by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 20

'Come on then, let's see this rag you want me to wear.'

The dress was a semi-sheath of black silk that reached just below the knees. Long tight sleeves were firmly attached at the shoulders to a chaste, loosely draped panel that covered his chest from neck to knee. Presumably there had not been enough material to cover the back, which was left exposed right down to the suggestion of a cleavage. Clusters of pearls like bunches of miniature grapes adorned the shoulders, trickled across the high neckline and around the edge of the gaping hole where the back ought to have been. A pair of low-heeled strappy sandals fitted his feet without too much pain, and it took only five minutes to firmly affix satisfactory breasts. Hale, whose talents extended to hairdressing, soon had Mort's hair piled up in a classic chignon fastened with a pearl comb he reckoned he'd picked up in Tajikistan. This accentuation of his newly acquired fiancé's elegant long neck, gave Calypso an air of graceful sophistication. A touch of lip-gloss and eye shadow completed the transformation.

'Well?' Hale asked after Mort had spent several silent minutes checking himself out in the full length mirror.

'I'd better borrow something to crush my manhood. Much as I like it hanging loose, it would probably be a bit of a giveaway.'

Hale produced an elasticised thong, which did the trick without having to massage his testicles into uncomfortable places.'

Mort continued to frown. 'I look like a woman!'

'Until you move. Don't forget to take small steps, keep your knees together when you sit, and don't wave your hands around, they're a bit too large for a woman.'

'So... I'm not really feminine?'

'Not in the slightest. In fact I'm having second thoughts. I don't think you'll be able to carry it off. We'd better forget it. Sorry to put you through this.' Hale began to unfasten Mort's sandals.

'No, no. I'll do it. Hell, if I can't act like a woman for a few hours then I'm not much of a performer! Any suggestions?'

Hale suppressed a shout of triumph. 'If people talk to you, act vague, pleasant and relaxed and don't ask questions or show intelligent interest. That's a sure giveaway. Chatter inanely about hairstyles, underwear and makeup, and be a tad jealous of other women's clothes, jewellery, life style. I'm sure you know how to handle females.'

'Lydia was a dab hand at mesmerising other women into a state of unthinking extravagance. I'll copy her.'

'Excellent. Now, hang it over the back of that old armchair so it'll be ready for tomorrow.

'Is your costume ready?'

'With a bit of luck all I'll be wearing is a little makeup.'

'You wear makeup?'

'I have to under lights, otherwise I look ill. Just a little brown eye shadow, eyeliner and mascara to make the eyes seem larger and me more innocent. Sometimes a highlight on cheeks, and lip liner...depends on how I'm feeling. And I darken my nipples, but lighten my cock and balls so they're the same colour as the rest of my skin.'

'I still don't believe you'll persuade those people to let you perform naked. Do you care if you can't?'

'Of course not, it's a game; a way to maintain my sanity in a civilization who's idea of morality is declaring a penis offensive, while applauding the bombing of innocent people in countries that don't do as they're told by big banks and multinational corporations.'

'I know what you mean, and I know there's nothing I can do about it except look after myself. The guys in power are determined to bring on Armageddon — or something, that's why their newspapers lie and, as Shaw said, the law is an ass. It is getting serious though, isn't it? Endless wars and refugees, and the climate changing and... and all that?'

Hale laughed. 'It is. But as you wisely said, neither you nor I can do anything about it, and those we elect to run things aren't interested so I'm not going to get an ulcer over it. I can perhaps make people think, but I can't make them rational. If they discover for themselves that nude isn't rude, it might chisel a chip off their blockheaded dogmatism. They might even realise they are mortal, that birth is lethal and we don't have long on this planet even if we live to be 100, so we might want to pursue what we love instead of only pursuing the next dollar.'

'You're not just a pretty face. By the way, have you decided what you're going to do tomorrow?'

'A fifteen minute routine. If they're vacillating, I'll give them a bit of a pep talk, and offer to do another few minutes in a pouch, then let them decide. I don't want to lose the booking over my unimpressive genitals.'

'Not unimpressive when in action. If they book you for fifteen shows, how much is that going to set them back?'

'Virtually nothing.'


'I'll get six thousand dollars, and they'll claim it as a work-related expenditure and tax break, because, as Midas explained, they're a religion and therefore a charitable organisation.'

'You should start a religion.'

