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agouderia

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:D - that is indeed a funny coincidence! Thank you for taking the trouble to post the scene.

I had totally forgotten about that song and just used the most obvious metaphor when writing the dialogue. So no attempt at a pop-culture reference or poorly disguised plagiarism.

But I'll be more careful in the next chapters - after all this isn't supposed to turn into a screwball comedy.

And I definitely need to watch Chitti-chitti Bang-bang again - I'm meeting up with my oldest friend from elementary school in a few weeks. It was the first movie we ever went to together at the local kiddie afternoon cinema. So re-visiting it together would be a great reunion activity! :happy:
 

JimBob

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Ah, no worries - I wasn't making any accusations, just thought it was a nice coincidence that tickled me. Enjoying how the story is shaping up, I must say!

As long as we've derailed the thread a little - didja know that it being the height of his popularity, Roald Dahl was brought in to improve on the final script? May explain why the Child-Catcher bears some similarities to a certain Chocolatier...
 

agouderia

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XVII.

“Dames en heren – neemt u alstublieft plaats!“ If his hands could get any colder, it would have been in this moment as the presiding judge entered to address them in Dutch. He had been assured several times that the pre-hearing for his case could be conducted in English. The session starting off in Dutch let him panic for an instant making Katrina - who must have read his expression - give him a reassuring look and a small arm pat. Sure he remembered – the official preliminaries and the reading of the written pleadings would be done in Dutch; he had the translations of both right in front of him and could follow. As this was only a mediation pre-hearing, his examination would then be in English.

Dressed in his ‘lucky’ suit as he considered it after wearing it to the conference presentation in Frankfurt had been such a success, he couldn’t help notice the unbelieving stares his globular mid-section got, first from FuturePowers legal team, then from the judge and his team. It mirrored the horrified reaction he had gotten from Silvia van der Vaals on coming into her office for their first prep session after New Year.

“Alex – what on earth….,” she stared at him open-mouthed. “What did you do? What have you been eating? You look … impossible ….. gigantic….”

“It’s only the usual 6 holiday kilos…,” her reaction annoyed him more than it hurt him. He was wearing Alexa’s new favorite business casual outfit of a dusty sky blue shirt under a diagonally cut, flattering dark blue light wool sweater that draped well over his gut with jeans making him look round but broad and powerful. Having just biked here in a brisk North Sea breeze he thought he looked ruddy fresh and pretty decent.

“That can’t be – that’s more than 6 kilos! Didn’t I tell you to stop eating so much, try to stabilize or maybe even lose a little to make your case more convincing? How much is that?” leafing through her file with one hand while pointing at his belly with the other.

“188.”

“188! 1-8-8?! Are you insane? What did you do – eat non-stop for 3 months?”

“Silvia – I told you he had put on quite some more weight, seemed to be struggling with the unemployment situation and his eating….” Katrina’s calm injection made him realize how much he had come to like her dry, efficient, but caring and considerate approach. How she had helped him in preparing for the hearing, placating his bouts of fear, as he had indeed rarely seen the very busy Silvia van der Vaals in the past weeks and months.

“Yah – I know you did Katrina. Somehow that did not prepare me for seeing how enormous he has gotten in reality,” Silvia van der Vaals shook her curls. “I can’t believe you let this get so far out of hand – I thought you had more sense that to pile on another 20-30 kilograms. We definitely need a new health report for you – Katrina arrange a meeting with Dr. Klaassen one of the next three days.”

She took him personally, monitored his check-up routine, talked to Klaassen, who shrugged his shoulders and could find nothing wrong except his weight gain: “Silvia – we don’t really understand what ultimately goes on inside someone who gets so heavy physically or mentally. Modern medicine has only scratched on the surface of the complicated underlying metabolic, psychological, hormonal, bacterial, whatever processes. All I can tell you is that Alex had no medical indications except his weight; I’ve seen men half his size do worse on the exercise bike. And he seems just about as sane as you and me – whatever that might be….”


Now he could see her critical disbelief in the look over her reading glasses she gave the flesh hemisphere encircling him, spreading in front to the table, rolling over the sides to the backrest of the chair. After the FuturePowers lawyer had ended, she rose, smoothed her robe and launched into their pleading. As soon as she ended, the judge addressed him in English: “Mr. Bartholomon, are you ready for the questions and to give your oral deposition.”

“Yes your honor I am.”

“There is a first question from the opposing party I see…”

“Mr. Bartholomon, I’m Arjen Lenkers, lawyer-in-chief in charge of your ludicrous case against FuturePowers. Our file says you weigh 168 kilograms – is that correct? I have no idea what so much weight should look like – but it seems even more to me. How much do you weigh today?”

Giving the inside of his under-lip a hard bite didn’t help against the hot blood stinging in his cheeks. “I currently weigh 188 kilogram sir,” he was glad this came out matter-of-factly, hearing incredulous gasps from the opposing party and the judge’s team.

“We will certainly not be duped by such dubious actions Mr. Bartholomon – your case is no stronger because you’re even heavier. It is completely infeasible for any employer to have to deal with an employee who is so overweight, cannot perform his professional duties.”

“Dear colleague - that is the initial fault in your argument. Mr. Bartholomon is an engineer who does academic office work. He is physically very well capable of doing that with no limitations whatsoever.”

“Counsellors please – we are mainly here to hear Mr. Bartholomon’s position in person.” The judge interceded. “Mr. Bartholomon – counsellor Lenkers is right, that is a rather extreme weight gain in a short time span. Could you please explain what happened? If I look at the pictures in your file from your first years here in The Hague at FuturePowers – I do have trouble recognizing you….”

Looking under himself, he half-closed his eyes and conjured the terrible image of himself waiting in front of the office building with the three police officers who were trying to arrest him: “Your honor – I’ve always struggled with my weight – all my life. Don’t know why – but my hunger and appetite always were stronger than others. Still – I managed to keep my weight under 125 kilograms. Not good – but not that bad either. With all the job troubles I had here in the past two years, it got more and more difficult for me to control it. Last summer – I was actually doing better again. I had lost 8 kilograms over the summer, was hoping, working on getting things back on track. Then … then … then came the day I was lead out of the office by three police officers, who tried to arrest me because of trespassing, acting as an imposter,” he took a deep breath because the memory was uncomfortable. “From then on – I somehow lost it. Ate a lot – for comfort I guess. Some people drink, others smoke pot, do drugs, lie in bed and do nothing – or start manically cleaning windows – my grandmother does that. I eat – and can’t hide that.”

“I understand. We have the protocol of the attempted, but inadmissible and unfounded arrest here in our files. That is clearly a grave case of employer misconduct.”

“Your honor – we would like to point out that Mr. Bartholomon in his….”

“Counsellor Lenkers – I do not want to forestall the further fact finding – but I cannot see how you can make a plausible case of that unfounded act being Mr. Bartholomon’s fault. He was even representing your client in a senior meeting as the only competent executive in house at the moment. Offering considerable damages for this act would be advisable.”

“Your honor – we will prove that Mr. Bartholomon premeditated this entire case, gained so much weight on purpose so he falls under the so far not proven extra protection of the ECJ’s ruling on severe obesity as a disability to mask his dismal performance as junior executive.” Despite having anticipated words like these from Lenkers, having read them in the written pleadings, they led to churnings of dread in the pit of his stomach. “As you can clearly see in the documentation, the change in Mr. Bartholomon’s contract from US to Dutch was in September 2013. But he did not seek labor law counselling until January 2015, when Dr. van der Vaals first contacted us. And as we all know, the ECJ’s ruling came out in December 2014. During this time period, Mr. Bartholomon’s girlfriend, Countess Oeynhausen-Sierstorpff was still working at FuturePowers – we assume she might have incited the whole scheme, having the HR knowledge necessary, violating her duties against her then employer.”

“Mr. Bartholomon – those are several allegations in one package – could you please respond?”

“Alex.. – Lady Alexandra has nothing to do with all of this. I have never discussed anything of this with her, as I know this will bring a conflict of interest.” He crossed his arms reflexively over his gut, noticing Thomas Ross entering the room on the sidelines to take his seat on the far end of the FuturePowers bench. Unsurprising, as he was a regular late-comer.

“Your honor, Mr. Bartholomon is reluctant to discuss any more aspects of his private life here as they are totally irrelevant to the case.” Silvia van der Vaals saved him after Katrina pushed her a note. “Mr. Bartholomon and Countess Oeynhausen have only been together as a couple for about nine months – starting about a year after she left FuturePowers. Should this ever be doubted, we have the testimony of several of Countess Oeynhausen’s colleagues that she right after leaving FuturePowers dated a colleague’s brother for a while – and that Mr. Bartholomon did not appear in the picture until late last spring. She is a highly circumspect HR professional, who has always kept her private and professional life strictly separated, is uninvolved in this entire case – as you can read in her testimonial.”

He was surprised that they had actually taken care to have testimonies for the duration of their relationship – one of the many things Katrina must have kept from him out of consideration.

“I tend to agree that Mr. Bartholomon’s private relationship is of little relevance for this case. But Mr. Bartholomon – I would be interested to hear your answer to the first part of the question – why you didn’t seek legal counsel until almost a year and a half after you had been given your new Dutch contract?”

“I’m an engineer your honor – not a lawyer or business expert. When I received the new Dutch contract – along with an English translation – I believed it. If my employer gives me a translation – I trusted it was correct. Admittedly, that would never happen to me again today. I’d have everything checked immediately.”

“Then why did you go get legal advice over a year later?”

“Well – as Dr. van der Vaals elaborated – I was denied the promised promotion to head of EU project development. Somebody else with a lot less professional experience and no technical expertise at all received the job. That made even me start doubting a few things – so I had the contract re-translated. To find out that it was terminable with no promotion option. With that result I went to Dr. van der Vaals firm to seek legal advice.”

“I would like to point out that the rejection of the promotion coincided with information being leaked to Mr. Bartholomon in which his weight was ridiculed, even though at that point it was within normal, only modestly overweight. Soon after open harassment began.” Silvia van der Vaals added to his chagrin. He did not want the emails discussed, fearing they could be used as proof of Alexa clandestinely supporting his case.

“Dear colleague – could we please leave these fabricated emails out of the picture. They’re fakes, no real evidence.” Lenkers shot back.

“If you think they’re faked and inadmissible – you should have put that on record here immediately.”

“Indeed, Counsellor Lenkers – that should have been made clear in your pleading that you would like this evidence barred.” The judge interfered.

“For us it was to provide proof that Countess Oeynhausen was disloyally feeding Mr. Bartholomon information while her time still at FuturePowers, your honor.”

“What now – are the emails fabricated fakes? Or genuine leaked information by Countess Oeynhausen?” there was a jeering undertone in Silvia van der Vaals question. “You and your client have to make up your mind, Mijnheer Advocaat Lenkers!”

Thomas Ross had been rummaging through some papers for a while, now he urgently started whispering with the lawyer next to him, who then leaned over to Lenkers.

“Counsellor van der Vaals is right – decide on one version regarding the emails. Mr. Bartholomon – why didn’t you consider suing your employer right then because of the mistranslation and non-consensual changes in your contract?”

“Hmmh – Dr. van der Vaals said that the deadline for that had already expired when I came to her. There was nothing she could do for me – she tried to negotiate some sort of settlement – but with no result. I only went back to her when new problems arose in the job – like with the payment of the new chair for me.”

“Yes – we saw that in the pleading. The mistranslation is another breach of employer obligations we have to consider here. Had you ever thought of looking for a different job Mr. Bartholomon? Switching companies to get out of the difficult situation for you at FuturePowers?”

Even though that was an obvious question, somehow he wasn’t prepared for it. “Yes – I did.” The answer came automatically because he expected that was desired. “But I really liked my job at Future Powers, it was very interesting and exactly what I wanted to do. I invested a lot in it – starting a new life here in the Netherlands. Even being baptized orthodox to get my Greek passport and not need a work visa. That together with the constant negative personal assessment made it difficult for me to find the nerve and inner strength to go apply for other jobs.”

“Did you ever seek professional help in trying to …. keep your weight under control? Try to get diet counseling?”

“I had dieted successfully, was down to 108 kilograms which is not that much for my height when all this started.” This was a question he was prepared for – and had decided on a slightly different response than Katrina had suggested. Looking at the judge openly, he continued: “Your honor, what would you say if you had been denied your promotion to head-judge because you’re half-bald – don’t have a full mop of Greek hair like I do?” eyeing the few odd tufts of hair on the judge’s head. “Had tried lots of treatments that never really worked? That’s what the weight question is for me. I was sent to endless fat camps while I was growing up. Seen many doctors. No matter what I did – it never was good enough. What happened at FuturePowers showed me that my weight could always be turned into an issue – even in a context where it shouldn’t play any role at all.”

“Mr. Bartholomon – you should have sought professional help at the latest when you reached your former highest weight. That you let yourself get to the size you are today proves that you gained this much weight deliberately, that you have been fattening yourself up. To distract from your sub-par professional performance.” Lenkers stated harshly.

“That is not true. I somehow couldn’t stop eating anymore – the situation was too oppressive. That I had to deal with this weight harassment every day.” That was a totally rehearsed answer. “My professional performance always was not only the best I could do. But also what is state of the art in my field and with the best interests of FuturePowers in mind.” Lenkers last point was a good opportunity to get away from the issue of his weight to discuss his work performance instead. “We just received your internal evaluation of my work performance 2 days ago – so could not give a full response yet in writing. From no more than a first reading I can tell you that whoever did that evaluation for you used the wrong calculation based in project one, used outdated data for project three, ignored that the subsidiary of Solar Universe in which FuturePowers wanted to invest has filed for bankruptcy in the meantime.”

Silvia van der Vaals shot him a warning glance but he didn’t care. Now he finally had a chance to talk about that he wanted to and was better at than anyone else in the room. His stomach started to growl with hunger, but he ignored it. For the next almost half hour it was mainly a back and forth between himself and the judge’s assessor who seemed interested with some technical knowledge taking apart FuturePowers’ evaluation.

“Mr. Bartholomon – this is leading us nowhere,” Lenkers finally interrupted him as he turned a page. “You can tell us almost anything about these technical issues – none of us are experts here who can gauge the veracity of your statements. I can assure you the evaluation was done by FuturePowers experts from the US, who no doubt know what they are doing.”

“Well – I strongly doubt that expertise – just from skimming some of the evaluation. Before we accept that, I would suggest a neutral evaluation by a recognized institute – like the ECN here in the Netherlands.” Silvia van der Vaals was wildly shaking her head and pinched his arm, loudly whispering: “No!”

“So you would subject your work at FuturePowers to an independent external evaluation?” the judge asked.

“Of course I would. I am absolutely sure that no objective third party with expertise will find any gross negligence, lack of competence or underachievement in my work.”

“That sounds like a very good idea. I would ask both parties to suggest three possible institutes for the independent evaluation of Mr. Bartholomon’s work projects for FuturePowers. Based on that as well as an analysis of this hearing we will then decide whether there a full court procedure will be taken on – or whether we suggest a settlement. Onderhandeling gesloten.

Before he or Silvia van der Vaals could say anything – Lenkers was at their bench: “Thank you for giving us sufficient evidence today to file criminal charges against Mr. Bartholomon for fraud.”

“Excuse me? Fraud? More evidence was presented today of your clients many employer violations.”

“Don’t be so sure about that. You can’t expect employer leniency for an employee who refuses treatment in a severe health crisis which he has brought upon himself intentionally. You will hear from us.”

Dazed at this interference he looked up at Silvia van der Vaals in questioning, who furrowed her brow and shook her head. “That is an unexpected turn. We will have to wait and see whether or not the criminal charges will even be considered acceptable – but if civil law charges are being pressed, they often are.”

“Does that mean I’ll actually be arrested this time?” a bubble of fear rising.

