Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 13

The following Tuesday morning, Monique and Susie found an excitable, chain-smoking Mrs Sorens at home. In rasping cadences she welcomed and invited them in. The house was large, blatantly expensive and extraordinarily messy. Dried washing skulked in its basket in the middle of the hall-way, the sink bench was submerged beneath unwashed dishes, a partially dismantled vacuum cleaner emptied its dust into a corner, shopping was still in plastic bags on the dining table and discarded clothing littered the living area. Closed windows left the house airless and stale, while sunlight slanting through recklessly askew venetian blinds, illuminated swathes of dust-spangled webs around the bookcase and under lounge-room chairs. None of Susie's carefully constructed excuses about shared art classes were required to explain her visit.

'Thank goodness!' their hostess grated. 'Visitors! You've saved me from the housework. I hate it,' she added unnecessarily, rummaging in a pile of possibly-washed china. 'Grab a mug, I think there are enough clean ones, and let's take our coffees out on the verandah where I can't see the mess. What the eye doesn't see, eh?' She laughed coarsely as though coining the original naughty joke. 'No biscuits, sorry, I'm on a diet!'

Ducking under an unappetising banner of wet underwear, they dusted off the elegant, excruciatingly uncomfortable wrought-aluminium chairs and sat, clinging to their coffee mugs for support. A friendly few minutes were spent discussing the art classes before Susie asked solicitously if Mrs Sorens was having any luck with her daughter. Placing her coffee mug on a pile of newspapers and adjusting generous buttocks more comfortably on the perilously flimsy chairs, Mandy's mother drew a censorious breath before giving vent to an eruption of bitter self-pity. For several minutes, and with an astonishingly varied vocabulary, she denounced unappreciative daughters who let their parents down.

On Wednesday afternoons Sanjay played squash or golf. Today he had arranged a squash game with an associate whose special interest was invasions of privacy, and laws intended to prevent such things. Paul Irvine resembled the original brick shit-house; shaven head, thick neck, huge biceps, tree-trunk legs, barrel chest and no waist. Sensuous moist lips laughed at everything and everyone, making him a man impossible to either ignore or like. He arrived in a pair of enormous red shorts, joggers, and a purple T-shirt emblazoned with the message, Beware! Buggers at Work! At one metre ninety he was an impressive sight. Despite his dimensions, he was agile and bounced around the court like an inflated toy. After winning five hard games in a row, during which Sanjay was sure he had cracked an elbow, fractured his shoulder-blade and dislocated an ankle, Paul gracelessly accepted the victor's spoils of a drink in the cafeteria.

'If I wanted to find out personal details about someone, Paul, how would I go about it?'

'What someone?'

'A businessman whose son has been harassing people. I'm considering confronting the father with the son's activities, but I'd like to know a bit about him first.'


'No, not at all! Well… I don't know, yes… I suppose so… in a way... I'm not sure.'

'Great to meet a man who knows his own mind.'

'I know what I want, but I'm not sure why. It's all a bit complicated. Anyway, how do I find out personal details about someone?'

'No idea, Sanjay. According to detective stories you need a friend in the police force who owes you one. He'll check through their computers and give you a run-down on everything from the suspect's parking tickets to the last time the Federal police bugged his phone. Got anyone like that?'

A shake of the head.

'Competent hackers can get into personal computers and read faxes and saved mail. I'm not in that class, I often can't even find my own files.'

Sanjay looked despondent. 'And here I wasted an afternoon being beaten at squash. I thought you were the expert on invasions of privacy?'

'The infringements, not how to do it. Who is he and what have you tried?

'Osbairne. I haven't done anything yet, I was hoping you'd push a button and tell me everything I wanted to know.'

'The name rings no bells, but my memory's not up to much. Come up to my office and I'll take a look.

Sanjay peered over Paul's shoulder as he keyed in, Bugged & Buggers.

'Your choice of file name?'

'Of course.'

'Hence the T Shirt?'


Under Osbairne there was one small entry: Osbairne, Herbert, Harry. 'This is the only bloke of that name. Filed for bankruptcy 1987. Complained to Civil Liberties that his name was published in the newspapers – reckoned someone had infiltrated his files. Won't get you far, might not even be the same bloke. Look, forget the private detective bit, Sanjay. Go and ask the chap.'

'You're right of course, but it doesn't have the same thrill as secret codes and computer print-outs.'

Paul grunted, impatient to be elsewhere.

