HENRY IN HIGH POLITICS
Things at Medwardine got worse. Rudi seemed to have lost his social confidence – or at least the will to be social – and retreated into his room. David did not have enough moderation and self-control to keep his grievance to himself, and so stirred up his friends against Rudi. All in all it was a difficult week, only lightened by the fact that Ed had decided to join Henry’s crusade. He went out of his way to talk to Rudi, sitting with him at meals, and even visiting him in his room after lessons and prep.
‘You’re right, Henry,’ he concluded. ‘He’s not such a bad bloke, apart from the tendency to flip at irregular intervals. Not much into sport, either, but you could make the same criticism of nicer people. I suggested he come and visit the rectory this weekend, if he didn’t mind hanging out with queers.’
‘Blimey, what did he say?’
‘He got all offended that we might believe he cares what people think about him. So he said yes. I sort of talked him into it without meaning to. I amazed even myself …’
Dad and mum were okay with it, even after Henry admitted that Rudi was an aristocrat. Dad countered with a pious platitude: ‘We are all one in the eyes of God … now, I think that earns me fifty points in the religious cliché game, Henry – not just bottom-clenchingly awful, but also appropriate.’ It was a long-term competition he and Henry had going.
Rudi was different with adults, as it turned out. Mum was perfectly charmed. ‘And he’s good-looking, too, in a pale, redheaded sort of way. Lovely green eyes and delicious freckles. He’ll be a lady-killer. He’s not another one of your gay friends, is he?’
‘No, mum, this one plays with a straight bat, as Edward likes to say.’
Rudi was quite relaxed with Ed and Henry as well, even when he walked in on them snogging in the lounge on Saturday afternoon. ‘Don’t mind me,’ he commented, although his smile was a little on the forced side. They went back to their mouth exercises.
On Sunday he was happy to join them in church. Announcing he was a Catholic, however, he said, ‘I won’t take communion if that’s all the same, Mr Atwood.’ But he did come forward to receive a blessing, which Henry thought was sensitive. He hung around after the service, chatting to old ladies, while Ed and Henry cleared up. The word that Rudi was a lord had got round the church like bird flu, and a certain sort of parishioner was very excited.
It was as Ed and Henry had finished off and were coming out of the vestry that an odd thing happened, or at least it seemed odd later. Dr Mac was bringing up the collection plate, and upon seeing Henry he smiled and as usual said, ‘Ahoi, dobra denn.’ But before Henry could answer, Rudi responded automatically, ‘Prosim, men freund, dobra denn.’ Henry stared at him, while Rudi looked as though he’d been caught out saying something he shouldn’t. Dr Mac smiled and congratulated him, before heading on into the vestry.
‘You speak Rothenian, Rudi! Not only that, but you speak it pretty well!’
‘Oh … er, yes. My grandmother is Rothenian. Besides, it’s a sort of family tradition. We had an estate in Rothenia up until the war, and young Rassendylls used to go out and manage the farms there, until we finally lost it in the nationalisation of 1948. Father had just begun the legal process of reclamation when he was killed; in fact, he was flying out to Rothenia when his plane went down. After that it was on hold till I came of age under Rothenian law. Now mother’s about to restart the process.’
‘How much land is there, and in what part of Rothenia?’ asked Ed, very curious by then.
‘It’s quite a lot actually. My ancestor was given the castle of Hentzen and the entire Hentzen estate by Queen Flavia. You’ve heard of her, I imagine?’
‘We know quite a bit about Rothenia, Rudi,’ Henry replied. ‘We were there last summer and we’ve got quite a few Rothenian friends.’
‘Oh!’ Rudi took on an air of indifference. ‘Really?’
‘We were in the capital, Strelzen. We spent a month there, the best time I’ve ever had.’
‘Me too,’ Ed affirmed. ‘Have you been there yet?’
‘Oh … umm … yes. We … er … used to go stay with relatives sometimes, usually at Christmas for the skiing. Though it’s been a while since the last time.’
Henry asked, ‘Have you been following the news? It looks bad at the moment there.’
Rudi shut down, in a rather odd and very decided way. ‘I expect it’s exaggerated. Now. Tell me about this interesting tomb in the churchyard.’
