The Flower Duet
The Calloways moved into our neighbourhood over a weekend in April. We sat on my front fence, watching them come and go, in and out, to and from the large green removalist van parked in their driveway. Mrs Calloway wore a floral apron. Mr Calloway was wearing a knitted cardigan and a bow tie. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case. They might as well have bought a house on the corner of Boring Close and Conservative Avenue. Their two boys were our age. Or near enough. Not that that mattered, really. New faces are always more interesting. All the other families in our street had younger children. The Calloways had just tipped the balance a little more in our favour.
“New fish,” I said.
“Big fish,” said my best friend, Peter.
“Is our little pond large enough?”
“The minnows will just have to make room.”
I asked him if he thought they might join in our games.
He shrugged and said, “There’s only one way to find out. Let’s go ask them.”
So, we did.
Their names were Luke and Liam. Luke was the older. Sensible haircut. Plaid shirt buttoned to the collar and tucked into iron-creased jeans. Sensible shoes. He looked genuinely disappointed when he shook his head and said, “Can’t come now. We have to help our parents unpack and - ”
“Tomorrow, then?” Asked Peter, hopefully.
“What? What?” Said their father from the hallway. “Making new friends already?”
Luke introduced us. “This is Peter. And - ”
Mr Calloway shook our hands, smiling. “The Kings of Narnia. Come out of the closet, have you?”
I know for certain I blushed. I think Peter might have, too.
“It’s Edmund, dear,” called an unseen Mrs Calloway from somewhere inside the deepest darkest heart of their California Bungalow.
“In the books. It’s Peter and Edmund. Not Edward.”
It was Liam who saved us from any further embarrassment by dropping a box of kitchen utensils on his foot. Hopping up and down and swearing under his breath.
“Tomorrow,” said Luke. “For sure.”
The week dragged on like a watched pot. Peter and I found comfort in the other’s familiar company, but I was twitching for a different kind of excitement, and told Peter so. We didn’t have to look far. There was a special needs school run by the church just a fifteen minute bike ride down the coast road. The kids there were a rag-tag bunch, most of them had trouble spelling their own names, but like the good book says: Brains and beauty are handed out on alternate days. The trick is to be there for both.
We straddled our bikes near a gap in the chain-link fence, keeping a weather eye out for any of the Brothers.
“Wolves in sheep's clothing,” said Peter.
He was right. We’d heard enough from the Kimble boys to know what a paedophile priest with a guilt complex was capable of. And it was sheer bloody-minded brutality.
“Someone should report them.”
“Greased palms have deaf ears.”
“There’s Miles,” I said, pointing him out on the other side of the playing fields.
One of the little-uns chased a ball close enough for us to get his attention.
“Pssst - Hey!”
As little-uns go, he had more sense then most, looking around to make sure no one was watching before coming any nearer.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Do you know a boy called Miles? He’d be in sixth form?”
“Always wears a red jacket,” said Peter.
The little-un’s face lit up. “Sure. I know him!”
“Can you give him a message for us? Tell him Peter and Edward are here?”
He nodded and ran off, taking his ball with him.
Squeezing through the gap in the fence, Miles followed us further into the roadside fringe of Oleanders.
“Sorright?” He saluted.
“Sorright.” We replied.
Peter handed over a packet of cigarettes.
Miles slipped them into a shirt pocket.
“Would you mind,” I asked, “if we double-bunked?”
“Maybe,” said Miles, suspiciously. “What do I have to do?”
“Peter on the bottom. You in the middle. Me on top.”
“So, I’m the bunk?”
Miles shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Sous le dome epais.”
“Ou le blanc jasmin.”
“A la rose s’assemble.”
“Sur la rive en fleurs!”
“What the fuck?” That was Miles.
“It’s opera,” I said. “I’m singing.”
“Yeah? Well, don’t.”
I heard Peter snigger.
“Under a dome of white jasmine.”
“With the roses entwined together.”
“On a river bank covered with flowers."
"Laughing in the morning.”
“Gently floating on it’s charming risings.”
“On the river’s current.”
“On the shining waves.”
“One hand reaches.”
“Reaches for..... ”
My fingers found Peter.
“Where the spring sleeps.”
“And the birds, the birds sing.”
“That’s not a bird.”
“A cock is a bird,” I quipped. “And cocks of a feather, flock together.”
TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW DATE 09 04 1974
DSS MERRYDEW R (D1)
DSC LATHAM M (D2)
WPC SRIKANTH A
EDWARD XAVIER WESTON (MINOR)
JAMES PULLER Q.C (REPRESENTING)
D1 / Where were you on the afternoon of Wednesday the 3rd of this month?
EW / At school. I was there in the morning as well.
D2 / Don’t treat us like a couple of _______ morons and we won’t treat you like the ______ little ____ you are.
D1 / After school.
EW / Peter and I rode our bikes to Kimble Grange. We have friends there.
D1 / Did you speak to anyone there?
EW / Our friend Miles.
D1 / Did Miles say anything to you about running away?
EW / Not that day. No.
D1 / But he has before?
EW / Wouldn’t you? It’s no better than a prison.
D1 / Yes or no, please, Edward.
EW / Yes.
D1 / And would you say he was serious? About leaving?
EW / I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t think he had anywhere else to go.
D1 / You see, Edward, the reason why we wanted to talk to you is because Miles has gone missing.
D2 / Are you a rent boy?
EW / What? No.
D2 / So, you give it away for free?
JP / That’s enough.
D1 / You were with Miles, weren’t you? That day. You and Peter. What did the three of you talk about?
EW / Just stuff.
D1 / You were seen engaging in a lewd act. Homosexuality is a criminal offense. Did you know that?
EW / I don’t find it offensive.
D1 / We want to find Miles. That’s our only concern. Safe and sound, yes? So, if there’s anything you can tell us. Anything at all.
EW / Did you know he was raped when he was 11 (eleven) years old? And that he’s been raped by those bastards every week since? Sometimes every night of the week?
D1 / Certain allegations have come to our attention.
EW / Bashed? Tortured?
D1 / Certain allegations have -
EW / Have come to your attention. I know! But what are you doing about it?
D1 / Did you ever see Miles being abused in any way?
EW / We saw the bruises. The welts. He told us how -
D1 / But you didn’t actually witness -
EW / Well, no. But -
D1 / Do you know Jonah Waitihi?
EW / What? Yes, but -
D2 / He says you touched him.
D1 / Did you, Edward?
EW / No!
D2 / Jonah says quote ‘He grabbed my bird and rubbed it up and down with his hand’.
D1 / This is a serious matter, Edward.
JP / I need to speak to my client.
D2 / You can whistle Dixie, mate!
JP / I really must insist.
EW / Please, James!
INTERVIEW TERMINATED 22:58
“No, James. I swear!”
“You need to be honest with me, Edward.”
“Why would he - ”
“I don’t know.”
“You can’t think of any reason at all?”
“Why would he lie about it?”
“I don’t - Because he - Please, James, you have to believe me!”
“I do, Edward. But I know you, too. I know what you think about that sort of thing.”
“That sort of thing?”
“You and Peter. Other boys. You’re clique.”
“Seriously? Fuck off!
“How many have there been, Edward? The Williams boy. The Connicks. The Marshalls. Who else?”
“Do you deny it?”
“No, but - ”
“You can’t - ”
“I know you, Edward. I know what you are.”
“Yes, and I know you! How old was Peter the first time? How old was I?"
“Are you threatening me?”
“Do I need to? Please, James, you have to help me!”
“Yes, and I will. If only for Peter’s sake. But you have to help me, too.”
“I don’t know what - ”
“Tell me the truth.”
“The truth? I wish I knew.”
“Did you touch that boy?”
“All right. It’s late. I’ll take you home.”
“Can’t I? I mean - Can’t I stay here? With you?”
“I’m not sure that’s - ”
“You got any fags?” He asked.
“Only the two at home.”
His laughter surprised me. I didn’t think someone in his situation, and with his history, still could. It was nice to know he hadn’t forgotten how.
I told him to look in the glove compartment.
“Found some. But it’s nearly a full pack.”
“That’s okay. Keep it. I’m trying to quit.”
“No shit? Thanks!” He lit one and inhaled. “Mr Puller? Can I ask you something?”
“Why’d you call your kid Peter?”
“My wife insisted. It was her father’s name. If I’d known what she was. That she’d pack her bags one day and walk out on us, on him, the way she did, I wouldn’t have given in to her so easily.”
“Bit rough, I reckon, getting stuck with a name like that.”
“Maybe. But you can’t say it doesn’t suit him.”
There was that laugh again.
It made what I was about to ask all the more difficult.
“You know Edward’s in trouble.”
“There’s a way to make it go away. But we need your help.”
“There are men. Powerful men. Men who can make this disappear. One man in particular. But he’s not going to do it out of the goodness of his heart, if you see what I mean. So we need to make it worthwhile for him. An incentive.”
“What do I have to do?”
“There’s a party. This weekend. You’d be required to entertain the guests. You won’t be the only one.”
“How do I get there? To this party?”
“A car will come and collect you.”
“Do the Brothers know?”
“You won’t just be helping us, Miles. You’ll be helping yourself. What would you say if I said I could get you out of Kimble Grange?”
The telephone rang. My mother had answered it before I could get there.
“It’s Peter,” she said, holding up a manicured hand with her thumb and fingers extended; meaning I only had five minutes. I didn’t exactly snatch the receiver from her, but I did grasp it firmly, in case she changed her mind.
“How’s life in solitary?” He asked.
“A living hell,” I replied. “But at least they’re feeding me.”
“Allowed out yet?”
“Still in lock-down. You?”
“I saw Mr Calloway this morning.”
“He shook his newspaper at me.”
“I felt like a puppy that had piddled on the carpet.”
“Was it loaded?”
“Only with the weekend lifestyle supplement.”
“So, he was armed and dangerous.”
“Any sign of Luke or Liam?”
“What their parents don’t know won’t hurt us”
“You’ve seen them?”
“When they can sneak out.”
“I’m meeting them tomorrow. At the log fort. Can you come?”
“I can try.”
EXCERPT FROM THE WAITANGI DAILY MAIL
Police confirmed yesterday that the body of a young male has been recovered from a dam near the town of Fataroa. The body is believed to be that of sixteen year old Miles Faulkner, who was reported as missing from the Kimble Grange Secondary College by the Brothers of St Pious. Investigating Officer, Detective Sergeant Ronald Merrydew, says the boy’s death is being treated as suspicious. A source close to the investigation has also revealed that there was evidence of sexual assault. Police are warning parents to be vigilant. There are no leads, as yet, to the identity of the killer or killers.
