By Rigby Taylor

1 Fidel

Fidel was scared. Shit scared. He felt like throwing up and probably would have if he'd had any breakfast. He had to stop thinking about what he was doing or he'd chicken out. His whole life had been one long worry that he'd done something wrong and would be punished, but this was sharper, more urgent, more exciting too if he could only stop thinking about all the possible consequences. Taking a deep breath he shouldered the backpack he'd concealed in a corner for the last three weeks, let himself out of the shed, crossed the back lawn and tapped on his brother's open window.

Hylas appeared, rubbing at sleepy eyes. 'Fidel! What's the matter?'

'I'm off.'

'Now? But you…'

'Shhh! You'll wake Mum. I just wanted to say goodbye and tell you I love you.'

'Where are you going? I love you too! Will you write?'

'Brisbane. Of course I'll write. Don't tell Mum anything. Pretend to be surprised I've gone.' With a cheery wave that even Hylas knew was fake, Fidel adjusted his pack and ran off before his courage ran out.

Twenty minutes later he was sticking out his thumb on the David Low Way. Almost immediately an elderly couple in a battered Toyota stopped and demanded to know his age, where he was going and why. He said he was sixteen and was going to visit his grandmother in Mooloolaba. Shaking their heads in suspicious concern they remarked tersely that he was small for his age and didn't look much more than fourteen.

Fidel's sad eyes pleaded.

'Get in then. If we don't take you some monster will.'

Vistas of twinkling blue sea, sand hills and sunny skies flashed by unseen during thirty minutes of well-meaning but dire prophesies about the abduction, rape and murder that awaited Fidel if he persisted in trusting strangers in this day and age. It was different when they were young - everyone was honest and reliable and young people were safe and…

Predictably perhaps, their predictions of impending doom calmed Fidel's nerves. Old people were always exaggerating - it couldn't be that bad. When they let him out he thanked them profusely, waved them on their way, jogged to the motorway entrance and grinned his relief at a road sign informing him he was already forty-seven kilometres away from his former life. With new confidence, he again stuck out his thumb and smiled encouragingly at every passing driver.

Half an hour later, confidence was being edged out by images of abduction, rape and torture. Bravely, he thrust such febrile imaginings from his head, reasoning that although he looked younger than his years, he wasn't pretty enough to attract predators. As if to reward his courage, half a minute later a yellow sports car stopped beside him. He clambered in, smiling gratefully at the middle-aged, solid man in a cream linen suit and full black beard who took off with such speed the tyres screeched and Fidel was thrust back into his seat without time to attach the seatbelt. In mounting panic he clung to the dashboard as the car zipped out into the traffic, zigzagging between other cars at top speed, the driver's elbow on the windowsill, his fingers barely touching the steering wheel, eyes half closed as if he wasn't concentrating.

Fidel didn't dare speak in case he distracted the man and caused a fatal accident, so he was hugely relieved when ten minutes later they pulled into a lay-by and parked behind a low screen of banksias.

'What the fuck do you think you're doing?' the driver growled angrily.

'What do you mean?'

'How old are you?'


'Crap! Fourteen.'

'I'm fifteen. I know I'm a bit small for my age but I'm strong and Dad says he was also small but he's nearly two metres now.'

'Who knows where you are?'

As the implications of this sank in, Fidel's heart pounded. He stared at his abductor in horror.

'No one knows,' the driver sneered. 'No one saw me pick you up. No one can see us now because I concealed the car behind those shrubs.'

A tiny, 'Yes.'

'Are you as strong as me?'


'So I could easily tie you up, rip your clothes off, fuck you stupid and then strangle you before dumping your body in a hole.'

A whispered 'Yes.'

'Don't you like living?'

'I… I'm sorry. I thought…'

'Young man, you did not think at all! You've ended up on your own, parked in the middle of nowhere with someone three times as strong as you. What, apart from screaming, could you do if I decided to do all those things I mentioned?'

Fidel's eyes were swimming. 'Nothing, sir. I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean...' he hung his head in shame.

The driver put the car in gear and drove angrily onto the motorway. 'How many lives have you got?'

Fidel frowned in surprise. 'One, sir.'

'Exactly! You have one life that starts the moment you are born and just goes on and on relentlessly till you die. It isn't like a play you can rehearse until you get it right. You get it right first time or live with the consequences. There's no back button to start over.' He looked across at a very wilted young man and his face softened. 'Okay, end of lesson. Look out the window and let's see how many things you can name and describe in two words.'

Fidel concentrated hard, naming everything that caught his eye, labelling it ugly, beautiful, interesting, messy, tall, huge, unpainted… it was an interesting exercise, relieved his sense of stupidity, and the next hour passed swiftly until they took an off ramp and stopped.

'That was very good, you're a keen observer,' the driver said with a smile. 'I'm sorry I have to let you out here, but I'm running short of time and need to use the bypass. The city's straight ahead and there are loads of busses.' He held out his hand, which Fidel took and shook warmly.


'Yes,' Fidel breathed in gratitude, feeling slightly sad and very much alone as the little yellow car sped away.

The city towers looked deceptively close so it was dispiriting to discover he was still twenty kilometres from the centre. Manfully he trudged along the noisy, smelly, dangerous road, wondering if there was another, quieter route, but determined never again to accept a lift from strangers, when an elderly woman in a newish sedan stopped and with a motherly smile asked where he was going. Fidel looked carefully at the pleasant, grey haired woman wearing no makeup, and decided if he couldn't trust a woman who was contented with her natural appearance, then he could never trust anyone again. She was heading through the centre of Brisbane and could drop him off wherever he wanted. With profound relief he jumped in and learned about her grand children, her charity work, palliative care, and her husband's dementia.

To allay her obvious concern for his wellbeing, Fidel proudly confided he had fifty dollars for emergencies in case the grandmother, whom he was now almost believing in, wasn't at home.

Suddenly the elderly lady pointed to the dashboard. 'Oh dear. I'm almost out of petrol.' She pulled into the next Service Station and asked Fidel to put fifty dollars worth of petrol into the tank. When he came to her window for the money, she was searching in her purse.

'I can't believe how stupid I am! I've come out without any cash.' She pulled out a credit card and pointed down the road. 'Look, there's a cash machine along there in front of that bank. You go and pay for me, then we'll drive down and I'll take out the money and repay you.'

Her smile was so disarming, so honest, that without the slightest twinge of doubt Fidel ran in to pay, proud to be able to assist this nice kind lady. When he came out the car was gone. His heart stopped, then rallied. She must have driven down to the cash machine and would be waiting for him. Fear clutching at his chest and belly he sprinted towards it. 'Please, please, please let her be there. Please don't let her be a thief. Please…'

Heartfelt whispers were in vain. Iced water settled in his stomach and cold crept to the tips of his fingers. She had stolen his money. All the money he had in the world. What could he do? He'd never had a bank account. It had taken him nearly a year to save even that fifty. He could scarcely breathe. What to do? Tell a policeman? Hardly. They'd ask his age and send him home. The thought of that put firmness in his step. He'd think of something, and with a heart heavier than he could ever have imagined, set off towards the city centre.

Traffic became denser; a bridge led him over rail lines and other roads. Tunnels belched endless cars onto already crowded, smelly, noisy streets. An hour later he was walking down a relatively quiet road towards what looked like an important shopping centre. His feet were sore, his enthusiasm for adventure gone. Physically and mentally exhausted he sat on a bench under a couple of small trees near a drinking fountain and ate his biscuits. After a long drink of water he gazed around. Behind him was a sex shop advertising twenty-four hour videos, massage and a sauna. He felt scruffy and tucked in his shirt. Maybe he'd just sit for a while, he rationalised. He had no money and nowhere to go, so what was the rush? If he had an instrument he could busk. But he couldn't even sing.

When his legs felt strong enough to carry him without wobbling, he wandered down to the shopping centre, scrutinising every window for notices offering work. There were none. He asked for directions to a Jobs Agency, but received impatient shrugs of ignorance. He went into shops and asked for work, but no one needed him. He was told to go back to school.

A panic attack had Fidel leaning against the wall of a shop. He slid down till he was sitting with his head resting on his knees, feet tucked well away from passing pedestrians who paid him not the slightest attention. Eventually, dismay at his situation was replaced by a deep loneliness that began eating holes in his soul. But then he remembered what had happened at home that morning and was glad he wasn't there. Even this was better than that.

He retreated to his bench and watched passers by. No one looked very rich, but they were all carrying parcels or eating or laughing. A woman approached on high heels. She looked smart. Perhaps she'd like him to carry her parcels. On impulse he stood and walked to meet her, smiling to show he meant no harm.

'Excuse me, madam, but someone stole my money and I was wondering if…'

'Fuck off or I'll call the police,' she snapped.

Crushed, Fidel returned to the bench to find a man had taken his place. He was large and solid; body and face both sort of shapeless. Probably about fifty, Fidel guessed. Clean but dull. Almost ugly with very little chin, loose lips, clear blue eyes and a red face. Rolled up sleeves exposed powerful hairy arms that ended in large hands with fingers like sausages. They looked immensely powerful.

He looked up as the youth approached, then slid sideways and patted the seat beside him. 'There's room for two,' he invited in a warm and friendly voice, exposing unattractively crossed and protruding front teeth in a shy smile. 'I've been watching you from my window over there,' pointing to the third floor of an apartment block on the far side of the road. 'Are you on the game?'

'Game? What game?' Fidel's innocence was evident.

'Sorry. I got it wrong. I saw you approach that bitch and assumed you needed money. You look a bit like the other boys your age who hang around here, mainly in the evenings hoping to…' he stopped, but whether from embarrassment or in order to invite a question wasn't clear.


'To find a buyer.'

'A buyer for what?'

This time the man was genuinely embarrassed. 'For their bodies. Lots of men find young bodies attractive and pay to spend time with them. They prefer boys because they don't make things complicated. Sex without emotional baggage; and their bodies are smoother and firmer than girls' and just as versatile.'

'And you thought I was one of them?'

'Only from a distance, now I realise you are far too innocent and fresh. Too nice, in fact. Those boys are tough. I guess they have to be, considering some of the people who buy them. I see a lot from my window. It makes me sad, but I know they'd sneer at me if I started just talking to them like this and showed any sympathy.'

'Why? You're nice.'

'But not rich and not handsome.'

Fidel hesitated before deciding to be truthful. 'Neither am I, but you have a lovely voice and you look very strong'

'Thanks for those kind words. As for you, you are handsome, but not conventionally. I think it's your eyes. They're alive, interested, and you want to be pleasant - to make people feel good - and that makes you handsome because as my mother used to say when I got depressed, handsome is as handsome does.'

'I'll remember that next time I'm depressed. Do you enjoy doing… things with the boys? How much do they charge?'

'I've never done it. It's a fantasy. I'm perfectly happy with my wife, but I keep remembering the first time we had sex. We were about the same age as you are now, with smooth, firm flesh. I've often thought it'd be nice to experience that youthful feeling once more. But if a middle-aged man even looks at a young woman he's labelled a sexual predator. And prostitutes are not what I want. And I figure it isn't worth the risk of my wife finding out if I tried a local boy; and like I said, up close they're not… nice and probably have diseases. Character is an important part of sexual attraction for me; not just youth and a pretty face. Anyway, there's no way I could afford a hundred bucks to be sucked off, or two or three for a screw. And that's not what I'd like to do anyway.' He uttered a slightly embarrassed chuckle. 'But why am I talking like this to you, a mere kid? You're the first person I've ever confided in - you must be a hypnotist.' He held out a giant paw. 'My name's Ted.'

They shook hands

'I'm Fidel. I expected you to crush my hand. But you're very gentle.'

'Not when I'm annoyed. But enough of me, what's your story?'

Fidel gazed into Ted's eyes and thought he saw genuine interest and even concern. But then he wondered if he only hoped he saw that. And then he thought he was thinking too much and should trust his instincts. But then he recalled the grey-haired woman. By then Ted had realised the kid had more problems than he'd guessed.

'It's okay,' he said softly, standing as if to go. 'I'm being nosy. You don't have to tell me anything. I'll leave you to it.'

'No!' Fidel blurted with more force than intended. 'I want to tell you.'

To his relief Ted resumed his seat, and in what seemed like a single breath Fidel told him about running away from a mother who had abused him his whole life; his misery at leaving his younger brother; the warnings of the old couple and the man in the sports car, the old woman who stole all his money, and his inability to think of what to do next.'

'You poor young bugger,' Ted said shaking his head. 'What a fucking bitch.' He reached into a pocket and produced a small purse. 'As it happens I have a fifty dollar note on me. I want you to have it.'

Fidel, who had noticed that it was the only money in the purse, drew back in alarm. 'No! I couldn't. There's no way I can repay you.'

'It's a gift for a brave young man who I like more than anyone I've met for ages.'

