A week of school took their minds off things. Ed in particular was in training for the hockey season, and talked Henry into coming to the training sessions. ‘You need to do something physical to distance yourself, and the Under 18s can barely field a B team.’
‘Great. So they’ll take anyone, even an inept queer like me. Well thank you very much Edward.’
So, much to the amusement of the lower sixth, Henry donned a jersey and shorts and took to the field. It was really tough for a slight boy like him and made great demands on his limited stamina. But he was quickly comforted that he was by no means the worst player on the field for once. His only serious problem was his tendency to let his attention drift across the field to the all weather pitch where the A team was training.
So desperate was the games teacher that Henry was drafted into the next fixture, an away game at Luttershall College, a fierce hockey school. He got on the B team minibus with a lot of other nervous boys. But as he said to them on the way, ‘Lads, we know we’re total crap: you’re wusses and I’m a faggot. We’re about to get kicked good and proper, so let’s enjoy the experience, and get humiliated with a smile.’
Strangely it made a difference. The mood relaxed. The Luttershall B team was quite as good as their school’s A team. But although they were beaten to a pulp, nonetheless their A team was beaten by a broader margin yet. Henry led the chant as they went into the changing rooms: ‘We’re not as crap as you! We’re not as crap as you!’ which involved a lot of pointing and rude gestures towards the A team.
As they got off the buses back at Medwardine, Ed gave Henry a big grin. ‘What have you done Henry? The B team think you’re brilliant, and you saved at least two goals.’
‘Oh well, as I explained to them when they made me a back: to be safe from me they’ve got to push forward, or they’ll have me eyeing their bums.’
‘And this amused them?’
‘They’ve just elected you captain.’
‘They told Mr Walker that you motivated them and kept them running till they dropped … that you gave them confidence.’
‘My God, I’m a sporting hero.’
‘Only to the B team.’
The end of October approached with no further incidents. As Ed said, things were uncannily quiet, with the emphasis on ‘uncanny’. Exeat week approached, or half-term as Henry’s earlier schools had called it. The plan was for them to be picked up straight from school the last Friday. Andy and Matt said that there would be ‘transport’ laid on to bring their new foster child and his friend up to London, and that they were to be in front of the school at four o’clock sharp. They had their cases ready and waiting in the sixth form locker room.
They were ready in front of the main entrance of New Building at four. The minibuses were loading up with day boys going home, but the car park was crammed with people carriers and landrovers picking up many of the boarders for the holiday. Four o’clock came and went as they exchanged their farewells to their friends from the sixth and their teachers. Henry gave a quirky look at Ed, ‘No sign of a car that I can see.’
‘No. I wonder …’ but Ed’s wondering was cut short as a noise began to make itself heard above the sounds of chattering boys and revving cars, a thuttering and chattering noise. Ed’s eyes widened, ‘No … you don’t think …?’
A black spot grew in the eastern sky and headed directly for the school, growing steadily. Slowly the entire car park of boys, parents and teachers, stopped and stared. A large helicopter circled lazily round the school, a white helicopter with a red and brown livery and a very recognisable logo, that of the Peacher Corporation. It settled out on the rugby field, to minimise the effect of the rotor wind.
‘Bloody hell,’ marvelled Henry, ‘I think it’s our ride! Come on!’ They picked up their cases and went out on to the field followed by the stares of an entire school. Half way across, a uniformed co-pilot met them, touched his cap and took the heavier bags. He led them to the chopper, the rotors still idly turning, and helped them up into the rear seats, giving them a set of headphones each. As soon as the doors were sealed, the aircraft rose, as both boys whooped, and they were looking down on their school, as the chopper circled, turning to the southeast, rising above cloud height and heading at speed in the direction of London.
Ed was grinning from ear to ear. ‘No wonder Justy’s such a happy boy. Life’s always full of surprises for a Peacher brat, which I temporarily am. And am I going to enjoy it!’
Evening fell. The shadows were lengthening in the fields below them. The headlights of cars were to be seen on the roads snaking away beneath their aircraft. The dark blur of London took over the landscape. They began descending on to a small airfield on the outskirts.
