HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Reggie Mayer was a boy with a mission. His little face radiated determination as he dismounted from his bike in the Sudmesten lane in which the Debies family lived. It was a nice house with wisteria growing round the door opening on to the street.
Helen answered the bell. ‘Hello, Reggie. Come on in.’
He greeted Mrs Debies, then followed Helen up to her room. It was the first girl’s room he had been in. There were a few dolls, it was true, and the smell of the room was definitely not that of a boy’s, but it was not as bad as he had expected. There were lots of posters of Queen Harriet on the walls.
Reggie booted up his Dell and demonstrated his card options. ‘I sorta like personalising. Lance has got a really cool swimmer motif.’
‘You’ve seen him dive? He’s totally awesome.’
‘We’re in the same club.’
‘Oh yeah. Well. Awesome?’
‘He’s pretty good.’
‘And he’s really funny too!’
‘If you like that sort of humour.’
‘Well … he’s your friend, I know, but the girls think he’s a bit … immature.’
‘Up himself. Now Daimey …’ She glowed. ‘He’s funny and modest and smart. Everyone thinks he’s so cool and brave.’
‘I know, but …’
‘And those eyes of his … you could just swim a length in them.’
Reggie winced, unable to entirely disagree with that last observation. Deciding things were not going the way he wanted, he changed the subject. ‘Have you thought what image you’d like on your card?’
They talked for a while, and Reggie discovered that Helen was very witty. It gradually dawned on him what Damien and Lance saw in her. She wasn’t like one of the Year 8 Alpha girls, all posing and tartiness. She was bright and easy to be with, almost like a boy, just not so competitive or brash. Reggie was beginning to learn a lesson: though he might be gay, there was more to females than just their femininity. They could be friends.
‘I’ll get them printed on card and laminated. You’re number 15, you know. King Rudi is only 14!’
Helen laughed. ‘How about Queen Harry?’
‘Number 5. She was Daimey’s choice.’
Helen looked startled. ‘Really?’
‘We used to say she was his girlfriend. He wouldn’t talk about anyone else for ages.’ Reggie suddenly became aware that Helen was not amused by that observation. Indeed, she had gone quite cold. Now what had he said?
‘How do the earrings look?’
‘Perfect. I like them dangly and gold, and the necklace is just right.’
‘You do say all the best things.’
‘The burgundy off-the-shoulder number is great; it displays your legs and pretty ass beautifully, baby. Those heels must be like walking on stilts, though, leblen. Right! Let’s go show the world how a boy should dress.’
‘Tarty but coordinated.’
‘Absolutely, baby.’ Fritz was genuinely delighted with Tommy’s drag, and Tommy could sense it. It did his confidence no end of good.
Arm-in-arm they descended the steps of the Tarlenheim palace, the stares of the footman and porter following them as they got in the rear of the waiting limousine. Fritz pleased Tommy by not handing him in, for as he said, ‘I’m not trying to be a woman. I’m me! I’m Tommy!’
A short drive took them to the Flavienerplaz, which was, as usual, crowded that summer evening. Tommy, every inch the slim and elegant model, did not draw exceptional attention from passers-by. Only those who got close and interested gave a double-take when they recognised a male face through the blusher and eyeliner.
The pair walked into Ribaud’s. The door staff milled around the prince of Tarlenheim and his … companion. There might have been looks, but nothing would be said. Alfons, the maître, was positively jovial and dealt with Tommy as if cross-dressers were the norm in his establishment.
‘Mr Atwood and General Cornish will be joining us in about twenty minutes, Alfons. In the meantime, what would you recommend for our English visitor?’
‘Some of the fruit wine from the Volwart distillery, Serene Highness? Last year’s was very fine.’
‘You’ll like this, Tommy, a Rothenian speciality.’
They were sipping the thick, tasty, powerful wine from small glasses when their casually dressed dinner companions arrived. Tommy and Fritz rose. Henry went straight to Tommy, hugging and kissing him. Ed, a delighted grin on his face, followed on.
‘What about me?’ Fritz asked plaintively.
Henry rolled his eyes. ‘You’re boring. Tommy is new and oh so interesting. Pleasure to meet you.’ They took their seats as the waiters closed in.
