Alike in Dignity

by Michael Arram


As Yuli, Willem and Bolo approached the front gate of their gymno the day after Roman's flight from home, they were not entirely surprised to see the lurking figure of Alfons Hadjek scanning the crowd of incoming students, rather like a predatory hawk. He recognised Yuli and moved to confront him. His stance was aggressive.

'Julius Lucic. I have business with you.'

But Willem moved between him and Yuli. 'Who're you, mister?' He turned to Bolo. 'Go fetch security, this guy looks like a pervert. You a pervert, mister?'

'Out of my way, you cheeky kid. This is none of your business.' However, Willem's solidity and size could not be ignored or brushed past, and the satirical smile that met Hadjek's stare was confident and intimidating. 'Go get the guard, Bolo. Now if you're not out of my face in ten seconds, pervert, I'll fucking rearrange yours.'

By now Bolo, ignoring Willem's order, had sidled up next to Hadjek and added his considerable bulk to the equation. He had a lit cigarette and blew smoke into the man's face. 'Time to fuck off, pervert. Go home and wank off to your porno tapes.'

Hadjek's gaze snapped to Bolo. 'What?'

'Masturbation, man. Isn't that what you do?'

'Now …' he began, but suddenly his eyes went wild as he realised a crowd had gathered. He bottled out, rapidly retreating with kids staring and some catcalling as he went. Curious eyes surveyed Yuli and his friends.

Willem pursed his lips. 'I wonder what the dickhead thought he was doing.'

Yuli grinned. 'I'd say he was after finding out where Roman was in a hurry, and decided to take the risky route, the bullying fuck. Thanks guys.'

Bolo snorted. 'Is Roman gonna be in gymno today?'

'No,' Willem replied. 'Romesczu is taking the rest of the week off, till he gets settled. Uncle Radek's helped him a lot with legal advice. So Roman's phoning the principal's office this morning to notify the gymno of his changed circumstances and new address. That's all he has to do, apparently. Once you're seventeen, you can be your own adult, or at least those of us who're capable of it, Bolo. Ain't nothing the Von Ebersfelds can do about it either, other than scream and shout. But Uncle Radek says if they scream and shout too much it'll draw the interest of the press, which won't help his dad in his present circumstances. There's a big legal case he's involved in over the next couple of weeks.'

Bolo looked interested. 'Really? I may go so far as to watch the news.' He chuckled. 'I'm thinking about a career in law.'

'You are?' Yuli said, failing to keep the surprise out of his voice.

'Why not? Most of my family specialise in it … sorta. I pick up enough about it round the house, admittedly the criminal variety mostly. But it'd be like putting my life experience to use in a positive sorta way.'

Willem nodded wisely. 'It's like putting something back into society for all your family's taken out, in a manner of speaking. But you gotta go to the Technische Law School to do the practice of law, haven't you?'

'Stop taking me seriously!' Bolo protested. But Yuli knew the boy well enough to have picked up something more solid behind the banter.

'Where is he?' Yuli stressed.

'I'm watching out,' Della replied. 'You go up and sort the stage. Romesczu won't let you down. He's a super-trouper.'

The club was filling with Technische and Rodolfer students, for the word had got round the campus that there'd be something special at Lisztomania that Thursday night, and the proportion of girls was rather higher than boys that evening. Yuli could see Bolo and Willem at the bar chatting with the manager, for Willem was determined to get a more respectable performance fee out of the club. Yuli placed some bottles of water on the worn and tattered carpet under his keyboard to be ready if needed.

As he looked up, a lost-looking figure wandered through the doors. It was the boy himself, entering the doors of a nightclub for the first time in his life. A relieved smile flashed back at him as their eyes caught. Yuli leapt down from the stage and made his way through the gathering crowd.

They did not kiss, but pressed cheeks in the usual Rothenian way between teenage boys. 'So glad you're here baby.'

Roman hugged him back hard. 'I hope I don't let you down. I'm near wetting myself.'

'You'll be great. Just wait till all these girls see you. The pressure will be off me at last.'

