Robert’s Saturday morning was given over to study. During lunch he shared with his parents his bewilderment over the latest Bible reading and the headmaster’s state of mind. Returning to his room, half a minute was spent on decision making. He knew what he wanted but thought it best to honour the oracle. He tossed a coin, took careful note of his reaction, and set off at a brisk jog. Twenty minutes later he was in the dark stairwell outside Bart’s unit. Muffled, over-heated voices seeped through the closed door. Almost as soon as he knocked it was thrown open and Bart greeted him with theatrical surprise.
‘Hello, Robert! Good to see you. I must be getting popular, the headmaster has also paid me a visit.’ The determinedly cheery tone did not conceal his nervousness.'
‘It’s not urgent, I’ll come back later.’
‘Rubbish, I have too few visitors. Come on in.’ Robert walked through to be confronted by a cold stare.
‘What are you doing here? I made it perfectly clear that I do not approve of teachers consorting with pupils.’
‘Bart’s a friend of the family,’ was the innocent reply. ‘He’s coming to dinner tonight. I always go for a run in the afternoons to keep fit. Mum asked me to make sure he was coming.’
The headmaster’s baleful glare conveyed his disbelief better than words. ‘Now you are here,’ he stated primly, ‘I can inform you personally of my extreme displeasure at the corrupt rumours you and Mr Vaselly have been generating. Murray Corso’s parents categorically deny he was a homosexual. They also reject the contention that he had been harassed at school any more than would be considered normal.’ The headmaster turned aside to cough twice into his hand before continuing in a tone where menace was a none too subtle ingredient.
‘It has come to my attention that you are attempting to convince the police that Corso’s death was suicide, and to this end have publicly accused Lance Osbairne of being the cause. These are very grave accusations and I have had to use all my influence with his father to prevent him from laying charges of libel. It is only in deference to me and the good name of the school that he has so far stayed his hand. Therefore…’ the headmaster glared at each of his listeners in turn as if to give greater significance to his carefully measured words, ‘I am issuing a warning to you both. I am of the firm opinion that all relationships between pupils and teachers outside school are unhealthy. If you continue your association, and persist with unfounded accusations against the good name of not only the dead but the living, you will face grave consequences.’ He swept out the door before the young men had either the time, or the wit, to respond.
‘It wasn’t meant to be like this,’ pleaded Bart. ‘Today was to have been special.’
‘That wasn’t special?’ asked Robert tersely, hiding a fit of the shakes by walking onto the balcony and gazing at the view. ‘I don’t know whether to scream with hysterical laughter or throw myself over the railing.’ He stopped abruptly. ‘That’s what Murray did,’ he said quietly. ‘And what Nikelseer would like us to do.’ He fixed Bart with a frown. ‘The man’s a dangerous nutter, Bart! You’ve heard his readings at assembly. Henceforth is laid up for me a crown of bloody righteousness! Talk about delusions of grandeur! Well, he’s not going to get me slitting my veins. Shaft the bastard.’ He turned back to the view to hide a trembling lip.
Bart felt sick. If he opened his mouth he’d let loose a stream of useless invective. It might make him feel better but would hardly be fair on Robert, so he stared silently at his shoes until the urge passed.
Bart looked up. Robert was standing at the window, hands on hips, an indecipherable look in his eye.
‘Are you going to stand there all day? I came to wrestle.’
The evil spell was broken.
Bart gave a humourless grunt. ‘You’re tough – or insensitive.’
‘And here I thought you were a fragile bud.’
‘A man for all seasons.’
‘Not yet seasoned.’
‘Spicy enough for me.’
Robert laughed a little too wildly. ‘So that’s why Lance called me Curry Muncher.’
‘Yep, you’re hot stuff. Are you sure you want to… wrestle?’
‘I thought…’ a hint of disappointment.
Bart tried to read Robert’s face, couldn’t, so took a deep breath. When he spoke his voice lacked its usual confidence. ‘Probably a good idea… work before words… Purge our minds of that man.’
Robert smiled humourlessly.
