Dome of Death

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 3


Mad's inclusion of me as one of the family lay warm in my head and heart all the way back to the coast. I've never had a real family. Mother's too busy with 'good works' and Dad's sole claim to fame is an endless supply of home-brew in the basement where he spends every free minute watching TV sport. I don't recall having a conversation with either of them, nor spending more than half a dozen evenings together. We almost never ate as a family, either Mum was out, or Dad had an important game to watch. As a kid I loved tennis, athletics and swimming, read a lot, drew pictures, fantasised about the family I should have been born into, and yearned for love.

I'd been driving without concentrating and the sudden view of the gallery dumped me back in the present. Frances, surrounded by shopping, waved as I pulled up.

'Peter! What a bit of luck. Give us a hand with these.'

I trailed her up the stairs to the kitchen, lugging a couple of supermarket bags and two boxes. She slumped into a chair.

'Sorry I left you alone so long.' Her voice was loud and gestures skittish. 'I've been with this amazing man - and one thing led to another - and suddenly it was Tuesday morning!' She giggled inanely. 'He has this wacky house made of plastic and canvas and bits of tubing perched up in the hills. Great view, great…. everything!' She chuckled lewdly. 'By the way, we saw the advertisements in the paper and I noticed the signs in the window when I drove up. They're excellent! You've been working your little butt off.' She paused for a breath that permitted no interruption. 'I'm glad you took Max's wagon. Your old bomb's no advertisement for a successful business. The lawyer must have contacted you. I told him you'd be here, beavering away.'

I opened my mouth but she held up her hand and gave vent to a wolf-whistle. 'You look great! I didn't notice it at first. Been to the body shop?' She grabbed my shoulder and turned me around. 'So that's where you were this morning. It's stunning. You look ten years younger. All the old biddies will fall in love, and in Max's clothes you'll be the perfect gallery director. It's good he left all his things to you. I didn't know until Simpson rang. And when I phoned, you weren't here. Now I know why.' The over loud monologue stopped abruptly and she looked around as though lost before adding vaguely, 'Let me know if there's anything I can do to help.'

Before I could answer she ruffled her hand through my bristles, pecked me on the cheek and shut herself in her room.

I dumped the shopping on the floor and took several deep breaths. When the urge to throttle her had subsided I poked my head around the bedroom door, congratulated her on a successful long weekend and asked if she would arrange the wine and snacks for Wednesday's function. She would, but first wanted to spruce up.

Back in my/Max's bedroom I took out Mad's drawing, stood it on the table beside the window and stared. It was as perfect as before. Sadness still gripped my chest but I was no longer in danger of leaking tears. Instead, I felt peaceful, free to take a new tack, try new things - even a new relationship if one came along. Hope and anticipation hovered timidly at the edge of thought.

Downstairs, nothing had changed. Mad's drawings still nestled in their drawers waiting for mounts and frames. Before starting on them I checked for correspondence. There was only one message on the answer phone, a request from what sounded like a twelve year old girl to telephone Simpson, Simpson and Grey as soon as convenient.

After an interminable muzak-filled wait I was connected to a brusque voice informing me I would be required to sign a couple of forms in connection with my inheritance within the next few days, but meanwhile it would be permissible to use the goods in question. I thanked him and promised to call in soon.

It was already ten-thirty, Bill Smith hadn't turned up and I was starting to panic. Myself I can trust, but if my organisation is dependent on others, I'm always certain I'll be let down. At least Frances was arranging supper. But was she? I trudged back upstairs to check. She had forgotten, flared into a rage, shouted I was harassing her, and told me to do it myself. A woman of rapid mood swings.

The file labelled "Refreshments" told me everything I needed to know, so I telephoned the caterers and ordered a repeat performance. I'd just replaced the receiver when Bill Smith backed into the gallery dragging a shopping trolley piled with parcels. He straightened, massaged his spine, nodded and looked around as if searching for someone. As I walked towards him he peered from under thatched grey eyebrows, frowned and grunted, 'Ah. Didn't recognise you. Can you fetch the rest of the stuff from the car?'

I made six trips while Bill unwrapped and carefully folded all his packing paper before placing it neatly in a suitcase ready to be used again.

'Waste not want not?' I asked.

'If I act as though I'm expecting to take everything home again, the gods will make sure everything is sold,' he grunted. There was obviously a fey side to this gruff Aussie male.

'But now you've told me, they'll know it's just a bluff.'

'Huh! They think they know everything, so never listen to mere mortals.'

It was one o'clock before we had agreed on the sequence, position, and height of each painting. I checked them off against his list, noted the details, wrote receipts, and promised they would all be hanging before nightfall. He would return the following morning to see if there'd been any problems and to check the catalogue's accuracy.

I had just decided there wasn't time for lunch when Frances arrived with meat-patties nestling among slices of fresh bread and papaya on two of her best plates. She brewed coffee in the workroom and we shared a companionable snack. A difficult woman to pigeonhole.

'Still happy with the gallery, Peter?'

'It's brilliant, but I can't help thinking it's too beautiful a building to waste on a side street two blocks back from the beach. It should be on a promontory overlooking the sea.'

'I was referring to the job, not the building,' she laughed. 'But you're not half-witted; Max designed the gallery for exactly that sort of spot.' She smiled at my look of disbelief. 'No, it's true. While we were looking for a site we had an affair with an egghead from the Department of Marine Resources. Like a lot of skinny intellectuals he took his pleasures seriously and enjoyed a bit of give and take. Max was happy to give, and I took.' She looked up for my reaction but I wasn't giving any.

