by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 15

Towards the end of the school year it was hot. Forty-two degrees in the shade. The school was well ventilated when there was a breeze, but breezes seemed to be out of fashion — it was either a typhoon or the doldrums, howling winds, hail stones the size of tennis balls, thunder and lightning with floods, roofs torn off and trees ripped out by the roots, or utter stillness during which thick blue/grey smog settled on the city. People became irritable, couldn't sleep, and bashings, domestic violence, motor accidents and murders increased.

'The climate is changing,' a few souls whispered, not daring to voice their opinion loudly and suffer the opprobrium of being labelled a conspiracy theorist. 'Business as usual' trumpeted the government. 'Don't worry, we've got it all under control. The weather will soon return to normal.'

'This is the new normal,' whispered the whisperers, but no one believed them.

Complaints from the girls saw restrictions ease, and they were permitted to wear their light summer pinafore frocks without a blouse, and sandals instead of shoes and socks. The consequent lavish array of bosom cleavages, naked shoulders, arms and legs set many boys' imaginations on fire. The sole sartorial concession for boys was to allow them to discard ties and undo the top button of their shirt. Knee-length shorts with shoes and socks remained compulsory.

Miss Bussty, Mort's thirty-two year old General Science teacher, considered herself a doyen of style and led the charge to cooler fashion-wear with a skimpy little skirt that barely reached mid thigh, topped by a lace bodice designed to cope with breasts several sizes smaller than hers.

Mort, who found the heat and humidity particularly enervating, was unable to comprehend the reasoning behind the double standard, so wore leather thong sandals, his floppy nylon running shorts and a loose tank top.

'What do you think you're wearing, Mortaumal?' Miss Bussty sneered as he walked into the room. 'It's not a nudist camp.'

Mort gazed calmly around the room. He'd already worked out that he had more skin covered than most of the girls, and if you calculated flesh to fabric ratio, considerably more than his buxom teacher.

'I'm wearing more than most of the girls, and relatively, a great deal more than you, Miss. Why should boys be expected to cover everything while girls uncover everything? That's sexist and it's too hot to wear buttoned shirts and long shorts.'

'Sniggers all round.

'Girls look good wearing little, Mortaumal.' The teacher's tone was patronising. 'Boys look rude. Men are not nice to see unless properly dressed. You look like a male prostitute touting for business.'

Roars of laughter greeted this witty riposte.

As Mort stared at his teacher's cleavage a memory flashed through his head — he and his grandfather coming across his grandmother kneeling at the edge of a flowerbed, bare bum and vulva exposed. 'Look! A vulva flower. Shall I fertilise it?' Shrude had asked. 'Yes please,' his wife giggled. Shrude promptly sank to his knees and copulated enthusiastically.'

Blood pounded in Mort's neck. His grandparents had healthy attitudes to sex, not like this cow whose insult he could not let pass. Pointing at the teacher's generous breasts he sneered, 'As a biology teacher you will know that when female mammals desire sex they show their bum and swollen vulva to the males. But because humans stand upright and wear clothes, their genitals aren't on view, so when females are randy they display their bosom cleavage and paint their lips red like a swollen vulva. Your dress is cut so low your tits look like a giant bum, and your lips are painted red.' He turned to the class. 'Have you boys all got the message? Miss Bussty's on heat!' Picking up his bag he ran for his life.

The following day, still wearing his non regulation gear, he was called to the Principal's office, told to stand in front of her desk with his hands behind his back, and instructed to write an apology to Miss Bussty before going home to change into the correct school uniform.

'I will if she will. She told me I looked like a male prostitute touting for business.'

'She was making a joke and trying to teach you how to dress.'

'So was I. And while we're on the topic of dress, can you tell me why girls are allowed to dress properly for the heat, while boys aren't. And don't tell me its because girls are beautiful and boys are ugly, because that's nonsense. And while you're about it, why is it okay for female teachers to wear so much perfume it makes us gag, and shove their cleavages at us when marking our books? And why do females paint their faces like clowns, dye their hair, wear jewellery that makes them look like Christmas trees and shoes that are dangerous to run in?' He paused for breath.


