‘Hey, guys! Got any money?’ said Peters
‘How much is this gonna cost?’ responded Ed.
‘You can get by on a tenner for the evening. Or less. You don’t have to try to keep up with me.’
‘That’s considerate,’ said Henry, a little ironically. Fortunately, irony was wasted on Mark Peters. Henry was not keen on this night out at the King William IV in Huntercombe. It was not one of his father’s parishes, fortunately, so there was little chance of it reflecting on his dad. If there had been, he wouldn’t have even dreamed of doing it.
‘I squared it with Ted the landlord. I told him you’re older than you look, Outfield. You do look fourteen unfortunately. But as long as we’re in the back snug, it’ll be fine.’ Mark Peters led the way through the village, up a lane and round the back of the pub. ‘Okay. We go in past the loos and order through the snug hatch.’
They sidled in; Ed was cool about it all, but then, he could have passed for seventeen. Henry cowered behind him. ‘S’okay, Henry,’ Ed said, ‘I’ll order for you. A pint of bitter?’
‘Er … is it nice?’
‘No. Beer tastes awful. But it’s the effect it has on you that you’re after. And don’t drink more than two. We don’t know what effect it’ll have on you. Some people it barely affects, other people it knocks flat. How does your brother cope with it?’
‘He came home disgustingly pissed after he finished his A Levels … he couldn’t remember how many he had.’
‘I’m afraid that’s not a good sign … resistance to alcohol runs in the family. Take my dad, a total alky, but he goes into court the next morning and looks sober as the judge he’s appearing before.’
‘Your dad’s an alcoholic?’
‘One of the many things you have yet to learn about me, Henry. Right, Mark’s got his. My turn. Evening! Two bitters please … the Black Sheep. Great.’
Henry admired Ed’s coolness. He took the beaded glass of beer over to the snug’s single table. He looked suspiciously at the rich brown fluid, serenely innocent but all too deadly, as he knew. He sniffed at it. It smelled like disinfectant. He sipped … yuk, it tasted like warm disinfectant too. But it was What Men Do so Henry kept on sipping, and after a while it wasn’t so bad, though he didn’t think he’d ever get to like beer.
Peters got up at one point and headed to the toilets. Henry shifted on the plastic-covered bench, ‘How’s your bottom?’
‘Hurts like crazy. I think it must have been the soap, it burned a bit and our skin is delicate inside. Have you tried to crap yet?’
‘You didn’t hear the screams?’
‘Oh God. I’m not looking forward to tomorrow.’
It was as Henry was sipping his way through his second pint that Peters’s jokes began to seem hilarious, and the world began to seem a very nice place all of a sudden. As he got up, he weaved slightly as he headed for the grungy pub loos. He smiled blissfully into Ed’s face as he returned, and couldn’t for the life of him see why Ed should stare at him in that way. He felt very friendly to the barman as he bought his third pint under his own steam. It was towards the end of the third pint, as time was rung from the bar, that the tragedy of life hit Henry hard. Poor Jed Scudamore, sixteen and so beautiful, his life cut short. Then there was Henry himself: dragged round England by his father’s vocation; perpetually embarrassed among rich kids by his comparative poverty; lonely and neglected. He went quiet and became very uncommunicative. Tears leaked out of his eyes.
He barely heard when Ed told him it was time to go, and he had to be helped up by a hand under his arm. ‘Poor fuckin’ Jed! Poor fuckin’ Jed!’ he muttered.
‘Wass he saying?’ he heard Mark ask.
‘He’s had a bit too much,’ replied Ed curtly.
They were in the dark lane behind the pub, ‘Gotta pee!’ Henry declared. He got his penis out and blasted away. He put out a hand to brace himself against a dry stone wall. The world had suddenly gone lop-sided. Unexpectedly, sweet tasting saliva flooded into his mouth and filled his nostrils. He gagged. ‘Urrgh,’ he coughed and swayed forward, vomiting catastrophically over the ground and spattering his own shoes. ‘Oh … God!’ He heaved again, and fell back against a wall. Ed looked unhappily into his face. ‘Don’t feel too good,’ Henry announced.
‘So I see. Come on, Outfield. I’ll have to get you home, and it’s a long walk.’ Ed took him by the arm.
‘I’ll help,’ said Mark.
‘No, it’s okay Mark. I know the way and I’ll kip down in his house tonight, providing, that is, his parents let me live.’
Walking through the dark country lanes was no joke, and it was five miles to Trewern from Huntercombe even helped by fitful moonlight. After a while, Henry began to regain control of his limbs. He began trudging rather than staggering.
At a crossroads a mile from Trewern, Ed sat him down on the wet verge and gently hugged him. ‘Ooh Henry,’ he chuckled, ‘you stink of sick.’
‘Fuck off or I’ll throw up on you.’
