Henry in Finkle Road

V

By Michael Arram

Henry surfaced at nine and showered, after first removing some used condoms from the bathtub with a grimace of disgust. Students were animals.

He sat in the kitchen smelling the sour, vomit-stained air, wrinkling his nose and looking forward to the cleaners' arrival. Litter was everywhere. He just swept the crap from the table on to the floor and managed to find the materials to make coffee, though the milk had disappeared. He had brought down his copy of Staring in the Face of Christ and got started on Chapter 2. It was a measure of the compelling narrative that Henry soon forgot the mess around him and his many anxieties, and submerged himself in the prose and the speculation it carried.

Bannow was arguing that the city of Edessa was the key to his whole theory. Legend had it that it was evangelised by the apostle Thaddaeus, sent directly by St Thomas after Christ's death. Archeology proved that it had an early and powerful Christian community under the direct patronage of the royal dynasty, with no evidence of persecution. The kings protected the churches and were discrete Christians themselves. The archaeological and historical backup for Bannow's argument was impressive. The great basilica in Edessa was the first major Christian building in the world. Despite the subsequent Roman occupation of the city, the Christians remained unassailable. The bishop's treasury was rich in early Christian writings, including the supposed letter of Christ and, of course, the sacred portrait. The Edessan dynasty drew great prestige from its custodianship of these unique Christian treasures, even after the Romans moved into their city and marginalised the local royalty. Edessa had become a place of pilgrimage well before Constantine embraced Christianity, and the nun Egeria had much to say about the treasures she had seen there.

Henry browsed on and became really gripped when Bannow began to cite a document Henry had never heard of, the Chronicon Edessense, a sixth-century history of the city, a copy of which Bannow had found and consulted in an obscure Syrian monastery. Supposedly written a century before the Arab seizure of Edessa in 641AD, it described the treasury and its contents, and the miracles they worked. It made a lot of the royal family of the 'toparchs', the descendants of Abgar, who regained their rule over the city after the reign of Theodosius. They were called the 'stirps sacralis' or 'hagia genealogia' - the 'holy dynasty'.

The line of Abgar ended with the fall of Edessa to the Muslims, Bannow said, but it continued in the Armenian princes of Satala, who had married the daughter of the last toparch. Here Bannow said he had found something else of great interest. Mosaic depictions of Christ in the Satalan basilicas followed a different iconography from the rest of the eastern churches. Like the earliest Roman depictions of Christ, the Satalan images were of a clean-shaven and quite youthful-looking man. This was in complete contrast to the majestic and bearded Byzantine Christs, with their long hair and almond eyes.

Henry saw Bannow's conclusion coming. The Edessan treasures had been sent with the last Edessan princess to Satala. The Satalan Christs were drawing on the image of the 'Vera Icon', the 'True Face', an image powerful enough to counteract the iconography of the imperial court.

The doorbell went at that point, and three men in blue overalls with buckets full of cleaning material greeted Henry. They entered and got systematically to work.

Henry looked into the top-floor room. Two people were still there, tangled together and unconscious. He didn't have a clue who they were, but banged the door and warned them that the cleaners were on their way up. They giggled with the sickening complacency of people who've had a lot of sex, and know you know they have. They left hand in hand twenty minutes later. Henry felt cheated. Justin emerged at much the same time, on autopilot heading for the bathroom, eyes glued to his hand-held Play Station.

This left Henry with the awkward task of awakening Eddie. In the end he tapped on the door and waited for a reaction. Eddie eventually answered.

One of Eddie Peacher's more interesting traits was a complete unselfconsciousness about being naked. His brother Andy had laughed as he had told Henry that Eddie had been like it since he was a little kid. Henry had been astounded to discover that Eddie even sat nude on the loo in Finkle Road with the door open, conducting conversations with whoever passed. He was naked now, and semi-erect.

Henry's double-take caused Eddie to laugh. 'Sorry dude, you can't have this piece. Katrina's already got it.' Henry's look quelled him somewhat. 'OK, dude. We'll be out in a few minutes. Anybody in the shower?'

'Justy's in there now, he won't be more than a few minutes. Could I remind you we're supposed to be at Paulie's, clean and tidy, in about an hour?'

'OK. OK. Think anyone will have enough brain cells left to remember the party?'

'Oh, I think they'll be talking about it for quite some while.'

'What time did they start leaving?'

