by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 16

'I'm fine, Mort,' Stefan began, 'All I need is…'

'Mortaumal has to know, Stef,' Lydia cut in. She turned to Mort. 'As you know, Stefan has been short of breath and suffering abdominal pains for some time. We thought it was indigestion, old age — although he's only fifty-eight. Yesterday the results of tests arrived and he has cancer.'

'How horrible! Stefan, that's awful! What sort of cancer?'

'Stage three stomach,' Lydia announced as if it was superior to stages one or two. 'He let it go on too long without checking, so now it's serious. He will have to have an operation to remove it and relieve symptoms, but first he will have chemotherapy and radiation that will shrink it before the operation. His first session is tomorrow.'

Silence while Mort pondered the lack of justice in the natural world. If honesty and niceness was rewarded then surely it should be Lydia and not Stefan who was ill? She was the one whose sneering about weak men had embarrassed and therefore prevented Stefan from seeing a doctor in the early stages. But he held his tongue. Stefan looked at him and winked as if reading Mort's mind and agreeing with him.

'So it's pretty serious.'

'He has about a seven percent chance of surviving five years,' Lydia announced as if he'd won a raffle. But it's getting late and he's tired, so as you're here you can give me a hand getting him to bed.'

Stefan protested, but he was in considerable pain as he'd not picked up his prescription for analgesics, and appreciated leaning on Mort to the bathroom.

Mort sniffed. 'You're a bit ripe, Stefan. Want a shower?'

'I... I don't think I can. I…'

'I need one too, so I'll get in with you, okay?'

Stefan was absurdly shy, and ridiculously grateful to be so gently washed, supported, dried and dressed in new pyjamas.

'Lydia isn't strong enough to assist me like you do, so thanks, Mort.'

Lydia was perfectly strong enough, but Mort said nothing and took him to his bedroom. Stefan and Lydia had slept in separate rooms for the last twenty odd years, and she wasn't about to change that. When he was settled, Mort took Stefan's bike and cycled to the All Night Chemist in Toowong to collect the prescription. As it was so late when he returned, Lydia suggested he stay the night in the spare room if Perdita wouldn't mind.

'She'll not even notice.'

In the morning Stefan looked somewhat better thanks to a good night's sleep, finally knowing what was wrong with him, and that at last something was going to be done about it. He deliberately didn't think further then that. Mort promised to keep the nursery going and told him not to worry. It was a quiet time of year. He knew everything that was required and there were no problems he couldn't handle with Lydia's support.

One of Perdita's best-paying clients had persuaded her to break the alcoholic drought that Elbert had insisted on if they were to marry. Having used her services before she married, he knew she had a weak head when it came to strong drink. Two shots of whisky erased all inhibitions and made her dizzy and willing to join him in perverse, some might say depraved sexual acts.

Arriving back at the flat the following morning Mort opened the windows to freshen the air and was disgusted to find his mother sprawled naked over the sofa in the lounge, head lolling back, mouth agape with a trickle of dribble running over her chin. He bent forward to wake her but the stench of her breath made him merely nudge her with the toe of his shoe. She woke with a start, tried to sit up but rolled over onto the floor where she lay for several minutes, awake but confused until Mort returned with a cup of coffee.

She managed to sit up and drink it, then crawled to the toilet to vomit. Another crawl took her to the bathroom and shower. Mort flushed the toilet, cleaned around it, washed the dishes in the kitchen, made everything ship shape, then returned to the nursery.

Several long weeks later after losing his hair, feeling nauseous, frequently in agony and more ill than he had ever thought possible, the operation to remove the tumour was performed and Stefan was on the road to recovery.

But the road was long and bumpy and proved more treacherous than anticipated. The original symptoms returned, and CT, MRI and PET scans showed the cancer had not only returned aggressively, but was starting to spread to other organs. He was now in stage four, an officious nurse informed him with apparent relish, and that meant a cure was not possible. All that could be hoped for was treatment to help keep the cancers under control and relieve symptoms.

