Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 5

Things turned out exactly as Sanjay had predicted. Robert and Marcia took pleasure in picking each other's brains and arguing in the common room, and the party was forgotten. Each morning he was impatient to get to his wrestling practice, and hoped his instructor felt the same. Robert knew as little about Mr Vaselly after four weeks as he had at the beginning. They discussed tactics, fought hard, and gave no quarter. After a hard bout they would lie on the mats panting with the pleasure of exertion, comfortable with each other's silence.

One morning, after an intricate hold, twist and flick, Robert flipped his opponent onto his back. Losing his own balance he crashed, ending up splayed against the wall.

'That's not in the book. I'll bet you can't do it again.'

Robert looked across, startled by a luminous grin. He blushed, began to stutter something, gave up and looked away in confusion.

'Only a few days till the headmaster's inspection. Don't expect any praise. I'm pretty sure he only agreed to it to spite me.'

'You're joking.'

'Wish I was.'

'But you're a great teacher!'

'Try telling him that.'

'I will. And he'd better be impressed. But I don't care if he is or not, I'm enjoying it so much. Thanks.'

'No need to thank me. I enjoy it too. Hell, look at the time! We'll be late for assembly. Leave the mats for later.'

They only just made it. It was Friday; the day Mr Nikelseer gave a Bible reading and a prayer before the deputy headmaster read out the notices. Robert tried to listen to the readings and think about them, but they were usually obscure and seemed to have little bearing, as far as he could discern, on school life. No one else showed the slightest interest. It was an opportunity to relax before class. Today's reading was no exception.

Henceforth is laid up for me a crown of righteousness
Which the Lord, the righteous judge,
Shall give me at that day.
And not to me only, but to all who love his appearing.

There was a scuffle during interval as Robert was crossing the quad. A boy of about fourteen or fifteen was writhing on the asphalt making futile attempts to defend himself from the indolent kicks and slaps of two louts who were holding him down. Lance, the odd man out in the students' common room, was helping them; trying to remove the kid's belt. Three girls dominated the gaggle of observers, egging them on.

'Get the fucking poof's trousers down!'

'Faggots shouldn't be allowed to wear trousers!'

'Give him a skirt!' chorused the three harpies to hoots of derisive sniggers and chants of 'poofter, poofter, cock-sucking poofter.' There was no teacher in sight. Without stopping to think, Robert elbowed forward and tapped Lance on the shoulder. 'Leave the kid alone, Lance. You're hardly glorious examples of manhood if it takes three blokes to torment one guy.'

'What are ya? Fucking black queer-lover?' Lance snarled. 'Piss off or we'll do you over too.'

Robert faced him, expressionless. After five of the longest seconds he could remember, he bent down and pulled the kid off the ground by his shirtfront, hauling him to his feet. 'Scram. And stay away from these slobs in future,' he grunted, giving the boy a shove which nearly threw him back on the ground. Being taller, several kilos heavier and obviously fitter than the thugs, they weren't game to touch him. Doing his best to show neither his contempt, nor that his hands had started to shake, Robert picked up his bag, threw it as nonchalantly as he could manage over his shoulder, and ambled off to the common room. What the hell have I done? The kid probably deserved what he was getting and now I've made enemies I can do without. Jeeze I'm a fuckwit! He helped himself unsteadily to a coffee.

Helen looked up from her book. 'You look very grave,' she commented leisurely, 'Someone pinch your lunch money?'

'Lance doing a bit of bullying.'

'Lance and his mob are always picking on some unfortunate kid who doesn't fit in with their idea of the true Aussie male, it makes me sick!'

'Why isn't something done about it?'

'Goodness knows. He gets his kicks by showing off to the dumbos who hang around for the cash he dishes out when they crawl on their bellies and lick his boots.'

'If they do it again I'll report him. Bullying's the pits. I can't just stand around and see it happen without doing anything!'

'Then don't watch. Be like the rest of us and stay away. And as for reporting him; who to? The only one in trouble will be you, so keep your nose clean.' She closed her book and fixed Robert with a frown. 'That's good advice I'm giving you. This school is not a tolerance zone.'

Sunlight slanted into the classroom through high windows. The school had been built at a time when it was considered an unprofitable distraction for students to see outside. Having come from a school blessed with floor to ceiling windows, Robert appreciated not having idiots sitting outside, or shuffling past making rude noises and giving everyone the fingers.

Mr Rands set up the overhead projector while his students took out texts and notes. Lance paused in the entrance, a scowl rendering him even less attractive than usual. Spotting Robert he strutted across, dumped his bag on top of the opened books, leaned over, dropped a thick gob of yellowish spit onto a page of notes, then sneered as though daring Robert to do something. Robert whipped up his hand, dragged Lance's head down and squashed his nose into his own spittle. Lesson preparation absorbed everyone's attention.

'Muck with me again and I'll crush your face,' Robert hissed, forcing himself to release the scrawny neck so Lance could take his bag and purple face to a seat on the other side of the room.

Barbara passed him a couple of tissues. 'Well done!' she whispered.

