HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
Max Jamroziak took a few seconds to realise he was no longer in Fairview and was alone. He had been heading for the door of the lounge with the others, there had been a moment’s internal queasiness, then suddenly just this dimness, as if someone had turned down the contrast button on reality.
‘Hullo!’ he called out. When he heard his voice echo back at him, the fear took him. Had the bishop or that demon-being found and abducted him? Then he remembered Elijah had told him the bishop had no knowledge of them ... as yet.
There was the sound of distant voices. Although they seemed to Max to be raised in dispute, he could not distinguish any words. He groped around and found he was in a cellar-like space. There was not much light, and its source was not evident. When his eyes gradually became accustomed to the dimness, however, he began to distinguish pillars and concluded he was in some sort of crypt.
The voices ceased. The scuffling of steps came near, echoing as if down some passage. Then a young voice called, a little tentatively, ‘Max?’
‘Who is it?’
‘It’s me, Gavin.’
‘Gavin! ... er, hi!’
‘Hi! I mean ... sorry to have dragged you away from ... whatever was going on there in Cranwell.’
Max collapsed a little inwardly. This was all getting too much. ‘Where am I?’ he asked, rather humiliated by the plaintive tone in his own voice.
‘Oh, I guess you could say it’s my place. Do you want to come upstairs? I’d have brought you there direct, but ... well, Lije is being a bit pissy with me at the moment.’
Gavin came nearer and held out his hand to Max. ‘It’s this way.’
Max took the offered hand, reassured to find it warm and alive. He was led through several subterranean chambers to some broad steps, but broad though they were, he stumbled going up them. His companion caught him with a remarkably strong grip.
As they climbed, Gavin became clearer to him. The boy wore tight black jeans and anonymous white trainers. A small hooded jacket clung to his slender frame. A cream-coloured woollen hat was pulled like a loose bag over his sheaf of thick hair, causing the heavy fringe to arch out of the front into his eyes. He kept shooting quick glances at Max as they walked.
Max kept meeting the glances, and blushing for some reason every time he did. This was quite unlike his reaction to Davey Skipper, yet for the life of him he could not work out why.
Abruptly, blushing himself, Gavin began to talk. ‘You see, Lije thought I should have asked first before I brought you here. I suppose he’s right. There are “security implications”, as he calls them.’
Reaching a Gothic door, they came suddenly out into brighter light, though they were still indoors. A spiral staircase led upwards more steeply. They climbed round and round for what must have been several floors before passing through another low door to enter an odd room. It was a limestone chamber, apparently medieval, with an outlook through its casements on to treetops and blue hills, where the sun was coming up into a pink sky.
In marked contrast to the architecture, the furnishings of the room recalled a modern student dive. There were low tables and decrepit, sagging sofas covered with throws, standing on a threadbare carpet. An acoustic guitar was propped against a wall. Books and papers were stacked in odd corners. There was no TV or laptop or anything much electrical, though a scattering of CD cases hinted at the twenty-first century.
It took a while for Max to register something even odder: there were no cups, food packets or plates littering the place, nor any sign of a kitchen.
Elijah, bare feet on a scarred coffee table, raised a listless hand in greeting.
‘Er ... hi,’ acknowledged Max.
‘Yeah, well, don’t say, “Nice place you got here,” will ya?’
Max shrugged. He wasn’t going to rise to Elijah’s bait. ‘S’alright. Been in worse. Where are we?’
‘Rothenia. I s’pose you can be told that. But I’d rather we didn't tell you anything more.’
‘Fair enough. Is it the same time as in England?’
Gavin nodded. ‘Yes it is.’ He sat nervously on one of the sofas, pulling Max down next to him. ‘Look, Max, there’s a number of things we have to know. Henry disappeared ...’
‘And now he’s back.’
‘He reappeared just before you brought me here.’
Elijah snorted, ‘Told you so.’
‘Lije, please!’ Gavin turned to Max. ‘We have no idea what took him, though it wasn’t Bishop Jack. But it was very powerful, so much so it adjusted reality around the bishop. It made sure that when Henry visited the bishop’s house he could not be detected for what he is. It was only when Henry disappeared that the dampening effect was lifted and we could get some idea of what was going on around your group. Then we realised you were in danger, so we used what power we had to help.’
‘Thanks. I thought we were dead there. But you know anything I could tell you, so what else is there?’
