Dome of Death

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 4


When I returned from signing for the inheritance and transferring ownership of the Mercedes, Jon was out the front watering the lawn and shrubs. I'd scarcely taken off my jacket when the main gallery door slammed open to admit a short, deeply tanned, thickset, shaven headed, broad shouldered pugilist of about forty, in a silver-grey suit stretched so tightly over the muscle-stacked body I feared for the seams. Orange and purple trainers on small feet forced apart by massive thighs didn't match the suit, but were probably comfortable. I felt slim and lithe and let him look around for a bit before offering my expertise.

'Excellent drawings, don't you think?'

'Crap!' was his terse assessment. 'Where's Mrs Fierney?'

'She's unavailable at present.'

'She should be here! We sent a fax. Who the hell are you?'

My face flushed - with embarrassment. I'd meant to tell Frances about that fax but it had dropped out of my mind. What the hell was the name? Some bullshit. Impasto? Wash? Scumble. Yes, that was it, Scumble. Bloody silly name. From… ArtWorks. How so many thoughts could whip through my head in less time than it took to clear my throat I can't imagine, but they did. I held out a hand, which he ignored.

'Peter Corringe. I'm managing the gallery for Frances. You must be Mr Scumble from ArtWorks. We've been so busy I haven't had time to inform Frances of your visit. I hadn't realised…'

'Shut the fuck up, I'm running late. Where do I dump the display?'

'We obviously have our wires crossed. Maximillian's has a full stable of artists and... '

With unexpected speed and deftness Mr Scumble cupped a calloused hand round my neck and dragged my eyes down to his level. 'I'll cross more than your fucking wires' He hissed into my nose. 'You've got two minutes!'

I scurried into the office, found the fax and was docilely waiting when he re-entered wheeling a 'V' unit, the sort of thing found in discount stores for displaying posters of hot-rods, air-brush-enhanced scantily clad women holding kittens, and reproductions of popular Impressionists. He tapped tiny feet impatiently while I flicked through the contents. Snow-clad mountains with ten-point stags strutting disdainfully behind fir trees; weeping-willow-encircled lakes on which floated coy coveys of swans; herds of cattle wandering along dusty tracks past log cabins nestling among the gum-trees. He even had my all time favourite, two androgynous kids dressed in patches and rags, eyes the size of saucers in unblemished faces, sitting beside a dew-spangled flower on recently swept steps, gazing up with the spurious innocence of youth.

They had been hand-painted to the same extent that modern electrical appliances are hand made. Hundreds of prepared boards bearing outlines of a scene, move past on an assembly line. One person does all the green, the next the yellows, the next reds, blues and so on till complete and as near identical as possible. Similar kitsch crap used to be touted up and down the coast by impecunious students. They belonged in Conias Jackson's Arte Bizarre - not in my gallery!

Scumble was twitching. I let him twitch for a bit before shaking my head and telling him it wasn't our sort of product. He moved as if to thump me but I didn't flinch. After ten long seconds he wordlessly wheeled out his display, leaving me with a recklessly beating heart and shaky knees. It was very disquieting, so I went out to pick Jon's brains.

'Probably a scam they try on new outlets. Scare insecure businessmen into displaying their junk. Could be a protection racket. You'll get a really tough nut next who, for a substantial fee, will provide protection from the bastards who will bash you up unless you stock their paintings.'

I pushed the unpleasant incident to the back of my head until I could talk with Frances, went back inside and assisted two customers to select drawings. They were curious about Mad, but I feigned ignorance while applauding their taste. Previously unaware of the gallery's existence, they'd driven past because of the detour and popped in on impulse, buying two drawings – just like that.

I'd barely had time to record the sale when a battered white van pulled up bearing a defeated looking woman of about fifty, who emerged to gaze helplessly at the front windows. I went out. She smiled her gratitude at not having to decide which glass panel was the door, and invited me to her studio to view her works, with a view to including them in our permanent collection. Maybe even having a solo exhibition later in the year. I made an appointment for later that evening and she rattled away, leaving a patch of rust on the new pavers.

We were debating whether to be extravagant and buy a takeaway for lunch, when a car skidded to a halt and ejected Frances, who dashed upstairs. A couple of minutes later she burst into the gallery. 'Guess what!' she sparkled. 'Gregor wants to marry me!'

'Is he the one who entertained you royally in plastic-and-canvas-covered magnificence in the hills?'

'The same.'

'Who wears reefer jackets with silver buttons and designer boat shoes?'

'You've got your eye on him?'

'Not unless he's filthy rich.'

'He is!' she shrieked ecstatically.

'Well done. We sold two drawings today, and a chap from…'

'Not now, Peter! Gregor's waiting.'


'No. No. No.' She giggled, almost hysterical at her good fortune. 'Such mundane matters will have to wait until I've returned to earth!' She looked at Jon, ran a finger from black eye to bruised chin, turned back to me and, obviously aroused at the idea, drooled, 'Mmm! You two do have fun in bed. Let's make it a foursome one night.' She skipped through the doorway, stopped, poked her head back in and whispered theatrically, 'Gregor's huge!'

The sporty little car revved expensively and whisked her away.

