The Heart of Oskar Prinz

XIII

By Michael Arram

First thing on Tuesday morning, Oskar made a call to the clinic. Will, lying back in bed stroking Marietta, saw him go tense. His heart lurched, and he was not reassured by Oskar's look when he turned around.

'So now the athlete's foot makes sense,' he swore. 'Will, how does your glans feel?'

'OK, well a bit reddish and sore round the rim, and my foreskin's a little puffy, but no problem. Just too much sex I guess.'

'Will, I have what we call in Rothenian "vyrfebr". I do not know what it is in English, but I seem to have given it to you. It is very infectious and irritating, but I suppose things could be a lot worse. We have to go and pick up medication. No sex for three days.'

'Sounds like what we call thrush,' Will said. 'Oh shit,'

'My thoughts exactly. But after this week, you and I will never have protected sex with each other again. I am yours alone, my Will.'

'Oh! Every cloud...'

'Pardon me?'

'Just an English saying.'

They took in the clinic on their way to the station, and applied the medication to each other in the toilet, before heading onwards.

The train was a lot smarter and faster than the rickety old one that had taken them to Terlenehem. Will looked across the table at Oskar as he sat reading a paper. Unusually for him, he had dressed formally, with slacks, an open dress shirt and light sports jacket. Oskar generally liked long shorts, jeans or cut off trousers, with all sorts of baggy shirts and sweat tops. He had not even compromised with his informality at the National Library. But now he did look like a young aristocrat. Will realised that this was not accidental, Oskar was up to something.

Modnehem was as pretty as he remembered, and the geraniums were still blooming in the window boxes on the square. The gallery was at the back of the Radhaus, under the sign 'Husbrauener Regional Art Gallery.' A number of foreign tourists were around the doors, and a big party of French children with a teacher.

They asked at the modern desk for the curator, a young woman in glasses who emerged promptly. She went straight up to Oskar, 'My dear count,' she said with what Will thought was a genuine smile, 'it's always a great pleasure to see you here.' She means it, Will concluded.

'Thank you, Marie. I did not think you would be that pleased to see me.'

'I have the greatest respect for you and your family, sir, you know that.'

'Hmm. Even though I'm trying to put you out of a job?'

'Hardly sir; it will be a blow, if it happens, but our collections are more extensive than you seem to think. Besides,' she twinkled, 'There is always the possibility of long-term loans.'

'I am glad, Marie. You know there is nothing personal in this.'

'Of course.'

'Can I introduce an historian friend from England, Mr William Vincent. Will, Dr Marie Esterhazy.'

'A pleasure,' she said in English.

'Enchanted,' Will said in Rothenian. She smiled and relaxed, as Rothenians always did when met by a Rothenian-speaking foreigner.

'How can I help?' she said, and Will explained the project. She became quite excited. She led them into the grand exhibition room indicating that this would be where they would find the principal items, although there was a stack, and a big collection of plates and woodcuts that she would show them after they had browsed.

What they had to browse was a phenomenal collection of Rothenian court paintings, from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. They were dazzling and Will wandered around open-mouthed, Oskar tailing moodily after him. 'This is a gold mine!' he enthused.

'You think?' said Oskar grumpily.

'What's up, Oskar?'

'Have you looked at the frame of that one?' he replied.

Will craned forward to the nearest one, a superb depiction of Henry the Lion in chasseur green hunting the stag in the forest of Zenda. The rich and heavy gilded frame was a mass of scrolls and vines, but at top and bottom he recognised without any difficulty the arms of Tarlenheim. 'Ah,' he said, after a moment's reflection, 'all is now clear.'

'The core of this collection is the contents of the Castle of Tarlenheim's former galleries. I want them back.' Oskar looked ferocious at that point, a new expression on his face for Will. 'The local commisar stripped the house of pictures and furniture before the Russians blew it up. The bastard left our family archives inside it, though. So all our records and titles went up with the rest of it.

'Why won't the government let you have them?'

'Its lawyers know that I'm finding it hard to gather the documentation to reconstruct what was actually there. With this one, the frame's the giveaway, unfortunately, most of them were re-framed by the government under communism. There are no catalogue marks on the backs, and indeed, there is no surviving catalogue at all. They're trying to fob me off with some token restitutions, but I won't have it.' He pounded his right fist in his left hand, and for a moment looked every inch the prince he was.

