Robert crested the rise, hurled himself onto the grass beneath the monument and lay gasping up at the encircling palms. After a minute he stood, stretched, dragged off his T-shirt and scrambled onto the narrow base of the sandstone column.
To the left, trunks of old eucalypts cut jagged lines across house and tree-sprinkled hills. Ahead, Brisbane's tower blocks shimmered under their dome of reddish air. As he shuffled around the column, fragments of river wound into the sun's glare, reflecting myriads of tiny diamonds - a lesson in subtlety for the mirror-glass office tower thrusting its bulk between a muddle of buildings. A silvery train slid through the suburban jumble, and behind apartment blocks, houses and trees, reared the steeply tiled roofs of his new school.
People were out there somewhere, tens of thousands of them, but none were aware of his existence. No one knew anything about him. The thought triggered a subtle, almost guilty flush of pleasure.
Arranged over a towel on the grass, a woman tried to read while her child ran amok. The young man sprinting up the hill had not escaped her attention and she watched him sidle into view. Longish black hair, determined jaw, large hooked nose and lips that suggested a smile. Sunlight accented the sweaty muscles of chest and abdomen. Runner's legs burst from pale-green shorts. She casually unbuttoned her blouse as her kid scurried up clutching a leaf. 'Mummy, look what I've found!'
Adonis glanced down.
The mother threw a friendly wave and sagged back on to her elbows - an enormous trout-fly cast upon the stream. Her reward was a tersely nodded frown.
'The fat bitch is flashing her tits... Jeeze! What a turn off!' Robert shuffled back round the column, jumped down, spread himself onto his shirt and let the warm winter sun set his mind adrift.
'You're crazy to change schools!' he'd been told by almost everyone. 'It's too big a risk to take in your final year. Think of your O P Score. You're mad!' Mad, he wasn't. There were so many no-hopers at his old school that his marks would almost certainly have been downgraded, whereas the new school had several Very High Achievers, so final scores were unlikely to be adjusted. He had always shrugged resignedly and sighed, 'I have to do what my old man says.' This would have intrigued his parents who believed humans learn best when free to make mistakes.
Memories of what he had escaped provoked a satisfied smile. There had been no spot as peaceful and beautiful as this near their last house, and at school he had suffered over-crowded classes and the all-mates-together crap of the rugby team. They'd come third in the secondary schools' competition, but never again would he become entangled in such a world. He loved sport, but team-spirit conformity made him nervous.
He tried to figure out why he felt so relieved - as though he had escaped something evil. Like when he was a kid running back to the house from the gate at night, fear clawing at the base of his spine. If he could just get back inside and slam the kitchen door before "it" grabbed him, he'd be safe. He had always managed, but it was by no means a certainty. Even his present relief was tempered by a flickering premonition, a menace fluttering at the edge of consciousness.
There was nothing he could put his finger on and say 'that's what I'm running away from,' and no single problem had been either over burdensome or even insoluble. If pushed to explain his sense of suffocation he would have been lost for words. What he felt there were no words for. How do you define anxiety? How do you explain the fear that your very existence depends on an impossible-to-learn trick? Trapped between dread of disapproval and an inability to willingly conform, he had been developing into a person he neither liked nor admired.
Jocelyn had been a major source of embarrassment with tears and protestations of eternal fidelity; offering her virginity like a sacrifice on the altar of love. Friendship was all he'd ever wanted - she was easy and intelligent to talk with.
A hot blush welled at the memory. Her bedroom, curtains drawn, fumbling with buttons and zips, undressing, and an odd smell. Her excitement - his choking urge to escape only prevented by a reluctance to hurt. Her confusion and anxiety - his excuses… Ignominy! She begged for his new address - he falsely promised to send it. A miserable mess, like the sufferings of the poor bastard in a Sci-fi novel he was reading. The bloke's mind had accidentally been transferred to someone else's body. There was no way he wanted to end up like that, choking on alien feelings, thoughts and desires. Unlike the book's victim, Robert hoped that with the change of schools he could take control of his life. The reset button had been pressed and this time he would be the real Robert - whoever that might be!
Something poked at his thigh. He opened his eyes. The noisy kid peered down, eyes squinting under a frown of curiosity.
'Are you dead?' the child inquired as though death were a mild cold.
'No, my skin's making vitamin D.'
This was considered for a moment. 'Is it good for you?'
'In small doses. Keeps you healthy.'
'I'll do it too,' the young intruder declared with the solemnity of a banker deciding to invest a million dollars. He lay down, casually resting his head on the young man's outstretched arm.
A fiercely swung shoulder bag torpedoed Robert from his daydreams. Instantly defensive he leaped to his feet, urged on by a demon howl.
'Filthy child-molester! Paedophile!' The woman yelled, grabbing at her son.
At first Robert thought the silly cow had lost her marbles, then realisation dawned. 'Hang on, I'm not a...'
'Pervert!' she spat. 'And in broad daylight! In a public park!' Fury became hysteria. 'How dare you? How dare you?' Clutching the child roughly by his upper arm, she stumbled back and thrust her belongings into the holdall. In a desperate effort to explain, Robert grabbed his shirt and followed her. 'I wasn't doing anything like that… you're making a mistake… your kid...'
'People like you should be locked away for life!' Her revulsion was a physical force repelling him. Grabbing shoes and bag in one hand and dragging the frantic child with the other, she faced Robert squarely, lip curled in loathing. Spittle spattered lips and bare breasts, paradoxically rendered her more impressive than ridiculous. The child's eyes were wide with confusion and fear. His mother had saved him from something evil! He had been in great danger! The fury and hatred of the mother permeated the son and he let loose with a scream of terror.
'The police will hear about this, you queer, black bastard!' Turning on her heel she stalked away, head high, hips swinging with the timeless grandeur of protective mothers everywhere.
Only just able to control an urge to vomit, joy and warmth gone, love of life replaced by an icy dread gnawing at his guts, Robert fled.
Monique perched at the breakfast-bar, savouring the joy of a dream realised. Winter sunlight flooding through French doors open to patio and garden, imbued even the old furniture with mellow life. A slow smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. 'Contentment.' She whispered the word softly, relishing both sound and idea. The wait had given life purpose. For nineteen years, since her marriage to Sanjay and immigration to Australia, Monique had worked hard. First in a factory, all she could hope for with indifferent English, then in more demanding jobs until their son arrived and she had taken over the bookkeeping of their small importing company.
Compared to most of her acquaintances she had a happy life. Two trips back to France over the years had reinforced the rightness of her choice. After a week of provincial Catholicism and traditional village ways, the claustrophobia that had driven her away in the first place was rekindled, and she longed for home. Glancing at her watch, she put on the coffee and set out two cups. Robert was due back from his run.
Robert. The mere thought of him set her aglow. She was glad they had only one child. Over-population, global warming and all the other portents of imminent doom sometimes gave both parents twinges of guilt at having bred at all. Were they to marry now she would not consider bearing a child. She smiled, well aware that most of her acquaintances laughed at such premonitions of disaster. The slamming front door was her signal to pour the coffee. She wished he wouldn't do that, one day the glass would break.
Having imagined accusing stares and scowls of condemnation on the faces of everyone he passed, Robert greeted his mother with unaccustomed warmth. As she wiped again the already spotless sink-top and equally clean work area, he debated whether to off load his recent experience. He was still deciding when she stood behind him.
A stranger would have no difficulty divining the relationship; their noses had been cut from the same pattern - large and slightly hooked - accentuating Robert's masculinity and saving her from prettiness as a girl. Monique was now what is usually described as handsome. Her voice had the deep, sexy quality of many of her countrywomen, a characteristic sadly lacking in the locals according to her husband, and her mouth had the same friendly turn-up at the corners as her son; suggesting a smile even when none was intended. Monique, however, was slight and small-boned; Robert was solidly put together and honey-dark like his father. The mother ruffled her son's hair affectionately and pulled his head back against her breast. 'I am detecting a certain anxiety, mon petit?'
Robert shook himself free. Why she couldn't stop treating him like a five-year-old was beyond him. As usual he hadn't managed to conceal his feelings. That would have to change too. He was sick of being an open book. The urge to smash everything and stomp off to his bedroom was strong. It wouldn't be the first time, but he'd promised himself he'd never do it in this new house. He'd imagined he'd be leaving behind all the bits of his character he disliked, so it had been an unpleasant shock to realise he carried his old self along with him wherever he went. He ground his teeth, counted to ten and accepted that he'd like to offload the horror of the morning into a sympathetic ear.
The reaction was gratifying. Monique listened attentively, nodding and shaking her head at all the appropriate spots in support and agreement. 'Mais, c'est affreux,' she whispered at the completion of his tale of misunderstanding and abuse. 'The woman must be mad to think such a thing about such an honest and clean-living young man. No one in their right mind could think you were anything but good. And even if they did,' she continued with motherly inconsistency, 'not to give you a chance to explain; that is unforgivable! It is the fault of scare-mongering journalists; exaggerating, embroidering - suggesting child molestation is endemic in the entire male population; not satisfied until they have ruined someone's life!' She stopped, gave a self-conscious smile, refilled her son's cup and offered more sticky chocolate cake - her specialty, his partiality.
Robert hadn't thought it necessary to recount the sick feeling in his belly, the almost irresistible urge to vomit, or the unpleasant tingling at the base of his spine. Nor had he mentioned the naked breasts. He'd never felt so vulnerable. He'd done wrong in the past - many times. He'd been caught out, even wrongly accused of things, but there had always been an opportunity to explain. Never before had he faced hysterical, irrational fear mixed with loathing.
Despite his mother's support he continued to feel sick, impotent and unsettled. If someone could behave like that without evidence, without thinking things through, without getting the facts straight - as though she was working not with her brain but by reflex - then perhaps there were others who were the same! What if there had been a policeman nearby? He could have reacted the same way! Maybe she had already called the cops and given them his description! He'd never dare go up the hill again. He tried to convince himself he was being ridiculous, but gnawing apprehension remained.
The time he'd been caught in the rip off Caloundra had been the greatest fear he'd ever known. But a chat with a lifeguard that morning had planted the solution in his brain. 'Don't fight the rip! If you fight it, you'll drown. Let yourself go, even a long way out if that's where the water's going, then swim along parallel to the beach until the waves are breaking closer to shore, that's where there's no under-tow. Remember, the sea always tosses rubbish up on to the beach eventually.' The bloke had even drawn a diagram in the sand showing how under-currents were created. It was logical and comprehensible. Rational! The woman's behaviour wasn't, and Robert found he couldn't cope. Far earlier than was good for him, he had discovered the only thing humans have real cause to fear - other humans.
Monique empathised with her son's distress. She too had experienced irrational fear and loathing from strangers. During the first years of marriage she had suffered from her mother-in-law's jealousy, and rejection from those who considered her strongly accented speech and foreign ways to be fair game for their frustrations. Speech lessons and a determined effort to conceal her differences finally made life enjoyable, but that only lasted until the Mururoa bomb-tests. Even now, though all that unpleasantness was in the past, there remained an ever present, nagging fear that such irrational and violent prejudice could erupt again at any time.
Sometimes she longed for the relaxation of being with her compatriots, even for a few hours. But of course they would have changed and she would feel as foreign in France now as she still felt in Australia. Poor Robert, she thought, he is learning that the world is not always a pleasant place. 'I know it seems impossible at the moment, chérie, but try to put it out of your mind. The woman has probably had time to reflect and realises she over-reacted. The world is full of people loaded down with problems, who desire nothing more than to spread their burden.' She knew from experience that one didn't forget these things, but the wounds heal. Robert granted her a disbelieving smile and went to shower off the experience along with his sweat.
His father's response to the tale of woe during lunch was not quite as sympathetic. No grunts of empathy, no understanding nods and shakes of the head, merely a furrowing of brow and smile of incredulity - not at the actions of the woman, but at the reaction of his son. Sanjay finished his mouthful, placed his knife and fork on the plate, wiped his mouth carefully with a serviette and regarded his son with a perplexed frown. 'I have obviously missed something,' he said calmly, 'because I can't understand your problem. As I see it, you were foolish and a woman told you off. Hysterically, irrationally perhaps, loudly and publicly even, but surely that's the end of the matter? You have often enough been given a piece of someone's mind; I can recall ripping shit out of you myself on the odd occasion. What's really bothering you?'
'But, Dad! Can't you see? I did nothing wrong, but she wouldn't listen! I tried to tell her I wasn't any of the things she said I was, that it was all a misunderstanding, but she went on like crazy, shouting, dragging the kid like a puppet. Demented!'
'I wonder,' said Sanjay quietly, 'what conclusions you would jump to if you arrived home to find your mother and a strange man lying on the back lawn in the sun, her head resting on his arm.'
Robert's jaw gaped foolishly. 'Jeeze I feel stupid. I didn't think of that.'
Monique looked from husband to son, aware of the inaccuracy of the analogy. Robert had not gone to the boy's home; the boy, whose mother should have been guarding him, had gone to Robert. Still, it served to lift his air of martyrdom. He could usually be relied on to see other points of view. It wasn't always a virtue of course and could lead to indecision, but better than dogmatic assertiveness. No doubt he would soon see the flaw in the argument, but for now she was content to follow her husband.
Sanjay Karim was a self-proclaimed freethinker. He wanted his son to know about, and be able to use, all the tools available to survive alone against the world - should that ever be necessary. Disturbed by increasingly frequent calls for homogeneity, censorship and persecution of minorities, he found it disturbingly easy to envisage an Australian future where survival was no longer considered a right, but a privilege.
'I wish I had a dollar for every time I hadn't thought clearly and felt stupid afterwards, I'd be a hell of a lot richer than I am now,' he laughed, taking the sting out of Robert's embarrassment. 'What intrigues me, though, is why you let the boy lie beside you in the first place? It's hardly typical of young men your age. What do you think someone from your football team would have done if a child had pushed their toe into them and asked if they were dead?'
'They'd have given the kid a shove and said, "Piss off, fuckwit", and then if the mother had looked anything better than a slag they'd have gone over to try and chat her up.' He looked forlorn. 'I'm not much good at being like everyone else.'
'Thank goodness for that!' soothed Monique. 'We love you exactly as you are. I'd hate it if you were like those monstrosities on your football team. I could hardly bear to go and watch your games. And as for their parents!' She permitted herself a melodramatic shudder, then smiled at her husband. 'I can't tell you how relieved and happy I am to be out of that dreadful place. So far, today's events excepted, this suburb and this house are my idea of perfection.'
Sanjay grinned, blew her a kiss, and returned to the matter in hand. 'Like your mother, the last thing I want is for you to feel obliged to be the same as other people. I sometimes suspect, though, that if they felt free of censure, most of the conformists we enjoy rubbishing would be just as different from each other as we are from them. A genetic compulsion to fit in with the pack forces them to sacrifice individuality for acceptance. I imagine this is reinforced at home. You, poor boy, have a pair of misfits for parents.' His smile was smug. 'Because of our backgrounds and way of looking at things, we want you to be what you want. But, and it's a very big but, you have to use camouflage if you expect to survive unscathed.'
'I've been doing that, Dad, but I didn't like what it got me into. I ended up being what everyone else thought I should be. I'm glad I'm not going back to the old school. I want to start afresh.' He blushed and looked away.
'Don't feel embarrassed about wanting to change yourself. Most people would like to. Few have the opportunity, and even fewer are able to. There's a play by J.M.Barrie, Dear Brutus, in which the characters get a second chance at their lives. Of course they all stuff it up and make the same mistakes again. It's both funny and sad. But that's life, I suppose; funny and sad.'
They sat, wrapped in a comfortable silence.
'I understand what you are saying,' Robert said finally, 'but it's hard to strike the balance.'
'The secret is to figure out what you value, and on those things never compromise. In all other respects be as much like other people as you're able. Everyone can accept some differences in others, in fact most people like a bit of eccentricity. It's when these differences dominate; when they are shoved at them like accusations that they become frightened and abusive. You may be sick of playing team sports, but keep it to yourself. The worst thing you could do is rave about how they destroy individuality. If you practice selective disguise and a live and let live attitude, you'll probably make more friends than if you become a clone of the mob.' The telephone interrupted this deeply felt but potentially endless monologue. Sanjay answered.
