Henry in Finkle Road

VII

By Michael Arram

Henry grew fonder of Gavin. Beneath his social diffidence, the boy had an intensity of physical passion that was hard to credit. His devotion to Henry was profound, and the lengths he would go to in giving sexual pleasure were endless. He never tired of being naked with Henry. The only drawback was that he had much rather Henry took the lead in their sex play, which was not what Henry always wanted.

And there were nights as he nestled into Gavin that Henry caught himself thinking guiltily about the strength and power of Ed Cornish's rangy body enveloping him. Henry sighed mentally. He was coming to realise that complete fulfilment in life was always going to evade him, like a green island on the horizon that never got closer, always just out of reach of the shipwrecked sailor. The religious part of Henry gave a shrug and asked him what it was he expected out of life. The human part of him returned two fingers to that observation.

Eddie's next project with his drinking club was a long surfing weekend in Newquay. He was a true Californian, and had spent a lot of his late adolescence with his zonked-out buddies on the beaches of southern California. That, of course, was perhaps the main reason why he was now in Cranwell and not UCLA or Stanford. He had been deeply amused to find from Henry that there was a pale approximation of a surfing culture in Cornwall and on the East Coast, but was intrigued when he viewed the wave statistics on the web.

None of his drinking mates were surfers, although some of them had adopted surfing gear and attitudes when younger. So Eddie got into full throttle to change all that. He badgered the Union to accept him and his friends as the UCSU Surfing Society, and got a grant of £400 when he had signed up thirty members, although most had been too stoned or pissed to know what they had signed up for. He hired a Union minibus; found someone who could drive it; bought wetsuits and boards; and harried his mates unmercifully to pay dues and to at least hire gear, if not buy it. He even managed to find a surf shop in Swindon, not something Henry would have believed possible.

Impressed by Eddie's persistence and his authentic, laid-back California charm, the shop sponsored the society. On Thursday, led by its president, UCSU Surfing Society left for its Newquay event. They were not expecting to be back till Tuesday. Henry urged Eddie to let Justin at least know where he was going.

Henry was not too bothered when Eddie went to Newquay. It was only his second weekend with Gavin and he wanted it to be special. Just after Eddie left, Henry wandered into the kitchen and found Gavin making breakfast. They kissed and pretty soon what few clothes they had on vanished. Henry pressed against Gavin as they stood by the back garden door, feeling Gavin's instant erection rubbing sensually against his own. Gavin began to move in the direction of the bedroom, but Henry trapped him and continued making out. Gavin seemed nervous, and then Henry realised they would be visible from outside if a theoretical person had been looking. There was something of the exhibitionist in Henry and he loved outdoor sex. He reached over and opened the door.

'What are you doing, Henry?'

Henry just grinned and enjoyed the feel of the cool outside air running over his skin. He pinned Gavin and would not let him go.

'Please, Henry.' Gavin tried to squirm from under him.

Henry now was highly excited and found Gavin's reluctance a real turn-on. He grabbed the boy's hand and pulled him outside. They were naked in the back garden. Gavin yelped and tried to run back in, but Henry held him. They began a serious wrestling match.

'No, Henry. Someone could see.'

'Don't give a....' Henry hissed. 'Come on, Gavin, on the grass, here, now.'

Gavin redoubled his efforts. Henry grabbed him round the waist and pulled him down to the ground. He pinned the squirming boy on his belly and rolled on top of him, seeking his anus blindly. He had never in his life felt such sexual excitement. 'Easy, babe. Let me in. You know you want me.'

'Yes I do,' Gavin gasped, 'but why now and why here? Someone could be watching.'

'Let me do it. I'll be quick.'

Gavin resigned himself, and Henry spat on his hands to slick Gavin's entry and his own cock. He went in bareback, which was very reckless of him. It was a furious if brief fuck that ended in the biggest orgasm he could ever remember. As soon as he had slumped on Gavin and fell from him, the boy squirmed away and ran indoors with his hands over his crotch. Henry just lay out in the cool air and morning sunlight. It had been good, and had fulfilled him in a new way. He came to the rather ominous conclusion that Gavin's reluctance had been a huge part of the turn-on. Maybe there was something of the authoritarian in him. Whips and chains? Perhaps not. Still, it was a new side to his sexuality, and he needed to think about what it meant.

Gavin was clearly anxious that Henry had been upset with him about his reluctance to indulge in alfresco sex. Henry reassured the boy as best he could by offering himself the way he knew Gavin liked it: on his back with his legs tucked into his shoulders. Afterwards, they lay together happily, both sated, if in different ways. Henry said that perhaps the time had come to go and get themselves tested, so they could be happier without condoms. When Gavin agreed, Henry spent a long time on the phone fixing appointments at the sexual-health unit.

