Michael Arram










  They arrived back at Will’s hotel at five.  He resisted earnest invitations to spend the evening with the others until Terry announced he was keen to check out the Rothenian National Opera.  When Will heard that, he was torn.  In Terry’s eyes he saw something even more important than their both being gay.  ‘Terry, you’re … a singer?’


  ‘Yes, sweet babe, I most certainly am.’


  ‘You should hear him in the bathroom, Will,’ laughed Ramon.


  ‘Tenor or bass?’ asked Will tremulously.


  ‘Tenor, and I don’t mean tenor baritone … no, not you too!’  Terry was transfixed with delight.  ‘My God, do you know how rare we are?’


  Will hurled himself into Terry’s arms shouting, ‘My dream man!  You’re out of here, Ramon.  I’ve found the love of my life!’


  Terry hugged him back, spun him around and whooped.  ‘You’ve got to come with us tonight, sweet babe.  It’s The Magic Flute.’


  ‘Damn, bugger and blast!’ cursed Will.  ‘I’ve got no choice, it’s a prior engagement.’


  Something of the true situation must have showed on his face.  He noticed Ramon whisper into Terry’s ear and smile.  Terry gave a knowing grin.  Matt missed the signals but expressed his regrets, saying he hoped Will would join them again for the next day’s tour of royal abbeys in the north of the country.  Will said he would love to.


  There was no sign of Harry in their room, so Will was at the phone like a shot.  The line burred and clicked a few times before a familiar voice said, ‘Prosim!  Oskar.’


  ‘It’s me!’


  ‘Will!  This is good.  Are you free tonight?  I hope you’ve had enough of tourism and that dreadful Club Liberation.’


  ‘For the moment, maybe.  What do you suggest?’


  ‘I am meeting friends.  Maybe you will come so we can practise our English on you?’


  ‘Love to, and maybe I could pick up some Rothenian.’


  ‘Do you have German?’


  ‘A little.’


  ‘That’s a start.  I shall come for you at seven.  Ahoi men leblen.’




  ‘You’ll know one day.’  Oskar rang off.


  There was still no sign of Harry at seven, when Will saw Oskar making his way across the Flavienplaz.  Will was emerging from the lift as Oskar entered the lobby, looking cool in a leather jacket and straight-cut jeans with a thick studded belt.  He was wearing shades and a small grin.  Will shook hands the formal Rothenian way, which pleased Oskar.  They walked out together arm in arm, a familiarity Will knew by then that young male Rothenians often shared.  Oskar was delighted at the gesture.


  As they strolled down Mikhelstrasse, Oskar pointed out things of interest.  Indicating a rundown hotel just off Flavienplaz, he commented, ‘That was the Gestapo headquarters during the Occupation.  You see those flowers?  Above them is a stone that records all the freedom fighters executed in the basement.  There are four hundred names, and one of them was my father’s uncle – only seventeen, but a brave boy.  He blew up railway lines in Husbrau.’


  They paused in tribute and looked up.  Although the list was alphabetical, Will saw no one called Prinz.  Because he knew little about Rothenian naming practices, he realised that any question he might ask could only lead to a long explanation, so he ignored the matter.  It never occurred to him for a moment that Oskar might be lying.


  In a side street off Mikhelstrasse, Oskar hauled Will on to a passing tram of the old-fashioned sort as it rumbled by.  He paid the lady conductor, and they took a slatted wooden seat.


  ‘Where are we going?’


  ‘To Bila Palacz, or the University quarter.  I feel more comfortable there.  I got wolf-whistled by a group of Americans on the Rodolferplaz coming to your hotel.  I expect they recognised me.’


  ‘Bummer,’ commiserated Will.


  ‘What!  Where does my rear end come into it?’


  ‘Er … it means “crap”, “bad”, that sort of thing.  It’s not a buttock-related word.’


  ‘Ah.  Bummer.  It sums up the downside of being a gay-porn actor.  People think they own your ass.’


  ‘How come Rothenians don’t seem to know about you?’


