by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 12

Peter and Jon

The following afternoon five nervous men followed Michael and John's Volvo down the coast past holiday houses jammed cheek by jowl on what used to be ecologically important sand dune wilderness, through shopping centres lined with fast-food outlets, land agents and souvenir shops, beneath high rise apartment blocks staring blankly at the pacific ocean. As they rounded a headland, rocks replaced beaches and the road began to wind along the edge of a low cliff. Featureless holiday apartments lined the western side of the road and a steep drop to rough rocks and choppy sea formed the eastern edge.

'Look over there,' Arnold all but shouted.

P erched on a promontory jutting into the sea, a crystal dome appeared to float above white columns framed by the blinding blue shimmer of sea and sky. They watched in excitement as Michael's car turned in and disappeared behind the building.

'That must be the gallery! Have you ever seen a finer sight?'

'Never. I wonder who designed it.'

'It looks as if we're going to find out.'

As they approached they saw that large tinted glass panels filled the gaps between the columns. Inside, a few people were wandering around. They parked behind the gallery next to Michael's car and peered over the cliff to the swirling sea five metres below. About a kilometre off shore, an oddly shaped island looked strangely unappealing. They turned and marvelled again at the daring of the architect.

Inside the large, light-filled space, Michael and Jon were speaking to two serious, casually dressed men. As they entered the gallery the slightly older man looked across and frowned. Nearer forty than thirty, mousy coloured hair clipped short, lean but not haggard, deep-set eyes, prominent nose and a clean-shaven jaw. His partner looked a few years younger. Wiry, imbued with nervous energy. Dead straight dark brown hair fell to his shoulders. A ragged fringe brushed heavy eyebrows above unexpectedly pale grey eyes. His neatly trimmed beard lent a medieval aspect. Both gazed thoughtfully at their visitors.

Michael introduced them. They offered their hands cautiously.

'Welcome to Maximillian's,' Peter said politely. 'We've a few things to discuss with Michael and John, so as the buyers will begin to arrive in half an hour to collect their purchases, why don't you look around?'

Relieved of the need for small talk and formality, they wandered through the magnificent space, as impressed with the interior and the dome as with John's paintings. Red dots had been placed on all except one of them, the one on which he'd put an astronomically high price because he wanted to keep it. In Bart's opinion all the others were seriously underpriced; ethereally beautiful evocations of atmosphere, place and time.

During the previous two years, like the Japanese artist, Hokusai, John had walked around the mountain that dominated the view from their east verandah, and made a series of paintings in all seasons, times of day and weathers. Using thinned oils, he'd overlaid translucent, brilliantly coloured and deeply toned washes over and around exquisitely detailed drawings of man-made objects, rendering them mysterious and insubstantial. Each painting contained one or two small figures, dwarfed but busily active in the dominating landscape. Clearly, no matter how hard those men, for they were always men, worked, the mountain and nature would never be dominated.

The buyers began to arrive, so the friends retired to the office where Peter had prepared tea and sandwiches.

'Well, what do you think?' Michael asked.

'You can't ask people that!' John snapped. 'What do you expect them to say when I'm in the room? Tell the truth that they're crap?'

'They aren't John. They're wonderful,' Bart said softly, placing a kiss on John's forehead.

'I keep feeling I want to cry,' Fidel said huskily. 'They're all so beautiful and sad and impossible and I wish I was there but if I was I know it wouldn't last because they're all dreams of what might have been but isn't and never will be.'

Robert shook his head in admiration. 'Fidel, you're a poet. It's exactly what I would like to have said but had no idea what words to use.'

'Yeah,' Arnold agreed. 'Makes me wish I had a permanent address so I could have one. Well done, John.'

John's smile was tinged with scepticism. 'Thanks. But if you want to see something really good, get Peter to show you some of his.'

Peter was still busy with clients so Jon led them outside to the edge of the cliff and explained that the building had been designed by Max, Peter's first boyfriend; which was why it was called Maximilian's.

'It used to be several streets back from the sea and looked bloody good even then, but when a violent storm washed away the sea front, creating the island you can see out there, the gallery was left perched on the edge of this granite outcrop, where we reckon Max had always intended it to be.'