'No! Why, when loads of studies have proved that boys learn best with male teachers, are there so few male teachers? All the female teachers I have seem to dislike boys. They favour the girls and make boys sit up and act like girls. They don't like us asking questions — think we're trying to be cheeky. They don't seem to understand anything about what boys like and want, and how they think and…' Mort shook his head in frustration. 'Forget I asked those questions. You're a woman so the whole concept of sexual difference is beyond you. Women think men are just females with penises and are simply being difficult when they don't live and behave like women, so it's pointless even discussing this., I will not apologise to that woman for telling her she is displaying herself in a sexual manner as if she's asking for it.'

An intelligent adult would have listened carefully to an intelligent fifteen year-old's well thought out litany of concerns, and entered into a discussion in order to correct misconceptions, repair the pupil/teacher relationship, and possibly made a friend in the process.

The principal sniffed, gathered her papers together, gazed with a baleful eye at this offensive young upstart, took a deep breath and said in a voice that told him she had more important things to do with her time, 'Go home and don't come back. We need boys like you like we need an outbreak of plague. Go and find yourself a school that suits you.' With a flick of the fingers Mort was dismissed.

The only thing he took from the school was his inlaid table, which was finished apart from the last coat of varnish. The Woodwork teacher was upset at his leaving, and gave him the brush and varnish required, telling Mort he would always be welcome back and to come and see him if he needed any advice on working with wood. They shook hands and, as he walked away, Mort shed the only tear to fall since his arrival in the city.

He didn't tell Perdita; she had lost interest in everything about him except the inheritance.

Getting expelled from school. Losing his friendship with Han. The stress of living with someone who hated him but wouldn't let him go because she wanted his money. The fear of what would happen to Marshall and Angelo if she made her accusations public. The impossibility of ever getting a conventional education. These and other worries were undermining Mort's health as well as the little pleasure in living he'd managed to extract during his short and eventful life. He began to lose weight; lay sleepless at night; spent hours just sitting, head empty of all thoughts except how to end the impasse.

He had completed the three sessions posing with Raul for the group of gay artists and enjoyed them at the time, but afterwards remained assailed by doubts. Why did doing what gave him pleasure sometimes feel as if it was... not immoral so much as... wrong? Not right? No, that wasn't it. He knew he was doing nothing wrong, but he knew other people would disapprove, think he was a filthy exhibitionist, but he knew he wasn't. It was good clean fun and Raul never seemed to doubt himself. There were no drugs, nothing crude or rude, they didn't fuck, although in some of the poses it looked as if they did. When he'd asked one of the artists — the scrawny bloke with the goatee if he thought Mort was being sluttish, the fellow had been surprised. 'Of course not!' he said with a frown. 'Don't even think it. You're a great model. There's artistry but nothing degrading in your poses and you've given us more pleasure than most of us have had for years.'

But...Was it because Raul was older? He didn't seem older and certainly not wiser, even though he was a motorcycle cop. In fact sometimes he seemed a bit simple — never questioning anything. Mort took a deep breath but couldn't shake off the doubts. Perhaps he was basically dirty and everyone except him could see it, because there must be more behind his getting kicked out of school than what had happened. Surely kids couldn't get expelled simply for telling the truth and sticking up for themselves. There was something about living with others he didn't understand. It was time to get advice.

The following afternoon while standing on one leg inspecting the sole of his foot for an imaginary thorn, Mort gave Steward an accurate account of his fight with Mr. Preggy and the run in with Miss Bussty, then asked his opinion.

'Opinion about what?'

'What those teachers did.'

As George Bernard Shaw said, "Those who can, do; and those who can't, teach." I've always reckoned that too many teachers are the failed dregs of academia who get their kicks from knocking their betters.'

'That means I'm better than them?'


