Dome of Death
1 The Fall
Exposing oneself in public is not for the faint-hearted. En masse and expertly illuminated, the paintings gave viewers rather more insight into the private spaces of my mind than I'd bargained for. The fact that the gallery's patrons were also baring their souls with every critical utterance and every painting bought was scant consolation - especially as no one was buying!
After an hour of eavesdropping among the usual crush of wine-sipping social scramblers, I wished I hadn't. Stepping back, I collided with an elderly, shapeless little woman loosely wrapped in a sari decorated with mirrors.
'Young man!' she demanded as though I'd been caught spraying graffiti, 'Are you the artist?'
How to respond? People who call themselves artists remind me of Napoleon seizing the jewelled cap, crowning himself and living to rue the day. Such accolades are for others to bestow. If, as frequently happens, a painter's efforts delight no one but himself, then the labour has been little but therapy. Only those whose works impose order on the chaos of existence and reinvigorate flagging spirits by giving the viewer a glimpse of a less imperfect world, are worthy of the title "artist". Not being entirely confident I deserved the appellation, I responded cautiously.
'I made the paintings, if that's what you mean.'
With an impatient toss of the head that set hoop earrings and several loose chins swaying, she declared, 'Everything's too expensive!'
I smiled, bowed graciously and left her squinting myopically at a couple of frolicking nudes.
'What about this one?' demanded a businesslike young woman, jabbing her fingernail at a tree-fringed lake.
'Oh c'mon Jazmyn, we've already spent a fortune on the lounge.'
'Hope it's still here tomorrow.'
'It will be. No one's buying anything. You can get a recliner for what they're asking for this thing.' He peered into his glass. 'I haven't a thirst for art, but I've an artistic thirst.' They elbowed their way to the bar.
Before films and television arrived to bewitch the world, paintings could sway multitudes, convert sceptics and provoke intellectual war. Today, they've been reduced to decoration, and the only certainty for aspiring painters is that a market for their outpourings is not assured. I slunk to a corner, sipped my drink and nibbled humble pie.
'Cheer up you miserable bastard.' Max thumped me on the shoulder and draped a heavy arm across my shoulders. 'It's my opening too, so do us a favour and look a bit more confident - you're scaring people away.'
I shook him off.
'What's the matter, Pete?'
'How many sold?'
'It's early days. Give 'em a chance. They haven't seen a decent painting before. Wait till the red dots appear - then we'll see a panic thrusting of plastic. Hey,' he continued gently, 'I wouldn't have filled my brand new gallery with anything less than the best. The place is crowded and the reaction's positive. So either play the confident prodigy or hide your miserable mug out the back before it spoils the party.'
As usual, he was right, and as usual, it irritated. People were showing plenty of interest and at that very moment, Maurice, the curator and manager of Maximillian's Fine Art Gallery, was placing a red dot on the frame of one of the more expensive works. I caught Max's eye. He shook his head, punched my shoulder manfully and breezed away.
I almost relaxed. Almost, because although my paintings were good, I couldn't shake the feeling they were outdone by the architecture. The gallery was Max's proclamation that not only was he a wealthy connoisseur of the Arts, but also an incredibly talented architect. Individual spotlights enabled one to feel alone and unobserved while viewing the works, but the complicated internal structures were also expertly illuminated and tended to overpower everything else. I'd warned him the space was going to be too complex and competing for an art gallery, but he'd merely grinned and shrugged.
'You're over sensitive, Pete. With your paintings on the walls, no one will notice the building.'
Fat chance; I was sticking to my theory as an excuse for the lack of any more red dots.
From across the gallery I could hear Max belabouring a swarm of sycophants with his Recipe for a Renaissance. 'At Maximillian's there will be no minimalist shams brimming with light, space, air and understatement. No confrontations with a pile of bricks, a bunch of desiccated radishes, sheets of rusty corrugated iron smeared in bird shit, or spilt cans of paint. Nor will it be another showroom of plastic fantasy and kitsch masquerading as art!' He flicked a glance at Conias Jackson, the owner of four such emporia of bad taste, accurately named Arte Bizarres,
'In this gallery, people of discernment will be able to purchase works of real and lasting value, products of rational minds; works of art that radiate skill, intelligence, talent, insight, self-criticism and hard work. And,' he paused pointedly, 'there won't be any mass-produced reproductions passing themselves off as limited edition prints!'
Mr Jackson turned away - scowling.
Max laughed loudly, attracting the attention of the entire gallery, and cast his eyes heavenwards with a theatrical mopping of brow. All eyes followed to marvel again at the dome of crystalline carbon floating over the thirty-metre wide, octagonal central gallery.
'It's like being inside an enormous diamond,' someone whispered.
Max clapped his hands. 'Ladies and Gentlemen, not only will Maximillian's provide you with cultural fresh air, but also the more traditional sort.' He stepped back and pulled at a tasselled cord hanging behind a bronze urn. Nothing happened. He tugged a second time to the accompaniment of a slight tittering, but the glittering vault remained unmoved. He snorted impatiently, slipped off his dark-green velvet jacket, thrust both jacket and cord at me, and disappeared through an adjacent door. Thirty seconds later he could be seen through the dome, striding across the roof.
'My god but he's sexy,' an under-dressed and over-painted woman breathed to her companion, 'and so athletic. Imagine Murray getting up on the roof like that!' She paused and giggled. 'Or dressing like that!'
She wasn't exaggerating. Whenever he thought he could get away with it, Max wore his jackets over bare, bronzed skin, the better to display an astonishing hardness of chest and abdomen. High cheekbones, generous mouth and a shock of dead-straight brown hair jetting over his forehead, lent a look of youthful nonchalance belied by slippery hazel eyes. His naked torso was clearly visible stretched over the dome as he fiddled with something before straightening up and signalling to me to pull the cord.
Silently, the segments separated and opened, lotus-like, to reveal the night sky. Plastic glitter was replaced by that of a myriad of stars. A spontaneous burst of applause heralded Max as he balanced on the rim between two 'petals'. Godlike, he raised his arms for silence then, eyes wide, mouth agape, he toppled forward, swimming fruitlessly in the air before hitting the marble floor headfirst with a distinct thunk-crack as his skull split and neck snapped.
Those nearest instinctively jumped back to avoid the splash as the contents of his cranium exploded. Frances, Max's wife, clutched at Maurice's sleeve, knuckles white, eyes staring wildly at her husband's body. I grabbed her arm and dragged her to the office. She was pale, but in control when I sat her at the desk. Back in the gallery, one look at the mess that had been Max sent me racing for the toilet to throw up. I was alone with my nausea.
After four years as a virtual hermit, I'd forgotten how quickly human nature seeps through even the most civilised of patinas. After the first gasps of startled surprise, everyone crowded forward, chattering and manoeuvring to get a better view, excited at their good fortune. In a world where life is usually encountered vicariously, a first-hand experience is to be treasured.
Police and ambulance were on the spot within minutes. Maurice introduced himself as the manager and trailed around behind the officers offering advice until someone told him to shut the fuck up and wait in the office with Mrs Fierney.
During the following hour, names were taken, questions asked, the guests released to scatter and spread the news, and the roof and dome inspected with the aid of torches and a portable floodlight.
When I took a police officer to see Frances, her voice was slurred. She'd been drinking with Maurice and the sari-draped crone who glared suspiciously, drained her glass, and ordered Maurice to escort her to a taxi.
No one objected when I asked if I could be the one to inform Max's parents. The police didn't care for the task; neither did Frances who had never hit it off with her in-laws. The bagged body was removed, the floor cleaned, and, as Maurice was nowhere to be found, I locked the gallery and set alarms. Frances was standing in the office staring at her feet when I popped my head in to say goodbye. She looked up with a frown and asked me to come in for a minute. Exhausted, I flopped into a chair.
She leaned against the desk and pleaded pathetically, 'Darling Peter. You're Max's best friend. You can't leave me alone in this barn. Stay the night?'
I wanted to go home, not spend the night under the same roof as a woman I despised.
She gave a dramatic shudder and dabbed at smudged mascara. 'Please? Pretty please? For Max?' She reached across, grasped my hand and sniffled disgustingly.
I pulled roughly away. I had disliked Frances at our first meeting, and nothing had happened in the interim to change my opinion. Sly flirtatious eyes, too much make-up, lank bleached hair, pushy tits, calculated little-girl charm and gushing, counterfeit innocence. I also suspected a grasping nature. The fact that most men were drawn to her like fruit flies to a rotten peach confounded me.
Max had never been open about their relationship, refusing to discuss it. I split with him as soon as he announced his marriage - an attitude he reckoned irrational. In fact, we had only seen each other two or three times a year since Frances took over his life. It was only the offer of a solo exhibition at the opening of his new gallery that had induced me to spend so much time with him over the last few months. As he well knew, it was an offer few painters would be able to resist. When I asked why he was being so generous, he'd changed the subject.
Tiredness rather than compassion induced me to stay the night in the upstairs flat at the gallery. Like Frances, I was required first thing in the morning at the police station so it would save me the eighty-kilometre return trip home.
In an unsuccessful attempt to clear my mind of thoughts of untimely death, I wandered down to the beach and jogged up and down the narrow strip of sand. It didn't help, so I returned, reset the alarms, locks and security lights, and dragged myself upstairs to the landing where I hesitated. Could I get away with simply yelling 'goodnight', or should I poke my head into her room?
Lamplight and sobs spilled into the passageway. Perhaps she really was upset? Unsure whether I was offering a shoulder to cry on or looking for one, I tiptoed to the open doorway and choked on well-intentioned words of comfort. Maurice was sprawled on his back over the king-sized bed, muttering curses while Frances struggled to bring his manhood to life. The heartfelt sobs were those of a woman mightily frustrated - her own swollen desires alarmingly on view as she bent to her toil. Maurice looked up, stretched out a hand and yelled, 'Get this drunken nymphomaniac off me!'
Frances sat back on her haunches and growled, 'This crappy little turd has been playing around with his master for the last six months, but can't bloody well raise it for his mistress. Jesus Christ! Where are the real men? Look at his pathetic little dick!' She grabbed hold of the shrunken thing and flapped it from side to side before turning to face me. Lipstick, saliva, and a scattering of her victim's pubic hairs smeared the lower half of her face. Normally sleek hair had suffered what looked like a high voltage discharge, and a scarlet flush of anger suffused breasts and shoulders. Paradoxically, she looked more potent than ridiculous.
Maurice had been cool to the point of offensiveness while setting up the exhibition, so I derived a certain pleasure from the spectacle, but was saddened to note that a virile body did not support his manly, square-jawed face. With a greater work-to-food ratio he might have been athletic, but he had let himself go. Skin and muscles were slack and a spare tyre burgeoned where once a slender waist had surely prevailed.
Frances gave his diminutive organ of desire a last vicious tug and my eyes watered in sympathy. Maurice lunged forward, pinched one of Frances's large nipples between finger and thumb, eliciting a curse of agony, thrust his tormenter onto the floor and joined me in the doorway, hysterical with pain and embarrassment.
'You stupid, ugly whore!' he shouted, 'I'd sooner eat my own shit than fuck you! If that's the price of staying on as curator of your pitiful provincial gallery, then forget it! Keep your fucking job. Unlike you, I am not a fucking prostitute!'
It was a moderately grand exit.
'You're fired!' shouted the furious Frances from the floor to the empty door-way, before clambering back, turning to me without the slightest embarrassment, patting the sheet beside her in invitation and throwing herself petulantly on to her back. 'Get my pillow will you, Pete?'
Almost gagging on the combined stench of lust and alcohol, I remained at the door trying not to look as critical as I felt. Only Max had ever called me Pete. She glared, leaned over the edge of the bed, scrabbled for the pillow, tucked it behind her head and lay back panting. 'Christ I'll be glad to see the end of that fuck-wit.'
'Why were you trying to screw him?'
'Max did,' she snapped defiantly. 'Now I'm boss he should do the same for me.'
'It seldom works like that.'
'Shit, men are wimps!'
I let that one go, then asked innocently, 'Weren't you jealous?'
She looked at me warily. 'I thought you and Max told each other everything. Bosom buddies and all that male-bonding crap?'
I shook my head.
'Of course I wasn't jealous! We didn't have that sort of marriage.'
I must have looked even more gormless than usual because she uttered an incredulous half-laugh and stared at me in disbelief. 'You really didn't know about our arrangement?'
I shook my head.
'You've got to be the only person on the Coast who didn't!' She gave me a strange look - a compound of pity and mild anger. 'Sit here,' she patted the bed, 'and talk to me. I'm too fired up to sleep.'
'Talk about what?'
'Max, me, you, the world.'
The last person I wanted to talk about Max with was his unlovely widow. But neither did I want to go to bed and lie awake thinking. 'Ok,' I sighed, sitting on the end of the bed. 'Tell me what everyone else on the Coast knows.'
'Four years ago,' she said with complacent pride, 'I learned about a very dodgy swindle Max had got himself embroiled in. I gave him a choice - either marry me with a legally binding contract making us joint tenants of everything, or lose everything, including his freedom and good name in a corruption scandal and criminal proceedings. He wasn't stupid, so took the first option. It's been a profitable arrangement for both of us.' She hiccupped noisily, burped, giggled and scratched lewdly at her crotch. 'It was purely business. Sexually, we were often competitors.' Her voice was slurred but she didn't seem drunk. She was definitely enjoying herself.
'I've no doubt the arrangement was immensely profitable - for you.'
'Don't be like that. I was very useful, especially with a certain type of male client. We had to be careful though.' She gave a sad little shake of the head and frowned at some private thought before lifting her eyes back to mine. 'Have you ever wondered where some of the thousands of missing young men and women end up?'
I shook my head.
'They've been too greedy.' A slight shudder, and her attention wandered. After a tentative laugh she focussed her thoughts on me once more and continued brightly, 'Now we, I mean I, am rich. Very rich and completely respectable.'
'Respectable?' I snorted. 'Dirt doesn't wash off that easily.'
She frowned angrily. 'We were neither too dirty, nor too greedy! And we were smart enough to realise that the longer you stay on the wrong side of the law the more likely you are to get caught. We off-loaded every dodgy operation, and are now strictly legit.'
She indicated the gallery, smiling strangely. 'This place will boost finances, give us the seal of cultural approval and, after tonight's accident, will certainly be on the map! Anyway, whatever you or anyone else may think, I've earned my passage. I have arrived and there's not the slightest worry about inheritance. Everything's mine. All the money, all the property and all the pleasure those things can bring.'
Curbing a desire to smash her face in, I said sweetly, 'You've been a clever girl. However it wasn't very smart to lose your curator and manager within a couple of hours of losing your husband.'
'Huh! Creeps like him are two-a-penny. He'll be replaced by lunch-time tomorrow.'
'It'll be hard to find someone who shares Max's ideas on what constitutes art.'
'Enough to screw me?' The woman had a one-track mind.
'Sorry, I'm discriminating.' I couldn't keep the sneer from my voice. 'You're not into mourning the dead, I gather.'
'My sex-life has never had anything to do with Max! And I'll thank you to keep your nose out of my personal feelings. But if I don't get a fuck soon I'll tear this bloody place apart and there'll be no gallery to worry about.' She certainly looked ready to rampage.
'I'll see what I can do.' I felt mildly chastened. My own feelings were still fragile and I'd not given vent to any loud protestations of grief. I ran downstairs for a copy of the local newspaper, found the 'escort' ads and used her bedside phone.
'It'll cost you,' I warned, passing the handset. 'Tell him what you want and how to get here.'
She took the receiver, shoved it at her ear, cleared her throat and in a husky voice I hadn't heard before growled, 'I need a fuck... How much?... You've got to be joking, boyo! Two hundred cash and two hours non-stop. I never pay more than that... Maximillian's Art Gallery. Know it?…Well get on your fucking bike. You've got four minutes!' Turning to me, 'Get down to the front and bring him up, I've an urgent repair job to see to.'
I stared at the ceiling.
She laughed and in a sweet-little-girl voice lisped, 'Pretty pleathe?'
I waited outside the door to the small foyer at the bottom of the private stairs leading to the flat, feeling cold and used. Exactly four minutes later a motorbike roared up bearing a leather-clad, helmeted Martian who jumped off, locked his machine and panted over.
'I'm not too late am I? She sounded pretty awesome.'
'No, you're fine. Rather you than me, though.'
Upstairs, water was still splashing around in the bathroom. 'Is that him?' Frances yelled.
'Well get him up and running. He's got one minute!'
The young man was already undressed and rummaging in a small purse. He was not handsome, his nose was too small, but he was solidly built, lightly bronzed, and wore his long hair in a thick plait at the back. A gold chain and nose stud were unnecessary ornaments. The all-important instrument of pleasure, though, looked uninspiring.
