Mum was a pushover with illness. Henry felt a bit of a heel exploiting her like this, but, as he explained to himself, he had no history so far of dodging school. But he would have died rather than go to school that Tuesday, and he had little compunction about lying. He waited till she was feathering around looking for car keys and her purse.
‘Mum?’ he said faintly.
‘Yes, Henry dear?’
‘I’ve got this dreadful stomach ache, and I’ve just had a bad case of … y’know, the runs.’
‘What? Oh, Henry. I wish you’d told me earlier. Are you alright now?’
‘No … I feel a bit weak and that.’
‘Does this mean that you’d rather not go to school.’
Henry adopted a pious look. ‘It’s not that good a time to miss school, but I don’t see myself being able to survive the day.’
She sighed. ‘You’d better stay home then. Dad will be in and out, so he can keep an eye on you. I’ll ring the school on my mobile.’
‘It’s not your fault, Henry. But I’m sorry. I’ve got to go.’ She pecked his cheek and was off to work in a solicitor’s office in Shrewsbury.
Henry stretched, gave himself his patented quirky look in the kitchen mirror and went to run a bath. He was on his own in the house, so he shrugged out of his clothes. He loved wandering the rooms — and sometimes even the yard — nude. There were no neighbours to worry about, and the postman did not visit till midday. He lowered his sore backside into the hot water with a yelp, but soon relaxed. He had checked the damage out with some difficulty before going to bed, and found nasty purple bruising around his perineum.
He relaxed further. Whatever problems awaited him at school, for now he was free and maybe free of it for a few days more too. He was determined that cricket next week would be a nonstarter. He would somehow get a note out of one or other of his parents.
He began massaging his eager dick and after fifteen minutes of devoted and patient stroking he spurted up on to his belly with a deeply satisfied groan. Then what to do with the ejaculation? He remembered his wild man fantasy, scooped and licked it up. Then he fell asleep. When he awoke confused, about forty-five minutes later, the bath water was tepid.
He washed rapidly and got out, towelling himself dry. Now he had wanked and defused his rampant libido, he was less keen to parade around naked, so he dressed in his favourite tee-shirt and shorts. For the next three hours he applied himself to the task of world conquest, and when he had tired of that he made himself lunch. His dad had been in to check on him, and now he had gone over for a meeting with the churchwardens at Wallerstone. He would not be back till after four. Going out was therefore an option.
Henry had a number of favourite walks, but he did love hanging round the Trewern church and graveyard. He was an imaginative boy, and although he was only a mediocre student at GCSE, nonetheless history in general had always interested and inspired him. He loved ancient architecture and gravestones, and the cemetery at Trewern was extensive and rich in monuments.
He made his way to the northeastern corner, an area he had yet to explore fully. He knew in any case that this area of a churchyard tended to be less interesting. The north side was less often used for interments, and hardly ever till the nineteenth century. Superstition prevented earlier generations from seeking burial in the church’s shadow, and the only people buried there — criminals, suicides and stillborn children — did not attract expensive headstones.
Henry had a notebook in which he was cataloguing the Trewern monuments. He had a little project going; identifying the local eighteenth and nineteenth century masons and their workshops. He didn’t have the money for a digital camera, but he was a neat draughtsman, and he had sketched the chief features of each stone. As he had expected, the northeastern monuments proved to be mostly of the 1870s to 1890s, and overgrown with ivy, so he spent a lot of time, and broke a nail, clearing the stones so he could find the dates and masons’ marks.
But in the gloom under an ancient yew tree he did at least find one reasonably interesting monument. It was an altar tomb of what must have been the 1790s, as he guessed. He had to guess because the dates had weathered away, although not the names. He read:
Sacred to the Memory of JEHOIADAH SCUDAMORE son to Edgar Scudamore MA Rector of Trewern, sometime Fellow of All Saints College, and Fanny his wife, daughter of Sir Robert Simpkins Bart of Huntercombe co. Salop, who died in a tragic manner in the fulness of his youth on 5th November …
Jehoiadah. An unusual name; biblical as Henry recalled. I wonder what the lad was called by his mates … providing that he did have mates. Perhaps he too was a shunned child of the rectory, useless at cricket. He had a moment of fellow feeling for the dead lad, one of those poignant moments that graveyard trawling tends to produce in the sensitive, and he moved on with his notebook.
