Unlike his peers at St Puritan's High School, fifteen year-old Frankie was addicted to observing things carefully so he could understand how they function, and why they aren't more efficient, more rational, more… sensible. Having endured a somewhat late onset of puberty, he had recently been making up for lost time by conducting experiments and observations in the field of sex and sexuality. Recent investigation into the aesthetics and mechanics of same-sex coupling with a classmate had yielded valuable data, so now he was ready to expand his research by evaluating the practicalities and satisfaction levels of copulation with the opposite-sex.
The Internet is an excellent provider of vicarious information, but true knowledge can only be obtained through first hand experience. Unfortunately, not being sportive, tall, conventionally handsome or socially competent, he had been unable to find a willing experimental female; the general consensus being that the new boy was skinny, strange, too ready with his stupid opinions, and knew too much about useless things and nothing about what counted.
Fortunately, there was Flora; a pleasant, pale, sturdily built lass with straight brown hair, soulful eyes, large breasts, shapeless legs, romantic disposition and a tendency to imagine no one was cleverer than she. When Frankie joined the class she lent him her notebooks so he could catch up, helped him with assignments, and, mistaking politeness for interest, bored him witless with inane gossip about the other students. Frankie's stoic restraint bore fruit when, desperate to unburden herself of an intolerable secret, Flora confessed her misery at still being a virgin while all about her were apparently losing theirs. When Frankie confessed that he too was an unwilling virgin, which in a heterosexual sense he was, her tears welled in sympathy and he settled back patiently to wait.
Two days later she shyly drew him into a quiet corner and offered to sacrifice her maidenhead on the altar of friendship. Frankie feigned astonishment, applauded her generosity of spirit, and equally shyly smiled his acceptance. Flora was instantly assailed by doubts.
'I'm not a slut,' she whispered.
'Neither am I.'
'You won't hurt me?'
'Never! You can tell me to stop at any time.' He smiled sweetly to underline his good faith.
Flora visibly relaxed. 'Tomorrow at lunchtime?'
'Sure…What'll I bring?'
'Just yourself-I've got everything. Meet me on the far side of the tennis courts as soon as the bell rings for lunch.'
The following day, while the other seven hundred and thirty four students were opening their lunch boxes in the quadrangle or under trees on the side lawn, Frankie and Flora were ducking under a wire fence into a scrubby wasteland. A barely visible track led to a concrete wall about three metres high and ten long.
'Hurry. We mustn't be seen; this place is out of bounds.'
Frankie looked back. 'We can be seen from the tennis courts.'
'Not if we're on the other side of the wall.' She skipped excitedly around the back to a grassy spot, used her sensibly shod foot to shove aside cans, plastic bags, cigarette butts and other detritus to make a space, took a rug from her schoolbag, spread it, handed Frankie a foil-wrapped condom, and plonked herself down, unsure what to do next.
Frankie sat beside her and looked around. 'What is this place? And how did you know about it?'
'Charlene told me. It's where lots of the girls come with their boyfriends. It's an old rifle range for when boys used to have military training about sixty years ago or something.' After a nervous look around she whispered, 'We've only half an hour left.'
'Yeah, right.' Frankie stripped, played with himself until he was stiff enough to roll on the condom, then stared in horror at Flora who had placed her neatly folded cotton panties on the rug beside her and, still wearing her regulation school uniform, sensible brogues, beige socks, and cream blouse buttoned to the throat, was sprawled on her back, eyeing his manhood in alarm. The front of her pleated tartan skirt had been drawn up just enough to expose a soft white hand covering her pudenda. The effect was lewdly prurient.
'What's the matter?' he demanded, failing to conceal his irritation. 'Never seen a penis before?'
'No. I mean yes. I mean are they always so big?'
'Usually bigger. I'm on the small side, so you've no cause for concern.' He paused and took a deep breath before saying something he would soon regret. 'I'm sorry, Flora,' he blurted, 'but there's no way I can have sex with you if you're wearing clothes!'
'The full sensual delight of sexual pleasure can only be experienced when both participants are naked, stimulating all the senses and culminating in the physical entry of one into the other, at which time they become a temporary physical and spiritual unity.'
Frankie's soft, reverent tones insinuated themselves into the part of Flora's psyche desperate for attention, mystery, ceremony, and actions that would validate her existence as a female. As if mesmerised she ripped off blouse and skirt, tore off the brassiere, and lay back with legs impossibly wide apart, arms wide to the sky.
Frankie frowned and regretted telling her to strip. Exposed to the light of day the smooth, pale, over-abundant flesh was not an inviting mattress, nor did he relish the possibility that, face to face, she might want to kiss him.
'What's the matter?' Flora asked, nervousness galloping back.
'Nothing. You look wonderful-the primordial virgin.' Frankie's voice became even more intimate, suggestive and, to Flora at least, arousing. 'I want to make this special for you, and the most natural and satisfying way for men and women to copulate is the way all primates do it-the female on all fours and the male mounting from behind. The penetration is easier for both, the clitoris is better stimulated, and the male can use his hands to caress the female's breasts.'
Kneeling beside the speechless young woman, he gently rolled her over, placed a strong arm under her soft belly, heaved her onto hands and knees, then positioned himself behind, intrigued at how little difference there was in appearance between a female in this position and a male. The anus was the same and Flora's slightly swollen and darkish vulva looked very similar to a scrotum, except for the vertical slit showing pink at the edges.
He stroked it, triggering a whimper-whether from pleasure or fear wasn't clear. Then placing himself directly behind her, he positioned his knob at what he had read were the gates of heaven, and was about to thrust when…
'Stop right there, Frankie Goldmein!' The voice was loud, nasal, sharp and unpleasant and belonged to Mr. Hayter, the schools Christian Chaplain and defacto guidance counsellor.
Frankie turned his head and frowned at the man standing beside the wall. 'Why?' he snapped. 'What's it got to do with you?'
'Why? You cheeky upstart, I'll give you why!' The lean and pinched purveyor of morality bounded forward, grasped Frankie by the ear and dragged him backwards.
Enraged by the pain, Frankie slammed his fist into his attacker's celiac plexus at the top of his stomach. The Chaplain sagged back, gasping for breath, then vomited over the rug, just missing Flora's legs. She leaped to her feet wailing soundlessly as she scrabbled for her clothes, too nervous and agitated to dress herself. Frankie calmed her with his hands, then dressed her, telling her not to worry. He would sort everything out. He was just tying her shoelaces when the Chaplain, who had been leaning against the wall taking deep ragged breaths, shouted, 'Perverts!'
'Go back to school, but don't speak to anyone! I'll make sure you aren't in trouble.'
Flora remained frozen, transfixed by fear.
'Go!' Frankie snapped, giving her a sharp shove.
Flora stared wildly at Frankie, took courage, and ran.
'Cover your shame!' the Chaplain rasped.
Frankie gazed down at his lean frame and quiescent penis, from which he casually peeled the condom. 'I'll dress, but not from shame.'
'Wait for me outside the Principal's office in ten minutes!' the religious man snarled before staggering back towards the school.
Making himself as presentable as possible, Frankie raced to the Principal's office, arriving before the Chaplain. He burst in without knocking. Closing the door he stood in front of Mrs Payshince's desk with his hands behind his back.
Apparently unsurprised, the Principal, a middle aged, comfortable woman with grey hair and no obvious makeup or perfume, calmly placed her sandwich on a plate, wiped her mouth with a sensible handkerchief and raised her eyebrows to invite an explanation.
'The Chaplain followed Flora and me to the Rifle Range and saw us naked.'
'Flora?' The incredulity in her voice was unmistakeable. 'Flora Shiotte?'
'Yes. But I forced her.'
'How? She's twice as big as you.'
'I told her I'd spread nasty rumours about her on social media if she didn't.'
'And did you have sex?'
'No, Mr. Hayter must have been watching us for a while, because he stopped me at exactly the last second.'
'By shouting. Then he grabbed my ear and it hurt so I punched him in the stomach, then he vomited over the rug, so I told Flora to dress and leave.'
The Principal's head was shaking in disbelief.
'It's true! So promise me you won't punish Flora; she's a good girl and I think you should keep all this a secret so she doesn't get ridiculed by the other girls who are really nasty to her sometimes, and…'
A knock on the door interrupted what was in danger of becoming a litany of complaints about the school he detested.
An angry, self-righteous and fully recovered Chaplain recoiled in fury at the sight of his enemy. 'I hope you haven't been taken in by the lies of that moral cretin, I found him…'
'Yes, I'm aware of what you found. Frankie has explained it all.'
'What are you going to do about it?'
The Principal turned to Frankie. 'I will have to suspend you, Frankie, for punching the Chaplain.'
'What about what he was doing with Flora?'
'Thanks to you, Mr. Hayter, he did nothing.'
'But…he was naked and…'
'So were Adam and Eve in their innocence.'
'What about the girl?' The Chaplain demanded.
'What about her?'
'She must be punished.'
'Don't you think vomiting over her was punishment enough?'
'I missed. And if you don't order her punishment I will make sure she…'
'From what I can gather,' the Principal interrupted sharply, 'you perved, I think the expression is, on the two young people for some time before intervening. I don't think that will look good on your reference when you're looking for another job.'
'You mean you'd…?'
'Yes. So take heed of your guru's advice and forgive sins and nurture the sinners, Chaplain.'
He was shaking in anger, apparently unable to formulate a response.
'Don't let me keep you I'm sure you have important things to do.'
The Chaplain stormed out and she turned to Frankie. 'What is it about the school you dislike?'
'The teachers have tunnel vision and aren't interested in anything except exams.'
'Several teachers have told me you don't concentrate, have a wandering mind, and are constantly interrupting with irrelevant bits of information, asking impertinent questions, insulting them, and not bothering to study for tests.'
'Insulting them? How?'
'Telling them they're ignorant. Berating them for their narrow approach…' She let her voice trail off into a question.
'That's because as soon as they tell us something, dozens of related ideas pour into my head and I think about them as well as what the teacher's saying and then I ask them about it but they don't understand me and…'
'Won't your parents be angry when they find out?'
'No. They're used to me. They said that if I don't make a go of this school I'll have to either get a job or do correspondence. They leave it to me to do what's best for myself.'
The Principal was shaking her head in perplexity. 'You seem so…' she shook her head and changed tack. 'Why did you choose Flora?'
