Alike in Dignity

by Michael Arram


All of a sudden, Henry found he had no time for anything other than the Eurovision Song Contest. He had seen the Rothenian heats coming at him well enough, but had overlooked the fact that other nations were also selecting their artists and songs and the consequences that followed. That concern had been resigned in his head to the Broadcasting Union. But there were thirty-nine other nations competing, and although their own broadcasters were organising their participation, Henry found his team had to keep an eye on them for all sorts of reasons.

'The thing is,' mused Moricz zu Geleberh, the newly-appointed programme director for the Contest, 'it really is all on us, which is not fair. The EBU ticks the boxes and checks the forms but if it all goes belly-up on the night, Strelsenermedia will be the one which is humiliated.'

Henry indicated the pinboards around the walls in their new centre of operations in an upstairs suite at the Humanist Institute on Festungstrasse, the city's inner ring road. 'This is like a police investigation, Moricz: mugshots, flowcharts, press cuttings.'

'Gotta be done, Henry. We can't risk being taken unawares by scandals and cock-ups even if technically they're beyond our control. Have you heard this story today from Turkey? We have sources in TRT that tell us there's rumours of a rigged jury pushing their national winner.'

'How's this our problem?'

'It isn't, but it'll come home to roost for us on the night if the EBU Reference Group strikes the Turkish entry out for corruption. There'll be a hole in our programme, and all sorts of reservations to cancel. So I've tipped off Geneva about it well in advance. Then there's the fact that the Swiss have chosen an Estonian girl band to represent them, one of whom is rumoured to be under age. Get this. They also have the same producer for their number as the German entry.'


'Aargh indeed Henry. And this is just the beginning. By the way, have you talked to Hermina recently?'

His co-presenter had escaped Henry's notice of late. 'No, wassup?'

'She's genteelly pissed that she's not on the panel for the Strelzen heats.'

'But she said she wanted to concentrate on her fashion programme this month!'

'Ah, that was before someone – and I shall not say who – commented as to what an amazing job you were doing on this project and what a great choice you were for executive producer and presenter.'

'Er … it's a team effort. It has to be. Who was the cretin?'

'Well … Will Vincent.'

'Forget I said that.'

'To be fair to Will, it was not a remark that was intended to get out generally, but one of your fans on the Eastnet side of things inadvisedly boasted about it in a meeting at the Strelsnermedia Features department.'

'Gah! I'll invite Hermina for an expensive lunch in town where I will be so charming and amusing the very air in the restaurant will snow saccharine. It might soften her. She likes the Fourth District café-bars does Hermina. But you can bet I won't be able to claim it on expenses.'

'It's a work of grace, Henry. Hermina's a professional, but touchy. We'll need her full co-operation. Things are only going to get more hectic, starting this Saturday.'

'Yeah, yeah. We'd better go down and check the stage and lights for the talented young Strelseners with songs to offer.'

Henry's handij burbled at him. Waving to Moricz he took the call. 'Prosim, Teresza! No, it's not inconvenient. Really? Can it wait till next Monday? I have the first heats for the Song Contest coming up this weekend. Monday it is. Looking forward to it.'

Yuli did a double take when Roman turned up that Thursday at Sudmesten Central, accompanied as was becoming usual by Della Ortolan, walking arm-in-arm that morning. Yuli noticed there was something a little special about him. 'Romesczu! Have you been to Le Snip?'

His boyfriend smiled sheepishly. For a while his hair had been approaching a state that for him would have been unkempt, though tidy enough for most of his peers. Now it had been taken in hand by the professionals at Leuwen Pasacz, and once again Roman's fringe was defying gravity and at one with the harmony of the Universe.

'I went after leaving gymno yesterday. I've been saving up, since I have to be just right for Saturday. It cleaned me out though. Klara said it was alright just this once if I skipped my small rent. She'd have paid for the whole thing, but I said not to be silly. Once we're famous I'll have a full-time stylist, as stars do.'

'Enjoy the taste of poverty while you can then, leblen baby mine,' Yuli countered, taking the disengaged arm of his boyfriend as they entered the school building.