They stripped and got down to battle. It was a brave effort but Mr Nikelseer’s warning had rendered them self-conscious, poisoning pleasure. Interest waned and they sat awkwardly on the floor, propped against the sofa. Neither knew how to broach the topic that had occupied their thoughts for every waking minute of the previous week.
‘The Secondary Schools’ Wrestling Championships are being held on the Gold Coast this year. Want to enter?’
‘Last week of the holidays.’
‘Wouldn’t mind. Think I’ll do any good?’
‘No chance, but it’ll be valuable experience.’
‘I sure lack experience – in many things.’
Bart’s tension increased. ‘Have you thought about…?’
Robert shrugged. ‘I tossed a coin this afternoon before running over.’ He left the words hanging.
‘Are you sure you want to hear this?’
‘The long or the short answer?’
‘I’ll wring your bloody neck!’
‘The long one then.’ Robert looked up seriously. ‘But not here… in the bedroom.’
The bold words concealed a growing doubt. Side by side on crisp new sheets, shyness overtook them. Reality was, for once, overwhelmingly more impressive than fantasy. They lay on their sides facing each other, exploring with timid fingertips. Robert was almost sick with nervousness. What was he supposed to do? How was he supposed to act? Desire was no substitute for experience. He willed his penis to stiffen but it shrank even further into its foreskin. Panic. Bart must be despising him. Sadness tugged. He thrust his body wildly, almost violently, sweat streamed, nothing happened. He risked a glance.
Bart’s smile unnerved him. ‘What’s the rush?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We’ve all afternoon. Relax.’
Robert could only manage a worried frown.
Bart hoisted himself onto his elbow. ‘Are you regretting this?’
‘No! No! I… I don’t know what to do.’
‘Take it easy. It’s supposed to be a pleasure.’
‘But… I can’t get a hard on.’
‘It’s you I love – not that.’ Bart stroked Robert’s shoulder. ‘You’re just nervous. Calm down, it’s not a competition.’
‘You really don’t mind?’
‘Couldn’t care less.’
Relief released tensions as Bart pushed him onto his back and with fingers, lips and tongue brought his lover’s skin to life. Every hair follicle goose-bumped, nipples stood on end and skin kindled to tingling fire until Robert was certain he was about to either expire from sensual overload or, if the sweet torment stopped, die of deprivation. Never in his wildest imaginings had he conceived of such intense, almost unbearable pleasure. Groans and shudders of ecstasy slipped through bars of self-control. Bart hovered above, locking eyes before sinking gently.
‘If that wasn’t an erection I’m not queer,’ he grinned as his weight pushed Robert into the bed and they hugged and kissed with the frenzy of youthful lust and love.
Many people find sex disappointing, even unsatisfying, not realising there is at least as much fulfilment in giving pleasure as receiving. Robert was no such passive layabout and couldn’t wait to give as good as he’d got.
Much later, head resting on Bart’s outstretched arm, he dragged still-inquisitive fingers lightly over his lover’s chest, belly and thighs.
‘That’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.’
‘No! For real. I thought I knew what sex was – God knows I’ve wanked enough – but wanking’s nothing like what you did to me. Honestly, Bart. I thought I would die if you stopped and die if you went on. How can skin be so sensitive?’
‘It was like that for me too.’
‘I’m glad we didn’t do… other things.’
‘You know… arse-fucking. I was scared I’d have to do that.’
‘Would you have?’
‘Of course – if you’d asked me.’
‘Then you’re in luck – we both are. I don’t fancy it either.’
‘Have you ever done it?’
‘A guy picked me up once and took me back to his place. I was nearly chundering with excitement but we didn’t even get our clothes off. He just pushed my face against the wall, dropped my trousers, put on a condom, greased up and started shoving. I was rigid with shock, yelled before he’d even got started, dragged up my daks and took off.’ Bart fell silent, thinking about it.
‘Yeah. It was pretty off-putting. That’s probably why I never tried again. I thought, if that’s sex I’m not interested.’
‘Who taught you to do what we just did?’
‘Read it in a woman’s magazine.’
‘Ever done it to anyone else?’