'Hello?...Who?...Yes, I'm sure he will. No...Yes, six-thirty exactly. Fine, Jeff. Cheers.' Unlike his face-to-face conversations, Sanjay's telephone manner was telegraphic. 'That was Jeff, reminding us to be there at six-thirty, and asking a favour from you, Robert. He has a nephew staying overnight and doesn't want him to feel left out, so hoped you'd entertain him for the evening.'
Robert's first impulse was to refuse. The last thing he wanted was to have to be polite. He felt he deserved a long and miserable brood on the injustices of the world.
'Their food's always good. Celebrate the last day of the holidays?'
Robert capitulated. 'I'll bet he's a drip.'
'Excellent!' Sanjay checked his watch. 'I'm going to check some papers then spend the afternoon in the garden. Be certain you are both out of the bathroom and my way by six o'clock. And, Robert, make sure you have everything you could possibly need for school tomorrow: first impressions are the lasting ones.'
Robert went to his room and Monique tidied away before setting out what seemed to be the entire contents of her wardrobe to prepare for the evening ahead.
In his study, the unused third bedroom, Sanjay sorted through notes. A part-time University lectureship in Political Studies, apart from providing a respectable job description in his passport and a bit of extra cash, also guaranteed a captive audience. He loved it when students laughed at his jokes, argued a point, became angry at his demolition of theories, or themselves proffered alternatives to popular thought. Most ended up apprehensive at the inefficiency and self-serving inadequacy of politicians; their own country's multitude of governments squabbling over fewer than twenty million people's money, and all the other examples of irrational waste. 'Politics is the physical expression of a philosophy!' he would intone. 'Bad philosophy - bad politics!' His demand that they think about the underlying values demonstrated by political decisions, led even those with the least aptitude to understand that every action, no matter how slight, can be considered political. They soon realised that democracy and informed, rational debate are incompatible with majority government and the confrontation of party politics. All were left wondering why consensus is a dirty word.
Sanjay sat back and contemplated his reflection. Melbourne born and bred, he felt only pleasure at having left the place. His mother was Scottish but his father's Indian genes had proved dominant. Unable to consider himself as anything other than Australian, he liked to think he combined Scots good sense with the acuteness of Indian merchants.
Why his parents had married remained a mystery to him. He imagined two self-willed young people at odds with their families, cultures and religions, emigrating, and then marrying to spite their parents. As a family they had been isolated. The few visitors to their dull suburban house soon felt ill at ease, and seldom returned. A ban on all things Indian or Scottish, the single-minded pursuit of the Australian dream, and relentless urging to "do well", were his dominant childhood memories.
After his father's early death, maternal visits to her only child became less tolerable as Monique's self assurance grew. They now paid fares and all expenses for a visit once a year, as long as his mother only stayed a week. That way everyone kept their sanity. She had only just gone home, so they were free for another year.
Monique, sheathed in midnight blue, the only adornment a dozen fine gold chains at her throat, was glad Robert wasn't to be left alone. His mood-swings had become a worry. Both parents hoped it was simply adolescence; something he would grow out of.
After rejecting everything in his wardrobe as frivolous, Robert's black mood prompted black trousers, white shirt, black leather bomber jacket and black shoes. He looked strikingly handsome, although one would have had a hard time convincing him of it. Twelve years of schooling had not only taught him that he and his family were not quite normal, but had forged a core of insecurity. He inhabited a world subtly outside the one that restrained his peers, and knew with the certainty of youth that because of his ethnicity, most people would not consider him good looking. This fortunate misapprehension had fostered an air of engaging modesty. With the precocious maturity of a well-loved only child, he considered honesty, reliability, affection and rationality to be the most valuable attributes in a person. All his life, it seemed, he had been seeking a friend like that.
Sanjay, dapper in blue-grey suit, white shirt, conservative tie and black shoes, beamed at his two charges with love and pride. They drove first to the top of Mount Coot-tha to admire the city lights. Excessive punctiliousness, in Sanjay's opinion, was the hallmark of small minds. Hosts are happiest if they have something for which to forgive their guests, so it would be inconsiderate to arrive less than ten minutes late. The detour was rewarding. City towers floating against a darkly purple sky.
By the time they pulled up at the Skeldrakes', the other guests had arrived. Clients were occasionally invited to dinner to encourage the finalising of a deal. Jeff Skeldrake, Sanjay's partner, had returned from India a few weeks previously and half a container-load of silk and ornaments was due to arrive within the next few days. Tonight, samples would be viewed, prices agreed and supply and other details ironed out.
'Sanjay, Monique, Robert, welcome!' Jeff, sporting a tan and an enviable head of wavy silver hair, was probably in his sixties. Despite expensive tailoring and built-up shoes, he remained a short and rather bulky figure. An expansive gesture towards the drinks-table enabled a large stone set in gold filigree on his left middle finger, to flash resplendently. As they fiddled with bottles and glasses the Karims were joined by Susie, loyal to the importing business in silk trousers and tunic. The shimmering green garment did a much better job of concealing her luxuriant figure, strikingly similar to her husband's, than did his suit. Jeff took Sanjay and Monique's elbows and introduced them to the guests while Susie introduced Robert to her nephew.
Tony was fifteen, tall for his age, overweight and sallow. Slightly protuberant eyes stared accusingly at his guest. 'I know why you were invited; they think I'm an imbecile and wouldn't be able to cope with adults.'
'I understand. Dad twisted my arm. I can go home if you like?' Robert's tone was mild.
'Oh, sorry, no. No, I didn't mean to sound like that. Of course I'm glad you're here, it's just that Jeff makes me feel so bloody inadequate and Susie's no better.'
'That's because you are inadequate', Robert decided.
The house was a duplex on the site of one of the large mansions that used to dot the western hills. The decor was designer-tasteful. Delicate prints, paintings on silk and a few expensively framed water-colours decorated the walls, while brass table-lamps bestowed a flattering glow on humans and carved wooden sculptures alike. Expensive rugs littered polished floors, and the furniture was unobtrusively comfortable. The only discordant notes were the curtains. It was difficult to conceive of an environment in which the boldly mauve, pink and orange fabrics would be at ease.
Everyone was ushered into the dining room where the mock antique dining table was set for eight, with white cloth, heavy silver cutlery, candles and flowers. The guests helped themselves from dishes on the sideboard.
'Susie, this is perfect! Surely you haven't done it all by yourself?'
Susie laughed. 'I did have a little help from the caterers, Monique. But I set the table.'
Conversation centred on the weather and the economy. It wasn't necessary to think. Sanjay relaxed, leaving Monique to entertain. He still broke out in nervous sweats occasionally at the miraculous chance that had allowed their paths to cross. Every day he thanked fate for providing him with such a perfect mate.
After his parents had nagged him into a degree in Political Science and Modern Languages he had seemed set for a career in Foreign Affairs. However, he soon came to the conclusion that not only does democracy degenerate to demagoguery as soon as the first politician opens his mouth, but the old joke - How can you tell when a politician is lying? His mouth is open - is disturbingly true. He took leave, and fled to Europe. Uncomfortable with Scottish relatives and depressed by dirt and lack of work in London, he had crossed to Europe. Travelling home overland, he surprised himself by spending a week on a nudist island in the Adriatic near Rovinj. It was an intensely liberating experience, made all the more precious when, on his last afternoon he met Monique who was looking for a travelling companion to India.
All the usual adventures of such a trip befell them, but it wasn't until they were about to separate that he realised he didn't want to. The feeling was mutual, so they did the sensible thing and married at the Consulate. After the ceremony he realised he had followed almost exactly in his father's footsteps; two disaffected people in a foreign land, marrying.
The shock made him determined not to imitate anything else about his parents' lives. His marriage would be a love match until death. They had stayed with his grandmother in Cochin, and the extended family welcomed him generously. Far more generously than he felt he deserved. It was there Sanjay hatched his plan to become an importer of objects-d'art, and never return to government bureaucracy. Drifting back to the present, he helped himself to yoghurt, marvelling at the heaps of sugar and cream Jeff and Susie managed to devour. His mental flight had passed unnoticed.
Sanjay, Jeff and the clients retired with coffees, liqueurs, briefcases and samples to the lounge, the two young men went upstairs, and Susie and Monique attended to the clearing away.
Tony's sole interest was "The Web". His latest model laptop gave him access to the world. Robert was fairly certain the world consisted of more than electrons bouncing off screens, but kept his opinion to himself.
'Do you want to look at magazines?' Tony offered with a leer. Magazines had to be better than Tony's conversation. Robert had giggled over photographs of naked women with his mates as a more youthful youth, but since Jocelyn, interest had evaporated. He recalled and suffered again his embarrassment and inadequacy, remembered the woman in the park, and began to sweat.
As Tony leafed through the pages he kept pointing out the girls he fancied while regaling Robert with graphic descriptions of what he'd be doing if they were in the room. How Tony could imagine they would ever want him was beyond Robert's comprehension, so he kept his mouth shut.
'Fuck, look at this one, Christ, she makes me horny!'
To Robert's flagging gaze she appeared identical to the preceding airbrushed, silicone-implanted clones, but he mumbled something vaguely appropriate.
'I'm going to jerk off. You too?'
'They're only photographs. Does nothing for me.'
Tony was already pulling at his penis. 'It's OK for you,' he grunted 'You're older than me. I'll bet you've had the real thing.'
Robert nodded in despair.
'Well, I haven't. Dad says I'm too young and I'm hardly going to get some bitch as good looking as this.' Veins had begun to swell in his neck and forehead when the jerking suddenly stopped and Tony demanded sharply, 'Are you a queer?'
Robert contented himself with a mimed threat to smack the repellent idiot in the face.
'Got me worried there... Faggots will root anything, my Dad says. Especially young guys.' Reassured, he panted on.
Robert wasn't offended; he'd joined group wanks in dressing rooms. At his last school some of the year eleven idiots had jerked themselves off in the back row of the chemistry lab to impress their girlfriends. He slipped out, and went downstairs.
Closed lounge doors indicated negotiations were still in train, so he went to the kitchen. Monique was nursing a cup of mint tea, Susie sipped at a balloon of brandy, and the dishwasher spluttered dying gurgles.
'Tony has exhausted his conversational repertoire I gather,' Susie sighed. 'This has been a long four days. Pull up a seat.'
Robert filled a glass with water, having found the meal a little too spicy, dragged up a chair and scowled into the glass.
Susie drew a quick breath. 'Are you all right?'
'Perfectly.' He glanced warily at his mother's best friend. She was seldom solicitous about anyone except herself. But she certainly was nosy. Her obesity was accentuated in the hard light. Small eyes glittered in their pouches, one could hardly call them sockets, and her chins developed vertical lines when she turned her head. He couldn't understand anyone allowing themselves to get so fat. It didn't bear thinking about the sweat, washing under and between all the folds, the effort of carrying the extra kilos. He tried to imagine lugging fifty tubs of margarine about wherever he went.
Susie was staring at him; smile carnivorous, voice concerned. 'I have just had the most extraordinary sensation. As you turned, colours streamed from your head - purples, oranges and dark blues. Has something bad happened?'
Robert shot his mother an irritated glance. She shook her head.
'Something important has crossed, or is going to cross you! - Shall I lay the cards?' Susie missed no opportunity to remind everyone of her vaguely Central European heritage and mysterious quantities of Gypsy Blood.
'If you want,' muttered Robert ungraciously. The silly fat cow was obviously off her rocker. He might as well humour her, but she'd better not start getting personal. She wasn't going to top up her gossip files with his secrets.
'Bring me the black lacquered box from the top left-hand drawer of the sideboard.' Robert fetched it and placed it beside her. Extracting a silken cloth emblazoned with a five-pointed star, Susie deliberately and calmly placed it in the centre of the table, smoothing out the creases. The cards, she placed with ritualised seriousness around the outside of the cloth, taking care not to touch it. 'I only use the Major Arcana. An art student painted these for me. Aren't they sexy? Nothing like the Medieval ones, thank goodness, they were far too influenced by Christian myths.' She placed another cloth over everything and, taking Robert's hands, placed them face down on top, plonking her own clammy little fat ones on top.
'Obviously,' she said carefully, 'it is not possible to foretell the future - that would make a nonsense of free will. Most of what happens to us is by chance. Twenty years ago, if Sanjay had arrived two days later at the hotel in Rovinj, he would never have met Monique, and you would not have been born. That was a chance encounter.' She looked at Robert to gauge his reaction, but he was giving nothing away. 'You've as much chance of picking up a card that has something relevant to say about you, as one that doesn't,' she explained. 'What it can indicate is not your future, but steps you can take to balance your life. The Tarot is an ancient guide to enlightenment and harmony.' She gave a slightly tipsy burp, and winked, erasing the mystical atmosphere. Robert grinned. He couldn't stay cross with Susie for long.
'It all sounds so pompous, doesn't it?' she giggled. 'Actually I was only looking for an excuse to hold your hands.' She cackled throatily as he jerked them away.
Monique smiled to herself.
'Robert,' said Susie sweetly, gazing into his eyes, 'don't take life so seriously, you'll never get out of it alive.' This set off another paroxysm of mirth. 'Now,' she continued after several attempts to catch her breath, 'when I remove the cloth I want you to choose any five cards and place them face up, in any order, one on each point of the star.'
It seemed oddly important which ones he chose.
Susie gave them her full attention. 'At your head is The Moon. Dogs in moonlight, baying at menacing figures. There is some fear in your mind. Something you don't understand is troubling you. It's an unhappy card on its own; so let's see the others. At your left hand is The Hanging Man, perfectly happy to be seeing the world from a new perspective - that's positive. Perhaps you need to reconsider some of your opinions? Remember, these cards refer only to you. At your right hand is The Devil. Black and white, both sexes in one, Yin and Yang, staring straight at you. Everyone has parts of their character they cannot accept. We must face squarely these devils within; for only by confronting our fears can we conquer them.
'Now the base, the foundation on which you stand. On the left is The Charioteer. He wears a mask to protect himself from the slings and arrows of the world. There are flames at his head, heart and groin, indicating intellect, passions and desires. He grasps the reins firmly because unless he can force all three aspects of his character to work together in harmony, then his chariot of life will veer from side to side and may over-turn. Your other support is Strength. A slim woman easily controlling a powerful centaur, grasping his hair firmly. It means, make your brain control your body. Brute strength is of no use.' She paused. 'So, there you are; fearing something; requiring a new perspective on old problems; having to face the devil within and needing to control yourself.' She looked up with an almost malicious smile.
'That's not as silly as I thought it was going to be,' Robert said thoughtfully. 'It's sensible at least, even if fairly obvious.'
'Do you want to know what's likely to happen if you follow the directions?'
'Can't do any harm.'
'Don't you believe it.'
Robert selected his second set of cards.
Susie took a deep breath in an attempt to quieten her heart. She had doted on Robert since his birth. A desire to somehow force him inside her own body, to possess him utterly, had precipitated violent urges to squeeze, fondle, lick, kiss and eat the gurgling, happy infant. Having no children herself, she rationalised this fixation as repressed maternal instincts. As Robert grew older, both he and Monique began to resent her intrusive, at times almost abusive, attentions and she had forced herself to stop seeing him, arranging to visit only when Robert was at school or when there was no chance of their being alone.
Eventually, Susie had conquered the urge to possess every atom of this young creature - until tonight. His unexpected entrance - gold chain at smooth brown throat, the contours of his chest visible beneath the thin shirt - had caused flames to spurt, not from Robert's head, but inside her own, and a quote from goodness knows where flitted at the edge of thought. The Love-God uses the shapes and colours of young men, adorning them with all the reflected splendours of Beauty, so that the sight of them will truly set us on fire with pain and hope.
Old desires had been re-kindled. It was at least twenty years since she had felt anything like this, but she had not forgotten. The cards had been a ploy to keep Robert in the room as long as possible. She hadn't been joking when she said she wanted to touch his hand. She wanted to... She shook her head in an effort to dislodge the unwelcome thoughts. In her heart she was still the attractive eighteen-year-old, swept off her feet by Jeff.
Risking another glance at the slim, handsome young man on the other side of the table, she suddenly understood something else, something that lifted the burden and drew forth a sad smile. Even if she could become her eighteen-year-old self again, she could never possess Robert in the way she dreamed. As the realisation became conscious thought, everything became bearable and, with a sigh of regret for the things that never happen, she returned her attention to the cards.
