Alike in Dignity

XXI

Willem, Yuli and Roman decided to go and meet Davey Skipper off his afternoon flight from Heathrow, which arrived at five at the Tildemann International Airport. Yuli and Willem had good memories of the airport, which for them had been a gateway to superb holidays as kids. It brought back memories of Dalmatian beaches, Greek islands and Florida theme parks. So they were in a very good mood as they boarded the southbound express tram, which made its final city stop right outside their gymno on Königstrasse. It was full of travellers heading for their evening flights, and suitcases, backpacks and bags were crammed into every available space.

A human tide flooded from the tram cars into the airport station, carrying them along under the huge glass canopy to the escalators and then the Arrivals level of Terminal 3, where British Airways flights were serviced. They stationed themselves at the barrier facing the exit among the waiting chauffeurs and family groups, most of which carried the traditional flower bouquet to greet returning friends and relatives. Roman cutely held up a card on which he had written MISTER DAVEY.

Two surges of travellers later, a stylishly dressed guy in his mid twenties, tanned and handsome, caught sight of the card and gave a charming smile and a thumbs up. The boys waved and called out. They did the Rothenian handshake, during which Yuli caught a quick appraising glance from the Englishman in his direction.

‘So guys,’ he said, ‘it was nice of you to come meet me. I didn’t think you were serious about it.’

‘It seemed a kind thing, Mister Davey,’ Willem replied. ‘It’s what we do for our friends. We debated flowers, but we’re broke, so sorry.’

‘No problem. I wouldn’t have known what to do with them anyway. So, I gotta find my way to Osragasse and Henry Atwood’s place. But first we can have a chat, or catch a taxi into town and have a meal. Henry’s not expecting me till seven.’

Yuli shot a malicious smile at Roman. ‘There’s a McDonald’s here, Mister Davey. It is all that we normally eat, being poor schoolchildren with no idea of a healthy diet.’

Davey shrugged. ‘Whatever, guys. I haven’t been through the golden arches in many a year. I could murder some chicken nuggets.’

Willem shook his head. ‘Nuggets are not on the Rothenian menu at this time, sorry. Though we live in hopes. We tried them once in Florida. Very nice.’

‘Then it’ll be the chicken sandwich.’

‘I believe that is a possible option,’ Yuli confirmed. He turned to Roman. ‘Okay, Romesczu?’

His boyfriend shot him a quirky look. ‘So this is poverty. I knew there would be compromises. I shall have the salad. Do they do salad?’

***

‘So tell us something about yourself, Mister Davey,’ Willem asked, sipping on the straw leading down into his extra large coke.

‘Me? I thought this was supposed to be me sizing you guys up before taking the risk of signing you on to my label?’

Willem smiled blandly. ‘How do you know Herr At-vood?’

‘Herr At …? Oh, you mean Henry? That’s a long story. But we met at public school.’

‘Er … the public school … like a gymno?’ Yuli was puzzled.

‘No Yuli, “public school” is an odd-seeming way of describing what is in fact an elite private school in England. There’s an explanation, but it would take a history lesson and probably diagrams. Henry joined my school in Year 11: d’you have the same year numbers here?’

‘Yes we do,’ Willem said. ‘We’re Year 12, which is the final gymno year in this country. We do our Bacca — our Baccalaureate — and then move on to higher education. Of course up till a couple of years ago we would all have been conscripted into the army for two years, but our parliament abolished national service.’

‘Hmm, it’s all a year earlier than in England.’

‘Many of us just take a year out at this point,’ Willem responded. ‘So maybe army service was not such a bad idea. Yuli and Roman would have looked so pretty in uniform.’

Scoffing answered that comment. ‘Think of Roman’s hair!’ Yuli giggled.

Davey brought them back to the point. ‘So how about you guys? It’s a material question as far as I’m concerned.’

Yuli squeezed Roman’s hand under the table. ‘We were planning to go to study straight away at the National Conservatory, Roman and I. Do you think it would be a good idea to … er … defer our entry?’

Davey pursed his lips. ‘It might be, Yuli, depending on how things go in May.’

Roman perked up at this point. ‘And was our Red Elphberg at your school with you and Herr At-vood, Mister Davey?’

