Seeking the Divine Spark sample

Seeking the Divine Spark: A Satire in the Style of Evelyn Waugh

Chapter 1

Paul and Brad

PAUL PARKED a respectable distance down the street from St James Catholic Cathedral, still wondering why Brad had demanded he meet him there. They had made other arrangements. Brad would not explain the change, only promising that it would be to his benefit, a sort of enlightenment. That was the kind of extravagant language Brad used, and Paul knew it would be pointless to inquire further. When he arrived on the broad forecourt of the great yellow sandstone cathedral, he was met with a crowd of people broken into several groups, one showing antagonism toward another. A group of reporters and their film crews were interviewing a man with a colorful scarf knotted around his waist. A crowd of men in the same neat attire – dark gray pants and jumper, white shirts, shiny black shoes, and a similar scarf around their waist – stood patiently behind the interviewee, who was clearly their leader. At the fringe of the group earnestly looking on was Brad. Paul stopped and stared at this busy scene.

The crowd leader gave a sign the interview was at an end at which the reporters dropped their pads and cameras and drew back. The leader looked around and seeing Brad beckoned with a smile and a wave. Brad sprang eagerly forward. They spoke for a short while with the leader twice patting Brad affectionately on the shoulder. Brad glanced around as if looking for someone or something and on seeing Paul pointed. The leader nodded and patted Paul once more. He then brought his troop to attention. 

‘You’re just in time,’ said Brad running over to him. ‘We’ll be processing into the cathedral shortly. We’ll have a talk with Dylan later.’

‘Who’s Dylan and what’s going on?’ said Paul, noticing that many of the crowd, those with scowls, were mounting the steps to enter the cathedral.

‘It’s a protest against that oppressive dickhead Ryan. Come on, tie this around your waist.’ Brad pushed a scarf into his hands. ‘We don’t have much time. The ceremony is about to start.’

‘What for? What are you protesting about?’ said Paul, looking at the colorful scarf.

‘The dickhead’s cruel, oppressive views about human sexuality, of course. Tie the scarf around your waist, Paul. Now.’

‘No. Whatever it’s about, I’m not part of it. Since when have you been interested in the archbishop’s views about sexuality?’

‘Always. Now shut up and stop behaving like an old woman.’

The men with the colorful scarfs around their waist had formed into a line, two-abreast, and were heading for the front steps behind their leader. The reporters and film crews accompanied them, positioning for the best angles. Brad looked at the procession, then at Paul, and back at the procession.

‘All right, you idiot,’ said Brad turning. ‘You’re too ignorant to see where your interests lie.’

‘You mean Brad’s interests. Go and do whatever nonsense you want. I’ll wait for you here. Better still, I’ll wait for a while. If you’re too long, I’ll go by myself to Breakers Head beach market – as we had arranged.

‘Don’t you dare go without me.’

‘Go on, Brad,’ said Paul with a long sigh. ‘I’ll be here.’

Brad ran after the procession, catching up with the last couple as they entered the cathedral. Within a few minutes, the forecourt was empty. Even the news crews carrying their equipment had trooped in. Paul stared at the Gothic-style steeple as it reached high into an overcast sky. It had been years since he was near a Catholic church, let alone entered one. The strains of a choir singing to the accompaniment of the cathedral’s organ floated through the doors. Gregorian chant. It was a High Mass, a solemn liturgical occasion. To hold a protest inside a church during such a solemn ceremony would be a sacrilegious outrage for many Catholics. His grandparents would be despairing.

He mounted the steps, crept inside, and sat in a back pew. Over the aisle were the reporters and their camera crews, looking on. An usher was walking away from the group. Their disgruntled expressions reflected his warning about showing disrespect during the ceremony. Paul recognized Lois Callaghan of the State Network Broadcasting Company and Samantha Slatten of Channel 8, both well-known media figures. They must think the protest significant if they took the trouble to turn up early on a Sunday morning. Callaghan was bent over, making notes, her unfortunate beak-profile showing to its best advantage. Slatten, her short dress riding up her bare suntanned thighs, was preening and looking around while the male contingent leered at her in turns.

Just when Paul thought the protest did not amount to much and the media group was wasting its time, the men with scarves rose as one and followed the worshippers to receive Communion from the archbishop. Now he understood. The media people were on their feet, craning their necks. Lois Callaghan raised her mobile phone to take a photo, but the usher was on to her. While the usher was dealing with Callaghan, Slatten sneaked several photos. She smirked at Callaghan as the usher walked away. Callaghan twisted her mouth into some very ugly shapes.

One by one, the group with the knotted scarves presented themselves, holding their cupped hands out to receive Communion. The archbishop blessed them and, instead of giving them the sacred wafer, held the chalice containing the wafers stiffly in front of him as a sign that it was all the false communicant would get. The false communicant then returned in slow, solemn steps to his pew, head upright, mouth pouting with dignity. There he remained, standing. Each scarfed man followed the same routine. At the end of Communion, forty or so men were standing ostentatiously amid the dismay of the genuine worshippers.

Lois Callaghan nudged her sound recordist, a short, plump woman with a tuft of blue hair on her otherwise shaven head. She whispered and nodded in the direction of the usher. When the sound recordist got the usher’s attention, she rose and filmed the scene. She smirked at Slatten as she resumed her seat. Sam Slatten shrugged and put a nonchalant pout on the face that had her male colleagues still leering. Paul left the scene before the end of the ceremony.

‘What’s it to you what the archbishop thinks?’ said Paul when Brad had broken away from the melee of protestors and media people. ‘You’re not even Catholic.’

‘It’s a matter of principle.’

‘Rubbish.’

‘It’s not rubbish. Ryan’s oppressive, intolerant regime is a serious matter. You’re in denial about that – and everything else in your life.’

‘Total nonsense. You’re not obliged to accept what Ryan or the Catholic Church teach.’

‘He’s preaching hatred.’

‘You mean he disagrees with you.’

‘Paul, you are politically naïve – and blind. Your church hates you. Don’t you understand even that?’

‘It’s not my church. I have not attended church for years. Besides, you’re just showing how ignorant you are …’

Paul turned to find Lois Callaghan and her cameraman and sound recordist beside him.

‘Paul, can I have a few words?’ said Lois, while the sound recordist and cameraman waited at attention.

‘What …? What about?’

‘Brad said you were particularly affected by the Church’s views on sexuality. The Church you love …’

Paul glanced at Brad. ‘I wouldn’t take anything Brad says seriously. He doesn’t know what I …’

‘You see,’ said Brad. ‘He’s in total denial. He simply won’t face the source of his pain and confusion.’

Lois, who held a microphone in front of her, nodded at the cameraman. The camera rose, came forward, and focused on Paul.

‘Ms. Callaghan,’ said Paul, unaware he was being filmed, ‘I can only guess what fantasy Brad’s overworked mind has told you for his own strange purposes. But let me inform you there’s no pain, there’s no confusion because I have not attended church or thought about Catholic teaching for years …’

‘Why not?’

‘Ms. Callaghan, I don’t want to be rude, but that’s my business …’

‘But there must be some significant reason for giving away the faith you were so attached to.’

Paul glared at Brad. ‘I told you not to pay attention to Brad. He has no idea what my life was like before I met him. I don’t want to talk about it, and it’s fruitless for you to carry on …’

‘You see,’ cried Brad, waving his arms. ‘He’s in total denial. He has shut it all out …’

‘Will you shut up, Brad. I’m losing all patience with you.’

‘Is that any way to talk to someone who has done so much for you this last year?’ said Brad, feigning hurt.

