HENRY IN HIGH POLITICS
Rudi and his Secret Service bodyguards disappeared from school in a black SUV immediately following the end of the last period on Friday. Edward and Henry waved him off. Their own transport would arrive on Saturday, the first day of exeat.
David came up behind them. ‘So, there goes the king. It was nice of him to put us on the guest list. The rest of the sixth is dead envious. They wish now they’d been as nice to him as we were when he first came here.’
Edward laughed and hugged David round the shoulder. ‘You’ve got a nerve, Bounder boy! You’re lucky Rudi’s the forgiving sort.’
‘How’re you getting to Strelzen, Davey?’
‘My ‘rents are coming for the ride. We’re all taking the plane from Heathrow. They’re really impressed. They’ve even forgiven me for the lies about my supposed stay at the rectory at Easter. My sisters have sworn eternal hatred against me – unless, that is, I introduce them to the hunkiest young monarch in the world.’
‘You gonna look up Anton?’
David shot him a hard look to inform him that he had crossed a line. ‘Sorry,’ Henry mumbled.
David relaxed a little and changed the subject. Clothes were on his mind, as they not infrequently were. Henry had begun to notice that David was something else out of uniform. His sense of style was innate; he dressed with imagination and not at all tribally. There was nothing of other boys’ lazy reliance on dominant Indie, Emo or Heavy Metal kit. Even his tee-shirts were exceptionally well-selected. David had spotted a marked-down suit from an on-line house. Together with a loose silk tie, he thought it would make him look like something from a Milan catwalk.
‘You should talk to Matt White while we’re in Rothenia, Davey. He’s just like you when it comes to clothes; he’s got effortless style.’
‘Wow … like, that god would talk to a lowly fashion acolyte like me?’
‘He is very like you, Davey. There should be opportunities for you two to get acquainted. He and Andy aren’t what you’d expect.’
‘I’d guessed. Ed thinks they’re awesome.’
‘They’ve been unbelievably good to him and me both, that’s a fact.’
A tailback of limousines was drawing up along the south side of the cathedral and disgorging all sorts of elegantly dressed people, some wearing decorations and orders. When their turn came, Matt and Andy led Ed and Henry through the south transept door past a line of cavalrymen with drawn swords. The former mounted section of the Presidential Guard had been reconstituted as the revived Royal Rothenian Lifeguard, and their new uniforms were beautiful creations in white and gold, with silver crested helmets.
The four slid into seats next to Will Vincent, who was already eagerly scanning the programme for the musical content. They had good seats, just behind the ambassadors and EU commissioners.
Rothenia had decided the consecration and coronation of King Rudolf VI would be a fitting occasion to celebrate its rebirth as a nation. More planning had gone into it than for a World Cup, and the excitement had risen exponentially since the Crown of Tassilo and other national relics had been placed on public display in the Radhaus of the Neuvemesten. The enormous queues across the Radhausplaz recalled the pilgrimage devotions of the middle ages. A number of church congregations had indeed processed to the Radhaus behind their banners and crosses.
For Henry, it was totally fascinating to sit there soaking in the atmosphere of a great state occasion in a venerable and historic church. Across from them in the north transept he could see the faces of the European royals, prime ministers and presidents who had flown in. He briefly caught the eye of his own queen’s representative, the Prince of Wales, whose well-known face was in the front row opposite, along with what his programme told him were the kings and queens of Spain and Sweden and the crown princes of Denmark and Sweden. Elphberg relations from the houses of Thuringia, Bourbon-Sicily, and Bavaria were in the row behind, along with several Hapsburg-Lorraines.
There facing them sat himself, little Henry Atwood from Trewern. He beamed with delight at the incongruity of it all. Noticing the TV cameras set up in the triforium, he resisted the temptation to wave and shout, ‘Hi, mum!’ He knew she and dad would be watching the televised broadcast from Rothenia.
