Alike in Dignity

by Michael Arram


Henry hardly recognised the voice of Will Vincent over his ear mic, a voice which to that moment he had found invariably cool and composed. 'Henry, get the hell up to the production box, NOW!'

He raced up the back stairs and arrived breathing heavily to find Will and the EBU team, including Director General Scavolini, in tense debate while the production crew stared. Hermina Beruskova followed him in at a more sedate pace. M. Scavolini motioned them over.

'Henry and Hermina, mes chers amis, you understand the problem the Rothenian entry has just caused us?'

Henry nodded and recited from the regulations: 'A song may be disqualified… if the artists depart from the planned performance as performed in the dress rehearsals and thereby cause disturbance to the event and/or the broadcast productions.'

'Exactly. I think we may say that your Starcrossed boys have just done that.'

Will held up his hand. 'Agreed Jean-Paul, but what disturbance have they caused? The audience reaction in the Arena was sheer delight, the rainbow flags are still waving frantically in the pit.'

'Alas my friend, the disturbance has been elsewhere. Five member delegations present have lodged immediate complaints to the Reference Group through me, and the programme was temporarily taken off the air in Belarus. So we have no choice but to act, and act quickly. The Croatian entry is now being performed and we have little more than a quarter of an hour to make our decision. Our Executive Supervisor is here and three members of the Reference Group. By the time the French entry has concluded we must have made a decision. Then we must also consult with our legal officer. Before the voting begins Hermina will have to communicate it to the audience here and at home.'

Henry felt he had to have his say. 'Sir, I understand the need to respect the regulations, but you must be aware that any disqualification will open the EBU to accusations of homophobia. We wouldn't be having this conversation if a heterosexual couple had kissed on stage in the excitement of the moment.'

The director general scowled. 'I'm all too well aware of that fact, Henry, but the point is that there was not so much excitement as calculation in what those boys did, as I think we all know. Now please, you and Hermina get down to the stage and ready yourself for what will be a difficult evening to come.'

As Starcrossed returned to the Green Room there was a tumult. Most of the artists and delegations rose to applaud and cheer. They had many hands to shake as they returned to their alcove, where hugs awaited them. A steadicam had followed them in and Marek Toblescu was walking alongside the cameraman listening intently to his ear mic, over which he had clasped his hand; he nodded at regular intervals.

Davey Skipper however was to one side talking urgently into his mobile. It was a couple of minutes before he rejoined the Starcrossed party to hug the boys.

'So, that was your strategy for your future?' he said as he separated from Yuli. 'Throwing the contest as gay martyrs?'

Roman shrugged. 'Will it come to that?'

Davey shook his head. 'There will be complaints. The usual suspects I am sure, and I was listening to the Greek guy over there on his phone to the EBU team. They fancy themselves as your nearest rival and he was pushing a complaint. The authorities upstairs can't ignore the fuss. There's a possibility you'll be disqualified before voting begins.'

'Just because two men kissed before the world?' Yuli snarled. 'I hope Eurovision will be crucified by the press.'

'Teenagers. The world seems so black and white to you,' Davey frowned. 'You might think of your Rothenian supporters, who'll have to deal with the national humiliation of being excluded from an international competition they're hosting.'

'We thought of that, Mister Davey' Roman protested, 'which is why we didn't tell you. But the good friends we talked it through with are Rothenian and they would not agree with your view. Our nation is one that places its honour above politics. What we did was what our people call 'renn Rotenisker'. It translates as 'pure Rothenian' but it means more than that, it means respecting the soul of our people, and that is what we have done.'

'Hmm. You sound quite like Henry Atwood when he gets on the subject of Rothenia, Romesczu. What's done is done either way. But you have broken the rules by changing the act you performed in the dress rehearsal. The question is whether it was so big a change that you'll be thrown out, or whether they'll find other ways of penalising you. What they can't do is ignore the offence.'