‘The encounter I just told you about is my one and only sexual experience with another man. I decided to wait until a worthy recipient of my talents came along.’
‘Am I worthy?’
‘Beyond my wildest dreams. Well worth the wait.’
‘So we were both virgins.’ Robert smiled contentedly. ‘I loved every second. I can’t get enough of your body. You’ve no fat on you at all. If you get sick you’ll have no reserves. What I can’t stand about women’s bodies is their softness and fat. Tits, hips, stomachs - everything is soft. I love your hardness.’
A dirty laugh.
‘Yeah, that too. I’m not going home tonight. I can’t bear to leave you. I don’t think I can ever have enough of just touching. I want to get to know every part of your mind and body, to somehow… climb inside you, be part of you.’
‘No pain, no gain. I hadn’t realised I was missing out on something so awesome as simply lying and touching someone you like... love,’ he corrected with a shy smile. ‘I feel all pure and noble and bloody silly talking like this.’
‘Don’t stop, I love it. I’m happier than…I don’t know…that you decided to be my…’
‘More than that. Friend, companion, sparring partner…Everything!’
Robert looked thoughtful.
‘If you’re still unsure though,’ Bart added, worried he’d mentioned things Robert wasn’t ready for. ‘You know - the goods haven’t come up to expectation, you’ve realised you’re not ready for that sort of…that sort of relationship—there’s a back-out clause that expires in one minute.’
While he counted to sixty under his breath, Robert pulled a judicious mouth, frowned as though he was seriously considering changing his mind, then smiled innocently. ‘No, all things considered, everything’s fine.’
‘You prick! If I’d had a heart attack it’d be your fault’ Bart threw himself on top. ‘I wonder what old Nikelseer’s reaction would be if he could see us now?’
‘You sure know how to break the spell.’
‘Yeah, sorry. I was just thinking that he’s always on about Sodom and Gomorrah, but we don’t do sodomy so he’s barking up the wrong tree. I wonder what people like that really object to about us?’ He ran his fingers through Robert’s hair. ‘I’m trying not to feel jealous that I had to wait four years longer than you to experience this. Sounds soft, but I feel all gooey inside when I think about you and.... and.... I can’t bear the thought of a minute without you. I’ve a pessimistic streak and worry about dark forces gathering to rend us asunder.’ He threw himself onto the bed, wiped the back of his hand across his brow and gave vent to a melodramatic sigh. ‘Being older and more responsible…’
‘It falls to me to initiate a campaign strategy. What do you reckon we should do about people like Nikelseer?’
‘Now that’s what I call an excellent strategy, ask the intelligent one what to do. I’ll do the same as you.’
‘Right. First up; what are we? Victims or victors.’
‘Never a victim, that’s out for a start. Tell you what, you be Batman and I’ll be Robin. Hey!’ he yelled in surprise, ‘Bartman and Robert! It fits.’ Half seriously, they shook hands to seal the pact, not re-surfacing till hunger pangs forced them reluctantly from the bed. A flipped coin decided that Robert would get takeaways while Bart rang Monique and restored the house to order.
‘I want to live, not rattle myself to death.’
‘I’ve re-assembled the interior and he’s as good as new.’
‘Almost new. Thanks, but I’ll jog. It’s only a couple of blocks.’
‘More like ten. Be careful crossing roads. I don’t want to loose you now I’ve found you.’
‘Like James-James Morrison’s mother?’
‘Yeah. Lost or stolen or strayed.’
‘No worries! I’ll be back in time for tea.’
Ian Nikelseer had rested at the bottom of the stairs to calm his hammering heart. He had been in the presence of corruption and was now certain that his premonition in the gymnasium had been correct. The two young men had embraced the devil. Dizziness and nausea weakened his knees and he sank onto the concrete steps, gulping at the cold stale air in an attempt to still runaway thoughts. What to do? Action was urgently required because eternal souls were at stake! Christian to the core, he was determined to love the sinner while hating the sin, but the Devil was up to his old tricks.
