HENRY IN HIGH POLITICS
Try as he might, Henry found it very difficult to acclimatise back to school when it resumed after the Easter break. First there was the celebrity. It was known that the three of them had been with Rudi in Strelzen and seen him become Medwardine’s most celebrated pupil overnight. Of course, they couldn’t do more than talk of the state ceremonial and the popular reaction to Rudi’s appearance in the country. The more exciting stuff had to be buried.
Henry got most of the attention, as David had come back sulky and moody. Even his tennis mates got fed up with him. It was not till the school tennis team beat the crap out of Harrow that David became anywhere near tolerable as a companion. Ed was off to the nets and on to the cricket field as soon as he was back, making him more or less inaccessible, even to Henry, who declared this was his major complaint against Trinity term.
So Henry became the only reliable source of information about King Rudolf of Rothenia, who was, it seemed, going to be the school’s most famous inhabitant when he reappeared, which would not be until the first exam week. Even the Head got Henry into his study and quite shamelessly pumped him about what was going on in Rothenia. ‘It seems you were right about the boy all along, Atwood. He’s certainly been good for next year’s recruitment. Parental enquiries are up by 250%. If we admitted girls it would be 2000%. I heard from the countess his mother that he shall undoubtedly be returning … apparently he likes us.’
‘He does, sir. He intends finishing his A Levels here and going on to Oxford.’
‘Should I make him a prefect, I wonder?’
‘He might think you’re sucking up, sir. And he does have a bit of a short fuse.’
The Head laughed. ‘Well, perhaps not. Cornish tells me you’re fluent in Rothenian.’
‘Cornish exaggerates where I’m concerned, sir.’
‘Have you thought of a career in the Foreign Office when you leave university, Atwood?’
‘Er … no. No I hadn’t, sir.
‘You should do. You seem to take kings and revolutions in your stride, and you have a facility with languages. Think about it.’
Henry promised he would.
It was at the end of May that normality resumed when the A2 courses commenced. There was also a new challenge that took Ed and Henry by surprise, although it shouldn’t have. The lower sixth was herded into the lecture hall, where the head of sixth began to explain the process of university application. They were taken through the procedures used by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, and the online form-filling. So far as selecting a university was concerned, however, they were told to get on with it. For most of the boys the choice was limited: Oxbridge, St Andrews, Bristol or Durham.
‘We could go for Cambridge, babe,’ suggested Ed.
Henry was less keen. ‘I’d be surprised if you didn’t get a place, but I’m not so confident. Do we want to go to the same uni?’ As he said it he glanced up at Ed through his dark lashes. He was not surprised to see a look of shock at the idea of separating come over his lover’s face.
Ed gathered himself. ‘It’s together for me, babe, or not at all. That’s why Cambridge or Oxford would be best. We could be in the same town but in different colleges, and with plenty of social space around us.’
‘Yes, Ed, I see that, but what if you got in and I ended up somewhere else, like, I dunno … Cardiff or Wolverhampton. It’s not an unlikely scenario. I’m not as academic as you.’
The boys also had to register course preferences in advance. Ed had already decided on History, but Henry was torn as to whether he would loyally carry on with his best A Level, Religious Studies. Ed advised against it. ‘Theology in university is not RS, little babe. And remember last year, how you were a totally brilliant researcher when we were dealing with the case of Jed and Nathaniel. Dr Mac said you were a natural.’ Eventually Henry compromised on joint History and Theology, although Ed insisted he was making a mistake.
David, as it turned out, was keen on St Andrews. When they talked about it, Rudi said he had a hereditary obligation to go to St John’s, Oxford, academic home of the Rassendylls since the eighteenth century.
