by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 2

After a healthy and satisfying supper they relaxed on the verandah, the boys sharing a swing seat and talking softly while keeping their ears pricked, the men on rattan armchairs, and Nasturtium gurgling away on pillows on the deck. The pleasure both Shrude and Leo felt at discovering a like-minded soul, triggered confidences they thought had been well and truly buried.

Having noticed the absence of all references to Fystie's mother, Shrude approached the subject obliquely. 'It's good you have a wife, at least Fystie's not your sole responsibility.'

'Actually he is.' Leo went on to explain the circumstances of his marriage, his wife's obvious disappointment when he failed to become a millionaire professional, and her rejection of their disadvantaged son.

'Yeah,' Fystie said. 'Mum's ashamed of me. A few years ago when we met someone she knew on the street, she said she was minding me for a friend.'

Mort translated.

Shrude was horrified. 'That must have been upsetting.'

'Yeah. I wanted to die till Dad told me it's because she feels so insecure and frightened people won't like her. So now I just feel sorry for her and don't care much. She still cooks and cleans and stuff for us. So she's not a bad person. I…' An unusually violent spasm rocked his frame and he stopped talking, looked down and hoped he wasn't going to cry.

'What about you, Shrude?' Leo asked.

'I've always been a randy bugger, but never wanted to marry; could get plenty of sex without it.'

"I'm not surprised,' Leo said seriously, 'You're an attractive man.'

'But not as well hung as you.'

'That's not important, although I overheard a client at work the other day gossiping about her husband. "He's hung like a cashew, but rich as buggery," were her exact words. The other women all thought it a wonderful joke.'

'Poor bastard. Wives who gossip about their husband's sexual prowess are the pits. I wonder what she'd say about you,' Shrude said as if seriously considering the problem. 'Poor as a church mouse but hung like a mule. I imagine many women are after your meat.'

'Yeah! They sure are!' Fystie yelled, proceeding to describe that afternoon's performance.

'Fystie!' Leo laughed, 'some things are best left unsaid. Mort, please don't translate, I want to keep your grandfather's respect.'

'Sorry, Leo, Fystie's my boss, not you.'

'It was like a horse I saw on TV the other day fucking a mare. I was really proud of you, Dad.'

Leo clipped him affectionately over the back of his head. 'Fystie, life without you would be pointless.'

'Can I also watch next time? Mort asked excitedly.

'I doubt there'll be a next time, but if you're there, an appreciative audience is always welcome.'

Shrude laughed. 'Leo, you're the first sensible person I've met for years. What do you do to make her so excited?'

Leo fetched his pouch from his shirt pocket, put it on and did a couple of hip thrusts.

'I can't believe you're not mobbed every afternoon, by males as well as females.'

'Not mobbed, but I get my share of offers from both.'

'Which you accept?'

'Only if they pay enough.'

'And do they?'

'Females think I should pay them — as if! Some males make extremely generous offers that I find impossible to refuse.'

'Very wise. Does that make you gay?'

'Gay, straight, trans, bi, hetero, homo...everyone's trying to find a shelf to sit on. I'm just a sexual human animal. Always have been, even at high school. If I want sex and I'm attracted to someone, I'll do it with them. What's gender got to do with it? Nothing! But now its your turn for the hot seat, Shrude, if you didn't want to marry, how'd you end up with Nasturtium?'

'Women never believe a man if he says he doesn't want to marry, they think men can't live without them so they never give up trying unless you can convince them you don't want kids, then they'll stay for sex but give up on legally binding vows. I never loved any of them, or even liked them much, and was proud of avoiding the ball and chain. But then came Nasturtium,' he leaned down and patted his wife on the shoulder. 'I've never loved her, either.'

'Then why did you marry?'

'Because she was beautiful and as callous as Mort's mother turned out to be. I was too set in my ways by then to marry, but she kept on at me, I was foolish, she tricked me and got pregnant, and in a moment of stupidity I believed her protestations of undying love and ended up chained to a nagging bitch, until seven years later the cops did me a favour and shoved her down the steps. Isn't that so, Nasturtium?'

His wife's eyes lit up and she let loose with a great whinny of delight. 'Ye! Ye! Ye!'

'Why didn't you leave her?'

'From a misguided sense of duty to our daughter, Mort's mother, who rewarded us by taking off the day he was born. That's why I'm taking care or Mort. But, and this is the important thing, if I'd divorced my wife, the courts would have given her custody when his mother disappeared, because like most people, magistrates labour under the erroneous belief that women make good parents and men don't. Yet studies have shown that to fully develop psychologically, boys need a male parent. As long as the biological father is around, boys have few problems. So, as I'm the next best thing I hung around.'

'I'm glad you did, Grandad.'

'Me too! You're the best thing in my life.'

'That doesn't sound misguided – perhaps a little misogynistic.'