How, Ian found himself wondering, can I love the man but not his actions? Surely we can only know someone by their actions? Either I must love both action and man or hate them both? But Christ enjoined us to love everyone – so I must love their actions too! Fool! shouted his faithful conscience. The headmaster glanced around nervously in case someone had overheard. The body is sinful. Only by constant struggle can man control his evil flesh. The mind can never be in harmony with the body on this earth. Only when he enters the kingdom of heaven through the grace of our lord Jesus Christ, will man find peace! Thus reconciled to his god’s inscrutable ways, Ian apologised and promised to do something to stem this slither to depravity. His heart slowed, breathing returned to normal and hope blossomed. He would seek the assistance of the only person he trusted, the one man to whom he could confide his hopes and fears; the chairman of his School Committee.
Arnold Osbairne answered the door and led the headmaster to his study. They discussed minor school matters, commiserated over the diminishing number of students in the bible studies group, and sipped a coffee prepared and delivered by the housekeeper. Having better ways to occupy his time, Mr Osbairne prodded his guest.
‘Out with it, Ian. Something’s bugging you. What’s the problem?’
The headmaster outlined his worries.
‘Those are the two spreading rumours about Lance?’
Mr Osbairne pushed telephone and directory across the desk, then watched impassively as his guest dialled and asked to speak to Mr Vaselly. Mr Nikelseer replaced the receiver quietly, shrivelled back into his seat and looked helplessly at his host. ‘He is not going there for dinner.’
‘OK, Ian. Leave it to me. I’ll sort something out. Forget about it now. Right?’
‘Thank you, Arnold. It is getting beyond me.’
After showing his guest out, Arnold summoned his son to the study. Osbairne senior wasn’t a fool; he knew Lance’s tastes, understood and even shared certain of his predilections, and was mildly amused by what he knew of his son’s recent development. What didn’t amuse him was carelessness. He didn’t doubt for an instant that the bullying of the faggot kid had occurred, nor that his son might be, in some minor way, censurable. Exuberance is to be applauded in the young and mistakes happen. But! To be so careless as to get himself not only publicly accused, but also known to the police, was inexcusable. He eyeballed his son for several seconds. ‘Nikelseer reckons the PE teacher is having it off with that black kid who accused you in class. Know anything about it?’
‘Sort of guessed, from what Nikelseer was muttering the other day after bloody bible-class. Christ! I’m sick of that stupid old fart!’
Arnold’s cold stare forced his son’s eyes to the floor. ‘As I’ve already told you, you’ve screwed up! Your name’s been bandied around in association with that dead poofter. The cops have your name on their books. How anyone could be so stupid…’
‘But Dad! I wasn’t…’
His father raised his hand. ‘Spare me the details, but remember this. If you want to enjoy life, never get caught, and never admit anything to anyone, not even to me!’ He let the words sink in before continuing. ‘Can I trust you with a job?’
Lance nodded vigorously, desperate to regain his father’s esteem.
‘Ian wants the two queers to stop seeing each other. Thinks their eternal souls might be damaged or some crap. I told him to leave it with me - now I’m leaving it with you. Nothing too drastic. Just get a couple of your mates to persuade them to find other arses to screw. Reckon you can manage that without letting the whole world in on the act?’
Lance’s face had acquired an unpleasant mauve tinge. This was real adult stuff and his father was trusting him. ‘No worries. I’ll fix ’em.’
Something in his voice made Arnold looked up sharply. ‘A warning!’ he snapped. ‘Don’t get any stupid ideas. You stuff this up and you’re on your own! Clear?’
Lance had been born too late. He would have made an excellent enforcer for St. Dominic, Calvin, Knox... any of the self-appointed soul-savers whose dogmas have tormented humanity over the centuries. He nodded impatiently. This was one success he desperately needed. His father hadn’t guessed the half of it.
Monique was happy for Robert to stay for a meal, as long as it didn’t get too late and Bart ran him home. Saturday nights made her nervous. ‘Your headmaster telephoned and asked to speak to you,’ she said with surprise. ‘He was certain you were dining with us. What on earth could have given him that idea?’
