Michael Arram










  After a visit to Oskar’s bank, they spent the rest of the afternoon with Marietta in a small park, alternately throwing a Frisbee for her to catch and lying out in the sun working on Will’s vocabulary.  Finally Oskar sent him across the road to buy cokes from a kiosk, making him swear before he went that he would speak only Rothenian.


  A grinning Will came back with the two cold bottles and a sense of achievement.  He had even stumbled through some remarks on the weather with the vendor and asked if business was good that afternoon.  The vendor was charmed to be talked to by a foreigner in his native language.  Although his replies were a bit too fast, Will got enough of what he had said to feel pleased with himself and grateful for Oskar’s devoted teaching.


  During their walk back to Oskar’s apartment, Will began determinedly using Rothenian phrases without recourse to English.


  In the evening they met up at the same student bar with Tomas Weiss and the others.  This time Will was included in the high fives and embraces: ‘Friend Willemju!’  He stunned them by the facility of his Rothenian greetings and repartee, even though it soon broke down when they replied in kind.


  ‘Good accent, Will!’ remarked Tomas, who he sensed was already a firm friend.  ‘A little rural, however … sounds like Husbrau!’  The others erupted and Oskar made a gesture with his middle finger that Will did not need a dictionary to translate.


  The young men kept to English for most of the conversation, but, aware of Will’s ambitions, slipped in routine phrases they thought he should know, pausing to make sure he registered them.  The beer helped a bit.


  They moved on to a picturesque café next to the Rectory of the University, full of young men and women enjoying a late meal.  They took their own sitting out on the pavement, watching the stars open in the deep blue of the late evening sky.  It had been another glorious Strelzen day.


  The following morning Will awoke in Oskar’s arms, to gaze into blue eyes already open and smiling in his face.  ‘Dobre morhen, men leblen,’ Will said in soft Rothenian, as he hugged his lover hard.


  The smile widened.  ‘Cje morhen cj’es den bibliotek, men mihlajec!’ Oskar replied.  They stayed in his native tongue all through breakfast, keeping the phrases simple.  He even used Rothenian to explain Will’s mistakes.


  Lingering over a final cup of coffee, Oskar flipped his mobile to set up entry to the National Library and an interview with an archivist.


  They then did their two hours at the gym.  Showering afterwards, Will was pleased to notice a definite improvement in the muscle tone of his belly.


  The library, just off the Parlementplaz, had been built by public subscription during the national revival period.  The façade deliberately copied that of the British Museum, although the statuary and themes were all Rothenian.  Every detail was meant to impress, and Will was duly affected.


  Oskar and he found the young female archivist waiting in the pillared entrance hall, where introductions were made.  As she was more comfortable in Rothenian, Oskar took the lead in explaining what they were looking for.  Once she had a clear understanding of their objectives, she showed them to the special-collections room and suggested a range of titles and periodicals.  Will paid a large fee so he could use his camera to take images from books.  He had bought a stack of memory cards with this in mind.


  They spent the rest of the day working through the illustrated national newspapers from the 1850s and early 1860s, absorbing the high politics of Rudolf V’s reign.  It was a challenge to disentangle the turbulent aristocratic factions of the time, in which a certain count of Hentzen featured as a radical and incendiary.  The murder of the king’s half-brother, Mikhel, in 1854, just after Rudolf’s coronation, sent the papers wild with conspiracy theories related to the king’s sudden and dangerous illness.


  Oskar translated with rapidity and facility.  Their notes stacked up and the memory cards filled with plates of state ceremonies and portraits.


  ‘Look,’ cried Will abruptly, ‘the count of Tarlenheim!’


  ‘What!’ Oskar replied, dropping his pencil, startled.  He scrabbled under the table to get it, coming up red-faced.


  ‘Sorry, Oskar.  Didn’t mean to give you a heart attack, but it’s Franz of Tarlenheim.  I’ve met him before at the cathedral and in the royal palace.  Our paths keep crossing.  It’s weird.’


