by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 22

A Proposal

After waving goodbye to the last of the boys, Jarek filed his report with Stephen and arranged to meet him back at Edgar's. Waiting for him beside the minibus was a lean, dark man in late middle age. With a grin of pleasure Jarek extended his hand. 'Leon's father, I presume?'

The man laughed. 'Leon's grandfather. How did you guess?'

'A stab in the dark—certainly nothing to do with the fact that you're fit, lean and handsome with a permanent tan as dark as Leon's.'

'No wonder Leon likes you,' the man said in a deep, soft voice remarkably similar to his grandson's.'

'It's mutual. Have you come to see me, Leon's grandfather?'

'My name's Claudius. Yes, I would like to talk.'

'Me too. I was coming to see you when I finished shopping for next week's camp.'

'What were you coming for?'

'To talk.'

They laughed, already at ease.

'Walking or driving?'

'I always walk.'

'How about coming with me? I have to pick up Zeno to help with shopping, then I'm free. Have you met Stephen, the Principal?'


'Then you must. Come on, hop in.'

'You're a pushy bugger.' Claudius got in and carefully fastened his seatbelt, not speaking till they were driving. 'I want to thank you. I thought I'd lost Leon... but I'd prefer to talk about it at home. Can you eat with us this evening?'

'Sure can. Thanks.'

While Jarek and Zeno shopped, Claudius and Edgar relaxed on the verandah sipping cold beers, amused to discover they both enjoyed cards and gardening.

'I'm somewhat stuck in my ways since I retired, Claudius,' Edgar confided. 'A few of us meet for cards once a week, but apart from the garden and reading I don't do much. Stephen's my best friend, but he's leaving in four weeks, so you'd be doing me a favour if you'd join us for cards on Wednesday nights—that's if you've nothing else on.'

Claudius was almost as shocked as surprised. Edgar was wealthy, lived in a large house and was white. His first instinct was to refuse, preferring to not push his luck only to be hurt later when the novelty wore off. He looked Edgar in the eye and said bluntly, 'Is this be kind to a blackfella week, or is it a genuine invitation? I'm sorry if I sound ungrateful, but I'm not used to being treated like this. I've no ambition to be someone's good deed.'

Edgar's eyes narrowed. He gazed speculatively at Claudius. 'I don't do good deeds. What's happened to make you distrust my invitation?'

'I'm black and live in Queensland. Isn't that enough?' Claudius sighed and decided he was sick of sparing the feelings of well-meaning whiteys. Whether they liked it or not they were part of the problem and if he wanted to put the past behind him he had to tell someone other than friends whose experiences had been similar. 'When my daughter got married I did a correspondence course and topped the year in my accountancy degree. This area is my home turf so I applied by mail for the accountant's job at the local grain store, and got it. However, when I arrived to take up the position, suddenly there was no job. The boss apologised and as a favour offered to take me on as a labourer. I must have used all my energy in the struggle to get that far because suddenly I couldn't be bothered any more. I took the job and a few days later they appointed a whitey accountant.'

'That's terrible.'

'I thought so too at the time, but now,' Claudius's grin seemed to lighten up the room. 'I'm pleased it happened. I have no worries, no one to account to, pun intended, no corrupt business practises to cover up, my hours are fixed... OK so I'm poorer, but I'm free. The racist prick unintentionally did me a good turn.'

'I'd want to blow the bastard up.'

'Ah, it's nothing compared to what happened to my parents and grandparents. At least I have a job and a house that's all mine.'

Edgar nodded his understanding. 'My invitation to join us was sincere, Claudius. I've only known you for half an hour but I like you. So if you want to join us, I'd be pleased.'

'Of course I would! I'm not that cranky. Just can't be bothered with racism. Will your other mates be OK with it?'

'Doubt if they'll even notice, all they think about is their own problems. So, next Wednesday evening around seven?'

'Thanks, Edgar. I'll be here.'

Shopping over, Cador was waiting with an overnight bag for Zeno to drive him back to the cabin in the minibus.

