‘I wish I’d asked him if he was crappy at cricket too,’ mused Henry.
‘I wish you’d asked him what the afterlife is like … if God exists, if there’s intelligent life on other planets,’ retorted Ed.
‘I’m willing to wait to find out the answers to those questions. I’ve come as near death as I want for the next fifty years at least, thank you very much.’
Ed mused in his turn, ‘You liked him a lot, didn’t you?’
Henry gave a start, ‘Jed? Yeah, he was really something, and you had your dick in him, so don’t get jealous, if that’s what this is all about.’
‘No, no. Anyway, how could I be jealous of a dead kid? But he sort of homed in on you. It was like he was resurrected just to be your guardian angel. And he was aware of you too. He knew things about you, cared about you ... you in particular. So what I mean is, that in his case human love survived death. He loved his Nathaniel, irritating prat though he was, and he loved you too.’
‘Mmm. I suppose there’s a lesson in this Ed?’
‘No. Just saying that death may not be what it’s cracked up to be.’
‘So I hope too.’
Edward and Henry could not stop returning again and again to the events of November 5th. It was now near the end of term and Christmas was coming fast upon them. Edward would be disappearing up to London tomorrow as term ended, and the boys were in the sixth form common room, sorting out books and homework. Ed was now seventeen, and Henry would be having his birthday next month. Life had gone on. They had heard from Highgate that Justin and Nathan had finally taken the plunge and moved to Ipswich. Their friends had set up home in a cottage next to Uncle Phil’s garden centre, and Nathan would start as its manager in the new year. An amusing series of e-mails from Nathan was charting Justin’s transition from city boy to country gent.
Andy and Matt were moping, missing the boys, and Ed was about to be greeted with enthusiasm, although how he was supposed to stand in for a force of nature like Justin was more than Ed could understand. Henry was going to join him after Boxing Day, when his parents were off on holiday with his grandparents in Spain.
It had been a glorious school term despite the uncanny distractions. Henry’s B team had won not a single game, but as Mr Walker said, with some irritation, he had never encountered a team that lost with such style and so cheerfully. Henry felt complimented.
They trotted down to chapel and the school carol service. They did not occupy adjacent stalls as that would have been against their low key philosophy. Henry was so happy that day that he decided to sing out the familiar carols, until Mark Peters thumped his arm and told him to pack it in.
Ricky arrived back from Manchester that evening, along with the dreaded Rachel. Ricky hugged and kissed everyone, but Rachel just shook hands. Her body language was something to see. Henry finally realised that she was desperately shy, but even so the fact that she sought defence in casual and thoughtless rudeness did not endear her to him. Her allusion to Henry still possibly believing in Father Christmas, clearly meant to be funny, came over as cold and patronising.
Her evening sermon was on the subject of Christmas as an essentially pagan reaction to the dark season of the year. Dad had some mild things to say about the subject of renewal and hope hardly being pagan themes, but this was steamrollered in the usual way, with the implication that the opinion of a man who professed to believe in the fictions of religion was hardly worth listening to.
Mum smiled and said that once you’d had children you tended to think differently about such things, which for her was aggressive retaliation. Rachel laughed once more, and said that Richard and her had decided that children were not for them. Richard looked as though this was news to him and for once intervened.
‘Rachel, I don’t think that’s something we’ve discussed.’
‘Did we not? But you know my views, Richard. After all, it is me who would have to go through the pain and the squalor of it all.’
Mum snapped. ‘Let me tell you, Rachel,’ she came in heatedly, ‘there may be pain and there may be squalor at childbirth, but if that’s all you can focus on, you’ve lost the plot about life and about being a woman. Out of the discomfort — which I can tell you all about — comes precious new life. My two boys were the greatest gift to us that ever could have been. I’d go through ten times as much pain for the pleasure and love they’ve given me.’
‘Er … now, now Mum,’ intervened Richard, aware of quite how hotheaded Mum could be when she lost it.
‘Oh, I was not meaning to talk about particular cases, Mrs Atwood. But after all, children are hostages to fortune. They don’t always turn out the way you’d like and expect. Take Henry, now.’
‘What!’ all the Atwoods cried together.
She ploughed on oblivious, in her intellectual dreamworld. ‘I’m sure he was quite a nice little boy, but he’s grown up to be homosexual, which can only be a terrible problem for Mr Atwood in his situation. Not only do you have the worry of what might become of him in the gay underworld, but Mr Atwood’s job has to be on the line because he’s encouraging a scandalous and faintly disgusting affair between two teenage boys.’
They sat with mouths open. Mum looked at Dad, and Dad looked at Ricky. No one looked at Henry. Ricky finally said, perfectly calmly, ‘I think there’s a train at Church Stretton at five, which’ll get you home by nine Rachel.’
‘It’s time you left. I won’t have my parents and Henry insulted by this sort of rudeness.’
‘I’m sorry, Richard, but I was just speaking my mind,’ she retorted, bridling up. ‘After all, you know I don’t suffer fools gladly.’
And then Dad said, mildly, ‘So how do you live with yourself?’
It earned him Henry’s eternal respect.
Ricky moped for a few days, but he loved Christmas and he brightened up. He particularly brightened up when Mark Peters’s eldest sister returned from university and he met her at a live music night in the King Billy. They didn’t see him much for the rest of the holiday.
It was as Henry was packing to get the London train two days after Christmas, that Dad sidled into his room.
‘You okay, love?’