Henry cooled his heels on the side of the stage abstractedly watching the Russian entry, a lady backed by a three piece band and two singers. Idly he remarked that the lead guitar looked remarkably like Andy Peacher, just a little taller with longer hair. It barely registered when the three blonde ladies from Bosnia and Herzegovina took the stage, in a number that seemed to be ripping off Abba. A more engaged Henry would have been speculating whether their suspiciously uniform blonde hair style was in fact provided by wigs.

Hermina Beruskova appeared at his elbow. 'I knew it was going too smoothly,' she observed.

'Damn right, Hermina. Any theories as to what will happen next?'

'For our own safety, I do hope that they don't disqualify Rothenia. I don't think the crowd out there will take it well.'

'That may well enter into M. Scavolini's calculations.'

A stocky Scandinavian who was the EBU's executive producer arrived. 'Any decision yet, Svante?' Henry asked in English.

'No Henry, but it's imminent. They'll pass it down to me. Here comes Latvia: another boy singing duo. I just hope they don't feel they have to outdo Starcrossed.'

'Judging by their semi-final performance, I don't think they have any ambitions to set the world alight.'

'What were those Rothenian lads out to prove, do you think?'

'From what I've picked up, they do not like the restrictions fame is putting on them, particularly the need to pretend to be straight. In fact the idea of fame in general has already soured on them. I don't think they want to be pop sensations.'

'So it was an act of self-immolation?'

'Not as simple as that. They're Rothenians, and that means being true to yourself and damn the consequences. It's a big thing in this country.'

'A strange people.'

'Stranger than you might find easy to believe, Svante.'

The man put his hand to his ear, listened and nodded. He called Henry and Hermina together. 'Now Frau Beruskova, the decision has been reached, and this is what you must announce before the voting begins …'

Henry and Hermina reassumed their central position on the stage of the Arena as the last act left the stage. 'So those are our contestants!' Henry shouted into his hand mic. 'Let's give them the huge cheer they all deserve!' The hyped-up audience enthusiastically obliged, and Henry could not but notice that the most furiously-waving flags in the pit below him were rainbow ones; he would have sworn that Ed Cornish had one of his lieutenants sitting on his shoulders waving the biggest of them. Once the noise abated he continued. 'So now over to Hermina. But before we open the voting to the people of Europe and begin the recap of the numbers … an announcement.'

Hermina came forward and read stiffly from a note she was holding. 'Hallo people of Europe. I am to tell you before voting commences that the European Broadcasting Union has received a number of complaints about a technical infringement of the Contest rules by the Rothenian entry, Ruce en Ruce sung by Starcrossed. This was in not performing the act as approved by the Union in the dress rehearsal yesterday. The interim decision of the Reference Group of the EBU is to allow the song to proceed to the voting stage, but to reserve the right to impose penalties after a full hearing of the Board. That is all.'

There was a mounting murmur from an initially subdued audience, taking advantage of which Hermina adroitly switched into her spiel on how the viewers at home were to vote. A number of catcalls were however rising from the pit before she finished, and the clips of the acts began to appear on the huge screens above them.

Henry exchanged raised eyebrows with Hermina, turned off his hand mic and called up to the box. 'So the EBU people chickened out then, Moricz?'

'It was a tough call, so they found a way to kick the can down the road.'

'It leaves open the possibility that if Starcrossed win tonight, they could be disqualified tomorrow.'

Moricz sighed. 'The other possibility is that they don't win and the whole matter can be quietly dropped, which may be the best case scenario in some ways. Though if the EBU turns really nasty they might even deny us our automatic qualification for the 2006 final if Starcrossed comes in the top ten.'

Henry signed off and headed back to the Green Room to check the set-up for the backstage broadcast during the voting. He encountered Marek grinning all over his face. 'What's up, Mareczu? You scored with one of the Estonian girls? Don't think I didn't see you leching after them.'

'Nope, Henry. I've negotiated an exclusive studio interview with Starcrossed for our Sunday arts programme. Not only that, Moricz says I can conduct it!' His smile faltered. 'Sczaca! Now I'm terrified. I'll be in front of camera. What the hell have I done?'

