The school term dragged on, more or less problem free apart from Social Studies, taught by Mr. Preggy, who didn’t conceal his belief that Anglo-European culture and civilization was superior to all others. Unwilling to argue with the man and thus create problems for himself, Mort kept his mouth shut. Sometimes he felt as if his blood was about to boil in his ears and spurt over his desk, so angry he became, especially when the teacher made crude jokes about the tragedy of all the refugees fleeing from wars and bombs dropped on them by Australia, now incarcerated in prison camps on remote islands. Even the misery of the increasing number of homeless people, and the continuing disadvantaged position of most indigenous people failed to elicit sympathy. In Mr. Preggy’s opinion they should just get over it and pull their socks up.
Irritated beyond bearing, Mort, who was sitting as usual in the front row, raised his hand.
‘What?’ Mr. Preggy snapped, irritated at the interruption.
Politely, so as to avoid seeming confrontational, Mort asked, ‘Sir, if your father’s house and land had been taken from him, and when he finally found work half his wages—already less than white workers—was taken by the government; and your mother, his wife, was raped and beaten when walking home; and he was not allowed to live in the town so had to camp and forage in rubbish dumps on the outskirts, and had been given blankets laced with diseases, flour containing poison, and his only source of water had been polluted, and you were treated like a mongrel dog by all the whites in town… Would you appreciate being told to ‘get over it and pull your socks up?’
‘My god, another bleeding heart idiot with a black armband view of history. That’s in the past, mate. It isn’t like that today, they get millions spent on them.’ The teacher’s face had turned a shade of pink.
‘Statistics indicate that the majority of all government money allocated to indigenous welfare ends up in the pockets of Europeans.’ Mort’s continuing calm rational tone was beginning to seriously irritate the teacher.
‘What utter rubbish! It’s the Abbos themselves who’re raking off the cream.’
‘And it isn’t all in the past. Many indigenous people your age were taken from their parents, or their parents were, and it is still happening today faster than ever! How can you expect them to forget that? Could you?’
‘Well they should have looked after their kids better.’
‘With respect, sir, how were those poor people who were sent to the rubbish dumps, poisoned, starved, prevented from working, or if they did had their wages stolen to fund infrastructure for whites, supposed to look after their children?’
‘Different times, different behaviours. That doesn’t happen now.’
‘I apologise for disagreeing with you, sir, but it does. And it is people like you who are spreading the poisonous notion that it is all their fault.’
Mr. Preggy advanced on Mort, who quickly stood, placed his mobile phone in his top pocket, and came round to the front of his desk wearing a faint smile.
The teacher stopped with his face only centimetres from his pupil’s. ‘Take that back, you creepy little girly boy. What the fuck would a long-haired wimpish mongrel know about it?’
Mutters of ‘sit down faggot.’ ‘Shut ya face wanker.’ ‘Fuckin’ nigger-lover’ issued from the rear of the class.
‘Get your hair cut! You’re a disgrace to real men—unless you’re a girl,’ sneered the teacher.
Mort eyed the teacher calmly up and down. ‘I’d suggest you get rid of that fat gut, sir—or do you want people to think you’re a pregnant hermaphrodite?’
In a sudden access of rage the teacher swung his hand in a backhanded swipe. Mort ducked, grabbed hold of the wrist as it passed and thrust it along in the same direction increasing its speed which caused his attacker to twist and lose his balance, enabling Mort to drag the arm behind and up his attacker’s back, forcing him to his knees.
‘‘Let go, you little prick.’
‘Not till you apologise, you big prick.’
Mort heaved the arm up forcing Mr. Preggy’s face onto the floor. The teacher grunted in agony and finally muttered something.
‘I can’t understand you, sir. Say you are sorry for calling me a mongrel girly boy.’
It took another two more heaves before the required apology was given.
Mort let go, the teacher stood, massaged his arm, then sprang at Mort, who skipped lightly aside, slammed his fist into the teacher’s back and sent him sprawling onto the desk behind.
