Alike in Dignity

by Michael Arram


Bolslaw Wyzinskij dumped his well-stuffed backpack on the roadside verge. He and Willem had just been left by Herr Kral at the agreed rendezvous point on the T55 Radelngrad Road out of Eisendorf.

'Middle of nowhere,' he grunted. 'One and a half fucking hours from home. Sure you got this right, mate?'

'Yep,' Willem responded. 'This is where my uncle Waclaw said. We go down that track there to the river, where the sign is. Brighten up, Bolo. This could be brilliant. In fact it's gotta be. Bacca is more or less done apart from some coursework. Gymno is in its last lazy days, it's a holiday week and it's nearly summer. So we are gonna have fun, unsupervised by adults and away from the grind. And don't be selfish. Yuli and Romesczu need to get away, as you know well enough.'

'Yeah, yeah … but why's it gotta be so bloody exhausting?'

'Exhausting? We only just started. You might remember it's also pretty damn cheap. A week of outdoor fun for just small change.'

Cars flashed by on the main road as the two boys settled, and ten minutes later the Lucic Volvo drew up in the lay-by. Yuli and Roman climbed out, leaned back in to kiss Radek Lucic and waved as he headed off. Yuli turned around. 'Girls not here yet?'

Willem checked his handij. 'They're running late. But should be here in a half hour.'

'Can't wait,' Yuli grinned. 'We're already feeling liberated, ain't we, leblen? You must be too, Willemczu. I know you're better with stress, but even you must be feeling it.'

'True enough on both counts. I could do with a rest though. I haven't been seeing enough of Della, and you can bet I'm getting an earful about it. So apart from Bolo, everyone's happy.'

'Didn't say I wasn't happy, it's just that I waved goodbye to my comfort zone some time ago. Gotta light up; anyone else want a drag?'

'I'll wait till we're on the water. You're in my canoe, know that?'

'What! I thought I was with Della's mate, Krista?'

'You should be so lucky. You may have lost a bit of weight lately, but there's still a chance that I'll snap a paddle getting us going.'

Yuli demurred. 'Krista's pretty fit. She's not one of us musos. She does serious athletics.'

'Nevertheless,' Willem determined, 'the two girls are in their own canoe. It's me who's making sacrifices here.'

'Got the tins, Bolo?' Yuli asked.

Bolslaw nodded. 'They're most of the contents of my pack, that and snacks. I was told clothing is pretty much superfluous.'

'Yeah, only need it when we stop in the towns and villages along the route, so Uncle Waclaw says, and not even all of them. Most of the campsites are naturist, and so are some of the towns.'

A taxi van drew up at that point and emptied its cargo, a family with four kids and a terrier. The kids, flawlessly brown, were already in no more than sandals, and the parents took off and packed their own clothes before heading off down the track, the mother's very wide rear undulating hypnotically as they disappeared under the trees.

'Looks like your Uncle Waclaw was right then,' Roman observed. 'But I think we'd better keep ours on till Della's dad's gone. I've heard fathers can get a bit aggressive where their daughters are concerned.'

Yuli looked around. It was the last Monday of April and a dazzling morning in the Arndt valley. The sky was a dark blue, and they had a clear view of the white peaks of the great Glottenberh massif to the east. Bolo had finished his joint before Herr Ortolan's SUV turned into the layby. He got out with the two girls, and greeted Willem affably.

'So, Willemczu. All set?'

'Yes sir. See you Friday down in Kesarstejne, okay?'

'You can all swim, I hope.'

'Yes sir. Why'd you ask?'

'I've heard that it's not quite as easy a run as you might think. Watch out for the weirs, you hear?'

'We'll walk those bits and carry the boats.'

Herr Ortolan laughed, hugged Della, waved cheerfully and turned the car to take the opposite carriageway heading back to Strelzen.

'All ready then, people? Boat hire's down the track there.'

The party walked down along the well-beaten path through the woods. The sound of chuckling water came up from below, and soon the sunlight was sparkling through the trees off the rippling surface of the River Arndt. They came out on to the bank to find a shack and a dock with dozens of bright yellow canoes and other vessels tied up alongside. The family they'd seen earlier was disappearing round the bend on a large and colourful raft, the kids in red lifevests.

