MARK GROANED and pulled the pillow over his head. The incessant piccolo piping was back. Turning up the TV wasn’t an option. The evening before he’d been firmly, and not so politely, told by his neighbor in the adjoining short-stay studio apartment to reduce the volume. He lay facedown on the bed, trying to block out the noise of the high-pitched piccolos playing the same mangled tune over and over again.
He had work to do this evening. He’d wanted to get ahead on some of the project plans for the meeting with senior management next week, but he couldn’t concentrate with the infernal racket slowly driving him mad. If last night was anything to go by, he’d have at least another hour of torture. He wouldn’t mind if they didn’t sound so terrible, but instead he was subjected to something he’d hesitate to call music, where half the notes were missing and had been replaced by an unmelodious tabby cat with its tail stuck in a door.
The tune, if he could call it that, changed, and they must’ve been practicing this one for longer, as he could just about recognize the theme from M*A*S*H. Suicide might be fucking painless, but this wasn’t. He rolled off his bed, conceding defeat, and tapped a message into his phone. The answering text came just as he paused at the door to shove his feet into his shoes. Wrapped up against the cold of the Basel winter, he headed out. Hopefully the bar would provide the relief he’d been looking for.
Mark hadn’t believed his luck when he’d landed a spot on the Merri Project, probably the biggest contract the consulting company he worked for had ever handled. And being sent to their head office in Switzerland for three months had been even more shocking. He’d been with Helvetica Consulting long enough to warrant the opportunity, but he also knew that he’d lost some of the drive he’d had when he’d first joined, and he was hoping this secondment would lift his spirits and maybe his career prospects along with them. Mark buried his chin into his recently purchased Canada Goose parka, which did nothing to prevent his nose turning into an icicle, and hurried down the cobbled street outside his apartment building. Somewhat naively he’d expected Alps and snow, not a small industrial city that squatted in the northwest of Switzerland, where the weather was more like the UK than Zermatt, and the price of beer, even with his living allowance, had made him swallow his tongue when he’d first bought a round of drinks.
His apartment was in the old town, set in a warren of narrow streets that came straight out of a fairy tale, along with quaint houses, some painted with dates back to the twelfth century. Even with the streetlights, it wasn’t well lit. Mark doubted he would have survived for long back in the Middle Ages when the houses were built and pitch-black would have been normal. If he’d been heading down a dark street like this back in Reading, Mark would have been on his guard. Hell, in the UK, he’d even be worried about being jumped by someone hiding in the shadows of a main road, let alone these side streets, but here in Basel he felt an unmistakable safeness that he didn’t experience back home.
The street took a sharp bend and sloped steeply down. The cobbles didn’t help with his balance, making him wonder, not for the first time, how some women coped when wearing high heels. He had to lean back a little to prevent from tumbling, but a few moments later he was in Barfüsserplatz, the bright lights of Café Des Arts calling to him from across the tram tracks. A waft of roast chestnuts from a nearby Heissi Marroni stand assaulted him, but Mark stopped himself from buying any, since he was already on the path of becoming addicted, and it wasn’t an addiction he could feed easily when he returned to the UK.
He’d only been in the city a couple of weeks, the pace of work brutal enough that he’d not had much opportunity to explore, and he’d not made it to this bar that was nestled at the foot of the square. Mark hurried through the doors and stopped dead just inside. He appeared to have stepped back in time to the 1930s. The rich red décor and sweeping bronze staircase were not what he’d expected. He stared, aware that he was probably gaping in a most unattractive manner. The shout of his name from across the bar brought him back to the present. He tried to regain his composure as he searched for his colleague. Carl sat at a table in the corner, although Mark almost missed him, as he was with two other men and not alone as Mark had expected.
He shrugged off his coat as he reached the table. “I’ll go to the bar,” he offered, seeing they had empty glasses in front of them.
“Sit yourself down, Mark. It’s waiter service, and I’ve just caught his eye. You know Darren, from the UK office, but I don’t know if you’ve met Steffen.” Carl motioned to the man sitting next to the spare seat. “He’s one of the consultant IT specialists.”
Steffen had a firm handshake and a warm smile. “Nice to meet you, Mark.” The accent was undeniably Swiss. “Carl tells me you are the other Brit sent over here for the Merri Project. How are you finding Basel?”
Mark sat down on a velour-covered chair. Its overlarge proportions made him feel like he was being slowly swallowed by the upholstery. “I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect—I hadn’t heard much about the place before I came over.”
“I bet you are disappointed there are no mountains nearby.” Steffen smirked. “But you will be pleased to hear you can get fondue.”
“Never had fondue. Although I am saddened by the complete lack of shops selling cuckoo clocks and alpine horns.”
“Similar to my own despair when I lived in Cambridge. No one wore bowler hats, and I did not meet a single man named Darcy for the whole duration of my stay.”
“You were in the UK?” asked Carl, glancing up before returning his forlorn gaze to the empty glass in front of him. Darren was trying to catch the waiter’s eye again but wasn’t having much luck.
“For my undergraduate and PhD, but it’s over a decade ago now,” said Steffen.
