Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 1

Robert crested the rise, hurled himself onto the grass beneath the monument and lay gasping up at the encircling palms. After a minute he stood, stretched, dragged off his T-shirt and scrambled onto the narrow base of the sandstone column.

To the left, trunks of old eucalypts cut jagged lines across house and tree-sprinkled hills. Ahead, Brisbane's tower blocks shimmered under their dome of reddish air. As he shuffled around the column, fragments of river wound into the sun's glare, reflecting myriads of tiny diamonds – a lesson in subtlety for the mirror-glass office tower thrusting its bulk between a muddle of buildings. A silvery train slid through the suburban jumble, and behind apartment blocks, houses and trees, reared the steeply tiled roofs of his new school.

People were out there somewhere, tens of thousands of them, but none were aware of his existence. No one knew anything about him. The thought triggered a subtle, almost guilty flush of pleasure.

Arranged over a towel on the grass, a woman tried to read while her child ran amok. The young man sprinting up the hill had not escaped her attention and she watched him sidle into view. Longish black hair, determined jaw, large hooked nose and lips that suggested a smile. Sunlight accented the sweaty muscles of chest and abdomen. Runner's legs burst from pale-green shorts. She casually unbuttoned her blouse as her kid scurried up clutching a leaf. 'Mummy, look what I've found!'

Adonis glanced down.

The mother threw a friendly wave and sagged back on to her elbows – an enormous trout-fly cast upon the stream. Her reward was a tersely nodded frown.

'The fat bitch is flashing her tits... Jeeze! What a turn off!' Robert shuffled back round the column, jumped down, spread himself onto his shirt and let the warm winter sun set his mind adrift.

'You're crazy to change schools!' he'd been told by almost everyone. 'It's too big a risk to take in your final year. Think of your O P Score. You're mad!' Mad, he wasn't. There were so many no-hopers at his old school that his marks would almost certainly have been downgraded, whereas the new school had several Very High Achievers, so final scores were unlikely to be adjusted. He had always shrugged resignedly and sighed, 'I have to do what my old man says.' This would have intrigued his parents who believed humans learn best when free to make mistakes.

Memories of what he had escaped provoked a satisfied smile. There had been no spot as peaceful and beautiful as this near their last house, and at school he had suffered over-crowded classes and the all-mates-together crap of the rugby team. They'd come third in the secondary schools' competition, but never again would he become entangled in such a world. He loved sport, but team-spirit conformity made him nervous.

He tried to figure out why he felt so relieved - as though he had escaped something evil. Like when he was a kid running back to the house from the gate at night, fear clawing at the base of his spine. If he could just get back inside and slam the kitchen door before "it" grabbed him, he'd be safe. He had always managed, but it was by no means a certainty. Even his present relief was tempered by a flickering premonition, a menace fluttering at the edge of consciousness.

There was nothing he could put his finger on and say 'that's what I'm running away from,' and no single problem had been either over burdensome or even insoluble. If pushed to explain his sense of suffocation he would have been lost for words. What he felt there were no words for. How do you define anxiety? How do you explain the fear that your very existence depends on an impossible-to-learn trick? Trapped between dread of disapproval and an inability to willingly conform, he had been developing into a person he neither liked nor admired.

Jocelyn had been a major source of embarrassment with tears and protestations of eternal fidelity; offering her virginity like a sacrifice on the altar of love. Friendship was all he'd ever wanted - she was easy and intelligent to talk with.

A hot blush welled at the memory. Her bedroom, curtains drawn, fumbling with buttons and zips, undressing, and an odd smell. Her excitement - his choking urge to escape only prevented by a reluctance to hurt. Her confusion and anxiety - his excuses… Ignominy! She begged for his new address - he falsely promised to send it. A miserable mess, like the sufferings of the poor bastard in a Sci-fi novel he was reading. The bloke's mind had accidentally been transferred to someone else's body. There was no way he wanted to end up like that, choking on alien feelings, thoughts and desires. Unlike the book's victim, Robert hoped that with the change of schools he could take control of his life. The reset button had been pressed and this time he would be the real Robert - whoever that might be!

