They were back in the well-upholstered environment of the Medwardine Public Library: well-upholstered, but not well-provided with books, which had been edged out by the multimedia resource centre.
‘Sorry, are you a member?’ asked the assistant.
‘No. But we’re just wanting to do some reference chasing for school,’ replied Henry.
‘And you wanted anything on the … 55th Regiment of Foot?’
‘The catalogue says we have three copies of the history.’
‘Three? Great. Can we look at one?’
‘I’m sorry, but they’re all out.’
‘Out? Why are they so popular?’
The librarian gave Henry a superior look. ‘The 53rd was the Shropshire Regiment, the local and family historians are always wanting copies.’
‘Can you recall a copy for us?’
‘Sorry, no. You’re not members.’
‘Oh for …’ began Henry, but Ed cut in.
‘Thanks for your help. You’ve been really kind, but we think there might be a copy up at the school.’
They walked out on to High Street, ‘You’re a charmer, Ed.’
‘You were about to say something rude … not at all like you, Outfield. I think you’re getting stressed.’
‘Er … are you surprised?’
‘No. But it is my duty as your boyfriend to tell you these things.’
‘I wish I could kiss you here and now. What a nice way to tell me off.’
Ed smiled down at him, ‘We could go up to school. We’ve got the time, and the library might be open. Since half the school got mowed down on the Western Front with the Shropshire Light Infantry, at least according to the war memorial, it is a fair bet we have a good number of regimental histories.’
As they walked up High Street and headed for the school, Henry asked Ed the question he’d been longing to ask for a while, though he was cautious about it.
‘Your dad’s an alcoholic, you said?’
‘I did, yes.’
‘Do you want to tell me about it?’
‘Bless you, Henry. You are so very delicate.’ Ed smiled, ‘I’d love to tell you, and I’ve been aching for you to ask. To be truthful, you’re my lifeline at the moment, my gorgeous Henry. You’re the one thing going right in my life. My father and mother aren’t in Barbados, I was just giving you the line I was supposed to. They’re splitting up. Dad’s screwed one too many of his secretaries and Mum is dissolving the partnership.’
‘Oh, Ed! I’m so sorry. That’s terrible.’
‘Terrible … yes from your perspective it might be. But your parents are wonderful people and everything they should be. For them to split up would be truly tragic. My father is a drunk, a right-wing hypocrite and a lecher. My mother is a cold-hearted careerist who only married my father to secure a partnership. If she’d ever have breastfed me, I might have been frozen to her nipples. I was — as they were both happy to tell me when I was little — a mistake.
Henry stood still in the road, his mouth hanging open, ‘Ed!’ he said plaintively.
‘I know. You’re sorry for me. Thanks and all that. But I came to realise quite a few years ago that I would have been better off as an orphan. I was lucky they wanted to board me from the age of eight. That’s given me any normality that’s in my life, that, and now — miraculously — a happy and funny boy who I love more than I can say.’
Henry realised at last that his school’s golden boys did not in fact necessarily have golden and Olympian lives, and his envy of them had been built on a misconception of the universe. Here was Edward Cornish desperately envious of his own home background; ordinary enough, but the sort of loving home that he’d never known. Henry felt a little guilty.
‘So will there be a home for you to go back to this summer?’
‘No. I suppose Mum will get custody. She’ll only argue for it to make sure Dad doesn’t get it. She has no interest in me, and will do her best to make sure I bother her as little as possible. I’ll probably get farmed out to my grandmother in Edinburgh, where I usually end up. Bless her, she’s okay, but she’s getting on a bit and I doubt I’ll fit on her little camp bed in the scullery any more.’
‘Then you’ll come to us this summer.’
‘I said, you’ll be with us in Trewern this summer. I won’t let you go into that sort of indifferent world. You’ll stay with me where you’re loved and valued for what you are, my Edward, my handsome lover. Mum and Dad will do as I say too.’
Ed smiled as he looked at the determined face of his boyfriend. ‘You mean it too, you little hero. You’d do this for me?’
‘That and a lot more too. I do, I really do love you.’
Henry was startled to see a glitter in Ed’s eyes, as he said softly, ‘And I believe you, Henry.’
They found their way into the school, and although the librarian was not in, the head of English was, and she was happy to let Ed and Henry in to do some reference work. In fact she was delighted that they were using libraries under their own steam.
They located in fact several books on Nathaniel Corner’s regiment, and started poring over them. The thin volume in the Osprey series was not much use, but a more heavy volume written in the 1920s by a major of the regiment was a different matter. There was a whole chapter on the Napoleonic wars, illustrated with Rowlandson watercolours. It was packed with far more detail than they needed, and they learned all about the exploits of ‘Old Immortality’. There was the time that he stood unsupported in the breach at Badajoz, bullets zipping round him and holding off half-a-dozen French grenadiers with a sword. Then there was the incident where he was riding with General Cole out scouting in front of his division at Salamanca, and he and the general alone survived a discharge of grape shot from a concealed battery. The general was wounded in the leg, but Nathaniel was unscathed and held off with sword and pistols a picket of Polish lancers who tried to take them prisoner.
