HENRY IN HIGH POLITICS
It was chapel on Monday, and Henry was as nervous in tutor group as a Roman martyr before a lunch appointment with the lions.
‘You okay, little babe?’ asked Ed solicitously.
‘Nope,’ was the twitchy reply. ‘Why, oh why, did I volunteer for this?’
Henry had consented to take a Monday assembly. ‘After all, Atwood,’ the Head had said, ‘your father is a vicar and Miss Prendergast says that you’re her best pupil. It’s good experience. I’m sure you’ll be fine. The week’s theme is “Tolerance”.’
‘Sir, you know I’m gay.’
‘The fact has been mentioned.’
‘You aren’t putting me up there as an exercise in tolerance, are you, sir?’
‘Handle it any way you want to, Atwood. I have every confidence.’
So Henry was pacing nervously about the common room, his flash drive with PowerPoint presentation clutched in his sweaty hand. An escort of sympathetic friends walked him from the sixth-form block to the chapel. ‘You’re only here to stop me doing a runner, aren’t you?’ he complained, a little unfairly.
‘Wish I could kiss you,’ Ed breathed in his ear, before Henry made the long walk down the chapel aisle to the lectern. A screen was already lowered above his head. He talked about margins, and how society squeezed people out to the edge. He had slides of Travellers, Gypsies, Untouchables, and American Indians playing above him. He said that it was at the margins where a society showed its health, or not. Tolerance allowed the disadvantaged to make their own culture, which, if society was really open, could funnel back into the richness of the host culture and transform it. He had slides of rap musicians, gay pride marchers, aboriginal art, and ended up with a crucifix as the classic symbol of how a society could be totally transformed from the margins inwards.
As usual, Henry began hesitantly, but was soon talking with real passion, and even hit the rhetorical as he finished. ‘You want to know the future? Then don’t look to Science. Don’t look to Parliament. Look to the disadvantaged. Look to the outsiders. That’s where it’ll come from, and it won’t be what you expect!’
There was a momentary hush as he finished, breathing heavily, and then a storm of applause came down from the benches, with a few appreciative whistles and whoops from the somewhat prejudiced members of the Lower Sixth. He blushed as he walked up to his stall, leaving the chaplain to round off. Hands thumped his back as he stumbled past his friends.
He was hugged by several of the sixth as he left, which with the head patting and hand shaking left him feeling rather weepy before he finally found refuge in his study carrel. He kept on playing and replaying the high points in his head: the rapt attention from the younger boys, the proud smile on Miss Prendergast’s face, the handshake from the Head. Maybe I could be a teacher, he was thinking as a knock came on the carrel door and a boy entered. It was a sheepish-looking Rudi Burlesdon.
Henry smiled. ‘Come in, your lordship.’
The boy grunted, ‘News gets round, dunnit.’
‘The fourteenth earl, eh? What do I call you? I mean, you call me a “little queer” so I should be able to find something patronising to say about a member of a decaying over-privileged social order.’
‘Not my fault I inherited a title, is it?’
‘Not my fault I was born gay, is it?’
‘Truce, Outfield. I’m here ‘cos I owe you an apology. It was you who saved my butt over the cannabis charge, wasn’t it?’
‘Who told you that?’
‘Never mind. But stories get round. You discovered that Skipper had set me up, and you talked him into confessing. Don’t deny it.’
‘Okay, I won’t. But from my point of view it wasn’t your butt I was saving, it was Davey Skipper’s. And he’s worth five of you.’
For the first time, Rudi looked upset at something Henry had said to him. ‘I’m sorry you think that,’ he said quietly, and became suddenly formal and – Henry had to admit – rather dignified – a bit like Fritzy zu Terlenehem on a good day. ‘But to square my conscience I had to come and thank you, which I have done, and if in any way I can return the obligation, I will.’ He turned to leave, and Henry felt a bit as though he’d been outplayed when he had a winning hand.
