Henry Henry


HenHen highres

The following is from Allen Bratton’s novel Henry Henry. Bratton was raised in Alexandria, Virginia. He’s since spent time in West Texas, New York City, London, Vancouver, and Dublin. He holds an MA in English Language and Literatures, having written a thesis on medieval English kingship. Henry Henry is his first novel.

On the second day of May, the first Friday of the month, Hal’s current account was overdrawn by £291.13, including £120 of fees that had accumulated with each charge past the limit. He used a credit card over the weekend, thinking that the usual £1,500 would be in his account by Monday, and then it wasn’t. He made a joke of it with Jack and Poins—“Yeah, he’s terminated my contract on a morals clause”—and paid their tab on credit again. Had he not been good enough? He’d attended the Easter Vigil, sober and pious; on Good Friday he’d gone to Westminster for his internship, then stopped at St. Edward’s to do the Stations of the Cross.

On May 10, Hal went to the corner shop for cigarettes and a Lucozade, and his cards were declined. He paid with the last £20 he’d got in cash, then sat on a bench on Eel Brook Common, circled by nannies pushing prams and middle-aged women walking toy dogs off-leash, while a whole lot of vocationless Sloanes (and why seest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye) tried to sunbathe on the grass even though the sun was out only intermittently.

When Henry answered Hal’s call, he said, “You’ve been avoiding me.”

“Yeah, I’ve been, uh, I’ve been a bit . . .”

“I don’t want to punish you. But I don’t know any other way to get you to talk to me.”

“You’re talking to me now. What do you want?”

“I’d like to see you. I haven’t seen you in so long.”

“We just saw each other at Easter.”

“A few weeks is a long time.”

“I saw you once every few weeks from the ages of eight to twenty-one, I don’t know what’s different now.”

“You were doing what was asked of you. Now what are you doing? Don’t answer, I’ll tell you. First of May: £63.46, Boar’s Head Pub. £150 cash advance. £16.13, Golden Doner. £27.30, Denmark Off-License. Second of May: £7.17, Costa Coffee. £47.26, Boar’s Head. £38.40, Deliveroo. £13.08, Denmark Off-License. Third of May: £4.12, Chelsea Coffeehouse. £36.25, Boar’s Head. £29.32, Denmark—”

“What do you want me to do? I haven’t had my allowance since March.”

“You and your brothers are bleeding me dry. But at least your brothers spend it decently. I’d hate to know where all those cash advances are going.”

“Fresh fruit and veg from the farmers market. Not my fault it’s five quid for one aubergine.”

“Don’t be funny. Why don’t you come see me this afternoon?”

“Lunch at your club?”

“No, I’m not going out, I’m not fit for it. I haven’t been sleeping. Last week I took my tablets and got into bed, and when I woke up I was sitting with two policemen in the drawing room. They told me I’d gone out barefoot and tried to get a room at the Cadogan. I’d left the front door open. Thank God no one came in.”

“Did you talk to Dr. Bradmore?”

“He told me not to take those ones anymore, and I said I don’t know what I can possibly do if I don’t, I’ve tried all the sleeping pills there are in the world. He said that I’m not getting enough exercise. Well, how can I, when I feel like this?”

“If I come, you’ll feel worse.”

“I won’t force you.”

“No, of course not.”

“But I haven’t got anyone else. The rest of you are at school . . .”

“You could always try your fiancée.”

“Better if Jeanne doesn’t see me like this yet.”

“I’m glad you care so much about her.”

“You aren’t jealous, are you?”

Hal said, “Not at all. There but for the grace of God go I.”

He didn’t go to see Henry. He sold one of his wristwatches at a “cash for gold” shop and placed an order with his cheapest dealer. In the evening, he went to the Boar’s Head and pretended he didn’t know his cards would be declined, and when the manager told him they were, he wheedled and flattered and reminded her how loyal a patron he’d been this past year and a half. Between the hours of about 9:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m., Hal felt greater pleasure than any man on this wretched earth had a right to feel. Across the river, Henry was alone and sleepless, and Hal was here in South London, happy. Then the pubs closed, the clubs closed, the tube stopped running. Golden Doner closed, Denmark Off-License closed. In spring, the sun rose earlier and earlier. The night buses turned back into day buses; the tube started running again. In the twenty-four-hour Tesco, the floor was cleaned, the expired perishables binned, the shelves restocked; the night shift ended and the day shift began. What was Hal going to do with himself? Who would listen to what he said? Who would laugh?