'Nothing else?' Mort found it difficult to conceal his disappointment. He'd been hoping for some revelatory philosophic insight that would explain all and set his mind at rest while damning everyone else to perdition. Clearly, Steward wasn't the sort of person to delve into these sorts of problems. He'd even admitted to living on the surface, as he put it, so Mort should have guessed. 'Have you decided what sort of painting you're going to make of me?' he asked to change the subject.



'You've told me you want to know who your father is so you can understand why you're like you are. You met your mother not that long ago, has that explained who you are and why you are what you are?'

'No — at least I sure hope it hasn't!'

'It seems that what you're seeking is yourself. You feel as if you're only half a person. So I'm going to paint you collapsed, not dying but giving up, while another more virile, enthusiastic, happy you is struggling to lift you, both physically and mentally, to wake you and melt into you so you become one, whole, complete person.'

Mort thought it sounded a good idea, but doubted he had the strength or will or desire to accomplish such a transformation. The talk with Steward had confirmed his opinion of many teachers, but he remained in an emotional limbo. Bored, tired, uninvolved, uninterested and, although not miserable, not happy either.

The nursery was now occupying nearly all Mort's time and energy. He'd taken over most of the heavier jobs previously done by Stefan who had been complaining of indigestion and nausea for a while, and put it down to overwork and stress. Stefan had also lost a lot of weight, but said it was because his throat hurt to swallow. As Lydia's bountiful supply of sympathy was mainly for personal use, Mort tried vainly to convince Stefan to see a doctor.

'Don't waste your time,' his wife sighed. 'He's a typical male. Any excuse to avoid work. The slightest twinge and he thinks he's dying. Women are the strong one's when it comes to pain. I can imagine the weeping and wailing if men had to give birth.'

As she was childless and had recently raced off to the doctor with a suspected heart attack, only to discover it was heartburn, Mort wondered how she could be so sure of her opinion.

With the extra work and his lack of energy, Mort's explorations of the city's parks and reserves that had fired his imagination when he first arrived, ground to a halt. Only the Wednesday evening self-defence classes remained sacrosanct. While practising and sparring all his worries dropped away and for a couple of hours he was his old self. At least that's what he imagined until Brawl drew him aside and asked what the matter was.

'What do you mean?'

'You're thinner, your eyes are dull, and your body's lost its vigour.'

'I'm just a bit down at the moment. Hard work at the nursery. Not sleeping too well. Nothing serious.'

'It's serious when a kid like you goes downhill so fast. What're you doing Saturday afternoon?'

'Nothing planned.'

'Good, you're coming to my place for a hangi.'

Mort grinned. 'You're going to hang me?'

'A hangi, not a hanging,'

'What's a hangi?'

'Barbecue in a pit.' Brawl wrote the address, drew a map, and extracted a promise that Mort would be there as soon as possible after the nursery closed on Saturday.

Brawl's place was just over four kilometres from the nursery, so he jogged over straight after work. The wooden house was large, with a new corrugated iron roof. It was perched on high stumps that created a large covered area underneath where several tables had been set out. At least thirty people of all ages and sexes were milling around.

Mort wandered up the short drive and skirted the house, heading for the large garden at the rear, which boasted a lawn, three shade trees, and beyond them a vegetable garden, neatly set out in rows. A twinge of homesickness was alleviated by vague but friendly greetings from everyone whose eye he caught. If they were curious about this pale stranger, they concealed it politely.

'I'm a friend of Brawl's,' was a passport to a glass of fruit punch — non-alcoholic he was informed proudly. Someone was strumming on a guitar under a giant old mango tree and two men were singing in harmony. Mort crossed the lawn to stand as close as possible, having discovered in those few moments that he loved simple two-part harmony. When they stopped he begged them to sing more of the same.

A very fat woman draped in a flowery purple cloth suspended from copious breasts, shoulders and arms bare and a pink hibiscus flower tucked into her hair, approached and stood glaring at him with her hands on her hips. In a voice that managed to sound both mellow and sharp she demanded, 'Who are you? Why are you here? Where do you live?'

'I'm a friend of Brawl's from his self defence class; he invited me. I live near Toowong.'

