Henry in Finkle Road

IV

By Michael Arram

'So there is a virus loose in the intellects of the western world.' Paul Oscott was pacing the dais of the large lecture theatre in Coulson Hall. He spoke entirely without notes - which was awesome - striding around and gesturing. The whole man worked at putting over his message. His delivery was flawless and sometimes dramatic, with superb use of the strategic pause and magnificent comic timing when he made a joke.

Henry whispered to Eddie, 'The guy is brilliant.' He was shushed by a dozen rapt students. There were so many in the theatre that they were sitting on the steps of the aisles.

'Conspiracy. What is it? It's a virus, no more no less. It's a disfunction of the intellect spread from one mind to another by means of contaminated material... in most cases, books. It attacks the ability to reason. This is the way it works. Whenever we make a deduction, it's based on whatever is the most likely of several possible solutions; we call it Occam's razor. This is exactly where the virus attacks. It attacks through a mechanism we call “cui bono”; “who benefits”. Normally, when you make a deduction about who is responsible for the occurrence of an event, you take into account who was obviously going to gain from it, and you use that to indicate where the finger of suspicion should point.

'The conspiracy virus causes that particular intellectual organ to swell up and get inflamed. It takes over the whole process. Occam's razor is blunted. Explanations get tied up with more and more elaborate scenarios as to how events came to happen, and the speculation becomes feverish, uncheckable by any aspirin of cold logic.'

'Let's see what we mean with today's set chapter from Alastair Bannow. In his 2001 blockbuster, The Millennium Code, he suggested that the CIA had been operating an alternative foreign policy for the USA for four decades. Well, fine, I can go along with that. It seems likely enough to me. But it's not enough for Dr Bannow. There has to be a mastermind behind it all: a grandmaster of the intelligence community; a secret committee of huge influence; a series of compromised and blackmailed presidents. The death of Marilyn Monroe, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam... even the Falklands War, all come about by the manoeuvrings of the secret intelligence order. But that's still not enough. The desire for power and the money involved subvert even the KGB into the CIA's web. The Cold War was an illusion... it was all a conspiracy to bring KGB director Vladimir Putin to power and combine the resources of two intelligence superpowers in a single CIA-inspired world order.

'OK. It's possible... vaguely... but where is Occam in all this? Is it likely? Of course it's not likely. It's stunningly UNLIKELY! But Dr Bannow has a way with words. And we can see the processes of the virus at work if we look here at p.43...' A paragraph appeared on a PowerPoint screen, and Paul began dissecting it brilliantly, exposing the half-truths, the inaccuracies, the faulty premises and obscured chronology.

The fifty-minute lecture slot flew by and, when Paul wrapped up, a storm of applause cascaded down from the raked benches. He smiled and acknowledged the approval, and turned to the crowd of students who came down to the platform to pick up points he'd made or, as in the case of some females, simply to smile at him. He took it all in his long stride.

Eddie and Henry hung round outside till Paul emerged twenty minutes later. He took them round the shoulders and led them up to his tiny office in the English department.

'Paulie, that was amazing,' said Eddie, with an awesome carelessness of respect for a lecturer. But Paul Oscott was a family friend of the Peachers' and had known Eddie since the boy was ten.

'Totally brilliant!' echoed Henry.

'Well, thank you, guys,' Paul grinned. 'It makes all my expensive education worthwhile to hear you say that.'

'So are you telling me that Bannow is a con man, or just self-deluding?' Henry asked, intrigued.

'No, he's a very clever man, and quite a scholar in his way. He really believes the stuff he comes out with. But his intellect has no checks and balances. If he sees an idea that appeals, he doesn't criticise it, he just looks for ways of making it appear true. Yet his laziness hasn't stopped him getting very, very rich. He appeals to that part of the population which believes that hidden powers exist out there trying to do us down, and if we could just work out the secret we too could have power over the universe. He's a modern Gnostic.'

'A what-stic?'

'It's an ancient way of looking at the world, Eddie. Gnostics believe in an arcane power controlling the universe, and that it is obtainable by learning secret names and gaining domination over the inner workings of the natural order. Freemasons, illuminati, Templars, the Priory of Sion, they're all Gnostic bugbears. Gnostics used to be Satanists; today they're conspiracy theorists.'

'I'm reading his latest book now,' said Henry. 'Should I throw it in the bin?'

