Davey gripped Henry’s arm. ‘Fuck! Wow! It’s him! The man!’ He pointed down at the floor below, where the semi-final rehearsals were under way. A portly middle-aged man in a dark blue suit was wandering through the chaos, peering around himself, bemused.
‘So that’s him. The great Wogan. I thought he’d be wearing a cardigan.’
‘You’ve not met him yet?’
‘He’s not that popular with Jean-Paul Scavolini and his EBU posse, which includes Strelsenermedia at the moment. They actually freeze him out where they can.’
‘That’s ‘cos they don’t get the British sense of humour.’
‘Partly maybe, but it’s also because they’re sincerely idealistic about their weird little songfest, and can’t abide it being sent up quite as remorselessly as he does. The other national commentators love him though. The lady from France One was still tittering over his latest: “Every year I expect it to be less foolish, and every year it is more so”.’
Davey nodded. ‘It’s worth a titter. A basic truth about the whole exercise. What’ll he make of you?’
‘I already know. He did a feature for BBC Newsnight which Tomas sent me a link to.’ Henry put on a passable Irish accent: ‘“And this year’s addition to the presenters’ hall of fame is unexpected: a happy little leprechaun who can actually speak English”.’
Davey guffawed. ‘He said that? Awesome. Now you’re immortal.’
‘It’s better than what he called the Danish hosts a few years back: “Dr Death and the Tooth Fairy.”’
‘That was probably going a bit too far.’
‘The Danes certainly thought so.’
‘What’s he said about Hermina?’
‘Best she doesn’t know really. But I’ve been studying the great man’s 1998 turn as presenter. So cool. I’m aiming for that level of quizzical charm.’
‘Ah! Didn’t we watch that one in the sixth form? It was the year Dana International won! Huge victory for queerness. That was the year Europe made up for two world wars. Let’s hope the same spirit of open-minded acceptance is still around this year.’
Henry frowned. ‘Point is most of the audience didn’t realise Dana was born male, and there was nobody seeking to capitalise on it. The gayness of your duo is being made political in places that aren’t high on my list of gay tourist destinations.’
‘I think you’re worrying too much. The world has changed. If Eurovision can crown a transgender lady champion on the strength of her damn good song, my pair will waltz it: Starcrossed are cute, talented and genetically engineered to appeal to teenage girls and grandmothers.’
‘I suppose. As long as they keep their heads down.’
A new act took the stage below. Davey whooped with glee. ‘Fuck a duck! It’s Austria doing her thing. This is an utter Euro classic: a German mariachi band which livens up the song with the odd bit of alpine yodelling, all done while smiling fixedly. Where else but in Eurovision. What’s its chances?’
‘In this alternate musical universe, who knows? I’m sure there’s a reason it’s going to be in the semi-final; pray God it goes no further. I’d better get down there. Moricz wants me and Hermina on stage after the run-throughs are done. Have fun, Davey.’
‘I could buy a Steinway,’ Yuli observed. ‘Y’know, I probably will.’
Roman looked out across the quiet and empty Hofkapelle from where they were perched in the organ gallery. It was their increasingly frequent refuge. He chuckled. ‘You have nowhere to put it.’
‘Not yet, obviously. But sooner or later. In fact the way things are with my tatti, more likely sooner than later.’
Roman was quiet for a while before responding. ‘I think maybe you should talk to tatti. He’s more likely to see sense under your persuasion than my Vater is under my influence.’
‘How do you work that out, leblen baby?’
‘My Vater is trapped, Yuli. He’s lost any authority in the Nuevemesten, and the only reason he’s still in a job is because his rivals can’t agree who’s to replace him. Even if he wanted to settle the war over the new development, he couldn’t. But he can’t resign either, as that would be seen to be confessing to crimes he didn’t commit.’
‘I hadn’t thought of that. You have quite some brain in that head of yours. Between you and Willemczu I seem to have found two clever guides to life and the universe. I’m pretty dumb in that respect.’
Roman frowned that suggestion down. ‘You’re being unfair to yourself, leblen. So much of your brain is committed to your music other things just pass you by.’
‘Maybe. But I tell you what. Even though we’re besieged by hormonal girls, a hostile homophobic press and the demands of national duty, my mind is still thinking of tunes whether I want to or not. Hang on baby, it’s time I warmed up Meister Hildebrandt here. I’ve been thinking of a suite of music that might just turn into lieder which would nicely fit the register of a tenor voice like my Romesczu’s. I still need to find the words, but the tunes I have. Let me play Julius Lucic Opus No 1 through for you.’
