Henry in Finkle Road

XI

By Michael Arram

The producer was winding up the Monday-morning meeting. Camden Road outside was jammed with traffic, and Henry kept losing attention and staring at the people on the top decks of buses opposite the window. Endless lines of passenger jets moaned overhead on their way to Heathrow or Gatwick. He suddenly caught his name.

'... and Henry will fillet the poem for a word picture, yes?'

'Er... yes, I will.'

'On my desk tomorrow. Typed.'

'Yes, sure. No problem.'

Henry picked up his papers and the screenplay sketches, and headed for his desk in a crammed and dusty office with two other juniors, both of them rather more senior than he. They were recent graduates and couldn't help but be patronising, even without trying. They talked about flat-sharing, mortgages, grown-up stuff that Henry didn't want to know about. He was intimidated. Last year he had shared a desk with Ed and they had joked their way through the day, but he was on his own now.

He blocked his colleagues out and got on with his analysis of the Meditation of St Fenice. It was easy enough on one level. According to Fenice of Tarlenheim, the Lord's hair was blond and curly, His eyes bright blue, His features clean-shaven, beautiful and boyish, His nose straight, His neck long but muscular, and His lips pale; a smile hovered around His wide mouth. Sounds indeed very like Fritz von Tarlenheim, Henry thought.

On the next level it was not so simple. Henry was a very bright boy. He knew how texts worked, and he had a copy of collected Arthurian romances on his desk too. He began annotating descriptions of Galahad and Lancelot and - lo and behold - the same facial descriptions occurred. What Fenice was coming out with was the stock description of the romance hero, translated from French to early Rothenian. Had she lived in modern times, she might have been an avid Mills & Boon reader as a girl, the romantic phrases sticking with her to be dredged up - perhaps unconsciously - when she wanted to compose a spiritual meditation on a male face. There didn't need to be any mystical icon behind it.

But Henry went deeper yet. There were other and earlier meditations on the face of our Lord. The office had secured texts in hard copy or on the web. Hildegard of Bingen's was the earliest, and it was by no means as sensuous or descriptive as Fenice's. In fact, none of them were. They all agreed that Christ was bearded, however, and His eyes were dark. Fenice stood out from everyone else. Since it was usual for medieval authors to copy and adapt earlier writers, it was odd that she was so eccentric. Was she that way because her erotic idea of a male face was independent of the stock Church image, or was it because she really did have access to a most unusual depiction of the Christ face?

Another odd thing Henry found was that Fenice did not offer just a static depiction, as in a painting or a stained glass window. She was imaging a mobile and expressive face with which she was in communication. The eyes and mouth smiled, the brows contracted, the hair was tangled and shook. Her descriptions were almost cinematic.

Henry booted up the laptop he had been loaned by Marlowe Productions. He began his analysis and briefing for the producer, working through lunchtime to finish it. He e-mailed it to the producer's desk, then stood and stretched. Feeling as though he deserved it, he went out to get himself a late but luxurious Marks & Spencer's bag lunch, before wandering up to Camden Lock to eat it.

He felt lonely as he sat beside the lock. He was already missing Gavin, who had seen the papers and had sent him a text which just said 'Awesome' twenty times.

He rang his mum, although he knew she was at work, and gave her an upbeat account of his weekend in high society and his workday. Then he felt better. He would enjoy an even longer chat that night with Gavin.

Back at the office, he had a stack of Rothenian-history reference books to wade through. They had been acquired by no less than Will Vincent when he had worked for Marlowe Productions on its classic history of the Elphberg monarchy. Henry ploughed through them steadily until six, then left with his colleagues and decided on the bus rather than the tube.

Henry made it to Highgate just in time for dinner. There was a new face at the table, a female one. A very attractive young woman was sitting close to Eddie.

Eddie grinned up at Henry. 'Hey dude... say hello to the queen of dudes, my sis. Hey sis, this is Henry, your temporary replacement!'

