HENRY IN FINKLE ROAD
Term went by. Working in the King’s Cross with a subdued Frank took up three or four evenings a week. Babysitting Mattie Oscott so his parents could party took up one or two others. So much night work meant that Henry and Gavin often only got one evening out a week together. But they had limited money in any case. They saw each other for a lot of the day and sometimes shared shifts, so the separation wasn’t too big a problem.
Eddie had come back from Walbrough, if not a changed man, at least a more reflective one. The chasing after skirt stopped abruptly, and the excessive drinking did not resume either. Eddie applied himself instead to training his surfers ruthlessly to his own high standards. Weekends were in East Anglia, Devon, Pembrokeshire or anywhere the surf was good. Somehow, no one asked from where the travel funding was coming. Fund raisers, donations, newspaper appeals and commercial sponsorship achieved their target and in June, the society was going to head out for a month in California. The members were blissful and some were going to tanning booths.
One Friday at the end of March, as he was waiting at the station for Fritz’s train to arrive from London, Henry heard his mobile sing. He flipped it to find Matthew White at the other end. ‘Henry, we need you,’ Matt announced.
‘That’s nice … what for?’
‘At the end of April, we start filming in your favourite place in the universe. I have it from Paulie that by then your assessment period is over, and you will have time on your hands. And if you have time, I have money and lots of it for a bright senior production assistant aged nineteen, with a good command of Rothenian. Such men are in short supply. So how about it?’
‘Er … how much money?’ Henry asked. Matt told him. ‘OK, hang on while I change my underpants. But what about my Gavin? I can’t leave him all summer.’
‘I realise that, Henry. A senior production assistant working to the executive producer requires an assistant of his own. Any ideas?’
‘I’ll ask him, and when he says yes I’ll get back to you.’
Henry was still grinning when the express screeched into the station. He waved at the unmistakable tall, blond figure of Fritz, who emerged on to the platform helping an old lady with her cases. Henry ran up and found himself lifted and hugged into the magnificent body of quite the most handsome seventeen-year-old in western Europe. Eyes followed them through the station, and they were not looking at Henry.
‘How’s school, Frankie?’
‘Going fine, Henry. I hadn’t realised quite how many different sorts of drugs are on offer to teenagers in the West, but I’m learning. Helge would be appalled if I told her.’
‘I take it you haven’t actually …’
‘Good God, no! You just have to look at the ones who have to know what a bad idea it would be. The Americans are the worst. The dealers just hang round the corner of the college waiting for customers; they may even take plastic for all I know. Anyway, Henry, I can stay till Monday, or so Andy and Matt have said.’
‘That’s cool. So apart from marvelling at the louche glamour of the King’s Cross, what else do you want to do?’
‘I want to look around your university, so I can get an idea what it’s like being a student in the West. I’m seriously going to apply for the States … I’ve just got time. Part of it is that I adore being ‘Frankie Prince’ … it’s like when I was a kid in Terlenehem all those years ago, the little orphaned Franz Prinz who lived in a wooden cottage on the poor side of town. And now at seventeen I’m Frankie, the cool foreign student with perfect English who lives in a big house in Highgate; the parties I get invited to … the ass that’s available! The interest from the girls is quite something, Henry. It was always hard work in Modenehem, where they had all known me since I was little. Somehow they could resist me. But here … I am so hot, they queue up, and some of the boys are tongue-tied too.’
‘Yeah … but of all your identities, I like Fritzy best. He’s the friend I love: funny, eccentric, confident and amused.’
Fritz laughed and shifted into Rothenian. ‘I will always be your good friend Fritzku, Henry. Don’t doubt that. And one day when all this fuss is over, I will be happy to re-assume the dignity of the prince of Tarlenheim. But for now, thanks to that odious man Bannow, I can be a teenager and as normal as it is possible for a teenager to be.’ He looked shy, and shifted back to English.
‘Any news about … her, you know?’
‘Harriet Peacher? A few e-mails, plus a lot of distress when Eddie went missing briefly.’
‘Yes. I heard and sent my concern too. I got a sweet letter back. I printed it out and keep it in my wallet.’
‘You think she’s softening?
‘Hmm. I can dream. Anyway. I shall suck up to her twin brother this weekend, in hopes he will put in a good word for me.’
‘I really hope she starts looking at you seriously, Fritz. What a couple you’d make. And what a princess she would be.’
