As Henry walked through the Fourth District that Friday it occurred to him that something had changed in his life, and maybe not for the better. People on the other side of the road were staring at him and one or two were surreptitiously pointing. He checked his flies reflexively. From time to time over the past year or two he had been aware of being recognised in public from his news and current affairs programmes with Eastnet, but this was more intrusive. He came uneasily to the conclusion that this was fame, and his life may well have irretrievably changed.
As he dutifully waited for the green man at a crossing on Festungstrasse South, three small girls with their mums stood beside him. They stared up at him, looked at each other and giggled behind their hands. He gave an internal sigh and beamed down at them. This was his future: he had become public property.
‘Are you Herr At-vood?’ said one of the young mums. ‘We loved you on TV last night. So funny. What’s the king like really?’
Fighting the urge to make an inappropriate joke, Henry replied ‘Taller than you’d think. But other than that, very nice.’
The young mums laughed. ‘We can’t wait for tomorrow. Those Starcrossed boys are wonderful. We have their CD.’
‘I’m not allowed to have favourites you know,’ Henry confided. ‘But they’re fine kids. They deserve the best.’
The green man gave him his cue, and Henry crossed the road into the warren of lanes that was backstreet Sudmesten. His parents lived in an apartment belonging to the Anglican chaplaincy in a block facing on to one of the barren dusty squares which were a characteristic of this part of suburban Strelzen, which had been largely rebuilt after the war. He was pretty sure that his mum and dad had the resources to buy their own property, but his mother said they had no need to move and weren’t ready to commit to an investment property. She bridled at the idea that she might be thought near enough to retirement to be concerned at the prospect.
Both his parents were in, his father as usual at work on his Sunday sermon. Saturdays he generally took off. His mother was on her way to a dental appointment, and gave him a hasty kiss before telling him his performance in the semi-final had made her proud. His brother Ricky was now calling him ‘mini-Wogan’, apparently.
‘I have lunch with the man himself today at the Kirchehaus.’
‘Really, darling? Tell him of my undying devotion to him. Now I must go. A filling is loose. I hope all goes well tomorrow. Make sure Starcrossed win.’
His amused father poured him a coffee as he added his congratulations. ‘This is a new Henry to us, dear. You’re becoming a celebrity.’
‘So it seems. At the least it’ll keep me on a career level with Davey, which is important to my self-esteem. Anyway, why I’m here is about June and my civil partnership with Ed. What’re the chances of a blessing at St Edwards afterwards.’
His father pursed his lips. ‘In England at the moment none whatsoever, but the diocese of Europe is more liberal, or to put it another way, unable to impose any hard line. I’ve not been asked for one to date, but if I were, I’d say yes. So is this you asking?’
‘Then I’ll pencil it in for the day after the actual union. That okay son?’
‘Absolutely. Ed and I thank you. Now I’d better get over to the Arena, a lot of people are waiting to see me strut my stuff on the stage.’
Yuli was perched on the back of a sofa, idly watching some of the final rehearsals on the big wall screens in the backstage Green Room, as technicians and security were at work around him. He whooped and went to hug Kaža when he saw him and his partner approach through the workmen. He was hugged back. ‘So we are head to head tomorrow, Yuli. Valters, this is Yuli from Starcrossed.’
‘Hello,’ Valters greeted him. ‘So you boy who took Kaža to get drunk that day in club on wicked Wejg. Lucky Kaža. We thought we lost him.’
‘He said you were … er … doing something else, or you could have come too.’
‘It is alright. We went back to Wejg later and met lots of pretty ladies,’ Kaža assured him. ‘We were very naughty.’
‘Er … glad to hear it. So congratulations with the semi-final. Roman and I have just recorded our backing track for tomorrow. So we are all done for the day. He’s already gone home.’
Valters gave him a speculative look and changed the subject. ‘You have label, yes?’
‘Er yes, we do.’
‘You give us introduction, maybe?’
‘Umm …’ Yuli was a little taken aback. ‘If you win tomorrow, I expect lots of labels will be interested in signing you.’
