Time to Think by Rigby Taylor - HTML preview

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‘Ah, you...’

We hate it when you get impatient and push our chairs for us. We hate having our chairs tilted back so you can go faster!’

‘We’re overworked and busy.’

‘Going somewhere slowly fills in our day. I may have only one good arm and stumps for legs, but I hate having everything done for me. By treating us like dolls you destroy the only thing we have left, our dignity.’

‘Ha! Dignity with a shitty bum.’

Ishbel held Charlie’s glare for a short second, then looked away. She didn’t dare feel compassion. All this old flesh; vacant minds in decaying bodies; the pervasive smell of urine, shit, and vomit; the sad, terminal hopelessness of it all would swamp her unless she held pity at bay. She coped by telling herself they'd always been like this. To admit they'd once been like her—young, vital and full of hope, would be to accept that they were also her future—too awful to contemplate.

The hard line of her lips softened, and she muttered a faint, ‘Sorry.’

It was half an hour before the rattle of palm fronds and the chattering of caged budgies freed their spirits.

‘Why do women like to bust guys’ balls?’ John wondered.

‘Because they’re bitches,’ Charlie snapped.

‘It’s probably our own fault,’ sighed Malcolm. ‘We don’t want women to think we’re soft, so we pretend nothing hurts. We lift and carry even if we get a hernia. We fake we’re tough and insensitive, and unfortunately, they believe it.’ He turned to Charlie. ‘How many times have you cried?’

‘Hundreds. I’m a sentimental bloke.’

‘How many women have seen you cry?’

‘None!’ Charlie was indignant. ‘They’d tell everyone I was queer.’

‘What was your job?’ Malcolm asked.

‘Green keeper; Sanctuary Men’s bowling Club. Lots of members, especially retired blokes, reckoned it was a real sanctuary—their wives were used to having the house to themselves and when their husbands retired they made it clear they wanted it to stay that way. A man can only spend so much time in his shed without going batty so they'd come every day to have a couple of roll-ups, do a bit of cleaning, maintenance, sit around and talk…’ As Charlie's smoke-hoarsened voice faded, Mal jolted to attention, worried he’d fallen asleep and was expected to say something.

‘Good one,’ he murmured, hoping it didn’t sound stupid.

‘But the women’s club took them to court, and now it’s mixed.’ Charlie sighed. ‘No longer a sanctuary. A lot of the guys left when I did. Now they make home brew and drink alone in their sheds. Did you know that in Australia most suicides are by elderly men? They're not sick, just sick of their life.’ he dragged on his cigarette before flicking it angrily away.

‘Same at school,’ said Malcolm.

‘What school?’

‘I used to teach at St Eustace Boys Grammar. Only male teachers till equal opportunity and females arrived to make us more civilised; bring a bit of gentleness. Huh! The women wouldn’t take after-school sport, so took over drama, art, and music. So the men who liked working with kids in those areas missed out. The boys then started seeing those options as girls’ stuff, didn’t like it and numbers dropped.’ Malcolm frowned, remembering. ‘If a kid didn’t turn up to a woman’s detention she’d send him to a male teacher who’d belt the living daylights out of him to impress her. It changed the place all right. It became… nasty. The staffroom divided into two camps…’ Malcolm stared at his useless leg, lost for words. ‘I used to think I’d be sorry to retire, but...’

Charlie slung his arm around Mal’s shoulders and gave him a peck on the cheek. Mal turned his head and their lips brushed softly.

‘I’m so glad you came, Mal. I was going nuts on my own.’

Mal smiled shyly. ‘If anyone had told me I’d fall in love with an eighty-four year-old legless curmudgeon, I’d have thought they were insane… but it’s happened and despite all the crap I'm happier now than I've been for years.’

‘Me too, you gorgeous old hunk. But we don’t want to shock John.’

‘No worries. He guessed. Told me yesterday. Thinks it’s great.’

Charlie sighed contentedly and in a voice lacking its customary venom remarked as if to himself, ‘What bugs me is there’s nowhere for a bloke to just be a bloke—women are everywhere!’

They pondered the meaning of this.

John, who had been diplomatically pretending to be asleep broke the silence. ‘I once asked my wife why women feel threatened by men-only spaces. She got mad. Thought I was looking for an argument.’

‘There’s no rational answer, that’s why. But I reckon we’ve solved your problem, Mal.’

‘What problem?’

‘Your not so useless bit of flesh. Poor old bugger, your memory’s going.’

‘It’s allowed to, I’m eighty-two and ready for a nap… but how the hell do we get back inside?

Charlie wheeled himself towards the fire alarm.

**********

I arrived a week early

Twenty years of failure had not diminished my grandparents’ hopes of biblical fruitfulness, evidenced by the rosary-wrapped box on top of the fridge containing a photo of the Pope, a prayer, and a plastic bag containing a syringe, several tiny needles and a dozen vials of a substance guaranteed to produce an iron hard erection. On her fifty-fourth birthday, grandmother dropped the hot-water kettle’s electricity lead into the gravy, and licked it. False teeth smashed against one wall, body against the other. Grandfather carried her to bed, checked for breakage, then crawled under the blankets to massage warmth into trembling limbs. Grandmother responded with unaccustomed passion and after an arduous nine months and a difficult birth, Esther was born.

The wilful child grew into a vexatious young teenager, unappreciative of parental efforts to transform her into a hard-working consolation and support for their old age. Esther hated the isolation, loneliness, farm work, everything. The only other child in the district was Antony, a handsome young lad a year older than her, who lived a couple of kilometres down the track.

