Alike in Dignity

by Michael Arram


Yuli stood stunned. He looked around the lounge and observed that his mother's laptop, which usually sat on the side table, had gone.

'When did this happen, Willemczu?'

'Your mutti rang me a couple of hours ago. She's at the police barracks where they took your tatti. She can't get hold of his lawyers, which I'd be willing to bet is one reason why they arrested him on the New Year's weekend.'

Yuli sat on the sofa. 'What can I do, Willemczu?'

'Not a lot, but you'd better bring your stuff down to my place for tonight. I doubt your mutti'll be back till late.'

'I'll ring her now.'

Yuli raised her immediately, but learned very little other than there was no chance of his father being released till next week. She hadn't even been given a copy of the charges. Yuli was told to go down to the Krals for the night.

He was received warmly and sympathetically by his godparents, and given dinner and their opinion of what was going on. Eventually he was packed off to bed. It was when he relaxed into the familiarity of Willem's embrace that Yuli began to come down from the tension of the day and was able to discuss other things, especially the high and low points of his stay at Zenda.

'When did you last have a wank?' Willem eventually asked. 'Not for two weeks! No wonder you're so hyper.' He disappeared under the duvet and Yuli felt his cock enveloped into a warm and wet place.

'What about you?' he said as his grinning friend's face resurfaced, hair all over the place.

'Oh, your need was greater than mine. But I won't forget the offer, Star-Boy. And talking of stars, your fans down on Schustergasse are getting restive. Della and I sneaked down to Lisztomania in Christmas week. The DJs wanted to know if you're gonna do your usual Wednesday set and, get this, I was given a broad hint that the management are willing to offer a bit more cash, considering the interest you're sparking.'

'A bit more cash? They've only ever given me beer money, which is odd considering they don't allow me to buy beer.'

'Well, now they're talking more serious terms so … er … I began negotiations on your behalf.'

Yuli quirked his lips. 'When did you become my manager, Willemczu?'

'Come on, Yuli. When have I not been? It's been my job to mediate between you and the adult world since we were toddlers. Another thing is this. All the CDs of your album sold out at the bar before Christmas. The students weren't around to talk to about it, but the management thought you should know.'

'Know what?'

'That you're a hit, moron. People want to hear your songs. You need to get signed up by a label. You need to get your tracks on iTunes or something!'

'Easy as that, yeah?'

'Love this place, Outfield.' Davey Skipper waved his arm benevolently at a slush-filled Wejg.

'What? This street was the site of the worst embarrassment in your life so far, Bounder!'

'I'm over … er … Anton … really. It was not the most embarrassing thing in my life.'

'Well, I was embarrassed for you. What do you want to do? A bit early for Club Liberation.'

'I suppose you go there all the time these days.'

Henry snorted. 'There are less touristy, cheaper and gayer places in town. I never go there. How about the Irish bar? Justin likes it.'

'Fine by me. Yup! Shamrocks at ten o'clock. G&T for you, I have no doubt.'

'Sure 'nuff. If you can find an Irish brand of gin, I'll have it with tonic.'

The two young men found their way into the attempted facsimile of a Grafton Street pub, going by the name of O'Leary's. The barman was Australian, which somehow seemed appropriate. Henry had to settle for a Beefeater, which was all the pub had. They sat at the counter.

Davey took a sip of his Guinness. He nodded his approval. 'So, Outfield. Marriage then?'

'Well, not quite. But a Civil Union law will pass in Rothenia this spring, so … why not?'

'No reason at all. I think you two guys were seriously made for each other, even in the Gavin days. Not of course that our Gavin didn't turn into a cute little bunny in the end, but you weren't meant for bunnies ... other than the fucking like rabbits thing.'

'That metaphor went seriously astray, Davey.'

'Apologies. I'm distracted by the exotic Rothenian environment. It was good of you to act as native guide in my little adventure in Europop.'

'No problem. I'm supposed to be on holiday this week. Eastnet doesn't want me back till next Tuesday, and I promised Ed I'd try harder to relax than I usually do. So thank you for the distraction, Davey.'

Davey took another swig of his stout. 'I think I'll hang on here in Strelzen for a week or two. You're not the only one who's been ordered to take a proper holiday.'

'Hmm? Terry accusing you of being a workaholic?'

'Well, it was Live Action's first world tour. Fifty gigs on four continents. It took it out of me. I'm new to this level of the music industry. I had a lot of quick learning to do.'

'It went okay though, yes? I don't read the music press much, but every release and agency report that passed under my nose said that Live Action were the new Coldplay, and prettier too. You must have minted it.'

