Jeff drove straight into the garage and closed the doors before putting on any lights. Jon and I unwound from the floor where we’d been concealing ourselves, and went through to the entrance hall. Jeff took the internal staircase upstairs. We stripped, hung everything in the vast wardrobe and, slightly nervous, let ourselves into the living area.
Until that evening I’d not talked about the Alconas to Jon, they’d been my secret to savour in miserable moments - proof that the entire human race wasn’t composed of mindless consumers of self-destruction. I hadn’t even introduced him to them at the opening of Mad’s exhibition - we were still a bit wary of each other at that stage. So while we were resting on the spare bed at the Fierney’s before going down to meet Jeff, I’d filled him in on the most important details.
‘The Alconas are nudists. We’ll have to be naked too,’ I said casually.
‘Good one. Hope they keep the place warm.’
Encouraged by his easy acceptance I told him about Hank’s bad back, Mad’s hairless body and Jeff’s unrequited love life. He had nodded perfunctorily, emitting the usual grunts and responses we make when hearing news about mutual friends. Lastly, I described Der and Dra, the word-games they played, their light-hearted seriousness, and as though it was an unimportant afterthought added, they’re very much in love and sleep together.’
Jon looked across at me with a dreamy smile, ran a finger softly across my cheek and whispered, ‘That’s beautiful. Remember I told you I moved my bed out to the washhouse?’
‘Yes. Your homework.’
‘That was the excuse. The real reason was because I had to share a bed with my brother and was worried I was turning into a pervert. I kept wanting to stroke and kiss him, lie against him and.... He’s better looking than me. If I rolled over against him during the night he went berserk and used to hit out. I always acted bewildered innocence, but if Dad had discovered my feelings he’d have killed me.’ Jon looked away. ‘Literally. He would have killed me.’ He turned back, smiling quietly. ‘I think it’s excellent about Der and Dra, and the whole family sounds very interesting, very pleasant and very special. So don’t worry. I’ll neither gossip nor disgrace myself.’
‘I didn’t think you would, but…’
‘But you want to protect your friends. That’s to be proud of. The large bedroom sounds cosy and loving. I haven’t had much unconditional love in my life,’ he murmured pensively, ‘but enough to realise it’s the only truly precious thing.’
The family was standing in a tight, nervous circle. Equally nervous, we stood before them.
‘This is Jon, everyone. Jon, this is Mad.’
Jon took Mad’s hand, smiled and said, ‘You’re as perfect as your drawings.’
She laughed lightly, and plonked an impulsive kiss on his cheek.
Brian’s still fragile spine was supported by a surgical corset. Jon asked after his back, complimented him on what he’d seen of the house so far, and then twinkled, ‘I love the lingerie, swap you for my bra.’ We all burst out laughing. It was a ludicrous sight – a couple of naked men, one in a brassiere of bandages, the other in a corset.
Brian curtsied awkwardly, ‘Wait till you see my bottom drawer.’
We all cracked up as Jon turned to Jeff. ‘Chauffeur extraordinaire. You’ve saved my life twice in the last forty-eight hours. If I wasn’t already spoken for I’d be yours.’
More laughter. It wasn’t what he said, it was the way he said it. When he’s in the mood Jon can make even the most banal sentence sound witty. He deposited a noisy kiss on Jeff’s forehead and turned to the twins.
‘You’re exactly as Peter described,’ he said seriously. ‘Two halves of a perfect whole. Plus and minus, joy and solemnity, tension and relaxation. Wise indeed are those who know when they have found their mate.’
They stood before him; mystical celebrants, eyes shining, laughter on lips. For although it reads like sentimental tripe, as the words slipped from his lips they fluttered light-heartedly about the room, enchanting their targets. Suddenly shy, he turned to me for reassurance.
A babble of relief. By artlessly suggesting his hosts’ anxieties were groundless, Jon had granted them absolution. Their fears had been exposed as phantoms. From that moment he was one of the family - a state he accepted as perfectly natural, whereas I’ll go to the grave wondering how I deserved such friends.
All eyes turned to me, mainly because of the blood dribbling onto the polished floor and also because I fainted. It was partly the warmth, partly the stress of wanting Jon to be liked, and mostly everything that had happened over the last two days. I came to my senses on a plastic sheet on the dining table, encircled by concerned faces as Brian removed dressings, looked up seriously and said, ‘Now, if this were a dog…’
‘Hey! Watch it,’ I grunted. I'm not…’
‘Not much different. People think vets aren’t as qualified as doctors, but we have to know the physiology of lots of different animals and perform surgery quite as complicated as most surgeons do on humans. I’d like to see them make an accurate diagnosis for a patient who can’t tell them where it hurts.’ He gave a snort. ‘So watch it, Corringe, or we’ll witness an amputation.’ He looked up seriously. ‘Speaking of which, this ankle is badly infected, it might be simpler if I did remove the foot. What do you reckon, Jeff?’