Henry took his new material back to his computer and expanded the database he had compiled. He was quite pleased with it. There were definite patterns emerging. There was one Ludlow firm that seemed very popular between 1880 and 1950, but the delight was what looked to be four generations of one local Huntercombe family in the trade from the 1780s through to the Great War. All he needed now to complete his graveyard survey was the lightly populated northwestern corner, and then he could move on to the municipal cemetery extension across the road.
Wednesday morning he regretfully announced to his mother that he had been sick in the night, and his bowels were still queasy. She looked concerned. ‘It sounds like gastric flu, Henry. If it isn’t better by tomorrow, I think Dad will have to take you into the doctor’s in Medwardine.’
Damn, thought Henry, it looks as though it’ll be an abrupt recovery this evening and a brave resolve to return to school on Thursday morning. He grimaced. His afternoon had been sufficiently absorbing that he had temporarily forgotten the humiliation of Monday and the bullying incident.
So Henry made the most of Wednesday morning. His father had gone for a deanery meeting in Medwardine, and he was on his own again. The weather had turned duller. The sky had become grey and heavy, and the air beneath the clouds was humid. Henry had been brought up in the country, and was old enough in the ways of weather to realise that the day would end in tears. So he eagerly completed his survey of the Trewern churchyard, and he had begun notes in the graveyard extension as sudden gusts of warm wind began stirring the leaves and announced the beginning of a phenomenal downpour that soaked him through, long before he reached the shelter of home. He had jammed the notebook for safety down the front of his pants, and it was the only thing dry about him as he stripped off in the porch.
Henry gathered up his clothes and dumped them in the laundry. He found a towel and dried his hair. He decided against dressing again, and roamed the house, fondling himself erect as he went, loving the bumping of his low-hanging balls against his thighs as he walked. The house was dark inside, and he didn’t want to put lights on, in the unlikely event that it would reveal him to passersby. He stood at the back lounge window and watched the veils of rain sweep the lawn. The hills and the horizon were obscured by mist and cloud.
He lay back on the sofa and slowly wanked himself, delaying the orgasm for as long as he could. He lightly stroked the tip of his penis, enjoying the thrill of sensation that shot down to his anus. Out of curiosity, he pulled back his legs to his chest and raised his buttocks, fingering the crater of his hole behind his flopping balls. It was quite a nice sensation. He pushed his index finger to test it, but it wouldn’t go. Too dry. He licked his finger and tried again. This time it pushed in to the first knuckle. Now that was an interesting sensation.
He was excited as much as disgusted with himself. The internal flesh was warm and silky, and he liked the feeling of penetration very much. He massaged his anus for quite a while, and found that he could fit a couple of fingers in there eventually. He pulled out and sniffed them. He had not washed inside there and the stench was a bit strong. Getting up and washing his hands in the kitchen took the edge off his arousal, and he sank exhausted back on to the sofa. Without meaning to, he slept.
Henry was not a great one for dreaming, but that afternoon he experienced a dream so vivid as almost to qualify as a vision. He was even aware that he was asleep, or seemed to be at least. He was in the Great Wood and walking the network of small paths he had discovered, but he was not alone. Another boy was with him, chatting amiably. He was chatting, but Henry couldn’t hear a word he was saying, nor for that matter could he focus on who the boy was, although he seemed oddly familiar.
As often in his dreams, Henry was unaccountably naked. He was acutely conscious of this, and the fact that the other boy was clothed. Then he got an erection which caused him huge embarassment, because he knew that the other boy had seen it, but was just too polite to say anything. The woods became dark and the boy walked away from him, angry about something. There was a flash and a concussion like thunder, and Henry shot up, abruptly awake.