The chopper settled gently on the grass. A big black BMW came bumping over to them. They were ushered into the back seats, while the pilot and co-pilot put their cases in the boot. Then they were off into the city and pulled up outside the house in Highgate with some style, as the driver, one of Andy’s security team, opened the car door for Ed. Mrs Atkinson opened the front door with a smile: the only teenager she actively disliked was Justin.
The house was humming with subdued preparations, because guests were arriving. Although most were staying elsewhere, there was still going to be a houseful, because next week was Justin’s long-awaited eighteenth birthday, and Matt and Andy were not going to let it pass unmarked. Andy had said firmly that he must have a fuss made of him at least once in his lifetime. So a country hotel near St Albans had been commandeered for the guests. Its grounds would be colonised with marquees and a sound stage erected for the party. There were to be bands and singers whom Henry had never thought could be hired like common entertainers, but apparently they could be.
The boys sat on the stairs, watching flower arrangements float past carried by a team of temporary uniformed maids.
‘That was definitely a butler,’ Henry observed. ‘You can tell by the walk … it’s as if he’s on oiled wheels. Shall we go up and check out your room?’
Ed had an en suite bedroom next to Justin’s, and it was thoughtfully equipped for two. It was assumed that he would not be sleeping alone. Ed’s mother had not surrendered his personal possessions, but Matt had provided all that was necessary, and a fitted wardrobe was full of clothes and shoes that Ed had ordered over the web. He grinned at his lover, ‘So here we are, little babe, in one of the gayest households in Britain, of which I am a proud and very grateful member. It’s Sid Meier time. Let’s hit the game and conquer a few worlds, eh? It’ll keep us out of the way.’
It was not till seven that the phone burred in the room. It was Andy telling them to come down to dinner.
The dining room sat twelve, but the group in it was standing. Justin’s face lit up when he saw them; he ran over, grabbed them both around their necks, and kissed them on their cheeks. Nathan was immediately after him, hugging them hard. ‘This is so good, lads. We’ve got a great week ahead of us. Terry’s here!’
Ed caught Henry’s eye. He shrugged. Terry had been announced as if he were Father Christmas. They looked across, Terry must be the fit guy in his twenties talking to Andy and Matt. The only other people there were Nathan’s mum and a scholarly looking man who must be Nathan’s dad, as the facial resemblances indicated. They seemed oddly fond of Justin. Mrs Justice Underwood held him by the arm affectionately when he sidled back to the group.
The introductions were formally made. They shook hands with Terry O’Brien, introduced as an old friend and former employee of Andy’s. He gave Ed and Henry a remarkably keen and appraising glance as he greeted them. ‘Evening, new babes,’ he said, ‘I heard all about you. You seem quite as interesting as Justy and Nate … both of them boys with more to them than appears up front.’ Now what, thought Henry, did he mean by that.
Dinner was very cheerful, the two teen couples took one end of the table and let their elders get on with the serious conversation. Justin was highly elated, and even the normally phlegmatic Nathan was clearly very excited, although the reason was more obvious. He had passed his test last week and his father had presented him with a little Clio to drive around in, ‘… or rather,’ as he said, ‘to drive Justin around in. He’s loving the vicarious independence, ain’t you chavvy babe?’
‘Yeah, cars are magic, though me previous experience of ‘em was ripping off their aerials and slashing their tyres.’
‘If that happens then, I’ll know who to blame.’
‘Anyone tries that on wiv your gorgeous little Clio, they’ll be dead. ‘Sides I’m taking me own test in a few weeks, an’ then we’ll be sharing the little darlin’ woan we, Nate? Cos you’ll need someone to help wiv the costs, woan you? And the insurance — daylight robbery. Can’t have you strugglin’ wiv that all on yer own, it’d be criminal.’
Nathan looked amused, ‘Are you trying to be manipulative, Justy?’
‘Yeah … but in a cheery sorta way, doan you fink?’
They all laughed. Ed’s account of Henry’s late blooming sporting career also inspired a lot of comment.
Nathan smiled. ‘And they know you’re gay too? It’s an age of miracles. Course it would be very different in Dead End Comprehensive in Homobashingville.’
‘How would you know, yer toff!’ protested Justin.
‘I know as much about comps as you do, mate. Your attendance record in secondary schools was hardly stunning was it?’
