The White Tree was not its usual self, not in the least. The Clean Air Act had passed the Rothenian parliament and was now law. Coiling blue smoke was distinctly lacking in the club’s normally thick atmosphere. Instead, the sun shone through the bottle glass of the cellar windows and the wine glasses behind the bar actually sparkled, though Alfons the barman certainly did not respond in kind. He grunted at Henry’s cheery greeting with a surliness that would have done credit to Henry’s former employer, Frank Hutchinson.
‘You’re out early for you, Herr Atvood,’ he said with barely a hint of welcome in his voice.
Henry was a bit dashed; he expected to be met with a smile wherever he went. Alfons may not have been a bundle of laughs, but there was usually an air of unflappable good humour about him. Not today, though.
‘Umm. Meeting, Alfons. Er … you don’t seem too happy.’
‘It’ll be the death of trade.’
‘What. The smoking ban?’
‘The cleaners were in yesterday. Look at the ceiling.’
‘Er … it’s still there.’
‘Oh yeah … it’s white. Did you paint it? Wasn’t it a rather cosy orange before?’
Alfons rolled his eyes. ‘They used industrial solvents. That was the colour under the sediment of decades of accumulated tar.’
‘Wow! So you’re worrying about what it’s done to your lungs?’
The man’s eyes once more rotated. ‘My lungs can look after themselves. My grosstatta smoked 80 a day and lived to be 89. It was falling off a tram that did for him. This is Strelzen, the customers won’t like it. If they want to smoke they’ll have to hang round the street door. No biergarten out the back, only the light well and if they go out there the neighbours will only complain at the noise.’
‘I see your problem.’
‘You and the major don’t smoke of course, so I suppose you’re fine with it.’
‘I guess. Though we have friends who may share your annoyance.’
‘The Falkefilm boys will disappear, and they’re good for trade in so many ways. The Rough Guide feature that said they hung out here was bringing the foreign gays in.’
‘I think the leering of foreign gays is more likely to send the pretty boys elsewhere than the smoking ban. You should talk to Felip. He’s their sort-of trade union guy.’
‘He goes through a pack a day. He’ll be the first out.’
‘Alfons! Be fair. Felip’s a loyal sort. He’s been hanging round this place since … I dunno … since before he legally could.’
Alfons grunted and Henry hastened to order his drink. It was indeed early for him, so he took his bottle of non-alcoholic pilsner over to a corner, flattened out his evening paper on the sanded table and caught up with what his rivals in the news industry were saying.
It was ten minutes later that the bar door opened and a broad-shouldered figure filled the frame. He looked around, then headed directly for Henry and took a seat opposite.
They shook hands. ‘Hi Pete! I’d better get you a drink. Alfons is convinced the place is in terminal decline. He’s a bit sensitive at the moment. It’s the smoking ban.’
Peter Peacher looked curiously around. ‘So this is the famous White Tree, Henry dude? The way Osku talks about it I was expecting seediness; that and hustlers. I’m disappointed.’
‘What can I say? It has its moments: karaoke and quiz night is a blast. But it’s not a cruisy joint. That’s why the regulars come here; if they want the other they can go down the Wejg. In the old days it was a different matter. Before the war this was Strelzen’s gay central, like Nollendorfplatz in the days of Cabaret and all that. I believe Marlene Dietrich once sang here. There’s a scrapbook behind the bar if you’re interested.’
Peter shot Henry a quirky look. ‘Trust you to select your local on the basis of its historical associations. I’ll have a red wine.’
‘Good choice.’ Henry called the order over and Alfons obliged promptly, for all his mood. The man’s service ethic at least was still functioning, and so was his nosiness, as Henry found when the glass was brought to the table.
‘That’ll be twenty krone, Herr … um? Don’t I know you from somewhere?’
‘Don’t think so,’ Peter answered in his fast-improving Rothenian.
‘Aah … American. You speak our language too! Most unusual. Are you at the embassy? Do you know our Herr Smith? A regular here.’
Henry scrambled to change the subject. ‘Alfons, isn’t it Gay Olympics Weekend? That’ll buck up the trade. Is that a flier I see above the bar?’
The barman was put off his stride. ‘Oh … yes. I expect the major and his friends will be here as usual. They do get into it. Good chance this year for Rothenia I hear.’ He toddled off. The wall TVs flickered into life and Sky Sports was soon blasting away. Henry half suspected it was to pay him back for daring to be cheerful on such a day.
