HENRY IN FINKLE ROAD
Henry’s temporary moral ascendancy over Frank elicited a reluctant consent for Gavin’s trial period at the bar of the King’s Cross. As Henry expected, Gavin was not an immediate favourite with the hardy regulars in the public bar. He blushed too easily and didn’t have the quickness of repartee that had got acceptance for Henry. On the other hand, he was not flustered by Henry’s arch-enemy, the till. Not only that, but his mental maths was good, and he could calculate change faultlessly. This meant that he was quite a bit quicker at serving the bar and rather more co-ordinated than Henry when it came to delivering the drinks.
Over a fortnight they developed a very effective double act. Henry engaged the customers with jokes and roguish double-entendres, while Gavin backed him up with quick and accurate fulfilling of orders. Henry called it their mutual-defence pact. Even Frank noticed the difference on Friday and Saturday nights. The bar was less crowded with people waiting, and customers were more relaxed and happier as a result. Gavin got the job.
As October moved into November, Gavin lost some of his shyness and gained markedly in confidence through his challenging work in the pub. The night he found himself serving Wayne was his personal high point. He took his time about pulling the pint, smiling in Wayne’s face, and when he had it nearly full, he took it briefly out of Wayne’s sight. When he came back he handed it to Wayne and took payment with a little smile, saying, ‘The thing you gotta ask yourself, Wayne, is whether I gobbed in your pint when I took it round to the public bar, or maybe dipped my cock in it. So, do you feel lucky?’
Henry convulsed. Wayne looked over at a sardonic Frank and whined, ‘Did you hear what he said to me?’
Frank looked contemptously back at him. ‘I think he pissed in it, myself. Let me know, and I’ll top it up personally if I’m wrong. Now fuck off.’
The same evening, an emboldened Gavin asked Henry in a quiet moment whether the boy in the picture with him was Ed Cornish. Henry admitted it was. ‘He is so handsome and look at all those muscles. Sex with him really must have been something.’
‘It was different, Gavin. Not necessarily better.’
‘I can’t understand how you could give up a big hunk like that for a little punk like me.’
Henry smiled. ‘Stop fishing for compliments. Ed is the past, and you’re the present. Don’t you like what we do together?’ They were doing it a lot, and unprotected, now they had the all-clear from their tests.
‘It’s ace, Henry. I just wonder if I disappoint you.’
‘Never, Gavin. You’re what I want. You’re an eager little beaver, and you’ve made this term worthwhile for me.’
Gavin smiled and they had a brief kiss, as Frank’s back was turned.
Eddie and some nervous mates came into the bar at that point. Eddie couldn’t have cared less whether the pub was a gay one or not. The sleazier the better as far as he was concerned.
‘Hey homers,’ he greeted Gavin and Henry, ‘nice place you got here.’
‘Evening, Eddie. How’s Surfing Soc?’
‘Me and the guys are thinking about Pembrokeshire next weekend. There’s some long beaches there and the tide’s right, so they told us at Newquay. Pity the sea’s so fucking cold.’
Eddie’s trip to Newquay had been a sensational success in both social and sporting terms. His drinking mates had been set alight by his enthusiasm and skills on the board, to the point where some were now serious surfers. Surfing Soc was growing apace, having acquired an events secretary and a training programme, run personally by Eddie in the city pool. Henry concluded that at least Eddie was getting something out of his time in university, other than endangered lungs from passive smoking in the Union bar.
‘One thing, faggot,’ Eddie went on to say. ‘You coming over to Suffolk for New Year’s?’
‘Nobody asked me,’ Henry replied sadly.
‘Well I’m asking you, dude.’
‘You can’t, Eddie. It’s Andy’s place, not yours. Don’t worry about it.’
‘It’s not fair the way they’re closing you out, Henry dude.’
‘I don’t think they’re doing it deliberately, Eddie. It probably seems diplomatic to them to stop me and Ed coming into contact for a while. It saves embarrassment.’
Henry shrugged and got Eddie his drinks.
Eddie was changing, so much was clear. He had been set alight by Paul Oscott’s inspired module, and was attending a lot of his other classes if they didn’t clash with his social life. Henry had found him chewing a pencil the previous week, puzzling over an essay title. A small stack of books had appeared on the table in his bedroom, amongst unwashed and discarded underwear, boxes of condoms and used crockery. There really was a Peacher brain in that bleached and swept-back Californian head.
