HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
Ed Cornish woke after midnight to find himself alone in the bed. The duvet was rolled back on Henry’s side and the depression his body had made in the mattress was cold. From outside the windows the chill of the clear autumn night reached into the room. They always slept naked and Eddie’s hospitality did not run to dressing gowns, so Henry was not likely to be far away.
Ed rose and padded quietly to the adjacent bathroom. He found Henry sitting on the closed loo, head in his hands, staring down at the tiles. When he looked up with an almost unnerving hesitancy, Ed reached down and exerted his strength to lift Henry’s small body against his powerful chest. Cupping his buttocks, he took Henry’s place on the toilet, nestling his lover into him. Henry whimpered a little and curled into Ed’s warmth.
For a long while they cuddled together silently, Ed smiling faintly down on Henry who looked up mutely at him. They both seemed to be waiting for something, but neither man knew what it was.
Finally Henry whispered, ‘I’m scared, Ed.’
‘I know, baby. Scared of lots of things, just as we all are. But which are you more scared of, the Enemy or Gavin?’
‘You always read my mind.’
‘Since that time in Glottenberh when we were eighteen and you broke up with me, my Henry’s moods and mind have been my whole study. After eventually working out why you did it, I resolved I’d never be taken by surprise that way again. You’re everything to me, baby, my whole life. I watch the clouds of emotions cross your face; I monitor the movements of your eyes; they’re the weather of my soul.’
Henry’s mouth sought out Ed’s nearest nipple. He licked it erect and suckled it. Somehow the act of intimacy comforted them both.
Ed smiled, stood effortlessly and carried Henry to their bed, surrounding him the way he knew Henry loved best. Finally he whispered into his lover’s ear, ‘Darling, I think what you fear most is hurting me.’
Henry sniffled a little, then breathed, ‘Yes.’
‘Don’t worry, baby. I’m made of strong stuff.’
‘I know that, but ...’
‘I don’t doubt you, baby. Yes, you loved ... you love Gavin. But I can’t be jealous of him, poor waif.’
Henry stirred. ‘Waif? He’s a pretty omnipotent dude for a waif.’
‘Henry, he had no choice in what happened to him. Fate and his own courage wrenched him from the world and your love. It was unfair and cruel, however necessary. No matter where he is, I know he’s lonely and maybe a little lost. Gavin was a boy who really needed to love as much as to be loved. I doubt that’s changed. I think you both still know deep down you love each other, but who has he got close by to comfort him? No one. Then the Max thing happened.’
‘Didn’t you hear what Max himself said? Gavin was surprised the boy could see him. It shouldn’t have happened. Gavin cloaks his movements, but Max was able to penetrate the veil. Was that because Gavin subconsciously wanted to be noticed in his loneliness? Or was it for a greater purpose? I’m sure that, despite malignant demons and the world tottering on the brink of chaos, a spirit of justice is working things out. There are purposes beyond our own, beyond even those of the thing that’s calling itself the bishop of Cranwell.’
‘I guess ...’
‘Now, would you like me to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”?’
A small chuckle exploded somewhere near the warmth by Ed’s right nipple. ‘I do love you ... so much.’
‘I know, baby mine.’
Five minutes later, he heard the familiar slow breathing which told him Henry Atwood slept. But Ed lay patient and awake, holding him till dawn coloured the sky outside their window.
Gareth sat unmoving in the corridor outside Anthony’s office. The American seemed to have become a permanent feature at the palace since the previous summer’s tour of the States. Anthony could not see how a cultured and urbane man like Bishop Jack could put up with such a monosyllabic presence on his permanent staff.
Anthony liked to chat and pass the day amiably with those around him. It was part of the reason he had become a clergyman. He was genuinely interested in people of all sorts, their happiness and sadness. But there was no getting past Gareth’s reserve, so in the end Anthony had given up. The man made him nervous too. At times – like just then, for instance – it was almost as if he were a machine idling, waiting for a button to be pushed. At other times Anthony caught the man focussed on him with a blank gaze, which he imagined was not friendly.
He returned his attention to his desk and reviewed his electronic planner. This was the usual time for the deaneries to set up a timetable for confirmations. He unloaded most of the appointments on the suffragan bishop of Grimchester. Bishop Jack was normally too busy with the affairs of the wider church to be pinned down to local matters. Still, one or two were inevitable, and Bishop Jack was amenable as long as they weren’t too intrusive.
