Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 2

Monique, sheathed in midnight blue, the only adornment a dozen fine gold chains at her throat, was glad Robert wasn't to be left alone. His mood-swings had become a worry. Both parents hoped it was simply adolescence; something he would grow out of.

After rejecting everything in his wardrobe as frivolous, Robert's black mood prompted black trousers, white shirt, black leather bomber jacket and black shoes. He looked strikingly handsome, although one would have had a hard time convincing him of it. Twelve years of schooling had not only taught him that he and his family were not quite normal, but had forged a core of insecurity. He inhabited a world subtly outside the one that restrained his peers, and knew with the certainty of youth that because of his ethnicity, most people would not consider him good looking. This fortunate misapprehension had fostered an air of engaging modesty. With the precocious maturity of a well-loved only child, he considered honesty, reliability, affection and rationality to be the most valuable attributes in a person. All his life, it seemed, he had been seeking a friend like that.

Sanjay, dapper in blue-grey suit, white shirt, conservative tie and black shoes, beamed at his two charges with love and pride. They drove first to the top of Mount Coot-Tha to admire the city lights. Excessive punctiliousness, in Sanjay's opinion, was the hallmark of small minds. Hosts are happiest if they have something for which to forgive their guests, so it would be inconsiderate to arrive less than ten minutes late. The detour was rewarding. City towers floating against a darkly purple sky.

By the time they pulled up at the Skeldrakes', the other guests had arrived. Clients were occasionally invited to dinner to encourage the finalising of a deal. Jeff Skeldrake, Sanjay's partner, had returned from India a few weeks previously and half a container-load of silk and ornaments was due to arrive within the next few days. Tonight, samples would be viewed, prices agreed and supply and other details ironed out.

'Sanjay, Monique, Robert, welcome!' Jeff, sporting a tan and an enviable head of wavy silver hair, was probably in his sixties. Despite expensive tailoring and built-up shoes, he remained a short and rather bulky figure. An expansive gesture towards the drinks-table enabled a large stone set in gold filigree on his left middle finger, to flash resplendently. As they fiddled with bottles and glasses the Karims were joined by Susie, loyal to the importing business in silk trousers and tunic. The shimmering green garment did a much better job of concealing her luxuriant figure, strikingly similar to her husband's, than did his suit. Jeff took Sanjay and Monique's elbows and introduced them to the guests while Susie introduced Robert to her nephew.

Tony was fifteen, tall for his age, overweight and sallow. Slightly protuberant eyes stared accusingly at his guest. 'I know why you were invited; they think I'm an imbecile and wouldn't be able to cope with adults.'

'I understand. Dad twisted my arm. I can go home if you like?' Robert's tone was mild.

'Oh, sorry, no. No, I didn't mean to sound like that. Of course I'm glad you're here, it's just that Jeff makes me feel so bloody inadequate and Susie's no better.'

'That's because you are inadequate', Robert decided.

The house was a duplex on the site of one of the large mansions that used to dot the western hills. The decor was designer-tasteful. Delicate prints, paintings on silk and a few expensively framed water-colours decorated the walls, while brass table-lamps bestowed a flattering glow on humans and carved wooden sculptures alike. Expensive rugs littered polished floors, and the furniture was unobtrusively comfortable. The only discordant notes were the curtains. It was difficult to conceive of an environment in which the boldly mauve, pink and orange fabrics would be at ease.

Everyone was ushered into the dining room where the mock antique dining table was set for eight, with white cloth, heavy silver cutlery, candles and flowers. The guests helped themselves from dishes on the sideboard.

'Susie, this is perfect! Surely you haven't done it all by yourself?'

Susie laughed. 'I did have a little help from the caterers, Monique. But I set the table.'

Conversation centred on the weather and the economy. It wasn't necessary to think. Sanjay relaxed, leaving Monique to entertain. He still broke out in nervous sweats occasionally at the miraculous chance that had allowed their paths to cross. Every day he thanked fate for providing him with such a perfect mate.

