HENRY IN HIGH POLITICS
There was excitement in the block on the first day of term. A Rothenian Secret Service agent had been assigned a room in Temple House next to the king’s, while a police guard was permanently stationed on the main gate to deter paparazzi. The school had by then got its act together. The boys were firmly instructed in assembly that His Majesty the King of Rothenia was to be registered and addressed as ‘Rudolf Burlesdon’. He was to be treated in every way like any other sixth former.
‘Morning, Rudi,’ Henry greeted the king as they passed in the bottom corridor of New Building. Rudi was being stared at by an open-mouthed group of Year 7 boys lining up for a lesson.
‘Hey, Henry!’ returned the king. ‘How was summer?’
‘I worked in Camden.’
‘Then more exciting than mine … they put me on a special course of Rothenian constitutional history, with my own personal professor. My God was he a bore. I only managed a week away with mother at the castle of Zenda. The weather was so dreadful we spent most of our time playing bridge with the security guards. Can you imagine how tedious that was?’
‘I can only guess.’
‘I would have thought you’d seen him, being Temple and all.’
‘He seems to be avoiding me.’
‘No. It’s the past he’s avoiding.’
‘Deep, Henry. What on earth do you mean?’
Henry described the last Rothenian days of David Skipper and the tragedy of Anton, while cautioning him that David was now firmly back in the closet. ‘So my best guess is that Davey was so angry at Fate, the poor kid, that he decided just to say “Stuff it. Stuff the lot of you.” Despair turns to anger, anger to blame, and he blamed all of us, particularly Terry, on whom fell the unfortunate duty of talking some sort of sense into him.’
‘Poor Terry. He didn’t deserve that. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with. I thought he liked Davey.’
‘I think he did. But he’s a grown man with big projects. He’s moved on, so far as he can after losing the love of his life. His big venture seems to be taking off. Justin jetted out to Boston as part of a team for his first contract last week, the lucky bunny. He’s been having small-arms lessons too. Why does everyone I know have interesting lives, apart from me?’
Rudi laughed. ‘Oh come on, Henry. Many people – even straight guys – might be happy to swap your happy little Trewern life for what you call excitement. You’re just looking over the fence at the grass you think is greener … but it’s only spray paint.’
‘Yes, Your Majesty.’
‘Watch it, Outfield. Now, why don’t we go on over to Temple and see if we can talk some sense into young Bounder. Also we can look at the UCAS pack together; I’d appreciate some advice.’
‘I thought it was settled that you had to go to Oxford because of family reasons.’
‘Yes, but I’ve got to make more choices than just Oxford to fill out the form. And what with one thing and another – governments falling, attempts on my life, planning my coronation, that sort of thing – I just haven’t been able to get round to it.’
So Henry and the king went across the field to the common room of Temple House and settled down to some serious reading. Rudi logged on to the Web and they began a careful searching through university sites. ‘Of course,’ reflected Rudi, ‘it was always inconceivable that I should go anywhere other than St John’s, where father went and grandfather and the whole Rassendyll lineage. I wonder if there ever was a chance I wouldn’t get in? Now I’m a king I suppose the question is even more rhetorical, but I have to go through the motions. What about you, Henry?’
‘Me? Ed’s keen on our going to Cambridge together.’
‘But you’re not, I take it?’
‘No … but don’t tell him that. I fancy something respectable and redbrick, not elitist or … it has to be said, expensive. My parents can’t give me much and it has to be reasonably cheap, because I’ll be doing university on support grants and loans. Ed comes from money, and although he no longer lives with his parents, Matt and Andy have made it pretty clear that cash will be no object in his higher education. They’ll pay for him to go wherever he wants.’
‘Lucky Ed. It sounds like you’ve got some interesting times ahead of you. Haven’t the forms got to be submitted in just six weeks?’
Henry looked unusually morose for him. ‘Yup … I don’t know what to do, Rudi.’
‘What grades have they predicted? You might get some sort of bursary.’
