Dome of Death

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 2

Mad & Family. The Fierneys. Rory.

Friday morning dawned cool, windy and grey. Scattered coastal showers, the forecast had predicted, with the chance of an unseasonable cyclone heading our way in the next few weeks. The cyclone was hard to take seriously, it was at least three months too early and they never came this far south. With a curious lightness of heart, probably related to the fact that Frances had still not returned from her frolicking, I decided to close the gallery for the next five days, reopening for Mad's show.

I spent the morning painting large, colourful notices informing prospective customers that we had sold out and would be reopening with 'More, Bigger, Better and Equally Exclusive Art Treasures at five-thirty on Wednesday the Seventh of August'. Artistically draped along the inside of the enormous front windows, they were visible from miles away and a damned good advertisement.

My poor old Holden's battery had leaked its charge into the moist coastal air and refused to turn over the engine, so I fossicked in Max's desk and found the keys to his station wagon. Being at the wheel of a Mercedes was tantamount to an exalted encounter with the future. I wasn't driving; I was whisked along in a magic box experiencing none of the tensions I usually associate with getting from A to B. Except I lost my way. The motorway underpass clearly marked on my map didn't exist when I arrived there, and it was eleven-twenty before I pulled up outside the Alcona's house up in the hills overlooking the Coast. A high, creeper-festooned wooden fence hid most of the building's brick walls and steeply tiled roof, from which protruded three dormer windows. A press on the bell brought Mad's voice to the tinny loudspeaker embedded in the gatepost.

'Who is it?'

'Peter Corringe.'


An electronic buzz released the latch, and five wide stone steps led down to a partially opened, heavy wooden door behind which Mad was waiting, tightly wrapped in her eiderdown. The street gate slammed behind me.

'Ah, Peter,' she murmured anxiously, with perhaps a hint of panic.

'Sorry I'm late. I got lost.'

'Oh, that's nothing. Everyone does. At least the very few people we invite here.' She hesitated a few seconds longer than necessary, looking lost and apprehensive until I began to think I'd made a mistake and hadn't been invited after all.

'If it's not convenient, I can come back another time. Or if you'd rather not see me here after all, then you can just bring the frames and mounts to the gallery on Tuesday. Don't worry about it. I understand. It's not easy inviting total strangers to your house. I'm exactly the same.'

She looked at me warily, came to a decision and opened the door wider.

'Come in out of the wind. It's silly to talk here on the steps.'

I followed her into a small room, over-furnished with two high-backed, heavily carved wooden chairs, an elaborate oval table in polished wood, and an alarming, antique wardrobe encrusted with inquisitive cherubs disporting themselves in an exotic jungle of rampaging vines, leaves and flowers. A full-length mirror, tucked behind four Corinthian columns, appeared to lead directly to the nether world. A yellowish rug - a splash of vomit on the polished wooden floor, did nothing to dispel the gloomy excesses of the wardrobe.

It was not the sort of room I would have associated with the creator of the beautifully restrained drawings nestling in my office. She smiled absentmindedly, sat in one of the chairs and gestured vaguely towards the other. I lowered myself into the monstrous thing, and was stabbed in the back by a gargoyle.

Mad giggled charmingly. 'Sorry, I should have warned you. The furniture in this room was my mother's. Classic Gothic horror don't you think?'

'And as uncomfortable as it looks.'

'We spend no time here, so it doesn't matter.' She adjusted herself more comfortably, leaned forward slightly and said gently, 'I realise it's difficult for you to talk about Max, but he was a good friend to both of us, and… I simply have to talk to someone or I'll go mad.'

It seemed churlish to refuse so I gave a noncommittal grunt, which she took as permission to continue.

'Max wasn't on very intimate terms with his wife, was he? At least that's what I gathered from things he let drop when he came to visit.' Her face was a picture of genuine concern. 'How has Frances taken his death?'

I found the question intrusive and couldn't think what to say.

'Come on, Peter,' she cajoled. 'Do the rich and leisured feel the same as us? I spend all my time cooped up here drawing, and lose touch with the outside world. What did she say when she saw Max fall?'

Invasion of privacy is an irredeemable vice. I figure if gossips are happy to receive and broadcast rumours about others, they'll have scant regard for my privacy when I'm out of the room. Were I asked to catalogue the deadly sins, Gossip would head the list.

'Max's widow's state of mind is her own affair,' I replied coolly. 'If you're concerned, why not telephone and offer your condolences? Although I doubt she would appreciate such an intrusion from a stranger.'

'Not a complete stranger,' Mad countered with a cheerful smile, impervious to my reaction. 'I met her once in town, and I've drawn her husband - naked.'

'But not her,' I snapped.

'True. But I wonder about his Will. He had plenty of money. Does Frances get it all?'

I stood stiffly, impatient to get the frames and escape from this woman's curiosity. How, I wondered, could I have been so wrong about Madrilene Alcona. My first impressions are usually pretty accurate.

She leaned back in her chair, pulled a worried frown and smiled gently. 'How about Max's parents? They must be taking it hard, losing their son? As a mother myself, I can feel for them. Do they have any other children? You can tell me, Peter, I'm very discreet.'

'Mrs Alcona,' I said, not bothering to conceal my contempt, 'if you've invited me here to pry into the affairs of others, then you have wasted both my time and yours. Let me have the frames and mounts and I'll be on my way. The gallery will communicate with you in due course.'

She smiled sweetly, tucked her legs into the folds of the eiderdown, wrapped her arms around them and giggled softly, 'But I hoped you'd stay to lunch.'

I was spared a response by the front door bursting open to admit a large, good-looking man, a tall gangling youth, and the two teenagers of the previous afternoon's station wagon. The man greeted me like an old friend.

'Hello,' he boomed, pumping my arm energetically, 'you must be Peter. I'm Brian. This streak of pump-water is Jeff, and the two clones are Der and Dra. I hope Mad's invited you to lunch?'

I glared at the four healthy, sane-looking people, wondering what oddities their exteriors concealed.

'Yes, dear, of course I have,' Mad answered in the most ordinary of voices.

'Excellent! We'll go on up and dismantle ourselves. See you in a few minutes.' They bustled out.

'Der and Dra? Dismantle? What's going on?' I snapped, determined not to waste energy on anger at what was beginning to look like some sort of stupid family game.

'Alexander and Alexandra - our twins; dismantle, as in disrobe. A mantle is a type of clothing. It's a family joke. The children are home early because there's a half-day holiday for a reason known only to the school.'

