Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 6

Wednesday was cold and wet. While dashing across to the gym, a sudden squall sent Robert scurrying for the inadequate shelter of a covered-way between two blocks. Just as he was debating whether to wait for the rain to stop or make a run for it, someone tugged at his arm. 'Come in out of the wet.'

It was more of a cupboard than a room. Hooks on the walls held brooms, spades and shovels. A line marker, a bundle of sacks, and a tin labelled Poison occupied one corner; shelves held tins of paint. The centre of the overcrowded space contained two school chairs on either side of a paint-splattered card-table. His rescuer was a kid of about fifteen; slim but not athletic, longish brown hair framing a smooth, dreamy face decorated with a black eye.

'I've been waiting for a chance to thank you,' he said in a surprisingly deep voice.

'No need.'

'But I want to.'

'It was nothing. Why was he bashing you?'

'Because I'm gay. He reckons all gays should be put down.'

'Did he give you that shiner?'

'Yep. Yesterday. Want a coffee?' Without waiting for an answer he turned to the table, filled two cups from a thermos, and offered one to Robert, who discovered he was pleased he'd stopped the bullying. The kid wasn't a weak no-hoper, he had guts.

'What's your name?'

'Murray Corso. And you're Robert Karim,' he grinned cheekily.

'How does Lance know you're gay?'

Murray gave his shoulders a flick, threw up his chin, fluffed his hair with the backs of his fingers, and with lightly pursed lips sent Robert a seductive, come-hither look.

Robert frowned and looked away.

'Don't look so embarrassed – it's just a joke.'

'Do you act like that all the time?'

'I start every day determined to be tough and butch, but as soon as anything upsets me Priscilla takes over. I don't know why. Most of the kids think it's funny, but teachers hate me – especially the men.

'Have you told your parents about the bashings?'

'Dad said it serves me right. He's ashamed of me, and Mum doesn't care as long as she's got money for the pokies.'

'But it's simple! Stop acting like that.'

'I told you! I try every morning, but… it's as though there's someone inside me, waiting for an excuse to pop out.'


'Everyone has at least two sides to their character. You could act like that.'

'No way!'

'You'd prefer to act like Lance?'

'You're joking! He disgusts me a thousand times more than you do!' Robert stopped, frowned, caught the flicker of hurt on Murray's face, and blurted, 'I'm sorry. You don't really disgust me. It's just that…I'd be frightened someone would bad-mouth me if I was seen with you. I can cope with being called a black bastard - but not queer.'

'Don't apologise, you're like me - you have to act the way you do, because that's the way you are. Gorgeous!'

Robert squirmed.

'I'm only teasing. But I understand your reaction – I really do,' he added in a voice from which lightness and banter had vanished. 'Because I've started to despise myself.' He looked away.

Robert was horrified. He'd sometimes wished he was different in some way, but never disliked himself. He wanted to put his arm round the kid's shoulder and say he didn't mind. But he did mind. He wasn't strong enough to offer protection. He felt too vulnerable himself. Since the episode on the hill and the disastrous party a nervous premonition had been building; a feeling that he had to watch his back. He couldn't afford to do anything obvious for Murray.

'Have you been to the guidance counsellor?'

'Don't be stupid, you've met him.'

'I'll report Lance to the headmaster.'

Murray laughed sourly. 'Save your breath, I understand…I do really. You've done more than enough already. Just talking to you has made me feel better.' He smiled gaily, if with a rather brittle edge. 'I'm over my bout of self-pity. If you ever feel like another cup of coffee, here's where you'll find me.'


'The groundsman feels sorry for me so I spend most lunch times and intervals in here. At least I get all my homework and reading done.' He took Robert's arm and led him to the door. 'There are three holes at different angles so I can check if the coast's clear.' He looked out. 'No one about, so scoot. And thanks.'

'You're late. Get caught in the rain?'

'Yeah, had to shelter.' Robert decided not to mention Murray and his problems. He didn't want Mr Vaselly to think he was soft on gays and risk losing his friendship. 'But I'm here now, ready, willing and waiting.'

He was rewarded with one of Bart's dazzling smiles and found himself gaping stupidly back. How could this man make himself light up like that? Unnerved, he wondered what it meant. How could a smile make him feel so disoriented, so inadequate, so lucky to be on the receiving end? It made no sense.

Robert' jobs included checking sports gear, keeping the PE noticeboard up to date, laying out equipment for the day and sorting left-behind clothing. He promised to get to school at eight o'clock each morning for his duties. Anything not completed he would do at lunchtime.

