The three boys began their Friday evening trek home, pausing at the main entrance of the Sudmesten Central Gymno as the rest of their fellow-students flooded past and out into the car park, to waiting parents or to the tram stops on Königstrasse. But Bolslaw, Yuli and Willem always walked it.
Bolslaw had a proposal. The usual one in fact. ‘McDonald’s on the Mikhelstrasse tonight?’
Willem shook his head. ‘Why don’t you come up to ours? You never cross the river. Be bold! Go where no Bolo has been before!’
Bolslaw growled something palpably obscene, then jerked his head. ‘Snobbish prick alert!’
Yuli glanced behind him then quickly looked back. It was the boy who went by the impressive name of Roman-Rudolf Staufer von Ebersfeld. Yuli held his breath as the most gorgeous teenage ass ever to be poured into grey denim sauntered past them to the school exit. He felt an empty gulf open in his stomach. Roman von Ebersfeld may have been unapproachably cool, dressed like a male model and with the body to match, with melting dark eyes and thick blond hair that was definitely not cut by his mother, as Yuli’s was; he may have been all those things and a snobbish prick, but when he was within line of sight, Yuli could do little but stare in his direction.
Willem caught Yuli’s eye and gave a faint smile. Though there had been no conversation on the subject between them, Yuli was pretty much confident his oldest friend — whom he had known since they shared a pram together before they were out of nappies — had worked out the direction of his sexuality. Not only that, but it seemed to make no difference to their deep friendship. It was a comfort to him.
‘Saturday night at my place, Willemczu? Your mum and mine will be be boozing their way through the Song Contest. We can hide in my room and maintain sanity.’
Willem beamed at him. ‘Absolutely. Mutual defence as ever.’
‘Will! This is epic!’ The little man launched himself on his boss’s boss and tried to kiss him.
‘Henry, you are pissed.’
‘Get off Will, little babe.’
‘But he’s here! Hey boss! Hey Felip! See, I’m researching, just like you told me!’
‘Gay Olympics Night in the White Tree wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Here, Ed, take little Henry and hold on to him.’
The two men squeezed into Ed and Henry’s booth, and added their tall glasses of Rothenisker Pilsener to the clutter of gin and beer glasses. A barman came over and cleared the table of empties. It was a packed night at the White Tree. At least four very convincing male Svetlana lookalikes in sheer dresses were in the crowd.
Felip looked around. ‘No tobacco stench. No ashtrays. I’ll never get used to this new world.’
Will took his hand. ‘I swore I’d not get judgemental about your smoking, but …’
Felip raised an eyebrow. ‘What about the ban in our apartment?’
‘You use the balcony. Anyway, maybe now’s the time to actually, y’know, quit.’
‘Can’t. How could I look the Falkefilm boys in the face … or any other part of their anatomies? It’s expected, leblen men. You know what it’s like there.’
A roar went up around them and all heads turned to the screens. The Albanian set was finishing. ‘Here we go!’ bellowed Ed. ‘Number 10! it’s our Svetlana!’
The digital postcard of Istanbul played as Horst Braunstejne burbled in a voiceover. The Rothenian tricolour made its appearance on the screen and then the picture shifted to the arena, where the tall figure of Svetlana began her slow undulating walk across the stage towards the camera … and still Horst Braunstejne was talking about nothing in particular. The whole bar screamed at the screens: ‘Shut up, asshole!’ One of her lookalikes hurled a stiletto-heeled shoe at the TV above the bar.
Ed gasped. ‘There’s gonna be a riot, what the fuck?’
Henry blinked blearily. ‘The studio’s not turned his feed off. What a bunch of amateurs.’
Felip hissed at Will. ‘Did you bribe one of the RTV engineers?’
‘Me? The idea. RTV is perfectly capable of fucking up all by itself, without me going to expense and trouble beforehand.’