'Prosim guys!' A man in his mid-twenties in tee shirt and shorts, tanned with tangled blond hair, turned back from waving off the family. 'Taking advantage of the start of the season reductions, I see. Post-bacca leave? You have the look. There's gonna be a lot of you guys on the river this week. Three canoes? No problems. That's only 200 krone each, and another forty each for the barrels. The prices double in June, so it's a bargain.'

'Barrels?' Yuli asked.

'You'll find you need them for storage as you go. Tie 'em right and they'll add stability. Put the most experienced paddler in the back. Ah! Not run the Arndt before? You'll have fun.' He winked. 'See you got some supplies in. Can do you some nice cheap white hrotvast. Comes in bottles, put 'em in a string bag and the water'll keep 'em nice and cool as you drag 'em behind. Nothing like it on a lazy afternoon on the river, believe me.'

They made the transactions and the guy got in the water ready to hold the canoes steady as they settled inside in their couples. They stripped and packed handijs, clothes, shoes and booze into the yellow plastic drums provided, then sealed them. The dockmaster carefully placed each barrel in the centre of the canoe and demonstrated how to tether them. An additional twenty krone got them a river map, with the locations marked of floating bars, weirs, riverside villages, restaurants and camp sites.

'You can book them here for a discount, or just turn up and take the tents, cabins and sleeping bags that are available.' They decided to wing it since it was not high season.

Bolo let out an uncertain 'Whoah!' as they were pushed out into the stream. The canoe wobbled alarmingly as he and Willem inexpertly plied their paddles, Bolo cursing as he got a face full of cold water. It was made worse as a small fleet of green canoes from upriver, four of them tied together athwart, came up on them from behind, necessitating a panicky change of course. The somewhat inebriated canoeists lying back in their boats called 'Ahoj!' cheerily as they floated past.

'You okay, Willemczu?' Yuli yelled from behind.

'Sorta!' Willem yelled back. 'Not as stable as I thought. Steer to avoid that shoal, Bolo!'

'Aye, aye, captain,' Bolo replied drily. He looked back. 'Della and Krista seem to have the trick of it. Why don't you let them go first?'

'Not in my nature,' Willem responded. 'Okay, just use your paddle to steer. We're in no hurry, so let the current take us. Watch out for those ducks!'

After two bends in the river they gained confidence and joined in the cheery exchanges of 'Ahoj!' whenever they passed other traffic. The river, running slow and not shallow, was taking them through deep woodland. Insects danced over the waters in the warm sunlight. Willem studied the map, and called back 'First weir coming up!'.

'Do we get out?' Della shouted in reply.

'We'll see,' Willem answered. They found several voyagers steering for the bank and lifting their plastic canoes and rafts out to walk round the obstacle, but as they backed water two canoes passed them by heading for the channelled race that was to the right of the weir. With a whoop and cheers, the pair shot one at a time over and down the slide.

'Gotta try that,' Willem called.

'Don't get killed,' Della shouted back. 'We're walking it.'

'I dunno about this,' Bolo grumbled.

'Get some speed up,' Willem ordered. He headed for the gap and the current helpfully took them in hand. Bolo yelled as they went over and down the slide, which was not particularly steep as it happened. The water was deep enough not to scrape the bottom of the canoe and with only a slight wobble and lurch they shot back out into the stream below. Yuli and Roman followed them down grinning broadly and whooping, and both canoes pulled into the bank till the girls joined them.

Willem looked smug. 'That was pretty easy. Awesome in fact.'

'Boys!' Krista exclaimed, rolling her eyes.

'Challenge your masculinity did we?' Bolo observed, to be answered by a narrow glare.

'That was not your most tactful moment,' Willem said as they headed back out into the stream.

'What me? Tactless? Better break out the tins.' Bolo unsealed his barrel and threw several cans of pilsner back to Yuli, in the boat behind, who passed them back to the girls. 'Mmm! This is the life!' Bolslaw said as he spread out and sipped the lager. And the river took them lazily onwards past the forests of the province of Glottenberh.

