HENRY IN FINKLE ROAD
Fritz was very excited to be going back to Terlenehem. It had been several years since he had last seen his childhood home. It had to be said that Oskar was almost as excited. They were sitting in the front of Oskar’s BMW, two sensationally beautiful young men perfectly unconscious of their beauty. They chatted like little kids, pointing out their important places to Henry and Gavin. Gavin was catching Henry’s eyes and smiling.
‘… and that was where Oskar taught me to swim, in the deep part of the stream there. He was sixteen, and it was just before mutta and tatta died,’ Fritz was explaining to them.
‘We’d better go and see them, Fritzku,’ his brother said. ‘I’ve got flowers in the back.’
‘Great. We can tell them what we’ve been up to … at least the clean stuff!’ Fritz laughed.
Henry reflected that these were two very different brothers from Eddie and Peter Peacher, although he did not doubt the Peachers loved each other in their own strange way.
The car turned into the small town and drove along a picturesque main street, colourful with window boxes full of red geraniums. A big church dominated the end of the street. Taking the cross street in front of the church, they followed a lane which led to the railway station. Well before reaching the station, however, they pulled up outside a neat wooden cottage with a garden full of tall sunflowers. Both the Tarlenheims sat silently, wrapped up in their memories. Henry and Gavin held hands.
‘That was the last refuge of the House of Tarlenheim during all my life until I went to do military service,’ sighed Oskar. ‘Father rented it from a local collective in the Communist days, the bad days. He was a clerk in the mairie – he, the prince of Tarlenheim.’
‘But everyone loved him, Osku. The funeral was enormous, great crowds of people.’
Oskar sighed again. ‘And I could not be one of them. The army kept me in barracks … oh the bastards, the bastards.’ He was gripping the driving wheel so hard his knuckles were white.
Fritz reached over to hug his brother. ‘But you beat them, Osku, and you more than completed what Father started. You were as good as a father to me, too. I love you so much, my brother.’ Tears were running down the cheeks of both young men, and, it has to be said, the cheeks of their English guests.
Oskar kissed Fritz, and gave a little smile. ‘Yes, the Tarlenheims are once again what they were, and an Elphberg king reigns in Strelzen. What is left to ask for?’
‘A princess of Tarlenheim?’ Fritz’s impish humour effortlessly resurfaced.
Oskar laughed. ‘I will happily wait for a few years to see that, Fritzku.’
Henry thought perhaps a potential princess had already been selected, but kept his idea to himself.
They all got out of the car and went down the lane some yards, so Fritz could show Henry and Gavin his climbing tree and the high platform Oskar had made for him in it. Meanwhile, Oskar went to call on the present tenants of the cottage. When the three boys came back, they found him happily chatting with the young couple, whose small child was hanging on to the mother’s skirt.
The appearance of Fritz caused a certain shyness. The woman gave a bobbing curtsey to the prince, the man a brief bow from the waist. They were Fritz’s tenants, as the cottage lay within the Tarlenheim estate. He took their hands and said a few formal words in Rothenian, which seemed to gratify them immensely.
On the drive back towards the small town, Oskar dropped his companions off at a gate so they could take the river path to the remains of the old château. Fritz, knowing Henry’s insatiable interest in antiquities, led the way to the terrace and broken walls, all that was left of the house the Red Army had reduced to rubble in 1948. The gardens too had been levelled and turned into pasture. But they climbed up the hill behind the ruined house where the earthworks of the old castle could still be seen, and jagged fragments of ancient masonry pierced the grass. Henry took a little sketch of what he could work out about the pattern of the foundations. He wondered if he could determine where the ‘high chamber’ of the Vision had been, but there was no chance of that. All the while he kept his eye on Gavin, who fortunately seemed quite chirpy that morning.
The three friends eventually returned to the old house, then crossed the river by a narrow footbridge. They followed a path along the far bank that brought them back into the town. Will and Felip’s car was already drawn up outside the inn where they were to have lunch.
The street was quite full of people, and Fritz was in among them straight away. He hugged old ladies, punched boys’ shoulders and shook men’s hands like a politician seeking re-election. In his case, it was all genuine. He knew those people, and loved them as much as they loved him.
He soon found a gang of his old schoolmates and almost immediately told Oskar he was off to lunch at his friend Ceslaw’s house. He promised to meet up with his companions at four by the church. After they waved him off, Oskar led them into the restaurant.
It was past one o’clock, and the dining room of the Rosa zu Terlenehem was full. Fortunately, Oskar had reserved a table for his party. The Rosa had received a Michelin star, one of the few in Rothenia, so Henry was looking forward to a good meal. The host was quite attentive as Will and Felip did the ordering for Henry and Gavin.