It was destined to be an eventful morning. Gavin had a two-o'clock seminar to prepare for. Since Eddie's machine was available - Henry did not have one of his own - Henry decided to download his e-mail. His brother Ricky asked after the new boyfriend (Mum had blabbed), and wanted to know more about Eddie Peacher. His Rothenian friend Fritzy von Tarlenheim checked in with the latest news about his family and his new attempt at a girlfriend, which had been going solid now for three months, something of a record for him. But the young lady was resisting attempts on her virtue, much to Fritzy's frustration: 'I am sixteen! It is legal, for God's sake!' A couple of last-year's sixth-form friends wanted to know if it were true that Ed and he were on the new poster, and how it had happened.

Finally there was a long e-mail from no less than Rudi Burlesdon, better known as HM the King of Rothenia, the first Henry had ever received from him. Rudi rambled on about life in Oxford, and eventually mentioned that Ed Cornish had recently been to stay with him. At first Henry wondered if Rudi was trying to make bridges between them and promote a reconciliation, but soon it became clear that he was preparing Henry for the news that Ed had found a new boyfriend in Cambridge, and it was serious. Henry was shocked, for all he had himself found a new love. It suited him to think that, if things went bottom-up with Gavin, Ed would still be there waiting for him. But Ed had taken the possibility out of his hands, and Henry didn't quite know what to do.

Suddenly the phone went. It was Louise from the weekend before, wondering where Eddie was. Henry had to explain that Eddie was in the South West with his society. There was silence on the other end, followed by a tirade that Henry had to weather. He finally cut Louise off by informing her it was nothing to do with him that Eddie had stood her up.

As soon as he put the phone down, it went again, this time from Paul Oscott in search of a babysitter for Friday night. Henry accepted with delight, and asked if he could bring Gavin with him.

It had already been a very busy morning, and when the post came at eleven-thirty there was a letter that put the gilt on the gingerbread. It was a cheque from Frank at the King's Cross for his outstanding pay, and with it came a surprisingly well-written and diplomatic note.

'Dear Mr Atwood, I perhaps expressed myself a little too strongly last Saturday night and I can understand why you might have taken exception to what was said. If you could see your way to returning to work at the King's Cross, I would be most happy. You were a willing worker and there are none too many of them about. Sincerely, Frank Hutchinson, Manager.'

Bloody hell, thought Henry. Frank never apologised, yet this note was all but an apology. It was unheard of. He couldn't wait to share it with Terry. What should he do? He'd think about it.

Gavin was surprisingly poor with small children, considering that he had two younger brothers. But he said they were only two and three years younger than he, so he had never been in the position of child-minder until they were old enough to resent his supervision. Henry got the impression that the Price brothers were not very close.

Gavin was too hesitant and shy with little Mattie Oscott. In the end, Mattie ignored him for his big friend Heneree, which upset Gavin strangely. Henry thought Gavin had wanted to make friends with the little boy and might even have thought he might be good with children, but the wilful reality of them floored Gavin. When Mattie was in bed - having burrowed his head into Henry's shoulder at the suggestion of a kiss goodnight for the other boy too - Gavin confessed that he'd had vague ideas of being a primary-school teacher which he was now reconsidering.

'Don't be downhearted, Gavin. These are skills you'll acquire in time. Mattie's only one little boy.'

Once Mattie was in bed, Henry and Gavin snuggled together on the Oscotts' sofa, enjoying the food they had been left and checking out Paul's phenomenal DVD collection.

Henry had his Bannow book and carried on with the next chapter. Bannow had made himself an authority on the Byzantine and Armenian dynasties. The princes of Satala were a focus for his argument. The Satalan exarchy - a dependency of the Eastern Empire - trod a fine line between the rival powers of Persia, Byzantium and the Armenian kingdom, its rulers skilfully playing off its enemies against each other. The Satalans were famous for the culture of their cities and the sophistication of their courts. Arab philosophers travelled from Baghdad to Satala in search of elusive Greek texts. The Satalan Codex, written on papyrus and now preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale, was said to be the oldest complete version of the Christian scriptures. There was a persistent legend that the exarch's library contained several more epistles of Paul and John that subsequently disappeared, as well as three lost epistles of Barnabas to the Antiochenes, fragments of which do survive. Five consecutive eighth-century bishops of Satala attracted cults in a remarkable succession of sanctity.

Bannow's point was that all this could only be understood if the treasury of Edessa and its massive cargo of sacred objects had been transported to Satala. He tied his theory in with the legendary learning of the princes, who later claimed to be descended ultimately from Melchior, one of the three magi. They were astrologers and - some said - magicians. There were tales about their clairvoyance and prophetic abilities.

There was also talk of the 'holy banner', or 'imago'. Satalan troops liked to carry it into battle and were never defeated whenever they did so.

Satala ceased to exist as an independent state when Byzantine armies moved into the Upper Euphrates valley in the eleventh century. What happened to the treasures of Satala? Bannow's answer was surprising. His researches revealed that, far from Byzantium suppressing Satala, what happened was almost the opposite. The emperor John Tzimnisces was a prince of the Satalan dynasty, not a Greek. He came to supreme power - it was said - through his wealth, his intrigue and his seduction of the widow of Emperor Nicephorus. He was the last Satalan exarch and, when he died, his lands and treasury went to his ward, the great Emperor Basil II, who reconquered Armenia and defeated the Persian armies. And his armies too had carried the 'imago' of Satala into battle.