Yuli did, Roman sitting beside him on the bench. When the rolling chords had faded out, he hugged Yuli’s arm. ‘That’s wonderful! I know where it all came from too.’
‘You really are a clever boy. Go on, tell me.’
‘It’s from our trip down the River Arndt. I could hear the rush of the weirs, the long golden stretches through the forest, even the floating bar under the T55, I swear.’
‘What, and Krista booting that twat into the river, and Willemczu half-drowning?’ They laughed for a while. ‘But you’re right baby mine. That’s exactly it. I’m calling it the “Song of the River”.’
‘Maybe “Songs”. I can have a go at putting together lyrics.’
‘Really? That would be so awesome.’
It turned out they had an audience. They turned as scuffling steps came up the loft stairs from below. It was Herr Pelikan.
‘So Julius, I see that not even the power of Eurovision can stifle your superabundant creativity. That was new wasn’t it?’
‘Yes sir, sorry if we’re disturbing you.’
‘Not at all. There are times when I like to hide out here too. I imagine that’s what you’re doing: hiding here.’
‘We are sir,’ Roman confirmed.
‘That’s a sad commentary on things. I’m sorry about that, but it’ll all be over by Sunday … or at least I assume so.’
Herr Pelikan sat himself down and considered the two boys. ‘I’m sure – indeed I know – you two are getting good commercial advice. But commercial advice is necessarily about money and marketing, and you two have a very marketable talent. It will push you one way, but the point is: is that the way you want to go?’
Yuli met Roman’s eyes before he responded. ‘We don’t think it is, sir. It was fun getting clubs full of kids like us to dance and sing along, even for my shy Romesczu. But we’re happiest here, under these vaults. We’re musos, and that’s a fact. Not wanting to be culturally snobbish and all.’
Roman nodded in agreement. ‘Our label manager, Herr Skipper, has begun wanting to talk about tours and venues in Britain and America once the Contest is over. He thinks we’re another Live Action.’
Herr Pelikan shook his head. ‘I quite like the group, but there’s not much in common with you. You two’re unique, they’re just the best example of a formula.’
‘You listen to pop music, sir?’
‘Tsk. I feel patronised. You should meet my vinyl collection one of these days. So, what do you want to do after the Contest is over?’
Yuli replied for them. ‘We want to stick to our plan and register with the National Conservatory. It’s the best for us. Romesczu needs the voice tuition and I need the technical training in keyboard and composition, because when I think about it, it’s the composition I most enjoy.’
‘Then my dears, that is what you should do.’
Roman shook his head. ‘Simple as that, sir?’
‘No, obviously not. But maybe you can manage people’s expectations.’
‘How’s that, sir?’ Yuli asked.
‘Let’s think this through boys, shall we?’
Ed Cornish gave Henry a big hug. ‘Go out there and kill them,’ he urged.
‘Ooff! Isn’t that the sort of thing you’re paid to do?’
‘I was being metaphorical.’
‘I got it. Sorry, nerves.’
‘You got through the national heats okay.’
‘Yes, but I was just being an announcer. This time I’m a performer too. It’s different, and when it comes down to it, it’s all on me. Hermina wears a dress well but she has the wit and liveliness of a cornflakes packet, and her English sucks. So I have to lead. I’m gonna fuck up, I know I am.’
‘Wow. You have stage fright.’
‘No, I have nerves. And you seem pleased.’
‘Hey! Unfair. It’s just a surprise to find you’re mortal, that’s all. It’ll be alright, little babe, don’t worry.’
Henry sighed and rallied himself to master the butterflies occupying his stomach for the first time that he could recall since he had given a school assembly back at the age of seventeen. With a hug he absolved Ed of the unjust charge and left their flat.
He took a slow walk from Osragasse to the Strelzen Arena, just to gather himself. Tonight’s audience was assembling, and a laser show was lighting up Festungstrasse. Henry stood on a street corner and for some minutes watched the smiling crowds gather and queue for the entries, many of them in fancy dress and draped with national flags. There would be 15,000 of them in the arena that evening for the semi-final and he would be down the front, orchestrating the whole show. He let out a long breath. Show time.