Frankie's grin transformed his face, triggering a sudden surge in Mrs. Payshinse's heart rate. His eyes literally twinkled, and health and life seemed to erupt from every pore. In that instant she fell in love-in love with the first young person who embodied everything she had always hoped to find, but never had in the teenagers in her care. A delight in learning, in living, in laughing and daring, in moderation and excess in… She stopped herself. 'I'm ridiculous,' she told herself. 'He's just another kid,' but she couldn't take her eyes off the animated face and body, and joined in his laughing as he described his relationship with the bovine Flora, who was the only person to befriend him when he arrived, and when they discovered they were both virgins they decided to rectify the deficit.
'So why are you taking all the blame?'
'Because she needs an education and likes it here, whereas I want to get kicked out. So, if you please, Mrs. Payshinse,' Frankie continued, tugging humbly at an imaginary forelock, causing her to laugh explosively, 'could you please, please expel me? I really don't like it here. It's not you,' he added hastily, 'I really like you, you're the best principal I've ever met, it's me… I just don't fit in… so… please?'
'Oh Frankie… you look so ordinary; but you're definitely not.'
'And so do you; and neither are you.'
The Principal heaved a sigh. 'I wish I'd got to know you earlier. Go and get your things and then collect your official expulsion notice at the front office. It should be ready in fifteen minutes.' She held out her hand.
Frankie grasped it, kissed it, shook it, then pulled her close and planted a soft kiss on her cheek. 'Thanks, Mrs. Payshinse. If all the teachers were like you I'd never want to leave.'
And then he was out the door and the room seemed dimmer, drained of energy and life, and the Principal sagged into the chair behind her desk and stared vacantly into space, wondering what she was doing and why, and how long she could keep going.
Frankie had just collected his letter from the secretary when Flora exited the Principal's office. She ran to him, wrapped him in a bear-hug, kissed him on the lips, held him at arm's length and whispered, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are the nicest person in the world.'
And then she was gone and Frankie whistled happily all the way home.
Two hours earlier than usual he let himself quietly into the house, wondering why the gas delivery truck was parked in the drive. Not wanting to encounter his mother before he'd worked out a way of presenting his fate in a favourable light, he was tiptoeing quietly to his room when a scream followed by grunts and moans diverted him to his mother's bedroom. He should have guessed. Instead of writhing in the throes of death, she was writhing in the throes of ecstasy, in the identical position to that of Flora a couple of hours earlier, while the impressively hairy body of the man who delivered gas cylinders was doing what Frankie had been prevented from completing.
Leaning silently against the doorjamb he studied the scene in an attempt to understand what had so offended the Chaplain. Unable to see anything depraved in the activity, his shrug of incomprehension caught his mother's eye.
'Frankie! Are you all right?' she asked with unwonted concern, causing the gasman to stop mid thrust. 'Don't stop,' she snapped over her shoulder.
He recommenced rhythmical pumping, staring curiously at the intruder.
'I'm fine, Virtue. I just got caught doing what you're doing, so they kicked me out.'
'Oh, poor darling… ouff!' she panted after a particularly hard thrust. 'Go and uhhh make uhh… us a nice ahhhh… cup of ohhhh yes!!…tea and we'll talk it oooover. Give me ten minutes?' Her voice slid up an octave along with her lover's orgasm.
Having secretly watched his mother during other such apparently ecstatic couplings, Frankie shook his head at her insatiable lust and lack of discrimination when it came to partners. In the kitchen he pondered the meaning of life while preparing afternoon tea. Unsure if his mother would want sweet or savoury biscuits, he plonked both on a plate, poured boiling water into the teapot and sat, wondering how to make the best of his new freedom.
Five minutes later he heard the gasman drive away and the shower running, so poured two cups and took a plate of sandwiches out of the fridge.
Virtue arrived wet from the shower, still drying herself. 'Let's drink it out on the verandah.'
'The neighbours will see you and complain again.'
'Not if I hang the towel in their line of sight.'
They went out, she pegged up the towel then collapsed onto a chair. 'Ouf! I feel as if I've been running a marathon.'
'It sounded as though you were.'
'Was I very noisy?'
'No more than usual.'
'Cheeky monkey.' She took a sip of tea and a sweet biscuit. 'So, Frankie, you've been expelled again! Really. Why weren't you more careful? Who were you doing it with?
'A girl at school.'
'What happened to her?'
'Nothing. I said I'd forced her.'
'So I'd get expelled.'
'Typical… How did they find out?'
'The Chaplain followed us, perved for a bit, then stopped me just as I was about to take the plunge.'
'Next time choose somewhere private.'
'There won't be a next time. Having seen her saggy body and then you and the gasman, it no longer appeals.'
'That was unnecessarily cruel.'
'Are you going to tell your father why you've been expelled?'
'No way! He reckons masturbation's a sin, so he'd slaughter me if he knew I'd been caught fornicating. What about you?'
The mother concealed her amusement and smiled conspiratorially, 'I won't tell on you if you don't tell on me.'
They shook hands. Not as friends, they'd never been that, but to confirm the loose alliance they'd formed when Virtue decided she was too young to be the mother of a clever five-year-old extrovert, so they pretended to be brother and sister whose mother had disappeared mysteriously, leaving them in the care of a grumpy old man whom Frankie called Dad, despite being certain he was no relation. It wasn't long before Frankie was very pleased that no one thought the outrageously flirtatious female who accompanied him occasionally, was his mother!
During lunch, Frankie gave a slightly more detailed account of the incident that set them both laughing.
'So… you're still a virgin at fifteen.' she stated thoughtfully. 'Does it worry you?'
'Not at all. I was just curious.'
'I'm pleased you were interrupted,' she said quietly. 'Girls like your Flora only need to think about sex to get pregnant. And I know what I'm talking about,' she said with unaccustomed thoughtfulness. 'And I'm not surprised they got rid of you,' she added with a sigh of resignation. 'All your teachers have disliked you. I can't recall a positive comment on any report card since you started school.' She raised her eyes to the ceiling and recited, 'Frankie is an intelligent child burdened by overweening self-importance. Frankie is an opinionated child. Frankie is irritatingly dogmatic. Frankie is convinced he's always right. Frankie's pontifical manner irritates pupils and teachers alike. Frankie should have sensitivity training before someone does him serious harm.' She gazed in confusion at her chirpy son who was nodding in delight as if she'd been reciting a list of compliments. 'Don't you care that your teachers all think you're a smart arsed, up yourself, self-important, know-it-all prick-an assessment with which I heartily agree?'
'I don't care what they think about me,' Frankie added with a shake of his head. 'Teachers write nonsense like that because they're ignorant, unintelligent, dull witted, obtuse, pea-brained, brain-dead idiots too stupid to realise I'm smarter than them… and much more charming and interesting,' he added with a nod of finality.
Long before her son had reached school age Frankie's mother had learned not to wast energy arguing with him-he always won. 'I'll concede the last one,' she sighed. 'Meanwhile, how about using your superior intelligence to decide what we'll tell your father.'
'No need to tell him anything. He's always at work when I'm at school, so there's no reason for him to find out.'
'But what about school?'
'The Internet's full of study courses. I'll do it by correspondence.'
The mother shrugged. When it came to decisions she was no match for her son. Despite being considered beautiful by all who knew her, Virtue Goldmein's lack of education, formal or otherwise, had resulted in a deep-seated sense of intellectual inferiority, causing her to withdraw into irritable silence when forced to think about things not directly concerned with day-to-day living or sex. Her parents had not named their only daughter Virtue on a whim. Believing in the mystical power of names, they hoped to ensure she would remain pure and unsullied until marriage. To assist the name to work its mystical power, as soon as menstruation commenced she had been forbidden to leave the house unless accompanied by one or both parents, or her brother Ingenio.
Ingenio's name had been intended to make him inventive, creative, resourceful, shrewd and sophisticated. To their delight he embodied all of those qualities and, although three years younger than his sister, took responsibility for her as if he was older and wiser.
The same parents had insisted their grandson be called Frank, to ensure he was at all times candid, direct, forthright, plain-spoken, straightforward, open, honest, truthful, sincere; outspoken, and not afraid to call a spade a spade. Their daughter's name turned out to be egregiously inappropriate, but they had been spot on with her son.
2 Virtue, Ingenio & Constantine
Fifteen years earlier, Virtue's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Fey, had considered themselves fortunate in their two children; both Virtue and Ingenio were healthy and attractive, neither were rebellious, and both wanted to please. No easy task with parents who expected their offspring to reject earthly delights in favour of spiritual development.
Virtue Fey, however, also wanted to live in the same real, physically exciting world as her friends, not sit around nurturing her spirit with meditation and self-denial. It didn't make sense and she said so, repeatedly, causing her parents to label her unreliable and easy prey for sexual predators.
Unable to please her parents, Virtue sought solace in food until someone yelled 'Hey Fatty Fey!' from across the street. That triggered a bout of bulimia just on time to give her an attractive sylph-like figure that would be a benefit for life. As food was now off the list of pleasures, she indulged in marathon bouts of self-pleasure; which she soon realised was better than eating because it could be kept secret and left her feeling dreamy and contented-a state her parents fortunately confused with spiritual serenity. Masturbation is notoriously addictive and Virtue rapidly progressed from simple thigh massage to complex and intricate techniques that afforded hours of exquisite delight and gratifyingly explosive orgasms. The resulting ecstatic whimpers, her brother Ingenio warned her, could not be mistaken for spiritual rapture, so she ought to put a pillow over her head.
Ingenio, although three years younger, outstripped his sister both intellectually and physically. 'Your children are perfect representations of Yin and Yang,' a spiritual guru had once declared in an effort to curry favour when attempting to sign the Feys up for a course of his lectures.
Ingenio understood but couldn't sympathise with his parents' fixation on spirituality, privately rejecting their insistence that the spirit was separate from the physical body. When he was eleven years old he suggested that because the contemplation of spiritual things was performed by the brain, a physical organ, then spirit and body couldn't be as separate as his parents insisted. His abject apology when accused of heterodox rebellion allayed their anger, and as he was canny enough to never again evince the slightest doubt about their increasingly insane beliefs, he became the reliable, sensible, trusted son who could do no wrong.
Both Police Officer Fey and his Social Worker wife were obliged to work shifts, which meant there were many times when neither parent was at home to guard their offspring. When the children's babysitting grandparents retired to the Gold Coast, eleven-year-old Ingenio was appointed guardian of fourteen-year-old Virtue when both parents were at work. The decision pleased both children, who trusted each other implicitly, even though the only thing they had in common was implacable opposition to their oddball parents. Making the best of things, they escaped boredom by playing games, sharing secrets, surfing the Internet, and planning their future lives.
