Henry and the Eschaton

IV

By Michael Arram

The leaves were falling from the plane trees in the churchyard of St Edward the Confessor, Strelzen. A litter of gold lay among the gravestones of the ex-patriot Anglican community in the Rothenian capital. Henry Atwood had got to love the small church, transplanted English Victorian Gothic in an alien Catholic country. He walked up to the Rassendyll monument at the far corner, a tall pillar supposedly commemorating the earl of Burlesdon's brother Rudolf, who had died in what was then called Strelsau in 1862. Henry was one of the few to know the secret that the tomb actually marked the last resting place of King Rudolf V of Ruritania.

The eight-o'clock service was over. His father was inside at that moment, tendering his resignation to the wardens of the Anglican chaplaincy and explaining why, in advance of the official announcement to the main congregation at the ten-o'clock Eucharist.

Flipping his mobile closed with a rueful little smile, Henry sidled up to the porch and quietly entered the back of the church. He saw his father sitting with the wardens in the front pew on the left, below the pulpit. The meeting was clearly about to end. Henry was touched to observe Mrs Allen wiping tears from her eyes. The group stood, hands were wrung and Mr Atwood turned to the vestry.

Henry, noticing his father's shoulders were down, followed him in quietly. The older man smiled when he saw who it was. Henry went for a hug and nestled there for a while. 'Are you going to be alright, dad?'

'Oh yes. It's not as bad as when I left Trewern. That was my first cure of souls after all. Still, I've got to love the strange mixture of people here in Strelzen. I'm glad we won't be leaving the city, your mum and I.'

'Me too! This is home for me and Ed, and you and mum make it more homely. Oh, and just in case you're feeling too downbeat, I had a text from Ricky and Helen. You're likely to be a granddad by this time tomorrow. She's gone into labour, so Ricky's driving her to Leeds General.'

'What?' his father screeched. 'Have you told your mum?'

'Just texted her now. She'll be packing the bags as we speak while Ed's getting the flights sorted.'

In the light of that merciful distraction, the Reverend Atwood's final Eucharist at St Edward's was less painful than might have been expected. The concern about his elder son and daughter-in-law rather distanced Mr Atwood from his own woes.

For its part, the parish was gratifyingly upset, except that is for a stony-faced group around the Wicked Wilmots, as Henry had taken to calling them. Gerry and Ann Wilmot huddled with the archdeacon after the service. Henry was outraged to see Gerry make a remark and give a covert grin when the choir spontaneously sang 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow'. He straightened his face on catching Henry's look of distaste.

Henry helped carry out Mr Atwood's vestment bags, leaving them standing by the front steps while his father shook hands with the people gathered in the churchyard. The Rothenians amongst the congregation clapped their approval of their departing minister. Ed appeared as the final good-byes were being said.

'Well, my dears, is it home or the airport?'

'The airport,' Ed confirmed. 'Mum's there already with the luggage. We'll join you in Leeds in the middle of next week. I've booked the hotel.'

'Any news yet?'

'She's in the delivery room. Your flight's from Strelzen to Leeds Bradford. You'll be there by three, British time.'

'Thanks, Ed, and thank you, Henry. You've helped no end.'

'Give our love to Helen and Ricky.'

***

Max brought Gavin the half of bitter he'd asked for while commenting he'd come out with no money. They'd been talking for half an hour, and Max was finding his new friend more than fascinating. The boy was a seductive mixture of naivety, shyness and... something else that Max couldn't quite put a name to.

'This friend of yours...?'

'Lije.'

'Are you and he...?'

Gavin laughed. 'No. Lije isn't like that. He's just a friend.'

'Do you have a boyfriend?'

'Not at the moment.'

'You did have one then, once.'

'Yes, in my first year at Cranwell. He was... amazing: funny, charming... not exactly good looking, just plain lovely.'

'What went wrong?'

'Oh, there was another boy he loved. I mean, he loved me and I loved him, but it didn't work out so he went back to the other guy.'

'Sorry? "He loved me and I loved him." That sounds like the perfect recipe for a great relationship.'

