Alike in Dignity

by Michael Arram


Henry Atwood had a habit he shared with terriers: racing off after any and every hare that crossed his path, or 'chasing his tail' as Tomas Weissman put it. He was supposed to be working on the Strelsenermedia bid for Eurovision 2005 in Strelzen, or rather working to subvert the State TV bid. Instead he was getting more and more intrigued with Peter Peacher's little problem. Henry was not naïve. He was perfectly well aware that Pete had wanted to dangle the story in front of his nose for his own purposes. But Henry saw no problem with being exploited if it suited him, and Peter's story looked just up his street. It had that mix of history and politics which attracted him irresistibly.

It was nine-thirty on a fine Monday morning in the Radhausplaz of Strelzen, which as it happened was one of Henry's favourite places in the city. The great late Gothic tower of the Radhaus loomed above the whole square, stage upon stage, the red brick warm in the sunlight and the great arch that tunneled through it giving a glimpse of the cobbled inner courtyard within. Tourists were already queueing for the Stadmuseum and the tower climb, with five minutes still to wait. The adjacent Information Office was however already open and Henry pushed inside. The young and pretty lady behind the desk smiled up at him.

'How can I help, sir?' she asked in English.

Henry found the Rothenian capacity for guessing nationalities and language groups uncanny. He answered breezily in Rothenian however. 'Prosim. Good morning. I was looking for the city planning office, actually.'

Unfazed, the woman continued to smile. 'Ah sir. I'm afraid it's not at the Radhaus. Here we have only the Burgomeister's court, the state and council rooms, the police office and of course the museum.'

'Oh. So where do I find the planning department?'

'The Prefecture is now located in the Sixth across from the National Library. It was only opened last December, so I'm not surprised you didn't know about the move. I have a map. Let me mark the location. It's only four stops on the tram.'

Henry cheerily thanked her and headed out on to the square, to find the Radhaus now open. On a whim, he joined the queue for the Stadmuseum and paid his forty-five krone for a basic ticket, reflecting as he did so that the price had been less than half that on his first visit to the place, back when he was sixteen. Rothenia's booming tourist industry was apparently busy maximising its profits. He reflected sadly that the country had lost something over the past few years, for all that it had gained in wealth and political stability. It was as happy to exploit its visitors these days as it was to greet them.

The Stadmuseum had been recently refitted and expanded, probably just after the city administration had moved out. It was now a series of rooms along one range of the Radhaus organised by historical period, as well as a new gallery of municipal art. It was as impressive a presentation as Henry had ever seen, and for a guy in his mid-twenties he had seen quite a few.

It was the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rooms Henry was mainly interested in. He remembered from his first visit a huge and wonderful model of early modern Strelsau, reconstructed as the city had looked during the Thirty Years War. Still then very much a boy, Henry had gazed fascinated by the details of the tiny houses, streets and churches of the Neustadt, set within the zig-zag of its fortified Lines, while the Altstadt stood on its hill across the River Starel. It was in 1630 still within its medieval walls, clustered below the cathedral and the abbey of St Waclaw high atop the Domshorja. The two cities were linked across the river only by a single fortified bridge whose massive castellated barbican called the Osten Tor closed its west end.

Henry found to his relief that the model had survived the refit, though it was now artfully lit and placed in a side room, the wall projection of a multilingual historical presentation flickering into life as he came through the entrance. Looking at it now with adult eyes, Henry wondered if the statement of power that was the Osten Tor was as much made to overawe the Neustadt as to defend the strategic bridge. He took out his handij and activated the camera.

It was the area upriver of the Alstadt and Neustadt that Henry was chiefly interested in that morning. This was the heathland that would become known as the Martzfeld in the eighteenth century, a place for army manoeuvres, artillery tests, royal salutes and reviews. But in 1630 it was an area of moor, pasture and coppices, and he found it marked on the model by the name of the Strelsenernwald, the Forest of Strelsau, to which adjoined a more heavily forested area right at the edge of the board called the Wenzlerwald. He took numerous images of the city model, and as he moved through the rooms took several more of the ancient Elphberg charters to the Neustadt which were on display, and historical landscapes of the environs of Strelsau.

With a certain satisfaction in a job well begun, he left to get the tram to the Prefecture of the Nuevemesten.

