HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
Henry’s backside hurt like nobody’s business when he woke, but he wasn’t going to mention it. In one way, he didn’t even mind, because it reminded him so forcibly of his and Ed’s first sexual experiments. It made him feel connected with his emotional past, more in touch with his soul. What unsettled him was the further evidence last night’s urgent coupling gave him about Ed’s state of mind. Although Ed usually liked a lot of foreplay, this time it had been all about assertion and possession.
Gavin. The boy was literally haunting him and Ed. What did Henry feel about him after all these years? Henry pondered the big question as he stood in their mess of a kitchen making coffee. Henry was so abstracted he ran a basin full of hot water, squirted in detergent and actually began washing up the stacked plates and mugs, something he would never have done in his normal state of mind.
Looking into his heart, he concluded that the Gavin he had once known and deeply loved was not the Gavin he would meet now, if indeed they were ever to meet. The brave, shy boy who had so depended on him even while supporting him now lived in a strange relationship with the everyday world: part of it, and yet not part. Gavin knew things and had seen things no normal human being ever could. To Gavin, Henry must seem like a small child, straining and jumping to see past a hedge over which Gavin himself had a clear view. Gavin had gone beyond death to commune with forces whose nature Henry could never understand.
Such minds could not meet. Yet it occurred to Henry that there was more to people than simply minds and understanding. Gavin had been an intensely sexual and physical boy who had lost himself in their mutual passion. Was that now all gone? Was he a spiritualised being, or was he still connected with the world by feelings of love, passion and affection?
Ed came up behind him and kissed his neck as Henry was abstractedly working at the accumulated grease and burn marks on their only frying pan. Those powerful arms wrapped around him and he melted into them, as he always did.
‘Morning sweetheart, how’s the bum?’
Henry chuckled with relief. It seemed they were going to talk. He took the plunge. ‘Hurts in a very familiar way. What the fuck was all that about?’
Ed hugged him tighter. ‘I wanted you bad last night, little babe. I’ve wanted to take you like that for quite a while, but somehow we’ve been on eggshells lately.’
‘But no longer.’
‘No. We’re grownups and it’s time to talk. Babe, I have to say this. I’m worried and jealous. Please don’t think the less of me because of it.’
‘I’ve sensed it, Ed, and I think I know why.’
‘You do, huh?’
There was a weary chuckle in Henry’s ear. ‘Often thought of by both of us, though rarely referred to. But now we must sort him out, because he’ll be the end of the search when we get to it. Had you thought you cause him problems?’
‘Clearly not. Babe, you’re quite something ...’
‘... for a human being.’
‘Oh yeah, and if you can’t throw him off, then maybe it’s the same for him. Maybe you’re tying him to the world in ways he finds disturbing. Maybe that’s why he avoided you during the Dressner business: he’s scared of meeting you.’
‘Amazing. I scare the shit out of a being who is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. You seriously think that?’
‘Actually I do. I too knew Gavin, and we have this much in common: we both love you, sincerely and deeply, which establishes a powerful link between us. If it was as deep for him as it is for me – and I’m quite confident it was – then I’m pretty sure he still has insurmountable feelings for you. And then there’s Mark Tolmie.’
‘The so-called Elijah. I don’t follow you.’
‘I think about this a lot. Gavin called Mark back as his associate when I guess he could have chosen to resurrect anyone. Yet although Mark’s cute, he’s decidedly straight and for that matter a little homophobic, from what Phil says.’
‘So you think Gavin picked a guy to work with who couldn't possibly distract him from his memories of me? That’s a bit ... disconcerting.’
‘It may even have been subconscious.’
‘Do angels have subconscious minds?’
‘Gavin’s not an angel; he’s a human being for all he’s a very unusual one. But how much his humanity acts on his present behaviour is the really big question.’
Henry turned in Ed’s arms to face him. ‘Babe, thank you.’
His lover smiled down sunnily on him. ‘It was time for this conversation. I’m glad we had it.’
‘Now it’s time for something else.’
Henry laughed. ‘Let’s just go about it a little slower. And get the lube.’
