HENRY IN FINKLE ROAD
Trewern rectory was as it always had been, and Henry’s bedroom was waiting to offer him its familiar and ample refuge. His brother Richard was home for Christmas too. They seemed to have a lot more in common these days, such as expanding student debt. Richard was spending a year completing a taught MA course and maxing out his credit, as he said. They went for a walk, and Henry told his brother everything about his first term. Richard had quite a bit of sympathy to offer, as well as a highly amused reaction to Gavin. ‘Seems to me all your relationships start with a damaged bum, little bro. You put a new spin on the phrase “anal retentive”.’
‘Ha, bloody ha,’ laughed Henry.
‘And that stud is adventurous. Mum wants to rip it out with pliers. You’re not being her cute little baby Henry any more.’
‘Cute little baby Henry has been having sex with other boys for two years now. But what can mums do ... we never grow up as far as they’re concerned. How’s the Helen thing going?’ Richard had a long-term relationship with the very attractive sister of one of Henry’s former school friends.
Richard smiled. ‘Don’t tell Mum, but we’re planning on moving to Leeds together this summer. Helen’s got a job in financial services, and I’m looking for something there too.’
‘So it’s cohabiting at last.’
‘Yes, it’s come to settling down together. We’re ready for it.’
‘I wonder if Mum is ready for Gavin.’
‘She was very fond of Ed Cornish, y’know. She deified him. Gavin is not going to measure up, however nice he is.’
Henry grunted. Gavin was not the sort of cheerful, outgoing boy that Mum automatically sympathised with and adopted into her heart. Oh, she would be welcoming and tolerant when he eventually turned up at Trewern, but Henry knew that Gavin would always be compared unfavourably with Ed.
He and Richard eventually ended up in the King Billy in Huntercombe, and settled in the snug for the rest of the afternoon, catching up with the local gossip. Henry told his brother about his more jaw-dropping moments as a barman in the King’s Cross. He left Richard with a determination to spend a weekend in Cranwell, just so he could meet the lunatics.
Christmas followed its usual course. Henry helped out in church as he always had done, and everybody was very glad to see him. Although nothing was actually said about the bodily adornments, they were certainly noticed. However, the stud and the streaked hair were useful reminders to them that he was no longer little Henry Atwood the country schoolboy, but dangerous Henry Atwood the urban sophisticate and student gay activist. Henry still ended up with Mrs Purdy, washing the tea things in the vestry after the service, but he liked to think he did it in a risk-taking and alternative way.
The day after Boxing Day, his parents left for their Christmas break with the grandparents in Spain. Henry sought out the churchwarden.
‘Dr Mac? Have you got an hour or so to help me out with a project?’
The old man laughed. ‘Helping you out with your projects has been one of the joys of my life for the past three years, Henry. You are certainly welcome to one of my declining hours.’
They crossed over to the rectory and Henry put the kettle on. Dr Mac had been a lieutenant in British intelligence during the Second World War, working with the Rothenian resistance. He knew a lot about pre-war and wartime Rothenia, and his command of the language was better than Henry’s. Henry showed him the box of old Mr Wardrinski’s papers.
‘Fascinating, Henry. What do you expect to find here?’
‘Just clues about the Wardrinski family background.’
‘I know that name from somewhere,’ the old man mused
‘His son’s a TV don. You must have seen him on the box, Dr Mac.’
‘Perhaps. Now then, let’s spread this all out. Where’re my reading glasses? I must get some varifocals.’
They pored for quite a while over the collections. There were the expected papers: letters of introduction from the Swedish consul-general in Strelzen, various IDs, a tattered pre-war Republic of Rothenia passport. There were personal letters and an envelope full of monochrome photographs, some of which might have been of family members, though it was impossible to say. There were others which clearly were not family-related: a series of pictures of men in odd black uniforms with peaked caps, some lounging round, others marching.
‘Oh! Well, well!’ exclaimed Dr Mac.
‘What’re these?’ Henry asked.
‘I haven’t seen this sort of thing in an age. These are people from the KRB, the Katoliske Renoveten Bund … the “Catholic Renewal Movement”.’
‘Never heard of them.’
‘They’re forgotten nowadays, but there was a time in the 1920s when they threatened to overthrow old President Tildemann. Rothenia had its pseudo-fascists between the wars, Henry. The KRB was one of those right-wing militaristic movements that all the Central European states threw up. They wore black uniforms, held rallies and torchlight processions. But being Rothenian, they couldn’t be atheistic like the Nazis and Fascists. They were hard-line, right-wing Catholics. They carried icons of the Black Virgin of Glottenberh in their marches, not swastika banners. Looks like your Mr Wardrinski was high up in the leadership. If that’s him in this portrait photo …’
‘There’s certainly a resemblance to his son …’
‘… then he was a regional commandant, one of their top ten organisers, working under the man they called “Den Direktor”, Stefan Gulik.
