This is the second version of this story. A rewrite and expansion became very necessary after the way that the Peacher series developed thereafter. It became full of discontinuities, which jarred on me and on many loyal readers. Also I felt that the old version of the tale didn’t do justice to two of the major characters, Rudi Burlesdon, whose story it really is, more than Ed and Henry’s, and also Davey Skipper, who made his first appearance here. I have not changed or softened the ending, for all that it upset some of the readers when first published. In undertaking what was a complicated task I am very grateful to my loyal editors: Rob, Peter and Terry, and to input from James and Marty, all of whom seem occasionally to know the world of the Peachers better than I do. Deep thanks to them for their alertness, knowledgeability and sympathy.
HENRY IN HIGH POLITICS
‘Get outa my way, you little queer!’
A shoulder charged Henry in the back, sending him spinning into a doorpost. A star of pain went supernova behind his right eye, and he ended up hard down on his bum in the upper corridor. He heard his assailant pound a little further along the corridor, then stop.
‘Outa my way, Cornish,’ snarled the same voice.
‘No,’ came a surprisingly cool and determined reply, ‘cos first you have to go back, pick up Henry and apologise.’
‘Me! Apologise to little fairy boy there? You’re kidding. Now outa my way.’
‘Oh dear,’ sighed Ed Cornish, ‘then I’ve got no choice, have I?’ There was a crack followed by a solid thud. The floor bounced under Henry’s bottom as a heavy body landed on its back next to him.
Henry blinked his watering eyes at Ed, who reached down, hooked him under the armpits and lifted him up, setting him on his shaky legs.
‘You okay, Henry babe?’
‘No … I can’t see out of my right eye, and someone’s stuck a white-hot needle through my temples.’
He sensed there were other concerned sixth formers round him. Mark Peters murmured, ‘You’re gonna have a shiner, Outfield. You okay on your feet? Good.’ Henry heard a muffled thud next to him.
Ed tutted and said, ‘Peters, you shouldna kicked him in the side like that when he’s down.’
‘No? Where should I have kicked him?’
‘Between the legs?’ ventured Ed.
‘Oh yeah,’ Peters said. ‘You never think of such things at the time, do you?’
Henry felt he had to reassert his existence at that point. He wiped his left eye and tried to focus on the figure unconscious on the floor beneath him. ‘Who was it?’
‘Would you believe it was Rudi Burlesdon?’ said Mark Peters.
‘Oh. I suppose I would. Is he out for the count?’
Ed prodded the prone boy with his foot. ‘He just groaned, so I guess he is in fact coming round. If, that is, he wasn’t just lying doggo in the first place, the git. Henry, did he say what I thought he said to you?’
‘He called me a “little queer” if that’s what you mean.’
Mark let out a hiss of breath. ‘He never did!’
‘Wish I’d hit him harder then,’ Ed growled.
‘To be technical,’ said Henry a little pedantically, ‘he did not in fact say anything other than the truth. I am small, I am homosexual and I’m into …’
‘Hold it, Outfield,’ interrupted Mark, ‘I’d prefer not to hear the details of your and Ed’s sex life. It’s bad enough my not having one of my own.’
Henry squinted down on Rudi Burlesdon, who was now struggling to his knees looking decidedly unfocussed, as two upper-sixth formers hauled him up. One of them told Ed that he’d take Burlesdon down to the head of sixth and give the details of the incident.
‘Which are?’ asked Ed.
‘That he made an unprovoked homophobic assault on our little Outfield, and that he was restrained in a commendably moderate way by Edward Cornish and Mark Peters, who remonstrated with him. Okay?’
‘Fine.’ Ed pushed his face into Burlesdon’s. ‘Now, you git, even so much as look at Henry Atwood in future, and I’ll fucking kick you in the balls so hard they’ll pop out your ears. Got it?’
There was no answer, just a sullen glare on the other boy’s face as the older ones hauled him off. Ed clapped his hands and smiled at the surrounding group, busily dusting down Henry. ‘And that, hopefully, will be the last we see of young Rudi, and very good riddance too. Assault is an eminently expellable offence.’
Rudi Burlesdon sat hunched in a corner of what the Head liked to call ‘the executive suite’ in New Building. Everything hurt, particularly his jaw, which he was rubbing tenderly. It was difficult for him to work out which emotion was dominant in his aching head. To begin with, he was humiliated to have been punched flat by that queer Cornish.