“No – Alex – that will not happen. It is way too odd as an offence, you have not yet harmed anyone, it wouldn’t even be a case for bail. But I don’t like the sound of it either – it doesn’t make our case any easier,” she hastily scribbled something down. “I actually thought we did a pretty convincing job – never expected you were such a good actor. Coming across as suffering from your weight gain, eating as a compulsory consequence of how FuturePowers treated you- quite the show. But maybe that’s the reason for the criminal charges – they noticed they’re losing here. In that context I even think your idea of an independent evaluation is no longer that bad. It shows you're content and work ethic driven, in contrast to FuturePowers not into procedural tricks.”



“Never expected you were such a good actor…” Silvia van der Vaals comment kept rummaging its way through his mind as he went to his favorite Indonesian eatery close to FuturePowers for lunch as he was starving. The one banana Alexa had urged him to eat was not much as breakfast – and after the deposition he had that ultimate inner void again that cried out for a massive filling. At 2:10 p.m. it was late enough that no former colleagues would be there and they always offered a special deal on the ‘leftovers’ of the day.

After finishing off the content in the two soup pots as well as all starters piled on a platter he leaned back to sip some tea and revisit his deposition mentally in a more structured manner. Having to unravel the events of the last 2-3 years condensed into an equal number of hours confronted him with the massive changes that had occurred in his life, and that he had to re-assess what kind of person he actually was.

Who was the true Alex? The regular guy who had proudly bought himself skinny jeans and tried to survive on two apples a day after a burger dinner in his Sisyphean efforts of being slim aka normal? Or the 400 pounder sitting right here, who felt best when he was so stuffed he could barely breath and got a pulsating hard envisioning going home to the King’s second cousin to have her massage all his excess poundage while feeding him chocolates?

From elementary school onward the message hammered home to him had always been – be good in your academic work, do a good job – then you’ll be fine. Your knowledge and work ethic will make up for you being sub-par socially since you are overweight. Until college, maybe even grad school he had assumed, hoped, deluded himself that one day, one of these diets would finally get rid of those 50-75 extra pounds, turning him into a 100% normal, acceptably thin guy. Overtime he had subconsciously accepted that this was not going to happen, his fate would be to struggle to keep his weight under 250 pounds- but that he could compensate for this deficit by his professional success and being low-maintenance personality-wise. Very much in the line of what Max had confessed regarding how he viewed his relationship to Hannah.

That the issue of his weight had in the end brought professional, not personal defeat had pulled the mental rug out from under his feet. Ironically underpinning this was that since he had gained even more weight, he had achieved never dreamed of social success like attending a royal dinner reception the day after tomorrow with a classy Countess girlfriend. It was totally against the run of the book and standard expectations – and to a certain extent he was still grabbling with this development and trying to figure out what it meant for him.

He had been honest when he had said that there was a compulsive aspect in his weight gain – it was more complex than just deciding to overeat to revenge himself on FuturePowers. It had something to do with the fact of the blow hitting precisely when he had believed to have achieved some diet success; that he had felt particularly wronged in this moment. So there sincerely was the element of frustrated giving-up in his decision to anti-diet.

Feeling the weight of his gut as he shifted in his chair, ripples rocking through the flab he admitted to himself that he liked the sensation, that this might be the body in which he belonged. It had irritated and aggrieved him how people used to view his former body as fat – while in his perception it had been normal, solid, stocky, half-starved with an insignificant bit of chub around the edges. Only after he had crossed the 150 kilogram, or 330 pound mark had he in his mind identified his body as fat. From then on he had been physically pushing a belly that deserved the name ahead of himself, notice it folding over, its load resting in his lap. Feel the flesh wobble when he moved, the gelatinous vibrations running through his middle when he breathed or the especially endearing intense jiggles when he laughed. How reassuring it was to touch this amplitude, here a pat, there a rub, a warm squeeze of a thick bulge.

The discovery that he was physically hauling Alex2.0 around with him, had counter-culturally increased his sense of attachment to his excess body mass – sort of as if his fat had developed a personality of its own. Seeing this vast size in the mirror or pictures retained a shock-effect which he intuitively avoided as far as possible. But looking down at his inflated body, it’s rolling tires and bulges, seeing the gut curve swell into a dome over the course of the day had a comforting authenticity, was a heavy anchor in a turbulent reality.

Finishing off the beef and vegetable stir fries with rice – he knew he didn’t like the fish one – guiding a heaped spoon full to his mouth, the idea suddenly struck him that maybe thin people were more simply wired that fat ones. They ate when they were hungry, stopped eating when they were full – and that was it. They had no connection to the deeper psychology of eating, that food could be a sedative, a stimulant, a steroid, an aphrodisiac, an epiphany, a consolation, or just company, depending on amount and situation. That chewing and swallowing could be a spiritually uplifting ritual, a swelling anatomy the resulting blessing. The lust there was in wrapping his tongue around a tasty bite, the erotic satisfaction a straining stomach could give off.

As he had grown bigger and bigger, he had noticed that he was becoming more and more indifferent to comments about his size. First of all, now he really was very fat – remarking on the blatantly obvious was so trivial it was easier to shrug off. Second, with this weight gain project, for the first time in his life, he had managed to reach physical goals he set himself. The climbing numbers on the scale, the increasing inches around his middle had been a measurable success he had never obtained with his dieting efforts. Deviant as it may be, success was success – enough to give him a subconscious moral boost. Adding to this was that he had always been more relaxed and at peace when he was well fed, which for the past two years had more or less constantly been the case. Not to mention the literally uplifting effect Alexa’s physical and emotional support had on his sense of well-being.

Maybe this was the reason he was not as worried as Silvia van der Vaals was regarding the threat from FuturePowers legal team to file criminal charges against him for fraudulent weight gain. Their thinking was indeed too simplistic and linear. Apart from the fact that he doubted any public prosecutor would pursue that investigation with extreme zeal given its alien nature, he was pretty confident he could convince any psychological evaluation of the emotional harm inflicted on him by the fat bashing he had been confronted with at FuturePowers. From Max he knew that polygraph tests were inadmissible in the European legal system, anything that might come up in standard testing could be handled from his point of view.

Sipping the last of his tea, he leaned back and rubbed the upper layer of flab over his stomach back and forth. It was warmly well-filled, but not necessarily satiated. The day’s turmoil and displeasures asked for more, they needed to be buried under thousands of excess calories until the stupor of fullness hit and overtook conscious thinking. He couldn’t decide what he craved more – something sweet, or more a French style cheese finale. Turning his phone back on, which he forgotten to do earlier, he had a message from Alexa: “Hope my love is bearing up & had best possible day under the circumstances. Comfort brownies are on kitchen table……”

 

agouderia

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Grinning to himself, he paid and lumbered to the tram stop, changing to Bus 90 on arriving downtown to go home, all the while fighting an inner battle whether it was better to return directly. Or to do a stopover – very easy since only 2 blocks off the bus line – at ‘Kaasspecialist’, the best cheese shop in town to have one of their great tasting platters as ‘closer’ of his meal before a sweet dessert. The movement, the jolting and rocking of the bus that made his flab vibrate intensely fueled his appetite – so he got off at the cheese stop to buy some supplies for home, but mainly to give his stomach its cheese fill. After demolishing the large platter, the fullness of his stomach was complemented by that luxurious sense of heaviness only a filling of rich food could give off. Slowly rolling his way back to the bus stop, he was ready for and urgently needed something sweet.

Arriving at home, he had three greedy bites of brownie still in his coat before he took off his suit, changed into sweats and returned to the kitchen to make himself a nice brownie platter with walnut ice cream and liquor cherries. In long, but quick measured bites he dug in, creating that unparalleled blend of warm chocolate, cool cream, chunky nuts and slippery drunken cherries to fill his mouth before sliding down his throat smoothly. Spreading his thighs wide to give it more room, he stuck out his already well-filled gut as far as possible since experience had shown that made it easier to stretch it further to cram in more calories. He let out a deep puff which set off the tiniest of painful pangs under the right side of one of his blubbery flanks. Digging his fingers in the upper curve of his belly, he could sense the harder, stuffed ball underneath all the flab. The layer of excess flesh had gotten so thick by now though that it was increasingly difficult to feel his actual stomach under all the fat.

Heaving himself up to get a drink of water from the refrigerator, he saw the pan of mini cheese-cakes adorable Alexa had also made – probably as dessert for dinner. The ones he loved in particular, that needed to be pitched onto the plate, almond caramel then oozing out over the cheese. The pan held 12 of the little cakes – so he might have two of them now as a sweet starter. Carefully trying to push two on the plate, a third also released itself on tumbled on the side. Oh well – he could certainly finish it too. As the gooey vanilla-y mass hit his taste buds, he let out a low moan of pleasure intensified by cool hands kneading their way from his side-rolls to feel up his gorged gut.

“Oh dear, somebody really needs comfort after his court day,” Alexa whispered and started to nibble on his double chin. “The Amsterdam head of department called in sick, my last meeting was cancelled, so I came home as fast as I could.”

“Thank you…,” he murmured turning his head to give her a sugary kiss. “Can you feed me these in bed, massage my belly while doing it….?”




For the at least third time he tugged at the constricting stiff collar and checked the mirror again whether this move made his white bow tie go lop-sided.

“You look fine, very representational. Stop worrying,” Max reassured him, drinking more tea. “Problem is more – when will the girls be ready? Time is running out. It really wasn’t necessary to let Josie come ‘help’ Alexa get dressed up, by the way.”

“Well – she’s so crazy about all the royal court stuff, Alexa thought she’d like it. Plus it’s making up for not taking her along when we visited the costume department at the opera in Munich. She was so disappointed. We’re honestly sorry we hadn’t thought about it. Her next birthday present will be one of the kids costume design courses there – Freya does them. Josie’ll certainly love it.”

“Of course she’ll love it. You two are spoiling my kids, especially my daughters rotten. Produce some kids of your own for your excess of great kiddie ideas, activities and presents,” Max grumbled. “How was your deposition by the way?”

The insinuation of kids of his and Alexa’s in combination with the question about the deposition sent a wave of uncomfortable heat through him.
“Umm… I thought that’s what I’m expected to do as godfather. Dr. van der Vaals said I did a good job – but she didn’t like the reaction of FuturePowers’ legal team afterwards … I don’t want to talk about that now …. I’m nervous enough as it is…”

“Relax – all you’re expected to do is stand in line with Alexa, smile, bow, shake hands, sit down and eat. You can do that.”

A patter of feet was heard on the stairs and Josie called: “Here comes the princess on her way to the royal reception…”

In the small hallway, they lined up to see Alexa come down the stairs in slow, dignified steps. Although he had seen her in all sorts of festive attires before, this was different. This was their first official attendance together – and he suddenly realized how some of his married friends from school must have felt when they saw their wives-to-be coming towards them down the aisle, in full bridal gear – and why they had such funny looks on their faces in that moment. It was a mixture of awe, humble pride, disbelief and slight unease whether he could live up to the regal vision by his side.

The dress was a muted pale blue, with some silvery touch to it, skimming along the curves of her body and ending in fabric waves trailing behind her. At the top it was off the shoulder, highlighting a lot of Alexa’s impressive marble bust cleavage – underlined by her wearing a matching set of aquamarine jewelry with necklace, earrings and even tiara in her up-do. This was not his Alexa, the wonderful girl who bit into his belly fat giggling – this was Countess Alexandra going to meet her cousin the King. His mouth went dry and all he could utter was: “Wowww!”

“Alexandra is wearing the aquamarine jewelry she inherited from her great-aunt Countess Isolde – even the tiara, she had it delivered from the bank,” an excited Josie supplied the details. “The set was made in 1937 in art-deco style with stones Lady Isolde’s fiancée who was killed in the war was given by his grandmother!”

“My daughter is right, you look like a princess, Alexa. I’m seriously jealous of Alex he gets to accompany you.”

“You’re not a princess – you look like a queen…,” somehow he blurted this silliness and stretched out his hand to help her down the last steps. In front of the mirror he draped her cloak around her to leave, not being able to resist giving her naked shoulder a small, appreciatory kiss.

She smiled at him in the mirror: “I do think we could pass as Prince & Princess Alexander….”

“Alex doesn’t reaaaally look like a prince…,” Josie blurted out this uncomfortable observation to then blush almost purple. She was old and especially perceptive enough to realize that the proverbial truth from the children’s mouths was not always appreciated as she registered the following awkward silence. He could see her fighting with tears of embarrassment, so he muttered to break the leaden hush: “Yeah, I know – I look like the fattest giant penguin ever to escape Antarctica in this get up….,” in turn causing Alexa and Max to frown at him.

“You … you … look like …. the … the big strong man who protects the princess…,” she brought this out in a strangled voice, closing her eyes.

“Good girl,” Max said sotto-voce, kissing his little girl’s head. “Alex is the massive, protective body-guard here for our princess Alexandra…”

“Yes Josie – the colonel of my own personal Life Guards….” Alexa gave him a small kiss and her an amused look.

“You guys need to get going – you still have the drive to Amsterdam,” Max half pushed them out the house.

He took the wheel, taking off his tailcoat since Alexa couldn’t well drive with train and heels. She routed him into the city, showed the special pass they had for entering the pedestrian zone, where the Royal Palace was located. At the rear entrance, he could hand over the car to a parking valet, something which must also have been arranged as the nearest parking garages were too far off for Alexa to walk comfortably in the wet cold in her outfit.


From then on it actually was much like Max had predicted – they stood in line, every once in a while Alexa exchanged a few words with people she knew. One younger woman also seemed quite interested in him and what he did, but he remained vague. Unfortunately their pictures were taken several times. He always tried to maneuver Alexa in front of him to camouflage some of his width, straining his neck to minimize the double-chin with a fake smile. Then they shook hands with the dignitaries – Prime and Foreign Minister as well as some other officials – before reaching the King and Queen. Alexa curtsied to and cheek-kissed both, he bowed and shook hands, got a: “Very pleased to meet you,” before they were ushered on. The King quickly said something on the side to Alexa in what he thought was German not Dutch, but then it was over.

With several others they were lead to their assigned seats at one of the top tables, Alexa with the German Ambassador and he with the Ambassadress from Botswana as dinner partners, a minor initial shock. It proved a lot easier than expected – there were many speeches before and during the dinner, so most of the time listening and eating was the thing to do. Ambassadress Grace turned out to be great, herself a very big woman and human rights lawyer, who actually knew Max because she had clerked at the IIC before her diplomatic stint in the Netherlands, so there couldn’t have been a more pleasant conversation. As everything wound down, he was in a relaxed after dinner mood, only regretting he couldn’t have any of the digestives as he was driving. “Can you tell me where I can organize the car for us?” he wrapped his fingers around Alexa’s hand.

“Not quite yet – we’re expected downstairs in 10 minutes.”

Going through several large rooms and galleries, along side-corridors and down a smaller staircase, he looked around with interest at the recently refurbished rooms, regretting he hadn’t brought the camera: “If Josie could see us know, strolling through the palace freely like this….”

Finally they entered a smaller, cozier room with several arm chairs around a fireplace with a cart of drinks. Surveying the portraits, trying to figure out in which part of the large building they were, he hadn’t quite sorted out the situation when the door opened and the King entered, followed by the Queen, still in their formal attire. They both hugged Alexa and before he could say or do anything, the King took his hand to shake it warmly, half stopping him as he too late remembered to bow.
“Please- this is private,” he said in English. “So you’re Alex too – right? Alex’s Alex?”

“Yes – Your Maj…”

“Not necessary – it’s just Alex in the family circle..”