Harriet Peacher was quite something. Eddie was not a particularly handsome man, but although his sister had similar features, she was a decidedly good-looking woman. She came round the table with a smile and took Henry's hand, saying in a throaty American accent, 'Henry, I've heard all about you. In fact, you've been the major topic of conversation with my brother since semester began. I thought for a while he'd gone gay on me.'

Henry smiled. 'I tried my best, but I'm just not his type. Did he tell you about the women who are his type?'

Harriet laughed. 'Come sit here on the other side of me and you can tell me over dinner. Will it cause me to lose my appetite?'

'Depends on how graphic I get. Eddie leaves very little to the imagination when he ruts.'

'Hey, Henry dude, that's breaching our confidential relationship. I can never trust you again. Sis, he's got a ride called Gavin. You wanna hear my impression of the noises they make together?'

She raised her eyes. 'I'd rather hear about this miracle of your turning into an A student.'

'It's true,' said Henry, 'he really is.'

Harry took her brother's hand and kissed it. Eddie gave a satisfied little grin. He liked to please his sister, so much was evident, as was the moral ascendancy she had over him. It seemed rather cruel that they were being educated apart, for the very real love between them was quite obvious. Henry began to wonder if the frantic pace at which Eddie was going through lovers was because he was trying unconsciously to find a woman who measured up to his sister.

All three went out to a dingy pub afterwards. 'Oh my, a traditional English pub!' said Harriet. 'So cozy. Look over there! Ye olde drugge pusher! And the antique Space Invaders game. The characters at the bar could be from a fifties Brit movie.'

'I thought you two had been in England quite a lot before this year.'

'No dude. D'ya know the story about Dad's first wife, Andy's mother? No? She's the only thing in the known universe that Dad fears. A real crazy woman. She ran him out of town after the divorce. She made sure Andy and Dad had as little to do with each other as possible, at least till Andy started college. Dad kept to the western hemisphere and left the eastern to her. Not a nice woman. Anyway, we never came to England at all before Andy and Matt's civil partnership ceremony. Dad just kept out of it. It was a bit of a surprise when he announced he was moving back here after he fell out with the administration over Iraq.'

'If that's the case,' said Harry, 'it's hard to imagine that anything would persuade him to risk breathing the same air as his first ex-wife. Though the fact that Petey and Oskar are now living together in Rothenia may have had something to do with it.'

'Have you still got a home in the US?' Henry asked.

'There's Mom's house on Friendship Heights - that's near Washington DC - we can use it if we want,' said Harry. 'But she's mostly abroad, either in Thailand or with her new boyfriend in Provence. Dad's shut down the compound in Santa Barbara, and I think he means to sell it.'

'Which is total crap!' Eddie complained. 'It's the house we grew up in. It wouldn't hurt him to keep it.'

'Then you tell him, Eddie,' said Harriet. 'He might listen to you, now you've emerged as a proper Peacher. God knows I've tried.'

'Hey... all those lectures about me being a total beach bum and an airhead. Think he'll care for one thing I say?'

'You shouldn't take that to heart, Eddie. He loves you the way he loves all of us. In fact, he might love you a little more - after all, you're the only one of us who came close to being a rebel, and that makes you stand out. He never got angry with you, not once. He seemed more bemused than anything else to have a surfer in the family. The lectures were more resigned than annoyed.'

'How do you know about the lectures?'

'I listened at his study door, of course. I had to know you were alright, big bro!'

Eddie turned to Henry with a smile. 'She calls me “big bro” because I'm three minutes older than she is.'

They laughed, and didn't head back to the house till closing time. Harriet was really good fun, and when Eddie was with her, he was a different boy: more content and relaxed, less determined to shock.

A late guest was leaving when they reached the front door of Matt's house. Henry recognised him immediately, though he was wrapped up in a thick woollen coat: Professor Chad Wardrinski. He and Matt were winding up a conversation in the hall, on the brink of the handshaking and back-slapping bit.