‘Yes, well, I acknowledge your kindness, but that does not give you license to make up stories …’ Paul now noticed he was being filmed. ‘Will you stop that, please.’

‘We’re sorry, Paul, if our questions cause pain,’ said Lois, her face contorted in sympathy. ‘We sincerely want to investigate the Multicolored Belt Movement’s issues with Archbishop Ryan and the Catholic Church. Sometimes in seeking the truth, we must lay bare painful experiences. Our motives are honest and sincere. We think there’s something to be uncovered.’

‘There’s nothing to be uncovered – at least with me.’

‘Do you mind if I say something?’ said an elderly man who had approached with a man and two women of the same age.

‘Please do,’ said Lois, pointing the microphone at the man’s mouth.

‘The Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality is unalterable. An archbishop’s duty is to defend that teaching. That’s what Archbishop Ryan is doing. He can’t be blamed for carrying out his duty. Secondly, it would be sacrilegious to give the Holy Eucharist to a person who has publicly declared his state of sin …’

‘State of sin! State of injustice, you mean,’ Brad exclaimed. ‘The Church can change teaching that’s monstrously cruel and unjust.’ He wagged his finger in the man’s face.

‘I don’t know where you got your information about the Catholic faith, young man,’ said the elderly man, ‘but you are wrong. That’s all I have to say.’

‘You sad old people, refusing to change …,’ cried Brad as the four old people turned and hobbled away.

‘Brad, control yourself,’ said Paul, grabbing his arm.

‘What? It’s true. The Second Vatican Council reformed the Church. Those old people are stuck in a rut of prejudice.’

‘Where are you getting all that rubbish?’ said Paul. ‘Since when did know anything about Catholic teaching, let alone about a Council most have never heard of? You’ve obviously been having lessons, and I don’t doubt from whom.’ He nodded toward the leader of the Multicolored Belt Movement, who was still entertaining the media.

‘It doesn’t matter who enlightened me …’

‘Enlightened!’ Paul scoffed.

‘Yes,’ said Brad, flaring, ‘and you’re too enslaved to face the truth of what you are.’

‘What I am?’ Paul now noticed the microphone and camera pointing at him. ‘If you don’t stop your filming, I’m going. Better still, I’m off. Brad, I will see you at Breakers Heads beachside market – if you can tear yourself away from this nonsense.’

‘No, wait,’ Brad pleaded, waving at Lois. Lois gestured at the cameraman. ‘I want you to meet Dylan. Just a short talk. Then we can go to the market. I promise.’

Paul studied Brad’s face. ‘All right. Just a few minutes. I will hold you to your promise.’

Paul caught Dylan’s attention and Dylan broke away from the media melee.

‘Please to meet you, Paul,’ said Dylan holding out his hand before he was with them. ‘Dylan Meagher. I’m coordinating the Multicolored Belt Movement. I would like to talk to you about our movement and its aims. Brad’s told me a lot about you and …’

‘Whatever Brad’s told you about me and my faith, alleged faith, is likely to be a whole lot of fantasy.’

‘No, no, Paul,’ said Dylan, patting his arm the same way he had patted Brad’s, ‘don’t prejudge. We’ve got much to offer someone like you.’

‘Someone like me? What is someone like me.’

‘No, no, not now, Paul darling. We’ll arrange a time to do a bit of consciousness raising, you and Brad together. This will be a prelude.’

‘I don’t need any consciousness raising, whatever that is and as for any prelude …

‘I can’t stop now, Paul. Brad will arrange it. Good we’ve touched base.’

‘I don’t want to be rude, Dylan,’ said Paul before Dylan could leave, ‘but I have no interest in whatever belt movement you or others have formed. You’re welcome to do whatever it is you want with Brad. Leave me out of it. Now, Brad, are you ready to go?’

‘Are you aware of the allusion of ‘belt’ in our movement, Paul?’

‘I have not thought about it, and not likely to spend much time on it. Are you ready, Brad?’

‘Just listen, Paul.’

‘Your promise?’

‘Paul,’ said Dylan with much patience, ‘the allusion is to the cruel chastity belt of the barbaric Middle Ages. Those chivalrous knights of the Middle Ages forced their wives to wear a monstrous iron contraption to stop them from having sex while they raped their way around Europe and the Middle East. Archbishop Ryan’s doctrines function the same way in modern society. Members of the Multicolored Belt Movement are his special victims.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘Deadly serious.’

‘You don’t have to take notice of anything the archbishop says. You’re free to do want you want.’

‘That’s just where you’re wrong, Paul – and naïve. Richard Ryan with his cruel doctrines is a threat to modern secular society.’

‘That’s a bit far-fetched.’

‘Can’t linger any longer, Paul darling. You, Brad, and I will get together. Brad will arrange a time. You can meet some of the team later. Good to see you, Lois. Keep up the good work.’ With that, he hurried across the forecourt to join his people who were waiting for him.

‘Before you say a word, Brad,’ said Paul, ‘I will not, pertinently not, attend any meeting you arrange with Dylan Meagher. You’re free to do what you want. Don’t involve me.’

‘Okay, don’t get your knickers in a knot.’

‘Now, I’m going to the car to go to Breakers Head beach market as arranged. I’ll see you there.’

‘Paul,’ said Lois, ‘can we arrange to have a chat? Just a chat. Nothing else.’

‘I don’t see the point. And don’t you have anything more important to do?’

‘A chat does not need to have a point.’

‘Okay, I have had enough. I’m going.’ He set off across the forecourt to go to his car.

‘Give me a call, Lois,’ Paul heard Brad say. He wondered what sort of connection the highflying property dealer had with one of the stars of the media. 

* * *

‘HEY, Brad, look at this.’

‘What?’ said Brad, dawdling ten paces behind Paul, his eyes on the junk scattered around the trestle tables. He picked up a borer-ridden carpenter’s plane with a rusty blade. ‘How much?’

The fat man in the ragged blue singlet and dirty stubby shorts lurched toward him.

‘Ten bucks, mate.’

‘Ten dollars? You’ve got to be kidding!’

‘It’s antique, chum – early settler tool used by the pioneers in the hinterland.’ He gestured over his shoulder towards the hills and held out a dirty hand.

‘Early settler tool! It’s a rusty riddled bit of rubbish. You’re a big con, you market people.’

‘Get lost,’ said the fat man, grabbing the plane.

‘Brad, have a look at this. Come on. Here.’

‘Your mate’s waiting for you, jerk,’ said the sweaty man, placing the wooden plane back on a pile of rusty tools and waddling away.

‘Watch it,’ said Brad, staring at the departing sunburnt back in the ragged blue singlet. He slouched over to Paul. ‘What is it now? I’m still not happy with your pathetic performance at the cathedral.’ He glanced back to see the fat man, his suntanned belly bulging, sit next to a dirty woman whose behind squashed over the sides of a sagging deck chair. The fat man held a hand up and fluttered his fingers.

‘This,’ said Paul, pulling at Brad’s sleeve.

‘Yuck, the bleeding heart.’

‘My grandparents had one – still have it, I imagine.’

‘That bit of kitsch probably scared the wits out of anyone who came to their house.’

‘Don’t be stupid. Many homes had one.’

‘It was subliminal, of course.’ Brad glanced back at the fat man. ‘It’s always subliminal.’

‘I haven’t seen one for years. It’s in good condition, too.’ Paul picked up the framed picture. ‘See, Brad … Brad … an old-style unblemished frame, not even a chip in the gilding.’

Brad snatched it from Paul’s unresisting hands. ‘I spit on you,’ he said, throwing his head forward.

‘Okay, I’ve just about had enough of your maniacal …’ Paul grabbed the picture and wiped it with his handkerchief.