A fanfare ripped through the murmuring in the church. First came a great procession of ecclesiastical dignitaries, followed by the princes of Rothenia and Rudi’s family: his grandmother, the princess of Kesarstejne-Vinodol, leading them all. She was walking with a stick on the arm of Rudi’s grandfather, the Duke of Munster and La Coruña, but was upright and proud on that day which saw all her hopes for the Elphberg dynasty fulfilled.
Rudi himself came last, flanked by the Gentlemen of the Household in elaborate uniforms of the nineteenth century, bearing their silver halberds. Rudi’s train was carried by ten pages in Elphberg green and silver.
A great anthem welled up from the choir, and the service was under way. It was Count Oskar von Tarlenheim zu Modenehem who had the honour of bearing the Crown of Tassilo to the archbishop for the moment of coronation.
‘Would have been better if we could have had a big tub of popcorn – the sweet stuff, not the salty – like in the multiplex in Ipswich,’ was the only complaint that Justin later had to make. ‘Was impressive, and Rudi did a good job. Looked cool in that white uniform and that long robe-type thing. Did well not to trip over it. Liked his chair too.’ He smirked when Henry told him he loved him.
Following the mass, in which Terry and Justin, both Catholics, communicated, they picked up their cars again and this time headed down to the royal palace, up the Rodolferplaz and through the gates. Justin and Henry waved enthusiastically at the crowds waving at them. Justin began blowing kisses, until Terry gave him a stern look.
‘Wass happening now, Uncle Terry?’ Justin asked.
‘Buffet in the palace, I’m told, and the first royal levée in nearly a century.’
‘Wass a levy when iss at home?’
‘You stand around and make inane conversation with inane people and get your picky taken with His Majesty.’
‘Aw right. Iss not fun, then?’
But in fact it was great fun. Henry found himself talking to a boy his own age, foreign but with perfect English. They soon found they had common ground – an interest in strategy games – and swopped tactical hints about several of Henry’s favourite titles. The foreign lad, Henry and Ed each copped a glass of fruit wine from a footman and had a good laugh in the corner.
A while later Fritzy came over to join them. ‘Getting on okay with Gustav, are you?’
‘You bet,’ replied Henry. ‘He’s a real mate, even if he is the Crown Prince of Sweden.’
Rudi had changed into a morning suit and was circulating very regally, accompanied by Mr Pokolosky, the domestic comptroller, and Oskar. After about three quarters of an hour, a trumpeter gave a brief fanfare, and palace servants brought in an unsheathed sword and a kneeler. They placed the kneeler on the lowest step of the dais. Grasping the sword, the king ascended his throne.
‘Royal brothers and sisters, my cousins the peers of Rothenia, my lords, ladies and gentlemen,’ he began. ‘One of the pleasanter duties of monarchy is the reward of those who have done great service to the nation. I hope this assembly will bear with me as I do just that, because there are several people in this room worthy of high honour. When your names are called out, please go to the chamberlain, and he will instruct you as to what to do.’
The former president, Mr Maritz, was called out and smiled as he was cited for his great services to Rothenia in the post-Communist period. Kneeling, he received the grand cordon of the Order of the Rose and was awarded also the title of baron. There was a round of applause, after which several of his former cabinet received lesser honours.
Then a loud voice spoke out: ‘Mr Willem Vincent.’ Will looked very grave as he went up to receive the grand cordon of the Order of the Rose, and came back beaming, resplendent in red sash, star and gold chain. Suddenly ‘Mr Terence O’Brien’ was called, and a stunned Terry was pushed forward by a shove from Will. He knelt to receive the Order of the Rose, and the accolade of knighthood. He came back with ribbon and star, moving as if he were in a dream.
Several generals and officers received decorations, including Major Antonin, but just when Henry thought it was all over, the voice came again: ‘Mr Henry Atwood.’ His knees went wobbly when he saw a lane open in front of him. He knelt before a grinning Rudi to have the ribbon and medal of the sovereign’s personal Order of Henry the Lion, second class, placed round his neck. ‘Gotcha, you little queer,’ the king whispered to him as he rose. ‘Bastard,’ Henry whispered back. Ed, David, Justin and Nathan got the same award each in turn.