  ‘Maybe a few do, but we are a polite people.  Besides, my films are not on sale in Rothenia or the Czech Republic.  My employer restricts distribution to protect his actors, so by the time I retire not many local people will ever have seen them.  Most of those wouldn’t say anything even if they had.’


  ‘Are you out to your family and friends, Oskar?’


  ‘Er … difficult for me to say.  My sister, I suspect she knows, but the films not; she thinks I am just an unsuccessful model.  My university friends are straight boys to whom I have never mentioned I am gay.  Although they know it well, of course, it doesn’t register with most of them.  Rothenian social life is very segregated.  Boys go out with boys, and girls with girls.  It’s a wonder we survive as a nation.’


  Will guffawed.


  The tram rumbled past the grand Radhaus of the New City with its massive tower, and eventually turned left screeching on to Lindenstrasse.  Once across the inner ring road and past some parkland, it ran out into another large square surrounded by Classical buildings.  In the middle of the open space, an oversize national tricolour flapped from a gigantic central flagstaff.  City and state police in their respective blue and black uniforms were everywhere.


  ‘This is the Parliament and the ministries.  The University is the next stop.’


  In a street lined with small cafés they alighted on a low platform, from which they watched the tram clang off towards its terminus.  Oskar led Will to a small door half hidden between two street cafés, and pushed it open.  A bar lay beyond.  The lady at the counter smiled at Oskar and greeted him with a stream of Rothenian, which he answered just as volubly.  She did nothing more than eye Will curiously.


  Oskar led him into a back room, where there were already three young men crowded around a small table.  ‘Oskar!’


  High fives and embraces were exchanged, leaving Will suddenly feeling shy and left out of things.  Then Oskar introduced him and there were formal handshakes all round.


  He sat down.  The boys smiled uncertainly and stared at him, as if expecting him to do something entertaining.


 ‘You are not American, then,’ said the boy called Rodolf.


  ‘Er, no … English,’ Will replied.


  ‘Oskar was always loser.  Americans have money.  I watch cable.  Have you been to America?’


  Oskar cut in.  ‘Rodolf has a fixation with the United States, a result of his extreme ignorance of the world.’


  ‘I have been to the States,’ Will replied.  ‘My parents took me to Disney World when I was fourteen and my sister was ten.’


  ‘Cool!’  Rodolf was briefly impressed.


  When drinks arrived, Will bolted his.  He was certain it would be a tough night.


  It turned out far better than he expected, however.  The boys soon were talking about their courses, their backgrounds and their families.  He was in a fair way to getting to like them after two more drinks and a half hour of relaxation.  They were devoted to Oskar, judging by the stream of joking insults directed at him.  Will couldn’t work out if they knew about their friend’s life on DVD, but he guessed not.  They clearly knew he was gay, though, and assumed correctly that Will was too.  They seemed to have no hang-ups about it.


  He focussed more and more on a boy who had been introduced as Tomas Weiss, the one that sparred most with Oskar.  Will knew him.  During a lull in the conversation he asked Tomas directly, ‘Were you with Oskar last night, when he chased off the mugger?’


  Tomas laughed.  ‘It was I.  Brave Rothenian warriors, were we not?  He had knife, I think.  And where did you sleep last night, Willem?’


  ‘I think you know.’


  ‘Oskar is very generous boy.  He has many friends and he deserves them.  And he must like you much.  You are first of his lovers he has ever brought to meet us here.  I think you know he likes very much to sleep with men, yet he does not always like men he sleeps with.  There is something new with you.  Maybe it is because you are English, who knows.’


  ‘Why are you always joking at him?’


  ‘It is my way, I suppose.  Although I like … love … him – though not in that way, you understand – he does infuriate.  He is Rothenian through and through, hopeless romantic like we all are, but in his case he could be so much more than he is.  He has great talents.  I expect it is his background.’


  ‘His background …?’  Will began, but Tomas was sharing a joke about one of their lecturers with the third boy, Piotr.