‘God was I stupid. I decided to do four A Levels and keep on with French. Fine, the school’s otherwise predicted AAA, but they’ve assessed me as a B in French, and that looks worse than if I’d just done the standard three. The hubris of Henry: my pride is going to be my downfall.’
The two boys kicked around possible insurance places for half an hour and examined university Web pages. But Henry had got nowhere by the time the door bumped open and he had his first encounter of the term with David Skipper. It was clear enough that David was over Henry. There was no interest at all in his eyes, and the body language was entirely indifferent. But he did give a tight smile, say hello and shake Henry’s hand, although he did not ask about the summer. He was determined to be polite and Henry was quite as polite back.
David’s greeting towards Rudi was considerably more friendly, and Rudi seemed genuinely pleased to see his former nemesis. They talked a bit, although no one made any reference to their Rothenian adventures.
Henry went off to lessons and then for a discreet snogging session with Ed in his carrel. They kept their ears cocked for passing friends.
Ed said he had already bumped into David, who was positively effusive in his direction. ‘Face it, babe, he hates Terry for scuppering his dream of young love in Strelzen. You he dislikes for being his first and unattainable love. He associates you and Terry both with the worst pain of all: heartache. He doesn’t want anything to do with either of you if he can avoid it. Terry he’ll probably never see again, but he has to see you on a daily basis. It’s never going to be comfortable for him till he grows up a bit.’
‘You can’t solve the world’s problems, little babe. Stop being such a martyr. It’ll sort itself out; it usually does.’
Henry grunted. He would never attain to Ed’s equanimity. His mind still kept throwing up suggestions to help people he cared for, and he cared very much for David Skipper.
At the end of the first week, Henry’s mobile chirped while he was in the common room. He didn’t recognise the identity. ‘Hello, it’s Henry,’ he announced.
‘Hi, Henry, it’s Alex Johnson. Remember me?’
‘Er … hi. Yeah. We met in London at Terry’s big launch.’
‘Good, you do. And you remember my occupation?’
‘Journalist, right? Look … how did you get my number?’
‘I explained my problem to Matt, and he gave me your contact details – reluctantly, I have to say.’
Henry was cross. ‘He had no business doing that.’
‘Easy, Henry. Wait till you hear me out. You’re friends with the king of Rothenia, right? Remember I was going out to Strelzen? When I was there, I was in touch with their Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They said they were going to allow one English, one French and one German interviewer access to the king this year, with a photo shoot. I got on a list they’re giving the king to select from.’
‘And this concerns me how?’
‘Jeez, you’re a tough little devil, aren’t you? Look, I’m not asking you to pull strings or anything, just give me a hint as to what might swing it for the Guardian. It’ll be quite a coup for my paper …’
‘… and you.’
‘Well yes, naturally. Come on, kid, Matt and Andy are old mates. They’ll tell you that I’m a straightforward and serious journalist, and I’ll do a good job. No axes to grind or anything. Give us a hint, Henry.’
Henry thought about it. ‘Okay. One thing that’ll get Rudi’s notice is if you include a Rothenian photographer in your tender. There’s a good one, very famous in his own country, Bolslaw Meric. The king knows him and likes his work. I’ve got his card somewhere. Hang on.’
Henry found Bolslaw’s details and passed them on to Alex, who was effusively grateful. Henry rang off, irritated.
In bed with Ed that Sunday before church, he rang Bolslaw in Strelzen. The old man was delighted to hear from him, and Henry teased him by describing precisely where he was and what he was doing. ‘You young boys, inexhaustible and shameless. You’ll be doing it for a living one of these days, naughty Hendrik.’
Henry laughed and asked him if he’d heard from England. ‘As it happens, I have been approached by your Guardian newspaper. They want to use me for a photo shoot with our king. Isn’t that fantastic? My fame seems to be spreading, and not before time. Any later and it will be posthumous. But … who told you?’
Henry explained that he had suggested Bolslaw to the Guardian’s foreign editor.