'Anyway, Tony had been surveying this bit of coast; the rivers, drainage, land-forms, tidal bars, frequency and levels of storm surges - that sort of thing. Talking about work was his idea of scintillating après sex conversation. I usually fell asleep but Max was riveted. After analysing all the relevant data, Tony predicted that if we ever had a king tide accompanied by unusually high rainfall in the coastal ranges, coinciding with cyclonic winds from the sea, or something like that, then the canals would burst and join the river systems, drained land would revert to swamp, and silt would create a sandbar parallel to the coast, causing the river to sweep south and scour out the beach in front of us here. However, this block of land and several on each side would remain, because we're on a granite outcrop, not sand dunes like most of the coast.'

I nodded doubtfully. 'That's three things that have to synchronise. What are the chances?'

'That's what Max asked.' She yawned 'I forget the answer, but he had all worked it out. He was a real brain-box.'

'Well I won't hold my breath waiting for the gallery to become a monument on the coast.'

'Nor me. He couldn't convince the Council either. But you did ask why we built here. The land was relatively cheap and when the builder dug the foundations, he reached granite only a metre below the sand. So Tony was right about one thing at least.' She laughed, collected the plates and drifted back upstairs, leaving me to get on with my work.

Max had resurrected peg-board. It had good acoustic properties and added to the intriguing textural quality of the walls, but the main benefit was ease of hanging. It only took a couple of hours to slip in the pre-formed security hooks and hang the paintings at the precise locations required by their creator.

Mad's frames were in a pile on the workroom floor and I had just spread out her drawings when someone knocked loudly on the glass doors at the front. Irritated, I switched off the alarm, slid back the security locks and opened the main door. A cautious pair of grey eyes stared from under a wide, anorak-shrouded forehead. His square jaw and strong nose should have been a recipe for good looks, but deep frown-lines and hunched shoulders inspired pity rather than homage. Jeans, anorak and scuffed trainers suggested the legions of unemployed drifting up and down the coast. He dropped his eyes and stared at his feet, hugging his chest.

'Can I see Max?'

The unexpected question unnerved me.

'Max had an accident and died a couple of weeks ago.' I sounded brusque, unfriendly even, but didn't want to risk over-reacting.

Lifting haggard eyes in disbelief, the young man's frame crumpled even further in on itself and he turned away with a mumbled, 'Sorry. Sorry to bother you.'

He looked so pathetic I felt rotten and called, 'Hang on, don't rush away. Can I do anything?'

He shook his head without looking back and scuffed off around the corner. I was about to go back inside when curiosity overtook me. Pulling the door so it looked closed, I followed him. He was moving faster than I'd expected and by the time I'd rounded the corner was already a block away, crossing the Esplanade. I jogged towards the beach and watched as he clambered over the low concrete wall and dropped out of sight onto the beach.

It was cold and windy. Towering thunderheads were building out to sea and an oppressive, brassy radiance saturated air, clouds and swelling breakers. It was not going to be a good night to spend on the beach. I jogged to the wall and peered over in time to see the bloke's backside disappear into one of the large storm-water drains that empty the city's dog-shit, litter and roadside debris on to the sand every time it rains. Rather him than me.

I stood for a minute gazing at the looming sky. Who was he? He'd been upset about Max's death. A friend? I should've invited him in; shown him Mad's drawing of Max. Mad's drawings! They were spread over the floor of the unlocked gallery! A stark vision of my desecrated studio and cottage sent me into a panic. Maybe the bloke had been sent to lure me away so his mates could smash the place up! Heart thumping in neck and ears I cursed, ground out a prayer to Bill Smith's gods and, gagging at the thought of those exquisite masterpieces ending up like my studio, raced back like a bat out of hell, threw open the door and raced across to Mad's drawings.

Relief! The place was as I'd left it. After re-locking the doors I brewed one of Mad's pick-me-ups to quell the shakes. Peace and warm whisky stilled the tremors and by seven o'clock all drawings were securely framed and hanging on the walls, alarms had been set and checked, and I was preparing a lonely meal. Frances had gone out again.

My bedroom window faced east, towards the sea, but the view was of the backs of holiday apartments and Fast Food outlets on the Esplanade. Lightning flickering through ochreous clouds, sent me onto the roof. I've always been fascinated by electrical storms. The sea, greyly sullen beneath a yellow strip of sky, seemed crushed beneath the accumulating blackness. Sheet lightning set cloud interiors pinkly aglow. The air was utterly still, only a low grumbling from the heavens warned.

Suddenly, a searing line of fire gashed across the blackness. The shock set my hair on end – literally. Instinctively, I pressed my back against the stairhead as sheets of blinding light followed by gigantic, garish networks of discharge hurled themselves across the sky. Grumbling thunder swelled to a deafening clamour and darkness was banished by continuous billion-volt energy blasts arcing across the firmament, tearing the ether to shreds. Transfixed by the awesome power, I couldn't tear my eyes from the ever changing onslaught, nor close my ears to the unrelenting roar that swelled, crackled, crashed, sank into a rumbling roll only to burst forth again and again in chest-crushing thunder. Compared to this, fireworks, no matter how many millions of dollars are spent, are mere pretty diversions.

