Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 14

As they stepped from the lift into the smell of disinfectant and bedpans, a short, thickset man of about their own age walked towards them. 'Robert's parents?'

They nodded dumbly. He gave a tentative smile and with a flick of his head indicated they should follow.

'How is he?' Monique asked nervously

'They won't tell me. I'm not a relative. I've been waiting for you.'

Eight silent beds skulked behind green curtains. Ralf indicated one and waited in the corridor. Robert was completely still, his body concealed under a white sheet. A green plastic mask over his mouth and nose was connected to a black oxygen cylinder on one side. He was lying so quietly and the rise and fall of his chest so slight that at first he seemed not to be breathing. Sanjay threw himself onto his knees beside the bed. Monique stood beside him, gently running fingers through both men's hair. After a minute she whispered, 'Robert, c'est nous. Maman et Papa.' Robert's eyes flickered under a furrowed brow. A flurry of the curtains admitted a bundle of efficiency in a nurse's uniform.

They stood; faces of fear.

'You are the parents?'

They nodded.

She busied herself on the other side of the bed, removing the mask and turning off the cylinder.

'How is he? What happened?'

'Haven't you seen the doctor?'

'We've seen no one! We've only just arrived!' The pleading in Sanjay's voice was painful.

'Hang on a tick, I'll get him.'

Within two minutes they were joined by a slightly over-weight, bearded young man in baggy, knee-length grey shorts, wrinkled grey socks, loafers, an open white coat and a reassuring smile. 'Mr and Mrs Karim?'

Anxious nods were rewarded by staccato bursts of information.

'Toxic smoke inhalation. Mouth to mouth just on time at the scene. Oxygen and salbutamol when the ambulance arrived. Eight litres of oxygen every half-hour since. This is the last. We're monitoring his condition. Everything's fine. He's very healthy. Lungs excellent. Little likelihood of permanent damage. If things stabilise, home in the morning.'

'But – if he's fine, can't he come home this afternoon?'

'Never know... possible complications. Mild sedation... that's why he seems a bit dopey. No talking for a couple of days. I'll prescribe something soothing. Got to rush. Broken neck.' With a perky nod, like the white rabbit he was gone.

Ralf put his head round the curtain. 'I heard that, excellent news. I'll head off back to school then.'

'Hold on, why are you here and not Bart?'

Ralf raised an eyebrow.

'Sorry, that was rude. We're terribly grateful someone came with him, it's just that Bart's his... ah... friend and I thought...'

'Bart probably doesn't know yet. I was on the spot so came in the ambulance. It was all a bit of a rush and panic. I'll make sure he knows as soon as I get back to school.'

'I do apologise. I'm Sanjay Karim and this is my wife, Monique.'

'Ralf Boreham.'

They shook hands.

'I wonder if you'd do us a favour?'

Ralf nodded cautiously.

'Would you take my car? We can't have you catching a bus. Bart can drive it back when he's free.'

'Delighted.' Ralf couldn't conceal his relief. 'I wasn't looking forward to public transport. Can't remember the last time I was on a bus. They never seem to go where I do.'

Monique was studying Ralf quietly. 'Ralf,' she began hesitantly, 'What was Robert doing in the shed?'

Ralf hesitated in his turn.

'Don't worry. We know what has been going on at school.'

Ralf's face cleared. 'Bart told me Robert had been friendly with Murray, so when he wanted to know where the kids who'd been bullying him hung out, I gave him the key to the shed so he could eavesdrop. When I saw the smoke I raced over and dragged him out.'

'You rescued him! You gave him resuscitation! You saved his life! We are deeply in your debt.'

'It was my fault for letting him spy without support. I should have realised we aren't just dealing with naughty kids.' Ralf paused slightly before continuing with great seriousness, 'If anyone asks, I think we should simply say that Robert saw the smoke, went to make sure there was no one inside, and was overcome by the fumes.'

They looked mystified.

'You see there is something very wrong. When I tried to get into the shed the bolt had been shot from the outside. There's no way Robert could have done that himself. I reckon someone locked him in and set fire to the place.'