'You might think so, but sometimes life gets in the way.'

'I don't follow.'

Gavin's lips curled in his sweet smile and Max's heart melted. This boy took cuteness to heights Max had never dreamed of. Then there was his slim, interesting body. Gavin might have been on the small side - half a head shorter than Max - but he radiated fitness as if he worked out to peak condition.

'Gavin, how long will you be in Stevenage?'

'Just for today.' The boy looked sad about it, at which Max too felt a dawning unhappiness. He must try, however.

'Can I give you my IM address? Here's my Facebook site.' He scribbled a note.

'You want me to be your friend?'

Max went for it. 'I'd like you to be more than just a picture on my site. Gavin, I...'

A strange boy came up behind Gavin and stared at them both. 'What're you doing?'

Gavin looked from Max to the stranger. 'It wasn't my choice. He saw me.'

'He saw you? We have to get on. It's time.'

The stranger was bursting with impatience and his look at Max was not particularly friendly.

Max bristled. 'Is this Lije?'

'Why are all you poofs so bloody nosy? Look, why didn't you just...'

Gavin put a hand on Lije's shoulder. 'Leave it, Lije. There's something odd here that I didn't ask for. But let's go. Bye, Max, it's been great.'

'E-mail me.'

'No computer.'

'What?'

With one backward glance, Gavin followed his friend into the crowded bar. To Max it seemed as though he had literally melted into the crowd. All that was left to him was the memory of an inexpressibly sweet smile and a sudden deep internal longing.

***

Phil Maddox placed a chilled Chardonnay in front of his lover, Ben Craven. Ben knew the signal. He was seated at their dining table, a pile of files in front of him. He had lately taken to wearing glasses, and Phil thought he looked very cute in them.

Ben smiled. 'You're going to suggest something I might not like, aren't you.'

'No... well maybe, yes. You remember Max Jamroziak?'

'Of course, the sweet gay student in your department.'

'I'm thinking he needs to get out and spread his social wings a bit. Why don't I invite him to join us clubbing in London next week.'

'We're clubbing?'

'You told me you would.'

'I did?'

'You said I was to drag you out at least once a fortnight to stop you getting to be a boring workaholic executive.'

'I really don't remember that, and anyway, socialising with Matt and Andy means we fulfil my condition, doesn't it?'

'But they're babysitting Damien and Mattie in Rothenia at the moment and aren't likely to be back for a while.'

Ben laughed. 'It's okay, I don't mind. Orton's might be nice.'

'You'll do it?'

'Of course. I'd also like to see Davey, if he's there.'

'I'll e-mail him, and young Max too. I just have to be delicate about it. I don't want him to think I'm setting up a threesome between us.'

Ben looked sly. 'What if he wants to?'

Phil coughed. 'No chance! He's my student. It's... unethical.'

'I wouldn't tell.'

'Benny! You're winding me up!'

'A bit.' Ben laughed. 'I haven't been to Orton's for ages. Damn. I swore I wouldn't lose touch with Davey, especially as he's just round the corner from my office, but I have, haven't I?'

'I'm as bad as you. I'll get on it right now.'

Phil went to his workroom and tapped away at his laptop. Within half an hour he had both his answers. He returned to Ben, finding him on the sofa surrounded by papers.

'Davey suggests Tuesday. Henry and Ed will be in town on their way to Leeds.'

'Leeds?'

'Henry's about to become an uncle and wants to see the new baby. Max says he can make it any day. He seemed miserable. You can sometimes tell these things even from e-mails.'

'Tuesday it is, then.'

***

The door was sealed on Rothenian Airlines flight RX665 to Heathrow. Henry religiously checked his seatbelt and the status of his mobile phone. Ed, reading the free paper, just grunted when Henry nudged him about his electronic baggage. He knew Henry's pre-flight anxieties all too well by now.

'How many times have you watched the stewardess do her little dance?'

'You never know. One day a plane we're in could fall out of the sky on to water... then where would you be? Bet you can't remember what to do if the plane depressurises, can you?'