Hal stayed at Jack’s until the snoring was too much to bear, then slammed one last can of Stella and wandered out into the street to find it filled with people working to keep the world spinning: boarding buses that would take them to their jobs in Central, rolling up the shutters on their shopfronts, putting on their high-vis jackets and recommencing the never-ending roadworks. They had so little choice. There was money to be made, there were bills to be paid, children to be fed, lights to be kept on, roofs to be kept over heads. The bus was pulling away as Hal arrived at the stop, and instead of waiting for the next one he kept walking, up past Elephant and Castle, across Lambeth Bridge, from which he saw the London Eye and the Palace of Westminster looking small and dull under the gray sky. Once he was across the river, he was only one of an endless ebb and flow of blue oxford shirts. The buildings got taller and newer and shinier; redbrick broke away into green-tinted glass reflecting the facades opposite. The pavements below were empty: Was there actually anybody here? Hal felt that if he broke through the glass he would find nothing behind it. He took a right onto Grosvenor Place, where a brick wall topped with concertina wire marked the western boundary of the Buckingham Palace Garden, and just like that he was faced with the brown brick and white stucco of godforsaken fucking Belgravia.

His father’s house was one of the white stucco ones, with wide, shallow stone steps leading up to the front door. It had not been in the family since the Georgian era. It had not been in the family fifty years ago, and was unlikely to be in the family in fifty years’ time. Grandfather John had bought it in 1972, out of the pure, petty need to prove that a younger son could be grander than the eldest. Henry had spent his earliest years in a mews house in South Kensington. Now nobody owned property here but foreign governments and foreign billionaires, and Henry, bemoaning the expenses that the house thrust upon him, had little choice but to let it fall into disrepair. The black paint on the door was peeling, the brass knocker and handle were tarnished. Hal was moving toward the door like he would move toward the stench of something dead, certain of what he would find and pleading with himself to overcome the impulse to find it. He could not overcome anything: he undercame, like you did when you were swimming in the ocean and got dragged beneath by a powerful wave. He let himself in.

The scent of the house was perceptible now; it hadn’t been when Hal was young. It smelled like old upholstery and old wood, and whatever sprays and polishes the cleaners used. Hal was damp under his arms and in the dip of his lower back and in the middle of his chest, and the damp was richly scented like soil, nose-curlingly ripe. He was aware, moving through the house, of the foreignness of his own scent against that of the house. Beneath the runner, the stairs creaked; Hal hadn’t taken off his loafers. The door to Henry’s bedroom was ajar.

Hal knocked once with the back of his hand. “It’s me,” he said.

Henry said, “I thought it might be.”

“Had you been expecting me?”

“Stop talking at me from behind the door. Come in.”

Entering, Hal saw Henry turning away from one of the windows, having just untied the sash and let the thick, dark curtains fall. A line of light shone between them. The curtains on the other window were open still, letting the raw springtime light fall across the bed. There was always the same knitted blanket; there were holes in it through which Hal saw the pin-striped sheet beneath. Henry wore a clean white shirt, ironed but not starched, tucked into pleated gray trousers. No belt, no braces, no shoes. His socks were black, so worn at the heels that the skin showed through.

“I’ve got a terrible headache,” said Henry. “I was going to see if I could sleep, now that the sun is up.”

“Philippa told me you were upset I didn’t come to see you when I dropped her off this weekend, so I thought I would come. Are you upset I’m here now?”

“No, I’m not, I’m not upset at all. I only wonder why it is that I have to send for you in order to speak with you.”

“You don’t; I’m here.”