Stephen arrived and joined Jarek, Claudius and Edgar on the verandah for a beer.

'Did you ask your wife to phone me this morning?' Jarek asked Stephen.

'Of course not. I seldom go home any more—not that Violet notices, she's so absorbed with her Sisters of Persistent Interference or whatever they're called. Edgar's kindly given me a bedroom and I'm in the process of bringing here the few possessions I care about. I can't imagine why she phoned you, the woman's insane. What she'd say if she knew I'm spending Friday evening with a friend of Edgar's current girlfriend, I daren't think.'

'Don't tell me… you're going to get laid.'

'Yes, Jarek, and all for the price of a good meal. I can't remember the last time I had a shag.'

Jarek laughed. 'Shag! Really Stephen. Such subtlety.'

'Well, it isn't making love. What would you call it?'

'Fucking? Screwing? Rooting?'

'Ah yes, subtle indeed.'

'And are all your other plans coming to fruition?'

'Yes, thank goodness.' Stephen turned to include Claudius. 'I'm leaving both the town and my wife on the day school finishes; taking off to freedom and probably disaster, but it'll be better than rotting here in the shipwreck that's my marriage. I'll miss Edgar, of course, and maybe later I'll return, but the urge to escape is on me and not to be denied.'

'I understand the feeling, but I'm stuck here until Leon finishes his education.'

'Where are his parents?'

Claudius frowned and his lips trembled slightly.'

'It's OK, Claudius. I was just making conversation. You don't have to tell us.'

'I want to,' Claudius bit his lip, 'I just don't want to cry. Done enough crying in our family.' He sighed and looked up. 'My daughter was smarter than me. Got a scholarship. Degree in teaching. Met a young fella from the bush, Djirbalngan. Not much education but not stupid. They moved to Cairns. She worked as a teacher, he cleaned offices. No drink, no problems. One night the cops came. Got the wrong address. The lad said it wasn't him and they couldn't come in because his wife was feeding the kid. They began to push past so he pushed back and they shot him dead on the spot. My daughter came running and when she saw what had happened screamed and attacked the three officers, so they tasered her half a dozen times. The electric shocks melted her brain they reckon; anyway, she's a vegetable now in a nursing home. So Leon, their son, came to live with me.'

'What about the cops, Claudius?' Jarek asked in a shocked whisper. 'Were they prosecuted?'

'An internal police enquiry decided it was self defence.'

No words could heal that sorrow, so none were offered; silence said it all.

Jarek slung a bag of personal items he thought he might need into the ute, then he and Claudius drove the short distance to a neat but otherwise unremarkable weatherboard house in an exuberant garden on a quiet street.

'Does Leon know you came to see me, Claudius?'

'No, and I'd rather he didn't.'

'Me too.'

'He'll be in the back garden doing his keep-fit routine. You go round and say no one answered the door. Meanwhile I'll let myself in and pretend I arrived just after you and don't know who you are. OK?'


Leon was in his swimming togs lifting a solid stick with two-litre plastic containers filled with water slung on each end. Jarek stood and watched until the exercise was completed.

'How many?'

Leon turned. His face broke into a huge grin and he raced forward and wrapped his arms round Jarek's waist, squeezing hard. From the kitchen window, Claudius watched in delight.

'I never thought I'd see you again! It's great you're here. Does this mean you do like me?'

'I thought I'd made that clear.'

'Yeah, but when I got home I began to think about all the kids you teach and how you'd probably just felt sorry for me and were being nice to make me feel good but it wasn't anything more than you doing your job and I'm no more important to you than any other kid and…' He fell silent and hung his head. 'And now you know I'm just a mad fuckwit shooting off his mouth. Sorry to be so pathetic. Did you come to see my grandfather?'

'No, I came to see you.'

Leon looked sideways, cautious. 'Really?'


'I've missed you.'

'I've been thinking about you too.'

'You were right—as usual. It's better to have a friend than a lover.'


