HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
Max Jamroziak mooched around Davey’s luxurious Strelzen apartment which took up the entire top floor of a Victorian block in the Third District, just off Herrengasse. There were three bedrooms, each with a bathroom attached, a dining room and two lounges, but a disconcertingly small kitchen, as Max observed.
‘I always eat out in Strelzen. I’ll give you the rear bedroom. It’s less noisy.’
Max noticed and appreciated the delicacy with which Davey put a quiet end to their sexual relationship. Davey had little difficulty in seeing that Max’s affections had been engaged elsewhere, so he was stepping back.
Max was moved to hug him. ‘You’re a great friend, Davey.’
Davey smiled. ‘And don’t you ever forget it, sweetness. You’re really something yourself.’
They kissed and separated. They watched television and dozed the evening away, awaiting instructions from the palace. Eventually Ed rang through with the advice that nothing much was likely to happen before the weekend, although they should stay indoors.
Max got a beer from the huge fridge and looked down into the darkening street. There was still light in the sky above the roofs and chimneys of the blocks opposite. He could see people moving around behind their lit windows. Just north of their apartment a black car was parked with two State Security men inside, who were going to observe their front door all night. A small jet aircraft moaned low over the house, its navigation lights blinking, on its final approach to landing at Strelzen Municipal.
So this was the capital of Rothenia. Max had been to his ancestral land before, visiting relatives in Glottenberh when he was a child and a young teen. But somehow he had not made it to Strelzen. He was pondering whether to ring his parents, while wondering if that might lead to more questions than he could easily answer, when he noticed a furtive movement in the street below.
A slender young man in a familiar woollen hat and a dark coat was idling slowly along the other side of the street, coming from the direction of Domstrasse. His small face kept glancing up to the window in which Max was standing, then looking down. He gave one long stare backwards as he reached Herrengasse and faded from sight. Max realised what he was expected to do.
Davey was dozing in front of the television when Max, taking care not to wake him, slipped out of the flat. He raced down the stairs leaping several steps at the bottom of each flight, while still doing his best to keep the noise to a minimum. He didn’t want to alert Davey to his disappearance. He wasn’t going to contact any of the others either. Gavin was his business.
Max was breathing heavily as he got to the tall entry hall of the mansion block. He exited, forcing himself to stroll casually while keeping his eyes off the Sichertsdeinst car. He hoped the operatives in it would not stop him; it was their job to watch the building, not him.
Beckoned onward by the lights of Herrengasse, he reached the busy road after only a hundred yards. Many of the area’s delicatessens, chocolatiers and cafés were still open. He looked both ways. Although he had no real idea which direction Gavin would have taken, he decided to turn right and go westward into the heart of the city. He had only walked a block when he caught sight of the familiar small figure, head down, hands thrust into his pea jacket. Gavin did not look back.
Max speeded up. With his heart in his mouth he reached the crossing at Fleichergasse and came level with Gavin, who was waiting for the pedestrian lights.
The sweet smile flickered up at him. ‘You saw me then, Max.’
‘Uh huh! You wanted to be seen. Gavin, what are you doing here?’
‘I thought you might like a drink and a chat, maybe. I’d have given you a ring or sent a text, but I have no mobile. I can’t snatch you out; it causes panic. If I did it again, Lije would be brutal to me.’
‘You know I’d love a chance to talk. Oh, Gavin! There’s so much to say.’
‘I know. Hey! Do you have any cash?’
‘Me? Oh, well no. I mean I have a card, but there’s not much on it. You don’t have any money either, do you?’
‘I never need it really nowadays, though there are times when it would be useful.’ He giggled. ‘Maybe I should get a job?’
‘I thought you had one.’
‘Doesn’t pay, actually, and the health benefits aren’t that good. Er … you look nice.’ Gavin blushed beetroot red.
Max laughed. ‘And you …’
The blush continued as Gavin stammered out something inarticulate in reply. Strangely, it seemed to be Max who was in the driving seat in this developing relationship with a supernatural being.