'You sure know how to pick 'em,' she mumbled. 'This time at your head we have Judgement. Someone looking at their own reflection in the mirror. Remember, these cards only refer to you. The judgement of others is irrelevant. You must judge yourself. If you are contented with the way you are managing your life, then you will be in balance. If not...' She drew an expensively ringed finger across her throat. 'At your left hand sits Death. Not physical death, but the death of ideas. It supports the hanging man in the previous layout. Note the flowers springing from the split-open back of the skull? They indicate that if you are prepared to kill off desires, thoughts and actions that are wrong for you, then a new life will spring forth. On your right hand is The Sun. Apollo standing in a blaze of light. It's the best card in the pack and indicates everything will turn up roses - if your base is strong. So let's look.'
Robert gazed at the two remaining cards. The left one showed a ruined tower split in two by a flash of lightning, with two figures thrown back in shock. The other presented an even more grotesque scene - two naked people in chains, overlooked by a living, weeping barred window set in a blood-red wasteland.
'The Tower suggests you will experience enlightenment, or revelation, which usually arrives as a blinding flash of understanding. Your other support is the last card in the pack, The World.' She stopped talking, picked up the card and rubbed it as though trying to erase the image before continuing. 'Not a pretty scene, not a happy card, but it contains an essential truth. No matter what you do, what balance and harmony you may achieve in your own life, you still have to live in the world of men. There, it is never in peace and harmony. It is always hard, cruel, and indifferent. Accept that, and you will not know despair. Fight it, and you will live in chains.' Susie looked down thoughtfully at the cards before gathering them together and placing them carefully in their box.
Robert turned to his mother and was surprised to see tears.
'Oh, Susie, you have said it so cleverly. It is so true. Look at me, all emotional and weepy. How silly.' Monique blew her nose and dabbed at her eyes. 'It's made me think about my life, how wonderful it has all been. It's so easy to get tied up with petty irritations and forget about what makes life worthwhile. Thanks, Susie.'
'Yeah…thanks, Susie…That was spot on you know? I'm really amazed, it's helped a lot…you know to…sort out ideas and…things.' Robert grew silent.
Susie smiled gently, demon exorcised. She patted him on the hands. This time he did not withdraw. 'It has nothing to do with the cards, Robert. It's what's inside your head and heart, that counts.'
Jeff poked his head around the door, raised his thumb to indicate a successful conclusion, and whispered, 'They're going.'
Good-byes were said, appreciation offered, and soon the Karims too were on their way home; Sanjay's head filled with the evening's business, Monique's with her dreams, and Robert's with thoughts he wished would go away. He had yet to face the devil within.
Robert's new school retained little of past splendours. The two-storied brick edifice with its high, mock-Tudor gables and tiled roof, stood bleakly in a sea of asphalt. Road widening and the encroachment of suburbs had reduced the once graceful front lawns and shady trees to a narrow strip of suffering grevilleas skulking behind a wire-mesh fence. Where three hundred students had once been educated in semi countryside, seven hundred pupils now crammed the relocatable classrooms, thronged corridors, shouted, swore, fought, played, strutted, flirted and studied, amongst graffiti, rubbish bins, discarded soft-drink cans and abandoned food wrappings.
In the high-ceilinged entrance lobby a chipped plaster copy of a fig-leafed discus thrower strained on a plinth before a cheap and much faded reproduction of a cubist still life. Elaborately framed but poorly executed portraits of past headmasters lined the other wall. The smell was of polish, disinfectant and bodies. Across a wide corridor, double doors led to the quadrangle in which hundreds of students were milling, waiting to start the third term. The noise was the noise of schools everywhere. Through an archway to the right, Robert found the front office. A prettyish young woman greeted him pleasantly. He introduced himself.
'Mr Pinot, (she pronounced it pie not) looks after new students. He'll have your details. Go down the stairs at the end of the corridor and his office is directly in front of you.' She indicated the direction he should take. 'Oh, by the way, pupils are not allowed in the front entrance, they have to go round the back. The main entrance is only for staff and visitors.' Switching off the winning smile she retreated to her keyboard.
Following the secretary's directions through chipped, sour cream painted corridors, Robert eventually discovered, as promised, a door labelled Guidance. It was ajar. He knocked firmly, having been told by his father that a timid knock denotes an uncertain man.
'Come in! Welcome to the dungeon. You must be the new chap, no one else would knock.' The voice was educated, yet somehow lazy.
The low-ceilinged room was carpeted in scuffed beige with half a dozen once-comfortable chairs arranged in a circle around a low table. A few dead flowers left over from the previous term sagged in a dry vase. Four garish paintings disfigured the walls, and a photograph of a rowing team was prominently displayed behind the paper-strewn desk. The voice belonged to an old man. At least to Robert he seemed old, with a face as grey as his sparse hair. Thick-lens glasses lent his somewhat fishy, chinless head an added watery dimension. He was neatly dressed in worn tweed suit, white shirt and dark blue tie. Brown shoes gleamed. Warren Pinot was sixty-five and due to retire at the end of the year.
Although a relatively broad-minded man of wide interests and culture, his early years in the classroom had been dogged by severe control problems, caused mainly by an essential dullness combined with lack of imagination that rendered him incapable of arousing interest. His promotion to guidance counsellor had solved one problem by creating another. Unworldliness is not particularly useful when dealing with the problems of adolescence.
'Come over to the desk and we'll get the paper work out of the way. I'm Mr Pinot, and you, I imagine, are...' he checked the paper in front of him, 'Robert Karim?'
'Your file has arrived from your last school. They were sorry to lose you. I hope you will do as well here.' He turned to his computer terminal and, after several false starts and a couple of muttered imprecations, induced the printer to give birth to Robert's timetable. 'The entire school is on line now. All relevant details are entered into these things twice a day. Attendance, results, behaviour, assignments. At the touch of a button, well, several buttons, I can have an up-to-the-minute profile of any of the school's seven hundred and twenty-six students,' he announced proudly as though he had invented the thing himself.
'And a brave new world to you,' muttered Robert.
'I beg your pardon?'
'It's an amazing world, Mr Pinot.'
'Quite so. Quite so.'
The distorted chimes of a glockenspiel burst from a wall-mounted loudspeaker.
'Oh, good. We have missed Assembly,' whispered Mr Pinot in the conspiratorial tone of a naughty schoolboy. 'At the beginning of a new term, assembly always takes the whole first period, so we have forty minutes to clarify any problems - such as why you are not wearing a uniform.'
Robert blinked. 'Wha...? I mean, I beg your pardon, Sir. I didn't think I'd have to wear one, the seniors didn't at the old school.'
'Well they do here, and even though you will have only two terms with us, we can't make exceptions, can we?'
Robert decided not to question this assumption. 'I don't think my parents will be able to afford it, Sir.'
'They won't have to. We keep a supply of second-hand uniforms of all sizes. You pay a small deposit, which is refunded if the uniform is returned in good order. Now, slip off your mufti while I go and find something suitable. It is too small in there for both of us, so wait here.' At Robert's look of incomprehension he laughed. 'Mufti - non-uniform clothing! Take everything off and place it in this plastic bag.'
Robert looked at the open door.
'Don't worry, no one will come in, but you can close it if you want.' He bustled through to his storeroom.
Robert closed and locked the door to the corridor, removed his clothes, and jammed them into the bag, wondering whether the order would have been the same if Mr Pinot had known he wasn't wearing underclothes. At least there was a decent electric heater. He wandered around, enjoying the titillation of nudity in a strange place. On the desk was a photograph of Mr Pinot and his wife, with a young man and woman in black robes. He picked it up.
'Those are my two children at their graduation,' he was informed by the re-emerging guidance counsellor. 'Goodness, I didn't realise... I mean.... Ah.... Yes... Golly, ha, ha.... You modern young men are more easygoing about... ah... things than we oldies. Yes indeed.'
Robert turned to face him, hands behind his buttocks. Warren Pinot wasn't sure what to do. He coughed, looked away, coughed again and, visibly gathering his forces, smiled manfully. A multitude of thoughts raced. He glanced at the door. Thank goodness it was locked. Could this be a set-up? There had been an appalling case recently when a teacher had suicided after an accusation of sexual harassment. His heart thumped and sweat sprang from his brow. A careful look at Robert's face was reassuring; it appeared empty of guile. Tension evaporated as realisation dawned… the boy wanted to be looked at. As fear drained, the guidance counsellor found himself amused by the situation, curious as to who would falter first.
Robert's face remained modestly untroubled as the elderly man's eyes flicked from neck to shoulders and chest, lingering briefly on dark nipples before following a line of hair from the flat navel to where it broadened into a dense triangle, framing manhood. He'll have to keep up the exercise to avoid an early gut, thought Mr Pinot waspishly, observing Robert's well-muscled abdomen and thighs. Finding it impossible to extract pleasure from perfection, he had earlier noted with satisfaction the lad's slightly crossed front teeth and the small mole above his lip.
'You are going to break a few hearts, if you haven't done so already,' he said mildly, carefully eliminating any suggestion of censure from his voice.
Robert fidgeted slightly and began to sweat. He had judged Mr Pinot correctly, but this was going on too long. It was essential he didn't get an erection. He was seeking approval, not ridicule. After the previous day's confidence-undermining event on the hill, he desperately needed reaffirmation of his worth. It was easy to be praised for being a good student or sportsman, but to make someone accept you simply for yourself, unadorned by achievements - that was another thing altogether! This behaviour had been part of his life ever since he could remember. Susceptible adults could easily be charmed into complicity. Many places provided opportunities to play his game. A few weeks previously he'd torn a muscle. If the physiotherapist had been surprised to find her young patient naked in front of her desk, she hid it convincingly. 'Oh, well done. That makes my work easy. And what a wonderful body,' had been her only comment.
Robert was aware of what he was doing and, knowing it could be dangerous, had thought long and hard about his reasons. Just about everyone was shocked when confronted by nudity, especially male nudity. If he could manipulate someone into not only accepting his nakedness as natural but also approving of him in that state, that was success. However, there mustn't be any hint of conscious sexuality! He had to maintain an aura of innocence. He was starting to panic. Sweat seeped from armpits and blood began surging to his loins. Covering his genitals would be fatal. He risked a glance at Mr Pinot. Surely he wasn't getting aroused? That was never part of the scheme! The unwelcome thought calmed him. These exhibitions were for Robert's benefit alone - the witness merely a passive tool.
'You look very fit.' Mr Pinot conceded defeat.
'I am,' Robert agreed cheerfully. 'Takes plenty of exercise though.'
'Mmm. Well put these on. We don't stock underpants!' he added with a hint of reproof, handing over a pair of brown long trousers, a cream shirt, beige pullover and brown blazer emblazoned with the school's crest and motto. He had even found a pair of brown socks.
Robert dressed quickly. Everything fitted perfectly except for the trousers, which were a bit tight. Mr Pinot went to find another but they were even smaller. Robert promised that tomorrow he would wear black shoes - and underpants.
'Sit down.' The guidance counsellor, at ease with both himself and his guest, indicated the ring of chairs. 'I'll take you to your first class and introduce you to the teacher as soon as assembly's finished. We've another twenty minutes.
Mr Pinot had one excellent quality; he could listen. Robert found himself prattling on about what he had been doing over the previous two weeks, and was describing the unpleasant incident in the park on the hill, when he stopped short, biting his lip.
'Carry on, dear boy, you speak so fluently it is a joy to listen.'
It was too late to stop and Robert found he didn't really want to, so he told everything, leaving no detail out. As is often the case he found it easier to talk to a stranger than to his own parents. But as the thought surfaced, iced water trickled into his guts. Shit! Pinot's not a stranger. He's a bloody teacher!
Mr Pinot's face gave nothing away. He sat still for so long that Robert wondered if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open. Eventually he pursed his lips and, taking a deep, impressive breath, pronounced his verdict. 'You have been delivered from error by your innocence,' he intoned gravely. 'That woman was clearly bent on entrapping a man. Your reaction to her, um, display, was that of someone with a pure heart. Her subsequent irrational assault on you and the insults you endured have been excellently explained to us by the Bard. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. You scorned her invitation, she vented her anger.' Mr Pinot sat back, nodding his head in self-congratulation.
Robert scorned the reference to hell and a pure heart, but appreciated the positive slant. As soon as he'd seen the guidance counsellor he'd known. Funny how he could pick them. He looked earnestly into Mr Pinot's eyes. 'Thank you, Sir. I'm glad I talked with you. I was worried I'd done something to provoke her.' He sounded so sincere and his relief so heartfelt that Mr Pinot couldn't resist a smile of pride. He seldom offered advice - having too many problems of his own - but when he did it was pleasant to find approval. Robert, on the other hand, realised he had found, if not an ally, Mr Pinot's type usually followed winners, at least someone who didn't wish him ill. As good a beginning as he could hope for.
By lunchtime on the second day, Robert had met his teachers and seen all the students in the options he was taking. For the first five minutes after lunch, everyone went to their homeroom to listen to notices, pick up newsletters, and pay sports and other school fees. The din was deafening. Positive first-impressions were dimming to disillusion. So far, he'd met no one he wanted to know better. Of course the stupid uniform didn't help. Instead of presenting a unified image it looked as though they had all rummaged around in a grab bag of old clothes and only a lucky few had succeeded in snatching something that fitted or suited. His father had laughed like a drain at breakfast that morning. 'They'll make a conformist of you yet,' he'd snorted.
Wanting to forget all about it now that he had told someone the details, Robert had decided not to tell his parents about Mr Pinot's interpretation of the events on the hill. He wondered idly if he should become a Catholic. Confession seemed to suit him. With a sigh of relief he realised that his worries about a new school were unfounded and it should be plain sailing from then on. He vowed to keep his head down, be his own man and work his butt off with no distractions.
Robert's sporting reputation had preceded him, and the unconcealed relief on the faces of the football team, identical in all but names to those he'd left behind, when told he was too busy to play, was rewarding - no one was going to lose their place on the team. He had always considered himself at least a fringe-dweller of the "intellectual" brigade, but the weedy individuals huddled into a sunless corner of the common room were almost caricatures of the type; humourless egg-heads interested only in their own opinions.
A pimpled group of bible-bashers had been given equally short shrift. There was more work to be caught up on than anticipated, so he wouldn't have time for friends anyway for a while. The only person he liked so far was his Art History teacher. In his forties, Mr Rands was bald, witty, quick thinking, and treated his students as equals-a real plus in a teacher.
Miss Henderson hushed the mob, called the roll, dished out forms on Vocational Guidance, answered a few questions and then gazed around vaguely. 'Robert Karim? I have a message for you from the sports master. You are required to select a compulsory extracurricular sports activity. Go to the gymnasium now, and don't be late for next period.'
'I'm not doing sport, Miss.'
The teacher's raised eyebrows started a snigger that continued as she drawled, 'Don't argue with me, young man. Unburden your woes onto Mr Vaselly.'
It sounded too stupid to be true. Robert was starting to lose his cool. First the bloody uniform and now compulsory activities. What was this place, a kindergarten or a high school? He wasn't in the mood for any more crap. He'd dig in his heels with this Vaselly.
The sports master was in his early twenties, about the same height as Robert but leaner and more visibly muscled. Dark blond hair shorn to a short bristle, deep-set blue eyes, prominent cheekbones, small square chin, strong shoulders and the lean legs of a long-distance-runner, made him appear altogether tougher, stronger and harder than the student. After a conversation with Mr Vaselly one was left with the impression of intensity and health. Robert grudgingly admired the man's obvious fitness, but admiration turned to contempt when he snapped, 'What do you want?'
'Apparently, I have to take an activity.' Robert deliberately avoided the 'Sir', and hoped he looked as uncompromising as his opponent.
'That's right, take this list, choose one, and let me know.' The teacher thrust a bit of paper at Robert and turned away in dismissal.
'But I don't need to do sport. I'm fit enough. My other school covered slightly different topics in some subjects so I have to catch up.'
Mr Vaselly swung back as though slapped. 'Tough luck! This school has a rule that all students must do some physical activity. At your level, you're expected to use your lunch-breaks or before and after school. A minimum of one hour per week!'
Robert scanned the list. 'There's nothing I want to do.'
The PE teacher had seen the new student crossing the playground and wondered what he was like. These sporty-looking kids were usually either up themselves or riddled with insecurities. This one was already getting stroppy. Classroom control had cost him sweat and tears and he wasn't about to let a smart-arsed newcomer tell him what to do. 'Bring me your choice after school tomorrow.' He slammed back into his office.