All in all, it was an enjoyable weekend, and they were quite cheery with each other on the minibus back to Medwardine on Monday. After assembly, Ed and Henry adjourned to the terminals to check up on their e-mail accounts. Ed signed in. ‘Hey! Here’s one from Fritzy! You gotta read the whole thing, babe.’ Henry did.
<Hi Edward and Henry. Thank you for your concern, but we are fine up here in Modenehem. The news says that there was only a small problem in Zenden City, although the riot police were sent in, which doesn’t sound so small a problem to me. We saw Oskar on TV the other night. He was presenting a current-affairs programme on Eastnet. He was talking to Helmut Trachtenberg of the Unity Party – loud and aggressive man – and Piotr Bermann of the CDP – even more loud and aggressive. It was very funny. They both lost it and started fighting each other. Oskar and the cameraman had to separate them, and Oskar got a punch that gave him a black eye. Helge told me off for laughing. There’s a lot of politics going on, and that nice President Maritz will have to resign. I like him. He is very kind and always has a laugh with me when we meet. I will let you know if anything happens. Are you coming to stay? It would be nice. Helge says there will be less tourists this year because of the trouble. PS. I have a girlfriend. Her name is Maria. She is hot.>
Henry smiled. ‘Poor old Oskar. Too bad Fritzy’s a dead loss when it comes to information, but I suppose you can’t expect very much of a fourteen-year-old, even one who’s a prince.’
‘I’m not so sure of that, Henry,’ Ed countered. ‘If you read between the lines, you can see Fritzy’s picking up lots of bad signals. He knows things are going wrong, he just doesn’t want us to worry.’
Ed continued to look at his e-mails. ‘Oh. Here’s one from Andy.’ That was Andy Peacher, one of Ed’s two London-based foster fathers. ‘I’d better check … oh my God!’
Henry’s gaze snapped to Ed’s face, which had suddenly acquired a fixed intensity and look of shock. ‘Whassup?’
Ed explained unhappily, ‘Bad problems, little babe. You read it.’
<Dear Ed. Sorry not to ring, but by the time you receive this I’ll be somewhere in the States with Matt and I’m not entirely sure where. There’s been a tragedy. You’ll remember that our friend Terry O’Brien had a lover, Ramon Villa. I don’t think you met him … really great bloke and they were very much in love. They were living in Greenwich Village, Ramon teaching in a downtown Manhattan school, and Terry looking for work in theatres. Ramon came home on Friday complaining of a headache, and by midnight he was in pain all over his body and delirious. Terry got him to hospital, but there was nothing they could do. He died of meningitis on Saturday morning. It’s awful. Matt and I are leaving by overnight flight to be with Terry. I don’t expect we’ll be coming back soon. This buggers up our plans for your Easter holiday, but I hope you can stay with Mr and Mrs Atwood, at least for the first week. We’ll be in touch as soon as we know what the plans for the funeral are and how long we’ll need to be here. God knows what this will do to Terry. We’ll ring as soon as we know anything. Love, Andy>
‘Oh my God!’ exclaimed Henry in his turn. They had met Terry at a big London function and had liked him a lot. He was very much a hero to their friend Justin. He had taught Henry how to waltz, and they had heard some of his scandalous cruising stories. They had also picked up that he had quite a history as a security consultant and bodyguard to the rich and famous. He had given that up for a career in the arts, however, and was just taking his first steps towards Broadway.
Henry resolved to make sure that Terry’s and Ramon’s names got on the Trewern prayer list for the week. It was all so very sad. And although Henry’s perspective on death was for many reasons not as bleak as some people’s, he did not underestimate the poignancy and blackness of the grief that went with it. He had recently experienced quite how cosmically powerful that sort of grief could be.
Ed heaved a sigh. ‘Do you think your mum and dad will be okay about it?’
Henry nodded. ‘Oh yeah. Aside from the tragedy, they’ll be delighted at the excuse to put you up for a week, and Dad loves having two young servers in the sanctuary. It’s a sort of status symbol for vicars.’
Ed absently scrolled farther down the inbox. ‘Hey, babe. Here’s another e-mail from Fritzy, sent only half an hour ago, probably just before he went to school.’