'Marie's not a bad person, although she's paid by the government. Between you and me, she has slipped me one or two references that have helped me along a lot. But it's a very involved and expensive process, especially as I have other irons in the fire.'

'Like?'

'Like the Fursterberh and Terlenehem estates. They could easily give me them back. Fursterberh is state land at the moment and although Terlenehem was nationalised and redistributed, I'd settle for just the forest, the mineral rights and the site of the old castle. The local people know this, and they support me a hundred per cent. They've known me since I was a baby, and they loved father and mother. There's even been demonstrations outside the mairie.'

'How long have you been fighting this case?'

'Father began it eight years ago, and he covered a lot of ground. But we had no money or friends with money, and it moved painfully slowly, using cheap local advocates, all of whom were useless. Then father and mother were killed, and I went off the rails. You know the government refused to release me from national service as a way of squashing our most promising court case? I could not legally take the government to court as a serving soldier, and it all has to be done through me.'

'Bastards!'

'But Helge carried on, God bless her, and now maybe you can guess a little more how I fell into Hendrik's world.'

'Oh!' exclaimed Will, 'the money!' And he was stunned at what that revealed about Oskar.

'Yes, the money: it's the only way a penniless Rothenian boy like me could have raised that sort of money, and it has made quite a difference. We now have a Strelsener lawyer and he's the best, although he's greedy. Matthew White's money has moved things on too, and I'm on the very edge now of the final push. The case goes to the Supreme Court in a month's time, and the government advocates have run out of ways to block it.'

'This is great!' Will cried, then he noticed Oskar's expression, 'But that's not the whole story is it?' Oskar shook his head unhappily. 'But, my God, the things you have done to fight the case, given up your body and...'

'... my soul, perhaps you were going to say?'

'No my Oskar. I know you too well, but I was going to say honour.'

'Yes, well, honour among princes is a very negotiable quantity, and for my family there are even worse things I would do to recover what is ours,' and he looked at Will in a very uncomfortable way.

They continued to browse the canvases. 'Look,' Will enthused, 'It's Count Fritz! And that must be his Helga and their children... doesn't the older boy look like our Fritzku!'

'The boy became Count Rudolf, named after Mr Rassendyll, I suspect, not after Rudolf V as people assume.'

'There's a real resemblance between you and Count Fritz, although his facial hair conceals it a little.'

'Father said so too. He also said it was a sign.'

'How?'

'He always thought that it would be me, not him, who restored the family fortune.'

'Why?'

'There is a strain of tragedy in every great family, you know. We had more than our fair share of it in the last century. I think father had an idea that the new century would be ours, but he only saw the first year of it. It's just Rothenian romanticism, my Will. Don't take it too seriously.'

The day passed. Marie sent out for lunch and gave her free time up to guide them through her enormous collection of political prints. She did not mind Will copying as many as he liked, by xerox or digital image. She also found him a box of slides of the paintings in which he was most interested. She wanted no fee, but Will made a mental note that Matthew White would be making a handsome donation to her gallery. It was a very enjoyable day, and even Oskar's moodiness could not stand against it. They bought her dinner after the gallery closed, and Oskar demonstrated quite how charming he could be. Marie was clearly very attached to him and Will was included in her affections.

Oskar was very quiet on the train back to Strelzen. Will did not resent it; he thought he could understand it. Eventually he said what he knew he had to say.

'What is it you're not telling me, my Oskar?'

Oskar looked momentarily startled, but he relaxed, 'Too many things, my love, as perhaps you guess.' His eyes glistened, 'I do love you, I really do. You believe me, don't you?' The sudden pleading in his voice worried Will. This was not the Oskar he was used to, cool and confident to the point of being cocky.

'Yes I do,' he said simply.

'Prince and whore. What a combination, my Will. How do I live with myself?'

'Because of the greater good.'

'So. You remember.'

'Yes. I also remember that you told me that one day I must be your loyal knight.'

'Ah. Then I must tell you that the day has come.'

Will sat up; he recognised a crisis when it came up and spat in his face.

'It is a simple thing, but it has devastating consequences. I have to file a bond of a million krona at the Supreme Court in two weeks' time to indemnify the costs of the prosecution. I have only a half million. If the bond is not filed, the case goes by default and I have to begin again.'

'You can get a loan surely?'