‘Whoa, your lordship! Not so fast! I have questions. Sit down here, if you think you can stand the implications that people might draw about your sexuality.’
Rudi stopped and gave Henry an unfathomable look. ‘Henry,’ he said, ‘I don’t notice anyone else in the block ashamed to be seen with you and Ed, and I certainly am not.’
‘Bit of a turnaround in your attitudes, isn’t it?’
‘I’m reassessing my views, Henry. Now. Shake my hand.’ They shook and smiled at each other, and Henry had to admit that once the scowl had left Rudi’s face, he was quite pleasant to look at. Not only that, but he even seemed familiar, in a way Henry could not quite put his finger on.
Rudi stretched out his six-foot frame and crossed his arms, gazing quirkily at Henry. ‘So what do you want to know, Outfield?’
‘When did you get to be an earl?’
‘My father died in a light-aircraft accident when I was seven – sad, really, I never got to know him. I did the usual thing in the Rassendyll family. My mother put me through Palmers prep school, and I moved on to public school, Eton in my case.’
‘But you came here for the sixth, how’s that?’
‘I punched a teacher.’
‘Jesus! You did? You dangerous dude. Why?’
‘I found him interfering with a little kid.’
‘Ah … that’s why you don’t like gays.’
‘But to be gay is not to be a paedophile, y’know. Had he interfered with you?’
‘No, but the kid he was molesting was crying. Anyway, he was fired and arrested. My mother was asked to withdraw me from the school, as I was being … difficult.’
‘You really want to know everything, you nosy little queer.’
‘It’s part of my charm.’
For the first time Rudi gave a loud laugh. ‘You do have charm, little Henry, in bucket-loads. You also give a good assembly.’ Henry smiled, and Rudi continued, ‘I had issues with the way the school’s power structures worked, and it does have power structures. I booted a member of Pop up the arse.’
‘That’s interesting. I tend to get on well with boys who boot people up arses … that was how me and Ed made friends.’
‘He booted you in the bum?’
‘Weird as well as charming.’
‘And what’s “Pop” when it’s at home?’
‘It’s the inner circle of prefects at Eton. They have ridiculous privileges and a high opinion of themselves. The particular prefect I booted just happened to be a Saudi Arabian prince.’
‘So it was an honour to be mown down by you really.’
‘As you say, Henry. When she was asked to withdraw me, mother chose this school as it has a strong disciplinary tradition and we have an old family connection with it. My grandmother, bless her, hadn’t wanted me to go to Eton in the first place. It was my mother’sfamily, the FitzJameses, who were the Etonians. The duke, my grandfather on her side, put up the fees for me.
‘So here I was sent, and for a while it looked like it was a bad decision, but now I’m not so sure.’ Rudi hesitated. ‘I could be okay here Henry, I begin to see that. I just got off on the wrong foot. You and Ed … and yes, even Skipper and Peters … you’re good guys. But what can I do to make up for all the aggression and unpopularity?’
Henry began to see the lonely boy he had sensed in Rudi Burlesdon right from the beginning, and sympathised. ‘You need to relax, Rudi. Hang out with me and the lads. I’ll make sure they accept you. Oh, and make it up with David Skipper. He’s a great guy, and very popular.’
‘That’ll be hard.’
‘Life is, Rudi. One thing: You said your family name is Rassendyll?’
‘Yes. I’m Rudolf Robert Maxim Rassendyll, fourteenth earl of Burlesdon, Viscount Lowestoft and Baron Rassendyll in the peerage of Great Britain. Bit of a mouthful, so it gets abbreviated down to the main title. I like Rudolf as a name, although without the red-nosed-reindeer associations, so my mother called me “Rudi” from when I was tiny, and Burlesdon is my title.’
‘It’s a pleasure meeting you, your lordship.’ Rudi got up and shook Henry’s hand again. They arranged to have lunch together. After Rudi left the carrel, however, Henry still thought there was something mysterious about the other boy that he had not yet fathomed.