“Does it bring good luck to be alone with 3 Alexes in one room?” Queen Maxima laughed and shook his hand too. “Or must I leave since this is a for-Alexes-only-event?” He couldn’t help but smile back at her dopily – it was true what the tabloids wrote, it was sheer impossible to elude her sunny, infectious charm. “We wanted to meet Alex’s new partner – especially since we heard from Charlie how happy you and everybody in the family are you found each other. You’re American right? How have your experiences here in the Netherlands been – I always like to compare notes with other fellow immigrants...” Before he knew it, he was chatting away with the Queen of the Netherlands, semi-overhearing the King and Alexa exchange family news in a mix of English and German.

To prepare for the event, he had done some reading on the Dutch royal family, the structures of the court, and the history of the palace to not commit any too uneducated gaffes.

“How about something to drink?” it felt odd to be asked this by a head of state. “I’m having a beer.. want one too? I deserve one after this day,” with a defensive shrug at his wife’s raises eyebrows.

“No thank you – I’m the driver. There is also coffee, yes?” seeing what looked like a coffee thermos on the cart.

“Here’s your coffee. Would you like some cookies and chocolates with it?”

“Umm … no thank you – I really shouldn’t…,” he tried to smooth his waistcoat around the bulging curve of his middle.

“That sentence has ruled my life,” Willem-Alexander sighed. “A hefty build runs in our family too – I’ve been on a diet more or less non-stop. As a public figure nowadays, especially one who is expected to be a sort of role-model – you have to do everything to keep your weight as low as possible. Otherwise the media, especially the tabloids go into fat bashing overdrive. We’re very worried what our daughters will face growing into teenagers now. Be grateful you can eat what you want – enjoy Alexa’s wonderful cuisine and her love for the bigger gentleman,” he winked at Alexa.

“I am deeply grateful I have found both in Alexa sir …,” cursing himself for the last gaffe.

“You two met at work – tell me, what’s your opinion on the progress the Netherlands are making towards a renewable energy economy?” Although he could tell their Majesties were absolute communication pros, used to speaking to all kinds of people about almost every issue imaginable, they did convey a bit more than professional routine in this little chat. Something like genuine extended family interest which lasted for almost two hours.


After he had helped Alexa into the car and they headed off, he grumbled: “That was a very nice evening – but you should’ve warned me that the schedule had a foursome with …. with … your cousin and his wife..,” Calling them Alex&Max seemed too familiar, the King and Queen in contrast over the top, the royals too ironic – so the technically correct seemed safest.

Alexa laughed and leaned her head against his thick upper arm. “I didn’t want to run the risk…”

“What risk?”

“Of you bailing on me because you were expected to be within 5 meters of the majesties for longer than 90 seconds. So I opted for the surprise tactic since I was 105% sure you’d like them in person and enjoy the evening.”

“That isn’t fair. I’ve been trying very hard … well …. how to say …. to live up to your aristo-social expectations…..”

“I’ve noticed very well how hard you’re trying and strongly appreciate it. You’re doing an excellent job. I was extremely happy and proud to attend with you this evening, you looked so stately and imposing,” She cuddled the flesh bulges of his arm. “Although it’s unfair, I believe it was the better solution for both of us. You can’t agonize over something you don’t know – especially when there’s objectively nothing to agonize about. That saved me many futile discussions – which might even have led to you not coming, thus creating a big unnecessary hurdle we’d have to tackle again some other time. In my opinion – that was worth my risk of you losing some trust in my openness. Because I do hope you trust me that I will never do anything to hurt you or that isn’t good for you…”

The last sentence hung in the car, it took him some time distracted by driving to understand its significance. The only feasible answer to that was yes. It might qualify only as a white lie – after all he believed her more than anyone else in his adult life that she meant well for him. So he leaned his head on hers: “Ouch” – the peak of her tiara poking him very painfully right next to the eye.

“What’s wrong?”

“Your tiara almost poked me in the eye!,” seeing her put her hand over her mouth in a vain attempt to quench the bubbling laughter. “Even if it does, I believe you it was intended as a well-meant aristo-kick in the ass …”
 

Tad

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Lovely! I'm glad to finally see the court case started, but nice to match that with meeting the royals :)

And this paragraph:

Finishing off the beef and vegetable stir fries with rice – he knew he didn’t like the fish one – guiding a heaped spoon full to his mouth, the idea suddenly struck him that maybe thin people were more simply wired that fat ones. They ate when they were hungry, stopped eating when they were full – and that was it. They had no connection to the deeper psychology of eating, that food could be a sedative, a stimulant, a steroid, an aphrodisiac, an epiphany, a consolation, or just company, depending on amount and situation. That chewing and swallowing could be a spiritually uplifting ritual, a swelling anatomy the resulting blessing. The lust there was in wrapping his tongue around a tasty bite, the erotic satisfaction a straining stomach could give off.

I'm sure some thin people get that to, but overall when reading that I felt like letting out a cheer and a fist-pump, a reaction of "Yes, you nailed it!"
 

fat hiker

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Wow, great writing. Great trial scene. And the meeting with the Royals....

One tiny quibble from a (former) Foreign Service Officer - the title 'Ambassadress' is literally 60 years out of date. Even in Europe, that title hasn't been heard since the 1950s.....
 

agouderia

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Thank you everybody for the kind words.

One tiny quibble from a (former) Foreign Service Officer - the title 'Ambassadress' is literally 60 years out of date. Even in Europe, that title hasn't been heard since the 1950s.....

I know that .... only Alex doesn't.... ;)

We see the story from his perspective, and he has his issues with all the title and protocol questions, so that's how he would call her when re-telling his story.

Here's the next chapter of it....
 

agouderia

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XVIII.

EVIL ENERGIES – a royal New Years reception high lights an unsettling case of work place harassment, weight discrimination and labor law malpractice by international companies in the Netherlands

It’s the regular line of well-wishers at the King’s New Year’s Reception for members of the Diplomatic Corps and international organizations, nothing out of the ordinary. One man maybe stands out because he is not only tall, but also massively rotund, with an air of quiet sadness to his persona. Plus he is accompanying one of the most stunning ladies. An ash-blonde beauty, resplendent with tiara indicating her own nobility: Alexandra Countess Oeynhausen-Sierstorpff, second cousin to His Majesty through his father, the late Prince Claus. Her partner, Alexander Bartholomon, a renewable energy engineer, has a so far unknown story to tell: A tragic one of weight discrimination and employer fraud.

To understand the magnitude of the workplace tragedy unfolding here, take a look at the picture gallery of Bartholomon’s former employer (www.FuturePowers.nl). One image of the company’s Christmas party shows a man who vaguely resembles Alexander Bartholomon, but is only about half the size of the one we see today. A handsome man in the Mediterranean type with bright blue eyes, hunky with a comfortable, stable body type. By no means what should be called fat unless you’re talking male models. So what happened in the little over two years that brought on an estimated 80 kilograms, unemployment and a grueling lawsuit?

Bartholomon, who has a M.S. in Engineering Economics from renown University of California Berkeley, came to work for FuturePowers, a US renewable energy company that invests in innovative projects here in Europe four years ago. He holds US and Greek citizenship, the latter which he explicitly activated to take up the job here in The Hague. Previously FuturePowers had failed in correctly completing the necessary procedures to obtain Dutch work permits for their non-EU staff. As former colleagues confirm, part of the deal was that Bartholomon was to be promoted to Head of EU project development within two years.
Instead of that happening, we could reconstruct the following course of events:

> September 2013, Bartholomon received a new Dutch contract – which was limited to 36 months instead of the previous unlimited one. The English translation (he does not speak Dutch well) supplied by FuturePowers was false in the crucial passages.

> January 2015 – the senior position promised to Mr. Bartholomon is given to Patricia Elizabeth Harding, who has a background in international relations and not engineering, had so far worked only as an intern in development projects. Critical comments about Bartholomon’s weight (then app. 105 kg to 1.85 m) are circulated by senior management.

> May 2015 – Bartholomon is taken off 3 important FuturePowers projects. FuturePowers declares its cafeteria all vegan.

> November 2015 – open harassment begins as Bartholomon is relegated to back office work and can no longer represent FuturePowers to partners, allegedly over his increased weight and appearance.

> Spring 2016 – Bartholomon’s office chair, which did not meet safety standards for a grown man his height from the beginning, disintegrates. FuturePowers wants to make him pay to pay 75% of the cost of a new chair befitting his size out of pocket.
FFCT Capital becomes majority shareholder of FuturePowers US mother company.

> Summer 2016 – FuturePowers is understaffed as many employees unsatisfied with the management leave. Bartholomon is asked repeatedly to fill in for other senior representatives despite his back-office status being officially upheld.

> August 2016 – FuturePowers tries to have Bartholomon arrested for trespassing on their premises. The police discover that due to internal mismanagement, the dismissal barring him from the company was never delivered to Bartholomon. In turn he files his law suit against FuturePowers, demanding re-instatement into his original US contract and damages of € 184.000 for weight discrimination and harassment.

“The story illustrates a growing problem we are facing here on the Dutch labor market. Many international companies, due to a favorable model for taxing holdings have opted for the Netherlands as their EU base. Often they forget that it’s not only tax law that comes with the deal, but they also have to conscientiously apply all Dutch laws, like the labor code. We’re no banana republic. What FuturePowers has shown here is what I’d call worst practice of negligent to illegal employer behavior,” comments Prof. Wim Heetsma from the Labor Law Department at Leiden University who sees potential in Bartholomon’s case. “Although Mr. Bartholomon initially did not qualify for protection against weight discrimination as his weight was within normal limits, it is safe to assume that his employers gross misconduct in his case – be it the fraudulent contract changes or participation of senior executives in workplace harassment – was what triggered his significant weight gain. In similar cases we can often find that aggrieved employees turn to drink, substance abuse, other self-harming activities or become depressed or have acute psycho-somatic illnesses. Uncontrollable eating certainly falls into this category – and it is his employer who is to be held responsible. Especially since there seems to be quite some evidence to the fact that Mr. Bartholomon’s work performance remained solid, dependable and highly qualified over the time.”

The assessment from a socio-psychological point of view comes to similar results - Dr. Anna Fredericks from the European Federation of Psychologist’s Associations: “So far, we’re mainly knowledgeable about weight discrimination and lookism targeted at women. Men have mostly been spared, but as we can see in the case of Alexander Bartholomon, this is changing.” she elaborates in her small office in Amsterdam. “I was truly shocked when learning the story. It shows how BMI pathologizes millions of completely normal people whose weight has no effects whatsoever on their abilities to perform their regular jobs. What renders Mr. Bartholomon’s employers conduct so particularly heinous is that eating disorders – be it anorexia or compulsive overeating – are the addictions which are most easily triggered by discrimination and harassment. Especially for people who have always had trouble keeping their weight in the narrow accepted corridor. So to a certain extent you can say the FuturePowers created a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding Mr. Bartholomon’s massive weight gain.”

FuturePowers as company refused to comment on the allegations. Advocaat Arjen Lenkers, who represented them in court, issued a short statement in writing: “At the present point in the ongoing case, we cannot comment on details. Only so much that FuturePowers fully challenges the content of Mr. Bartholomon’s law suit. The pre-hearing has actually provided us with sufficient evidence that the plaintiff’s weight gain was intentional and this constitutes employee fraud to cover for his incompetent work performance. Our client considers filing criminal charges.”

These claims by his employer cannot be substantiated when talking to Alexander Bartholomon’s former colleagues and business partners. “Alex was a great colleague, a real technical expert in the field, always keeping up to date with new developments,” an ex-co-worker who does not wish to be named elaborates. “Also a regular, uncomplicated guy, open and easy-going, ready to help out when needed.” Asked whether he had noticed anything about Mr. Bartholomon’s weight and eating habits, he shakes his head. “Same there – Alex was on the chubby side, liked good food and drink, but always tried to watch his weight, dieted after he had gained a few pounds. Very normal - like many of us who aren’t naturally skinny. After he didn’t get the promotion, we could tell how hard that hit him. As management put more and more pressure on him, excluded him from many things, he started eating more, withdrawing from us as colleagues, just doing his work as far as possible on his own. Parallel management came up with a vegan regime we were all supposed to follow – he openly rejected that, isolating himself and giving into what did look like frustration eating. Workwise real trouble started after he was fired – when there was nobody left with the competence to check technical details. Now FuturePowers has had to outsource some of his work to engineering offices.”

Similar opinions can be heard from BME (Bio-Mass-to-Energy), a Dutch-Danish consortium working on new procedures to convert bio mass into various forms of energy. “Alex Bartholomon was an excellent partner at FuturePowers for our project. High level of expertise, pushing us to fine-tune new procedures, bringing in ideas of his own. After he left, there was nobody there we could talk to anymore. Negotiations regarding FuturePowers investing in BME currently have stalled – we don’t know what’ll happen next. If Alex wants a new job though, he can join our team anytime he wants.”

The record of Bartholomon’s professional qualifications is underlined by the fact that he has recently been invited as speaker at a number of industry conferences and a paper of his can be found in the current issue of the prestigious ‘International Renewable Energy Digest’ (www.int-red.org).

On a positive note it seems that Bartholomon at least has the best of personal support in his difficult situation, not only from his beautiful partner Lady Alexandra. The pair was seen leaving the reception to presumably join their Majesties in the private wing of the Royal Palace.

Mareike Linners for De Telegraaf, Amsterdam



The article lay on his desk, in Dutch from the paper edition of De Telegraaf, together with a print out of the online version in English (identical according to Alexa). Mayhem hat set in on Tuesday morning at 6:44 a.m. with a call from a sleepy frazzled Silvia van der Vaals barking at him about something he had no clue of whatsoever just as he had been cuddling Alexa in their pre-wake-up. The very rainy weekend after the royal New Year’s reception had been wonderfully cozy; they had stayed in and he had done a great photo shoot of Alexa in her court finery. And some with a lack of finery, more on the kinky side, like nude ones with only her tiara holding together her bountiful breasts.

From then on everything went topsy-turvy: As early as 9:00 he found himself in Silvia van der Vaals office, defending himself in the fire-line of an inquisition. “Yes – that was the journalist I saw at the New Year’s reception – we spoke about 5 sentences. I told her I liked living in The Hague and said absolutely nothing about my job, only that I was an engineer. For all I can tell it might as well have been someone here in your firm who blabbed!”

“That’s definitely not the case! No one here does anything like that – we can trust all people working here 105%! What were you doing at a royal New Year’s reception in the first place? You had to know there would be coverage!”

“Alexa had an invitation – and asked me to come. Hell – I didn’t care for it, having to dress up like a penguin!” he clenched his fists in frustration. “There were hundreds of people there, much more important than I am. Had I known that anyone would think of writing only a word about me in a newspaper – I never would’ve giving into Alexa’s insistence of coming along as her partner!”

“Is the insinuation true at the end that there even was a private meeting afterwards with their Majesties, on which the palace refuses to comment?”

“Yes, we had beer and coffee – a chat afterwards! I had no idea anyone was watching where we were going at the end of the reception.”

“What were you thinking – going for a meeting with the King and Queen in your situation?”

“I didn’t even know we were to meet them! Alexa surprised me with that – suddenly they were in the room with us! And it was private! It was just Alexa introducing me to some extended family!”

“Extended family! Alex – sometimes I can’t get over how incredibly naïve you are!”

Once more Katrina’s entering saved him: “Silvia – I made some calls, talked to several people. I don’t think you can blame Alex for anything, except attending the event at all. It seems that De Telegraaf’s legal editor is doing a series on labor law glitches, wronged employees, etc. …. and somehow must have gotten hold of our case. Most likely a leak at the labor court registry. Alex’s private relationship of course gives it spiced up tabloid appeal – his partner being extended kin of the King. Using that in the context of the New Year’s reception, where they even got good, extensive photos of him was just the best sales angle.”

“Hmmh,” Silvia van der Vaals grunted. „What about all the private stuff? The really detailed workplace background? You don’t get that from plain chatting with a former colleague. It’s too detailed, precise – thankfully positive for Alex….”