Anthony could not believe this. The boy from Thomasville was in his arms again. They were dozing in his bed after yet more glorious sex. In the bath house it had been sordid but still good. Here in his one-bed flat in Cranwell, it had been astonishing.
Enoch had insisted they drive directly home, where he had been shedding clothes as he walked in the front door. Naked, he had squatted on the arms of Anthony's one and only chair and made its owner go under him to suck and tongue at his pink, wrinkled anus while he stroked himself erect. He squirmed and giggled as Anthony could not stop himself from nipping at his perfect little arse. Then he had placed Anthony on the floor and impaled himself on his dick, clasping it tight with his rectum and massaging it as he moved, or so it seemed to Anthony. Finally, he had lain on his back, raised his legs and offered his hole to be pounded, which Anthony did with passion, the boy almost bent double under him. All this with hardly a word, even in the car back from the church.
It was everything Anthony had been desperate to try with another man, and here it was, delivered to his door. Now he had to know more about this mysterious and utterly desirable young man.
As they lay there together on the old carpet, Anthony noticed that even after sex the boy's scent was unusually clean and fresh, almost fragrant. It was the same between his buttocks. Enoch did not seem to sweat.
Thinking about it, Anthony realised Enoch had been equally cool and dry in the humidity of Thomasville. He whispered into a small, porcelain ear, ‘Enoch?’
The boy stirred and gave a light and perfectly careless laugh. ‘Feeling better?’
The boy turned in his arms and grinned in his face. ‘You’ve lost some weight since Thomasville. Not sure if I’d have let you try that last move otherwise.’
‘What were you doing in North Carolina?’
‘Just passing through.’
‘And what are you doing here in Cranwell? Don’t tell me it was a coincidence. You’re British too.’
Anthony got no direct answer, which hardly surprised him. Instead Enoch asked, ‘Why did you go on a diet? Did those bulky old American guys at the bath house make you rethink your lifestyle? You must have shed nearly sixty pounds. It suits you. You’ve rediscovered your inner waistline.’ He gave another little laugh.
Anthony stared. ‘It was long overdue. And I suppose it was the effect of you, so slim and graceful. I couldn’t see how such a boy would want sex with a man like me. So I got the nerve finally to change my eating habits and take some exercise, just in case someone like you turned up again ... which you did.’
‘You look good, Anthony, very attractive. You had a nice face even before you slimmed down. Now you’re quite desirable. You must have had to buy a new wardrobe.’
‘How do you know my name? I never told you.’
‘Oh, I just knew.’
‘Be serious. You’ve been stalking me, Enoch. Why? If it’s blackmail, I’ve got very little to give anyone.’
Enoch shook his head. ‘Now that’s sad; you can’t understand why anyone might want to be with you unless they had ulterior motives.’
‘It doesn’t make sense. Why would you be in America, just to seduce someone as unimportant as I am? Think of the money you had to pay to go there. I simply don’t get it.’
‘Why shouldn’t it be all about you?’
‘When did you know you were gay, Anthony?’
‘Er ... I’m not gay ... I mean ...’
‘Don’t be foolish. We’ve had sex twice, and I’m not the only man you’ve done it with. What about when you were in university?’
Anthony blushed furiously. There had been little Charlie in the Christian Union. They had got drunk and things had got out of hand in the room they had shared on the Gospel study weekend at Cleethorpes. Charlie had sucked him and then tried to fuck him. It had been embarrassing the morning after, and he had lived in fear of Charlie telling anyone. Charlie never had, but he had never suggested they get together again either, which Anthony had half-hoped he would.
‘And if I were to investigate your hard drive?’
Anthony’s mouth sagged. ‘How did you know?’
‘Darling, we all do it. As dirty secrets go, it’s a little unimpressive. The fact is, you think about men sexually all the time, try as you might to stop it – and you do try, don’t you?’
Anthony thought about denying it, but stayed silent.
Enoch sat up and drew his knees to his chin. There was very little hair on his perfect legs, which added to his boyish appearance. He looked down at Anthony.
‘Your inclinations don’t match your profession.’ He stated it quite bluntly.