'Unfortunately, I have ethics and a moral code that would prevent me from ripping off the poor people who actually pay the tax these bastards pocket. But enough philosophising, let's go and check the gear. Never leave anything until the last minute; that leads to shame and embarrassment if an essential element isn't there or working properly.

'I was going to ask about that. The jungle gym out there looks a bit weighty to lug around.'

'That's why I had an engineering firm build me a demountable frame of an exceptionally light, but immensely strong alloy.'

'Can't wait to see it.'

'It's in the van. Come on, I always test it the day before in case gremlins have got in since the last show.'

'When was that?'

'A week ago at a Private Boys' School in the hinterland.'


'Speedos. Nude would ruffle far too many feathers when the kids wrote home about it. Seventy-five boys ranging in age from eleven to seventeen, and their six teachers, sat wrapped in wonder at my antics. Afterwards I gave them a few lessons. They were very appreciative, especially when I told them I'd had such a great time they could spend my fee on more equipment.'

'You're amazing. I suppose most of the teachers were women? They were at all the schools I've been to.'

'Not even one. I asked how they got away with it and they simply crossed their fingers. They'd recently taken a poll of boys and their fathers, and ninety percent said if any women were on campus, they'd leave. They all imagined what it would be like if their mothers were there, and voted accordingly. They want me back next term.'

Hale removed a long, green canvass bag from the rear of the van and upended it onto the lawn. Out tumbled a bundle of thin shiny tubes. He stood and gazed at it for a few seconds, made up his mind, took one length, lifted it and shook it slightly while slowly pulling it vertical. As if by magic, powerful internal springs at every joint pulled the structure into shape and locked them in place. Two minutes after opening the green bag a cube of glittering metal rods stood firmly on the grass. Hale leaped up, grasped a top beam, flipped over and, having exerted no apparent effort, stood on one of the top bars on one leg while holding the other vertical against his belly, toes pointed, arms outstretched.

'How did you do that? You aren't even wobbling."

With a laugh, Hale fell forward, grasped the opposite horizontal beam and with arms held straight, swung round and round. There was about a centimetre clearance for his feet as they swung at great speed past the grass. Letting go, he somersaulted up and over till his hands landed on the opposite beam from which he hung by one hand, pulled one leg up with the other and hooked the foot over the bar, then did the same with the other foot. Meanwhile the first foot fell off. It was very funny. After three tries, both feet were hooked over the bar and he let go his hand. His feet failed to hold and he dropped to the ground, curling up into a tiny ball on impact. Mort held his breath, but a second later the ball opened and Hale shot straight up, hands seeming to fly past the high bar without touching it and then he was standing on it. He waved down at a wide mouthed Mort as a worried look crossed his face and his feet started to slide apart. He seemed to be trying to get them under control, but they kept sliding apart. He was going to either fall or split in two. Eventually, accompanied by Mort's suppressed laughter — ever mindful of the neighbours — he was sitting flat on top of the bar, legs spread sideways so the toes almost touched each corner, scrotum and penis just visible dangling attractively over the bar, hands up behind his head in an attitude of total relaxation.

'Toss me up the golden balls in the box behind the passenger seat, Mort.'

Mort raced to get them before Hale overbalanced, but he was sitting humming happily when he returned.

'Toss them up one at a time to my left hand each time I nod my head, okay?'

'Sure thing, boss.'

Hale nodded, Mort tossed one, which was immediately flipped nonchalantly into the air. Another nod. Another ball which joined the first. Soon five balls were making complicated manoeuvres above Hale's head while he gazed dreamily at the sky.

'Catch,' he called softly, sending them back one at a time to Mort, who dropped all except one. He glanced up to apologise, but Hale was looking very worried. Then with wildly flailing arms he toppled backwards in what seemed like slow motion, turned over in the air and with a cheeky grin, landed on his feet, then cart wheeled across to lie grinning on his side at Mort's feet like a devoted dog.

'I saw it, but I don't believe it! You can fly, you can contort, you can juggle... is there anything you can't do?'

'I have strong ankles and wrists that flick and help me along more or less invisibly, and the rest is practise and loose joints. Want a go? You have to grip tighter with the thin bars.'

'You bet.' Mort practised the exercises he'd learned, then attempted to stand on the top bar, wobbled precariously and only just prevented himself from falling. On the ground once more he was shaking.

'It's bloody high when you get up there! The frame looks so flimsy but it's steady as a rock.'