‘Rudi, you mean? Yes he was. He turned up in Year 12 and was not that popular when he arrived. I got into a fight with him on more than one occasion.’

Roman’s eyes widened. ‘You fought with our king! I hope you lost.’

‘It was a draw,’ Davey insisted. ‘He wasn’t a king at the time, just a bad-tempered and moody kid with a chip on his shoulder. Broody Rudi is what Henry called him.’

Willem shook his head. ‘Chip on his shoulder …?’

Roman giggled. ‘Cijp auf sener ramenij … we say here “a burning coal in his head”. I prefer your saying, though what is this “chip”?’ He raised an eyebrow as he took several fries from Yuli’s carton, examined and then chomped them.

‘Er … no idea. It’s the sort of question Henry is good at answering. You should ask him. So anyway, Henry and I went to the same university afterwards and we’ve stayed friends ever since.’

‘But you have become a famous media man and music … er … impresarij?’ Willem asked.

‘Impresario? I run a label and agency. I also have a studio in Spain. If things work out you’ll be spending some time there, I hope.’

The boys exchanged glances. ‘That is interesting,’ Willem responded, ‘but a lot of things have to happen first, yes? Such as getting into the Contest.’

Davey shook his head. ‘Not really, Willem. Thing is, my interest in Starcrossed has nothing to do with the Contest, win or lose. It’s the talent represented by Yuli and Roman that interests me and I don’t need the opinion of the united music-loving peoples of Europe on the matter. Which is why I have a contract in my bag for you guys to sign.’

Yuli and Roman looked at Willem. He nodded. ‘We will look at it and get back to you. Obviously we need it checked over by law people first. Which is not to insult you of course, Mister Davey.’

Davey leaned back in his seat and chuckled. ‘I’m not offended. I’m glad you’re being properly cautious.’

‘But one other thing,’ Roman added. ‘Willemczu is our agent, and we don’t want an arrangement that excludes him. He is our good friend and adviser.’

Davey’s brow contracted. ‘You can’t have two managers, boys. If you sign with me, you confide yourself to my guidance and management. After all, I’ll be footing the bill for developing your playlist, kids.’

Roman looked stubborn. ‘It is not that. I do not doubt that your professional opinion and knowledge are superior to Willem’s on the music trade. But we count on him for so much. How can you in London set up our gigs here in Rothenia and answer our concerns? We cannot do everything on the phone. I do not get it.’

Yuli nodded energetically. ‘I had the same concerns, Mister Davey.’

Davey quirked his mouth. ‘Ambush!’ he declared, then shrugged. ‘Okay, I’ll think it over. It’s important to you, so it has to be important to me too. Now, I think I could murder another chicken sandwich before I head off to Henry’s. It’s been too long.’

***

‘Sorry about the mess, Davey.’ Henry waved vaguely at the piles of paper strewn across what passed for his dining table.

‘We planned to go out for dinner anyway,’ Ed added supportively.

‘No need to worry about me,’ Davey shrugged. ‘I hit the airport McDonald’s with the boys. They can sure shove down the fries. What it is to be young and in possession of a digestive tract which could melt iron. I’d forgotten. It’ll be a week in the gym for me to get rid of what I just over-indulged in.’

‘We’re still going to head out. You can just sit and watch us eat.’

‘It’s a deal. I’ll nurse a drink while you do. So what is all this paper for anyway? Is this you on the track of a story?’

Henry gave a little nod. ‘I’ll tell you while you watch us eat.’

‘It’s a good story, believe me,’ Ed affirmed.

‘Are you gonna change out of uniform?’ Henry came back at him.

‘What? Tell me I have some clean civvies, and I might.’

‘Oops. Damn. I knew there was something I should have done.’

‘Sorry, Bounder,’ Ed sighed. ‘We’re hopeless.’

‘We’ll get that cleaner we’ve promised ourselves.’ Henry spread his hands apologetically. ‘It’s time.’

The three young men trotted down to the streets of the Fourth District. It was already dark outside, and a little chilly. So they welcomed the warmth of Strelzen’s first Thai restaurant, which had recently opened in a nearby back lane.