It was decided he would have a laser beam directed through a long, flexible tube passed down the throat, to destroy most of the tumour and, with a bit of luck, remove obstructions without surgery. If that wasn't successful, then a hollow metal tube would be placed where the oesophagus and stomach meet, to help keep it open and allow food to pass through. If that didn't work, then he would have a gastric bypass or even a subtotal gastrectomy to keep the stomach and intestines from becoming blocked. This might require the placement of a tube directly into the small intestine to help provide pre-digested nutrition if, after the operation, he had trouble swallowing.

But before all that, a little more chemotherapy and perhaps radiation would be used to shrink the other cancers and relieve some symptoms. But, he was reminded, it was not expected to totally remove the cancer and effect a cure. From now on he could look forward to palliative care in a hospice, which would relieve most of the pain and symptoms and help him survive for possibly another five years.

Stefan was not overjoyed at the news. Mort was shocked to the core. Lydia nodded sagely, as if she had expected this all along.

Mort's days were spent potting and re-potting seedlings, taking cuttings, watering and fertilising, discarding diseased or unthrifty plants, mixing seed-raising soils, ordering fresh supplies, keeping the place as clean and as sterile as possible, composting waste and maintaining the shade and glass houses and equipment. Lydia maintained contact with their retailers and made deliveries in the Nursery van, which Mort loaded. Fortunately, new interests in the evenings helped him forget for a while the ever present tragedy of Stefan.

Stefan's days were spent either in hospital, or lying on a day bed on the back verandah feeling guilty, or on his good days tottering slowly around the garden, admiring and complimenting and showering Mort with thanks, which were appreciated. Mort also felt a little guilty at being so pleased at being trusted to take total charge of the operation of a small, but well run business.

Lydia was reluctantly persuaded to teach him the Nursery accounting system, and was equally reluctantly pleased when Mort made changes to their website that increased their visibility.

53 Perdita Perdue

Mort had kept in contact with Raul, who belonged to a couple of gay clubs that occasionally hired strippers. He introduced Mort to the owners who set a date for an audition. Raul told him that the strippers usually arrived on stage in a towel or some sort of sarong, jumped around a bit, thrust their hips, then took off the towel, did more hip thrusts in a thong, then whipped that off, jiggled their bits as if embarrassed, and ran off.

It sounded dull to Mort, who did an internet search and discovered that in the previous century, strippers, both male and female, used to sexily remove layer after layer of clothing to bring their audience to a pitch of excitement, while dancing athletically and erotically in a professional manner, arriving after about fifteen minutes, if the club required it, at total nudity, and then not just flashing it as if it was something shameful and running away, but completing the dance, giving the audience their money's worth. Erections in men, and masturbation in both sexes, were not considered an essential element of the strip, indeed some commentators thought that was vulgar and spoiled the act, in the same way as the ancient Greeks thought large penises, at least on statues, vulgar and brutish.

Mort made himself a pouch like Leo's, bought a pale blue thong and a speedo, washed and ironed his tiny running shorts, put on all those things, topped by a pair of faded jeans, a tight tank top, and a neat, long sleeved white shirt. On his feet a pair of plaited leather moccasins, on his head a cute cap.

The music was a problem; he wanted sexy with a strong beat, but not angry. He found something in Perdita's collection and practiced until he had a fifteen minute athletic dance that incorporated lots of self-defence moves and showed off his strengths. It took a little longer in front of a mirror to learn how to sexily remove each piece of clothing apparently without effort and toss it nonchalantly aside without interrupting the dance.

At last he was ready and arrived at the audition. Nervous. Shaking. Scarcely able to speak. The music was very loud. He began his well-rehearsed sequences and instantly forgot about the three men watching. The dance overtook him and all too soon it was over and he was naked and they were clapping.

Silence. Then... 'I've got a hard on,' the manager said with what sounded like surprise. 'Me too,' the others laughed.

'Well done. How old are you?'


'And as smooth and sleek as a schoolboy. You're not still at school, are you?'

'No way! I'm manager of a nursery in Toowong.'

'Is that where you got so fit?'


'When can you start?'


'We have strippers on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Can you do all three?'


'I can see you're okay with nudity — you can put your gear back on if you like, although as far as I'm concerned you never need wear anything in here.' The other guys laughed and nodded. 'Are you easy about erections and jerking off?'

