HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
‘I feel like Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past.’
‘Sorry?’ The seraph looked puzzled.
‘You know, Dickens. When Scrooge was taken from scene to scene of his past life. Obviously English literature was not included in your background.’
‘Obviously not. You’re making a metaphorical comment on your experiences?’
Henry sighed. ‘Something like that.’ He looked out on the mountainscape before them. With afternoon passing towards evening, he was feeling very cold indeed. His teeth began chattering and he trembled convulsively. ‘I hope you can find somewhere warm for the next hop.’
The seraph smiled. ‘That was my plan. But this one is difficult to calculate. Give me a moment.’ And he surprised Henry by frowning and telling off numbers on his fingers. Then he once again smiled. ‘Ready?’
Henry nodded, and this time the flash of light did not take him by surprise.
They stood at a crumbling stone parapet. It was warm, and as Henry looked around, he at once recognised where he was, though it was not a place he had ever visited.
They stood on the roof of the Al Aqsa mosque, the city of Jerusalem lying around them in the late-afternoon sunshine. Behind them, across the plateau of the Mount, was the golden Dome of the Rock. In front of them and below the mosque were the ancient Temple steps. To their left was the deep valley of Kidron. Beyond that – rising dark and littered with tombs and ancient churches – was the Mount of Olives.
‘This can’t be the same time as we left. It should be past midnight in Jerusalem.’
‘That’s why it took a while to calculate. This is your past.’
‘How far in the past?’ Henry cast his eyes round. There were men in Arab dress everywhere, but also many men in dark western suits, some wearing red, tasselled fezzes. It could not be that distant in time from his own day. Then Henry gasped. Some western soldiers – British – in khaki uniforms drove down the valley in three jeeps, weaving around a line of donkeys driven by boys. This had to be the 1940s, perhaps during the Second World War. Henry reflected that his parents were not yet twinkles in his grandparents’ eyes. He was entranced. Casablanca was one of his favourite old films. He took a while to drink the sight in.
‘Okay, why are we here?’
But the seraph was abstracted. ‘Do you think I need a name?’
‘A name. The trouble is, names fix identities, and being unfixed is what we’re all about, beings such as I. Give me a name and I’ll be pinned down to a particular appearance. Take this body: it is attractive isn’t it?’
‘And you’ve had sex with it, I believe.’
For some reason, Henry blushed. ‘No. Not exactly the version of it you’re wearing. But yes, I did have sex with the original Jed Scudamore, though in a very convoluted way, if you get my meaning.’
‘I believe so. The story is familiar to me. But the point I’m pursuing is that if I am to fix myself in a name and a physical identity, I could not do better than borrow this one.’
‘You might consult Jed first.’
‘You think it's necessary?’
‘Could you do it?’
‘I really believe that’s going too far.’
‘If you are to be an individual, perhaps it might be best to choose a form that is distinctly yours, unique to you. To be honest, I would find that much easier when communicating with you.’
‘I do see your point. The problem I’m finding is that I can only copy forms. So far I've not created a new one. I begin to despair of my limits.’ The seraph appeared to withdraw into himself and concentrate. He put his head down. The Jed form literally crumbled into dust and fell to the ground in a cloud. Henry stared, feeling a little sick in the stomach. Then the dust under foot stirred and spun itself into a column, from which a new form coalesced and solidified. It was another boy, perfectly naked and of a beauty so awesome as to be painful to look at. It was as if Michelangelo's David had come to life.
The boy grinned at Henry as he turned. ‘Too much?’
‘Uh huh! That much perfection is inhuman.’
The features shifted slightly, though the body maintained its perfection, not least the thick, heavy penis being pushed upwards by the very large balls underneath. The boy’s hair was longer, blond and curly, the eyes a little more deep-set. The nose became less prominent, indeed slightly snubbed, and sprinkled with freckles that spilled out onto the cheeks. ‘How’s that?’
‘Still beautiful, but much more human and cute.’
‘Could you love a boy like me?’
The seraph looked very pleased.
Henry reflected that this was uncannily like shopping for a coat with a friend. ‘One thing.’
‘Clothes. There's no one to see us up here, but it is open to view.’
The seraph laughed. Then he was wearing an open-necked white shirt and long dust-coloured trousers. He had on old leather shoes without socks.
‘Only from one perspective.’
‘That’s naughty, Henry. Now a name. Think of one for me. Isn’t that what humans do? Give names to those they love?’
‘Who says I love you?’
The seraph pouted. ‘You have no reason to be hurtful.’
Henry felt a little churlish. ‘I’m sorry. You are growing on me. But it’s actually quite difficult, now I’m put on the spot.’ He glanced around. ‘I do have a thought. If you were to go up to the Holy Sepulchre over those roofs, you’d find what was supposed to be the burial place of Adam, the first man. Aren’t you the first man to be fashioned by a seraph? Why not be Adam?’