“After how many weeks of begging? Look at you, you look like a heroin addict on a Glasgow street corner. You’ve sweated through your shirt. Go, pour yourself a glass of water and drink it, and then pour another one and sip it slowly. And take a paracetamol. I won’t send you away until you look decent.”

Down on the lower ground floor, in the kitchen, pouring himself a glass of water, Hal felt as if some intangible touch was bending the soft, fine hairs on the insides of his arms, the nape of his neck, his cheeks. If Henry told him to be good, to stop drinking, to do something with himself, Hal would deny him, laugh at him, at his incapacity to make his son do anything. The small, gentle orders—“Pour me a drink,” “Bring me my reading glasses,” “Brush your hair,” “Straighten your collar”—Hal obeyed. Drinking water did make him feel less unwell. He checked his phone, saw nobody had messaged him since he had last checked it, and left it on the counter next to his twice-emptied glass.

Henry was at the top of the stairs, leaning against the doorframe, blocking Hal’s passage into the hall. He had undone the first two buttons of his shirt, and his vest was visible in the newly opened space. His hair was slipping down his forehead.

“I thought you must have been sneaking a drink,” said Henry.

Hal blew a gust of breath into Henry’s face. “Smell. I’m innocent.”

“You do still smell like you’ve been drinking. And smoking: that covers up the scent of the alcohol a bit.”

“I can’t help what I’ve already done.”

“No, of course not.”

Hal angled his shoulder to press past Henry, and was allowed to go as far as a step into the hall before Henry, agile, caught him by the upper arm and arranged him so that his back was against the wall. The small bump of the wainscoting pressed into the backs of his thighs, and he thought of “The Princess and the Pea.” Henry’s hands were strong; the points where his fingers pressed into the soft flesh of Hal’s arm actually hurt.

“If I died today,” said Henry, “which I very well might, you wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do. You would spend the very little money we have left on things that pleased you, and you wouldn’t know how to replace it. You would be taken advantage of. You would put us in debt, you would have to sell Monmouth, you would have to sell this house, you would make a fool of yourself in front of people who would be deliriously happy to see you do it. And when you died, there would be nothing left for your own children, if you did have children—if you didn’t leave the world like Richard did.”

Hal said, “I’d marry a rich girl, just like you’re doing now.”

Henry said, “Who would have you?”

He had let go of Hal’s arm; there was nothing holding Hal in place but a sense that he should be here, his shoulders and the back of his head against the wall, his mouth slightly open. Hal tried to look at Henry’s face and saw nothing but a projection of his own as Henry saw it: the hanging bottom lip, the pale cheeks with the mottled red in them, the translucent eyelashes, the blue eyes that seemed less like windows than opaque and insensate flesh, no better at absorbing and comprehending the world than his liver or his spleen. When Hal was alone, he heard the clamor of all the voices of the people he knew, the things he had been told or overheard, things that had humiliated or troubled him, an errant remark or a play on words or a Freudian slip. Here, with Henry, it was silent, almost. The enormous, half-broken radiators clanked erratically; a car passed by on the street. No lights were on in the hall, but there was thin bluish sun coming through the fanlight above the front door. Hal looked at the door and then back at Henry. He knew this was his father, there was nobody else who could be his father, but Henry was still someone else. In dreams, other people seemed like other people, even though they were only presences you’d invented without knowing it. Was waking life like that, or was it inverted, so that your self was only a branch of the same substance that made everything else up? Hal felt like he was sleeping now. Henry was wiping the corner of Hal’s mouth with his thumb.

Hal said, “I’m going to be better than you think I am.”

“How would you know? How would I?”

“You don’t trust me?”

Leaning close, Henry said, “Never mind. I don’t want to hear you promise anything. I’ve heard enough. I’ve had enough from you.”

Henry’s breath touched the thin, colorless little hairs that ran from Hal’s nape to his collar. Hal’s blood moved: his fingers and toes went clumsily numb, his face glowed hot, his prick was hard in the miserable way it sometimes had been during morning prayers at school, or when a doctor listened to his lungs with a stethoscope pressed to his bare skin. Hal was giving Henry what, silently, he had been asked for. They breathed in an alternating rhythm, one taking the breath the other had just given up; they tilted toward each other like a reflection of a reflection, always a step behind itself, fading into the green gray of the silver mirror backing.

