David Skipper brought over two drinks and placed them in front of Ben and Phil. It was midafternoon at Orton's, which by then had emptied from the lunch crowd.
'You wait at tables?'
'Saves a salary on a slack hour of the day. 'Sides, I like it. I always envied Henry his bar work at the King's. Crazy really, as I couldn't stand the manager there. But the job has a certain romance in my eyes.'
Phil was mildly stunned. 'And Gavin, you envied him too?'
David gave him a sharp look. 'I envied Gavin lots of things, not least being in Henry's bed. I have to say I never fancied him myself, though.'
'He was very sweet, but I need a guy who's capable of taking control. Gavin was never that. One of life's sufferers, I always thought.'
University term was over, and Phil had dragged Ben out of Wardour's for a late lunch, which was no easy task. Rather as Phil had regretfully anticipated, Ben was very much a hands-on CEO. Wardour's had been shaken from top to bottom. But Phil did not mind too much. They at least slept together in their handsome two-bed flat in East Finchley - when indeed they slept.
'When're you off back to Strelzen?'
Davey grinned. 'I just couldn't believe it. Terry bought Liberation off Willemin. O'Brien Enterprises goes international! It was a knock-down price, too: the state the place was in, with Willemin's cash-flow problems.'
'Is it his trial this week?'
'Yeah, he'll plead guilty to racketeering and get a prison term, but probably suspended because he turned state's evidence and destroyed half the Albanian crime rings in Rothenia. He's moving abroad, Terry says, most likely to Slovenia where he's still got business interests. But I don't suppose we've seen the last of him.'
'What're you going to do with Liberation?'
'Terry's given me a big budget, so I'll gut it. But I think I'll try and get it back to what it was. I loved that place when I was a kid, and I doubt I'm the only one. I'll bet we can exploit a lot of nostalgia out there about its early days. Now I need to buy another place to act as prebar, so I'm going scouting with Henry down the Wejg this weekend - purely for research purposes, you understand.'
'How is the little guy?'
'Full of ideas about events nights in Liberation. It's taken him back to his bar-keeping days.'
'The examining magistrate exonerated him from the charge of homicide. The autopsy on Dressner proved that Terry's shot only took him in the shoulder. It was the roughing up by the torrent that killed him; there were massive internal injuries. That means Terry's got a clean record.'
'Where's he at the moment?'
'Still down in Haddesley with Justin. He's been there for most of the past few weeks, helping take care of Damien and giving Nathan some relief. We always used to call him Uncle Terry when we were kids. He's being a real uncle to Damien - not the easiest of kids, but Terry's won his heart. Just as well. There were some bad scenes when Justin was brought home from hospital. The kid freaked. He likes the idea of having an action-man dad, but not when his dad turns out to be mortal like the rest of us. Justin will be on office duty for the next six months at least.
'Anyway, thanks for your patronage on a quiet afternoon, but I gotta get back to such work as there is.'
Ben and Phil sipped their drinks and smiled at each other. Life was good. Ben was triumphing in the publishing field. There had already been two features in the trade papers about the new broom at Wardour's, and he was considering the offer of a regular column in the Times Literary Supplement.
Phil's academic career had been given a jolt from Dressner's death. Four publishers (but not Wardour's) were in a bidding war for his critical biography of the late Clive Dressner. He had resisted the cash offers from the tabloid press to sell his story of Dressner's final hours under the Kaleczyke Horja.
Phil was more than a little disgusted to see how Dressner was already attaining cult status in the media. He had been a debased and corrupt man whose end was a lesson as to how low wilful evil could take a man. Yet his audacity and carelessness of morality still earned him admirers. Maybe that was why Enoch and Elijah were at work in the world. Phil saw now what they had meant when they asked him to be their witness.
Ben retrieved his suit jacket - he looked gorgeous in it - they kissed, sorted out dinner, and Ben left for Long Acre.
Phil sat a while in contentment, sipping on his half-pint. He had just got to the point of wondering whether to pick up the conversation with Davey when the door darkened. It was Terry.
Davey whooped and leapt the bar, cannoning into his lover. There was a big hug and a combustible kiss. Phil admired the open and public passion between the two men. Terry and Davey were heading at speed towards the back office when Terry noticed Phil.