Roman looked around. 'When do we start?'

'About ten minutes. We're the first act, and there're two bands afterwards. They usually put me on first as they know I won't hang around after my set's finished. School tomorrow, baby, for me at least. How did it go with your call to the principal.'

'He was very reasonable, but some of his questions made me nervous. He was probing as to whether I'd been subject to abuse. Someone must have mentioned to him about the problem at the gate with Hadjek.'

'Doesn't that count as abuse?'

'He was trying to get me to talk about my parents, not Hadjek. They didn't have anything to do with what Hadjek did.'

Yuli scowled. 'They made it possible though.'

Roman shook his head, but said no more. Yuli led him up on the stage, and heads below turned to look. There was a noticeable pause in the hubbub of chatter and laughter from the students.

Yuli powered up his keyboard and checked settings and volume as Roman fidgeted. He looked over and made sure the mic was switched off as he gave his final instructions. 'Nearly ready, baby. You'll be great. But please remember to move with the music, like we practiced. Don't just stand rigid. Okay, 3-2-1 …'

'You were – I have to say – pretty crap on the first number, both of you.' Willem was not holding back, since their commercial attractiveness was, he said, central to his remit.

'Willem!' scolded Della. 'Sure they lost it. But it was a new song and maybe not the best one to begin the set.'

'It was crap,' Yuli admitted.

'I was crap,' Roman added mournfully. 'I should have loosened up.'

Bolo chipped in meditatively. 'A bottle of beer before the set would have helped … or something chemical. It's how they generally do it in showbiz, as I understand it.'

'And nobody booed you,' Della added.

'No, they just went quiet,' Yuli said. 'And that was worse.'

'So just as well you moved on to Edler Herz, wasn't it. That set the place alight. It was way better with two voices, cos it's about friendship. The harmonies were totally awesome, and you came alive, Roman! All credit. When your eyes met and you grinned at each other there was definite swooning going on amongst the girls, who wanted you two to look at them like that.' Willem was now beaming.

'The chorus with the club singing along had half of them in tears,' Della enthused.

'Yeah!' Bolo added. 'It was at that point you started moving to the tunes, Romesczu. Did you know you were doing it? I mean by the final number you were skipping across the stage singing down at the girls! Fantastic! You got your own fan club back there now.'

They all five smiled down at the dark waters of the River Starel from the parapet of the Arsenalsbrücke. A trail of moonlight shimmered on the black stream below. Willem was holding Della round her waist, and Yuli's arm was round Roman. Bolo was making love to his reefer, the vegetable stench of it making itself all too evident to the occasional passer-by on the bridge.

After a period of silent communion the frosty air and the chill creeping up from their boots persuaded them to move on. Before they did, Willem handed Yuli and Roman an envelope each. 'It's your fee for the night, I split it 45-45. I kept back 10% for myself, enough to pay for the drinks I bought Bolo. It won't make us rich.'

'Every little counts now,' Roman smiled and thanked him.

The two couples embraced and kissed, and then Della walked off south with Roman, for Klara's apartment building was only a couple of blocks from her house. Bolo disappeared back to the Nuevemesten, trailing pungent smoke, while Yuli and Willem took the familiar route up the Domshorja. They didn't have much to say to each other, but walked along happily enough in the warm glow of a good night's memories.

The Supreme Court of Justice of the Kingdom of Rothenia was not the usual Classical confection of pillars and pediments. Nor was it a palais de justice in the French style, with Gothic turrets and flamboyant tracery. It was in fact a rather staid, modernist edifice of the interwar period, erected when Rothenia was a bourgeois republic and Tildemann was president. A square limestone building of unadorned walls and ranked, regular and rectangular windows, its only feature was an entry portico of tall slots under a heavy cornice. To Henry it looked like a building he might have made with the white blocks of his childhood Lego. However, he approved of the large rendition of the royal arms of Rothenia now set over the bronze doors, which added life and colour to the austere building. Henry thought there might be a historical metaphor there somewhere.