Fritz laughed. ‘You’re getting ahead of yourself, Henry, you little romantic. So you’ll be coming to Rothenia in May, Matt says, and your shy boyfriend too? That’s seriously good news. Matt’s going to base himself at the manor-house of Templerstadt, where Oskar and Peter Peacher are living now.’
‘I don’t know that place.’
‘It’s in the hills above the abbey of Medeln where a lot of the filming is going to happen. It’s not too far from my old home of Terlenehem, where our family used to have a house until the Communists demolished it. Templerstadt’s not quite as dramatic a place as it sounds. A small eighteenth-century château in the French style, with a stable block and a farmyard. It used to belong to we Tarlenheims once.’
‘The Knights Templar had a fortified barn there … a grange you say, I think. It was never really a proper castle. The medieval chapel and gatehouse of their precinct survive, however. You’ll find it interesting, Henry. You’re that sort of guy.’
They had reached the Brewery by then and dropped off Fritz’s bag at David and Terry’s. ‘So, Henry, take me to the insane pub with the mad barman.’
Fritz caused a subdued sensation at the King’s. The regulars stared at him with their tongues hanging down to the bar, while Henry got some very sly glances.
‘You found a new boyfriend and done away with your little Gavin?’ scoffed Frank. ‘I would too, given that choice.’
‘Frank Hutchinson, say hello to Frankie Prince. He’s got the same first name as yours, but I can’t think of any other way he resembles you, physically, mentally or for that matter morally.’
‘I’ll have a lager …’ Fritz requested politely, his eyes ranging round hungrily. ‘Got any Czech beers?’
‘Czech beers … you can drink Aussie like the rest of us. Christ, they’ll want chilled bottles next,’ Frank grumbled.
Fritz blazed with delight. ‘Wow, Henry, he’s exactly the pig-ignorant bastard you said he was.’
‘What am I, some sort of freak show for you, kid?’
‘Absolutely! I was told by several friends that you were the rudest man in England, gay or straight. I’ve been longing to meet you.’
Bizarrely, Frank looked flattered. ‘Oh, really?’
‘The stories I have heard … phenomenal. I almost feel I should ask for your autograph on a beer mat.’
Henry was stunned. Within a few minutes, Frank was telling Fritz the stories of what were in his opinion his finest moments of studied insolence. If he was not going quite so far as to laugh, Frank was soon giving dry chuckles and betraying a nice sense of timing in his stories. Others of the regulars joined Fritz and Frank at the bar, and whether they were tough and tattooed Haggis, or effeminate and affected Joe, they were all laughing and talking almost normally.
This is a peculiar thing, thought Henry, and not one I’d ever expected to see at the King’s. That boy Fritz, he is so good with people, even weirdos like the King’s regulars.
Confident, relaxed, smiling and quick-witted, Fritz sat in the middle of the group of those strange men doing nothing at all, yet inspiring them to wit and funny stories. Henry left Fritz to get on with it and kept the bar so Frank could enjoy his brief moment of humanity. It was odd, and it reminded Henry of something … but for the life of him, he could not think what it was.
Henry and Fritz went back to David’s flat and made themselves some drinks. They were waiting for Eddie to turn up from the pool, and David to drive down from London, where he had spent a couple of days with his Terry. They would not see Gavin that night as he had a shift to work at the King’s.
When they had all finally gathered, Henry shared his news about his summer job. They marvelled at the promised salary, although David nodded wisely and warned him that he would be paying tax on it if he wasn’t careful. They decided they would hit the straight club scene that night, in deference to their guest.
Being a student city, Cranwell had a lot of clubs. Midnight found them fairly well oiled in a multi-floor indie dance club that David knew of and enjoyed. It was student night.
David had been tutored in dancing by Terry and had a natural flair. As he said a little apologetically to Henry, ‘If I want to dance, girls are the only option in this city, and so needs must.’ Girls found him irresistible: his long limbs, his looks and style were very seductive. He had become a well-known face in the Cranwell clubbing scene, where he went round with several straight mates from the Business School. Eddie too had no problems finding girls to go on the floor with, and as soon as Fritzy entered the club, the whole place seemed to go quiet and shuffle to get near him. He drew eyes in a big way.
Henry was a bit bemused. To begin with, he hid at the bar, watching his friends moving and smiling through the crowd. Fritz had natural grace and flair, as well as looks that were beyond stunning. It was a delight just to watch him. Whenever he left the floor, girls followed him and flocked round him as if he were a film star.
Henry was sipping at his usual gin and tonic when he turned around and found himself next to one of the female students from his year, a girl called Antoinette.
