Henry in High Politics

XV

By Michael Arram

David went missing that evening. He failed to turn up for dinner and didn't check back into his bedroom at the hotel. On Thursday morning, Terry was getting frantic. 'That little sod's gonna get me into deep shit. We were supposed to be off today. If I don't deliver him back in good nick to his parents on Friday, there're going to be some serious and difficult questions asked of Henry's dad. What is the kid playing at?'

'It's love Terry. It does weird things to us all. You know that,' Henry said, but he too was worried. They had no contact number for Anton, and David had turned off his mobile.

On Thursday evening Terry restlessly patrolled the Wejg and Rodolferplaz, questioning the Club Liberation regulars. Several knew Anton, but not where he lived or much else about him, except that he was hot and available to the right sort of young guy. Justin joined him and started chatting to the more dubious residents of the Wejg, the rent boys who clustered in doorways two blocks down from the club. They weren't much use, although one claimed to have been paid by Anton for a blowjob. Despite not believing him, Justin shrugged and chatted with the prostitutes anyway. He grinned when he got propositioned by a big German bloke. 'Not working tonight, mate, but I'm sure me colleague here will be happy to assist.'

Unusually, it was Nathan who picked up David's track. He had decided to try out the waiters in the gay cafés near Liberation with a picture of David he had on his mobile, and he struck gold with one. 'Yes. He was in here with a pretty blond boy this evening. They held hands. It was quite sweet. They walked off to the National Opera. I think they were going to the Stravinsky concert.'

So Nathan, Justin and Terry lurked in the portico of the Strelzen Opera House at ten-thirty as the doors opened and the crowd flooded out. When Anton and David appeared together, Anton was startled to find himself surrounded and blocked by three determined and fit young men.

'So, David,' snarled Terry, 'maybe you can tell me when you were thinking of turning up? We go back tomorrow.'

David looked defiant. 'I'm staying on.'

'You told your parents?'

'I will do. I'm staying with Anton. What we've got going is just too good to let go. I may never have another chance like this in all my life.'

'And you'll live how?'

'Anton's got a little apartment. I'll get a job. We'll survive.'

'And your A Levels, university, friends?'

'I'll pick up with all that later. But I've found the love of my life.'

'David,' scoffed Terry, 'you are seventeen, and you have found a lover. You have not found the love of your life.'

David gave him a hard look. 'And how old was Ramon when he met you?'

'That's not comparable. I at least knew all about sex. This is just your dick in shock. Mr Atwood will get in terrible trouble if you don't turn up in school on Sunday. Would you want to be responsible for that sort of shit? How about you, Anton? Want a live-in lover in your little apartment, do you?'

Anton looked harassed. 'David and I have something going, it's true. But hey ... I don't want any trouble - I mean ... him to get in any trouble. David, you've got to think of your friends and parents.'

Terry gave a tight little grin. Anton had been having fun with what he believed was a rich western kid and was not up for consequences.

Now it was David's turn to look harassed. 'This is all bollocks. I'm old enough to do what I want.'

'And not old enough to do what is right,' returned Terry coolly. 'Here, Anton. You seem a nice kid. Be fair. Do you need a lodger?'

Anton took David's hand. 'To be honest, David, it really would not be convenient, much though I like you.'

David looked deeply shocked and then distraught. 'You ... don't want me with you?'

Anton wasn't a bad man and could not witness unmoved the fragile heart in front of him cracking. 'You're a lovely person, David, and quite something in bed, but it wouldn't be right for either of us.'

It was too much for David. His eyes flooded and he blushed scarlet, looking round wildly, his mouth open. Then, with an unbearable look that made even Terry ashamed, he stalked off.

Terry sighed. 'Follow him you two, and don't let him get near the river.'

***

Friday was now to be their last day. While tackling their croissants and fruit salad, Henry and Ed had been comparing views about David's state of mind. It surprised them to see Oskar enter the Hilton's breakfast room and come over to their table. He was yet again in a suit.

'Is this official, Oskar?' Ed asked.

'Not really. I just left the Osraeum. The king said there was something going on that you would not want to miss.'

Henry's ears pricked. 'You just said "the king".'

Oskar gave a broad grin. 'Your good friend, Rudolf Elphberg, came to an agreement last night with Chancellor Trachtenberg.'

'Chancellor Trachtenberg?'

'The Third Republic is dead ... or will be in about an hour. If you want to see its last throes, finish your meal and come with me. Terry said it would be alright.'