'Of course, no probs if that's what the audience wants.'

'Good. You've no idea how precious most would-be strippers are. Think they've got something special hanging between their legs, but are too chicken to prove it works. Before we go any further, how much will those four shows cost us?'

'What are you offering?'

'Cagey. does two hundred dollars a session sound?'

Mort's eyebrows shot up and he pulled a disbelieving mouth. He'd have done it for nothing.

'Okay, make it three hundred for the first three, and four the last one on Saturday, on condition you ejaculate copiously and visibly.'

'Sounds okay.' Mort's grin threatened to take over his face.

'To recapitulate...we'll have you for the usual nine-thirty sessions on Thursday, Friday and Saturday to whet appetites, then announce that you'll go the whole hog in the second session on Saturday. That'll keep the crowds here drinking. Did you use lasers to get so smooth?'

Mort explained.

'Lucky bastard! See you here nine p.m. at the latest, in two days time.'

Raul was delighted.

And so was Mortaumal.

The performances were much more fun than he'd imagined, partly because the audiences were wildly appreciative of a boyish youth who lacked all pretension, obviously enjoyed himself, and whose performance was as practised and slick as any professional. Throughout, he was so busy concentrating on smiling, dancing, removing his layers of clothing sexily and involving his audience with winks, laughs, and the occasional flirtatious thrust of a buttock, or allowing someone to touch him, that it wasn't till afterwards when he relived the experience at home that he could enjoy the full erotic pleasure. Even the following day was enhanced by sexual fantasies in anticipation of the next performances, which he was determined would be even better — and more fun — and which were.

Several other clubs invited him to perform, but only two were considered safe by Raul who would love to have done the same, but feared for his job if the Transport Department heard about it.

Apart from gaining his Learner Licence so he could drive the Nursery Van and also their car if needed, the high point of Mort's sixteenth birthday was the cheers and applause during and after his performance of a breathtakingly energetic dance designed to emphasise his prodigious flexibility and satiny smooth contours. Stark naked, spot lit on a tiny stage surrounded by one hundred and eighty-seven total strangers, he mesmerised with leaps and pirouettes, sexy squats and thrusting hips. The finale, a jaw-dropping ejaculation that reached his closest admirers, would be talked about for decades.

Steward's painting was slow to materialise, but that suited Mort because he wasn't sure if he'd continue to be welcome in the cellar once the painting was finished. After recounting his success as a nightclub performer, Steward suggested he apply at an agency run by Salacia, a woman in her mid to late twenties who hosted lingerie parties in the evenings. She was always looking for nice young men to strip for clients who bought enough of her wares, as well as for middle-class thrill-seekers who thought having a stripper for mother's fiftieth anniversary or their daughter's hen party was the height of decadence.

With her husband, Crag, she had produced a healthy young boy, and bought a grand old mansion, intending to restore it to its former glory and use the elegant ballroom to host intimate private functions. So far, neither she nor her husband, a lean concreter who never seemed to wear more than a pair of torn off jeans with the top button missing and heavy work boots, earned enough to get the project off the ground. So they camped in the liveable rooms, grew their own vegetables and enjoyed life immensely.

On his way back from Steward's one night, a raucous laugh made Mort look up from the rubbish bin enclosure as he passed through. Four stories directly above him, Perdita, with a glass in her right hand, was leaning out of the lounge room window, straining to see a spectacular lighting display over the western hills. There was no wind or rain, but the air was humid, heavy and ominous. Rumbling thunder had been creeping closer all evening and every few seconds night was turning to glaring, pinkish-white day as lightning zapped between heavy clouds.

'With a bit of luck she'll fall,' Mort whispered to himself. Feeling guilty for the thought as he counted the seconds between lightning and thunder, deciding it was better to leave fate to its own devices. Not that he was in any way superstitious, of course.

Only two seconds. So the lightning was getting very close. Suddenly, a blinding flash and thunderclap. His chest seemed to explode and eardrums to shatter. It forced him to his knees. Heart pounding he waited several seconds in total darkness to recover his sight before looking up to the lighted window to see how Perdita had reacted. She wasn't there.

