The Heart of Oskar Prinz

V

By Michael Arram

'Look, I'm sorry, OK. 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. There had been a disaster in Prague. Harry was driving and while he was driving he was also finally learning that Will was not quite the submissive and biddable bottom boy that his blithe self-assurance had assumed. He had just been subjected to the most comprehensive tongue-lashing he had ever had in his 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 had no experience of gay night life. But he went in holding Harry's hand, both literally and morally, and trusting his lover to get him through it. It had been a very bad choice for a first outing. It was the night when 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 and reluctantly handing it over to the security men, 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 he looked, he was alone. Will had frozen with panic, a panic made worse when a big German came up and started making stilted conversation and incomprehensible suggestions as to where they might go together. He 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 as he glimpsed Harry emerging from a dark side door in a clinch with one of the guys he had been chatting to earlier. Their eyes met, and Harry countered his 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 said 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 here. 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. 'I'll see you in the morning, arsehole. Don't wake me up when you come in.' That was it. He was out of there. Harry did not follow him and he had no idea when he came in, because Will had slept on the sofa in their hotel double room. He had had to pay a huge amount of money to get a taxi back.

He had said barely a word when they had packed the car and left Prague. Twenty miles south of the city he began, and the torrent of bitter words startled Harry. When had Harry come to the conclusion that he was a piece of meat to be handed round casually? Why didn't he check with Will as to whether he was happy to shared around? Could it perhaps have occurred to him that Will had ideas about faithfulness and promiscuity that didn't coincide with his? He had been exploited and betrayed and he was very bitter about it. They would never have unprotected sex again.

Harry had 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 Harry, and by then 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. Now at last he broke through the romantic clouds that had obscured his mind and 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 a man 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 made 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 Modnehem, or Modenheim as the bilingual roadsigns also insisted. That, with the green wooded hills, meant that entering Rothenia really was like leaving England for Wales. They stopped at Modnehem and found a nice little inn on the sun-bathed cathedral square. It was lined with a mass of tall brick gables and geranium-filled window boxes, with the twin towers of the cathedral at one end, and the massive, medieval brick Radhaus facing it. Café seats and umbrellas lined the north side, and they sat out to have lunch. Harry was relieved at Will's relenting, and 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 Rothenia, and it was a country of superb natural and architectural beauty. The people too were remarkably handsome. He had tried out a few words of Rothenian on their young waiter and had been floored by the glowing smile that greeted his inept attempt at the boy's language.

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

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

They checked into their modern and expensive hotel in Strelsen's Nuevemesten, or New City, in the evening, after a drive through what was Wonderland as far as Will had been concerned. Rothenia had it all: deep forests; white castles on hills; broad, brown rivers winding down to the Danube basin; pretty villages and beautiful towns. Everything looked clean and prosperous. Harry observed that it was not all like that. South of the capital was the industrial heartland of Zenden, and they could see some evidence of pollution in the air as they crested the last hill of the autoroute and saw the red-roofed panorama of Strelzen spread out below them: the dark cathedral spires looming above the hills opposite, with the tangled maze of the Old City winding upwards to the great church.

Will leaned out of their hotel window and looked down at the Flavienplaz below. The great cobbled square was a hub of the tram network, and was full of clanging, red-painted cars, rumbling and shrieking over the points. It 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, and then relaxed. Harry was after reassurance, and he was not going to be unkind. He turned and kissed him back.

Harry broke off, 'I really am sorry, y'know.'

Will smiled, 'I know. You were just being Harry, and I can't blame you for that.'

'Friends?'

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

Harry looked momentarily sad, achingly so, but then he smiled again, 'Is sex out of the question?' Will kissed him again, and then kissed him more deeply. They fell on the bed, and 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 him to the verge of ejaculation time and again, and eventually letting loose 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 his semen, and wiped his hand on tissues. Harry noticed.

They wandered out into the darkening summer streets, the air cooling off and the stars brightening in the sky. They walked down the broad and leafy Mikhelstrasse which connects Flavienplaz to Rodolferplaz. All the major fashion chains had classy shops 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 and the outside tables were full under big umbrellas advertising Czech beers.

Harry and Will finally came out on the south side of Rodolferplaz, a vast and impressive space, lined on three sides by big and distinguished stone buildings of five or six storeys. The southern half was populated by café restaurants, with their tables spreading across the road under the lines of shady lime trees. In the distance they saw the towering bulk of King Henry's statue and the grand façade of the palace, behind its tall black railings. They found a small bar just inside the Rodolferplaz's south end, opposite the statue of President Tildemann, in his wing collar and pince-nez. They sat outside watching the beautiful young people and foreign families pass by under the trees. Pigeons strutted everywhere. The façade of the palace opposite was floodlit and all the trees were liberally strung with lights.

'What are you going to do tomorrow?' Harry asked, and Will noticed the significant exclusion of himself from the equation. Harry did not like cultural tourism and had kicked against it in Prague. Now he was not playing at all. But Will didn't mind.