On his fifteenth birthday Antony decided his viciously drink-sodden, layabout parents had nothing further to offer him, so went to work at a uranium mine hundreds of kilometres away to the north. He worked hard, saved every penny, shunned women, avoided alcohol, and in two years was relatively wealthy and depressingly unpopular. One afternoon some workmates stripped him, shoved an unripe banana up his backside, and threw him into the warm water of a sediment pool—

not the large dam regularly checked for contamination, but a small, very deep hole concealed inside a shed plastered with signs warning: Danger! Radiation!

Skin already beginning to tingle, he hosed himself down, crept back to his hut, filled a rucksack with essentials and took off.

Jag, a stringy, lean featured, curly-haired seventeen year-old prison escapee, found Antony deliriously clawing at his clothes. He slung the young man over his shoulder and carried him to a hideout beside a billabong, plonked him up to his nose in the muddy water, stripped, peeled off Antony’s already disintegrating clothes and massaged calming mud into angry flesh. When his patient stopped moaning, Jag poured cans of muddy water down his throat until he gagged, then dragged him onto the bank and held him upside down by the heels until he’d stopped vomiting dark, sticky muck, then lowered his burden gently onto his back. Scarcely breathing, Antony stared vacantly at the sky and an ache filled Jag’s chest as he gazed on the handsome, hairless youth with skin that reflected the sunlight like burnished bronze.

By the end of the second day Antony declared he’d never felt better, reckoned didn’t give a stuff about his hair loss and new metallic sheen, and wondered how he could ever repay his tall, dark, lithe and handsome saviour

‘You look like Cellini’s Perseus,’ Jag laughed.

‘Who’s he?’

‘Only the most perfect bronze male sculpture ever made.’

Antony smiled to himself, ridiculously pleased with the compliment.

The young men wandered, living on fish, sheep, berries, roots, blossoming friendship and the fruits of love. After a week they arrived at a ramshackle dozen wooden houses scattered along a dusty track—Jag’s hometown. The police had been sniffing around so his parents packed them off to a large block of tribal land about six hundred kilometres north in the absolute middle of nowhere.

Unfortunately, a misguided sense of duty made Antony decide to visit his parents first in case they were worried, so Jag drew him a detailed map of where he was headed and easily extracted a promise that his lover would join him as soon as he’d checked up on his parents.

Back on the farm Esther had grown ever more rebellious. Her parents blamed the pre-conceptual electric shock, global warming, positive ions, negative ions, and the world’s godlessness. Their unhappy daughter’s brilliant escape plan was to get pregnant and force the man to marry her. Late one afternoon while driving the milk-cow back along the track, she tripped over Antony, bleeding and unconscious. His parents’ welcome had been curses for not bringing them money, followed by a beer-bottle smashed on his head. He had staggered nearly two kilometres before concussion downed him.

Esther tied a rope to his feet and the cow dragged him into the darkening shearing shed where she heaved him onto his back on the sorting table, undressed him, lashed his wrists and ankles to the table-legs and gagged him with an old rag before going inside to make the evening meal. It was dark when she returned with candles, disinfectant, food, water, and the plastic bag from the rosary-wrapped box on top of the fridge. She cleaned the wound, fed and watered the frightened youth and, as she slipped out of her clothes, marvelled at how strangely beautiful Antony had become. He looked like the semi naked Jesus on the little bronze crucifix above her parents’ bed that made her feel sexy.

Antony watched in horror as Mad Esther, stinking of cow and wild of hair, filled a syringe from a vial, then grabbed his penis in filthy, work-callused hands, tugged it taut, stabbed it with a needle and pressed the plunger home. After the first wasp-like sting there was no pain and, to his astonishment, a monumental erection rose to the challenge. Esther climbed onto the table, kneeled astride him for a second as if uncertain, felt behind, grabbed his erection, positioned herself, took a deep breath and sank quickly onto it.

Her eyes popped and with a shriek of pain she sprang back up. Years of guilty fingering in front of the sexy crucifix was no preparation for an invasion of such magnitude. Antony thought his penis had shattered. Gingerly, she lowered herself again and was soon pounding away emitting deep growls of gratification each time an orgasm electrified her sense-starved frame. Antony’s first and only ejaculation gave no pleasure and passed unnoticed by his ecstatic rapist.

After an eternity Esther tired and climbed off, loosened her paramour’s ties slightly, threw a horse-blanket over him, rifled through his pockets, extracted Jag’s carefully-drawn map, and went to bed.

During a long and uncomfortable night Antony managed to rub his bindings against the metal edge of the table until they frayed. In the morning his absence surprised Esther, who was anticipating pre-breakfast sex, but didn’t dilute her happiness. Antony would be forced to marry her. Escape was nigh.

So much for planning. My grandparents considered her pregnancy a sign from God that she was too sinful to leave the farm and disgrace their name. As for forcing Antony to marry her, no one from that drink-sodden family would ever become part of their family!

I arrived a week early. Esther was massaging her constipation on the outside dunny when a resounding fart and gut wrenching contraction propelled me into the world. She whipped a hand between her legs, grabbed hold of a foot, hauled the slimy bundle into the light, took one look, and screamed. Before she could separate herself from the tangle of baby, umbilical cord and placenta, and drop the lot down the hole, her father arrived, dragged her from the dunny, tossed her onto her back and with the expertise of fifty years’ lambing cut the cord, tied the knot and sat back in astonishment, deaf to his daughter’s continuing screams.

I suppose it must have been a bit of a shock to give birth to a three and a half kilogram, wild eyed kid whose knowing grin revealed a full set of teeth. And if that wasn’t enough of a surprise, I sported a thick head of hair, five-day growth of beard, pubic hair and fully functioning genitals. In a photograph taken of me standing in front of a wall an hour after birth, if it wasn’t for the ruler beside me you’d swear I was a well muscled eighteen year-old, not a forty-centimetre tall manikin.