Not wanting to be late for Maths, Robert raced off.
Between periods he studied the list in despair. There was nothing he wanted to spend five minutes on, let alone sixty. Team sports - never again. Gymnastics? Too tall. Golf? Ten-pin bowling? What sort of a place was this? Tramping? Badminton? Table-tennis? This is the point beyond which I will not be pushed, he thought, congratulating himself on an elegant turn of phrase, and here I make my stand!
Last period was timetabled for study/research, and Mr Vaselly was rostered as minder. They don't even trust us to study alone, Robert thought despairingly. It's a bloody borstal. Uniforms, compulsory activities, no trust. He was beginning to regret his decision to change schools. As soon as the teacher entered, a chill settled on the room. Like a caricature Nazi - cold, Aryan, arrogant - he gave no sign of recognition to any one, let alone Robert. At first he stood, hands on hips, in front of the blackboard as though daring anyone to disturb the peace. After fifteen minutes he wandered around, ending up at the back of the room in the aisle beside Robert's chair, leaning against the wall and writing notes on a clipboard.
Robert looked to where Vaselly's legs prevented exit and, slumping back, found himself wondering what sort of bloke the sports master really was. I'll find a way of getting around his pathetic, prison camp mentality, he thought with irritation. And if he doesn't move soon I'll shove my compass into his thigh! He leaned forward to get on with his work and let his leg sag sideways till it touched Vaselly's knee. That'll make the bastard move. There was no reaction. Refusing to give in, Robert left his leg there till the end of the period. The sole result, a dismal ache in the groin from holding his leg in one position too long. Round one to Vaselly.
At home, both Monique and Sanjay thought he was making a fuss about nothing.
'It is necessary that you meet socially with other students, chérie. It would be foolish to become a recluse. The activity will give you an opportunity to meet students from other classes and make new friends. It is unhealthy to reject others.'
His father took the same line. 'People are going to think there's something wrong with you if you avoid them. It's never a good idea to draw unwanted attention to yourself.'
'I'll spend intervals in the common room and meet other students there.' Robert was not convinced by parental argument; they hadn't met Mr Vaselly! Somehow the man had issued a challenge and Robert felt honour-bound to pick up the gauntlet. Not that he understood his motives any better than the outbursts of anger that occasionally ripped through his brain; he was simply determined to make up his own mind about whether he'd do an activity.
'Please yourself, son, you probably know best.'
Robert doubted that, but intended to do it anyway. He racked his brains for a solution. Tomorrow he'd keep an eye on Mr Perfect Vaselly, and find a chink in his armour.
Tailing his prey was easier than anticipated. Between periods he twice had time to follow Vaselly for a few minutes. At interval and again at lunchtime he tracked him from the gymnasium to the staff-room. I could get had up for stalking, he reflected humourlessly. Other teachers greeted the PE teacher in a friendly enough fashion, so they certainly didn't dislike him. As for the students, the boys either ignored him or got smartly out of his way as though nervous. Several girls made flagrant attempts to gain his attention. Two tried to brush his thigh, unsuccessfully, and there were a couple of muted wolf-whistles. Vaselly appeared totally unmoved. Basilisk-like, he walked with the articulated grace of one of Asimov's robots. Perhaps he wasn't human after all, and there was nothing to discover?
After school, Robert went to the Library to check reference books for an assignment. While waiting for the librarian, he flicked through a copy of the previous year's School Magazine. Staring at him from page three was a photo of Vaselly, followed by a short piece welcoming him as the newest member of staff. Robert scanned this briefly, then re-read a line. Represented his university in Wrestling.
An idea trickled into his head. Robert grinned, completed book issuing, thanked the librarian and smiled at the school motto emblazoned in gold on a wooden shield above the door: Per Angusta - Ad Augusta. Through hardship to glory! Huh! He'd soon see how classical the school was.
'What have you decided?' Mr Vaselly's mood hadn't improved.
'We don't do it.' Flat and final.
'Well we ought to. This school is supposedly based on classical traditions and wrestling is one of the Graeco-Roman sports. Besides, you're a wrestler.'
'Modern! Wrestling's changed over the last two thousand years. Come on, you're wasting time!'
'But, Sir, I've always wanted to learn wrestling.' A lie, and in a cajoling whine to boot. Nauseating, but all's fair in love and war, Robert rationalised. 'Do you think I'm not good enough to be taught by you?' His tone making it obvious that what he really meant was, do you think you are too good to teach me?
'Don't get smart with me!'
'Afraid I'll beat you?' This set blood pounding. He couldn't believe what he was saying. All his school life he'd been the perfect pupil - quiet, polite, thoughtful, on time with everything, never putting a foot wrong. Now here he was getting into a slanging match with a teacher.
Mr Vaselly stood calmly, legs apart, arms folded, eyes a calculating squint. Unable to hold the stare, Robert lowered his gaze and, in growing apprehension, wondered why Vaselly hadn't responded to the insult.
'I'm far too busy.' The teacher's relaxed, almost smiling response felt like a slap in the face.
Furious at the loss of face, Robert turned to go. Not defeated, just pausing to re-group. He hadn't thought far enough ahead. As he reached the door, the PE teacher's almost whispered gibe hung in the air.
'If everyone wanted things as badly as you, nothing would ever get done.'
Stung, Robert turned. 'You think I give up easily?'
'You said it. Now hurry up and make your choice, I haven't got all day!'
Something hardened in Robert's chest. 'Mr Vaselly,' he said as evenly as he could manage, 'tomorrow at interval I will put my case to the headmaster.' He stalked out, already doubting the wisdom of his campaign. He would have been even more troubled had he seen Vaselly's smile.
For the first ten minutes of interval, the headmaster made himself available to his charges. Many years previously someone had described Mr Nikelseer as interestingly ugly. Morosely cadaverous now seemed a more appropriate epithet. His academic gown, without which he felt undressed, drooped gauntly from sharp shoulders, and a bookish stoop made him seem shorter than he was. Brought up to believe in the value of traditional Christian morality, he had endeavoured, through self-discipline, self-denial, prayer and example, to inculcate in his pupils and staff a devotion to Christian virtue and love.
Standing at the top of the steps to the quadrangle, he gazed at the energetic students relishing their brief freedom from classroom repression. Searching for selflessness, he discovered selfishness. Instead of faith, he found questioning minds. Seeking purity, he saw lust. Sifting for spirituality, he uncovered ravenous appetites for gewgaws. His failure to convince his flock that the road to happiness lay via the unquestioning acceptance of God's love and commandments, had left an aching void. Over the years the desire to lead his pupils along the path of righteousness via charitable understanding and gentle warnings had been replaced by impatience, intolerance and the whip of harsh words. Each evening he begged God to forgive his failure and despair.
'Excuse me, Sir. I have a request.'
Mr Nikelseer's encouraging nods as he tilted his good ear to Robert's carefully prepared and indisputably logical argument in favour of classical traditions and wrestling as a school sport, led the youth to imagine he had won a convert. He would have been sadly disillusioned were he a mind reader. The headmaster was saved the effort of concocting a response by the arrival of the sports master himself.
'Ah! Here is Mr Vaselly. What does he think of the idea?'
Mr Nikelseer was informed that it was out of the question. Mr Vaselly's timetable was too tight to give private lessons. Robert countered by offering to be available at any time.
The headmaster raised a finger to stem the flow and turned to his supplicant. 'I'm sorry, young man. What did you say your name was?'
'Ah, yes… Karim. We mustn't expect too much of Mr Vaselly, he is new to the school. So, whilst it is an interesting idea, I'm afraid you will have to forgo wrestling.' He displayed pale bony hands in a gesture of defeat.
Robert couldn't believe what he was hearing. He almost felt sorry for Mr Vaselly. He ventured a quick glance. There was no reaction. Not the slightest indication that the PE teacher had registered anything amiss. Indeed, he smiled slightly at the headmaster and said equably, 'Mr Nikelseer, if you think it's a good idea for Karim to learn wrestling, then of course I will try to fit it in as a trial for this term. Is that satisfactory?'
His bluff called, the headmaster's face slammed shut. 'I expect a progress report in five weeks time!' He bustled off.
'You'll probably regret this,' snapped the PE teacher. 'Be in the weights room immediately after school.'
'Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.' Robert grinned at the retreating back. Round two to me, he thought, wondering why it seemed a hollow victory.
Uneasy rather than excited at the prospect of wrestling with the peculiar PE teacher, Robert told no one about it. The weightlifting room was under the Gymnasium. Basketballs thumped overhead with stunning irregularity, punctuated by raucous cheers, whistles, and the bangs and scuffles of feet. Frosted-glass windows stood wide to reveal football fields and the back boundary, where school met suburbia. The room was neatly organised and smelled of sweat. A pile of rubber mats occupied one corner. Bars, weights and stands were arranged along the wall facing the windows.
Mr Vaselly and the other PE teacher appeared in the doorway at the top of the stairs. They were laughing. Robert hardly recognised him; he looked younger, relaxed. Noticing Robert, he deleted the smile, frowned, excused himself from his colleague, closed the door and ran down the stairs.
'On time, good!' he grunted.
Silently, they dragged mats together to make a padded floor area, removed shoes and socks and faced each other. Vaselly's expression was wary, perhaps slightly curious, certainly uncompromising. 'We won't do anything energetic; your clothes are unsuitable. Next time I'll bring practice suits so we can work out properly. Bring your gym shoes.'
Everything was strictly professional. Mr Vaselly demonstrated the square stance, emphasised the constant need for balance, described first moves, recounted a little of the modern history of the sport and discussed centre of gravity - how it could be raised and lowered to advantage, as well as the pitfalls of misjudging it. Robert was taught not to waste energy on gripping, but to use his hand like a hook, and pull. He was shown the drop-step stance and how to use parts of his body as a fulcrum before posting or pulling. It was a serious game, this wrestling.
After what seemed like five minutes, Mr Vaselly stood back and rubbed at his bristly hair. 'You're getting the hang of it, but that's enough for today.'
Robert was astonished to realise they'd been practising for nearly an hour, and disappointed he'd have to wait another week.
'Tomorrow morning at seven-thirty.'
'But - I thought it was only an hour a week?'
'I warned you you'd regret it! How far do you think we'd get in the five weeks the headmaster has given us if we only practised once a week? No, it's every day for an hour. Don't be late! Close the windows. No need to put away the mats, we'll be the first ones here.' He took the stairs three at a time and disappeared.
'So he thinks it'll be too much for me does he? Huh! It certainly won't be me who's the first to cry stop,' Robert muttered as he replaced his shoes and socks, closed the windows and pulled the door shut.
After hearing an edited version of his battle of wills with the sports teacher, Robert's parents were determined he should be on time, behave correctly, and persevere. He arrived at the already open gym on the dot of half past seven. It had been a cloudless night with a touch of frost - even a hard jog to school hadn't raised a sweat. A wrestling suit was waiting for him in the centre of the mats, so he put it on, opened the window, and turned slowly in the already warm sunlight.
Mr Vaselly was still a mystery. Indecipherable. Thus, instead of his usual self-assurance Robert felt exposed, even vulnerable in the skin-tight, sightly too small garment. Vaselly appeared confident, relaxed, trim and hard.
'Wouldn't shorts be as good as these bathers?'
'The proper suit gives maximum freedom, there's no waist band to grab, and they can't be pulled down.'
'I feel… naked.'
'You'll get used to it. You're more heavily built than me. If you like we can close the windows and lock the door.'
Mr Vaselly was an excellent teacher; happy to explain again and again without making his pupil feel stupid. The aim might be simple, but the process was infinitely subtle. Robert could see that brute strength was not going to be the answer - he had already tried that, ending up on his back. There seemed to be as much psychology involved as agility, strength and staying power. His instructor had an uncanny knack of anticipating every move. The proper clothes did help. Apart from the extra freedom of movement, he could sometimes feel slight changes in the muscle tension of waist, chest or whatever part he was holding, and try to predict his opponent's next move. He couldn't hide his delight when he accidentally unbalanced Mr Vaselly with a reversed body hold. He wished he could remember how he'd done it. An hour disappeared.
'Same time tomorrow. Put the gear away,' and he was gone.
Robert carefully stowed his suit in his bag, dressed himself, set the room in order, opened the windows and was just in time for assembly; curiously pleased with his morning.
At the third session they greeted each other with guarded smiles before getting down to the serious problems of balance, stance, holds, posts and centre of gravity. Robert hoped Mr Vaselly was also enjoying the sessions, but he gave nothing away.
Tearing out of the gym one morning, late for assembly, he was hailed by Graham Arnessen, one of the kids from his Chemistry class. 'Yo, Robert, don't tell me you're a fitness freak?'
'Freak's the word,' smiled Robert, deciding to keep the wrestling under wraps. 'I twisted the dread Vaselly's arm till he let me work on a fitness circuit instead of one of the listed activities.'
Graham did an exaggerated double take. 'Vaselly let you what? This is groundbreaking! You get the most dreaded man on the staff to let you do what you want! All hail!' He knelt in an extravagant salaam. 'I'll order a medal.'
'Stupid prick, he's not that bad. Not that we talk to each other. I just do my thing.'
'Rather you than me, mate. Still it can't be worse than what I picked - patter-tennis for God's sake! Once a week we go to the tennis courts and play this fuckwit game. At least we used to, but hardly anyone bothers to turn up any more. We all thought Ma. Henderson was having you on when she said you'd have to take a compulsory activity. No one checks on it. They're probably trying to impress the new boy.' He laughed and they got to their seats just as the teachers began their daily procession up the aisle and onto the stage.
Robert had revised his initial reactions. About ten of his fellow year-twelve students met in a sunny corner of the cavernous, senior students' common room during intervals and lunchtimes, where they mucked about and discussed things of general interest. He was pleased they'd accepted him. The only one who didn't seem to fit in was a runt called Lance Osbairne. He imagined the others felt sorry for him.
By the end of lunchtime everyone knew about Robert's victory and had commiserated on his having to share space with Vaselly, or at least the boys did. Marcia and Helen were curious to know what the PE teacher was really like, but Robert was, quite honestly this time, unable to tell them. He had set out to find a chink in the enemy's armour, but knew as little now as he had at the start. Give it time, he thought, then frowned as he realised that his reasons for wanting to know Vaselly better had changed.
With brain and conversation on autopilot, Robert didn't realise, until Aaron thumped him on the shoulder, thrust a bit of paper into his hand and said, 'That'll be extra-shagabodacious, Rob me boy! Phone number's there in case you come adrift,' that he'd accepted an invitation to a party. Blood drained. Fingers froze. What the hell to do? The last thing he wanted was to go to a bloody party! Shit! Shit! Shit! He'd have to think of an excuse. A shadow made him look up.
'I'm glad you're going, Robert. Aaron's parties can get a bit frantic.'
'What the hell's her name'? He smiled vaguely at the thin, wide-eyed girl who asked lots of questions in class. 'Oh yeah, Maria. No, Marcia. What's she on about? She hardly knows me. I could be a frigging rapist. 'Why're you going then?' he asked lazily.
'I heard you say you were going.'
'How'd you guess?' Marcia gave a tinkling laugh, tossed her curly black hair and joined a gaggle of girls at the jukebox. Cold sweat trickled underarm. 'What's the matter with me? Why don't I want to go to the party? Because you're a fuckwit. Get out and have a good time like everyone else! But you don't want to be like everyone else - they're two-dimensional yobbos only interested in sex...' The unsettling interior monologue continued until class, where his ability to focus on the job in hand let him shut out unwelcome questions and thoughts.
Saturday arrived and, as there hadn't been time to develop a contagious illness, Robert jogged the two kilometres through chill drizzle to a rambling wooden house in a neglected allotment on a busy road. Traffic noise would have prevented a knock being heard even if the air hadn't been pulsating with a Rock beat loud enough to anaesthetise. He followed the numbing blare to a medium-sized room lit by a couple of red bulbs and a strobe. Someone sprawled across a lounger, three girls jiggled in the corner by the stereo, and several boys were drinking at an ornate bar, its mirrored surfaces reflecting and multiplying the erratically flashing lights. One of the girls detached themselves from the group and, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he recognised Marcia.