In the echoing entrance hall, still rich with art deco fittings, he found Rolf Abentauer and Marek Toblescu in close conference under the central clock. Rolf looked up. 'Oh Henry! So you did turn up! We weren't expecting you.'

'Oh, I shouldn't really be here, but I do want to see how the Nuevemesten team go about setting out their case before the highest court in the land. Just for today.'

'It won't take longer than three days,' Dr Rolf said. 'Two days for submissions, and one day for points of law. Then we come back in a few weeks for the verdict. Have you been here before? No? Well the Supreme Court has a proper press gallery. It's this way.'

They made their way to the end of the hall, where a side door marked 'Tiskovij Galerij' in small gold type led to a narrow stair opening out on to a balcony on the right of the Great Hall, which was a surprisingly impressive space considering the building's exterior. It was hung with elaborate bronze chandeliers and the walls were faced with tall sculpted panels in a classical theme, with austere and attentuated human figures owing something to the Viennese Secession movement. The bench with its seven tall seats was on a dais hung with blue drapes and the hall below it was quickly filling up. Henry scanned the crowd, but didn't catch any sight of Dieter von Ebersfeld. The tables for counsel were seating only lawyers.

There was quite a crew of journalists gathered by the time the court was ordered to rise. The press gallery rose too, as a bell rang and the black-robed figures of the justices entered. Henry was impressed at the sober efficiency of the proceedings. Counsel for the Nuevemesten was no longer the Frankfurt commercial firm, but a partnership specialising in Rothenian civil law.

'Now that's a coup,' Rolf Abentauer observed to Henry.

'What's that?'

'The white-haired gentlemen leading for the Staramesten. The one who looks as though he's dozing. That's Professor Lange of the Rodolfer.'

'He practices still?'

'Only if he's interested. Some point of law about the Staramesten case has clearly got him intrigued.'

'Is that the Lange who more or less wrote the constitution of the Third Republic?'

'He headed the drafting commission, that's true. Bad news for the Nuevemesten if he's involved. Two of the justices on the bench are his former clerks. Many people think he should have been made Chief Justice himself at the last vacancy.'

Marek had been busy taking notes. He coughed to get Dr Abentauer's attention. 'Er … I've done the list, Rolf. Six of our targets are seated behind the Nuevemesten counsel, never mind that it's not their case being argued. They seem nervous, and there's the baroness in black and pearls.'

Henry squinted and glimpsed amongst the suits Donna Antonia Carluccio, the Baroness Staufer von Ebersfeld. She looked cross about something.

Sunday was going to be a point of danger. Roman was determined to resume his place in the Hofkapelle choir, and nothing could stop his parents from attending mass if they so chose. Yuli was there early and spent a while catching up with Mattyas in the loft before mass. He was only on score-turning duty that day. He glanced down into the filling chapel as Mattyas began a prelude. There indeed were the baron and baroness already in the front row, with a good view of the stalls.

The choir took its place and, so far as Yuli could see from his vantage point, Roman stayed cool under his parents' gaze. He had no solo work that Sunday to stress him. The Von Ebersfelds could not confront him as the choir processed out, but they took the opportunity to tag on after the clergy. When Yuli got Mattyas's permission to scamper down to the antechapel the confrontation was already under way, the baroness in the lead. She had already coolly despatched Herr Pelikan's attempted intervention, and Roman was wilting under the onslaught. The congregation was staring as they followed out and Roman's face was flaming scarlet, his head hanging down.

Yuli's anger was sufficient to urge him to leap in, whatever the dangers, and he balled his fists in tension, but help arrived without warning from on high.

A very distinctive American-accented voice cut through the hubbub, and a hush fell. 'My dear Antonia! Whatever is going on here, my dear!'

Queen Harriet had appeared, fortuitously or not, from the direction of the royal gallery. The baroness paused in her tirade against her wilting son, who looked up gratefully. The queen and her entourage sailed through the press of the antechapel and somehow – Yuli could not work out how – the queen secured the baroness's arm on one side and Roman's on the other. Both were obliged to join her as she progressed through the great doors on to the marble landing and then out of Yuli's sight into the palace's west wing, the baron awkwardly tailing behind.