'The cathedral, definitely. Probably the army museum. 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, it was a hot morning already, and it was only nine fifteen. He was trudging the straight line of the Domstrasse towards the Staramesten, the Old City, with the cathedral looming above him, but 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, he had passed through the the commercial district and the street was now lined with handsome private houses with shuttered windows, some of the upper ones with duvets hanging out, in the continental manner.

Eventually the road began to narrow and fall gently towards the river. It crossed a wide bridge, turned and climbed, and, surprisingly quickly, Will was high above the New City, which he could glimpse across the river between the picturesque half-timbered medieval houses clustered under the mighty cathedral. The road began to be lined with gift shops, already open for business. It abruptly deposited him on a small plateau of a cobbled square facing the cathedral's west front. It reminded Will a little of his favourite British cathedral at Durham. On his left was the Erbischoffpalaz, 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 guide book 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 flags. Before Will had crossed the square, the worshippers, mostly short women in black, were beginning to emerge and the tourists to take their place. Will checked the battery of his big digital camera, his most expensive possession, which 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 and the glass was all medieval and jewel-like. But it was the tombs which always 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 was the coronation church and mausoleum of the rulers of Ruritania, and was an expression in stone of their power and self image. Just what he needed.

Duke Tassilo was laid out – allegedly – before the high altar, a thirteenth-century effigy topping his original plain slab. But all along the northern and southern choir aisles were the Elphberg ducal and royal tombs. He paused at the tomb of King Rudolf V and Flavia, as they lay there in marble, their hands clasped. A fresh red rose was placed daily on the tomb to mark the continuing veneration of the people of Strelzen for the last of their greatest royal dynasty. He was backing away to get the right angle for a shot when a crowd of passing Italians sent him off balance and he felt the crunch of someone's foot under his heel.

'Ouch, fuckin' hell,' said a voice in his ear, in a very familiar South Midlands accent, the distinctive accent indeed of the small university city in which Will had studied for his degree and his PGCE.

Will spun around apologising. 'God, I'm really so sorry.' Two young men stood behind him, a fit-looking blond clasping his foot in his hand and an amused, darkly handsome boy bracing him by his shoulder. Both were very well-dressed, and, he guessed on that evidence, rather wealthy. 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 smiled very nicely. Somehow, Will realised that he too had been recognised for what he was. The man guffawed 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 again, his merriment echoing back from the Gothic vaults. Finkle Road was the student area of his native city. Will smiled in explanation, 'I inhabited No. 66 for three years.'

'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,' said 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, so the same thing brought me here.'

Ramon looked at him with interest and gave him a sunny smile, 'That's a job I really fancy when I graduate. Look, Will, do you want a drink after you've finished here? I'd like to talk.'

'Love to. How about I see you at the west door at ten thirty, I should have seen what I need to see by then.'

'Cool.' The attractive pair walked off with a parting smile. Somehow, Will realised that 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 an elaborate bronze wall tablet. The light was poor, but he saw the beautifully engraved busts of a male and female facing each other. Underneath was an elaborate encomium, it was in Latin but that was not a problem for Will. Latin was one language he had successfully mastered at his private school. Thank God it wasn't in Rothenian.

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

He translated. 'Here lies the noble Francis count of Tarlenheim and prince of the Empire with his devoted wife Helga, each equal to the other 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.'

Hmm. Interesting, but what was it that had made him notice the tablet? He looked closer at the portrait of the count, and there was something oddly familiar about the handsome whiskered profile, but for the life of him, he couldn't see what it was. But he took an image of it anyway.

He moved on to the other Rudolfs and Henrys, and then 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 and greeting Terry and Ramon at the west door. They found a small café already open, ordered Oranginas and sat outside under an umbrella.

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

'What?' Terry said, 'You never went in the King's Cross? I worked the bar there for two years. We might have met.'

'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 the manager Frank has a wicked way with his tongue.'

'Aren't you supposed to say, "but he has a heart of gold" at this point.'

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

Will laughed at the comical expression on Terry's face. 'What took you to America to study, Terry?' he asked, curious.

'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, and I still am actually in that job, but I combine it with study at JAC. It's a complicated thing to explain.'

'What sort of job is it?' Will was intrigued.

'Security. I work part time for Peacher Corp.'

Now Will was really intrigued. 'Peacher Corp, 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 multi-task 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. 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.'

'The great Matt White, the beautiful, the pin up. You 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 to see. He's a genuinely good man, 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 gave 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 non stop excitement. Nothing wrong with that but, course, we get older and some don't slow down. Whatever Ramon says, I was always looking for something more stable, and I was lucky to find him. Tell you what, why not both come out with us tonight? I'll give you me assessment of your guy, if he'll come, and we can look after you in the big gay club on Rodolferplaz, Liberation. 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 Harry no problem and I'd be in his pants in ten minutes.'

'Yeah, but I am here and don't forget it.' Ramon looked a little pensive and doubtful. 'Do you think you should have 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.'

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