'Oh yeah. Skipper Associates is hot but that's the thing.'

'What is?'

'That me operating out of my dingy little office above that bathhouse on Rupert Street was edgy and fun. But now I have 'associates' and I'm a CEO and have a brand to maintain.'

'I also believe you now have a rather renowned studio in a small castle in Granada.'

'So I do. And I hope Live Action are being very busy and tuneful little bees there at this very moment. But hanging round Soho and Bermondsey clubs; dancing; flirting with hot guys and talent spotting is no longer what I do. Nowadays it's board meetings and at best sitting for days with engineers and listening to CDs that hopeful teens send to me in their thousands.'

Henry laughed. 'So this is Davey trying to recapture a lost golden age. Davey, you've not yet reached your quarter-century. Don't be a twat.'

His friend quirked a lip at him. 'I knew I'd get no sympathy from you. But then I don't deserve it. You're right of course. Terry said as much. Hanging round in what passes for Strelzen clubland where no one knows Davey Skipper, clubland entrepreneur and media phenomenon, is exactly why I'm here. Success makes me nervous. I want to be a nobody again.'

'Well you're in the right company, Bounder. I may have a modest profile here in Strelzen, but in the big world I'm not nearly as well known as you are, so my Nobodiness will very likely rub off on you. Here's to obscurity.' The friends ruefully clinked glasses. Davey charmed the Aussie barman into contributing his views on the Wejg and the Strelzen music scene. It turned out he was a knowledgable sort, and wasn't impressed. He advised them to take a train to Berlin.

'What about this Schustergasse place?' Davey asked.

'Mate, it's just a couple of student dives. Some chronic DJs, shaving their heads, playing this absymal Ibiza Eurocrap and posing like Americans the way these Continentals do. You doan wanna know, believe me.'

After the guy went away to serve the growing number of customers, Henry looked at Davey. 'Would you rather go home and hit the nicer selection of gins I have there in a cupboard somewhere, providing I can find it?'

'No … no, Outfield. It's the quest that's the thing. The seeking is more improving spiritually than the finding.'

'Now you're sending me up. But let's head on down the lane. See what we can find.'

Yuli found working at Kral's a relief on several levels. It was a distraction from his longing for the absent Roman and his worries at home. It was a cold January, so business was slack and he and Willem could lose themselves in the tedium of Herr Kral's annual stocktaking and warehouse cleaning. While they were shifting boxes and unloading deliveries the two boys could chew over Radek Lucic's latest problems.

'The papers have been pretty nasty, and it's getting to him. He just sits on the sofa watching TV a lot of the time. He loved his job and now he's suspended. It's shit.'

Willem straightened his back and wiped his forehead. 'What do the lawyers say?'

'He won't discuss it. But I don't get the impression they're being all that helpful. I'm thinking of going down one night and investigating the stack of legal files on the dining room table, not that I'd probably understand much of it.'

'Is the council of the Staramesten being any help to him?'

'Some of his rivals tried to get him dismissed but the majority squashed the move. It would have been pre-empting the verdict of the enquiry. But suspending him is not that much better for tatti. He's one of those men who's always got to be in the thick of it with people. It's his life.'

'So they're still paying him at least.'

'Yeah. We're solvent, but mutti's really worried about the future. I can tell. It's not just about the possibility of him being fired and – God forbid – put in gaol. I think they're using up all their savings on the lawyers. I caught mutti searching through realtors' leaflets. The house is likely to go on the market.'

Willem gaped. 'Jesus! It can't be that bad?'

'Fraid it is, Willemczu.'

'Then we should definitely get down to Schustergasse tonight. I think we both have things we need to have our minds distracted from. Also, your fans miss you.'

Henry was not comfortable. 'They're all staring at me.'

'No they're not, they're staring at me.'

'No, it's me. I'm too old for this place. I've lost my pimples.'

'Outfield, you're the same age I am. Stop being weird. Just get in the vibe. Oh! That guy's staring at you. Know him?'

Henry brightened. He waved. 'Hi Marek!'

His young aide came over, pushing through the crowd, a rather attractive young woman tagging along behind him. He shot a volley of Rothenian at Henry.

'Djak Angleske, Mareczu?' Henry replied. 'Men freund ma nen Rotenisken.'

'Oh! Sorry mister,' Marek Toblescu grinned at Davey. 'I have English a bit. Who are you? How are you?'

'This is my old friend Davey from London,' Henry explained. 'He's visiting. We thought we'd follow up your recommendation about Lisztomania.'

Marek offered his hand to Davey in the Rothenian way, and was charmed when Davey reciprocated. 'Ah! I see you know our local custom. Excellent. You two pick good night to come. It is night Starcrossed does the act. Good act. Much like. You like.'