'Hello, Doc. Don't go, needs a word wiv yer.'
Phil grinned. 'I can wait half an hour, I've yet to read my paper.'
'Make it fifteen minutes.'
It was twenty minutes before the flushed pair reappeared, Davey with a satisfied grin on his face as he went about tidying the bar.
Terry slumped down opposite Phil, leaned over the table and kissed him on the mouth. Phil kissed the man back. Strangely, he was not bothered by the scent of tobacco clinging around Terry. Normally he would wrinkle his nose in distaste, but he realised that, like everyone else among his new friends, he had fallen a little in love with the man. He made allowances.
'Now, sweet babe, I got a thing to say to you. Yer knows that me and you are a bit more open to some of the weirdness going on around us. Well, I did a spot of investigation, it being in me line of work an' all.'
'What have you done, Terry?'
'Elijah. You said he told you he was one of Dressner's first victims.'
'Yeah. And he was thirteen when Dressner raped him.'
'Well, I suppose yer knows that doan make no sense, since it would have to have happened in the late eighties, and by your reckoning Elijah wuz about twenty. He shoulda looked in his early thirties.'
'True. But if you were seeking a rape victim, you wouldn't have found him from the press, cos Lije said he never told anyone about it.'
'I remembered that, but you also said he had suicide scars on his wrists. Yer won't like this, sweetness.'
'I spent some serious cash and searched for male suicides aged about twenty in the Basildon area around the early nineties. I found four, on whom I ran backgrounds. Take a look at this.'
Terry put a file on the table and extracted a brief newspaper article. 'PROMISING STUDENT SUICIDE. Basildon student Mark Tolmie (20) was found by his parents dead in the bathroom of their home on Thursday. Mark, a model student at the local university, was not known to be depressed and had shown no sign of suicidal tendencies. Funeral at crematorium on 17 June. Donations in lieu of flowers to Samaritans.'
Phil looked at Terry. 'There's more, isn't there.'
'I sent my man down to the cemetery, where he took this picture of the ceramic portrait on Mark's gravestone.'
Phil stared at the picture and his eyes filled with tears. Lije was peering out from eternity with a shy smile, his blue-grey eyes large and twinkling, just as they had been in Hofbau the day he and Phil had met in the bar.
'Yes, that's him, that's Elijah. Christ, so much pain. Dressner was lower than an animal. I rejoice he's where he is. Yet for all that, the boy still forgave him as the cunt was dying.'
Phil was pretty good in the kitchen. When Ben arrived home that night at seven, he was met by pasta and a sauce steaming on the table, next to a bottle of chilled Frascati ready to pour.
Ben changed into casuals, hanging his suit with the other ten he now possessed. He and Phil had the top floor of a detached house in a quiet road off the A1000. Ben had done wonders with the help of a designer, making it a flat to dream about. It was even beginning to look lived in.
Framed pictures of themselves and their friends populated a shelf: Henry, Terry, Justy, Ed, Davey, Matt and Andy were all there. There were also pictures of themselves as graduates and children. Occupying a wall of Phil's study was a series of watercolours of Strelzen which he had picked up before leaving that beautiful city.
They kissed, then chatted while they ate. Phil smiled gently across the table at his lover. As he did, he caught his own expression in a mirror and recognised it for the same one he had observed when Matt was cuddling Andy. So this was it, love and happiness, the real thing. He had what life had never before given him and he had always wanted: a soulmate.
He could listen to Ben rattle on for hours about his day, his relations with his employees and the corporation. It was not usually amusing, since humour would never be Benny's strong point. But he loved watching Ben trying to make sense of people, and sometimes he could help.
When it was not Wardour's or the university, then it was their books. They would read together, swopping titles and comments.
In between, they were still rutting like teenagers. Phil could not imagine losing his passion for Benny's lithe and responsive body. It was his highest happiness when he was sheathed inside his lover.
As they cleared away the meal and dishes, Phil remembered something important. 'Baby, I got the cheque for £97,000 from Karen and Alistair today.'
'Great, darling. What're you going to do with it?'