Jon seemed to have warmed to them so talk was easy and relaxed about mutually interesting things such as changing weather patterns, the unimaginative architecture of the rest of the coast, tourists, and the horrors of JECHIS.

The last clients' cars left and Peter came to join them, handing John his painting.

'Jon brought you out here because we've no idea if the gallery's bugged. Michael told us you've been brave, daring and imaginative, so we can't take any chances. The gallery's locked away for the night, so let's sit on the edge of the cliff and you can fill us in.'

They relaxed comfortably on the rocky edge with a clear three hundred and sixty degree view. Taking turns to tell the bits with which they were familiar, they managed a short and comprehensive summary of how they arrived at their present situation.

'You're right, they will know you didn't die as soon as they've cleared the rubble, and they'll know whose car contained the explosives, even if only a brake cable remains. Next time use an old Holden, not an expensive European make. So, you're on the run?'

'Yeah. Do you think we ought to shave off our beards?'

'In case you hadn't noticed, most males now have them—even Michael and John. All up and down the state men are growing beards and doing whatever they can to prove they're tough males, not queers, and not emulating women. I don't know what it's like in Brisbane, but around here women are starting to wear headscarves and keep in the background. It's months since I saw a cleavage on the street. And next month all schools will be split down the middle—girls one side, boys the other and never the twain shall meet. Boys taught by males, girls by females. Don't know where they hope to find male teachers, they're practically extinct after years of feminist rule.'

Jon pointed at Bart's people mover. 'Whose vehicle's that and what's it for?'

'Ours. We're heading out into the wilds to be our own men—or something equally impossible. Why do you ask?'

'What'll happen if it breaks down in the middle of nowhere? What'll you do if you come to a deep ford, or boggy patch, or rough, rocky terrain, or simply want to drive off the road away from prying eyes?'

'Ah.' Bart said with a slightly embarrassed smile. 'When I bought it I was only thinking of anonymity on our drive out of the city. But I see your point.'

Jon grinned. 'Do you? Ok what're the solutions to my questions?'

Bart shrugged. 'I'll pass that on to our resident practical man.'

'We need two vehicles,' Fidel replied seriously, 'and they must be high, all-terrain, four-wheel-drives with standard engines and spare parts that we can service ourselves as much as possible.'

'Which we can buy where?' Arnold asked.

Instead of replying, Jon asked more questions. 'When you're travelling, where do you sleep, store food, cook and prepare it?'

'In tents or in the vehicle if it's not possible outside. As for storage…' Fidel shrugged and smiled appealingly. 'You're right, Jon, we're city boys, never lived rough, always had a shop and bed handy. Would you care to enlighten us?'

'Of course he would,' Peter laughed, 'he's just showing off.' Suddenly he frowned, looked around and lowered his already soft voice. 'There are three sightseers over there, and as you never know who's interested in what you're interested in, don't show too much interest in the apparently ordinary ten-year-old Land Cruiser over by the door. That's ours. Jon converted it into something we can live in for weeks, and he'll give you a hand to do the same.'

'That'll be brilliant, Jon, but first we need somewhere to stay.'

'You can always…'

'No Michael, we can't, Robert interrupted. 'You've already helped us more than we hoped. We're trouble, and the last thing we need is to also worry about you.'

'Thanks,' John said softly. 'We are getting a bit long in the tooth for all this excitement.'

Peter and Jon exchanged looks, nodded seriously and Jon said, 'You can stay with us.'

'Are you sure?'

They nodded.

'That's… that's incredible! How can we thank you?'

'Jon loves showing off; it'll be great for him to have a captive audience. He no longer believes me when I tell him how perfect he is.'

'You're both too good to be true. So, we need two new vehicles. Any suggestions on how to go about getting them?'

'There's a specialist in Maroochydore who's been buying up every tough, serviceable four-wheel-drive he could get his hands on for about twenty years. He's restored the ones worth it and has mountains of spare parts from the rest. I'll give him a call tonight and ring you at Michael and John's to let you know when and where to meet me. Cash only, of course.'

'Thanks Jon, that'll be fantastic.'