How Esther thought she was simply doing a shit, remains a mystery.

I have no memory of the womb, but everything since then is crystal clear. Esther kept shouting that I was a monster. I tried to calm her, but every time I spoke she yelled louder. Breast-feeding was impossible because of my teeth, but I didn’t crave milk, I was ravenous for meat and vegetables. After two days of wailing, gnashing of teeth and praying to their god for forgiveness and guidance, my grandparents collapsed from exhaustion. Esther grabbed her chance, broke open the fireproof box containing their life-savings, filled the tank of the ute, packed her clothes and all the food from the freezer, plonked me on the passenger seat and drove for three days.

I ate continuously, talked to keep my mother awake, and dozed off whenever it seemed safe. By the time we arrived at the coast I’d convinced Esther I wasn’t the devil, but only prevented her from dumping me in a church doorway by agreeing to keep my mouth shut and gurgle like a baby for hours while a horrendously expensive depilatory expert permanently removed all my body hair using a laser. It took all my self-restraint not to piss on him when he wittered on about the problems of bringing up a physically and mentally challenged child; sugaring the pill by insisting that god loved me, even if the rest of the world would find it all but impossible to love such a strange little creature. I should have shoved his laser up his nose when we left.

After writing her parents that we were going south to Sydney, she swapped the old truck for an even older car and headed north. In Cairns we rented a caravan on a vacant lot near a beach and Esther hit the bottle by day and told me her life story, such as it was, at night. Constant eating meant I was gaining half a kilo a day, and when the food ran out I was as big as a five-year-old, weighed fourteen kilos, and shopped at the local store. Fortunately, a naked little kid going shopping for his mummy in a tropical beach suburb was considered cute, although my manly physique drew a few odd looks.

The money soon dried up and with it Esther’s binge. She had no skills so starvation loomed.

One afternoon at the beach I twisted an ankle and was carried back to the caravan by a beery-breathed tourist. Within minutes he and Esther were screwing. When he left he gave her fifty dollars. ‘Money for fun,’ she reckoned, and with my expert assistance as a cute little pimp, we soon built up a substantial clientele.

At seven weeks I weighed twenty-three kilos and had changed shops three times because such rapid growth made people suspicious. When a woman snarled that it was disgusting for a ten year old to run around naked, I bought a pair of shorts from the Op-shop. Esther had started accepting drugs instead of money, and mood-swings from ecstasy to fury complicated life. I ate more than ever, grew even faster and morosely wandered the beach. One evening, a lanky, hook-nosed fisherman snagged the seat of his shorts. When I laughed he swung round, fixed me with light blue eyes, ran long fingers through his straight black hair and barked, ‘Don’t just do something, stand there!’

I giggled and untangled him.

He shook my hand, grinned and said, ‘I owe you one. What’s your name?’

‘Esther calls me Nuisance. I hate her!’

He raised his eyebrows at my vehemence. There was something in his eyes that attracted me.

I’d not seen it before so didn't realise what it was, but later understood it was intelligence, so I blurted, ‘I like you!’

He laughed. ‘You’re certainly frank, so I’ll call you Clovis—he was King of the Franks. I’m Paco.’

Every afternoon I waited for him and we fished and talked. Didn’t catch many fish, but the talk was excellent. One evening he said carefully, ‘You’ve grown a lot in two weeks, Clovis. How old are you?’

‘Nine,’ I replied, not adding, weeks. ‘How old are you?

‘Twenty-eight.’ Paco frowned before continuing seriously, ‘Friends should trust each other, so I’ll tell you about me. I'm a doctor in the Genetically Modified In Vitro Fertilisation program at a private clinic. That means I fiddle around with the genes of human eggs and sperm according to the parents’ instructions, before fertilising the eggs and later implanting the healthiest zygotes.’

His slack-jawed surprise when I nodded my understanding and asked to see his mobile laboratory made me laugh aloud. He drove us there, took samples of my saliva and hair, analysed them, weighed me, gave me a medical once-over, pronounced me far too healthy, and again asked my age.

For the first time in my life I cried. I don’t know why, I wasn’t sad, probably stressed. Anyway, I told Paco everything. He hugged me till I stopped crying, said my genes were odd, but reckoned a thirty-five kilogram, precociously intelligent, ten-week-old kid deserved privacy and a decent home, so I moved in with him.

While he was at work I educated myself from the Internet. I say educated, but it felt more like remembering than learning. The really useful stuff came from talking with Paco. At twenty weeks my endless eating suddenly stopped, I weighed seventy-two kilos and looked, felt and acted like a healthy, 190 cm tall eighteen-year-old. To celebrate we went clubbing in Cairns. Back home we made love for the first time, and for the first time in my life I felt secure and happy.

I hadn’t seen Esther since going to live with Paco. At his insistence we drove to the caravan.

The stinking, crazed woman lying in her own filth on the floor thought I was a client and came on to me, before asking for a fix. Sickened, Paco went out for fresh air. I filled a syringe with everything I could find, gave it to her and watched her shaking fingers attempt to locate a vein.

Impatient to be gone, I pushed the needle into the vein and pressed the plunger. She was dead in seconds. I took nothing except the map, because it was the one thing she had cherished. On the back was written; Don’t get lost. XXX Jag. Esther had scrawled beneath, ‘Hubby’s place?’

When I told Paco what I'd done, he nodded and said I’d done her and the planet a service. ‘Are you sad?’ he asked.

I shook my head. ‘Relieved.’

He nodded thoughtfully, ‘That’s sensible.’

