Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 25

Mr Nikelseer supported himself against the wall outside Bart's office. Knives stabbed through the base of his skull. Panic clutched at his throat. Swallowing became difficult, breathing ragged. Had his whole life been a mistake? Sanity teetered on the abyss - such questions must never be asked. Surely he had been virtuous? Doubt gnawed at his belly. His life had been a beacon of righteousness - hadn't it?

Shame, that murky, quicksand emotion, enveloped him in dread, preventing rational thought. He wanted to scream to his god, 'Why? How could you let me? How many other errors have I made in your name? Instead, the tremulous bundle of indecision and fear cowering before unanswerable questions, whimpered, 'Almighty God. Forgive me for I have sinned.'

The previous afternoon, angered by his deputy's decision to let Karim off the hook, the headmaster had paid Lance a visit to offer both commiseration and support. The Osbairne front door was unlocked so he let himself in. He had never visited Lance's bedroom and, unwilling to call out, stood quietly to get his bearings. A cry of pain followed by grunts set his pulses racing and he hurried along the hallway to a partially opened door where he stopped to catch his breath, fearful of what he might see.

It was a large, dimly lit room with a television flickering in front of the curtained window, and a bed facing it. Lance was stretched over the bed, propped up on pillows watching a video. No one else was in the room - the cries were coming from the screen. The headmaster stared, but had no idea what he was looking at. Then, like a stab to the heart, understanding.

As the camera zoomed out, two violently copulating bodies were joined by a third. Mr Nikelseer reeled, clinging to the door for support. He risked a glance around the room. Heavy Metal posters, centre-fold girls, knives, a black doll hung by its hair, a life-sized pneumatic woman suspended from the ceiling, gaping mouth and vagina leering derisively and… Ian averted his eyes from Lance's jerking fist. He gagged, withdrew, and shuffled back the way he had come.

The night had been a torment. He had prowled the house in search of relief, crawled in agony to the bathroom, held his head under the cold tap. Doubts still shredded his soul and through the gaping wounds he saw the truth about his relationship with Lance. At least Vaselly and Karim liked and respected each other. At least they were… what? They were… friends! Seeking forgiveness, desperate for human company, the Headmaster fidgeted outside the office. Vaselly would understand because he also had befriended a pupil. Vaselly would understand and forgive him.

Forgiveness and absolution. The idea obsessed him. By dint of thought processes as obscure as the faith he followed, his young PE teacher had become the sole possible dispenser of atonement. With the master key he let himself into the office. Sunlight streamed in the windows and hurt his eyes. Staggering through the archway to the relative darkness of the sick bay, he sagged onto the bed and fell into nervous sleep.

Concentration had been impossible during the first three periods. Robert pretended to listen and make notes while sifting and re-sifting through the evidence in an effort to accept the family's decision. By interval, his head refused to function further until he had confronted Bart one last time in an effort to delay the visit to the police. They had to play Lance at his own game and lay a counter-trap.

Bart had also endured a sleepless night. Robert's obvious and nagging disappointment at the decision to involve the police was beginning to annoy him. It was all very well for a student to think of playing cops and robbers, but a teacher had to maintain at least a facade of respectability. At some stage they would have to go to the cops, and then what an idiot he'd look – even if everything turned out OK. However, he couldn't imagine it would. How could they even contemplate trapping Lance? They hadn't the faintest idea what he was planning. He might have nets suspended from the ceiling and canisters of poison gas for all they knew.

The return to school had reignited Bart's tensions. His day was one of constant nervous apprehension, fear of harassment and anxiety that someone would guess he was gay. He was tired from lack of sleep, tired of… everything. It was getting too much. Maybe the costs of a relationship outweighed the benefits. Maybe short-term liaisons were best after all. Why chain yourself to someone else's problems when your own are more than enough? He reached his office, took out his key, and bumped into Robert.

'What the hell are you doing here?' he whispered angrily. 'I thought we'd agreed to avoid each other at school?'