'Hmm. You've just become the Eastnet face Young Rothenia is going to relate to. The pressure's off me. Congratulations. Talk to you later.'

Henry breezed through the acts exchanging cheery greetings with each alcove. He found Starcrossed a little sheepish. No doubt the ebb of adrenaline had left them less sure of themselves than they had been. Davey Skipper collared him. 'So what's up, Outfield? Are they about to be bounced?'

'I take it you had no idea this would happen?'

'Course not, though maybe I should have seen it coming. Justy did warn me that the boys were going to be unpredictable quantities.'

'Justy always knows what he's talking about. I have no idea what the EBU will eventually decide. I think they're basically hoping the voting process will solve their problem for them, partially at least.'

'But Starcrossed are obviously the best act by a mile!'

'Maybe so, but we have observed in the past how Eurovision voting is dominated by national likes and dislikes, so now add to that combustible combination anti-gay prejudice in a number of member states. Who knows what will happen? Anyway, I'm back out front to find out. The clips are running out and it's me that announces the dance act. And then it's the voting.'

'Let's see if Albania is ready!' Hermina enunciated. 'Good evening, Tirana!'

A portly and well-groomed TV executive appeared on the monitor. 'Dobre Vesser! Dhe mbrëmje të mirë, Strelzen! Félicitations pour votre festival de chansons formidable!'

'Merci beaucoup monsieur et d'accord,' Henry breezed in since Albania had chosen to deliver its score in French, 'nous attendons votre points ici en Strelsau.' He already had a fair idea how this would play out. The usual factors were at play, and something a little darker too.

'La France - un point,' the Albanian announcer began.

'France – one point,' Henry echoed.

'Croatie – deux points'

'Croatia – two points.'

'Israël – trois points'

'Israel – three points.'

'Malte – quatre points'

'Malta –four points.'

'Roumanie – cinq points'

'Romania – five points.'

'Serbie et Monténégrosix points'

'Serbia-Montenegro – six points.'

'Chypre – sept points'

'Cyprus – seven points.'

'Turquie – huit points'

'Turkey – eight points.'

'L'ex-république yougoslave de Macédoinedix points'

'Former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia – ten points.'

There was a noticeable hush as the audience caught its breath, though everyone must now be aware of how this would go down. Albania was scattering its largesse amongst its Balkan neighbours, and its biggest neighbour with a credible song was …

'… et finalement, douze points pour la Grèce!'

'… and twelve points for Greece,' Henry repeated over audible groans from the pit. Not even a single point for Rothenia, with Starcrossed currently lagging behind Latvia. The big screens showed major celebrations back in the Green Room as Greece pulled ahead of Israel and Latvia once again. Rothenia was now down to fifth position. Henry checked the big scoreboard. At least the United Kingdom had only an unfortunate thirteen. Cold comfort.

'Thank you to Tirana for your scores. Congratulations to Greece and now hello to Cyprus!' Hermina called out.

Henry's ear mic crackled. 'This is going on for ever,' Moricz groaned. 'We warned them of this. We're overrunning badly. Smile and speed it up down there so far as you can.'

And so it went on. Rothenia pulled in few points from the former Eastern Bloc, and none at all from Russia, Ukraine, Latvia and of course Belarus, though Scandinavia gave Starcrossed full points. But as the totals piled up and Greece pulled ahead, the end game was clear. The ten points from France and twelve from Germany at least pushed Starcrossed back ahead of Serbia-Montenegro and into fifth place, but there was little doubt what had killed their chances, along with regional partisanship.

Henry forced a smile at Hermina as he announced 'So we have our result, Europe! The winner of the 50th Eurovision Song Contest here in Strelzen is Greece!' There was a respectable cheer from the arena, and a tumult on the big screens as the Greek act and her support celebrated their win in the Green Room.

'So next year under the blue skies of Greece. Congratulations to a worthy winner.'