Peter was looking at him with an eyebrow raised. ‘Gaij Olympiadij?’
Henry grinned. ‘I forget you’re a Yank sometimes. The “Gay Olympics”. A high point for everything camp across the Western world … well, apart from your corner of it. You’ve never heard of the Eurovision Song Contest?’
‘Er … nope. Don’t have Eurovision in the States, and I thought I had a handle on all the major networks.’
‘Well, Eurovision’s not exactly a network as such. It’s a sort of union of European broadcasters. They pay dues into central funds and get together for the odd event, and the oddest of them all is the Song Contest. C’mon, you must have heard of ABBA? They have to be on every gay man’s playlist.’
‘ABBA made it big by dressing up in satin and sparkly boots and winning it for Sweden back in … er, 1970 something. Way before I was born anyway. You should talk to my mum. She’s a fan. Not only that, she can tell you every winner and every British total score since well before she had Ricky.’
‘But not you.’
‘Odd that. Never appealed, really. But then I’m not that musical, am I. Ed though — total mega-fan, him and the entire officer corps of the Rothenian army. It worries me a little. But he says countries that sing together may end up not nuking each other. And it’s a big thing here. Rothenia was the first of the former Iron Curtain countries to enter it after the fall of the Wall. It’s sweet. Lurex and glitter still means freedom to them.’
Peter shrugged. ‘That’s a window on the world no one ever opened for me. I don’t think my Osku’s ever mentioned it either. Anyways, little Henry dude, let’s get on to the reason we’re here. I need your local knowledge.’
‘How can I help?’
‘It’s the politics of this place … the city, I mean, not the country. This Staramesten and Nuevemesten thing. Are they two separate municipalities or what?’
‘Sorta,’ Henry admitted. ‘The Staramesten is the Altstadt, the original medieval city up on the hill within its walls and gates where the old ducal palace was. It’s got its little Radhaus back of the hill and its own mayor and aldermen … they call them the Staroman and szcabnyi. It’s got the Domshorja, the cathedral precinct, the Arsenal and the Strelsenern Anhöhen — the bluffs over the Starel where Will and Felip live. Nice area. The Altstadters look down on the Nuevemesten of course, in both senses of the phrase. They’re very jealous of their seniority. The Staramesten is the postal First District for a reason.
‘The Nuevemesten’s the sixteenth-century new town, the Neustadt. It’s got its separate mayor and council — they still call them the Burgomeister and Ratsherren. It was in a bad relationship with the Altstadt from the moment Rudolf IV granted it privileges in 1560 something. To begin with it was a predominantly German settlement, while the Staramesten had a majority Slavic population. The Neustadt was way more successful commercially, and attracted a big and prosperous Jewish community.
‘Then the old dukes really upset things by moving down from the hill and building their grand new Residenz north of the market place and the city church of the Neustadt, the Salvatorskirche. The two councils actually came to blows over who had jurisdiction over the Sudmesten, the southern suburb, which was built over part of the old ducal forest of Strelsau, which the Altstadt claimed. There was a three-day riot. The only way Duke Rudolf VI could get round the problems his father caused was to designate the palace as its own enclave, not in any city parish and and not in the Neustadt or Altstadt.’
‘Hah!’ Peter scoffed. ‘Clever old Elphberg dudes. Maybe I should take a lesson from them.’
‘The two mayors are in a pissing contest over a subject very dear to my heart: the profits of PeacherCorp Europe.’
‘Prosim, losers,’ was Yuli Lucic’s greeting to the lunch table. His friends looked up and grunted as noncommittally as only male sixteen-year-olds can, then returned their attention to their trays. The packed senior dining hall was full of teenage hubbub and the odd female shriek.
‘What’s that you got, Willemczu?’ Yuli asked his friend. But the answer came from Bolslaw.
‘His new handij. He’s in love with it, the perv. See! He’s got a boner.’
‘Predelje, Bolo. It’s a Nokia. It’s got a camera and MP3. Rotcom gives you unlimited texts. The digital future is here … at least for me.’
‘Sutzat zumet, asshole. Play your ringtone. Go on.’
Willem Kral beamed all over his pale and acne-spattered face as he held up the silver phone and thumbed a button. Loud and clear came the rising chords of the latest Svetlana anthem, Lebe als ist!