“No clue so far. It seems the legal, economics and royal watching sections of De Telegraaf pooled resources on the story. I’ll see if I can find out more.”


Alexa was also highly displeased and snapped up like a cool shell, narrowing her eyes when the issue came up. Only Max thought it was hilarious: “Now you’ve even turned into Josie’s poster boy. She bought a copy of the paper with her pocket-money and cut out the article with the pictures of you, Alexa and the royals to put on her pin-board. Of course she’s totally on your side and thinks FuturePowers should be sent to jail. I had to stop her from discussing your case in show-and-tell by threatening to never invite Alexa again.” He grinned. “More seriously – I don’t think it’s such a bad development for you. Companies don’t like their law suits splashed all over the news – you can only win the case against the tabloids if you have 150% of the good arguments on your side. And they really bought into you – dating the King’s cousin, looking like a very fat but cute, kind teddy bear. Make the most of it.”

Wednesday brought another article, this time covering the criminal charges of fraudulent weight gain by FuturePowers, filed on Tuesday morning at 8:50 a.m. – as Silvia van Vaals presumed without having read the papers. “After the article that was pretty negative for them such a move is bound to be counterproductive.”

His personal email account was breaking down with requests for interviews – he had to set up a new one. Fortunately Alexa’s phone number was not listed and nobody seemed to have let out his mobile one either. Katrina informed him that they had no less than 37 interview requests for Silvia van der Vaals and even 62 for him. “Of course we’re not doing any of that.”

Discussions of the articles on the various comments sites had him alternating between relief and despair. There was a lot of fat bashing, saying it was all his fault that he had been so fat to then get even fatter. But the scale tipped more in direction of understanding that being tricked out of a contract was awful, that such employer behavior had to be sanctioned, that he had to be a nice guy because he had such a classy girlfriend. Especially people who had suffered from some form of harassment themselves were very sympathetic.


On Thursday shortly after noon Alexa returned from work extremely early. “My boss sent me home – he says I have other things to take care of now. Alex, we need to talk. I’m in the article and pictures too – we can no longer act as if it’s none of my business. Have you had lunch yet?”

“Umm – no. Was so busy trying to sort my email account, forgot totally about it.”

“Okay – why don’t you make us a vegetable leftovers salad – while I get some apple-pancakes started…. the ones with yeast you like so much?”

Sitting at the table, Alexa spread bread with cream dip taking a deep breath: “I got 2 important calls. One from the chief legal advisor of the King – he asked whether I, you needed any help. The royal press office issued a rather sharp response saying that the King was absolutely not party in any way regarding what is a civil law suit. And that meeting with me is a private family matter.”

“What did you tell the advisor?”

“I said that I’m not subject to any legal matter in this case. That from what I could tell you’re in good hands with Silvia van der Vaals. And that trying to influence the opposing side through their firm would not come across well.”

“Okay – his answer?”

“He agreed with me. Although he might not be quite objective,” Alexa gave him a sly grin. “It turns out he is Silvia van der Vaals’ half-brother. This really is a small country.” Letting him shake his head in disbelief. “Speaking of which, their press office gave me a lead where the leak for all the more personal work related information might be found. Mareike Linners’ husband works for the mayor’s office in Rotterdam. So does Jan – right? Leo’s husband?

“Yeah – I think so. He’s in charge of their community outreach or something like that.”

“Would fit. I think the husband is head of social services.”

“You know I’m not good at this stuff. Is there anything we need to do? Talk to Jan? I don’t really want to do anything official….”

“No – nothing. Just keep the connection in mind. They’ll deny it – and at the end of the day, what they said about you was positive and supportive. As annoyed as I initially was, the more I think about it, the better this little press storm might be for you. Max probably is right. Which leads me to question 2. My mom called. A colleague of hers from FW’s employment desk in London wants to cover the case, at best with an exclusive interview with you.”

“What does Abbie say- did she simply relay the message? Or does she have an opinion on it?”

“In this case, Abbie is more journalist than mother. Naturally, she can’t stand in the way of her colleagues covering the story. She’s also house-proud enough to advise you doing it in her paper, not somewhere else.”

“What do you think?”

“Well – if anyone from your side is going to talk to the press at all, FW would be a good address. Quality journalism, broad reader base in the European and international business community.”

With a groan, he covered his eyes, shook his head and felt his belly mass sink more heavily on his thighs as he leaned over: “So you think I should do it? I can’t tell you how much I hate it that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people know exactly how fat I am, the incredible amount of weight I’ve gained. There is no word for how embarrassing that is… then those pics, the bad before ones, the awful new as a super-obese penguin – I look ridiculous …. ”

She stood up and wrapped her arms around him, nuzzling his plump cheeks and fondling his belly. “You know you don’t. You look great – imposingly big, very sophisticated. The one in which you’re talking to Ambassador Metembo – you look like a CEO. And I love the ones of us together, we look like a happy, well-matched couple. The best dressed ones of you I have,” she kissed him. “Again – don’t agonize over things that are either not there or don’t really reach you. If you want my opinion, then I think Silvia van der Vaals should give an official interview on the legal background and reasoning of your story. You don’t have anything to say on that – and your actual story has been convincingly presented by others. No need for redundancy. It’s more important to move your story away from the personal level. On to the general lessons there are to be learned in HR, managing workplace environments and employee interactions, advancement of EU laws, fighting weight discrimination, etc. Let Silvia van der Vaals do that, give her the okay to talk to Mommy’s colleague.”


On Saturday the story appeared in FW’s Europe edition including the interview with Silvia van der Vaals – and once more his day consisted of reaction reading.
On Sunday morning at 7:12 a.m. he was torn out of deep sleep by his phone ringing: “Morning Alex – did I wake you? It’s Zoë.”

“Zoë – are you drunk …. calling at this hour on Sunday? Forgot time-zone difference?”

“No – only have a long, odd layover here in Amsterdam Schipol, until 17h00 this afternoon. Can you come see me … so we can have coffee, talk. I read yesterday’s FW…..”

With a groan he rolled half out of bed, knowing not going would make her catastrophe imagination go into overdrive: “Yeah – okay – I’ll be there in about 50 minutes. Wait in the lobby of the Airport Sheraton, that’s easy for me to get to and find you.”

“What’s up?” Alexa yawned.

“Zoë – at Schipol with an 8 hour layover.”

“8 hour layover in Schipol on a London – US flight – on a Sunday? Sounds weird…”

“Yeah – you’re right. But some of the cheaper flights have crazy routings these days… probably spent the weekend with friends. Can I please borrow the car?”

“Of course – you know where the keys are. Say hi to Zoë – but I think it’s better if I stay here.”


After gulping down a coffee he drove the 23 miles to the airport, picked up Zoë to take her for breakfast to a nice café he knew in nearby Haarlem. Tactically assuming that a pleasant atmosphere and the incredible cute city appeal would soften and distract her from the difficult talk coming up. It worked for the first half, they chatted about all sorts of things over breakfast. Only as they went for a stroll along one of the quaint old canals in a stormy wind, did she link arms and lean into his soft side.

“Alex- you know I read the FW article – also the original one in the Telegraaf. It sort of pulled together all things I noticed about you in the past two years. I always had the feeling something was wrong and you weren’t telling me the truth,” he hung in head although she sounded more sad than accusatory. “You don’t need to explain much, I think I understand the essence. Only one question – with a really honest answer please. Will you do that?”

With a sigh, he nodded, knowing that in explaining the situation to the rest of the family he needed Zoë on his side. His dad occasionally read the FW – so the news was bound to reach his parents now. “Yeah, I will.”

“Is it true what FuturePowers is accusing you of – that you deliberately gained so much weight to be able to sue them?”

“Yes – and no.”

“What do you mean exactly?”

He leaned into the old wrought iron railing of the balustrades and stared into the sky. “After I found out how FuturePowers tricked me out of my regular contract and promotion, it was a particular blow to find out that all my hard work dieting, losing 18 kilograms had been totally counterproductive. That being really fat in my case offered more legal protection than doing my best to be the slimmest version of myself I could manage to be. Looking back – I think that killed something in me. So yes, there was an actual decision to stop dieting, eat what I want and gain weight in the process. But there is more to it …. It was also finally admitting to myself that I was never going to fit the slim standard. And that if I was to be subject to fat bashing anyway my entire life, I might as well really enjoy it, the food, the eating, all the indulgences. Since it didn’t matter anyway. Can you understand? I don’t think I’m a scheming deviant – I just gave up trying to meet expectations that are out of my reach – instead giving in to what nature seems to have intended for me ….,” he sighed again because it sounded so convoluted and irrational.

Zoë nodded slowly though and slid her arms around his middle, getting him to wrap her into his belly. “I can’t say I can really follow that line of thinking. But I can sense that you’ve become more you over the past two years.” She looked up at him. “Do you know that you would never let me cuddle into you like this for warmth? Always held me in your arms but away from your body, so I couldn’t feel your actual flesh. Since you’re so much bigger, you’re much more relaxed about it – I already noticed that last year in London. Or when I saw you before Christmas, with the Berger children, with Alexa – I’ve never seen your posture and attitude be so sure of yourself. Even though you finally told me about your job problems.
Outwardly it may seem wrong – but in some way it must be right for you.”

He hugged her even tighter murmuring: “Thank you so much.”

“As I already said last year, I can’t tell you how sorry I am we were always so hard on you because of your weight. I’m starting to fully grasp how much harm we all did to you.” Her eyes were wet. “So I’m very, very happy for you that you’ve found people, a different family, who’s a lot better at letting everybody be who they are. Alexa is lovely, her family seems great – keep them if you can.”
 

agouderia

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“Mein armer dicker Liebling” – my poor fat darling – that was probably the German phrase he heard most during their weeks in Berlin. Alexa was exceedingly strict with him regarding the total language immersion experience, pointing out that all his efforts with 5 hours of German lessons 5 days a week wouldn’t amount to much if they spoke English at home. Only Saturday night was English night, when he could try to get a week’s storage of messages across to her – those he thought had been missed as he had haplessly tried to formulate in German. No radio or TV in English either – only the incredibly boring or sometimes bizarre German channels and programs.

Not even a visit from Fritz and Abbie brought any respite, as he groused to her: “I thought you as my 100% compatriot would be more supportive, not also insist on your entire visit being in German!”

“Supportive of your efforts learning German is exactly what I am dear Alex! Be a good ambassador of your country, disprove all these arrogant European prejudices that we Americans are too stupid to learn a foreign language.”

It was the most mentally exhausting thing he had ever done in his life – he had never imagined how much concentration was needed and how tiring it was to function in a different language all day long. A conference contact had also invited him to do a stint at the German renewable energy agency two afternoons a week, so together with the homework he had to do, keeping their daily routine in Berlin running to spare Alexa too many household chores, he was so busy he wearily fell asleep on the couch almost every night.

On top of that came many social events and obligations: The film-festival, the extensive offers from dozens of theaters, concert-halls and museums, old friends and colleagues of Alexa’s to catch up with. The latter was an insightful experience: From their initial reactions to him and his size, he could almost instantly tell for how long and how well they knew her. True friends reacted very naturally, with friendly enthusiasm for their happy relationship and made sure he got the lion’s share of anything eatable. What could be called more loose acquaintances mostly struggled to keep their facial features in line, would keep letting their eyes wander to his middle in appalled fascination and inevitably turned the conversation to extensive diet talk sometime over the course of the meeting.

Ironically, their stay was turning into something like the Berlin-Diet for him. And he started to understand why Alexa and family spoke of the city with little appreciation to honest loathing, coming from Cologne based John. During the past years, he had visited Berlin three times, always in the summery half of the year to find it very enjoyable: Green, sprawling, rather sunny and pretty calm with attractive waterways. Fun cultural life, a vibrant international restaurant and party scene paired with a visible absence of too serious business life. Berlin winter was a totally different story much more reminiscent of Siberia. It was gloomy-gray for weeks, with something claiming to be daylight only from 9 a.m.-3.p.m. topped off by icy cold. After grad school and first jobs on the West Coast, then the years in the mild Netherlands he was out of practice handling true winter cold. With daytime highs of partially only – 12°C/10°F they spent most of the time at home thawing, eating as much hot liquid as possible: porridge for breakfast, then gallons of soup and stew throughout the rest of the day. In the evenings, they’d sit wrapped around each other under two blankets snoozing off from cold fatigue. Alexa would slide her icy hands under his belly to warm them murmuring: “I’m so, so grateful you came along. Without you here I would’ve frozen to death.”

Still, with all the coughing and sneezing in the underground and busses, they both caught bad colds which completely reduced their appetites to hot liquids. After only a week he could tell his new clothes were getting loose and that he had to go down a notch on his belt almost every week. Despite registering this as potentially positive, his mindset regarding his weight underwent dramatic swings. Living with Alexa, enjoying the holiday season, his comfortable routines in The Hague and on vacation in Bavaria, he had adapted well to the massive weight gain; most of the time had actually viewed the heavy body he now had to manage as an enrichment, not necessarily a burden. Rolling along on his bike or lumbering over the springy, comfortable underground of the dikes or packed sand on the beach at his own speed was enjoyable and stimulating. Slipping along over ice covered sidewalks in Berlin, always in fear of falling and injuring himself to totter onto the hard concrete of extremely smelly underground tunnel walkways with his flesh wobbling uncontrollably was in contrast extremely uncomfortable. With the cold that congested his sinuses he was constantly gasping for breath, panting and wheezing as he bumbled along to get to language school. More than once did he curse himself for having let himself get so extremely fat – 160 kilograms would’ve been enough, almost 190 kg really were not necessary. Distances in Berlin were far, the city was more like an American one with endless blocks, where walking a mile got you almost nowhere. His feet ached and he wore out the soles of two pairs of winter shoes over the course of their stay.


The actual language course was the expected mixed bag: Initially it had been a rewarding affirmation to be moved directly into beginner level 2 – hearing so much German around Alexa and Max over the past year did have some effect. Especially his listening comprehension was much better than that of any of his class mates. Meeting them the first day was his scariest moment. Every new school year, he had always prayed that there would be someone fatter than he was in his class. On entering the class room now he knew there was a chance that he might be as heavy as all four other participants together. They did give his girth little side stares, but as grown up professionals were all too polite to comment. It was only odd when he was paired with the Korean university lecturer, who barely reached his shoulder and probably weighed a third of what he did, making him feel very out of place.

His main teacher, Beate, actually was great. A tall, very plump Valkyrie herself, she started their first lesson by bringing a home baked cake and talking about visiting friends for a typical German afternoon coffee and cake. Thanks to Alexa, Julia and Dagmar, he excelled in this session because he knew the names of all the cakes, how to spell them and their main ingredients, letting Beate chuckle stating she had never counted on so much detail in their first session.

Awful was his grammar teacher, Uwe, a stringy East German who had the nerve to start practicing a grammatical construction with the example ‘all Americans are overweight’. When it was his turn, he correctly used the construction to say ‘all Germans are impolite and unfriendly’, making his class mates laugh. Nevertheless, Bernd was good at explaining the strongly structured German grammar which he for the first time fully understood and after that found easy to apply, as it had a much more mathematical logic to it than English. Alexa praised his new correct tenses and declensions, although it required a crazy amount of memorizing the grammatical gender of the nouns.
Beate was not quite as enthusiastic: “Alex – you’re doing a really good job. You’ve gotten the hang of the grammar construction, use it well. You could do even better if you constructed less.”

“But it’s all about the sentence construction, isn’t it?”

“Yes – and no. A perfect sentence won’t help you if it takes you five minutes to construct it. Conversation will have moved on 100 miles by then. Learning a language also has something to do with improvising, with experimenting – it’s not engineering the 105% correct model from scratch every time. Talk more, think and construct less. Currently I have to impression that the gap between your passive and active knowledge is widening again, not closing. To close it, you have to use what you know more, that’s the only way to expand your language base. Only if it’s exercised regularly can it absorb more new words and structures.”