Henry talked it all over with Ed in study period. ‘You think he’s basically okay then?’
Henry nodded. ‘He’s a bit of a classic really. Deep down I think he is a naturally friendly kid, but he has this powerful moral sense which forces him into difficult situations. He doesn’t lack courage either, and the result is that he ends up as a scary loner with a reputation for losing it. You can’t try to fix the world’s problems when you’re a teenager, but Rudi doesn’t see that. You’ve got to feel sorry for him. Also, he has this duty thing going. I expect losing his father at such a young age dumped a lot of expectations on him. He’s an earl and he has a stately home and responsibilities coming out his ears. No wonder he’s a bit brusque and harsh.’
Ed kissed Henry lightly on the cheek. ‘I love you, you little softy you. You’re always looking for the best in people. So where’s his stately home?’
‘Somewhere in East Anglia, Burke’s Peerage said.’
‘And you want me to be nice to him over lunch?’
‘Yes. He’s your sort, Ed. Powerful and straightforward, although I think he lacks your kindness and gentleness. But how we reconcile him with Davey, I really don’t know. And unless we do, he’ll never be accepted. Davey has too many mates who’ll always take his side.’
At lunch Rudi came and sat with Ed and Henry, and they had an enjoyable enough time. Peters came by and was civil. A few of the hockey set joined them, seeming more curious about Rudi than hostile. When David saw them together, though, he went and sat on another table, an unreadable but not friendly look on his face.
At the lesson bell, Henry and Ed departed for History, while Rudi went towards the block. Afterwards, Ed had Law while Henry went to the study centre to log in and e-mail Fritzy and Nikki.
As Henry was finishing up, he heard the ominous sound of voices shouting outside, and one of them belonged to his Ed. He ran out of the computer suite to find a gang of sixth formers looking on as Ed held Rudi down with an arm lock. David, who had blood on his lip, was being restrained by two of his tennis mates.
‘Now bloody what?’ Henry snapped.
Rudi was hauled to his feet, his face contorted with pain, as Ed was not being gentle with him.
Westenra, the deputy head boy, demanded, ‘What happened, Cornish?’
‘Some sort of difference of opinion, Westenra. Burlesdon here took a swipe at Bounder, but they won’t say why.’
Westenra asked the same question of both boys. They looked furious but refused to excuse themselves. ‘Then that’s it,’ Westenra pronounced. ‘Skipper, you’re excluded from the block for a week. Burlesdon, since it’s your second offence in one term, you’re excluded till after the Easter break. Now get out of my sight. The pair of you are barbarians!’
Far away in the great castle a clock chimed eleven. It was dark now outside the tall windows. Will looked across a rampart of file boxes at Oskar. As if through telepathy, Oskar met his eyes and smiled.
‘What does this remind you of, Osku?’
Oskar stretched and his smile broadened to a grin. ‘A certain day in the National Library in Strelzen. You were high on steroids and desperate for a fuck. We did it in the toilets. The smell of backed-up drains and disinfectant still turns me on.’
Will’s smile faded. ‘How’re things between you and Peter Peacher?’
Oskar shot him a quirky look. ‘It’s been nearly a year, but we’re still circling round each other and sniffing. The trouble is we’re both alpha males, which makes us reluctant to commit, because commitment will mean one of us will have surrendered to the other’s ambitions.
‘It’s great when we’re together, of course, even if we do argue. But we’re not together that often. He’s in New Haven, and I’m here. He’s got his studies to finish, and until this business with the Elphbergs is sorted out, I have no space in my life for romance.’
Will gave a little smile. ‘He is quite something: like a dream of a surfer – tangled blond hair hanging over his forehead, broad shoulders and brooding eyes. You’d hardly think Andy was his brother.’
‘And money too, you were going to say?’
‘You’re hardly a pauper, Osku.’
‘But no one’s in his class.’
‘He’d be an idiot to let you go.’
‘A scary, driven man like me?’