‘Listen here, Lord fuckin’ Underwood’ said Justin, getting a little heated. ‘The guys at Hornsey College were all comp graduates; you were the only private school bloke there, and they let you live dint they? Not only that but Spiros Atheneikos was really good to you on two counts … he let you live cos you were a limp-wristed toff, as much as because you were a limp-wristed queer. An’ ee’s as tough as they come. Yet he treated you almost normally even though he and his gang knew you wuz a poof. So doan you do what you tell me never to do, and prejudge people cos of their background.’
‘Okay, okay.’ Nathan realised he had gone too far and began backing off. ‘I will avoid stereotyping … after all, you’re the most atypical chav that ever was.’
‘Well, right. As long as that’s understood.’ Justin began cooling off in his turn, and regained his fragile composure. ‘So … er, lads,’ he said, looking over at the other two, ‘fancy doin anyfink tomorrer in our car?’
‘Our car! There you go again.’
‘Relax, Nate, accept the inevitable. We’re a couple. We share.’
‘That so, well perhaps you can share the hoovering out of it and the waxing tomorrow, then.’
‘Nah. I see meself as more the managerial half of this relationship.’
Nathan did not even acknowledge that final remark, he just grunted in contempt. The four of them took their leave of the table and went up to Nathan and Justin’s room and spread out, comparing their CDs and DVDs. At ten, Justin sneaked them out of the house and down to a quiet pub where they were known and usually served. They smuggled Henry in and concealed him in a corner, buying him a half of lager which he sipped at cautiously. Ed told them the story of Henry’s first pub night out, and had them in hysterics.
‘Course,’ said Justin, ‘I wuz used to downing a litre of cider round the back of Tescos by the time I wuz twelve. You could pay the druggies to go in and buy em for you, an’ they never tried to run off wiv all the money twice; not after what we did to them wiv the bottles … an doan ask!’
‘And you were never sick?’ asked Henry.
‘Well, I musta been the first time, but iss so long ago, I doan remember.’
‘I can still feel the headache I had that next morning. But Ed wasn’t any better, not after what happened on the way …’ Henry blushed and seized up in mid flight, and the older boys realised he had slipped in something he should not have. Ed made it worse by hissing, ‘Henry!’
Henry was nettled. ‘Look! Why are we keeping quiet about this? Why can’t we tell anyone?’
‘Cos they’d think we were nutters! Who’d believe it?’
Justin put his hand up and intervened at this point. ‘Scuse me, mad people. Perhaps if you do tell us we will have some idea what the fuck you’re talking about? Yes?’
Henry was all of a sudden very keen to unburden himself of the bizarre experiences they had undergone at Trewern. ‘Ed … I want to tell them. Call me stupid, but I think that it’s a good idea.’
Ed grimaced. ‘Okay, little babe, then if you must, you must. You’re the one in most danger in all this, if you ask me.’
Nathan was watching the interchange between his friends and prodded Justin. ‘Babe, this is no joke. Something very serious is going on here, so shut down your flippancy gland. Think Terry. Do like you did on St Kitts.’ And strangely, Justin, by leaning forward slightly and contracting his brows into a slight furrow, transformed completely into an intelligent, alert and serious boy, right before their eyes. He took control too.
‘Start the story, Henry. Something tells me it began wiv you. Am I right?’
‘You’re right, Justy. It started one day last May when I went for a wank in the woods …’ and it was a measure of Justin’s concentration that he did not even smile. Intelligent questions both from him and from Nathan teased the story out from Henry, and further corroboration from Ed.
When they finished, Henry noticed something, ‘You two don’t seem to have any trouble accepting the idea of the supernatural. Why is that?’
‘You should ask Fritzy von Tarlenheim about that, Henry,’ Justin said with a slight smile. ‘The Tarlenheims have ghosts the way other people have woodlice. We had some experience of that last year. The Tarlenheims are haunted by a spectre that tells them when treachery is in their midst, and it’s been known to save the family in its darkest moments. Fritzy saw it last year when I was betrayed under his roof into the hands of a psychopath by Peter Peacher’s former boyfriend, Tim Caird. Oskar saw it too, and it led to Tim’s interrogation by Jenna and the saving of me and Terry from a pretty horrible death. In Terry’s case he almost didn’t make it.’
‘Ahh … that’s what my dad meant when he said there was something fishy about the inquest and that you were smuggled out of the country to avoid questions.’
