Henry in Finkle Road

IX

By Michael Arram

The Sunday of that weekend was the day Professor Wardrinski gave his lecture in the university. It pulled in quite an audience. Paul Oscott for one had pushed it heavily to his group. Since Eddie was in Yorkshire, Henry had strict instructions to take careful notes. But there was a lot of general interest in the subject of Dr Bannow's books in the city, so the lecture hall was full.

Henry and Gavin had got seats near the front. Henry surveyed the professor. He was well dressed and well groomed. His grey hair was abundant and bouffant. He was talking to Paul and the Rev'd Joyce, looking very confident and smiling around at the hall.

A pro-vice-chancellor had consented to chair the lecture. On time, she called the hall to order. After introducing Professor Wardrinski of the University of London, she ran through an awesome list of books and TV programmes for which he had been responsible.

The speaker stood and opened with some amusing remarks about reactions to his books from churchmen, and read out some snippets of reviews he had received from the religious press. He talked of the religious 'psychopathy', which he would compare to schizophrenia in its effects, only, he said, it was far more damaging to society. It was the attack that religion represented on reason on which he was determined to focus.

Henry's pacific nature was taking quite a battering ten minutes into the lecture. 'Yes, yes,' he wanted to scream, 'but that's just objectivism... religion is about what you experience too.' He wished he could share some of his own very vivid experiences with this drawling, supercilious man, although he suspected they would have been dismissed as delusions. Personal experience can't be readily analysed in a laboratory. Wardrinski would say that if it can't be repeated and tested, it was not valid evidence. He was a total positivist... or blinkered, as Henry would have said.

Wardrinski first ran through the usual assaults, age-old now, on the logical and moral inconsistencies of the New Testament. Then he shifted his target to Dr Bannow. 'Myths, like viruses, endlessly reproduce and mutate. Take the good Dr Bannow: gifted with a great facility of pen, and would that it were matched by a discrimination of intellect. I'm sure you know his latest book. It's about bloodlines. We scientists know about bloodlines and the cargoes of hereditary traits they carry. That's genetics. But Dr Bannow would have us believe that heredity carries more than the physical, it carries the spiritual.

'Holy DNA... that's a concept for you, eh? It's not science, it's shamanism. He would have us return to the Middle Ages, where people believed a king could cure scrofula with a touch of his hand. If there is a spiritual gene, it's recessive. It drags you back into a dark age of superstition, the superstition from which Science and Enlightenment freed us, or so we had thought.'

Gavin was paying close attention, and unconsciously grunting his assent to the speaker's points. Henry too had to admit that Wardrinski was on strong ground. It seemed a bit silly in the cold light of day, and without the rhetoric of Alastair Bannow leading him on, to believe that spiritual power could be the inheritance of particular families. To think of Fritzy von Tarlenheim as in the lineage of the Holy Family was so absurd it made him smile involuntarily. Fritz, with his anxiety to get into bed with any and every girl he met, his epic train set and deep fascination with dirty words in the English lexicon ... St Francis of Tarlenheim? 'I don't think so.'

The mockery from the stage had by now picked up pace and vitriol. 'The Sword in the Stone... ha! The Holy Grail... absurdity! Templar secrets... humbug! The universe has its laws, and suffers no exceptions. Why don't people get it? I'll tell you why. Humanity wants to cheat, wants there to be a door into a secret garden where it can hide from the fearful and frightening truth that it inhabits a vast and ordered universe, compared to which it is no more than a microbe. But there is a glory in that vastness and order. To hide from it is to be one with those ancient Israelites who cowered from the thunder in the mountains, fearing it was the glory of the Lord. The only admirable thing in mankind is that it can see and grapple with Truth, scientific Truth. Yet these fools would strip us of that hard-won victory.'