'Thanks for the game and advice.'

Another grunt.

The telephone directory divulged several Osbairnes, but none labelled "Lance's Father". A telephone call to the school proved more fruitful.

'Who is calling please?' asked the receptionist politely.

Caught completely off guard, Sanjay blurted out the first name that entered his head. 'Sorens.' Please don't let the secretary be a friend of the family, he whispered as she went off in search of the details. She wasn't, and read out the Chairman's home number.

'This is the Osbairne residence, to whom am I speaking?'

Sanjay could scarcely stop his laughter. The voice was his mother's, right down to the last, soft, Hebridean burr and the inevitable 'to whom'.

'It is perhaps rude of me to inquire, but you're from the Outer Hebrides, aren't you? For a second I nearly said hello, Mother.'

'What do you want?' The woman was in no mood for a chat.

'Is that Mrs Osbairne?'

'She is dead. I am the housekeeper.'

'Oh, I am sorry.'

'Why? She died five years ago. If you knew her you've waited long enough to renew contact.'

'Can I speak to Mr Osbairne?'


'Could you tell me where to contact him.'

'I've no idea. Try one of his businesses.'

'I don't know them.'

Her impatient sigh was the audio equivalent of tightly pursed lips, stiffening neck tendons and a narrowing of impatient, glittering eyes. Sanjay completed his mental picture with rimless glasses, no make-up, hair scraped tightly into a bun and heavy legs disappearing into sensible, lace-up shoes. There was an irritated shuffling of papers and impatient intakes of breath before the three businesses that constituted the Osbairne empire were announced. 'Oz Dry-Cleaners, Arnold's Secretarial agency, Oz-Bairne Property Management.'

'Do you have the addresses?'

An exquisite spluttering which almost arrived physically through the handset preceded a very terse, 'Use the telephone directory!'

Sanjay followed her advice and, now that he knew the number, discovered the home address in the process. It was only a dozen streets away so he drove round.

The Osbairnes inhabited an elegant, but neglected old wooden house, the exterior of which boasted intricate fretwork around the verandah, a complicated roofline, carved finials and a desperate need for several coats of paint. Sanjay leaned on the stone fence and peered at the beautifully kept garden.

'Like it, do you?' A skin and bone old man in tweed trousers, white shirt and dark blue tie had been kneeling directly beneath, weeding a bed of zinnias.

'Oh, sorry, I didn't see you there. Yes indeed! It's a brilliant garden. Quite a contrast.'

'With the house? Yes, I couldn't go on living here if the garden also went to rack and ruin.'

'Are you Mr Osbairne, of Oz-Bairne's Property Management?'

'No, that's my son, the lazy bugger. I gave him this house and look what he's done with it.' He shook his head in despair. 'Or hasn't done! I live in the cottage at the back.'

'It must have been great once.'

'Classic! Pressed-steel ceilings, fretwork, breezeways, glazing no one's seen for fifty years, French-polished hardwood panelling.' He paused for a second to appraise his listener. Satisfied that Sanjay's interest was genuine, he asked, 'Would you like to see inside?'

'Very much.'

Inside, all was dim, musty and cold. A long, wide hallway, divided into three sections by two flamboyant wooden arches, bisected the house. The front room, to the left of the entrance, was both large and elegantly proportioned. High ceilings still bore traces of the hand painted reliefs of a century before, and two enormous floor-to-ceiling bay windows gave an aura of antique opulence. Such reminders of past splendour rendered the mismatched furniture, lack of paintings on the walls, faded torn curtains, damp spots and worn patches on the carpet, even more depressing. They had barely entered the room when a smartly presented and coiffured woman in her thirties thrust her slim figure into the door-way with a sharp, 'Who are you and what are you doing here?'

Sanjay didn't trust himself to speak in case his own voice was as easily recognisable. He smiled gently at his host.

'Oh bugger off you stupid Scotch bitch. Go on, bugger off!'

Her face was a picture no one would hang. With an arrogant toss of the head she stalked out, high heels beating a receding tattoo of disapproval down the uncarpeted hallway.

'My son's idea of a house-keeper,' the old man snorted in disgust. 'That tarty bitch was supposed to have kept an eye on young Lance after his mother died, but she's made him worse. Leaving at the end of the week, thank Christ. Can't stand the sight of her!' This verbal assassination had been fog-horned loud enough to be heard at the far corners of the house.

