HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Fritz von Tarlenheim opened his eyes early that Saturday. His waking mind told him something good was happening, for a warm, faintly scented body was spooned up around his and a light breathing was in his ear. He turned to find Tommy’s sleeping face close by his. The man’s translucent, bluish eyelids were a striking contrast with the tawny skin of his face. There was emerging stubble round his chin. He was dishevelled and perfectly gorgeous.
Fritz made a resolution. Yesterday he’d had Tommy’s bags placed in one of the guest rooms, a decision which Tommy had patiently accepted. This morning they would be moved into the Metz room, Fritz’s bedchamber. He’d have to think seriously about wardrobe space, but it was time to stand up and be Tommy’s partner to the world, never mind the consequences. And, for God’s sake, he had enough supportive friends, many of whom were gay.
He rolled quietly out from under his duvet, smiling as he saw Tommy unconsciously burrow down into the warm spot he had left behind. He put his legs into a pair of sweatpants and searched out a clean white tee-shirt.
The Tarlenheim palace had only a small permanent staff. With just Fritz in residence, the estate employed a housekeeper on the domestic front; there was no other kitchen staff. The fridge in the cavernous kitchen was full, however, and Fritz poured himself an orange juice as he spun through the menu of his iPhone. He knew someone who would be up already.
‘Fritzy! How long have you been back?’
‘About a week. How’re things?’
‘Summer holidays have begun. I’ve got the Mendamero Men overnighting in Damien’s room. Justy’s in Berlin.’
‘Damn. I was hoping you guys could come over for lunch.’
‘Sorry, but I’ve got the boys till this evening. Henry and Ed are up at Maresku for the day.’
‘Why not all come over, you and the Men? Have you got other plans?’
‘Well, no. The boys did the Spa yesterday. I think they have schemes to hang out in the city mall, but they can get there easier from your place than from out here in the Sixth. I’ll be over at ten-thirty, then.’
‘Great! There’s someone I want you to meet.’
There was a pause before Nate’s smiling voice replied, ‘New girl, eh?’
‘Something like that.’
Fritz laid out the breakfast bar with the fruit and bran cereal he knew his Tommy liked. He poured two mugs of coffee and took them back to the Metz room on a tray. He put them on the side table, leaned over and kissed his lover. ‘Morning, darling.’
The man stirred and said sleepily, ‘Ai du lebst, Fritzku,’ and Fritz’s heart surged.
‘Coffee, baby. We’re having visitors.’ Tommy struggled up, looking alarmed. ‘No, not family … at least yet, but near as. Nate Underwood’s coming over with the Men.’
‘The famous Mendamero Men … and Lance?’
‘Yes, the Lance Atwood.’
‘The Angel of Death? The Destroyer of Worlds?’
‘Let’s hope he’s in a good mood.’
‘I’d better get myself sorted then.’ Tommy swung his long legs out of the bed, caught a robe Fritz threw at him and wrapped himself up in it. He looked around the bedchamber; it could hardly be called a bedroom, being far too grand. Railings ran around the dais on which the four-poster bed was erected, from the time when the prince of Tarlenheim’s waking and robing was a ceremony attended by gentlemen-at-arms, grooms, chamberlains and dependent nobility. A large canvas of the Marshal-Prince of Tarlenheim’s famous victory over the French and Bavarians at Metz filled much of the wall to the right. The room had been modernised and domesticated by Fritz with soft furnishings, a big TV and multimedia centre, but somehow the eighteenth century still predominated.
‘Where’s the loo? Do I need to use a chamber pot adorned with the Tarlenheim arms?’
Fritz laughed. ‘Here’s a trick, baby.’ He opened a wall panel next to the headboard. Within was a thoroughly modern toilet, tiled and brightly lit, plus a set of stairs spiralling downwards. Fritz took Tommy’s hand, and they padded down the steps into an echoing space immediately below the bedroom. A deep marble pool was sunk in the floor of a seriously luxurious bathroom.
‘Bloody hell!’ Tommy observed as Fritz hit a button and the pool began to fill with tumbling jets of hot water.
‘Believe it or not, this was put in under Communism. The interior ministry occupied this part of the palace, and one of Horvath’s cronies had this suite built. Oskar kept it when this part of the palace was restored.’
‘Where is your brother at the moment?’
‘He’s with the king on an informal visit to the United States, which involves some discrete negotiation with the Pentagon I’m not supposed to know about. Rudi’s stock with the American military is still high after the Green Side business a couple of years back, and of course he’s more or less the driving force in NATO now. Rumour is he’ll be the next commander-in-chief, the first European head of state to occupy the post. The queen and little Maxim are with her twin brother visiting her alma mater at Vassar. Oskar’s not due back for a week yet, and then …’
‘You have to meet the family.’
‘You’re going to go through with this?’
‘I love you, Tommy. Yes. And they’ll all have to come to terms with it. Now, fancy a couple of lengths of the bath?’
Tommy heard the Mendamero Men before he saw them. He and Fritz were in the kitchen when the corridor outside was suddenly full of running feet.