After about an hour, a bank of clouds rolling in from the ocean reduced the display to reflected sheets of brilliance. As I turned towards the stairs, a bolt of lightning struck earth about fifty metres away and the instantaneous thunderclap knocked me to my knees. Stunned, deaf and blind, I reeled downstairs to the illusion of safety.

That last, staggering crescendo heralded the rain. But what rain! I had no idea so much water could fall from the sky. Within minutes the car park was flooded, drains failed to cope and, at the edge of the road, a street-lamp illuminated a fountain of storm-water gushing metres into the air as overloaded drains from higher up forced their burden out the first available exit. The beach would be scoured.

The beach! The bloke who had called in earlier! Surely he wasn't still in the drain? He'd be swept out to sea! None of my business. But of course it was. My spying had violated his privacy so I was obliged to act. I threw off everything except my shorts, zipped my keys into the pocket, grabbed a waterproof torch, made sure the outside door to upstairs was locked and, wishing I'd worn a raincoat, forced my way to the beach against howling needles of rain, branches, leaves and all the detritus Aeolus the demon wind-god could snatch up.

Too late. The tide was coming in. Breakers were already swirling up to the mouth of the drain and anyone fool enough to go down there was going to get trapped. I wasn't a fool, but neither could I leave the poor bastard to his fate. It was a three metre vertical drop from the footpath to the drain, so I followed where he had gone a few hours earlier, clambered over the wall twenty metres to the north and slid down the rocks.

The water swirled round my knees and sucked at my feet, but became shallower as I approached the drain. In my hurry I slipped and skinned an ankle on a submerged rock. A wave caught me from behind and rolled me over. Drenched and cold I struggled to my knees and threw myself into the drain. It was larger than I'd realised; high enough to stand. The wind didn't penetrate much past the entrance and the roar of the sea was muffled. I splashed torchlight around the interior. It was empty and there was only a trickle of water. That didn't make sense, unless other drains were taking the flow. The bloke obviously wasn't as half-witted as he'd looked and had cleared out. Relieved, I was about to turn back when I realised that if I'd planned on sleeping there myself I'd have gone about ten metres further, around the bend.

Swallowing rising panic I ran forward and looked. A sand-spattered shape. I flashed the light on him but he curled into a ball and growled. I grabbed his shoulder and shook it hard. 'You've got to get out!' I was shouting, although there was no need to yell in the uncanny calm. He shrugged me off and curled up tighter. I grabbed a handful of hair and pulled him to his knees. He swung a weak punch in the direction of my stomach and snarled, 'Leave me a-fucking-lone. I'm not hurting anyone. Why can't you cunts leave a guy in peace. Fucking rules and regulations.'

'There's a storm raging outside! You're going to get washed out!' I was screaming, imagining the wall of water that was surely going to burst upon us at any moment.

'Fuck off!' He started to throw another punch so I slammed him in the guts, grabbed him in a fireman's lift and staggered to the exit, banging his head on the curving walls. Served him right. The mouth of the drain glowed fitfully and I'd only just crossed the threshold when I slipped, dumping him face down in surging water up to my waist. He copped a mouthful, spluttered, panicked and grabbed at me, pulling me off balance again. I held him firmly against my chest until he stopped struggling, then dragged him by the hand in the direction of the rocks. It was impossible. The further we got from the drain, the deeper the water. A metre gained when waves receded was lost when they returned and thrust us back. I jettisoned the torch but it made no difference. Cold was dissolving strength and will. We clung together, buffeted, numb, frightened.

Suddenly, above the noise of wind and waves, a thunderous roar and the mouth of the drain exploded. A blockage in the pipe further up must have been swept away, releasing the full torrent. I swung round in horror as tons of water, branches, cans, bottles - you name it, smashed into us. The other bloke's fingers slipped from mine and I was alone, battered, choking on muck, swept like flotsam. I held my breath and swam desperately in what I hoped was the right direction, touched bottom briefly, then was seized again by the current.

Where was he? I lunged around feeling with numbed fingers, but I'd lost him. Energy drained with body warmth. Blindly, coughing up half the ocean, I trod water in the dark, letting the flow take me. Luckily, the opposing forces of storm-water and waves pushed me towards the shore. When I could stand I floundered to the rocks, hauled myself from the water and stared out through the howling darkness, willing my eyes to penetrate, to see him. Rain bucketed blackly. Occasional flashes of lightning threw everything into stark relief. A body swirled past. I flung myself at it. A log.

A cry. A whimper a couple of metres to my left. Waist deep in surf, the backwash sucking sand from under my feet, I bumped into legs. I still don't know how, but dredging up reserves from somewhere I managed to tow him to the rocks, manhandle him out of reach of the waves, grab his ankles and heave his feet higher than his head. I held my hand under his mouth and felt water trickle. Almost insane with anger and cold, I thumped on his back, twisted his head and blew into his mouth, forcing him to breathe. Above the howling wind I could hear his hacking cough, so continued pummelling, screaming and slapping him around until he'd dragged himself up the boulders to the wall. I bundled him over and followed.

In the relative calm I relaxed, so exhausted I forgot I was freezing. All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep. A violent fit of shivers rattled sense into my head and it seemed pretty stupid to give up after all the effort. Leaving my semi-conscious but breathing companion in the slight protection of the wall, I let myself be blown to the gallery.

It was dangerous driving back to the beach against the wind and its flailing cargo of debris, but at least there were no other idiots on the road. I gathered up the shivering, wet heap of clothes and dumped him in the back of the wagon. At the Gallery I was so cold I couldn't make myself get out of the car, so turned the heater up full blast and kept the engine running. After about ten minutes the worst of my shakes had stopped, and coughing and sounds of movement were coming from the back. I slithered over the seats and curled beside him.