‘A loving, sexy guy like you.’
Oskar shrugged. ‘You see a side of me that not many do, men Willemju. Other than Pete, I’ve found no one else who’s woken that part of Oskar Prinz. I’m grateful for the times Pete and I have together, though they’re getting further and further apart. I’m just glad you and I stayed friends, despite what I did.’
‘I’ve long forgiven you, men leblen.’
‘And now you have Felip. In the end, it worked out best for you. I know Felip, and you’ll get from him what I could never have offered you. You’re a man who needs a loving partner in life, not a restless obsessive.’ Oskar’s face took on a troubled look. ‘I despair of myself. First it was rebuilding the Tarlenheim fortunes, and now I’m on a crusade to restore a monarchy and transform a nation. I never pick the easy ones, do I, my darling?’
‘It’s what makes you so very admirable, Osku. And it’s time for bed.’ Will took Oskar’s hand and raised him. They kissed. Hand in hand, they sought Oskar’s room through the castle’s empty corridors. Kissing became passionate as the door closed behind them.
‘You want me?’ breathed Oskar.
‘Always. It’s no disloyalty to Felip. We both love you.’
‘And I you both. Come, my pretty Willemju, I dream of your slim body when perhaps I should not. Sex with you was always so very good. I’m glad we can still share that much of ourselves.’
Henry made Ed a coffee and sat with him on one of the study centre’s window seats. ‘Well that blew up in our faces,’ he said sadly.
‘You did your best Henry. You couldn’t have done more. Don’t give up. How did your researches go on the web?’
‘I’ve got a few printouts to check over. I e-mailed the lads, but obviously no reply yet. Fritzy’s in school at Modenehem, so I doubt we’ll hear from him for a few days. Look at this one first. It’s from an EU site on the “Rothenian Achievement”. It’s about the recent history of German-Slav relations in Rothenia. Seems that an ethnic divide is beginning to open up all over the country, which is at the root of the recent rioting.’
Ed nodded. ‘Apart from the bilingual signs everywhere in Strelzen, I don’t remember hearing much German when we were there.’
‘Nikki’s from a German family, I seem to recall, but Germans live more in the south, around Rechtenberg, and in western Husbrau, towards the Saxon and Bavarian borders. Anyway, you can summarise the recent history pretty easily. Germans became culturally and economically dominant in old Ruritania, and a German princely house, the Elphbergs, took the throne. Although the old aristocracy was Slav by descent, like the Tarlenheims, they adopted the German language and customs, and the majority Rothenian Slavs became an underclass.’
‘That I had picked up, but there was a Rothenian revival in the nineteenth century.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Henry, ‘and the Elphbergs did a brilliant job of nation building. They had a talent for attaching the Rothenian lower classes to their dynasty. They were really popular. Queen Flavia in particular worked very hard to keep the balance. She sponsored a Rothenian schools movement, patronised Rothenian poets and writers, and made the universities bilingual. The chairs of Rothenian literature and history in the Rudolf University in Strelzen are the Flavia chairs. She made Rothenian fashionable but at the same time managed to keep the German minority onside. They still put a fresh red rose on her tomb in the cathedral daily, as they have done since she died in 1880.’
‘We saw it when we went there with Oskar and Will last year. I thought that was quite a gesture.’
‘They also used to celebrate her birthday even in the free republic between the wars, and Flaviendenn – Queen Flavia’s Day – was restored in 1990 after the May Rising. But once she was dead things went to the bad. The new dynasty were Germans through and through, and related to the Prussian Hohenzollerns. They pulled the plug on government support for Rothenian education and culture. Even though the Thuringians were overthrown in 1910 and an Elphberg held the throne again for a while, the First Republic of Marcus Tildemann had little time for the German minority. The Germans redeemed themselves in the Second World War by fighting just as hard against the Nazi occupation as the Slavs. But under Communism, of course, Rothenian Germans were looked down upon by association. Bilingualism ended and German language schools were closed. It was total repression, made worse when refugee Germans from the Czech Republic and Hungary settled in Rothenia and, unlike the native Germans, were a poor underclass.’