'There are tiny struts in the corners that keep it in shape, and a cube is very stable.'

'What other magical tricks does this very ordinary looking van contain?'

'Take a look.' Hale removed and inspected three LCD floods that could be turned on and off when he clapped. A hundred metres of electric cable. A sound system responsive to movement, a rope, his makeup box, a towel, drinking water, dried fruit, and a flesh-coloured pouch.'

'What's the rope for?' '

'I hang from, it. It's wound up in a special way that takes about an hour to do and ten seconds to undo. I'll show you one day.'

'Can't wait to see it. What music do you play?'

'Depends on the audience. Tomorrow it's Vivaldi's concerto for two mandolins. It's fast, harmonious, and rolls on and on relentlessly to wonderful climaxes, like an express train racing to all the places you dream of going to. Vivaldi was a priest, so that ought to please the followers of Tryadd the Emancipator.'

Having carefully replaced the metal cube in its bag and checked everything else, they locked the van and the garage and returned inside.

'I need a shower.' Hale tossed Mort a few brochures. 'Read these while I'm cleansing the body beautiful and you'll get an idea of what you'd be letting yourself in for if you join me.'

The promotional literature for "Hale Lightfoot's Astounding Acrobatics" triggered several giggles and a couple of resounding guffaws of delight.

Hale reappeared, fresh and sweet smelling.

'You've shaved your pubes — everything! You're smooth from the top of your head to the tips of your toes!'

'Like it?'

'Dunno. You look... different... almost robotic... almost too a shop window dummy. Why?'

'What did you like about the hair?'

'It's sexy.'

'Exactly. Hair is a clear marker of sexual maturity and draws attention to genitals. You've read the promotional guff, and as I told Midas I want my performances to be artistic, sensual, sexy but not sexual. Without hair, my body is a seamless costume with no distractions. I'm lucky to have tight smooth balls and a relatively small, thick penis that doesn't flop around. After ten seconds at the most, people forget I'm naked and concentrate on the whole body. Patches of hair interrupt the line of beauty, conceal vital muscle groups, and ruin the effect I want to achieve. Do you understand?'

'Yeah... I understand. So if you had a red sagging ball sack and a long floppy cock, you'd wear that flesh coloured pouch?'

'Absolutely! I want to impress people, not make them squirm.'

'And that problem with hair is why ballet boys wear tights, there's nothing to distract from the perfection of their bums and thighs. Actually, you still look impossibly sexy!'

'Thank you young man. Now, what was so funny in what you were reading?'

'This... Lightfoot Acrobatics present an evening of astounding, internationally acclaimed calisthenics. The word comes from Greek: kallos meaning beauty, and sthenos meaning strength. The astonishing beauty, strength, grace and agility of one of Australia's most perfectly formed men will be demonstrated through a program that includes juggling, acrobalance, acrodancing, bar and rope activities. I imagine this was written by your grandmother?'

'Modesty forces me to admit I wrote it myself. But she read it on her deathbed and thoroughly agreed. Carry on reading, but stop laughing! It isn't funny, it's deadly serious.'

'Yes, Sir! Your modesty overwhelms me, that's all.'


Mort cleared his throat. 'Hale performs in the flawless costume nature provides for us all... the naked body. In a series of sensual yet austere, almost ascetic sequences of magical movement, he provides an exquisitely artistic experience never to be forgotten. 'Exquisite? Magical? Never to be forgotten?'

'Have you no concept of artistic license? What a philistine you are!'

'Who's Phyllis Styne? An old girlfriend?'

'Idiot. I think you've read enough.'

'Oh no! This is the best part. If you'd like to book a performance but think god made an aesthetic error when designing the male body, then Hale is prepared to accommodate your idiosyncrasy for a small additional fee. Please Note: We present acts of physical excellence and moral decency, so if you are looking for a sleazy sex show or strip tease, do not waste our time enquiring. Ah! Such subtlety, Mr. Lightfoot. What type of people are convinced by your message to hire you?'

'Usually wealthy, middle-aged, ex-physical-culture aficionados who hanker after their youth, and also the younger set looking for an act to liven up their birthday party, marriage anniversary, hen party. Not stag nights though. Heterosexual males would feel threatened. Gay social clubs have employed me more than once. Unfortunately, the law requires a pouch in venues open to the public, so I waive the surcharge for shows in those places.'

'You make it sound so normal.'

'It is.'

