Michael Arram










  ‘Look, I’m sorry, okay?  Let it rest, Will.’


  The hired BMW was on the autoroute south to the Rothenian frontier.  It was not the air conditioning which was responsible for the chill in the atmosphere inside, however, but rather the fallout from a disaster in Prague.  Harry, who was driving, was finally learning that Will was not quite the submissive and biddable bottom boy his blithe self-assurance had assumed.  He had just been subjected to the most comprehensive tongue-lashing he had ever had in his entire experience and, what was worse, he knew deep down that he had deserved every acidic word of it.


  On their second night in Prague, Harry had enthusiastically taken them to a gay club in the Zizhkov district.  It had been exciting but alarming for Will, who’d had no experience of gay nightlife.  He went in holding Harry’s hand, both literally and morally, trusting his lover to get him through it.


  It had been a very bad choice for a first outing.  A banner – which left nothing to the imagination – advertised a ‘Schlager-Nackt Partei’.  It appeared you had to strip to get access, paying double to retain your underpants.  Harry had laughed and got naked, Will had not laughed and had paid the extra, nervously stuffing his clothes and cash into a plastic bag he’d reluctantly entrusted to the security men before getting his hand stamped with a fluorescent number.


  Harry was high on his own gayness and quite shamelessly showing off to his young lover.  Will at least was relieved to find that quite a few guys had kept their pants on, although he was so nervous there was little chance of an inopportune erection.  He wished he’d kept his shoes on too, as the floor was sticky and dirty.


  They had danced a bit, and Harry was grinning as he grew hard between him and Will.  He came off the floor with quite a few people sizing him up.  At the bar Will had taken a stool and a drink, while Harry got in with a group of older naked guys next to them.


  When next Will looked round, he was alone.  He had frozen with panic, which was made worse when a big German came up and started engaging in stilted conversation and incomprehensible suggestions as to where they might go together.  Although Will recognised the word ‘ficken’ well enough, that was about the only thing.  The German got more and more frustrated as Will clearly did not understand what he was on about.  What on earth was a ‘black room’?


  Will was on his way out when he glimpsed Harry emerging from a dark side door in a clinch with one of the guys he had been chatting to earlier.  As their eyes met, Harry countered Will's accusatory glare with a bland grin.  Bloody lawyer, Will thought.  And then he worked out what the German had been on about.  He was furious.


  ‘We’re leaving,’ he snarled to a bemused Harry.


  ‘Why?  This is great.  What a night!  I can get blown by half the guys here.’


  ‘That’s the point, isn’t it?’


  ‘Stop being a wuss, Will.  You could have your pick of anyone in this place.  Alan here would be quite happy, wouldn’t you Al?’


  The chubby man next to Harry nodded and grinned.


  Fury turned to ice on the spot.  That was it.  He was out of there.  ‘I’ll see you in the morning, arsehole.  Don’t wake me up when you come in.’


  Harry shrugged and turned away.  Will had no idea when he got back to the hotel just off Wenceslas Square where he had booked single rooms for them.


  Will had been quiet while they packed the car and left Prague.  Twenty miles south of the city he could contain himself no longer, and the torrent of angry words startled Harry.  When had Harry come to the conclusion that Will was a piece of meat to be handed round casually?  Why hadn’t he checked to see if Will was willing to be shared with other men?  Could it perhaps have occurred to him that Will had ideas about faithfulness and promiscuity that didn’t coincide with his?  Will had been exploited and betrayed and was very bitter about it.


  Harry had then made the lawyer’s mistake of thinking he could argue his way out of the problem and still get his way.  A wiser man would have taken the blame and begun the slow process of rebuilding trust.  But it was quite a while before anything like an apology came out of him, and by that time it was too late.


  Will was a kind, decent and reasonable man, but he had a stubborn and unforgiving streak.  He also had a good teacher’s instinctive ability to assess personality, so necessary for survival in the classroom.  Having at last broken through the romantic clouds that had obscured his mind, he turned that ability on Harry, and when he did their former relationship was over.  Illusions were gone.  He knew Harry for what he was: an amusing, generous but flawed, selfish and promiscuous man.  Harry was someone to have fun with, but not safe on any other terms.


  As a result, Will eased up on Harry just before they reached the frontier post and began passing the huge queue of lorries being thoroughly checked by the Rothenian border police.  The Rothenians had a stern way with drug smuggling and dealing, one of his books had warned Will – quite unnecessarily in his case.