'She's not going to be too thrilled with that.'
'No worries,' he grinned, extracting a small syringe from his purse. An obviously well practiced jab embedded the needle nearly a centimetre into the side of his penis before he pressed home the plunger. It hurt to watch, but he didn't flick an eyelash. By the time he'd replaced the syringe, folded his clothes and thrown himself onto the bed, he was ready.
'Clever trick. Do you also respond to cries for help from men?'
'You got the money, honey, I got the tool,' he laughed, completely relaxed.
'How long's it going to last?'
He pulled it away from his belly and let it slap back. 'Two and a half hours minimum, whether or not I come. Guaranteed to satisfy.'
'Surely you've got to be careful with those injections?'
'You bet! A corkscrew cock's just one of the hazards. One bloke I know kept it up so long that everything burst inside - he'll never get another hard-on as long as he lives.'
'Rather you than me!'
A transformed Frances reclaimed centre-stage by slamming the door to the bathroom. Hair sleek and glossy, face made up, stomach sucked in, nipples hard - she almost looked sexy. Taking two, hundred-dollar notes, a couple of condoms and three white tablets from a pot on the dressing table, she flapped the money in front of her reclining paramour before tucking it into the purse sitting on top of his clothes.
'Want to feel good?' she smiled, offering me one of the tabs. 'Ecstasy,' she explained to my look of incomprehension. 'Get shot of all that aggression.'
'No thanks. I like to remain in control of my emotions.'
She shrugged, tossed the condoms and one of the tablets to her escort who swallowed it with a swig of wine from the opened bottle beside the bed, did the same herself and dropped the remaining tab back in the pot.
'Thanks, Pete,' she laughed over her shoulder.
Her gigolo waved goodbye from the bed as she lunged.
The calculating bitch! All she'd wanted from me was the security of having someone in the place while she was being screwed.
Sadness sucked at life as I trudged the ten metres to Max's room, the twin of Frances's.
Maurice was sprawled in the middle of the double bed. Why the hell hadn't he gone back to his own place? Surely he didn't think…? I jettisoned the idea. My own thoughts were too jumbled to want to get inside someone else's. A walk-through dressing room separated bedroom from bathroom. Suits, shirts, trousers and jackets on hangers. A small pile of used clothes slumped outside the bathroom door. I picked up a handful and buried my face. Remembered odours transported me back four years to our flat. We had shared everything - bed, food, clothes, even a toothbrush. Reckoned we were one being in two bodies. With eyes closed, Max was with me. Then the horror slammed into me and I sagged to the floor. Loneliness welled and I stuffed a T-shirt into my mouth to stifle the moan, before ripping the sweet-smelling reminder of loss to shreds with my teeth. Eventually, feeling cold and stupid, I stripped and showered.
Maurice was still hogging the centre of the bed.
'Shove over, Maurice,' I growled when he continued to lie like a dead dog. He turned, smiled seductively and threw back the covers to display a body about a quarter as attractive as the one at that moment hammering into Frances. I nearly chundered. I was in no mood for empty lust. I was in no mood for anything! Did no one have any feelings? What motivated these people? I felt like an alien and stared down at his flabby, repellent flesh. A careless approach to what should be our most prized possession turns me off. In no circumstances would I find Maurice's body appealing. I lay on my back trying to control swirling images of death. Maurice stretched out a hand. Repressing an urge to pummel his face to a pulp, I shoved it away.
'Are you in a shitty because I ignored you during the setting up of your exhibition?'
I leaped from the bed, ripped the blankets off him and shouted, 'What the fuck's the matter with you people? The only real friend I've ever had fell to his death three hours ago, and all you and his wife want to do is screw. What is it? Violent and messy deaths turn you on? You're sick, you know that? Sick, sick, sick! Now your lover's been dead a few hours it's OK to try and fuck someone else?'
'What's the matter with you? I didn't love him, I just wanted the job.'
'You make me puke! Did Max know that?'
Maurice gave me a look of total incomprehension and continued speaking as though explaining the obvious to a dim-witted child. 'I haven't the slightest idea, Peter. What's love got to do with it? I know Max wasn't in love with me! But it would certainly have annoyed him if I'd shown any interest in you.'
'Cut the dumb act! Everyone noticed the way he trailed around after you, laughing at your jokes, making sure you were happy with all the arrangements. He never let you out of his sight. You sure know how to string a guy along.'
I didn't want to hear that so stuck to the present. 'Well, despite your plans and self-denial, you've lost your job.'
'I hoped that if I was nice to you, you'd put in a good word for me with Frances in the morning.'
'What was that crack you made to her about prostitution?'
Maurice shrugged. 'I also think you're sexy.'
'Well I certainly don't feel the same about you,' I stated bluntly. 'Having seen you with your clothes off, I'm turned off!'
He drew a tart little breath, turned an unpleasant shade of puce, dragged up the doona and sneered, 'You're just a pathetic little cock-teaser, jealous that I was getting what you wanted.'
A fuse blew somewhere deep in my head. So angry I could scarcely breathe, I reached across, grabbed an arm and a handful of hair and hurled him violently to the floor. 'Fuck off home you flabby, cretinous lump of shit and stay there! Frances will send you anything you're owed.'
He stared up, uncomprehending, face grey. I grasped his arm, twisted it up his back, frogmarched him downstairs and thrust him out into the car park. The gutless creep offered no resistance. From the lounge window I could see him huddling against the doorway to escape the chill wind. Pathetic, naked, stupid. Impossible to feel anything other than contempt. I didn't want him hanging around till morning, so threw his clothes, wallet and car keys out the window. He raced around picking everything up, got into his car and drove noisily away. It made me feel better, but didn't make me sleep. What did these people value? I had no point of contact. Throughout the night, a dark puddle of unwelcome thoughts churned in my head.
At breakfast, Frances's face was a picture of serenity. With the bemused grin of the truly satisfied, she chomped her way through four thick slices of toast, two fried eggs, a mountain of fried tomatoes and cheese, three cups of strong tea and five passionfruit. I've never learnt the knack of thought concealment, so wasn't surprised when she answered the unspoken question.
'Enough exercise, and the acid in the fruit shoves everything through before it can turn to ugly flab. Anyway, you've eaten as much as I have.'
'I'm twice as big and usually work hard to burn it off. Today I've got to keep my strength up for the interview with the cops.'
'I was coming round to that excuse myself.' She looked down at her plate, began one of her 'little-girl' looks from under her eyelashes, thought better of it, laughed unselfconsciously and looked me straight in the eyes.
'Peter - I know it seemed as though I was using you last night, and I suppose I was, but I really appreciated your staying. In fact, I hope you'll hang around a bit longer. After all, someone's got to run the gallery.' The smile was shrewd.
'Is that an offer of employment?'
'Yes. Now that poor little Maurice has scampered off leaving us in the lurch, it seems the obvious solution.'
'I have the distinct impression that poor little Maurice was caught in a rather sly little trap,' I said quietly. There was no reaction, unless a sunny smile indicated something other than a guiltless conscience. I was wary of becoming involved with the woman, and too upset and tired to make a commitment, so procrastinated. 'I'll hang around till the inquest and funeral are over, then let you know.'
'That'll be perfect.' She scrutinised my face for a full minute, took my hand in hers and, visibly suppressing a smile, whispered, 'Don't ever try your hand at poker or politics. You're as transparent as air.'
Despite myself, I was starting to like her. Maybe Max hadn't been so stupid after all.
'Max wasn't a fool,' she announced with alarming prescience. 'It's only today I realise why he was so much in love with you. I was jealous, you know. All that time he spent with you.'
'You've got the wrong bloke. I hardly saw him after he married you.'
Her jaw dropped. 'But, he never stopped talking about you.' Suddenly less sure of herself she stared at me. 'Surely you realised our marriage was just a front?'
'No. I told you last night.'
'But - that's terrible,' she whispered. 'Poor Max. Poor you. What a confusion. But why?' Her eyes searched mine.
I returned the look calmly for as long as I could, but the awful realisation of what I'd refused to accept for four years slowly flooded my heart, drowning me in sadness. I had never stopped loving Max. That was why I'd cut myself off from everyone I knew. That was why I spent my days alone and miserable. That was why I was on anti-depressants. Why my whole life was fucked. Clouds of self-pity gathered.
Frances continued to hold my hand and gaze at me with such compassion that the lies could no longer be sustained. It hadn't been Max who refused to explain about Frances, it was me who'd refused to listen, rejected his approaches, blamed him for leaving me! Cold misery filled my belly. The irreplaceable loss that was Max. The void never to be filled. The years of loneliness ahead. The wasted years gone by. Sadness, a thousand times worse because it was of my own making, engulfed my being and I dropped my head onto my arms and howled.
2 Frances Twists My Arm
Having seen little point in giving Max's parents a sleepless night, I telephoned them immediately after breakfast. Hank and Celia were my best, just about my only friends, although I'd seen little of them over the preceding four years. At the sound of Hank's voice my throat dried and the awful news had to be flushed out with tears. And then it was Hank consoling me.
By eight o'clock a covey of policemen were swarming over the roof, peering at the dome, admiring its construction, shouting to have it opened and closed, bustling around with knowing mouths. I went up to watch. A bucket of metal fastenings, off-cuts, screws and similar objects had been piled beside a carton of cigarette butts, lunch-wrappers, plastic drink bottles, pieces of string, sticky tape and other residue left behind by the builders. On a blue cloth were two screwdrivers, a drill bit and a broom handle.
'Recognise any of this stuff?' asked the bloke in charge.
Someone dusted things for fingerprints, and a vacuum cleaner sucked the area clean. The paper-bags were carefully labelled and packed in a separate carton. Eventually, everyone clomped down the narrow stairs lugging their booty and drove off to wherever one looks for truth in a pile of rubbish.
An hour later at the police station, Frances and I dictated and signed statements, were asked to remain available for further interviews, and gained the impression that superior forces were at work to protect us. When I innocently remarked that it was surely an accident, the duty constable stared at me with such suspicion I was glad a hundred people could testify to my whereabouts at the time of the fall.
On leaving the building we met guests from the previous night, summoned to endure the same rigmarole. Some smiled, others glared as though it was our fault they had to waste a morning; all offered condolences to the wealthy young widow. Back at the gallery, an army of reporters and photographers. I started to twitch. Frances pushed me inside.
'Nothing will change the past, Peter. Go up and take a long shower and three hundred deep breaths. I'll handle the free publicity.' And she did. The spreads in the following days' newspapers as well as television and radio coverage, ensured an endless stream of visitors to the gallery. Most came for a gawk at the spot from which the rich architect fell, no doubt hoping for residual bloodstains, but many stayed to look at the exhibition. By the end of the fourth day there were red dots on most of my paintings
The inquest was conducted on a cold Friday morning in a cavernous, unheated courtroom where a mousy little man, after a seemingly interminable amount of paper shuffling, interruptions and whispered asides, listened to statements from various arms of the police and selected eyewitnesses. I was glad Frances had insisted on my taking over Max's wardrobe; I owned nothing as luxurious as his fleecy lined leather car coat, or the quality trousers and jackets. Feeling warm, comfortable and somehow closer to him, I'd never been so well dressed.
The Magistrate eventually announced that Maxwell Fierney had died by overbalancing from the unprotected edge of an opening in the roof, while speaking to the patrons of the Art Gallery below. There was actually quite a bit more to it than that, and the words were different, but it had been an accident. Death by misadventure. He recommended that access to the roof be securely locked at all times, whether the dome was opened or not. By eleven-thirty it was over and I left the place in a daze, still not believing that all the talking had been about Max. A light touch on the shoulder and a familiar voice startled me back to reality.
'Peter, we hoped to see you. Thanks for coming.' Max's parents appeared to be holding each other up. They looked ill, tired and at least twenty years older than the last time I'd seen them.
'Celia, Hank - I didn't see you inside, sorry. Too busy with my own misery, as usual.' We shook hands and wordlessly shared our sorrow.
'We have missed your visits,' Celia said without reproach. 'I do hope you will come and see us again soon?'
'Celia's right. It's a wretched shame it took this to bring us together again, so let's not leave it so long next time.'
I could only nod and grunt something I hoped sounded like assent.
'It would be lovely if you could stay with us after the - ah - dispersal,' Celia murmured hesitantly, fiddling with the clasp of her purse. 'You will be coming?'
I couldn't reply. There were no words in my head. Only a vision of the Fierney's back verandah, eucalypt-covered hills and sun on golden grass. The happiest moments of my life had been spent there. I was deeply embarrassed. How do you respond to two people you love when you've avoided contact with them for nearly four years?
Hank was still looking at me. 'It will be a very quiet affair, just the family and one or two close friends,' he persuaded gently. 'But you mustn't feel any obligation.'
I've always suffered from teary eyes at the slightest hint of sentiment. It's a bit embarrassing in front of most people, but never with Celia and Hank.
'There is nothing I'd rather do and no place I'd rather be, than visiting you two,' I replied huskily, brushing at streaming cheeks. The lump in my throat was painful as Hank shook my hand and Celia gave me the first loving hug I'd had for years. I had to turn away and blow my nose.
'Right then, that's settled. We'll expect you for dinner tomorrow evening, and you can stay as long as you like.'
I could only nod, smile and wave as they got in the car and drove off. It took me two hours of throwing rocks as hard as I could into a sea as frustrated and angry as myself, before I could face the gallery and a fuming Frances, who had seen no point in attending the inquest, preferring to keep the gallery open.
'You knew I had an appointment for half an hour ago! What the hell kept you?'
'Sorry,' was all I had the energy to mutter.
She flounced out.
Nearly a week had passed since the Opening, and empty spaces on the walls were becoming conspicuous as my paintings were bought, paid for and taken home. A search of all possible storage areas revealed no replacement stock. I'd wasted time feeling sorry for myself and things were getting urgent. I either had to find work worthy of Max's gallery within the next few days, or admit defeat as curator and close the gallery. In the absence of files, account books or memoranda, I tried the computer where I discovered a list of artists labelled Suitable. I telephoned them all. Only two had enough works ready, so I arranged for them to bring in samples that same afternoon. The others promised to bring in their work as it became available for a back-up collection. What the hell had the flabby Maurice been doing?
Lunchtime was spent nosing through files, keeping an eye on the half-dozen patrons, answering questions and snatching bites of bread and cheese. The finance folder covered everything from first discussions with the bank, to wages paid to the man who cleaned the windows on the morning of the opening. The gallery had an enormous mortgage. There was yet to be an entry on the credit side.
The works in the current exhibition had their own file, so I entered the money already received, as well as prospective receipts, hoping none of the promised sales would fall through. It was going to be the proverbial drop in a bucket. I was very glad the mortgage wasn't my responsibility. But then the whole enterprise had probably been designed as a tax loss. Certainly, the gallery's cut of sales appeared pitifully small when one considered rates, repairs, maintenance, insurance, my salary, someone to replace me on my day off, and wages for a cleaner.
I figured that if I pulled out all the stops we could probably run a permanent exhibition and hold ten solo shows a year. Even so, it was going to be a long time before the place was freehold, and I certainly wasn't going to get much painting done. To my surprise I discovered that didn't worry me. I guess I was in a morbid warp, determined to make a memorial worthy of Max, or some such drivel. I think I was desperate for anything to stop me thinking about opportunities lost and years wasted.
A message appeared on the screen - fax arriving. I had no idea what to do, so waited. A machine on the other side of the office buzzed and tossed out a paper.
ARTWORKS Inc. 1. August.
To: Maximillian's Art Gallery.
Our representative, Mr Ian Scumble, will deliver the first consignment of original, hand-painted works on Thursday morning, 8th August.
Please arrange reception and display as previously discussed.
I'd never heard of ArtWorks, and surely no one called I Scumble would dare to deal in art! Frances had never mentioned them, and it certainly didn't seem like anything that would have interested Max. A consignment of original, hand-painted works! By whom? What sort of gallery did they think we were? It had to be a mistake so I put it aside to discuss with Frances later.
Gambling that the two artists from the list who were ready to exhibit would give us a show worth looking at, I brought up the mailing list used for my own exhibition, substituted their names, typed new dates, and set the printer to churn out a stack of invitations to another grand opening the following Wednesday. At the end of another hour they were in envelopes. I had six days. A rush, but I was sure I could manage it and Frances would be impressed.
There was just time to telephone newspaper advertisements to the local and weekly papers before Madrilene Alcona shuffled into the gallery in her slippers, dragging a leather suitcase on a small trolley. A woolly knitted hat pulled down against the south-westerly wind concealed most of her face, and an enormous quilted coat, that looked as though she had made it from a doona, did the same for her figure. I led her into the workroom, turned on the heater and offered coffee.