‘Tsk. Not nice. And by the way, I did warn you. You would have that third pint. Well, let tomorrow’s headache be a warning to you.’
‘It’s already started, and my tummy is not behaving like a good tummy should.’
‘Come on Henry, if we put a bit of speed on, we’ll have you home before twelve thirty. Are your parents going to wait up for you?’
‘No, they go to bed at ten and I said I might stay in Huntercombe.’
‘Thank God for that, you got keys?’
‘Then we’re … what in fuck’s name was that?’ An appalling shriek echoed in the hills. Both boys shot to their feet. Ed looked wildly at Henry.
They stood breathless as the entire landscape seemed to stoop over them and listen. Henry’s heart was racing.
Ed whispered, his voice trembling, ‘Tell me that was a fox, please tell me that was a fox …’
Henry was a country boy, unfortunately. ‘It was not a fox,’ he said slowly. The silence deepened, if that were possible. The shriek echoed out again, and with an appalling sense of inevitability Henry knew it was coming closer to this isolated crossroads. And he remembered what sort of people were buried at crossroads and how they were buried.
‘We go, Henry! We go, now!’ Ed tried to drag him back in the direction of Huntercombe.
‘It’s no good, Ed. Stand your ground. It’s the only chance we got.’ He realised he was perfectly sober now.
A third shriek rang out, as if their very ears were being ripped open. Henry felt his teeth almost rattle in his head. It was like a thin sword through his temples. Ed was crouched on the ground, on his knees, his head buried in his arms.
Silence. The stars turned slowly in the sky, but Henry knew it was not over. A faint phosphorescence had formed some twelve feet down the road towards Trewern, twisting and turning above the surface, as though it were a sheet caught in a light wind. It stayed stationary however. Henry reached down, and took Ed’s shoulder. ‘Get up, Ed,’ he said with a peculiar calmness and authority.
Ed looked up and whimpered when he saw what was in the road, but he rose and stood behind his lover, holding his shoulder. ‘This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening,’ he kept saying under his breath. But it was.
‘It wants something,’ Henry said.
‘Does it want you? Is it Jed?’
‘No idea. But I know what I have to do.’ Henry walked with astonishing bravery a few steps towards the apparition. With a trembling but clear voice he called out. ‘Spirit. We see you. How can we help you?’ The sheet spun lazily and as Henry watched, a patch thickened and the image of a face seemed revealed, a boy’s face, as he thought. It stared immobile at him, and he at it. He was suddenly aware that the mist was moving away from him towards Trewern, at a sedate but steady pace. ‘We gotta follow it, Ed. Come on.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘I can’t wait, Ed. There’s answers here, and I’ve got to have them.’
‘I don’t think so. Come on.’
They jogged after the thing as it retreated in front of them. It didn’t keep to the roads, but floated over into a field as they got near Trewern. On the outskirts of the village, they lost it.
They stood in the dark street, Ed looking confused. Henry hissed, ‘This way!’ and headed at speed to the far end of the village and the churchyard. He felt no tiredness, and if he had thought about it, this was strange. He was a healthy but not a strong boy, and he was not at all athletic, yet he leaped the lych gate without bothering to fumble with the stirrup catch. Ed scrambled after him. Henry knew where to go, and he was not disappointed. The manifestation was glowing, curling lazily in the north eastern corner of the churchyard near, but not under, the black shadow of the yew tree.
What now? The two boys stood and watched it. ‘It’s not over Jed’s grave,’ said Ed, ‘Why?’
‘Dunno. Wait. It’s moved.’ The misty shape came out from under the shadow and moved with every appearance of purposefulness to a spot between Jed’s grave and the church’s east gable. It stopped, speeded up its spinning, began to pulse with light and, abruptly, was gone.
Henry let out his breath, unaware that he had been holding it in. Suddenly he was trembling and his legs hurt. But he staggered over to the spot where the thing had vanished, shaking off Ed’s hand as he went. He picked up a stick, and stuck it in the ground to mark the approximate place where the manifestation had vanished.
He looked at Ed and Ed looked at him, their faces pale for other reasons than the moonlight. ‘Now I feel sick,’ observed Ed.
‘If I wasn’t so scared of meeting Jed Scudamore, I’d be quite happy to be dead this morning,’ said Henry, sitting up in his bed and gulping down his reflex to be sick again.
The duvet rustled beside him as Ed stirred. ‘How’s your head?’ he asked.
‘Like it’s been cut off and stuck back on with sellotape. I ache all over, but the principal ache is between my ears, and my mouth feels like the bottom of a dead parrot’s cage. Why do people drink?’
‘Fun?’ Ed hazarded. Henry grunted, and lowered himself delicately back down and snuggled into Ed’s naked back, pushing his flaccid genitals up against the big boy’s warm and smooth buttocks. It was comforting, although Ed niffed a bit from their running last night. Henry sniffed under his own armpits, and discovered he smelled even worse. He began licking Ed’s broad shoulders.