‘Keep your shirt on. Can’t you see that thing just perpetuates hate?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

‘Ridiculous, am I?’ Brad jerked his head forward once more.

‘Hey, what do you dopey buggers think you’re doing?’ the fat man called, heaving himself to his feet in response to his bulky companion’s pointing finger.

‘Watch your language, grub,’ Brad called while Paul again wiped the picture. ‘There are laws against vilification.’

‘And there are laws against spreading disease.’ He flapped an offhand but unmistakable gesture at him.

‘That does it! It’s market management for you.’

‘Calm down, Brad,’ said Paul, clutching Brad’s arm.

‘Good, show the way.’ The fat man grabbed the picture and held it in readiness.

Brad hesitated.

‘You spat on it; you’ve bought it, chum. Forty bucks. Now. And make sure they’re clean.’

‘Forty! If you think I’m going to pay an old skunk like you forty …’

‘Brad, will you shut up for once?’ whispered Paul again, reaching for his wallet. ‘You’re causing a scene.’

Sniggers and titters from passers-by added to the pantomime.

‘If you think I’ll let this creep extort …’ Brad edged around the trestle table.

‘If you’re going to make a market visit a three-ring circus, I’m gone,’ said Paul, glaring at several people in bright beachwear. ‘I mean it this time.’

The fat man, a crooked grin cracking his unshaven face, put the picture down and beckoned.

Brad stopped, steadying himself on the side of the table. He fell back a few paces. ‘Okay, okay.’ He threw his hands in the air. ‘If you want to cop such blatant discrimination, go ahead.’

‘Wait for me there,’ said Paul, waving at the next stall and pushing Brad. He waited until Brad had walked on and the stickybeaks moved away. He drew two twenty-dollar notes from his wallet and handed them to the dirty fat man. ‘Do you have a bag I can put it in?’

Without speaking the dirty man waddled off clutching the picture and rummaged in a cardboard carton. He wiped the picture with a rag and put it in a plastic designer bag. He waddled back, held up the bag and took hold of the twenty-dollar notes in Paul’s hand. ‘Forty dollars, sweetheart,’ he whispered, leaning forward, ‘or two minutes behind the tent flap.’ With a smile, he pointed over his shoulders.

Paul let go of the notes, grabbed the bag, and hurried on. He glanced back a minute later. The man sat beside the fat woman who held a mug in one hand and a jam donut in the other. The raspberry jam oozed over her short dirty fingers while, lips smacking, she stared in front of her. The fat man winked.

* * *

A LIGHT breeze blew off the surf twinkling in the afternoon sun. The stallholders at the beachside market were packing up. The picnic tables under the shelters on the foreshore were crammed with empty bottles, plates, cups, and the leftovers from the barbecue lunch. Women with their eyes on their kids chatted at the tables while their porky husbands stood around holding drinks. Kids ran up and down, yelling and shouting with no apparent purpose. Suntanned, scantily clad bodies paraded in and out of view on the white sand beyond. Brad drummed the bistro table with his fingers and muttered about the fat man.

‘I wish those stupid families wouldn’t get in the way.’

‘They’re allowed to go to the beach, too. Calm down, will you?’

‘They’re obstructing my pleasure.’

A waiter set plates in front of them. ‘Grilled lobster and whole battered snapper, both with salad. Any more drinks, gents?’

‘Same again,’ said Brad, glancing up at the suntanned youth dressed in neat tight-fitting black slacks and white shirt. He downed the last of his drink and gave him a wink. The waiter returned a smile as he scooped up the empty glasses.

‘Just what I feel like on this sunny Sunday afternoon.’ Paul shifted the picture out of the way of his legs as he sat closer.

‘You said it,’ said Brad, watching the retreating waiter.

‘Fish and salad, nothing better on a day at the beach.’ Paul was determined to enjoy his lunch.

‘Why must you keep that damn picture with you? It’s in my way. There’s a rubbish bin over there. Use it.’

‘I didn’t want to leave it in a hot car. Besides, it’s not in your way. And I’m not putting it in that or any other rubbish bin.’

‘Why do you want it, anyhow?’

‘I paid forty dollars for it.’

‘You were forced to pay.’

‘That was your fault … and don’t bother me while I’m eating.’

‘That fat sub-human … There’s no place for such people in a modern civilized society. Too much tolerance can be a bad thing.’

‘What a waste of a lobster,’ said Paul, glancing at Brad’s plate.

The waiter returned with their drinks.

‘Enjoying it, gents?’

‘Great view,’ said Brad. Another wink.

‘The fish is beautiful,’ said Paul, ‘freshly cooked.’

‘Wouldn’t serve it any other way,’ said the youth, lingering. ‘Been to the market, I see.’ He nodded at the bag beside Paul’s feet.

‘Yeah, some low-class pig conned us.’ Brad took up his knife and fork but appeared uninterested in the food on the plate in front of him.

‘Really? It’s a popular market.’

‘It was him,’ said Brad, pointing with his knife. ‘He was conned into buying an abomination, not me.’

‘Tone down the language, will you. It’s not that bad. Besides, it has social and historical significance.’

‘Yeah, reminds us of who the oppressor is.’

‘An abomination?’ said the waiter, smiling. ‘Can I see it?’

‘Show it to him.’

‘Wait, I’ll be back. Just clear away a few things first.’

They ate in silence, Paul relishing his food and Brad gobbling and glancing around. The waiter returned when Paul had finished.

‘More drinks? I’m at the end of my shift but can get you one more.’

‘I’m driving,’ said Paul, looking away.

‘Another for me, and then come and join us.’

‘Glad to.’

When the young man returned with the drinks, Paul opened the designer bag and eased the picture out.

‘A religious picture …?’

‘My grandparents had one like this in a prominent place in their house.’ Paul noticed the waiter glancing at Brad. ‘It reminds me of that time. They were good people … you’re not religious, are you?’

The waiter snorted.

‘Then you wouldn’t be aware of its place in the social history of …’

‘Who gives a flying fig about its social history?’ Brad pushed at the picture. ‘It belongs in a pile of junk.’

‘Listen, fellas,’ a voice came over the top of them, ‘you’ll scare the patrons away.’ The bistro manager gave Paul a friendly tap on the shoulder.

‘We’ll get rid of it at once,’ said Brad, seeing the waiter’s anxious expression. ‘Put it away, Paul.’

‘Good on you, fellas. Have one on us. You can get it, Simon.’

Paul returned the picture to the bag. ‘I want to take a walk along the beach,’ he said when Simon hurried to fetch the drinks.

‘You go alone,’ said Brad. ‘You walk faster than me, anyhow. And I want to enjoy my free drink – and yours, too.’

‘Promise you’ll take care of the picture?’

‘Cross my heart,’ said Brad, making a cross with his finger over his chest and then feigning a spit into his palm. ‘Am I such a nuisance?’

‘Today, you’re borderline, Brad.’

‘Don’t forget the visitors tomorrow.’

‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

‘Just reminding you before you get lost in your little world. I want you to be there instead of wandering around the hills somewhere when we arrive.’

Without responding, Paul got up, brushed his front, and crossed over the esplanade.

‘Your friend is very handsome,’ said Simon when he returned with the drinks. ‘Looks fit, too.’

They watched until Paul’s slight figure merged with the scantily clad brown bodies on the beach.

‘I have champagne tastes, you know.’

A half-hour later, the man who reflected Brad’s champagne tastes stopped on the grassy foreshore and looked at the pub. Shaking his head, he crossed the esplanade.

‘Give me the picture,’ said Paul, holding out his hand to Brad, deep in conversation with his new friend.