‘My,’ commented Edward as they stared at each other, ‘don’t we all look distinguished.’
‘So, amuse me,’ said the ironic don opposite Henry.
‘Eh?’ Henry replied. He was intimidated. He had spent a lousy night in cruddy student accommodation at St Mark’s College. There had been a sherry reception for candidates in the master’s lodge: ten nervous sixth formers standing around making brittle conversation with the admissions tutor and some of the fellows. Henry had been unable to relate to the group of his peers, who had all been state-school kids. Although Henry had been one of them till he was fifteen, they were plainly intimidated by his name badge with a famous public school on it. And he could not stand sherry, he had decided.
Henry shifted in his seat. He did not like the man opposite him. ‘I’m afraid I don’t have a stand-up routine.’ This was not the way his sixth-form tutor had said it would go, with the interviewer supposedly creating a relaxed, chatty environment in which Henry could showcase his enthusiasms.
The don’s face shifted from ironic to sardonic. ‘In that case, tell me about your A Level coursework.’
So Henry launched into a description of his personal project – the symbolism of death in East Shropshire graveyards. He went into detail about his methodology, which, his history teacher had told him, would be what they wanted to know about.
‘Hmm. Pleasantly parochial little study,’ was the patronising response. ‘Of course you’ve read Llewellyn and Ariès?’
‘Er … who?’
‘They would have given you the broader context that your empirical study seems to need. Ah well. Can’t expect too much. Medwardine your school, is it?’
Henry hated this guy. ‘Yes,’ he confirmed.
‘Bloch still the head of history there?’
‘Mr Bloch is my teacher, yes.’
‘You seem to show all the features of his teaching.’
Henry fumed … how much more obnoxious could this man get? This was deliberate intimidation, which he had been assured should not happen in Cambridge interviews. He shut down. Saying something might be worse than silence. He gave short answers to questions between long pauses. The don took up none of the issues he had carefully advertised in his personal statement. He left without shaking a hand that was not in any case offered.
On Cambridge Station that afternoon he found himself waiting next to a girl who had also been at St Mark’s. He found her easy to chat with outside the artificial interview environment. She had been in front of the same don as Henry. ‘What a love,’ she enthused. ‘He fell over backwards to be pleasant and helpful. I was surprised he didn’t offer me a sweet.’
Henry was gobsmacked, until it hit him: St Mark’s College had previously got into trouble for failing to recruit any state-school pupils for the tenth consecutive year. This time around, Henry concluded, it was going to be different. His rejection letter arrived promptly at Trewern rectory a week later. No Cambridge for him. Ed, who had received an offer from Trinity, was devastated. All Henry’s other options offered him places without interview.
Henry and Ed debated the consequences at his home that weekend. ‘I said it might happen,’ Henry reflected, ‘but you wouldn’t talk about a Plan B in case it did. I suppose you got an offer from Cranwell too?’
‘Er … yeah. I did.’
‘Spit it out Ed. I know what’s going to happen. You’re going to take Cambridge as firm offer and Cranwell as your insurance, aren’t you?’
‘I’ve always wanted to go to one of the big three, Henry.’
‘And so you must, Ed … no, I mean it. I’d be stupid and selfish if I tried to talk you out of it. But it’ll be different universities for us.’
‘You could take a year out, Henry, and go for Cambridge again next year.’
‘That’s advice for the desperate, and I at least would like to graduate in the same year as you, Ed. Ours is destined to be a long-distance university romance, I’m afraid.’ Henry’s light words disguised a deep unease at the developing situation.
Ed smiled regretfully. ‘Are you going down to the open day at Cranwell?’
‘Oh sure, Davey’s coming, you coming too?’
‘Absolutely, and I’ve got us a lift.’
‘How did you manage that?’
‘Terry will be here on Friday to see Rudi about the contract, and he’ll drive us down to Cranwell. His parents will put us all up and we can do the open day thoroughly.’
‘Uhh … Terry and Davey, good combination.’
‘Oh, he must be over it by now.’