Anthony tapped on the bishop’s door. He opened at the summons and explained the nature of the commitment.
‘Fine, Tony, fine. I leave it to your discretion ... oh, but not St Sexburga’s.’
‘Willerby church will be fine. I can just dip in and out, do the sermon and witness. St Sexburga’s will expect the mitre and staff and the pontifical mass. I can’t be doing with that. You know my feelings.’
‘Sorry sir. I’d forgotten. I’ll see if one of the retired bishops is available.’
‘Excellent. Anything else?’
Anthony cursed himself for not remembering his boss's aversion to what Bishop Jack called the ‘empty flummery of ritual’. Unable to recall when last the bishop had presided at a Eucharist, he checked back in the diary and was surprised to find it had never happened in all the time he had been the bishop's domestic chaplain. He rather supposed that must be something of a record, even in the modern Church of England.
He switched the screen to the next day's calendar, which was quite busy: planning meetings and video conferences with churchmen in Nigeria in the morning followed by a prayer lunch with the elders of the Riverside megachurch, and then media engagements in the afternoon.
A new appointment had been fitted in for two o’clock. It was a journalist from Strelsenermedia ICC. Anthony Googled the company and discovered it was a Rothenian outfit, though its operative had an English name. Maybe the job had been subcontracted to a British firm.
Rothenia. That reminded him. He had to complete the bishop’s itinerary for Central Europe in November. They would be visiting Strelzen, he seemed to recall.
Ed drove with Phil next to him. Henry was in the back, going over his notes. They had spent Thursday morning trying to amuse Phil with anecdotes of their student days in the city. Sitting in a new Starbucks in the High Street (‘It used to be a card shop when we were here’), they had watched the traffic pass the windows until the conversation lapsed. Eventually Ed had asked generally, ‘Anyone fancy lunch?’
Ed rolled his eyes. ‘Speaking as a serving soldier, boys, I have to warn you that it’s a bad idea to go into action on an empty stomach. It affects your blood sugar and reaction time.’
Phil looked concerned. ‘You think it’ll come down to fighting? That’s not really my thing.’
‘And I’ve never so much as thrown a punch in my life – well, apart from the time I got in a fight with Ricky when I was seven. I cried when it connected. I can still feel it.’
‘Christ, what a pair! What commander ever had such poor luck with his troops?’
Phil sneered, ‘You may mock, Colonel Cornish, but I can do a wicked job deconstructing the literary parallels in your battlefield rhetoric.’
‘You bet. And I can find all sorts of cultural and historical precedents for your decisions, and critique them in neat Rothenian prose.’
‘Fantastic. But to answer your question, there won’t be combat, or at least not the physical sort. Henry’s in the captain’s chair on this one. Journalism and leading questions are his business, but I have to ask, Henry: Are you going to show our hand?’
‘No, babe. To use your sort of discourse, this is a reconnaissance mission.’
‘What do you think we’ll learn?’
‘We’ll be able to put a face to the enemy, and maybe more.’
‘I have no idea.’
Ed was pondering this open-ended exchange as he turned up past the university into the tree-lined streets of Cranwell’s Northside. He was not happy going into a dangerous situation without clear objectives. Henry was Henry, however, and Ed had learned to have faith in his lover.
Finding Oxford Road, he followed it till they reached the northern fringes of the city. A right turn took them round the back of Eddie’s mansion to a broad avenue of large and well-appointed villas.
‘This is it,’ proclaimed Phil, looking up from the Cranwell AtoZ.
Henry’s internal organs defied gravity briefly. He was glad he had refused lunch.
Ed took the car up the neat gravel drive and parked on the long frontage of the bishop’s house. They knew their roles. Ed was the driver and minder, Phil the photographer and assistant. He had borrowed Eddie’s very impressive Nikon digital camera. (’Hey dude! Don’t look in the memory unless you’re some really sick sorta homo!’)
The doorbell brought a birdlike middle-aged woman who twittered around them, then ushered them up to the office of Reverend Willis, the bishop’s domestic chaplain.
Henry looked the man over cautiously. In his short-sleeved, pale-blue clerical shirt he seemed a pretty unlikely agent of evil. He appeared to be about Henry’s own age, quite a tall man and not bad looking if you were into windswept blonds. He had provided tea and biscuits and seated the party from Strelsenermedia after Henry had made the introductions.