'Not a bad room,' he stated proudly. 'We used to have dances and parties in here. There's nothing like that now for young people. The poor kids haven't the foggiest what they're missing so it's no use feeling sorry for them. I'm just bloody glad I'm not young. I'm also glad I'll be dead soon. What a world we're making. What a world.' Head shaking in sadness for times past, he led Sanjay, who was making vague murmurings of agreement, to a wall covered in magnificent hard-wood panelling. 'Look at this!' he protested. 'Just look at it!'

From close up it was appallingly apparent that someone had taken to the panels with an inexpertly guided skill-saw. Rough edges and the backs of already rusting hinges protruded. Osbairne senior grabbed hold of an edge at the centre and gave a hefty tug. The entire wall reluctantly folded at each hinge and could, with difficulty, be manhandled in a concertina fashion until it was more or less tucked away at each side. This manoeuvre exposed a narrow altar jammed against the wall of the revealed alcove, replete with white cloth, two candles in cut-glass holders, and a large, shiny brass cross. An ornate scroll on the wall above assured its readers that GOD is JUST. This alarming declaration made Sanjay wonder what the Osbairnes thought of Portia's plea to season justice with mercy.

'Isn't this a load of utter bullshit?' The old man was nothing, if not direct.

Sanjay nodded, horrified that anyone could so vandalise such beautiful panelling.

'Arnold's playing wet-nurse to a pathetic bunch of born-again-Christians who've had an argument with their preacher. They rent this place twice a week. They're all well heeled business people, scratching each other's backs. If there wasn't a profit in it my son wouldn't have been sucked in by that idiot headmaster at Lance's school. Or maybe it was the other way round. God knows. The silly old bugger's always here with a clutch of other simple-minded morons.' He shook his head in despair. 'Lance has been drinking in their bigotry and attending some stupid Bible-class. It's made him bad. I used to worry but now I've given up.' Osbairne senior looked hard at Sanjay as though testing him. Apparently deciding it was safe to unload his bitterness, he continued. 'My son, however, is worse than my grandson. He drove his wife to drink and an early grave. Would like to do the same to me - but I won't give him that pleasure.' Both body and voice seemed to shrink, as he added, 'I'm ashamed to have sired him.'

The sudden shadow from a passing cloud underlined the dispiriting tale. Sanjay placed his hand on the old man's arm. 'Mr Osbairne,' he said softly, 'I'm grateful to you for showing me the house, but I prefer your garden. That's the product of a healthy, sane mind.' Gently, he guided him outside where they cheered up immediately, made a round of the garden, bid each other farewell and went their separate ways.

Bart returned to school on Thursday wearing a roll-neck skivvy under his tracksuit to hide still livid bruises. At the beginning of the second period he went to the "dungeon", where he found Mr Pinot concentrating on a game of computer solitaire. His contented smile faded pathetically when asked what he knew about Lance Osbairne. Once assured Bart's interest lay solely with the harassment of Murray, and his own skeleton was still safely in its closet, Warren threw caution to the wind. His brush with young Osbairne's mercenary depravity had left him severely disenchanted.

'He's as thick as thieves with Ian Nikelseer,' Mr Pinot confided. 'Ian began a Bible-studies group the year before you arrived, and Lance was the leading light. As far as I can gather his father gives support to Ian's oddball religious sect, and Saint-Ian thinks the sun shines out of you know where. He's been a Bible thumping evangelist as long as I've known him, and that's over a quarter of a century. Lately, though, he's become quite peculiar - dragging kids off to his office to put the fear of God into them, literally!' Mr Pinot glanced at his computer screen, blushed at the message asking whether he wanted another game, cancelled it and returned his attention to Bart with a sigh of resignation.

Bart smiled encouragement.

'Like me, Ian's due to retire this year so there seems little point in doing anything. Mind you, blokes as nutty as him are two-a-penny in local councils, state parliament and every bloody corridor of power.' He shook his head and looked up, shy at such an unwonted outburst. 'Lance is the only one left of the original Bible class, sucks up to Nikelseer like a leech, spies for him and devours all the boss's paranoia as gospel. They remind me of a misguided Prospero and his Ariel.'

'More like Caliban, perhaps?'

Mr Pinot smiled his assent, turned again to the computer, typed in an access code and invited Bart to look over his shoulder. Lance had been absent from eighty-four periods so far that year. For both of the previous two years, his interim test results for each subject had been abysmal, and yet he had managed to pass the examination at the end of each term.