The first fortnight back, Henry tried to get David into some approximation of his former cheeriness. Unfortunately, David was having none of it. In the end, Henry gave up, unwilling to tolerate the rudeness. Indeed, if it got much worse, he rather feared Ed would step in and teach David a forcible lesson in manners. Henry hated to admit defeat, but talking to David just seemed to make things worse. So he doggedly pursued his A Level studies (he decided to keep up his French and take the risk of doing four subjects at A2) and just contented himself with being friendly to David when they ran into each other.
That stopped too, however. David came back from Rothenia apparently heterosexual, or so you might assume from his joining in with the straight porn and the leching after females which were part of the sixth form subculture. Henry could take no more. He started avoiding David Skipper.
So June passed into July and Trinity term wound up. Henry emptied the contents of his locker into a bag and prepared to vacate the premises. It was always intriguing what he found when he did that: letters from the school which he should have delivered to his parents; an essay he would have sworn he had handed in; a bar of chocolate he had forgotten and which defied even his sweet tooth in its present state. At the back he found the picture of Ed, David and himself that Bolslaw had taken in his studio the day Rudi had ridden on to the Rodolferplaz. Somehow it made him feel depressed. The three boys laughing at him out of the picture seemed strangers.
Ed came home in the school minibus with Henry that last afternoon. They got off at Huntercombe with Mark Peters, rather than going the whole way to Trewern. They were planning to have a few post-school drinks at the village pub, the King Billy.
Henry’s big brother Ricky was already there, sitting at the bar and gazing with rapt attention at Helen, Mark’s sister, who worked there as a barmaid during holidays. ‘Mine’s a lager, Henry.’ He didn’t shift his gaze from Helen as he said it.
‘Okay, Ricky, but why am I paying?’
‘It’s getting expensive spending the day here with Helen. Ted gets grumpy if I don’t buy a drink.’
‘How do you work out that I can afford it?’
‘You have precisely £156.00 in your post-office account, which is exactly £156.00 more than is in my account – leaving out the overdraft of course.’
‘And you know this how?’
‘I looked in your account book.’
‘That’s private, that is.’
‘Yeah, ‘spose it is.’
Henry fetched the drinks and gave his brother the pint, accompanied by a polite suggestion that he should get a job. Then he went over to the window seat in the snug with Mark and Ed. As he put the drinks down, Mark was saying that David Skipper had become a real pain in the arse the last few weeks of term.
‘What happened to him in Rothenia? He came back all moody and withdrawn, and … you ain’t gonna like this, you two … he was quite nasty about you behind your backs. Saying stuff about you – not exactly homophobic, but sneering like. Course, there’s always a few morons who’ll laugh at crap like that, especially in this year’s lower sixth, who’re a right bunch. So what d’you know?’
Henry looked at Ed, and all he could do was shrug. There was no way they would out David, especially as now he seemed to have decided that his gay interlude was an episode he wanted to forget.
‘What are you doing this summer, Marky?’ Ed asked.
‘Dad wants to take me golfing in Bermuda for a fortnight, while mum and the girls – except Helen of course – want to go to Florida. I know it sounds boring but I’m keen to try out golf. What about you guys?’
‘I’ll be staying in Shropshire, I think,’ grumbled Henry. ‘In the end Dad couldn’t get another exchange; he left it too late. But I may get up to London for a week with Ed, and Ed’ll be down here for another week. So it’ll be just about tolerable. I’d get a job, but there’s nothing out here in the sticks other than the bacon factory at Wallerstone, where you’ve got to be eighteen and tired of life to work there.’
Ed added, ‘My foster dads haven’t told me what’s up, if anything. They usually travel a bit in Europe, and if they do I may go along with them. Or I may be packed off to some mates near Ipswich, or maybe go up to Edinburgh to see my gran. It’s very much up in the air, is this summer.’
It began as a very tedious vacation for Henry. His mother and father were working, so sometimes he might go a whole day without speaking to anyone between breakfast and dinner. He began to worry that he was losing the power of speech.
