‘I feel as though there’s a piece of elastic round my neck with one end fixed at Michael and John’s. It’s getting thinner and tighter, cutting off my air.’
Bart smiled across. ‘It is an abrupt and unpleasant change. I’d forgotten how busy and noisy this part of Brisbane is.’
’Let’s hope the Gold Coast’s better.’
‘You still want to enter the Wrestling Competition?’
‘Can’t wait to show what an excellent teacher I’ve got.’
‘Oh ye of little faith!’
As they drew up at a red traffic light, two teenagers on racing cycles pulled up alongside, chests heaving. Robert smiled.
‘Keep your pop eyes to yourself, ya fuckin’ faggot!’ the taller one yelled, giving them the fingers. ‘Go and screw each other, poofs!’ The lights changed and as they sped off both cyclists turned in their saddles and shouted, ‘Queers! Go fuck ya-selves!’
Robert was white with shock. He didn’t dare look at Bart. ‘I just smiled! I didn’t mean anything else. I was feeling friendly… I think I’m going to be sick.’
Bart’s mouth clamped into a thin line of contempt and anger. ‘Welcome back to the heterosexual world.’
A traffic jam made them late. Hot, irritated, hungry and thirsty, they raced to the Bus Station. Spending time with his mother had become an increasing burden for Bart. She had never been able to accept her lot with grace, and lately, with the dawning realisation that life was not going to improve, had taken to venting her frustrations on those few who loved her. The bus was late and Bart’s tensions mounted. ‘Don’t stand so close.’
‘You’re a bit obvious. Didn't that business at the traffic lights teach you anything? D’you want the whole world to know?’
‘I did nothing. Only smiled.’
‘Right... what sort of smile though? Perhaps you’re not quite the little innocent you pretend.’
Robert bit his lip, but Bart wouldn’t, or couldn’t leave it alone. ‘Touting for trade out the window.’
‘Bart! Stop it, you know I wasn’t!’
‘That’s right, shout so everyone can hear. Go on! Shout!’
Robert glanced around anxiously. ‘Bart, please!’
‘Mr. Innocence; even getting John to kiss you. I’ll bet they’re having a good laugh.’
Robert backed away, searching for some indication that it was a joke, that he wasn’t serious. Bart flicked his face away impatiently. ‘Just try not to embarrass me in front of my mother.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll never embarrass you again,’ Robert whispered. He backed three more steps before turning and racing to the other end of the vast building. Concealed behind a cluster of potted palms he looked back to see whether Bart had followed him, if only with his eyes. But he was still staring at the arrivals board. Robert’s head was drumming. Perhaps he had been a bit obvious to the cyclists... it was impossible to say.Trying not to shake, cold fingers of dread clutching as his chest, he walked blindly from the terminus, then in a sudden burst of desperation bought a bunch of flowers from a kiosk and ran as fast as he could back to the arrivals point, getting there just in time to thrust the blooms into the hands of the faded, thin woman who had to be Bart’s mother.
‘Sorry it took so long,’ he panted. ‘I couldn’t find a florist. Hi, I’m Robert.’ He smiled engagingly at the woman who looked as irritated and confused as her son had only minutes before.
‘She grunted and turned abruptly to her son. ‘You didn’t tell me you were bringing a friend.’
Robert hardly dared breathe.
‘Not just a friend, Mum,’ Bart stated quietly but deliberately, placing his arm possessively around Robert’s shoulders. ‘Robert’s my lover.’
His mother appeared not to have heard. ‘Can’t we get out of this noisy barn of a place?’ she demanded querulously. ‘I’ve only got a few hours you know.’ She thrust flowers and shoulder bag at her son, shoved her arm possessively through his and, turning her back on Robert, led them out of the building.
It was a tiring day. The traffic was too smelly and fast, the pavements too hard, the city too noisy, the shops too crowded and expensive, the tea too hot, the cakes and sandwiches stale, the wind too chilly and there was nowhere to sit quietly and talk. As a concession to her bunions they took a taxi to the old botanical gardens. A short walk under the magnificent trees brought them to the lily pond. They rested for a few minutes watching the fish, before strolling between manicured lawns and flower beds to the shade of the rotunda, where they sat and sipped from cans of soft-drink.
