Next day, Lance was waiting. ‘Brown-eye,’ he sneered across the common room, ‘Why do you spend so much time doing little jobs for Vaselly in the gym? Anyone would think you were married to him.’
Robert managed a confused look. ‘What’s Vaselly got to do with it?’
‘You know bloody well what,’ Lance simpered. ‘Running around after him like a slobbery little dog. Even the headmaster thinks it’s strange.’
Robert managed a casual shrug. ‘You’ve lost me. I work in the gym instead of paying fees for the weights room. From the look of you,’ he reflected coolly, ‘a bit of exercise wouldn’t do any harm.’
Lance wasn’t in good shape. When he sat down and crossed his legs you expected to hear the clinking of bones. Large scrawny hands hung from skinny wrists, and chest and shoulders cried out for exercise. Even his strongly boned face was spoiled by hollow, acne spotted cheeks and lank hair. As the students looked from him to Robert, the sad reality that was Lance became obvious. No wonder he was always putting everyone down.
His face flushed with fury. ‘Fucking Wog wanker!’ he jeered. ‘Think you’re God’s gift, don’t you? Well I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes.’ He slammed out.
‘He’s got shit for brains,’ consoled George. ‘Take no notice of him, Robert. He’s realised he’ll never pass his C.S.T. and is taking it out on you.’
‘He sure is weird.’ Robert shook his head. ‘And how does he know about my jobs in the gym? Everyone else thought I was doing fitness circuits. And how does he know what the headmaster’s thinking?’ An unpleasant feeling began to creep up Robert’s spine.
In Art History, Mr. Rands was preparing his students for the upcoming exams.
‘Despite having commissioned Dürer’s life-size paintings of the Four Apostles,’ the newly-Protestant Nüremberg City Fathers refused to pay up; not only because he had taken so long, but because Luther’s influence was spreading and the works had become an unwelcome reminder of Roman Catholicism. Nothing’s changed in the art world. Unless paintings, sculpture, architecture, music and literature is both fashionable and politically correct, its praises will go unsung by the cognoscenti. Lastly, remember that the engraving, Melancholia Two, must be considered alongside his nude self-portrait, because together they give us the both external appearance of the mature artist, and his psychological profile. Good luck with your tests.’
It was the end of the period and Mr Rands signed to Robert to stay behind. ‘I saw the headmaster about Murray. All he could talk about was how you and Mr Vaselly were out to undermine him. I didn’t realise you knew Bart?’
‘I help out in the gym so I can use the weights room.’
‘Good idea. The Head’s got a bee in his bonnet about you two.’ He shook his head and shrugged hopelessly. ‘You do realise, I expect, that his life is based on selected Christian writings? Mainly Old Testament. As soon as I mentioned Murray Corso he was quoting Deuteronomy, Leviticus and St Paul. Sometimes he makes me ashamed to admit I’m a Christian. I suspect the man is under stress. It can’t be easy running a school like this.’ He looked speculatively at Robert, was about to say something, changed his mind and continued breezily. ‘This is what we’ll do. As soon as you see Murray, tell him to come to the Art Room every interval and lunchtime until things are sorted. He’ll be safe enough there. I’ll make him an honorary monitor or something. Have to rush.’
‘Thanks, Sir, I’ll tell him at lunchtime.
While Robert was considering the relative merits of free-form poetry and rhyming metrical verse, a metallic-green Commodore parked in front of the main entrance. Mr Nikelseer watched from behind the curtains of his study window as an impeccably dressed, athletic, ethnic gentleman emerged, locked his car door and, after a brief glance around, mounted the red painted steps. Thirty seconds later the inter-com buzzed on his desk.
‘Mr Karim to see you, Headmaster. Shall I send him in?’
Ignoring Sanjay’s proffered hand, the headmaster gestured vaguely towards the chairs before seating himself behind the bulwark of his desk. With a smile of the utmost candour, Sanjay drew a letter from his pocket and with quiet sincerity began the task of resurrecting his son’s good name.
‘Headmaster, I want to thank you for the interest you have taken in Robert. It’s unusual for schools to treat students as individuals, and even rarer for them to be concerned about moral development. And on the academic front, we are extremely happy with the high standard of his schoolwork.’