Jon released a shudder of loathing. 'Does she think we're on together?'


'Stupid bitch. I remember that lecherous leer from when she raped me. Christ, I despise her.'

'She gets the rich ones with expensive cars.'

'A Porsche,' he sighed from the door. 'He's old, though. She's only excited because he's rich. Hasn't she enough money already?'

'Apparently one can never have enough. It's an unwritten law.'

'Guess I'll never know.'

'Then you have a chance of happiness.'

'I want to be independent though.'

'Me too. Free from bureaucracy's tentacles.'

'A hermit.'

'A guru on a mountain-top.'

'But,' Jon's eyes lost their laughter, 'you have to have money to live.'

'Less than you think, if you eliminate false desires.'

'Yeah, well we'd better stop there. I know yours, but mine are still a mystery to me.'

'OK, what's it to be? A takeaway, or some of Pete's pottage?'

'Pottage, seeing I'm impecunious. Bye the way, who owns the old Holden out the back? I want to dig that spot over and plant some banksias.'

'It's yours - if you want it?'

'You're joking.'

'No. Max left me his Mercedes, so I don't need it.'

'And you're giving it away?'


'Must be totally clapped out.'

'It goes.'

He trailed me outside, inspected the exterior, then sat behind the wheel. After a cursory check of the interior he wound down the window and said gruffly, 'Either I pay you for it, or I don't want it.'

I started to speak but he interrupted.

'No! I already owe you enough.'

'Fair enough, fifty bucks?'

'You're joking.'

'That's all the dealer offered.' I'm an excellent liar.

With a sudden grin, he shot out his hand. 'A deal! I'll go for a burn round the block.'

Of course it wouldn't start.

'How'd you get this to a dealer?'

'It's just a flat battery, I'll give you a shove.'

He returned, ecstatic. 'There's nothing wrong with this thing that a bit of TLC from an expert won't cure. That dealer was ripping you off.'

'And you're the expert?'

'The machinery on the farm depended on me.'

'Then how are they getting on without you?'

'My youngest brother's a dab hand – I taught him.'

'Do you miss them?'

'Of course.'

'Want to go back?'

'You're joking!'

'How long since you wrote?'

'More than a year.'

'Have they written to you?'

'I've never been game to give them an address. Dad's a vindictive old bastard. He'd probably find me and do an Abraham. Sacrifice me to his god for disobeying my parents.'

'Give them a ring.'

'What, now?'



'Frances left her mobile on the desk. She's got all sorts of security stuff installed so the call can't be traced.'

'You're on! It's lunchtime, they'll be eating.'

The call didn't last long. Within two minutes he was standing thoughtfully in the office doorway. 'Mum answered. She said, "Jon! Darling, how wonderful! Father! It's Jon…" She sounded really pleased. You know? All excited and dithery? Then Dad took the receiver and said, "This is no longer your home," and hung up on me.' Jon looked more puzzled than sad as he stared at his reflection in the office window. 'Peter, was what I did that bad?'

'For him, probably. By rejecting his wishes, you were rejecting him. Thus, he rejected you. It's simple and biblical.'

'But why didn't Mum?' Tears were closing in and I wasn't going to stop them. I'm in favour of a good cry now and again. Clears the emotional ducts.

'Your mother probably understands some of the feeling of entrapment that forced you to leave. I imagine she sympathises with you and, not being the boss, hasn't the same feeling of rejection. Also, she loves you.'

'A father should love his son.'

'He has to love all his family and protect them. In his heart he may have doubts, but in front of your brothers and mother he has to be strong and unwavering in his beliefs. He imagines the family would fall apart otherwise. He's in a bind. If he relaxes the dogma that made your life intolerable, he risks the defection of your brothers too. It's like the Army; shoot deserters.'

'But, it's not a war!'

'Don't you believe it! Onward Christian soldiers? Fight the good fight? For most Christians it's a war all right, against the devil and all who question their doctrine. A medieval view producing stability at the cost of happiness. Christians have spent two thousand years denouncing happiness.'

'But have I been bad?'

Tears were streaming and I wanted to clasp him in my arms, stroke the bruises on his manly cheeks and press his head against my chest and absorb - absolve - the cancer of four years of loneliness, misery and doubt. I wanted to lift his burden of guilt so he could be whatever he should be – but I didn't dare. What a cunning religion is Organised Christianity. Not only is everyone born sinful, but followers can never liberate themselves from that dreadful state. Even death doesn't secure release. Unless one has abided by the church's rules, after death there will be torture, pain, and misery for eternity. Truly, it is one of the most sadistic creeds ever invented for the psychological enslavement of mankind.

'No! You have not been bad!' I said, surprising us both by shouting. 'Human sacrifice is bad. Slavery is bad. We can't expect to live without responsibilities, but we must take on duties because we want to. Parents have the right to make young children do chores they dislike - that's part of the learning process. But you're an adult. Your father hasn't the right to force you to live a life in which you'll be miserable. That's evil. You're intelligent and did the brave thing by accepting responsibility for yourself.

Jon sagged to the floor. 'I hope so. I hope so.'