‘I’m sorry, the bishop’s last meeting is overrunning. He may be half an hour yet. I hope that’s not too inconvenient.’
Henry directed his sunny smile at the man and said a few deprecatory words. In fact, he was glad of the opportunity to quiz one of the people nearest his nemesis.
The chaplain’s glance was flickering over the group. Henry decided to stand, while Phil and Ed remained sitting mutely on two easy chairs in the corner. Phil, tanned and impeccably dressed by his lover Ben, was looking relaxed and gorgeous; with the camera round his neck, he might have been on a model shoot.
‘So tell me, Mr Atwood, how is it you work for a Rothenian firm?’
‘Rothenia's quite the place for enterprise at the moment. I rode the wave of opportunity set off by its accession to the EU. Strelzen, the capital, is a beautiful city as well as a wonderful place to live and work.’
Willis nodded. Henry had already registered the continual drawing of the man’s eyes towards Phil Maddox. His gaydar pinged. Well I never! he thought. The bishop’s chaplain’s a homo! I’ll bet his grace the Antichrist doesn’t know that ... or maybe he does. Who can even guess at his purposes and plans?
The chaplain responded, ‘I’m looking forward to visiting Rothenia myself fairly soon.’
‘No. The bishop has a European tour worked out for November and December. We hope to be in Strelzen at some time in early November. I’ll be finalising the dates today in fact.’
‘That’s very interesting. Tell me Mr Willis ...’
‘Tell me, Anthony, would the bishop be interested in a talk-show spot our station has? It’s possible to conduct interviews in English ... we have to do that for the big British and American acts. We just use subtitles in Rothenian.’
‘I imagine he might be very interested indeed. You should mention it to him.’
‘I’ll do that.’
The phone on the chaplain’s desk rang. He answered it, smiling at Henry. ‘He’ll see you now.’
Henry’s heart gave a few extra beats. ‘I’ll go in with my cameraman and take the shots first, before we proceed to the interview.’
‘That’ll be fine.’
Phil got busy masquerading as a news photographer, while Henry gave the Antichrist the once-over. Having met quite a few bishops in his day he recognised this man as one of the species. Bishop Jack projected the confidence of office and the upfront sympathetic demeanour of a professional clergyman and counsellor. He was younger than most bishops, slim and obviously fit. His hair was still blond, though beginning to thin at the temples. He wore a purple clerical shirt under a black cardigan, but no pectoral cross as a more traditionalist bishop would have done.
The very normality of everything disconcerted Henry, giving him a momentary qualm. The bishop’s desk sported an open laptop and several framed pictures of family. A child’s drawings were amongst the notices pinned to a board on one wall. There were more framed photographs on another wall, of the bishop meeting the great of the earth: presidents, prime ministers and celebrities. His telegenic smile beamed down from every direction. No visitor could have any doubt that this was a clergyman who inhabited the very highest circles.
Quirkily Henry wondered whether it was worth the effort just to intimidate ordinands, curates and Mothers’ Union secretaries. There was a gargantuan ego on display here, undoubtedly, but Henry knew enough about the institutional church to have met that quality in its leaders before.
Phil was wrapping up, and winked at Henry when he turned away from Bishop Jack. As he left, the bishop shook his hand and asked him for a preview of any shots considered for publication. It was all exactly what one would expect. Henry no longer had any doubt that some external power was screening them from discovery, though whether Enoch, Elijah or something else he could not guess.
Now it came to the point, he was not exactly sure what to say to the man … if indeed he was a man. He hesitated as the bishop looked expectantly at him while resuming his seat. Henry sat down in the indicated chair, covering his nerves by scavenging in his shoulder bag for pen and pad.
In the end it was the bishop who broke the silence. ‘Do you mind if I record the conversation? Not that I think for a moment you'll misquote me, but experience proves it makes good sense for both our sakes.’
‘No, no, not at all. Most of my interviewees do it.’
‘I notice you don’t yourself tape them.’
‘No. Not that my recall is wonderful, but I find writing in shorthand helps me maintain concentration on the flow of what's being said.’
‘So what would you like to ask me?’
Henry’s professionalism kicked in. He began with questions about career and family, dutifully noting the responses.
At length his questions became more cogent: What was the relevance of God in the modern world? What was the bishop’s reaction to the latest church attendance figures? Could he give his views about the new statement of the liberal Free Episcopalians? What was his reaction to being touted as the next Archbishop of Canterbury?