'What about the quoted reviews; are they also artistic license? "A stupendous, unbelievable show…" Barcelona Periodico. "An act of such astonishing virtuosity is not to be missed…" Buenos Aires Correro. And all those other reviews from far flung places... Exquisite, graceful, elegant, there are not enough words to describe Mr. Lightfoot's performance; Acapulco Spiegel, Bellissimo. Il Stupendo! Urbino Osservatore...'

'No, they're real, from reviews when I was travelling with the Cirque de la Lune. But enough of me. Lets have a snack and listen to the Vivaldi while I wind down so I can mentally prepare; then to bed.'

Mort sprawled over the carpet listening to the Vivaldi Mandolin concerto while Hale did some stretching, bending, muscle toning and balancing exercises. Mort attempted to follow suit for at least ten seconds, then watched in awe as his friend did impossible things. As the music switched seamlessly from grand to playful, light and delicate to heavy and commanding, then back again, Hale's movements were a visual accompaniment that added to the music, which seemed to wrap his body in perfect sound.

Mort shook his head in disbelief, unashamedly wiping away tears of delight. 'That was awesome! I'll never be able to do anything like that.'

'Of course not. I've been doing this stuff since I was five, and had the best training possible. And I've naturally loose joints that allow the extreme deformations required for many of those exercises. Most people can never gain sufficient flexibility. All the strength in the world won't help you bend, twist and balance on a knife-edge. You'll be my partner in balancing acts. You're already capable of most of the stuff. The routine I was just practising is part of tomorrow's audition. What do you think?'

'I'm blown away! I'd never have believed it possible.'

After watching Hale rehearse four other equally impressive routines, scarcely working up a sweat in the process, they showered, brushed teeth then leaped into bed to cuddle and kiss and stroke and explore and produce almost simultaneous orgasms.

Lying on his lover's outstretched arm, Mort couldn't stop grinning. 'I'm lucky such a handsome, strong and clever man is also so hospitable.'

Hale turned his head and gazed at his guest in silence for what seemed like ten minutes but was exactly twenty seconds — he was counting his heartbeats. 'And I can't believe I'm lying beside the best looking, most intelligent and sexiest sixteen year-old in the state.'

'I don't believe you, but thanks. Actually, it probably isn't either strange or lucky.'

'How do you make that out?'

'Remember I told you about Leo, the aerobics instructor I met by accident?'


'Well, he explained that we instantly recognise people like ourselves. He said that when I laughed at his joke about strawberry jam, he knew I was alive. And I looked fit and worth saving.'


'Yeah. And he was handsome and strong and also looked alive. As if he dared to live and do and think and laugh when everyone else was weeping and wailing. So I also just knew that Grandpa would like him too.'

'Mmm... So that's why I decided to turn around and pick you up when I'd already passed a dozen young men on the make that I'd rejected?'

'Yeah. And then I instantly recognised that you were also alive, so got in the van, came home with you, and trusted you with my dangerous secret.'

Hale nodded thoughtfully. Mutual recognition. Like seeks like. We can recognise intuitively people who are like us in important ways.'

'Yeah. If I think about it, the dozen or so people I've liked and trusted were instant attractions. I didn't even question it. I just knew that each was someone I could trust.'

'But there aren't many people like that. In fact you're the first person I've felt an instant connection with for about six years.'

Mort snuggled up, took Hale's hand, kissed all the fingers, then deliberately keeping his expression vague as if not really interested, asked, 'Does this mean we're... you know... partners? Will I be called your significant other?'

Hale frowned. 'Leading with your chin aren't you?' The voice was cool. 'It's not yet twenty-four hours since we met, and you actually know nothing about me.'

Mort sat up in surprise. 'Oops, sorry Hale. I thought you'd guess I didn't mean it. I was just being silly. Sorry. I always leap in where angels only jump or something. Forget it, please!'

'No. It's important and I'm glad you brought it up, even in jest. You said earlier that you're thinking of looking for your father?'

'Yeah. Nothing urgent. Just curiosity. I've no intention of dumping myself on him or anything like that. Just…'

'I understand. How old is he now?'

'The same age as Perdita — the woman who carried me in her womb for nine months then dumped me. Thirty-one.'

'I'm thirty-two.'


'Perhaps I go for older men?'

'But not to live with forever. When you're my age and in your prime, I'll be forty-eight and approaching the end of physical attractiveness. And when you're forty-eight and still sexy, I'll be sixty.'