The buzzer announced a customer. Closing the door on the snuffling heap of manhood, I pretended to adjust pictures, re-arrange catalogues and do all the things one does while keeping an eye open for thieves, vandals and a sale.

'I'll have that one,' the elderly man announced firmly, pointing to one of Bill Smith's more colourful works - Crotch Itch. 'Discount for cash?' he proffered a fist-full of notes.

We agreed on ten percent. In return, he would leave the painting hanging until the end of the following week. I was becoming anxious about the rapidly emptying walls. Fortunately, during the afternoon four more painters from Max's list brought in samples of their works. All were acceptable, although none were a patch on Mad and Bill. We re-arranged the exhibition so the advertised show occupied the most prestigious areas, and an elegantly labelled Permanent Collection was scattered over the remaining walls. Things were looking up.

'When's pay-day?'

'Good question. I've been here two weeks and haven't received a bean. Mind you, our glorious leader's been conspicuous by her absence. The lazy cow should've arranged things by now. Tell you what, the gallery's share of the painting I just sold is three hundred dollars. That's one-fifty each. Frances can't expect us to live on love alone,' I joked thoughtlessly, removing six fifty-dollar notes from the safe. I flicked a glance at Jon's face, but there was no reaction. He immediately returned one fifty-dollar bill, a disbelieving smile on his face. 'This is for the Holden. Now we're quits. I'll change the ownership papers as soon as I get the money.'

'No worries. The Registration's not due for about eight months. Wait till it runs out.'

'You trust me that much?'

I smiled guilelessly.

We were busy for the rest of the day with disaster-freaks wanting to talk about erosion, future devastation and how the gallery would soon be dumped in the sea along with the rest of the seaboard. I agreed enthusiastically, suggesting they buy something of lasting value as a souvenir before it was lost to posterity. At closing time I rang Mad to tell her about the sales and the excellent newspaper review. She was pleased and hoped I would visit them soon. After locking up, we took the Holden's battery to be charged at a nearby garage on our way to view the paintings of defeated-looking woman in the clapped out white van.

Her studio, a disused warehouse beside the motorway, was unlined, draughty, noisy and cold. Lank hair dragged back with a rubber band, accentuated somewhat protuberant eyes and narrow face. A long, mustard coloured, hand-knitted cardigan and scarf swathed her emaciated body. Communication was tricky, despite her use of fingers, hands, arms and head in what she apparently assumed were expressive gestures of clarification. Like most contemporary art practitioners who have spent too long in tertiary art institutions, her head was full of mesmerising psychobabble substitutes for rational thought.

We gazed around in horror. 'She's using art as an enema,' whispered Jon, heading for the door. It was nauseatingly true. In what appeared to be a determined effort to purge herself of troublesome thoughts, she had daubed dozens of enormous canvases with angst-ridden outpourings of gloom. Technique, design, and content had all been sacrificed on the holy altar of self-expression, resulting in murky puddles of egocentric vomit.

I admired Jon's discernment, but pity made me listen to the sad little details of an unfulfilled life. Compassion forced appreciative noises about scribbled lines, splashed paint and inexpertly cobbled together assemblages of household junk symbolising the predicament of women.

Jon was annoyed I'd wasted so much time, dismissing my pity as the product of clever manipulation. He was probably right. To cleanse our minds we went for a long, hard jog as soon as we got home, ending up at the sea. The river continued to run parallel to the shore and, helped by another very high tide, was busily washing away chunks of roadway. In the previous twenty-four hours another five metres had gone. All the buildings along nine kilometres of sea front south of the old river mouth had been evacuated because the way things were going they'd soon be joining the rubble on the ever-enlarging island.

'Impressive, isn't it?' A spry, grey haired woman remarked with obvious pleasure. 'That'll teach them to dig those abominable canals and destroy some of the most beautiful wetlands this country has known.'

'Was that the cause?' Jon asked.

'There is never jus one cause, young man, but always a last straw. Draining the swamps made the soils acid, deep-rooted trees died, canal banks collapsed with the unusually large volumes of water draining from the hinterland because of deforestation. Everything's come apart at the seams.' She smiled contentedly. 'The new island will probably be very fertile and beautiful in a hundred years or so.' She gazed at it with approval and I didn't consider doubting her word. If you can't believe the only elderly woman on the coast who doesn't dye her hair, then who on earth can you believe?

She drifted away and we stationed ourselves above Jon's drain. More of it had been exposed and shifting sands were causing the segments to separate. Gaps several centimetres wide had appeared between the sections nearest the new shoreline. Water now ran out of these gaps, further eroding the drain's foundations. Jon turned to me, a strained grin playing at his mouth.

'I'm glad now… that… that I didn't die.'

What could I say? Me too sounded a bit lightweight, and I didn't want to spoil the mood with deep, meaningful phrases, so let loose with an unsentimental, masculine Aussie grunt.

We jogged home the long way, passing several ex-canals on the way. Most had sprung leaks as the edges disintegrated. Sterile little waterways were reverting to the swamps from which they came. Hundreds of families were homeless. I tried to feel sorry for them, but no convincing emotion arrived.

After a meal and TV News, in which councillors and experts tried to pretend it wasn't like Humpty Dumpty, it was put-back-togetherable, we spent the evening listening to music and chatting.