As they picked at their prawn crackers and sipped at their bottles of pale Asian beer, Davey asked about Henry’s investigation.

‘Ah well,’ came the reply, ‘it’s a way to make the Eurovision monster go away for a while. You know Yuli’s dad is the mayor of the Staramesten, right? He’s currently under police investigation because of allegations he was an informer for the Communist secret police while he was a student activist. Knowing the man, it seemed wildly unlikely to me even though there was documentation to back it up, so I began my own enquiries. It turned out there was a cottage industry in the old state security police in framing up liberal activists just before the May Rising for future blackmail schemes.’

‘Great! So he’s off the hook!’ Davey cheered. ‘I like happy endings, especially when they affect the wellbeing of one of my signings! When is Eastnet going on air with this?’

‘There’s a complication,’ Henry admitted. ‘With the help of a contact in the Ministry of State, I managed to locate the likely perpetrator. I can’t tell you his name, but it’s turned up in another Eastnet investigation into property speculation in the Martzfeld development, and that links in turn into possible corruption in the civic authorities of the Nuevemesten.’

‘You can’t sit on it, little babe. Radek Lucic needs to know he’s off the hook,’ Ed grunted.

‘Yeah, I know. But things are at a delicate stage. My colleagues are telling me that blowing the story now to Herr Lucic will likely set off the explosion prematurely and possibly compromise their corruption investigation. So I’m stuck … for now at least.’

Ed shook his head. ‘That’s not a good enough reason in my opinion.’

Davey agreed. ‘Look, Henry. I want a happy Yuli. I can see why he’s been so difficult to deal with since I first got to hear him. How about this? I have to go see the boy before I leave and iron out some complicated support arrangements for him. He knows that you and I are close. So how about I make an unattributed leak as to the way things are going at Eastnet. He’s bound to blab to his dad, which might at least give his old man some hope and lighten up things in the family?’

Henry looked troubled. ‘I won’t stop you doing that … but be careful Davey!’

The man scoffed. ‘You know how considered and tactful I’ve always been, Outfield. What’s to go wrong?’

Two unconvinced faces met his bland smile.

***

‘This is a weird sort of business meeting,’ Davey Skipper said with an amused smile.

‘Well Mister Davey,’ countered Willem Kral, ‘we can be sure you’re not hiding anything.’

Davey dangled his feet in the cold pool in the Spa tepidarium, Willem on one side and Yuli on the other. Roman had cried off, citing work issues. ‘Do you guys often come here?’

Willem grinned. ‘Of course. We are Strelsener boys and have been coming here since we are very small. It is a nice day and though maybe not warm enough to stay outdoors for long, it is a good cheap place to be on a Saturday. Have you been here before?’

‘As it happens, yes. A few times with Henry and Ed, who quite like it here too. There’s a pretty good caf√© as I recall: great ice cream in summer.’

‘Ah … summer,’ Willem mused. ‘Still a way off, but look out on the lawn, some very brave people are out there on chairs. The sun is strong for early March. Still, you do not need the tanning I see, so you could be a Strelsener. So Mister Davey, have you thought of our concerns?’

‘Yes, and you do have a point. I can’t be here all the time for you. To be honest I had rather hoped Starcrossed might be persuaded to come to me in London for a while, but I see that’s not really possible.’

Yuli shook his head vigorously. ‘Not a chance. Really no. There is school, our scholarships and … other things’

Davey gave Yuli a long, considered look before carrying on. ‘Then I have to get creative, guys, and that involves Willem. Kid, you impress me, you really do, and I am willing to take a risk on you. So I’m gonna offer you a short term contract with Skipper Associates.’

‘Paid?’ Willem smiled.

‘Yes, indeed, and a small initial budget to administer for the benefit of Starcrossed. Your office will be your … er … handij. You’ll check in regularly with reports and undertake any dogsbody work I require.’

‘Er … what is this “dogsbody”?’

‘Anything I require you to do outside school hours.’

‘Ah … and indeed outside my commitment to the family business?’

‘Sure. You can claim expenses for Starcrossed within reason. It may be a little difficult to arrange, but we have similar agents in Spain and America, so it’s just finding a way to do it in Rothenia.’

‘So how much?’

