Alike in Dignity

by Michael Arram


The buzz and vibration of Yuli's handij under his pillow dragged him back to consciousness. He groped for it and murmured 'Prosim!' without opening his eyes. Where was he? In his bed at home. Alone. There was no smooth warmth of Roman cuddled beside him.

'Yuli? Time to get up!' It was Willem.

'What? What day is it?'

'Bozh men! You're dopy this morning. London really took it out of you. It's Saturday and it's seven in the morning. I have something to show you. You promised.'

'I did? Oh … yeah. Why're you being so mysterious?'

'The mystery will add to the enjoyment. Della sent me the tip-off. Not to be missed.'

Twenty minutes later, a yawning Yuli met Willem outside Krals. The sun was already above the roofs of Domstrasse opposite, but it was too early as yet for tourists. 'Where're we going?'

'Just down the hill to the Arsenalsbrücke.'

So they strolled downhill along their old route to gymno, its familiarity adding some poignancy to the day. School for them was now over for ever. They stopped on the bridge, the mass of military buildings looming downriver of them. The traffic had yet to gather much volume. Willem checked his watch. 'Should be about five minutes,' he commented.

'What should?'

'Watch and wait, Yuli kamrad.'

A few early-morning joggers were out running the broad city boulevard of Heinrichstrasse down from the Nuevemesten to the bridge, Walkmans at their belts and buds in their ears. After the promised five minutes, a familiar female figure came loping easily towards them.

'Hey! Isn't that …?'

'Morning Krista!' Willem called out amicably.

She did a double take, pausing and running on the spot. 'What're you two doing out this early?'

'Couldn't sleep. We're going for a McDonald's breakfast. Fancy joining us?'

Krista tossed her pony tail. 'Are you mad? What'd be the point of my run. See you!' And she was off across the bridge.

Yuli watched her effortlessly gather pace as she crossed to the Arsenal side of the river. 'Was that it? We came here to wave at Krista?'

'Well, there is also the reward of her exceedingly aesthetic ass in action, but no.' He looked back up Heinrichstrasse past Yuli, who followed his gaze. It was focussed on another figure running, or rather staggering, towards them.

'Fucking hell. Is that …?'

'Yes indeed it is. Just let me get my Motorola camera up. There we are. A perfect shot of Bolo in the throes of a coronary.'

The boy was lurching along the pavement, his face red and beaded with perspiration. His overlarge tee-shirt billowed where it wasn't stuck to his ample torso by sweat. His shorts came nearly down to his knees.

He came to a halt, clutched his knees and put his head down breathing heavily. Willem sympathetically had a bottle of water ready. Bolo was too far gone to say thank you as he took a big swig and then emptied the rest over his head.

'You okay?' Yuli asked, a little concerned.

Finally Bolo caught his wind. 'Yeah … yeah. No problem. Whew! Making better time this morning.'

Willem cocked an eyebrow. 'Catching her up are you?'

'You may mock Willemczu, but she overtook me five doors down from my place this morning, only two days ago it was three doors.'

'Did she even say hello as she passed?' Willem asked.

'Well no. But one of these days we'll be running side by side across this goddam bridge, and we'll be training buddies.'

'You should live so long,' Yuli commented. 'You seriously think this will get her attention?'

'It's a strategy. Besides it's good for me. Sets me up before work on weekdays.'

'How's the internship working for you?' Willem asked.

'Pretty cool. Most of it's stuffing envelopes and xeroxing, but I'm sometimes sent into court with files. You get to sit in the well, with the lawyers. So I have to fit my one and only suit.'

Willem took him around the shoulder. 'Come on Bolo you hopeless twat. Let's go up to the Neueplaz McDonald's. You've earned your breakfast burger and hash browns. You're required at the Eurovision welcome event this afternoon, so have a shower before you put on that suit of yours.'

The northernmost end of the Rodolferplaz under the many-windowed gaze of the Residenz had been cordoned off for the launch ceremony of the 50th Eurovision Song Contest. A stage had been set up on the southern steps of the towering statue of King Henry the Lion. Around it Strelsenermedia had artfully constructed a temporary arena in canvas and scaffolding made to look like the baroque courtyard of an Italian palazzo, with even a couple of temporary fountains.

Limousines brought the acts one by one from their hotels to the entrance and dropped them off on to the red carpet, to be greeted by volleys of camera flashes, the shouts of journalists and the cheers of a throng of spectators. Starcrossed were the last to arrive. Roman carefully draped their official lanyards around their necks before they left the car.

'Ready?' he asked.

'Here we go, leblen baby!'