After his parents had nagged him into a degree in Political Science and Modern Languages he had seemed set for a career in Foreign Affairs. However, he soon came to the conclusion that not only does democracy degenerate to demagoguery as soon as the first politician opens his mouth, but the old joke - How can you tell when a politician is lying? His mouth is open - is disturbingly true. He took leave, and fled to Europe. Uncomfortable with Scottish relatives and depressed by dirt and lack of work in London, he had crossed to Europe. Travelling home overland, he surprised himself by spending a week on a nudist island in the Adriatic near Rovinj. It was an intensely liberating experience, made all the more precious when, on his last afternoon he met Monique who was looking for a travelling companion to India.

All the usual adventures of such a trip befell them, but it wasn't until they were about to separate that he realised he didn't want to. The feeling was mutual, so they did the sensible thing and married at the Consulate. After the ceremony he realised he had followed almost exactly in his father's footsteps; two disaffected people in a foreign land, marrying.

The shock made him determined not to imitate anything else about his parents' lives. His marriage would be a love match until death. They had stayed with his grandmother in Cochin, and the extended family welcomed him generously. Far more generously than he felt he deserved. It was there Sanjay hatched his plan to become an importer of objects-d'art, and never return to government bureaucracy. Drifting back to the present, he helped himself to yoghurt, marvelling at the heaps of sugar and cream Jeff and Susie managed to devour. His mental flight had passed unnoticed.

Sanjay, Jeff and the clients retired with coffees, liqueurs, briefcases and samples to the lounge, the two young men went upstairs, and Susie and Monique attended to the clearing away.

Tony's sole interest was "The Web". His latest model laptop gave him access to the world. Robert was fairly certain the world consisted of more than electrons bouncing off screens, but kept his opinion to himself.

'Do you want to look at magazines?' Tony offered with a leer. Magazines had to be better than Tony's conversation. Robert had giggled over photographs of naked women with his mates as a more youthful youth, but since Jocelyn, interest had evaporated. He recalled and suffered again his embarrassment and inadequacy, remembered the woman in the park, and began to sweat.

As Tony leafed through the pages he kept pointing out the girls he fancied while regaling Robert with graphic descriptions of what he'd be doing if they were in the room. How Tony could imagine they would ever want him was beyond Robert's comprehension, so he kept his mouth shut.

'Fuck, look at this one, Christ, she makes me horny!'

To Robert's flagging gaze she appeared identical to the preceding airbrushed, silicone-implanted clones, but he mumbled something vaguely appropriate.

'I'm going to jerk off. You too?'

'They're only photographs. Does nothing for me.'

Tony was already pulling at his penis. 'It's OK for you,' he grunted 'You're older than me. I'll bet you've had the real thing.'

Robert nodded in despair.

'Well, I haven't. Dad says I'm too young and I'm hardly going to get some bitch as good looking as this.' Veins had begun to swell in his neck and forehead when the jerking suddenly stopped and Tony demanded sharply, 'Are you a queer?'

Robert contented himself with a mimed threat to smack the repellent idiot in the face.

'Got me worried there... Faggots will root anything, my Dad says. Especially young guys.' Reassured, he panted on.

Robert wasn't offended; he'd joined group wanks in dressing rooms. At his last school some of the year eleven idiots had jerked themselves off in the back row of the chemistry lab to impress their girlfriends. He slipped out, and went downstairs.

Closed lounge doors indicated negotiations were still in train, so he went to the kitchen. Monique was nursing a cup of mint tea, Susie sipped at a balloon of brandy, and the dishwasher spluttered dying gurgles.

'Tony has exhausted his conversational repertoire I gather,' Susie sighed. 'This has been a long four days. Pull up a seat.'

Robert filled a glass with water, having found the meal a little too spicy, dragged up a chair and scowled into the glass.

Susie drew a quick breath. 'Are you all right?'

'Perfectly.' He glanced warily at his mother's best friend. She was seldom solicitous about anyone except herself. But she certainly was nosy. Her obesity was accentuated in the hard light. Small eyes glittered in their pouches, one could hardly call them sockets, and her chins developed vertical lines when she turned her head. He couldn't understand anyone allowing themselves to get so fat. It didn't bear thinking about the sweat, washing under and between all the folds, the effort of carrying the extra kilos. He tried to imagine lugging fifty tubs of margarine about wherever he went.