'Chad, before you go, may I introduce Henry Atwood? Henry's working on our documentary. He's fluent in Rothenian.'

Professor Wardrinski looked Henry over, his eye lingering on the stud in his brow. He obviously did not recognise him from their earlier encounter; it would have been surprising had he done so. He shook Henry's hand, and said, 'You're young to have picked up a complicated language like Rothenian... do you have family connections there?'

'No sir,' said Henry. 'I went to Strelzen a few years ago and fell in love with the place. I seem to have an ear for the language and just picked it up. I have lots of Rothenian friends.'

'Shouldn't you be in university?'

'I am, sir. This is a vacation job.'

'Very good. You're a lucky young man.'

'I often think so, sir.'

Matt smiled. 'We'll all be meeting in Camden tomorrow at eleven for the first full production meeting. See you then, Chad. Goodbye now.'

It was Tuesday morning and Henry was once again watching the people on the top deck of buses in Camden Road. The day was cold and wet outside. The conference room at Marlowe Productions was packed out with so many assistant producers and staffers that its windows were beginning to steam up. Henry was crammed into a corner, while Matt and Wardrinski occupied the head of the table at the far end of the room. Matt was in shirtsleeves with a laptop flipped up in front of him. The producer sat next to him, a stack of files at his elbow. Wardrinski was in a corduroy jacket and turtleneck sweater, looking very much the media professor.

Matt was saying, 'Alastair Bannow is still playing hard to get about contributing to the production. It seems he doesn't want to go into a head-to-head with you, Chad.'

Wardrinski gave a short barking laugh. 'I don't blame him. Defending the indefensible from the likes of me must be a scary thing to contemplate.' There was a polite and deferential titter round the table. Henry did not join in. He'd had experience of Wardrinski in action.

'We've got an initial script breakdown and screenplay,' Matt continued. The producer clicked a mouse and a slide appeared on the screen above their end of the table. 'Essentially, we'll be using you as a presenter, Chad. You'll be following the book's account of the journey of the Holy Face. We've got location shooting beginning next month, when it's reasonably tolerable in the Syrian desert and Armenia, or so I'm told. You start in Galilee, move up to Edessa, Satala and Istanbul, and then on to Hungary and Rothenia. We've got all sorts of talking heads signed up. Are you OK for February and March?'

'I'm on sabbatical this year, so my time is my own.'

'Excellent! We'll leave the London footage till the end. Maybe Bannow will come on board and maybe he won't. I'm having trouble with the Tarlenheims, too. Count Oskar is refusing us access to his brother, the prince.'

Henry sat up. So Oskar was not allowing Fritz to be caught up in the media frenzy, even if his good friend Matt was asking. Henry could imagine why, too. Matt seemed a little nettled by it.

'The script is coming together well,' Matt continued.

'I'll have some input, I hope,' Wardrinski interjected sharply.

'Of course. But you are neither a historian nor a theologian, Chad, and the script consultants need to be respected on this. Bannow is quite a scholar, and on his own ground he can be formidable.'

'More formidable than I?' Wardrinski put in with a smug look. Henry wanted to vomit.

'He can make you look... uninformed, if our research is not watertight. That does nothing for the authority of the documentary if he finally does say yes to a debate.'

Wardrinski grunted. Henry was suddenly amused to reflect that he was one of the expert 'script consultants' who were backing up Wardrinski. Let's hope he doesn't find out, he thought.

Henry lost interest as things got technical and schedules were agreed. Henry's responsibility for this portion of the project would be over soon enough. He had to get going with the side project of tracking down Wardrinski's Rothenian ancestors. He had a list of Rothenian agencies that Terry O'Brien had provided, people he had worked with. Terry had been very keen about the project when Henry rang him up. 'You should let Davey help you. He thinks he can get into security services with me when he graduates. I have me doubts. You're more the sort, Henry.'