Colour drained from faces as they considered the implications. First Bart, and now Robert. It was becoming a nightmare. Monique took one of Ralf's hard hands in both her own and gave her most appealing smile. 'Ralf, we want to thank you properly for what you did. Come to lunch tomorrow?

Forty minutes later Bart hovered in the doorway, afraid to enter. Sanjay led him to the bed. 'The doctor says he'll have a sore throat for a few days, but unless something unexpected happens overnight he'll be able to come home tomorrow. He's sedated.'

Bart ran his hand through Robert's hair and whispered into his ear, 'Bartman's here.' Robert's face relaxed. 'What happened? Ralf said you'd tell me.'

After repeating the little they knew, Sanjay went to find the Nursing Sister, who checked Robert's heartbeat, blood pressure and temperature and declared herself satisfied. Bart and Monique returned to the Karim's for a meal. Bart then swapped places with Sanjay, determined to spend the night at Robert's bedside.

'We are going to the police!' Monique was insistent.

'We are.'


'As soon as we have Robert's version of events.'

Monique forced herself to be satisfied. 'Are we neglecting our duty?'

'No. It isn't necessary for us to be there.'

'It is a relief to share the worry.'

'It certainly is.'

'We are lucky people.'

'We are indeed.'

They snuggled deeper into bed.

There were no complications so by eleven o'clock the following sunny Saturday morning, Robert was tucked up on the couch in the lounge, enjoying the attention but not the raw throat. Bart had showered and collapsed onto Robert's bed after a sleepless night on a hard chair; freezing until an orderly took pity and draped a blanket round his shoulders. He hadn't been welcome, but managed to convince the staff that Robert could be in danger. He'd had visions of the arsonist returning to finish the job - a scenario from a recent American TV movie. Now sound asleep he was deaf to both doorbell and telephone.

Two hours later he donned a pair of Robert's shorts and a sweater and went through to the lounge. Sanjay's voice resonated from the patio, so, finding the patient dozing alone, Bart knelt and kissed him. Robert opened his eyes, threw both arms round Bart's neck and drew him into a hug so desperate he was shaken. A slight noise. Ralf was crossing to the kitchen.

'What are you doing here? I mean... I didn't...' Bart stopped in confusion, the pulse hammering in ears and throat making it difficult to breathe.

'I'm here for lunch. As for the mouth to mouth, don't fuss yourself. I was doing the same thing twenty-four hours ago. The Doctor said his breathing might be difficult.' Ralf laughed easily.

Bart continued to look like a cornered cat.

'Stop looking so bloody mortified! I was a sailor for twenty years. Good luck to you both. Now, where's that ice?'

Robert was frowning.

'Did you know he was there?' Bart whispered anxiously.

A shake of the head.

'Does it worry you?'

A perplexed shrug.

'Are you ashamed?'

A vigorous shake.

'Me neither. Do you love me?'

An even more vigorous nod.

'I love you too.'

Lunch was delicious and Ralf waxed lyrical. Robert stayed inside on the couch sucking liquid nourishment through a straw because no one was allowed to see the effort it took. He was feeling very much a victim and not enjoying the sensation. A worm of fear had burrowed into his bowels. Was this how Bart had felt after his bashing? He had to talk to him. Everything was going sour and their life together had only just started. In vain did he deep breathe and try to calm his thoughts. Why couldn't he be like a Dick Francis hero – able to take the knocks and then go back for more? Part of him wanted to be held in someone's arms and be told that everything was going to be all right, but at the same time a voice sneered at such weakness and told him to be a man. Since the incident on the hill, one of his mother's oft repeated phrases had haunted him; L'enfer, c'est les autres. Hell was indeed other people. At least some other people.

Bart plonked himself down. 'How's my main man?'

Robert burst into tears. Not just tears but a chest wrenching, sobbing deluge of incoherent muttering, gasps of pain, mucus, saliva and salty water. He turned his face away and hid it in a cushion. Bart picked him up and carried him to the bedroom, where cuddles, strokes and whispered endearment eventually calmed the hysteria.

'I'm weak, Bart. I've tried to be strong but I'm a wimp. I can't stop thinking about dying, the heat, the smoke, the…' the pain in his throat prevented further embarrassing admissions.