‘Yup. Who would have believed the answers? So you see Henry, it so happens that me and Nathan are the people you know who are most likely to believe you.’
‘What happened to Caird?’
‘He wuz arrested for conspiracy, but the death of Anson, the kidnapper, led to the collapse of the case against him. Tim’s back in Yale now touting his book on life in the Peacher circles to the more daring publishing houses. Even they’re reluctant to take it, such is the power of me grandad, Richard Peacher. Pity,’ the impish Justin resurfaced briefly, ‘I’d really love to see what he says about me. He gave me a brilliant BJ in St Kitts on the Peacher yacht. I’d love to know if it was the same for him.’
‘Okay, okay! Back to biz. The worrying thing about all this, little Henry babe, is that you seem lined up to play the part of Jed in a rerun of his death scene. You shared his sex. You might well end up sharing his death. That’s why he’s telling you about the danger. And I doan think it’s his plan that you should be involved in it either. Innit clear that Jed knows what’s ahead of you? He doesn’t want it to happen to you, so there is one conclusion which is obvious to me but which you seem to have missed.’
‘Which is?’ Henry was intrigued by this new Justin, very clever and very alert. The other two were just staring at him.
‘That it never was Jed behind it. That was just your assumption cos you saw his tomb first and made a link. You got a very linear mind, little Henry, if I may say so.’
‘“Linear” mind? Where did you get that phrase from?’
‘From Matt. We has very deep conversations about history and philosophy and stuff. He said that I had a linear mind … or was it a one-track mind? Whatever. Anyway. The point is this. Seems to me that this ain’t coming from Jed. Iss coming from Nathaniel.’
‘What!’ said the others.
‘Well think about it. Jed died in that wood, and for whatever reason Nathaniel Corner thinks it’s his fault. He spends the rest of his life in a state of guilt, and somehow his own death fifty years later is linked with Jed’s. If any force is behind this business, it’ll be his appalling guilt, won’t it? I’ll bet it was him who was sizing you up in the church that Sunday, Henry, not Jed. And weren’t you in his body the first two times you had visions? But he’s sucked Jed into it now, and Jed don’t like it at all. He’s a nice kid, I think, and he likes you Henry. He likes you enough to try to warn you.’
‘You mean that night after the pub? But what was he trying to say?’
‘Innit obvious? When you caught up wiv him in the churchyard — really spooky that — he was hovering near his grave, and he was trying to show you where Nathaniel’s was, to alert you as to where the danger was really coming from. But you missed it. I bet Jed thinks you’re really thick, you two. He was trying to warn you again in the woods, but the power of Nathaniel’s anger and guilt brushed him aside, and took you both by force that time, and Nathaniel used you and Ed to act out their first BJ. Obviously a big moment for them both. Nope. Worry about Nathaniel. He’s working it all through again, and you just walked into it.’
‘But surely he isn’t trying to kill me too?’
‘Who knows? These are dead people, Henry. The dead live in a different country and their rules ain’t ours. And Nathaniel is not a nice dead person.’
‘Actually, he seemed a bright and merry sort of kid really …’ said Henry.
‘Apart from his naff taste in sex talk,’ added Ed.
‘Yeah well, he may have been nice at sixteen, but fink about it. Nathaniel grew older and saw terrible things on the way, the slaughter of thousands. He was an old, harsh and embittered man when he died, not the nice happy little kid he was in 1795. Your lives mean nothing to him, posh babes, nothing at all. ’Sides, he’s died, and his perspective on death ain’t ours. No wonder Jed is trying to butt in now. He did die young, and knows the tragedy. Nathaniel probably ran his sword through more teenagers than I like to think about, and left them squirming on top of their own guts.’
‘Jeez, Justy,’ interrupted Nathan, in an alarmed voice, ‘tone it down. You’re really frightening poor Henry.’
‘In this case, fright is good. If I wuz you Henry, I’d be planning to leave the country, I really would, though I dunno how far you would have to go to escape Nathaniel. Probably a lot further than Rothenia. Or you could do the exorcism thing, like in the films.’
Henry sat shocked. He stared at Ed. He could see in Ed’s eyes that he too had realised that Justin was talking sense. How could they have been so stupid? How could he have been so stupid? Linear mind. Yes, it was true, that’s exactly the sort of logic he had been following.
