THE GREEN SIDE
It was the first day of September and Rothenians started school in a very different way from Damien’s experience. To begin with there were the flowers.
‘What? I gotta carry a … posy? Like a foo … like a girl?’
Nathan decided to overlook the momentary semi-relapse into expletives. ‘It’s the custom here, and it’s a lovely one. Look out the window there, those are teenagers with flowers on their backpacks, and that blond boy’s actually wearing a garland of roses in his hair.’
‘Yeah, well he’s a poo …’
Damien knew there were some steps that were just too far in his parents’ household. ‘He’s a pathetic loser.’
‘Every other kid will be carrying flowers, and if you don’t you’ll be the odd-one out.’
The boy snarled and grumbled and stomped off in his pyjamas to return with another question. ‘What about me uniform?’
‘They don’t have uniforms here, they wear casuals to school.’
‘Thass stupid, that is. I could get me best clothes filffy! Uniform’s better!’
While privately agreeing with Damien, Nathan had to support the party line. ‘That’s the way they do things, so we have to do them that way too.’
‘I thought I wuzz goin’ to the Hinternational School anyway. Dad said they talk British there like normal people.’
‘Apart from the Americans.’
‘It’s still in Rothenia, and they do things the Rothenian way. This is all about …’
‘… me horizons, yeah. Dad said that “travel broadens the mind”.’
‘But if that wuz true, wouldn’t airline stewards be the brightest people in the world?’
‘Er …’ There were more and more of these moments in Nathan’s life. His surrogate son had the instincts of an inquisitor-general. ‘It’s just a general comment.’
Damien’s eyes were raised in disbelief. Realising that time was of the essence, however, he disappeared to return shortly in his denims. He took his backpack off Nathan without comment, but handled with ill-concealed distaste the bunch of flowers he was given.
‘He’s just getting the car round.’
‘I wan’ some money.’
Nathan dug into his pocket and pulled out a few krone coins.
‘How much is this?’
‘A krone is worth about ten pence. You can work it out.’
‘There’s only six of these krone here. Thass 60p. Dad always gives me a pound. You’re being tight.’
‘That’s all I got. Your dad’ll make it up to ten krone.’ Yeah, groused Nathan to himself, it’s about time Justy got some flak from his offspring. ‘And just think, you’ll be the only boy in the school who can take out a coin, look at the picture of King Rudolf and say to yourself, “That man picked me up and smacked me on the bum ‘cos I was standing on a sofa drawing with a felt-tip pen on an old master in the palace gallery”.’
‘I didn’t know it was valuable, did I? There weren’t no guards or anyfing! It hurt too.’
‘Kings are allowed to smack anyone they like and as hard as they like. Just your bad luck.’ Nathan regarded the small boy looking truculently up at him. Mostly he loved this particular lad to bits, though today was a real trial. Then he realised the truculence covered up a bad case of nerves Damien simply would not own up to. Nathan softened. He swept Damien up and embraced him tightly. The boy stiffened momentarily, then relaxed and hugged his second father back.
‘It’ll be alright,’ Nathan said into the boy’s ear. A small wet kiss on his cheek rewarded him.
‘I know,’ Damien whispered back. After he was put down, he gave his small, shy smile – the one that reminded Nathan so much of Justin – and scampered off to the car, which had drawn up outside the front door.
Nathan frowned. He picked up the discarded flowers and tore after Damien, reaching him and wrenching open the door just before the car pulled off. The boy scowled, but took the posy anyway. Justin, looking like a million dollars in his executive suit, blew a kiss, and the car joined the early-morning Strelzen traffic.
‘No chance, none at all.’
‘Rudi … please!’ Harry smirked. ‘Where’s the Elphberg valour that Henry the Lion showed on the field of Luchau?’
The king of Rothenia was defiant. ‘Henry the Lion would have preferred to face all the armies of the Ottoman Empire single-handedly rather than having tea with your mother.’
The queen pouted. ‘She’s not as bad as all that.’
‘I know of no other commoner who patently looks down her nose at the sovereign monarch of an ancient kingdom, a man with a lineage traceable back to the seventh century.’
‘It’s the American way. We’re very democratic.’
‘I’m not so sure that’s why she does it. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m her son-in-law. Oskar warned me he gets the same treatment, and he’s a count and a Tarlenheim.’
‘She’s very good with Matthew White. Quite nervous around him if anything.’
Rudi looked unimpressed. ‘Matthew makes everyone nervous. No one that good-looking can be entirely human.’
‘She’s only passing through. It’s just today and tomorrow, then she’s going on retreat for a week in Upper Husbrau.’