A wash of anger coursed through him. He desperately wanted a rematch. The pansy bastard had taken him unawares. But he supposed that their sort leapt to defend their bum-boys, like animals did their mates. Atwood made him sick with his queening round, the disgusting little ponce. He’d heard rumours the pair of them did ‘it’ in the block. Yet everyone thought it was funny, rather than just sick.
New emotions surfaced. Unwelcome images forced themselves into his head. That insinuating pervert Dr Weaver at Eton, whom he had walked in on feeling up a little kid in Savile’s Yard. His hand still throbbed as he remembered the surprised look on the bastard’s face when Rudi’s fist connected with his nose. Rudi had managed to close both of the filthy pervert’s eyes before the senior boys hauled him off. Where was the justice? Weaver would never have a chance to do that again to any kid, maybe, but it was Rudi who had paid the price. Expelled.
Then the anger ebbed as rapidly as it had surged, leaving him feeling woeful. The woe was compounded when his eye caught a large tinted photograph behind the secretary’s desk. He remembered why he was at Medwardine. For there, wearing an elaborate uniform starred with orders of chivalry, hand on sword, was the most famous member of his family, looking down on him calmly but, Rudi thought, accusingly.
A door opened behind him, and a tired voice requested, ‘If you’ll come this way, your lordship?’
Henry got his black eye, but felt strangely ambivalent towards the boy who had given it to him. He was in fact curious about Rudi Burlesdon.
‘Oh, Henry,’ Ed scolded, ‘you’re not off on another salvation kick, are you?’
‘No. But he’s a bit intriguing, isn’t he?’
‘Actually, he’s a pain in the neck. What is it with you, little babe?’
‘What do you know about him?’
Ed shrugged. ‘He arrived a week after the beginning of Michaelmas term. He boards in Temple House, thank God, with the other Slytherins. He’s got no friends and he has a serious temper problem. Redheads: it’s always the same story. Oh wait … now I see what’s going on here. Henry, you’re projecting on him, aren’t you. You’re trying to compare your experience of arriving in Year 11 and not having any friends, with his. But you’re sweet, cute and kind, and he’s a thug with issues. There is no comparison. Now repeat after me … I will not go looking for trouble.’
Henry just laughed and went off to double Religious Studies with Miss Prendergast, there to confront another of his current problems.
Henry Atwood was a sensitive boy, not much given to self-love, which – as he said to himself – was just as well, because in looks he was ordinary, and in build a bit slight. Henry’s strength was in personality. That was why he had picked up the problem of David Skipper quickly. David was one of the other two in the lower-sixth Religious Studies group, and well before Christmas Henry had realised it was not enthusiasm for the subject that had decided David to choose A-level RS. There had been a term of his being tongue-tied every time Henry tried to talk to him, and then after Christmas a tendency to act like a limpet any time Henry was near.
David was in lust with Henry, so much was clear. What was not clear was how far he had accepted his own homosexuality. Henry rather suspected that David was in denial of what his body was telling him, and was rationalising his urges as a simple need for friendship. Henry knew that David’s father was a colonel of a tank regiment and David was a service boarder. Not a good background to be gay against.
But the really serious part of the problem was that Henry was not immune to David Skipper, who was the first boy apart from his Ed who had sexually stirred him. It was a different feeling from his attraction to Ed, a handsome and swashbuckling young man, intelligent and courageous, a boy to admire. David was dark and pretty, slightly better built than Henry, and beautifully proportioned. Naked he must be a sight to see, Henry’s libido had concluded, causing his penis to react accordingly. David was quite a tennis player by all accounts, while Henry’s sporting accomplishments were pitiful. It was the mirror thing, Henry concluded. David resembled him physically, but was a sort of perfected Henry in face, coordination and build. Only self-love, Henry muttered to himself, but then with a grin decided that of the two, he had the nicer bum.
‘Morning miss,’ said Henry cheerily, for Religious Studies was his favourite subject and Miss Prendergast his favourite teacher. David looked up into Henry’s face and moved his bag off the next chair in a clear invitation for Henry to sit beside him. He beamed when Henry did it.
‘Hey Outfield, you okay? Your right eye’s a bit puffy.’
‘Er … walked into a door.’