After poring over the map he thought for a bit, then looked up with a grin. ‘Before the government gives in to the fundamentalists and shuts down the GMIVF program, I’ve got to visit several couples in the bush whose eggs are ready for implanting. I reckon this place is not too far distant from where I'm going. Fancy a trip to the outback?’

The unmarked mobile laboratory looked like a giant camper-van so drew little attention. On our way west we detoured past my birthplace. It looked as though nothing had been done in the previous five months. Inside we discovered why. Grandmother was a husk on the bed, shot through the head. A skeleton picked clean by ants swayed on its rope in the shearing shed.

Like their god, we too abandoned them.

As the last satisfied clients waved goodbye from their isolated homestead, Paco roared with laughter. ‘In nine months, eleven outback children will be born with blue eyes, blond hair, straight noses, perfect teeth, generous mouths, athletic bodies and the chance of superior intelligence. Do you reckon they’ll love their parents?’

‘They’ll think they’re adopted.’

As we followed the map across flat, treeless, windswept plains the laboratory’s solar cells kept eighteen back-up human ova and sperm samples preserved in special flasks. After three days the stony wasteland ended abruptly at the edge of a ridge. Below us, under a searing blue sky painted with storybook clouds, kilometres of tree-sprinkled golden grassland stretched to a distant range of amethyst hills. We juddered down a dry riverbed and drew up beneath a stand of enormous eucalypts under a bluff, beside a lake. A flock of pink parrots fluttered through opulent air, and the silence was palpable.

Within seconds of our descent from the van, two naked men, lean as skinned rabbits appeared as if from the air. One was dark brown with a wispy beard and thick mop of hair, the other was slightly taller, metallic bronze, dreamy and hairless.

I proffered the map and said nervously, ‘I’m Esther’s child.’

It was only sixteen months since conception, yet my father and I looked the same age. He frowned. Paco explained, and we faced each other silently. Calm enveloped me; strangeness dissipated; I relaxed; Antony kissed my forehead; and that was right.

‘I had no idea such a place still existed,’ said Paco in awe.

‘One of the last untouched spots on the continent. Probably preserved for rich bastards when they’ve fucked up the rest of the country,’ Jag muttered angrily.

‘I want to stay here,’ Paco said softly.

‘It’s a hard life.’

‘It’s what I need.’ Paco looked at me and I nodded. Where he went, I went.

‘Suits me,’ I grinned, delighted at the way things were developing.

Providing life’s necessities using tools and weapons powered only by one’s own energy, is hard, time-consuming, and deeply fulfilling. The sole reminder of civilisation was the Laboratory guarding its cargo of potential life. Actual life was everywhere and we were part of it. Around the fire at night and during the hottest part of the day we talked. One night Jag assumed a serious expression and asked, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ We hooted with laughter. Couldn’t stop. Sides ached as we rolled around hysterically trying to outdo each other. ‘Pacifying God!’ screamed Paco, tears streaming. ‘Making money.’ Antony spluttered. ‘Passport to heaven!’ I shouted. ‘Self denial,’

laughed Jag. We leaped into the water to cool off, but catching someone’s eye was enough to reignite the shouting. ‘Good and evil!’ ‘Malevolent nature!’ ‘Faith!’ ‘Reincarnation!’ ‘Heaven!’

‘Eternal soul!’ ‘Magic!’ ‘Saints and angels!’ ‘Satan!’

‘It’s not really funny,’ Paco gasped. ‘Most people believe in all that mumbo-jumbo.’

‘And they have their reward—a fucked up world.’

‘Yeah, the fundies have a lot to answer for.’

‘It’s not only them—anyone who believes that supernatural things can exist in a natural world is bonkers.’

‘I read on the internet that Gods and devils are the bugbears by which cunning men govern fools,’ Jag said soberly.

‘Living here,’ Paco mused, ‘has taught me that nature is indifferent to us, neither benevolent nor malicious. Our purpose is simply to live. After death we feed other life—in that sense I guess we’re eternal. We can know nothing but through our five senses, so worshiping things not able to be sensed is nonsense. The only question to ask ourselves is: How should I live?’

‘Simply,’ stated Antony.

‘Doing as little harm as possible.’

‘Contentedly,’ was my contribution.

‘And not in fear,’ added Jag sourly.

We nodded agreement.

Paco broke the silence. ‘I want semen samples from everyone.’

‘You’re sex-mad.’

‘This time in a test-tube.’

He refused to elaborate, so we provided samples and three days later he reported.

‘Clovis’ and Antony’s sperm cells are fifty times normal size. I want to replace an egg nucleus with one from Antony’s sperm, and fertilise it with Clovis’ sperm.’

‘That’s incest,’ Jag observed. ‘What about inbreeding?’

‘With good stock it’s called line breeding,’ Paco grinned.

As soon as it was stable the zygote was inserted into the receptive womb of one of the four sows Jag’s parents had insisted he take with him in case wild game proved elusive. A week later she aborted.

‘Pigs usually have large litters,’ Jag said thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps her body thought one piglet wasn’t worth the trouble?’

Paco fertilised and implanted ten more of the precious eggs. After four months, a sow’s normal gestation period, she aborted ten partially developed foetuses. Risking all, we tried again with the last seven eggs. Muscle-relaxant injections prevented automatic birth contractions at four months, and nineteen weeks later, seven, two-kilogram, twenty-centimetre-long, perfectly-formed young men slipped into the world.

Four hairless, metallic-skinned youths immediately began eating their way out of the placenta; three hairy ones had to be helped a little. All immediately demanded food. Physically, they were perfectly normal except for one thing, the hairless, metallic boys had a vulva between the base of the penis and the anus.

Paco was ecstatic. ‘We have a new species! Homo hermaphrodites!’