Yuli had extra maths to end his school day, which to him was no bad thing. It was one of his strong subjects, and in both maths and music he was in the school's elite group. Sudmesten Central had benefitted from the Rothenian government's drive to lift attainment across the educational sector, which was generally reckoned to fall short of that of the neighbouring western countries. Funds had become available for schools to obtain advanced tuition to small groups at baccalaureate level. Yuli's gymno had a relationship with the campus of the neighbouring Technische Universität, and Yuli was one of the pupils who crossed the road to be tutored by lecturers and postgraduate students two afternoons a week.

The Technische was not the most aesthetic of campuses. Its buildings were communist era, and painted a distracting acid green. Still, Yuli felt a little cool walking its lanes thronged with students, who were at liberty to smoke, snog intimately and use obscenities publicly, activities that would have got him suspended if he'd done them at his gymno.

And then towards him came two young men, hand in hand. Out gays! He registered they were a bit ostentatious about it, sneaking looks around them to see the reaction of others. But they were being ignored. Yuli however stared, so they played up for him, pausing to kiss right next to him and eye him as they did. He flushed as the taller of them called out 'Hey cutie!' as they resumed their public walk of gayness past him.

Yuli was a little shaken by the encounter, and couldn't immediately work out why, though he definitely felt challenged, and not in a pleasant way. He was still brooding about it when he took his seat at the back of his small group of peers, and had to struggle briefly to fully engage with the set problems.

After the tutorial session was over, he made his way to the tram stop to get himself home. As he sat watching his city's streets go by, it occurred to him his problem was envy. That was what was unsettling him. He was envious of what those two exhibitionist boys had, even though he didn't think he would have behaved as they had. He had no one to be exhibitionist with, even if he felt that way inclined. Yuli sighed. Something would have to be done. But what?

On Wednesday, Yuli's handij buzzed as he was walking down the hill in the bright morning sunlight to Willem's place. He squinted at the screen but didn't recognise the number.

'Prosim?' he ventured.

A young male voice replied. 'Hi! Is that Julius?'

'Yuli, yes. Who's this?'

'We met at the Hofkapelle the weekend before last. It's Mattyas … Mattyas Cohen, the organ scholar.'

'Oh right. Sorry. How did you get my number?'

'I met Dr Hassel last night. He had it.'

'Well okay, what's up?'

There was a pause, then Mattyas came back. 'It's, er … like this. Not meaning to flatter you and all, but your extempore variations on the Messiaen piece were quite a surprise, a good one of course. So the thing is, the Chapel Royal is keen to attract the best talent in Strelzen, and I wondered if you'd be interested in meeting up with our Kapellemeister. You might like helping out in the loft from time to time. Good experience for you.'

Yuli thought about it, and felt a certain excitement at the idea; the same subdued excitement he felt walking the Technische campus. 'Er … yeah, I think maybe I'd like that. I can only use the cathedral instrument when Dr Hassel's available and not at service times. Most weekends I have a job. But will I be able to play the Hildebrandt at the Hofkapelle?'

'Yes. I think so. The Kapellemeister wants to hear you in fact, so come with a piece prepared. Tomorrow evening okay? Around seven-thirty? It's after the choristers' practice.'

'But how do I get inside the Residenz? I don't have a security clearance, or whatever.'

'I can sort that. I'll text you. Great! See you, Yuli.'

Yuli stood on the corner of Domstrasse in the sunlight for a moment, then adjusted his backpack, which was scrunching up his tee-shirt, and continued thoughtfully down the steep hill to call on Willem.

Willem clumped down the stairs to meet him at the street door. 'Dad asks are you okay to work this weekend?' his friend enquired.

'Sure, I was expecting it. You too?'

'Uh huh. Dad won't be there though, he'll be at our other shop in Hofbau. So me being deputy manager and all, I'll man the till and you can be nice to the foreigners, that and watch out for shoplifters.'

'Considering our relative attainment in maths, shouldn't it be the other way round?'

Willem laughed. 'But you also score higher than me on niceness. Your English is okay, and that's all that's really needed. You've got German too.'

Yuli grunted. 'Any problems, I can hand them on to you, Mister Multilingual, I suppose.' Of the pair of them, Willem had the more outgoing personality and was the more talented at languages, as both boys knew.

Yuli shared his news as they made their way down to the Starel embankment and the bridge. Willem was intrigued. 'I mean, I know you're really good. But didn't you have an idea of getting into electronica and doing cool stuff with digital tracks? I was looking up online the sort of equipment you'd need. Very expensive, by the way.'

Yuli shrugged. 'I can still do that. But it would be nice to meet up with some real professional musicians … no offence, Willemczu, you know I adore you and we are best friends forever.'

