Damian lived in one of the eastern suburbs, Essendon. He owned a lovely turn-of-the-century (the last century) house, all solid brick and ceiling rosettes, with a tall palm tree in the garden, and a verandah swathed in hundred-year old bougainvillea, clematis, honeysuckle and climbing roses. He’d inherited it and some money from an aunt, whom Damian had made a point of visiting often when he was young, not out of any hope of inheriting money (he had no idea what the house was worth, or that she was a demon in the stock-market), but because he was fond of her, her house was on the way home from school, and because she made scrummy scones and cakes. So it was mercenary, though not in any obvious way.
Her house wasn’t on the way home for me, but I often went to see her too. She talked about interesting things, and treated us as if we were grown ups, with opinions that mattered. She was a lot like grandpa, though she was a good fifteen or twenty years younger. When she died suddenly of a heart attack, shortly after grandpa did, it seemed so unfair, that someone so worthwhile and fun and mischievous should be taken like that. Damian always used to quarrel with his father, and after the last quarrel, at his aunt’s wake (his dad said it was unfair that Damian had inherited the aunt’s money), he simply moved out of home into his aunt’s house. He used to say that her spirit was in the place, and he liked it there. He lived there alone until Sonya. Sonya always had her eye on the main chance, and when she learnt that Damo had an inheritance and a house she suddenly turned into a clinging, smooth-as-silk vamp. Damian had no hope of escaping her attentions. We men always think with our . . . . . . . . . well not our minds, anyway. I was expecting the wedding announcement at any moment.
Sonya didn’t like me (which was scarcely surprising), and I detested her, though I was careful not to show it. I valued Damo’s friendship too much to let a mere chit come between us. All the same, I hoped she wasn’t there. She wasn’t, thank heavens – she’d gone to Highpoint shopping centre (‘The Biggest Shopping Centre in the Southern Hemisphere’) for some retail therapy. She was very partial to retail therapy. It was part of what made me dislike her – I was poor, and she was rich (relatively speaking) because she lived rent-free with Damian (“but Damie, you have no mortgage”) and she never paid for her share of food or phone bill (“but Damie, I haven’t seen Janine since last week, and I miss her, the little possum.” Never mind that Janine was frigging well in New York, and the phone call lasted three hours.)
I had to concede, when I was sober and in a reasonable mood, that Damo and I did sometimes give her cause for anger. We went out and got pissed. Well, and maybe smoked a bit of weed. Yes, folks, that’s it! My depravity was unredeemed by any saving grace. The problem was that she always blamed me when we got into trouble, even though Damo was definitely my equal partner in crime. Needless to say, she couldn’t blame Damo, not until she’d married him and got her hands on his money.
Anyway, he was there alone, and looked pleased to see me when he opened the door. We’d been friends since grade five, and best friends for as long as I could remember. He never greeted me when he saw me – he had a pet hate of “how are you?”, because he reckoned no one really cares. When they ask you this, they don’t want to know that your piles are agony, that your ingrowing toenail is turning septic, and that you have terminal cancer. This ritual greeting contains less meaning than the hideous squawk of a cockatoo. So he said hallo in his usual way, with a slight rise in his right eyebrow. If he didn’t know you, he might condescend to a ‘g’day’. He might.
“Damo, this is Til.” He’d been looking at me, and then he turned his eyes towards Tiltheus. I saw him take in the rings, the good looks, the leather pants and the boots and then he turned back to me, the eyebrow a little higher. But his manners were good, and he said, “G’day, Til.” He was used to my disreputable friends. Lately, there hadn’t been many.
“G’day” replied Til, his face open and friendly. I’d told him a bit about who Damian was, without going overboard (I’m a bloke, after all) but he’d sensed that Damo was important to me, and was clearly ready to like anyone who was my friend.
Damo held open the door, and swept his left arm back inviting us to come in.
He didn’t speak again until he’d opened three cans of VB, cold this time, and we were sitting sprawled on his sofas.
“Damo, can I leave Graziella here? I’ve got to go away for a bit, and I don’t want to leave her in the street outside the house.”
“You’ve got to go away for a bit?” When people first met Damian, they made the mistake of thinking he was stupid, because he often repeated what you’d just said to him. But it was a technique he’d developed to give him time to think. It irritated me no end. I’d found that the best way to deal with it was to be as laconic as possible, and to ignore the repeated words.
“Yeah.” I said. He waited for me to say more. I waited for him.
“Where?” he said, at last. It had been too much to hope for that he would let me get away without telling him.
“Well,” I said, “it’s like this.” And I told him about the cupboard, and the world and rescuing Tiltheus, and he cast another glance at the elf. I didn’t tell him about Dr Wang, or about me being a wizard-bard, or about what I might or might not be feeling for Tiltheus.
“No shit,” was Damo’s only comment, his voice so dry it could start bush fires. He didn’t want to believe me, but he could see Til’s ears for himself, and also the way he was dressed, and his subtle alienness.
“OK.” He said, “So what’s happening now?”
“I’m going back to Til’s world to help him in his task.”
Funny, I didn’t have too clear an idea myself. I turned to Tiltheus.
“I have to take . . . . . . something . . . . . to the Queen, and there are many enemies and dangers. Steve will help me.”
“How come you can speak English?’ asked Damo.
I sighed. “It’s part of the magic. God, Damo, you can ask a lot of questions about a simple request. All I want to do is leave Graziella at the back of your garage, next to your bike.”
He ignored my comments as usual. “So what can you do that’s so special,” he asked me, his eyes dark with suspicion.
I was getting embarrassed as well as pissed off. Damo had always been the practical one of our friendship. He was the one who made sure he had money, who always brought condoms on our dates, who had the supplies of VB, who had his own house and enough money, who had a good job, interesting and well paid.
“OK,” I said, letting my irritation show – “I buy a cupboard which has a doorway into another world, and I find someone on the other side, and then Dr Wang turns up. . . . . . . . . .”
“. . . . . . . Who’s Dr Wang?”
I sighed again. I should have known that there was no way I was going to get away with an abbreviated story. Damo was a top bloke, and he would help me through thick and thin, and support me, but he had to know everything. I explained all over again, this time leaving nothing out.
“Just as well I’m takin’ a week’s leave, then, isn’t it? So I can come with you to make sure you don’t get into trouble.”
I just goggled at him. I had never even entertained a moment’s thought that he would be interested in coming with us. “Well,” I said, grasping for things to say, “it’ll be dangerous.”
“You’re goin’,” he said quietly. Damo might not be demonstrative or touchy-feely, but he was my best friend.
“What’ll Sonya say?” I asked, knowing quite well.
“She’ll be right. It’s only for a week.” His tone said – she’ll just have to lump it. I was careful not to show my jubilation.
I doubt that! I thought to myself, knowing that Sonya’d blame me for Damo’s involvement, and think we were just going off on a piss-up.
“I’d better meet this Dr Wang bloke,” he said.
“We’re meeting him this evening, because we’re going to talk to two guys who are supposed to be helping with the funding for the trip.”
“We need gold and silver coins from Rhistên. Show Damo your coins, Til.”
Damian inspected them with interest. These seemed to convince him better than Tiltheus’s ears, the fact that his eyes changed colour all the time, and the fact that I believed the whole story. But then, I was the loser, and he was the success. I wasn’t bitter about it. Well, I don’t think I was.
“Let’s have another beer, and then we can set off to meet this famous wizard and the idiots who are going to fund this madness.” Despite what he said, I could hear that he truly believed that there was another world, and that Til came from there and that we were going to go there. There was even an undercurrent of excitement in his phlegmatic voice. When we were teenagers, we’d shared SF and fantasy books, devouring everything we could lay our hands on, and haunting second-hand bookshops and op-shops to see what gems we could find. I think that made it harder, not easier, for Damo to believe the story, strangely enough. I suspected that meeting Ken might change all that.
So we enjoyed our beer, talked about the beginning of the footy season (he barracked for Collingwood, despite living in Essendon. Typical). I put Graziella at the back of the garage next to Damo’s Honda, and chained her up so that no one would dream of trying to steal her. I loved that girl.
“I love you baby,” I whispered, and almost felt a brush in my mind, ‘Love you too, Stevie-babe’. I stroked the seat and gave her a pat. I turned round and Damo was looking at me, one eyebrow raised. He had a bike, a Honda 929 cc Fireblade, which was flash and beautiful, but not a patch on Graziella (I thought).
“She’s just a machine,” he said, dryly.
“Then why did you call her ‘she’?” I asked, triumphantly.
He made a face.
“She’s the only beautiful thing I have,” I said.
“What about him?” he jerked his head at Tiltheus, waiting patiently next to the ute.
I could feel myself colouring furiously. “What about him?” I said, my tone a warning.
“Where’s he sleepin’?”
“In the bed!” I was defiant, and deeply embarrassed. That Damo, reserved, reticent Damian O’Malley, a nice Catholic boy who hadn’t been molested by his priest, should even insinuate that I, Steven Witherspoon, straight as a plumber’s rule, should be sleeping with a male alien elf was . . . . . . Well, I was sleeping with him. But sleeping, not, you know . . . . . “Damian O’Malley, there was nowhere else, the sofa’s too bloody small and the bed was the only place.”
“He’s as queer as rocking horse droppings, you know that.”
“You think anybody sensitive is gay, you dill. Haven’t you heard of snags?”
“Sausages?” He was completely mystified.
“Sensitive New Age Guys. Guys who are not like you.” I was beginning to grin at him. “You know – intelligent, with taste, perception, good manners, culture, and exotic underwear. Also, they tend to be handsome, not with a face like the back of a bus.”
Damo suddenly grinned, too. “I.e., gay! OK, he may be a sausage, but I think I’d better come with you to this strange world, just in case.”
I gave him a punch on his shoulder. Jeez, I loved that guy. We went and got into the ute. Tiltheus sat in the middle, and as we drove towards my house, I could feel his legs moving subtly against mine, with small movements of his muscles as Damo cornered. It wasn’t even mildly erotic, though it was, well, intimate. Of course, he would then go and put his arm across the back of my shoulders. I could feel Damo stiffen, but I almost burst out laughing when Til put his other arm across the back of Damo’s shoulders. Damo pretended nothing was happening.
When we got to my house, Damo got out and gave himself a little shake. I knew exactly what he was thinking – must get these gay cooties off me. It made me want to laugh, and I realised that I’d come a long way in the last two days. I took them upstairs, and opened the cupboard door and showed Damo the room beyond. He stepped through the invisible membrane between the worlds, and stood on the rock-hard clay floor. I stopped him opening the door, because I wanted to do that again only when I had lots of backup. OK, so Damo was a martial arts expert (a fifth or sixth dan in Shodo-Kan who had even been to Korea as part of his training), but the kribo-thingies seemed to be big and powerful and hostile, not to mention partial to a bit of human flesh. I wanted the good Dr Wang beside me and maybe a firearm or two before I went through, or opened the doorway to allow anybody or anything through here.
Damo did what I did when I’d first encountered the cupboard. He went round the back, inspected the back minutely, and then went round the front again. His expression of angry disbelief was hilarious, especially to me, who’d done all the same things.
“OK. I believe you.”
“Thank you,” I said, deeply sarcastic. “It’s lovely to know that my best friend, who I’ve known since I was in grade five, trusts me implicitly. It gives me a really warm feeling inside.” I enjoyed needling him.
“Oh shut up!” Damo was annoyed at being wrong. Tiltheus was lying on the bed, grinning at us, enjoying the repartee. Suddenly, I liked him very much.
“Tell us a bit more about your world, and what your task is,” I asked.
Just then, conveniently, the doctor materialised at the door, making us all jump.
“I wish, my good doctor, that you wouldn’t show off like that!” I said, sharply, shaken.
“Do call me ‘Ken’,” he said mockingly. “Would you like me to materialize on the street, where everyone can see?”
“What about the cupboard.”
“I’d bang my head.” He would. He was tall.
“Clumsy,” I said laconically. He glared at me. I turned back to Tiltheus. “You were saying . . . . . .” I said, pointedly.
“OK.” (Tiltheus was still revelling in this word. Why had I ever told him about its Greek origins?) “Most beings in my world are followers of the light. We have people like me, whom I know you call elves, and men, like you, not to mention the chauroi and methions, and wizards, who are strange beings. No one knows where they come from.” He cast a sardonic look at Ken. Ken rolled his eyes. “Then there are also the kribothneia, who are semi-sentient savages.” He was enjoying himself. I winked at him. Damo caught the exchange and looked annoyed.
“A long time ago, one of my people found out that by using the painful sacrifice of sentient beings, in fact any cruelty towards those with souls, he could gain exceptional magical powers. He was the first ‘Darkling’, what you would call a ‘dark-elf’ or sidhe. He turned many with the power to his side. There are many who will do anything for wealth and power, in my world, and I’m sure in yours, too.”
“We don’t call them ‘dark-elves’. We call them ‘politicians’ or ‘businessmen’.” Damo said, sharp as a tack.
Tiltheus thought for a second, and then said, “Good analogy. But I think our ‘dark-elves’ are worse than your politicians.”
“You’ve never been harangued by a Liberal eager to explain why poor people have brought it on themselves, and deserve to suffer,” muttered Damo.
“Or by a Labor Party supporter trying to explain why they sold their principles in order to push up their standing in the opinion polls,” I said.
“Not even close,” said Tiltheus, shaking his head. “The Darklings get pleasure out of pain. They need it to feed, well, not their souls, but what would be their souls if they had any. They bind their slaves to them with magical bonds, which inflict continuous pain. They ritually sacrifice captives they don’t need. They rape and torture captives. They are foul and unwholesome. And they are gaining strength. Do not think that they will stay on that side of the door.” He gestured toward the portal. “Once they have taken control in my world, when they find the gateway or gateways, they will come through to control whatever worlds they can find.”
“Sounds just like businessmen. Constantly on the look out for more growth, more markets to expand into,” said Ken, wryly.
Tiltheus sighed. “You will see, if you are ever unlucky enough to meet some,” he said.
We all looked at each other in silence.
Then the doctor-wizard shrugged and said, “We may as well begin the process. We need some money to fund our journey, and since you,” he nodded towards me, “are too scrupulous or squeamish to let me raise the money the usual way, we will have to beg for it. Come on, let’s go!”
 For non-Australians, the so-called Liberal party is on the right, whereas liberals in the US are really socialists. These strange appellations are because neither Americans nor Ozzies can speak English properly.
 Yes, they really DO spell it like this. It’s considered advanced.
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