When Ingenio had his first wet dream, it was with Virtue he celebrated, just has he had been the first to know, observe and assist when she began to menstruate. They became avid subscribers of Internet health sites that explained how and why their bodies were changing, and kept photographic diaries of their bodily functions and changes - which couldn't come quickly enough. The future was somewhere they longed to be… independent and free of parental oversight.
Ingenio's unsatisfyingly messy wet dreams ceased when masturbation commenced, which provided another activity for the siblings to share and discuss in detail. Although always a solo activity, the pleasure was sometimes enhanced by facing each other on a bed while demonstrating their latest method of achieving ecstasy. Ingenio's interest was intellectual and scientific. Virtue's was in being admired. Neither felt sexually attracted to the other. Observing politely and not interfering was the rule, and only headless photos were posted on the Internet under their noms de plume.
Virtue was never allowed to leave the house alone. If she went to a friend's house, Ingenio went too. If one or other of the parents couldn't drop them off and pick them up, they had to call a taxi. Afraid of spiritual contamination of their house, their children's school friends were not allowed to visit. This suited Ingenio who liked school, but needed to keep his two lives separate. When Virtue's best friend, Angelique Tollirint, asked her to come after school to play, Ingenio reluctantly agreed to accompany her, imagining a boring afternoon of girl talk.
Angelique had a brother, Constantine, a year older than Ingenio, who was being home-schooled while his school Principal decided whether to let him return after he'd attacked several other boys with knives, and spray-painted obscenities on the walls. He had also been apprehended by the police for breaking shop windows, stealing money from parking metres and setting fire to parked cars. The police had warned his parents that next time he would be incarcerated in a Boy's Remand Centre from which they knew he would emerge a hardened criminal.
Both parents were at their wit's end, unable to understand why the boy they loved was doing such stupid things. When asked, he shrugged and refused to speak. Impotence had rendered their lives intolerable. A psychiatrist mumbled autism and prescribed tranquilisers, which they tossed away. His brain needed all it's cells sparking properly if he was to solve his problem. The lad wasn't basically evil; he always apologised after doing something stupid, but seemed incapable of change.
And then Angelique's pretty friend Virtue arrived one day after school with her twelve-year-old brother, who saw Constantine out in the garden, ran out and started chatting. The mother watched nervously, waiting for her son to attack the intruder. Instead he laughed, grabbed Ingenio's hand and dragged him off to the tool shed where his father had given him a workbench for his personal use. And there they remained until it was time to go home. At Constantine's insistence, Ingenio willingly promised to come back the next day.
Constantine was calm that evening at dinner, did his homework, played chess with his father and lost without a tantrum, didn't bother with computer games or a book, simply went to bed without complaining. His parents couldn't believe the miracle and metaphorically held their breath until the following afternoon when the same thing happened.
The two boys became best friends and while Virtue and Angelique were putting on makeup and clothes, talking about boys, playing music, dancing, giggling over photos of film stars and boy-bands, Ingenio and Constantine would be repairing Constantine's bike, making model aeroplanes, looking through his father's microscope… always practical and worthy activities until they deemed they'd earned the right to shut themselves in Constantine's bedroom, take off their clothes and explore each other's bodies.
Ingenio appreciated Constantine's practical, down to earth nature, and Constantine appreciated Ingenio's easy going sense of fun and lack of curiosity about the reasons for his previous rotten behaviour-especially as he had no idea himself why he'd been like that. What he did know was that he didn't want to be that person ever again.
Every afternoon Ingenio would be greeted by Constantine's smiling mother who plied them with cakes and drinks and the sort of loving attention that was foreign to Ingenio's parents. While allowing the two boys every freedom, the Tollirints kept discreet, watchful and eternally grateful eyes on them, in the process gaining a very good idea of how the relationship was developing.
One sunny weekend afternoon when Constantine's mother was at her bridge club, Mr. Tollirint stood in front of a mirror practising keeping his face looking relaxed and calm. He had a fair idea of what the boys were doing, and was determined not to seem even slightly censorious. They had to trust him to trust them to live their lives as they thought best and this seemed the best way to go about it. He stood outside the door taking deep breaths for a minute, then opened it and breezed in, face a picture of benign open-mindedness.
To his astonishment, he required no effort of self control, an honest laugh erupted, he took a chair, turned it around and sat astride, leaning on the back and facing the bed on which a pair of naked monkeys were innocently cavorting; Ingenio astride and energetically impaling himself on his giggling friend's erection.
They froze and stared at the amused parent.
'What's so funny?' Constantine asked with a hint of his former belligerence.
'You two. You look like a pair of young bonobos having fun and it looks so… so natural it makes me laugh from pleasure.'
'Seriously? You're not mad at us?'
'Of course not. Why should I be?'
Ingenio, heart thumping from fear of losing Constantine, asked anxiously, 'Are you really not mad at me… not upset about…' he gazed down at an erection that seemed to have grown over the last few minutes, then helplessly back to the smiling father.
'Good heavens no! You both look wonderfully fit and healthy.' He laughed at the surprised reaction. 'Seriously, Ingenio, I doubt that anything you would do could upset me. I'm very pleased you're Con's friend, and if ever you need anything, any time, you have only to ask. And you are always welcome in our house.' He turned to his son. 'Do you agree, Con?'
'Yes,' Constantine managed to reply in a strangled whisper. 'Then you still like me? You aren't mad at us for… for doing this?'
'Con, you are exactly the son I have always wanted you to be. As for what you were doing when I so rudely interrupted… you were having good clean fun, taking pleasure in each other and doing no harm to anyone. There is nothing healthier than that. So make sure you never pay attention to horrible people who tell you pleasure is a sin. They are evil.' He leaned back on his son's desk and smiled broadly, well pleased with himself.
Ingenio was lost for words and Constantine was shaking his head in astonishment. 'Thanks, Dad! You and Mum are the greatest.'
'Yep, we're a great pair. But I forgot what I came in for; do you want to go for a swim?'
Constantine whooped in delight.
Mr. Tollirint went to his room to change.
The boys prised themselves apart and Constantine said nervously to his boyfriend. 'You've bewitched Dad! But,' he lowered his eyes and his voice shook slightly, 'Just because Dad said that, you don't have to stay my friend if you don't want to.'
'Try and stop me!'
Eyes brimming, Constantine found a speedo for Ingenio, then they raced down to wait at the car.
Twelve minutes later they joined hundreds of others making sand castles, reading, splashing in the shallows, swimming out to the pontoon and diving off. Mr. Tollirint bobbed up and down in the warm shallows before relaxing on the beach, not daring to take his eyes off the two young people he treasured.
Later, while sharing a cup of tea with his wife, Constantine's father gave a reasonably accurate account of his afternoon.
'And you weren't shocked?'
'Not in the slightest. As you know, I was prepared to be all tolerant and understanding, but they looked so sweet and natural. So innocent and yet knowing, that I was bowled over. It was… it sounds daft, but it was beautiful to see them enjoying each other. Nothing to be tolerant about. That'd be like tolerating them breathing, it was that natural.'
'But how can they know at their age?'
'When I was Constantine's age I was jerking off over girly magazines wishing I could do to Margaret Simpton what he was doing to Ingenio. No one would have asked how I knew what I wanted; they'd have accepted that what I wanted was right for me. And that's clearly how it is for them. Right. And I have to say, seeing them so obviously in love made me the happiest man alive.'
His wife kissed him on the cheek. 'Well, you trust me to know what I'm talking about regarding women's issues, and I trust you to know what you're talking about when it comes to men. That makes us the happiest couple alive.'
Meanwhile, lying side by side on Constantine's bed, the two youths analysed what had happened that afternoon in an effort to work out what it meant for them and their future.
'It means that what we do is Ok… I think,' Constantine said uncertainly.
'Yeah. It means it's normal to fuck and wank and have fun as well as do all the other things we do. Your father wouldn't have said he was glad I was your friend if it was bad or strange.'
When the realisation that it was as good to enjoy each other's body, as it was to enjoy their mind, had been absorbed into the part of the brain responsible for emotions, their heads and hearts filled with an ineffable lightness. And when they understood and really believed that Constantine's parents considered their friendship good and desirable and hoped it would last, they floated in a warm tub of happiness. Smiles grew and a contented lethargy spread as they rolled to face each other. Then, as if propelled by an external force, they placed their lips softly together and remained absolutely still, hearts so close they couldn't tell whose was beating, wondering and almost hoping that if they stayed like that for long enough they would melt together and become one being.
It was their first kiss, because they knew from internet sites that sex was only sex, but kissing meant something else entirely. It meant you liked… no! More than that! It meant you loved someone. And both knew now, deep in what the Feys would call their spirit-selves, that they would love each other forever.
At home later that evening when Virtue learned of the intimate position in which Constantine's father had found the boys, she was jealous. It wasn't fair that Ingenio should have experienced an erect penis inside him. She was fifteen and should also know what it was like. Not in her anus of course, that was what men did to each other; she had a different hole for men to put their erections in. She already got a lot of pleasure from it, but… she wanted to experience everything and it was up to Ingenio to do it to her.
Ingenio refused point blank. He loved what he and Constantine did together-it was special and sacred, and he wanted to be faithful to him. Virtue should wait till she found a man who wanted to do it to her. She pleaded that she didn't want him to come inside her; that would be gross. All she wanted was to know what it felt like, then he could pull out and she'd finish with her fingers as usual.
Ingenio offered to buy a dildo, but she wanted to feel real flesh inside her. If he liked her he'd do as she asked!
Protesting that he didn't know how to do it to a female, they searched multiple sites for the most natural method. Virtue decided on the doggy position because she didn't want Ingenio looking into her eyes in case she looked stupid. Still he hesitated, although also wondering what it would be like.
Scientific curiosity made him want to compare the relative elasticity of anal and vaginal sphincters, the ease of entry, to see if a vagina could squeeze his penis so tightly that he couldn't pull out, like Constantine could-holding him a giggling prisoner until he relaxed. Would Virtue be able to make him ejaculate even if he lay still, merely by contracting her muscles like Con did? And then he remembered there was to be no ejaculation so he wouldn't be cheating. It'd be just another experience with no significance and never to be repeated.
'Ok, but no kissing!' he agreed after five days without seeing his lover and desperate for release.
On a cool evening just before bed, with both parents at work, they showered, then Virtue knelt on the carpet in the middle of her room while Ingenio thought of Constantine, played with himself, placed his knob in position and announced, 'Ready for insertion.'
'About time! Push it in slowly.'
Virtue's vulva was no stranger to fingers, several at a time in fact, and her copious lubrication made the entry effortless. Almost without realising it Ingenio found himself up to the hilt.
