by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 7


A car door slammed.

Hylas peered into the darkness. 'Is that you, Fidel?'

'Who else are you expecting at two o'clock in the morning?' A solid looking man jogged up the steps and stopped in surprise. 'Fuck you've grown. Are you sure you're you?

Hylas laughed nervously. 'I'd never have recognised you. You're… bigger.'

'But just as stupid. You were still up?'

' Of course! My big brother was coming. I couldn't sleep. Come in.' Hylas led the way into the house. 'Where's your gear?'

'I'm wearing it.'

Hylas stared in confusion. 'But…'

'I can't stay. Have to get back tomorrow. Don't worry; I'm not going to do a Mum on you and leave you high and dry. But I'm dead on my feet and stink. All I want is a shower and sleep. We can talk in the morning. Are there still two beds in our old room?'

Hylas nodded and led the way, determined to conceal his disappointment that Fidel wouldn't be staying. But nervously hoping that what he meant by not leaving him high and dry meant he might be… No, better not to get his hopes up.

'Feels funny being here again. Go to bed; I know where the bathroom is. Try to sleep. I won't be long.' Fidel peeled off his tracksuit pants and a tank top that looked several sizes too small, and draped them over the back of a chair, revealing a chunky, powerful, tanned and hairy body that set Hylas's pulses racing.

'Where are your shoes?'

'In the car; I prefer driving in bare feet.'

Left alone, Hylas sighed, removed his shorts and shirt then curled up in bed, eyes wide, too worried to sleep.

Fidel returned, still wet. Taking Hylas's towel from behind the door he dried himself energetically. 'There's no hot water! Cold showers may be refreshing but it's hard to get dry afterwards. See you in the morning, Bro.' He snuggled under his duvet and switched off the light. 'Ha, I feel fourteen again.'

Hylas tried to remain calm. He was feeling eleven again and hating it. At least he wasn't alone tonight, even if Fidel would be gone again tomorrow. He drifted into a troubled sleep only to be woken by a sudden scream. He sat up bathed in sweat and stared around wildly. The lights came on, blinding him, and something touched his shoulder. He jerked away.

''It's okay, it's okay. Calm down. You were dreaming.' Fidel gently stroked his brother's shoulder.

Hylas shuddered violently. 'I heard a scream.'

'That was you.'

' I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Really sorry, please don't be cross but it, it was awful, I can't stop my head, I...'

Fidel sat on the bed and wrapped his arms around his brother, staring at their reflection in the mirror while absentmindedly stroking Hylas's neck with his thumb. 'It's fine. I understand. Bad thoughts always find a way out. Better through dreams than bad actions.'

' But when will they stop. It's over a week since it happened. I have them every night. I'm frightened to go to sleep in case…'

'It's okay, I understand.'

'I'm sorry, Fidel, please don't be mad at me.'

'I'm not mad, but I do need my sleep, so shove over; I'll bunk in with you then I won't have to get out bed next time you throw a fit.'

Nervously, Hylas rolled over to face the wall while his brother climbed in behind, pulled up the sheet and duvet, draped an arm over his shoulders, softly stroked the skin behind his ear and whispered, 'Sleep little brother. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.'

For what felt like the first time since Fidel had left, Hylas relaxed and ninety seconds later they were both in the arms of Morpheus, where they remained until daylight and a cool draught streamed through the open window.

They had turned over during the night and Hylas was now pressed against his brother's back, arm draped over his chest. He scarcely dared breathe. How could he face Fidel after his weakness the previous night? He had no idea how to act. What to say. How to apologise. He knew nothing about Fidel really, except he went to Brisbane and disappeared for five years. He vividly remembered the day he left; abandoning him to an irritable, hate-filled mother. Bereft of hope, love and energy. For a long time he had been angry with him for going away, but finally forgave him, despite not receiving the promised letters. He was mortified at not recognising him last night.

Pretending to be still asleep, Hylas let Fidel lift his arm and slide quietly from the bed, then watched as he stood in front of the bucket on the seat under the window, held his erection down, relieved himself, shook off the drops, then began a series of exercises that began with arm swings and ended with squats and press ups. Slight grunts were the sole sounds.

