HENRY IN FINKLE ROAD
The astonishment of discovering that Guy Worsman was Ed Cornish’s new boyfriend quite took the punch out of the awkwardness of being face to face with Ed again.
‘You know each other?’ Andy asked in surprise.
‘Hello, little Henry.’ Guy seemed genuinely pleased to see him again, and by no means embarrassed at the meeting.
Henry gave a broader grin than he would have thought possible. He took Guy’s hand with some real warmth. ‘Hey Guy! Well I might have guessed. So you’ve cradle-snatched Ed?’
Guy laughed, and it was Ed who seemed sheepish. He looked at Henry and Henry looked at Ed. Almost unconsciously they clinched and kissed. And when they broke apart, a lot of anxiety was gone. Henry could do this. He was stronger than his regrets.
They sat at the breakfast table, and began catching up. ‘So you too have a new flame, little b … I mean, Henry?’ asked Ed.
‘You can call me “little babe” still, can’t he, Guy?’
Guy laughed again. ‘Yes, of course he can.’
Henry smiled. ‘The new flame’s Gavin. He might not be everybody’s idea of a perfect boyfriend, but he suits me. We have matching piercings, it’s so romantic. And when did you two hit it off?’
‘Oh,’ said Ed, ‘Guy was assigned to be my mentor and it happened almost straight away.’
‘You went off to Cambridge desperate to have it off with another gay bloke, from what I remember,’ Henry smiled at Guy.
‘And found no one I could conceivably have considered doing it with. I couldn’t believe my bad luck. I must have been the unluckiest gay in the universe. I thought I was the problem, until I walked into Ed’s room and – wham! We were laughing and joking as though we had known each other for years and then … fucking like bunnies by the end of the second week. He took my virginity. Bizarre. It’s supposed to be the fresher who’s the inexperienced virgin, not the third-year student!’
Henry laughed. His discomfort was ebbing away. He found he could look at Ed Cornish without his heart lurching. He found they could share smiles and jokes again. Maybe he was growing up.
The door opened again and a small voice yelled, ‘Heneree! Heneree!’ Mattie Oscott ran into the room and leaped up to kiss him. Henry found himself cuddling the little lad as his mum and dad pursued him into the morning room.
Rachel sighed, ‘He would hardly sleep last night knowing you were coming, Henry. Every ten minutes it was, “Is Heneree here yet?” “Is Heneree here now?” I’m sorry, Henry, he’s going to want to monopolise you from now on.’
Henry grinned. ‘I don’t mind in the least. Come on, Mattie, let’s leave these boring grown-ups. Where are your play people? You’d better have brought them.’
Mattie tugged Henry away to his bedroom upstairs, and that was it for the rest of the morning. They constructed elaborate scenarios, and then played hide and seek along the complicated passageways of the big house. They dressed up warmly and investigated the gardens. Henry found a rowing boat on the lake, so they had an exciting maritime adventure. They explored the lake islands, disturbing some bad-tempered ducks and swans. A mock Greek temple on one island entranced both of them. Henry was astonished to hear the lunch gong being beaten on the terrace. Time had flown.
Mattie went running up to his mother full of the morning’s fun. She looked gratefully at Henry, mouthing ‘Thank you!’ with real warmth.
Lunch was good. Oskar and Fritz, Eddie and Harriet, Ed and Guy, the Oscotts, David and Terry, and Matt and Andy were fascinating and amusing company. To cap it all, Matt’s brother Carl with his fiancée Katy arrived from London halfway through. The tribe was almost all there, apart from Justin and Nathan, who were working at the centre, and Peter Peacher, who was consulting with his father elsewhere in the county.
Lunch spilled over into afternoon tea in the gallery, and Henry went off with Andy on a tour of the house. ‘You seem happy enough, little one,’ Andy smiled, holding Henry’s arm in his.
‘I am. I’ve got great friends, a holiday job, and I can look Ed Cornish in the face without flinching … what’s not to like?’
