By Rigby Taylor

Mortaumal is a light-hearted tale about death and dying, affection and callous indifference, independence and love….

1. Mortaumal

According to his grandfather, Mortaumal was a smart kid. According to Mortaumal, Simon was a brainless bully. So why wasn't it Simon lying on his belly, face pressed into the dust scarcely able to breathe? Surely twice as clever should outsmart twice as big? But the world isn't as we would like it, which was why Mortaumal had endured months of increasingly unpleasant torment. He'd hoped that yesterday's flushing of his head in a toilet would satisfy his torturer for a while, but it hadn't. This time, Simon had leaped from behind a billboard advertising Jezebel's Gymnasium, dragged the unwilling object of his attention behind it, tossed him on his face in the dust and sat on his legs. Mortaumal was just debating whether to humiliate himself by screaming for help when Simon dragged his shorts down.

Shocked, or perhaps excited at the sight of naked buttocks, the bully allowed his grip to slacken sufficiently for his victim to slither away and tear off down the footpath, school bag flying, shorts barely back in place until… a busy road. A glance behind made him reckless. With a one-fingered salute to his persecutor he shot across in front of a large truck.

Outraged by the insult, blind to everything except the necessity for revenge, Simon put on a spurt and was on the point of grasping his prey when…

Screeching brakes, a squishy pop and screams of horror from pedestrians made Mortaumal stop and look back. A smile split his face and for the first time in what seemed a very, very long time, he relaxed. The front wheel of the truck had driven over Simon's belly, splitting it open and spraying blood and undigested bits of Mort's lunch onto the footpath. The driver got out, looked under his vehicle and vomited, adding to the muck.

'He may be still alive!' someone screeched, prompting a bystander to leap into the truck and accidentally drive it a few metres backwards, squeezing out more of Simon's innards, revealing such a mess that several more people followed the driver's example.

A deep voice directly behind Mortaumal began to chant softly:
'Mother dear, what have we here,
Spread out like strawberry jam?
Hush dear boy, it is your Pa
Run over by a tram.'

Mortaumal laughed aloud, causing nearby heads to turn and frown.

'The lad's hysterical from seeing such a dreadful accident. Someone attend to him!' a motherly type shouted.

'It's alright, he's with me,' the owner of the voice announced, placing a large hand on Mort's shoulder.

Another woman suddenly screamed, causing all heads to turn. 'Where's the kid who pushed that poor boy under the truck? I saw him do it! Find him before he escapes!'

The hand on Mort's shoulder gently took his arm and led him down a side street, out of sight of the gathering crowd of thrill seekers.

'Don't go away, young fellow,' deep-voice said calmly, 'I'll just go and get my son.'

Mortaumal looked back and saw a wheelchair slowly manoeuvring towards them. The man took hold of the handlebars, brought the wheelchair close, then bent over the occupant and adjusted some straps. A sudden fit of the shakes forced Mortaumal to sink to the ground. Visions of the mess on the roadway that could so easily have been him, filled his head, which began to spin, so he wrapped his arms around the nearest solid support, the powerful leg of his abductor. Tears sprang and great sobs wracked his frame.

A hand ruffled his hair and he gazed up into concerned brown eyes. His agony evaporated, but he didn't release the leg.

'I didn't push him!' Mortaumal sounded desperate.

'I know you didn't; I saw what happened. You've done nothing wrong, but when humans are hysterical it's dangerous to be rational, that's why we didn't hang around. Are you feeling sorry for the dead boy?'

'No, I was imagining it was me all squashed. It could easily...'

'No it couldn't. I saw you check you had time to cross the road. You're far too smart to meet your end in such a cliché, so forget about it.' his smile was genuinely friendly. 'Time for introductions I think. I'm Leo.' He held out his hand.

Mortaumal released Leo's leg, stood, and manfully shook his hand. 'I'm Mortaumal... only everyone calls me Mort.'

'And which name do you prefer?'

'Mort. Would you want to be called death to evil?'

'Death to…? Of course...French. Whose idea was that?'

'Granddad's. He spoke French till he came here. He says he's seen too much evil and hopes I'll live up to the name.'

'And so do I... but don't let the responsibility get you down.'

'Oh, he didn't mean all the evil in the world, just bad people I meet.'

'That's a relief. Well... I'm delighted to meet you, Mort.' Leo turned to the wheelchair. 'This handsome young man is Fystie.'

Mort captured the hand that was fluttering in his general direction, shook it firmly, then held on to prevent it escaping. 'Hi, Fystie, what're you doing in a wheelchair?'

'Trying to relax; my chauffeur's not up to much, he seems determined to drive me through every stone and pothole in the city. What were you doing on your feet when we met?'

'Going home from school. You talk a bit funny... I can understand you but... are you okay? You're twitching a bit and your mouths open and…'

'And I'm dribbling.' Fystie's face was a picture of despair. 'Please don't tell me you don't find it sexy, I've been practising my come hither tongue lolling, ready-for-a-kiss look for weeks! I thought that was why you're still holding my hand.'

'Of course it is,' Mort didn't bother to conceal his grin. 'It's very fetching.'

'Then how about fetching the towel from behind my seat and using it.'

'Mort extracted a towel from the bag hanging on the back of the chair and after gently wiping his new acquaintance's face he looked deep into his eyes. 'Sexy doesn't begin to describe you, Fystie. Perhaps...'

'Alluring? Sensual? Voluptuous…?'

'All those things.' Both boys cracked up with laughter.

'I think we ought to be getting a move on,' Leo interrupted nervously. 'Ambulances, TV cameras, police… I've a feeling we ought to scarper.'

'Yeah, I can't wait to tell Grandpa. But...' Mort looked uncertainly at Leo. 'You said you'd seen everything... would you come and tell him so he doesn't think I'm exaggerating?'

'I was going to suggest it. Which way?'

They set off at a fast trot, Mort having to jog to keep up. After ten minutes Leo stopped.

'Do you need a rest?'

'No, but can I push the chair?'

'Sure, until you get tired. This is the brake; make sure you engage it before you collapse.'

'No worries, Leo. Hang onto your seat, Fystie.'

2 Leo.

Leo was the offspring of respectable, working-poor parents who considered the ability to read, write and calculate simple arithmetic quite enough education. They therefore raised no objections when he quit school with the blessing of his teachers on his fifteenth birthday. Working in a hardware store by day and training with the local AFL football club every evening, was his idea of heaven. After impressing selectors at a tryout, his fans were suitably disappointed when at the tender age of seventeen, a professional club signed him up and he moved interstate.

He considered himself lucky to be taken under the wing of Jock, an ex professional player and now team physiotherapist, whose internationally-famous-model wife didn't object to having Leo board with them. Jock was a well educated mentor, who managed to convince his protégé to complete his high school education, eliminate alcohol, eat only healthy foods, take care of his body, and respect nature. Jock kept Leo's muscles supple with expert massage, and his libido strong with daily doses of high quality semen, administered either orally or anally depending on their mood.

At twenty, against Jock's advice, Leo married Amy, who for several years had been following in the footsteps of the legions of young women throughout the ages who trailed soldiers to war, or gold fields, or any other place where decent women fear to tread, secure in the knowledge that they're sitting on their own little goldmines. Amy was considerably older than she looked, but despite plying her trade assiduously had failed to make her fortune. Realising that time was running out, she decided to marry Leo, a rising star predicted by pundits to be destined to earn millions.

Thus it was that after one of the festive after-practice evenings during which Amy and another public spirited youngish woman opened their legs to the entire team, the innocent target of her scheming felt honoured by her proposal of marriage in the mistaken belief that it was she, and not the room full of sweaty naked men in various stages of arousal, that had triggered his remarkably powerful sexual performance.

They were publicly shackled together in a pseudo Gothic church heavy with the scent of flowers and alcohol, watched by millions of TV addicts desperate to believe in a fairytale prince and princess in love.

Alas for Amy's plans. At twenty-nine her dreams of fabulous fortune evaporated when constant injuries, although minor, made twenty-one year old Leo fear for his future health. He had too much respect for his body to want to end up a battered, overweight, alcoholic wreck like so many ex professional sportsmen, and so in the prime of youth and usefulness found himself with a small nest egg, magnificent physique, slightly battered face that endeared him to females and prevented men from thinking him queer, and a termagant of a wife with a bun in the oven.

Amy felt little for her child when it finally arrived, apart from mild annoyance at the extra work. She dutifully breast fed him for a year, kept him clean and nicely dressed, and was on the point of almost liking him when his persistent physical oddities were diagnosed.

'Cerebral Palsy! What the fuck sort of disease is that? It must be your fault; all that over the top physical exercise deprived your sperm of what it takes to make a healthy kid. So take him! He's yours.'

Patiently, Leo reminded her that no one knew for certain what the causes of CP were, but it was neither his fault nor hers. It probably happened in the womb, and had nothing to do with genetics.'

'That's right, lay the blame on me!'

And so it continued for days, weeks, months… until a truce was declared. Leo was now in charge of the kid, as she called him. She was prepared to assist when she wasn't at work or out with friends, but he was now his father's responsibility. When Leo was working, Fystie was reluctantly entrusted to day care. When not at work, Leo carried his son everywhere in a specially designed sling-at first on his chest so they could gaze into each other's faces, communicating every emotion, thought and idea, then later on his back. They walked/jogged/ran to the shops, daycare, work, the park. For longer distances Fystie was strapped into a pushchair.

Amy had decided the car was hers, which suited Leo who could never seem to get enough physical exercise. Unfortunately, winning three trophies in minor Muscle Building contests provided no useful financial gain, and a string of temporary jobs scarcely paid the bills. Life as an escort for wealthy women paid reasonably well, until he learned about the dangers of injecting chemicals into his penis to achieve erections.

A series of billboards on which his sculpted frame caused sales of the designer underwear he was modelling to soar, was qualification enough for the managers of 'Jezebel's Gymnasium', a meandering complex of converted warehouses to offer him employment. An almost famous model would be an ideal demonstrator at their acclaimed Dance Yourself to Fitness classes.

It was the perfect job. The boss was happy to let Fystie sit and dream behind the stage during his father's classes, as long as he kept well out of sight, and as he grew older the boy became a familiar sight around the service areas of the gymnasium, crawling, then tottering, stumbling and always laughing and chatting incomprehensibly to all who'd listen.

Leo now had all the physical activity he desired, plus a captive and admiring audience. His experience as a professional sportsman paid dividends in meticulously planned sessions that were always executed and explained with enormous energy and enthusiasm. Serious bodybuilders as well as casuals who simply wanted to look less wimpish on the beach, kept asking for him, and Aerobics for Addicts, in both the air conditioned gymnasium and the tepid pool used for physically disadvantaged adults and children, were packed.

Naturally, other trainers were jealous. Equally naturally, Management thought it wouldn't be a good idea to pay him more than those who did half the work. He didn't mind-he was happy, which is more than could be said for Amy; numb of bum, perched on a stool scanning groceries at a supermarket checkout for eight hours a day, just to pay for a child minder.

When Leo started at the gym, numbers for what should have been the lucrative mid-afternoon sessions for bored housewives were falling disastrously, so he was charged with reviving interest. As he considered it a crime against nature to conceal any part of the body he'd lovingly built without steroids, he wondered if part of the reason for dwindling patronage was that male trainers wore baggy shorts and T-shirts, while the females bounced around in thongs and bras.

In a memo to Management he suggested that males should have the option to dress in a similar fashion to females, and vice versa; anything else was sexist. Management prevaricated, then granted him a trial period with the proviso that the tone of the establishment would not be lowered. Also, if he was going to wear a thong like a girl, he had to be hairless like them. This was no problem to a man used to Muscle Building contests.

Management worries evaporated when the numbers of both males and females in Leo's classes more than doubled, nor was there a murmur about tone when his original modest thong shrank to a teensy little pouch. The increase in his hours of work finally saw a commensurate rise in his pay packet just in time for his thirtieth birthday, and the future was looking rosy until the afternoon when the boss's wife, who handled finances and staffing, appeared backstage after his show dressed in her trademark flimsy sun frock and strappy sandals. She was short, emaciated, and sported curly blond hair that did nothing to hide her age. Scrawny is not the same as slim; blond doesn't mean young; and sun damaged skin proves you've spent more years in the sun than you admit to living.

Her name wasn't Jezebel, but it should have been. Without a greeting she approached him, slipped a finger into his pouch and ripped it off. Leo remained impassive, merely staring into her eyes as she fondled his scrotum and slid his foreskin on and off his knob until he was aroused. Slipping the straps off her shoulders she let the frock drop to the floor. She was not wearing underclothes.

'Your contract's up for renewal soon.'


'So fuck me.'

