THE GREEN SIDE
The class tittered. Mrs Waldeck looked at Damien over her glasses. ‘“Here!” will do as a reply, Damien. And you don’t call me “miss”.’
‘Oh.’ Damien blushed, and resented blushing. ‘What does I call yer then?’
Another slow stare. ‘Mrs Waldeck. Now, let’s get on …’
Damien dropped his head to his desk moodily. This was not the safe world of his little village primary school in Suffolk, which he had turned into his own private fiefdom: charming the teachers, assuming leadership of his year and terrorising the older kids.
Strelzen International School was in a building constructed maybe thirty years ago along a street front in the city’s Third District. Its stuccoed walls had been painted an acidic green, which Damien would have advised against, had his opinion been asked.
There seemed to be no school grounds that he could see on this side of the building, but there must be some, as the school did sport, he knew. Nathan had said there was hockey, tennis, basketball and soccer listed in its prospectus. It was one of the inducements to move that had been put to Damien.
There was an unpleasant smell of disinfectant and boiled cabbage in the air of the corridors and classrooms. Damien felt lonely and lost. He wanted his mates. He wanted the sound of the church bells ringing the hours outside his little school. He wanted the green of the English countryside through the classroom windows. The windows here were placed high above his head, and there was nothing to see.
He raised his head and his eyes roved round the class’s homeroom. Year 4 totalled two groups of thirty children each, which was a huge mob compared with the eight of his age he was used to being with. Not only that but there was a distinct majority of boys, quite contrary to his previous school.
He caught the surreptitious glances of several of his colleagues, which he refused to meet. He knew what it was like being the new kid, and he hated it. His dad had said that they got lots of new boys in the International School, because diplomats and businessmen frequently came to Strelzen and moved on after only a year or two. This consolation didn’t do much for Damien this first morning.
The flap of a book dropping on his desk brought Damien round. A grinning girl had deposited a maths book in front of him. ‘Ta!’ he muttered. He turned to the indicated page, and was given an assessment test to do. He squinted, chewed his pencil end and, with a sigh, got busy. He had finished in three minutes.
‘Yuh, miss … sorry … Mrs Waldeck.’
‘Can you get on please.’
‘Finished, miss … Mrs Waldeck.’
‘Don’t be silly. You must have left out some … let me see.’ Mrs Waldeck scanned the answers, a little untidy but plainly decipherable. ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘Well. My word. Perhaps you should go on to the next exercise.
Damien sighed again and got to it. Bored, he completed the next four exercises for good measure. ‘There Damien, that took you rather longer. But well done … oh! But you’ve completed … good heavens! That’s for Year 8.’
‘Sorry,’ he mumbled, thinking his new teacher was upset with him.
She stared at the slumped and depressed little boy in front of her with a new interest. ‘In your last school, did you have special lessons?’
‘No, Mrs Waldeck. We wuz just taught with the older kids cos it was a tiny school, so me and Aaron – thass me mate – did the big kids’ work when it got boring.’
‘And what books were you reading?’
‘Same books as the rest.’
‘The rest of your year?’
‘Nuh … rest of Year 6. Me and Nathan – thass me second dad – we read the books for Year 3 when I wuz in Year 1, so we just sorta moved on.’
‘I wish I’d known this.’ She looked kindly down at Damien.
‘I fink Nathan and me proper dad wrote a letter to yer head.’
‘I must check up. It seems to have been overlooked.’
The rest of the class was now staring openly at the reluctant prodigy in their midst. Damien burrowed down lower in his seat. He had known this would happen.
Justin took a coffee from his PA, a very sharply-dressed executive secretary with expensive tastes. Her name was Magarethe and she spoke perfect English, as well as German, French, Czech and Russian. She had an MBA from the Yale Business School.
‘Ta very much. Mind if I calls yer Maggie?’
‘Not at all sir.’ She really didn’t seem to mind.
Justin revolved his seat. His office was high in the central block of the PeacherCorp HQ in Strelzen. He was on the same side of the building as Peter Peacher, with a view of the Staramesten, the Old City, and the great spires of the cathedral. His suite was labelled: Justin Peacher-White, Senior Vice-President, Security. He had six secretarial staff, a PA and departmental chief working directly under him in smaller offices situated around his own corner suite.