From e-mail and text he found that Ed wasn’t in a much better state. Matt was working and Andy was involved with a youth project in Peterborough, leaving Ed reduced to playing cards with the housekeeper some days. He had no friends in London to hang around with. By the second week, however, things improved for him when, observing his boredom, Matt found him a temporary job in his firm in Camden. Mostly it was just photocopying and stapling, as Ed told Henry, but at least he got to talk to people.
Halfway through the second week, Matt White called Henry's dad and said that, according to what he was hearing from Ed, Henry was in terminal boredom, which he’d be happy to alleviate by offering him employment similar to Ed’s. Accepting with alacrity, Henry took the train up to London the very next day, expecting to stay the best part of a month.
He reached Highgate just as Ed was returning from work that Wednesday. There was a joyous and sweaty reunion almost immediately, followed by dinner with Matt and Andy, and then a further reunion involving a bath and a lot of splashed water. Henry got the best night’s sleep he’d had for weeks, wrapped in his Ed’s arms and legs.
After that things moved along nicely. At the end of the second week, Henry looked in awe at the brown envelope of his first pay packet. The contents weren’t much, but he tucked the slip away to put in his box of life souvenirs, which included copies of the pictures that Bolslaw had taken in Strelzen, and the admissions wristband for his first clubbing experience in Liberation.
The boys used some of the cash to buy tickets for Ipswich and spent a weekend with Justin and Nathan. Justin was very different in the garden centre. Dressed smartly in green sweatshirt and trousers, he was cheerful, polite and knowledgeable with the customers, of whom there were quite a lot.
Nathan showed them round. ‘We’re close enough to Ipswich to draw in the suburban clientele, and of course we get the passing trade from visitors to Haddesley Hall. So we’ve had to expand the staff.’ There were in fact three sixth-formers working the tills and shelves under his tight supervision. ‘They’re easier to manage than Justin,’ he commented with a smile.
Henry and Edward did some local sightseeing, but were happy just to spend the evenings in the cottage. Uncle Phil had modernised it for Nathan, who kept it neat with very little help from Justin, although he said he didn’t mind.
The stay at the cottage was somewhat erotic, in that their time together in Amsterdam had dismantled barriers between the two couples. They lay together in the little front room the Friday night. Justin quickly lost his shorts as Nathan played with him. After that, it didn’t take long for Ed to remove any obstacles to wanking off Henry. Soon the pair were cuddled naked together, as were the Nathan and Justin. Neither couple became more active in their joint sex than foreplay, but the later climaxes in bed were all the more enjoyable for what they had done it in front of each other.
‘What a pair of pervs, eh?’ smirked Ed.
‘Maybe, but sexually gratified pervs.’ Henry sniggered. ‘That Justin’s an animal when it comes to sex. Totally up for it and completely shameless.’
‘Hmm … watch out, Henry. It’d be both me and Nathan tanning your hide if you tried it on with Justin … and don’t deny he attracts you. I can see it on your eyes, you randy little Henry.’
‘No, no … I wouldn’t do anything like that, but he is so totally hot when he’s with Nathan. I’d never imagined someone could lose themselves so completely in sex.’
Ed gave him what could only be described as an old fashioned look, which made Henry a little apprehensive.
On the Saturday afternoon there was a surprise and very welcome visitor when Terry turned up in an impressive Jaguar. Henry whooped and leapt into his arms, while Terry laughed delightedly; he hadn’t realised that Henry and Edward would be there. He refused to sleep on the couch at the cottage, though, instead putting up at a local pub. He had been at the cottage on several weekends, Justin later said, and it seemed to do him good.
Terry had told them he wanted to see them all that evening. As they sat together in the pub’s lounge, he talked Henry into joining him in a gin and tonic, despite the scoffing of the other boys.
‘Mmm,’ approved Henry, ‘I thought it was a rule that alcohol had to taste awful. I’ll have a pint of gin and tonic next please, Ed.’