Davey rolled his eyes. ‘I appreciate the pragmatism. How about we go into town and buy a good handij for Skipper business, and we pay for it and for your contract, or however you organise things here.’

‘Good. Rotcom has the new Motorola. I like to get. And what is my retainer?’

‘Umm … nothing spectacular, Willem. Say 3,000kr a month?’

‘Oh …’

‘Okay 4,000kr. But that’s the limit.’

Willem grinned. ‘I was going to say “Oh, that’s generous” but I underestimated my value to you it seems.’

‘You’d better be worth it. And now Yuli, we need to begin talking strategy. I’m keen on recording a version of Edler Herz for a rapid release. Now normally I’d be pushing for a first album from you and Roman, you understand, but Eurovision and your baccalaureates complicate things. So Edler Herz is going to be an attention getter. The way I see it is that we get it out on release and on the airwaves by the middle of next month. If it takes off you’ll go into the Contest with recognition, assuming you find a new song and get through the national finals.’

‘And if we do not qualify?’

‘Then we have more time to make your first album something really special, I guess. To be honest this Eurovision business is a distraction we could all do without.’

Yuli shook his head. ‘Our good friends are counting on us. Your good friend Herr At-vood would not like we pull out now I guess, yes?’

Davey laughed at the thought. ‘He’d take a while to forgive me, that’s for sure. So do you have a potential number for Eurovision 2005? The CD you made had several seriously good tunes.’

Yuli mused a while and eventually replied ‘Not every song has the er … direkthet?’

‘Immediacy,’ supplied Willem.

‘Yes “immediacy” … the tune must strike the listeners on first hearing. Romesczu and I are working on it. Our … er … gig at the queen’s birthday party gave us some ideas.’

‘Keep at it then. Before I leave I’ll set up a recording session for Edler Herz here in Strelzen. I have names and contacts. So why don’t we shower and head back down into the city. Where do you want to do lunch? Not McDonald’s, please.’

Willem laughed. ‘Romesczu will meet us at Berwinckels.’

‘The ice cream parlour?’

Willem shrugged. ‘It does proper meals too. Romesczu likes it.’

Yuli nodded. ‘Though he confessed he liked the McDonald’s fries a lot, perhaps too much. He will get pimples and his beauty will be gone, I tell him. He just laughs.’

After dressing, they made their way down the hill to the tram terminus, the boys amusing Davey with their light-hearted school gossip.

‘I went to a very different school of course,’ he observed.

‘Ah yes! The English public school. All boys,’ Willem observed. ‘Very smelly no doubt. Girls … er … improve the environment, in many ways. All boys might be very much fun if you’re gay, I guess, wouldn’t you say, Yuli?’

Yuli looked thoughtful. ‘Not really,’ he concluded. ‘I would think that being gay might be worse in such a place. There would be no escape from your sexy thoughts, and really there would be no more boys there that are gay than in our gymno. Girls too are a great escape for us gay boys. We can talk without any … er …?’

‘Subtext?’ Davey suggested.

‘That is the word I think. Of course there may be gay boys who dislike the female sex on principle, but they are fools. I have many good friends who are female. Della and my Romesczu help and support each other very much.’

‘Yes,’ Willem laughed. ‘But I can’t get jealous. They just talk hair and clothes all the time.’

‘Mmm, yes,’ Davey mused, ‘and girls like your music and will buy it in great numbers.’ He changed the subject. ‘How’re things at home Yuli, with your dad? Any news?’

‘No, Mister Davey, why do you ask?’

‘Oh, I was talking to Henry, and he said something about his investigations moving on. I’m not sure but I think he said there was new evidence coming to light which looked like it might be good news for you.’

‘Really? Did he give details?’

‘No, but I got the impression that a story about it could soon break in the media here.’

Yuli perked up. ‘I hope it is so. Life at home has not been easy.’

***

Yuli looked across the dinner table and raised his glass of wine to his father. ‘That’s what he said, tatti. A story might soon break. He must know. He and Herr At-vood were at school together. They’re close friends.’

Radek Lucic looked thoughtful, but shrugged. ‘It may only be a rumour. I’m not getting my hopes up, son.’