Face still impassive, Leo picked her up, deposited her on the table against the wall, spread her legs, positioned his erection then said as if he didn't care, 'Are you sure you want this?'

'Just do it!' she snapped.

An almighty thrust forced the air from her lungs, followed by a gasp when he bent backwards till his hands touched the ground, dragging Jezebel with him so she was sitting astride his groin, impaled, feet dangling, hands flailing. A powerful hip thrust catapulted her a couple of centimetres into the air, to plonk back impaled even deeper, if that were possible. She began to slip sideways so he stood, replaced her bum on the table and let violent thrusting expunge his contempt.

The episode was never mentioned, but Leo's hopes it would never be repeated had been dashed a few hours before he met Mort. Fystie had taken a sickie from school and, as usual, watched his father's performance from the room behind the stage. When Jezebel joined Leo backstage she failed to see Fystie sitting in the corner, so dropped her dress and demanded a replay. Leo's face again remained impassive. While lifting the woman onto the table he winked and smiled at his son over her shoulder to tell him it wasn't serious, then did his best to ram his rod right through her.

The brutality of his father's thrusting thrilled Fystie, who had always disliked the woman because she told everyone he was an imbecile; so he was disappointed when she walked away unhurt.

They left the Gymnasium immediately after, Leon furious with himself for not refusing the woman, Fystie energetically convincing his father that he'd done the right thing. It would have been insane to risk his job over a meaningless fuck. Distracted by their discussion they hadn't noticed the kid having his head thrust into the sand.

3 Shrude

'Don't look,' Mort commanded at the gate beside the house. 'There's a secret catch that no one's allowed to know except me and Grandpa.'

Leo and Fystie dutifully turned away, Mort opened the gate and they proceeded along a narrow path that opened out into a luxuriant garden. Shade trees, flowerbeds and a struggling lawn fronted the wide verandah of an old Queenslander.

'Hang on,' Mortaumal said, whipping off his shorts, sandals and T-shirt, 'Grandpa doesn't like me wearing clothes at home in case I get dirty, he says a body's easier to wash and dry.'

'Sounds sensible, especially in this heat and with such excellent shade.'

'Yeah... he's nothing if not sensible. Grandpa!' he called. 'Visitors!'

A wheelbarrow approached from beyond the trees, pushed by a lean man wearing a battered straw hat and nothing else. He stopped about ten metres from them. Only his eyes moved, back and forth from son to visitors.

Leo stared at the lean, smooth, yellowish-tanned man who moved with such flexuous grace he was reminded of a snake. Surely he was too young to be anyone's grandfather. Then the hat was removed and the face belonged to someone who had seen more than most, and not been impressed. Ageless but definitely not young.

'Leo and Fystie brought me home in case I was mobbed by the crowds who thought I'd shoved that bully I told you about under a truck.' Mort said as if it was now all perfectly clear.

'But you didn't.'

'No, but I would have if I could have.'

'Some things, Mort, should be thought and not spoken.' The older man stepped forward and offered his hand. 'Welcome. I'm Shrude, Mort's grandfather.'

'I'm Leo, and this is Fystie.'

Shrude nodded and shook hands with both.

'It's sweaty weather for pushing that thing around the city.'

'I like the exercise.'

'Hey! I pushed it, not you.'

'Don't show off, Mort.' The voice was gentle, yet commanding. Shrude turned to his guests with a slight frown. 'I was just going to make myself a drink, will you join me?

'That'll be great, thanks.'

'We've no pool, but if you're hot there's a hose over there.'

'Come on,' Mort laughed, 'get your gear off.' turning to Fystie, 'Can you walk?'

'Why, wanna race?'

Leo undid the straps and helped his son out of the wheelchair, then while he removed his trainers, shorts and shirt, Mort did the same for the son.

'Hey! We're the same size if you straighten up. But you're a bit wobbly.'

'I used to be a sailor; takes a while to get used to dry land.'

'You'd look really good if you weren't sort of twisted. Can't you straighten up? I wish my hair was curly like yours. And you're getting hairs down there. I hope I get hairs soon.'

'The reason I can't straighten up, as you so rudely suggest, is because, unlike you, I have too many muscles and they're all in competition. When one pulls, its opposite number sometimes does the same. Sometimes neither does anything and I collapse. I'm sure it's only a question of training. I'll get all my muscles under control one day; even my tongue!' As if to prove his point, his right arm shot out nearly hitting Mort's ear, and his left leg gave way, causing him to cling to his friend's neck for support. Suddenly serious, he looked up into Mort's eyes and frowned. 'Are you repelled?'

'Not at all.' Mort also frowned. Also serious. 'It's... interesting.' He held Fystie steady till he regained his balance, then stood back and nodded judiciously. 'All your bits look normal. You're much more attractive than that fat kid who got himself squashed, that's for sure. It's just so sad... you're bent and... and... you could be so beautiful and... I'm trying not to cry. It must be horrible for you…' He wiped impatiently at his eyes.

'Don't you dare be sorry for me!' The outburst was fuelled by desperation rather than anger. 'I was born like this, so I'm used to it and have as much fun as you.' Fystie's voice softened at the sight of Mort's contrite face. 'I know you were trying to be nice. I just get mad when people act as though I'm a tragic case. Come on, I'm overheated, turn on the hose.'

Leo had been nervously listening to the exchange. When his wife announced that he was on his own when it came to raising their son, the fragile little boy who now depended totally on him became the only person on the planet that he loved more than himself. Every time he took Fystie in his arms he felt as if his heart would burst with pride and love. And as his son grew older, the love increased along with fear for the future.

Meeting Mort had been wonderful. He'd never seen Fystie so witty, so communicative. And Mort could understand him! He wasn't used to anyone else bothering to do anything more than listen politely for a few seconds, say something inconsequential, having understood practically nothing, then move on. There was something very special going on between the two boys. Both ten years old, both verbal and pretty smart, both on the same wavelength, whatever that meant. He breathed a sigh of relief that Mort had not misunderstood Fystie's response to pity, and it was with an almost euphoric sense of lightness and joy that he picked up his son, swung him round and deposited him on a paved area while Mort sprayed them with cold water that made them gasp, then laugh in delight. Fystie began to dance, and fell over. Leo picked him up, then took the hose and sprayed the two boys who clung to each other for support against the powerful beam.'

'Come and get it or I'll throw it out,' Shrude called from the verandah.

'Must we put our clothes on, Mort?'

'No way, you look like superman with all those muscles. I'm jealous. He cast a look at Fystie and shouted, 'And I'm jealous of Fystie's hairy balls!'

'So…' Shrude said with a contented nod when Mort's tale had ended. 'That young terrorist's dead?'

'Yeah, they'll have had to scrape him off the road.'

'Wouldn't have felt a thing, more's the pity. Thanks for bringing Mort home, Leo, and being prepared to stick your neck out if anyone should accuse him of anything. Grieving parents can be loose cannons, looking for anyone to blame except their offspring. It's good he's gone, characters don't change with age, people merely learn to conceal the worst bits. Bullying boys become bullying adults, ruining lives wherever they go.'

'You're not sentimental then, thinking all life is sacred?'

'Sentiment without sentimentality, that's my aim. Like the way you treat Fystie.' Shrude turned to him. 'You're very quiet, young man. Tell me about yourself.'

Fystie's eyes widened. He grinned, saliva dribbled and he laughed. 'I'm a superior being with the power to command men to do my bidding. Dad feeds, washes and cleans me and takes me everywhere I want to go, and only minutes after coming under my spell, Mort pushed me all the way here from the centre of town. That's power, don't you reckon?'

'I'm sure you're right, although my hearing's not what it was. Would you be offended if I asked Leo to repeat it?'

'Mort understands me, he'll do it, Dad's too polite and wouldn't repeat anything rude.'

Mort translated, Shrude laughed, and Leo grinned in pride. After Shrude had been apprised of the daily problems faced by the cerebral palsy brigade, as Fystie called them, they went on a tour of the garden, where the boys soon disappeared to investigate Mort's special places.

'My father bought these three hectares for a song sixty years ago,' Shrude explained, 'planted the trees and ornamental garden around the house, and made a living from the rest, growing pesticide free vegetables. I kept it up until the big supermarkets drove prices so low I had to work twice as hard for quarter the profit. Developers have offered millions, but when a doctor told me I'd be dead or in a nursing home before I reached sixty, I decided to just stay and enjoy the place.'

'How old are you?'


'Isn't that what's called negative gearing?'

'Yep. I'm on borrowed time.'

'What's the problem?'

'Worn out. A heart has only so many beats in it, apparently, and mine's on its last lap.'

'You seem to be handling it very well.'

'For Mort. I'm sick with fear about what will happen to him. I'm his only relative and I can't bear to think of him in a foster home. He's…'

'Very special. I feel exactly the same about Fystie.'

A loud laugh from Fystie. 'Why's that chair hanging from the tree?' he asked, pointing at a large armchair suspended about half a metre from the ground, draped in colourful silks that were waving in the breeze.

'My wife likes it.'

A piercing shriek of laughter made the visitors jump. A wrinkled face appeared over the armrest and shouted something incomprehensible, before tossing a plastic bottle at Shrude.

'Grandma wants some more water,' Mort explained, picking up the bottle and running back to the house.

'I hope you'll forgive my curiosity,' Leo smiled, 'but why is your wife sitting in an armchair suspended from a tree?'

Shrude gave the chair a push that sent it spinning and swinging, triggering a burst of wild giggling from the occupant. 'Because Nasturtium likes it, and it keeps her out of mischief. She was fine until three years ago when someone reported us to the cops for growing marijuana. We weren't, never have, but that didn't stop them tearing the place apart. Nasturtium confronted them, so they shoved her so hard she fell and smashed her head on the edge of the concrete steps and scrambled her brains. An internal police inquiry found they'd acted in self defence.'

'That's terrible!'

'That's Queensland.'

'Too true. And it's getting worse. We'll soon be like the U.S.; more police kills than road deaths.'

Twenty minutes later they had completed the tour of the gardens and returned to the house.

'Shrude,' Leo said seriously, 'this is the most relaxing day I've had for ages. I love your place, I like Mort and you, and I resent having to put clothes on, but we've got to go.'

'Can Fystie come and play sometimes?' Mort asked.

'Don't ask Dad, I'm the one in charge,' Fystie announced. 'Of course I can come, whenever the chauffeur's available.'

'I can push you after school and Leo can come and pick you up.'

'Do I get a say in this?' Shrude was grinning. He'd almost given up hope that his grandson would find a decent friend.

'Is it okay, Grandad?'

'Very okay. Fystie can stay over sometimes too if he likes. But if you're not in a hurry, why don't you both stay for a meal?'

4 Confidences

After a healthy and satisfying supper they relaxed on the verandah, the boys sharing a swing seat and talking softly while keeping their ears pricked, the men on rattan armchairs, and Nasturtium gurgling away on pillows on the deck. The pleasure both Shrude and Leo felt at discovering a like minded soul, triggered confidences they thought had been well and truly buried.

Having noticed the absence of all references to Fystie's mother, Shrude approached the subject obliquely. 'It's good you have a wife, at least Fystie's not your sole responsibility.'

'Actually he is.' Leo went on to explain the circumstances of his marriage, his wife's obvious disappointment when he failed to become a millionaire professional, and her rejection of their disadvantaged son.

'Yeah,' Fystie said. 'Mum's ashamed of me. A few years ago when we met someone she knew on the street, she said she was minding me for a friend.'

Mort translated.

Shrude was horrified. 'That must have been upsetting.'

'Yeah. I wanted to die till Dad told me it's because she feels so insecure and frightened people won't like her. So now I just feel sorry for her and don't care much. She still cooks and cleans and stuff for us. So she's not a bad person. I…' An unusually violent spasm rocked his frame and he stopped talking, looked down and hoped he wasn't going to cry.

'What about you, Shrude?' Leo asked.

'I've always been a randy bugger, but never wanted to marry; could get plenty of sex without it.'

"I'm not surprised,' Leo said seriously, 'You're an attractive man.'

'But not as well hung as you.'

'That's not important, although I overheard a client at work the other day gossiping about her husband. "He's hung like a cashew, but rich as buggery," were her exact words. The other women all thought it a wonderful joke.'

'Poor bastard. Wives who gossip about their husband's sexual prowess are the pits. I wonder what she'd say about you,' Shrude said as if seriously considering the problem. 'Poor as a church mouse but hung like a mule. I imagine many women are after your meat.'

'Yeah! They sure are!' Fystie yelled, proceeding to describe that afternoon's performance.

'Fystie!' Leo laughed, 'some things are best left unsaid. Mort, please don't translate, I want to keep your grandfather's respect.'

'Sorry, Leo, Fystie's my boss, not you.'