‘I guess so, maybe. But it nice to have name and phone number. So can you?’
Yuli evaded the bullet. ‘You can ask him yourself, Valters. His name is David Skipper and he’ll be in the Green Room tomorrow with us. I’ll point him out to you.’
‘See, Vals!’ Kaža said. ‘I told you Yuli is good friend. Thanks guy, we go off now and worry. Okay? See you.’
As he was looking after the pair, feeling a little bothered, a cheery Rothenian voice came from behind. ‘Hey Yuli! How’s it going? I don’t want to put pressure on you, but the king told me to tell you that if you aren’t a credit to Rothenia tomorrow, you’d better emigrate.’
‘Oh! Herr At-vood! Thank you for the gentle encouragement.’
The man shot him a quizzical look. ‘You okay? Has this homophobic nonsense got to you? Just ignore it kid.’
‘Romesczu and I are trying to do just that, sir. It was Mister Davey’s advice too. But it does bother us, along with some other things too.’
‘Fame sucks, sir. It’s not just that people think they know you, but they think you’re there to be exploited if they do know you.’
‘Tell me about it. It’s coming home to me too after this Eurovision business. It’s the price we pay for being talented, Yuli. Sorry. That came out rather immodest.’
Yuli chuckled. ‘I suppose it’s true enough, though Willemczu would point out that my talents are concentrated on a very narrow bandwidth, unlike yours, sir.’
‘You’re a wise young fellow, Yuli Lucic. It seems to me you’re psyching yourself up to some sort of decision. Should I keep my curiosity to myself? Is this the sort of decision that is going to give my old friend Davey a nasty headache?’
Yuli shrugged. ‘I hope not, sir. We like Mister Davey a lot. He’s been great to us.’
‘Well, anything I can do, let me know Yuli.’ Suddenly Henry looked panicked. ‘Hey! You’re not thinking of pulling out tomorrow at the last minute?’
‘Oh no, sir. Nothing quite that dramatic.’
It was the emphasis on ‘quite’ that later recurred to Henry’s mind as he tossed around brooding in bed that night, seeking a sleep that was reluctant to come.
So the great day dawned. Henry slept late, and emerged from their bedroom to find Ed browsing the papers.
He indicated the coffee jug. ‘It’s fresh. Interesting reading this morning. You’ll find the odds are stacking heavily towards a win for Rothenia or Greece. The Ruritanischer Tagblatt’s got a good article on the nasty sniping against our lads in the right wing East European press. Their homosexuality is being made an issue in certain places.’
‘Odd, since they’ve actually said nothing at all about their sexuality.’
‘Yeah well, one mass-circulation Polish rag has really gone to town. They’ve even cottoned on to the fact their manager is gay and sorta implied that he and they … y’know. Very sordid.’
‘Gah! That’d piss off Davey if he ever found out.’
‘He doesn’t know Polish does he?’
‘Not that I know of, so his equanimity is probably secure for now unless you tell him.’
Ed grinned to himself. ‘Where is he anyway?’
‘He’s really fond of those Sudmesten kids, Yuli and Roman’s friends, especially the Kral boy. They’ve all got backstage passes for tonight and they’re joining him and Starcrossed in the Green Room enclosure. He’s making a day of it with them. So he’s gone to town, as he does: limousines, dinner in Ribauds and evening dress. Sorta like a mega-prom.’
‘Hmph. What’re we going to do to celebrate the end of it all, apart from the usual? We’re a bit constrained by the demands of our civil partnership ceremony on our joint resources. Maybe we could run the Arndt? Those kids had a fine and cheap old time on the river, so you said, and it would be definitely getting away from it all.’
‘The problem is that it wouldn’t be. We’d be bobbing on the river with hundreds of Rothenians who’ll all want to tell me their opinions of my performance tonight. Escape these days means remote wildernesses or some country where nobody knows me.’