Max would dearly have liked to take his new friend's hand, but now was not the time. They approached the end of Herrengasse and came to the entry into the corner of the great square of the Rodolferplaz. Before they reached it, they began passing a number of small, shabby bars. Max thought they must be in the part of the square which was Strelzen’s infamous red-light district.
At the corner they noticed two teenagers smoking in a doorway; one had heavy mascara and makeup. The two stared pointedly and hopefully towards Max and Gavin, then looked away as their age and economic condition became clearer. Max realised he had just seen his first rent boys.
Gavin observed, ‘They’re living in hopes. It’s too early for trade.’ Max was a little shocked at Gavin’s matter-of-fact attitude to the boys and their occupation.
As they came out on to the square they were suddenly amongst the press of crowds, most heading south down a narrow street flashing with neon and noisy with shouts and music. This must be the Wejg, Strelzen’s Soho.
There were many male German and English groups, already quite drunk and fully intending to get drunker. Strelzen, like Prague and Krakow, was a destination of choice for stag-night gangs and hen parties looking for cheap booze and strip clubs.
Gavin led Max to the right and away from the Wejg. They passed the famous nightclub Liberation, which Davey Skipper ran for his partner Terry O’Brien. It was a little early yet for the queues of gay men who would soon be thronging the pavement, though the outside tables of the rainbow-flagged cafés on the south side of the square were full of men despite the cold. Max was enjoying the atmosphere: the noise, the crowds, the mix of languages.
Soon they left all that behind them and were out on the cobbles and flagstones of the wide plaza, which spread to the north as far as the railings and many windows of the royal palace. Tall commercial buildings rose on either side of them. Max saw some familiar brand names on the frontages: H&M, Marks & Spencer, Habitat, even a Tesco Extra.
There were benches, cigarette kiosks and burger stands. The square had those column-like advertising pillars displaying posters for concerts at the Opera and Rudolfinum. Trams clanged past on a wide crossroad. Halfway up the Rodolferplaz they paused at the huge sculptural fantasy of a great fountain, where several couples were sitting on the kerb.
‘I could jump in and get some coins,’ Max suggested. ‘There might be enough krone in there for a coke or something.’
Gavin smiled. ‘It’s not necessary. You like this place, don’t you?’
‘Well, yeah. It feels like home. Not surprising, my family’s Rothenian, y’know.’
‘Yes, I did know.’
‘Your name’s Jamroziak: Maxim Josep Wladislaw Jamroziak. You were named after the beloved king of Rothenia whose body lies buried in the crypt of that church over there on the west side of the square. Your mother is Miri Staffenberh and your father is Alfons Jamroziak, named after one of your great-grandfathers, General Alfons Voydek, a national hero. We passed a statue of him at the bottom of the Rodolferplaz. You are as Rothenian as you can be, Max.’
‘What? How do you know all this?’
‘It’s my business to know things, and I have ways to learn about them.’
‘You’re creeping me out, Gavin.’
‘Sorry, Max, but there are things you really need to know about your family’s past, which may then make matters clearer to you. You are the latest of the Jamroziak family, whose history is a distinguished if troubled one. Jamroziaks were part of the court aristocracy of old Ruritania. Your great-great grandfather was lord high chamberlain to Queen Flavia, and his forbears served the Elphbergs back to the time of Rudolf I. Jamroziaks have been bishops, abbots, courtiers and generals, though not very successful ones. Did your father ever tell you that your uncle Lukacs is entitled to call himself a baron and peer of Rothenia?’
‘Wow! No! What, a lord and stuff? But, what’s that special about our family’s history? I mean, Rothenia’s had lots of aristocrats.’
‘When you did the thing you did in Soho, I had to find out more about you, Max. It turns out there was a lot to discover. There are books in the National Library dedicated to the lineage and legends of the house of Jamroziak.’
Max – an inveterate romantic – was increasingly entranced. His father, a jobbing builder in North London who called himself Alf Jamroziak, had told him nothing of this. Max wondered whether he had known anything about it or had just edited it out of his life as irrelevant to his circumstances. ‘So go on.’