'Coffee is poison for the mind. It stimulates all except the creative and gentle portals of the spirit,' she remarked casually while unstrapping the battered case and laying it on the floor. 'Unless it's laced with Irish whisky and topped with cream.' The smile was cheeky.
The workroom was equipped with everything to soothe both artist and patron, so it was only a matter of minutes before the microwave disgorged a substantial toddy that Madrilene sampled and pronounced perfectly adequate.
'I wouldn't waste money on it myself,' she grinned, removing doona and hat. 'I rely on you fat cats for the occasional tipple.'
Minus the wrappings she was slim, lithe, and spread her work over the floor with the vacant concentration of a greyhound. I guessed her age to be about forty; status single, financial situation lean.
The news was received in stunned quietude. She turned pale and sank back on her heels. 'I don't go out much and almost never bother with The News. I'm very sorry,' she said quietly. 'Very, very sorry.' She stared into her drink.
There was nothing I could add to that.
As she sipped and laid out her offerings we became chummy and I was asked to call her Mad. She obviously wasn't, but the abbreviation suited her.
I gazed in growing envy at the pieces of paper laid out over every level surface. Mad was an artist who had stuck to drawing. Each work was a masterpiece of abstraction. Not what one usually thinks of as abstraction, when the viewer has to rely on the title to work out both subject and content, but a work from which everything inessential has been removed. Her drawings embodied the Neo-Platonist concept of the original perfect tree, or chair, or whatever, which is located in paradise and manifests the essence of every tree, chair or whatever.
I was reminded of the apocryphal tale of a Chinese art student who was sent by his master to a pigsty to draw pigs. At the end of each day he presented his drawings. Each day the master shook his head and told him he had not yet understood. After fifteen years, when the benighted student was nearly insane from frustration, his master told him to remain in the studio and draw - not from any living beast, but from the well of information and careful observation stored in his head. The result was a drawing containing the essence of 'pigness'. Not one specific pig, but every pig that has ever lived. Both master and pupil were satisfied.
Mad's subjects were taken from around her home. Everyday things like a zippered, soft-leather travelling bag spilling its contents onto the floor; a table with a lamp; an open window; light falling across a stairwell. Each drawing was complete and said everything necessary about the object. My eyes flicked from one to the other in increasing excitement.
'How many preparatory sketches do you make?'
She shrugged. 'Usually about a hundred. Only rough scratchings; sorting out ideas, proportions. On scraps of newspaper, old cartons, the backs of envelopes. I don't waste paper!' she added defensively. 'But it takes me that long, sometimes longer to understand what it is I'm drawing. I guess I'm pretty useless really.' She wasn't being coy. 'And I suppose you think they're too small and I use too many different media?' she sighed with resignation. 'Other galleries don't want them, they say they're too simple and I should stick to one medium. But I can't.'
'They are wonderful drawings,' I told her firmly. 'I want them all. The only problem is they have to be framed by next Wednesday's opening.'
After a quick stare of undisguised shock, she hastily gathered them together. 'Well, I don't really know whether I want to sell them. I thought I did, or at least I wanted someone to tell me they're good, but now… don't think I can bear to part with them. Sorry. There's too much of me in them.'
I sat back, understanding exactly what she was feeling.
When I made no protest, she looked up through narrowed eyes and demanded as though to test my judgement, 'Which one do you like best?'
'The bag,' I replied without hesitation. It called forth all the times I had moved; the partings, anticipation, sadness and small death that is every farewell, the potential re-birth that is every journey, every arrival. With coloured pencils, ball-point pen, black ink applied with pieces of stick, and several other techniques I had no way of working out without watching her in action, she had transformed a portion of a sheet of drawing paper into every traveller's bag. Light flickered over clasps and zips, shadows suggested contents not visible. It was the paradigm of all well-used, well-loved holdalls.
'Mmm. Perhaps you do know what you're talking about. What price do you think they'll fetch?' Her eyes narrowed when I told her. 'In other words, I've been working for about five cents an hour. And then there's your cut. How much is that?'
She thought for a while, re-arranged some of the drawings, selected three, one of which was the holdall, and replaced them in her folder before raising her eyes.
'OK, you can have the rest. There are only three sizes and I have mounts and frames for them all at home. I didn't bring them in because I wanted you to see the drawings unadorned. You can pick up the frames and mounts and bring me any paper work tomorrow. Come at eleven.'
She lived in the coastal hills so I could call in on the way to Celia and Hank's. I made out a receipt for the drawings, which she scanned absentmindedly and thrust into her bag.
'I'm being picked up in five minutes. Tell me exactly how Max died.'
I kept it brief, then showed her the dome. She gazed up and around for a minute.
'What a beautiful space,' she whispered. 'When Max described it I knew it would be like this. He was a remarkable man. My drawings will be very happy here.' She looked around again as though irritated. 'But Max wouldn't stumble and fall,' she said sharply. 'He was too sure-footed. He would never trip himself up. I've made a drawing of him. Do you want to see it?'
I nodded, shocked at the truth of what she'd said. Max would never trip. But he had! I'd seen him wobble on the edge and fall. I thrust the thought away. She handed me the drawing and my heart lurched. The sketch, for it was little more than that, showed Max standing in an open French window, the light from outside so strong that his left side dissolved into the glare. Only the right half of his body had been worked up. He was naked, balanced, confident, laughing and secure in himself; not looking directly at the viewer, but including us in his energetic embrace of life. I sagged to a chair.
Mad's gaze was unreadable. 'Did I capture him?'
I think I whimpered.
She placed cool fingers on my neck and whispered, 'It's yours - if you want it.'
I couldn't speak. The silence was broken by a car horn.
'That'll be Brian and the kids. Must rush. See you tomorrow.' Wrapping herself in the doona, she headed for the door.
I raced after her, pulled her into a rough hug and kissed her on the forehead. 'Thank you, Mad. I will treasure it.'
'I know.' She ran to the late-model station wagon in which husband and two teenagers were waiting, waved breezily, and was gone.
I barely had time to store the drawings before an elderly, portly gentleman arrived, armed with a photograph album and one large parcel.
'Bill Smith,' he declaimed, a well-manicured hand held out on a stiff arm. I shook it and introduced myself.
'Bad about Max. Hope the gallery stays true to his vision,' he rapped.
'So do I. Maybe your work will assist that to happen?'
He stared at me suspiciously as though seeking sarcasm, then opened his parcel. It contained a large oil painting. He placed it on one side of the gallery and led me to the opposite wall where I was obviously expected to pass judgement. The painting was beautiful, full of tantalising textural effects and a subtlety of colour I thought no longer existed, but I had no idea what I was looking at. No matter how I turned my head it remained an exquisite object without meaning. When the silence began to crystallise on the air, embarrassment loosened an honest tongue. 'I love it, what is it?'
'Someone scratching their armpit. Look, there's a bit of one finger, the nail of another, a fold of skin, the tones of flesh - it's all there,' he ended irritably, as though pointing out the obvious to an imbecile.
I looked again and it was - a delightful, intelligent and perfectly executed puzzle. I browsed through the photographs of his other works and eventually deciphered three more - a segment of an eye nestling into the fold of a lid, the back of an ear, and bits of toenail and toes. There were also several that looked altogether more risqué. Bill wasn't talkative, had no desire to pass the time of day and appeared impatient to go. Within a few minutes I'd signed him up and arranged that the following Tuesday morning he would deliver his paintings, ready to hang, with a list of titles and prices for the catalogue.
At five o'clock I ushered out the last visitor, a surly woman, annoyed there was nothing to buy and clearly unimpressed by an invitation to the opening of the next show and my promise that it would be even more exciting than the one she'd missed. I closed and locked the doors, cleaned up and went up to my room. The envelope containing Mad's drawing lay on my pillow but I didn't dare look.
Later, perhaps. I put it carefully away, donned one of Max's track-suits, jogged to the Post Office, mailed the invitations, then sweated it out for an hour along the beach.
Cold and hungry I staggered home drenched by a squall. Frances was still out.
3 Mad & Family
Friday morning dawned cool, windy and grey. Scattered coastal showers, the forecast had predicted, with the chance of an unseasonable cyclone heading our way in the next few weeks. The cyclone was hard to take seriously, it was at least three months too early and they never came this far south. With a curious lightness of heart, probably related to the fact that Frances had still not returned from her frolicking, I decided to close the gallery for the next five days, reopening for Mad's show.
I spent the morning painting large, colourful notices informing prospective customers that we had sold out and would be reopening with 'More, Bigger, Better and Equally Exclusive Art Treasures at five-thirty on Wednesday the Seventh of August'. Artistically draped along the inside of the enormous front windows, they were visible from miles away and a damned good advertisement.
My poor old Holden's battery had leaked its charge into the moist coastal air and refused to turn over the engine, so I fossicked in Max's desk and found the keys to his station wagon. Being at the wheel of a Mercedes was tantamount to an exalted encounter with the future. I wasn't driving; I was whisked along in a magic box experiencing none of the tensions I usually associate with getting from A to B. Except I lost my way. The motorway underpass clearly marked on my map didn't exist when I arrived there, and it was eleven-twenty before I pulled up outside the Alcona's house up in the hills overlooking the Coast. A high, creeper-festooned wooden fence hid most of the building's brick walls and steeply tiled roof, from which protruded three dormer windows. A press on the bell brought Mad's voice to the tinny loudspeaker embedded in the gatepost.
'Who is it?'
An electronic buzz released the latch, and five wide stone steps led down to a partially opened, heavy wooden door behind which Mad was waiting, tightly wrapped in her eiderdown. The street gate slammed behind me.
'Ah, Peter,' she murmured anxiously, with perhaps a hint of panic.
'Sorry I'm late. I got lost.'
'Oh, that's nothing. Everyone does. At least the very few people we invite here.' She hesitated a few seconds longer than necessary, looking lost and apprehensive until I began to think I'd made a mistake and hadn't been invited after all.
'If it's not convenient, I can come back another time. Or if you'd rather not see me here after all, then you can just bring the frames and mounts to the gallery on Tuesday. Don't worry about it. I understand. It's not easy inviting total strangers to your house. I'm exactly the same.'
She looked at me warily, came to a decision and opened the door wider.
'Come in out of the wind. It's silly to talk here on the steps.'
I followed her into a small room, over-furnished with two high-backed, heavily carved wooden chairs, an elaborate oval table in polished wood, and an alarming, antique wardrobe encrusted with inquisitive cherubs disporting themselves in an exotic jungle of rampaging vines, leaves and flowers. A full-length mirror, tucked behind four Corinthian columns, appeared to lead directly to the nether world. A yellowish rug - a splash of vomit on the polished wooden floor, did nothing to dispel the gloomy excesses of the wardrobe.
It was not the sort of room I would have associated with the creator of the beautifully restrained drawings nestling in my office. She smiled absentmindedly, sat in one of the chairs and gestured vaguely towards the other. I lowered myself into the monstrous thing, and was stabbed in the back by a gargoyle.
Mad giggled charmingly. 'Sorry, I should have warned you. The furniture in this room was my mother's. Classic Gothic horror don't you think?'
'And as uncomfortable as it looks.'
'We spend no time here, so it doesn't matter.' She adjusted herself more comfortably, leaned forward slightly and said gently, 'I realise it's difficult for you to talk about Max, but he was a good friend to both of us, and… I simply have to talk to someone or I'll go mad.'
It seemed churlish to refuse so I gave a noncommittal grunt, which she took as permission to continue.
'Max wasn't on very intimate terms with his wife, was he? At least that's what I gathered from things he let drop when he came to visit.' Her face was a picture of genuine concern. 'How has Frances taken his death?'
I found the question intrusive and couldn't think what to say.
'Come on, Peter,' she cajoled. 'Do the rich and leisured feel the same as us? I spend all my time cooped up here drawing, and lose touch with the outside world. What did she say when she saw Max fall?'
Invasion of privacy is an irredeemable vice. I figure if gossips are happy to receive and broadcast rumours about others, they'll have scant regard for my privacy when I'm out of the room. Were I asked to catalogue the deadly sins, Gossip would head the list.
'Max's widow's state of mind is her own affair,' I replied coolly. 'If you're concerned, why not telephone and offer your condolences? Although I doubt she would appreciate such an intrusion from a stranger.'
'Not a complete stranger,' Mad countered with a cheerful smile, impervious to my reaction. 'I met her once in town, and I've drawn her husband - naked.'
'But not her,' I snapped.
'True. But I wonder about his Will. He had plenty of money. Does Frances get it all?'
I stood stiffly, impatient to get the frames and escape from this woman's curiosity. How, I wondered, could I have been so wrong about Madrilene Alcona. My first impressions are usually pretty accurate.
She leaned back in her chair, pulled a worried frown and smiled gently. 'How about Max's parents? They must be taking it hard, losing their son? As a mother myself, I can feel for them. Do they have any other children? You can tell me, Peter, I'm very discreet.'
'Mrs Alcona,' I said, not bothering to conceal my contempt, 'if you've invited me here to pry into the affairs of others, then you have wasted both my time and yours. Let me have the frames and mounts and I'll be on my way. The gallery will communicate with you in due course.'
She smiled sweetly, tucked her legs into the folds of the eiderdown, wrapped her arms around them and giggled softly, 'But I hoped you'd stay to lunch.'
I was spared a response by the front door bursting open to admit a large, good-looking man, a tall gangling youth, and the two teenagers of the previous afternoon's station wagon. The man greeted me like an old friend.
'Hello,' he boomed, pumping my arm energetically, 'you must be Peter. I'm Brian. This streak of pump-water is Jeff, and the two clones are Der and Dra. I hope Mad's invited you to lunch?'
I glared at the four healthy, sane-looking people, wondering what oddities their exteriors concealed.
'Yes, dear, of course I have,' Mad answered in the most ordinary of voices.
'Excellent! We'll go on up and dismantle ourselves. See you in a few minutes.' They bustled out.
'Der and Dra? Dismantle? What's going on?' I snapped, determined not to waste energy on anger at what was beginning to look like some sort of stupid family game.
'Alexander and Alexandra - our twins; dismantle, as in disrobe. A mantle is a type of clothing. It's a family joke. The children are home early because there's a half-day holiday for a reason known only to the school.'
I allowed myself to look as irritated as I felt.
'Peter, I'm sorry. I got cold feet when you arrived. Yesterday I was convinced you were a certain sort of person; an impression confirmed by your reaction to my drawings; especially the portrait of Max. But… when you arrived today I panicked. Our family is odd. At least most people would think so. Of course we don't. We're more or less self-contained and need no one else, although Jeff is starting to kick at the traces. I'm worried sick about gossip; it could destroy everything. That's why I asked you those stupid questions, to see if our privacy was safe with you. I'm paranoid about it. Brian trusts my judgement - I was right about Max, you see, and told him you were just as nice. Just as healthily broad-minded. It was very important that I hadn't made a mistake about you before admitting you into our family.'
'I can understand your caution,' I replied, mollified but unconvinced. 'However, your family doesn't seem odd to me.'
'When Brian says 'dismantle', that means no clothes. We like to be naked around the house - always have done, and can't be bothered with guests who are uncomfortable with that. Der and Dra have odd habits. We have an unusual house-plan, by European standards that is, and an outlook on life which is so much more liberal than anyone else we have ever met, that I wonder sometimes whether we have made a mistake. But I am happy! We are all happy, so it can't be totally wrong. Anyway, now you have a slight idea about us, are you staying to lunch?'
'Curiosity will not let me refuse, as long as the rest of the house is warmer than this overdressed cool-store.'
Mad gave a delighted giggle. 'I guarantee it. I'll be in the living room when you're… dismantled.' Her impish grin remained floating on the air as the inner door closed.
Having discovered the function of the hideous wardrobe and wearing nothing but a sickeningly certainty I was going to be greeted by jeers and laughter from five elegantly dressed Alconas, I pushed through the door into a cosily warm living area. Mad was stirring a pot on the stove, naked except for a frilly apron. She smiled a welcome.
'I also never wear clothes at home, if it's warm enough,' I confided, eyes scanning the enormous room that appeared to occupy the entire ground floor.
'Take a shower while I finish preparing the meal,' she offered, pointing to a door in the far wall.
I made good use of toilet and shower, in that order, relieved at being able to ensure I wasn't going to smell ripe - or worse - at lunch.
Clean and relaxed, I returned to the main room. It was exactly the sort of place I would build for myself if I had the money. A vast, yet cosy space divided into kitchen, dining, lounge, four study areas, and a smaller chat-space. The door opposite the bathroom opened onto a stairwell leading both up and down, and another gave onto a study containing a desk, computer, a TV, and a sofa that looked as though it could be converted into a double bed. The view from the windows of the main room was less interesting than I'd imagined. We were one storey above the ground, but low enough to ensure privacy. Fences and neighbouring roofs and trees obstructed any potential view. An in-ground pool, patio and lawn tennis court bordered by trees and flowers, turned the place into a mini-resort.
