It was the most glorious week in Henry’s life, ‘… so far’ as he added, when he told Ed that.
‘Oh yeah … the bum stuff is yet to come,’ grinned Ed.
‘That isn’t what I meant.’
Ed just laughed. They went no further in their paranormal investigations, and it seemed that the paranormal had lost interest in them. Their sex play continued at a subdued but very enjoyable level. The only panic was on Saturday when Henry fell asleep in Ed’s arms. They awoke at ten to the sound of the vacuum cleaner in the corridor outside and Henry’s mum knocking on the door of Henry’s empty room. Fortunately she gave up, assuming that her son was still flat out. Henry peeped round the door when she had gone, and scampered naked back to his bedroom, with Ed laughing behind him.
Dad was not at Trewern on Sunday, so Henry and Ed went off on their bikes towards Wenlock Edge. Henry found it difficult to keep up with the power of Ed’s cycling, but not impossible, although he eventually concluded that his boyfriend was going easy on him.
They got to Church Stretton late in the morning and decided to climb the Long Mynd. Henry got off and pushed long before Ed gave up. Eventually they reached the top, the mountains of Wales hunched grey in the west, and the hills and woods of England receding blue into the east. It was a breathtaking sight, even on an overcast day.
‘Henry?’ asked Ed.
‘Yes, my Ed?’
‘Views like this set you thinking, y’know. Big views lead to big ideas, I suppose. Do you think we have a future?’ He caught the troubled response on Henry’s face, so he hastily continued, ‘… whoa, I’m not saying this because I’m losing interest in you, no way! It’s just that we’re sixteen, right. If a boy and girl fell for each other at sixteen, you’d not expect it to last more than a year or two. So what long-term chance have we got?’
‘Honest answer? I don’t have a clue, Ed. All I know is that I love you now in a way I’ve never known with anyone else, and I suspect that I never will again. It’s brilliant. I close my eyes, and all I can see is you. I think about little else all day long. I even love your smell … and that’s saying something. And you may think this is gross, but if you asked me to lick y’know ... off your arse, I’d do it and I’d enjoy doing it.’
‘Whoo … strong stuff. I don’t have plans for that, believe me. Although when we do bum sex, you’ll get my stuff on your dick, bound to. So the question may arise.’
‘Ah … so is this you deciding I’ll be first to fuck, and you to be fucked?’
‘No problem with that, none at all, just don’t make the deduction that you’re the dominant one as a result, okay?’
‘I don’t think it’s as simple as that anyway. Now. Downhill and home … yay!’
Ed had to check in at his boarding house on Sunday evening, but they managed another lavish dinner before he went, and as he went, Henry was moved to see that his mum went to hug and kiss Ed, and his father reached up and ruffled his blond head before they took the bags to the Volvo and disappeared into the evening. Henry and his mum stood waving in the door and looking after him.
‘A very nice and a very good-looking lad that, Henry, but so sad.’
Henry’s jaw dropped, ‘What makes you say that?’
‘Oh Henry, you can see how wistful he is around you and us. He’s not got a happy home behind him has he?’
‘No, Mum. It’s a terrible hellhole: a drunk for a dad and a cold-hearted cow for a mother. They’re divorcing.’
‘And he tells you this?’
‘Then he’s made the same conclusion about you that we have. You’re a special boy, Henry. You’re wise, kind, funny and sensitive, and the sort of person that can be trusted and easily loved. We do love you, darling.’
‘Thanks Mum,’ he said, his eyes suddenly full. But as he said it he guessed that there was more being said than the words signified. They knew, he was sure. But they would happily wait till he was ready to tell them.
There was nothing like striking while the iron was hot. ‘Mum … Ed is going to be abandoned by his parents this summer, packed off to his grandma in Scotland, who’s in her seventies and lives in a tiny flat.’
‘And you want him to stay with us?’
‘Er … yeah I do.’
‘Then of course he can stay, Henry. He can even come with us on the exchange, if he’d like.’
‘I love you, Mum.’
The weeks passed. Henry and Ed revised together in the Year 11 prep room, and socialised with the Year 11 alpha gang around Westenra, except when sport was in the offing. But Henry even went to cheer on the team now, and got very interested in the laws of cricket. It was discovered that he had an almost supernatural ability to spot no balls. He was unanimously appointed team scorer, and so he found acceptance on the field, much to his surprise and secret pleasure. It kept him close to his Edward. He was even in demand on Saturday to score for the First XI, and manage the board with Ed and Mark Peters.
The Saturday before the GCSEs began he was organising the numbers in the pavilion on his own, while the rest were at lunch with the away side, when a looming shadow made him look up. ‘Hello Outfield,’ said a tall prefect he had yet to talk to.
‘Oh … hi, Worsman.’
‘My name’s Guy, believe it or not, and you’re Henry.’
‘That’s right … Guy.’