'I can't accept such a present from a total stranger. I'd feel…' Fidel's eyes lit. 'But what if I earned it?'


'You said you'd like to… just once to… do things with a young person.'

'Are you serious?'

Fidel's smile was brave and perhaps slightly excited and definitely more than a little nervous. 'Yeah. I'm serious. But you won't hurt me will you?'

'Never! And that's a promise.'

Upstairs in a small but pleasant and scrupulously neat apartment, Ted pulled the covers off the spare room bed and they stripped and stood facing each other - neither sure how to proceed.

'You look different without your clothes,' Fidel said seriously, forcing himself to lightly touch Ted's chest. 'I thought you'd be fat, but you're not, just solid. What do you do?'

'Until last month I was a construction worker - hard yakka but I loved it. The company went belly up so I'm out of work.'

'Like me.'

A slightly embarrassed pause; Ted wondering how to start; Fidel wondering what on earth had made him offer himself. He had to get it over with before he chickened out.

'You can touch me if you want.'

Tenderly, Ted ran hard yet smooth hands over Fidel's shoulders, down his arms, around his waist, over his buttocks, then drew him close. Fidel felt him harden and held his breath. Effortlessly, Ted lifted the youth and laid him gently on the bed, then followed, kneeling with his legs either side of the young man's hips. Fidel closed his eyes and tried to relax. He knew that if he looked up he'd be so repelled he'd run away. He wanted to earn his money honestly and didn't want to hurt Ted who was nice but couldn't help being old and ugly. The last person he would ever have considered doing this with.

Ted knew exactly what to do, having imagined it being done to himself for years. Mistaking Fidel's shudders, sighs, slight grunts and twitching for signs of pleasure, he massaged the firm young flesh from toes to feet to calves to thighs; his own arousal leaving no room for concern at his victim's lack of it.

'May I kiss you?'

Fidel's eyes opened in alarm, stared into the kindly eyes, felt pity for the nervous old man and nodded.

It was the lightest of touches, a mere brushing of lips that lasted but a moment before Ted sat back on his haunches pulled roughly at his cock and with a high-pitched expiration of breath, contracted all his muscles in a shuddering spasm that caused a tiny quantity of thick creamy stuff to ooze from the gigantic knob and trickle down over his fingers.

He stared at it as if surprised, then clambered off, still holding it. 'I'll just go and wash this off.' He turned at the door. 'I sweated a bit so you'd better shower. I'll get you something to eat.'

Dressed and clean, Fidel drank a large glass of milk while Ted opened the backpack, put the fifty dollar note in the inside pocket and wrapped a large slice of chocolate cake, a bread roll and two apples in paper before stuffing them in among the few clothes and other possessions.

Fidel was having difficulty looking brave.

'If I lived alone, I'd let you stay as long as you like, but my wife, although a wonderful woman, wouldn't understand. Do you know where you're going?'

Fidel shook his head. Unable to speak.

'Go to Roma Street Transport Centre and ask the Help Desk where the free refuge is for street kids.' He pointed out the window to the main road that led to the city centre. 'When you get to The Mall, ask directions. Okay?'

Ted held out his hand which Fidel shook manfully, then with a whispered, 'Thank you', ran down the stairs and away before he cried.

Ted had ten minutes in which to put the spare room back in order and wonder what had come over him, before his wife bustled back full of delight at her sister's problems. For once he was pleased she showed no interest in his day.

2 City Centre

It was getting dark by the time Fidel stopped at a small park. He didn't fancy going to some sort of doss house for street kids. From what he'd heard they were tough and took drugs and stuff. Perhaps there was a sheltered spot beneath a clump of trees and shrubs. But they were thin and surrounded a statue of Robbie Burns where a dozen or so guys and girls were lounging on the grass, smoking, drinking, laughing stupidly. A girl asked if he wanted a fuck, only eighty bucks. He smiled, shook his head and continued down to the Queen Street Mall where smart people were queuing for the cinema, eating in restaurants, laughing and enjoying themselves with friends. He hoped the ache in his chest was loneliness, not an incipient heart attack and asked the way to Roma Street.

Feeling conspicuous wearing a rucksack, he crossed to the bare area in front of the Town Hall where mainly white youths wandered aimlessly. Someone was playing a clarinet. He crossed a busy street to a grassy park in which more young people were sitting near a pond bordered by trees and rocks down which water tumbled like a real waterfall. There was a path leading up the hill through the trees. Surely he could find somewhere up there to curl up and rest, if not sleep. But as he moved towards it three police cars drove up, officers leaped out and started hitting the young people.

Everyone was shouting. It was too dark to see clearly and before Fidel could escape he was knocked to the ground, handcuffed, dragged to a wagon, thrust inside with a dozen other young people and driven to a watch house, where names were taken.

A tall, slender young man complained that the cops were racist. No one had been doing anything wrong. He was told to shut the fuck up and had his head slammed against a wall for his insolence. He dropped to the ground and lay moaning, blood dripping. A cop prodded him with his shoe and told him to shut the fuck up. No one dared assist him. Unable to bear it, Fidel shouted that he shouldn't be there because he'd just been walking past; he didn't even know these guys. A backhanded swipe broke his nose and he crumpled onto the concrete floor. In shock, he could only stare wide eyed as a large hand pulled him up by the hair and an acne-scarred face peered into his and said, 'You're not a fucking black cunt. Who the fuck brought his guy in?'

Fidel was bundled out, followed by his rucksack that he only just managed to prevent skidding across the pavement onto the road.

Having been told he'd be locked up for life if they saw him again, he ran for his life, nose a swelling bloody mess. With no idea where he was, he ran blindly, tripped, sprained his wrist trying to cushion the fall, gashed his knees on the concrete and lay sprawled in silent agony, head hanging over the edge of the gutter, unable to think of anything except the pain, the hopelessness, the sadness of… of everything.

A group of drunks staggered past, stepping over him.

It began to rain softly. Cars flashed past spraying dirty water, headlights briefly raking the still body as they carried their happy occupants back to warm and cosy homes.

Fidel's head cleared slightly. He knew he was wet, getting cold and lying on the footpath, but didn't want to move. 'I'll stay here until I die,' he thought without sadness. ' I hope it's soon.' And then he thought of Hylas and tears welled. But still he couldn't move. His head and wrist and nose ached so much it was hard to think about problems. It seemed easier to just lie still and try to remember everything in the hope of working out where he had gone wrong.

His first five years hadn't been too bad. His father had been home so his mother hadn't belted him around much - just an occasional thrashing with a length of plastic-coated wire and a few bruises on his legs, and a broken arm when she threw him down the steps, and some burns on the back of his hand when he didn't bring the ashtray quick enough. But then a baby arrived, so they needed more money and his father got a job as a fly-in-fly-out mine worker way out west, which meant he was away all week, sometimes longer, and so tired when he got home he had no time to listen to Fidel's problems as well as his wife's complaints.

Fidel adored his young brother, Hylas, and by the age of seven had taken over most duties usually performed by a mother. Not that this saved him. It seemed that the more he loved his brother and the more he did to help his mother, the angrier she became. Sometimes she was almost nice, then suddenly he'd be told he was a nasty, wicked little boy and be sent to his room without dinner. He never got used to feeling hungry; that was worse than being slapped around the head. If he accidentally banged the spoon on his teeth when eating he would be sent from the table, or denied dessert. After every meal he washed the dishes. If he made too much noise or she found a spot on a plate, he'd have his head plunged into the hot soapy water until he was sure he was going to drown. But the worst thing was when visitors came and she told them what a naughty, horrible boy he was. The shame almost overwhelmed him because he always tried so, so hard to be good.

Fidel's mother considered herself an honest woman who called a spade a spade, demanding that everyone take her as they found her; she wasn't going to pretend to be what she wasn't for anyone. The truth of that was never tested as she managed to never be found less than well groomed, or with her house in less than pristine order - thanks to Fidel. Her honesty extended to profligate generosity in sharing her opinions about everything from the behaviour of acquaintances' children to their hairstyles, figures, sloppy housekeeping or taste in clothing. The reluctance of others to return the favour was taken as approval. On the rare occasion when someone dared to point out one of her shortcomings, she would laugh contemptuously at their jealousy.

Well aware of her unpopularity, she insisted that popularity was proof of sycophantic bootlicking. This allowed her to despise those who were popular. 'Huh,' she would snort dismissively, 'I'd rather be unpopular than a greasy, crawling, smarmy, toady.' It was inevitable, therefore, that her son, a natural empathiser who made whoever he was with feel good about themselves, should bear the brunt of his mother's disdain. The more he tried to please her, the more vicious her response, justified by insisting that the world is a nasty place and her duty as his mother was to prepare him for the future, not mollycoddle him into a false sense of security. 'To survive you have to be tough,' she declared on more than one occasion, 'and that's what I'm determined he'll be!'

Fortunately for Fidel, the number of people who wanted to hit him for being too nice were outnumbered by those who liked - even loved his gentle determination to be decent at all costs. That he hadn't become a neurotic mess was due to his young brother, Hylas, who never tired of telling him he wasn't naughty, it was their mother who was. Despite the risk of punishment, Hylas would always secretly take food to his adored brother when he was sent to bed hungry.

Fidel never cried.

It was Hylas who cried when his mother attached one end of a four-metre leash to his brother and the other to the clothesline, then proceeded to hit him with a heavy stick as he ran desperately around in circles in a vain attempt to escape the blows; his mother laughing, his brother screaming at her to stop. When her arm tired she wandered inside, still laughing while Hylas desperately struggled to untie the knot and comfort his brother who was too exhausted to do anything except squat on the ground, bleeding, bruised and shuddering. But not crying.

Over the last two years as he grew older and stronger, physical punishments were replaced by snide, carefully worded insults intended to undermine his self esteem and confidence. She was on the point of succeeding in both regards when that very morning she overreached herself and triggered the rebellion that saved him.

Sprawled uncomfortably on the pavement, getting wetter and colder, the realisation that at least he wasn't at home caused Fidel to smile softly; his hurts temporarily forgotten. Perhaps he should just stay where he was. Uncomfortable, but happy - at least he'd never have to see his mother again. Happiness quickly turned to shame when he recalled his friend Tad, with whom he used to go to a private spot and with the innocent curiosity of youth, admire each other's erections, compare sizes and jerk off. One day it rained and as Fidel's mother would be at bingo, they went to his room. She returned early and caught them.

After slamming her fist into the side of her son's head, she shoved the terrified Tad out the door, tossing his clothes and schoolbag after him. Then in silence she gathered up all her son's clothes and meagre possessions, including his bed linen, carried it out to an aluminium garden shed and threw them in. 'This is your room now you evil, nasty, wicked little boy! Filth like you will never sleep in my house. And if I see you speaking to, touching or even looking at your brother, you perverted creep, I'll beat you within an inch of your life!'

Hylas - the only person Fidel loved in the world. The only thing that had made his life bearable. Fidel felt his life had ended. From then on he became an automaton, refusing to think, to feel, to question; kept going only by the thought that one day he would be old enough to run away. To this end he had procured a small rucksack and kept it stocked with spare clothes and biscuits.

When his father came home he was permitted to have a mattress, but no light. Every morning he filled a basin with cold water from the garden tap, took it into the shed and washed himself thoroughly. Apart from banishment to the shed for sleeping, life continued much as before; he still had to clean the house and do the dishes. When he started high school he was allowed to sit at the dining room table to do his homework, and if his father was home, watch television. At school he learned to use computers, joined an Internet after school club, and usually managed to anticipate his mothers moods, escaping to the shed when danger loomed, where his father had finally rigged up electricity so he could read in an atmosphere that was almost cosy with pictures on the walls cut from magazines.

Imperceptibly, this life began to seem normal. It was cold sleeping in the shed, but he was young and fit and didn't suffer unduly. His mother got a job, so after school he and Hylas secretly took up where they left off, making sure they were never together when their mother returned.

Unfortunately, she didn't enjoy working in a factory, and when at home returned to taking out her frustrations on her son - muttering while he worked that he was a useless, ugly wretch, a perverted queer fit for the gallows, enumerating the dreadful things she would to do to him if she was certain of not getting caught. Despite the nightmares this triggered, Fidel refused to let her see how much he was affected, which was perhaps a pity. Like all torturers she needed a reaction and the lack only encouraged her to redouble her efforts. People like that don't admire fortitude, bravery, decency, goodness… these are things they smash to prove their superiority.

Fidel turned fifteen and was halfway through Year Ten and doing reasonably well when, last night instead of accepting his mother's insults and vile innuendo, he found the courage to tell her to shut up because he was sick of her insane ranting. She had the problem, not him, and should go and get her head shrunk. She said nothing, merely looked at her son with half-closed eyes, a slight smile twitching at shiny lipsticked lips.