‘Ah, this is better, shelter and a bit of peace. I don’t know why I bother to come to Brisbane.’
‘To see me, Mum.’
‘I can’t see why you won’t come home occasionally.’
‘We’ve been through that.’
‘Your father’s changed.’
‘If he has, it’s because I’m not there.’
‘I’d love another,’ she said, handing the empty can to her beleaguered son. Relieved at the excuse to have a minute to himself, Bart ran off to buy a repeat.
‘So,’ Mrs Vaselly sighed, turning a vague eye in the direction of Robert’s feet. ‘You’re Bart’s… friend.’
‘Yes, but I'm nearly eighteen.’
‘Do you have a girlfriend?’
‘He’ll never make me a grandmother.’
She sighed again and gazed with distaste over the shoulder of her young companion. ‘I suppose it takes all types,’ she continued as though talking to herself. ‘Bart’s a good boy, easily excited about ideas and people.’ She shook her head and sighed with the sadness of someone whose dreams have never been fulfilled. ‘Young people don’t realise how lucky they are.’
There was no hint of a question, so Robert felt no urge to respond.
‘Bart should get married, or come home. It’s not right for a young man to live on his own. People who live on their own get queer.’ Mrs Vaselly clearly and innocently meant strange. Although she appeared to be muttering to herself, it dawned on Robert that she was seeking some sort of assurance that her boy was all right, that he was not lonely and in trouble. But she had no way of asking - it was too far from the orbit of her own circumscribed world.
‘Mrs Vaselly,’ Robert said quietly, taking her thin, dry, unresponsive hand in his young, firm one. ‘Bart is an excellent teacher, liked by the staff and respected by the pupils. He has great friends on the Sunshine Coast where we’ve just spent four days. He’s happy with his life and himself, and thinks about you a lot. He told me you taught him all the plant names. He used to love wandering around the garden with you.’
‘Did he?’ Mrs Vaselly pulled her hand away abruptly and looked directly at Robert for the first time. Her voice was clear and cool, but not unfriendly. ‘I realise you are trying to make me feel better about… Bart.’ She paused and looked away. ‘I’m not a fool, and don’t want to hurt you… but I have to be honest. I do not think it is good for Bart to be… friendly with a… with... It’s not natural!’ She looked him in the eye, defiant.
Robert’s heart sank.
‘I’m not saying I won’t change my mind in future… when you have left school, perhaps. When I’ve had a chance to get used to… to the idea. But for the moment… I love my son but do not want to think about it.’
Her listener’s heart lifted a little. ‘Bart’s lucky to have a mother who cares about him as much as you do.’
Mrs Vaselly’s mouth pulled up slightly at the edges; a very distant, slightly mocking but recognisable echo of her son’s brilliant smile. She patted his hand. ‘Thank you, Robert.’
As they farewelled the bus Bart asked in awe, ‘What did you say to Mum? I’ve never seen her so calm as she was after the park.’
‘I just agreed with her that you were an absolute arsehole who wouldn’t last long at his job and who deserved the life of loneliness, poverty and misery you were careering towards. That cheered her up no end.’
‘Now why didn’t I think of that?’
‘Too busy flapping your lips and too stupid.’
‘Not too stupid to apologise.’
‘Forget it. I probably deserved it.’
‘No you didn’t.’
‘Yes I did.’
Hands on hips, Bart warned, ‘Superior physical power will solve this.’
‘Not against superior intellect.’
‘I’ll get the whips.’
‘No! No! My mother wouldn’t like it.’
‘Your mother’s not going to get it.’
‘But - the whips are at your place.’
‘To my place!’
‘Where’s Hyacinth? Hazel must be out gallivanting.’ Bart parked the car in one of the vacant bays and raced upstairs. ‘Seems tiny after Michael and John’s.’
‘Mmm, but cosy. Bed’s made I see.’
‘Shower first, you dirty young man.’
A knock at the back door delayed such plans.
‘Hazel! Great to see you. Everything OK?’
‘With me, yes. Your car? - No.’
On the previous Tuesday, Hazel and her nephew had gone for a drive. Descending the hill towards the river they’d been forced to brake to avoid a cyclist. The brakes had failed, and the nephew, with great presence of mind executed a dangerous U-turn. The car slowed to a standstill facing up-hill. Unfortunately, he then suffered delayed panic, sitting frozen as the car rolled backwards, jumped the kerb and ploughed into a power-pole. Within half an hour a tow-truck had arrived. Hazel produced the wrecker’s card.