A table of smiling girls next to them began singing along, and soon half the hall had joined in, with an underlying masculine counterpoint of Ro-then-ija! Ro-then-ija! Svetlana was singing for Rothenia that evening in Turkey in the semi-final of the Song Contest, and she had caught the imagination of her compatriots.
When the singing had broken up in laughter, applause and chatter, Willem smiled around. ‘Hanging tonight, Yuli? Could meet you on the Plaz, the McDonalds on the Mikhelstrasse corner?’
‘Sorry, nah. Promised my mutti I’d be in. Catch you on MySpace?’
Bolslaw groaned. ‘See! Told you! This web thing is killing human interaction.’
Yuli punched his flabby bicep. ‘When did you ever make the effort to walk up the Horja to my place, Bolo?’
Willem and Yuli had been together in all their various schools and they had only got to know Bolslaw in gymno. But, for some reason neither Willem nor Yuli could articulate, Bolo fitted well into the interaction between them; though Yuli was beginning to think it was because Bolo was an unconventional and independent boy whereas he and Willem were in many ways alike, only children very close to their parents.
Bolo had six brothers and sisters in a chaotic home and his perspective on life intrigued Willem and Yuli. He also had a superior knowledge of the seedier side of city life. Some of his extended family did not operate quite within the confines of the law, as Yuli delicately put it.
Yuli smiled at Willem, shoved a spicy chicken nugget from Bolslaw’s plate into his mouth, shouldered his backpack and walked off to school orchestra practice.
Henry toiled up the steep and narrow stairs to his third-floor flat in a mansion block on Osragasse. The climb could be heavy going after a long day, as today had been. The not-unexpected noise of masculine laughter and banter reached him through the open door, that and the clink of glasses. He wondered how many of the officer cadre of the Guards Division would be occupying their sofa and chairs.
‘Hey colonel! Just in time!’ His friends amongst the Rothenian officer corps never forgot his honorary rank. Henry had finally begun to accept that they were not being ironic when they used it. At least they didn’t salute him.
Major Ed Cornish, his life partner, rattled ice in a glass and looked a question. A wink secured him a gin and tonic, and he perched on an arm of their somewhat battered sofa. There were five very fit and broad-shouldered officers crammed into their lounge. Judging by the number of empty bottles, they’d been there for a while. The TV was on and the volume was turned up as Henry took his glass. ‘This is new,’ he observed.
‘The semi-final?’ said one of Ed’s company commanders. ‘Cuts down the endless voting and gets rid of the dross.’
Another one laughed. ‘The dross? It’s all relative. Drossiness is required to some degree, isn’t it?’
‘Philistine,’ commented his commanding officer. ‘Big arena there in Istanbul. Anyway our girl is up pretty soon. The semi-final exposure’ll do her no harm. It’s some catchy number, too. Been humming it all day.’
‘None of which will matter unless she gets through.’
Ed did not deign to reply. Henry in the meantime was trying to identify the Rothenian State TV commentator in Istanbul. ‘Oh! It’s Horst Braunstejne. What the hell? He’s got the personality of a plastic golf tee. They put him on the quieter sports, golf included.’
Ed was amused. ‘So are you gonna just sit there and critique the poor presenter all night and ignore the lunacy happening on stage?’
‘It’s the lack of professionalism that offends. State TV is a disgrace. They don’t deserve the monopoly they have on Rothenian sports and national events. See what happens! Total laziness and incompetence.’
‘And Strelsenermedia would of course do a better job … oh yes, and increase its advertising revenue?’
‘It would fund the raise I so richly deserve.’
The sound of scoffing filled the lounge. Henry bore with it.
‘Tell you what,’ observed Captain-Lieutenant Broznic, ‘that Turkish lady presenter is pretty damn impressive, and I’m not just talking about her looks in my shallow way. She kicked off leading the audience singing, very talented.’
‘Can’t imagine you doing a song number if you were in the role, Henry,’ his partner commented, ‘there’d be cracked TV screens from Portugal to Poland.’
‘We all have different talents,’ Henry sniffed. ‘Their humour is pretty painful.’
‘Cool it folks. Here it comes! The Greek guy’s done his bit. Woohoo! The dancing ladies have ripped off his top! He should shave his pits. And now from the Abdi İpekçi Arena in Istanbul it’s our girl … Svetlana!’