Immediately after school he swallowed his nerves and went to the front office to make an appointment to see the headmaster. Mr Nikelseer was standing beside the typist, finger jabbing at a page as he reminded her that she was employed to type accurately. Robert coughed discreetly.

'What is it?'

'If you please, Sir, I'd like to make an appointment to see you.

'What is wrong with interval?'

'It's… ah… serious, Sir.'

'I can spare a few minutes now.' With one last cluck of irritation he led the way through to his study. It was a sombre, high-ceilinged room, carpeted in dull green with eight huge, leather-padded chairs arranged in a semi-circle. Motioning Robert to stand in front of his elaborately panelled desk, the headmaster sat, placed his elbows on the pristine blotter, made a steeple with his fingers and peered at Robert over gold-rimmed half-glasses. Robert felt naughty and stupid and wished he hadn't come. Embarrassed by the continuing silence, he started talking; at first in a rush, then more relaxedly as the headmaster's stillness gave him confidence.

'It's about Murray Corso, Sir. He is being mentally and physically assaulted by older boys, and I wondered if there was anything you could do about it?'


'They call him names and bash him up.'

'I know Murray Corso.' The intonation suggested he would rather he didn't. 'I do not wish to sound devoid of compassion, indeed my heart goes out to those who suffer unjustly, but it is simply high spirits. That's how boys learn what is expected of them. They will never become men by being molly-coddled and nursed through every little scrap.'

'Today he has a black eye, and is very upset.'

'Why does it concern you?'

'I stopped a fight a few days ago, and today I saw him at interval. He hides most intervals and lunchtimes.'


Robert's jaw froze. 'I… I don't know, Sir.'

The headmaster eyeballed him for several long seconds before continuing quietly. 'In this school we have duty teachers, a guidance counsellor, and other professional support networks to attend to pupil welfare. And as you are aware, I am available every morning to discuss with students anything that concerns them.'

'But… those things aren't working, Sir.'

Mr Nikelseer pushed himself to the back of his chair and fixed a bleak eye on the young upstart. His manner throughout the interview was mild. Anyone listening at the door would imagine a pleasant chat between benevolent headmaster and prized senior student. To the recipient of his words, however, they were imbued with menace and vague threat. 'Are you setting yourself up as judge of the support we offer our pupils?' Without pausing for a reply he continued, 'Do you not think I suffer when my students suffer? Do you imagine I am so devoid of God's love that I will not rescue the lost sheep? How dare you, after only a few weeks, criticise this establishment?' An imperiously raised hand prevented protest. 'Enough! Five weeks ago you refused to choose a sporting activity. Today you criticise what you know nothing about. I will overlook your impudence this time, but there had better be no recurrence if you wish to have a successful end to your schooling. Go now!'

Robert went: - tail between his legs for the second time in six weeks.

Mr Nikelseer sat very still, waiting for his heartbeats to slow. He was concerned about bullying, but he was equally concerned about two other things. Over the years he had laboriously constructed a support network, the success of which depended on dutiful teachers. These were in short supply. Many of his younger staff members appeared to resent being given orders, and policies that had worked perfectly for two decades were now openly criticised in staff meetings by youngsters too immature to have learned the value of stability. To them his years of experience counted as nothing. They insisted on being part of the decision-making process, but were reluctant to participate in the day-to-day implementation. He found himself spending intervals and lunchtimes simply checking on which teachers had not turned up for playground duty, so it wasn't surprising, and hardly his fault, if the occasional bit of bullying was overlooked.

His other concern in the present situation was God. Not God himself, but his demands. Ian Nikelseer had promised to obey God in all things, and God had made it abundantly clear that the followers of Sodom and Gomorrah were to be wiped from the face of the earth. While he did feel pity for the Corso boy and others like him, he was determined to be an obedient mouthpiece and soldier for Christ, whatever the cost! 'Karim.' As the headmaster whispered the name he suffered an involuntary shudder.

After dinner, Monique settled herself in the bedroom sorting out stuff for St. Vincent de Paul, while Robert and Sanjay played chess rather badly in front of the fire. They both felt they ought to be able to play, it being a game requiring intelligence, but it also required forward planning and cunning, and an ability to foresee the consequences of their moves. These were traits the Karim males did not have in abundance, their highly developed intuitive skills not providing an adequate substitute. The average game lasted about ten minutes and the loser of this one had to take out the rubbish. Not wanting to seem too keen, Robert had waited until now to broach his two pressing problems.