The most famous incident was however at Waterloo where the 53rd was stationed behind Hougemont and was attacked by a column of three French regiments. With Nathaniel at their head, his regiment destroyed the first French regiment with its concentrated musketry, and then charged the reeling column, routing 2500 men with 900. Nathaniel had three horses shot from under him and had his major and two captains cut down at his side, but he led his men into the heart of the column, personally killed the colonel of the 33rd French Line regiment and seized its eagle, before commandeering a horse and riding down the port-fanière of the 105th Voltigeurs, cutting off his arm to get their eagle too. He was received at St James and granted £10,000 by the Patriotic Fund as a recognition of his heroism. The surrender to him by Murat in the lanes behind the battlefield was fortuitous, since the marshal mistook him for an English general.
‘Bloody hell,’ said an awed Edward. ‘The man was a nineteenth-century Terminator!’
‘Don’t you see something seriously weird about this?’
‘What do you mean, Henry? Something like Jed’s protective spirit hovering over his lover to keep him safe.’
Henry looked at Ed with a slight curl to his lip, ‘Ed, you are a bit of a romantic, aren’t you.’
‘I can dream.’
‘No, I mean that if ever a man was trying to get himself killed, this was him! He doesn’t want to live, Ed. He wants to be free of life, but Death won’t take him. So he trudges on, looking desperately for a way out; only his sense of duty and personal convictions stopping him from putting a pistol to his own head. And if he had, it would probably have misfired.’
‘I think I prefer my theory.’
Henry leafed on through the book, but there was little else relevant. After 1818, Nathaniel became colonel-in-chief of the regiment and his only connection with it was honorary. But in the central plate section there was one surprise, a daguerrotype of Nathaniel Corner, sitting in a chair in front of a tapestry in the year before he died. He was in a black suit holding a book and looking out under his shaggy eyebrows into the distance.
‘Not exactly handsome is he?’ said Ed.
‘He was in his mid sixties by then. But I don’t like the mutton-chop whiskers. You can’t make out much of what sort of man he was from a photo like this. He just looks tired and depressed, but everyone in these early photos looks tired and washed out. I’ll sneak a xerox of it though. You got any credits left?’
They got the copy and Henry folded it into his notebook. It was past midday now, and they would pick up a lift from Henry’s dad at three. Ed wanted to see the carvings of Jed and Nathaniel’s names. He queried whether Jed or Nathaniel had carved it, arguing that Nathaniel seemed to have been the dominant sexual partner, and Jed the submissive one. There was of course no way to resolve the question.
Ed dragged Henry out to the nets and found a bat and ball. He amused himself and scared Henry by bowling at him at full pace.
‘I need to keep my training up,’ he argued.
‘Yeah, and I need to keep my own balls between my legs. You deliberately sent that one at me, and you know how crap I am at cricket.’
‘It was an accident, Henry. Just don’t move. You’ll be safe if you stay still. You leapt into the path of that ball, like a rabbit in front of a car headlights. What was I supposed to do?’
An anxious thirty minutes later, Henry was released from the target range. Ed hugged him round the shoulder and kissed him. ‘You’re a good little Henry. You hate cricket, but you put up with it, just for me.’
Henry smiled, but blew a low raspberry anyway. They wandered back into Medwardine, and browsed the DVDs and CDs in W.H. Smith’s on the High Street. Then they had a coke and a cake in one of the cafés. They were very ordinary things to be doing, a bit of relief, as Henry said. You get to appreciate the natural more when you have to deal with the supernatural on a daily basis.
They were back in Trewern by three-thirty, and cheerily waved Henry’s Dad off as he headed on for a home communion at Wallerstone.
‘Churchyard!’ announced Henry.
‘So who’s the dominant partner in our relationship, then?’ laughed Ed.
‘We both are,’ said Henry evasively. ‘Anyway, we haven’t done the bum thing yet, so we don’t really know who likes it up him, do we?’
Ed leapt the churchyard wall, and Henry clambered awkwardly after him, wondering all of a sudden how it was that he had so easily vaulted the lych gate the other night. Adrenaline, he concluded.
They headed back to Jed’s grave, and found the stick which Henry had thrust into the ground under where the spectre had stopped. It was still where he had put it. But there was no headstone there, or any other obvious trace of a tended grave. They paced around the area. ‘Notice this?’ Ed observed, ‘How the ground falls in a bit here? It’s shallow, but I’m willing to bet there is a burial under here.’
