HENRY IN FINKLE ROAD
Henry and Gavin blanched at the cost of the rail tickets, but there was nothing for it. Henry put it reluctantly on his card debt; Gavin was already broke. But he made his own sandwiches and bought other food supplies for the journey from a supermarket, rather than pay the extortionate prices on board the train.
‘Got your bucket and spade, Gavin baby?’ Gavin grinned and nodded. ‘Then off we go. Pity it’s February with eight-foot waves at Walbrough and an icy gale.’
Gavin was strangely delighted with the six-hour train ride, even though it involved changes at Didcot, Birmingham and York. He beamed round the dingy carriage of the two-car diesel from York to Walbrough. ‘This is so exciting. How’s your book going?’
In fact, Henry had just completed the tedious section on the ‘One Hundred and Forty-Four Names of Mendamero’. It was an epic exercise in anagrams and numerology, assigning astronomical and numerical values to St Fenice’s magical words of prophecy, as well as doing some elaborate and – to Henry – totally absurd and meaningless calculations. He was contemplating the final section on ‘The Sacred Lineage of Ruric’ without much hope that it would assist his investigations into old Mr Wardrinski and the Rothenian fascists.
‘The next stop is Walbrough,’ Gavin confirmed. ‘Where are we going to stay, Henry?’
‘It’s a seaside resort, baby. They’ll have guest houses and travel lodges. We just need to ask around. Maybe there’ll be a surfer’s hostel or something like that. We might even find Eddie there.’
The fields and wolds of Yorkshire abruptly gave way to a landscape of heath and scrub. The trees had all developed a lean towards the west, as if they were trying to run away from something dreadful: the North Sea winter blast, concluded Henry. They passed through a narrow valley and suddenly emerged in a large town, whose streetlights were beginning to glow as the evening drew on. Big Victorian houses were everywhere. Then the train snaked over a viaduct, and they saw a straight dark line on the dusky horizon: the sea. Gavin was more or less bouncing up and down in his seat.
Henry smiled indulgently. ‘You’re loving this, aren’t you, baby. You really are a delight to travel with.’
Gavin laughed. ‘The delight is who I’m travelling with. Holidays with my brutish brothers were nightmares. This is what holidays should be like.’
At the station, Henry led them off to find the Tourist Information Centre, but it had already been closed for two hours. ‘We might as well go look at the bay, baby. Oh! And while we’re at it, we can get some fish and chips.’
A long downward street through a shopping centre brought them out suddenly at the harbour, where trawlers were tied up at a quay and pleasure boats rocked at their moorings. Sands stretched away to their right with cliffs behind them. The seafront was lit up with lines of arcades, gift shops and fish restaurants, all still open. Early evening drinking groups were already wandering about. The tide was receding far out in the bay, and no surfers were to be seen.
The chip shop they picked had a card in the window offering accommodation in holiday flats upstairs, with dramatic sea views. Henry found that the owner was willing to rent them by the night for very little in the off-season, so he and Gavin ended up in quite comfortable accommodation. The owner made no comment about two young men and one double bed.
They wandered the seafront and stopped off in a quiet pub for a late drink. Henry was enjoying the excursion thoroughly. His family had never lived in range of the sea, and it was a rare and wonderful experience to wake to the hiss of waves grinding sand, the screaming of seagulls and the exhilarating tang of salt in the air.
They both slept deeply and woke with huge appetites, which were satisfied in a harbourside diner full of fishermen and early workers. The morning sun was flashing off the choppy sea in the bay, and gulls were wheeling and diving everywhere.
Henry and Gavin walked out on to the pier as far as the lighthouse and surveyed the bay. An enormous swell was delivering great waves on to the beach. Scores of black dots in the water told them that surfers were out in force, despite the cold and the power of the sea. Gavin had found a rusty, coin-operated telescope, and had started feeding it 20p pieces. He was scanning the horizon, staring at the gigantic container vessels ploughing south to Harwich and Antwerp or north to the Atlantic. Henry gave him a prod and a suggestion that he should instead try identifying Eddie amongst the school of surfers in the waves. ‘Hard to tell, Henry,’ he eventually concluded, ‘but they’ve all got really nice bums in their wetsuits.’