They emerged from their car into a maelstrom of noise and more than a few piercing teenage screams. They stood a little stunned but remembered to wave around them to their hundreds of admirers. An Eastnet journalist with a cameraman encountered them on the carpet at the arch. A broadcast was going out live.

'Hey guys! Starcrossed! Lots of people here to wish you luck!'

Yuli shouted out the necessary if meaningless phrases. 'It's great! Thank you everyone! Thank you Ro-then-ija! We love you!'

The chant of 'Ro-then-ija!' was taken up and gathered strength as they were led under the arch by a girl their own age in national costume, carrying the Rothenian tricolour. It was only a little less noisy in the thronged space beyond, where 1,500 accredited journalists and 800 corporate guests were crammed. Young Marek Toblescu, whom they remembered from Lisztomania, shook their hands with a welcoming grin and directed them along a lane through the crowd to the front where the other acts were now all assembled. People along the line thrust hands at them to shake.

A fanfare blared out from the stage and the noise died down. Will Vincent came to the podium. 'Ladies and Gentlemen! Messieurs et Mesdames! Damen und Herren! It is my duty and pleasure as national host to greet you on behalf of the European Broadcasting Union. So a warm welcome to the members of the national delegations to the 50th Eurovision Song Contest, in the City of Strelzen and Kingdom of Rothenia. Welcome!' Applause broke out. The senior members of the EBU were introduced and suitable words said.

'This'll not be good,' Yuli whispered in Roman's ear as their fathers, the civic leaders of Strelzen, took their place jointly at the podium. 'How d'you think they decided who speaks first?'

'It went to the king to arbitrate, your mutti told me.'

Radek Lucic gave a sidelong smirk at the Baron Staufer as he took the podium first, scrutinising his script carefully. His English was not that good. He looked up. 'Hello ladies and gentlemen. I am Honourable Radek Lucic, Staroman of Old City of Strelzen. It is great pleasure to have you here and we hope you have jolly time in my beautiful city. My colleague here the Burgomeister. He tell you to spend plenty money. He like that. I just say welcome and enjoy our warm Rothenian friendship and music.'

'Oh God, let me die,' Yuli hissed in Roman's ear and gripped his hand painfully.

'My turn to hope for death,' Roman replied apprehensively.

The Baron Staufer took Radek's place with a sidelong look of distaste. He had no script. 'Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Dieter von Ebersfeld, and I'm the Burgomeister and Chief Executive of the New City of Strelzen. It is a great thing for our city and nation to have the Song Contest here. As you enjoy our heritage and many fine vistas, remember too that Strelzen is no historical monument: it is now taking its place as one of Europe's great go-ahead cities, a centre of finance and industry, with an infrastructure which will be the envy of the continent. Strelzen is a city of enterprise and opportunity yet one with an amazing quality of life.'

Staroman Lucic muttered loudly enough for the mic to catch his words. 'Yes. If you have executive salary, hah!'

Some laughter broke out from among the Rothenians behind Yuli and Roman. The baron visibly gritted his teeth and carried on with his promotional spiel. 'Strelzen can offer the visitor some of the finest cultural experiences in Europe: galleries, museums, superb architecture and of course, great music. Which is why we are so pleased to be hosting the 50th Song Contest,' he shot a malicious glance to one side, 'and speaking for myself I am proud that it is my son, Roman, who will be singing for Rothenia on Saturday!'

'What!' Radek Lucic's readiness to take offence meant that he was no longer even pretending to be discreet. 'Your son? It my son who write song! Roman is good kid but remember who it is got talent!'

An agonised groan escaped Yuli. 'Has he been drinking? Mutti will strangle him for this.'

Will Vincent launched himself between the two glowering mayors and seized control of the podium. 'Thank you gentlemen! We are of course deeply pleased to have Julius and Roman as Starcrossed singing in a harmony which somehow escapes their fathers' municipalities. Now let's move on …'

Flaming red with embarrassment, Yuli clawed his way back through the crowd to the hospitality bar, Roman in tow. He took a gulp of white wine so harsh it caused him to splutter. When he'd wiped the tears from his eyes, he asked plaintively: 'Please tell me that did not just happen.'

Roman shook his head. 'I wish I could. Give me that glass. I need a shot too. Ugh!' The refreshments began to attract other performers as the speeches ended.

Willem turned up, looking sympathetic, and swiped a bottle of pilsner from an ice-filled tub. 'Uncle Radek forgot his meds today.'

'When can we go?' Yuli asked plaintively.