Bart told her and apologised for the nuisance. ‘I can’t believe he wanted anything,’ he added, ‘I’ll bet he was just checking on me. He’s got a bee in his bonnet about Robert and me. Reckons we shouldn’t be friends. It’s against his ethical code, or whatever he likes to call it, for teachers and pupils to become ...ah... close,’ he ended lamely.
A small but loud silence trickled through the line before Monique announced firmly, ‘Sanjay and I are pleased that you have become… close. It has been a settling influence on Robert, so don’t concern yourself about that sorry little man. Come in and see us when you bring Robert back. We’ll still be up as some friends are coming round.’
The bed had been straightened and Bart was starting on the lounge when someone knocked at the back door. Robert must have come up the back way to surprise him. He unlatched the door and returned to his tidying. No one entered. ‘OK smart arse,’ he called, ‘I know you’re there.’ A muffled groan broke the stillness. Imagining the worst, Bart raced into the darkness, the heat-sensors having once again failed to turn on the lights.
A blow to the side of the head sent him to his knees. As he was struggling to prise himself up against nausea and the suddenly enormous force of gravity, his hands were kicked from beneath and a boot crashed onto his head. Someone grabbed hold of his legs, twisted them painfully and flipped him onto his back. A heavy weight landed on his chest, pinning his arms. Other hands manhandled him towards the handrail.
Through the fog of pain and confusion he made out three shadowy figures and an indistinct voice. ‘Die, you nosy shit! Make the world a better place.’
A boot crushed his neck, squeezing blood into his temples, making it impossible to shout. With an effort he freed his arms and flailed them wildly. They were quickly stomped on. Someone kicked at his ankles. His head was already under the rail, only inches from the drop to the garages three floors below. Gradually his torso was forced around until his legs fell over the edge where they kicked impotently. Heart lurched, pulse thumped insanely. There was too much pain to think about what was happening, let alone how to stop it.
A bone-shattering kick sent his hips over. He was on his back, powerless, someone shoving at his shoulders and head, thrusting them under and through. A bolt of agony jagged up his spine. My back’s broken. Metal scraped his ear and warm blood ran into his mouth. Why were they taking so long?
Cringing from a kick that should have sent him plummeting to the concrete below, the fog suddenly cleared and reality burst into his brain. A surge of adrenaline fuelled a mighty twist of his torso and wildly swinging arms bashed against one of the uprights. Fingers clawed, grasped and gripped. A hoarse, frail sound - the ravaged cry of a stricken animal - fluttered into the night.
His assailants prised at the fingers, but for the moment he was too strong. His brain spiralled deep into itself, refusing to accept the certainty of what was happening. A mindless ball of agony, he hung on for an eternity until shrieks of fury accompanied by a resounding thwack on the railing abruptly terminated the kicking and muttered curses. Three shadows flitted down the back stairs pursued by a furious Hazel wielding a short length of pipe.
‘Rotten delinquents,’ she muttered to herself. ‘I’ll have to get that lock fixed.’ She shone her torch down the stairs before retracing her steps. A whimper stopped her. ‘What’s that?’ A sweep of the torch. ‘Damned stray cats,’ she muttered, returning to her flat. As she was closing the door another faint cry. By now very wary, the elderly woman crept back, pipe at the ready, hair tingling on the nape of her neck. ‘If those criminals are playing tricks, I’ll get them,’ she said loudly in an increasingly vain attempt to bolster flagging courage. Torchlight reflected the slick redness of bloodstains and fingers about to slip from the metal post.
‘It’s hands! A man!’ she gasped, dropping her torch, throwing herself onto the concrete and grabbing hold of Bart’s wrists, which were by now so sticky with blood she could scarcely maintain a grip. ‘Help! Help!’ she screamed, voice cracking with hysteria.
Saturday night; everyone out partying. Hazel’s calls became howls of impotent fear and anguish. After seconds that seemed hours, one of the doors below opened, casting a beam of light onto Bart’s swinging body. ‘Help! Come up here! This man is going to fall! I can’t hold him!’