The droning voice of Horst Braunstejne was abruptly cut, and finally Svetlana’s strong contralto swelled out. The bar subsided. Henry had to admit to himself the song was something. The power and control of Svetlana’s voice defied the difficult acoustic, and the Rothenian lyrics were artfully crafted to the rising chords of the anthem. There was none of the off-key renditions of other entries. Henry joined in with the enthusiastic applause and cheering as the number ended.
‘Only another fourteen entries,’ Ed observed.
‘Have you noticed how many sweaty twinks with six-packs on display are prancing round the stage this year,’ Felip commented. ‘You think there’s a message there?’
Yuli wasn’t paying much attention to the muted small screen TV in a corner of his bedroom where the voting for the song contest was going on. Willem, on the other hand, was glued to the screen.
‘Have you seen the way the Balkans all vote for each other. I mean, the Greek entry was pretty good but it’s hoovering all the top votes south of the Danube.’
Yuli smiled at his friend. ‘You’re into this.’
‘Look, it’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. Watch. They’re about to give their twelve points and it’s gonna be to Croatia, you watch.’
‘I thought they hated each other.’
‘That’s Serbia. They’ve still given Serbia eight though. And … there you go, twelve points to Croatia.’
‘How’s Svetlana doing?’
‘Steady, and she’s picked up lots of sixes and eights. Austria and Germany both gave us twelve.’
‘Hah! Not just the Balkans that play favourites with their neighbours then is it?’
Willem grinned. ‘Here come the Slovenian votes. They’re gonna be pulled both ways. And it’s … woohoo! Ten for us!!!’
‘How we doing then?’
‘Third behind Turkey and Greece. There’s Svetlana in the Green Room, being interviewed by a Turkish lady … in English. They can’t either of them speak it. It’s totally embarrassing.’
‘This voting’s going on for ever. Want a drink from downstairs?’
Yuli’s and Willem’s mums and a few friends from work were occupying the lounge and several empty wine bottles were already lined along the coffee table. One of them he didn’t know was clearly well on her way out of it.
‘You okay upstairs, luv?’
‘Yeah. Looking good for Rothenia, isn’t it?’
‘She could win,’ said Marta from his mum’s office. ‘My word, you’ve shot up since I saw you last, Julius. Quite the young man.’
He got two cokes from the kitchen fridge. As he was disappearing back upstairs, he distinctly heard the drunken one slur, ‘Quite a looker you have there, Maria, lovely ass too.’ Yuli blushed hard, completely disconcerted. It was the first time he’d heard himself cast as a sexual object, and by a mature woman to his mother! He had to pause before re-entering his bedroom.
He found Willem making calculations on a notepad. His friend looked up. ‘She’s almost there. Even with the bloc voting she only has to hold steady and the trophy’s hers.’
‘There’s a trophy?’
‘Some piece of arty plastic shit, that’s all. But her sales will go through the roof across the world. Even in England and maybe America.’
Yuli nodded. ‘Excellent. She deserves it. And it can only be good for other Rothenian artists right?’
‘Sure. And they have to find someone to sing next year here in Strelzen, for the 2005 contest. There, look! Turkey’s voting. Twelve for Rothenia. Svetlana wins!’ There was muffled cheering from the lounge downstairs. Yuli went to his window which looked out over the Nuevemesten. There were fireworks rising haphazardly over the city and bursting in red and gold stars.
‘Yuli! Are you ready yet?’ Frau Lucic called up the stairs. ‘We’re taking the tram not the car. There’s nowhere to park by the Residenz.’
‘Mutti, these trousers don’t look right.’
‘Let’s see them. Loosen the belt a bit. You look fine.’
‘I can see sock.’
‘No need to be self-conscious, Yuli. You look fine, really. How about me?’
‘Er … good, I guess. I don’t see myself as an authority on dresses and stuff. The hat’s perky.’
‘You’re your father’s son.’
Yuli relaxed into a smile. ‘Odd that. Tatti says I’m just like you when he wants to have a go at me. Could it be I’m the sum of the best parts of both of you?’