NAME OF DECEDENT Faulkner Miles
AGE 16 years
DATE AND TIME OF DEATH
btw 1 - 3 am (appx)
DATE AND TIME OF AUTOPSY
i: Aspirital Pneumonia
Fluid In Lungs (vomit)
1) Blood Alcohol Concentration 0.528 g/100ml
iii: Bruising (anal)
iv Evidence Of Penetration
2) Scarring Consistent With A History OF Repeated Assault/s
It is my considered opinion that the decedent choked to death on his own vomit due to the excessive amount of alcohol found in his system.
Louise Pettifer MB BS ScD FRCPath
He mowed lawns in our neighbourhood for money. I think he charged something like five dollars, front and back.
Edward called it slave wages.
I said if slaves were paid wages, they wouldn’t be slaves, they’d be servants. Edward called it a minor technicality. Neither here nor there.
He asked Declan if he wanted to double his money.
“More,” said Edward. “You could make ten times that much, with a lot less effort.”
“You know where Peter lives, right?”
“There’s a shed in the backyard. You can let yourself in through the side gate. If you go there now, Peter’s dad will be there. Don’t tell him we sent you. Just say you’re expanding your business. Ask him if he has any odd jobs he wants you to do.”
We watched from across the road. Ten minutes. Twenty. Declan doesn’t come out.
“What the hell are they doing in there?”
“What do you think, Peter?”
The next day we rode our bikes past Declan’s house. His dad was washing their car in the driveway. We stopped and said hi. Chatted for a bit. We made sure Declan saw us.
“What were you talking to my dad about?”
“Oh, nothing much,” said Edward. “Just stuff.”
“You uhm - You didn’t - ”
“We might have mentioned it.”
’Of course not.”
“Do you think we should?” I asked Edward.
“A good father would want to know.”
I’d always wondered what a deer in the headlights looked like. Now I knew.
“Please! You can’t!”
“Why?” Asked Edward, innocently. “You only pulled weeds, right?”
“Please don’t tell him. He’ll kill me!”
“Do you know the old rope-swing over the river?” I said.
“Yeah? Everybody does. So?”
“There’s a path,” said Edward. “Follow it. You’ll see a log fort. It’s ours. Be there tomorrow morning.”
“You guys built that? It’s cool.”
“It’s our club-house.” I said. “You really didn’t know?”
Declan shook his head. “Uh-uh. What do you do there?”
Edward flicked his lit cigarette at Declan’s feet. “We pull weeds.”
I’d been let off with a warning. No charges were laid against me. Partly because of my age. And partly because the Brothers had stood piously resolute in their saint-like determination to deflect any and all unwanted attention away from Kimble Grange. Away from Jonah. And especially away from what had happened to Miles.
“It isn’t what you know,” said Peter’s father, “but who you play golf with.”
“It’s not like you to brag,” I teased him.
“I think I prefer you without the prison pallor,” he sniped, surveying my milk-white skin with a grimace of disapproval.
“This is the first time I’ve been out of the house in eight weeks,” I said. “What do you expect?”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re a total, unmitigated prick?”
“Frequently. And you’re an ungrateful whelp.”
“Oh, James,” I simpered, falsetto. “You always say the nicest things.”
“Why is the window blocked out? If the paper wasn’t there, I could see my house.”
“Huh? Oh! You mean - "
“I can’t imagine either of your parents looking favourably on what we’re doing.”
“They’re so square.”
His underpants had red fire-engines on them. I thought they were cute, and said so. He smiled. Maybe they were his favourite pair.
I’m flying. Next thing I know someone has picked me up and carried me into their house. I’m bleeding all over the furniture. It looks expensive. There’s a whole wall full of books behind a desk. I’ve never seen so many ’cept in a library one time. The desk is like something I only ever saw in a movie. Some kind of dark wood. Solid. Heavy. Polished. There’s this dude. He’s old enough to be my dad. He looks normal. But smart. Shirt and tie smart. Suit trousers. Lace up black shoes. There’s a first-aid kit open on the floor next to him. He’s holding a towel to my head. I don’t think you’ll need stitches he says. How many fingers? I tell him two. And now? Three I say. He asks me what day it is and I say it’s Saturday. Can you tell me your name? There’s blood on the towel. Blood on his shirt. Matthew. My name is Matthew Kelly and I live at 47 Pine Drive. 07695503. He tells me he’s Richard and I want to say Dick but I know it’s wrong. Even if his bow tie makes him look like one. Then he says Does it hurt anywhere else? He’s looking at my crotch and when I look down I’m holding my plums and I didn’t even know it.
A little dude comes in. Richard asks him to help me with my shoes and pants. The kid says Is he ok Dad? I think so says Richard. It looks worse than it really is. Little dude tells me Luke put your bike in our garage and I say thanks. Richard turns his head and sort of nods at a framed photo on the wall of two boys. Richard says Luke is our oldest and this is Liam. I say Bro. We bump knuckles. I’m wondering where their mum is. I don’t want her to see me with my junk out. Richard checks me over like he knows what he’s doing. It’s weird but ok. He has kind eyes. Doesn’t touch me any more than he needs to. You have a nasty gash on your thigh he tells me. And a bruise on your ankle you’ll feel tomorrow. The cut here he says and points to his right temple is minor so a butterfly dressing should do. You’re lucky you were wearing a helmet or. Or what he doesn’t say. You might be concussed. I know what that is. I tell him I’m a hard nut to crack and he laughs. Never the less he says. Who even says that? Never the less he says I think it would be better if you stayed here. Where I can keep an eye on you. It hurts too much to argue so I say ok. I like Richard. He’s one of the white hats. I can tell.
Luke and Liam take me to the bathroom and watch me piss. Luke says they’re supposed to check to see if I have blood in my urine. I don’t. Liam goes to tell their dad Richard and Luke turns the shower on. Liam comes back and they help me out of my clothes. It’s no different than showering in front of other guys at school or after footy. Luke’s about my age. A bit of a dork but not a total dweeb. Little dude is cool as. We bump knuckles again. I say Preciate you looking out for me Bro and he says Sorright. I slip and hit my shoulder on the wall and next thing I know they’re there holding me up. Their clothes getting wet. Liam looks at Luke and says Fuck this. He strips off his wet things. They both do. I tell them it’s ok. That I can manage by myself. But Luke says We’re staying. He says their dad won’t be too happy if I fall and break my neck. Again it’s no different than the male nurse washing me when I was in hospital with my appendix in a little glass jar next to my bed. They soap me all over and rinse me off and even rub me dry with a couple of towels. Then Luke runs out and comes back with clean clothes for me to wear. He says he thinks his will fit me but his dad has some if they don’t. I tell him I don’t look good in a bow tie and Liam cracks up. I’m liking the little guy more and more.
My bike’s a mess. I’m not going anywhere on it soon. Richard say he can’t in good conscience take me home to an empty house. I’m not out of the woods yet. I tell him I’m ok and I can take care of myself. I don’t need my useless fat bitch of a mother to wipe my arse for me. He says I’m welcome to stay and the way he says it and the way he looks at me I know he means it. He cares what happens to me. Actually honestly genuinely cares. And for the first time in my life I feel like I matter. I want to hug him but I don’t. I want to say something but I can’t think of the right words. Anything I say will just sound. So anyway Susan comes in. Mrs Calloway. And she says she’s made up the bed in the spare room for me or there’s a trundle in the upstairs linen press if I’d rather bunk in with the boys. And I swear she doesn’t bat an eyelid. But she must know. She can’t not know. Richard thinks it’s an excellent idea. They’ve taken a shine to you he says. I’m thinking you ain’t whistling dixie brother. But all I say is I don’t want to be any trouble. It’s no trouble says Susan. The more the merrier. Is she serious?
What’s wrong with these people? Why are they so fucking nice?
I heard the door close quietly and looked up from the chair in my study to see Peter standing there, chewing his bottom lip, his hands clasping and unclasping at his sides. He wiped them on the legs of his denims.
“Are you mad at me, Dad?”
“Why would I be?”
He shrugged. Fidgeted. Avoided making eye contact.
“You have a voice, Peter. Use it.”
“I don’t know. I thought - ”
“All boys experiment,” I told him. “It’s a part of growing up.”
“So, it’s okay?”
“If your friends are okay with it.”
“What you do in the privacy of your bedroom is your business.”
The tension flowed visibly from his body as he slouched into the other chair.
I closed the book in my lap and reached for my cigarettes. “Smoke?”
“No, thank you.”
“It’s nearly the end term,” I said. “Do you and Edward have any plans for the holidays?”
“We thought we’d hang out here.”
“Under my feet?”
“Edward has a tent. We thought, maybe, we’d camp out in his backyard.”
“It’s not exactly roughing it, is it? Where’s your sense of adventure?”
Another shrug. It was a habit he’d picked up lately; from somewhere, or someone. I let it pass.
“What if we rent a beach house?” I said. “You can still sleep in the tent, but there’ll be beds. If you decide you’re not suited for the great outdoors.”
He pricked up his ears.
“Seriously? It won’t be a working holiday, will it? I mean, you’ll do stuff with us, won’t you?”
“I didn’t think you’d want your old dad spoiling your fun.”
He came around behind my chair and draped his arms over my shoulders, leaning in to kiss my cheek.
“You’re not old.”
The game had been Peter’s idea. His way of pushing the boundaries, I suppose. Seeing how relaxed I really was about his and Edward’s promiscuousness. In the twenty or so minutes of Q and A, I’d learned more about their ‘club’ than I ever would have imagined. But then, neither had it been a one way street. There were more than enough skeletons in my own closet to rattle sufficient bones.
“Truth,” I said.
“Have you ever fucked, or been fucked by, another guy?”
“Does your mother know you use such language?”
“My mother doesn’t know shit from shoe-polish. Answer the question.”
“No, we didn’t. But we did have an older cousin who - ”
“What was his name?”
“Is not in the rules,” I said.
“Screw the rules. Tell us.”
“Do I know him?” Asked Peter.
“His name is Jonathon. When he was younger, everyone called him Jonty. And, no, Peter. You haven’t had the pleasure.”
Edward wanted details.
“How much older?”
“Just older. Does it matter?”
Edward bought pizza and we shared it, tossing our crusts to the crowding, clamouring seagulls. The first thing that caught my eye was a bright orange bucket and spade. The second thing was his head of blonde curls. A scattering of freckles, like shells washed up on the shore. His dimples and gap-toothed smile when I asked him his name.
“Like the dog?” Edward asked.
Edward to me: “Do you think Benji would like a bone?”
We took a hand each and led him into the dunes.
