.’
‘But Gav is fighting back. He saved Peter Lewis from the git.’
‘Well, that was more luck than anything. Peter is not as vulnerable as his shyness might indicate.’ Gavin brooded. Eventually he asked, ‘Where’s Fritzy?’
‘He should have been here an hour ago,’ replied Matt. ‘He’s not the most reliable of men, unfortunately. I’ll check my texts. Yes, here’s one from him. He’s delayed in Barnsbury by a friend turning up. He’ll be along fairly soon, he says.’
‘How’s he doing?’
‘Don’t even ask. Haven’t you been looking at the tabloids and the celebrity mags? He was in a fist-fight in a Mayfair club last week with a premier-league soccer player: a dust-up over the guy’s unwelcome attention to Fritz’s then-girlfriend, a reality star. He still lives in the nineteenth century, does Fritz, when it comes to the ladies.’
‘What happened to the girlfriend?’
‘Guess. She sold the story and pictures to the Sun.’
‘Poor Fritzy. As unlucky in love as ever.’
Andy looked across at Tommy, still chatting to Ben and Phil. ‘That’s a very good-looking boy you’ve made friends with. Is he gay?’
‘We don’t think so. He would admit to bisexual, though. The odd thing is that Tommy may never have had a serious love affair. Looking the way he does, you’d think he’d have had his pick long ago. But no. Tommy’s a bit of a loner, I think.’ Gavin was not going to mention the cross-dressing unless Tommy wanted him to.
‘Shame,’ decided Matt. ‘He’s nearly as pretty as Max. Talking of whom, we’re expecting Davey Skipper to turn up at some time. He said he would when he knew you were coming.’
Gavin beamed. He did not make friends easily, but when he did he loved and cherished them. To be surrounded by so many good friends that afternoon was a real joy to him. He took up a glass of white wine and went with Matt to visit the housekeeper, Mrs Atkinson, another old friend.
Tommy was not as relaxed that afternoon as he might have appeared to Gavin, who tended to assume that everyone was more confident and laid-back than he was.
Detaching himself from Phil and Ben, Tommy strolled around to scout out a glass of wine. He took a bottle of expensive-looking white from an ice cooler and poured himself a drink. When two female assistant producers from Matt’s company smiled invitingly at him, he gravitated over to their corner, near the French windows which opened out on to the garden. He always knew where he was with women.
They chatted about their universities. The two were recent Cranwell graduates. They also delicately attempted to work out whether Tommy was gay. When the drift became clear to him, he smiled and denied it.
‘Oh good!’ one said. ‘You were dressed so nicely, we had our suspicions.’
‘When you’re in Dr White’s house.’ the other added,’ you have to assume that any particularly nice male you’re talking to is gay, unless there is evidence to the contrary.’
‘Tell me,’ Tommy said, ‘this Fritz we’re here to entertain: who is he?’
‘You don’t know? You don’t read the celebs, do you.’
‘Well, no,’ Tommy admitted. Only to get dress tips, he added in his head.
‘Fritz is one of those jet-setting continental princes, like Liechtenstein, Hanover, or Thurn und Taxis: Franz VI of Tarlenheim. You’ve not seen the pictures? He’s gorgeous.’
‘… with an interesting scar across his face, a fencing accident apparently.’
‘He’s very close to the king of Rothenia. You’ve heard of him?’
‘Oh sure. Loved the royal wedding. Queen Harry’s a style icon of mine.’
‘Would I lie?’ Tommy grinned fetchingly.
The women gave him a sceptical look.
He suggested they go out in the garden to enjoy the fine October weather. It was a gorgeous autumn afternoon, the Thames basin blue in the distance below the hill. A warm breeze masked the underlying cold, bringing a champagne touch to the air. They stood on the lawn while he pumped them about life in the media, which he had earmarked as one potential career.
The women decided to go in to get refills, but Tommy said he would stay outside for the moment. He found a bench and lost himself in enjoyment of the afternoon, sipping what he guessed was a very expensive wine indeed. He was just thinking about looking for the bottle to check the label when a stirring from within the house and loud greetings clearly heralded the arrival of the guest of honour.
Tommy rose and headed inside to meet the prince of Tarlenheim, who was, by all accounts, a bit of a babe.
As he went back up the steps a young man was coming out. ‘Hello, Thomas.’