by Rigby Taylor

I reckon there's no such thing as free will. We're manipulated from birth to be obedient conformists who never rock boats, take risks, or think for ourselves. It doesn't matter who you talk to, pretty soon you realise their ideas, opinions and actions are copied from videos, TV, newspapers, magazines, books… There's nothing original in their heads. People don't think—they respond to prodding. My best friend and I were always pretending we were heroes from movies or comics. All kids do and it doesn't matter. What matters is if it doesn't stop when they grow up. Adults should be independent, clear-thinking role models for kids, but instead they adopt the latest fads, buy all the crap that advertisements tell them to, and holiday in places that resemble the resorts of the rich and famous, always hoping they'll be taken for a celebrity. And old people are no better! Pathetic.

It may seem pretentious for a fifteen year-old to be so cynical, but I reckon I've earned the right because I was one of the deluded masses until a tragedy made me realise what a dangerous fool I'd become. That I'm able to write this now in my bedroom instead of a Juvenile Detention Centre dormitory is thanks to Maurice, Mum's brother. He's twenty-three; twelve years younger than Mum, eight years older than me, but although he's my uncle he never took much notice of me until last summer.

Maurice left school at fifteen to be general dogsbody for Mr Bavistok. I was seven, and when we visited them I was a bit frightened because the older man's dark, deep-set eyes made him look sort of mysterious. But he always treated me as if I was important; listening and asking my opinion on all sorts of things, so I liked him more than I was frightened. He was only thirty-eight when he died suddenly last year.

Maurice got totally depressed and moped around the place, letting it go to rack and ruin, Mum said. When we visited Maurice and saw the beautiful old place already looking derelict she got really angry and told him to stop being so selfish and snap out of it because he was only twenty-two, bloody rich now he'd inherited everything, and could have any girl he wanted. Maurice told her to shut the fuck up because she didn't know what she was talking about. Then Mum cried, so he had to apologise. She's good at that – crying.

Maurice finally got his act together, cleaned the place up and then took an extended holiday in Greece, because he's keen on Classical ruins and art, then he spent the rest of the northern summer hiking in the Balkan Mountains and lazing on the Adriatic coast. Mum and I never mentioned him at home because Dad would only sneer that Maurice must have been a very special secretary to be left a fortune after only eight years. Mum would tell him to be nice because I was Maurice's only nephew and if I played my cards right, I might inherit something eventually.

'Huh!' he'd snort, 'Pete's not like your precious Maurice!'

I had no idea what he was talking about so kept my mouth shut.

Maurice had always been my hero. Tall and sort of tough and hard. Our neighbour reckoned he looked dangerous, like a pirate with his neat black beard, heavy eyebrows and a scar down his cheek that he'd got sharpening a scythe. He did a lot of the physical work around Mr. Bavistok's estate, so he was really fit.

Anyway, I figured he'd be in need of a good friend when he got home; someone who genuinely cared if he was okay – not some sycophantic creep after his money. I didn't care about that. All I cared about was that he didn't kill himself. There'd been a lot on the News at that time about a spike in male suicides. So his good friend was going to be me! All I had to do was get him to notice me. But how? I knew nothing, and he was a world traveller. Why would he even consider being my friend? Everything I thought of seemed stupid. When the email came with his return flight details, I panicked and prepared the least insane of my plans. I calculated it had a ten percent possibility of success.

Maurice had left his Mercedes Sports for Mum to use while he was away, so we used it to pick him up. Despite being only eight o'clock it was already hot enough to put the hood down and Mum got her usual wolf whistles along with envious stares from a few guys. Even though she's thirty-five, she's still a looker. I don't know who was more excited, Mum or me when Maurice appeared through the arrivals door.

She gave him a big hug and told him he was too thin. I thought he looked perfect and envied his tan. He shook my hand as if I was a man, not a boy. His hand was hard and cool and suddenly I realised we were the same height. I'd grown more than I realised. Then he smiled at me—not the fake smile you give relations you don't care about, but one of those real smiles. It made my heart thump.