Jeff burst in from the stairwell, fronted me with a smile, shook my hand as vigorously as his father, and asked in a surprisingly deep voice, 'Do you like the house? What do you think of me? Mum says you're as nice as Max. Are you?'
Innocent effusion makes me laugh. I stepped back and looked him up and down as if making a serious evaluation. Jeff was tall, stringy, blue-eyed and topped by a shock of auburn hair. His muscles would fill out in the next year or so and he'd become physically attractive, but facial bone structures were not prominent and it would take only a thin layer of fat to make his face shapeless and dull.
'Question one: from what I've seen, the house is perfect. Two: your indisputable attractiveness will always depend to a certain extent on your lively character, and you must never get fat. Three: of course I am. How well did you know Max?'
'Pretty well. He came round whenever he had an hour or so to spare. The last time he was on a high - kept talking about the excellent artist he had booked for his gallery opening, and promised to bring him to visit. But now it's too late. He's dead…' Jeff stopped and stared out the window. 'I… I can't get my head around death. Max is the first person I've known who's died. Its so… so final!' He turned back to me, his eyes moist. 'I'll never forget the way he wouldn't stop talking or keep still, even though Mum was trying to draw him.' Jeff visibly shook off his mood, grinned and added, 'Dad says we have to live in the present and be grateful for past experiences.'
'And good advice too.'
'Yep. I'm glad I knew Max. He was the most handsome and interesting man I've ever met.'
'Our relationship is going to prosper.'
'Good - I fancy you.'
'That was quick.'
'Maturity becomes a man.'
'I'm seventeen and legal.'
'When you're a fit young man of forty-nine, I'll be an elderly codger of sixty.'
'I wasn't considering a life-long attachment.'
'Unfaithful! And we've only just met.'
Jeff burst into laughter and I turned from the window to face Der and Dra who had entered during the exchange. Their almost identical faces, framed by longish, dark-blond straight hair, were serious as they stepped forward extending cautious hands. I had to glance down to see who was who. There was no mistaking Der's manhood, it outshone Jeff's and mine by several orders of magnitude. Dra's breasts looked scarcely different from her well-muscled brother's pectorals and, despite slightly larger nipples, she emanated an androgynous quality that was equally attractive. Neither would have to rely on character alone.
'How do you do, Alexander, how do you do, Alexandra,' I said, attempting to match their seriousness.
'You may call us Der and Dra.'
'Thank you. You may call me anything you like, but don't call me late for dinner.'
They smiled with the politeness of those who have heard such chestnuts before. It was astounding how alike they were. Same slightly square jaws, prominent cheekbones, full lips, olive complexions, deep-set brown eyes under arched eyebrows, strong necks, broad shoulders. Involuntarily, I glanced down again to confirm Dra's sex. Narrow hips and well-formed legs. She could have been a boy.
'That's the first time for ages that Jeff's been beaten,' she said earnestly. 'Did Mum teach you the game?'
'I didn't know I was playing one.'
'Oh,' said Der dismissively, 'then it doesn't count. I thought he gave in too easily.'
'We go on and on making silly answers till one cracks up - he's the looser,' Der explained.
Jeff put his arm around my shoulder, 'I didn't give in, I was just being nice to a guest and potential lover.'
'Does Peter know you have designs on him, Jeff?' Brian had joined us.
'He does now.'
Brian looked at me with a half smile to gauge my reaction. He was as tall as Jeff, but solid. A tough and fit looking customer - obviously the twins' father. Brawny arms, thick chest evenly coated with short brown hair, strong legs and sporting a light, seamless tan. Mad had chosen a solid rock on which to build her family. He must have been at least forty, but looked in his early thirties.
'Well, I guess forewarned is forearmed,' I laughed, shamed at my lack of originality.
'But not fore-skinned,' interjected Dra quietly peering at my groin with what appeared to be academic interest. 'Are you Jewish?'
Everyone looked at what was one more reason to hate my parents. I had never been able to forgive them for that infant mutilation. None of my friends had been cut and I remained embarrassed by it. Luckily, it was a neat job.
'No, just stupid parents. Does it offend you?'
'Of course not! It's just that I've read about male and female circumcisions and other rites of passage to adulthood, and always thought they sounded grotesque.' She squatted down for a closer inspection. 'Yours is the first circumcised penis I've seen, and it's not horrible, it looks neat, clean, and… somehow honest.' She stood up and smiled at me innocently. 'That sounds stupid, doesn't it? What do you think, Mum?'
Mad hung her apron on the back of a chair and joined us. She was thin, but not unhealthily so. The only hair on her body was on her head, a frizzy black confection like a demonic halo. Small breasts and nipples, narrow hips for a woman, shapely legs and a light tan rendered her one of the few mature women I had ever found physically attractive. Standing beside Brian she reached only to his shoulder.
'What do I think of what, dear?'
'Peter's circumcised penis.'
Fearing ridicule, I glanced quickly around but the three men were taking Dra's observations seriously, and were waiting for Mad's opinion. It wasn't a joke; they were genuinely interested. However, the concerted attention of five people was beginning to have its effect. How far did their liberal outlook go? I wondered.
'I like it,' was Mad's considered judgement. 'It's… sort of innocent. Nothing concealed.'
'And what does the prospective lover think?' Brian asked with a grin, delighting in my discomfiture. The object of everyone's attention was swelling visibly.
'I agree with Dra. Innocent, honest and straightforward - like me,' he replied smugly.
I quelled the urge to cover my erection. If they weren't embarrassed, why should I be? 'It only looks innocent beside Der's magnificent manhood.'
'You're joking! I prefer to look like a human, not a horse,' Jeff scoffed.
'Yours would look larger if you still had your foreskin,' consoled Dra earnestly.
'And consider the aesthetics,' laughed Mad. 'You're the lean, elegant type, Peter. Anything larger would look ridiculous on you.'
'And it obviously works perfectly,' added Brian. 'About thirty percent of Australian men suffer from impotence.'
'We'd better stop,' laughed Mad, 'before it bursts.'
They laughed and I laughed. It was funny and natural, not rude and dirty. I relaxed, they sensed it, and our friendship was sealed.
'The meal's ready, so everyone to the table.' Mad bustled across to the stove.
'Have you ever worked out the percentage increase in volume, circumference and length of your penis from flaccid to fully erect, Peter?' asked Der thoughtfully as we moved towards the dining area. 'I'd say your ratio was much greater than mine. My cock may be larger than yours when soft, but it hardly increases in size when erect. We could compare them with water displacement.'
No one was laughing. They were taking Der's suggestion quite as seriously as they had Dra's earlier interest. Mad was right, they were odd. Deliciously so. Odd in the way I'd frequently wished my own family to be. Intelligent, curious, articulate kids with parents equal to the task of rearing them; and having a liberality of spirit to match. Natural creatures savouring their existence, untainted by duplicity and without the slightest hint of lewdness. I was enchanted. Here were Rousseau's sauvages innocents - except they were educated and eloquent.
'Can it wait till after lunch?' asked Mad, placing plates on the table. 'And perhaps Peter isn't really interested.'
'If it proves Der's monster is no better than mine, I'm all for it. I dislike feeling inadequate.'
'Don't we all?' Jeff concurred.
'After lunch then,' adjudicated Brian, turning to me. 'Red or purple?'
'Red or purple what?'
He handed me a red towel. 'We each have our own, ensures clean seats.'
Mad treated us to a delicious meal of game pie, fresh fruit and vegetables, and yoghurt. It was an extended meal as everyone had plenty to say about what they'd been doing and there was discussion on every topic. By the time the dishes were done and the frames and mounts had been sorted and loaded, it was getting late.
'We'll have to do the experiment another time, Der. I'm expected for dinner at Max's parents place and if I leave it any longer I'll be late.'
'That'll be better actually. I've thought of a few refinements, so need time to set it up. When are you coming back?'
He stared at me intently for a second then blurted, 'Are you the bloke Max was going to bring to visit us?'
'Are you an artist?'
'Did you exhibit at the opening of Max's gallery?'
'Yep.' Before he could say something I didn't want to hear, I turned to the others. 'I'll see you all at Mad's opening next Wednesday evening.'
'You bet,' said Jeff. We'll be there.'
'Naturally. But,' added Brian seriously, 'you must feel free to drop in, any time at all.'
I raised an eyebrow.
'No! I mean that. We've enjoyed your company. If you're feeling a bit low after the funeral, at a loose end… we'd like you to call in. Right, Mad?'
She smiled and nodded.
I wanted to say it had been the best day I'd had for four years, and they were the nicest people I'd met in that time, but if I'd opened my mouth I'd have flooded the room with tears .
4 Fierneys, Fire & Rory
The Fierneys had retired to ten acres of dry eucalypt forest in hilly country about fifty minutes from the coast. Designed by Max, the house had been built by both of us, under the supervision of a retired builder, during weekends and holidays when we were at Uni. Jobs for students were as scarce as hen's teeth and my parents had no desire to waste hard-earned cash on my frivolous aspirations, so the wages paid for my degree. I spent more happy hours at the Fierney's during and after construction than I can remember. A shattered dream, thanks to Frances.
A scrub-covered mound sheltered the property from south-easterly winds and the prying eyes of passing traffic. The driveway wound down through trees to the garage and back door. From the front verandah the land sloped away to the west, affording a view over pastures, coppices, and distant ranges. A State Forest abutted the southern boundary. The neighbours to the north were invisible among their trees.
Nervous excitement as I coasted down the drive turned to dismay when I pulled up in front of the garage. Two other vehicles were already in the parking area. If they belonged to Max's brother and sister, I'd leave! They'd been delighted when Frances arrived on the scene. As I pulled up, a malevolent caricature of the rural gentleman in tweed suit, waistcoat, gold watch-chain draped across paunch, appeared in the garage doorway. Patrick. I got slowly out of the wagon, face in neutral, feeling underdressed in tracksuit and anorak. Trainers were no match for polished brogues, and my long hair seemed decadent beside the neat trim of this country lawyer.
'What the hell are you doing here?' The mouth a hard, thin line; eyes mere slits encased in fat.
'Your parents invited me.'
'They were only being polite. You should have refused.'
'I wanted to come. Max was my best friend.'
'Friend! Patrick snorted, 'My brother had the good sense to get shot of you four years ago. Why can't you leave his family in peace? And driving his car! I've a good mind to charge you with theft!'
He had worked himself into a lather, spraying the threat at the top of his lungs.
Unable to think of anything that might improve matters, I said nothing. This goaded him into action. He turned back to the garage, grabbed a length of dog-chain from a hook by the door, swung it round his head and let it fly. I jumped back, tripped over a coil of garden hose and fell, cracking my head on the edge of the pavers. I rolled over and felt the back of my head - warm and sticky. Patrick's eyes were blank discs of hate.
'That's the most athletic I've ever seen you, Patrick,' I said as evenly as I could manage. 'Now I'm down why not come over and finish me off? Work some fat off your gut.' I struggled to my feet in case he took up the offer, but when I looked up again he was gone.
'Patrick? Is that you shouting? What's the matter?' Hank's voice from the back door. 'What the…? My god, it's Peter! Are you all right, son? Here, let me help.'
'I'm fine thanks, Hank. bumble-footed as ever. I tripped over the hose.' I dabbed at the cut with my handkerchief.
'There's a lot of blood. Come in and put a dressing on it.'
Inside, I was fussed over by Celia, stared at with distaste by Maureen, and glowered at by Patrick, who had just entered.
'Patrick, Peter's hurt himself. Get him a drink would you, dear?' Celia asked.
My erstwhile attacker's discomfort was balm to my wounds as he offered a stingy scotch and water, holding the tumbler just out of reach with finger and thumb. I sat back, forcing him to lean closer. Maureen took over dinner preparation and Celia bathed my cut. It was superficial, but needed a bandage to stop blood dripping everywhere. I looked quite the wounded soldier at dinner, where conversation was stilted but the food was excellent.
Afterwards, as we arranged ourselves uncomfortably in the lounge, Hank plonked himself beside me on the sofa and held out a letter.
'Here's a bit of good news, Peter. Frances's solicitor contacted us to convey the details of Max's will. As you probably know, the estate was held by Max and Frances as joint tenants, so Frances inherits everything. However, the Mercedes and the contents of his bedroom above the gallery; stereo, television, clothes and so on, are in his name only. The will was made last year and his instructions are perfectly clear; everything not in joint names is to go to you.'
My heart lurched, triggering a thumping headache. I searched Hank's face, but his look of honest pleasure was unambiguous. Celia's reaction was equally generous. I glanced across and caught Patrick and Maureen staring tight-lipped at each other. No wonder Patrick had let fly at me. It made a bit more sense.
'I'm…. I had no idea that… Max still...' I couldn't continue. My eyes filled. An enormous lump in my throat threatened to choke me and I sure as hell didn't want Patrick or Maureen to see the state I was getting into. 'Are you absolutely sure?' I whispered. 'Did…did he really?'
'It's a bloody disgrace! Leaving that magnificent vehicle to a slimy pervert! I'll contest it. His brother and sister should come before this…this sodomite!'
Hank and Celia were mortified. They had obviously not expected such an outburst.
'But Patrick, Maureen, you are both wealthy. You have everything you need! Peter is a struggling artist and was Max's best friend. And is a very dear friend of ours too. I think it is wonderful that he should inherit. It's little enough.'
'I'm sorry, Mother,' broke in Maureen icily, 'But I have to agree with Patrick. What on earth do we tell our friends? Our brother left his personal belongings to a queer? No, don't protest, that's the truth of the matter. I have no idea what sort of hold this person had over Max, but it was unhealthy and you should be able to see that.'
Any idea I had entertained that I might refuse the bequest had evaporated. To hell with them.
Hank looked slowly from one to the other. 'You are living in a fool's world, both of you. Your brother was gay. He never slept with Frances. Their marriage was a business arrangement. He told us that himself. We kept it from you to spare your feelings, knowing how narrow your views are, but your insulting and defamatory statements this evening leave me no option but to tell you. As far as your mother and I are concerned, Peter is as much a part of this family as are your spouses. We love him and are sorry that Max's impatience to get rich led to their splitting up. That you have denied Max's sexuality all these years is your problem, but if you contest his Will, your friends will discover that your brother was the much loved homosexual son of Celia and me, and we consider Peter the rightful inheritor of his personal effects.'
Patrick stood, turned to his sister and hissed, 'I'm going home. I don't know, yet, whether I will return tomorrow. Are you coming?'
'Of course.' Maureen turned to her parents. 'I'm staying at Patrick's, if he returns tomorrow then so will I. Otherwise, I'll see you at Margery's engagement party, if you can spare the time for your grand daughter?'
'Darling, I'm sorry you feel this way…'
'You aren't to blame, Mother He has you under his spell too.' She pecked her unresisting parents on the cheek and they followed her to the door like lost sheep.
I don't think I have ever felt so embarrassed. No one said anything until both cars had driven away, then Hank sat and looked at me with a wry smile.
'We sometimes wonder whether those two were swapped at birth. Quite frankly, I've had enough of them for a while and hope neither return tomorrow. Celia's badly stressed and we can do without their unpleasantness.' He wrapped a comforting arm around his wife.
She smiled sadly. 'Peter, I'm thrilled Max willed those things to you, I'm very glad you're here, and I'm not going bonkers. But I am tired, so if you'll excuse me, dear, I'll toddle off to bed.' She planted an affectionate kiss on my cheek, touched Hank tenderly and left us.
After two hours of reminiscence, a couple of watery whiskies and a pleasurable browse through photo albums, Hank and I also called it a night.
I own a Mercedes was the first thought that entered my head as sunlight splashed across the room, dragging me from sleep. My second, less dishonourable realisation, was that today we would farewell Max, and I cried. Not for him, but for myself and for Hank and Celia who were hurting as much as I, and for the whole, stupid, unfairness of it all. Mixed up in all the wetness were tears of frustration that fat Patrick and his ilk should still be alive, destroying gladness with their bigotry, dogma and hatred, while Max, beautiful Max, was nothing but a cupful of ashes. I indulged the self pity for three minutes, took a cold shower, put on a pair of shorts and sweater, and joined Hank and Celia on the sun-splashed end of the verandah for breakfast.
What a morning. Light, clear, warm and breathless. A hint of mimosa on the air, rising mists turning hills into receding cut-outs, a callistemon splashing its scarlet among the green, lorikeets screeching in the grevilleas, and a million cicadas chirruping in unison. The man-made world of noise, fumes, concrete and stress didn't exist. It was a day in which nothing bad could happen.