Gavin smiled. ‘The chief thing is what happened to your ancestor, Bishop Josep Jamroziak of Ranstadt, a cleric of Polish origin.’
‘Oh yeah! Ranstadt in Glottenberh. Some of my family still live in the city. I went there when I was twelve to meet Uncle Lukacs and my cousins. Hey! What d’ya mean? A bishop can’t be my ancestor. Bishops don’t have kids!’
‘This one did. He had a mistress and kept very quiet about it, passing off his kids as his “nephews”. One of them was your direct ancestor. Bishop Josep arranged it so the lad got an episcopal estate near the city, which became the foundation of your family’s fortunes. Your family crest jokes about it. It’s a bishop’s mitre.’
‘Okay, so far so cool. What else happened?’
‘Bishop Josep was what you might call a political bishop, very secular in his life and very active in politics in the succession crisis that brought Rudolf Elphberg to the ducal throne of Rothenia in the early fifteenth century. He was no friend to the native dynasty, and there were rumours of German gold paid out to buy his influence in the marriage of Rudolf to Duchess Osra.
‘His main claim to fame was that he chaired the commission to decide the pretensions of another branch of Duchess Osra’s family to the ducal title, on the grounds that a woman should not succeed to the throne. The counts of Glottenberh were direct descendants of Duke Waclaw I, and their claim was tried before an imperial legate and Bishop Josep at Ranstadt. The bishop produced evidence that the count was illegitimate, and so asserted his claim was null and void.
‘Anyway, it caused a war. Eventually, Glottenberh broke away from the rest of Rothenia and remained independent for centuries under its own dukes, who alleged they were the rightful rulers of Rothenia. Bishop Josep was suspected of forgery, probably correctly. In 1442 he was arrested by troops of the count of Glottenberh and handed over for imprisonment in the castle of Belvoir.’
Max perked up. ‘What? Belvoir! I know that place, isn’t it where …?’
‘Yes, it’s where all the fuss was earlier in the year.’
‘And didn’t Justin’s kid Damien have a vision there?’
‘Not a vision. He travelled back to the 1430s and met the then owner, Duchess Osra’s good friend Countess Fenice of Tarlenheim, who in due course became the bishop’s gaoler.’
‘Well, fuck a duck!’
‘Never tried it … wouldn’t its quacks be a bit distracting?’
Max laughed and gave Gavin a light kiss on his beardless, brown cheek before he could stop himself. When a hand clasped his, Max's heart began to thump. This was Strelzen, where no one noticed such things. Indeed, another pair of men were necking ostentatiously on the other side of the fountain. So Max and Gavin sat there in the floodlit square hand-in-hand while Max struggled to concentrate on what Gavin was saying.
‘Countess Fenice, being by then a candidate for sanctity, was thought to be the safest custodian for such a prisoner. Even so, the pope wasn’t too happy to have a bishop in prison, even a scandalous bishop like your ancestor. In the end, the count of Glottenberh was excommunicated until he released Bishop Josep.
‘Fenice suggested that the best way to solve the impasse would be to hold a church council where the bishop could purge himself of the accusations by a solemn oath.’
Max shrugged. ‘But who could trust the oath of a crook like my dozens-of-times-great granddad?’
‘Fenice knew a way. She had the council meet in the cathedral of Ranstadt, where the precious icon known as the Black Virgin lies. It was brought out and displayed. The bishop was asked to swear by God and the icon that he had told the truth about the count of Glottenberh’s illegitimacy.’
‘And he did?’
‘Oh yes. It was not a problem for him.’
‘So how did St Fenice get him … she did get him, didn’t she?’
‘Yes. She stood up from her chair and said that to satisfy the assembly fully she required one more oath. Would he swear by the Icon of Christ that what he had said was the truth? And she added that should he take a false oath the Icon would know and would punish him.
‘That made the bishop fret and sweat, because he knew the power of the image of Christ. In the end, though, he went ahead and took the oath on the True Icon. The Book of the Miracles of the Virgin of Ranstadt says that as soon as the false oath was out of his mouth, the Black Virgin awoke in her frame and pronounced him a liar. Then she sentenced him to an abject death and cursed the Jamroziak family with bad fortune till twenty-one generations had passed, and a son of the house redeemed the false promise to the True Icon.’