'Just after you went to bed... with Katrina.'

'Good. Good. So you had a better time than you thought then?'

'You could say that.' Henry went looking for some reasonably clean clothes. At least he didn't need to be back in the King's Cross till next Wednesday.

Paul Oscott, his wife Rachel and their three-year-old son Matthew Andrew lived in Northside in a small terraced house Paul had rented. As the doorbell rang, there was a squeal inside and the door was laboriously opened by a rather cute-looking little boy.

'Hello, you want daddy and mommy?' he said, in a distinct American accent.

Behind him came his mother, an attractive dark-haired woman, who picked her son up. 'Hi Eddie! Come in. And you must be Henry.'

Henry confirmed it. They were brought into a clean and very bright little house, kept meticulously tidy by someone obsessive, despite the major handicap of a toddler about the place. Rachel must be following him around with wetwipes and furniture polish, Henry thought.

They sat in the small lounge filled with Mattie's toys. The little boy was playing on the coffee table with his Playmobil fire engine and emergency services, quite oblivious of the adult talk around him.

'How's Harriet doing, Eddie?' Paul asked. Harriet was Eddie's twin sister, who had, as he discontentedly told Henry, played the game and chalked up high grades.

'She's at Vassar, majoring in Classics. Seems to be doing fine, judging by her e-mails.'

The talk shifted to various members of the Peacher clan and what they were up to. Henry lost interest. He found himself sitting next to Mattie on the floor, having serious conversations about the police-officer figures, who the 'baddies' were, and what they'd been doing to get in trouble. He scored highly when he constructed a gaol out of a pile of discarded Lego blocks, and he and Mattie carried out swift and merciless justice on a bunch of firemen temporarily designated as 'terror-wrists' as Mattie put it in his precise toddler way. Then they talked about his nursery best friends (Aaron, Patrick and Sean), and who was naughty, and his other best friend Callum from next door, who had a dog and a cat.

Henry forbore to point out that you can only have one best friend at a time. He was utterly charmed by this cheerful and imaginative little lad, and found it easy to chatter along with him. Mattie in turn was fascinated by his piercing, and kept on poking at it. Eventually Rachel pulled Mattie off Henry and took him into the kitchen.

'He's taken a shine to you, Henry,' said Paul. 'Have you got a younger brother or sister?'

'No, I'm the kid brother in our house. He's a little sweetie, isn't he? I'm sure I was quite as cute when I was tiny.'

Paul laughed, 'I have no doubts about it. How are you getting on with my friend Alastair Bannow?'

'Do you actually know him?'

'Oh yes. I've reviewed a couple of his books, and I spoke at a conference on his work last year at Burnett. He was there, and a bit bemused to find his writing being dissected by two hundred academics. We were very polite to his face, of course; just as well he kept out of the bar, though. My first book's due out next month on 'Conspiracy in Modern Literature'; it's my thesis, a bit beefed up for the mass market. I interviewed Bannow for it in person at his Long Island home. Quite a place. There's serious money in conspiracy theory.'

'I was just reading his stuff about Edessa and Satala. I have to say, he convinced me.'

'Remember what I said about the problems in his arguments, Henry. OK, Satalan artists had a different way of depicting Christ, so he says that it's because of the presence of the Edessan portrait in their midst influencing them. It's one explanation, but there are other possibilities. The earliest Roman pictures of Christ depicted him as a young aristocrat. It may be that the Satalans were just conservative. It may be that they modelled him on a real Armenian prince, borrowing a majestic face from one of their own royal family, just the way the Byzantine faces of Christ were modelled on that of a young emperor. In any case, the Vera Icon was almost certainly destroyed in the iconoclastic outbreaks of the eighth century. No one ever mentions it after then, but Bannow isn't interested in that fact.

'The thing is that Bannow isn't an objective scholar. He doesn't consider all the evidence, only what tends to prove his case. It makes for great books, but it shows bugger-all respect for the truth, Henry.'

'Maybe,' said Henry, 'but I'm learning a lot, and it's good for my theology modules.'

'Stick with it then,' Paul smiled.

Afterwards, both Henry and Eddie agreed that Sunday lunch at the Oscotts was pretty damned good. It pointed up the inadequacies of Henry's own catering. He tended to eat in the Union cafeteria, which drained his money away. Lately, as he got poorer, he'd been surviving on bacon sandwiches, which was the limit of his culinary ability. Rachel provided the full roast with all the trimmings, followed by her homemade apple pie. Henry had not felt so stuffed since his last meal at home, when his mum had seemed to be determined to force enough food inside him to last for a term.