  After ninety minutes, Will was confident and chatting easily back and forth with his companions.  Like most Central Europeans, they were addicted to politics, and happy to discuss them at length and in depth, unlike British people.  The extension of the European Union was the topic of the moment, along with the conversion of the krone to the euro.  Will, being a teacher and pretty well up on the subject, was happy to argue about anything.  He found himself defending the pound sterling’s integrity with growing passion and enthusiasm.


  The battle raged round the table and eyes grew bright.  When people appeared at the door to listen, Will heard whispered translations of his points being made among the onlookers.  There was even a polite smattering of applause for a couple of his arguments.  He caught Oskar’s look at one point.  The man was proud of him and excited. 


  At eleven, things began to wind down, and people looked for their coats.  Oskar’s comrades slapped Will on the back and embraced him, for by then he was ‘Friend Willem’, or just ‘Will’.  They all lurched out into the dark street, happy and exalted, to catch the last tram to the Rodolferplaz.  Will and Oskar said their goodbyes at the stop on Lindenstrasse.  The others were singing national songs as they went off.


  Oskar turned to him when they were at last alone together, his eyes still shining.  Taking an arm, he led Will towards his apartment.  Neither of them thought of the hotel for even a moment.




* * *




  Late at night, after a passionate coupling, with Will happy to be bottom and his rectum still outraged at the size of Oskar’s intruding member, the two lay smiling into each other’s eyes.  ‘You are a special person, Will.  I am so glad we met.’  A sudden tremor passed across Oskar’s face.  ‘But you must leave soon?’


  ‘I fly out on Sunday.’


  ‘Only one more night.  That is … sad.  Will you stay with me tomorrow?’


  Will’s heart lurched.  ‘I’m so sorry, Oskar, but I promised some friends I’d go on a drive with them.’  Then, remembering who the friends were, he grinned.  ‘But I don’t think they’ll mind at all if you come along – quite the opposite, in fact.’


  ‘What, are they Marc Bennett fans?’


  ‘Er … I don’t know.  They are gay, though.’  He was willing to guess that Terry knew his porn.  He was not sure about Matt and Ramon.  ‘Will you come with me?’


  ‘You met my friends tonight and were happy, so now it is my turn.’


  Will gave a secret little smile.  ‘I think you will find it interesting.’


  Oskar looked mildly suspicious, but let it pass.


  With a small breakfast of Oskar’s disgusting muesli (‘I have to be careful of my body, Will’) under their belts, they took Marietta out for her morning constitutional.  Then they strolled through some back streets to come out on Flavienplaz.


  ‘So why are you being so mysterious about these friends of yours, my Will?’ Oskar asked as they approached the square.  ‘I take it they are English?’


  ‘Two of them are, the other is Latin American.  The English guys are Terry and Matt.  Matt went to the same university as I did, while Terry used to be my neighbour.’  There, said Will to himself, that’s all true, well … sort of.


  Oskar sat in reception while Will went up to change.  He found two bodies in the bed.  Harry was snoring.  The stranger seemed a bit older this time, from what could be seen of his hair and skin.  After silently dressing, Will scribbled a brief note, in the unlikely event that Harry might wonder where he’d gone.


  Matt’s limousine arrived on time.  Will ran out to greet his friends, who were perfectly happy for Oskar to accompany them, once Will had explained the circumstances.


  Oskar came out to join them, and confidently poked his head inside the car.  Will would have paid money to see the face he pulled when he saw who was in the back seat.  ‘But at least I did not faint,’ Oskar later muttered.


  Ramon nudged Will as Oskar was paying homage to Matt, and whispered close in his ear, ‘You sly dog, you!  You’ve been in the city three days and you walk off with what must be the hottest babe in the place.  I’m real envious.  I'll bet he’s amazing in bed.’


  Will whispered back, ‘You wouldn’t believe.’


  It was clear enough that Matt and Ramon had no idea who Oskar really was, which was a relief.  Will was not entirely sure of Terry, who nonetheless smiled and shook Oskar’s hand happily enough.  Perhaps the brief appraising stare was just the result of his profession.