Yuli caught Herr Pelikan's eye and followed his beckoning finger back into the Hofkapelle and up to the loft, where he motioned Mattyas to remain. 'Take a seat, boys. I think I need a status report on young Roman's situation.'

'Did you ask the queen to turn up, sir?' Yuli smiled.

'I did mention it might be an idea and that trouble was brewing. She's the only person I know who can be guaranteed to intimidate the baroness. So what's going on, Julius? I'm assuming you're in the thick of it one way or another.'

'Yes, sir. Sorry. It's like this …' Yuli spared them nothing of what he had discovered. '… So if Romesczu had stayed at home, he would have been in serious danger. He had no choice but to leave unless he went to the police, but he doesn't want to harm his father; his mother may be a different matter now of course.'

The Kapellemeister let out a long whistle. 'I had no idea. How fucked up can you get?'

The fact that Herr Pelikan was deeply moved was established for Yuli by the uncharacteristic obscenity he had just used.

Yuli found his father waiting in the family car on Brückestrasse, outside the Reitschule Gate. He quickly filled him in about the events in the Hofkapelle.

'I really wish I'd been there,' his father admitted. 'It's a delight to watch the aristocracy fall out amongst themselves.'

Yuli bridled. 'Queen Harry was awesome. She's really kind!'

'I didn't mean it like that. Sure, I'm glad the baroness got her comeuppance. She deserved it. How did her husband look?'

'Embarrassed, I think. But it's difficult to tell. He's always so buttoned up.'

'I'm beginning to wonder how much Dieter really gets about what's going on around him. I always thought he was the controlling one of the pair. But it looks like I got it wrong. Maybe I'm wrong about other things too.'

'What d'you mean, tatti?'

'Never mind, Yuli lad. But things are beginning to come out over the Martzfeld business. There was an article yesterday by Abentauer in the Ruritanischer Tagblatt, which Eastnet picked up. It seems as though the tide may be turning.'


Radek Lucic sighed. 'You really should look up from your keyboards every now and then, son. There's a big world out there.'

Yuli laughed. 'That's why I have you to explain it, tatti. Hey! It's my Romesczu! He looks undamaged, and no sign of the baroness.'

Roman had emerged from the gate, looking a little bewildered. But he caught sight of the Lucics' car, flashed a smile and trotted over, taking the rear seat. He unselfconsciously offered a kiss to Yuli, followed by a handshake to his father. The confidence was encouraging.

As the car pulled off, Yuli called back 'Well, what happened leblen?'

'It was horrible till the queen turned up: everybody staring as Mutta got angrier and angrier, and Vater not saying a word. But Queen Harry was like an angel. She just hauled us off into the Residenz and Mutta couldn't do a thing. She shut up as she realised what a public scene she'd made, and Vater started being diplomatic, the way he does. The queen sat me next to her on a sofa and took my hand, and got them to explain their side of things. But Vater was stuck to make sensible arguments, other than I was only seventeen and in the grip of an unsuitable boy.'

Radek Lucic laughed behind the wheel, grinning into the rear mirror. 'Tell me about how Yuli was "unsuitable", Romesczu.'

'That's what Queen Harry asked. Vater just stammered. The queen said frostily that so far as she knew Yuli was not just a good boy of very respectable family but a brilliant musician. She couldn't imagine a more suitable boy for me, in fact.' He grinned. 'I quite agree with her too. Anyway, Mutta was beginning to boil over again, but the queen just cut her off, and said that perhaps a cooling-off period between us was a good idea. She hoped that we all three would soon find a way to patch things up, but until then she could not allow the peace of the Hofkapelle to be disturbed in the way we had, and Mutta and Vater were forbidden the palace precincts until further notice.

'She stood up and everybody else had to stand as well. Then that nice English major was on hand to march them off the premises. Queen Harry gave me a kiss and a hug before she sent me on my way. I'm in love, Yuli.'

The Lucics burst into prolonged laughter as the car headed up Domstrasse.