‘Adam. The man. I, however, am anything but a man, even in this shape. Try again.'
‘This is hard. Just an ordinary name, or something Classical or biblical?’
‘I’m happy to be guided by you, dear Henry.’
He pondered a name suitable for a celestial being. It was not easy. The ideas that flowed through his mind either sounded trite or pompous when applied to the smiling seraph waiting patiently for his verdict.
Then the seraph laughed, seemingly tired of getting nowhere. ‘How does Brandon sound?’
‘A little unlikely, if the truth be told.’
‘Much the same. Look, I do have a favourite name, and it’s sort of applicable. You know the story of Tobias and the angel?’
‘Naturally, but the angel had no name.’
‘Even so, I’ve always liked Tobias; it’s biblical and angelic, if only by association.’
The seraph beamed. ‘Then Tobias it is.’
It was rather touching to see the seraph-boy’s lips move as he tried out the name under his breath. Henry had to admit this celestial innocent was getting under his skin. He reached for Tobias’s hand, pulled him close and kissed him. Tobias allowed it. Though he was inept at returning the kiss, still his breath was clean and fresh, and Henry detected something of a charge to it.
As Henry broke off he smiled quirkily at Tobias. ‘So tell me why we’re here.’
Davey and Phil were alert for the return of the expedition. Seeing the trio trudging back across the lawn, they realised by their friends’ tired demeanour that there was no good news to look forward to. Ed just shook his head at their anxious query about Henry.
That didn't keep Max from fizzing over their encounter with Lije in the garden shed. ‘So there we were, and I was backing away from the – y’know – horrible, slavering monster thing and – bump! – walked right into the dead guy. Like, nearly pissed myself. But he was quite nice about it, apart from sorta slagging off Ed. Don’t know why he did that. Bit gratuitous, I thought.’
Davey took and squeezed his hand.
‘Gavin was there,’ Ed announced.
Davey goggled, something only he could do elegantly. ‘You saw him?’
‘No, but Lije said he was around the place saving our butts. And sure enough, a few minutes later the dog demon was gone and the bishop’s chaplain – of all people – was at the door, telling us to get out fast.’
Phil shook his head. ‘You seem to have been lucky to escape alive.’
Ed gave his friend a straight look. ‘Thanks for not saying I told you so. But I thought it was the only chance to save Henry. My heart overruled my head, something no professional soldier should ever allow. Still, Lije did have this to say: neither he nor Gavin knew who might have taken Henry. It’s a mystery even to them. At least it wasn’t the bishop.’
Eddie slumped on the sofa. ‘What now?’
‘Get us some stiff drinks and we’ll sit and wait this one out. Wherever my baby is, he’s on his own.’
‘It’s remarkable how much human history has concentrated itself in this small mountain city,’ Tobias the seraph observed.
‘Did you watch it happen?’
‘No, as I told you, I and my kind are not creatures of this universe. We belong outside it. But still, I do know a few things.’
‘The angelic grapevine?’
Tobias smiled. ‘Something like that. I suppose we must get on, despite it’s being so pleasant up here with you, dear Henry.’
‘Obviously. Over there is where the Second Coming is supposed to happen, isn’t it?’
‘Supposedly, according to one of your traditions. But that was never foretold, as I understand it.’
‘And on the Temple Mount down there, the Antichrist is supposed to set up his throne and declare himself God and ruler of the whole earth.’
‘I believe that was said, long ago. Though how these things may come to pass is not as straightforward as you might imagine.’
‘Being what you are, Tobias, I believe you could destroy the Antichrist with just the power of your rather cute little finger.’
‘Nice of you to have so much confidence in me, Henry. But I won’t do that.’
‘Why not? What purpose does it serve to let that maniac run around hurting people and destroying lives?’
‘Always needing to know the purpose behind everything. That’s so human. I admire it, but the universe is not geared up to satisfy your intellectual itch. It’s too big and complicated for the combined brainpower of every single one of you to comprehend. Were I to do what you suggest, the world would be lost beyond any redemption.’
‘Do you know that?’
‘As good as. You might call it an unimpeachable source.’
‘So Enoch and Elijah must be destroyed.’
‘It is foretold.’
‘And the Icon?’
‘And then I must stand between the Antichrist and the completion of his dominion on earth? Me? Henry Robert Atwood, BA (Cranwell)?’
‘Apparently. Someone must. That’s the scandal of particularity. And I’m sure you’ll do it very nicely. But that’s not my concern, any more than is the fate of this world.’
‘Then what is the point of this ... parade?’
‘Why Henry, it should be obvious by now.’
‘Well it bleedin’ ain’t, Tobias!’