'I'll put £50,000 into the mortgage. As for the rest... I'd like to pay for our Christmas holiday.'
Ben grinned. 'Fantastic. Where do you fancy?'
'People usually go somewhere warm or somewhere snowy. What do you think?'
'Mmm... snowy. I love to ski, but Alex never wanted to do it. He preferred barbequing himself.'
'Fine by me. I have my intermediate certificate. Can I choose where?'
'Whistler looks amazing.'
'British Columbia it is, then.'
The door buzzer went. 'God! Are they here already?' Phil went thumping down the stairs. The neighbours were already complaining about the way his enthusiastic descent made the house shake.
Matt and Andy were at the door, their car and driver waiting outside. Phil waved at the driver. Jerry had been taken on by Matt as a chauffeur and odd-job man. Matt laughed when he said they had got him cheap; sharing a bed with Dave was part of the conditions of employment.
The two couples were often together now. They were of an age and had a lot in common. As Matt and Andy followed him back upstairs, Phil told them of the Christmas plans.
'Yeah, well, you make sure to be back in time for New Year,' Andy insisted.
'Benny'll tell you. We have a house party at Castringham to which you are invited. Most of us get there, though Benny's not been yet. Alex always dragged him off to Spain or Barbados. But this year you have no excuse.'
Ben smiled. 'There's nothing I'd like better, honest.'
'Me too.' Phil hugged and kissed Andy. He was getting more comfortable with spontaneous homosexual displays of affection.
Matt smiled. 'You'll have quite a story to tell at midnight.'
'It's a tradition started by Henry. We tell supernatural stories as the New Year begins. All too often, they're true.'
Ben looked troubled. 'You think this one is true?'
Phil nodded. 'Today I got proof of it. Terry and I found out who Elijah once was.'
He told the story and produced the photograph. 'Elijah was Mark Tolmie. There's no doubt about the identity. He was a boy whom Dressner threatened and raped, who grew up damaged to the extent that he took his own life. And then, over ten years later, he walked the earth again in Rothenia with the mysterious Gavin.'
Andy frowned. 'It appears he was a very physical sort of ghost if he could be touched and held. He also could be hurt, it seems.'
'He told me he had been brought back to summon Dressner.'
Andy nodded. 'Gavin too was seen again after he died. He turned up in Cranwell not long afterwards, Ed told me. Frank Hutchinson talked to him, large as life. These aren't ghosts. They're revenants, people who return for a purpose, although these two at least don't seem to fit the traditional definition of having been wrong-doers in life. What their purpose is in coming back is anybody's guess. But it seems to involve some sort of cosmic payback, that's for sure. And why did they choose the names Enoch and Elijah?'
'I think I can tell you that,' mused Matt. 'One of the fashionable medieval apocalyptic books was the Liber de Antichristo. Although it's mostly fantasy, it does say that Enoch and Elijah were two Biblical characters not bound by death. As a special favour they were permitted to live between worlds. That's why your boys picked those names.'
Andy smiled. 'That's crediting Gavin with more reading than I would have believed him capable of. He was a Hollyoaks-watching, Big Brother addict, bless him. Sweet, but no great intellect.'
'People can grow, Andy,' replied Matt. 'And Gavin was a much deeper character than he ever showed, as became clear at the end.'
Phil sighed. 'Perhaps you'd better tell us the full story. So we know.'
Matt was willing. 'But let's get to the club first, the car's waiting.'
It was midnight and several drinks later by the time the story was finished. Phil was deeply pensive after Matt had imparted the last detail and speculation.
The week before Christmas and the day before they flew to Vancouver, Ben and Phil loaded Phil's Clio and headed north. They were mostly silent as the M1 gave way to the M62. There had been a weakening in the home front when Ben's mother had not hung up on his last call. He had told her they would visit Keighley before leaving on vacation.
The Craven house was in a long sandstone terrace, with gardens running down to the road. Phil looked around and out over the valley, where slate roofs and former mills clustered. So this was the place in which his Benny had lived and grown as a boy. He could imagine the shock-haired child of the photograph playing on this very path.
Ben straightened his woollen jacket and tied his scarf. He looked handsome and prosperous, and to Phil's eyes very desirable.