Hylas was used to seeing other guys in the changing room at school, but Fidel was a revelation. So healthy, fit and powerful but natural, not like one of those over developed shaven guys in the ridiculous underpants advertisements. Evenly tanned, and despite being thicker in the waist than the bodies Hylas wanked over on Internet sites, he looked sexier. He was nearly close enough to touch and smell. How he longed to touch. But what was Fidel like inside his head? His mother had insisted he was evil. A hardened criminal. A no-good wastrel. His father only shook his head and sighed when he heard Fidel's name, telling Hylas it'd be best to try and forget he had a brother.

But he couldn't! He had loved him too much. And he still did, he realised. But did Fidel still love him? He looked neither dangerous nor criminal. He was tough, that was obvious, but last night he'd been so gentle. He touched his neck where Fidel had stroked it and fought back tears. He wondered why. The soft ache in his chest felt like sadness. Perhaps because it was the first gentle touch by another person he could remember. In books kids were cuddled by parents, kissed, made a fuss of; stroked and calmed when upset. He knew he'd been lucky to have a home, plenty of food, a dry bed, schooling and all the things kids take for granted, but why hadn't he been kissed and stroked even once? Was he unlovable? At school he wasn't disliked, but was he liked? He had no idea. He had no close friends. All the other guys had girlfriends but no girl had shown much interest in him. He didn't want them to. But still… He shook his head to stop the thoughts. He was dying for a pee but didn't want to get out of bed with a hard-on. He'd look ridiculous.

Fidel was on his twentieth squat, staring blankly at the wall. Hylas thought his heavy dark eyebrows and deep-set expressionless eyes made him look a bit dumb, and that made him like him even more. His nose had been broken at least once. His upper teeth were just visible between slightly parted lips drawn back with the effort, giving him a sort of feral look, enhanced by a square jaw covered in stubble so thick and dark it looked as if it had been painted on.

Fidel looked up and grinned, exposing even more of his large front teeth. Was it a snarl or a smile? Alarmed, Hylas looked into amused eyes and relaxed. Fidel was powerful and potentially dangerous, but not to Hylas. Inside he was… a nice guy. The realisation triggered a surge of relief and admiration. His brother was someone he could like and admire! Perhaps, if he was lucky, Fidel might even like him. Might even stay and… Then he remembered. He was only here for a few hours. Then what? Hylas didn't want another parent. He couldn't pretend he was sorry he'd lost the two he had. But he would like someone to share things with and to… to…

He thrust the pathetic thought from his head, returned the smile with interest and blurted, 'You've a fantastic body! I hope I'll look as good as you one day.'

Fidel grunted a laugh. 'You'll look better. I'm already starting to look like a brick shithouse. You'll be more like Dad used to be in photos, strong, lean and flexible. You saw me just now, couldn't touch my toes without a warm up.'

'How'd you get so strong?'

'The usual way, but we can talk later—we have to, but first things first. I need to freshen up and eat, then we can talk and make decisions. So, up you get!'

'Don't look.'

'You've been looking at me for the last ten minutes. It's okay, I know you've got a hard on, you've been shoving it against me half the night.'

'I didn't know, sorry, and it's not only that. It's…'


'I'm ashamed because they're black.'

'What are?'

'My cock and balls. And my bum's also darker than other kids. I hate it. At school they reckon I must have black shit and smear it around. But the rest of me isn't any darker than you. Why am I different?'

'That, brother mine, we will never know. Both our mother and our grandmother never knew who their fathers were, and considering how different we both are from Dad, apart from you being skinny, it wouldn't surprise me if she was no different from her mother.'

'You mean?'

'Do either of us bear the slightest resemblance to Dad?'

Hylas was silent for several long seconds. 'On the day he topped himself they were arguing. Shouting. Worse than usual, and he said something about having paid for her two bastards, but she wasn't going to get another cent. I didn't understand it. But now I get it. We're the two bastards.'

'Most likely. Does it worry you?'

'Not really. It would explain why he wasn't more protective of you, wouldn't it? I never felt close to him, but I'm sorry he's dead. He wasn't a bad man—not like Mum.'

' But why the heck would he suicide? Why didn't he just clear out? Meanwhile, I'm going nowhere, so stop being such a girl and go and piss!'

Secretly relieved to be ordered to do what he desperately needed, Hylas did.