Something poked at his thigh. He opened his eyes. The noisy kid peered down, eyes squinting under a frown of curiosity.

'Are you dead?' the child inquired as though death were a mild cold.

'No, my skin's making vitamin D.'

This was considered for a moment. 'Is it good for you?'

'In small doses. Keeps you healthy.'

'I'll do it too,' the young intruder declared with the solemnity of a banker deciding to invest a million dollars. He lay down, casually resting his head on the young man's outstretched arm.

A fiercely swung shoulder bag torpedoed Robert from his daydreams. Instantly defensive he leaped to his feet, urged on by a demon howl.

'Filthy child-molester! Paedophile!' The woman yelled, grabbing at her son.

At first Robert thought the silly cow had lost her marbles, then realisation dawned. 'Hang on, I'm not a...'

'Pervert!' she spat. 'And in broad daylight! In a public park!' Fury became hysteria. 'How dare you? How dare you?' Clutching the child roughly by his upper arm, she stumbled back and thrust her belongings into the holdall. In a desperate effort to explain, Robert grabbed his shirt and followed her. 'I wasn't doing anything like that… you're making a mistake… your kid...'

'People like you should be locked away for life!' Her revulsion was a physical force repelling him. Grabbing shoes and bag in one hand and dragging the frantic child with the other, she faced Robert squarely, lip curled in loathing. Spittle spattered lips and bare breasts, paradoxically rendered her more impressive than ridiculous. The child's eyes were wide with confusion and fear. His mother had saved him from something evil! He had been in great danger! The fury and hatred of the mother permeated the son and he let loose with a scream of terror.

'The police will hear about this, you queer, black bastard!' Turning on her heel she stalked away, head high, hips swinging with the timeless grandeur of protective mothers everywhere.

Only just able to control an urge to vomit, joy and warmth gone, love of life replaced by an icy dread gnawing at his guts, Robert fled.

Monique perched at the breakfast-bar, savouring the joy of a dream realised. Winter sunlight flooding through French doors open to patio and garden, imbued even the old furniture with mellow life. A slow smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. 'Contentment.' She whispered the word softly, relishing both sound and idea. The wait had given life purpose. For nineteen years, since her marriage to Sanjay and immigration to Australia, Monique had worked hard. First in a factory, all she could hope for with indifferent English, then in more demanding jobs until their son arrived and she had taken over the bookkeeping of their small importing company.

Compared to most of her acquaintances she had a happy life. Two trips back to France over the years had reinforced the rightness of her choice. After a week of provincial Catholicism and traditional village ways, the claustrophobia that had driven her away in the first place was rekindled, and she longed for home. Glancing at her watch, she put on the coffee and set out two cups. Robert was due back from his run.

Robert. The mere thought of him set her aglow. She was glad they had only one child. Over-population, global warming and all the other portents of imminent doom sometimes gave both parents twinges of guilt at having bred at all. Were they to marry now she would not consider bearing a child. She smiled, well aware that most of her acquaintances laughed at such premonitions of disaster. The slamming front door was her signal to pour the coffee. She wished he wouldn't do that, one day the glass would break.

Having imagined accusing stares and scowls of condemnation on the faces of everyone he passed, Robert greeted his mother with unaccustomed warmth. As she wiped again the already spotless sink-top and equally clean work area, he debated whether to off load his recent experience. He was still deciding when she stood behind him.

A stranger would have no difficulty divining the relationship; their noses had been cut from the same pattern - large and slightly hooked - accentuating Robert's masculinity and saving her from prettiness as a girl. Monique was now what is usually described as handsome. Her voice had the deep, sexy quality of many of her countrywomen, a characteristic sadly lacking in the locals according to her husband, and her mouth had the same friendly turn-up at the corners as her son; suggesting a smile even when none was intended. Monique, however, was slight and small-boned; Robert was solidly put together and honey-dark like his father. The mother ruffled her son's hair affectionately and pulled his head back against her breast. 'I am detecting a certain anxiety, mon petit?'