‘Now, what’s this?’ Dr Mac held up a thick notebook. He pored over it, then snorted. ‘It’s in code. What a shame. Still, with a bit of effort, I might be able to work it out, though it’s been a while since I was at Bletchley Park. May I take it?’
‘Sure, no problem. I certainly can’t read it.’
‘This is fascinating. This could be quite a historical document you’ve found here, Henry.’
‘What happened to the KRB?’
‘Oh, it grew in numbers in the late 1920s and took quite a few parliamentary seats during the Depression. But the rise of Hitler over the frontier didn’t do the movement any favours. Gulik made a false move and spent a time in prison. Later, he made the mistake of appearing with the Fuhrer at a Nuremberg rally. Factional fighting broke out in the movement in the 1930s. By the time of the German invasion and occupation in 1940, they were a spent force, just another right-wing regional party.’
‘Sounds as though they were pretty important for a while.’
‘Yes, they were. They were highly nationalistic, of course, but they differed from the other European fascist movements by having a strange strand of mysticism in their idea of national renewal. Unlike the Nazis, their “superman” was not an Aryan blond, but more of a messianic religious figure. Their renewal was going to be by direct revelation of God in their land. There was a brief period when the cardinal archbishop of Strelzen appeared with Gulik on KRB platforms.’
‘And who was this messianic figure to be?’
‘They were vague about it, although Gulik never claimed he would be the one. They had some mystical prophecies of St Fenice of Tarlenheim to back them up.’
‘St Fenice of Tarlenheim? As in the Meditation on the Face of Our Lord?’
‘That’s the lady. She also wrote the Revelation of the End Time. It’s not easy to get hold of here in Britain, but I have a nineteenth-century edition at home. Would you like to swap it for this notebook?’
‘Awesome, Dr Mac. I hope it’s not in Latin.’
‘No, it’s early Rothenian, but you should be able to manage it with the help of the glossary you’ll find in the back.’
He paused. ‘Now it’s coming back to me. The wheels of my memory creak, but they still work. Wardrinski was a leader in the movement in the days before the Nazi invasion. When we extracted Wardrinski with the help of the Swedes, he brought us a lot of useful material about Nazi-KRB links, and also intelligence on the German foreign ministry. It seems he didn’t go back after the war. You can see why. The occupying Soviets would have marched him off to a gulag as soon as look at him. So is this useful for your research?’
Henry thought about it. Professor Wardrinski’s father had been a right-wing religious nutcase with fascist sympathies. In certain hands, that information might tell against his son. Since only Henry and Dr Mac were likely to know about it, however, it was unlikely to spill over into the public domain. He told Dr Mac it was certainly interesting.
Henry spent a few quiet days with his brother in Trewern. He took the familiar walks, met parishioners and socialised with some old school friends back from university, especially Mark Peters, now at St Andrews reading physics. He felt obliged to keep up with Mark, who might well turn out to be his brother-in-law if Richard carried on the relationship with Helen Peters to its logical conclusion. Henry and Mark had got on well in school, and Henry admired his relaxed attitude to life. Mark had been very supportive when Henry had come out at sixteen.
On the Thursday there was a grand reunion with David Skipper, who had driven up in his new Mini Cooper from Cranwell, having passed his test just before Christmas. He was picking up Henry to take him on to Suffolk. David and Terry were to be guests at Castringham for the New Year house party.
David erupted from his car and kissed and hugged Henry in the rectory yard. They took a while to break apart. Henry had missed David, his school partner in gayness, more than he had realised, and it seemed to be mutual. Their closeness in the past had spilled over into active sex and although those days were gone, they remained something more than friends.
David was still laughing over the Christmas he’d had with Terry and his parents. Christmas at the O’Briens was conventional enough; it was Terry’s stint at the bar of the King’s Cross that had really amused him.
‘It was Terry in his element, Outfield. He really enjoyed it. The things he said to Frank when he got ratty! At one point, he stood on a chair and lectured the public bar in painful detail about the pass that Frank had made at him when he was only seventeen … with Frank going purple behind him and unable to shut him up, or even fire him. Then on Christmas Eve … totally awesome. A fight broke out in the lounge and Terry was straight in. Laid out two blokes single-handed and tossed the others out the door. One of them pulled a knife on him, too.’