Mr Rands broke the silence. 'Everyone ready?' He smiled the bland smile of innocence.

They were studying depictions of the human body in Renaissance art. On the screen was a reproduction of The Battle of the Ten Nudes, an engraving showing ten muscled youths viciously attacking each other with knives, swords, axes and a bow and arrow, in front of a curtain of dense foliage as wild and untamed as the young men. It was by the Florentine artist and sculptor Pollaiuolo, reproductions of whose works had strongly influenced the German artist, Dürer – the main focus of this term's study. Only five poses had been used, each of which was reversed in order to show both front and back of the figure.

'Pollaiuolo, of course, is a nickname, like that of so many Italian artists of the time. The apocryphal story is that his father kept chickens, in Italian pollo, hence the little chicken, Pollaiuolo.' - Mr Rands was full of such trivia. 'The search for a formula for ideal human proportions was an obsession with Renaissance artists. Dürer spent most of his life jealously convinced that Italians had discovered this recipe, and filled volumes with calculations and drawings and copies of their works that, thanks to the invention of printing a few years previously, were increasingly available to collectors north of the Alps. Engravings such as this were not only depictions of ideal male bodies in action, but also money-spinners, appealing to collectors who appreciated such mildly erotic works.' He slipped another transparency onto the screen. 'Like this little bronze sculpture of Hercules wrestling with Antaeus.'

There was doubt in the minds of several students about the suitability of such works for public display. Robert had a vision of what he and Mr Vaselly must look like when wrestling, and let forth an involuntary guffaw. There was something ridiculous about two men hugging, squeezing and twisting themselves into compromising positions. Of course he and Vaselly weren't nude - although his gear was so tight he felt as if he was.

'Going to share the joke, Robert?' asked Mr Rands.

'Sorry, Sir. I was just thinking about Hercules having to wrestle with Antaeus like that. Now-a-days he'd simply get a gun and pot him.'

'Ah, but Antaeus was immortal as long as he touched the ground. Hercules had to hold his feet off the earth for a long time to destroy his powers. Shooting would have solved nothing. Such stories are not simply the meanderings of primitive pagans, they illustrate universal truths. We might not believe in Hercules and Antaeus today, but we've replaced them with equally fantastic myths.'

'What's the eternal truth behind this one, Sir?' asked Charlie Kosich with more than a hint of disbelief.

'Universal, Charlie, not eternal. Humans, like all life, derive their strength from the earth. Antaeus' evil character is more or less irrelevant. The point is that if you remove someone from their roots, they wither away. I sometimes wonder if that's not one of the reasons for the crime, violence, depression and other problems of modern humans. We are too far from the source of life. There are more police per person than ever before in history, with ever increasing technical aids - but there is no lessening of crime. Never have there been so many doctors per capita as in the western world, and never have so many humans been so sick.'

'What's so good about dirt?' A voice from the back.

'Dirt is not a synonym for either the planet Earth, or the soil that holds water and in which grows the foods that sustain every living land-based thing—including us. We evolved on Earth and will therefore forever depend on it for survival. You know that, it's basic. But most arable land is now so poisoned that protective gear must be worn by those growing our food; no waterway is safe to drink from, run-off is poisoning the seas. Parks and reserves, instead of providing a buffer, are collapsing from over use. Modern conveniences are nothing but tools; they don't give us mental strength. We are like Antaeus hoisted off the ground by Hercules - our strength is ebbing.' He laughed abruptly. 'That's given you long faces.'

They were not sure whether to believe him.

'Mr Rands, you said we have new myths. Like what?'

'Like… Science will find the answers to all our problems... Doctors will make us healthy…. Democracy ensures good government… You can believe what you see on TV and read in the papers… Death is the worst thing that can happen. Myths are there to calm the fears of people who need to be told their lives are worth something.'

'What myths do you believe in?'

'I have no fears.' Mr Rands' smile was enigmatic.

'I think it's a bloody disgusting sculpture! Two blokes rubbing their groins together like a couple of queers. Makes me sick.' Typically, Lance ignored the ideas and voiced his prejudices.

'Lance, we've been through this before. What you consider good and bad, right and wrong, is a question of fashion and your background, it is not a universal truth. You know perfectly well there was a fashion at that time for things classical – Greek and Roman. Not everyone was so persuaded, and people didn't hesitate to express contrary opinions, but it was usually left at that. Certainly not degenerating into playground bashings!'

Unfazed, Lance continued, 'I reckon all paintings by faggots should be banned! We shouldn't have to learn about perverts?'

'Oh shut up, Lance! Give it a rest.' Barbara Tappendon was one of the few who hadn't given up on Lance, although he tormented her tirelessly.

'You're the only teacher who thinks queers are normal. You should hear what some of the other teachers say about them. Even Dürer was a poof, writing all those sick letters to Pirkheimer.'