The screen shifted to panoramas of various scenic mountain views of the Turkish republic. Then the Rothenian tricolour digitally appeared and … ‘What the fuck!’
‘Your TV’s died!’
‘Who’s got the remote?’
‘Has the power gone out?’
‘Don’t you dare hit my TV.’
‘I’ll check the fuse box.’
Henry exerted his expertise. ‘It’s not dead. There’s a blue tinge to the screen. They’ve lost the relay. What amazing timing. Look, there’s the test card. Wow! What a total fuck up.’
In his bedroom, even with the headphones covering his ears as he played his keyboard, Yuli Lucic heard his mum shriek. Concerned, he clumped down the narrow stairs to the front room. Maybe it was a mouse in the kitchen. ‘Wassup, mutti?’
Frau Lucic pointed accusingly at their TV set. ‘It went off just as Rothenia was about to perform.’
Yuli tried a few buttons on the remote. ‘It’s okay. See, Eastnet’s on. I’ll try RTV again. Nope, dead. Ah … there ya go. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.’
His mum bounced back on to the sofa, seriously annoyed. ‘How can they do that! It has to be sabotage. How’ll she get any votes if no one can see her perform? We’re out, and that’s the best song Rothenia has put up since I’ve been watching it.’
Yuli smiled. ‘You take it a bit seriously, mutti.’
His mother tossed her dark hair, the same rich colour as her son’s. ‘The world is made up of two tribes, Yuli my love: those who get the Eurovision Song Contest, and those who don’t.’
He laughed. ‘Do I have to pick sides, mutti mine? It’s okay I guess. The girls in the gymno are really into it; a lot of the boys too, though that may be the Svetlana effect. When’s tatti home?’
‘More meetings. You know how he is. Also he’s missing the Song Contest.’
‘The bad man.’
His mother laughed, and then sat up. ‘It’s back!’
The screen showed the whole arena, and down on the stage Svetlana was just finishing to a storm of applause, a bank of liquid nitrogen fog curling round her, lit up by coloured spots. The Rothenian commentator was stuttering and not making much sense. ‘Yes … ah … fine performance. Sorry but … er … technical difficulties at the Turkish end of things. Bit of a shame.’
‘Well, he doesn’t seem too bothered,’ Yuli observed. ‘Obviously belongs to the wrong tribe.’
‘I’m going to complain to … whoever you complain to about TV companies.’
‘Happy to help, mutti. I’ll Google search it in gymno tomorrow. Something tells me you won’t be the only one looking.’
‘Ten minutes, Henry.’ Tomas Weissman peered over his partition in the news bullpen.
‘Er … ten minutes for what?’
‘News team meeting. Will’s just called it.’
‘Oh … okay. I’ll get a pencil sharpened. What’s it about?’
‘You need to ask? Nine minutes.’
The briefing room was packed. Henry was last through the door. He squeezed past the front row to secure a coffee, then found himself without a seat. In the end he had to squat against the wall between two chairs, whose occupants looked down on him with identical smug smiles.
Will Vincent, CEO of Strelsenermedia, pushed through the throng with Tomas in tow. ‘Hello. Thank you for coming. This morning, ladies and gentlemen, we go on a war footing. Many of you’ll have witnessed the massive RTV balls-up last night. It’s left us with an opportunity. If we’re ever to break their monopoly, now is our time. Tomas?’
Will’s Head of News and Current Affairs smiled a little smugly. ‘It was a fiasco. The management issued a statement dumping the blame on TRT in Istanbul. The Turks responded early this morning. My, were they angry. They took it as a slur on their ability to match the western networks in technical capacity and organisation. They’re proud people. They’ve also given the EBU evidence that the failure was entirely at the Rothenian end. It was only in our fair nation that the programme went down. So voting went normally. Svetlana is in the final. And the EBU is looking for an alternative to RTV in Rothenia.’
‘How’d you know all this, boss?’ Henry’s team leader asked Tomas.
‘Well … Will’s been in talks behind the scenes with Jean-Paul Scavolini in Geneva for the past year. The Union’s had it up to here with RTV. In the past they’ve shrugged and put up with them but with Svetlana through to the finals and going strong with the bookies they don’t want to end up having to deal with RTV in Strelzen next May should she win. We’ve been quietly admitted as full members of the Union, so if she does carry off the trophy we can bid against RTV to organise the next contest. And there will now be a bidding process.’