'Yeah. Thanks to you. We've been swimming in the river. We get on pretty well. I help him with his homework. He's coming for a sleepover next Wednesday. Gramp likes him too. His parents are afraid of me, I think. No one knows we're queer though. We reckon they have to get used to their son having a black friend first.'

'Good idea. Hasten slowly is the expression I believe.'

'I still can't believe you've come to see me.'

'I was wondering if you'd like to do something.'

'What? Yes, of course I'll do it, whatever it is. Tell me.'

'I think your father…'


'Grandfather should be there. When's he due home?'

'Should be there now. Come on, let's see.' He raced inside, followed by Jarek.

'There's a Utility truck at the gate, who's is it?' he heard Claudius ask.

'It's Jarek's! He's come to see me! He wants to talk to you! Jarek, come on, meet Gramp!'

'My name's Claudius. Pleased to meet you, Jarek, Leon's not stopped shouting your praises.'

'He exaggerates. Good to meet you too, Claudius.'

They shook hands seriously.

'You in a hurry?'

'Not especially.'

'Eat with us?'

'Love to.'

'Good. Leon, give us a hand.'

'Jarek wants to ask you something.'

'It'll keep.'

Jarek also helped and they took their trays out to the rear verandah where there was a welcome cool breeze.

'Now, what's the problem?'

'No problem, Claudius. I was just wondering if you could spare Leon for a couple of weekends to go bush with me. I take off with nothing but a knife and a bit of food; eat what I catch and sleep rough. It unwinds me—let's me see things in perspective. I'm not a lover of humans in general, although the few I do like I like unreservedly. Until I met Leon I've never found anyone I'd want to share my weekends with, so I hoped he'd join me, if that's OK with you both.'

Leon's eyes were popping. 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' he shouted. 'Gramp, I can go can't I?'

'Of course,' Claudius said with a slight frown. 'But... does Jarek know you think you're gay?'

'I am gay! Tell him, Jarek.'

'What did you think you were, Claudius, when you were fourteen?' Jarek asked softly.

'I didn't think, I knew I liked girls.'

'So you reckon Leon is too dumb to know what he wants.'

'No! He's just confused.'

'Why weren't you confused?'

'There weren't all these gays going round telling kids they're gay.'

'Do they do that now? Who? Where? You must go to the police if you've the slightest evidence of that.'

'You know perfectly well I'm right.'

'I know perfectly well you're not only wrong, but you're putting your own desires onto your grandson instead of letting him be his own man. That's what happened to me and I suffered dreadfully.'


'So you're gay?'

'Yep. Got a problem with that?'

'Is that why you want Leon with you?'

'There you go again. Jumping to unpleasant conclusions. How disappointing! I was looking forward to meeting Leon's parents, imagining they'd be like him. Open minded, intelligent sensitive. Sadly, you're the opposite. I've discussed all this with Leon. We're mates, not lovers, despite him sucking me off one dark night when I thought he was someone else.'

'Yeah, we did discuss it, Gramp. In the cave at the quarry. It's nothing like you think. I had a crush on him, but not now. He talked sense into me. He's too old anyway.'

'And you're jailbait, Leon. Well, Claudius. You're looking a bit confused. What's the problem?'

'I don't understand why you're being so truthful. Why did you tell me about Leon doing that to you?'

'Because it shows his independence, character and daring. He wasn't sure I was gay but he tried it on, accepting the risk I might clobber him, because he likes me. I'm telling you because I want to be totally honest with you, as I am with everyone I deal with. Are you gay?'


'Does that mean no woman, young or old is safe with you because you'd expect them to have sex with you?'

'Of course not.'

'But you think because I'm gay I'll be screwing Leon, unable to control my lusts?'


'When I was at school, kids reckoned Aborigines ate babies. How many babies have you eaten?'


'You were lucky to survive, Leon. Wasn't he fat enough to roast, Claudius?'

'Evil lies,' Claudius whispered. He was shaking. Whether from anger or misery Jarek had no idea. Whatever it was he was in no mood to humour him.

'If they're lies, why did people spread them?' Jarek demanded.

Claudius faced Jarek and snapped, 'To justify their evil treatment of indigenous people.'