'Dad, Mr Vaselly hasn't time to teach me wrestling at school any more, but I talked him into giving me lessons at his place on Saturdays. He agreed on condition that you and Mum are happy about it. What do you reckon?'

'I was under the impression you had only taken up the sport to make a nuisance of yourself.'

'Yeah. Well now I really like it and Vaselly's a great guy!' He hoped he hadn't put too much emphasis on great. There was no visible reaction from his father, but that didn't mean anything.

'Let's see what your mother has to say. Monique, can you come in here for a minute?'

His mother drifted in, leaned over the back of Sanjay's chair and puffed warm breath over his ripening bald spot before kissing it delicately. They explained the situation and her eyes lit up.

'Excellent! We invite Mr Vaselly for dinner, and if we find him sympathetic, you may go. Isn't that so, Sanjay?'

He nodded in amused resignation. Cooking was one of Monique's passions, meeting new people another.

'That'll be great; I want you both to meet him. I'm sure you'll like him, but be nice! You can be a bit intimidating sometimes.'

'Relax, chérie, we will be the souls of dispassion.'

'Discretion,' corrected Sanjay automatically.

Monique, crossing her fingers that Robert's recent spate of good humour would last, returned to clothes sorting, head already filling with plans for Friday's meal.

'There's another thing I'd like your opinion on, Dad.'

'And what's that?' Sanjay settled back with relief, the game was not going his way.

Robert gave as detailed a description as he could of the Murray Corso saga, including a word for word account of the abortive interview with the headmaster.

Sanjay gazed at his son incredulously. 'Are you sure you've got this right? You haven't left out some all-important detail?'

'No, that's exactly how it went. I felt an utter fool. Was I really impudent? I was only trying to help. I'm sure Murray's desperate and I couldn't think what else to do. The guidance counsellor's useless.'

'If it makes you feel any better I'm proud of you. There aren't many people prepared to stick their necks out to help others, especially ones they neither know nor particularly like!'

'Yeah. OK… I may have given you a bit of a wrong impression there. I actually quite like Murray; it's just that I'd die of embarrassment if anyone saw us together when he was acting like a girl. I feel a bit rotten about that.'

'Don't tell your mother or she'll invite him to dinner! I'll give it some thought, but meanwhile, keep out of it. I've never believed in human sacrifice and can see no point in you jeopardising your schooling for some kid who makes a fool of himself. I know,' he added in response to Robert's look, 'he can't help it. But you don't need problems now with only a few weeks till your Course Skills Test.

'Sounds sensible.'

Sanjay lost the game and took out the rubbish.

Thursday afternoon arrived warm and sunny. Respectable in loose white shorts, T-shirt and immaculate tennis shoes and socks, Robert faced Vaselly in his grey tracksuit on the mat. The headmaster had impatiently refused the offer of a chair, preferring to remain standing awkwardly at one side of the room, gazing in bored abstraction through the open windows to where a game of soccer was in progress.

His own school days had afforded many opportunities to observe the lucky ones to whom friends and friendships were an easy and natural part of life. Some friendships, he had noticed, are open to all comers, while others are exclusive. Of those, he remained bitterly envious. He glanced at the two young men. What right had they to be so relaxed together? The way they set out the mats, smiled, anticipated each other's movements as though possessing a secret language, was totally excluding. The confident pleasure they took in each other's company was an affront to decency.

Schools could not function if pupils and teachers felt free to treat each other as equals. Education and learning were the result of discipline! Not some modern nonsense of friendly osmosis. Discipline required respect. The only thing engendered by familiarity was contempt. Dizziness made him grasp the window frame for support. He took slow breaths to calm the nausea, impatient for deliverance.

Confident they were presenting a model teacher-pupil relationship, the wrestlers demonstrated the stances and holds Robert had learned, stopping occasionally so Mr Vaselly could explain the finer points. After about ten, sweat-filled minutes they stood expectantly before him.

'Is that it?' the headmaster asked with the air of someone who has been promised a banquet and served a hamburger. 'You are obviously pleased with your progress, but I fail to understand why anyone would want to make such a…a display of themselves. Nor,' he continued, lip curled in distaste, 'do I think it seemly for a teacher and his pupil to indulge in such close physical contact.'

It suddenly dawned on Robert what the headmaster was getting at. A pulse hammered in his neck and his already sweaty body flushed anew. He risked a glance at his teacher, who was staring out the window; jaws tight, a white line round his lips.

'May I remind you, Headmaster,' Mr Vaselly said tersely, 'that it was you who insisted on wrestling in the first place?'