Henry was stirred despite himself by the man's passion and power. He looked round. A lot of people were rapt, and like Gavin, many of them were nodding. Wardrinski ended with a flourish, and a wave of applause. The pro-VC was on her feet asking for questions. A heated young man from the Christian Union jumped up, predictably waving a NIV Bible and quoting texts at a contemptuous Wardrinski, who wouldn't even dignify the tirade with a response.

Henry surprised himself by standing. When he had to explain it later, he said he thought he owed it to his father.

'Your question?' asked the pro-VC.

Ignoring his suddenly pounding heart and the buzzing in his ears, trying to forget the hundreds of eyes staring at him, Henry asked, 'What's unscientific about the idea of God?'

Wardrinski's face lost its patronising smirk, and took on a certain intensity. 'Science is about the material. The material is all there is. God is not material, as the religious mentality contends. Therefore the concept cannot be a scientific one.'

In the silence that followed, Henry felt called upon to pursue the point. 'Yes, I understand that, but we material creatures devise the idea and we do experience the spiritual, so why cannot God be a scientific idea?'

Wardrinski was nettled, it seemed. 'Young man, I think you have missed my point. The only branch of science that might be interested in God is psychiatry... and that's a practical science, not a pure one.'

Henry sat down. The fact that a polite and intelligent question had been steamrollered in such a way had cooled the audience's sympathy towards Wardrinski. Gavin certainly changed his mind about the professor and hissed 'Bastard!' under his breath, while gripping Henry's hand.

There were no further questions, which disappointed the speaker. The light of battle had kindled in his eyes, but it was too obviously the fight he enjoyed, not the debate, so far as Henry could see.

'Oh, Henry,' said a consoling Gavin, 'that was so brave. My hero.' He did a good job of fluttering his eyelashes. The King's Cross was bringing him on fast. Gavin was mentally quick, and his growing confidence led him more and more often out into the territory of the amusing. Henry laughed and squeezed his hand back.

Paul too was complementary. 'Nice one, Henry. You and Gavin want to come for dinner with the speaker?'

Gavin looked decidedly unenthusiastic, so Henry replied, 'I think we'll pass, but thanks for asking.'

'Let's get home, Henry. A hero deserves his reward,' Gavin whispered. His lust for Henry was as powerful as in their first days together. Henry, although bemused to be a sex object, found coupling with Gavin an intense experience, despite the fact that he was usually expected to be the dominant partner, which was not the way he preferred it.

They had sex on the sofa, since Eddie was away freezing his arse in the North Sea, and then lay out for a long time afterwards, kissing and stroking. Eventually they separated and Henry went naked upstairs to check his e-mail.

Justin was delighted that Henry was going to take up his New Year invitation. Matt was equally delighted that he had accepted the job offer, pending further details. But the reply from Fritz was the most interesting.

<Hi friend Henry. Do not mention that Bannow man to me ever again. He's made my life a misery. There were a group of Americans on our doorstep in Modenehem singing hymns and holding candles for three nights last week. The police had to take them away. It is mad! What is worse is that there have been death threats. I did not want to take them seriously, but Oskar says there are a lot of lunatics out there, and they hear voices telling them to do things like eviscerate the prince of Tarlenheim. After all, they shoot popes, don't they? Terry sent his colleague Warren to guard the house. Warren is tough... you say 'hard', yes? He found an Italian intruder in the house only last night and broke his arm. Apparently this man was a member of a right-wing Catholic cell looking for the face of Christ. He didn't find it in the fridge. Oskar has decided that I must be sent away till the affair goes off the boil. They cannot guarantee my security at the senior high here, so I am to complete my baccalaureate in the International College in London, and stay undercover with Matt and Andy in Highgate. I said I would not be allowed to live there as I was not gay, but Oskar just laughed. I have to leave Rothenia after Christmas. Justy and Nate say they want me to go to their place for the New Year. Maybe I will see you? Love. Fritzku.>

Henry's heart leaped. Fritz was one of his best friends and he loved the Rothenian boy dearly. Now there was every chance they would be seeing a lot of each other. Maybe Fritzy might even come to visit Cranwell. Henry called down to Gavin, who came up behind him, threw his arms round Henry's neck, and began kissing him. Henry showed Gavin the e-mail.