Max’s mouth was open, his eyes staring. ‘You mean …?’
‘You’re a twenty-first-generation son of your house. You’re just as much a child of prophecy as I am, Max.’
Ed had gone over to the Guards Barracks to check up on ‘his boys’. Henry was left at the palace wondering if he hadn't better get back to their flat.
Rudi didn’t seem to want to let him go, however, asking him for a detailed account of the events the group had experienced in England. The king shook his head. ‘I had no idea a modern, civilised state could fall so soon into disorder and violence. I'm not referring just to Britain, either, but to North America and now our neighbours in Europe as well.’
‘All nations have outsiders, sir. Some would say they have to. The easy way to define a people is to identify which groups aren’t part of it. You can then blame those minorities for causing any real or imagined problems, letting you victimise them and thus make the state stronger. That's exactly how the Nazis operated.’
‘It’s not part of Rothenia’s way of life.’
‘No sir, here Germans and Slavs have coexisted under the Crown of Tassilo, in peace for the most part, living as good neighbours. That’s the influence of the Icon. But Bishop Jack knows humanity’s weak spot all too well. By equating religious morality with bigotry and hatred of whatever is different, he has maddened entire populations.’
‘What can we do against power like his, Henry?’
‘Trust in prophecies and the power of good, Rudi. Hope!’
‘… and pray. I suppose you’d better get on. Your mum and dad would probably like to see you.’
‘Are you alright, Rudi?’
‘You seem a bit … distracted.’
The king slumped a little. ‘Harry and I had a scare today. There are so many things that can go wrong with a pregnancy. There are times when I don’t know why people put themselves through it.’
‘But she’s okay?’
‘Yes, yes! She’s fine, Henry. I’m just worried, that’s all.’
Henry raised his eyebrows. Worry was not a state which his old friend ever acknowledged. While he was coming to terms with the concept of a worried Rudi Burlesdon, his mobile sang. He flipped it, listened and swore.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s Davey. That boy Max has disappeared … again!’
‘So how come our family is cursed if we’re barons and all? We seem to have done well enough.’
‘What? You mean the prophecy? Oh, it comes out in every generation. Jamroziaks do well for a while and then they flame out. A Jamroziak wins a great victory in the field, while his only son is killed at his side. A Jamroziak opens a silver mine; the market collapses and the mine explodes. A Jamroziak becomes a secretary of state, only to end up being charged by his enemies with embezzlement.’
‘No wonder my dad left Rothenia. Was he running away from the curse?’
‘Who knows. Your family had it really bad during the Communist years.’
The two had wandered further up the square towards the palace. The huge equestrian statue of Henry the Lion towered above them on its high granite plinth. Still holding hands, Gavin led Max amongst the many people their own age who were sitting on the steps. It was a place to which young backpackers, as well as teenage gays and lesbians, customarily resorted.
Max sat next to Gavin and looked around. There was a lot of relaxed chat and smiling going on. Two girls, not more than fifteen, were kissing passionately, quite oblivious to their surroundings. The smoke from the cigarettes in the mouths of their neighbours was not from tobacco.
Max sat close to Gavin, feeling oddly at home in this land of his ancestors. He was enjoying its very beautiful capital with a boy he rather suspected he loved. He felt free, despite the dangers of his situation. ‘So why can’t you take me back in time, like Tobias took Henry?’
‘What? Who’s Tobias?’
‘You know, the seraph!’
Gavin looked blankly at Max. ‘It was a seraph took Henry?’
‘You didn’t know? I thought you people worked together.’
‘People? Look, I think you’d better tell me what happened to Henry.’
Max obliged. Gavin listened intently without interrupting once. He remained silent for a while after Max finished. Then he said in answer to Max’s original question, ‘Seraphim can travel in time, because – unlike me – they aren’t part of the universe. They have their being outside it and its rules are nothing to them. Poor Henry.’