'You have to stay for publicity shots in front of the sponsors' wall. It's being done alphabetically, so it'll be an hour yet. Oh, some kid wanted to talk. Tall blond over there.' Willem caught the eye of a youth of that description holding a bottle of Pepsi, who ambled in their direction.

'Starcrossed, may I present Kārlis! He's from Latvia.'

The boy had a nice smile. He offered his hand to Roman. 'Hello guys. Kārlis is latviešu for Charles, so friends like call me Kaža. It is nice to meet you. Also it is nice you are duo and sing, with all these dancing ladies doing their acts I feel weird and lonely.'

'I'm Roman, and this is Yuli.'

'Were those angry men your fathers?'

'Bozh men!' growled Yuli, 'We're never going to live that down. Did your parents come with you to Strelzen to embarrass you, Kārlis?

He laughed. 'You got great English. Wish I did. My mamma is here in Strelzen, but she has gone shopping. My friend and partner Valters I lost. He gone run after dancing ladies: he is fallen in love with three of them. A bit optimist really.'

'Are you singing in the semi-final?'

'Yes. We not lucky as you. We have to be top ten to stay in for Saturday.'

Willem nodded. 'You want to come with us after this is over? We can show you some of our city.'

Kārlis beamed. 'I would much like. You have McDonald's in Strelzen?'

'There is no escape anywhere,' Roman shook his head. 'Do you have one in Riga?'

'You not like? McDonald's been in Latvia since when I was little boy of eight!'

Yuli laughed. 'Excellent. Hang around till we're all done, we'll find our friend Bolo then we can escape.'

'So this famous Wejg? Where naked ladies?'

Bolo rolled his eyes and answered in Rothenian. 'Waiting behind that pink neon to steal your money with overpriced drinks and a crap handjob.'

'I sorry?'

'We're going to the far end. It's much nicer, Kaža,' Willem assured him.

'What, it have prettier naked ladies?'

'No naked ladies,' Yuli broke the bad news. 'Great jazz club called Jackson Square.'

'I disappointed,' Kārlis pouted, then grinned. He was an equable sort, it seemed.

Jackson Square was full on a Saturday afternoon, with the usual mix of old regulars and Technische students, both groups greeting Yuli with enthusiasm.

Beers appeared and Kārlis did not refuse one, looking around very pleased, his leg soon twitching to the rhythm.

Bolo too was pleased. The clientele of Jackson Square was apparently mounting its own campaign of civic resistance against the Clean Air Act. Blue smoke coiled under the club's brick vaults. Bolo cheerily lit up. 'We gotta come here more often.'

'Want to join the set?' Yuli asked Kārlis. 'Do you play an instrument?'

He nodded. 'Guitar. What play you and Roman?'

'Keyboard and vocals. But Roman doesn't do jazz, not willingly anyway.'

'Me and you then? That bass man he looking at you,'

So they took the stage, and it turned out that young Kārlis was quite the jazz singer too. When they took an eventual break, Kārlis gave Yuli a serious look. 'Maybe you and I get rid of Roman and start own act, yes?'

Yuli twinkled at his lover. 'What do you think, Romesczu?'

'I think Kārlis's mum is probably panicking somewhere, not to mention his friend Valters.'

The Latvian boy checked his watch and went a little pale. 'Ak, mans Dievs, ir laiks! That time is? I got go. Mamma me kill.' He scrambled for his mobile, then shook his head. 'No signal.'

'I'll take him back to the Plaz,' Willem said. 'You guys want to stay on here? I'm supposed to be meeting Della in a bit anyway.'

'No. Romesczu promised to be at Klara's for dinner. Not a meal I'd willingly pass up either. We'll sleep there tonight and go off to the Hofkapelle together tomorrow.'

Willem shook his head. 'You don't fool me, Yuli kamrad. You're still pissed at your tatti.'

'He's on the verge of losing my vote in next year's civic elections, that's a fact.'

The senior management of Strelsenermedia had decamped from the Domshorja for the duration, and were now occupying a suite of temporary offices high in the new Strelzen Arena. Following the launch event a drinks party was held for the EBU team down in the stage space, so M. Scavolini and his team could inspect the sets for the semi-final on Thursday. M. Scavolini seemed very happy in general but asked about the incident in the civic welcome.

Will Vincent shook his head. 'Local politics, Jean-Paul. The two mayors of Strelzen are locked in a feud over the next phase of city development. It's going to the European Court.'

'They do not like each other personally, I rather think,' the Director General observed. 'It is unfortunate that they lost decorum at the podium, and rather distressing for their sons, who seem fine young fellows.'

