Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 17

From a lookout high on the coastal hills, the sea and National Park filled their vision and recent memories filled their heads. Reluctantly they turned towards the hinterland where solitary mountain cones punctuated rolling hills and valleys.

'Over there,' pointed Bart. 'Beneath that small mountain. Be there in half an hour.'

Robert's smile dropped. He disliked not knowing, not being in control of his life. With an effort he prevented himself from throwing a tantrum and refusing to go. Bart was obviously excited and he didn't want to spoil it for him. But next time! Next time they would both decide where they were going.

They drove silently along tree-lined secondary roads winding through State forests and farmland. The gate was open and they bounced the car up a long tunnel of overhanging mimosas and flowering banksias, then parked under the miserly shade of eucalypts. The air seemed fresher and cleaner than on the coast. Only a bad-tempered screech from rainbow lorikeets feeding in a grove of grevilleas, a butcherbird and his mate warbling duets, and a distant hen disturbed the peace. They turned to greet a tanned, stringy old man in red Speedos.

'Michael! You look so healthy!' They shook hands warmly. 'This is Robert.'

'Welcome, Robert.' Hands were shaken.


'Where's John?'

'He heard the car and cut down to chain the gate. Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses lie in wait to rush up and torment him if we leave it open.' He shook his head in mock despair. 'You've timed it well. Half an hour to freshen up before lunch.'

A path led under a bower of purple-flowering vines through a garden overflowing with an improbable variety of plants. Kaleidoscopic flashes of flowers, sunlight, insects, birds and sky. Lizards scuttled, birds screeched, creepers dangled, butterflies fluttered, the sun shone, the air shimmered and Robert laughed.

'I've never seen a garden so threshing with life. Where's that plant from the Little Shop of Horrors? It's great. Orgazmic!'

'Tell John, he's their slave; spends half his life watering and the other half propagating.'

'It's huge.'

'And growing. My sole contribution is feeding him and making sure there's enough water.'

'Bart, look! Over there! Cabbages, capsicums, tomatoes and all sorts of other vegetables among the flowers.'

'Yep. Plants is plants. Ah, here he is.'

'John, great to see you again. This is Robert.'

John, also lean and grey but with a full head of hair and more regular features, was as pale as Michael was brown, and carefully shielded from the sun in long trousers, shirt, leather jacket and a huge Mexican sun-hat. His careful smile and dry handshake gave nothing away. 'Hello, Robert'

'Hi! Your garden's the best I've ever seen. I can't wait to see the rest!'

John's somewhat sombre face smiled doubtfully. 'Most people think it's a mess. Reckon I should put everything in rows and weed out three-quarters of the stuff to give everything else a fair go, but I like it like this.'

'Me too!'

'Goodness, an intelligent man. Where'd you find him, Bart?'

The house nestled into its garden as though growing from the rocky soil. Ochreous stuccoed walls were punctuated by deep-set arched windows. John led them through a metal-studded wooden door into a small room where they kicked off their shoes. An archway gave on to a shaded courtyard, cooled by a small fountain tinkling into a blue-tiled pool. A table set for four stood ready at one side.

'It's just as magic as I remembered.' Bart turned to Robert, who stood open-mouthed in surprise. 'This is Michael's creation.'

'You're in there, as usual.' Michael indicated a door in the right wall of the courtyard. 'Beers on the verandah when you're ready. No rush.'

The guestroom was large, cool and simple, furnished with an old-fashioned wooden double bed with a mosquito net, dresser, wardrobe and a couple of chairs. A thick yellow rug splashed across the floor. The bathroom door was at the left of the entrance, and arched windows looked into the garden. Robert stared around in disbelief. 'I never imagined such a place existed. Where's Aladdin?'

'I knew you'd love it.'

'Then why'd you keep it a secret?'

'What do you mean?'

'You said they were a boring old married couple.'

'I never said boring, and you said married, not me.'

'You didn't deny it.'

'I wanted it to be a surprise.'

'I hate surprises.' Robert surprised even himself with the feeling packed into that word. 'The last three days would have been a thousand times better without this bloody visit hanging over me.'

'You're serious?'


A childhood memory flickered. 'I didn't… I'm sorry… Christ I'm stupid.'

'It's OK.' Robert tried to shrug off his irritation.

'No it's not. For my twelfth birthday I was told we were going to visit my grandmother in Brisbane. Typical Dad idea, make out that a duty visit to his mother was a special treat for me. I was so pissed off I wrote a note and took off.'

'Where to?'