I allowed myself to look as irritated as I felt.

'Peter, I'm sorry. I got cold feet when you arrived. Yesterday I was convinced you were a certain sort of person; an impression confirmed by your reaction to my drawings; especially the portrait of Max. But… when you arrived today I panicked. Our family is odd. At least most people would think so. Of course we don't. We're more or less self-contained and need no one else, although Jeff is starting to kick at the traces. I'm worried sick about gossip; it could destroy everything. That's why I asked you those stupid questions, to see if our privacy was safe with you. I'm paranoid about it. Brian trusts my judgement - I was right about Max, you see, and told him you were just as nice. Just as healthily broad-minded. It was very important that I hadn't made a mistake about you before admitting you into our family.'

'I can understand your caution,' I replied, mollified but unconvinced. 'However, your family doesn't seem odd to me.'

'When Brian says 'dismantle', that means no clothes. We like to be naked around the house - always have done, and can't be bothered with guests who are uncomfortable with that. Der and Dra have odd habits. We have an unusual house-plan, by European standards that is, and an outlook on life which is so much more liberal than anyone else we have ever met, that I wonder sometimes whether we have made a mistake. But I am happy! We are all happy, so it can't be totally wrong. Anyway, now you have a slight idea about us, are you staying to lunch?'

'Curiosity will not let me refuse, as long as the rest of the house is warmer than this overdressed cool-store.'

Mad gave a delighted giggle. 'I guarantee it. I'll be in the living room when you're… dismantled.' Her impish grin remained floating on the air as the inner door closed.

Having discovered the function of the hideous wardrobe and wearing nothing but a sickeningly certainty I was going to be greeted by jeers and laughter from five elegantly dressed Alconas, I pushed through the door into a cosily warm living area. Mad was stirring a pot on the stove, naked except for a frilly apron. She smiled a welcome.

'I also never wear clothes at home, if it's warm enough,' I confided, eyes scanning the enormous room that appeared to occupy the entire ground floor.

'Take a shower while I finish preparing the meal,' she offered, pointing to a door in the far wall.

I made good use of toilet and shower, in that order, relieved at being able to ensure I wasn't going to smell ripe – or worse – at lunch.

Clean and relaxed, I returned to the main room. It was exactly the sort of place I would build for myself if I had the money. A vast, yet cosy space divided into kitchen, dining, lounge, four study areas, and a smaller chat-space. The door opposite the bathroom opened onto a stairwell leading both up and down, and another gave onto a study containing a desk, computer, a TV, and a sofa that looked as though it could be converted into a double bed. The view from the windows of the main room was less interesting than I'd imagined. We were one storey above the ground, but low enough to ensure privacy. Fences and neighbouring roofs and trees obstructed any potential view. An in-ground pool, patio and lawn tennis court bordered by trees and flowers, turned the place into a mini-resort.

Jeff burst in from the stairwell, fronted me with a smile, shook my hand as vigorously as his father, and asked in a surprisingly deep voice, 'Do you like the house? What do you think of me? Mum says you're as nice as Max. Are you?'

Innocent effusion makes me laugh. I stepped back and looked him up and down as if making a serious evaluation. Jeff was tall, stringy, blue-eyed and topped by a shock of auburn hair. His muscles would fill out in the next year or so and he'd become physically attractive, but facial bone structures were not prominent and it would take only a thin layer of fat to make his face shapeless and dull.

'Question one: from what I've seen, the house is perfect. Two: your indisputable attractiveness will always depend to a certain extent on your lively character, and you must never get fat. Three: of course I am. How well did you know Max?'

'Pretty well. He came round whenever he had an hour or so to spare. The last time he was on a high - kept talking about the excellent artist he had booked for his gallery opening, and promised to bring him to visit. But now it's too late. He's dead…' Jeff stopped and stared out the window. 'I… I can't get my head around death. Max is the first person I've known who's died. Its so… so final!' He turned back to me, his eyes moist. 'I'll never forget the way he wouldn't stop talking or keep still, even though Mum was trying to draw him.' Jeff visibly shook off his mood, grinned and added, 'Dad says we have to live in the present and be grateful for past experiences.'

'And good advice too.'

'Yep. I'm glad I knew Max. He was the most handsome and interesting man I've ever met.'

'Until today.'


'Our relationship is going to prosper.'

'Good - I fancy you.'

'That was quick.'

'I'm precocious.'

'I'm twenty-eight.'

'Maturity becomes a man.'

'Immaturity's illegal.'

'I'm seventeen and legal.'

'When you're a fit young man of forty-nine, I'll be an elderly codger of sixty.'



'I wasn't considering a life-long attachment.'

'Unfaithful! And we've only just met.'

Jeff burst into laughter and I turned from the window to face Der and Dra who had entered during the exchange. Their almost identical faces, framed by longish, dark-blond straight hair, were serious as they stepped forward extending cautious hands. I had to glance down to see who was who. There was no mistaking Der's manhood, it outshone Jeff's and mine by several orders of magnitude. Dra's breasts looked scarcely different from her well-muscled brother's pectorals and, despite slightly larger nipples, she emanated an androgynous quality that was equally attractive. Neither would have to rely on character alone.

'How do you do, Alexander, how do you do, Alexandra,' I said, attempting to match their seriousness.

'You may call us Der and Dra.'

'Thank you. You may call me anything you like, but don't call me late for dinner.'

They smiled with the politeness of those who have heard such chestnuts before. It was astounding how alike they were. Same slightly square jaws, prominent cheekbones, full lips, olive complexions, deep-set brown eyes under arched eyebrows, strong necks, broad shoulders. Involuntarily, I glanced down again to confirm Dra's sex. Narrow hips and well-formed legs. She could have been a boy.

'That's the first time for ages that Jeff's been beaten,' she said earnestly. 'Did Mum teach you the game?'

'I didn't know I was playing one.'

'Oh,' said Der dismissively, 'then it doesn't count. I thought he gave in too easily.'

'Gave in?'

'We go on and on making silly answers till one cracks up - he's the looser,' Der explained.

Jeff put his arm around my shoulder, 'I didn't give in, I was just being nice to a guest and potential lover.'

'Does Peter know you have designs on him, Jeff?' Brian had joined us.

'He does now.'