'You'd need to ask Henry.' He signalled to the man in question.

'Salut Henri! Not much for you to do today. But things become very busy for you on Thursday, do they not?'

'Yes indeed, sir. Even more so on Saturday.'

'We were admiring the set, Henri.'

'Our team has done a fine job. It looks even better when it's all lit up. This whole section moves you know.'

Will chipped in. 'Jean-Paul wants to know the story behind the Lucics and Von Ebersfelds.'

Henry sighed. 'It's the result of four centuries of bad blood and a lot of bad decisions by the rulers of Rothenia. But what makes it worse is that there has been definite criminal activity over the past five years in the conduct of the Nuevemesten, and it has come too close to Dieter von Ebersfeld, the Burgomeister. His wife the baroness has just been committed for trial on charges of corruption in the award of contracts and options over the last phase of development. It's a wonder to me that her husband has not yet been forced to resign, but if he is forced out most of the rest of his Rattsherren will be obliged to go too. It was an Eastnet investigation which uncovered it.'

'And what Henry won't tell you is that he was the investigative reporter that started the whole process off. He's more than just a dance phenomenon.'

M. Scavolini chuckled, then his face straightened. 'I see from my staff's briefings that the two young boys of Starcrossed are in fact gay lovers.'

Henry and Will exchanged quick glances. 'How did that come up, sir? Better still, why has it come up?' Will asked, a furrow appearing on his brow.

'It's a story that broke two days ago in the Russian and Belarusian press. They have published some … very compromising pictures. Since Starcrossed is developing into the clear favourite for Saturday, there are some who will try to undermine their potential vote by any means possible. They are trying hard too. Suggestions have even been made that the boys are in fact well under what is the age of homosexual consent and therefore that the EBU is complicit in child abuse! Not true of course, but this is perhaps intended to unsettle the Turks, for it is only in Turkey that the boys of Starcrossed might be so characterised. Still, scandal, innuendo and rumour have their effect regardless of truth, and I am afraid some damage has already been done.

Henry glowered at the front page of the Sunday edition of the Roteniske Spegele, a tabloid that always won hands down in the race to the journalistic bottom in Rothenia. The headline ran RUCE EN RUCE?

Ed Cornish came yawning into the kitchen. He paused and looked over Henry's shoulder. 'Nice butts. Why is that paper featuring the rear view of a pair of nude teenage boys walking and holding hands?'

'Well if you don't recognise them, those are the asses of the Rothenian finalists for the Eurovision Song Contest. Yet another picture has surfaced of the boys' expedition down the Arndt, and this one leaves little doubt that they're a gay couple.'

'Oh! Is that a problem these days?'

'No and yes. Davey's been telling me the kids will take a hit in the female tweenie market and their sales may fall off for a while, but in the long term his view is it won't much affect them as musicians or their sales. They're quality and they appeal to the discerning, who in general couldn't give a monkeys about Starcrossed's sexuality. Mature ladies may in fact become more interested in them rather than less. He's consulting with his local team and the kids themselves. His advice to them is to follow the Pet Shop Boys playbook: neither confirm nor deny.'

Ed brought his coffee to the table. 'Somehow that does not impress me as a strategy.'

'I know what you mean. But the reason for it is that the state-run press of certain socially conservative eastern countries are making a stink about the affair so as to make the boys' sexuality the issue, not their song. There's a lot of faux outrage being manufactured. Very devious.'

'Seems crude to me, not devious.'

'Oh it's devious alright. The more liberal western European media are already retaliating in kind, and are playing into their hands. Starcrossed's defenders can be characterised as agents of Western condescension and moral corruption. The populace of religiously conservative states in the EBU are being invited to see our boys and their nice music as a coordinated assault on family and social morality. A vote for Starcrossed will be a hammer blow to the social fabric of their nations.'

'Cripes. How can that sort of moralistic guff work in such a festival of transcendental campness?'

'Maybe it can, maybe not. The EBU's monitoring it. We've got a crisis meeting this afternoon. But hostile media attention is in unfortunate evidence from Gdansk to Ankara. Someone's timed it really well.'

'Hey! What if they work out you're a queer?'

'No doubt that will be fitted neatly into the conspiracy if it comes up. But Yuli and Roman are the ones in the crosshairs.'

'Poor kids.'

It was sunny with a light breeze in the Hofgarten of the Strelzen Residenz. Yuli and Roman had permission to stroll along the lake path, and they had settled on a bench under the willows. A flotilla of swans gave them the hostile eye as they passed by in formation.

'What cute little cygnets!' Roman observed.