‘My word, I seem to have been entertaining quite an influential boy that wonderful day the king returned. Then I shall be seeing you soon, my pretty Hendrik! For I have received first-class British Airways tickets to Heathrow for next Friday. The shoot will be at your school on Saturday.’
‘Brilliant. I shall make sure I’m around for morning prep.’
‘School homework … I don’t know the Rothenian for it.’
‘I think I get the idea. Until then, my love.’
Ed was amused by the whole thing. ‘Henry the media broker. Do you think we’ll get to watch the interview?’
It took place in the school library, and lasted about an hour. The delight for Henry and Edward, although not David, was that Terry had driven Alex down from London. Alex and Terry were old friends, and apparently they had worked together in the past. Of itself, that news made Henry a bit happier about trusting the journalist. When the boys had given him a restrained welcome, Terry said he had driven Alex down because he had business of his own with the king.
Bolslaw set up in the library to take some formal shots after the interview. He was out of his usual ill-fitting tee-shirts and dressed in a blue safari suit, which for him was subdued. He smiled at Ed and Henry when he and his assistant carried his boxes past them, but he concentrated on the business at hand.
Alex grinned at Henry as he shook hands with Rudi after the interview, then departed to find a coffee, as he said.
‘Come on in, sweet boys,’ Bolslaw whispered hoarsely at Ed and Henry. ‘His Majesty said he’d like some company while I practise my dark arts.’
They sat on a table while Rudi had formal pictures of himself taken in an armchair, and at a window. Then Bolslaw wanted a less formal shot of the king studying with friends, so Ed and Henry posed cheerfully with him, spreading out Henry’s prep and the contents of an UCAS pack. After that Bolslaw went out into the grounds and took a number of informal shots of the king in New Quad and the chapel cloister walk.
When he had finished, Rudi, Bolslaw and the boys returned to the library and viewed the results. As Henry expected, they were phenomenally good. Bolslaw had used the light in the old library to brilliant effect. He had the knack of catching faces just slightly off guard when they were at their most revealing. Rudi’s determination and dignity, even in his eighteenth year, were deeply impressed on his handsome face.
‘Excellent, Mr Meric,’ enthused Rudi, ‘you have a great gift. I don’t think there is one picture here which I would be unhappy to see in print. This one I shall recommend to the Chancellor as a possible official portrait to put in Rothenian embassies around the world.’
The old man looked on the verge of tears, and he did the Rothenian thing of going down on his knee – slowly and awkwardly in his case – and kissing the king’s hand. He received a kind blessing, and the king helped him to his feet and gave him a Rothenian double kiss. Tears were running down the old man’s face as he packed up his cases. Terry came in at that point for his meeting with the king, while Henry and Ed walked Bolslaw to his car.
‘So goodbye, boys. I hope we’ll be seeing each other again.’
‘Sure, Bolslaw,’ Henry confirmed. ‘It’s Rudi’s coronation in exeat week … that’s a mid-term holiday we have. Rudi didn’t want to do it in term time. Missing school would have been a bad example to the youth of Rothenia, or something like that. We’ll surely look you up.’
Bolslaw hugged Henry hard before he got in. ‘What can I say, pretty boys. You’ve made me very happy, Henry. That was the greatest shoot of my career … and I include the porno shots from Falkefilm here.’ They laughed, and said they hoped to see him again in Strelzen. ‘Oh, and Henry, I have this for you.’ He handed Henry a parcel, kissed the boys and drove off with his assistant.
Henry unwrapped the gift. It was a book in Rothenian, whose title read: The New Art of Bolslaw Meric. Plate XV was marked, and when they turned to it, there in full-page black and white was one of the more solemn portraits of Ed and Henry the old man had taken earlier that year. It was entitled ‘Achilles and Patroclus’.
‘Wow!’ exclaimed Edward. ‘I’m an objet d’art …’
‘… with a Classical edge.’
They hung around the library until Rudi had finished his meeting with Terry. Alex was hanging round too, expecting to go take Terry to lunch. He said he would like it if the boys came along, and perhaps suggest somewhere reasonable.