The headmaster, looking as though he had recently sucked on a lemon, gazed at a point slightly above and beyond his visitor’s right shoulder.
Sanjay cleared his throat. ‘Naturally, my wife and I regret that Robert has overstepped the bounds of correctness in the matter of Murray Corso. In his defence, all I can say is that in his previous school he had not experienced the type of organisation you have here. Of course he should have left it to the responsible parties to sort out the matter, and I thank you for drawing our attention to it. You can rest assured there will be no repeat of his behaviour.’
During this little speech there was an unravelling of furrowed brow, knotted fingers, and the lines compressing the headmaster’s mouth. The hint of a relieved smile brushed at thin lips.
‘Mr Karim,’ he murmured, ‘you have set my mind at rest. I had feared your son’s aggressive, non-conformist behaviour might be the result of parental neglect. I now see it can only be the influence of his previous school.’
Sanjay nodded sagely.
‘Teaching is a difficult task, not helped by bush lawyers informing every one of their rights but never mentioning responsibilities. It is scarcely surprising youngsters are confused. In my experience, the only constant, the sole path to redemption, is the way of God.’
For the next twenty minutes Sanjay was made privy to Mr Nikelseer’s personal pathway to salvation. It was a confined, one might say constricted alley, both straight and narrow. The would-be traveller on this road, who turned his head but slightly, even to admire the view, was showing contempt for both the path and its virtues. One foot set outside its rigid confines could destroy a man’s integrity. A deliberate excursion to discover whether there might perhaps be other paths, was a heresy of such magnitude that the voyager’s soul would be damned for eternity.
Tea and biscuits were served by a sullen secretary.
Taking advantage of this lull in the diatribe, Sanjay ventured an observation of his own. ‘It’s such a pity that Jesus never wrote anything. Having to rely on the second-hand reports of people like St. Paul, who never even met him, surely confuses the message?’
‘The hand of God wrote the Gospels.’
‘Of course. Unlike you, I am not a scholar of Christianity, so please correct me if I am wrong,’ Sanjay continued, confident his host would not hesitate to do so. ‘As I understand it, Jesus offered to take on the burden of past sins so mankind could start afresh; more or less throwing out the lessons of the Old Testament, which is, of course, the history of Jews and Moslems as well as Christians. I find it odd when Christians quote the Old Testament to support their opinions.’
Mr Nikelseer’s whitening lips drew together like a string purse as Sanjay continued brightly.
‘It seems to me that what Jesus was saying was; we all make mistakes, God understands this, and will forgive us as long as we admit our errors and try to improve. A message of hope, charity and compassion. I would long ago have been cast by the wayside if I hadn’t been permitted to make mistakes.’ He smiled expectantly at his listener as if awaiting a pat on the head.
The headmaster’s tensions had clawed their way back. ‘You are deluding yourself if you think sinners will respond to such a simple message,’ he responded thinly. ‘They will read it as a licence to sin, and sin again, in the hope that at the last minute they will be redeemed! But the bible is clear!’ Nikelseer cleared his throat and in a hoarse whisper, warned… For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sins! Ignore that answer at you peril!’ His voice had risen several tones and acquired a hard edge.
‘No! Mr Karim, the sole way to ensure that only the righteous will enter the kingdom of heaven, is retribution! If we spare the rod, we spoil the child. Without the fear of eternal damnation and the sure and terrible vengeance of a Just God, humankind will wallow forever in the morass of lust. The time for judgement is now, and the true servants of God are seeking out nests of vipers and exterminating them. The time for forgiveness is past! Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war! You perhaps know the hymn, Mr Karim? God’s army is on the march and will not be stopped!’
He ceased his tirade and sat still, head sunk onto his chest. When he looked up, it was not to a friendly, conciliatory parent, but to an enemy of the true path. ‘Good day to you, Mr Karim. Thank you for responding to my letter. I trust you will convey my message to your son.’
He stood and moved swiftly to the door as if to forestall any further conversation, then turned to cast a final pearl. ‘I see myself as the shepherd of my flock. You question the value of the Old Testament to a Christian, but it is the revealed truth of the one God. If the uncircumcised hearts of those who have walked contrary to me be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity, then will I remember my covenant.’
With that revealing misquote from Leviticus, the headmaster ushered an uncircumcised and decidedly unhumbled parent from his office.
