Henry looked at the beautiful naked boy beside him. ‘Where am I?’
‘With me, I am so sorry Henry. He would not listen.’ Jed moved closer, he sat behind Henry and enclosed him within his legs, bringing his warm body close to Henry’s back and resting his cheek on his shoulder. He hugged him tightly.
‘Where are the others?’
‘There,’ Jed replied, and Henry could feel the small kisses the boy was imprinting on his shoulders and neck, trying to comfort him. Henry looked and indeed across the clearing and quite oblivious to him and Jed was a group of four figures, frozen in shock. Ed and he — yes it was him he was seeing — were naked, but although Ed was sitting up, the other Henry was flat out and still. Nate and Justin were crouched over his body. There was no doubt that he was unconscious and maybe dead. This was the out of body experience he had read about.
‘Where is Nathaniel?’
‘He’s here.’ And indeed there was Nathaniel, but not the boy, it was the old man, naked as they were. He had an old man’s leathery skin, covered in sparse white hairs. He sat on the grass, his loose and flabby genitals hanging. He looked utterly defeated and dejected.
‘Why?’ Henry asked.
‘We cannot be together in this plane, Henry. He destroyed himself long ago in his desperation to be with me again, in his foolishness and selfishness. But once dead, he was trapped: chained to earth by his guilt, his lust and his anger. So here he remains. He thought that by using you he could at last unburden himself of it all and be free, but he was being as selfish as ever, as selfish as he had been when he killed me satisfying his own lust with no thought as to what he was doing to me. And now, the poor fool has done it again. Come Henry, we at least must move on, and one consolation to me is that now I have you with me — such a brave and loving boy.’
‘Is this death then Jed?’
‘This is death.’
‘And we must leave Nathaniel?’
‘There is nothing else to be done, until he works off his penance in the circles of the world in some way. Come my beautiful Henry, there are consolations to this state, as you will see.’
The light seemed to brighten around them. The grass beneath them took on a brighter green, a colour so vivid that it was as if theirs were the first eyes to see such a shade. Scents quite undreamed of reached him and what sounded like a faint but glorious singing, but was more than that. Henry stood as Jed, or something that once had been Jed, but was now brighter and far more beautiful, took his arm. And the light that came from Jed arched over them like protective wings. He felt strangely warm and happy, and not afraid at all. But as his toes seemed to leave the ground, Henry felt a jerk in the region of his navel, and a heaviness seemed to bring him back to earth. He looked at the wide eyes of Jed above him and the world seemed to spin.
Henry coughed so violently that his entire body was racked. He was freezing cold and his head buzzed with pain. His chest felt as though someone had been hitting him with a sledgehammer. His nose was being violently pinched together and a string of saliva was running from his mouth to that of Nathan’s above him.
‘Oh, thank God!’ sobbed a voice he recognised as Edward’s.
‘Henry, can you hear me?’ said Justin urgently.
‘Uhhrhh,’ Henry replied, unintelligently.
Ed’s face appeared within his line of vision, his hair dishevelled and hanging in his eyes. ‘We thought you were gone, but Nate can do emergency resuscitation. How do you feel?’
‘Err …’ he gasped, ‘like death warmed up?’
They manhandled him upright, and Ed hung his sweater over him as he struggled back into his clothes. Justin sat on one side of him holding him up. Ed knelt in front of him, kissed him and chafed his arms.
‘You’re so cold, little babe. Here, let me dress you.’ So with the other boys’ help, he put Henry back in his clothes.
At last, all huddled together, Henry asked his friends what had happened. Justin looked awed. ‘It was so weird, like a deadening blanket had fallen on us; we couldn’t move, just watched you and Ed starting to make out, stripping, and then you came against his chest, and he started face fucking you, but you choked and that was it. We snapped out of it, and there you were with your heart stopped and not breathing. But Nate got to work and brought you back.’
Henry looked at a bewildered Ed, ‘But what about you?’
Ed looked distraught. ‘I was Nathaniel again, I found myself having sex with Jed, and I put myself in his mouth, and it was great, thrusting in and out, scraping my dick against his throat, right down to the windpipe. I could feel Jed struggling, but I couldn’t stop. When I finally pulled out, he was white and still, and I slapped him, but there was nothing, I screamed and woke up and there you were beneath me.’
Henry slumped, ‘So now we know what happened at last. Sexual experimentation gone wrong because that idiot Nathaniel got carried away. I bet he cleaned and dressed Jed again and left him there to be found. Since there were no marks of violence on his body, he could not be suspected of manslaughter, but that was what it was. That was what he had to live with for the rest of his life and that was what brought him to his suicide as an old, lonely and embittered man. And that’s what’s kept him chained to this world, the complete idiot. I wonder that Jed saw anything in him; he’s far brighter and more sensitive.’
They looked at him puzzled. Nathan said, ‘And you know this how …?’
Henry told them, and the look of puzzlement turned to amazement.
They got up and walked back to the rectory in complete silence, Ed holding Henry’s hand tightly.
They went that night to the firework display in Huntercombe, and had a strangely fun time, considering what had just happened. Justin predictably wrote very rude four letter words with his sparklers, which much amused the small children there. The weather had turned cold, and they were in hats and scarves. There was a very welcome hog roast and hot punch laid on by the Young Farmer’s Association. Afterwards, they sneaked Henry into the back snug of the King Billy.
As Henry nursed his half and Nathan downed his pint of bitter in one, Ed finally brought up the afternoon’s events. ‘So it’s not a happy ending for Nathaniel then?’
‘No,’ said Henry. ‘But at least now I’ve had a chance to think about it, I can feel sorry for him. Poor, poor boy. He panicked. Would we have done any different in his place, I wonder? And in his day they didn’t know how to restart the heart and resuscitate people. So what could he have done?’