Unfortunately, the guidance counsellor knew nothing else about Lance, having kept as far out of his orbit as everyone else in the school. Few students came to Mr Pinot for serious guidance, so it wasn't likely he would hear about drug use, or anything else for that matter. Bart briefly outlined his suspicions regarding Murray's death and recounted his own almost fatal experience. Warren was suitably shaken, especially when he understood that, were this conversation to leak out, he might suffer similar treatment.

The groundsman was oiling mowers in the tractor shed. Ralf Boreham, a solid man in his fifties with a well-trimmed grey beard, kind eyes and Northern English accent, had skills with machinery that kept him in constant demand. He was endlessly inventive, loved the kids and helped with staging school plays and musicals by creating special effects, organising sound systems, lights, anything that required skill and imagination. He and Bart had hit it off from the start. After the usual pleasantries and congratulations on the state of the playing fields, the question of Murray Corso was raised and Bart's suspicions voiced.

Ralf's eyebrows shot up and he glowered like a garden gnome. 'Those bloody cops and that bastard in the front office need their flaming heads read. I kept telling them there was something not right; that Murray wouldn't have drunk that stuff deliberately. But would they listen? Would they take a blind bit of notice? Not on your nelly. I'm just the groundsman. They're the professionals. It was all they could do not to tell me to pull my head in!'

He shook his head in frustration before continuing bitterly, 'I really liked that kid. He had guts. I know he acted a bit of a girl, but so what? He was tougher than a lot of the so-called he-men around the place. The hidings he used to take and then get up and never give them the joy of knowing they'd hurt him. It'd be better if he had,' he added reflectively. 'By not giving in he was almost forcing them to go on until they broke him. That's why I let him use the storeroom. I reckoned he deserved a break.' Ralf stopped and looked Bart in the eye as though defying him to disagree. 'He was a great kid,' he said belligerently, before biting his lip and turning back to the mowers.

'I agree with you. And Robert Karim's also convinced it's not the sort of thing he'd do.'

'Who's he?'

'New pupil this term. Stopped Lance belting into Murray once.'

Ralf's face cleared. 'Good looking kid? Half Indian or something?'

Bart nodded.

'Murray liked him.'

Bart felt obscurely proud. 'What was the room like when you found him?' he asked carefully.

'A hell of a mess! Stuff off the shelves, the insecticide open on its side spilling onto the floor, bloody dangerous fumes. Murray was twisted in a heap in the corner, hands grabbing at his mouth and stomach, head thrown back, eyes wide…' Ralf's voice shrivelled. 'I still have nightmares.'

'Did it look as though he had drunk it alone, or… or could someone else have been there?'

Ralf looked at Bart strangely, started to shake his head, thought better of it and asked angrily, 'What are you getting at? You're not pushing the same bloody barrow as those blasted cops are you?'

Bart looked nonplussed.

'Those snarky bastards had the cheek to suggest I'd been having it off with young Murray and had forced him to drink the stuff because he was threatening to report me, or some claptrap. I tell you, I bloody near gave them a bunch of fives. They asked what it had been like in the Navy, where my wife was, all polite and smarmy. But I knew what they were getting at. After that I shut up. I'm going to say nowt to those bastards – ever! There's no way I'm going to get involved in that sort of mire. It wouldn't bring Murray back, and from what I've heard about his folks he's better off dead. It shouldn't be like this though,' he muttered, turning once more to the mowers.

'Ralf, I know you're a good man. Of course that's utter crap! I was just wondering if the louts who bullied him could have found him and done it.'

Ralf looked up. 'Of course they did, but they left no clues did they? Look, Bart, I'm sorry, I can't talk about it any more, I've told you everything I know. If I go on any longer I'll be blubbering like a girl. If I think of anything else I'll let you know.'

The Course Skills Tests had been held over the preceding four days and Robert was pretty sure he'd done well. He waited for Bart at the usual place on the Thursday evening and they spent the night at his flat in celebration of both the end of the tests, and Bart's almost complete recovery. It was remarkable how quickly bruises had faded and cuts and scratches had healed. 'No fat, and a healthy constitution,' the doctor had explained. He still had to be careful with his back, but it was nothing rest wouldn't cure.

Bart's stay with the Karims had been heaven. Already on the first morning at breakfast it felt as though he had lived with them all their lives. He fitted in, helped with household chores and somehow made the family complete. 'This is what we've been missing. Three's company, four's perfect.' was Monique's only comment.