Elijah scoffed and looked away. Gavin gave his confederate a glare. ‘It’s the thing that happened in Soho.’
‘When you fought the demon guy?’
‘That’s right. It was my turn to think I was a goner, but you ... well, what did you do?’
Max gave it some thought. ‘Nothing special, Gavin. I mean, I remember being angry and picking up the chain. I just sorta lashed out.’ But as he said this, Max knew it was not the entire truth. He recalled his heart pulsing at the sight of the brave and isolated boy standing up to the demon, followed by a surge of power that seemed to go through his arm as he curled the chain round its neck.
Gavin pondered this before shaking his head. ‘As if there’s not enough mystery in my life.’
Max’s heart went out to the boy. ‘Could I ask you a few questions?’
A shy smile answered him. ‘I can’t promise to reply. Have we got anything to drink, Lije?’
‘Drink? There’s some cans of Coke of course. Want me to find them?’
Elijah got up, slotted his feet into a pair of flip-flops and went through one of the doors. The slapping sound of his steps disappeared.
Max shook his head. ‘You neither of you eat or drink, do you.’
‘No, or sleep. We’re not really human ... but you know that.’
‘I guessed. Gavin, what’s going to happen to you? The guys were saying that ... well, you and Lije ...’
‘We have to perish. It’s part of the deal. Elijah and Enoch stand up to the Antichrist and are thrown down. We know that.’
‘And aren’t you, well ... scared?’
Gavin shook his head. ‘We’ve seen such strange things, Max, things I can’t even begin to describe to you. Poor Lije ...’
‘He’s pissed at you because you brought him back just to die again.’
Gavin was startled into silence for a moment. ‘Yes. You’re right. I feel so guilty sometimes. He’s always angry now.’
Max remembered what Davey had said about Gavin’s capacity for self-inflicted suffering. But Max didn’t despise Gavin for that, rather he admired the sensitivity the boy was ready to reveal. He took the other's brown hand, and before he could stop himself, raised it to his lips and kissed the knuckles. The boy looked at him, startled. Max thought for a moment Gavin was making a move towards him, but then they heard Elijah coming back and the moment passed.
Elijah threw a familiar red can in Max’s direction. ‘Hope you don’t prefer Pepsi.’
‘No.’ Max cracked the can and sipped at its fizzy sweetness for a while in silence. There didn’t seem much more to say. Eventually he asked, ‘You gonna take me back? I ‘spect they’re worried in Cranwell.’
‘I’ll do it,’ Elijah hurried to say.
Max asserted himself briefly. ‘Do you have any message for the guys?’
‘Nothing really ... I have no idea what’ll happen next, though I imagine it’ll be here in Rothenia the battle will be fought. We’re sorting out our defences.’
Max stood irresolute, wanting so much to embrace Gavin. Before he could do it, however, he was seized by vertigo. Then abruptly he was standing alone on the damp lawn of Fairview with the dawn coming up over the English Midlands, as it had already done over Rothenia.
Max’s disappearance and reappearance so soon after Henry’s sent the group into a long session of debate. It seemed no one wanted to go to bed immediately. Tanya appeared at six, apparently unfazed by the irregular hours of her employer. She served coffee and a luxurious breakfast as the men argued and pursued their discussion.
Henry finally called a halt at eleven, saying he was jet-lagged as well as time-lagged. ‘Look at it this way. I’ve not just crossed time zones, but the turn of a century. I really need some sleep – and I need it now.’ With Ed's backing, they disappeared upstairs. The others sat around chatting in desultory snatches.
Davey kept making excuses that morning to engage Max in conversation. Although Max believed he could understand why, he had told the group all he knew. There was nothing more to add. Eventually, however, he realised Davey had seen more of his mind than he thought he had revealed.
They stood out on the terrace on what was now a fine, sunny morning. The trees were turning towards gold and leaves were beginning to fall. ‘You’re attracted to Gavin, aren’t you?’
Max blushed hard and red but replied honestly, ‘He’s so different from any guy I’ve ever met: tough and yet vulnerable, sensitive and brave, and a wonderful body. His eyes ... so dark and mysterious.’
Davey smiled. ‘I never saw it, but Henry loved him for much the same reasons. They were beautiful together. You don’t want to say anything about your feelings for fear of Henry’s reaction, do you.’
Max looked shyly at Davey. ‘... and yours.’