<Hi Edward and Henry. I don’t know if you had heard but our friend Terry has lost his boyfriend Ramon. Everybody here is upset. I did not know Ramon well, but Terry I know and love a lot. He is so terribly funny. Although they have had their differences, my brother Oskar thinks highly of him as well, and he is very close to our good friend Will Vincent. Will was in Modenehem late last night to say goodbye. He is going to fly today to New York to join Matt and Andy to do what they can for Terry. This is not going to be a good summer, I can feel it. Oskar was on the phone a lot when he was here, talking to many different political people, as was Will. But they won’t tell me anything. Love. Fritzku>
Ed looked downhearted. ‘It seems the tribe are assembling across the Atlantic to support Terry.’
‘You feel left out of it, don’t you Ed.’
‘A bit. I know it’s selfish of me, because I barely know Terry, but I felt I was becoming part of the Peacher set. But it looks like I’m not so much a part of it that I’m included in its tribal gatherings.’
‘I’ll ring Justin and see what he knows.’ Henry flipped his mobile, but got only voicemail. He then tried the number for Nathan Underwood, Justin’s boyfriend, who was managing a garden centre in Suffolk, near Ipswich.
This time there was a reply. ‘Hey, little Henry! I suppose you’ve heard the bad news?’
‘Yes. That was why I was ringing. Is Justin going over to the States?’
‘Already gone. I drove him to Ipswich, where he took the early train to London. Matt had booked him on a flight to New York. I’m still here though, stacking growbags and manning the till.’
‘Will you be going over later for the funeral?’
‘I doubt it. Businesses don’t run themselves. Terry understands. I sent my condolences by Justin and by e-mail. How are you guys?’
‘A bit upset. We like Terry. But with Matt and Andy gone abroad, Ed’s having to stay here with me in Shropshire for most of the holiday.’
‘That’s some sort of silver lining for you, then.’
‘I guess. But Ed loves Matt and Andy and was looking forward to getting back together with them in London. He hopes he’ll be seeing them in the second half of the holiday.’
‘Yeah. Well nice to hear from you … but I got customers. Oh, and don’t forget you’ve got AS exams to revise for. Cheers, little Henry babe!’
Henry put his mobile back in his pocket and gave Ed a résumé of the conversation.
Ed shrugged. ‘That’s Nathan, always pragmatic. Also, he’s right. We could do without distractions. There’re oral exams only a fortnight after we get back, and the draft coursework for History and English is due in on the day school restarts. We’d better get cracking, little babe. Remember how effective a revision team we were for our GCSEs?’
Henry did. The previous August he had chalked up 3 A* and 6 A grades, with only one B. Ed had totalled out on A’s, with 6 A*.
Oskar pouted, a very unusual expression for him.
Will thought he looked even sexier when he did it, despite the bruises round his right eye. ‘It’s not too bad,’ Will offered in reassurance.
Oskar brightened a little. ‘Really? I could kill that oaf Bermann. And in front of the whole nation too! Perhaps I will murder Bermann. It may solve some problems. I’m sorry you have to fly abroad now, Willemju. I can ill afford your absence. We were making real progress.’
‘I must go, Osku.’
‘I know, I know. I am very sorry for Terry’s loss, and it is the right thing for you to be there for him, but how long is it likely to be?’
‘At least a week, I think. We can still manage to do this one bit of sleuthing before I go. In his last text, Felip said he’d be here soon; then we can talk it through. Time for another coffee? I’ve got well over an hour before I need to be on the shuttle to the airport.’
When Felip arrived, Oskar was at the counter of the Mikhelstrasse Starbucks, negotiating his way through the elaborate ritual of ordering from a patient barista. Felip looked feline and gorgeous in skinny jeans and leather jacket, shades up in his tight curls. He exchanged a double kiss with Will, who took his partner’s hand as they settled next to one another. Open intimacy between gay men was rarely a problem on the streets of metropolitan Strelzen, where young straight men too customarily kissed one another on greeting, to the confusion of foreign visitors.
Oskar returned with the tea he knew Felip preferred. They embraced and pressed cheeks. Once they had settled, Oskar began. ‘I see this morning as just a scouting expedition. We must examine the lie of the land before we go further. The ten o’clock mass will be over in a few moments, and the church will empty. February is not a big month for tourism, and our visitors tend to flock to the cathedral and Waclawkloster rather than the Salvatorskirk.’