'You're not a wimp,' Bart stated, wiping Robert's face with a damp cloth, but you are covered in snot and dribble. Shut up while I make you presentable, then we'll talk.'

The attention soothed Robert's wretchedness, but not his embarrassment. He gazed up at Bart. 'You didn't freak out after being bashed up,' he whispered. 'You're a real man. I'm just a weak poofter.'

'Shove over. I've a confession to make.' He lay beside Robert and gazed up at the ceiling. 'The first morning after you went to school I lay on the bed over there and nearly shook it apart until the aches and pains distracted me. After that I couldn't stop my brain. I kept envisaging what might have happened if Hazel hadn't arrived. I imagined myself hurtling through space, even felt bones cracking as I splashed onto the concrete. I was sick twice. When Monique poked her head in I pretended to be asleep. Every night when you're not there I have nightmares. Last night, despite the cold, I woke up in a ball of sweat. This time it was the two of us, on fire, hurtling down a bottomless shaft.'

'Why haven't you told me?'

'Didn't want you to think you'd got yourself hitched to a weakling.'

'That's what I've been thinking. I was frightened you'd dump me. Also, I feel ashamed.

'Of what?'

'Being frightened of dying.'

'Do you wish you had?'

'No way!'

'Then be happy you've survived.'

'I am. But… what if it happens again?'

'It won't. Forewarned is forearmed.'

'I'm also angry. Why can't people leave us alone?'

'Most will, so don't waste your energy.'

'I've got to feel something! At the moment it's a see-saw between anger and fear… Also…' he stopped, unsure whether to go on.


Robert's voice was a mere whisper, painful to listen to. 'I ought to be more independent. I'm too old to expect parents to pick me up - and I don't even want them to – I don't want another parent. I want someone equal. Someone who treats me the same as he treats himself. Sounds stupid?'

'Not to me.'

'While I was slobbering over you I felt angry with myself for acting like a baby, but at the same time I loved being looked after. It's hard enough being younger without you handling me with kid gloves. How can I ever grow up?'


'I'm not. I love you more than ever now you've told me you're also a weakling.'

Bart smiled and with his index finger lifted Robert's hair back behind his ears. 'The Weakling Brothers; sounds like a circus.

'Next time you feel like it I want you to cry. It's my turn to wipe the snot off your face'

'As long as your handkerchief's clean.'

'I'll always keep a spare. I suppose we'd better go back before they ask questions.'

'They'll just think we're having a bit of nookie.'

'That would be embarrassing.'

They joined the others on the patio. As Robert settled himself onto the recliner, Sanjay cleared his throat and tried not to look pompous. 'I don't want to give you indigestion, Ralf, but we'd like to thank you once more for saving Robert.'

Ralf raised his hands to deflect further praise and frowned self-consciously. Robert got off the recliner and knelt in front of his rescuer, took his hand and placed it on his bowed head – a debtor. It was done too seriously to be funny. Ralf left his hand there and said simply. 'I'm grateful to have had the chance to help.'

'We also want to pick your brains,' Sanjay added quickly to prevent a slide into bathos

Ralf's smile betrayed a mixture of curiosity and pride.

'You probably don't realise that Bart has also been the target of a killer – we suspect the same person.'

That made Ralf sit up. 'You mean?' He threw a questioning look at Bart, who nodded seriously.

'I thought it was a bit odd, you falling down the stairs.'

Bart outlined what had happened.

'The police were called after the attack on Bart,' Sanjay continued, 'but there was no evidence pointing to anyone. Therefore, before reporting the attack on Robert, we'd like to have something to substantiate our suspicions. We think both attacks are related to the death of Murray. You know as much about that as anyone, so if we pool our experiences and ideas we might come up with something.'

'You reckon it's that Osbairne kid?'


Ralf didn't trust himself to say any more.

Sanjay nodded to Monique, who blushed and stood up, felt conspicuous and sat down again with an embarrassed laugh. 'I went with my friend Suzie to see Mrs. Sorens, because her daughter, Mandy, is involved with Lance. At first, the mother seemed keen to share her problems, but after complaining about the usual things she stopped talking. It was disappointing for us, but I'm glad she protects her daughter. So I have nothing to report.'

No one thought it necessary to tell Ralf about the guidance counsellor's adventures.