Back home, Dad grunted a greeting before shutting himself in his shed. When Mum's questions, news, tea and biscuits finally ran dry, and she hadn't been able to persuade her brother to stay with us for a few days, she sniffed her disappointment and took Dad's morning tea out to the shed.

Mum had blathered on so much I'd scarcely been allowed to speak, and Maurice would be leaving as soon as she came back inside, so I grabbed his hand and dragged him to my room.

For more than a year I'd been following a fitness program I'd found on line that was guaranteed to bulk up chest and shoulders with structured weight lifting and press-ups. Legs were strengthened by running ten kilometres a day. It was really exhausting at first, but after a week I became addicted. According to my mirror it had been pretty successful, so I hoped my plan would be too.

The bait was Maurice's interest in Classical art and sculpture. I'd practised posing in the same poses as Ancient Greek statues. All I had to do was get him into my room, close the door and… I always stopped thinking at that point. If nothing else, he'd have to finally acknowledge my existence. At the very least he'd learn we had an interest in common—Classical art.

I'd prepared the room by closing the windows and curtains, placing a low box draped with a sheet against the far wall and arranging the reading lamp so it threw a sort of spotlight onto it.

'Phew! It's like a sauna in here! And dark. Open a window.'

'No, please. I want to show you something. Take off your shirt if you're too hot. It won't take long. Just sit on the bed and watch' I removed my own shirt and tossed it into a corner.

Maurice grunted something, but didn't sound irritated; dragged his t-shirt over his head, spread it over the bed and lay on it, hands behind his head, grey eyes watching. A tiny gold medallion glinting among the short hairs of his chest, triggered a crisis of confidence—his body was much better than mine! Before I could wimp out I passed him a photo of Praxiteles' Apollo Sauroktonos and, while he was looking at it, sent my shorts to join my shirt and mounted the draped box.

Maurice frowned and sat up as if to leave. I'd blown it! Before he could stand I took up the well-practised pose. 'What do you reckon? Have I got it right?'

No response.

Hot with shame and embarrassment I prepared to jump down but Maurice held up his hand.

'No, don't move.' He got off the bed and walked around the room studying me, then with a sort of barking laugh asked, 'Where's the scrawny kid who used to live in this room?'

I'd never felt such an utter idiot. What could he be thinking? 'Shall I get down?'

'No. Hold the pose. I haven't finished comparing you yet.' He walked slowly around, looking from me to the photo, comparing, then nodded as if surprised. 'You look better than the Apollo. I've always been a bit disappointed by his wide waist. How old are you? Seventeen? Eighteen?'


'The cusp of manhood,' he said softly. 'You look, and seem, older. Don't move.' Maurice pulled the curtains back, swung round to look at me, frowned and stood quietly staring for the longest minute of my life. Face expressionless.

Dreams of friendship faded and I began to feel more than stupid standing naked on the box, so I jumped down and slipped on my shorts. 'Should I try to become really muscled like Hermes?' I asked to break the silence.

'Definitely not! Slim athletic youth is enchanting. Heavy virile manhood merely admirable.'

He moved as if to go.

I'd failed.

At the door he turned, frowned, then asked as if he had no interest in my reply, 'Wanna spend the summer at my place?'

I choked.


Mum was thrilled, chattering about clean air, healthy exercise, how good it was of Maurice to take an interest in me, telling me to behave, not annoy, do as I was told, not get in the way…

Dad was his usual sour self. 'Do you really want to go?' he demanded with curled lip as if no one in their right mind would consider the offer.

'Yes!' I almost shouted.

Dad's smile was twisted. 'Play your cards right and you could become his private secretary,' he sneered, followed by his usual snort of derision as he retreated to his shed.

We purred away—hood down, spirits up.

'You must read 'The Vatican Cellars' by André Gide,' Maurice said when we stopped beside a river to eat Mum's sandwiches.

'What's it about?'

'It's a satire, ridiculing people who change their morals to suit their desires. The story revolves around Lafcadio, an exceedingly handsome young fellow with whom both men and women fall in love—or lust, and this gives him an exaggerated sense of his own worth. He's a Romanian, who, when he was the same age as you, stayed with his mother and her wealthy lover in a villa near Duino on the Adriatic coast, where they entertained a stream of guests.