The young Malaysian student bounded up the stairs, and together they dragged Bart back up and under the rails, where he lay, exhausted. Hazel was sobbing with relief and effort. When she had recovered her breath, they half-carried, half-dragged Bart into his kitchen. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ she kept repeating pathetically to the student. ‘You’ve been most kind. I’ll call a doctor.’
The young man left her to it, curiosity over-ruled by fear of involvement.
Robert had lost his way, taken a wrong turning and suffered a long and impatient wait in a queue of smokers. He was gone nearly three quarters of an hour. Prepared for jibes about how long he’d been, he knocked loudly on the front door.
‘Who is it?’ A nervous female voice. He identified himself and a distraught Hazel let him in. ‘Oh, thank goodness you are here. I can’t get a doctor and I don’t know whether to call an ambulance. I’ve telephoned the police, but they couldn’t tell me how long they’d be. I don’t know what to do!’
Robert dropped his parcel and threw himself to his knees beside Bart, sagging on the edge of a dining chair, slumped over the table. A bowl of bright red water stood on a towel, and a cloth dripped onto the floor.
Hazel told him what little she knew.
Bart's eyes were closed, breath rasping. Robert stroked his neck, saw the bruising, grabbed some packets of frozen vegetables from the freezer and applied them to all the bluish tinged flesh he could see.
‘It looks worse than it is,’ Hazel said quietly as she sponged. ‘It’s mainly grazes and scratches and terrible bruising. If there are no broken bones he’ll be all right. I did a first-aid course years ago, so I think I can remember how to bandage anything that requires it. And you know about the ice, football?’
Robert nodded. He was back on his knees impatiently wiping tears from his own face as he stroked Bart’s hair and whispered into his torn and bloodied ear, ‘You’re safe, Bartman. Robert’s here,’
Bart raised his head and whispered with the ghost of a smile, ‘What’s all the fuss, can’t a man have a bit of a kip? Hazel, you’re an angel.’
When he could sip a cup of strong, sweet tea, they pieced together what must have happened. ‘I almost killed one of them,’ Hazel said ominously as though she wished she had. ‘One of my swipes knocked his hat off. It’s probably still out there. Go and have a look, Robert.’
Grabbing a torch from the shelf beside the back door, Robert searched around outside. Nothing. He leaned over the rails, felt sick at the gore and shone the beam into the basement. A small object was lodged in a hanging basket of geraniums two floors below. He ran down and retrieved it. A dark blue beanie, the sort sold everywhere.
‘The police may be able to find out who wore it. Show it to them,’ was Hazel’s advice. She fixed an anxious eye on Bart, still convinced he should try one of the hospitals. Saturday night was the worst possible time to go to Outpatients, he assured her, and thanks to her ministrations he was feeling better already. If he was, it wasn’t apparent.
Hazel returned to her flat, convinced that three would-be thieves, surprised by Bart, had tried to get rid of him. They in turn had been surprised by her.
The bandaged hands were clumsy, so Robert held the cup for Bart to drink and broke the chicken into small portions. But Bart couldn’t eat. Despite warm tea and a blanket draped round his shoulders, tremors wracked his frame. Robert helped him to the bedroom where he carefully peeled off the torn clothes, trying not to show too much of the horror he felt at the extent of the bruising over ribs, ankles and thighs. Amazingly, there was no badly broken skin. He gently lowered his friend onto the bed, applied more ice, judiciously as the patient was already disturbingly cold, covered him with the doona then stripped and climbed in beside him, wrapping him in his arms. His survival manual had recommended this as the quickest and best way to warm a body. They lay in silence until Bart’s shaking ceased and his temperature slowly returned to normal.
‘Any idea who they were?’
‘Young voices. I didn’t tell Hazel, but they said, “Die you nosy shit, make the world a better place.” Those bloody lights didn’t come on, so I was blind when I went out. First thing tomorrow we’ll get that security door fixed. And the lights.’
‘I’ll ring Mum, I’m not leaving you here alone tonight.’