A car door had clunked in the yard. Shit. It was Dad. Henry sprinted naked through the house, his balls swinging between his legs, and shot up the stairs just as the key scraped in the lock. He hurled himself into his bedroom and pushed the door carefully to behind him, leaning against it, his chest heaving. Dad shouted up the stairs asking how he was. He shouted something back. Then he found himself a shirt, pants and jeans; he always went barefoot in the house. Equanimity recovered, he booted up his PC and got to work on his project.
Form registration was a trial. He had produced an absence note for his tutor, and took his usual solitary seat by the window. He thought that he was getting a lot of sideways looks from the other boys. Oh well, Henry, he thought, just tough it out. He knew enough about school to be confident that some other petty scandal and confrontation would soon come along and he would be forgotten. But for the moment there was an apparent interest in him. Too many people had seen him having his arse kicked for it to be forgotten quite yet.
Which of those cunts had done it? He had not known and, as he quirkily observed, he had failed to get a boot print off his backside to identify his assailant. He doubted it was Westenra. He had just been angry, and was too patrician to stoop to nerd-bashing. It must have been Williams, Cornish or Ahmed, one of his cricketing acolytes out to impress the alpha male. Two of them were there, slumped in their seats. Cornish came in as he looked around. He caught his eye, and it seemed to Henry that the other boy bit his lip and looked away.
Edward Cornish was a solicitor’s son, and a boarder. He was pale, blond and tall and there was not much of any interest that Henry had registered otherwise about him. He was athletic of course, but they all were in this bloody school. He sometimes had a wild humour about him, a daring way with rude words and descriptions of bizarre sexual practices that got the other boys guffawing when he was in manic mode. But he was moody and he could be withdrawn.
At morning break, Henry headed for the shelter of the library. He was working through the latest Harry Potter, a reading experience enhanced for him by the fact that he seemed to be living in his own personal Hogwarts hell.
He was quite oblivious until a large boy took the seat next to him. He looked around furtively, it was Cornish. He had a magazine and was leafing through it in an abstracted way. He made Henry uncomfortable, sitting there. Why didn’t he just bog off and leave the library to the nerds whose kingdom and birthright it was?
The bell for third period echoed throughout the school and Henry shouldered his bag. It was his one high spot of the week, double RS. Having a clergyman as a father had this much going for it: he had been brought up in the ways of organised religion and Sunday schools in a manner that few of his peer group had. He had a grasp of religious and moral issues that gave him a major edge over the rest of the class; also he liked his teacher Miss Prendergast, and she liked him. So he flourished and excelled in RS, and was confident that he would get at least one A* grade that August.
They were working through issues in religious fundamentalism that day. It was the last of the course components before revision began. Henry only had access to the internet at school, but he had made good use of last Saturday prep and had compiled a big dossier on the US religious right. Homosexuality, abortion and creationism were all tagged in his file, and he dominated the discussion in a way that nobody outside Miss Prendergast’s Year 11 group would ever have imagined him capable of. Solitary boys can speak with great passion and depth when their reserve finally breaks down.
‘So, can you sum up then Henry?’ Miss Prendergast totally ignored the school surname convention, which was another reason why Henry loved her.
‘Yes miss. It’s about marginalisation. A group with a clear cut, simplistic and hard-line moral agenda is out to dominate society and further its own ends: gays are made into immoral and subversive faggots; reluctant and impoverished mothers are made into murderers; and rational humanists are made out to be heretics. It reinforces its own position by attacking selected groups, making them out to be undermining family values and traditional morality. It creates hate groups so as to make itself seem righteous. The irony is that the Christ whose teachings they profess was a man of the margins, a man who walked with society’s rejects … a man whose passion was for forgiveness and accepting love for his fellow humans, not for stigmatisation.’
Henry was trembling with his own passions at that point. The other boys were staring at him, and Miss Prendergast was smiling with approval for his articulacy, if not necessarily his views. He knew she was a member of a Vineyard church in Shrewsbury.
But Henry was not finished. ‘It’s Macarthyism all over again, miss. America is a troubled and complicated society, built on diversity. Whenever it’s under threat, it’s all too quick to embrace conspiracy theories and hate agendas. It’s a way of finding something to unite around.’