'I saw you looking at my grand daughters, they're not available.'

Mort looked confused. 'Neither am I.'

'And neither are my grandsons!' her eyes glittered in suspicion. 'This afternoon is for family. No whiteys.'

'Then it's lucky I'm a beigey or should that be an ochrey.'

She frowned. 'What's that?'

'Beige? Ochre? Pale yellow/brown.'

She didn't crack a smile. 'Where're your parents from?'

'Grandad arrived on a boat from somewhere northeast when he was young. He refused to say from where, because people only make stupid generalisations if you tell them any more. I've no idea who my father is.'

'You've no business just barging in like this.'

'I didn't! I expected Brawl to be here. He didn't tell me there'd be a party or I'd never have come. And if anyone had told me I'd meet someone like you, I'd have run a mile.'

'Well, you're here now, so go and find him... if you know what he looks like!' With a suspicious toss of her head she swung around and sailed like a vast purple hot-air balloon towards the tables beneath the house.

Mort remained where she'd left him. Increasingly embarrassed and wondering whether to go or stay when his attention was attracted to the centre of the garden where a steaming hole was being opened — perhaps Brawl was there. Soil, blankets, banana leaves and wire baskets of food wrapped in more leaves were carefully removed. Then, accompanied by lots of noisy, friendly banter the baskets were carried to the tables where half a dozen older women divided the contents into large dishes, placed them on the tables, and everyone tucked in with their fingers, placing portions of pork, chicken, taro, steamed banana and several other vegetables on leaf plates before moving away, laughing, gossiping, chattering, to sit on chairs, on the ground, on blankets and eat in the shade.

Mort decided it was time to go.

'Thanks for coming.' Brawl was standing behind him. 'Take whatever you need and come and sit with me.'

They found a quiet spot at the farthest end of the vegetable garden under a persimmon tree, sat cross-legged on the grass, and ate in silence.

'What do you think,' Brawl asked, licking his fingers.


Brawl shrugged. 'Whatever.'

'I've never eaten with so many people before. It's noisy, but everyone's so relaxed and easy. Except for…' he decided not to mention the fat woman in case she was Brawl's friend. 'No one's frowning. Most people are laughing. Those two men sang so beautifully I felt like crying. What were the songs?'

'They're pop songs people sang sixty or more years ago, before rock and roll and electronically amplified music. Isn't your family like this?'

Mort nearly choked. 'I haven't got a family. But if everyone I've ever known and liked was having a party it wouldn't be like this. They're all rather earnest about things — even enjoying themselves. It'd be more of a duty than something you just do for the fun of it. They make jokes, are determinedly agreeable, but it'd be a serious business. No one's telling those kids to shut up, to sit down, to stop whatever they're doing. I lived with my grandparents till I was nine and grandma was always nagging.' He heaved a large breath. 'Who are these people?'

'My family.'

'All of them?'

'Family simply means anyone who's even vaguely related, or think they're related, or would like to be. The two guys who were singing are sons of cousins on my mother's side. Several of the kids are theirs. Their wives are over there.' He pointed at two fat women. My wife is the one in the purple dress. A heart attack waiting to happen. I think you've met her.' His eyes twinkled.

'Yeah, she is... large.'


They smiled thoughtfully.

'Scrappy, the weightlifting bloke you met who told you to join my defence class, is my son, and that scrawny woman in the ridiculous high heels is my daughter. That handsome young man is my grandson, her son, and everyone else is an aunt, uncle, cousin or…' he spread his hands and smiled.

'Where is Scrappy? I liked him.'

'At home, I suppose. My wife refuses to allow him to bring his boyfriend here; she's religious so thinks god hates everyone who doesn't have her opinions. He wouldn't come anyway; he hates these sorts of gossipy, backbiting family gatherings.

'Do your other children, cousins and grand children all live here?'

'It seems like it sometimes. My wife runs an open house, which is why I'm seldom home. Would you prefer this sort of family to yours?'