Screams from the girl. ‘Ah! You shit, Mortaumal! Now I’ve got blood all over my book. Sir! Get off! You’re dribbling blood everywhere.’ She eased herself out from behind the desk and stood to one side.
Mr. Preggy groaned, heaved himself upright, and without looking at anyone, shambled out the door.
The condemnation sounded universal, but in reality came from only half a dozen loudmouths. The rest were silent, waiting to see who was going to win; who to follow. According to the kids who spoke, Mort had no right to disagree with such a great teacher who everyone liked. He was an evil little refugee who should have been left to drown.
Mort gathered his books, concentrating on quelling the shakes. He scarcely dared move, let alone speak in case his voice trembled. Eventually he got himself under control and turned to face the now silent class.
‘If that man is such a great fellow and you admire him so much, why did no one come to his aid? It would have been twenty-five against one little girly boy, yet you sat there like scared rabbits. If I’m a girly boy, what does that make you lot?’
Silence while he shook his head in despair. ‘In your hearts you know I’m right. There are some fine people in this country, but too many are viciously bigoted and thoroughly nasty when it comes to race and difference.’
At that moment the Principal arrived supported by her deputy. She gazed around at the quiet classroom and told the girl to sit.
‘I can’t, Miss. Mr. Preggy’s blood’s all over it.’
‘Well go and get the caretaker to come and clean it off.’
‘Does anyone want to tell me what happened?’
Mort stood. ‘I’d like to.’
Mort gave a succinct, slightly downplayed account of what happened, making it seem like a simple disagreement between boys in the playground that ended with a bit of a scuffle—nothing serious. Then, as if he’d just remembered, pulled his phone from his pocket. ‘The video of my phone happened to be turned on, so you can view the incident if you like... it’ll be a bit seasick making, but…’
The Principal bought the lie, said she’d keep it in mind, then asked if anyone disagreed with Mortaumal’s analysis or would like to add anything. No one did, so she nodded and asked her deputy if he had any questions. He shook his head, and they left the room just as the bell rang for change of period.
The incident was never mentioned again. Mr. Preggy returned to class two days later and took up where he left off, apart from keeping his more extreme views to himself and avoiding all communication with Mort, who had made no friends through his spirited support for the disadvantaged, probably because the school serviced an aspiring middle class neighbourhood not keen on having wogs, nigs, homeless, dole bludgers, spiks, speks, religious nutters and coloured illegals living too close. His fellow students considered him dangerous. A trouble maker. A rabid lefty conspiracy theorist. Even Han wasn’t impressed when Mort told him about it that afternoon.
‘You’ll only make trouble for yourself if you stick your neck out. That’s not the way this country operates. If you’re not careful the cops’ll get a file on you, if they haven’t already. And then you’re stuffed. They watch your every move, read your emails, bug your phone, use facial recognition to follow every move on CCTV. They’ll know when you shit, sleep, who you hang out with, what you’re interested in. So... although I like you, I don’t think we ought to be seen together any more—it won’t do my image any good. I want to get on the student council and if they think I’m like you I won’t have a hope. Sorry mate, but that’s life.’
Mort shrugged as if it didn’t matter. ‘That’s fine, Han. It’s your life. I guess I shouldn’t come to the nursery then?’
‘Oh yeah. I was going to tell you but this made me forget it. I don’t have time to work there any more, so Stefan asked me to ask you if you’d like to take over from me?’
‘Sounds great, I can do with the money. I’ll go and see them now.‘
Han nodded; they shook hands briefly like strangers, and separated.
Lydia and Stefan were delighted that Mort was to work for them. They had found him much more sympathetic than Han, whose work was efficient and prompt, but who never allowed anyone to actually know him. Mort, although even more cautious than Han about who he allowed close to him, always responded to people he found genuine, who cared for their work, who were honest and simple—for want of a better word. Life, he had decided, was basically simple, but civilization made it unnecessarily complicated. Little by little his employers learned of his past, and opened their hearts and house to him as a refuge, if ever he needed it.