Justin was not unused to working with staff. He had a PA and secretary back in his O’Brien Associates office in Canary Wharf. But what he had at PeacherCorp was a very different and challenging order of administration. The office in Strelzen was only the tip of the iceberg, security executives and operatives across Europe and the Middle East answered to Justin’s office, and indeed now, to Justin himself.
He meditated on his responsibilities, and his mind formed them into hierarchies and priorities without much effort on his part. Justin’s behaviour may have been anarchic and whimsical in many ways, but his mind was methodical and cool … or criminal, as his boss Terry O’Brien preferred to put it. Peter Peacher had known precisely what he was doing when he appointed his nephew as acting PeacherCorp security chief, and he did it with the blessing and good wishes of Terry. Even though Justin did not yet know it, he was not expected back at Canary Wharf.
His wide oak desk was clear apart from a laptop, a phone and a large picture of Nathan cuddling a laughing Damien. Paperwork never got to such a desk as Justin was now occupying. It stopped in the outer offices.
Justin asked Magarethe to run through his calendar for the morning. She obliged, without so much as checking her pocket computer. It was impressive.
He was continuing to meet the PeacherCorp executives working in his department. Justin worked best with people when he had been able to make a personal assessment of their capacities, and he had quite a gift for sizing up people’s strengths and weaknesses. He had now reached the middle level of executives in the Strelzen office and the process was already feeding into ideas for a complete restructuring of the department. This had been Peter’s rationale for employing Justin on a year’s secondment.
Justin sent Magarethe on her way, then he stood up at the window looking across the roofs of the Nuevemesten. Somewhere over there was the International School, where he had left his son early that morning, the boy hiding his nerves in truculence. Try as he might, Damien’s troubled little face would not let Justin alone this morning.
Brother Prema caught Vedayah’s eye. He was always catching his eye, and the knowing grin that went with it. Vedayah whispered as he went past. ‘She’s with the abbot, and you and I are in the shit, Malcolm.’
The Lady Benefactor had reached the monastery about seven, after dinner while the evening meditation was going on. The monks were currently strolling or sitting in the Garden of Thought.
Prema was already nervous. He knew that Vedayah had gone straight from their liaison to kneel at the abbot’s feet and confess their transgression of the rule. He had caught the abbot looking at him over dinner, and had blushed uncontrollably.
It was however Brother Dravadam who was summoned from the Garden to the abbot’s room, and he did not return. It was whispered at supper he was to help the Lady Benefactor with her ‘spiritual exercises’.
Prema wondered how long those spiritual exercises might last, since she was going to stay for at least five more days. Strong though Dravadam was, Vedayah had whispered to Mal as when were lying together kissing and stroking after their lakeside sex that she was pretty much inexhaustible.
‘Total nympho, Mal. I screwed her five times in a night and she still wanted more. That’s when Dravadam was called in … and my God, that thing of his shut her up for a while. Wide as a beer can. Still, she likes variety, so I imagine the other guys’ll be drafted eventually. My guess that we’ll be in shifts of two before the end of the week, one up her …’
‘Chris,’ Prema had interrupted, ‘this place is y’know, like her own private whorehouse. It’s a bit disgusting. I mean, I like it here. It’s quiet, I can reflect and you guys …’
‘Y’mean you can enjoy the sight of our asses any time you like, ya perve.’
‘No, I mean that we’re friends. The seven of us get on well and the abbot’s a good guy, But this cow of a Lady Benefactor, she spoils it. It’s not right.’
‘I asked the abbot about that. He said that the Grand Abbot was very keen on her and on our expansion into the west. She’s amazingly rich and she’s financed it. But it’s only temporary, and once we’re established the abbot thinks that we’ll break with her. Until then, there are precedents.’
‘Well sure. The royal palaces of the Khmer and the Thais had monasteries of nubile young monks attached. You think they just sat there meditating? No way. They offered all sorts of services to the king and the court, believe me. Some were sex specialists. I saw this book …’
Prema meditated gloomily on the irony of his life. He genuinely liked the quietness of this mountain valley and the rambling Victorian farmhouse they had bought and converted. The simple meditative life suited Prema, and now that Chris and he had linked up sexually, he could just see it getting better and better, apart from the Lady Benefactor, that is.
Prema was not perhaps the sharpest tool in the box, but he was intuitive, and could not believe that a woman like her meant them any good. He hated being used, and he hated the hypocrisy she represented for New Vedanta. Her sort drove a very hard bargain, and there was always going to be the fine print. People like her were the reason he had sought out the monastery. But it seemed there was no escape.