'It was like a horse I saw on TV the other day fucking a mare. I was really proud of you, Dad.'

Leo clipped him affectionately over the back of his head. 'Fystie, life without you would be pointless.'

'Can I also watch next time? Mort asked excitedly.

'I doubt there'll be a next time, but if you're there, an appreciative audience is always welcome.'

Shrude laughed. 'Leo, you're the first sensible person I've met for years. What do you do to make her so excited?'

Leo fetched his pouch from his shirt pocket, put it on and did a couple of hip thrusts.

'I can't believe you're not mobbed every afternoon, by males as well as females.'

'Not mobbed, but I get my share of offers from both.'

'Which you accept?'

'Only if they pay enough.'

'And do they?'

'Females think I should pay them-as if! Some males make extremely generous offers that I find impossible to refuse.'

'Very wise. Does that make you gay?'

'Gay, straight, trans, bi, hetero, homo...everyone's trying to find a shelf to sit on. I'm just a sexual human animal. Always have been, even at high school. If I want sex and I'm attracted to someone, I'll do it with them. What's gender got to do with it? Nothing! But now its your turn for the hot seat, Shrude, if you didn't want to marry, how'd you end up with Nasturtium?'

'Women never believe a man if he says he doesn't want to marry, they think men can't live without them so they never give up trying unless you can convince them you don't want kids, then they'll stay for sex but give up on legally binding vows. I never loved any of them, or even liked them much, and was proud of avoiding the ball and chain. But then came Nasturtium,' he leaned down and patted his wife on the shoulder. 'I've never loved her, either.'

'Then why did you marry?'

'Because she was beautiful and as callous as Mort's mother turned out to be. I was too set in my ways by then to marry, but she kept on at me, I was foolish, she tricked me and got pregnant, and in a moment of stupidity I believed her protestations of undying love and ended up chained to a nagging bitch, until seven years later the cops did me a favour and shoved her down the steps. Isn't that so, Nasturtium?'

His wife's eyes lit up and she let loose with a great whinny of delight. 'Ye! Ye! Ye!'

'Why didn't you leave her?'

'From a misguided sense of duty to our daughter, Mort's mother, who rewarded us by taking off the day he was born. That's why I'm taking care or Mort. But, and this is the important thing, if I'd divorced my wife, the courts would have given her custody when his mother disappeared, because like most people, magistrates labour under the erroneous belief that women make good parents and men don't. Yet studies have shown that to fully develop psychologically, boys need a male parent. As long as the biological father is around, boys have few problems. So, as I'm the next best thing I hung around.'

'I'm glad you did, Grandad.'

'Me too! You're the best thing in my life.'

'That doesn't sound misguided - perhaps a little misogynistic.'

'The whole world's misguided, Leo. Before humans lived in permanent settlements, women needed to be able to change their affections, allegiances and opinions in order to keep themselves provided for and safe if their hunter husbands died or they married and changed tribes. They haven't changed and we shouldn't expect them to. It isn't a defect, it's a strength. Men are the opposite. They had to keep their word and be reliable if they want the support of their fellow tribesmen in hunting and defence. That's why male traitors are killed and politicians who don't keep promises and change their ideas to win votes, are despised. We seldom expect women to be consistent, and don't criticise them for changing their minds or decisions, because we know intuitively it's not in their nature to behave any other way.'

'It's bloody annoying sometimes though.'

'Men are equally irritating. Unfortunately, popular wisdom now decrees there's no difference between men and women, so men are criticised for not behaving like women, and are derided - even punished for behaving as men should! Wives tell depressed men to join a club and express their emotions, because that's what women do. But men need only one good mate they trust with whom they can share concerns. The last thing they need is to blab their problems to the world!'

'That's for sure.'

'Men tacitly encourage the myth that they are rough, tough and insensitive, so it isn't strange that liberated women enjoy putting men down, complaining at their lack of sexual energy, making them the butt of jokes. But it isn't a joke! It's serious because whereas insults will fire women up to swap insults with pleasure, men who are insulted either become seriously depressed, or seek to avenge themselves through violence.'

Shrude turned to stare seriously at Mort and Fystie who were sitting with ears flapping, determined not to miss a word. 'Never fail to take women seriously, Mort and Fystie. They are not stupid. They can be just as sharp as men. Just as capable of running a business, or teaching, of having good ideas and acting on them. They're no less compassionate, and not less brave. However, they are not the same as men; their priorities are different. So I advise you to always be on your guard when dealing with them. Don't believe everything they say. Don't expect them to think the same as you about anything, or act and behave consistently. And most importantly, don't imagine they're not telling everyone your secrets that you've foolishly confided to them. Have you understood?'

'Yes, Grandpa.'

'Yes, Shrude.'

'Men aren't any better,' Leo said thoughtfully.

'They certainly aren't, but whereas women are a mystery to us, men are knowable, so we can predict more or less how they will behave, and then plan for it. Men's problems are compounded by the myth that women are sweet, gentle, motherly creatures, peaceful, caring and nurturing. And they can be like that. They can also be as cruel, vicious, unforgiving and callous as men. With no effort at all a women can wrap a man around her finger, whereas no man can make a woman do what she doesn't want to without force.'

'You make men sound foolish, Shrude.'

'Many are, and getting ever more foolish as women take over. Consider marriage - men want a woman who looks beautiful, healthy and young, seldom concerning themselves with her intelligence or character. Women, on the other hand, are primarily interested in a man's money, power and sexual prowess, because their instincts tell them those characteristics are most likely to successfully protect them and provide healthy sperm.' Shrude laughed sourly. 'Men are pathetic - look how many inane love songs there are praising women, and how few the other way round. And when women do sing about men it's usually a complaint.'

Mort broke a silence that lasted nearly a minute, looking up at his grandfather with undisguised admiration. 'That is amazing, Grandpa. You hardly took a breath. I hope I remember it all. The only women I know properly are teachers, and I don't like any of them, but you're the nicest, kindest, lovingest and bestest person in the whole world.'

5 Death

The following day at school everyone stood in silence for a very long minute to show respect for the dead boy, who, Mort was astonished to learn, had been universally popular, an excellent student, a loving son and a future leader. The world, it seemed, was a poorer place for the loss of this potential champion. However, the school's loss was god's gain because little Simon was now in heaven sitting on god's right hand, being serenaded by a choir of angels.

Mort was suddenly assailed by doubt; perhaps he had misjudged his assailant. Surely, whoever god was he wouldn't let Simon sit on his hand if he really was a bad person. And it must be uncomfortable to sit on someone's hand. And maybe Mort was the nasty one for being so pleased by his death.

That evening Shrude put his grandson's mind at rest. 'When someone dies people always say good things about them, so other people will say good things about them when they die. Imagine the Principal had said she was glad the little snot-nose prick had been squashed by a truck, how would everyone react?'

Mort thought carefully before replying. 'Lots of kids would have cheered, others would have been angry because they liked him, and his parents would have been really, really upset and it would all be horrible because there'd be fights in the playground and all that.'

'Exactly. And that's why in public people tell these white lies. The god she mentioned is the one worshipped by most Christians. They believe he made the universe and everything that's in it, including you and me. He's invisible, knows everything, and can do anything he likes. And when they die they believe there's an invisible bit of them that goes to live with this god in heaven, although the body itself remains behind.'

Mort was intrigued. 'Why has no one ever told me this? I've sung their songs about god and heaven and always thought he was sort of like the prime minister, or the queen, and heaven was his beautiful garden.' He paused for several seconds. 'But... how do they know this if he's invisible?'

'Good question. They don't know; they simply believe it. And that's an important thing to remember. Even you, a boy of ten can see it's ridiculous. And that's a lesson you must not forget if you want to live without making too many mistakes. If something you or others believe seems wrong or silly or doesn't make sense, always ask yourself, "How do I know that? Where did I, or they, get that belief?" Usually you'll discover the source is simply some human with an axe to grind.

Mort looked puzzled. 'So what does happen when you die?'

'Everything stops working.'

'But what does it feel like?'

'Nothing. Everything's stopped working so there's no feeling at all. Like a deep, dreamless sleep that goes on forever. Do you remember what if felt like before you were born?'


'Well, that's what it's like.'

'But what about all my thoughts?'

'They are tiny electric impulses zipping around in your brain. When your body dies the electricity supply stops so there are no more thoughts, no more feelings... nothing.'


'What happens to the light when you switch the power off?'

'It... I don't know. I never thought about it... I guess it just disappears.'

'And so do your thoughts.'

'Are you afraid to die, Grandpa?'

'Not at all. Apart from you, I think it's probably the best thing that will happen to me. Life for most people isn't that wonderful, and when they get old, tired and sometimes sick, death is a blessed release. Only the people who loved them are sad.'

'I'll be really, really sad if you die.'

Shrude frowned and gazed deeply into his grandson's eyes. 'I want you to promise me, Mort, that when I die you will be happy for me.'

Mort was crying openly, unable to stem the sobs. 'I will, Grandpa, but I will be very, very sad too.'

'That's because you are a good person. Now, how about trying to lose at chess?'

Mort tried, but failed. His grandfather's wisdom could not compete with his grandson's logic and foresight.

Mort and Fystie spent many happy weekends together, and Leo and Shrude became good friends, making the best plans they could for the uncertain futures that awaited them.

6 Mrs. Pettie

The school year was drawing to a close so all the children in Mort's class handed in their 'Illustrated Annual Diary' for assessment.

The following day Miss Pettie said she wanted to see Mort after school for a few minutes. She was a large woman, broad of beam and bounteous of bust. Where lesser beings walked, she stomped with the unerring purpose of a tank charging into battle. Few dared interpose themselves between Mrs. Pettie and her target, and while others might speak or suggest, she declaimed with the self satisfied arrogance of the bigot.

'I've read your story and seen your drawings.' She pursed her lips and waited.

Mort quailed, wondering what he'd done wrong. 'Did you like them?' he asked nervously.

The teacher put her finger on one of the drawings. 'What are those two people doing and who are they?'

'It's Grandad and me doing the gardening.'

'You're both naked!' she said as if they'd been in the process of slitting each other's throats.

'We always do the garden like that, it saves getting clothes dirty.'

'Are you sure it's only the clothes that get dirty?'

'What do you mean?'

'What does your grandfather do with you besides gardening?'

'We do everything. Grandma's sick.'

'I think I'd better have a word with this... grandfather.'

A chill ran through Mort. He had no idea what she was talking about, but knew she was making nasty insinuations. 'Grandad loves me and I love him. We have fun together. You make it sound as if he's bad.'

'Fun eh? Did he tell you to call it fun?' she sneered, grasping her purse in one hand and her young pupil's wrist in the other. 'Come on, we're going to pay this grandfather of yours a visit.'

Feeling like a traitor, Mort gave directions as she drove.

Mort's grandfather was pruning dead wood from a peach tree when Mrs. Pettie barged through the garden gate, shoving aside a very frightened Mort. Both adults stopped and stared at each other.

Shrude's health had deteriorated significantly over the last months. Compared with Mrs. Pettie, he looked frail indeed. Tanned skin had wasted and sagged in multiple wrinkles. Ribs and hipbones protruded. Cheeks were hollow, thighs thin, joints seemingly too large. The change in his condition had been slow enough to pass almost unnoticed by Mort, but the situation was so unnerving he suddenly realised that his best friend in the world, his strong and wise protector was seriously ill. With a cry of protest, he ran forward and clasped his beloved Grandad around the waist.

'Grandad, she says horrible things. I didn't want to bring her here. Make her go away! I hate her!'

Shrude patted his grandson's head affectionately and gazed warily at this Amazon who'd invaded his privacy. 'Who are you and what do you want?'

'I'm Mort's teacher and a foundation member of the local chapter of PCFP, Protect Children from Predators. Adult males have no business cavorting naked with innocent boys. He says he loves you and you him, but we all know what that means-especially old men with sick wives.'

'Do we? What does it mean?'

'It means that this poor wee lad is being used by you as a replacement for your wife.'

'Oh, he's more than a replacement, I love him dearly and have never loved my wife. But if you mean sex, then you're barking up the wrong tree. You're barking mad, and you know which animals bark.'

'Are you calling me a bitch?'

'No, I'm calling you a stupid, vicious, nasty old bitch. My relationship with Mort is loving, innocent and pure.'

'Nakedness is a sin.'

'You're insane-although I admit it would be a very nasty sight if you took your clothes off.'

Mrs Pettie wasn't listening. 'Every right thinking person knows that nudity leads to vice. It's why Adam and Eve were evicted from paradise. There can be no greater authority than that.'