Instead of immediately turning left, back to the entrance and his car, Sanjay stood for a minute behind the double glass doors that gave on to the quadrangle. It was interval and bodies were hurtling everywhere. Even behind the glass the noise was deafening, and the watcher felt a sense of disquiet. He had forgotten how uncompromisingly aggressive, cold and unfriendly a school playground could be, and was very glad he was no longer a student.
Half an hour before lunch, an ambulance pulled up to the covered way beside the groundsman’s storeroom. A blanket-draped stretcher was carried out and placed inside before being driven away.
Robert stopped at the storeroom at the beginning of lunchtime to see Murray, but it was locked. He had just finished checking the PE gear and was replacing out of date notices when Bart beckoned him to the office, closed the door, and in a voice cracking with tension said, ‘Murray’s dead. He drank insecticide by accident. The groundsman found him in his storeroom after interval.’
Robert stared at Bart for a second before letting out a cry of fury. ‘No one drinks insecticide by accident! Especially not Murray! I told you something was going to happen. I could feel it.’ Tears streamed at the hideous waste. That a nauseous moron like Lance should live while a harmless kid like Murray died, was the most monstrous injustice he had yet encountered. His brain refused to think.
‘Come on, I’ll take you home.’
Monique was relieved when Sanjay arrived home. Robert was still overwrought and it took a great deal of talking to convince him he could have done nothing to prevent it. They decided it was probably suicide, not an accident, and Bart, who had returned after school finished, was deputed to tell the police about the taunts and violence. To leave people thinking it was an accident would be a crime. Nothing could improve if such things were hushed up.
At the following morning’s assembly the headmaster made a brief announcement. ‘There was an accident yesterday. A student, illegally playing in the groundsman’s storeroom, drank some lethal chemicals and died. The school, which is in no way to blame, has sent their condolences to his parents.’
There was no Bible reading, no prayer, no other comment.
The police, in the person of Duty Constable Rawlin, a large, smooth young man whose eyes showed neither credulity nor disbelief - merely an unnerving suspension of opinion - were politely unimpressed by Bart’s information. ‘Thank you, Mr Vaselly. We will make further inquiries and contact you again if necessary.’
Bart’s details and those of Robert, a witness to the assaults, were taken. Bart felt flat and unsatisfied, but it was out of his hands. Later the same day two police officers spent half an hour in the storeroom, and interviewed the groundsman and the headmaster again, but didn’t ask to see anyone else.
There was little overt reaction to the tragedy from the pupils. Few year-twelve students had even heard of Murray. A couple of the more sentimental girls made sympathetic noises, and that was it. No one linked Lance’s bullying to the death, and when he appeared he was as irritatingly smug and abusive as usual.
‘So, the little faggot got his desserts, bloody good show. The world’s a better place today than yesterday. What do you reckon, Brown-eye?’
‘I say you are guilty of his death, Lance,’ said Robert quietly. ‘Your bashings and abuse made his life unbearable. I hope the guilt consumes you.’
The shocked silence was broken by Lance’s raucous laughter. ‘You poncy, queer-lover. His sort is better off dead. The sooner the world is rid of all disgusting perverts, the better.’
This finally got a reaction. The other students picked up their bags and left.
‘I’m right, just you see if I’m not!’ he shouted after them.
‘Don’t listen to him, Robert,’ consoled Helen. ‘I told you ages ago to avoid Lance like the plague. We all like you and dislike him, but none of us can afford to stick our necks out. Exam results are too important to jeopardise over a venomous half-wit. I wish you’d do the same.’ She took his hand and squeezed it in unaffected sympathy. It nearly unleashed a deluge of tears. He took a deep breath and controlled himself.
‘Thanks, Helen. Good advice as usual.’
The same advice was offered by Bart and his parents, ‘Get the tests over first.’
He found it easier than expected, having what he had come to realise was a peculiar brain – only able to concentrate on one thing at a time. He could either think, or listen to music, or read a book, or converse. When absorbed in an activity he was deaf and blind to everything and everyone around him. While walking or jogging he frequently offended acquaintances by apparently ignoring them. His parents had given up trying to talk to him when he was concentrating. Study was an excellent numbing device and time sped by in an orgy of revision and preparation.