'He also had a wife, Agnes. Things are never simply black and white, Lance. Humans are infinitely complex. Why can't you accept that and try to make yourself perfect? If we were to ban all things contributed by men who had homosexual experiences, then we'd have many fewer inventions, precious little art, literature, music, and live theatre; and life would be the poorer. I'll bet most of you don't know that it was mainly due to a gay British mathematician, Alan Turing, that Hitler was defeated. He invented a computer to decode the "Enigma" machine.' The teacher turned his quiet gaze on Lance. 'Turing suicided in his thirties because of harassment by people like you, Lance!'

Mr Rands gazed out the window for a couple of seconds before continuing. 'Fortunately for the human race, thinking people are happy to accept the exceptional personalities, along with the gifts great minds can bring. Try to remember this: greatness can never inhabit the mind of a conformist. The two are mutually incompatible. Now, back to the Renaissance!'

As usual, Mr Rands had given food for thought and created associations with the works, making them easier to remember. For Robert it was an almost indigestible feast.

Mr Vaselly was sorting through papers when Robert arrived the following morning. He passed across earphones and a Walkman. 'I'm a bit behind with paper work, so listen to the tape while I catch up.'

Sprawled on the beanbag to the left of the desk, Robert donned the earphones. A full orchestra was belting out complicated and busy rhythms, harmonies and tunes. He thought he recognised some of them. They went on and on without let up. He couldn't stop his feet jiggling, a grin of pleasure splitting his face. Vaselly looked at the unselfconscious youth and wondered why intelligent, straightforward people were seldom good physical specimens. Most guys he knew were either clever and wimpish, or physical and slobs. Many had such narrow interests there was nothing to talk about once their topic was exhausted.

Robert seemed different. A pity he was a pupil. Bart Vaselly was in need of a friend. He'd had to work his way through both high school and University and hadn't had the time to socialise. Life seemed too serious to waste on unproductive fun, although what his fellow students called fun, seldom appealed to him. Of course he'd never had any spare cash – not even for the occasional beer. In the last eighteen months he'd met no one he could relate to. The other teachers were either too old, married with kids, or... It was his own fault. He spent so much time on schoolwork, there was none left for socialising. That would have to change. He was becoming a hermit at twenty-two and if he wasn't careful he'd never make friends. A yelp startled him.

'Hey, Sir, this is cool! What is it? I feel as though I know it!'

'Opera overtures by Rossini. Yeah, they are pretty up beat. I've lots more of his stuff if you want to hear it?'

'You're on!'

They only managed a short session before it was time for assembly.

'You'd better wear PE shorts and a T-shirt when Mr Nikelseer inspects; I'll wear my tracksuit.'

Robert agreed; the headmaster was no Mr Pinot.

'After that,' Bart continued, 'I won't be able to keep coming to school every morning at seven-thirty. It's getting too much.'

'But…! This is the only thing that keeps me sane! Robert was speechless.

'Me too, but I've no time to myself. I'm either asleep or at school.'

'But… I can't stop, I'll turn to flab.' Robert dragged his thoughts from the fog of frustration. 'How about this? Instead of wrestling at school, we'll do it at your place.'

Vaselly stared at him, expressionless.

Robert blushed. 'Sorry, Sir. I've no right to invite myself to your place. But… how about if I help with… with boring things like checking supplies and gear, roll checking – there must be jobs I could do? I can come in during the week, take those jobs off your hands, and you'd have time for wrestling. At my place!'

'The first time we met you did everything you could to get up my nose. Now you want us to visit each other.'

Robert blushed. 'Yeah, well… I'm sorry about that. You see I hated school uniforms and having to do a compulsory activity, so I took it out on you. But I'm not really sorry,' he added with a twinkle, 'otherwise I'd never have got to know you and… and learned wrestling.' He blushed again, worrying he'd gone too far.

'I hardly went out of my way to be pleasant. Lots of kids delight in making teachers' lives a misery, so I sometimes come over a bit strong. You could have been just another jerk.'

'It's sure effective. Most of the kids are shit-scared of you.'

'And you?'

'I like you.' Robert blushed and stared at his feet. He'd never said that to anyone, not even his parents.

Of course those three words didn't express his true feelings. Those he concealed under a jumble of thoughts, not daring to examine them closely. Since they'd started wrestling he couldn't wait to get to school in the mornings. If he caught a glimpse of Mr Vaselly in the playground his heart leaped. He daydreamed about doing all sorts of other things with him, like hiking, camping, listening to music. He wondered how he could have imagined life was interesting before Mr Vaselly, even though this was the first time they'd spoken about any topic except wrestling. He knew nothing about the man, but couldn't get enough of his company.

Bart Vaselly let loose the sigh of a man who realises that whatever decision he makes will be wrong. 'I know I'll live to regret this, but come to my place on Saturday. However! Only with your parents' permission.'

They had missed assembly and were just in time for first period. Robert relaxed in his seat and daydreamed. It was Tuesday. Wednesday lunchtime they would sort out some jobs so he could free up Vaselly's time; Thursday after school was the headmaster's inspection, and on Saturday they'd wrestle. He felt excited, organised and nervous. Like when he was a kid, so excited he could hardly bear the waiting for a birthday, a trip to the circus, or whatever new thing was on the horizon. He grinned to himself. He'd been grinning a lot lately.

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