Bart summarised what he'd learned from Warren Pinot. 'Lance Osbairne's father has given a home to a fundamentalist Christian sect, to which the headmaster belongs. A couple of years ago Mr Nikelseer started a student Bible-Class. The only remaining member of that is Lance, who has absorbed the old man's prejudices. Father, son and Nikelseer appear to have formed an unholy trinity. Apparently the headmaster talks to Lance's father, and he talks to Lance. It's unlikely that either adult knows much about Lance's private doings.

'From a quick look at the school records it appears that Lance receives some helpful extra-curricular tuition. He has always just managed to pass the final tests, despite dismal interim results. I imagine Nikelseer knows Lance can be violent, and may even suspect Murray died because of the transfer of his own homophobia to Lance, but I reckon he's an old hand at blanking out things he doesn't want to know. He no doubt believes Murray took his own life out of shame. His assembly Bible readings indicate that he sees himself as the executor of God's will.'

'That's the silly old fart to a T,' snorted Ralf

Sanjay smiled sadly and asked about Murray.

Ralf gave his information with humble economy.

'I'm sorry, your English is too precise for me,' apologised Monique with her usual tact. 'My brain doesn't work so quickly. Is this what you are saying? From the state of the storeroom and your knowledge of the lad, you think Murray was forced to drink the insecticide?'

Ralf nodded.

'But the police think you were interfering with Murray and killed him to shut him up. Where would they get such a stupid idea?'

'Nikelseer? Lance? Who knows? Ralf's look of disgust would have done credit to Gielgud. He looked at Bart and Robert and said thoughtfully, 'It's my bet Lance thinks you blokes know more than you do and is trying to cover his arse by getting rid of you. Like most of the population he's been fed a diet of American TV violence and thinks it's the way to live.'

'Sounds reasonable,' said Sanjay. 'It also fits in with what I've discovered about the Osbairnes. Mother died from neglect and an ardour for alcohol five years ago. Husband does little except make money.' He gave a brief description of the known businesses. 'He's away from home most of the time. As Bart mentioned, he supports a crackpot religion, even built a chapel in the walls of the lounge. Lets Lance run wild, probably imagining Nikelseer has taken him under his wing. I haven't met Arnold Osbairne yet, that joy is still to come. We've been led by the headmaster to believe he was upset by Robert's suggestion that his son was involved in what we then thought was Murray's suicide. It's possible he knows nothing at all about his son's activities. He's got enough money to be listened to.'

Robert pulled a page of notes from his shirt and handed them to Bart. His larynx was on fire. He reached for the sore-throat syrup.

'When did you write these? As soon as you got home?'

Robert nodded.

Bart winked his approval and began to read. 'Raylene and another girl moaned about not being paid for something, and Lance not being there to give them their uppers. Nigel and Ernest complained about the girls not waiting, that they hadn't been paid for a job, that Lance hadn't arrived with the stuff; that he was a bit of a sexual maniac; that he was getting up himself and they would have to "do" something about him. He has some power over them. Lance told them it would only give "him" a pain in the guts! He showed them a church?? in the lounge and said he had enough stuff for the rest of the year. Said something about a speedy religion of the kids?'

'That's excellent, son. It all ties in. My guess is that Lance saw you going over to the shed and took his chances. He probably came up from the other side of the boundary fence.'

'Exactly,' Ralf angrily agreed. 'And that bit about telling the boys it would only give him a stomach ache; that's how they were talked into making Murray drink the insecticide. Lance made it seem just like another bit of bullying.' He pulled his eyebrows together. 'The bastard,' he ground through his teeth. 'That's murder!'

'Well? When do we go to the police?' Monique was becoming very fidgety as the implications sank in.

'We need facts for that,' cautioned Bart. 'So far, it's all speculation. What indisputable facts have we? The police have made up their minds that the skirmish at my place was nothing more than a couple of disturbed thieves. Mandy's not going to help. A few snatches of conversation overheard by a schoolboy spying in the cricket shed? The kids might have been making up stories to impress each other, and it only needs the suggestion that Robert was in there smoking pot and set himself on fire, to have his story thrown out and counter charges laid by the school.'

