HENRY IN HIGH POLITICS
Christmas holidays came all too rapidly. Henry was unpacking his locker again, and about to say goodbye to Ed. At least they would meet up the week after Christmas, when Ed had petitioned – in fact demanded – that Matt and Andy take Henry with them to the Rothenian Alps. As usual, Henry’s mum and dad were joining the grandparents somewhere sunny for that week, so everything was working out nicely.
Rudi had likewise demanded of the parents of his growing number of straight friends at Medwardine – which included Mark Peters – that their sons join him for his winter stay at the castle of Zenda, south of the capital. David, though now out and proud at school, was one of this group too, and his attendance was particularly required in Rothenia because he was Rudi’s study buddy for their business coursework.
The grand finale for them all would be Rudi’s New Year’s Ball in the capital. The monarchy was living up to the people’s hopes of providing a focus for the nation’s social as well as political life. Oskar had drafted a regular programme of major events and levées which would form a stable social calendar that would not disrupt the young king’s education too badly. Jammed in the edge of the hall mirror at home, so that visiting parishioners could admire it, was an ornate invitation card, gold embossed, from HM the King of Rothenia to Henry Robert Atwood Esq OHL.
It was a nice Christmas. Ricky, Henry’s brother, was in a really good mood after having been reunited with his girlfriend, Helen Peters. Henry could hear the consequences of it if he paused outside Ricky’s room door when Helen was sleeping over. It had to be said that Henry, in his curiosity about the heterosexual urges he did not possess, lingered there a little more than was healthy, straining to catch the groans and squeals. He sneaked off, ashamed of himself, in the end.
Henry’s dad celebrated services in five different churches on Christmas Day. As a result, by late afternoon he was lying comatose on the sofa in the lounge.
Henry was going through his university options with mum, who agreed with him that Cranwell was the best of the bunch. Unfortunately, the finances did not look good. Between them, mum and dad earned enough to reduce the level of maintenance grant he could hope for, but not enough to offer much support. What was more, during Henry’s first year, Ricky would still be in his final year at Manchester.
‘Face it,’ declared mum, ‘we timed you two really badly. But you are at least going to get some sort of rebate on your fees if your grades are what you expect, and Cranwell does offer the best deal.’
‘Cranwell McDonald’s it is then,’ sighed Henry.
‘I’m sorry, Henry,’ mum commiserated. ‘When you were born, university fees were not something we expected to have to pay, or we would have tried to save for them. Your university career clearly isn’t going to be as carefree as ours was in the eighties.’
Henry hugged his mum. ‘I wasn’t criticising, honest. I shall put my shoulder to the wheel. I want to do university and it’ll pay off in the end.’
Mum was still not happy, and indeed was a little resentful at another’s luck. ‘It looks like Edward will be enjoying a very different university career, with Peacher money behind him and the high table of Trinity in front. Yet you don’t seem envious, darling. That says a lot about you.’
‘It’s the fact that we’ll be in two different universities that bothers me most. Ours is such a staccato relationship … on and off all the time. I’d hoped that cohabiting at university would be our chance to find out how compatible we really are.’
Mum gave him a narrow look. ‘That sounds almost as if you had some doubts.’
Henry sighed once again. ‘Not about him, mum. It’s me that’s the bother. I’ve not been a good boy. I played around with David Skipper, whom I fancied a bit, and I wonder if I can live up to the standards Ed expects of me. If we’re over a hundred miles apart, the possibilities of drifting away from each other are multiplied. I don’t think I can resist temptation. If I have an itch I need to scratch it.’
Mum gave Henry a calculating look. ‘Then perhaps you just have to give each other time to grow a little. Coming out so young has forced you and Edward to be more mature than your years might allow. Maybe in this case separation might be better. You both need space to grow. And, yes, I can see the guilt building up in you, Henry. You two may have had a rough time, but you are both sensitive boys and have learned a lot more about love than most people your age. The point is, you just haven’t had a chance to learn how exceptional your experiences have been.’