The 'imago' and the 'True Face' were to Bannow one and the same thing. He quoted an obscure Armenian poem on the battle of Berkai (939), when the outnumbered Satalans took on the Hamdamid army. The Arab forces supposedly quailed at the blaze of light from the holy banner, and fled in witless fear 'before the very face of God.'

Henry was impressed. No doubt Paul would have words of caution with which to douse his enthusiasm, but to Henry the Bannow case looked pretty good.

'Baby,' Henry said to Gavin, 'I'm going back to the workforce. I'm probably an idiot, but I want to ring Frank and tell him I'll help at the King's Cross for at least three days a week.'

'Could you ask him if I can do some hours there too?' Gavin asked

'Er... seriously?' Henry could not quite see Gavin surviving in the crossfire between Frank and his despised customers. But then, Henry's friends had been dubious as to whether he could too.

Gavin nodded. 'I'm getting really short, Henry. And I feel as though I'm sponging off you and Eddie.'

'You're not, don't be silly. But OK, if you think you can survive, I'll ask. For all Frank's bravado, he desperately needs helpers in the evenings, and he's unable to serve the main bar and the function room hatch at one and the same time.

'Oh, and by the way, on Sunday I'm going to look around for a church.'

Gavin nearly dropped his coffee. 'What! You go to church? I didn't know.'

I realize that, thought Henry, but he said, 'Dad's a vicar, and I promised him I'd try to get to a service some Sundays.'

Gavin was looking at Henry as though he were a stranger. Gavin had already revealed himself as a secularist and possibly an atheist. Henry was intrigued as to whether he could be tolerant as well.

On Sunday morning, obedient to his conscience, Henry sought out the university chaplaincy for the ten-thirty service. The Anglican chaplain was the Rev'd Dr Joyce Armitage, a cheerful middle-aged lady who had a small and 100% female congregation. She was standing at the door of the chapel, located for some reason in a courtyard of the Physics department. She greeted Henry effusively.

A chaplaincy assistant gave him a prayer book. Henry squinted at her a moment before recognising Fiona, Manda's partner. 'Hello Henry,' she said quietly in her gentle Edinburgh accent.

'Does Manda come here?'

'No... she thinks religion is tosh.'

'But not you.'

'Obviously not.'

Henry was impressed. Fiona seemed to have a lot more about her than appeared at first sight. There I go, stereotyping people again, he chided himself.

The service was a little more informal than Henry liked, and the sermon had too much self-conscious theology in it for his taste. However, it was not so different from what happened at Trewern. Henry felt obliged to join in the singing, and as the only male, his excruciatingly bad singing rose dreadfully above the tuneful female voices. The women winced, but tolerated him. There was a prayer lunch afterwards: soup, a drink and a bread roll. Henry took it gratefully. He had to find food where he could.

'So will we see you next week, Henry?' the chaplain asked, with a tinge of anxious desperation, he thought.

'Er... sure. Rev'd Joyce, you do know that I'm in Gaysoc, do you?'

'Fiona mentioned it. It might make you unwelcome in some places, but not here.'

Henry smiled. He liked the decisiveness in her voice. 'Some places being?'

'The Christian Union is very right-wing, Henry. Most of the Christian students go to its prayer meetings, and not to the church chaplaincies. But if you went there, you might be welcome only insofar as they would itch to exorcise the demon of homosexuality from you.'

'Oh! Really? Sounds fun. All those young men putting their hands over me.'

The chaplain laughed. 'Henry, it would not be fun. It's demeaning to the soul God placed in you. Don't dignify that sort of thing with humour.

'On an almost entirely different subject, could I give you one of these leaflets?'

Henry took a printed handout advertising the Annual Chaplaincy Lecture on 11th November. This year it was 'Religion and Credulity' by Professor Chad Wardrinski. Henry recognised the name. His dad called him 'Darwinsky' because of his hard-line scepticism about any other force in the universe apart from science. Wardrinski held the chair in the History of Science at UCL, and was a vociferous humanist and rationalist. Henry's dad said the man's appalling certainty and blind pugnacity had probably turned far more people towards faith than his considerable intellect had turned against it. Dad called him God's little miracle.

'Er... Rev'd Joyce, why is this man giving the chaplaincy lecture?'

'He'll pull in a crowd, Henry. Get people debating. That's what it's all about, isn't it? He wants to talk about this latest Bannow book. One of the lecturers in the English department...'

'... Paul Oscott?'

'Yes. That's right. You know him?'

'I'm his babysitter.'

'Small village this place. Yes, well, Paul knows him slightly, met him at a conference and talked him into it. Can you come?'

'I expect I can. In fact I'll look forward to it.'

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