His mother kissed his brown cheek, grabbed her handbag and led him out of their little house, at the west end of a short terrace high up on Strelsenern Anhöhen. Yuli had lived there all his life and he loved it dearly. His earliest memories were of the cathedral bells chiming away the night as he lay awake in his cot. He, Willem and their gang of small friends had free run of the Domshorja as children, and they knew all its crooked medieval lanes, its arches, hidden steps and secret courtyards intimately. It had been their little kingdom.
Yuli and his mum zig-zagged down the hill to Amstelgasse, where the tram route took them in a slow arc along the river bluffs through the 7th District down to the Heinrichsbrücke. They got off at the stop on the right bank of the river. Yuli’s mother rang his father on her handij and discovered that he had for once managed to leave his office at the Starostnjia on time and was already waiting at the palace’s Reitschule gate.
It was a fine early summer’s day, with puffy white cumulus scudding across a very blue sky. They encountered the end of the line waiting for admittance quite a way down the hill. They joined the queue and Herr Lucic appeared soon after. The line was a chatty one and Yuli’s dad was a well-known local politician, so the slow-moving queue was not too much of a trial, though Yuli was not surprised to find that though there were a few young children hanging round their parents, there was nobody else of his age, boy or girl.
The question everyone was asking was whether Svetlana was going to be at the palace, to be officially congratulated by the king after her triumph in Istanbul.
‘There’re TV vans parked up along the other side of Brückestrasse, mutti,’ Yuli observed. ‘Do they usually turn up for a garden party, tatti?’
His father pursed his lips. ‘No, not usually. But don’t get your hopes up, Maria.’
At the security point, there were state police officers to check papers and search bags. They were then directed to follow a signposted path across the yard and through gates opposite into the gardens. By now Yuli was interested. He’d been passing the limestone walls of the Residenz gardens all his life and had often wondered idly what was on the other side, and now here he was, on the verge of finding out.
Through the gates was a quite charming sight. The northern front of the Residenz was set on a green terrace on Yuli’s right. Jutting out ahead of him was the great apse of the baroque Hofkapelle, decks of flowers around its base. To his left were the palace lawns, thronged with circulating crowds, the women in summer dresses and hats of all sorts, the men in suits, some even in proper court dress with decorations. A small tree-fringed lake glittered in the distance beyond a line of marquees. He could hear a military band oompah-ing somewhere not far away.
Yuli’s father tugged his sleeve. ‘You can have one flute of Prosecco as a reward for turning up, son. No more. Oh, and the price is you go and get some for me and your mother, too. It’s the candy-striped tent at the end where the queue is. Nothing to pay.’
‘What if they check my age?’
‘They’re already poured out. Just grab a tray and pick up three. Anyone asks, they’re not for you.’
Yuli grinned. ‘You’ve been here before, haven’t you.’
‘One of the trials of the job, son.’ His father took his mum by the arm and steered her towards a group, amongst whom Yuli recognised several of the szcabnyi of the Staramesten, his dad’s city council colleagues.
Yuli navigated his way through the chattering groups dotting the lawn. Against the odds, he was beginning to enjoy this little excursion away from his usual haunts, which basically amounted to his and Willem’s bedrooms and the various McDonald’s outlets scattered around Strelzen City Centre. He tagged on to the small queue outside the drinks tent. Yuli was relieved no one challenged him when he went through the flap. Waiters not much older than him stood behind the trestles in white shirts, black waistcoats and bow ties. The girl behind the Prosecco table just winked at him when he took his three flutes.
Coming back out into the bright sunlight he was disconcerted briefly to find a boy of his own age and dimensions on his way in, and then stood shocked when he came face to moody-and-beautiful-face with Roman-Rudolf Staufer von Ebersfeld. The surprise was apparently mutual, as the guy stopped dead and stared, before dropping his gaze behind his long dark lashes and edging past Yuli, without so much as a mumble.