‘So you’re the legendary Henry Atwood.’ Tommy had his chin on his hands staring at the small man of whom he had heard so many strange things.
‘The one-and-only. Disappointed, sweetheart?’
‘If you don’t do something magical and unbelievable before dessert, I might be.’
Henry laughed. ‘Watch my wizardry when we divide the bill between four cards. I like your boyfriend, Fritzy, cheeky tart though he is. Thanks, Tommy, for all you did for Gavin in Stevenage.’
‘It wasn’t much.’
‘You were his friend when he needed one. That was a lot. He loves you dearly, which means we all do too.’
‘He and Max said they might be out here in September after the schools have gone back. They want to do Munich first, then see friends and family here.’
Henry grinned. ‘Hear that, Ed? Gavin’s coming back to Rothenia.’
‘He can stay with us. Lance will expect no less.’
Tommy observed, ‘I met Lance and the Men the other day. Lance is an amazing-looking boy …’
‘… but just a little too perfect, you were going to say?’
‘I was. It draws the eye.’
Henry nodded. ‘Angels are like that. They’re bad at imperfection, which is of course a very human thing. So when Lance constructed a body for himself, it was way too well-proportioned. Now, after the Great Council altered him to be permanent and mortal, he looks odd. The perfection is being perpetuated as he grows. He’ll be more beautiful than a dozen Matthew Whites by the time he’s an adult, which is a scary thought for a parent. When he’s in his Speedos for diving, people comment on it, as if he were a Greek statue of a boy come to life.’
Tommy pursued the point. ‘How mortal is he?’
‘Fully. If he stepped in front of a bus, he’d be smashed up just like the rest of us would be.’
‘Will he truly die?’
‘D’you know, we have no idea. He was put in his human body so he could grow. Before then he was kept at a childlike emotional and intellectual stage by the Powers. But we were never told what would happen when he grew up. He doesn’t know himself, I think. My feeling is that he will live his whole human life through, barring accidents. After that he may once again resume an angelic state, though not in his old role, which he will no longer be able to occupy once he matures.’
Henry pondered a moment, then looked up. ‘Something Tobias said to me and Ed made me think there is a plan for Lance which was kept from us, but whether it will come to pass in this universe or outside it, I have no idea.’
Ed contributed, ‘For us, he’s a great gift. A complete and genuine boy. He’s no Pinocchio. For all his origins, he is very human … and so loving it almost breaks your heart when you see him asleep.’
The starters arrived in a cloud of waiters. When they had settled, Ed asked, ‘So what’s with you two then? Judging from tonight, you’re coming out as a gay, Fritzy. At least three mobile cameras in this restaurant have, to my knowledge, been recording your evening out with your tranny boyfriend. It will get around.’
Fritz looked about the room furtively. ‘God! I thought this would be less high-profile than Mayfair. Still, the logic of Tommy demands I stand up as his guy, and that’s that. I don’t feel gay, though. We’ve talked about this, haven’t we, men leblen? We neither of us can accept the gay label. Both of us have slept with women, and neither of us is turned off by the idea, even though we’re fucking each other like rabbits. So you won’t be seeing us down the White Tree after tonight’s meal.’
‘Hey! Who said we’re going to go there tonight?’ Henry protested.
‘I could see it in your eyes. You’re such stereotypes: caged parents cut loose from the kids and out on the town.’
Ed grinned. ‘It’s karaoke night and Henry and I are so into Sonny and Cher.’
‘I got you, babe,’ warbled Henry in his perfectly horrible singing voice.
‘No more, please,’ moaned Fritz in agony. Tommy was wetting his silk panties by then. Fritz grabbed his shoulder and kissed his cheek just as a presence loomed up next to their table.
Fritz looked up and went white. ‘Oskar! God! When did you get back?’
Lance was concentrating so fiercely on his multiple twist during his afternoon diving practice that it took a while for Pauline Willerby to get his attention from the board as he practised his spring. ‘Sorry, Mrs Willerby!’ he shouted down.
‘Don’t worry, Lance dear. But your mobile phone has been buzzing now for the past half hour. I think it’s Damien trying to get you.’