‘It must hurt … can I have a look at it?’
Henry had to go along with it, and tried not to enjoy it too much when David’s cool fingers delicately moved over his face. He saw with no surprise at all that David was erecting while doing so.
When he realised it was happening, David backed off and placed his bag in his lap. ‘Er … you’re going to have a black eye,’ he stammered.
‘I’d already worked that out, thank you, Bounder.’ Bounder was David’s nickname.
‘Are you alright, Henry?’ Miss Prendergast too was concerned.
‘Thank you miss, I will live, honest. You wanna look at my eye too, Morton?’
The third member of the class grinned and said he would pass.
‘Rudolf?’ A chill ran down Rudi’s back. If there needed to be any more evidence that he was really deeply in it, the appearance of his grandmother at Medwardine was all the proof necessary.
‘Please don’t stand there with your mouth open, young man. I have come here all the way from Norfolk, and the drive was most uncomfortable.’
‘Er … who …er?’ Rudi knew his grandmother did not drive.
‘In due course, Rudolf. This is about you. Your mother, poor woman, has been driven to the point of distraction these past months. I hardly need to say how very, very disappointed I am at this latest example of your lack of judgement and self-control. How many times have we discussed this before today? You have all the enterprise and courage of Henry the Lion, but without temperance and judgement it becomes mere rashness. It will help no one.’
Rudi hung his head.
There was a pause, and he felt a hand brush his thick red hair. ‘My dear, if you are ever to be what we hope you will be, to realise your father’s dreams, this must stop. Take a firm grip on your passions. It is asking much of a boy of your age, but you must now be more than a child. Before you can rule others, you must first learn to rule yourself. Now tell me what happened.’
Rudi stumbled through an explanation which, to give him due credit, was painfully honest.
His grandmother sat brooding when his story came to an end. Eventually, with a sigh, she began, ‘Rudolf, there are things in your family history you really must be aware of. You perhaps remember old Prince Leopold, your cousin.’
The boy nodded.
‘You know of his heroism during the wartime occupation. You know how much we owe to him for the generosity with which he long supported our family when it fell on hard times. Without him, you would not now be able to pursue the great goal you do. Had it ever occurred to you to wonder why it was he and the archduchess his wife never lived together?’
‘Er … no. I thought they just didn’t like each other.’
‘They respected each other well enough, but the point is that old Leo was what you’ve just described that other boy as … such a very odd use of the word. He was gay.’
‘He was as fine a man as I have ever met, and the fact that he was deeply and passionately in love with another man made not a jot of difference to my opinion of him. I loved him dearly, as did everyone else who met him. Now, what was it which sent you running out of school in such a hurry that you had to knock down that poor boy?’
‘I … er … had a call from Oskar von Tarlenheim and I couldn’t get a signal in the block. I knew it was important, and … well … the kid got in my way. I didn’t mean to hurt him. It just happened.’
‘Have you apologised to him?’
‘Say sorry! To that mincing little …! Er … no.’
His grandmother sighed again. ‘You will at least be glad to know that your return call is now unnecessary. Oskar is the one who drove me here. He arrived at Burlesdon last night.’
‘Oh! That’s great!’ For the first time Rudi’s face lightened.
‘You like and respect the count, don’t you?’
Rudi burst out with enthusiasm, ‘Well yes, grandmother! He’s a Tarlenheim. I remember all you’ve taught me about that family and its great loyalty to our house. Besides, he’s really something: so cool and clever. If anyone can help me, it’ll be him.’
The dowager gave a pale smile. ‘While I believe he is all you think him to be and more, I should perhaps mention this one fact about him that you seem not to have observed. He too is a homosexual.’
Oskar von Tarlenheim dug his hands deep into the pockets of his rather Continental-looking trench coat. The wind across Medwardine’s playing fields whipped at his coat-tails and fluttered his thick blond hair. Rudi paced silently alongside him as they slowly strolled the terrace in front of New Building. Out on the fields the under-14s Rugby XV was training, the boys’ calls and shouts blown to them by the wind from the Welsh mountains, blue in the far distance above the treetops.
Eventually Oskar spoke, but in Rothenian. ‘Hochheit kungliche, you seem unusually quiet.’
Rudi shot him a half-embarrassed look. ‘It’s this business. I’m distracted. Sorry.’