‘My god, Hazel! Are you all right?’
‘Never felt better. It was quite exhilarating. First the sharp turn, then drifting backwards to crumble, grind and shudder to a stop. It was surreal. Like in a film. I couldn’t stop laughing. The car’s no laughing matter though.’
‘Don’t worry about it. Do you know what went wrong?’
‘The tow-truck chappie mumbled something about insurance and wants you to go and see him when you get back.’
‘I’ll go tomorrow. Why didn’t you ring me?’
‘And spoil your holiday? I’m not that thoughtless.’
‘No, you’re not and I’m very glad you didn’t. We had a great time, didn’t we?’
Robert’s smile told it all. At least all that Hazel had any right to know.
‘And how’s your nephew after his brush with infinity?’
‘Embarrassed. He hopes you won’t be too angry. He feels he should have been able to avoid it.’
‘Rubbish. Tell him he showed enormous presence of mind in swinging the car round, dodging the cyclist and not careering down the hill to both your dooms.’
‘I’ve already done so.’
On their own again, Bart looked worried. ‘I’ve a bad feeling about that accident. There was nothing wrong with the brakes when we left.’
‘You kept him serviced didn’t you?’
‘Did it myself.’
‘What better guarantee of excellence?’
‘So it smells suspicious.’
‘Let’s stay at our place. Can’t afford to risk Dad’s car.’
When they dropped off the sample box at Susie and Jeff’s, roast pork was oozing its odour along the street, so they stayed. Bart chatted with Susie in the kitchen while Robert checked in with Jeff, who was poring over some official-looking documents. He looked up, frowned, started to put them away, decided against it and said with a smile, ‘I’m working out the characteristics of this gentleman’s signature. It’s a hobby.’
Robert grinned. ‘Can experts really tell what sort of person they’re dealing with by their handwriting?’
‘Up to a point. All I’ve got usually is a signature. No one hand-writes letters, or anything else for that matter, these days. The trouble with signatures is that most people have to invent them when they’re still kids, so they’re often rather juvenile. They change slightly over the years with maturity, but the basic layout is usually childish.’
‘My signature’s different every time I write it.’
‘It’s those differences that help experts prove it’s yours. A forger usually has only one example to copy, so all his efforts look identical and that’s a give-away. Not knowing which way your variations would go, he doesn’t dare make up any himself.’
‘So if you’re going to copy someone’s signature, only do it once.’
‘You're not stupid.’
After the meal, Robert recounted bits and pieces of their holiday, and Bart told of Hazel’s lucky escape with his car, and their plans to compete in the Wrestling Competitions.
‘If you’re going to Surfers, could you drop off a few things?’
‘There’s a carton of urns and statuettes that are too fragile to entrust to carriers. Come to dinner again on Sunday and pick them up. Let’s say five o’clock? Will that be all right, Susie?’
‘We can load the car then, and you won’t have to wake me at some ungodly hour on Monday morning.’
Ron’s Wrecking was conspicuously advertised with a luminous-pink, crunched Mercedes atop a pole at the end of a cul-de-sac. Ron himself was in his late thirties and well built. Unbuttoned overalls revealed curly black thatch from neck to navel. He laughed a lot and slapped Bart on the back as he led them behind rusting heaps of ex pride-and-joys to Hyacinth, who looked about half his original length. Ron and Robert leaned over the opened bonnet while Bart scrambled underneath to see for himself where the hydraulic brake-pipe had been partially sawn through, allowing the precious fluid to escape. Robert caught the odour of fresh perspiration and felt hairs brushing against his neck as Ron draped a muscled arm across his shoulders. Simultaneously flattered, embarrassed and irritated, Robert moved away as though trying to get a better view.
Back in the office, Ron said bluntly, ‘Someone doesn’t like you. - Insured?’
‘Any idea who?’
‘Going to the cops?’
Ron eyed Bart speculatively. ‘The car’s a write-off and worth bugger all. You have three options. Pay me the towing, and find someone to buy any salvageable bits; you’ll be paying storage all the time. Leave it with me and call it quits. Or, leave this young bloke with me for the night and you can have the salvage money.’ He sat back in his chair and smiled easily.