We called them numans; Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. The other three we named Edgar, Fernando and Greg. Tests revealed the numans had three chromosomes instead of two. YXY. Paco figured it must have been the two Y’s that caused a doubling up of sexual organs.

Like ducklings and crocodiles, the boys could immediately forage for themselves. Ancient species-survival instincts, along with mobility, thought, and speech, were available from birth, and at one stroke the problems of bad parenting were eliminated. No one could play mind-games with these young creatures. It seemed a tragedy that beings so perfectly adapted to a natural life should arrive when nature had all but disappeared. They played like all young animals, chasing, teasing, having fun. On a hunt, the tiny young men followed closely, alert for a signal to scatter and conceal in case of predators. On long hikes they would sit astride our shoulders.

Feeding seven ravenous young people was touch and go for a while, but timely rains and unexpected bird migrations saved us. At six months the children were mature and venturing far afield, living more economically than we knew how, and getting to know every part of the territory.

Healthy, active men are extremely efficient organisms, and with no dependent wives and children the food they required was quickly obtained. Hours were spent lying silently in the grass. When I asked what they were thinking, Beta tried to explain. ‘It’s a bit like those Mozart symphonies Paco told us about—a lot of different sounds making up a perfect whole. Sensations from all our senses; sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, combine and recombine in our heads like a complex orchestra.

Nature is so unpredictable that I could sit forever in one spot and never experience the same symphony twice.’ He grinned mischievously, ‘Sometimes it’s like a continuous orgasm.’

The boys were mostly incurious about the outside world, but one evening Gamma asked,

‘What’s this civilisation you’ve escaped?’

‘Restrictions and compensations so humans can live in cities.

‘What restrictions?’

‘Building regulations; proscribed behaviours; rules about where you may do things and where not; permits to do almost everything; dependence on strangers for life’s basic necessities; accepting the pollution of earth, water and air; constant noise; sacrificing half your earnings to the rulers…’

‘Stop! I’m mad already.’

‘Without the rules the system would collapse.’

‘What happens if you buck the system?’

‘It punishes you.’

‘How?’

‘Prisons, fines.’

Paco described Chicago, where he had completed his degree; Jag talked about prisons and teeming Asian cities he’d seen on television; I told them about coastal development destroying fishing, and clear-felling of land for farms; and Antony described mining, industry, and warfare. A shocked silence ensued.

‘How can they bear it?’

‘Clever propaganda convinces most people they’re living the good life. For the rest, drugs such as alcohol, together with non-stop television entertainment numb their minds.’

‘But why huddle together in the first place?’

‘The only living things humans need to fear are other humans. Mothers and children are vulnerable for at least ten years after birth, so families had to gather for support in villages. When brigands terrorised them, many moved to cities that grew large and powerful, eventually controlling the surrounding countryside and, by fighting endless wars, created countries ruled either by dictators using fear of pain; by witchdoctors using fear of the supernatural; or by leaders using the carrot of more and more possessions. Today there are so many humans that there isn’t room on the planet for everyone to have a piece of land. The only way to cope is to jam them ever tighter into cities while stripping the land and mass-producing a narrow range of foods.’

‘That’s why we’re here,’ said Antony violently. ‘Here we live naturally, like other animals, taking no more than we need, respecting—not fearing nature, and I am happier, more contented and... and….’ Jag draped his arm round Antony’s shoulders and stroked his neck until he grew calm.

‘You boys, like Clovis, have never been children.’ Paco continued. ‘While they’re growing up, human kids are fed all sorts of garbage to warp their minds into an appropriate shape, thus preventing any useful change in the human condition. You have learned everything from nature.’

It was true and I was slightly jealous. My first weeks of fear had crushed the indomitable independence and pleasure in living that they enjoyed. They suffered no jealousy, prudery, false modesty, boredom, or any of the other side effects of civilisation.

After two wet seasons the numans menstruated. They’d been sexually active since the age of twelve weeks, but only with each other to the chagrin of Edgar, Fernando and Greg, so it wasn’t surprising when all four conceived. Gestation took forty weeks, there was little visible enlargement of the abdomen, and parturition was painless and uncomplicated.

‘True to type,’ whispered Paco. ‘We definitely have a new species. Aristotle’s Complete Man.’

For ten wonderful years we wandered through the many ‘rooms’ of our paradise, and the numan population increased to sixteen. Though large, our land could not sustain more than twenty-three. We were a peaceful bunch, especially the numans, who were as verbal, intuitive, and propitiatory, as they were physical, inventive, and logical. I don’t recall anyone losing their temper, starting a fight, being jealous, or indulging in the negative behaviour that so frequently complicates human relationships. I’m sure everyone was as contented as I, living a simple, clean, rewarding life with people I loved and trusted.

I guess we were lucky it took so long for someone to inspect the satellite photographs. One morning when the numans were hunting in the hills, three helicopters circled, landed, and disgorged a dozen armed soldiers, loudly commanded by a plump, moustached young officer. Transfixed like possums in headlights, we froze while booted, machine-gun wielding soldiers encircled us.

‘Show us your papers!’

While Paco was collecting his, Antony’s and Jag’s driver’s licences from the laboratory, two camouflage-painted panel-vans arrived in clouds of dust and fumes. Four soldiers got out, saluted, and one was given the three documents. He disappeared into the front van.

‘What’s with the metallic, hairless look?’ Moustache sneered.

Antony explained.

‘Like shit. You’re a fucking mutant.’ He turned on Edgar, Fernando, Greg and me and snapped,

‘Where are your papers?’

‘Lost.’

‘You’re illegals.’

‘Illegal whats?’

‘Immigrants, smart arse.’