Jon was computer-friendly, checked mail, kept the accounts up to date, polished floors, cleaned windows, dusted, mowed lawns, weeded flowerbeds, and spruced up what was already a tidy ship. As a reward, I added his name to the letterhead: Maximillian's Gallery of Fine Art. Director: Peter Corringe: Manager: Jon Moore. He laughed, unimpressed by the title, merely hoping his salary would be commensurate. I kept the ship afloat with five sales.

After work on Friday we pushed a supermarket trolley together, returning to the flat to do our washing. On Saturday after the gallery closed we unwound with a long jog around the canal estates to the south. At first glance the damage didn't seem too bad. Uninviting rows of cloned brick-veneer bungalows still squatted cheek by jowl along their curving streets. Lawns, dotted with the occasional unthrifty shrub, still separated them from the neatly curbed and channelled road. It was only when we stopped to peer that we noticed the slightly drunken angles of wall and roof, cracked foundations and paths, lop-sided pergolas and, in the case of those right on the water's edge, great holes missing from back yards. The entire rear sections of some houses were overhanging muddy ponds. Three had collapsed into the ooze.

'What boring gardens. I thought this was supposed to be a sub-tropical paradise.'

'Most people reckon that in paradise you shouldn't have to work. Gardening means work, so they plant something low-maintenance and get on with boozing, feeding the pokies, eating at the RSL, going on bus trips, playing cards, bingo, bowls - anything to distract them from the stark truth leering at them the minute they're alone.'

'What truth?'

'This is the only life they're going to get, and they've wasted most of it.'

''Mmm... My grandparents still grow their own vegetables, keep a few chooks, that sort of thing. They enjoy working, and seem happy enough.'

'Do they live near your parents?'

'On the property. Dad built a cottage for them.'

'I expect they feel useful. Retirees here have usually left their families behind in the south. Came up here for the warmth.'

'But not everyone's retired.'

'No. Lots of unemployed are in a similar boat. As you experienced.'

Jon was thoughtful. 'It was bloody awful being out of work. Sometimes I felt so hopeless I could only squat on the ground and wish someone would hit me on the head and put me out of my misery.'

'And now?'

He grinned. 'Now I'm excited about the future. There're lots of things I want to do and…' he hesitated, blushed and blurted, 'for the first time in my life I have a friend… someone I can say anything to. Someone I can trust. I've never had one before… ' he glanced sideways. 'Don't worry, I'm not expecting you to feel the same. You've probably got lots of friends.' He blushed. 'Say something… This is embarrassing!'

What could I say? Yodelling scarcely seemed appropriate, so I did my usual thing and clapped him manfully on the shoulder and mumbled, 'Real friends are like hen's teeth - and until this minute I was right out of them.'

As usual, we ended our jog at the eroded shoreline in front of the gallery. Heavy rains overnight meant that water continued to flow from the ever-widening gaps in Jon's drain, and the river remained a torrent. Apartment blocks and fast-food outlets were now teetering on the edge of extinction. A brood of bulldozers, front-end loaders, ditch diggers and other devices of demolition had been busy piling up heaps of masonry, bitumen and other detritus for an onslaught on the watery enemy, but man's weapons in this battle looked puny. We wished them failure and agreed it was a pity humans hadn't tried coexistence with nature.

On Sunday the gallery was closed, so we headed for the hills before sunrise, me in the Mercedes, Jon in his Holden. I arrived at the cottage relaxed - he, shaken but exhilarated.

'Wow! What a place! I'm crazy about mountains. Do you know? When I first saw the ocean I thought I was back out west - flat, boring and endless. The only difference was no flies. But here? There's something to look at, somewhere to go, something to explore. I can't believe it!'

With a cry worthy of Tarzan, he ripped off his tracksuit, raced down to the dam and dived in, leaping out even faster than he'd entered. 'It's freezing!' he yelled, racing back in long zigzags to dry off, before dragging on his clothes.

'I want to stay here,' he puffed. 'I didn't know such places existed. I've only travelled on main roads. Never thought of going up side roads. It's heaven.' He grabbed my shoulders. 'You're not having me on? This is your place? I am allowed to be here?

'No, yes, and yes.'

We laughed and gazed across the small lake formed by the dam. Trees and bushes on the other three sides were reflected in its placid surface. Papyrus and waterlilies decorated the nearer shore. Vapour tendrils drifted lazily from the surface into the cool air, joining mists rising from surrounding tree-covered hills. As we watched, a fleck of gold touched a distant bluff, dove grey against a soft blue sky speckled with pink-edged, fish-scale clouds. No breath of air disturbed the stillness. Whip-birds called, pigeons warbled, butcherbirds chimed duets, frogs screeched, noisy minors argued, a squabble of kookaburras laughed themselves silly, and five black parrots flew overhead, crying like babies.

The view gave me as much sadness as pleasure. Although beautiful, the trees were only regeneration from clear-felling about thirty years previously, and tiny compared to the forest giants that had clothed the land when the first Europeans arrived. Compared to primeval forests my beautiful remnant gave lean pickings. Half the plant species had been lost, most of the humus had gone, and alien invaders were everywhere - lantana, thistles, foxes, rats, cats and humans.