‘Could go back to Blighty, where you’re still pretty much unknown. Though I suppose a lot of Brits will be watching the Song Contest tonight, and you might just have registered on the national consciousness. Wasn’t there a piece on you in the Radio Times: “An Englishman in Euroland” or something like that?’
‘There was indeed. Mum had it framed. The Radio Times used to be one of her favourite magazines when we were kids. So maybe we’d better give England a miss for now. I’ll give it some thought. Okay, the new dinner jacket’s in its bag, awaiting me. Nothing but the best for Eurovision. Wish me luck.’
‘Wow … I mean, Krista.’ Bolslaw’s gob had been utterly smacked.
‘Down boy, completely out of your league.’ Willem was watching the quite remarkable sight of the slim, athletic and aesthetic form of Krista Martinovica in sheer dress and heels arm in arm with his Della, also pretty effectively encased in expensive fabric, undulating in front of them along Königstrasse. Eyes other than theirs were following the pair as they all headed down to Ribauds.
‘Why do women carry clutches on nights out,’ Bolslaw speculated abstractedly.
‘Della tells me it’s because they have to keep at hand those two feminine essentials: makeup and tampons, and shoulder bags just don’t cut it.’
‘Makes sense. We have pockets of course.’
‘That where you keep your tampons and makeup, fathead?’
‘What?’ Bolo came back into focus. ‘Don’t be a tit, Kral.’
‘Focus, Bolo. We have an interesting night ahead of us, and for the benefit of Mister Davey it has to be conducted in English. Do you still think you have a chance with Krista?’
‘Er … probably not. I gave up the morning run. Wasn’t getting me anywhere, though I have to say, it may be partly responsible for my success in getting into this size of jacket.’
Willem gave him a lookover. ‘Not too bad, actually. You’ve definitely graduated to stocky and left somewhat-obese behind you. Your mother must have had difficulty recognising you.’
Bolo shrugged. ‘Something very weird there. When I came down stairs just now and into the kitchen she sorta …’
‘Well, it’s odd, but I’d swear she had something in her eye. Y’know, a tear.’
Willem took his friend round his shoulder as they walked. ‘I imagine that having seen one after another of her sons heading to the police barracks, it was a change to see one of them going into a law court for another purpose than a conviction for petty crime. Bolo, your mum’s proud of you, and for good reason.’
‘What? Making legitimate money out of crime? Makes a change for a Wyzinskij I suppose.’
‘And it’s more likely to impress Krista than courting a coronary by jogging.’
‘Don’t let your hopes rekindle, Bolo. I warned you. Well here we are on Neueplaz, and tonight it’s not McDonald’s. There’s Mister Davey outside the restaurant.’
Davey Skipper was smiling broadly, standing in the canopied entrance to Ribauds and remarkably elegant in evening dress and white cashmere scarf. ‘Hi kids! My, do you look grown up and you’re right on time. Took something to get us a pre-show table tonight, but I have friends with weight in this establishment. Ever been here?’
The four teenagers surveyed the clipped box bushes laced with lights, the liveried and attentive door staff and the candle lights behind the plate glass frontage.
‘No, Mister Davey,’ Willem answered. ‘Not me. How about you girls?’ Krista admitted having being there for her sixteenth birthday, and Della owned up to being there for her parents’ twentieth wedding anniversary.
‘My brother Mikhel worked in the kitchens washing dishes for two weeks,’ Bolo confessed.
‘Only two weeks?’ Willem queried.
‘It was something of a record for him. He was sacked after two pig carcasses went missing. I’m not sure how he got them out of the freezer, but his bedroom reeked of them for a week.’
Davey stared and the girls shook their heads.
‘Bolo has an interesting family background,’ Willem contributed. ‘So Mister Davey, shall we go in?’
‘Sure. Our table should be ready. I assume you all have permission for the use of alcohol from your parents? Good. This way, kids.’