Willem had already preceded them and was busy taping and pinning notices to the permitted surfaces in the corridors. Entry to the Eurovision Strelzen heats was not restricted and was free of charge. Willem had held a ginger group in the study centre: '… So I want as big a turnout from the gymno as we can get, especially screaming girls. Della is enrolling her friends in a synchronised squealing group. They'll also have banners. See, this is the factor that was denied Svetlana last year: the passion that healthy young heterosexual females develop for untouchable gay boys.'

'Watch it!' Della had warned. 'You're not untouchable, leblen.'

Crowds thronged the pavements outside the Humanist Institute, or what once had been it. Construction work was in progress and the exterior was shrouded in scaffolding. A huge banner displayed to the world a vision of what the building would be when it was unwrapped. Yuli remembered it as a dingy, smoke-stained Victorian brick building, very sad looking if he noticed it at all as his tatti's car took the family to the Spa. The banner showed a bright new façade and a flashy performance space indoors. It was also adorned with a new name: the Strelzen Arena.

'So that's where you'll perform in May,' Willem mused. 'Wow!'

'Gotta get past the heats first,' Yuli responded. 'So me and Romesczu gotta go round the side to the performers' entrance. I think that supporters go through that door under the scaffolding.'

Willem gave them both a serious handshake and an injunction to make Sudmesten Central proud. Then he grinned and marched off with the gymno squad, all waving and blowing kisses at them.

'Okay, baby?'

Roman gave a little smile and a shrug, which Yuli decided to be content with. He also had nerves, despite what was by now a respectable CV of public performance, but this was undoubtedly different. It was public in a different way to his previous performances.

Other performers bustled in with them, some with guitar cases slung over their shoulders. Most were older than Yuli and Roman, in their early and mid twenties for the most part. Yuli didn't recognise any of them from the Schustergasse scene. His keyboard had been dropped off by his father the previous evening, and he had a ticket to reclaim it. He and Roman found themselves in a long queue at registration. After they had made it to the front and picked up their IDs and schedule, Yuli was sent off to a storeroom to pick up his Yamaha. Everything was efficient and cheerful, which settled Yuli's mind somewhat.

They ended up with the other competitors in a barren, windowless room with fold-up chairs and a large stack of water bottles next to a pile of building materials shrouded by a paint-stained sheet. The room smelled of turpentine. Some Strelsenermedia wit had posted a handwritten sign on the door saying in English 'Green Room'.

Yuli and Roman took chairs and stared around. As it happened a group of ebullient young ladies took seats next to them. The women eyed them up in a frank way which unsettled Roman. He took a book out of his backpack and pretended to concentrate on it. Yuli knew better how to deal with them and made a comment in their direction about their Husbrauener accents, which led to a bit of chit-chat and smiles. It seemed they were three young school teachers from Strelfurt, big into aerobic dancing.

When they disappeared over to the water supply Roman commented drily, 'Has anyone told them it's a Song Contest?'

'Bitchy for you, leblen baby?' Yuli grinned.

Not long afterwards a Strelsenermedia guy by the name of Herr zu Geleberh ('but call me Moricz') arrived with two aides. He called out the competitors and asked them to identify themselves. There were twenty acts and they were told to keep strictly to the Eurovision allotted limit of three minutes when their turn came. 'Starcrossed' was number fourteen on the list, which Yuli noticed was more or less alphabetical. The ladies from Strelfurt were in fact the first to be summoned, at one o'clock.

One by one the acts were called out, and Roman checked each departure with his watch, calculating that between set-up, the acts themselves and clearing away performances were taking fifteen to twenty minutes each. None returned to the room. 'So this'll take maybe five or six hours,' Roman concluded. 'Our friends from the gymno will be getting bored.'

'They don't have to stay for all of it,' Yuli shrugged, 'even if we do.' He applied himself to texting their friends. 'Bolo says the dancing ladies from Strelfurt were a laugh, but he doesn't say why.'