'Certainly not. Read it through. It's compelling stuff and very well written. Just look out for the traces of the virus. You'll find it quite surprising in places, Henry.'

Paul opened his office and sat them down in odd corners. 'Now then, lads, I have you here because Andy wants me to make sure Eddie's eating properly. So, can you both come to Sunday lunch with Rachel, Mattie and me?'

They grinned and agreed readily. Henry was quickly learning that free meals were lifesavers for students, and never to be refused. Eddie simply did not want to prepare food, and was happy to have others to do it for him.

David and Henry met up that Tuesday evening for a quiet drink in the Union bar. David kept staring at Henry's piercing. 'Awesome, Outfield mate, awesome.'

'What, a little piece of metal stuck in my head?'

'It's the message, Henry. It's so un-Medwardine. For that matter it's so un-Trewern. It's a challenge. Everyone you know will have to reassess you now. You gonna go further? Ears? Nips? Navel? Dick?'

'I may go for an earring, or a nipple ring. Why not? But a piercing in my frenulum ... now that would have given Ed a shock, wouldn't it?'

'Still thinking about him daily, are we?'

'Down to once every two days, now. Seriously, the piercing is helping. That's why I did it. It's a symbol of Henry moving on. I'm not the schoolboy I was. I am a man in control of my own life.'

'And if Ed turned up this moment and asked you to go to bed with him?'

'I'd throw off my clothes here in the bar and go down on all fours.'

'Rather thought so.' David sipped his whisky and water, then glanced across the bar and coughed. 'Fucking hell!'

Henry followed his gaze and almost dropped his gin and tonic. On a table together were Wayne Clanchy and Gavin Price, having a drink. Henry stared open-mouthed at David. Gavin caught their eyes and looked embarrassed. Wayne on the other hand looked smug and, Henry thought, triumphant.

Henry got up and went over. 'How's your bum, Gavin?'

Gavin blushed. 'Oh... fine now, thanks for asking.'

'And since we're on the subject of bums, what are you doing talking with this arsehole?'

'Watch your mouth, Atwood,' Wayne sneered.

'Or what?' said David, coming up behind Henry.

Gavin made twitchy pacifying gestures. 'It's OK, honest. Wayne's been explaining that it was all a mistake. He'd never done anal before and it was as upsetting for him as for me.'

'Oh yeah... obviously,' David interjected.

'Anyway, he's said sorry and he's trying to make it up to me.'

'That right, Wayne?' Henry asked.

'Whatever you two think, I'm sorry it happened and I admit my mistake. Gavin understands, don't you little mate?' He caressed Gavin's cheek with the back of his hand, and the smaller boy smiled and shifted in his seat.

'Then best of British,' said David and guided Henry back to their drinks. When they had sat down, he added, 'And what the fuck do you make of that, Henry?'

Henry looked a little mournful. 'His low self-esteem, I should imagine. He's got a personality like a piece of plasticine: you can mould it any way you like if you say the right things. Wayne of course wants a home for his dick, and I don't doubt that Gavin will be persuaded to put his sorry little bum in the air again soon enough. But it's not our problem.' He sighed.

David was pointedly not saying I told you so. Instead, he took Henry's hand and squeezed it. Henry's eyes filled. He appreciated the support and gave David a quick kiss when he was sure no one could see.

On Wednesday, Henry braced himself for an unpleasant duty he could not excuse himself from. His student loan was leaking away so quickly it was scary, although he was trying his best not to spend anything. So he took the back lanes behind High Street and came to the shabby Victorian premises of the King's Cross Tavern. A faded and peeling inn sign hanging over the door showed a furious-looking medieval monarch with his hand on his sword. Very amusing.

As a pub, it would have looked much like any other run-down drinking hole in need of a refit, had it not been for the sizing-up the few groups of midday drinkers gave him. There was definitely an air of sexual interest. Henry knew he was not pretty, but he still had the sort of face that turned heads, and a nice bum too.

He went straight to the bar. There was no one there. A shaven-headed regular came up close, a little too close. 'Lookin for someone, kid?'

'Frank, the manager,' Henry said firmly, with an unsympathetic look on his face.

'Not your type, am I?'

'Sorry. Allergic to denim.'

A brusque guffaw drew Henry's attention to a side door in the bar, where a wizened older guy of indeterminate age had appeared. 'Want a drink?'