A head poked out of the back of the van. ‘These three are wanted criminals, Sir!’

Moustache nodded and Paco, Jag, and Antony were locked in the back of the second van. We were starting to panic. ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ Edgar asked.

‘You’ll go back to where you came from. Australia’s awash with foreigners taking our jobs, carrying on their feuds and barbaric customs. Look at you lot, naked as Abos. You’re as bad as friggin’ GM Mutants!’ He cleared his throat noisily. ‘Right, where’d you come from, and how long have you been here?’

Edgar, Fernando and Greg suddenly raced towards the bluff, deaf to shouted commands to stop.

Machine-guns chattered until three red pulpy heaps twitched on the grass.

‘Bloody savages.’ Moustache stomped over and stared irritably at the mess. I gazed across the shimmering land. A kangaroo stood frozen between trees a hundred metres away, distant hills wavered in currents of hot air, and I howled. Like a dingo I howled, then vomited.

Moustache slammed a fist into the side of my head and snarled, ‘Where are the mutants?’

‘What mutants?’ Fear kept me upright.

‘Satellite photos are so sharp you can compare dick sizes. Sixteen hairless, metallic-skinned, GM Mutants like that bloke in the van, normally hang around with you lot. Where are they?’

‘They haven’t done any harm.’

Spittle collected on fleshy lips, eyes popped and hysteria threatened. ‘Those evil, inhuman creations of godless fools conceived in sin, are everywhere organising themselves, converting the weak, plotting against civilisation, and subverting God’s plans. It’s them or us! My job is to make sure it’s us, and you can watch!’ He shoved me towards the front van. Inside was an array of electronic gadgetry and several TV monitors. The helicopter hammered into the air and the monitors came to life, but I couldn’t work out what I was looking at.

‘Nose-camera,’ grunted Moustache, and suddenly I realised we were flying across our valley and already approaching the hills. The camera zoomed in on my children and grandchildren clambering up the rocks. As the helicopter hovered, branches and soil were hurled against the frightened men, but in the van all was silent. Moustache spoke into a microphone. ‘You have two minutes to surrender. Climb down now!’ The numans looked from one to the other in confusion. I grabbed the microphone and shouted, ‘This is Clovis! Don’t surrender!’

Moustache slammed me to the floor, retrieved the microphone and shouted, ‘Fifteen seconds!’

Gamma shook his fist and followed the others up the cliff-face. Helicopter engine-noise shattered the quiet of the van: ‘Sergeant Parkin, Sir. Awaiting instructions.’

‘Fire,’ said Moustache flatly.

The cliff face erupted into a fireball. I was still screaming when they shoved me into the prison van, where Antony, Paco and Jag lay dead in a pool of blood. They had torn a jagged scrap of metal lining from the wall and ripped open their veins. I was dragged back to Moustache who was shouting into a telephone, ‘… suicide cult, Sir, …self defence…..Resisting arrest… only possible course. …’ He replaced the phone, turned to the nearest soldier and barked, ‘Secure this one to the van.’

Three limp bodies were dumped on top of the others while Moustache bullied me for answers.

Tear-blind at my loss; throat and tongue swollen, I could scarcely breathe, let alone speak.

Verballed and punched, I was grateful for the pain. The helicopter returned and sixteen corpses, burnt beyond recognition were added to the six already in the pit some soldiers had been digging.

Petrol was poured over them, set alight and when the flames died down, covered in soil. I was lashed into a straightjacket in the prison van, still stinking of death, and we drove all night.

At sunrise we arrived at military headquarters where I was given a pair of shorts and questioned by an elderly man in civilian clothes; but I couldn’t speak. I mimed typing and after a lot of whispering to someone outside, he asked if I could use a computer. I looked dumb. When he talked about the Internet I acted even dumber, then shrugged as if I didn’t care and lay down on the floor.

After a long, muttered conference about security and the urgent need for a report, they sat me in front of a computer with an armed guard. I typed this to set the record straight. Our family was in tune with nature, loving life. Civilisation is the suicide cult! Over-breeding and poisoning one’s own nest is a recipe for extinction.

This has taken so long my guard’s attention has wandered. I've posted it on every social networking site I could find. Now I’ll fill my mouth with spit, disconnect the power plug to the monitor, and shove it in my mouth. Lucky Esther told me about Grandmother.

**********

Poisoned Chalice

If my brother and his wife named their son after me in the hope of future gain, they miscalculated. After two hours of my flabby nephew’s know-it-all, complacent certainties I was left wondering why, having enjoyed years of freedom from family tensions, I had finally accepted the annual Christmas invitation. I stopped listening to his vacuous twaddle, merely grunting when it seemed appropriate.

‘Don’t go away,’ he instructed. ‘I've something else to show you.’

The instruction was unnecessary; somehow I’d lost the will to escape.

‘I’ll bet you’ve never won anything like this!’ he gloated on his return, holding up a glittering trophy. ‘My name’s already been engraved, see? But the first winner’s name’s been rubbed off!’

With exaggerated care he passed me the shallow gilded bowl flanked by a pair of elegant lions.

I placed it on the small table beside my chair, where it appeared to float on its slender golden stem above a lustrous hardwood pedestal. Picking it up again I turned the exquisite object and there it was: ‘1982’… followed by a dusting of fine scratches.

‘Richard!’ his mother screeched for the umpteenth time that morning. ‘Come and finish your piano practice!’

‘Don’t drop it!’ the fat boy snapped as he waddled back into the house.

As I gazed at my reflection in the polished surface it all came flooding back. Loud sneers of derision from the boys’ side of the Assembly Hall at the music teacher’s announcement of two new trophies to be awarded to the best boy and girl singers. Register for the competition before Friday.