Fidel laughed. 'Yeah, you're a bit darker there than me, but nowhere near black. I read somewhere that over-sexed people have darker cods because of the extra blood flowing to them. Maybe that's your problem. How often do you wank?'

Hylas blushed but decided to tell the truth. 'Every chance I get.'

'Yeah, me too. Still do. As for your sexy bits, it's not the colour that's interesting, it's what you do with them.'

'I don't do anything except wank.'

'Come here.'

Nervously, Hylas approached his brother who placed both hands on his shoulders and gazed down as if considering an interesting artefact. 'Brother mine, you've a work of art between your legs.' He laughed as if delighted. 'It looks like carved mahogany. I wish it was mine!'


' Honestly. You're a fine looking young man. I can't believe you're only sixteen. You're already as tall as me and looking fitter than I was at your age.'

Hylas grinned his pleasure. 'Thanks.'

'A pleasure.' Fidel lifted his own arm and sniffed. 'Whew I stink but I'm not having another cold shower. What's to eat?'

'There's no food in the house. And in a few hours there'll be no furniture. Mum arranged it all with the auctioneer a week ago. I can't get over it. She'd been planning to leave ever since Dad died, but told me nothing! We'll have to buy breakfast.'

'First a crap, then a swim, then breakfast.'

'A swim! Brilliant!

Their bowels voided, Hylas pulled on a speedo while Fidel took what looked like a pale blue scrap of material from his wallet. He shook it and two circles of string dropped out. He stepped into them, then stretched the fabric till it covered the important bits.

'What's that?'

' It's what I swim in if there are people around. It's a pouch, or as the French say, le minimum . Surely you've seen one before?'

' Only on porn sites. You… you're not going out like that?'

'There's no point in wearing anything more if I'm only going to get it wet. You aren't covering much more than me.'

'My bum, for a start.'

'Why should we cover the most important muscle we have? The one that allows us to stand upright? Does it embarrass you?'

Hylas thought, then giggled. 'No, it's sexy, but I wouldn't dare. And if we're going to Main Beach we'll have to walk a bit.'

'That's okay. My legs still work. If you get embarrassed you can put your hand over my crack or pretend you don't know me.'

'I'm not embarrassed, it's just…'

'You're worried some fuckwit will take offence and bash me up?'

'More or less.'

'Wouldn't be the first time someone's tried, but they've always regretted it.'

' I can imagine.' Hylas took a deep breath, laughed in delight and raced out to the car. 'Hey… a Volt. I've always wanted to drive in an electric car. Is it any good?'

' It's brilliant; but I borrowed it.'

'He must like you.'

'We like each other.'

Hylas's heart flipped and he suddenly didn't want to know any more.

The Surf Club car park was already full, so they parked a couple of hundred metres along Hastings Street and jogged back.

'I'm losing my touch. Only one wolf whistle.'

'But plenty of looks and a couple of cheers.'

'Race you!' Fidel jumped the barrier, scrambled down the rocks, raced into the surf, dived under a wave and surfaced ten metres further out. Hylas was close behind. They swam a few hundred metres parallel to the beach, body surfed for twenty minutes, rinsed off salt and sand under the showers in front of the surf club, then, to the delight of a gaggle of tourists, jumped up and down to shake off the drops.

' That's the only thing I miss in Brisbane, the surf. But my stomach thinks my throat's been cut. Food! Gimme food!'

Hylas failed to suppress a giggle. 'Calm down you great baby, everyone's looking at us. There's a kebab place over there.'

'How much money have you got?'

' None. I never thought… have you any in the car?'

'Luckily for you this remarkably fine bulge those girls are admiring is enhanced slightly by this.' Making no attempt to conceal his action, Fidel slipped two fingers into his pouch and brought out a fifty-dollar note wrapped in plastic. 'Let's see how much it's going to cost us to partake of breakfast on the most famous tourist strip in the land.'

'Heaps. What else have you got hidden down there?'

'Apart from the family jewels you mean?'


'Only the car card.'

They wandered across, joining early walkers, joggers and board-short-clad swimmers in front of the outside menu.

'Nice bum,' someone shouted from across the road.

Fidel waved and grinned then returned his attention to the selection. 'What do you want?'