'Er, no.'

'Then you've come to the wrong place, haven't you.'

'I don't think so. Terry O'Brien told me I should come in and say hello.'

'You're one of Terry's boys?'

'One of his friends, yes.'

'We know about Terry and dark-haired little boys like you.'

Henry struggled to get to the point, so he could acquit his conscience and leave. 'Terry said you're always looking for bar help cos you're a miserable old cunt - I think those were his words - and he thinks I could do a good job.'

There was a shocked silence and then half the bar erupted. He heard comments like 'Good old Terry!' and 'Fuckin' got you right there, didn't he, Frank!'

Frank stared at Henry. 'You want a job, and you can't even ask politely?'

'No. Can I go now?'

'Bloody well not. Job's yours. I want you here so I can make your life a misery, you cheeky little git. When can you start?'

'I can do Wednesdays to Saturdays.'

'You can do six to ten tonight. What's your name?'

'Henry Atwood.'

'Bring in your National Insurance details with you when you come. It's six-fifty an hour. You keep the tips, but since no one in this place ever tips, you won't make much from that. White shirt, black trousers and shoes, OK?'

'Sure.'

'And no picking up customers. I won't have that. The last bar help I had was a fuckin' rent boy on the side, it turned out. Got the police interested in the place, an interest I like to discourage.'

Henry left sweating and in two minds about his success. The place was ghastly, and Frank was tiresomely and tirelessly rude. Henry was still the polite and deferential boy his parents had brought him up to be. But he needed the money and this horrible place paid better than Burger King or McDonald's.

He popped round to David's flat, which was only a few blocks away, and found him in. They sat and nursed coffees for a while at the stylish kitchen bar with its polished granite top and Swedish smoked-glass ashtrays (Terry still smoked).

'So you need the money, Henry. You must really need it to go there.'

'It's not so bad. I hope. Terry survived the King's Cross for the best part of three years.'

'Yes, this would be my Terry, who carries a gun and is proficient in all forms of hand-to-hand combat.'

'The bar-keeping was before he got into security.'

David smiled. 'He told me it was his quick wit and ability to think up cheery insults that got him through. Are you up to that?'

'I did some practice while I was there... it seemed to go down well. I insulted the manager mortally, and he still gave me a job. Not a bad start. Can you lend me a white shirt?'

'Sure. Take your pick. They'll be a little too big for you, but you can roll the sleeves up.'

'Thanks Davey. I don't know what I'd do without you at the moment.'

'Lonely is it?'

'Yeah.'

'Ring him up, Henry. I bet he's thinking just the same. Maybe you jumped the gun ending it like that. I know it was logical, but logic and love are not necessarily compatible. We have it on the authority of Mr Spock himself.'

'I can't Davey, and it's not just pride. We were kids when we fell for each other. If I'd stayed with him, I'd never have grown up. And although it's hard, I have no doubt that I'm in the right place doing the right thing.' He tried hard in his loneliness to believe that.

Henry turned up at the King's Cross at five-forty-five, as his personal work ethic demanded. Frank seemed to have things on his mind, so Henry got no more than a casual savaging while he learned to pull pints and operate the till. He was very nervous serving his first customer, and got flustered with the till codes. But the customers were tolerant. Then he noticed that some of them were only coming over to have a closer view of him. He was pissed off when he realised that one middle-aged customer's indecision about what bottle of lager to buy was only so he could have an extended view of Henry's bum as he bent down. Henry scored with the regulars by thumping the bottle down on the bar mat and saying he was charging the guy extra for the view of his arse in action. It was fortunately a quiet night, although Frank told him that Friday would be hectic.

It was as well that Henry was not a conspiracy theorist, because life seemed out to get him at that particular moment. After his Thursday morning theology lecture on modern Christology, he was walking down College Road towards the Union when a group of laughing students passed. One turned round saying loudly, 'Poster boy!' while his friends shushed him. Henry stared after them puzzled. They seemed to be having some sort of private joke at his expense. He checked his flies.