Nevertheless, the two young men had felt some insecurity and many inhibitions. They knew so little about each other, and nothing about living together. These things they needed to find out in private - something Monique and Sanjay understood. They had lived with his mother for nearly a year when they first arrived back in Australia, and it had almost destroyed the marriage. Their love needed many daily commitments, frequent kisses, touches, loving looks and the performing of little services. If they didn't kiss and say, 'I love you' at least five times a day, they didn't feel complete.

Giving oneself totally to another is an act of poetic bravery, rendering both giver and receiver vulnerable, and like all investments the returns are commensurate with the risks. Their insistence on Bart's staying with them had been a convenient and, they hoped, reasonably subtle way of showing the boys how they felt. But they also understood and lauded their desire for privacy.

Within ten minutes of their arrival a tap at the back door. Hazel, face wreathed in smiling wrinkles and bearing a huge, layered, chocolate-and-cream cake. At least ten million calories and all of it homemade and delicious. Protesting she didn't want to intrude, it was just to show how pleased she was that Bart had recovered, she was none the less persuaded to stay and enjoy a slice with a cup of tea. Bart presented her with the enormous bunch of flowers and box of chocolates he'd bought on the way home.

'Thanks, Hazel the Life-Saver,' he said seriously, planting a noisy kiss on her brow.

'Me too,' laughed Robert giving her a hug. 'You're the greatest, Hazel.'

'Ah, my two diamonds, if anything's worth saving, it's you.'

Like a pair of newborn Adams they awoke the next morning into their own, freshly-minted world.

'Today I trail the three stooges and their molls.'

'It's no joke, Robert! Those three are not to be taken lightly. Don't do anything silly and don't go outside the school grounds.'

'Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.'

'Stop it! This is not some thriller movie where you go out on a limb and get rescued in the nick of time. Next week, next term, we can follow this up. There's no hurry, and if they feel they aren't watched they may do something silly.' He placed both hands on Robert's shoulders and looked into his eyes. 'Promise?' The look was chilling. Robert suffered a vision of the crumpled heap that would have been Bart without Hazel's intervention. They hugged and he promised.

'But I've got to have something to report.

'You'd better have bloody good test results, that's all that matters at the moment.'

Robert was dropped off a few blocks before school so they could arrive separately, both certain they were never going to last until Saturday afternoon.

Before his first lecture on Friday, Sanjay drove past the three Osbairne businesses. Oz Dry-Cleaners was shut off from the world behind heavy roller doors and, like the house of its owner, in need of maintenance. It didn't look ready for any sort of work, being situated behind a row of warehouses beside the railway tracks. A tax write-off? The Secretarial Agency appeared just as it should. A shiny glass door emblazoned with Arnold's Secretarial Agency in elegant gold letters, and beneath it Oz-Bairne Property Management in workmanlike black. It opened directly into a small vestibule with stairs leading to offices on the first floor. His morning's reconnaissance complete, Sanjay spent the rest of the working day entertaining himself and educating his students.

Friday's assembly began as usual with the procession of staff on to the stage, except that Bart wasn't among them. He still limped a little but had explained his wounds with a self-deprecating joke about well-coordinated PE teachers tripping down stairs. Mr Nikelseer glowered at the assembled pupils from behind his lectern, academic gown fluttering in the light breeze like a twitchy bat. After a portentous clearing of throat and without introduction, he launched into his reading.

These six things doth the Lord hate,
Yea seven are an abomination unto him.
A proud look, a lying tongue
And hands that shed innocent blood.
An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations,
Feet that be swift in running to mischief,
A false witness that speaketh lies
And he that soweth discord among brethren.

Rapidly scribbling down the words, Robert became aware of Lance peering over his shoulder.

'Reckon the Lord hates you, Brown-eye?' he whispered into the narrow space between them, leaving a sweetish, unpleasant taste on the air. Pretending to be startled, Robert whipped up the hard edge of his notebook, catching Lance under the nostrils. 'Sorry, Lance, you startled me,' Robert smiled sweetly.

'And where's your precious Vaselly then?' his enemy snarled through watering eyes. 'Can't hack the pace?'

'What pace? Sounds as though you've an eye on him, Lance.'

Another day off to a precarious start.

Shadowing five students is no easy matter, as Robert soon discovered. The only one he could find at interval was Lance, in the common room with the others when he poked his head in.