‘Now you’re getting angry. I wish you wouldn’t; it has an unfortunate effect on this body. I get ...’
‘Unhappy? Scared? Ashamed?’
‘Is that what it is?’
Henry took a deep breath and calmed himself. ‘Let’s go for a walk. I’ve never been in Jerusalem, or in 1940 whatever-it-is for that matter. What is the date, by the way?’
‘I have no idea. I’m not one for calendars.’
Henry took Tobias’s hand, and together they climbed down from the roof through a turret stair and side door. The flat spaces of the Temple Mount were full of strolling groups and beggars. The sight of two young western men holding hands as they walked drew no interest, apparently.
‘Do they see us?’
‘Oh yes.’ And indeed Tobias’s looks drew attention. He was healthiness and beauty personified. They were jostled apart as they moved with the crowd down from the Western Wall of the Temple, where Orthodox Jews in gabardines and outlandish hats were nodding over prayer books at the Wailing Wall below them.
Their path lay upwards through the city’s medieval streets, smelling dreadfully of sewage and rotting matter. Eventually they meandered into the lamp-lit arcades of a genuine Oriental suk. Traders eyed them and made bids to interest them in the wares on sale, although the British and Australian service personnel who were everywhere drew more commercial interest than Henry and Tobias.
‘This is wartime, I think,’ Henry observed. ‘There are too many troops around for it to be during the mandate after the war. Also, the Aussies wouldn’t be here after 1943. No, this must be the time when Rommel and the Afrika Korps are aiming to drive into Egypt and seize the Suez Canal.’
Tobias struggled to be politely interested, though it was clear he was indifferent to Henry’s historical commentary.
They emerged suddenly into an open space at the top of the upward slope on which the suk was situated. When bells rang over rooftops, Henry recognised the sequence of the angelus. The sky was suffused now with the pink of early evening.
The door leading into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was still open, though they had to force their way through the beggars. Inside it was suddenly dark and cool.
‘So was this truly Golgotha, Tobias?’
‘Yes, I believe so. The execution was held up there in fact.’ He pointed at a first-floor chapel, then indicated the interior of the church. ‘And around it was once a quarry outside the city gate. It was being converted into a garden cemetery on the road out of town ... Roman town-planning regulations, you know. It was thus a perfect site to execute a notorious dissident and religious troublemaker. The authorities commandeered one of the new tombs in which to bury his broken body promptly, that very one whose remains you can see in the rotunda.’
‘You were there?’
‘I’ve talked to colleagues. It was an event of some wider interest.’
‘I can imagine. And three days later ...’
Tobias stood and brooded. He did not answer.
Henry gazed around. A line of hooded Armenian monks passed solemnly by on their way into the church. A grey Franciscan was talking with animation to a group of westerners, one holding an antiquated (to Henry) box camera. Nearby a polished slab lying on the floor was being ladled with water by a crouching woman in a black dress.
Henry nodded towards the woman. ‘What’s she doing?’
‘I have no idea.’
A new voice at Henry’s ear caused him to jump. ‘Ah! You young fellows are English. I rather thought so.’
Henry turned. It was an Anglican parson: it had to be, Henry knew the type too well. He was in a clerical shirt and a white linen suit, a panama hat in his hand. ‘You asked about the stone. That’s the stone of deposition where Our Lord was laid out and prepared for burial after he was taken down from the cross. It’s perpetually washed with tears and water by devotees. It appeals to the papists. Oops! Sorry. You’re not Roman Catholic, are you?
Tobias looked bemused.
Henry took the lead. ‘Er, no ... fortunately for you.’
‘Bit of an ass, sorry. What brings you two lads here?’
Henry was a slight, short young man even if he was in his mid-twenties, so he didn’t object to the description. Nonetheless, it was more appropriate to Tobias, who looked eighteen although he was probably older than the universe.
‘Er ... Toby’s dad’s around here somewhere,’ Henry explained, reflecting that might be said to be true enough. ‘I’m Henry.’
The vicar offered his hand, saying he was attached to the establishment of St George’s Cathedral and was supposed to be meeting a group from Cairo which had not yet materialised. He offered himself as a guide to the church.
They declined, claiming Toby’s dad must have gone down into the city, where they’d pick up his car. As they emerged into the sunlight, Henry said, ‘So people can see us and interact with us, even in the past.’
‘Toby? I thought I was Tobias.’
‘It’s a shortening of the name. We do it for affection’s sake.’
‘So you do like me!’
Henry grinned and hugged the boy-seraph’s arm. ‘Course I do, silly.’
Tobias nodded. ‘That means a lot to me, more than you could possibly know. I say, would you like to do the sex thing with me ...?’