'Can you move?'

A grunt, followed by a slight nod.

'If you think you can manage it, we'll go inside.'

No response.

'I'll make coffee and rustle up a bite to eat.'

He looked at me warily and coughed. 'You a cop?'

'No, mate, just a bloody idiot who likes to go swanning around waist deep in the ocean during a storm. Well, I'm going up. You can stay here as long as you like, but I'm turning the engine off and you'll soon get fucking cold.'

I climbed out, locked the front doors, opened the rear gate and helped him out. Even in the lee of the building we were buffeted, and it was such a relief to slam the outside door that I sank onto the stairs, shaking with exhaustion. He slumped beside me.

'Just up these stairs and we're home,' I muttered, more for my own encouragement than his. We supported each other up the remaining few metres and sagged onto the kitchen floor. I turned on the heater, stripped off my shorts and towelled circulation back into blue limbs. While he was doing the same, I brought both doonas from the bed. After coffee and eggs on toast we felt better. Battered, but recognisably human.

'You saved my life.'



'Something to do.'

'Shouldn't have bothered.'

'I'm regretting it already. More coffee?'

He grunted acceptance.

A long silence as we both relived the previous half hour.

'Shower and bed?'

His answer was lost in a fit of coughing.

After hot showers and splashings of antiseptic on copious grazes, we were asleep within minutes. My guest's coughing, occasional whimpers and frequent twitching barely registering on my own fitful dreams.

The alarm woke me. I leaped from bed and threw open sun-bright curtains to be greeted by the uninspiring back views of apartment blocks and takeaway outlets. We were still a street away from the beach. It was obviously going to take more than last night's tempest to provide the gallery with a prime sea-front position.

My visitor, at seven in the morning, looked pinched and suffering. Ignoring his grumbles I wrapped him in a bathrobe and forced him to eat breakfast with me in the kitchen. Bed's no place for eating - encourages mice.

After a coffee and one slice of toast and marmalade, he looked warily across. 'I'm full.'

'I'm Peter Corringe.'

Suspicious slits avoided my eyes. 'Jonathan... Jon… Jon Moore.'

'More to eat?'

He pulled a face, neither amused nor ready to talk.

'Did you lose much?'

'Always keep my wallet in a plastic bag zipped in my pocket.'

'Lucky – no, sensible.' I gathered up the dishes and dumped them in the sink. 'I've a busy day ahead setting up the gallery for an opening tonight. D'you want to help?'

A grunt.

'Fine, get the dishes done, shove your clothes in the washer, help yourself to something to wear from the bedroom and join me downstairs.' I took my wallet, no point in leaving temptation. Frances always locked her door when away, so that was safe.

The wind had dropped and a pale yellow sun struggled wetly. An extraordinary roaring was coming from the direction of the beach, so before getting down to work I jogged down to check it out. Gone was the wall over which we had clambered, gone were the trees, flowers, shrubs and grass of the twenty-metre-wide nature strip. Present were hundreds of gawking sightseers.

I peered from the edge of cracked and crumbling road-seal, ignoring warning shouts from police and council workers. The tide was out, and about thirty metres of Jon's drain were now visible, lying on top of the tidal flats. The mouth was the source of all the noise. A pile of detritus and sand had built up in front and was diverting the still raging storm water upward in a gigantic, thundering fan.

Fifty metres beyond that, trees, rocks, sand, smashed barbecue shelters, the crumpled remains of the new toilet block, park benches, several cars, and just about everything else you could think of had been dumped in a long ridge, like a sea wall, and what looked suspiciously like a river was flowing swiftly southwards on the landward side of this new 'island', parallel to the coast. Impossible, because the river mouth was a kilometre to the north!

Wherever it came from, if the water continued to rip past like that until the next high tide, the Esplanade wasn't going to last long. The roadway was already undermined. Police and emergency workers in red overalls were standing around while one spoke into a mobile phone. Their immediate problem was sightseers. Temporary barriers had been erected and people were being herded away from dangerous edges. I wondered if the versatile Tony's predictions were being realised.

Shortly after I'd let myself back into the gallery, Jon came down the internal stairs, shaved and presentable in blue tracksuit and trainers, still feeble-looking, but not so hunched. His body was obviously hurting, but like me he was doing his best not to let it show. We adjusted the lighting, checked the position of the paintings, ran the polisher over the floor, cleaned the windows and made the place fit for a glamour public opening.

Bill Smith and his wife, a craggy, large-boned woman wearing beige hair coiled in plaited discs over her ears and a stone-splitting glint in her eye, arrived to check the display and the entries in the catalogue. They wandered around in silence.

'This is a very busy street,' she eventually muttered to Jon.

'All the Esplanade traffic has been diverted past the gallery,' I explained.

She continued to face Jon. 'Will that be bad for the exhibition?'

'Probably good,' I said to the back of her head. 'More people in the area, more people to see the signs, more customers,'

My golden bristles must have unnerved her because she nodded sagely, shook Jon's hand, took a firm grip on her silent spouse's upper arm and led him away, grudgingly satisfied.

The forward planning necessary before the advent of computers and printers makes my mind boggle. Within three hours we had produced a professional-looking coloured catalogue complete with biographical notes and rave reviews from a "well-known Art critic" - me. The mere thought that in the past we'd have had to get all that stuff to the printers weeks in advance, was a nightmare too awful to contemplate.