Henry and Ed hastily downed their drinks, and with Ed still chewing on his toast, the pair followed Oskar out through the foyer into an official-looking car with a uniformed driver.

'Looks like change is already in the air, Oskar,' Ed observed.

'It certainly is. I took up my appointment this morning as chief of staff and high steward of the household of his Most Pious and Steadfast Majesty, the King of Rothenia. His majesty was gracious enough to bestow on me the title of Count of Modenehem, as will appear in the palace gazette, which will be published for the first time this morning in the Ruritanischer Tagblatt.'

Henry's eyes widened. 'Wow! Oskar, this is seriously big stuff! What's Fritzy say about it?'

'He's very happy for me. He of course assumes the position of Lord High Marshal of the realm, which is hereditary in our family. Ruritania is come again, boys. Herr Trachtenberg has chosen not to take up residence in the palace, but has moved into the old chancellery in Bila Palacz. The king will move his banner from the Osraeum to the Residenz this afternoon and reoccupy the house of his ancestors, the first Elphberg to live there since the great Queen Flavia died.'

The car made its slow way through the rush-hour traffic of Strelzen. Once free of the Modenehemstrasse junction, they crossed the Starel and took a winding route along the bluffs north of the river. Oskar pointed out the art-deco block in which Will and Felip lived. Eventually they emerged on a square behind the archiepiscopal palace, and turned into a car park belonging to Strelsenermedia. Will was waiting. He kissed Oskar before taking his arm and walking them all up to the Erchbischofsplaz.

The square beneath the cathedral's west front was already filling with curious Strelseners. A line of soldiers in Ruritanian blue was drawn up along the precinct wall of the abbey of St Waclaw. Next to the abbey's gate was a wide balcony built out of the wall, used in past centuries as an open-air pulpit. It was currently hung with a red-lion banner.

Oskar shouldered his party to the front of the crowd. He suggested that Henry might want to set his mobile to video. He had his own adjusted already. There was a media presence on a hastily erected viewing scaffold under the archbishop's residence. The hubbub of the crowd rose as figures appeared on the balcony. Henry could see the cardinal archbishop himself in red, as well as a general officer and a number of men in suits.

A trumpet flourish silenced the crowd and drew attention to the general. He unrolled a scroll, removed his peaked cap and all the soldiers below him also uncovered their heads.

He began: 'Since the departure from this realm of the late King Maxim of glorious memory, the throne of Rothenia has stood vacant, and the sacred Crown of this realm lost to human view. Now one has come to claim the throne again, by right, by election and the manifest disposition of Almighty God, of which a token is seen in the recovery of the aforesaid Diadem, known as the Crown of Duke Tassilo. Therefore, the lawful authorities of our land of Rothenia, met in council, have resolved this day that the Most Noble, Most Serene and Most Potent Prince Rudolf Robert Maxim Elphberg is lineally, justly and lawfully next heir of the blood royal of this realm, and do heartily, joyfully and unanimously acknowledge and proclaim that the said Royal Prince is now become Rudolf VI, by the Grace of God Most Pious and Steadfast King of Rothenia. May Almighty God, by whom kings and princes do reign, bless the Royal Prince Rudolf VI with long and happy years to reign over us. And thereunto we his subjects submit and oblige ourselves, in all faith and hearty and humble affection. Given at the Residenz of Strelzen in Council this day of the Crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. God save the King!'

As the general finished, the soldiers and people raised a great cheer. Amidst the clangour of bells from the cathedral and the abbey, there boomed across the city the first report of the 101-gun salute to herald a new age in the history of Rothenia.

'And so the world changes,' mused Oskar.

'For the better, my love,' Will answered him.

'Great days are come, the like of which the world has never seen.'

Henry stared up at Oskar, and found the man's eyes to be wide and unfocussed. It was as if Oskar was not even aware of what he was saying.

***

The trip back to the UK was nowhere near as pleasant - nor as dangerous - as the trip out to Rothenia had been. David looked like he was in a world of his own as they loaded the Medwardine minibus. Ignoring everyone, even Henry, he slumped in a corner and watched the landscape pass by with no interest whatsoever. When they stopped for lunch at Leipzig, he stayed in the van. 'Not hungry,' he said with perfect politeness and total indifference.

In the service station's restaurant, the others all turned to Terry. 'Don't look at me. If I knew a cure for a broken heart it'd be a different bloke sitting here, babes. Get some sarnies in the shop; he might feel hungry later.'