When we brought him back to the beach, some hours later, the tide had come in and swept his bucket and spade away.
I was surprised when James telephoned me.
“Peter would like to meet you.”
“My son, Peter.”
“Hmm. An unfortunate name. What on earth were you thinking?”
“Only slightly more so than Jonathon.”
“Am I expected to pay for the pleasure?”
“The tickets have been paid for.”
“His friend Edward is coming with him.”
“What, exactly, am I being lumped with?”
“Peter is a lamb. Edward might need a tighter rein.”
“Have them phone the house from the airport when they arrive. I’ll arrange for a driver to pick them up.”
Edward’s jaw came unhinged.
Our driver chuckled. “That’s just the guests’ residence.”
He carried our bags inside, and I made sure he heard my, “Thank you.”
I’d seen smaller mountains.
“Call me Doop.”
“Du Plessis. But Doop will do.”
Edward ran to the floor to ceiling glass wall that overlooked the pool. “Fuck me! You need to see this, Peter!”
“Can we go swimming?” I asked our mountain.
“You’ll find everything you need in your rooms,” he said. “Ring the bell if you get hungry. The staff know you’re here.”
“We have staff?”
“Mister Jonathan will be home this evening. He’ll see you then.”
Sometimes we went to them. Mostly they came to us. We never saw any money change hands, Edward or I, but the bank accounts cousin Jonathan opened in our names kept growing and growing. I remember Edward remarking upon it.
“You’d think we were the only two living, breathing boys on the planet.”
“Cheap and cheerful,” I quipped. “That’s us.”
“Speak for yourself. I’m worth every penny.”
It was Du Plessis who told us to pack our bags. “You’re going home,” he said.
The world, it seemed, had tired of our youthful charms.
Kitchen. Table. Father. Coffee. Morning paper. It was definitely my house.
I think I might have groaned when I sat down. From behind the open Waitangi Daily Mail came, “Awake, are we?”
“I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
“Did you miss me?”
“No. Why? Have you been somewhere?”
“Funny. I’ll put it away in my pocket and laugh at it later.”
Dad folded the paper and looked at me. He was actually smiling. Maybe it wasn’t the right house after all.
“Yes,” I missed you,” he said. “Very much. I love you.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Why do you love me?”
“You’re my son.”
“Isn’t a reason. Not by itself.”
“You remind me of your mother. I loved her, Peter. I still do.”
“That wasn’t her last night. That was me.”
“How was Durban?”
“Thought it might be. What do you think of apartheid?”
“It will if your cousin Jonathon has anything to do with it.”
I reached across the table for the paper. “Anything?”
“Another lad has gone missing from Kimble. It’s becoming a habit with them.”
“Really? Does it say who?”
There was a photograph. It was Jonah.
My Uncle David told me to sit down.
“I need you to be quiet and listen. I’ll answer any questions you have afterwards, if I can. And then Detective Senior Sergeant Merrydew will want to talk to you.”
“Your father has been charged with the abduction, rape, and murder of Jonah Waitihi. He has also been charged with procuring a person for the purposes of prostitution, one Miles Faulkner. And as an accessory in interfering with the body of a deceased person - Miles.”
"Other charges are expected to be laid. The police found camera equipment, negatives, and photographs of a number of boys. Including you, Peter.”
“Has your father ever told you about his childhood? Our cousin Jonathon? He has? Right. Well. When he was fourteen, your father skipped classes to go to the cinema. He met a man there who took him back to his apartment and kept him against his will for three days. On the fourth day your father turned up on our doorstep. Needless to say our parents were relieved to have him home and, to all appearances, relatively unharmed. He claimed to have no recollection of where he’d been, who he’d been with, what had happened over the period he’d been missing, or what had been done to him. Our parents didn’t push for fear of traumatizing him further. It was never discussed, but swept under the carpet, and as far as our parents were concerned, forgotten."
“He seemed to grow out of it. Or, at least, I thought so. He met your mother at university and they were married. She was good for him. He settled. Passed the bar and made a successful life for himself. He was devastated when your mother left him. I can’t imagine why she did. She must have had her reasons. In time your father adjusted. Life for the two of you moved on. You seemed happy. Normal. Brighter than average. Certainly not anxious or withdrawn. If I’d thought for one moment your father was - ”
I went to live with my Uncle David and Aunt Margaret.
Edward and I drifted apart.
I hardly ever saw Mrs Weston after Edward vanished. Mr Weston would speak to me sometimes. He wasn’t a young man even then, but the loss of his only son aged him by ten years in the long months of quiet desperation. The not knowing. The waiting.
Miles had died by ‘misadventure’. So the coroner ruled. The detectives investigating could only surmise that a person, or persons, unknown had moved Miles’ body some time after death, but without a witness, or witnesses, or any real evidence, the case was filed, boxed, and shelved as unsolved.
The man who’d asked my father to ‘arrange something suitable’ later retired from public office claiming ill health.
Kimble Grange is still open. There are rumours, there are always rumours, but that’s all they are, and all they’ll ever be, I guess.
My father couldn’t represent me in court, but my defense was able to successfully argue that Edward had coerced me into being an accessory, and that I was as much a victim as any of the other boys. I was given a slap on the wrist and placed on a good behaviour bond for six months.
The town of Fataroa is only a half-hour bike ride away. I go there sometimes just to sit on the edge of the dam and think. I always leave a flower.
One day, years later, I received a card in the mail. It wasn’t signed. There were no identifying postage marks. No stamp. It simply read: No pearl is perfect. They all have their flaws. Their faults. But that shouldn’t make them less precious.
I visit the Cs when I can but I don’t get a lot of leave. The army’s my family now. I’m being transferred to a Special Forces unit. Black Ops. Anti-terrorist. Everybody has something they’re good at. Everybody has a place. I found mine. Richard slams the paper down hard enough to rattle his cup of tea in its saucer and for him that’s really saying something. It’s true he says. What is asks Susan. Oh no she says. I reach across and read the article. Members of what is believed to be an international paedophile cult who call themselves the Eternal Brotherhood were arrested yesterday in dawn raids across the country by New Zealand police. There’s no mention of that bastard Puller but there wouldn’t be would there? He’s in it though. I know he is. Up to his bloody neck and no mistake. Ten years. Ten fucking years. The whole trial was a cock up from the start. The Calloways wouldn’t let Luke or Liam testify and fair enough ’cause nobody needs to go through that but when the Connicks pulled their kids out too. Flush! Down the bloody toilet. Total waste of time. Then the prosecution fuck up the murder case to boot and they might as well have said piss off mate you’re free to go. Ten fucking years for killing a kid. It’s a joke. A sick joke. They should’ve hung the bastard.
I meet my mate Benj down the pub and I say remember telling me what happened to you when you were a kid and he says what about it. I ask him if there’s anything he hasn’t told me. Like what he says. Did one of them talk like his shit didn’t stink? Now you mention it says Benj Yeah. A right tosser. They both were. I say somebody should do something about it and Benj says we’ve been through this. I’m not reporting it he says. It’s dead and buried far as I’m concerned and it’s gonna stay that way. I don’t mean the law I tell him. We could do it. Just you and me. I know he gets my meaning ’cause he looks at me over his beer and shakes his head. Not worth it he says. Not now. Just forget I ever said anything. I know who they are, I say. And I know how to find them.
The two boys who turned up unexpectedly on my doorstep could only have been Edward’s. The resemblance was uncanny. It was as if Edward had found a way to clone his teenage self - Twice.
“Are you our Uncle Peter?” Asked the Edward on the left.
“Course he is,” said the Edward on the right. “Don’t you remember the photo Pere Jonty showed us? It’s him. He’s just older.”
“A lot older!”
“Don’t be rude.”
“I’m not. I’m simply making an observation.”
The taxi parked across the street told me they hadn’t just magically appeared out of nowhere, or I might have thought I was delusional, dreaming.
The driver crossed the road with a nondescript, somewhat knocked about, suitcase in each hand and set them down on the front path. Both Edwards said thank you, and Edward on the left palmed him what looked like a hundred dollar note saying, “Keep the change.”
The driver looked from the note in his hand to the Edwards, to me, and back to his tip. “Yous takin’ the piss?”
“Isn’t it enough?” Asked Edward (Left).
“Oh, it’s enough, mate. Too bloody right it’s enough!”
He was positively beaming when he shook their hands.
“You got yourself a pair a good-uns,” he told me. “Polite. No trouble. Not like some.”
I smiled and nodded, and we all three waved as he drove away.
“I guess you’d better come in.”
There names were Nathaniel (Nate) and Zachariah (Zach), and despite what I’d thought originally, and in my defense understandably, they weren’t twins, Nate being a year older. Their father, they assured me, was still very much alive and living with their Cuban mother in Belize.
“And Pere Jonty?” I asked. “How is he?”
“He’s well,” replied Nate. “He retired to Juan-les-Pin.”
“It’s in France,” said Zach.
“Yes, I know. I’ve been there. It’s beautiful.”
“We’ve heard a lot about Bondi,” said Nate. “Can we see it?”
“Is that okay?”
I shrugged. There was no reason why not. “Sure. But let’s put your bags away first.”
“How on earth did you find me?” I asked.
“We gave the cab driver your address.”
“Well, yes.” I laughed. “But how did you know where I lived?”
“Pere Jonty,” said Zach.
He made it sound as if locating someone his Pere had lost touch with, more than a decade earlier, was as easy as throwing a dart at a map of the world and saying, “There.”
“Do you live with Jonty?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” said Nate.
“When we’re not with our parents,” said Zach. “Or at school.”
I showed the boys around and let them choose a bedroom each. Nate picked the one next to mine, and Zach took the one opposite because it had glass sliding doors that opened onto the pool deck. They weren’t overly impressed by Bondi. I suppose it paled in comparison to the French Riviera, or the tropical turquoise waters of Belize. I treated them to hamburgers, aussie style, with pineapple and beetroot - and the obligatory chocolate milkshakes - and they wolfed them down like any boys their age would.
“What does your father do?” I asked, getting raised eyebrows in reply. “For a living.”
“International trading,” Nate told me.
“Gold,” said Zach. “Diamonds. Pearls.”
The inference wasn’t lost on me. Somehow Edward’s involvement in human trafficking - young boys, I naturally assumed - didn’t shock me as much as perhaps it should have. Nor did the fact that, after the trial, he would have sought out the one person with whom his past wasn’t going to be an issue.
Back at the house, they wanted to swim in the pool. I’d always been told as a child not to go in the water after eating. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.
“Did you pack your togs?” I asked.
They both looked perplexed.
“What are togs?” Asked Zach.
“Your bathers,” I said. “Trunks. Swimsuits.”