Ed rolled his eyes. 'I'll hold you down in the seat to stop you panicking and stuff the face mask down your throat. Honestly. And before you ask, I have turned off my mobile.'

The plane trundled out on to the apron and joined the queue for takeoff. Henry always chose the window seat. He never tired of the view of cities, towns and farmland rolling beneath him. All those separate lives and communities; how enormous the world was.

Eventually, 27,000 feet over the Rothenian province of Merz, Henry pulled his shoulder bag from underneath the seat in front and extracted several documents. Ed showed some interest and folded up his paper. 'Are these the reports on Bishop Lewis?'

'Uh huh. They were couriered over from the ministry this morning. A lot of it is routine stuff about his educational background and career, just items from news agencies, reference books and the web. There is a note that the RSS was awaiting any files the British police and security services might have on him, but I doubt anything's going to come from that direction. Just take a look at this.'

Ed browsed the thicker files. 'My word, Czech intelligence was on the case. I guess Rudi must have put some pressure on our neighbours. They've bugged his communications. This must be his office's e-mail traffic. Have you had a chance to look through all these printouts?'

Henry shook his head.

Ed bent over the files, passing sheets to Henry as he finished with them. Finally he sat back and snorted. 'It appears to me that all your suspicions are proving right. Lewis is not the man he would like to seem. Gerry and Ann Wilmot were his former parishioners at Brierley and then again at Windsor, dinner guests of his even. Look at this. He says, "Confident in the guidance of the Spirit and the Lord's strength, you should be vigilant in the new mission He has laid on you. The evil one is everywhere seeking to subvert true faith. The chaplain at Strelzen is reputed to be a good man, but weak in doctrine, a so-called "liberal", just like those we saw purged from the Temple in England. I want to be the first to know of any backsliding or immorality in his congregation."

'That was eight months ago. But he's not been witch-hunting just your dad. He's targeted at least six innocent clergy around his diocese.'

'What are the names?'

Ed read them from his notes.

Henry nodded. 'All liberals. Mind you, I'd not call Mr Mottram in Marienbad that innocent. There was some scandal with him and his churchwarden's wife, so Dad said. Hmm. If he's having a witch-hunt all over his diocese, doesn't it seem to you that it's less likely he's the apostate Fenice was talking about? After all, if he were who we fear he is, he'd be concentrating on Strelzen and Rothenia, but he's targeting other people in other archdeaconries across Europe as well.'

'He does seem to have a particular bee in his bonnet about your dad, though. Look at this. He has a list of your dad's associates and friends, all now "apostates" as he calls them.'

'He means they left and joined the Free Episcopalians. Let's see. Oh yes, Dr Thornycroft was Dad's tutor at training college, a sweet, wise man. He used to give me a smile and tell me silly jokes when I was little and we met around the college. I was big friends with Adam, his grandson. We used to play together.'

'Really? How old was he?'

'Who, Adam? We were nine or ten. We went to the same junior school. Anyway, Dr Thornycroft was one of the organisers of the Free Episcopalians. Now I think of it, he was their emissary to the Scottish and American Episcopalian churches at the time of the breakaway. They made him a bishop. No wonder this Lewis creature was suspicious of Dad. Anything else?'

'Who's Bishop Jack?'

'Pardon?' Oh. It rings a bell. John James. He's one of the Conservative Coalition's leaders, Lewis's former boss. Why?'

'A lot of the e-mail traffic is between him and Lewis. They appear chummy, but it's Bishop Jack who seems to be the main man. Lewis is very deferential, always asking his advice and... look at this. Here's Bishop Jack requesting a list of suspect clergy in the diocese of Eastern Europe, notably in Rothenia. Now why would he do that? He's got no responsibility outside his own diocese. And here he wants Lewis's opinion about the Catholic Church in Rothenia too. He seems to be using Lewis as some sort of agent.'

'John James is likely to be the next archbishop, my dad said. Everybody jumps when he twitches. He's already flexing his muscles in the wider church, I'd bet. He's the most well-known Church of England face in the world.'

'Where's he bishop of?'

'Believe it or not, it's Cranwell.'

'Cranwell has a bishop? How come I didn't know that?'