The boy nodded. He leapt, executed a triple somersault and made a perfect entry into the end of the pool, specially deepened by Ed and Henry so that he could make his dives from their high board in complete safety.
He hauled up out of the water and took the towel from the housekeeper. Rubbing his hair, he found his mobile on the kitchen counter. After pouring himself a juice he checked his missed calls to see that the last six had indeed been from his best friend.
‘Hey Daimey? Wassup?’
A sombre voice answered his cheery greeting. ‘Can I come round, Lance? Iss important.’
‘Sure. What’s the problem?’
‘I’ll tell yer when I gets there.’ Damien hung up abruptly, which was not like him at all.
A concerned Lance ran up to his room and found some shorts and a tee. He wasn’t allowed to drop his wet Speedos in his bedroom because they tended to stink it out with chlorine, so he dumped them in the laundry room. Then he went out on the deck.
Damien never used the front door, preferring to find his own way in through the back fence and shrubbery. Lance knew this, and was waiting to give his friend a casual wave. Damien trotted over and took a seat across from him. As if by reflex, Lance stifled the sexual thrill that pulsed through him whenever Damien was near. He could sense the confusion and depression emanating from his friend and looked a question.
‘I’ve had a row with Helen,’ Damien eventually sighed. ‘We’ve broken up.’
‘What?’ yelped Lance. So fixed had the Damien-Helen relationship become in their little circle that it was like hearing his parents were splitting. ‘How did that happen?’
Damien ran his hand abstractedly through his curly hair. ‘Got no idea, mate. It juss sorta … did. One moment we was talking about nothing – as we do – then she wuz accusing me of not loving her, and fancying other girls. Then she wuz crying and I didn’t know what to do. I got a bit angry and said she wuz juss being a girl … and I sorta called her … stupid.’
‘So she threw me out and told me we wuz finished, and I could go off with Queen Harry for all she cared!’
‘Where did that come from? Totally random!’
‘Girls! Can’t make any sense of them. But I thought she wuz different.’ Damien sank into emotional lethargy.
Lance had no idea how to help his friend. Eventually he suggested they get a drink and go up to his room. They played a few games, but Damien couldn’t get into them. Teatime came and Lance invited him to stay. Because neither Henry nor Ed had returned, the two boys had dinner served up by Mrs Willerby. Lance was a little relieved to see that Damien’s appetite was at least intact. He had read of people pining away from broken hearts.
As they were stacking the dishwasher, Damien whispered, ‘I doan wanna go home, Lance. If I do, Nathan will bug me wiv questions. Can I stay here?’
Lance nodded, his heart suddenly fluttering. It had been a while since Damien had last shared his bedroom.
They were still playing games when Mrs Willerby looked in to check on them. Nathan had given his okay and Damien could stay. At nine, Damien yawned and said he was washed out. The boys got ready for bed. ‘Can I borrow pyjamas?’
‘Sure.’ Lance found a pair which were getting too small for him. As his friend stripped, he tried not to stare at Damien’s groin, where a fascinating smudge of pubic hair had begun to sprout. When Damien turned and bent to pull the bottoms on, the curving muscle of his amazing little backside caused Lance’s head to reel. They slid under the duvet. This had happened time and time before, but it was all so different, now that Lance knew his sexual fate.
Damien squirmed up and put his head next to Lance’s. Lance felt his friend’s breath on his neck, which did nothing to calm his raging libido. They chatted desultorily for a while, until the mental exhaustion from Lance’s teeming erotic imagination and Damien’s depression eventually sent them both under.
When Lance woke in the early hours after dawn, he found himself looking into Damien’s pretty face, and thought, He really is beautiful! It was tragic he could never possess and enjoy that beauty for himself, even if Damien had now been chucked by Helen. He lay there memorising his friend’s long lashes, the brown curves of his tanned face. He avidly drank in the boy’s scent, hot and interesting. It was no good. He couldn’t get back to sleep unless he calmed down. With a stifled curse he headed for the bathroom.
His libido temporarily tamed, Lance returned to stare at the sleeping Damien. He resolved that – too tight or not – the pyjama bottoms he’d lent his friend would be his sleepwear for the rest of the week. He gave an internal sigh. Had he got it bad or what? Was this what Helen felt when she looked at her pretty boyfriend?