  ‘Yes, I’ve come across him,’ Oskar replied.  ‘He also was from Husbrau.’


  ‘Of course, your sister lives in Terlenehem, doesn’t she?  So you must know something about the family.’


  ‘Something, yes,’ Oskar replied slowly.  ‘Franz zu Terlenehem is still remembered as a kind and good man, a devoted servant of the Elphbergs.  He was also famous for supporting the national movement at the end of the century.  He built Rothenian schools across Husbrau.  I was educated in one.’


  ‘Is there a château in Terlenehem?’


  ‘There was one, but the government demolished it under Horvath.  A pity, it was beautiful.  I have seen pictures.’


  ‘Does the family survive?’


  Oskar shrugged.  ‘I don’t know much about that.’


  ‘That's too bad.  I’d like to make a list of surviving aristocratic families.  Matt might find them useful as talking heads.’


  ‘Talking heads?’


  ‘Interviewees, witnesses.  Also they might have pictures and stuff.  How many of the aristocracy still have their old properties?’


  Oskar shrugged again.  ‘I’ve heard that quite a few of them have had restitutions made since 1990.  There are court cases in the papers from time to time.  But there is no state aid for these law suits, so it is only the aristocrats with money or friends who can pursue them.  There are some big claims that could be made against the government, which is therefore in no hurry to help cut its own throat.’


  ‘Okay, we’ll put that on hold as an idea, but I think it’s a good one.  We’ll get a list of present aristocrats for Matt before we finish.’


  They spent their time very productively, although Will felt oddly restive.  Normally he sank happily into a library environment, working methodically and patiently.  That day he found it difficult at times to sit still, unless his mind was fully engaged.  Also he seemed to have lost his former ability to concentrate exclusively on what was in front of him.  A man tapping a pencil further down the table kept annoying and distracting him, and he was in a fair way to going over and telling the guy where to put the pencil, if only his Rothenian had been up to it.


  For a while, Oskar’s presence was a counter-distraction, although in this case only because Will had developed an urgent need to copulate with him.  ‘I need the toilet,’ he whispered at last.


  Oskar smiled and pointed to the sign.


  ‘No,’ Will objected, ‘I need to go to the toilet with you.’


  Oskar grinned.  ‘Rostac!  You rascal,’ he whispered in Rothenian.  ‘Okay, but not too long.’


  They disappeared into the library’s loos, Victorian and old fashioned, with conveniently solid cubicles.  Will dragged Oskar into the nearest one and swarmed out of his clothes.  ‘Fuck my ass,’ he demanded in Rothenian.


  ‘Whoa, sexy boy,’ Oskar replied in kind.  ‘No preventives.’


  Will’s sudden recklessness cared nothing for that.  ‘Think I mind?  If you’ve got it, I want it too.’


  Oskar looked troubled as he held his naked lover.  ‘Will, I think I am clean, but I cannot be sure.  Despite the regular testing Hendrik insists on, it has been a while for me.  I have swallowed a lot of semen since the last time.  I should not risk it.’


  ‘Please, Oskar, I need it bad.  Please.’


  Oskar buckled under the pressure of his own lust, signs of which were very visible.  ‘Look Willemju!  Far be it from me to be the sensible one, but let’s just do oral, yes?  We shouldn’t risk it.’


  Will grunted, torn between lust and what was possible.  ‘Okay, but naked!’ he insisted.


  Oskar was soon undressed and kneeling in front of Will.  He did his best to make the blowjob last, but Will was too excited and, unable to stop thrusting into Oskar’s mouth, came all too fast across his lower face.


  Okar smiled ruefully up at Will.  ‘Next time you get carried away by lust, make sure you have a rubber in your wallet, my Willemju.’