On the down side, Eddie was getting quite a reputation amongst the female students. Some enthusiastic good-time girls had homed in on him, and Henry was quite certain he’d been in bed with two of them at once the night before. He had taped to the fridge a list of sexual acts he intended doing. The only box which had not yet been ticked was ‘Anal Fuck’. His sexual stamina was certainly remarkable, as also was his lack of conscience about the consequences of his promiscuity. ‘Hey, I use condoms, what the fuck more do you want?’ he had defended himself when Henry had made some hints about the dangers in what he was doing. In fact, however, Henry had been referring to the ever-present dangers of the media.
In off moments at the bar – when Frank was elsewhere (‘I don’t pay you to fucking stand round reading’) – and between the growing number of his module assignments, Henry ploughed on with the Bannow book. For Bannow, the fall of Constantinople to the crusaders in 1204 was a fatal moment in the story of the relics of Christ. He suggested that the holy icon had been placed under imperial protection by the Doukid and Comnenid emperors at their great monastery of Christ Pantocrator in the city. There it exerted a wide influence.
The famous Holy Face of Lucca, Bannow suggested, was a copy of the Christ icon, commissioned by Luccanese merchants who had seen it in Constantinople. However, the Luccan picture was not the Vera Icon, as was claimed, only a copy. The fate of the real one was crucially affected when the city was sacked by the Fourth Crusade. Bannow confessed that he lost track of the image at that historical point.
So Bannow switched track. He focussed again on the idea of a ‘holy dynasty’. He went back to the Ephesian line, and traced it down through the time of the brief Latin empire of Constantinople as far as the empress Theophania, the famous seer and – some said – sorceress, wife of Andronicus Palaeologus. Theophania was the daughter of Count Nicetas of Ephesus, himself a great scholar and astrologer, and in the true line of descent from John the Evangelist, according to Bannow. He repeated the legends of Theophania: how her gifts had allowed her to thwart a secret Bulgarian attack on Constantinople; how she poisoned half the treacherous Nicaean aristocracy at supper one night; how she travelled as far as India in search of arcane knowledge; how she was rumoured to have walked across the Hellespont; and how she raised the dead. But the story Bannow concentrated on concerned the excavations under Hagia Sophia that she commanded, and the secret treasures she was supposed to have discovered there.
Henry saw it coming. Had she received a supernatural revelation and recovered the concealed portrait of Christ? If she had, she did not transfer it to the imperial chapel or the patriarchal treasury. What then had become of it?
It was on a Saturday morning early in November, as Gavin was still asleep in bed upstairs and Eddie was off surfing on Pendine Sands, that Henry turned the page and got to Bannow’s answer. The shock almost made him drop the book.
Around 1380, Anastasia of Heracleia, the eldest daughter of Theophania, had been married to the King of Hungary. Into that Catholic country she brought a great treasure of icons and jewels, a legacy of her mother’s. Queen Anastasia had a reputation similar to her mother’s, although in Anastasia’s case it was as a medical practitioner of remarkable and indeed uncanny skill. A woman of great piety, she was hailed as a saint when she died, though Rome refused to beatify her as she had been firmly Orthodox in faith.
Anastasia had several daughters. The fourth of them, her seventh child Fenice, married Count Sergius of Tarlenheim. Henry’s heart all but stopped. What! The Tarlenheims come into this! The same pattern occurred in Rothenia, uncanny stories collecting round Fenice of Tarlenheim. She had a gift for prophecy and was a seer, to the extent that there was a move by a bishop of Modenheim in 1423 to have her taken up by the Inquisition. But she was protected by her great friend and patron, the then Duchess Osra, last of the native Rothenian line to rule that land. The friends spent time together in the ducal monastery of Medeln in 1440. Countess Fenice became titular abbess and died in a rich odour of sanctity. Miracles had been associated with her since her first arrival in Rothenia, and they continued at her tomb. Her Meditations on the Face of Our Lord was the first major work of Rothenian literature.
When he had put the book down, Henry went straight to Eddie’s computer and booted up. He opened his e-mail account and began a message.
<Hi, Fritzy. Hope you’re OK and gymno’s not too much of a drag. Is it your baccalaureate this year? Bet you’re looking forward to it. Lol. How’s your thing going with Maria? Dare I ask? You were supposed to send a scan of her picture. I told you about Gavin, my boyfriend. What you think? (see attachment). OK, he is not Ed Cornish, but he has his attractions, and I won’t tell you what they are cos you’re dissolute enough already. Lol. I’m just reading a book in which the Tarlenheims appear. Have you heard of Alastair Bannow? It’s called ‘Staring in the Face of Christ’. It says you lot are a holy dynasty and descended from a sister of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that cool? They obviously haven’t seen what Oskar got up to for Falkefilm. See ya. Henry. PS. You didn’t tell me you were descended from a saint!>
Henry was intrigued as to the answer he would get to that one.