'Wearing not a stitch of clothing the entire summer, because it was believed that an all-over tan was essential for both beauty and health, Lafcadio ran wild, spending his days under the pines, among rocks and creeks, or swimming or canoeing in the sea.' Maurice's smile was guileless. 'I've just spent a month in Duino… and I've decided that this summer you'll be Lafcadio!'


'No buts!'

We raced each other back to the car and powered away. For the next half hour Maurice carefully explained his plans and my part in them. I was nervous, certain I'd fail, but incredibly excited and determined not to disappoint.

The low stone house glowed pale gold in the sunlight. Flanked by towering eucalypts and fronted by sun-slashed lawns, flowering shrubs and ornamental urns, it flickered into view between the gigantic old trees lining the drive. We pulled up in front and switched off the engine. Country peace. Bird calls, leaf rustles, insect hums were the only things that dared break the silence. With a shout of relief that nothing had changed since my last visit I threw off my clothes, raced for the lake, paddled the kayak till my arms ached, swam till I chilled, then raced back to the house where Maurice had thrown the windows wide, placed a substantial meal on the sunny end of the verandah —and hidden my clothes. While we ate he gave me my instructions. I was to have at least five hours of vigorous physical exercise every day, and three hours of mind-enlarging intellectual exercise every evening.

'Intellectual exercise?'

'That's right.'

'With you?'

'The friends I told you we always have to stay during the summer are intellectually stimulating.'

'And I'm to be part of this... this intellectually stimulating social scene… naked… day and night… like Lafcadio? Are you sure?'



'Be yourself '


'You're a young Apollo, remember?'


'Anyone who is shocked may go.'

A week later as the first guests' cars appeared on the drive I panicked and hid in the forest behind the house, watching them. They looked pleasant, chatted with Maurice and laughed a lot, and after unloading their cars went for a swim. Maurice and a couple of the younger guys skinny-dipped and no one protested, so I conquered my fear of ridicule, slipped unnoticed into the far end of the lake and swam to join them.

After sunbathing, the others put on their clothes and we wandered back up to the house. I braced myself for some comment but to my relief no one appeared to think I was doing anything strange. Instead I was complimented on my fitness and all-over tan. According to the handsome husband of a pretty blond woman who kept reciting poetry, I was a 'child of nature'.

One of the other guests—a short, fat, hairy bloke kept insisting he had been transported to Arcadia, and I was a sexy satyr. He patted my bum but I didn't mind because he was so pleasant.

During the entire seven weeks, open-mindedness, liberality, and a welcoming acceptance of difference reigned supreme. No one criticised anyone. There was no gossip, backbiting, bitching or arguments. There were discussions a plenty, sometimes heated, but never did anyone try to score points by unpleasantness. By the end of the first week I was Lafcadio in nature as well as name.

How Maurice and Mr. Bavistok had found so many decent, intelligent, easy-going people to visit them every summer remains a mystery. Friends and acquaintances from all over the world arrived to stay and drift through house and grounds throughout the summer. Some remained for days, others weeks, choosing their own rooms in the vast old house, bringing their own food; preparing and sharing with everyone else at mealtimes. There was no roster, but it all seemed to work. One bloke spring-cleaned the house for fun. Two old women painted all the shutters. The place ran like clockwork and there was always music, laughter and conversation.

Each morning at sunrise Maurice would drag me from our bed and we'd race down to the lake for a dip. He has a great body. Not a wrestler's like me, more a marathon type. Evenly tanned, lean, long-legged, fit and strong. The swim was followed by a long, hard jog, then he'd throw on a pair of shorts for breakfast. Usually I'd spend the morning swimming, tramping, and canoeing—sometimes with Maurice, sometimes with one of the younger men—often alone, which I preferred.

It was a long, hot summer with seemingly too few daylight hours. The guests did as they pleased. Sometimes I took a group of the younger ones into the rainforest that abutted the rear of the property. One particular stand of ancient eucalypts always silenced them, as did the enormous buttresses of the rainforest giants. Sometimes we saw platypus in the stream that fed our lake, and there were always screeching flocks of parrots in the canopy. The cool damp silence affects people differently—but no one escaped the atmosphere. I could have sat there for hours dreaming away if it wasn't for the mosquitoes. When alone in the forest, exploring the stream or swimming in the lake, I was Narcissus, Pan, a satyr… never one of the big-name gods; I valued my freedom too much to shoulder that responsibility.