  Harry picked up the sudden easing of mood and was relieved, although he jumped to the wrong conclusion from it.  Nothing had been forgiven or forgotten.  Will had simply demoted him from lover to friend and was therefore exempting him from judgement.  Links had been broken, not renewed.


  They crossed the frontier at Modenehem, or Modenheim as the bilingual road signs also insisted.  They stopped there at a nice little inn on the sun-bathed cathedral square lined with a mass of tall brick gables and geranium-filled window boxes.  It was dominated by the twin towers of the cathedral at one end and the massive, medieval brick Radhaus at the other.  Café seats and umbrellas filled the north side, where they sat out to have lunch.  Harry, relieved at Will’s apparent relenting, had recovered his good spirits effortlessly.


  Although Will was hardly bubbling with merriment, he allowed Harry’s humour to buoy him up.  He looked around and loved what he could see.  This was just the edge of a country that abounded in superb natural and architectural beauty.


  The people too seemed remarkably handsome at first acquaintance.  When he tried out a few words of Rothenian on their young waiter, he was floored by the glowing smile that greeted his inept attempt at the language.


  ‘What a babe,’ observed Harry, as the boy’s pert little buttocks disappeared into the café’s interior.


  ‘A bit young for you, Harry,’ Will retorted with a certain calm dismissiveness that unsettled Harry once more.




* * *




  The drive to the capital passed through what was Wonderland as far as Will was concerned.  Rothenia had it all: deep forests; white castles on tall hills; broad, brown rivers winding down to the Danube basin; pretty villages and beautiful towns.


  Everything looked clean and prosperous.  Harry observed that not all parts of the country were so attractive, however.  South of the capital was the industrial heartland of Zenden, which spewed out enough pollution so they could see some evidence of it in the air.


  Finally they crested the last hill of the autoroute and gazed on the red-roofed panorama of Strelzen spread out below them.  Will was enchanted with the tangled maze of the Old City winding upwards to the great cathedral whose dark spires loomed over the river basin below.


  They checked in at the Hotel Murranberg, a modern and plush establishment on the beautiful Flavienplaz in Strelzen’s Nuevemesten, or New City.  This time they had a double room.  Unlike those in Prague, lodgings in Strelzen did not mind advertising themselves to be ‘gay-friendly’ or ‘mucz-freundlic’, as they apparently said in Rothenian.  Will got a quick sidelong glance from the desk clerk when he put his Ray-Ban Aviators up in his hair to read the hotel’s publicity pamphlet.  It caused him some amusement:


  ‘This outstanding hotel, designed by Eva Miricna, Architect Associates of Hofbau, in the post-May Rising euphoria, is well combined with traditional comforts, sumptuous fabrics, bespoke furniture and splendour of the world, with innovate technologies of modern design. The staff with a friendly approach and refined service will cater to your every need to make your stay a placid one.’


  The desk clerk smiled nicely as he handed over their key cards.  ‘Have a nice day, gentlemen,’ he said with a pronounced American accent.


  ‘I’m hoping for a placid one,’ Will could not resist replying.  The clerk caught his eye and gave a broad grin.  Will began to like Strelzen.


  Harry looked suspicious.  ‘What was all that about?’


  ‘Nothing, Harry.’


  Will leaned out of their hotel window to look down on the broad, cobbled square below.  It was a hub of the tram network, full of clanging, red-painted cars rumbling and shrieking over the points.  The location was exciting, although he hoped the noise died down at night.  At least the windows were double-glazed.


  Harry came up behind him and clasped him round the waist, kissing his exposed neck.  Will tensed, then relaxed as he realised Harry was after reassurance.  Not willing to be unkind, he returned the kiss.


  Harry broke off.  ‘I really am sorry, y’know.’


  Will smiled.  ‘I understand.  You were just being Harry, and I can’t blame you for that.’




  ‘Always.  You’re not a bad man, Harry.  Just not a man to rely on.’


  Harry looked momentarily sad, achingly so, before smiling once more.  ‘Is sex out of the question?’


  Will kissed him again, then kissed him more deeply.  They fell on the bed, where Will removed Harry’s trousers, for the first time taking the lead in their love play.  With Harry naked below the waist, Will worked hard and skilfully on his lover’s erection, suckling and squeezing it to the verge of ejaculation time and again, until he eventually brought forth a fountain that spattered down on to Harry’s tee shirt and liberally flowed on to Will’s hand.


  Will did not attempt to swallow the semen, instead wiping his hand on tissues.  Harry noticed.