‘Why don’t you join us?’

‘No, I have things to do.’ Paul continued to hold out his hand.

‘If you insist,’ said Brad, taking the bag from under the table and passing it to Paul. ‘Don’t forget tomorrow.’

Paul took the bag, returned to his car, and drove to his house in the hills. That evening he turned on the SNBC television news, curious whether he and Brad would appear. They did. They were a highlight of the Multicolored Belt Movement report. It did not surprise him that his exchange with Brad and the formidable Lois Callaghan had been edited to stress Brad’s supposed reasonableness, the Church’s injustice, Callaghan’s probing questions, and Paul’s pitiable emotional self-denial. He wondered where it was all leading, this relationship with the highly revved property dealer, Bradford Hull, who had suddenly become interested in the affairs of the Archbishop Ryan and the Catholic Church.  Strange, too, that his few words with Dylan Meagher were left out when Meagher and his movement were the center of the report.

* * *

Chapter 2

Paul meets Persephony

PAUL LOWERED the newspaper and stared at the craggy ridges and pristine bush falling away from the hinterland to the coast. He lifted it again and reread the page-two report. He examined the accompanying hazy photo. He shook his head. ‘That’s him, all right. No doubt. What an idiot.’

He threw the newspaper onto the dining room table on his way to the kitchen. He took cups and saucers from the cupboard and cut slices from a fruit cake he had baked that morning. He placed them on an art deco serving plate and readied the espresso machine with freshly ground coffee. He checked his watch and then returned to the verandah. Fifteen minutes later, Brad’s sleek BMW turned off the main road onto his steep driveway and accelerated erratically to the top. Neighbors who had recently moved into the area were in Brad’s smart car. They had been his clients. Paul found it a bit odd. Brad had never shown any interest in introducing him to people who had bought property in the hinterland. He had even made an appointment. He could not help thinking there was some purpose behind the visit. What that could be, he had no idea. Brad’s feverish mind was unpredictable, and his objectives not always comprehensible, like the cathedral protest.

Paul got up and leaned on the railing. Brad jumped out, ran around to the passenger side, and opened the door for an attractive suntanned woman in her early thirties. She waved away his assistance with a smile. Her light brown hair was drawn back in several plaits threaded with white magnolias. She wore a short green dress with yellow streaks and spaghetti straps, on the front of which was a design that looked to Paul like a stylized waterfall. On her feet were flat, colorful beaded shoes. She looked up at him, smiling broadly. A well-fed man of around forty emerged from the back. He wore dark baggy pants tied with designer rope and a black T-shirt embroidered with a golden scepter. With his hands on his hips, he walked to the crest of the driveway and took a slow look around.

‘A happy customer convention!’ cried Brad when they reached the top of the stairs. ‘Persephony and Haydies Stickx, this is my bosom pal, Paul Martin.’

‘What a stunning view,’ said Persephony, turning to look down into the valley.

‘Nearly as good as ours,’ said Haydies, raising his eyebrows and holding Paul’s gaze. His bottom lip drooped as he took Paul’s offered hand.

‘Yes, I’m another Brad victim,’ said Paul, going with the mood. ‘That’s how I met him.’

‘We know,’ said Persephony.

‘The best property dealer on the coast,’ said Brad. He winked. ‘And hinterland, of course,’ he added. ‘Phew, it’s hot.’ He wiped his brow. Wrenching off his coat, he threw it at the nearby chair. ‘I’m dying.’ He took hold of the verandah railing and appeared to want to shake it senseless.

‘Relax, Brad. Take a seat. I’ll get some coffee.’

‘No, no, wait. Just, just …back in a moment.’ He swung around, nervously grabbed at his coat, half caught it, and flung it over the railing. ‘Damn it, damn it!’ he said, peering over the railing. ‘Just a moment.’

Persephony and Haydies watched bemused as Brad clambered down the stairs.

‘Take a seat,’ repeated Paul, pointing to the outdoor cedar setting. ‘We won’t worry about busy Brad. He runs on high revs. Hopefully, he’ll calm down in a minute.’

‘Sorry about that,’ said Brad, arriving flustered at the top of the stairs with rivulets of perspiration on his forehead and temples. ‘I don’t watch what I’m sometimes doing. I’ll be back … need to freshen up.’ Clutching the coat, he disappeared into the house.

‘I can’t think where he gets his energy from,’ said Persephony, winking as she sat down. ‘But it got us a great property.’

‘Perfectly situated,’ added Haydies, smiling broadly and nodding at Paul. ‘It couldn’t be better for our needs. You know where we are, don’t you, just up the road and …?’ He went to point, but his hand remained waving as he tried to work out in which direction his property lay.

‘Brad told me,’ Paul said, pointing in the right direction to save Haydies from his confusion. He glanced over his shoulder at the front door. ‘Did you know Brad before you came to look around this area? People get referred to him … you know, who want to live a bit out of the way.’

‘We were referred to him.’ Persephony hesitated. ‘And you?’

‘I wandered cold into his office on the coast one desperate afternoon. I wanted to get away from things. He knew exactly what I wanted to my amazement. I’m still amazed.’

‘Brad said you were a dressmaker,’ said Haydies.

‘Dress designer. To answer the next question, I scrape out a living with my work.’

At that moment, Brad appeared. His face was cool and fresh, those hunched shoulders now relaxed. He did a mysterious twirl and said, ‘Sorry about that. I’ve been on the go the whole day. Business waits for no one.’ He sat next to Paul. ‘Getting acquainted with your new neighbors?’ he asked with a silly smile.

‘What kind of dresses do you make?’ asked Persephony.

‘Classical style, of the forties, mostly,’ said Paul, frowning at Brad. ‘I love the elegant style of the women in the forties cinema. You know, Ingrid Bergman, Gene Tierney, Vivien Leigh, and others. There was no beauty like Vivien Leigh.’

‘Vivien Leigh …?’ said Haydies, nodding. ‘Well, well … just what I would have expected.’

The conversation lingered on Paul’s dressmaking, Haydies and Persephony showing unexpected curiosity. Haydies aired impromptu opinions on fashion, showing Paul he knew absolutely nothing about the subject. Brad sat listening with a blissful smile across his face. Paul eventually interrupted the conversation to prepare the coffee and put a stop to Haydies’s extemporization. When he had the tray loaded with the cups, saucers, and cake, he left it a moment on the kitchen bench and went to the bathroom. He inspected the top of the vanity table. ‘The bloke is senseless,’ he muttered as he brushed away some white powder. He rinsed his hands and then wiped the top clean. He checked it thoroughly. ‘That stupid man.’ He heard laughter coming from Haydies and Persephony as he approached the front door.

‘Brad has been telling us how you got caught with an abomination of a picture,’ said Haydies, nodding again, now with his tongue slightly protruding between his teeth.

‘Abomination is suddenly Brad’s favorite word,’ said Paul, as he served the coffee and cake. ‘I hope he told you the abomination was his fault.’

‘Can we see it?’ asked Persephony.

‘It’s a religious picture.’

‘Yes, we know.’

‘We are interested in that sort of thing,’ said Haydies.

‘What …?’ said Brad, his blissful expression disturbed.

‘You’re not Catholic, are you?’ said Paul.

‘No … We have a particular purpose … but have your coffee first, Paul. We can see it when you’re ready. No haste.’

The conversation stayed light, shifting to the subject of the tableland above the coast, and their motives for living there. Paul’s explanation was brief and uncomplicated: he wanted peace – and creative space.

‘Not interested in the environment or developing a spiritual life?’ said Persephony.