'None taken.'

'Everyone says Strelzen has this great classical music scene, with the Conservatory, the Opera, the Rudolfinum and all the big churches. But it's for the Rodolfer types: students, music scholars and choral foundations, not for kids in gymno. So this could be my opportunity.'

Willem agreed. 'The Hofkapelle is getting to be a big thing these days. I was talking to Frau Willschig at the booking agents next door and she says tickets for the Sunday main choral masses are in high demand, even when the king and queen won't be there. Now its choir and orchestra's joined the summer season schedule too. First time this year. They're performing in the Salvatorskirche. Maybe that's why they're interested in recruiting extra talent like you, yeah?'

Yuli mused over that suggestion, which made sense to him. Maybe his talent had a marketable value, something he'd never considered before.

Come Thursday at seven, on a very warm evening of mellow sunshine, Yuli presented himself at the Reitschule Gate of the Residenz of Strelzen. The police guard checked a clipboard and Yuli's ID. The policeman peered into his backpack and then waved him through when he said he knew the way, and told him to keep strictly to the marked path. Yuli was sorry not to see on duty the nice army officer who'd given him and his mum the tour the weekend of the garden party.

He found his way up to the Hofkapelle ante-chapel, and kicked his heels on the marble landing, being ignored by the saints of the Counter-Reformation on the walls, who had other things on their minds than a nervous Rothenian schoolboy. The lowering sun lit up the vault above him through the upper windows. Music drifted from within the chapel doors, one valve of which was ajar. Every now and then it broke off as the Kapellemeister issued fitful corrections and instructions. It was a choir rehearsal, and not an orchestral one, so the great Hildebrandt organ was swelling out an accompaniment at full volume in what Yuli thought he recognised as a Bach Magnificat.

At about quarter past seven the music stopped, and with a bustle and some subdued chattering the young men and women of the choir, mostly students but with several more mature choristers, pushed open the door and emerged. One or two looked at him curiously as they passed him. Yuli moved to the door but as he did he realised that the rehearsal was not quite over, for a solo male tenor was still going through his paces.

Yuli paused, his heart in his mouth. The voice was remarkable; serene and confident, reaching effortlessly into the higher register, at times so spiritual as to seem barely human. It was not a powerful voice, but the controlled sensitivity was unlike anything Yuli had ever heard before. He stood astonished. What had he got himself into, setting himself up to perform alongside such talent? If the song hadn't held him entranced, he might have run for it.

As the singing went on, he edged round the door and peered inside. A gentleman in a suit and tie who must be the Kapellemeister was in the broad aisle between the baroque stalls of the knights of the Rose, brooding on a score laid out on a stand and facing in Yuli's direction. He realised the singer was in fact in the organ loft above him. The organ itself was sounding soft chords underlying the tenor voice, and the result was so affecting chills ran up and down Yuli's back and tears formed in his eyes.

After all too short a time, the Kapellemeister looked up and tapped a baton on the edge of the stand. The tenor broke off, and the man called up to the loft that he was happy with the rendition and that was it for the night. Then he spotted Yuli, smiled warmly and came forward with outstretched hand. 'Julius? My name's Téodor Pelikan. I run things here. Mattyas tells me that you and I should meet. Come upstairs with me, then you, I and old Meister Hildebrandt can have a chat together. Yes?'

As they reached the spiral stair to the loft the heavy crimson curtain was pushed aside and the tenor emerged. Yuli stopped and gaped, as did the tenor.

Herr Pelikan clapped the young singer on the shoulder. 'Roman, young fellow, that was everything I had hoped for and more. Say hello to Julius here, he's interested in joining us. Oh? Do you two know each other?'

Roman-Rudolf Staufer von Ebersfeld raised his fathomless dark eyes under their perfect brows to actually connect briefly with Yuli's and murmured 'Hi … er, hi.' Then his eyes dropped and he all but dashed out of the chapel.

On Friday, the temperature soared in Strelzen as it sometimes did at the end of May. School was a trial. When Willem and Yuli had toiled up the Domshorja to his house, they were sweaty and dehydrated.

'Are you staying tonight, Willemczu?' asked Frau Lucic.

'Yes, Auntie Maria. It's 38 out there. But it cools off more here up on the Horja in the night than it does down the hill.'

'You boys take a shower.'

'Are we noticeable, mutti?' Yuli flashed a mischievous grin.

'You two have been noticeable since you were thirteen. Doubly so when you're in Yuli's room together.'

