Henry in Finkle Road

XXX

By Michael Arram

The filming of the Bannow documentary broke up in some confusion. Rumour had it that Professor Wardrinski was suffering from stress, perhaps even a complete breakdown. He returned abruptly to England. A month later, the Independent was the first paper to break the news that the great atheist had become a Christian Scientist. Soon he was appearing on talk shows defending the existence of God and the reality of religious experience. Henry shrugged and smiled.

Strangely, the conversion surprised very few people. It was unkindly suggested by some commentators that he did it because it was more challenging to defend the religious side of the argument.

Matthew White too shrugged, though he did not smile. But he had enough in the can to edit together the documentary he wanted to make. Henry fed him some surprising further evidence to add to the production. Wardrinski would not resent it now. In fact, he was quoted as saying that Matt White was unnecessarily hostile to the possibility that there was something behind the case for the True Face.

Henry stayed on all summer in Rothenia at the royal palace and at the Tarlenheims'. He and Fritz made love several times, each time with increasing delight in each other, even though they knew it was only for mutual comfort. But it did comfort Henry very much, and he was grateful for the loving arms that held him at night. He was quite active in the king's household, often performing the duties of adjutant and equerry.

One night ten days after the events that had changed Henry's life, the king called together a small group of friends for a conference about what had happened in the Tarlenheim mausoleum. It had been portrayed in the media as an attempt by gangsters to loot works of art from a famous monument. Bermann's disappearance had been explained as a guilty bolt to seek refuge abroad.

The meeting was held in the secure council chamber of the palace. Queen Flavia looked down on the participants from above the mantelpiece, painted in her robes of state. Henry suddenly noticed, as he had failed to do so before, the skull badge of the Levite depicted together with the insignias of the Garter, the Rose and the Golden Fleece. The guide book said it was a 'memento mori'. Henry now knew better.

Rudi took the head of the table with Oskar opposite him. Henry sat on his right and Helge on his left. Matt, Terry, David and Ed Cornish were also present, as was Eddie Peacher. Henry had specially requested that Eddie be invited, saying he had a right to know why Gavin would no longer be seen in Cranwell.

'So where is the little dude?' Eddie asked, after the whole thing had been explained to him.

Henry shrugged. 'In those final moments, I got the impression from his words that he's still in this world. But what state is he in? Gavin touched the relic and yet lived. He can't be purely human any more.'

'You mean, he's like an angel?' Eddie was gripped.

'No. I suppose the closest idea for me is how writers imagined King Arthur was after the last battle, when he was taken off to Avalon. He was still human, but in closer touch with the divine than the rest of humanity. Although he was still involved in the world, his perceptions were wider than ours. Gavin's that way too, sort of like a prophet or judge was in ancient Israel. My beautiful waif, what has he grown into?'

Ed Cornish looked very moved at Henry's words. 'What about the Chamber of the Ark and its treasures? Where are they now?'

Henry shrugged again. 'They've moved out of mortal sight for the time being, I would suppose, but not out of the world. In fact, I'm pretty sure they've not even left Rothenia.'

All eyes snapped to Henry. The king stirred. 'Why do you say that, dear friend?'

'There's a thing in the air which the sensitive always feel about this country, Rudi, even if they don't know the things we know. It's as if the place has a hidden centre of gravity around which everything revolves. Then there is Will's idea that passions run deeper here than elsewhere. He also thinks people are enhanced just by being within the boundaries of this land. I can't sense any lessening of that feeling. How about you, Helge?'

The countess nodded emphatically. 'I believe you're right, Henry. Your Majesty, your kingdom still contains the greatest treasure in the world, though it's now hidden from us.'

Terry grinned. 'There's a treasure hunt still to be had, then. Old Man Bannow can write a sequel to Staring in the Face of Christ.'

Oskar smiled down the table at Henry. 'There's something that puzzles me, dear little Henry. It's the prophecy. It really does imply that Mendamero was a person, and not a password.'

'What, the business about being as wise as Deborah and bold as Samson? It's a bit obscure.'

'Is it?' Matt's lips curled with a secret smile. 'Not to your friends, dearest Henry.'

Henry blushed. 'Try as you like, Matt, you can't make MENDAMERO into anything Henry-related. Let's let the dead bury the dead, eh? The prophecy is time-expired.'

Henry Atwood's became a familiar face in the Rothenian media. He was interviewed on an Eastnet chat show. He learned to his delight that he now had a gay fan-site hosted from a Strelzen server. He knew his friends were reluctant to see him leave, especially Fritz. It was even suggested he should transfer his credits to the Rodolfer Universitat and pursue his studies in Rothenia, where fees were low and living was cheap. Indeed, Helge was quite clear that he could live at the palace rent-free. But that would not do. Henry liked Cranwell far too much, and he knew Eddie Peacher needed him.