That explained Steffen’s excellent English. And Mark had to admit he had a thing for intelligent men. Steffen being blond, gray-eyed, and gorgeous didn’t hurt either. “Didn’t like it enough to stay, though?”
“I had a lot of fun when I was younger, but Basel has always been my home, so when I set up my business, I decided to return. But you are the visitor here. I could ask you the same.”
“I’ve only been in Basel a couple of weeks—hardly enough time to decide to move countries, especially as I’ll only be here for a few months.”
“That’s a long time to be away from home. Usually when I travel for work, it’s rarely for more than one week. It must be difficult to be away from your family.”
“Not really. I live on my own, and to be honest, I’m only planning to go back once, and that’s for my parents’ big wedding anniversary celebration—otherwise I doubt I would’ve bothered.”
“Really?” Steffen’s brow crinkled. “Will they not miss you?”
“Nah, my parents are too busy going on river cruises and seeing their friends. There’s only my sister, and she’s off doing her own thing. I don’t even have a goldfish that’d need feeding.”
“Aww, that makes you sound like a sad old git, Mark,” said Darren. “Good-looking bloke like you, I can’t believe there ain’t a special lady pining after you.”
Mark tried not to scowl. He didn’t usually mind talking about his private life, but he didn’t know Darren well, and he’d only just met Steffen. He’d been out since his midteens, and while he’d never hidden his sexuality, he didn’t go around proclaiming his preference for cock at every possible opportunity, especially with work colleagues he didn’t know well enough to guess how they’d react. Still, he had nothing to be ashamed of, and if they didn’t like it, then they shouldn’t have fucking well asked. “No, there isn’t. And even if there was, it isn’t going to be a special lady.”
“Potential boyfriend, then?” said Darren, not missing a beat.
“Not at the moment. I’m single, with no keeper. As long as I send my mum a postcard or two, I’m free of obligation.”
Carl laughed. “Lucky you. My wife’s not so happy with me being over here. I’m flying home most weekends, but I absolutely have to be back in the UK before the baby arrives…. She told me if I even joked about attending the birth by Skype, she’d make sure I couldn’t father a second.”
A waiter arrived, and Steffen ordered in German. Determined he was going to at least try not to be a typical Brit abroad, Mark attempted his order, knowing he wouldn’t get it right. “Ich hätte gern ein Gin und Tonic, bitte.”
“Möchten Sie Eis?”
The waiter smiled. “Would you like ice, sir.”
Mark deflated a little, his attempt once again met with an overhelpful Basler wanting to remove the pain of speaking German. “Yes, please. With a slice of lime.”
Darren and Carl didn’t appear to have any compunction about ordering in English, but Mark had wanted to at least make the effort. He might murder the language every time he opened his mouth, but he meant well.
“It was a good attempt. Not perfect but we do appreciate it,” said Steffen.
“Eh?” Mark hadn’t expected the comment and was a little surprised to realize Steffen had moved closer.
“When people try to speak German. Places like this are used to the business and tourist crowd not speaking the language, and they are busy and want to get on with their job, but most Basel people are happy to hear an Ausländer attempt the umlauts.”
“I doubt I’ll get very far in the three months I’m here, especially if I’m driven insane by the piccolo players practicing in the building next to my apartment.”
Carl groaned. “Yeah, me too. I’ve been leaving the office later to avoid them. The noise would drive me mad if I stayed in, but there’s only so far my living allowance will stretch—can’t afford to go boozing every night.”
Money wasn’t Mark’s primary concern; it was more that he needed to function the next morning. He might have been able to paint the town red in his early twenties, but these days a few drinks the night before would more often than not lead to a headache and a low level of anxiety the next day. His boss in Basel was more curt and direct than anyone he’d ever worked for, and he doubted she’d be too forgiving if he fucked up because he couldn’t function after too much gin the night before.
“Where are you staying?” asked Steffen.
“We’re both in corporate apartments on a side road behind Marktplatz,” said Carl. “They’re not huge but fine for temporary accommodation. I’d hate to be in a hotel the whole time, not being able to even make a sandwich. It’s just the fucking musical extras that are a bit of a pain.”
Steffen laughed. “Ah, well, you will be wishing it were just piccolos practicing for an hour when Fasnacht is in full swing.”
“Fasnacht?” Mark asked. “Do I want to know?”
“There will be no escaping it, I am afraid. You either choose to embrace Basel’s spring carnival or you leave the city for three days—there’s no in between. Where you are, you will be lucky if you get any sleep.”
“It can’t be that bad,” scoffed Carl. “From what I’ve seen, you Swiss are even more reserved than the British.”
“This is three days where the city runs wild so we can spend the rest of the year being proper and exact.” Steffen smirked. “But I do not want you to think all Swiss are averse to adventure. In the same way that not all you Brits have a ridiculous stiff upper lip and decorum like the queen.”
Darren snorted. “Decorum isn’t something I associate with Brits. Especially not after the pubs have chucked out and the cheap booze has been flowing.”