Having made myself dutifully miserable, I left Jon to explore and crossed to the cottage. It was worse than I remembered. Broken glass, ash and soot stains contaminated the exterior. Inside it stank. Damaged roof tiles hadn't kept out recent heavy rains and the interior was a bog. I tried the phone, squatting in its puddle of grey slime. Not a buzz; it wasn't indestructible after all. I backed out of the mess and leaned against the doorway, wondering how to get myself started. With a flickering of wet hair Jon squeezed himself in front of me, leaned against the door post and peered in.

'Shit!' he whispered. 'Who did this? Did you know about it?'

'It happened last week. I've been putting off thinking about it, but I guess it's not going to go away.'

'This is your house?'


'You built it?'

'Yep. And the studio over there.'

'They're great. Romantic. The sort of place I'd build. Why didn't you tell me?'

'Hoping it hadn't happened.'

He was staring at the rafters. I could smell wet hair, see a tiny pulse in his throat and feel warmth radiating from the loose collar of his tracksuit. Fine hairs on the nape of his neck shivered in my breath and my legs went limp.

'The strong, silent type eh?' he muttered as though to himself. 'Well, today's your lucky day. I'm the expert at extracting method from muddle. A couple of crazy heifers did more damage than this to Mum's wash-house when they ran amok.' He ran his eye over everything again, then declared it was structurally sound and could be put to rights in no time.

'You reckon.'

'I reckon. Four hands are better than two, and two heads are better than one, as Mum used to say.'

I let my hands drop onto his shoulders and pulled him against my chest. 'Your Mum is a fountain of wisdom and I accept your absurdly generous offer.'

He went absolutely rigid. Tendons on his neck stood out like guy-ropes.

I quickly pushed him upright. 'They had a go at the studio, too,' I said evenly, before walking purposefully over to the other building, cursing my stupidity. It took a couple of minutes to knock away the timber barring the door. I went in. 'They were a bit more subtle in here!' I called through the window.

Jon was still standing where I had left him.

'They only trashed my drawings and painting gear.'

He turned slowly and trudged sullenly across. After poking lethargically at the mess with a stick, he ended up squatting in front of a pile of torn, paint-spattered drawings. 'These aren't bad. What's left of them. Who did the damage?'

'I'm not sure.'

'Are we mates or not?' he snarled, willing me to define our relationship in terms he could accept.

'Mates,' I answered, then added flippantly, 'comrades in arms; friends to the death.'

'Right, then. Who was it?'

I told him about Patrick's anger over Max's bequest, and my suspicions.

'Figures,' he said nodding his head knowingly. 'My brothers would sell me for forty pieces of silver.'

'He's not my brother.'

'Was for four years – virtually.'

I laughed, imagining Patrick's reaction to that idea. '

'Well, what are we going to do about it?'


'You're joking!'

'His time will come.'

'If it doesn't, I'll arrange it.'

I surprised myself by laughing. Until that morning the mere thought of the mess had me planning on warm baths and sharp razor blades. Suddenly it seemed funny.

Jon stood up. 'Got me up here under false pretences, eh? Promise a quiet day in the country and it turns into a labour camp. Well, the exercise'll do me good. You set the studio to rights and I'll clear out the house. Where's the work gear?'

We climbed into overalls and sorted out a few tools before breakfasting on slabs of bread and cheese, washed down with chlorine-free rainwater from the tank. By lunchtime I'd cleared out the studio, repaired the door and replaced the bolt. The walls and floor resisted total cleanliness but, as Jon observed, it was an elegant smudging, eminently suitable for an artist's abode. (He said artist, not me.)

I lit a fire in the barbecue with all the useless drawings and paintings and while Jon washed off some of his soot and grime, grilled the meat and vegetables. Why is it when someone you like has dirty smudges under their nose, across their chin and around their eyes, they look great; but if you don't like them they look gross? He looked fantastic.

'I've got the easy job,' I apologised.

'Well, you're the ugly old brains of the outfit. Hard work's best done by young dumbos like me.'

I glanced up, startled. Was that how he saw me? He caught my look and laughed uproariously. 'Gotcha! You're a vain bastard. I guessed it with those bleached bristles. And you shave your chest.'

'Yes, well…' I blustered.

'And your bum and pubes. What's with the hairless look?'

'Trying to look younger.'

'How old are you?'


'Shit! It works, I thought we were the same age.'

'You've made my day. But - do you think I shouldn't?'

'Why the hell not? Go for it. The body's the temple of the soul - as Mum used to say.'

'It's not only that,' I continued with an unwonted urge to justify myself, 'it's cleaner. You wouldn't know, being a hairless babe, but hair traps dirt and smells.'

'And shit,' he added carelessly. 'Yeah, my older brother's hairy. He used to get sore from the dried dags round his ring when we'd been riding for a couple of days and hadn't been able to wash properly. I'll have to write and tell him to shave his arse. After all, cleanliness is next to godliness…' he paused, waiting for me to join in, 'as Mum used to say.' He laughed wildly, and it was several seconds before he could speak. 'That's why…' he burst into giggles. 'That's why your farts have such a ring of confidence!'