It was quite a merry afternoon and evening up on Domshorja. Willem turned up after lunch when Yuli texted him, and Roman had to tell his story again. A circulating bottle of red Voslauer helped. As Frau Lucic shooed the men out so she could clear up, Willem and Radek took to the afternoon sports programmes and Yuli and Roman finally and legitimately occupied Yuli's bedroom as a couple. A toothbrush was produced and ceremonially placed next to Yuli's in the adjacent bathroom. After some prolonged necking, Yuli took to his keyboard and they began work on their new repertoire.

That was how Willem found them, frowning over the number that had flopped at Lisztomania, and trying to work out why.

'I don't think it was entirely the lack of confidence of our performance,' Yuli concluded. 'There's something about it that doesn't gel and I can't work out what.'

'Unusual for you, Mr Analytical,' Willem observed. 'Bothers you, does it? You'd better sort it out then. But it's not our Song for Rothenia, so no big problem.'

Roman shrugged. 'Maybe not, but we're short of other songs that have that sort of impact. Yuli can sort it, I'm quite sure. But Edler Herz …'

'What, baby?'

'There's something that bothered me …' Roman frowned, and then he shrugged. 'Oh, never mind. Ignore me.'

'So you two, sleeping together tonight at last?' Willem grinned, changing the subject.

Yuli bounced down next to Roman on the bed and took him round the shoulder. 'Yup! At last we can do our thing without embarrassment or explanation.'

'Though we have to keep the noise down.'

'You'll be alright,' Willem observed with deliberate insouciance. 'The bed doesn't squeak or bang against the wall.'

Yuli rolled his eyes. 'We stress-tested it, he means.'

'Is this where I get possessive and tell you to keep your hands off my man?' Roman said, with a slight smile, as Yuli was encouraged to see.

Willem nodded. 'Yes, if you want. You know we've been doing stuff for years, and I enjoyed it … a lot. It kept us sane through adolescence. But I hope it's not a problem'

Roman pursed his lips and Yuli momentarily had qualms, but his lover's moment of preoccupation resulted only in a small shrug. 'There's all sorts of loving,' Roman said. 'I know you love Yuli, and he's been more than a brother to you. But the way I see it is that the love you two share isn't the love Yuli and I have. You share a heart, but we share a soul.'

Yuli took and squeezed his hand. 'He's deep, my Romesczu, deeper than people realise. Certainly not the boy his parents think he is. But he's teaching me that his voice is just an outer sign of the greater beauty within. I'm so lucky.'

'Feel a song coming on?' Willem asked, eyebrow raised and a mischievous grin on his pale lips.

Yuli awoke hugging the slim, warm body of his naked lover. Roman was sleeping on his back, his chaotic fringe in his eyes. The bedside lamp was still switched on. They had sunk exhausted into sleep and never turned it off. The close up of Roman's pale lashes and perfect nose entranced Yuli for a while. His butt was still warm from the passion and friction of their love-making.

It would be ten minutes yet before the alarm went off. The curtains were open, and he could see a lightening in the sky outside. The stars were fading as dawn approached. Yuli was deeply happy; happier than he had words to express. Today their new life began, life as a couple.

Yuli kissed Roman as the alarm triggered, then he slammed down the off switch. There was a brief hug and a cute yawn from Roman. 'Up baby! It's Monday. Gymno awaits.'

They struggled up out of their warm and somewhat odorous nest. Roman searched for his underpants as they headed for the shower, Yuli catching an arousing view of his lover's genitalia hanging heavy between his legs as he scavenged through the clothing on the carpet. 'Don't bother baby,' he said. 'Tatti and mutti are naturists, and so are the Krals. We don't always dress at home, especially in summer. Willem and me would run about naked for weeks when we were kids. You'll get used to tatti's junk hanging out, though it may take a while.'

Hand in hand they went to the bathroom and took turns showering and brushing their teeth. There was stirring below.

'Text from Willemczu! We got ten minutes.'

