What is the point of nettles? Henry wondered. You can make tea out of them, something in his mind replied, or at least I think so. Not that I’d have the first idea how to. And this amount of nettles. Well. Quite a few pots of the stuff here. There’s no getting through them either, not in shorts.
Henry sat down at the foot of a tree and contemplated the large nettle-grown clearing blocking his way. He got out the folded map jammed in his back pocket. Beyond the clearing was Trewern Great Wood, and the footpath was supposed to lead right across it, but not today, it seemed. He sighed and decided to edge round the clearing through the undergrowth. He forced his way through the bushes and struck a small network of paths that led vaguely in the direction he wanted. It was cool under the trees, and the complex of paths hemmed in by undergrowth was curiously fun to explore. He came on to a small and concealed clearing and stopped.
Trewern Woods was still in the hot late spring afternoon, the first hot day of the year, the new leaves lifting only slightly in the light breeze. There was the occasional flutter and rustle of a bird, and the furtive sound of small life in the grass. But other than that he was profoundly alone, like a castaway on an empty island.
Henry felt a stirring between his legs as one of his favourite fantasies kicked in: living a primitive and solitary life, like a wild man. He listened, grinned, and lifted off his top. He felt the cool air on his bare chest. He dropped his shorts and pants, and pulled off trainers and socks with them. He stood naked in the open air, the feel of earth under his bare feet. His cock was jutting upwards in excitement. This was so arousing.
He hunkered down like a wild animal, stuffing his clothes to one side of the path. Then he was off naked along the paths, pausing from time to time to listen for anyone moving through the bushes. Leaves and twigs slapped his skin and brushed his wagging erection. So good. By the time he got to the next clearing, he had to stop. He began manipulating himself, stroking his length, and rubbing along the tip of his penis, scraping his slit with his nail. He loved the feel, which sent spasms right down to his anus. Faster and faster his hand blurred. All too soon, an electric surge began rising from his groin. His toes curled and gripped the earth beneath him. Then he shot: five distinct white spurts spattered the bare ground in front of him. He stood a while with his mouth slack and open as his breathing slowed and the frenzy of his jerking off passed.
The stuff had dripped all over his right hand. Henry lifted it to his nose and sniffed at his semen. Well, he was a wild man, and wild men had no tissues. He licked tentatively at it; it smelt sour, but it was salty and slimy and not disgusting. He closed his mouth round his hand and sucked it off and swallowed. He looked around. Now came the reaction and the growing fear of discovery, he padded swiftly back down the path. He got vaguely panicky when he missed his clothes pile, but retracing his steps, he found it.
Feeling safer now, he sat on the ground, feeling the warm dust under his buttocks. He looked down at his pale body. No one would ever mistake Henry for a sportsman. He was the classic nerd, thin chest and legs with knees too prominent; but a nice little bum at least, he thought, from what he could see over his shoulder in the bathroom mirror. His face was small and a little nondescript but thankfully without acne. His hair at least had character, it was a proper brown, not the usual British mousy colour. He should have had a lot of hair on his pubic area and between his legs, but he didn’t like it and had cut it close. His dick was disappointing, nicely shaped but undeniably small.
A discomfort in that same member brought him back to his feet. With another grin he let loose a stream of urine on the ground, not even holding himself. He watched the yellow liquid pool and soak into the dry earth. He shook the last drops off his penis, and sat down again. That was so sexy and primitive, he thought.
Then Henry noticed that the sun had gone in, as it seemed. Suddenly it was much cooler under the trees and he shivered, goose bumps starting on his pale flesh. A breeze stirred the leaves of the bushes round him, and moved the branches of the trees slightly. The wood was suddenly full of rustling noises. Twigs and leaves crackled. Henry reached alarmed for his clothes. It was as he was pulling his pants back up to his knees that he realised that there was a pattern in the rising noise. It sounded like a body was pushing through the bushes, and that not far away.
In full panic now, Henry scrambled to pull on his tee shirt — inside out, wouldn’t you know it. He thought he could see a thrashing of branches around the clearing and there was definitely something moving toward him. He leapt up, still barefoot, his trainers in his hand. Remarkable how dark it was now under the trees, and how cold it had got. Then, as he heard what seemed to be the crackling of leaves under feet right at his elbow, the breeze suddenly puffed out, and everything was still. All he could hear was his own ragged and panicked breathing.