‘Sir, I had hoped this move to your father’s old school might help, but you seem not to have settled. Now there’s the business of an assault on this smaller boy. Let me say straight away that I cannot believe for one moment you did what the school alleges.’
‘No, no! It was an accident, honestly. I didn’t mean to do it, I just ran into him, then his mates piled on top of me. I was the one who got damaged.’
‘Your grandmother is seeing the head teacher now. She can be very persuasive, and I’m sure something will be sorted out. But we cannot have the things happening here that occurred at Eton College. Affairs are getting to a critical point. You understand?’
‘I do, Excellency. Really. It won’t happen again.’
‘Good. Then I will say no more about it. The websites are going live this week, and after that the danger begins. A lot of people will be looking your way now, and not every expression will be friendly. Security is an issue we must take seriously.’
‘Am I not safe here?’
‘With the stakes we’re playing for, nowhere is safe, Sir.’
‘And the search? How is it going?’
‘It’s going nowhere at the moment. Will Vincent is at work on the surviving family papers we can locate, but there’s not much. I’m going back to Burlesdon with your grandmother. She and I will be checking through the muniment room, then I have to go to Heinrichshof.’
‘The last man who seems to have known of its location was Prince Leopold of Thuringia.’
‘Oh … right, my … er … gay cousin.’
Oskar flashed a sidelong glance at the boy. ‘Yes, the old fellow was gay. He’s buried at Zenda with Sir Martin Tofts, his lifelong lover and partner. I hope you have a chance to visit their tomb one day. You owe both men more than you can possibly imagine.
‘Talking of gay men, another reason I thought Medwardine might be a good place for you is that there are a couple of boys here who are friends of my little brother Fritzku’s, two fine lads who are also boyfriends. We met them back home last year. They would make you very welcome, and they know the old country. What were their names? One of them was Henry something.’
‘Yes, that was the fellow! Why are you looking at me so strangely?’
The news soon got round that Rudi Burlesdon was not to be expelled, although he was confined to the school premises and placed on Headmaster’s detention. He did not come back to the block, as the sixth-form council suspended his privileges. Henry ‘Outfield’ Atwood was a popular member of the lower sixth, despite his notorious gay affair with Ed Cornish. As Mark said, ‘If Burlesdon was after popularity, he might as well have shot Bambi on Princess Diana’s grave.’
That was Wednesday. It was the hot topic for the rest of the week, that and Bounder’s getting in a slugfest with Burlesdon on Thursday afternoon in their boarding house, and coming off the worst. Henry sighed when he heard about it. He might have guessed it would happen.
Come Friday, Ed joined Henry on the day-boys’ minibus that went in the direction of Henry’s home in the village of Trewern, where Henry’s father was priest-in-charge of eight Shropshire parishes. Ed was a boarder, but his foster parents and the Atwoods had arranged for him to spend the weekends with his boyfriend. They shared Henry’s large bedroom, and a lot of Ed’s clothes, books, CDs and games were now part of Henry’s domestic environment. Henry was known to sleep with items of Ed’s clothing under his pillow when his lover wasn’t there. His mother might have thought it cute except that he tended to use Ed’s unwashed boxers, which were, he claimed, more evocative of the full Cornish body odour. Henry’s mum said he was disgusting.
As usual, the pair helped with making Friday dinner and cleared up after. They then headed directly for their bed and vigorously caught up on what they had denied themselves during the week.
Ed slumped onto Henry, still embedded in him. He squirmed gently over Henry’s sweaty back, clasping him hard with his strong arms and kissing his neck. Ed was developing into a very skilled lover: sympathetic, unselfish and more sensitive than many people would have expected of him.
Eventually, Ed fell out of his Henry and rolled off him. They snuggled, Ed spooning protectively up round the smaller boy, printing tender kisses on his shoulders, ears and neck. Henry sighed with the cosy delight of it and pushed his little butt back into Ed’s crotch.
As they were drifting off, Ed said a bit dozily, ‘Burlesdon’s in more trouble, little babe. They found cannabis in his bedside table. He’ll be gone by next week. He swears it was nothing to do with him, but the Head is tough on drugs on the premises. Frankly, he is screwed, and not in the nice way you screw me. So you can forget about the git. He’s outta here.’
Henry sat up. ‘He had marijuana in his room?’