* * *




  After the library closed, Oskar declared with some regret in his voice that it was time to go to the market.  A short walk took them through a shabby residential area at the back of Lindenstrasse to a square dominated by a tall church, where market stalls were still set up and returning workers were doing their last-minute shopping.  Oskar led Will through the narrow alleys between the stalls, selecting items and exchanging comments with the tradespeople.  For once his confidence seemed to have left him.


  They filled two bags with vegetables, fruit, rye bread, milk and meat, then hopped a tram back to Lindenstrasse 122, Apt 6.  Oskar dumped things in his kitchen and filled his small fridge.


  ‘So, what are you planning?’ asked Will.


  Oskar shrugged.  ‘Umm, I have a very limited repertoire as far as cooking is concerned.  We eat out a lot here in Strelzen and, to be perfectly honest, we Rothenians are sexists in the kitchen.  It is women’s work.’


  Will was becoming amused.  He could sense the growing embarrassment in Oskar’s voice. ‘You can’t cook, can you?’


  ‘Er, no.  How about a pizza?  Tin of soup?’


  ‘No.  That’s your usual repertoire, isn’t it?’


  ‘Maybe.’  Oskar looked a little nettled.  ‘Well then, I have got some meat.  If you heat it up it gets more digestible, or so I’ve heard.’


  ‘You want me to do this, don’t you?’


  Oskar finally laughed.  ‘You are a liberated Western boy.  You know these things.’


  ‘You’re wet.  Okay, let me through.  I can do a fair fry-up.  You bought some steak, or that’s what it looked like to me.  You’ve got spuds?’




  ‘Potatoes.  Steak and fries is a definite possibility.  Oh yes!  And fried onion rings with beef tomatoes.’


  ‘I love you.’




  ‘Is that good?  No, I see in your eyes, my Willemju, that wimp is not good.’


  Will cooked and didn’t mind it in the least.  For the first time in their relationship, he had discovered one area in which he had an edge over Oskar.  It changed the balance between them slightly, making Will feel more like a partner than a guest.


  Oskar praised his cooking extravagantly, rather more than it deserved.  The red wine helped a lot too, a fine Tavelner from Husbrau.  Will shopped the next day and Oskar was endlessly grateful and amazed at his culinary originality.  In fact, Will had learned only five stock dishes which had got him through university without malnutrition, but he had at least got good at them.


  ‘Life is looking up,’ Oskar said with satisfaction on Thursday, leaning back in his chair.  They had just finished off Will’s pièce de résistance, his generally admired chicken tikka masala.  He had found an Asian grocery shop in a back street behind Modenheimstrasse.


  Oskar added hopefully, ‘What about the egg and chips tomorrow?  Possible, you think?’




* * *




  Thus the week passed happily and productively.  Early morning in the gym was followed by research in the library.  With the pair working devotedly, the notes and ideas stacked up amazingly.  They had filled two thick files and several memory cards by Friday.  In the evenings they rutted passionately and continuously, but Oskar sternly forbade any form of unprotected sex.  He booked in the next week at Hendrik’s usual clinic, just to be sure.


  On Friday afternoon, Will sat up in his seat and stretched.  ‘What’ll we do this weekend, lover?’  He could now say it in Rothenian, and the language was beginning to take over as their normal means of communication, especially during sex.  His progress in the language was phenomenal, but not perhaps surprising considering that he was totally submerged in a Rothenian world.  He had had his first dream in Rothenian that morning, as he proudly told Oskar.  His ability to read Rothenian was coming on as fast as his ability to speak it.


  ‘Husbrau, I think,’ Oskar said with a broad smile.  ‘It’s time you met the family.’


  ‘Really!  Wow!  Helge and Fritz.  Have you told them about you and me?’


  ‘I told Helge.  She knows I’m gay, but she doesn’t know about the sex work, so don’t spill it to her.’


  Will paused, and took the plunge.  ‘Can I say something to you, Oskar?’


  ‘What, my Will?’