Oskar meanwhile was enjoying himself, circulating about the room to greet old friends and acquaintances. When he finally returned to the table, the conversation turned to current politics, which interested Henry deeply. Will Vincent remained very much engaged in the affairs of his adopted land, and had a lot to say about the successes and failures of Chancellor Trachtenberg’s administration. Will was not too keen on the adoption of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economics of neo-conservative capitalism. In his opinion, privatisation was being pursued too quickly and too indiscriminately, allowing national assets to fall into the hands of conscienceless multinationals.
‘What, like the Peacher Corporation?’ Henry asked with a smile.
‘Well yes, to an extent,’ Will replied. ‘Though it has to be said that Peter Peacher is more interested in kick-starting new enterprise than in asset-stripping. His father’s policy has always been investment in economies, not ripping off the public by buying up monopolies and then milking them on behalf of the shareholders. But even PeacherCorp internationalises the economy, and opens Rothenia to the vagaries of global markets.’
‘But be fair Will! The standard of living has been transformed since you moved here,’ protested Oskar. ‘So far, everyone has benefited. Strelzen is becoming the market hub of Eastern Europe. Look at the amazing financial district growing up across the Starel, and the phenomenal headquarters building Lord Rogers designed for the National Bank. Even some German conglomerates are transferring here because our corporation tax is so low. Strelsenermedia – and you should know – is an international corporation which is more or less home-grown. It’s dominating the media of surrounding countries too, even Austria.’
‘I’m just saying we don’t need the worst aspects of globalism here, where faceless corporations end up pulling the strings of national governments and looting their economies. That’s just so not Rothenian. And I’m not sure Trachtenberg thinks long-term enough.’
‘So who put him there, Will?’
‘The people did, Oskar.’
‘Yes, but you told them he was there, and what sort of man he was. So don’t complain of the consequences, my love!’
Will grinned at Oskar, who smiled broadly back. Adopting a more serious expression, Oskar leaned across the table. ‘There are parliamentary elections coming up, Will. Maybe it’s time you thought of standing for one of the Strelzen seats. The Unity Party or the Christian Democrats would put you on their lists.’
Will gave him a quirky look. ‘How long do you suppose it would be before my starring role in that gay porn classic An American in Strelzen came to light, Oskar? It’s too risky. We may have gagged Hendrik Willemin, but there are others out there who would love to use such information. Face it, you and I both are compromised as electoral candidates.’
Oskar heaved a sigh. ‘I guess you’re right, my Willemu. We made our choices and, though they’ve mostly brought us great happiness, there are still some bitter consequences.’ He looked woefully at Will. Everyone around the table knew what he was referring to.
Felip smiled at the two former lovers. ‘My dear and cherished friends, be satisfied. You are both strong men who have done very great things. You have saved this country from a terrible fate, and helped bring it prosperity and freedom. You have been instrumental in restoring its king, who is the greatest man of us all. These are halcyon days. Don’t you feel it? Aren’t we often told that, for the good of the many, the few must sometimes embrace pain and unhappiness? If you do so willingly, your reward will be even greater in the sight of God.’
‘Amen to that,’ echoed Henry, very moved by Felip’s words. ‘That’s exactly what St Fenice said in her Revelation.’
The others looked at him curiously. Oskar commented, ‘I never got around to reading early Rothenian literature.’
Henry ploughed on. ‘It’s in her Revelation of the End Time. She says Rothenia will one day have a saviour who will preserve it at a terrible cost to himself.’
‘Really? I didn’t know that,’ mused Will. ‘I’d heard of St Fenice, of course, she’s more or less the patron saint of Rothenian literature. But she’s like William Langland is to English speakers – hardly anyone reads her. What got you interested in her?’
‘It was Matt’s documentary, mostly. But then she sort of took over. Did you know Rothenia had fascists between the wars who adopted her prophecies as the basis for a programme of national renewal?’
Oskar smiled. ‘Oh yes, the KRB, they were big in Husbrau in my great-grandfather’s time. He had a lot of trouble with that Gulik man, who called himself “Den Direktor”. Horrible people goosestepping all over our lovely land like Nazis.’
‘Why did your great-grandfather have trouble with him, Oskar?’
‘I can’t remember exactly, but Gulik was convinced the Tarlenheims had hidden St Fenice’s body somewhere. He got up a campaign with the archbishop of the day – not a nice man himself – to recover Fenice and re-inter her in the Marienkloster. It was just nationalistic propaganda. Gulik wanted to pose as a moral leader of the nation.’
‘Did you know that Kamil Bermann, one of Gulik’s croneys, was the father of your old enemy Piotr Bermann.’
‘I think someone mentioned it. Old Bermann was quite famous in Husbrau. He was born in Modenehem. His son Piotr has disappeared from sight lately. His own party dumped him after its election fiasco, for which he rightly got blamed.’