'Mmm. It is a bit thin.' Sanjay flicked through Robert's notes. 'The church you questioned, is what old Mr Osbairne showed me and I guess the opium remark is a misquote of Karl Marx's comment about religion.'

Robert rolled his eyes and looked ignorant.

'When he published his ideas for a fair deal for the workers,' Sanjay explained, 'he noted that the wealthy classes had easy access to opium to achieve temporary relief from their boredom, but the poor couldn't afford it. They had to make do with religion. Hence, Religion is the opium of the masses. No one's ever been sure whether Marx was suggesting that opium should be available to everyone or not. Certainly it's come full circle, everyone and their dog has access to high quality heroin, which is to opium what a racing car is to a luxury sedan, and the masses are no longer well represented in the devotional stakes.'

'That's most interesting, mon chère, but what are we going to do?' Monique was itching to punish those responsible for nearly killing her son but hadn't the faintest idea what to do about it. Nor had anyone else.

Ralf looked dejected. 'I reckon you should call a halt for the moment. Robert won't be returning to school this term, Monique and Sanjay need to get everything ready for their trip to India, Bart and I have plenty to do before the holidays, and we all need time to think. We don't want any gut reactions.'

Bart, who certainly didn't feel up to anything, agreed. 'Ralf's right. So far no permanent physical damage has been done.'

Monique's eyes flashed.

'Although the potential was disastrous,' he quickly added. 'If Lance thinks we know he organised the murder of Murray, he'll probably try to silence us again.'

'I insist we go to the police,' Monique said bluntly.

'Have you considered the newspapers?'

'What do you mean, Sanjay?'

'These sorts of stories have a way of leaking out. Are we ready for the papers to splash, Gay teacher and pupil lover accuse fellow student of attempted murder?

'Surely not!'

'Sanjay's right.' Bart had difficulty keeping the panic from his voice. 'And that's why I suggest we don't go to the police with unprovable accusations, but to praise them for their intelligence, and find out what they think about the burning shed. We've got to get them on our side in case there's a showdown next term.' He took a deep breath and turned to Sanjay. 'Oil on the waters - that's your specialty isn't it, Sanjay?'

'It's Scots, not Irish in me veins, laddie, although I confess to a certain gift of the gab. OK, I'll do that little thing. Also, I want to take a look at Osbairne Intermediate. I think once I've seen him I'll know whether he's cognisant of his son's iniquities.'

'If you are correct about the newspapers then I reluctantly agree,' Monique conceded. 'But you must unofficially tell the police our suspicions, Sanjay!'

'I'll see how it goes.'

His wife's belligerent stare slowly turned to indecision. 'I don't think…,' she said quietly, looking at her fingers. 'Perhaps it would be better...Everything being like it is...Robert damaged and…and...I don't know…everything so dangerous. I should not go to India!' she exploded defiantly.

Robert stared at her incredulously, then without warning hurled his pillow onto the table, sending a coffee cup smashing onto the pavers. Everyone looked at him in surprise. With an angry glare at his mother he stormed through the house to his room and slammed the door. They stared at each other in consternation. Monique got to her feet. 'Oh dear. I'm so sorry…I'd better go and…'

'I'll go, Monique. Robert's probably upset because he doesn't want to spoil your holiday. It'd be a real guilt trip. He needs to feel independent.'

'But he's still sick! He needs…'

'Bart's right, darling. Robert's not seriously ill, but he's very wound up having been through two weeks which would have rendered anyone fragile. Examinations, the attack on Bart, his own terrifying ordeal and…other things. Bart's better equipped than we are to help.' He looked up. 'Are you OK, Bart?'

'You mean…do I need counselling?' A wry smile.

'No! Yes. Well…'

'I'm fine thank you, Sanjay. Maybe what Robert needs is a change of scene. I've some friends on the Sunshine Coast and thought I'd take him there for a break while you're in India. Get him away from unpleasant associations. I'll take good care of him,' he added in response to Monique's nervous look.

Sanjay was pleased. 'That sounds ideal. Now go and bring him back. If he stays away too long he'll find it difficult to face everyone.'