'While I think of it,' Peter added, 'if you have mobile phones, remove the cards and smash everything. There's technology that can find them even when turned off. Then dump them. Only use landlines or anonymous pay as you go phones—until the religious bastards close that loophole too. After that we'll have to train carrier pigeons.'

'Well, at least we've scored one point with you,' Bart said with a smile. 'We destroyed our smart phones a while ago and have done as you suggested.' They shook hands, thanked their hosts profusely again, and then followed Michael and John home, wondering if it was inviting trouble to feel so hopeful.

The evening was both sad and cheerful. They sat in comfortable chairs out on the deck. It was an exceptionally clear night and it seemed every one of the billions of stars was visible, twinkling like a spangled, shimmering gauze across the black void. Orion's feet had just appeared over the horizon, and the Two Pointers clearly indicated the Southern Cross. Only the South Pole was devoid of pinpricks of light.

'It's going to be a cold night, will you be Ok in your sleeping bags in the van?'

'We don't have sleeping bags, it's just one bed the width of the van; so we'll be as cosy as bugs in rugs, thanks, Michael.'

'All three of you in one bed?'

'Yeah, we're used to it. We've been sleeping in the same bed for nearly two years.'

'And you all… get along? No problems?'

'You mean sex?' Arnold grinned. 'So far no probs. I think we were born to be a threesome; it just works. Three isn't a crowd as the saying goes. We know we love each other so we're happy to be together.'

'That's remarkable,' John said thoughtfully. 'A few years after John and I met we tried a threesome and it was terrible. If Michael kissed the other guy I was jealous. If I did anything sexy, Michael was jealous. One of us always felt left out and…' he stopped and grinned. 'We both vowed never to do it again.'

'Did you love the other guy and want to be with him all the time?'

'Heavens no, we hardly knew him—met him in a sauna.'

'That explains it. If you love two guys, watching them have fun together is a pleasure.'

'I apologise for harping on about this,' Hylas said, 'but I still can't get over the fact that you never have visitors; don't you get bored?'

'We used to have visitors, as we mentioned last night, and as Robert will recall on his first visit, but we're nearer eighty than seventy, getting tired with plenty of things to occupy our time. Jobs that used to take an hour now take half a day. We enjoy each other's company and don't enjoy most other peoples, so it seems a terrible waste to spend our few precious remaining years with people we don't much care for. It'll probably sound mushy and sentimental, but I resent every minute spent away from Michael. Not that we live in each other's pockets. Knowing he's here and I can see and talk to him whenever I want, is all I need.'

'That is so romantic,' Hylas said dreamily. 'You're the only old men I've met who're gay. I always thought growing old would be horrible, but now I don't think so.'

'What about marriage?' Arnold asked, frowning. 'Would you get married if you could?'

'Of course not! We don't need the approval of others. I reckon marriage should be abolished. If two people want to have children, they should sit a health and mental fitness test and sign a binding contract to remain responsible for the child until it is independent. They wouldn't have to live together, but all decisions regarding the kids would have to be agreed on. If people want to share their lives, then do it, don't demand the sanction of family, friends, religion or state. That is so pathetic!'

'That's a relief, because we'd never get a marriage licence for three people,' Arnold laughed.

'But at least it's better today for gays than when you were young, isn't it?'

'It might be better for guys who are obviously gay, but it's made no difference to people like us who don't stand out,' Michael said thoughtfully. 'We were talking about this recently and in some ways we preferred life fifty years ago. The gay clubs were secret, but more innocent and friendlier. We lived together openly, but because we didn't tell people we were queer and thereby force them to say they approved of us, they happily accepted us. There's just as much homophobia today as then, but now it's more virulent and nasty because everyone's talking about it. Even five-year-old kids have opinions about queers they absorbed from their parents. When we were young no boys even thought about it until the hormones started to flow in their teens, and then we had to have girl friends. But that was Ok because it confirmed, at least for us, our orientation. No one can say we haven't tried being heterosexual.