'Mr and Mrs Swan don't like the look of you so much, leblen baby.'

'Huh! Joining the rest of the world then.'

'Oh, it's not that bad, Romesczu. You weren't so bothered about those fan-site nude pictures.'

'This is different. Those were slightly deranged hormonal teen girls lusting after boys who were safely unapproachable. You could feel a little sorry for them. But these people are hate-merchants out to hurt not just people like us, but our homeland too. Resentment is in order, I think.'

Yuli took him round the shoulder. 'Sometimes, Romesczu, you are unmistakably the Freiherr Roman-Rudolf Staufer von Ebersfeld. It's sorta sexy. Like being on a date with King Rudi's gay younger brother.'

Roman chuckled. 'If he had one, I can assure you it would be me on that date. You'd have to get past my sword to get to him.'

'Sword? You have one?'

Roman shook his head. 'I don't think Vater has either. But Grosstatta's father fought a duel in his young days, so Grossmutta once told me. We Staufers are still subject to the Rothenian noble honour code.'

'That's intriguing. So could your Vater challenge my tatti over what happened on the Plaz on Saturday?'

'Not to a sword or pistol duel, no. Offences of blood are only between nobles. But don't get too confident. Grosstatta explained to me when I was a kid that commoners who insult the dignity of a peer of Rothenia can be pursued in the courts for defamation, that or be horsewhipped on the street.'

'Your Grosstatta seems to have been very old school.'

'I suppose he was. He was very kind to me.'

They sat in quiet communion for a while under the rustling willows, before Yuli resumed. 'This Song Contest has lost its fun for me. I know Mr Davey tells us not to worry about it, but this mudslinging is not what we signed up for. It's made you angry and me depressed. More than ever, I'm sure show business is not for me. What I enjoy about it is what we had going down in Jackson Square yesterday afternoon with Kārlis the Latvian.'

Roman nodded and after a pause offered the following musings. 'We can't run away from this, Yuli leblen. We entered this contest and a lot of people have had faith in us since, not least Herr At-vood. I know you're not suggesting we run away and hide in the cellars of Jackson Square, but we're in a fight we weren't looking for and unpleasant though it might be, we have to go through with it. People are counting on us.'

Yuli sighed. 'Agreed. But once this is over, we must have a serious talk with Mr Davey about our future, and make some things clear to him.'

Yuli toiled back up the Domshorja after his Sunday duty, changed at home and headed down to Krals. He poked his head into the shop and asked Herr Kral if he'd like an extra pair of hands.

'Hello, Yuli! Right on time. It's been busy this weekend what with the tourists and it being Eurovision week. Your CDs are going fast! Willemczu is out the back shifting stock, just take the till for me. Oh … and I took the Roteniske Spegele off the newsstands.'

'Thank you sir!'

With some relief, Yuli sank back into the world of retail and interaction with the tourist industry. It was strangely comforting, and no one recognised the teenager in faded jeans, flipflops and tee shirt as half of Starcrossed, even though his smiling face was beaming from the stacks of CD cases on one of the shelves, and looking moodily from posters Willem had carefully pinned up around the store.

Willem turned up eventually and gave him a hug. 'How's Romesczu taking it?'

'Better than me, it turns out.'

'That boy has come a long way this past year.'

'I always told you he's the steadier of us.'

'And I believe you, Yuli. So you're toughing it out?'

'For now.'

Willem's eyebrow raised. 'That sounded ominous.'

'It's brought forward a debate we need to have on our future. Can we let Starcrossed take over our musical lives? What will we do after the Song Contest has packed up and gone away? What do we want out of our lives?'

'That sounds like several debates to me. It also sounds like Mr Davey may be in for some unhappy news about one of his acts.'

'Maybe. We'll see. We just have to get past next weekend, and the sooner that's done the better.'

'Ah but! What if you win?'

Yuli snorted. 'Ask Svetlana. It didn't do her career that much good in the end.'

'I think we both know that she lives in a very different musical universe from you. You also have charted now on two continents. Would you like to see my calculations of your current royalties? I get them out every now and again when I need a smile and an internal warm feeling. It looks more surreal every week. It also is a convincing argument that this current media storm is gonna have absolutely no long-term impact on your future sales and popularity. Staying down here for dinner? My mutti wants to give you her opinion of your bare butt.'

'She's watched it grow and develop over seventeen years. She's an authority on it. Can I sleep down here tonight too?'

'Still angry at Uncle Radek? You've gotta talk with him one of these days, Yuli. Really. Had you thought he might actually listen to you on the subject?'

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