Brian looked at me with a half smile to gauge my reaction. He was as tall as Jeff, but solid. A tough and fit looking customer – obviously the twins' father. Brawny arms, thick chest evenly coated with short brown hair, strong legs and sporting a light, seamless tan. Mad had chosen a solid rock on which to build her family. He must have been at least forty, but looked in his early thirties.

'Well, I guess forewarned is forearmed,' I laughed, shamed at my lack of originality.

'But not fore-skinned,' interjected Dra quietly peering at my groin with what appeared to be academic interest. 'Are you Jewish?'

Everyone looked at what was one more reason to hate my parents. I had never been able to forgive them for that infant mutilation. None of my friends had been cut and I remained embarrassed by it. Luckily, it was a neat job.

'No, just stupid parents. Does it offend you?'

'Of course not! It's just that I've read about male and female circumcisions and other rites of passage to adulthood, and always thought they sounded grotesque.' She squatted down for a closer inspection. 'Yours is the first circumcised penis I've seen, and it's not horrible, it looks neat, clean, and… somehow honest.' She stood up and smiled at me innocently. 'That sounds stupid, doesn't it? What do you think, Mum?'

Mad hung her apron on the back of a chair and joined us. She was thin, but not unhealthily so. The only hair on her body was on her head, a frizzy black confection like a demonic halo. Small breasts and nipples, narrow hips for a woman, shapely legs and a light tan rendered her one of the few mature women I had ever found physically attractive. Standing beside Brian she reached only to his shoulder.

'What do I think of what, dear?'

'Peter's circumcised penis.'

Fearing ridicule, I glanced quickly around but the three men were taking Dra's observations seriously, and were waiting for Mad's opinion. It wasn't a joke; they were genuinely interested. However, the concerted attention of five people was beginning to have its effect. How far did their liberal outlook go? I wondered.

'I like it,' was Mad's considered judgement. 'It's… sort of innocent. Nothing concealed.'

'And what does the prospective lover think?' Brian asked with a grin, delighting in my discomfiture. The object of everyone's attention was swelling visibly.

'I agree with Dra. Innocent, honest and straightforward - like me,' he replied smugly.

I quelled the urge to cover my erection. If they weren't embarrassed, why should I be? 'It only looks innocent beside Der's magnificent manhood.'

'You're joking! I prefer to look like a human, not a horse,' Jeff scoffed.

'Yours would look larger if you still had your foreskin,' consoled Dra earnestly.

'And consider the aesthetics,' laughed Mad. 'You're the lean, elegant type, Peter. Anything larger would look ridiculous on you.'

'And it obviously works perfectly,' added Brian. 'About thirty percent of Australian men suffer from impotence.'

'We'd better stop,' laughed Mad, 'before it bursts.'

They laughed and I laughed. It was funny and natural, not rude and dirty. I relaxed, they sensed it, and our friendship was sealed.

'The meal's ready, so everyone to the table.' Mad bustled across to the stove.

'Have you ever worked out the percentage increase in volume, circumference and length of your penis from flaccid to fully erect, Peter?' asked Der thoughtfully as we moved towards the dining area. 'I'd say your ratio was much greater than mine. My cock may be larger than yours when soft, but it hardly increases in size when erect. We could compare them with water displacement.'

No one was laughing. They were taking Der's suggestion quite as seriously as they had Dra's earlier interest. Mad was right, they were odd. Deliciously so. Odd in the way I'd frequently wished my own family to be. Intelligent, curious, articulate kids with parents equal to the task of rearing them; and having a liberality of spirit to match. Natural creatures savouring their existence, untainted by duplicity and without the slightest hint of lewdness. I was enchanted. Here were Rousseau's sauvages innocents – except they were educated and eloquent.

'Can it wait till after lunch?' asked Mad, placing plates on the table. 'And perhaps Peter isn't really interested.'

'If it proves Der's monster is no better than mine, I'm all for it. I dislike feeling inadequate.'

'Don't we all?' Jeff concurred.

'After lunch then,' adjudicated Brian, turning to me. 'Red or purple?'

'Red or purple what?'



He handed me a red towel. 'We each have our own, ensures clean seats.'

Mad treated us to a delicious meal of game pie, fresh fruit and vegetables, and yoghurt. It was an extended meal as everyone had plenty to say about what they'd been doing and there was discussion on every topic. By the time the dishes were done and the frames and mounts had been sorted and loaded, it was getting late.

'We'll have to do the experiment another time, Der. I'm expected for dinner at Max's parents place and if I leave it any longer I'll be late.'

'That'll be better actually. I've thought of a few refinements, so need time to set it up. When are you coming back?'

I shrugged.

He stared at me intently for a second then blurted, 'Are you the bloke Max was going to bring to visit us?'

'No idea.'

'Are you an artist?'

'Sort of.'

'Did you exhibit at the opening of Max's gallery?'

'Yep.' Before he could say something I didn't want to hear, I turned to the others. 'I'll see you all at Mad's opening next Wednesday evening.'

'You bet,' said Jeff. We'll be there.'

'Naturally. But,' added Brian seriously, 'you must feel free to drop in, any time at all.'

I raised an eyebrow.

'No! I mean that. We've enjoyed your company. If you're feeling a bit low after the funeral, at a loose end… we'd like you to call in. Right, Mad?'

She smiled and nodded.

I wanted to say it had been the best day I'd had for four years, and they were the nicest people I'd met in that time, but if I'd opened my mouth I'd have flooded the room with tears .

The Fierneys had retired to ten acres of dry eucalypt forest in hilly country about fifty minutes from the coast. Designed by Max, the house had been built by both of us, under the supervision of a retired builder, during weekends and holidays when we were at Uni. Jobs for students were as scarce as hen's teeth and my parents had no desire to waste hard-earned cash on my frivolous aspirations, so the wages paid for my degree. I spent more happy hours at the Fierney's during and after construction than I can remember. A shattered dream, thanks to Frances.

A scrub-covered mound sheltered the property from south-easterly winds and the prying eyes of passing traffic. The driveway wound down through trees to the garage and back door. From the front verandah the land sloped away to the west, affording a view over pastures, coppices, and distant ranges. A State Forest abutted the southern boundary. The neighbours to the north were invisible among their trees.

Nervous excitement as I coasted down the drive turned to dismay when I pulled up in front of the garage. Two other vehicles were already in the parking area. If they belonged to Max's brother and sister, I'd leave! They'd been delighted when Frances arrived on the scene. As I pulled up, a malevolent caricature of the rural gentleman in tweed suit, waistcoat, gold watch-chain draped across paunch, appeared in the garage doorway. Patrick. I got slowly out of the wagon, face in neutral, feeling underdressed in tracksuit and anorak. Trainers were no match for polished brogues, and my long hair seemed decadent beside the neat trim of this country lawyer.