'Blackmail and entrapment were the only really horrible things, because of the laws. There are just as many or more suicides by gay boys and men now as then. Thanks to decades of publicity, hype and misinformation, every man and his son and daughter is on the lookout for queers to harass or support. Looking back, I don't think much has been gained by fifty years of fighting for equality. In fact the few good things have been lost. No one's equal. If we'd spent the same energy and time ensuring the country became a tolerant, secular, pluralist state, in which all humans are treated equally by the law, and none are singled out for special treatment, that would be the ideal society in my opinion.'

The following morning, after affectionate and sad farewells to their hosts, who it was unlikely they would see again, they drove into Maroochydore and separated. After buying a few supplies, Robert crossed to a park where he relaxed on a bench in the shade, nodding vaguely and swapping pleasantries with the man he happened to share it with. After a few minutes, the other fellow stood, stretched, and jogged across the street to disappear down an alley. Robert sat for a few minutes longer, picked up a rolled newspaper, then wandered back to his vehicle, which he drove around the town collecting the other four before arriving at the address in the industrial estate mentioned in one of two handwritten notes pinned inside the newspaper.

Two vast warehouses in impeccable order contained several dozen refurbished, all-terrain, easily serviced vehicles, as well as scores of neatly organised racks of every possible spare part. They chose two long-wheelbase vehicles, paid in cash, and persuaded the seller to accept Bart's vehicle for scrap, rather than reselling.

Once their belongings had been transferred, paperwork completed and hands shaken, Robert showed the others Jon's two hand-drawn maps.

'It says in his letter that we must take separate routes because two similar vehicles in convoy will attract unwanted attention. And when we reach the forest, ignore the no entry signs and drive very slowly and carefully so as not to leave lasting impressions on the tracks. We have to keep the maps in the vehicles for later use.'

Like motorists who have just asked directions of each other they nodded their thanks, and with hearts pounding nervously at the implications of such cloak and dagger precautions, drove quietly off in different directions.

Half an hour later, Hylas and Arnold who were reading the map, instructed Fidel to cross the Bruce Highway and take a steep road into the coastal ranges. At the top they turned north onto a secondary road, and a few kilometres later, without having seen the others, turned west onto a barely discernible sandy track guarded by a sign saying: "Entry is Forbidden to Queensland State Forests without written permission."

Driving slowly and carefully they wound into gullies, up onto ridges then along and down inclines, eventually arriving at a tiny lake among the trees. On the far side nestled two cottages overshadowed by rainforest giants. Peter and Jon's vehicle was parked under an awning to one side, so they skirted the lake on a firm, gravelled track and pulled up beside it. Robert and Bart, who had taken a different, although similar route, arrived a few minutes later.

After congratulating them on their map-reading ability, Jon and Peter took a quick look at the vehicles and nodded appreciatively.

'You've chosen well. Feel like a swim?'

'Do we ever!'

'Right,' Jon said briskly, 'race you to the far end.' He tossed his shorts and shirt onto the grass and sprinted down to the water. The others took mere seconds to follow his bronzed bum and there was much splashing and laughing before all seven were sprawled on the sandy edge at the other side.

'Thank goodness you aren't prudes,' Peter said with relief. 'We never wear anything when here, so the thought of having to put on shorts every day was beginning to worry me.'

'The only thing that worries me,' Hylas said mock seriously, 'is how unfavourably my skinny rump compares with Jon's magnificent bum.'

'If you're a good boy I'll let you stroke it,' Jon laughed, diving back into the water.

The swim back took longer, was incredibly refreshing, and everyone agreed was the nicest thing they'd done for a very long time.

'How come your lake's full but Michael and John's is almost dry?'

'Drought—the worst since records began. They're on a ridge that's as dry as chips, we're in a deep hollow where springs are still releasing water held by the forest. But if it doesn't rain within the next year we'll also be parched and have to leave.'

'What happens if there's a fire?'

'We'll be stuffed good and proper.'

'Shouldn't you have a more direct route to the cottage?'

'There used to be a proper road servicing three other properties. When the owners decided they wanted to be nearer civilization, we bought their blocks and had the road ripped up and planted to avoid casual sightseers. By making a Will leaving our 90 hectares to the state as a national park, we were granted permission to use the forest tracks.

'But why did you want to be so private?'