‘Retreat? As in spiritual retreat?’ The king was stunned.
‘Yes. She got very much into eastern religions when she was ambassador in Thailand.’
‘So she’s giving her Prada and Gucci away to the poor?’
Harriet tossed her hair in irritation, a gesture Rudi had learned to recognise. ‘If you’re just going to mock …’
‘I’m sorry, darling, really. Okay, I’ll hold your hand, but Oskar will come and get me after twenty minutes, agreed? I’m sure he can think of a national emergency that needs my urgent attention.’
Harriet, mollified, gave a little smile.
Her husband leaned over to kiss her, rubbing her bump affectionately as he did so. ‘How’s the duke of Mittenheim?’
‘He’s getting more active. Kicked the bejesus out of me last night when you were snoring. He’s gonna be a party animal. He comes alive after midnight.’
Danny awoke and, having done so, wished fervently he hadn’t. He was alone in his narrow bed. The thin sheets and army-vintage blanket had slipped to the cement floor. The fact that he was cold was offset by the overpowering presence in his life of an aching monster of a hangover which had taken up residence between his temples and which pulsed as if feeding on the blood flow to his brain.
A sudden sweet taste flooded his mouth, and his stomach lurched. He staggered to the room’s discoloured sink in time to vomit up the contents of his upper gut. The stench was vile. After heaving three more times, he slipped naked to the ground unwilling to move. But he had to move. His lower gut was now in protest and he had to wrench open the door of his room and sprint across the corridor to the communal loos.
The fact that he had run naked past two female fellow-students barely registered, though he did have the presence of mind to clasp his hands convulsively over his inconveniently displayed member. He shot into a stall and emptied himself. Once again the stench was vile. Danny Hackness was ready to die, and it was a toss-up whether the cause of death would be food poisoning, alcohol poisoning or terminal embarrassment. He reached back and flushed, but couldn’t find the strength or the confidence to get off the seat. He sat there, head in hands, for a good quarter of an hour, trembling uncontrollably.
The door of the lavatory banged. A familiar voice called out anxiously, ‘Are you there, Danny?’ It was Gus.
‘Urrh …’ was all Danny could think of to say. A pair of sweat pants came over the door of the stall. ‘Ta,’ Danny mumbled. He stood up shakily and laboured to get into the trousers, which he found a strangely difficult task. When he finally stumbled out of the stall, it was to fall into a pair of strong arms that led him back to his bare room.
A large group of girls were standing expectantly in the corridor as they passed, hoping for more excitement, no doubt.
Gus sat Danny down on the bed, then went over to the sink and ran the taps to get rid of the vomit. Next he opened a window to try to do the same with the stink. He came back with a glass of water and three paracetamol tablets.
‘Please give me the whole bottle. I want to end it all.’
‘It’s not the best way to commit suicide,’ Gus informed him didactically. ‘It leads to organ failure – probably very painful – before you pass away.’
‘Pain! Don’t talk to me about pain. The god of Pain has taken up residence behind my eyeballs and I am damned for all eternity to a personal hell of torment.’
‘Ah. I think it will get better during the course of the day, Danny. You need to lie down in a darkened room, preferably with a bucket next to your bed. A pity these rooms have no curtains, isn’t it?’
‘They don’t have much of anything. I’m beginning to realise why this place is so cheap. I’m pretty damn sure this block was built by the Soviet army, judging by the obvious care for the residents’ convenience and the vintage of the amenities. I’m certain I saw a battalion of roaches in the loos while I was sitting there dying.’
‘Possibly a delusion brought on by alcohol abuse. I take it you weren’t aware of the potency of the hrodvast that Miroslaw was plying you with?’
‘No, what is it?’
‘I believe it is a distinctive double-distilled peach brandy, and you had ten glasses, small but deadly. Miroslaw and his friends were … really impressed by you.’
Danny perked up. ‘Yeah? My resistance to alcohol?’
‘Er … no.’ Gus always found it difficult to tell an untruth. ‘Actually, if I translated their comments correctly, it was your foolhardiness that most deeply impressed them. Mmm … if I had to hazard a loose translation, they were saying you were the biggest dickhead they’d ever met.’
Danny crumpled, too woebegone even to resent this humiliation.
Gus’s heart didn’t need to go out to Danny; he had already long resigned it to him. Settling on the creaking bed next to his boyfriend, he pulled Danny into his shoulder, rocking him gently and comfortingly.