He pulled on his trainers in the sudden silence, not even bothering to put on his socks first, but jamming them in his shorts pocket. Of a sudden he did not want to be there. He walked hastily up the path again, and found his way to the other side of the nettle-filled clearing.
It was not till he found the stile at the end of the Great Wood some twenty minutes later that he relaxed. He sat on the old grey planks and looked down the hill to Trewern village, sleepy in the afternoon sunlight. The clock on the church tower chimed three as he sat there. A distant tractor sputtered along a lane. He was once again enamoured of the idea of civilisation. The wilderness temporarily had lost its charm. He jumped off the stile and headed down the hill to home and tea.
No one was home when Henry got in, although the back door was open. People did not lock their houses in the deeps of the countryside, even in the early years of the twenty-first century. Dad was out, because, as he invariably said, Sunday was a working day for him. It was evensong at East Hamme this afternoon, according to the elaborate rota pinned in the kitchen porch, where Henry left his dusty trainers. Dad was priest-in-charge of six rural parishes, and Mum went everywhere he did, playing the organ or harmonium, or whatever the country church had. Now that Richard had gone to university and Frankie the old labrador was dead, there was no one else at home. But — much though he missed his big brother and the dog he had grown up with — being solitary had never bothered Henry. He often preferred his own company.
He made his way through the labyrinthine corridors of the rectory to find his bedroom on the first floor. The old house had not been sold off by the diocese, like most of the others of its vintage. Money had run out when the time came to build at Trewern one of those smaller, functional houses that modern clergy were supposed to prefer. In fact Dad had taken the Trewern group of parishes partly because the eighteenth-century rectory still survived. He liked the draughty sash windows, the paddock, the overgrown farmyard and the panelled main rooms. And just beyond the shrubbery was the handsome medieval bulk of Trewern church, with its tall and battlemented west tower and extensive graveyard.
Henry had a good view of the church tower from his bedroom. The room had two tall windows, and roller blinds blocked out the worst of the afternoon sunlight. He sat at his desk and booted up his PC. He had an English Lit essay to finish on Antony and Cleopatra. He stared at the screen. Eventually he began reluctantly tapping away. Nerdish though he might be, Henry was not up there with the intellectual stars of his year. His achievements in all areas of the curriculum, apart from Religious Studies, were modest.
Henry had been a very bright and precocious primary school child, but his early lead over his peers had petered out as he entered secondary school. By Year 9 he had come to recognise that he was regarded as one of the intellectual also-rans of his year. Three changes of school in five years had not helped him either, as Dad changed from college to curacy and from curacy to first parish.
Now he was in the least pleasant establishment of them all: a fee-paying school in the market town of Medwardine, paid for by courtesy of a Church of England clergy charity. King Edward VI Grammar had antiquity and the sense of sublime smugness that went with being an élite public school. He had joined it at fifteen years of age and his peers already had four years of joint history behind them. He had made no friends, not even among the small group of day boys who joined him on the minibus into Medwardine in the mornings.
Henry was not in the least sporty, and rugby and cricket were a trial to him. He stood awkwardly in the outfield, which was the only place he could be trusted. He never bowled, and his times at the crease were invariably brief and embarrassing. It was double games on Monday afternoon, God help him. The worst thing was that all of the rest of the Year 11 boys seemed capable and enthusiastic players. There was not a single other malcontent and incompetent that he could ally with.
Bored with Shakespeare and Ancient Rome, Henry saved and shut down his file and clicked on the only icon that gave him satisfaction. He loved strategy games and was a devotee of the sort of game that allowed him to raise civilisations to great heights. He could spend whole days glued to screens as his empire grew, triumphed over its enemies and his armies marched across unknown and hostile continents.
Henry was, at sixteen, a sad git, as he himself was quite willing to admit. As for sex, autoeroticism was the only option. He could not even explore the seductions of the internet, as Dad did not hold with it. He lost himself in his latest game, and was still hard at it when his parents’ Volvo estate bounced into the yard, two hours later.
It was Monday morning, and Henry was waiting for the school minibus at the end of Harper’s Lane, sitting on the old milk churn platform. The weather had turned cooler, but unfortunately not wet. It would still be cricket this afternoon. The minibus turned up right on eight. He slid back the door and boarded. Only Theo Halliwell was there; a farmer’s boy in Year 9, but already bigger and stockier than Henry. He grunted a greeting and went on staring out the window.