One rainy Saturday afternoon when Perdita was noisily engaged in assuaging someone’s physical tensions and there was no work for him at the Nursery, Mort decided to explore the flats instead of wandering the streets or watching TV.
Every floor was identical. The stairs wound around the central lift, and there was a small landing at each level with doors containing spy-holes for each of the four apartments. All was clean, if not polished, the walls were bare, and a vaguely disappointed Mort descended the stairs to the basement in the hope of discovering something interesting.
The space around the lift mechanism was cool and neatly swept, and four doors without spy holes were labelled Services, Janitor, Storage, and Private.
The ‘Private’ door was wide open, giving Mort a clear view along a dim corridor to a light filled room at the end. The source of the light wasn’t visible. Mort reasoned that if the door was open it couldn’t be that private, so he wandered in and discovered a large space with a kitchen at one end, a comfortable sitting area in the middle, and an open space containing an easel at the end where large floor to ceiling windows poured light over everything. Outside was a small garden where mixed flowers, shrubs and vegetables huddled in the drizzle.
‘Who the fuck are you!’ The voice was husky and the delivery lazy, giving the impression the speaker didn’t really give a fuck who the intruder was and didn’t care if he stayed or left.
Mort hurriedly and with some embarrassment apologised for entering without permission, and introduced himself.
The owner of the flat was short, stocky, bald, suntanned, not yet middle-aged, but no longer young, wearing blue overalls and a quizzical smile. ‘I’ve seen you around. You live with your mother, the whore on the top floor.’
‘How’d you know she’s not my sister?’
‘On the outside she’s young and pretty enough, but inside she’s a gnawed off bone, as my grandmother used to say. Not mother material I’d have thought.’
‘That’s for sure. Are you an artist? Can I see your pictures? This is a great room, I wish I had a place like this.’
‘Two questions, a statement and a wish… let me see... I paint in my spare time, but it’s for others to decide if my daubs are art or crap. Yes, you can see my paintings, and you’re welcome to visit this place….’ He paused and gazed at Mort quizzically. ‘On condition that…’
‘On condition you tell no one, come alone, and you sit for me. I like your face and want to paint it. But I can’t pay you! I’m a poor janitor paid a pittance, struggling to make ends meet and keep the wolf from the door.’
‘Then you shouldn’t leave it open.’ Mort grinned.
The janitor held out a short fingered, powerful hand. ‘Steward.’
They shook hands seriously, then Steward took his visitor into a room empty of furniture. On the walls were fifteen framed paintings—small works no more than thirty centimetres by twenty—hung at eye level. The rest of the walls both above and below the paintings were home to scores of mainly charcoal drawings that had been pinned apparently at random.
The subjects were men, painted in what Steward called a super realistic style—more realistic than a photograph, because he left out everything that didn’t suit the sort of character he wanted. No one had double chins, warts, sores, crossed eyes, pot bellies. But that didn’t mean they looked like heroic gods. They remained true to type, but were the best examples of that type. In other words, they looked like the image the sitters had of themselves, not what people actually saw. In this way both viewer and model were happy. In every painting two or more people—male or androgynous, were fighting, caressing, having sex, threatening, dancing, collaborating…
‘Not many women.’
‘None. Women are uninteresting and don’t like sitting for a man without being paid. They’re all whores at heart, and as they think all men are rapists, get disappointed when they discover I’m not.’
‘Where do you get the models?’
‘You’d be surprised how many men feel honoured if someone thinks they’re interesting enough to want to draw and paint them. When I see a bloke at the pub who interests me, or on the street or in the park, I start a conversation. Tradesmen sometimes sit for me if I give them lunch when they come to repair something. Once men trust me they’re usually easy, willing to do anything I suggest. If there were women around, the same men would clam up and become irritable and difficult, because they know that whatever they’re doing will be broadcast throughout the community within minutes. The whole world will be told they were sitting for their portrait so they must be a vain queer and so on. With other men they know their secrets are safe and no one is going to gossip and criticise.’
