Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 7

At assembly on Friday morning the headmaster gazed across the lectern at the pupils; collecting his thoughts. After an inauspicious start, his headmastership of the school had blossomed in the wake of academic and sporting success, and for fifteen years he had filled the staffroom with kindred spirits. But things had changed. Not only had older teachers been replaced by a new, questioning breed who considered both him and his values irrelevant, but a new morality had swept the land. Marriage had been declared redundant along with fathers - a quarter of his students came from single parent homes. Nudity, explicit sexuality and violence ruled television and, according to rumours, the internet. Members of Parliament were daily exposed as corrupt, abortion was rife, sodomy was legal, and profit-at-any-cost had become the new religion.

In vain had he protested, written hundreds of letters, inveighed against moral decline at meetings, harangued staff and pupils, renounced earthly pleasures and devoted himself to spreading the message of God's love. Each day the world sank deeper into sin. Each day became more difficult to endure, each day his health crumbled along with falling standards of attainment, behaviour, language and dress.

A few years previously he had started a bible-studies group in an attempt to stem the tide of decay, but all the pupils except one – a lad for whom he felt a debt of gratitude out of all proportion to his meagre contribution - had deserted him. Crushed by failure, fearful of the future, fighting a hopeless rearguard defence of his values, Mr Nikelseer peered forth.

In the gallery, senior students were shuffling. Someone tittered in the body of the hall. He frowned for silence. Younger staff members shifted uncomfortably in their seats behind him. Mr Rands gazed across in despair; the old man was getting worse. Mr Nikelseer cleared his throat. When he spoke it was with great intensity, but his voice was cool, the tone judgmental, the effect alienating.

'All my actions are tempered by Christian love. That means I try to guide you along the paths of righteousness. That means I try to prevent you from doing something if it is wrong! It is not love when parents fail to discipline their child and give it everything it asks for. It can never be love to permit a child behave in a way that will doom him to a life of misery and loneliness!

'Every pupil has the right to the best education this school can offer, without fear. But rights demand responsibility. Each must play their own part well, and leave others to play theirs. Someone came to my office recently, asserting that there is bullying in this school. Naturally, I was shocked. How can we hold up our heads in pride if such rumours are promulgated? I have no tolerance for bullying, coercion, or intimidation of pupils who are striving for goodness.

'For a school to function properly, students must study and teachers must teach! The two occupations are mutually dependent yet profoundly separate. When the ignorant imagine they can teach the informed – chaos ensues.'

The school shuffled in baffled silence while their headmaster extracted the leather-bound bible from the shelf in the back of the lectern, placed it ceremoniously on top, opened it carefully, removed his spectacles, cleaned them on a white handkerchief, replaced them slowly, cleared his throat, and read:

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine: but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itchy ears. And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.

'I'll wait for you outside the Deli on the corner.' Robert had popped his head into Bart's office on his way back to class after checking the sports gear. They tried to avoid each other when working in the gym; no point in setting tongues wagging. Lots of kids were always milling around, preparing for fitness tests, practising gymnastics, lifting weights, shooting goals, or simply mucking about.

'Right. Let's say four o'clock. If I haven't finished by then, stuff it. I'm spending too much time on this job.'

It was four o'clock exactly when Bart's elderly Toyota pulled up. With a surreptitious scan of the streets to confirm no one was watching, Robert slipped quickly into the car. Inside, every removable thing had been stripped, carpets, sun-visors, glove-box lid, rear seats, headlining. As they drove off something rattled ominously in the dash.

Robert sniggered. 'What a bomb.'

'One complaint and you walk. Hyacinth's given me faithful service for three years. In two weeks he'll be as good as new.'

'I thought Hyacinth was a woman.'

'The original was a Spartan prince, Apollo's lover. Zephyrus, Apollo's enemy, killed Hyacinth. The flower sprang from his blood.'