‘Snobbish prick,’ Yuli murmured resentfully to himself as he went out in search of his thirsty parents, a resentment which only slightly eased that troublesome empty feeling the other boy continued to inspire in his gut.
When he returned to the Staramesten crowd around his parents, Yuli found his mum full of it. ‘Svetlana is here! She’s inside the palace with the king. It’s being televised.’
‘Oh great!’ Yuli was pleased for her. ‘What’s the odds she’ll circulate out here?’
‘No one knows. But the king and queen will be out in half an hour or so. Maybe she’ll be too … and I forgot my camera. Your tatti refuses to go home and get it for me. The beast.’
‘S’no problem, mutti. My handij has a camera. The quality’s okay, but the memory’s not up to much. Here ya go.’
‘Darling! I’m so glad I had you. This is worth all the pain!’ He got a big and public kiss.
For some reason, Yuli blushed. He proceeded to a brief tutorial about which buttons to push, and left his mum to work it out, or not. He decided on a stroll to the lake. Who knows? He might get another glimpse of the Von Ebersfeld boy, and get some clue as to why he was at the garden party. He wandered over to the looming buttresses and walls of the Hofkapelle with some idea that he might see if there were parties allowed up inside, but found police and soldiers of the Royal Guard on duty and nobody being admitted.
So Yuli wandered on to the end of the terrace, to the palace’s east wing. An empty path led him along a willow-lined walk at the lakeside with several benches. He took a vacant seat, looking over the dark waters, rippling slightly in the warm afternoon breeze. A flotilla of swans passed gracefully by, and Yuli sipped at the fizzy, sweet wine feeling unusually content with the world for a boy only just coming out of adolescence.
After a while he decided on pursuing the lakeside path, which would take him back around to his parents in time for the arrival of the royal party. How was he to talk to the king if he said anything to him? Would ‘Sir’ do? His dad would know: he’d met King Rudolf a few times, and said the man was straightforward, if a little scary for such a young guy.
Just where the way divided, Yuli found a tall monument between the path and the lake bank. Curious, he examined it. He recognised the heraldry of the kingdom of Rothenia, with the national symbol of the Crown of Tassilo above the Elphberg lion shield, and below, in a canopied Gothic panel, was carved deeply the Latin legend:
Qui in hac civitate nuper regnavit
In corde ipsius in aeternum regnat
Yuli, like most Rothenian children of that ancient Catholic realm, had studied Latin for several years, so he leaned in and had a crack at puzzling out the meaning.
A young voice from behind pre-empted him. ‘To Rudolf, who reigned lately in this city and reigns forever in her heart. Queen Flavia.’
Yuli looked around, a short and slight dark-haired guy was smiling behind him. He looked a little familiar, but Yuli couldn’t say why. ‘Actually my Latin is non-existent,’ said the man, ‘but a mate once translated it for me. This marks the spot where King Rudolf V was shot by his assassin back in 1863. The monument was originally his tombstone up in the Dom, but when he was moved in with Queen Flavia under a new tombstone, it was brought down here.’
Yuli was a typically deferential and polite Rothenian boy. ‘Thank you for your help, sir. That’s a romantic story.’
The man had an attractive grin. ‘You don’t know the half of it. Have you had one of the tours of the gardens? They’re on the hour. It’s worth taking.’ They began walking back towards the palace.
‘No sir. I was hoping to get up into the Hofkapelle. But it’s out of bounds.’
‘Oh, that’s worth a look too, believe me: the heart of Old Ruritania. It’s been one of Rudi’s great unseen triumphs to restore it. The choral foundation he’s set up is magnificent.’
‘Er … Rudi?’
‘I mean, King Rudolf. Sign of affection, y’know. You like music? Is that why you want to see it?’
‘Well, yes sir, I do. I take organ lessons in the Dom. I hear the Hofkapelle instrument is one of the few surviving Hildebrandts, the only one outside Germany, installed in 1725, I think.’