'So I may meet Prince Fritz? Do I curtsey?'

'He's not like that. He's a nice kid, past sixteen now. He's quite a looker too. He must have shot up. I haven't seen him for over a year. I'll ask him to send a recent picture. I wonder what he'll make of my piercing?'

'I love it, my wild Henry.' Gavin licked his ear.

That always sent Henry a little crazy. 'Oh... oh fuck!' he gasped.

'Do me again, Henry. Please,' Gavin pleaded.

'Don't know if I've recharged yet, but the hell. Here on the floor. On your belly, lover.'

Henry took Gavin low and hard, the way he had liked Ed to take him. He knew Gavin enjoyed the same sensation of being totally possessed and used. It was one advantage of two natural bottoms being together. It took him a long time to climax, and Gavin was moaning by the time he did. They lay together wrapped in arms and legs. Eventually Gavin kissed him on the nose. 'I love you, Henry,' he said. 'I'm going to get a piercing too, just like yours.'

Henry laughed. 'Rings are more conventional, Gavin baby. It'll smart for a bit.'

'But then every time I look in the mirror, I'll see you too.'

'Then you've got to do something for me,' Henry insisted.

'I know what it is, so on your back then, Henry, my Henry.'

Eddie came back on the Monday, full of enthusiasm for surfing in cold waters. 'I wonder whether they surf around Oslo or Helsinki? There's an ambition... riding a wave on every major body of water.'

'The Dead Sea could be a bit of a disappointment,' Henry observed. 'How's the society doing?'

'It's cool. We paid a fee and linked up with clubs from other universities. There's a website; it's really useful. Our vice-president...'

'You have a vice-president now?'

'Richard Walker... kid from Leeds, remember him?'

'Boy with a gut, into Guinness?'

'You wouldn't recognise him. He goes to the gym now. He's in training for Malibu.'

'Malibu?'

'Aw yeah. The dudes are super cool, and they deserve the treat. I wanna show 'em off back home next Easter. We're doing events to raise the cash. I've stashed a bit away from the trustees. I'll make an anonymous donation, pretend it's from Surf's Up in Swindon.'

Henry suddenly realised that Eddie was still successfully concealing his identity from his mates. 'How come they don't know who you are?'

'Henry, I don't throw cash around.'

'It is true,' Henry admitted, 'you don't make a thing of your money, now you mention it.'

'... and of course there's you.'

'Me?'

'Well yeah. What billionaire's kid would choose to live with a pair of poverty-stricken faggots like you and Gavin? Be fair. You're a great disguise. It doesn't occur to anyone that I'm one of those Peachers. They may have seen the poster, but people don't know how well connected you are, and you don't go around broadcasting it either. You're a private sort of person, Henry, and so am I. Maybe that's why we get on so well.'

Henry looked at his friend and returned his grin. 'Yeah, I guess we do.'

Eddie reached round the back of his head, pulled him in and, to Henry's surprise, kissed him full on the mouth. Henry was quite taken aback, and the suddenness and duration of the kiss almost had him expecting Eddie's tongue to try to enter his mouth, but that didn't happen.

'There, my favourite little homo, that's how I used to say thank you to my sis, and you're as good for me as she was. I like you, man. You've been a pretty damned fine friend ever since I came here. You put up with a lot. Don't think I'm not grateful. And you were right about your little faggot Gavin. He's a nice kid... quiet and tactful. He's kept our secret too. You two make a good couple.'

Henry got quite wobbly. 'Thanks,' he said quietly. 'So how about we go for a drink, if it isn't interfering with your training?'