‘You needn’t worry about me, sweetheart. But I have to say I can’t see much future in keeping a candle burning for little Gavin.’
Max gave a small shrug. ‘Me neither, but he’s so sorta ... I dunno.’
‘Romantic, powerful, enigmatic, super-cute?’
‘All those things and more.’
‘You might add, dead.’
‘Is he dead? You guys say he is, but he seems so alive when we’re together.’
‘Ever see him eat, sleep, fart?’
Max was irritated. ‘Maybe not, but you can’t have emotions like his and not be fully alive!’
Davey acknowledged the force in his young friend’s argument. ‘Of course. I’m being simplistic, I know. We really don’t understand what it is he and Elijah are up to.’
‘Also, if he were dead, why would he be so scared of what’s going to happen to them in Rothenia?’
‘The saddest thing is that these guys are aware they’re up against the wall. They know they’re gonna die ... I mean really die, y’know, be totally extinct. And God are they scared. You can smell it. But still they’re gonna do their duty. They’re total heroes.’
‘I never denied Gavin is a brave man, and Elijah must be too. But you have to think of yourself. There’s no future for you with Gavin. You’re only going to get hurt if you think otherwise, Max.’
Max didn’t answer, only brooded. He swore to himself that, when Henry went back to Rothenia, he would be going along.
Henry woke to a familiar feeling in the small of his back. He adjusted himself against the warm and unconscious body behind him and, when he felt the engagement with his anus, pushed back and slowly sank on to Ed’s erection. Arms wrapped tightly around him as he did so. Before long, he was on his face on the mattress while a thick fleshy shaft ploughed in and out of his behind.
Part of Henry’s mind was doing the irritating thing of going its own way, rationalising his sudden overmastering need for sex. Sex was life-affirming, and what he had with Ed was infinitely familiar and comforting. Was that why he needed it? Or was he reassuring Ed that it was their relationship, rather than anything with Gavin, that was the dominant motive in his head? Or ... was he just confused? As he moaned out his passion, his head was deciding it had no idea what was really going on. No change there!
Ed tensed and groaned in orgasm before slumping on to his small lover and pressing him down with his warm weight. Henry wriggled on the penis still large inside him, savouring the feeling. He loved this bit of their intercourse.
‘Better, little babe?’
‘Mmm. Why is it you always read my mind?’
‘Don’t flatter yourself. You’re not that hard.’
‘Apparently not, it seems. Oh well, bright boy, what should we do now?’
‘Wait long enough for me to do you again?’
‘I mean, after that.’
‘Okay, well, Henry babe, there’s one last piece of reconnaissance we can usefully accomplish in Cranwell.’
‘Yes. I thought so too. There’s a new megachurch in Riverside. I picked up this flier from the chaplain’s office advertising a praise meeting tonight at half seven with the big, bad bishop himself preaching. So, fancy getting your head as thoroughly fucked as your backside?’
‘Sure, but I’d better run it past the guys first.’
Ed squeezed Henry. ‘I see “the guys” have become more than just a bunch of mates trying to help.’
Henry gave that comment some consideration. ‘I believe they have. I've got this feeling deep down that none of this is accidental. Remember how Damien, Mattie and Reggie back in Strelzen called their little gang the “Mendamero Men”? I'll bet they felt it too. You know how sensitive kids can be.’
‘Now you’re talking my language. We’re a cosmic commando squad! Pity I can’t dream up a decent name for us.’
Henry gave a muffled laugh into the mattress. ‘We’re not one of your guard units, colonel babe. Think instead of the knightly orders of the middle ages.’
‘Hmm! I like it. Henry Atwood and the Order of the ...’
‘Don’t say it!’
It was Ed’s turn to laugh. Then they returned to less serious but more pleasurable business.
The ‘guys’ were definitely in favour of a visit to the Riverside church. ‘After all,’ argued Phil, ‘there’s not much danger. From what I’ve heard we can hide out at the back and get lost in the crowd. We need to see this guy in action too.’
‘Yeah,’ echoed Max. ‘Let’s see what the mega-bad guy does to people. Can’t touch us, we’re queer!’
‘Speak for yourself!’ growled Eddie Peacher.
Although Henry had his doubts, he had to admit it was one of the few ways by which he could get a measure of his opponent before the inevitable confrontation.
‘Know your enemy, babe,’ Ed advised him wisely.