'I dunno. We used to go to the university chapel when we were there, not the parish church. Good old Reverend Joyce. I wonder what happened to her when the liberals seceded. Most of the women clergy left, as I recall.

'Anyway, Cranwell has a bishop, but the cathedral's at Grimchester, fifteen miles north of the city. Grimchester has a former abbey which looks the part of the cathedral. The first Victorian bishop located his see there while funds were being collected to build a new cathedral in Cranwell itself. But the money never turned up, so the bishop stayed at Grimchester. You must have been there.'

'Umm. Sort of touristy place? Market cross? Big church?'

'That's the one.'

'No, I've never been there.'

Henry rolled his eyes, then was struck by something. 'You're right, I don't think you have. I went there in the first year; the departmental history society did a day trip with some archaeologist bloke. I took Gavin. We gave the church a miss and made out in the abbey gardens.' He smiled at the memory. 'We were such kids then.'

***

Anthony was sitting at his desk in what was called the 'palace', but which was in fact a six-bedroom detached house on the northern outskirts of the city of Cranwell. Bishop Jack had made the sale of the old residence at Grimchester and the purchase of a new one nearer the city a condition of his acceptance of the see. The church commissioners had been happy enough to oblige. The house they had acquired was relatively modern, with a fine garden and sufficient room for the bishop's family of three daughters. It was in a quiet street in a very well-heeled suburb of the city, the sort of neighbourhood that reflected favourably on a diocesan bishop of the Church of England.

Anthony's preoccupation was noticeable even to Bishop Jack, not usually a man attentive to the moods of those around him, as Anthony knew. He gave Anthony a look as he passed the office door.

'Are you alright, Anthony? You seem abstracted. Nothing wrong, is there?'

'No, bishop.'

The bishop smiled. 'Let me know, will you, if anything's worrying you.'

'Certainly. Thank you, sir.'

'Can we get back to the local action plan? I've had the chairman of the city council in this morning. He seems very agreeable to the approach to the licensing committee. The youth in this city is out of control: binge drinking, drugs, gangs. There's finally the determination to stop it. It's all very gratifying. And if it happens here, it'll happen all over Britain.' The bishop beamed.

Anthony adopted his serious face. 'It all seems to be coming together, bishop.'

'It just needed a push, that's all. The following wind which is the Lord's purpose did the rest.' He went off along the corridor whistling.

Anthony stared after him. He was still running the conversation with the boy Enoch through his head. It was all too incredible. Sitting there, both naked, on the floor of Anthony's flat, the boy had told him the Church he had dedicated his life too, and the principles he had espoused, were all a front for the penetration of utter evil into the world.

By Enoch's account, Bishop Jack had to be in the heart of this demonic assault. Yet this was the man he had observed at close quarters for the past ten months, a man dedicated to preaching the Gospel and social action on a broad front; a loving father and a good husband.

Such was the power of Enoch's personality, however, that Anthony had listened silently, taking in his words. But when Enoch finished, the questions and incredulity surfaced.

Apparently Enoch had read his mind. He held up his hand. 'I don't expect you to believe me. You'll come to think of me as a lunatic - even if a sexy lunatic - pretty soon. Just do this much. As you go about your duties, remember what I have said. There will eventually be strange things that only make sense in the light of my words, believe me.'

'Who are you, Enoch?'

'Isn't it obvious?'

'No, it is not.'

'Darling, you are at the ford of Jabbok.'

'What?'

'I thought you knew your Genesis.' The boy got up and started putting on his clothes.

'Will we meet again?' Anthony had begun to feel distraught as soon as Enoch prepared to leave.

'I imagine so, though when and where depend on you.'

Enoch had smiled and given him a light kiss on the lips. Then he had gone. By the time Anthony struggled into a pair of pants and got to the window, there was already no sign of him in the street outside.

***

Max sat in the passenger seat next to Phil, looking so pensive as almost to be brooding. Phil kept glancing sidelong at the boy, but concluded that if Max wanted to be silent he had every right to be. It was just that Phil was used to a very different Max.