I had thrown a few casual questions at Jon during the morning, which he fielded automatically. He looked honest enough, but I couldn't afford to have a felon living in the gallery, so was persistent. He wasn't, as it turned out, particularly secretive, merely cautious and unwilling to burden others with his problems. Bit by bit I learned that his life had been in turns dull, eventful, and sad.

Devoutly Old Testament parents and three brothers lived on a sheep-station somewhere out the back of Longreach. Jon was the second son. Life had consisted of Distance Schooling by radio, never-ending farm work, family church services and an occasional outing with the family. At twenty-one he had been persuaded to become engaged to a young woman he'd met at a Bible studies camp; the daughter of a roofing contractor in town. They were to marry and live on his parents' farm.

A week before his wedding he had suffered a vision of his life to come, and that night took all the cash in the house and a change of clothes and rode away on his farm-bike. Three days later he arrived at the coast and had his first, never-to-be-forgotten view of the ocean. Money ran out and someone stole his bike, so he joined a gaggle of street-kids, begged for meals and tried for jobs.

Nearly starving, too frightened to ask for help in case there was a warrant out for his arrest, he traipsed round building sites asking for work. There had been a number of thefts from a new block of flats designed and partly owned by Max, who, luckily for Jon, was on site and persuaded the foreman to take him on as night watchman.

During the day he did odd jobs, catching up on sleep in the corner of the mobile canteen, until Max had a small caravan delivered to the site. He had no money, no driver's licence, no bank account, no tax-file number – no document to prove he existed. With Max's help these omissions were rectified, a letter with no return address was sent to reassure his parents, and eventually he saved money, bought another bike and, proving himself useful in a variety of ways, moved from site to site with his caravan.

Over the next three years Max took an interest in his young protégé and sometimes called in of an evening for a game of chess and a chat, sharing his dream of one day designing and building the best Art Gallery in the State.

On one of her rare visits to a building site, Frances's eye fell on Jon, and the same evening she presented herself at his caravan door. His protests had been silenced by threats of the sack and she had her way with him, several times. Afterwards, sick with shame at having cuckolded his best and only friend, he fled to Brisbane, where life was difficult and cruel. Having first been sheltered by parents, then protected by Max, he was still an innocent.

Money and bike disappeared along with self-respect. The dole, when he was forced to claim it, reinforced his sense of worthlessness and he slithered into a reasonably deep depression. No proper or regular job, no prospects, no home, no money, no friends and perhaps worst of all, apart from his rape by Frances, still a virgin.

After a year in this wilderness of the soul he decided to face his problems and seek Max's pardon. Two weeks too late. He told his story simply, accepting full responsibility for his life.

To offer sympathy would have been an insult. Instead, I told him I liked the way he had knuckled down to work and showed initiative. He blushed and grunted something that sounded like thanks. After lunch, he too checked out the damage to the foreshore, returning deeply thoughtful, sweating, and coughing. I sent him to bed. It would be surprising if he hadn't caught a chill after swallowing half the Pacific Ocean the previous night.

Frances crawled in around mid-afternoon and went straight to her room. At six o'clock Jon poked his head into the office and announced he was feeling much better and ready for the opening. The caterers were setting up downstairs, so we celebrated with cold chicken, bread rolls and a beer on the roof. My new-look body brought out the exhibitionist and I tried for a bit of Max's sartorial panache in an embroidered waistcoat over naked chest, a gold chain round my throat, black trousers and shiny black shoes.

'What do you reckon?' I asked.

Jon frowned and mumbled something about Sinbad the Sailor and catching chills. He chose an inconspicuous dark suit with white shirt and conservative tie.

'Am I OK?' he asked diffidently. It was the first time I'd looked at him properly. I try not to stare at people's faces, they reveal too much and I feel like a voyeur, although such deference has its disadvantages. Seconds after being introduced to someone I've usually forgotten both name and face. Of course I'd glanced at him during the day, but had avoided scrutinising. Now he'd asked my opinion, however, he'd have to put up with it.

He was unconventionally handsome. Dark blond hair flopped across a high forehead and brushed the tops of prominent ears. The large nose had a small bump in the middle and slightly flared nostrils. Grey-green eyes gazing seriously from deep sockets, accentuated prominent cheekbones and hollow cheeks. A square jaw was softened by full, sculpted lips. He was as tall as Max, but thinner, so looked poetically gaunt in his suit.


His eyes flicked away in disbelief. 'Yeah, yeah. When Frances sees me she'll kick me out.'

'Bet you ten dollars she has no idea who you are – especially in a suit. You were just a convenient cock. Probably didn't even look at your face. Certainly never thought of you again.'

'Surely Max told her I'd done a bunk?'

'Doubt it. They didn't share much.' I paused, wondering whether to go on, then decided he was old enough. 'They never slept together.'

'But… You mean…? I didn't…. He wouldn't have…?'

I shook my head.

To his credit there was no ranting and raving and gnashing of teeth, he simply stared at his toes for a full minute before letting out a strained laugh.

'All that suffering in Brisbane. All the worrying that he would find out! There must be a lesson there somewhere. Something character-enhancing and ennobling. I've been through the valley of the shadow of death!' He frowned, looked straight into my eyes and demanded, 'Why is my life such a mess? Why am I such a fuckwit?'

'Did you like Max?'