Hylas listed his choice.

' If I get the same as you we'll have splurged thirty-eight dollars and eighty-five cents. We can do better than that. Come on!' They raced back to the car, drove up to the Junction and parked.

'There's no fast food place here.'

'But there's a supermarket.'

'Can we go in like this?'

'We can only try.'

Hylas followed a few metres behind to see what other people saw, and began to panic. 'Fidel, from behind you look totally naked! I can't even see the string round your waist! You'll be run in!'

'Stop worrying. It's fun. Next time we'll both wear them. Grab a basket when we get inside and hold it in front of the rude bits.'

'They aren't rude. They're sexy but…'

Fidel had run ahead and was already inside. Their tour of the aisles was uneventful until the checkout when they were accorded a soft wolf whistle and several appreciative grins.

'Where to?'

'The park at the back.'

On the grassy bank of a shallow lake edged by reeds, with birds abusing each other in the eucalypts, lizards scurrying from cover to cover and brush turkeys already queuing for handouts, they unpacked a dozen bread rolls, a bottle of olives, a packet of gruyere cheese, two slices of ham, four tomatoes and a small red papaya.

'Eighteen dollars and fifty-five cents. We've just saved twenty dollars and thirty cents, and will have a larger and healthier meal into the bargain.'

'We forgot drinks.'

'Tap water is clean, and healthier than sugar water.'

'Is this the way you live?'

'Yes, and the way you'll be living from now on.'

'With you?'

'If you want to. Hey, it won't be that bad, there's no need for tears.'

Hylas sniffed. 'They're tears of relief. I had no idea what to do and didn't dare ask if I could stay with you.'

Why not?'

' You seem so secure. So successful. I can't imagine you'd want to be burdened by a school kid. And the few times Mum mentioned you she gave the impression you had turned into an evil monster. I never even knew you had written till after she left. I'd got used to thinking you'd forgotten all about me. I imagined you had changed and become… and didn't love me any more. But you're not bad. You're the nicest person I know.'

' You obviously don't know many people. As for not loving you any more, I've never stopped. It was thinking about you that kept me alive when I thought I was going to die. Of all the horrible things our mother has done, by far the worst is hiding my letters so we both thought we'd abandoned each other. But, it's no use crying about it; we're together again and have to get back home before that second-hand dealer arrives. There's something I want to salvage.'

They quenched their thirsts at a nearby tap and jogged to the car.

'I could do with the sheets, duvets and those sorts of things at my place, so bundle them up and shove them in the car. Have you packed everything you want to keep?'

Hylas indicated two large plastic holdalls. I did it as soon as Mum took off and I learned I'd have to leave.'

'Good. Stow everything in the car while I take a look around.'

Ten minutes later he returned frowning. 'Did Dad ever mention an amulet?'

'I don't even know what it is. Why?'

'It's something that's supposed to give protection against evil. This one's a small, carved bone attached to a fragment of plaited reed. According to Dad it belonged to his great grandfather. When he got badly burned and I looked after him he promised to leave it to me; but it's not there. He hid it in a small wooden box glued behind the lip of his wardrobe. He reckoned Mum didn't know about it, but it's not there now so she must have found it and taken it. What a bitch.'

'She is. Are you sure you've looked everywhere? Maybe I've better eyes. Come on.'

They turned over everything that could be turned over, searched in improbable as well as probable places, but found nothing.

'Any idea where she's gone?'


'Have you still got the note?'

Hylas took it from his pocket and passed it across.

' Ugh. That creepy spidery handwriting. She doesn't waste words or endearments. Not even a Dear. Just, Hylas I'm going away. You're old enough to look after yourself. The furniture will be cleared on Friday and the house sold next week. Your brother's phone number is…' Fidel looked at Hylas. 'That's it? She up and left her sixteen-year-old son to fend for himself? How did you feel?'

'Relieved for five minutes, then panic arrived and never left till you got into bed with me last night.'

'And now?'

'I'm the happiest guy in Noosa. Or would be if she hadn't stolen your amulet.'

'Don't worry about it. I want to be gone when the dealers arrive. We can talk in the car. I can't get away from this place quick enough.'



' Get is a verb, so it requires an adverb. You can't get away quickly enough.'