It was four-thirty when a Strelsenermedia aide called them out. They squeezed hands. Yuli and Roman followed the guy along a narrow corridor which led into a backstage area. Beyond was an as-yet-unmodernised part of the Arena, which looked like a superannuated cinema and smelled of damp. Building materials and cables were everywhere. There was quite a crowd in the seated area. Whistles and cheers greeted the boys from their fans as Yuli placed his keyboard on the waiting stand. A friendly engineer was on hand to check the links to the speakers and the volume.

The four judges were at a long table on one side. Yuli was startled to see the figure of no less than Henry Atwood in shirtsleeves amongst them. He should have expected it maybe. Just as startled was Henry when their eyes caught and he recognised him if not Roman. Henry nodded at the producer and leaned over to the mike.

'And now, ladies and gentlemen, a duo from Strelzen by the mysterious name of Starcrossed, with a song called Edler Herz.' He had to pause at the whistles and cheers from the audience. A banner appeared and was waved. 'I see you've brought some friends, guys,' Henry continued. 'Just to remind you that you have the standard three minutes allowed by the contest rules, which we're keeping to strictly here and in the other regional heats. In your own time.'

Yuli smiled at Roman, and counted them in. The amp and the hall acoustics were favourable. Edler Herz did its magic, and the Sudmesten Central crowd could not resist joining in with the final chorus. Yuli observed out of the corner of his eye three of the judges were tapping their pens in time to it, even if they didn't join in the song. A cheer bigger than just what their friends could manage greeted the final chord.

Roman was fretting as they cleared up. 'I was put off … sorry.'

'What? You were fine, baby.'

'Standing stiff and not moving.'

'Oh, it's not Lisztomania. You swayed nicely.'

'It won't do on the big night.'

'So you think we've won it?'

Herr zu Geleberh appeared and briefed them as they left the stage. 'We'll be making our decision tonight and we'll text the two heat winners at nine. Is it your number Yuli, or your nominated agent I have to contact?'

'Me I guess. So you won't be announcing it from the stage?' That explained why nobody came back to the Green Room.

'No. You're welcome to stay and listen to the rest of the entries. A lot of your friends were out there, I noticed.'

'Thanks, Moricz,' Yuli said. 'But we'd better get my Yamaha back home. My father will pick us up outside.'

'Thanks for coming boys,' the man smiled. 'You did good.'

After gratefully accepting his post-prandial gin and tonic from Ed that Sunday evening, Henry speed-dialed Davey's number. 'Evening, Outfield,' came the reply. 'Not the usual day or time for your call.'

'It's been busy, Bounder. It was the regional heats for the Song for Rothenia yesterday.'

'I know. My latest signing has just put the phone down on our conference call.'


'You guessed. The boys were fizzing after their win at the heat. A lovely pair of kids. Their agent Willem has great English, but the new boy – Roman – is pitch perfect in our mother tongue, if on the shy side.'

'You know who they are?'

'Er … nope, other than Yuli is the Mozart of Pop, which as far as I'm concerned is all I need to know.'

'Well, he's Julius Lucic, the son of the mayor of the Staramesten, and his gay affair with Roman von Ebersfeld, the other member of the duo and the son of the mayor of the Nuevemesten, has been causing major ructions chez Rudi, where the pair are court musicians. Their parents have differences. The boys are now one of Harry's good causes. She was bending my ear about it last weekend. Roman just ran away from home.'

'Oh … crap. So complications then? But aren't they legally adult in Rothenia? They have to be, there's a contract to sign.'

'Yes, but there's scope for scandal. Something's up with them. I can smell it in the air.'

'Your journalistic instincts buzzing are they? Let me know if your suspicions get more concrete. I've learned to respect them. But come on Henry, this is not an opportunity I can let go.'

'No, of course not. I'm rooting for Yuli. Roman I don't know, but he is some looker and has the voice of an angel. Ask for a picture. The kid makes you look plain.'

'Even better. Superlative looks are all part of the success formula in the unjust world in which I live and practice my arts. So they work in Rudi's palace chapel do they? The back story gets richer all the time. My marketing people can make something of this.'

'You really think they could be that big?'

'You heard Edler Herz – did I say that right? Even you must have noticed its quality.'

'I saw the impact it had on the audience and my fellow judges. I thought it was a foot tapper.'