It was not until they were driving down through Enfield that Max perked up a little. 'Do you believe in love at first sight, Phil?'

'You're asking that of an English lecturer? Of course. It's part of our stock in trade. I have to believe in it.'

Max at last laughed. 'Not all your literary heroes fell instantly in love. Elizabeth and Darcy, for instance. Neither of them fancied the other in the least at first, did they?'

'No, perhaps not.'

There was a pause from the passenger seat. 'How about you and Ben?'

'That was a weird one. We first met on line, and I fell in love with his mind long before I met the body which contained it.'

'But when you did meet?'

'It was instant chemistry, that's for sure. God, what a day! I'd discovered my wife was cheating on me, I ran the car into the back of another vehicle, and met Benny, all in the space of three hours. Amazingly he totally cancelled out all the crap, and er...'

'Yes?'

'We ended up in bed together that very night... though it was not intended. Still, I don't think he was offering me a sympathy fuck. It seemed so right and so good. It's just got better ever since.'

Max was smiling now. 'So you'd admit the possibility.'

'I think love at first sight is possible, though not always destined to last. Is that what you mean? Has something happened?'

'Yes... I mean no. Nothing really. I see guys I fancy any number of times a day. But sometimes there's that extra thing. I thought it was there with Miles, but I was kidding myself.'

'And has there been another boy since?'

'Nah. Just thinking out loud really, no more than that.'

'Okay. I guess I understand.'

He drove on in silence, wondering whether indeed he did. Phil found his way past Alexandra Palace to Muswell Hill and then Highgate, having consciously to avoid taking his usual route to his home in East Finchley.

He parked in the lane at the side of Matt's London residence and led Max round the front. A thin, grey-haired lady answered the shiny front door.

'Hullo, Mrs Atkinson, is everyone here?'

She gave a small smile. 'Yes, Mr Edward and Mr Henry are here. It's just like old times, in fact even better, as we don't have that creature Justin to put up with. Mr Craven arrived a few minutes ago. They're all in the garden lounge. Can I get you and this young man something to drink?'

'What'll you have, Max?'

Max was staring at the housekeeper. 'Er... a coke, please?'

'And I'll have a white wine, whatever's in the fridge.'

Max continued to stare at the housekeeper's retreating back. 'They live in style, these friends of yours.'

'Matt and Andy are the best. Come and meet the guys.'

There was a kiss for Phil from Henry and a big bear-hug from Ed. Max's hand was thoroughly shaken by the two, then Ben, who had met him before, claimed a hug. Phil was touched to see Max add a small kiss on Ben's cheek as they embraced.

'You must have heard of Henry Atwood,' Phil commented.

'Er... sorry but I don't think so.'

Ed laughed. 'Henry's having trouble acclimatising to a city where no one knows who he is. His fame is local to Central Europe.'

Henry grinned. 'It's nice to be an ordinary mortal again.'

'Say that with a straight face, Mendamero,' Ed snorted.

Max looked puzzled at the exchange, while Henry frowned at his lover. But Ed seemed uncowed, and indeed was in a hilarious mood. 'I can't get over the fact that we're clubbing in London again after all these years.'

'It has been a while,' agreed Henry. 'I have to say that at twenty-five I feel a bit past it. I don't have a clue what the drug of choice is with the current generation.'

Everyone looked at Max, who gave a cute smile. 'All I can afford is snakebite.'

'Ooh! What does that do to you?'

Phil giggled. 'It makes you throw up. It's basically lager and cider, although there are several variations. Vile stuff.'

'See? I am past it.'

Ben shook his head. 'This is going to be a quiet night out at Davey's place in Covent Garden. It's only a Tuesday, after all. We may well be the only people there.'

Max looked a little dashed until he asked, 'Who's Davey?'

Henry grinned. 'Me old mate, Davey Skipper.'

Max's mouth sagged, then he shrieked, 'Davey Skipper! The Davey Skipper! Pop visionary and genius! Gay-sex divinity! I'll meet him! Oh my GOD!!!'

'Ooh,' exclaimed Henry archly, 'you definitely are gay. You can squeal with the best of them.'

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