The restaurant was packed, but Davey’s palace connections had secured a very fine table under the portrait of Monsieur Ribaud, the nineteenth-century founder of the restaurant which still bore his name. The adjacent table was occupied by some of the BBC production crew. They rose to greet Davey, who knew one of them from his work with Live Action, and he was well-known to the others by reputation. Willem seated Della with all the natural courtesy of a Rothenian male, and as Bolo dithered Davey did the same for Krista.
‘This is fun,’ Della beamed around her. ‘I feel immensely sophisticated.’
Davey smiled. ‘And you look it too, Miss Ortolan. So kids, whatever happens in the Arena, it’ll be a great night ahead of us. What’re the chances for a win for Rothenia?’
Della and Krista were enthusiastic about the chances of Starcrossed, Bolo protested he had no idea. Davey could not but notice that Willem was unusually reticent. His antennae twitched.
Henry Atwood passed into a state of resignation about the evening ahead of him around five o’clock, in the course of the final conference in the Arena.
‘Why so hangdog, Hendriczu?’ Moricz was looking at him quizzically as he wound up the meeting. ‘The semis went admirably.’
Henry shook his head. ‘Put it down to essential nerves, Moricz. It’s a side effect of being wound up and tense as I ponder the abyss that lies ahead of me.’
‘We’ve got your back, Henry. Will, me, Marek and all the guys. It’s a great crew you assembled. The EBU adores you and the public loves you. All will be well.’
Henry sighed. ‘This ennui is why so many in our profession sniff chemical assistance up their noses. Not that I’m tempted, but it’s a dark and lonely wait before the adrenalin kicks in. I need to go and brood somewhere.’
Moricz offered Henry a sympathetic look. ‘Go brood then, but everything’s as ready as it ever can be, and we’ve got your back. Stage calls at seven, okay? Your new DJ is hanging ready in your dressing room.’
Henry mooched around the huge empty space of the Arena, relatively quiet as yet apart from the occasional shout from a member of the stage crew, and a distant hammering. The front enclosures nearest the stage area were going to be packed with standing enthusiasts, the ones who could be counted on to dance, wave flags, paint their faces and cheer. That’s where Ed and the hard core Eurovision fans amongst the officer corps of the Guards Division would be stationing themselves. Behind and more elevated was a tier of large, seated enclosures in which Teresza Monicec and her Natasha had places in payment of Henry’s debt. Henry had obtained for them the very best seats, front and centre.
Further back and higher still were long galleries reaching up to the roof, amongst which were several VIP boxes in which his parents would be seated, as also other family guests, like the Staroman and his wife, Yuli’s parents. The Baron Staufer would be there too somewhere, but not adjacent to the Lucics. Henry believed he would be in with the EBU executives and corporate sponsors, including a Peacher contingent. Besides these and the home audience millions more would be tuning in across Europe and the world beyond. Henry suddenly felt an urgent need for the toilet.
Festungstrasse South had been closed by the police to general traffic, but Davey’s limousine pulled into the access lane and was waved on by security. Lasers lit up the sky. Crowds surged behind the barriers, and Davey and the Sudmesten kids emerged on to the red carpet to cheers from the excited Eurofans and volleys of camera flashes. Davey was recognised and called over by journalists from several English-language celebrity mags and channels. He bestowed a few off-the-cuff interviews to camera. Della and Willem also got interviewed under the misapprehension that they must be celebrities too.
‘I could get used to this,’ Della observed to Willem as they went inside under the canopy. ‘Arrange it, darling.’
They joined the VIP line being ushered through the rapidly-filling arena to the backstage area. They found the Green Room thronged, though it was as yet over half an hour before the acts began. Yuli and Roman were already there, kneeling up and over their sofa area and chatting in English to a couple of girls from the Swiss entry in a neighbouring booth.
‘Guys!’ They whooped as they turned to see their friends. Hugs followed.
‘Isn’t this great?’ Yuli beamed. ‘Not the performing thing, I mean. But people here are so nice.’
‘Yeah,’ Bolo grunted. ‘Just wait till the voting begins.’
‘You look cool, Bolo’ Roman observed to him with a smile. ‘Nice jacket.’