‘What are you doing?’ Ed chuckled.
‘I think I have a saline deficiency.’
‘You may need protein more at this point,’ Ed laughed.
Henry agreed. ‘And I think I know where to get it,’ he added. He disappeared into the fetid depths of the bed, climbed over Ed’s hairy lower legs, and wormed his way blindly in the warm and breathless gloom under the duvet to find his lover’s cock, which was stiff with the morning’s erection. He pulled back the foreskin and began sucking and licking with devotion, ignoring the aching pulse at his temples and the smell of Ed’s piss hanging round his crotch.
He heard muffled moans coming from above as he gently massaged Ed’s ball sac, wiry with hair. Henry kept going. He knew that a climax was on the way as Ed pulled away from him, but he clung on to his bum and engulfed as much of his length as he could.
Suddenly his mouth was surprisingly full of sperm. He swallowed instinctively, and tasted another boy’s juice fresh from his testes for the first time. It was like his own vintage in consistency, he thought, but there was definitely an individual tang to it, which was not his. He squirmed up to face Ed, closing with his lips and feeding back some of the sperm to its owner.
Ed broke off the kiss, hugged Henry, and licked his own lips. ‘You’re gorgeous, you know that?’
‘You’re pretty amazing yourself, hunk.’
‘Ah … well, amazing. What you did last night was beyond amazing. You were awesome, Henry. How did you have the courage to confront that thing? I wanted to run, all that kept me there was your will power, y’little hero.’
‘I dunno what got into me. I should have freaked and run, and I was certainly bothered. But those dreams and that incident in the church seem to have changed me a bit. Bizarre, but you can get used to the supernatural. Why does it terrify you, Ed?’
‘Why? Er … cos it’s strange, uncanny, threatening, horrifying and dreadful.’
‘Those are just adjectives, Ed. Y’know what I think? I think it’s the stories that threaten us so. We know how the story goes: there is a ghost; it haunts us; terrible and uncontrollable things happen, and there is no happy ending. That’s the point, y’see. It’s not a story we can control, and it has to end badly. It’s like a runaway roller coaster without a brake.
‘But last night, I knew it wasn’t like that at all. True, we were in the grip of unearthly forces, but they weren’t demonic; behind what was happening was a sad and lost boy with a great need. I don’t know what the need is, but I have looked in his living face, and he wasn’t a bad boy. I don’t fear him. I rather liked him, or what he was, and he was alight with love for his Nathaniel. He may be in pain, but he doesn’t want to hurt us.’
‘That’s reassuring I suppose, or it would be if I believed you. But thank God, the sun is up and the daylight has banished all darkness. And I need breakfast.’
‘Breakfast …’ said Henry, ‘now that’s a terrifying concept.’
They had arrived back at the rectory after one o’clock, and had silently sneaked in. Henry had left a note on the kitchen table saying that he and Ed were back and were sleeping in his room. They went down in boxers and tee shirts, Ed borrowing one of Richard’s, for Henry’s would not fit him without tearing.
‘Morning boys,’ said Henry’s dad, reading the paper at the kitchen table and enjoying a late breakfast. He looked pointedly at Henry, ‘Can I get you something … fried egg, mushrooms, blood sausage, squashy tomatoes?’ Henry’s green tinge caused a sardonic smile to pass across his face.
‘How did you know, Dad?’
‘You were seen running through the village like madmen way past midnight last night, and the smell coming from your room this morning was, shall we say, unforgettable as well as incriminating. How much did you drink?’
Ed butted in, ‘It was my fault Mr Atwood, I talked Henry into it, he wasn’t that keen. Please don’t be mad with him. Be mad with me.’
Henry’s father eyes widened and he gave Ed an unfathomable look, saying, ‘I’m not mad at him, Edward. His was a sin that carries its own penance. I rather doubt that Henry wants to see another pint of beer as long as he lives.’
‘Damn right,’ Henry muttered beneath his breath.
‘What have you learned, Henry?’ said his father, employing his usual tactic of rubbing it in.
‘Strong drink is the devil’s snare, Father,’ Henry said seriously. Ed stared at him and then at Mr Atwood. Then father and son doubled up in hysterics.
His father wiped his eyes, ‘Nice one, son.’
Ed looked bemused, ‘What are you laughing at?’
Henry smiled broadly, ‘Me and Dad play a game of religious cliché … that was a classic.’
‘The pair of you are nuts,’ Ed concluded.
‘Thanks,’ said father and son.
‘Dad. Ed wants to stay here for the rest of the holiday, is that OK?’ Henry asked.
‘Of course, he can have Richard’s room.’