The man chuckled. ‘It seems like you should be giving me the tour … what’s your name?’
‘Julius … Yuli Lucic. And you, sir?’
‘Hendrik … Henry At-vood.’
‘Oh! Eastnet! Thought I knew you. Pleasure to meet you in person, sir.’
‘Tell you what, Yuli. If you hang round the chapel entrance after the king does his flesh-pressing, I’ll get someone to take you up to see the old place.’
‘Would you, sir? That would be so kind.’
Yuli found his parents just before the royal party appeared. A big guards officer announced the king and queen on a public address system, and the band struck up the national anthem. As it ended, all applauded the royal couple who had come out on to the terrace, but they were themselves upstaged by the cheers and whoops that greeted the young woman who followed them out.
‘Svetlana! Roth-en-ija!’ went the chant from her delighted fellow-citizens.
An avenue opened up through the cheering crowd and the singer walked side-by-side along it with the king, cameras flashing. Yuli found his parents just as the king passed by. The tall red-headed man gave a nod of recognition to his father, and leaned in to shake his hand and exchange a few words.
As the royal party reached the end of the crowd the king clapped his hands and in the sudden silence in a loud and clear voice invited people to refill their glasses and circulate. It was at that point that Yuli got a glimpse of Roman von Ebersfeld in the crowd. He was standing with a couple who just had to be his parents. Both were tall, elegant and grey-haired, somewhat older than his own mum and dad. The king went up to them as Yuli looked, to shake hands and say a few words. He saw Roman give the customary head-jerk of a bow to the king as he was introduced, and he actually seemed to speak in response to the king’s remark. So much for Yuli’s theory that the boy was actually a deaf-mute.
As Yuli was staring there was a loud cough behind him and he turned to find a tall, broad-shouldered army officer smiling at him. ‘Are you, er … Julius? You are? Henry Atwood said you’d like to go up and have a look at the Hofkapelle. I’ve got some time if you’d like to follow me. Hi! You must be Herr and Frau Lucic. You want to come up too?’
Yuli’s dad stared. ‘Hendrik At-vood? The TV journalist? And when did you get to know him, Yuli? I thought I was the one with the media contacts.’
Once all was explained, Yuli’s mum elected to join the officer and her son, while Herr Lucic chose to carry on networking in their absence.
As they headed towards the Residenz, Yuli could have predicted what happened next.
‘So captain …,’ she began.
‘Actually, it’s major,’ replied the man civilly.
‘What part of Rothenia are you from? I don’t quite recognise your accent.’
‘That’s because I’m English.’
‘English? What excellent Rothenian you have. How did you end up here?’
‘Oh … my partner moved here for his job, and I came with him.’
Yuli smiled to himself and looked at the major with interest. This was the first acknowledged gay man he had met, and a soldier too.
‘And what does he do?’ Frau Lucic was not going to let it go.
‘Henry’s a journalist.’
Yuli grabbed his chance. ‘So you’re Herr At-vood’s boyfriend? That’s great. He’s really nice.’
The major laughed. ‘He can be, unless you’re between him and a story. It’s through here.’
He led them past a police checkpoint and on to a wide staircase of several flights carpeted in Elphberg green. They came up on to a broad, marble-floored landing. Above was a coffered vault with huge seventeenth-century canvases, by the hand of one artist, occupying the walls: Saints Ignatius Loyola, Philip Neri, Francis Xavier and Charles Borromeo were all having beatific visions. A great panelled door stood open in front of them and beyond was the vaulted space of the Hofkapelle, its huge sculpted reredos climbing up behind the high altar opposite.
‘If Henry was here, he could give you the full historical tour. He loves this chapel. But you wanted to see the organ, Julius. There’s a spiral stair to the left of the door behind that crimson plush curtain, it’ll take you up to the loft. Maybe you’d like to see the royal gallery, Frau Lucic. It’s this way.’