‘Fritzy me mate!’ The charging troop was led by a boy with dark, curly hair who whooped and leapt into Fritz’s arms to be swung around. A slightly older and bigger boy, improbably handsome, came dashing in next and was also gathered up and hugged by the prince.
Tommy stared; so this was Lance Atwood. The boy was not just attractive. Even if you did not know his history, there was something uncanny about his face. It was just too perfect, in a way that drew the eye and left the brain wondering what was odd about it. There was also a feeling of presence, most unusual in a twelve-year-old. When Lance’s large dark eyes caught his from over Fritz’s shoulder, he felt a definite shock.
Although it took a while for anything else to register, he finally became aware of two other boys, one stocky, freckled and healthy looking, the other thin, pale and nondescript. It was the last of them who smiled cutely up at Tommy and offered his hand. ‘Pleased to meet you, sir.’
‘You must be Reggie Mayer.’
‘I’m Tommy Entwhistle.’
‘From Britain, sir? Are you a friend of Prince Fritzy’s?’
Fritz in the meantime had dealt with the boys and was greeting a broad-shouldered, open-faced man who had brought up the rear. He surveyed Tommy curiously.
‘Nate, this is Tom Entwhistle, a friend I made in England. Tommy, this is Nathan Underwood, one of Damien’s dads.’
Tommy got a bone-crushing handclasp and a close survey. ‘Hi Tommy! Where did you meet Fritz? Some West End dive?’
‘No, I met him through Gavin and Max. I was in Max’s year at Stevenage. I just graduated.’
Tommy got another intense stare. ‘So … er, how much do you know about …?’
Fritz intervened. ‘He knows everything.’
‘Oh, good! Then I don’t have to watch what I say.’ Suddenly Nathan’s attention switched. ‘Hey! Hey! Boys! Who said you could go digging into Fritzy’s fridge?’
Damien grinned back over his shoulder. ‘Got any crisps, Fritzy?’
‘Back of the cupboard to the right of the hob.’
‘Fantastic! Texas Barbeque!’
The Mendamero Men seemed to know the place well enough to make themselves at home. Tommy soon heard the noise of a war film blasting from the Metz room.
The three adults took their coffees and settled in the lounge, where Fritz placed himself ostentatiously next to Tommy on a sofa. ‘So, Tommy, just graduated?’
‘Upper second in English.’
‘I’ve got a year to go in my botany course here at the Rodolfer. Then … I dunno. I’m looking for an opening in the State Parks service. How about you?’
‘Sorting things out, really.’
‘That why you’re in Strelzen?’
‘No. That’s because of Fritzku.’
Nathan looked a question, and Fritz made his move. He gathered Tommy to him by the waist, and kissed his hair. Nathan visibly froze. There was a silence.
‘What did I just see?’ Nathan eventually asked.
‘Me coming out. Tommy and I are lovers.’
‘Bloody hell! Does Helge know?’
‘You’re the first, Nate.’
‘So Tommy’s the reason you kept putting off returning home?’
‘Yes. Nate, this has been going on for nine months now. You’re familiar enough with my romantic history to know that’s just about nine times longer than my previous longest affair. This is the most real thing that’s ever happened in my life.’
Nathan shook his head. ‘I’d had you down as one of the straightest guys I know, despite your niceness.’
‘Appearances can be deceptive. Tommy’s not the only man I’ve been to bed with.’
‘Bi or gay then?’
‘Does it matter? Tommy’s the love of my life.’
‘And so let the skies fall.’
Fritz looked troubled. ‘Yes, I know there’ll be problems.’
‘To say the least.’
‘I should have driven.’
‘How come you’re suddenly a better driver than I?’
Ed Cornish grumbled, ‘Since we went off road. One more bump like that’ll shatter the axle.’
‘I’ll be more careful.’
‘Oh, don’t mind me. You’re paying for any damage.’
‘Why so grumpy, Edward?’
‘Well, little sweetheart, I have to say you’ve lost me on this particular venture. What are you expecting to find out here? I know anything that Hendrik Willemin does is inherently suspicious, but he must have learned his lesson after the last disaster. This one looks perfectly above board.’
‘Apart from one thing.’
‘His list of investors.’
‘There’s one particular benefit organisation …’
‘The Socialist Veterans of Rothenia.’
‘You have my undivided attention.’
‘It’s the pressure group for the former hard-line-Communist officer corps, many of whom were discharged on the entry of the Rothenian military into NATO. They’re definitely anti-Rudi and they keep a grudge. They had some connection with that bastard Bermann, if you recall.
‘Now what’s even more suspicious is that the directors of this latest Willemin enterprise include several generals not previously associated with the SVR: our mate Brantesberh for one. All people who would not have you in particular as their pin-up boy, Brigadier General Cornish, close friend and crony of King Rudolf VI of Rothenia.’
‘So what’s old Willemin’s connection with this bunch of military dissidents?’
‘No idea. Possibly he’s just after money to relaunch his corporate presence in Rothenia. On the other hand, he has a track record of meddling in extreme politics in pursuit of gain, which may be one reason the SVR has linked up with him.’