‘Good. I was a little worried as to how this would work out. But kids grow up faster these days, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so concerned. Now, let’s examine the paintings, like the deeply serious and pathetic geeks we are.’
As the cold and grey afternoon drew on, the Christmas decorations were lit up and coal fires set to burning in all the main rooms. It was all very homely and comfortable, and Henry stretched out on a sofa in a side room for a snooze.
He jerked awake as Justin bounced on the sofa beside him. ‘Hey, Henry. Wakey! Me and Mattie wanna play soccer in the gallery, y’know, right next to that priceless big blue Chinese vase thing we can use as a goalpost.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Wind up.’
‘No, seriously. Mattie and me have got bored with our nose-picking competition, and he’s not interested in soft drugs or ciggies, so we need you to amuse us.’
Mattie loved Justin, who unfortunately tended to send the child into overdrive. That day, Justin had wound him up to the point of meltdown, causing Mattie to miss out on his mid-afternoon nap. He was fretful and tearful, so Henry picked him up and carried him round till he dropped off on Henry’s shoulder, sucking his thumb.
Henry handed him back to his dad. Paulie grinned, saying it was the most adult day he and Rachel had had together in months. He put Mattie to sleep on a sofa, covered with a light wrap.
A bit relieved, Henry took up his edition of The Revelation of the End Time with rather more determination. He had a pocket notebook, and began serious note taking.
The book was in several sections. The first was a meditation on the little apocalypse of St Matthew’s Gospel. The second dwelt on the Revelation of St John. The third was a book of half-familiar prophecies, and when Henry checked the footnotes, he discovered that many of them were drawn from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophecies of Merlin. Henry found those chapters a bit impenetrable, so he just skimmed them.
The fourth section was almost entirely different. St Fenice was discussing her own country. As with many medieval nationalists, she depicted it as the chosen of God. ‘When God created the ninety and nine nations, it was the Ruritanenses He loved best. We were of the race of Priam and Hector, driven from burning Troy by the deceiving Greeks. Long we travelled under His mighty care, through Sarmatia and Scythia until we crossed our own Mount Nebo and found our Jordan. There built we our Zion by the Starel … our holy Starelsau.’
Convinced of God’s especial care for the Rothenian people, St Fenice went into some detail on the country’s spiritual history. There was a chapter on the holy Vitalis, the German monk who had first preached the faith to the Rothenians in the primitive forests of the Starel valley, together with a recital of his principal miracles, which Henry had not known about.
He was particularly intrigued to read of St Vitalis’s interventions in the history of the Tarlenheim family. ‘A certain count of the castle of Tarlenheim, one Ansagadis by name,’ appeared as a lord at the court of the first duke, Tassilo. St Vitalis’s intervention saved Ansagadis’s son Wictingis from the consequences of a fever. A footnote said these were the first references to the house of Tarlenheim, whose lineage, it appeared, could thus be traced back to the ninth century.
Henry was impressed. He could trace the house of Atwood back all the way to his great grandfather, a shopkeeper in Burnley before the Second World War.
The next chapter was on the duke Tassilo, friend of the Ottonid emperors. Although not himself a saint, Tassilo appeared in those pages as a friend and patron of holy men, and founder of the first Rothenian monasteries. He was also the builder of the cathedral of Ss Andrew and Vitalis, next to his hall at Strelsau on a hill above the Starel, where Henry had seen Tassilo’s alleged tomb when he’d been there on holiday two years before. It was this alliance between the German emperors and the Rothenian dukes which brought to the duchy the great treasure of the Black Virgin of Glottenberh, the Byzantine icon which was already its holiest object of pilgrimage in St Fenice’s day, though curiously she had little to say about it. The problem for her was that although Glottenberh was a Rothenian duchy in her time, Glottenberh had escaped the overlordship of the dukes who ruled from Strelsau. The Black Virgin had been appropriated by the rival Glottenberh dynasty as its patron.