‘Seraphim only enter this reality at the command of God to work His will. That’s rarely a comfortable thing for a human to experience; check your Bible. I imagine Henry has some rough times ahead of him.’
‘But not rougher than you.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. The half-life I lead isn’t romantic, Max. It’s empty and duty-bound. Most of the time I feel like a lighthouse keeper on a remote rock in an ocean. I’m half-glad it’s coming to an end, although I do feel sorry for Lije, cheated again by existence.’
Max tightened his hand on Gavin’s. ‘Please don’t say that, Gavin. I … y’know …’ He found he couldn’t continue.
Studying him closely, Gavin decided Max didn’t really need to hear any more and gave a sweet, secret little smile. ‘I’m so glad I met you, Max.’
Suddenly, Max’s tongue was loosed. ‘Oh God yeah, Gavin. I can’t tell you what you do to me, I …’
‘Hey, fucking pansy boys!’ A crude gibe in English and a harsh cackle of laughter cut through what Max was saying. He peered in the direction it was coming from, to see a group of tee-shirted British chavs in baseball caps and calf-length shorts approaching across the square. There were ten of them, two making wanking gestures while another was mooning the kids on the steps. They were all drinking lager from cans, which was illegal on the streets of Strelzen, yet for some reason there were no city police in sight that night.
‘You fucking pervs need a fucking arse-kicking. You shouldn’t be fucking let out where normal people are. Yer abominations, innya!’
Gavin’s small mouth pursed. The kids around them stared at the gang of chavs, some looking scared. Homophobia was practically unknown in Rothenia.
Cheered on by his mates, the leader strutted forward, unzipped his fly and started spraying urine over the boots of the girls on the lower step. They squealed and ran back into the rest of the group.
Gavin let go of Max’s hand. ‘What’re you going to do?’ Max hissed.
‘Nothing dramatic.’ He walked directly to the leader, who had just zipped away his penis. The chav towered over Gavin, who put his hands on his hips and looked up.
‘What you looking at, queer boy?’
Gavin gave a perfectly unconcerned smile and said in a very clear, carrying voice, ‘Just a rather sad homophobe, sweetheart.’
‘Don’t you fucking call me that, yer little creep! You make me vomit.’
‘I suspect that’s the cheap lager.’
‘Look at me again and I’ll knock yer teeth so far down yer throat you’ll have to chew with yer arsehole!’
Gavin’s grin just grew broader as the group closed around him. ‘You really are scared by us, just because we’re different.’
His observation was not answered, except with a vicious kick directed at Gavin’s crotch. But Gavin somehow wasn’t where the kick thought he should be. The leader lost his balance and fell flat on his back. His mates skipped aside confused. Gavin sat cross-legged on his chest like Puck on a toadstool, smiling down at him. The chav struggled but it was if the weight of an elephant had settled on him. He was pinned.
‘What can I do about people like you?’ Gavin mused. ‘I wish homophobia could be cured, but it comes from stupidity and anger, and where’s the cure for those? Only education. So tell you what, Uggsy – that is what they call you isn’t it? – I’ll do this for you. You want help and here it is.’ He reached forward and tapped the chav’s shaven head. ‘You won’t talk again till you manage to read a book right through – and I don’t mean just airport fiction, I mean a real book on history, society or law.’
Gavin sprang up and looked at the gang, who cowered from him, unsure what was going on. Their leader staggered to his feet clutching at his throat and gurgling horribly. His bulging eyes terrified his mates, who backed away as much from him as from Gavin.
‘Come on Max. Let’s get you back. I think the police are coming anyway.’
Hand-in-hand, Gavin and Max headed away from the stunned group around the statue. It was then that a voice shouted out above the sound of traffic, ‘Gavin! Baby!’
Gavin blanched and turned. Seeing the small figure who was running towards him from the palace, he paused for a moment and then vanished.
Max stood alone.
Henry, panting hard, reached him seconds later. ‘Where’s he gone! Where the fuck is he gone!’
Max shook his head. ‘So much for our first date.’