Felip intervened. ‘Let me be clear, Osku. You believe that the Crown is hidden away somewhere in the Salvatorskirk?’
‘I do. It all fits … my dream, the curious postcard in the mausoleum and the location too. Not only is President Tildemann buried in the crypt, so also are King Maxim and my cousin, Queen Helge. The Salvatorskirk was a collegiate church under royal patronage in the old days. It’s ancient, too, far older than the Neuvemesten that was built around it. It’s on the Roman road that used to run from Modenehem eastwards to Kesarstejne. Legend has it that the first church was established on the site where Duke Tassilo’s body rested for the last stage of its journey from Ebersfeld, where he died, to his burial place on the hill of the Altstadt. It couldn’t be more appropriate as the place to conceal the Crown!’
Will and Felip meditated on this until Oskar, eager to be away, urged them to drink up. He led them quickly along the street through the throngs of weekday shoppers until they came out on to the Plaz. A couple of blocks more brought them to the towering apse of the Salvatorskirk as it shouldered its way out on to the great square, where they turned on to Lindenstrasse and came to the south door under the soaring belfry.
Once inside, the city noise was muted. The windows of the great church were set high, an arrangement calculated to close out the racket of the mundane world.
The most recent remodelling of the Salvatorskirk had been accomplished by Duke Rudolf V at the first great flowering of Rothenian baroque. He had conceived the project on a grand scale: the soaring Classical vaulting and the torrents of sculpture were a combination that commanded immediate awe in the visitor. Will could do nothing but pause to admire the effect. Even Oskar’s restless pace slowed as he came out into the great space of the nave. The gold and blue of the round window above the reredos produced a breath-stopping coruscation as its light was reflected on the limestone and marble of the sanctuary beneath.
‘Amazing,’ Will breathed, though he had been in the church a dozen times since he had first arrived in the city. There were few dynastic tombs in the church, but immediately before the high altar was laid the soldier, Jan Elphberg, Duke Rudolf’s younger son, the first duke of Mittenheim. He and his duchess were sculpted on the high chest, he in armour, she in ermine, both with hands together in prayer. Their chantry mass was still celebrated by the clergy of St Saviour’s chapter.
‘Should we contact the archpriest?’ Will wondered out loud.
‘No,’ Oskar responded, ‘or at least not yet. We may in the end have to do things he would not approve of. The crypt is this way.’
They paid their ten krone to the old lady sitting at the head of the stairs among a collection of postcards and booklets concerning King Maxim. Will picked up a paperback reprint of Welf von Tarlenheim’s classic biography of the great man. Felip purchased several portrait cards. ‘He was hot,’ he whispered in Will’s ear.
There were a few tourists wandering amongst the low vaults beneath the church. Spotlights picked out the recess below the high altar where the king and queen lay in polished marble sarcophagi under fresh flowers.
Oskar craned close to that of King Maxim. Will followed his eyes. Sculpted on top of it in marble was a life-size facsimile of the Tassilisnerkron, above the body of the king who had been the last Elphberg monarch to carry it on his brow.
Satisfied, as it seemed to Will, that it was no more than a replica, Oskar led them back along the crypt to a plain slate ledger stone, ornamented simply with the words: MARCUS TILDEMANN : SERVANT OF HIS COUNTRY. It always surprised Will that the Communist regime had left both this and the Tildemann statue untouched. But then, the Communists had not touched any of the royal monuments in the capital either. Their excrescences of proletarian art had been erected in the Government quarter, and none had survived the May Rising.
Horvath’s Brutalist mausoleum still stood in the heart of his native city of Zenden, however, and Eastnet had reported increasingly frequent wreath-layings and demonstrations there by stubborn adherents to his cause. An attempt to break up the largest of them by the state police had led to two days of rioting a few weeks before.
‘So what now?’ asked Will.
Oskar, brooding on the problem, looked up and shrugged. ‘You go get your flight, and Felip will go with you to kiss you goodbye at the barrier. As for me, I will sit here and make my devotions. I will pray for guidance as to what to do next, and pray also for the soul of Ramon Villa.’
Edward and Henry were as industrious and conscientious as ever throughout the week before exeat, the two weeks of holiday in the middle of Hilary Term. Ed also studied in the evenings with Rudi Burlesdon, helping him a lot with his History and English. Rudi was grateful, and indeed seemed to be forming a genuine friendship with Ed, while Henry held the line with David Skipper.