'What the hell are you doing here?' The mouth a hard, thin line; eyes mere slits encased in fat.

'Your parents invited me.'

'They were only being polite. You should have refused.'

'I wanted to come. Max was my best friend.'

'Friend! Patrick snorted, 'My brother had the good sense to get shot of you four years ago. Why can't you leave his family in peace? And driving his car! I've a good mind to charge you with theft!'

He had worked himself into a lather, spraying the threat at the top of his lungs.

Unable to think of anything that might improve matters, I said nothing. This goaded him into action. He turned back to the garage, grabbed a length of dog-chain from a hook by the door, swung it round his head and let it fly. I jumped back, tripped over a coil of garden hose and fell, cracking my head on the edge of the pavers. I rolled over and felt the back of my head - warm and sticky. Patrick's eyes were blank discs of hate.

'That's the most athletic I've ever seen you, Patrick,' I said as evenly as I could manage. 'Now I'm down why not come over and finish me off? Work some fat off your gut.' I struggled to my feet in case he took up the offer, but when I looked up again he was gone.

'Patrick? Is that you shouting? What's the matter?' Hank's voice from the back door. 'What the…? My god, it's Peter! Are you all right, son? Here, let me help.'

'I'm fine thanks, Hank. bumble-footed as ever. I tripped over the hose.' I dabbed at the cut with my handkerchief.

'There's a lot of blood. Come in and put a dressing on it.'

Inside, I was fussed over by Celia, stared at with distaste by Maureen, and glowered at by Patrick, who had just entered.

'Patrick, Peter's hurt himself. Get him a drink would you, dear?' Celia asked.

My erstwhile attacker's discomfort was balm to my wounds as he offered a stingy scotch and water, holding the tumbler just out of reach with finger and thumb. I sat back, forcing him to lean closer. Maureen took over dinner preparation and Celia bathed my cut. It was superficial, but needed a bandage to stop blood dripping everywhere. I looked quite the wounded soldier at dinner, where conversation was stilted but the food was excellent.

Afterwards, as we arranged ourselves uncomfortably in the lounge, Hank plonked himself beside me on the sofa and held out a letter.

'Here's a bit of good news, Peter. Frances's solicitor contacted us to convey the details of Max's will. As you probably know, the estate was held by Max and Frances as joint tenants, so Frances inherits everything. However, the Mercedes and the contents of his bedroom above the gallery; stereo, television, clothes and so on, are in his name only. The will was made last year and his instructions are perfectly clear; everything not in joint names is to go to you.'

My heart lurched, triggering a thumping headache. I searched Hank's face, but his look of honest pleasure was unambiguous. Celia's reaction was equally generous. I glanced across and caught Patrick and Maureen staring tight-lipped at each other. No wonder Patrick had let fly at me. It made a bit more sense.

'I'm…. I had no idea that… Max still...' I couldn't continue. My eyes filled. An enormous lump in my throat threatened to choke me and I sure as hell didn't want Patrick or Maureen to see the state I was getting into. 'Are you absolutely sure?' I whispered. 'Did…did he really?'

'It's a bloody disgrace! Leaving that magnificent vehicle to a slimy pervert! I'll contest it. His brother and sister should come before this…this sodomite!'

Hank and Celia were mortified. They had obviously not expected such an outburst.

'But Patrick, Maureen, you are both wealthy. You have everything you need! Peter is a struggling artist and was Max's best friend. And is a very dear friend of ours too. I think it is wonderful that he should inherit. It's little enough.'

'I'm sorry, Mother,' broke in Maureen icily, 'But I have to agree with Patrick. What on earth do we tell our friends? Our brother left his personal belongings to a queer? No, don't protest, that's the truth of the matter. I have no idea what sort of hold this person had over Max, but it was unhealthy and you should be able to see that.'

Any idea I had entertained that I might refuse the bequest had evaporated. To hell with them.

Hank looked slowly from one to the other. 'You are living in a fool's world, both of you. Your brother was gay. He never slept with Frances. Their marriage was a business arrangement. He told us that himself. We kept it from you to spare your feelings, knowing how narrow your views are, but your insulting and defamatory statements this evening leave me no option but to tell you. As far as your mother and I are concerned, Peter is as much a part of this family as are your spouses. We love him and are sorry that Max's impatience to get rich led to their splitting up. That you have denied Max's sexuality all these years is your problem, but if you contest his Will, your friends will discover that your brother was the much loved homosexual son of Celia and me, and we consider Peter the rightful inheritor of his personal effects.'

Patrick stood, turned to his sister and hissed, 'I'm going home. I don't know, yet, whether I will return tomorrow. Are you coming?'

'Of course.' Maureen turned to her parents. 'I'm staying at Patrick's, if he returns tomorrow then so will I. Otherwise, I'll see you at Margery's engagement party, if you can spare the time for your grand daughter?'

'Darling, I'm sorry you feel this way…'

'You aren't to blame, Mother He has you under his spell too.' She pecked her unresisting parents on the cheek and they followed her to the door like lost sheep.

I don't think I have ever felt so embarrassed. No one said anything until both cars had driven away, then Hank sat and looked at me with a wry smile.

'We sometimes wonder whether those two were swapped at birth. Quite frankly, I've had enough of them for a while and hope neither return tomorrow. Celia's badly stressed and we can do without their unpleasantness.' He wrapped a comforting arm around his wife.

She smiled sadly. 'Peter, I'm thrilled Max willed those things to you, I'm very glad you're here, and I'm not going bonkers. But I am tired, so if you'll excuse me, dear, I'll toddle off to bed.' She planted an affectionate kiss on my cheek, touched Hank tenderly and left us.

After two hours of reminiscence, a couple of watery whiskies and a pleasurable browse through photo albums, Hank and I also called it a night.

I own a Mercedes was the first thought that entered my head as sunlight splashed across the room, dragging me from sleep. My second, less dishonourable realisation, was that today we would farewell Max, and I cried. Not for him, but for myself and for Hank and Celia who were hurting as much as I, and for the whole, stupid, unfairness of it all. Mixed up in all the wetness were tears of frustration that fat Patrick and his ilk should still be alive, destroying gladness with their bigotry, dogma and hatred, while Max, beautiful Max, was nothing but a cupful of ashes. I indulged the self pity for three minutes, took a cold shower, put on a pair of shorts and sweater, and joined Hank and Celia on the sun-splashed end of the verandah for breakfast.