‘Great, can you pick up his stuff from the Peterses at Honeysuckle Farm some time? He’s packed it ready.’
‘So why did you bother asking?’ his father said, smiling.
‘Just for the sake of appearances really,’ Henry smiled back.
‘Fine, Henry, I’ll stop there on my way into Medwardine.’
‘Better still, Dad, can you give us a run into town, we want to use the library.’
‘We do?’ said Ed, ‘Oh yes … we do.’
The county library in Medwardine was not up to much, but it did have the usual reference works, including an out-of-date Dictionary of National Biography. Henry selected the volume CA-CO, and riffled through the pages.
‘Here we go, Ed. There’s quite a bit about him. Start copying this down: “Corner, Sir Nathaniel Arthur Fincham (1779-1845) soldier and administrator. Born 14th May 1779, East Hamme, co. Salop, son of Augustus Fincham Corner Esq of Launde House and Amice Bathurst, daughter of Frederick 3rd Earl Bathurst (q.v.). Began his military career in 1797 and served in the principal campaigns against the Directory and Bonaparte. Gazetted major after taking the despatches announcing the victory at Vimeiro (1808). Commanded the 53rd Regiment of Foot at Badajoz, Cuidad Rodrigo (1811) and Salamanca (1812) when gazetted Lieutenant Colonel. Military governor of Balearic Islands, 1813-14. KB (1814). Led his regiment during the Brussels campaign, being present at Quatre Bras and Waterloo, where he had the distinction of personally seizing the eagles of the 33rd Infanterie de Ligne and the 105th Voltigeurs and taking the surrender of Marshal Murat. Military governor of the Department of the Inferior Seine, 1815-16. Military Attaché to HM Embassy St Petersburg, 1816-1818. Promoted Brigadier General (1818). General Officer Commanding Munster District, 1820-25, and Inspector General of Military Hospitals, 1825-29. Promoted Major General (1829). Governor of Lower Canada, 1830-35. Commandant of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, 1835-41. Resigned 1841. Sir Nathaniel Corner was renowned as being personally solicitous for the well-being of men under his command, yet entirely reckless of his own safety. In a military career of some decades and in the thick of the fiercest battles of the Napoleonic wars, he did not receive a single recorded wound. He was known to his men as ‘Old Immortality’. He died suddenly at Trewern, co. Salop, 5th November 1845. He died unmarried and his heir was his nephew Alfred Corner, Esq.”’
‘Whoa!’ commented Ed, ‘He died suddenly again, but it says Trewern, not East Hamme.’
‘I noticed,’ said Henry. ‘Distinguished old geezer wasn’t he? And very brave too. He went off to be a soldier the year after Jed died, and something tells me that the two events are not unconnected. He died a bachelor too. That tells you something.’
‘He was gay, of course, but we knew that.’
‘Yes,’ said Henry, ‘but he didn’t cover it up with a token marriage. I think that may be significant.’
Ed shrugged. ‘Where do we go from here?’
The Mormon church in Medwardine was very neat and new. Luckily for them its genealogical search room was open that Wednesday. The elder on duty was charming and very helpful. He keyed them into the testamentary database.
‘You can search with the engine … Shropshire’s been pretty well covered. The snag is that the texts of the wills are only digests. What’s the name you’re looking for? Corner? Okay, press there and you’re away. There you go. Five hits. Can I leave you to get on with it?’
‘Jackpot!’ grinned Henry, ‘So what we got … not a lot, what a shame. His sole heir his nephew Alfred, small legacies to his old butler and other servants. Body to be buried at the churchyard of Trewern … oh! That’s no surprise, but what does that say? “near unto the body of the late Jehoiadah Scudamore my old school friend.”’
Ed looked reflective. ‘That’s odd. It’s a nice thought, but there’s no trace of a Nathaniel Corner grave there. Is that what it’s all about? Jed is lonely, and wants his Nathaniel? He can’t seriously expect us to find and dig up the old corpse so we can rebury him next to Jed? He’s had over 150 years wherever they put him, it’s too late to shift him now.’
‘We can actually check that. The Mormons have scanned the Trewern registers, and it’s just a matter of getting on to that database. There you go. And … Corner, and click and … wow. There he is. “Buried at night the 14th November 1845. Sir Nathaniel Corner KB.” Well what the bloody hell is all that about? Buried at night? And buried where? This raises more questions than it answers. If Nathaniel really is buried where he said he wanted to be buried, what’s got Jed so upset he’s come to haunt us?’
‘Another odd thing. Nathaniel died suddenly, right? How come it took over a week to get him buried? Didn’t they bury people within a day or two in the old days? This looks fishy, Henry.’
‘I don’t think we can do any more here at the moment, Ed. But there is one more lead.’
‘The 53rd Regiment of Foot … it’ll have a regimental history and Nathaniel was its colonel.’