'The whole world's misguided, Leo. Before humans lived in permanent settlements, women needed to be able to change their affections, allegiances and opinions in order to keep themselves provided for and safe if their hunter husbands died or they married and changed tribes. They haven't changed and we shouldn't expect them to. It isn't a defect, it's a strength. Men are the opposite. They had to keep their word and be reliable if they want the support of their fellow tribesmen in hunting and defence. That's why male traitors are killed and politicians who don't keep promises and change their ideas to win votes, are despised. We seldom expect women to be consistent, and don't criticise them for changing their minds or decisions, because we know intuitively it's not in their nature to behave any other way.'

'It's bloody annoying sometimes though.'

'Men are equally irritating. Unfortunately, popular wisdom now decrees there's no difference between men and women, so men are criticised for not behaving like women, and are derided – even punished for behaving as men should! Wives tell depressed men to join a club and express their emotions, because that's what women do. But men need only one good mate they trust with whom they can share concerns. The last thing they need is to blab their problems to the world!'

'That's for sure.'

'Men tacitly encourage the myth that they are rough, tough and insensitive, so it isn't strange that liberated women enjoy putting men down, complaining at their lack of sexual energy, making them the butt of jokes. But it isn't a joke! It's serious because whereas insults will fire women up to swap insults with pleasure, men who are insulted either become seriously depressed, or seek to avenge themselves through violence.'

Shrude turned to stare seriously at Mort and Fystie who were sitting with ears flapping, determined not to miss a word. 'Never fail to take women seriously, Mort and Fystie. They are not stupid. They can be just as sharp as men. Just as capable of running a business, or teaching, of having good ideas and acting on them. They're no less compassionate, and not less brave. However, they are not the same as men; their priorities are different. So I advise you to always be on your guard when dealing with them. Don't believe everything they say. Don't expect them to think the same as you about anything, or act and behave consistently. And most importantly, don't imagine they're not telling everyone your secrets that you've foolishly confided to them. Have you understood?'

'Yes, Grandpa.'

'Yes, Shrude.'

'Men aren't any better,' Leo said thoughtfully.

'They certainly aren't, but whereas women are a mystery to us, men are knowable, so we can predict more or less how they will behave, and then plan for it. Men's problems are compounded by the myth that women are sweet, gentle, motherly creatures, peaceful, caring and nurturing. And they can be like that. They can also be as cruel, vicious, unforgiving and callous as men. With no effort at all a women can wrap a man around her finger, whereas no man can make a woman do what she doesn't want to without force.'

'You make men sound foolish, Shrude.'

'Many are, and getting ever more foolish as women take over. Consider marriage - men want a woman who looks beautiful, healthy and young, seldom concerning themselves with her intelligence or character. Women, on the other hand, are primarily interested in a man's money, power and sexual prowess, because their instincts tell them those characteristics are most likely to successfully protect them and provide healthy sperm.' Shrude laughed sourly. 'Men are pathetic – look how many inane love songs there are praising women, and how few the other way round. And when women do sing about men it's usually a complaint.'

Mort broke a silence that lasted nearly a minute, looking up at his grandfather with undisguised admiration. 'That is amazing, Grandpa. You hardly took a breath. I hope I remember it all. The only women I know properly are teachers, and I don't like any of them, but you're the nicest, kindest, lovingest and bestest person in the whole world.'

The following day at school everyone stood in silence for a very long minute to show respect for the dead boy, who, Mort was astonished to learn, had been universally popular, an excellent student, a loving son and a future leader. The world, it seemed, was a poorer place for the loss of this potential champion. However, the school's loss was god's gain because little Simon was now in heaven sitting on god's right hand, being serenaded by a choir of angels.

Mort was suddenly assailed by doubt; perhaps he had misjudged his assailant. Surely, whoever god was he wouldn't let Simon sit on his hand if he really was a bad person. And it must be uncomfortable to sit on someone's hand. And maybe Mort was the nasty one for being so pleased by his death.

That evening Shrude put his grandson's mind at rest. 'When someone dies people always say good things about them, so other people will say good things about them when they die. Imagine the Principal had said she was glad the little snot-nose prick had been squashed by a truck, how would everyone react?'

Mort thought carefully before replying. 'Lots of kids would have cheered, others would have been angry because they liked him, and his parents would have been really, really upset and it would all be horrible because there'd be fights in the playground and all that.'

'Exactly. And that's why in public people tell these white lies. The god she mentioned is the one worshipped by most Christians. They believe he made the universe and everything that's in it, including you and me. He's invisible, knows everything, and can do anything he likes. And when they die they believe there's an invisible bit of them that goes to live with this god in heaven, although the body itself remains behind.'