Jeff nodded. ‘Off with it. Clean break with the past.’
Everyone else laughed, I couldn’t. A sudden wave of nausea engulfed me as Brian swabbed and inspected.
‘I'm sure it wasn’t so bad when I dressed it,’ murmured Mad.
‘You were hardly expecting him to traipse fifty kilometres across rough country. He deserves what he gets, treating his body in such a cavalier fashion.’ Jon took my hand and the pain lessened.
‘It’ll have to be stitched,’ Brian murmured. ‘I’ll give you a local anaesthetic, but it could still hurt a bit.’
It did hurt, but not unbearably. He scraped everything out, tidied up the ragged edges, doused it with peroxide and sewed it back together. ‘You just missed the tendon,’ he announced cheerfully, snipping off the last thread. ‘Another millimetre and you’d have been a cripple for life.’
The clarinet solo from Rossini’s Variations filled the stillness, soothing shattered nerves with its daring.
When all my external bits had been stitched, cleaned and patched, Brian hoisted my legs. A collective sigh settled over the watchers.
‘Jeeze, Peter, how have you been able to shit?
‘I haven’t dared.’
Apparently it looked worse than it was. Brian held a mirror and the pulpy, empurpled mess made me want to chunder. I wished I hadn’t seen it.
‘No splitting of the rectum, merely fissuring, minor infection, bruising and so on. Another couple of days and you’ll be back to normal. Was it a hard or soft dildo?’
‘Purple vinyl. Translucent and hugely realistic.’
‘In the bad old days they were made of hard plastic and there were occasional cases of perforated rectums, or is it recta? Even bruising of the pelvis. Next time you visit MacFife get in a few rehearsals beforehand with a cucumber.’
My nether regions became the butt of several more tasteless jokes before I was released from the stirrups and helped to the sofa while Jon’s bruises were checked, ribs strapped, and he was pronounced battered but healthy. A pair of crutches appeared for me and, after a much needed sponge bath and shave in the downstairs bathroom, we found ourselves tucked into bed in the study, sipping a warm milk drink.
‘Had you planned that excellent speech?’
‘No. I can never think of what to say till I’m in front of someone.’
‘You’ve a silver tongue.’
Jon seemed pleased at the idea. ‘As soon as I saw them I knew I liked them - so it was easy, thanks to you telling me about their little quirks. Without that I’d probably have made a balls-up.’
‘Not likely. Any way, I’m proud to know you.’
‘Now, that’s a right purty thing to say to a simple country boy. Sweet talk like that deserves a little reward.’
It had to be very little; the flesh was willing but the spirit weak, and sleep almost instant.
The next four days were bliss. When we weren’t on voyages of mutual discovery in bed, I rested my mistreated body on the lounger by the pool while Jon chatted to Mad in the studio, worked out on the home gym, swam, and prowled through the house. He kept returning to regale me with details of the ingenious design, excellent workmanship and cunning devices that made the house so special. Max had designed the place, and his brilliance showed.
Every day I telephoned Hank. He had nothing to report and Patrick had been declared a missing person; one of several hundred. Bodies were being washed up daily along the riverbanks or left behind by receding tides. One newspaper had labelled the area Corpse Coast, an epithet that might be hard to dislodge. Our conversations were short. I could think of nothing to say to relieve his misery and he never tried to prolong the call.
When the kids and Brian returned in the evenings, we played cards, talked, argued, discussed, and solved the major problems of the world. On Saturday, Jon and I received the ultimate compliment; trusted to be alone all day in the house while sports, markets and other family business took precedence.
On Sunday we drove about fifty kilometres into a National park; Jon and I hiding under blankets at the back until we were out of town. Towering, dank and fecund rainforest, a perched lake of crystalline amber, wildflowers on the wetlands and transparently clear skies transported me to a realm bordering on dementia. Jon was as bad. We held hands, flitted from tree to tree, hugged ferny tree trunks, swam and threw water at each other, burrowed under mountains of leaf-mulch, sang and laughed.
I’m not sure what the Alconas thought, certainly nothing censorious or I’d have felt it. It was a day for loving. Der and Dra took off somewhere, Mad and Brian wandered around dreamily, and Jeff disappeared for a while. I worried he might feel forlorn, but if he did it didn't show.
‘I like being on my own from time to time,’ he answered with a whimsical smile when I asked if he wanted to join us.
As always, the joy of forest, fresh air and freedom was overlaid with the melancholy of transience. But perhaps it’s the impossibility of holding such experiences beyond the present moment that makes them priceless, as does the knowledge that every year these few wild spots are slipping from our grasp as they succumb to the predation of alien plants, animals and humans.
We returned refreshed, tired, sad, happy, and ready for revenge. It was time to make plans.