'I wouldn't mind.'

'But I would! I want a life partner who's my own age so we can get wrinkles and sagging flesh together; be bored with parties and dancing and watch TV together.'

'Does that mean you don't want me to stay too long?'

'No! It means I want you to stay and be my non-committed, not jealous, not bossy, easy-going friend who's also my lover, until I meet a man my own age who wants to settle down with me. By then you'll have found yourself someone and we'll be a couple of sexy couples who are best friends... or something like that.'

Mort grinned in relief. 'That sounds exactly what I'm after. You're so nice to me I was worried you had hopes of us becoming... you know, a fixture. I'm too young and silly and ignorant to commit myself to anything for long. But I'm still curious about you. Is it too late to tell me about yourself?'

'It's not as interesting as your life. My parents were conventional middle class people who never went to the theatre, just sat and watched TV then went to bed early, even though they were only in their forties. To their credit, they've never stopped loving and supporting me in everything I've ever done. And I love them still. Mother is the template for excellence in parenting a boy. After caring for me until I was nearly five and could walk, talk and think, she said she'd done her bit, and as she had no idea what made males tick, Dad could take over. From then on he was the one I went to if I needed advice or assistance. If all women were so sensible, their sons would grow up liking women, and most of the aggro all men seem to have against them would disappear.'

'That sounds so reasonable it must be true.'

Hale grunted an appreciative laugh. 'By the age of five I was crazy about gymnastics, and spent all my spare time when other kids were kicking a soccer ball around, learning to do cartwheels, stand and walk on my hands, walk on stilts, climb ropes and do flips. Dad made me a bar and trapeze, and I joined a gymnastics club for a while. When I was fourteen we had our roof repaired by a fellow called Roman. He was about my height, stocky and strong, and worked in short shorts and heavy work boots. I wanked myself silly the first night thinking about him.

'The following day when my parents were doing Saturday shopping I performed on the bar and trapeze, knowing he'd be watching. He came down, said I had a good body and offered to show me a few tricks. When he stood behind me and lifted me up to the top bar, I twisted my head and kissed him on the lips. He just laughed and gave me some useful balance tips as if nothing unusual had happened. He'd been a circus clown specialising in acrobatics and trapeze work. He reckoned clowns were often better than serious acrobats because they had to look as if they couldn't do it, and that made it dangerous.

'After quitting the circus he became a roofer because it kept him fit, supple and feeling alive. I liked and trusted him instinctively, similar to you with Leo. He had a large block of land surrounded by a two-metre-high iron fence with trees everywhere except for a small flat lawn and a good sized vegetable garden. He reckoned the land was more valuable empty than with the sort of house he could afford to build, so he lived in a tiny caravan, next to which was a frame and trapeze similar to what I've got on the lawn. I used to go there after school and train. Dad came round once and said he hoped I hadn't pushed Roman into letting me use his gear. Roman said it was his idea, so they shook hands and Dad left. I thought he was handsome, but Mother thought he looked a bit too much like a gypsy to be trustworthy. But that didn't stop her from encouraging me to continue going when I wondered if I was good enough.

'When I'd learned a few things I asked Dad to come and see my progress. Roman provided a chair and Dad sat and smiled, pleased to have been invited. After my demonstration, Roman and I did a few routines together. I'd chosen two that involved some sexy body contact because I wanted Dad to know I was queer, but didn't want to tell him because that would mean I thought it was a big deal. He had to ask me if I was, so I could just say nonchalantly, yeah, I'm queer, as if he'd asked me if I liked ice cream, and then he'd know it was no problem for me.

'Dad clapped like a madman. Kept saying we were both very clever and told me not to tell my mother we practised naked because she would tell every woman she knew and then Roman would get into trouble, so we ought to always lock the gate to the garden. He thought it was wonderfully liberating. It was Saturday and Roman wanted to go to the movies, so I asked Dad if I could go with him and then stay the night so we could get an early start on Sunday. He didn't reply. Roman called out that tea was ready so we went into the caravan. Dad remarked on how small and neat it was and looked pointedly at the bed across the end of the caravan. He frowned as if thinking, then his face cleared and he asked cheerfully, "How long have you two been lovers?" "Since the first day," I replied with a shrug as if it was totally normal — which it was for loads of other boys my age who were screwing girls. One of my classmates was fucking a woman of twenty-three. Dad nodded sagely. "So that bed's seen plenty of action?" "Plenty," Roman replied nonchalantly. "Your son's a sexy guy." Dad nodded and said he'd read that many boys have their first sexual experience with an older woman, adding with a grin that it had also been his experience, so he supposed he shouldn't expect me to be any different. Then he asked if I was happy. I said I was — very happy. He relaxed, smiled, stood, and said, "This is one more thing not to tell your mother yet." Then he laughed and said, "That means there'll be no grandchildren. Hale, my son, you've made me a very happy man." He shook hands with both of us and whistled cheerfully all the way to the gate.