Robert scanned Bart's face to see if he was serious or taking the mickey. He was concentrating on driving so Robert took a gamble and responded seriously. 'That's sad - and beautiful in a way.'

'Love stories often are. We're going to my place first. I'm not going to meet your parents smelling like a possum. I don't shower at school any more after the rash of tinea that's done the rounds.'

Robert groaned at the pun.

'Anyway, you'll have to find out where I live if you're coming tomorrow. Two o'clock?'

'Fine. Is your house as good as your car?'

'Cheeky sod! I want to take something, Do your parents like wine?'

'They hardly ever drink it.' Robert sucked his lip in thought. 'Tell you what, they're both crazy about rum truffles from the cake shop near us, but Mum refuses to buy them because she's afraid of getting fat, and Dad thinks it's beneath his dignity to go shopping. So that'd be good. I like them too.'

Bart's third floor apartment was in the front section of two identical three-storeyed blocks joined by concrete walkways around an open well that gave light to the basement car park. Carefully avoiding the bits of Hyacinth's interior that were stacked against the walls, Robert edged out of the garage and looked up at the three tiers of iron balustrades above. 'You'd think this type of place would have lock-up garages.'

'They probably thought the cars would be safe enough, tucked under here.'

'Wouldn't bet my life on it.'

Access to the apartments was via an internal staircase, dark even in daytime. None of the doors were open; all had a wide-angle visitor-viewer set into their solid panelling.

'Thrill-seeker's paradise,' commented Robert. 'Anyone could be waiting on these stairs to zonk you if they had a mind to. Aren't there any lights?'

'Supposed to be, but the switches were recently replaced by heat-sensors and they keep playing up. We all carry torches if it's dark. Nothing's happened so far.' Bart leaped ahead three steps at a time, unlocked the door and performed an exaggerated bow. 'Welcome to Chez Bart.'

Inside was nothing like the bleak concrete stairwell. A tiny carpeted vestibule gave onto a long, narrow lounge with an enormous sliding window completely filling the end wall. Robert slid it open and stepped out onto the balcony. 'Grouse view!' he called over his shoulder, gazing at the panorama of city, river, and hills. The low afternoon sun illuminated the interior right back to the small dining area and kitchenette.

A window above the sink-bench looked onto the common area, accessed through the back door. Robert let himself out and prowled the concrete walkways, decorated with dying pot plants. He peered over the handrail to the garages below. A tickle ran down his spine as Bart stood behind him. 'Can you get up here from the outside?'

Bart's breath ruffled the hairs on Robert's neck as he pointed over his shoulder. 'The stair-head's over there, but you have to go right around the back of the block and through a security door. It's supposed to be kept locked but never is. Only one of the residents owns her place, the rest are all tenants - mainly Uni students. They don't take much care.' He turned away. 'That's the grand tour, so come inside and make yourself at home while I shower and change. Help yourself to a drink if you can find anything.'

Robert filled a glass of water and turned to survey the living area. The pale green carpet was thick, clean and new, and all the furniture was expensive, modern and functional. He tried all the chairs for comfort, then studied the paintings. Two were popular impressionist prints, the others original oils. One, a semi-abstract arrangement of warm pastel oranges, blues and yellows, reminded him of the sea. The other featured mysterious trees silhouetted against a luminous, red-gold mountain and a bronzing sky. Shapes flitted through the vegetation, suggesting strange animal life. In a gloomy clearing, two naked figures wrestled violently, like Pollaiuolo's ten nudes.

Hearing the shower splash, he poked his head into the bedroom. A double bed occupied half the room, and tables either side each had their own lamp. Built-in wardrobes with floor to ceiling mirrored doors filled one wall. Opposite the window was a large coloured photograph of two wrestlers locked in combat. Everything was neat. Not even a pair of jocks lying around. He lay on the bed and found he could see himself in the mirror. The shower stopped. He leaped up, peeped into the other bedroom - a minuscule affair used as office and storeroom - and was stretched out on the sofa in the lounge sipping his water as Bart emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in a towel. 'If you want to use the loo, it's in there,' he offered as he went past.

