Henry hefted his travel bag. He shook the bare shoulder of the sleeping figure in their bed and kissed it.
Ed stirred. ‘Hmm? Off then, little babe? Bring me back one of those gigantic toblerone bars they sell.’
‘Why not a cuckoo clock?’
‘You’re only gonna be in Geneva overnight. Most shopping you’ll be able to do is in the airport. Have a good time anyway. Ring me tonight. I’ll be back from the barracks by eight.’
There was a rather longer kiss, this time involving two sets of lips. Then Henry went trotting off down the stairs of their block and on to an Osragasse just lightening with the dawn. He walked across to the deserted Mikhelstrasse where street cleaners and their carts were disposing of the drift of trash outside the McDonalds, where the bins were too small and too few for the number of cartons and wrappers crushed into them, and routinely overflowed.
Henry grinned to himself at the thought that he ought maybe to complain to the Burgomeister about it, as a concerned resident of the Nuevemesten, and what the Honourable the Baron Dieter-Maxim Staufer von Ebersfeld would make of it.
The first airport express tram of the morning — sleek, new and shining — drew up at the Mikhelstrasse North platform, humming to itself, and Henry took his place amongst the other travellers and workers heading south. Even with the express route, it was still a long journey down through Sudmesten. The carriages were packed by the time Königstrasse ended and the A17 autoroute began. As his tram clicked happily and speedily along the tracks laid between the autoroute carriageways, Henry reflected that a Strelzen Municipal Airport might indeed be as much of a necessity as Peter Peacher believed it to be. Pete had not taken kindly to Henry’s cheerful suggestion he just wanted a garage for his private jet.
The long queues for the early-morning business flights to London, Munich, Vienna and Frankfurt reinforced Henry’s impression that the newly-renamed Strelzen Tildemann Airport no longer had sufficient capacity for the traffic that wanted to use it. He checked into business class on his Rothenian Airlines flight, and even there he found a long queue. Security had such a tailback it made him anxious that he would miss his call. He was rather relieved in the end to sink into the comfortable wide seat that he would not have been occupying had he been paying for the flight himself.
In the second week of their relationship, Yuli found himself realising that his beloved Romesczu, for all his sweetness and amiability, had a problem with the human race. Roman could confidently stand in front of hundreds of faces in public and sing his heart out. It did not seem to bother him in the least. Yet in a face-to-face conversation with anyone but Yuli — or, he presumed, his parents — Roman went quiet, his voice all too often faded to a murmur, his gaze turned down and all the fun and sexiness that Yuli brought out of him entirely evaporated. If you didn’t know the other Roman, you would indeed assume he was a wooden, distant, snobbish prick, with barely a word to say for himself.
Yuli felt almost disloyal, but the only person he could turn to in his trouble was — as always — Willem Kral. He and Willem still walked daily down from the Domshorja to their gymno, still hung out together and still worked Saturdays in Kral’s gift shop on Domstrasse. They had not however shared a bed or a sex act since the day the romance had begun, for obvious reasons. For that matter neither had Yuli and Roman. They could only meet at break in school or in the confines of the Hofkapelle at rehearsal. Their kissing was limited to moments in corners of the Residenz garden or the boys’ loos at school, when they were unoccupied. The longest time they talked was on their handijs late at night before they slept. Phone credits were beginning to consume a major part of Yuli’s limited weekly budget.
Otherwise Roman was expected to be home in the Sixth and it transpired that his parents did not approve of him ‘hanging’ in the city centre. Roman confessed that he’d rarely brought friends home from his previous school, and felt unready to bring Yuli into his home life, for several reasons, not least the confession of his sexuality. Yuli himself wanted to avoid that conversation, especially as he was beginning to sense that there were things going on in his father’s professional life that made his and Roman’s relationship a potential difficulty.
‘You have got problems then,’ Willem concluded when Yuli had — with some relief — unburdened himself. Yuli had his smooth, bare feet in Willem’s lap, and Willem was gently chafing them, which was one of the more innocent of the intimate acts they had long practised together. It was during the massage that Yuli had finally felt relaxed enough to spill out his anxieties.
‘What can I do, Willemczu?’
‘No idea, kamrad men. But I really don’t think you should call it a “problem” that he finds people difficult. He sounds to me like a classic introvert, and for him withdrawal from people is normality. You should in fact be flattered that he can be with you what he can’t be with others … he really must love you a lot.’
Yuli recognised the painful wisdom behind his friend’s observation. ‘Should I invite him home here? I mean once mutti and tatti meet him, they’re gonna like him surely. They love you! They always have.’