Ed thought the Maltsters in Huntercombe was the best local pub restaurant. It was the other pub in the village – nicer than the King Billy but it would never serve underage kids.
Terry came out and shook the king’s hand. After Rudi took his leave, Terry told the boys to get their bags and join him in his car, the neat Jaguar. ‘Navigate me, Henry,’ he ordered.
It was an enjoyable meal. It was also frustrating, because Terry and Alex were in a mood to reminisce. Terry was a native of the small university city of Cranwell in north Wiltshire, and it was to Cranwell University that Alex had gone to study Politics before moving on to start his career with Reuters. Matt and Andy had been there too, as well as Katy and other people whose names the boys did not recognise. Finally the old friends remembered that Ed and Henry were there by the looks of boredom that had come over them.
Alex was conciliatory. ‘So … er, lads, I suppose you must be thinking about uni now too, yes?’
Ed replied, ‘We’re thinking about Cambridge together.’
‘Not the States then?’ Terry had taken his Dance and Theatre degree in a liberal-arts college in Virginia.
Henry sighed. ‘Cost is an issue in my case.’
‘Oh yeah … they’ve put the fees up everywhere, haven’t they,’ Alex sympathised. ‘I’m not sure I’d have bothered with uni at all if that had happened in my day.’
‘And Cambridge is not the cheapest, or the easiest to get into.’ Henry heaved another sigh.
‘But we’re gonna give it our best shot, aren’t we, Henry?’ soothed Edward. He turned to Terry. ‘So are you going to tell us why the king wanted to see you?’
Terry just laughed. ‘My business is confidential, Ed. Of course not. But you may find out in due course.’
Alex picked up the bill and Terry dropped the boys off at Trewern rectory.
Henry led the way to his room and dumped the application details on his desk. He sighed yet again. ‘Let’s sort this, Ed. If you think we must, I will put down Cambridge as my first choice, but I just don’t have your confidence that I’ll make it there.’
Ed reassured him. ‘You underestimate yourself, Henry. You’ll do well in the interview; you’ll walk it, no problems.’
‘If you say so. Still, I have to give serious thought to my insurance offers. It’s traditional to go for Exeter, Bristol and Durham in case of refusal by Cambridge, so Mr Patton says, but I don’t want to do that.’ Ed raised an eyebrow. ‘No, I’m going to do the sensible thing. There are good universities out there that are a lot cheaper. I’m gonna put down Canterbury, Cranwell and Gloucester, all well-known for History and Theology.’
‘I’ll put down Cranwell, ‘cos Matt and Andy went there and they both liked it, but other than that I’ll go with Mr Patton’s suggestions.’
‘And there’s the gay scene,’ mused Henry.
‘What, is Cranwell famous for it?’
‘The very opposite. It’s more or less non-existent there according to Terry, who ought to know, as he spent most of his late teens hanging round public toilets in the town. I don’t actually want to go where there’s a big gay student community. I’d go to Brighton for that. You get ghetto-ised. Don’t want that. So. We’re done then. I’ll boot up the box. Let’s fill in forms, Edward mine.’
Before the end of October, the application forms were done, the personal statements polished and the head of sixth form had stamped them with his approval. Henry pressed the button and sent his passport to the future winging on its electronic flight.
It was a good day that day. The school B team in hockey which Henry captained had its first, belated victory under his leadership, while Ed’s A team went down hard to a second-rate school – not that Henry was in any way into Schadenfreude. As they were coming off the field, a grinning figure in a very expensive suit and shades was waiting for them on the touchline.
‘Bloody hell!’ exclaimed Henry.
‘Nice legs … if a bit muddy,’ replied Justin.
‘What’re you doing here?’ Ed asked, more than a little taken aback. ‘Catching up on your non-existent schooling?’
‘Don’t be daft. Iss work innit.’
‘It is? You here to do the gardens?’
‘Security work, little Henry, security work. I’m here doin’ a preliminary inspection for me boss, Mr O’Brien … but you can call him Terry.’