The bathroom was tiny, a washroom really, just space for a toilet, washbasin and shower. An extractor fan was running. Robert sniffed the moist air, frowned, picked up the discarded clothes, brought them to his nose and smiled his recognition of the warm, male odour. So that's how dogs know who's in the house, he thought, both puzzled and amused by what he'd just done.

Back in the living room he browsed through the CD's. Mozart, Rossini, Weber, Schubert, Vivaldi. He had a bit to learn about Bart's musical tastes. He looked up as Bart entered. 'Hey, you look great! Love your threads. I've never seen you in anything except tracksuit and shorts.'

Bart managed to look both pleased and embarrassed as he brushed an imaginary fluff from the sleeve of his white shirt, whose Russian collar was embroidered with a line of blue and gold leaves. It was tucked into fitting, dark blue jeans-cut cords that made his already slender waist look ready to snap. Dark-blue suede boots completed the ensemble.

'Jeeze you look young. At school you've got two bad-tempered lines above your nose. They've gone. You look younger than Grant Fahey in Chemistry. Mum and Dad will never believe you're a teacher. Why don't you wear this gear to school?'

Bart flushed, wondering if he should change into something that made him look older. But if he looked too old, Robert's parents might have doubts. They'd bloody well have doubts anyway. The whole plan was stupid – stupid and dangerous. Teachers should avoid pupils after school. Nikelseer had made that abundantly clear. He couldn't remember a single teacher who hadn't spoken to him as though he was a sub-species. What a pathetic failure, resorting to school kids for company! Imagine the other teachers found out! He'd back out before it was too late.

Robert was rattling on. 'No, it'd be wasted on those clunk-heads. Give your clothes to me when you're sick of them. I'll bet you go to nightclubs and discos?'

'I never have time, I hate going alone, and I'm no good at picking people up, so I haven't been out anywhere for ages.'

'Half the girls at school have the hots for you.'

'I'm not a chicken stealer,' Bart countered far too loudly. Before Robert could cotton on he continued quickly, 'Apropos of that, I'm having second thoughts. You don't want to hang out with an old man like me, and I'm a hundred percent certain your parents won't want you to either. It's just too crazy and…' he shrugged helplessly and fell silent.

Robert's eyes widened. 'You're having me on! You can't do that, I've been looking forward all week. Don't be stupid! Too bloody old! What're you on about? You're only coming to meet the olds so I can wrestle here. We're not getting married or anything!' He stared intently at Bart, who looked away. 'Have I annoyed you? Was it something I said? Dad says I talk too much. The guys in the team used to get pissed off at the way I go on and on. They were always telling me to shut up or they'd strangle me. It must be me. Tell me what it is! Tell me why, Bart. The real reason. Not that you're too old. Too old for what? I don't get it!'

'I'm cautious about gossip. When teachers take students home, tongues wag. It's as simple as that.'

'But there's nothing to gossip about.'

'Gossip needs neither substance nor truth to destroy its victims.'

'I see, we live our lives to please others?'

'No! Camouflaged, we weave a path between enemy lines.'

'I'm not going to tell anyone.'

'Your parents?'

'Wait till you've met them before deciding.'

Bart shook his head and stared out the window. High School had been a torment from day one, when the skinny little boy (whose besotted mother kept his blond hair long and curly) had been labelled powder-puff by a small group of older boys. In vain did his classmates tell him to ignore the taunts. Sticks and stones wouldn't have upset him, it was names that hurt. He'd sweated over his body, cut his hair short and prepared to do battle, but there was nothing to fight. Name-callers tossed their barbs on the air, then strolled on. Sometimes it would die down, but just when he felt he could relax, 'Powder-Puff' would echo along the corridor.