Mort considered the question carefully, gazing intently round at everyone as if for the first time. Scrutinising, listening, thinking. Finally he looked up at Brawl with a deep frown. 'Could I just go into my room, shut the door and be totally on my own?'

'No. You'd be sharing with at least two others who have access whenever they want.'

'Can I tell them to turn off their music if I don't like it?'

'You can, but they'll laugh and ignore you.'

'Who chooses what to watch on TV?'

The oldest woman.'

'Does every adult have the right to tell every child off if they're naughty?'

'Yes. In fact every woman usurps the right to tell everyone else, especially men and boys, what they are doing wrong, what they should be doing and when. It can get pretty fraught if the guys disagree. Usually they just shrug and go and play football or something... simply to get out of the house and away from the women's nagging.'

'Then I'd hate it! I know it all looks nice and friendly, but I have to be allowed to do what I want without thinking someone might disapprove, or tell me I'm not doing the right thing, or I should be doing something else, or that I had to share a bedroom or my things because Kevin or someone didn't have one and all that commune stuff that this looks like. Forgive me if I've got it wrong, Brawl, but I've been brought up as a loner and I'd feel claustrophobic after even one day of living so close to others.'

Brawl smiled. 'I knew we had something in common; apart from self defence.'

'Then why did you marry and end up like this?'

'As you've realised, the pressures on family members to conform are enormous. On my twentieth birthday the slim, pretty girl who became my ginormous wife announced to her friends that we were engaged. We weren't, we'd only fucked a couple of times, but that was enough, and to maintain the family honour I was forced to marry her. From then on my life has never been my own.'

'You don't seem unhappy.'

'I'm not. I love my kids — usually, and my grandchildren — sometimes. My life is fairly easy. I've plenty of support if I need assistance with anything. If things go wrong there are dozens ready to help. Okay, I wouldn't have chosen this life if I'd had the choice, but now I have it I either accept it or go mad. We all have the choice to make the best of the hand we're dealt in life, or stuff it up by resenting it and wishing it was different. All in all I've been pretty lucky. As TV announcers delight in saying after accidents, "It could have been much worse". Of course it could.'

Mort was silent, then looked up with a slight smile. 'And your point is?'

'What is there about your life that's making you sick?'

'Mmm… I guess it's the uncertainty. I've done a few things recently because I wanted to, and I don't regret doing them, yet I keep doubting that I should have done them. Living alone I've no one to bounce myself off, so to speak. If I lived here I'd have plenty of people to tell me if I was a fool or not.'

'Bounce off me.'

'Seriously? Why?'

'I like you.'

'Okay.' Mort gave a succinct account of the things in his current life that confused him, but in the telling he became emotional and brushed angrily at unwelcome tears. 'Who was right? Should I have just shut up like all the other kids and done as I was expected? Have I the right to be independent when it doesn't affect others?'

Brawl put his hand on Mort's shoulder and held it there, gazing into his eyes. 'Don't hold back, Mort. It's manly to cry when you're emotionally involved. It's part of what makes you worth bothering with. No one's watching or listening.' He sat back and considered the questions. 'Most kids are like most adults, timid, shy, frightened of being different. They don't know enough to understand how things work, so they don't rock boats in case they fall overboard. The tragedy is that cretins like those teachers are in charge of what should be temples of education. They're bullies, destroying love of learning and pleasure in thinking with their bigotry, sexism, racism, blinkered morality and mindless conformity. And because most girls go for true blue Aussie guys who hate wogs and blacks and queers and everyone and every thing that isn't like them, there's not much hope of change.'

'Do you think I should have just let Mr. Preggy get away with his racist crap?'

'Everyone does what they must in order to be able to live with themselves. I suspect you had no choice if you wanted to remain sane. When people act in ways contrary to their true feelings and values, they become depressed and suicidal. Border guards who have maltreated asylum seekers, and soldiers who've killed innocents in the Middle East are obvious examples.'

'And do you think I deserve to be kicked out of school?'