'Aargh, you philistine! Anyway, they've faxed me a score. Just looking at it here. Who'd have guessed you could do something like that with an eighteenth-century folk song.'

'A what?'

'Er … name's here … inspirovanitij druc Der Edler Herz zu Wolstan Brauer … did I say that right?'

'Oh shit: "inspired by Wolstan Brauer's Edler Herz". Why can't life be simple?'

'What's the problem?'

'Have you read the Eurovision rules lately? The song has to be entirely original. Adaptations aren't allowed.'

'What, not even if it's 250 years old?'

'I don't think so. It can't be the Song for Rothenia. The boys' career in Eurovision is likely to be brief, I'm afraid. Though if they have something else suitable and above all original maybe they can continue, I'll have to check the rules. Either way, I'd better ring them tomorrow and break the bad news.'

With something approaching moral cowardice, Henry dodged the necessity of the call to Willem Kral and his Starcrossed clients by heading off first thing on Monday to catch up with Teresza Monicec. She was waiting at the reception desk of the Ministry.

After the opening courtesies, Henry said 'I'm thinking you have something for me, Teresza. You have a gleam in your eye.'

The lady seemed a little smug. 'It was a fascinating exercise. So nice to get back among our old files. It quite brought back the good days. Do you want to come upstairs? I've borrowed the committee room.'

The polished table was stacked with file boxes, but the central exhibit was a flow chart in various coloured inks, quite calligraphically drawn as Henry noticed. He was offered a seat in front of it.

'Now Henry, at one level it was a simple enough exercise. This is a schema of the Surveillance Directorate as it was in 1988. I've marked in red the target group of people I could identify as in Sepka's office, the ones likely to push fictional reports for him to sign. As you can see it's not a small group. Surveillance and counter-intelligence were things Horvath and his cronies were happy to invest in and the Directorate became a very bloated bureaucracy in its last days. So I have a target group of forty functionaries.'

'Oh, quite a lot!'

'And they had hundreds of low-level subordinates who might also have been involved, I'm afraid. But fear not. We can eliminate quite a lot of them. There were for instance a few who were themselves Western agents, turned by the English MI6. Though not necessarily savoury characters, I think they'd have avoided the sort of activity we're looking for here. They wouldn't want to risk getting caught over such a scam when they needed to appear to be loyal servants of the Second Republic. Then there are those whose subsequent careers or early deaths seem to eliminate them: three for example are still in the Arsenal prison.'

'So how many are left after the process of elimination?'

'There are still sixteen potential suspects, and on my diagram they are marked with asterisks. All of them are still alive and in a variety of occupations. I suggest I go through them one by one and see if you recognise them from any context.'

None of the names provoked immediate recognition, but Henry perked up at three of them. 'Teresza, it's not so much the names as the occupations. Are these up-to-date?'

'We kept these sort of people under observation until the round-up of ORD terror cells after the Restoration. That was our last big operation. Since then there's only been me looking after the files. I've added the odd newspaper clipping, and Google.rn has been a blessing. But no, they'll probably need a bit more work.'

'Still very useful, though.'

'Why do these three interest you?'

'They gravitated to the construction industry.'

'Quite a few such people did. It was easier getting jobs there than in any of the public services, where their past would not have been a recommendation. The Third Republic was very alert to the possible anti-democratic contamination these men might have encouraged, rather more so than our Czech and Slovak neighbours, who are beginning to pay for their laxity. I'll put together copies of those three files for you, and if you can wait for a few days I'll add material on any of the lesser beings listed who I know are in the same line of work, in case they represent networks.'

'Excellent. I don't know how to thank you.'

Frau Monicec smiled. 'I think you do, Henry. We're very much looking forward to 21 May, Natasha and I.'

Henry resorted to the Martzfeld Starbucks, and took a seat with his americano at a window with an outlook on a bright and breezy Central Plaza. It was the first day of 2005 which was not wintry in Rothenia. Scarfs and hats were noticeably lacking amongst the shoppers and workers passing by, for Rothenians were perpetually optimistic at the first sight of sun. Henry being from England was not. He still had his scarf around his neck and gloves in his winter-coat pocket.