'Starcrossed?' Davey's curiosity was piqued.

'He is young guy from Strelzen. Still in gymno I think, but amazing talent.' Marek gestured to the growing crowd. 'Lots of fans, especially the girls. You like, don't you baby?'

His girlfriend smiled and nodded vigorously, but had only one word to offer. 'Hot!' Though it wasn't clear whether the description was intended for Starcrossed or for Davey, who was at his glamorous, smouldering best that night, elegant for winter in a sheepskin-lined leather jacket.

Marek switched back to Rothenian. 'I'm glad I bumped into you, boss. There's some work I need you to look over.'

'The North Martzfeld file?'

'You got it. When're you back at Eastnet?'

'Next week, after Davey here returns home. He's sleeping on my sofa.'

'Okay. Have you caught up with the latest?'

'Nope. I'm forbidden TV and papers at the moment.'

Marek giggled. 'The major taken you in hand has he?'

Henry grunted in reply. 'And is this your girlfriend?'

'I have hopes. She's Anjelka. We were at school together back home in Glottenberh. She's visiting her friend in town.' He leaned into Henry. 'She's dead impressed I know you, boss. My chances have just soared. See you next week! Say 'bye to Mister Davey!'

Davey had disappeared, eventually reappearing with two bottles of beer. 'Cheap here. But it's a student dive, I guess. Nice kid that Marec … er … what was his name?'

'Marek. But the diminutive you use for a friend turns it into "Mareczu".'

'Got it. Now I think of it Anton had me call him Antonesczu when I was taking him up the chute. He seemed to get off on it.'

'It's an odd Rothenian practice. It needs to be carefully gauged when you do it. But Marek's a friendly and informal sort of kid, so I can add the "zu" as they say, even though he works for me, though he'd never dare call me Hendrikczu. An older guy who was a subordinate of mine would feel patronised if I did it. Schoolkids throw it about with affectionate abandon, but older guys reserve it for close friends and indeed lovers, if they're gay. There's no female equivalent.'

'Hmm. Thanks for the insight into Rotheian homoeroticism. It might come in handy one day. Who knows? So it looks like there's gonna be some interest here tonight after all. Starcrossed, yeah? Odd choice of stage name, don't you think?'

'Positively Shakespearean.'

'Really? I should know that. The kid must have good English then. Oh hey! Take a look at that poster on the wall. Is that about the kid? What does it say?'

'Nothing much, and no picture. It just says you can buy a CD of his set at the bar, and someone's scrawled SOLD OUT across it. There's a handij number to place an order.'

The two friends couldn't find a table in an increasingly packed room, so they leaned against the wall next to a radiator, though the heat of closely packed bodies eventually made the warmth oppressive. Davey took off his jacket. Neither of them was a tall man, so it was only by the rising cheers from the student crowd that they gathered the act had taken possession of the podium, and replaced the DJ.

'Can I sit on your shoulders, Outfield,' Davey suggested.

'You're joking I hope.'

'Wimp,' Davey laughed. 'I wonder what this kid does. I'd guess its electro pop judging by the opening chords. Sounds a bit German. Could be Schnauss's influence: big guy on the Hamburg scene. Oh … wow! What the hell!'

Henry too had felt something. The crowd noise suddenly evaporated and the keyboard began to assert harmonies which spoke directly to some part of him and caused chills down his spine. This was not exactly dance music, but the tune-weaving of a real master. The performer soon added lyrics in a pleasing youthful baritone, sometimes in Rothenian and sometimes German, but not English. The language didn't seem to bother Davey, who was intent on the music in a way Henry had never seen before. The first song ended in an eruption of applause and whistles from the club.

'Come on, Henry. Gotta see this kid!' Davey began pushing towards the rear of the room where the podium was, but there was little chance of reaching the stage, or even getting much of a view of the artist, other than the top of his dark head.

Ninety minutes later the set ended in huge cheers and chants of 'Star-Cross'd! Star-Cross'd!' The kid shouted something back to his admirers that Henry couldn't catch. Then he was gone, to be replaced by a four piece rock group of well-meaning mediocrity, or at least it seemed to so to Henry, whose judgement on such things he would have admitted to be poor.

As the crowd moved and thinned Henry was collared by Davey and dragged off towards the stage. 'Where did the little git go?' Davey exclaimed in frustration.

'Who are we looking for?'

'The Mozart of pop, you idiot! Have you any idea what you just heard! Fucking genius!'

'I thought it was okay.'