'You pompous prick! Any more of that and you can stay here.'

They'd left the sea behind and were cruising south on the Bruce Highway before Fidel spoke. 'Okay, let's recap. I got a call from my hysterical brother yesterday afternoon telling me our father had suicided two weeks ago, my mother had abandoned ship, the furniture would be gone the next day, and the house a few days later, and you didn't know what to do. Tell me everything that led up to that phone call, starting before Dad's suicide. If it achieves nothing else it might stop the nightmares. Dumping your problems on someone else usually helps.'

Hylas pulled his lips tight, closed his eyes and let images flood his head. 'They've always argued—at least Mum would nag and Dad would sit in silence. I used to will him to tell her to shut up. But he never did. I once asked him why and he said that was what she wanted him to do. By remaining silent he fucked with her brain. She sometimes hit him when he wouldn't answer—didn't care if I saw or not. Usually with her fist, twice I saw her lash at his shoulders with that whip thing that hangs beside the phone. He'd just get up and go to his bedroom.'

'So he never laid a finger on her.'

' Never. She'd have told me if he had. She never stopped complaining about him. He was stupid, useless, an angry man. I stopped listening years ago but because of all the things she said I couldn't like him. Never talked to him unless I had to. A couple of times in the last two years we've done things together in the garden, and once we went to an exhibition of old cars. He was really nice, but… I guess my brain was poisoned. And I didn't dare be nice to him at home or Mum would have had a fit. I wasn't going to risk that, so I always let her think I agreed with her.

'Then three weeks ago about midnight I was woken by a loud bang. At first I thought it was a possum landing on the roof, but then decided to go and check. I got out of bed and went to Mum's room but she wasn't there. So I went to Dad's and she was kneeling on his bed. It looked as if she was struggling with him. I ran forward and saw a black hole between his eyes. No blood or anything. Just a hole. Then I realised she was hanging onto Dad's shotgun. She told me to get out and call the cops because Dad had shot himself.'

'Was she upset?'

'No, just angry as usual. Before the cops came I went back in again and noticed Dad was now holding the gun. She was sitting on a chair looking at him. I asked why she'd left it there after having pulled it off him. She said she suddenly realised the cops would want to see the scene as she'd found it. Then she got off the chair and grabbed hold of my hair and shook my head till it hurt and said I mustn't tell the cops about her first taking the gun off Dad because it would only confuse them. Better to let them think we'd arrived in his bedroom together.

'When the cops arrived Mum faked hysterics so a policewoman took her into the lounge. Two really serious cops held out a recorder and asked me what had happened. I said what Mum told me. After looking as if they didn't believe me, they told me to go to bed.

'It wasn't till then I realised Dad was dead with a great hole in his head. Sounds strange, but that's how it was. I went all cold and started shaking, but didn't dare cry out. Couldn't sleep. Jammed earphones on and put a CD on a loop. Fell asleep eventually and woke wondering if it had been a dream.

'When I got up Mum was in the kitchen making breakfast, humming. I went to Dad's room. The bed had been stripped, his laptop was gone, his drawers emptied. I felt just as empty. It was as if my belly was a great hole and I ran back to my room and hid under the duvet. Kept seeing Mum holding onto the gun.

' She came in and asked if I wanted breakfast, but I couldn't eat. She didn't make me go to school, but by the next day something had happened in my head. I felt nothing. I hadn't eaten since the day before so had breakfast and went to school. The death was in the paper. They called it an accident, but no one at school linked it to me, so I never told anyone and just moped around. I felt nothing. Refused to think. Just carried on as usual, came home and listened to music. I didn't even wonder why he'd shot himself. I don't think I cared. I remember thinking he was better off dead than living with Mum, but I was also… not sad so much as irritated that I'd never get to know him. The cops didn't ask to see me again and Mum never spoke about it. She was away most of the time at that group she worked with. She never told me what it was and I didn't ask. Then one afternoon she told me the coroner had decided it was suicide and he was going to be cremated. Did I want to go? Making it clear she didn't want me there.