‘Christ, I can’t imagine how I would have dealt with that. Called the police and cowered behind the bar, I guess.’
‘As would we all, Henry. But the biggest laugh was what happened with the brewery review. You remember that Frank was getting nervous? Well, it turned out that the brewery wanted to invest in the King’s Cross and make it more mainstream, now it’s on the up: do food, live music, quizzes, have tables and umbrellas round the side yard, refit in the latest brewery chic, sort of thing.’
‘Exactly. Frank was wetting himself, as he couldn’t stand the idea of doing that. It looked to me like the brewery wanted to get rid of him, and were pushing a refit as an excuse to force him out.’
Henry looked shocked, though he was no particular fan of Frank Hutchinson’s. ‘Hey! That’s not funny, that’s Gavin’s and my jobs on the line too!’
‘Relax, Henry. Your job is safe. Terry was outraged that the pathetic gay scene in Cranwell was going to lose even the King’s. So he bought the pub!’
‘Yeah. He went to see the regional manager and wrote a cheque on the spot. The King’s Cross is now owned by the kid who used to work tables there. How about that?’
‘It’s fantastic! But how did Frank take it?’
‘Terry had his little joke. The brewery announced to Frank that they had sold the freehold to a local entrepreneur. Terry’s London office rang Frank to announce the new owner would be in that afternoon. Frank was on pins when Terry came in to work a shift. He was really sarky that Terry hadn’t worn his black shoes, but instead had come wearing trainers. He said that Terry would be in deep trouble with the new owner and shouldn’t expect Frank to put in a good word for him.’
‘What happened next?’
‘Terry dropped the title deeds on the bar and said he really appreciated his manager’s loyalty to his staff.’
‘It’s been a bad year for poor Frank,’ Henry observed.
‘I wouldn’t give much for his chances of missing out on a coronary. He’s got a whole new world to get used to. He could ignore the brewery most of the time, but now he’s got to run the place independently – he’s got to stock speciality beers, get rid of those bloody gambling machines, start a website, revamp the loos and upgrade the function room so it can run as a proper gay club. And Terry will be breathing down his neck to make sure it gets done. Terry’s putting money in and he’ll want it back. Life isn’t going to get any easier for Frank. You can even feel sorry for him.’
‘Not much. Still, it’s a pretty sound investment, I think. Gavin reckoned the place has made a tidy monthly profit all the time we’ve been there, and God knows what a craphole it was then. It’s not just the captive clientele. The city-centre site can’t help but pull people in, even straights.’
David grinned. ‘I wonder if Terry’ll give you and Gavin a raise?’
Henry laughed. ‘I think he’ll leave Frank to run the staff in his own idiosyncratic way.’
Henry was quite impressed by David’s effortless driving skills. He didn’t think he’d be quite so self-assured when his time to learn came. But he could navigate, and took them confidently across the country. They arrived at Haddesley Hall before the sun went down on the Friday.
The garden centre was still lit up and open. Since David was driving on to Andy’s place, Henry dropped his bags off outside the cottage, kissed David goodbye and went over to the shop. As Henry came through the door, Nathan waved at him from the till. Justin gave him a big and very public greeting, causing one lady shopper to drop a basketful of petunias.
‘Hey, little Henry babe,’ grinned Justin. ‘You wanna coffee? Come into the staff room, we gotta kettle and unlimited biscuits due to the generosity of the manager.’
‘Ta, Justy. You can leave me with my book and go get on with your job. Nice to see you, mate.’
Henry settled into a tatty armchair in the glorified cupboard that Nathan called a staff room, nursing a watery instant coffee. Nathan had three or four green-sweatered sixth-formers helping out over the holiday and weekends, and they drifted through from time to time with a ‘hi!’ and a shy smile. Henry was impressed. The garden centre was a very happy place to work, judging by the postcards and funny posters splashed all over the noticeboard.
Nathan even seemed to have mocked up an Employee of the Month board. It currently featured a picture of Justin mouthing at the camera and giving a finger.
Henry had little success in penetrating the mystery of the Revelation of the End Time. It was just a bit too poetic for his pragmatic mind, and a lot of the imagery escaped him. He bit his lip. This was going to be much harder than he had thought.
He was not too bothered when Nathan interrupted to tell him they were closing, and Justy would take him over to the cottage. In the car park, Justin gave him another kiss and they walked along holding hands. Henry got a warm feeling. It was good to have close gay friends who loved and understood him as Justin and Nathan did. He felt less lonely, which, considering that Ed Cornish was only two miles away at Castringham Hall, was just as well.