The program was simple. After breakfast, Hank and I would collect Max's ashes. The local crematorium was small and could only fire one body at a time, so at least we knew whose ashes we were getting. At ten-thirty, four friends would arrive and the ceremony, such as it was, would begin.
Frances had decided not to attend, much to everyone's relief. She was going to have her own private ceremony she had informed Celia during a brief telephone conversation the previous day. We wouldn't wait for Patrick and Maureen. They'd complained bitterly to their parents that there was to be no Christian service, but on that score Max had been explicit. 'No funeral service of any type, especially no religious crap,' were the exact words in his Will, according to Hank. He and Celia shared Max's contempt for witch-doctoring, and were only too happy to oblige.
Brother and sister were on time, minus their families thank goodness. Probably frightened I'd infect them with homosexuality. Nine of us and the dog set out on a zigzag stroll down through the trees to the bottom boundary. We stopped whenever one of us felt like saying a few words in memory of Max, and a pinch of his ashes were sprinkled over the ground. It was simple, moving, and memorable. Maureen and Patrick didn't disgrace themselves.
After tea and sandwiches on the verandah, the guests left, to be followed soon after by Patrick and Maureen. Neither had spoken a word to me all day. I was waiting to close the gate behind them when Patrick stopped the car, wound down his window and snarled, 'You are going to regret this for the rest of your miserable, disgusting, perverted life, you filthy pederast.' He gunned the motor, spraying me with dust and stones and sped away.
'I'm not, never have been and never will be a pederast,' I whispered as I closed the gate and retraced my steps down the drive, slipping unconsciously into the adolescent mantra I used to chant endlessly to keep myself sane. 'I am a normal human being. I have no power to change the way I was born. I am as worthy as the next person. I do no harm to anyone. I am not evil. I am not perverted. I will not burn forever on the fires of hell. These are the lies of bigots who seek to control others through fear. My worth does not reside in my sexual orientation, but in my thoughts and actions. I will not permit anyone to destroy my self-esteem.'
The rest of the day was like old times. A burden had been lifted, guilt was gone, and we relaxed in our friendship. Hank was interested in my plans for the gallery and they were both thrilled that Max's vision was to be continued, at least for a time. I shared their excitement about a proposed summer cruise around the Pacific Islands. We laughed at memories of house building, of the arguments and disagreements that had to be sorted before any decision could be taken, and marvelled at how excellently the house had turned out. They were still very happy with it.
'Don't you miss your legal practice?' I asked.
'One would have to be pretty desperate to miss conveyancing, drawing up the occasional will, advising on a boundary dispute, or witnessing someone's Power of Attorney.' He laughed in self-deprecation. 'My old clients are much happier now Patrick's taken over. He's a great deal more in tune with their narrow, right wing attitudes. They were never sure they could trust me.'
'But, don't either of you get bored, just pottering around here most of the time? Surely, without day to day problems lives cease to have meaning?'
Celia looked up sharply. 'Life has no meaning, Peter. None at all. It simply is. We can either accept it as a precious gift, enjoying it as much as possible, or squander it on greed, lust and trivial disputes. To look for meaning and purpose in nature is a form of insanity to which I am glad I have never succumbed.'
'Having few personal problems doesn't mean we are free of concerns,' added Hank. 'A glance through a newspaper or five minutes of television news provides anyone with a conscience with enough anxiety to keep them from complacency or boredom. The beauty of those worries is there's nothing one can do about them, whereas the day to day problems of one's workplace can destroy happiness. You feel they have to be solved, yet failure to do so is demoralising. Without shame, I confess I am happy to have few demands placed on me.'
'As Sartre said, Hell, is other people.' Celia added wryly. 'Hank is a much more contented man now he no longer has to deal with the public.'
Her husband nodded and grimaced. 'Every morning as I drove to work I used to recite that advice of Marcus Aurelius. "Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial...." But, it's not only that, something happens to your body from around sixty onwards. The same activities you have always done without thinking leave you tired. You can't build up muscles any more, they seem to disappear between each job. Other people cease to be so interesting.' He paused and shook his head. 'Conversation becomes reminiscence, and that's only fun for a while. Most people's heads are full of incredible junk. Everyone wants to talk and interruptions abound. Serious thinking only occurs when reading, writing, or walking alone. I love writing letters, but at seventy-two I've few people left to write to. None of them like letter-writing anyway. Letter-writers have time to consider what they want to say, and the reader has time to think about it before replying. That's why I avoid telephones. I resent being expected to respond intelligently without sufficient time to think.'
'Do you watch TV?'
'The trouble with television is they have to appeal to such a wide variety of tastes, intellects and ages. Either I have heard or thought it all before, or it is so superficial that I simply get annoyed and fall asleep.'
'What we have discovered,' Celia said thoughtfully, 'is that we see more, think more clearly, and achieve greater understanding by doing little, than by being constantly active. Until one stands still, much of the world is invisible. If I sit quietly, wild birds come near to scratch for food. When I stand silently under trees, butterflies and a myriad other insects appear. The sounds and scents of the countryside are not available when talking, driving in a car, sitting on a ride-on mower, or listening to the radio. When surrounded by others, rational thought is impossible.' She laughed self-consciously, 'It's a paradox. Life is richer the less one does. We go out occasionally, visit our few friends, walk in the forest… Of course, we're lucky we get on so well.'
Hank raised an eyebrow. 'It's not luck. It's determination. Our marriage could have gone off the rails like any other, but we were too pig-headed to let it.' He took his wife's hand in a gesture of ease and trust.
'It's all to do with false desires.' Celia smiled. 'I feel sorry for our acquaintances who are unwilling to grow old. They act like unruly teenagers. Many are out every day and as many nights as they can manage. They try all the cheap restaurants, spend hours at the RSL, play the pokies, bowls, bingo, darts, bridge, watch daytime TV, anything to distract them from experiencing their lives. They go on all the Seniors' Club outings, try hang-gliding, ballooning - everything that's going. I would be pleased for them if it left them contented, but it doesn't. They are tired much of the time, get irritated with their spouses, have dreadful rows and are constantly declaring, "If only such and such would happen, then I'd be happy." It's depressing.'
'I hope I'll end up like you two one day.'
'You will. You want the right things. It wasn't your fault you split with Max,' Hank said with deliberate firmness. 'He was prepared to cut corners and take risks to get rich quickly. You're not like that. If you'd tried to stay together during the last four years, your disagreements would have blown you apart. You are unable to compromise on what you think is right - that's one of the things we love about you. However, it could make you a difficult person to live with. Although we loved Max's daredevil approach to life, during his time with you he was the most stable and thoughtful he had ever been, and we are eternally grateful to you for those years.'
I smiled my thanks and took off for a swim in the dam. It was freezing but exactly what I needed to flush away mushy thoughts scrabbling at the edge of consciousness. Hank was right, of course. But what would have happened if we had got together again now? After Max had made his money? Would we have continued as before? What if…? What if…? If only… I had to accept that I would never know and get on with my life. It was time to purge the brain and delete dreary, unanswerable questions. That night I slept well for the first time since Max's fall, and by eight thirty the next morning was waving goodbye.
Forty kilometres south in a wet part of the ranges, my thirty-five acres were as lush as the Fierney's were dry. It was nearly two weeks since I'd seen my house and studio so I wanted to check on them before heading back to the gallery. A new resolve to take charge of life was bubbling through my veins, bringing with it a new feeling - excited anticipation. For the first time in years I was looking forward to whatever lay ahead.
The twelve kilometres of rough, unsealed winding road heading west through the hills to my eyrie, had always seemed a gruelling marathon of bumps, crunches and gear-changes, but that day I glided over it. The council must have upgraded it, I thought, until I realised what vehicle I was driving. How like life! No two people's experiences of the same thing are comparable. One person takes on the world with the backing of money and supportive parents; another, penniless and alone. Some are emotionally equipped to negotiate red tape; others are intimidated. Only one thing is certain, the playing field isn't level.
I saw the smoke as soon as I crested the final rise, a thin grey column rising straight up into the still air. Rory was probably burning his rubbish. I was lucky to have an almost kindred spirit on the neighbouring block, but he would insist on burning all his waste, including plastic bags. It wasn't until I got to the gate that I realised the smoke was at my place! The house and studio, hidden from the road by a melaleuca-timbered rise, nestle into a north-facing amphitheatre fringed by steep rain-forested hills. Enough land had been cleared for two buildings and a deep dam. I shot over the rise and, as the wagon burst into the clearing, I saw Rory and Lida running from the dam to the house with buckets. I skidded to a halt. They turned, palms outstretched in resignation.
'Sorry, Peter. We came over as soon as we realised it was bad news. When we first saw the smoke, we imagined you had come home last night and were cooking breakfast. So by the time we got here it was too late. The door was locked, but a couple of windows were already broken so we smashed the rest and threw buckets of water through.'
I raced over to what had been my cottage. Black smoke-stains oozed up from every broken window, staining the white stucco. The roof appeared intact, but smoke was still seeping between the tiles. I unlocked and threw open the door, gagging on poisonous fumes from all the plastic we forget we own. The fire appeared to be out but we threw a few more buckets of water up over the rafters just to make sure. The interior was a total write-off. Nothing was salvageable.
Wall lining, bed, kitchen bench and cupboards, armchair… everything was either a sodden black smouldering mass, or a charred wreck. Exposed beams and rafters had been singed in several places but still looked solid. I felt numb. It hadn't happened. I'd come to the wrong place. It couldn't be true! This one-roomed cottage was me! I had designed, built, furnished and decorated it. It looked like I felt - gutted. I turned to my neighbours.
'How could this have happened? I'm always so careful. I haven't been here for two weeks. There was no fire left in the stove, there's no fuel anywhere near…'
They shook their heads, wordless, helpless. I raced across the courtyard to the studio, a twin of the cottage. It looked intact until I reached the door, which had been smashed open with my axe, now lying on the grass. Inside was chaos. Every sketch, canvas, drawing - everything I had worked on or could use for a painting had been thrown onto the floor and trampled. Paint, turps, varnish, linseed oil poured on top. Every tube of paint had been stomped on, smeared over the walls, floor, easels and workbench. Total wreckage. Maniacal. Rory and Lida stood speechless at the door. I sank onto a stool. I didn't want to know who had done this, or why. I couldn't see the purpose of living if someone hated me that much. It wasn't worth the fight.
'At least they didn't set light to the studio,' Lida consoled.
No, I thought, they wanted me to experience this mess. To see the extent of their hatred.
'They must have broken a window in the house and thrown a match through. Probably with some petrol-soaked rags to get it going,' suggested Rory. 'What're you going to do?'
'You can stay with us, Peter,' offered Lida hesitantly.
That was real friendship. They were living in a caravan while they slowly built their own house. Money was obviously a bit tight as there hadn't been much progress over the last couple of years. I'd have had to curl up under the sink to sleep. I prised myself off the stool and we went outside.
'That's very generous, Lida, but I have to get back to the coast. I've got a job now. I sold the paintings but that wasn't enough to keep body and soul together. I sleep in a flat at work.'
They nodded hopelessly while I took a few deep breaths and adjusted my thoughts. It was pointless being upset or trying to understand. Such wanton vandalism is beyond understanding. However, I was getting bloody angry and that felt better. Much better!
I looked across at two frightened faces and guessed their fears. If this could happen to me, then how safe were they? Foreign accents had already made them the butt of racism and anti-immigrant hatred from local rednecks. It was worrying. 'I'd better let the cops know,' I said quietly, 'otherwise I'll get no insurance. It won't cover everything, but at least I'll get something back from this mess.'
'Do you want to use our telephone?'
'Perhaps mine still works?' Miraculously it did, despite the soot, ash and water, and I was promised a visit from a patrol car within the hour. I turned back to my neighbours. 'Thanks, both of you. You've been wonderful! Without you the rafters would have gone and there'd be nothing left. As it is, it's just a filthy mess to clean up and replace. I can handle that, no worries. So I owe you one. A big one! I'll hang around till the cops come then pop over before heading off.'
They looked unconvinced, but happier as they trudged back along the track to their place. They had enough problems of their own without having to worry about mine. I made a start on the studio while waiting for the police. Forty minutes later they pulled up, scratched their heads and looked willing but pessimistic as they trotted out the inevitable questions. Had I left a fire going? Did I usually leave the slow-burner dampened down for when I returned? Who had done the electrical wiring? What sort of hot water system? Had I any enemies? Got into a fight recently? Jealous workmates? Problems with neighbours? Ex-wives?
I wasn't much help and was careful not to mention Rory and Lida's contribution. They preferred to remain unnoticed by authority, particularly since their permit to live in the caravan had long since expired. I let the officers think it was I who had thrown all the water around. One name kept hammering in my head, Patrick Fierney, but I wasn't going to drag Hank and Celia into this. All I needed was police confirmation of the vandalism and damage so I could make an insurance claim.
After half an hour of note taking, poking around in the soot and spilled paint, and looking for tyre marks on the bone-dry track, they completed their report and left, promising to ask everyone else on the road if they had noticed anything unusual, and to contact me if they had any news. I thanked them profusely.
As soon as they'd gone I telephoned Patrick's office. His secretary informed me that he had slipped out for a while. Could she take a message?
'Yes please. My name is Peter Corringe. I may have some business for Mr Fierney,' I said sweetly. 'I am a painter of pictures. Arsonists have razed my house, and my studio has been trashed. The police are on the ball and have a good lead. A local resident noticed a strange car drive up my road. I will probably be needing advice from Mr Fierney about what my options are. Could you get him to give me a call?'
She said she would, murmured suitable condolences, and disconnected.
I replaced the receiver, fully intending to get stuck in to cleaning-up, but suddenly couldn't be bothered. It was all too much. One day perhaps I would feel like doing it, but that day I sure as hell didn't.
The weather was too perfect to spoil. A numbing depression dragged at my heart as I nailed up the studio door with spare timber and locked the cottage - a useless precaution considering every window was broken. After calling in to say cheerio to Rory and Lida, I lodged my claim with the Insurance agent in Yandina, and set off for the coast.
The wagon's luxury no longer buoyed me; neither did the fatty takeaway I bought for lunch. I couldn't face the gallery, so drove aimlessly, ending up outside the Alcona's. I needed company, friendly company. Not solitary work or Frances's smug certainties. Mad opened the door cautiously, then threw it wide in welcome. She was wearing a blue housecoat.
'My neighbours think I wear nothing but these things,' she laughed. 'They'd be shocked if they knew the truth.'
I left the simplest of my cares in the wardrobe and joined Mad for a cup of tea, telling her my place was in a bit of a mess and, as I didn't feel like cleaning up, had called in on the way back to town. She led me downstairs to her studio where she was engaged on another series of drawings. After her success with the portrait of Max, she wanted to get into figure drawing. A preliminary study of Jeff looked promising. Her studio occupied one end of a large activities room directly below the living area. Sliding doors opened onto the patio and pool; sunlight splashed into the work area spreading warmth, peace and harmony.
'You're looking haggard, Peter. Go for a swim. It's cold, but it'll do you good.'
It was even colder than the dam, but at least I didn't come out covered in flotsam. I collapsed onto a towel in the sun.
'You're a bit older than Max, aren't you?'
That hurt! 'A year younger actually.'
'Oh, sorry. It's probably just the light and the stress you've been under lately.'
'I feel old. Old and past it. What's the solution?'
'No idea, but I've discovered that when I don't know how to fix up what's wrong inside, it helps to tidy up the outside. Then, when I look in the mirror I feel so perked up that my insides want to catch up.'
'Isn't that vanity?'
'Only if you do it to impress others. When you do it for yourself, it's sensible.'
'Not much I can do with my exterior.'
'Would you trust me with a bit of panel-beating, polishing and minor detailing?'
'Can you make me beautiful?'
'Handsome, I can manage. Beauty comes from inside. You're already beautiful.'
'Flattery will get you everywhere.'
'There's nowhere I want to go.'
'The phrase, a contented woman, is a contradiction.'
'Like, a perfect man?'
'Perhaps we are both unique and atypical of our gender.'
'That's the only possibility.'
'Well, Contented Woman, rejuvenate this Perfect Man.'
And she did.
'Youths,' she informed me, setting to work with electric hair clippers, 'have short body-hair. As men get older, body hair ceases to fall out, so grows longer and covers a greater area, concealing muscular structure and keeping the skin moist, favouring fungal rashes. Eventually, hair starts sprouting in the oddest of places.'
This was not a comforting lesson for a man rapidly approaching the end of his youth.
'Apart from his obvious fitness,' she continued, enjoying my disquiet, 'Brian's relatively youthful appearance is in part due to these clippers.'