David was by no means over his resentment. The sight of Terry’s elfin, smiling face brought back all the humiliation of his naïve and reckless Strelzen romance. He went quiet, and would hardly say a word.
But Terry was a grown-up and talked amusingly and happily most of the way down the M6 and up the M4 to Cranwell. They chatted about Rothenia, about Justin – as mad as ever, Terry said – and about Cranwell, a place Terry still had a great affection for. They heard his teen cruising stories again, and remembered to laugh in all the right places. Of course he had not gone to Cranwell University, so he could not tell them too much about the academic atmosphere, to which he was an outsider. But Andy and Matt certainly could, and Terry urged Henry to take the next opportunity he had to buttonhole them on the subject.
Cranwell was an average little city: ring road, perimeter multiplex and regional mall, Victorian housing stock, and all the main High Street outlets. It gave off a sort of familiar friendliness that appealed to Henry, to whom it was of course a big city.
Terry drove straight to his parents’ place. ‘Now this, my lads, is the famous Finkle Road,’ he announced as they turned on to a long street lined with late-Victorian terraced houses.
‘Wass famous about it?’ asked a jaundiced David, who had been quietly negative about Cranwell since they arrived there.
‘It’s the student area. This is where Matt and Andy, Will Vincent, and Alex Johnson all lived in their day. Puke Alley, the locals call it … iss carpeted with sick in freshers’ week. Something to look forward to, eh?’
‘What, vomiting your guts up and sliding round in it?’
‘Iss what students do, innit?’ Terry turned off Finkle Road and into a modern cul-de-sac with large executive-style houses. He pulled up in the drive of one. A small, well-dressed lady came out as they were unloading, and you could see where Terry had got his looks from. Terry picked up his mother and hugged her.
‘You’re not taking care of yourself,’ she complained after studying her son critically. ‘You’ve lost weight, and the bags under your eyes … ! You look years older.’
‘Good to see you too, mum,’ Terry said, shaking his head. ‘These are my young friends Edward, Henry and David. They’ve come down from Medwardine for a university open day. Ed is Matt and Andy’s foster kid.’
‘It’s nice to see you, boys,’ said Mrs O’Brien, giving them the once-over and apparently approving of what she saw. She led them into a well-furnished house – perhaps over-furnished with glass ornaments and Catholic devotional objects. ‘Terry’s dad Harry is at work. He’s a Chief Superintendent and it’s his first week as commander of the city division,’ she announced with perfectly understandable pride. Terry’s dad had risen through the force and had already had one interview as an Assistant Chief Constable, so Terry had told them, with a good deal of pride himself.
Henry and Ed were sharing a bedroom as usual, but so too were David and Terry. David’s sour look said he didn’t like it at all.
Following an ample dinner provided by Mrs O’Brien, Terry suggested the boys go and check out Cranwell’s nightlife. He said he knew they would be okay. ‘I’d suggest the King’s Cross, which is the only gay pub in town, but Frank, the manager, would never serve you and only give you a load of abuse. Iss a wonder the place survives.’
So the boys explored the High Street and Swindon Road. It was a busy Friday night and the student population was out in force. In a city-centre wine bar they got talking to a table of first-year boys, who gave them the lowdown on what was quite a vibrant nightlife. They were warned about Riversiders, the local chav population. There was a bit of trouble in some pubs where poncy students were loathed. ‘Oh and don’t go near the King’s Cross – it’s the gay pub. The queers’ll have your pants down as soon as look at you.’
Henry rolled his eyes and gave a quirky look at David, who grinned back.
Once Terry was out of the way, David became his pleasant self again. As a result, it was a good evening and they arrived back at Terry’s parents’ house in a merry but not drunken state. They were introduced to Mr O’Brien – a more thickset and shorter version of his son – with whom they had a coffee before heading off to bed.
Henry and Edward had the guest room. David and Terry were in Terry’s boyhood room, ‘… where I got me first blowjob, handjob and fuck. The Spirit of Libido Past hangs heavy in this place, so watch out, Davey.’
David just gave him a neutral and sidelong look.