As they were leaving, Mattie ran up and lifted his arms. Henry unconsciously picked him up and received a hug round the neck and a big kiss on the cheek. The artless affection of the little boy's gesture quite touched Henry, causing easy tears to flow into his eyes.

He also nearly cried when he got back to Finkle Road. The house was spotless and smelled like an alpine pasture in springtime. The cleaners had even washed the windows, a job Henry had been putting off.

Justin was in the lounge already packed. 'OK, babes, I'm off back to Ipswich. I'll be checking back here maybe in a few weeks, unless Terry's sources pick up sumfink. No more parties, Eddie, OK?'

'Jeezus H. Christ, Justy, what am I gonna do for fun?'

'Katrina?'

'Oh yeah. I'd better call her.' He disappeared with a sudden grin on his face.

'Bye Henry.' Justin hugged and kissed Henry deeply. 'You gotta a stiffie, babe,' he observed. 'You need to have a shag. All this celibacy ain't good for you.'

Henry grunted and waved his friend off till the tail lights of his car disappeared. He felt suddenly very lonely. David and Terry had gone away for a long weekend in Paris. He went back to his book.

Three things made the next week memorable. On Tuesday morning, his mobile rang. It was Paul Oscott, asking Henry if he did baby-sitting. Henry did a double-take. 'We've been invited out to a departmental social, and Mattie likes you. In fact "Heneree" is all we've been hearing about for days. We'll have him ready for sleep at seven. You can play with him a while, then put him to bed. He likes a story. And we'll pay you fifteen quid.'

'Oh... there's no need, honest.'

'Our conscience demands it. We won't be back till eleven-thirty probably.'

'Er... OK then.'

Henry had a great time at the Oscotts', and kept on postponing Mattie's bedtime. It wasn't till eight-thirty that the child was finally in bed, lying there sucking his thumb as Henry made up a story for him. He fell asleep before Henry got to the exciting bit. Henry kissed Mattie on the forehead, tucking him in with his fluffy rabbit. The Oscotts had left out a casserole for him, so he not only got money and Mattie, he also got to eat properly.

The next afternoon, he had a confrontation with Frank at the King's Cross - the beginning of a worsening series. He had made a comment in a quiet moment that, since it was the only gay pub in town, you'd think that there would be more engagement with the gay community.

'Gay fuckin' community. They're always on about the gay community, which one? Kevin and his druggie mates over there on that table? Your gay club in university? Those foul-mouthed cows in the council's lesbian support group I threw out of here last week? I'm not a fuckin' social centre. I serve homosexuals drinks and create a pleasant and supportive environment in which they can feel safe. What fuckin' more do they want?'

Henry was undaunted. He had a pile of leaflets and contact details that various groups regularly dropped off with Gaysoc. There was a dusty noticeboard in the corridor on the way to the loos, last used when the pub had its own gay soccer club in a local league. He brought in a box of tacks and made quite an organised display. He grinned and nodded to himself. It wasn't much, but it was a step in the right direction.

Frank caught him doing it. He didn't say anything, but from the narrow look in his eyes, Henry somehow guessed there would be consequences.

When Frank did retaliation, it tended to be on the massive side. Henry arrived for work Thursday evening to find something new about the public bar. One or two of the early drinkers were eyeing him up in an amused way. He didn't immediately twig what it was, until he noticed a huge new framed picture next to the bar. It was 'Achilles and Patroclus'.

Henry would not rise to the bait. He rode out the comments and refused to notice Frank's mean little grin. But every time he saw Ed Cornish looking into his eyes in the picture, he felt almost physically sick with revived grief. Frank was merciless.

However, the second of the week's events cancelled a lot of the pain. On Friday morning Henry received a letter that had originally been sent to Trewern rectory. He opened it curiously. It was typed in Rothenian with a scribbled signature he didn't recognise. Some minutes' concentration led him to the bemused conclusion that the poster of 'Achilles and Patroclus' had earned major royalties, which, according to his contract with Bolslaw, entitled him to the payment of €6500. He checked the enclosure and there it was. He almost ran to the bank. Despite a 17% commission to discount the euro cheque, it was still worth £4000 to him.