“I have some very fond memories of such nights,” said Steffen, sipping his gin. His lips curled upward into a cheeky smile that made Mark swallow thickly. “Although I was more a spectator than a participant.”
Mark wasn’t sure, but there was something about the way Steffen smiled and his eyes twinkled that made Mark think Steffen was not being entirely truthful about how much he had participated in his adventures when he was in the UK.
Carl checked his watch and finished his beer. “Should be over by now, and I want to try and catch Tina on Skype before she goes to bed. This pregnancy’s been harder than I think she was expecting.”
“I’d better get going too,” said Darren, mirroring Carl, who was putting on his coat. “Need to be prepared for a whole morning of meetings with the management team tomorrow. I’ll settle the drinks tab on the way out.”
Mark realized he’d been drinking slower than his British colleagues, having fallen into a rhythm with Steffen, and they both had over half their drink remaining. “I’ll finish this and head off myself, now the danger has passed.”
Steffen toyed with the stem of the overlarge wineglass that contained his G ’n’ T as Carl and Darren finished bundling themselves into their coats to brave the cold, then left. Mark got the distinct feeling Steffen was weighing his words before he spoke. He was right.
“I would be happy to show you the city, be your guide for Fasnacht.”
“Really? But you don’t know me.”
“Maybe I’d like to. Introducing new people to the delights of Fasnacht is always an experience.”
Mark had to get a grip on his imagination. There was no reason to think this was anything more than a friendly offer to someone new to Basel. Although spending more time with Steffen would hardly be a chore, not with his physique, which would work well for skiing and other physical pursuits Mark had no business thinking about during a drink with colleagues. Dear God, had it been so long since his last boyfriend that an attractive blond with a friendly smile and a pair of broad shoulders made him a tongue-tied idiot? But there was something about the way Steffen looked at him, in an obviously appraising manner, that made Mark think he had read the situation right. He might be out of practice, but he wasn’t dead from the waist down.
Steffen waited expectantly, and Mark realized he hadn’t answered. “I’d love any local insight. I don’t really know Basel very well, and I get the feeling this Fasnacht of yours is nothing like I’ve experienced before.”
“I never witnessed anything like it when I was in the UK. One of the best ways I can describe it is anarchy with military precision.”
“I hate to tell you this, but that doesn’t help.”
Steffen chuckled. “Perhaps you should let yourself be surprised. I grew up here. I might be biased when I say it is a unique mix of Swiss organization and chaos. Waggis in trucks throwing sweets, flowers, and oranges, while groups of people march around playing drums and piccolos.”
Fasnacht sounded fascinating, but Steffen’s descriptions raised more questions than they answered. “What’s a Waggis?”
“A very unflattering representation of a nineteenth century French farming peasant.”
Mark was still none the wiser, so Steffen tapped the screen of his phone and turned it to show Mark. The creature, because he couldn’t exactly describe it as fully human, had a huge head with an exaggerated hooked nose and wide mouth with crooked teeth, and on its head was a shock of long bright blue hair. “Right. Not what I was thinking when you said farming peasant.”
“I did say it was unflattering.”
“It’s more than unflattering.”
Steffen shrugged. “They are designed to look like Alsace peasants who used to work in the city and got drunk a lot, causing mayhem. The costume has not really changed over the years.”
Mark examined the picture closely. The Waggis wore a blue jacket over a stripy top and cutoff trousers with long socks. “Are those clogs?”
“People dress up like this and run about the street for fun?” The huge head must’ve been made of papier-mâché, and while it might not be as heavy as it looked, it couldn’t be comfortable to wear.
“Of course. I was known to do it myself when I was younger. I had some very pleasant encounters after accosting a willing victim with Räppli—that’s confetti to you.”
Something about Steffen’s wistful smile made Mark think he was reliving one of those encounters. Mark had not been prepared for such an admission. He’d been used to playful teasing with his workmates back in England, but so far his experience with his Swiss colleagues was that they were far more reserved. Friday nights back in Reading saw everyone pile down the pub, the conversation often turning to banter, but that didn’t happen here. Maybe Steffen’s time living outside of Switzerland had left him with some permanent changes.
“Is that so? Perhaps the good mothers of Basel should warn their daughters about you.”
“Their daughters are safe.” Steffen cocked an eyebrow and leaned in. “It’s their sons they should be mindful of.”
Steffen’s mobile began to vibrate, and Mark quickly handed it back.
“Scheisse,” spat Steffen. “Sorry, I have to take it. There are some people I work with who cannot function without a nursemaid.”
Steffen rattled off a stream of German as he answered. Mark’s grasp of the language was too poor for him to understand, but the general tone was not positive. Steffen broke off for a moment. “I am sorry, Mark. I have to deal with something. Maybe I can rescue you from the piccolos tomorrow?”
“I… er… sure.”
“Excellent. Meet me at seven at the Marktplatz tram stop.” Steffen grabbed his coat and headed out.
Mark stared after him, wondering what he’d agreed to. He was single, and Steffen had made it very clear he was into men. Beyond that Mark hadn’t a clue. Maybe Basel was going to give him more than the valuable work experience his boss had waved under his nose as a reason to accept the assignment.