Bishop Jack laughed at that one, seemingly with genuine amusement. ‘That’s a career-killer!’
Henry’s keen intellect pounced. ‘So you see your vocation as a career?’
The bishop’s eyebrows contracted in surprise for a moment. And as they did the first odd thing happened. His image wavered, and Henry saw not the athletic bishop in his early forties but a thing like a monumental effigy, huge of head with brooding emerald eyes, as if carved out of granite by a demented sculptor with no sense of proportion. Although gone as quickly as it had appeared, like the flick of a video slide, the vision left Henry breathless.
When he came to, the bishop was saying, ‘... we are all a mass of mixed motives, I suppose. But of this I’m sure, God called me to my present work.’ And strangely, Henry believed him.
Henry resumed the interrogation, seeking to tease out the links between the bishop and the political establishments of Britain and the United States. It seemed he knew everyone who was anyone, just as the photos on his ego-wall indicated.
Henry tested the bishop on relations with other faiths, finding him difficult to pin down. ‘How do you deal with Islamic claims to have the truest revelation of God?’
‘They are as entitled to their opinion as anyone else, of course.’
‘So you maintain that Christianity has a monopoly on truth?’
The bishop looked enigmatic. ‘Truth? What is truth?’
‘John 18:38.’ Again it happened. The bishop’s image flickered once more, leaving Henry with the briefest impression of an enormous, glowing wheel of fire, rotating slowly in the air.
Henry was getting unnerved and disorientated by these unbidden visions. The bishop in the meantime was frowning. ‘Do I assume you’re from a church background?’
‘I’m a vicar’s son.’
‘Indeed? Which diocese is he in?’
‘Central Europe ... until recently.’
The frown deepened. ‘Atwood. The chaplain of Strelzen is an Atwood. Is he your father?’
‘He’s just resigned.’
‘Oh? Moving on to a new post?’
‘No, hounded out of his old one. He blessed a homosexual partnership in his church.’
The bishop shook his head. ‘These are matters of ecclesiastical discipline. The canons of the church are quite firm about unauthorised forms of service ... still, that was hardly a resigning matter.’
‘My father found he was no longer in sympathy with the church he had grown up in.’
‘It’s a time of change in world religion, Mr Atwood ... may I call you Henry?’ Henry nodded; it was rather something to be on first-name terms with the Antichrist. ‘Henry, what you see at the moment is a second Reformation. Change can be uncomfortable, but it must happen. Religion is gaining a new grip on national life, and I’m proud to be a part of it. You should see the hundreds ... thousands coming to the front of our new churches and testifying to Christ as their personal saviour. Lives are being transformed, hope is renewed, and communities rebuilt.’
‘Inclusive communities, bishop?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that if you won’t let a homosexual couple stand in front of an altar and proclaim their love and commitment before God, they may think you don’t want them in your community.’
‘My opinions are on record about that issue, Henry. One can love the sinner but not the sin.’
Henry began to get hot under the collar, yet now was not the time to testify to his own beliefs. So he simply nodded and closed his notebook, excusing himself for having taken up too much of the bishop's time already. Then he remembered to ask if the man would like to appear on an Eastnet features programme in November when he was in Rothenia.
Bishop Jack smiled affably and replied that it would be a pleasure to be interviewed by someone so intelligent and informed. Henry clasped his hand as they separated. It felt in every way a normal hand, warm and dry, with a firm grip.
When the door closed behind him, Henry made his way back to the chaplain’s office deep in thought.
Ed and Phil looked up at him earnestly from their cups of tea as he came in. He gave them a slight nod. Saying his farewells to the chaplain, he promised to send an advance copy of the article he was proposing to write for the Ruritanischer Tagblat. He made sure to leave his office contact details.
Once they regained the gravel sweep outside the house, Ed finally released a deep breath and asked, ‘How the fuck did it go?’
It was Thursday evening and they were all assembled at Eddie’s place. Davey and Max were so flushed and exhilarated it didn’t need much guessing to work out what they had been doing for a lot of the day. Max was also looking different. Davey had been active with his imagination and plastic. A new hairstyle, jacket, expensive jeans, jewellery and top had transformed the casual student into someone who would not have been out of place on the cover of Attitude. Only the red scrape on one cheek recalled that this boy had been hunted by homophobes on the streets of Soho two nights before. Henry knew Davey well enough to understand that the makeover was not all about Davey's own pleasure. He had been endeavouring to distance Max from any remaining trauma left over from that life-and-death struggle.