Bart was more tired than he realised, and Robert's outburst had unnerved him. What the hell am I doing here? he asked himself, pausing at the door to Robert's room. Teacher and pupil! That's what's caused all this drama. I can just about cope with my own problems. Do I really want to add those of a mixed-up kid? He threw open the door. The room was empty and the outside door was ajar. Alarm splashed through his guts as he ran out. Robert was standing absolutely still, staring down at a leaf. Sunlight played across the back of his neck, hair hung in sleek hanks across his cheek, long lashes caught reflected light from the house and his mouth had relaxed to a half-smile. Bart dissolved in a tingling whirlpool of emotion.

Who knows why we fall in love? It is not only a mystery to friends - the afflicted are equally in the dark. All we know is that life without that special other person would cease to have meaning, hope or pleasure. Death would be preferable. A surge of love threatened to burst Bart's chest as he crept up, wound his arms around Robert and kissed his neck. Robert remained still, then turned his head and looked back, unsmiling.

'Coming back inside?'

Robert's voice had all but disappeared; the effort of whispering so excruciating he screwed up his face. 'Not if Mum's staying home to look after me.'

'She isn't. She doesn't even want to. Just thought she ought to offer.'

'They think I'm a spoilt brat.'

'They think you're coping well with severe trauma.'

Robert raised one eyebrow in disbelief.

'It's true.'

'You despise me now.'

Bart took hold of Robert's face in both hands and kissed him on the forehead. Robert couldn't respond, but permitted himself to be led back to the lounge.

'Chérie, I am a silly old woman. Of course you will be better with Bart than me. Especially as I much prefer going to India.'

Robert gave her a dutiful nod before returning with Bart to the divan. Sanjay winked at his unresponsive son. Ralf sipped his drink as though nothing had happened and changed the subject. 'If what Robert overheard is correct, it seems the kids are taking pep pills. Ever taken any drugs, Sanjay?'

Husband and wife exchanged exaggerated looks of improbity. 'Hashish was cheap in India twenty years ago, so we bought about half a kilo. It's the resin exuded by seed heads of female marijuana plants. According to the stories, naked men walk among the plants and resin sticks to their bodies. When they're dripping with the stuff someone scrapes it off and it's mixed with crushed, dried plant material before being compressed into sticky blocks. It is very potent. Monique couldn't resist it of course. To her undying regret we didn't see it being collected.' They shared a smile. 'It made me incredibly witty. To others, including my wife to be, however, I became a repetitive bore. Each new second seems unrelated to the previous and so you can repeat the same thing without ennui. And no hangover.'

Monique took over. 'We brought this sticky lump of stuff wrapped in tinfoil back with us; panicked at the airport where there was a Last Chance to throw away your Contraband bin, and dropped about eight thousand dollars worth of hashish into it - probably to be picked out and smoked by one of the customs officials. But to us it wasn't worth any risk. I don't think either of us has wanted to try anything since.'

'My brain's too labile,' laughed Sanjay. 'A glass of beer sends me silly. I have to feel I'm in control of my mind. If I take drugs I lose that. How about you, Ralf?'

Ralf reckoned he had tried everything at least once. Opium was easy to get and cheap in the ports of Asia when he was in the Merchant Navy, as was just about every other drug, but he'd been able to take it or leave it. With him it certainly wasn't a case of one fix and you're hooked for life. Since leaving the sea he hadn't bothered with anything except the occasional beer or tot of rum. What intrigued him was where school kids got the stuff. No one ever approached him on the street offering instant heaven.

'That's because you look as though you've already found it, Ralf.' smiled Monique. 'But you're right. Where do they get it?'

'Depends what they're taking,' said Bart carefully. 'I did a course on Drugs in Schools. You'd be amazed how many people are prescribed Valium, Rohypnol, and other tranquillisers. Kids help themselves to Granny's pills and sell them at school. Doctors can easily be persuaded to prescribe more. Some types of amphetamines are used for illnesses such as epilepsy, and these can be stolen by cousins or siblings for resale to school mates. There's no sallow man in a greasy raincoat, hat pulled down to conceal his face, hanging around the school gates. It's last year's school-leavers who've been to clubs, met someone, are down on their luck or unemployed. They get a supply and re-sell them at school.'