Friday morning’s assembly was notable for the lack of any further mention of the tragedy. Only the Bible reading shed a little light on the intricacies of Mr Nikelseer’s mind.
Remember I pray thee, whoever perished being innocent?
Where were the righteous cut off?
Even as I have seen, they that plough iniquity and sow wickedness,
Reap the same! By the blast of God they perish
And by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed!
Robert’s blood ran cold. Mr Nikelseer had accused him of iniquity and wickedness, and certainly had considered Murray to be a sinner. A previous Bible reading had described God - and by extension his servant Nikelseer - as judge; today’s as executioner. Despite an agnostic upbringing he found it hard to remain calm.
Eleven o’clock Saturday morning found Mandy Sorens hammering at Warren Pinot’s door. She was suffering from a splitting headache after a party the night before where Lance had given her several pills and a couple of blue tablets. She hoped she’d had a good time because this morning it certainly wasn’t any fun. He had refused to give her any pick-up pills until she’d been to screw the money out of the Pinots.
An elderly lady, about the same age as Mandy’s grandmother, devoid of make up, grey hair pulled back softly into a bob, feet in fleecy-lined slippers, asked politely what she could do for her. Mandy hadn’t expected an old, sad-looking woman and was on the point of saying she’d made a mistake, when her head gave an almighty jolt. ‘It’s private,’ she snapped. ‘Can I come in?’
The house was neat and clean. One wall of the lounge was full of books, still on the wooden shelves supported by bricks they had been occupying for forty years. The other walls bore murky oil paintings of eucalypts, slab huts and the occasional cow raising dust along a track. The carpet and furnishings were of the same vintage as the bookshelves. A fine old piano with polished brass candelabra was open ready to be played, and piles of sheet music lay about. There was no television visible, only a cheap stereo.
‘Please sit down, dear,’ Mrs. Pinot said with a kindly smile, seating herself carefully in one of the equally aged armchairs. The defiant lack of affluence enraged Mandy’s senses and she plonked herself down, told her tale bluntly for maximum impact and demanded to know whether Mrs Pinot wanted the world to be told. If not, it would cost her fifteen hundred dollars.
Mrs Pinot sat quietly throughout the recitation. She hadn’t lived with Warren all these years without being aware of his moods and flights of fancy. She had certainly noticed his recent nervousness. Thus, she was reasonably certain this dalliance had been his first real lapse, and judging by the girl’s manner, it had almost certainly been entrapment. She felt oddly pleased for him and hoped he had enjoyed it, because despite their two children she had never been much use to him sexually, and a lifetime of mild guilt had trailed her. Today that burden had been lifted. She smiled gently. ‘What is your name, dear?’
Within a surprisingly few minutes all the necessary details had been extracted from the incredulous Mandy and Mrs Pinot was on the telephone inviting the girl’s mother over because her daughter was in a spot of bother. She replaced the receiver thoughtfully and turned back to her guest. ‘I’ll just go and put the kettle on. You look as though you could do with a cup of tea.’
All Mandy’s survival instincts screamed at her to get out, but her legs refused. Dimly she realised she wanted to get caught. She was sick of the endless arguments with her mother, the headaches, the strange men. She would like to live here in this grotty old house with this cruddy old lady. Tears started to roll - for herself - not for the heartache she had caused her mother and Warren Pinot.
Mrs Sorens arrived in minutes, an expensive fur coat thrown over the flounces of nightwear. She wasn’t looking in much better shape than her daughter, having had a similar night. Her drug had been alcohol and her partner not a total stranger, but the result was the same. Over tea and homemade biscuits, Elizabeth Pinot gave an expurgated version of Mandy’s story and threats, suggesting that mother and daughter didn’t fight, but try to sort things out, because blackmail was a serious crime and today’s laws treated seventeen-year-olds as severely as adults. In a gentle, apologetic voice, she warned them that were she to hear of anything like this happening again, she would have no compunction about informing the police.
When Warren returned from his circuit of the park with the dog, she remarked casually over the teacups, ‘A young woman, Mandy, came visiting while you were out. She talked a lot but seemed confused so I gave her a cup of tea and called her mother to take her home. I do feel sorry for some young people.’
Her husband’s eyes were a trifle weepy as he bestowed the first loving hug and kiss she had received in years.