by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 2

he Karims

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fidel shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Has your father never mentioned it?'

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

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

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

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

'I feel different! Thanks!'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'What's funny?'

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

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

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

'You are, Fidel. You are.'

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

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

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

'But why would a mother…?

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

'I think so.'

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


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

Sanjay and Monique shuddered. 'Yes.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Yes?' Fidel's hopes sank slightly.

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

'You don't have to pay me!'

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

'Very okay! Thanks.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Nothing. I'm just busy.'

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

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

'Would you want to?'

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

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

'You think I'm being childish?'

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

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

'And to salve your jealous conscience.'

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

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

They stood outside the front door.

'You're grinding your teeth.'

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

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

'You've been groin watching!'

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

'That's true.'

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

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

'I had a hair cut.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'That'd be great, thanks.'

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Know anyone who wants an ignorant adolescent?'

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

'He'd have to be.'

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

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

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

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

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

'Then where does the money come from?'

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

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

'But what about fishing and market gardens?'

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

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

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

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

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

'That's so depressing!'

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

'Of course.'

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

'Surely it isn't really like that?'

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

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

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

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

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

'Did you?'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'I wish you luck.'

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

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

'And that is?'

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

'Sounds adventurous. Where's the studio?'

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

'How many clients have you?'

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

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

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

'What's that?'

'I'll become a freelance consultant.'

'What's that?'

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

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

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

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

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

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