I had waited until after school to register so no one would know. At lunchtime on the day of judgement we gathered in the Music Room. Mr. Laurie introduced the elderly woman adjudicator and welcomed our scant audience, all girls, before sitting at the piano and calling up the contestants, girls first. Judging by the applause they all sang well.

My first opponent looked about ten and wobbled ‘Bless this House’ in a breathy treble, then pompous Harry David boomed ‘The Cornish Floral Dance’ before I earned a smattering of applause with what I hoped was a spirited rendition of ‘Westering Home.’ By the time the judge announced that Florence Jenkyns and I were the winners I was cursing my stupidity. The whole thing had been embarrassingly amateur and I slunk away, sick with apprehension. Imagine the guys discovered I’d entered this poofter competition! I’d never hear the end of it. Luckily, only rugby and athletics results were ever announced at assembly.

The year passed and I’d forgotten about it until Heather whispered in Chemistry that my name was on the Prize-Giving notice board. Panicked, I grabbed a bottle of correcting fluid, excused myself from class and deleted ‘Singing Cup…Richard Stone.’

We lived in a logging settlement north of the river. The High School was in town so we had a twenty-minute ferry ride there and back. The middle of the launch was reserved for workers, girls sat under the awning in the stern, and boys crowded at the bow; soaked in spray, chilled by the wind, and sunburnt. When it got too rough to be allowed outside we crammed into a stuffy little cabin in the bowels between the engine-room and the toilets. Boys were tough, and girls… there was only one thing girls were useful for, and it wasn’t talking to. But you had to have a girlfriend to prove you weren’t a poofter, and to wander around the shops with on late-shopping nights. I probably wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t have minded sitting with them and talking about something other than footy, cars and booze, but survival instincts screamed ‘Conform!’

On the morning of Prize-Giving I pretended I was sick and convinced Mum, who knew the school secretary, to telephone and ask her to remove the cup from the table and my name from the list. Next day I waited till all the kids had gone before collecting the cup from the front office and catching the late boat home. Mum thought it was beautiful and wanted it on the bookshelf beside my gymnastics trophy, but Dad, after a grudging admission that it was ‘a bit of all right,’ gave me an odd look and mumbled so Mum wouldn’t hear, ‘You won’t want to be telling anyone else about this, I reckon.’ When I whispered I was going to lock it in my cupboard, he nodded approval. My brother wasn’t old enough for High School and, haunted by the risk of his blabbing, I never told him I’d won it.

In Year Eleven I secured a big part in the school play. The boys reckoned that was cool, so when Mr. Laurie cornered me in the playground I was vulnerable.

‘How’s the voice, Richard?’

‘I’m not entering the competition again!’

‘What a pity. How about an opera?’

I looked blank.

‘If you’ll sing the leading role, the last half of the School Concert this year will be a condensed version of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’.

Mozart was famous, so an opera by him had to be OK, not an amateur wank like the competition. But I was learning caution. ‘Who’s the leading lady?’ There was no way I was going on stage with dumpy, hot-eyed Florence.

‘Charmian Ingram.’

I wouldn’t be disgraced. ‘You’re on!’

It was much more difficult than I’d expected but remains one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Even the local rag did a bit of a gush. However, there’s always a down side. The following morning Graham Lignis yelled from the deck as I approached along the jetty, ‘I thought you were a man, Stone! How the fuck could you let yourself be talked into poncing round on stage in that poofter gear and singing! Jeeze you looked a fuckin’ wanker.’

I pretended I didn’t hear, but as soon as I got on board he shoved me in the chest and yelled as loud as he could, ‘Don’t bloody sit near me, prima donna!’ Everyone sniggered.

After a great deal of thought I’ve reached the conclusion that discouraging physical solutions to young men’s problems is stupid, because physical and verbal violence are merely different sides of the same coin. Idealists who ignore human nature and forbid the use of force for self-protection are sending troops to battle with unloaded guns. Persecutors lack compassion, so their victims, if they hope to survive, must immediately decide on the best defence—words, actions, or both—and then let loose! It doesn’t matter whether they win or not as long as the retaliation is coolly deliberate; not a girlish hysterical outburst! Salvaged pride will prevent psychological damage, and victimisation will probably cease. The absolutely worst thing for any young man to do when bullied is suffer in silence.

Lignis, a rangy, freckle-spattered red-head, could look you straight in the eye from a face gashed by a permanently chapped and thick-lipped sneer, and say the most pernicious things.

Nothing you could say in return would touch him. I should have immediately launched a violent, physical offensive with the clear intention of maiming, followed by a verbal attack. Instead, as lumps of ice displaced my guts, I gave a pathetically unconvincing performance of not caring.

I know lots of blokes suffer worse things, but this was my first experience of the True-Aussie-Male clobbering-machine, and I didn’t cope too well. Funny looks and whispers circulated whenever I came on board and a space much larger than necessary was left around me, no matter how packed the boat. If I spoke, someone would shout in mincing tones, ‘Hush everyone, prima donna wants to sing!’ A couple of younger kids acted all girlish and queeny in front of me once, as though they were copying me. They weren’t, because I’ve never acted like that. I started taking the late ferry home to avoid at least one trip with them.

Heather was sympathetic, but told me the other guys reckoned I must be a queer to have done it, and everyone hates queers. ‘I told them you weren’t,’ she said, ‘but everyone’s afraid of Graham Lignis. Don’t let him get to you.’

I tried not to, but eventually told Mum.

‘Ignore them,’ she advised. ‘They’ll soon find someone else to pick on.’

It took two very long weeks.

A few months later, while I was hanging around town waiting for the late ferry, Florence appeared with an older version of herself.