While Nathan was emptying the deep-fat fryer and Justin was drooling at the golden chips that cascaded on to his plate, headlights swept the cottage windows as a car turned into their forecourt. Henry caught Justin’s eyes and they grinned. ‘Fritzy!’ they shouted together and fought to get out the front door first. Two tall men were unloading the boot. Where was Fritzy? And then Henry realised: one of those two blond gods was his friend. Fritz von Tarlenheim was now of a height with his brother Oskar, and twice as gorgeous if that were possible. He had grown, filled out and blossomed into a superb specimen of young manhood.
‘Jesus wept,’ he hissed at Justin. ‘Matt’s no longer the most beautiful man in the world!’
‘I juss wet meself,’ Justin hissed back.
Fritz looked round and the warmth of his grin swept them like the midday sun coming from behind a cloud.
‘Henry! Justy!’ He enveloped them both in a big hug, and something else stunned Henry. Fritz was using the same rare and gorgeous fragrance as his big brother. It reached out sensuously and seduced his nose. Henry and Justin kissed him each on the nearest cheek. ‘Fuck, I gotta hard on,’ swore Justin under his breath.
‘So you’re glad to see me, then,’ Fritz laughed. He let them go and they kissed his big brother too.
‘So, boys,’ said Oskar, ‘Prince Fritzku is staying in your humble cottage, like Snow White, but I have to get up to Andy’s house. I shall leave you. Have fun.’ They waved him off.
Fritz might have become bigger, but his zest for life and easy laugh were quite unchanged. He sat at the table and took a share of the burgers and chips that Nathan had produced. Fritzy ate them with gusto, all the while telling his friends about his journey, and the lengths Oskar had gone to in order to get him away from Modenehem unnoticed. His blue-green eyes sparkled and his wide and expressive mouth laughed. The boy was a complete delight to look at. He seemed to know it, too.
Another thing that Henry noticed was that Fritz’s English accent and idiom had become perfect, rather more so than Oskar’s. There was a slight touch of foreign intonation, but nothing that stood out.
‘Are the loonies still after you then, mate?’ Nathan asked.
‘More than ever, Nate, more than ever. Would you believe there are now Bannow tours run by travel agents who should know better? The Tarlenheim Palace in Strelzen, our little house in Modenehem, and the abbey of Medeln in particular get party after party of gawking tourists led by instant Bannow experts waving golfing umbrellas and his collected works. I asked Chancellor Trachtenberg if he could close the frontiers to anybody with a copy of Staring in the Face of Christ in their hand luggage, but he said they were good for the balance of payments. Would you say that was unsympathetic? What power does to people, I ask you.’
‘Are they all nutters?’ Justin asked, intrigued.
‘Define nutter,’ Fritz laughed. ‘Some are just avid fans of Bannow’s writing, wanting to look at the locations he mentions. I suppose they’re harmless enough, but they get upset sometimes when the servants go out to tell them our houses are closed to the public, and could they stop blocking the entrances. But there are others … hoo boy, do they scare me! Like that guy we caught breaking and entering, looking for the Holy Face in our kitchen. The letters we get, begging for a sight of the miraculous icon. Some are really sad, like terminal cancer sufferers wanting to touch it and hoping for a cure. Others are obviously insane, claiming they have a higher revelation that the picture should be given to them, so hand it over before fire from heaven comes down and consumes our houses the way it did Sodom.’
‘So,’ said Henry slowly, ‘there is no Holy Face secreted about your person then, Fritzy?’
Fritz stared at him and guffawed. ‘Come off it Henry! Are you serious? Me, custodian of a holy treasure that has passed down through my lineage since the first century AD? You know me! I may be descended from St Fenice, but believe me – and I have looked hard into my soul here – there is nothing of the monk about Fritz von Tarlenheim, the very opposite. Ulrica has laid down her virtue. I am no longer a virgin!’ Fritz punched the air, somewhat phallically, Henry thought.
Henry had to congratulate him. ‘Didn’t that make leaving home all the harder?’
‘Ah … well, it might have, but then I discovered that Ulrica was also laying it out for Moritz Piotresehn, the bastard. I would have beaten the crap out of him, but he has three older brothers. Instead, I was philosophical. He had after all done me a favour by revealing a deep moral weakness in Ulrica, which could only have led to further trouble in due course. In fact, it was better I left at that point. Besides being philosophical, I sort of fell into bed with Helge’s friend’s sister, which caused a bit of a … problem ... when Helge walked in and found me, er, halfway up her arse. No condoms to hand, so it seemed the lesser of two risks.’
‘Jesus, Fritz! You’re as bad as me when I was sixteen!’ Justin marvelled.