'What does it feel like?'
'Nice. Push it in and out for a bit.'
'Your cock's getting fatter thank goodness, I could hardly feel it before.'
'Can you squeeze it? It still feels a bit loose compared to Constantine.'
'That's because you're not very big.' Virtue squeezed.
'Yeah, I can feel it now.' he pushed it in and out for a minute then decided he'd had enough 'Can I pull it out now? I'm getting soft.'
Instead of replying, a soft purring that arose deep in Virtue's throat quickly became a loud humming while her bum began to grind into Ingenio's belly. Alarmed, he tried to withdraw. Too late. Every muscle and sphincter in Virtue's nether regions had gone into what they later learned was benign spasm. Grunting and sweating she writhed as if attempting to free herself from the annoying worm attached to her rear end.
To Ingenio it felt as if fingers had taken hold of his erection inside the belly of the beast, manipulating him mercilessly.
'I'm coming, Virtue!' he almost shouted. 'You have to let me out!' But she only writhed the more until with a great ecstatic whinny she arched her back and Ingenio was certain his essential self had been violently sucked out through his penis. He'd been too frightened to feel much more than an almost-pain, followed by relief when the gates of hell opened and he flopped out; sore and shocked.
'I couldn't help it,' Virtue apologised later. 'At first I felt almost nothing, then your balls rubbed on my clitoris and I got more excited than usual. Then my body took over. Amazing eh?'
'No it is not! You've got a week's worth of first-class semen inside you! Con and I have been doing sperm counts using his father's microscope. I have twice as many as normal men and they're all big and active! Do you want to get pregnant? Wash it out! I don't want to be a twelve-year-old father!'
They filled a plastic bag with warm water, snipped off one corner and squirted it into the still slightly distended orifice. No creamy stuff came out. They attached a hose to a tap and caused pain and slight superficial bleeding while flushing as deeply as they could, then gave up and hoped for the best.
And so it came to pass that despite her parents' best intentions, fifteen-year-old Virtue became pregnant; confirmed by a test kit Ingenio bought at a central city pharmacy. The positive result sent her into hysterics and Ingenio into devising a solution, which appeared in the form of Simon Goldmein, a family friend who arrived the following day to stay for a week while his house was being repainted.
Knowing an abortion would never be permitted, and as both young parents-to-be were determined not to have their child adopted, Virtue followed her brother's instructions to the letter.
Creeping into Simon's bedroom at the witching hour of midnight she used her considerable physical charms to entice the unsuspecting man into a giddy night of copulation-happy in the belief that she had inserted a fail-proof pessary.
Three earth shattering orgasmic ejaculations during one night of lust was miraculous for Simon, whose sole foray into the lascivious life had been with a pretty, pre-pubescent prostitute when he was twenty-four, who gave him crabs. Adult women terrified him, so he had restricted sexual activity to forty minutes of masturbation while watching nubile young girls pleasure each other on Internet web-cams on Sunday afternoons directly before afternoon tea.
A confirmed bachelor of thirty-seven and prematurely middle-aged-both physically and mentally, his apparent sexual success with Virtue left him so absurdly flattered he agreed to marry her when a week later she tearfully and apologetically showed him the test results and nervously confessed she must have put the pessary in the wrong way round.
Tearfully, Virtue confessed to her parents that she had crept to Simon's room and seduced him. When confronted, he agreed he should have refused Virtue's advances, but he would make up for it by marrying her. Parental moral outrage was well and truly tempered by relief that their daughter's shame would be concealed and their social standing enhanced by her marrying a wealthy jeweller.
Wisely, they pressed for a quick marriage before minds could be changed and the belly began to show. Their satisfaction in having accurately predicted their daughter's moral failure, was more than offset by their anger at their trusted son's failure to guard his sister.
The wedding, a week later, was a suitably quiet affair with only close family and friends, and passed without incident. But that was the last pleasant thing Simon experienced. Well before the honeymoon was over he was wishing he'd remembered Wilde's epigram… "Marry in haste; repent at leisure". Headaches and feminine indispositions prevented any repetition of the night of erotic abandonment with which he had been ensnared. He had shackled himself to an apparently frigid spouse whose flirtatious ways made it obvious to every other hotel guest that her desires lay with lean, tough, virile flesh-not the sagging pale and soft variety.
Like all men in that situation he became angry, cold and spiteful, closeting himself in his study on Sunday afternoons in an attempt to recapture the pleasures of singularity. And it wasn't too long before he discovered he was happier with self-pleasure because it was less fuss, just as enjoyable, and much less humiliating than begging for conjugal rights. And so the household settled into humdrum but not unpleasant monotony.
And then baby Frankie was born and poisonous suspicions arose in the minds of Virtue's parents because the mewling babe was identical to Ingenio at birth. There was nothing of the Goldmein strain in the scrawny little runt. Suspicions were soon confirmed by the inordinate attention, love, interest, kisses and care bestowed on the infant by thirteen year-old Uncle Ingenio, whose offers of assistance and demand that he be made godfather, triggered a vituperative and violent outburst from his parents.
A punch in the side of his head on entering the house after school one day, rendered Ingenio temporarily unconscious. He awoke tied to a kitchen chair, both parents armed with thin flexible twigs with which they slashed at his legs and arms demanding the truth. Seeing no point in allowing himself to be disfigured, he confessed in wide-eyed innocence to having inseminated his sister out of curiosity. No one had told him it was wrong.
The whipping stopped and they stared at their incestuous son in horror.
'If you ever tell anyone the truth, you will die,' said his policeman father with such conviction Ingenio didn't doubt it.
'I never will,' he replied with equal conviction.
'You are an incestuous fornicator who is no longer welcome in this house,' his mother snarled. 'You have ten minutes to get what you want and leave.'
Ingenio had often wished his parents would have a fatal accident, never imagining it would be him to suffer the equivalent. He raised his eyes to beg, but they raised their switches and he scurried to his bedroom, jammed his favourite clothes in a bag, followed by his laptop, and then couldn't think of anything else. Not wanting his parents to see his humiliation, he climbed out the window and ran as fast as he could down the street. And then stopped. Where could he go? The obvious answer was to Constantine's. But wouldn't it be shameful to admit that his parents had kicked him out? What if they asked him why? Then they'd also hate him. And he'd promised not to tell anyone. He sat until dark and cold forced a decision and the beginnings of a plan. He knew there were loads of kids as young as twelve who'd been kicked out by their religious parents because they were gay, so that's what he'd tell Constantine and his parents.
As expected, he was welcomed with open hearts and arms and was soon wishing he'd got himself kicked out of his parents' house years earlier. Knowing their working hours, it was easy to return to his old home and get the things he needed. Five weeks later his father was waiting outside the school for him, offering a return to the family home and hearth on impossibly strict conditions. Ingenio was suitably grateful, but respectfully declined the offer, leaving the parents cursing their hastiness but unable to do anything about it because that would almost certainly lead to exposing the unholy reasons for kicking him out in the first place.
Fifteen years later, thirty-year-old Virtue was more attractive than ever. Although still not the sharpest knife in the drawer, she became an excellent cook, a competent hostess and therefore a possession of which her husband could be proud and his friends envious. A natural organiser, she kept the house immaculate yet pleasant. Delighted that she was not required to go to work, she used her free time to keep fit, involve herself in 'good deeds' and enjoy the life of a social butterfly.
The successful seduction of her brother, followed by that of Simon, led naturally enough to the seduction of scores of equally lusty men of whom her husband chose to remain ignorant, - the gasman being the latest.
Simon also chose to appear ignorant of the ups and downs of his son's educational career. Never doubting the lad was his, he often wondered guiltily if the fault lay in his lack of interest and empathy. He'd always imagined he would feel a bond with a child, and that his son would at least look a bit like him. Instead he was lean and chirpy, constantly active, asking questions, trying to do new things. And nor did he resemble any member of the Goldmein family who all tended to be short and wide with pudding faces, rather than tall and spare with sharp, inquisitive expressions. Clearly he was lacking the parental gene as well as empathy, and therefore it made sense to let his wife take responsibility for the noisy, curious, interfering, arrogant, know-it-all young whelp.
Any concerns Virtue had about Simon's reaction to Frankie's latest expulsion evaporated when he arrived home slightly tipsy, stood in the middle of the lounge and stated flatly, 'We're ruined,' before flopping into an armchair.
It took some probing but eventually the facts emerged. The fine old freehold building that had been home to Goldmein Jewellers and Watch Makers for eighty years, was sold. The decline in business had been gradual but unstoppable. Two years earlier, the legal firm in one of the upstairs suites had been absorbed into a larger organisation, as had the dentist who had occupied the other rooms for umpteen years. Since their departure the entire top floor had remained vacant. A similar fate had befallen the Gentleman's Clothing Store in the ground floor twin of the Jewellery shop. Unable to compete with cheap shoes and garments imported from low wage countries, the staff had joined the ranks of unemployed, and the once elegant menswear shop lay empty.
Goldmein Jewellers had fared no better. Despite possessing all the technical skills of his forebears, Simon's beautiful hand-crafted jewellery and elegant clocks and watches couldn't compete with the flood of cheap body ornaments and digital timepieces from slave economies taking advantage of global free trade permitted by a government that considered the protection of their own countrymen's jobs and businesses of zero importance. With no rents coming in and profits evaporating he had been forced to borrow to maintain not only the building, but also the expensive habits of a spendthrift wife. Adding insult to injury, when multinational financial institutions commandeered all trade in precious metals his small but previously lucrative trade in gold fell even deeper into debt. Unable to confess his failure to his wife he had continued to borrow, even against the lovely old house that had been bequeathed to him by his parents.
Because of its position, the commercial property was very valuable and two months earlier an attractive offer had been made that would cover all his losses. Eager to escape his spiralling debt crisis, Simon wanted to accept, but the bank manager assured him he would be foolish to sell during a real estate downturn. Trusting him, Simon had rejected the offer.
This very morning, however, the bank had foreclosed on the mortgage and Simon lost everything. He had signed over the deeds to both his commercial and residential properties an hour before arriving home. Permitted to take nothing from the shop, his sole assets in the world were his clothes, his car, and a portable butane-gas forge and leather bag of jewellery-making tools that he kept in the boot. They had three weeks to vacate their house and find somewhere to live.