'Robert,' she yelled, twining her arms around his neck. 'You've come! The others reckoned you wouldn't, but I knew you would.' She stared into his frown and giggled nervously. 'Graham and Barbara are over there,' indicating vaguely. 'Let's dance.' She slid her arms down and clutched at his waist, apparently unwilling to risk separation. Aaron's large fist punched his shoulder. 'Good to see ya, Rob. Come and tank up before Marcia gets you by the balls.'
Robert was slightly shocked, but Marcia laughed and trailed them to the bar where Robert swapped his half-dozen cans for an opened stubby. Marcia dragged him to the middle of the room. Deafened, irritated by smoke and strobe, they jiggled aimlessly. He wondered when it would be OK to leave. On the other side of the room a ragged voice was screaming along with the music. Marcia was a good mover and for a while he enjoyed the dancing, until with a sudden flush of embarrassment realised they were the only couple on the floor. The others were scattered around the room kissing, groping, smoking, drinking. He steered Marcia across to Graham and Barbara, but it was too noisy to talk.
Placing his untouched stubby under a chair, he went for an urgent pee. A bundle of clothes whimpered in the passage. The toilet stank - someone had missed the pan. An open bedroom doorway emitted grunts from the dark. He wished he was somewhere else. Before he could re-enter the main room, Aaron grabbed his arm, pulled him into a bedroom, and closed the door. The noise level sank to a roar.
'Fuck, it's hot,' Aaron muttered, dragging off his shirt and taking a small bottle out of the drawer in the bedside table. With a grin of complicity he draped his arm round Robert's neck. 'These are for you, Rob baby.' He whispered into his ear, thrusting two white tablets into Robert's hand.
'What are they?'
'I don't want them.
Aaron's friendly leer dissolved. 'You're a nerd, Karim.' Pocketing his treasure, he slammed out.
Robert stood still. Twinges of disappointment and relief flittered through his chest. He's right. I am a nerd, he thought, forcing himself to return to the smoke and noise. Aaron was leaning on the bar running his fingers through his girlfriend's hair while she stroked his chest. He looked over her head at Robert and winked. Relieved, Robert winked back, joined the others, retrieved his can and pretended to sip. Six months previously he'd got drunk. Drunk enough to lose control, but not awareness. Instead of feeling more at ease his sense of alienation had intensified and, convinced he was surrounded by hostility, he'd panicked and vowed never to do it again.
Graham yelled in his ear, 'Not your scene?' Robert shook his head. Graham grinned and nodded towards the door. Robert went out and stood in the porch, deafened this time by a torrential downpour. He took several deep breaths. At least the air was clean. Panic retreated. A few minutes later Graham joined him and they stood side by side watching the rain.
Robert nodded back towards the lounge. 'Who're all those piss-heads?'
'Extra. How'd you get here?'
'Wanna lift home, Fitman?'
They raced for the car.
'Get in the back, Barbara's draining her brain.'
Graham turned in his seat, stared at Robert, grunted a laugh and said, 'I knew I was right about you.'
'Right about what?'
'The others reckoned you'd chicken out. Rumour has it you're a...'
'You know. A ladies' man, but not a man for the ladies?'
Robert's mouth refused to function. Blood had drained to his feet. 'Are you telling me the others reckon I'm queer?'
He must have looked and sounded more aggressive than he felt because Graham backed off immediately. 'Hey, hey. Cool it, Rob. I told them you weren't a faggoty limp-wrist. You stick to yourself a bit at school and people were wondering - that's all. No worries. Just wanted to make sure I didn't have an AIDS arsehole on the back seat.'
Robert confined himself to an aggressive growl.
'Mind you, I wouldn't mind seeing Marcia's face if she discovered her date was a poofter.' Graham laughed wildly. Drinks and tabs were starting to show.
Robert's heart sank. He'd been set up. Too late to pretend he had a sudden urge to jog home through the rain. Blankness settled on his brain as two figures raced across. Barbara scrambled in beside Graham; Marcia clambered in the back, threw her arms around Robert's neck and kissed him wetly on the lips before subsiding into a fit of giggles. Her breath smelled of alcohol.
'Surprise, surprise,' laughed Barbara. 'Let's go somewhere quiet. That was a madhouse.'
'Don't his parent's mind?'
'No idea. They always clear out. I've never met them.'
Robert gave directions to his house.
Graham leered back over the seat. 'Yeah sure, mate.
He parked in front of the closed gates to a park. Before the engine was turned off, Barbara had unbuttoned Graham's shirt and was licking at his nipples. Marcia tried to follow suit but Robert pushed her hand away.
'I need some fresh air. Let's go for a walk.'
'Sounds romantic,' smirked Graham, leaning back against the window while Barbara fiddled with his jeans.
The rain had stopped, so they squeezed through the gap between fence and gate and wandered into mist and dripping trees, arms around each other's waists.
'Do you fancy me, Robert?'
'You're intelligent and good to talk to.'
'That's not what I asked.' Her voice was slightly slurred.
'You ask good questions in class.'
'Clever of you to notice, but that's still not what I asked.'
'You're slim and slightly drunk.'
Robert complied. Marcia wanted more. They found a bench. He took off his jacket and they sat on it. It began to rain heavily. They raced back to the car and scrambled in, soaking wet. Graham and Barbara didn't look up - his fingers were scrabbling in her hair; her face was in his groin.
Marcia laughed softly, slipped out of her blouse and placed Robert's hand on her breast. He felt her nipples harden. They tongue-kissed. She undid his zip and awkwardly took out his penis, scratching it on the zip. He winced and reluctantly slid his hand into her panties. She jiggled her buttocks to make it easier. In the front seat Graham muttered, 'Stop. I don't want to come yet.' They rearranged themselves and this time it was Barbara's turn to groan.
Marcia bent and sucked tentatively at Robert's still flaccid penis. He had the feeling it was her first time. He wanted to smash his fist into her head and run away as fast as he could. He hated the feel of her hot wetness, the smell, her slimy tongue pushing into his mouth, the soggy sucking on his cock. Her demands for kisses. He was also acutely embarrassed by his lack of an erection. But most of all he was bored. Bored, bored, bored! This had to be the most incredibly dull, asinine way to spend an evening that could be devised. And it seemed as if they'd been doing it for hours!
He looked down, frowning.
Marcia sidled up beside him, licked at his ear and whispered, 'I'll do anything you want.'
The invitation was clear, but there was nothing he wanted her to do.
'Did you like what I was doing?'
'I'd like it a bloody sight more if we had a bit of privacy!' Robert couldn't keep the snappiness out of his voice. 'How can I get a hard on listening to those two slurping in the front seat.'
Marcia giggled, fears allayed, her attraction to this paragon of sensitivity redoubled. That's what I like about you, Robert. You're so classy.'
They snuggled together, his hand on her breast, hers on his belly, swapping the occasional soggy kiss for what seemed an eternity in damp, semi-Platonic complicity until, with great snorts and exclamations of release, Graham achieved orgasm, adjusted himself, and drove them home.
Marcia got out first, leaning through the window to deposit a kiss full of promise and saliva. 'Next time we'll be alone,' she whispered, an expectant smile dowsing him in nebulous alarm for the future.
The evening had seemed endless, so Robert was surprised to find both parents still up.
'Had a good time?'
'No.' His face was tight with anger. He wanted to forget, not relive the embarrassment.
'Too noisy. Too much drinking. Nothing to do.'
'Did you meet any girls?'
'To talk to, but… Oh hell. I give up. I just don't understand people!' Angry at the world and himself, Robert snapped goodnight and shut himself in his room. He was in bed with the light out when Sanjay came in.
'You still awake?'
His father sat in the darkness on the end of the bed, unsure how to start but determined to be a good parent. He was a soft hearted man, distressed by unhappiness in those around him, so would be unable to sleep until he had tried to understand at least one of the problems which for so many months had been plaguing his previously cheerful and carefree son. He was also a clever man and, little by little, although the sordid details remained locked in Robert's head, the underlying cause of the anger came to light.
'What's the matter with me, Dad?'
'Did you like kissing and feeling up girls for hours?'
'Never had the chance. You know your grandmother.'
Despite himself, Robert smiled. 'Would you have liked to?'
'Why don't I?'
'Haven't found the right girl?'
'That's stupid! Marcia's intelligent and good-looking. Other guys don't seem to care who they do it with.' He turned his face into the pillow, sighed and mumbled. 'Maybe I'm just sexless.'
'Now you're stupid. The girls obviously find you sexy. There could be other reasons.'
'There are any number of reasons for temporary impotence.'
'How do you know it's temporary?'
Robert blushed in the dark. 'Yeah.' He assumed his father had wanked when he was young, but it was impossible to imagine.
'It doesn't matter what the reasons are. In time all will be resolved. And never forget that we love you no matter what.' He stood up. 'At least your studies won't be distracted by girls.'
'I'm distracted by my own inadequacy.'
Silence. For once Sanjay had no answer.
'Thanks, Dad. I know you mean well… but I'll sort things out for myself. I just don't know how to face Marcia on Monday.'
'You owe her nothing! She hasn't the right to either your affections or your body. The kindest thing is to let her think she's not your type. Problems will only arise if you apologise. That's always taken as a sign of weakness and starts a tide of rumour. People will usually accept your estimation of yourself, so if you want to avoid being the subject of gossip, appear self-satisfied.'
Sanjay and Monique talked until the early hours. They thought they knew the nature of the problem, but decided their son had to work it out for himself. They could only give love and support. The path to self-knowledge is a solitary one. If short cuts are taken the traveller might arrive before he is ready.
Monique fell asleep, leaving Sanjay to examine his values. What did he really feel? If Robert was... did he mind? He tried to feel upset, angry, disappointed, repelled - anything - but couldn't. His only emotion when thinking about Robert was a warm fuzzy love. Did it mean he didn't care? Why couldn't he feel let down? Disgusted? Ashamed? That was a good one. Ashamed before whom? The opinions of others seldom meant anything to Sanjay. He had always felt more an observer of life than a participant. Most of the things that motivated others left Sanjay untouched.
Blessed with a low sex-drive compounded by a sense of social inferiority, he had been twenty before being overtaken by the urge to take out girls. Even then, a goodnight peck had satisfied him, if not his partner. When propositioned by men he had felt neither threatened nor offended. Indeed, his polite apologies at having to refuse usually brought forth a laugh and had once resulted in a friendship, which still endured.
Monique was the first woman who had really aroused him. With her he had experienced no insecurities, no worries about inadequacy, no performance expectations to render him impotent. In fact his newfound sexual passion had almost overwhelmed him. To this day she was the only woman with whom he desired to have sex. He sighed and relaxed. He honestly did not give a stuff what sexual orientation his son might have. It had nothing to do with his worth and made not the slightest difference to Sanjay's love for him. Sleep invaded his being and put a smile on his face.
Things turned out exactly as Sanjay had predicted. Robert and Marcia took pleasure in picking each other's brains and arguing in the common room, and the party was forgotten. Each morning he was impatient to get to his wrestling practice, and hoped his instructor felt the same. Robert knew as little about Mr Vaselly after four weeks as he had at the beginning. They discussed tactics, fought hard, and gave no quarter. After a hard bout they would lie on the mats panting with the pleasure of exertion, comfortable with each other's silence.
One morning, after an intricate hold, twist and flick, Robert flipped his opponent onto his back. Losing his own balance he crashed, ending up splayed against the wall.
'That's not in the book. I'll bet you can't do it again.'
Robert looked across, startled by a luminous grin. He blushed, began to stutter something, gave up and looked away in confusion.
'Only a few days till the headmaster's inspection. Don't expect any praise. I'm pretty sure he only agreed to it to spite me.'
'Wish I was.'
'But you're a great teacher!'
'Try telling him that.'
'I will. And he'd better be impressed. But I don't care if he is or not, I'm enjoying it so much. Thanks.'
'No need to thank me. I enjoy it too. Hell, look at the time! We'll be late for assembly. Leave the mats for later.'
They only just made it. It was Friday; the day Mr Nikelseer gave a Bible reading and a prayer before the deputy headmaster read out the notices. Robert tried to listen to the readings and think about them, but they were usually obscure and seemed to have little bearing, as far as he could discern, on school life. No one else showed the slightest interest. It was an opportunity to relax before class. Today's reading was no exception.
Henceforth is laid up for me a crown of righteousness
Which the Lord, the righteous judge,
Shall give me at that day.
And not to me only, but to all who love his appearing.
There was a scuffle during interval as Robert was crossing the quad. A boy of about fourteen or fifteen was writhing on the asphalt making futile attempts to defend himself from the indolent kicks and slaps of two louts who were holding him down. Lance, the odd man out in the students' common room, was helping them; trying to remove the kid's belt. Three girls dominated the gaggle of observers, egging them on.
'Get the fucking poof's trousers down!'
'Faggots shouldn't be allowed to wear trousers!'
'Give him a skirt!' chorused the three harpies to hoots of derisive sniggers and chants of 'poofter, poofter, cock-sucking poofter.' There was no teacher in sight. Without stopping to think, Robert elbowed forward and tapped Lance on the shoulder. 'Leave the kid alone, Lance. You're hardly glorious examples of manhood if it takes three blokes to torment one guy.'
'What are ya? Fucking black queer-lover?' Lance snarled. 'Piss off or we'll do you over too.'
Robert faced him, expressionless. After five of the longest seconds he could remember, he bent down and pulled the kid off the ground by his shirtfront, hauling him to his feet. 'Scram. And stay away from these slobs in future,' he grunted, giving the boy a shove which nearly threw him back on the ground. Being taller, several kilos heavier and obviously fitter than the thugs, they weren't game to touch him. Doing his best to show neither his contempt, nor that his hands had started to shake, Robert picked up his bag, threw it as nonchalantly as he could manage over his shoulder, and ambled off to the common room. What the hell have I done? The kid probably deserved what he was getting and now I've made enemies I can do without. Jeeze I'm a fuckwit! He helped himself unsteadily to a coffee.
Helen looked up from her book. 'You look very grave,' she commented leisurely, 'Someone pinch your lunch money?'
'Lance doing a bit of bullying.'
'Lance and his mob are always picking on some unfortunate kid who doesn't fit in with their idea of the true Aussie male, it makes me sick!'
'Why isn't something done about it?'
'Goodness knows. He gets his kicks by showing off to the dumbos who hang around for the cash he dishes out when they crawl on their bellies and lick his boots.'
'If they do it again I'll report him. Bullying's the pits. I can't just stand around and see it happen without doing anything!'
'Then don't watch. Be like the rest of us and stay away. And as for reporting him; who to? The only one in trouble will be you, so keep your nose clean.' She closed her book and fixed Robert with a frown. 'That's good advice I'm giving you. This school is not a tolerance zone.'
Sunlight slanted into the classroom through high windows. The school had been built at a time when it was considered an unprofitable distraction for students to see outside. Having come from a school blessed with floor to ceiling windows, Robert appreciated not having idiots sitting outside, or shuffling past making rude noises and giving everyone the fingers.
Mr Rands set up the overhead projector while his students took out texts and notes. Lance paused in the entrance, a scowl rendering him even less attractive than usual. Spotting Robert he strutted across, dumped his bag on top of the opened books, leaned over, dropped a thick gob of yellowish spit onto a page of notes, then sneered as though daring Robert to do something. Robert whipped up his hand, dragged Lance's head down and squashed his nose into his own spittle. Lesson preparation absorbed everyone's attention.
'Muck with me again and I'll crush your face,' Robert hissed, forcing himself to release the scrawny neck so Lance could take his bag and purple face to a seat on the other side of the room.
Barbara passed him a couple of tissues. 'Well done!' she whispered.
Mr Rands broke the silence. 'Everyone ready?' He smiled the bland smile of innocence.
They were studying depictions of the human body in Renaissance art. On the screen was a reproduction of The Battle of the Ten Nudes, an engraving showing ten muscled youths viciously attacking each other with knives, swords, axes and a bow and arrow, in front of a curtain of dense foliage as wild and untamed as the young men. It was by the Florentine artist and sculptor Pollaiuolo, reproductions of whose works had strongly influenced the German artist, Dürer - the main focus of this term's study. Only five poses had been used, each of which was reversed in order to show both front and back of the figure.
