They awoke together the next morning, and Henry at least was puzzled for a while as to where exactly he was. But the warmth and the smell next to him was Ed’s, so he snuggled back into him, to be wrapped in his arms and embraced. His buttocks enjoyed the feel of Ed’s morning erection running up his crack.
The phone beside the bed burred softly. It was Nathan. ‘You guys getting up soon? Matt and Andy want to see you sort of urgent.’ Henry put the receiver back and told Ed. They got up and made their morning ablutions, showering together.
They came down stairs and Nathan was waiting to guide them into the kitchen, where Mrs Atkinson had gone to town on breakfast, with piles of different sorts of breads, eggs done a variety of ways, hot and cold meats, sausages, and fruit. Justin was drinking down the milk from his Cheerios directly from the bowl. The disdain on the housekeeper’s face was one notch off murderous.
Two men were looking quirkily at their adopted child, the men from the picture. Both were in vests and sweats and were barefoot. The face of Matthew White excelled even the artistry of the portrait; moodily sensuous and magnificent, it was framed by a Preraphaelite cloud of dark hair and the eyes were a complete, uncanny and fathomless black.
They stood to shake hands with Ed and Henry and the formal introductions were made, and the boys were urged to feed themselves while they talked. Matt took the lead, questioning them closely about Ed’s circumstances and recent events. Eventually he sat back and said, ‘Ed, Nathan and Justy think we ought to do something to help you, and we would like to if we could, but the truth is that indifferent parents or not, there’s nothing we can do, and I think perhaps you know that.’
‘S’okay Mr … I mean Dr White. I’m not your responsibility, I know that. I just want to thank you, and Justy, for putting me up last night. It was very kind.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with Justy’s heart,’ said Matt, ‘although you could quibble about his morals and hygiene.’
Justin looked offended, and also disappointed. ‘What nuffink! Oh bloody hell.’
Andy then smiled and gently added, ‘Well, not exactly nothing. We can give you some advice, if you’ll listen. But it’s advice for the desperate. It’s this. You are sixteen and although you are not of age, you can make a declaration in effect disowning your parents, and placing yourself in council care.
‘It’s for the desperate, Edward, because you will be breaking bridges with your father and mother, perhaps permanently. What’s more, the local council will take seriously its duty of care, and will either foster you or place you in a council flat.
‘As a scheme it has some disadvantages. You won’t see Henry, because you’ll be fostered in or around London and you won’t have much choice as to where they put you. Another point is whether you will disclose you’re an active homosexual. If you do, that will further restrict the choice of foster parents and probably rule out a supervised flat. There aren’t many gay couples or couples with experience of gay adolescents available to foster.’
Matt nodded, ‘You had better think about it, Edward. Go and talk it over with Henry.’
Ed and Henry looked at each other, and Ed took his hand and walked him out into the hall. They sat on the stairs. Ed began unhappily, ‘Either way, little babe, I won’t be seeing you again, or at least for a long while. I’m never going back to Medwardine, and when term starts that’s it for us. No. The only question is to do with my parents, and for doing this to me I’m ready to blow them out to the best of my ability. I can only hope that my foster parents’ll recognise that I need to see you in holidays.’
Henry put his head in his hands, and then straightened, ‘Then so be it, Ed. We’ll tough it out. And if we mean what we think we do to each other, it’s not over, no way.’ So hand in hand, they went back in and told Andy and Matt.
Andy said, ‘We thought that would be what you would say, so we rang some friends. They’ll be here at ten, so go for a walk or something and talk things through. We’re so sorry boys, we really are.’
They returned from a walk through the damp streets to find that the dining room had been turned into a conference room. Two women were there.
‘Edward,’ said Andy, ‘this is my friend, Tanya Thomson, from Islington Social Services. She’s very good. She survived being Justin’s case officer.’ The tall black woman laughed in a very friendly way. ‘And this is Nathan’s mum, the Hon Mary Underwood, QC, district judge and member of the Upper Temple. Her specialism is human rights and family legislation. There is no better and more influential lawyer in the land, but she’s here in her capacity as judge.’
Ed was a bit overwhelmed. They sat down and went through the facts of the case with him. The lawyer and the social worker exchanged glances.
Mrs Underwood took off her glasses and said, ‘Edward, parental indifference is not ill treatment, and they can produce school bills to say that they have invested in your future. Yet their behaviour was nonetheless cruel, as any normal mother would know. But fortunately for you the way the legislation is framed means the courts don’t need proof of cruel and indifferent usage. All that is necessary is for you to be sufficiently motivated to repudiate them, and petition to be taken into care. This is such a declaration.’
She slid an A4 piece of paper over to him. ‘Read it through, Edward, and sign it if you want to proceed. But once you have signed it and it comes before me in chambers, then you will come under the care of the borough council immediately, and Tanya will tell you what happens next.’
‘Edward, what happens next is that you get in my car and I take you down the hill to a care home in Upper Holloway. It’s not a secure centre or anything like that. It’s not for problem children, but for children who for various reasons are without parents. You’ll have liberty to come and go, and your own key, although there will be a curfew. You will stay there for your period in care or until we find a foster home, depending on whether we can agree that is what you need and want. Sir Andrew says you wish to make a declaration about your sexuality … now there are reasons why it might be better not to, and I think you know why. It’ll make fostering more difficult.’
Ed spoke up confidently, ‘Then I want it understood that I am a practising homosexual.’ He looked at Henry and smiled gently. ‘No more hiding, eh Henry? Though it’s the end of the road for us, still we can say goodbye with heads held high and proud. I love you. Let the world go hang.’ He took the paper and signed it. There was a long pause.