Two days of shock were followed by revolt and anger against those who had encouraged Simon to continue borrowing when it must have been obvious his situation was hopeless. His greatest hatred was directed towards the bank manager who had advised against selling. In vain did his wife tell him it was Ok, she would find work. He didn't believe her. Frankie declared that Simon should have refused to honour the debt because, logically, the lender must share the risk of any venture in which he invests; if it fails then he must share the loss. To lend money foolishly should exact a penalty, but as it doesn't it would be immoral for Simon to pay it, because that would only encourage further immorality.
For the first time in fifteen years Simon looked on his son with something akin to affection. He smiled and stroked his cheek. Thank you, Frankie. You have made me feel much better. The feeling lasted until the following morning when they discovered the bank was selling the properties for many more millions of dollars than Simon's debt. Virtue wondered if her husband was having a heart attack. Veins and arteries dilated, his head thrashed wildly, his eyes popped, he foamed at the mouth and uttered whimpers of anguished rage which set his brain whirling and his teeth grinding.
'Yes!' he growled, lips retracted in a horrifying snarl that made Frankie want to laugh. 'Yes. Yes. Yes!' That fucking arseholed shit faced bastard is going to pay! I've been a doormat too long! Revenge! Retribution and fuck the lot of them!'
Virtue gazed on him with a combination of curiosity and admiration, never having heard him raise his voice, let alone swear. She placed a cold palm on his forehead, wondering if he was about to suffer a terminal cardiac infarct, and trying not to hope that he was-his life insurance was up to date and very substantial. 'Are you alright, Simon?' It was difficult to tell if she hoped he was or wasn't.
He swung round to face her. 'Will you help me make him pay?'
'Of course. Whatever you suggest, Simon.' Virtue's eyes lit at the hope of recovering her lost wealth and life.
Frankie, who had listened to the words not the emotion, pulled a wry face. His mother was deluded and so was Simon, but rather than point this out he decided it would be interesting to see how far his fifty year-old father was prepared to go.
For the next two days while Virtue pondered what to take, how to pack, where they'd be going… and solving none of those problems, Simon and Frankie sat in the car and watched the bank manager's house, noting his comings and goings. Such was Simon's anguish he didn't question Frankie's absence from school. That evening he outlined his plan. They'd abduct the bank manager when he was out exercising his dog in the evening. Frankie would pretend to have fallen and twisted his ankle in front of a vacant block. When the manager stopped to assist, Simon and Virtue would drop a sack over his head and bundle him into the boot of the car, transporting him to an abandoned warehouse on the edge of town where they would torture him until he agreed to stop the deal.
'And when he does, what're you going to do then?' Frankie asked innocently.
'We'll worry about that after he's signed the papers,' Simon responded with venom.
The first part went according to plan, but the second didn't. After shoving the wriggling, swearing manager into the boot of the car, Simon and Virtue were so nervous they leaped in and drove off leaving Frankie behind-for which he was very grateful. During the journey, the manager thrashed around and kicked the valve of the butane cylinder, causing it to leak its odourless gas, which asphyxiated him before seeping into the interior where it affected Simon's concentration, causing him to veer wildly from side to side of the road. Virtue, who was in no better state than her husband, grabbed the steering wheel in an attempt to avoid a collision with a bridge. She over compensated and the car grazed the concrete wall sending out sparks that ignited the gas. A fireball erupted in an explosion that was heard a kilometre away.
Having no money and no mobile phone because he didn't want to be constantly available to anyone, least of all his mother, Frankie decided to walk to the only relative he liked, Uncle Ingenio who lived with his partner in a dilapidated old house in the upper reaches of the Yarra River. They'd been meaning to refurbish the place since moving there, but never got around to it. It was comfortable enough, didn't leak too badly, and most of the floorboards were sound. The doors and windows that didn't open were ones they'd probably never have used anyway, and while a spate of burglaries had targeted several elegant houses in the neighbourhood, no self-respecting thief would bother with such a wreck of a place. The best thing about the property, according to Ingenio and Constantine, was the garden; half an acre of wilderness bursting with native trees and flowering shrubs, scores of different birds, lizards, snakes, the occasional kangaroo rat, bandicoots, and Constantine always insisted, a wombat. A somewhat eccentric but productive vegetable garden kept muscles busy and bowels healthy, and a dozen hens provided eggs a-plenty.
Ingenio had been employed by the Department for Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research to develop individualised learning programmes for state schools, until the government decided to balance their budget by pulling the plug on both educational research and funding for state schools, entrusting the education of future citizens to whoever was prepared to buy the infrastructure. The Government's philosophy of education, if you could call it that, was that if would-be educators wanted to make a profit, they would have to maintain high standards to attract clients who would then pay according to results. The predictable result, of course, was a lowering of standards to enable every child and his dog to pass every test. With perfect success rates, fees increased and profits poured into the coffers of the savvy entrepreneurs. The children of parents who couldn't afford the cost of even a basic education, provided cheap child labour that was finally starting to make Australian exports competitive in a global marketplace.
Ingenio was woken at first light by a loud hammering on the door. At first not recognising his exhausted nephew who had trudged the thirty uphill kilometres throughout the night, he hoisted him into the air in delight, gave him a mighty kiss on the forehead, and a hug that squeezed the last centilitres of air from his lungs. When Frankie recovered enough to explain his presence, he was taken to the kitchen, fed on soup, toast, hot sweet cocoa and three fried eggs. Constantine joined in the feast and echoed Ingenio's incredulity at Virtue and her sad husband's predicament and crazy solution.
'They'll go to prison for ever,' Constantine, who was a Legal Aid lawyer, declared with a shake of his head.
'At least they'll be living rent free,' Frankie said with a giggle. 'They've no money, nothing. They're desperate.'
Ingenio turned on the wireless in case the missing bank manager was already on the news. What they heard silenced all tendency to laugh.
'They're dead.' Virtue's brother said thoughtfully. 'They were two of the most stupid people I've ever known, but I loved my sister and…' he sniffed away a tear. 'This is terrible!' He turned to Frankie and swallowed. 'Are you going to be Ok?'
Frankie frowned. 'Of course. Why not? If the fireball and explosion were as large as reported, then it sounds as if it was instant, so surely they're better off dead than rotting away in jail. It would have totally destroyed Virtue; she always thought she was too good to do anything except play the lady of leisure.'
'And there'll probably be a hefty life insurance payout,' pragmatist Constantine added cheerfully. 'What'll you do with it?'
'Can I stay with you two? Then we can use the money to do some of those renovations you're always on about.'
Ingenio was looking at his lover and nephew in astonishment. 'I've always known you were a cold-hearted fish, Con, but Frankie! Where's your empathy, your family feeling? Aren't you sad at losing your parents?'
'I'd be sadder if I had to go on living with them as paupers. Come on, Inge, admit it, they're better off dead than alive.'
'Ingenio waggled his head and frowned. 'What about the bank manager?'
'He cheated Dad out of everything, so deserved what he got.'
'And his family?'
'If he treated them the same way as he treated Dad, and he probably did because people's character is pretty constant, then they're probably pleased to be shot of him. And I'll bet his insurance policy will be ginormous; that'll help them cope.'
'Meanwhile, the cops will be looking for you,' Constantine said. 'Did anyone except those three know you were with them?'
'Then it must never be mentioned. The story is that they dropped you off here on their way to waylay the bank manager, and that was the last you saw of them. You'd better be suitably distraught-can you manage that?'
'Good. As for where you'll stay,' Constantine turned to Ingenio. 'What does the grief-stricken Uncle say?'
'He's staying with us.'
Frankie succumbed to a rare dose of boyish delight, leaped into his uncle's arms and kissed him, paid Constantine the same compliment, then invited them to another round of buttered toast and mango jam.
4 Into the Wilderness
Virtue's parents took the news of their daughter's demise with such serenity the police figured they were either deaf or demented. They were neither. Her father, ex Police Sergeant Fey, had recently been granted permanent compassionate leave on a minimum pension, due to stress-related mental breakdown. The increase in violent crime over the preceding dozen or more years caused by political refusal to reduce incarceration rates by providing adequate housing, employment, health and education services, suitable recreational facilities and living conditions for socially disadvantaged children, and refusing to introduce rehabilitation programmes both during and after imprisonment, ensured that no matter how hard they worked, police officers hadn't a hope of maintaining a safe and pleasant urban environment. His wife, after long depressing years as a social worker, was as equally burnt out and bereft of hope as her husband-a normal reaction to the horrors caused by the disappearing social safety net for disadvantaged families and individuals. Both had been born with a powerful sense of social justice and fair play, but the rapidly widening chasm between the health, wealth and hopes of the multitudes, and the obscene riches and influence of the very few, were the nails in the coffins of their sanity.
Instead of wasting money on counselling, their employers prescribed sleeping pills and anti-depressants, which the Feys shoved in a drawer and refused to take, not wanting to destroy what was left of their brains. Instead, they searched the Internet for natural remedies for Weltschmerz, and discovered the "Society for Spiritual Renewal and Repair", whose Enlightened Sages preached the Perfection of the Present.
It was a beguilingly simple philosophy: "When we think, our thoughts are always about either the past (what we have seen, read, heard or done) or the future (what we hope, expect or want to do or see done). This means that thinking prevents us from being fully conscious of the present. This is serious, because we live in the present, and this lack of conscious awareness of the present moment is the reason for the mess the human world is in. The solution is obvious-we must stop thinking and allow the mind to be constantly aware of the present moment."
Their daughter and her husband no longer existed in the present moment, so to think about them would be a pointless dwelling on the past. By the same logic there was no point in a funeral or any other ritual for people who were dead and unable to share in it. Ingenio and Frankie disagreed with the first point but agreed with the second. And once they learned there would be no inheritance, Simon's cousins also agreed that a burial ceremony would be a pointless expense and waste of time. This was good news for The Accidental Death Insurance Company who arranged a bulk-billed cremation with a score of equally forsaken hospital casualties, and pocketed the remaining Funeral Insurance payout.
Five weeks earlier, with their brains in ferment about planetary bio-collapse, water wars, land wars, global warming, global droughts, global starvation, rising seas and diluvial disasters… the Feys had discovered the "Catastropharian" Internet site, on which an advertisement for a large block of land in Southern Tasmania where one could live "in hyperborean bliss beyond the reach of mad mortals", attracted their interest.
They made an offer, conditional on the sale of their own house. Being in a sought-after central city location it was sold within a week, and the purchase of the Tasmanian property finalised. For what seemed the first time in their lives the Feys relaxed. They had somewhere to go where they could live in the present without fear for the future. For reasons that were unclear even to themselves-perhaps as a way of asserting their independence from a son they had never fully forgiven for rejecting them fifteen years earlier, they decided not to tell Ingenio about the sale of their house, or their impending move. Another disincentive to share the secret was the realisation during their afternoon meditation session, that their grandson Frankie would soon be the recipient of his parents' life insurance policy. As it would be a substantial amount, it was their clear duty to take responsibility for him.