He asked in a very small voice, ‘Justy, what can I do?’
‘Dunno, little Henry, ain’t got a clue. But I’ll tell you what. Me and Nate will be there wiv you on 5th November, believe me. Nate’ll drive me down, won’t you?’
Nathan looked at him. ‘Er yeah, yeah I will.’
‘The more of us that are around, the harder I think it’ll be for Nathaniel to control us and take you. Maybe he won’t even be able to do it.’
When they got back to the house and said their goodnights, Henry and Edward sat on their bed and looked glumly at each other.
‘God, we are so thick!’ moaned Ed unhappily. ‘When Justy explained it all, it was so obvious. How did we miss it?’
‘Jumping to conclusions, Ed. We should so be ashamed of ourselves. I’m scared now. Could you possibly hold me?’
Ed shuffled around behind Henry and held him tightly, kissing him on his exposed neck. He whispered, ‘You’re not on your own little babe.’
‘I know. But when Justy explained it, the whole thing hit me hard, the full horror of it all. And he’s right, the way that Nathaniel’s pushing this, it looks as though it can only end with me dying in the place of Jed.’
Ed was silent for a while, and then said, ‘But what does he gain by it? Replaying Jed’s death — maybe his murder — isn’t gonna help him find forgiveness or understanding. It’s just his anger and guilt seeking a vent.’
‘You still seem to think there has to be logic behind all this? Why not just pain and anger? Nathaniel hurts and maybe he just wants to hurt other people. It’s totally sad. And if it’s true he should be ashamed of himself.’
‘Yeah ..’ Ed found the grace to laugh, ‘Bite his dick the next time he puts it in your mouth.’
Henry gave a quirky grin. ‘That’ll be quite a mouthful. You should know the size of it, you put it in me!’
‘That was truly weird, that was. Vicarious sex in other boys’ bodies. And I didn’t have any control over what was going on, Nathaniel’s body was doing its own thing and I was just along for the ride …’
‘But your own body was counterfeiting the actions. I still got a mouthful of Edward juice.’
‘Maybe if it happens again, we should try harder to gain control of what Nathaniel and Jed were doing … after all, we know a lot more about it than they did.’
‘I’ll bear it in mind.’ Henry got up and they stripped for bed, snuggling into each other’s warmth and drifting off quickly.
By Tuesday, Ed and Henry were feeling a bit out of things. Scores of strangers flowed through Matt’s house, and they barely saw Ed’s new foster parents: Matt was at work in Camden throughout the day, and Andy was in his study with his PA if he was not out at meetings. They had also forgotten that Justin and Nathan had jobs and they were out in the Andersons’ van at an unearthly hour in the morning, and not back till late. So mostly Ed took Henry on tourist trips round town. That was fun, but it seemed almost as if they were living their own lives, which in the circumstances didn’t seem quite right.
So it was with some relief on Tuesday that Andy pencilled them in for lunch, and drove them to a subdued but clearly expensive country carvery out beyond Potters Bar. He sat them down and gave them a kind look as he peered over the top of his menu. ‘I’m sorry we haven’t had much time to talk, you two. It’s not for want of trying, but you’d be amazed how much time the Justyfest is taking up. How you doing?’
They smiled back and told him they were fine, really.
‘Good. Your mother has subsided, Ed, though it took some major scare tactics from my lawyers to tame her. It’s up to you now to decide how much contact you want with her, and your father. If you take my advice you won’t break those bridges, however angry you are.
‘There’s something you should know about the fostering. We could have taken you on directly, Ed. We didn’t need Justin and Nate to bully us into it. But Tanya said no. The reason why we had rather you went directly into care in August was because of your mother. If we had taken you in, your mother would have had a case against us, at least in the press … two queers perverting and seducing a handsome young buck into their house to have their wicked way, etc.
‘It was better that the borough took you on, and we took you over from them after a decent interval. That way we looked as though we were helping out the overstretched public services. So, er … sorry for that stay in the home, I hope it wasn’t too bad.’
‘No Andy, it was alright. They left me alone. Then you did that kind thing and took me on as a fostering. You sent me back to Medwardine and Henry … how could I ever thank you enough for that. It was totally brilliant what you and Matt did.’