At eight-fifteen the bus reached Huntercombe, where three other Year 11 boys got on. They were old mates and had made a point of ignoring Henry from his first day, beyond ascertaining his name and his father’s background. They were from well-heeled families living in converted farm houses round the idyllic picture-book village. They were all blond, long-legged and good looking, like some sort of Midwich mutants, as he thought, sourly.
‘Hey Atwood,’ the leader of them said, with a nod.
‘Hi, Peters,’ Henry replied. Edward VI Grammar was one of those where boys identified themselves by surnames only. Henry thought it a very strange practice, but of a piece with the school’s ethos — it appealed to the nostalgia for an earlier age of secondary education amongst the paying parents.
The three were soon deep in a discussion about underage drinking in Huntercombe’s two pubs. It appeared that the King Billy would serve you alcohol without ID if your dad was a mate of the landlord, and Peters had been ‘rat-arsed’ on Saturday night. Further stories of drunken escapades followed, which, if they were true, caused Henry to fear for his fellow pupils’ kidneys. Young Halliwell was listening hard to what the older boys were saying: another aspiring underage drinker. Henry just drifted off into a dream world.
They made the school at eight-forty-five, and joined the crowds of boys drifting into tutor rooms and then assembly. It was all very formal. Sixth form prefects in blue gowns herded the younger boys and stood around the doors of the chapel. Black gowned teachers were already in their stalls.
The brick-built chapel had been erected in the 1890s, inspired directly (as Henry knew, but few other kids did) by the chapel of Keble College in Oxford. The headmaster occupied a canopied stall directly beneath the organ at the west end. The ascending benches for the pupils faced each other across the aisle. As a Year 11 boy, Henry was in the top row, just in front of the canopied sixth form stalls, looking down on the lower years beneath him. The school ethos was remorselessly Anglican, which was why it had been so easy for Dad to get him a full church scholarship.
This morning it was the chaplain talking at great length about the challenge of multi-faith Britain. The brown faces of the score or so Muslim boys in the chapel looked apprehensive, as if they were going to be held responsible for something. Prayers were followed by a nineteenth-century hymn sung with surprising vigour by the boys to the accompaniment of the organ played by the head of music. Henry moved his mouth to the words, but as usual he was mute. His voice was not tuneful, and he hated giving it a public outing.
The day followed its tedious course, with a rising tension as the Games period approached. Henry sniffed the changing room stench with a sinking heart. He changed morosely into whites with his class, and joined his house side. As usual he was exiled to the outfield and went through the motions of observing the game.
It was just before the end of the twelfth over (not that he had counted) when a shout from the wicket alerted him to something. Paul Hardacre of Temple house had struck out at a slow ball and sent it arching into the air. Oh Christ!, thought Henry, it’s coming down directly at me. He sprinted to get under it. It came fairly down into his cupped hands, right through them and smacked him hard on the nose and thudded to the ground. Henry’s mouth filled with blood and he heard the groan and the catcalls from the crease as Temple house clocked up three runs. His nose streaming with blood, he hurled the recovered ball to the bowler. It dropped half-way there, and another two runs were scored while it was retrieved. The games teacher came over and was surprisingly sympathetic; he was sent into the nurse to check out the nose for a break.
He changed out of his blood-spattered sports gear in the empty changing room, and found the nurse, who swabbed his face and nose, but pronounced it unbroken. Unbroken it may have been, but it was also sore and swollen. It was nearly home time and the humiliations were over for the day, he hoped. He recovered his bag and sloped off to find the Trewern and Huntercombe minibus in the car park. It was as he was in the bottom corridor that he saw Westenra, his house captain, and a few acolytes coming towards him. His neck prickled. The look on their faces was not friendly.
‘Atwood, you prat, you know what your little slip cost us? We went down to Temple by two runs, you stupid git, and all because you throw like a girl and catch like a penguin! What the fuck use are you?’
Henry began stumbling through his apologies, but Westenra cut him off, ‘Just try to get some sort of rapid and incurable cancer by next week, you stupid, clumsy arse, will you?’ He pushed past him. Henry moved on, but as he did an appalling pain came from a concussion in his backside. Jesus, one of the bastards had kicked him, right up the arse! It was agonising. His eyes watered. He staggered on down the corridor, and leaned against the wall as the pain very slowly subsided, breathing in deep gulps to relieve the agony.
He was miserable and mute on the bus home, and his unhappiness was not helped by the audible recounting of his gaffe by Peters to his mates. Peters was vice-captain of Temple and had been very amused by the whole thing. When Henry got out of the van at Trewern he was determined that tomorrow he would not be in school.