'Prick, I don't fart much.'

'Not compared to Steve. He used to stink the bed out. Some nights I had to sleep outside. The other two didn't seem to notice.'

'Did you share a room?'

'And a bed. Me and Steve in one bed, Paul and Mark in the other. Dad's idea of economy. There wasn't much money to spare for non-essentials.'

'How on earth did you study?'

'When I got desperate I knocked together a bed and desk in the outside washhouse. That way I could flop into bed after studying late. The others didn't bother studying, couldn't see the point.'

'But you did?'

'I hoped it'd be an avenue of escape, but in the end the motorbike proved more useful.'

'It wasn't wasted. You're the most intelligent young man I've spoken to in years. And the best looking.'

'You're not exactly Quasimodo yourself. You looked cool the other night at the opening. Everyone had the hots for you, even a few blokes. You should've heard the comments from some of those well-dressed dames - make your hair curl!'

'Such as?'

'Sorry mate, I'm too pure to repeat it.'

'Prick!' I threw myself at him and we wrestled lazily until he put a headlock on me and demanded submission.

After lunch I gave him a hand and by four o'clock all the irreparable contents of the cottage and studio were stacked in a heap beside the drive. We called it a day, stripped for a quick cold swim, soaped off the worst of the sooty smudges, and went visiting. As we forced our way through the overgrown track we heard loud voices.

'You've ruined my day! You're always criticising everything I do! I don't go around telling you how things should be done!'

Rory's voice was deeper and in another language. Placating, but equally loud.

'Hang on a bit,' I said, motioning Jon to sit. 'It won't last long. Give them a minute and there'll be kisses and smiles.'

'You know them pretty well?'

'As much as they'll let me. They value privacy as much as I do. That's why we keep the track hidden. They don't want visitors to my place wandering through to them, and vice versa. They're madly in love, keep to themselves and spend their days fighting, making up and pottering around. Not much work gets done. Perfect neighbours - there when you want them, not when you don't. It's thanks to them the fire was put out on time.

The forest was suddenly quiet. After a respectable interval and talking loudly, we wandered across to the brightly curtained caravan in its clearing. Under an awning, a few comfortable chairs rotted silently beside pot plants jammed into every available spot. A dozen jobs waited for someone's attention, and piles of possibly useful materials rescued from the dump, littered the open spaces.

Rory is barrel-chested with the shoulders of an ox, biceps as large as my thighs and thighs as thick as my waist. In a torn pair of old shorts, skin tanned a glossy brown, hair a tangled mess of black curls hanging over dark brown eyes, full lips just visible through a beard and moustache streaked with grey, he looked thuggish.

Lida, as lean as Rory is broad, was standing beside her husband. Hair scraped back and caught with a rubber band, eyes peering through thick-lensed glasses, bare feet poking from a dirty pair of men's overalls, she looked tired. They welcomed me like the prodigal son, ran hands through my bleached bristles, laughed and reckoned it was a change for the better.

I introduced Jon. Rory shook hands but Lida merely nodded, averted her eyes, blushed and mumbled, 'I'll go and put on the kettle.' She returned looking ten years younger, having dashed on lipstick, hoop earrings and a flowered shift. She wouldn't have bothered for me. After we had solved the world's problems over tea and sticky sweet homemade biscuits, Jon announced he'd be staying on in my cottage for a couple of days.

'I'm going to repair Peter's roof in case it rains again, and then I'll hire a small truck to take all the rubbish away. He won't let me dump it in the trees.'

'Burn it,' was Rory's predictable response, his smile daring me to argue. I bit my lip, tried not to laugh, and wondered if Jon was serious. We hadn't discussed getting rid of the rubbish, nor his staying up here. I turned to see if he was joking.

He raised an eyebrow. 'There's nothing urgent on at the gallery and I'll be back on Tuesday night, Wednesday at the latest. You can manage without me till then can't you, boss?'

No doubt I could. But I didn't want to. Then again, neither did I want him at the gallery unless he was there willingly. With what I hoped was an air of indifference, I nodded perfunctorily. 'Good idea, if you're sure you can manage on your own.'

'It'll be easier without you fussing around.' Jon grinned into his tea, and I laughed to hide my annoyance.

'Where will you sleep? What'll you eat?' asked Lida.

'There's a sleeping bag and tent in the boot of the Holden, and enough food left over from lunch till I get something tomorrow morning when I buy the tiles and dump the rubbish. Can I use your phone?' he asked cheekily, turning to Rory.

'Of course, Jon,' Lida simpered. 'And you must eat with us tonight. Mustn't he, Rory?'

When I mumbled that Jon was my… 'friend', Rory's wary grunt turned to smiles and an offer to lend Jon his tools and half-ton utility truck. We'd been good neighbours for four years but this was the first time he had offered to lend anything material. He was profligate with time and energy, but his precious tools and ute? I hid my jealousy but after an hour of feeling increasingly unimportant and increasingly irritated with myself for feeling like that, I stood up and said I had to go, expecting to be pressed to stay. But no one tried to stop me. Jon walked back with me for a last check on things.