'Pollaiuolo, of course, is a nickname, like that of so many Italian artists of the time. The apocryphal story is that his father kept chickens, in Italian pollo, hence the little chicken, Pollaiuolo.' - Mr Rands was full of such trivia. 'The search for a formula for ideal human proportions was an obsession with Renaissance artists. Dürer spent most of his life jealously convinced that Italians had discovered this recipe, and filled volumes with calculations and drawings and copies of their works that, thanks to the invention of printing a few years previously, were increasingly available to collectors north of the Alps. Engravings such as this were not only depictions of ideal male bodies in action, but also money-spinners, appealing to collectors who appreciated such mildly erotic works.' He slipped another transparency onto the screen. 'Like this little bronze sculpture of Hercules wrestling with Antaeus.'
There was doubt in the minds of several students about the suitability of such works for public display. Robert had a vision of what he and Mr Vaselly must look like when wrestling, and let forth an involuntary guffaw. There was something ridiculous about two men hugging, squeezing and twisting themselves into compromising positions. Of course he and Vaselly weren't nude - although his gear was so tight he felt as if he was.
'Going to share the joke, Robert?' asked Mr Rands.
'Sorry, Sir. I was just thinking about Hercules having to wrestle with Antaeus like that. Now-a-days he'd simply get a gun and pot him.'
'Ah, but Antaeus was immortal as long as he touched the ground. Hercules had to hold his feet off the earth for a long time to destroy his powers. Shooting would have solved nothing. Such stories are not simply the meanderings of primitive pagans, they illustrate universal truths. We might not believe in Hercules and Antaeus today, but we've replaced them with equally fantastic myths.'
'What's the eternal truth behind this one, Sir?' asked Charlie Kosich with more than a hint of disbelief.
'Universal, Charlie, not eternal. Humans, like all life, derive their strength from the earth. Antaeus' evil character is more or less irrelevant. The point is that if you remove someone from their roots, they wither away. I sometimes wonder if that's not one of the reasons for the crime, violence, depression and other problems of modern humans. We are too far from the source of life. There are more police per person than ever before in history, with ever increasing technical aids - but there is no lessening of crime. Never have there been so many doctors per capita as in the western world, and never have so many humans been so sick.'
'What's so good about dirt?' A voice from the back.
'Dirt is not a synonym for either the planet Earth, or the soil that holds water and in which grows the foods that sustain every living land-based thing-including us. We evolved on Earth and will therefore forever depend on it for survival. You know that, it's basic. But most arable land is now so poisoned that protective gear must be worn by those growing our food; no waterway is safe to drink from, run-off is poisoning the seas. Parks and reserves, instead of providing a buffer, are collapsing from over use. Modern conveniences are nothing but tools; they don't give us mental strength. We are like Antaeus hoisted off the ground by Hercules - our strength is ebbing.' He laughed abruptly. 'That's given you long faces.'
They were not sure whether to believe him.
'Mr Rands, you said we have new myths. Like what?'
'Like… Science will find the answers to all our problems... Doctors will make us healthy…. Democracy ensures good government… You can believe what you see on TV and read in the papers… Death is the worst thing that can happen. Myths are there to calm the fears of people who need to be told their lives are worth something.'
'What myths do you believe in?'
'I have no fears.' Mr Rands' smile was enigmatic.
'I think it's a bloody disgusting sculpture! Two blokes rubbing their groins together like a couple of queers. Makes me sick.' Typically, Lance ignored the ideas and voiced his prejudices.
'Lance, we've been through this before. What you consider good and bad, right and wrong, is a question of fashion and your background, it is not a universal truth. You know perfectly well there was a fashion at that time for things classical - Greek and Roman. Not everyone was so persuaded, and people didn't hesitate to express contrary opinions, but it was usually left at that. Certainly not degenerating into playground bashings!'
Unfazed, Lance continued, 'I reckon all paintings by faggots should be banned! We shouldn't have to learn about perverts?'
'Oh shut up, Lance! Give it a rest.' Barbara Tappendon was one of the few who hadn't given up on Lance, although he tormented her tirelessly.
'You're the only teacher who thinks queers are normal. You should hear what some of the other teachers say about them. Even Dürer was a poof, writing all those sick letters to Pirkheimer.'
'He also had a wife, Agnes. Things are never simply black and white, Lance. Humans are infinitely complex. Why can't you accept that and try to make yourself perfect? If we were to ban all things contributed by men who had homosexual experiences, then we'd have many fewer inventions, precious little art, literature, music, and live theatre; and life would be the poorer. I'll bet most of you don't know that it was mainly due to a gay British mathematician, Alan Turing, that Hitler was defeated. He invented a computer to decode the "Enigma" machine.' The teacher turned his quiet gaze on Lance. 'Turing suicided in his thirties because of harassment by people like you, Lance!'
Mr Rands gazed out the window for a couple of seconds before continuing. 'Fortunately for the human race, thinking people are happy to accept the exceptional personalities, along with the gifts great minds can bring. Try to remember this: greatness can never inhabit the mind of a conformist. The two are mutually incompatible. Now, back to the Renaissance!'
As usual, Mr Rands had given food for thought and created associations with the works, making them easier to remember. For Robert it was an almost indigestible feast.
Mr Vaselly was sorting through papers when Robert arrived the following morning. He passed across earphones and a Walkman. 'I'm a bit behind with paper work, so listen to the tape while I catch up.'
Sprawled on the beanbag to the left of the desk, Robert donned the earphones. A full orchestra was belting out complicated and busy rhythms, harmonies and tunes. He thought he recognised some of them. They went on and on without let up. He couldn't stop his feet jiggling, a grin of pleasure splitting his face. Vaselly looked at the unselfconscious youth and wondered why intelligent, straightforward people were seldom good physical specimens. Most guys he knew were either clever and wimpish, or physical and slobs. Many had such narrow interests there was nothing to talk about once their topic was exhausted.
Robert seemed different. A pity he was a pupil. Bart Vaselly was in need of a friend. He'd had to work his way through both high school and University and hadn't had the time to socialise. Life seemed too serious to waste on unproductive fun, although what his fellow students called fun, seldom appealed to him. Of course he'd never had any spare cash - not even for the occasional beer. In the last eighteen months he'd met no one he could relate to. The other teachers were either too old, married with kids, or... It was his own fault. He spent so much time on schoolwork, there was none left for socialising. That would have to change. He was becoming a hermit at twenty-two and if he wasn't careful he'd never make friends. A yelp startled him.
'Hey, Sir, this is cool! What is it? I feel as though I know it!'
'Opera overtures by Rossini. Yeah, they are pretty up beat. I've lots more of his stuff if you want to hear it?'
They only managed a short session before it was time for assembly.
'You'd better wear PE shorts and a T-shirt when Mr Nikelseer inspects; I'll wear my tracksuit.'
Robert agreed; the headmaster was no Mr Pinot.
'After that,' Bart continued, 'I won't be able to keep coming to school every morning at seven-thirty. It's getting too much.'
'But…! This is the only thing that keeps me sane! Robert was speechless.
'Me too, but I've no time to myself. I'm either asleep or at school.'
'But… I can't stop, I'll turn to flab.' Robert dragged his thoughts from the fog of frustration. 'How about this? Instead of wrestling at school, we'll do it at your place.'
Vaselly stared at him, expressionless.
Robert blushed. 'Sorry, Sir. I've no right to invite myself to your place. But… how about if I help with… with boring things like checking supplies and gear, roll checking - there must be jobs I could do? I can come in during the week, take those jobs off your hands, and you'd have time for wrestling. At my place!'
'The first time we met you did everything you could to get up my nose. Now you want us to visit each other.'
Robert blushed. 'Yeah, well… I'm sorry about that. You see I hated school uniforms and having to do a compulsory activity, so I took it out on you. But I'm not really sorry,' he added with a twinkle, 'otherwise I'd never have got to know you and… and learned wrestling.' He blushed again, worrying he'd gone too far.
'I hardly went out of my way to be pleasant. Lots of kids delight in making teachers' lives a misery, so I sometimes come over a bit strong. You could have been just another jerk.'
'It's sure effective. Most of the kids are shit-scared of you.'
'I like you.' Robert blushed and stared at his feet. He'd never said that to anyone, not even his parents.
Of course those three words didn't express his true feelings. Those he concealed under a jumble of thoughts, not daring to examine them closely. Since they'd started wrestling he couldn't wait to get to school in the mornings. If he caught a glimpse of Mr Vaselly in the playground his heart leaped. He daydreamed about doing all sorts of other things with him, like hiking, camping, listening to music. He wondered how he could have imagined life was interesting before Mr Vaselly, even though this was the first time they'd spoken about any topic except wrestling. He knew nothing about the man, but couldn't get enough of his company.
Bart Vaselly let loose the sigh of a man who realises that whatever decision he makes will be wrong. 'I know I'll live to regret this, but come to my place on Saturday. However! Only with your parents' permission.'
They had missed assembly and were just in time for first period. Robert relaxed in his seat and daydreamed. It was Tuesday. Wednesday lunchtime they would sort out some jobs so he could free up Vaselly's time; Thursday after school was the headmaster's inspection, and on Saturday they'd wrestle. He felt excited, organised and nervous. Like when he was a kid, so excited he could hardly bear the waiting for a birthday, a trip to the circus, or whatever new thing was on the horizon. He grinned to himself. He'd been grinning a lot lately.
Wednesday was cold and wet. While dashing across to the gym, a sudden squall sent Robert scurrying for the inadequate shelter of a covered-way between two blocks. Just as he was debating whether to wait for the rain to stop or make a run for it, someone tugged at his arm. 'Come in out of the wet.'
It was more of a cupboard than a room. Hooks on the walls held brooms, spades and shovels. A line marker, a bundle of sacks, and a tin labelled Poison occupied one corner; shelves held tins of paint. The centre of the overcrowded space contained two school chairs on either side of a paint-splattered card-table. His rescuer was a kid of about fifteen; slim but not athletic, longish brown hair framing a smooth, dreamy face decorated with a black eye.
'I've been waiting for a chance to thank you,' he said in a surprisingly deep voice.
'But I want to.'
'It was nothing. Why was he bashing you?'
'Because I'm gay. He reckons all gays should be put down.'
'Did he give you that shiner?'
'Yep. Yesterday. Want a coffee?' Without waiting for an answer he turned to the table, filled two cups from a thermos, and offered one to Robert, who discovered he was pleased he'd stopped the bullying. The kid wasn't a weak no-hoper, he had guts.
'What's your name?'
'Murray Corso. And you're Robert Karim,' he grinned cheekily.
'How does Lance know you're gay?'
Murray gave his shoulders a flick, threw up his chin, fluffed his hair with the backs of his fingers, and with lightly pursed lips sent Robert a seductive, come-hither look.
Robert frowned and looked away.
'Don't look so embarrassed - it's just a joke.'
'Do you act like that all the time?'
'I start every day determined to be tough and butch, but as soon as anything upsets me Priscilla takes over. I don't know why. Most of the kids think it's funny, but teachers hate me - especially the men.
'Have you told your parents about the bashings?'
'Dad said it serves me right. He's ashamed of me, and Mum doesn't care as long as she's got money for the pokies.'
'But it's simple! Stop acting like that.'
'I told you! I try every morning, but… it's as though there's someone inside me, waiting for an excuse to pop out.'
'Everyone has at least two sides to their character. You could act like that.'
'You'd prefer to act like Lance?'
'You're joking! He disgusts me a thousand times more than you do!' Robert stopped, frowned, caught the flicker of hurt on Murray's face, and blurted, 'I'm sorry. You don't really disgust me. It's just that…I'd be frightened someone would bad-mouth me if I was seen with you. I can cope with being called a black bastard - but not queer.'
'Don't apologise, you're like me - you have to act the way you do, because that's the way you are. Gorgeous!'
'I'm only teasing. But I understand your reaction - I really do,' he added in a voice from which lightness and banter had vanished. 'Because I've started to despise myself.' He looked away.
Robert was horrified. He'd sometimes wished he was different in some way, but never disliked himself. He wanted to put his arm round the kid's shoulder and say he didn't mind. But he did mind. He wasn't strong enough to offer protection. He felt too vulnerable himself. Since the episode on the hill and the disastrous party a nervous premonition had been building; a feeling that he had to watch his back. He couldn't afford to do anything obvious for Murray.
'Have you been to the guidance counsellor?'
'Don't be stupid, you've met him.'
'I'll report Lance to the headmaster.'
Murray laughed sourly. 'Save your breath, I understand…I do really. You've done more than enough already. Just talking to you has made me feel better.' He smiled gaily, if with a rather brittle edge. 'I'm over my bout of self-pity. If you ever feel like another cup of coffee, here's where you'll find me.'
'The groundsman feels sorry for me so I spend most lunch times and intervals in here. At least I get all my homework and reading done.' He took Robert's arm and led him to the door. 'There are three holes at different angles so I can check if the coast's clear.' He looked out. 'No one about, so scoot. And thanks.'
'You're late. Get caught in the rain?'
'Yeah, had to shelter.' Robert decided not to mention Murray and his problems. He didn't want Mr Vaselly to think he was soft on gays and risk losing his friendship. 'But I'm here now, ready, willing and waiting.'
He was rewarded with one of Bart's dazzling smiles and found himself gaping stupidly back. How could this man make himself light up like that? Unnerved, he wondered what it meant. How could a smile make him feel so disoriented, so inadequate, so lucky to be on the receiving end? It made no sense.
Robert' jobs included checking sports gear, keeping the PE noticeboard up to date, laying out equipment for the day and sorting left-behind clothing. He promised to get to school at eight o'clock each morning for his duties. Anything not completed he would do at lunchtime.
Immediately after school he swallowed his nerves and went to the front office to make an appointment to see the headmaster. Mr Nikelseer was standing beside the typist, finger jabbing at a page as he reminded her that she was employed to type accurately. Robert coughed discreetly.
'What is it?'
'If you please, Sir, I'd like to make an appointment to see you.
'What is wrong with interval?'
'It's… ah… serious, Sir.'
'I can spare a few minutes now.' With one last cluck of irritation he led the way through to his study. It was a sombre, high-ceilinged room, carpeted in dull green with eight huge, leather-padded chairs arranged in a semi-circle. Motioning Robert to stand in front of his elaborately panelled desk, the headmaster sat, placed his elbows on the pristine blotter, made a steeple with his fingers and peered at Robert over gold-rimmed half-glasses. Robert felt naughty and stupid and wished he hadn't come. Embarrassed by the continuing silence, he started talking; at first in a rush, then more relaxedly as the headmaster's stillness gave him confidence.
'It's about Murray Corso, Sir. He is being mentally and physically assaulted by older boys, and I wondered if there was anything you could do about it?'
'They call him names and bash him up.'
'I know Murray Corso.' The intonation suggested he would rather he didn't. 'I do not wish to sound devoid of compassion, indeed my heart goes out to those who suffer unjustly, but it is simply high spirits. That's how boys learn what is expected of them. They will never become men by being molly-coddled and nursed through every little scrap.'
'Today he has a black eye, and is very upset.'
'Why does it concern you?'
'I stopped a fight a few days ago, and today I saw him at interval. He hides most intervals and lunchtimes.'
Robert's jaw froze. 'I… I don't know, Sir.'
The headmaster eyeballed him for several long seconds before continuing quietly. 'In this school we have duty teachers, a guidance counsellor, and other professional support networks to attend to pupil welfare. And as you are aware, I am available every morning to discuss with students anything that concerns them.'
'But… those things aren't working, Sir.'
Mr Nikelseer pushed himself to the back of his chair and fixed a bleak eye on the young upstart. His manner throughout the interview was mild. Anyone listening at the door would imagine a pleasant chat between benevolent headmaster and prized senior student. To the recipient of his words, however, they were imbued with menace and vague threat. 'Are you setting yourself up as judge of the support we offer our pupils?' Without pausing for a reply he continued, 'Do you not think I suffer when my students suffer? Do you imagine I am so devoid of God's love that I will not rescue the lost sheep? How dare you, after only a few weeks, criticise this establishment?' An imperiously raised hand prevented protest. 'Enough! Five weeks ago you refused to choose a sporting activity. Today you criticise what you know nothing about. I will overlook your impudence this time, but there had better be no recurrence if you wish to have a successful end to your schooling. Go now!'
Robert went: - tail between his legs for the second time in six weeks.