He almost yelped when the abbot coughed gently at his shoulder, so deeply was he in thought. ‘I think you and I should have a little talk, dear Prema …’
The great slow clock set on the Old Library’s gallery carried on ticking away the decades and centuries, its brass pendulum swinging ponderously below it. Unusually for a student in the history of the Rodolfer Universität, Augustus Underwood had no temptation to self hypnosis by staring at its slow motion, and pausing breathless when it reached the end of its arc, wondering at the moment of stasis before it swung back.
Gus’s mind was one of those rare ones that focussed wholly on its own agenda and was not distracted by anything less than the detonation of a bomb. The problem he was pondering at this point was not that of postmodernism or even the relevance of structuralism to contemporary thought. Gus was worried about his Danny.
Gus loved Daniel Hackness absolutely and devotedly. Danny was the undisputed centre of his affections and the power of Gus’s awesome mind was now fully engaged in how to make his sovereign lover happy, for he knew that Danny was lonely and depressed. Gus was guilty. He knew he had talked Danny into coming to Strelzen and had enough modesty to know that his judgement on human affairs was not always perfect. But if he had been wrong to encourage the move, Gus would try to put it right, even if he had to shift the course of the planets around the sun to do it.
His eyes looked blankly across the polished tables and brass lamps of the beautiful library. They registered nothing, certainly not the five books open in front of him. Gus’s attention was turned inward. After twenty minutes his mind clicked. His eyes focussed, his breathing deepened and he gave a little smile to himself.
He gathered up his books and placed them in his backpack. Then he left the library and went out into the university square. From his wallet he pulled out a rather worn and tattered rectangle of cardboard. He scrutinised it, took out his mobile and dialled a number. It rang for ten seconds until there was a reply.
‘Hello, Terry?’ said Gus.
Danny Hackness was feeling more than a little exposed that morning. His internal workings were still troubled. He felt betrayed by his intestines, which till his move to Strelzen had behaved with the reliability of a Victorian cast iron radiator. Now he felt weak and doubtful.
Danny was also dubious about Strelzen and life in a foreign country. His experience of being abroad had been limited, apart from a couple of months working in the gardens of a château in France. But this was different. His time in France had been cosy and contained, but Strelzen was a large and busy city with no time for him. He felt inadequate compared with the confident Czech, German and Rothenian students in his course, who seemed to speak perfectly in several languages. He had tried his limited Rothenian on a sympathetic looking fellow maths student, only to be met with stony blankness. Feeling a fool, he had flushed red and edged away.
The social night out he had tried with Gus had been a disaster. He had been egged on into drinking far too much, and so eager had he been for acceptance he had gone along with it. He had ignored Gus’s look of concern and words of caution, and had acted the fool. Now he did not know how to face his colleagues in class. But to class he must go, even though the lecturer spoke far too quickly for him and didn’t explain it well in English when Danny asked for help.
Danny found his way to the Maths Faculty and the assigned teaching room. Other students were standing around outside the door. He swept their faces with some hope of acknowledgement, but they ignored him, men and women alike, and he felt lost and alone. He leaned against the wall and awaited the lecturer.
Danny’s mobile warbled. He almost jumped. It had been silent since they had arrived in Rothenia. He didn’t recognise the number illuminated on it; it wasn’t Gus’s and Gus never rang him anyway. But at least the fact that someone was ringing proved he existed, and somehow he felt stronger against the world as a result.
‘Er … hello?’
‘Hi! Is that Danny Hackness?’
‘Yeah … who’s this?’
‘Oh, you don’t know me, but the name’s Davey Skipper.’
‘But I do. You’re Terry’s guy.’
‘Hey! Full marks. Danny, you can do me a favour. I need some help in the bar we’ve just opened on the Wejg. Fancy a job as a barman, two or three nights a week, and maybe some weekend work?’
‘Er … well, yeah. Yes. Thank you. That’ll be great. Who suggested me?’
‘Oh, Terry mentioned you and Gussie were in Strelzen and I’m here currently getting the new enterprise up and running. I’m short of English-speaking bar staff so our needs match, cos I bet you need cash. Come round today some time. Do you know the Wejg?’
‘It’s just off the southeastern corner of the Rodolferplaz isn’t it? Where all the clubs and pubs are. We haven’t been down there yet.’