'Roman and I were acrobatic lovers for a year until he took me to see Cirque de la Lune. I was blown away. We went to all their shows. He took me back-stage after the third show and I asked if they were taking on acrobats. They looked sceptical, but Roman told them his background and what I could do, so they gave me an audition, thought I'd be useful, and when they moved on I went with them. For the next twelve years the circus was my home. Travelling is not as romantic as it sounds. And now is not the time to tell you anything about it. My life since I returned is what you see here. I bought this house and started up Lightfoot's Acrobatics, failed to find satisfaction in the company of rent boys, then today I found you and suddenly I want to go on living. Voila!'

Mort shook his head in disbelief. 'I guessed you'd had a charmed life. Thanks for telling me. It makes you a... a realer person.'

'Is there such a word as realer?'

'There is now.'

They kissed, rolled over, and slept.

It was exactly four o'clock when a pair of giant stone pillars topped with large marble balls announced the longish drive between trees that concealed the Geld residence from prying eyes. After a hundred metres Hale took a left fork, which eventually encircled an oversized fountain from which a dozen jets of water shot up and splashed down into a massive stone bowl the size of a swimming pool. He parked the van at the foot of an impressive flight of stone steps guarded by a pair of heraldic lions and flanked by classical concrete balustrades painted to look like white marble. This grandiose stairway led up to a Roman arch of white-painted bricks, fully three metres high and wide, that gave access to a loggia running along the entire front of the building, fronted with the same balustrade as that flanking the steps.

The body of the house was simply the usual abode of the nouveau riche, a two-storied brick cube as large as a country hospital with the usual rectangular aluminium sliding windows and doors. This uninspiring edifice was topped by a conventional tiled roof.

The heavy, nail-studded, wooden front door of the mansion was flanked by delicate stained glass windows. From the loggia, one could look beyond the fountain and its encircling cobblestones to a lawn dotted with flowering shrubs. About fifty metres beyond that was an impressive forest of tall trees.

Hale pressed the button marked 'press'. Chimes played the first verse of Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring five times before the doors were was opened by a tall, pale youth in knee-length grey baggy shorts and matching cotton T-shirt.

Avoiding their eyes he looked beyond them to the van. 'I'm terribly sorry, but you can't park there, guests have to go round the back.'

'We're the performers — at least I am,' Hale explained with a smile of such radiance that the lad flinched. 'I need the van here to set up the equipment, then I'll move it. I've come to see Mr. Geld.'

'Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't realise. He's my father.' He began to turn, noticed Mortaumal, stopped, opened his mouth and stared.

Mortaumal, who had taken an instant liking to the young man, smiled sweetly, fluttered his eyelashes and held out his hand. 'Hi, I'm Calypso. What's your name?'

Blushing furiously the young fellow took the hand and waggled it, 'I'm Massimo.' Then in a burst of courage blurted, 'You're gorgeous!'

'And you're a sweetie,' Calypso murmured, stroking his cheek. 'How old are you?'

'Seventeen.' The lad could scarcely breathe.

'Mmm. Sweet seventeen. What a shame we've no time to chat. I suppose we'd better find your father.'

With a jolt Massimo woke from his daze enough to stutter, 'They're all in the drawing room, I'll take you.' But he didn't move.

Hale was having difficulty suppressing his laughter. 'Shall we go then?'

Massimo literally shook himself, dragged his eyes away from Calypso and led them through a cavernous entrance hall, past a grand staircase leading up to the first floor, then along a wide corridor. He stopped outside a panelled door.

"I'll get Dad.'

While waiting, Hale repeated his instructions. 'I'll get permission to set up the gear, then leave you to spread the message and charm everyone until I rescue you in about twenty minutes. okay?'

'I'll never get away with it.'