“Do we need them?” Said Nate.
“Well, no. Nobody’s going to see you.”
They probably swam naked all the time, I realized. Especially when they were staying with Jonathon. Edward and I had, when we were in Durban. It was de rigueur.
“I’ll get you some towels,” I said.
It was Nate, standing beside my bed.
“Can we sleep with you tonight?”
“We?” I asked.
“Me and Zach. We were talking about it. I told him I wanted to ask you first.”
“Sure. Why not?” It was becoming my answer to everything. “Go and get your brother.”
“Can we use your shower?”
“You have your - Yes. Sure.”
They played around in there for almost an hour. I didn’t want to spoil their fun, so I read and waited. The shower was turned off, and I heard teeth being brushed, rinsing and spitting, then what I could have sworn were two horses pissing in the bowl at the same time, and the toilet being flushed. Finally the boys came out. They stood and looked at me until I put my book down on the bedside table.
Neither boy seem to mind that I was naked. Pere Jonty’s influence again, no doubt. I wondered what else they’d be comfortable with. Had he been intimate with them? Had Edward? Someone else? More than the one someone? Were they sexually active with each other? Friends? Schoolmates? They’d been in the shower, together, longer than soaping, rinsing, and towelling off would normally take. What had they they doing in there? I was imagining the possibilities when I fell asleep.
I opened my eyes to see a gun in my face. Zach and Nate were sitting up, huddled together, in my bed beside me, terrified. Muzzle flash. Where Nate’s head had been was a splatter of blood. Before Zach could open his mouth to scream I heard/saw another shot.
I started to say, “What the - ”
Jonah won’t stop crying.
I pick up a rock and hit him with it.
I don’t stop until.....
My doorbell rang. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I answered it.
“I’m Kip Marshall.”
“You know my dad. Knew my dad.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, “but you need to leave before - ”
The door was three-quarters closed when he said, “Please!”
“You have a pool?”
“It came with the house.”
He stood staring out of the window at it. What is it with boys and water?
“Christopher,” he said, still distracted by the sunlit, shimmering blue. “But nobody calls me that. Unless I’m in trouble.”
“You can’t tell anyone you’ve been here - With me.”
“Is it because - ”
“I need you to promise.”
“Cross my heart.”
I pointed to a chair. “Sit.”
I took the chair next to his. “When did you lose your father?”
“Almost a year ago,” he replied.
“Can I ask how?”
“It was cancer.”
“Why are you here?”
“He kept a journal. I found it."
“You’re in it.”
“When you say - ”
“You and the others.”
“But mostly you.”
“Call me James.”
“There is no - ”
“Can I go swimming?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
There is a man standing at the end of the bed. Seeing Kip stir, his mouth assumes the shape of a smile, but it never reaches his eyes. They remain as cold and lifeless as a shark’s.
“James!” Says Kip, shaking the sleeping man beside him.
James sits up, runs a hand through his thinning blonde hair, pinches the bridge of his nose, rubs the sleep from his eyes, and finally, quietly, regards the man standing at the end of the bed.
“Nice company you keep,” says the man.
“Why are you here?” Asks James.
“Can’t I visit an old friend?”
Outside - under a vine covered arbor - James and the man sit, poolside, at a wrought iron table. James is wearing a white towelling bathrobe. The man ashes his cigarette. His gaze drifts languidly over the pool and its surrounds, never pausing to focus, like ripples in the water. James smooths a fold in his robe. Kip stands behind James’ chair. The man ashes his cigarette. He turns his attention to Kip.
“And who is this?”
“This is Christopher,” replies James. “Kip - Stephen Marshall’s son.”
The man inspects the gold banded filter of his cigarette. He gives no indication of recognizing the name.
“Stephen passed away,” says James. “Cancer.”
The man exhales fragrant smoke from his nostrils. James reties the terry towelling belt of his robe. Kip shifts his weight to his other foot. The man ashes his cigarette.
James says, “Are you here for Matthew Kelly?”
The man closes his eyes, as if the morning sun filtering through the leaf shaded arbor is suddenly too bright.
“Having eyes only for their sufferings,” the man quotes, “not for their misdeeds.”
“Don Quixote,” says Kip, who has read Cervantes for an English assignment at school.
The man flicks the gold banded filter of his cigarette. “Brains and beauty.”
“Many were the offenses to be undone, the wrongs to be rectified, the grievances to be redressed, the abuses to be corrected, and the debts to be satisfied.” Kip has the man’s attention. He almost wishes he didn’t.
“There is no recollection which time does not put an end to,” the man says, “and no pain which death does not remove.”
James has curled an arm around Kip’s waist, a hand rests on the boy’s hip. Kip feels emboldened.
The man grinds his cigarette under a boot heel. Lights another. He flicks an eyebrow at Kip. “The most perceptive character in a play is the fool.”
James stiffens in his chair. “Unnecessary.”
For the first time the man actually looks at James as if he’s really there. But then the false smile returns. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
“This,” says James, “is Edward Weston.”
James asks, "How?"
Edward looks at the boy and James motions for Kip to leave them.
"There are ways," Edward says. "But you know that."
"Have you heard from Jonathon?"
"Not since - "
"I thought my boys would be safe with Peter."
"After they were extradited we arranged a transfer to a different prison due to over population. Kelly and Miller and four guards in two cars. The guards were ours. Send the boy home. Check your e-mails."
Rising from his seat, Edward kisses James on the cheek, briefly waves to Kip who is sprawled on the living room sofa in front of the television, and leaves via a side gate.
It's a link to a site on the dark web. A video. Two men sit facing each other, secured to metal chairs that are bolted to a concrete floor. The two figures are lit by spotlights suspended directly above them. Both men are naked. On the floor between them is a mesh cage. Inside the cage is a writhing tumult of black fur. Cut to a close-up of Kelly's face. It's barely recognizable. Bruised and swollen. The ears, nose, and lips have been sliced off. The camera pans down to his genitals. The charred stump of what's left of his penis is nailed to the top of a long, narrow, rectangular wooden box. The box must have an opening at that end because it fits snugly over Kelly's scrotum. The camera follows the length of the rectangular box to where it's fixed to the cage. The cage is full of rats. The image blurs.
Focuses. Miller's bruised and mutilated face. There's no wooden box, but electrically wired alligator clips bite into the loose skin of his scrotum. Miller's face again. A black gloved hand forces a metal ring between his lipless teeth. An orange nylon strap tied to the metal ring travels up to an unlit and unseen ceiling or rafter, and then down, to where the other end of the strap is threaded and tied through a hole in a timber board that seals off the opposite end of the rectangular box. On the floor next to the bolted metal chair Miller is secured to is a car battery. An alligator clip is connected to one of the battery's two terminals. A black gloved hand holds the other clip. The camera pans back to a wide shot.
A hulking figure dressed completely in black, military style fatigues crouches over the car battery with his broad back to the camera. His face is hidden, but James would know that man mountain anywhere. It's Du Plessis.
Blue sparks. Miller's body jolts. He throws his unrestrained head back, pulling the orange strap tied to the metal ring clenched between his teeth taut. The board is raised. Movement inside the mesh cage. Nothing.
Several seconds of silence. Then.....
Kelly's screaming echoes inside the unlit and unseen building.
The video still has another twenty-three minutes of running time when James closes the browser. He's seen enough.
The Descending Dusk
Marjorie Flowers had never married. Nor had there ever been a significant other in her life. Nor did she have any children. Insular and abrasive; unloved, even by her parents, Marjorie had lived all eighty-seven years of her miserable existence in the same house where she had been born. And miserable is the word that best described Marjorie, who had always been as shrivelled and bitter as a preserved lemon.
A long retired librarian, no other profession better suited her, Marjorie had chosen instead to fill her life (such as it was), and every room of her dormer windowed and thatch roofed cottage with carnivorous plants. They sat in pots on sunlit window ledges. They hung in baskets, at varying heights, from the ceiling's exposed beams. They stood on shelves and occasional tables, as a singular prized specimen, or grouped together according to genus. What it was about them, precisely, that had attracted Marjorie to her obsession she could not define, other than her admiration for their self-contained independence.
It pleased Marjorie to think she could die at any moment and the plants would carry on regardless. An unsuspecting fly, or a sporadic moth, was sufficient to sustain them. The pride of her collection was a Chilean Nightwing. Native to the high desert plateaus of the Andes, the Nightwing was believed to be extinct in the wild. Its three broad and flat glaucous leaves, each tipped with a needle sharp spine, remained tight closed through the day, only opening as the sun was setting to reveal a large flower with three petals of a deep dull crimson, with the texture of velvet,
As the night sky darkened, the flower would detach itself, and with its petals spinning like the blades of a helicopter, would rise into the air and fly out through the dormer window Marjorie always opened as the growing gloom of dusk descended. Unique in its method of harvesting the required nutrition necessary for its survival, the Nightwing would seek out some large mammal and, attaching itself to the neck, would absorb the animal's blood through the pores of the skin while simultaneously exuding a toxic anticoagulant, with fatal consequences.
Climbing the cottage stairs one early evening, the toe of Marjorie's slipper caught on the frayed carpet, causing her to lose her balance, and falling backwards, tumble awkwardly, breaking her hip. Immobilised by excruciating pain, she lay at the foot of the stairs, all too conscious of the approaching hour, when the Nightwing's vampiric flower would emerge, and the fact that the dormer window was still firmly closed.
La Cucaracha Vuelve
I wasn't expecting to see a cockroach when I opened the kitchen pantry door. But there it was. I brushed it off the shelf, onto the floor, and ground it into the terracotta tile with a boot heel.
It was there again the next morning. The same one. I'm sure of it.
"Listen here," I said. "We don't pay to have the place sprayed every three months for no reason, you know?" Then I brushed it off the shelf, onto the floor, and ground it into the terracotta tile with a boot heel.
It was there again the next morning. Looking at me from behind a packet of breakfast cereal.
"Cheeky bastard!" I said. "This is a tastefully renovated three bedroom bungalow in an exclusive suburb. You don't belong here." Then I brushed it out from behind the breakfast cereal, off the shelf, onto the floor, and ground it into the terracotta tile with a boot heel.
It was there again the next morning. Sitting on top of a bag of self-raising flour.
"You're taking the piss, aren't you?" I said. "Four days in a row!" Then I brushed it off the bag of flour, off the shelf, onto the floor, and ground it into the terracotta tile with a boot heel.
I emptied everything out of the pantry, onto the kitchen bench, and sprayed every shelf with insecticide; specially formulated for cockroaches.
It was there again the next morning. Crawling all over a bottle of maple syrup.