Eddie and he hit the Wejg one evening. They found their way through the hustlers and prostitutes to the Irish bar, which Justin had recommended. Sitting over a chilled Guinness, Henry asked how Harriet was managing with the media frenzy.

'We've always had to deal with the interest, Henry dude. We did a joint shoot for Teen Vogue when we were only fourteen, just after Dad married Momma Sylvia. The curiosity has been continuous ever since, though recently they've been a lot more interested in her than me, for obvious reasons.'

'But this is a different order of interest. They're doing the Princess Di thing all over again.'

'Bad comparison, dude. Harry's a cool customer, and Rudi's got no former lovers in the closet. It's the real thing between them. There's no doubt of it. I reckon they'll marry after he graduates. She'll have another year to run at Vassar, but I expect the college will be delighted to have a queen in the senior class.'

'I hope I'll be on the wedding list.'

'Henry, I have a feeling either you or Ed Cornish will be the best man.'

That observation stopped Henry in his tracks. While gathering his wits together, he applied himself to his half-litre of Guinness. He found he rather liked the drink, though he had never tried it at the King's Cross. It was stout and not beer, however, so perhaps there was a difference.

Eddie shot him a look. 'How's the grieving for Gavin going?'

'He's not dead, Eddie, and it's not as if we broke up or anything. It was like what happened in days of old - the knight leaving on a quest and his love having to wave him off, knowing he would be gone maybe for years. That's my Gavin - a brave knight whose mission is greater than any human ties he had, even to me. It doesn't mean I can't still love him, and I know he loves me, wherever he is.'

'Well, I'm glad. But what about 25 Finkle Road? We've lost a tenant, dude... not that he was paying rent, but it will be bad without the guy. We need someone new, and I think I know who.'

'Oh... you do?'

'Sure. I bumped into this guy who dropped out of his university place, but wants to start up again in a different school. He's thinking of Cranwell. He's heard good things about it.'

'Well sure. But how do we know we'll be compatible?'

'You're about to find out. Hey, Ed! Over here!'

'What!' screamed Henry, as Ed Cornish appeared in the bar and headed over to their table. He sat down and smiled into Henry's face.

'You dropped out of Cambridge! Are you nuts, Ed?' Henry was genuinely annoyed. Ed sensed it and wilted a little.

'Easy, Henry. Let me live. I've already put in my request for a place in History at Cranwell. Admittedly Prof Faber was astounded, but he's happy to accept my transfer.'

'What happened to all that business of wanting to excel in the best available school, all that subdued contempt for the redbrick end of the higher education market?'

Ed looked uncomfortable. 'I've grown up a bit, Henry. Honest. It was just my competitiveness talking. I know now there's more to being a student.'

'Now hang on a minute here... I trust you don't have any, y'know, ideas.'

Ed looked offended. 'Certainly not. It would be pretty damned insensitive of me in the circumstances. No, I'll be occupying my own room... I've got no hopes about sharing.'

Henry gave his ex-lover a narrow look. He was not deceived. He could see the hopes lurking just below the surface. Why else would Ed transfer? It couldn't be because of disappointment over Guy Worsman. But he let it pass and swallowed the story. 'Then I suppose it's alright. What have Matt and Andy said?'

'I haven't told them. I expect they will be OK with it, though.'

So do I, thought Henry. He knew what a pair of romantics Ed's former guardians were.

Henry dumped his bags in the lounge. He was so very glad to be back in Finkle Road. It was normality. He looked around. Memories of Gavin were everywhere, but they didn't depress him. A small smile played around his mouth. 'Where are you baby?' he queried softly.

When he went up to what had been their room, he stared in astonishment. Gavin's clothes and books were all gone. There were none of his possessions to be seen, only an envelope lying on the bed. Henry opened it gingerly. It was in Gavin's handwriting.

'Henry my Henry. I've been given time to tie up the ends of my old life. I didn't want you to have to clear out my stuff. It might have been painful for you, and I've caused you enough pain, my poor darling. My parents think I've gone abroad for overseas service, which in a way I have. The Registry has the distinct impression that I've withdrawn from my course. There will be no awkward questions. So now I can say goodbye. Love you forever, my own one. Talk to me often. I may hear you. G.'

Tears in his eyes, Henry dropped the letter on the floor. It was perhaps inevitable that it was not there when an hour or so later he went back to find it.

Eddie arrived just at that time in a Peacher car, whose driver helped him in with the bags and surf gear. Three expensive boards were leaning up against the banisters.

'So how was Malibu?'