Frank looked suspicious when Henry arrived at the pub with a cheery grin, and decidedly annoyed when Henry theatrically kissed the poster as he went behind the bar. 'Achilles and Patroclus' had just paid for the first year of his university education, and there would be a new cheque coming every year from then on.

It was an unpromising Saturday night, when even the King's Cross was heaving, and not just with gays. There were quite a few straights who enjoyed the ersatz Bohemianism of the place. Henry worked non-stop for four hours. There was no let up, and Frank next to him was working just as hard. The atmosphere got blue with smoke and with Frank's expletives. The difference between Frank and Henry was that Henry was getting tips, and it mounted up a lot. In the end he had thirty quid pushed into a knobbly old-fashioned pint glass with a handle. He'd set the glass aside for just that purpose.

Frank was snarling at him as closing time approached. Henry's sudden prosperity meant that he didn't have to put up with the crap.

'Frank, you said I get to keep tips, yeah?'

'I didn't expect the tipping habits of Cranwell to change like this, did I?'

'They do it to annoy you, Frank. They tip me and ignore you cos you're an unpleasant old bastard and it's one way to get at you. Don't you see that?'

'You fuckin suck up to them... I see you making eyes at them, yer little whore.'

'Hey, that's over the line!'

'Which of them are you meeting outside after?'

Henry saw red, an unusual colour for him. 'OK. Fuck it. I quit. I don't need the money so much that I'll put up with your crap. Apologise or I'm off after we've finished up tonight.'

'Apologise! I've never apologised to anyone in me life! And I never will!'

'Then it's goodbye to the pleasant and supportive environment of the King's Cross. You can send the pay you owe me to my address.'

'Fine.'

Although Frank was not about to apologise, he kept casting troubled eyes at Henry as he continued to work hard up to closing time. If Henry had been feeling better about Frank, he might have been content with that as an apology, but under the circumstances he wasn't going to. After he'd stacked the chairs, he pulled on his jacket and pocketed his tips. He didn't expect to see his pay. Frank would find reasons to dock it.

What really pissed Henry off was that his friends had been right. He'd failed to survive as a barman at the King's Cross. Terry remained unchallenged for his endurance record. The fact that he no longer needed the work so desperately was neither here nor there. Henry did not like failure. He left the pub without a word, he was so angry.

The third memorable event of the week was that the drought ended, and Henry got to have sex again. He was walking slowly home, enjoying the freshness of the October night after the smell and heat of the pub. He began to cool down and relax. The streets were slick with recent rain. Other solitary figures were also walking the streets, students heading home or on to clubs for the most part, though there was one mean-looking chav gang Henry dodged to avoid.

He overtook one last, slow figure as he left the town centre at the memorial gardens. It was a young male, apparently either very drunk or overwhelmed with misery. When he recognised Gavin, Henry knew it was going to be the latter option.

'Hey, Gavin.'

'Henry! Oh Henry! 'Er... how are you?'

'Good. Very good. You still with Wayne?'

'Yeah ... no.'

'Which is it?'

'Oh... I sort of go out with him, and then I lose him, or he goes off with some other bloke. You never know where you are with him. He wanted to go to the Bentinck Club tonight, and I thought I was going too until he met some guys. One of them told me to fuck off, and they all laughed, and Wayne laughed too. I went to the loo for...'

'... a quick cry?'

'Something like that, though a pee was involved. When I got back they were gone. I was thinking about trying to find them, but maybe I might just as well go home.'

'Maybe, Gavin, you should think about blowing Wayne out. He's not worth it. He treats you like shit.'

'He's OK in bed... well sometimes, if he's not too pissed.'

'Does he always go on top?'

'Yeah.'

'Does he just take you up the arse?'

'Er... yeah, apart from he likes me to do stuff to him.'

'I won't ask.' Henry was on the miserable side himself that night, which was why he said, 'Come on home with me for a coffee, Gavin. The pair of us are losers. We should be able to find some way to make each other feel better.'

Now why did I say that, he wondered. Then he thought he saw a little light of hope kindling in the other boy's eyes as he agreed.

Henry sat Gavin down in his kitchen and looked him over. There had been changes. Gavin had smartened his act a bit, probably desperately trying to make himself more attractive to Wayne. He was neatly shaved and his hair was trimmed. Clearasil in bottle-loads had been deployed to moderate the spots, and most were gone. He was also showering regularly. He was actually beginning to look like the attractive waif he had promised to be. Henry told him that, and got a pleased smile in return.