‘Great,’ Henry groaned. ‘Then we’d better get over to the beach and see what we can find. They must have a café they hang out at, or shops or something.’
They walked across the sand and found a group of cafés and kiosks under the cliff. A long line of cars and motorbikes told them this was the social centre of the surfing fraternity. A lot of surfers were changing in and out of wetsuits by the cars. The nudity taboo was lax there, as the surfers didn’t seem to care much about standing round naked while changing.
‘Wow!’ Gavin whispered. ‘See the bum on that guy!’
‘Down boy,’ sniggered Henry, trying not to look himself. They took an outside table and got hot drinks. It was a bright but fresh morning, and the dog-walkers who passed by were bundled up against the wind. The black dots of the surfers out in the bay were frantically paddling their boards over the waves, looking for the right one to ride back on. It was soon pretty clear which was Eddie from the power and economy of the strokes that took him out, and the control he had over his board as the waves brought him back. A group of surfers resting at the railing just down from them were watching and grunting in approval.
‘So,’ said Gavin, ‘we’ve found him. What next?’
‘Dunno. I suppose we play it by ear. He may be out there for hours yet.’
In fact, in twenty minutes Eddie dismounted from a wave that had carried him almost all the way up the beach, to a storm of approval from onlookers. He picked up his board and loped up to the café where Henry and Gavin were sitting. He recognised them well before he left the sand to climb up the sea wall.
He gave a half-frown, half-smile, and came directly up to them, his blond hair wet and tangled, his face flushed. ‘Persistent pair of faggots, aren’t you.’
Henry shrugged. ‘Only where it concerns people we like. Come and sit down. Gavin’s got something to tell you.’
‘No … you do it,’ Gavin protested.
‘No, you, it’s your story.’
‘But you’ll do it better.’
Eddie snarled, ‘How long is it gonna take for you to decide? The tide is full in half an hour.’
‘Okay. Okay,’ Gavin surrendered. Eddie sat on a low wall nearby and rested up his rented board. Gavin told his story. It may have lacked drama, but he was at least thorough.
Eddie frowned down at his sand-covered feet as the information was transmitted. ‘So what does this change?’ he wondered, when Gavin had finished.
‘Well, don’t you see?’ insisted Henry. ‘The threat’s lifted. You can come back, and get on with your studies like before, a sadder but hopefully wiser man.’
‘Or I could say fuck it and live for the waves, here, there, everywhere and anywhere other than Cranwell.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake,’ Henry groaned. ‘You were meant to be more than just a surfing bum.’
A faint flush of anger clouded Eddie’s face. ‘Be careful saying that in present company.’
‘And what about your mates in the Surfing Soc … you’re their leader, they respect you. Think of the Malibu tour you had planned, how excited they all are. You can’t walk away from the good things you had going in Cranwell. There are too many people who need you, Eddie. Christ, we need you!’
‘Fine. How much would they want me if they knew I’d screwed that boy-bitch up the ass, that I was as much a faggot as you, Henry?’
‘Oh for God’s sake. You’re not a homosexual! What guy ever turned you on? The only reason you screwed Tina was because he looked so much like a girl! If you’d known for a second he was a guy, you’d never have sustained an erection. I don’t turn you on – incredible though that seems to Gavin …’
‘Hear, hear!’ grinned Gavin.
‘… and Fritzy is the most desirable male arse I have ever seen in my life. Gavin and I both drool over the idea of him being gay and available, but you … he’s just another guy to you. YOU ARE NOT GAY!!!’ Henry was yelling now. ‘YOU ARE JUST A FUCKWIT!!!’
‘Well hell, Henry,’ Eddie was laughing now, ‘I never knew you could be so passionate.’
Henry was surprised by a sudden surge of hot anger in his stomach. ‘Now listen to me, arsehole. What my Gavin did to save your ungrateful arse was so seriously heroic that I am stunned just to contemplate the magnitude of it. My shy little angel braved the anger and possible violence of two of the nastiest gay bastards in the South West of England, and he did it all for you. He managed something that neither Terry nor Justin could, and he did it in a way that means he’ll never get any credit for his selfless courage. You should be creeping along the ground to kiss his cute little toes … except he would get off on it too much, and I couldn’t let him get that excited.’