'Rode my bike to Picnic Point and bored myself silly watching everyone else enjoy themselves.'

'What did they say when you got home?'

'Mum was worried, my brothers and sisters were smug and Dad was pleased as punch. He'd taken everyone to Movie World. It was going to be my birthday surprise, but because I was such an up-myself little shit, his words, I deserved to miss out. He gloated about saving my entrance fee.'

'What a mean bastard.'

'Yeah. If he'd told me beforehand I'd have had weeks of pleasure thinking about it, telling my mates at school. Now I've done the same thing to you.'

'Your punishment is to scrub clean my salt-encrusted, once-silken carcass.'

After the shower they found time to sample the bed before replacing their shorts, it was warm enough to do without a shirt, and returned to the courtyard. An archway opposite the entrance led into the main living area. To the left was a large room with a fireplace of rough-hewn stone taking up most of the end wall. Brightly cushioned couches, low wooden tables and oriental rugs dotted the floor; paintings enlivened the walls. In front of them, a heavy wooden table and chairs, a sideboard and glass doors standing open. To the right, the kitchen, where Michael could be heard stirring a pot and singing to himself. They stepped out onto an open loggia. About half a kilometre away on the other side of a tree-filled valley, reared a lone mountain.

'That's the one in your painting!' Robert exclaimed. 'Who painted it?'

'John. Clever of you to recognise it.'

'Can't wait to see it at sunset. I hope it glows like in your painting.'

'It probably will, there aren't any clouds.' Michael had joined them.

'Everything's so perfect it makes my hair stand on end,' Robert said, wiping impatiently at his eyes and wishing he hadn't inherited his grandmother's ability to shed tears at the first whiff of sentiment. They sank into loungers and sipped cold home-brew until John arrived and they moved to the courtyard for lunch.

'The meal's delicious, Michael.'

'Because everything's home grown by John.'

'Claude's cooked up well,' John mumbled through a mouthful of chicken.


'He was getting a bit rough on the girls. Some were developing bare patches on their backs. Helen's sitting on a clutch of eggs so he'll be replaced in a couple of months. I thought he'd be tough with all that bonking.'

'Isn't it a bit rude eating your rooster?'

'It's the ultimate compliment. There aren't too many humans I'd be prepared to eat. He's now semi-immortal. Until the day we die we'll retain some molecules of Claude in our bodies.'

'Even so…'

'He's had a great life.' John waved his fork for emphasis. 'It's not death that's important, Robert, but how life is lived! Claude lived it to the full - happy, healthy, free. A good life and a quick and painless death; that's what I'd like for myself. Cruelty, is keeping people alive as vegetables in nursing homes. They hate it, their relatives hate it and it costs millions; but to say anything against it might lose a politician votes. I hope all those who oppose voluntary euthanasia die lingering, painful, wasting deaths in lonely misery.' As if buoyed by the idea, John tucked into his food with renewed vigour.

'Weren't you both vegetarians when I met you?' Bart asked.

'Only because we didn't have animals of our own. I've no objection to killing animals for food, but I object strongly to the way they are kept until that blessed release! Have you ever visited a commercial poultry farm? Seen cattle in feedlots? Watched sheep gagging on toxic drenches and suffering the heat in paddocks devoid of shade? Looked at commercial piggeries! The most intelligent of animals kept in shameful conditions from birth until death!'

Robert glanced at the others. They had resumed eating, thoughts obviously elsewhere. 'What about fish?'

This led to another homily about half of all sea creatures caught being thrown back dead, and trawlers' damage to the seabed.

'More yoghurt, Robert?' asked Michael calmly. 'Only the best, youngest and healthiest bacteria used, and a guaranteed quick and painless death in your stomach.'

'Have I been raving?' John was embarrassed.

'No more than usual.'

'Mum's the same. It wouldn't feel like mealtime without a sermon about some disaster or other.'

'There you are, John, you've satisfied everyone. Dishes and then a walk?'

By the time they had weeded a patch of lantana, inspected the chickens in their half-acre of freedom, picked a bowl of mulberries and checked that the neighbour's cows had not again breached the boundary, the small, water-lilied lake was a welcome sight. John and Michael stripped and eased themselves into the clear brown water down concrete steps. Bart and Robert flung off their clothes and dived in from the bank. It was cold, invigorating, perfect. They lay in the sun to dry off.

Robert had never felt so relaxed with strangers. The two old blokes were already looking thirty years younger than when he'd arrived. It was only their faces now that seemed old and as soon as they talked he forgot even that. He gave a loud whoop of delight. 'This is one of the best days of my life! I feel normal! Normal! Normal!' Racing to the steps, he executed a wild dance of ecstasy before hurling himself into the water.

Bart grinned.

'He's a good kid,' Michael said quietly. 'Hang on to him.'

'I intend to.'

They stood on the verandah watching in awe as foreground trees darkened and the mountain's greens and ochres changed through yellow to orange and deep blood red, before quickly becoming as dark as the trees. An almost-full yellow moon ballooned into the pale blue sky.

After dinner they relaxed in front of the fire, hosts in arm chairs, Robert lying on the couch with his head in Bart's lap. Conversation drifted. 'I can't believe you two have done all this. It must have taken years,' Robert said dreamily, almost hypnotised by Bart's fingers.

'Four years and two months. A retired builder escaping from his wife stayed in the shed at the back from time to time to help with house construction. There was nothing here when we arrived, just a stony hillside with a scattering of scrawny eucalypts. You can't imagine the mountains of rocks John's taken out to plant everything, and the thousands of hours of watering, weeding and mulching. Still, it keeps him out of trouble.'

'Bart says you never come to town. I'm not surprised. I'd never leave a place like this.'

'It's a geriatric playground,' laughed John. 'Occupational therapy. Getting old's no joke. When you're young you stay more or less fit no matter what you do and eat. But by the time you're our age, keeping fit and healthy's a delicate balancing act.'

'Do you get bored?'

'We spent half a century working, travelling, parties, concerts. Now we're happy with our own company. There are few people we can be bothered with any more. With the obvious exceptions.'


'But the reason we're contented here is because we've done everything else. We know what we're missing and are happy to let it go. If we hadn't, and didn't, we'd imagine we were forfeiting something exciting and probably drift back to town.'

'How long have you been together?'

'Forty-two years.'

'That's twenty-four years before I was born! Have you had any arguments?'

The two men burst out laughing and replied in unison, 'Never stopped.'

'Only people who don't love each other don't argue,' Michael explained. 'They don't care what their partner feels, and if they get annoyed they clear out. We bicker and argue constantly, trying to remake the other in our own image. Not so many ding-dong rows in the last few years. Takes too much energy. Most arguments occurred because we were overtired.' He smiled to himself. 'It's fun making up, though, even if it occasionally takes a long time to get there. I don't think we've ever been silly enough to go to bed with an argument unsorted. It'd be a grave mistake to let one's partner brood over an injustice all night.'

'Enough true confessions!' John embarrassed easily. 'We're just like every old couple who've been together so long they can't remember any other way of life. It's special to us, but a bore to others.'

'It isn't,' Bart countered. 'I want to be like you, but it's hard to know where to begin, how to go about it. You're the only couple I've heard of who've been together more than a few years.'

'Your parents?'

'They're not gay.'

'What's gay got to do with it?' John snapped. 'Couples are couples, apart from the fact that we can never go anywhere as a couple except to gay functions. Despite the entire world-order being weighted in favour of heterosexual marriage, in some ways it's as hard for hets to stay together as for us. Their friends are always ready to gossip, seduce, and create problems. In-laws start stress fractures and half of all marriages break down. Think of people as people and model yourself on those you admire. Not public figures though, they usually lead separate lives, emerging together from time to time for appearance sake. A good relationship has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but everything to do with wanting one and setting out to get it. That's not to say sex is irrelevant. It's essential, especially at the beginning, but you have to hang in there and work hard to gain the real benefits.

'How did you start off?'

John grunted, unwilling to reveal any more.

Michael was less inhibited. 'When we met, John was a penniless student so we used the one banking account, and have done so ever since. Everything we possess is owned jointly. It never occurred to either of us not to trust the other.'

'And you don't get bored with each other?'

'I can't even fathom my own mind, let alone someone else's.' Michael nodded towards John with a smile. 'Just when I think I'm coming to grips with this man I've been sharing everything with for so long, I realise that, like me, he's changed, so there's no possibility of knowing everything about each other, or getting bored. With time a relationship between equals becomes deeper, more complex, more and more interesting. Other people cease to be stimulating except through their creations, because one so easily plumbs the superficial façade they present.'

'Have you ever thought of separating?'

'Why on earth should we?'


'It probably sounds stupid, Robert, but when you really love someone, arguments don't matter!' John obviously wanted to drop the subject.

Michael chose to elaborate. 'The minute I contemplate leaving this grumpy, aggravating, lovable man, I remember the lonely searching for a mate at twenty-four. I'm one of those unfortunates who feel incomplete without someone to love. I don't like my chances of finding a new lover at sixty-six. Anyway, I don't want anyone else. We've got used to each other. The snappy remarks that used to wound mean nothing. Horrendous arguments blow over. An occasional lack of interest isn't a deliberate insult - certainly not worth risking the loss of having someone else in the other chair every evening, listening to music, watching television, reading, talking, or just sitting. Loving companionship, Robert. That's what it's all about in the end. We have the same interests and the same commitment to this type of life, as well as a willingness to talk and talk.'

'The good life.'

'Mmm. And being contented we don't waste money. We retired at fifty having done everything we wanted; trips abroad, living how and where we wanted. It hasn't been necessary to waste money on pampering ourselves to make up for the nights alone, or ensnaring a body for the night. Two can live as cheap as one. Cheaper in fact, because a bit of privation is enjoyable if shared, lethal if alone. Cooking's fun if there's someone to do it for – so is gardening. I built this house for us. Not for me.' Michael turned uncertainly to John. 'Am I getting too excited?'

'Probably, I wasn't listening. I'm sure Bart and Robert aren't either.

'We are!'

'John speaks his mind, thank goodness. It's useful to have someone to tell you what you look like or how dumb you've been, and it's fun to keep your body trim when someone's there to praise the result. But,' Michael grinned, 'the best thing is that the same lines, sags and pouches appear on your mate as on yourself.'

'Why tell them?' despaired John, 'they might not have noticed.'

'They may be young, but they're not blind.'

Bart smiled. 'I'm not blind to the fact that you've got something good together. So, a shared life is double the pleasure?'

'I couldn't live here on my own. Loneliness and hard work poisons the soul. With no one to show things to, my heart would break. In the same way as visiting Venice alone invites a terminal case of sadness. Everyone has to feel needed, challenged, excited, useful, angry, fearful, loving and loved from time to time. Anonymous sex and drugs are what people turn to if those needs aren't filled. A permanent, loving relationship provides all that and more. There's no need for drugs.'

'Sounds like an impossible dream.'

'Not if you have realistic desires and a determination to see them through. Instant and continual happiness is never going to happen to anyone, but friendship and love will bring contentment - a much more valuable state than happiness.'

Robert was gazing at Michael in admiration. 'That's amazing. I hope I can remember everything.'

'Ah! The delicious flavour of flattery.'

Over mugs of cocoa and assisted by frequent prompting from Robert, Bart recounted everything from the headmaster's first disapproval of their wrestling, through to Robert's being trapped in the shed.

'This is unbelievable.' John shook his head as if to clear it. 'It's obvious that, what's his name, Lance, conned the two boys into poisoning the kid in the groundsman's store room, set his mates on to you and locked Robert in the shed before setting fire to it. He's a homicidal maniac. You've got to get the police on to it. He obviously sees himself as some sort of avenger of social ills.'

'Hardly, he's a moral leper.'

'You're right, Michael. He should be carrying a bell,' Bart laughed.

'Don't laugh, John's right. If nothing's done to stop him, one of you is going to cop it permanently!'

'The trouble is,' said Bart shrugging his shoulders hopelessly, 'we haven't been able to convince the cops. They probably think we're just a couple of bitchy poofs making up stories. But the real reason we haven't jumped up and down and insisted on an investigation is it's the sort of story newspapers love, and the cops love to give them to prove they're at the forefront of the fight against crime. You can see the headlines! Gay Teacher's Love-Nest with Student Erupts in Violence! By the time they'd finished with us I'd be unemployable, Robert would have had a nervous breakdown and I wouldn't hold out too much hope for our relationship.'

'You won't get rid of me that easily.'

'He's right, Robert,' Michael cautioned. 'We were a bit hasty. These sorts of stories will always leak out. It's the daily bread of newspapers and television. A few days of headlines and on to the next sordid scandal, leaving a trail of ruined lives.'

'Yes. I was wrong. Keep the police out of your life. Keep everyone out of it unless invited!' John trusted no one. 'Sit quiet with your eyes skinned, and when they feel secure you'll have them. Those types can't resist bragging about their exploits. But I can't believe how easily you're taking it. I'd be a wreck.'

'No brain no pain I guess,' Robert offered brightly. 'We both had nightmares after Bart was nearly pushed off the landing, but in the shed I passed out still believing there was a way to escape, so I didn't suffer till afterwards.' He smiled at Bart. 'The sore throat was the worst bit. It still doesn't seem real. Those things don't happen to people like me.'

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