'No more work now, Jon,' called Lida sweetly. 'You've worked hard enough for that slave driver. Rory's opening another bottle of home-brew, so hurry back.' Jon sent her a ravishing smile and a wave. I bit my tongue. We loaded some stuff into the Mercedes, I mentioned a few things Jon might find useful, got in the car and wound down the window. His face was wreathed in a smug grin.

'You're in with a chance over there, Lida has the hots for you,' I said seriously.

That wiped the grin off his face. 'But, she's old!' was his shocked rejoinder. 'At least thirty-five.'

'So? Do you think desire stops at thirty?'

'Shit. I was just being nice. What'll I do?'

'That'll teach you to try and wind me up.'

'Were you? Wound up? I just wanted to see how far… how much you…' He looked trapped then finished in a rush. 'Whether we were equal or… or if in your heart you really felt more like a boss than a friend.'

'And what did you discover?'

'I'm not sure. I think we're equal. I think you trust me… but you don't seem to care what I do.'

'Isn't that what you want?'

'I…I don't know. I don't know what I want. I think I want you to care, but not so much you stop me doing what I want.'

'I care, OK?'


'And I'm not looking for a faithful dog.'

'And it's a wise man who knows what he wants.'

'As your Mum used to say.' Neither of us laughed. It was all getting a bit serious. Suddenly Jon let fly with a wild whoop. 'Yaheee! Alone in this magic place! I want to get to know every part of it.' He turned back, serious again. 'Are you sure you don't mind, Peter?'

'You're joking. I'm grateful you want to clean the mess up. But accidents happen! Promise to ring me in the morning as soon as you get to civilisation, no later than nine o'clock. Here's some money for the tiles and things, also a new phone. And pay Rory two dollars a kilometre for his ute, as well as filling it with petrol.'

'Yes, boss. But – what'll I do about Lida?'

'Be subtle. Let her know we share a bed.'

He looked nonplussed, then grinned in relief. 'Brilliant. Why didn't I think of that?'

'Too pure of heart.'

'It's true,' he responded almost sadly. 'Anything else?'

'Yes. Do not go on the roof unless either Rory or Lida is there.'

Jon looked aghast. 'I'm not a stupid kid!'

'And I'm not insured against strangers having accidents.'

'Mercenary bugger. OK, I promise.'

'And so I know you're safe, you must ring me on the dot of seven each morning, except tomorrow when you'll phone at nine, and on the dot of five every evening, starting tomorrow evening. Promise?'

Jon promised, repeated the instructions, crossed his heart, pointed to heaven, waved goodbye, and was already heading back to the exotic Rory and Lida before I had crested the rise.

It was only five o'clock and I was regretting being in such a hurry to leave. Lida had certainly expected me to feel included in the dinner invitation, I'd eaten with them often enough in the past. I was biting off my nose to spite my face, as my mother used to say. Served me right.

It was too early to go back to an empty gallery so I let the Mercedes decide and forty minutes later was parked in front of the Alconas. Their welcome was even warmer than the previous time, and when I was dismantled I discovered why. Brian had been kicked in the back by a sick show-pony. He'd been brought home on a stretcher and placed on a plank on the spare bed in the downstairs guestroom. After two days of his complaints, everyone's tempers were fraying and I was deputed as entertainer in chief. Rigid on his back, supported by pillows on each side, he looked like a handsome cadaver in a padded sarcophagus.

'Are you ready for the last rites my son?' I inquired solemnly from the doorway.

'Peter! Thank heavens. A man! If you knew how tired I am of women and children.' He was in considerable pain. The analgesics were helping, but he hadn't been able to sleep, refusing sleeping pills. 'They addle your brain, old man. I'm not going to shut down any of my precious grey-matter. Talk to me, there's a good chap. Take my mind off my miseries.'

That was easy. As an only child I'd conducted endless conversations with the world around me. My mother soon gave up worrying when she came upon me talking to the lawn-mower, a plant, my Teddy, the bed, the contents of my wardrobe. I've always been more than half convinced that all things, both animate and inanimate, will be better disposed towards me if I talk to them as equals, but antagonistic if I take them for granted. On cold mornings when I didn't commiserate with my bicycle, I'd get a puncture, a nut would drop off or it'd fall off its stand.

Brian lay back, closed his eyes and grunted occasionally as I chattered about what I'd been doing; Jon; how we met, floods, erosion, today... After an hour or so the others joined us, and Mad put plates on our knees. I continued to prattle between mouthfuls; someone would ask a question, there'd be discussion, we'd go off on a tangent, opinions proffered, conclusions debated and off we'd head on another tack. Eventually we fell silent. Mad put a finger to her lips. Brian was asleep. She turned out the light and we tiptoed into the gloom of the lounge.

'Thank you, darling. That's his first sleep since the accident. I think he was worried about not being able to protect us in case of invasion or some nonsense. But you being here has allowed him to relax.'

'Glad to help,' I yawned. 'What's the time?'

Mad was standing between the twins, an arm draped protectively around each; Jeff towered close behind – a sentinel.

'Eleven-thirty. Too late to go home. Stay the night.' It was a nervous instruction, not a question and the three children seemed equally nervous about my reaction.