Fenice spoke at length about some later dukes of Rothenia, but nothing much which reflected on Henry’s areas of concern. At first he couldn’t see why the Rothenian fascist movement, the KRB, would have been interested in her or her Revelation, but his doubt was resolved by the final chapter of her book. It was entitled ‘De Explicationibus et Prognosticationibus in Temporibus Futuris’ (‘Commentary and Hints about Times to Come’, as the trusty footnotes fortunately explained).
It began with a passage of scripture: ‘The Lord hath chosen Zion; He hath desired it for His habitation (Ps 132: 13).’ Fenice explained that the Lord had abandoned the Jews and cast down their Temple, but that He had not forsaken the Christian peoples of the world. He could still be found by certain signs, and where those signs were, there also was Zion.
Then she shifted into visionary mode. ‘I, Fenicia, wife of the venerable count Sergius, your sister in Christ and in his kingdom, to all those now living and those yet to be. Know that I was in the high chamber of my castle of Tarlenheim, pondering the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. It was a Sunday and I heard behind me a great voice as of a trumpet, saying, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last”, and “What now thou hearest so write and tell unto thy people”.
‘Hear then ye people and know that the Lord has set up His seat amongst you, and so may ye rejoice. For ye are His favoured ones. He will make of you a great people. Kings will He give you, strong in justice and firm in His faith. A race of saints shall ye be, chosen of the Lord. Though ye doubt and quail in the eye of the tempest, yet stay faithful to the Lord and to His anointed ones, and He shall calm the waters as once He did on the Lake of Gennaseret. Victory shall ye ever have. He will forgive you your weakness and exalt you among nations. His countenance will shine upon you and ye will bask in His glory. Their hair will be red as copper is red and gold as the sunlight is golden. Their race will never fail in their charge. Their line will always be fruitful of Levites. Impious hands may seize your ark, but theirs will be as the fate of the Philistines, for one will come, as bold as Samson, as wise as Deborah, and his name will be MENDAMERO. Yet as Samson suffered mortal loss in victory, so shall he, though his loss shall be the Lord’s gain. For by his sacrifice will a warrior arise, a very David to lead Israel unto great glory. The Lord is with thee, O my Israel. His Ark lieth amongst thee in its chamber of cypress wood. His servants lie wakeful around it, as Samuel in the Holy of Holies.’
Ah! thought Henry. Perhaps now I see why the Rothenian fascists would be keen on St Fenice’s Revelation. What a goldmine for the sort of mystical hyper-nationalism that seduced the twentieth century. It was an ideological license to treat their neighbours with contempt. It gave Rothenia a pseudo-history older than any other European nation’s, and pandered to its self-love. It also gave the fascists a chance to masquerade as being promised by divine prophecy as national redeemers.
Then there was this promise of national salvation through some messenger of God, Mendamero. The word was meaningless in Rothenian and in any other language Henry was acquainted with. It was like Gog and Magog, and the Beast of the Apocalypse: portentous nonsense words heavy with menace. There was, however, another one of those useful footnotes in his edition. It said that rearranging the letters would make the Latin word ‘Memorande’, which was probably intended to be read as ‘res memorande’ or ‘things that need to be kept in mind.’ The suggestion was that Fenice had concealed some aspect of her revelation because it would have got her in trouble with the Inquisition.
Henry put down his book. Alastair Bannow certainly knew nothing of St Fenice’s Revelation. It was full of those equivocal references that he would have built into his palaces of speculation and fantasy: ‘His countenance will shine upon you and ye will bask in His glory,’ or ’the Lord has set up His seat amongst you.’ Had he been aware of them, Bannow would have taken such passages as obvious references to the Holy Face. Henry was learning to recognise the way Bannow thought and, almost reluctantly, to sympathise with Professor Wardrinski.
Matt and Andy’s New Year’s Party at Castringham Hall was great fun, as ever. With midnight approaching, Matt looked across at Henry, cuddling next to David and sipping at a gin. ‘Any stories for us this year?’