Henry laughed. ‘It makes me think about poor Fritzy. He’s on his third girlfriend now, and he’s only fourteen. All his little affairs seem to go wrong, like clockwork. But I see what you mean. By the time he’s my age, he’ll have more experience of relationships to draw on, and know better how to value them when they go right. Is that what you’re saying?’
‘Something like that, although it’s complicated by your being gay, poor Henry. Life will never be easy for you.’
‘So it’s to be Cranwell for you, is it?’ Matt White was smiling very indulgently at Henry.
‘Looks like, Matt.’.
‘Good old Finkle Road, how I miss it.’ Matt’s smile widened.
‘Well, yes. It may seem like a row of crummy terraces to you, but for me it represented my discovery of life. Finkle Road to me was what the Beagle was to Charles Darwin: where I really began.’
‘That’s an interesting way of putting it. I hope it works out the same way for me.’
‘University is about all sorts of education, little Henry, not just academic. Cranwell was very good for me. I still go down there from time to time; I’m a research fellow of the history department. Also, my dad still owns 25 Finkle Road, where I lived when I was a student.
‘That’s what I want to talk to you about. One of the flats there falls vacant next year. My dad says you can have it rent-free if you’ll take over the duty of maintaining the house … changing light bulbs and weeding the garden sort of thing.’
‘Seriously. You’ll miss out on life in hall, but hall’s a mixed blessing. You’re a confident, pleasant and funny kid. You’ll make lots of friends without the hall experience.’
‘Matt … that’s brilliant! It’ll help no end.’
‘Thought so. Good. It’s settled then. But I do have an ulterior motive. Dad has deliberately emptied the house and we’re refilling it carefully for a reason.’
Henry was intrigued. ‘And what would that reason be?’
‘Have you ever met Andy’s youngest brother, Eddie?’
‘Yeah … last New Year at your house.’
‘Oh yes, I remember. How did you get on?’
‘Okay … he’s very dry and American. We had a good couple of days. What’s this about?’
‘Andy’s father, the great Richard Peacher, is moving back to the UK, which is bad news for the Republican Party. He fell out with the President over middle-eastern policies. He’s bought a place in Suffolk, quite near Andy’s, and a big house in Mayfair here in London. The point is, Richard will be putting Eddie through university in Britain, not the US. Eddie has not got the sort of grades to interest the leading universities, even with the Peacher money, so he has decided on Cranwell. He is going to be the second Peacher to live in 25 Finkle Road, which is why we’re vetting the other occupants. You, we know we can trust, Henry.’
Henry smiled. ‘That’s doubly brilliant, Matt.’ All of a sudden the Cranwell experience was beginning to look very interesting.
‘I’ll give your number to my dad and you can sort out the details between you. Just get your A Levels.’
Henry couldn’t resist doing a Henry thing, and launched himself round Matt’s neck to kiss that beautiful man.
Matt smiled and hugged Henry back. ‘You know who you remind me of?’ he asked.
‘My little Andy when he was a teen. You’ve got all the puppy-like affection and humour … as well as the shortness.’
Henry laughed. ‘Just need the money then, don’t I?’
He was staying briefly in Highgate before they flew out to Rothenia. It was great to be reunited with Ed and cuddle in next to him at night, to wake up during the night and find arms around him. But they both admitted that Matt’s house had suffered when Justin moved out. It might have been quieter but it had lost an aura of cheerfulness.
To his astonishment, Henry heard Mrs Atkinson regretting Justin’s absence. ‘But he annoyed the hell out of you, Mrs Atkinson,’ he protested.
‘Oh, that was all on the surface. He was smelly, noisy and undomesticated, but he brought some life to the house. Although Edward is a nice boy, quietness and politeness and – save us – tidiness, do not add to life’s interest.’
‘You’re a complicated person, Mrs Atkinson.’