Fidel's heart pounded. Now he'd done it. That smile was more frightening than a punch in the head. He took his fears to bed and slept badly.

Just before sunrise this morning his mother had let herself silently into his shed, ripped off his duvet and straddled the mattress. He woke with a start and stared up in horror as she lifted her nightgown and sprayed hot urine over his naked body. He scrambled away, cowering in a corner, sick from shock, nauseous from the stench. She laughed, lowered her skirt and, humming something tuneless, wandered out.

Fidel had scrubbed and scrubbed himself under the tap as if trying to remove his skin, then returned to the shed, dressed, checked his rucksack, went quietly out, closed the shed door behind him, then tapped on his brother's bedroom window.

Cold, wet and pain dragged him back to the present.

'That was this morning!' he shouted into the blackness. 'It wasn't a dream! It happened and… and… if I fall asleep I will die,' he whispered. 'I must go to sleep!' But he couldn't. Instead, his body began to shiver to maintain warmth - determined to stay alive despite urgings from the brain, which in its turn refused to maintain the barrier he had so bravely constructed to contain his emotions. Like a dam bursting, fifteen years of tears he had refused to shed, flowed over his cheeks into his mouth, over his neck and into the gutter to join the rainwater on it's way to the sea.

Traffic had slowed slightly to an occasional car and when the episode ended he decided he was being a bit stupid to just lie there, so tried to push himself up, but the pain in his wrist made him fall back and consider other options.

A vehicle slowed and almost stopped. Hope of rescue set his heart pounding, only to be dashed when it continued on its way. A few seconds later it backed up, the passenger door opened and a woman got out, took a look and called, 'He's not drunk, Sanjay, he's hurt! Come and help.'

3 The Karims

An hour later Fidel was bathed, patched up, dressed in his host's pyjamas, drinking hot chocolate, and nervously describing his experience with the police, and his ill-fated search for somewhere to sleep because he had left home. To the polite Indian gentleman in his late forties who introduced himself as Sanjay, and his wife Monique who spoke with a charming accent, it was obvious there was much more to the story than that, but just as obviously the boy was in shock, in need of rest, and there would be plenty of time in the morning to discover the truth. So they smiled, congratulated him on surviving such a tumultuous first day in the capital, and led him to a comfortable bed in a separate granny flat attached to the end of the house.

Sanjay apologised for locking the communicating door, but with a twinkling smile explained that he didn't know Fidel, so it would be foolish indeed to trust him not to steal, or murder them in their beds. He hoped the pleasant young man would still be there in the morning for breakfast, but if he decided he wanted to remain independent, he was free to leave through the other door that led into the garden and out to the road. Did he have any money? Fidel opened his rucksack to show Sanjay his fifty dollars, only to find it gone. Stolen. At the police station! Sanjay fetched another fifty and pressed it onto his hand, insisting he had plenty more, and yes, it was only a loan, Fidel could repay it when he found a job. But he must rest now and all his problems would be resolved in the morning.

Fidel let himself be led to the bed where Sanjay tucked him in before placing warm soft hands on his young guest's forehead while calling on the gods of sleep to protect and restore him to health. Sleep arrived almost instantly, and morning found Fidel eating a hearty breakfast with his hosts who assured him they would be pleased to have someone living in the flat. Their son had gone to live with his partner at the beginning of the year and the house felt empty with only themselves; so if Fidel wanted…

He certainly did, and excused himself to go to the toilet so he could cry and sob his relief in private - wondering why niceness made him cry but nastiness didn't.

While he was thus occupied, the Karims held a brief conference. On his return, eyes still somewhat red, they apologised profusely for invading his privacy, but they really needed to know the real reason for his leaving home. Fidel's heart sank. These nice people would tell him he wasn't nice and he'd have to go. He was on the point of making up a story when he caught Sanjay's eye. Suddenly he couldn't lie, but neither did he want to tell about his humiliation, so he told them of his mother's reaction when she'd discovered him playing with Taddy. 'You see, I feel sexy about men, not girls,' he added by way of explanation, 'and Mum couldn't understand that. She says it's evil.'

To his astonishment his rescuers sat back with perplexed faces. 'Is that all? You haven't robbed a bank? Attacked an old woman with a knife? Burned down the family home?'

Fidel shook his head.

'I understand it is unpleasant for you that your parents disapprove, but surely it wasn't necessary for you to run away. There's something else, isn't there? We noticed several bruises and old scars when we were cleaning you up last night. Don't you think it would be better for us to know the truth about what has happened to you, rather than to imagine all sorts of horrors that are not true?'

Fidel thought about this and reluctantly agreed. 'I'll tell you some things as long as you don't think I'm complaining or trying to get Mum into trouble. I probably deserved everything, but it became a bit too much when she…' his voice trailed away and he sat helplessly, allowing tears to cascade over his cheeks and soft sobs to wrack his chest.

Monique wrapped her arms around him in anguish herself at seeing a boy in such misery. Sanjay began to wonder if, because it was clearly very bad, perhaps they should let sleeping dogs lie. When Fidel calmed enough to speak, Sanjay said he didn't have to tell them if it was too difficult.

'No,' Fidel sniffed. 'I want to tell someone. I've never told anyone, not even Dad, but… but I can't go on, with all these thoughts bursting inside my head. I have to tell someone or… or I think I'll kill myself.' The last few words were so softly spoken the listeners had to strain to hear. They shared glances of concern. The boy wasn't being melodramatic; he was serious.

'Then we would like to hear your story. All of it.' Sanjay said seriously. 'Don't try to spare our feelings, we're not hot-house plants.'

Despite being determined not to reveal too much, Fidel discovered that once started he had to either tell everything of importance or nothing, so he told everything; except for his mother's parting gift. That was still too incomprehensible to think about.

Deeply shocked, the Karims offered the young waif their protection on condition he continued his schooling, obeyed house rules, didn't drink or take drugs, and never brought his friends home without first introducing them and gaining permission. And if he agreed, they would like to introduce him to their son, Robert, and his partner, Bart.

Fidel could only smile. He hadn't the vocabulary to express his thanks.

To make sure Fidel wasn't being sought by the police for having run away from home, Monique phoned his mother, who said if she never saw her son again it would be too soon, and promised that written permission for him to live with Mr. and Mrs. Karim would be in the post the following day, signed by father and mother. However, she was not prepared to pay a single cent for his upkeep. He was fifteen and could take care of himself or fall by the wayside.

The somewhat uncharacteristic act of charity bestowed on Fidel by the Karims had its origins in the murder of their son's school principal nine months earlier. The certainty of Robert's innocence had enabled them to reject Inspector Kareltin's accusations against him with such assurance that the inspector lost faith in his ability to judge people, and took early retirement. {Rough Justice}

Three days after the accusation, however, Robert discovered he was unable to live with his secret and confessed to his parents that it was he who had killed the horrible old man. At first appalled, on mature consideration they agreed with Robert's boyfriend, Bart, that the murder had saved their son's sanity, the young men's relationship, and Bart's future as a teacher. The Headmaster had thoroughly deserved his fate, as did Lance, who, although not guilty of murdering the headmaster, deserved to be sent to prison because of his part in the death of a fellow pupil, and his three attempts to murder both Robert and Bart. [My novel: Rough Justice]

The parents' decision to remain quiet, although perfectly justified on rational grounds, weighed on their conscience and strained relations with their son. Neither Robert nor his parents dared to speak about it, although they desperately needed to clear the air. No matter what was said or how, it always sounded either like an accusation or an excuse.

Monique became paranoid, certain their house was bugged, phone calls monitored and emails spied on. The pretence of normality became such a burden it was a relief when Robert went to live with Bart. He was now halfway though his first year at university. With the buffer of space and time, embarrassment evaporated and everyone looked forward to the weekly visits, determined to preserve their love and concern for each other.

Robert and Bart were delighted with their life and naturally didn't miss the lack of parents. But despite their son's visits and a satisfying social life, the family house soon began to seem too large for Monique and Sanjay, who missed having a young man around the house, despite the occasional irritations and problems. Thus it was almost inevitable that having rescued an emotionally and physically damaged, but pleasant and thoughtful youth, they would invite him to stay in Robert's old room; at least until he recovered.

Any qualms Monique had, were overcome by Sanjay, whom she knew to be an excellent judge of character. He assured her the lad was honest and reliable. Nonetheless she insisted on locking him in the granny flat at nights for the first week, by the end of which they were thoroughly delighted with their guest who was so different from Robert, yet still very engaging. He was quiet and helped around the house doing every chore he could find without being asked, and refused financial assistance.

As soon as he could, Fidel wrote to his brother Hylas, telling him he was in good circumstances and how to contact him. He received no reply.

Taking him aside on the day before enrolling at the new school, Sanjay discussed problems that might arise, and asked innocently if Fidel would like to borrow a razor. Startled, Fidel asked why.

'I noticed on the night you arrived that you are already somewhat hirsute for a fifteen year old. You already have a more luxuriant moustache than many adults. Your sideburns also are very manly. There's nothing wrong with that, however it might attract attention you don't need as a new boy.'

Fidel blushed deeply. 'I've tried not to mind; I've sort of got used to it. I hoped it would stop but it hasn't. I'm also getting hairy legs and chest. So yes please. Please show me how to shave.'

'Has your father never mentioned it?'

'He's got a beard and is only home for a few days every three weeks and doesn't...' Fidel shrugged in resignation.

'Then I shall be delighted to be in loco parentis. I'll meet you in your room in two minutes.'

Two minutes later Sanjay arrived with a new disposable razor, showed Fidel how to soap with warm water and use the razor carefully so as not to slice or create rashes. Fidel gazed at himself in the mirror with a beatific smile. 'Sanjay! You've saved me. I was getting really worried that I had to grow a beard like Dad. I know that was stupid, but you've no idea how ignorant I am.'

'There's nothing wrong with ignorance if it's combined with a desire to learn.' I must say you look a different man. Clean, perky and bright.'

'I feel different! Thanks!'

The following day Fidel was enrolled in Year Ten at Robert's old school, where the guidance counsellor, on learning of his straightened circumstances and desire for work, suggested he join half a dozen other pupils as after-school assistant cleaners. He did, and enjoyed both the work and the hundred dollars it earned him each week. As well as endearing himself to the cleaning contractor, he also pleased his teachers by never questioning them, never speaking, always working, and never being late with homework.

In the evenings he studied. On weekends he washed dishes and cleaned tables in a fast food restaurant. By the end of the month he had forced Sanjay to tell him exactly how much he was costing them, and despite their protests paid them that amount every week.

Bart, being the lover of his headmaster's murderer, had thought it better to discontinue teaching in that school, so had quit at the end of the year. Although enjoying teaching, he disliked the disciplinary problems in a high school where so many students seemed to do all in their power to obstruct every effort by their long-suffering teachers to actually teach them. With his physical education qualifications he found a better-paid position in a gymnasium in New Farm, where he held popular sessions in fitness training for a variety of sporting codes, as well as personal fitness and health. In the evenings he completed a course in psychotherapy with the intention of eventually opening a private practice and using those skills in conjunction with physical training to assist people with problems.

At their first meeting, Fidel was in nervous awe of Robert's cool self confidence, exuberant health, physical and mental prowess, and easy acceptance of his homosexuality - daring to live openly with a lover five years older than himself, who had been his teacher! Bart inspired no such boyish hero worship. Lean and fit, calm and relaxed, he smiled gently when speaking to Fidel and listened as if genuinely interested - which he was. By never pushing the young waif to do anything, offer opinions, or move out of his comfort zone, he unconsciously ensured that Fidel fell in love with him; it being so easy to like the man who likes us.

Despite Fidel's success at school and work, it became clear to both Monique and Sanjay that the quiet young man who always smiled nervously when spoken to, never complained, never asked for anything, and was always ready to help, was heading for a nervous breakdown, probably due to unresolved issues regarding his abused childhood. Monique, who realised her young ward was in awe of her son but secretly in love with Bart, asked the latter to have a word to see if there were problems.

While Robert was writing assignments the following Sunday afternoon, Bart took Fidel to the gym. After a workout that Fidel enjoyed more than anything he'd done to date, they wandered down to the river, bought ice creams, sat and talked. Fidel was amazed and thrilled that Sanjay and Monique had kept their word and told no one else his secrets, but his admiration for Bart was such that with scarcely a prompt all his self-protective walls dissolved, and he told him everything.

As if talking about someone else, he told of his mother's treatment, shared his thoughts, fears, tears and misery, all in an oddly detached manner that seemed at odds with the foul mental sewage. He left nothing out - not even his mother's parting gift. In the sudden silence that followed he forced himself to look straight into Bart's eyes where he saw not the revulsion and contempt he expected, but a gentle smile of understanding and compassion.