'You deserve a medal. Quite frankly, you're better off out of the place. You'll learn nothing useful in such an institution, geared as it is to promoting the religion of endless material growth in a desert of morality engendered by unquestioning religiosity. According to the latest reliable science we're all going to be out of a job pretty soon. This is the hottest year ever recorded; the last sixteen years have each been hotter than the previous. Great chunks of polar glaciers are sliding into the sea and slowly melting. It'll take a few years, but last time the planet was as hot as it is now, the seas rose to between seven and nine metres higher than they are today. Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth are built on sea-level marshes. The Arctic Ocean is ice free in summer for the first time since before humans appeared on the planet. Vast tracts of once fertile land on the Darling Downs, the food bowl of Queensland, are lying arid, cracked and bare; not so much for lack of rain, although it has been very dry, but because inland the temperatures are between six and twelve degrees hotter than the coast. Insurance companies are unable to pay claims for the hundreds of houses destroyed in the fires that burned across the western hills last month, and the fire and storm seasons haven't officially begun yet!'

'I hadn't thought about all that.'

'Of course not. But it puts conventional education in perspective. You're learning more useful stuff at the nursery than at school, so stuff them. Work hard, keep fit and prepare for what's to come by learning to take care of yourself. No one else is bothering, so you've got an advantage already.'

'Makes sense. Thanks.'

'As for having fun modelling with that guy, who was hurt? No one. In retrospect, do you feel you've damaged your chances of a happy adult sexual life because of it, or would you like to do it again?'

Mort blushed and admitted something he'd not yet admitted to himself. 'I'd love to do it again. In fact I'd love to dance and strip and then jerk off on stage in front of a cheering audience. Is that disgusting?'

'No. Because you said a cheering audience. You don't want to shock, you want to entertain with your body, and that's no more wrong than entertaining with a beautiful voice, or clever writing or skilful painting technique, or clever batting in cricket, or clever goal shooting in basketball and soccer. As long as your desires remain simple, healthy, clean and non violent, you've nothing to worry about. But always remember that he who sups with the devil needs a long spoon. It's easy to become contaminated morally, intellectually and physically. But I think you're able to remain the sort of person you admire.'

'You've no idea what a relief it was to tell you my secret wish, Brawl. And your response was…' Mort grinned shyly. 'Thanks.'

'No thanks necessary. But about the future. Have you thought about how you're going to live in an overheated world in which, according to the majority of scientists, no one is going to survive till the end of the century? Can you imagine what it's going to be like during the years leading up to extinction? I'll probably escape the worst, being older, but you and most of those young one's over there won't. And what about all the other forms of life that are being exterminated alongside humans? Did you know that between one hundred and fifty, and two hundred species of life are becoming extinct every day! Every day! But no one seems to care or want to do anything about it. Beside that, how do you rate your problems on a scale of one to ten?'

Mort burst out laughing. 'You sure know how to put things in perspective! Now I've spoken to you I realise I've had an interesting and pretty good life so far. In fact, thanks to you I'm now feeling happy! So my problems rate a zero.'

Brawl's dire prediction about the future awaiting humans was not news to Mort; what was new was his reaction. Until then climate change had been something for 'those in charge' to 'do something about'. He knew there was nothing he as an individual could do, because the day of individual influence, if there ever had been one, was over. Although all governments were denying it, the planet was not in fact ruled by them, but by giant banks and multinational corporations that controlled all mass media and most people's opinions, as well as food production and fresh water, industrial production and distribution, energy production and distribution, the pharmaceutical industry, sickness services and hospitals, and increasingly - education.

Having control of governments meant they also had control over both their private security police and the regular police — increasingly armed with arsenals of weapons designed for the battlefield, but now ready to be used on fellow citizens. Control of governments also ensured that wars were fought wherever the economic interests of multinationals would benefit from destroying infrastructure, instigating border disputes, making war, bombing countries that demonstrated independence, or fomenting social discord and internal revolution so they could install brutal puppet dictators who would do their bidding by terrorising their populations and selling off natural resources.