'Your authority is a translation of a translation of a translation of a three thousand year old tale told by wandering desert tribes to explain their origins. Hardly compelling. Most thinkers differ on the message intended by that story; they reckon those two lost their innocence, and therefore their happiness once they started to ask questions instead of living from day to day like all the other animals. It wasn't their naked bodies they were ashamed of, but their naked ignorance and stupidity; which made them wiser than you. I can't believe ignorant bigots like you are permitted anywhere near young people. You have thirty seconds to get your great fat arse out of this place before I call the cops and have you charged with trespass and libellous insinuations. One. Two. Three…'

The guardian of public morality was already gone.

7 Dying

Shrude sagged to the ground, coughing slightly.

'Grandad! Are you all right? Thanks for sending that horrible woman away. Are you alright?'

'Just a little tired, Mort. I'm not used to confrontation. A person like that is a great black hole that sucks all joy, life and decency from the air. Its lucky she went or I'd have suffocated. Perhaps you'd fetch me a glass of water?'

Shrude rallied and after a meal seemed to be his usual self, but Mort remained worried.

'Grandad, I'm sorry I didn't realise you were getting so sick. Are you sure you're going to be all right? Shouldn't you go to a doctor?'

Shrude gazed affectionately at the only living thing he loved without restraint, and wished he had a stronger grip on life. But he had to be honest; anything else would be an unforgivable deception. Mort was ten; old enough to understand. He patted the cushion beside him on the couch. Mort sat and leaned against him while Shrude gently stroked his shoulder.

'I'm worn out, Mort. Made of inferior stuff, apparently. I've been to doctors because I don't want to leave you any sooner than I have to. It seems my heart is falling to bits, my liver doesn't process toxins and my gut is host to unpleasant visitors that prevent me digesting properly.'

Mort could scarcely speak from fear. 'Can't they do anything in hospital, Grandpa?'

'When you're my age, Mort, you have to keep away from those places. There's nothing they can do except keep me alive longer than I would if I didn't go.'

'Isn't that good?'

Once they'd cut me open, filled me with drugs and sewn me back together again, I'd be useless. They wouldn't let me come back here; I'd be sent to a nursing home and spend every day in bed, drugged, probably in pain, wishing I was dead, useless to you and Nasturtium. And this could go on for years and years, a living hell. And no matter how hard I pleaded, they would not let me die until they'd used the last drug and performed the last operation.

'You see, lawmakers are mostly religious and frightened to die in case they go to hell, so they'll do anything to stay alive. Ridiculous, as they'll all die eventually. They reckon a person who has decided it is time to die is insane and should be prevented from killing themselves no matter how ill they are. And anyone knows about this and doesn't stop them is helping them, and therefore a criminal. I've had as good a life as I deserve, and the years with you have been the best. If I thought doctors could fix me up so I could live longer the way I've been until now, then I'd try it, but they all say there's no hope of anything except becoming a vegetable in a nursing home for years and years. So I'm going to refuse to let them get their claws into me. Do you understand?'

'Yes,' Mort whispered.

'And will you be pleased for me, once I'm dead and no longer sick, and not be too sorry for yourself?'

Mort could scarcely speak. Tears were pouring over his cheeks, running into his mouth and his throat seemed too thick to speak. But he managed a husky, 'Yes. I'll be pleased for you when you're dead, and try not to be too sorry for myself.'

'Good lad. And if anyone is stupid enough to arrange a funeral for me, refuse to go. It'll only make you sad and not help you cope. I won't be there to see and they'll probably get an idiot witchdoctor to say insanities about god and heaven and all that crap, like they did with that nasty bully. No child should have to listen to that nonsense, it undermines sanity. Keep me in your head and heart as I am, not as I'll be when I'm dead, and in that way we'll always be together.'

'Yes, Grandpa.' Unable to restrain his tears, Mort buried his face in his grandfather's shirt. 'Grandad. I love you so much.'

'And I love you just as much, so don't worry... you'll have me around for a long time yet. But if anything should happen to me, I've made arrangements for you to live with Fystie, Amy and Leo. You'll be happy with them I think.'

'Yes,' Mort lied. He loved Leo and Fystie, but disliked Amy. But now wasn't the time to say so.

'Tomorrow after school we'll go together to the lawyer to settle everything.'

8 The Lawyer

Leo was already in the waiting room of Messrs. Trimm, Kutt and Payste who, according to their sign, were experienced in Family Law, Wills, Testaments and Bereavement. Mr. Trimm lived up to his name, being of average height, stocky with no suggestion of fat. He was pale of skin, and neatly packaged in a lightweight suit, white shirt and tie, and shiny tan shoes. His elegantly cropped, chestnut hair and neatly trimmed beard would have reassured even the most finicky female. He stood when his clients entered and offered a perfectly manicured hand, greeting both Leo and Shrude by their first names, like old friends. His greeting of Mort was sincere and unaffected, so Mort liked him immediately and was prepared to trust him to the end of the earth.

The two adults left the room and Mort sat on a chair that had been placed opposite the lawyer's at his large desk. Mr. Trimm took some papers from a drawer, placed them on the table, then looked at Mort as if searching his face for permission to speak. Apparently he found what he was looking for, and in a cool and accurate manner explained the situation.

'What I'm telling you today is totally private, Mort. Even Leo doesn't know about it. That means no matter who asks you about it, they have no right to know, and you must not tell them! If anyone persists in asking, you must make an excuse to go away, telephone me immediately, and tell me about them.' He passed Mort a card. 'These are my details, phone numbers and addresses. Keep it handy, and if you lose it, come and get another. Copy the details into your diary or wherever you keep important records. Ok so far?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Good. Repeat what I've just told you.'

Mort was word perfect.

'Excellent. My first name's Marshall. I'm doing this as a friend of Shrude, so you might as well be a friend too. Ok?'

'Yes, Marshall.'

'Good. It's quite simple. Your grandfather sold his property to me five years ago, but retains the right to live there until either he dies or moves voluntarily away. The money has been put into an interest bearing account in your name. That was the best way I could think of to ensure no one will dispute the Will when he dies. There's a small Trust Fund for Nasturtium's needs, but that's all. It means you are a relatively wealthy young man, although I'll keep control of the money as your legal trustee until you turn eighteen.'

'But... I don't understand. Why is it a secret?'

'If your mother hears about Shrude's illness, she is likely to appear and demand her inheritance. He is determined she will get nothing, because if she got her hands on it you would be left with nothing. If we keep this a secret, she will imagine Shrude frittered away his fortune over the last five years, as there will be no trace of it. Whenever you need more money than the allowance stipulated in Shrude's Will, phone or come and see me, and I promise to be sensible while keeping your best interests at heart. You won't need any money for daily living if you go to live with Leo, because he will be receiving money for fostering you, and there's some in that for your pocket money. Is everything clear so far?'

'Yes,' Mort nodded, brushing away a tear.

'Good lad. Now, all the paperwork is complete. The Child Welfare people have approved Amy and Leo's suitability as foster parents in the event of Shrude dying, so the only question for me is, do you want to go and live with them? That's why I asked Shrude and Leo to wait outside, so you can be perfectly honest. Neither will be offended whatever your decision.'

'I love Leo and Fystie, but I don't like Amy, but I'd sooner live with them than anyone else, and I don't want Grandpa to die and…' Tears erupted. Great sobs wracked his frame and he curled into a ball in the large chair, sobbing silently. Marshall hurried around the desk and knelt beside the boy, cradling him in his arms, stroking his hair, murmuring soft, calming nothings, silently cursing himself for having spoken so impersonally.

Mort looked up through tear blurred eyes and whispered, 'Sorry.'

'Never apologise for feeling strongly about anything. Your tears do you credit. It is I who should apologise for speaking so clinically. I've been a lawyer too long. You've been very brave and I admire you, and I like you even more now I've seen you are worthy of your grandfather.'

Mort and Shrude returned home, leaving Leo with Marshall, who had invited him to come and see his most recent etchings.

A week later, Mort was called out of class. When he saw Amy in the Principal's office he knew what was coming and bravely followed her to the car.

His new home in a housing estate on the fringes of the city was very different from the large private block filled with fruit trees and vegetables where he had lived since birth. The unlined concrete block bungalow sat on its five hundred square metre patch of land in a row of identical dwellings, separated from each other by low wire fences. A few scraggly palms were all that remained of once dense rainforest, and of privacy there was none. His bedroom boasted a bed, chair, small built-in wardrobe and desk. The window looked onto a covered verandah that ran the length of the house, where Fystie spent most of his time when not as school.

Once his few possessions had been transferred, Mort felt slightly better and managed to put on a brave face, keeping his tears and sobs private and quiet. He didn't want to know about their problems and they were doing enough for him without having to cope with a sadness that only he could cure. Problems shared may sometimes be problems halved, but sadness shared becomes a burden for everyone and too often prevents healing.

Dewey-eyed but true to his word, Mort refused to go to his beloved grandfather's funeral, thus earning the contempt of Amy who refused to listen to his reasons, and the admiration of Leo who did.

A sense of duty prompted him to visit Nasturtium in her bright, clean nursing home. She seemed perfectly contented, had no idea who he was, and ignored him, so he never went again.

9 Self Defence.

Amy hated working in the supermarket. Leo loved working in the gymnasium. They seldom spoke, so didn't argue. The atmosphere in the house wasn't tense, but neither was it relaxing when both were in the room. Fortunately, shift work made it possible to avoid each other most of the time and there was always one person at home to look after Fystie. Mort and Fystie's unusually deep friendship was the sole reason Amy had agreed to foster the lad. Not because she cared about her son's happiness, but because Mort would relieve her of some of the burden of care.

Fystie spent his days at a special school for disadvantaged children. He was smart, observant, and a caustic commentator; therefore an amusing companion. Fortunately perhaps, few people, including his teachers, were able to understand his tart remarks. Mort slipped easily into their lives, eventually stopped wetting his bed [which Leo had assured him was perfectly normal] and crying himself to sleep, and never tired of retrieving things that Fystie's spastic muscles kept tossing around or dropping.

A large storage shed attached to Jezebels Gymnasium was sublet to one of Leo's friends for self defence classes. Amy was opposed to Mort's attending, as she thought men were quite aggressive enough without learning to fight. In vain did Leo explain that the boy would be learning self confidence along with self defence. She could see no difference between attack and defence so when her wishes were ignored, decided it was yet another proof her husband was deliberately undermining their marriage.

Excited and apprehensive, Mort joined a dozen other boys three afternoons a week and applied himself with his usual single minded determination to becoming a martial arts expert. Hugh, the instructor, a lean, fit man in his thirties, kept the lessons focussed, practical and uncomplicated. Politeness was demanded, but there were no mystical ceremonies, no Oriental names for moves, and the students were free to wear whatever they liked as long as it didn't restrict movement.

Hugh wore a speedo because the less he wore the more information his students received about arm, body and leg positions. He considered traditional martial arts costumes to be an anachronism and an unnecessary expense, perverting a skill grounded in reality by giving it a quasi religious twist. Fitness and quick reflexes require a mind tightly focussed in the present, not on some ancient myth. Most boys followed suit when they realised how sweaty any extra clothing made them.

After a few minutes of relaxation activities at the beginning of the sessions, instruction was practical and down to earth. Each lesson focussed on a new skill, and revised older ones. Hugh would choose an attack mode, then teach the correct defence response, which was practiced until it became reflex. After a few weeks all students knew what to do if someone threw a punch, came from behind, grasped their wrists, tried to leg trip them, grabbed them around the neck and so on.

Hugh constantly reminded his students that the first and best option is to run away, and they should never provoke a fight. If fighting was inevitable, then they should disable their opponent quickly and walk away. It was self defence, they were learning, not revenge or attack.

The results were visible after only a few sessions. The students stood taller and took more interest in the world around them. The mere fact of knowing a few moves that would at least stop their attacker long enough so they could make their escape, changed everything for lads who'd spent their lives in nervous apprehension of others. Boys for whom a slightly cringing stance with averted eyes had become second nature, thus attracting bullies, began to walk confidently and look others in the eye, because the knowledge that if their opponent wasn't too much bigger they could make him sorry he'd picked a fight, did wonders for self esteem.

Mort lost the slightly nervous cringe that had so annoyed Amy, began to join in mealtime conversations, and was no longer always nervously on the lookout for bullies. He now had a weapon-himself. The first time someone tried to intimidate him, he stood straight and looked the prick in the eye, feet slightly apart, hands ready for action. The would be bully turned away with a pathetic sneer. Mort was so elated he shared his delight at dinner. Leo was thrilled; Amy sniffed her displeasure.

Hugh taught his students that bullies can tell by someone's posture if they are mentally weak or strong. 'Strutting and cringing are both signs of weakness, and calm modesty is a sign of strength,' he drummed into them if they began to get cocky. While most of Hugh's philosophical asides passed over the heads of his students, Mort missed nothing and spent many hours thinking and discussing the ideas with Fystie.