The giant screens suspended in the Arena lit up with the pre-recorded video introduction to the semi-final. The realtime Henry and Hermina were with Moricz, about to leave the production box.
‘Here we go friends,’ said Moricz. ‘The reaction to this little piece of knockabout will tell us whether we judged it right or not. It’s four minutes runtime, so get yourself smartly out the back and pick up the car. Try not to trip up, Henry.’
On the screen, the two presenters were in evening dress with Henry at the wheel of his own car, driving through the Rothenian countryside, an aerial camera following them through various scenic shots of the sensational Taveln valley, passing a large number of its historic monasteries, castles and mansions. But the car slowed, jerked and stopped dead, steam theatrically escaping from under the bonnet, a trial to which his little runabout had not actually ever subjected Henry.
Hermina gave the screen Henry a reproachful look and silently tapped her watch. He slapped the steering wheel. ‘Oh for heaven’s sake! Wouldn’t you believe it! Now of all days.’ They got out and Henry scanned up and down the road. ‘Thousands of international guests in town, and here we are out in the sticks.’
‘Don’t tell me Hendriczu, you’ve left your handij in your office too.’
‘Er … ‘fraid so, Hermina. We’re not exactly dressed for walking it either. I told you those heels are too high. Also they mean you tower over me on stage.’
Hermina tossed her head with annoyance, a gesture prominent in her personal repertoire which fortunately involved no words. Henry looked up the road, and brightened. He waved at an approaching big black car, which pulled up. The tinted window rolled down and the face behind it looked a question. The audience in the Arena erupted.
‘Need a lift?’
‘Er … sure. We really need to get to Strelzen fast, if you’re headed that way. Hey, don’t I know you?’
‘Dunno. Maybe. I know you and I know the lady though. It’s Hermina Beruskova. I’m a fan. Hey Hermina, could you autograph this for my wife … she’s a fan too. Well? Hop in.’
Henry sat next to the driver, casting sidelong suspicious glances. The man at the wheel carried on. ‘So what’s the hurry to get to Strelzen? … odd route to take to get there from the Strelsenermedia office by the way.’
‘You honestly don’t know? Don’t have much of a clue about what’s going on in Rothenia these days do you? It’s the Eurovision Song Contest, guy. Without any doubt the biggest ever event in our recent history.’
The driver sniffed. ‘Some might disagree. But I really did appreciate Svetlana last year. So what’s our chances this time?’
‘Depends on the votes, I guess. Make sure you get your phone vote in. The number’ll be on the screen.’
‘Hmm. Not sure mine will be allowed somehow.’
The black car on the screen crested the Spa Hills and headed down into the city. Meanwhile the realtime Henry and Hermina were in identical clothes and in an identical car which nosed on to Festungstrasse two blocks up, and the camera switched to the street as it slowly headed to the lasers and crowds at the Arena front.
The screen cut back to the recorded Henry in the front of the screen car, who said cheerfully to the red-headed man next to him at the wheel ‘Well thanks! You’re a lifesaver. Can I give you something y’know, for the gas?’
‘The man shook his head. ‘I’d be offended. Now out you get, and Henry …?’
‘Don’t muck this up.’
The external camera switched the scene on the big screens to the live car and Henry and Hermina emerging on to the pavement to huge cheers and volleys of camera flashes at the Arena doors. They had been wired with radio mics, which caught Henry’s close up comment to Hermina as they waved the car goodbye. ‘Nice guy. Swear I knew him from somewhere.’
‘Henry, you are hopeless,’ Hermina replied with a well-practiced toss of the head and a moue of frustration, which Moricz had determined was the expression most natural to her. It seemed to work. There was laughter as well as cheering in the Arena audience.
Acknowledging the crowds they walked up the red-carpeted steps, through the doors and into the glittering arena beyond, which erupted as they headed through the lanes between the enclosures and then up onto the stage. The sight caught Henry’s breath. This was the first time he’d seen the Arena full and the cavernous space lit up with the futuristic light show Strelsenermedia had commissioned for the semi-final and final.
As the roar slightly subsided, Henry held up his hand. ‘Good evening! Friends! Welcome to the semi-final of the 50th Eurovision Song Contest! Had some problems getting here, but a very nice man helped us out with a lift. Didn’t catch his name.’
‘KING RUDI!’ roared back from the crowd. Henry cupped his hand to his ear, and back louder from the amped up audience came ‘KING RUDI!’