‘Yes, of course, I’m interested in the environment. That’s why I am here, for the open spaces, the natural surroundings – and the peace, as I say. What kind of work are you in?’

Haydies and Persephony seemed to take the question as the cue for which they had been waiting. They embarked on an eager account of their work and interests. They were in Health Care, Haydies, a clinical psychologist, and Persephony, a nurse. Persephony worked in the main hospital on the coast, and Haydies had his private clinic close by. They traveled down together each day, enjoying each other’s company as the glades of the Goddess passed them by, sometimes stopping for a few moments’ adoration. It was a perfect arrangement. Their home was, in many ways, simply an extension of their work and the worldview that supported their work.

‘In fact,’ Persephony said, ‘you could say it is the other way around. Our formal work is an extension of the world we intend to create in the virgin environment here in the hinterland.’

‘I have opened a home clinic,’ said Haydies. ‘There’s important work for me to do and develop. There’s just the atmosphere here.’ More nodding, but now with the addition of a furtive squint.

‘And I want to apply my knowledge of natural healing and help people to self-discovery through suppressed truth-giving mythologies,’ said Persephony. ‘This is the medical care of the future.’

Paul glanced at Brad. But Brad, who had remained quiet, returned the same silly expression.

‘But let’s not get too heavily into that side of things on this first meeting,’ said Haydies, assuming a posture with which he seemed comfortable. ‘There’s time to talk about it later. What about that picture? Let’s have a look at it.’

Paul fetched the picture. ‘I’ve left it in the bag because Brad has hysterics every time I take it out.’ He withdrew the picture and held it up in front of the guests. They said nothing at first, merely leaned forward to have a closer look. Some unintelligible noises came from Brad.

‘Not a bad example,’ said Haydies, nodding and looking up at Paul.

‘The colors are excellent,’ agreed Persephony, ‘and the frame’s undamaged.’

‘Are you familiar with this picture?’ said Brad.

‘We’ve got two, not as good as this one, though. This one is first-class.’

‘I never saw …?’

‘How would you be familiar with something so Catholic?’ said Paul.

Haydies hesitated a moment while Persephony looked at him expectantly.

‘Perhaps a more appropriate question is why?’

‘Why, then?’

‘Brad does not just dislike this picture,’ Haydies continued. ‘He hates it.’

Brad nodded vigorously, flapping his hands, but before he could say anything, Persephony took her cue.

‘Brad hates it because of what it represents, isn’t that so, Brad?’

‘That’s what I said to Paul,’ Brad said, getting to his feet and pointing. ‘But he still bought it.’

‘I had to buy it because you spat on it.’

‘And worse, you kept it,’ he said, now pointing at Paul.

‘Your spittle cost me forty dollars. Now calm down.’

‘And I spit on it again,’ said Brad, leaning forward and spitting furiously.

‘Are you insane!’ cried Paul, springing to his feet and swinging the picture out of reach. ‘If you do that again, you can go home and never come back. Better still, go home now before you drive us all mad.’ He took the picture to the kitchen, where he wiped off the blob of spittle. A minute later, Brad followed him.

‘I’m sorry. I lost my head.’

‘It’s just a picture, Brad. No reason to behave like a lunatic.’

‘There’s something evil about it. Okay? I hate it!’

‘If you can’t control yourself, stay inside until the guests have finished looking at it. The Sunday paper is on the dining room table. Go and amuse yourself while I try to maintain some sanity and talk to our guests.’

Paul left Brad standing beside the kitchen bench and returned to the verandah.

‘We’re sorry to cause you trouble,’ said Persephony.

‘It’s not you. It’s Brad. He’s the only one who can’t discuss the picture without behaving like a madman.’

‘But isn’t that just it?’ said Haydies, his chin raised as he pointed at the picture Paul was still holding. ‘Brad is reacting to something in this picture, not just any picture.’

‘You think so?’

‘It represents something that has a spirit, an oppressive spirit.’

‘I think it’s in his head, this spirit,’ said Paul, sitting and reaching for the plastic bag.

‘You’re wrong. And I’m afraid I must be blunt.’

‘Do you really?’ Paul slipped the picture into the bag.

‘Yes. And I’ll tell you why we have this picture and others like it. We want to set up a counter-spirit. It’s a point of attack on an institution that has persecuted people like you and Brad.’

‘Really? Someone like me? What is that?’

‘Yes, really,’ said Haydies. ‘You should seriously take what we are saying. We’ve been looking at this issue for some years now.’

‘I just ignore whatever people think of me. It doesn’t affect me here.’

‘Come, Paul. That’s defeatist. That’s caving in. It does affect you. You allow forces to banish you to the depths where it is dark and unyielding,’ said Haydies, accompanying this speech with expansive and emphatic gestures. ‘You have to fight to turn your spiritual dark into spiritual light and their light into dark. You must find the spirit within you, the spirit that has been silenced by an oppressive persecuting regime.’ He ended with a rigidly pointing finger. 

Paul looked warily from one to the other. ‘I don’t follow, and I’m not sure I want to.’

‘We’re here to help you,’ said Persephony. ‘You – and Brad.’

‘Help me?’

‘Most definitely,’ said Haydies, ‘it is our duty.’

‘Your duty? Is Brad aware …?’

‘Of course. We met him through people who think alike on this matter. We want to help everyone in your position.’

‘In my position? What’s my position?’

‘In your oppressed position.’ Haydies sat back, apparently satisfied he had made an overwhelming point.

Paul frowned, shrugged, and sealed the designer bag without responding.

‘But we’ll leave it for now,’ said Persephony, giving Haydies a cautious glance. ‘We didn’t come here today to discuss all that. We wanted to meet one of our new neighbors. We had no idea you had a picture of the bleeding heart.’

‘If it weren’t for Brad’s mania, we wouldn’t be talking about it.’

‘Paul, come over to our house next weekend for dinner,’ said Haydies, taking a new tack. ‘We can get to know each other, and perhaps we can also show you what we mean about the picture.’

Paul hesitated. ‘Okay.’ More hesitation. ‘Is Brad invited?’

‘That goes without saying.’

‘Well, I’ll tell him I won’t go if he insists on behaving like someone who belongs in an asylum.’

‘I will give him a good talking to.’ Persephony leaned over and tapped him on his knee. ‘Now, what about showing us around your house? Brad said you’ve done a lot to improve it.’

Paul’s weatherboard house was at least sixty years old. Like many of the houses bought by modern people rushing to settle in the bushy unscarred hinterland, it had long ago deteriorated. Yet, despite its dilapidation and overgrown gardens, Paul fell in love with it when Brad took him to see it. Brad went to work on an unresisting fellow who, weary of spirit, was looking for just the kind of secluded atmosphere that house harbored. There was nothing he had to do. Brad rushed around preparing the documents and completing the formalities. All Paul had to do was sign on the dotted line. During the year, he repaired, painted, and renovated it. Brad even got him building materials at cut prices. Paul could suffer Brad’s frantic ways and incomprehensible behavior because he had been kind to him – at least until recently. His friendship had outweighed his sins.

‘Have you read today’s paper?’ Brad said as Paul led Haydies and Persephony inside from the verandah, ‘this thing about the priest?’ He held up the open paper.

‘Not now, Brad.’

Still clutching the open paper, Brad tagged along, getting in the way. When they entered his workroom, Paul tried to keep him outside, but Brad pushed in after them. Haydies and Persephony’s unexpected exclamations over the room and its arresting view of the valley prevented the irritation from boiling over. The worktable and sewing machine were under two sash windows. On two sides of the room were shelves to the ceiling crammed with rolls of material, patterns, and other dressmaking necessities. Framed photos of movie stars and Paul’s customers filled the remaining wall.