Yuli and Willem adjourned to the small back garden after their shower, towels round their midriffs and reeking too much of Yuli's deodorant. There was at least shade, and Yuli's mum had placed a jug of chilled fruit juice and glasses on the little table under the pear tree. They removed the damp towels, took seats and stretched their legs. Willem adjusted his junk unselfconsciously, pulling his limp penis free from his damp and sticky balls and arranging them on top of his thighs.

'So there he was at the Hofkapelle,' Willem reflected. 'But he isn't in your advanced music group at gymno.'

'Now that's not so odd. There's only five of us and we're selected on the basis of instruments: I'm keyboard, Anya is violin, Della is clarinet, Pavel is trumpet and Lucia is flute. The funds pay for our tuition across at the Technische. We do theory and composition with the rest of the baccalaureate groups. The mysterious Roman-Rudolf is in Herr Braun's class.'

'He's not in the school choir.'

Yuli shrugged. 'Probably thinks it's beneath him. But you should have heard him. Believe me when I tell you you've never heard anything like the sound he makes … angelic is not in it.'

'I'm impressed, Yuli. Knowing what you think of him, his singing must be really something.'

'I don't dislike him! It's just that there's nothing to like or dislike. How can you hate someone who won't even speak to you? So he's either paralysingly shy, or a smug upper class prick who won't talk to commoners like us.'

'He's actually entitled to be called Freiherr, my dad said. Sons of nobles get noble status too: maybe Roman-Rudolf von Ebersfeld has every reason to have his nose perpetually stuck in the air.'

Yuli took a swig of juice. 'Whatever Bolo says, I don't think he's a snob. A snob would attract an alpha group round him, so he could exclude shit like us from it. It's more complicated than that. You see him with one or two of the guys at lunch break, and they seem to be talking. Mind you, whatever they say to each other can't be that amusing. I have yet to see him share a laugh with anyone.'

Willem surveyed his friend meditatively. 'You study him a lot.'

Yuli blushed despite himself. But now was not the time for that conversation. 'He's an enigma, and a really annoying one. Anyway, I'll have more of a chance soon, since it looks like I'm going to be sharing a Hofkapelle with him.'

Willem grinned. 'So they like you? They bloody well should, Yuli. Come on. Let's go up to your room. You can play me some of that jazz stuff you know I like. Also I have a video of Terminator 3. It's not dubbed, but I imagine the dialogue will be pretty primitive English.'

The boys ambled naked through the Lucic house, where clothes were not obligatory, dropping the towels in the laundry basket as they passed.

The sun went down and the lights of the city below came up. A cooler breeze stirred the curtains of Yuli's room through his wide open window. He and Willem were side by side on Yuli's bed watching the video.

'Let's be honest, it is not a classic like the first two,' Willem admitted.

'The quality's not bad for a pirate copy. Where did you get it?'

'Bolo has his sources. His big brother works on the Wejg.'

'The Wejg, hmm?' Yuli pondered that evocative and dangerous name. 'I've never been down there. Have you?'

Willem shrugged; his bare, warm bicep moving against Yuli's. 'Oddly enough I went there with my tatti when I was thirteen. He was thinking about taking a lease on a shop to sell our tourist crap, and mutti wasn't available to look after me. He decided against the shop as it was too specialist a trade, whatever he meant by that.'

'I can guess maybe.'

Willem laughed. 'I wandered off. Tatti caught me ogling the pictures outside the titty bars. This was before we got the internet and such things were freely available to any randy kid. Damn. Going hard.'

Willem's penis was rising out of its pubic nest. Yuli reached over, took hold of its warm hardness and began stroking his friend with some skill. Mutual masturbation was an activity they'd begun when they were thirteen, which in those days had involved a lot of giggling too. These days, it was a less frantic act arising from their deeply intimate friendship as much as a necessary sexual relief.

'You gonna bring me off?'

'Want me to?'

'You know I do. Just angle it up on to my chest. It's gonna be quite a lot, I've not wanked for over a week.'

Willem was not exaggerating. Yuli was impressed. 'Predelje, Willemczu! You've shot spots on the wall above your head.'

Willem caught his breath. 'Want me to do you? You're hard too.'

'No … maybe, if I can't sleep. It's still quite hot.' But as it happened he slept well, spooned behind Willem on his bed without sheets over them because of the heat, waking in the early morning as his friend turned in his arms, Willem's sleepy smile, bed hair and bad breath in his face. Yuli pondered if this was what marriage was like, for Willem always made him feel emotionally comfortable and secure. There had never in all their years of friendship been a moment of tension between them. He loved it when they slept together, and he believed Willem didn't mind it either. Pity Willem was straight.