"I don't mind giving to charity to feed the starving children," I said. "But I'm not feeding you!" Then I brushed it off the syrup bottle, onto the shelf, onto the floor, and ground it into the terracotta tile with a boot heel.
The cockroach was there again the next morning. It had, somehow, unscrewed the lid of the Vegemite jar, and was making itself a sandwich.
"You are bloody kidding me!" I said. "Can't you take a hint?"
I was just about to do the bootscooting boogie, when it knocked me onto the floor, and ground me into the terracotta tile with all six of its legs. And I might be wrong, but I'm almost sure it was wearing little tiny cowboy boots.
'Well!' I thought to myself. 'I wasn't expecting that!'
The Narrative And How (Not) To Pursue It
It was a dark and stormy night. But nights usually are (dark). Or darker than days, anyway. And storms are known for being stormy. Which is why they're called storms. So what was so special about this particular dark and stormy night? It was no darker than any other dark night. Or, at least, not especially so. And the storm no more stormy. Nor did either have the potential, separately or together, of becoming darker and / or stormier. The night was, by no means, the darkest of dark nights. And the same could be said of the storm. It not being the stormiest of storms. All one can honestly say, then, is that this was a moderately dark and somewhat stormy night. The night being dark enough to be called dark. As opposed to light. And the storm having met the minimum requirements one might expect, of a storm, in order to descibe it as stormy. And, although the darkness of the night showed no sign of darkening further it was, by definition, dark, (not light). Dark requiring an absence of light. Or, more precisely, less light than day. And night not day. A night being the period of time between sunset and sunrise. How stormy the storm was depends on the frequency of lightning strikes and, some might argue, the ferocity of any accompanying wind, as well as the force with which any rain fell. Suffice to say all three were sufficiently frequent, ferocious, and forceful. There can be no objection, therefore, to the veracity of the previously stated, and perfectly reasonable, conclusion that it was - A dark and stormy night. The following day could not have been more different. The morning sky at dawn being bright and clear.....
The Vanished (Reposted)
All he could see were trees. Tall trees with wide trunks. Raw patches where the bark had peeled away from the smooth greys and corals made him think of scabbed knees. There were ferns, too. Thick clumps of them, their fronds a brighter green in the shifting dapples of sunlight and shadow.
Beyond the ferns were large boulders that must have tumbled down the mountainside hundreds of thousands of years ago. Maybe even millions. They hunched together like crouching giants, their backs splotched with iridescent outbreaks of moss and lichen. His bare feet slid out from underneath him as he scrambled and skittered over the rocks, sometimes leap-frogging from one to another, until he sank ankle-deep in the stagnant shallows of a billabong.
Here the trees were weeping-needled Casuarinas and River-Gums, their bare branches stark and skeletal. He suddenly felt frightened: Without really knowing why.
A sourness in his stomach told him something wasn’t quite right. There was no air. Only the acrid, virulent, stench of rotting vegetation. And mosquitos. He waved them away from his face and slapped at them ineffectually. He didn’t want to stay there any longer.
This was a Spirit place: Haunted by an evil more ancient than the landscape itself.
He needed somewhere higher. Higher would be cooler. Cleaner. He looked for an easier way to climb back up to the broken-backed ridge with its sentinal Ironbarks.
What he found wasn’t a house. At least - Not how he thought a house should look.
The tin roof was rusted. There were gaps between the warped timber planks, silvered with age. Grass had grown up through the verandah boards. The posts and railings looked like they’d been cut and shaped with an axe.
Inside the shack wasn’t much better. One room. A mattress on the floor. A pot-bellied stove pregnant with old, cold, ashes. The exposed roof beams were just branches; twisted and knotted and worm-holed. The door sagged on its hinges. There were window frames, two of them, but they had no glass.
He needed time. Time faded more than just photographs. Time blurred life’s edges. Time dulled and blunted.
He was hungry. He had no food.
He was cold. He had no other clothes.
He needed sleep.
Later that day the rain started, and it didn’t stop.
The roof leaked.
The dampness only made the mattress smell worse.
He wondered if anyone had missed him yet.
The darkness deepened to pitch black. He stood at one of the windows. A blind eye that opened onto sightless night. He thought he heard something moving outside. Some kind of animal. He wished for a moon. A torch. A candle. Even a match. But he’d left the last place in too much of a hurry to save anything more than his own skin.
Whatever it was was closer now. He was sure if he reached out through the empty window he could touch it.
He told himself there were no such things as ghosts. No monsters; not the fairy-tale kind, anyway. Stories were for old men. He’d heard them tell of The Long Ago. The Dreaming Time. Everything had its own Spirit. The animals. The trees and plants. The sky. The red earth under his feet. The water. Places had Spirits, too - Not all of them friendly.
But back at The Mission talk was just what old men did. And drink.
He clutched the gold confirmation cross on its chain around his neck and prayed silently for whatever was out there to go away.
In the morning the shack was empty again.
Everything was just as he remembered it.
The shack still lurched against the mountainside; mourning its own passing.
It had been built by an Irish immigrant family just before the turn of the century. The colour of their skin hadn’t saved them. This country had its own magic: More powerful and more malevolent than the white man’s. One by one all seven of the Fitzpatrick children had been taken from them.
The oldest boy was crushed to death under a falling tree. Another son drowned in the billabong, they said, although they never recovered his body. Two of the Fitzpatrick girls went to pick wild-flowers and were never seen again. Their sister was found at the bottom of the well. And the youngest, just a toddler, died after being dragged from its bed and mauled by a wild dog.
The last surviving Fitzpatrick boy lived long enough to be blown to smithereens by a Turkish shell on the blood-soaked beaches of Gallipoli: Serving King and Country in The Great War.
Mrs Fitzpatrick was thrown from a horse and broke her neck.
In his grief and despair, Fitzpatrick himself had blown his brains out with both barrels of a shotgun.
Only a fool would build a house here. And there was no fool like a white fool.
They’d stolen the land, believing they could bend it to their will. They fenced it in. Fenced it off. Fenced the dingo and the rabbit out. And the old man’s people, too.
The best place for blacks, they’d said, was out of sight - And out of mind.
They built The Missions; where they thought they could hide their shameful secrets. Government Agencies had started taking light-skinned children away from their parents, to be raised by ‘christian’ families. Generation after generation. The old man’s grandson was one of them. They had filled the boy’s head with talk of their vengeful God.
“If we can’t wipe them out, or breed them out,” one noted politician was quoted as saying, “then we’ll beat the black out of them.”
The old man’s grandson was neither spoiled nor spared the rod. He’d run away. Into the mountains. Where he found the shack.....
The trees that had grown tall and straight like he once had in his youth were now as stooped and gnarled as the old man himself. But this was a hard country.
It nurtured a cold, hard, heart.
In the years since the shack had been abandoned several lost hikers had thought to find shelter for a night under the rust-bitten tin roof. Search parties would comb through the scrub for a week or two before giving up. The old man warned everyone he met, but nobody listened. More than a few had laughed in his face.
Just another old drunk, they said.
He laid his tired bones on the stained, soiled, mattress and closed his eyes.
Night came quickly to the mountains, like dimming the wick of an oil-lamp. And with it came the old man’s grandson.
He stood in the doorway. A revenant.
The old man’s eyes were the only things that moved; from the leaf strewn floor to the cobwebbed rafters..... to the cast iron stove with its peeling green paint..... to the desiccated corpse of a long dead rat..... to the boy.
The hand-me-down clothes they had given him at The Mission were gone. In their place he wore painted bands of two fingers’ width in white and yellow-ochre. Twists of braided grass fletched with white cockatoo feathers were knotted around his wrists and ankles. His hair was plastered to his scalp with red clay, and there were darker charcoal smears on his cheeks and forehead.
The old man’s bones creaked louder than the antiquated mattress springs as he struggled to sit up.
“Wandjina made this place.” He said. “In The Dreaming Time.”
The boy leaned his back against the doorframe and slid slowly to the floor, crossing his feet and folding his arms over his knees to rest his chin on.
There was time to listen. Time was all he had now.
“Before the white fella. Before the Jesus Men. Wandjina was Big Magic. The Great Spirit. He came down from the sky and stood on this mountain here, looking all around.”
“There was no river then. There were no trees. No birds. And no animals. Just rocks. But Wandjina could hear Weowie, The Water Serpent, trapped inside the mountain.”
“Wandjina called him.
Said, ‘Come out of there.’
Said, ‘The land is dry.’
‘The trees will not grow if they have no water.’
‘The birds and animals won’t come here if there is nothing for them to drink.’
Then Wandjina used his spear to break the mountain open and let Weowie out.”
Others had come to listen. The old man could see the faces of two of the Fitzpatrick girls, as pale as twin moons, framed by one of the night filled windows. Both were holding ragamuffin posies of wilted wildflowers.
“When Weowie saw Wandjina, The Great Spirit, he was scared and ran away. And where The Water Serpent crawled, he made the river. But then Weowie’s tail was caught between two of the boulders that had rolled down the mountainside, and when he tried to pull it free, the last bit broke off. Those big rocks are still there.”
“It was Weowie’s tail that made the billabong,” the boy said; finishing his grandfather’s story. “But why is it a bad place?”
The old man shrugged. “That’s another story,” was all he would say. “For another time.”
“You can tell me on the way,” said the boy. “I’m supposed to take you back with me.”
The old man didn’t ask where.
“One day this white fella boss man came to Nungurru and said, ‘All this land belong me, now.’”
“Nungurru laughed and shook his head at the gubba’s foolishness. ‘Do you own the sky, too?’ He asked.”
The boss man swore and shot Nungurru dead.”
“Nungurru’s people tried to run. But there were more white fellas hiding behind the trees. They killed them all, and threw their bodies into the billabong.”
“Nungurru and his people were no more.”
“The boss man grazed sheep in the valley. The sheep drank the water from the billabong and died. The boss man rode away.”
The boy looked at his grandfather. “Just like that?”
The old man nodded.
“He killed the people and took their land to feed his stupid sheep, and when the sheep died, he just packed it all in and rode away?”
The old man shrugged. “Gubbas.”
He twisted his lips as if the word itself had left a bad taste in his mouth: A taste he’d been trying to wash away for more years than he cared to remember.
“When was this?” Asked the boy.
“Long time ago, now,” his grandfather said, “before Fitzpatrick. Before the white fella called all this country his country.”
“He was my grandfather, wasn’t he? Fitzpatrick. My other grandfather, I mean.”
“He was your mother’s father,” the old man acknowledged reluctantly.
“So, I’m cursed, too,” said the boy. “But that’s not why they came for me.”