  Wandering out into the darkening summer streets, they enjoyed the cooling air and the stars brightening in the sky.  They walked down the broad and leafy Mikhelstrasse which connected Flavienplaz to the Rodolferplaz.  All the major fashion chains maintained classy establishments there.  It was the most expensive shopping street of the city.


  German, American and English tourists were everywhere, jostled by roaming groups of young locals.  Bars and cafés were doing a busy trade, their outside tables full under big umbrellas advertising Czech beers.  Patio heaters were blazing out unnecessarily, as the evening was warm.


  Harry and Will finally came to the Rodolferplaz, a vast and impressive space lined on three sides by distinguished stone buildings of five or six storeys.  The southern part was populated by café restaurants, their tables spreading across the road under the fluttering leaves of young lime trees.  In the distance rose the towering bulk of King Henry’s statue standing before the grand façade of the palace behind its tall black railings.


  They found a small bar just at the Rodolferplaz’s south end, near the statue of President Tildemann in wing collar and pince-nez.  They sat outside, watching the beautiful young people and foreign families stroll by under the trees.  Pigeons strutted everywhere.  The front of the palace at the opposite end was floodlit, and all the trees were liberally strung with lights.


  ‘What are you going to do tomorrow?’ Harry asked.  Will noticed the significant exclusion from the equation of Harry himself, who did not care for cultural tourism.  He had kicked against it in Prague.  Now he was not playing at all.


  Will didn’t mind.  ‘The cathedral, definitely.  Probably the army museum at the Arsenal.  It’s highly recommended.  Shall we meet up for lunch?’


  ‘Love to.  Come and get me from the hotel at around one.  I’ll sleep in.’




* * *




  Will wiped his forehead.  The morning was already sweltering, though it was only nine-fifteen. He was trudging the straight line of the Domstrasse towards the Staramesten, the Old City.  The cathedral loomed above him, but was taking its time about getting closer.  He started to wish he’d had the nerve to board a tram.


  The Flavienplaz was already far behind him, on the other side of the commercial district.  The street was now lined with handsome private houses, with shutters framing their windows.  Some of the upper ones had duvets hanging out in the continental manner.


  Eventually the way began to narrow and fall gently towards the river.  It crossed a wide bridge, turned and climbed.  Surprisingly quickly, Will was high above the New City, whose red-roofed panorama across the river he could glimpse between the picturesque half-timbered medieval houses which were clustered under the mighty cathedral.


  The road, now lined with gift shops already open for business, abruptly deposited him on the small plateau of a cobbled square facing the cathedral’s west front.  It reminded Will a little of his favourite British cathedral at Durham.  To his left was the Erbischofpalacz, hung with flags, and on the right the Waclawkloster, the ancient Benedictine abbey of St Wenceslas, the only Czech ever popular in Rothenia, as his guidebook dryly informed him.  A fountain bubbled and splashed in the centre of the beautiful square.


  Early tourists were gathered at the west door, waiting for the end of the morning mass.  Many of them were in parties, their leaders identified by golfing umbrellas or car aerials adorned by pennants.  Before Will had crossed the square, the worshippers, mostly short women in black, were beginning to emerge and the tourists to take their place: modern pilgrims of a different sort.


  Will checked the battery of his big digital camera, his most expensive possession, whose purchase he had justified as an essential tool for the modern history teacher.  He was still paying for it.


  The cathedral was all he was expecting and more besides.  It was in fact smaller than its prominent position deceived you into thinking, but the Gothic vaults were breathtakingly tall, the glass all medieval and jewel-like.


  It was the tombs which most seduced Will.  He had discovered that nothing quelled restive and bored classes at the end of term better than little lectures on morbid subjects like death and burial.  He was always on the lookout for new material.  The cathedral had been the coronation church and mausoleum of the rulers of Ruritania.  It was an expression in stone of their power and self-image: just what he needed.


  The founder of Ruritania himself, the ninth-century Slavic duke Tassilo, was laid out – allegedly – before the high altar.  A thirteenth-century crowned effigy now topped the original plain slab.  All along the northern and southern choir aisles were the Elphberg ducal and royal memorials.


  Will paused at the tomb of King Rudolf V and Queen Flavia, as they lay there in marble, their hands clasped.  A fresh red rose was placed on it daily in season to mark the continuing veneration of the people of Strelzen for the romantic and tragic royal couple.


  Will knew the story: how the handsome young king had come to the throne despite conspiracy and treason.  He had married his beautiful cousin and rebuilt his stricken kingdom, but had fallen at last to the pistol of an anarchist, leaving his widow to take the throne and mourn him until her death, unmarried and childless.