Breakfast was on the table and Maria Lucic was filling her briefcase as the boys grabbed toast and pastries. She kissed them both on their way. Roman gave her a spontaneous hug before they left the house.

'Morning, happy boys!' Willem too was in a good mood as they encountered him at the bottom of the lane, though he had slept alone. When they reached the bridge, Bolo was already puffing a roll-up as he awaited them. The sun was now clearing the horizon and the winter sky a pale yellow. Vapour rose off the Starel while barges chugged noisily upriver and down beneath them. The city was awake and traffic was filling the roads. Big lorries rumbled past them on the bridge.

'You reek of that stuff,' Willem observed. 'I don't know how the gymno lets you get away with it.'

'I tell 'em it's the stench from my parents' bad habits. Can't get it off my clothes.'

Yuli was half expecting Hadjek to be lurking at the gymno gates, but the man had learned his lesson it seemed. Something though was different that morning. A small group of Year 10 girls was hanging round the entrance. They surged towards a puzzled Roman. One of them, a plump specimen, blurted 'My big sister saw you at Lisztomania. She said you were amazing and could you sign this tee-shirt for her!'

'And mine!' squealed another.

'Back off, girls!' Bolo ordered with a grin. 'Want signings, you go through me. Got it?' he flashed a grin at Willem. 'Road manager, right? Told you you'd need me.'

And so a new normality began for Roman and Yuli, one that was deeply satisfying to both boys. The plan was for Roman to base himself at Klara's and spend weekends and Hofkapelle nights with Yuli. His clothing and possessions began to fill up Yuli's bedroom. Willem suspended their engagements at the club after one more – very encouraging – outing that Wednesday night. A new batch of CDs were ready to be marketed by Willem, who paid over a percentage from the first batch to the Technische students who produced them. They were sold out within two days. On the Friday, however, they were all waylaid by a concern they had forgotten with everything else going on. Their home groups were directed to a signing up sheet for afternoon tutorials and interviews about their higher education options.

Yuli and Roman found a corner. 'So what did you plan on doing, before the bust up with your parents, leblen baby?'

Roman shrugged. 'I was more or less told I was expected to take a year out then apply for a music degree course in a university that suited my Mutta's expectations of where her son should be: Vienna, Paris, Oxford or somewhere in the States. The Rodolfer was beneath consideration.'

'Money no object then?'

'Not really. What about you?'

'I had more or less settled on the Strelzen National Conservatory, starting in August. Herr Pelikan approved the choice, and said they'd probably take me even if I screw up my bacca.'

'You won't,' Roman smiled. 'I've seen your grades. Mine on the other hand … my work has suffered lately, and I have weaknesses, unlike my Yuli.'

'So …?'

'The Conservatory would be nice. We both have friends there, so let's see what our tutors say.'

'Excellent. That was easily settled.'

'It's the best plan: our scholarships will carry on and we'll also be able to live off concert engagements, even if our international rock career doesn't come off.'

'Ah, but what if it does?' Yuli pondered.

'What's Willemczu got in mind?' Roman asked after a pause.

'I don't think he has the least interest in more education. He's eager to become an entrepreneur. You may have noticed he has a talent that way.'

'Yet it's not the money is it.'

'Very perceptive, Romesczu. No it's not. I mean, he wouldn't be unhappy to get rich, but it's the working with people and the running after ideas – and maybe the element of risk – that he likes. You know he already has a bank account stuffed with three hundred thousand krone?'

'Really? How?'

'Little schemes and scams, but mostly hard work. He replanned his dad's shop in Husbrau, and restocked it when he was fifteen. Profits went from minimal to remarkable in one season. His dad paid him a commission. It was really impressive: you should have seen his stock analysis and flow charts. Not that it made a huge amount of sense to me, except when he explained it.'

Willem himself turned up at that point, grinning and waving a printout. 'Here's the final details for the Eurovision heat. It's at the old Humanist Institute on Festungstrasse. I thought it was derelict. These are your times and a list of requirements they want filled in, speakers and instruments and stuff. So over to you musicians. It's a week tomorrow. They want the reply by Tuesday.'

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