The suggestion was made lightly, but Henry caught the smouldering burn in the long sideways glance that accompanied it. He was disconcerted, to say the least. ‘Now there, Toby, you’ve just learned the terrible temptation that goes along with the physical form. The rather handsome thing between your legs has a mind of its own with a direct line to your mouth.’
Tobias looked shocked, then more than a little dashed. ‘Oh! You’re right. I was thinking of nothing much and all of a sudden it occurred to me that you’re an attractive sort of person. The only thing I could think about was your neat little bottom, isn’t that strange? Then I wanted to be naked with you and the idea of putting my penis inside you was very tempting. Awkward business this being human, isn’t it? I have to say you let me down very delicately. I don’t feel too badly rejected ... though it does hurt a little.’
Henry had a guilty twinge, despite being unable to decide why he should have done. Turning down Tobias was a little like kicking a puppy. ‘I think the sooner you’re out of a physical body, the better it will be for you.’
Tobias nodded a little sadly. ‘Oh well, I suppose I had better get you back.’
‘But you never told me why we’re here!’
‘Oh, I thought it was obvious. The point is, Henry, you really had to know that you belong to my world now. You needed to get used to the idea. That was the opinion of the Great Council. Then there are the responsibilities of being what you are. You had to recognise them. I think you’ve made some steps towards that. So, where shall we go ...?’
By then it was way past midnight. A dozing Max was cuddled into Davey. Ed was gloomily sipping at a beer, his foot tapping with suppressed tension. Phil and Eddie were still in a subdued argument about the imagery Henry had observed in the interview with Bishop Jack.
Davey gently disentangled from Max and went over to Ed, taking him round the shoulder and kissing him. The tension went from the bigger man and he sagged down on to his old friend.
‘Oh Davey, what am I to do?’
‘Wait, sweetheart, just wait. The bishop hasn’t got Outfield, and that can only be good news. The question for me is where we wait for him.’
‘You suppose he’ll turn up soon?’
‘The longer he’s gone, the less sense it makes staying here. The fight’s going to be in Rothenia ultimately.’
‘You up for this, Davey?’
‘Absolutely. I still think back to those days in Strelzen when we were kids. I’ve never got the excitement out of my head. Now I’m ready for another crusade. Where do I sign up?’
Ed laughed and hugged Davey. ‘It wasn’t all happy, that time.’
Davey blushed. ‘You mean the Anton incident. Oh God, I still remember that and wince.’
‘You were young and not in full control of your emotions. Besides, Anton was hot, dreamy and blond.’
‘You’ve seen him?’
‘Yes, on my last tour in Strelzen. I was doing a stint in Melmoth, and there he was on the other side of the bar, large as life. He remembered me too.’
‘I’m hardly surprised.’
‘We had a few drinks ... on the house, naturally. He’d followed my career. He said he’d been a fool to let me go that day, but he said it with a laugh. Of course, he might well say it, but if Terry hadn’t dragged me back to sanity, none of the rest would have happened.
‘He’s not settled, has Anton. Still cruising and still after the younger boys. It was a great evening and we’re going to meet up again next time I’m there.’
Ed was intrigued. ‘Are you thinking of reactivating that old romance?’
Davey shook his head. ‘While Anton is good material for a friend, I wouldn’t trust him as a lover.’
‘You have grown, Davey. What about ...?’
‘Max? He’s a fine lad and great fun to be with, but it’s a temporary thing. I’m the more experienced gay he had to meet so as to grow and discover himself. He’s special, but for someone else, I think.’ Davey looked fondly across at Max, boyishly innocent as he slept, feet up on the sofa, his curls across his face.
‘When did you get so wise, Davey boy?’
‘Terry’s an education. You just watch and wonder. He’s more of an expert on the human condition than a faculty-full of psychologists. I love that man so much. We need him now.’
‘That’s not so easy to arrange. Rudi tried, but he’s involved with something big and dangerous in Nicaragua, which is all I know. The alert’s out, though. I hope he’ll make the party in Strelzen.’
The sound of a muffled curse and the shattering of pottery came from outside the room. Eddie and Phil shut up in mid-dispute. Max woke with a shout. Ed was on his feet and at the door, Davey close behind.
‘Henry!’ Ed found his lover gathering up the pieces of a bowl he had managed to knock off a side table when he had steadied himself after reappearing in the hallway.
‘Sorry, Eddie, I ... mmff!’ The rest of what Henry had to say was muffled as he was picked up and surrounded by Ed. Once he was released he was passed around the group for hugs and kisses.
Everyone returned to the lounge, Henry still enclosed and escorted by Ed’s bulk. Henry was settled on the sofa between Ed and Eddie Peacher.
‘Well, phew, I’m glad to be back.’
‘But where have you been!’ Phil pleaded
‘I could do with a gin.’
Eddie grinned. ‘Bet you could. Anyone else ... hey! Where the fuck’s Max?’