‘How did you get here?’
‘Got me firm’s car now, haven’t I? Nice little Honda, iss fallen in love with Nathan’s Clio. They shag in the garage at Haddesley when they think we’re not looking, dirty little machines.’
‘So business is good?’
‘Business is fuckin’ fantastic, mate. I had a month on tour in Boston and New York as security to a British boyband. They were all fuckin’ gay too! Bet their fans’d never guess what they get up to in the dressing rooms. I had to make sure no one found out, and stop meself being shagged by them too. Anyway, Terry’s opened up a US office in Chicago, run by his mate Zeke Alonzo. I’m on their contract list so I could be back there in the new year. Just love the States. All this and nineteen too!’
The rest of the teams had streamed by their captains by then, eyeing Justin curiously as they passed. ‘What’s the business that brings you here?’ insisted Henry.
‘Iss the king. The local police have warned they haven’t got the manpower to seal the school, so iss been contracted out to O’Brien Associates – “We Keep You Out of the Papers” – thought that up meself. Good slogan, yeah?’
‘Actually not bad … so does this mean you’ll be coming down to Medwardine?’ asked Henry, bemused with the idea of Justin wandering round his school being outrageous, and rather hopeful that it might actually happen.
‘Nah … Terry said over his dead body when I suggested it, but he did tell me I could do the assessment, which is why I’m here. You wanna come up to see the king wiv me?’
‘We need to have a shower first.’
‘Ooh, can I come and soap your dicks?’
‘Yeah … okay,’ agreed Ed.
‘Of course not. We don’t even soap each other’s. We play it cool here at Medwardine.’
‘Boring. Which way is it to …’ Justin consulted a notebook filled with his surprisingly neat handwriting. ‘… Temple House?’
‘We’ll meet you in reception in twenty minutes and take you up there.’
‘Hey, your Kingship!’ Thus did Justin Peacher-White greet Rudolf VI of Rothenia.
‘Hey back, your Justyness.’ The king laughed, apparently delighted. He was in the common room with David Skipper, puzzling over their Business Studies coursework.
‘Can we talk, Rudi?’
Justin pulled out his notebook and pen. ‘Okay, the main fing as I see it is those fuckin’ paps – “Kill a Pap for Christmas” is a bumper sticker I bin working on for Terry. We can’t seal off the grounds here … not wiv so big a perimeter. The police is puttin’ a guy on the gate, which is good as far as it goes. What we really need now, though, is a guy in the house wiv yer, and that’ll cost.’
‘The bill goes to the Rothenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so don’t worry about it. How will this interfere with what my bodyguard does?’ Rudi nodded to the corridor where a shaven-headed Rothenian Secret Service agent sat, staring at Justin in disbelief.
‘Different jobs, Rudi. He’s there to take the bullet for you. Our guy will be there to stop different sorts of shots. And of course Terry has good sources in pap-land. He tends to know when the tabloids and celebs have put out a call for compromising pickies of people. You get all that expertise with the package.’
‘Seems okay to me, but bear in mind I don’t want to be followed about by a pack of minders, especially in school.’
‘It won’t work like that, Rudi. Our guy in the school will be minding the premises from the inside, not tagging you around so much, except when you leave and do functions. Oh, and Terry says to tell you the deal don’t include foreign travel, iss only domestic, and he’ll do a discount for you, since you’re a mate. Whaddya say?’
‘Done deal. I’ll e-mail the minister. But I have a veto on the guys Terry chooses, okay?’
‘Sure nuff, Rudi. Fancy a pint at the King Billy tonight? Ed and Henry are puttin’ me up at Trewern.’
There was no problem about accommodating Justin at the rectory. Mum had fallen for his gamin-like charm the previous year, and – like most middle-aged women – thought his humour, coarseness and rough edges were endearing. Henry had concluded that Justin filled a blind spot in the middle-aged-female psyche.