‘So what do you expect us to do?’
‘Some of you’ve got friends over at RTV. We need to make the most of your sources. As of now we’re in contention for Eurovision Strelzen 2005, assuming there is a Eurovision Stelzen 2005. Where’s Henry?’
Henry raised his hand and waved it till he was noticed. ‘What you doing down there?’
‘No seats left, boss.’
‘Henry. You’re to start advance work. We need an Anglophone on this. I want us fully up to speed for the bidding process. You’re a Eurofan yes?’
‘Er … I guess.’
‘Then it’ll be a dream come true for you, won’t it.’
Yuli yawned and stretched as he entered the kitchen on Thursday, then noticed an unfamilar figure. He hugged him. ‘I recognise you. You’re my father, yes? Didn’t we meet some time in a delivery room of the maternity wing of the Strelsener Municipal Lazarette, about sixteen and a half years ago?’
Radek Lucic rolled his eyes. ‘You’re definitely your mother’s son, Julius. You have her sarcasm gene.’ He held his son away from him. ‘You’ve grown again, how long is this going to go on for?’
‘I dunno. Ask my hormones. What’s keeping you away from home this time, tatti?’
His father offered Yuli a box of cereal. ‘Eat, growing boy!’
‘Are you going over to your office already?’
‘Yes. ‘Fraid so. Being the Staroman of Strelzen may not pay a huge amount, but if you’re a meeting-junkie the job gives you all the satisfaction you could possibly hope for.’
The man smiled at his son. ‘You’re really interested?’
‘Yuli, this is a welcome sign of maturity. As you know, our great city is expanding faster than its civic authorities can keep up with; so cracks are opening up, and out of those cracks may grow opportunities for our Staramesten.’
‘Let’s just say that we can build a legal case to assert control of planning in the Northern Martzfeld district, just when the developers are looking at it with longing eyes. All sorts of good things may be happening, and our Staramesten will get the benefit, if we play our cards right.’
‘Oh … cool! That mean you’ll get a raise?’
The man shook his head. ‘You are indeed your mother’s son. By the way, what’re you doing Sunday afternoon?’
‘Hanging with Willemczu as usual, I guess, since I’m not working. Could go to the Spa now it’s warmed up. Why?’
‘Do you still fit that suit we got you for Great Aunt Ludmilla’s funeral?’
‘I’m not going to like this, am I.’
‘Don’t rush to prejudge, Yuli. Your mother reminded me that we have to be at the spring garden party at the Residenz, and the invitation is for the Honourable the Staroman and family. We’ve not troubled your adolescent soul about such things for a couple of years, but you’re showing unmistakable signs of coming out of the difficult period. At times you’re almost human.’
‘I’m offended, me.’
‘So, you’ll come?’
Yuli shrugged. ‘Why not? Hey! If Svetlana wins the contest on Saturday night, won’t she be there to receive our nation’s thanks? Mutti will go totally ecstatic!’
As soon as he had a chance at mid-morning break, Yuli dragged Willem and Bolslaw to the computer room. Willem soon found the site of the Broadcasting Ombudsman, and the three boys sat down to fill in the online complaints form. Yuli texted the address to his and Willem’s mothers and for good measure circulated it also to his friends in the orchestra and advanced music group.
Willem peered over at Bolo’s screen. ‘You can’t say that.’
‘RTV is fucking shit and their programmes stink like shit.’
‘So. They do.’
‘We need to target our complaints more to what happened last night, Bolo, not their general performance and failure to live up to the expectations of the younger generation for — y’know — high-quality American drama series, a decent music channel or at least more cartoons, that sort of thing. That way your complaint will get more respect. You could put in two of them I guess, if you feel so moved.’
Bolslaw grunted. ‘Okay. Say that again. You have a way with words, albino boy’.
Just as Yuli was about to hit the ‘Send’ button, his screen froze. He swore. ‘It’s fucking gone down!’
Willem also tried. ‘Site’s crashed. There must be a lot of angry mothers out there.’
Bolslaw chuckled. ‘My form went off fine.’
‘Tell me it wasn’t the first version.’
‘Yeah. Now they know they’re shit.’