And what do I do about that? Lance wondered. Suddenly he had an idea and made a noble resolve.
Oskar did not join their table, for he was at Ribaud’s with a junior minister for defence procurement. Standing over them, he swapped civilities for a good few minutes with what Tommy thought was pretty amazing coolness, but, as he talked, Tommy seemed nonetheless to catch many covert stares from his lover’s brother.
Conversation on their table died down when the cause of the shock resumed his seat. Tommy kept sneaking looks across the restaurant at His Excellency Oskar Franz Serge Marie Josef Maximilien, formerly prince of Tarlenheim, now the count of Modenehem, chief of staff to the king of Rothenia and renowned political operator: the man who many believed had been responsible for the Elphberg restoration.
In his mid-thirties, Count Oskar was a decidedly handsome man. He clearly spent a lot of time in a gym, though Tommy thought his shoulders and neck had seen too much work. Fritz was slimmer and better proportioned to his eye. His gaze flickered between the two. Despite the striking resemblance in their blond good looks, Oskar had an intellectual tautness about him that his affable brother lacked … fortunately, in Tommy’s view. Oskar’s boyfriend would have to be really something to be able to deal with him on equal terms, Tommy concluded, but then remembered that the boyfriend was no less than Peter Peacher, the anointed heir of the family empire.
Suddenly, Tommy’s fairy-tale romance with a handsome prince began to look a lot more complicated than it had in Stevenage, or even London. He shifted his gaze back to his lover and was troubled to see how distracted and shaken Fritz seemed at having been pitched unprepared into a difficult encounter. Although Fritz must have known it had to happen eventually, it had come on him before he’d had time to steel himself. Catching a troubled glance from his lover, Tommy began to be nervous himself.
Henry and Ed sensed the unease and valiantly provided the conversation that was failing on the other side of the table. They ran through all their best Mendamero Men stories and got the required laughs from Fritz and Tommy, but the fizz had gone out of the evening.
Ed called for the bill, and when the necessary advanced math with debit cards had been done and the tip agreed, they rose. Fritz said farewell to Henry and Ed, then led Tommy over to his brother’s table. Oskar looked up at them both, coldly as Tommy thought. Tommy felt his hand gripped.
‘Tomasczu and I are going back to the palace, Osku.’
‘We need to talk.’
Oskar nodded, but he kept his face neutral. ‘We will, I promise you.’
They left without further comment. It was getting dark outside, though light still lingered in the evening sky. Fritz took Tommy’s arm and they walked out through the busy tables of Ribaud’s and on to the Flavienerplaz. The square was still crowded. The tram hub was now busy: rumbling carriages were drawing up at the low platforms to disgorge revellers ready to hit the upmarket clubs and late-opening café-bars of the Fourth District.
Fritz and Tommy attracted the eyes of the crowd, Fritz for his looks and celebrity, Tommy for his drag. Long before they reached Wenzelsgasse, they felt as though they were a public performance.
‘This wasn’t such a good idea, Fritzku.’
There was a certain grimness to Fritz’s reply. ‘Welcome to my world, baby. It’s always like this for me in Strelzen. I should move back to Modenehem and commute to the bank.’
A wolf whistle from a group of youths across the road caused Fritz to tighten his grip on Tommy’s arm convulsively. A mocking stream of Rothenian which Tommy did not understand was shouted in their direction.
‘What did he say?’ hissed Tommy.
‘You really don’t want to know.’
‘Fritzku, you would find it hard to believe the things that came my way in Stevenage, and it wasn’t just words either.’
‘Well sweetheart, that nice young man with the shaved head was celebrating the fact that the prince had found his queen. There were some other things, but that’s the gist of it.’
Tommy let go of Fritz’s arm, turned to confront the gesticulating group and popped a hip. ‘Foxtrot Oscar, bitches!’ he yelled, giving the group a decided finger.
They stared. If they didn’t get the allusion, they appreciated the nerve. They cheered Tommy and grinned over their shoulders as they passed along the street, blowing kisses at him.
Fritz stood there, looking stunned. ‘Darling, I love you,’ he eventually said.
‘Let’s get home,’ Tommy sighed. This was too much like Stevenage.