At fifty-seven they were still in reasonable health, although they had to admit that establishing themselves in an untamed forest far from any possible nuclear target and high enough to escape even the most dire rise in sea level, would be a bit of a strain. Fortunately, lean and fit Frankie was in urgent need of firm moral guidance, so it would be their duty to remove him from the undesirable influence of his secular-humanist incestuous uncle, and take on the responsibility of providing the nurturing spiritual environment in which their grandson would absorb the pleasures of unthinking abstinence and the joys of simple living on the fruits of his labour. Frankie might think he wanted to live with his uncle, but he was too young to know what was good for him, so they invited Ingenio, Constantine and Frankie to dinner to arrange for Frankie's transfer to their care.
Mrs. Fey's cooking was almost good enough to distract from the large coloured photographs of exploding hydrogen bombs, melting glaciers, flooded cities, and hordes of starved, dead and dying refugees that decorated the walls of the dining room. The atmosphere was as unfriendly and tense as usual, so it was no surprise to Ingenio when his parents informed him that Frankie should live with them.
'No I shouldn't!' Frankie snarled angrily. 'I'm going to live with Inge and Con.'
'You are only fifteen and don't know what's best for you, and…'
'I am the only person who knows what's best for me, and living with old people is the worst thing possible.' He turned to Ingenio. 'Tell them. Inge!'
'He's right, Mum. He does know what's best for himself. He's asked Con and me to adopt him. The papers are already with the Department.' He turned to his father. 'Surely you can see that, Dad?'
Mr. Fey senior turned helplessly to his wife, who, in a voice dripping with sweetness and resolve, replied, 'The best thing for Frankie is to live with us, not with a couple of godless, spiritually void perverts!'
The three young men were shocked to silence. Neither of the parents had ever seemed to care about their son's sexual orientation or lack of spirituality. Frankie jumped to his feet ready to argue, but Ingenio silenced him with a protective hand on his shoulder. Then without saying another word they got up and left the house.
Before sunrise on the morning of the day they were to leave for Tasmania, the Feys loaded their old Land Rover with everything they needed-tent, sleeping bags, primus, cooking gear, dried food, water, clothing, gardening implements and the meagre contents of their bank account in cash. After a quick breakfast they phoned Ingenio, apologised profusely for their inexcusable rudeness at the dinner party, and, as a way of atoning for their indefensible insults, which of course they didn't mean, invited Frankie for lunch in the park followed by a visit to a much-publicised exhibition of environmental painting and sculpture in which he had expressed interest.
After some persuasion from Ingenio, Frankie reluctantly agreed and was pleasantly surprised by his grandparents' friendliness. Relaxing on a rug in the park, plied with delicious pies and sweets, he willingly agreed to forget the past and cement the bonds of love and friendship by joining them in swallowing in one go the contents of a small tumbler containing a special brew of herbs that had been picked and distilled that morning by his grandmother. It was very sweet and not unpleasant, so he accepted another. By the time they had cleared away the picnic he was deep asleep.
'I knew those sleeping pills would come in useful one day,' his grandfather grunted as they heaved Frankie into the back of the Land rover, handcuffed him to a stanchion, covered him with rugs, and drove away.
Several hours later he woke to the muffled sound of engines. Whatever he was lying on was vibrating slightly and rocking gently. He was naked, felt sick and headachy, groaned and tried to sit up. The handcuffs stopped him. In panic he screamed. Not words but a shriek of anger, fear and a refusal to accept what was happening to him.
'Shut up!' his grandmother snapped. 'If you make a noise I'll throw you overboard. No one knows you're here so do as you're told. You wouldn't live with us freely, so you're coming under compulsion. Get used to it.'
'Coming where? Where are we? Where are we going?'
'We're on a ferry on the way to Tasmania. We're not supposed to remain in the vehicle during the voyage, but I hid so you'd not be too upset when you woke up. If you promise not to shout I'll take off the handcuffs and we can eat and drink.'
'I need a piss.'
She passed him a flask. 'Do it out the door but don't make a fuss or you're dead. We are not going to suffer because of your pigheadedness.'
Frankie stared into her eyes, realised the threat was real, and wisely decided to do as he was told. Once on dry land he'd be able to escape.
His grandfather returned as soon as the ship docked. Frankie was again handcuffed to the stanchion and, like his grandmother, concealed under clothing and rugs as they drove out of the darkness into a sunny morning. It was a relief not to feel the rocking of the boat, but being chained was frightening. After an hour's driving they stopped for breakfast. He was freed, but without clothes or shoes, escape was not an option. Whenever they stopped for diesel or to buy food, he was handcuffed and concealed.
During the three-day trip south, an increasingly incredulous Frankie was introduced to his grandparents' esoteric beliefs through readings from the Catastropharian Handbook of Spiritual Survival, and treatises on the Virtues of Not Thinking, published by the Society for Spiritual Renewal and Repair.
One evening in the tent beside a mosquito-ridden swamp, realising his grandparents were not only crazy but also dangerous, Frankie agreed to join their band of believers in exchange for clothes and shoes. Kneeling with his forehead pressed into the damp earth he repeated after them a solemn vow to live constantly in the present moment and expunge all thoughts not directly connected to spiritual survival.
Furious and ashamed at having succumbed to such insanity, he made a silent counter vow to plan for a future escape, rather than embrace the present with a couple of demented old relics. Concealing his anger he asked if Ingenio knew where he was.
Instead of replying, his grandfather took out his mobile phone, dialled a number, then held it to Frankie's ear. Ingenio answered.
'Inge! It's me,' Frankie shouted. 'I'm…'
His grandfather snatched the phone away and spoke harshly. 'Your mother and I have departed the city of sin. Frankie is with us in good health. If you want to see him again, do not search for us and do not go to the police!' He snapped the phone shut, threw it onto the ground and stamped his booted foot on it until it was smashed to smithereens.
'Why'd you do that?' Frankie wept; almost insane with grief. Ingenio didn't know where he was so couldn't come and get him. He was alone with two mad people and he thought his heart would break. He sank to the ground and wept inconsolably while a hatred of which he hadn't realised he was capable filled him to bursting. Eventually he looked up, ready to murder this horrible old man who had stolen him away from the only person on earth he loved. But the old man was ready with a heavy stick and from the look in his eye Frankie knew he was prepared to use it. Quelling the bile that burnt his throat, he forced himself to remain calm. His only hope was to pretend to accept his fate and prepare carefully for escape. At least Ingenio knew he was alive, and that was the most important thing.
Trailing an aura of sanctity along with the fumes of a poorly tuned diesel engine, they drove slowly south through bleak, desiccated farmland devoid of both natural and human charm. On the western horizon mountains reared; too distant to relieve the dreary monotony. The trip took longer than usual because they avoided civilization by using secondary roads. Arriving in a state of exhaustion at the settlement of Geeveston, they replenished supplies before bouncing and rattling due west up a dusty, stony track into the Hartz mountains. Much of Frankie's anger and irritation evaporated as he gazed at the magnificence of unspoiled temperate rainforest. Gigantic old trees, dense ferny undergrowth, vertiginous drops to one side of the narrow road that wound ever upwards, vast panoramas at every second corner, and waterfalls tumbling down rocky hillsides, sometimes so close they splashed the Land Rover. After seventeen kilometres the road divided. They consulted the Lands Department Map and took the left fork-a dotted line that turned out to be little more than a rocky riverbed through even denser forest. Five kilometres and an hour and a half later, the rutted trail ended at a large cube of stones.
They clambered stiffly out, stretched, breathed deeply of the cold, fresh, odourless air, and stood gazing down a softly sloping, roughly cleared half-acre of wild grasses. About fifty metres in front of them the land dropped steeply, enabling magnificent views due south to distant snow-sprinkled mountains and deep, forested gorges. Scudding clouds propelled by gale-force icy winds straight off the Antarctic, raced across an indigo sky. Spring had arrived in Melbourne; here it was still winter. The strip of cleared land was bordered by dense forest about ten metres to the left of their vehicle, and a hundred metres to the right.
Apparently impervious to the cold, the Feys stood ecstatically at the top of the slope with raised arms, hurling incantations to the wind, shouting their relief at having made their escape from evil humanity. Shivering violently in insufficient clothing, Frankie inspected the stone cube, which turned out to be an unlined room with an ill-fitting wooden door, a fireplace, a window, and not much else. The wind whistled under the eaves of the slate roof and stirred up the dust of the earthen floor.
As they had done each evening since arriving on the island, Frankie and his grandfather erected the tent, this time inside the stone box, while his grandmother heated canned soup on a primus and sliced chunks of camp bread. After spreading their sleeping bags on the floor of the tent, they crawled into them for warmth, and downed the soup and bread. With nothing better to do, and as it was already quite dark inside, they made themselves as comfortable as possible. Despite the howling gale, they fell asleep. In the morning there was ice on the piss bucket outside.
The following months were a torment for a fit but skinny lad who suffered the cold and hadn't the inner fire of belief in the rightness of what he was doing that sustained his grandparents. After days of digging the heavy soil they planted Chinese cabbage, dandelions, chicory, endives and a few herbs. The results were unthrifty, but sufficed to stave off scurvy, and were a welcome addition to meals of dried beans, lentils, nuts and raisins, which were bought in bulk when the grandfather made the occasional arduous trip alone to the nearest shop. He always bought more than they would need and they soon had a respectable hoard of food stored deep in one of the narrow caves Frankie had discovered while looking for a cleaner source of water than the murky, rain-filled pond that had been excavated by the previous owner.
He'd been exploring the edge of the cleared land where it dropped steeply into a gorge, and while negotiating a rocky ledge, slipped and grabbed at vines that were rooted among the moist rocks of a narrow fissure. There were five such clefts, one of which was large enough to be called a cave; slightly larger than their stone hovel, with a smooth sandy floor. Beside it, a substantial trickle of clear water ran down the cliff into a small pool before spilling over into the gulley where it joined a stream and eventually, Frankie supposed, the sea. Over the next few days he and his grandfather chipped out a gently sloping zigzag path down to the relative tranquillity of the caves. Now they had a supply of good drinking and washing water, leaving the dam water for irrigating their herbs.