“Who came for you?” Asked the old man; already knowing the answer.
“They. Them. Us. The elders. The warriors. You’ll meet them soon.”
The boy had led his grandfather away from the derelict shack to where the tumbled together boulders crouched; cloaked in the moon-shadow. As they drew nearer, the earth under their feet trembled, and both heard a rumbling sound.
The boulders shifted. They changed shape. They stood straight and tall. They kept their cragged appearance, their weathered stone faces, but they were men. Old and young. although even the youngest were ancient. Two held spears and carried shields. A third cradled a didgeridoo. The fourth clapping sticks or bimli.
The boy adressed each in turn as ‘Uncle’.
“This is Muruwarri.” He said. “From Wiradjuri country. He is my father’s father.”
“Welcome Muruwarri.” The four said in unison. “Welcome Birrani.”
They formed a circle around the boy. The men began to chant. Birrani danced.
In the outside world, beyond the shack, beyond the mountains, time passed. Only the moon remained constant.
And still Birrani, danced.
The Acorn Child
Showered, towelled dry, and dressed, Theo stuffed his crusted bed linen into the washer-dryer under the stairs and turned it on. Waiting for the cycle to finish would mean being late for school, but that was nowhere near as embarrassing as his mother seeing the tell-tale stains.
There was a new boy in Theo’s class that day. He seemed familiar, though Theo was certain he’d never met him before.
Walking home that afternoon, the boy fell quietly into step beside him. They didn’t speak. There was no need to. It felt to Theo as if he and the other boy had been friends all their lives.
At the corner of Theo’s street the boy stopped.
All he said was, “Later.”
Then he turned around and headed back the way they’d just come.
“Wait!” Theo called. “What’s your name?”
The next morning, Theo woke up with no clear memory of his dreams, but needed to launder his sheets again. That afternoon, he and Dion walked home from school together, just like they had the day before. When they reached the corner, Dion didn’t stop, but kept walking until they reached Theo’s house.
Upstairs in Theo’s bedroom, they undressed without saying anything. Theo couldn’t explain why, but being naked with Dion just felt right. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Dion had more hair from his navel down than Theo might have thought of as normal. But what was normal?
They lay down on Theo’s bed. Their hands and mouths exploring each other.
They slept like that. Locked together. It was late when Theo finally woke to find himself alone.
The next morning, Dion was there at the corner; waiting.
Cradled in a valley between wooded hills, Theo’s village was hundreds of years old. He wasn’t sure how many hundreds, exactly, but the village church dated back to the fourteenth century. The same families had farmed the land for generations, and before the farmers, shepherds had grazed their flocks in summer pastures.
Occupying Romans had built stone bridges over the river to join their hill forts. And nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers had left behind cave paintings of antelope, and auroch, and mammoth. Celebrating a successful hunt, or praying for one.
Nobody laughed at the village drunk when he told them how, as a young man, he’d found the ruins of an ancient temple, its pillars broken and fallen and overgrown with ivy.
For as long as people had lived in the village, they had left offerings in the wood’s sunlit glades jewelled with wildflowers. A fresh baked loaf of bread. A new set cheese in an earthenware pot, infused with lavender, or drizzled generously with honey. A bottle of virgin-pressed olive oil. A flask of wine. The ripest tomatos from their garden. The sweetest apricots from their orchard.
No-one had ever been lost in the woods, not truly lost. The soil on the sloping hills was too thin and full of stones for the olives, pines, and oaks to grow too closely together. Sometimes the very old or very young might become disoriented, but they always came back, and always with the tale of how a beautiful youth had taken them by the hand and led them home.
Ask anyone in the village and they will tell you: The woods are a wild and magical place.
It was into the woods that Dion led Theo. Past swathes of blazing jonquils that bowed their heads, not in mourning for their too fleeting beauty, but in reverence. A god walked among them.
“We’re going to be late for school,” Theo said to Dion’s profile, getting no response. “My mother already thinks I’m some kind of delinquent. Where are you taking me? Don’t say much, do you?”
The sun warmed them. Theo began to sweat. Dion picked a peach from a low hanging branch and gave it to him. The peach blushed at Theo’s touch.
“When the green woods laugh,” sang Theo, “with the voice of joy. And the dimpling stream runs laughing by. When the air does laugh with our merry wit. And the green hill - ”
Dion stopped, regarding Theo quizzically with his head tilted to one side.
“Not a fan? Okay. I’ll shut up.”
It was only then that Theo realized how far into the woods they had come. He looked around for anything familiar. A tree. A rock. A stream. Something. He wasn’t frightened. He could never be, not with Dion. He was simply wondering where they were. A weathered piece of fluted column caught his eye. Then another. Then a block of limestone that was much too regular in its form to be natural.
“Who are you, really?” Asked Theo. “What are you?”
“Your servant,” said Dion.
“I don’t need one. I have a mother for that.”
“Theo Acorn Child.”
“I’m not a child.”
“It is time.”
“Time? Time to go home?”
Theo checked his watch. It was only 11:40.
“It is your time.”
Dion put his hand on Theo’s cheek and gazed deep into his eyes. “Theo.”
“Look, we’ve been through this. I - ”
“Theo..... It is time.”
And suddenly Theo knew: Everything.
“I..... I’m not ready.”
“Three times I lay with you,” said Dion. “Three times I scattered my seed on your earth.”
“I think I liked you better when you didn’t talk dirty.”
“In three days you will be ten summers and six.”
“Yes, I know when my birthday is. So?”
“In three days time I will die.”
“What? No! You can’t..... Don’t say that!”
“I will die,” said Dion, “because you will kill me.”
“Uh-uh.” Theo shook his head. “No way!”
“I swear, if you call me Acorn Child one more time - ”
“It is who you are.”
“No, I’m not. I’m Theo Pellier. My father is Georges Pellier. My mother is Mariette Pellier. I won’t do it! I won't! ”
“But the woods. The village.”
“Fuck the woods!” Theo screamed. “And fuck the village! I won’t do it! And you can’t make me!”
Theo ran. He was sure Dion would chase him. But when he looked back, he was still sitting on his haunches in the middle of the clearing, staring at the sky.
There was no wet dream that night. Dion wasn’t waiting at the corner the next morning. And he wasn’t at school. Theo didn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep, his head was too full of questions he had no answers for.
When his father picked up the phone after only the third ring, Theo said, “Tell me about the woods.”
Total silence. Then the line went dead.
Three minutes later Theo’s phone rang.
All his father said was, “You know.”
“Yes. No. Tell me. You grew up here. You must know something!”
“The Acorn Child.”
“Not you, too!”
“Why are the woods so special? And what does the village have to do with it? Who’s Dion? Why does he come to my room and - ”
“I was hoping it wouldn’t be you.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’ve been chosen. It’s your time.”
“You’re not helping!”
“Didn’t you ever wonder why the people in the village leave gifts for - ”
“It’s just some dumb old superstition.”
“I wish it was,” said Theo’s father, “but I think you know better than that.”
“I can’t explain it over the phone. I’ll see you tomorrow. We’ll talk more then.”
“You’re coming here?”
“Yes, of course. But, Theo?”
“How many times have you ah.....?”
“Tomorrow,” said Theo.
And pressed disconnect.
Theo ran into his father’s arms. “Please, don’t make me do it, Papa!”
His father hugged him tightly.
They stood in front of Theo’s house, crying on each other’s shoulder.
Inside, upstairs in his room, they sat on Theo’s bed.
Georges held his son’s hand.
“Tell me everything.”
“You first,” said Theo.
“Nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine years ago the village was almost wiped out by the Black Death. There was no one to work the fields. The few who’d survived the plague were starving. The village priest knelt in a field at the edge of the woods for two days and two nights, flogging his back and shoulders with an oak branch until they bled, and all the time he prayed for a miracle. On the morning of the third day, at dawn, his prayers were answered. But not by the christian God.”
“A creature came out of the woods. Not much more than a child. Half boy half goat. The priest thought he’d summoned the Devil himself. But he was a practical man, and any kind of help was better than no help at all. A deal was made. The priest offered his immortal soul as payment, but the goat-boy shook his head. A dead man was no use to him, he said. Let the blood that has soaked the earth around you be sacrifice enough.”
“In return the goat-boy - ”
“Hmm? Yes. Dion. Is that what you call him?”
“In return Dion asked that every three-hundred-and-thirty-three years, on the third day of the third month, the village priest - whoever that might be - must choose a handsome youth, someone who wasn’t a child but was not yet a full grown man, to perform the ritual of re-birth.”
“I’m not handsome,” said Theo.
“No,” said his father, “you’re not. You’re so much more than that. You’re the most beautiful boy in the world.”
“You’re my dad,” Theo said, blushing. “You have to say that.”
“It’s true. Even more so because you can’t see it.”
“My nose is too long.”
“My ears stick out.”
“My feet smell.”
“Yes, they do.” Georges laughed. “But you’re still perfect.”
“Stop saying that.”
“You’re special,” Theo’s father told him, “because you don’t know how truly special you are.”
“Right,” said Theo. “I’m so special, I have to kill the only person I will ever love.”
“Well, yes..... And no..... Not really.”
“The ritual of re-birth isn’t about death, or dying. It’s about living. Giving new life. New growth. A way of making everything.....good.....again. Not just here in the village. Everywhere. For everyone.”
“So, now I’m supposed to save the world?”
“If anyone can,” said his father, pulling Theo close and hugging him. “You can.”
“I don’t have to get pregnant, do I?”
Georges laughed so hard tears rolled down his face.
Leaving his father sleeping, Theo went to the village church. He hammered on the vestry door.
It opened slowly. Father Benoit regarded Theo with a flicker of uncertainty.
“Why?” Asked Theo. “Why me?”
“Faith in you, Theo. Faith in you.”
Dion met him at the edge of the temple clearing, taking both of Theo’s hands in his. “I knew you would come back.”
“Let me guess,” said Theo, “because you had faith in me?”
“You are a good person, Theo Pellier. You have a pure heart.”
“I didn’t think it was my heart you were interested in.”
“Your heart always,” said Dion. “How could my sacrifice truly be a sacrifice if I did not love you?”
Theo sat down in a patch of sweet smelling clover, pulling Dion down with him.
“What’s your name? Your real name.”
“Some call me Satan,” Dion chuckled. “Or Bacchus. The Greeks called me Dionysus. I always liked the Greeks.”
Theo rolled his eyes. “I can’t imagine why.”
Dion actually laughed. “I think you can, Theo..... Acorn Child.”
“What are you?”
Dion shrugged. “I’m me.”
“My father said you were some kind of beast. Part goat.”
“I am,” nodded Dion. “And we both know which part.”