Ed, Justin and Nathan fell about. They remembered all too well how Henry had brought the party to a standstill two years ago with the ghost story to end all ghost stories.
‘Nope, Matt, the supernatural has let me be this year. I thought you’d be the one with the weird story, since you’re funding Professor Wardrinski’s expedition into the wackier end of the religious fruit-cake spectrum.’
Matt laughed. ‘It’ll be back to the Holy Workface for you, little Henry, on Tuesday. How do you think it’s going?’
Henry thought about it. ‘It’s a great idea, Matt. My problem with it is Wardrinski. He can’t keep himself from being arrogant and scornful. That will antagonise the viewers, and Bannow, although a nutter, will gain their sympathy.’
‘Is he a nutter?’
Henry smiled. ‘Ask Dr Paulie.’
Paul shrugged. ‘I deal with language and logic, I don’t make judgements. It’s irrelevant for me whether there’s any speck of truth in Bannow’s intellectual meanderings. All I’m interested in is the distortion in his arguments and the gaps in his reasoning, and how conspiracy can be generated.’
Henry asked, ‘Have you signed up Bannow yet?’
Matt shook his head. ‘He’s still playing hard to get, or rather his agent is. Money’s not a real problem, though his fee would be three times Wardrinski’s. I think he’s scared of the prof.’
Eddie shouted over, ‘You gotta put the dudes in a ring with gloves and let em slug it out.’
‘What,’ asked Andy, ‘you mean metaphorically?’
‘No way … I meant what I said. It’d be totally awesome to see two scrawny old brainiacs trying to beat the shit out of each other. I’d pay top dollar to see it.’
Matt snorted. ‘If ever we get them face to face, it might come down to that. They do seriously hate each other, though Wardrinski’s more upfront about it.’
Midnight came and they toasted the New Year. Everybody kissed and hugged. That meant Henry got to snog Justin and David, which he always rather enjoyed. Terry had to pull him off Davey.
‘Henry, if you want to wrap your tongue round my Davey’s tonsils, you need to wait till I’m out of the country.’
‘Aw … Uncle Terry. But I did sex with him before you did. He’s my Davey too.’
‘Who’s carrying a gun here?’
The New Year also confirmed what Henry had noticed about Fritz. The lad had been smitten hard by Harriet Peacher, so much was obvious. He was next to her at every opportunity he could get. That it was very serious on his part was clear. Fritz was actually tongue-tied, something Henry had never seen before in the years he had known the boy. Fritz blushed bright red when he kissed Harriet as Big Ben rang the year’s change.
‘Hey, Harriet,’ Henry said as he plonked himself down next to her.
‘My turn for a kiss,’ she said.
‘Mm …’ Henry smiled afterwards. ‘It’s not at all like kissing your brother.’
‘You’ve kissed Eddie?’
‘Actually, he kissed me. It was a sort of reward for putting up with him for a term.’
‘He’s as crazy as ever.’
‘Why is it that he’s so crazy and you’re so sane, Harry?’
‘No one really understands him, Henry. He really is so very clever, and funny and ever so kind.’
‘I know he’s clever and funny, if he wants to be. Kind? Well, maybe. He’s different with the rest of the world than he is with you, Harry. But I like him a lot, and apart from his personal hygiene, I’m happy to be living with him.’
Harriet laughed, and Henry felt very comfortable with the girl. He could see why Fritz might have fallen for her. ‘Er … you’ve picked up an admirer since you arrived here, Harry,’ he felt bold enough to say.
‘The prince of Tarlenheim?’
‘You had noticed, then.’
‘Fritz is sweet …’
‘… but he’s just a kid, you were going to add?’
‘Something like that. He’s sixteen, Henry. He’s got a lot of growing up to do.’
Henry gave her a quirky look. He knew quite a lot more about Fritz than Harry did. As a fourteen-year-old, Fritz had been the youngest thirty-something Henry had ever met. ‘Let’s hope he sees it your way then, Harry.’