Nathan smacked his lips, after finishing his pint. ‘He could have owned up, I suppose, but that would have been even worse. Queer sex was not tolerated then, was it? Oh, by the way, Justin had to wank off three times when we got back to the rectory. He’d finally got to see the group sex of his dreams, but was supernaturally restrained from joining in. There’s justice for you, eh?’
‘Aw, shuddup,’ grumbled Justin.
They walked back home in the moonlight. Frost was sparkling on the road and a mist was rising from the hollows of the landscape. When they got to the fatal crossroads, Ed asked Henry quietly, ‘What do you think of dying now you’ve done it, Henry?’
‘I’m certainly not afraid of it any more. I was so peaceful and happy when Jed was lifting me up, and the smells and the sounds! There’s no human words to describe them, even now when the memory of them is fading from me. But still, I’m happy to be here where I ought to be, with you my Ed. And Jed, bless him, knows this. Nathaniel’s pain called him back to earth to try to save me, so he knew that I had a life which I must live.’
‘Are you going to tell me the meaning of life then, little Henry?’
‘If you’d like, big Ed. I think I’m up to it. It’s to make good choices and to enjoy the gift so far as we can. That’s where Nathaniel went wrong. He loved the enjoyment of life too much, and his choices were bad ones, and he lives with the consequences even after death. He was selfish, and I think that may be the sin from which a lot of the others come.’
When they got back to the dark rectory, Henry let their guests in but said he had something to do before bed time. Ed looked at him curiously. ‘Can I come with you?’ he asked. Henry smiled and took him by his hand. They walked to the graveyard by the rectory gate. It was bright with a moonlight that left sharp shadows.
Henry and Ed sat together on Jed’s grave. The stone was cold through their jeans. Henry didn’t want to say much, but as he sat there he did feel moved to do one thing. He prayed. Although a churchgoing boy, he did not pray much, but as he contemplated the fate of the boy who lay in an unmarked grave at their feet, there was little else that he could think of doing to help him. So he reminded God how foolish and silly his creation could be, and thought of the times he himself had been a complete selfish idiot. He told God Nathaniel’s story, although of course he knew God knew it well enough, and he asked for his mercy and told him why he was asking.
As he went over this in his mind, his heart was powerfully moved to pity Nathaniel. A tear formed in his eye, trickled down his cheek and fell to the ground slowly, jewel-like in the moonlight.
The world went very quiet. Even the subdued rustling of dry autumn leaves was stilled. Ed took him by the shoulder. ‘Henry, something’s happening again,’ he whispered urgently. ‘I thought you said it was over?’
Henry looked expectantly around, and was not in the least surprised to find another figure with them, a dark and beautiful boy who smiled and once more put his finger to his lips, but this time took both their hands in his, and led them towards the rectory through the moonlight. His feet left no tracks through the frosted grass as theirs had done.
They reached the front door, and Jed let go their hands and pushed it open. It should have been locked, but of course locks are only a human device. They entered the rectory, but gone were the modern wallpapers, carpets and prints in the hall. The walls were panelled and the floors were polished boards. Jed beckoned and led them into a parlour, which in Henry’s day would be his father’s study. A coffin lay there on trestles and within it was the pale corpse of Jehoiadah Scudamore, tightly wrapped in a shroud but the delicately beautiful face still uncovered. Lit candles were set on either side of it. People had been in the room, for there were used glasses and empty plates, but only one figure was present now. The sixteen-year-old Nathaniel Corner sat on a settle, his head in his hands. He lifted his face as they looked at him, it was soiled with floods of tears now temporarily staunched.
He stood and looked down at his lover, the boy he had killed. ‘Oh Jed. Oh God, forgive me what I did. Oh God, take me soon that I may be with him.’ He cried and gave a deep moan, hanging over the coffin.
Jed whispered in their ears, ‘And he never really ever left this room in his head, for this is where his life ended. He lived on in pain, which had he been of more courage, he might have eased, by confessing. Then he could have forgiven himself. But he was too proud and too scared. He sought death, but even that he did at others’ expense.’
Henry felt moved to risk ending the vision by whispering back, ‘But Jed, what makes him any worse than the rest of us? These are things we are all guilty of. There has to be mercy for him. He knows what it was he did. And he has now at least unburdened himself to us …’
‘Nearly at the cost of your life too. Can you forgive him that, Henry Atwood?’
Henry caught the solemnity of the question, ‘I already have, Jehoiadah ... as I think you know.’ He looked in Jed’s suddenly exalted face.
The dead boy took Henry’s face in his hands, and kissed him gently on the lips. Then for once he gave a genuinely boyish grin. ‘So it appears you really have, little Henry.’ he said. Then he turned to the desolate figure at the coffin. ‘You hear that, Nathaniel? You don’t deserve your friends.’
And the boy Nathaniel turned, still looking a bit woeful. But as he caught Henry’s eye he too grinned and went to Jed’s side, taking his hand and holding it up to his lips to kiss it. Jed put his lips to his cheek. They both held out their hands to Ed and Henry and drew them close.
They embraced. Once again Henry caught a distant fragrance that was of a place which was not in this world. The modern boys were released and the reunited lovers stood hand in hand once more. There was a sound of wind, which whipped around Nathaniel and Jed, but stirred nothing else in the room, and a light grew behind them which momentarily blinded Ed and Henry.
When they blinked, they were in Dad’s study, moonlight spilling through the windows. They had to fumble for the light switch. Ed cursed as he walked into a box file. They looked at each other in wonder.
‘Er … bed?’ asked Ed, in a rather dazed fashion.