'This is serious. I've been thinking all night and have a sure-fire way to get that creep. I'm convinced we can get irrefutable evidence against Lance if we wait till after Saturday before going to the cops.'

'For Christ's sake give it a rest! We've been through this over and over, so cut it out!' Bart's whisper had become sharp and agitated.

'There's no need to shout, I'm only...'

'Shut up and get inside.' Bart shoved Robert roughly into his office and closed the door. 'You're determined to put us in the shit! Why do you have to play at cops and robbers? I'm sick of your puerile approach to what you don't seem to realise is a bloody serious problem!'

'I do, but...'

'If you go ahead with what I reckon you're planning, you're sinking as low as Lance. You'll be nothing but a vigilante – taking the law into your own hands. That's not how our civilisation works.'

'It hasn't worked for us!'

'It will. We have to trust it. It's the only protection we have.' Bart dropped his hands in despair and stood back, too exhausted to argue.

Robert stared out the window. Out there were thousands and thousands of people who hated him simply for what he was. It was too much. Much too much for one person to fight. As the realisation sank in, a burden slipped from his shoulders, his brain cleared and, overwhelmed at the sense of release, he sighed and turned back to Bart.

'You're right,' he admitted softly. 'It would be stupid. Not only stupid, but a waste of energy. As you said, prejudice is like the Hydra. For every bigot countered, two spring forth.'

The sense of release at having sloughed off responsibility for bringing Lance to justice, rendered him weightless. His spirits soared and drifted into an equally treacherous realm - euphoria. Everything was going to be all right. They had weathered this last hurdle. Nothing could separate them now. As though in a dream, tears of liberation streaming down his cheeks, he wrapped his arms around the man he loved more than anything else in the world.

Sleep slipped away and the headmaster opened his eyes to the sound of whispers. It took a second to focus, but when he did, recent resolution took flight. Illuminated by sunlight streaming through the windows, his PE teacher wrapped his arms around a student, kissed him gently and said, 'I love you.'

Pain ripped a gash through the headmaster's skull, annihilating thought. Revulsion surged. He grabbed a hockey stick from a pile against the wall, lurched through to the office and swung it with all his force. His victims recoiled in shock.

Bart wrenched the weapon from the old man's grasp. 'You stupid old fool!' he snarled. 'What the hell do you think you're doing?'

Nikelseer sank to his knees, raised eyes to heaven and spat curses with such venom that his listeners were silenced.

'Oh Lord! This day have I seen the abomination of the devil! Cursed be this man! May every parish in the land know of his iniquity, and let there be no escape! His shame shall be burnt into his soul and his degradation shall cause God-fearing men to know the moral depths to which this land has sunk!'

Robert felt the beginnings of an hysterical laugh.

The headmaster's eyes watered, his flesh was grey and the tendons on his neck knotted.

'Robert Karim's youth, oh Lord, is no mitigation. Despite Your warnings he has deliberately defiled the temple of his eternal soul. He is as rotten carrion. A leper!'

The school bell was ringing to mark the end of break. Laughing, chattering children could be heard entering the gymnasium as the world continued on its confusing way. Robert's had stopped. Bart looked at the hysterical old man - mauve lips flecked with spittle, veins standing out on stringy neck, watery eyes staring straight ahead - and was repelled.

'You asinine, little shit,' he said softly. 'Get out!'

'The authorities will be informed,' spat the old man.

Bart grasped the headmaster by the neck and thrust him out the door, slamming it behind him. Nerves, shyness, fear, shock, and the utter absurdity of the situation set him shaking. He drew a deep breath, turned Robert to face him, and said as lightly as he could, 'I was sick of teaching anyway. Can you go back to your old school?' He tried a smile.

Robert stood absolutely still, only his jaw twitched slightly. He swallowed. His breathing was shallow.

'Robert? The man's mad. He's lost the plot. Nothing will happen. Snap out of it. Everything's going to be fine. We'll just continue as normal. Wait for me in the van after school. OK?'

Robert continued to stare straight ahead.