‘Beautiful,’ said Persephony, approaching the customer photos. ‘You must be very successful. These wealthy women would pay well, surely.’

‘Not really. I take too much time on the commissions. I probably don’t charge enough.’

‘No fire in the belly!’ said Brad, holding the paper in front of Paul. ‘He gets too much pleasure from making the dresses to think about the money. Money, Paul, money is what you want.’

‘I’m happy with what I get. And take that thing away.’

‘As long as you’re happy,’ commented Haydies.

‘Do you make my style of clothing?’ said Persephony. She did a quick twirl and posed.

‘In principle, I can make anything,’ Paul said, looking her up and down. ‘It’s simple enough what you have on. I know the style is popular around here. But because my time is limited, I don’t take on every commission. So I will spend a lot of time making a dress like this one.’ He pointed to a framed picture of Grace Kelly from Hitchcock’s film ‘Rear Window’. ‘This is unmatchable elegance on an incomparably beautiful woman. If I get a commission to make something like this, I have no time for anything else.’

‘You’re lost in your own little world, aren’t you?’ said Haydies.

‘Do you think so?’ said Paul, glancing at him.

‘Where on earth did you learn to sew like this? Not at school, surely?’ said Persephony.

‘No, of course not.’

‘The gender discrimination,’ said Haydies, pursing his lips.

‘My mother taught me. She was a first-class seamstress. I used to sit beside her and watch when I was young. I asked questions, and she explained. Very patiently, she explained everything. Then I had a go and found that I liked it.’

‘That’s not usual. Very unusual, in fact,’ commented Haydies. ‘I suspect it was a form of compensating behavior.’

‘I don’t know about that. It’s true I was not a sporting type. Got ribbed, too, because I was always slight and fair.

‘Typical homophobia in the school regime,’ said Haydies. ‘I could have guessed.’

‘It was the sort of ribbing fat kids or kids with glasses get.’

‘Exactly. It’s the unjust cultural discrimination. Society has to be purged of it.’

‘I bet your mother is proud of you now – of your skills, I mean,’ said Persephony.

‘My mother’s long dead and buried.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’

‘No need. It happens. I was one of those unfortunate kids who lost both parents.’

‘Both? What a tragedy.’

‘My father’s not dead. He cleared out when I was very young. I felt my mother’s pain. That’s why I sat beside her when she was sewing. Often, she would stop in her work and cry.’

‘It depresses you, doesn’t it?’ said Haydies.

‘Depresses me …? I think with sadness about my mother, but I don’t think it affects my life now.’

‘You’d be surprised. I suspect you hate your father,’ insisted Haydies.

‘He abandoned his wife and son. Besides mistreating my sensitive mother and leaving her to her grief, he paid not a penny to my upbringing. He is a man to be hated …’

‘You have a lot of anger in you.’

‘But I don’t hate him.’

‘You should come and talk about it with me sometime.’

‘Now, Haydies, not today,’ said Persephony, glancing at Paul.

‘Just trying to help.’

‘Thank you,’ said Paul, ‘but I don’t think it’s necessary.’

‘You don’t know.’

‘Stop it, Haydies.’

‘There is more I would like to have done to the house,’ said Paul, moving towards the door of his workroom and dodging Brad and his newspaper, ‘some professional landscaping out the front. I’ve seen great work in the neighborhood. But, unfortunately, I don’t have the money.’

‘That can always change,’ said Brad, now holding the newspaper high in the air.

‘I’m not holding my breath,’ said Paul, grabbing at the paper, but Brad was too quick. ‘Another cup of coffee?’

‘Coffee?’ said Brad, at last lowering the paper. ‘It’s happy hour. Come on, Paul, out with the wine.’

Brad’s champagne tastes always ensured top-shelf reds and whites were stored in Paul’s meager pantry. Paul fetched the drinks and nibbles while Brad and the guests lingered in the living area, inspecting his carefully chosen decorations and second-hand furniture. When he rejoined them, carrying a loaded tray, they were crowded around some framed photos on the wall. Brad still hung on to his newspaper.

‘This is your mother, isn’t it?’ said Persephony, pointing at one of the photos.

‘Yes. It was some years before she died. The ravage of cancer had not yet appeared.’

‘She is beautiful. You look like her.’

‘That’s what people say. It’s a relief I don’t look like my father.’

‘I’m sorry to say it, Paul,’ said Haydies, nodding gravely and putting his hand on his shoulder. ‘You have a lot of repressed anger. It’s not good for you. You must do something about it.’

‘My father was cruel to my mother. It’s natural to be angry about it,’ said Paul, steadying the tray.

‘Are you sure your anger is not a cover for some other deep-seated problem?’

‘Please, Haydies, darling,’ said Persephony. ‘That’s tactless. It’s not polite the first moment you meet someone.’

‘You’re perfectly right, Persephony, my beauty,’ said Haydies, with a bow of the head and an approving wave of the hand. ‘It’s good you stop me. I forget myself in my eagerness to help with a problem so clear to me, but maybe not so to others.’ He turned to Paul and again put his hand on his shoulder: ‘My apologies, Paul.’

‘No apologies necessary, Haydies. I’m sure your motivations are unimpeachable.’

‘Exactly!’ He gave him a pat on the back. ‘Good that we understand each other. We can talk about it next weekend.’

‘Come on, what about those drinks!’ said Brad, rustling the paper. ‘My tongue’s hanging out.’

* * *

Chapter 3

Paul and the priest

THE VISTA from the verandah and the mild breeze blowing up the earthy richness from the valley below seemed to distract the group while they sipped Brad’s sophisticated choice of wine. Paul was glad to be free of Haydies’s counsel and the newspaper he had grabbed from Brad and thrown in the kitchen cupboard. The conversation meandered around the subject of the valley and the growing settlement in the hinterland with its distinct style until, at last, Persephony asked what he had in mind for the front garden. Paul wanted it terraced without retaining walls down to the roadside. Just a gentle undulation of grass, some tropical trees, and plants. It would be expensive.

‘Alas, for the moment, I’ll have to make do with what I have. I can’t see the funds falling out of the sky.’

‘What you’ve done so far looks good …,’ Persephony began but was interrupted by Brad rushing inside and returning at once, shaking the Sunday newspaper at them.

‘Look, here are funds that are going to fall from heaven.’ He flicked over the front page and tapped page two with his finger. ‘This report about the priest abusing a twelve-year-old.’

‘What on earth has that got to do with me and my landscaping?’ said Paul, looking up at him and frowning.

‘Another case of that corrupt organization misusing its power,’ said Haydies. ‘He deserves whatever he can get. And, Paul, it has a lot to do with you.’

‘Yeah,’ said Brad, grasping his glass and taking a gulp. ‘That’s what I wanted to tell you earlier. Haydies is right. This is what oppresses us. They should compensate us for their oppression. The hypocrites! Preaching about celibacy and molesting kids.’

‘Still don’t see the connection,’ said Paul, glancing uncomfortably at him.

‘They’re getting people to hate us!’

‘Paul, this is about the tyranny of thought and indoctrination,’ said Haydies, acknowledging Brad and leaning forward. ‘You have to face it, Paul. And it’s not just about liberating the world from this ideological tyranny. It’s just as importantly about restorative and retributive justice, about compensating for the harm done to civilization. They must be made to pay. They have money enough.’

Paul gave a dismissive wave of the hand. ‘You must do a lot to convince people like my grandparents of that image of the Church.’

‘That just proves the point,’ said Brad.