  He was backing away to get the right angle for a shot when a crowd of passing Italians sent him off balance.  He felt the crunch of someone’s foot under his heel.


  ‘Ouch, fuckin’ hell!’ growled a voice in his ear in a very familiar South Midlands accent, the distinctive intonation indeed of the small university city in which Will had studied for his degree and teaching certificate.


  Will spun around apologising.  ‘God, I’m really so sorry.’  Two young men stood close behind him, a fit-looking blond clasping his foot in his hand and an amused, darkly handsome boy bracing him by the shoulder.  Both were very expensively dressed and, he guessed on that evidence, rather well-heeled.  Will subconsciously noted the intimacy of the two.  Part of him was signalling they were gay.  His instincts were awake.


  ‘I’ve come closer to death,’ said the Midlander, and then winked at him.  Somehow, Will realised that he too had been recognised for what he was.  The man grinned and held out his hand.  ‘Name’s Terry, and this here is Ramon.’


  Will took the offered hand and said, ‘Will Vincent.’  He gave a small smile and added, ‘And how far from Finkle Road did you live?’


  Terry stared and guffawed, his merriment echoing back from the Gothic vaults.  Finkle Road was the student area in the city of Cranwell, where he had been born.


  Will smiled. ‘I inhabited No. 66 for three years,’ he explained.


  ‘Blimey, you wuz me neighbour then.  Me parents still live on the new estate round the corner from where you were.  But you don’t live there now, do you?’


  ‘No, I’m a teacher in Whithampsted.  I’m here with my boyfriend,’ he added firmly, determined to test out his instincts.


  Terry grinned again.  ‘Ramon and me are partners.  Shake his hand, Ramon.’


  ‘Hi,’ said a smiling Ramon in an American accent.


  ‘He’s a Yank?’


  ‘Bloody well not!’ objected Ramon, proving that he had been around Terry long enough for there to be an influence on his mode of expression.  ‘I’m Mexican.’


  ‘We’re students at John Adams College in Virginia.’


  ‘I’ve heard of it.’


  ‘And we’re on holiday.  Ramon’s studying Central European History next semester, and we’re here to give him a head start.’


  ‘Cool.  I’m a history teacher myself, so the same thing brought me here.’


  Ramon looked at him with interest and a sunny grin.  ‘That’s a job I think I’d really enjoy when I graduate.  Look, Will, do you want a drink after you’ve finished here?  I’d like to talk.’


  ‘Love to.  How about we get together at the west door at ten-thirty?  I should have seen what I need to by then.’


  ‘Cool.’  The attractive pair walked off with a parting smile.  Will was beginning to realise he had just met a very different sort of gay from Harry Baxter.


  He looked around for the next interesting tomb.  Set between Rudolf V and Rudolf IV was a richly decorated bronze wall tablet.  The light was poor, but he could make out beautifully engraved male and female busts facing each other.  Underneath was an elaborate encomium written in Latin.  That was not a problem for Will, who had successfully mastered the language at his private school.  Thank God it wasn’t in Rothenian.


D.M.  Hic iacet illustrissimus FRANCISCUS comes Tarlenheimensis atque princeps S. R. Imperii cum devota eius uxore HELGA pari sua in amore et prudentia.  Ille Franciscus diutius cubicularius magnus curiae regalis Ruritaniensis atque eques nobilissimorum ordinum aurei velleris et rubeae rosae erat.  Amicus devotus et servus famosi regis Rudolfi quinti et quoque reginae et viduae eius Flaviae erat.  Fidelis usque ad mortem.


  He translated to himself: ‘Here lies the noble Franz, count of Tarlenheim and prince of the Holy Roman Empire, with his devoted wife Helga, his equal in love and discretion.  Francis was for a long time high chamberlain of the royal court of Ruritania and knight of the most noble orders of the Golden Fleece and the Red Rose.  He was a devoted friend and servant of the famous King Rudolf V and also of his queen and widow, Flavia.  Faithful unto death.’


  Interesting, Will thought, but what was it that had made him notice the tablet?  He looked closer at the portrait of the count.  There was something oddly familiar about the handsome whiskered profile, though for the life of him he couldn’t see what it was.  He took an image of it anyway, the digital camera compensating for the poor light.


  He moved on to the other Rudolfs and Henrys.  He had time to look at the famous shrine of St Vitalis, apostle of the Rothenians, in the cathedral treasury, before emerging into the bright morning sunlight to greet Terry and Ramon at the west door.  Together, they found a small café which was already open, ordered Oranginas and sat outside under an umbrella.