Willem didn’t quite manage to hide the scepticism that outburst provoked in him. ‘Best thing in my opinion would be for you to try to bring him out at least a little more at school, that and of course get him to yourself somehow. But until summer break that won’t be easy.’
‘No,’ Yuli agreed. ‘And he’s off with his parents to Sardinia when holiday begins anyway. Look. How about you talk Bolo into having him on our lunch table? People must be making the natural and correct assumption seeing us together every day.’
‘Yep. Pressure’s off me these days. Della commiserated with me yesterday because you’d dropped me for Roman, you bastard.’
‘What! What did you say?’
‘I told her she watched too many reality shows.’ Willem paused before continuing. ‘Bolo don’t like him, Yuli. I gotta tell you.’
‘Well, to begin with Bolo prides himself on his hostility to the upper classes, but apart from that purely socio-political prejudice, he won’t forgive Roman from coming between you and me, as he sees it.’
‘But … that’s not the way you see it, is it?’
Willem shook his head, raised Yuli’s foot to his lips and lightly kissed his instep. ‘Nejn kamrad men. Best friends for ever. Remember?’
The taxi dropped Henry at the EBU headquarters after what was a fairly pointless journey, since he discovered he could have walked it, it was so close to the airport. Still, he collected the receipt from the driver and filed it in his wallet.
It was only nine o’clock when he reached reception, rather earlier than he had expected. He was provided with a coffee and pastries, and made comfortable until they were ready for him, for he was the best part of an hour early for his meeting.
‘Monsieur At-vood?’ He looked up. A pleasant young lady was smiling at him. ‘Monsieur le Directeur-général est disponible, si vous me suiverez?’
Henry was happy in French, though it wasn’t his best language, but he had been instructed that French was the preferred language of the EBU, and in any case France itself was just on the other side of the airport. So he had come ready for the task. He shook hands seriously with M. Scavolini.
‘You’re younger than I was expecting, monsieur At-vood.’ The Director General was a pleasant, and somewhat overweight bureaucrat. ‘Welcome to Geneva. I hope you had a good flight from Strelzen.’
‘Thank you, yes. My youth, alas, what can I say? Strelsenermedia is a new outfit, as you’ll know well enough. Will Vincent has recruited as much young talent as he can find, and so you have sometimes to deal with mere babes in arms, such as I. Will himself is only in his early thirties, monsieur.’
The man nodded. ‘A remarkable career indeed. Fear not, I will not let your age count against you. May I compliment you on your facility in French, monsieur. I usually have to deal with the Eastern members of the Union in English; it makes such a pleasant change.’
Henry knew that one of the reasons he’d been delegated for this job was partly because of the linguistic politics in dealing with Geneva. Tomas only had basic English and German. Henry and the Director-General chatted about the media world of Eastern Europe for some while, and Henry was charmed at the amount of international gossip and media strategy that M. Scavolini was happy to unveil to him. For the first time in his career Henry began to feel like a player in his world. It was a little scary. But he filed it all away in the back of his mind.
M. Scavolini was scathing about Rothenian State TV. He had been running Eurovision back before 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘Henri, mon cher ami, RTV belongs still in the bad old days. Eastern state TV networks were not just conduits of propaganda, they were corrupt and incompetent. You may say what you like about capitalism, but the idea of open competition really does force efficiency and innovation. The party apparachiks of the old days ran their networks like feudal lordships and siphoned off profit in cash and sexual favours. Service and entertainment were not in their vocabulary.
‘Now I am not of course saying that RTV is corrupt now to that degree, but last week I had a meeting with Herr Billung, the head of programming, during which he made it apparent that he expected a large part of the costs at his end to be covered by the Union, or to his great regret the poverty of his network meant that the 2005 Song Contest could not be staged in Strelzen. Not only that but he had no planning portfolio to offer: sheer laziness in my view. RTV has not so much as looked at our standard questionnaire. Believe me, after dealing with the Turks — who are very go-ahead these days — it was like going back in time.’
Henry perked up. ‘So are you saying monsieur, that RTV may well be ruling itself out of the 2005 Contest?’
The man spread his hands. ‘They are negotiating, Henri, or they think they are. They seem unaware that Strelsenermedia is in the game.’
Henry smiled. ‘And would it be the case, monsieur, that you might just let them know we are, so that your own hand improves with RTV?’
M. Scavolini laughed heartily. ‘Mon cher, you are a cynic for such a young man! No doubt I could render them more amenable by bringing Strelsenermedia into play, but the point is this: I had rather not have the anguish of dealing with them at all!