Another flash and crash of thunder, less impressive but enough to see an odd shape on top of one of the bins. He approached, waited till the next lightning flash and saw a naked bum and legs draped over the edge of a bin; the head and shoulders inside. There was no sign of movement, no sound. No one could survive such a fall head first. Mort looked up. There was still no one at the window.

He raced round to the front of the building and up to the apartment, burst in and checked the lounge room. Empty. At that moment the bathroom door opened and a voice called, 'Perdy! I thought you were going to join me. The water's running cold.' The voice was followed by an unprepossessing naked man who stopped in shock.

'Who are you? Where's Perdy?'

'Did you push her out the window?'

'What? Don't be ridiculous!'

'I'm her son and she's dead. Fell out the window while watching the lightning show. Ended up in the rubbish bins below. I've just seen her.'

Silence while the naked man stared in horror.

'You must believe me! I didn't.'

'I do. So I'll give you one minute to get out of here and away before I call the cops. Unless you want them to suspect you of murder, which they will because she's a whore and you're her client.'

The guy stood as if transfixed.

'Get the fuck out of here! What part of death, cops, fake murder charge don't you understand!'

He sprang to attention, raced into the bedroom and reappeared roughly dressed, ran to the door, turned and said, 'I owe you! Thanks!' and disappeared.

Mort returned to Steward's through the internal door, explained his reasons, then half an hour later retook the outside pathway, discovering his mother's body on the way past thanks to moonlight that had broken through the clouds. He then raced upstairs, fortuitously meeting the elderly woman in flat Two B on the second floor, to whom he explained his anguished state. Then, back in his apartment he telephoned the police in as distraught a voice as he could manage.

At the inquest, Steward confirmed Mortaumal had been with him until half an hour after the time of death indicated by autopsy. No one else had been in the apartment. She was naked because she had been about to take a shower when the lightning display took her to the window, from which she had obviously leaned out too far, as marks on her thighs indicated, and she had been drinking, and it was a tragic accident. The only part of the finding Mort disagreed with was the word tragic.

A thorough search of his mother's room the following day revealed a fireproof box containing the photographs and videos of Mort, Marshall and Angelo and the detective's report, a bank book with a balance of over three hundred thousand dollars, and an account book in which she kept contact details of her clients, including some salacious secrets of eighteen men that would be useful if she decided to put a bit of pressure on them. In case she had been doing that wicked thing, Mort telephoned each of them from a public phone box. 'Perdita is dead,' he said cheerfully, 'and I have destroyed by burning the book that contained your secrets.' Five men cried in relief. All thanked him profusely and asked who he was.

'Someone who loves justice.'

One name, Arch Lintel, had no phone number behind it, and no address. It was surrounded by lacy squiggles and little stars as if it was important. Mort pondered this and transcribed the name into his own private notebook before burning Perdita's.

When Marshall heard the news he cried from relief.

'What'll I do with the photos and stuff?'

'What would you like to do?'

'Burn them.'

'Good man. Do it as soon as possible. So, when are you coming home?'

Mort had been thinking about that and was surprised to realise he didn't want to. He'd been independent too long. He didn't want to live with someone he had to explain himself to, even one as positive and supportive as Marshall. It was too late. He had to live or die on his own — at least until he met someone his own age he wanted to share things with. But that wouldn't be for ages yet. He was only sixteen — too young to settle down. With the dead weight of Perdita gone he felt as light as air, ready to fly off and become... what? He had no idea but that didn't matter. He could take risks. He had money in a bank that he might never touch, but the security made life a game — a game he was going to play according to his rules and no one else's.

So he told Marshall about Stefan and his current responsibilities, said he was having a wonderful time, sent his love to Angelo, and promised to come and visit soon. To his relief Marshall laughed and said he was delighted and not surprised by Mort's decision, but he still meant what he'd said the day Mort left... Marshal's home was Mort's as long as he lived.

'You've made me cry, Marshall, from happiness. Thanks. You are absolutely the best.'