  ‘It is just that I love you … I have not said it so far, and you haven’t said it to me.  I love you the way I’ve never loved anyone in my life, and I can’t bear the thought that we will part.’


  Oskar’s eyes filled with tears, which was not unusual for him.  He wiped them away.  ‘I know you love me Will, but how do you think a whore like me could ever tell a man like you that he loved him?’


  ‘You’re no whore.’


  Oskar looked at him sadly.  ‘But I am.  My kind of people aren’t safe.  You know enough of my story to realise that deep down I am just a selfish fuck.  Still, for what it’s worth – which isn’t saying much – you have this whore’s heart.’


  ‘Then that’s enough for me.’


  ‘It won’t be one day, my love.’


  That brief exchange dominated Will’s mind for the rest of the evening, as they lay together on the bed in Oskar’s apartment, reading and listening to Radio Rothenia’s rather good Classical channel.  Marietta was dozing between them.  Oskar had no television, claiming that Rothenian TV would induce suicide if you watched it too long, and he couldn’t afford cable or satellite.


  ‘I thought Hendrik paid you well.  You surely could get a bigger apartment.’


  ‘What’s wrong with my little love nest?  It’s centrally placed and very convenient for King Henry.’




  ‘I have … expenses, Will.  What I earn mostly goes elsewhere.’  He didn’t elaborate, but then Will, remembering the sister and brother in Terlenehem, felt like a fool.


  Later they slowly stripped and explored each other's body.  As he stroked and kissed Will’s chest, Oskar paused and glanced up.  ‘Josep seems to have done a good job.’


  Will looked down and to his surprise discovered that new ridges of muscle had appeared on his abdomen.  His groin too had slimmed and firmed under his pubic hair.  ‘Christ, I’ve got a six-pack!’


  ‘A what?’


  Will explained the term, though he found it surprisingly difficult.  Making him turn over, Oskar felt and stroked his buttocks.  ‘You’re tighter and nicer back here too, lover.  This just goes to show what I said, about how pretty you are.’




* * *




  Oskar insisted they do their two hours at the gym on Saturday, even though they were travelling later.  Josep looked in and swatted Will on the buttocks, seeming satisfied at his progress.  The trainer was startled when Will told him in Rothenian to mind where he put his hands.  Then he smiled.  ‘I’ll have to be careful what I say around you, my boy.’  He winked across at Oskar, who appeared disconcerted.


  After gym, Tomas arrived at the apartment.  Once they’d all shaken hands in the serious Rothenian way, Oskar handed Marietta over to him.  Not at all fooled that Tomas was taking her for a walk, she gazed accusingly at Oskar and Will and slunk off with her tail down.


  ‘She’ll be alright.  She is a possessive woman, and she’s getting possessive of you too, my lover.’


  They took the tram through the tourist-filled streets south to the Westbahnhof, Strelzen’s Victorian gateway to Husbrau.  The space inside, which had seen little in the way of renovation, looked very much as it had when the Orient Express was still running through Strelzen.  Will confidently bought the tickets to Terlenehem.  Oskar slapped him on the back.  ‘You might have been Rothenian, and the lady at the counter quite fancied you.’


  They embarked on the shabby local train that rattled slowly north from the capital to Modenehem.  It dipped into a tunnel that emerged beyond Bila Palacz on to a viaduct over the Starel as it looped north around the city.  The view back down the river valley to the cathedral was sensational.


  They made themselves as comfortable as they could on the bare wooden seats, Oskar sitting on a folded British hoodie he luckily had with him.  Will pulled his maps out and eagerly watched suburban Strelzen gradually give way to the countryside, where they made stop after shuddering, squealing stop in sleepy country stations.  Oskar cuddled into his shoulder and dozed off.  Will got quite heady with his lover’s fragrance.  He made a note to find out what it was so he could buy some.


  They were entering a delicious wooded valley nestled amid rounded hills when Oskar jerked awake.  He stretched.  ‘Almost there,’ he announced.  ‘Look!  You can see the abbey of Medeln again, where we went with Matt and the others.  Wasn’t it a great day?’