'You poor young bugger,' Bart said softly. 'You deserved none of it. Your mother is clearly not right in the head. It doesn't matter why she was like that; all that matters is that you understand and believe that you were not the cause of your treatment. She alone is responsible. What amazes me is that you're so sane, sensible, pleasant. A really nice guy! Someone I'm proud to have as a friend.'

He touched Fidel lightly on the shoulder, triggering another outpouring; this time silent tears of relief interspersed by deep wrenching sobs that in some mysterious way acted like a mystical elixir flushing his insides clean of all the vile bilge deposited by his mother, leaving him spotless, pure of heart and mind.

When the brief paroxysm passed, Bart removed his hand and Fidel laughed softly.

'What's funny?'

'Mum looked so ridiculous with her nightgown hoisted up squirting all over the bed.' He giggled. 'She's really hairy there.'

Bart hoped the laughing wasn't hysteria, but it quickly died down leaving Fidel grinning shyly and gazing across the river.

'It's sort of glamorous and exciting here, isn't it, with the café's, water, bridge, boats, restaurants. I feel like one of the beautiful people.'

'You are, Fidel. You are.'

Later, he realised he hadn't told Bart about Ted, and wondered why; then realised it was because it meant nothing, had no effect on his happiness or unhappiness and therefore was not a problem.

'What did you do to Fidel?' Sanjay and Monique asked Bart later. 'We don't recognise him. He's bright and cheerful, chattered all through dinner about the gym, told us about school, his work, said he was very happy to be here and… and thank you a million times.'

'I think it was the gym that unlocked his inner self. He loved it so much I got him a job there on weekends, cleaning and storing gear instead of working at that awful fast food place, then as well as wages he can use the equipment. He's a fine young man and as far as I can gather has only one problem, he's so grateful to you both he doesn't know how he can ever repay you. It's a burden, this debt, as he sees it. But don't be fooled. His new confidence is very fragile. It wouldn't take much to send him into a tailspin. Child abuse is the most dreadful crime; I reckon it equates with murder and should be treated as such. Many abused kids effectively lose the chance of a decent life, and that's a form of death. Until now he's been quiet and subdued from fear. After a lifetime of rejection by his mother he was terrified you too would tire of him and throw him out.'

'But why would a mother…?

'Loads of reasons. Perhaps she's depressive; she hated her father or his father; she's just a miserable bitch who gets off on hurting boys. Whatever the reasons it makes no difference. She has damaged, possibly for life, a gentle wonderful young man. Has Fidel told you everything?'

'I think so.'

'About regularly being nearly drowned in the kitchen sink when doing the dishes?'


'About being tied to the clothes line by a length of rope while she lashed at his legs and back with a stick?'

Sanjay and Monique shuddered. 'Yes.'

'That she woke him by straddling his mattress in the shed where he'd been exiled and urinating on him?'

'No! Surely not. That is so terrible!'

'Don't let him know I told you; he tried to laugh about it, but I know he's ashamed and still can't help thinking everything was in some way his fault. I think I've persuaded him none of it is, she's just an evil bitch, but we have to keep reinforcing his sense of self worth to make it permanent.'

'Oh dear. The poor, poor boy. How lucky we are to have you, dear Bart. I still remember you explaining that homosexuality was normal. You are so wise.'

'Hardly wise, Monique, I just read a lot, and at the moment I'm studying psychology and counselling. Abusing a child is domestic violence, and researchers now accept that women are as capable of violence as men, and just as physically aggressive as men in relationships. But unlike females, male partners and sons are expected to put up with the aggression and not complain, with the resulting emotional, and psychological damage. The fear and shame which is no different from that suffered by women.'

'I hadn't realised. When they talk about domestic violence on the news, it is only ever about men being bad to women.'

'And that's a real problem because it makes men very angry and increases the likelihood of further violence.'

'Yes,' Sanjay said slowly. 'I can see that. The feelings of hurt will fester.'

'Exactly, but because most people think only men are violent, when men call the police to report abuse by their spouse, they risk being arrested for abuse themselves because no one believes a woman can hurt a man. Reliable statistics gathered by women's groups, show that mothers are almost twice as likely to be directly involved in abusing and neglecting their children, especially boys, than their fathers. But until girls are taught what appropriate behaviour is and what non-violent conflict resolution looks like, nothing will change. If women want to be considered as capable as, and equal to men, then we and they must accept that women can be as aggressive as men. They are not always victims.'

Monique laughed sourly. 'Women know, all right, but refuse to admit it to men. But is Fidel really worried we might get tired of him and ask him to leave? How terrible!'

'When I told him he would never be thrown out because you like him, he was at first incredulous, and then gave a smile of such relief it brought tears to my eyes. As for insisting on paying his way, he has a natural and healthy urge to be as independent physically, mentally and financially as possible. He isn't rejecting you when he rejects your offers of financial assistance; he loves you like he would have loved decent parents. So don't pressure him, let him keep what little self respect remains by treating him as an equal, able to make decisions for himself. I told him he was doing you a favour by preventing the place turning into an old people's home. That made him laugh. Have you heard him laugh? It's the happiest sound I've heard for ages.'

'Yes! He laughed at dinner when Sanjay told one of his awful jokes. I had to pretend I was sneezing to hide my tears.'

4 What to do?

Days, months, years slipped by and suddenly Fidel was seventeen in his final year of high school - the sole cloud in the sky of his happiness being the absence of any response from Hylas to his letters. He'd even tried writing to the school, but it had been returned unopened. So he knew the letters home must be arriving, as none had been returned.

Monique and Sanjay, who had been talking for years about revisiting France and India to see old friends and relatives, decided to take advantage of Fidel's honesty and reliability while he was still living with them, and asked if he'd be prepared to house sit while they were away so they could recharge their cultural and emotional batteries without worrying.

Fidel was speechless for at least ten seconds. 'You trust me to look after your beautiful house?'

'Of course. You're seventeen, sensible, trustworthy, and know how to keep everything going better than we do. We can't think of anyone more suited to the job. So will you?'

'Will I? Of course I will and I'll not abuse your trust.'

'Silly boy, we know that or we'd never have asked. However, there is one condition.'

'Yes?' Fidel's hopes sank slightly.

'We insist on paying you a small retainer. A hundred dollars a week. It's not much, but it makes us feel better.'

'You don't have to pay me!'

'We know, but we want to, so is that okay?'

'Very okay! Thanks.'

'Good. Robert and Bart will visit as usual and you'll go and see them whenever you feel like it. You do realise they like you enormously and you'll be welcome there at any time, night or day?'

'I think you're exaggerating a bit. I don't want to wear out my welcome.'

'I don't think you could. And if there are problems they'll always be available if you need them. And you may also have the use of the car; but any repairs are at your cost. I've amended the insurance to cover you as driver.'

Fidel shook his head in disbelief that anyone could trust him so completely.

'We'll occasionally email Bart, because he's the only one of you with an email account, so you all know we're still alive. We don't expect long replies, just a 'Hi, everything fine' is all that's necessary, so we don't worry about you.'

Fidel had been working at part time jobs ever since his arrival in Brisbane, and despite paying his share of food and services and all his own personal expenses, had managed to save a little. Heeding Polonius' advice to Laertes, he attached a debit, not a credit card to his bank account - not that he ever touched the balance, but the sense of self worth was priceless. Apart from basic living expenses he spent nothing. Sanjay had paid a year in advance for the Internet, and like the rest of the family, Fidel had no mobile phone. In his case because he had no one he wanted to telephone, and even if he had, the landline was cheaper, not easily tapped and there was an extension in his flat. Living with Monique had made him slightly paranoid about 'Big Brother' surveillance. She refused to use any electronic device that could be traced, including satellite navigation in the car. She disabled it the day they bought it by the simple expedient of hitting it with a hammer till she could remove it, then gluing a jade sculpture of a frog over the gap.

Fidel was temporary master of a beautiful house and had a car as well. Not that he intended to use it except in emergencies. Bart had instilled in him the necessity of using his own energy as much as possible if he wanted to remain healthy, wealthy and wise, so he continued jogging to school and doing the shopping on foot.

The novelty of his first few days alone in the evenings was exciting. He read, listened to whatever music he liked, completed all his homework, studied, exercised, and did a lot of gardening. The Karims had not bothered with television, putting their set in Fidel's room to use as he liked. He seldom liked, finding little to interest him. Even more absorbing than reading and listening to music was sitting quietly in the totally private, luxuriant; some might say overgrown garden, observing, thinking and dreaming. He had never had a garden all to himself and was every day astonished at the variety of insects, plants and other life that abounded. Sometimes he would take a pencil and paper and draw a particularly interesting insect or bird, noting the size, colour and what it was doing. After buying a set of aquarelles, he began applying soft colours to the better drawings.

Each morning he would make his breakfast on the tiny cooker in his flat and carry it around to the patio where he would sit in silence. Parrots, honeyeaters, butcherbirds, finches and a dozen other species of bird arrived to feed on the flowers, insects and seeds; also appreciating the peace. On moist mornings dewdrops scintillated; better than the best diamonds until they evaporated. Spider webs, butterflies, quivering leaves in the occasional breeze - everything intrigued him. Sometimes, when there was nothing urgent to do, concentration gave way to contemplation and then to a strange state in which his mind felt as though it suddenly turned inside out and everything was both in and out of focus. In that tranquil state he felt as if he could know everything there was to know if he put his mind to it. But he couldn't be bothered because it didn't matter - everything was as it was and he was content to simply be a part of it. An hour or more would pass. He took to setting the timer to prevent arriving late anywhere.

For three weeks Fidel visited Bart and Robert regularly, always a more than welcome guest for the evening meal or simply a chat and game of scrabble. But Robert kept finding excuses to not return the visits. Finally, Bart became irritated.

'What's the matter, Robert? Fidel is becoming upset. He hasn't said anything but I can tell he's wondering if he's done something to upset us. What's your problem?'

'Nothing. I'm just busy.'

'Crap. You're jealous, aren't you? I can tell.'

Robert flushed, embarrassed at the honesty. 'Yes, I am. I know its stupid but I can't help feeling that Fidel's usurped me. That Mum and Dad like him more than me. I can picture him swanning around in my house as if it's his own. Why didn't they ask me to look after the place and have their car?'

'Would you want to?'

'Of course not, I'm too busy, but I should have been asked.'

'Clearly Monique and Sanjay imagined you'd be mature enough to be pleased with their decision. You have a life of your own now with me, as well as your studies, other friends and interests from which they are excluded. Fidel is the ideal person to house sit.'

'You think I'm being childish?'

'Not to put too fine a point on it, yes!

Robert thought for a long five seconds, went to the telephone and dialled. 'Fidel? I've finished all my assignments and we're both bored shitless in need of stimulating company, does your last invitation still stand? It does? Great, We'll be round in half an hour with dessert. Cheers.' He turned to a grinning Bart. 'And you can wipe that cheesy grin off your face old man. I'm only doing it to please you.'

'And to salve your jealous conscience.'

'Yeah, that too. Give us a kiss?'

'Just the one till you prove yourself at dinner.'

They stood outside the front door.

'You're grinding your teeth.'

'Steeling myself for the shock of seeing a stranger ensconced in the family seat - spreading himself around as if he owns the place, dirty underclothes chucked on the best armchair….'

'I'm pretty sure he doesn't wear underpants.'

'You've been groin watching!'

'Hard not to when he runs towards you wearing those floppy old shorts.'

'That's true.'

Fidel opened the door and did a double take. 'Robert! I scarcely recognised you.'

Robert had swapped his long hair for a buzz cut that looked like a dense black cap. It added a certain gravitas to his regular features, emphasising his hooked nose and apparent smile. He now looked slightly more than his twenty years.

'I had a hair cut.'

'It really suits you! You look sharper, and your neck looks longer. Much better. What do you think, Bart?'

'I agree. I was sick of long hairs clogging up the shower, but are we going to stand out here all night?'

'Sorry! I'm a terrible host. Come in. Come in.'

Robert stood in the centre of the lounge and gazed around in confusion. 'This looks exactly the same as the day Mum and Dad left.' He wandered into the kitchen. 'Don't you do any cooking? It's as spotless as Mum always has it - used to drive me nuts. Don't tell me you're a cleanliness freak like her.'

Fidel's laugh was uncertain. 'I don't use the house. Just dust things and air it. I'd feel like an intruder living in here. I stay in the flat. I prefer it because it used to be your wanking pad and is full of psychic emanations that inspire me to be more like you.' He watched in relief as Robert grinned at the outrageous flattery. 'I use the sink bench, electric stove and hot plate and two pots; that's all I need. You'll be tasting the results soon. But I thought that, as this is your place, when you're here we'd eat in the dining room. Is that okay?'

Silenced for once in his life, Robert walked up to Fidel and placed both hands on his shoulders. 'Mum and Dad were lucky the night they found you, Fidel.' His voice was husky. 'And so was I.'