Yuli climbed the narrow stair and out on to the organ gallery. He looked around, deeply interested. It seemed to have been restored and reordered recently. There were modern drawers and cabinets for the music, and everything neat and orderly, quite unlike the cathedral loft. Yuli presumed to sit himself on the bench and examine the three manual keyboards and the ranks of ceramic stops. He ran his feet over the pedals below and stared up at the towering facades of pipes reaching to the chapel vault. He had a good feeling about this instrument, impressive enough but smaller and rather less intimidating than the huge J.F. Wender instrument in the cathedral, on which Dr Hassel was tutoring him. After a few minutes daydreaming he stood back up and went over to look at the scores laid out on a worktable. It seemed the Chapel Royal offered full choral masses and vespers on Sunday and the high feasts of the Church. He was soon deeply absorbed in a score of Messiaen’s Pentecost mass for organ. He jumped out of his skin when a voice behind him said, ‘It’s ambitious, but I’m not sure it’ll work out. Hi! I’m Mattyas, the organ scholar.’
Yuli turned to find a guy in his early twenties grinning at him with hand outstretched. ‘Julius … Yuli. Sorry. Just poking round.’
‘Sorta. Dr Hassel’s trying to teach me.’
‘You could do a lot worse, Yuli. Say! Wanna give the Hildebrandt a test drive?’
‘Could I? That’d be great. But not the Messiaen mass I think.’
Mattyas laughed. ‘Anything off the top of your head. Up to you.’ He leaned across the table and pressed switches. With a whine and a hum the great organ came to life.
Yuli gingerly took a seat on the bench. ‘I did learn the opening of his Diptyque. I’ll see what I can remember.’ He found and pulled out the right stops, flexed his fingers and began. The great organ spoke and replied above him, as he opened and answered the main theme. It was soon evident to him that his memory wasn’t up to the complexity. Yuli however had a talent for improvisation cultivated in hours of practice on his bedroom keyboard, and so he did the thing he’d never dared try on the cathedral organ and let the theme take him to other places.
As Yuli let his music fade out, he turned smiling to find Mattyas with mouth open and staring. ‘Yuli, that was … more than I was expecting. How old are you?’
‘Er … sixteen … and a half. I’d better be going. My mutti’s down in the chapel and will be complaining.’
‘Sure … it’s been good to meet you. Look, here’s my handij number. You must come here one Sunday. Give me a call and maybe we can fix something up. Right?’
Yuli blushed and murmured his goodbyes. He encountered the major and his mother at the bottom of the stairs.
‘Who was that young man who went up into the loft after you? Did he tell you off?’ his concerned mother had to ask. Yuli told her who it was and that he hadn’t minded him being there. ‘He’s a superb organist, we were quite entranced at his playing,’ his mother added.
Willem lay flat on his stomach on his towel on the Spa lawns. It was a Sunday off from their job in Willem’s dad’s gift shop and they were in pursuit of a tan.
‘Your ass is blinding me,’ Yuli complained.
His friend laughed. ‘You got the sunscreen, spray it on. I need it, unlike you, you evenly-tanned person. I’ll blister without it. Ooh! Yeah, rub my back, rub my butt. Now I’m hard.’
‘Well, stay on your tummy then. Don’t wanna shock the girls.’
‘With the size?’
‘No, with the whiteness.’
‘It’s big enough.’
‘I said nothing, Willemczu. Your dick is everything it should be, so far as my limited experience indicates. It’s just paler than the average.’
‘Yeah well. It’s the cross I bear. Willem the semi-albino, apart from the interesting acne rash.’
Yuli lay down next to his friend, took his bare shoulder and smiled in his face. ‘Willemczu, no one’s immune, well, apart from Roman von Ebersfeld. Look, see. I have spots too. This one on my nostril is shaping up to be a classic whitehead. You’re my best friend. I’ll happily let you squeeze it.’
‘Not an offer I could refuse, obviously. You’d take it personally if I turned you down.’