'I won't kiss you or hold your hand or call you "baby", Bennyboy. But you know I'd like to do all those things, don't you?'
'I love you.'
'I love you so much. This is the right thing, even though it may end up hurting.'
The door was opened by Mr Craven, who stared coldly at them from under his bushy eyebrows. He was as tall as his son. 'So yer here.' He had a thick West Yorkshire accent.
'Unn who's this?'
'This is Philip, my partner.'
'What happund to t'other one?'
'We split up.'
'Cheating on yer?'
'So it's true about yer sort, then.'
'It's true we're no more to be trusted than straight people, if that's what you meant.'
'Yer'd better coom in. Mother has tea ready.'
'It's for her I'm doin' this, not you. She frets so I can hardly stand it. We're neither of us getting any younger.'
It was not a comfortable half hour, but the Ben who left his parents' house was not the one who had entered it. A deep mark of unhappiness had been erased, and Phil could sense Ben's lightness of heart. He'd left cards and presents which had not been pushed back into his hands. His mother pressed a card on him as he left, kissing Ben out of sight of his father.
So when Phil suggested a night on Canal Street, there was no objection. They had an excellent meal in a basement restaurant, followed by a number of drinks in the canal-side bars. They compared it favourably with the Wejg. They would have gone on to a club, but their flight to Canada was early the next day.
'Don't fuckin' crush me like that!'
'Thought you were better, Justy.'
'Well I am, but I get this twinge in me shoulder, an' it fuckin' hurts.'
Nathan loomed over them both. Phil looked at him curiously: so this was the man who had tamed Justin Macavoy. He was well-built and square-faced, and obviously spent a lot of time outdoors. Phil admired his breadth of shoulder and easy grin.
'It's your own fault, chavvy babe. You would throw Damien around like an idiot. No wonder the wound reopened. Hi, Phil. I'm Nathan Underwood, Justin's better three-quarters.'
They shook hands, then Nathan helped Ben with the bags. Castringham Hall was a small stately home which Andy Peacher used as his English base. It kept him close to his father and also to Justin and Nathan, who ran a garden centre in the next parish.
Andy was waiting to greet them. Moments later, Ben was taken away by Matt for a consultation about a current project.
Phil thought he'd look over the frost-rimed garden. He tied his scarf close around his neck and sallied out into the cold. Everything was neat and tidied away for winter. The fishpond had a thin glaze of ice. The sun was bright and, though his breath steamed in the cold, he felt invigorated. He and Ben had enjoyed a magnificent ten days in the Rocky Mountains, including a gloriously boozy Christmas with a group of American gays they had befriended. He was happier than he had ever been in his life.
While following a long pergola path at the back of the house, he noticed someone walking ahead of him. When he reached the end of the path the person was gone, but as he turned into a small formal garden, he saw the same man standing at an opening to what seemed to be a privet maze. The man turned and looked at him. There was something about the face which cause Phil's hair to prickle on the back of his neck.
Phil hurried to the maze and plunged into it. Small though it may have been, its passages were infernally difficult to untangle. Twice he sensed a dark figure passing by on the other side of the hedge. He seemed to be going around in circles, which he knew was impossible. Eventually he took a mark on what might have been the tip of an obelisk at the other end, and steered a path that headed towards it. Abruptly he emerged in a walled garden with a low battlement around three sides and a fountain in the centre. The obelisk rose out of the fountain sculpture.
A young man - hardly more than a boy - was sitting at ease on a bench. He gave Phil a tight grin.
'Hello, Phil. Sorry, I made that harder than it needed to be.'
'Why are you here... God! There's not going to be another death, is there?'
'No, nothing like that.'
Phil strode towards the bench and looked down at the boy, who was wearing a light coat and a scarf. 'You feel the cold then?'
'Sure. Of course. What do you take me for?'
'A boy called Mark Tolmie, who died over a decade ago.'
Elijah was surprised, he could tell. So the revenant was not omniscient. He reached out and took the boy's left arm, pushing back the cuff. There were the healed scars, as before. The skin was warm and a pulse beat in the wrist.
'What are you?'