'You're very wise, Fidel,' Bart announced cheerily to stem a slide into bathos. 'The less you have to clean and maintain the better. I'd have done the same.' He thrust a parcel at his host. 'Here's dessert, it's not going to melt so I'll put it on the bench. Do you need a hand to bring stuff through from your flat?'

'That'd be great, thanks.'

After everything was tidied away it was warm enough to sit out on the patio where they relaxed on loungers in companionable silence, gazing up at the stars.

'Very clear sky. Going to be a cold night.'

'Lucky you've got Robert to warm your feet on. I have to do press-ups till I'm warm enough to jump into bed.'

'You'll have to find yourself a boyfriend.'

Yeah. Know anyone who wants an ignorant adolescent?'

'There's a fat old man in the apartment across from us who looks desperate.'

'He'd have to be.'

'Fidel, you are slim, fit, good looking, and becoming sexier by the minute. One day someone will snap you up.'

'Yeah, right. Meanwhile, I need some advice.' Fidel sounded diffident. 'I finish high school in eight weeks, thank goodness. I'm sick of getting a numb bum all day listening to boring farts and fartesses tell me what to think.' He scratched his head as if unsure whether to continue. 'Is university any different? I don't think I want to go on studying; I don't think I'm clever enough - especially compared to you two. But do you reckon I should knuckle down and try tertiary studies of some sort? I've no idea what I want to do. Or should I get out and find a proper job?'

'What's a proper job?' Bart asked in comic despair. 'Are there any left in Australia? Thirty years ago we had a booming clothing industry, an innovative electronics sector, we made every type of home appliance, most tools, cars, boats, all the spare parts. There were steel mills, oil refineries, printers and publishers, independent tradespeople in every field. Butchers, bakers, booksellers, hardware shops, draperies… you name it someone in Australia made it, small business people sold it and tradesmen repaired and maintained it. But all those jobs have gone to slave labour factories in China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Bangladesh…. and nothing's repaired because everything's 'disposable' or there are no spare parts, so we throw millions of tons of perfectly good stuff into toxic dumps.'

'But there are still jobs, aren't there?'

'Mainly in service industries such as the so-called health industry. Sickness industry would be a better description. The finance industry, education industry, tourism industry, fitness industry, entertainment industry, transport industry, or working as a salesperson for one of the few giant corporations that have swallowed up most small businesses, fuelling consumerism by advertising stuff made in other countries, selling stuff made elsewhere. Not one of those jobs I've mentioned is actually producing anything.'

'Then where does the money come from?'

'We let foreign corporations dig up minerals, paying us a pittance for the right to take it back home, make something useful and then sell it back to us in the form of all the things we used to make ourselves. Most of the money comes from selling coal and iron ore, but no one wants coal any more - except Australia. Farming's important, but it's like mining, we sell the raw product instead of turning into something more valuable. Thousands of individual farmers have been reduced to a few hundred multinational graziers and croppers who take too much water and spray too many poisons, making the rivers toxic.

'The good days of farming are gone, along with about ninety percent of the topsoil due to land clearing. On top of that, the climate's changing so rapidly that growing enough food for an exploding population is a problem everywhere on the planet. Prices are skyrocketing overseas, so that's where the food grown here goes, unless Australians are prepared to pay the same high prices. We're well on the way to becoming a third world economy with a tiny elite of insanely wealthy people, a struggling middle class and vast hordes of poverty stricken breeders with all the associated problems.'

'But what about fishing and market gardens?'

'Giant trawlers scrape the bottom, literally, leaving only mud and destruction. Their catch goes overseas and the fisheries die. The best land for market gardens now grows houses as the cities expand, leaving inferior land that produces inferior produce, heavily reliant on toxic sprays and fertilizers. Food imports due to free trade are putting many Australians out of business. It's very worrying if you think about it. Pretty soon we won't be able to feed ourselves.'

'That's so depressing, Bart. Can I make my job at the gym permanent?'

'Afraid not, Fidel, it's closing down. Too old and old fashioned for the wealthy yuppies that have taken over the area. What it needs is someone with a few million spare dollars to give it a makeover. And that's about as likely as this country switching to renewable energy.'

'What do you reckon, Robert? You're at uni, do you think I should apply for a grant and go, or find work as soon as I leave school?'

Robert shrugged in genuine despair. 'There are no grants, only loans for the tens of thousands of dollars universities now charge for degrees. They aren't interested in Australian students because foreign students are more profitable. You'll be in debt for the foreseeable future with no guarantee of ever finding a job to pay it back. University education is no guarantee of work, and is usually not very useful in real life.'

'That's so depressing1'

'Sure is. I majored in economic studies in the hope of understanding the financial system that underpins capitalist activity, and why increasing inequality seems unstoppable, but after three years' study I've learned that economic activity is impossible to pin down. It's a very fluid concept that permits economists to use statistics to arrive at the outcome desired by their employer. In the case of politicians, they appoint accountants who will fiddle with the figures and provide them with a result wrapped in jargon that no one understands, so they can fool the electorate into believing what they want is economically desirable. That's the reason most political decisions are disastrous. There's a joke doing the rounds, want to hear it?'

'Of course.'

'A mathematician, an accountant and an economist apply for the same job. The interviewer calls in the mathematician and asks "What do two plus two equal?" The mathematician replies "Four." The interviewer asks "Four, exactly?" The mathematician looks at the interviewer incredulously and says "Yes, four, exactly." Then the interviewer calls in the accountant and asks the same question "What do two plus two equal?" The accountant says "On average, four - give or take ten percent, but on average, four." Then the interviewer calls in the economist and poses the same question "What do two plus two equal?" The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and whispers, "What do you want it to equal?"

'Surely it isn't really like that?'

'It's worse. The entire monetary system is nothing but a gambling den where huge risks are taken with other people's money; where money has replaced goods as something to be traded; where billions can be made overnight not by producing, making or growing something essential for human survival, but by buying virtual money in one currency and selling it for another. To ass insult to injury, money isn't backed by gold reserves or anything of value; it's a worthless promise by morally corrupt governments that simply print more money if they need it.'

'Robert! I'm shocked. Surely you're exaggerating?'

'I used to think so too,' Bart said mournfully, 'but after a year of having my ears bent I'm convinced. We're destroying the natural world to accumulate virtual money that represents nothing but unadulterated greed.'

'Economics is soulless,' Robert continued thoughtfully. 'Monetary profit is the sole criterion for success. If a hotel, or open cut mine, or housing estate will make more money for the developer or a government than a pristine ecologically valuable lake and forest, then the hotel, mine or houses will be built. But if the total costs and returns were calculated, including the mental health of those affected, the loss of biodiversity, the loss of an important source of clean fresh water, the increased pollution, busier roads, need for extra sewage, roads, waste treatment etcetera, then the profits will be seen as illusionary, far outweighed by the value of the natural resource. When a market garden is concreted over for a car park, the costs of replacing the food produced by the property are not taken into account, because that will be someone else's problem.

'The sole value of anything to an economist is its worth in dollars or votes or power. Believe it or not we had to write papers that examined whether political candidates can earn more votes just because they're prettier! There's a field of economic study called 'Return on Beauty'. Currently, one of my economics professors is writing a working paper on how a smile can help political candidates gain more votes. He's using Japanese software that measures the 'smile' index - 100 being a from-ear-to-ear grin and zero being closed lips. Public attitudes to the consequences of development versus conservation are reduced to monetary profit and loss equations. Morality doesn't get a look in. To an economist, 'Good' is a profit 'Evil' is a loss. I should have quit last year, but kept hoping to discover some redeeming feature.'

'Did you?'

'No. We are ruled by vile shysters who value nothing except the god of instant financial profit. They talk about 'growing money in an expanding economy' as if money is a naturally occurring vegetable and the planet a balloon they can go on inflating forever! Why do such infantile people get elected to public office Fidel?'

Fidel shook his head in astonishment. He'd never even thought about money or any of the things Robert was angry about. He'd just accepted the world as it is, imagining it had always been like this and therefore the best way of doing things. He'd imagined politicians knew what they were doing; that they were the best people for the job; that they wanted to do the best for everyone and the planet. The notion that they might be criminally and immorally stupid was a novel idea he had to think about. He shrugged. 'I suppose it's because voters don't know all those things? I didn't until just now. I don't think the teachers know about this or they'd at least mention it in passing. It's not on the news or in the online papers I read.'

'That's because the news and all other mass media are owned by the people Robert is complaining about,' Bart said with a smile. 'So it's deliberate policy to keep voters ignorant. It seems that most people find it difficult enough to understand simply how to make ends meet, without thinking about whether it's right or wrong. Instead of reading a variety of ideas by independent thinkers, they allow themselves to be told what to think by mass media.'

'Bart's right, as usual,' Robert added. ' Literature is full of words written by wise men and women who have urged us to value truth and beauty, the common good, and the notion that more than enough is too much. They have exhorted us to respect nature and all life if we want to survive and lead a 'good' life. But rational economics sneers at such notions. The man who is clever or sharp, or wicked enough to amass all the money in the world, is a good man, even if every other man woman and child are enslaved. I've spent two years trying to convince people that an expanding economy with the essential corollary of expanding world population is impossible. I failed a paper for suggesting this. I was told that humans will always find a way to cope and grow ever richer, more powerful and, apparently, more like gods. I'd have been better off doing a series of courses about things of intrinsic worth. Specialisation is the death knell of education; we end up with increasing numbers of people knowing more and more about less and less, who are then essentially unemployable.'

Bart clapped softly and Robert bowed seriously before laughing with him.

Fidel frowned. Surely it wasn't a laughing matter. 'If I understand you correctly, you think I shouldn't go to uni.'

'Not necessarily, I just wish I hadn't wasted this last year. I didn't even meet many nice people. There's a lot of homophobia - got nasty at times. Apparently it's like that in most universities. The ability to remember facts and lecturers' opinions doesn't indicate a tolerant or freethinking mind. I found more intelligence and more tolerant people when I worked in a warehouse last summer.'

'Then I'm not going. I'll find something useful and productive to do.'

'I wish you luck.'

'Thanks. What about you, Bart? What're you going to do when the gymnasium closes?'

'I've already started my psycho-physic-repair studio.'

'And that is?'

'Using my physical education and psycho-therapy training, I'm now a freelance healer of mind and body.'

'Sounds adventurous. Where's the studio?'

'Wherever the clients are. I give individual classes in people's homes, and group classes in community centres. If I get a name for myself I might rent rooms and join the alternative healing brigade.'

'How many clients have you?'

'Three so far; but I'm an optimist.'

'What about you, Robert. What're you going to do next year?'

'A very good and frightening question. I know nothing of value to anyone, so there's really only one option for me.'

'What's that?'

'I'll become a freelance consultant.'

'What's that?'

'Small business people who are losing money, pay experts like me with a certificate from a prestigious university to prove I'm wise and all-knowing, to analyse their business model, tell them where they're going wrong and how to get back into the black.'

'But you said you don't know anything.'

'Neither do they. What a consultant brings to a problem is a fresh look, no vested interest and no qualms about dumping or changing their sainted father's ideas. They can't see the wood for the trees, whereas a fresh pair of eyes sees the deadwood, the limits, and where pathways must be cut.'

Fidel shook his head in admiration. 'I am so impressed!'

'Ha! Wait till I've made my first trillion before passing judgement.'

5 Bart's enterprise

When the owner of Bart and Robert's small apartment decided to refurbish it, Fidel insisted they come and stay. In return they insisted that Fidel would join them for meals and evenings so they could be a family; not feel like boarders. Thus the kitchen came to life, the dining table a place for chatter, and the lounge somewhere to relax and feel at home - something Fidel had never felt. Much nicer than living like a hermit crab in the shell of his little flat.

On the first morning, however, Fidel had a few fantasies shattered. While preparing breakfast loud voices erupted from Robert and Bart's bedroom. The door was ajar so there was no avoiding overhearing. He froze. Shocked. Robert was shouting. Something slammed to the floor. Bart's softer voice replied. An unwilling eavesdropper, Fidel listened in dismay.

'You're always telling me what to do!'

'No, I'm merely pointing out possible consequences.'

'Ever since I moved in with you, you've thought you knew more than…'

Fidel closed his ears and was on the point of returning to his room when Robert stormed out, slammed the bedroom door and stomped to the bathroom, slamming that door as well. Embarrassed, Fidel continued preparing breakfast. A few minutes later, Bart wandered into the kitchen for a glass of water. He looked at Fidel's face and frowned.

'What's the matter? You look upset. Would you prefer me to wear clothes between the bedroom and shower?'

'No! No, of course not. Its just that… you and Robert were arguing!'

'Yeah. We sometimes piss each other off. This morning it was my turn to be the irritant. It shouldn't upset you, it means nothing.'