His eleventh birthday passed without mention. Living in a place with no privacy he needed to keep at least some secrets, and his birthday was one.

10 Pissed Off

To his dismay, Mrs. Pettie had not forgiven his grandfather's invective. She liked girls but barely tolerated boys. 'Sugar and spice and all things nice, that's what little girls are made of,' she taught them to chant. 'Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails, that's what little boys are made of,' the girls learned to shout gleefully. Mrs Pettie belonged to that unpleasant breed of teachers who seek popularity by publicly ridiculing students who were too polite or nervous to challenge her. She measured her success by the amount of laughter generated as she mispronounced spelling errors and rolled slightly protuberant eyes at other mistakes. As her victims were usually boys, the girls rejoiced in this further proof of male inferiority.

Mort, whose previous teacher had appreciated his enthusiasm and inventiveness, was dismayed to discover he was a dunce at everything that really mattered. He didn't sit still, his spelling was atrocious, his writing unreadable, he interrupted, asked too many questions and was an intolerable know-all. His work was usually returned looking as if a chicken had been decapitated over it.

Mort's wildly diverse interests made it unlikely he would be a brilliant scholar, but with a sympathetic teacher he could have been good. Things came to a head one hot Friday afternoon. Everyone was chattering, impatient for the weekend, when Mrs. Pettie called the class to attention and held up Mort's latest effort at creative writing, an epic poem about a Warrior Prince who saved a city. He thought the story was so exciting that she would finally admire him, and smiled in pride when he realised his work had been chosen.

She called him up to her table to collect it, but instead of handing it to him, asked the class if they'd like to hear what Mortaumal had written.

Mort's heart sank. That was the tone she used when preparing to make someone feel rotten.

'Yes, yes, yes…' It seemed the whole class wanted to be amused by Mort's discomfort.

Mort's unsmiling, silent stoicism in the face of yet another public humiliation was interpreted as being unable to take a joke, an unpardonable sin in others.

Sliding forward in her chair as if offering a rare treat, she adjusted her glasses and the class waited with bated breath for the next hilarious instalment of Mort madness. Giggles turned to guffaws as the woman deliberately mispronounced his metaphors and ridiculed his rhymes. Mort held his tongue and controlled his breathing and temper as his defence teacher had taught him, allowing his attention to wander while the class laughed and the pressure on his bladder increased.

'Stand still, boy!' Mrs. Pettie snapped as he jiggled his feet, increasingly desperate for a piss.

Concealed from the waist down by the large wooden desk, Mort looked vacantly at a point well above his audience's heads while lifting the leg of his shorts and aiming half a litre of warm urine onto the rear of the teacher's seat. It soaked through the thin skirt and pooled behind her. He was flicking off the last drops when Mrs Pettie felt something warm and wet, stared back in horror, then leaped to her feet.

'You filthy little bastard!' she shrieked, landing a solid backhand on the side of his head that threw him across the room.

Deadly silence.

'Mort's bleeding,' someone said nervously.

Blood was gushing from the back of his head where he'd hit the edge of the wastepaper bin. It didn't hurt, and he was fully aware of what was happening, but Mort wasn't silly. He remained 'unconscious' until the ambulance drove him away. At the hospital he gave Leo's gymnasium phone number, and by the time he'd received three stitches and a sweet drink, Leo had arrived. When he proved he knew about delayed concussion, Leo signed a form and was given permission to take his 'son' away. Mort spent the afternoon behind the scenes at the gymnasium, filling himself with sandwiches and soft drinks brought by sympathetic staff curious to see Leo's new 'son'.

11 Leo and Hugh

As his head didn't hurt, despite the stitches, Mort couldn't see why he should remain in the Gymnasium staffroom. Fystie had once explained the layout of the place, so he set off to see if he could find the spot where he could see and not be seen when Leo was performing. It wasn't difficult. Loud dance music led him to a door that opened into a small area shielded from the main space by movable screens. He peeped around the edge and discovered he was directly behind the stage on which jazzercise instructors performed. He caught his breath in astonishment. Leo was naked. Taut bare bronzed buttocks flexed as he leaped and did amazingly high kicks, copied more or less faithfully by his class. Mort wasn't shocked, he was thrilled, aroused, and unconsciously fondled his erection through his shorts.

Suddenly, hands grasped Mort around the throat. Instant reflexes rammed a sharp right elbow backwards, propelled with all his strength by his open left hand shoving his balled right fist. It felt as if he'd hit a brick wall. The realisation he hadn't done any damage to his attacker made his heart pound violently.

With a soft chuckle the hands were removed. 'Brilliant, Mort. You're a natural. If I hadn't been prepared you'd have seriously winded me.'

'Hugh! I thought I was going to be murdered.'

'Who'd want to murder you?'

'My teacher for a start.'


Mort told him and he was still laughing when the music stopped.

'Is this the first time you've seen Leo in action?'


'What do you think?'

'He's beautiful.'

'Yes, he is,' Hugh agreed.

Unsurprised at the compliment, Mort whispered, 'I think he is the perfectest man in the world.'

'What! Better than me?'


Hugh grinned and they watched Leo thank everyone and walk towards them.

Hugh stepped forward, leaving Mort in shadow.

'Hughie,' Leo laughed, grasping the self defence teacher in a tight hug and kissing him on the lips.

After what seemed a long time to Mort, Hugh disentangled himself.

'Your new son thinks you're the most perfect man on the planet.'

Leo turned and noticed Mort's nervous frown. 'Come on, give me a hug.'

Mort pulled a face. 'Can I have a kiss too?'

'Do you want one?'

Mort's eyes lit. 'Yes please.' A kiss was something he had longed for, ever since his grandfather died. Leo was nice, but so far there had been no warm affection. Expecting the usual light touch of lips to his forehead, he was surprised but not displeased when Leo's lips brushed his own. There were tears in his eyes when he looked up. His Grandpa had never kissed him like that, but he liked it just as much... perhaps even a bit more, it was so soft and... he couldn't explain the feeling. It was almost embarrassingly intimate. So personal. Anyone can kiss you on the cheek or the brow, but no one would kiss like that if they didn't mean it. His smile was beatific and his erection even harder than before.

'So, you thought I did alright out there?'

'You were wonderful. I thought you were really naked, even when you turned round. Because of the hair round the edges I couldn't tell till you came close. Can I have one of those little things too? I'd forgotten your body was so perfect... you're like one of those statues in that book we looked at. Hugh also thinks you're perfect.'

Leo grinned. 'Thanks. Yes I'll make you one, and that's nice of Hugh. I reckon he's pretty perfect too.'

'And I think what you did to your horrible teacher is perfect,' Hugh laughed. 'I wonder what she'll say when you get to school on Monday.'

'He's not going back there,' Leo announced flatly. 'That bitch nearly killed him; he had to have three stitches.'

'You could sue her.'

''No. Justice has been done. She's been pissed on in public and is probably shit scared that the damage to Mort's head is worse than it is. It's cost us nothing.'

'She killed Grandpa,' Mort said softly.

'No she didn't,' Leo replied just as softly. 'After she'd gone Shrude rang and told me all about it. He was amused more than anything-even felt sorry for her a bit, silly cow. He'd been planning on leaving us for some time. He was really very ill, you know.'

'Yes. He sort of warned me he was going to die. But I didn't realise he was going to do it himself. I'm glad he did. He told me about how terrible it is to be put into a nursing home and kept alive against your wishes.'

Leo's face suddenly lost its life. 'That's a possible future that terrifies me for Fystie. One day he's going to need more care than we can give him... but I don't want him to go to one of those places; stuck in a ward with dementia patients screaming and wetting themselves. Ever been to one of those death camps, Hugh?'

'No, and I don't intend to,' Hugh announced firmly, putting his arm around his friend's shoulders. 'That's your last shift for a few hours, come home with me for a meal.'

'I've got to drop Mort off at home first. Amy doesn't know about his brush with the teacher yet.'

'Can I go with you and Hugh?' Mort asked. 'And come back here afterwards to watch you. I don't like being home alone with Amy, she doesn't like me.'

'She doesn't like anyone much that I'm aware of,' Leo sighed. 'But Fystie would be pleased to see you.'

Mort reluctantly agreed when Hugh promised all four would go swimming the following weekend.

12 Family Life

Although he'd now lived with his foster parents for several months, Mort still couldn't work out why they'd married. They seemed even less suited to each other than his grandparents had been before the cops pushed her. Amy and Leo almost never spoke to each other, and then only in the most general terms. Leo was always pleasant and understanding to her and everyone else, but she never unwound enough to even smile.

Mort talked about everything with Leo, telling him about himself and his interests, secure in the knowledge he wouldn't be ridiculed. Yet it didn't work the other way; there seemed to be an invisible shell around Leo. When asked a question he always answered pleasantly unless it was personal, when he would pretend not to hear and change topic. Increasingly, he seemed distracted, almost sad, and Mort had to control an urge to wrap his arms around him and give him the sort of hug his grandfather had given him. This would start Mort thinking about his Grandpa and he'd struggle not to cry, even though Leo had told him that if a man cries with genuine feeling it indicates a good character. More than anything Mort longed to have a relationship with Leo as uncomplicated and mutually supportive as he'd had with his grandfather.

Amy was very different. She was distant. Not interested in him, which he conceded was fair enough as it was Leo who had insisted on fostering him because of his friendship with Shrude. What was beginning to seriously concern him was Amy's lack of concern for Fystie. Her son was a great person, despite his crazy muscles and slack jaw and tongue that kept getting in the way when he talked. He was incredibly brave, but had recently been crying silently sometimes because of the pain. His hands kept bending at the wrists and sometimes his feet started to point like a dancer. He could still walk-usually, but his body sometimes twisted alarmingly and someone always had to stay close to stop him falling.

Amy would never walk with him, she'd just plonk him into his wheelchair, strap him in and tell him to push himself around and keep out of her way. But his muscles often wouldn't obey him and he didn't get very far. When the pain got so bad he could hardly breathe she'd give him strong painkillers and a sleeping pill, so he became dopey. Leo got angry when she did that and they'd shout about it, but he wasn't home all the time.

Mort hated it when they shouted. All he wanted was a home like in a story he'd read. Warm and peaceful and loving. Never any arguments. Like he'd had with his grandfather. He determined to have a home like that when he grew up, and nothing would stop him. And if he married it would be with someone he loved until death and who loved him the same, no matter what he did.

Amy's increasing distaste for her constantly active, irritatingly even tempered and, as she unfairly put it, exhibitionist husband, added to their marital strain along with the worry of how to cope with their disabled son. Shortly before Mort arrived to occupy the third bedroom, she had used the excuse of Leo's erratic hours and Fystie's special needs, to move out of their bedroom and double bed, taking Fystie' slightly smaller, but much quieter and more pleasant bedroom at the rear of the house. Fystie's large barred cot, which prevented him from falling out of bed as he slept, had been placed next to Leo's double bed. There wasn't a lot of room left.

13 Fystie

Cerebral palsy: cause unclear but it probably happens in the womb or during birth when something such as infection or lack of oxygen damages the infant's nervous system. Boys, premature or low weight babies, and twins have the highest risk of this terrible affliction in which conflicting signals are sent to the muscles. Instead of one muscle contracting and its opposite number relaxing, enabling a joint to flex correctly, both muscles might contract or relax at the same time, causing a spastic reaction; opening a hand instead of keeping it closed so things drop; making legs and arms jerk uncontrollably; causing the tongue, which is almost pure muscle, to behave erratically preventing speech. As if this isn't bad enough, muscles can continuously contract, pulling the body and limbs out of shape, twisting the spine, crippling the legs, forcing the feet to point down making walking difficult or impossible, or the hands to bend painfully towards the wrist preventing useful manual activity; even feeding oneself.

Some sufferers get off relatively lightly and can live more or less normal lives with assistance and a few aids, with little change in their condition over the years. Fystie wasn't one of them. His muscle spasticity increased as he grew, and became increasingly painful. At times he turned dreadfully pale and sweat poured from every pore as he strove to blank out the agony until it passed. Almost never did a sound escape him even during the worst episodes, but he couldn't conceal the physical effects that left him exhausted. He never complained, and understood and forgave strangers who made jokes about his deformed body, incomprehensible speech and jerky movements. He blamed no one, least of all his mother.

He was an intelligent lad who was reading by the time he was four, and could hold his own in argument and conversation with a witty turn of phrase and sharp observations. Sadly, few discovered this side of the boy, being too embarrassed to look at his slack jaw, lips drawn back with effort, spittle drenched teeth and clumsy tongue while he struggled manfully to communicate.