‘We share everything, even my pus eruptions. Comrades to the end. Did I tell you I saw him at the palace last week?’
‘Roman von Ebersfeld. It was definitely him. Only he could snub me like that. What d’you know about him?’
Willem turned over on to his back, revealing his penis was in fact at rest in its small nest of light brown pubes. ‘Not a lot. He came in Year 10 from … somewhere. He doesn’t talk to many guys, the girls swoon wherever he walks of course. His people live in the Sixth … so Marla said: and she should know, she stalked him for half of Year 11, till the police served an order on her parents.’
‘Oh yeah, I remember that. Over the top I thought.’
‘Anyway, I think his dad’s some sort of civil servant. Though I may be wrong about that, they seem to have too much money. I mean, his clothes …’.
Yuli pondered for a while, soaking up the warmth of the summer sun. Like all Rothenian teenagers, he loved the freedom of the Spa to be naked in the sunlight and breeze, and many of them were engaged at that moment in volleyball and badminton around him and Willem.
A group of their friends from the Sudmesten Central gymno arrived and settled on their towels nearby. Chilled soft drinks circulated; ice creams were bought. It was all very comfortable and normal; adolescent Strelzen kids learned not to react sexually to the Spa environment, though Yuli noted as he had last year how his age group all made a point of carefully barbering their pubic hair, just leaving a puff or strip of it above their genitals. Luxuriance was definitely frowned on, and he had himself carefully clipped and shaved around his groin and perineum the previous night. He also had used his mother’s razor to shave off the light hair on his balls and lower legs and had checked his ass. Shaving helped the sleek and even tan which was the aim of Yuli and his friends. Once achieved, they would top it up in other nudist areas in the city parks. Even Willem Kral would in the end go through the red zone and achieve a rather attractive pale brownness, as Yuli made a point of reassuring his friend.
The afternoon was punctuated by trips to the indoor pools of the Victorian Spa buildings, recently renovated with the help of an EU grant. Willem had to limit exposure of his pale skin to the summer sun by frequent resort to the spa pools, but Yuli — whose tan usually held over from the previous year in any case — was happy enough to join his friend in the sulphur-smelling mineral waters of the sudorium and indulge in horseplay in the cold pool. After a plunge they got out shivering and took a breather on a marble bench at the side.
‘Whoo! That was a shocker. My dick’s shrunk all the way back to my prostate,’ Willem observed. He leant back against the wall and looked up. Then Yuli saw Willem’s brow contract, and he abruptly stood up. ‘Look at this Yuli,’ he said, pointing to a stone plaque on the wall above them. Yuli got up and stood next to him and read.
THE RUSSIAN BATHS
FIRST OPENED IN 1844
RESTORED IN 2003
WITH THE AID OF GRANTS FROM THE FOLLOWING BODIES
THE HERITAGE FUND OF THE EUROPEAN UNION
THE PEACHER FOUNDATION
THE ROYAL THURINGIAN STIFTUNG
THE TARLENHEIM STIFTUNG
DIETER MAXIM STAUFER VON EBERSFELD
Burgomeister of Strelzen
‘Has to be his dad, doesn’t it,’ Willem commented. ‘That explains why he was at the palace last Sunday. His father’s the boss of the Nuevemesten. Weird that. Cos your dad’s the boss of the Staramesten. Seems you two have something in common after all.’
‘Good time at the Spa, kid?’ his dad asked.
‘Usual, tatti. Most of the guys turned up, once mass was over in the city churches.’
‘A lot of kids in your gymno go to church, do they?’
‘I guess.’ Radek Lucic was one of the small minority of Rothenians who were out and out atheists. Yuli may have been baptised to keep his grandparents happy, but he’d not been much inside churches until his keyboard tutor pressed his parents to refer Yuli to Dr Hassel at the cathedral when he was fifteen. Almost inevitably, Yuli had found the elaborate and aesthetic rites of the ancient Dom quite fascinating in their unfamiliarity. Not that he said so to his parents.