'Mon cher Henri!'

'Salut, Jean-Paul! Bienvenu à Roritanie.' Henry was promptly enveloped in the embrace of M. Scavolini of the European Broadcasting Union, who had emerged with his two aides from an airport limousine on to the steps of the Grand Hyatt, where Henry was awaiting them.

'So, my dear fellow, a great pleasure to see you.' He looked around at the sunlit Rodolferplaz, teeming with tourists. 'Such a magnificent city. It lifts the heart. Lunch first I believe?'

'Will Vincent has a booking, and is waiting inside with the team.'

They entered the hotel and were ushered to their table by a waiting deputy manager. Will and the Rothenian team stood to greet the EBU delegation and a complex choreography of handshaking and introductions followed.

The serious business began with the arrival of the main course. The conversation was necessarily in English.

'So, Monsieur le baron, the Ukraine problem is in the headlines. We have told them that their song is simply not acceptable. Too political. If they insist then they will not be welcome. They have till the weekend to nominate a substitute song.'

'Please, Jean-Paul, call me Will. The loss of Ukraine would be regrettable of course, but we have contingencies already in place. It's the same redrawing of the lists as when Lebanon withdrew earlier this month because they could not undertake to broadcast the Israeli song.'

'Excellent. It is the efficiency we have come to expect from our friends at Strelsenermedia.'

'We have some concerns at this point about the voting procedure for the finals. Our projections are that it may lead to a serious overrun.'

Struggling a bit with the language, Tomas Weissman added 'The … delay, it can … could be, er … shortened. If only announce top six? Yes?'

M. Scavolini spread his hands. 'It has worked well till now. Every nation wants its moment in the sunshine.'

'With thirty-nine countries voting however, the mathematics are not promising,' Will pointed out.

'Regrettably, the position cannot be changed. The national delegates approved it last month in Geneva, along with the order of presentation.'

Will shrugged. 'Our own final the previous weekend rather distracted our attention from the delegates' meeting, unfortunately. We'll have to live with it. It'll be on Henry and Hermina to speed things along on the night.'

The discussion continued. It was as dessert arrived that M. Scavolini observed to Henry 'Your national entry is generating interest outside Rothenia already, I see.'

'That'll be the because of the entrants, Jean-Paul. Starcrossed is charting in the Anglosphere as much as in Germany at the moment with another number called Nobility. Ruce en Ruce is being released and performed only in Rothenia, however.'

'It is very nicely timed, nonetheless. Their management is to be commended.' He turned to Will Vincent. 'Has it occurred to you that you may have to stage the 2006 final also?'

Will smiled. 'Rothenia challenging Ireland's run in the 1990s? That's an interesting thought. Coffee gentlemen? Then the cars will be waiting to take us down to the Strelzen Arena.'

The second weir was Willem's undoing. The upcoming line across the river was brought to his attention by a shout from Della.

'Wimps are heading for the bank again,' Bolo sneered in alcoholic condescension. 'So're Yuli and Roman.'

'Maybe it has to do with the big sign that says PZOR and ACHTUNG.' Willem stopped paddling.

'Nah! That's just for the weir not the side-slide. Look, those guys are going straight for the gap.'

'You mean the ones wearing helmets and life-jackets?'

'You wimping too, big guy?'

'Not me. Keep steering straight. I'll get up some speed.'

The current took them faster than Willem liked. He looked back and despite the three cans he'd consumed suddenly recalled something that had been niggling him. 'Hey Bolo, did you strap the drum down after you took the cans out?'

'You what?'

Then the weir took them. This race was steeper than the last and their stomachs dropped away as the canoe tore down the incline to hit the boiling water at the bottom, turn broadside on to the stream and capsize, submerging them in a green and bubbling world of rushing water.

Willem touched bottom, pushed up and surfaced, shaking hair and water out of his eyes. Then he launched himself after the canoe as it headed downriver, to be kindly stopped fifty metres below them by the guys in helmets who had preceded them down the slide. They also retrieved the paddles for Willem and threw them in the canoe. He thanked them and they towed the canoe to the bank, but of the barrel, with their handijs, clothing, wallets and booze, there was no sign.