They went to the King's Cross. For a number of reasons, which had nothing much to do with Frank Hutchinson, or even Henry and Gavin, it was coming into fashion. The new intake of students had decided it had character, and a sufficient number were brave enough to tough out its gay associations and Frank's foul mouth. So it was quite busy that Tuesday. Henry had to go behind the bar to get their drinks himself when Frank swore at him for complicating his orders.

Henry brought the drinks over to their table. 'I thought your intention was to get thrown out of university as soon as was convenient. Why the change of plan, Eddie?'

'All sorts of things. It suddenly occurred to me that I could use the place to put off my dad about my future career for at least three years, maybe more if I have to repeat years. Then there's the endless supply of student ass; they just line up for me.'

'I'd noticed... what is the secret of your success with women?'

'Dunno. I just smile and talk and they get this look in their eyes and... whoops, I'm buried up to the hilt in their pussies. If I knew the secret, I'd patent it. It ain't that I'm good looking like Petey is for God's sake! Your English chicks seem to be pretty damned keen on sex too. Not what I'd expected. I thought they'd all be frozen-faced spinsters.'

'Maybe it's the fact that you and your sister were so close... you've got the trick of talking to the female sex. Me, I rarely know what to say to them. Older women are easy, they just want to mother me, but my contemporaries... a total mystery.'

'They're a mystery to me too – the biggest mystery being the fact that I'm completely uninterested in anything other than sex. I'm totally honest with them about it, and yet still they lie down for me.'

Henry reflected on this. 'Well, it couldn't be said that you're a bastard, or that you disguise your intentions. Maybe they think they can domesticate you, poor fools. But I'm the wrong person to talk about it. I'm still in the early stages of trying to understand gayness. But there's another thing – and don't deny it, Eddie – you're actually interested in the courses here in university.'

Eddie looked a little shifty. 'Well... maybe. Paulie is totally cool, that's for sure. He's a great teacher, and I'm willing to bet I'll never again meet anyone else as good. But stop looking like that, Henry! OK, yes, I am interested.'

'So why are you fighting it so hard?'

'You should know. It's my family. Petey is utterly brilliant, a mind like a razor. Andy is huge into culture, opera, and plays and stuff. Harry – my twin Harriet – is the definitive good girl who does assignments on time and is always there with her hand up. I guess I had to react against it all. And Dad... you don't know my dad, do you? He is probably the most intelligent man in the known universe, and he's an incredible hard-ass. I could never live up to the sort of expectations he and everyone else lay on his kids, so I just haven't bothered. 'Sides, there's all sorts of other stuff in life when you're young in California. You've seen the OC, for God's sake. My life may not have been as colourful as theirs, but their opportunities for fun were mine and then some. Dad could buy San Diego and not miss the change.'

'Sounds like your dad's move to the UK was in the nick of time for you.'

'In a way, Henry. It put me in a new setting, away from the old set of guys ... teenage sons of Hollywood stars and pop legends mostly. I missed them for a while, but I got over it fast enough. None of us were really that close. We just hung together because of the celebrity thing. We couldn't hang with regular people, so all we had was each other. Here in Cranwell, I'm out of it. The newsies still haven't found me. If things go on like this, they never will.'

'Sounds like you're happier than you've ever been.'

'Harry and I had good times when we were kids, and those were the best. But they're gone. Yet now here I am with you, and you're quite like her, Henry. Maybe that's one other thing that's good about being here. You and I've got the same thing going as I used to have with Harry. She used to disapprove, but still be nice and sweet to me. So I've lost a Harry and gained a Henry.'

That night in bed with Gavin, Henry finished Dr Bannow's book. Henry smiled as he looked at the sleeping form next to him, the innocent boyish face pressed into the pillow, and he kissed an exposed bare shoulder. He had stopped comparing Gavin with Ed and begun accepting the boy more for what he was, an utterly devoted and selfless partner. Gavin could never be the source of strength for him that Ed had been. Instead, he was forcing Henry to be stronger, and to take responsibility for himself.