'He was the best, cleverest and nicest man I've ever known.'

'And he liked you.'


'So, on the basis of that, do you want a job?'


'Yep. I need an assistant.'

He suddenly looked haggard. 'I'm not worth it, Peter. Everything I do goes wrong. I'm useless.'

'That's why I want you - you won't show me up. Now cut the wallowing in self-pity and prepare to receive the cultured hordes. Tomorrow you can accept my offer of a job - courteously.'

He grunted, forced an enigmatic smile, and unlocked the main doors.

Frances drifted serenely amongst the patrons, graciously accepting praise and congratulations for this, her second successful Exhibition. Guests peered at the paintings and drawings, plagued me with questions about the storm, consumed litres of wine and kilograms of snacks, and oohed and aahed over the opening of the dome, scarcely able to conceal their disappointment at the lack of another body.

The big news was the storm surge, the damage, potential danger to their properties, the ruined canals – everything except the art. Only one of Mad's drawings sold, three of Bills paintings - the ones with the most salacious titles.

'Who's that bag of bones?' Frances snapped as soon as she entered, staring at Jon who was at the door welcoming guests.

'Jon. I've employed him as a general dogsbody.'

She opened her mouth and I held up my hand. 'Hang on, Frances. I can't work every hour of every day, and you shouldn't have to work here, you're the owner, not an employee. We'll save on cleaner's wages, ground maintenance, a hundred things. We'll make money on him.'

'If we don't, you'll be paying his wages. Haven't I seen him before?'

'I expect so. He's been living down the road. It would be strange if you hadn't seen him around.'

She grunted and rubbed a hand over my chest. 'Nice bod. Pity you're queer.'

'By the way,' I said, removing the intrusive fingers, 'the place he was staying in was washed out, so he's bunking in with me for a while.'

Her leer made me want to puke. 'Oh yeah? I've heard that one before. You've taken on Max's persona along with his clothes. Hope this one's more of a success than what's his name – Maurice.'

I didn't waste time protesting the innocence of our relationship; she wouldn't have believed me, and had already drifted off to drape herself over the arm of a well-built, prosperous-looking chap in permed silvery curls, white trousers, designer boat-shoes and dark blue reefer jacket with shiny buttons. They wandered across to a nervous looking Jon, said a few words, then headed for the refreshments.

The Alconas had been to see the damage to the shoreline and were philosophic about the lack of sales.

'Many of the people who would normally buy are going to lose a great deal of money in devalued real-estate,' observed Brian calmly. 'We can hardly expect them to splurge on unnecessary expenses until they're sure where they stand. And as far as I can gather, the worst is far from over. It appears, from what an engineer acquaintance was telling us, that we are about to observe Catastrophe Theory in action.'

'Catastrophe Theory?'

'The Maths are a bit esoteric, but it goes something like this…'

'I'll explain,' interrupted Der. 'You'll leave out the important bits.'

Brian winked and deferred gracefully to his son.

'About 20 years ago,' the young man began gravely, 'a mathematical system called Catastrophe Theory was conceived, which proved to be applicable to many situations. The basic idea formulated by this particular model was that, under increasing stresses, eventually a point of no return is reached, and beyond this, irreversible change occurs.'

Der looked so handsome, sincere and serious, I wanted to kiss him. I wasn't alone in my admiration. Three women and a man were also gazing with bemused half-grins of ill-concealed appreciation.

'Indications are that a point of no return has been reached as far as development of the Eastern Coastline of Australia is concerned,' he continued earnestly, unaware of the effect he was having on his audience. 'All the natural systems for water management and land stabilisation have been bypassed, and irreversible change is occurring. This part of the coastline is now like Humpty Dumpty - it can't be put back together again - ever.'

I suddenly realised how much I was missing the Alcona sanity - Jeff's bubbling zest for life, Mad's wise assent to it, Brian's strength and quietude, the twins' serious good humour. I missed their acceptance of me – especially that – their unquestioning acceptance of me for what and who I am.

Bill Smith and his wife overheard the last bit. 'You told us the storm damage would do no harm to the exhibition,' she accused, directing her displeasure at my hair.

'Bill's sold three paintings.'

She harrumphed and turned her back.

It was midnight before we crawled into bed. Frances had departed early with her paramour, leaving us to clean up. It's pleasing to be trusted, but… We showered and collapsed into bed, exhausted but too wound up to sleep. I put on a Haydn piano concerto and we both started talking at once.

'No, you first.'

'What did Frances say to you at the door?'

'It's unbelievable! She had no idea who I was. Simply said I'd better be honest and earn my wages, or I'd be out on my ear. Then stalked off.'

'That's ten dollars you owe me.'

'Take it out of my first week's wages. I want the job! I had a great time.'

We laughed with the ease of old friends.

'It won't often be like that. But the job's yours. What were you going to say?'

'Ask, actually. Why didn't Max sleep with Frances? She's good looking enough, in a tarty way.'

'He was gay.'

Dead silence. Then quietly, 'I don't believe you.'

'He and I were lovers for four years, until Frances got her claws into him. So you and I have something in common, she fucked up both our lives.'

Jon slithered out of bed and backed against the wall. He was as lean as a flayed carcase. Every tense muscle visible, eyes dark shadows, the soft light accentuating brow, cheekbones and flaring nostrils. Suddenly aware of his nakedness, he grabbed a pillow and clutched it to his loins. 'I have nothing in common with queers!' he snarled.