'I think I told you in Hofbau. I have a ministry.'
'And Gavin Price, the so-called Enoch?'
'He is my leader, the Keeper.'
'Keeper of what?'
'Something too powerful for it to be safely left unguarded. Henry knows.'
'But what about you and Dressner?'
'He came within the boundaries of a land which would not tolerate his evil. So I was... recruited.'
'And now Dressner's dead...'
'Enoch and I work well together, even if he is a poof. He wants me to stay with him. I suspect his motives. Tell me, you're gay, do I rate as cute?'
Phil laughed suddenly. 'Yes, you do.'
Elijah laughed with him. 'See, you're getting to accept it.'
'You want something from me, don't you.'
Elijah sobered and gave him a narrow glance. 'Maybe. Look. I've written a letter. When I... did this...' He indicated his wrists. '... I left no note. It was stupid, and my parents have been in limbo ever since, as well as traumatised. God help me, if they'd known why I did it, maybe they could have understood, or at least have felt some ease.'
'You're giving me a decade-late suicide note to deliver? Lije, how do you think I can get it to them?'
'They left our... their... house years ago. You can find an excuse. Send it to them. Say you're a surveyor or an estate agent and found it taking up the floorboards in my old bedroom - it was the back one, above the kitchen. Here's their new address.'
'Does Enoch... Gavin... know you're doing this?'
'Dunno. Maybe. He was allowed to settle things before he left. This is my chance. You're my only possibility, Phil. Please!' The blue eyes pleaded.
'Do you ever go back to look at your parents?'
The boy shook his head. 'No. I can't do that. I know that one day we'll be together again, and when their time comes I'll be waiting for them.'
Phil sat down next to the boy. 'Do something for me, then.'
'I know what it is.'
'Do you? I may have wanted to know the secret of life, the universe and everything.'
'No, you just want to be believed. I can do that much.' Seeing Phil hovering on the edge of a move, Elijah sniggered. 'Phil, please don't try to kiss me. Why do you gays always think that deep down all men are like you, or would be if they could? We're just not interested.'
As Phil smirked, there was a sudden rustle in the maze and two eight-year-old boys shot into the garden. Phil knew one of them straightaway, the elfin looks and shock of dark hair announcing Damien Macavoy. Although he didn't recognise the other lad, he knew that Damien's best friend was Mattie Oscott, Matt and Andy's godson.
Damien stopped and squared up to the two men, adopting an attitude just like his father's. 'Watchu doin in our fort?'
'Sorry, I didn't know,' smiled Elijah. 'Phil and I were just talking.'
'I'm Elijah, or Lije for short.'
'I doan know you. You're not one of Grandad Andy's friends.'
'I'm with Phil here. He's a guest.'
'Anyway. This is our fort.'
As he and Elijah walked away, Phil heard Damien say to the other boy, 'They're fookin weirdos.'
Elijah paused, grinned at the youngsters, and suddenly - like the Cheshire Cat - was not there.
'Fookin Nora!! Did yer see that? Did yer see that, mister? That 'Lija juss disappeared! Like fookin' David Copperfield.'
Damien Macavoy was clearly not one to be struck dumb by astonishment. He grabbed his friend's arm and ran off shouting, 'Gotta tell dad! Gotta tell Nathan!'
In the meantime, Phil stood in the quiet little garden in the sunlight, looking down at the manila envelope he held in his hand. It was addressed in faded biro, 'To Mum and Dad'. It appeared to be over a decade old. He opened it, as he knew he must, for how else would he have found out whom it was intended for? He paced the gravel as he read the letter inside, then slumped on a cold bench and wept.
He was still there, head in his hands, when Ben sat beside him and took him round the shoulders.
Phil looked up with wet eyes. 'Baby, I love you. There's so much unhappiness in the world. But I know this, if we told the people we love that we love them, there'd be a lot less of it.'
'And I love you too. You're my man. You changed my life. It's all you now. We'll never part, I feel it.'
They embraced, and were still holding each other tight when Nathan and Justin came running through the maze, following the two boys.
Justin gazed around. 'What just happened?'
A last tear slid down Phil's cheek. 'Closure.'
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