'You've already made one grovelling slave. The only other person you have to charm is the mistress of the house, Mrs. Geld. She's the boss, apparently — at least the thorn in our side, so once she's on side we're home and hosed.'

'What'll I talk about?'

'Nothing, let her talk. Agree that the woman's place is to obey unquestioningly her husband, as long as he does what she wants, that all men are too silly to live without being shoved along by their wives, that she is intelligent, beautiful, wise and femininity incarnate... the usual things. There's no need to be convincing. It's impossible to overreach yourself when flattering a woman, and then...' he shrugged and grinned. 'I've run out of ideas. Ah… I think someone's coming.'

The drawing-room door opened to reveal a large bosom decorated with green shot silk and strings of emeralds. Three gold teeth flashed for a nanosecond before disappearing behind glossy red lips.

'Are you the entertainment?' she boomed in the same tone she would use to ask if they were the septic tank cleaners.

They nodded.

'I'm Caterina Geld,' she announced proudly. 'But everyone calls me Catty. You may too.'

'Thank you, Catty,' Hale gushed as if overwhelmed by such beneficence.

Catty accepted the homage with a curt nod and gazed along her nose at Mort. 'And who is this?'

'I'm Calypso, Mrs. Geld,' Mort almost whispered, dropping his version of a curtsey.

Clearly charmed by such an act of respect, Catty offered a fat little hand, bared her teeth briefly and said, 'Call me Catty, Calypso. What a delightful name.' Turning to Hale. 'Why is she here? I wasn't told you would be bringing a guest, Mr. Lightfoot!'

'Calypso is my fiancé, and please call me Hale. I apologise for not phoning to inform you. It was very remiss of me.'

The gold teeth flashed again. 'No matter. No matter. Come in and meet everyone.'

The drawing room was large enough to lose a regiment of soldiers. A dozen or so adults standing around looked suitably lost, and relieved to be joined, even if it was only by the entertainment. An equal number of children ranging in age from early to late teens, lounged over well stuffed armchairs or lay on the floor, earphones and thin black wire protruding from heads that looked, in the dim light, like time bombs wired ready to be detonated.

The women were wearing smart little frocks that probably cost an average weekly wage, exposing more flesh than fabric. All were superbly made up, several surgically lifted up, and the glitter of jewellery competed with the light of a twenty-armed crystal chandelier. All the males were wearing dark suits, white shirts, dull ties and shiny black shoes and socks. No adult was sitting. All were clutching sparkling tumblers of liquid as if for support. The music was something vaguely recognisable that didn't intrude or make you ask what it was.

'Hale, thank you for coming.' The mellifluous voice was instantly recognisable. 'You're looking very smart.'

In a dark suit whose elegance put those of the other men to shame, Hale took the powerful paw in his and shook it manfully. 'As are you, Midas, thank you for inviting me.'

'My pleasure. I want to offer all the assistance you need — we're all curious to see if the show lives up to the brochures.'

Hale smiled. 'May I introduce my fiancé, Calypso de la Mare.'

Midas Geld smiled, turned so his wife couldn't see him wink, then assuming a serious face, draped an arm over Hale's shoulders and drew him aside, waving to the other men to join him.

Imagining Midas was worried his wife would be jealous if he paid Calypso any attention, Mort gazed around and smiled nervously at his hostess and the seven silent females who were staring at him vacuously, as if not sure how to treat this uninvited intruder. 'What a beautiful house,' he blurted without thinking. 'And those emeralds suit you to perfection, Catty.'

Mrs. Geld simpered. It was an unnerving sight, but Mort bravely maintained his enthusiastic smile.

The hostess turned to her other guests. 'Girls, I want you to meet Calypso de la Mare, the fiancé of the entertainment. She…'

'Catty!' her husband interrupted loudly, 'Hale's going to set up his gear, so the men and boys are going give what assistance we can.' He turned to Mort with the slightest of smiles. 'I'll leave you to the tender care of my wife, Calypso.' Then spinning on his heel he led the way out followed by Hale, seven men and six boys.

Catty's voice was as strained as her smile. 'Well, that's a relief. I'm sure Midas will ensure everything goes according to plan. It's always tiresome to have the men hanging around, don't you think, Calypso?'

'Oh, definitely. They have so little understanding of a woman's needs.'