Justin was between contracts for Terry and had gone down to Ipswich, where he was cheerfully manning the tills and stocking shelves for Nathan at the garden centre. Matt said Justin seemed to enjoy it very much. His pet-supplies idea was paying off in a modest sort of way, which pleased Nathan, who was trying to hike the profit margin for his uncle. Haddesley Hall was not a major stately home and needed all the income it could get, apart from agriculture and tourism.
The next day, a row of vans stood in front of Matt’s house, and staff were busily loading them with bags. Andy had come up from Suffolk. The two men were sitting happily together over breakfast, facing Ed and Henry, while Matt went through the details. They were taking a Peacher jet to the airport at Rechtenberg and going from there to a mountain chalet Matt had rented above the city. On the day itself they were to be taken by helicopter to Strelzen for the ball at the Residenz. Matt was checking that the boys had the required dress.
It was then that Andy mentioned Terry’s intention of joining them. ‘It surprised me, because he’s no great fan of skiing. He used to say that anything likely to give him a leg injury and affect his dance practice was obviously not worth the trouble. Now, he wants to join us for New Year.’
Henry gave a noise between a snuffle and a giggle.
Matt raised an eyebrow. ‘What do you know that we don’t, Henry?’
‘Our friend, David Skipper. He and Terry fell for each other big time down in Cranwell when Terry gave us a lift for the open day.’
‘I don’t believe it!’ declared Matt.
‘Well I do,’ retorted Andy. ‘When he went on the scent of pickups in the old days, it was always slim and dark younger boys he chased, and your Davey is just that, isn’t he? Slim and dark, and quite pretty too.’
Henry pursued the point. ‘Davey’s gone to Zenda to join Rudi’s house party, so Terry’s decided to come to Rothenia too. I can’t believe it’s coincidence. I bet they’ve planned a date.’
Andy looked at Matt, who said, ‘It’s as well. Poor Terry couldn’t grieve forever … but a teenager? I’m not sure that that’s such a good thing … saving your presence, lads.’
‘No offence taken,’ said Ed. ‘But don’t prejudge Davey. He’s very sensitive – oversensitive some might say – and very kind, when his brain’s working properly. I think he might do Terry good. It may only be a temporary fling, but I’m quite sure Davey will be the better for it. He’s different with Terry, not so prickly and wayward. It’s like Terry steadies him and puts him on an even keel.’
Andy snorted. ‘I’ll keep my fingers crossed. It’s nice you two boys agree the affair has mileage in it. You obviously like your friend.’
Henry nodded, although he felt a little troubled when he looked at the smiling and relaxed face of his own boyfriend. Was there still mileage in their affair?
Rechtenberg airport was full of school parties from Britain returning from and arriving for the skiing. Nine months of monarchy had made a noticeable difference. The post boxes had a crown above the postal horn. Many things, including the post office, the national airline, the railways and the national bank, were now ‘kungliche’ or ‘Royal’. The airport shops had a range of King Rudolf wares: mugs, posters, postcards and tea cloths. Henry resisted the temptation to buy any.
Vans and cars were waiting to take them up into the mountains, where their ‘chalet’ turned out to be more substantial than the word indicated; it was in fact practically a small hotel. Attached to the property was a ski instructor, who took Henry in hand as a beginner and Edward as an intermediate. They had a good time, although Henry doubted he would ever have any real talent for the sport. He did feel cool on the piste, sipping his vin chaud and posing in the fashionable and expensive gear Matt had bought him in London.
Henry and Ed had a really good time on their own with Matt and Andy. The two men were an education to be around, and the depth of their relationship was a little awesome to Henry, whose doubts about himself were not letting up. Of the two, Matt was the one he found easier to relate to, and so he manoeuvred himself into a one-on-one encounter off the slope when they went to get a coffee.
Matt smiled at Henry. ‘You okay, little one?’
‘Is it that obvious?’
‘Mmm, to me anyway. You really are very like what Andy was as a boy. You could always read what was going on behind his eyes, especially when he was uncomfortable … so, spit it out, Henry.’
‘It’s like this, then. With me and Ed going our different ways when we’re off to university ... I’ve got doubts, Matt. I’m pretty sure I’m not the stuff long distance relationships are made of. To be honest, I suspect there’s a bit of the tart in me. I haven’t got the moral strength to turn the stopcock on my sex drive. I’ve already been in trouble a couple of times. Ed forgave me, but he’ll have a lot more to forgive when we’re over a hundred miles apart. I’m sure he doesn’t see it. I think he believes I’m as steady a guy as he is. But I know I’m not. Tempt me and I will fall. I just hate the idea of disappointing him and worry that he may learn to despise me.’
‘Oh, Henry, you think I can advise you? I’m the wrong person. It’s Andy who has strayed away from our bed, not me. The real authority on bed-hopping is Terry … not that you’re ever likely to be as adventurous and wild as he was. Or is it because I’m enough like Ed that you want to see how I react?’
‘Maybe,’ decided Henry sadly.
‘Then what can I say? Ed is a fine man … I won’t call him a boy any more … besides, he’s eighteen now. He is straightforward and steady. I have no doubt he has a great life and career ahead of him, because he has recognised who he is, subdued himself and caged his passions. You said once that, when you first met him, he was frustrated and unpredictable. Now he’s conquered that and gone through fire with his parents. But Henry, you haven’t. You have a loving family and have had a wonderful upbringing. What you haven’t had is any really harsh challenge in your life. Even coming out at Medwardine seems to have been easy for you.’
Henry felt it necessary to assert that his decision to come out had not been without its cost, until as he began he realised it was not so. Somehow he had maintained his popularity amongst his peer group. He faltered.
Matt continued, ‘You’re a lovely, happy boy, Henry, and you I will call a boy. It’s not just because you’re still seventeen. People like you instinctively. They see the charm and happiness of the boy you still are and they love you for it. What you have yet to find, however, is a foundation of experience on which to build something more mature. Basically, little man, you’ve not needed to grow up because life has been kind. You can’t go on being a boy, though. Growing up is about learning to make tough choices, and what’ll happen next year is going to be the first big trial of your life.’
Henry’s heart fell. He had hoped Matt would have an easy solution, rather than revealing to him things about himself he did not really want to know.
His woeful look touched Matt. ‘I’m sorry, Henry, telling you this is like kicking a puppy, but it has to be said. And I have no solutions. Someone’s going to get hurt over this university business. It’s in your hands who that person will be, and how he will be hurt. Scary, isn’t it, life? All I will say is that, when push comes to shove, you have to be your own man, if you’re going to be a man.’
* * *
Terry turned up on the morning of New Year’s Eve. ‘Have I missed the skiing? Shame. Might have broken something interesting. You okay, Henry? Brave little lad, doing this terrifying thing with snow.’
‘Nicely timed, Terry,’ said Andy, who was a demon on the slopes. ‘You have indeed missed the last day’s skiing.’
‘Aw shucks. When’re we off to the party?’
Matt smiled. ‘The helicopter’s coming to pick us up at four. It’s formal, so as a knight of the Order of the Rose, you’d better have your insignia.’
Terry grinned a little sheepishly. ‘Well, I couldn’t exactly not bring it, could I? Poor Andy, you’re the only one without a Rothenian gong.’
Andy laughed. ‘Oh, give me a break. However, I’ve brought my insignia from my British knighthood. I may not be as colourful as you, but still I shall not be out of place. Rudi will be proud of us.’
Flying in over Strelzen in the early evening was an experience. At Matt’s request, the helicopter pilot took them in an arc across the city so Henry could see the street plan and buildings from above. They landed at a small, private airport north of the Spa, where a big car was waiting. Since they were already in full dress, the car took them directly to join the long queue up the Rodolferplaz, as the social élite of Rothenia gathered for the first great occasion of its new calendar. Matt and Andy’s party rather stood out when they went up the grand staircase, as it didn’t include females, but such was the crush that it hardly mattered.