‘Any news of him?’ inquired Henry, with a degree of serious interest.
Will butted in. ‘I heard from the Minister of the Interior that he’s hanging out with the remnants of the former Communists, looking to found a new party. They’ve latched on to the anti-immigration and anti-EU issues. He’s marking time till the economy takes a downturn, at which point his extremist agenda might spark some interest.’
Henry had an ominous feeling about what he was hearing. It sounded like Bermann was definitely active in pursuit of something. ‘Oskar, did the police track down that black SUV which was hanging round the estate yesterday?’
Oskar looked blank, and then remembered. ‘No ... but I still believe they were just journalists. You can’t get rid of them.’
At four o’clock, the six men assembled outside the gate to the churchyard. Oskar had retrieved three fine wreaths from the boot of his car. Led by Oskar and Fritz, they trooped through the gate and threaded along the lines of graves.
Henry asked Fritz why many of the headstones had iron stanchions with hooks arching over them.
‘It’s to hang lamps on through the night of All Souls. It’s an old Rothenian tradition. We keep vigil that restless night, when the dead walk.’ Somehow, Fritz’s remark gave Henry the serious creeps. It made him think back to his experience with Ed, Justin and Nate when he was possessed by the spirit of Jehoiadah Scudamore in the woods near Trewern. Though no one else seemed to notice, Henry shuddered at the thought..
They came at last to the north-western corner of the churchyard and the Tarlenheim mausoleum. Although the morning had been bright, clouds had gathered during lunchtime, making the impressive pedimented building look gloomy and austere. The arch was closed with a locked wrought-iron gate. A wind had got up, and was sighing through the long grass in a melancholy way.
‘You OK, baby?’ Henry asked Gavin, who had been trudging after Henry with his usual cheerful docility.
‘Yes, my Henry, though …’ He hesitated.
‘What is it, Gavin?’
‘Nothing, but I feel a little … odd.’
‘In what way, odd?’
‘Like nothing I’ve ever felt before. It’s not a bad feeling. But my fingers seem all tingly, as if they’re giving off sparks, and I can feel every pulse of my heart right through my body. Do you think I’m okay?’
Henry gave a little chuckle. ‘You’ve not been sniffing something toxic, have you?’
Gavin didn’t chuckle back. He looked pensive. Henry came closer, letting the others go ahead. He peered intently into Gavin’s face, finding something about it that struck him. The dark eyes were very much alive and dilated. Gavin’s whole body was radiating an indefinable air of almost tangible energy. He looked different, too, not quite so much like a shy waif. There was a curious sort of vigour about him, as if he had swelled significantly.
Henry took his warm hand and led him up to where everyone was waiting. He noticed a new strength in Gavin’s grip, yet when he looked again at the smiling face beside him, it seemed much the same as ever.
Henry was still puzzling over this when the Tarlenheim brothers placed their wreaths on the mausoleum gate, then stood a while with heads bowed. The others left them alone with their memories. From a discrete distance, Henry thought he could hear them speaking to their lost parents, interrupting and correcting each other as children do when talking to adults. Then the brothers embraced, kissed and came back hand in hand, to be kissed and embraced by their friends in turn.
They all began drifting back towards the cars, and it was only when he got to the churchyard gate that Henry realized Gavin was nowhere to be seen. After a quick look around, he told the others to wait. He headed back to the Tarlenheim mausoleum, and there indeed was Gavin, holding on to the gate and staring fixedly into the dark interior. When Henry got close enough, he noticed the peculiar rigidity of Gavin’s body. The boy was in the throes of another seizure. His face was white, his gaze unblinking and fixed. There was no undoing his convulsive grip in the iron stanchions.
Henry called loudly back to the cars. In the end, Fritz came running with Felip. They looked concerned, but had no constructive suggestions to make apart from slapping Gavin across the face. Henry would have none of that. Eventually, Gavin gave a shuddering breath, unclamped his hand from the gate and looked around – first puzzled, then worried. ‘Did I do it again?’ he asked plaintively.
‘Yes, baby,’ Henry confirmed. ‘What happened this time?’
‘I was walking behind you, Henry, when I felt something pulling me back. It was that really cozy warm feeling again, and I just sort of drifted off. Next thing I know, I’m here.’
‘It’s like sleepwalking,’ Fritz observed.
‘But he wasn’t asleep,’ Henry objected.
‘I’ve heard of it happening to people who are apparently awake,’ declared Felip. ‘Are you alright now, Gavin?’
‘Thank you, yes. I don’t feel bad. In fact, I feel better than I ever have.’
‘Let’s get back to the car, baby.’ Henry felt no happier about the incident, whatever Gavin said.