She lapsed into the stillness of concentration - I into contemplating the dread prospect of old age. Starting at my ankles and working up to the crown of my head, all hair was cropped to half a centimetre. My almost shoulder-length tresses took some convincing, but they eventually joined the impressive brown pile on the studio floor. The spacer was then removed and armpit hair was cut as short as the clippers could manage, to eliminate the need for deodorants. Hairs hold body odours, I was informed, before being advised never to shave off body hair with a blade razor, or use wax, because that caused ingrown hairs and rashes. I nodded towards her baby-smooth crotch and raised an eyebrow.
'Great isn't it?' she laughed, lightly brushing the area with her fingertips. 'Brian shouted me a laser treatment. I was going grey down there and couldn't handle it. I don't mind tinting the hair on my head, but not there. Dra wants it done too, but Der prefers her fuzzy.'
I blinked, but decided it was nothing to do with me.
'You can do your own nether region,' she grinned, passing me the clippers. 'A hairless anus means no dags left behind on seats and,' she added slyly, 'a smooth scrotum will make your manhood appear larger.'
I blushed, squatted over a mirror for the operation, stood up and checked - and it did.
While my beautician vacuumed up my locks, I took a shower on the lawn under the garden hose, then was treated to a head and shoulder massage of such vigour I was in danger of being scalped. Afterwards, a young bloke of twenty-five looked back from the full-length mirror. It was astounding. The muscular definition of my torso was revealed, my legs seemed to have more shape, and I looked young! I felt young! The haggard warlock had disappeared along with the hair. Cheekbones stood out, nose seemed shorter, neck longer, eyes clearer, and lips fuller. I leaped around like a mad thing, swam three lengths of the pool and when I got out was quickly dry - no hair to hold the water.
Mad looked at me critically. 'Hang on a tick.' She ran upstairs and returned with a bottle. 'Der and Dra won't miss this little bit,' she laughed, massaging something stinging and smelly into my hair. 'Now go and sit in the sun.'
Thirty minutes later I gazed at the mirror in disbelief - my head was crowned with a cap of golden spikes. 'I'm eighteen.'
'At the most.'
'Would you trust the director of an art gallery who looked like this?'
'With your seventeen year old son?'
'He's old enough to make up his own mind.'
'I never know whether he's kidding or not. Is he really gay?'
My heart leaped. I blushed, looked her straight in the eye and said firmly, 'Yes.'
'Personal questions, Peter, should always be asked of the person. Ask Jeff yourself.'
'Would you mind if he is?'
'Brian and I never discuss our children with anyone unless they are there to defend themselves.'
'Not only a contented woman, but a perfect parent and faultless friend.'
A clattering of feet on stairs announced the children's return from school. A few minutes later they burst upon us and greeted my new look with a flattering mixture of disbelief and delight. A transformation for the better was the consensus, and Mad was heaped with due praise. Dra and Jeff went up to start homework, Mad began the evening meal, to which I'd been invited, and Der and I did push-ups over a measuring cylinder full of water.
Beneath his mantle of superior calm, Der was an ordinary kid of fifteen, fooling around and cracking stale jokes that made me like him even more, and my sense of inferiority evaporated. The experiment was hilarious and, investigations completed, Der too went up to start on homework, while I browsed the bookshelves in the living room until Brian came in, looking bushed.
'Five bitches spayed, four castrations, two cases of mange, six tooth extractions, and a broken leg. I need a shower. Pour us a beer, Peter, I'll join you in ten minutes.'
Over cold beers he gazed at me speculatively. 'Mad's been grooming.'
'A bit of spit and polish.'
'And I thought you were my age.'
'Almost half my age.'
'My wife's a wonder.'
'Skilful and smart.'
'Tower of talent.'
'You'd better bloody well be queer.'
'As bent as a crank-shaft.'
'That's OK then. You can stay.'
We laughed, at ease with each other. By the time Mad joined us I had gained a fair insight into the delights of veterinary surgery. It sounded as much fun as being a butcher.
'The animals are great and I love working with them. They never complain and are always grateful. It's their nutty owners who drive me to drink. Another?'
We shared another beer and more opinions until the children joined us for the evening meal. Everyone helped with the dishes before moving to the lounge area. I remained standing. I didn't want to go - I wanted to curl up in the womb of Alcona friendship and never budge again. However, I also wanted the friendship to endure, so was determined not to outstay my welcome.
'You don't want to go home to an empty flat. Stay the night,' Brian said evenly.
'Are you sure?'
I looked around. Mad and the children were looking at me, faces uncharacteristically expressionless, not wanting to influence my response. I couldn't stop my lips from spreading into a grin. 'Thanks, I'd love to stay.'
Jeff patted the seat beside him. 'You'll probably regret it, Peter, we're less interesting than television.'
We chewed over the events of the day. Jeff had had a run in with his chemistry teacher, Dra an argument with her best friend. Der had been nominated as debating team leader. I'd been determined not to off-load my own woes, but suddenly couldn't help myself. If I couldn't tell these people what had happened, then who could I tell?
The reaction was embarrassing, overwhelming and, I realise now, predictable. Offers to come up at the weekends and help me re-build, to store anything personal, to use Mad's studio… I thought I was over the shock of the vandalism and had pictured myself laughing it off with a manly shrug, but without warning and before I could thank them, I was wracked by a fit of the shakes.
Brian put his arm round my shoulders, it passed, and the conversation moved on until Der, with enviable gravity and several cautious disclaimers, announced the results of our experiment.
'The volume of Peter's penis increased from 114cc to 228cc, a ratio of 1:2, a one hundred percent increase. Mine went from 210cc to 240cc, a ratio of 1:1.2, a fourteen percent increase. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.'
These Archimedean results were placed on the floor for scrutiny. I wasn't sure whether to be pleased or not. After the laughter, Jeff bashfully told us his main news. A new recruit to the school basketball team, an exchange student from Chile, had chatted with him after practice. Jeff thought he was in love. We all hoped the Chilean was too.
After a luxurious shower I made up the bed on the convertible sofa in the study off the lounge and crawled in, exhausted. A few minutes later a timid knock at the door - Jeff. My heart sank. Gangling youths, no matter how charming, do not turn me on. I needn't have worried, he was simply seeking advice. I wasn't sure I was the person to ask - I've spent more time thinking about it than doing it.
We ended up agreeing on three basic principles: One: humans, like all animals, are sexual creatures, and sex has as much to do with social adhesion as it has with procreation. There's nothing one can do about one's sexual orientation, but once lust is satisfied, most people just want to love and be loved - with all that implies. Two: there are as many ways of enjoying sex as there are people, and each partner's desires are equally important. Three: socially, physically, mentally and spiritually, gays are as diverse as heterosexuals; they're neither better nor worse, and there's no such thing as a homosexual type. The idea's as stupid as thinking all heterosexuals are the same.
Jeff's sigh was heartfelt. 'That's a weight off my mind. I was worried I'd have to go around with a limp wrist, dress up in drag, take it up the arse and start feeling-up little boys.'
'Am I like that?'
'Of course not! But everyone talks such a load of crap about gays that somehow it's hard to relate other people to yourself. I imagined there was going to be some sort of initiation test to see if I was queer enough. I'm so ignorant!'
'Not as ignorant as the bigoted shits who promulgate such lies. Any more questions?' I taught him my mantra and we discussed safe sex and a host of other things until, during one of my obviously less than inspiring anecdotes, he fell asleep.
Mad threw back the curtains letting in a grey morning, plonked cups of tea beside the bed, and herself on it. I opened an eye to an impish grin.
'You look as though Jeff kept you awake all night.'
I blushed. What must she be thinking?
'No I didn't, but you and Dad were right, Mum, Peter was the best person to ask.
'So, you trust me?'
'I trust all my family.' She turned at the doorway, dispatched an enigmatic smile and breezed away to make breakfast.
Mad's inclusion of me as one of the family lay warm in my head and heart all the way back to the coast. I've never had a real family. Mother's too busy with 'good works' and Dad's sole claim to fame is an endless supply of home-brew in the basement where he spends every free minute watching TV sport. I don't recall having a conversation with either of them, nor spending more than half a dozen evenings together. We almost never ate as a family, either Mum was out, or Dad had an important game to watch. As a kid I loved tennis, athletics and swimming, read a lot, drew pictures, fantasised about the family I should have been born into, and yearned for love.
I'd been driving without concentrating and the sudden view of the gallery dumped me back in the present. Frances, surrounded by shopping, waved as I pulled up.
'Peter! What a bit of luck. Give us a hand with these.'
I trailed her up the stairs to the kitchen, lugging a couple of supermarket bags and two boxes. She slumped into a chair.
'Sorry I left you alone so long.' Her voice was loud and gestures skittish. 'I've been with this amazing man - and one thing led to another - and suddenly it was Tuesday morning!' She giggled inanely. 'He has this wacky house made of plastic and canvas and bits of tubing perched up in the hills. Great view, great…. everything!' She chuckled lewdly. 'By the way, we saw the advertisements in the paper and I noticed the signs in the window when I drove up. They're excellent! You've been working your little butt off.' She paused for a breath that permitted no interruption. 'I'm glad you took Max's wagon. Your old bomb's no advertisement for a successful business. The lawyer must have contacted you. I told him you'd be here, beavering away.'
I opened my mouth but she held up her hand and gave vent to a wolf-whistle. 'You look great! I didn't notice it at first. Been to the body shop?' She grabbed my shoulder and turned me around. 'So that's where you were this morning. It's stunning. You look ten years younger. All the old biddies will fall in love, and in Max's clothes you'll be the perfect gallery director. It's good he left all his things to you. I didn't know until Simpson rang. And when I phoned, you weren't here. Now I know why.' The over loud monologue stopped abruptly and she looked around as though lost before adding vaguely, 'Let me know if there's anything I can do to help.'
Before I could answer she ruffled her hand through my bristles, pecked me on the cheek and shut herself in her room.
I dumped the shopping on the floor and took several deep breaths. When the urge to throttle her had subsided I poked my head around the bedroom door, congratulated her on a successful long weekend and asked if she would arrange the wine and snacks for Wednesday's function. She would, but first wanted to spruce up.
Back in my/Max's bedroom I took out Mad's drawing, stood it on the table beside the window and stared. It was as perfect as before. Sadness still gripped my chest but I was no longer in danger of leaking tears. Instead, I felt peaceful, free to take a new tack, try new things - even a new relationship if one came along. Hope and anticipation hovered timidly at the edge of thought.
Downstairs, nothing had changed. Mad's drawings still nestled in their drawers waiting for mounts and frames. Before starting on them I checked for correspondence. There was only one message on the answer phone, a request from what sounded like a twelve year old girl to telephone Simpson, Simpson and Grey as soon as convenient.
After an interminable muzak-filled wait I was connected to a brusque voice informing me I would be required to sign a couple of forms in connection with my inheritance within the next few days, but meanwhile it would be permissible to use the goods in question. I thanked him and promised to call in soon.
It was already ten-thirty, Bill Smith hadn't turned up and I was starting to panic. Myself I can trust, but if my organisation is dependent on others, I'm always certain I'll be let down. At least Frances was arranging supper. But was she? I trudged back upstairs to check. She had forgotten, flared into a rage, shouted I was harassing her, and told me to do it myself. A woman of rapid mood swings.
The file labelled "Refreshments" told me everything I needed to know, so I telephoned the caterers and ordered a repeat performance. I'd just replaced the receiver when Bill Smith backed into the gallery dragging a shopping trolley piled with parcels. He straightened, massaged his spine, nodded and looked around as if searching for someone. As I walked towards him he peered from under thatched grey eyebrows, frowned and grunted, 'Ah. Didn't recognise you. Can you fetch the rest of the stuff from the car?'
I made six trips while Bill unwrapped and carefully folded all his packing paper before placing it neatly in a suitcase ready to be used again.
'Waste not want not?' I asked.
'If I act as though I'm expecting to take everything home again, the gods will make sure everything is sold,' he grunted. There was obviously a fey side to this gruff Aussie male.
'But now you've told me, they'll know it's just a bluff.'
'Huh! They think they know everything, so never listen to mere mortals.'
It was one o'clock before we had agreed on the sequence, position, and height of each painting. I checked them off against his list, noted the details, wrote receipts, and promised they would all be hanging before nightfall. He would return the following morning to see if there'd been any problems and to check the catalogue's accuracy.
I had just decided there wasn't time for lunch when Frances arrived with meat-patties nestling among slices of fresh bread and papaya on two of her best plates. She brewed coffee in the workroom and we shared a companionable snack. A difficult woman to pigeonhole.
'Still happy with the gallery, Peter?'
'It's brilliant, but I can't help thinking it's too beautiful a building to waste on a side street two blocks back from the beach. It should be on a promontory overlooking the sea.'
'I was referring to the job, not the building,' she laughed. 'But you're not half-witted; Max designed the gallery for exactly that sort of spot.' She smiled at my look of disbelief. 'No, it's true. While we were looking for a site we had an affair with an egghead from the Department of Marine Resources. Like a lot of skinny intellectuals he took his pleasures seriously and enjoyed a bit of give and take. Max was happy to give, and I took.' She looked up for my reaction but I wasn't giving any.
'Anyway, Tony had been surveying this bit of coast; the rivers, drainage, land-forms, tidal bars, frequency and levels of storm surges - that sort of thing. Talking about work was his idea of scintillating après sex conversation. I usually fell asleep but Max was riveted. After analysing all the relevant data, Tony predicted that if we ever had a king tide accompanied by unusually high rainfall in the coastal ranges, coinciding with cyclonic winds from the sea, or something like that, then the canals would burst and join the river systems, drained land would revert to swamp, and silt would create a sandbar parallel to the coast, causing the river to sweep south and scour out the beach in front of us here. However, this block of land and several on each side would remain, because we're on a granite outcrop, not sand dunes like most of the coast.'
I nodded doubtfully. 'That's three things that have to synchronise. What are the chances?'
'That's what Max asked.' She yawned 'I forget the answer, but he had all worked it out. He was a real brain-box.'
'Well I won't hold my breath waiting for the gallery to become a monument on the coast.'
'Nor me. He couldn't convince the Council either. But you did ask why we built here. The land was relatively cheap and when the builder dug the foundations, he reached granite only a metre below the sand. So Tony was right about one thing at least.' She laughed, collected the plates and drifted back upstairs, leaving me to get on with my work.
Max had resurrected peg-board. It had good acoustic properties and added to the intriguing textural quality of the walls, but the main benefit was ease of hanging. It only took a couple of hours to slip in the pre-formed security hooks and hang the paintings at the precise locations required by their creator.
Mad's frames were in a pile on the workroom floor and I had just spread out her drawings when someone knocked loudly on the glass doors at the front. Irritated, I switched off the alarm, slid back the security locks and opened the main door. A cautious pair of grey eyes stared from under a wide, anorak-shrouded forehead. His square jaw and strong nose should have been a recipe for good looks, but deep frown-lines and hunched shoulders inspired pity rather than homage. Jeans, anorak and scuffed trainers suggested the legions of unemployed drifting up and down the coast. He dropped his eyes and stared at his feet, hugging his chest.
'Can I see Max?'
The unexpected question unnerved me.
'Max had an accident and died a couple of weeks ago.' I sounded brusque, unfriendly even, but didn't want to risk over-reacting.
Lifting haggard eyes in disbelief, the young man's frame crumpled even further in on itself and he turned away with a mumbled, 'Sorry. Sorry to bother you.'
He looked so pathetic I felt rotten and called, 'Hang on, don't rush away. Can I do anything?'
He shook his head without looking back and scuffed off around the corner. I was about to go back inside when curiosity overtook me. Pulling the door so it looked closed, I followed him. He was moving faster than I'd expected and by the time I'd rounded the corner was already a block away, crossing the Esplanade. I jogged towards the beach and watched as he clambered over the low concrete wall and dropped out of sight onto the beach.
It was cold and windy. Towering thunderheads were building out to sea and an oppressive, brassy radiance saturated air, clouds and swelling breakers. It was not going to be a good night to spend on the beach. I jogged to the wall and peered over in time to see the bloke's backside disappear into one of the large storm-water drains that empty the city's dog-shit, litter and roadside debris on to the sand every time it rains. Rather him than me.
I stood for a minute gazing at the looming sky. Who was he? He'd been upset about Max's death. A friend? I should've invited him in; shown him Mad's drawing of Max. Mad's drawings! They were spread over the floor of the unlocked gallery! A stark vision of my desecrated studio and cottage sent me into a panic. Maybe the bloke had been sent to lure me away so his mates could smash the place up! Heart thumping in neck and ears I cursed, ground out a prayer to Bill Smith's gods and, gagging at the thought of those exquisite masterpieces ending up like my studio, raced back like a bat out of hell, threw open the door and raced across to Mad's drawings.