Mort was intrigued. 'Why has no one ever told me this? I've sung their songs about god and heaven and always thought he was sort of like the prime minister, or the queen, and heaven was his beautiful garden.' He paused for several seconds. 'But... how do they know this if he's invisible?'

'Good question. They don't know; they simply believe it. And that's an important thing to remember. Even you, a boy of ten can see it's ridiculous. And that's a lesson you must not forget if you want to live without making too many mistakes. If something you or others believe seems wrong or silly or doesn't make sense, always ask yourself, "How do I know that? Where did I, or they, get that belief?" Usually you'll discover the source is simply some human with an axe to grind.

Mort looked puzzled. 'So what does happen when you die?'

'Everything stops working.'

'But what does it feel like?'

'Nothing. Everything's stopped working so there's no feeling at all. Like a deep, dreamless sleep that goes on forever. Do you remember what if felt like before you were born?'


'Well, that's what it's like.'

'But what about all my thoughts?'

'They are tiny electric impulses zipping around in your brain. When your body dies the electricity supply stops so there are no more thoughts, no more feelings... nothing.'


'What happens to the light when you switch the power off?'

'It... I don't know. I never thought about it... I guess it just disappears.'

'And so do your thoughts.'

'Are you afraid to die, Grandpa?'

'Not at all. Apart from you, I think it's probably the best thing that will happen to me. Life for most people isn't that wonderful, and when they get old, tired and sometimes sick, death is a blessed release. Only the people who loved them are sad.'

'I'll be really, really sad if you die.'

Shrude frowned and gazed deeply into his grandson's eyes. 'I want you to promise me, Mort, that when I die you will be happy for me.'

Mort was crying openly, unable to stem the sobs. 'I will, Grandpa, but I will be very, very sad too.'

'That's because you are a good person. Now, how about trying to lose at chess?'

Mort tried, but failed. His grandfather's wisdom could not compete with his grandson's logic and foresight.

Mort and Fystie spent many happy weekends together, and Leo and Shrude became good friends, making the best plans they could for the uncertain futures that awaited them.

The school year was drawing to a close so all the children in Mort's class handed in their 'Illustrated Annual Diary' for assessment.

The following day Miss Pettie said she wanted to see Mort after school for a few minutes. She was a large woman, broad of beam and bounteous of bust. Where lesser beings walked, she stomped with the unerring purpose of a tank charging into battle. Few dared interpose themselves between Mrs. Pettie and her target, and while others might speak or suggest, she declaimed with the self-satisfied arrogance of the bigot.

'I've read your story and seen your drawings.' She pursed her lips and waited.

Mort quailed, wondering what he'd done wrong. 'Did you like them?' he asked nervously.

The teacher put her finger on one of the drawings. 'What are those two people doing and who are they?'

'It's Grandad and me doing the gardening.'

'You're both naked!' she said as if they'd been in the process of slitting each other's throats.

'We always do the garden like that, it saves getting clothes dirty.'

'Are you sure it's only the clothes that get dirty?'

'What do you mean?'

'What does your grandfather do with you besides gardening?'

'We do everything. Grandma's sick.'

'I think I'd better have a word with this... grandfather.'

A chill ran through Mort. He had no idea what she was talking about, but knew she was making nasty insinuations. 'Grandad loves me and I love him. We have fun together. You make it sound as if he's bad.'

'Fun eh? Did he tell you to call it fun?' she sneered, grasping her purse in one hand and her young pupil's wrist in the other. 'Come on, we're going to pay this grandfather of yours a visit.'

Feeling like a traitor, Mort gave directions as she drove.

Mort's grandfather was pruning dead wood from a peach tree when Mrs. Pettie barged through the garden gate, shoving aside a very frightened Mort. Both adults stopped and stared at each other.

Shrude's health had deteriorated significantly over the last months. Compared with Mrs. Pettie, he looked frail indeed. Tanned skin had wasted and sagged in multiple wrinkles. Ribs and hipbones protruded. Cheeks were hollow, thighs thin, joints seemingly too large. The change in his condition had been slow enough to pass almost unnoticed by Mort, but the situation was so unnerving he suddenly realised that his best friend in the world, his strong and wise protector was seriously ill. With a cry of protest, he ran forward and clasped his beloved Grandad around the waist.

'Grandad, she says horrible things. I didn't want to bring her here. Make her go away! I hate her!'

Shrude patted his grandson's head affectionately and gazed warily at this Amazon who'd invaded his privacy. 'Who are you and what do you want?'

'I'm Mort's teacher and a foundation member of the local chapter of PCFP, Protect Children from Predators. Adult males have no business cavorting naked with innocent boys. He says he loves you and you him, but we all know what that means — especially old men with sick wives.'

'Do we? What does it mean?'

'It means that this poor wee lad is being used by you as a replacement for your wife.'