What a morning. Light, clear, warm and breathless. A hint of mimosa on the air, rising mists turning hills into receding cut-outs, a callistemon splashing its scarlet among the green, lorikeets screeching in the grevilleas, and a million cicadas chirruping in unison. The man-made world of noise, fumes, concrete and stress didn't exist. It was a day in which nothing bad could happen.

The program was simple. After breakfast, Hank and I would collect Max's ashes. The local crematorium was small and could only fire one body at a time, so at least we knew whose ashes we were getting. At ten-thirty, four friends would arrive and the ceremony, such as it was, would begin.

Frances had decided not to attend, much to everyone's relief. She was going to have her own private ceremony she had informed Celia during a brief telephone conversation the previous day. We wouldn't wait for Patrick and Maureen. They'd complained bitterly to their parents that there was to be no Christian service, but on that score Max had been explicit. 'No funeral service of any type, especially no religious crap,' were the exact words in his Will, according to Hank. He and Celia shared Max's contempt for witch-doctoring, and were only too happy to oblige.

Brother and sister were on time, minus their families thank goodness. Probably frightened I'd infect them with homosexuality. Nine of us and the dog set out on a zigzag stroll down through the trees to the bottom boundary. We stopped whenever one of us felt like saying a few words in memory of Max, and a pinch of his ashes were sprinkled over the ground. It was simple, moving, and memorable. Maureen and Patrick didn't disgrace themselves.

After tea and sandwiches on the verandah, the guests left, to be followed soon after by Patrick and Maureen. Neither had spoken a word to me all day. I was waiting to close the gate behind them when Patrick stopped the car, wound down his window and snarled, 'You are going to regret this for the rest of your miserable, disgusting, perverted life, you filthy pederast.' He gunned the motor, spraying me with dust and stones and sped away.

'I'm not, never have been and never will be a pederast,' I whispered as I closed the gate and retraced my steps down the drive, slipping unconsciously into the adolescent mantra I used to chant endlessly to keep myself sane. 'I am a normal human being. I have no power to change the way I was born. I am as worthy as the next person. I do no harm to anyone. I am not evil. I am not perverted. I will not burn forever on the fires of hell. These are the lies of bigots who seek to control others through fear. My worth does not reside in my sexual orientation, but in my thoughts and actions. I will not permit anyone to destroy my self-esteem.'

The rest of the day was like old times. A burden had been lifted, guilt was gone, and we relaxed in our friendship. Hank was interested in my plans for the gallery and they were both thrilled that Max's vision was to be continued, at least for a time. I shared their excitement about a proposed summer cruise around the Pacific Islands. We laughed at memories of house building, of the arguments and disagreements that had to be sorted before any decision could be taken, and marvelled at how excellently the house had turned out. They were still very happy with it.

'Don't you miss your legal practice?' I asked.

'One would have to be pretty desperate to miss conveyancing, drawing up the occasional will, advising on a boundary dispute, or witnessing someone's Power of Attorney.' He laughed in self-deprecation. 'My old clients are much happier now Patrick's taken over. He's a great deal more in tune with their narrow, right wing attitudes. They were never sure they could trust me.'

'But, don't either of you get bored, just pottering around here most of the time? Surely, without day to day problems lives cease to have meaning?'

Celia looked up sharply. 'Life has no meaning, Peter. None at all. It simply is. We can either accept it as a precious gift, enjoying it as much as possible, or squander it on greed, lust and trivial disputes. To look for meaning and purpose in nature is a form of insanity to which I am glad I have never succumbed.'

'Having few personal problems doesn't mean we are free of concerns,' added Hank. 'A glance through a newspaper or five minutes of television news provides anyone with a conscience with enough anxiety to keep them from complacency or boredom. The beauty of those worries is there's nothing one can do about them, whereas the day to day problems of one's workplace can destroy happiness. You feel they have to be solved, yet failure to do so is demoralising. Without shame, I confess I am happy to have few demands placed on me.'

'As Sartre said, Hell, is other people.' Celia added wryly. 'Hank is a much more contented man now he no longer has to deal with the public.'

Her husband nodded and grimaced. 'Every morning as I drove to work I used to recite that advice of Marcus Aurelius. "Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial...." But, it's not only that, something happens to your body from around sixty onwards. The same activities you have always done without thinking leave you tired. You can't build up muscles any more, they seem to disappear between each job. Other people cease to be so interesting.' He paused and shook his head. 'Conversation becomes reminiscence, and that's only fun for a while. Most people's heads are full of incredible junk. Everyone wants to talk and interruptions abound. Serious thinking only occurs when reading, writing, or walking alone. I love writing letters, but at seventy-two I've few people left to write to. None of them like letter-writing anyway. Letter-writers have time to consider what they want to say, and the reader has time to think about it before replying. That's why I avoid telephones. I resent being expected to respond intelligently without sufficient time to think.'

'Do you watch TV?'

'The trouble with television is they have to appeal to such a wide variety of tastes, intellects and ages. Either I have heard or thought it all before, or it is so superficial that I simply get annoyed and fall asleep.'

'What we have discovered,' Celia said thoughtfully, 'is that we see more, think more clearly, and achieve greater understanding by doing little, than by being constantly active. Until one stands still, much of the world is invisible. If I sit quietly, wild birds come near to scratch for food. When I stand silently under trees, butterflies and a myriad other insects appear. The sounds and scents of the countryside are not available when talking, driving in a car, sitting on a ride-on mower, or listening to the radio. When surrounded by others, rational thought is impossible.' She laughed self-consciously, 'It's a paradox. Life is richer the less one does. We go out occasionally, visit our few friends, walk in the forest… Of course, we're lucky we get on so well.'

Hank raised an eyebrow. 'It's not luck. It's determination. Our marriage could have gone off the rails like any other, but we were too pig-headed to let it.' He took his wife's hand in a gesture of ease and trust.