'Congratulations,' Hermina echoed. 'We are waiting for you. Here she is!' A blizzard of shiny gold foil confetti descended from the roof. 'And here is Svetlana, the winner of last year to present – yes, a bouquet – and with her, our special important guest, His Majesty the King of Rothenia!'

Somehow Rudolf managed to be relaxed and self-possessed, even without a tie and in a shower of glitter. He courteously handed over a gold envelope and what Davey had called 'a piece of arty plastic shit.' He gave the winner a double kiss, wrung her hands and then gracefully withdrew applauding, but not before he had caught Henry's eye and raised an eyebrow at him. The Greek lady in the meantime had secured a big blue and white national flag and was parading it around the stage with her ecstatic crew .

'An emotional moment,' Henry commented. 'Everyone get pictures! To the winner the spoils!'

'Cue the bloody song,' Moricz's voice said in his ear.

'And what better way to say good night, bonne nuit et Dobre Noc from Strelzen on this glorious evening, than to hear our winning entry once again. So good night from me, Henry Atwood and from Hermina Beruskova and all the production crew here in the Strelzen Arena. And from our friends in the European Broadcasting Union, goodbye till next year. Take it away Helena!'

'Well fuck that for a laugh,' Bolo grumbled in Rothenian to their alcove in the fast emptying Green Room. There was confetti, plates and abandoned wine glasses everywhere.

'What did he say?' queried Davey.

'Umm … difficult to translate,' Willem responded.

'Got your purses?' Bolo reminded Della and Krista.

'I've got a limo to take us to the after party, kids. Do you have permission notes from your parents?' Davey enquired.

'Seriously?' Yuli protested.

'We're going,' Roman decided. 'But we have to get away before it's too late. We're taping an interview for Eastnet at nine tomorrow. So it's at your place on the Domshorja tonight, leblen.'

'Better ring tatti.' Yuli reached for his handij.

'No need,' Willem said. 'Uncle Radek's here … oh, and your dad too, Romesczu. Not quite hand in hand though. This could be awkward.'

'How did you get through security, tatti?' Yuli asked as Radek Lucic hurried up.

'I tailed on to the stage with the king's party. Nobody asked any questions, and Herr At-vood told me and Dieter here where to find you. So how are you boys?'

'Okay,' Roman replied for them. 'Though there may be quite a few of our fellow-citizens who might like to chuck us in the Starel tonight.'

'Nonsense,' said his father the baron, who had also reached them by now. 'That was renn Rotenisker, Roman, and just the way I'd expect a Staufer von Ebersfeld to behave. I'm proud of you. You have nothing to apologise for.'

'Same here, son,' said Radek Lucic, 'though without the aristocratic profiling.'

Yuli did a double take. 'Are you two actually talking now? Seriously?'

'The king imposed a truce on us tonight in his box,' his father replied a little ruefully. 'He said we made him feel like Duke Rudolf III in the 1560s, dealing with two warring cities, and it was time we sat down and started talking or he would do what Duke Rudolf did.'

'Which was what?' asked Roman.

His own father sheepishly replied 'Chain the Burgomeister and Staroman in the same oubliette under the castle of Strelsau without food until they ironed out a compromise. He suggested locking us in a room together and forcing us to listen to tonight's Eurovision entries over and over again would do as well these days.'

The baron gave a wintry smile, and then his eyes widened as he found himself in his son's tight embrace. 'Vater! That was almost funny.'

The after-party in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt was heaving. Contrary to their fears of ostracism, Starcrossed's entry into the room triggered a huge cheer and extended applause. Then the crowd got back to the serious business of drinking and dancing, which carried on strongly into the early hours. From time to time various acts were invited on to the stage to perform, as long as it was anything but their Eurovision act. Yuli and Roman were not allowed off the stage until they had performed Starcrossed's full repertoire.

At some time around two thirty in the morning they were sitting with Davey Skipper, watching the surprising sight of Bolo and Krista dancing together among the crowd.

'So that's the Song Contest done, lads,' Davey commented. 'Could have been worse from my point of view.'

'How is that, Mister Davey?' Yuli asked.