‘What do you mean, Dad?’
‘You shouldn’t take to heart the thoughtless prattling of that Rachel girl. No one here thinks the less of me or of you because you’re in love with Ed. Dr and Mrs Mac even said you two were very sweet together, and I thought he was an old Tory.’
‘I guess. But I know that not everyone is okay with gay Henry, that would just be expecting too much, eh? But we’ll soldier on, me and Ed. We’re only seventeen, for heaven’s sake. We’ve got A levels and university to worry about yet, before there’s the rest of our lives.’
‘I love you Henry, more and more each day, the more I see you rise to life and its challenges.’
‘Then that’s all that counts isn’t it?’ said Henry, and hugged his father, resting his head on his shoulder. He felt a kiss on his hair.
Despite surviving the Strelzen tram system, Henry was nearly defeated by the Northern Line. He got on the wrong branch, and when he traced his route back, he was stuck in a tunnel at Camden Town for a half hour, the tube getting hotter and the people more annoyed. There was no car to meet him at Highgate tube station, and his mobile hadn’t worked underground. He flipped it and got Ed.
‘Hey little babe, where are you?’
‘Tube station down the road.’
‘I shall run to meet you immediately.’ And he did, coming pounding down the hill and kissing Henry in the darkening street, quite careless of sideways glances. He took Henry’s case and trundled it along behind them. The Highgate house was quite full. Matt and Andy had decided to have a house party between Christmas and New Year, and Will, Felip and Oskar were in the hall to give Henry hugs and kisses. Matt’s brother, Carl, and cousin Katy were there, and there seemed to be a thing going on between the pair, so far as Henry could make out. When he mentioned this to Matt, the older man was gobsmacked.
‘Well, haven’t you seen the way they always sort of are sitting in the same sofa and find excuses to go down into the village together?’
‘But he’s a totally committed sportsman … he even timetables his affairs!’
‘Looks like he’s found an opening in his busy schedule then.’
‘Blimey,’ Matt looked stunned, ‘I’d never even considered the possibility. What will my mum say? She can’t stand Katy’s side of the family.’
On New Year’s Eve, the house was full of friends, and Justin and Nathan came up from Suffolk. The four friends disappeared into Ed’s room and got an update on what had happened since Bonfire Night. ‘Nothing,’ announced Henry.
‘Phew,’ Nathan replied, ‘Then that can only be good. Nathaniel’s at rest with his Jed and all is well.’
‘So how are you?’
Justin grinned, ‘Up to me knees in compost and loving it. S’great being yer own boss, not that working at Andersons was that bad, but we can do our own thing now. Nate’s rearranging the greenhouses and now the Christmas trees are gone, we’re replanning the yard. I got this idea of doin’ a line in pet supplies. Me theory is that yer typical gardener is big into pets too. So yer combine the two. Uncle Phil seems to like the idea, bein a huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’ type of bloke.’
Nathan added, ‘Have you heard the big news? Andy’s bought the next estate to Uncle Phil’s as his English base. So we get to see him a lot …’
‘… yeah,’ laughed Justin, ‘and we makes sure he buys his plants from us too!’
The front doorbell rang. They piled out and down the stairs, Justin sliding down the bannisters and leaping into the arms of a tall, blond American man in the hall, and almost knocking him down. Oskar came up fast. ‘You alright Pete, shall I have this animal put outside?’
‘Hey Justy, man! Kiss and hug.’ The two went at it almost as if they were lovers. Justin introduced Peter Peacher to Ed and Henry. They shook hands. Oskar then had his turn and led his boyfriend upstairs rather urgently.
‘We know what yer doin!’ yelled Justin after them.
But there were two blond Americans at the door, a boy of Henry’s age was standing there waiting to be noticed. Justin grabbed him too.
‘Don’t fuckin’ hug me, ya pervert,’ the boy said. ‘You know I’m not gay.’
‘Christ, you’ve grown, Eddie!’ Justin said. ‘OK … er, Eddie Peacher, you don’t know Henry Atwood and the new Peacher acquisition, Ed Cornish. Guys, this is the youngest Peacher boy, Eddie. He’s a twin … which reminds me, where’s your sister, Harriet?’
‘Shopping in Paris with Sylvia. She’s gotten all girlie this past year. Can hardly talk to her nowadays, that’s why I tagged along with Petey. I need the male company, and even queers will do. I take it Ed and Henry are …’
‘Sorry,’ said Henry.
Eddie grinned at Henry, reminding him irresistibly of Fritz. He was not a particularly handsome boy — although he had that wholesome, freckled and outdoor air that some American youths seem to acquire — nor was he all that tall. He was taller than Henry, but only just came up to his Ed’s eyes. The American put out his hand and gave Henry and Ed a friendly grin and a shake. They walked him into the lounge and started swapping their life stories, as boys do.
Everybody sat round with drinks in the big back lounge waiting for the chimes of Big Ben with the TV subdued in the background. Champagne was on ice and the tables were crammed with food. Andy was snuggled into Matt and there were several other couples being intimate.
‘You know what’s traditional on this night?
‘What?’ said Katy.
‘Ghost stories. Anyone got a horror film they want to watch? Maybe a short story to read. I’ve got all the M.R. James books. Matt reads well.’
Justin, Nathan and Ed looked at Henry. He thought about it and decided that the time perhaps had come.
‘Er … well,’ he said, ‘I’ve got a story … and it’s true, what’s more.’