As winter reluctantly gave way to spring the cottage was buffeted by heavy rain, sleet and powerful winds, but remained solid until a minor earthquake caused a wall to partially collapse and the roof to slide off. They relocated to the largest cave, which was much more comfortable than the hut after they'd sealed the opening with stones and the door from the cottage. Gradually, they chipped away at the walls and roof to create enough space to move around without bumping into each other or the ceiling. One of the other caves was already the larder for their growing mountain of supplies, and when they discovered mushrooms growing in one of the others, their diet improved.
To keep warm and stave off boredom Frankie took over the gardening, leaving the grandparents free to perfect their ability to not think. For hours at a time they sat at the edge of the cliff above the caves and gazed out at the world, minds blank, senses open, aware but intellectually and emotionally uninvolved. Along with the loss of interest in the outside world, came a loss of interest in both food and personal hygiene. Conversation too ceased. Having no thoughts, they had nothing to say. They were returning to the womb.
Stupefied by the mindless labour, the endless cold wind, the lack of human interaction and stimulation and with no possibility of altering his situation, Frankie swallowed his contempt for his grandparents' crazy ideas and, with the determination of a genuine seeker after truth, began to meditate, sitting for hours in one of his secret spots, concentrating on not thinking, dragging his mind back every time it strayed, until one day he found himself in a state of complete sensory awareness; submerged in a myriad of sounds, smells, sensations and sights of which he had never been consciously aware. Not so pleasant was the terrifying realisation that he was totally alone; no different from the tallest tree or the tiniest bacterium, and just as insignificant. The monstrous indifference of life; the never-ending callous, unthinking, selfish struggle for survival demanded of all living things overwhelmed him. In panic he dragged his mind back to the present and spent several minutes deep breathing until he was calm enough to view the experience rationally. Eventually a slow grin spread along with the realisation that in some ways he had always been deaf and blind.
'Thinking focuses my brain on one thing and therefore stops me noticing everything else,' he explained to the trees and whatever else was listening. 'If I deliberately look at something, I only see what I'm looking at! But if I don't look, then I see everything around me.' He laughed wildly at the apparent paradox. 'If I look, I don't see!' he shouted into the wind. 'If I listen, I don't hear! If I think, I'm deaf and blind!'
His grandparents, interrupted while sitting in unthinking torpor on smooth rocks, failed to respond to his revelation; their eyes remaining unfocussed. Only a slight twitching of thin lips indicated awareness of his delight. He didn't mind, because he was beginning to understand what was going on in their heads.
But understanding didn't mean conversion to their choice of existence. They might want to join the living dead, but he was young, fit, healthy and energetic. He needed stimulation. He had grander plans than playing nursemaid to idiot grandparents. If his grandfather hadn't deliberately smashed his mobile phone he would have stolen it and phoned his uncle in the hope of rescue. He had no idea how to drive the unpredictable old Land Rover, and where the keys had been concealed remained a mystery. He could have walked nearly thirty kilometres to the nearest settlement, but each time he started out an irrational sense of duty to his crazy grandparents stopped him.
From the first moment of their arrival he'd been hoping there'd be tourists or bush walkers or a Ranger. But not a single human had appeared. With no radio or other news he couldn't help wondering if his grandparents had been right and the civilized world had imploded. Perhaps an atomic bomb had been dropped on Australia to knock out all the U.S.A. military and spying bases like Pine Gap, and he was one of the last people left alive while a radioactive cloud was on its way. Perhaps the Greenland ice cap had melted and caused a tsunami that had obliterated eighty percent of human civilization. Perhaps Ebola or another dread disease had wiped out all other humans?
The valley that belonged to them was too steep for him to enjoy walking in it and wasn't particularly interesting, being always in shadow, cold and damp. Fortunately, beyond the single-wire boundary fence stretched the National Park, which was full of interesting look-outs, caves, glades and even a magical lake. When not occupied gardening, preparing meals, cleaning and repairing their cave, Frankie wandered through the Park, filled with reverence at the enormity, abundance, diversity and seeming impossibility of life-from giant trees down to the tiniest ferns, orchids, lizards and ants. He followed animal tracks leading to the lake, found shallow caves and interesting rock formations, and no sign of human life, which sometimes pleased him and sometimes increased the loneliness that dogged him. And the nights. He could have done without them. Too dangerous to wander alone without a torch, so to bed as soon as it was dark. The cold. The ever-present fear of snakes, poisonous spiders or other creatures invading his space. The nightmares about looking for Ingenio and never finding him. Of being chased by nameless demons that would do something dreadful if he turned to look at them. No, the nights were not nice at all.
After the sensory revelation triggered by sitting still and not thinking, he got into the habit of wandering deeper into the forest where he'd choose a comfortable place to sit and open his senses for twenty minutes or so; each time discovering anew the life that lived unseen, but not unheard, under leaves, stones and earth. He noted hundreds of different species of plant, flower and seed, distinguished different birds from call, plumage, the way they walked or flew, and rejoiced as the living world became alive in a way he had never dreamed possible. Not knowing the common or scientific names of his forest companions was irrelevant because he had his own descriptors.
The air warmed up during the day but it was always cold at night and in the shade. Being young and fit, Frankie's body quickly adapted to the climate so he was seldom aware of discomfort and usually only wore sneakers, jeans and a t-shirt.
It was usually less windy down in the valleys, and so felt warmer. On sunny days, of which there were plenty, he would strip off and leap from a rock into the lake, emerging gasping for breath. Melting snow fed the stream that filled the lake, so the temperature was never much above freezing. Arms flailing he'd swim energetically to the sandy beach, stand in the shallows at the edge and scrub himself thoroughly with the fine sand from the bottom, determined to keep as clean as possible without soap, because he couldn't bear to pollute such a pristine world.
Afterwards, he would lie on a sun-warmed rock to dry, fantasising about being with someone like himself to share his daily wanking that, despite the momentary pleasure, always left him feeling a bit sad so he'd decide not to do it again. But he always did.
One afternoon while weeding the garden, he heard a vehicle arrive and stop. He sniffed the air. It sounded and smelled like a four-wheel drive. An adrenalin jolt alerted all senses. Who could it be? A murderer disposing of a body? Drug traffickers. Arsonists? The garden was invisible from the old stone hut due to the long grass, but he wouldn't be if he stood up, so he slithered for the cover of the forest and watched a tall, solidly built, deeply tanned man get out of a dusty Pajero with the National Park Logo on the side, stretch, shade his eyes to look briefly at the view, then wander over to the Land Rover.
Frankie guessed he was in his forties with a bushy black beard and a round, cheerful face. Powerful hairy arms dangled from a short sleeved, khaki shirt unbuttoned to expose black hair on a barrel chest and belly. Equally strong and hairy legs swelled from khaki shorts. Thick woollen socks and tramping boots completed the picture.
After peering inside the Land Rover, he kicked at a tyre, squatted at the front and rubbed the mud off the number plate, took out a tablet and typed something in. A few seconds later he stood, read the response, shook his head, looked around again, returned to his vehicle, placed the tablet inside, slammed the door and jogged into the National Park following an overgrown track that Frankie was embarrassed not to have noticed, having always entered from lower down their own property.
So, he was a Park Ranger. That was a relief. But why had he come? Was he checking to see if they were harming the forest? Well they weren't, so that was Ok. Where was he going?
Using his ears rather than his eyes, Frankie followed.
After a couple of hundred metres, the ranger veered south down the slope through places Frankie knew well. 'He's going to the lake,' he whispered to himself, following as close as he dared. 'I wonder if he'll swim.'
Watching from a few metres away, he laughed silently as the ranger stopped at the edge of the water, bent down and put his hand in, gave a slight shiver and stood up. 'Too cold,' he muttered, clambering round to Frankie's diving rock, where he removed his shirt and lay back to soak up the sun.
'Gosh you're a wimp!' Frankie laughed, revealing himself.
The ranger looked up in surprise. 'Who're you?'
'How'd you get here?'
'But…how'd you get here from wherever you live?'
'I live here.'
'Where? How? Who with?'
The ranger stood, approached Frankie and looked into his eyes as if questioning his truthfulness. He was larger than Frankie had thought, and tougher-if that were possible. No vandal or evildoer would dare confront him. 'According to the Lands Department website, there's only a Mr. and Mrs. Fey live up here-no one else.'
'You checked their number plate on the internet?'
'You were watching me?' The tone was sharp and slightly aggressive.
'I saw you arrive and wondered who you were. You're the first visitor since we got here.'
The ranger folded massive arms and stared down, daring the young whelp to lie.
Frankie bravely stood his ground, looking straight back into the greenish eyes. 'I suppose they don't know about me; I've never been away from this place since we arrived.'
'When was that?'
'Beginning of August. It was really cold and windy then. We don't have a radio or anything so I've sort of lost track of time. Is it December yet?'
'It's the fifth of February.'
Frankie shook his head in surprise. 'That means I've been here seven months! So it'll start getting colder soon. I hate the cold.'
'Didn't you have Christmas? New Year?'
'Our family aren't Christians, and Grandpa says every day is the first day of a new year. Calendars are like clocks, he reckons, tools to keep people enslaved.'
'Don't you go to school?'
'Grandpa says schools are just places to indoctrinate kids into believing that civilization and the way most people now live is good, when in reality it's bad.'
'What do you think?'
'He's sort of right. But learning to read and write and do arithmetic is useful.'
'Do you like living here?' The eyes and voice had lost their hardness and a concerned frown softened the ranger's unnervingly symmetrical features.
Frankie thought carefully. He'd asked himself that question daily and knew the answer, but wasn't sure the ranger would understand. He shrugged and hoped for the best. 'I love being free and having all this to myself,' he waved his hand to include the forest, hills and lake. 'But I get so lonely sometimes I want to die.'
'Where are your parents?'
'They died in a car accident.'
'That must have been terrible for you.'
'Actually… I didn't feel anything much. Still don't.' Frankie sighed. 'I wish this was just a holiday and I could go back to Melbourne and live with my uncle.'
'Why can't you?'
'Grandma and Grandad want me to live here and become like them.' He frowned slightly, not wanting the man to think he was a whining complainer.
'Is that what you want?'
'No!' The flimsy barrier he'd erected to prevent a descent into pathetic self pity dissolved, and all his loneliness, frustration and misery gushed forth. 'No! I'm nearly sixteen and haven't lived yet! I don't want to stay here and be like them! I hate them! They're mad! They don't eat or wash or do anything except sit and not think. Grandma says they've become so spiritual they're almost spirits and soon they won't need any food at all. I wish they'd die so I could escape!' He stood, rigid, eyes wide as tears streamed down his cheeks and shudders wracked his frame. There was nothing but truth in the outburst. He wasn't feeling sorry for himself. Not a hint of hysteria, only indignant anger and frustration at his situation.