'We'd had rather too much excitement soon after we met, and became paranoid. Our nearest neighbour had lived in a totalitarian regime and saw clearly the direction successive Australian governments were going, with draconian new laws that increased police powers while removing most of the freedoms and protections our grandparents had fought for and our parents took for granted. He proved right and we're very pleased to have this hideaway. We spend a few days a week at the gallery in the upstairs flat, and the rest of the time here, telling anyone who asks that we go camping. But very few people are interested.'

'You must be worth a fair bit to have bought all this and the gallery.' Suddenly embarrassed at asking such a personal question, Fidel countered it by blurting, 'Sorry for being so curious, its just that we got our money when Arnold won a lottery and shared it with us and...'

'Don't apologise. It's no secret. My boyfriend, Max, was an architect with big dreams and no money, so he married a bitch who promised to show him how to make enough money to build the gallery of his dreams. I went a bit crazy at losing him to a female, and bought this place and became a hermit, not realising he still loved me and kept wanting to make it good. He made a Will leaving everything to her, but if she died, everything would go to me. She was impatient to be rich so had him murdered by her new boyfriend, whom she married a month later. Then he murdered her, imagining he would inherit everything. He would have except Jon and I exposed him and now he's rotting in prison having forfeited his inheritance to me.' [ Dome of Death ]

'That's a real gothic horror tale.'

'It was much worse than it sounds,' Jon murmured. 'It got very, very hairy for a time, and that's another reason we don't want many visitors.'

'Which begs the question, why are you being so pleasant and helpful?'

'We like and trust John and Michael, and they love Robert and Bart. And it's obvious Robert and Bart like you, and you are fighting our enemy, so it seemed the sensible thing to do. Opportunity only knocks once. He who hesitates is lost and all that jazz.'

'But why is JECHIS your enemy?'

'My parents are fundies who live miserable existences on a drought-stricken farm way out west in the bush, Jon explained. 'My father used the Old Testament as his guide for bringing up kids, so I know the sort of vile world these people want to revive, and I want to stop them—or at least put obstacles in their way.'

Dusk was falling by the time they straggled up to the cottages. They transferred their gear to the smaller cottage, which was Peter's studio, then everyone helped prepare an evening meal at the outdoor barbecue with some of the mountain of food Jon had told them to buy before coming. While washing the dishes and clearing away in the cottage kitchen, an odd, uncomfortable silence descended. Suddenly no one seemed sure what to say. Several men started talking, then stopped and mumbled something vague.

'We obviously need a serious talk,' Peter announced. 'Come outside.'

Despite, or perhaps because of their initial, unquestioning easy friendship, both hosts and visitors were belatedly worrying they'd been foolishly rash—leaping too easily into intimacy with strangers. Peter and Jon couldn't help wondering if they were harbouring 'terrorists', while the others suddenly realised how isolated they were, with two strangers who held their lives in their hands. They knew nothing about each other—having relied solely on the recommendation of Michael and John.

They lay in silence under a mosquito-net tent on the soft grass in front of the main cottage, gazing thoughtfully up at stars peeking between scudding dark clouds that seemed to presage a disquieting future.

Peter was the first to break the silence. 'I don't want to be rude, but we know nothing personal about you five guys. We've broken all our rules by inviting you here to our sanctuary and are feeling a little nervous. John told us about you blowing up a gymnasium, but that's all really. So, please tell us about yourselves, what you believe in, what you intend to do.'

'And why you're not going to murder us in our beds,' Jon added, failing to lighten the mood, adding, 'and then we'll do the same.'

'Won't it be too late after we've murdered you?'

'They laughed and the tension lessened.

'You don't sound rude, you sound sensible,' Bart said softly,' so we'll each tell you who and what we are, then you can ask questions. I'll start.'

An hour later, five lives had been laid bare and the hosts sat in silence for a full minute.

'Teacher and pupil, eh?' Peter said with a soft laugh. 'Classic fantasy come to life. Your work with disturbed men does you credit, Bart, and your financial acumen is very useful, Robert. Michael and John think of you two as the sons they'd like to have had.'

'I thought my home life with a fundie Christian family had been bad,' Jon said sadly, 'but yours, Fidel, was much, much worse. How come you're not sour and angry?'