They sympathised, but were hardly in sorrow for their friend, who gave every appearance of bouncing back from his disappointments with remarkably little pain. It seemed to Henry, in a rare moment of objectivity about Fritz, whom he had always loved, that the boy’s heart had not been truly touched by real romantic feeling as yet. He was still practising for the big one. It was all about libido so far in his life – but what a libido he had, and how very few sexual hang-ups! They were treated to his reflections on heterosexual union in considerable detail and colour. Although Fritzy’s audience was anything but heterosexual, Henry’s erection was shared by the other two queer boys in the room, judging by the way they were shifting in their seats.
They crashed in the little lounge after dinner, swapping gossip and crude jokes till late. Unusually, it was not Nathan who announced bedtime.
‘I’m sorry, guys, but I’ve just got to get to bed. It’s been non-stop travel all day,’ Fritz said, with some obvious regret.
Nathan backed him up. ‘Bed for us too. We’re working tomorrow. The centre’s still open, Justy, even though it’s New Year’s Eve.’
‘We’d better be closing early then.’
‘At four. You two,’ he said to Henry and Fritz, ‘are going over to Castringham after breakfast. Justy’s driving you. Fritzy, you’re in the box-room tonight. God knows I’d not realised how much you’ve grown since last year, otherwise I’d have swapped you with little Henry, who’s in the guest bedroom. He could sleep comfortably in a matchbox.’
‘Size-ist!’ sneered Henry.
‘Night guys,’ sniggered Fritz.
As soon as he was gone, Justin and Henry exchanged glances and grins. ‘Christ, what a supreme babe Fritzy’s grown into,’ marvelled Justin.
‘Bloody hell,’ returned Henry. ‘What a loss to the gay world. Hey ho! I know what I’ll be dreaming about tonight.’
Henry’s sexual imagination was further stimulated the next morning as Fritz, like a mobile Greek statue of a god of youth, in briefs, ambled smiling past him into the bathroom, a towel across his shoulder. Henry was in awe at what the bulge in Fritz’s underpants indicated. Lucky bloody Ulrica, he thought. He showered with the Fritzy-fragrance still hanging round the bathroom, and couldn’t stop himself from jacking off as a result.
Henry was a lot more sober when he remembered that in only a short while he would be seeing Ed Cornish for the first time in over six months. He felt a nervous flutter in the pit of his stomach as he wriggled into the back of Justin’s three-door, leaving the front seat to Fritz.
‘Belt up kiddies,’ said Justin. ‘Think of me insurance.’ Justin was a very competent driver, not at all rash, as you might have thought from his general attitude to life.
They pulled into the drive of Castringham Hall only ten minutes after leaving Haddesley. The house was eighteenth-century brick, with a pedimented front. The weather vane of a stable block was visible through some leafless oak trees. Deer were cropping the thin winter grass in the park. This was Sir Andrew Peacher’s home, bought so he could be close to Nathan and Justin. He also used it as base for his British operations, instead of lodging with his partner Matt White in London. Wishing to be close to Andy, his father had now settled some twenty miles away, beyond Woodbridge.
Henry was quite curious to see what Andy had done with his house. As Fritz and he trotted up the steps, the front door was opened by a genuine butler in black coat and striped trousers, who clearly had been briefed about the house guests. ‘Your Serene Highness. Mr Atwood,’ he said as he bowed them in and took their coats. It gave Henry the creeps. He felt Jeeves was looking disapprovingly at his stud.
Fritz was used to servants, so he simply asked where Sir Andrew might be found. They were directed to the morning room, where breakfast was still going on.
Andy dropped his paper and leaped up to hug them when they came in. He invited them to eat, and Fritz had no qualms about having a second breakfast. Henry passed up on the opportunity. The butterflies in his stomach had just mutated into something carnivorous and sabre-toothed, with wings.
Andy wanted to know about Fritz’s problems in Rothenia. He was sympathetic, and very happy that Fritz had taken refuge with him and Matt in London. As they were chatting, the door opened, and Harriet Peacher entered. She came up and kissed Henry, then turned smiling to Fritz. Andy stood and so did Fritz. Andy made the formal introduction: ‘Fritz, my sister Harriet; Harry, this is His Serene Highness Franz, the prince-count of Tarlenheim, someone I know you’ve heard a lot about. We call him Fritzy.’
Henry barely had time to register something odd in Fritz’s face, when the door opened again and two young men came in, hand in hand to emphasise that they were more than mere friends. One was Edward Cornish. The other was also perfectly familiar to Henry, no other than Guy Worsman – Guy the Gay, the school fag when Henry was in year 11 at Medwardine.