Three senior students once got a head-lock on him in the toilets, dragged down his trousers, shoved the fire-hose nozzle up his bum and turned it on before racing out laughing wildly. His self-esteem dwindled to nothing. He didn't dare tell his parents. It was obviously his fault, but he had no idea how to stop doing whatever it was that sparked the abuse. When the older boys left, louts from other classes took up the taunts.

University had been a relief so profound that for weeks he felt as if he was floating. Only once had the numbing fear returned. During his first year he heard 'Powder-Puff' drifting across the grass. His guts sank and froze. He wanted to vomit. If it happened one more time, he promised himself, he'd quit Uni and head interstate. Life wasn't worth that! It had never happened again, but the dread remained because he still had no idea what it was that set off the teasing in the first place. He faced Robert, voice tight with apprehension. 'OK, but I doubt if your parents will approve.'

'In that gear you're odds on. Is this place yours?'

'Nothing's mine except the sound system, CD's, and the two paintings. The unit belongs to a retired couple living on acreage on the Sunshine Coast. They keep it in case they want to spend a night in town. I usually visit them in the holidays. Not bad, is it?'

'The sort of place I'd like. Did you pose for the wrestlers in the painting?

Bart nodded, a half-smile on his lips.

'And that's you wrestling in the photo in the bedroom?'

'Made a quick tour did you?'

'You can watch yourself wank in the mirror from your bed.'

'Cheeky bugger! What makes you think I wank?'

'A shot in the dark.'

'Good one.'

Fifteen minutes later they were entering the Karim kitchen, clutching gift-wrapped rum-truffles.

'Hi, Mum.'

Monique was chopping onions. She wiped her hands on her apron.

'Mum, Bart - Bart, Mum.'

'How do you do, Bart.'

'Hello, Mrs Karim.'

They shook hands and Monique shot a questioning look. 'You didn't tell me you were bringing one of your school friends, dear. Not that it matters, there's plenty. But when is Mr Vaselly arriving?'

Embarrassed smile from Bart, loud hoot from Robert.

'This is Mr Vaselly.'

'Oh, I am sorry. How silly of me, you look so young. Please do not take offence. I don't know why, but I was expecting someone older.'

'I told her what a terror you are at school.'

'You look more like classmates than student and teacher. You must call me Monique; it might make me feel younger.' She flapped her hands. 'Ouf! I'm flustering. The meal is not ready to be left on its own, so you two amuse yourselves. Take a shower, Robert, you are not smelling beautiful and look a crow scare.' - Monique was definitely flustered.

'Come and see what a mess my bedroom's in. You won't believe how neat Bart's place is, Mum, nothing out of place. It's a beaut unit, just the sort I want.'

'Not yet I hope.'

'You never know your luck.'

Robert's room formed the western leg of a U made by the living area and the rest of the house. It jutted into the garden, collecting afternoon sun. Being behind the garage it was quiet. Presumably designed as guest quarters, it had its own toilet and tiny shower recess, as well as an outside door. It was no messier than the usual seventeen year-old's bedroom, everything out ready in case. Bart sat on the spare bed and stared out at the garden while Robert showered and dressed.

'I like the way your mother pronounces your name.'

'Yeah. It's a French name too.'

'Sounds more…I don't know - gentle and civilised than rob-bit.'

'Shows how names can mislead.'

'Perhaps. Nice room, excellent house. You're lucky.'

'Don't I know it. We only moved here at the end of last term. You should have seen our last house, real box of a place in a treeless, bleak outer suburb. Deathsville man. This is my style, I love it.'



Bart's nervousness had returned with a vengeance. The parents would definitely suspect him of ulterior motives. At school, Robert carried things along in his easy, self-confident way. But here! They were obviously well off. Monique was foreign, good-looking and intelligent. He had no experience of this sort of family and was overcome by shyness. He'd probably be turfed out on his ear as soon as the father came home. 'What does your father do?'

