HENRY IN FINKLE ROAD
When Henry awoke the next morning, he felt a different air about the house of Templerstadt. There was a sense of distinct activity. Servants were passing and re-passing in the passage outside his and Gavin’s bedroom. Henry got up and peeked downward past the window drapes to see gardeners placing hangings and floral baskets around the courtyard. Two secret service agents had taken over the gatehouse. One of them was speaking into a radio. The king would be arriving from Strelzen at ten-thirty, and it was already nine.
Henry shook a very dopey Gavin awake and dragged him into the shower. They had some subdued fun, but were ready and dressed in half an hour.
‘What’s the king like, Henry?’ Gavin asked for the third time.
‘Tall and red-haired – a very determined guy. He’s got amazing dignity and presence when he’s on show to the world. You’d never know he has the genuine Elphberg temper, although that was on display a fair amount in the sixth form at Medwardine. He had a lot of issues in those days, but he’s different now. He’s awfully clever, in a fierce sort of way. I think Professor Wardrinski and he might get along quite well if they ever met. Intellectually, they have a lot in common.
‘Rudi’s studying PPE at Oxford, where he’s well on course for a blazing first, so Ed says.’
‘What’s PPE? Sounds like games at school.’
‘It’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics, baby. Budding politicos do it, so it was a good choice for our friend Rudi. Anyway, he and Ed keep in touch, and Ed was over staying with him several times during the year. I think Ed accompanied the king as equerry last year in the Remembrance Day service in Whitehall. Don’t you recall we watched it on telly?’
‘Oh yes, he laid a wreath on behalf of the Czech and Rothenian pilots who fought in the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Do I dare call him Rudi?’
‘No, baby. The first time you talk to him you call him “Your Majesty”, and after that “sir”. You must never ask him a question. He has to talk to you first before you speak to him. It’s called protocol.’
Gavin laughed. ‘That must be hard for you, Henry.’
‘You know me too well, baby!’
Harriet and Fritz were sitting close together eating breakfast. They were laughing hilariously when Henry and Gavin came into the room. Henry got coffees for Gavin and himself, and watched the other couple curiously. There was no doubt that Harry had fallen into an easy relationship with Fritz, but Henry could not work out if it was getting in any way romantic. Nonetheless, the two of them left together after saying their good mornings, and clearly had joint plans.
‘So what do you think, Gavin baby?’
‘Oh … Helge says Fritz has really been smitten hard by Harry, but she thought Harry was not the sort of woman to commit to anyone in a hurry. She believes the two years’ difference in age would mean a lot to Harry.’
‘And yet they were chatting away there ten to the dozen.’
Gavin did not reply. He was sipping his coffee slowly. Henry got the idea his lover had something to say to him. Sure enough, Gavin put down his cup and asked, ‘Henry, tell me why you believe in God.’
Henry was knocked back by that one. Still, it was something he knew they had to talk about, so he said, ‘I notice you didn’t ask, “Henry, why are you religious?”’
‘Isn’t it the same thing?’
‘No, not really. Religion is the way you respond to your idea of a deity. Believing in God is a different thing altogether. But you asked, so I’ll answer. I believe in God because I feel His presence every day. In everything I see and do, I feel God in and around me. That’s all the proof I need, though I know it’s not enough for some or even most people.’
‘And is He good?’
‘Oh yes, very good.’ And Henry knew exactly what was coming next.
‘So why do bad things happen, Henry? Why are there wars, plagues and massacres, why do gays like us get murdered just because they’re gay, why … all sorts of horrible things?’
‘Oh, you do ask the big ones, don’t you. I could say that a lot of the terrible things happen because people make them happen, all on their own, in defiance of God’s will. But that would be too easy, because there are diseases, natural catastrophes, countless things you can’t blame on people. To try to answer your question is to go into deep water, baby. But I did A-Level Religious Studies, and I’ve got a module to take in Theodicy when I get back for the second year, so I shall do my best.
‘Okay. First off, you could say God has created for the Universe a set of circumstances and rules which are the best He could do, but which allow things to happen that are bad for the likes of us if we’re caught up in them. Even so, on balance the huge majority of lives are not touched by them. So God has created a world where a happy life is possible for most people.’
‘Hang on, Henry. Do you mean you don’t think God is all-powerful and can do anything?’
‘As it happens, no, I don’t think He’s all-powerful. Because there is a second consideration. Jesus died very young … why? It was terribly unjust and horrible. If God had been on the job, Jesus needn’t have died. So God can be powerless. Yet even though Jesus was tortured and killed, His life still was incredibly important, because God could make something of it. God can retrieve things. There was a resurrection.