‘Henry …?’ Gavin intervened timorously
‘… restrain yourself, Gavin. What was I going to say? Oh yeah! All that bravery means you had better get used to the idea that you bloody well ARE coming back to Cranwell, or … or, I don’t know what I’ll do … but it won’t be pleasant.’
Gavin gently said, ‘I think he’s agreed with you, baby.’
‘Oh.’ Henry came down off his adrenalin high. ‘Have you?’
Eddie was nodding as he laughed. Eventually he said, ‘I wouldn’t dare defy you, Henry dude. You remind me of those furry little creatures who stand up to lions and wolves when their young are under threat, three inches of fur and sharp little teeth against one hundred and fifty pounds of lean muscle. You two are wonderful, and I love you both. So what we gonna do?’
‘Er … get a train?’ Henry suggested.
‘Hell, Henry, not with this surf running. I’ve got two more days of this paradise before the wind shifts. What sort of philistine are you? No, I meant how should we manage my return to the bosom of the family?’
‘I could ring Terry and say we found you, or you could just turn up in a few days. Justy wouldn’t thank you for reappearing tomorrow. He’s having a paid holiday in California chatting up handsome, bronzed surfers.’
Eddie laughed again. ‘Henry dude, you guys deserve the credit. Ring up Terry and tell him you’ve found me surfing in the north, and that I’m thinking of going back day after tomorrow. OK? Tough on Justy, but hey, Nate should be enough for him. And I’ll ring Harry in the States.’
So Henry got a tea from the counter, before ringing Terry’s magic number to give him the news. There was a silence, followed by a quiet ‘Well done, Henry,’ that made him tingle with pleasure.
They decided Henry and Gavin would make a seaside holiday of their trip and travel back with Eddie. Eddie made a fuss about how much they were spending, and insisted on paying for their rooms above the chippie. Henry didn’t fight the idea. He reckoned Eddie owed them that much at least.
The next day, while Eddie was riding the waves, Henry and Gavin bought kid’s spades and had a blissful time in the rocks and sand of the South Bay constructing dams, waterworks and canals on a grand scale. They flooded a huge pool they had created, then watched as their efforts at civil engineering were battered down by the sea.
Henry wished Mattie Oscott had been there with them. But he took some pictures on his mobile and sent them to Paulie to show Mattie. He also picked up some sticks of novelty rock he thought the boy would like. Mattie was into sticky sweets.
In the afternoon, Henry and Gavin explored the ancient castle on a promontory high above the bay. It was the sort where you could climb spiral staircases and penetrate dungeons. Henry was delighted. Gavin though not a history student, confessed it was fun for him too.
All three of them ate heartily, and then went drinking along the seafront with some friends Eddie had made. It was a really good day; brisk and sunny when the sun was up, and cool but not uncomfortable after the sun went down. Henry and Gavin ended up on the pier behind the lighthouse, necking passionately in the moonlight out of sight of the town.
The next day Henry felt obliged to do something with his notes on the Wardrinski book. Gavin by now was intrigued, and insisted Henry explain what he was finding. They sat together in the holiday flat’s window seat, the sea behind them and the sun warm on their backs, feeling very cosy and close.
‘Okay, Gavin, it’s all about this Alastair Bannow book, the one you’ve read: Staring in the Face of Christ. You enjoyed it, didn’t you?’
‘Yeah, it was quite fun, like a detective novel. Better than the boring history stuff you usually read.’
‘I would shack up with a sociologist, wouldn’t I? Two very different households, both alike in dignity – we’re Romeo and Julio, baby. Ah well. Anyway, Bannow made his case that there was a portrait painted of Jesus in His own lifetime, which somehow has survived up to the present day and is being kept hidden in Rothenia. Its secret guardians are the princes of Tarlenheim, who he says are descended from the holy family, through one of Jesus’ younger sisters.’
‘Yeah, and it’s all crap. Can you imagine Fritzy as a secret guardian of the most cosmically important relic of all time? Can you imagine him as having the same genes as Jesus? Totally mad.’