Fear surfaced. ‘So it is blackmail. You’re going to want me to buy you off with church funds to keep you from exposing me to Bishop Jack. You work for the press!’ Anthony began to panic. A yawning gulf opened in the pit of his stomach. The perilous logic of his situation finally hit him. He stared up at Enoch.
For his part, the boy looked down on him coolly with what Anthony thought was something like disapproval. ‘There is a certain gap between the aspirations of your sect and your personal life.’
‘Sect? We’re the Church of England.’ The weak assertion seemed rather feeble as Enoch’s large dark eyes calmly surveyed him, neither judging nor condemning him. He finally said, ‘I’ll resign.’
Enoch shook his head. ‘Before you do that, Anthony dear, I have a few things to explain to you.’
Anthony’s stomach continued to sink. ‘I won’t do anything to harm the Church.’
‘It’s nice that you’re loyal, Anthony. But you really need to know what it is you’re being loyal to before you make that sort of declaration.’
Henry delayed their departure for London. ‘I can’t leave mum and dad just now. It’ll have to wait for next week. Anyway, Phil says he has nothing to report. That’s where we expected movement, and there’s been none.’
‘So when will we go to Britain?’
‘Dad’s going to announce his resignation this Sunday. I want to be there for him.’
Ed nodded. ‘You’re right, little babe. I’ll ring Oskar and he can tell Rudi.’
‘And I’ll get Magda to change our tickets to Heathrow for Tuesday. She’ll be delighted at the inconvenience I’ve caused her.’ Henry looked meditatively at his lover. ‘Sweetheart, where’s your uniform?’
Ed grinned. He tended to wear bits of uniform and battledress even off duty. ‘There’s no need for it now, babes. I’m going undercover. I actually went over to Mikhelstrasse yesterday and bought four shirts from the new Republic store.’
‘And they weren’t camouflage?’
‘Nope. Though one was green.’
‘I’d all but forgotten what you look like in civvies. It’ll take some getting used to. Who’s looking after the Fusiliers when you’re away?’
‘Major Anders will take care of the boys. I’ve got no worries, apart from the fact that they’re in garrison here for the next two months. You know how they can misbehave in Strelzen.’
Henry tittered. Ed continually talked of his regiment as if it were composed of mischievous school kids. ‘I’ve fixed up with Will Vincent that we do lunch.’
‘I need his take on what’s going on at dad’s church. He’s well in with the choir there. He gets to know things I never hear, being the priest’s son.’
They met Henry’s boss at a small café to the rear of Erchbischofsplaz in the Old City. It did a nice range of American-style sandwiches and gave efficient service, which was not always the case in the tourist-infested locations of Strelzen.
Henry chewed on a club, after picking out the tomatoes, which he always forgot would come with it. His boss smiled indulgently at him.
Will Vincent looked unreasonably young and open-faced for a media mogul in his early thirties who was steadily rising into the world class of entrepreneurs. He’d spent a year buying into channels and options on satellites. His network, Eastnet, was now the main source of news and entertainment in Central and Eastern Europe. His interests also included channels and production companies in England and the United States. Yet somehow he was still the quirky, friendly man he had always been.
‘Why don’t you take the firm’s plane, Henry?’ he suggested. Eastnet now proudly owned its very first private jet, parked on the apron at Strelzen Municipal Airport.
‘Thanks Will, but we didn’t get it just so it could ferry me around.’
‘Bet you booked economy to Heathrow too, didn’t you?’
Henry shrugged. ‘Old habits, Will. Business class seems so wasteful.’
‘Even when you’re not paying for it?’
‘I don’t want to add to the Rothenian national debt, now the country’s doing so well.’
He changed tack. ‘What’s the feeling in the congregation at St Edwards?’
Will sat back and gave Henry a close look. ‘Most of the people in the pews have no idea anything's going on. At least the choir members are more clued in than the rest. They tell me the Wilmots and their friends are the troublemakers at the heart of it.’