‘I’ll be in my office at Club Liberation at three. You can’t miss it. It’s right on the corner of the square. Tell Jerzy the doorman you have an appointment with me. He’ll know to let you in.’
‘That’s great, Mr Skipper!’
‘Yeah … oops, gotta go. Lecturer’s arrived. Bye! See you at three.’
As Danny filtered into the lecture theatre with the other students he felt suddenly a lot better. The university course might be a disappointment, but at least he might have something to keep him occupied in the evenings. Also the money would be handy. British pounds went a long way in Strelzen, but even so Danny was not confident about his finances. This new job might be good. He couldn’t wait to tell his Gussie.
The serenity of the monastery was deeply troubled by the presence of the Lady Benefactor. Outwardly its routines continued, prayer was said and meditation occurred. The changeless routine of the day continued, but underneath there was perturbation. It was, Prema thought, like the untroubled and flat surface of a pool beneath which swam a vicious pike. He was sitting near the lake when he thought of that, and he was a little proud of the image.
There was a rustle and Vedayah sat next to him on the grass. He shucked off his robe and promptly pulled off Prema’s. There were no words. They writhed and kissed in the sunlight, and kissing turned eventually to a very energetic coupling. After he had ejaculated, Vedayah rolled on to his side, pulling Prema into him, his erection still deeply embedded in his lover. They snuggled happily.
Prema sighed. ‘What’ll the abbot say, Chris?’
‘I think he has other things on his mind than our misbehaviour, Mal, believe me. Dravadam’s a saint. He’s shagging away for all of us in there. If there was a sexual Olympics, Dravvie would have a gold medal hung on his dick. I saw him this afternoon in the sauna, still smiling. But he told me an odd thing.’
‘Well, the old cow had a visitor, a foreign guy. Would you believe that this guy came in while Dravvie was finishing off after their latest bout, still up her … y’know. So she tells Dravvie to get off her and clean himself up. So you know him, he ambles off to the en-suite bathroom butt-naked as if he didn’t have a care in the world, while the foreign guy stares tongue hanging out at his amazing bod and that dick of his swinging between his knees.’
‘Well, he is huge.’
‘You make him sound like a freak.’
‘Okay, okay. Anyway, Dravvie washes himself off and recovers his robe and takes his time. He’s a smart guy, but he likes to play dumb, like an ox. So he tells me the Lady Benefactor and this foreigner were deep into a discussion about some business deal. She was asking him to put a figure on a job she wanted doing, and to outline how he would do it.’
Prema was intrigued. ‘What sort of deal?’
‘He didn’t know, but he guessed it wasn’t entirely legal. Anyway, he picked up one thing. This guy represented his boss, someone called Josseran.’
‘I know that name.’
‘Yeah, you do. He’s Public Enemy No 1 in Rothenia, he’s the head of an Albanian crime ring on the run from Interpol.’
Prema was astounded and deeply shocked. ‘Krishna! What the fuck are we tangled up with here? The abbot’s gotta know. We can’t let this go on.’
Vedayah frowned. ‘There’s nothing we know, baby. Just one name. So what can we say to him, even if he’d listen to a pair of recreants like us? No. We’re on our own, and I believe that we have two choices. Either we get the hell outta here, or we try to do something about the cow.’
Prema stared at his lover. ‘What do you have in mind, Chris?’
Chris beamed with an artificial innocence that verged on the satanic. ‘Oh, one or two things, starting with some relief for poor Dravvie. We’re going to volunteer nobly for a three-way with the cow.’
‘And he wanted to see me too?’
‘Yes, baby. He said that he had bar work for both of us.’
‘I’m not sure I’d be good at that, you remember that disaster in Walbrough, when I worked in a café.’
‘Yeah, sweets, but that was when you were weird. You’re not that boy any more. And you were brilliant as a table waiter in France.’
‘Well … the money might be useful I suppose.’
‘And it’s Club Liberation, the new flagship of the gay entertainment industry in Central Europe. Three dance floors, all the butt you can shag ….’
‘Not serious. Just joking, Gussie.’
They paused as their walk through the streets of Strelzen brought them out on to Rodolferplaz. Danny remembered it from the orientation tour for foreign students on the first day. The coach had run them along the north side so they could see the royal palace and the colossal statue of King Henry the Lion in front of its gates. He knew to turn south along the plate-glass shop frontages of the west side. They walked side-by-side under the lime trees, still green and summer-like, though a few brown leaves had begun to litter the ground beneath them, for autumn was on its way.