Bolo found himself in relatively shallow water, and waded to the shore. The other four voyagers were waiting on the bank with a group of amused spectators.

As he sloshed on to the gravel, dripping, an old guy with his arms crossed said wisely 'That's the one that always gets 'em. Overconfidence, kid. You should watch out for the signs.'

It said something for Bolo's state that his readiness with truculent retorts had quite deserted him at that point.

Roman said 'Willemczu's got your boat downstream. Looks like you two escaped relatively lightly.'

Somewhat subdued and sobered, the six friends headed on downriver, scouring the banks for any sign of the errant drum, but no luck.

'It'll probably ground at the next weir,' Roman hopefully suggested. 'How far is it?' But of course their map had disappeared too.

'I think the next river-mark is the floating bar under the T55 bridge crossing. We might find it there,' Willem said.

The bar was a converted barge anchored in midstream, done out a bit like a Caribbean beach hut, even with potted palms. They tied up with the other boats and headed for the counter, where they got cold drinks and then sat themselves out in the sun with the other unclothed river voyagers.

'They should put numbers on those drums,' Della grumbled. 'They'd be easier to trace.'

'GPS tracking would help too,' Willem said mournfully. 'S'okay leblen men, I'm not being sarcastic, just humiliated.'

'Was that your Skipper handij that went overboard?' Roman asked. Willem nodded. 'Bugger,' Yuli said.

They stared out at the river and the boats passing, or pausing, in their long journey. It was 130km to the end of the run at Kesarstejne.

A blue raft full of kids of their own age tied up. Though also naked, they had painted their bodies with slogans that proclaimed they too had just finished their baccas. 'Freedom!' 'So Much for Gymno!' and 'Techno Takes the Arndt!' One or two of them also had little time for the usual Rothenian naturist code, which was to be strictly non-sexual. The largest and fittest of the boys had an arrow on his belly pointing to a considerable endowment and the slogan 'Watch this Space!' His butt was adorned with phallic sketches.

The newcomers got chilled cocktails and settled next to the Sudmesten kids, some offering amicable greetings to the Strelseners while they were topping up their alcoholic intake. Roman, as usual, attracted a lot of covert glances, mixed in with a puzzled recognition, though none of the kids asked outright if he was who they thought he might be. The guy with the signposted dick settled next to Krista, whose brown, athletic and very aesthetic body was stretched out on the deck and was drawing attention away from Roman for once.

'Hey doll,' Mr Penis began what passed for courtship in a thick Radelngrad accent. 'You look fit. Can I get you some booze? On me?'

Krista opened one eye, closed it and ignored him. Bolo on the other hand felt he was obliged to notice the crude pass. 'Not interested, pal. Stick with your mountain girls.'

'Who asked you, Strelsener faggot?' Mr Penis had decided to sublimate the humiliation to his potency in some cruder form of masculine rivalry.

Bolo was on familiar territory, for him. He adopted a tone of reasonableness. 'Now, pal, that was not a nice comment. My sexuality's none of your business, though yours seems to be a matter for public discussion. So is there anything hidden in that mass of hair, or do we have to take your word that there's a dick in there with all the pubic lice?'

Mr Penis stood and squared up to Bolo, who had also climbed to his feet. Some of the Radelngrad kids called to their guy to settle down. Willem rose to back up Bolo.

As tension grew, Krista sat up and glared at Bolo. 'Are you defending my honour, Wyzinskij?' The men looked down at her. Krista got to her feet with fluid grace. She looked from Bolo to the Radelngrader. 'Twat,' she observed, possibly to both of them. Then, with a remarkable display of strength and speed, the Strelzen area woman's kickboxing champion removed Mr Penis's legs from under him and with one powerful and well-placed kick sent his flailing body out into the Arndt, into which he disappeared with a great splash.

She glared at the other Radelngraders. 'Any more of you boys want to buy me a drink? No? Excellent.' She resumed her place on the deck and closed her eyes.