Leo invariably understood the sense, if not every word his son uttered, and always let him finish his thoughts no matter how long they took to express. Amy was impatient and never let him finish, always interrupting and saying what she imagined Fystie wanted to say-which was what she would have said in the circumstances and bore no relation to the multitude of intricate thoughts inhabiting her clever son's brain.

Fystie was eight when the full significance of his condition hit him. The knowledge that there was no hope of release from the prison of his deformed and uncontrollable body seemed to eat a great hole in his chest and belly. He couldn't eat, think or speak and remained withdrawn for several weeks. The boy who emerged from this agony of introspection was cool, determined and eerily calm. Every spare minute was spent on the Internet reading everything he could find about and around his condition, and he joined Internet groups formed by other CP sufferers, where he made several acquaintances whose lives seemed to be as bad as his. Most were many years older, and filled his head with ideas Leo hoped weren't too extreme.

When Mort arrived, Fystie had for the first time in his life a real friend, and Leo was relieved to once again hear the chortling laughter of his son. Mort scoured the local library and brought home whatever books Fystie asked for and they read them together, played board games, went exploring the local area, down to the drain, the small park and sometimes even as far as the beach.

There had been no educational centre for disabled children near where Leo and his family lived, so when it was time to go to school they moved to their present house near such a school. There, Fystie felt less of a monster but didn't find an intellectual equal, even among the staff who were caring but overworked with no time or desire to socialise with their pupils.

Amy's natural urges had allowed her to treat Fystie with love and care until he was three, but when he reached school age and she reluctantly accepted there was no cure, no hope of improvement and things might possibly get worse, the differences between her boy and those of her friends were too great to ignore.

Imagining they were being kind, her friends ignored Fystie's disability, but covertly exchanged glances and took care that their own progeny did not to get too close to the wide-mouthed, spittle-spraying, flailing-armed monstrosity. Such insensitivity sowed anger in Amy's bosom. Anger that mutated to distaste and loathing-not for her friends, but for the innocent child. When called on to bathe him, change his soiled underwear, even wipe away mucus and saliva, her distaste was so obvious Fystie shuddered and tried to withdraw when she came too close.

His wife's aversion to their son was distressing for Leo, but she was immune to all pleas for compassion. The boy should have been put down at birth and that was the end of the matter. If Leo wanted to sacrifice his life for a monster, that was his choice, but left to her the kid would be put into a home and forgotten about.

Mort had been a godsend. Nothing about Fystie's problems disturbed him. The first day they met they liked each other and decided to be friends for life. Although Fystie's condition had worsened somewhat since that promise, it didn't occur to Mort to behave differently. He calmly accepted the facts and got on with being the best friend he could. When Fystie's muscles gave him pain, Mort was ready with oil and a gentle massage, the benefits of which were perhaps more psychological than physical, but of benefit they surely were. The two boys had no secrets, enjoyed the same quirky jokes, and behaved as best friends should.

One night, shortly after he came to live with Leo and Amy, Mort was sleeping in Leo's bed because he was working late, when Fystie gave a cry of pain, his body contorting in agony. Mort climbed in beside him and hugged him tightly, preventing him from lashing out at the bed rails and damaging himself. Fystie eventually calmed and Mort removed his sweat and urine drenched pyjamas, carefully led him to the shower, getting in with him, then after drying them both, took his friend into his own bed, where Leo found him asleep in Mort's arms.

14 What To Do Now?

Amy was unusually cheerful when Mort arrived home with his bandaged head. Their favourite meals were prepared and ready in the fridge for them to microwave when they were hungry.

'You look very pretty,' Mort informed her diplomatically, while agreeing silently with his dead grandfather that too much lipstick and too few clothes were probably a sign of desperation. A car horn was the signal for her to peck Fystie on the cheek, take up her purse and leave.

Fystie, who was in his wheelchair in front of a blank computer screen, pulled a wry face. 'What brought that on?'

'No idea, but it's a welcome change.'

'Thank goodness you're home. My stupid hands are twitching too much to even turn this thing on, let alone press the right keys.'

Over their meal Mort told Fystie about pissing in his teacher's chair. Fystie nearly threw himself onto the floor in delight. Both laughed till tears ran.

'You'll have to come to my school now,' Fystie shouted.

'Can't, I have to be disabled.'

'I reckon not being able to hold your piss should count, and not suffering horrible teachers, and being stuck with me must rank as a very severe disability,' he grinned.

'And I must be a mental cripple if I sometimes sleep with a dribbling spastic kid.'

Fystie nearly choked on his tongue from laughter. 'You make it sound as if we have sex. Like in those videos we watched. Leo saw that last one in my downloads folder, just after you left for school.'

'Shit! What'd he say?'

Just that they didn't look very fit. And if that's all it took to be a porn actor he'd have a go himself.'

'He wasn't shocked?'

'Not at all, just told me they faked having all those orgasms in one session. In reality the film is shot over several days, and even the cum is often detergent they squeeze through a thin tube. I can't wait to have an orgasm. I wonder what it feels like. He says most kids don't have them till they're eleven or twelve.'

'Your cock gets stiff enough.'

'Look who's talking!'

'I think I nearly had one watching Leo at the Gymnasium this afternoon.'

'He's good eh?'

'Fantastic. Then Hugh kissed him on the lips for a long time, and then he kissed me too. My cocks getting stiff again thinking about it. You'll have to suck me off.'

'You can kiss my bum!'

Both boys rolled around giggling at ideas and images they barely comprehended, but which sounded adult and exciting.

'You know it mightn't be such a stupid idea,' Mort gasped when he could stop laughing.

'What? Kissing my bum or being a porn star?'

'Going to your school. You learn everything we do at ours, so I could do my schoolwork, then help them with you and the others at lunch times and after school.'

'You'd hate it. Not many of the kids are as handsome and attractive as me... most are either dumb or brain damaged. You can't have a conversation with them, all they want to do is play pathetic games.'

'Fystie!' Mort said in mock shock. 'You're an intellectual snob!'

''Fraid so.'

'And here I thought I was unique!'

They grinned at each other. Mort wiped snot and saliva from his friend's face and hands before playing a game of chess, moving Fystie's pieces for him, then they showered together so Mort could clean all the parts Fystie couldn't reach-which seemed to be increasing daily. As always when in the house alone, Mort slept in Leo's bed in case Fystie needed him.

On Sunday morning Hugh drove the four friends several kilometres along a dusty road to a farm belonging to one of his ex lovers with whom he'd remained on good terms. The sky was overcast, the air hot, the water in the stony waterhole cool and clear, and within a minute there was a pile of clothes on the bank and four naked males splashing, diving and swimming. Fystie was a different person in the water. Relieved of gravity's burden, his aches receded and he was able to pull himself through the supporting liquid, his deformed body unseen. Not that he felt embarrassed with these people, but when only his head was visible he could pretend the rest was like everybody else's.

Mort was a natural swimmer, having been taught by his grandfather. Diving off rocks, swimming between legs, disappearing from one place and surfacing in another while Fystie worried he'd drowned. They'd brought sandwiches and soft drinks, and after a quick meal Leo lifted Fystie carefully into his sling, slung it over his shoulders and, after climbing over the fence that protected the area around the swimming hole, they set off up hill in the hope of finding a view back down to the city.

The walk was neither beautiful nor uplifting. Cattle had eaten everything they could reach, leaving dead scrub, debarked trees, and great piles of shit that fed marsh flies that zoomed silently in for a meal. One with huge green eyes managed to take a bite from Leo's foreskin. Mosquitoes arrived baying for blood, and a pair of squawking parrots told them they had no business being there. They never got high enough to see anything interesting and the stench of a dead kangaroo sent them laughing and slapping their bodies back to the pool for another dip.

During supper that evening at Hugh's, they discussed the idea of Mort going to Fystie's school.

Hugh grinned in astonishment. 'You're an odd kid, that's for sure. Well, you can only ask.'

Leo shook his head. 'We'll have to be more subtle than that. I know the principal; she brings some kids to exercise in the pool at the gym. And one of her staff members belongs to my aerobics group. She's nice enough, but a stickler for rules. You'll have to make yourself indispensable, Mort, like I did at the gym. Take Fystie to school, then ask if you can stay for the day because you're changing schools and have nothing else to do. Make yourself useful so she asks you back, then after a couple of days if you still want to stay there, make your suggestion as if you've just thought of it.

15 School

Mort practised his spiel on Fystie during their short walk to school. 'Reckon she'll be convinced?'

'You're a born con man.'

'Thanks, and pushing you to school every day in this thing will make me as fit as Leo, so one day everyone will want to watch me dance naked like him.'

'You're already fit and he doesn't dance naked.'

'Almost. Have you seen his pouch?'

'I helped him make it.'

'Great! Then you can help him with the one he said he'd make for me. Here we are, which way do we go?'

Nerves had made Mort arrive very early, so the school was empty except for three teachers who could be seen through classroom windows. After parking Fystie in a sheltered area under trees next to seats and playground equipment, he helped him out of his chair, then went and knocked firmly at the door labelled "Administration".

'Come in.'

'Good morning, Mrs. Dominint, I'm Mortaumal, Fystie's foster brother. I've brought him to school because…'

'I hope nothing's happened to Leo?'

'No, he's fine. I…'

'Why didn't he bring him as usual, and why aren't you at school?'

Mort was already losing the thread of his carefully prepared presentation, so frowned in concentration. 'That's why I'm here. You see…'

'You're the young lad who micturated on Mrs. Pettit's chair! Aren't you?'


'Relieved himself. Piddled…' She pulled a face to conceal a smile.

'Yes, Miss, but…'

'I thought you'd been badly injured and were in hospital.'

'No, Miss, I only had three stitches. But you see…'

'Have you told the school you're not dying?' Mrs. Dominint had given up trying not to smile.

'No, Miss, you see I'm not going back there.'

'Why not? You'd be a hero.'

This was something Mort had not considered, however he valiantly chose to stick to his prepared spiel. 'Leo and I thought it would be better to spare Mrs. Pettie the embarrassment.'

'How noble. But I doubt that embarrassment is an emotion with which Mrs. Pettie has any familiarity, which is a pity as she would derive some benefit from it.'

Mort had no idea what the woman was talking about and was in danger of being totally sidetracked, so doggedly returned to script. 'The point is, Mrs. Dominint, I think it would be better if I found a new school, and while I'm searching I hoped I could spend the day here to be of assistance to Fystie and the other pupils.'

Mrs. Dominint held her tongue, while allowing her eyes to register disbelief.

Before despair at the apparent hopelessness of his mission overwhelmed him, Mort nervously ploughed on. 'I look after Fystie a lot of the time at home, you see, because Leo's so busy, and Amy is often at work or out. I feed him, shower and toilet him, we talk all the time and play chess, and go on the internet, and laugh and I put him to bed and massage him if he hurts too much and...' tears were welling in his earnest eyes and he had to stop and swallow. 'And he is my bestest friend and…' His throat seemed to close and he couldn't continue. He'd done his utmost, so took a deep breath, blew his nose and impatiently wiped his cheeks before looking manfully into the Principal's eyes; his grandfather having warned him not to trust men who won't look you in the eye.

'Can you really understand what Fystie is saying well enough to have a conversation?'

'Of course I can, he speaks as good as anyone. He's much cleverer than me, can even beat me at chess. And he makes me laugh all the time.'

'And you love him.' It was a statement, not a question, so Mort felt no embarrassment in agreeing.

'You'll have to go back to your old school because there's no other school handy, and even if there were, how would you find it if you're here all day? Do you realise that if you don't go to school Leo will be accused of being a bad parent and you'll be taken away from him.'

A freezing chill enveloped the boy. 'No!' he whispered with such intensity of feeling Mrs. Dominint shuddered. 'Leo is the nicest man in the world. I can't... they can't… I…'

Mort's thoughts churned. His plan wasn't working so he'd try the direct approach - one he'd have preferred anyway, only trying the other because Leo had suggested it. 'Well, Miss, if there's no other school, can I come to this one and at interval and lunchtime I can help you. And if the teachers are busy I can help other kids with their work and…' he ran out of ideas.

I'm sure you would be of great help to Fystie, but he's the only CP student. The rest have different problems.'

'What's CP?'

'Cerebral Palsy, what Fystie has. It's terrible for him, especially as he's so quick and intelligent. This is not the ideal environment for him, but at least here he doesn't get laughed at like he did at his previous school.' Mrs. Dominint shook her head sadly.

'What's wrong with the other kids?'

'Oh, a range of difficulties, mental as well as physical. Two boys spend most of their time in wheelchairs, unable to move even as well as Fystie, the rest of the pupils are reasonably active. All have learning difficulties, but we love them and do our best to make their lives happy and productive.'

'I could help them play games and stuff too.'