‘Hello, Henry. I’ve never seen you here,’ she said.
‘Hi Netta. No, most nights I work.’
She laughed. ‘Yes, I’ve seen you at the Queen’s.’ Straight students in Cranwell called the King’s Cross the “Queen’s Cruise”. ‘Even so, you don’t club much, do you.’
‘I’m a domestic little body, Netta.’
‘And you’ve got a sweet little boyfriend doing Sociology, haven’t you?’
Henry knew that, gay or not, girls found him interesting, though he was not one of those gays who liked to borrow their clothes and join in their bitchiness. He was still surprised when she suggested they dance. But he didn’t mind dancing, and he liked Antoinette, so out they went, hand in hand. Henry had a fantastic time. They moved, talked and giggled together. Henry remembered that some of Matt White’s best friends were female, and he began to see why. He danced with a couple of Antoinette’s friends, and it was four in the morning, with the milk floats already on the street, before he stumbled with Fritz and Eddie back to Finkle Road.
They sat around, still buzzing too much to sleep, though Henry made the others keep the noise down, as Gavin was upstairs. It had been the first time Fritz had ever been clubbing, and he’d loved it. Eddie had been impressed at his success. ‘Kid, you could have laid half the club, boys and girls, if you’d wanted.’
‘I was aware of that, Eddie. But Henry … the girls were all over you. You were an honorary straight tonight. Thanks for making the effort.’
‘No problem, boys. The pleasure was all theirs.’
Gavin let his boyfriend sleep in that morning, and it was after midday when Henry finally surfaced. Fritz was still asleep in the front loft bedroom, and Eddie had already gone out to meet some surfing mates for lunch.
As soon as Henry’s feet hit the floor, Gavin was in the room with a coffee, eager for his account of the night out. ‘Henry, you smell of girls! Dancing with them! Ooh, Henry, you’re letting the side down.’
‘Ha ha. Baby, I have some news. You know that fund we were putting away for summer travel. Let’s blow it.’
Gavin’s face fell. ‘Oh Henry, are you going off the idea of Rothenia this summer?’
‘Nope, darling one. Not at all. It happens that Matt White has offered me a very handsomely paid job as his PA in Rothenia starting May!’
Gavin’s face fell even further. ‘That’s … really great.’
‘And do you know what else?’
‘Er ... what?’
‘He’s offering you the job of PA to me!’
Gavin exploded, hurling himself at Henry and knocking the coffee over on to the carpet. ‘Henry! Henry! We’re off to Rothenia together, and we’re being paid! I’ll be such a good PA … I’ll make coffee, sharpen your pencils, suck your dick, anything you like. And we’ll be paid too!’
‘So go and get a form and let’s fill in your passport application. It’s only six weeks and we’ll be off.’
‘I’ve got to get maps and guide books.’
‘I’ve got all that stuff back at Trewern, baby. We’ll use our travel fund to go up and see Mum and Dad next weekend, so I can introduce you at last. Then they can fall in love with you, just like I have.’
‘They didn’t really fall in love with me, did they,’ said Gavin mournfully. Henry was sadly aware that Gavin had desperately needed acceptance by his parents, and they had both been disappointed. Henry was really angry with his mother. She had been – for her – off-hand with Gavin, and the poor, shy boy had sensed it, all too easily.
Henry was acutely conscious of how differently his second love was being treated from the way Ed Cornish had been. Gavin was being unfairly punished for not being Ed. The unfairest thing was that Ed would have been resilient under such treatment, whereas it had damaged Gavin.
Henry was beginning to understand the byways of Gavin’s mind. He knew that when Gavin was hurt, he could not forget it, even if he could understand and forgive it. He would never now be easy with the Atwoods. If he had been met with genuine warmth, he would have loved them for life, but that chance had been lost.
Henry also resented his mother’s making him choose between them. She had done what he never would have thought her capable of. As a result, trips to his beloved Trewern would now be more fraught and much less regular.
Gavin had been hit from both directions. He had told his own mother he was gay and living with another boy, when he had announced that he was off to work abroad for three months. She had taken it quite well, he thought, and said she would manage breaking the news to his father. There had then been a long and tearful call from his dad, which had in the end again gone off quite well. It was reassuring that Gavin’s parents clearly cared a lot about their eldest son. What Gavin did not like was the series of snide and crude texts from his brothers, once the news had got to them.