'It's all to do with false desires.' Celia smiled. 'I feel sorry for our acquaintances who are unwilling to grow old. They act like unruly teenagers. Many are out every day and as many nights as they can manage. They try all the cheap restaurants, spend hours at the RSL, play the pokies, bowls, bingo, darts, bridge, watch daytime TV, anything to distract them from experiencing their lives. They go on all the Seniors' Club outings, try hang-gliding, ballooning – everything that's going. I would be pleased for them if it left them contented, but it doesn't. They are tired much of the time, get irritated with their spouses, have dreadful rows and are constantly declaring, "If only such and such would happen, then I'd be happy." It's depressing.'

'I hope I'll end up like you two one day.'

'You will. You want the right things. It wasn't your fault you split with Max,' Hank said with deliberate firmness. 'He was prepared to cut corners and take risks to get rich quickly. You're not like that. If you'd tried to stay together during the last four years, your disagreements would have blown you apart. You are unable to compromise on what you think is right - that's one of the things we love about you. However, it could make you a difficult person to live with. Although we loved Max's daredevil approach to life, during his time with you he was the most stable and thoughtful he had ever been, and we are eternally grateful to you for those years.'

I smiled my thanks and took off for a swim in the dam. It was freezing but exactly what I needed to flush away mushy thoughts scrabbling at the edge of consciousness. Hank was right, of course. But what would have happened if we had got together again now? After Max had made his money? Would we have continued as before? What if…? What if…? If only… I had to accept that I would never know and get on with my life. It was time to purge the brain and delete dreary, unanswerable questions. That night I slept well for the first time since Max's fall, and by eight thirty the next morning was waving goodbye.

Forty kilometres south in a wet part of the ranges, my thirty-five acres were as lush as the Fierney's were dry. It was nearly two weeks since I'd seen my house and studio so I wanted to check on them before heading back to the gallery. A new resolve to take charge of life was bubbling through my veins, bringing with it a new feeling - excited anticipation. For the first time in years I was looking forward to whatever lay ahead.

The twelve kilometres of rough, unsealed winding road heading west through the hills to my eyrie, had always seemed a gruelling marathon of bumps, crunches and gear-changes, but that day I glided over it. The council must have upgraded it, I thought, until I realised what vehicle I was driving. How like life! No two people's experiences of the same thing are comparable. One person takes on the world with the backing of money and supportive parents; another, penniless and alone. Some are emotionally equipped to negotiate red tape; others are intimidated. Only one thing is certain, the playing field isn't level.

I saw the smoke as soon as I crested the final rise, a thin grey column rising straight up into the still air. Rory was probably burning his rubbish. I was lucky to have an almost kindred spirit on the neighbouring block, but he would insist on burning all his waste, including plastic bags. It wasn't until I got to the gate that I realised the smoke was at my place! The house and studio, hidden from the road by a melaleuca-timbered rise, nestle into a north-facing amphitheatre fringed by steep rain-forested hills. Enough land had been cleared for two buildings and a deep dam. I shot over the rise and, as the wagon burst into the clearing, I saw Rory and Lida running from the dam to the house with buckets. I skidded to a halt. They turned, palms outstretched in resignation.

'Sorry, Peter. We came over as soon as we realised it was bad news. When we first saw the smoke, we imagined you had come home last night and were cooking breakfast. So by the time we got here it was too late. The door was locked, but a couple of windows were already broken so we smashed the rest and threw buckets of water through.'

I raced over to what had been my cottage. Black smoke-stains oozed up from every broken window, staining the white stucco. The roof appeared intact, but smoke was still seeping between the tiles. I unlocked and threw open the door, gagging on poisonous fumes from all the plastic we forget we own. The fire appeared to be out but we threw a few more buckets of water up over the rafters just to make sure. The interior was a total write-off. Nothing was salvageable.

Wall lining, bed, kitchen bench and cupboards, armchair… everything was either a sodden black smouldering mass, or a charred wreck. Exposed beams and rafters had been singed in several places but still looked solid. I felt numb. It hadn't happened. I'd come to the wrong place. It couldn't be true! This one-roomed cottage was me! I had designed, built, furnished and decorated it. It looked like I felt - gutted. I turned to my neighbours.

'How could this have happened? I'm always so careful. I haven't been here for two weeks. There was no fire left in the stove, there's no fuel anywhere near…'

They shook their heads, wordless, helpless. I raced across the courtyard to the studio, a twin of the cottage. It looked intact until I reached the door, which had been smashed open with my axe, now lying on the grass. Inside was chaos. Every sketch, canvas, drawing – everything I had worked on or could use for a painting had been thrown onto the floor and trampled. Paint, turps, varnish, linseed oil poured on top. Every tube of paint had been stomped on, smeared over the walls, floor, easels and workbench. Total wreckage. Maniacal. Rory and Lida stood speechless at the door. I sank onto a stool. I didn't want to know who had done this, or why. I couldn't see the purpose of living if someone hated me that much. It wasn't worth the fight.

'At least they didn't set light to the studio,' Lida consoled.

No, I thought, they wanted me to experience this mess. To see the extent of their hatred.

'They must have broken a window in the house and thrown a match through. Probably with some petrol-soaked rags to get it going,' suggested Rory. 'What're you going to do?'

'You can stay with us, Peter,' offered Lida hesitantly.

That was real friendship. They were living in a caravan while they slowly built their own house. Money was obviously a bit tight as there hadn't been much progress over the last couple of years. I'd have had to curl up under the sink to sleep. I prised myself off the stool and we went outside.

'That's very generous, Lida, but I have to get back to the coast. I've got a job now. I sold the paintings but that wasn't enough to keep body and soul together. I sleep in a flat at work.'

They nodded hopelessly while I took a few deep breaths and adjusted my thoughts. It was pointless being upset or trying to understand. Such wanton vandalism is beyond understanding. However, I was getting bloody angry and that felt better. Much better!

I looked across at two frightened faces and guessed their fears. If this could happen to me, then how safe were they? Foreign accents had already made them the butt of racism and anti-immigrant hatred from local rednecks. It was worrying. 'I'd better let the cops know,' I said quietly, 'otherwise I'll get no insurance. It won't cover everything, but at least I'll get something back from this mess.'

'Do you want to use our telephone?'

'Perhaps mine still works?' Miraculously it did, despite the soot, ash and water, and I was promised a visit from a patrol car within the hour. I turned back to my neighbours. 'Thanks, both of you. You've been wonderful! Without you the rafters would have gone and there'd be nothing left. As it is, it's just a filthy mess to clean up and replace. I can handle that, no worries. So I owe you one. A big one! I'll hang around till the cops come then pop over before heading off.'