'I've been lucky. I had Hylas to love at home, then was rescued by Robert's parents, then fell hopelessly in love with him and Bart, then with Arnold, and they're all the nicest people I could hope to meet. It's thanks to them, not me that I'm not paranoid.'

'And you, Arnold. I understand you wanting to leave the police force, but to share your lottery millions with your friends is astonishing.'

'Not really. Without them I'd have been miserable. Everything that's good in my life is thanks to them.'

'How old are you, Hylas?'


'What's your relationship with Fidel and Arnold?'

'We're a threesome. We love each other, sleep together, have sex together—do everything together.'

'Do you argue at all?'

All three laughed. 'Constantly, don't you?'

'Of course; it proves we love each other.'

'That's what I reckon,' Hylas said in a voice overflowing with emotion. 'Without Fidel and Arnold I'd die, at least spiritually. Where they go, I go. It's simple.'

'It isn't simple; it's remarkable and rare. Just one thing; the five of you will be sharing that tiny cabin for a week or so. I realise you know each other well, but will there be any privacy problems?'

They burst out laughing. 'We've been sharing Arnold's flat for the last two and a half years, even removed all the doors in the apartment so we'd be like natural animals who see nothing shameful about any life-affirming behaviour.'

Peter shook his head. 'It sounds so reasonable, but I can't think of anyone we've ever met we'd want to be like that with. You're incredibly lucky to have met each other.'

'Yes, but to give credit where it's due,' Robert said with a smile, 'none of this would have happened without Fidel. He's the catalyst. He keeps our heads firmly below the clouds, and our lives functioning sensibly.'

'And do you all have full on sex with each other?'

'No,' Fidel said firmly. 'When it comes to the deep meaningful stuff; Bart and Robert are exclusive and so are we three.'

Hylas stared up at the tiled roof of the cottage, glistening the moonlight. 'And that's the roof you were going to be hurled from, Jon, with your neck broken. Chilling! You are two brave guys.'

'Everyone does what they have to, to survive. We didn't choose any of that. What we did choose was to live decently and privately and at least do no harm.'

'That's how I want to live, as well as naturally.'

'Except that you're not really natural, are you? No dags, no shaggy beards, body hair trimmed to about a centimetre…'

'Natural humans are no different from other animals who spend all their spare time preening, keeping themselves clean, lice free, fit and ready for work. Surely it could never be natural to become a filthy, smelly shaggy monster with shitty dags, dirty nails and rotten teeth and breath?'

'Of course, you are right. Well, you guys have convinced me we're safe in our beds.' Peter turned to Jon, who nodded enthusiastically.

'Thanks,' Bart said seriously.

'I reckon we should make Peter and Jon honorary members of our noble band of five fighting against JECHIS,' Hylas said shyly.

'Is there an initiation ceremony?' Jon asked, clearly amused.

'It's the first I've heard of it' Fidel laughed. 'I hadn't realised we were a band of warriors, brother mine. But seven's a good number, how about the seven saviours?'

'Too religious. Seven suckers more likely.'

'I think you might be right.'

'Come on, let's not be defeatists. We should all dance in a circle chanting death to JECHIS until we collapse, then fall in a heap and dedicate ourselves to something or other.'

'Like staying alive?'

'Sounds good to me.'

'Can we dedicate without dancing to exhaustion, Fidel?'

'Consider it done. Ok then you two, in the idiotic words of George W Bush, are you with us or against us?'

Peter and Jon looked at each other and shook their heads in mock despair. 'If you're desperate enough to want a couple of worriers in your band of warriors, then thanks. All we've been doing is keeping our noses clean while JECHIS wreaks havoc on the land, so it'd be good to feel as if we're helping a bit.'

Robert yawned. 'You guys are the greatest. And incredibly foolish to take us in. We promise not to outstay our welcome, or get you into trouble. But suddenly I'm utterly stuffed.'

'Won't the concrete be too hard to sleep on?'

'Would you mind if we threw a tarpaulin over this mosquito-net tent to keep off the dew, then we could sleep out here on the grass?'

'No problem, if you're sure the moonlight won't keep you awake.'

'Nothing could keep me awake.'