Danny was grateful. For all that Gus was highly intellectual to the point of brilliance, he was also loving and affectionate, asking nothing and giving his all. The scale of Gus’s commitment to him quite awed Danny at times.
After a while Gus said, ‘I’m meeting Nathan at twelve.’
‘What time’s it now, Gussie?’
‘You have two and a half hours to rejoin the human race.’
‘I’ll just lie down.’
‘In the meantime, I’ll get some sunglasses from your case and put ice in a plastic bag for your forehead.’
‘You’re a sweetheart.’
Gus smiled and quietly busied himself around the room, trying not to disturb his boyfriend. Once he saw Danny had drifted off again, he silently left and made his way to his own room, two floors above. He opened his laptop and got busy with his e-mail, keeping his eye on the clock in the bottom right-hand corner so as not to miss the meeting with his cousin, Nathan Underwood.
At a quarter to twelve, Gus checked on Danny, to find him still out of it. He decided not to wake his boyfriend, whom he left curled up and comatose, though not before having a mild panic as to whether Danny was still breathing … he really had overdone the alcohol their first night out in Strelzen’s university quarter. Gus would go to meet Nathan alone.
At twelve, Gus was in the university’s central plaza, between the church of St Thomas Aquinas and the medieval library. The plaza had seen better days. The paving was uneven and cracked, the fountain dry and shabby, but the square was still beautiful in a dishevelled sort of way. Tattered student posters were everywhere; slogans and messages were chalked (often with quite remarkable care) on the flagstones; and cheap burger stands occupied one corner. Belying the square’s dilapidation, the ancient buildings round it gave it dignity and grandeur.
Gus was suddenly glad he had come to Strelzen, despite some nagging anxiety as to whether he had been right to talk Danny into it. Danny’s incapacity with any language other than English was not helping him settle in. The Rothenian and Czech students on the campus would talk to Danny in English, and rather good English at that, but they reverted to Rothenian amongst their friends. Gus was aware that the students last night wouldn’t have pressed the hrodvast on Danny so ruthlessly had he not been seen as an outsider. It worried Gus.
When Danny had integrated so easily into Medwardine’s sixth form, Gus had come to the conclusion that his boyfriend was naturally good with people, forgetting that it was Danny’s talent for rugby that had been the passport to his peer group’s esteem. But no one played rugby in the Rodolfer Universität.
Gus gave a little smile as Nathan Underwood came ambling across the square, just as the clock tower of the church rang the hour. Punctuality was an Underwood trait.
This was no longer the Nathan of the garden centre, in green sweater and overalls, a pencil parked behind one ear. Somehow he looked younger, perhaps because he was relaxed and in casuals. Nathan was in fact twenty-four, and only six years older than his cousin. He was a young-looking twenty-four, however, and could easily have passed for twenty. He did not look out of place on campus.
‘Did little Damien get off to school alright?’
Nathan grinned. ‘Yes, and thanks for the tip about the flowers. He would have felt so silly had he been the only one without them when he turned up to his new class.’
‘And I imagine he felt silly with them, too.’
‘Silly can be defined as feeling foolish or as being ridiculous. The former is preferable.’
Gus grinned, a rare expression for him. He had always liked his cousin, who was the only member of his family he felt to be on his wavelength. Nathan had been unfailingly kind to him when he had been young and isolated.
Nathan looked curious. ‘Where’s Danny babe?’
‘Oh … uh, he’s not too well this morning.’
‘Ah! Hit the booze last night?’
‘I’m afraid so. The local drink doesn’t seem to agree with him.’
‘The lager’s rather good, very pure and crisp, I think.’
‘It was the peach brandy Danny drank.’
‘Oh! I’ve heard it’s like rocket fuel.’
‘You heard correctly. He wasn’t very happy first thing this morning.’
‘At least he has you to care for him.’
They moved around the corner to the shabby student commissary. It might have seen better days, but the coffee it served was cheap, good and came in a sizeable mug.
When they settled down, Gus asked about Justin.
Nathan smiled. ‘It’s quite amusing. Back in Haddesley, I would be the one leaving for work in the morning while Justy hung round in the kitchen or watched telly. Now he has to get little Damien off to school for seven-thirty and be at PeacherCorp for eight. And you should see him in his suits. He looks luscious. It’s all I can do to keep my hands off his little butt. That’s another thing, too. I’m a free man now I’ve jacked in work, so I have all the time in the world to think about sex with him.’
‘And how’s the course?’
‘Fantastic! Botanical science is just what I wanted to study. What’s more, there’s a big practical element in the course, including placements in the Royal Botanical Gardens and other national parks.’
‘How’s your Rothenian?’