' Then I began to think she might have shot him and had been putting the gun in his hands when I arrived, to make it look like suicide, and I became so frightened I couldn't be alone with her. I bought a bolt for my door and locked myself in at night. I don't think she even noticed. I'd never realised before that our parents had no friends. At least none who came to visit. Then yesterday when I got home from school she was gone and left that note. And if you hadn't come I was going to slit my veins. I searched the Internet and discovered exactly how to make the cuts, you do it vertically not across, and bought a new Stanley knife to do it. But you did come and you cuddled me and stroked my neck and I dropped straight off to sleep for the first time for three weeks and made me feel safe and… happy… and… Fuck, now I'm starting to cry. I didn't cry over Dad but I'm crying because you're so nice to me. I'm so stupid.'

' No, you're not. And you're right about Dad. It is sad. He wasn't bad like Mum. When she told him to whip me, he refused. He never responded to her taunts and hits because he had zero faith in the cops or the courts. No one believes women do anything bad, but they'll believe the slightest smear about men. If he'd ever hit her and she'd gone to the cops he'd have been in prison before you could turn around. I'm beginning to think he only stayed with her till we were independent. I think he might have been a really good man.'

' But he couldn't do anything much and your life was so horrible! I knew but couldn't help you. It broke my heart, I…'

' Hey! You saved me from giving up. You brought me food. You always told me that I wasn't bad—she was. That's all I needed. It was crazy, but at the time I thought it was normal; that all families were more or less like us.'

' So did I. But how did you live when you left home? What did you do?'

'Lots of things I'll tell you about when we get to my place. Traffic's getting thick so I have to concentrate. We'll be there in half an hour so try to relax. For what its worth, I admire you for the way you've coped with things. Honestly, I'm proud to be your brother.'

Hylas was too happy to respond with more than a weepy smile as he gazed at the endless traffic, houses and shopping centres, trees and parks, cars and traffic lights. In the distance a group of skyscrapers looked like a collection of rock crystals he'd once seen in a jeweller's window.

Signs to Gateway and the Airport were far behind and the tower blocks almost upon them when a sudden left turn took them through a light industrial wasteland to emerge beside a wide, brown river dotted with small pleasure craft. Red brick warehouse conversions and modern apartment blocks on the right of the roadway enjoyed unobstructed views through treed riverside walkways to green suburbs on the far side of the river. A City Transport catamaran was pulling away from a jetty as they pulled into a parking area and Fidel cut the engine.

' We're almost there. Just a couple of things you should know. I work in a gymnasium patronised by wealthy people, and live in a small flat on the roof. The owner, Arnold Jurgenz, is an amazing man. A few years older than me, incredibly good looking and rich, but he refuses to act like other wealthy people, preferring to let everyone think he's just another employee of the place. He knows how I feel about you and is keen to meet you, so we'll go to his office first, and then up to my place. He'll probably ask what you want to do now.'

'Get a job.'

'Doing what?'


'What year are you in at school?'


'And you're only sixteen. Must be pretty smart.'

'I'll be seventeen in a couple of months.'

' It's September. You're going back to school to finish the year.'

' But I want to pay my way. I refuse to be a burden on you.'

' We'll find you a part time job.'

'Yes. Yes of course. I've got some savings, so I can share the cost of things for a few months.'

' We can sort out those details later. There's one last thing.'


'All ten trainers at the gym, including Arnold, work naked, so don't be surprised. I'll explain the reasons later.'

'You too?'


'That's why you've no tan line.'

'Are you shocked?'

Hylas grinned. 'Turns me on. What do the patrons think?'

' They think it's normal—after a while… I think.' He shrugged and grinned. 'Whatever they think, they keep coming back for more and treat us with as much respect as we treat them.'

'I'm getting a hard on thinking about it.'

' That's a relief. Onwards and upwards then.' Fidel started the car, turned right at the next intersection and drove slowly along a narrow lane between tall windowless buildings, then down a slight ramp into a car park beneath a red-brick ex warehouse, distinguished by an elegant sign informing them they had arrived at "Natural Fitness". Fidel parked in one of the bays marked Staff Only.

'I'm getting nervous.'

'No need.' Fidel removed his clothes and locked them in the car.

' You're naked! So it isn't a joke.'