‘Guy the Gay! Funny that innit?’ said the young man, laughing to himself.
‘Not really. Is that what they called you in Year 11?’
‘That and a lot of other things. Henry, I just wanted to say hello … also, that I’ll keep what’s going on between you and Ed to myself.’
‘You’re a lucky kid, y’know.’
‘Yeah, Ed’s brilliant.’
‘That’s not what I meant. I mean that you at least have another boy as a partner. I’m still in search of one. Never found a kindred spirit in Medwardine. I even tried hanging round seedy bars in Shrewsbury. Nothing. I’m pinning my hopes on university. Cambridge is the fashionable gay university and I’ve got a place at Trinity. So who knows?’
‘Best of luck, Guy.’ Henry gave his quirky smile.
‘Will you two come clean about your relationship?’
‘We’re still thinking about it.’
‘There’s a lot to be said for openness.’
‘What bothers me is the school’s reaction. Ed’s a boarder and I bet that there’ll be an immediate clamp down on his social life so that he can’t be seen to be doing gay stuff on the premises.’
‘You may have a point, Henry. You want to get as much of good sex as you can. I speak as a gay virgin here.’
Henry was a bit taken aback at being envied by a godlike upper sixth man on his way to Cambridge and quite open about his lack of sexual experience. But he rallied, ‘It won’t be for long Guy, I ’spect. I could fancy you … if you weren’t so old.’
Guy Worsman gave a loud guffaw of a laugh. ‘I’m sorry I’ll not be seeing much of you, Henry. You’re a good kid. We could easily have been friends.’
They smiled at each other, said goodbye, and Worsman wandered off into his future.
Ed stayed that night and the next in Trewern, on an out-pass from his housemaster. They kept to their own beds, indeed, beds hardly featured in their weekend. They were up till two the Saturday night and till one on the Sunday. They were up and dressed by six, poring over sheafs of notes and testing each other.
They solemnly shook hands with each other, with Peters, Ahmed and the rest before they went into the examination hall. And so it went on for a fortnight. Henry was exhausted by the end of it all. Mark Peters’s dad however did a generous thing, and threw a Year 11 party on the last day of exams.
The school bussed out the boarders to Huntercombe. Henry was hanging round the farm gate as Ed’s minibus arrived. He joined the crowd as they pressed into the farm. The back garden had a marquee, trampolines, bouncy castle, and sumo suit wrestling. There was music, but being all boys (apart from Peters’s sisters) there was no dancing, which suited them all down to the ground.
No alcohol was allowed, naturally, but somehow it made an appearance. Henry suspected the complicity of Ted from the King Billy, who seemed to think that it was a good thing to get boys hooked on drink as early as possible. Henry kept off it, and since Mark amused everyone by his account of Henry’s first foray into a pub, his abstinence was not taken as him being prissy.
Around ten thirty, Henry found himself gratefully alone with Ed, down by the stream that ran past the house. It was dark, but the garden was floodlit and so they could see each other well enough. They sat by the gurgling water and held hands, risking a kiss every now and again. There was little danger.
‘Jed and Nathaniel seem to have left you alone, Henry. Do you think that they’re just being considerate about the exams?’
‘Dunno. They didn’t have school exams in their day, so I doubt it. Maybe it’s all over. Maybe Jed’s made his point, whatever it was. But somehow …’
‘… you don’t think so, do you?’
‘No. Something more’s on its way. I can feel it.’ He paused, ‘Ed?’
‘Mum and Dad want me to ask you if you’ll stay the summer with us.’
There was silence. ‘There’s nothing in the world I’d like better, Henry. You know that. But it depends on my parents, and the state of their civil war. I’ll ask. I wish it’ll happen, but I daren’t get my hopes up.’
‘Then I’ll pray,’ Henry said simply.
‘You sweetheart,’ he said, and they kissed again, before heading back to the paddock and the buses home.
It was Monday and a very different Henry was standing in the kitchen. He was in a dark suit, with a pale blue shirt and a cool tie he’d bought in Shrewsbury; it had Buddhist symbols down the front. He’d gelled up his hair. This was the new sixth-form Henry, because Year 11 ended with the GCSEs, and lower sixth studies began immediately. The upper sixth had officially finished, the farewell service had been on Friday, and today Henry was beginning duty as a house prefect. A blue gown with his name on it was already hanging in the fabled confines of the sixth form common room, into which he would be inducted today.
Mum looked at him with sparkling eyes, ‘My little boy’s all grown up,’ she said.
‘Aw Mum … please. Got to go. It’s the bus.’
Peters and the other day boys from Huntercombe were also in suits and ties, and poor Halliwell, still only Year 9, found himself in a minibus with four sixth formers. He tried to shrink into the corner.