'Lectures, and imports things from India and sells them. I don't really know much about it. Guess I ought to.'

They let themselves out the side door.

'Isn't it beaut having a garden? Our last one was just pebbles and bark chips. The block was so small there wasn't room for anything after the house was stuck on it. No privacy. These older places have huge blocks. This is at least twelve hundred square metres.' Robert knew he was babbling, but couldn't stop himself. 'Do you know the names of the plants? I don't know any.'

At last, a way to shine. Mrs Vaselly buried her anger and sadness in the garden and had passed her love of it on to her son. They would walk around it in the evenings noting how this or that plant was growing, whether it should be pruned, wondering if it needed transplanting. Mostly they would simply admire the colours and textures, enjoying their time together. He was the only one in the family who shared her interest. Suitably impressed by Bart's ability to identify every tree, shrub and flower by its botanical name, Robert led them to the flagstone terrace fronting the lounge and dining room. French-doors were open, spilling a cosy glow and delicious odour into rapidly cooling air.

'Come in and close the doors before the humidity gets in. Would you like beer, fruit-juice or tea, Bart?'

'A fruit-juice would be perfect, thanks.'

They had just settled themselves when Sanjay arrived. Bart leaped nervously to his feet and was introduced. Robert's father showed no surprise at the visitor's youth, merely made the usual polite noises before taking himself off to freshen up.

The meal was a masterpiece. Soup, croutons, green salad garnished with Monique's own dressing, vegetables served separately to guard their delicate flavours, and patties in crumbled cashews with rice and a spicy sauce. A soufflé was followed by cheese, fruit, coffee and a liqueur. After two hours of intelligent food and conversation, Bart was seduced. Sanjay refused to be drawn on the question of age.

'I remember years ago being told that when policemen start looking like boys, you're getting old. I suppose it also applies to teachers. I refuse to see anyone as young. As far as I'm concerned, Bart, you and I are the same age.'

Bart wondered what it would've been like to have a father who loved him instead of belting him; who was interested in him, wanted to see his school reports, to know what he'd been doing. It had come as a surprise to discover that other kids loved their fathers and wanted to spend time with them. 'I can't remember the last time I felt so at ease,' he said with a smile.

Sanjay nodded. 'I was thinking the same thing. Most people seem to be trying to prove something, to impress, or have a chip on their shoulder. We are simple people.'

'Then I must be too.'

'Of course. We are all simply marvellous and dying to know more about you. Are you from Brisbane? What is your family like? Do you see them often? Have you any brothers and sisters? How is your mother?' Monique could out-babble her son.

'Mum! Cut the inquisition!'

'No it's fine, Robert. Your parents have a right to know. It is a bit strange that you're hanging out with someone so much older.'

'Not at all!' interrupted Sanjay abruptly. 'Robert's a creature of egregious enthusiasms and has always had acquaintances of all ages. It's healthy! I was the same.' He took hold of his wife's hand. 'Friends, on the other hand, are like hens' teeth. Too rare to restrict to people your own age. Monique is six years younger than me, was my first real friend, and will probably be my last. Lots of acquaintances and one or two close friends – that's the ideal. Your age difference might seem a lot now, but in a few years it'll be nothing. Also, no offence, but despite your serious mien, you seem young… and inexperienced.

'Serious mien,' Bart repeated with a wry grin. 'That's a polite way of saying dull and boring. But you're right. I've had to fend for myself and I guess that left no time for carefreeness, if there's such a word.' He looked up, blushed, and continued. 'I went to Uni when I was seventeen, took a three year course to become a PE teacher and started teaching last year. I feel as though I've never been a teenager. Although I'm nearly five years older than Robert, I feel the same age inside. Stupid isn't it?'

'I don't think so,' defended Monique. 'I'm still eighteen. I suspect everyone is.'

'Not me, I'm sixteen,' put in Sanjay. 'But how do you mean you had to fend for yourself? Are you an orphan?'