‘I think of it as if we were shellfish on a beach. So far as we know, we’re just floating around in the water. God is the tide, moving us the way He wants us to go, even though we don’t realise He’s doing it. He’s got His own way of pulling us around, whatever dreadful things we do in the world.
‘There’s also a third thing. If our existence continues after death – and I’m perfectly confident it does, as you well know – then God can continue the process of saving souls in a different place, a place closer to him, until we’re ready to meet Him face-to-face. I suppose I’d have to say I just believe there’s far more to the Universe than appears on the surface, with God at work in ways we have no idea about. Does that answer your question?’
‘I’ll have to think about it, Henry.’
‘What put all this into your head, baby?’
‘I’ve been talking to Helge. She’s very religious, you know. I like her an awful lot, and I can’t imagine someone like her – so good and so wise – could believe so firmly in something stupid.’
‘Whereas you think I could?’
Gavin looked embarrassed. ‘No, that’s not what I meant at all, Henry. You know I met you and fell in love with you long before you told me you were a Christian.’
‘I know, Gavin my darling baby. There’s a lot more to say about this. I’ll give you time to pick holes in my logic. Shouldn’t be too difficult. When it comes down to religion, logic has to give way to illogical belief in the end. You believe because you feel you must, not because anyone can prove that you should.’
‘And if someone like me can’t share such a belief and doesn’t understand?’
‘Then, Gavin, you have to pity me as a sad but lovable nutcase.’
Henry and Gavin went to change into something not quite formal, but still more than casual. Henry had a pair of comfortable chinos and loafers with shirt and sweater that seemed to fit the day’s mood. Gavin wore a white tee under a smart shirt he had bought in Oxford Street, and well-cut jeans without the fashionable worn and tattered look. When they went down to the courtyard, they found everyone else had done much the same – apart from Oskar, who was in his usual sandals, long shorts and sleeveless tee. But then, he worked daily with the king, so he knew what he could get away with.
Gavin was bobbing up and down next to Henry as two police outriders thundered into the courtyard, followed by a black BMW with the royal banner fluttering above the windscreen. An SUV full of secret-service types rolled in behind. The BMW’s driver raced round to open the door, and King Rudolf emerged with a grin. He was no Windsor. He was wearing cargo pants, trainers without socks and a knitted top over a tee. Oskar went to greet him first, then introduced the house guests.
After shaking hands with the older ones, the king finally reached Henry. His eyes lit up. ‘Well, little Outfield, back in my kingdom again?’
‘Glad to say I am, Your Majesty. You seem to be keeping it nice.’
The king laughed and gave Henry a big hug, whispering in his ear, ‘I’ve missed you, Henry.’ He stepped back, turned and said, ‘You have to be Gavin.’
Gavin squeaked, ‘Yes, thank you, Your Majesty.’ Then he blushed bright red.
‘You’re a very lucky boy.’
‘I know, Your Majesty. Henry’s brilliant.’
The king smiled at him and shook his hand, before moving on to the Peacher twins. ‘Eddie and Harriet, nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you from Peter.’
‘Cool, Your Majesty dude,’ said Eddie with a grin. Harriet did a proper court curtsey, as Helge had done. She stood, her eyes met those of the king, and there followed a pregnant pause, the sort when the world goes still around two people. Henry noticed it and Eddie did too. Rudolf took Harriet’s hand, bent and kissed it. Their eyes locked once more as he looked up. This time another pair of eyes noticed them, and Fritz flushed with annoyance.
The king took Helge’s arm and led the others indoors in a chatting group.
Henry and Gavin held hands as they walked. Gavin hissed, ‘You didn’t tell me what an out-and-out babe he is! I never realised redheads could be so utterly gorgeous! I nearly wet myself when he talked to me.’
Henry laughed. ‘I just forgot. To me he’s simply Broody Rudi, as we used to call him in the sixth, before he was king. His nickname was “Chicken”, ‘cos it irritated the hell out of him.’
Lunch was laid out in the great dining room. Servants were everywhere. Peter had been coached by Oskar to do the formal Rothenian welcome, which he ended with the opening toast. He raised his wine glass and offered, ‘The House of Elphberg’. Everyone applauded and Rudi acknowledged the compliment.
The king was sitting at the opposite end of the table from Peter, with Eddie and Harriet on either side. He made himself very charming to both siblings, although Henry noticed his eyes straying again and again to Harry. Gavin was talking earnestly to Helge, leaving to Henry the unaccustomed task of trying to hold up both ends of a conversation with Fritz. The prince was moody and withdrawn, and the looks he kept casting down the table towards Rudi and Harriet were not pleasant ones.
