The Henry Atwood trilogy came out of a private bet with myself as to whether I could write three linked novellas in three different genres. So Henry went through the trauma of a ghost story in 'Henry in the Outfield'. In 'Henry in High Politics' he was in the heart of a Buchanesque political thriller, with the randy gay teens of the Peacher set standing in for Scottish boys scouts (Tweedsmuir for ever! Thank you James). And now Henry meets his greatest challenge yet, for he is in pursuit of a riddle of cosmic significance in a mystical thriller. It has three anagrams, which I believe are traditional in this genre. I wish I could say that more than a pat on the head is on offer for spotting them, but I'm not that well-off. But to anyone who can disentangle MENDAMERO, I will take off my hat, or I would if I owned one.
Before beginning, I have to point out, had you any doubts, that there is no university of Cranwell, and a resemblance to any real university in its portrayal is simply generic. Rothenia is a country that does not exist, though I wish it did.
This time there are people to acknowledge by name for helping with the writing. Deep thanks to Terry for his contributions to the dialogue, and for his generosity in bouncing ideas around. We both thank the effects of a Bloody Mary for breakfast. Thanks also to Rob for his great talents freely given in correcting text and pinning down ideas. But most of all I am so very grateful to the appreciative and enthusiastic readers who have been so kind as to tell me how much they have enjoyed these Rothenian tales and the character of Henry, for whom I myself have a great affection. This last one is my way of saying how much I value your kindness and interest.
Freshers' Fair was crowded. Henry browsed the stalls with difficulty, grabbing a leaflet here and fruitlessly queuing to talk to society reps there. He chatted with a nice girl from Croydon at the Gaming Society table, but it looked like they were into Warhammer 40K, not the computer strategy games he was addicted to. He thought about signing up for the Men's Hockey trial, but took one look at the fit, broad-shouldered and cheerful types congregating there and had his doubts.
Finally, he searched for the ominous table he knew must be around somewhere, and had no difficulty in finding it. The hanging rainbow flags and the huge banner CUSU LGBT EXEC were not attempting to be inconspicuous. Go for it, Henry, he said to himself. After all, he had been out since he was sixteen and had found acceptance as a gay at his boys' school. How was university going to be different? But somehow it was.
'My name's Manda,' the broad-faced girl smiled tightly up at him. 'VP Lesbian & Gay Affairs,' said her badge.
Henry was impressed at the amount of metalwork she'd been able to cram into her face. Though a sheltered country boy, he was not intimidated by big city mores. He'd already seen a lot of life. 'Hi, I'm Henry,' he said.
She was scanning his decidedly unfashionable and indeed shabby casual gear, assessing him. 'Welcome to Cranwell University, Henry,' she replied after a slight pause. 'When they call us Gaysoc, I suppose you realise we are not a glee club.'
'Oh, I'm out ... have been since I was sixteen. I'm just interested in what sort of stuff you do.'
Manda gave another tight little smile. 'Here's the first term's programme. We're doing an orientation event and social for freshers tonight at seven in the small bar at the Union. Can you make it?'
'Yeah ... it's the sort of thing I was expecting to do this week. Will many people be there?'
'We usually get about forty or fifty, and there'll be second- and third-year students who can give you the lowdown on Gay Cranwell, such as it is.'
'Well thanks, I'll see you.'
Manda's answering smile was slightly more relaxed. 'Looking forward to it, Henry.'
As Henry turned away and shouldered his bag, he noticed that he had been noticed. Several people on other tables and in other queues were furtively inspecting what an out-and-out gay looked like. He tried to walk butch as he made his way towards College Road.
* * *
Henry breathed the air of freedom deeply. He had been homesick - a bit - after Mum and Dad had dropped him off on Saturday. There had been a definite down moment when he waved off the old Volvo and turned back through the door of the student house in which he was staying. Yet he was adapting fast. He had liberal and tolerant parents whom he loved, but he was now his own man with his own decisions to make, and he was taking a guilty sort of pleasure in it.
The place he lived was no ordinary house. It was the legendary 25 Finkle Road. Although there was no blue plaque on the wall, still it was famous in certain circles. Indeed, the unauthorised biographies of Sir Andrew Peacher and his lover Matthew White included grainy plates of the terraced house where their famous affair had begun, eight years before. It was still owned by Tony White, Matt's dad, a Northampton builder, who now rented out several houses in the Finkle Road area. Together, they made him enough to keep the elder Whites in the Majorcan villa of their dreams.
Henry was living rent free in No 25 partly in return for keeping it routinely maintained. He had the first-floor back room. The front was occupied by another student. Of the two loft rooms, one was spoken for and the other was at his discretion to fill. Being caretaker made his university career an easier prospect financially, but he was discovering that the unpaid duties were more extensive than he had been led to believe.