Robert shook himself free. Why she couldn't stop treating him like a five-year-old was beyond him. As usual he hadn't managed to conceal his feelings. That would have to change too. He was sick of being an open book. The urge to smash everything and stomp off to his bedroom was strong. It wouldn't be the first time, but he'd promised himself he'd never do it in this new house. He'd imagined he'd be leaving behind all the bits of his character he disliked, so it had been an unpleasant shock to realise he carried his old self along with him wherever he went. He ground his teeth, counted to ten and accepted that he'd like to offload the horror of the morning into a sympathetic ear.

The reaction was gratifying. Monique listened attentively, nodding and shaking her head at all the appropriate spots in support and agreement. 'Mais, c'est affreux,' she whispered at the completion of his tale of misunderstanding and abuse. 'The woman must be mad to think such a thing about such an honest and clean-living young man. No one in their right mind could think you were anything but good. And even if they did,' she continued with motherly inconsistency, 'not to give you a chance to explain; that is unforgivable! It is the fault of scare-mongering journalists; exaggerating, embroidering – suggesting child molestation is endemic in the entire male population; not satisfied until they have ruined someone's life!' She stopped, gave a self-conscious smile, refilled her son's cup and offered more sticky chocolate cake - her specialty, his partiality.

Robert hadn't thought it necessary to recount the sick feeling in his belly, the almost irresistible urge to vomit, or the unpleasant tingling at the base of his spine. Nor had he mentioned the naked breasts. He'd never felt so vulnerable. He'd done wrong in the past - many times. He'd been caught out, even wrongly accused of things, but there had always been an opportunity to explain. Never before had he faced hysterical, irrational fear mixed with loathing.

Despite his mother's support he continued to feel sick, impotent and unsettled. If someone could behave like that without evidence, without thinking things through, without getting the facts straight - as though she was working not with her brain but by reflex - then perhaps there were others who were the same! What if there had been a policeman nearby? He could have reacted the same way! Maybe she had already called the cops and given them his description! He'd never dare go up the hill again. He tried to convince himself he was being ridiculous, but gnawing apprehension remained.

The time he'd been caught in the rip off Caloundra had been the greatest fear he'd ever known. But a chat with a lifeguard that morning had planted the solution in his brain. 'Don't fight the rip! If you fight it, you'll drown. Let yourself go, even a long way out if that's where the water's going, then swim along parallel to the beach until the waves are breaking closer to shore, that's where there's no under-tow. Remember, the sea always tosses rubbish up on to the beach eventually.' The bloke had even drawn a diagram in the sand showing how under-currents were created. It was logical and comprehensible. Rational! The woman's behaviour wasn't, and Robert found he couldn't cope. Far earlier than was good for him, he had discovered the only thing humans have real cause to fear - other humans.

Monique empathised with her son's distress. She too had experienced irrational fear and loathing from strangers. During the first years of marriage she had suffered from her mother-in-law's jealousy, and rejection from those who considered her strongly accented speech and foreign ways to be fair game for their frustrations. Speech lessons and a determined effort to conceal her differences finally made life enjoyable, but that only lasted until the Mururoa bomb-tests. Even now, though all that unpleasantness was in the past, there remained an ever present, nagging fear that such irrational and violent prejudice could erupt again at any time.

Sometimes she longed for the relaxation of being with her compatriots, even for a few hours. But of course they would have changed and she would feel as foreign in France now as she still felt in Australia. Poor Robert, she thought, he is learning that the world is not always a pleasant place. 'I know it seems impossible at the moment, chérie, but try to put it out of your mind. The woman has probably had time to reflect and realises she over-reacted. The world is full of people loaded down with problems, who desire nothing more than to spread their burden.' She knew from experience that one didn't forget these things, but the wounds heal. Robert granted her a disbelieving smile and went to shower off the experience along with his sweat.