His father shrugged. ‘No escape from the tentacles of the Church in this land, Yuli. Not even in a state gymno. It’s one reason why getting anything done at all in this city is like pushing water up a hill. I thought the king might make a difference, but the Crown of Tassilo seems to have a stultifying affect on the brain underneath it.’
Yuli did not think his father was being quite fair, for like all his generation he venerated the young Red Elphberg who had brought life, colour and hope to their land. But he realised his father had been brought up in a different time, and had been formed in the communist and post-communist years. Also Radek Lucic had chosen to do a difficult thing: to fight to salvage something of the socialist ideals that the dictator Horvath had betrayed.
Yuli changed the subject. ‘Tatti, do you know the Burgomeister of the Nuevemesten?’ His father raised an eyebrow. Yuli continued ‘I think his son is in my year — Roman von Ebersfeld.’
His father raised his eyes and gave a shake of his head. ‘The Baron Staufer von Ebersfeld? That’ll be his father. Yes I know him. What’s his boy like?’
‘Er … Bolo calls him a snobbish prick.’
‘Well, like father like son.’
‘I didn’t know they were nobility.’
‘Oh yes. The Staufer von Ebersfeld were German merchant aristocracy way back in the fourteenth century. They’re almost as old as the Elphbergs. They weren’t that wealthy in the Communist days of course, and Dieter’s father had it rough in Horvath’s time, which helped his son after the May Rising. He’s big now in the CDP. He doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the chancellor.’
Yuli felt impelled to comment. ‘But you don’t either.’
‘Yeah well, in our case we’re at least singing in the same key — that’s a musical metaphor just for you, son. Dieter now, he wants to change the tune entirely. Talking of which, haven’t you got practice to do? Odd thing though.’
‘What’s odd, tatti?’
‘To find his kid in your school. You’d think he’d have been sent to the Catholic gymno, St Wladislaw: that’s where his sort always end up. On the other hand …’
‘That school’s getting a troubling reputation, and Dieter’s no fool.’
‘Up to your bedroom, son. Your keyboard’s missing you. Mutti tells me we’re not wasting our money with Dr Hassel.’
Bolslaw, Willem and Yuli joined the flood of teenagers in through the doors of their gymno on yet another Monday. Every morning was the same routine in term time. Yuli called on Willem, whose family lived on the Domstrasse hill, in an apartment above a row of gift shops, one of which belonged to Willem’s dad. Then the two friends picked up Bolslaw, who lived just across the Arsenalsbrücke in the Sudmesten.
As they arrived at their lockers, Yuli called over to Bolo. ‘Do any of yours go to St Wladislaw?’
Bolo shook his head. ‘Why you ask?’
‘My dad said something weird about it.’
‘What sort of weird?’
‘About it getting a reputation.’
Bolo rolled his eyes. ‘It’s all boys, and run by priests. You guess.’
Willem chipped in. ‘Hands down boys’ pants sort of thing?’
Bolo nodded. ‘One of the priests was arrested last year, but it was covered up. The diocese sent him to Poland.’
‘How d’you know?’
‘My aunt’s a housekeeper at the clergy house. I heard her talking to my mother. She said that there’s a few of them at St Wladislaw like that; it’s being going on for years. No one gives a shit. Even if they find out, the parents are talked out of making a scandal.’
‘Sick,’ scowled Willem.
‘Abuse of power and trust,’ agreed Yuli, thinking that maybe his father’s take on the Church was justified after all.
He kept brooding on it, and he began to wonder if Roman’s sudden appearance at Sudmesten Central in Year 10 could be explained by his parents’ decision to pull him from St Wladislaw. Perhaps he had been in danger. Maybe his problem wasn’t snobbishness but mental trauma from past abuse! If that were the case, it would throw an entirely different light on Roman von Ebersfeld’s behaviour. Wow! Poor kid.