'I have no capital. We only rent the cottage in Terlenehem, and Helge spends most of her salary on it. Loans are not as easy to get here as in the West, as I understand.' Will thought of his maxed-out card debt and winced.

'Don't you know anyone who can stand surety for you?' The legal terms were forcing him back into English, but Oskar caught the drift of what he was saying.

'My friends are as poor as I am. I have relations amongst the other aristocratic families, but we're mostly poor, and those that aren't are not a charity.

'You can have everything I have... everything,' said Will, and he meant it.

Oskar smiled softly, 'I knew you would say that. Just my luck to fall for a poor westerner with debts, wasn't it? What have you got?'

'The quarter million krona that Matt gave me. It's yours, even if I have to walk back to Britain.'

'I will take it then, and we still need another quarter million.'

'Oh.' Will thought out options and then the inevitable occurred, 'What about Hendrik? Would he give you a loan?'

'Think, my Will. He does not know who and what I am; if he did, the possibilities for blackmail are endless, and I would not put it past him. It is because of him that I have not given interviews in the press as Helge thinks I should, to rouse public sympathy. I dread the day he does make the connection, because he will turn it to a profit. Also I think that the interest on any loan Hendrik would ask would be enormous. No, Hendrik is a possibility, but not in that way.'

'Oh no, Oskar, you aren't going to earn it that way again?'

'There's a special title in production, and I am in line for one of the two starring roles.'

'Will that give you enough?'

'More than half of it, certainly, but not enough.'

'Then what can we do?'

'I said there were two starring roles.'

'So?'

Oskar looked like a man on the edge of a big dive into uncertain waters, and an ominous feeling took possession of Will. Oskar cleared his throat, and for the first time in their relationship, he would not meet Will's eyes.

'Hendrik has seen you twice in Ribaud's. The actor needs to be a westerner and a native English speaker, he wants to cast you.'

Will froze. He had no idea how long he stood there silent. His mind had gone quite blank. Oskar finally looked up at him. Will had never seen him scared before: he was scared now.

Finally Will's brain reconnected with the rest of him. 'And this will give you enough?'

'More than enough.'

'Oskar, do you know what starring in a porn film will do to me?'

'I can guess, I have some experience of this.'

'No me, not you. We are two different men. For me it will be the end of a career I was born for. Schoolteaching and porn acting are not really compatible professions, or at least parents think not. And then there is my self respect. I know you sacrificed yours, but I know why: I understand and I can even admire you for it, because I know the pain behind it. But these reasons do not apply to me. I am an ordinary man; there is no great narrative in my quiet life to justify such a sacrifice, or at least there wasn't till we met.'

Oskar hastened to interject, 'Look Will, you are looking at it in a negative way. It's unlikely that anyone you know will ever see the film. Even if they did, what could they say? They were looking at gay porn, for God's sake. The only people who bother me are the gangs of roaming Yankee gays in this city, who think my ass is theirs, because they've seen pictures of it. These I can avoid. You'll never see them in... Whithampsted. You can still teach, still get on with your life.'

The train shook as it went over some points. They were on the outskirts of Strelzen. Will shook his head, 'No more, Oskar. I don't want to talk about it. Not now.'

They did not speak at all till they left the station barrier. Will said, 'Go home, Oskar. I need to walk and clear my head.' Oskar nodded, hesitated, and despite being on the station concourse, he kissed Will's cheek in not quite the Rothenian way between males. Then he left.

Will walked out on to the darkening streets of Strelzen. He looked up at the floodlit cathedral, and his feet took him up through Sudmesten to the Domstrasse. He walked across the bridge and climbed the hill. He found a seat on the cathedral's south side, where he could look out over the city. The lights, silver and gold, were like looking down on an ordered galaxy. The low rumble of the city wafted up the hill. Dogs barked in the far distance. He was still on the bench as the cathedral bell rang out midnight, and his mind was still churning. It was not Oskar's request that bothered him most, however. It was the question of his whore's heart, and what it was worth.

At quarter of an hour after midnight, Will took out his mobile and a card, and made a long call. Then he braced himself, walked back down the Domstrasse, the Mikhelstrasse and the Lindenstrasse, and found that the lights were still on in Lindenstrasse 122, Apt 6. He came in through the front door, Marietta skipping all round him. Oskar had stood up when he came in and had hesitated to move. Will went up to him, took him in his arms, kissed him and whispered in his ear: 'Yes. But only for love of you, Oskar Prinz.'

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