From then on, he tried to talk more – but it wasn’t enough for Beate. Skipping the chatty Spanish embassy analyst several times, she relentlessly harassed him in a friendly manner with questions to train his responsiveness. As Hannah had predicted, his self-image underwent quite a roller-coaster during the course: One day he thought he could conquer the world ‘auf Deutsch’ – to the next day feel too stupid to say ‘thank you very much’ correctly, one of the few phrases that was shorter in German than in English.


Despite regular updates from Katrina his law suit against FuturePowers faded into his mental background and the newspaper tempest in a teapot subsided after 12 days. A concrete and surprising reaction came at the beginning of their second Berlin week as an email from Walter Sattler:
Dear Alex,
Christina gave me your contact information as you were too modest to share it with me. Naturally your full story has also reached me in Munich; I was very sorry to hear that. It has increased my respect for you strongly as you did not use our enjoyable Alpine lunch to actively advertise yourself. We should make up for that when I’m in Berlin end of the week. Would you be free for lunch on Friday?
Best Walter


The .com of the email address was from Germany’s top electronics conglomerate, making him in automatic mode google the name. Great – he had talked second wives, back-aches and electrifying childhood toys with the CTechO of one of Europe’s most important employers in his field – so much for coming across as a competent professional! He should’ve known that somebody Christina was so well acquainted with might be important.

Showing the email to Alexa, she smiled, kissing and cuddling him: “It’s one of the most endearing things about you that you’re so unaware to even deprecating of many worldly matters, my Alex. With you I never have to worry you might be using my name and connections as a career booster. That’s wonderful and I love you even more for it.”

“Do you think I should go?”

“Of course – what a question! Keeping your eyes and ears open for all job options is a must!”

So he attended Friday language class in suit and tie, left half an hour early to have lunch with Walter Sattler at the posh roof top restaurant on the old Reichstag building, which once more housed the national parliament. After greeting, ordering and the soup course, Walter said directly: “So – I would like to offer you that job you didn’t ask for. I can’t tell you exactly what and where it will be, we can check various options with our career development department. We’d also be flexible regarding location, be it in Germany or the US. You can start April 1st if you want.”

With a gulp he swallowed his wine and coughed before being able to respond. “Thank you sir, that is very kind. But …. I cannot accept. You can’t create a job for me. You know nothing about me – except that I’m an unemployed morbidly obese engineer who is suing his employer for fat discrimination.”

“As I wrote, I respect you highly for wanting to be independent and not capitalize on Alexandra’s family connections. It shows you’re a good man, a trustworthy man.” He grinned and waved over a refill of their wine glasses. “Plus I know a lot more about you. You’ve become part of a family whose judgement I value and trust. If they all tell me you’re professionally recommendable, then you are. When we met, you showed only interest in the content of your work ignoring rank or status – which I think is very important in our field. You displayed knowledge and ideas in a coming sector of our portfolio. Calories are your sin of choice – so what? Mine are the wrong women, as you know. Neither has any influence on our professional know-how – so it’s private and irrelevant. Can I somehow convince you to at least consider the job offer?”

“I’m much honored. I’ll think about it. Such a big company – was never seriously on my list of options.” He took a deep breath, too overwhelmed to be able to place this unexpected offer. “I need to find out where I stand right now before I make the next move. Reassess the prospects of my legal case and somehow find full closure for that chapter.”

“Absolutely. We’ll keep in touch. I’ll look around more in detail what we could offer you.” Walter nodded in understanding. “Tell me, Tina said you’re trying to learn German here in Berlin?”

“Trying is the right verb …..”


Mid third week Alexa surprised him one evening: “Free weekend – we’re driving down to Dresden to visit Chris&Tina – they invited us!”

While Alexa drove, he laboriously read her a history of Saxony in German out loud to prepare for their visit, her correcting his pronunciation of what had to be every second word. Dresden, which he had only visited once fleetingly turned out to be a most interesting city with exquisite museum collections and fierce local pride in trying to rebuild its historic structures to their pre-bomb night of 1945 glory. Alexa had sworn in Chris&Tina to support her Alex-learns-German-quest – but on Saturday evening they went to a brewery dinner Christina immediately saying gleefully: “English-break for Alex – now we can really talk!”

“And we have something very, very important to tell you!” as often Christian ended her sentence, taking her hand and kissing it.

“We got a little careless over Christmas …. We’re expecting twins!” Christina glowed with pride, Christian holding her tight.

He could almost hear his own and Alexa’s jaw drop. “Congratulations! How wonderful! When? Twins- really?”

“Yes – definitely twins, two little beating dots on the ultrasound.” Christian put his hand protectively on Christina’s middle.

“I’m only a good six weeks gone – September is the date, with twins it might also be late August. You’re the first to find out – we wanted to be a bit surer before we started announcing the news.”

“Sis – I want to ask you two favors please in this context – okay?”

“Anything that is within my abilities for that wonderful occasion.”

“Alex, you know we had always planned on getting married after finishing our PhDs – we’ll change the order of things a bit,” Christina elaborated. “We’re doing the registry wedding now – and then church wedding, baby baptism and hopefully PhD parties sometime late next year all in one.”

“Sounds like a plan – do you have a date?”

“Yes – March 25th,” Christian beamed.

“Why March 25th?”

“That was the day, 21 years ago when this wonderful boy walked into my classroom as the ‘new kid’,” Christina kissed Christian tenderly.

Alexa slid her arm around him and leaned in, as if needing something to hold on too, laughing: “Incredible, celebrating your 21st anniversary on your wedding day and you’re both not yet 30. Where?”

“That’s where we need your help,” Christian’s voice turned persuasive. “We want to do it in Pfaffenheim, in the Mairie, stay at Aunt Isolde’s, have a little dinner up on Schauenberg.”

“In Alsace, in France? Tina, won’t your family want to have it down home in Mergentheim – also for protocol reasons?”

“Yes – they will. But they’ll have to save that for the church ceremony,” nudging Christian.

“We want to do it in Pfaffenheim because in France the name change is possible. We want to be called Count and Countess Oeynhausen-Wagner as our family name – can you understand that? For us and our twins,” they both held each other in a firm clasp.

“You can’t do that in Germany?” he heard himself ask.

“No – German marital name law is very rigid,” Alexa explained. “Both partners can keep their names, but you have to decide on a family name for the children and it can’t be hyphenated. Or changing the hyphenation like here is out of the question.” She smiled warmly. “But it’s a beautiful idea – and it’s perfect for you. Although it isn’t Gotha proof.”

“What’s Gotha proof?”

“The German version of Burke’s peerage,” Christian offered.

“What’s Burke’s peerage?” letting Alexa lovingly pinch one of his thick side tires. “The encyclopedia of British respectively German aristocracy. Rules on who can be entered are very strict.”

“So as an aristocrat you can never change the family name?”

“No – not any more. The Queen can do it – or here the Emperor or regional ruler could, but that option has been over since 1918. There actually is one very famous case which matches Chris&Tina’s situation – but that was in 1900. Nor can you pass it on through the female line. Even if you marry me, you’ll never be Lord Alex officially,” she kissed him teasingly.

“Josie would agree – I’ll never pass as Lord Alex….,” he grumbled kissing her back.

“Alex – can you explain that to Mommy & Papa? We already have to convince Tina’s parents…”

“Okay – I’ll do that. Tina – I’ll also help you with the logistics in Pfaffenheim after I’m done with this conference. I can take a few days off then, drive down. What else – you said two questions?”

“Well, since it’s Christian and Christina getting married…,” Tina started the sentence, holding Christian’s hand, who continued: “We think that it’ll bring good luck if we had Alexander and Alexandra as our witnesses – would you do that for us?”
 

fat hiker

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I know that .... only Alex doesn't.... ;)

We see the story from his perspective, and he has his issues with all the title and protocol questions, so that's how he would call her when re-telling his story.

Here's the next chapter of it....

Fair enough - I know from my two postings in the US that not only do Americans have difficulties with foreign languages, but also titles. "Vice-Consul" was just an unknown quantity.....

And I have to again compliment you on a wonderful tale, beautifully written and told.
 

Undine

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So happy I've finally had a chance to catch up on this. You weave together so many different threads so adeptly...I think this may be my favorite of your stories! Thank you for such a lovely read!
 

agouderia

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XIX.

Smoothing the seat belt extension around his belly he closed his eyes and exhaled as the usual rumbling and shuttling of a large jet plane setting into motion filled his mind.

The past 72 hours had been a whirlwind – practically as well as emotionally. Returning from Dresden, he had found a pack of mail from The Hague in Berlin full of surprises. Fabulous news in his opinion – Silvia van der Vaals seemed almost disgruntled though – was that FuturePowers had withdrawn their criminal charges for fraudulent weight gain. Then some technicalities concerning the further legal proceedings – and a thick envelope marked ‘personal’ from FFCT capital in San Francisco. It contained no less than a letter from Simon Peters, president of FuturePowers’ board as representative of the new majority shareholder, offering a settlement which he wished to discuss in person, no lawyers on either side. Suggesting a meeting in New York – more or less in the middle between their two bases.

This left him conflicted: On one hand, he didn’t really want to deal with anything or anybody from FuturePowers in person again, on his own in this life. Then again, his meeting with Peters last summer had been fine, he had appeared to be a genuine, interested and normal executive, the latter being unusual enough. Talking about a potential settlement in his book seemed like the ethically correct thing to do – something Alexa and Max supported him in. “In labor court proceedings, it’s always a minus point if you refuse to even discuss a settlement offer.” Silvia van der Vaals in turn had been vehemently against it, stating it would weaken their case – and was particularly critical of the ‘no lawyers’ part, saying FuturePowers was only trying to trick him again.

After half a day of deliberations, he decided to accept Peters’ offer – and from then on was on the high-speed go: Saying good-bye to his language class 4 days early, taking – and passing – the B1 German language certificate without extra study, grabbing a few things and hopping on the evening EasyJet flight to Amsterdam, checking on everything at home in Wassenaar, packing his suit-case for New York, arguing with Silvia van der Vaals and making the late afternoon flight from Schipol in only 52 hours. Now he had 8 hours to think everything over, decide what he wanted, which compromises he might be willing to make – his eye lids drooping to close while the enormous thick tires of the plane thundered under him over the runway in take-off.



As soon as he entered the JFK terminal building he switched on his phone waiting in line – only for an avalanche of urgent messages to pop up. Alexa and Katrina telling him to immediately get in touch with Arica Johnson from Simon Peters’ office. Before he could do that, his phone rang showing the familiar 650 area code.

“Alex – I’m so sorry to call you with very bad news. Mr. Peters has been hospitalized and can’t meet you in New York tomorrow. It happened early this morning, while you were already on your way over the Atlantic. We’re so sorry for the inconvenience.” The distress in Arica Johnson’s voice was audible through the airport hullaballoo.

“No – please, I’m very sorry to hear that. Absolutely no need to apologize. Ummm …. what do you want me to do now…?” clueless as to what could be next.

“To be honest, right now, I can’t give you any reliable time line. It’ll definitely be a few days. Naturally we will pay for whatever option you decide on. You can wait in New York – or return to Amsterdam. Or come out to the Bay Area and spend a few days here.”

In a split second it came to him that the person in the US happiest to see him would be his grandmother. “Hmmh – would staying with my family in Michigan be okay?”

“Of course. Shall I book you a direct connecting flight out of JFK to – would that be Detroit – this evening?” Arica’s question came out with a sigh of relief.

“Yeah – sure.” Deciding against the fuss of getting into the city, spending a night in a hotel to fly on tomorrow.

“I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

After passport control, he claimed his luggage and was in line for customs as Arica called back: “You have a seat on the 7 p.m. flight to Detroit. I also booked a rental car for you so you’re independent. I’ll keep you posted on when the meeting with Mr. Peters can proceed. Please accept our sincere apologies again for the incredible inconveniences.”



“So – what’s on my schedule today?” he gave his grandmother Elli a cocked grin as he munched on his breakfast of Greek yoghurt with honey and walnuts before turning to the fruit plate with a third cup of coffee.

“It would be lovely if you could finish removing the moss in the back yard since you did such an excellent job in the front, my Alex,” she gave his shoulder a fond pat. “This afternoon – since it’s your third day here – you might consider going to see your parents. For dinner I have Dolmádes for you…” making him give her a cheek kiss in delight because her home-made stuffed grape leaves were something he would kill for.

This really was home – the cozy children’s bedroom upstairs, his grandmother managing of his life. As he had imagined, she was thrilled to have him back, greeting him with a fierce hug, a tug of his ear and a slight slap on the cheek: “My Alex – you can always tell your old grandmother everything that troubles you. Don’t leave me in the dark or lie to me. There’s a solution to everything.”
Against her usual habit, she didn’t ask more questions, badger him with comments, unasked for advice or radical opinions, but let him talk when he felt like it. She didn’t utter a word about his weight, only made sure he ate lightly and healthily on her wonderful Greek home cooking. Under the pretext that it was Lent, there was no meat, no sweets and only a glass of wine for dinner. Since she made all his childhood vegetable favorites in decent portions, he couldn’t complain and actually – like in Alexa’s home – had inhibitions to binge in secret. All this put together let him wonder what Zoë had told her – since the remark of going to see his parents in 20 mile away Dexter was the first one which contained a whiff of reproof.

Staying with her, he felt an obligation to help her around the house, take care of necessary repairs, assist with the shopping and whatever else might come up. Probably one of the first lessons he had learned – life was a lot easier if you let your female environment run your life without too much futile resistance. It made them happy, in turn giving him more leeway in doing things on his own that really mattered to him. This approach had always worked with the exception of his weight – dieting and working on getting slim had only resulted in himself being hungry and frustrated, and his female family being disappointed. Telling his grandmother to rest while he cleared the kitchen, the thought suddenly struck him like a tons of bricks that maybe he was so happy with Alexa because this element was just the opposite. His life was well managed, but in it he was wonderfully overfed and fat – and that was exactly what she loved about him.

The day brought the first mild wind from the South and he was puffing his way through the back yard, scratching out moss from all the unreachable places.

“Hi Alex – how are you?” his father’s voice made him plop down hard on this backside on one of the stone steps in surprise.

“Hi Dad – fine thank you. Coming to check on Grammy?”

“No – coming to check on you…,” making his face flame, as direct remarks from his father were so exceptional they had to be taken seriously. “Your mother would really appreciate it if you came by our house too.”

“Umm – yeah – well – hhmmmh – I was planning on coming over tomorrow ….,” he finally managed to mutter. His father showing up with an explicit message, putting some pressure on him was so unusual, he tried to remember when that last happened.

“Let me help you finish that quickly, your yiayia will certainly have lunch ready soon…” letting them work away together and finish the job in a little over half an hour.

“Spanakópittá and salad for my two best men in the world,” his grandmother beamed as she set her best Greek spinach pie with Feta cheese in front of them. Throughout lunch they chatted about non-obstrusive local developments, making him once more grin to himself that his grandmother had chosen the one town in the US named after a modern day Greek war hero to live in, refusing to consider a move to his parents’ base further north.

“Alex – how about a walk down by the lake?” his father suggested afterwards.

“Sure – why not?” he shrugged, wondering what was still to come.

In the early spring sunshine, they walked for a while in silence before his father muttered: “Alex – thank you for using this opportunity to visit your grandmother while you’re here in the US. Also for honoring your commitment to take her to Greece last fall – although your job issues were really boiling back then. I greatly appreciate that. She’s still in great shape for 85 – but she is 85, and we don’t know for how long we’ll still have her.”

“Is something wrong with Grammy?” he was alarmed, as he had expected a different agenda.