Della shook her head as a dripping Mr Penis was hauled back on to the raft by his mates. He retched up water and then slumped. Bar staff came over and encouraged the Radelngraders to move on. Two of the boys came up to Willem however and apologised to the Sudmesten kids. 'He really is a twat,' quite a nice mountain boy observed. 'Didn't want to bring him. The moron is gonna fail his bacca, so he'll be back in gymno next year. His celebration here is a bit premature.'

Roman and Yuli shook his hand. 'Say,' he asked, 'are you two guys Starcrossed? Difficult to tell when you're out of clothes. Thought so. Well good luck next month. I love Edler Herz. Downloaded the new EP too. Ruce en Ruce is a total winner.'

As they resumed their journey downriver, Bolo was very quiet in the back of the canoe. Eventually Willem had to ask 'Wassup, Bolo? It's been over a half an hour without any sort of word out of you.'

There was a pause and then a reply. 'That Krista. Awesome. Never seen anything like it.'


'I mean, she's amazing.' Willem looked back to see an unusually internal look on Bolo's face.

'You're smitten.'

'Guess I am.'

'And you've gone erect. Keep low in the boat. There's kids on that raft coming upriver. Don't you think you're setting yourself an unattainable ambition, Bolo?'

'She's the sort of woman I've always wanted.'

'Hot and totally fit?'

'No. Aggressive and fearless. Just like my mutti.'

'Is your mum a kickboxer and ambitious to join the armed forces in the new year? No? Well, not quite like her then. Also, and this is just a guess mind, I think Krista may despise you.'

'Nah! Well, maybe. But I can get past that. Watch me.'

'I'm not taking bets, Bolo.'

The boy went quiet again. The sun was sinking below the treetops when their little squadron reached the campsite. They paddled up to the dock. Willem was a little relieved to see no sign of the blue raft from Radelngrad. They hauled their canoes on to the grass.

As they queued at the camp office by the dock, Willem hugged himself. 'Could get chilly this evening,' he observed to Yuli.

'And your clothing is bobbing about somewhere on the Arndt. None of my stuff'll fit you. Sorry Willemczu. We'll settle by the BBQ pit, the charcoal fire will warm you up. You can share Della's sleeping bag at least.'

They padded into the office, and there, sitting on the desk, was a yellow barrel with a sign attached: 'IS THIS YOURS?'. Willem shouted with joy.

'Yeah,' the desk clerk said when Willem had verified his ownership. 'A guy fished it out and brought it to the next campsite downriver. It's what we do on the Arndt if a barrel gets loose. Remember that if you ever encounter one floating free. Now, what do you need? Cabins are all taken, but we have tents available. You want a six-berth or three two-berths? Six-berth is cheaper. So six-berth it is. By the way, your handij in there's been buzzing off and on for the past two hours.'

The Sudmesten kids dropped off their barrels at their tent and then ambled over to the BBQ kiosk to stack up on meat products. Willem had checked his handij and found it still had a charge in it. 'Mr Davey's been ringing me. He seems urgent. I'd better reply.'

Willem joined them later. He'd put on shorts and a tee shirt, probably to reassure himself that he was back in control of things. 'Mr Davey's on his way to Strelzen, and wants to see you,' he reported to Yuli and Roman. 'I told him we're not exactly accessible at the moment. He laughed and said he'd still be here at the weekend. It'll wait he said.'

'Good,' Roman said decidedly. 'This is my best holiday ever. No way am I going back early.' Yuli smiled at him fondly.

'So what brings you back to our fair city, Bounder? When did you arrive?' Henry was surprised at Davey Skipper's early morning call. 'I thought you had a very capable local runner managing Starcrossed.'

'Flew in yesterday evening. I have business here. Bought me a flat in the Third.'

Henry did a double take and then beamed. 'Fantastic! No seriously Davey. Ed will be delighted, possibly Rudi may be too. What brought this on?'

'Terry thought it would be an investment. So we got a local realtor to scout the market and close on a new conversion. It's time I had a pad I can call my own. The castle in Granada belongs to the company. I'm here often enough to make it worthwhile. So, now I'm a resident of Strelzen Neuvemesten. It's pretty convenient these days for Berlin and Hamburg, and I like to keep an eye on the scenes there. Starcrossed was just the clinching argument.'