'Robert! You must come to our End-of-Test party on Saturday night.' Marcia was bubbling with her usual enthusiasm and not-yet-extinguished hope for a love affair with Robert. 'It's at my place for a meal first, and then we might go on to a club or something if we get bored. Do say you'll come! We never see anything of you except at school, and even here you're usually busy.'

'I don't think it's exactly his scene,' sneered Lance. 'You're not into taking girls out for a good time, are you, Brown-eye? Maybe if you offered to wrestle with him he might accept.'

'Shut-up, Lance. Thanks, Marcia, I'd love to come. I'm in a rush right now so I'll get the details from you in Art History.' As he left the room, wondering how Lance knew about his wrestling, he could have kicked himself. There he was back to his old ways, doing things to please others. Only this time it was self-preservation. But what a fuck-up! The last thing he wanted was to go to a stupid party at Marcia's. She obviously still fancied him and he especially didn't want to go if Lance was going to be there. How to refuse without attracting attention? Saturday was his night with Bart! What the hell was he going to do? Would Bart understand? He could always cancel; like his grandmother. She would accept every invitation then back out with charming apologies at the last minute, leaving her erstwhile hosts admiring her fortitude in the face of such disappointment.

Postponing a decision until later he set off to find the groundsman. Success. Ralf knew where Lance's cronies usually hung out; under the cottonwood tree on the back boundary beside the cricket shed. After a bit of persuasion, Ralf handed over the key to the shed with a demand for it to be returned without fail before the end of school.

A couple of minutes before lunch, Robert excused himself from Chemistry. The shed door hadn't been opened since the previous season and the padlock needed oiling, but the bolt was greased and opened easily, but the hinges were very stiff. The lunch bell was already ringing before he managed to wrench the door open, pull it closed behind him and conceal himself. He guessed he would be fine as long as no one noticed the bolt wasn't shot home on the outside. It was a brick structure, low ceilinged with small barred windows on each end wall. There wasn't much space between the enormous roller, two hand mowers, motor mower, two hundred-litre fuel drum, a couple of pitch covers, a pile of old stumps, balls of string, line marker, bag of whitewash and other paraphernalia. He squeezed over to the grimy window facing out onto the cottonwood, lugged over a couple of sacks for a cushion and settled down to wait.

He had hardly taken a bite of his roll before girls' voices approached. He didn't look out in case they saw him, but the unlined walls allowed him to hear them breathing. One farted, sending the other into gales of laughter, reminding her of a smutty joke about an old bloke who shat himself. Robert learned nothing useful. They were pissed off with Mandy not being allowed out till the end of term, discussed recent record purchases and what they were going to wear on Saturday night to the club. Then - 'Where's Lance? He promised he'd be here with the stuff. I could murder that bony bastard, he knows I get up-tight on Fridays.' She started hitting the wall with a stick, chanting 'Fuck, bloody fuck....'

'Give it a rest, Raylene. You make me tired, always swearing. Hasn't Lance given you your cut?'

'No, he's supposed to give it to me now, with the uppers. Is he still screwing you?'

'Yeah. Funny how a skinny runt like him has such a huge dick. He hurt me last time, going on and on and then wanted to tie me up while Ernest and Nigel had their go. I'm getting sick of him.' She stopped talking and blew her nose. When she spoke again her voice had lost its bravado and gained a quiver. 'He's kinky and… and since Mandy got caught I've been worried.' She began to snivel. 'Mum and Dad'll kill me if they find out. I... Oh Raylene! I want out of this thing. It's making me crazy.' The snivel became a wail.

'Don't blub all over my blouse. Christ you're a wimp. I thought you needed the money? At least you know who's getting into your pants each week. Just tell Lance you've had enough.'

'I tried to, but he said, "OK. I'll write a note to your parents thanking them for their daughter's services." I couldn't.' She blew her nose wetly.

'You should've thought of that before. At least you're getting something for it. If you were married to him you wouldn't be. Hell, I'm not waiting around here any longer. And where's Nigel and Ernest? They promised to be here. Shit, shit, shit! Come on let's find Lance before I chew my bloody lips off.' They picked up their bags and scuffed off.

Robert finished his roll and was wondering whether to risk leaving when a shuffling under the window made him listen.

'Where're the bloody girls, I told them we'd be here. They might have guessed I'd have a detention. Fuckin' stupid bitches. I'll bet Lance didn't show and they've gone searching. That'll make him mad.'