Henry mimed shock quite well. He turned to his co-presenter. ‘Hermina! Why didn’t you SAY something. People must have taken me for an idiot!’ He grinned and winked at the camera. ‘Bet you’re wondering how much he charged us for the appearance!’
‘So Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen! Dobre Vesser! Welcomm na Rothenija und den Eurovisij Pejvecij Czertamesczen! Over to you Hermina to explain what’s going to happen.’
The lady smiled and commenced in a business-like manner. ‘Here are the rules. There are twenty six performances in the semi-final and within the ten minutes of tele-voting you will have the chance to decide what are the ten best performances and contestants tonight. They will go to the grand final to join the contestants that qualified from the 2004 final. Now you will see the number on the screen by which you can vote, and we would like to remind you that you cannot vote for the country you are calling from.’
Henry took over with the official language other than English: ‘Donc. Ecoutez! Il y a vingt six chansons ce soir …’ And the show got under way.
Yuli and Roman had chosen to watch the semi-final at Klara’s. She had produced three huge bowls of fresh popcorn as an inducement.
‘We gotta cheer for this one, Klara. Number Five. This is our friend Kaža and his mate Valters,’ Yuli instructed.
She checked the pullout from the newspaper. ‘Not very good odds on this song.’
‘You’re betting on them!’
The lady smiled a little impishly. ‘Only in my head. It’s a little competition we have in the Parliamentary Comptrollers Office. I could make a lot of theoretical money if you two boys win for Rothenia. The winner actually gets a fully paid meal for two at the Flavienerhof, with wine.’
Roman giggled. ‘We’ll do our best in the circumstances. I thought Kaža’s song went quite well in the rehearsals, whatever your TV critic says. A gentle rock ballad.’
The Latvian duo were on tall bar stools strumming guitars. ‘They’re not actually playing the guitars,’ Yuli explained to her. ‘See, they’ve left the stools and the guitars but they’re still playing. Weird. Oh look! I like this. They’re signing the lyrics as they sing.’
‘Are they deaf, then?’
‘No, no. Though maybe they have friends who are. Nice inclusive gesture, I think. That went well. Go Kaža!’
Klara nodded to herself. ‘Very nice, very nice. But I think my vote is still going to Moldova.’
‘The nice young singer brought his grossmutta on the stage with him. He seemed to be very fond of her.’
Yuli shook his head. ‘All she did throughout the song was sit on her rocking chair in ethnic costume.’
Roman demurred. ‘ She did get up at the end and bang her skins, whirling round and round. I thought it was impressive for a woman of her age, whatever it was.’
‘She must have been at least sixty, dear,’ Klara agreed. ‘I couldn’t work out what the language was though.’
‘Mostly Romanian at a guess,’ Roman stated. ‘But there was the odd English phrase to pay tribute to the rock inspiration: I caught: “You are real drum machine …” He must love his grossmutta.’
The panoramic interval shot was now showing aerial vistas of the Glottenberh Massif, grazing goats on alpine pastures and weatherbeaten shepherds in Rothenian peasant smocks and the broad-brimmed hat of the country, trimmed with eagle feathers.
‘Herr-Atvood’s doing the voice-over for this one, Klara,’ Yuli observed. ‘You can tell he’s not too impressed. Number Six. Monaco. France’s little sister. You can tell from the song, which is a French hand-me-down. Nice voice though.’
‘I like the dress,’ Roman observed. ‘Did you hear that. We’re in for a run of chanteuses, he says. Herr At-vood is a lot more fun than those boring old RTV announcers.’
‘Europe! Start voting now!’ Henry shouted. The recaps of the twenty-six songs began on the huge screens above him as indeed all Europe took to the keypads of its phones. Henry and Hermina went off stage and liaised with Moricz, his assistants and the official EBU monitor. Apparently everything was going well. They went back out ready to resume their hosting duties as the video clips came to an end. Hermina urged Europe on to vote and a new video began on the refitting and rebuilding of the Arena and the Strelsenermedia preparations in Strelzen. Finally the screen faded out and a big gold countdown took its place.
‘5-4-3-2-1. Europe, voting has ended!’ Hermina cried.
‘That wasn’t so hard,’ Henry smiled. ‘A big thank you to you all. And now as our Eurovision auditors check the figures and determine which ten of our acts tonight will compete here on Saturday in the grand final, we have a special interval act on this year’s Eurovision theme of Renewal.’