Mr Nikelseer sat very still, waiting for his heartbeats to slow. He was concerned about bullying, but he was equally concerned about two other things. Over the years he had laboriously constructed a support network, the success of which depended on dutiful teachers. These were in short supply. Many of his younger staff members appeared to resent being given orders, and policies that had worked perfectly for two decades were now openly criticised in staff meetings by youngsters too immature to have learned the value of stability. To them his years of experience counted as nothing. They insisted on being part of the decision-making process, but were reluctant to participate in the day-to-day implementation. He found himself spending intervals and lunchtimes simply checking on which teachers had not turned up for playground duty, so it wasn't surprising, and hardly his fault, if the occasional bit of bullying was overlooked.
His other concern in the present situation was God. Not God himself, but his demands. Ian Nikelseer had promised to obey God in all things, and God had made it abundantly clear that the followers of Sodom and Gomorrah were to be wiped from the face of the earth. While he did feel pity for the Corso boy and others like him, he was determined to be an obedient mouthpiece and soldier for Christ, whatever the cost! 'Karim.' As the headmaster whispered the name he suffered an involuntary shudder.
After dinner, Monique settled herself in the bedroom sorting out stuff for St. Vincent de Paul, while Robert and Sanjay played chess rather badly in front of the fire. They both felt they ought to be able to play, it being a game requiring intelligence, but it also required forward planning and cunning, and an ability to foresee the consequences of their moves. These were traits the Karim males did not have in abundance, their highly developed intuitive skills not providing an adequate substitute. The average game lasted about ten minutes and the loser of this one had to take out the rubbish. Not wanting to seem too keen, Robert had waited until now to broach his two pressing problems.
'Dad, Mr Vaselly hasn't time to teach me wrestling at school any more, but I talked him into giving me lessons at his place on Saturdays. He agreed on condition that you and Mum are happy about it. What do you reckon?'
'I was under the impression you had only taken up the sport to make a nuisance of yourself.'
'Yeah. Well now I really like it and Vaselly's a great guy!' He hoped he hadn't put too much emphasis on great. There was no visible reaction from his father, but that didn't mean anything.
'Let's see what your mother has to say. Monique, can you come in here for a minute?'
His mother drifted in, leaned over the back of Sanjay's chair and puffed warm breath over his ripening bald spot before kissing it delicately. They explained the situation and her eyes lit up.
'Excellent! We invite Mr Vaselly for dinner, and if we find him sympathetic, you may go. Isn't that so, Sanjay?'
He nodded in amused resignation. Cooking was one of Monique's passions, meeting new people another.
'That'll be great; I want you both to meet him. I'm sure you'll like him, but be nice! You can be a bit intimidating sometimes.'
'Relax, chérie, we will be the souls of dispassion.'
'Discretion,' corrected Sanjay automatically.
Monique, crossing her fingers that Robert's recent spate of good humour would last, returned to clothes sorting, head already filling with plans for Friday's meal.
'There's another thing I'd like your opinion on, Dad.'
'And what's that?' Sanjay settled back with relief, the game was not going his way.
Robert gave as detailed a description as he could of the Murray Corso saga, including a word for word account of the abortive interview with the headmaster.
Sanjay gazed at his son incredulously. 'Are you sure you've got this right? You haven't left out some all-important detail?'
'No, that's exactly how it went. I felt an utter fool. Was I really impudent? I was only trying to help. I'm sure Murray's desperate and I couldn't think what else to do. The guidance counsellor's useless.'
'If it makes you feel any better I'm proud of you. There aren't many people prepared to stick their necks out to help others, especially ones they neither know nor particularly like!'
'Yeah. OK… I may have given you a bit of a wrong impression there. I actually quite like Murray; it's just that I'd die of embarrassment if anyone saw us together when he was acting like a girl. I feel a bit rotten about that.'
'Don't tell your mother or she'll invite him to dinner! I'll give it some thought, but meanwhile, keep out of it. I've never believed in human sacrifice and can see no point in you jeopardising your schooling for some kid who makes a fool of himself. I know,' he added in response to Robert's look, 'he can't help it. But you don't need problems now with only a few weeks till your Course Skills Test.
Sanjay lost the game and took out the rubbish.
Thursday afternoon arrived warm and sunny. Respectable in loose white shorts, T-shirt and immaculate tennis shoes and socks, Robert faced Vaselly in his grey tracksuit on the mat. The headmaster had impatiently refused the offer of a chair, preferring to remain standing awkwardly at one side of the room, gazing in bored abstraction through the open windows to where a game of soccer was in progress.
His own school days had afforded many opportunities to observe the lucky ones to whom friends and friendships were an easy and natural part of life. Some friendships, he had noticed, are open to all comers, while others are exclusive. Of those, he remained bitterly envious. He glanced at the two young men. What right had they to be so relaxed together? The way they set out the mats, smiled, anticipated each other's movements as though possessing a secret language, was totally excluding. The confident pleasure they took in each other's company was an affront to decency.
Schools could not function if pupils and teachers felt free to treat each other as equals. Education and learning were the result of discipline! Not some modern nonsense of friendly osmosis. Discipline required respect. The only thing engendered by familiarity was contempt. Dizziness made him grasp the window frame for support. He took slow breaths to calm the nausea, impatient for deliverance.
Confident they were presenting a model teacher-pupil relationship, the wrestlers demonstrated the stances and holds Robert had learned, stopping occasionally so Mr Vaselly could explain the finer points. After about ten, sweat-filled minutes they stood expectantly before him.
'Is that it?' the headmaster asked with the air of someone who has been promised a banquet and served a hamburger. 'You are obviously pleased with your progress, but I fail to understand why anyone would want to make such a…a display of themselves. Nor,' he continued, lip curled in distaste, 'do I think it seemly for a teacher and his pupil to indulge in such close physical contact.'
It suddenly dawned on Robert what the headmaster was getting at. A pulse hammered in his neck and his already sweaty body flushed anew. He risked a glance at his teacher, who was staring out the window; jaws tight, a white line round his lips.
'May I remind you, Headmaster,' Mr Vaselly said tersely, 'that it was you who insisted on wrestling in the first place?'
'I did no such thing!' Nikelseer retorted. 'I said it appeared to be an interesting idea, but you were inexperienced, and we could not expect too much from you!'
Bart started to protest.
The headmaster held up his hand. 'Enough! It is a totally unsuitable activity and I cannot permit you to continue.'
Even after eighteen months of the man, Bart hadn't expected such a put down. He felt ashamed, dirty, guilty of nameless sins, and certainly didn't trust himself to speak.
Robert was better prepared. Not altogether trusting the headmaster's offer of forgiveness, he had realised that if Nikelseer stopped the wrestling but Robert continued going to the gym every day, questions might be asked. Perhaps the chess was paying dividends.
'I understand, Sir,' he said thoughtfully. 'Will you instead approve of my using the gymnasium equipment to increase my fitness?'
This was not quite the crushed response Mr Nikelseer had anticipated, but at least they weren't going to argue. 'Fine, fine,' he snapped, 'Mr Vaselly will see to that. But no more… wrestling!' With a final snort of disapproval he hastened up the stairs, anxious to return to a realm in which he felt more at ease.
'What's all this balls about understanding and asking to use gym equipment?' Bart was in danger of letting his fury with the headmaster be transferred to his protégé.
'Don't get mad. It's just that I've told anyone who asked that I've been doing a fitness course. No one knows about the wrestling. I was sort of expecting this response because of a run-in I had with him yesterday.'
'What about? Why didn't you tell me?' Can't you see where this leaves me? The man I most despise now thinks I'm some sort of disgusting pervert, while you come out smelling of roses.'
'Sir! I'm sorry! I didn't want to worry you with my stupidities - especially as he said he'd forget about it if I didn't do it again. I only half trusted him and that's why I was ready with a get-away option. I wouldn't do anything to put you in the shit. But I reckon he already had it in for you before I came on the scene.' Robert wanted to grab his wrestling partner by the shoulders and shake understanding into him. He had only been trying to help. It was as bad as trying to protect Murray. Everything he did seemed to go wrong.
'What was your row with that… person, about?' The tone was still hurting.
Robert repeated everything, as he had to his father.
'You bloody idiot! You know what he's like! Murray even told you to leave it alone! What did you think he was going to say? "Thank you for pointing out that I do nothing about the bullying in my school?" Why not just get a cross and crucify yourself in the quadrangle? You have to stick your neck out don't you? Making a fuss at the beginning of term, involving me in your crazy scheme, and now inviting yourself to my place for wrestling! Well you can forget about that! If I spend any more time with you I'll end up deranged!' He had been shouting, so the silence that followed was deafening. He stomped up the stairs and slammed the door behind him.
Robert sagged onto the mats; mind a blank. He hadn't passed on the invitation to the meal, thank goodness. Imagine he'd had that thrown back in his face! Excitement and anticipation evaporated. Dejection weighed on every muscle and bone as he put away the mats, changed back into school uniform and mounted the stairs. At the top he turned and looked back, still not believing what had happened.
A hand gripped his shoulder. Swinging round he was surprised to see Vaselly. A shake of the head stopped him from launching into excuses.
Closing the door behind him, Bart said softly, 'Sorry about that. I sometimes go off the handle when confronted by pig-ignorance and crass stupidity. I didn't mean any of what I said. You behaved commendably with that Corso kid, and were right not running to me with every little tale of woe. I respect you for it. It took me ten seconds to realise I was wrong and the rest of the time to pluck up the courage to apologise.' He gave a shame-faced grin. 'Am I forgiven?'
Robert laughed with relief. 'No worries! I was already at a loose end, wondering what to tell Mum. She's invited you to dinner tomorrow night to tell you they'll be delighted to let me study wrestling with the master. So, Teach, tomorrow you can give me a lift home after school.'
Bart Vaselly searched Robert's face for deceit, and found none. He wanted to hug this young man who had so enlivened his increasingly drab life, who seemed incapable of meanness, selfishness and self-importance. But he didn't dare. He had already come close to losing something precious and he wasn't going to risk it again. 'You can't keep calling me Mr Vaselly and Sir. My name's Bart.' His heart missed a beat. First names breeched his barricade. The relationship had shifted. They'd become equals. Doubt seeped into his belly and he began to sweat.
Unaware of the magnitude of the gesture, Robert clapped him on the shoulder. 'Good-one, Bart. See you tomorrow then. Cheers.' He was up the stairs and away before Bart could change his mind.
At assembly on Friday morning the headmaster gazed across the lectern at the pupils; collecting his thoughts. After an inauspicious start, his headmastership of the school had blossomed in the wake of academic and sporting success, and for fifteen years he had filled the staffroom with kindred spirits. But things had changed. Not only had older teachers been replaced by a new, questioning breed who considered both him and his values irrelevant, but a new morality had swept the land. Marriage had been declared redundant along with fathers - a quarter of his students came from single parent homes. Nudity, explicit sexuality and violence ruled television and, according to rumours, the internet. Members of Parliament were daily exposed as corrupt, abortion was rife, sodomy was legal, and profit-at-any-cost had become the new religion.
In vain had he protested, written hundreds of letters, inveighed against moral decline at meetings, harangued staff and pupils, renounced earthly pleasures and devoted himself to spreading the message of God's love. Each day the world sank deeper into sin. Each day became more difficult to endure, each day his health crumbled along with falling standards of attainment, behaviour, language and dress.
A few years previously he had started a bible-studies group in an attempt to stem the tide of decay, but all the pupils except one - a lad for whom he felt a debt of gratitude out of all proportion to his meagre contribution - had deserted him. Crushed by failure, fearful of the future, fighting a hopeless rearguard defence of his values, Mr Nikelseer peered forth.
In the gallery, senior students were shuffling. Someone tittered in the body of the hall. He frowned for silence. Younger staff members shifted uncomfortably in their seats behind him. Mr Rands gazed across in despair; the old man was getting worse. Mr Nikelseer cleared his throat. When he spoke it was with great intensity, but his voice was cool, the tone judgmental, the effect alienating.
'All my actions are tempered by Christian love. That means I try to guide you along the paths of righteousness. That means I try to prevent you from doing something if it is wrong! It is not love when parents fail to discipline their child and give it everything it asks for. It can never be love to permit a child behave in a way that will doom him to a life of misery and loneliness!
'Every pupil has the right to the best education this school can offer, without fear. But rights demand responsibility. Each must play their own part well, and leave others to play theirs. Someone came to my office recently, asserting that there is bullying in this school. Naturally, I was shocked. How can we hold up our heads in pride if such rumours are promulgated? I have no tolerance for bullying, coercion, or intimidation of pupils who are striving for goodness.
'For a school to function properly, students must study and teachers must teach! The two occupations are mutually dependent yet profoundly separate. When the ignorant imagine they can teach the informed - chaos ensues.'
The school shuffled in baffled silence while their headmaster extracted the leather-bound bible from the shelf in the back of the lectern, placed it ceremoniously on top, opened it carefully, removed his spectacles, cleaned them on a white handkerchief, replaced them slowly, cleared his throat, and read:
' For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine:
but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itchy ears.
And they shall turn away their ears from the truth,
and shall be turned unto fables.'
'I'll wait for you outside the Deli on the corner.' Robert had popped his head into Bart's office on his way back to class after checking the sports gear. They tried to avoid each other when working in the gym; no point in setting tongues wagging. Lots of kids were always milling around, preparing for fitness tests, practising gymnastics, lifting weights, shooting goals, or simply mucking about.
'Right. Let's say four o'clock. If I haven't finished by then, stuff it. I'm spending too much time on this job.'
It was four o'clock exactly when Bart's elderly Toyota pulled up. With a surreptitious scan of the streets to confirm no one was watching, Robert slipped quickly into the car. Inside, every removable thing had been stripped, carpets, sun-visors, glove-box lid, rear seats, headlining. As they drove off something rattled ominously in the dash.
Robert sniggered. 'What a bomb.'
'One complaint and you walk. Hyacinth's given me faithful service for three years. In two weeks he'll be as good as new.'
'I thought Hyacinth was a woman.'
'The original was a Spartan prince, Apollo's lover. Zephyrus, Apollo's enemy, killed Hyacinth. The flower sprang from his blood.'
Robert scanned Bart's face to see if he was serious or taking the mickey. He was concentrating on driving so Robert took a gamble and responded seriously. 'That's sad - and beautiful in a way.'
'Love stories often are. We're going to my place first. I'm not going to meet your parents smelling like a possum. I don't shower at school any more after the rash of tinea that's done the rounds.'
Robert groaned at the pun.
'Anyway, you'll have to find out where I live if you're coming tomorrow. Two o'clock?'
'Fine. Is your house as good as your car?'
'Cheeky sod! I want to take something, Do your parents like wine?'
'They hardly ever drink it.' Robert sucked his lip in thought. 'Tell you what, they're both crazy about rum truffles from the cake shop near us, but Mum refuses to buy them because she's afraid of getting fat, and Dad thinks it's beneath his dignity to go shopping. So that'd be good. I like them too.'
Bart's third floor apartment was in the front section of two identical three-storeyed blocks joined by concrete walkways around an open well that gave light to the basement car park. Carefully avoiding the bits of Hyacinth's interior that were stacked against the walls, Robert edged out of the garage and looked up at the three tiers of iron balustrades above. 'You'd think this type of place would have lock-up garages.'
'They probably thought the cars would be safe enough, tucked under here.'
'Wouldn't bet my life on it.'
Access to the apartments was via an internal staircase, dark even in daytime. None of the doors were open; all had a wide-angle visitor-viewer set into their solid panelling.
'Thrill-seeker's paradise,' commented Robert. 'Anyone could be waiting on these stairs to zonk you if they had a mind to. Aren't there any lights?'
'Supposed to be, but the switches were recently replaced by heat-sensors and they keep playing up. We all carry torches if it's dark. Nothing's happened so far.' Bart leaped ahead three steps at a time, unlocked the door and performed an exaggerated bow. 'Welcome to Chez Bart.'
Inside was nothing like the bleak concrete stairwell. A tiny carpeted vestibule gave onto a long, narrow lounge with an enormous sliding window completely filling the end wall. Robert slid it open and stepped out onto the balcony. 'Grouse view!' he called over his shoulder, gazing at the panorama of city, river, and hills. The low afternoon sun illuminated the interior right back to the small dining area and kitchenette.
A window above the sink-bench looked onto the common area, accessed through the back door. Robert let himself out and prowled the concrete walkways, decorated with dying pot plants. He peered over the handrail to the garages below. A tickle ran down his spine as Bart stood behind him. 'Can you get up here from the outside?'