Andy looked a little pleased and a little embarrassed, ‘Not at all, Justy’s given us a taste for taking in gay strays. That boy continually amazes … you can only love the little tyke. How do you get on with him?’
Henry smiled, ‘Oskar said he was an acquired taste. Myself I was very grateful to have acquired it. He’s the original noble savage. So cheeky, so funny and ever so clever.’
‘Oh … you’ve spotted the intelligence have you? He uses a lot of it disguising the fact that he has it. He’s also a very loving boy when you get past the defences. But the defences are so deep, he had to survive years of abuse before we found him hiding in our basement on the run from the police.
‘But Matt and I are agreed that it wasn’t just his lucky day when we found him, he’s the best thing that has happened to us in years. He’s taught us far more than he knows. Friday is our chance to say thank you to him.’
Henry was curious. ‘What’ll happen afterwards, Andy? Justy said that they were thinking of quitting Andersons and going to live in the country. Won’t you miss them?’
‘I think that’s still the plan, and if it is, I already have my strategy to deal with it. But we’ll see.’
‘How did you and Matt get together, Andy?’ asked Ed.
‘That’s a very long story,’ was the smiling reply, ‘Do you want to hear it?’
The boys nodded, and for the next hour and over two courses of a sumptuous meal they heard Andy’s version of his epic love story.
‘Funny,’ said Henry. ‘I thought you two would be the same as us, but in your case the chunky powerful guy is the geek and you, the little nerdy type, is actually the sporting hero.’
‘Yeah, well as a friend said about Matt some years ago: face and body of an angel, and two left feet. He’s totally uncoordinated. Teaching him to swim was a major struggle, and dancing …! Fortunately Terry had a lot of time and patience for him, and he can do it quite well now. There’ll be dancing on Friday. Will you be OK with it?’
‘Dunno,’ replied Ed, ‘I’ve never tried. Do I get to dance with Henry or do I have to pretend to be straight?’
‘In Justy’s party, gay is good. You’ll be able to do your own thing, Ed.’
‘Sweet! You and me on the floor little babe, with everybody looking at us.’
Andy smiled, ‘It rarely works out like that, unless you dance with Terry.’
Henry was curious. ‘Tell us about Terry, Andy,’ he asked.
‘That’ll take not just the rest of this meal but probably all the time up till supper too. Terry is something beyond your experience, Henry. So totally controlled and brave, you wouldn’t believe it. Jenna is good as a Chief of Staff and Security, but even she wouldn’t compare herself with Terry. But Terry now just wants to dance and to act; it was always his first love. He’s finishing off his college course in the States and then he has serious ambitions to get on the stage. His boyfriend is Ramon, a really great guy. He’s happy to go anywhere that Terry goes. I think their plan is to try to make it in New York.
But now I think that’s the bill. You’re out with me and Matt tonight boys. We wanted to make time for you today. It’s a History book prize award at the Ritz and Matt is presenting it for the telly. So it’s dinner jackets.’
Henry was alarmed, ‘ But I haven’t got a dinner jacket … the only time I ever wore one I hired it from Burtons.’
Andy smiled, ‘Don’t worry about it, Henry, Matt’s PA is on top of it. One was tailored for you and it’ll be hanging in Ed’s closet by now.’
‘And how did you get my measurements?’ Henry was puzzled.
Ed snickered, ‘I did it on Friday when you were asleep flat out. I did enjoy the inside leg measurements, and I think sir dresses to the right. That I do know.’
So with Justin and Nathan, Henry and Edward occupied a riotous table at the awards ceremony, where Andy was unable to stop the older teens from over indulging in the wine, but sat heavily on the younger two, who, to tell the truth, were not that bothered. They were too busy soaking up the atmosphere and admiring Matt’s cool and witty performance as the evening’s host. Then they went on to the post-awards party at an exclusive West End club.
There was music and dancing, but it was not the sort of occasion and place where gay couples could dance together, so they sat it out. In fact, there was a bit of a frisson when Nathan got talking to a currently fashionable comedy star, and it turned out that he was not just gay – which they hadn’t realised — but that he was very interested in Nathan, and then also in Ed. Nathan was surprisingly cool about it, and just kept talking to him, without getting annoyed or stringing him along.