The corporate worldwide surveillance network left no one out of the loop of their intrusive spying, ensuring that no dissident — even the most mild — was safe from retribution. If protesters weren't murdered by the police, they were incarcerated in privately run prisons that gave the corporations that owned them enough slave labour to increase their already stupendous corporate profits.

It was common knowledge among the few, like Mort, who read the blogs of a scattering of brave, independent academics and philosophers, that point one percent of the planet's population now owned and controlled ninety-nine percent of the world's wealth. But knowing wasn't understanding. The question that kept bugging Mort was, why hadn't these incredibly wealthy people stopped their meddling? If wealth and power were their aim, surely they'd have stopped once they had it all? But they hadn't. They were still dealing in human misery as the planet warmed, the seas began to rise and the natural world essential for our survival began to die. They were the only people who had the power to stop the slide into global chaos, but they seemed to have chosen not to. Why? Why would any sane person want to own a planet whose fresh water was mostly poisoned, whose air was fouled, and most of its soil degraded and toxic? What amusement was there in heating a planet until the life supports failed, causing more than seven thousand million people to start killing each other in search of food, shelter and water, while fires raged, nature perished and diseases ran rampant?

At first glance, to a logical mind such as that buzzing in the head of Mortaumal, the planetary rulers seemed insane... not mildly or amusingly insane, but vilely, criminally psychopathic. However by the time he had jogged the four kilometres home he'd decided they were not even that. They were just spoiled brats who'd discovered that having everything was unsatisfying, so they'd decided that if they couldn't be happy with the planet, no one else was going to be either. Like selfish children they were deliberately smashing their toy to prevent anyone else from having it.

He knew he had no influence on the future of the human race or natural world, but Brawl's question about what he was going to do personally in the face of impending change, merited deep reflection. Meanwhile, the probability of a very unpleasant future softened Mortaumal's feelings towards the world in general and Perdita in particular, and he resolved to try to mend their relationship; but of course not so well mended that she'd have the inheritance. Not only did he think she'd do more harm than good with it, but she didn't deserve it.

However, try as he might, nothing Mort did could please her. He ran all the errands she demanded, cleaned the flat, did the washing, washed any of her dishes she left dirty, and after preparing and eating his own breakfast, started taking his mother coffee and toast in bed before leaving for work.

Nothing Mortaumal did or said could shake her conviction that he had stolen her rightful inheritance. Cunningly, she offered to go halves. He insisted he had nothing to go halves with. She cried. Tears ran softly for about a minute, followed by great wracking sobs that had never yet failed to bring men to their knees. The sobs subsided to gentle sniffs interspersed by heart-wrenching shudders generated in the deepest recesses of her soul — about a millimetre deep, Mort guessed.

He'd seen his grandmother try the same trick, and at first disbelieved his grandfather's dismissal of the tearful display as fake. But Perdita proved her father right by suddenly switching to a towering, dry-eyed rage.

Resisting the urge to taunt her for her duplicity, Mort shrugged and left her to it.

The following day, hoping she had come to her senses, Mort decided to try at least for a truce. He would make a special evening meal during which he would give her his most precious possession — the elaborate little table he'd spent so much time and care making at school. If that didn't move her, nothing would and he'd give up.

While preparing for the evening — making it look special with fresh napkins, candles, flowers and everything a fifteen year-old could imagine a woman wanted, he allowed himself to hope that finally, with this offering they might at least live together peacefully.

Perdita arrived home at the expected time. The front door slammed and she stomped into the dining room.

'Why's it so dark in here?' She turned on the lights making the lit candles look silly. 'You've put out the best cutlery and china! I've told you a thousand times they're not for you!'

'Sorry, Perdita, but I wanted it to be special, I've made you a present and thought…'

'You thought. You thought. You've never had a decent thought in your life! What present?'

Mort brought out his treasured table. 'I made this at school in woodwork classes. Got top marks.'