  Crowded into the back, with Oskar and Will on the fold-down seats behind the driver, they chatted amiably as the car drove off.  Oskar, however, was clearly in awe of Matt and kept staring at him.  Matt, being used to it, wasn’t bothered.


  He had a map on his knee, and as they left the limits of Strelzen, he invited Oskar to change places with Terry so he could talk them through the route.  ‘We’re going first to the Marienkloster at Medeln,’ Matt announced.


  ‘Ach,’ said Oskar, ‘Then I think I know why.  It is the Good Lady Osra that you wish to visit, yes?’


  ‘You call her that?’


  ‘The “Dobra Dama” is what the old peasants of the countryside call her.  She was very much loved by all, but especially the poor.  There are many folktales about her, her beauty, her wilfulness and her kindness.  I like to believe them.’


 ‘We must talk about this sometime, Oskar.’


  ‘Is this the Princess Osra whose picture we saw in the palace?’ Ramon asked.


  ‘That’s the lady,’ Matt confirmed.  ‘After her husband passed away, she retired to the abbey of Medeln and lived with the nuns for twelve years, doing good works and being a grand old lady.  She died and was buried there.  Her nephew, King Ferdinand, raised a stunning monument to her.  You can hardly believe the pictures.  Have you seen it, Oskar?’


  ‘Yes.  And it is stunning.  Medeln is not far from Terlenehem where I was a boy and where my sister and brother still live.’


  ‘We can call in if you like,’ offered Matt.


  Oskar looked momentarily put out and gave a glance at Will under his long lashes.  ‘That is kind, but they are not expecting me, and it would not be fair to them.  I shall see them in a week or two in any case.’


  Oskar borrowed the map and pointed Terlenehem out to Will.  He described the countryside of Husbrau with an engaging affection.  He also gave his comments on the other sites that Matt wanted to visit, as well as some advice on a good place for lunch.


  It was nearly eleven-thirty when they reached their destination, a plain medieval church somewhat overshadowed by the princely baroque cloister and domestic range that had grown up beside it.  Oskar led them into the abbey through the west door. ‘The nuns were driven out under the dictator Horvath, and the abbey turned into a reformatory.  Although the new government has restored it to the Church and the EU has funded repair and reconstruction, the sisters have not returned.  It is sad.  My father the …’ he choked off and, darting a glance at Will, commented instead, ‘… what I meant to say is that the sisters were remembered kindly by the people.  Princess Osra left much money for charity, and the nuns spent it handsomely on schools and the old.  They were good days when the nuns lived in Medeln.  Now they are gone, people are the poorer.’


  By then they were in the dark church, a simple Romanesque structure for the most part that had obviously been lavishly restored.  The space of the church was clear and clean, its austerity complemented by understated modern lighting.  The one exception to the simplicity of the building was to the north of the high altar, where a baroque chapel of St Ursula had been constructed.  On the east side was raised an elaborate altarpiece, more than matched by a huge tomb on the west side.


  They stood staring at the mass of sculpture climbing up to the roof.  Above the plinth was an open sarcophagus, out of which a skeletal Death was stealing, a bit like Dracula rising from his grave, tattered drapes swirling around him and a scythe in his hand.  He seemed unmistakably pissed off about something, perhaps that a robed and beautiful Osra was taking off from the top of the sarcophagus’s broken lid.  A flight of angels was bearing her up into gilded rays of sunlight and white marble clouds, out of which the Virgin Mary was reaching down to clasp her hand.


  ‘Bit overpowering that,’ Terry murmured.  ‘What does the inscription say, Will?’


  Will looked closely at the side of the sarcophagus, where he read:


ORATE pro anima Osrae filiae piissimi constantissimique Henrici regis Ruritaniensis sororis Rudolphi regis quondam ducissae Mittenheimensis et nuper abbatissae in commendam huius domus Medelnensis.  Amica pauperum et Ferdinandi regis amita.  Rex pro illa hunc tumulum aedificavit sed pauperes aeternam domum ei assecuraverunt.  AMEN.


  ‘Which means,’ he continued, ‘pray for the soul of Osra, daughter of Henry, most pious and steadfast king of Ruritania, and sister of King Rudolf; of late duchess of Mittenheim and sometime commendatory abbess of this house of Medeln.  To the poor she was a friend and to King Ferdinand she was an aunt.  The king built her a tomb, but the poor have obtained for her an eternal home.  Amen.


  ‘There’s a bit of wordplay in the middle which you can’t translate, a pun on amica (friend) and amita (aunt), but I like it; it’s elegant.’


  Oskar looked astonished, and after a moment pounded Will on the back.  ‘Well done, my Will!  You are a real scholar!  Bravo!’  The others also smiled and congratulated him.


  Matt was interested in the domestic range and whether it could be visited, so Oskar went off to find the caretaker.  Will pulled out his digital camera and began snapping pictures.  They had a good hour there, especially when Matt realised it had been Osra who rebuilt the nuns’ cloister and had her monogram and heraldry sculpted all over it.  There was also a statue of the lady herself in the cloister arcades, its extended hand curiously polished by generations of the poor who had kissed it in memory of her generosity, as Oskar explained.


  ‘That little fact is worth its weight in gold, Oskar.  You can build a whole documentary round such a simple thing,’ exclaimed Matt gratefully.  Oskar unmistakably glowed with the praise.


  They followed his advice about lunch, which they took at a country inn nestled in the hills above Terlenehem.  The meal was spicy and rich, a stew of wild boar meat with apricots that Oskar recommended.


  As they sipped the sparkling sweet wine of the district, Terry grinned and asked, ‘Come on Will, tell us how you met Oskar.  I didn’t see you pick him up in Liberation, so where did you find him?’


  Will smiled, a little embarrassed, and told them about his midnight adventure.  The others were intrigued.


  ‘I’ll certainly be able to recognise the bastard again,’ he commented.  ‘His BO was distinctive.  Do police do nasal ID parades?’


  Oskar looked bemused until they explained what they were on about.  Once he understood, he gave a small laugh.


  ‘Did you see him?’ Terry asked Oskar.


  ‘Only as a dark running figure when Tomas and I chased after him.  Then there was just poor Will looking very distraught.  I could do nothing less than go to bed with him so as to preserve the honour of my country,’ he added mischievously.


  Ramon said warmly, ‘I think there are other reasons to want to go to bed with Will, and I for one can clearly see what they are.’  Will blushed scarlet.


  Matt was looking appraisingly at Will.  ‘Tell me, when are you going back home?’


  Will’s face fell like a landslip.  He had successfully put that to the back of his mind, but a day in Oskar’s company was making the prospect of separation all the more agonising.  ‘Tomorrow,’ he replied unhappily.


  ‘But haven’t you got a long summer holiday ahead of you?’


  ‘Yup, and an empty bank balance to finance it.’


  ‘Ah.  But that shouldn’t be an obstacle to you.’


  ‘What do you mean?’


  ‘Will my lad, you’ve already been invaluable in two days as an unpaid research associate on this project.  Why not stay here at my expense and carry on after I’ve gone?  One thing I can’t do is hit the local archives and libraries and stack up references.  Marlowe Productions prides itself on the depth of its project research and, as Jeremy Faber convinced me, you could be the best in the business.’


  ‘You’re offering me a job?’


  ‘I’m offering you a job.’


  ‘Sorry Matt, but teaching kids was what I was born to do.  I’m not giving it up for anyone.’


  Matt seemed disappointed, then brightened.  ‘Fine.  But you still have the summer, and there’s no law which says you can’t pick up extra cash by a short-term contract.’


  Will grinned and looked over at an eagerly listening Oskar.  ‘Now you’re talking!  But I’ll need the proverbial native guide.  A bright and attractive local media-studies student would certainly fit the bill.’


  Matt turned to Oskar.  ‘What about it?’


  Oskar leapt up and kissed an astonished Matt full on the mouth, then fell back in his seat.  ‘Oh my God, what did I just do?’


  ‘Fulfilled my every adolescent fantasy,’ replied Will, a little sourly.