‘Yeah, that’s also my impression from the few women I know.’ Mort shook his head in apparent confusion. ‘And yet we’re told they’re the kind, thoughtful, loving one’s, and we’re the rough, thoughtless, selfish ones. I’ve been brought up by three wonderful people, but they were all men. The women in my life have never improved it.’
‘Exactly. There are a couple of blokes who regularly come and spend a night in my spare bedroom when they can’t stand their wives any more, or feel they’re in danger from them. Sort of a safe house. It’s always females in the News demanding protection from their husbands, but in my experience it’s just as often the other way round.’
‘Yeah, I believe it. But isn’t it hard to find two people to pose at the same time?’
‘Go take a closer look.’
Mort stood again in front of the drawings and paintings, brow furrowed, concentrating. Suddenly a loud whoop. ‘Ha! It’s always the same person. That’s smart. Why?’
‘Because everyone has at least two sides to their character, public and private. We’re all a mishmash of conflicting ideas, desires, hopes and fears and I try to show this.’
‘That’s why most paintings show some sort of conflict or opposition. Brilliant!’
‘Thanks. Now, when do you want to sit?’
‘Right, get your clothes off.’
Mort tossed his shorts and tank top into a corner and stood calmly for several minutes while Steward walked around him, muttering about light, angles, environment, mood, texture…
‘Do you shave your pubes?’
‘No, I just haven’t any hair there yet.’
‘How old are you?’
‘You’re beautiful. And handsome. And sexy. And fit. And strong. But not happy.’
‘So we make a not happy painting. Will you be difficult about poses? Will you refuse to bend over in case I see your ring?’
Mort laughed. ‘As long as you don’t ask me to hurt myself, I’ll do anything you like’
‘It will take me a while to decide what I want to paint, apart from your face. I tend to see best when drawing, so that’s all I’ll do for a while.’
After an hour, Steward put down his charcoal. ‘OK. Enough for today. You’re an excellent model, barely even twitched. You’d be amazed at how fidgety most people are.’
‘When do you want me again?’
‘Every time you feel like sitting. Don’t wait to be asked, because I won’t. It’s up to you to pop down here and if I’m home I’ll draw, OK?’
‘Very OK.’ Mort turned to leave the way he came in.
‘I’d rather you didn’t use that door again. There are often people out there wanting to see me and if they’re women and they notice you visiting, tongues will wag and I’ll get a reputation as a paedophile. Go into the garden, turn left, keeping close to the building so if anyone in the flats above is looking down they don’t see you, then through the gate into the rubbish bin enclosure. Check how to open the gate from the other side so you can come and go as you please, then wander round to the front door as if you’ve just been putting rubbish in the bins.’ He nodded dismissively. ‘See you when I see you.’ He went inside and closed the door before Mort could thank him.
‘Strange man, but I like him,’ he muttered, following the directions and arriving upstairs just as the client was leaving.
Mort’s relations with Perdita had become increasingly hostile and her insults so alarmingly spiteful that he began to question her sanity. Worried about her violent temper, he installed a lock on his bedroom door in case she took it into her head to attack him while sleeping. Every time they encountered each other she demanded he hand over the inheritance. She stopped making breakfast for him, and then the evening meal, which she often ate out while he prepared his own. And she no longer gave him any spending money in an effort to starve his inheritance out of him. He hadn’t told her he was working at the nursery.
In phone calls to Marshall, Mort continued to give the impression he was coping well, because he’d decided it was time to take responsibility for himself. If Marshall or anyone else came to ‘save’ him, he’d have failed. His job provided enough money for his simple needs, and Lydia and Stefan sometimes invited him for a meal. He mustn’t be a wimp. Being smart-mouthed, sharp and brave didn’t count if you could go home to someone older who’d protect you from your mistakes. Bravery was doing what you thought right, or even just what you wanted, with no one to pick up the pieces if things went wrong. Mort desperately wanted to be brave.