'Exactly. And you believe lies about gays to justify your homophobia.'


'He won't have sex with me, Gramp,' Leon whispered, increasingly upset at how the meeting he had dreamed about was developing. 'We discussed that.'

Claudius looked up, deeply shocked. 'Is there anything you don't discuss with your pupils?'

'My personal life, and the personal life of others. Apart from those things I will discuss ideas, facts, hopes, fears, dangers, techniques, sex, society, birth, death, good and bad… I'll talk about anything, if they're interested. Do you think adults should censor what they say to young men?

'Until now I have thought that.'

'So they'll never learn until it's too late the lessons that might save them from misery.'

'Such as?'

'You told us at Edgar's that your life was spoiled because you were expected to be like a whitey and give up your culture. Well, I was expected to be like you, a heterosexual, to take out girls and all that crap! It nearly drove me insane! I lost the best years of my youth because it wasn't until three weeks ago that I accepted I'm gay. I've been living with a woman, fucking and kissing and pretending I didn't feel disgusted at worst, bored at best! Why do you think I spend every weekend alone in the bush?'

'I'm sorry for you, but it doesn't change the fact that…'

'The fact that you've been brainwashed into believing gays are paedophiles, when the reverse is the case. Valid statistics prove that opposite-sex-oriented people, both women and men, are far more likely to molest children than gays. Of course some gays are bad, just as some hets are, but only fools tar everyone with the same brush! Gays are as variable in everything as you guys. Is it true that all Aborigines are drunken wife-beaters? Your opinions derive from religious hate merchants determined to maintain the lie that gays are evil so they can 'Save' us from them. They have a problem, you see, all the old things that used to be evil such as premarital sex, abortion, women not wearing hats or too few clothes... no one considers sinful any more. Without sin they'd have no reason for their existence, so they aren't going to stop telling everyone that gays are the devil's brood.'

Claudius frowned, then smiled slightly but avoided Jarek's eyes as he went to the CD player and selected a track from a disc. It was a duet sung with a full orchestra. They listened in silence and when it ended Jarek's cheeks were streaked with tears.

'What do you think of that?' Claudius asked quietly.

'It's almost too beautiful,' Jarek replied as softly. 'I've no idea what the words were, but the music said everything I want to say about sadness, confusion, the difficulty of being myself and convincing you I'm not evil. What is it?'

'A duet from the opera William Tell by Rossini.

'It's wonderful. Thanks for playing it. I've never been exposed to that sort of music. Schools just give kids the same stuff they hear on popular radio, and my parents weren't into music. The pop songs of their youth were their choice. Another thing to feel cheated about if I'm feeling maudlin.'

Claudius returned to his chair, sighed and scrutinised both Jarek and Leon. 'I want to apologise. I've been wrong about everything. Too wrapped up in my own problems to see that other people are hurting as much as me and for similar reasons. I hope you can forgive me. You are sensitive to good music. Edgar likes you and I like Edgar. Leon loves you, and I love Leon more than life. And now I suddenly discover I like you as much as anyone I've ever met. So I guess I've just had a Zen moment.'

'There's nothing to apologise for. You were being protective of Leon, using the information available to you. I admire you for that, and also for being one of the few men on the planet able to admit he's made a mistake.'

'Thank you.'

'I wasn't worried,' Leon lied. 'I knew you'd like Jarek, Gramp; but what's a Zen moment?'

'It's when in a flash everything falls into place. Ideas that have been swirling in a fog you thought you understood, suddenly sort of explode in your head and reform instantly into a blindingly clear perception of the truth about something. All my life I've thought I knew how people should live and how children should be brought up, but now I see I was blind to reality. Jarek's right! Only total honesty, openness and truth about the important things when dealing with children, will lead to a healthy adult.'

'Don't be hard on yourself, Claudius. Leon's the product of your upbringing and that means you've got it pretty well right.'

'Thanks. I'm also convinced you're not a paedophile. So when do you head off? It's a bit late now. Stay the night and take off in the morning?'

'That's sensible. Is it OK with you, Leon?'