'In my cynical way, it occurs to me that your status as gay martyrs will give you a pretty formidable profile from now on and do your sales no harm at all.'

'That is rather cynical, sir,' Roman commented. 'That is not why we did it. We just wanted to be true to ourselves and our music.'

'I realise that boys, but I'm in the business of managing your talent, so excuse my pragmatism please. So I now have to ask, how do you see things playing out now you've strutted the Eurovision stage?'

Roman exchanged glances with Yuli, and responded for them both. 'We will carry on with our work in the Hofkapelle. The summer school before we enter the National Conservatory is in July and then we register for the four-year programme at the end of August.'

Davey gave a lazy smile. 'I see some space in there.'

'Space for what, sir?'

'Well, I have this small castle on the Andalusian coast near Motril in which is a celebrated studio made famous by Live Action's Castles in the Air album. I'd like to put you up there for a month or so if you'd be willing to forgo your summer school. Bring your friends, they'll be welcome. I'm pretty sure Yuli has more than enough material for what could be a classic album.'

Yuli smiled. 'Maybe so, Mister Davey, but …'

Davey interrupted him. 'I know what you're going to say. You and your Roman have big plans which don't involve Starcrossed, and I accept that. But before you head off into the dusty world of classical music and black tie concerts, you can leave the pop world quite a legacy. Look at it this way, you've already captured the interest of the world's discerning electro fans. Edler Herz is still charting across the world and Ruce en Ruce may not have won the Song Contest but pre-sales indicate Starcrossed's not going to be a one-hit-wonder. So, it's time to consolidate. A major album success will set you guys up for life, even if you record nothing else for me.'

Roman pursed his lips. 'We're glad you recognise our long-term plans, sir.' He shot a glance at Yuli, who nodded back. 'We will do it. We owe you so much, it isn't a request we could fairly deny. It will give you a long-term return on your investment in us, and that is only right.'

Davey relaxed. 'Great. I'll get my office to set up bookings and flights. I take it you'll be wanting Willem and Della there with you?'

Yuli looked across at a very tipsy Bolo and Krista leaning together for mutual support. 'And two others,' he said.

Henry didn't spend long at the after-party, just went round the floor thanking people and being thanked in turn, then he quietly headed for the exit and the empty streets of Strelzen. He found Ed still up at their Osragasse apartment, and submitted to the usual bear hug.

'So,' Ed said after the long kiss ended, 'you did it, little babe. Ruler of Europe. Henry Atwood.'

'Weird. After all that, I feel quite empty now. You saw my Song Contest, so how was yours?'

'Oh, me and the boys had a fun time in the pit. Met lots of strange people from several nations. The German queers were the strangest. We were all certain that Starcrossed would run away with the title, but no, they decided to self-destruct instead. Ruce en Ruce was the best song by miles.'

'Regrettably true. They'll be telling their story to the nation tomorrow on Eastnet, and young Marek Toblescu will be interviewing them – his first assignment in front of the cameras. Poor kid. I'm gonna be there for him up on the hill tomorrow. They're taping at nine.'

'Sheez, Henry. It's nearly three now. Let's get you to bed. I'll set the alarm. I took tomorrow off. Davey says he wants to meet up for lunch, will you be able to make it? I was going to suggest the Flavienerhof.'

Henry took a while to get to sleep, and an even longer while to get his head together when the alarm went off. Yawning, he took his car rather than walk it. It was Sunday and the streets were more or less empty. He parked up and looked around for Marek. He found him emerging from the toilets, dabbing his mouth with a paper towel.

'You threw up, didn't you Mareczu? Feel better now?'

'I've never had nerves like this. Is it like this for you?'

'At the start it was,' Henry lied. 'You get used to it, It'll all come together, don't worry. You know the boys. You did a sit down with them after the national final.'

'Yeah! But there wasn't any camera recording my dumb comments!'

'It'll go fine, Mareczu. Don't forget, Starcrossed are just four years younger than you and they're cool enough. Let's go check your script.'