After spending a chaste night, Ed and Henry were up early – but not as early as David, who was nursing a coffee at the kitchen table, already dressed. Henry looked at him quizzically. ‘Did you have a row with Terry in the night?’
‘Er … not exactly.’
‘There’s something odd about you.’
Ed butted in. ‘Stop being nosy, Henry. You’re a typical country boy.’
‘I’m not being nosy, I’m just concerned. What happened?’
‘Terry took my cherry.’
‘He fucked me. That huge thing of his played pool with my kidneys.’
Henry’s jaw sagged. ‘Did you want him to?’
‘Well, yeah … sort of,’ admitted David. ‘He was going to sleep on the sofa in his room, and I just couldn’t hold out under that sort of consideration and niceness, could I? So I pulled back the duvet, and he joined me. We were lying back to back, and he was being very nice, but … have you seen him without clothes?’
‘He’s amazing. Not much hair on his body, and very athletic with beautiful long legs and such small feet. All-over tan too. Even not erect, his dick was causing a bulge in his pants, and his arse is so muscular and tight. So I sort of turned in the night and snuggled up to him and I couldn’t help myself fondling his monster. It was already stiff. It’s not exaggeration, he must be nine inches, and a huge set of balls.’
‘One of which is a prosthetic, so Justy said.’
‘Really? You’d never know. So he stirred and turned towards me. I could feel him smiling in the dark, and then he just cuddled me to him and I sort of melted. He’s such a strong and powerful man and I just wanted him. So I began kissing and wanking him gently and he was groaning in my ear, and then he turned me. Now, I’d never been penetrated before, because Anton was such a bottom, and Terry seemed to know this when he began fingering my hole. So he flipped the switch of the bedside light and smiled down on me … he looked so gorgeous and I more or less begged him to do me. He got some old KY still in the bedside drawer and must have spent half an hour opening me.
‘It was sensational, but when he started putting himself in me … God did it take ages. It was like someone had inflated a balloon in my bum, I was so full. And then he began fucking me. I was down on my tummy with a pillow under my cock. He just took it slow, and all he seemed to want to do was give me pleasure, and once the pain had gone away, it was pleasurable. I just wanted him to fuck me forever, and he must have delayed coming for ages. We did it bareback too … d’you think that was wise?’
Henry, stunned, blurted out, ‘Oh, yes I’m sure Terry is clean and he knows you are.’
‘After that he just held me … and – I don’t know whether I should tell you this – he cried as we began kissing afterwards. So I kissed and licked up his tears and he told me what a beautiful boy I was and how I had brought him back to life after a long winter … that was a lovely thing to say, wasn’t it? And I wouldn’t let him go but held him till the sun came up. I left him asleep. I’m in love, Henry.’
Ed and Henry stared at each other, until Ed said, ‘Well, there’s more mileage in this one than Anton. Young career guy, intelligent, fit, probably already a multi-millionaire, and the most dangerous gay in the western world. God help the homophobe who picks on you, Davey.’
Henry added, ‘Besides, he must have real feelings for you, Davey. He wouldn’t have done it otherwise. He’s such a controlled guy. It’s been a year since Ramon died. I think maybe he’s ready to rebuild his life. But it’s awesome that he’s picked you.’
‘Awesome … yeah that’s the word. When we went to Rothenia I thought there was something in the way we sat and talked there, and he seemed to like me a lot. It’s just that Anton came along and, y’know …’
Terry appeared at that point, wearing just boxers. He went to the fridge to get orange juice and as he turned he smiled at the boys. David, who was sitting a little timorously at the kitchen table, looked up at him through his long dark lashes. Terry leaned in and gave him a kiss so thorough that Henry was afraid David would spontaneously combust. Terry took his hand and grinned at the other two. ‘I’m guessing Davey told you what we got up to in the night.’
‘And some,’ agreed Ed.
‘Could you give us a few minutes, cos I think me and Davey have some things to say to each other.’ Ed and Henry smiled and left.