'But… I thought you two were in love. I've always pictured lovers living in constant bliss and harmony and never arguing. You know… the prince and princess lived happily ever after?'

'Ah, the power of fiction. Have you ever considered how mind bogglingly boring life would be if you never argued with the person you share you life with? If you agreed on everything, you'd never grow, never have new experiences, never question your own character or behaviour. Robert is right, I'm inclined to nag a bit and repeat things I've mentioned before as if he hasn't understood, and as if there's no other way to do things. But that's okay. I'll improve and now I've an excuse for making up and promising to be perfect for the next thousand years.'

'But don't you worry that if you argue one day he'll leave you?'

'It's because people love each other that they argue, Fidel. We care so much we become over-protective. We want them to have a soft ride through life. We care if they are on what we consider to be the wrong track. People who don't care about their lover and best friend also don't care if they ruin their lives or make bad choices. We know and trust that no matter what we do and say, it is from love; even though we're misguided sometimes.' Bart's ears pricked. 'Ah, the shower's stopped. He'll be out soon. Must go and mend fences.'

A few minutes later the unmistakeable sounds of reconciliation arrived in the kitchen, and shortly after Robert followed, sporting magnificent evidence of it.

'Bart says you're easy about clothes. That's a relief. I hate them. Always have done. What about you? What do you wear to bed?'

'What you're wearing.'

Robert's grin was disarming. 'Bart also said our little contretemps upset you. Sorry about that. We bicker constantly some days, and then not for weeks. It means nothing except that we're human with most of the failings that go with it.'

Fidel couldn't stop grinning. 'You have the most perfect body I've ever seen.'

'Robert looked down as if surprised. 'What - this old thing? It's twenty years old! But it's nice of you to say so. I imagine you're not too dusty yourself under your baggy shorts and T-shirt.'

Fidel smiled his embarrassment and poured boiling water into the teapot.

'What're you doing tonight, Fidel?' Bart asked during breakfast.

'Nothing special, why?'

'It's the debut of a group I've started that I hope will bring more clients; it'd be great if you'd come to swell the numbers.'

'Are you going, Robert?'

'Reluctantly.' Robert laughed. 'Of course you're coming, Fidel. You never go out, you know no one socially apart from us, and you sit and dream for hours. You're in danger of becoming a recluse.'

'Ok, but what am I letting myself in for?'

'A blast from the past. When women's lib got under way, lots of men became depressed because females reckoned males were no longer any use, just about every natural masculine behaviour was rubbished, and men had a crisis of confidence. "All men are rapists" became the feminist catch cry. Eventually, concerned men realised that men need safe, male-only environments from time to time. But laws now give women the right to join all men's organisations such as bowling and other sports and recreation clubs, changing the atmosphere so radically that men can no longer relax and bond in those places. They've even demanded the right to enter men's changing rooms, destroying after-match bonding. Most schools are co-educational with mainly female teachers. Women became psychologists and counsellors in schools and workplaces with little if any understanding of what men and boys in trouble need. To counter increasing depression, SNAGS - sensitive new-age guys - used to hold weekend touchy-feely male bonding sessions where, naked in dark, heated tents they sweated, talked, listened and felt each other up. It sounds kinky, but in fact it was therapeutic. They discovered that other men are as ordinary as themselves; that there's nothing wrong or kinky or queer with physical and mental bonding with other men. It doesn't mean you're a pervert or queer, and a lot of good came of it until feminists began publicly pouring scorn on the sessions, and embarrassed and still angry men crept back into their shells and became aggressive and depressed with the result that more wives are bashed, and three out of four suicides are by men.'

'That is so depressing! '

'Only if you think about it.'

'So you're resurrecting the touchy-feely sessions?'

'Fidel, you're a mind reader. Yes, with the hope that those who need individual help as well as group therapy, will ask for private sessions and pay me for it. The first few sessions will be free, but if they prove successful there'll be a charge. What do you reckon?'

'Worth a try. What do I have to do?'

'Pretend you're ordinary and join in.'

'You do pile on the difficulties.'

While the owners of the old gymnasium were waiting for a sale, instead of closing it down they appointed Bart as interim manager overseeing the training of the dozens of clients who were understandably upset at losing their refuge from domestic disharmony. For his meetings he'd appropriated two empty rooms in the vast old ex warehouse - a small one with a convection heater and wrestling mats on the wooden floor, and a larger one he left empty.

Fifteen men of varying ages and types turned up, mostly looking embarrassed, shy, hopeful, nervous and mildly sceptical. Bart gave them his spiel and three rules: first names only, no rude comments, and only do what you're comfortable with. With a certain amount of reluctant suspicion they entered the warm small room, made silly jokes about the very dim amber light, removed some or all their clothes, and stood in a group on the mats. Bart's initial instructions to stretch, touch their toes, heads, chests, bellies, groins [self-conscious laughs] thighs, calves and feet, were followed by a casual suggestion that they turn to their nearest neighbour, tell him their name, then either talk or remained silent while touching the other person's body in the same way they'd touched their own. After two minutes Bart called 'change' and they found someone else to talk with and repeat the process. By the third change embarrassment had evaporated, they laughed and chatted easily, became more daring in their physical explorations, and by the time the session concluded everyone reckoned they now felt pretty easy about talking and touching another male. It wasn't as revolting as they'd expected. Actually, it made them feel less vulnerable - almost powerful.

Warm and relaxed, they moved to the larger room for exercises suitable for all ages and strengths. Individual calisthenics, then movements requiring a partner to maintain balance. Creativity was encouraged by Bart's often crazy-sounding suggestions, which caused lots of laughter and sometimes fairly intimate bodily contact. After an hour all faces were smiling, everyone insisted they hadn't felt so free and liberated for years - if ever, and all promised to come to the next session.

'That was brilliant, Bart,' Fidel declared in the car on the way home. 'Wasn't it Robert?'

'Sure was! I thought it'd be a huge flop, but it's brilliant. The odd thing is that it was sensual but not sexy in the darkened room. Seriously, I'm amazed that all those guys who didn't know each other did as you told them and even seemed easy about it by the end. I've never felt so unthreatened among men before.'

'Yeah,' Fidel added. 'It's as if removing the clothes also removed aggression and competitiveness.'

'So, you're both on for next week?'

'I reckon. But what's it called?'

'What's what called?'

'Your club. Tonight. What we did. It has to have a name.'

Bart turned to Robert. 'He's right. My mind's a blank. Any ideas?'

'Vaselly's Vigorous Virtuous Vitality Venture?'

'Very droll, but I don't want my name on it, and no one wants to be virtuous.'

'Fair enough, how about Vigorous Vitality Venture?'

'I read about a Canadian exercise regimen called 4BX the other day,' Fidel said diffidently. 'It sounded cool. So what about the Three Vees Club?'

'A brilliant idea. You're a genius Fidel. What about dropping the Club and calling it simply 'ThreeVees', and let people wonder what it stands for.'

'Yeah. Add a bit of mystery.'

'I can imagine the scene; Where are you going Harry? To Three Vees, Myrtle. What's that? A club for Victims Venturing into Vice. With other women? No, Myrtle, men only. You're not going queer on me? No Myrtle.'

'I love it. And as it's your brilliant idea, Fidel, you can design the logo.'

Within a couple of days all three felt as if they'd been living together their entire lives. Evenings were usually spent in study, homework, reading and conversation. Bart was a computer bridge addict and Robert was learning classical guitar. At least once a week they went to a film, concert or the theatre, all activities that were revelatory to Fidel - especially live theatre and an opera, which he considered insanely expensive. He wasn't impressed with Janacek's music, the sets or the wobbly female voices, deciding to stick with the Karims CD collection of classical works in future.

After teaching Fidel to dance, Bart suggested going to a club.

Fidel was doubtful. 'I'm not good enough to dance in public and I've nothing to wear.'

'You are, and there's no dress code so it's become popular with eccentrics who like to dress up or down to reveal their inner personalities and fantasies. It's therapeutic, harmless and fun. After our first visit Robert said that next time he'd wear his gold chain.'


'That's it.'

Fidel couldn't stop giggling. He turned to Robert. 'And did you?'

'Yeah,' Robert replied laconically. 'I get sweaty dancing, so it seemed the best outfit. Bart joined me.'

Fidel's eyes popped. 'Bart! You seem so… so sensible. Almost severe and proper. You were a school teacher. I can't imagine…'

Bart laughed easily. 'Neither could I, but Robert can be very persuasive and I must admit it was liberating to be starkers in a room full of more or less dressed men.'

'Not embarrassing?'

'The opposite. I felt powerful.'

'What did the owners say?'

'They loved it; promised us free tickets if we did it again.'

'And did you?'

'No. It'd become a performance; a duty we might fail, rather than fun. Neither of us want to be performers; we do what we do to satisfy ourselves. The mere idea of being dependent on others' approval would kill the pleasure.'

'Do you still go there?'

'About once a month. It's the only place with a decent sized dance floor where we can really get going. So, are you up for it?'

'Yeah I'd love to, but what'll I wear?'

'Whatever expresses the inner man.'

Having Fidel with them made it feel like it was their first time again, so they dined at the same bistro on the waterfront and at ten o'clock ascended the stairs, removed their outer garments in the cloakroom and stuffed them in a locker, then after checking themselves in a mirror, wandered nonchalantly into a large, dim space illuminated by four gigantic mirror-balls. Loud music blasted from a dozen speakers. Hunky waiters in skimpy leather waistcoats, torn-off jeans and work boots were serving at the bar and clearing tables. Four guys in suits perched on bar stools, revealing bare buttocks when they stood up to dance. Guys in speedos chatted to jeans and T-shirts. A pair in leopard-skin tights and elfin boots gyrated wildly. A ball gown hovered in the corner. Bronzed bodies in sequinned Lycra. A hooded caftan swung open to reveal optically white underpants glowing in the beam of an ultraviolet spot. Sailor suits with tattoos. Leather boys. Army uniforms and battle-boots… whatever getup the wearer thought would prove he wasn't the boring little clerk, waiter, shop assistant or student that he pretended to be during the day.

'This is liberated!' Fidel shouted through the wall of sound as the lights flickered and coloured spotlights splashed over the centre of the dance floor.

Bart, at ease in a soft leather pouch, matching plaited leather head and arm bands, soft leather sandals, every muscle visible, not an ounce of fat, light all-over tan, firm buttocks, powerful legs, generous package and severe yet amused expression, inserted himself into the throng of dancing men, joined by Robert; sleek, amused, broad of shoulder, strong legs and arms, a bunch of grapes at his groin, circlets of plastic wildflowers on head, wrists, ankles. Young Bacchus incarnate.

They pulled Fidel in his running shorts and trainers onto the floor and danced together - three free spirits in a room full of individuals rejoicing in being true to themselves.

Fidel's face lit with a dreamy smile as he drifted into another realm, moving instinctively to the wild beat. After dancing for a few minutes with Robert and Bart he was delighted to be asked to dance by a slim man who looked to be in his thirties. He remained in demand for the rest of the evening; always by slightly older men who proved to be pleasant flatterers and good dancers.

'Why don't they ask the other young guys?' he asked Bart in a break. 'They're much better looking than me but they almost never dance.'

'You look approachable and friendly,' Bart explained. 'Most of the other gays as handsome and young as you, act as if they think they're too good for anyone even approaching thirty. Take a look at them; they're stuck in small groups they know and feel safe with, ostentatiously laughing and chatting and watching to see who's looking at them, but they won't move outside the group. Even if you asked one to dance he'd probably refuse. It's the underlying and unacknowledged fear of others that gays feel most of the time. Perhaps they're worried their friends will think they're sluts, or criticise their taste if they accept a dance with someone older. According to gay law, thirty is old. I'm on the borderline of gay decrepitude.'

'You're joking.'

'No. Age and looks are everything. And that's one of many problems that still beset us.'

'If looks are important, why are half the patrons overweight?'

'They're the ones too old to be considered attractive so they give up on body image.'

'I won't. I want to be like you.'

'You're such a sweetie.'

'Can we come here again? I really love dancing. I had no idea how sensual it is.'

'Of course.'

One evening in the lounge, Fidel was revising maths, Robert was practising chord changes, and Bart was playing Bridge. He closed his laptop with a sigh.'

'How could that idiot have left me in three hearts? Everyone else made four.' He looked up at a grinning Fidel. You think I'm nuts playing this game, don't you?'

'Nothing you do is nuts. One day I'll learn to play too. Do you play, Robert?'

'Na, I read comics, Bridge is for brainy types, I relax by getting physical. Fancy a jog?'

'Yeah. What'll I wear?'

'The new shorts and trainers we got you - that's what they're for. But we won't go far. Tomorrow we'll start some serious running. Coming, Bart?'

'I'll have hot chocolate ready when you return.'

'Lazy bugger.'