‘An interesting point of view, Henry. Has anyone got any other views?’ Two boys at the far end were murmuring, and one sniggered, ‘Francis? You seem to have something to say.’
Francis Wheatley, not a particularly stupid lad, hemmed and hawed a bit, ‘Well, it’s this, miss. It’s all very well Atwood going on about marginalising gays and stuff, but the Bible condemns men … sort of doing stuff with other men, doesn’t it? So these Americans are only following their own religion.’
Henry jumped in, ‘Maybe the Bible does, sure: St Paul was against Greek men having it off with each other, but Jesus failed to mention the subject, although he did make it pretty clear that we should not condemn and that love was the greatest of virtues … not hate.’
‘Yeah, but, Jesus didn’t say anything about all sorts of stuff. So saying that he didn’t condemn gays doesn’t actually prove that he was OK with them!’
‘That’s true … but the spirit of what he had to say makes it difficult to assume that he would have been against two men who think they love each other. I think that morality is in the way you behave in relationships, not in choosing the sort of relationship to have.’ Henry stopped abruptly, and realised that he had gone just a little too far in front of a male peer group. He had as much as said he thought gayness was good in a school where the Year 7s screamed ‘gay’ at each other when they wanted to be really annoying. Miss Prendergast smiled and said that was certainly food for thought. But he knew he’d gone too far when he was nudged on the way out by Wheatley, who muttered to him, ‘You meeting Worsman for lunch then?’
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. If he hadn’t enough trouble as it was, he’d now been tagged as a closet gay. Worsman was in the Upper Sixth and had come out as a gay in Year 11. He was notorious in the school, and Henry had been quite intrigued to see what sort of screaming queer he was when he had heard about him. But Worsman was no Anthony Blanch. He was a disappointment: a conservatively dressed, average looking young man with nothing effeminate or affected about him, other than his fashionably long curling hair. He was not in the First XV, of course, but in fact he was the school’s star fast bowler and played for the county Under 18s. Not only that, but the staff and the rest of the prefects seemed to be very friendly with him. Maybe there was hope beyond Year 11, Henry pondered, at least if you were sporting and self-confident.
Friday, blessèd Friday afternoon. Just French and History and that was that for the weekend. No prep this Saturday because of home fixtures across the years. As for Monday and cricket, Henry would cross that bridge when he came to it, and the week after, it was the exeat! What joy! History was OK, although Mr Bloch, the head of department who took their group, was tedious. But Henry could ride it out. Or usually he could. But as he unpacked his bag he found someone else had chosen his table too. A first. It was bloody Edward Cornish again, determined to sit next to him. This was the only time to date Henry had picked up a table companion in his career at Edward VI.
‘Alright?’ he asked, a little concerned. Cornish grunted by way of reply, and ignored him.
As bad luck would have it, they were set a joint task, to prepare a response to a series of questions on the Suez crisis.
Henry felt called on to take the initiative. ‘So it’s about Eden, right, and his response to Egyptian nationalism and a threat to the Empire’s lifeline.’
Cornish stirred, finally engaged with the topic and addressed Henry directly. ‘I thought it was a reflex reaction to appeasement in the 1930s, with Nasser in the role of Hitler.’
‘Well, I guess he did have a bizarre moustache.’
Cornish gave a tight smile. Apparently it was okay for Henry to be amusing. Cornish went on, ‘So by my interpretation the French and British are pre-empting the challenge that nationalism is posing to their African empires. Going in hard to forestall the problem.’
‘Yeah …’ Henry replied coolly, ‘giving the anti-imperialists a good kicking’. And from the intake of breath and the shocked silence next to him, he knew he had got his man. Guilt — the bastard was feeling guilty about the unprovoked assault on him. So let him be guilty. He should be. Henry wasn’t going to help him out.
They did not speak again, and Cornish packed up his bag without a word. But Henry had ended his disastrous week on a high note. He had had a little revenge for the daily humiliations his peers dumped on him. For once, he left Edward VI Grammar School feeling he had got the better of it. A petty triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. The boy had done good.