Since arriving in Brisbane Mort had not drawn on the money left to him by his grandfather, always managing to live by his own efforts. He wanted to keep it like that, so as soon as the inquest was over he checked the business practices of all the banks and deposited the inheritance from his mother in a small, but carefully managed building society that had no exposure to derivatives or other shady banking practices.

The two-week notice required before he could stop paying rent for the apartment was enough for Mort to dispose of everything else of Perdita's, move his own stuff into the spare room at Stefan's, and convince Steward to continue with his painting.

Stefan's hair had mostly fallen out. His weight had stabilised at fifty-nine kilograms, ten below what used to be normal. His cheeks were gaunt, and deep furrows across his brow indicated debilitating pain. As the days passed his condition continued to deteriorate and despite the best efforts of visiting nurses it was becoming clear he would soon have to be moved to a nursing home for twenty-four hour care. He was not keen on the idea.

Lydia decided she'd had enough of running a Plant Nursery and as it was doing rather well, thanks to Mort, and was looking better than it had for some time, decided to sell. The sale would enable her to buy a luxury apartment in a tower block overlooking the Brisbane River, and the remainder would offset much of the expense generated by Stefan's care. She watched television in the evenings on her own because she had the sound louder than either of the men could bear, due to unacknowledged hearing difficulties. Unacknowledged wax in the ears, Mort reckoned.

He and Stefan had previously played drafts together, talked and read, but as Stefan's condition deteriorated, lassitude and nausea conspired to prevent him from doing anything except sitting or lying and talking softly, so Mort had started reading to him. Stefan had introduced him to the works of Saki (H H Munro), and despite his illness the exquisite prose and satirical lampooning of the Edwardian English upper class and politics always raised contented grunts of appreciation.

After Mort's reading of Shredni Vashtar, Stefan asked him if he thought Conradin's aunt had deserved her end.

'How can you doubt it? She deserved every bit. Our so-called civilized society has made wimps of everyone by insisting the state take over retribution from affected individuals. Conradin's plight would never have been addressed, and the aunt's crimes never punished without the assistance of Shredni Vashtar. Natural Justice is what's lacking in our society, along with an individual's right to demand satisfaction for wrongs done to him.'

'You'd like individuals to have greater say over their lives then?'

'Yes... I am. Although I'm not sure what you're getting at.'

'Would you like to be me?'

'No way! I'd hate to be sick like you. I can't imagine how you put up with it.'

'According to the law I have no choice but to put up with it. And neither would you.'

'Well I wouldn't, I'd do what Grandad did.'

'What's that?'

'He was on the way to being sick like you. He saw it coming and didn't want to live if he had to have operations and drugs and go to a nursing home just to stay alive. He loved his market garden and working and all that. He reckoned that if he wasn't able to live the way he wanted, life would be pointless. So he killed himself.'


'I've no idea. No one told me. Weedkiller perhaps?' Mort shook his head. 'I was only nine. I suppose I should have asked. But it doesn't matter; done is done.'

'You said your grandfather thought life would have no point, does that mean he thought there is a point — a purpose in life external to ourselves?'

Mort laughed softly. 'No way. He was adamant about that. He never tired of telling me that Life has no over-arching meaning or purpose. We're a chance occurrence of no more consequence to the rest of the living world than the tiniest bacterium. Our brains demand a purpose, but that doesn't mean there is one. However the lack of a cosmic plan shouldn't prevent us from living as best we can, practising what the Greeks called eudaemonism. But that that can only happen if everyone has the same right to live as best they can. But as everyone has a different idea about what makes the 'good life' you're unlikely to be left to live your life as you see fit. Everyone tries to influence you. That's why he only had one or two friends. He reckoned other people always make life more difficult if you let them get close.'

'A wise man, your grandfather.'

'Yes. And a loving one. I think about him every day.'

'You don't blame him for killing himself?'

'You're joking! I'd think he'd have been crazy not to, considering his future prospects!'

'So... you think I'm crazy?'

'Not yet. But don't expect me to hang around when you're drugged to the eyeballs in a hospital bed, pissing and shitting into plastic bags, scrawny with bedsores. I like you as you were when I first met you, and I still like being with you because your brain is worth communicating with, but when that goes because of the pain and boredom and drugs and all the rest, so do I.'