'We must celebrate. Do I get to see it?'

'Not till it's done out. I'm staying at the Hilton for the time being.'

'So do we go out tonight? Ed's home around seven.'

'Yup. I want a guided tour of the nice places in the Fourth. I hear you two are authorities on the Stracenzstrasse café-bar scene.'

'We eat out a lot. You know how crap our home catering is, having experienced it first hand over Christmas. I'm off to work in a few minutes, so shall we meet up here at six?'

'Good. Also, Will Vincent wanted me to talk something through with you.'

'Starcrossed problems?'

'Nope. It's your dyspraxia that's on his mind.'

'I'm not gonna like this, am I.'

'Probably not.'

Midday on Wednesday brought the canoes out of the forests and hills of Glottenberh and on to the broad plain which made up the eastern districts of Neder Husbrau, the woodland giving way to a more cultivated landscape, though the banks of the Arndt were still heavily fringed with trees. They began passing small riverside villages. The replacement map told them in which of the settlements naturism was allowed. Just for the experience, they tied up at the jetty of one of them, an isolated little town called Burwald.

'I can't believe I'm doing this,' Yuli said as they strolled totally nude along the main street, barefoot even. It was an everyday Rothenian street scene with shops, passing cars, and people about their daily business, and they wandered through it all quite naked as if they were in one of the odder sorts of dream. Nobody amongst the clothed natives batted an eyelid. They went into a bakers and bought sandwiches, pies and soft drinks using the purse Della had strung round her neck, then came back out into the warm sunlight. Perching on a sunbaked wall, the stone rough under their buttocks, they ate their lunch and watched the naked world go by.

'Bit of a perv's paradise really,' Bolo observed. 'I was talking to a guy at last night's stop. He said the busier sites down the river around Hentzen have started checking in handheld cameras and handijs. They're getting a new sort of tourist.'

'The voyeuristic sort?' Della suggested.

'Foreigners mostly. There're websites appearing which rejoice in the beauties of the Arndt Valley, and they don't mean trees and stuff.'

Krista rolled her eyes, something she seemed to do quite a lot. 'Remember the Spa last year?' she said to Della. 'That pimply Anglo guy with a small camera hidden in his handbag, secretly filming us on the Great Lawn.'

Della shook her head. 'He got too caught up getting the right angle on our tits. Raised our suspicions. Anyway security took the hint Krista gave them, and he got hauled off to the police barracks.'

'They spoil things. I hate this internet,' Krista growled.

'Damn right,' agreed Bolo, a little too enthusiastically.

Krista cocked an eyebrow. 'Didn't one of your brothers get done for uploading bootleg movies on a paysite?'

'Well yeah,' coughed Bolo. 'But he was very wrong to do it, and I would have told him so. It deprives bona fide studios of their rightful profits.'

'So it wasn't you hawking his pirated DVDs around the block last year.'

'Er …'

Krista tossed her hair. 'You're getting weird, Wyzinskij, really weird.'

On the way back to the jetty, Yuli and Roman unconsciously entwined fingers as they walked the streets. That got them the attention their nudity hadn't.

'It's the backwoods,' Willem said as a group of local young teen girls openly gawped at Starcrossed as they strolled by.

Davey Skipper sipped his chai. ' Nice place this. The Fourth is really a surprise. Young. Fashionable. Cosmopolitan. Diverse.'

'We have a Thai now in Strelzen,' Henry observed. 'You ate there last Christmas.'

'I wasn't being sarcastic. This quirky little café must be run by one of Yazz's mates. It's got a Camden vibe.'

'Grow a straggly beard to fit in, then.'

'Beards aren't me. I tried stubble. It was itchy. Anyways, little Henry, let's cut to the chase. Will is getting anxious about the staging of the final, which involves you skipping the light fantastic. Unfortunately, you have two left feet. Your Hermina's up to the demands, but you yourself are a total loss.'

Henry was dashed and a little embarrassed. 'Bounder, I simply can't do it. I've tried, but … it's hopeless.'