‘But tatti!’ Roman chipped in. ‘Herr At-vood is a great journalist. He wouldn’t say something like that to Mister Davey unless it were true, and I wonder …’ The family table looked at him before he resumed, ‘… well, Herr At-vood can’t tell you these things directly, but he may have deliberately leaked them by way of Mister Davey.’

‘I hope you’re right, Romesczu,’ Radek Lucic smiled at him. ‘Anyway, let’s clear the table for your mutti. You and Yuli need to be up early and down to the Hofkapelle.’

The boys sank into bed together, kissed and embraced. Yuli smiled down at his lover. ‘You’re so beautiful, my Romesczu, and so kind. Tatti and mutti love you. And you survived your first encounter with the pair of them wandering round the house naked. It happens when it gets sunny.’

Roman giggled. ‘I didn’t stare. You think that’s how you’ll get to look when you’re his age?’

He was hit with a pillow. The pair wrestled and laughed, and once Yuli got Roman pinned under him they began a different sort of tussling. After Yuli climaxed they lay together a while, before Roman got up and wandered out naked to the loo. Yuli smiled as he heard him say good night to his mother, whom he had apparently encountered on the landing. It seemed that Roman had adapted to the Lucics and their lives fully and freely.

As they lay together waiting for sleep, Yuli murmured ‘We need a Song for Rothenia, leblen baby, and I’m getting worried.’

The reply came back in the dark ‘So why don’t we have our own mini-Eurovision in gymno, perform all our repertoire and see what our music group’s opinion is? We need more direct feedback than the queen’s party gave us, Yuli mine.’

Yuli thought about it, kissed the warm shoulder next to him, and said ‘My Romesczu is brilliant. I’ll text them all tomorrow.’

They snuggled happily and slept.

***

Henry stopped off at a tabakh, a news and cigarette kiosk, on his way up the Domshorja to work that Monday. He’d left Davey to Ed to amuse, and there was talk of their driving out to Kesarstejne and the tourist village in search of tackiness. Henry grabbed a Ruritanischer Tagblatt and struggled to open and read it as he carried on slowly up the hill, not helped by the breeze getting up from the city below as the fine March morning warmed up. He gave up and leaned against a lamp post poring over the three columns of the front page under the byline of Rolf Abentauer. The strapline read MARTZFELD CORRUPTION: FINGER POINTS AT NUEVEMESTEN.

Henry rolled up the paper and carried on up to the Dom Platz, where he took a bench in the early morning sunlight and read the article again. It was pretty damning and named names, one of which was the man who had attracted his interest over the Lucic frame-up, Vitalij Breczo. Breczo had been an amoral filing clerk in his early twenties at the ORD in the days of the communist regime, too low-ranking to attract the attention of the High Commission after the May Rising. But he had not been so low-ranking that he was unable to trade information and implicate his superiors by informing on them to the Commission. Teresza Monicec had a theory that he had used blackmail to lever his way into the burgeoning construction industry in the Maritz days. Breczo’s early days in construction had been dubious. There was what looked like an assassination attempt on him in 1991 which had severely injured a bystander. The police had made no arrests.

Three years later he was doing well enough to become a CDP donor and was in prime position to secure contracts when the Von Ebersfeld administration began the development of the Sixth District. Marek had a folder on Herr Breczo’s complex dealings with his fellow developers, though nothing tied him directly to the CDP administration, other than perfectly legal donations to the party. But Marek had another ‘social’ file which he had accumulated documenting party events, and picture after picture placed him by the side of the Baroness Staufer von Ebersfeld, sometimes with the baron and often not. It was Henry who pointed out that the association had begun just before Leon Gratzke was subjected to the smear campaign that included allegations of informing to the ORD. The baroness and Breczo’s business dealings became closely integrated not long after that.

Henry’s jaw clenched. It was time to move. The Supreme Court would give its verdict on Friday, the corruption scandal was breaking and it was time to clear Radek Lucic. His lips quirked: also it was also time to clear the decks for Eurovision 2005.

***

‘Yuli! Romesczu!’ Della Ortolan shouted above the hubbub in the dining hall. ‘Get to the study centre now!’

‘Wassup?’ Yuli queried.

‘Willem’s watching the TV. You gotta see it!’