Bart’s jaw dropped. ‘Hang on! Robert’s not like that!’
‘He’d be helping out his mate.’
‘It’s OK, Bart. It’s cool,’ Robert laughed, patting him on the shoulder. ‘It’s a joke.’
‘Boss! Come here.’ An urgent shout from the yard. ‘Be right back.’
‘Who the hell does he think he is? What bloody cheek!’
‘Wouldn’t you like to keep the profit on the salvageable parts?’
‘Not if you have to go to bed with him.’
‘He’s quite nice. Basic and earthy. It mightn’t be too bad.’
‘Robert! You wouldn’t?’
‘It’s time I did something for you.’
Ron returned, sprawled over his chair behind the desk, smiled and asked innocently, ‘What’s the decision?’
‘Keep the car and get what you can for the bits,’ Bart snapped, before signing the transfer forms, handing over the registration papers and stalking out of the room. Robert followed, turning in the doorway. ‘You weren’t serious?’
‘Can’t help stirring it when love’s young dream walks through the door.’
‘Are we that obvious?’
‘Not at all. But you never know, I might have scored.’
‘You’re a prick, you know that?’
‘A hard one too.’
‘Now I’ve got to get things straightened out.’
‘The path of true love never did run smooth. Maybe when you’ve had enough of Bart you’ll come running to me?’
‘Don’t hold your breath.’
Ron’s laughter could be heard from the street.
‘Don’t tell me. You had a quickie in there.’
‘Right then, I won’t tell you.’
Bart sat rigid in the passenger seat, gazing straight ahead.
Robert was about to start the engine when he glanced across and saw a tear run unheeded down his friend’s cheek. He leaned across, took hold of Bart’s shoulders and tried to turn him to face him, but was shrugged off. ‘Bart! You can’t be jealous! It was a joke.’
‘I know. I know. It’s…’
‘What?’ Robert took a firmer hold and shook him lightly.
The delicately tensioned cords of Bart’s psyche had begun to fray. It was happening again and this time he doubted his strength to continue. Hadn’t he suffered enough as a kid? Was his whole life to be a battle against bigotry and hatred? He was losing the urge to fight. The idea of giving up hovered temptingly.
‘Robert… have you forgotten that the brakes on my car were sabotaged? Doesn’t it worry you that someone tried to kill us again?’
A chill ripped through Robert and he dragged Bart’s head to face him. ‘I.. I didn’t think,’ he whispered. ‘It didn't register! I'm sorry, I'm such a fuckwit.Forgive me.’
‘No you're not and there’s nothing to forgive. It’s just...’ Bart shook himself. ‘There’s a great lump of hot lead in my guts. I’m frightened and don’t know what to do.’ He looked at Robert, gathered strength, took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. ‘Instead of wailing like Jeremiah, I should be glad no harm was done. Sorry about my reaction in there.’
‘No. I’m sorry. I never imagined you’d be jealous.’
‘I wasn’t. I was angry that he thought you’d sleep with him.’
‘He didn’t. It was a joke.’
‘I know. But if I’d really needed the money, would you have?’
Robert’s brain shut down. ‘I've no idea. What about you?’
‘Pass. But just wait till I get you home!’
Like strong men before them they tossed the incident to the backs of their minds and, temporarily at least, sloughed off despair. They were intelligent, fit and ready to do battle with any normal enemy, but tugging at their hearts was the knowledge that bigotry offers nothing to engage the intellect, nothing physical to fight. There is no way to win with honour.
Hazel was appalled that the car was a write-off, but they managed to make her laugh about it; told her Bart would be happy to get a newer one, and didn’t tell her about the sawn through brake-line. It was kinder to let her think old age had done for the brakes. Neither could see any point in spreading fear and worry.
Between wrestling practice, grabbing lunch from assorted tins and packets, and packing the car, they debated whether to go to the police; eventually deciding it would be stupid to go with another unsubstantiated suspicion. They were probably already a laughing stock with the men in blue. They’d wait till school started, hope Lance would show his hand, and nail him. Thus they talked themselves out of action and into celebrating their escape. A new disco had recently opened and Robert was impatient to widen his experience.