'Is that so? You liked Max, you like this music, you don't want to sleep with Frances, you eat, drink, breathe, piss, shit, sleep, dream, hope, fear, worry, cry and bleed. You'll get older, suffer loneliness, frustration and boredom. You might, if you're lucky, experience pleasure, happiness, contentment, joy and anticipation – even love. One day you'll die…. How's that for commonality?'

'You know what I mean! Christ,' he shuddered with horror, 'I've probably got AIDS already.'

'How'd you get it?'

'From sleeping in your bed last night.'

'I have no diseases.'

'All queers have AIDS. Their disgusting, perverted way of life ensures it. How the hell could you choose to live like that?'

'Like what?'

'You know.'

'I do not.'

'Dressing up like a woman. Going round fucking young kids. Shoving your cock up the arse of every man you meet. Having sex in public toilets… I feel sick!'

'So do I. Did I touch you last night? Have I put the hard word on you? Did Max?'

'Leave Max out of this, he was different!'

'Yes he was. And so am I. And so are most gays.'

'Gays. Huh! Sicks, you mean!'

'OK, same-sex-oriented men.' I sighed sadly. 'Jon, you have just insulted both Max and me, and millions of other innocent men who have done you no harm. I ought to thrash you and turf you onto the street, but I suppose it's not fair to blame you for ideas drummed into you by your parents. The stereotypical slander that just sullied your lips is malicious propaganda. Lies told to kids by people who imagine, wrongly, that one chooses one's sexuality. They are frightened their son might decide to be gay and try to dissuade him. But no one chooses! Everyone's born with their sexual orientation intact.'

'I don't believe you!' he was shouting.

I shrugged, refusing to argue.

'But even if you are born like it, which I doubt, there's no need to actually do it. You could join the church. Become a monk. At least be celibate!'

'Why? I'm glad I'm gay. It feels right. It feels normal. I'd hate to be het. I can't imagine any other way of feeling about people and I'm none of those things you said. I'm just a normal man, twenty-eight years old, who has not had sex with any one for nearly four years, and if I ever fall in love it will be with another man.'

'Four years?'


'But…How…? Do you…?'

'Masturbate? Of course. Like I said, I'm normal. I wank myself silly some nights. Days too when I get depressed.'

'Me too. But… why?'

'Why no lover? I'm choosy. I can only get aroused with someone I find both physically and mentally attractive; who likes me as much as, and in the same way, as I like him. There aren't too many people like that around. If I like talking to them, they're usually physically unattractive. If they're good lookers, they're either stupid, aren't interested in me, or both.'

Jon was staring at me, obviously worried. 'You're having me on. You're not really queer. Queers are soft and effeminate. You're tough and strong. You saved my life in the surf. You're all muscles.' The pleading in his voice was pitiable.

I couldn't speak – it was too sad, too pathetic, too bloody tragic.

He dropped his eyes, then looked up again. 'Are you really like that? So choosy? How do you know?' An edge of cunning. 'You've obviously tried!'

'Half a dozen times, but nothing happened. Believe me I was getting pretty desperate before I understood my problem.'

'Is that why you didn't do anything to me?'

'Feeling rejected?'

He blushed. 'No, of course not. I…I just can't understand. I thought all queers…gays… whatever, were... But… even if you aren't, now that I know, I can't possibly sleep in the same bed as you.'

'Fine, if you're in to masochism. What'll it be? The hard, cold floor? Drag a couple of chairs together in the lounge? Careful though, I might creep in and rape you during the night.'

He looked up. 'Am I being stupid?'


'Have you really not got AIDS?

'I am perfectly healthy.'

'You really won't…do things to me?'

'Not unless you ask nicely.'

He smiled. Wanly, but it was a start. He coughed a bit, started to speak, blushed and looked helpless. I was in no mood to help.

'I…I don't know what to think.'

'Well, that's an excellent beginning. Most people are too bloody certain of the rectitude of their opinions. How about reviewing everything you're certain of about the only two gays you know well, Max and me?'

He stood still, staring into my eyes. 'I still can't believe you're gay. Are you? Honestly?'

I stifled the urge to kill him. 'Yes.'

'But not all gays are like you.'

'And not all heterosexuals are like your parents.'

'I see.'

'People are people. Good, bad and indifferent. Their sexuality has absolutely nothing to do with it. Lots of gays are a bit strange because they've suffered persecution, some of it horrifying, all their lives. You can't tell a kid he's a foul sinful bag of worthless shit, bash him up and disown him and then expect him to behave normally.'

'Does that happen?'

'All the time.'

'How did you survive?'

'My parents aren't interested in me enough to care. I was one of the lucky ones. Better neglected than abused I reckon. Then I met Max, and life was bliss. Remember how he was able to make the sun shine? No problems existed when he was around?'

'Yeah. I really loved that guy.' He stopped abruptly, realised what he'd said and blushed furiously.

'Did he ever abuse your trust?'

He shook his head.

'Would you have liked him to?'

'What the hell do you mean?'

'Nothing. I'm tired. Either come to bed, or go somewhere else.' The CD had finished and I rolled over and turned off my light. About two minutes later Jon crawled into bed and switched off his. I don't think either of us got much sleep.

Dawn was breaking but it was too early to get up. Jon was restless too.

'You awake?'


'I'm sorry about last night.'

'Don't be. I'm used to it. All queers get abused.'

'You're not queer, you're gay.'

'Don't you believe it. I'm definitely queer! Any self-respecting gay would have had his way with you by now.'