Although Henry kept on asking leading questions for the rest of the day, it was a while before he found out what Terry and David had discussed. As the boys left the O’Brien household with their campus maps in hand, all David would reveal was that they both wanted to carry on with it, but were going to go slow and take it step by step. Henry said he thought that was the best idea.
They went to register with the tour guides first, then had a good scout round the campus and library. The history department was in an old townhouse next to a city-centre park. Henry went to introduce himself to the tutor and students manning a desk in the foyer there.
A swarthy man with a naff moustache had a badge on saying ‘Professor J. Faber: Admissions’. Henry waited for him to deal with a girl and her parents before approaching him. Professor Faber checked his list. ‘Oh yes, Medwardine School. I hope you had a good trip down from Shropshire, Henry. Are you Henry or Harry?’
‘Henry. Me and some friends came down last night and stayed over. Could you tell me something about bursaries and scholarships? My dad’s a vicar and I’m going to be on a full maintenance grant, so every little counts.’
‘I can imagine. My eldest boy starts university next year and it’s going to be a nightmare. We offer university scholarships for anyone who gets ABB at A Level, but on top of that the department awards a number of privately funded scholarships for deserving cases who score AAA. They’re called the Marlowe Fellowships, although they were set up by an alumnus of the department called Matthew White. They’re worth £4000 a year and there’s a lot of competition for them.’
‘Oh … you know him? He was once a student of mine.’
‘Know him? He’s my … boyfriend’s foster father. He’s the reason I’m looking at Cranwell. He speaks very highly of the place.’
‘Ah. I see. Well then. You know all about him. Is it that Justin lad who’s your boyfriend?’
‘Justy? God no!’
‘Thank goodness. He is rather strange.’
Henry laughed. He liked Professor Faber. ‘When did you meet Justin, sir?’
‘Henry, this is university and I’m not a schoolteacher. You call me Prof Faber or, if you are feeling particularly bold, Jeremy. I met young Justin at one of Matt’s house parties early last year. It was for media types and professional historians to mingle and be creative. I think we mostly got drunk. Justin was hanging round the house and decided to have a game involving running ball bearings down the bannisters with the aim of smashing empty bottles he’d lined up in the hall.’
Henry sniggered. ‘That’s Justy, alright! How did it end?’
‘The housekeeper attacked him with a broom handle, so far as I can recall. Alright, let me check your details. Ah. You’ve decided on History and Theology. That’s a pity. The Marlowe Fellowships are for History, English or English and History, but not that particular joint option.’
Henry’s heart fell and his face with it. He had counted on that extra support. Oh bugger, it looked as though he would be working shifts in the Cranwell McDonald’s. But Cranwell had made a positive impression on him. He interrogated Professor Faber about the course and was gratified by the man’s accessibility and good humour.
The tutor in Theology was just as pleasant. They had a quite a bit to chat about, since he and Henry’s dad had been to the same training college. All in all, by the time he met up again with David and Ed, Henry had decided that Cranwell would be his first choice. Ed was quite willing to make it his insurance, although he typically refused to commit himself till he had seen the other institutions on his list.
David floated along in an abstracted dream world, although he said Cranwell was very nice. Frankly, Henry was convinced that if he had asked what David thought about the lowest circle of hell, he would also have replied it was very nice.
When they got back, Terry was waiting with the car ready. After hugging his mother goodbye, he got them all aboard, with David, not unnaturally, in the front seat. They talked about Cranwell, and David announced he was definitely going to do Economics and Business Studies there. Henry was delighted, but suspicious. He had a feeling that David’s veering away from his stated preferences for Durham and St Andrews was part of a personal agenda of some sort involving Terry.
Meanwhile, Terry was beaming from ear to ear and making whispered little jokes with David, who was giggling like a girl a lot of the time. Henry could not but think the problems of a seventeen-year-old schoolboy and a twenty-four-year-old executive carrying on a love affair were not going to be resolved all that easily. When he looked at the happiness in Terry’s face, however, and remembered the sadness that used to be there, he could only pray that Terry would find a way to pull it off. He had come to share Justin’s and Nathan’s adoration for the man.