‘But Rothenia’s not like that now, is it?’
Henry shook his head. ‘This is where the commentators are divided. The Third Republic after the May Rising made a nod towards ethnic German rights. They brought back bilingualism, and German-language schools were allowed to open. President Maritz’s government made a big thing about this when Rothenia went for EU membership … what good boys we are, and so on. The EU site goes right over the top about the “Rothenian Achievement”. But if you look at this stuff from the Rothenian blog sites I read, it’s not such a rosy picture. The government may have allowed German schools, but didn’t give any support. They didn’t revive German teaching in the universities and colleges, or the ancient chair of German Literature in the Rudolf University in Strelzen. There’s subtle job discrimination too. You can get a government job if you only speak Rothenian, but if you only speak German there’s no chance.’
‘What’s sparking things off then, Henry?’
‘Look at this printout from The Economist’s site. These are some neat diagrams showing relative income levels of Germans and Slavs in the expanding economy. Ethnic Germans – and there are quite a few of them – are having a bad deal. There is a German voting bloc in Parliament, allied with disgruntled elements in President Maritz’s ramshackle government. Over and above that, there’s been a revival in the right-wing Christian Democratic Party, the CDP, and between them they’re bringing Maritz down.’
‘And the riots, where are they coming from?’
‘One wing of the CDP is anti-German and more than a bit racist. It’s got lots of ex-Communist support. Now the Germans too are getting organised, and have their own party … bizarrely they call it the Unity Party. The blogs say both sides are fomenting violence so as to secure their voting base.’
‘Rothenia ain’t that idyllic a country at the moment then.’
‘It never has been, Ed, from what I can see. It just looks idyllic.’
Will felt kisses pressing on his bare shoulders. Oskar was still deep inside him as they lay on their sides, Oskar spooned up around him, his distinctive scent embracing Will as much as his arms. Will sank into a lazy happiness, though he didn’t feel quite ready for sleep yet. It was a feeling that took him back to the halcyon days of his sexual awakening in Oskar’s shabby Lindenstrasse apartment.
It seemed that Oskar too was not quite exhausted, despite their long and energetic coupling. He wanted to talk. ‘That was the best, leblen. How long can you stay in this enchanted castle with me, on my quest for the mystical crown?’
‘I have a few days yet, but I have to be back in Strelzen for Monday. I’m meeting Hendrik Willemin, remember?’
‘Is that necessary, Willemju?’
‘He can be useful. He has so many connections …’
‘Some of them even above-board.’
‘And he’s contributed hard cash. For a man like Hendrik, that’s real commitment. We couldn’t have set up the blogs and websites without him.’
Oskar grunted, ‘He’ll want his payoff in the end. There’s not an ounce of idealism in him.’
‘I thought we decided I’d manage the media end, and you’d plan the political coup. Eastnet’s growing, but it can’t match the State media as yet. We need the backing Hendrik and his associates can offer. I’ve drawn all I can from the Peacher well for the moment. Soon I want to go twenty-four hours with our news channel, and it’ll take a lot of investment.’
Oskar hugged Will tight around his ribcage. ‘I’m not criticising, leblen. His involvement just makes me nervous. All I’m saying is that we should keep an eye on Hendrik.’ He chuckled in Will’s ear. ‘You can leave it to me … I may have some ideas.’
‘A pity Terry O’Brien’s out of circulation.’
‘What makes you think he’d be interested in our problems?’
Will thought he detected some sourness in Oskar’s voice. He let it pass. He knew the two men had issues, and that Oskar didn’t share his veneration for the former Peacher security chief. He turned in Oskar’s arms and engaged with the man’s broad mouth. ‘Thank you, Osku,’ he eventually murmured. ‘I’ll sleep well tonight.’
‘I too. Bless you, men Willemju.’