Relief! The place was as I'd left it. After re-locking the doors I brewed one of Mad's pick-me-ups to quell the shakes. Peace and warm whisky stilled the tremors and by seven o'clock all drawings were securely framed and hanging on the walls, alarms had been set and checked, and I was preparing a lonely meal. Frances had gone out again.
My bedroom window faced east, towards the sea, but the view was of the backs of holiday apartments and Fast Food outlets on the Esplanade. Lightning flickering through ochreous clouds, sent me onto the roof. I've always been fascinated by electrical storms. The sea, greyly sullen beneath a yellow strip of sky, seemed crushed beneath the accumulating blackness. Sheet lightning set cloud interiors pinkly aglow. The air was utterly still, only a low grumbling from the heavens warned.
Suddenly, a searing line of fire gashed across the blackness. The shock set my hair on end - literally. Instinctively, I pressed my back against the stairhead as sheets of blinding light followed by gigantic, garish networks of discharge hurled themselves across the sky. Grumbling thunder swelled to a deafening clamour and darkness was banished by continuous billion-volt energy blasts arcing across the firmament, tearing the ether to shreds. Transfixed by the awesome power, I couldn't tear my eyes from the ever changing onslaught, nor close my ears to the unrelenting roar that swelled, crackled, crashed, sank into a rumbling roll only to burst forth again and again in chest-crushing thunder. Compared to this, fireworks, no matter how many millions of dollars are spent, are mere pretty diversions.
After about an hour, a bank of clouds rolling in from the ocean reduced the display to reflected sheets of brilliance. As I turned towards the stairs, a bolt of lightning struck earth about fifty metres away and the instantaneous thunderclap knocked me to my knees. Stunned, deaf and blind, I reeled downstairs to the illusion of safety.
That last, staggering crescendo heralded the rain. But what rain! I had no idea so much water could fall from the sky. Within minutes the car park was flooded, drains failed to cope and, at the edge of the road, a street-lamp illuminated a fountain of storm-water gushing metres into the air as overloaded drains from higher up forced their burden out the first available exit. The beach would be scoured.
The beach! The bloke who had called in earlier! Surely he wasn't still in the drain? He'd be swept out to sea! None of my business. But of course it was. My spying had violated his privacy so I was obliged to act. I threw off everything except my shorts, zipped my keys into the pocket, grabbed a waterproof torch, made sure the outside door to upstairs was locked and, wishing I'd worn a raincoat, forced my way to the beach against howling needles of rain, branches, leaves and all the detritus Aeolus the demon wind-god could snatch up.
Too late. The tide was coming in. Breakers were already swirling up to the mouth of the drain and anyone fool enough to go down there was going to get trapped. I wasn't a fool, but neither could I leave the poor bastard to his fate. It was a three metre vertical drop from the footpath to the drain, so I followed where he had gone a few hours earlier, clambered over the wall twenty metres to the north and slid down the rocks.
The water swirled round my knees and sucked at my feet, but became shallower as I approached the drain. In my hurry I slipped and skinned an ankle on a submerged rock. A wave caught me from behind and rolled me over. Drenched and cold I struggled to my knees and threw myself into the drain. It was larger than I'd realised; high enough to stand. The wind didn't penetrate much past the entrance and the roar of the sea was muffled. I splashed torchlight around the interior. It was empty and there was only a trickle of water. That didn't make sense, unless other drains were taking the flow. The bloke obviously wasn't as half-witted as he'd looked and had cleared out. Relieved, I was about to turn back when I realised that if I'd planned on sleeping there myself I'd have gone about ten metres further, around the bend.
Swallowing rising panic I ran forward and looked. A sand-spattered shape. I flashed the light on him but he curled into a ball and growled. I grabbed his shoulder and shook it hard. 'You've got to get out!' I was shouting, although there was no need to yell in the uncanny calm. He shrugged me off and curled up tighter. I grabbed a handful of hair and pulled him to his knees. He swung a weak punch in the direction of my stomach and snarled, 'Leave me a-fucking-lone. I'm not hurting anyone. Why can't you cunts leave a guy in peace. Fucking rules and regulations.'
'There's a storm raging outside! You're going to get washed out!' I was screaming, imagining the wall of water that was surely going to burst upon us at any moment.
'Fuck off!' He started to throw another punch so I slammed him in the guts, grabbed him in a fireman's lift and staggered to the exit, banging his head on the curving walls. Served him right. The mouth of the drain glowed fitfully and I'd only just crossed the threshold when I slipped, dumping him face down in surging water up to my waist. He copped a mouthful, spluttered, panicked and grabbed at me, pulling me off balance again. I held him firmly against my chest until he stopped struggling, then dragged him by the hand in the direction of the rocks. It was impossible. The further we got from the drain, the deeper the water. A metre gained when waves receded was lost when they returned and thrust us back. I jettisoned the torch but it made no difference. Cold was dissolving strength and will. We clung together, buffeted, numb, frightened.
Suddenly, above the noise of wind and waves, a thunderous roar and the mouth of the drain exploded. A blockage in the pipe further up must have been swept away, releasing the full torrent. I swung round in horror as tons of water, branches, cans, bottles - you name it, smashed into us. The other bloke's fingers slipped from mine and I was alone, battered, choking on muck, swept like flotsam. I held my breath and swam desperately in what I hoped was the right direction, touched bottom briefly, then was seized again by the current.
Where was he? I lunged around feeling with numbed fingers, but I'd lost him. Energy drained with body warmth. Blindly, coughing up half the ocean, I trod water in the dark, letting the flow take me. Luckily, the opposing forces of storm-water and waves pushed me towards the shore. When I could stand I floundered to the rocks, hauled myself from the water and stared out through the howling darkness, willing my eyes to penetrate, to see him. Rain bucketed blackly. Occasional flashes of lightning threw everything into stark relief. A body swirled past. I flung myself at it. A log.
A cry. A whimper a couple of metres to my left. Waist deep in surf, the backwash sucking sand from under my feet, I bumped into legs. I still don't know how, but dredging up reserves from somewhere I managed to tow him to the rocks, manhandle him out of reach of the waves, grab his ankles and heave his feet higher than his head. I held my hand under his mouth and felt water trickle. Almost insane with anger and cold, I thumped on his back, twisted his head and blew into his mouth, forcing him to breathe. Above the howling wind I could hear his hacking cough, so continued pummelling, screaming and slapping him around until he'd dragged himself up the boulders to the wall. I bundled him over and followed.
In the relative calm I relaxed, so exhausted I forgot I was freezing. All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep. A violent fit of shivers rattled sense into my head and it seemed pretty stupid to give up after all the effort. Leaving my semi-conscious but breathing companion in the slight protection of the wall, I let myself be blown to the gallery.
It was dangerous driving back to the beach against the wind and its flailing cargo of debris, but at least there were no other idiots on the road. I gathered up the shivering, wet heap of clothes and dumped him in the back of the wagon. At the Gallery I was so cold I couldn't make myself get out of the car, so turned the heater up full blast and kept the engine running. After about ten minutes the worst of my shakes had stopped, and coughing and sounds of movement were coming from the back. I slithered over the seats and curled beside him.
'Can you move?'
A grunt, followed by a slight nod.
'If you think you can manage it, we'll go inside.'
'I'll make coffee and rustle up a bite to eat.'
He looked at me warily and coughed. 'You a cop?'
'No, mate, just a bloody idiot who likes to go swanning around waist deep in the ocean during a storm. Well, I'm going up. You can stay here as long as you like, but I'm turning the engine off and you'll soon get fucking cold.'
I climbed out, locked the front doors, opened the rear gate and helped him out. Even in the lee of the building we were buffeted, and it was such a relief to slam the outside door that I sank onto the stairs, shaking with exhaustion. He slumped beside me.
'Just up these stairs and we're home,' I muttered, more for my own encouragement than his. We supported each other up the remaining few metres and sagged onto the kitchen floor. I turned on the heater, stripped off my shorts and towelled circulation back into blue limbs. While he was doing the same, I brought both doonas from the bed. After coffee and eggs on toast we felt better. Battered, but recognisably human.
'You saved my life.'
'Something to do.'
'Shouldn't have bothered.'
'I'm regretting it already. More coffee?'
He grunted acceptance.
A long silence as we both relived the previous half hour.
'Shower and bed?'
His answer was lost in a fit of coughing.
After hot showers and splashings of antiseptic on copious grazes, we were asleep within minutes. My guest's coughing, occasional whimpers and frequent twitching barely registering on my own fitful dreams.
The alarm woke me. I leaped from bed and threw open sun-bright curtains to be greeted by the uninspiring back views of apartment blocks and takeaway outlets. We were still a street away from the beach. It was obviously going to take more than last night's tempest to provide the gallery with a prime sea-front position.
My visitor, at seven in the morning, looked pinched and suffering. Ignoring his grumbles I wrapped him in a bathrobe and forced him to eat breakfast with me in the kitchen. Bed's no place for eating - encourages mice.
After a coffee and one slice of toast and marmalade, he looked warily across. 'I'm full.'
'I'm Peter Corringe.'
Suspicious slits avoided my eyes. 'Jonathan... Jon… Jon Moore.'
'More to eat?'
He pulled a face, neither amused nor ready to talk.
'Did you lose much?'
'Always keep my wallet in a plastic bag zipped in my pocket.'
'Lucky - no, sensible.' I gathered up the dishes and dumped them in the sink. 'I've a busy day ahead setting up the gallery for an opening tonight. D'you want to help?'
'Fine, get the dishes done, shove your clothes in the washer, help yourself to something to wear from the bedroom and join me downstairs.' I took my wallet, no point in leaving temptation. Frances always locked her door when away, so that was safe.
The wind had dropped and a pale yellow sun struggled wetly. An extraordinary roaring was coming from the direction of the beach, so before getting down to work I jogged down to check it out. Gone was the wall over which we had clambered, gone were the trees, flowers, shrubs and grass of the twenty-metre-wide nature strip. Present were hundreds of gawking sightseers.
I peered from the edge of cracked and crumbling road-seal, ignoring warning shouts from police and council workers. The tide was out, and about thirty metres of Jon's drain were now visible, lying on top of the tidal flats. The mouth was the source of all the noise. A pile of detritus and sand had built up in front and was diverting the still raging storm water upward in a gigantic, thundering fan.
Fifty metres beyond that, trees, rocks, sand, smashed barbecue shelters, the crumpled remains of the new toilet block, park benches, several cars, and just about everything else you could think of had been dumped in a long ridge, like a sea wall, and what looked suspiciously like a river was flowing swiftly southwards on the landward side of this new 'island', parallel to the coast. Impossible, because the river mouth was a kilometre to the north!
Wherever it came from, if the water continued to rip past like that until the next high tide, the Esplanade wasn't going to last long. The roadway was already undermined. Police and emergency workers in red overalls were standing around while one spoke into a mobile phone. Their immediate problem was sightseers. Temporary barriers had been erected and people were being herded away from dangerous edges. I wondered if the versatile Tony's predictions were being realised.
Shortly after I'd let myself back into the gallery, Jon came down the internal stairs, shaved and presentable in blue tracksuit and trainers, still feeble-looking, but not so hunched. His body was obviously hurting, but like me he was doing his best not to let it show. We adjusted the lighting, checked the position of the paintings, ran the polisher over the floor, cleaned the windows and made the place fit for a glamour public opening.
Bill Smith and his wife, a craggy, large-boned woman wearing beige hair coiled in plaited discs over her ears and a stone-splitting glint in her eye, arrived to check the display and the entries in the catalogue. They wandered around in silence.
'This is a very busy street,' she eventually muttered to Jon.
'All the Esplanade traffic has been diverted past the gallery,' I explained.
She continued to face Jon. 'Will that be bad for the exhibition?'
'Probably good,' I said to the back of her head. 'More people in the area, more people to see the signs, more customers,'
My golden bristles must have unnerved her because she nodded sagely, shook Jon's hand, took a firm grip on her silent spouse's upper arm and led him away, grudgingly satisfied.
The forward planning necessary before the advent of computers and printers makes my mind boggle. Within three hours we had produced a professional-looking coloured catalogue complete with biographical notes and rave reviews from a "well-known Art critic" - me. The mere thought that in the past we'd have had to get all that stuff to the printers weeks in advance, was a nightmare too awful to contemplate.
I had thrown a few casual questions at Jon during the morning, which he fielded automatically. He looked honest enough, but I couldn't afford to have a felon living in the gallery, so was persistent. He wasn't, as it turned out, particularly secretive, merely cautious and unwilling to burden others with his problems. Bit by bit I learned that his life had been in turns dull, eventful, and sad.
Devoutly Old Testament parents and three brothers lived on a sheep-station somewhere out the back of Longreach. Jon was the second son. Life had consisted of Distance Schooling by radio, never-ending farm work, family church services and an occasional outing with the family. At twenty-one he had been persuaded to become engaged to a young woman he'd met at a Bible studies camp; the daughter of a roofing contractor in town. They were to marry and live on his parents' farm.
A week before his wedding he had suffered a vision of his life to come, and that night took all the cash in the house and a change of clothes and rode away on his farm-bike. Three days later he arrived at the coast and had his first, never-to-be-forgotten view of the ocean. Money ran out and someone stole his bike, so he joined a gaggle of street-kids, begged for meals and tried for jobs.
Nearly starving, too frightened to ask for help in case there was a warrant out for his arrest, he traipsed round building sites asking for work. There had been a number of thefts from a new block of flats designed and partly owned by Max, who, luckily for Jon, was on site and persuaded the foreman to take him on as night watchman.
During the day he did odd jobs, catching up on sleep in the corner of the mobile canteen, until Max had a small caravan delivered to the site. He had no money, no driver's licence, no bank account, no tax-file number - no document to prove he existed. With Max's help these omissions were rectified, a letter with no return address was sent to reassure his parents, and eventually he saved money, bought another bike and, proving himself useful in a variety of ways, moved from site to site with his caravan.
Over the next three years Max took an interest in his young protégé and sometimes called in of an evening for a game of chess and a chat, sharing his dream of one day designing and building the best Art Gallery in the State.
On one of her rare visits to a building site, Frances's eye fell on Jon, and the same evening she presented herself at his caravan door. His protests had been silenced by threats of the sack and she had her way with him, several times. Afterwards, sick with shame at having cuckolded his best and only friend, he fled to Brisbane, where life was difficult and cruel. Having first been sheltered by parents, then protected by Max, he was still an innocent.
Money and bike disappeared along with self-respect. The dole, when he was forced to claim it, reinforced his sense of worthlessness and he slithered into a reasonably deep depression. No proper or regular job, no prospects, no home, no money, no friends and perhaps worst of all, apart from his rape by Frances, still a virgin.
After a year in this wilderness of the soul he decided to face his problems and seek Max's pardon. Two weeks too late. He told his story simply, accepting full responsibility for his life.
To offer sympathy would have been an insult. Instead, I told him I liked the way he had knuckled down to work and showed initiative. He blushed and grunted something that sounded like thanks. After lunch, he too checked out the damage to the foreshore, returning deeply thoughtful, sweating, and coughing. I sent him to bed. It would be surprising if he hadn't caught a chill after swallowing half the Pacific Ocean the previous night.
6 Problem Sorted
Frances crawled in around mid-afternoon and went straight to her room. At six o'clock Jon poked his head into the office and announced he was feeling much better and ready for the opening. The caterers were setting up downstairs, so we celebrated with cold chicken, bread rolls and a beer on the roof. My new-look body brought out the exhibitionist and I tried for a bit of Max's sartorial panache in an embroidered waistcoat over naked chest, a gold chain round my throat, black trousers and shiny black shoes.
'What do you reckon?' I asked.
Jon frowned and mumbled something about Sinbad the Sailor and catching chills. He chose an inconspicuous dark suit with white shirt and conservative tie.
'Am I OK?' he asked diffidently. It was the first time I'd looked at him properly. I try not to stare at people's faces, they reveal too much and I feel like a voyeur, although such deference has its disadvantages. Seconds after being introduced to someone I've usually forgotten both name and face. Of course I'd glanced at him during the day, but had avoided scrutinising. Now he'd asked my opinion, however, he'd have to put up with it.
He was unconventionally handsome. Dark blond hair flopped across a high forehead and brushed the tops of prominent ears. The large nose had a small bump in the middle and slightly flared nostrils. Grey-green eyes gazing seriously from deep sockets, accentuated prominent cheekbones and hollow cheeks. A square jaw was softened by full, sculpted lips. He was as tall as Max, but thinner, so looked poetically gaunt in his suit.