They jogged along quiet, tree-lined streets past windows of dark houses lit by flickering TV screens. After crossing a busy road they sprinted past half a dozen apartment blocks standing in concrete car parks, loud music pounding from several open balcony doors, then up a narrow, leafy lane that ended in a tree-filled park.

'Race you,' Robert called, sprinting the two hundred metres up to the monument at the top where Fidel found him five seconds later. They stood on the plinth, backs to the monolith, catching their breath and gazing across at the city lights.

'All those towers have lights on, what a waste of electricity.'

'Better than aeroplanes running into them.'

'Yeah, I suppose so. Do you often come up here?'

'It was the first place I jogged to when we moved to this area. Had an unpleasant experience so hardly ever come back.'


'Nothing really. A woman reckoned I was a child molester. Felt sick at the time - actually still do, which is odd. You never forget your past. I guess you've a lot of things you don't want to remember.'

'Yeah. Got pretty lonely till your parents rescued me.'

'You're seventeen, fit and sexy, I reckon it's time you met a few more people, Fidel.'

'I don't need them, I have you two, and I'm going to Bart's classes, that's enough.'

'Perhaps,' Robert said doubtfully, 'but if you don't explore the possibilities of a more social life you'll never be certain. And if you don't test the waters while you're young and handsome you could end up alone, wondering what might have happened if you'd been a little more adventurous.'

'I'm not an adventurous type.'

'You took off alone into the world aged fifteen. That's adventurous. Don't you want a boyfriend?'

'What for?'

'Sex, companionship, someone to go places with.'

'Yeah, it'd be nice, but I've looked around at school and there's no one I would want to get too friendly with. And no one at Bart's group interests me, or is interested in me. All the men who danced with me at the club were older than Bart. I'd want someone my own age, unless he was as gorgeous as Bart. I wank loads. I can't see how doing it with someone else would be better. I'd want someone a bit like me who likes to be fit but also likes to think and be quiet. Where will I meet that sort, Robert? Not at school that's for sure.'

'Perhaps someone sexy will come to Bart's sessions.'

'Unlikely. They've all got problems.'

'And you have none?'

'Thanks to you and your parents, nothing important - apart from finding a job soon.'

'Well if someone you fancy does turn up, don't wait for him to make the first move, because he's probably doing the same thing - waiting for you to show interest. We have to take charge of our own lives.'

'Thanks. I'll remember that.'

6 Arnold Jurgenz

On a Saturday night a couple of weeks later, Bart and Robert had returned to their freshly painted and decorated apartment and Fidel was becoming bored spending evenings alone. He'd gone through all the music CDs in Sanjay's collection, decided he loved Donizetti and Rossini but not Puccini, and was sort of interested in an old copy of Voltaire's Zadig, but his muscles felt cramped. It had been raining for three days and was still pelting down so he couldn't even go for a jog.

The front doorbell rang. He checked the time. Half past nine. A bit late for visitors. Who could it be? Dragging on a pair of shorts he went through the house to the front door, put the chain on, opened it and peered through.

'Sorry to bother you,' said the man in wet hair, sneakers, jeans and a thin nylon jacket, 'I was hoping to see the Karims. I saw a light on so hoped they'd be home.'

'Who are you?' Fidel asked not too politely.

'Oh, sorry! Here's my card.' He passed an official looking identity card. 'My name's Jurgenz - Arnold Jurgenz. I'm one of the police officers who interviewed the Karims after the murder of Robert's headmaster four years ago. There have been some developments I thought I'd pass on.' He flicked his head to shake off the water and gave a gigantic sneeze.

'Why are you so wet?'

'I jogged over.'

'How far?'

'About fifteen kilometres.'

'Are you sane? And why so late?'

'Long story.' Another sneeze and he began to shiver. 'Obviously they aren't here any more, can you give me an address so I can find them?'

'They're away; I'm looking after the place. You're going to get sick if you don't get warm and dry. Your ID looks authentic so come in till the rain stops.' He unhitched the chain.

'Sure?' Arnold kicked off his sneakers then hesitated, looking decidedly pathetic, not in the least like any policeman Fidel had ever seen.

A gust of wind blew rain into the house so Fidel reached out, grabbed his visitor's wrist, dragged him inside and slammed the door.

The policeman stood and dripped on the mat.

'Take off that soaking jacket.'

Arnold opened the zip and squirmed ineffectively. 'Give us a hand? It's stuck to me.'

Fidel took hold of the collar and literally peeled the garment from the shivering man, revealing a naked torso.

'You're blue with cold. Get those jeans off too and take a hot shower while I make us something warming to drink.'

'I'm not wearing underpants.'

'Neither am I!'

'I feel stupid.'

'You are, but look magnificent. Come on.'

The visitor stripped, Fidel led the way to his flat, tossed Arnold a towel, and turned to prepare cocoa.

'I don't even know the name of my rescuer.'

'Fidel. The shower's over there.'

'Thanks, Fidel, you're a brick.'

Ten minutes later the young man stepped out of the shower looking pinker and healthier. Fidel watched him towel himself dry, wondering where this was going. Arnold was very attractive. Broad chest, and arms that suggested a bit of weight lifting. Slim waist, perky bum and strong legs.

Arnold hung the towel over the shower door and gazed thoughtfully at his host. 'Checking out my tackle?' he asked with a hint of defiance.

'Amongst other things. The tackle's pretty ordinary, but your body isn't. Do you lift weights?'

'Used to, but my wife tells me it's vanity. Got the sulks when I told her she spends four times as long and ten times as much as me on herself, if you consider the hairdresser, makeup, nail clinic, shopping for clothes, jazzercise classes. She told me I was an arsehole and refused to speak for a week. Then I discovered she'd told all her girlfriends I was a vain prick. Made me feel so stupid I stopped doing any exercise. Now I'm worried I'm getting fat.'

'No fat I can see. You were going to tell me why you jogged all the way here at night in the rain.'



'Are you queer, like Robert and Bart?'

'What's queer?'


'You mean happy? Not particularly.'

'I mean you like guys.'

'I can count the number of men I like on the fingers of one hand. How many do you like?'

'You know what I mean.'

'No, I don't. What do you mean?'

'You have sex with men.'

'The only male I've enjoyed sex with was another kid when we were twelve.'

'So you're a virgin?'

'How many men have you had sex with?'


'Then we're both virgins.'

'Ok, I'll start again. I liked Robert and Bart and they are a couple. I have no problem with that. Do you expect to end up with a male or female partner in the future?'

'At the rate I'm going I'll be a bachelor forever.'

Arnold held up his hands. 'I give in. You're you, and don't want to be labelled. I respect that. In fact I like it.' He laughed. It was an open and melodious sound that made Fidel smile. 'Ha, that surprised you, didn't it?'

'Yeah. I was expecting at least a sneer.'

'Not from me, I've had gay sensitivity training.'

'Not what I experienced from the cops when I first arrived in Brisbane. But the cocoa's getting cold. There's a hard chair at the table, or you can sit here.' Fidel patted the bed beside him. 'I've nothing more comfortable. You're my first visitor in two and a half years.'

Arnold shrugged to indicate the bed was fine, sat and accepted a cup, tasted it, pronounced it excellent, then leaned back against the wall. 'Where are the Karims?'

'In Europe and India.'

'And they trust you to look after the place. How old are you? Are you still at school?'

'Yes. Seventeen and yes. How old are you? What sort of cop are you, and why were you wandering around improperly dressed for rain?'

'Twenty-two, I'm a constable, and was so pissed off with my wife I just dragged on the nearest things I could find and took off before I smashed her face in. Better wet and cold than in prison for domestic violence. You can imagine what they do to cops in jail.'

'Why do you stay with her? Do you have kids?'

'That's part of the problem, she wants them, I don't, because the whole world's fucked and there's no way I'm going to land an innocent a kid in this mess.' He thought for a bit. 'I don't know why I stay with her. I suppose it's because if I left I'd be admitting I'm a failure.' He grunted a laugh. 'You'll never guess why I got married.' He stopped and looked at Fidel who nodded at him to continue.

Arnold took a deep breath, shrugged and sighed loudly. 'While we were interviewing the Karims about the murder, they seemed such a tightly knit family who would stand by each other through thick and thin, and the house was cosy, and I said to myself that's exactly the sort of family I want to have. So when this chick told me I was the ideal man to share her life and she liked everything about me and we should marry, I said yes. But it wasn't anything like I expected. After a few months we got sick of each other and I couldn't raise it any more. She blamed the weight lifting, but I told her it was because she was such an ugly bitch and…' he shrugged and grinned ruefully, then looked across at Fidel with a frown. 'Why am I telling you this? We don't know each other. I'm such a fuckwit.'

Fidel looked into the sad, brown, hooded eyes and said nothing. Arnold's light brown hair was almost dry and hung casually across his forehead. His nose was a little shorter and wider than perfect, but suited the generous mouth with its soft, slightly parted lips. The face was sensitive, but saved from softness by a sharp jaw and square chin. Two deep frown lines marred the prominent eyebrow ridge. Fidel leaned across and smoothed them with his forefinger.

Arnold didn't react.

'Your clothes aren't going to dry tonight.'


'Will your wife expect you home?'

'Too bad if she does.'

'What about your work?'

'Tomorrow's my day off. What's with all these questions?'

'I have an organised mind that likes to organise.' Fidel had been thinking about Robert saying it was up to each individual to take control of his life, and was wondering if now was the time. He recalled everything Arnold had said and done since arriving, and decided it was now or never. 'D'you want to stay the night?'

Arnold's eyes, already mere slits, closed even further. His lip curled slightly. 'Here? In your bed? Naked? With you?'

Fidel winced at the tone. He'd deliberately avoided specifics. It was Arnold who'd jumped to conclusions. Pulling a hard mouth he snapped, 'Fuck you then. Put on your fucking wet clothes and piss off if that's how you react when someone innocently offers you shelter!'

He made to get up but Arnold pulled him back onto the bed. 'I'm sorry, Fidel. I didn't mean to sound like that. It just came out. Sort of reflex from years of making sure no one would think I'm queer. I'm really sorry. I think you're a great guy. If anything I'm jealous because you seem to know what you're doing and where you're going while I've got myself into a mess I don't know how to get out of. Please forgive me. I'll go, but believe me, I didn't mean anything bad.'

This time it was Fidel who pulled Arnold back onto the bed. 'Don't be stupid. Of course you're staying. I can make up a bed on the floor if you like.'

Arnold's smile was indecipherable. 'Too much fuss.'

'I don't wear pyjamas.'

'That makes two of us. Actually, it is getting chilly, shall we…?

They did, and as it seemed churlish to leave his guest feeling chilly, Fidel bravely encased him in an embrace that warmed more than just his skin and it was very late before they stopped admiring each others bodies, turned out the light, and slept the sleep of men happy in the knowledge that they are on the point of sorting out at least one of life's many problems.

The rain had stopped, birds were singing and sunlight streamed through the window when the two young men woke, raced to the toilet and cross-pissed with groans of relief.

'Argh! Thought I was going to burst. Didn't want to wake you.' Arnold smiled across the bowl, then sighed and stretched. 'That was the best sleep I've had for ages.'

'Yeah… it was nice.'

'You sound surprised.'

'This is the first time I've shared a bed. I always imagined it'd be a nuisance having to think about turning over, how to lie, which side to sleep on. But it was easy, as if we were made to fit together.'

'You think too much. Be like me and just take things as they come.'

'And end up living with someone I dislike. Scrambled eggs Ok for breakfast?'

'Fidel! Will you marry me?

'Not till you get a divorce. Make the toast and put the jug on.'

They took their trays out to the patio and warmed themselves in the sun.

'How'd you get your all-over tan?'

'I do the gardening in my skin.'

'Do Bart and Robert visit?'

'They were staying here until last week.'

'What do they think about you running around in the nud?'

'They're the same.'

'Kinky. A ménage a trois.'

'What's that?'

'A threesome.'

'No way! We're good friends and intend to stay that way. It's Saturday so they'll be home and we can go and see them this morning if you like.'

'Or we could go back to bed.'

Fidel frowned. 'Arnold, I like you; I think you're sexy and I loved what we did last night. You're gentle and easy. But you have a wife and too many problems. When I said I like to be organised, I meant it. My own life is difficult enough to keep in order, so when you're free and have decided whether you want to be married with a woman or living with a man, let me know.'

'Fair enough. Just thought I'd let you know I'm not a wham-bam-thankyou-man guy. In fact you're not only the first man I've spent the night with, but this is the first time I've had impulse sex with anyone. I've been a boring little goody good, and criticised everyone who wasn't like me. That's probably why I became a cop.'

'From my experience of cops, you're in the wrong job. How do you get on with the others?'

'Not well, which is why I'm still a constable. Another source of insults from my wife who was counting on my rapid rise through the ranks.'