As the lunch moved on to coffee, Rudi made an announcement after first formally asking the host’s permission. Though brought up in England, Rudi had been educated by his formidable grandmother, the countess of Kesarstejne, in proper Rothenian formality.
‘My dear friends, some of you already have your invitations for the Summer Ball at the palace in Strelzen next week. It is an important occasion for me personally. My uncle the Honourable Robert Rassendyll will be here from England so I can invest him as the new count of Hentzen. His daughter, my only cousin Eleanor Osra Flavia, will be proclaimed Princess Royal and heir presumptive to the throne. Oskar has extra invitations for everyone here, and I hope you all will be able to accept. It is the beginning of the season and will inaugurate the new Strelzen Summer Music Festival. And Henry …’
Henry perked up. ‘Yes sir?’
‘Male on male dancing is to be allowed by royal command.’
‘Oh wow! Pity Terry won’t be here.’
The king laughed. ‘Oh yes, I sent him a personal message to make sure he will be coming. Also I want to see Davey Skipper. I hope you all have time to get appropriate dress.’
‘Brought my medal, sir!’ Henry announced with glee.
Rudi joined them at the poolside that afternoon. Henry dozed next to Gavin after the heavy lunch, while the more muscular men present – including the king – worked it off with a vigorous game of water polo in the indoor pool. Fritz had disappeared.
Henry woke following an hour’s nap. Gavin was still completely flat out next to him. His recliner creaked as Rudi sat down beside him.
‘Well, Outfield, have you got time for a chat?’
‘Certainly, sir. Wanna go and get something cool? Let me adjust the umbrella to protect Sleeping Beauty here.’
Henry pulled a cool cotton robe over his hot skin. Rudi had slipped his tee-shirt on. They walked barefoot to the grass and wandered around the outside of the house. In the shade of the north side they found a couple of chairs on the lawn. Rudi caught the eye of a passing servant and ordered cold drinks. The man bowed and hurried off.
Henry waited patiently for the king to say what he had in mind. Rudi grinned. ‘How was your first year then, Henry?’
‘Quite a shock, Rudi. Not the academic work, though it is demanding doing History and Theology. The thing is, I had not expected to have to grow up so fast. I got a job that brought me into Cranwell’s sleaze centre, or what was the sleaze centre till Terry bought it. The things I’ve seen and had to do, you wouldn’t believe. But mostly it’s been Gavin. He’s not needy or whiney, bless him, but he’s utterly devoted to me. He puts me in charge and I have to be the moral leader in our relationship.’
‘And you love him?’
‘Oh yes. There’s a very real purity about him with which I’m still coming to terms. He’s not exactly naïve and he’s not exactly straight-laced – not with the things we do in bed, at least – but he is just absolutely open and completely possessed by the finer feelings of humanity. He hasn’t a bad word to say about anyone, apart from his vile brothers, though he’s certainly got reason for that. But this doesn’t make him weak, far from it. In some ways, he’s the strongest man I’ve ever met. He’s so shy he’s scared of being in the same room as a stranger. At the same time, he’s done the bravest things I’ve ever seen a man do, totally without flinching.’
‘You certainly find them, Outfield. Suppose I were to tell you that Ed Cornish is more in love with you now than ever.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t. I thought we’d found a new level of relationship in London over New Year. We swore eternal brotherhood.’
‘That was good intentions on his part, I would imagine. But he and Guy have parted, though they needn’t have because Guy is staying in Cambridge for postgraduate work. I suspect it’s because Ed can’t get you out of his head.’
‘Has he told you this, Rudi?’
‘Not in so many words. But he’s my best friend, he really is. He’s even trying to learn Rothenian. And I know him inside out, gay or not.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Rudi. Because Gavin and I are the real thing, y’know.’
‘Yes, I see that, Outfield.’ He paused, then confided, ‘That Harriet Peacher is really something!’
Henry laughed a little. ‘I thought you were spoken for, Rudi.’
The king looked sheepish. ‘You mean Angela? We went out for a bit, she’s in my college. I believe she’s actually a cousin of mine, one of the Dalrymple people. We’ve even ... er, consummated the relationship. But I rather think it’s the celebrity she’s in love with, not Rudi Burlesdon. No, there isn’t any mileage in that affair. She got what she wanted out of it, a spread in Vogue and a modelling contract. So … what about Harriet?’
Henry gave him a quirky look. ‘Fritzy’s already been showing interest there, and it would upset him no end if you moved in on her.’
Rudi frowned. He did it rather well, with a certain brooding majesty, like a thunderstorm coming up from behind a line of hills. ‘Henry, he’s only a boy. She’s two years older than he is.’