  A quarter of an hour later, the train lurched to a halt at the Terlenehem station, a beautiful Victorian structure festooned with hanging baskets of red geraniums.  They climbed down to the platform, empty except for a bored-looking porter.  Oskar shouldered his bag and led Will out on to a country road.


  ‘The town – more of a village really – is down there, but our house is this way.’


  ‘Can we look at the town?’ Will asked.


  ‘Maybe later if we have time.  Helge will drag us to church tomorrow, you can bet.  We will look at it then.  Oh!  Do you go to church in England?’


  ‘Yes, I sing in the local church choir.  But we’re Anglican.’


  ‘Excuse me?  I don’t have much to do with churches except when Helge’s on my case.’


  ‘The Church of England is the national church there; it’s Protestant though.’


  ‘Oh dear, don’t tell Helge.  She’s not fond of Protestants.  You sing in a choir?  That’s interesting.  Sing something for me.’


  ‘Er, just like that?’


  ‘Rothenians love singing, we do it all the time.’


  ‘You don’t.’


  ‘I’m a Rothenian mutant, a national disgrace.  Completely tone deaf.  People pay me not to sing.’


  Will burst into laughter.  Then, in the fullness of his heart, he did what he normally never would except when he was walking the fields alone back home.  Loud and clear he sang out a sweet old English country song: Over the Hills and Far Away.  The trees and fields seemed to listen.  His rich voice, not flattened by the open air, soared out in perfect pitch and time.  Oskar tugged him to a halt and waited till he finished.  ‘I could never have guessed.  Willemju, you are wonderful.  Your beauty is not just physical.’


  They walked along the empty lane, hand in hand, their bags slung over their shoulders, regretfully relinquishing their hold on each other only when a number of small houses appeared.  Oskar led him through the gate of an old one-storey wooden cottage, the garden full of flowers, and up some steps to a veranda.  A neat woodpile was stacked on one side, ready for winter.  Oskar opened the screen door and called out, ‘Helge!  Fritzku!  It’s me!’


  A woman answered from the dark interior, there was a clatter of pots and she appeared out of a back kitchen, wiping her hands on a long apron.  Brother and sister embraced.  Helge was as tall and blond as her brother, but looked a lot less merry, perhaps not surprisingly.


  After a long hug, Oskar introduced Will.  She gave him a straight, cool look as they shook hands.  It was clear she knew Oskar and he were lovers and did not approve.  She said she’d bring in some local fruit wine.


  ‘You sleep with me,’ Oskar said in English, and took their overnight bags into a side room, where there was a double bed draped with an elegant rural counterpane.  Will looked round at the religious pictures on the walls and a statue of the Sacred Heart on a side table between candles.  No sex in here, then, he thought.  A portrait group was framed above the bed: Helge and Oskar as adolescents, their parents tall and distinguished-looking.  The father looked a great deal like Oskar.  The mother held a small boy in her arms: Fritz.


  Oskar noted his gaze.  ‘Yes, that’s us before they died; this was their room.  Helge’s not happy we’re sleeping in here together, but she must get used to it.’




  Oskar coloured and mumbled that it might happen again.


  Will let him off the hook and asked, ‘Where’s Fritz?’


  ‘Playing with some friends down the road, I’d guess.’


  ‘Er … Oskar, isn’t he going to find it odd that you’re in bed with another man?’


  Oskar laughed.  ‘No.  Rothenian kids often share beds … it’s one reason I knew I was gay so young.  He won’t find it odd.  Let’s go get that wine.’


  Helge sat them down in chairs ranged next to a big porcelain stove.  She had the bottle and glasses on a small table between them.  In hesitant English, she welcomed Will to her house, and in confident Rothenian he thanked her and said he was grateful for her kindness.