“Tell me about the ritual.”
“You must bleed me.”
“Do you see that tall tree?” Dion pointed. “It is the Sacred Oak. It grew from an acorn that broke away from the branch the first priest used to beat himself with. It has stood there for a thousand summers.”
Theo could believe it.
“Tomorrow night the moon will be full,” said Dion. “You must come here, to this grove, alone. And there, under its spreading branches, you will slit my throat.”
“Can’t I just prick you a little bit?”
Dion shook his head. “If I do not die,” he told Theo, “the world cannot be reborn.”
“I don’t want to lose you.”
“That is a selfish thing to say, Theo Pellier.”
“But you will do it, won’t you? You will come?”
“And if I don’t?” Asked Theo. “What’s the worst that could happen? Drought? Floods? Famine? War? Some kind of global pandemic? All those things are happening now!”
“Yes,” said Dion. “But for all the sorrow and evil in the world, there is more good. You are proof of that. Without you all that is right, and just, and light, will vanish. Leaving only darkness.”
Theo hugged his knees to stop the shiver that ran through him. He looked at Dion, but couldn’t hold his lover’s gaze, so he stared, instead, at the Sacred Oak.
Then he said something he’d never told anyone - Ever.
“I don’t like the dark.”
Theo still had questions. So did his father.
Georges drove them to a secluded spot a short distance from the village, where they wouldn’t be disturbed.
“You first,” said Theo.
“Tell me about Dion.”
“As much as you’re comfortable with.”
Theo recounted his strange awakenings. The afternoon he and Dion had had sex. He told him about the temple ruins in the woods, and what Dion had said, and that he’d run away, so scared and sick in the stomach he’d thought he might vomit. The waiting, praying, needing, aching for Dion to come to his room again. The feeling of being more lost and alone than he’d ever felt in his whole life when he hadn’t shown. Going back to the glade. The Sacred Oak. The ritual. The village being more than just a village, but the world, and everyone in it. Promising Dion he’d be there, at the next full moon. The bleeding.
“The rest you know,” he said. “But what did you mean by Dion wouldn’t die? Not really?”
“Do the math,” said Georges. “Why didn’t Dion die six-hundred-and-sixty-six years ago? Maybe that Dion did, and another took his place. Or maybe..... ”
“He was reborn!”
“If a jewish carpenter could do it,” said Georges, “why not a being older than time? A god with a small g is still a god.”
“Do you think he regenerates like Doctor Who?”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Theo’s father asked him. “Can you do it? All of it? Right to the end? Even the bleeding?”
“I don’t want to,” said Theo. “I have to.”
“I feel sorry for Father Benoit. All that responsibilty.”
“Twenty years ago,” said Theo’s father. “He was just Luc Descartes. Always had his nose in a book. Smart, like you.”
“He wasn’t a priest then. He was my best friend. And the only one I ever told.”
“Where is this going?” Asked Theo.
“One morning, a week before my sixteenth birthday, I woke up and my pyjama bottoms were gone. I didn’t remember taking them off. I found them on the floor next to my bed. They were..... Anyway, the same thing happened the next night. I don’t know why Luc wasn’t at school, maybe he was sick, but there was a new boy sitting at his desk. I couldn’t stop staring at him. He looked so..... Our house was at the top of the valley, halfway up a hill. It was a long way to walk, but there was a shortcut, through the woods. He was waiting for me. I’d never..... But with him it felt..... Your mother interrupted us. She wasn’t your mother then. She was the prettiest girl in the village. I’d always loved her, secretly, but I was never brave enough to..... One minute the new boy was there with me..... And then he wasn’t.”
“I never saw him again.”
“I guess I failed the test.”
“Regret it? No. How could I? We were married in the village church, your mother and I. Luc flew back from Rome to be my best man. Then you came along. We were happy..... For a while. But I guess I failed at that, too.”
“Not a total failure,” said Theo, kissing the tears from his father’s cheek. “You had me.”
“Yes, we did,” Georges smiled. “The best thing I ever did. Or ever will do. And now you have Dion.”
“Do you think.....? After..... Will he know me? Want to be with me?”
“I hope so. If anyone deserves to be happy, you do. God knows the two of you will have earned it.”
“There is no God,” said Theo. “Only a god with a small ‘g’. And an Acorn Child.”
Father Benoit disagreed with both of them.
“The existence of other deities doesn’t necessarily exclude God,” he told Theo. “He was there before the creation of the universe, and He will still be there when the sun’s light is nothing more than the dying flame of a candle, soon to be extinguished.”
Georges had stopped to visit his old friend on their way back to Theo’s house. They sat in the rectory’s small study, Georges in the only chair, and Theo squatting on a stack of books there was no room for on the already crammed, sagging shelves, while the priest stood at the open window, smoking.
“And you were never chosen, Georges. The timing was wrong. You were..... How do the English say? A bit of crumpet.”
“I’ve spoken to several men and boys from the village, and they’ve all had similar experiences. Some only the once. Others frequently and regularly over an extended period, depending - it seems - on how ‘agreeable’ they were.”
Theo tried to imagine only having sex every three-hundred-and-thirty-three years. He couldn’t blame Dion for wanting a bit on the side.
“But, isn’t it a sin?” Theo asked Benoit. “I know the Church doesn’t exactly encourage homosexuality.”
The priest ashed his cigarette out the window and shrugged. “We’re all human, Theo. Confession is about forgiveness. Haven’t you ever said sorry for something you might have said or done? And didn’t you feel better afterwards? It’s the same thing.”
The woods were dark. Theo didn’t like the dark. He stood at the edge of the trees and waited for the promised full moon to reappear from behind a cloud. It was the ides of march, spring, but the night air still gnawed at him with the teeth of winter.
It was all planned. Theo’s father would take Theo’s mother out to dinner, to reminisce, and keep her out for as long as he could. Father Benoit would hear Theo’s confession, bless him, and walk with him as far as the Archambaults’ peach orchard, where he would later return to wait for him. Dion was going to meet Theo at the old stone bridge, and from there they would go to the temple glade together. It had all sounded so simple.
Only, now, it wasn’t. Theo was alone. And he was scared. “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow,” he sang to himself, “don’t be a - ”
“Where are your clothes? Aren’t you cold? And why don’t you look more like a faun? You are a faun, aren’t you? Why don’t you have a goat’s legs? And hooves? Or a tail? Mister Tumnas had a tail.”
“I appeared to you first in a form you would find more acceptable. More pleasing. Would you like me better if I had a tail?”
“It might be cute,” said Theo. “And uhm..... you know.”
Then, as if it had been there all along, and Theo had simply not noticed it before, Dion had a tail that he twitched from side to side alluringly.
A large bonfire was burning in the clearing. Dion handed Theo a horn of mulled wine.
“What is it?”
Theo sniffed. “It smells funny.” He sipped at it. “Urk! What are the green bits?”
“Herbs,” said Dion. “They will give you strength. And courage.”
Thinking he’d need all the help he could get, Theo closed his eyes, held his nose, and emptied the horn in one long swallow.
A loose sheaf of clean wheat-straw had been spread out on the temple ruins’ mosaic floor, and on it was piled every kind of produce the village was famous for, fruits and vegetables, breads and cheeses, oil and wine.
“Eat,” said Dion.
“I’m not hungry.”
Theo picked at a bunch of grapes.
“Okay! Okay! I’m doing it. See?”
Theo didn’t argue.
“I just thought of something,” said Theo. “I didn’t bring a knife with me.”
“You do not need one.”
“But, how am I.....?”
“With this,” said Dion, reaching behind the stump of a broken pillar and holding out a shard of polished, black flint. Not just flaked to form a wickedly sharp edge, Theo saw, but fitted with a wooden grip or hilt that had been carved into some kind of.....
“What is it? A horn of plenty?”
Dion shook his head. “Turn it over.”
Theo did. There was a scene of the crucifixion on the reverse side of the haft. Only, instead of a cross, Jesus was nailed to an oak tree. He could tell it was an oak tree because the crown of thorns had been changed to a wreath of leaves and acorns.
“Did you make this?” He asked Dion. “It’s beautiful.”
They made love under the silver-frosted, new-budding branches of the Sacred Oak.
Theo would have sworn he’d caught the gone just as quickly flicker of a burning torch out of the corner of his eye. There it was again, but closer now, and another, and then a third. More. A dozen. Twice that number. A ring of orange light. Surrounding the glade. Encircling them. Drawing ever nearer.
“Do you have the blade?”
The honed edge of the flint knife, clenched white-knuckled in his fist, sliced cleanly through skin and muscle, tendon and artery.
Theo gagged. His throat was full of hot, scalding vomit. He forced it back.
It was done.
Dion lay sprawled, dead.
In the spreading crimson.
The white-blossomed clover.
The dispassionate, defiled, derelict moonlight.
Strong hands clamped around Theo’s right arm. Bren Archambault. A scowling, grizzled bear of a man. His son, Mattias, had hold of Theo’s left. They hauled him to his feet and half carried half dragged him to the trunk of the Sacred Oak. Suddenly, Theo was weightless, hoisted over Bren’s shoulder as easily as a sack of grain. Then up, with a jerking motion, and up again, and Theo saw the wooden rails of a ladder sinking into the loose soil under their weight as Bren climbed higher.
Theo’s back slammed against the trunk.
A voice: “Gently!”
Archambault’s left hand pinned Theo’s wrists together, lifted his arms over his head, held them there, bone grinding against bone. The man grumbled something unintelligible around what was clenched between his nicotine stained teeth.
What were those? Were they..... Nails?
A hammer in Bren’s right hand.
A nail spat into the fumbling fingers of his left..
Theo rag-doll. Helpless.
The hammer swung.
Distressed rungs creaked as Archambault descended.
His spittle splashed Theo’s right foot.
His left hand gripped Theo’s ankles.
Another swing of the hammer.
Archambault’s rasp, like gravel sliding out of the rusted bed of a truck, calling to the men and older boys from the village who’d gathered around him. “See the Acorn Child! See how he takes upon himself all the weight of the world’s suffering!”
A new face. Mattias had climbed the ladder. Tears streaked his sunburned cheeks. He placed a wreath of woven oak branches on Theo’s brow.
“Be brave, Theo. It will be over soon.”
Morning. Three women from the village entered the glade, followed by Father Benoit and Georges Pellier, carrying a ladder between them. The two men worked silently at prising the nails free. Theo was beyond pain. They lowered him carefully, step by step, to the ground, where his mother, Mariette, wrapped him in a shroud of linen.
That Summer was as long and hot as anyone could ever wish for.