'I did no such thing!' Nikelseer retorted. 'I said it appeared to be an interesting idea, but you were inexperienced, and we could not expect too much from you!'

Bart started to protest.

The headmaster held up his hand. 'Enough! It is a totally unsuitable activity and I cannot permit you to continue.'

Even after eighteen months of the man, Bart hadn't expected such a put down. He felt ashamed, dirty, guilty of nameless sins, and certainly didn't trust himself to speak.

Robert was better prepared. Not altogether trusting the headmaster's offer of forgiveness, he had realised that if Nikelseer stopped the wrestling but Robert continued going to the gym every day, questions might be asked. Perhaps the chess was paying dividends.

'I understand, Sir,' he said thoughtfully. 'Will you instead approve of my using the gymnasium equipment to increase my fitness?'

This was not quite the crushed response Mr Nikelseer had anticipated, but at least they weren't going to argue. 'Fine, fine,' he snapped, 'Mr Vaselly will see to that. But no more… wrestling!' With a final snort of disapproval he hastened up the stairs, anxious to return to a realm in which he felt more at ease.

'What's all this balls about understanding and asking to use gym equipment?' Bart was in danger of letting his fury with the headmaster be transferred to his protégé.

'Don't get mad. It's just that I've told anyone who asked that I've been doing a fitness course. No one knows about the wrestling. I was sort of expecting this response because of a run-in I had with him yesterday.'

'What about? Why didn't you tell me?' Can't you see where this leaves me? The man I most despise now thinks I'm some sort of disgusting pervert, while you come out smelling of roses.'

'Sir! I'm sorry! I didn't want to worry you with my stupidities - especially as he said he'd forget about it if I didn't do it again. I only half trusted him and that's why I was ready with a get-away option. I wouldn't do anything to put you in the shit. But I reckon he already had it in for you before I came on the scene.' Robert wanted to grab his wrestling partner by the shoulders and shake understanding into him. He had only been trying to help. It was as bad as trying to protect Murray. Everything he did seemed to go wrong.

'What was your row with that… person, about?' The tone was still hurting.

Robert repeated everything, as he had to his father.

'You bloody idiot! You know what he's like! Murray even told you to leave it alone! What did you think he was going to say? "Thank you for pointing out that I do nothing about the bullying in my school?" Why not just get a cross and crucify yourself in the quadrangle? You have to stick your neck out don't you? Making a fuss at the beginning of term, involving me in your crazy scheme, and now inviting yourself to my place for wrestling! Well you can forget about that! If I spend any more time with you I'll end up deranged!' He had been shouting, so the silence that followed was deafening. He stomped up the stairs and slammed the door behind him.

Robert sagged onto the mats; mind a blank. He hadn't passed on the invitation to the meal, thank goodness. Imagine he'd had that thrown back in his face! Excitement and anticipation evaporated. Dejection weighed on every muscle and bone as he put away the mats, changed back into school uniform and mounted the stairs. At the top he turned and looked back, still not believing what had happened.

A hand gripped his shoulder. Swinging round he was surprised to see Vaselly. A shake of the head stopped him from launching into excuses.

Closing the door behind him, Bart said softly, 'Sorry about that. I sometimes go off the handle when confronted by pig-ignorance and crass stupidity. I didn't mean any of what I said. You behaved commendably with that Corso kid, and were right not running to me with every little tale of woe. I respect you for it. It took me ten seconds to realise I was wrong and the rest of the time to pluck up the courage to apologise.' He gave a shame-faced grin. 'Am I forgiven?'

Robert laughed with relief. 'No worries! I was already at a loose end, wondering what to tell Mum. She's invited you to dinner tomorrow night to tell you they'll be delighted to let me study wrestling with the master. So, Teach, tomorrow you can give me a lift home after school.'

Bart Vaselly searched Robert's face for deceit, and found none. He wanted to hug this young man who had so enlivened his increasingly drab life, who seemed incapable of meanness, selfishness and self-importance. But he didn't dare. He had already come close to losing something precious and he wasn't going to risk it again. 'You can't keep calling me Mr Vaselly and Sir. My name's Bart.' His heart missed a beat. First names breeched his barricade. The relationship had shifted. They'd become equals. Doubt seeped into his belly and he began to sweat.

Unaware of the magnitude of the gesture, Robert clapped him on the shoulder. 'Good-one, Bart. See you tomorrow then. Cheers.' He was up the stairs and away before Bart could change his mind.

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