Davey rolled his eyes. 'What you miss by being tone deaf. Take it from me, Outfield, you just heard something amazing. And if it could break through your wall of insensitivity to sound "okay", it was beyond amazing.'

'Umm. Any idea what he looks like apart from having dark hair and a nice voice?'

'Dammit! We'll ask at the counter.'

The barman shrugged when Henry asked. 'I think he left. He doesn't always stay long. He has to be home by curfew and he's a good lad.'

'So how do we get in touch with the kid?'

'You could ask those two over there. The pale guy and his girlfriend. They go to his gymno, I think. They're his friends.'

'Finally!' Davey said when the response was translated. 'I bloody hope they speak English!' He bore down on the startled couple. 'Hi guys! D'you speak English?'

The boy admitted it. In fact he spoke English very well. 'Can I help, sir?'

'Yup. The guy at the bar said you know Starcrossed. I need to get in touch with him.'

The boy looked at his girlfriend, then back at Davey. 'Perhaps you can tell me why, sir? I'm his agent … well, sort of agent.'

Davey blinked. 'Er … agent? You mean I have to go through you to get to him.'

The boy had a certain air of stubborn intelligence that boded poorly for Davey in Henry's experience of young Rothenian males. 'I suppose you do sir. Perhaps you could tell me what's so important, and who you are. My name is Kral, Willem Kral.'

'Kral? As in Kral's Gift Shop on the Domstrasse Hill?' Henry interjected in Rothenian.

'Yes sir. Excuse me. I think I know you. It's Herr At-vood from the TV, isn't it?'

Henry grinned and held out his hand. It got a strong Rothenian shake. 'Yep. It's me. This rather impatient gentleman is my good friend, David Skipper. It's okay. He's legitimate. You can trust him … well, mostly.'

Davey was overheating, as he did when he got frustrated. 'What the fuck, Outfield. What's going on?'

'Just vouching for you, Bounder. Tell Willem here what you want.'

'Look, Willem. I'd like to talk to your … er … client, this Starcrossed kid.'

'And why would you want that, sir?'

'I think I can help him. I have show business connections he could use.'

Willem pondered this. 'Okay sir, I'll let him know of your interest. Can you let me have your handij number. He'll get back to you.'

Davey mastered himself. 'Please do that. But tell him I'll only be in Strelzen for a few more days. Another thing. Have you any of those CDs that were for sale here?'

'Sorry sir, no. Hold on.' He whispered to his girlfriend, who produced a Sony Walkman and removed a disk. 'Della says you can borrow her copy, but she wants it back.'

Henry and Davey walked out on to the dark and icy Wejg. Davey was deeply frustrated in a way new even to Henry. 'Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Just my luck.'

'You okay?'

'No I am not, Outfield. You know the buzz I told you I had back in uni when I first heard Live Action?'

'Er … weren't they called Sparkles at the time?'

'Focus, Henry. Well multiply that buzz by five, and that's what I felt back in that club only ten seconds after Starcrossed began playing.'

'Wow. Quite a jolt. So Starcrossed is …'

'… possibly the greatest act I'll ever encounter in my distinguished career. And his friends won't let me near him. Gaah! I'm staying in this city till I run him down. In the meantime, have you got a CD player back in your flat? This we have to hear.'

Willem had gone directly to the Lucic house and caught Yuli just before bed, in which he had joined him.

'You were pretty good on stage tonight, leblen kamrad. Della said you were the best yet, and she's not missed one of your performances.'

Yuli sniffed a little. 'Yeah well, it seems the unhappier I get, the more I take it out on my keyboard.'

'Is that what they call displacement?'

'I'd call it desperation.'

'Sorry, Yuli leblen. How can I make it better?'

'Apart from the usual? I think it's my turn anyway.'

Willem kissed him on the nose. 'I can make it special.'

'What? How?'

'I'm not forbidden from going the whole way with you. I rather like the idea.'

'Are you going bisexual on me?'

'Baby, I've been there as far as you're concerned since we were fourteen. This will be no new departure for me or for you. So what about it? See, you've just gone hard.'

Yuli kissed him gently on the lips. 'That's because you're holding my dick, Willemczu men. I'll give it some thought. But keep rubbing it.'

Willem threw back the duvet and brought things to a conclusion. They lay quiet for a while as Yuli embraced Willem and played with his erection.

'Here's a thing,' Willem said eventually. 'A guy came up to Della and me after you'd disappeared, an English guy. He was with Henry At-vood of all people. He said his name was David … something beginning with "s". He's in the music business apparently and you impressed him. Actually you impressed him a lot. He wants to talk.'

'Is this you being my manager?'