On the white sand beach of a small shallow inlet, eleven year old Tom Graham licked the tip of his right index-finger and held it skyward, feeling for the chill of an offshore breeze. He turned and grinned at the three other boys who were watching him. “Make ready!”
“Aye, aye, Cap’n!”
Peter and Simon, the two oldest at twelve, dug their bare feet into the soft shifting sand and pushed, giving it everything they had, until the incoming tide helped to lift the SPARTA.
She rocked on the gentle swell. Sixteen feet of weathered oak with polished brass fittings and twin (furled) red-canvas sails. She was Tom’s pride and joy.
Throwing a leg over the stern, Tom climbed aboard and used the tiller to hold the drifting boat steady so Peter could scramble in over the side. Simon waded through the waist-deep water, carrying his younger brother, and all but dumped Pip into the narrow prow.
It was only the second time Pip (short for Philip, but no-one ever called him that) had been allowed to go sailing with the bigger boys. Helping his little brother into a bright orange life-vest, and playfully tugging the peak of Pip’s cap down over his eyes, Simon hauled himself onboard and nodded at Tom: “All set, Cap’n.”
Peter and Simon took an oar each and rowed the skiff deeper into the channel, where ‘Captain’ Tom hoisted the sails. The blood-red canvas with its black silhouette of an ancient greek horsehair-plumed helmet caught and filled, and the SPARTA skipped swiftly over the water.
It was the last week of the school holidays, and all four boys had their parents’ permission to camp out for the whole weekend.
“Hooray!” They cheered. “Pirate Cove, here we come!”
Pirate Cove was secluded, but not so far from civilisation that the boys couldn’t find help if something unexpected happened. They worked together to pitch the tent they’d be sharing and laid out a fire-pit; ready for the fish they hoped to catch for their supper.
“Somebody still has to dig the latrine,” said Tom. “Any volunteers?”
After a long minute of total (though not unexpected) silence, he shrugged and picked up the folding camping-shovel.
“Tom gets all the shitty jobs,” laughed Peter.
Feeling guilty, Simon followed Tom into the bush to help him dig the trench that would be their toilet. Tom had stopped to relieve himself beside a tree. Simon tried hard not to look.
As if he’d read Simon’s thoughts, Tom said: “Go ask Peter. It’s all he ever thinks about.”
“I know,” said Simon. “But I don’t like Peter. I like you.”
Tom only shrugged.
He was already walking away before Simon could find his voice again.
“Hey, wait up!” He called. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”
“No,” lied Tom.
It was almost dark before Simon finally returned to the campsite: It was obvious he’d been crying.
Peter looked from Tom to Simon and back to Tom. “Lovers’ tiff?”
Tom told him to, “Fuck off.”
Simon sat on a fallen log and wiped his nose with the sleeve of his t-shirt. Tom walked over and sat next to him.
All Tom said was: “Sorry.”
“You hate me,” said Simon, sniffling.
“No,” said Tom, putting an arm around his friend’s slumped shoulders. “That’s not true.”
When Tom woke up the next morning, Simon’s sleeping-bag was empty.
He shook Pip awake. “Where’s Simon?”
Pip shook his head. He didn’t know.
They looked everywhere. Calling his name.
“Maybe he went home,” said Peter.
“How?” Asked Tom. He’d checked - the SPARTA was still anchored in the cove.
They climbed a high bluff from where they could see for hundreds of miles all around. And there, at the bottom of the sheer cliff, they saw Simon’s broken body.
Two weeks after Simon’s funeral, Tom Graham deliberately beached the SPARTA. He licked the tip of his right index-finger and raised it skyward. Turning around, he looked at the two boys who were watching him. He didn’t smile. He emptied a can of petrol over the sixteen feet of weathered oak with its polished brass fittings and furled red-canvas sails. Lit a match. And watched her burn.
It was twenty years, a failed marriage, and two boys of his own, before my father sailed back to Pirate Cove again.
To Be Is To Become
All the gull could do was strut and squawk and preen its feathers. They were fine feathers. Light but strong. Their black tips fading to the soft grey of an autumn morning to the flecked white of quartz pebbles tossed and tumbled onto the beach by the restless sea.
It understood the human child’s words, but the sounds it made in reply might just as well have been the clicks and whistles of wild porpoises, or the bark of sea-lions. Still, the high ledge was a safe place to rest its tired wings, and the boy would often feed it through the open window.
There was a sadness about the boy. A Shadow. The gull both sensed it and saw it. If the gull could speak it would have asked the boy what the deep dark midnight of the Shadow was. But its sharp beak was made for spearing fish, not forming words. Words were a kind of magic only humans had learned.
So instead it flew away. Far out across the ocean. As far from the salt-spray mist of the coast it knew so well as it dared to go. Away from the foaming waves that broke themselves endlessly on the ragged shore.
Away from the boy who fought so bravely against the Shadow. As far as any gull had ever flown. Only the albatross had flown further.
It would find a whale thought the gull. Theirs was the wisdom of centuries.
“Mother Whale,” cried the gull. “Knowest thou the secret humans call speech?”
“I do not,” replied the whale. “What care we for humans? They are cruel and careless. But wouldst thou listen to our song?”
“Your songs are beautiful,” said the gull, “but too sad for a heart weighed heavy with such sorrow as mine.”
“Then I cannot help thee. Thou seekest one wiser than I.”
“But who?” asked the gull. “Where?”
“The way is not in the sky,” the whale said. “The way is in the heart.”
And with that, the whale disappeared beneath the surface.
‘Should I follow?’ the gull wondered. It could never dive as deep as the whale. High the gull soared on beating wings. Higher than the clouds. Higher than any gull had ever soared. Only the osprey had soared higher.
“Why so high?” asked a voice, as soft and sweet as the perfume of lotus blossom. “What is it you seek? My blessing? You have it. Knowledge? First know thyself. A gift? All that is mine is yours.”
“My Lord,” said the gull, bowing its head as it swooped through the air. “There is a boy. I wouldst speak his name and call him friend for fond have I grown of his fellowship. But troubled is his soul and lost his spirit wanders. And I do not have the words to ease his pain.”
“Ah, yes,” said the enlightened one. “There are many lost souls. To live is to suffer. The love of heaven shall be their salvation. What we think, we become. All that we are arises from our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”
“But the boy. The Shadow!”
“The boy is dying. That is what you see. He cares not for himself. So deep and selfless is his love for another that his own life is nothing more than the flickering of a candle to him. And yet, that one small flame can light a thousand candles.”
“And words?” asked the gull.
“Love needs no words. Peace comes from within, Brother. Do not seek it without. The boy knows this. Go now. Do not dwell in the past, nor dream of the future, but concentrate the mind only on the present. Simply ‘be’. Sit on the boy’s window. Accept what he offers. Food or friendship, it is enough.”
“Yes, I - I think I understand.”
“To understand everything,” said the voice, “is to forgive everything. Even the Shadow.”
‘What we think, we become. With our thoughts we make the world.’ The gull wondered if this was really so. And if it was, then, why could it not make its own world? It wasn’t enough to simply ‘be’. It needed to ‘become’.
The gull was tired and hungry when it finally made it back to the high cliffs it called home. It flew over the boy’s house to see if the Shadow was still there. The window was open and the gull could see its young friend lying on his bed, sleeping.
A smaller version of the boy was leaning with his elbows on the window-sill, resting his chin on his hands, waiting. There were some dried crusts of bread scattered on the ledge. But too much bread is not good for gulls. So instead it circled the boy’s house twice more before flying away.
It perched on the highest rock at the very top of the cliffs and there it sat. Thinking. Wishing. It could never have created a whole new world, but perhaps, just perhaps, it could change the world it lived in. If only a little.
For six days and six nights the gull sat and thought. Cold winds blew in off the sea and rain dampened its feathers. It saw the sun and moon rise and set, only to return again in their endless cycle. Still, the gull sat. Never leaving its rock. Until, at dawn on the seventh day, it opened its beak and said... “Friend.”
So excited was the gull to have unlocked the secret of words, it flew fast and straight for the boy’s house. Faster than it had ever flown. Only the swallow could fly faster.
But the window was closed. The room empty. Both the boy and the Shadow had gone. The gull settled on the high ledge and, tucking its head under one folded wing, cried salty tears. Its small heart broken. ‘Had it all been for nothing?’ it thought.
“Why so sad, Brother?” asked a voice, as calm and soothing as the softest touch.
“Who are you,” said the gull, “to call me Brother?”
“I am the way and the truth and the life.”
“Thy voice is that of a stranger to me,” said the gull, “and yet, my heart tells me I have known thee all my life. Who art thou? Truly?”
“I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for his flock. I am the resurrection.”
“There is a boy,” said the gull. “He was here but, now, I fear, he is lost to me.”
“Not lost,” the voice said, “but long is the road he must follow before he can rest, and the Shadow weighs heavy upon him. Would you ease his burden? Would you wear the crown and shoulder the cross for him?”
“I would,” said the gull. “I am small, but I am strong! For six days and nights I sat and prayed that I might speak to him of love.”
“Know this,” said the voice, “these three are constant - faith, hope and love - and the greatest of these is love. Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, nor does it boast. Love protects. Always trusts. Always hopes. Always perseveres. Love never fails. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God ‘is’ love.”
The gull was still pondering this when the window was thrown open. So startled was the gull that it fell off the ledge with a frightened squawk.
“Stanley!” Called a child’s voice. “Come back!”
The gull circled and wheeled and perched on the window-sill nervously. This was not the boy, but the same smaller version of its friend it had seen before. Ruffling its feathers, it peered at the child curiously. “Friend?” it asked.
The child’s eyes opened wide with surprise and wonder. “You can talk?”
“Talk,” the gull nodded. “Words.”
“I know my brother calls you Stanley,” said the child, “but are you a boy or a girl? I’m a boy.”
“Boy,” said the gull, looking past the child, into the empty bedroom. Where?”
“You mean my brother? He’s here.”
The boy had walked into the room just in time to hear the gull speak. He stopped and stared. The gull had found its voice. Its words. The boy had lost his. He stood at the window, looking as if he’d put them down somewhere and couldn’t quite remember where he left them.
The Shadow was still there, but it had faded from violent purple to a less threatening twilight-blue. Beneath the blue, the gull could see the pure white of faith, and under that the shining gold of hope, but brighter than them all was the red of love; that grew stronger with every beat of the boy’s heart.
The boy shook his head in disbelief. He threw back his head and laughed, and the sound of his laughter was as high and bright as the sun. “I don’t believe it!”
“Believe,” said the gull. “Become. Be.”
“Be? Be what?”
“Only be,” said the gull. “Love.”
With words of love, we change our world.