After twenty minutes of technical discussion and statistics, Henry finally learned that UCSU Surfing Soc had excelled itself on the Pacific Coast in three critical areas - sport, fornication and recreation. They had surfed all day and shagged and partied hard all night. Henry would be getting the unexpurgated anecdotes at regular intervals over the coming academic year.

'And next June it's Hawaii, no shit dude.' Eddie was beaming at the thought. 'All the guys are gonna come, maybe more this time... then, hell! Oz for the third year. Man, we are the coolest society in the Union. Chicks really flock to us!'

'So we're back on the chicks trail, are we?'

'I was never off it, little dude. I made good use of my time back in California. Tina just made me more cautious. I insist now on an affidavit about the chromosomes of each lay before we undress. What d'you think?'

'I think you need to find a good girl who'll keep you in order, and who'll take the pressure off me.'

The next arrivals were Matt and Andy, who had decided to make the nostalgic trip back to Finkle Road to bring Ed down.

Matt was quite brazen about his agenda. 'We think Ed's made the right decision so far as his future is concerned. There are opportunities here which Cambridge just cannot match.' He grinned and twitched a perfect eyebrow at Henry.

'Yes, I can see very well why Ed should quit the world-class, élite History Faculty of the University of Cambridge and come to the underfunded red-brick world of Cranwell, where the staff-student ratio reads like very long odds on a clapped-out nag in the 3.30 at Kempton Park. However, please don't let me put you off the idea. 'Scuse me, but I'm off to work. I'm already approaching my credit limit and I need a cash transfusion to help me out.'

Henry walked down to the junction with College Road feeling almost as content as he did when strolling the Rodolferplaz. You can be quite happy, he found, even though there is a tinge of sadness to your life. Maybe the sadness even helps highlight what's good about it. The trees were still green along the street and flowers filled the Memorial Gardens. It was a bright and breezy day. The leaves above him lifted and rustled, causing sunlight to flicker across his face. The air was warm.

It was at this point, when Henry realised he and Gavin would never keep a bar together again, that the mixture of powerful emotions he had been juggling overwhelmed him utterly. He quickly turned into the gardens, took a secluded bench, put his head in his hands, and let the pain cry itself out. He didn't sob, just let the tears flow freely as he surrendered to the great feeling of loss that had finally caught up with him in Cranwell.

At last he searched his pocket for a hanky and blew his nose. He felt better - still weepy, but better. He knew it wouldn't ever be as bad again.

Henry had supposed that returning to the King's Cross would be like coming home. Actually, he barely recognised the place. The peeling old brewery-painted sign was gone. There was nothing in its place. Terry had said he'd shelled out a fortune on the refit, but Henry had not expected it to be quite so stylish. The whole exterior had been repainted and the windows all replaced. Round the first-floor stage was a bold and modernistic fascia proclaiming: THE KING'S CROSS: FREE HOUSE & LICENSED CLUB: AN O'BRIEN ENTERPRISE.

Henry pushed the new swing-door open. The stickers on the glass made it pretty clear that there was a dress code and that this was a gay pub. He gasped. Everything was super-plush. Terry'd had the builders knock the public and lounge bars together. A dartboard and pool area had attracted the old regulars, who were all still in residence and looked quite at home. Haggis was leering at a couple of young lads snogging on a nearby bench. They returned disgusted glares at him as they surfaced from time to time.

There was a new guy behind the bar who smiled a little shyly. 'You Henry?' he asked in a heavy Riverside accent. 'Hi! I'm William. Frank said you'd be in. You alright? Your eyes are a bit red.'

'Just the final throes of hay fever,' Henry lied. 'How long've you been working here?'

'Since the grand reopening a month ago. Wharra night! It was 50p a pint if you were prepared to kiss another guy full on the mouth. I got swollen lips and quite a bit of tongue. It brought in gays from as far as Reading and kept out the straights. There wuz quite some action going on in the bogs by closing time!'

Henry laughed. 'Did anyone offer to snog Frank?'

It was William's turn to laugh. He was just past twenty, slim, dark and more than a bit cute. It was pretty obvious that he was one of Terry's boys. He confirmed it when he told Henry that Terry had taken his cherry when he was working in a local hotel a few years before.

'He's got an amazing cock, Henry. Nine inches and curved. He was my first and took ages to get it in me. Life has been a series of disappointments ever since. But it's looking up. He met me in town and gave me this job, much better than the crappy County Radisson. It's great what he's done here, innit?'

Henry liked William a lot. A certain fey boldness about him told Henry that he had never been short of partners. They made a good team at the bar and were soon very comfortable with each other. Indeed, they were so comfortable that William had made a determined pass at Henry before the end of the shift, clearly not wanting to waste an opportunity if one presented itself. Henry just smiled and said no way.