He spent some moments contemplating his handij, sighed and entered the number he had for Willem Kral, before remembering that the kid would be in school. So he was disconcerted when a bright and youthful voice answered, 'Prosim? Wer ist?'

'Oh … er … hi, er … Willem? It's Henry Atwood. Sorry, am I interrupting a lesson or something? You must be at your gymno.'

'That's okay, Herr At-vood. We're having a bit of a celebration in the Study Centre after Saturday.'

'Yeah, it's about that.'

The boy was quick on the uptake. 'Is there a problem?' Then his voice went more distant as he shushed his friends.

'It's about the song you auditioned. It was great, don't get me wrong, and in some ways it would be a perfect Song for Rothenia. But yes, there is a problem. Contest rules insist all songs must be original, and an adaptation, even of quite an ancient song, is not permissible under the rules.'

There was a brief silence. 'So are you saying Starcrossed is disqualified?'

'Actually not … I hope. But what I am saying is that the boys' selected song cannot be submitted at the next heat, for all its merit. I have my office checking with Geneva that Starcrossed can proceed to the next round with a different song. I think they'll say it's up to us, and so as far as I'm concerned they aren't disqualified. Can you talk to them and get back to me? If they choose to drop out at this stage I need to notify the runners up for the Strelzen heat.'

After a silence, Willem said he'd talk it through with his guys. He hung up after promising to be back to Henry in a day or two.

A quiet descended on the Study Centre as Willem imparted his news. 'Oh dear,' Roman observed. 'I knew there was something in the rules I should have remembered. That was it.'

'Is this a disaster?' Willem asked. Yuli nodded.

'Oh fuck,' Bolo said. 'I knew it was all going too smoothly.'

'Edler Herz really worked,' Yuli added. 'It had it all. It appealed to listeners instantly. But it had depth too. Not only that but it had chemistry between me and Romesczu.'

'You have lots of other songs, Yuli leblen. Won't one of them do?' Della asked.

'Dunno,' he shrugged. 'We've only got a limited time to find out.'

A despondent silence settled over the group. It was Roman who broke it. 'Mister Davey will still be interested in us, won't he? So all is not lost. Besides there is one thing.'

'What's that, leblen baby?'

'Well we have one big upcoming gig in a couple of weeks. It's the queen's birthday concert Saturday week. We'll be onstage and we don't have to do classical. We could do pop! Try things out and see what gets the palace rocking, yes?'

Bolo giggled. 'Yeah. Quite a representative sample of the population that'll be.'

Roman shook his head. 'The queen and king aren't that old, and they have lots of young friends, like Mister Davey for instance. Should we ring him, Willemczu?'

Willem grinned. 'The boy talks sense. I'll do just that. Okay Yuli?'

So the call was made. It went on for quite a while, as Willem walked up and down the centre, occasionally pausing to shoot questions at Yuli and Roman. Finally he rang off.

'Our label manager agrees with you Romesczu. Not only that, but he thinks the problem may in fact open up possibilities, providing you can find that elusive song that works for you both. Anyway, he'll be flying over from England once he's cleared up some business with his other acts. He can't make the queen's birthday, but he has a lot to discuss with us, he says. So he'll be in Strelzen quite soon.'

Henry finished up his Eurovision team meeting at the Strelsenermedia offices with a certain amount of satisfaction. They had six viable songs for the contest. Correction, he added to himself. Six artists but only five songs. As he expected the EBU had referred the Starcrossed problem back to him, with the advice that if the act was that good, it was worth taking the risk of letting them resubmit at the national heats. Even if Starcrossed pulled out the competition would still have five possible songs, which was a good enough field.

As Henry was collecting his papers, Marek Toblescu went past the door. 'Hey Mareczu!' Got a moment?'

His young friend returned and grinned round the door. 'Hi Henry. How's it going?'

'That's the question I wanted to ask you.'

'Me and Dr Rolf are waiting for the Supreme Court decision, which is scheduled for the 25th. No idea which way it'll swing at this point. Professor Lange's final address was just totally awesome. I sat there with my jaw hanging loose. Even Dr Rolf was impressed. But there's no way of knowing if it'll swing the justices.'