‘Boys can dream too, sir. You should know that.’
The king sat quietly while a servant came up and offered them their drinks on a silver tray. Finally he mused, ‘She is really something, Henry. Intelligent, beautiful …’
‘And very, very wealthy.’
‘That’s hardly a consideration, Henry.’
‘I’ll tell you one thing that should make you think twice.’
‘What is it?’
‘Marry her and Justin will become your nephew!’
Rudi stared at Henry. ‘Me,’ he guffawed, ‘the monkey’s uncle!’
Henry was more than a little troubled by the king’s confidences. He knew Fritz well enough to understand that the boy was in dead earnest, seized by a full Rothenian passion for Harriet Peacher. Fritz was the prince of Tarlenheim and, even in the twenty-first century, the traits of his ancestors were fully realised in him. Although the love was disguised with humour and whimsy, Henry could nonetheless sense it lying just beneath the surface. Fritz had all the potential for noble anger and decisive action so marked in his forebears. The Tarlenheims had always been loyal to the Elphberg monarchy, but they were as volatile as the rest of the Rothenian nobility when it came down to affairs of the heart. The Rothenian adelskultur, as they called it, had survived unchanged by the twentieth century and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
By the time Henry got back to the poolside, Gavin had woken and gone back to the main house. Henry found him in their room, changing, but soon put a stop to that. He threw off his own robe and shorts, wrestled Gavin to the floor and ripped his pants down with a minimum of resistance. Having mastered his lover, Henry pushed him face-down into the carpet, found an entry and pounded his backside hard, just the way he knew Gavin liked it. His groin slapped Gavin’s buttocks loudly as he became more and more frantic with his thrusting.
Gavin responded to Henry’s open lust for him with huge enthusiasm. He said it excited him no end to think another boy wanted his body as badly as Henry did.
All too soon they were exhausted from their rutting. After a quick shower to clean up their emissions, they decided it was time to get ready for the evening’s fête.
Dinner that night was to be fully formal – white-tie, with decorations worn in honour of the king’s presence. Henry and Gavin opened their wardrobe and extracted the film-wrapped evening suits that Matt had generously ordered to be tailored for them. They spent a long time getting themselves ready. When they were as perfect as they could be, and had buttoned up their black waistcoats, Gavin very seriously placed the red-and-yellow ribbon with the attached medal of the Order of Henry the Lion (Second Class) round Henry’s neck. Then Gavin kissed him and told him how beautiful he was.
They went down to the drawing room hand-in-hand, to be met at the door and kissed by Peter Peacher. He looked at them approvingly. ‘You’ll do very nicely.’ Then he grinned. ‘We’ve got two additional guests tonight, babes. You’ll love this, Henry – Alastair Bannow and Chad Wardrinski. The king made a point of it.’
The boys entered a magnificent setting from a bygone era. The walls were lined with Oskar’s liveried staff in footmen’s garb, complete with powdered wigs. The chamberlain stood at the head of the room in a full-bottomed eighteenth-century coat over a green-and-gold waistcoat, holding a gold-headed staff. Servants were waiting with drinks for the guests. Matt, Oskar and Fritz wore the red sashes and stars of their Order of the Rose, and King Rudolf and Fritz in addition wore gold chains of the grand cordon.
Eddie came up and smiled quirkily at Henry. ‘Nice little order, chivalrous dude.’
‘Why, thank you, Eddie. I didn’t know you had these sorts of clothes.’
‘Dad has them made. There’s a closet full of them in the Mayfair house. Harry brought them over, didn’t you, sis?’
Harriet looked radiant in diamonds and a stunning sky-blue silk ball gown. She smiled at her brother. ‘You clean up beautifully, Eddie. Those clothes look magnificent on you. It’s great to get a chance to see you like this. You and I are going to dance till dawn at the Summer Ball.’ She grinned at Henry like a tomboy urchin. ‘Bet you’d never guess that Eddie dances superbly. Mom sent us together to have lessons when we were nine, and we’re natural partners.’ Eddie gave her a shy grin that Henry would never have believed him capable of.
Henry looked around. Dr Bannow and a lady who Henry assumed must be Mrs Bannow were talking very civilly to Matt. Wardrinski was chatting with the king, who was clearly enjoying the encounter. Henry sidled closer. Wardrinski noticed him, and seemed both surprised and faintly annoyed that he was there.
Rudi gave his trademark evil grin and called Henry over. ‘Professor Wardrinski, do you know my old friend Henry Atwood? He sometimes acts as my equerry when he’s here in Rothenia.’
Wardrinski blurted out, ‘You know this young man, sir?’