'Mort, your honesty is one of the many wonderful things about you. Thanks.'

'No thanks. I'm just being me. So, what're you going to do?'

'I don't think I could bear another round of chemotherapy, and analgesics are not stopping the pain. But the doctor refused to increase opiate doses because I might become an addict. He didn't seem aware of the absurdity of worrying that a terminally ill man might become addicted.'

'That doesn't surprise me. The selection process for doctors more or less ensures they're good at passing exams but not very bright. So, what's your plan?'

'I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, and they reckon God gave us life therefore only God can take it away.'

'I didn't realise you believed in a god.'

'I've tried not to, and for years managed to ignore my brainwashing, but now I'm weak it comes back and even thinking about topping myself sends stabs of guilt and fear of spending eternity in limbo.'


'A place of dread emptiness for people not good enough for heaven, not bad enough for hell.'

Mort stared at Stefan in astonishment. 'Stefan, they dig up old graves all the time and occasionally find dead bodies in forests. Those people haven't gone anywhere; they're all in the process of becoming compost to feed other life. Surely you don't think you're different.'

'In limbo, as in heaven and hell, it is the soul that suffers.'

'I'm trying not to become irritated because you are physically weak. I hadn't realised your brain was also becoming weak. Your soul, Stefan, is your moral or emotional nature, or sense of identity. Without a body it doesn't exist. It's like all other mental activity — electric charges that dissipate as soon as the energy source dies.'

'I know. I know. I... would you help me to... do it?'

'I'll help you to be able to do it yourself. Because the final act must be yours and yours alone. I can't believe you've put up with this horror for so long. So, tell me how I can help.'

'There's an organisation that gives information on how to exit this life peacefully. I was given a number to ring by a friend of a friend... it's all very secret. I never dared contact them because of this debilitating inner guilt. But I've kept the contact details.'

'Right. It's too late to do anything tonight and you're just about asleep, so first thing tomorrow you can give me the number and I'll get started.' He leaned over and kissed his friend lightly on the brow. 'Sleep easily, Stefan, I won't let you down.'

For the first time in weeks Stefan's fearful muscles relaxed. The end of his suffering was nigh. He had told someone his guilty secret and hadn't been criticised. He now had something other than endless pain and nausea to look forward to. With a soft sigh he let go and slipped into slumber.

As it was only eight o'clock and Mort wasn't sleepy, he went for a jog around the block to refresh his muscles. The television was blaring inane laughter on his return so he went straight to the bathroom, dumped his clothes in the laundry chute and enjoyed a relaxing shower. After turning off the taps he jumped up and down to dislodge the drops, then flung back the curtain to reveal Lydia sitting on his towel on the stool in front of the window.

'Lydia, what a pleasant surprise.'

'Is it?'

'Is it what?'

'A pleasant surprise?'

Mort shrugged and smiled.

'Mrs. Pryer from my bridge club told me you performed at her friend's fiftieth birthday party. Is that so?'

'Probably. I never learn my client's surnames.'

'In front of her friends and their husbands, you removed all your clothes while cavorting erotically, danced with all the women while stark naked, invited them to rub oil on your buttocks and other... bits, recited a poem, then carried her out of the room in your arms.'

'Ah Yes...that would have been Sybil. She's no lightweight I can tell you. But it was doggerel, not a poem. It went like this:

Sybil's turning fifty,
She's really rather nifty,
At emptying the fridge,
And playing lots of bridge,
She's really good at sex,
With willing husband Lex,
And as she's such a ripper,
He bought for her a stripper.

Not bad eh? I made it up myself. Lex told me she was a bit of a glutton and a bridge player when he booked me, and asked if I could write something.'


'Why what?'

'Why did you... perform like that? Weren't you ashamed?'

'Rather proud, actually. The men also thought I was pretty good; one of them gave me an extra fifty bucks on top of the hundred agreed to, and asked me to perform for his wife's next birthday. Said he was pleasantly surprised because he thought it would be rude, but it was fun and sexy and not rude at all.'

'Hrumpff.' Lydia had been prepared to castigate a repentant reprobate, but had no idea how to deal with a young man who was proud of his perversion.