‘Fuckin perv,’ said Justin to Henry. ‘He’s been sniffing coke up his conk too. You get this a lot at these dos, little Henry babe. It pisses you off in the end. I wouldn’t be as polite as me Nate is. High society. Huh! You know where the ‘high’ comes from.’
They got home at three in the morning, and Ed and Henry couldn’t get to sleep without talking it all through. The cameras had been there, as had the paparazzi. So the odds were that their mates at Medwardine would see them in the media.
Then on a wave of rising expectation and tension, Friday came. The event kicked off at lunchtime with the concert. They were all in casuals. Nathan and Justin’s mates from Hornsey College came in some numbers, and even the dreaded Spiros seemed in a good mood. There were other friends of Nathan’s from school, and several of Justin’s more respectable and acceptable street mates.
There were about a hundred in all, being treated to a major and exclusive concert of very big names on a sound stage in the hotel grounds. It was really something when Justin’s favourite band sang happy birthday for him, with Justin himself on stage doing his infamous air guitar. By the time it was over and the younger guests moved on to a disco and party in the marquees it was getting dark and Justin, Nathan, Henry and Edward, still stunned at the concert, went indoors to suit up for the formal dinner.
Justin began to get nervous, and his increased effing and blinding were witness to it. But he looked superficially calm as he took the top table with his adopted parents, Nathan and his parents, Matt’s family and Terry O’Brien. Henry and Edward were on another table with Fritz and his sister, who had flown in from Rothenia. The dinner was subdued, with a light orchestra playing in the background. Then finally came the moment that Justin had been fearing for days: the speeches.
Matt had lost the toss as to who would open them. He stood up, beautiful and immaculate in his three piece evening suit, hooking a thumb in a waistcoat pocket.
‘Your Serene Highness, my lady countess, ladies and gentlemen,’ he began, ‘nearly two years ago we found this good-looking young man you see before you hiding out in our basement, on the run from the Metropolitan Police. Our first thought was to turn him in. For the life of me I can’t work out why we didn’t, but as usual it probably had a lot to do with my beloved Andy’s superior judgement in these things. But we didn’t turn him in and he stayed.
‘I resented him deeply, and it was in his reaction to my resentment that I learned something of his true qualities: firstly, he ran rings round me in the matter of insults. I think one of his best was “Get as stuffed as this olive, Matthew,” when I was rude to him at a restaurant (laughter). Then he showed me how insensitive and stupid I was, by giving me a wholly true version of his barely believable life story, in all its horror, and then telling me eloquently how it was not him that I was attacking, but his Nathan, who was rebuilding him as the caring, loving and cheerful man he now is. And so I was humbled.
‘I could tell you about Justy’s wit, his cleverness, his kindness and his courage, but I doubt I could do full justice to them.
‘Your Highness, ladies and gentlemen, this eighteenth birthday is Justin’s official rite of passage into adulthood. But the truth is he grew up in a hard way long ago on the streets of North London, and did a damned fine job of it too. I rather think that it was us, Andy and I, who he put through a rite of passage. He taught me a lot about what love should be, and what selflessness truly is. It was I who had to grow up in these last two years, and he was my teacher. So let us celebrate today the extraordinarily gifted and loving human being we have before us today, I give you the health of Justin Peacher-White, our son … and a son to be very proud of.’
There was long applause and a lot of cheering, which only died down when Justin nervously climbed to his feet. An expectant silence fell. With obvious difficulty he began. ‘Er … well, I doan wanna do a Gwyneth Paltrow and gush saccharine over the audience here (laughter) … but I gotta say me thank yous. Some I can’t do in person. Me ma died last year, and I miss her bad. She wasn’t anyone much, and not everyone’s idea of what a mother should be, but she wuz me ma and she loved me. I only realised how much I loved her when she wuz gone, which is the way it goes I guess. About me dad, the less said the better, and there are people here who know why.’
There was a silence before Justin resumed. ‘Me real dads here, Andy and Matt, are great men. Matt’s talking bollocks about me. I wasn’t a good lad or a clever one when I was a kid, but arrogant and cocky, wasting opportunity after opportunity, until finally I got one that I took, thank God: the chance to live with them.