They looked unconvinced, but happier as they trudged back along the track to their place. They had enough problems of their own without having to worry about mine. I made a start on the studio while waiting for the police. Forty minutes later they pulled up, scratched their heads and looked willing but pessimistic as they trotted out the inevitable questions. Had I left a fire going? Did I usually leave the slow-burner dampened down for when I returned? Who had done the electrical wiring? What sort of hot water system? Had I any enemies? Got into a fight recently? Jealous workmates? Problems with neighbours? Ex-wives?

I wasn't much help and was careful not to mention Rory and Lida's contribution. They preferred to remain unnoticed by authority, particularly since their permit to live in the caravan had long since expired. I let the officers think it was I who had thrown all the water around. One name kept hammering in my head, Patrick Fierney, but I wasn't going to drag Hank and Celia into this. All I needed was police confirmation of the vandalism and damage so I could make an insurance claim.

After half an hour of note taking, poking around in the soot and spilled paint, and looking for tyre marks on the bone-dry track, they completed their report and left, promising to ask everyone else on the road if they had noticed anything unusual, and to contact me if they had any news. I thanked them profusely.

As soon as they'd gone I telephoned Patrick's office. His secretary informed me that he had slipped out for a while. Could she take a message?

'Yes please. My name is Peter Corringe. I may have some business for Mr Fierney,' I said sweetly. 'I am a painter of pictures. Arsonists have razed my house, and my studio has been trashed. The police are on the ball and have a good lead. A local resident noticed a strange car drive up my road. I will probably be needing advice from Mr Fierney about what my options are. Could you get him to give me a call?'

She said she would, murmured suitable condolences, and disconnected.

I replaced the receiver, fully intending to get stuck in to cleaning-up, but suddenly couldn't be bothered. It was all too much. One day perhaps I would feel like doing it, but that day I sure as hell didn't.

The weather was too perfect to spoil. A numbing depression dragged at my heart as I nailed up the studio door with spare timber and locked the cottage - a useless precaution considering every window was broken. After calling in to say cheerio to Rory and Lida, I lodged my claim with the Insurance agent in Yandina, and set off for the coast.

The wagon's luxury no longer buoyed me; neither did the fatty takeaway I bought for lunch. I couldn't face the gallery, so drove aimlessly, ending up outside the Alcona's. I needed company, friendly company. Not solitary work or Frances's smug certainties. Mad opened the door cautiously, then threw it wide in welcome. She was wearing a blue housecoat.

'My neighbours think I wear nothing but these things,' she laughed. 'They'd be shocked if they knew the truth.'

I left the simplest of my cares in the wardrobe and joined Mad for a cup of tea, telling her my place was in a bit of a mess and, as I didn't feel like cleaning up, had called in on the way back to town. She led me downstairs to her studio where she was engaged on another series of drawings. After her success with the portrait of Max, she wanted to get into figure drawing. A preliminary study of Jeff looked promising. Her studio occupied one end of a large activities room directly below the living area. Sliding doors opened onto the patio and pool; sunlight splashed into the work area spreading warmth, peace and harmony.

'You're looking haggard, Peter. Go for a swim. It's cold, but it'll do you good.'

It was even colder than the dam, but at least I didn't come out covered in flotsam. I collapsed onto a towel in the sun.

'You're a bit older than Max, aren't you?'

That hurt! 'A year younger actually.'

'Oh, sorry. It's probably just the light and the stress you've been under lately.'

'I feel old. Old and past it. What's the solution?'

'No idea, but I've discovered that when I don't know how to fix up what's wrong inside, it helps to tidy up the outside. Then, when I look in the mirror I feel so perked up that my insides want to catch up.'

'Isn't that vanity?'

'Only if you do it to impress others. When you do it for yourself, it's sensible.'

'Not much I can do with my exterior.'

'Would you trust me with a bit of panel-beating, polishing and minor detailing?'

'Can you make me beautiful?'

'Handsome, I can manage. Beauty comes from inside. You're already beautiful.'

'Flattery will get you everywhere.'

'There's nowhere I want to go.'



'The phrase, a contented woman, is a contradiction.'

'Like, a perfect man?'

'Perhaps we are both unique and atypical of our gender.'

'That's the only possibility.'

'Well, Contented Woman, rejuvenate this Perfect Man.'

And she did.

'Youths,' she informed me, setting to work with electric hair clippers, 'have short body-hair. As men get older, body hair ceases to fall out, so grows longer and covers a greater area, concealing muscular structure and keeping the skin moist, favouring fungal rashes. Eventually, hair starts sprouting in the oddest of places.'

This was not a comforting lesson for a man rapidly approaching the end of his youth.

'Apart from his obvious fitness,' she continued, enjoying my disquiet, 'Brian's relatively youthful appearance is in part due to these clippers.'

She lapsed into the stillness of concentration - I into contemplating the dread prospect of old age. Starting at my ankles and working up to the crown of my head, all hair was cropped to half a centimetre. My almost shoulder-length tresses took some convincing, but they eventually joined the impressive brown pile on the studio floor. The spacer was then removed and armpit hair was cut as short as the clippers could manage, to eliminate the need for deodorants. Hairs hold body odours, I was informed, before being advised never to shave off body hair with a blade razor, or use wax, because that caused ingrown hairs and rashes. I nodded towards her baby-smooth crotch and raised an eyebrow.

'Great isn't it?' she laughed, lightly brushing the area with her fingertips. 'Brian shouted me a laser treatment. I was going grey down there and couldn't handle it. I don't mind tinting the hair on my head, but not there. Dra wants it done too, but Der prefers her fuzzy.'

I blinked, but decided it was nothing to do with me.

'You can do your own nether region,' she grinned, passing me the clippers. 'A hairless anus means no dags left behind on seats and,' she added slyly, 'a smooth scrotum will make your manhood appear larger.'

I blushed, squatted over a mirror for the operation, stood up and checked - and it did.

While my beautician vacuumed up my locks, I took a shower on the lawn under the garden hose, then was treated to a head and shoulder massage of such vigour I was in danger of being scalped. Afterwards, a young bloke of twenty-five looked back from the full-length mirror. It was astounding. The muscular definition of my torso was revealed, my legs seemed to have more shape, and I looked young! I felt young! The haggard warlock had disappeared along with the hair. Cheekbones stood out, nose seemed shorter, neck longer, eyes clearer, and lips fuller. I leaped around like a mad thing, swam three lengths of the pool and when I got out was quickly dry - no hair to hold the water.