'It's a tempting offer, Mortaumal, but we don't have time to spend teaching one person.'

'You wouldn't have to teach me, just give me the exercises and I'll work out how to do them with Fystie, and Leo can help me at home and I'll be no trouble, you can teach me when you teach the other kids. I'll…'

'Won't you miss your friends at the main school?'

'I don't have any friends except Fystie. I've never had any. Only Grandpa and Leo. Other kids don't like me much. They bully me because I'm a bit small and they reckon I've got yellow skin, but I haven't, have I?'

'No, you have a light tan and look extremely fit and healthy. What do Amy and Leo think about this idea? '

'Amy isn't interested, and Leo thinks it's a good idea. He doesn't want me to go back to that school, and hopes that if I'm here I'll be able to make Fystie happier, because although he laughs a lot he isn't really happy. He's worried all the time when I'm not there. And he's sometimes in pain and...'

The interview was out of his control. Mort realised he had three options: give up, burst into tears and plead, or try to reason with the woman. Fighting back despair he asked as reasonably as he could manage, 'Please, Miss, can you enrol and teach me here just for a while and see if it works? I'll work very hard, do anything you want. Look after some of the kids at lunchtime and after school?'

'I wouldn't have to enrol you. Because although we're several kilometres from your old school, we're run by the same administration, and have the same principal. But I can't make a decision like this on my own; there are three other teachers who must be consulted, as they will be affected.'

'Can you ask them now? It's still early. Please?'

'If you look out the window, you will see cars arriving bringing pupils. Their parents usually want to speak to me, and the other teachers are busy from now until lunchtime. Go and spend the morning with Fystie and the others and see what it's like, then come back here at lunchtime and we'll discuss it with the other staff members. However, you must promise to abide by their decision and not argue or keep pestering us.'

Mort's relief was visible. He smiled and promised that if they didn't want him he'd go back to Mrs. Pettie.'

Mort enjoyed the morning. No one told him he was a yellow skinned runt, shoved him around or made him feel stupid. When he crossed paths with the adults they smiled pleasantly. There were twenty-two pupils, ranging in age from five to seventeen. Fystie introduced him to everyone as his brother and they played with a ball until the chimes sounded to go inside. He then wandered around looking at what everyone was doing, showing interest, admiring, and on two occasions holding something while it was being glued.

At interval, Mort had fun playing ball with Fystie and a girl with a very narrow face and prominent teeth who, when she had the ball, instead of throwing it at one of them, would suddenly swing around and throw it in the opposite direction and then look surprised. No one minded. No one laughed at Fystie for his funny walk or incomprehensible speech; indeed, several children listened to him politely as if they understood. A fat little boy held Mort's hand and smelled his fingers. A larger lad told him a story about a fish, and when they were all inside again with everyone concentrating on different tasks in more or less silence, he felt sure he would be happier here than in the aggressive, competitive atmosphere of the main school.

During interval Mrs. Dominint explained Mortaumal's request to the other three teachers; Miss Glee, a round and jolly bottle-blond in a flowered sun frock; Mrs. Kind, grey haired, lean, serious with a tight mouth and straight back, wearing a grey trouser suit; and Mr. Brawn, tall, powerfully built with a barrel chest, powerful calves. A floppy T-shirt, tartan knee length shorts and canvass boat shoes gave a sporty look, and a shaven head rendered his large round face more jolly than threatening. He confessed to thirty, but the women suspected forty was nearer the mark.

'Mortaumal Aywun…' he said with a thoughtful frown. 'The name rings a bell. How come he arrived here on his own? And why's he living with Fystie's family?'

'He was living with his grandparents, you must have heard of the Aywuns, market gardeners. Refugees from somewhere in South East Asia... Laos I think... or could have been Cambodia… somewhere there. His grandmother suffered brain damage. Some say the police beat her and others say the husband did it. Whatever the truth, she's now gaga in a nursing home and the Grandfather died about a year ago.'

'Where's his mother?'

'No one knows.'

'Aywun,' Miss Glee said with a frown. I went to school with Perdita Aywun. I wonder if it was her? She was a strange little thing. Not bad looking but no one liked her. Rumour had it she'd go with boys to the tin shed behind the supermarket and... you know, do it.'

'Have intercourse, do you mean?' Mrs. Dominint sounded irritated.

'Yeah. It's silly how difficult it is to say that.'

'Not silly, criminal. The refusal of adults to speak openly, frankly and truthfully to children about sex is the cause of a great deal of misery.'

'What happened to her?'

'She got herself pregnant and left school.'

'She didn't get herself pregnant, virgin births are a myth.'

'You know what I mean.'

'Yes, blame the girls.'

'Sorry. According to gossip, she gave birth in the hospital and the next morning took off. Not been heard of since... although I suppose she contacted her parents otherwise the cops would have been advertising.'

'Not necessarily, thousands of teenagers run away from home every year, and many aren't reported. Most come home after a while. The cops stay out of it unless there's a public scandal.'

'That means Mortaumal could be…'

'Anything could be,' Mrs. Dominint said with a sigh, 'but it's not our business. You now know everything I know. Mortaumal will repeat everything to you at lunchtime, and then you can decide what to do. Has he been a nuisance so far?'

'The opposite,' Mr. Brawn said firmly. 'He got Augustus, who hasn't uttered a word for weeks, to laugh and talk about the drawing he's been engaged with for the last week; made me feel a tad superfluous.'

Mrs. Dominint sniffed as if she agreed.

At lunchtime, Mort knocked nervously on Mrs. Dominint's office door. She handed him a biscuit and a cup of weak tea that he managed to spill as he sat down. The teachers came in, smiled at him and sat in the three remaining chairs. Mrs. Dominint, in the chair behind her desk, formally introduced Mortaumal, then asked him to tell the teachers exactly what he'd told her, including how he cared for Fystie.

When he'd finished and answered their questions, the principal sat back in her chair in silence, as if determined not to influence her staff.

Miss Glee turned to Mort and smiled. 'Wouldn't you sooner be playing cops and robbers and computer games with children in the other school instead of worrying about disadvantaged children?'

'I don't worry about them, Miss Glee,' Mort replied thoughtfully. 'Fystie is my friend, so it's fun to do things with him, and I didn't like being at the other school, and I hate Mrs. Pettie, so this can only be better.'

'Goodness, an honest young man,' Mr. Brawn laughed. He had a warm, gentle voice that made Mort smile with him.

'Please don't take offence, Mortaumal,' Mrs. Kind said slowly, but I can't help wondering if you're a little too young for such a responsibility.'

'A few years ago,' Mrs. Dominint interrupted before Mort could respond, 'I was on a teacher exchange program to a school in rural India. Two years before I arrived, the village had no school, so a nine year-old boy wrote letters to officials, collected signatures from the locals, raised money from a few large businesses, organised textbooks and interviewed a young teacher. He also found a suitable room for the classes, organised the rent and cleaning, and kept the accounts. Mortaumal is eleven years old and has proven himself responsible. We render our children infantile by not trusting them to take responsibility, by not being honest about our aims and opinions, and by thus forcing them to be dependent instead of self sufficient.'

Mr. Brawn nodded his head vigorously. 'I agree with you Angelica. I'll be very happy with any assistance you can give me, Mortaumal. I've not been able to get close to Fystie, nor understand much of what he says, so already you've proven yourself useful. And I'm sure you'll soon get the trust of the other boys.'

'I'm for it,' Miss Glee announced decisively. 'It'll be no trouble to set you work at your level and check it.'

Mrs. Kind added her approval and asked Mrs. Dominint's opinion.

'I think Mortaumal could be quite an asset to us,' she said carefully. 'So I'd like to enrol him as a pupil/assistant for a trial period.'

Mort's eyes shone. 'I won't let you down.'

'If you do, I'll send you back to Mrs. Pettie,' she said with mock seriousness, and the others laughed. 'But I still have to get the permission of the Principal.' She picked up the phone, made her request, listened, smiled and replaced the receiver.

'You can stay here as long as I find you useful, but we must have a letter from your foster father confirming his permission.'

'Thanks, Mrs. Dominint, you're a good persuader.'

'Not especially, they were as relieved to be shot of you as you were to leave them. So everyone's satisfied.' Her eyes crinkled in what Mort assumed was a smile, and he relaxed for the first time that day.

16 School Work

Mort was perfectly happy to be the only student in his class. Two desks were set up in a small store room for Fystie and him, teachers set them tasks, explained what to do, then left them to it; correcting and setting new tasks when they were ready. As Mort had always suspected, ten minutes of undivided attention from the teacher was worth an hour of general instruction, and in two hours he could do what took five hours in a classroom. Here he was able to continue a task till its completion instead of constantly changing subjects every twenty minutes, and this suited his temperament. Fystie also was thrilled to be doing things other than reading and playing easy games. In his free time Mort played with the other students, helped them with their exercises and puzzles, read them stories and made himself so useful the teachers sometimes wondered how they'd managed without him.

He was especially useful on the days they went to the pool for physiotherapy and swimming. On the bus he was indefatigable in seeing to seat belts, checking no one was missing, and that everyone knew where to go and what to do. In the pool he was another eye to ensure there were no accidents. It seemed there was not an officious bone in his body. He always spoke to the other students as equals, never as if they wouldn't understand, always treating everything, even problems and accidents as an adventure, and at the slightest suggestion of opposition by the pupils to anything he might say or do, he backed away, apologised, listened to objections and allowed them to feel they were in charge, if not of their own destiny, at least of the things they were capable of having some control over.

Once a week there was a formal staff meeting. Mort was invited to the last ten minutes when problems specific to individual pupils were discussed. At the third meeting he was asked for his impressions of the school and if he had any suggestions. Mrs. Dominint had prepared him for the question in advance so his response would be well thought out. Unselfconsciously unaware of the honour, and with seriousness worthy of a statesman, he said he loved how peaceful it was, and how the teachers were always patient and good tempered. The schoolwork, activities and games all met with his approval. The only thing he thought could be changed was the way the teachers sometimes spoke to the students.' He paused, wondering if he should continue.

'Well? Don't leave us up in the air,' Mrs. Kind grunted benignly, 'sock it to us like a man.'

Mort laughed. He'd been relieved to discover that Mrs. Kind's severe appearance wasn't a reflection of her character; she made jokes, laughed and played harmless tricks on her pupils. He liked her, but something kept him slightly wary.

'It's just that sometimes when you and Miss Glee think you're being nice, you talk to the kids as if they're not all there... unable to understand. They probably don't understand some of the words, but they know you don't speak to each other like that, and probably wouldn't talk to kids in the other school as if they were babies. They know you're not trying to hurt their feelings, but they can't help being a bit hurt. Does that make sense?'

'Perfectly. Have they told you this?' Miss Glee said without her usual easy smile.

'No, I just noticed the way they looked. Please don't take offence, Mrs. Kind,' he said with a nervous smile, 'but the other day you chucked Alistair under the chin, and squeezed his cheek as if he was a baby, and said "Come on Alistair, be a good boy for me," and you sounded as if you were talking to an infant. He knew and I knew you meant no harm, but he's fifteen and I could see his embarrassment in front of the others, so I asked him what the trouble was and he told me.'

'I fear we're all guilty of that sort of thing from time to time,' Mrs. Dominint muttered, then sniffed slightly. 'Thanks for pointing it out.'

'Mr. Brawn doesn't do that.' Mort turned to him. 'But you sometimes sort of back them into a corner. Like, if they do something to annoy someone, you insist they apologise immediately and that makes them stubborn. But they think a bit slower than you, so if you'd just point out their fault and the consequences, then let them think for a bit, they'd usually decide for themselves to make things good. They get pushed around all the time because most people imagine they're too dumb to think. I reckon they need to feel as if they're the ones making decisions about what they do.' He looked down and blushed.

'Mort, you're a genius. Of course you're right. I'll work on myself. Thanks!'

Mrs. Dominint frowned. She was wary of people who accepted criticism too easily; in her opinion it indicated a weak character. 'What about me?' she asked with a slightly supercilious smile. 'How can I improve myself?'

Mort blushed and a little voice in his head told him to be careful. His confidence evaporated. 'Nothing Miss. You're perfect.'

'Mortaumal,' she said with mock severity. 'I can tell there's something you'd like to say, so out with it. I promise not to take it badly.'

'It's nothing to do with the way you act; that's great. You're calm and never get cross, yet you're always the boss. Everyone respects you and... it's just that…'

'Yes?' The head teacher's smile was uncertain.

'Well… you're not young, because you've got lots of wrinkles, yet I think you try to look young. Your hair is long like Miss Glee wears it, but it makes you look old. Mrs. Kind is also old but just has it short and easy so it doesn't blow in her face and she's not always pushing it out of her eyes, so you don't notice it. And sometimes your perfume's a bit too strong…' Mort stopped and wished he could suddenly disappear.