So Ed and Henry, Phil and Eddie drove together across the river that evening. Max and Davey were following in the Audi. The weather had turned during the day, giving way to a grey, gloomy sunset with angry red highlights touching the undersides of the clouds.
The Riverside megachurch, signposted ‘Emmanuel Centre’, was a recycled warehouse on a light industrial park. A long queue had formed to enter the ample parking lot. The evangelised faithful were out in force for their bishop.
They parked and trudged through the floodlit space, passing young families and old people, middle-class folks from Northside and the notorious Riverside chavs, all mingled together. Books and DVDs of the words and wisdom of Bishop Jack James were on sale in the carpeted foyer, alongside stacks of CDs of praise music. Younger and older kids were being directed to an entertainment room. All was bustle, chatter and a certain amount of excitement.
When they reached the auditorium entrances, they encountered a middle-aged woman in an orange tee-shirt labelled ‘Welcome Team’; she was one of several around the doors. ‘Hello! Have you been here before! Thank you for coming. Can I give you these leaflets? These are address slips. We hope you’ll be back to the Emmanuel Centre again. No one’s a stranger twice. I’m Felicity.’
‘Very friendly ... in a routine sort of way,’ Phil observed to Henry as they entered.
‘Some people are nervous coming here and desperate to be noticed.’
‘And others just as desperate not to be,’ Phil rejoined. ‘I think I know which group we should be numbered with.’
As they were climbing up some steps to the upper arena seats, Ed hissed at them not to separate, so the six occupied the end of a row near the back on the side opposite the podium.
Henry looked over the interior of the auditorium. It was a different sort of church to any he’d been in before. It was more like a giant school assembly hall. Banked plastic seats climbed up three sides. Henry estimated it had a capacity of maybe six thousand or more, which was rapidly filling up. At the front was a raised dais with a podium for the preacher, backed by a huge, plain wooden cross fastened to the brick wall.
Giant flat screens hanging from the roof girders came alight as Henry looked across at them. Images of fire and sparks began leaping and playing. A catchy six-piece band struck up over the rustling and talking of the assembled congregation.
When the lights dropped, so did the sound of chatting. The band switched to what seemed to be a familiar tune and around the hall singing broke out, mixed with clapping. Henry and his friends began to feel a little isolated as people around them started to stand, sway and beat out the rhythm.
It took a while for them to notice how the stage area was filling up. Three of the black-suited security men appeared. The chaplain, Anthony Willis, was fidgeting around one of the entrances, speaking into a mobile phone. A few minutes later they saw him usher in a line of wheelchairs, two with poles at the side supporting drip feeds.
‘That must be Pastor Clive!’ Ed shouted in Henry’s ear, waving the Emmanuel Centre leaflet in front of him. He was pointing at a youngish balding man in a blue shirt and tie occupying the podium. Dr Clive Merton headed the section designated ‘Ministry Team’. He raised both arms and the clapping died away with the music.
‘There is a great outflow of the SPIRIT!’ he yelled, and the congregation cheered. ‘This is a time of FIRE! (More cheers.) The SPIRIT is setting light to CRANWELL!’ (A roar followed.)
The congregation rose and began clapping again, then spontaneously burst into song. Henry burrowed down into his seat. It was difficult to sit still when so many were on their feet.
Eventually the music subsided, giving way to more of Pastor Clive's oratory. In a discourse punctuated by lots of invisible exclamation marks, he told the congregation that these were the latter days when signs and wonders were multiplying in the land. The faithful of Israel were taking shelter in the Lord’s tabernacle. The sons of Sodom (‘That’s us!’ exclaimed a cheerful Ed in Henry’s ear) were predatory animals stalking the encampment, seeking to pervert the people from the straight path through the desert to the land of Canaan. He gazed around at this point. ‘But MOSES has come again! We have our PATRIARCH! We have the one who gives us WATER and MANNA in the wilderness! We have BISHOP JACK!’
The congregation erupted as the bishop leapt athletically on to the stage. Cheering and more singing burst out. The bishop stood a while soaking up the acclaim, arms raised in the air, bringing to mind an American presidential candidate. It was a full five minutes before the crowd subsided. Observing the bishop carefully, Henry saw he was clearly enjoying the adoration and feeding off it in an almost visible way.