When they got back in the van, David was asleep and slept on all afternoon. Henry thought he probably hadn't gone to bed the night before, after Justin and Nathan had brought him back. Nathan and Justin were a lot happier together now. There had been decisions made and a lot of talking between them. Terry was going back into the security business. 'It woke me up, little babes. Without Ramon I ain't gonna make it on the stage. So I'm taking on contract work for PeacherCorp. I'm buying a flat in the East End, and taking offices near Canary Wharf. Pete's already getting his people to find me a place. Iss time to do the big thing and commit to the future. O'Brien Security Associates is going into business. And me first associate is Justin Peacher-White.'

'What!' exclaimed Ed and Henry, though they kept the volume down with David flat out on the back seat.

Nathan said, with some regret, 'My chavvy babe's good at it, unfortunately. I won't stand in his way. He'll still live with me at Haddesley Hall, and he'll work in the garden centre between contracts, but he has his gifts and his own career. It'll be hard, but I love him too much to argue against it.'

Justin cuddled into Nathan. 'You're a good man, lover. It'll make for plenty to talk about when I'm home wiv you in our cottage. Sides, the prices Terry charges, I'm gonna make meself a mint.'

They reached Rotterdam within plenty of time for the overnight ferry to Harwich. David woke up bleary-eyed and accompanied them to the cafeteria, where he sipped listlessly at a coffee and nibbled some biscuits. Then he slipped away.

Henry found him later sitting out under the stars on the deck. He snuggled up to David, took his hand and kissed it. 'It's awful seeing you like this, Davey.' David grunted. 'It won't seem so bad in a few weeks.'

'I'll never forgive him,' David said with cold decision.

'Anton wasn't that bad a bloke, David. Just out for a good time with a handsome guy ... the handsome guy is you, incidentally.'

'I wasn't talking about Anton. It's that fucking Terry O'fucking Brien! He's ruined my life, the cunt. Okay, he may have lost all his own happiness with Ramon gone, but he's fucking making sure no one else is happy either.'

'Now hold on ...'

'It's no use you defending him, Henry. Oh yeah, it was the sensible thing. Back to the UK and back to school, and then university and then a job in some fucking boring fucking bank, but in the meantime, I've lost the chance - don't care how feeble - of real happiness with a super bloke with a super body in the most amazing city in the world.'

'It didn't look that promising a relationship at first sight ... though Anton was a bit gorgeous,' Henry admitted.

'Not the point, Henry. It's back to hopeless Medwardine, where I'll never meet anyone near as sexy as Anton. A year of celibacy, and then on to some grey university, where the most romantic bloody thing likely to happen will be consciousness-raising seminars in some poxy and earnest Gaysoc. It's not life, Henry, not the way we've lived it for the past week; it's a treadmill.'

Henry had to admit that David had a point of sorts. What David was forgetting was that he was only seventeen, and had a lot of life stretching ahead of him. Henry realised he just couldn't see past the pain at the moment. It looked like time would have to be the healer there.

Nobody got much sleep that night. David didn't come down off the deck and his bed in Terry's cabin was not needed. He looked like shit in the morning, but then he didn't seem to give a shit either. Terry drove them to Paddington, where he gave Ed and Henry a loving hug. Henry winced when Terry reached out to David, only to be sharply and coldly rebuffed.

'Look, I'm sorry, right?' Terry said. 'Davey, you couldn't just give up your future in a gamble on a doomed relationship.'

David simply glared levelly at him and growled, 'Fuck you. If I ever see you again it won't be for want of trying to avoid you.'

Terry looked deeply shocked.

Nathan snapped, 'Mate, that was too strong. You had no call to speak to Terry that way.'

'Fuck you too, fuck the whole lot of you.' He stormed off towards the Underground, en route to meet his dad at Euston.

They stared at each other. Henry said regretfully, 'Don't take it too much to heart, Terry. He'll come round in the end.'

'Yeah ... yeah, I suppose.' Terry looked as though something had deflated inside him. But he rallied, hugged Ed and Henry again, and told them he looked forward to seeing them over the summer sometime. Then Justin and Nathan said their goodbyes, and Terry took them off to Liverpool Street to catch their own train. The van would be taken back to Medwardine the following week by a contract driver.

The train delivered them on time at Shrewsbury, which was unusual for a Sunday. Henry's dad was waiting, full of curiosity about the historic events they had witnessed in Strelzen during their so-called tennis tour.

Henry dropped his bags in the hall of the rectory with a certain relief. Ed and he hugged his waiting mother and, after some tea and exchange of news, took themselves off to their bedroom, where they had a gratefully early night. There really was no place like home.

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