They brought out their sleeping gear—a groundsheet, duvets and sheets, bade their hosts goodnight, and after satisfying natural urges, slept deeper than they had for many weeks.

The following morning, Jon demonstrated the sliding beds, sliding racks of food and cooking gear, concealed water tanks and other space-saving gadgets and customisation with which he'd made their vehicle a home away from home without looking different from thousands of others.

Over the next two days they stripped the interiors of their vehicles, measured, worked out exactly what they needed, then Jon drove to the city to buy everything. He went alone. Although not social butterflies, his and Peter's faces were known in the area and it was usual to be greeted wherever they went. The last thing they needed was for anyone to become curious about their visitors. He returned with a trailer full of gear and a sombre face.

'Lucky you guys didn't come with me; there are photos of you all over town. It's like the old Wild West. Wanted Dead or Alive. Those words are missing, but the rest's pretty serious.'

'What do the notices say?'

'These five men are terrorists. Anyone aiding or abetting them will be shot. Anyone failing to inform the police of a sighting will be shot. Do not approach them, they are armed and dangerous.'

The conversion of the vehicles took two weeks during which friendship was cemented and changes were made to the physical appearance of the five wanted men. Jon, who had some experience of dissimulation, suggested subtle changes to the way they walked, stood and held their bodies when listening.

'From what you've told us there are loads of people who know you, from the workmen and equipment providers of the gym, to clients, all of whom will recognise the way you move as easily as your face. You all tend to stand very straight with heads erect, and your movements are precise yet graceful. You're typical athletes. To fool people you'll have to resemble the rest of the human race and slouch slightly, stumble occasionally, and stop looking so agile and self-confident. As for your heads, Bart and Robert's neatly manicured beards must become full and slightly unkempt, and Fidel's full beard must disappear. Arnold's smooth face will be enriched by a sculpted beard and moustache, and Hylas's long hair will be shorn to stubble, while his moustache must blossom.'

'There's not much of it.'

'Enough to hide your top lip and confuse the viewer.'

'Should we dye our hair?'

'And have the endless problem of touching up the roots? No. Disguises must be simple, easy to maintain and require no special effects. All you have to do is practice being slightly awkward or hesitant in both conversation and movement. Think of someone like that and try to be them.'

They each decided on a persona, practiced in private then tried it in front of the others.

'You're like American sitcom actors, zero subtlety,' Jon declared with a laugh. 'Your ideas are good, but tone them down at least ninety percent so you don't look like clowns. A slight change is not only best, but possible to maintain for as long as you like. We don't want limps, hump backs, twitching eyelids and slavering mouths. Hylas you looked as if you had St. Vitus's dance.'

Soon they all discovered a slight variation of body language they could remember and maintain without effort. For several hours a day they practised, relying on the others to tell them when they slipped out of character.

No one was looking forward to parting. But days have a habit of drifting by and suddenly they were packed, and ready to go.

'You're the best guests anyone could wish for,' Peter said with a sad smile. 'You don't need entertaining, we're not constantly wondering if you're bored, and you pitch in so easily it's as if we've lived together forever. Promise you'll come back!'

'We promise, and you must promise to keep out of trouble. I've been thinking,' Bart continued with some diffidence, 'that it'd be great if we could think of this beautiful place as our safe house. Sort of a Shangrila; a place to escape to if things get too hot. But of course only after taking every precaution possible to ensure we aren't followed. Rest assured we will never ever tell anyone about this spot. The forests, the sunsets over the hills, the lake, the birds, the peace… it really is a slice of paradise—and all thanks to the effort and wills of you two men. An accurate reflection of your characters.'

'You mean a bit rough around the edges, uncultivated and getting old. Luckily, we don't take offence easily, so you'll all be welcome here at any time, without notice. But we would like to know that you're Ok, so drop us a line at Maximillian's Art Gallery from time to time, as if you're making a normal inquiry. You don't have to say anything, it'll just let us know you're still free and lovely. Now go before we burst into tears.'

After last hugs, the newly refurbished vehicles drove quietly around the lake then vanished into separate tracks through the forest, having arranged to meet later that afternoon on the Esplanade at Hervey Bay.

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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