'Why didn't you? Aren't I attractive to you?'

'Shut up, Jon. What the hell are you? A crappy little cock-teaser?'

'No. I'm serious. Do you... fancy me?'

'You're good looking. You're intelligent. But, as I told you last night, I'm not interested in anyone unless it's mutual.'

'Peter, I've been thinking all night about this. I'm grateful to you for saving my life. I like you and… and I really want to work with you – here at the gallery. So, if…if you want to, you can…you know…do it with me…' His voice faded into a worried silence.

For the second time that month something snapped inside my head and chest. I'd been patient, forbearing, trying to do what was best for everyone, to maintain my sanity after the revelations about Max and Frances; to make the gallery worthy of his memory; to keep Frances happy; to get Mad the recognition she deserved; to comfort Hank and Celia; to hoist Jon out of his gloom and doom, and to come to terms with the fact that someone hated me enough to destroy everything I'd worked for over the last four years.

I didn't just snap - I ruptured, split, fractured, spat the dummy.

Hoisting myself on to my knees, I slammed my fist into the side of his head, knocking him out of bed. He scrambled to his feet, back to the wall, fists balling in defence. Too late. Anger fuelled speed and I lay into him, slapping and punching his head, chest, shoulders; any part he failed to protect. He sank to the floor, hands over his face. I grabbed his hair, shoved my mouth against his ear and hissed, 'Don't ever play the whore with me,' then slunk back to my side of the bed; already ashamed of my outburst.

He remained huddled in the corner. I didn't care – couldn't care. Fuck him and his pathetic little problems. Who was looking out for me? Whose shoulder did I have to cry on? I guess we both wallowed in self-pity. Eventually, Jon's whimpering stopped, to be replaced by shudders and the occasional sob. I sat on the edge of the bed facing him, angry with myself for caring, with Jon for being so stupid, with Max for leaving me, with the world, my loneliness, exhaustion. I think half the world's woes are caused by tiredness. People argue, bicker, fight, start wars and generally behave like arseholes when they're tired, and I'm no exception.

'Jon,' I said as evenly as I could manage, 'the last thing I want in my bed is a prostitute. I made myself absolutely clear about that last night, and again this morning. There's no way you could have misunderstood me, and yet here you are offering yourself like a whore.

'I want someone who wants me for myself, not for something I can do for them. I am trying not to despise you for attempting to buy the job with your body. I've probably got unrealistic expectations as you're the second person in as many weeks who's tried that. I like you – at least I did until this nonsense. You've still got the job, but one more stupid, insulting crack about my sexual orientation and you're fired. Understood?'

He stared at me, opened his swollen mouth a couple of times, thought better of it, nodded and looked away. So did I. Blood noses and black eyes are not my favourite pre-breakfast viewing, especially if I've caused them, so I went to the kitchen and made breakfast. When Jon emerged, sullenly flaunting his bruised and battered countenance, he obviously had no idea how, or even if our association could possibly continue.

'What did you put on your battle scars?'


'Don't be a fuckwit, look after yourself.'

He returned looking slightly better, ate a silent, healthy breakfast and, still without speaking, helped wash up. I looked across to where he was slowly drying and re-drying a plate, tears streaming down his face. What could I do? What words could I offer? I couldn't even help myself. We each have to work out our own salvation. He was nearly twenty-five. Whatever he did from here on had to be because he wanted it, thought about it, and worked for it. In his present state he'd have jumped at the first friendly overture like an addict to a fix, so I pretended not to notice.

'Can you give the apartment a bit of a once-over? I'll check the mail and get started on tracking down some work for our permanent collection.'

He sniffed assent and I left him to it. Two hours later he brought me down a cup of coffee, a newspaper open at the review of the previous night's Opening, and a precarious smile.


'Sorry about my insensitive suggestion this morning.'

'Sorry for laying in to you.'

'I deserved it. Um… I'm pretty sure I know what you're talking about, but I have to think about it for a while. All my certainties have come unstuck since I met you.'

I smiled, not because I felt like it, but he looked such a mess - swollen lips and nose, bruises.

'Jon, stop worrying. I know you meant nothing bad. We were both tired. I'm glad you're working with me, and I've had no second thoughts. Take all the time you need to sort yourself out and I promise there'll be no repeats of my lousy lapse. OK?'

'I'm not worried about that, it's just that…I don't know, it's difficult to know how to deal with someone who's saved your life. On one hand I feel a grudging gratitude; on the other I'm angry. It sounds soft, but… maybe it was somehow… time for me to die? Now I owe you. I feel as though I have to guard your back, look after you in return. But I don't want to owe anyone anything!'

'You're angry because you've been cheated of a quick death. I can sympathise with that. Oddly enough, your other feelings also apply to the bloke who saved you. Having prevented your release from this vale of tears I now feel obliged to look after you and make sure my interference doesn't lead to a future you'll regret.'

He frowned. 'You're joking.'

'Nope. But… if you like, we can declare the slate clean and absolve each other of all feelings of gratitude and debt. Do you want that?'

His stare had become a frown.

'No,' he said as though surprised at his own words. 'No I don't want that.'

Relief washed through me, swilling out tension, mucky bits of anger, self-pity and encroaching despair. I needed to feel responsible for someone other than myself. I needed to know that someone felt a bit of responsibility for me. I was sick of living for myself alone.

'Neither do I!' I said somewhat more vehemently than I'd intended.

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