‘Just that it’s odd. The cleaners are in there every day, and everyone knows that the housemaster does random searches of the upper-school boys’ rooms. So who would put weed in just the place it was most likely to be found?’
‘He’s new to the school. Probably he didn’t know how dull it was to keep his weed there.’
‘But you knew, and you don’t smoke. He’d be bound to have been warned by now. It’s the boarder subculture. He’d know, however unpopular he was.’
‘Oh God, Henry,’ moaned Ed, ‘I feel a crusade coming on.’
Henry picked up a pillow and hit him with it. Ed pulled him down, there was laughter and bodies threshed round under the duvet. Eventually they slept.
Henry did not go directly to prep on Monday. Instead he crossed the fields to Temple House, a gaunt Victorian building overlooking the rugby field. He tapped in the weekly code on the security box and pushed open the heavy door, scarred by generations of energetic youth kicking and slamming it. He checked the room list and, finding that Burlesdon was in No 24, went up. The door was closed, so he knocked. A muffled ‘fuck off’ came from inside. A little nervously, Henry opened it anyway.
A tall, redheaded seventeen-year-old stared at him. ‘What you want? You’re about the last person I expected to see. Come to gloat, have you?’
Henry twitched an eyebrow. ‘No. I haven’t.’
‘Then what the fuck do you want?’
‘Can I sit down?’
‘No, fuck off. You heard me!’ The boy’s ears were bright red, which seemed to be a warning sign. Henry ignored it, especially as he sensed that if Burlesdon were not angry he would be crying. Indeed, he might have been doing just that before Henry knocked on his door. There was an air of woeful desperation about him, and Henry had a very soft heart.
‘I don’t think that was your weed they found.’
Burlesdon stared at him. ‘What?’ he gulped. ‘How d’you know?’
‘Because I don’t think you’re that stupid, Burlesdon.’
The redhead’s face fell. ‘Fuck. I thought you might know something.’
‘It wasn’t yours, was it?’ Henry repeated.
‘No, it wasn’t.’ The boy flexed his large hands and balled them into fists. ‘And if I knew who did it, I’d beat his face into splinters of bone, the fucking bastard cunt …’
Henry looked at him quirkily. ‘Has anyone ever told you that you have an anger-management problem?’
Burlesdon gave him a hard look. ‘You come over here to be patronising, or to be helpful?’
‘Helpful, I think.’ Henry’s fear of this angry boy was beginning to ebb. ‘Why did you knock me down last Wednesday?’
‘You were in my way,’ Burlesdon replied, as if that was all there was to it.
‘So do you knock everyone down who’s in your way and dump a load of homophobic abuse on them?’
‘You are a cocksucker, aren’t you?’
‘Don’t you think that expression is a teensy bit offensive?’
‘I don’t like queers, Outfield. You have a problem with that?’
‘We are all entitled to our views, I suppose. So when you called me a “little queer”, you were just being …’
‘… descriptive, yeah. Can’t stand you, but it doesn’t mean I’m into gay bashing. I was just in a desperate hurry to get outside and use my mobile. I told the Head that, but I have the impression you’re one of his blue-eyed boys.’
‘What was so important?’ Henry asked.
‘None of your fuckin’ …’
‘Okay, okay. I get it. Keep your secrets, man of mystery. But before we bring this uncomfortable interview to a close, could I just ask who would have a grudge against you sufficient to frame you for possession of a Class C drug on the school premises?’
‘I got no grudge against you, Burlesdon, whatever you might think. Anyone else?’
‘Your pansy boyfriend.’
‘… who could effortlessly rip your intestines out and make interesting artistic arrangements with them.’
‘Then no one here,’ Burlesdon finally muttered.
‘That means there are people elsewhere who might do it.’
‘I told you … it’s none of your fuckin’ …’
‘I get it. That’s it then. Okay, I’ll be on my way.’ Henry turned to leave.
‘Wait!’ Burlesdon cried. ‘Sorry I knocked you down,’ he mumbled.
Henry raised an eyebrow. ‘Thanks. If anything else occurs to me, I’ll let you know. Bye then.’
The woeful look was back on Burlesdon’s face. ‘Bye,’ he sighed. And Henry felt sorry for him, which, as things were to turn out, would have consequences beyond anything either of them could possibly have imagined.