‘Now I could very well be unethical at this point and plot with you to fool RTV into pulling out, imagining that the BBC or one of the other major networks would snap up the 2005 contest and instead handing it over to you. But that is not the way the EBU does business. Things will be done fairly. So this is what will happen. I shall announce to RTV that there will be a bidding process and that estimates and a production strategy must be with Geneva at the end of June. My feeling is that envy of Strelsenermedia will spur RTV into activity. I am equally sure that they lack the competence and imagination to provide any decent plan. Both bids will go to our Executive Board in July and a decision will be made there.’ M. Scavolini gave a wide smile. ‘You may be encouraged to hear that the current chairman of the Board is our TRT representative, and RTV mortally offended the Turks with its bad behaviour during this year’s contest. So, my dear fellow, en va!’
Henry reached down and took a folder out of his briefcase and offered it to the Director General: ‘Our estimates, plan and production schedule for the 2005 Contest, monsieur. This is our bid.’
M. Scavolini was beyond charmed. ‘I hope you can join me for lunch, mon cher Henri. You have lightened my load of anxiety about next year considerably.’
Yuli encountered Roman that Friday afternoon as he was in the foyer leaving for his maths tutorial on the Technische campus. Roman looked a little excited, clasping a work folder tightly to his chest. He leaned in close and conspiratorially and Yuli caught his heady scent.
‘Yuli leblen. Tomorrow.’
‘Er … yes?’
‘I’m going to be in town in the morning! Can you meet me?’
‘Sure. I’m not working till the afternoon. What’s up?’
The boy gave his wide and irresistible smile. ‘Look at my hair. It’s all over the place. Mutta’s booked me an appointment. Will you come?’
‘Er … I guess. Your hair looks fine to me, but what do I know?’
‘Where do you usually go?’
Yuli shrugged. ‘I sit in a chair in our kitchen and my mother trims it.’
Roman’s eyes widened but he covered admirably Yuli thought. ‘Oh … well she has a talent.’ It was all Yuli could do not to kiss the boy at that, but he mastered himself. Other kids and teachers were passing.
So at half past nine on the Saturday, the two met at the Ferdinand fountain. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and Roman was just as gorgeous in a loose blouson, black jeans and leather ankle boots. He had placed a flower in his thick hair, yet he did not look in any way effeminate. They kissed, and as he did another flower was placed by Roman behind Yuli’s ear.
‘What’re you doing, my pretty hippy?’
‘Do you have any idea how handsome you are, Yuli leblen? Your hair is so rich and dark, just made for a garland, like a prince of olden days.’
‘My Romesczu is a romantic.’
‘And why would that be?’
‘I guess because you love me.’
‘In one. Come take my hand. Let’s walk to the salon. It’s just up here on the Leuwen Pasacz.’
So hand-in-hand the two boys headed in the direction of the palace. Yuli tried not to catch people’s eyes, but he could not miss the smiles from tourists and locals alike. How could a withdrawn introvert like Roman be at times so flamboyantly careless of the world’s opinion? They might meet fellow students or neighbours at any moment. Roman was an unending puzzle.
They dropped hands at the entrance to the arcade, but the flowers stayed in place as they entered the hairdressers. The appraising gaze from the counter was anything but hostile, and as they settled on to a sofa together, it became clear enough to Yuli that queerness was not in any way alien to this establishment. Not only that, but the ready smiles of the four working stylists in Roman’s direction seemed to indicate that he was a well-known, liked and valued customer.
‘How long have you been coming here, leblen?’
‘Since I was a kid. Mutta brought me.’
‘Does she know these guys are well … gay … and you are desirable to say the least.’
Roman blushed. ‘I suppose. But they’re really the best in town and they’ve never tried anything on since I started coming on my own last year. They’re a bit cheeky at times, but I think they’re just too professional.’
One of the stylists sashayed over. ‘Hello Romesczu leblen, and you’ve brought a friend at last. I do admire your taste. What’s your name, dark and handsome?’
Roman brushed past that. ‘Have you got space for Yuli too?’
Yuli gaped. ‘What?’
The stylist sized him up. He pursed his lips, fluffed up Yuli’s hair, from which he removed the flower, and nodded. ‘There’s real potential here, I think. Take the seats, cuties.’
‘Roman! I don’t have the cash!’
‘It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Think of it as the sixteenth birthday present I missed giving you.’
‘Jesus fuck, Yuli. I mean. Is it you under there?’ Willem was gobsmacked.