Their two families had taken hits from their love affair, and both boys were depressed as a result. Mutual misery pushed them closer together, however, and their relationship entered new and deeper waters. Each needed the other now for the emotional affirmation they could not seem to get anywhere else. They were a couple against the world, a unit.
‘Gavin baby, we’ve got each other, and – although trite – that’s what counts. I know what you are. I know you give me pure devotion and love, and I could never find a more loyal friend and partner,’ Henry said.
Then he smiled and shrugged. ‘We also brought all these books and maps back from Trewern, so we’d better start reading. Once you’ve got the background in your head, I can start going into detail about the project.’
Gavin smiled sadly back at Henry and shrugged too. He took up a book, and laid his head in Henry’s lap while he read. Henry stroked his hair. He looked down at Gavin, his heart swelling with love for this ordinary-looking but quite extraordinary young man.
They went together to work at the King’s. Since it was a quiet night, Henry tried to teach some common Rothenian phrases to Gavin, who kept on laughing because of the odd pronunciation. When he stopped laughing he seemed to be unable to retain words in his head for longer than ten minutes. But Henry persevered, and by the end of the night he was confident Gavin could remember how to say ‘good morning’, ‘thank you’, and ‘where is the toilet’. Otherwise, he had little expectation they would ever get very far beyond such a low level of conversation.
As Gavin was wiping down the tables and stacking ashtrays, Frank appeared from the upstairs office.
‘You two are going off to Rothenia in a few weeks, that right?’
‘Yes, Frank,’ agreed Henry.
‘Terry wants you to know that the King’s is to close for refitting at the beginning of May. He’s starting with the public and lounge bars … and the loos, too. Then he’s rebuilding and extending the function room during June and July.’
‘So what are you doing in the meantime?’
‘Me? I’m taking me first holiday in five years.’
‘Where are you going then, Frank?’
‘Tina and me are going to Las Vegas, we’ve decided. She wants to do the shows.’
‘That’s good,’ Gavin said, with the ghost of a sigh. ‘Families should stick together.’
‘Just what I think … that nice Rothenian boy, Frankie? Is he likely to be coming back here any time soon?’
‘No, I don’t believe so,’ replied Henry.
‘Pity. Really nice lad, that.’
Henry caught Gavin’s eye, and they suppressed grins.
Gavin turned the heating off at No 25. Henry had the bags piled in the hall ready to go. A car had already collected Eddie to take him to his father’s place in Suffolk.
Gavin hugged and kissed his Henry. ‘So the big adventure begins, eh?’
‘It begins. I wonder what we’ll have seen and experienced by the next time we stand here? Got everything? Passport? Currency? Air tickets?’
‘I’m gonna fly! Yeehah!’
‘Okay, here’s the taxi.’
They boarded the Paddington train with a few minutes to spare. They amused themselves with the Guardian and their iPods for the trip, just looking up at each other and smiling across the table from time to time. Gavin had a map of Rothenia and was closely examining the places they would be visiting. Henry was browsing his notebook, pondering what avenues of investigation he should pursue once he was there.
The priory of St Veronica was a fascinating idea, but researching a right-wing nationalist secret society was not a very hopeful prospect, being, after all, secret. The mystery of St Fenice and her prophecies was a different matter. There ought to be a lot more to find out in Strelzen’s National Library, or at the Rodolfer Universität, and Henry was going to do his best to discover what it was.
At Paddington they took to the tube system and into new territory for Gavin.
‘I stopped off at Heathrow on a school trip once, so we could see the planes taking off and landing. Concorde was still crossing the Atlantic in those days. Now that was exciting. I never thought it’d take this long to get round to flying. Dad and his caravan … huh!’
‘It may have taken time, baby, but you’re going to do it in style now you’re finally going up there.’
Heathrow was as awesome as ever. Gavin and Henry found their way to Terminal 4, from which the BA flight to Strelzen went. Marlowe Productions had booked their tickets and they were going at executive rates, which added to Gavin’s excitement – and Henry’s too, for that matter. They joined the Business Class queue, and felt the weight of eyes upon them. They still had their piercing studs in. The businessman behind them, in a long and expensive wool winter coat, looked as though he wanted to point out to them that they were in the wrong line, but a glimpse of their tickets made him subside.
They checked through, and Henry did not notice much difference in the way they were treated from when he had travelled economy class. The BA first-class lounge, however, was something else, with complimentary drinks and magazines, and a personal notification when their flight to Strelzen was ready to board.