‘Exactly,’ said Haydies, nodding approvingly at Brad. ‘What greater evil can there be than in deceiving the good simple people in our community?’

‘Not all priests are like Fr. Pleasance, my Nanna will tell you. She told me often enough.’

‘They’re not a minority, Paul,’ said Haydies, shaking his head. ‘Hundreds of cases have been reported.’ He held Paul in a severe gaze.

‘Do you see your grandparents often?’ Persephony said.

‘Not as often as I would like. They live up north. I don’t want to distress them anymore.’

‘Why do you worry them?’

‘The way I live … my mother got her sensitive nature from her gentle parents.’

‘This is just what I’m talking about,’ said Haydies, tapping the cedar tabletop.

‘Sorry, Haydies, I don’t want to talk about my grandparents. The bottle’s empty. I’ll get another. Everybody happy with the red?’

‘Let me get it,’ said Brad. ‘I put champagne in the frig for the occasion – a toast to the new neighbors.’

‘We’re sorry to upset you,’ said Persephony after Brad had disappeared inside. She reached over and put her hand briefly on his arm.

‘And I’m sorry for being a little sensitive about it. I don’t want to appear inhospitable. I’d like to welcome you with as much enthusiasm as Brad.’

‘In your own way, you do.’

The champagne proved a circuit breaker. Filled glasses were raised, consumed, and filled again. Paul fetched another bottle. It seemed it was to be Brad’s turn to talk about himself, and he regaled them with stories about his abject enslavement to property dealing. ‘There’s no greater satisfaction I get than from screwing a deal for my clients and me,’ he declared, his enthusiasm and the multiplying drinks making him forget for a moment who his audience was. But the lapse was momentary: ‘Except, of course, for my good friends, then that’s screwing the best deal for them.’

Haydies laughed loudly. ‘We will overlook foot-in-mouth.’

‘No, no, I mean it. I screw the best for my friends.’

‘Give us a break!’ said Paul, happy with the humor now directing the conversation.

The champagne was always a danger for Paul. It usually went straight to his head, loosening his tongue and feelings in a way he regretted later. But, despite an inner warning, the laughter, relaxation, and lightness of head brought on a confession that he would have dared to make only on the rarest occasions.

‘I know Fr. Pleasance.’ He bent forward, flicked open the newspaper lying in front of them, and tapped the hazy photo beside the report. He then leaned back, brought one knee up against the side of the table, and paused to savor the reaction.

‘You mean this pedophile priest? The one in the newspaper report?’

‘Yes. I actually knew him quite well.’

‘Quite well!’

His listeners sat up and talked over each other.

‘It was years ago before my grandparents moved up north. What happened was really the cause of their move.’ He stopped, the delight and satisfaction with their reaction now dissipating. He stared into the almost empty champagne glass. He should stop. Now.

‘Well, go on, go on,’ said Brad, waving his hand at him. ‘I’ve never heard this before.’

Persephony glanced at Haydies and put her glass on the table. Haydies gazed at Paul, his lips moving silently.

‘I was living with them at the time,’ Paul went on after a struggle. ‘My mother had died a few years before. I just couldn’t cope. They knew what I had lost … that angelic face! I was struggling …’ His breast heaved. A tear trickled down his cheek. ‘I shouldn’t have any more.’ He put his glass on the cedar table and pushed it away. ‘I’ll start blubbering like a girl in a minute.’

‘Take your time,’ said Persephony, moving closer. ‘We can imagine the hurt.’

‘It’s my mother … it was about my mother, not that idiot.’ He shook his head and reached for his glass. ‘Fr. Pleasance was the assistant parish priest at my grandparents’ parish church. He was friendly and well-liked. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Nanna and Grandpa. They doted on him, you know, a young, personable priest. And he came to visit often, stayed and had dinner with us. I didn’t go to church. I was baptized a Catholic but rarely saw the inside of a church. I thought it would have been pretty stupid of me to pretend otherwise. Fr. Pleasance understood. There were more important things than rigid doctrine, he said. He kept his promise. Then to my surprise, he took an interest in me. I mean it.’ He stopped. His hand came up to his mouth. Persephony gave him a comforting squeeze. He signaled to Brad to fill his glass. There was a splash of champagne as Brad rushed to satisfy the request. Paul took a big gulp.

‘He helped me to get myself together. For a long time after my mother died, I wandered from job to job – mostly in hospitality … waitering, bar work … things like that. It was a joke. I was a joke. I was pushed into the kitchen … too much bullying and abuse … got sacked in the end. In my deepest moment of despair, Fr. Pleasance sat me down … He brought me to see that dressmaking … I would not have expected that advice from anyone, let alone a priest. He told me how I could develop the skills my mother had taught me. He got a man in the parish to teach me business basics. That’s where it all started. I really have him to thank for my modest little business …’ He held the empty glass up and stared through its smudged sides.

‘Well, what happened then?’ said Brad, filling the glass with more splashes. ‘Come on.’

Paul saw that Haydies and Persephony were sitting on their drinks, Haydies knowingly looking on. He had gone too far.

‘Well, what do you think happened?’ he said helplessly. ‘There was an emptiness in me since my mother had died. Things had happened … disappointments … Fr. Pleasance made me realize that that emptiness needed to be filled. So I started to imagine … you know.’

‘Yuck, how could you, Paul?’ said Brad, picking up the newspaper to examine the grainy photo of the pudgy, balding priest. ‘He looks like an overweight crow.’

Paul stared at Brad. After some uncomfortable moments, he got to his feet, steadying himself against the chair. ‘You … you … I’ll be back in a minute.’

‘Let’s all take a break,’ suggested Persephony, with a glance at Haydies.

Paul could hear whispering behind him as he made his way, swaying, to the workroom where he paused, trying to think where he had put it. He clutched the shelves as he moved along them. At last, he found what he was looking for. He opened the album and flicked through it. He stopped at a page with photos of him with his mother shortly before she underwent chemotherapy. They stood in front of a hibiscus tree in full bloom at his grandparents’ house. The rich red blossoms and her fair hair contrasted with the simple cut of her white cotton dress. He had his arm around her waist. He looked so like her. A tear fell onto the page.

Wiping it away, he flicked on. He came to what he was looking for: two pictures of Fr. Pleasance, one with him in the front garden of his grandparents’ house and one with his grandparents outside the parish church after Sunday Mass, when the priest was still in his white alb. By the time he had collected himself and made his way to the verandah, his three guests were again seated at the cedar table. They stopped talking when he came through the door. As he sat down, he noticed that a glass of water was where his champagne glass had been.

‘Let the man with the champagne tastes have a look at this,’ he said, flopping the album open on the table.

‘Steady on, Paul,’ said Brad, dragging the album closer.

Haydies leaned forward, and Persephony got up and came around behind Brad. She put both hands on his shoulders as she bent forward to look at the photos.

‘Fr. Pleasance was in his thirties at the time. He cut a trim figure. See, the confident expression. He was not what you would call ugly, eh, Brad?’

‘No, he wasn’t,’ said Persephony.

‘But it wasn’t what he looked liked,’ Paul continued, sipping the water. ‘It was the friendship, his compassion …’

‘He hasn’t looked after himself in the meantime,’ said Haydies gravely. ‘Neglect of self is indicative of a self-indulged mind.’

‘Okay, he was not ugly,’ said Brad, closing the album. ‘Big deal. What happened then?’

‘Wait,’ said Persephony, leaning over Brad with her breasts against his head. ‘Let’s see the other photos.’ She flicked the pages of the album back to the beginning and then leafed through until she came to the photos of the priest. ‘There are only a few photos after that of you and your grandparents.’

‘I lost interest in taking photos.’