‘Mum wants to talk to you,’ she pouted, having forgiven neither me nor the world for denying her the lead in ‘The Magic Flute’. Her mother appeared equally disgruntled. ‘Your voice shows promise, Richard,’ she declaimed in a contralto pitched to the back row of the gallery. ‘However, you must have lessons and I will give them to you.’

‘No way! Singing’s for sissies and I can’t afford lessons.’

‘What complete and utter nonsense!’ She was genuinely shocked. ‘Surely you are not swayed by such philistinism?’

I looked blank.

‘And I was not intending to charge you!’

I shook my head.

‘No one will know.’

I gazed into the distance.

‘Richard Stone!’ she boomed. ‘It would be criminal not to train your voice! What do you say?’

I said as little as possible, and escaped. Next day at school I asked Mr. Laurie what he thought.

‘Grab the chance of free tuition from a recognised teacher.’

A week later, nibbled by maggots of doubt, I presented myself at the Jenkyns’ rambling wooden guesthouse. Florence led me to an enormous, uncarpeted and sparsely furnished sitting-room, which, according to her mother already seated at the piano, provided perfect acoustics.

Florence sang, I sang, we sang, and the afternoon passed too quickly. As she tidied away the music and lowered the piano lid, Mrs. Jenkyns trumpeted grandly, ‘Your voice is beautiful, Richard. It matches Florence’s perfectly! You will easily win the duet at the Eisteddfod.’

Duet? Eisteddfod? An artery threatened to burst in my neck. The free lessons were bait to get me to sing with Florence in public! Imagine it leaked out! If anyone discovered I was still singing it would be bad enough, but singing with Fat Florence? That’d be the end of my life!

Crossed fingers didn’t help. Florence had spread the word and on the boat the reaction was vicious. Terror and fury lent my denials the aura of truth, and I convinced the blokes that the stupid bitch was off her rocker. From their point of view it was pretty unlikely; I already had a good-looking girlfriend and only a blind, half-witted spaz would be seen dead with Florence. It had been a close call though and I didn’t sleep easily for a week. At school I cornered Florence, cancelled the lessons and ripped shit out of her. She looked so pathetic I almost felt sorry.

End of year exams were looming, the blokes had forgiven my treasonous behaviour and I was beginning to enjoy life again when, on the morning I had to take the cup back someone grabbed my schoolbag and tossed it around. When I lost my temper he emptied it on to the deck. Lignis swooped, grabbed the cup and bellowed out the inscription, ‘The Robert Francis Memorial Cup for singing… Richard Stone!’’

Dead silence… then Dennis said incredulously, ‘I’d rather be dead than win a thing like that.’

‘Yeah, me too.’

‘Me too,’

‘What are ya?’

‘What a frigging girl!’

Sneers and jeers till Lignis shouted, ‘Whadaya say fellas? Is Stone a queer or is she a fucking poofter?’

From every throat, ‘A queer!’

As though it had been rehearsed, everyone grabbed their bags and filed up the stairs, leaving me alone in the stinking little cabin. I couldn’t make myself get off the ferry, just sat there in shock for the return trip, slunk home as soon as we docked, and spent the day in bed. For the next three weeks I sat in the adults’ section, but even there bags were accidentally dropped on my toes, elbows crashed into my ribs, and whenever Lignis thought he could raise a laugh he’d point to me and act limp-wristed. I hid at intervals in the Library in case someone shouted poof, queer or prima donna. I caught the late boat home, and shut down all systems. At night I lay awake in cold sweats. I took days off school and refused to go to the shops.

Although I wanted to brazen it out, something inside had crumpled. When Heather came round I wouldn’t see her. Mum kept asking what was wrong, but I was too… I don’t know, too sick to talk about it. I felt ashamed, guilty, unmanly. Both parents were relieved when I scrapped plans to do year-twelve. Dad, who always reckoned I was costing him too much, organised a job for me down in Brisbane and as soon as exams were over I quit school and took off, not even returning for Christmas.…

‘Were you asleep?’ Fatboy had returned without my noticing.

‘No, thinking.’

‘Do you like my cup?’

‘It’s beautiful.’

‘Did you see the scratched out name?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well?’

‘Well what?’

‘Who was it? I worked it out; you were at school then!’

‘Yes.’

‘Well? What did he do?‘

‘Who?’

‘The first winner!’ The scent of malicious gossip had him salivating. ‘He must have really disgraced himself!’

‘You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’

‘What do you mean?

‘You think gossiping about other people’s problems will make you seem better.’

He cringed as though I’d hit him. ‘No, you’ve got me wrong, I… ’

‘Forget it. You’re not alone. The whole world’s like that.’

He glared and retrieved the cup. ‘Mum says you're a queer.’

‘Does she?’

‘Are you?’

‘Why? Do you fancy me?”

‘Yuk! Not likely!’

‘Believe me, the feeling’s mutual. You’re fat, ugly, conceited and disagreeable.’

He reeled back as if I’d hit him. ‘Mum’s right! You’re a nasty, bad-tempered old queer. I wish you hadn't come.’

‘So do I. As for your mother, she’s a slut who thinks any man who refuses her advances is gay.

How my brother puts up with you both beats me. Do me a favour and piss off.’

On the verge of tears he stormed out leaving me to my memories. I’d forgotten how soothing it was to stretch out in the hot, humid womb of a tropical afternoon. Childishly pleased with my cheap victory I relaxed for the first time since arriving. As a young man I used to wonder why older men were so often grumpy. As a middle-aged man I understand. Youths are herded through the marshalling yards of conformity and don’t realise until it’s too late that they’re headed for the gates of the abattoir. When warned to make the most of things they mumble impatiently, ‘Yeah, yeah,’