This released a few tense muscles, allowing the seven underfed, over-painted, underdressed and expensively decorated women with thin lips and wary eyes to offer tentative smiles while waiting for Caterina Geld to show them how to treat this odd young woman. The five teenage girls who'd been left behind when the boys joined their fathers, drifted across to droop beside their mothers. All eyed Mort with wary interest.

'Well,' Mrs Geld said portentously, 'Why are we standing? Sit!'

Everyone jumped to obey, arranging themselves on three plump sofas arranged in a semi-circle, leaving Mort to perch with his knees clamped tightly together on the edge of a shiny leather recliner, terrified he would slip back and expose his thong with its unfeminine bulge. A vision of Lydia floated before his eyes. What would she do?

Wide eyes registering awe, Mort leaned across and gently took Catty's pudgy little white hand in his own strong, smooth brown one. 'What a beautiful ring!' He sounded genuinely impressed because he was. 'It must be an heirloom and incredibly valuable.'

Mrs. Geld's already voluminous bosom appeared to swell at least a decimetre. 'Yes, dear, it belonged to my great grandmother. How clever of you to realise its value. It came from Shri Lanka — Ceylon that was. My family was in the precious stone business.' She turned to another woman. 'Elizabeth, show Calypso your Alexandrite brooch.'

Elizabeth obliged, and demonstrated the change of colour in different lights. 'It is extremely rare, as none have been found for well over a century. There are lots of artificial Alexandrites that are very good, but natural one's like mine are better.'

'Oh, it is so lovely,' Mort sighed. 'And it looks so right on that lovely dress.'

Elizabeth simpered and managed a grateful smile.

'But you also have a beautiful ring, Calypso,' Catty gushed, taking Mort's hand and examining the ring Elbert had given him. It was the first time Mort had worn it since Elbert's death. He couldn't bear to put it on when Perdita was alive, and until today there had been nothing he felt like celebrating. But since meeting Hale he'd felt reborn and somehow worthy of the ring.'

The women gathered around to look, clearly hoping he'd take it off, but that he was not going to do... it was too precious. One by one they held his hand, fondling it and the ring, asking questions. 'It's huge, too big for a woman really, but magnificent.'

'Is it real gold?'

'Twenty-four carat.'

Respectful silence.

'What's the red stone?'

'A sapphire.'

'I thought they were blue.'

'Most are, this is very, very rare.'

Jealous silence

'There's something carved into it!'

'Yes, a winged man.'

'Is it an heirloom?'

'Yes, it's very old, from Ethiopia. My father left it to me.'

'Is he a bla.... An Ethiopian?'

'Part. He died two years ago.'

Murmurs of condolence. Then...

'Your dress is quite daring, Calypso,' Mrs. Geld stated with a slight sniff. Whether from a cold or disapproval wasn't clear.

Mort blushed. 'Oh dear, is it too much? I had it made by a little couturier in the City. Armando said it was very a la mode.' Mort hesitated and managed to look pathetic enough to generate grudgingly positive comments and a demand that he model it for them.

Remembering to take small steps and keep his hands as small as possible, Mort made a circuit of the carpet in front of the seated ladies and girls who all wanted to feel the fabric, then touch the pearls, and declare they would never dare expose so much bare back, and it would look too much on most people, but Calypso could get away with it, whatever that meant.


The girls, who had until then sat in mute silence, perked up when the eldest, a squat red-head asked abruptly, 'De la Mare... any relation to the poet?'

'A distant relative, I believe.'

'You look too young to get married. Mum says I can't get married until I'm twenty.'

'I'm twenty-six. I've always looked young for my age.'

'Are you living with your Mother?'

Mort froze, then tossed that unwelcome memory out and invented a new one. 'Mother took over Daddy's business, importing fine silks and objects d'art. She's French, and in Europe at the moment visiting relatives. I'm meant to be staying with an aunt on the Gold Coast, but as Hale and I are engaged she lets me stay with him. My mother still treats me as an infant, but I'm not, I'm rather a serious person — like you, I fancy.'

The redhead perked up at that. Her seriousness had never been admired before, so her next question was couched more politely. 'If it isn't too rude to ask, what do you do? I'll be leaving school soon and I've no idea what to do. It's really rather frightening.'

'Oh, I do understand. I feel for you. Until recently I was a legal secretary in an environmental legal office up north, but resigned to come back here and get married.' Mort smiled shyly and looked at his feet, hoping he hadn't been waving his hands around. How long was Hale going to be? He was already desperate.

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