His eyes flicked away in disbelief. 'Yeah, yeah. When Frances sees me she'll kick me out.'
'Bet you ten dollars she has no idea who you are - especially in a suit. You were just a convenient cock. Probably didn't even look at your face. Certainly never thought of you again.'
'Surely Max told her I'd done a bunk?'
'Doubt it. They didn't share much.' I paused, wondering whether to go on, then decided he was old enough. 'They never slept together.'
'But… You mean…? I didn't…. He wouldn't have…?'
I shook my head.
To his credit there was no ranting and raving and gnashing of teeth, he simply stared at his toes for a full minute before letting out a strained laugh.
'All that suffering in Brisbane. All the worrying that he would find out! There must be a lesson there somewhere. Something character-enhancing and ennobling. I've been through the valley of the shadow of death!' He frowned, looked straight into my eyes and demanded, 'Why is my life such a mess? Why am I such a fuckwit?'
'Did you like Max?'
'He was the best, cleverest and nicest man I've ever known.'
'And he liked you.'
'So, on the basis of that, do you want a job?'
'Yep. I need an assistant.'
He suddenly looked haggard. 'I'm not worth it, Peter. Everything I do goes wrong. I'm useless.'
'That's why I want you - you won't show me up. Now cut the wallowing in self-pity and prepare to receive the cultured hordes. Tomorrow you can accept my offer of a job - courteously.'
He grunted, forced an enigmatic smile, and unlocked the main doors.
Frances drifted serenely amongst the patrons, graciously accepting praise and congratulations for this, her second successful Exhibition. Guests peered at the paintings and drawings, plagued me with questions about the storm, consumed litres of wine and kilograms of snacks, and oohed and aahed over the opening of the dome, scarcely able to conceal their disappointment at the lack of another body.
The big news was the storm surge, the damage, potential danger to their properties, the ruined canals - everything except the art. Only one of Mad's drawings sold, three of Bills paintings - the ones with the most salacious titles.
'Who's that bag of bones?' Frances snapped as soon as she entered, staring at Jon who was at the door welcoming guests.
'Jon. I've employed him as a general dogsbody.'
She opened her mouth and I held up my hand. 'Hang on, Frances. I can't work every hour of every day, and you shouldn't have to work here, you're the owner, not an employee. We'll save on cleaner's wages, ground maintenance, a hundred things. We'll make money on him.'
'If we don't, you'll be paying his wages. Haven't I seen him before?'
'I expect so. He's been living down the road. It would be strange if you hadn't seen him around.'
She grunted and rubbed a hand over my chest. 'Nice bod. Pity you're queer.'
'By the way,' I said, removing the intrusive fingers, 'the place he was staying in was washed out, so he's bunking in with me for a while.'
Her leer made me want to puke. 'Oh yeah? I've heard that one before. You've taken on Max's persona along with his clothes. Hope this one's more of a success than what's his name - Maurice.'
I didn't waste time protesting the innocence of our relationship; she wouldn't have believed me, and had already drifted off to drape herself over the arm of a well-built, prosperous-looking chap in permed silvery curls, white trousers, designer boat-shoes and dark blue reefer jacket with shiny buttons. They wandered across to a nervous looking Jon, said a few words, then headed for the refreshments.
The Alconas had been to see the damage to the shoreline and were philosophic about the lack of sales.
'Many of the people who would normally buy are going to lose a great deal of money in devalued real-estate,' observed Brian calmly. 'We can hardly expect them to splurge on unnecessary expenses until they're sure where they stand. And as far as I can gather, the worst is far from over. It appears, from what an engineer acquaintance was telling us, that we are about to observe Catastrophe Theory in action.'
'The Maths are a bit esoteric, but it goes something like this…'
'I'll explain,' interrupted Der. 'You'll leave out the important bits.'
Brian winked and deferred gracefully to his son.
'About 20 years ago,' the young man began gravely, 'a mathematical system called Catastrophe Theory was conceived, which proved to be applicable to many situations. The basic idea formulated by this particular model was that, under increasing stresses, eventually a point of no return is reached, and beyond this, irreversible change occurs.'
Der looked so handsome, sincere and serious, I wanted to kiss him. I wasn't alone in my admiration. Three women and a man were also gazing with bemused half-grins of ill-concealed appreciation.
'Indications are that a point of no return has been reached as far as development of the Eastern Coastline of Australia is concerned,' he continued earnestly, unaware of the effect he was having on his audience. 'All the natural systems for water management and land stabilisation have been bypassed, and irreversible change is occurring. This part of the coastline is now like Humpty Dumpty - it can't be put back together again - ever.'
I suddenly realised how much I was missing the Alcona sanity - Jeff's bubbling zest for life, Mad's wise assent to it, Brian's strength and quietude, the twins' serious good humour. I missed their acceptance of me - especially that - their unquestioning acceptance of me for what and who I am.
Bill Smith and his wife overheard the last bit. 'You told us the storm damage would do no harm to the exhibition,' she accused, directing her displeasure at my hair.
'Bill's sold three paintings.'
She harrumphed and turned her back.
It was midnight before we crawled into bed. Frances had departed early with her paramour, leaving us to clean up. It's pleasing to be trusted, but… We showered and collapsed into bed, exhausted but too wound up to sleep. I put on a Haydn piano concerto and we both started talking at once.
'No, you first.'
'What did Frances say to you at the door?'
'It's unbelievable! She had no idea who I was. Simply said I'd better be honest and earn my wages, or I'd be out on my ear. Then stalked off.'
'That's ten dollars you owe me.'
'Take it out of my first week's wages. I want the job! I had a great time.'
We laughed with the ease of old friends.
'It won't often be like that. But the job's yours. What were you going to say?'
'Ask, actually. Why didn't Max sleep with Frances? She's good looking enough, in a tarty way.'
'He was gay.'
Dead silence. Then quietly, 'I don't believe you.'
'He and I were lovers for four years, until Frances got her claws into him. So you and I have something in common, she fucked up both our lives.'
Jon slithered out of bed and backed against the wall. He was as lean as a flayed carcase. Every tense muscle visible, eyes dark shadows, the soft light accentuating brow, cheekbones and flaring nostrils. Suddenly aware of his nakedness, he grabbed a pillow and clutched it to his loins. 'I have nothing in common with queers!' he snarled.
'Is that so? You liked Max, you like this music, you don't want to sleep with Frances, you eat, drink, breathe, piss, shit, sleep, dream, hope, fear, worry, cry and bleed. You'll get older, suffer loneliness, frustration and boredom. You might, if you're lucky, experience pleasure, happiness, contentment, joy and anticipation - even love. One day you'll die…. How's that for commonality?'
'You know what I mean! Christ,' he shuddered with horror, 'I've probably got AIDS already.'
'How'd you get it?'
'From sleeping in your bed last night.'
'I have no diseases.'
'All queers have AIDS. Their disgusting, perverted way of life ensures it. How the hell could you choose to live like that?'
'I do not.'
'Dressing up like a woman. Going round fucking young kids. Shoving your cock up the arse of every man you meet. Having sex in public toilets… I feel sick!'
'So do I. Did I touch you last night? Have I put the hard word on you? Did Max?'
'Leave Max out of this, he was different!'
'Yes he was. And so am I. And so are most gays.'
'Gays. Huh! Sicks, you mean!'
'OK, same-sex-oriented men.' I sighed sadly. 'Jon, you have just insulted both Max and me, and millions of other innocent men who have done you no harm. I ought to thrash you and turf you onto the street, but I suppose it's not fair to blame you for ideas drummed into you by your parents. The stereotypical slander that just sullied your lips is malicious propaganda. Lies told to kids by people who imagine, wrongly, that one chooses one's sexuality. They are frightened their son might decide to be gay and try to dissuade him. But no one chooses! Everyone's born with their sexual orientation intact.'
'I don't believe you!' he was shouting.
I shrugged, refusing to argue.
'But even if you are born like it, which I doubt, there's no need to actually do it. You could join the church. Become a monk. At least be celibate!'
'Why? I'm glad I'm gay. It feels right. It feels normal. I'd hate to be het. I can't imagine any other way of feeling about people and I'm none of those things you said. I'm just a normal man, twenty-eight years old, who has not had sex with any one for nearly four years, and if I ever fall in love it will be with another man.'
'But…How…? Do you…?'
'Masturbate? Of course. Like I said, I'm normal. I wank myself silly some nights. Days too when I get depressed.'
'Me too. But… why?'
'Why no lover? I'm choosy. I can only get aroused with someone I find both physically and mentally attractive; who likes me as much as, and in the same way, as I like him. There aren't too many people like that around. If I like talking to them, they're usually physically unattractive. If they're good lookers, they're either stupid, aren't interested in me, or both.'
Jon was staring at me, obviously worried. 'You're having me on. You're not really queer. Queers are soft and effeminate. You're tough and strong. You saved my life in the surf. You're all muscles.' The pleading in his voice was pitiable.
I couldn't speak - it was too sad, too pathetic, too bloody tragic.
He dropped his eyes, then looked up again. 'Are you really like that? So choosy? How do you know?' An edge of cunning. 'You've obviously tried!'
'Half a dozen times, but nothing happened. Believe me I was getting pretty desperate before I understood my problem.'
'Is that why you didn't do anything to me?'
He blushed. 'No, of course not. I…I just can't understand. I thought all queers…gays… whatever, were... But… even if you aren't, now that I know, I can't possibly sleep in the same bed as you.'
'Fine, if you're in to masochism. What'll it be? The hard, cold floor? Drag a couple of chairs together in the lounge? Careful though, I might creep in and rape you during the night.'
He looked up. 'Am I being stupid?'
'Have you really not got AIDS?
'I am perfectly healthy.'
'You really won't…do things to me?'
'Not unless you ask nicely.'
He smiled. Wanly, but it was a start. He coughed a bit, started to speak, blushed and looked helpless. I was in no mood to help.
'I…I don't know what to think.'
'Well, that's an excellent beginning. Most people are too bloody certain of the rectitude of their opinions. How about reviewing everything you're certain of about the only two gays you know well, Max and me?'
He stood still, staring into my eyes. 'I still can't believe you're gay. Are you? Honestly?'
I stifled the urge to kill him. 'Yes.'
'But not all gays are like you.'
'And not all heterosexuals are like your parents.'
'People are people. Good, bad and indifferent. Their sexuality has absolutely nothing to do with it. Lots of gays are a bit strange because they've suffered persecution, some of it horrifying, all their lives. You can't tell a kid he's a foul sinful bag of worthless shit, bash him up and disown him and then expect him to behave normally.'
'Does that happen?'
'All the time.'
'How did you survive?'
'My parents aren't interested in me enough to care. I was one of the lucky ones. Better neglected than abused I reckon. Then I met Max, and life was bliss. Remember how he was able to make the sun shine? No problems existed when he was around?'
'Yeah. I really loved that guy.' He stopped abruptly, realised what he'd said and blushed furiously.
'Did he ever abuse your trust?'
He shook his head.
'Would you have liked him to?'
'What the hell do you mean?'
'Nothing. I'm tired. Either come to bed, or go somewhere else.' The CD had finished and I rolled over and turned off my light. About two minutes later Jon crawled into bed and switched off his. I don't think either of us got much sleep.
Dawn was breaking but it was too early to get up. Jon was restless too.
'I'm sorry about last night.'
'Don't be. I'm used to it. All queers get abused.'
'You're not queer, you're gay.'
'Don't you believe it. I'm definitely queer! Any self-respecting gay would have had his way with you by now.'
'Why didn't you? Aren't I attractive to you?'
'Shut up, Jon. What the hell are you? A crappy little cock-teaser?'
'No. I'm serious. Do you... fancy me?'
'You're good looking. You're intelligent. But, as I told you last night, I'm not interested in anyone unless it's mutual.'
'Peter, I've been thinking all night about this. I'm grateful to you for saving my life. I like you and… and I really want to work with you - here at the gallery. So, if…if you want to, you can…you know…do it with me…' His voice faded into a worried silence.
For the second time that month something snapped inside my head and chest. I'd been patient, forbearing, trying to do what was best for everyone, to maintain my sanity after the revelations about Max and Frances; to make the gallery worthy of his memory; to keep Frances happy; to get Mad the recognition she deserved; to comfort Hank and Celia; to hoist Jon out of his gloom and doom, and to come to terms with the fact that someone hated me enough to destroy everything I'd worked for over the last four years.
I didn't just snap - I ruptured, split, fractured, spat the dummy.
Hoisting myself on to my knees, I slammed my fist into the side of his head, knocking him out of bed. He scrambled to his feet, back to the wall, fists balling in defence. Too late. Anger fuelled speed and I lay into him, slapping and punching his head, chest, shoulders; any part he failed to protect. He sank to the floor, hands over his face. I grabbed his hair, shoved my mouth against his ear and hissed, 'Don't ever play the whore with me,' then slunk back to my side of the bed; already ashamed of my outburst.
He remained huddled in the corner. I didn't care - couldn't care. Fuck him and his pathetic little problems. Who was looking out for me? Whose shoulder did I have to cry on? I guess we both wallowed in self-pity. Eventually, Jon's whimpering stopped, to be replaced by shudders and the occasional sob. I sat on the edge of the bed facing him, angry with myself for caring, with Jon for being so stupid, with Max for leaving me, with the world, my loneliness, exhaustion. I think half the world's woes are caused by tiredness. People argue, bicker, fight, start wars and generally behave like arseholes when they're tired, and I'm no exception.
'Jon,' I said as evenly as I could manage, 'the last thing I want in my bed is a prostitute. I made myself absolutely clear about that last night, and again this morning. There's no way you could have misunderstood me, and yet here you are offering yourself like a whore.
'I want someone who wants me for myself, not for something I can do for them. I am trying not to despise you for attempting to buy the job with your body. I've probably got unrealistic expectations as you're the second person in as many weeks who's tried that. I like you - at least I did until this nonsense. You've still got the job, but one more stupid, insulting crack about my sexual orientation and you're fired. Understood?'
He stared at me, opened his swollen mouth a couple of times, thought better of it, nodded and looked away. So did I. Blood noses and black eyes are not my favourite pre-breakfast viewing, especially if I've caused them, so I went to the kitchen and made breakfast. When Jon emerged, sullenly flaunting his bruised and battered countenance, he obviously had no idea how, or even if our association could possibly continue.
'What did you put on your battle scars?'
'Don't be a fuckwit, look after yourself.'
He returned looking slightly better, ate a silent, healthy breakfast and, still without speaking, helped wash up. I looked across to where he was slowly drying and re-drying a plate, tears streaming down his face. What could I do? What words could I offer? I couldn't even help myself. We each have to work out our own salvation. He was nearly twenty-five. Whatever he did from here on had to be because he wanted it, thought about it, and worked for it. In his present state he'd have jumped at the first friendly overture like an addict to a fix, so I pretended not to notice.
'Can you give the apartment a bit of a once-over? I'll check the mail and get started on tracking down some work for our permanent collection.'
He sniffed assent and I left him to it. Two hours later he brought me down a cup of coffee, a newspaper open at the review of the previous night's Opening, and a precarious smile.
'Sorry about my insensitive suggestion this morning.'
'Sorry for laying in to you.'
'I deserved it. Um… I'm pretty sure I know what you're talking about, but I have to think about it for a while. All my certainties have come unstuck since I met you.'
I smiled, not because I felt like it, but he looked such a mess - swollen lips and nose, bruises.
'Jon, stop worrying. I know you meant nothing bad. We were both tired. I'm glad you're working with me, and I've had no second thoughts. Take all the time you need to sort yourself out and I promise there'll be no repeats of my lousy lapse. OK?'
'I'm not worried about that, it's just that…I don't know, it's difficult to know how to deal with someone who's saved your life. On one hand I feel a grudging gratitude; on the other I'm angry. It sounds soft, but… maybe it was somehow… time for me to die? Now I owe you. I feel as though I have to guard your back, look after you in return. But I don't want to owe anyone anything!'
'You're angry because you've been cheated of a quick death. I can sympathise with that. Oddly enough, your other feelings also apply to the bloke who saved you. Having prevented your release from this vale of tears I now feel obliged to look after you and make sure my interference doesn't lead to a future you'll regret.'
He frowned. 'You're joking.'
'Nope. But… if you like, we can declare the slate clean and absolve each other of all feelings of gratitude and debt. Do you want that?'
His stare had become a frown.
'No,' he said as though surprised at his own words. 'No I don't want that.'
Relief washed through me, swilling out tension, mucky bits of anger, self-pity and encroaching despair. I needed to feel responsible for someone other than myself. I needed to know that someone felt a bit of responsibility for me. I was sick of living for myself alone.
'Neither do I!' I said somewhat more vehemently than I'd intended.