Bart laughed. 'No, I've two sisters and a brother. Seventeen, nineteen and twenty-one, evenly spaced. Dad works in a flourmill, Mum's a housewife. There's never been much money and Dad reckoned I should fend for myself when I turned fifteen, so things got tight and it was a bit hard to keep on at school and finish studying. But I got there. Mum loves gardening, my youngest sister's still at school - year twelve - like Robert. The others have jobs. That's about it.'

'So we could be brothers. I knew it.'

'You've done well.' Sanjay nodded his head in approval, then frowned slightly before continuing carefully. 'We are perfectly happy, Bart, for Robert to practice wrestling at your place, although I can't imagine how you managed to interest him in it. But, are you certain you have the time to waste on him?' Sanjay not only sounded, but also looked incredulous as he added, 'Surely a good looking young man like you has something better to do on a Saturday afternoon?'

Bart blushed. He didn't have anything better to do! What an admission. He began to sweat. This was turning into the inquisition he had dreaded. They were suspicious. How the hell to answer? Resisting the temptation to spout altruistic nonsense about it being a teacher's duty to foster good students, he lurched into unadorned fact. 'The truth is, I've made no friends in the last eighteen months, and all work and no play's made Bart a dull boy. It'll be good to have someone else's company on a weekend,' he risked a joke, 'even if it is just a snotty nosed kid.'

Robert clipped him over the ear and Bart laughed with relief at having admitted his failure.

'Then that is excellent,' said Monique, who did not like to be in anyone's debt. 'Everyone is happy.'

The conversation became desultory until it was time to go. Robert walked Bart out to the car and leaned in the window. 'Thanks for coming. See you tomorrow after lunch. My parents really like you, I can tell... And so do I!' he called over his shoulder as he ran back into the house.

Finding sleep elusive, Monique and Sanjay lay talking in the dark.

'Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Sanni?'

'I imagine so.'

'I wondered why he had been so… vivant lately.'

'A welcome change after the last couple of years.'

'Yes, but what should we do?'

'There's nothing to do.'

'But he's in love.'

'They both are.'

'Does he know?'

'Unlikely. He was behaving too naturally.'

'Then it will probably never happen.' She sighed her relief.



'Something always happens. Sometimes it's good – sometimes bad. Usually a bit of both.'

'We must dissuade Robert.' A note of urgency.


'He's young. It's just hero-worship and… and it is not natural.'

'It is for him, Monique.'

'You mean?'

'No one chooses the person they love – it just happens.'

'Don't you care?'

'Not in the least,' Sanjay replied with slightly less fervour than he would have liked. He was unable to guess what his wife was thinking. She sounded uncharacteristically equivocal so he announced as positively as he could manage, 'All I know is, I love Robert and only desire his happiness.'

'So do I!' Slightly defensive.

'Life is difficult enough. I do not intend to add to my son's burden. Does it worry you?'

Monique gave an unconvincing laugh. 'Au contraire, chérie, I'd be jealous of a daughter-in-law.'

'But a son-in-law would be acceptable?'

'If he is beau, fort, intelligent et grand.'

'Madam! Keep your lusts at bay.'

'With you beside me? Impossible.'


'So… we approve of the wrestling?'

'We already have. We should congratulate ourselves.'

'For what?'

'Our boy has chosen well.'

'Even though Bart's older and… and a teacher?'

'Robert's nearly eighteen. He's no longer a boy, he's a man! There's scarcely five years between them and I wouldn't mind betting they're both still virgins.'

Monique was shocked. 'Mais, c'est impossible, such a handsome young man.'

'Even so.'

'Is Robert's… something to do with us?'

'Not according to reputable scientific research. Too late to worry now, anyway.'

'So… we will always love and support him.'

'Of course.'

Only half convinced by their own confident assertions, with almost fearful gratitude they tremulously reconfirmed the extraordinary gift of their love for each other before drifting into restless sleep.

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