The king laughed. ‘You ought to know, professor, that Henry here is one of the best-connected young men in Britain. We were at school together.’
‘Ah,’ said Wardrinski in a rather resentful way, ‘the old school tie. Some of us have had to make our way in life without it.’
Henry couldn’t resist saying, ‘I owe a lot of my fame to modelling, professor. Apparently there are quite a few people out there who admire my good looks.’
Wardrinski looked as if he were sucking a lemon.
Rudi laughed and returned to his conversation, holding Henry’s arm to stop him from moving away. ‘So, professor, you seem unwilling to acknowledge the efficacy of the relics that are the religious heritage of my kingdom.’
Wardrinski shrugged. ‘I’m sure the relics are important national treasures, sir. I wouldn’t say a word against them.’
‘Ah, but do they have more than historical significance?’
‘Obviously, sir, they have a national meaning and reinforce your people’s sense of their own identity. The Black Virgin of Glottenberh is a focus of a national festival. For all that your Church peddles superstition and bolsters ignorance, there has been an alliance with the state here in Rothenia which has done something to help keep the nation together. But I imagine the link has weakened in recent years.’
The king frowned. ‘There was a great surge in attachment to the Catholic Church under Communism, and the cardinal archbishop was a major player in the May Rising of 1989. There has been a cooling off since, although I believe the Church still commands a greater allegiance within my kingdom than it does in other countries. But the question was whether you see the cult of relics as having any spiritual meaning.’
Wardrinski hunched his shoulders, unwilling to offend a king in his own kingdom, but unable to set aside his ingrained pugnacity. Finally he replied, ‘Spirituality to me is a word without meaning, so spiritual meaning has to be a complete oxymoron.’
Henry felt obliged to chip in. ‘Again, it comes down to this, professor. You won’t accept people’s feelings about their inner lives, however strong they are.’
‘Young man, it is just subjectivity. I have told you this already. Don’t you see that we cannot as serious scientists accept anything as being real which cannot be objectively assessed and measured?’
The king laughed. ‘The very thought! Imagine devising a system of units to measure spirituality. What would you call it, Henry? How about a ‘chant’?’
‘Good, sir,’ smiled Henry. ‘Then you could start regulating the whole business of religion. A priest could generate a kilo-chant, a bishop a mega-chant. We could have an EU commissioner to deal with complaints from humanists about spiritual pollution if they lived next to a church. I mean, a parish church might generate as many as sixty kilo-chants per Sunday, more if it belonged to an Established church. Cathedrals might be monsters, as many as fifty mega-chants, but nothing compared to a two hundred-mega-chant monastery. You can see why your local atheists might get annoyed, all that irradiation by unshielded prayer.’
Rudi had caught fire with the idea. ‘Suppose we could channel it somehow into a European spirituality grid. Think of it, with the UK down to a mere six percent of the population attending church, we could transfer mega-chants from more religious societies to less to keep everything in balance. Now there you are, Professor Wardrinski, how about that as a way of rationalising and measuring religion?’
Wardrinski had a look on his face which indicated he thought he was being sent up, but could not quite see the joke. ‘As I keep on telling people, sir, religion brings out the illogicality in people.’
Henry drifted away again and began chatting with Mrs Bannow, whom he found charming. When next he looked, he saw the king deep in conversation with the Peacher twins. Gavin was talking to Fritz, who kept casting black looks in the direction of Harriet and the king.
It was soon time to take places for dinner. The chamberlain thumped his staff and two footmen opened the door into the grand dining room. The king led the way with Mrs Bannow, followed by Oskar and his sister, and Peter with his. The rest of the party entered in more random pairs, though Henry made sure he was with Gavin. By some awkward coincidence, Wardrinski had to walk stiffly in with Bannow, and they ended up sitting opposite each other. Peter took the end of the table opposite the king and formally opened the dinner with a toast to his distinguished guests. Bannow and Wardrinski both gave identical stiff smiles and nods.
The dinner was elaborate and lengthy. With Gavin sitting opposite him, clearly delighted by the evening and looking now quite handsome, Henry did not mind at all. He had Fritz on his right, and tried to work out how the younger boy was feeling. But Fritz had all the self-command of an aristocrat and gave little of himself away.
The candlelight glinted off silver, crystal, jewellery and orders of chivalry. Henry was quite entranced. The food too was magnificent, for Peter had brought in a chef from Milan. It was past midnight when Oskar rose and gave the formal blessing that concluded the meal.
Henry was stuffed with a dinner the like of which he had never experienced before in his life. He saw the same satiety in Gavin’s eyes. They slid into bed with no thought other than sleep in their heads.