'I'd love to, but Brian's got the spare bed.'

'You shared your bed with me last time, you can share mine tonight,' offered Jeff.

'You're on.' I answered, relieved at not having to return to an empty flat.

Der and Dra were tugging at Mad's arms. 'Tell him, Mum. Go on! You have to tell him first!'

I didn't try to hide my curiosity.

Looking a little lost, Mad cleared her throat and spoke softly. 'Brian and I lived for a few years in Samoa. In the villages they live in fales, large, circular, family spaces open to the world. At night the blinds roll down and everyone sleeps in the same room, parents and kids. The children grow up wholesome, with few of the sleazy, salacious attitudes towards their bodies, natural functions and sexuality that Australian kids and adults have, so we decided to build a house like that. We all sleep in the same, huge room upstairs. Does that shock you?'

'I think it's brilliant!'

'See, I told you Peter would understand.' Jeff's hands were protective on his mother's shoulders.

'I read the other day, 'Der added diffidently, 'that more than seventy percent of the world's children sleep in the same room as their parents. So we're not the strange ones.'

'Indeed you're not!' I stated firmly

Dra solemnly took my hand and, followed by Der, led me upstairs to the bedroom. A magnificent space – walls, floor and ceiling of polished wood, golden grain glowing like flames in the lamplight. Exposed rafters sloped to the high ridge-beam, dormer windows looked out to the stars, colourful rugs scattered. One double bed jutted out from the street wall, another from the wall overlooking the garden, and a third from the gable end. Wardrobes, dressing tables, work areas and comfortable chairs dotted the space, but there was no sense of clutter. Each bed occupied its own realm and it all looked cosy and sensible.

'That's Mum and Dad's bed,' Dra pointed towards the gable. 'This one, under the window looking out to the pool, is Jeff's and this one's ours.' She had wound her arm tightly around her almost identical twin's waist, and pointed shyly to the bed under the dormer window facing the street. Der plonked a kiss on her forehead and a pat on her bum before pointing to a door at the other end. That's the bathroom. Let's shower.'

It was the ideal family bathroom - three showers, three wash-basins, two toilets, each with an accompanying bidet, one bath, a spa pool, a sauna, copious towel rails and a large airing cupboard full of towels. Mad and Jeff were already showering, the steam wafting away through extractor fans. Jeff offered to scrub my back in his, and Der and Dra showered in the third. We all dried ourselves in the centre of the room.

'Are you still happy with the arrangement, Peter?' asked Mad a little nervously.

'I wish you and Brian had been my parents!'

Mad read for a while, Jeff and I talked for a bit. The atmosphere was so nurturing that it didn't surprise me when Jeff invited me to race him to orgasm. Nor was I surprised by the sweet sounds of pleasure from Der and Dra. What did surprise and delight was that, despite torrential rain, I slept deeply and dreamlessly the entire night.

Brian's face was alert at breakfast. His temper had improved and in the few minutes we had together he thanked me for staying.

'Sleep well?' he asked blandly.

'Like a log.'

'Do you still like us?' Face still expressionless.

I could do the same trick. 'Why on earth not?'

'Well... The bedroom? Der and Dra?'

'The bedroom's great. They're great.'

Brian frowned. 'I want to explain about them.'

'There's no need.'

'Yes there is. Dra has unusual chromosomes. Her ovaries produce no eggs and hardly enough hormone to generate secondary sexual characteristics. Apparently, apart from her vagina she's almost as much boy as girl. It begins to explain their being practically identical. They're inseparable, that's for sure.'

'Brilliant! The world's over populated. And it saves on condoms.'

'This is serious, Peter. Their happiness and security are very important to us.'

'This whole family is enormously important to me.'

'I love you.'

'And so do I.' This from Mad, carrying a tray with Brian's breakfast. 'Peter, you are the first person to whom we have ever shown our… arrangements. I can't tell you what a weight's been lifted from my heart. To go on, day in day out, knowing that the way you live is right, clean, proper and pure, but also in the knowledge that if anyone found out about it they'd probably throw us in prison for being evil parents, is horrible. Yet we can't help ourselves! So we go on. Being able to be honest with you is like – I don't know, being told we aren't fiendish ogres, but normal people.'

'Tell me something new. How do you think all we who are born same-sex-oriented feel about ourselves? Exactly the same! We know we are good, pure, proper and clean of heart, but the rest of the world tells us we are evil, sinful, foul and no better than rapists and murderers. So we keep quiet, waiting for that rare, special person to whom we can confide our dreadful secret. Then, for a time at least, the impossible burden is lifted.'

'Oh, Peter,' she whispered, tears streaming over her cheeks. 'Thank you. Thank you for everything.'

After a quick breakfast, I drove the kids to school on my way back to the coast. Der intoned ponderously about the state of the universe, obviously at peace with himself, but Dra remained apprehensive, finally blurting out just as we arrived, 'Do you really not mind about Der and me?'

'I approve wholeheartedly, because you've both been wise enough to choose perfect mates.'

I may have been mistaken, but I think they both floated through the school gates.

'Thanks, Peter. See you soon I hope!' grinned Jeff, and I was alone again.

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