Finally a hush fell and he launched into his sermon. There was a peculiar quality about his voice which seemed to owe little to the sound system. Every word fell clearly into Henry’s ear, as he was sure it was doing to everyone else in the hall.
The bishop began with a blizzard of biblical references, strung together with fluency and intelligence. Henry was increasingly struck by two things: the first was that the Christian gospel played very little part in what the bishop was saying; the second was that his language was all about exclusion and aggression. He and his congregation were Jerusalem besieged, the faithful exiles in Babylon, the Israelites fleeing Egypt. All around them were danger and corruption and enemies, but they had suffered and were growing in strength. Heroes were arising: new Samsons, Gideons, Davids. It was time to sally out, time to establish God’s new kingdom, in which his enemies would be overthrown and destroyed.
The congregation seemed to be waiting breathlessly for something. ‘True prophets alone can do signs and wonders!’ he proclaimed in crescendo. ‘But in these days, with the Spirit pouring out its blessings on us the faithful, there will be SIGNS!’ He raised one hand and a hush fell on the hall. Henry felt rather than saw the whole congregation crane forward.
‘Rise and walk, ye faithful!’ he bellowed, pointing at a group of three wheelchair-bound people. Their assistants took their elbows and raised them. One woman staggered forward and was caught, before she straightened and looked astonished.
‘Come to me!’
She walked slowly and a little unsteadily to the bishop, staring up at him. There was absolute silence. He placed his hand on her forehead, bringing forth red sparks. ‘Fire!’ he cried. ‘Fire of the healing Spirit!’
The two other cured cripples lurched towards him and fell to their knees, as the astounded congregation erupted in hallelujahs and expressions of ecstatic joy.
Two other wheelchairs were brought forward, the ones with drip feeds. Their occupants were pale and withered: cancer victims, Henry concluded. The bishop pointed at them, causing more red sparks. A part of Henry’s brain observed to itself, Fond of pyrotechnics, aren’t you?
The two, a young man and woman, lifted themselves from their seats, visibly straightening and filling out as they did so. They embraced, then joined the others kneeling before the bishop.
And now people were frantically flooding down the steps towards the stage. When each one reached the podium, the bishop struck him on the forehead. Many fainted backwards into the arms of friends or family. Young and old alike were sobbing and crying, confessing sins, beseeching forgiveness or jabbering inarticulately.
Henry was appalled. He looked at his friends. Max was white and shaking; Eddie was biting his lip; Davey was gripping the side of his seat. They all felt the overwhelming sense of power emanating from the front of the auditorium. Even Henry was not immune to the pull to go forward and join with the throng so he could make submission and homage to ... something.
Ed caught his eye and leapt up. There was an emergency-exit sign behind them. He collared Max, who was rising, ready to stagger down to the front. ‘I want to be healed ...’ the boy sobbed while struggling with Ed. Ed passed him to Eddie, who dragged him towards the exit. Phil obeyed Ed’s urging and followed them, but Davey was at Henry’s side, clearly torn.
‘He could heal me ...’ Davey said in Henry’s ear.
‘Of what, Davey?’
‘My homosexuality. He could make me normal.’
Henry took his friend’s hand. ‘But you are normal, sweetheart. You have the sexuality God gave you. You live with it and it makes you what you are. Would you give up Terry?’
Henry’s eyes sought out Davey’s. Catching them, he saw the confusion and hurt revealed there, the same feelings he was aware of in his own heart. Then something in himself reached out in love, for he knew he did love this old friend of his very deeply. It touched the hurt, bringing calm and peace.
Davey shook his head. When he looked at Henry again, his eyes were no longer wild. ‘What did you do?’ he stammered into the quiet around them.
‘I dunno. I think I told you that you were loved for what you are.’
Davey stared down into the auditorium. Whatever Henry had just done had been noticed in the maelstrom below. The bishop was glaring up, pointing to them. Three black-suited men were trying to force their way through the crowds suddenly hesitant in the aisles. The bishop’s control over his flock had wavered, the lemming rush to the front faltering. People looked around, dazed.
‘Out Henry! And fast!’ Ed appeared and grabbed both his friends by their arms. As Henry looked back, he saw one security type in shades scrambling up from row to row of the seats, heading directly towards him. Then the three were clattering down the exit stairs, two at a time. They banged through the doors at the bottom into the night.
‘This way!’ Ed urged. ‘Our cars are round the corner. Get your key out, Davey. This is gonna be touch and go!’