'How's life, Frank?' Henry asked when the manager's sour face finally put in its appearance.

'So you're back. Your little friend at least came and said goodbye.'

Henry was stunned. 'Er, what? Gavin? When did he do that?'

'After you two broke up, must have been six weeks ago. Yes. It was just after the contractors had moved on to fit out the club.'

'And you saw him... in person?'

Frank stared at Henry suspiciously. 'I just said that.'

'How did he look?'

'He'd lost the glasses... must be wearing contacts now. He seemed pretty fit, so he must be working out too. What happened, did he grow out of you?'

Henry gave a grimace. 'That's one way of putting it. So what did he say?'

'Just that he appreciated the job, and that I wouldn't be seeing him again for quite a while. But he thanked me very nicely for making his year at Cranwell so memorable. I thought it was a kind thing to do. I liked him a lot, though not as much as your Rothenian friend Frankie.'

'Did Gavin mention me?'

'You? Why should he? It was me being let down. Fortunately, Terry found the new kid just after. It's not easy to get staff in a gay pub, believe me.'

'Oh, I believe you.' Henry went off in confusion to wash some glasses.

Henry was manning the LGBT Soc desk at the Freshers' Fair. It was he now who had the 'VP Gay and Lesbian Affairs' badge on his chest. Manda and Fiona had gone on to do matching MSc's in Biological Science at Stafford. Henry had inherited the task of reassuring just-out gay and lesbian students and handing out leaflets. But there were a couple of differences this year. Firstly, Wayne Clanchy had been banned from the Union, so there was no need to bother about him getting near the new students. Secondly, the orientation event had become a gay freshers' dance at the new King's Club.

What was really wowing the society was that the great Matt White would be making a personal appearance and signing posters. Henry was getting a lot of unjustified credit for his enterprise. Actually, Matt was just down for a few days to stay with Terry.

'Hey faggot!' Eddie had the next desk along, signing up potential surfers for his society. He had a longer queue than Henry. Henry grinned across and blew a kiss. The first-year surfers looked bemused as their president blew a kiss back.

Another pair of trainers appeared in front of Henry. He looked up to find Ed Cornish grinning down at him. 'I'm new to Cranwell, but I'm not a fresher. Am I still eligible for the disco?'

Henry gave a little smile. 'Course you are, Ed. You'd better have this orientation pack, too, not that you'll need it.'

'Oh, I dunno. This is a lot different from Cambridge, little babe. When're you packing up?'

'Four, I think.'

'Will you take me for a drink at the King's then? I've yet to meet Frightful Frank.'

Henry agreed with a smile, assuring Ed that he wouldn't be disappointed. Ed wandered off to check out the Sports Union.

Towards evening, Henry and Ed walked companionably through the streets of Cranwell. 'It's not bad here, little babe,' Ed observed.

'You really seem to be getting into it.'

'Do you want to hear a confession?'

'Sexual in nature?'

'Not this time. No, the fact is I loathed Cambridge.'

'What! You never said.'

'I felt too sheepish. I was so determined to get there, and despite all your warnings that it would compromise our relationship, I bulldozed through with it... and at what a cost. Then there I was. It was just like Medwardine, only more so. I can see why public-school types congregate there. It's practically an extension of public school. The problem is that in school you had to get on with your year group, and you made up a sort of community. But in Cambridge it all flies apart, and you're isolated. I don't know what I would have done without Guy. I didn't get selected for any of the university teams... I wasn't good enough for a blue, not even in hockey. That was a real blow to the Cornish pride.

Baby, I was desperate to get out by the end of the year. Coming here was not a stratagem just to get back into proximity with you. I needed to make a new start, and Matt and Andy told me as much. Are you disappointed in me?'

Henry took his hand briefly as they walked, his heart going out to Ed as it all too easily did. 'Never, my Ed. You did the Cornish thing and went for the gold. How could I ever resent your doing what you were driven to do? I always feared you hated me for the way I hurt you in Strelzen after the coronation.'

Henry had let their hands drop by that time. Ed clutched Henry's back again, though they were in a main street. He pulled Henry to a stop. 'Hate you!' His voice cracked. 'Henry... I could never... you're...' Ed mastered himself with a very great effort.

Inarticulate though his response was, Henry understood exactly what he was trying to say. Unwillingly, it sent a thrill right through him. This untouchable tower of strength, this school hero, was telling him exactly how weak, foolish and fallible he was. That was all it took to burst the dam of reticence between them.

'Ed... you know you said we should be brothers?'

Ed nodded mutely.

'I've suddenly got this urge to commit incest.'

And in the middle of Cranwell High Street in rush hour, Edward Cornish burst into tears.

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