‘Pretty good. Justy and I have been coming here since we were sixteen, of course, when we met Fritz, and later ran into Henry and Ed. Justy’ll never really get the hang of the language, but it started clicking for me. The technical vocabulary is mostly Latin, so I’m doing fine.’
‘I’m a bit worried about Danny, Nathan.’
‘Really? The booze is a problem?’
‘No, it’s not that. He’s just not settling and he seems unhappy a lot of the time.’
‘It’s all new to him, Gus. He’ll be alright.’
‘I hope so. Could you …?’
‘… keep an eye on him? Yes, I will. Now let me take you round the corner. There’s a remarkable little museum attached to the library. You’ll like it.’
‘And how long are you expecting to be in Rothenia, mom?’
Ellie Marquesa pursed her lips. ‘I’m just passing through this time, but you must expect to see me again. After all, that’s my first grandchild you’re carrying, darling. I’m sure I can be of some help.’
‘That’s so kind, isn’t it kind, Rudi?’
King Rudolf gave a bland smile. ‘We really appreciate it.’ Then he added, feeling mischievous, ‘Of course there is also Justin.’
Mrs Marquesa looked frosty. ‘I can hardly reckon him to be my grandchild.’
The king, having got the reaction he wanted, allowed his smile to grow blander before digging the knife in a little deeper. ‘Oh yes. Andy adopted Justin after the marriage with Richard broke up. He’s only Richard’s grandson.’
Harriet threw a warning glare at her husband. ‘Tell us about this retreat you’re going on, mom darling.’
Mrs Marquesa paused for a long moment to register her discontent. She finally said, ‘I met up with the New Vedanta Movement in Thailand, where the order has its headquarters. The Grand Abbot is such a sweet man, and was so helpful to me when I was going through a bad patch with that odious Charles.’
Rudi twitched an eyebrow. ‘Charles’ was an Australian media magnate whom Ellie had briefly attracted into her orbit, had a torrid affair with, and then cast off into the cold of interstellar space like a passing comet.
Mrs Marquesa continued, ‘New Vedanta is all the rage back in California. It proves that all religions are really one and the same, and that Christ, the Buddha and Krishna make the same revelation … a different aspect of divinity to each culture, but the same divinity.’
Rudi was not too impressed, but one element of it caught his attention. ‘They have monasteries outside Thailand?’
‘There’re temples in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, one near London, and now a house here in Rothenia, in the mountains near the Czech frontier.’
‘Interesting. And you’re going there to meditate.’
‘I find it most fulfilling. I cast free of all bodily concerns and join with the divine.’
Rudi was mildly surprised. This was not a side of his mother-in-law’s character he had suspected.
‘Justin and Nathan are in Rothenia at the moment,’ he observed, keen to get back on firmer ground. ‘Justin has taken up a temporary post as head of security for PeacherCorp Europe.
‘Really.’ Ellie affected boredom. Had she smoked, she would have taken a drag and flicked the ash away.
‘The boy was shot in an incident five months ago.’
‘I was unaware.’ She still looked indifferent.
‘He’s been transferred to a senior desk job to gain executive experience.’
Mrs Marquesa showed marginally more interest. ‘Executive experience?’
‘Peter was telling me he believes Justin could have a future in the senior management of PeacherCorp. Richard is rather keen for Justin to move eventually into the Peacher business, now Eddie and Andy have both firmly opted out.
‘For his part, Richard considers that Justin has demonstrated the nerve and enterprise to carry through big and innovative schemes. I believe this placement is the first step to promoting him with Peter as one of the heirs to the Peacher empire.’
Ellie was now wide-eyed. ‘Are you serious?’
Rudi looked surprised. ‘Well, yes.’
‘But he was some sort of rent boy … how could he possibly usurp the Peacher name and fortune?’
Harriet intervened. ‘Now mom, Justin was never a … one of those. His teenage years were on the dubious side, it’s true, but he’s long shown his worth. He’s clever and brave, as well as being a great father to his kid. The rest of the Peachers are delighted he took our name, and Andy loves him as a son.’
Ellie Marquesa retreated briefly inside herself, which made Rudi nervous. He could hear the ticking of her calculating brain.
It was at this point that a knock came on the door and Oskar entered. ‘Sir, the phone call to the German chancellor.’
With some relief, Rudi rose. ‘Excuse me, please.’ He pecked his mother-in-law’s proferred cheek and left.
Mrs Marquesa continued to think, then with a determined shake of her head turned to Harriet. ‘Tell me about the baby. How’s my grandson coming along?’