'Let's clear this stuff away and if we're going visiting, find you something to wear. Lucky we're roughly the same size. I'll hang your jacket and jeans out here and they'll be dry when we get back.'

Arnold took Fidel by the shoulders, drew him close and kissed him firmly. 'That was a kiss of friendship, Fidel, so you really shouldn't have an erection; a fellow might read more into it than you intend.' With a light laugh and a sharp slap on his new friend's bum he carried the trays inside, whistling happily as he washed the dishes while Fidel lifted a handset from its wall-mounted cradle.

'What're you doing?'

'I'm going to ring Bart.'

'On that old thing? I didn't think they were still in use. Where's your Smartphone?'

'Never had one, never want one. The idea of being available every minute, day and night sends my blood cold. And I've read too many stories about how easy they are to hack, tap and use to get information about the user. Is yours on?'

'Sure is.'

'That means Google and your internet provider, and the cops if they're interested, and your wife all know where you spent the night, where you are now and every message and phone call you've made recently. If anyone gets hold of your phone they'll be able to read all your old messages, hear your phone calls, see what you've been watching on the internet and wank over all those nude selfies you've been taking.'

'How'd you know about them?' Arnold's voice was sharp and hard.

'Just seemed the sort of thing a vain ex body-builder would do.'

'So you were only guessing?'


'Sorry for the reaction, but as it happens I've been doing exactly that - not because I'm especially vain, but to see if I really was putting on weight and developing love-handles. My wife must have checked my phone and downloaded them to a memory stick. When I arrived home yesterday I could hear her in the lounge with her girlfriends. I hate all her friends, so snuck to the shower and was just drying myself when I heard raucous laughter and my name mentioned. Curious, I crept along to see what was happening. She and three fellow harpies were wetting themselves laughing at photos of me, starkers. The bitch had plugged the USB stick into the TV. That's why I grabbed my jacket and jeans and took off. Just thinking about it makes me feel hot and sick with embarrassment. I know they'll tell their husbands, one of whom is also a cop. How the fuck can I face these people? They'll be telling everyone about how vain I am, taking nude selfies.'

'Give us a look?'

Arnold hesitated. 'Might as well.' He flicked through several photos then showed five to Fidel, who looked at them carefully. 'What do you think?'

Fidel was grinning. 'Arnold! Your wife has done you a favour! You look superb! And I mean superb. The light is perfect, every muscle is clear; you look like a photo model. Even your face looks better than reality. And you've a slight hard on; just enough to make you look better endowed than you are. All her girlfriends will be so jealous they'll be queuing up to drag you into bed; their husbands too I wouldn't be surprised.'

'You're serious?'

'I want a print-out to wank over. Trust me, Arnold, if she wanted to hurt you she's shot herself in the foot. You're beautiful. I wish I was hairless.'

'Hairy is sexier.'

'Not to most people. But how did you manage to take those? You didn't hold the phone - your arm's not long enough.'

'Taped it to the mirror so I could check what I looked like, adjusted the lighting and set the timer.'

'So you are vain. But with reason.'

7 Bart and Robert.

Fidel dialled the number then passed the receiver to Arnold, who seemed nervous.

'Bart? You probably don't remember me, I'm Constable Jurgenz who… Oh you do? I'm flattered. I'm ringing from your parents' place, Fidel gave me your number - I'm with him now. I wanted to speak to you about the other fellow… yes Lance, but not over the phone. Can we meet sometime? Today? Sure? Ok, sounds great… see you then. Cheers.'

He shook his head as if confused as he replaced the receiver. 'We've been invited to lunch! And I thought he wouldn't remember who I was.'


'When what?'


'In an hour. He sounds exactly the same as when he was sticking up for his boyfriend. Are they happy do you think?'

'Completely, I'd say. Well, let's find you something to wear.'

Robert and Bart were nervous. They had wisely decided never to tell anyone the truth about Robert's killing of the headmaster and setting Lance up. It was hard enough for them to pretend to others that Robert was innocent without burdening anyone else with such an explosive secret. As Sanjay had warned, a secret is only a secret until you tell the first person. Robert's parents didn't count, of course, as they had as much to lose as their son. But what could Jurgenz have to say? Surely he didn't suspect the truth! And what about Fidel? They'd never spoken about the murder.

'We'll tell Fidel the official story one day.'

'Of course. But nothing else. He's such an honest bloke he'd never be able to dissimulate.'

'I don't like it. Why's that cop coming?'

'Yeah. After nearly three years I'd finally stopped feeling guilty every time I see a cop, telling myself it's all over, we've nothing to worry about. And now this - whatever it is.'

'Probably nothing. Perhaps Lance has suicided or been stabbed to death in prison.'

'I'm nasty enough to wish that were true. I feel sick.'

'Calm down, Robert. Jurgenz didn't sound official. He just thought we'd be interested to know something about Lance.'

'Perhaps he's escaped and is coming for us?'

'I think we'd have been told officially. Come on, help me prepare lunch.'

Forty minutes later, Fidel and Arnold, both wearing Fidel's shorts and tank tops, knocked at the door. One relaxed and cool, the other panting and sweating.

'Robert opened the door, invited them in, asked how long it had taken to jog, congratulated Fidel on his obvious fitness and laughed good naturedly at Arnold's heaving chest. 'I thought policemen were supposed to be fit, Constable Jurgenz?'

'Please, call me Arnold. No, fitness isn't a priority - haven't you seen the fat guts on most cops?'

'Bart has just popped down to the corner shop for a couple of things. Come in, sit down and I'll get you some water.'

Bart arrived, was reintroduced, everyone expressed surprise at how little they'd changed, then they sat down to lunch and Arnold satisfied their curiosity.

'I received a note in my inbox that Lance Ozbairne is appealing his conviction.'

'Robert's eyebrows rose. 'His conviction, not the sentence?'

'His case is to be reopened. The father has been belatedly throwing money at lawyers and there seems a good chance he'll win.'

'On what grounds?' Robert managed to sound politely interested, as if it had nothing to do with him.

Arnold shot him an odd look. 'All the evidence is circumstantial in both the headmaster's murder and the poisoned kid. There's a hearing next week. Probably nothing will come of it, but I thought I should let you know.'

Robert answered Fidel's questioning look with a brief explanation. 'Lance hated me and because I reported him for gay bashing, he now blames me for getting caught.' He turned back to Arnold. 'Do you think he might come after us?'

'He was already a nasty customer, and unless he's become a saint, prison will have made him ten times worse.'

'Why were you informed? Are you still attached to the case?'

'No, I quit detecting and am now involved in keeping tabs on recently released prisoners, ostensibly to be useful, but in practice just waiting to nab them when they make a mistake.'

'Sounds unpleasant.'

'It's as depressing as all police work. There's no attempt at rehabilitation, because it seems the sole aim of the so-called corrective services is revenge with as much pain and humiliation as possible. A sane society would only lock up people who are dangerous; everyone else should be given a location bracelet and allowed to work off their crime while also attending classes that will give them the skills, self confidence and self respect to enable them to live at peace in society. That would save the billions of dollars annually that are currently spent on prisons, and would almost eliminate recidivism - saving billions more. Our prisons take naughty men and turn them into vicious criminal thugs through a system based on punishment instead of rehabilitation. Hundreds of inmates are put in solitary for no reason - alone for twenty-three hours a day. The United Nations says solitary confinement is torture, and we're not supposed to be a country that tortures people, but we do! It drives them crazy. No exercise, no books, not enough food because of the system. Non-contact visits only twice a month, their families bankrupted and thrown into poverty, it is cruel and insane and shames me to the core.'

'I had no idea.'

'No one does, it's one of thousands of secret shames of our very imperfect society. It seems they don't want reformed criminals; they want them to come back and back forever to keep the system flourishing. And nothing changes because the media only focus on violent crime, making ordinary people want to hurt prisoners as well as lock them up - as if locking them up isn't punishment enough - instead of understanding they're ordinary people who've made silly mistakes. If the truth were told about the innocents who've only given the cops the finger, or argued about moving on, and been incarcerated and abused for a year or more, turned into criminals and made unemployable forever, then things might change. But we're governed by self-serving fuckwits who care for nothing except the polls and getting re-elected so they'll get their generous superannuation package.'

'I guess prisons are the same in most countries.'

'The Australian journalist imprisoned in Egypt for two years was better treated than inmates of Queensland maximum security jails - he was able to socialise and take a university course that gave him another degree - so he left in better shape than he entered. There's no education program in Queensland prisons. There's no charter of rights, no attempt to follow practices that will reduce criminal behaviour and turn misguided people into useful citizens. It's like a death - death of all that's decent.'

'That's terrible! But you're not going to get in trouble for telling us this are you?'

'Don't care if I do. Like Inspector Kareltin I'm disillusioned with the justice system, but can't see my way out.'

'We're very grateful.'

'Don't be. As I said to Fidel, ever since that night at your place I've been thinking about you guys and your family; wondering how you were.' He grinned boyishly. 'Perhaps this was just an excuse to find out. According to Fidel, you're as nice as I imagined.'

'Fidel's paid to promote us. What about you, are you married?'

'Yes, unfortunately.' With a little prompting from Fidel, Arnold elaborated.

'As you've no kids and your wife's never stopped work, you can solve all your problems in three easy steps,' Bart said with a slight frown. 'Get yourself fit so you feel able to take on the world again; divorce your wife, and work out why you're so interested in Fidel.'

Arnold's head swivelled from Bart to Fidel and back in alarm. 'Fidel you haven't…?'

'No, I haven't.' Fidel said trying not to laugh. 'Bart looks like a sweet old man, but he's as sharp as a dagger and misses nothing.'

'I'll deal with you later, Fidel!' Bart waggled a finger.

'The thing is,' Robert said with a predatory gleam in his eye. 'You haven't told us what happened last night after realising your wife was trying to make you look ridiculous. And forgive the curiosity, but why are you wearing Fidel's shorts and singlet?'

'You tell them, Fidel,' Arnold whispered. 'I'm too embarrassed.'

Fidel spared Arnold's feelings and kept to the bare facts.

'I can't see what you're embarrassed about,' Bart grinned.

'I'm a cop! I'm married. I…'

'Which begs the question, how come you've managed to switch from married heterosexual to gay libertine overnight with no obvious mental trauma? Most guys agonise for ages over their sexual orientation and then still feel guilty.'

'When I joined the force I volunteered for gay sensitivity training, and someone lent me an excellent novel in which a teacher with an odd name, takes fifteen teenagers into the rainforest and teaches them about what it means to be a real man. When a couple of the kids asked about guys having sex together he said something like: "Sex is just sex, no matter who you do it with; perfectly normal if you enjoy it, abnormal if you don't. There are as many ways of being normal as there are humans, so decide for yourself, don't let others pressure into being what you're not." And that kept bugging me. You see my relationship is crap and fucking her was about as exciting as fucking a cushion. I felt nothing. So when Fidel kissed me and I thought I'd explode from sensual overload and lust, I realised I'd been fooling myself about what was normal for me, and the sooner I dumped the heterosexual act as well as the woman, the better. Simple.'

'Most interesting,' Bart murmured gently. 'It's a relief to know that becoming a cop isn't always the path to red-necked bigotry and intolerance. So you don't think last night was merely a reaction to your wife's traitorous behaviour?'

'No way. That was real.'

'So what're you going to do about it? Aren't you worried that if you go home tonight she'll convince you she was really proud of you and suck you back in? Probably cry as well. Women are very, very good at manipulating men.'

'You're right, Bart. I'm a sucker for female tears; always give in and they walk all over me.' Arnold turned a red face to Fidel. 'Would you…? Would it be alright if…? Do you think…?'

'Sure. No probs. Be a good idea to stay away another night, it'll show your wife you don't need her.'

'Meanwhile,' Bart continued, face serious, 'we have to think about Lance and his bid for freedom. '

'Ninety percent of guys come out of prison worse. They enter as silly men, and exit as cunning, skilful criminals, partially insane because of the solitary that's handed out as easily as a slap on the wrist for even minor infringements. The authorities either don't realise that solitary confinement is a serious form of torture that renders many men crazy, or they don't care - I suspect the latter. Queensland prisons are the cruellest in the country and they're proud of it. They reckon it'll teach them not to be bad, whereas it teaches them to be worse.'

'I wonder how Lance is faring,' Robert said thoughtfully. 'He was a nasty bully at school, but scrawny. He'll either make everyone so angry with him he'll get murdered, or he'll spread lies and make everyone else hate each other. I can't begin to imagine what it must be like in prison.' He shook his head and looked down.

'Lance was actually a very smart, albeit twisted kid,' Bart said softly. 'I don't think he'd leave himself open to trouble - he gets others to do his dirty work.'

The talk turned general and, among other things, Arnold admitted he'd neglected his fitness and agreed to accompany Fidel to the next 3V session.