‘Yes. The depression would be where the coffin has collapsed underground and earth has fallen in from above. Ugh. It could be where Nathaniel was put in 1845. It’s close enough to Jed’s remains. But he was a rich and famous man. He had friends and relations. Why no proper headstone? I don’t get it. It surely can’t just be that he was gay? He was sixty-six when he died. There had been no open scandal in his adult life. If there had been the regimental histories would have edited him out. We’re missing something here.’
‘Let’s go and miss it somewhere else then,’ suggested Ed, ‘I think we’re at a dead end, in a manner of speaking.’
Back in the rectory kitchen, with the kettle boiling on the Aga, Henry got out the mugs and biscuits. He also got down the kitchen calendar. ‘Next week we start class revision and the exam period starts in three weeks. We finish exams last week in May and we do the move into the lower sixth: bye, bye blazers and house ties! And we get to use the sixth form block. Have you thought about A Levels?’
‘Yeah,’ said Ed. ‘My preliminary AS options are History, English, Law and French.’
‘Oh, not bad. I’m going to do History, English, RS and I was thinking about French too. In fact, I’m definitely going to do French if you are, Ed. We’ll be together for three options. Life is looking up.’
‘It’s going to be so good next year, Henry. I know it. To have you next to me all day long is just too fantastic for words. If only it was all night too, but we’ll just have to do the best we can in that department.’
‘We’ve managed alright so far. This is a big house, and my parents sleep on the other side of it … definitely a chance for midnight sneaking into different beds. We’ll snore into each other’s ears for the next few nights I think, then we’ll just have to be imaginative. Or we could come out,’ said Henry, perfectly straightfaced.
‘You mean it, don’t you?’
‘I do. Why not, Ed?’
‘When you put it like that, it seems simple. But I’m thinking of the way it’ll impact on us. Are they ready for this? But to be honest … am I ready for it? I’ll probably lose my cricket mates: Peters and Westenra will freak whenever I go near them. And you may be bullied. I suppose my parents are a dead loss anyway, but that’ll be it with my father for good and all.’
‘Okay,’ agreed Henry, ‘But we’ll talk about this again. We can’t come out individually. It’ll have to be a joint announcement. And I won’t say anything without your agreement, don’t worry.’
Henry leaned in and kissed Ed, and was hungrily kissed back. He made tea and they sat pensive for a while. Finally Ed said, ‘Revision. What with love and death in rural Shropshire we’re letting it slide. Let’s be responsible. Let’s get organised, and we’ll do it together, right?’
And Henry’s dad found them head down over their books on the lounge table when he returned an hour later, testing each other; swopping and correcting their notes; and devising a revision timetable. They carried on till ten that night, and impressed Mr and Mrs Atwood very much.
What would have impressed them less was what went on after they’d said goodnight. The boys waited till the parents were in bed, and then Henry sneaked naked next door into his brother’s bedroom, where Ed was waiting for him. He was naked too. They embraced and began a leisurely kissing session on top of the duvet. Eventually Ed broke the lip lock. ‘There’s a thing I haven’t done, Henry. You’ve sucked me off twice now, and now it’s my turn.’
Ed moved slowly down the body beneath him, stopping off at nipples and navel, but eventually closing with Henry’s erect penis.
‘It’s not much of a mouthful, is it?’ Henry said, a little sadly.
Ed grinned. ‘It’s small but perfectly formed, like its owner,’ he said. ‘You clip your pubes close, don’t you?’
‘Yeah. Is that alright?’
‘You do what you like with yourself, mate; as long as you wash yourself down there, I don’t mind. Let’s get busy on this. Ooh, your balls are so big and tight. You’re going to blow as soon as I suck you. I think I need to be careful here.’
Henry squirmed as Ed’s lips closed on the tip of his penis, kissing and licking, before engulfing the whole of his glans, rolling the foreskin back with his lips. He used his tongue artfully, testing Henry’s reactions as he concentrated attention on different areas of his penis. The biggest sigh was when he tickled under the split in Henry’s glans and ran his tongue around the slit. So he devoted all his attention to that area, as Henry arched and squirmed more and more uncontrollably.
‘Oh, fuck! This is … oooh … the best!’ moaned his lover. ‘You’re a natural born cocksucker.’
Eventually Ed began inching forward along Henry’s length towards the wall of his lower belly. He found he could get the whole of Henry’s cock inside his mouth without too much of a problem. He knelt up and began a serious sucking motion on the boy beneath him. Henry grabbed his head as he began thrusting up as Ed’s head came down. It was not long before he gave a muffled squeal and let loose inside Ed. Ed moved off him, licking his lips.
Henry panted, ‘You swallowed … how do I taste?’
‘Like me a bit, but there is something different, you’re less watery than me.’
‘So I’m not a drip.’
‘Oh … Henry.’