Terry asked after David, then frowned at the news from Medwardine. ‘The silly boy’s gone and lost the plot. He wouldn’t be the first, I suppose.’
‘How’s the business doing?’ asked Ed
‘I haven’t started it officially, but the launch event’s in a fortnight. You can all make it, I hope?’
‘Justy’s got to be there, so I shall,’ said Nathan.
‘Seeing as it’s our last weekend in London, we’ll be there too,’ confirmed Henry.
‘Good,’ I’ve hired the hall of the Quiverers’ Company, off Cheapside. I thought I might as well push the boat out, now I’m pushing me boat out. There’s a fair take-up of invitations by former clients, especially from the Roedenbeck Corporation and PeacherCorp.’
‘What sort of work are you looking for, Terry?’
Terry grinned. ‘You can bet very little of it will be as exciting as what we did in April. Mostly it’ll be corporate security consultancy. I’m well known in the circles of personal security and dealing wiv the paps, however, so there’ll be a fair bit of minding for the rich and famous. They can be prima donnas, thass for sure, but I don’t mind the fuss, being a pretty easy-going kind of guy. Now Ramon …’ Terry went unfocussed for a space and, when he came back, it was with a sad little smile. ‘It don’t get easier, babes, it really don’t.’
Henry, who was sitting next to him, reached out and squeezed Terry’s hand. Terry pulled him over and kissed the top of his head. ‘Pity you’re spoken for, little Henry, or I know what I’d be doing.’
Ed smiled. ‘You’re welcome to borrow him for a bit, providing you promise to return him in the same condition you took him in.’
‘No,’ replied Terry, ‘you two were meant for each other. Bless the pair of you, you don’t half cheer me up, you kids. All full of life and beans.’
Quiverers’ Hall in the City of London is a fine Classical building, still on the same site as the first hall, built in 1334. For Terry’s launch event, the garden at the back was hung with hundreds of lights, and the buffet tables were laid out on the master’s terrace. It was a very fine August evening, the city traffic muted in the shelter of the enclosed garden. A giant screen set against the medieval brick perimeter wall that had survived the Great Fire was playing a very professionally produced promo video for O’Brien Associates. Guests were arriving, and the four lads were already investigating the free bar.
They were in evening dress. Henry had still been able to fit comfortably into the outfit Matt had got tailored for him for Justin’s eighteenth the previous October. It had been hanging ever since in Ed’s wardrobe at Highgate. ‘Just an orange juice for me,’ decided Henry moderately.
‘Champagne for me, mate,’ Justin ordered, ‘and make that a double … nah, juss kidding.’ He was looking very pleased with the turnout. A dozen City chief executives and corporate chairmen were already there, with a dozen more promising to come. The catering, on the grand scale, would have done credit to the imperial palaces of ancient Rome. If there were no larks’-tongue pasties amongst the pyramids and towers of food, it could only have been an oversight.
More guests surged through the door. Henry homed in on Matt’s cousin, Katy Amphlett, who had come across by taxi from the High Court, where she was currently defending in a major criminal trial. She was still twirling her wig absentmindedly. ‘Hello, Henry, dear.’ They had met at Matt’s New Year’s party, where she had made a sympathetic link with Henry. She gave him a little kiss and grabbed his arm. They were much of a height.
‘So did he do it?’ Henry asked curiously.
‘That’s fantastic. Congratulations, Katy! You’ll make another mismatched couple in the height department, just like me and Ed.’
Katy laughed. ‘The wedding’ll be next December. Want to be a bridesmaid?’
‘Now, now. Does Matt know?’
‘I told him just after his brother popped the question. I’m going to be his sister-in-law.’
‘Carl is one hell of a hunk. You have all of my envy. Shame he’s not gay like his brother, or I’d be fighting you for him.’
‘You’d lose, Henry. I fight dirty.’
‘How are you two ever going to meet up? He’s always in swimming pools here and abroad, and you’re always in the High Court or the Old Bailey or somewhere.’