Henry found out what the joke was when he ran up the Union stairs. There were boards out advertising a poster sale. It suddenly occurred to him that he had not yet done the student thing and got one or other of those definitive student icons: the two lesbians kissing; the Che Guevara; the front doors of Georgian Dublin. The sale was in the big space of the Union foyer, and the posters were displayed lying on the floor or mounted on cardboard, leaning against the wall. Others were in racks. And right in front of him was a stunning black-and-white poster of two attractive and half-dressed boys obviously very much in love. One of them was Henry and the other one was his ex-boyfriend, Edward Cornish. Henry recognised it. It was one of a set taken the year before in Strelzen by the famous Rothenian photographer, Bolslaw Meric. Henry knew the particular plate had already featured in a book of Bolslaw's art, under the title 'Achilles and Patroclus'. It seemed the poster industry had snapped it up, and Henry was going to be famous, like it or not. 'Oh fuck,' he said. He didn't buy a copy.

'Hey Henry,' Eddie greeted him as he emerged from the bar.

'Just call me Pat,' Henry groaned.

'What?'

'Don't ask.'

'Glad I saw you, faggot.' Henry winced. 'Gonna have our first party, man! Told the guys it'll be open house at No 25 Saturday night.'

'Oh God! Please no.'

'Where's your sense of adventure, Henry? We're students. We party. What's the problem?'

'I need to sleep, Eddie. I'll be working till closing time Saturday and I'll just want to crash after that, not pick my way through empty bottles and shagging couples, or whatever else happens on our floor. Have you talked to Justin about this?'

'Justy? Come on. He's the help. He can wear a penguin suit and serve drinks for all I care.'

'I think you should run it past him. There may be security implications.'

'Yeah, yeah. Buy you a drink?'

'It's only eleven-thirty. I'll pass. I'm doing the afternoon shift at the pub.'

Henry staggered home and looked for Justin, who was lying on his bed playing on his PSP. 'Henry babe!' he called out, a little abstractedly.

'Have you heard Eddie's plan?'

'Eddie has a plan?'

'He wants a big party here Saturday night.'

Justin looked up, clearly annoyed. 'How big a party?'

'He seems to have invited all his drunken mates, and no doubt word will get round.'

'Damn right it will. Y'know the students have decided that you and David are dark horses. You in particular are already famous in the first year for being way out and well-connected.'

'Me?'

'Oh yes, Henry, quiet little you. That poster's all over the place. You're famous, little babe. There's a lot of interest in you guys. Fortunately, Eddie's being overshadowed by you two gays, and no one's put two and two together yet. When word of a party gets out, though, they'll all be here, and some of them won't be very welcome so far as I'm concerned. Drug pushers, gays who want to shag you and David or girls who want to shag Eddie. Kiss-and-tell tarts, looking to make money with the paps and the press. I can't do me job if the party gets out of control. He'll have to think again.'

'Well he isn't going to.'

'We shall see.'

Eddie Peacher steamed ahead. He began flexing his serious plastic, and two steel barrels of his favourite beer, with dispensers, arrived on a lorry. Cans and bottles were stacking in the kitchen, masses of meat for a barbie occupied the fridge. Helium balloons, Chinese firecrackers, boxes of fireworks and all sorts of miscellaneous supplies were stacked in the lounge. Eddie's energy and organisation in pursuit of enjoyment were remarkable.

When Justin objected, Eddie just smiled and ignored him. Henry left for work at six on the Saturday evening with a despairing look at Justin, whose face was set hard. 'Please, Justy, do something!' he pleaded.

'OK. I will. But you won't like it.'

'What are you going to do?'

'Buy a lot of plastic buckets,' he said.

'What? Why?'

Justin's grim face cracked, and the Machiavellian imp never far below the surface reappeared. 'S'OK, Henry babe, I'll charge it to the Peacher account.'

Henry had to leave it there. The pub was swamped that night, and Gaysoc had booked the function room. Manda and her girlfriend Fiona came straight to the bar.

Manda smiled. 'Henry, you did it! Does working here measure up to your hopes?'

'Oh, far surpasses them. What can I get you?'

He got the drinks and took the money. As he handed Manda her change, she asked him how long the party at No 25 was going on for.

'Has everybody in Cranwell been invited?'

'Word gets round, Henry. And you and your friends have made quite a stir here. You're the most high profile freshers the place has ever had, or at least since Andrew Peacher and Matthew White. Turning up all shy and shabby at the Fresher's Fair like that, when you were already a part of high society. You're full of surprises. And that poster... you're a professional model as well.'