‘It even fits,’ Krista chipped in. ‘It wouldn’t have two months ago. The law has been good for him.’
‘You think?’ Bolo responded, a little hopefully.
‘So, are you ready?’ Willem asked.
‘As we’ll ever be,’ Yuli replied.
‘And are you still going to …? S’okay. Mister Davey still knows no Rothenian,’ Willem said with a sidelong glance towards Davey Skipper, who was organising drinks from the obliging catering crew.
‘Yes, we are.’
‘There’ll be consequences. But we’re with you guys to the end, you know that.’
‘Then we’re glad you’re here. Look! It’s Herr At-vood.’
Henry and several of the Strelsenermedia crew appeared and he stood up on a chair with a mic, to make his welcome in English to the artists and their supporters.
‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! It’s been a long journey for you all, but here we are at last ready to begin the grand finale of the 2005 Song Contest. It will be a great night, and on behalf of Will Vincent our chairman, Moricz zu Geleberh our producer, Hermina Beruskova my co-presenter, and all the staff of Strelsenermedia we thank you for your talent and enthusiasm. The EBU will be giving its welcome and thanks too, but you deserve a special acknowledgement from the home team.’
There were cheers and applause. Henry held up his hand. ‘Okay, on with the arrangements. There are twenty-five acts and I have to formally remind you that your performance cannot exceed three minutes performance time, though I know you all know that from the dress rehearsal. When you’re not on stage you’ll be here, but please don’t forget that cameras are back here too and backstage shots are liable to be broadcast at any time. So don’t over-indulge in the alcohol available, acts and guests alike. Grandma Iagupov, who plays drum in the Moldovan band, has our full permission to smack anybody who misbehaves back here.’
Davey Skipper laughed so hard at this that he got hiccups.
‘Other than that,’ Henry continued, ‘our friendly backstage staff will cue you in and escort you where you need to go. Just to remind you where we are in the programme, the screen over there will continually display the sequence and order of play. Okay! All the best! Good luck! Bonne chance! Viel Glück!’
Team Starcrossed settled into their well-upholstered alcove, chatted, texted their friends and sipped fizzy prosecco. ‘We’re sixteenth in the draw, so it’s not going to be our turn for maybe an hour and a half,’ Roman said, and checked his watch, ‘… we’re after Macedonia and before Ukraine.’
‘You’re up there with Malta and Greece according to the bookies’ odds,’ Davey said.
The kids were puzzled until Willem explained the meaning of ‘bookies’ odds’ in Rothenian. ‘You see, Mister Davey, commercial betting is not legal in Rothenia, apart from the state lottery,’ he said. ‘So we are very naïve here about such things. The Greek lady is a favourite you say?’
‘Yes, though not to anyone outside Euroland in my opinion. Malta’s better, a real diva ballad. But they can both belt out a tune, to be fair. Woah! Alert! Things are beginning to happen out front.’ Everybody turned to the screens as the arena went dark and a huge cheer went up. ‘You’re gonna love this … though I can tell you for a fact Henry won’t.’
Artful lighting lit up the stage and half-dressed dancers of both sexes spilled on to it. Magnificently dressed and beaming, Hermina Beruskova in white paraded in amongst the girls, moving elegantly to great applause. From the other side Henry Atwood awkwardly stumbled in amongst the men; he and they paused as Hermina danced very nicely amongst the ladies who gyrated around her. Then Henry’s turn came.
‘This is the only thing he’s got to get right,’ Davey hissed. ‘Fingers crossed.’
The men got ready and Henry tried a move, to trip and go flying. The audience groaned. But it was all planned; the male dancers caught him and suddenly Henry was a stage prop, lifted from the ground and flying through the air from one muscled hunk to the next, appearing remarkably composed as he was manhandled through the dance number, an inert counterpoint to Hermina’s elegance on the other side of the stage.
‘Living his dream there,’ Davey chuckled.
‘Will he be alright?’ asked a concerned Della.
‘Yeah,’ responded Krista, ‘those guys know what they’re doing. They think it’s fun, look at their grins.’