‘We’ll be imaginative. You and Edward manage it, despite the difficulties.’
‘But we’re never going to have babies!’
‘People cope … now there’s a face I’ve not seen for a while.’ Katy stopped at the sight of a stocky and cheerful twenty-something coming down the garden steps. ‘Alex Johnson … you’ve put some weight on you.’ They kissed, and Alex shook hands with Henry, whom Katy introduced as one of Matt’s young protégés. ‘Alex was at uni with me, Matt and Andy. He’s Washington editor of Reuters.’
‘Was … Katy. I’m coming back to the UK as foreign affairs editor of the Guardian … and that was an unkind cut about my weight.’
‘You’re half again the man you were.’
‘It’s Benny’s cooking … I take it you’re gay, Henry, or you wouldn’t be one of Matthew’s ducklings. Well, Benny and I are a couple. Ben’s in publishing.’
‘Is he coming back too?’
‘Depends. He’s already got transferred once to keep us together. I doubt his bosses will be sympathetic if we do this every two or three years. So I may lose weight as a result. Tell me, Henry, how did you come to be part of the Peacher ménage? Are you a friend of that odd Peacher-White lad?’
‘I am, as it happens. I first met Justin in Strelzen on holiday, but my boyfriend Ed – that’s him over there – was fostered into Matt and Andy’s house when his parents broke up.’
‘You know Strelzen, then? I’m off for Rothenia at the end of the week to coordinate a feature on Europe’s latest restored monarchy … with an English-born king, what’s more. When were you last there?’
‘What, at the time of the election?’
‘Did you see the king at all?’
‘I went there with him. He’s in my sixth form.’
Katy was by then having near hysterics as Alex grappled with far more revelations than he could easily cope with.
He took a deep breath. ‘Does the entire world revolve around you now, Henry?’
Henry nodded. ‘Pretty much.’
‘Seems like I can forget about the trip to Rothenia. I might as well stay here and interview you.’
‘Nope. I don’t trust the press, and Rudi’s a big mate, so I wouldn’t reveal anything he hadn’t cleared me to tell you.’
‘The reputation of the press, and what it’s done to the free interchange of information.’ Alex gave what seemed to be a genuine sigh. ‘Okay, you can at least tell me if he’s coming back to the UK to carry on his education.’
‘Yes he is … but that’s already in the public domain.’
‘Fantastic. I’m gonna get me a drink.’ He ambled off, and Katy hugged Henry’s arm.
‘Nicely done, Henry. Alex is a friend, but I’d never trust him either when he had his reporter’s hat on. You did very well there. Look! It’s the main event.’
The chief executive of the Roedenbeck Corporation, a friend of Terry’s, tapped a glass, causing the large crowd of City people and journalists to pause in their gabbling. He introduced himself and Terry, told a few funny stories involving embezzlements that Terry had foiled, and announced he was awarding O’Brien Associates its first major contract. Following the applause, Terry gave his marketing spiel and introduced his management team. Then it was back to the drinks and food. The whole thing wrapped up around nine.
Justin and Nathan had hoped to carry on in the City pubs, but being Saturday everything was closed. Instead, they got a cab to Soho, and found a heaving gay bar that Justin knew in Rupert Street. Although they were crushed into a corner, Nathan and Ed shouldered their way to the counter and got drinks.
Henry cast an eye around. It was not like Club Liberation: much more grungy and – he thought – oppressive and suspicious. There was none of Rothenia’s relaxed good humour. This was all tense and metropolitan, and the boys’ evening dress was attracting attention. Henry wanted to go home, but Justin would have his fun, and was not to be denied.
It was way past midnight before they spilled on to the street. The first thing they saw was a man being publicly screwed by another man against a wall, their trousers round their knees, with passers-by staring. It made Justin’s night; it merely made Henry feel ill. He would have been glad to get on the train the next morning had he not been leaving Ed behind.