Tanya Atkinson had just served up one of the most magnificent meals Max had ever eaten. ‘She has help in the kitchen, dude,’ Eddie assured him. ‘She can’t do everything.’
‘You eat like this all the time?’
‘Christ yeah, but then I have to work out for two hours to get rid of it. The gym ain’t just for play in this house. It gives me an edge in the desperate battle to stay under 170 pounds.’
Davey was meditative. ‘Tell us it all again, Henry.’
Phil too was pensive. ‘And his image wavered on two occasions, you say? What do you think was going on?’
‘It seems to me it was when he was taken aback. It must have affected the concentration he needs to maintain the illusion of his humanity.’
Phil pursued the point. ‘That’s odd, though. If this being is as powerful as Elijah told us, then the portion of his strength he would need to maintain his disguise would be insignificant. So how come all of a sudden he has a problem?’
‘Because I believe his power was being cancelled by the force protecting me from him: sort of like interference on the frequency he was using.’
Ed agreed. ‘I guess that might explain it. It would mean Gavin has some pretty amazing resources himself. What a guy!’
Henry turned to Phil. ‘You’ve got those printouts?’
Phil had gone straight to the local Boots and paid for a set of prints of his afternoon’s photos. He pulled out the folder and spread the snaps of Bishop Jack around the coffee table.
Max looked at them intently. ‘Wow! Not a bad-looking guy for the spawn of Satan.’
‘He’s not the spawn of Satan, Max,’ grinned Henry. ‘Perhaps it’s time to introduce what’s known about him.' He pulled out his notebook. 'Over a thousand years ago, a French abbot called Adso – check my notes, hang on – yes, his monastery was Montier-en-Der in the south. Anyway, he wrote a prophetic tract describing how people in those days viewed the coming of the Antichrist. Listen to this: “Christ came as a humble man; he will come as a proud one. Christ came to raise the lowly, to justify sinners; he, on the other hand, will cast out the lowly, magnify sinners, exalt the wicked. He will always exalt vices opposed to virtues, will drive out the evangelical law, will revive the worship of demons in the world, will seek his own glory and will call himself Almighty God. The Antichrist has many ministers of his malice. Even now in our own time we know there are many Antichrists, for anyone, layman, cleric, or monk, who lives contrary to justice and attacks the rule of his way of life and blasphemes what is good, is an Antichrist, the minister of Satan.”
‘You see, he works for the cause of evil in a different capacity from Satan. What else? He will subvert the Church and persecute true believers; he will extend his power into all the governments of the earth; eventually he will proclaim that he is himself God and seek to slay Enoch and Elijah, who will resist him. Also there’s this: he will try to erase all the relics of Jesus on earth.’
Eddie's face was grim. ‘This Adso dude knew his stuff. Doesn't he tell us how this son of a bitch can be taken down?’
‘Apparently, the Antichrist will be struck low in the moment of his supreme victory as he sets up his throne of power in opposition to Christ’s, but that’s all.’
Ed shook his head. ‘Helpful.’
Phil intervened. ‘There’s this one other thing. I took some casual shots when the chaplain guy wasn’t looking. These are ones looking from the window as the bishop’s car was being driven round the house.’ He put some photos on the table.
‘Fuck!’ exclaimed Max. ‘That’s the Soho guy – the dangerous fucker who led the gay-bashing gang! Recognise him, Davey?’ He was pointing at shots of a black-suited thickset man wearing those perpetual shades.
Henry pursed his lips. ‘So it looks like we did get the right address for the Antichrist after all.’
The conversation continued. Eddie and Phil were engrossed debating the significance of the images Henry had seen when the bishop’s disguise had faltered. They began pulling Bibles, concordances and art-history books out of Eddie’s library.
Henry lost interest. Picking up his gin he went to the French window of the lounge, where a moth was fluttering around one of the external lights in the dark outside the pane. Almost imperceptibly a familiar feeling grew on him. He was trying to place it when he noticed that the frantic courtship of the moth with the instrument of its death was slowing, until soon the insect was motionless in the air. The room behind him became still and silent. All at once he heard a familiar voice falling on his ear, apparently without the benefit of sound.
‘Hullo, Henry dear.’