His inbox was quite full. The first message he went to was from Justin. He opened it with anticipation.
<Hey Henry. Nate and me want you to come and stay with us at Haddesley at New Year. We think it’s dull that Andy and Matt can’t make their minds up to ask you or not. Yes, Ed is bringing his new boyfriend (groan). Even so, you’re our mate and it’d be crap if you weren’t with us. Please come. We can do sex acts together! [No, you bloody can’t – Nathan] You gonna bring Gareth or whatever his name is? He can come too. Love. Justy XXXXX>
Henry grinned, and then looked thoughtful. So there was a debate going on as to whether to include Henry in the Peacher set any more. He was a bit disappointed with Matt White, whom he had thought of as a good friend and a man to look up to. But then he scanned down and saw a message from <firstname.lastname@example.org>. When he opened it, he found it was from Matt himself.
<Dear Henry. I’ve been meaning to get in touch for quite a while. The first thing is that I have a job for you over the Xmas vacation at Marlowe Productions if you’re interested. It’s a short contract but it needs someone who speaks Rothenian, and that’s a rare skill. I can offer quite a substantial fee, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy it. I’m very happy to put you up at Highgate. Of course, it helps that Ed will be down in Suffolk with Andy over the holidays, in case you’re still finding it difficult to be in the same room with him. We would love to see you in Andy’s place at Castringham too for the New Year house party. It’s up to you. Ed will be there with his new partner, whom we have not yet met. Love as always. Matt. PS. Adore the poster. I have it in my office here.>
Wow! Henry was intrigued … as he realised he was meant to be. He was also comforted. His old friends had not forgotten him after all and wanted him with them. Despite the delicate position with Ed, they still missed him. So it was down to him. Was he mature enough to deal with an ex-boyfriend – one for whom he still had feelings – on a daily basis? Henry looked into his heart, and thought maybe he had grown up that much. He could hear Gavin moving about, singing away unconsciously and happily as he went into the bathroom, and he smiled and thought that his new love was putting down roots. Henry the Strong, that’s me.
He got his student diary and did some calculations. There was a working week preceding the Christmas holidays. He could have four days with his family and then off to Suffolk. After that there were two weeks before term recommenced, and even then it was assessment period so he could work most of it odd days. He e-mailed Justin and said he would join him and Nathan for the New Year. That way he would be near Castringham, but not sleeping in the house. He flicked his mobile and checked with David as to what his and Terry’s plans were. It turned out that they were staying the holiday in Cranwell with Terry’s parents. Then they too were going on to Castringham. It was all coming together nicely. The only problem was Gavin.
‘Morning baby,’ Henry said. He grabbed Gavin round the waist as the boy passed the kitchen table. He hugged Gavin, lifting his tee shirt and licking his jewel-like little navel. Gavin giggled and squirmed delightfully. Henry pushed his hands up Gavin’s shorts and cupped his tight buttocks while nuzzling his belly. Pretty soon Gavin was naked and Henry was too. Henry took him energetically, bending over the kitchen table. After their sweaty coupling, he led Gavin upstairs to the bathroom and they lay together happily in a hot tub, Gavin on top of Henry.
‘Gavin,’ he asked eventually, ‘what are your plans for Christmas?’
‘Home, I suppose. How about you?’
‘I’ve had a job offer in London.’
Gavin sloshed the water as he moved to look at Henry. ‘That’s cool. Who’s the job for?’
‘Matt White. I worked for his company the summer before last, and he’s got some sort of contract he wants me to help with.’
‘Sounds even better. Henry, I’ve been thinking about this. I don’t feel up to coming out to my parents yet. You’re going to think that I’m wet, but I’m just not ready. I’m still … fragile, and I don’t want a big row over the holidays. It’s bad enough anyway with those little creeps of brothers of mine. So, it isn’t the right time yet for you to meet my parents.’
‘I understand. We’ve got our mobiles, and hey! You can sneak a few days to come stay with me in London after New Year, yes?
Gavin grinned. ‘Really? That’d be so good! And do I get to meet the Matthew White?’
‘Maybe, unless he’s jetting off somewhere with his Andy.’
‘Just promise me you’ll think about me all day long … especially when you’re jerking off, my funny and gorgeous Henry.’ And Gavin blushed when he said that, though why he should have done was more than Henry could see when they truly had no more boundaries of intimacy to cross.