'Out of the mouths of babes,' Mrs. Dominint said in a soft voice that was not completely reassuring. 'Thank you, Mortaumal. Do you know, I think my husband was trying to tell me exactly that two nights ago when we went to a concert. He asked me if I'd ever thought of wearing my hair up, and to be careful to check that no one suffered from asthma before I entered a room. I've got the message. My husband will be delighted.' with a visible effort she smiled at Mort's anguished face. 'You're a sensible young man, Mortaumal, may you always tell the truth-and never suffer the consequences.'

He wondered why it felt like a threat.

School went on as before, although Mort had the impression the female teachers were not so easy and friendly as when he first started. He put it down to how busy they always were. It rained for several days, the pupils were kept indoors, and in desperation, Miss Glee, who was a regular at Leo's jazzercise classes, joked that they should ask Mort's stepfather to come and give a the kids lesson. Mr Brawn reckoned Mort should be able to fill the bill, being so fit, and Mrs. Dominint said it seemed an excellent idea. Mort said he'd try, but modesty forced him to say he didn't think he'd be any good. When they insisted he said he'd ask Leo for ideas.

'And you'll have to wear the same sort of costume as Leo!' Miss Glee said firmly, describing in detail how sexy he looked. 'It'll be great for the pupils to see something different, and easier for Mort to perform if he doesn't look the same as he usually does.'

Mrs. Dominint raised an eyebrow. 'Do you think it would be appropriate for one of the pupils to dance around naked?'

'He doesn't take the classes naked!' Mort said as if talking to a silly child. 'He wears a small thong. He says it's easier for the class to see exactly how to make the moves if his body's not all covered up. That's why Hugh, my self defence teacher, wears a speedo during training-we all do, and it's great.

'I can't see any problem,' Mrs. Kind said with a slow smile. 'It'll do them good to see what a healthy body looks like.'

'Mr. Brawn? What's your opinion?'

'Whatever Mortaumal's chooses to wear is fine with me. The exercises will be very useful for the kids who seldom get enough, and it sounds fun. If they like it it'll be a good way to make them fitter. We can have daily sessions. Several of the students are worryingly overweight, and most parents don't seem to care.' He turned bland eyes to Miss Glee. 'What do you wear at those jazzercise sessions, Marian?'

'Miss Glee blushed. 'A thong and bra. Loads of people wear thongs, guys as well as girls. Bare bums everywhere. But it feels great; totally liberating to be jumping around almost naked…' She stopped and laughed wildly. 'Oops, sorry Mort, I forgot you were there, Am I raving?'

''Yes dear,' Mrs. Dominint said with a tight smile. 'But that's part of your charm. So, Mortaumal, wear what you like, as long as you are completely comfortable! There is nothing worse than a performer who looks embarrassed, he makes the audience feel embarrassed and unable to enjoy anything.'

'I wont be embarrassed about what I wear, I will be embarrassed if I make a mess of the exercises.'

'You won't, because that's not your character. So, can you start tomorrow? We could have a session just before lunch and see how it goes. Don't take too much trouble, they all know you and won't be critical.'

Mort's eyes widened. 'Tomorrow? I'll do my best, but I haven't prepared anything and…' He looked up with a grin. 'Yeah, no worries, Mrs. D.'

17 Mr. Brawn on Women

During the afternoon, Mr. Brawn came to check Mort's work, drawing up a seat facing the two boys.

'Do you know many women, Mort?'

Mort frowned and thought. 'None, really.'

'Then I'll let you in on a secret. You might also find this useful, Fystie.' Mr. Brawn cleared his throat. 'There are five things to remember if you want to travel smoothly with a woman. One; they are always right, even if they're wrong, so you must never, ever argue with them. The clever one's will eventually realise they're wrong, the others aren't worth bothering about. Two; whatever goes wrong, it is not their fault; it is always the fault of the nearest male, who must apologise sincerely. Three; when speaking to a woman, every comment you make about her, other women, her work, her house, her garden... that isn't an obvious compliment will be taken as an insult that she will not forgive until the male has begged forgiveness. Most husbands have to ask their wives to forgive them at least five times a day if they want to live in peace. Four; women are not equal to men, they are superior to them in every way, and deserve to be treated as goddesses. Five; males were put on this earth to serve, protect and provide for females without expecting any appreciation. Males have no other function apart from providing sperm if the female wishes to breed.'

Both Mort and Fystie were staring wide eyed at their teacher, unsure if it was a joke or serious.

'You think I'm exaggerating?' he laughed 'Ok, perhaps slightly, but in essence I'm giving you good advice. Do you really want to dance around in front of those three women and the other kids with your bare bum hanging out and your cods barely covered?'

Mort blushed. 'Not really. I'd feel silly.'

'Good man. I may be a little unfair, but I can't help wondering if the three harpies are hoping you'll make a fool of yourself, to pay you back for your honesty when they asked you what you thought of them. By the way, Have you noticed the boss still wears her hair long and still makes all around her gag from a perfume overdose?'

Mort frowned. 'Yes. But why?'

'Because you broke rule one... Mrs. D is a woman and always right, even when she's wrong. And therefore you insulted her. It's too late to grovel for forgiveness, she'd pretend she had no idea what you're talking about and you'd insult her again by bringing it up. It's the same with the other two.'

'That's... that's... I don't know what to say, Mr. Brawn.

'Then don't say anything until you do know. And call me Todd, unless you want me to call you Mr. Aywun. I don't want to feel like a teacher with you. Ok?'


'Can you remember it all or shall I write it down?'

'Write it down, please.'

'Oh, innocent young man! That would make me a very, very foolish person! Remember this; never put anything in writing unless a clever lawyer has checked it. You can always deny saying something, or tell them you didn't mean what they thought you meant, but you can't deny the written word. Tell you what, come to my place and argue with me about it... I'd be interested to get your opinion. And don't worry, I'm not a woman so I'm prepared to accept I might be wrong.'

Both boys could hardly stop giggling.

'Needless to say, you must seal your lips. What I've been telling you is top secret for our ears only, you understand? That includes the invitation to visit me. okay?'

'Very okay. Where do you live?'

'Not far. I'll draw a map. Come and get it before you leave school. Talk to your father and see if you can't talk him into bringing you both for a visit; I'd like to meet him.' With a gigantic grin he left them to their work.

The sound of a car horn after the evening meal had Amy cheerfully bestowing quick kisses on her three males, telling them not to wait up before hurrying out the door.

'What gives, Dad?' Fystie asked. 'Mum's been cheerful for two weeks now and that's the third time this week she's gone out. Didn't get home till midnight last time.'

'Checking up on your mother? Not very patriotic.'

'That's not patriotism, that's…'

'I know, I'm just being silly. Before I answer your question, do you prefer your mother now that she prepares the meals cheerfully and keeps the house neat without complaining, or would you sooner she returned to her previous moods?'

'That's a no-brainer! I love her again now. What happened?'

'She has a lover.'



'Her boss from the supermarket. They sometimes go dancing or to the movies, but usually just go back to his place for sex.'

Another silence. 'They fuck... like in making babies?'

'The same. But there'll be no babies I imagine.'


'Because he will wear a condom and she will be on the pill.'

'No, I meant why does she want to have sex with him?'

'She's reasonably attractive and still almost youngish. Doesn't she deserve to be appreciated physically?'

'But you're her husband, isn't that your job?'

'Should be, but it turns out I married too young; before I'd sorted out what I really wanted. I'd listened to all the songs, read the romantic stories, watched all the movies about love and marriage and sex and thought that's what I wanted too... but that's not how I was made.'

'What do you mean? Don't you also want to be loved and admired?'

'Of course, and I am.'

'By who?'


'You mean you and Hugh are... you fuck and kiss and all that?

'Yes indeed.'


'So that's why you aren't jealous.'

'Right. Does it worry you?'

'No, I like Hugh, but…'


'Will Mum be leaving us to live with her boyfriend?'

'Probably not; and I'm not ready to commit to Hugh. But it's fun at the moment. Are you sure you're not shocked?'

'Of course not. I think it's great, don't you, Mort?'

Mort grinned. 'Yeah, Hugh's a lucky man. And you've good taste too, Leo. But we have to think about my debut as a jazzercise instructor. I need help! Do you really think I can do it? '

'Of course you can, it's an excellent idea, but I'm not sure about you wearing a pouch like mine. You're only eleven and people might think its a bit kinky.'

'Yeah, that's more or less what Todd said, didn't he Fystie?'

'Yeah. I reckon you'd look best in your speedo.'

'That's a relief.'

'Who's Todd?'

Mort repeated the little he could remember about Todd's ideas on women, and showed him the map and telephone number. 'Ring him now, Leo. I think he really wants to talk to you.'

'Why? What have you two done wrong?'

'Nothing. But he's nice and... I don't know. He just seems concerned about me.'

'Your wish is my command.'

He replaced the receiver. "Sounds a pleasant bloke. I said we'd pop round about five o'clock tomorrow. Ok?'

'Yeah, that'll be good. Now, what'll I do about this jazzercise thing? I'm getting nervous.'

'Good, it'll make you a better performer. Prepare your moves, practice until you've memorised them, then once you start the lesson your nerves will evaporate and you'll feel great. The question is, what exercises? You have to be careful, those kids are not fit, most have poor balance and easily get excited, their muscles are weak, their concentration span short. Most are overweight and we've no idea of the health of their hearts. You've also got to think of those in wheelchairs. Slow, careful movements that are so easy anyone could do them, but not obviously so. Give them time to think during the exercises, don't confuse them by moving on before they've mastered the move, and give praise every time it's done right-individual, not only group praise.'

'It's getting a bit complicated. I'll never be able to do it.'

'Of course you will. Come on, lets brainstorm and make a list, then you can practise on Fystie and me.'


''Use some self defence moves,' Fystie suggested.

'Yeah! That'll be easy. I know lots of easy stances that look impressive.'

'There's a sure fire way to make any lesson a success.'

'Make it interesting?'

'That's important, but there's a saying, "Nothing succeeds like success." If you ask them to do things that they will definitely succeed in doing, they'll come back for more. If they feel they've failed in any way, no matter how slight, they'll hate it. Every teacher who creates a sense of failure in their pupils should be shot.'

'Like Mrs. Pettie.'

'Exactly like her.'

Ten minutes later they had enough suitable, simple, easy movements for several sessions.

'Leo scanned the list and grunted approval. By the way, you've got to be careful of the image you project.'

'What do you mean?'

'If they suspect you're showing off, that'll be the end of you. Everyone hates a poser. Your job is to make each person feel they are the centre of the lesson, not you. When you praise you must be sincere. Never fake praise! Most people have a very good idea of their own abilities, so it's better to say nothing than give exaggerated praise.'

'I'll never remember everything. But I'd better start practising. Come on, line up.'

'What music are we going to have?' Fystie asked.

'Fystie, you're brilliant. I'd totally forgotten about that. What do you reckon, Leo?'

'Something slow and happy, not noisy pop that's designed to make people excited. I've a CD of Strauss waltzes that'll be ideal.'

'And you can have my Ghetto Blaster,' Fystie offered.

Half an hour later Mort was so confident in the exercises and his ability to demonstrate them, that he lost no sleep.

Twenty minutes before lunch Mrs. Kind helped Fystie set up his portable CD player; Mr. Brawn cleared the largest room; Miss Glee supervised footwear and excess clothing removal, and Mrs. Dominint told them Mort was going to lead them in a jazzercise class just like the one's his stepfather took in the town gymnasium where Miss Glee went. The atmosphere became tense with excitement.

The softly soothing strains of The Blue Danube introduced a self conscious Mort as he stood on a solid low table so everyone could see him, grinned nervously and accepted cheers and claps and shouts of laughing excitement with a modest bow. He raised his hands. His class grew silent in expectation. Fystie nodded in support. Mr. Brawn winked encouragement. The women stood behind everyone with their arms folded, faces stern, ready for trouble.

'If you copy exactly what I do, you will become, handsome, healthy, beautiful and sexy.' Mort's grin was infectious and they laughed again excitedly, wanting to believe him, determined to enjoy themselves, thus ensuring they would. The music swelled, drowning their consciousness of self, and...

Success is too feeble a word to describe what happened. Everyone concentrated with all their being. They copied faithfully every move, expression, and flick of the hand. Moves were repeated until everyone could manage them, and as repetition is half the fun of exercise, that was perfect too. For a few minutes Mort became a hero to be followed, admired and emulated.

The female teachers didn't mention the speedo, nor were they particularly fulsome in praise. Nevertheless a ten-minute jazzercise class was added to the daily program.