Bart's breath ruffled the hairs on Robert's neck as he pointed over his shoulder. 'The stair-head's over there, but you have to go right around the back of the block and through a security door. It's supposed to be kept locked but never is. Only one of the residents owns her place, the rest are all tenants - mainly Uni students. They don't take much care.' He turned away. 'That's the grand tour, so come inside and make yourself at home while I shower and change. Help yourself to a drink if you can find anything.'
Robert filled a glass of water and turned to survey the living area. The pale green carpet was thick, clean and new, and all the furniture was expensive, modern and functional. He tried all the chairs for comfort, then studied the paintings. Two were popular impressionist prints, the others original oils. One, a semi-abstract arrangement of warm pastel oranges, blues and yellows, reminded him of the sea. The other featured mysterious trees silhouetted against a luminous, red-gold mountain and a bronzing sky. Shapes flitted through the vegetation, suggesting strange animal life. In a gloomy clearing, two naked figures wrestled violently, like Pollaiuolo's ten nudes.
Hearing the shower splash, he poked his head into the bedroom. A double bed occupied half the room, and tables either side each had their own lamp. Built-in wardrobes with floor to ceiling mirrored doors filled one wall. Opposite the window was a large coloured photograph of two wrestlers locked in combat. Everything was neat. Not even a pair of jocks lying around. He lay on the bed and found he could see himself in the mirror. The shower stopped. He leaped up, peeped into the other bedroom - a minuscule affair used as office and storeroom - and was stretched out on the sofa in the lounge sipping his water as Bart emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in a towel. 'If you want to use the loo, it's in there,' he offered as he went past.
The bathroom was tiny, a washroom really, just space for a toilet, washbasin and shower. An extractor fan was running. Robert sniffed the moist air, frowned, picked up the discarded clothes, brought them to his nose and smiled his recognition of the warm, male odour. So that's how dogs know who's in the house, he thought, both puzzled and amused by what he'd just done.
Back in the living room he browsed through the CD's. Mozart, Rossini, Weber, Schubert, Vivaldi. He had a bit to learn about Bart's musical tastes. He looked up as Bart entered. 'Hey, you look great! Love your threads. I've never seen you in anything except tracksuit and shorts.'
Bart managed to look both pleased and embarrassed as he brushed an imaginary fluff from the sleeve of his white shirt, whose Russian collar was embroidered with a line of blue and gold leaves. It was tucked into fitting, dark blue jeans-cut cords that made his already slender waist look ready to snap. Dark-blue suede boots completed the ensemble.
'Jeeze you look young. At school you've got two bad-tempered lines above your nose. They've gone. You look younger than Grant Fahey in Chemistry. Mum and Dad will never believe you're a teacher. Why don't you wear this gear to school?'
Bart flushed, wondering if he should change into something that made him look older. But if he looked too old, Robert's parents might have doubts. They'd bloody well have doubts anyway. The whole plan was stupid - stupid and dangerous. Teachers should avoid pupils after school. Nikelseer had made that abundantly clear. He couldn't remember a single teacher who hadn't spoken to him as though he was a sub-species. What a pathetic failure, resorting to school kids for company! Imagine the other teachers found out! He'd back out before it was too late.
Robert was rattling on. 'No, it'd be wasted on those clunk-heads. Give your clothes to me when you're sick of them. I'll bet you go to nightclubs and discos?'
'I never have time, I hate going alone, and I'm no good at picking people up, so I haven't been out anywhere for ages.'
'Half the girls at school have the hots for you.'
'I'm not a chicken stealer,' Bart countered far too loudly. Before Robert could cotton on he continued quickly, 'Apropos of that, I'm having second thoughts. You don't want to hang out with an old man like me, and I'm a hundred percent certain your parents won't want you to either. It's just too crazy and…' he shrugged helplessly and fell silent.
Robert's eyes widened. 'You're having me on! You can't do that, I've been looking forward all week. Don't be stupid! Too bloody old! What're you on about? You're only coming to meet the olds so I can wrestle here. We're not getting married or anything!' He stared intently at Bart, who looked away. 'Have I annoyed you? Was it something I said? Dad says I talk too much. The guys in the team used to get pissed off at the way I go on and on. They were always telling me to shut up or they'd strangle me. It must be me. Tell me what it is! Tell me why, Bart. The real reason. Not that you're too old. Too old for what? I don't get it!'
'I'm cautious about gossip. When teachers take students home, tongues wag. It's as simple as that.'
'But there's nothing to gossip about.'
'Gossip needs neither substance nor truth to destroy its victims.'
'I see, we live our lives to please others?'
'No! Camouflaged, we weave a path between enemy lines.'
'I'm not going to tell anyone.'
'Wait till you've met them before deciding.'
Bart shook his head and stared out the window. High School had been a torment from day one, when the skinny little boy (whose besotted mother kept his blond hair long and curly) had been labelled powder-puff by a small group of older boys. In vain did his classmates tell him to ignore the taunts. Sticks and stones wouldn't have upset him, it was names that hurt. He'd sweated over his body, cut his hair short and prepared to do battle, but there was nothing to fight. Name-callers tossed their barbs on the air, then strolled on. Sometimes it would die down, but just when he felt he could relax, 'Powder-Puff' would echo along the corridor.
Three senior students once got a head-lock on him in the toilets, dragged down his trousers, shoved the fire-hose nozzle up his bum and turned it on before racing out laughing wildly. His self-esteem dwindled to nothing. He didn't dare tell his parents. It was obviously his fault, but he had no idea how to stop doing whatever it was that sparked the abuse. When the older boys left, louts from other classes took up the taunts.
University had been a relief so profound that for weeks he felt as if he was floating. Only once had the numbing fear returned. During his first year he heard 'Powder-Puff' drifting across the grass. His guts sank and froze. He wanted to vomit. If it happened one more time, he promised himself, he'd quit Uni and head interstate. Life wasn't worth that! It had never happened again, but the dread remained because he still had no idea what it was that set off the teasing in the first place. He faced Robert, voice tight with apprehension. 'OK, but I doubt if your parents will approve.'
'In that gear you're odds on. Is this place yours?'
'Nothing's mine except the sound system, CD's, and the two paintings. The unit belongs to a retired couple living on acreage on the Sunshine Coast. They keep it in case they want to spend a night in town. I usually visit them in the holidays. Not bad, is it?'
'The sort of place I'd like. Did you pose for the wrestlers in the painting?
Bart nodded, a half-smile on his lips.
'And that's you wrestling in the photo in the bedroom?'
'Made a quick tour did you?'
'You can watch yourself wank in the mirror from your bed.'
'Cheeky bugger! What makes you think I wank?'
'A shot in the dark.'
Fifteen minutes later they were entering the Karim kitchen, clutching gift-wrapped rum-truffles.
Monique was chopping onions. She wiped her hands on her apron.
'Mum, Bart - Bart, Mum.'
'How do you do, Bart.'
'Hello, Mrs Karim.'
They shook hands and Monique shot a questioning look. 'You didn't tell me you were bringing one of your school friends, dear. Not that it matters, there's plenty. But when is Mr Vaselly arriving?'
Embarrassed smile from Bart, loud hoot from Robert.
'This is Mr Vaselly.'
'Oh, I am sorry. How silly of me, you look so young. Please do not take offence. I don't know why, but I was expecting someone older.'
'I told her what a terror you are at school.'
'You look more like classmates than student and teacher. You must call me Monique; it might make me feel younger.' She flapped her hands. 'Ouf! I'm flustering. The meal is not ready to be left on its own, so you two amuse yourselves. Take a shower, Robert, you are not smelling beautiful and look a crow scare.' - Monique was definitely flustered.
'Come and see what a mess my bedroom's in. You won't believe how neat Bart's place is, Mum, nothing out of place. It's a beaut unit, just the sort I want.'
'Not yet I hope.'
'You never know your luck.'
Robert's room formed the western leg of a U made by the living area and the rest of the house. It jutted into the garden, collecting afternoon sun. Being behind the garage it was quiet. Presumably designed as guest quarters, it had its own toilet and tiny shower recess, as well as an outside door. It was no messier than the usual seventeen year-old's bedroom, everything out ready in case. Bart sat on the spare bed and stared out at the garden while Robert showered and dressed.
'I like the way your mother pronounces your name.'
'Yeah. It's a French name too.'
'Sounds more…I don't know - gentle and civilised than rob-bit.'
'Shows how names can mislead.'
'Perhaps. Nice room, excellent house. You're lucky.'
'Don't I know it. We only moved here at the end of last term. You should have seen our last house, real box of a place in a treeless, bleak outer suburb. Deathsville man. This is my style, I love it.'
Bart's nervousness had returned with a vengeance. The parents would definitely suspect him of ulterior motives. At school, Robert carried things along in his easy, self-confident way. But here! They were obviously well off. Monique was foreign, good-looking and intelligent. He had no experience of this sort of family and was overcome by shyness. He'd probably be turfed out on his ear as soon as the father came home. 'What does your father do?'
'Lectures, and imports things from India and sells them. I don't really know much about it. Guess I ought to.'
They let themselves out the side door.
'Isn't it beaut having a garden? Our last one was just pebbles and bark chips. The block was so small there wasn't room for anything after the house was stuck on it. No privacy. These older places have huge blocks. This is at least twelve hundred square metres.' Robert knew he was babbling, but couldn't stop himself. 'Do you know the names of the plants? I don't know any.'
At last, a way to shine. Mrs Vaselly buried her anger and sadness in the garden and had passed her love of it on to her son. They would walk around it in the evenings noting how this or that plant was growing, whether it should be pruned, wondering if it needed transplanting. Mostly they would simply admire the colours and textures, enjoying their time together. He was the only one in the family who shared her interest. Suitably impressed by Bart's ability to identify every tree, shrub and flower by its botanical name, Robert led them to the flagstone terrace fronting the lounge and dining room. French-doors were open, spilling a cosy glow and delicious odour into rapidly cooling air.
'Come in and close the doors before the humidity gets in. Would you like beer, fruit-juice or tea, Bart?'
'A fruit-juice would be perfect, thanks.'
They had just settled themselves when Sanjay arrived. Bart leaped nervously to his feet and was introduced. Robert's father showed no surprise at the visitor's youth, merely made the usual polite noises before taking himself off to freshen up.
The meal was a masterpiece. Soup, croutons, green salad garnished with Monique's own dressing, vegetables served separately to guard their delicate flavours, and patties in crumbled cashews with rice and a spicy sauce. A soufflé was followed by cheese, fruit, coffee and a liqueur. After two hours of intelligent food and conversation, Bart was seduced. Sanjay refused to be drawn on the question of age.
'I remember years ago being told that when policemen start looking like boys, you're getting old. I suppose it also applies to teachers. I refuse to see anyone as young. As far as I'm concerned, Bart, you and I are the same age.'
Bart wondered what it would've been like to have a father who loved him instead of belting him; who was interested in him, wanted to see his school reports, to know what he'd been doing. It had come as a surprise to discover that other kids loved their fathers and wanted to spend time with them. 'I can't remember the last time I felt so at ease,' he said with a smile.
Sanjay nodded. 'I was thinking the same thing. Most people seem to be trying to prove something, to impress, or have a chip on their shoulder. We are simple people.'
'Then I must be too.'
'Of course. We are all simply marvellous and dying to know more about you. Are you from Brisbane? What is your family like? Do you see them often? Have you any brothers and sisters? How is your mother?' Monique could out-babble her son.
'Mum! Cut the inquisition!'
'No it's fine, Robert. Your parents have a right to know. It is a bit strange that you're hanging out with someone so much older.'
'Not at all!' interrupted Sanjay abruptly. 'Robert's a creature of egregious enthusiasms and has always had acquaintances of all ages. It's healthy! I was the same.' He took hold of his wife's hand. 'Friends, on the other hand, are like hens' teeth. Too rare to restrict to people your own age. Monique is six years younger than me, was my first real friend, and will probably be my last. Lots of acquaintances and one or two close friends - that's the ideal. Your age difference might seem a lot now, but in a few years it'll be nothing. Also, no offence, but despite your serious mien, you seem young… and inexperienced.
'Serious mien,' Bart repeated with a wry grin. 'That's a polite way of saying dull and boring. But you're right. I've had to fend for myself and I guess that left no time for carefreeness, if there's such a word.' He looked up, blushed, and continued. 'I went to Uni when I was seventeen, took a three year course to become a PE teacher and started teaching last year. I feel as though I've never been a teenager. Although I'm nearly five years older than Robert, I feel the same age inside. Stupid isn't it?'
'I don't think so,' defended Monique. 'I'm still eighteen. I suspect everyone is.'
'Not me, I'm sixteen,' put in Sanjay. 'But how do you mean you had to fend for yourself? Are you an orphan?'
Bart laughed. 'No, I've two sisters and a brother. Seventeen, nineteen and twenty-one, evenly spaced. Dad works in a flourmill, Mum's a housewife. There's never been much money and Dad reckoned I should fend for myself when I turned fifteen, so things got tight and it was a bit hard to keep on at school and finish studying. But I got there. Mum loves gardening, my youngest sister's still at school - year twelve - like Robert. The others have jobs. That's about it.'
'So we could be brothers. I knew it.'
'You've done well.' Sanjay nodded his head in approval, then frowned slightly before continuing carefully. ''We are perfectly happy, Bart, for Robert to practice wrestling at your place, although I can't imagine how you managed to interest him in it. But, are you certain you have the time to waste on him?' Sanjay not only sounded, but also looked incredulous as he added, 'Surely a good looking young man like you has something better to do on a Saturday afternoon?'
Bart blushed. He didn't have anything better to do! What an admission. He began to sweat. This was turning into the inquisition he had dreaded. They were suspicious. How the hell to answer? Resisting the temptation to spout altruistic nonsense about it being a teacher's duty to foster good students, he lurched into unadorned fact. 'The truth is, I've made no friends in the last eighteen months, and all work and no play's made Bart a dull boy. It'll be good to have someone else's company on a weekend,' he risked a joke, 'even if it is just a snotty nosed kid.'
Robert clipped him over the ear and Bart laughed with relief at having admitted his failure.
'Then that is excellent,' said Monique, who did not like to be in anyone's debt. 'Everyone is happy.'
The conversation became desultory until it was time to go. Robert walked Bart out to the car and leaned in the window. 'Thanks for coming. See you tomorrow after lunch. My parents really like you, I can tell... And so do I!' he called over his shoulder as he ran back into the house.
Finding sleep elusive, Monique and Sanjay lay talking in the dark.
'Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Sanni?'
'I imagine so.'
'I wondered why he had been so… vivant lately.'
'A welcome change after the last couple of years.'
'Yes, but what should we do?'
'There's nothing to do.'
'But he's in love.'
'They both are.'
'Does he know?'
'Unlikely. He was behaving too naturally.'
'Then it will probably never happen.' She sighed her relief.
'Something always happens. Sometimes it's good - sometimes bad. Usually a bit of both.'
'We must dissuade Robert.' A note of urgency.
'He's young. It's just hero-worship and… and it is not natural.'
'It is for him, Monique.'
'No one chooses the person they love - it just happens.'
'Don't you care?'
'Not in the least,' Sanjay replied with slightly less fervour than he would have liked. He was unable to guess what his wife was thinking. She sounded uncharacteristically equivocal so he announced as positively as he could manage, 'All I know is, I love Robert and only desire his happiness.'
'So do I!' Slightly defensive.
'Life is difficult enough. I do not intend to add to my son's burden. Does it worry you?'
Monique gave an unconvincing laugh. 'Au contraire, chérie, I'd be jealous of a daughter-in-law.'
'But a son-in-law would be acceptable?'
'If he is beau, fort, intelligent et grand.'
'Madam! Keep your lusts at bay.'
'With you beside me? Impossible.'
'So… we approve of the wrestling?'
'We already have. We should congratulate ourselves.'
'Our boy has chosen well.'
'Even though Bart's older and… and a teacher?'
'Robert's nearly eighteen. He's no longer a boy, he's a man! There's scarcely five years between them and I wouldn't mind betting they're both still virgins.'
Monique was shocked. 'Mais, c'est impossible, such a handsome young man.'
'Is Robert's… something to do with us?'
'Not according to reputable scientific research. Too late to worry now, anyway.'
'So… we will always love and support him.'
Only half convinced by their own confident assertions, with almost fearful gratitude they tremulously reconfirmed the extraordinary gift of their love for each other before drifting into restless sleep.