'I couldn't do the physical stuff.'

'That's overrated, little Henry babe. Brains count for a lot more in my business. That and knowing how to ask the right questions. I wonder what questions your bloke won't want asked.'

'There are no skeletons in his closet, Terry.'

'Take it from me, babe, all closets come wiv skeletons as a fixture.'

When Henry's mind re-engaged with his surroundings, Matt was winding the meeting up. He nodded at Henry. 'The personal Rothenian strand will be taken care of by Henry Atwood, our translator. Chad can give you half an hour after the meeting, Henry. You may use my office.'

Henry waited patiently with his file as Matt and the professor finished up. Then Matt put them in his cluttered office. The “Achilles and Patroclus” poster, framed and glazed, was opposite his desk. Henry took a seat behind it, charmed and touched to see a photo of himself on the desk amongst those of Matt's family and his adopted boys.

Wardrinski made himself comfortable in an armchair.

'Could I just start, professor, by asking what family stories you have about Rothenia?'

Wardrinski shrugged. 'Not many, young man. My father wouldn't talk much about it. The Iron Curtain had descended long before I was old enough to travel abroad, so I have never even been in the country. I know I had uncles and aunts there who survived the war. No doubt I still have cousins too.'

'Rothenia's a big country... do you have any clues as to which part your father came from?'

'Again, no idea.'

'Have you any family papers from your father's time in Rothenia?'

'Not that I know of, although my sister might. She took a lot of Father's possessions when he died two years ago.'

Henry, realising there was not much to find out from Wardrinski, thanked him and asked for his sister's contact details.

Henry dutifully rang the professor's sister, now a Mrs Allen, living in Birmingham. She was very pleasant, and seemed interested in the project. She also said her father had never wanted to talk about his life before he came to Britain, but she did have his papers.

Henry had an idea. He fixed up a meeting with Mrs Allen that he could combine with his return home to Trewern for Christmas.

He spent the rest of the day on the phone to Rothenia, talking to potential enquiry agents. He found he got attention when he dropped names of Rothenian celebrities he knew, like Hendrik Wilemmin or Will Vincent. He thought that advertising his friendship with the king might be going over the top.

By Thursday, Henry had mostly wrapped up the first part of his job for Matt and was given permission to go off home to Trewern. He was instructed to charge his rail journey to Marlowe Productions, since he was taking in an interview on the way. He said farewell to everybody in Highgate without regret, knowing he would be seeing them in a week's time in Suffolk.

The Allen family lived in Edgbaston, near the University of Birmingham. Henry looked around curiously, as he was currently reading the David Lodge novels. The big semi-detached house was prosperous, and the lounge had a fine display of family photographs telling the story of three children growing and flying the nest. There were graduation photos and one marriage. The next photographic generation of Allens was appearing on top of the TV set.

Mrs Allen looked a lot like her brother, although her personality was much less abrasive. She was an immediate victim of the Henry charm, and they spent quite a long time talking about families. Henry didn't mind, he liked Mrs Allen.

Eventually, after the second cup of tea, they got round to the antecedents of the Wardrinskis. Old Mr Wardrinski did not seem to have been a pleasant sort of man, and it was clear that he and his son had had little to do with each other after young Chad went off to Peterhouse. It was the daughter who had carried the strain of the old man's descent into Alzheimer's and a nursing home. Their mother had died years earlier.

Mrs Allen produced a box full of papers, which she had put together. She was happy for Henry to take them on loan, as she said they were mostly in Rothenian and she couldn't read them anyway. She had been about to dispose of them. He said a cheerful farewell, and promised to update her on what he found.

Another taxi ride and a rail connection took him to Church Stretton. He got off on to the platform and there was Dad, grinning, his arms outstretched. Henry ran into him and hugged. He was home, and suddenly he realised how much he had missed it. To hell with growing up. This was still where he belonged.

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