Mad looked at me critically. 'Hang on a tick.' She ran upstairs and returned with a bottle. 'Der and Dra won't miss this little bit,' she laughed, massaging something stinging and smelly into my hair. 'Now go and sit in the sun.'

Thirty minutes later I gazed at the mirror in disbelief – my head was crowned with a cap of golden spikes. 'I'm eighteen.'

'At the most.'

'Would you trust the director of an art gallery who looked like this?'


'With your seventeen year old son?'

'He's old enough to make up his own mind.'

'I never know whether he's kidding or not. Is he really gay?'

'Are you?'

My heart leaped. I blushed, looked her straight in the eye and said firmly, 'Yes.'

'Personal questions, Peter, should always be asked of the person. Ask Jeff yourself.'

'Would you mind if he is?'

'Brian and I never discuss our children with anyone unless they are there to defend themselves.'

'Not only a contented woman, but a perfect parent and faultless friend.'

'Thank you.'

A clattering of feet on stairs announced the children's return from school. A few minutes later they burst upon us and greeted my new look with a flattering mixture of disbelief and delight. A transformation for the better was the consensus, and Mad was heaped with due praise. Dra and Jeff went up to start homework, Mad began the evening meal, to which I'd been invited, and Der and I did push-ups over a measuring cylinder full of water.

Beneath his mantle of superior calm, Der was an ordinary kid of fifteen, fooling around and cracking stale jokes that made me like him even more, and my sense of inferiority evaporated. The experiment was hilarious and, investigations completed, Der too went up to start on homework, while I browsed the bookshelves in the living room until Brian came in, looking bushed.

'Five bitches spayed, four castrations, two cases of mange, six tooth extractions, and a broken leg. I need a shower. Pour us a beer, Peter, I'll join you in ten minutes.'

Over cold beers he gazed at me speculatively. 'Mad's been grooming.'

'A bit of spit and polish.'

'And I thought you were my age.'


'Almost half my age.'

'I'm twenty-eight.'

'I'm forty-four.'

'Looking thirty-four!'

'My wife's a wonder.'

'Skilful and smart.'

'Tower of talent.'

'Consummate concubine.'

'You'd better bloody well be queer.'

'As bent as a crank-shaft.'

'That's OK then. You can stay.'

We laughed, at ease with each other. By the time Mad joined us I had gained a fair insight into the delights of veterinary surgery. It sounded as much fun as being a butcher.

'The animals are great and I love working with them. They never complain and are always grateful. It's their nutty owners who drive me to drink. Another?'

We shared another beer and more opinions until the children joined us for the evening meal. Everyone helped with the dishes before moving to the lounge area. I remained standing. I didn't want to go - I wanted to curl up in the womb of Alcona friendship and never budge again. However, I also wanted the friendship to endure, so was determined not to outstay my welcome.

'You don't want to go home to an empty flat. Stay the night,' Brian said evenly.

'Are you sure?'


I looked around. Mad and the children were looking at me, faces uncharacteristically expressionless, not wanting to influence my response. I couldn't stop my lips from spreading into a grin. 'Thanks, I'd love to stay.'

Jeff patted the seat beside him. 'You'll probably regret it, Peter, we're less interesting than television.'

'Not possible.'

We chewed over the events of the day. Jeff had had a run in with his chemistry teacher, Dra an argument with her best friend. Der had been nominated as debating team leader. I'd been determined not to off-load my own woes, but suddenly couldn't help myself. If I couldn't tell these people what had happened, then who could I tell?

The reaction was embarrassing, overwhelming and, I realise now, predictable. Offers to come up at the weekends and help me re-build, to store anything personal, to use Mad's studio… I thought I was over the shock of the vandalism and had pictured myself laughing it off with a manly shrug, but without warning and before I could thank them, I was wracked by a fit of the shakes.

Brian put his arm round my shoulders, it passed, and the conversation moved on until Der, with enviable gravity and several cautious disclaimers, announced the results of our experiment.

'The volume of Peter's penis increased from 114cc to 228cc, a ratio of 1:2, a one hundred percent increase. Mine went from 210cc to 240cc, a ratio of 1:1.2, a fourteen percent increase. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.'

These Archimedean results were placed on the floor for scrutiny. I wasn't sure whether to be pleased or not. After the laughter, Jeff bashfully told us his main news. A new recruit to the school basketball team, an exchange student from Chile, had chatted with him after practice. Jeff thought he was in love. We all hoped the Chilean was too.

After a luxurious shower I made up the bed on the convertible sofa in the study off the lounge and crawled in, exhausted. A few minutes later a timid knock at the door - Jeff. My heart sank. Gangling youths, no matter how charming, do not turn me on. I needn't have worried, he was simply seeking advice. I wasn't sure I was the person to ask - I've spent more time thinking about it than doing it.

We ended up agreeing on three basic principles: One: humans, like all animals, are sexual creatures, and sex has as much to do with social adhesion as it has with procreation. There's nothing one can do about one's sexual orientation, but once lust is satisfied, most people just want to love and be loved – with all that implies. Two: there are as many ways of enjoying sex as there are people, and each partner's desires are equally important. Three: socially, physically, mentally and spiritually, gays are as diverse as heterosexuals; they're neither better nor worse, and there's no such thing as a homosexual type. The idea's as stupid as thinking all heterosexuals are the same.

Jeff's sigh was heartfelt. 'That's a weight off my mind. I was worried I'd have to go around with a limp wrist, dress up in drag, take it up the arse and start feeling-up little boys.'

'Am I like that?'

'Of course not! But everyone talks such a load of crap about gays that somehow it's hard to relate other people to yourself. I imagined there was going to be some sort of initiation test to see if I was queer enough. I'm so ignorant!'

'Not as ignorant as the bigoted shits who promulgate such lies. Any more questions?' I taught him my mantra and we discussed safe sex and a host of other things until, during one of my obviously less than inspiring anecdotes, he fell asleep.

Mad threw back the curtains letting in a grey morning, plonked cups of tea beside the bed, and herself on it. I opened an eye to an impish grin.

'You look as though Jeff kept you awake all night.'

I blushed. What must she be thinking?

'No I didn't, but you and Dad were right, Mum, Peter was the best person to ask.

'So, you trust me?'

'I trust all my family.' She turned at the doorway, dispatched an enigmatic smile and breezed away to make breakfast.

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