'And the investigation into the Martzfeld developers?'

Marek tapped his nose. 'We're beginning to pull the net in. But so far all we have is inappropriate and probably illegal contract rigging. Though we do have a list of suspects.'

'Uh-huh. Well, it's that list I may be interested in.'

'Why's that, my master?'

'I carried on with my own little investigation into the Lucic business, and it's turning up names … names in the construction industry as it happens.'

'So you want to compare notes? Sure. Maybe it'll help us too. I'll just check with Dr Rolf, okay? Oh, by the way, I move into my new place next weekend.'

'Really? Leaving the grotty house-share at last?'

Marek grinned. 'About time. It was cheap but nasty. I'll miss the guys, but not the mould in the bathtub and the defective boiler that left us shivering through January.'

'So where are you moving to?'

'My new expertise in the Strelzen property market is coming in useful. I spend a lot of time hanging around realtors' offices, so I picked up leaflets and had some conversations. I found a really nice block of converted nineteenth-century offices back of the Domshorja with an outlook towards the Wenzlerwald. Not fashionable maybe, and the Horja is difficult for public transport, but that keeps the prices down. I don't mind the walk or the cathedral bells. My flat's even got a spare bedroom. Great for friends up from Glottenberh coming to party in the big city.'

Henry congratulated him. It was interesting that the property market was beginning to move in favour of the Staramesten. A pity Radek Lucic wasn't there to see it. Which reminded him he had to ring the Staroman's son, and give him the news that he and his boyfriend were still in the competition for the Song for Rothenia, if they wanted to be.

Eddie Peacher looked around. 'I thought Harry would be having our party in her palace.'

'The Residenz isn't quite the birthday party sorta place,' Henry observed.

'Okay for coronations and lyings-in-state, of course,' Ed Cornish added. 'But it lacks, I dunno … levity?'

'A very serious building,' Henry agreed. 'Whereas the White Tree is a perfect hire for the purpose.'

'I take full credit,' Peter Peacher asserted. 'Harry was entranced at my description of this joint. She thought it had character. My my though, she has gone to town on the décor. Rudi looks bemused. Nobody told him it was a gay club I hope …?'

'Shh!' Eddie hissed. 'There's plenty of girls here tonight, anyway.'

Henry sniggered. 'I told Alfons the barman to pretend it was a tranny night. He was uncomfortable with the idea of so many women in his club.'

'When do the acts begin, dude? Or is it just this dance band?'

'Only one act,' Henry replied. 'And it's a special one: one of the finalists for this year's Song for Rothenia.'

'The Song for Rothenia? What's that?' Eddie had to ask.

'The Eurovision Song Contest. C'mon Eddie, you, me, Ed and Davey used to have a hoot watching it in the Finkle Road days. I distinctly remember us having a Eurovision house party in our finals year. Mind you, your memory of that particular night may have been hazy. You were having one of your pothead phases.'

'Take your word for it, dude.'

'Anyway, the kids are setting up now. They're called Starcrossed, and they must be good, 'cos Davey's signed them up for his agency. I'm told they take pop to a new level, but that's on Davey's authority. I have a tin ear, as you may recall.'

Yuli and Roman had indeed appeared on the stage area of the club. The five-piece dance group wound up their set. The guests clapped them off the stage and Yuli took the mic. He was in tee-shirt and jeans, though Roman was looking distinctly more chic.

'Classy looking kid, the blonde,' Pete observed.

'He and Yuli, the dark boy, are an item,' Ed commented. 'Lovely lads both. I've heard Yuli play, and he is amazing. I didn't know he sang though. I thought that was his boyfriend.'

'Good evening!' Yuli called to the audience in English. 'We are Starcrossed! And we are delighted and privileged to be here tonight to play for our Queen Harry! Happy Birthday, your majesty!'

The crowd cheered. Yuli held up his hand. 'We're gonna play some of our dance numbers for you. So this is a special song for Queen Harry and King Rudi. It's called in our language, Edler Herz. But you would say in English, "Noble Heart"! So here we go. Three. Two. One …'

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