Tanya resumed with a strange quaver in her voice, ‘Edward, now you must come with me. I’ve already made enquiries and there’ll be a place for you in Tufnell Park Sixth Form College down Junction Road, beginning next week. Term starts early here in London. It’s time to make your goodbyes. I’ll wait outside in my car.’
She got up, hesitated a moment, then leaned down and kissed Edward on the cheek, whispering some words to him. He looked very moved. The rest got up too, and only Henry and Edward were left, facing each other across the table. They looked at each other. There seemed little more to say. Edward reached out and clasped Henry’s hand. ‘I love you so much little babe, don’t forget me.’
‘Forget you!’ Henry’s voice broke as he said it, and he was blinded with tears. He pushed the chair back and stumbled to the door, fumbling for the handle. A small group was waiting for him, and he found himself taken into Matt’s arms and comforted as if he was a brother or a son.
Ed followed him out, and Nathan was waiting for him with his bags. There were embraces and Ed left with Tanya. The door closed behind him, and for Henry it closed on all his happiness. The world was suddenly very bleak and empty. An ache began in his heart that was not going to go away.
The ache was still there when Henry got on the minibus to Edward VI Grammar, and few smiles now lit up his small face. His unhappiness was a terror to his parents, who had lived with it now ever since picking Henry up from Highgate. And although he often heard from Ed in London by text and mobile, he could not touch him and feel his warmth, or experience the deep fulfilment of their coupling. Indeed he was constrained by the need to seem cheerful to Ed, as he didn’t want to add to his lover’s distress at their separation.
Henry knew that Ed was still in the home with the resident oddballs as he called them. He knew that Mrs Cornish’s attempt to reclaim custody had been thrown out of the High Court, and that she was trying to get a press campaign going in her favour. He knew that Ed was finding the sixth form college difficult. He did not share the culture of the students and had found no friends. He didn’t speak their language or smoke their weed.
The last Ed had heard was that the council had a foster family lined up, experienced with gays, but it meant moving outside the borough. His career at the college would therefore be brief. For the past two days there had been no word from Ed, or answers to his messages. Henry was worried.
‘Morning Outfield’, said Peters as he got on, ‘Here we go again, eh? How was your summer?’
‘Something else, Mark,’ he said, ‘… something else. You know that Ed’s been withdrawn by his parents from school.’
‘Yeah. It’s a disaster for the cricket and hockey teams.’
‘More so for me,’ added Henry, carefully. ‘He was my boyfriend, y’know.’
Silence descended on the bus, even the engine seemed to pause and gather its breath. The other three sixth formers stared at him. Peters coughed and said, ‘Did you just say what I thought you said?’
‘Yep. Say hello to the new school fag. I’m gay. I’m coming out. Worsman passed the pink candle on to me.’
Peters looked hard at him, ‘So Outfield, you’re even further out now!’ He grinned, and laughed. ‘That was almost funny. Look, Henry. You’re a mate. You’ve been good to me and I don’t give a fuck where you put your dick. So put it there … your hand I mean.’ He offered his hand and shook Henry’s firmly, then he stared down his friends, who mumbled what were perhaps meant to be words of encouragement. They were almost chatting normally when they got to the school car park.
The news got round the school with the speed of rumour, which is faster than sound and nearly as fast as light. Henry was already being eyed oddly by the boys as he stood on morning chapel duty. Some were very friendly; wishing to be affirming he guessed. Some were remote. All were talking behind his back, he knew.
So this was what Worsman went through. He remembered how Worsman had dealt with it, and just went about being normal: doing his duties, his work and enjoying his classes. At the end of the week, he stopped noticing it. Dad said it was probably much the same as being a vicar. People behaved oddly around a collar too.
He felt no stress at returning to school the next week, the only stress was caused by the long silence from London. He’d texted Ed about his exit from the closet, and even that got no response. He left several messages on Ed’s voice mail. On Saturday he had rung the home in Holloway, to be told that Ed had gone into fostering outside the borough and they were unable to divulge his contact details. It had been a very difficult weekend. He had rung Justin and Nathan but they had no news, and only sympathy to offer. Had Ed decided that for both their sakes, a clean break was necessary? It was a cruel way to end things.
After chapel, Henry took his time about getting back to the block. He moped around the grounds and felt as miserable as the grey and overcast weather which had closed in with autumn. Rugby practice was already going on. Finally he turned his feet towards the main building and climbed the stairs to the block. He had History prep that needed to be done before the second period. He was aware of a certain raucousness in the noise coming out from the common room. Whoops and rumbles as boys leaped about, knocking furniture. A couple of upper sixth were staring in through the door. One turned round to see Henry, and gave him a big grin and a thumbs up. What the fuck was going on?
He turned through the door and there holding court, sitting on a table was an oh so familiar figure, it stood up, came over to him, hugged him tight and said in his ear, ‘Hullo, little babe.’
As friendly arms helped Henry to sit down, he just stared up at the handsome face of his boyfriend.
‘How …? What …?’ were questions that began, but were never finished.
‘Get him a coffee, Archer!’ Ed ordered in the familiar way, ‘or something stronger if you got it hidden round the block.’
He sat on a table and looked down on his Henry, a broad smile in place. ‘My foster parents decided that the best place for me was my old school, and so here I am. Isn’t that great?’
‘Great! It’s fucking beyond great, it’s unbelievable! Who are these philanthropists?’
‘Justin’s former foster parents, very experienced with gay adolescents … Sir Andrew Peacher and Dr Matthew White, the most brilliant human beings in the galaxy. They said that Justin hadn’t stopped nagging them since I went into care, and even Nathan had cut them dead, so they had crumbled and got in touch with Tanya. The rest is history, of an epic sort. So here I am. The other school poofdah.’
‘Oh my God,’ said Mark, ‘he’s not going to be gay and burst into tears is he?’