After a few seconds of indecision the ranger enclosed the lad in his arms, rocking him gently until the tears and shudders ceased.
'Frankie took a deep breath and stepped away a couple of paces, wiping the tears roughly away. He sniffed impatiently. 'Sorry about that. It gets to me sometimes.'
'It'd get to me all the time. I'm impressed you've coped so well. I'd not have been able to.'
Frankie nodded with a sly grin. 'Yeah, you look tough, but you're actually a wimp. Too frightened to go for a swim.'
'It's too bloody cold.'
'Come on. I challenge you.'
They tossed their clothes aside, clambered onto the rock, stood side by side and on the count of three leaped into the water. The race to the edge was a tie, but Frankie remained standing in water up to his thighs to complete his daily cleanliness ritual while the ranger jumped up and down, rubbed at his arms, legs and chest, and shook his head wildly sending water spraying off hair and beard.
'Fuck that was cold I'm going to warm up on the rock! What the hell are you doing? You'll freeze to death.'
'Keeping clean; there's not enough water back at the caves to wash properly and I don't want to stink like…' He shrugged, finished his wash with one last immersion, then also jumped up and down on the sand to shake off the drops.
'Makes the water mucky.'
'Aren't you cold?'
'A bit, but not for long.' He sprawled over the warm rocks. 'Ah, delicious.' He turned his head and laughed at the ranger. 'I told you you're soft.'
The ranger sat up, leaned over and offered his hand. 'I'm Sylvan Forray.'
Frankie took the largest hand he had ever seen in his life, shook it and said seriously, 'Frankie Goldmein. Pleased to meet you. Do you come here often?'
They both laughed at the absurdity, then lay back staring at the sky; the ranger wondering what to do about this kid; Frankie deciding that although his new friend looked a bit like a tough thug, he was the opposite; kind and gentle. An ache filled his chest and the thought of his uncle triggered a painful constriction in his throat. He hoped he wasn't going to cry again. He wanted to wrap his arms around Sylvan's waist and be hugged and to tell him everything about his lonely life and mad grandparents. He wanted to share, to love, to laugh to know he was real and that someone liked and wanted him. He sighed. So many wants and nothing but sadness.
Sylvan opened his eyes and smiled. 'You sighed. What're you thinking?'
'That even though you look like a mobster you're a great guy and I really like you.'
'Yeah. I was thinking the same.'
'That I'm a lowlife?'
'That you're a nice guy.'
'I can't remember what I look like because we haven't got a mirror. Seriously… am I a bit… you know… ugly?'
Sylvan pretended to consider the question seriously. 'You're very lean, but obviously fit and strong. You told me you're nearly sixteen; but look more like a young twenty. I talk to hundreds of kids during school education tours and I reckon you're the best looking and the nicest kid I've met.'
'Thanks, but I'd sooner look like you-a really tough guy that people would take seriously.'
'With a criminal face.'
'No… I shouldn't have said that. I like your face and… I don't know why, but I trust you.'
'Thanks.' Sylvan lay back and an easy silence again descended for several minutes. Suddenly he sat up. 'Do you really want to leave this place and live with your uncle?'
Frankie's sprang to his feet. 'Yes! Yes, yes, yes! I'll do anything to get away. Can you help me? I didn't dare ask.'
'What your grandparents are doing is illegal-keeping you out of school.' He searched Frankie's face. 'You weren't making that up?'
'Are they your legal guardians?'
'I don't know. I don't think so. I wanted to live with Ingenio and they'd filled out papers to adopt me, but Grandma and Grandad drugged me and when I woke up we were in the boat to Tasmania and I haven't been able to escape. I haven't agreed to live with them. The trouble is Ingenio doesn't know where we are, and we've no phones or anything to tell him… he must be sick with worry.' his voice trailed off.
'If I can convince them to let you go to your uncle. Would you like that?'
'Yes please!' Frankie stood in front of Sylvan and, taking hold of the huge hands looked into his eyes. Pleading. 'Please…'
Sylvan smiled uncertainly. 'Right, get your clothes on and take me to your abductors.'
Back at the Pajero, Sylvan took out his mobile phone.
'Who're you ringing?'
'Your uncle.' His eyes searched Frankie's. 'He really does want you, doesn't he? He does exist? I could get into real trouble if you're making this up.'
'Yeah. He really does. He loves me.' Frankie's tension showed.
'Have you any documentation-birth certificate or something like that?'
'Better clothes than what you're wearing?'
'No, I've grown out of the few things we brought, and these are getting tight.'
Sylvan nodded. 'It doesn't matter. If you know his number it'll save using directory enquiries, I can never get their voice recognition to understand me.'
'I memorised it the day we left and repeat it every day in case I get near a phone.'
'Good man. Let's hope he answers. What's his name again?'
Frankie's crossed fingers worked and Sylvan began talking. 'Hello, my name is Sylvan Forray; I'm a National Park Ranger in Southern Tasmania. I'd like to speak with Ingenio Fey, Frankie Goldmein's uncle... I am? Good… No, he's in perfect health. The thing is he wants to go and live with you. Are you prepared to have him?... Excellent. I thought I'd better check before making a fool of myself… Your parents seem healthy and willing to let him go… I can get him to Hobart airport tomorrow, but as he has no money, no documentation and nothing suitable to wear, I figured it'd be best if someone came to pick him up… Yes, I'll wait.' Sylvan turned to Frankie. 'He's over the moon and just checking timetables.'
'Can I talk to him?'
'As soon as we've sorted out travel.' He held the phone to his ear. 'Arriving Hobart ten thirty tomorrow morning. Yes, we'll be there… It's no trouble, I'll let him speak to you now.'
'Inge! I'm coming to live with you…' The conversation was predictably excitable, satisfying and lamentably brief. He handed back the phone with shining eyes. 'Thanks, Sylvan. I really, really love you, almost as much as I love Ingenio. But… you told Ingenio my grandparents will let me go, but you haven't seen them yet; how can you be sure?'
Sylvan puffed out his chest and displayed his biceps. 'Would you argue with me?'
'You wouldn't…would you?'
'No. I've a better weapon. I know the law.'
Frankie led the way past the garden, which Sylvan admired, down the zigzag path and there, as if they hadn't moved since morning, sat two almost-skeletons wrapped in what looked like dirty sheets, staring tranquilly down the valley.
Sylvan wrinkled his nose. 'Boy this place smells ripe.'
The stench was coming from one of the openings in the cliff.
'They shit in a bucket in that cave,' Frankie explained, 'and I dig a hole and bury it every day. The trouble is they spill a bit and aren't too careful about washing themselves afterwards.'
'Fuck I can smell them from here. If cleanliness is next to godliness, your grandparents have a long way to go.'
Frankie giggled and pointed to a wooden door closing the entrance to a cave. 'They sleep in that cave there, and my sleeping bag's in that one further along so I don't hear them snore or smell them. My cave's also the kitchen because all the food's stored at the back of it.'
'No door on yours. I'll bet it's cold.'
'Yeah, it is, so I do exercises to keep warm. Need a new sleeping bag though. Mines got thin and too small so I use lots of dry grass and moss.'
They'd arrived directly behind the meditating pair, who seemed unaware of them.
'Grandpa,' Frankie lightly touched the elderly man's shoulder.
'Yes?' The voice was soft and weak.
'This is Sylvan who is going to take me back to Melbourne to live with Ingenio.'
'No he isn't.' the grandmother said in a strong, harsh voice. 'You're staying with us. We need you.'
'Actually, Mrs. Fey, I am, unless you want the police to arrive, evict, and possibly imprison you for unlawful restraint and neglect of a child, as well as preventing him from attending school. If that happens, Frankie will be taken into care and you will never seen him, or this place again.'
That woke them up. 'You can't!' The elderly man's voice was noticeably stronger. 'We are his legal guardians and we'll sue you for kidnapping. You'll be the one in prison!'
'Show me your legal guardian documentation.'
'Here's the deal,' Sylvan said slowly and clearly. 'Either you let Frankie go and live with his uncle, and I leave you here in peace, or you resist and lose everything-this place, your grandson and your freedom. You've five minutes to decide.' He placed a hand on Frankie's shoulder. 'Show me your sleeping cave and while we're there get anything you want to take back with you while we wait for your grandparents decision.'
'They won't. They're not as daft as they pretend.'
Sylvan crawled in behind Frankie, who seemed perfectly at ease in the cramped space. The huge store of tinned and dried food amazed him, as did the resilience of a youth who could not only tolerate this situation but actually thrive in it. He doubted he'd have been as tough. Unnerved by the low rock tunnel and feeling claustrophobic, he backed out and waited. A minute later Frankie reappeared carrying only an envelope.'
'Are you sure that's all?'
'Yeah. I arrived with nothing so leave with nothing. This is Ingenio's photo and phone number that I've always kept with me.'
'You really do love him, don't you?'
'More than anything.'
They returned to the no-longer-meditating couple who were whispering angrily.
'Ok, what've you decided?'
'Take the young pup! He doesn't deserve us.'
'You're right about that!' Sylvan snapped, 'he deserves someone who cares about him more than themselves.'
Frankie arrived and shyly said goodbye. He was farewelled with a grunt. 'Thanks for giving me a holiday in this place, it's been mostly great.'
Sylvan put his hand on Frankie's shoulder and led him up towards the Pajero, turning back to call, 'You both stink! The place is a mess. Your rubbish is piling up and you have no proper septic disposal. I'll come back in two months and if it's still like this I'll report you to the Health Department.' They drove away, Frankie jumping up and down with excitement.
'Tomorrow Ingenio's coming for me! Can I stay with you tonight?'
'Yes, but not at my house. My wife would want to know all about you, then she'd get all indignant and insist we prosecute your grandparents despite our promises; you wouldn't want that, would you?'
'Not really! They were doing what they thought best. And I've enjoyed myself heaps… mostly… at least now I'm leaving I can see it wasn't a total disaster. But we needn't tell her.'
'You can't keep anything from a woman who's determined to find out. In ten minutes you'd be telling her everything.'
'I can sleep in the Pajero.'
'I'm not leaving you on your own. I'll call her and say I have to stay overnight in the park; it wouldn't be the first time. We'll camp in a forest just outside Hobart.'
And they did. Sharing a groundsheet and blankets under the stars beside a stream, next to a small fire on which they cooked dampers and boiled tea. It was Frankie's best night since arriving on the island, and, he desperately hoped, his last.