Without touching it to admire the accuracy of the inlaid wood, or feel the silken lacquer that had taken two weeks of painstaking sanding and smoothing and fifteen coats of shellac, Perdita curled a lip, then gazed around the room. 'You arrogant shit. If you didn't like my taste in furnishings, all you had to do was say so, not bring in some tarted up rubbish to try and make my stuff look cheap. This thing would look totally out of place, so keep it in your room out of sight.' With a disdainful sniff she turned and stared at the carefully laid dining table. 'Did you steal those flowers?'

'No! I bought them on the way home.'

'Waste of money! You know I don't like flowers inside. Messy things, dropping petals. Flowers belong in a garden.' She headed for her bedroom. 'I'm going to take a shower as I'm dining with friends tonight. Make sure you put my china and cutlery away carefully and clean up properly! I don't want to have a mess to clean up when I return.'

An intolerable heat seemed to rise up from Mort's belly, through his chest and into his head, triggering a hope it would burst and spray blood and brains all over the room. It didn't, so he went to his room and sat on the bed where a numb chill replaced the white heat, sending violent shivers throughout his body.

He sat in the dark until the front door slammed. She'd left without another word. He could scarcely breathe. His heart pounded. Two hundred deep and slow breaths calmed him enough to return to the empty dining room and eat the meal over which he had taken such care. After tossing the uneaten portions into the bin and meticulously cleaning up all traces of cooking, he took a hammer intending to smash the rejected work of art to punish her. At the last second he stopped. She'd just laugh. He'd be punishing himself. Slowly, tense muscles relaxed and he put the hammer away, caressed his table and shook his head in despair at his own stupidity.

He should have expected it. Perhaps he had, and it had all been a more or less deliberate exercise to prove conclusively that his mother wasn't worth bothering with. The table had cost him more time and thought than anything he'd ever done in his life, and if she'd accepted it and then gone on being horrible, it would have reminded him forever of this night, so it was a relief to know she'd never have it. But he knew someone who would appreciate it.

Standing proudly upright for what felt like the first time since coming to the city, he shouted, 'Fuck the bitch!' A ten minute jog took him to Lydia and Stefan's. He could hear Lydia playing the piano, so they'd finished dinner. He rang the bell.

Mort had read enough stories of youthful adventure and life to know he was supposed to be tough and manly and not tell anyone about his problems — certainly not anything that would put his family in a bad light. But tonight he'd realised Perdita was irredeemably horrible so he wasn't going to lie and protect her reputation. He wasn't after sympathy, he accepted his lot and never felt sorry for himself; but he would like confirmation that he hadn't deserved the treatment.

Stefan opened the door looking very ill, so Mort decided it wouldn't be fair to burden him with his problems.

'I just popped around to get some fresh air.'

'I thought you'd still be wining and dining your mother,' Stefan said with a brave attempt at bonhomie. 'Did she like the table? Ah, I see you have it with you. Come in.'

They went through to the sitting room and with slight embarrassment Mort placed his table on the carpet just inside the door.

'Perdita didn't want it, there's really not much room in the flat, so I hoped you'd like it.'

Stefan knelt beside it and stroked the top. 'What exquisite inlay! And the lacquer. Mort! This is a masterpiece, we couldn't accept it. It's yours, you've put so much work into it and it's so beautiful. Don't you agree, Lydia?'

'It is certainly a fine piece of workmanship, but if Mortaumal really wants us to have it, it would be ill mannered to refuse such a gift. Are you certain, Mortaumal?'

Suddenly he wasn't. Lydia's grasping response irritated him, but he didn't want to be encumbered with the thing until he was settled permanently somewhere. Anyway, it was too late for second thoughts. 'Of course you must have it... I...'

Stefan caught the slight hesitancy and interrupted. 'Tell you what. We'll look after it for you until you've a place of your own and would like to have it. It is very beautiful and we'll take great care of it, won't we, Lydia?'

Through a mouth drawn tight with displeasure, Lydia managed a smile and terse agreement, and Mort relaxed.

'That would be ideal. I doubt I'll ever want it, but its great to know it's in good hands. Which brings me to you, Stefan, when are you going to see a doctor? I'm getting worried.'

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