Henry searched his memory. The Wilmots were a couple who had moved to Strelzen from Berkshire last year. Gerry Wilmot was a computer programmer in his thirties, formerly a member of a church in Windsor, he had said, which Henry now suspected was one of the Conservative Coalition’s congregations. Gerry had put himself forward as a member of the chaplaincy council as soon as he had arrived, stating that he liked to ‘get involved,’ and had seemed miffed not to be elected. He had then started organising Bible-reading groups without consulting Henry’s dad, as Henry recalled.
Will continued, ‘Gerry Wilmot’s got quite a following, but not in the choir. His wife made some snide comments about the choristers being more interested in their singing than what they were singing about. St Edward’s style doesn’t suit the Wilmots, it appears. Anyway, they are the archdeacon’s source, I’d guess. What’s more, they’ll be the ones who’re behind the cold-shouldering of the gay and lesbian couples by the welcome group.’
‘What! Is dad aware of that?’
‘Of course not. They know who his son is. It’s not what people say, Henry, it’s what they don’t say. When was the last time you talked to Gerry Wilmot?’
‘Now you mention it, he always seems to be in a different part of the room at parish functions.’
‘He’s ignoring you, Henry. He’s a rabid homophobe. He targets members of the congregation he thinks are like-minded. He’s aiming to be a warden at the next election. My feeling is he will be, and then things will get really nasty at St Edward’s.’
‘And you reckon he was always aiming to unseat my dad?’
‘I don’t have much time to keep my eye on things, Henry. But yes, in retrospect it appears he had a plan, maybe even came to Strelzen with one.’
‘Well, yes. This business has got me mobilised, and it’s long overdue I was. For years the liberal press has been proclaiming the death of religion in Britain. The news media ignores the churches. I’ve been abroad for so long I’ve not seen what’s been happening, any more than you have.
‘I’ve been ringing round the past few days, however, and what my contacts have to say is intriguing. Behind the scenes in recent years, conservative and reactionary groups have been slowly infiltrating the protestant churches, whose power structures are easier to take over. These types recruit their own congregations, which then flourish. They have wealthy backers and bring optimism, energy and certainty wherever they go. Dispirited congregations find them irresistible.
‘It’s only recently the liberal press has woken up to the “American-style religious revival in Britain,” as they call it. What we’re seeing here in Rothenia's ex-patriot community are the ripples of a much bigger splash.’
Henry frowned. ‘So where’s it all coming from?’
‘Some of my English contacts say it’s America. Instead of evangelising South America or Korea, an effort is now being made to reconvert the older nations where Christianity is in decline. But I can’t believe that idea. For one thing, it would imply there was some sort of central direction of conservative Christian evangelicalism, which is nonsense. No, it’s all very mysterious and vague. Information is hard to come by, as the secular press has little understanding of the churches or much interest in them.
‘The most sinister thing is this – and it only occurred to me yesterday: the right-wing press in Britain has begun to align its agenda with the Conservative Coalition, whose bishops and representatives are suddenly being quoted everywhere.’
Henry sucked at his upper lip, a habit he had when concentrating which he had never been able to break, despite years in front of cameras. ‘It’s pretty obvious this is the danger St Fenice warned about. I think therefore we have our apostate bishop in our sights, this Lewis bloke. He’s here in Rothenia and he’s already after Mendamero through my family.’
‘Maybe, although in fact his office is in Prague,’ Will objected doubtfully.
Ed chipped in. ‘Colonel Wagram’s at work on Lewis's background. IOur Sichertsdeinst office in the Czech Republic has been instructed to keep him under surveillance, beginning as soon as he returns from some conference for bishops he's attending in Jerusalem. It’s his archdeacon we’ll be seeing at St Edward's on Sunday.’
Henry stopped sucking his lip and jutted out his chin. ‘Then that’ll be our first battle with the enemy. I just wish it wasn’t my dad who’s in the firing line.’
Dr Phil Maddox closed his e-mail with some relief, wondering how he could ever have thought the Internet was fun. There was no escape from it.
A subdued knock on his office door caused him to bark, ‘Come in!’ He smiled at the triangular pretty face that appeared. You shouldn't have favourite students, but Max Jamroziak was one anyway. He was a very cute, gay third-year whom Phil had helped as he came out. Max had taken all Phil's courses and was a responsive and dedicated student, a pleasure to teach.
Unfortunately, Max was not a happy boy. He slumped into Phil's armchair.
The boy sighed. ‘He stood me up again, the bastard. He phoned after I'd been waiting half an hour and said he'd fallen asleep in front of the telly. He cancelled on me, the git; said he was too tired after hockey.’
‘You didn't believe him?’
Max sulked, something he did beautifully. Phil could not imagine anyone standing up Max, but apparently his would-be boyfriend Miles did it a lot.
‘It's mind games, Phil. He gets a thrill out of prick-teasing me. Fact is, Carol told me he was drinking with his hockey mates at the Slug and Lettuce. I dumped him by text. I said there wasn't any point meeting in person to do it, as he'd be fucking late.’
Phil was surprised. Miles was Max's first serious fling, and – predictably – it had been very passionate in the first few weeks. He had thought it would last longer than this. ‘Sorry it isn't working out, Max. But there's plenty more ...’
‘Don't say it, Phil. If you do, you'll be the third today. Can you fix me up with an older guy like your Benny? I just want someone I can count on for a change. Never mind that Miles has an awesome butt.’
Phil subconsciously noted that had answered his internal question as to whether Max preferred to top or bottom.
They exchanged a few sympathetic remarks and then got on to the essay tutorial they were supposed to be having. Phil began to wonder whether he ought to invite the boy out with him and Benny on one of their nights in town. Stevenage was not a great place to be a gay student, and he knew Max was financially crippled by three years of debt. Max was stuck in Hertfordshire and had yet to sample the metropolitan scene, though it was only a train-ride away. He was still wondering about it when the boy rose to his apologies. Phil would speak to Benny, who would surely have something sensible to say.
Phil's next appointment was waiting as Max left. Four more and his afternoon list would be over. The final girl was leaving when Phil glimpsed another hovering figure. ‘Come in!’ he yelled at the half-seen boy.
‘You!’ There was a surge of adrenalin that made Phil momentarily light-headed, yet at the same time strangely excited.
The boy who had once been Mark Tolmie grinned. ‘You don't look all that surprised.’ He took a seat uninvited.
Phil stilled his racing heart. He forced himself to stay silent for a moment while carefully studying the young man who seemed in all ways to be a normal nineteen- or twenty-year-old. With his jeans, low-slung belt, hoodie and twisted-leather bracelets, he could easily have been the student he was masquerading as. He even had one or two acne spots. The illusion was perfect, but it was only an illusion, for Mark Tolmie had died a suicide over a decade before.
‘I had expected something like this.’
Mark raised his eyebrow in a question.
‘I've been hearing things from Rothenia. Henry had some warning from the past that we were about to get dumped on by the supernatural again.’
‘Really?’ Mark was looking intrigued.
‘Not a message from your office then, I take it?’
‘We’re not civil servants with line managers and things like that. Do tell.’
‘No chance. It’s you who came to me, so you tell me what’s going on.’
‘Tsk. You’ve got a bit hard, Phil. I thought true love would cheer you up a little.’
‘Why are you here, Mark?’
‘I prefer Elijah. Mark died a long time ago.’
‘Where’s Gavin, or should I call him Enoch?’
‘The boss is around. Look Phil, I am here for more than a social call, it’s true. But I hadn’t expected all this hostility.’
‘Can you be surprised? When you turn up, danger isn’t far behind – and it usually threatens people I care for.’
‘I don’t cause the danger, Phil. You hang around with people who are ... at the centre of things. In a way, you’ve chosen danger. Anyone who comes near Mendamero takes his life in his hands.’
‘So you know what this is all about.’
‘I wish I did, but we have a problem, Enoch and I.’
‘The enemy this time is a lot more powerful than we are. He can cloak himself and his purposes so we’re nearly as much in the dark as you are.’
‘Nearly as much?’
‘We have one lead, but it’s very risky. He has terrifying servants, and frankly I’m scared shitless.’
‘Keep going. Who is this enemy?’
‘I couldn’t tell you his true name – the air would catch light at the sound of it – but you can call him the Antichrist, which more or less sums him up: the false priest and king, though he’s more than that.’
‘What name does he go by?’