He pushed open the front door and waded through the drift of junk mail and free papers that had somehow accumulated there since he had gone on to the campus that Tuesday morning. He called out, 'Eddie! You in?'
A muffled shout echoed down the stairs from the first-floor front bedroom. 'Hey, faggot! You have fun at the fair?'
'Can't you pick up this crap? You must have walked over it half a dozen times since you got up ... if indeed you did get up.'
'Well fuck me, Henry - and I mean that figuratively of course - what are you for if it ain't to keep the house in order?'
Henry swore to himself. The thistles in his field were already sprouting. He was sharing the house with Eddie Peacher, son of Richard and youngest brother of Sir Andrew. Eddie had staggered to graduation at his expensive private school in Santa Barbara, and his SAT score had been too feeble for any respectable US school to look at him twice. Since his father had already decided to return to live in the UK, and since Richard Peacher was probably the richest man in the world, Cranwell was persuaded that Eddie had turned over a new leaf and was up to a degree course in English.
So here Eddie was and here Henry was also, with his four A's at A Level and a serious work ethic. That was the other reason for his being shacked up with Eddie; he was to be a good example. It was not a marriage made in heaven, or anywhere remotely celestial. Henry was not the world's tidiest eighteen-year-old, but he was appalled by the utter indifference to basic hygiene and the immediate environment displayed by this American rich boy. What's more, Eddie seemed to have effortlessly categorised Henry as belonging to the servant quarters. It had pissed Henry off to the point of screaming, and they had only been in the house together since Sunday. After Henry refused to wash up Eddie's mugs and plates, he discovered that Eddie wasn't bothered: he just used Henry's clean ones.
Now Henry was certainly no stranger to cohabitation. He had lived off and on with his former boyfriend Ed Cornish, and somehow in the warmth of their relationship the issues of who was responsible for tidying what had never registered or even seemed important. How he regretted ending that relationship! It had seemed the right and responsible thing to do when their departure to different universities was imminent and their relationship was no longer sustainable. But if he had really understood the depths of loneliness and regret that would overwhelm him, he would never have done it. Ed was now in Trinity College, Cambridge, making his own way in a world without Henry.
Without Henry. Perhaps the most tragic - if selfish - thing for Henry was that Ed had survived without him. It had been an edgy final term at their school, but they had remained polite and even friendly, seeing each other most school days. Although Henry had found the courage to pull the plug on their affair, it had taken a long time for all the warm water to drain away. The need for courage came later, when Ed and he had left school for good at the end of May. Suddenly Ed was no longer there, not even glimpsed at a distance.
It was then that the loneliness had set in. Always Henry remembered with longing their last embrace as they left school that final time: Henry crushed hard by the powerful body of his former lover, nestling almost unwillingly into the warmth and safety which had been a welcoming refuge for him for nearly two years. No kiss, just the brief pressure of that familiar body against him, and Ed was gone.
Henry sat in the kitchen and put his head in his hands, wishing he could weep. But the time for crying had come and gone. It was a new world now.
He jumped when Eddie slumped on to the other kitchen chair. 'You making coffee, dude?'
'Er ... I had no plans to do that,' he replied.
'Well, when you do, pour me one.'
'Can you actually make coffee?'
'I guess. I just can't remember the last time I did it.'
'You could go out and get one from the campus coffee shop.'
'Too far to walk, dude.'
Henry was slowly being pushed into unfamiliar territory for him: rudeness. 'Was the phrase "the idle rich" handcrafted for you, Eddie?'
'Chill out, dude, it can't be more than a semester before they throw me outta here. I'm just gonna relax till then.'
'Did you pick up your timetable?'
'Timetable? You mean like a class schedule? Lectures and stuff, no I ...'
'That doesn't surprise me, but don't worry, I got it for you. It's pinned on the kitchen noticeboard right there, so now you can see what you're missing.'
'Cool, Henry...' Eddie was pleasant enough at one level. He was more or less unflappable and hardly ever deliberately rude, except that he liked to call a faggot a faggot. He was bemused when Henry explained to him that in Britain a fag was a cigarette and a faggot was a meat dish served with peas, so why didn't he cut it out. But, as Eddie said, he loved both his brothers and they were faggots, so for him it was an affectionate mode of address.
Henry shuddered and focussed. 'You coming out for a drink tonight?'
'Sure dude. There's a good band at the freshers' event tonight. It's amazing the music scene you got goin' on at British universities. Great bands - sometimes really big bands, bands I'd heard of in the US - and they're happy to play these small student clubs. Is it a sorta public service or something?'
'I'm going to the faggot - I mean gay - freshers' social at seven. I can meet you later.'
'Cool, Henry. But if you see me with a chick, just pass on by, I don't want any of your faggotness rubbing off on me. I'm gonna get my rocks off tonight, I can just feel it ... here, somewhere.'