Along the southern end of the square were big hotels, succeeded by a line of cafés as they walked eastward. Gus pointed out statues, high on granite plinths. ‘That’s President Marcus Tildemann, who saved the country from a fascist takeover between the wars. And that’s General Alfons Voydek; he’s legendary. His books on military theory are still required reading in staff colleges round the world.’
‘Looks like a geek.’
‘Then he was the most dangerous geek the world has ever known.’
‘Scary concept, babe. Here we are in the gay village.’ Rainbow flags were on every café and shop. Lamposts had some unashamedly homoerotic hanging banners advertising Strelzen Pride events from the previous July. Gus gawked at an undisguised porn emporium on the corner of the Rodolferplaz and the Wejg: Erotic Dream City. He shook his head. ‘I’m just a country queer at heart.’
Just across the street were the wide doors and lights of Liberation. A squad of bouncers in black suits lounged casually in the foyer entrance. Gus and Danny were eyed up. As usual, Gus’s youthful looks caused a problem. He had never yet been served in an English pub, even if he produced his passport. A bouncer placed his palm firmly on Gus’s chest.
Danny intervened. ‘Scuse me, we have an appointment with Davey Skipper. He said to say that Jerzy would know who we are.’
The bouncer gave Danny a cold look and signalled to a bald guy in sunglasses. He walked over, took the shades off and scrutinised the two young men. ‘You Danny Hackness?’
‘Back off, Serge, they’re expected. Follow me, you two.’
Danny and Gus exchanged glances and followed the broad back in through the doors. It was early afternoon, and this was Danny’s first encounter with the world of gay clubbing.
Liberation was not what he expected. The spacious ground floor was lit up in pink and blue, with artfully placed spots lighting service areas. It was already busy. The club’s downstairs served both food and drink, and had rather cute busboys serving tables in the front area. There was the subdued throb of music, but no dancing other than some single men aimlessly moving round the rim of the floor, deeper in the club.
Danny and Gus were led to a spiral stair discretely hidden in a corner and sent up it. There was a balcony at the top, overlooking the club, and a door, already open. Danny poked his head round it. A very handsome, dark young man in his mid twenties was slouched low down on a sofa, his bare feet up on a coffee table. He looked up from a sheaf of papers he was scrutinising. He grinned and struggled to his feet.
This was the famous Davey Skipper, clubland entrepreneur and force in the world of touring bands. He turned up a lot in Danny’s sisters’ celebrity mags. He was Terry O’Brien’s sexual as well as business partner. As his smile swept Danny and Gus, Danny’s mind had time to pronounce Terry a very lucky man, Davey was seriously gorgeous as well as open-faced and likeable.
He shook their hands with enthusiasm. ‘Don’t think we’ve met. But Terry’s told me all about you two guys. It’s my favourite story, how you found little Damien in a slum flat where you were hiding out and reunited him with his dad. Amazing that you’re here in Strelzen just as we’ve reopened Liberation after the refit.’
‘Thanks for thinking about us, Davey. To be honest, the cash would be welcome.’
‘Yes, well, I was a student, and not that long ago either.’
‘What do you want us to do in Liberation?’
Davey shot a glance at Gus. ‘Sorry. It’s not Liberation where the job opportunities are. It’s fully staffed. No, Terry and I have another little operation down the Wejg. It’s called Bar Melmoth, and it’s a pre-club bar for Liberation. That’s where we’re recruiting bar staff. The manager’s a guy called Wulf Sczneczen. Young bloke. I hope you get on with him. He knows you’ll be along there this afternoon to pick up your uniforms.’
‘Well … it’s a themed bar.’
‘Themed?’ asked Danny.
Gus nodded. ‘Melmoth was a Gothic horror story of the nineteenth century. I imagine we’ll be wearing black, Davey?’
Davey smirked. ‘It’ll bring in the emo queers and Goths. I’ve booked some new bands.’
Gus nodded. ‘A shameless play for the youth market, straight and gay, foreign and local.’
‘Gotta make a living. Now then lads, let’s have an early lunch. You can tell me how things were when you left Medwardine. They want me to give the address at Speech Day next year. A watershed in my life, believe me.’