The bodyguard drove David and Rudi out to Trewern in his black SUV. There they picked up the other three to ferry them over to Huntercombe. Henry sat next to the man, chatting away in Rothenian. His name was Roman Felipic. He was normally on surveillance duty at the airport, so he was enjoying his foreign posting, especially as he was being paid extra. With no wife or family, he didn’t feel guilty about it, and he was on alternate shifts with his friend Alexei. They had lodgings on High Street in Medwardine.
Finding the Wednesday night quiet at the King Billy, they made the back snug their own, and got their pints – or in Henry’s case, a gin, Terry having converted him to spirits.
Rothenia was the main topic of conversation that night, as might be expected, and David finally opened up a little. Time had healed his hurt about Anton, making the subject of Strelzen no longer such a difficult one for him. Justin gleefully told once more his story of the seduction of Hendrik Wilemmin, leaving Rudi sitting there open-mouthed at his shameless audacity. He warmed to his topic, and his graphic accounts of the highly erotic orgies he had witnessed backstage in the States left nothing to the imagination.
When Henry dashed to the loo, he found the cubicle already occupied by David. ‘Fucking hurry up, Davey, I’ve got to jerk off bad.’
The door banged open, and David pulled him in. David had lost his clothes below the waist and he soon tugged Henry’s trousers down as well. He closed his hand over Henry’s dick, causing his friend to fountain very quickly. Then they switched places and Henry did the same for David.
David sat on Henry’s lap, wiggling warm buttocks on his still half-erect penis. As they broke apart, Henry kissed him, saying, ‘So we’ve decided to be gay again?’
‘Oh, shut up, Henry. I could never really be anything else with you around. By the way, thanks for doing that. Odd, but your hand job gave me some perspective again. Anton was crap at BJs. Just wanted me up his arse all the time. I could do better.’
‘Good,’ Henry kissed him again. ‘Come on. We’ll be missed, or worse still, miss another of Justy’s hot stories.’
Once back in the snug, he surreptitiously fondled David’s crotch under the table, trying to make him wriggle or giggle. It was an odd way to make it up, but somehow it worked. When they emerged from the pub at chucking-out time, Henry sensed that he and David Skipper were friends again, which made him happier than he had been for months.
Although Justin had downed a few, there was nothing wrong with his reactions as it transpired. Between the King Billy and its car park there was a row of clipped shrubs. While Rudi and the rest of the boys slid the door back and climbed into the SUV, Justin darted behind the row and hauled up a slim man by his hair. Justin gave him a sharp punch in the gut. When the man doubled over, Justin deftly took a black object from his hand, removed something which he pocketed, and then dropped the object, crushing it under his heel.
‘Evening, fucker,’ he pronounced amiably. ‘Why doan’ you interduce yerself proper next time?’
‘You’ll fucking pay for that,’ the man gasped.
‘Who’ll pay for it?’
‘You! You arsehole. Oh fuckin’ Christ … tell that bastard to get that thing outa my face!’
Roman the bodyguard had by then unholstered his pistol and was pointing it at the stalkerazzo’s nose.
‘Look,’ Justin explained in tones of ineffable reasonableness, ‘iss regrettable an’ all, but there you wuz hangin’ round bushes in the dark, pointin’ an unidentified object at a foreign head of state. Lucky we didn’t shoot you. Anyways, if yer gonna make a claim, I doan’ work for the king, so who you gonna invoice? So jess fuck off like a good pap, and go huntin’ Big Brother microstars. They ain’t so dangerous. Bye now.’ He pushed the man backwards into a flowerbed, and got everybody into the SUV.
‘That could have been nasty, Rudi.’ He held up the memory card of the expensive digital camera he had just crushed underfoot. ‘King of Rothenia caught drinking underage in an English pub. Wouldn’t have looked good. You really do need media protection.’
Rudi looked a little stunned. ‘I see what you mean. You’ve sold it to me.’
‘Justy,’ whispered Henry suspiciously a little later on, ‘you didn’t plant that guy in the bushes, did you?’
Justin laughed. ‘Henry! What a high opinion you have of me!’