The other thing about Eddie was his utter determination to lose his virginity at the first opportunity. Cloistered behind the walls of the Peacher compound in Santa Barbara or his Úlite private college, he had not yet had the chance to do more than jerk off, he said, but now at last he was on his own and in a student town full of cool English chicks with a fatal weakness for Americans ... or so he hoped.
'Maybe I can introduce you to Manda.'
'Maybe I could put the "man" in Manda?'
'You never know your luck.'
* * *
There was something of the parish function about the Gaysoc freshers' social. There were tables filled with crisps and cheese straws, boxes of cheap wine and small groups talking earnestly - and sometimes desperately - but never easily. Manda had given her welcoming spiel, and now there were about forty tense eighteen-year-old boys and girls chatting - for the first time, in most cases - with other professed homosexuals of their own age. Obviously, boys talked to boys and girls to girls, but it faintly amused Henry that this should be so.
Henry found himself with a slight and nerdy boy called Gavin, according to the name badge posted on his chest. Gavin had homed in on him desperately, explaining nervously that he had come out on reaching university. He kept taking off and polishing his glasses.
'You got a boyfriend, Henry?'
'I did have, but we broke up when we left school. He's gone to Cambridge, and I'm here.'
Gavin gave a grin so strained it bared his teeth. 'Opposite ends of the higher education spectrum.'
'It wouldn't have worked. How about you?'
'No ... I never had the nerve to make a pass at boys I liked. I couldn't work out what the signals are. Isn't there this thing we're supposed to have, an instinct?'
'It's a myth. Only works for really superhot guys who get hit on all the time. I'm not superhot.'
Gavin went all coy. 'I think you're nice.'
Henry looked at Gavin's specs, spots, bad shave and yellowish teeth and thought, Oh God, the kid really is desperate, and I certainly am not. 'Well thanks,' he said. 'You want some of the white wine from those boxes? Just going to get myself one.'
When he got back, Gavin was talking jerkily to an older male student, who introduced himself as Wayne, a second year. Wayne had the ease of a uni veteran, and was quite amusing if straightforward.
'So Henry, you a virgin?'
'Er ... 'scuse me?'
'Had it off? Been screwed? Screwed? Fucked?'
Henry wondered where this impertinence was going. 'I just broke up with my boyfriend. And it wasn't because I wouldn't put out. That satisfy you?'
Henry saw Wayne's appraising gaze sweep his face. Henry's self-possession and sexual confidence had already ruled him out of something Wayne was planning, as it seemed. Surely this guy was not intending to pick up and shag an innocent fresher? That was so gross, and something the more brainless and libidinous straights did. But he was in there with the same question to Gavin, who blushed red and almost dropped his glasses when he wrenched them off to polish. After that, Gavin and Wayne seemed uninterested in talking to Henry, and got closer and closer as Wayne began what was clearly a seduction scene.
Henry wandered over to Manda and a slight girl introduced as the 'missus'. 'Who's Wayne?' he asked.
'Wayne Clanchy, one of the second years. We don't see him much. I was surprised he came tonight.'
'Tell me about the King's Cross,' Henry said, changing the subject.
Both girls laughed. 'It's Cranwell's excuse for a gay pub,' Manda answered. 'It's a bit dodgy on one level. You can find dealers there if you know who to ask, just don't ask the landlord, a crabby old bastard called Frank. Some people say he gives the place character, like those chefs who go round abusing the guests in their restaurants and people think it's funny.'
'Does he take on student bar staff?' Henry asked.
'You serious? You are serious, Henry! He does have barmen, but they don't seem to last long. Have you got experience?'
'Not as such, but one of his former staff can give me a reference.'
'Go for it, Henry. Gaysoc meets there from time to time. It's all there is as a gay venue in town, so we got no choice, and Frank's sure to fall down dead one day.'
Henry laughed. He could tell that he and Manda were going to get on. Before he left, he volunteered to be nominated as a first-year rep on the Gay & Lesbian Union exec. She gave him a glowing smile and said she wished they were both straight so she could seduce him.
Henry popped into the loos as he was on the way to the events bar. He found himself next to a very nervous and by now rather drunken Gavin, who said he was moving on to a pub with Wayne.
Henry wondered what to say. The guy was a bit innocent and plainly trying to kid himself that Wayne was seriously interested in him. In the end Henry gave Gavin a level gaze and told him he should remember that he could say no to anything, and sometimes no was the best tactic. Gavin just looked flustered and confused.
Out in the student events bar, Henry discovered that Eddie Peacher had found some friends, an amiable and boozy group of wasters not unlike himself: precociously dissolute first-years who goggled and then laughed at the gin and tonic Henry had bought. If nothing else, however, they were good company. They were stacking up the empty pint glasses. Eddie seemed to be enjoying English beer, and he also seemed to have an abnormal amount of resistance to it.
Henry had long ago learned that beer did not agree with him, and had the strength of character to ignore the opinion of his beer-obsessed peer group. Recognising this, perhaps, Eddie's friends welcomed him as an amiable eccentric, not referring to it more than once every three minutes. Henry quite enjoyed the evening, and played a decent and enthusiastic game of pool - the fruit of a number of wasted afternoons in the sixth-form common room - so he was very acceptable as a companion. But he resisted their urge to overdo the alcohol and was a lot more sober than Eddie when the two left the Union and headed up towards Finkle Road.
As they were passing No. 19, Henry saw a dark figure leaning against an area wall, and hugging himself round the waist. Since Finkle Road had earned the name of Puke Alley from what went on in it during Freshers' Week, Henry was not surprised at the sight. But he was surprised to recognise Gavin from Gaysoc as he passed the figure.
He stopped. 'You OK, Gavin? Hey, wait a sec, Eddie.'
Gavin looked to be in shock. Henry took him by the shoulder and repeated the question. Gavin lurched towards Henry, who found himself holding the other boy up.
'Is he wasted?' asked an amused Eddie.
'Don't think so, although he's had a couple. Give me a hand getting him to No 25.'
They manoeuvred Gavin and sat him on the party wall of the front garden of the house. There were tears on Gavin's cheeks. 'Wet myself,' he sobbed.
'Jeezuz,' Eddie cursed. 'Dude's a mess.'
'Open the door, Eddie. Let's get him in.'
Eddie was really good and helped Gavin into a chair, then cursed. 'Fuckin' A, Henry. That's not pee in his pants!' Eddie's hand was red.
Henry knelt down and made Gavin focus on his face. 'Gavin, it's important. What happened?'
Tears were streaming down the boy's cheeks. 'I went back to Wayne's flat and we made out, and he wanted to go the whole way, and ... I said yes. But it hurt so much, Henry. I didn't think it would be like that. I yelled and cried and he got angry and told me to get out.'
'You mean he did anal with you just like that, with no preparation? The total bastard! You're a virgin for Chrissake.'
Gavin sobbed, 'I was ... he just kept pumping into me till he ... y'know. What's happened? My pants are full of blood. Oh Christ.'
Eddie was furious. 'What a total asshole, dude ... that was rape!'
Henry wasn't going to debate consent and its meaning. 'Gavin, he's torn the anal wall inside you, that's where the blood's coming from. We've gotta get you to hospital, and now.'
'No!' Gavin sobbed. 'I can't ... it's too embarrassing. It'll get better ... won't it?'
'Sorry, Gavin. Eddie, the number's 999 here, not 911.'
'Please!' Gavin said urgently. 'What if my mum and dad find out?'
'You'll be OK, Gavin, but only if you let the doctors help. You're losing a lot of blood.'
It was a pig of a night. The hospital casualty unit was crowded. The receptionist was not happy about a tearful boy bleeding all over her carpet. The doctor was clinical and not overly sympathetic. 'Did you do this to him?' she asked Henry.
'No. I'm his friend. I found him bleeding in the street.'
She got Gavin stripped and on his stomach. He had by then subsided and endured her examination as patiently as he could. His face was soiled with the dirt from tears and smears of his own blood. The doctor searched around inside Gavin, which was very painful for him, and he moaned and gripped Henry's hand so hard Henry almost yelped.
Finally, she removed her finger from Gavin. 'The blood flow's easing. It's a tear high up. Someone must have entered him with real force. Was this a rape?'
Henry shook his head. 'No, just a supremely selfish son of a bitch out to have fun at Gavin's expense. Will he be OK?'
'I'll do what I can to stem the flow and it should heal up naturally. But he's going to have to go on heavy antibiotics. Keep him off solid food and make him stay in bed for a couple of days. Is there anyone to look after him?'
'Er ... there's his parents.'
Gavin sobbed, 'No, please Henry. Please!'
'And apparently there's me. I'll look after him.'
Gavin looked up at him gratefully, if tragically.
* * *
Eddie and Henry got Gavin back to Finkle Road by taxi at three in the morning, dressed in old hospital pyjamas, his stained clothes in a bag. Henry made up the bed in the empty front loft room, and found a plastic sheet to put on to protect the mattress. Eddie washed Gavin's dirty face and found him some clean boxers to wear in bed. Henry sat with Gavin till he fell asleep, and looked at him sadly. Without his glasses, Gavin looked more like a waif than a geek, and Henry's soft heart was moved. If he'd had a teddy bear, he would have put it in the bed for Gavin to snuggle up to. He kissed the boy lightly on the forehead when he put the light out. Poor kid, he thought. That might have been me if I hadn't found a lover like Ed when I did.>