  With a small smile, her first, which made her look very like Oskar, she shifted to her native tongue.  ‘It’s very unexpected to find an Anglo-Saxon speaking our language.  A great pleasure too.  Tell me something about yourself.’


  Will launched into an account of his life, Oskar chipping in with necessary words and correcting phrases he got wrong.  After a few minutes, Helge was plainly relaxing, and Will saw the relief in Oskar’s eyes.  Soon they were chatting almost normally, a transition much helped when it became clear that Helge too was a school teacher who shared with Will a passion for their profession.


  They spent a long time comparing conditions of service.  She was astounded by Will’s annual salary when he translated it into krone and could not understand why he was so broke.  The conversation moved on to the costs of higher education in Britain, then to Helge’s opinion of Oskar’s lackadaisical approach to completing his degree.


  After half an hour they were a relaxed and happy group.  The wine helped.  There was a certain familiarity about its bouquet that lingered on Will’s tongue.  Finally realising that it was the same as Oskar’s fragrance, he asked about it.  After casting around a bit for words, he finally worked out that the wine was based on blackberries.


  ‘And the fragrance you buy, Oskar?  Is that blackberry too?’


  ‘Oh you have noticed, have you?  You like it?’


  ‘I want to buy it for myself, and it would be a great present for my mother.’


  ‘You can’t buy it,’ he said.


  ‘Why not?’ Will asked, surprised.


  ‘It’s only made here in this part of Husbrau.  It’s called Medelnerattar by the Germans and Struhinvhytazheh by Rothenian Slavs.  Only one or two elderly people now know the secret, passed down from the old days of the abbey.  Helge learned how to prepare it.’


  ‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘it’s a difficult thing to do.  It takes a long time to distil and often it goes wrong.  But I always have a phial or two for Oskar, he loves it.’  She got up and came back with a small bottle which she gave to Will.  ‘Receive this as a gift, Willem.’


  Will heard the formality in her voice that warned him not to protest at the generosity.  Something inspired him to stand and offer his hand.  She stood and took it, then he embraced her.  She hugged him lightly.  Oskar was standing at his shoulder when they separated, and there were tears on his cheeks.  He took his sister in his arms and kissed her.


  After they sat down again, Oskar recovered his composure and grinned.  ‘See?  I told you you’d like him.’


  A little nettled, she glared at her brother.  Then she smiled gloriously at Will.  ‘My brother is an idiot, but there’s nothing wrong with his heart.’  Neither she nor Will saw the sudden dead look that came over Oskar’s face.


  A bang and a clatter announced the arrival of Fritz, a handsome blond lad, very tanned, and sweating from running.  He jumped on Oskar and hugged him tightly.  Then, noticing Will, he became all Rothenian and formal, offering to shake Will’s hand.  Will stood and obliged, touched at the ritual ‘Welcome to my house’ pronounced in Rothenian.  He replied formally in the same language.


  Then Fritz grinned.  ‘Oh, you are American!’


  ‘No, English.’


  ‘Do you know David Beckham?’


  ‘Afraid not,’ said Will seriously, ‘but I saw him play against Wales at the Millennium Stadium last year.’


  ‘Wow!  Hey!  You speak Rothenian like a Husbrauener!’


  ‘I had a good teacher.’


  Oskar smiled at the interchange.  ‘Fritzku, why don’t you go and show Will round the place, while Helge and I get on with business.’


  Will looked surprised.  Oskar had mentioned no business purpose in the weekend.


  ‘Okay.  Come on, Englishman,’ Fritz said in English.  ‘I will give you the tour.’


  ‘Hey,’ replied Will in Rothenian, ‘you speak English like a Husbrauener.’


  The kid doubled up.  ‘You’re cool!’


  ‘He’s a teacher, and in England they beat naughty boys,’ said Helge.  ‘Behave yourself.’


  Fritz took Will’s hand in the Rothenian way and led him out into the garden and on to the road, chattering away in very passable English.