‘His power is such that I could not say, any more than apparently your other source could.’
‘So how can we help?’
‘He needs to accomplish three things before he can triumph. Principally, he must destroy the treasure we guard. Of course that means Enoch and I must also perish ... really perish. The third thing is he must meet Mendamero in combat and overcome him. After that, his kingdom will be established and he will be prince of the world.’
‘And the authorities you work for will permit this?’
‘There are rules you cannot understand by which the universe is governed. There are greater ends and huger struggles than human minds can cope with. Just take my word for it. The best I can do is to warn you, and Mendamero in particular. Tell him this from Enoch: he has more power than he knows. Got that?’
Phil was still struggling in the cataract of revelations. ‘Er ... yes, I guess so. What power?’
‘Excuse the evasion, but now is not the time. If you knew the answer to that question, all would truly be lost. There is reason for caution.’
‘I hate this endless guessing game.’
Elijah slumped a little in his seat and gave a tired grin. ‘Me too, mate. Life was so much simpler when I was living.’
Max Jamroziak wandered across campus to the Union. He was truly miserable. Miles had seemed everything he wanted in a partner: hot in bed, bright and articulate. They had met in a queue for concert tickets; they both loved The Feeling and had shyly acknowledged to each other a crush on Dan Gillespie Sells. A drink was followed by a date, the concert by bed. It was the sex Max had always dreamed of, so what had gone wrong?
The sex at first so freely given had all too quickly become conditional. Miles had unexpected appointments, a headache put him off, there was training for his hockey. Max became suspicious that Miles had other boyfriends, maybe a steady partner back home. There was denial, a big row and then reconciliation. For a while it was red hot passion again, before the old pattern reasserted itself. Sadly he acknowledged that Miles got as much out of manipulating him as out of getting fucked. There was clearly no love in the relationship.
Max looked into the coffee shop. Catching sight of Miles’s mate Alex, he quickly crossed the atrium to the darker space of the bar. It was late afternoon and the place was beginning to fill. He ordered a snakebite, then looked round for a seat. He saw no friendly groups to join, so took one of the standing tables at which another student was leaning.
He disconsolately sipped the sweet drink he had a weakness for while trying to find some comfort in his life. He heard a sigh and was surprised to discover it had not come from himself but from the student next to him. He focussed.
The other young man was smaller than he was, slim and dark. Max could only see his profile, which was clean-cut and clear apart from a small mole near his mouth. The boy was in denims. Max was struck by his good looks, despite his whole attitude of someone deeply depressed.
The boy jumped and stared at Max in surprise. Then he said the weirdest thing: ‘You see me?’
‘What? Of course I do. You’re not exactly invisible. Are you okay?’
His companion continued to stare at him silently for so long that Max became creeped out. At last the boy gave a visible tremor and said, ‘Er ... yes, I'm fine. Thanks for asking. I’m waiting for a friend, that’s all.’
‘Name’s Max. You look like a second year, what course are you on?’
‘I’m not registered here.’
‘You at the HE College in town?’
‘No, another uni.’
‘Oh yeah. Got a few mates there. What subject you doing?’
‘I’m doing English.’
The boy relaxed. ‘Is the course any good?’
‘I’m loving it. I’m thinking of staying on for a master’s.’ Max smiled sunnily at the boy, suddenly having a good feeling about him. ‘Tell me, just out of curiosity, what do you think about The Feeling?’
‘You know, the group?’
‘Don’t know them. I’m a bit out of touch with the music scene.’
‘Are you for real?’
‘Er ... mostly. Tell me about The Feeling.’
Max did, and shared his iPod.
‘This is good,’ the stranger said. ‘Who’s the lead singer?’
‘Dan Gillespie Sells.’
‘He does the lyrics too. Listen to this one. It’s called Rosé.’
The boy listened, and suddenly Max noticed tears on his cheeks. He looked at Max. ‘This is about coming out, isn’t it?’
‘Thought you were gay.’
‘You did? You too?’
‘Oh yeah. You never did tell me your name.’
The boy looked deeply into his eyes, and to Max it seemed that fireworks had gone off in his head.