His father's response to the tale of woe during lunch was not quite as sympathetic. No grunts of empathy, no understanding nods and shakes of the head, merely a furrowing of brow and smile of incredulity - not at the actions of the woman, but at the reaction of his son. Sanjay finished his mouthful, placed his knife and fork on the plate, wiped his mouth carefully with a serviette and regarded his son with a perplexed frown. 'I have obviously missed something,' he said calmly, 'because I can't understand your problem. As I see it, you were foolish and a woman told you off. Hysterically, irrationally perhaps, loudly and publicly even, but surely that's the end of the matter? You have often enough been given a piece of someone's mind; I can recall ripping shit out of you myself on the odd occasion. What's really bothering you?'

'But, Dad! Can't you see? I did nothing wrong, but she wouldn't listen! I tried to tell her I wasn't any of the things she said I was, that it was all a misunderstanding, but she went on like crazy, shouting, dragging the kid like a puppet. Demented!'

'I wonder,' said Sanjay quietly, 'what conclusions you would jump to if you arrived home to find your mother and a strange man lying on the back lawn in the sun, her head resting on his arm.'

Robert's jaw gaped foolishly. 'Jeeze I feel stupid. I didn't think of that.'

Monique looked from husband to son, aware of the inaccuracy of the analogy. Robert had not gone to the boy's home; the boy, whose mother should have been guarding him, had gone to Robert. Still, it served to lift his air of martyrdom. He could usually be relied on to see other points of view. It wasn't always a virtue of course and could lead to indecision, but better than dogmatic assertiveness. No doubt he would soon see the flaw in the argument, but for now she was content to follow her husband.

Sanjay Karim was a self-proclaimed freethinker. He wanted his son to know about, and be able to use, all the tools available to survive alone against the world - should that ever be necessary. Disturbed by increasingly frequent calls for homogeneity, censorship and persecution of minorities, he found it disturbingly easy to envisage an Australian future where survival was no longer considered a right, but a privilege.

'I wish I had a dollar for every time I hadn't thought clearly and felt stupid afterwards, I'd be a hell of a lot richer than I am now,' he laughed, taking the sting out of Robert's embarrassment. 'What intrigues me, though, is why you let the boy lie beside you in the first place? It's hardly typical of young men your age. What do you think someone from your football team would have done if a child had pushed their toe into them and asked if they were dead?'

'They'd have given the kid a shove and said, "Piss off, fuckwit", and then if the mother had looked anything better than a slag they'd have gone over to try and chat her up.' He looked forlorn. 'I'm not much good at being like everyone else.'

'Thank goodness for that!' soothed Monique. 'We love you exactly as you are. I'd hate it if you were like those monstrosities on your football team. I could hardly bear to go and watch your games. And as for their parents!' She permitted herself a melodramatic shudder, then smiled at her husband. 'I can't tell you how relieved and happy I am to be out of that dreadful place. So far, today's events excepted, this suburb and this house are my idea of perfection.'

Sanjay grinned, blew her a kiss, and returned to the matter in hand. 'Like your mother, the last thing I want is for you to feel obliged to be the same as other people. I sometimes suspect, though, that if they felt free of censure, most of the conformists we enjoy rubbishing would be just as different from each other as we are from them. A genetic compulsion to fit in with the pack forces them to sacrifice individuality for acceptance. I imagine this is reinforced at home. You, poor boy, have a pair of misfits for parents.' His smile was smug. 'Because of our backgrounds and way of looking at things, we want you to be what you want. But, and it's a very big but, you have to use camouflage if you expect to survive unscathed.'

'I've been doing that, Dad, but I didn't like what it got me into. I ended up being what everyone else thought I should be. I'm glad I'm not going back to the old school. I want to start afresh.' He blushed and looked away.