“No – as I said – honestly everything is fine with her. You know how she is – tough and fit. One of the few cases where it would be true to write ‘suddenly and unexpected’ should she pass away, even at 85. But – as I said, we simply can’t say for how long it will stay this way.” His father took an audible breath. “I’ve decided though that no matter what happens, I’ll never send her to a nursing home. As long as I myself am up to it, we’ll arrange it with us, at home.” This probably amounted to the most decisive personal statement he had ever heard from his father. “Even though I have no idea how I’m supposed to survive with your mother and your grandmother under one roof.”

This made him laugh until his belly jiggled heavily because already ordinary family functions with the two of them together for just a few hours were trying enough. “Jeez – you’ll need very good ear plugs for that…”

“Something of the sort,” his father grimaced. “Alex – in this context, I want to sincerely apologize for not being a better father for you. I left you alone against the eternal back and forth between your mother and grandmother – when I should’ve taken your side as my son. I’m very sorry.”

“Ummgh ….,” he didn’t know what to say. Never before had his father addressed anything so intimate. “You did nothing wrong – you were a good father….” The response came out without too much thought mainly because it was an issue he had no real opinion on.

“No, I wasn’t. I should’ve stopped them from always making your size an issue, let you grow up to be the man you want to be in peace. Done more father-son things with you …”

“Dad – thank you – but you really did fine. Like you taught me how to electrify my toys….”

“Yes – I know. I liked that because I didn’t have the opportunity to do that myself as a kid.” He sighed again. “Truth is – I knew almost nothing about being a father. You know your grandfather was killed before I was born. Your mother’s father passed away shortly after we met. So it always was just me, your grandmother and then your mother. When I was growing up – life was so difficult for Elli, she had to work so hard. I thought it was my duty to at least not create even more problems and simply do what she wanted. Then your mother took the reins with you and your sisters …. I thought that was normal…. That it was enough if I ensured that you had a good home, food on the table and all educational opportunities… I’m sorry I wasn’t there more for you…”

“Please Dad, don’t beat yourself up. You were a very normal dad in my memory,” he meant it. “I didn’t miss anything from you. My school friend’s fathers were just like you. Fathers today are different, they do more – and more is expected. If I look at Max …,” admitting to himself that he indeed would’ve liked a hands-on, warm and caring father like Max, had he been given the choice. “But back when I was a kid – you did nothing wrong.”

“You’re a good son and grandson, as Elli always says, Alex. Thank you. Still – I feel I missed out on something – and you suffered for it. Somehow I didn’t understand what your weight meant for you…. everybody else in the family was always slim without it being an issue …”

“That’s exactly the problem….,” he cringed at his obvious tone of bitterness.

“As I said – I’m very sorry for not recognizing that and not doing anything for you.” his father shook his head. “Zoë says that has something to do with the fact that in our family we don’t really relate to each other. Melina is your mother’s daughter, you’re your grandmother’s boy and Zoë’s big brother, Zoë herself is my baby….,” he gave him a guilty smile. “Probably because by the time she came around I was ready to be a dad, could give her more than I could give you and Melina.”

“Yeah – wow – I think you’re right. You’ve done some serious thinking about us as a family …. Very impressive…”

“Well – now that I’m retired, I have all the time in the world. I visited Zoë down in Richmond for a while, helped her fix up her new apartment – we had time to talk. Meeting your Alexandra last summer – I could tell you had evolved, were turning into a man in your own right. Naturally that FW article set me thinking a lot. Would it be okay for you to tell me your version of the story?” The last question came out hesitantly.

“Hmmh- I owe you that. I’m sorry I haven’t come back home more often, kept you all so far out of my life. That wasn’t necessarily fair – it just seemed easier at the time.”


His actual visit at home with his parents the next day had the same shock quality as the talk with his father – starting with his mother greeting him with a plate of his favorite cranberry-oats cookies, waving off his praise and thanks: “Augh – your grandmother is making such a Lent fuss again. What’s the sense in having you over if we don’t make your favorite good treats for you?”

For dinner she prepared her excellent turkey roast with mushroom stuffing and cherry pie with maple ice cream for dessert, so he afterwards unthinkingly leaned back and rubbed his well-filled gut with a sigh of contentment. “Absolutely delicious Mom, thank you so much!” Catching her shocked stare at the vast flesh dome of his middle, he immediately sat back up, sucked in with a wince, and pulled his napkin higher.

“We have a small new turkey farm here – their meat is so much better than any supermarket’s. I’m very happy you liked it. It’s such a rare pleasure to have you back home and be able to cook for you. Especially now since I not only have your grandmother, but also Lady Alexandra as competition….,” she smiled at him but quickly averted her gaze. He could tell how hard she was trying to ignore his XXL-size, make him feel comfortable – and had to acknowledge the effort. “Ummmh – you didn’t by chance bring any new pictures of the two of you…?”

“Yeah – I did,” the idea had come to him remembering Alexa’s smart diversions in Hamburg, even had her send him the entire set from the royal reception. “Including those with their Majesties…,” he grinned at her.

“Alex – it’s so reassuring for me to see how happy you are personally. That Lady Alexandra took you to meet the King and Queen shows me she is confident in your relationship, that’s so wonderful. Your job question will solve itself – I’m positive about that. You just need a little more patience…”
 

agouderia

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Patience was the word - as comfortable and relaxing as his stay back home was, the waiting and uncertainty did get to him. He talked to Arica Johnson every weekday – but after 8 days he finally said: “Look – I sincerely regret Mr. Peters is in such ill health. Recuperating is top priority, my case is irrelevant in comparison. My second weekend here starts – and if you cannot tell me if and when we can schedule a meeting – I would actually rather return to the Netherlands.”

“Alex – I understand. I’ll check again with everybody – see that I can give you a definite answer. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

Back to him she did get, telling him to come directly on the Monday morning flight out of Detroit - only to arrive at his hotel and be told the meeting for the afternoon was cancelled. Irritated, he visited some old college friends who gave him a very disagreeable weight talk evening. Tuesday morning Arica Johnson herself came to pick him up from breakfast, apologizing profusely to surprisingly take him to Simon Peters’ private home, an edgy modern bungalow with a spectacular view out in Emerald Hills.

“This way please ….,” a very plump women, styled in typical ‘academia frump’, led them to a room on the garden terrace where Peters was lying on a couch, wrapped in a blanket, looking drawn and waxy.

“Please – this isn’t necessary,” he was shocked, feeling embarrassingly intrusive. “I don’t want to impose on you. Please recuperate first – everything else can wait, sir.”

“No – it’s okay. We owe you since we made you come over – and for everything else.” Peters stretched out his hand, which he went over and shook. “What would you like to drink? Coffee? Tea?”

“Whatever you have, isn’t too inconvenient…”

“I’ll get your tea Simon – and another cappuccino for you Alex?” making him nod.

“As I already said when we spoke on the phone, I’d like to sincerely apologize for everything you’ve had to endure over the past years at FuturePowers. It was utterly irresponsible employer conduct – and what’s more, it was damaging business policy for the company itself,” Peters shifted on the couch, visibly gritting his teeth against what looked like pain.

“Thank you. Apologizing in person, especially under these circumstances is a gesture I highly appreciate.” Arica Johnson brought their drinks along with a bottle of water and left the room again.

“A simple apology is not enough. I would like to close this case for FuturePowers once and for all – and maybe open a new door.” Peters took some papers from the small table next to his couch. “This is our offer for a settlement of the court case. Those absurd criminal charges have been withdrawn. FuturePowers will pay you the full damages filed, as well as those for the arrest and your legal fees. Without the latter we have calculated a sum of 368.000 Euros.” He gave him a small grin. “I’ll never understand why that ridiculous London firm that’s representing us didn’t immediately draft such an agreement. Because by US standards those damages are a rock-bottom bargain – here we’d be talking of factor 10 minimum, if such a law suit were admissible.”

“Yeah – that was an odd surprise for me too….,” because he had been incredibly disappointed as Silvia van der Vaals had come up with this sum, having imagined it to be at least twice as high. In turn Peters’ offer was just as unforeseen. Agreeing to meet with him, he had expected a settlement offer big enough to be considered – but not paying the full sum plus legal fees without further ado or negotiations. So he said: “That is an … hmmh … interesting first offer. What do you expect in return?”

“Only the logical – you abandon your lawsuit. And it indeed is a first offer. I could’ve sent you that in writing via our lawyers. I have a second one to discuss with you. We will definitely fulfill this settlement offer – no matter how you decide on the second one.”

“Second offer?”

“Yes – from me in my function of Chairman of the Board at FuturePowers. It wasn’t until the FW article that news of your case really reached me. Simmons – who has been suspended in the meantime as CEO – kept it under wraps. Then of course I had my team at FFCT do a thorough analysis of it – and everything else going on at FuturePowers Europe.” Peters shook his head. “It was unbelievable. How to ruin initially good investments in a few years – not taking into consideration rapid market shifts, losing your best work force, disregarding special circumstances and cross-connections in your markets. I couldn’t believe the stupidity of filing criminal charges against you after that tabloid article – how incompetent can lawyers get? They employ a PI to do a background check on you – and all they find out is that you buy big portions at a Turkish deli! Overlook the fact that you live together with a second cousin of the King –who is the daughter of a senior international business journalist! How clueless can you get!” Peters’ was incensed but let out a muffled yelp as he made a rapid arm movement to clutch his stomach.

“Everything okay?” he asked carefully. “My personal life should be of no consideration here please. Leave it out. My relationship has nothing to do with my professional life.” He viscerally hated the idea that any special treatment or success of his hinged on Alexa and her position in the world. It made him feel like the most low-life scrounger.

“Of course it doesn’t. In a public court case though any good firm needs to consider the opinion climate and media market. You and your firm did an excellent job – while ours has blundered around as if they were running in the competition ‘worst legal media campaign ever’.” Peters rolled his eyes.
“We did more though than just analyze the communication side of your case. My brother-in-law is a professor for electrical engineering – so I had his team do an assessment of your work in context of the general output at FuturePowers Europe. You’re really good at what you do – while Polly Harding can only be called downright foolish.”

“Thank you.”

“No need – had things gone the way they had been projected, with you getting promoted – FuturePowers Europe would most likely be in better shape today. As it is though – FFCT as majority shareholder has decided to withdraw FuturePowers from the European market in its current form. The company doesn’t have the economies of scale to compete effectively – or buy itself into really interesting projects with a relevant stake. All this is confidential – we arranged that, didn’t we?”

“Yes – Arica Johnson had me sign an agreement. That’s interesting to hear though – so FuturePowers will sell off all European assets?”

“Well – most likely not all. It was your presentation last summer that set me thinking. The best chance FuturePowers with its resources has is to do venture capital funding for truly innovative renewable energy projects – not be a minority shareholder in the regular run-of-the-mill solar or wind power generation. So to my second offer in this context: Apart from paying off your lawsuit claims – I would like to offer you a 2 year executive contract as COO of FuturePowers Europe to restructure the European assets. Sell off the hodge-podge of smaller stakes, maybe amp up the more promising ones, find a few key innovative projects in which we can invest venture capital and get technology transfer for the US and other markets. South America is something we want to look into more because so far there is more uncharted business terrain there. What do you say?”

“You want me to come back to FuturePowers as COO Europe to more or less close down the operations? I heard that correctly?” Evening reiterating it didn’t make it any more realistic.

“Exactly. Here is the second contract we have drawn up for that. It would be retro-active from January 1st. Until December 31st next year. Since we can’t really tell what operations in Europe will look like then – you can have a return option to come back to FuturePowers US if you want to. Also – the 2 year payment is guaranteed. Should you be able to close the deals earlier, you’ll still receive the full payout. Oh – and naturally it includes bonus options for particularly successful sales. What can I do to make you consider?”

“This is a total surprise.” Once more honesty seemed best. “But why me? Why now? Wouldn’t the settlement be enough, end the lawsuit and that’s it?”

“Your case pushed me and my team to take a serious inside look at what’s going on in the European subsidiary. I don’t need to tell you the findings didn’t make us happy. Closing your lawsuit which has the potential of making us the laughing stock of EU employers is just step number one. We still need someone to turn the business around, implement more meaningful and sustainable company structures. FuturePowers has experimented a lot with bringing in all sorts of executives from the outside with too little technical and market expertise. In your case we have a record that you have both – as well as gumption. And it would be more of a serious compensation as far as I see it than a simple settlement would. Analyze both offers with your lawyers …. I hope we can convince you to take up the deal – because I can actually see us working well together. I like your approach – think it is realistic and promising.” Silence fell as he was too confused to say anything and Peters closed his eyes, looking exhausted to drink more tea before asking: “Is there anything else you need to know?”

“Well…,” he had trouble believing the entire situation was authentic, but how could that be voiced? In the past years, his experiences with FuturePowers and the law suit had changed him on a very fundamental level: His general trust in his environment had been crushed – and he was now willing to presume there was if not an evil agenda, then at least some snag to every offer. On top of that, there was the uncomfortable element of maybe illicitly profiting from Alexa’s social status. “I understand your explanation that your evaluations convinced you of my competence. I appreciate that – I trust my own knowledge, so I can gladly accept that. Also – since I know the company, that I would be a safer bet than taking on yet another outsider.” He inhaled deeply cringing. “Alexandra being who she is, with her social circle – the fear of more negative coverage on FuturePowers with harmful effects on the further business development makes sense. That paying up all the claims I filed in a settlement is a small price by US standards to end the entire affair. But -all that doesn’t add up to the incredibly generous offer you made. Why would you entrust someone you personally barely know, who’s suing your company with phasing out your business in an important world market region?”

“Because I understand you –know where you’re coming from,” Peters took another small sip of his tea. “You had the guts to stand up to weight bullying –then you can probably stand up to anything….”

“Why do you think that…?” not necessarily an intelligent question, only an attempt at getting more insights.

“You’re polite, businesslike – didn’t ask what’s wrong with my health. I’ll tell you anyway – this is the second corrective surgery I had to have on weight loss surgery complications.”

“Oohh,” that was all he could say before he hastily added into the silence. “I’m very sorry.”

“No need to. So I understand what it means to battle your weight. How powerful food can be. That there’s nothing better in life than eating until you’re too full to move.” Peters sighed and inhaled deeply with a wince. “**** – I can’t tell you how much I miss that. So reading through your file – I could fully relate to your response, the inability to stop eating if you have to deal with unjustified pressure and discrimination on the job every day.”

“Thank you..,” no more than a whisper, struggling with incredulity. Looking down at the mass of his belly filling his lap, he tried to imagine what it would feel like to have a deep cut in it that altered the inner workings of his stomach and digestive tract.

“As I said – especially since I could tell from the evaluation that you continued to do good work. Those emails from Polly - even by her standards that was a rare act of stupidity…”

“Emails from Polly?”

“Oh – you weren’t aware Polly had leaked you those emails, thinking they would make you leave FuturePowers and look for a different job?” making him shake his head completely baffled. So it had been Polly who wanted to hurt him feeding him the emails, not Alexa trying to help him. This totally unexpected information made a jolt go through him, wondering what it might mean for his relationship with her. “As we know, that spectacularly backfired – made you more determined than ever to stand your rightful ground.” He poured himself more tea. “Okay – judging from that look of utter disbelief on your face, I think I’ll have to give you the full picture for you to believe my sincerity. You’re generally familiar with the changes in shareholders and management at FuturePowers, aren’t you?”