‘Quite consistent with your state of mind,’ said Haydies.

‘You were a cute kid,’ said Persephony.

‘I was too slight – too timid. The roosters picked on me.’

‘The damage that’s done by the culture …’ said Haydies. ‘You really need time with me.’

‘It wasn’t that bad. My interests weren’t the same as the roosters. Later the girls acted as a sort of barrier.’

‘The girls thought you were cute, too?’

‘Yes, I suppose so.’

‘You didn’t have any girlfriends?’

‘Not really – no one close. I don’t know why?’

‘Of course, we know why?’ said Haydies. ‘Don’t repress it, Paul. Come on …’

‘I think I was too shy and unsure of myself,’ Paul said, finding Haydies looking intently at him.

‘Stop, we’re getting off the subject, aren’t we?’ said Brad, rapping his knuckles on the table.

‘Get me another champagne, and I will continue.’

Brad couldn’t get to the kitchen soon enough. He arrived back breathless with four clean glasses and another bottle. ‘Now get on with it,’ he said when he had filled the glasses.

‘Well, Robbie naturally saw …,’ Paul began wistfully.

‘Robbie?’ said Brad.

‘Yes … Robbie,’ said Paul, waving a hand right in front of Brad’s face. ‘Don’t interrupt while I’m talking.’

‘Part of the tactic,’ commented Haydies.

‘He wasn’t stupid. He was aware of the way my feelings were developing. He … he, in a way, started to … you know.’

‘Paul, Paul, Paul …’

‘Give him a chance, Haydies,’ said Persephony, throwing him a cautioning look.

‘He took it slowly. I was conscious of it all.’ Paul paused, took a long sip of his champagne, and stared into the valley. ‘I liked it. I thought he was, you know … I was, too.’

‘You were really messed up, weren’t you?’

‘You think so?’ said Paul, squinting at Haydies.

‘For crying out loud, get on with it,’ said Brad.

‘There were walks, sometimes picnics,’ Paul went on, raising his glass at Brad. ‘My Nanna got suspicious. Who could blame her? Improper for a priest, she said. I said he was just kind to me, the way he was kind to others. She didn’t swallow that load of rubbish, of course. My grandfather was too appalled … the poor man. To have to deal with that when his beautiful daughter … it wasn’t funny.’

The more his story advanced, the more Paul swayed and slurred. Haydies and Persephony left their drinks untouched and appeared to be observing him. Brad was now leaning back, his lips slightly curled in that stupid manner.

‘Robbie took me one evening to that restaurant on the esplanade at Breakers Head beach, you know, where Brad and I sometimes go.’ Paul stopped, looked down for a few moments, and then stared hard at Brad. ‘You know, Brad, where you and I go. You know …’

‘Come on, you idiot, what happened?’

‘You shuddup!’ Paul’s pointing finger was almost touching Brad’s nose.

‘Get on with it, idiot!’ said Brad, brushing aside the pointing finger.

‘You know, Brad, you know the beach … you know it, don’t you?’ Paul slowly waved his finger in front of Brad.

‘Okay, I know the beach, right, I know it, okay,’ said Brad, ignoring the finger. ‘What happened?’

‘Yeah, you know the beach real well. Romping in the surf … You know how it goes, don’t you?’

‘Will someone get a stick and kill it?’

‘I won’t tell you something you already know?’

‘You stupid bugger! I wouldn’t ask if I already knew.’

‘Brad, go easy,’ Haydies said, glancing at Persephony.

‘Paul’s upset, Brad,’ said Persephony. ‘Give him a chance.’

‘A chance? Huh!’

Paul took another long sip of champagne.

‘You called me a bugger, sir,’ he said, pointing his empty glass at Brad.

‘So? Sir.’

‘So! And when you know what I’m going to say … hypocrite.’

‘Know what? You’re losing it, Paul.’

Paul got up, steadying himself against the table. He took a step towards Brad. ‘But I’m beginning to find it.’ He pointed at Brad.

‘Find what?’

‘This.’ He poked his finger into Brad’s chest.

‘Paul, please sit down,’ Persephony appealed.

‘I’ll sit down now, now you know …’ He turned to Persephony, staggered, lost his balance, and fell, hitting his head against the table on the way to sprawling over the hardwood slats of the verandah floor.

‘Quick, get him up,’ said Persephony.

Brad and Haydies grabbed hold of his arms, helped him to his feet, and then guided him onto the chair.

‘You’re an idiot with the champagne, aren’t you?’ said Brad.

Paul felt the side of his head.

‘It’s all right,’ said Persephony, ‘no broken skin, probably a bruise in the morning. Come on. You’re going to lie down for a while.’

‘He tried to reason with me later,’ said Paul absently.

‘Who?’

‘Robbie.’

‘What did you say?’ said Haydies.

‘I said this.’ Paul lurched forward and gesticulated. ‘Then I told him … to … to … I … never wanted to see him again.’

‘Is that all?’

Paul gaped blurrily at Haydies and Persephony. ‘Yes … no … I remember now. I asked if all priests behaved like that. He said despondently … yes, some … it was despondently … he said he wasn’t much of a priest and hadn’t been for a long time …’

Paul was vaguely aware of being carried by someone on either side of him. Next moment he was lying on his bed. He gave into his stupor, but then he was roused by someone beside him. Now it was dusk, and he could not see who it was.

‘Get lost,’ he moaned, lashing out with his elbow.

There was a grunt followed by hurried footsteps, and then he drifted off. It was dark when he opened his eyes, and he felt vile. He propped himself up on an elbow. The house was silent. The digital clock on his dresser glowed ten o’clock. He fell back onto his pillow. Twenty minutes later, he roused himself and stumbled to the bathroom. After he had showered and gulped down two glasses of water, he picked up his mobile phone.

* * *

BRAD’S BMW was nearing the end of the winding road leading down from the tableland to the densely inhabited plain running along the coast when the mobile phone began tooting.

‘You can’t cope with champagne, can you?’ he said, pushing the button.

‘Where are you?’

‘Just leaving Haydies and Persephony’s.’ He held his hand up with his fingers crossed. ‘Do you want me to come over?’

‘No.’ Paul paused. ‘When did you and the others leave?’

‘A half-hour or so after we put you to bed.’

‘Where have you been all this time?’

‘With the lord of the underworld and his beloved.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘I was rowed across the river Styx where the princess of the underworld brought me to the divine spark while her lord looked on, loudly encouraging and directing the lengthy journey to the deeps of enlightenment.’

‘Whatever are you on about?’

‘Later. Have you been throwing up?’

‘No. It was a bit much of you …’

‘A bit much of me?’

‘Even when I’m dead drunk – and after what happened.’

There was a long silence. ‘I haven’t a clue of what you’re talking about.’

‘Sure.’

‘You’ve been having nightmares, Paul.’

‘Yes, it was a nightmare – a ghastly nightmare.’

‘Get a good sleep, Paul. I’ll call tomorrow …’

‘Not tomorrow. Not the next day.’

‘Relax, Paul.’

Brad tapped the steering wheel and fidgeted as he pulled up at the first set of lights below the tableland. He pressed the speed dial.

‘Simon, I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes.’

A half-hour later, Brad pulled into a parking spot on the esplanade of Breakers Head beach. He took a plastic bag from the glove box and emptied its contents on the console.

‘Come on, Simon,’ he said when they had stripped themselves down to their briefs. ‘Let’s go for a walk along the beach.’

Ten minutes later, thirty-seven-year-old Brad was romping in the surf wash with his eighteen-year-old friend.

End of sample chapters

* * *

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Writer … and still in the fifties