'Robert? Robert!' Bart shook him hard. 'Snap out of it. Everything's fine. The bloke's a nutter, he can't do anything. As soon as it's all made clear to the authorities, nothing'll happen. Everyone knows he's a goof-ball.'

Robert shook his head as though to clear it, but refused to look at Bart. A door had slammed shut somewhere in his head. It was imperative to shut such madness out. His voice had a far-away sound. 'Yeah… yeah… See you later.'

Mr Nikelseer made his way slowly to the office. 'I am not feeling well,' he announced, grey face and vacant look confirming the statement. 'I am going home.'

The secretary couldn't believe her luck. 'No worries. We're not expecting any disasters. You just toddle off and put your feet up.'

She received a glower for the insubordination. A small price to pay for a peaceful afternoon.

Outside the gym, Robert stood absolutely still, his brain refusing to send instructions. After a few minutes he drifted out the gates and down the road in the direction of home. He had no plan, no thoughts, no ideas. He reached a small park and sat on a bench in the shade. Ants worked unseen up and down the trunk, a bird shrilled unheard on the branch above, a woman and two toddlers played on the swings. He sat. Heavy, unfeeling, dead. No one took any notice.

It was getting on for lunchtime and children's voices could be heard advancing down the street from the day-care centre. Robert gave a small shudder, hugged himself and growled through his teeth, 'I will never let Bart suffer. I will not live my life like a hunted criminal, pretending to be what I'm not, to like what others like.' He thrust his head between his knees and tore at his hair, finding solace in the physical pain. He dug his nails into his scalp. A trickle of blood ran down his forehead. He bit violently on the fleshy part of his hand until the skin punctured, leaving blue marks tinged with white, seeping dark red drops. He raised his eyes and became aware of a child staring at him.

'Fuck off!' he hissed with such intensity that the kid took off like a lizard. Then he grabbed his bag and ran without stopping until he collapsed, exhausted, onto his bed. His parents were out and the house was empty.

Slowly, swirling grey chaos shrank to one blindingly focussed idea. He leapt up, showered and inspected the damage, applied disinfectant and was satisfied that nothing showed. Seating himself at the computer in his father's office, he concentrated for two hours, made a print-out, which he signed, copied everything onto a memory stick, then deleted all record of his work from the hard drive. At a quarter to three he stowed some gear in a backpack, put on his school uniform, propped a note on the dining room table, and left the house.

A fast jog brought him to Lance's street only minutes before the kids who lived in the area would arrive. Keeping his head down, he ran to the front door, placed an envelope addressed to Lance prominently on the doormat, knocked loudly, then raced back to stand behind a tree on the other side of the road. Bikes and shouting kids tore past, but no Lance. He had to be there! Robert was on the point of going back to give the door another hammering when it opened, Lance peered out, picked up the letter and retreated into the gloom.

Next stop, the station and a single ticket to Roma Street. He spoke for a few minutes to the ticket seller, asking her about train times, and at his destination chatted briefly to the collector, before carefully tucking the cancelled ticket into his wallet. In the toilets, he changed from school uniform into a dark-blue tracksuit, re-packed everything and jogged back to Toowong along the riverside path.

Having a few minutes to spare, he rested at the top of the hill beside the monument where the woman had abused him. It meant nothing to him now, and he was amazed at the strength of feeling the incident had aroused at the time. So much of real significance had happened in the intervening three months. He had grown up, learned what he wanted, and the importance of protecting and guarding what he valued. He was learning to say 'fuck-you' to the world before it fucked him. The words of Patrick Henry flashed through his head, and he paraphrased them to suit his mission.

Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of secrecy, denial and fear? Forbid it all ye Gods! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me the freedom to be myself, or give me death.

It was six-fifteen and almost dark by the time he arrived at his destination. Although he had eaten nothing since breakfast and slept very little the night before, he felt neither hunger nor weariness - rather a heightened sense of perception - an alertness combined with a feverish determination to end the nightmare - to confront the devil within and force him to submit - or be damned in the process.

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