Whatever he felt, Hal knew, Henry felt the inverse: Henry felt the skin of Hal’s neck against his lips, the click of his fingernails on Hal’s trouser button. He felt the warm, delicate skin of Hal’s prick against his palm, and the subtle contortions of Hal’s muscles as they tensed, loosened. Hal wasn’t sure if what he felt was pleasure, or what pleasure was. The back of his head scraped against the wall, his heels lifted off the tile. He came; Henry wiped his hand on Hal’s shirttail and took Hal’s chin in his hand.

“You can stay here,” said Henry, “as long as you like.”

Hal badly wanted not to speak. He said, “No, it’s all right, I’ll go.”

“I’d like it if you stayed.” Henry pulled his fingers through Hal’s hair, setting it as straight as he could. He cupped the back of Hal’s head and kissed his forehead; Hal bent to allow it.

“Sorry,” said Hal.

“No, no.” Henry was letting him loose, turning him toward the door. “You’ve your own life now; I know that.”

*

The Saturday after, Hal went to confession at a church he’d never been to before. He picked one far from home and well attended, so that the priest wouldn’t know him or any other Lancaster. He would be dealt with efficiently, given his penance and absolved and blessed and sent away. Henry would have considered this dishonest, but Hal believed that who your confessor was, and how long he spent with you, was not any of God’s concern. He hoped also that God would understand why he had to lie a little bit, just by omission or misrepresentation. This was a lesson he had learned early on. After the first few times, after several confessions had come and gone without him mentioning it, Hal told the truth to his school chaplain during the once-per-term mandatory confession. The chaplain had told him that he was being hurt, and that he should tell someone else, his housemaster or the school nurse. Hal was fourteen and disgusted to his very core: he had gone to be given penance, not to be told he hadn’t sinned in the first place. He had let it happen, he had kept letting it happen, he had felt pleasure. When he was twelve, before it started, he had gone to Father Dyer to confess before Easter and said he’d been thinking impurely of men, and Father Dyer had made him pray a whole rosary.

This time he went to a church in Richmond. Making his way down the District line, he kept thinking: Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew undid me. Wasn’t Eliot an Anglo-Catholic? Ugh! It did occur to Hal that if he weren’t a Catholic he wouldn’t be spending his Saturday going to Richmond, but he believed in the one true Church, like his father, like his father’s father and all the fathers before him, all the way back to when the Viking invaders of Normandy gave up paganism. Hal wondered what the first Christian in the direct line would think of him: this effete, unscarred boy, kneeling before a wooden screen and making the sign of the cross.

It had been some weeks since his last confession, and he had all the usual sins to cover: drinking, drugs, sexual fantasies, masturbation, lies, gossip, snobbery, a lack of charity toward the poor and vulnerable, failure to attend Mass, disobedience toward authority, a refusal to forgive the wrongs done against him even as he did wrong against others and expected to be forgiven. Appended to such a list, the confession that he had engaged in a sexual act with a man who was “like his father” must have been unsurprising. So it was a little bit of a lie, but it was also more true, in its way, than it would have been if he’d said it was, actually, his father. Fathers were just imitations of God, imperfect likenesses, like Aretha Franklin was like a natural woman, like Madonna was like a virgin. And Hal was sorry: that was true. The priest gave him five Hail Marys and five Our Fathers, and Hal said the usual: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.”

The afternoon was overcast, but fairly warm and not yet raining. Hal walked through Richmond Park. He bought a ninety-nine from a van with a queue longer than the one for confession—state of the world, eh?—and watched the deer, who seemed, today, restless and disinclined to laze. There were a few new fawns keeping close to their mothers, small enough still that their heads barely peeked above the tall grasses, and Hal thought of how many fawns, freshly birthed, must have been hidden in the brush, waiting to be led out into the frightening, incomprehensible world.

__________________________________

From Henry Henry by Allen Bratton. Used with permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2024 by Allen Bratton.



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