Susie was staring at him; smile carnivorous, voice concerned. 'I have just had the most extraordinary sensation. As you turned, colours streamed from your head - purples, oranges and dark blues. Has something bad happened?'

Robert shot his mother an irritated glance. She shook her head.

'Something important has crossed, or is going to cross you! - Shall I lay the cards?' Susie missed no opportunity to remind everyone of her vaguely Central European heritage and mysterious quantities of Gypsy Blood.

'If you want,' muttered Robert ungraciously. The silly fat cow was obviously off her rocker. He might as well humour her, but she'd better not start getting personal. She wasn't going to top up her gossip files with his secrets.

'Bring me the black lacquered box from the top left-hand drawer of the sideboard.' Robert fetched it and placed it beside her. Extracting a silken cloth emblazoned with a five-pointed star, Susie deliberately and calmly placed it in the centre of the table, smoothing out the creases. The cards, she placed with ritualised seriousness around the outside of the cloth, taking care not to touch it. 'I only use the Major Arcana. An art student painted these for me. Aren't they sexy? Nothing like the Medieval ones, thank goodness, they were far too influenced by Christian myths.' She placed another cloth over everything and, taking Robert's hands, placed them face down on top, plonking her own clammy little fat ones on top.

'Obviously,' she said carefully, 'it is not possible to foretell the future - that would make a nonsense of free will. Most of what happens to us is by chance. Twenty years ago, if Sanjay had arrived two days later at the hotel in Rovinj, he would never have met Monique, and you would not have been born. That was a chance encounter.' She looked at Robert to gauge his reaction, but he was giving nothing away. 'You've as much chance of picking up a card that has something relevant to say about you, as one that doesn't,' she explained. 'What it can indicate is not your future, but steps you can take to balance your life. The Tarot is an ancient guide to enlightenment and harmony.' She gave a slightly tipsy burp, and winked, erasing the mystical atmosphere. Robert grinned. He couldn't stay cross with Susie for long.

'It all sounds so pompous, doesn't it?' she giggled. 'Actually I was only looking for an excuse to hold your hands.' She cackled throatily as he jerked them away.

Monique smiled to herself.

'Robert,' said Susie sweetly, gazing into his eyes, 'don't take life so seriously, you'll never get out of it alive.' This set off another paroxysm of mirth. 'Now,' she continued after several attempts to catch her breath, 'when I remove the cloth I want you to choose any five cards and place them face up, in any order, one on each point of the star.'

It seemed oddly important which ones he chose.

Susie gave them her full attention. 'At your head is The Moon. Dogs in moonlight, baying at menacing figures. There is some fear in your mind. Something you don't understand is troubling you. It's an unhappy card on its own; so let's see the others. At your left hand is The Hanging Man, perfectly happy to be seeing the world from a new perspective - that's positive. Perhaps you need to reconsider some of your opinions? Remember, these cards refer only to you. At your right hand is The Devil. Black and white, both sexes in one, Yin and Yang, staring straight at you. Everyone has parts of their character they cannot accept. We must face squarely these devils within; for only by confronting our fears can we conquer them.

'Now the base, the foundation on which you stand. On the left is The Charioteer. He wears a mask to protect himself from the slings and arrows of the world. There are flames at his head, heart and groin, indicating intellect, passions and desires. He grasps the reins firmly because unless he can force all three aspects of his character to work together in harmony, then his chariot of life will veer from side to side and may over-turn. Your other support is Strength. A slim woman easily controlling a powerful centaur, grasping his hair firmly. It means, make your brain control your body. Brute strength is of no use.' She paused. 'So, there you are; fearing something; requiring a new perspective on old problems; having to face the devil within and needing to control yourself.' She looked up with an almost malicious smile.

'That's not as silly as I thought it was going to be,' Robert said thoughtfully. 'It's sensible at least, even if fairly obvious.'

'Do you want to know what's likely to happen if you follow the directions?'

'Can't do any harm.'

'Don't you believe it.'

Robert selected his second set of cards.