The number ended with Henry neatly deposited with perfect timing alongside Hermina, to uproarious laughter from the arena. She gave him her trademark disdainful side glance, which added to the amusement. Henry straightened his jacket and grinned ruefully.
‘Good evening! Bon soir et Dobre Vesser! And welcome, everyone out there watching all across the world, to a glorious evening here in Strelzen for the final of the Fiftieth Eurovision Song Contest. Bon soir et bienvenu à tous! C’est le final de la concours cinquantième de chansons ici en Roritanie. Now my elegant companion Hermina can do a lot more than skip the light fantastic with the best of them. She also understands the rules of this contest, which she’ll now explain to you out there at home and in the arena …’
Davey clapped. ‘Well done, Outfield! Aced it. Acted the prat with style.’
‘Er … excuse me Mister Davey, but why do you call Herr At-vood “Outfield”?’ Roman asked.
‘Eh? Oh it’s his school nickname … y’know, like you call Bolslaw “Bolo”.’
Roman had the logical bit between his teeth. ‘Yes sir, but that is only an affectionate shortening of his name, since Bolslaw-szu doesn’t work in Rothenian. “Outfield” on the other hand seems to have some ironic intent, but I do not see the pun.’
‘Umm … ask Henry afterwards, it’s only he who could explain it fully in Rothenian, or German, whichever. Oh hey! Here we go: first act’s up, there’s the little heart icon with the Hungarian flag. Act number one, a weird little troupe of Magyar blackshirts doing a rip-off of Riverdance. How confusing can you get, but all in the spirit of European unity I guess.’
‘Okay boys, here we are coming up to No. 15. Need a pee? Last chance.’ Davey raised his glass, as Marek Toblescu arrived at their alcove with a clipboard.
‘Four minutes, guys! Nice to be able to say that in Rothenian instead of my crap English. Go kill them. I’m rooting for you. Go to the sound guy and pick up your radio mics, I polished them especially for you.’
Before Yuli and Roman departed they hugged all round, and as Yuli did he whispered in Davey’s ear. ‘Sorry about this Mister Davey.’
‘You what?’ a puzzled Davey said, as they disappeared. He turned to Willem. ‘What’s going on, Willemczu?’
‘They decided what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives, sir.’
‘Oh God, no! They’re not going to make a statement on stage!’
‘Well, yes and no. You may need another drink.’
Davey slumped and stared at the Green Room monitors as the Rothenian red, white and black tricolour rotated across the screen in its icon, and scenes played out of Rothenian student life and the nicer areas of the Rodolfer campus: the baroque spaces of the university chapel of St Thomas Aquinas and the solemn peace of the great library with tier upon tier of books under the great coffered vault, followed by scenes of handsome and attractive students relaxing in the campus green spaces. Then it was back to the arena and the opening chords of Ruce en Ruce began.
Yuli and Roman waited for the roar to die back and walked on side by side. Yuli wasn’t going to bother to mime playing his keyboard, especially as a string backing was being artfully fed into the track. The pair looked very sweet and vulnerable on the huge stage. Roman’s remarkable voice lifted to meet the strings in its miraculous way, and they began the low key dance moves they had practiced in London. But as Yuli joined his deeper voice to Roman’s they left the script and turned to sing the love lyrics smilingly at each other, and as the song reached its gorgeous climax they took each other’s hands to a roar from the arena. As the song concluded they ended with a full-on kiss, then turned to the erupting audience, bowed low and left hand-in-hand, as the song said.
‘Oh fuck,’ said Davey.
‘That was sooo beautiful,’ Krista said, dabbing at her streaming eyes with a handkerchief Bolo extracted from his dinner jacket pocket. ‘Hands to yourself,’ she added as he made a move to comfort her.
‘You see, sir,’ Willem observed, ‘they aren’t going to play the media game’
Davey sighed. ‘Bugger it. They’re in new territory now. Still, I gotta admit it was quite some way to come out to their public.’