Henry shook his head. 'It was supposed to be a souvenir. I hadn't realised the photographer guy was quite so famous. I should have cottoned on when he was talking about his mate Passolini. I'm not cut out to be an icon.'

'The boys in Gaysoc are all stunned, attendance at events is way up... they just want to catch a glimpse of Henry Atwood.'

'Then they should come here, it's theirs at the cost of a pint. Sorry, Manda, got to serve these guys. Catch you later.'

Henry was very weary when he finished washing the glasses and stacking the chairs for the cleaners. His worst expectations were fulfilled as he trailed up Finkle Road and saw the crowd around his front door. People he did not know were sitting drinking on his area wall. Inside was heaving. Cups, bottles, plates and streamers were everywhere on the floor. Music was thumping around somewhere. The air was blue with tobacco and other sorts of smoke. He picked his way to the kitchen and into the garden. People were everywhere, some asleep in the shrubs of the border. The smell of barbecue past was in the air.

Justin was sitting on a plastic chair under the tree nursing a can of lager and smiling sardonically, so Henry headed over to talk to him. Just then, a tall and quite good-looking blonde guy, obviously well under the influence of some substance, came vacantly up to Henry, hoisted him under his arms and gave him a long and sensuous kiss. Putting him down, the guy whispered into his ear, 'My poster dream-boy. Wanna fuck?'

Henry realised at one level that this might be some gays' perfect fantasy. It was the level which was giving him a straining erection, and was reminding him urgently that he had not had active sex in over nine months. At another level, he was scared rigid at the level of drug use that might be going on in his house.

'Some other time, beautiful.' He gave the boy the slip, which in the kid's fazed state was not too difficult.

'Do something, Justy!'

'Don't panic, Henry, there is a plan. It's midnight innit?'

'Yes. So what? Have you called the police?'

'No. No point. All the neighbours are students, and they've all come to the party anyway. No, iss just that by me quite clever calculations, even Eddie can't have bought as much drink as this crowd needs. They'll be tipping up empty bottles by now.'

'And?'

'Watch and learn, Henry.' Justin got up and disappeared into the garden shed, to return carrying a huge tureen with a ladle. A pleasantly aromatic and slightly bitter smell came from it. Henry tailed Justin as he heaved it into the lounge, threading his way through a lot of interested students. He put it on the table, then stacked pillars of plastic cups next to it.

'Cool. Punch!' said one, and reached for the ladle.

'Careful,' smiled Justin, 'it's the strongest.'

That got even more interest, and soon a lot of plastic cups were circulating. As much as the anticipation on Justin's face, there was something about the innocent-looking and fragrant bowl that warned Henry not to indulge. It was fifteen minutes later that the first vomiting attacks began. Strangely, there were a lot of red plastic buckets around ready to catch what was coming up.

'So what did you put in it, Justy?' Henry asked, interested.

'Ipecac syrup. Powerful emetic. Terry's suggestion. Works directly on the vomiting reflex. Whoops!'

Students staggered out into the road, throwing up spectacularly as they went, and reeled off towards College Road or home. The general consensus amongst the afflicted was that the BBQ meat had been off. In about ten minutes, the house was emptying fast. By twelve-forty they had the place to themselves, apart from the litter and those students already unconscious before the fatal punch appeared. Justin woke those up and pushed them out the door.

'I locked your bedroom, Henry, so it should be clear. Hey! Watch where you're standing. God. Too much sick still on the carpet. This house is gonna stink for days.'

'And it'll be me who has to clean it up!'

'Nah. Relax, Henry. I booked a contract cleaners to come tomorrow and sort it. Cost a lot as it's Sunday, but Eddie's paying, even if he don't know it. Say, we better check on him. He disappeared into his room with this classy bird some time ago. Probably don't know the party's over, at least downstairs, but it might still be going on in his bed. He's got his rocks off at last, I think.'

They found Eddie's door locked, and the oblivious noises from inside confirmed Justin's suspicions. They discovered other decadent activity going on in the back loft room. Henry drew the door closed on that one and resolved to wash the sheets in the morning.

'That was exciting, wannit Henry?'

'You bet. And now I bloody well need sleep. I've got to be civilised tomorrow.'

'Me, I gotta wank.'

'What time's the contractor coming?'

'Bout ten, they said.'

'I think I need sleep... bad.'

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