Susie took a deep breath in an attempt to quieten her heart. She had doted on Robert since his birth. A desire to somehow force him inside her own body, to possess him utterly, had precipitated violent urges to squeeze, fondle, lick, kiss and eat the gurgling, happy infant. Having no children herself, she rationalised this fixation as repressed maternal instincts. As Robert grew older, both he and Monique began to resent her intrusive, at times almost abusive, attentions and she had forced herself to stop seeing him, arranging to visit only when Robert was at school or when there was no chance of their being alone.

Eventually, Susie had conquered the urge to possess every atom of this young creature - until tonight. His unexpected entrance - gold chain at smooth brown throat, the contours of his chest visible beneath the thin shirt - had caused flames to spurt, not from Robert's head, but inside her own, and a quote from goodness knows where flitted at the edge of thought. The Love-God uses the shapes and colours of young men, adorning them with all the reflected splendours of Beauty, so that the sight of them will truly set us on fire with pain and hope.

Old desires had been re-kindled. It was at least twenty years since she had felt anything like this, but she had not forgotten. The cards had been a ploy to keep Robert in the room as long as possible. She hadn't been joking when she said she wanted to touch his hand. She wanted to... She shook her head in an effort to dislodge the unwelcome thoughts. In her heart she was still the attractive eighteen-year-old, swept off her feet by Jeff.

Risking another glance at the slim, handsome young man on the other side of the table, she suddenly understood something else, something that lifted the burden and drew forth a sad smile. Even if she could become her eighteen-year-old self again, she could never possess Robert in the way she dreamed. As the realisation became conscious thought, everything became bearable and, with a sigh of regret for the things that never happen, she returned her attention to the cards.

'You sure know how to pick 'em,' she mumbled. 'This time at your head we have Judgement. Someone looking at their own reflection in the mirror. Remember, these cards only refer to you. The judgement of others is irrelevant. You must judge yourself. If you are contented with the way you are managing your life, then you will be in balance. If not...' She drew an expensively ringed finger across her throat. 'At your left hand sits Death. Not physical death, but the death of ideas. It supports the hanging man in the previous layout. Note the flowers springing from the split-open back of the skull? They indicate that if you are prepared to kill off desires, thoughts and actions that are wrong for you, then a new life will spring forth. On your right hand is The Sun. Apollo standing in a blaze of light. It's the best card in the pack and indicates everything will turn up roses - if your base is strong. So let's look.'

Robert gazed at the two remaining cards. The left one showed a ruined tower split in two by a flash of lightning, with two figures thrown back in shock. The other presented an even more grotesque scene - two naked people in chains, overlooked by a living, weeping barred window set in a blood-red wasteland.

'The Tower suggests you will experience enlightenment, or revelation, which usually arrives as a blinding flash of understanding. Your other support is the last card in the pack, The World.' She stopped talking, picked up the card and rubbed it as though trying to erase the image before continuing. 'Not a pretty scene, not a happy card, but it contains an essential truth. No matter what you do, what balance and harmony you may achieve in your own life, you still have to live in the world of men. There, it is never in peace and harmony. It is always hard, cruel, and indifferent. Accept that, and you will not know despair. Fight it, and you will live in chains.' Susie looked down thoughtfully at the cards before gathering them together and placing them carefully in their box.

Robert turned to his mother and was surprised to see tears.

'Oh, Susie, you have said it so cleverly. It is so true. Look at me, all emotional and weepy. How silly.' Monique blew her nose and dabbed at her eyes. 'It's made me think about my life, how wonderful it has all been. It's so easy to get tied up with petty irritations and forget about what makes life worthwhile. Thanks, Susie.'

'Yeah…thanks, Susie…That was spot on you know? I'm really amazed, it's helped a lot…you know to…sort out ideas and…things.' Robert grew silent.

Susie smiled gently, demon exorcised. She patted him on the hands. This time he did not withdraw. 'It has nothing to do with the cards, Robert. It's what's inside your head and heart, that counts.'

Jeff poked his head around the door, raised his thumb to indicate a successful conclusion, and whispered, 'They're going.'

Good-byes were said, appreciation offered, and soon the Karims too were on their way home; Sanjay's head filled with the evening's business, Monique's with her dreams, and Robert's with thoughts he wished would go away. He had yet to face the devil within.

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