'Yes! But where'll you sleep?'

Claudius's grin was mischievous. 'There's no spare bed, so as you've a double, Leon, he'll have to doss down with you. As you're both just mates there shouldn't be a problem, although I should warn you, Jarek, he wanks a lot.'

'I'll probably join him.'

Gramp! How do you know?'

'You're my grandson.'

Leon hugged his grandfather, they did the dishes, then Jarek brought in his bag and put it on the lounge room floor.

'What's in there?'

'A couple of things for you.'

Minutes later a sharp knife in a soft leather scabbard was strapped to Leon's upper arm, and he was shod with soft but strong leather sandals with a loop for the big toe and a strap round the ankle—the next best thing to bare feet.

'Despite what you think, your legs and arms are not especially hairy, Leon, but it's a good idea to trim them like I do because you dry quicker and it's easier to pick off ticks and leeches.'

'Yeah, I'd really like to look like you.'

Within three minutes he did and was more pleased with the result than Jarek could have imagined.

Having become slightly shaggy during the previous week, Jarek ran the electric clippers over himself.'

'Amazing,' Claudius said. 'You looked good before, but now you look sleeker, more intimidating somehow. I'd think twice about accosting you. Do you do martial arts?'

'No. I often think I should. I rely on speed of escape. If that's impossible I'd have no compunction about disabling—even killing an assailant. I don't have fear, you see, so I'm not immobilised as most people are when attacked, and that makes me dangerous. Muggers expect fear and are unsettled when they don't see it.

'You've been attacked?'

'Yes.' Jarek's tone did not invite further questions.

'Do you really live off the land on weekends?'

Jarek's laugh was self-deprecatory. 'That's the ideal. In reality of course it isn't possible, there's relatively so little forest left and therefore so few animals I only do it if I have to—the occasional snake, bandicoot, eel and yabby. I lug a pack of food to a base, and return there when hungry. When I leave the forest I like to think I've left no trace.'

'Would you like to live like that permanently?'

'No way! It's rough and tough, cold and uncomfortable. I figure it's an antidote to my soft, civilized normal life among people who seem stranger to me than wild birds. I've no idea how long I'll go on doing it, but for the moment it keeps me sane, whereas playing football for a club would drive me nuts.'

'Makes sort of masochistic sense. What do you wear?'

'What I'm wearing now—nothing. Leon can wear whatever he likes.'

'What if you meet people?'

'I'm silent and can hear them at least a kilometre away. Humans are noisy creatures and easy to avoid.'

'Yeah. Once we were standing only five metres from a track and four guys came past; didn't see us.'

'But you were dressed?'


'What? All the boys?'

'Yeah. It's much better like that. Feels real. You should know being a blackfella. But you're not allowed to tell anyone or Jarek'll get into trouble from the parents.'

Claudius looked at the two lean, fit young men and shook his head in admiration. 'I'm jealous! Why didn't I have that experience instead of trying to be a whitefella... even pretending I believed in his stupid religion? I was really fucked over.' He sighed. 'I mustn't think about it or I'll get sick. So I suppose you'll be naked too.'

'You bet! We'll be two savage hunters.'

'Where are you going and can I keep in touch?'

'The National Park. There are several places I haven't been because I need a partner. For example I want to climb the escarpment to the plateau and spend a day in those swamps. Might need insect repellent for that. I don't take a phone. If someone can contact me at any time, or if I know I can just phone for help, then I'm not alone and there's no adventure. I don't take risks because I don't have back up. It makes me extra careful.'

'You'll be cold at night.'

'Not at this time of year, unless it rains for a few days. This month the coldest night's been twenty-five degrees, and the forecast is for continuing dry, hot weather until Christmas.'

Claudius looked at his grandson with pride. 'Leon, you are a fit, strong, smart and attractive young man and I'm proud of you—really proud.'

Leon glowed. 'It's all thanks to Jarek.'

'No it's not. Other people can only point out the way. You are the person you are because you have made the right decisions and put real effort into living the way that suits you best.'

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