‘If I wanted to know what love was all about, I only had to see these two guys together. They’re totally brilliant and to be brought up by them was luck beyond anything I deserved.’ He bent down and kissed both men. There was prolonged applause.
‘Then there’s the chief thank you, which is to me gorgeous Nathan, the boy I love and live for. He picked me up off a compost heap, and made me grow and flourish, the way he does wiv his plants. I wanna always be the ivy to his oak, I want to wrap myself round him and be wiv him for ever. I …’
Justin faltered and tears were now running down his cheeks. Nathan rose and took both of his cheeks in his hands, and lovingly kissed him on the lips, murmuring ‘my chavvy babe’. Justin took Nathan’s hand, held it and mastered himself, ‘So that’s it. Everyone here is special to me, and the fact that I have people now who are special is the true measure of what I may have become. I love you all and thank God for you.’
There was great applause and cheering from the younger part of the gathering. Henry’s eyes were flooded and there was a sparkle of tears in Ed’s too, as he saw.
After a while, the floor was cleared and dance numbers began to strike up. Couples in various combinations took the floor, and Henry got to dance with quite a lot of people: Helge, Matt’s mum, Justin and, of course, Ed. They grinned sheepishly at each other as they struggled to match the music, and didn’t do too bad a job, or at least Andy said.
As the night got later, there was a series of waltzes for which Henry had the benefit of the partnership of Terry, who taught him the basics. When he had got the hang of it, he grabbed Ed and they waltzed out to the side of the room. Henry maliciously span them round out of the tent into the cool darkness, and as they left it so the world lurched slightly and he found himself looking into the laughing green eyes of someone who was not Ed.
It was dark and he and Nathaniel were on the paved terrace of a country house. French windows spilled light into the night. There was the sound of music from inside and spinning couples could be seen, men in coloured coats and powder, and women with plumes in their hair. Henry looked down. He was clothed in black, with a fine silk waistcoat, he was wearing breeches and stockings, and dancing pumps. Nathaniel was in green. Neither of them had powdered hair. They were dancing together in the dark, away from the party and obviously having a really good time.
Henry was aware of himself as always in these visions, but as before he could only observe. He tried to will Jed’s arm to move, but he could not do it. It was weird to think that Ed was looking powerlessly out of the green eyes in front of his in a very similar position.
Eventually Nathaniel span him to a balustrade and they sat on it companionably, holding hands.
‘Is this wrong what we are doing, Nathaniel?’ Jed said.
‘It doesn’t seem wrong to me, Jed my love,’ said his lover. ‘And to see you unclothed is such a joy … and do we not read in Aristophanes of the joy of a liaison between two boys such as we, surpassing that between man and woman? They may call you catamite and me a sodomite, but these are but names. The rejoicing in my heart when I see and touch you is proof enough to me that what we do is natural and right. Do you not think so?’
‘How can I argue with you, and on such a night too. We have so few such nights ahead of us, dear Nathaniel.’
‘Then my scheme for us is all the more important. My father has agreed that I enlist and has bought for me an ensign’s commission in the 53rd. You too must work on your father. Then we will explore the world together and get away from this tiresome and bucolic place. It is India that I would love to see with you … the temples and the ancient cities, and I have read that relations between men are not there as they are here.’
‘I have mentioned it but he was hostile. He wishes me to study at Oxford as he did in his day. He hopes that I may be ordained in due course, but I have no interest in the church, in more ways than one. Father had the living here from his college, I shall not be so lucky. He thinks that our Herefordshire relatives may be able to offer a succession to a living in time, but I doubt it. No, it is with you that I wish to be, riding on an elephant in Bombay. What larks, eh?’
‘And shooting tigers in the jungle.’ The boys laughed and embraced each other round the shoulders.
‘I shall see you in our usual place of liaison in a few days, my love?’ said Jed.
‘I shall be riding over from Launde House.’
They walked together back into the house and as the glow and the smell of candle smoke and sweat enveloped them.
A light flashed in Henry’s eyes. He blinked. He was holding Ed round the waist, and a torch was shining in his face. Jenna the security woman asked, ‘Are you two OK? You were standing there quite rigid. You’ve not been sniffing stuff you shouldn’t have you?’
Ed recovered first. ‘No we’re OK honest. Just daydreaming.’ Jenna made a noncommital but plainly suspicious noise, and moved on.