“Yes – of course. What I experienced while working there – and for the court hearing, I did bring myself up to scratch concerning the exact structures and competences. As a tech person, that admittedly isn’t my forte…”

“Your forte in tech issues is actually much more important – business and finance fiddlers are a dime a dozen these days …. I know what I’m talking about….,” Peters gave him a twisted smile. “FFCT bought the majority share in FuturePowers hoping to expand its portfolio in high potential sectors. Unfortunately, a true inside look at the assets showed that in the past few years under Simmons the company lost a lot of ground, technologically as well as market wise. From your expression I see we’re on the same page as far as Simmons goes….,” as Alex had been unable to keep his facial features in neutral lines at the name. “That his HR policy was utterly disastrous – well you’re the living example for that. It’s embarrassing to admit – but Polly got the job because she’s a sorority sister of Simmons’ daughter. Her husband wanted to do some yoga stint in the Alps, so Polly was looking for a job in Europe – and Simmons offered her yours’. Why it had to be a senior job with leadership responsibility for someone where it isn’t even impolite to say she was a beginner in the field – beats me. That’s what started this mess. That she was not only technically incompetent, but also anti-social in her workplace attitude brought on the catastrophe. Not only for you personally – but also for FuturePowers’ position on the European markets. So that’s the whole story. Because of that – and because I know what it’s like to be in your shoes with the weight issue…”

“How heavy were you when you had the surgery done?” Of all possible questions this was the one which came out of the turmoil in his mind. “Sorry – that’s way too private.”

“No – it’s okay. If I go so far into details – you have the right to ask. I was about 270 for a while.”

“That’s about my old ‘normal’ weight….,” he had expected a much higher number, at least somewhere in his current territory of 400 pounds.

“Well – I’m quite a bit shorter and stature-wise a lot slighter than you are. So I was really struggling a bit with the weight. Also – heart disease runs in my family. I was on several heart and blood pressure meds. On top, the job promotion was at stake and my doctors were in the camp that everybody over BMI 30 should have weight loss surgery.” Peters sighed. “They presented it as the quick fix – it’s everything but that. Have you ever been advised to have it done?”

“No. To be honest – for me the 250-270 pound range always felt very normal. I had no issues or restrictions whatsoever. If you count out everybody nagging me to lose weight – which is an annoying daily **** issue.”

“Who are you telling… and now?” Peters’ voice sounded very hesitant.

“Now – I haven’t thought about it at all. Being this fat is such a recent development for me, so much else was going on – I haven’t had the time to determine what to do about my weight…”

“You actually seem to carry it well – I was already impressed last summer…”

“I’m doing okay,” reluctance seemed the safer bet here. “It’s slowed me down quite a bit, I’m gotten too heavy to do some things safely anymore – like most ladders. But I still walk and bike a lot, have to in the Netherlands and…” he broke off there, couldn’t possibly elaborate further on his favorite other physical activity, intimate gymnastics with Alexandra and how well that fortunately still worked. “I know I have to do something about it, in the longer run. Right now though, I need to get this case solved first – then I can start really thinking about myself, my body and my life again.”

“Well – then think about the solution I offered you. Take your time, 2 weeks is fine, talk it over with your lawyer, your Lady, your personal circle – and then I hope FuturePowers will finally have a competent leadership again for the tail end of its European venture.”
 

ashblonde

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It's so interesting where this story has gone, and I'm very glad you are keeping it going!
 

agouderia

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XX.

“No need to repeat it for the 1000th time! I understand - you think I’m incredibly naïve….”

“Alex – you are not seriously considering this offer – are you?” Silvia van der Vaals’ look over her reading glasses was piercing. “After all you’ve been through, the insults you had to face, cheating you out of a legit contract. Why would you expect that to change?”

“Did you check the contract and settlement they offered?”

“Yes – from what I can tell they’re fine. But exactly this has happened to you before with FuturePowers. It can always happen again.” She pushed the court papers towards him once again. “That the labor high court accepted your case as a precedent despite the full settlement offer on the table is extraordinary. We have the best chances that it will be transferred to the ECJ in Luxemburg so you get a European ruling – like we always wanted. It shows what a strong point you have. You’ve suffered so much, burdened yourself with all that weight – you don’t now seriously want to back out for such a dubious offer? You’ve seen how often shareholders and management have switched with FuturePowers – how do you know this Peters person won’t be gone tomorrow?”

“In turn you can’t guarantee me that I will receive a positive ECJ ruling either. And what will happen after that? Even if I get the settlement – I won’t have a job. And it’s not that much money – not enough to really build a new life on at my age.”

“You have so many other offers now, are getting such good publicity – you’d have even more options after success at the ECJ.”

It went back and forth like that for a while until Silvia van der Vaals checked the time: “Alex – I have to be in court in 45 minutes. Take the papers, sign them so we can get the actual court procedure started. Talk to Countess Oeynhausen, she’ll certainly see my point.”

With a heavy sigh, he packed his and her paperwork, asking Katrina in exiting: “Katrina – just between you and me, we’re about the same age, in a more similar position. What would you do? Do you really think I should go to court – not accept a new job?”

“Sorry Alex – you’ve asked before. You know I can’t have a personal opinion on this. You have to decide for yourself.”



Ever since his return to The Hague, he felt as if he was being tossed between two centrifuges in opposite rotation. Both tearing at him with utmost strength, pulling him back and forth, slowly ripping him apart. Silvia van der Vaals was relentless in her advocating for him to pursue his lawsuit, go all the way to the European Court of Justice in Luxemburg. His own inner voices were contradictory. In one moment he saw himself as the avant-garde of true legal change for fat employees, in the next as a doomed loser who lived off Alexa and occasional consulting jobs. Then he imagined himself as a successful FuturePowers manager, conferring with important energy executives – followed by the vision of being led off the company’s premises in hand-cuffs for some constructed mismanagement.

Troubling was not only that Katrina hadn’t been willing to give him a personal opinion – even worse was that Alexa wasn’t either. “Please Alexa – I need your input. Not only as my girlfriend,” at least this came across his lips easily by now. “but also as an HR expert, a specialist in career development.”

“Alex- exactly because of that combination I can’t give you any advice,” she sighed wrapping her arms around him burying her face in his chest.

“My decision affects not only my professional future, it also, hopefully has implications for our future together.”

“That’s why I can’t say anything. No matter what I say, it would always have the potential of hanging over our relationship later – for better or worse.” She looked up. “You started to go down this path on your own – you have to finish it in your own right. It’s your decision, no one else’s. I’ll always be there for you – no matter how you decide and what happens then.”

He shook his head. “I’m totally torn…”

“I can understand that – anybody would. There are so many conflicting factors to consider here – it’s difficult to see clearly, keep the facts straight and make realistic assumptions. Write everything down: all options, their strengths and weaknesses, your personal pros and cons. What I can offer to do – I’ll look at your list, tell you whether it’s complete or not, if you might have overlooked something.”

So he set to that task, wrote and re-wrote it several times, until Alexa nodded saying it now included all factors she thought relevant. Looking down at the arguments, attempting to talk them over with Silvia van der Vaals only left him even more confused and undecided.


Worst of all, after their initial talk about the issue on his return from California, Max was away on a witness verification mission somewhere in the Balkans. Although Hannah was an international lawyer too, in the meantime thanks to the media coverage familiar with his case, he did not feel comfortable discussing it with her even though she kindly offered help and assistance.

When Max finally returned, he immediately asked him to talk, and sensing his urgency, Max made himself available his second evening back home. They drove over to Delft to test a new beer house. “So what have you and Alexa decided to do about your professional future?”

“Nothing yet. I honestly don’t know what to do. Alexa refuses to give a definite opinion, says it would be bad for the future of our relationship. She only made me write this list, giving it the okay that it contains all relevant points,” he showed it to Max.

“She’s probably right. Nobody can tell you what to do in this tricky situation. This list of yours looks pretty comprehensive. What you should do though is weight your points – mark out those that count particularly for you.”

“That’s most likely what I’m failing at. Did you have time to look at the draft contract?”

“I did. Visegrad doesn’t exactly have what you would call exciting nightlife…” Max took a deep sip of his beer. “Contract looks fine to me. Unless you steal the proverbial silver spoons you’re entitled to a 1 year payout even if they fire you again after only 1 week on the job – plus the damages. So it’s financially very advantageous. I can’t judge the professional merits – but I’d strongly recommend you take out very good manager liability insurance if you accept the offer.”

“Oh – uggh – stupid trusting me hadn’t thought about that…,” he rolled his eyes. Maybe it was true what Silvia van der Vaals kept saying, that he was incredibly naïve.

“If you’ve never been in the situation, you don’t think of it, that’s normal.”

“Max – what would you do? I need to get a real perspective, someone’s honest opinion – not only abstract considerations!”

“Alex – I can’t tell you what to do. You have to decide what you want, what’s important to you.”

“You’re not supposed to tell me what to do. I just want to know what you’d be thinking through if you were in my shoes, which would be the decisive arguments for you,” he was slightly disturbed at how desperate he sounded. But it was true, the constant weighing of theoretical arguments succeeded in making him more confused and frustrated by the minute.

“If you insist – it won’t be help much, because I’m in a totally different position,” Max shook his head. “I’m a few years older than you are and have a family to provide for. So I need stability, a steady income, some planning security. Bottom line, I’d take the settlement offer and with that in my pocket look for a permanent job with a different company, at best a large player in the field. The tabloid article hinted you have other offers?”

“Thanks to the coverage I actually have at least two pretty definite ones,” thinking of BME and Walter Sattler. “One would even be the big, stable player you mentioned…. Although it’s through Alexa’s family connections I don’t really want to cash in on.”

“Alexa, Alexa’s social circle and your future as a couple naturally is another complex you need to consider…”

“I know that …. Not one I like thinking about…,” because it was the one where the most doubts, insecurities and fears almost certainly boiled up.

Max have him a reassuring shoulder thump. “Don’t worry – she loves you – she will stand by you, no matter which decision you make. You two are a great couple, will make the best parents one day – stop constantly being so skeptical about it!”

“I’m trying. So you would listen to neither Peters nor Silvia van der Vaals and do your own thing?”

“If it were me as a person – yes, that would be my choice, simply because of my circumstances in life. Your circumstances are different though…..,” a twisted grin came out. “As a lawyer, I’m not sure I could resist the chance to make EU legal history. Not least because a line needs to be drawn to all these increasingly excessive forms of weight discrimination. I know the pitfalls of going to court – but I also find them professionally irresistible.”

“So you think I should pursue the lawsuit, take the court up on the option to turn it into a model lawsuit?”

“My perspective is that of a lawyer, of someone who plain is fascinated by legal duels. You’ve gotten a first impression of what that means over the past months …. could that be your thing?”

He flipped a fry back and forth on his plate with a bent fork tooth to finally shrug and half shake his head. “Don’t really think so….. “

“What would be your motivation to consider pursuing the law suit – since you seem to be?”

“Well – alone that the court declared it admissible although there’s a full settlement offer on the table shows that my case must have some serious legal merit,” he signaled to the waitress for another beer. “Also – I learned at home that you finish what you start. Giving up or discarding a far progressed project never was an option. So taking the settlement feels a bit like cheating to me. On the other hand – I really hate being in the middle of a litigation. All this back and forth, the awful things the opposing party comes up …. It gets to me….”

“Hmmmph…” Max spread more sauce on his burger. “What did they tell you in California that makes you even think about going back to work for FuturePowers as a realistic option?”

“Yeah – I know, you and everybody else sees me as naïve and trusting … like I’ll believe it if someone promises me the moon…”

“No – not at all. I could’ve sworn that you’d never consider working for FuturePowers again. So they must’ve come up with some big changes for you to honestly ponder the offer…”

“Well – first of all – it’s a completely different set of people I’ll be dealing with. Everyone involved in my case – Simmons, Thomas Ross, Polly – has been fired. Peters just yesterday mailed me as addition that they’ll also dismiss their London law firm and its local subsidiary. So I wouldn’t have to deal with them either. I’ll be the one fully in charge for the European markets – reporting directly to Peters as chairman of the board, not to the new CEO.”

“There must be a solid reason why you trust this Peters guy…?”

“Our first meeting back last July already was a good one. I had the feeling he was genuinely open and interested. Now …. well …. he told me something very personal about himself. Makes me believe he is sincere – otherwise you’d never admit to anything like that….”

“If you’re so convinced, I believe you. Naturally there are some things that are confidential, you can’t fully disclose to me.” Max stole three fries from his plate. “How big of a role does it play in your thought process that you might be a better match for Alexa as COO of FuturePowers Europe?”

“Pheew” – that was the question he was mentally trying to avoid. “Of course it does,” he sighed. “It might be a ticket into more executive positions, might make me fit better into Alexa’s world,” stopping before admitting that it did bother him to think that without her, taking him to the royal reception, there would never have been any press coverage and the offer now on the table would never have materialized. In that respect he was not much better than Polly, getting a job because of his connections.

“That issue bothers you a lot – doesn’t it…?” Max surveyed him, clear compassion in his eyes.

He shrugged. “Well – without her, my case would’ve never gotten any media attention…”

“Hold it – you’re establishing a causal relation there that’s doesn’t hold. If FuturePowers would’ve only wanted to be off the tabloid hook, they could’ve plain offered you a monster settlement, one you couldn’t resist, to be rid of you and your case. They only put the proposal to re-hire you in an executive position on the table because the independent analysis of your work showed you’re the best man for the job. Don’t waste any brain capacity on any other self-debasing thoughts.”

“If you say so….,” his gut-brain was unwilling to take Max’s point.

“One last serious piece of advice Alex – before you make any decision, look into the Bosman ruling, its history and consequences.”

“Bosman ruling?” Although he couldn’t place it, it rang a faint bell; Silvia van der Vaals might have mentioned this.

“Jean-Marc Bosman, 1995 ECJ ruling on professional football player contracts. Rather exotic as a job market – but nevertheless a ruling that brought on a revolution in that field. Look into it, which consequences it had for him personally as well as for European football in general. Take that story into consideration.”
 

agouderia

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“Hey – as best man you’ve done a much better job at pre-wedding dieting than I have.” Christian gave his gut a small slap and sucked in his own with a grimace. “But this is a twin daddy belly…,” exhaling and cradling his sizable protuberance gently. “You look like you lost a lot, pretty quickly, since we saw each other in Dresden. How did you do it?”

“Dunno – it just happened because I was so busy, on the road, had a bad cold…., I didn’t really notice it until trying on my tux….” He had been vaguely aware that he had to belt pants again, or that shirts or coats were getting rather roomy. But with so much going on for him, checking on the issue hadn’t seemed of any importance. When Alexa made him try on the midnight blue tux for the wedding, it had come as a not entirely pleasant surprise that it was clearly too baggy to wear for the occasion. The scale reading ‘only’ 171 kilograms left him startled. Never in his life had he lost so much weight with no conscious effort.

Alexa had hugged him tight. “Are you okay? Do you feel sick? Have you been skipping meals? I didn’t notice you’ve been dieting so strictly….”

“I’m not. Hmmh …. Didn’t have time or appetite to eat so much. Grammy made me a lot of serious health food. We both ate very little when we were sick in Berlin. Guess it’s a positive side effect of this crazy situation….,” he shrugged, unsure what to make of his finding. Sure it was what could obviously be called diet success – but he still needed to lose over 100 pounds before getting back to his old ‘normal’ chubby weight.

“Well – you can’t wear the tux like this. We’d have to get it tailored down considerably – there isn’t time for that….,” Alexa surveyed him critically. “Shall we drive via Antwerp to Alsace to get you a new one…?”

“Hmmmh – does it have to be a tux? Do you think the suit from Carolina’s baptism might fit again…?” It actually did – with suspenders, Alexa slightly adjusting the buttons, a new silk shirt and bow-tie – leaving him maybe slightly underdressed, yet at least more comfortable than expected.