Marek had calmed down a bit when the call came that the Starcrossed boys had arrived. They found them in Eastnet's own Green Room. They grinned when they saw Henry.

'Herr At-vood! We didn't think you'd be here. This is great. We can thank you for everything you did.' As usual it was Yuli who was in the lead.

'Nice of you kids, but I didn't do much. How're you feeling this morning?'

'We spent the night at my place and guess what! Romesczu's Vater came round this morning … to my house! We left him talking to my tatti … real talking, no sneers and no shouting. The king knocked their heads together last night and they're having serious discussions about sorting out the development business.'

Henry raised his eyebrows. 'Really? That's good news on several levels. You must tell me more later. But first Mareczu wants to prep. You be kind to him.'

Henry left for the producer's box and found a coffee. He watched as Marek took his seat, ear mic in place. The producer briefed him. The boy had got control of himself in the Green Room and looked calmer now. Since he was working the arts programme he had settled for the casual look. It suited his open and cheery face. He was a natural, though he didn't know it yet.

The assistant producer ushered in Starcrossed, fixed their mics and seated all three around a small table. 'Okay!' he called. 'Ready? First take. On five.'

Marek looked to camera on cue. 'Hi, this is Marek Toblescu for Sunday Arts. I have in the studio Yuli Lucic and Roman von Ebersfeld, better known these days as Starcrossed. Hi guys.'

The pair beamed at him. 'Hey, Mareczu,' they answered cheerily. Clearly the kids had rekindled their chemistry.

'It's great of you to come talk to us today. Last night must have taken it out of you.'

Yuli led off. 'I guess, though it was fun too.'

'So Greece won and your song came fifth. Many people – me included – were surprised at how that happened. Do you guys feel disappointed?'

Yuli looked at Roman. He had been nominated for the task of explanation, which he was better at. 'Not really, Mareczu. The viewers knew as well as we did that our determination to live up to the truth of our song, and stand hand-in-hand before the world, would come at a cost.'

'So it was a protest for same-sex equality?'

'Not as such. It was an innocent human gesture which some people still choose to be offended at.'

'Most of the press coverage this morning is positive, though you may have seen the Rotenisker Spegele's headline.'

'SUICIDE? At least they conceded it was an act of principle, it was just not the sort of principle their editor agrees with. He called us "self-indulgent LGBT posturers". Nice of him to acknowledge there was at least a posture. The fact is that though Eurovision is nothing if not gay friendly, a lot of its members still have a way to go. I think if we did nothing else we showed that. But one day an openly queer artist will win the contest, and though it will be the victory we couldn't deliver it will be a big milestone when it comes.'

Henry smiled as he listened to the intense and intelligent teenager who was Roman von Ebersfeld give his world a lesson. The boy was impressive and had come on so far this past year. Yuli had unconsciously taken Roman's hand as he was talking, which was another statement to the viewers, beautiful in its ordinariness.

As the interview finished and the two boys took their leave of a very pleased Marek, Henry stopped Starcrossed as they left.

'Could I have a moment, lads?'

'Sure Herr At-vood.'

'So what's up back at your house, Yuli?'

Yuli looked at Roman, and the two boys broke up in giggles. Eventually Roman said 'It's the funniest thing, sir. After years of edginess and hostility, the Song Contest seemed to bring them together. They're both proud of their sons in their way, but somehow last night something clicked and they both became proud of the pair of us. Well, tatti already was, but Vater's made the connection. After that, they found they didn't dislike each other as much as they thought they did.'

Yuli chipped in. 'Yay for Eurovision! But when you think of it, it's not so strange. They're both men of principle committed to public service and devoted to their children, why shouldn't they find common ground? We don't know exactly how they'll bridge their ideological divide, but they're at least trying.'

Henry laughed. 'Then I know what my first post-Eurovision job will be on Monday: getting a joint interview out of the pair of them. Now before you go, kids, I have a request. Me and your friend the major are celebrating our civil partnership at Zenda castle on 24 June. What're the chances we can book you for the music?'

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