Their car emerged from a forest track into the full light of a July afternoon. Henry pulled up on a hill crest with a panoramic view of Lake Maresku, known in the literature of the national tourist board as the Rothenian Sea.
Ten miles away across the blue waters lay the resort town of Piotreshrad, the hills around it built up with villas and dachas. Pleasure boats and yachts crowded the waters near its harbour. Behind them and surrounding the lake rose wooded highlands. It was all very beautiful.
Just below where Henry had parked the car, a building site by the lakeside was in full operation. Even though it was a Saturday, dozens of men in hard hats were at work. Foundations had been laid and walls were rising. Roofs were being tiled on some of the wings. Towards the lakeshore, a big swimming pool had been excavated. A small pier to which several bobbing boats were moored .jutted out into the lake.
Ed produced field glasses and surveyed the activity. ‘Looks like what it should be … a health resort.’
Henry shrugged. ‘Or high-class barracks.’
Ed put down his binoculars. ‘What are you implying?’
‘Don’t know yet; ask me in a couple of weeks. You can drive back.’
Ed laughed. Pulling his small lover towards him he planted a kissed on his dark hair. ‘Love you, baby.’
That evening, Lance cuddled deep into Ed’s lap as they all watched the latest Russell T. Davies sci-fi epic from Britain on satellite.
. Ed caught Henry’s eye across their coffee table and mouthed, ‘Needy.’
‘What’d you and the Men do today?”
‘Nathan took us to see Fritzy in town. Then we went down the mall. We met Helen Debies and her friends. It got a bit boring after that.’
‘Alright. He’s got a friend staying. English guy … Tommy something.’
Henry nodded. ‘That’ll be Gavin’s big mate from Stevenage, Tommy Entwhistle.’
Lance stirred. ‘Yeah, that’s him.’
Henry mused. ‘I didn’t know he was Fritzy’s mate too. I suppose they met at Matt and Andy’s.’
Lance reared his head. ‘Can we go to England? I’d like to see Uncle Ricky, Auntie Helen and Caitlin.’
Ed smiled as he hugged his son. ‘But summer’s only just starting for you, baby. I thought you and the Men would have big plans. You usually do.’
‘It’s all just boring. Same old stuff.’
‘You okay, baby?’
‘Not catching a bug, are you?’
‘I’m fine.’ Lance subsided and concentrated on the TV. Henry gave Ed a shrug.
Though it was still quite early for him, and he was allowed up later in vacation time, Lance opted for bed at ten. He kissed and hugged his dads before disappearing to his room.
Ed invited Henry over to replace Lance on his lap, and they snuggled. ‘Something’s up with angel-boy.’
‘Damn right. Not like him at all, this listlessness. You think he’s coming down with something?’
‘Could be. Or it may be that he’s missing his regular training sessions now summer’s here. He hasn’t got a competition till September.’
‘Or maybe it’s his age.’
‘Sooner or later it has to come, Ed. Puberty hits boys as early as ten nowadays, and our Lance is a well-grown lad at twelve. You must have noticed the wisps of hair in his pits and the throatiness of his voice. Bet he can’t sing soprano with any steadiness now.’
‘Oh dear God! That means we have to have the talk,’ Ed groaned.
‘And it’s you who is going to do it. I do emotional crises; physical ones are your business.’
Ed shook his head. ‘We knew he’d be gay. Tobias said as much. Gay kids have such fraught adolescences too. Poor little Lance.’
‘Listlessness, changes in behaviour, lack of communication. The boy’s discovering all is not as society prefers with his orientation. God! What if he’s fixated on some unsuitable older kid at the International School? Y’know, the sort that has tattoos and piercings, smokes and does drugs, and thinks he’s so fucking cool! I knew it’d end up like this. Parenthood will be the death of me, and I’m only twenty-eight!’
Ed’s mobile buzzed. He answered and listened intently. ‘You’re kidding!’
Henry sat up. Ed continued listening with the occasional interjection, exclaimed ‘Fuck me!’ and then hung up.
‘Was that the ministry?’
‘Nope. It was Nathan. Brace yourself. Fritzy’s come back to Rothenia with a boyfriend!’
Henry stared and then blushed.
Ed gave him a narrow look. ‘Why aren’t you surprised that Fritzy’s gone gay?’
‘Er … I never did tell you this, but after Gavin disappeared, Fritzy and I had a brief thing.’
‘So Tommy Entwhistle’s not his first. You were!’
‘Tommy Entwhistle? Gavin’s tranny mate? Yes, but I imagined he was just experimenting, and it’s been all girls since then. I thought I’d keep it quiet. Anyway, it was well before you and I got back together again.’
‘I wasn’t being censorious, just surprised.’
‘Well, I’m envious of Tommy. Fritz was amazing at seventeen. Imagine what sex with him is like now!’ Henry got a look from Ed that made him anxious to change the subject. ‘So … er, Lance. The talk. Tomorrow?’
‘I’ll think about it, little babe.’
‘That’s my fearless soldier … ya wimp!’
‘Don’t see you volunteering.’
‘I have books which might help … there’re websites too.’
‘And stop being so helpful. It’s tantamount to gloating.’