Henry had at last begun to understand why he'd instinctively known he must break up with Ed. He could never have grown up with Ed to fall back on. Ed would have willingly protected him from the harshness of life and made the hard decisions. And Henry would not have found the strength to correct and confront him the way Justin did with his Nathan.

Without Ed, Henry had no choice but to take responsibility for his own life and decisions. Although this was uncomfortable, it was changing him. Henry could help and protect others now, as he was helping this attractive waif who had found his way into his bed. Ed had kept him a boy, but Gavin was making him a man. Knowing this, Henry was finding his way back to happiness. Although the struggle had been long and cold, it was a happiness with himself that he hoped might last. He whispered into Gavin's ear the thing he had not felt able to say till that moment: 'I love you baby'.

The boy stirred, but did not wake.

Smiling, Henry settled into his book. Dr Bannow was convinced from St Fenice's Meditation that the Vera Icon had entered Rothenia with Empress Theophania's granddaughter. His analysis of the book was deep enough for him to say that Fenice was not meditating on a conventional portrait of Christ: the man with the beard and long straight hair. There was a passage which talked of the crown of thorns 'twisted in your knotted hair' that hinted at a curly-headed Christ. The sensuous description of a handsome and boyish face again was counter to the traditional depiction of a manly, mature and strong countenance. 'Eyes as blue as the heavens he rules' was also unusual.

Henry in fact had found that he possessed a text of the Meditation in a collected volume of Rothenian classics he had got from Amazon. The editor in the foreword of his book had simply commented that Fenice of Tarlenheim was imagining Christ as one of her contemporary countrymen.

Bannow believed – although on what evidence Henry could not see – that Fenice's descendants were custodians of the Face. There were many strange tales and secrets about the Tarlenheim family. Some of them Henry knew already, and friends of his could testify to the truth of others. But Bannow was remorseless in tying every little speck of rumour and fact together into an elaborate structure of disguise and secrecy. Why, for instance, did the Bohemian Hussite army waste weeks besieging the old castle of Tarlenheim in 1435, when its target was Modenehem? What were they trying to capture? And how did Count Jerzy, Fenice's son, end the siege so miraculously, inflicting huge losses on the Czechs?

Then there was Count Oskar the Great, the famous seventeenth-century scholar of theology and natural science. He was a friend of Prince Rupert of the Palatinate and conducted experiments with the prince at Dresden to turn base metals to gold. It was long rumoured that they had succeeded. But Oskar's principal experiments were on the life essence, and there were strange stories told in Ruritania in later days that he had revived the dead on several occasions. He was the foundation of the later Frankenstein legend.

The famous Austrian field marshal, the first imperial prince of Tarlenheim, Francis I, had fought the armies of Louis XV and occupied Metz. Like the great Marlborough, he was personally unmoved by threats of cannonball and musket, and rode through the heart of dozens of desperate fields of battle without a scratch. In his case, however, there was talk of an amulet of great power that he always wore under his gorget. His troops believed it protected him from hurt. Some swore they had seen bullets bounce off his coat.

Bannow piled oddity upon rumour to create a conviction that, even in European terms, this was an unusual – indeed unique – family. Its power and prosperity rose generation by generation, and for Bannow, the clinching argument was the remarkable recovery of its lands and fortune in post-Communist Rothenia.

His final chapter took Henry's breath away. Bannow had assiduously collected portraits of every prince-count since the sixteenth century, and here he had unearthed a very strange thing. In each generation the face was markedly similar... rich golden hair, long-lasting boyish features and uncanny blue eyes. Whether caught by a Holbein, a Van Dyck, or a David, a similar face stared out of the canvas. The formal photograph of an adolescent Fritz on the end plate just confirmed it. He had the features too. Why? Bannow's conclusion was that the possession of the supernatural portrait of Christ marked its owners indelibly, forming their features into His own. They were a holy lineage.

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