'He's starting to piss me off, Nigel. Thinks he's a fucking Mafia boss the way he goes on, and he still hasn't paid us for doing that job. I reckon we should do something about him. I mean really do something.'

'Don't be a fucking lamebrain, Ernest, he's got us by the balls. He'll tell the cops if we don't do as he says. '

'It's his fault not ours. He said it'd only give him a pain in the guts. Fuck, I've got a guts-ache myself. D'ya know what he said Saturday night while you were shoving your load into Janice? We went into that dreary great lounge they've got, you'd think they'd have better furniture wouldn't you, all that money? Anyway, behind some panels they've got a church thing. You'd never guess it was there. I think he must have been a bit pissed. Anyway, he was showing off what a great guy he was and raving on about how he had enough stuff hidden in there to last till the end of the year. Then he said, "Speed is the religion of the kids", or something like that and giggled himself silly. Remember he was still giggling like a girl when we came back in and belted you on the bum just as you were coming? Fuck, I didn't know you could get so mean. That's what started me thinking we could tell him to shove it. I'd always thought you were a bit of a wimp.'

'You talk such a load of crap, Ernest, your lips are turning brown. Give it a rest. There's the bell and I'm getting a fucking headache. Christ! I could kill him.'

'That's exactly what I mean,' continued Ernest persuasively as their voices faded.

Robert waited another few minutes before attempting to leave. When he tried the door it was jammed. No matter how hard he pushed there was nothing doing. Bloody hell, he thought, someone's seen the unlocked door and shot the bolt. He was wondering whether to try the windows, shout, or just sit there, when he smelt petrol. A few seconds later a whoosh was followed by loud crackling noises as flames leaped up outside the windows. Someone's set fire to the place, but surely it can't burn, it's brick. No need to panic, there's a way out if I can only think of it.

Fighting back hysteria he threw himself against the door. It was wood and would eventually burn; he'd be able to get out then. Smoke was finding its way through gaps under the eaves. Dry grass as well as the tree was alight and acrid smoke from discarded plastic wrappers, bottles and condoms was horrendous. He shouted, but the smoke was already hurting his lungs and it was getting alarmingly warm. The wooden rafters were smouldering where they over-hung outside, and paint was beginning to blister on the window frames. The bars held firm. A couple of sacks in front of the door had started to smoulder. He lay flat on the floorboards in an effort to avoid the fumes. I should have smashed the windows, he thought, coughing uncontrollably. That would have let some air in.

Every Friday, the caretaker and his wife, who lived in a small lodge beside the gates, invited Ralf for a cooked lunch because Emmy refused to believe that single men were capable of looking after themselves. 'At least he will have one good meal a week,' she would say every Friday morning when reminding her husband to invite the groundsman, who she secretly thought was rather sexy. As usual, everything was over-boiled, under-salted and tasteless. At least it made Ralf appreciate his own cooking. He was wandering back, debating whether to check the new grass on the bottom field or return to the workshop, when he noticed a column of smoke drifting up from the boundary. Heart racing, he pounded across the fields to the cricket shed. A small group of kids, supposedly on an ecological survey of the waste area beside the fence, had gathered to observe, ignoring the ineffectual bleating and arm waving of Miss Koutt who was desperately trying to herd her charges to a safe distance. Ralf burst through them, nearly tripping himself up on the young arms and legs as they scattered before his bull-like charge.

The flames outside had died down but smoke was gushing from under the rafters. The bolt was searing hot so Ralf whipped out his handkerchief and slid it back. As he threw open the door the sudden increase in oxygen ignited a sheet of flame across the inside of the roof. The onlookers screamed with hysterical laughter at sound and sight, then gasped in amazement as Ralf crawled across the threshold and disappeared into the smoke. He emerged seconds later dragging a bundle of clothes and bellowing, 'Get back! Get back! It's going to blow!'

Enough children heard him to start a panic rush, so Ralf and his bundle were only ten metres from the shed when a chest-pounding VAROOM followed by an enormous thump hurled them to the ground. The entire roof had lifted about half a metre into the air before plonking back drunkenly askew on the walls. Within a minute the rafters were alight and the kids watched in delight as the cedar-shingled roof collapsed crackling and roaring into the containing brick walls. Such was the absorption demanded by the spectacle that no one noticed Ralf put his mouth to the bundle of clothes again and again and again, before sending Miss Koutt away.

For the second time that term an ambulance carried a body away through the school gates.

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