'I suppose. Della reckons he's on the level. He took her Starcrossed CD when he left. I've got his handij number. D'you want me to set up a meeting? There's not much else on this weekend. The shop's closed.'

'Apart from course work for my Bacca. I didn't do much when I was in Zenda. Okay, Willemczu, but you handle it. I really can't be arsed. Just ask him what he wants.'

'And what he can offer? He may want to talk terms.'

'I trust you, Willemczu. You'd never fuck me over. Talking of which …'

Willem got up on one elbow as Yuli settled himself on his stomach. 'Really? We're doing this?'

'Lube is in the draw. You'll notice there's barely a dent in the tube. That'll tell you something about my current relationship. I really want you in me Willemczu.'

There was no choir rehearsal the next day, but Yuli turned up at the Hofkapelle for his usual session with Mattyas Cohen. The organ scholar was a little wistful at missing Christmas at Zenda. Yuli's account of the adventures of the Starjungen and their goat sent his laughter echoing high in the vault of the otherwise empty chapel.

'I'd have liked to have seen that, but hey! Other people wanted me more. So … when's Roman back?'

'Not till the weekend, and there's no guarantee we'll get to see each other even then.'

'Why's that? Oh … I get it. Your father's troubles were all over the papers. I'm so sorry.'

'It provides the baron with all the ammunition he needs to insist that Romesczu separate himself from the criminal Lucics.'

'That's a bit medieval. Sins of the fathers these days are not visited on their children. Not saying of course that your dad did anything wrong in any case.'

'His parents are manipulative: I'm beginning to realise quite how much. His mistake back in his old days at the German school is always being used to control him. I'm not saying their show of care and concern is fake, but he's not willing to see that they're using his vulnerability and guilt as bars to a designer-furnished prison they've made for him. They'll never let him go if they have their way. My dad's problems are just another lock on the prison gate for him.'

Mattyas was struck by this. 'So you're the prince in the forest and our Romesczu is up in the tower imprisoned by a witch's spell.'

'His mother certainly fits the bill. The look on her face when I turn up on their doorstep for a rehearsal is enough to curdle milk. I noticed after the last one no date was set to resume them. If he returns to the Hofkapelle this Sunday I'll be surprised.'

'Herr Pelikan will have a thing to say about that. He stirred up the queen about it the last time.'

Yuli shrugged. 'Great person though Queen Harry is, there are limits to what even she can do.'

Mattyas looked troubled. 'You seem to be saying that your days with Roman are numbered.'

'I think that's exactly what I'm saying. This prince has no chance freeing a beautiful lover who doesn't want to escape, even if he climbs up the vines to the top of the tower to break him free.'

There was silence until Yuli began to pick out the slow tune of a dirge on the keyboard. Mattyas squeezed his shoulder, but had nothing to say.

'I'm sorry, sir. But it's not a good time for Starcrossed. He's got family troubles, not to mention boyfriend problems.'

Davey Skipper raised an eyebrow. 'Gay is he? How does that go down in Rothenia?'

'I'm sure Herr At-vood can tell you, sir. The point is he's grateful for your good opinion, but now is the worst time for him. He plays music to forget his troubles, not to add to his anxieties. So he told me politely to tell you he's not interested.'

Davey muttered obscenities under his breath. 'You mean that's it? I get the impression you're not entirely behind him on this. Am I right?'

Willem Kral shrugged. 'My opinion isn't important, sir. However, I'll happily keep your number and if he changes his mind, you'll be the first to hear. It's all I can promise. I'm afraid I must ask you for the CD back. Della will kill me if I don't.'

'So I don't even walk away with a memory of that sensational talent. I can't handle this. You have to believe me when I tell you, Will, that your friend is the greatest talent I've yet encountered in my career.'

'He's always been brilliant, sir, since we were small kids. Not just talented but nice with it. Knowing him is like walking hand in hand with a sunbeam, as we say in this country.'

Davey mustered a rueful smile. 'That's a nice thing to say. You must really love him.'

'I do, sir. He's my true brother. He wrote Edler Herz for me.'

'Did he indeed. Sounds like the feeling is mutual. Remember your promise then. You can reach me on that number in Rothenia or in the UK.'

They stood in the McDonald's on Flavienerplaz, where they had met, and shook hands in the serious Rothenian way, which Davey had mastered. Davey hesitated, then asked 'Would it be okay if I copied the CD before returning it? I'd give you the price of one.' Willem shrugged. 'I'd rather you didn't, sir. I've heard of this thing called copyright …' Davey nodded, returned the disk and then headed slowly back to Henry's apartment, thinking deeply all the way.

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