‘I’m not disagreeing with you, baby. It defies reason, as Dr Paulie has pointed out. Bannow’s argument is full of unsustained leaps and unsupported assertions. Coincidence is not allowed just to be coincidence. And now Matt White is making a hostile documentary to tear Bannow apart, with that pompous arse Wardrinski in charge of it. But you see, the weird thing is that the more research I did for Matt, the more Bannow’s arguments made sense. I keep turning up evidence he did not look at, or even know about, but that still supports what he said.’
Gavin was getting more interested. He was completely without any religious belief, and had not had even the most basic exposure to religion, yet somehow the supernatural rang his bell, big time. In bed three weeks before, he had hung on Henry’s every word when told about Henry and Ed’s adventure in Trewern Great Wood, and he had barely let a day pass since without referring to it.
‘You see, it’s Fenice, St Fenice of Tarlenheim. There was something about her. Never mind if she is descended from St John the Evangelist as Bannow says, she undoubtedly was from a peculiar lineage. Her mother and grandmother were very strange and powerful women, with abilities you cannot easily explain away, even allowing for the fact that people naturally create myths and legends.
‘I think she did possess some secret, one so powerful it could not be concealed entirely, a bit like trying to hide the light of the sun in a cardboard box. And … Gavin, you don’t know Rothenia, but it is a very odd country. Although it’s had its ups and downs over the centuries, it has survived intact in the middle of the most war-torn part of Europe. It’s prospered when it had dukes and kings who were faithful and Catholic, and done badly when it had un-Christian and atheistic rulers. Look at it now. Under young King Rudolf and that good man Trachtenberg, it’s the leading engine of the East European post-Communist economic miracle. It’s eclipsing Poland and the Czech Republic. Big international conglomerates are attracted to it, it’s the centre of a huge tourist boom, and average income has doubled in two years.
‘OK, you will say there are solid economic reasons why this should be so, but I wonder if there are other reasons too. One thing you always notice about Rothenia when you’re there is that it is a land with a heart. You can sense there’s a source of moral strength somewhere deep inside it. It sounds mad, maybe, but there is more to that country than appears on the surface. Will Vincent says it’s a place where romance becomes real; I’d say it’s a place where reality is transformed into something else.’
‘Sounds like Narnia.’
‘That’s exactly the point, Gavin baby, exactly the point. Take the ethnic mix. Elsewhere Germans and Slavs in the same country have been an explosive combination, but they have always co-existed in Rothenia. It’s as if there is something tying them together which is bigger than their racial and linguistic allegiances. It’s as if all the dwarves, centaurs and talking beavers of Narnia were united under Aslan’s banner.’
‘But,’ Gavin said with a half smile, ‘I know what Dr Paulie would say now. He’d say you’re just tying coincidences together to make a theory.’
‘Yeah, ‘spose. It’s just that there are really weird things. You’ve met Fritzy, and you’ll be seeing him again in a couple of weeks when he comes down to Cranwell on a visit. Now take a look at this picture …’ Henry pulled out his heavily thumbed edition of Staring in the Face of Christ, and pointed to a plate. ‘Who is this?’
‘It’s Fritzy with longer hair.’
‘Actually it isn’t, it’s Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s picture of Count Oskar the Great of Tarlenheim, age seventeen in 1646. It defies genetics that such a face can recur in almost every generation of a family. But with the Tarlenheims, it does.’
‘Handsome babe too, isn’t he?’
‘Makes you want to groan.’
‘So what you gonna do, my Henry?’
‘Do? Not a lot. My days of hopping across to Strelzen are over, and the amount of money we could scrape between us would just about get us to Calais. If only Ryanair flew to Strelzen, but the cheapest flights from Stanstead set you back over £100.’
‘Tell you what then, my Henry. Let’s start putting our tips together into a Rothenia fund, and see how much we’ve got by the end of summer term. Maybe we’ll scrape enough for a week if we’re lucky. I’ve never been abroad, and I’d love to see Medeln and Modenehem and all the places in the book. It’ll give me something to look forward to, even if it doesn’t come off in the end.’
Henry smiled into his lover’s eager face and kissed him tenderly. ‘I love you, my Gavin. You are so good for me.’