‘Nikelseer rang your parents. Asked to speak to me. What a load of crap. The bastard was just checking up on your story. It’s probably a coincidence, but a few hours later I was mugged. Killed if it hadn’t been for Hazel. They were serious. It wasn’t a joke.’ He began to shake and it was a minute before he could continue. ‘Nikelseer said he’d stop us. But why? All I’ve done is suggest to the police that Murray’s death was suicide due to harassment. That wouldn’t even get his precious Lance a rap over the knuckles. He must be worried about something else.’
‘I’ll bet he told Lance it was you who went to the police suggesting suicide. It’s got to be bloody Osbairne and his thugs. But, as you say, what the hell are they so frightened of?’
‘God knows. Hazel called the cops. They said they’d come as soon as possible. Saturday night’s their busiest time. It’s been a couple of hours so you’d better put some clothes on in case they finally do arrive. What do you reckon? Should we tell them our suspicions?’
They decided to play it by ear, depending on what sort of hearing they were getting. They also decided to deny a gay relationship if it was suggested. They’d stick to the story about wrestling preparation for the competitions in the holidays and a family friendship to lend their association validity in the eyes of the world. Sanjay’s reluctant offer to come round when Robert told him Bart had suffered a bit of an accident was politely declined. There had seemed no point in alarming his parents with the truth at that time of night. It was fine for Robert to stay over, but Bart had to come round to the Karims’ the next day.
Robert found some sheets and blankets and made up a bed on the floor in the spare room in case the police wanted to look around. He got in and messed it about so it would look as though he had just got up, then found two pairs of pyjamas, eased Bart painfully into one and dressed himself in the other. He cleaned up the remains of the meal, gave Bart four aspirin because his head and neck were really starting to hurt as the shock and other aches receded, then crawled carefully into bed beside him.
A loud knocking on the front door dragged them from sleep. Robert raced to the spare room, put on the light and then called out, ‘Who is it?’ His watch showed eleven fifty-five, nearly six hours since Hazel rang.’
Two large, tired-looking men entered. The older was about forty-five, the younger in his twenties. ‘You rang about an assault.’ It was almost an accusation and Robert felt guilty. He nodded nervously. The two men stood in the middle of the lounge taking up an inordinate amount of room. ‘I’m Senior Constable Ponto and this is Constable McBain. Is there a table?’ The older one sat while the younger stood looking around as though for evidence of wrongdoing. They both appeared unsurprised by Robert’s summary of what had happened.
‘Your name? Are you a relative? Do you live here? Your address? Why were you here? Which unit does Hazel live in? What’s her surname?’ Robert didn’t know and felt guilty of withholding evidence. They wanted to see both her and Bart.
‘She’ll probably be asleep.’
‘Not if it was as traumatic as you’re alleging. Go and get her while we talk to Mr Vaselly. Is he mobile?’
A groggy, torn-looking Bart appeared in the doorway of his bedroom, staggered over and lowered himself into the chair facing the officer. In his bloodstained bandages he was a gory sight. Hazel answered the door as soon as Robert knocked, her tired face peering through the narrow gap permitted by the safety chain.
‘Sorry to disturb you, Hazel, but the police want to talk to you.’
She was dressed and ready. Statements were taken from both her and Bart, read back, and signed. The beanie was thrust unceremoniously into a briefcase. They weren’t interested in suspicions about Lance; they dealt only in facts. Their interpretation was the same as Hazel’s - Bart had been ‘nosy’ by disturbing an attempted burglary. They advised him, however, to write down everything he could think of which might give some credence to the suspicions he had voiced, then have the document read, dated and signed by the local police. Being thus sort-of on record, he could produce it if there was a recurrence. It wasn’t clear what the two officers thought about the attack. It appeared that such assaults were a fairly common occurrence and little cause for surprise.
They departed quietly, offering neither sympathy for the victim, nor condemnation of the attackers. Hazel returned to her long-awaited glass of brandy, which she had been careful not to tipple in case her breath made them think she was an unreliable witness. Robert walked her back. Before returning to bed the young men warmed a couple of tumblers of whisky and milk, a Vaselly family cure-for-all-ills. Robert felt suitably decadent.
In the middle of reviewing every possible fact that could have a bearing on the assault, they fell asleep.