The stage was taken over for a while with some extremely athletic dancers and at the conclusion Hermina took the audience through the fifteen existing finalists, who would be joined by the ten winning semi-finalists.
At last the podiums were in place and ten Rothenian ladies with long blond hair and high cheekbones holding bouquets lined up along the stage.
‘See everyone!’ Henry beamed. ‘Here are the all-important envelopes. You can tell they’re important, see, ‘cos they’re gold. Now how’ll we do this Hermina? Here, you take this and I’ll hold the stack.’
‘Yes! I open envelopes. Well here it is. And our first finalist! First time contestant too. It is Moldova!’
The hubbub and whoops died down. ‘And here yes it is. Congratulations to Israel!’ And so it went on until the very last.
‘Here is last one. And it is well, would you believe … yes, it is not over for … LATVIA!’
The finalists spilled on to the stage waving national flags to receive bouquets, followed by the others.
‘So that is it, ladies and gentlemen. A great night here in Strelzen, and we have ten fine contestants to join Saturday’s line-up. Thank you and congratulations to all. So it’s good night and Dobre Noc from me Henry Atwood and from Hermina Beruskova. See you soon!’
‘Fuck, I survived!’ Henry loosened his bow tie as he joined the after-party for the production team.
‘You did a bit more than that, boss,’ beamed Marek Toblescu. ‘Fuck, look! Watch the credits on the monitor. That’s me! Assistant producer. Awesome. ‘
Will Vincent steered himself through the press, and handed over a flute of champagne to Henry.
‘Well, little Henry, here you go. Went off brilliantly as far as I’m concerned and we’re waiting for the reviews now. Hermina! Darling! I have this very large bouquet just waiting for you, not to mention the champagne. Elegantly and beautifully done. We’re proud of you.’
The lady presenter simpered and received the plaudits of the room. Henry in the meantime was collared by Moricz zu Geleberh.
‘The voting sorted out a lot of duds for us, Henry.’
‘Hmm. Goodbye and better luck next year to Belarus and Poland. So, let’s have the verdict.’
Moricz chuckled. ‘You pushed the envelope with the English ad-libbing in the intervals, Henry. But it was amusing and of course fluent and confident English spoken by a native, something Eurovision so rarely gets. The great Wogan is near sputtering with astonishment. He’s asserting you’re modelling yourself on his turn at Birmingham in 1998 and is claiming copyright.’
‘He’s right of course.’
‘He wants to meet. The King of Charm is charmed by you. I said yes. We could hardly refuse.’
‘Thanks. Make a booking for the Kirchehaus then. It might impress him.’
‘The Red Elphberg’s little turn in front of the cameras has set the world’s media alight.’
Henry nodded. ‘Our Rudi needed to lighten his somewhat gloomy profile in the press, and now everyone has discovered he can smile and crack a joke. Also he’s put himself out for his country. It can’t be bad. All it cost us was a donation to the Elphberg charitable Stiftung.’
‘He wouldn’t have done it for anyone else, Henry. It’s what’s kept Hermina off your back this week. She’s been less and less happy with the effortless way you take the lead, and more and more puzzled why people find you amusing and relatable. But to find you’re in with the Elphberg-Peachers! She’s cowed, definitely cowed.’
‘Whew. One down. One to go. I’ll try not to think of what can go wrong on Saturday. Dress rehearsals set for tomorrow afternoon? I suppose we need to be there for the whole thing?’
‘You do. The stage team still has some concerns about your opening act.’
‘They are not alone in that, Moricz. We move up to a different level on Saturday.’
‘Kaža did it!’
‘Er … and Valters.’
‘Yeah, yeah, Romesczu. It’s fantastic. See how happy they were when their place in the final was announced? I thought they were going to kiss in front of the cameras.’
‘That would have raised fairly pointless questions, wouldn’t it. Since they’re both straight as far as we know.’
Yuli grimaced. ‘Well, we know all about pointless questions about our sexuality, don’t we? It’s no one’s business.’
‘No it isn’t, Yuli leblen. But whether we are or aren’t gay seems to be more important to the media than our music.’
‘Pisses me off. But maybe Kaža and Valters have offered us a way out.’
‘Huh? What d’you mean?’
‘We need to talk about it tomorrow, Romesczu.’