Abandoning their trays, the two headed for the study centre.

‘Your tatti’s story’s broken big time,’ Willem said. ‘Look at the chyron.’

The Eastnet 24 screen was scrolling: LUCIC CASE COLLAPSES. BRECZO AND CDP IMPLICATED IN DIRTY TRICKS.

‘It’s Henry At-vood’ Willem added. ‘His feature’s on the news cycle. Should be around again in ten. Then there’s the other story about corruption in the Martzfeld development. It’s a complete shitstorm out there if you’re in the Nuevemesten administration.’

Roman looked deeply troubled. ‘My Vater? Is he involved?’

Willem shook his head. ‘He’s not been mentioned, but …’

Yuli gripped Roman’s hand. ‘But what?’

Willem continued, with a look of commiseration at Roman. ‘Your mother’s right in the middle of it, Romesczu. There’s police cars outside your house in the last bulletin.’

Sczaca!’ Yuli exclaimed, and pulled out his handij, speed dialing home. His father’s number was engaged, but he raised his mother. She was ecstatic.

‘You’ve seen the TV, leblen? There is justice. Try to get hold of a paper. Your tatti’s back at the Starostnija. His suspension’s been lifted without a hearing, he’s at his desk.’ There was a pause. ‘How’s Romesczu?’

Yuli cast a troubled glance at Roman, who was looking stunned. ‘I’ll get back to you, mutti. Kisses!’

***

Yuli walked a still pensive and distracted Roman back to Klara’s flat after school rather than heading home with Willem for the inevitable celebrations. He climbed the stairs to her door for only the second time. The lady was in, and had clearly been watching the TV. She looked up searchingly into Roman’s face, and pulled him down for a hug.

‘It’s terrible, Romesczu. I’m so sorry. But it’s been coming for so long.’

He looked at her questioningly. ‘You knew what was going on?’

She sighed and nodded. ‘Not everything of course, but yes. I didn’t go out of my way to overhear things, but when your mutta was … entertaining, I couldn’t help but hear some of what was being discussed.’

‘And Vater?’

The woman shook her head. ‘I don’t think he had anything to do with her scheming. When she and her associates were at the table with him, they kept off the subject. They only talked money when he wasn’t around.’

Yuli was bemused. ‘So the baron just closed his eyes to where all the money was coming from?’

Klara shrugged. ‘The baroness was a wealthy enough woman. It was easy enough for him not to ask questions, since money had always been plentiful for him after they married. If he ever suspected anything, it was deep down and he never pursued it. She gave him a beautiful home and a glittering social circle: just what his political career needed, he is … was very ambitious, you know. The Nuevemesten was only ever the first step for him. Let me get you boys something to eat.’

She got up and headed for her small but beautifully neat kitchen, while Yuli took Roman’s hand. ‘How’re you doing, leblen?’

Roman stared at the ladies’ magazines on the coffee table without seeing them. Finally he gave a little shudder and looked up at Yuli. ‘I need to go see Vater at least. Mutta too if she’s not in custody.’

Yuli smiled. ‘Such a good man, you are. Of course you should, your support will mean a lot at a time like this. Believe me, I know. I’d come with you, but something tells me my presence wouldn’t add to the occasion. I’ll stay here tonight, if it’s okay with Klara.’

‘Not much room in my bed, Yuli mine.’

‘There is if we hug each other tight. I’d like that.’

They watched TV with Klara and went to bed early, keeping tee-shirts and underpants on. Roman snuggled his head into Yuli’s shoulder. ‘We never got to do our mini-Eurovision. Sorry.’

‘You’re not to blame, Romesczu. But we’ll try again tomorrow, if you feel up to it. We can try out the sad songs.’

‘Sad songs won’t win us Eurovision, Yuli mine. It has to be happy and bouncy.’

‘Hmm. If you’re anything like me, leblen baby, you’ll bounce back, even if you’re not happy about things.’

Roman looked up at him. ‘I couldn’t see how you carried on like you did, when your tatti was in trouble. I think I know you better now.’

‘Good. We’ll get through this together, just like we got through my troubles. We’re strong.’

‘We are so. Love you.’

‘Absolutely.’

NEXT CHAPTER