Mark stretched when they got out, ‘This is so cool,’ he said. They used the main entrance, a privilege of teachers and sixth form, and — more excited now — pelted up the main stairs to the celestial gates which led to the paradise of the sixth form block. And there it was … the pool table. Westenra was already waiting at the door, as deputy head boy. He was grinning. If this was Paradise, he was St Peter’s assistant.
‘OK. Outfield, old mate. You’re on assembly duty coralling those nasty little Year 7s. Assume the robe, and don’t let ’em pick their noses. Peters, it’s worse for you. You have Year 8 to supervise. Make sure the little buggers go in the right rows. This first day is to be picture perfect. I will not be humiliated by the incompetence of my minions.’ A round of raspberries from the minions reminded him that he was in fact only mortal.
The comparative freedom of the sixth form was what Henry really learned to love. If there was no class, then you could do what you liked. You were expected to be in the library or the sixth form study centre, but you could go to the common room, or just wander off into town or into the grounds. No one stopped you. For the first time in his life, Henry began to feel like a grown up.
It was with a sense of real euphoria that he returned home to Trewern that night. His shoulder bag was heavy with new files and textbooks and study plans were already floating around inside his head. He had to go through every detail of his day with Mum and Dad; they were nearly as excited as he was.
The week passed blissfully. Sixth form study was so much more relaxed. You chatted with the teachers rather than just listened to them. The work was harder, of course, but you’d chosen your favourite subjects and favourite teachers. The disappointment was that there were only three of them doing RS. Henry felt sorry for Mrs Prendergast who was, in his opinion, the best teacher in the school. There were three groups of fifteen doing History, and Mr Bloch and Mr Hutchins were no more than OK.
On Friday it was another big day, Richard was coming back from Manchester University. Dad went to pick him and his girlfriend up from Church Stretton station at tea time. They were already there when Henry got home from school.
His big brother hugged Henry when he came in. They had always been close, and Richard had been his confidant, protector and playmate for his whole life. ‘God, Henry. You’ve done some serious growing since Easter. How’s the snob school?’
‘I like it, Ricky. It took me a while, but I’ve finally fitted in.’
Mum added, ‘He’s made lots of good friends. He spends a fortune on his mobile.’
‘Great, little one. I knew you could do it … this is Rachel, say hello nicely.’
‘Hello nicely, Rachel,’ said Henry with a grin, and then was disconcerted when she did not smile back. Didn’t she realise he was being funny? Not very funny, true, but at least mildly amusing.
‘Er … hello,’ the woman said.
Henry was taken aback. ‘Hello’ would have been fine, even without a smile, but ‘Er … hello’ was different, it said, ‘You are a small boy and I’m not used to little people like you, being myself so much older and more sophisticated. You are my boyfriend’s little brother and so I have to acknowledge you, but acknowledgement is all you’re getting. Don’t bother me.’ That was a lot to read into one remark but Henry was, as has already been said, sensitive. His mother’s eyebrow twitched, and the ambient temperature in the kitchen dropped, for she too had picked up a subtext.
The full nature of the subtext unrolled over the weekend. Rachel was undoubtedly a very clever woman, a first year mathematician of real promise, as Richard proudly said. She was also a rationalist, not merely vaguely contemptuous of religion but of most of the arts too.
‘Mum,’ said Henry reluctantly on Sunday morning, ‘I know we must not judge, but Rachel doesn’t seem to me … er, comfortable with us.’
Mum gave a tight smile, ‘We can’t expect everyone to be as we’d like, Henry. Ricky’s devoted to her, and that’s all that’s important.’
‘But you’d expect her to make an effort to fit in with us, just a teensy bit.’
‘She’s an only child of quite old parents, darling. I had you when I was only twenty two, it makes quite a difference.’
Rachel had just distinguished herself by laughing lightly at the idea that her Richard – never Ricky — would be going to church with his family. ‘We think that church is all very well in terms of affirming morality in society, and church schools do a good job in that regard. But Richard and I have come to the conclusion that the honest intellectual position on religion is agnosticism.’
So Richard stayed a little sheepishly in the kitchen, with Rachel talking brightly about how she would replan it to be more practical and user-friendly. Dad and Henry walked across to the church. Dad put his arm round Henry’s shoulder just before they reached the churchyard gate.
‘The phrase you may be looking for, Henry, is “as sensitive as a runaway Panzer”.’
Henry was still laughing as they got to the vestry. Just before the vestry prayer his mobile chirruped. ‘Henry!’ tutted Dad.
‘Sorry, sorry … it’s a text. Oh wow! Sweet! So cool! Totally minted! This is too good! Ed’s had the okay to come stay the summer with us, after a few days with his gran in Edinburgh.’
Dad smiled, ‘Excellent. You told him about the exchange in August?’
‘Yup. He’s bringing his passport and stuff. Oh, this is an answer to prayer!’
‘Good. Because that’s the business of the day. Te Deum laudamus.’