They settled into the wide leather seats and watched the economy fliers filing past them, trying not to stare. Henry helped Gavin with the belt buckle, gratified to see absolutely no nervousness in him at all as the jet took off, just a suppressed ‘Wheeew!’ and a grin. Gavin had the inside seat and was glued to the window as they crossed Kent, Holland, northern Germany and the Czech Republic. He barely looked up even for lunch. They began the descent as they crossed the frontier, and soon were sweeping down the valley of the Starel. Strelzen lay briefly spread out below them in the sunlight like a street map, and then suddenly fields and woods were practically at their fingertips, the plane bumped on the tarmac and they were taxiing towards the impressive modern terminal buildings.
Gavin was bemused and smiling, hungry for his first sight and smell of a foreign country. How odd, thought Henry, that he could be so shy about meeting people he did not know, and yet so eager and enthusiastic to fly in a plane, and to see a strange place where people did not speak his language.
Unconsciously they went together to the passport check desk, as a couple would. The border policeman smiled but did not make any comment. Then it was through to pick up their bags from the carousel. Henry got a trolley while Gavin stood guard and hauled off their bags as they came up from the depths.
‘Ooh, muscles,’ giggled Henry, although he knew it was rather a gay comment for him.
Gavin giggled back. He brought out a certain archness in Henry, and liked making it happen. They pushed out through customs and into the concourse, looking for the card Henry knew would be there. A driver advertising MARLOWE PRODUCTIONS was indeed waiting, and they were whisked off to the new Strelzen Holiday Inn, in the expanding suburb between the airport and the city. When they checked into their double room, Henry – unable to resist showing off – transacted the whole thing in Rothenian, even though he knew the receptionist could easily have managed it in English. Gavin was duly impressed.
Henry tipped the concierge heavily. He was in a very free-handed mood for some reason. It might have been due to the salary advance of £5000 which had landed in his account. That was more money than he had ever had in all his life.
It was three in the afternoon. They were in Strelzen, and Henry wondered what to do. Then he noticed Gavin staring in amazement at the distant view of the city’s towers and spires, so he thought perhaps an orientation tour would be a good idea. A taxi took them to the end of the nearest tram line, where Henry bought tickets from a kiosk. Soon they were clanging and screeching through the streets of Sudmesten, the cathedral spires coming ever nearer. They dropped off at the Rodolferplaz. Standing by the central fountain, Henry once again soaked up the atmosphere of the grand plaza.
Gavin was beaming. ‘It smells foreign, Henry. People smoke these acrid cigarettes, and there’s the pong of those sausage sellers. Masses of tourists, aren’t there?’
Henry and Gavin joined the crowds heading up to the palace railings. It was nearly four by then, and the sound of a military band was heralding the changing of the guard. A company of the reconstituted royal guard regiment was marching across the forecourt, very smart in their dark blue nineteenth-century uniform jackets and bearskin caps. The platoon of the watch went through the elaborate ritual of changing guards on the arch, at the gates, and then trooped off to take positions in the sentry posts inside the palace. The rest of the company marched back to the ready rooms round the side. The flagpole was showing the national tricolour, so the king was not in residence, as Henry pointed out.
‘Do you know where he is, Henry?’
‘Probably still in Oxford for a week or two more; their terms are later than ours. Do you want to meet him?’
Gavin looked momentarily terrified. ‘I’d rather not. Though if you want to, he is your friend after all.’
Henry had shown Gavin his Order of Henry the Lion, won through services to the restoration of the monarchy the previous year. Gavin was deeply impressed. Henry had it with him in its morocco case. He half hoped there might be receptions and parties in which he could wear it.
They strolled back down the square, then up Lindenstrasse. Since the baroque Radhaus was still open, they climbed the 365 steps of the tower to take in the great panorama of the beautiful city. The sun was sinking in the west, and they stood marvelling at the unrivalled view of the mellow afternoon light flooding the domes, the limestone towers and the spires of Strelzen. It was a sight which eclipsed even the architectural glories of Oxford.
‘This is so beautiful,’ Gavin sighed. ‘What a place for romance and love.’
‘It’s my place, baby. I used to tell Ed we should live here after university. It’s like coming home whenever I return. It gets harder and harder to leave it.’
‘You want to come and live here one day?’
‘I think about it a lot. I could probably get a job with Strelsenermedia, that’s Will Vincent’s company. Maybe I wouldn’t live here for good, but a few years would be fantastic.’
Gavin took on an introspective look, as though he were digesting the idea, and then smiled. ‘If you’re here, Henry, it’ll be home.’
They clasped hands.