‘Okay Romeszcu, pull out that note I gave you in the Plaz and read what it says.’
After their hair appointment and a subsequent ice cream in the culinary neutral zone of Berwinckels, during which he could not take his eyes off his own reflection in the mirrored walls, Yuli had persuaded Roman to accompany him back up the Domshorja. He led him to Kral’s where they had found Willem out on Domstrasse sorting the external postcard racks.
Roman pulled a Berwinckel’s napkin from his pocket, gave a timorous look at Willem and read from it: ‘Jesus fuck, Yuli. Is it you under there?’
Willem burst out laughing, which drew a hesitant smile from Roman. Willem carefully scrutinised Yuli and shook his head. ‘I dunno. I never knew a haircut could change a guy so radically and your mullet has been part of my life for years. Still, it does something for you … I mean, really.’ Then for the first time Willem engaged directly with Roman. ‘You’ve done Yuli a favour, Roman mate. He’s been basing his idea of style on me for the past decade. But it’s been getting stale.’
‘You really like it?’ Roman was undoubtedly pleased and reassured by the approval from Willem. Yuli loved his old friend more than ever. If he could just transfuse Willem’s steady and cheerful friendship into his new and daring world of gay romance with Roman, a lot of his growing anxiety might dissipate.
‘He’s always been a good-looking fucker, but now he’s … a bit more than that. I love it.’
Roman had nothing more to say, but Yuli knew him now well enough to see that he was glowing inside.
‘What time’ll you be here this afternoon?’ Willem asked.
‘Usual. Gotta get Romesczu to the tram.’
‘Not stopping at the house first?’
Yuli shot a look at Roman. ‘I don’t think we’re quite ready for that yet. I’ll just take him through one of our many secret shortcuts to the terminus. Prepare to be lost and confused, leblen. Follow your Yuli.’
‘Wait, leblen men!’
Roman pulled a cheap brimmed hat from a pile outside the shop. He placed it on Yuli’s expensively-styled hair, tilted it, squinted and smiled.
‘Jesus fuck!’ commented Willem. ‘That’s just perfect, Roman! It’s a total new Yuli! When do I get my makeover? … That’ll be sixty krone, by the way.’
The reckoning came when Yuli arrived back from Kral’s that evening. His mother looked up from the kitchen table and her jaw dropped.
‘Who are you? How did you get in my house? I’m calling the police.’
‘Mutti! Not funny.’
‘What have you done to your HAIR!’
‘Don’t you like it?’
‘I … well … where did you get it done? That sort of cut doesn’t come cheap.’
‘It was in Leuwen Pasacz … uh, Le Snip.’
‘Le Snip? I couldn’t afford Le Snip. They have a waiting list. You just turned up? And they did … that?’
‘They were very nice. I saved up. Mutti … it was about time, and a kid in school … er … told me about it.’
His mother stared. ‘I won’t say it’s not … well, fantastic. You look lovely, leblen, you do. But you must let me pay for it.’
‘No, mutti. You can’t. It was money I had.’
‘Yuli, my baby. You’re growing up so fast … too fast. I’m not ready for this.’
‘Come here, leblen men. Sit on my lap. Now, give me a moment of maternal reassurance and a big hug. There. Kiss. Okay. You’re a grown up. Off you go into the wide world to make your fortune. Wasn’t that easy?’
‘Tatti says something about your sarcasm gene that I’m beginning to believe.’
In the bathroom getting ready for school on Monday Yuli had done a double take in the mirror when he turned and unexpectedly encountered an entirely different person from the one who was usually there, who at second glance turned out to be himself. Feeling as though he had to live up to the boy in the mirror, he had worn his best short brown corduroy jacket over a plain tee, turned up the collar and adopted a rainbow bead necklace he had picked up from Kral’s (twenty-five krone).
There were a lot of looks Yuli’s way at school, some approving and some appraising. Several boys he had rarely talked to before exchanged greetings with him and hung around his and Roman’s table at lunchtime. They were the boys he’d previously seen talking to Roman. Now they seemed to want something from him too and laughed rather more than his repartee deserved. They made Roman nervous, he could tell, though to less perceptive eyes his boyfriend just seemed cool and aloof.
Bolslaw and Willem sat apart, and a fissure had definitely opened up between Yuli and Bolo, who had become quietly hostile.
Yuli was his father’s son. In any difficulty he did not back off but tried first to negotiate, and since he was a personable, attractive and quick-witted boy, it was a strategy that usually worked for him. The fact that he always had Willem keeping his back was an additional advantage. Willem had a certain look in his eye that told anyone that he was peacable, but not to be crossed. He was also more solidly built than the lithe and slim Yuli.