Despite all the activity I found time to read 'The Vatican Cellars'. It excited me; especially Lafcadio's 'motiveless crime'. His 'puzzle for the police'. I loved the idea of living on the brink. I marvelled when, just for the hell of it, he shoved Fleurissoire off the train to his death—a move he couldn't take back, as in chess. I discovered I was surprisingly like Lafcadio, being more curious about myself than people and events around me. I couldn't help feeling the book had been written expressly for me. It burned into my heart—too special to talk about, even with Maurice.

Afternoons were for artists to sketch and paint, writers to compose, philosophers to think, musicians to practice for the evening recitals. I posed for artists; pretending I was Caravaggio's Amore, Titian's Apollo, Cellini's Perseus.

Directly after the evening meal there'd be a short concert with poetry reading, some acting, instrumentalists, singing accompanied by Maurice who played the piano beautifully. One week there were enough musicians to make a small orchestra. It seemed that I was the only one without a talent to perform until they struck up a dance from Petruska. A touring company had brought the ballet to school and I was surprised to discover I loved both the dance and Stravinsky's music. As soon as they began to play I couldn't help myself and leaped onto the small stage and danced like the puppet; jerky but athletic and graceful at the same time. At least that's what I aimed at. There was too much spontaneous applause for it to have been motivated entirely by kindness, so at someone's suggestion I made up a short dance most afternoons and performed at night.

The concerts seldom lasted more than an hour and the rest of the evenings became talkfests when everything from morality to monetary policy; ethics to environment, lithographs to literature was argued about, discussed, dissected. I was too over awed to ask questions or offer opinions unless asked, but on the odd occasion that I did say something they would consider it seriously. No one ever made me feel foolish or embarrassed, even when artists pinned their drawings of me on the walls of the drawing room, some of which were blatantly sexual. I spent the entire summer holiday buoyed on a sea of compliments. I was a living artwork—Young Bacchus revelling with the mortals.


Chosen by the gods.

No one told me about hubris.

And suddenly the holiday ended. Guests departed. The house echoed its emptiness and the spectre of school loomed. I'm not dumb; schoolwork presented no problems; it was the humans I hated. Never did I feel at ease. Always it seemed that my existence depended on a secret I didn't know. I kept myself apart from everyone as much as possible and was more or less ignored—neither popular nor unpopular, in a sort of limbo with no real friends, knowing no one who was like me, no one I would be able to share thoughts, hopes and desires with—certainly not confide what I'd done in the holidays! I begged Maurice to let me quit school and stay and help him on the farm as he had with Mr. Bavistok.

He shook his head and I felt betrayed. I asked why he'd ignored me all my life.

'Because you were a boy.'

'What do you mean?'

I've never made a secret of the fact that I'm same-sex-oriented, so if I'd been friendly with you, everyone would have assumed I was a pederast, when the truth's the opposite. Like most men who prefer men I'm not sexually interested in boys.'

'So you didn't dislike me?'

'On the contrary, I thought you were a great kid. And now you're a sexy and personable and intelligent and handsome and loveable young man.'

'Legally, I'm still a boy.'

'Which is why you've got to keep this under your hat. The law treats all teenagers the same to protect the vulnerable—a very good thing too, considering some of the fuckwits out there. In a couple of years you'll wonder why you fussed. Physically and mentally you're a man, an attractive and personable young man, as I realised when you took me to your room. I also realised you wanted more than just friendship from me, which is why it took me a while to decide to invite you. At first I thought you were too inexperienced to know what you wanted, and then I remembered I was your age when I met Marc Bavistok and fell in love.'


'So nothing. I had been kicked out of school. You're oversensitive but there's nothing wrong with your brain, so think about it. This is your first love affair so you need to go away and think deeply before making an irrevocable choice. See how you feel next holidays and if you want to come and stay again, you're welcome. If you decide you want to explore other things, other men…that's fine too. Understood?'