It annoyed and even saddened him that he couldn’t fully concentrate on the lovely occasion of Chris and Tina’s wedding given his personal in-limbo situation. Fear of making the wrong move left him incapable of moving at all while keeping his mind in constant unproductive rotation. He had noticed this on driving down with Alexa – her re-explaining the tragic romance of her beloved great-aunt Isolde’s life which had brought the vineyard with cottage here in Alsace into her inheritance. The heart-retching story of Aunt Isolde’s fiancée’s Alsatian family, torn up in the wars between France and Germany, him surviving as the youngest of five brothers, having been too young to fight in World War I. Only to be court-martialed and executed by the Nazis as participant in the aristocratic opposition against Hitler, his entire estate getting confiscated. It was not until long after the war that his testate will could be carried out with Isolde being recompensed with his property – committing her entire professional life to Franco-German reconciliation.

Originally it had fueled his inferiority complex towards Alexa to understand she owned a vineyard. Overtime he had come to realize the –rather limited – material value of the property was secondary to the emotional significance Aunt Isolde and her heritage had for Alexa and her brothers, who had all adored her far more than their own grandparents. The fate of her fiancée, keeping that memory alive resonated with him thinking of his own grandfather, who had also suffered an unnecessary way too early death in brutal times.

So coming to Alsace, getting to know Isolde’s legacy in Pfaffenheim, on the wonderful occasion of Christian and Christina’s wedding was actually something he had been looking forward to. Now he couldn’t keep his mind on it; his own unresolved issues constantly pushing themselves in the mental foreground.


“Do you have the rings?” Christian asked him for the fourth time as they waited down in the old-fashioned living room.

“Yes – I do. Right here. And I memorized the three French phrases I have to say by heart, including the cue words. Shall I repeat them again?”

“No – no – it’s okay. Sorry – I’m just nervous. Don’t really know why – after all, I’m doing no more than officially stating what I’ve been doing daily for the past 21 years: Oui, Yes to my girl.”

“And here she is….,” he smiled at Alexa holding open the door for Christina followed by Dagmar to join the three guys.

“Aaah…,” Christian embraced his bride. “You’re even more beautiful than normal – only I can’t kiss you well with that flower bed on your head….”

“Thank you my love – although it’s not really true. I’m bursting out of my dress. My bump exploded in the past week – even though I waited so long with the last fitting….,” Christina groused, indicating at her middle. Since she was so slender, the rounding of her abdomen was clearly visible, straining the dusky pink shiny material of her dress, poorly camouflaged by her open lace coat.

“That’s exactly what makes you so particularly beautiful today,” Dagmar handed her the bouquet, giving her tummy a little rub, whispering: “… hopefully it’s contagious….”

“Where’s John? He knows he needs to be here by now! Always cutting it too close….,” Charlie shook his head.

“A few minutes ago he texted me. The train is late – he’ll meet us at the Mairie.” Alexa explained.

“I hope you made it clear to him that we don’t want Sophie at our wedding…” Christian snarled, letting Christina put a soothing hand on his arm.

“John swore a holy oath it’s not Sophie – but a fabulous new girlfriend.”

Christian wasn’t convinced. “Don’t know if that’s any better. Don’t want an untested new girlfriend catastrophe at our wedding….” as they left the house and did the short, pleasant stroll through the picturesque village together, where the parents and small wedding party was to meet them at the registry in the small town hall.


Arriving there, it was another relief to see that he knew the majority of the guests. Fritz and Abbie, holding little Dorothée on her lap. Christina’s parents and her brother Sebastian with his French wife Florence, who was pregnant with their fourth child; the two older ones, Cyprian and Ludivine, excitedly playing with their flower baskets. He was surprised to see Walter Sattler with his glamorous second wife Valerie, who both gave him a cordial greeting. A very tall blonde who introduced herself as Christina’s aunt and godmother Renata. Plus about 6-7 close friends of the bridal couple, 3 of whom he had met in Dresden.

“Where’s John?” Fritz asked sternly.

“He should be here by now…,” even Alexa, sexy gorgeous in muted fuchsia with a slightly crazy contraption on her head, looked a bit worried.

“Well – I’m not going to let Monsieur le Maire wait…,” Christian shook his head in irritation.

“They’re here…,” Dagmar peered out the window.

“Just in time is just in time…,” Abbie stated brightly, getting up and handing Dorothée to Charlie.

The heavy portal opened, a beaming John entered, gently pulling a petite person dressed in peach in behind him. “Mom, Papa, Chris, Tina – please welcome Zoë….,” shocked to realize he was looking at his little sister holding John’s hand.

All he could do was stare, noticing Alexa’s eyebrows go as far up as possible, tilting her head in indecision. The round of introductions was done, omitting them until Abbie chided: “John – you forget your sister and Alex…..”

“I can’t introduce Zoë to them anymore…,” John’s grin was deliriously devilish. “Especially not to Alex – he’s known her since day one of her life…..” To avoid an embarrassing moment, Zoë stepped forward and hugged him, her head against his cheek murmuring: “Hope you’re not too angry about these news …..”

“Please explain a bit son….,” Fritz’s eyebrows mimicked Alexa’s.

“She’s my little sister….,” he hugged Zoë back out of sheer habit, not being able to come up with an instant assessment of how he really felt about this development.

“What a great surprise on our wedding day!” Christian enthused as smiles and nods could be seen all around. “Welcome to the family Zoë!”

“Mesdames, Messieurs, chers fiancés ….,” the mayor entered and beckoned them to follow into the main hall.


Zoë’s appearance with its significance aggravated the jumble in his mind – he couldn’t concentrate for 45 seconds on anything. As they took their seats around the mayor’s imposing desk, his eyes kept wandering over to where she sat next to John, his big hands clasped around one of her small ones, her looking even more petite and thus fragile next to his broad frame. Never before had he seen her dressed so classy: her impeccably constructed peach dress had a matching embroidered short jacket; together with high shiny heels and one of those saucer thingy-s that screamed aristocratic dress code perched on an elegant complicated up-do. She was even wearing Elli’s cherished seed-pearl and gold earrings; one of the few pieces she had saved from the war. This no longer was his baby sister, but a grown woman who conveyed the impression of being ready to turn into Lady Zoë any minute.

Admittedly, the new John&Zoë constellation was more interesting than the act officially on the agenda. He could see Alexa also constantly sneaking scrutinizing peeks from behind her hat brim over at the new two-some.

Judging by the intonation, the mayor was giving a sincere and heart-warming speech, but expressions around him mainly signaled dutiful attention – except for Christ and Tina, who sat inclined towards each other in their usual aura of symbiosis. On hearing the news, Abbie had made an odd comment: “It’s probably good they’re having twins.” Not knowing what she meant, he had asked her to elaborate: “You know Chris&Tina are totally fixated on each other – they’re like two halves of one. Couples who are that close often don’t make the best parents, because the child always has to fight to get into their unit. So twins forming a unit of their own is a good idea in that constellation.”

This discussion came to mind as he rose on Alexa’s cue for the exchange of the vows and their testimonial. The ceremony had a technical, rubbing-stamping feel – since it was only formalizing what had been a certified item for ages. Nevertheless, there was much kissing and congratulating after the exchange of the rings and signing of all papers. Everybody was busy with either the bridal couple or Zoë, so he couldn’t speak to her at all, especially not since they were in different taxi-vans during the drive up to the Schauenberg, where the celebratory dinner was planned.



Several glasses of local champagne on a rather empty stomach added another layer of buzzy confusion to his jumbled mind-set. Having to keep small-talk going with constant interruptions for pictures or toasts wouldn’t let him do justice to the delicious French deli finger food, so he was decidedly tipsy by the time they sat down to eat. Seating order placed him and Alexa over the corner with Walter Sattler and his wife, making his insides churn in dread as his job situation immediately recapture the mental pole position.

To counteract the unpleasant feeling, he ate a lot, more than he had in a long time in one sitting, washing it down with a sizable quantity of the family wines. Walter did him the favor of sticking to easy-going chat topics, like the pranks of Chris and Tina as children, during the meal. Only after the main courses, as Valerie excused herself for the cheese and Abbie called Alexa over, did Walter start on the issue: “Alex – this isn’t the occasion to talk shop. Tina indicated you have a lot on your plate right now. I just wanted to make sure you got the latest offer from our company. If you want, you can contact me any time to talk it over. Or whatever else you might like to discuss in your current job situation.”

“Thank you sir….,” he inhaled deeply into his well-loaded stomach, watching his gut swell out into the familiar dome again. Having drunk enough to mute his inhibitions, it occurred to him that talking to Walter Sattler, an experienced but not personally involved expert, might not be a bad idea.

Recounting his current dilemma in a nutshell, Sattler let out a low wolf-whistle: “Impressive. Both actually. That your case is considered to merit going on trial despite a settlement offer. And that the employer you’re suing has re-visited your work and had a complete change of heart over it. Speaks tremendously in your favor.”

“Thank you. Doesn’t make things easier.”

“I can’t say anything on the legal case and its prospects. But what I can say is that getting management experience in a smaller company for us guys with a technical background is the best way to do it. Otherwise you often end up doing all the work for some technically illiterate dumb-ass MBA who happens to be your boss – and never reap any of the laurels. I was lucky to have that chance with my second employer – otherwise I’d never be in the position I am today. Plus, I can understand your reservations of not wanting to take up options which come through personal contacts. That’s why I never went to work for Lothar” – indicating at Christina’s father – “even though he asked several times. Didn’t want to be seen only as the boss’ best buddy.”

“I’m glad you understand why I was reluctant to get back to you.”

“Assumed it was something in that vein Alex – after our first interactions. Nothing wrong with that – on the contrary. Should you decide to return to FuturePowers and get that executive experience – I’ll surely be able to make you a much better offer in a year or two.” Sattler rolled his eyes. “Have to go – Valerie wants something.”

“Thank you for your advice sir – I greatly appreciate it.” He got up too and walked out onto the terrace, craving fresh cool air to clear the fog from his mind. Loosening his collar, he took a few deep breaths, the chilly spring wind fanning his hot cheeks; closing his eyes intensified the spinning in his head. Re-opening them, it did seem as if everything was suddenly more focused. Walter’s straight talk had been a blessing – for once someone had immediately given him a clear opinion. Letting fully emerge what he had subconsciously determined for days: He was not going to pursue his lawsuit.

Following Max’s advice to look into the Bosman ruling had been a deeply disturbing eye-opener: The man whose legal persistence had turned even average European league football players into multi-millionaires now lived in a Belgian rust-belt dump off disability benefits. He had never had another job in football after the ruling – and had only managed to salvage his house because a few second-tier players staged a charity match which barely scraped together the sum necessary to pay off his mortgage. Meaning the equivalent of what Premier League top shots earned in a week. The professional players’ association hailed the ruling as the end to servitude and muzzling contracts – while Bosman was left without as much as the crumbs of their spoils reaching him.

Bosman was a warning example he did not want to follow. He liked his worked – and he wanted to have professional options for the decades to come. The other thing Walter had verbalized was a mental shift that had started evolving in him while still at FuturePowers. Despite his masters in Engineering Economics, he had initially replicated his father’s world view that they were the tech guys who kept things running – and should leave business to the business guys. Seeing the incompetence of several of his superiors on the management side, the thought ‘I could do that better myself’ had increasingly popped up. Alexa had also suggested that a management techniques training could iron out the few weaknesses he still had in the field.

“Is everything okay with you?” Alexa stepped out onto the terrace, sliding an arm around him to fondle one of his doughy overflowing love-handles.

“Yeah – I’m fine. Just needed some fresh air.” He pulled her against him, feeling her statuesque curves, exhaling in comfort as he felt the luscious weight of her breasts press against his chest. “Mmmmh….” He buried his face in her neck, tracing her hairline with his nose-tip. “Mmmh…” a contented grumble was all he could utter.

“Did Walter have anything interesting to say?”

Apparently snuggling was not enough for Alexa. “Yeah – he made me see a few things clearer. I’m definitely not going to court with my case.”

She gave him a long, lingering, tender kiss. “I’m actually relieved to hear that. I honestly think it’s the better decision for you. A case like that in the private sector – I can’t see a positive outcome.”

“Max told me to look up the Bosman ruling – not an encouraging blue-print.”

“Hmmh…. I had that in mind too several times… hmmmh…” now Alexa wanted to cuddle, fondly exploring his side-roles and nibbling on his double-chin before resting her head on his shoulder. “How do you really feel about the John Zoë item…?”

“Hmmmph…. ummm …. fine…. I guess ….,” hesitating a bit.

“Same here,” she gave him a twisted smile. “There’s objectively nothing wrong with it – I should be happy John finally found a really sweet girlfriend for himself. It … well … it’ just feels weird that she’s your sister … “

“Yeah – that’s exactly how I feel too,” he grinned in relief. “I honestly like John, like all of your brothers. You’ve told me he’s had such bad experiences with girlfriends – that’s not his fault. Guess I’m being overprotective of my little sister. Also – her boy-friends so far were such noneties …. Probably never took them seriously. So John would be a bit of a first – but as that he’s good – I’ll get used to it…., he rambled, not sure how to phrase his mixed emotions.

“So will I. Actually it’s wonderful – imagine what great things we can do as a foursome together…,” Alexa gave the massive roll overhanging his waistband an energetic little shake.

“Alexes’ – cake cutting time!” Charlie called them back inside.


After more toasting with red champagne they settled with their cake plates around a low table near the fireplace with John and Zoë. “You’re not angry at me or us Alex – are you?” she looked at him with begging, worried eyes.
“No not at all. It’s just a real surprise …. One I need to get used to. But I’m happy for both of you – you’re a good guy John, you’re getting a very good girl with my little sis’ – take excellent care of her.”

“Guaranteed,” John wrapped a protective arm around Zoë.

“I should’ve smelled rat when you had that weird long layover in Amsterdam Zoë,” Alexa winked. “I noticed there was some sort of click between you two at the Christmas’ markets. And I know there’s that dirt cheap flight Cologne-Baltimore with the almost day long stopover…”

“Yes … it really was love at first sight,” Zoë stroked John’s cheek with shining eyes. “No endless prelude like with you and Alex…” ending in a kiss.

“Does the family know?” the question occurred to him.

“Grammy does. She didn’t believe I was traveling so much, so early on the job just for business – and when I asked about the earrings – I had to come clean….”

“Mom’ll be delighted,” he could hear the sardonic edge in his voice. “Not only Lady Alexandra, but also Lord John….” making them both swat him indignantly with their napkins.

Zoë gave John a calming hug and spooned him a bite of the cherry liquor wedding cake. Swallowing, he loosened his belt with a sigh. “I have to start watching it again. Being so happy with Zoë has made my appetite go crazy. Don’t want to know how much I’ve put back on….”

“You look great John. I haven’t seen you so happy and healthy in ages,” Alexa reassured him. Yet it was obvious his cheeks were fuller and rosier and the buttons of his shirt were straining over a more prominent belly roll.

“You’re my gorgeous guy,” Zoë seconded, steering another spoon to his lips and caressing his midsection. “At any size. Eat what you want, be yourself… I’ll never say anything. I’ve learned that’s the most wrong thing to do…” giving Alex a soulful, apologetic look.

“Right now I want to eat a second piece of the second tier …. that fabulous Cognac truffle…,” he heaved himself up. “Anyone else?” Zoë and Alexa shook heads but John signaled ‘small piece’ with two fingers.

Over at the buffet, he cut himself the biggest piece which wouldn’t look absurd on the small plate and a slim slice for John. But he scraped together the cuttings and crumbs and pushed the heaped spoonful into his mouth, the rich, chocolaty alcohol coating his tongue. Looking across the historic hall in the warm candle light, he felt light-headed, as if his brain was floating 2 inches over his head, a sensation only quality champagne achieved. This was what he wanted – a full belly protruding unabashedly before him, a mouth full of delicious chocolate, a close-knit circle of accepting friends and family, professional peers and mentors he could respect – and a perfect lady who would most willingly let herself be smothered under his bulk tonight. If he wanted to keep that, he’d have to do his part, bite the bullet, take the risk of trying to cash his ticket to a better position in life.
 

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