So when on Tuesday Yuli walked up to Bolslaw and Willem at midmorning break he knew a crisis point had come when Bolo turned to Willem and said coolly, ‘Snobbish prick alert.’
Willem’s face became grim, and he gave a slight shrug when he caught Yuli’s eye. It appeared Yuli was on his own.
‘Bolo, what’s the problem?’
The big teenager sneered. ‘Us apparently. Your boyfriend’s sucked you into his little alpha club, and we’re just rough trade as far as he’s concerned.’
Yuli put up his hands. ‘Bolo, it’s not like that. Really. You just got to get to know Roman. He’s not what you think. Tell him, Willemczu.’
Willem looked as if he’d rather be anywhere else. Before he could say anything Bolslaw leaped in. ‘Yeah, and that’s the point isn’t it. The manipulative little prick has fucked Willem over good: thrown him out in the cold. You know how much Willem counts on you, needs you even? But the snob just waves his long lashes at you, Yuli, and sixteen years of loyalty mean nothing. I’d never have believed it. So you just fuck off.’
Yuli wasn’t going to give into the hot anger that wanted to boil up in him. He kept his cool. ‘I know you got none of that from Willem. It’s your own resentment that’s talking, Bolo. But I’m not bringing Romesczu to any table with you on it till you calm down. Don’t turn Willem into your sock puppet. Any resentment here is all yours.’
‘That so? Well if you won’t fuck off, we will then. Come on Willem.’
Yuli caught Willem’s eye and saw it roll. He also saw his friend shrug, and watched unhappily as the pair walked off. He thought he knew why Willem had gone off with Bolo, but he wished he hadn’t.
A text from Willem later warned him not to join them for the walk home but to come down to the shop after dinner. So he turned up at the apartment at eight. After some chit-chat with Herr and Frau Kral, they adjourned to Willem’s bedroom.
The son of the house slumped on his desk chair. ‘You gotta know none of what Bolo said came from me.’
‘I know that, Willemczu.’
‘But I also gotta be honest. I may not have said anything like that, but he may have picked up and amplified what he sensed.’
‘You really feel torn by my falling for Romesczu?’
‘There. You said it. I’ve been your Willem-czu for as long as we’ve known each other. You’ve never called anyone that but me. Until Roman came smiling into your life, I hadn’t realised how much we’d been fumbling along like an old married couple. I just took it all for granted, but now …’
‘Oh! But you said you’re alright with it.’
‘And I am! Don’t get me wrong. The more I see of the kid, the more I realise why you fell for him. It’s more than just he’s pretty. There’s a sort of … I dunno … purity about him. He may not be much for witty repartee or belly laughs, but he’s more than your equal in sheer niceness. And of course when the time comes he can give you in bed what I can’t — you haven’t yet, y’know … have you?’
Yuli snorted. ‘Fat chance. It’s like being in love with a princess living in a medieval castle. Most we get is phone sex. I have to launder my own duvet cover every couple of days. You and I have done way more sexually, believe me.’
‘He’s into sex then.’
‘He gets hard whenever I’m within a metre of him. He got it out to show me in the school loos, so he’s not that pure.’
‘Big is he?’
‘Same as both of us, standard fifteen centimetres.’
‘You measured it?’
‘I had my ruler in my backpack. Very smooth and straight.’
‘Nope. Perfect cute foreskin over a purple glans. I’d have given him a blowjob then and there if I’d dared. It’s all I can think about at nights. I miss our … moments of relief.’
‘We can still …’
‘No Willemczu, we can’t. And you know why. Try Bolo.’
Willem stared, then to Yuli’s relief bellowed with laughter. He wiped his eyes. ‘It’s the other sex for relief then. Time to face up to my fate. Since a lot of the girls think I’m your bumboy, it may give me an advantage. Girls love queers, don’t they?’
‘I wouldn’t know. Look, this thing about Bolo.’
‘Okay. This is what we’ll do. From now on, we can’t go down and pick him up together: he’s too angry. So for now I’ll shoulder the burden of unrelieved Bolo, walk him to and from his house. It’s the tram for you, Yuli leblen, and lunch at school with Romesczu and the wanna-be alpha boys. Believe me, Bolo’ll get so bored with my company, he’ll come round in sheer desperation.’
It was Willem’s use of ‘Romesczu’ that finally convinced Yuli that his oldest and best friend was truly on his side and that he was indeed accepting of his developing love affair. Relief was not in it.