And so I returned to a silent and sneering father and gossipy mother, becoming again the morose and irritating son of parents too busy to care.

School. Mundane. Predictable. Drear. Wrapped in a cocoon of summer memories too precious to share, I withdrew completely. My fellow students and teachers were mere mortals. Superficial. Boring!

Nine weeks into the term, increasingly miserable at the monotony of existence, I trudged one afternoon up to the library after a depressing day. Angry at everything. Heart aching for Maurice's barking laughter.

The place was empty except for Mr Egas, the ancient Librarian who was standing before an open window gazing down at the ant-like comings and goings two stories below. I stood beside him and peered down. Sunlight reflected dully off the crinkled parchment of his cancer-spotted cranium, quivering on a neck seemingly too scrawny to support it. He glanced at me. A death's-head. An insult to the living. A cough shook his scrawny frame. He took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his lips, and mumbled an apology.

Revulsion welled, overflowing into arms and hands. Avoiding his eyes I shoved him through the open window. He made a great sweep with his arm to save himself; his left hand clutched at the smooth framework of the window, while, as he half turned round, he flung out his right. A horrible claw scratched the back of my neck. I gave another push, more impatient than the first. His nails scraped through my flesh. After that, nothing was left for the old man to catch hold of but the air and he fell without uttering a sound – just like Fleurissoire.

I left the school by the back gate—unseen—or at least unnoticed, confident that what I'd done was no different from a man stepping on a bug. A natural reaction. I stood to gain nothing from my action, so strictly speaking it wasn't morally wrong. I was a child of nature, so it had been merely the act of someone obeying natural instincts.

By the time I reached home the buoyant mood had dissipated, dissolving into an incomprehensible torpor that lay heavy. Fatigue, perhaps. At any rate I gave up thinking and lay on my bed.

I wasn't intending to go, but Maurice insisted I accompany him to the funeral. Mr. Egas, he informed me with great seriousness, was the only teacher who'd shown an interest in him at school, so he was determined to pay his respects. There were hundreds of mourners and I endured the service in a state of expectancy—of vague fear.

Afterwards, Maurice shouted me to a meal in a swank restaurant, but I couldn't eat. The need to confide my dreadful secret had become a desperate, silent screaming in my head.



'I… I've just read 'The Vatican Cellars' again and realised… I'm… I'm Lafcadio.' My voice betrayed me.

Maurice stopped eating, put down his fork, wiped his lips carefully, then said quietly, 'So it wasn't an accident.'

I couldn't speak.

'But don't you remember? I explained that the book is a satire, deriding people who excuse their evil behaviour with spurious moral arguments?'

Cold dread gripped my guts. I began to shake uncontrollably.

We left the restaurant; my food untouched, and sat in Maurice's car.

There was no condemnation. No recrimination; only an intolerable silence. Finally, he sighed and told me to do and say nothing to anyone. What was done was done and a confession would only break more hearts. Egas's family had accepted it was an accident because the old man was ill and suffered from dizzy spells. To be told it had been murder would open up a far greater, and possibly incurable emotional wound. And my parents! Why would I put them through the horror of having their cherished only son exposed as a mad murderer? Obviously, I had done wrong, a grave wrong, but clearly I was repentant. My punishment would be to think about it for the rest of my life.

The sentence was too harsh. The rest of my life, I determined, would be very, very short.

Maurice drove me home and parked at the gate. We sat in lengthening silence. Several times he started to speak, but the words seemed to choke in his throat. Eventually, unable to bear it any longer I opened my door, tears streaming, willing him to look at me, but he continued to stare straight ahead. I got out and turned to close the door. Suddenly, he swung round in his seat and stared, an odd expression in his eyes.

'You can't go back to school,' he said decisively. 'You'll give yourself away.'

'I know,' I whispered, unable to see Maurice through my tears. 'I'm sorry, Maurice, so sorry.'

'Have you thought about us over the last couple of months?'

'Nothing else.'


'I still feel the same.'

'Me too, so go and pack your bags. I need a secretary.'

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