‘I really like him,’ Ed confessed to Henry one morning over a coffee in the block. ‘It takes a while, but when you get through the prickliness, there’s this amazing guy hiding in there: completely honest and totally straight … in the conventional sense. You get the idea he’d think it a dishonour to his dignity and birth to tell a lie, even a little white one. He’s the sort you feel you have to measure yourself against. He’s a natural leader.’
‘But don’t you think there’s something mysterious there?’
‘Whatchu mean, little babe?’
‘Not sure. He may be as honest as the day is long in Greenland in midsummer, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things about him which are enigmatic.’
‘I dunno, I’m just saying. He blanks me on a lot of stuff.’
‘You are incredibly nosy.’
‘What, me? Bollocks! I’m just deeply concerned with the human condition, I am.’
‘Yeah, as I said … intrusive. Westenra told me you wanted to know about his on-line gambling habit.’
‘He left the screen up in the study centre. I thought he should know of my concern.’
‘He rather got the impression you were pumping him for tips about playing poker.’
Henry blushed. ‘He misinterpreted my interest.’
Ed laughed out loud. ‘There’s a part of you that wants to be naughty so badly, little one.’
Henry drew himself up, which in his case was not very far. ‘You have no business reading me. Please stop it.’
It was a relief to all when school ended with no further flare-ups between Rudi and David. It was a pity Rudi had no interest in rugby or hockey, as that would have much expanded his circle of acquaintances. The only games option he took up was in fact the rather specialised minority interest of fencing. Edward reported that Rudi’s facility with the blade was quite awesome, but his fierce competitiveness made him no friends there either.
Ed and Henry kept him company outside New Building after assembly on the final Friday before exeat. Cars were loading all round them, and high-fives and handshakes – even the occasional hug – were on general offer as friends parted for the holiday. Hardly anyone gave such an acknowledgement to Rudi, which saddened Henry a lot. But then, when he thought about it, the idea of hugging Rudi Burlesdon simply could not register in his imagination.
‘So … er, what you got planned for the next couple of weeks, Burlesdon?’ Henry had to ask, despite catching Ed’s amused glance.
Rudi shook himself out of one of his frequent fits of abstraction. ‘What? Me? Oh … stuff.’
Henry gritted his teeth. ‘Stuff like what? Travel?’
‘No. I’ll be at home. The family will be there, my grandparents are up from London.’
Rudi seemed for once to have dropped his guard. ‘My mother’s father. He pays my school fees. I expect he wants some evidence that he’s getting his money’s worth after the Eton fiasco.’
‘Would that be the Duke of Munster?’
Rudi’s brow clouded. ‘Yes, I do believe that information is freely available in Debrett’s. Are you stalking me, Outfield?’
Rudi was picked up by his mother, Lady Burlesdon, a thin woman who would look very much at home on the cover of Country Life, if indeed she had not been there already.
‘Mother, these are my friends, Henry Atwood and Edward Cornish.’ Henry resisted the impulse to curtsey to the countess. She smiled and was very pleasant as they shook hands.
‘Hello boys. It’s a relief to find that Rudi has made friends here … not something he managed in his last school after three years. But this place has a very good pastoral reputation, and it was encouraging to find that I have only received two letters complaining about Rudi this entire year so far. I have box files of them from his last school.’
Rudi’s pale face reddened. ‘Mother, I don’t think Ed and Outfield want to hear that.’
‘“Outfield”? Is that what they call you, Henry?’
Henry laughed. ‘Yes. I’m so poor a cricketer that I always get put as far away from the action as can be. Also there’s a sort of pun: “Outfield” and “Atwood”. It’s cleverer than most school nicknames.’ He didn’t mention that the nickname had become even more popular when Henry outed himself in Year 11.
After waving Rudi and his mother off in their latest-model Land Rover, they hauled Ed’s bags to the Trewern and Huntercombe minibus. It was almost a relief when they climbed down at Harper’s Lane. ‘That was one fuck of a half-term, little babe,’ sighed Ed as they staggered up the lane to the rectory. ‘It’s a miracle we’re over it in one piece. The rest of it had better be quieter for all our sakes.’