'Don't feel embarrassed about wanting to change yourself. Most people would like to. Few have the opportunity, and even fewer are able to. There's a play by J.M.Barrie, Dear Brutus, in which the characters get a second chance at their lives. Of course they all stuff it up and make the same mistakes again. It's both funny and sad. But that's life, I suppose; funny and sad.'

They sat, wrapped in a comfortable silence.

'I understand what you are saying,' Robert said finally, 'but it's hard to strike the balance.'

'The secret is to figure out what you value, and on those things never compromise. In all other respects be as much like other people as you're able. Everyone can accept some differences in others, in fact most people like a bit of eccentricity. It's when these differences dominate; when they are shoved at them like accusations that they become frightened and abusive. You may be sick of playing team sports, but keep it to yourself. The worst thing you could do is rave about how they destroy individuality. If you practice selective disguise and a live and let live attitude, you'll probably make more friends than if you become a clone of the mob.' The telephone interrupted this deeply felt but potentially endless monologue. Sanjay answered.

'Hello?...Who?...Yes, I'm sure he will. No...Yes, six-thirty exactly. Fine, Jeff. Cheers.' Unlike his face-to-face conversations, Sanjay's telephone manner was telegraphic. 'That was Jeff, reminding us to be there at six-thirty, and asking a favour from you, Robert. He has a nephew staying overnight and doesn't want him to feel left out, so hoped you'd entertain him for the evening.'

Robert's first impulse was to refuse. The last thing he wanted was to have to be polite. He felt he deserved a long and miserable brood on the injustices of the world.

'Their food's always good. Celebrate the last day of the holidays?'

Robert capitulated. 'I'll bet he's a drip.'

'Excellent!' Sanjay checked his watch. 'I'm going to check some papers then spend the afternoon in the garden. Be certain you are both out of the bathroom and my way by six o'clock. And, Robert, make sure you have everything you could possibly need for school tomorrow: first impressions are the lasting ones.'

Robert went to his room and Monique tidied away before setting out what seemed to be the entire contents of her wardrobe to prepare for the evening ahead.

In his study, the unused third bedroom, Sanjay sorted through notes. A part-time University lectureship in Political Studies, apart from providing a respectable job description in his passport and a bit of extra cash, also guaranteed a captive audience. He loved it when students laughed at his jokes, argued a point, became angry at his demolition of theories, or themselves proffered alternatives to popular thought. Most ended up apprehensive at the inefficiency and self-serving inadequacy of politicians; their own country's multitude of governments squabbling over fewer than twenty million people's money, and all the other examples of irrational waste. 'Politics is the physical expression of a philosophy!' he would intone. 'Bad philosophy - bad politics!' His demand that they think about the underlying values demonstrated by political decisions, led even those with the least aptitude to understand that every action, no matter how slight, can be considered political. They soon realised that democracy and informed, rational debate are incompatible with majority government and the confrontation of party politics. All were left wondering why consensus is a dirty word.

Sanjay sat back and contemplated his reflection. Melbourne born and bred, he felt only pleasure at having left the place. His mother was Scottish but his father's Indian genes had proved dominant. Unable to consider himself as anything other than Australian, he liked to think he combined Scots good sense with the acuteness of Indian merchants.

Why his parents had married remained a mystery to him. He imagined two self-willed young people at odds with their families, cultures and religions, emigrating, and then marrying to spite their parents. As a family they had been isolated. The few visitors to their dull suburban house soon felt ill at ease, and seldom returned. A ban on all things Indian or Scottish, the single-minded pursuit of the Australian dream, and relentless urging to "do well", were his dominant childhood memories.

After his father's early death, maternal visits to her only child became less tolerable as Monique's self assurance grew. They now paid fares and all expenses for a visit once a year, as long as his mother only stayed a week. That way everyone kept their sanity. She had only just gone home, so they were free for another year.

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