'Of course,' said Ralf with dawning comprehension. 'Why has no one told me this before? There are several kids like that who hang around school regularly. I could point them out to you if you like.'

'No way!' Bart was adamant. 'Apart from anything else, most of the things they take are no worse than alcohol in my opinion, and secondly, our idiot headmaster doesn't accept that there are any drugs. And poor old Warren Pinot would wet himself if he had to do anything positive.'

'That's very depressing, Bart,' said Sanjay.

'Not really. Most of the kids aren't going to become addicted. They're just looking for a bit of excitement. A way to assert their independence. Apart from schoolwork they're given no responsibilities, nothing against which to measure themselves. Most don't even have to tidy their own rooms or do the dishes. All they've had since birth is, Shut up and look at telly. Or, Here's ten dollars, get lost. Bart stopped talking, suddenly self-conscious.

''Go on, Bart.'

'I'm raving, Sanjay.'

'No you're not, it's most interesting.'

'Politeness will be your downfall.'

'Get on with it, I'm learning things,' grunted Ralf.

'Be it on your own head,' Bart grinned. 'The tragedy is that children are discovering the law is an ass. In countries like Holland there's a line drawn between soft and hard drugs. However, they're under constant pressure from the U.S.A. and France to adopt more severe laws. I suspect that's why our Government won't do anything enlightened. As soon as they try to liberalise anything, to make a humane, sensible law or drug trial, there's a telephone call from Uncle Sam and it's cancelled. It's insane, especially when you see the terrible results of the years of fighting drugs in the States. High crime rates, high addiction rates, appalling sickness and death rates, millions of homeless addicts and prisons overflowing with innocents whose lives are ruined because they once took something milder and less harmful than alcohol. It's not surprising that when kids are offered hard drugs they assume the warnings are equally inflated lies.'

'You are right. Evil Empire USA has a great deal to answer for in this modern world,' agreed Monique, following her own train of thought. 'And statistics show that most juvenile crime is committed by children who have been neglected by their parents. I could weep for them.'

'Only certain temperaments become addicted,' Bart continued, 'usually those who feel disappointed with life. Therefore, if there are ten thousand addicts at any given moment on five different drugs, and we introduce ten new drugs, there still will be only ten thousand addicts. They'd simply spread their usage over a wider selection of fixes. That could actually be better, because nine out of ten addicts are stuck on alcohol, the worst drug for side effects.' He shook his head and let loose a sigh.

'Makes sense,' mumbled Ralf.

'But the situation's hopeless,' Bart continued with an intensity that delighted his hosts. 'Everything's surrounded by such hysteria that no politician is prepared to do anything rational in case they're seen as soft on drugs. Newspapers rant and rave when one teenager dies of an overdose of Ecstasy at a nightclub on the Gold Coast, but during schoolies week it's considered normal for thousands of teenagers to become vomiting paralytics because of a dangerously high intake of alcohol. There could be a case made for preferring amphetamines to that. The hysteria surrounding it, though, makes research impossible, and in an unregulated market no one is ever quite sure about the purity or the strength of the dose. And of course the Booze Barons aren't going to let other drugs, no matter how innocuous, take any of their profits.'

'That's depressingly true, Bart. And what about you?'

'Bart shrugged and grunted self-consciously. 'Like you two, I'm not interested in getting a criminal record for something that's not worth it. I have the occasional beer. Robert shared one with me a few weeks ago. Haven't had one since. And the occasional whisky. Again, the last one was with Robert. We had my mother's panacea, a small tot with hot milk after my brush with oblivion.'

'No risk of addiction there,' smiled Sanjay.

Everyone agreed there was a lack of debate about what was becoming a serious problem and the talk turned general until a comfortable silence fell as each browsed among their own thoughts. A short while later Ralf made his excuses and left, offering thanks for the meal and best wishes for the coming trip.

Monique and Bart cleaned up, Sanjay went outside to prune his topiary syzigium, and Robert wrote a message to be telephoned to Marcia, sending his abject apologies for missing her party. In it, he suggested his condition was much worse than it was, hoping to give Lance a sense of accomplishment. Bart and Robert spent the rest of the afternoon napping in the bedroom while Monique began a preliminary sweep through her wardrobe, selecting clothes for India.

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[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead