Beyond Salvation – Chapter 3

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– Chapter Three –

Having survived my first day at school following my disgrace I went there the next day feeling a little more confident within myself, although still not exactly feeling as if I were totally ten foot tall and bullet-proof . . . at least not yet.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling at least some nerves, but when all things were considered what could happen to me, really? Maybe they would call me names, which they had done all day yesterday anyhow! Maybe they could rough me up a little, which had been done before as well! I knew that I would survive this. I still had friends who cared about me, I had teachers who were looking out for me and I had family who loved me (even allowing for the fact that at this stage they still knew nothing of my dirty little secret), so my life wasn’t entirely over just yet.

As I approached the school, my bag slung over my shoulder, I was still wary, however, and was keeping a close eye out to see who may already be here that I needed to be careful of. So far there was no sign of Dallas and Timmy or any of their pals, so that was certainly of some relief to me. I was deliberately early, though, not wanting to arrive in the middle of peak hour, when everyone else was arriving, so that if possible I could avoid most of them. There was no point in waving a red flag in front of a bull, I figured

The words from the last email that Dallas sent me were still buzzing around in my mind as I had walked to school. They were pretty definite. I had made my own bed, so now I had to lie in it. When I had thought about it I guess I realised that he was right about that. What is the buzz phrase the people keep going on and on about these days? Something about us all having to take responsibility for our own actions? Yeah, Dallas was right about that all right. I just had to get on with living and try to make the most of it.

When I walked in through the front gates of the school a few heads turned my way, but for the most part I was pretty much ignored, even by some of those who were in the same classes as me. I took that as being a good sign. I headed straight for our home room so that I could dump my backpack in my locker, with the intention of taking my seat in there and simply waiting for the day to start, hoping that I could stay out of the way of everyone for as long as possible. It was either that or hide out someplace, like the library perhaps, then sneak in at the last minute, in which case I would once again become the centre of attention.

No thanks. I think I liked the wallflower idea better.

As I approached our row of lockers, though, that was when the game changed. From a distance I could see a few people standing around looking at something, but it wasn’t until I had gotten closer that I saw what it was that they were looking at. It was my locker, with a single word painted across the front of it in white . . . POOFTER.

Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks and any resolve that I had actually managed to build up overnight immediately vanished, leaving me once again feeling vulnerable and shattered.

The few kids that had been standing around in a small group looking at it soon parted, stepping back and allowing me a clear view and clear access. I looked at their faces but they were all expressionless. There was no sympathy or compassion shown, nor was there any triumph or sense of victory. There was nothing and as they stepped backwards, putting distance between me and my fate, the only emotion being felt anywhere was the pain that was building up inside me and wanting to explode.

As calmly as I could I reached up and unlocked the door, then stuffed my bag inside, before then slamming the door shut with as much force as I could muster. The sound of it echoed throughout the corridor, causing those who were close to jump back, while stopping others in their tracks, making them turn and look at where the noise had come from. I looked up and down the corridor to see what their reactions were, but saw only the same expressionless faces that had been there when I arrived.

At the far end of the corridor there was one face that was not expressionless however, as I saw ‘Hollywood’ Harris stick his head outside the home room where he took roll call. His face wore a ‘What the hell is going on?’ kind of expression, but as soon as he saw me there he came out of the room and started walking toward me.

‘No,’ I thought to myself. ‘I can’t handle this right now.’

With a shake of my head I started backing away from him, before then turning around and starting to run, blindly pushing aside kids that had started to come into the corridor, who until that point had been laughing and joking and were now being confronted by what they could only imagine was a madman.

As I went through the doors at the end of the corridor I glanced back over my shoulder.  ‘ Hollywood ’ had been stopped dead in his tracks and was now looking at my locker, his face showing clear concern.

As I ran out into the morning sunlight it was my turn to be suddenly stopped dead in my tracks when I quite literally ran into Timmy Baker and his two goons, Macca and Thommo.

‘Well, well. What have we here?’ Timmy said. ‘It looks like fag boy has come out to welcome us.’

The goons both laughed.

‘Fuck off,’ I spat at them.

‘Now, that’s no way to talk to your friends,’ he remarked. ‘We would really like to be your friends, you know. I saw how you treat your friends the other day and I think I’d like some of that.’

Suddenly my blood ran cold. This wasn’t a joke any more. I could see by the expression on his face that he was deadly serious.

I took a step backwards, wondering how the hell I was going to get myself out of this jam.

‘Yeah,’ Macca said, taking a step forward. ‘I hear it feels real good.’

That was all I needed to hear, I just turned and ran, wanting to get the hell out of there.

‘Come on!’ I heard Timmy say behind me. ‘Let’s get the poofter!’

‘Yeah. I want my cock sucked!’ Thommo said, laughing out loud as he said it.

I started running along the path which ran alongside the end of the building, heading in the general direction of the front of the school. Glancing back over my shoulder I saw the three of them start after me. If they caught up with me I knew this wasn’t going to be pretty, so I went as hard and as fast as I could go.

When I passed the corner of the building I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye and glanced that way. It was Dallas , arriving for school and heading for the door that I had just come out of. I couldn’t slow down, so I just kept going, hoping like hell that he wouldn’t join in the chase.

I heard the sound of bodies thudding into each other and then Dallas exclaim, ‘What the fuck?’

When I looked back again the four of them were all standing there. Dallas was looking at me, standing there with his hands on his hips, while the others had stopped and were looking like the little school boys they truly were, having been caught with their hands in the cookie jar or something.

I didn’t hang around to see what happened next. I just ran, and ran, and ran, not stopping until I was several blocks away from the school, drawing in great gasps of air. I found I was in a park, leaning against a tree as I tried catching my breath. I looked around me and saw that there was a park bench not far away from me, so I staggered toward it and collapsed onto it leaning forward with my elbows on my knees and head hanging low as I tried to gather my thoughts.

After I had caught my breath and my heart rate returned to something that was close to normal, I sat back and started to look around me. I knew the park well. I knew that it was a hangout for gay guys wanting sex, but that was usually at night. I had been here a few times in the early evenings, curious as to what went on, and had seen guys sneaking about the bushes, checking each other out, sometimes going off together. I hadn’t ever been that curious that I wanted to get involved or actually do anything here, but I understood what went on and figured that maybe one day I would be adventurous enough to give it a try. One day.

Today the only other people around were a couple of city council workers who were mowing the lawns and tending the gardens. They never even bothered to look my way.

It was a few minutes later when I felt a shadow fall across me. I hadn’t heard anyone approach and looked up in surprise to see Dallas standing there looking down at me.

‘What do you want?’ I asked him.

‘Are you okay?’ he replied. ‘You look like you’ve been crying.’

‘Do you even care?’

‘I’m not your enemy, JJ,’ he said flatly, helping himself to a spot on the bench beside me.

‘You’ve sure got a funny way of showing it.’

‘I’m here, aren’t I?’

I looked up at him, suddenly feeling confused. Those old feelings were being stirred up again inside me, though I knew that I couldn’t go there. No matter what I had once felt, or wished for, that was in the past.

‘Yeah, well, I guess you are at that.’

The silence between us stretched out for a couple of minutes.

‘What I said in the email last night . . .,’ he eventually said. ‘I meant it. I don’t want to see you get hurt; after all, we were friends once. But you and I are different. We don’t move in the same circles any more . . .,’

‘No, you saw to that!’

He looked at me and blinked. That had cut him, I thought.

‘Yeah, I guess I did. You know what the pack is like . . . guilt by association and all that. I can’t be seen to be like . . .’

‘Like me,’ I finished it for him.

‘Yeah, I guess that’s it. I’ve never said anything to anyone about what happened between us, but if anyone else had ever found out about you and I was still your buddy, then I would have been toast!’

‘You’re full of shit Dallas . Do you know that?’

He nodded silently. ‘Yeah, I do,’ he replied. ‘I’m sorry.’

What? Did he just admit to being human? Well, fuck me sideways!

The silence stretched out into minutes once more.

‘I’ve told them to lay off you. I told them to give you a break or they would answer to me,’ he finally said.

‘You what? Why would you do that?’

‘Because you don’t deserve this shit. You might have gone a bit weird with the way you dress and carry on and what ever, but like I said, we were friends once. You probably don’t realise it, but I’ve always regretted what happened between us, but I’ve always tried to make sure you didn’t cop too much crap from anyone. It’s too late now, though, for us to be best friends again or anything like that, but just so you know, I’m not the one who has been putting crap on you, all right?’

‘Thank you,’ I said to him after thinking on it for a few moments. ‘That’s something at least. Ever since that night when we busted up, I’ve always thought you were a real prick. I’ll have to take back some of the things I’ve said about you now.’

A slight smile danced across his lips.

‘I probably deserved every word,’ he said.

‘Not every word . . . but most of them,’ I replied.

‘Truce, then?’ he asked, holding out a hand toward me.

I looked down at it and then reached out and took his hand in mine, then we shook on it.

‘Truce,’ I said, while not wanting to let him go.

‘Want a lift back to school? I told them all that ‘ Hollywood ’ made me come and find you, so they won’t be surprised if I show up with you. He’s making Timmy and the boys clean the paint off your locker. They reckon it wasn’t them that did it, but he’s making them do it anyhow.’

I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of the three of them scrubbing paint off my locker.

‘He was pretty pissed about what happened this morning. I think he might be on your side.’

‘My side? What do you mean?’

‘You’re a smart kid. You figure it out. Now how about we get back to school before they send a real search party out looking for us?’

I was pretty sure I knew what he meant, but I wasn’t going to betray the confidence that ‘ Hollywood ’ had placed in me. It was part of the unwritten code that I was just beginning to find out all about.

Dallas stood up and put his hand out for me. I took it and allowed him to pull me to my feet, then in silence we walked to his car, both of us deep in thought.

‘You feel like a coffee?’ he asked when we pulled out onto the road. ‘I could sure do with one.’

‘I don’t have any money on me,’ I replied.

‘That’s okay. My treat this time. You can shout me next time,’ he replied.

‘Next time?’

‘Well, you just never know. Let’s go through the Maccas drive through.’

*     *     *     *     *

On the way back to school we talked some more. This was the most that we had said to each other in about five or six years. 

Despite my earlier telling him that he was full of shit we came to an understanding that while we wouldn’t go out of each other’s way to be friendly, and we might even ignore each other if we ran into each other at school, neither of us would think any worse of the other for doing so. It was our truce. It might not be much, but it was better than before. It would have to be.

When we arrived back at school it was at the end of the first lesson so we went and found ‘ Hollywood ’ in his office. He looked up at us in surprise.

‘I see you found the runaway,’ he said to Dallas .

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Did he give you any trouble?’

‘No, sir,’ Dallas replied with a grin. ‘He came peacefully.’

Even I had to laugh.

‘Thanks Dallas . You had best head off to your classes now.’

‘Okay,’ he said to ‘ Hollywood ’, then turning to me he added, ‘Guess I’ll see you round then?’

‘I guess you will.’

He left us and ‘Hollywood’ pointed to the spare seat in front of his desk, which I sat down on as he went and closed the door behind Dallas .

‘Are you okay?’ he asked me as he perched himself on the corner of the desk right in front of me.

‘Yeah, I think so, for now at least,’ I replied.

‘So, do you want to tell me what happened this morning?’

I shrugged. ‘When I got here this morning I was actually in a good mood. I mean, I had thought about things last night and I was kind of at peace with myself . . . I could handle being called names, or even being roughed up a bit . . . it has all happened before . . . but when I saw my locker I just . . . I guess I just freaked out. That’s when I bolted.’

‘I see. And what happened outside?’

‘When I ran into Timmy and his pals? They just decided to have a bit of fun, I think. I decided I needed to get as far the fuck away as I could, that’s when Dallas showed up, but I just kept on running.’

‘Yes, I’ve spoken to Timmy and his mates. I think things should settle down for you a bit now as far as they are concerned. And your locker should be clean by now as well.’

I nodded and said, ‘Thank you.’

‘And what about Dallas ? Was he in on any of this? Your friends, Meredith and Pete, tell me he has given you a hard time in the past.’

‘Shit,’ I thought.

‘No, he and I are pretty cool now. He hasn’t done anything to me, at least not in the last twenty-four hours. We were friends years ago before we busted up. He has been a bit of a jerk toward me at times, but we’ve come to a bit of a . . . errr . . . truce. We may not be best buddies any more, but he won’t give me any grief. At least I don’t think he will.’

‘All right then, that’s good,’ he said. ‘And what about you? How are you coping with, or dealing with . . . well, everything? You said you were at peace with yourself, so I’m guessing that you’ve come to terms with who you are?’

I simply nodded and said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’

‘And do your parents know what is going on with your personal life?’

I looked up at him in horror and simply shook my head. Just the thought of it made my cheeks start to burn.

‘Okay. Your secret is safe with me then. But at some stage you know that you will need to talk to them about it, don’t you?’

‘I . . . I guess so, but I think I’ll just cross that bridge when I get to it,’ I replied.

‘That sounds like a plan. All right then, it’s probably time you went and found yourself a class to go to now. If your teachers say anything just tell them that you’ve been with me.’

I got up and put out my hand toward him. He shook it and I said, ‘Than you, sir. I appreciate your help.’

‘You’re most welcome, JJ. I’m here for you anytime you feel like you need for someone to talk to.’

With a nod I left him and started making my way back to my locker. I needed to grab my books and check my timetable to see where I should be at for this class. When I reached the locker I found it sparklingly clean. It was even brighter and cleaner than all the other lockers around it.

‘Great,’ I thought. ‘Now the fag has the shiniest locker. I guess that figures!’

When I checked my timetable I saw that it was math, with grumpy old Brother Bernard. He’ll probably be in a right old mood seeing as I had ditched his class yesterday. Just what I needed. Grabbing the books I required, I shut the locker and headed off in the direction of that class room, arriving there a few minutes later.

I was late for class, of course, and received a stern glare as I knocked and entered the room.

‘Well, good morning Mr. Jackson. So good of you to join us,’ he remarked.

‘Sorry I’m late Brother Bernard. I’ve been helping Mr. Harris,’ I said to him. There was a bit of a murmur around the class room when I said that, along with a few giggles.

‘Well, I’ll just have to talk to Mr. Harris about that later then, won’t I? Were you helping him yesterday as well when you missed my class altogether? All right then, take a seat so we can get on with things.’

I looked around the room and saw Merry, with my usual seat beside her vacant.

‘What happened this morning, and where the hell have you been?’ she whispered as I sat down alongside her.

‘I’ll tell you later,’ I replied.

Neither Pete or Dallas was in this maths class, so there were very few students in here who had given me any grief in the past twenty-four hours and for the most part I was able to concentrate on the job at hand.

At the end of that lesson we joined up with Pete on the way to the next class, so I filled them in as we went.

They of course already knew about the locker, but they didn’t know what had happened afterwards. I didn’t tell them everything that Dallas and I spoken about, but they got the general idea that there was a truce in place between us.

‘I just can’t figure you two out,’ Merry said. I just gave her a wink.

The rest of the day and the rest of the week passed without any further incidents and things pretty much returned to normal.

I avoided Timmy and company wherever possible, but there was no mistaking the venom that was in their stares as I would pass them by. Dallas was cool toward me, as I had expected, but at least he would talk to me. There were no deep and meaningful conversations of course, but he would at least say hello if we met, which was a vast improvement over recent years.

The two weeks flew by without incident, and by the time the trip to Salvation came around I think the status quo had been well and truly restored. I still had some reservations about going away on a trip with the likes of Timmy and company, but I figured that Dallas would be there to help keep an eye on them, even if only as a last resort.

*     *     *     *     *

A seven o’clock drop-off at school was not how I ever liked starting my day, but that was what was decreed by the powers-that-be for those of us from our year who were going on the trip to Salvation, which was about two-thirds of our year, being all those doing both science and history.

To be there by seven had meant a much earlier start than usual – hell, I was rarely out of bed by seven on most mornings – so I was still barely functioning by the time I was dropped at school and my gear was unloaded from the car. I think it was only the detour through McDonalds for a large coffee and McMuffin that gave me any fuel at all.

‘Now, you make sure you have a good time,’ my mother said to me as we stood on the sidewalk surrounded by students doing pretty much the same. ‘And be sure to behave yourself. Ring us if there are any problems,’ she added after a short pause.

‘Yes, mum,’ I replied. I felt sure that she had no idea of what had been going on these past few weeks, but just the way she said it I couldn’t help but wonder. It sent a chill down my spine. Surely nothing could have gotten back to her about my . . . errrr . . . exploits . . . could it?

‘Just be careful, JJ,’ she said to me.

‘I will,’ I promised, while wondering how I was going to be able to be anything but careful. I wasn’t exactly sure if there was supposed to be some kind of double meaning behind what she had said, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to get laid between now and when we returned tomorrow evening. I had to admit though that I was just a little concerned about what some of the others in my year might be thinking . . . or planning.

I leant down and gave her a kiss on the cheek, then reached down to pick up my things, an overnight bag with a change of clothes and personal items, a sleeping bag and my school bag, before then taking them over to the nearest of the two buses which were waiting patiently with their bowels open to the world in readiness for being filled with all our belongings.

By the time I had packed my bags away and my mother was ready to leave, a steady stream of my classmates had begun arriving. There was still no sign of Merry or Pete as yet, but I knew they wouldn’t be too far away, as the buses were due to pull out at seven-thirty, which was less than twenty minutes away now.

I waved my mother farewell and watched as she drove away, then went and perched myself on the low brick wall which ran along the front of the school. A few of the students said hello to me as they passed by, but for the most part I was being ignored, which suited me just fine.

It wasn’t long before Pete arrived and after saying goodbye to his dad he came over and perched himself on the fence beside me, dropping his bags in front of us.

‘Are we supposed to be excited by this trip?’ he asked me as he sat down. ‘Because if we are then I think I’ve missed the boat, or got on the wrong boat, or something!’

‘Me too,’ I laughed. ‘I’m not looking forward to this one little bit.’

‘At least things have settled down a bit for you now though.’

‘Yeah, they have, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve forgotten about it, or that they don’t have something planned.’

He looked at me, suddenly wide eyed.

‘Surely they wouldn’t be that stupid?’

‘Who knows,’ I said, with a shrug of my shoulders. Glancing up at him I noticed him staring past me, looking into the distance someplace. I thought I detected something of a glint in his eye, so I turned to see what he was looking at.

It wasn’t hard to figure out what it was that had caught his attention, as I saw Merry was walking up the footpath toward us.

‘You sly dog,’ I said to him, while giving him an elbow in the ribs.

‘What?’ he replied, somewhat sheepishly.

‘You’ve got it bad for Merry!’ I teased.

‘What?’ he said once more.

‘You heard me!’

‘Fuck . . . I . . . I don’t know what I’ve got, or for who, at the moment. I’m just so fucking confused.’

‘Ha. Mate, you’re seventeen,’ I said, as I placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘You’re supposed to be confused.’

‘You’re not!’ he snapped back at me.

‘Ahhh . . . much to learn, you still have, Young Skywalker,’ I replied.

For a moment he just looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face, but then he smiled at me. It definitely wasn’t difficult to like him and the boyish, almost naive, charm that he seemed to exude. I reckoned that it would be quite easy to fall for a guy like him if I wasn’t careful, but then again, being the whore that I was, the chances of him falling for someone like me would be next to zero anyhow. And besides, as much as I had been trying to convince myself otherwise, there was someone else that I still had feelings for, not that he would ever recognise that.

Just then Merry joined us, all chirpy and cheerful, which at this hour of the morning only seemed to make me nauseous.

‘Isn’t this exciting?’ she said to us.

Pete and I just looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

‘You’ve certainly had a change of heart,’ I said to her. ‘Last week you were thinking about ditching this trip.’

‘That was then. This is now,’ she replied.

It was Monday. Exactly two weeks to the day since I had become the talk of the school. I can assure you that there was no way that I was thinking that way.

‘Whatever you’re on I think you need to cut it out of your diet!’

‘Bitch!’ she spat back at me.

‘Moi?’ I replied, laughing and flicking back my hair in prima-donna fashion as I did so.

Just then Mr. Spillsbury, our science teacher, called out for us all to start bringing our luggage to the buses so that it could be stowed away and we could get underway.

‘Come on, let’s get in early so we can get a decent seat. I’ve already got my gear in the second bus,’ I said to my travelling companions. The three of us jumped up. They picked up their gear and we headed for the nearest bus, where they handed it to the driver and watched as he stowed it all away.

We weren’t the first people on board, but thankfully those that had beaten us to that honour had gone right down to the back of the bus to sit, leaving all the front seats vacant.

I slid into the aisle seat directly behind the driver, while Merry and Pete took the two front seats on the opposite side of the centre aisle, right beside the door.

Looking out the window I saw ‘Hollywood’ Harris had also arrived and was walking up and down organising students and helping them get squared away. For a moment I wondered what he was doing here, but then I remembered that he was the home room teacher for one of the classes in our year. It would be good if he was coming too, I thought, but didn’t really think that he would be, given that he was also the sports master and that would probably take priority.

As he walked past our door I noticed him looking into our bus. He seemed to notice me sitting there and gave me a brief nod, then continued walking.

As most people piled into the bus I tried to keep my head down, not wanting to attract too much attention, even despite where I was sitting, although I could still feel their eyes burning into me and hear a few of the snide comments made as they filed past me. By now I was becoming oblivious to most of the crap that people were sprouting, though sometimes something would be said that could cut to the core.

It didn’t take long for everyone to get loaded up and ready to go, then once the bus drivers had closed the cargo area they climbed up into the buses and stepped into their seats, before starting the engines to allow them time to warm up before we pulled out.

The teachers who seemed as if they were accompanying us climbed on board also and I was relieved to see ‘ Hollywood ‘ climb up into our bus, along with Mrs. Bird.

The two of them stood at the front and started calling off a roll of students’ names who should be present, then when finished Mrs. Bird took the list off to the second bus, presumably so that they could do a roll call for those students as well.

While she was away ‘Hollywood’ read us the riot act about how we were to behave on the trip, receiving some good natured heckling for his efforts, then when he was finished, by which time Mrs. Bird had returned, he slipped in beside me and took the vacant window seat next to me, much to my delight, while Mrs. Bird found a seat half way down the bus with a girl named Kerrie Henderson.

That appeared to be the cue for our little convoy to head out, as no sooner were the teachers seated than we were pulling out onto the road, with our destination being a little place called Salvation, a place no one seemed to have ever heard of.

*     *     *     *     *

‘So, how are things with you?’ ‘ Hollywood ‘ asked me quietly almost as soon as we were clear of the school. 

‘Ohhh, about as well as can be expected, I guess,’ I replied. ‘I’ve made it this far at least.’

He flashed me a quick grin and at the same time gave my arm a quick squeeze, which was something that apparently didn’t go unnoticed by Pete in the opposite seat, judging by his wide eyed stare when I glanced at him just seconds later. He also held up his arms and gave me a shrug as he did so, as if to ask me what the fuck was going on? I winked at him and mouthed the word ‘Later’ for him.

‘ Hollywood ‘ and I chatted freely on the way out to Salvation about all sorts of things. He was quite easy to talk to and while I hadn’t really had a lot to do with him at school, apart from our couple of meetings, and seeing as I only had him for one sports session a week (and I’m not much of an athlete at the best of times) we seemed to really hit it off.

A couple of times I found myself thinking thoughts that were far from pure, especially considering I was supposed to be a good little Catholic boy, and I had to check myself from becoming too familiar with him.

When our legs brushed up against each other neither of us did anything about moving them away, which also got me wondering, but my better judgement eventually won out and I shifted away from him slightly, not wanting to give off any signals that I shouldn’t be. I was having a difficult enough time negotiating the minefield of teenage angst and sex as it was, let alone throwing some daydreams in about seeing teachers naked and stuff! No, sirree . . . I didn’t want to go there! Although I think that my cock did!

All the same, though, I was certainly glad to have him near me. His presence on this trip was something of a reassurance.

The miles flew by, I guess in part because of the fact we were all chatting and laughing and carrying on. I looked across at Pete and Merry a few times and noticed them chatting away happily, though every now and then I would spot Pete looking my way.

It wasn’t long before we felt the bus slow and turn off onto another road, a narrower road that was all dirt.

‘Welcome to Hicksville ,’ someone behind us called out, which brought a round of laughter. I managed to glance at ‘ Hollywood ’s’ wrist watch and saw that we had been travelling for just on one hour. That meant we were about half way there, although judging by the road that we were now bumping along I figured the second half of the trip would be slower than the first part. Had they factored that into the equation, I wondered.

We crossed several creeks and for a time seemed to be driving along a high, densely timbered ridge, with the mountain dropping away steeply on either side of us. Eventually we slowed and went around a sharp bend, which signalled the start of our zig-zag descent down the side of the mountain.

When we were close to the bottom the road seemed to flatten out and we noticed that we were following a rather wide and fast-flowing river downstream. The country was spectacular, with thick forests of trees, lush grass growing down to the river’s edge and the river itself having stretches of deep blue water, interspersed with shallower stretches tumbling over rocky outcrops and creating spectacular rapids.

For many of us this was the very first time we had ever seen country like this and it was a real eye opener. We were in awe of the scenery.

The further we went the more rugged the scenery seemed to become and I noticed that the river had narrowed and become much faster travelling. Once more we slowed and turned off the road we were on. We came to a rather large sign that read ‘ Camp MacArthur ‘ and passed through a heavy timber fence gateway, complete with a rail across the top, like you would see in those old cowboy movies. The gateway must have been huge to allow the buses to drive through it cleanly. The only thing that I thought it could be missing was a sun-bleached Longhorn skull right in the middle, with huge horns reaching out either side, welcoming weary travellers.

I wondered idly if there were any cattle or wildlife in these parts that we would get to see?

After about another fifteen minutes of driving we topped a rise to see an impressive valley spread out before us, with acres of sun-browned grasses leading down to another river; which I was fairly sure wasn’t the same one that we had been driving past earlier.

Near the bottom of the valley, but set on a low hill, presumably to keep out of reach of the water in case of floods, there stood a group of old buildings, their timbers long since turned grey by the many years of summers they looked to have seen. Beyond them, however, set upstream and on another low hill, we could see a number of railway carriages and some other buildings, backed by more dense forest.

We stopped at a fork in the road, where two roads led away from us, snaking off to the two separate lots of buildings. Mrs. Bird came up to the front of the bus and spoke briefly with the driver, asking him to take the right fork first, which would lead us down toward the clump of old buildings.