At the door of the ballroom a chamberlain took their tickets before announcing them in stentorian tones. They were swept into a world of colour and music. People were standing around in groups, waiting for the dancing to start. Oskar, in suit and decorations, soon found Matt, Terry and Andy. He dragged them to a side table to update them on events, leaving Ed and Henry to find a glass of wine and stare around.
At eight on the dot the boom of the chamberlain’s staff rapping on the floor subdued the murmur. An avenue opened through the crowd as the king appeared at the door, with the countess his mother on his arm. The national anthem played, the room bowed and curtseyed, and the king made his way to a pair of chairs placed on a dais. He spoke a few suitable words, took his mother on the floor, and the dancing began.
Rothenians are great dancers, and the Strausses in their day had worked at the Ruritanian court. It was exciting to see the couples moving and spinning to the chamber orchestra. Ed and Henry sat it out, as there was no chance of male-on-male dancing there. Terry stood by them for a while, twitching with the need to get out on the floor under the blazing chandeliers. ‘Why couldn’t you be a transvestite, Henry?’ he cursed.
‘Sorry, I think,’ Henry apologised.
Finally Terry found an unattached lady who was willing to take a chance with this dashing and handsome man wearing an order of chivalry across his chest, and out they spun. The boys didn’t see him again for hours. In truth, after the first excitement the ball became boring for them, and they were only too glad when David showed up and led them into a side room where food was laid out.
‘So, how’s it been, Davey?’ Ed asked.
‘Interesting. There are two Rudis, y’know. There’s the Medwardine Rudi, who chews the end of a pencil when he’s thinking and tells very risqué jokes. Then there’s this other Rudi lurking inside: the king, cool and very self-possessed. He seems to switch from one to the other without any problem. I reckon he’s a high-level schizophrenic.’
‘That would account for a lot,’ Ed reflected. ‘What happened at Zenda?’
‘It was great … Morton, Westenra, Ahmed and Peters were there too. The castle’s amazing. It’s got this medieval fairy-tale keep in the middle of a lake, and this grand neo-Classical mansion next to it. Christmas was awesome. Rudi threw this banquet for the foresters and their families: roasted oxen, barrels of wine, flambeaux sort of thing in this big feudal hall. The next day we went out in Tyrolean hats with dogs to shoot boar. Thank God we didn’t see any; I’m not sure what I would have done. Peters let his gun off, cos he goes shooting with his dad, but it knocked him flat and brought a tree branch down.’ He looked around expectantly. ‘Seen Terry?’
‘We came with him … he’s out there in the ballroom lost in a world of waltz.’
‘He’s gonna teach me to dance. He says I have the perfect body for it.’
Henry laughed. ‘I’m sure he thinks you have the perfect body for a lot of other things too.’
David actually blushed. ‘We’re going away for a few days after this is over, and he’ll get me back to England.’
Henry had to ask, ‘Are you coming out to your parents, Davey?’
David shook his head. ‘I may be out in school, but I’ll leave breaking the news to my ‘rents till I go to university. I’m not eighteen till March. It’ll save problems. Then me and Terry can go to the next stage.’
‘He’s gonna buy a flat in Cranwell and we’re gonna live together when he’s in town.’
‘That’ll save costs too,’ Henry reflected, a little enviously.
At that moment, a sudden stir in the crowd round the tables caused his neck to prickle. He turned to find the king behind him and people bowing and curtseying. Henry too gave the Rothenian bow, although he didn’t take Rudi’s hand to kiss as some Rothenians did. ‘Cool party, your majesty.’
‘You’re not dancing, Henry.’
‘I asked Westenra, sir, but he turned me down flat, the git.’
‘You’re not his type, Outfield. Now, I have a proposal for you of another sort.’
‘In two days, I have a date to keep in Glottenberh with the Black Virgin. I want you to come with me.’