  Will looked around.  Above them the sky was a hot blue, presaging a very warm day.  He beamed at Terry.  ‘This place is amazing!’


  ‘Sure is, babe.  Now tell me when you wuz in Cranwell.’


  He and Will exchanged reminiscences of his home town, and compared favourite pubs.


  ‘What?’ Terry exclaimed.  ‘You never went in the King’s Cross?  I worked the bar there for two years.  We might even have met.’


  Will laughed.  ‘I think I’d have remembered if we had.  I wasn’t out when I was a student, and we never went near the “Queen’s Cruise” as we called it.’


  ‘I know what you students called it.  To be honest, you didn’t miss a lot.  It’s not exactly a way-out gay pub, and Frank the manager has a wicked way with his tongue.’


  ‘At this point, aren’t you supposed to say, “But he has a heart of gold”?’


  ‘No.  It’d be a lie.  His heart is as wizened as the rest of him.’


  Will chuckled at the comical expression on the other's face.  ‘What took you to America to study, Terry?’


  ‘I got a job there a few years back, and I liked it.  I liked it even more when I met me Ramon in Los Angeles.  I was a chauffeur and he was a pool boy; it was very romantic.  Love below stairs in a big mansion.  I changed careers soon after that.  I still am actually in the same job, but I combine it with study at JAC.  It’s a complicated thing to explain.’


  Will was interested. ‘What sort of job is it?’


  ‘Security.  I work part time for PeacherCorp.’


  Now Will was really intrigued.  ‘PeacherCorp, you mean the great Richard Peacher?’


  ‘Not him, but his son.’


  ‘Which one?’


  ‘Andrew.  He’s also a student at JAC.  I study and mind his ass simultaneously.  I multitask effortlessly, being that sort of bloke.’


  The information slowly filtered into Will’s brain.  ‘But that means …’


  ‘Yeah.  I know him.  Always goes this way, talking to gays.  And yes, he is just as gorgeous in the flesh – more so, even.  He is also unbelievably kind, incredibly intelligent and makes a lot of noise in bed; I’ve heard him and Andy at it.  The only problem with him is that he does have a bit of a temper and he could sulk for England.’


  ‘Matthew White.’


  ‘Matt White the great, the beautiful, the pin up.  You’ve got a poster, haven’t you?’


  ‘And a scrapbook.’


  ‘Doesn’t surprise me.’


  ‘How do you ever get used to being around a man like that?’


  ‘Surprisingly easily in the end.  It may sound trite, but soon you forget the looks and see only the man himself.  And that’s the really important thing.  He’s a genuinely good person, and great for Andy, my boss.  They’re an amazing couple.  Totally devoted.’


  ‘That’s the sort of relationship I’d love to have.’


  ‘Me too,’ chipped in Ramon.  ‘Terry used to spread it around.’


  ‘Not no more, sweet babe.  You’ve changed me for good.’


  Ramon had noticed something in Will’s face.  ‘What’s your boyfriend like, Will?’


  Will sighed and explained recent events.


  Ramon was very sympathetic.  ‘You’re still young, Will.  You’ll find the man you’re looking for.’


  Terry was moved to give Will the benefit of his considerable experience.  ‘Harry’s not an uncommon type.  Believe me, I’ve met them, though I don’t count meself as one.  Some guys get hooked on hedonism and trade in their youth for nonstop excitement.  Nothing wrong with that but, ’course, we get older and some don’t slow down.  Whatever Ramon says, I wuz always looking for something more stable, and I wuz lucky to find him.


  ‘Tell you what, why don't you both come out with us tonight?  I’ll give you me assessment of your guy, if he’ll join us, and we can look after you in the big gay club on the Rodolferplaz.  They call it Liberation: a sorta political pun maybe?  We’ll be at your hotel at eight.  Now, what about that army museum?’


  Meeting Ramon and Terry gave Will a big lift.  They laughed at the same things, and Terry was so quick-witted.  By the time they had finished the museum it was nearing midday and he had two firm friends.


  As they saw him off down the Domstrasse, Terry said, ‘What a nice kid.  If you weren’t with me, I’d close out that cretin Harry, no problem.  I’d be in his pants in ten minutes.’


  ‘Yeah, but I am here and don’t you forget it.’  Ramon looked a little pensive and doubtful.  ‘Do you think you should’ve told him about tonight?’


  ‘No.  He’d have just got nervous.  Better to let it be a surprise.’


  ‘Surprise is one thing, total shock is another.’