As we coasted down the hills toward them we could see that they were in various states of disrepair and as we reached the two rows of buildings and started driving between them we could easily make out things like a door missing here or there, or numerous broken windows, a shop sign hanging in the breeze, attached on just one side, or an awning having partially collapsed.

The bus crept forward and Mrs. Bird started giving us a running commentary, telling us how, at the peak of the mining boom around one hundred and thirty years ago, there were once close to twenty thousand people living in this valley, mostly in canvas tents which would have covered the hillsides, leaving not a single blade of grass visible. And how the nearby river banks would have been covered with eager miners all trying to eke out an existence searching for the elusive golden metal they hoped would make them rich, though it seldom did.

To me it was like driving through the set of one of those Kevin Costner cowboy movies and any second now I was half expecting some cowboys to come racing around a corner with guns blazing, or perhaps Kevin Costner himself to appear in the middle of the street, looking dusty and trail weary, with his hat pulled down low and his Winchester draped over one arm, beckoning us to stop.

As we continued on our way a sudden gust of wind seemed to blow through the centre of the old town, like a mini-tornado whirling around and around, picking up dust, spinning and spinning, only to blow itself out and disappear, just as suddenly as it had appeared. Sheets of tin on roofs and signs hanging from the front of buildings all rattled and swung in the air briefly, before everything fell still once more. It was quite an eerie feeling.

Once we were past the last of the buildings the bus started to accelerate once more, heading now up the next hill toward where the railway carriage camp site was set up.

After seeing the road on which we had come into this valley I found it difficult to imagine how they would have managed to get the carriages into such a remote location. All I could think was that it must have been a difficult exercise, but whoever was behind it all did very well in putting it all together, as when we pulled up in the parking area near the carriages and started to disembark we were pleasantly surprised with what we found.

We were met by two people from the National Parks who welcomed us and showed us through the first building, which proved to be an extra large log cabin style building at the front of the facility, containing the kitchen, mess hall and bathroom amenities. We were then taken out through the big sliding doors on the far side of the dining room, which we soon found opened out into a garden area, complete with swimming pool, and surrounded by a ring of five old style timber railway carriages, all painted in traditional red and cream colours. Yes, I know it sounds like a cliche, but hey, that’s just how it is!

‘Now, everyone gather round please and we will assign you your carriages so you can all get your gear stowed away before we start the guided tour,’ Mrs. Bird said to us all.

*     *     *     *     *

The good news was that we got to pick our roomies, so when we entered the carriage we were directed to and made our way down the long corridor Pete and I settled on the room at the far end of the carriage. When we opened the sliding door we took one look inside then looked at each other.

‘Oh nice . . . how cosy!’ Pete said to me.

‘That’s one way of describing it,’ I replied.

We were looking at a room that would have measured no more than about seven feet square, with two fold down bunks on one wall, a low bench-top over some cupboards and a place to hang some clothes along the other wall, with a gap of about two feet between them all.

The walls were timber panelling painted a creamy colour and in the middle of the far wall there was a window, which gave a view of the distant river.

‘Well, at least there are two beds. That has to be a plus,’ Pete added.

We looked at them and I pressed down on one of the mattresses. It was decidedly thin.

‘Sooooo . . . are you a top or a bottom kind of guy?’ I cheekily asked him.

‘Oh, definitely a top,’ he answered with a grin.

‘Hmmm . . . it’s always the quiet ones you need to watch out for. I’ll have to keep that in mind then,’ I said, while throwing my bags onto the bottom bunk.

Pete threw me a sidelong glance then tossed his bags up top and pressed down on the mattress as well.

‘Looks like it’s going to be a hard night then.’

It was now my turn to throw him a sidelong glance.

‘What? Do you think I’m that naive? Or that pure and virginal?’ he asked.

‘Like I said . . . it’s always the quiet ones,’ I replied, giving him a wink as I did so.

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