'Everybody's talking about you, Henry. I've got one of the posters. It's really cool. How did you get to be a model?'

Henry told him it was just an accident.

Gavin plainly didn't believe him. 'What's Rothenia like?'

Henry went into rhapsodies about Strelzen and its beauties.

'I've never been abroad ever,' Gavin said with a sigh. 'My parents have a caravan, so we've toured the south coast, Dawlish, Teignmouth and Swanage, places like that. It was OK, I guess, but there's a big world I've never seen.'

Gavin suddenly noticed Henry's copy of Bannow's book. 'I got that, it's totally brilliant. The man is a genius. I want to do the Bannow tour one day, all the places he writes about. You can book the package on Expedia. Wish I had the cash.'

Henry looked at his animated and sweet little face, and made a decision which he knew he might one day regret. 'Gavin?'

'Yes Henry?'

'Do you like me?'

'Do I? You're like my god, Henry.'

'Pity.'

'Pity? Why?'

'I don't sleep with my worshippers, being a harsh and merciless sort of god.'

Gavin's reply was the thing that made up Henry's mind about him. 'Then I'm an agnostic.'

'So get your clothes off, Gavin babe.' And without even a pause for thought, the boy stripped off right then and there. Henry lost his clothes too and pulled Gavin on to his lap. He was very smooth.

'What's this Gavin, you've shaved your balls and your bum?'

Gavin closed to kiss him, which he did very nicely. When he broke off, he said, 'Wayne told me to do it. Sorry.'

'No, I don't mind. He let you keep this little patch?' Henry played with the snatch of hair left above Gavin's rapidly erecting cock.

'He told me to take it all off, but I wanted something to remind me I was a man, not a little kid. I think Wayne wanted me to look as young as possible. He's a bit kinky that way. There's stuff on his laptop...'

'It's as well you're now my babe then.'

Gavin glowed. 'Really, you mean it?'

'I mean it. You're a nice kid Gavin, and we can do good sex together. Starting now.'

Henry took Gavin by the hand and they padded quickly up to his room, leaving their clothes on the kitchen floor. Henry pulled him on to his bed. They began with a marathon kissing session. After a while, Henry closed with Gavin's erection, offering his own. Wayne had at least trained Gavin up in the ways of fellatio, and he got Henry quite excited, especially when he began probing Henry's anus, unasked but not unwelcome. Gavin did not lack for passion and willingness.

Henry broke off and asked Gavin to take him from behind. Tears stood in Gavin's eyes.

'Don't tell me, Wayne never took it up the bum.'

'No. It was always me underneath.'

'Do you know what to do?'

'Sort of, at least I know what I liked. You'll really let me do it?'

'I like it from behind, Gavin. I top too, but I do like it in me. I hope you're not a total bottom.'

'I don't know yet. Fantastic! Can I tell you what to do?'

'I'm all yours, Gavin babe.'

'I love you Henry.'

'I know, baby. I know.'

It didn't compare with the masterful fucking that Henry had experienced from his Ed. But there were other ways to experience a cock, and Gavin's slow and patient strokes were in their way delightful and very stimulating. His member was thick and longer than Henry's and, when Gavin really began moving inside him, Henry started gasping with delight at the workout his anus was getting. It had been so long, he had all but forgotten the spasms of internal ecstasy that the stimulation of a good fuck could give him. The sweet panting and moaning from Gavin above him was also hot. Knowing that he was having a loving ride from a gentle boy who adored him was exciting too. When Gavin tensed and came into his condom, Henry cried out with him.

Gavin cuddled into Henry, front to front, arms wrapped round his ribs, kissing him lightly all over his face. This was good too. It was not like when Ed surrounded him with his limbs and made Henry his, but it was nice. Gavin buried his face in the space between Henry's collarbone and his neck, licking and nuzzling. It was quite a turn on.

'Gavin ...'

'Yes Henry?'

'You're quite some lover, y'know'.

With that, Gavin dissolved in tears, as Henry could have predicted. 'Don't cry, Gavin. You'll wet our bed.'

'Our bed?'

'I have a vacancy for a teddy bear. I'd like you to apply for it.'

'Oh Henry, I really do love you. I've loved you since that first day. I can't tell you how much.'

'I know, Gavin baby. I know.'

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