' No joke. To preserve our Gymnasium's unique image, it's company policy that staff never wear clothes inside, even if off duty. Strangely enough, it also prevents recognition when we're outside. This is the servant's entrance.' He slid his pass card into a slot and led the way to a green, padded door that opened into a green-carpeted stairway, at the top of which another security door guarded the slick, modern reception area. Two men in business suits were sitting talking with their heads close together, as if afraid of being overheard. They looked up when the Fidel and Hylas entered.

'Gidday, Fidel,' one said with a genuine smile. The other nodded, clearly pleased to see him.

A lean, fit, pale and rangy man in his late twenties with thick, wiry, dark red hair on head, chin and groin, entered through the door behind the desk. 'What're you doing here Fidel? You're not on till tonight.'

'I know, Hal. Is Arnold in the office?'

'Will be in about ten minutes when his session ends. Who's your handsome friend?'

' My brother.'

'Pull the other, it's made of rubber.' He grinned and stood aside as Fidel and Hylas entered the office.

' Lucky you told me about what you guys don't wear or I'd have looked even more gormless than usual. He's not what I expected. I mean he's obviously fit and healthy, but I thought fitness experts had to have bulging shoulders and biceps, six or eight-pack abs and thighs like tree trunks. He looks ordinary.'

'That's the secret of our success. Instead of feeling intimidated, the customers are delighted to realise they can be fit and healthy without turning into monsters.'

' Very wise.' Hylas looked around in surprise. 'After the glamorous reception area this seems bleak.' The room boasted a vinyl floor, two practical desks, a wall of TV monitors, shelves filled with manuals and books, and ten hard-backed chairs around a circular table.

' This is the nerve centre where we discuss and make decisions. Let's take a look at what Arnold's doing.' Fidel went to a console, flicked a couple of switches and two screens sprang to life showing a group of women dressed in the usual multicolour array of Lycra, doing all the usual things people do in a gymnasium, while a naked man assisted with an apparatus, then demonstrated something, then stood casually while another woman rested a hand on his shoulder while they discussed something on a clipboard. 'That's Arnold.'

' He looks nice. You know, I thought it would look strange to see a naked man with dressed women acting as if it's normal; but it doesn't, does it? Makes you think.'

'It does indeed. Especially about the crap we teach our kids.'

'Do you have jazzercise?'

'No. Naked men get erections with all that swinging, hip thrusting and bouncing up and down. When we explain, women insist they wouldn't mind, and that's probably true, but they'd certainly tell all their girlfriends and that's the sort of publicity we don't want.'

'Makes sense. But do you get erections?'

' At the beginning I got a few, but I don't think anyone noticed. The thing is, it's not a sexy atmosphere. Everyone's here for fitness, not for sex so there's no flirting or sexual play that might make you aroused. Also, I don't find many clients physically attractive, and wouldn't like to do anything with them, so there's nothing to stimulate an erection. I simply love feeling the air caressing all the bits that clothes cover and make sweaty. It feels so natural I don't wear clothes anywhere unless it's cold.'

'I wonder if I'd be the same.'

' Probably. Most men feel like that once they've got over the initial shyness. It's liberating, because having to hide our genitals as if they're diseased, really fucks with our brains. And the girls reckon it's also liberating for them. You watch. They'll thank Arnold after the session and tell him how grateful they are that he treats them as equals. It was an enormous surprise to discover that every female I've worked with here has been pleasant, affable, and goes out of her way to be agreeable. I asked one why they were like that, and she reckoned it was because the way normal men dress is so sexless, they forget we're totally different. They look on most men as merely fatter and more boring females. With us, however, they are very aware we are males; physically and mentally different from them, and it brings out an unconscious, sort of primeval respect. It's a thought, and probably contains a grain of truth.'

The session ended with Arnold looking fresh; the girls sweaty and laughing. They all thanked him and ran off to the changing room while he checked everything and went out. Two minutes later he bounced into the office, perky and alert. On seeing Hylas his face opened into a genuinely friendly smile and he stepped forward to take both the young man's hands in his.

' Welcome! I'm not surprised your brother dumped me for you—slim, handsome and young trumps old and worn any day.' Retaining a light grip on the captive hands Arnold grinned, stepped back slightly as if to admire the clean-shaven, tanned, symmetrical face with eyebrows as dark and thick as his tousled mop of medium length hair, then laughed softly. 'What are you thinking, Hylas?'