'So we're gonna go over to the Arena and you and me are going to have a private Celebrity Come Dancing session. Just me, you, a soundtrack and an empty stage. I've looked at the plans and I would say they're unworkable with your disability. But Terry appreciates the problem. We have our own plan, and Will's given me permission to entirely rework your moment in the limelight so as to disguise your total ineptitude.'

'How's that?'

'It involves some very fit, twinky friends of mine.'

'Go on, you have my interest.'

I'm gonna turn you into a stage prop, Outfield.'

The six Sudmesten kids pulled up their canoes on a tree-grown island for their last night on the river. Willem caught Yuli's eye.

'It's private and there are plenty of little lawns here where we can … er … do our thing, know what I mean?'

'Yup. Romesczu's been staring at my bare butt for several days, and I get the distinct impression that staring at it is not all he wants to do. Your dick has been hard all afternoon, too.'

'I'll go and tell Bolo to find a place to wank off. Della's given the hint to Krista, and er … Krista prefers to take care of her own needs in any case. And keep that to yourself.'

'Even more bad news for Bolo then.'

Willem shook his head. 'Who'd believe he was a hopeless romantic.'

Yuli was curious. 'Has he ever … y'know?'

'Oh yeah. Bolo's had his share, though not with gymno kids, don't forget he's lived all his life on the Wejg. By his account he lost it to a hooker when he was only twelve. Mind you, hyperbole is a Bolo trait. But even so, he knows his way around the female anatomy to an extent that he must have a track record. But Krista is certainly a hopeless fixation destined to go absolutely nowhere. Besides … and please keep this to just yourself and Romesczu, she's done it with several of the girls, including Della, in the past.'

'Get away!'

'Krista has some interesting sex aids. Which is one reason why Della's so adventurous. She really would love to do a threesome with you.'

'Willemczu … I couldn't do it with a woman. Honest.'

'It wouldn't be what she has in mind, Yuli. It's you under me that fascinates her.'

Yuli looked at his oldest friend and smiled. 'Sounds complicated. We'll see. But no promises. I've not yet reached a level of horniness that would carry me past that line.'

'Good answer, Yuli. I'll live in hopes. Looking in your face as I'm fucking your butt is a joy I'd like to repeat.'

In the afterglow of their protracted al fresco sex Yuli and Roman laid out on the grass, watching the sky darken above them.

'Sex aids? Like what?' Roman was fascinated. This was beyond his horizons.

'I got the impression Krista's got a double-ended dildo, so she and her partner can work themselves off simultaneously.'

'Wow! Wouldn't that work for us too?'

'You mean …?'

'Yeah. Butt to butt.'

'You wanna try it? You'd better ask Krista if you could borrow hers then. But wash it thoroughly first.'

'Euww!' Roman erupted.

When he had subsided, Yuli resumed. 'Willemczu's on about having sex with me again.'

'You know I've no objection. You don't need my permission.'

'Not just with him, but with Della. She's fixated on watching two men do it, and I imagine she has her own ideas too.'

'You want to?'

'Nope. I'd have to be pretty drunk to contemplate that.'

'It's bothering you, Yuli leblen.'

'You read me well, baby. I don't like the mounting pressure from her direction. Curiosity is one thing, but she's trying to manipulate Willemczu.'

'Hmm. But gymno's nearly over. After that, we'll be going our own ways. Della's going off backpacking with her friends, including Krista and her interesting dildo. We're being swallowed by Eurovision, in the belly of the whale. Just hold out till then, Yuli mine.'

A long kiss followed. 'So wise, baby.'

The dramatic towers of Kesarstejne appeared over the hills as the river broadened. They had passed the last weir, prudently walking it, and one or two river barges began to rock the canoes with their wash. They were back in shorts and sweaters. But the week had had its effect, relaxing and invigorating them. Willem had even achieved a degree of brownness, a little early for him.

They scudded into the boat dock with practised ease, and unloaded without so much as a wobble, hugging and kissing before making their way to the waiting cars, though Krista warned off a precipitate Bolo from the kissing part with a glare. And as Yuli took the front seat next to his father he realised that their trip had been as much a coda as a break. Their old life was over, and the world they were scattering to was going to be a very different one.

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