Yuli liked Kral's Domshorja Gift Shop, and always had. Much of what it sold was pretty tasteless and tacky, but since he was small he had loved the way the myriads of items were stacked and displayed; it was like being inside a jewelry box at times. There was consequently a huge variety of stock to get to know, but Yuli had been doing occasional work there for Herr Kral since he was fourteen, and he knew it almost as well as Willem, the son and heir of the establishment.

The two boys opened the shop in the relative cool of the early morning. Willem hauled out a large box. 'I've had an idea. We're gonna stack this box with bottled water out of the cold cabinets and put it here on the street. You can change them round every hour from the fridges, so they're always beaded with condensation and look attractively cool and refreshing.

'You hear the guides going on to their groups about the vital importance of keeping hydrated, and today is gonna be another really hot one. Tatti put in airconditioning for days just like this; it drags the tourists in for blessed relief, and they have to buy stuff or feel embarrassed. So, you can stand out here and sell bottles for nine krone: very reasonable, and the aircon will then suck them inside irresistibly.'

What Willem did not say was that his friend's dark good looks, with his long, smooth brown legs displayed to advantage in his tight shorts and flipflops, would grab the attention of any passing female or gay man. Yuli was therefore being placed to advantage at the shop doorway alongside the loss leader of bottled water. Willem Kral was shaping up to be a true businessman, which included a certain amorality where money was concerned.

It was still early that Saturday and Yuli looked appreciatively up and down the steep street. The sun was rising around the Horja and climbing above the opposite row of shops and houses. To his right below him was a glorious misty view of the Nuevemesten, spread out across its plateau above the loop in the shining river Starel. Municipal and shop workers passed and greeted him, many of whom he knew by name and all of whom knew him. In the Rothenian way, they would pause as they climbed the hill and exchange remarks, always asking about his father and mother. Strelzen may have been a growing modern city of 600,000 souls, but it felt to Yuli like a village at times, and he loved that.

In his Rothenian way, Yuli greeted the first small knots of foreign tourists who began toiling past him up the hill, in time for the opening of the cathedral of St Vitalis after the morning mass. His shy 'Hi!' or 'Good Morning!' in English invariably got a smiling response. So he had a high opinion of the politeness of foreign tourists. Several groups stopped for information, usually along the lines of: 'How much further does this goddam hill go on for, kid?' The box of bottled water began emptying. He had to fill it again it by the time the cathedral bells pealed out the angelus.

Yuli was just refilling the box, and unconsciously displaying his very fine, fabric-encased ass to the world, when a vaguely familiar young voice behind him offered a cheerful 'Dobre denn!' and followed up with: 'It's Yuli, yes?'

Yuli turned to find the smiling face of the journalist, Henry Atwood. 'Oh, hello sir!' he responded, thinking quickly. 'Are you working today?'

Henry laughed. 'Always and every day. But I've been out in the field most of last week and I need to get up to the office.'

'Oh yes, sir. The Eastnet offices are in the old hospital, yes?'

'Call me Henry, please, I don't mind.'

'And is the major working too?' Yuli wanted if he could to find out more about these two gay men, and how they lived.

'Edward is his name … or, Ed usually.'

'That's a very English name.'

Henry smiled. 'There's no easy Rothenian equivalent, as we've found. Rothenians drag it out to Ed-vaart. They find "Ed" easier. Your dad own this shop, Yuli?'

'No sir. My friend Willem's dad owns it, and I work here on the weekends sometimes. It's going to be a busy one this time, I think.'

Henry was as usual on intellectual autopilot. His mind was always accumulating information. Even though he had no interest in Yuli other than casual friendliness with a pleasant teenager, out it came: 'So, what does your dad do?'

'Oh, he's in local government.'

'Really? I might know him then.'

'He's Herr Lucic, the Staroman.'

There was a pause and Yuli noticed an odd expression in the journalist's face: a sudden intense look engaged with Yuli's eyes. 'That's … interesting, Yuli. Yes, I know your dad, though I've not yet had the pleasure of interviewing him. Anyway, you're busy and I have a desk full of memos awaiting my attention. Here's my nine krone. Thanks for the water, a lifesaver.'

It was Henry's emphasis on the word 'yet' that Yuli registered when he went over their brief conversation in his head.

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