'That you looked very nice working with those women. We watched on the monitor.'

Arnold dropped Hylas's hands and turned to Fidel. 'Not only handsome, but a charmer to boot. Are you looking for work? We could do with another body.'

'I'm not fit enough. Beside you and Fidel I'm a runt. And Fidel says I have to finish school.'

'An hour a day with me and you'll be as fit as a god. But of course you must finish school. You could work here part time, perhaps? I've just thought of a job for someone exactly like you.'

' You'll have to watch Arnold,' Fidel laughed. 'He'll have you slavering away in the cellars before you realise.'

'Ignore him, Hylas. Would you like to earn a few dollars?'

'Yeah! I need to earn something because I don't want to sponge on Fidel.'

' Good lad.' He turned to Fidel. 'I've invited Robert and Bart for a meal before the evening sessions. You must both come so Hylas can meet them and we can discuss the job. Ok? See you at five o'clock.'

'Thanks, Arnold.' Fidel gave Arnold an affectionate hug, then led Hylas back to the car.

'He's really nice, but what did he mean by….'

' Let's not discuss anything here. The whole place is mined with security cameras so we can never be accused by a disaffected client of abuse. Private conversations must wait for privacy.'

They took Hylas's belongings from the car and carried them up the fire escape; four flights of featureless concrete stairs sandwiched between two fireproof concrete walls . The flat roof, surrounded by a metre-high parapet, was home to a large array of solar panels that blocked the view to the south. Straight ahead, a small flat-roofed dwelling had been constructed against the eastern parapet. Ochre-stuccoed walls, a vine-covered pergola shading two patio chairs and a table, windows covered with wrought iron security screens, heavy wooden door, roof edged with terracotta tiles, window box sprouting red geraniums, and a row of pot plants lining the 'path' to the door, gave the impression it had been lifted from a Mediterranean tourist brochure.

'Fidel, this is amazing! Did you build it! It's so romantic!'

' It's kitsch as hell. Don't tell me we share the same bad taste. I just converted an existing concrete block structure and tarted it up a bit. Glad you like it.'

'What's the rent?'

'It goes with the job, which has advantages and disadvantages, like being too close to work so I can be called on without notice. Let's have lunch.'

Inside was neat and clean and just escaped being poky. There wasn't much space left in the bedroom with its double bed, chair, chest of drawers and a wall of sliding mirror-doors concealing shelves and hanging space. Skylights, and a window at the end with a view of the sky and distant hills, increased the illusion of space. The pleasant, uncluttered living area had two easy chairs, a small round dining table and chairs, a basic kitchen, a desk, and shelves for electronics. A window in the end wall behind the cooking area looked over roofs and trees towards the city.

While Fidel put a meal together, Hylas stowed his gear in the empty half of the mirrored bedroom cupboards; there was plenty of room. He sat on the bed and gazed around in delight. This was a dream come true. He'd escaped his parents and was going to live with someone he liked and admired in a cosy cottage on top of a mountain—well, a brick gymnasium. He flopped back onto the bed and sighed happily.

'Come and get it or I'll throw it out.'

Lentils, beans, tofu in batter, a small potato, a raw carrot and two fried eggs tasted delicious, as did the plain yoghurt for dessert.

Hylas sat back and grinned. 'That was bloody good, Fidel. You'll have to teach me to cook, I know nothing.'

' Are you sure you want to stay here? Arnold has a large apartment and I know he'd love to have you. He wouldn't molest you or anything like that. He's mostly talk.' Fidel sounded serious.

Hylas' dream began to crumble. Was Fidel politely trying to get rid of him? Bravely he smiled across. 'I reckon it's wonderful here, but if you've realised it'll be too crowded then of course I'll go wherever you suggest.'

' No, no! I want you to stay, it's just I realised back in the office that we don't really know each other that well and I wondered if, now you've seen it, the thought of sharing such a small space and a bed might not be so attractive to you. We could probably squeeze another in, or put a mattress down in the front room.'

'Fidel! I've never slept so well as last night. And yours is a larger bed than mine.'

' So you want to stay?'

'I've never wanted anything so much in my entire life.'

Fidel's frown dissolved into a wide grin. 'Me too.'

' And when are you going to tell me what happened when you left home?'

' Now.'

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