'If you've satisfied your curiosity, Lydia, may I have my towel?'

Lydia stood and advanced on her prey. 'The bible tells us nudity is a sin.'

'No, it tells us that Noah's sons were embarrassed to see their father lying naked in a drunken stupor, so covered him so no one else would see how ridiculous he looked. Don't you find it odd that god's chosen survivor should be a drunken sot? What's your real objection? You're not covering your eyes at the sight of my penis and testicles, or crossing yourself to guard against the devil, instead you're approaching to get a better look.'

Lydia, now only centimetres from him, gazed mournfully into his eyes; her own were leaking noticeably.

'Hey, Lydia. What's the problem? Come here…' Mort wrapped his arms round the distraught woman's shoulders and let her rest her head on his chest while sobbing as if her heart would break. After a minute she stopped and sniffed.

'Come on now,' Mort's voice was gentle. 'Tell me what's upsetting you.'

'When you speak I can feel your chest vibrate,' she said sadly to avoid answering. 'Your skin is so firm and silky. May I stroke you?'

'If you like.'

Lydia's hands ran softly up and down his back, then slid over his buttocks where they remained, gently caressing. 'I feel safe when you hold me like this... no, not safe... it's hard to explain... it feels right. I know that's ridiculous. I'm fifty-seven being hugged by a naked sixteen year-old, and it feels right... but I must stop.' She eased herself away and looked at her feet. Several deep breaths later, she swallowed and looked Mort in the eye. 'I know I'm a selfish woman. I'm not sympathetic to poor Stefan. I seem cold and unappreciative of all the work you do for us for very little reward. And if I think about it I hate myself. But I can't change. Yet just now... with your arms around me, I felt as if I'm not such a horrible person.'

'You're just being true to yourself, Lydia. Both Stefan and I accept that. Let's have a cup of cocoa and talk a little more.'

'Yes.' She swallowed and took a deep breath. 'I'd like that.'

'Good, I'll just go and put on some clothes.'

'You don't have to. I rather like looking at you like that.'

'Flattery will get you everywhere.'

Five minutes later they were sitting in the lounge room with the lights off. A soft glow spilling from the kitchen revealed Lydia in silhouette, hunched over her drink like a Grimm Brothers' witch. A shaft of light revealed Mortaumal, coiled like a wary faun in a large wicker armchair.

'You are the first living naked man I've seen since Stefan and I moved to separate rooms twenty-three years ago. I thought I was doing the right thing. I can't have children, you see — or he can't, we never got tested, thought it would be discourteous to God to question his decision to make us childless.'

'What makes you think it was your god's decision, and not just a genetic accident?'

'There are no accidents. God has ordained everything.'

'He must be busy. How do you know this?'

'It's in the bible.'

'I see.'

'And as it is a sin to indulge in sex when you aren't trying for a baby, I hoped I would become a better person — strong in faith, yielding not to temptation. Instead I grew cold and hard and began to hate Stefan. I've never told him this. And now I know I was stupid and made Stefan suffer. He never went to other women, just worked harder and kept trying to make me happy — an impossible task. And tonight I hugged and stroked a naked man. I feel terrible!'

'Would you like to make Stefan happy?'


'Then tell him it's not a sin for him to end his life, so he doesn't have to suffer any more.'

'Oh! Oh no! I couldn't! Suicide is a sin.'


'Because... because…'

'Because god gave us life so only he can take it away. He doesn't take it away himself though, does he? He gets servants like bacteria and viruses to spread illness, or soldiers to bomb and kill anyone he doesn't like. One of our drones killed seventy-five primary school children in Kurdistan last week; God must hate those kids.'

'They don't count... they're not Christians.'

'You don't know that! But it's certainly an honour that he lets our soldiers do his killing, don't you think?'

'I think you are twisting things.'

'Have you considered that perhaps he is now telling Stefan to do his work for him?'

Lydia stood. "No. No… that's not how it works, Mort. I couldn't. I'm sorry. You are a nice boy and I know you mean well, but I would be dooming both Stefan and me to an eternity of torment after death. Please put out the lights and check the doors and windows are locked.' She turned abruptly and hastened to her room.

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