'Oh, he's more than a replacement, I love him dearly and have never loved my wife. But if you mean sex, then you're barking up the wrong tree. You're barking mad, and you know which animals bark.'

'Are you calling me a bitch?'

'No, I'm calling you a stupid, vicious, nasty old bitch. My relationship with Mort is loving, innocent and pure.'

'Nakedness is a sin.'

'You're insane — although I admit it would be a very nasty sight if you took your clothes off.'

Mrs Pettie wasn't listening. 'Every right-thinking person knows that nudity leads to vice. It's why Adam and Eve were evicted from paradise. There can be no greater authority than that.'

'Your authority is a translation of a translation of a translation of a three thousand year old tale told by wandering desert tribes to explain their origins. Hardly compelling. Most thinkers differ on the message intended by that story; they reckon those two lost their innocence, and therefore their happiness once they started to ask questions instead of living from day to day like all the other animals. It wasn't their naked bodies they were ashamed of, but their naked ignorance and stupidity; which made them wiser than you. I can't believe ignorant bigots like you are permitted anywhere near young people. You have thirty seconds to get your great fat arse out of this place before I call the cops and have you charged with trespass and libellous insinuations. One. Two. Three…'

The guardian of public morality was already gone.

Shrude sagged to the ground, coughing slightly.

'Grandad! Are you all right? Thanks for sending that horrible woman away. Are you alright?'

'Just a little tired, Mort. I'm not used to confrontation. A person like that is a great black hole that sucks all joy, life and decency from the air. Its lucky she went or I'd have suffocated. Perhaps you'd fetch me a glass of water?'

Shrude rallied and after a meal seemed to be his usual self, but Mort remained worried.

'Grandad, I'm sorry I didn't realise you were getting so sick. Are you sure you're going to be all right? Shouldn't you go to a doctor?'

Shrude gazed affectionately at the only living thing he loved without restraint, and wished he had a stronger grip on life. But he had to be honest; anything else would be an unforgivable deception. Mort was ten; old enough to understand. He patted the cushion beside him on the couch. Mort sat and leaned against him while Shrude gently stroked his shoulder.

'I'm worn out, Mort. Made of inferior stuff, apparently. I've been to doctors because I don't want to leave you any sooner than I have to. It seems my heart is falling to bits, my liver doesn't process toxins and my gut is host to unpleasant visitors that prevent me digesting properly.'

Mort could scarcely speak from fear. 'Can't they do anything in hospital, Grandpa?'

'When you're my age, Mort, you have to keep away from those places. There's nothing they can do except keep me alive longer than I would if I didn't go.'

'Isn't that good?'

Once they'd cut me open, filled me with drugs and sewn me back together again, I'd be useless. They wouldn't let me come back here; I'd be sent to a nursing home and spend every day in bed, drugged, probably in pain, wishing I was dead, useless to you and Nasturtium. And this could go on for years and years, a living hell. And no matter how hard I pleaded, they would not let me die until they'd used the last drug and performed the last operation.

'You see, lawmakers are mostly religious and frightened to die in case they go to hell, so they'll do anything to stay alive. Ridiculous, as they'll all die eventually. They reckon a person who has decided it is time to die is insane and should be prevented from killing themselves no matter how ill they are. And anyone knows about this and doesn't stop them is helping them, and therefore a criminal. I've had as good a life as I deserve, and the years with you have been the best. If I thought doctors could fix me up so I could live longer the way I've been until now, then I'd try it, but they all say there's no hope of anything except becoming a vegetable in a nursing home for years and years. So I'm going to refuse to let them get their claws into me. Do you understand?'

'Yes,' Mort whispered.

'And will you be pleased for me, once I'm dead and no longer sick, and not be too sorry for yourself?'

Mort could scarcely speak. Tears were pouring over his cheeks, running into his mouth and his throat seemed too thick to speak. But he managed a husky, 'Yes. I'll be pleased for you when you're dead, and try not to be too sorry for myself.'

'Good lad. And if anyone is stupid enough to arrange a funeral for me, refuse to go. It'll only make you sad and not help you cope. I won't be there to see and they'll probably get an idiot witchdoctor to say insanities about god and heaven and all that crap, like they did with that nasty bully. No child should have to listen to that nonsense, it undermines sanity. Keep me in your head and heart as I am, not as I'll be when I'm dead, and in that way we'll always be together.'

'Yes, Grandpa.' Unable to restrain his tears, Mort buried his face in his grandfather's shirt. 'Grandad. I love you so much.'

'And I love you just as much, so don't worry... you'll have me around for a long time yet. But if anything should happen to me, I've made arrangements for you to live with Fystie, Amy and Leo. You'll be happy with them I think.'

'Yes,' Mort lied. He loved Leo and Fystie, but disliked Amy. But now wasn't the time to say so.

'Tomorrow after school we'll go together to the lawyer to settle everything.'

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead