Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 19

They woke to the angry, teeth-on-edge cacophony of chainsaws. Breakfast was in the courtyard, it being too unpleasant on the verandah. Afterwards Bart went out to the garden with John while Robert helped Michael with the dishes and tidying up. 'Breakfast's your main meal, isn't it?'

'Yes. Then we've got all day to work it off. Have a large meal at night at our age and it sits there adding layers of ugly flab while you sleep. It's OK for you young colts, but we mature thoroughbreds put on fat like it was time to hibernate. Not to mention indigestion.'

'Do you really have to watch your weight? You're both so lean and fit.'

'Sheer will-power.'

'That's why you only have one slice of bread for the evening meal?'

'Mmm, sad life.'

'I think you're both happy.' Robert wiped silently for a minute. 'Michael, how did you and John work out who does what jobs?'

'At the beginning, whoever felt like cooking, cooked. Whoever got sick of the mess first, tidied it up. We gravitated to the things we preferred. I like machines and will follow instructions. John has an indomitable spirit that accepts no harness - definitely no instructions from maintenance manuals and recipe books, so he gathers seeds, propagates and harvests. He also doesn't mind shopping. That's a type of harvesting. I'd rather starve than go to a supermarket. I'll dig gardens but can't be bothered to pick the fruits. We just fit together. Whether by instinct or necessity I've no idea.'

'You don't look like a homebody.'

'I'm not. Some jobs have to be done, so you do them. A word of warning while we're on the subject. Be wary of those ingratiating women who ask, "And who does the cooking?" Hets can't help imagining that one of us must play the woman while the other acts the man. They're incapable of understanding that if I wanted a woman I'd have married one. I want a man, full stop. Certainly not a man who acts like a woman! We're just ourselves - like everyone else.'

'That's a relief. I'm so ignorant I was wondering if I ought to play a balancing counter role. I think too much sometimes.'

'When I went to my first gay bar I imagined I had to act limp wristed and feminine, because they were the only images of gays I'd ever seen. No wonder no one took a second look. It was ages before I realised I was allowed to be natural and that most gays are indistinguishable from non-gays. You don't know how lucky you are. Bart's so uncomplicated.'

'I'm beginning to realise it.'

The back door flew open. 'I'm going to slit my veins if I have to listen to that bloody chainsaw any longer. We're going out!'

Michael raised a questioning eyebrow.

'They're felling those old trees we passed yesterday on the way up the mountain.'

Michael nodded. 'It was on the cards; the owner's going in for macadamia nuts so all competing roots must be eliminated.'

'But, that's terrible!' Robert felt sick. 'They were the only mature trees I've seen on the holiday. It's unfair.'

'Life is unfair, but not so much that we can't find some enjoyment. Cheer up and give me a hand with lunch.'

An hour's drive brought them to the Cooloola National Park. It was a relief to enter the melaleuca wetlands with their hectares of wild flowers, after kilometres of monotonous pine plantations. They walked a long track to a water hole for a swim, then had lunch on the white sands beside deep, blue-green waters. Another track led through a couple of kilometres of dense, mosquito-infested old rain-forest to a perched sand-lake, ringed by melaleucas and tall reeds. They swam again, this time in limpid water the colour of weak tea.

'I can understand people wanting to cut these forests,' muttered Michael between ineffectual slaps at mosquitoes. 'Watch out for leeches too.'

'Don't be so bloody ridiculous!' John's depression hadn't improved. 'There's no need for people to live in the rain forest! Everyone knows it's infertile, damp and miserable. If a corrupt government hadn't given most of it away for a song years ago, it wouldn't be for sale for peanuts now. It's the poor who try to live there, hack it all to bits and then move out because they run out of money. Then the developers move in and complete the rape.'

'Why don't you stand for parliament and do something?'

'Because it would mean being away from Michael. And anyway, nothing can be done. Human activity is anarchic, responding only to catastrophe.'

You're joking.'

'A commission of inquiry tried to discover who was running the USA. After several years and millions of dollars they concluded no one was. It was running itself. Politicians try to second-guess trends and pretend they've been the prime mover, but it's a charade. We're being dragged, willingly, to our nemesis, by multi-national companies spouting the pernicious philosophy of free markets and expanding economies. The planet is finite for Christ's sake! It cannot expand. Things are running out! End of story.'

'So there's nothing anyone can do?'


Michael put an arm round John's shoulders. 'Then why so pale and wan lover? Why so wan and pale? Why if rant and rave won't fix it, should looking ill prevail? Let's enjoy what's left while it's still here.'

'Now why didn't I think of that?'

John's depression lifted and they sang, danced and leaped along like a foursome of fauns all the way back to the car.

'It's been such a great day I'm dreading going back to school. After this I don't think I'll be able to cope with having to hide and pretend.'

'It's a bitch, but a hell of a lot better than when we were your age,' John snapped. 'Bart would have been sentenced to life imprisonment for what you two are doing legally. So thank your lucky stars!'

The chill of persecution settled on their souls for the remainder of the ride. At home, the chainsaws were silent.

'Perhaps they've dismembered themselves?'

'Let us pray.'

'We've a few hours till Scott and William arrive. Take a look through my old costumes, Robert. I'll give you some ideas, then leave you with music and mirrors. If you change your mind, nothing's been lost.'

The guests were a drab couple in their early forties. Years of self-effacement and pretence had left their mark. After the meal, tongues loosened by Michael's strawberry wine, they shared views on what was and was not acceptable in so-called gay literature.

'Edmund White's last book made me ashamed to be gay. No wonder most people think we're perverted.'

'How about Robert Dessaix?'

'He reckons gays and non-gays are different, but I reckon everyone's different and there are only individuals. Human sexual activity varies from total celibacy to mass orgies; from exclusive homosexuality to exclusive heterosexuality, with every possible permutation in between. Sex is no more important than eating and sleeping. It's character that counts, not the gender of the person you love'

'In the last year,' William interrupted, 'I've read seven books with gay sub-characters. Two were unpleasant screaming queens, one a perverted little bank-clerk, two were pederasts and one was a murderer. Even books written by gays conform either to the stereotypical queer whose sole aim in life is to have as many graphically-described, sordid sexual encounters as possible, usually in a drug-crazed haze, or else they're like Hollinghurst's hedonistic packs of well-heeled wankers. No gay couples and no happy endings. Makes me sick.'

Michael shook his head in defeat. 'How can kids learn the truth?'

'They can't,' John muttered. 'Because films and TV are as bad.'

'I was told by a fifteen year-old that queers will fuck any one, blurted Robert. 'He'd been told that by his father. That's such crap. Especially as he was repellent! There's no way I'm going to tell anyone I'm gay.'

'Very wise. Heterosexuals can cope with single gays, but a couple? That's threatening.' Michael slumped back in his chair.

'But surely you mix with the locals?'

'You're joking! The adults would perhaps be OK, but they have kids! Most gay bashing is done by high school kids. This village is full of them and we've no wish to get noticed. We make sure we are never seen together in this area!' John was never far from a wet blanket.

'I reckon we'd be better off without books, television, and movies,' Michael announced into the gloom. 'By conferring a spurious mantle of superiority on fictitious lives, they trivialise our own. In a well-written story the young bloke dying of an incurable disease becomes heroically tragic. In real life he's pathetic and messy. Two people kissing, sharing a bottle of beer, sitting together in the park or sleeping together when portrayed in a book or on the screen, become icons of significance beside which our own lives are but pale imitations.' He paused as if unsure whether to go on, shrugged and continued with a self-deprecating smile. 'After seeing a sexy gay film I become depressed for days. My life lacks the grandeur, the significance, the universal appeal of such stories. In vain does John point out that they're only actors, probably with problems of their own. That we're in a much better situation than the guys in the tale. I can't shake off the idea that my life is insignificant. That I'm not really living because what we're doing isn't being recorded.'

'What utter crap!' John sounded venomous.

Scott and William exchanged nervous glances, fearing an argument. Bart winked at Robert.

Unperturbed, Michael nodded thoughtfully. 'John's right, as usual. Everyone I've ever known is ordinary. They might be experts, even geniuses in their field, but underneath they're like everyone else; prepared to do the craziest things in pursuit of the elusive rewards of sex; unable to control their weight, drinking, or stop smoking. Most of them have only a superficial interest in the lives of those around them, unless there's scandal in the air. Their tastes in art, music and literature are uniform, predictable, and dictated by whatever's in fashion. There are no princes or heroes who deserve to inherit the earth. The Universal Genius of the Renaissance was a myth, and to go through life in a melancholic torpor because one is neither famous nor flawless, is pretty bloody stupid.'

'Was that a prepared speech?'

'No, Bart. It tripped, fully formed from my tongue.'

'Ignore him. It's middle-aged mushiness. Michael simply can't accept his increasing unattractiveness and diminishing horizons.'

'Why, you sweet-talking old hunk.'

After supper and Bart's party-piece, a mime of The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter that had everyone in stitches, Robert stole out, Michael dimmed the lights, turned a Rock n Roll tape up so loud it was palpable, and settled back.

Barefoot in white cotton trousers, shirt and sleeveless jacket, Robert sauntered into the room, thumbs dragging down his trouser tops. He danced solo for a minute, a smile playing at his lips. A come-hither flick of his head - a conscious tribute to Murray - brought Michael to his feet. They danced briefly before Robert turned and, slithering out of the jacket, whirled away leaving both it and Michael on the floor.

A sultry advance on Scott set him giggling. He danced lumpishly and, after much prompting, undid Robert's shirt buttons. Robert slipped it from his shoulders, slung it round his goggle-eyed partner's neck and pulled his head against his chest. Sinuously he spun to William where he tore off his tank top and tempted him onto the floor. A leap and a laugh fit for a satyr and he was dancing with Bart, who willingly kneeled, unzipped the trousers with his teeth and slid them off.

Robert's enjoyment was infectious. John wouldn't dance but cheerfully peeled off the Speedos. A flick of the foot sent them across the room. William held them to his nose. Everyone roared with laughter. In gold-spangled pouch Robert's body was a unity; slender, strong and sensuous. The men were laughing, shouting encouragement and acting like strip-club audiences everywhere.

After dancing with everyone again, Robert loosened the cord on his pouch and, with a sly smile of promise, offered it to each in turn, retracting at the last minute. Finally, he drew Bart onto the floor, tossed the tiny golden triangle in the air and was swept up and out the door.

If riotous enthusiasm was any measure, it had been a success. Scott kept repeating his refusal to believe Robert wasn't a professional.

'How strange,' remarked John when Robert reappeared, 'You've been wandering around naked for three days, yet that was an erotic experience. Sex is inexplicable.'

'You're a natural! We'll soon be millionaires.'

'Surely you wouldn't let him perform in public?' William was shocked.

'I'm only jealous I don't look as good.'

'You do to me,' whispered Robert, snuggling up and causing the guests to wriggle with embarrassment. Displays of affection were impossible to them, even in such company, and the fact that Robert hadn't bothered to put on any clothes left them in a quandary - approve or disapprove? Like most people, they had never understood that one is required to do neither.

Robert spent most of the last day in the gardens with John, while Bart helped Michael repair a motor, mow lawns, knead bread and replenish their reserves of gossip.

John was widely educated, had an iconoclastic view of himself and his place in the world, a philosophy that was calming in its simplicity, and endless patience with nature. His tolerance level for most humans, however, was low. Robert was entranced by the seed collection, the clutter of the shade-house and potting shed, the creative disorder of the painting studio - a light-filled room attached to the workshop, the huge python draped in somnolent loops under the supports of the shed's rainwater tank, and the overflowing garden.

'It's companion planting, tall plants shade the shorter, you don't get a build up of disease so easily as with monoculture, and it's not boring. A bit hard to harvest, but it's the only way I can enjoy it. Michael's learned to shut up and leave me to it if he wants fresh fruit and vegetables.'

Pumpkins hung from peach trees, tomatoes sprouted from every bit of open ground beside tamarillos and bananas, lychees and evening-primrose, Chinese cabbage and beans. A red canna lily pushed between the branches of a fig. Mint, day-lilies, nasturtiums and sunflowers clothed the stems of mangoes. Strawberries, choko-vines, papayas, scented roses, ginger-lilies and citrus vied for light, space, attention and care. Herbs, passion-vines, aniseed-smelling bushes, tropical fruit trees suffering from a late frost, spring bulbs, blossoms – a cornucopia.

When taxed on his paintings John was modest. 'I'm no artist. Every now and again I feel like fixing something in my mind to understand it better. To discover what it is that affects me. After lots of drawing and attempts to paint, I sometimes get a glimmer of understanding.'

'You should have an exhibition.' The cry of the non-painter.

'I don't need the money. I'd be mortified if no one bought anything, and I'd probably paint what I imagine other people wanted. I need a reason - someone to give a painting to. An empty wall-space. Without that I do nothing. I'd like people to ask me to paint something for them, but they never do. When I show them things all I get is, "Aren't you clever?" Occasionally I make a painting for someone, but I'm never sure whether they like it or are just being polite when I give it.'

'I'd love one! I think they're great. The one in Bart's lounge captures exactly the primitive feeling of wrestling.'

'One day inspiration will flow.'

'Excellent.' Robert hesitated as though sorting through words and then blurted, ' John, Can I do something?'

'Depends what it is.'

'Kiss you.'

John raised an eyebrow and offered a cheek.

'I mean a real kiss. You see… Bart's the only man I've ever kissed and I was wondering what it would be like to kiss someone else.' His voice had shrunk to an unintelligible mumble and his neck and face were hot from embarrassment.

'Someone non-threatening.'


Bart was bending Michael's ears.

'Sometimes I feel inadequate. I'm a teacher, but I know nothing. Robert's often ahead of me in discussions. He's going to look down on me when he realises I'm not so smart.'

'There's only one unforgivable thing in a relationship, Bart, and that's a perfect partner. Or one who thinks he is, or thinks he should be. I rejoice when John makes mistakes, breaks something, gets lost or does something stupid. That means I'm also permitted to make mistakes. Living together is not a competition to see who's nearest to God. Be yourself with no excuses, no apologies, and no delusions of grandeur or inferiority.'

'Was he better than me?' They were already half asleep.


'One day I'll throttle you.'

'Mmm, nice.'

'Tell me!'

'Of course not, silly. I felt nothing. He was dry and shy. I could feel his teeth behind his lips and although he looks tough and leathery, when I touched him, instead of feeling muscles and tight smooth skin like yours, it seemed to slide away and I could feel the bones beneath. Not unpleasant - but not sexy. Funnily enough, I liked him more afterwards. I think he's ashamed of having an old body and didn't want me to discover it.'

'Did you tell him?'

'I said he was nearly as good as you.'

'I'm not perfect.'

'Thank goodness!'

'You don't mind?'

'For a teacher you're sometimes incredibly dumb.'

'That's what worries me.'

'It's what I love about you.'

'It's been great here, hasn't it?'

'Mmm, but I look forward to it being just you and me.'

'Me too.'

They slept the sleep of satisfied, loved and lovable youth.

'Did you enjoy it?'

'He's very smooth and succulent, like we used to be. I could sense his inexperience. His lust for new and interesting things to think about and do. His energy. All the years ahead of him.'


'And I was exhausted. And glad I have you. Glad not to be reminded of lost youth every minute of the day. Glad I've done all those things and don't have to do them again. I'm happy with our life, but would never want to repeat it.'

'Mmm. It's been pleasant having them to stay, but I'm looking forward to having you on my own again.'

'Me too.'

They slept the sleep of satisfied, loved and lovable middle age.

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